I'm excited to be interviewing Julie Satow today who’s the author of The Plaza: The Secret Life of America’s Most Famous Hotel. Julie is an award-winning journalist who has covered real estate in New York for over a decade. She's a regular contributor to The New York Times. Her work has appeared on NPR, HuffPost, Modern Loss, Kveller, and The New York Post, among others. A native New Yorker, she currently lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Hi, Julie. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.”
Julie Satow: Thanks so much for having me. It’s an honor.
Zibby: After you were on The Today Show yesterday, this will probably be a piece of cake.
Julie: That was taped. It’s not airing for a little while. The pressure was off slightly.
Zibby: Congratulations on The Plaza, so exciting. Can you please tell listeners what The Plaza is about? What inspired you to write it?
Julie: The Plaza is a biography of the hotel. It’s also a social history of New York. I use it as a lens to tell a social history from 1907 through today of what was happening in New York and the country through the stories of The Plaza. Why was I inspired to write it? I've covered real estate for a long time in New York. I grew up here. The Plaza was always a presence. You'd go to Central Park after school, sometimes in the afternoons. It was always there. My grandmother used to stay there. I also was married there. Thursday will be my ten-year anniversary. It’s coming full circle. Beside the personal, what's really cool about The Plaza is that it’s like a mirror. Everything that's happening in New York and everything that’s happened around the country happens at The Plaza. Whether it’s union tensions, business trends, even today, condominiums and foreign investors, no matter what the trend is, it seems that The Plaza reflects that. It was a really rich topic.
Zibby: To me when I read it, it’s like The Plaza was just the set. The story was something else. It seemed to me like it wasn’t the history of The Plaza itself. I mean, it was. It was also this amazing story of culture and life and all the characters. That was the backdrop.
Julie: Totally. It was an excuse.
Zibby: It was like a play. That would be the set of the play.
Julie: I just went where I was interested. I found all these amazing stories that I had never heard of before even though I thought I knew The Plaza. I feel like a lot of people think they know The Plaza. They know Eloise. They know whatever. I've discovered all these stories. It was a great excuse to tell a bunch of stories.
Zibby: You're such a good storyteller. Literally from the minute it opens up, you're in it. The Vanderbilt getting out of his car -- was he a Vanderbilt?
Julie: Yes, he was.
Zibby: Vanderbilt getting out of his car and walking in, and the girl on the counter, it’s so visual the whole way. I thought it was awesome. You start the book with this great introduction which you wrote in the first person, which was great. It was a really nice introduction because I felt like it was you telling the story, maybe because I met you. In the introduction, you said the intention of the book was in part to memorialize the 111-year history of The Plaza, but also that The Plaza was like Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and that everybody was taking a piece. Can you explain what you meant by that?
Julie: It’s had multiple owners since the beginning. Because it’s such an icon, people who want to own it, they want a trophy property. A lot of times for the owners, it’s about vanity. It’s about branding. They use The Plaza for their own self-aggrandizement. Obviously, owners have loved the hotel and cared for it. A lot of times, they’ve used it for their own end. For instance, Harry Black was the first owner. He’s this interesting character in and of himself. He also did the Flatiron Building and all this stuff. For him, The Plaza, he lived in the penthouse. It really was his calling card and part of his identity. You read the book, so you know he tried to commit suicide in the bathtub of the hotel after he lost a lot of money during the 1929 crash. Conrad Hilton used the hotel as his entré into New York and trying to become this big player. Before that, Conrad Hilton was considered this westerner, this uncouth Texan. He comes to New York. He buys The Plaza. All of a sudden, everyone takes him seriously. Obviously, Donald Trump owned it. He bought it at the height of the go-go eighties, at the height of his fame as a real estate developer. More recently, the last owner was this guy Subrata Roy from India. He’s the most extreme example. He bought the hotel. Then he got into some legal issues at home in India. He really did siphon off any money that the hotel was making for his own legal and criminal issues back in India.
Zibby: You had some line where it was like, “Who knew walking by that the owner is actually in some random prison in India.” You just didn't know.
Julie: People don't know that. I think people would go into the hotel and be like, “Wow. It doesn't have that same feeling that it used to have. With The Giving Tree, this boy loves this tree, but he keeps taking from it until there's really nothing left. The tree keeps giving of itself. I felt like The Plaza had done the same thing. It gave every piece of itself over to these owners.
