Inside the Gramercy: The Grit and Glamour of New York’s Rock & Roll Hotel

It all began with David Bowie. Candy-colored hair. A lightning bolt across his cream-painted face. A mysterious backstory that he was a “messenger from Mars.” It was February 1973, and Bowie had come to New York to promote The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and his upcoming Aladdin Sane. Because his first American tour had been a money-losing operation, RCA Records booked the Gramercy Park Hotel this time instead of the Plaza. For his two-week stay, Bowie and his 100-plus crew took over the third floor, turning the place into a dormitory, with “copious coke,” as his tour photographer Leee Black Childers put it, and groupies circling in and out of Bowie’s hotel room.

It might seem strange that a star would rent rooms on a low floor rather than one with a better view, but Bowie had a fear of heights. And there was another possible reason: Bowie’s management company had instituted a policy in which no one, aside from specially designated individuals, was allowed to take his picture. Everywhere Bowie went, two bodyguards followed him. According to the late Childers, the whole thing had been a cheeky publicity stunt, since it would only help Bowie if people circulated his image. The effect, of course, was to make people try harder to take his picture. Eventually, a cherry picker appeared outside Bowie’s window to snap a photo – which was only possible if Bowie was on a low floor.

The scheme worked: The press went wild. The lobby filled up with teenage girls – Polaroid and Kodak Instamatics in hand – desperate to record a glimpse of the star. Among the attendees at his sold-out February 14th, 1973, Radio City Music Hall show was Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Salvador Dali. Bowie didn’t disappoint – there were smoke machines, stage risers, half a dozen costume changes and a backup band nearly as big as a football team. During his last number, “Rock n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie fainted and was dramatically whisked offstage by one of his bodyguards. The ensuing debate over whether it was real or fake added to the sensation. (The official explanation was that the makeup had clogged his pores.)

After Bowie checked out of the Gramercy, some of the glitter remained behind. His visit had cemented the hotel’s reputation among bands as a top-tier party spot. The two-week residency even led to a new nickname: “the Glamercy,” and word quickly spread that it was a place where you could get away with anything. At the height of its popularity, through the birth of punk and New Wave, the hotel’s guest list became a social register of rock history, including everyone from Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan to Aerosmith, U2, the Clash, Blondie and Madonna. Its history, however, has seldom been given the credit it deserves – for many of these artists, their time at the Gramercy coincided with crucial moments in their creative lives. It was more than just a party spot, it was a reliable muse.

“We like this place, the Gramercy Park Hotel,” Clash lead singer Joe strummer once said. “It’s economically viable to stay here, not like uptown somewhere. That means five nights of hotel rooms ain’t no problem. And we like to get some vibe of New York, you know, because we’ll put that information onto a record.”

The Gramercy had large, cheap rooms with thicker walls than most Manhattan accommodations – and it was probably one of the only places you could call up room service to order a pick or a guitar string. But it was the tolerant atmosphere more than anything that made the place what it was. And that was owed almost entirely to one person, my grandfather, Herbert R. Weissberg, who owned the hotel for nearly 40 years. As long as guests (or the record company) paid the bill, he let them do whatever they wanted. The Gramercy Park Hotel was his kingdom, and everything from its wobbly tables to the low prices in the bar reflected his vision of what a hotel should be. When a guest needed attention, the employees gave it, and when a guest wanted to be ignored, they did that too.

Under my grandfather’s proprietorship, little had changed since the hotel was built in 1925: Dim chandeliers. Blood-colored carpet. A feeling halfway between Casablanca and the Titanic. The guests found great comfort in its worn edges – the cigarette burns on the carpet, the television sets that were missing a knob or two, the out-of-tune baby grand piano in the lounge. For many, the Gramercy Park Hotel was an anchor in an ever-changing world, a place they wanted to celebrate – yet keep a secret. A guest arriving in 1995 might not notice that anything had changed since his visit in 1955. And his luggage would still be carried by Pinky, the jockey-size Irish bellhop who had once opened the hotel’s doors for Babe Ruth. International guidebooks invariably described it as a quirky hostelry that approached the platonic ideal of “old New York.”

