Watch a movie set in New York, and there’s a good chance you’ll see a Manhattan hotel, whether in a starring role or an unforgettable cameo (think of the The Plaza’s Oak Bar in North by Northwest).
But Broadway shows? Not so often.
Which brings us to War Paint, the engaging, multilayered new musical about the indefatigable 20th-century beauty entrepreneurs Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein. As you’d expect, the equally indefatigable Christine Ebersole portraying Arden (“Hold fast to youth and beauty”) and Patti LuPone as Rubenstein (“There are no ugly women, only lazy ones”) are terrific.
And the hotel where several pivotal scenes unfold on stage?
It’s the St. Regis, the Beaux Arts beauty built in 1904 by John Jacob Astor IV for a stupendous cost of $5.5 million (over $140 million today). And if there’s any doubt about the pedigree of the dining room and bar you’re looking at, David Korins’ ingenious sets trumpet the hotel’s name in lights.
Set in New York City between 1935 and 1964, War Paint calls for a glamorous all-purpose meeting place, canteen and hang-out where trailblazing cosmetics executives could retreat for a solo lunch of bullion cube soup or a heavily sauced chop with an associate. The St. Regis was an obvious choice. The hotel stands steps away from the one-time site of Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door Spa at 689 Fifth Avenue and Helena Rubenstein’s long-gone rival establishment a block away at 715 Fifth Avenue.
And as the city staggered out of the Depression, the sumptuous St. Regis was considered the most elegant hotel in Manhattan.
That wasn’t always the case. When the 18-story hotel opened, its tony neighbors, including Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, railed against its sky scraping height and its practice of serving liquor. Prominent visits by members of Japan’s Imperial family and Theodore Roosevelt’s children eventually won over the necessary hearts and minds, and the St. Regis flourished, even after Astor perished on the Titanic. Astor’s son Vincent guided the hotel for the next 15 years, selling it to Benjamin Newton Duke, the tobacco heir and real estate maven in 1927. But the Depression — and Prohibition — hit the St. Regis hard. In 1935, Astor bought it back and splendor returned. Thirteen years later, the King Cole Bar opened, named for Maxfield Parrish’s iconic painting of “Old King Cole,” which had hung in the hotel in less heralded surroundings since 1932. Not surprisingly, the picture makes an appearance in War Paint.
The St. Regis enjoyed a lengthy heyday. Babe and William Paley kept an apartment at the hotel as did Marlene Dietrich. And despite his obvious admiration for The Plaza, Alfred Hitchcock stayed at the St. Regis at least a dozen times in his favored fifth floor suite.
At this point we say farewell to the St. Regis Arden (1878-1966) and Rubenstein (1872-1965) frequented. By the 1970s, the hotel, like New York City, had lost its magic, operating as a serviceable business hotel owned by Sheridan. But the St. Regis DNA runs strong. Full-blown luxury bounded back in the 1990s following a massive renovation and has never retreated. Rooms now come with butlers and high season rates starting at $1,000 a night. But you can admire Parrish’s painting in the ever handsome King Cole Bar for the price of a drink. Bonus: it’s less than 20 blocks from War Paint‘s home at the Nederlander Theatre.
The St. Regis, 2 East 55th Street, 212 753-4500