There was a Russian princess who kept a lion in her bathtub; a Southern belle credited with inventing the cocktail party; a recluse who called for her chauffeur and car at 10 a.m. every day, although she hadn’t left her room in years; and a fastidious older woman who spent her days patrolling the Plaza’s perimeter, clearing sidewalks of cigarette butts by stabbing them with her umbrella tip.
They were an eccentric bunch: single, mostly older and all wealthy. From Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy, the Russian princess who moved into the largest suite at the Plaza in 1909, to Fannie Lowenstein, who became Donald Trump’s most difficult tenant when he owned the hotel in the late 1980s, these dowagers lived extravagantly, surrounded by their dogs, diamonds and private nurses. Over the decades, they became known as the “39 widows of the Plaza,” and while the origin of the phrase remains murky, as there were more than 39 of them over time, the name stuck.
When Princess Vilma, or Her Serene Highness, as she preferred to be called, moved into the Plaza, 90% of the hotel’s guests lived there full-time. At the turn of the last century, in fact, the words “hotel” and “apartment” were often used interchangeably.
Since then, those terms have become quite distinct. Although recently their meanings have again begun to overlap, as high-end condominiums become increasingly like hotels, advertising hotel-like amenities and perks such as private lounges, state-of-the-art gyms and luxury catering services. At 432 Park Ave., for instance, a concierge will secure a celebrity guest for a birthday party or house-train a pet, while at 30 Park Place, in Tribeca, residents have access to a clairvoyant or a crystal healer, depending on their needs.
But in many ways, the modern version of hotel or luxury condo living is very different from the one that Vilma knew. Today’s high-end buildings have sleek and modern — but often cookie-cutter — finishes intended to have wide appeal. When the Plaza opened, its builders spared no expense to ensure that the hotel was unique, buying Baccarat glassware in France, spending lavishly on Irish linen and Swiss embroidery, and acquiring 4,000 pieces of flat silver for today’s equivalent of $8 million, to use in the hotel’s restaurants.
And while many current buyers of high-end condominiums choose to keep their identities hidden behind shell companies, the opposite was true in the past, when the legends of the widows grew and became closely identified with the hotel itself. Many of the women (and a few men) were tourist attractions in their own right, with visitors flocking to the hotel as much to glimpse a quirky widow as to see the Pulitzer Fountain or to have a drink in the Oak Room.
The Plaza staff grew accustomed to the widows’ peculiarities. One hotel manager began walking outside to get from one end of the building to the other, to avoid passing through the lobby, where persnickety widows would invariably be positioned on the divans, ready to greet him with a barrage of complaints.
The concierges created a secret signal — a repeated tugging of the ear — to indicate that they needed widow assistance, preferably in the form of an interruption from a fellow staff member. But while the widows were a constant thorn in the side of many, they were also the financial backbone of the hotel. During the Great Depression, when the Plaza was desperate for paying guests, it was the wealthy widows, with their regular stream of rental income, that helped keep the hotel afloat.
Among the most steadfast of the widows was Clara Bell Walsh, a broad-shouldered horsewoman who claimed to have arrived when the hotel opened in 1907 and who remained until her death a half-century later. “Clara Bell Walsh is almost entirely known for her residence in the Plaza, as though one’s address were a dominant personal characteristic,” wrote Lucius Beebe, a syndicated columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, who often chronicled her activities.
Walsh was the only child of one of Kentucky’s wealthiest families; her grandfather Henry Bell had been an associate of multimillionaire merchant A.T. Stewart. As well known for her entertaining skills as for her riding ability, she was credited in the press for holding the first society cocktail party. One notorious soiree featured a kindergarten theme: Guests, dressed as poor little rich girls and sailor boys, had to navigate an obstacle course to reach the bar, where drinks were served in baby bottles.
At the Plaza, Walsh held court in her suite, swathed in ermine wraps, her nails painted to match the color of her dress. Her guests, who included theater stars and singers, sat on brocade Edwardian sofas, among tables crammed with Chinese lamps and tiny animal figurines. As drinks flowed, Walsh’s food consumption — or lack thereof — was a source of constant speculation. “Clara Bell Walsh would like to live on a diet of Kentucky products but finds a lack of necessary vitamins in ham and bourbon exclusively,” Beebe quipped.
When she wasn’t entertaining celebrities, Walsh frequented the Persian Room, the Plaza’s nightclub, where she was such a notable presence in the front row that Kay Thompson, the performer who later wrote the “Eloise” books, co-opted several of her idiosyncrasies. When Thompson’s 6-year-old alter ego had her hair done in one book, it was at the men’s barbershop in the Plaza’s lobby, where Walsh had hers done. Thompson also liked to go out with two red dots on her eyelids that would flash when she blinked, a nod to Walsh’s habit of attending dinner parties with fake eyes painted on her eyelids.