The Gramercy had 18 floors and 509 hotel rooms, plus a rooftop terrace, a restaurant, a bar, a lounge, a newsstand and a beauty salon. But it was also a home. Herbert lived there with his wife, Ruth, whom everyone called “Danny.” And everyone in the family – four sons, three daughters-in-law and eight grandchildren – lived in the hotel at one point or another. I lived in the Gramercy as a baby and later averaged around three months a year there in between semesters of boarding school. Though my own father, Robert, a college professor, played no role in the business, Herbert’s other three sons, Marty, Steven and David, were dependent on the hotel for their livelihoods, with Steven being the heir apparent, groomed for eventual succession. The Gramercy was the site of many of our family events and happy memories – birthdays, bar mitzvahs, weddings. But the permissive atmosphere, which we had prided ourselves on, took its toll. It turned out there was a price to pay for living in a rock star’s paradise.

Other than the Glamercy, the hotel had a second nickname: “the Gram.” Guests could order a “Telegram at the Gram,” meaning a doorman or a bellhop (never Pinky, mind you) would deliver cocaine to their room like a pepperoni pizza. Police interference was rare, maybe because of the good relationship Herbert had with the off-duty cops he employed as security. When busts did happen, the flow of drugs only slowed temporarily. Eventually, bellhops were selling drugs, desk clerks were selling drugs, and even maids, aided by their boyfriends, had found a way to profit from the drug culture that was so prevalent in New York at the time.

My uncles moved into the hotel in the mid-Seventies, right when the party scene was really hitting its stride. My uncle David, an aspiring photographer, took a suite on the seventh floor with a large terrace overlooking the park, and a pack of Doberman/black Lab mixes as roommates. David had developed a heroin addiction as a teenager in Brooklyn, and the hotel’s drug culture made it hard for him to stay clean.

Temptation was everywhere, and evidence of the anything-goes atmosphere had a way of seeping into the hotel’s public spaces. When Bob Marley stayed, Steven remembers, “The hallway looked like the smoke detectors were gonna go off.” One time a drunken Englishman came down from his room stark naked and took a seat at the bar. It was Pinky’s job to find a sheet to wrap him up in, which he was happy to do until he realized that naked people don’t tip (no pockets). As a kid, I remember coming down to the lobby once in the middle of the night and a guy with boxy glasses was in the midst of a drug overdose – foaming at the mouth and marching in circles, knocking things over like he was possessed. The night doorman guarding the perimeter shouted at me like a farmer fleeing a tornado, “Don’t come here! Turn around! Turn around!”

For a while, acid guru Timothy Leary lived in the hotel, as did Rolling Stone journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who hosted drug orgies in his room. According to a former guest, at one party Thompson used a dildo to mash the cocaine. Another remembers a sign outside his door that said, “BEWARE!! Do not knock! If a throat must be slit here today, why not yours?” As a sidenote in the corner, Thompson added, “Except for Room Service.”

High Times magazine even had its founding party at the Gramercy, in 1974. “We got these five-foot high tanks of nitrous oxide and High Times balloons that had a mushroom on them,” remembered Andy Kowl, one of the magazine’s co-founders. “This was great press… From CBS and NBC to the Daily News, everybody loved it.… All of the journalists did look askance at the nitrous oxide balloons at first. It was very weird, because people had to line up with their balloon to get it refilled. My clearest memory is that by the end of the night, almost every single one of [the journalists] had a balloon in their hand and was in line.”

“Everybody knew about the hotel,” the late Nat Finkelstein once told me. Finkelstein was a rock photographer whose career thrived in Andy Warhol’s Factory and had moved to the hotel in 1985. “You could get away with anything,” he said. “And it was classier than the Chelsea. The Stones had stayed there and I think [Keith Richards’ then-wife] Anita Pallenberg. Actually, I was there because Anita told me to go there. She said, ‘They’ll carry you.’ I had no bank account. I had nothing. But they let me come into the place and take one of the high-rise suites.”