Zibby: Now it just has The Palm Court. It’s just this one little place. It’s so sad. You also wrote -- I'm going to quote -- “This book is a history of the one percent, of celebrity, of pop culture and gossip. It also examines how The Plaza is ground zero for the increasing globalization of money and the slow decoupling of pedigree from wealth.” It’s like from Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt to Kim Kardashian. It’s the ultimate. Talk to me a little more about the shift. In the beginning, you paint a portrait of The Plaza being the ultimate place for high society and how people would actually move in there for all the amenities and how now people are back to moving in, but it’s completely different.
Julie: It’s true. It’s the story of money, the story of wealth. In some ways, wealth has changed. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was the first guest. He was one of the country’s wealthiest men. There were more than 1,600 chandeliers at The Plaza and two men whose only job was to dust the chandeliers. The opulence was just amazing. Now wealth is much more about investment. It might be a foreign investment. The Plaza is largely condominiums. A lot of the really glamorous rooms where all the stars used to stay facing Central Park are now multi-million-dollar apartments owned by absentee owners, many of whom don't even stay there or have never even been there and use it as an investment. That's what's happened with wealth. It’s become much more of commodity, less of a lifestyle. The Plaza reflects that.
Zibby: You have that sad line where all the corridors are dark because everybody who owns them never goes to those floors. It’s this almost abandoned wonderland.
Julie: I know. It’s been an issue. It’s happened across New York. Actually, you had mentioned in one of your emails how today people are moving back into hotels. In the beginning, people did live in The Plaza.
Zibby: That was a question I had.
Julie: Wait, sorry. Am I jumping ahead?
Zibby: No, I’ll ask it now. I had said that I didn't realize that even the words hotel and apartment at the beginning were synonymous because now obviously they're not. I was wondering do you think it was the same then, getting all those extra perks as families who want to move into apartment buildings in the city that have playrooms and a concierge who does dry cleaning? Do you think this is the modern day, clubby, 15 Central Park West type of building? Is it like a Hudson Yards where they have the new...
Julie: It’s so funny when I read that email because I was like, I'm writing that story for The New York Times right now.
Zibby: Hudson Yards?
Julie: No, about how people used to live in hotels. They're coming back to that idea now today. It used to be that hotels and apartments, as you said, were synonymous. Ninety percent of the people who checked into The Plaza in 1907 lived there full time. It was their home. Today, a lot of condominiums have become a lot like hotels with all of these amenities. You have private lounges and restaurants that cater to the residents. 432 Park, in many ways, has a lot of the amenities of a hotel. I do think we’re turning to that. The Plaza now, it is like the Time Warner Center or 432 Park or any of these new towers we’re seeing rising where it offers a lot of the benefits of a hotel, but there's still apartments.
Zibby: There's something about The Plaza now which has a feel to me almost like New Orleans or something. You can feel the history. Yet it’s -- run-down is the wrong word. There's still so much charm in New Orleans. Do you know what I mean?
Julie: Yeah. It’s a little rough around the edges now at The Plaza. For instance, I was doing an interview with one of the waiters who’s worked at The Palm Court for -- he used to be at The Oyster Bar. He’s worked there forever. He's been there for forty or fifty years, this guy Luigi. He was like, “Look around at the dishes. You'll see that they don't match because every time someone breaks a dish, we replace it. We don't have matching dishes.” A lot of the tea service are not even matching anymore. That was really the case. As I said, when the owner was this Indian guy, Subrata Roy, he was siphoning all the money away from the hotel to help himself. There was really no money going back into the hotel. Last year in June, so exactly a year ago, the Katari government bought the hotel. They obviously have a lot of wealth. I tried to end it on a more positive note saying I hope these new owners are going to actually give it that love and attention that it needs because it is a very expensive endeavor to upkeep it. It’s this historic building. Also because the residences are cut off from the -- it’s its own entryway. You're not allowed to go in there. It’s very divided. I think it’s created this awkward feeling too.
Zibby: I can't even imagine the expenses related to this. You said there were 1,500 in help in the beginning. I don't know how many people work there now.
Julie: Not that many. Not as many as that. It made sense back in the day to have these huge, grand hotels. If you look around in New York, we really don't have that now. A lot of the hotels are more boutique. Even the Waldorf Astoria, which is not the historic Waldorf Astoria, it’s now being made into condominiums too. It’s just so expensive here in New York. I still find it confusing why. In London, you have these grand hotels that are so beautiful, like The Dorchester. They seem to make it work there. Here, it’s gone away.