But while Walsh was undoubtedly a grande dame of the widows, she is not the best remembered. That dubious honor is reserved for Fannie Lowenstein, the most cantankerous of the widows, who arrived at the Plaza in 1958 as a young divorcée and soon met a fellow hotel resident who became her second husband. Not only did her new husband have a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, but even better, he also had one of the few rent-controlled Plaza apartments.
When her husband died, Lowenstein continued to live in splendor in their three-room suite, paying just $800 a month for rooms that might have rented for more than $1,250 a night. She couldn’t be evicted, so the Plaza staff treated her with extreme deference, fearful of provoking one of her tantrums.
When she arrived for dinner in the evening, a waiter would take her regular order of asparagus soup and Hennessy cognac, while the musicians would stop whatever they were playing and the violinist would serenade her with the theme song from the Broadway musical “Fanny.”
Stories about Lowenstein are plentiful, but one of the most frequently recounted is about the time she came down to the Palm Court during Sunday brunch and, in a fit of pique at the management over some perceived slight, relieved herself on the rug in front of a shocked crowd.
When Trump bought the Plaza in 1988, Lowenstein was still alive, one of a handful of widows who remained. The future 45th president of the United States paid more than $400 million for the hotel — a record-shattering $495,000 per hotel room — before losing it in a bankruptcy three years later. In the beginning, Trump’s most difficult tenant seemed content. But the honeymoon was short-lived, and it wasn’t long before the new owner had run afoul of the demanding doyenne.
Months into his tenure as owner, Lowenstein began complaining of what she called “indoor air pollution” in her rooms. She insisted that it was causing her curtains to shrink and her Steinway grand piano to grow mold. She mounted an assault on the ownership, repeatedly calling the city to register complaints. Soon, inspectors were writing increasingly urgent missives to management.
At the time, Trump was involved in a messy divorce from his first wife, Ivana, amid rumors that he was having an affair with Marla Maples, who would become his second wife. “Ivana and Marla have been a lot to handle,” Trump told The National Enquirer at the time, “but my relationships with them have been smooth as silk in comparison to my contacts with Fannie Lowenstein. When she’s done with me, I’m soaked in sweat!”
If Lowenstein managed to lock horns with a future president, Vilma did not show similar gumption in her day. The future princess was a noted portrait painter as a young woman in Berlin, where she had her own studio and did a brisk business capturing the likenesses of a stream of European aristocracy, most notably the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Her relationship with him spurred much gossip, The New York Times reported in a profile published when she was not yet 30, noting that “sneers were cast at her work and at her personally,” although the same article also called her “a talent decidedly above the commonplace.”
When Vilma arrived at the Plaza in 1909, she came with a retinue that included three French maids; a first, second and third attaché; a marshal; a courier; a butler; and a chef. But that wasn’t all. A private bodyguard — dressed in a tall hat with a plume of feathers and a ceremonial sword — led a menagerie that included one white, yapping dog, two guinea pigs, an ibis, a falcon, several owls and a family of alligators. Eventually, a pet lion joined the veritable zoo.
By then, she had been divorced twice, most recently from a minor Russian prince, from whom she received her title. She began advertising her portraiture services in New York, and one of her first clients was Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. A 92-year-old veteran of the Civil War, Sickles had lost a leg fighting at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (He saved the limb and later sent it to Washington, where it was displayed as part of a museum exhibition.)
One day soon after Vilma finished painting Sickles’ portrait, the pair attended the Ringling Bros. Circus at Madison Square Garden. There, she fell in love with a baby lion, and the general promptly bought the lion for her. Named General Sickles, in honor of his patron, the lion lived in the bathtub of her Plaza suite until he outgrew it and the hotel’s patience. The lion was then sent to the Bronx Zoo and, after he died, Vilma had him buried at a pet cemetery in Westchester.
No one knew where the princess’s money came from, but in 1914, when World War I broke out in Europe, her once-abundant wealth suddenly vanished. Soon after, she was dogged by her lawyer, banker and the stables where she boarded her horses, for nonpayment. She fled, leaving her Plaza suite, an unpaid bill for $12,000 and numerous belongings behind. In 1923, she died in a cramped room on East 39th Street, surrounded by her unsold artwork and a single maid for a companion, with a line of creditors waiting outside her door.
But while the once glamorous Vilma came to a sad end, the tales of the widows of the Plaza, like the hotel itself, have endured.