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Built in 1906 by John Jacob Astor IV, scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, The Knickerbocker played host to the world’s biggest names in entertainment, politics, culture and high society in the earliest years of the 20th century. Its iconic Beaux-Arts design, glamorous European luxury, and welcoming American hospitality made it “the” place to be for glitterati and dignitaries, while its legendary barroom became known as “The 42nd Street Country Club.”
Open for just fifteen years, The Knickerbocker was one of three entities—along with the subway and the New York Times—whose arrival at the crossroads of 42nd Street and Broadway transformed sleepy Times Square into New York City’s biggest tourist destination. The onset of Prohibition marked the beginning of the end for the hotel renowned for its lavish parties and nightlife, and in 1921 the property was converted into offices. Designated as a New York City Landmark in 1988, The Knickerbocker is reborn today as a Manhattan’s premier luxury lifestyle hotel.
If something happened in New York during in the early 1900s, then it probably happened here at The Knickerbocker... So begins the story in “The Legendary Hotel. Reborn.” a factually intriguing and fabulously anecdotal account of the hotel’s history. Enquire now to purchase your own personal copy.
Move your mouse over the interactive artwork at the left to reveal details of The Knickerbocker's amazing history.
During The Knickerbocker's original performance over a century ago, The New York Times chronicled delightful tales of the splendid parties and indulgent services that catered to a veritable who’s who of glitterati and dignitaries. Stories that today are reimagined in a piece of commissioned art entitled Saints & Sinners of The Knickerbocker created by New York City’s own Molly Crabapple. Molly Crabapple’s Saints & Sinners artwork will crown the St. Cloud rooftop bar.
In 1919, a youthful miscreant named John V. Bouvier III was manhandled by house detectives and ejected from the Knickerbocker for, yes, over enthusiastic skipping. A decade after the incident, he fathered a daughter named Jacqueline. In 1961 that daughter, Jackie Kennedy, became first lady of the United States.
John Jacob Astor IV’s estate, talked Maxfield Parrish into painting the King Cole mural for the Knickerbocker..Parrish was reluctant to produce artwork for a drinking establishment, but as a newlywed in the process of building a new house, he needed the $5,000 commission! Because his studio was too small to accommodate the painting’s epic size, Parrish designed the work as a triptych (a piece of art in three panels, often hinged together), and the three pieces were mounted separately behind the Knickerbocker’s bar.
Hosting pilots and adventurers may have brought the Knickerbocker publicity, but hosting Tammany Hall meetings paid the bills. The notorious Democratic political machine had run New York City since 1854, installing puppet mayors and distributing patronage to those it deemed deserving.
The Corset Manufacturers’ Association, met at the Knickerbocker in 1908 to discuss how to get men to start wearing corsets on an everyday basis.
“Lively interest was created in the lobby of this hotel last Monday evening when a well-known personage was seen with a friend walking up and down the corridor and mixing in with the after-theatre crowds. The visitor was Col. [Theodore] Roosevelt. It was said to be the first time that he had been seen in the corridor of a Broadway hotel since he was a Police Commissioner.” — New York Times, September 25, 1910.
In addition to the florist, there was a fully stocked and staffed newsstand, a stockbroker’s office, a barbershop and nail salon in the basement, and an infirmary on the second floor staffed with nurses to care for any guests who might fall ill.
Oscar Hammerstein I (grandfather of the famous composer) owned almost a dozen local theaters. A dispute between the Press and Hammerstein lead to Hammerstein being punched in the mouth by reporters, the first one sending the mogul staggering back into the potted plants at the Knickerbocker entrance… the next to the ground bleeding.
The Knickerbocker’s most famous resident was Broadway superstar George M. Cohan. An actor, singer, dancer, composer, playwright, and producer. Cohan was an entire talent show unto himself. Just 29 years old, with song writing credits like “Give My Regards to Broadway” already under his belt, he was dubbed “the boy owner of the American flag” by the New York Sun.
