The Story of The Chatwal | Love, God & Murder at Fred Astaire’s Favourite Haunt

The fascinating history behind the exclusive New York hotel

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Dec 4 2018, 5:52pm

Our ‘If These Walls Could Talk…‘ series takes a look at the legendary stories behind some of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. This month, we delve into the history behind Manhattan's iconic Art Deco landmark in the heart of the theatre district – The Chatwal.

The Chatwal: The Legend

New York has always been a city of high drama. Nowhere is that more true than the theatre district; the bustling heart of Midtown West. There the gritty bustle of the urban street collides with the bright lights of the stage. And at the centre of all of it, for over a hundred years, one building has charted the grand, tumultuous narrative of 20th century New York. That building is now known as The Chatwal Hotel. Originally known as The Lambs Club, it was founded in 1905 as an exclusive members bar – a watering hole for the actors and actresses making it big on Broadway.

The architect, Mr Stanford White, was a notorious playboy whose Madison Square Garden apartment saw a string of scandalously decadent parties. One of his young lovers, the chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, subsequently married the industrialist Harry Thaw. Upon finding out about his wife’s previous connection to White, Thaw flew in to a fit of rage, and tracked White down to the Madison Square Gardens theatre. There he yelled, “You have ruined my wife”, and promptly shot the architect to death in front of a packed house.

"Fred Astaire himself said, “When I was made a Lamb, I felt I had been knighted”"

In court, Thaw was the first defendant in American history to receive leniency for temporary insanity. His suite of expensive lawyers convinced the jury that this brazen murder was less worthy of punishment because it was a crime of passion.

White’s death would not be the last link between The Lambs Club and the wrong side of the law. During the prohibition era, black market alcohol was continuously smuggled into a back room of the building. At the Lambs, the Jazz Age was in full swing. For decades, ‘Lamb’ member status was a coveted honour; it was a ticket to the best party in the city. Fred Astaire himself said, “When I was made a Lamb, I felt I had been knighted.”

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New York, Jazz-Age inspired interiors. Photo: Courtesy of The Chatwal

However, the party couldn’t last forever. Like most American Cities, the mid 20th century saw much of New York’s wealth flee to the suburbs. Great swathes of Manhattan became ghettoised – mired with the social ills that accompany extreme poverty. The Lambs Club itself eventually closed, selling their building for a pittance to a missionary church. Within the walls of this grand building, once elaborate lodgings for the theatrical elite, unmarried mothers, the disabled and others deemed undesirable by wider American society were housed.

Knowing modern Manhattan as I do – as a hugely expensive, exclusive place – it seems unbelievable to me that such a grand property was turned over to assist the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. To be certain, during that high times and the low, these grand halls must have seen a lot – life, death, and everything in between.

In 2010, it was eventually converted to The Chatwal, restored to its position as a top class lodging house. The Lambs Club name was retained by the bar and restaurant, which plays jazz standards late into the night. The hotel was painstakingly refurbished to maintain the storied, Art Deco, nature of the place – the undefinable New Yorkness of it.

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The Art Deco inspired foyer at The Chatwal. Photo: Courtesy of The Chatwal

Mr Ashish Verma, the cosmopolitan hospitality legend who now helms the hotel, explained their ethos. “We are in the heart of the city. If you draw a line vertically and horizontally through the city, we are at the cross. We are at the centre of the hustle and bustle. We are quintessentially New York.”

To discover more, I tracked down Brandon Short, Head Butler to the Chatwal Hotel. After all, in grand old places like these, the butler holds all the secrets. However – trained as he is by Buckingham Palace staff, discretion is also his strong suit – as he says, “Most things are meant to die with the butler.”

I ask him first about the kind of clientele he serves. “Actors and actresses do still come in quite often. Sir Ian McKellen and Tilda Swinton for example,” he admits, though reluctant to dish too many names. I push a little further, and he continues. “The most interesting guests I would say would be the Saudi Royals. Their security said that they had never responded to a hotel staff the way they did me. That there was something special about me.”

So, the walls of the old Lambs Club are still prowled by an A-list set. But do their lifestyles compare to the stars of old, do they hold a candle to the raw decadence of their Jazz age predecessors? “Well there was one client I won’t name whose representatives came in and requested that she could bathe in milk,” says Short.

It seems at the Chatwal, as at the Lambs Club long ago, opulence still takes centre stage.

The Chatwal: The Location

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The Chatwal and The Lambs Club entrances on 44th street. Photo: Courtesy of The Chatwal

44th street, New York barely needs an introduction. An avenue that spears straight through the heart of Midtown, it is a dense thicket of everything that makes New York so distinctive. The Chatwal’s neighbourhood is a heady tightrope walk between Time Square’s glaring billboards and the peaceful sublimity of Bryant Park and the New York Public Library.

Unlike many hotels of its calibre, which cluster around 5th Av. or Central Park South, The Chatwal is easily walkable from every major Broadway theatre. The beaux-arts style Lyceum Theatre on 45th Avenue, the oldest Broadway venue still in operation, is especially worth a look.

The Chatwal is within striking distance of cultural mainstays such as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Art and architecture fans will also enjoy the wealth of Art Deco masterpieces, which surround it – including the Rockefeller Center, and the ultra-flamboyant General Electric Building. Walk a little further East and you’ll find Mies Van de Rohe’s iconic Seagram Building.

Take 44th Westbound meanwhile, and then hang a right on 10th Avenue, and you will find yourself in the cultural melting pot of Hell’s Kitchen. There you will encounter every type of ethnic eatery under the sun – from Argentinian to Ethiopian and beyond.

The Chatwal: The Lowdown

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Inside the Lambs Club and their New York, 1920s inspired interior. Photo: Courtesy of The Chatwal

New York is served by three major international airports - JFK, Newark and LAGuardia, that are served by flights pretty much anywhere in the world.

There are endless options at The Chatwal. With 76 rooms in total, you can pick between 29 stunning suites, or if you are feeling particularly opulent, pick one of their 14 ‘themed’ suites, all with spacious terraces. They include bespoke services such as a team of butlers to cater to your every whim, and 24-hour in-room dining and private bars. Superior queens rooms start from £750 a night, room only basis .

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The Chatwal's Hollywood crown suite. Photo: Courtesy of The Chatwal

The Chatwal has also collaborated with the company Localike, a NYC-based travel planner that helps create a personalised itineraries for your trip around the city, inspired by the themes of The Chatwal’s crown suites. The personal itineraries start at $79 (approximately £59) for one day.

For journeys slightly further afield, The Chatwal House Car, a Mercedes-Benz E350, is available. Guests can be chauffeured to anywhere within a 20-block radius, opening up opportunities too myriad to mention.

Clem flew to New York with WOWAir, who offer flights via Reykjavik from £265 with advance booking. She was hosted by LOCALIKE, and stayed at The Chatwal.

Clem Fiell is a London-based writer and Social Editor at Amuse.