A Cameo Appearance by The Plaza in Amor Towles’ New Bestseller “Rules of Civility”

We love it when a New York hotel makes a cameo appearance in a novel we like.  So imagine our glee upon opening Rules of Civility, Amor Towles’ exquisitely layered portrait of strivers and high society in late 1930s Manhattan, and following the characters into not one but three hotels, all beauties.

The Depression-era novel is set more in the realm of an Americanized Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh than John Steinbeck, with a silky soundtrack along the lines of Benny Goodman and Billie Holiday. So small surprise the characters meet for drinks at the King Cole Bar at the St Regis and catch a taxi in front of The Carlyle.

But those are walk-ons compared to The Plaza, where Anne Grandyn, a pivotal character, keeps a suite overlooking Central Park.
In a crucial scene Anne, a supremely confident woman straight out of an Ayn Rand novel, greets the book’s narrator Katey Kontent, the reluctant guest she has summoned. Striding from a writing desk to the couch, Anne plunks down a pair of martinis on a table next to “a bowl of fruits so well-to-do that half of them I’d never seen before,” Katey observes.

The Plaza is a superb backdrop, but we wondered why Towles chose it over, say, The Carlyle, The Pierre or the Waldorf=Astoria, which were just as swanky in the 1930s.

“I don’t have too concrete an answer for you as to Why the Plaza,” he wrote back in an email.  “I suppose I was visualizing Katey’s entrance into that lobby which I think of as more of an international thoroughfare than the lobbies of those other hotels. I also liked having Katey view the Park looking North.”

Ah, the view.  Gazing out the window, Katey muses, “After a week of sudden cold, the leaves had turned, creating a bright canopy that stretched all the way to Harlem. It was almost as if the park was a jewel box and the sky was the lid. You had to give Olmstead credit: He was perfectly right to have bulldozed the poor to make way for it.”

It’s a view that is off limits to most Plaza hotel guests today. Following the hotel’s five-year renovation completed in 2007, guest rooms are beautifully restored but face south, looking onto an assortment of midtown skyscrapers and the Paris Theater. Park views are reserved for owners of Plaza condominiums – and readers who lose themselves in novels like Rules of Civility.

“Rules of Civility” is published by Viking; 335 pages; $26.95.



2 replies
  1. Matthew
    Matthew says:

    A grand time in New York the 1930s, if only for the privileged few. Though I guess by the late 1930s, Hooverville was long gone. Towles is right about the Plaza’s entrance being more cosmopolitan. But isn’t it mostly tourists these days?

    • Terry
      Terry says:

      The Plaza’s entrance is indeed crammed with tourists. But once you move past the flowers — which are gorgeous — and enter the lobby and check-in area to the left, there’s a mix of locals, visitors and Plaza lovers. It’s not as quietly silky as the nearby Pierre or the Peninsula, but it’s a nice place to be — and a lot better than before the renovation.


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