Hotel Bolivar

by

07/10/2022

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

In the spring of 1967, a year after my parents’ separation, my older sister and I returned from an extended stay with family friends in California and moved into an apartment our mother had rented on the sixth floor of the Hotel Bolivar on Central Park West and 83rd Street.

At the time, the decaying, 1920s era building was still nominally run as a hotel. It did provide maid service to some of the elderly residents, but the only transients at the Bolivar were the lanky Harlem pimps who double-parked their candy-colored Cadillac Eldorados in front of the tattered canopy facing the park that served as their porte-cochere. They wore wide-brimmed fedoras, silk scarves, and flared, shiny pants and boots, and bought their extra-long menthol cigarettes from Sam – a graying, hunched Met’s fan – who ran the newspaper stand in the vestibule immediately inside the glass front doors. That was their corner. They stayed close to the entrance, collecting cash from “their” girls, or stood outside on the sidewalk smoking and leaning against their Caddy to avoid getting ticketed by the police.

Opposite the entrance to the lobby, Mary, an Irish woman, who had a patch over one eye and a harelip, sat straight backed at the telephone switchboard. She wrote loopy script messages on pink notepads and slipped them into the key boxes. When I got home from school, Mary filled me in.

“Your mother is out for an audition. She’ll be home in time for dinner,” she might say, handing me a raft of messages with the apartment key. “Be sure to get your homework done.” Mary wasn’t talkative, but on a good day she’d add a wink or a quick smile, since I was the only 10 year-old kid in the building and she’d taken a liking to me.

On the south side of the once grand, gilded lobby was an area with card tables and chairs reserved for the seniors who were the primary residents of the hotel. They were mostly German and Eastern European Jews, some with concentration camp numbers still tattooed on their lower arms. I looked at them a little amazed they were there, still alive, in one piece. But they seemed content, playing cards, undisturbed by their surroundings. 

In the summer, Burt, the paper-white skinned elevator man (an opera singer, who sang arias going up and down the shafts) in his brown and gold uniform and Herbert, a portly Black man, who shuttled between the second elevator and the front doors, helped place the seniors’ plastic chairs outside on the sidewalk so they could sit in the sun and look at the escarpment of granite rock in the park where a statue of Simon Bolivar, the liberator, once stood.

Miss Ellis, a short woman with a blond perm and a heavy German accent, managed the building and kept the peace. The pimps were allowed to conduct their accounting work in their “offices” upstairs, but Miss Ellis insisted that the hot pants and mini-skirted toting sex workers, then called prostitutes, did their tricks elsewhere.

Somehow the diverse demographics of the building worked out. All the residents were refugees of a sort. The aging Jewish survivors of World War II, playing cards and smoking cigars, provided the Black sex entrepreneurs with a faux, respectable cover for their business, and the knights in velour protected the vulnerable senior citizens from the neighborhood’s petty criminals and drug addicts. Miss Ellis rarely called the police unless someone died, usually of natural causes.

My mother, a 36-year-old blond actress, and my sister and I stood out in the lobby, but we weren’t that different from the other eccentrics who resided at the Bolivar. Baroness “Nica” de Koenigswarter, the aging patroness of jazz greats like Thelonious Monk (whose famous tune “Bolivar Blues”* is said to have been inspired by the hotel) lived there. Monk and other musicians (Miles Davis lived a few blocks west) came and went. A chiropterologist, who worked at the Museum of Natural History, lived in an apartment down the hall. There was a professional clown, who wore elongated floppy shoes, and a tall German, rumored to have once owned a bank, who strode through the lobby every day in his gray double-breasted suit with his briefcase and homburg hat.

We’d all been cast into that ditch in time which led to the 1970s. The city, soon to be bankrupt, was gray with soot and neglect. Unemployed men on the corners played dominos and sipped from cans of beer. The nuclear fall-out shelter signs cracked with age and the buses groaned as they spewed smoke into the air. The music, soulful and still sweetly upbeat, kept us going (though it too became increasingly chaotic and dark), piped from every transistor radio and broadcast through our open windows in the summertime.

My mother was pleased with her find, a sunny, two-bedroom corner apartment with a view of the park for about three hundred and twenty-five dollars a month. That was about what she got paid a week, before taxes, if she was in an Off-Broadway play, and it often left her with less than a hundred dollars in her bank account (I knew in which drawer she kept her blue Dimes Savings Bank passbook) at the end of the month after paying for groceries, clothes and school expenses. Still, she was proud to have managed to get the three of us back together and she made efforts to dignify the apartment with old-world elegance like floor-length curtains and heirloom silver candlesticks on the marble coffee table.

Not that it was perfect. The radiators clanked and the window paint was flaking off. The “kitchen” was the size of a walk-in closet and cockroaches slipped out of the drawers. None of this impressed my 13 year-old sister, who went to a private all girl’s school on the East Side. She didn’t like the West Side or the Bolivar. Plus she had to share a bedroom with me, her soon to be 11 year-old brother. The truth is that between the lack of money (rent and tuition nearly always in arrears), adolescence, my mother’s prescription drug problem, and my sister’s promiscuous habits, it was a struggle. My mother, skittish and moody, was maternal and protective one moment, regal and demanding the next. Screaming matches with my sister led to blows, plates of spaghetti tossed on the bedspread, scissors bared, doors slammed. At the end of the evening, I dragged the garbage bag down the long hallway, past the blaring televisions, the marital arguments, and the smell of fried meat, to the garbage cans in the rear stairwell. I remember thinking, “How long can this last?”