Zibby: I know analytically that rent and everything is high, commercial real estate. I have to say I just recently started investigating because I'm thinking about opening a little bookstore somewhere in the city, which I'm really excited about. I started looking at rents. Oh, my gosh. First of all, it’s double on Madison. I know this from looking at residential real estate. How on earth could I sell enough to justify that rent? I'd have to think of something. When I think about something with the square footage of The Plaza, it must be astronomical.
Julie: Yes. It doesn't really make sense. There's nothing that can be done because it’s a landmark building. They could not tear it down. In the 1960s, they made it landmark. Basically, it protected the building, thank goodness. It saved The Plaza. Hilton, for instance, actually in the 1960s before it was landmarked, was trying to convince the owners at the time that they should tear it down and build an office building like what happened to the --
Zibby: -- That would be so sad. I'm really glad they didn't do that.
Julie: I know. Exactly. The real estate is...
Zibby: It’s hard to do that dance. I feel like this should be a Downton Abbey limited series. Are you making this into a movie or something?
Julie: Please tell my agent that.
Zibby: I will. Agent, I'm calling you. This is my idea. I can see the whole thing in my head.
Julie: [laughs] I do have a film agent who’s been shopping it around for a scripted series. So far, nothing.
Zibby: It hasn’t even come out yet.
Julie: I know. That's true, so maybe when it comes out. I do know that there's another book that's out about the Chateau Marmont in LA. That's being made into an HBO series. Maybe I lost my chance. I don't know. They need a New York version.
Zibby: That is so different. This more like...
Julie: Old glamor. I agree. I wrote it very upstairs/downstairs. I tried to do the wealthy guests but also the people who work there.
Zibby: Did you think about doing it as -- let me just read you the [indiscernible/laughter]. I'm wondering if you thought about doing it as historical fiction and having all of this as the backdrop but having some story?
Julie: I think it would be amazing. I have the worst imagination. I'm a journalist. I feel like that would've been fantastic. If a screenwriter out there would like to buy the rights and do that, I'm fully into it. There's a lot of germs that could be expanded out into great fiction, just not by me.
Zibby: In your Goodreads description you mentioned that doing the research at the New York Public Library was one of your favorite parts of this project. You've said elsewhere that you had read over a million articles, which is insane. I'm like, she must have started this when she was four.
Julie: [laughs] Actually, when I was fact-checking the book, I changed that to tens of thousands.
Zibby: Oh, you did? I only I had the old version.
Julie: The galley, exactly. I tried to count.
Zibby: I'm picturing my son. One, two, three. [laughs]
Julie: That was basically me. The research, for me, was so amazing. First of all, I was in the Allen Room at the library. It was so cool because it’s named for this guy whose first name is escaping me right now. He wrote these amazing histories of the 1920s and 1930s. I used his research in the book. It was very cool. The library was amazing, being there. What was so cool is that they have digitized all newspapers now. So many newspapers are digitized. It’s revolutionary for a researcher because you don't have to use microfiche. I didn't need to know the date of a newspaper I was looking for. I could just use key words. Tens of thousands of articles came up with Plaza Hotel and New York. I combed through all of them from 1890 through 2017, 2018. It was intense. I discovered all these stories. It was super cool.
Zibby: That's awesome. I love hearing stories of people actually using libraries.
Julie: Oh, my god. It was amazing. The librarians also, they were so awesome. I met with this librarian John, who I thank in my book. He knows about all the finances. He helped me find all the old annual reports for the original company that built The Plaza. My original version of the book was much more business heavy. I pulled that back somewhat. It was so cool figuring all of that out and reading the old documents. It was amazing.
Zibby: I'm on the library council of the New York Public Library if you ever want to get involved.
Julie: Really? For sure.
Zibby: I'm going to bring you to the next event.
Julie: I told my publicist I want to be in the summer reads things. I don't think I'm in it. [laughs] I tried.
Zibby: That, I have nothing to do with. I'm working on my own summer reads list. It’s not that it’s the same as the millions of New York Public Libraries of the world. Do you have any things that stand out, aside from your wedding, of things that happened to you in The Plaza that tie you to it emotionally? You said you had teas with your grandma.