A 1908 soirée featured an elaborate celebration of Father Knickerbocker, the mythical white-wigged figure who was New York’s version of Uncle Sam. Fifty temps dressed as Father Knickerbocker roamed the various dining rooms, where their tricolor hats glowed with lights spelling out “1909” when midnight struck.>
A 1908 soirée featured an elaborate celebration of Father Knickerbocker, the mythical white-wigged figure who was New York’s version of Uncle Sam. Fifty temps dressed as Father Knickerbocker roamed the various dining rooms, where their tricolor hats glowed with lights spelling out “1909” when midnight struck.
Oliver Fritchie, an inventor from Denver, devised and built an electric car. In November 1908, Fritchie drove 1,800.miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, to the Knickerbocker! The New York Times wrote. “Mr. Fritchie’s trip served the useful purpose of establishing the fact that an electric car, capable of going no more than 100 miles average on one charging, can actually be driven across the country, and can find sufficient charging stations to keep it going.”
One of the Knickerbocker’s most fabled legends is that the martini was invented in its ornate barroom. British writer John Doxat interviewed a guest who visited the Knickerbocker bar in 1912 and was served an unfamiliar cocktail by the bartender, “a shadowy figure” supposedly named Martini di Arma di Taggia.
In some apocryphal retellings of the martini’s being invention, the Knickerbocker customer ordering the original cocktail is even seventy-three-year-old John D. Rockefeller.
Astor loaned $1.65 million as part of The Knickerbocker hotel deal, and reserved the right to handpick hotel management, selecting James B. Regan, former manager of the Pabst Hotel.
One day in 1909, a wild-eyed woman in spectacles and a black dress strode into the Knickerbocker and yelled at the top of her lungs, “You are all going to hell!” It was Carrie Nation, the temperance activist famous for smashing up barrooms with an axe.
Song and dance man, Victor Moore, threw a supper party at the Knickerbocker for George M. Cohan and wife..One of the guests was gunfighter Bat Masterson, the O.K. Corral legend who was now a New York City sportswriter, was there.
In 1910, an enormous amount of cash changed hands at the Knickerbocker as a prelude to boxing’s ballyhooed.“Fight of the Century.” An African-American fighter, Jack Johnson, had won the heavyweight title in 1909, and now he was scheduled to defend it against “The Great White Hope,” white boxer Jim Jeffries. A purse of $80,000.was raised (almost $2 million in today’s money).
From political bigwigs to actresses, oil tycoons to sports figures, you hadn’t made it in New York unless you’d had a dinner in your honor at the Knickerbocker. In 1908, a lavish gala was given for William Randolph Hearst, who was campaigning for mayor.
American novelist, playwright, and Olympic water polo player was at the Knick for superstar George Cohan and wife’s honeymoon send-off party.
In June 1910, the Knickerbocker hosted a luncheon in honor of aviation pioneer Charles Hamilton, who days earlier had become the first pilot in history to complete a round-trip flight between two major cities (in this case,.New York and Philadelphia).
America’s most renowned architect Stanford White, equally famous for his habit of seducing teenage girls, one of whom was, 16-year-old model Evelyn Nesbit. After learning of it 6 years later, Nesbit’s millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw went to Madison Square Garden and shot the architect three times in the face. The Knickerbocker found it-self at the center of the infamous Thaw trial when it spent several weeks in 1908 housing the sequestered jury.
In 1917, singing and dancing were added to the Knickerbocker’s mix, the Dolly Sisters—identical twins from. Hungary who were a huge name on Vaudeville— began to perform their act nightly. Landing them was a coup,.even for the Knickerbocker.
F. Scott Fitzgerald lived here in 1919, writing his short story “Mr. Icky” in his room upstairs, while courting his future wife Zelda Sayre downstairs in the dining room.
In December 1907 the Knickerbocker hosted a wild and memorable party in honor of its most famous resident, Broadway superstar George M. Cohan. “You couldn’t take a look any place without seeing somebody.”, the New York Sun wrote. At one table ex-heavyweight champ “Gentleman Jim” Corbett discussed the finer points of writing with adventure novelist Rex Beach.
