Between Waldorf and Astoria

The old Waldorf-Astoria hotel was the height of fashion at the turn of the century. (It stood on the site of the Empire State Building.)

Yesterday I was reading about New York’s haughty hotel culture at the turn of the century, when the word ‘ritz’ became synonymous with a certain style of urbanized high life. There were ‘the ritzies,’ who often ‘ritzed’ those on the lower rungs of the social ladder. The phrase ‘don’t get ritzy’ came into vogue, as did Irving Berlin’s 1929 hit, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

And then there was the Waldorf phenomenon. When the Waldorf and the Astoria hotels merged to become the Waldorf-Astoria in the 1890s, on the site where the Empire State building would go up in 1931, the new place was called simply ‘The Hyphen.’ There, in a 300-foot long corridor leading from 34th street to the lobby, crowds gathered every night to see the swells pass by in their glittering evening clothes. A new song was in the air,  “The Waldorf-Hyphen-Astoria.” And the hotel’s Peacock Alley was “theater and nonstop fashion show, which was a high-class meat rack of sleek, eager-eyed ladies and school to the many poorer girls who studied their dress and technique…The Waldorf-Astoria was the court that fed America its fantasies of the good life,” according to one travel writer. (Many interesting tidbits like this to read in The City in Slang: New York Life and Popular Speech.)

As a writer in Harper’s Bazaar explained in 1900, the Waldorf-Astoria was “the fashion of New York and the Mecca of visitors…here is the chosen gathering place of New York society, which comes here to see and to be observed…”