Julie: Obviously, my wedding is probably -- I wish I kept a diary because I would've loved to have remembered why I picked The Plaza of all the places in New York and what that was about, my thought process at the time. I always felt like it’s an icon like the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building. For a long time, it was the living room of New Yorkers. When you'd be shopping in midtown and you needed a restroom, it had the most beautiful restroom. You could go in. You could just sit in the lobby and listen to music in The Palm Court and hang out for a little while. It was this beautiful resting space. That is not necessarily the case so much now. I felt very at home there even though it wasn’t my home.
Zibby: My favorite experience at The Plaza, I might have told you this when we had tea there. I used to write letters to authors. I sound so creepy. I'm serious. I love books. I've always been really interested. When I was a little girl, I would write letters. I would look up the publisher in the back. My mom would help me find the address. I would handwrite in my script letters to authors. There was one author named Zibby O’Neal. My name is Zibby. I hadn’t heard of any other Zibbys. I wrote her a letter.
Julie: Is that your real name?
Zibby: Elizabeth. I handwrote her a letter. I sent it to her publisher. It got to her in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She wrote me back. We had this pen-pal relationship for two years. Finally, she came to New York. She picked me up in my apartment and took me to tea at The Plaza. It was so sweet. I wore this shoulder-padded matching blouse and skirt. I can see it in my mind, so awful. I thought I was with the biggest rock star of all time. To me, an author, wow.
Julie: That is the cutest story ever. Wait, does she know what you’re doing, though? Have you kept in touch with her?
Zibby: I actually tried to find her recently on Instagram and Facebook. I couldn't find her. I'm going to keep digging. I have to reconnect. This was so many years ago, thirty-plus. Can we switch to your Modern Loss article?
Julie: I have to say, first of all, I had coffee the other day with Rebecca Soffer. I was like, “I'm going on Zibby’s.” We were talking about that.
Zibby: The founder and editor of the website Modern Loss, Rebecca Soffer, was on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books” for her book, Modern Loss: Candid Conversations on Grief. That's what we’re talking about. She has this website. It’s like the HuffPost of grief.
Julie: That's a good way to describe it.
Zibby: Thank you. You just keep me around long enough... [laughter] I hadn’t heard this about you. I didn't realize your brother had died. I didn't realize he had died from suicide at age twenty. The article you wrote, it was shocking and moving and beautiful. I read it twice last night. “Under the House,” it was called. It was so good. That was the one that was on Modern Loss. You tell about your family, to get over the grief, buying a house way up north and basically shoving all of his belongings in the basement including a car that they continued to pay car insurance on.
Julie: Still there.
Zibby: Still there? Oh, my gosh. Out of sight, out of mind type of thing. You had this quote from the beginning. “During those terrible months, my parents stuck to my surviving brother and me like an octopus suctioning its tentacles to a rock in a strong current. If they let go, they thought they would float away.” Then you wrote another one called “From a Distance,” which tackled the same subject. Talk to me about your decision to write openly about this. Why in this piece? Why now?
Julie: It is a weird thing because as a journalist, you're very third person. It was scary. I wasn’t sure how my family would take it. They’ve been very supportive. It was very cathartic. I've known Gabby, who’s the other founder of Modern Loss for a long time. We worked together years ago. She lost her father and stepmother. I knew her not long after my brother had committed suicide. We really bonded on that. When she started Modern Loss with Rebecca, I was always involved, like a contributing editor and stuff for a little while. I wanted to contribute to them and contribute to their amazing project. I did this thing that was a little out of character for me. I feel like the one thing I have is my writing. It’s hard when you lose someone to keep the memory alive and also to do that person justice. Jed was so young that he didn't really get a chance to make a huge mark. In the greater world he did amongst us with his friends and family. I felt like maybe it’s a way to keep that memory out there in a wider way. My parents, as maybe you know, have a foundation that they started. That was their thing. I wasn’t really very involved in the beginning. It was painful. Now I am more involved. This was more my thing.
Zibby: Had you used writing to help you through that before? Just privately?
Julie: Yes, privately. For many years, I kept a diary. I remember I was in so much shock after he died. He was not diagnosed with any mental illness. It was a long time ago. It was in the late nineties. It was way before mental health had reached the -- it wasn’t as acknowledged or known about at the time. He was never diagnosed with anything. He was always a little wild and crazy and funny and very charismatic and emotional. We had no concept that young people can have depression and it can look very different from someone just wanting to sleep all the time. We weren’t educated. It was such a shock that I had a really hard time processing it for the first few years. Writing just for myself was a way to get those thoughts out. It was weird. It’s sad.
