Susan Llewellyn travels from Washington to New York, and discovers a city rich in stories and alive with glamour and energy ...

Such a huge contrast from the 18th century elegant buildings and wide boulevards of Washington. A forest of massively tall buildings bear down on its human ant population, scurrying around in the streets below.

I chose the Iroquois Hotel, named such after the Iroquois Red Indians, their chief, Hendrick, having visited England in 1710. The location is tucked between 5th and 6th Avenues in Club Row. The neighbours are fashionable elitist members of the New York Yacht, Yale, Harvard and City Clubs, and it lies opposite the New York Bar Association. The hotel is within walking distance of Times Square, Broadway and 5th Avenue.

Designed by architectural firm Mulliken & Moeller, the Iroquois opened in October 1900, instantly becoming known as the fashionable Iroquois Apartments House and Hotel. The concept proved very popular as it was able to house permanent residents, whilst also offering the luxury of hotel services. The Iroquois Hotel contained a few beautifully furnished and unfurnished apartments, available for leasing. This was very advantageous to residents that owned properties elsewhere in the country and did not seek to own another in the city.
Even through the depression, the dreary years did not touch the tranquil and refined hotel, and it was maintained in peak condition.

The history of the hotel is that it became the centre of different women’s organisations and was also the scene of a shocking murder in 1911. Paul Geidel, previously a bell boy at the hotel, murdered a resident in his apartment. Giedel was sentenced to prison, serving time until 1980 – a grand total of 68 years and 245 days. This was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest prison sentence served.

"So real was the atmosphere in this restaurant, adorned with ruby walls, crystal chandeliers and gold picture frames surrounding huge paintings, conjuring up the roaring 1920s and outrageous 1930s and bringing them to life in the 21st century"

On entering the Iroquois, I was greeted by a smart, panelled lobby, in keeping with the clubish buildings in the block. Refurbished in the late 1990s, it is an elegant introduction to the hotel. A small library leads off the lobby, equipped with WiFi and an assortment of the latest magazines and newspapers to read.

I then had my first surprise – unplanned and unknown, I was to be shown to my suite. There written on the door were the words ‘James Dean Suite’. It was only the next day when I learned that James Dean had moved in when it was an apartment in the 1950s, and was his permanent residence for two years.

The Actor’s Studio was founded in 1947 and Dean became a member there in 1952, under the direction of Elia Kazan. It is now run by Al Pacino and best known for teaching method acting, as developed by Constantin Stanislavski. Through the years many famous actors attended this prestigious studio, including Liza Minelli, Marilyn Monroe, Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, Julia Roberts and Jack Nicholson.

James Dean starred in East of Eden, alongside fellow student Julie Harris in 1955. This was quickly followed by Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. On the 30th September 1955, Dean, who had also embarked on a racing career after buying his first Porsche, was killed in a highway crash, whilst driving his Porsche 550 Spyder to a race weekend in California.

Dean only made these three films in his short life. Having seen him in all of them, I can only say he had a gift of beauty which is bestowed on those who have not long for this world. I cannot sum it up better than quoting from Joe Hyams’ biography, Little Boy Lost: “In his acting, he had the intuitive talent for expressing the hopes and fears that are a part of all young people . . . he managed to dramatise brilliantly the questions every young person of every generation must resolve.” Some of us are still coming to terms with this realisation. His magic has remained with me to this day.

In 1939 the impressive Wigwam Bar was opened at the hotel. The theme of the bar paid homage to the early Pilgrims and the native Americans. The head bartender at the Wigwam, Eddie Frank, invented two cocktails – one in honour of the hotel, appropriately named Iroquois. After a spell as a private dining room, with reproductions of Degas’ Ballerinas adorning the walls, it was renamed Lantern’s Keep, but in fond memory the head bartender Meaghan Dorman re-nicknamed it the Wigwam.

The Triomphe restaurant at the Iroquois, has a growing following and reputation for its excellent food, and has been hailed by The New York Times as one of the best restaurants in New York City. Breakfast is served here, which is a great way to start the day. For me dinner was a very happy experience, something equal to stepping into an Edward Hopper painting. I am particularly fond of the images this artist conjures up – so New York!

The Iroquois is so central to the shops, restaurants and theatres, allowing you to really get a feel for the glamour of The Big Apple – so named in the 1930s because of the economic prosperity of the city. A horse and carriage ride around Central Park gives way to not only the beauty of the park itself, but also the view of luxury apartments that line the edges of the park – worth millions of dollars and owned by the rich and famous.

Here was the first luxury apartment house, commissioned by Edward S Clark, heir to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. The 65 luxurious apartments have had many famous owners, including Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall and Leonard Bernstein, and was also the site of the tragic murder of former Beatle, John Lennon. His widow, Yoko Ono, still lives here overlooking the Strawberry Fields, a mosaic set in the pathway inscribed Imagine, Lennon’s famous song.