The Knickerbocker placed a red velvet rope at the entrance to the grill room, forcing those waiting for a table to wait near the entrance until a table was ready for them. This practice, so sensible that it’s since become near-universal, was apparently introduced to America by the Knickerbocker.
A bizarre organization called the Thirteen Club held meetings here. They got together to thumb their collective noses at bad luck by walking under ladders, smashing mirrors, and sitting beneath umbrellas. They sat thirteen to a table and ate a thirteen-course meal.
For a time the hotel was home to the most talked-about celebrity couple of the period, Broadway star Mabel Hite and her husband “Turkey Mike” Donlin, star outfielder of the New York Giants.
The Knickerbocker was visited in 1918 by the legendary Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who seven years earlier had won fame as the first human to reach the South Pole.
The busiest man in the hotel every December was usually Alexandre Gastaud, the pastry chef who specialized in using sugar to build edible scale models of buildings, ships, and people.
Babe Ruth was sold at the Knick by Harry Frazee, the Boston Red Sox owner was defaulting on his payments on Fenway Park. The solution, sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees. For $100,000 plus a $300,000 loan, the trouble making young outfielder was dispatched to New York, where he would become the most famous athlete in America
In 1910, the most famous ballet dancer in the world—Anna Pavlova, the lithe prima ballerina of the Imperial Russian Ballet—stayed at the Knickerbocker while performing at the Metropolitan Opera House. “I feel happy that our art is appreciated in this country,” the dancer told a reporter.
A famous violinist and the Knickerbocker’s orchestra leader until 1911. Albert had a tempestuous relationship with his wife. He was talking with a female patron when his wife stormed in, made a scene, and dragged the band leader away. He was fired for the disruption. Later he snapped, killing his wife and becoming one of New York’s most notorious murderers.
Eugenie Fougere, a ribald Vaudeville per-former, arrived at the Knickerbocker. She and her manager checked into separate rooms, but unknown to Regan, they were actually husband and wife. When house detectives discovered Fougere’s husband in her room, they refused to believe that they were married and kicked them both out of the hotel.
F. Scott Fitzgerald lived here in 1919, writing his short story “Mr. Icky” in his room upstairs, while courting his future wife Zelda Sayre downstairs in the dining room. “In the Knickerbocker Hotel, Scott threw $20 and $50.bills around like so much confetti,” his biographer Harold Bloom wrote.
A German spy lived at the Knickerbocker during World War I, writing secret invisible ink letters in her room.
It’s almost impossible to fathom the degree of celebrity Enrico Caruso enjoyed during his lifetime. The Italian tenor was not only the most famous entertainer in the world, but one of the most famous people in the world, period. In.1909, Caruso moved into the Knickerbocker, making him by far the hotel’s most famous resident. He sometimes gave an impromptu performance off his balcony.
In 1910, the legendary opera composer Giacomo Puccini checked into the Knickerbocker when he arrived in New York to direct his follow-up to Madame Butterfly, entitled The Girl of the Golden West.
The Knickerbocker had it’s own formal wear department in which male guests lacking suitable clothing could be fitted with evening wear free of charge. Upon calling the front desk a tailor would go up to the man’s room to take measurements, followed a few minutes later by a valet delivering the freshly altered suit. The Knickerbocker’s on-hand supply included about 50 suits and tuxedos of varying styles and sizes.
On any given day, you never knew what bizarre sight you might encounter at the Knickerbocker, such as a gun battle between the NYPD and the notorious Tabasco Sauce Robbers, who clubbed their victims with a hammer and shot hot sauce at them with a squirt gun.
The twenty-three-year-old Pickford was living at the Knickerbocker in November 1915 when she met her future beau, Douglas Fairbanks, at a party in Tarrytown. They were both married to other people at the time, but that didn’t stop them from hitting it off. Superstardom came quickly, and in 1918 Pickford sat at the desk in her room at the Knickerbocker and signed a contract that made her the world’s highest-paid film star at $1.5 million a year.