Zibby: I'm so sorry. Do you feel like it’s changed the trajectory of your life? Do you feel like it’s a moment you put a pin in and it goes a different way?
Julie: Absolutely. In a weird way, this is the wrong word, I'm not grateful for it, but I live a much better life now because of it. I'm so much more conscious of what life is about. At first, I was a little crazy. I didn't know how to process what had occurred. As I got through the grief process, I made very conscious decisions about my life and what I do. That's a direct result of going through this insane loss and knowing how precious life is. It sounds so cliché.
Zibby: Not at all.
Julie: I'm a much better parent and wife. Even the book, none of that would've possible without the intention I live my life with now that before, I didn't. I have more appreciation for things.
Zibby: Until you've gone through a loss, you can know something intellectually and not live by it. Once your world has been shook up like that, it’s hard to go back.
Julie: That's so true. I agree.
Zibby: Which also sounds cliché. The Jed Foundation, now you're involved with that.
Julie: Yes. I'm on the board now. It really is an amazing organization. It’s named for my brother. Basically, it helps educate high schools, colleges -- we’re even working now with younger kids because the diagnoses are happening so much younger now -- helping them deal with how to help kids. There’s a program that works with the colleges on instituting certain best practices to make sure that they're really helping all the students get through what can be a very stressful process, college. Now we’re starting the same program for high school. We have a pilot program in New York with a few schools we’re working with now. Then they're also doing something with the public-school system in the city, fifth through eighth grade. I really do think it’s saving lives and helping. When we started, like I said, nobody really knew about kids and bipolar or depression or what it is. We’ve raised so much awareness. I'm proud of it.
Zibby: I'm on the board at the Child Mind Institute. We should do something together. Did they work together?
Julie: They definitely know of each other. I'm not sure what projects they’ve done together. They work in a similar space. That would be cool. That would be amazing.
Zibby: Maybe we could, to raise aware for similar mission. I also loved your piece on Joan Rivers and how she was always so open about her husband’s suicide and how she didn't couch it and how refreshing that was, how it helps get it out there, how it helps you. If you can say it, it helps process your shock. You can see it on someone else's face like a mirror. I'm not explaining that well.
Julie: I know what you're saying. I felt so weird for so long. People were always like, “There's the girl whose brother committed suicide.” You've got to carry this weird -- people are so awkward around you because they don't know to bring it up or how to discuss it, or people don't want to discuss it. You do want to talk about it. I want to talk about my brother. I loved him. It is this weird thing. She was talking about suicide way, way early on. It’s great to break those -- in some weird ways, it’s easier to talk if someone has cancer. It’s less scary, maybe. Thank you, Joan.
Zibby: Thank you for sharing your experience. I'm sure it helps so much, other people who are going through this who don't have the forum to express how they feel. Now you have to write a memoir.
Julie: [laughs] No.
Julie: Nobody wants to know.
Zibby: Yes, they do. I swear to you. That's what so many good memoirs are made of.
Julie: Only if you write one. I feel like you need one too.
Zibby: I'm working on mine. Aside from my idea for your next book, what else do you have coming up? Are you thinking about writing anything new? Are you going to do more journalism? I know you're an avid writer already.
Julie: I am working on my proposal for my next book. It’s been a little hard because I've been trying to do publicity for this book, which is coming out in two weeks, which is crazy. Yes, I have an idea. I'm working on it. It has nothing to do with real estate or New York, actually. I think it'll be really cool. I'm excited for it. Hopefully, I'm sending good energy out there that it'll get done. I'm hoping to be done with it in the next week or two and then start talking to my agent more about it.
Zibby: Do you have any parting advice to aspiring writers?
Julie: Oh, god. In my career, I fought tooth and nail for everything. It was tough. Journalism is hard, especially now. It’s really hard. There's fewer jobs out there. So many more people are freelance. I feel like it really comes down to being accurate. Editors want to make sure that if they trust you and they're taking a pitch, that you're going to be accurate. You're fact-checking. You know what you're doing. They can trust you. It’s such a trust thing. Be really careful when you're pitching and when you're doing stories. Your byline is your calling card. That's really important. Every time I walk around, I come up with story ideas. Everything around you is always a story idea if you're looking that way. Have that awareness, and then just go for it.
Zibby: I love it. That's great.
Julie: Was that good? I don't know. [laughs]
Zibby: That was great. Thanks for coming “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books,” so fun.
Julie: Thanks, Zibby, so much. I know. It was great.