The St. Regis or What do Napoleon, Dalí and Marilyn Monroe have in common?

The St. Regis Hotel
The St. Regis Hotel Architects: Trowbridge and Livingston Built: 1904

Architects: Trowbridge and Livingston Built: 1904

Although there is seemingly nothing in common between Napoleon Buonaparte and the 17th-century French monk named Francis Regis, these names strangely come together in the story of the St. Regis Hotel in New York. Built in 1904 by John Jacob Astor IV as the most opulent hotel in the world, it was named after St. Regis, a monk-come-saint who was really good to travelers. Napoleon Buonaparte, on the other hand, who wasn’t particularly known for his affection to tourists, inspired the ritual that takes place in the hotel daily at 6 pm: a bottle of Veuve Clicquot is ceremoniously opened with the blade of the saber hitting the neck of a bottle. 

St. Regis exterior detail
St. Regis exterior detail. Courtesy of St. Regis Hotel

The St. Regis was not the first hotel built by the Astors but it was the poshest and, at 18 stories, the tallest hotel in New York. More importantly, it was built in the middle of Vanderbilt Row – the ritziest part of town lined with the most exclusive New York residences. 

No expense was spared: the St. Regis was fitted with Waterford crystal chandeliers, Louis XV furniture from France, antique tapestries, oriental rugs, and floors made of marble extracted from the best European quarries. Every room had a telephone (a very unusual amenity at that time) and, even more of a novelty, an early form of air conditioning designed by Astor himself. Astor’s library full of 3,000 leather-bound books was made available to the hotel’s elite visitors. Even dusting in the hotel was way ahead of its time as it featured a centralized ventilation/vacuuming system built to suck the dust from every room down the tubes and out the door.

Above the exquisite furnishings and technological novelties, the St. Regis values its discretion most as its guests’ roster includes heads of state, royal families, entertainers, and politicians.  William Paley (the chief executive of CBS) and his wife Babe maintained an apartment there, as did Marlene Dietrich. Alfred Hitchcock stayed in “his favorite” 5th-floor suite at least a dozen times. ​Nikola Tesla resided at the hotel in 1922. 

Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí photographed in New York by the legendary photojournalist Weegee in the 1950s

For 40 years the St. Regis was treated as a stage for regular theatrical appearances of its most eccentric guest – Salvador Dalí. Every winter from 1934 he appeared with his wife Gala on his arm and pet ocelot on his leash to check into his favorite room 1610. There was nothing subtle about his entrance routine, as he announced himself with the cry “Da-lí… is… he-re!” His arrival soon became one of New York’s premier tourist attractions. Dalí’s was a one-man theatrical production and the St. Regis was his main New York stage.

Other luminaries include Frederick Steinway, of the famous piano manufacturing family, Jacqueline Kennedy, John Lennon, and Frank Sinatra. Marilyn Monroe stayed here during the filming of The Seven Year Itch. The famous subway grate scene caused great distress to her soon-to-be ex-husband Joe DiMaggio, which manifested in a domestic quarrel that reportedly woke up the whole floor.

Marilyn Monroe
The Seven Year Itch Subway Grate Scene © 20TH CENTURY FOX FILM CORP./EVERETT COLLECTION.

Prior to the aforementioned episode, Joe DiMaggio was imbibing in the King Cole Bar whose bartender is credited with the invention of the most important American brunch staple – the Bloody Mary cocktail. Back in 1934, it was called the “Red Snapper.” The cocktail was created for Prince Serge Obolensky, Russian aristocrat-turned-St. Regis manager, whose nostalgia for the national spirit prompted a bartender named Fernand Petiot to concoct a delightful mixture of tomato juice, spices, and vodka. One can still order a Red Snapper cocktail as well as a number of Bloody Mary variations at around $25.

Red Snapper at the St. Regis
Red Snapper cocktail at King Cole Bar in the St. Regis

The St. Regis offers the ultimate luxury in every room, but the best one is the Imperial Suite, with a formal dining room, living room, bedroom, and spa bathroom. It is the only suite that features dramatic circular windows with breathtaking views of Central Park. The nightly price for the ultimate luxury is around $20,000 per night.

The Imperial Suite in St. Regis
The Imperial Suite in St. Regis

The hotel original builder and owner, John Jacob Astor IV, often referred to as Jack Ass due to his less-than-lovable personality, scandalized New York society by divorcing his wife of many years and marrying a 19-year-old. To escape the unpleasantries, the couple left to Europe. The young lady became pregnant and the expectant couple decided to come back to America … on the RMS Titanic. Colonel Astor, one of the wealthiest people in the world, gave up his seat in a lifeboat and perished among the other victims of the disaster. 

Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and his young bride (Madeleine Astor)
Colonel John Jacob Astor IV and his young bride (Madeleine Astor). Public domain.

The St. Regis is still one of the most opulent, most discrete, and most expensive hotels in the city. If you cannot afford the Imperial Suite, maybe you could manage a regular room at about $2,000 a night? If not, maybe a $25 Bloody Mary at the King Cole Bar? Or you could just admire the gorgeous Renaissance-inspired building gracing the corner of 5th Ave and East 55th Street.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. zaksn01 says:

    What a historical gold mine… must be sure to swing by for the original Bloody Mary!


    1. Iren says:

      Thank you! It’s very good but rather expensive. You have to love history and Bloody Mary a lot! Pay attention to the mural, I didn’t include it but it has a story on its own.


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