For those of you who are lovers of art deco, New York is the perfect city. The San Remo has a four-twin-towered apartment house, built between 1929 and 1931. Dustin Hoffman, Paul Simon and Diane Keaton all lived here. Before I become even more starstruck, let us have a glass of champagne in MObar, situated on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, giving a view of what conjures up the essence of this city and its streets sparkling below.

New York is renowned as being the shopping mecca. I had always wanted to visit the world’s largest store – I wonder how long it will keep this accolade. Macy’s dates back to 1858, finally reaching completion in 1924. The architecture is a fine example of Beaux Arts.

There is a very touching story associated with the store. Isidor and Nathan Straus were of German origin and had set up business selling crockery and glassware in the RH Macy department store. Travelling back to America after a visit to their homeland, Isidor and his wife Ada, alongside her maid Ellen Bird and Isidor’s manservant John Farthing, boarded the ‘unsinkable’ liner, The Titanic.

On that infamous night of the 14th April 1912, after the ship collided with an iceberg, Isidor and Ada were directed to Lifeboat 8. However, Isidor refused to board the lifeboat when there were younger men who were being prevented from doing so. Ada also refused, saying to her husband, “Where you go, I go”. Her maid Ellen was put into the boat, swathed in her employer’s fur coat, which she wrapped with the words, “I have no further use for it”. Isidor and Ada were last seen together on deck holding hands, before a wave swept them both in to the depths of the ocean.

My second surprise of the visit was a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called Impossible Conversations. The exhibition stages a hypothetical conversation between Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada. My fascination of Schiaparelli (1890-1973), lies within her use of design, and her flair for the unusual was outstanding. She was the first to use shoulder pads, animal prints and was the inventor of shocking pink. Her drawing room was painted this colour, and she produced a wonderfully erotic scent called Schocking.

Schiaparelli was a generous creator of fashion and interior design. All artists need a patron and Elsa drew from all the artists of the time, including Jean Cocteau and Alberto Salvador Dali. Elsa’s garments were a work of art, much admired and worn by the likes of Katherine Hepburn, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and the Duchess of Windsor – all embraced her for her outrageous but elegant designs. “A dress from Schiaparelli ranks like a modern canvas,” quoted The New Yorker. Designers still use her work as a source of beautiful inspirational ideas for interior decoration.

I must also mention the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd Wright’s greatest architectural masterpiece. The shell-like facade is a joy to behold. The museum’s collection has grown masterfully over the last eight decades, and includes a number of important private collections including Solomon R Guggenheim’s original collection. It is a definite tick on your checklist of places to visit whilst in the city.

I have left my third surprise to last as it was the most special, bringing to life a period I have only studied and read about, never expecting to have the opportunity to experience it. I met, dined and conversed with Jean-Claude Baker at his lush restaurant, Chez Josephine. Jean-Claude has created an interior that pays homage to his late adopted mother Josephine Baker.

An outrageous performer at the Follies-Bergere Theatre, Paris, Josephine generated many exotic nicknames – Black Venus, Black Pearl and Creole Goddess – and was rumoured to have received approximately 1500 marriage proposals. Josephine risked her life in The French Resistance in World War II, performing for the troops and smuggling secret messages on her sheet music. This bravery made her the first American-born woman to receive French Military honour, the Croix de Guerre. Shirley Bassey, who was greatly inspired by Baker, said: “... she went from a petite danseuse sauvage with a decent voice to la grande diva magnifique ... I swear in all my life I have never seen, and probably never shall see again, such a spectacular singer and performer.” Josephine was friends to Martin Luther King, Charles de Gaulle, R F Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt. Her bravery to stand tall and help change American world views of African Americans must never be forgotten.

So real was the atmosphere in this restaurant, adorned with ruby walls, crystal chandeliers and gold picture frames surrounding huge paintings, conjuring up the roaring 1920s and outrageous 1930s and bringing them to life in the 21st century. People come into this space to dine and are moved to sing, play or dance – such is the presence and power of the woman Jean-Claude loved, hated and above all was desperate to understand.

For the boy who was so part of her life, thank you for your help in capturing in such a real way the time between the two wars when people dared to dare and create the new. I felt at any moment the legendary Josephine Baker would arrive and entertain us all. The time I spent with Jean-Claude first-hand brought to life and confirmed what I had only imagined but inspired and fired my design work. Thank you for giving me this confirmation.

Hospitality Interiors readers, I hope that if you visit New York you will stop by this chic restaurant Chez Josephine, and take away the courage to dare!

My next trip is to Monte Carlo, where Josephine arrived with her rainbow tribe of adopted children from many countries. Homeless and penniless, a fairy Prince and Princess in the shape of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace came to the rescue . . . I wonder how her story developed here?