In retrospect, it was a short-lived era for my sister and me. Within four years, I absconded to a coed boarding school in Rhode Island and my sister moved in with her East Side boyfriend. In the summer of my sophomore year in high school, though, I came back and worked as the elevator boy at the Bolivar. The residents cooed about how tall I had become. I was a “young man” now. The sex workers flirted and teased me. The pimps sometimes slipped me a dollar. A Jewish lady would ring from the 8th floor and when I opened the elevator door, I’d see her gnarled back speckled with age spots.
“Sonny, would you mind zipping up my dress?”

When I was in college, I returned home one Thanksgiving to find the switchboard had been removed and replaced by a wall. The newsstand was closed too. Mary and Sam, suddenly, without notice or fanfare, were gone. Not long after, Burt, who taught me how to run the elevator, died of cancer. Over the years, many of the older people I had known by face, if not by name, also died or moved to Florida. The pimps and sex workers, too, had left, pushed out of the neighborhood by rising rents, as were many of the residents down the block. The community I’d grown up in for several crucial years disappeared. It was quietly heart-breaking. Herbert was about the only one left to talk to; he had lost his elevator job and was, in the end, reduced to being a part-time service worker in a gray non-descript uniform.

My mother, too, remained. She landed one last part on Broadway followed by a stint on a popular soap opera. In the 80’s, she wrote a best-selling romance novel and married a realtor, a recovering alcoholic, who had been an admirer when she’d been a Broadway starlet in the early 1950s. She bought the apartment (the first and only home she ever owned) at an insider price when the building went condo. A few years later, she and her husband flipped it and bought a larger apartment – with the same corner layout – on the top floor. Then, in the early 90s, her husband died of a heart attack.

By that time, the building had been modernized and Jerry Seinfeld had moved in. The shabby porch canopy over the sidewalk had been replaced with a sleek dark-green awning that read simply “The Bolivar.” The original lobby ceiling with its gaudy gilt crowns had been covered and lowered. The ghostly auxiliary spaces – including an abandoned, mirrored ballroom and dining room – were cut up and turned into doctors’ offices. The newspaper stand was converted into a concierge desk. The new, mostly white, young professional residents – many with CPAs and MBAs – had no idea the lobby was ever anything other than what it looked like to them. They held meetings to discuss how to improve the gym and where to put additional security cameras. Mothers apologized profusely to Seinfeld when their stroller wheel bumped into his foot in the elevator. The new tenants couldn’t  imagine Auschwitz survivors playing Bridge in their lobby, much less a tall Black man wearing a feathered hat, smoking a Kool cigarette at the entrance. There was no trumpet being practiced on the third floor. It was all quiet and clean. The elevators were automated. They had dark, polished wood walls and the buttons lit up when you pushed them. Eventually, the only evidence of the building’s past was my mother.

She died in the spring of 2015, almost a half-century after she moved into the Bolivar. My mother, who had been born to a count and countess in a castle in Westphalia, Germany, and had spent her itinerant, wartime childhood in hotels –some grand, others delinquent – with her brandy-swilling and, soon, penniless mother, had made a hotel her home and final retreat.

A few months after she died my sister and I cleared out the furniture, the paintings and pictures, the scrapbooks and clothes in her closets. There was nothing left in the end, but the bare walls and a timeless view of Central Park and the New York skyline.

[*The Monk composition was also called Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues]

***

Glyn Vincent is a journalist and author born and raised in New York City. A finalist for the National Magazine Award, he is currently working on a documentary by Ric Burns based, in part, on his biography of the New York painter Ralph A. Blakelock, The Unkown Night.

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§ 11 Responses to “Hotel Bolivar”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    i loved reading this. so beautifully illustrated with wonderful descriptions. of course, the fact that Monk’s “Nica” lived there was the clincher for me. but also, i very much admire the written ease with which you, your protagonist, grows up…so fluid, with graceful updates for the reader on the characters that we’ve become acquainted with and care about. thank you!

  • Glyn Vincent says:

    Thank you Susan. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Best,

    Glyn

  • Elizabeth Williamson says:

    A moving, evocative piece that beautifully traces the evolution of the city and its people, showing us non-New Yorkers why longtime residents speak so wistfully when they recall this era, despite its heartbreaks. Young Glyn Vincent put me in mind of Theo in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch…Thank you for sharing this poignant family vignette.

  • Fine piece of writing where the emotions play below the surface, evident and clear, but never paraded. Glyn Vincent’s deft, brightly detailed portrait reminds any native New Yorker that no neighborhood in the city remains static. They rise and fall, change and recalibrate as the city continues its evolution. Bravo.

  • Pete Bodo says:

    This is a wonderful piece of writing that whispers like the evening breeze in the park across the road from the Bolivar. Evocative, elegiac, and crystalline in its understatement. More please, Mr. Vincent!

  • Claudie de la Maisoneuve says:

    Such a well written piece ! Love your style and vivid detailing ! Moving too…Bravo !

  • paul nevin says:

    Vincent captured it all. This was the great rumbling city before they air conditioned the buses, picked up the garbage, and cracked down on the street life. It seemed a more innocent place, in spite of everything, or were we just young and oblivious?

  • Pat Towers says:

    Loved reading this rich piece evoking a particular time and place and people, beautifully recognized, honoring the essence of this beleaguered city.

  • Ethan Smith says:

    As a slightly younger Upper West Sider, I deeply appreciated this trip down memory lane.

  • geof drummond says:

    Thank you Glyn. You’ve captured (so well) a piece of the city that I knew about, but never knew. It’s a loving testament to change — things fall apart — but don’t disappear. I can’t wait to read more.

  • Helaine Olen says:

    Thank you for this. I sometimes try to describe to my children what NYC was like — though for me the memories begin in the 1970s — and it’s all but impossible. It’s all but a lost world. This piece is stunning and beautiful.

§ Leave a Reply

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