“In New York, during our reign of terror in the Seventies,” Childers, Bowie’s photographer, recalled, “depending on how much you could hoodwink the record company for, you went from the Chelsea to the Gramercy to the Plaza.” Alan Vega, one half of the punk duo Suicide, put it more bluntly: The Gramercy, he said, was where bands went “on the way up or on the way down.”

The Gramercy saw a lot of turning points in a lot of careers. One night, in the wee hours, Steven got a call from security downstairs. A loud group of hotel guests had just come in from a night on the town and wanted a drink at the bar, which had already locked up for the night. It was Bob Dylan. He’d been staying at the Gramercy for several weeks with his band, gearing up for his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, which included, among others, folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, ex-Byrds guitarist Roger McGuinn, Joan Baez and former Bowie guitarist Mick Ronson. Dylan’s last trek, in 1974, had been a big commercial arena tour. With Rolling Thunder, he was getting back to his roots. He looked for inspiration in the scene where his career started: Greenwich Village. He used the hotel as his base while he recruited musicians from the Bleecker Street club the Bitter End (then briefly known as the Other End). His first rehearsals were in the hotel, until the band got so big they transferred to a studio. Dylan had also just separated from his wife, Sara, and spent many late nights in his room writing lyrics that eventually became part of the album Desire.

Steven, only 21 at the time, remembers fumbling helplessly with the liquor-cabinet lock until guitarist Richard Bowden suggested they break it open. A couple of jabs later, Steven busted off the hinges to the cabinet door. The band cheered wildly. Everyone ordered drinks, and Dylan had five Rémy Martins before the night was over.

According to Rolling Stone writer Larry Sloman’s book On the Road With Bob Dylan, Chesley Milliken, Elliott’s manager, asked Dylan that night why he called it the Rolling Thunder Revue. “I was just sitting outside my house one day,” Dylan said, “thinking about a name for this tour, when all of a sudden, I look up into the sky and I hear a boom. Then boom, boom, boom, boom, rolling from west to east. Then I figured that should be the name.”

Camped out at the Gramercy at the same time as Dylan was Lou Reed, who lived in Room 605 with his androgynous trans muse, Rachel, on an allowance of $15 a day from the record company. Despite being unhappy with his situation, he declined Dylan’s offer to join the tour, preferring instead to continue work on Coney Island Baby, his comeback record after the experimental noise-assault album Metal Machine Music. Drinking carrot juice, working out and maybe indulging in a bit of speed, he found a routine that enabled him to finish the album, which reached 41 on the Billboard Top 100.

In the spring of 1982, John Phillips, formerly of the Mamas and the Papas, checked into the hotel with some other musicians. He had recently overcome a heroin habit and had been working as a drug counselor, but he was also trying to relaunch his career. The comeback did not go quite as planned, however, and he ran up a large debt with the hotel. My grandfather saw an opportunity. He contacted Phillips about taking David under his wing; my uncle had been in and out of rehab, and had even been arrested. Phillips agreed, and he and David, along with Steven, began playing music together. (I lived down the hall and my mother would leave the door cracked so we could hear them practicing.) The sessions were “calming” for David, Steven recalled, but Phillips would eventually move on, and David would continue to wrestle with his addiction.

Many of the legends who passed through the Gramercy’s doors came before they were legends. In December 1980, the budding college-radio band U2 had just released their debut album, Boy, and were on a club tour to promote it. For most of the group, it was their first time in the U.S. “We landed in JFK and we were picked up in a limousine,” Bono once remembered. “We had never been in a limousine before, and with the din of punk rock not yet faded from our ears, there was a sort of guilty pleasure as we stepped into the limousine. Followed by a sly grin, as you admit to yourself this is fun. We crossed Triborough Bridge and saw the Manhattan skyline. The limo driver was black and he had the radio tuned to WBLS, a black music station. Billie Holiday was singing. And there it was, city of blinding lights, neon hearts. They were advertising in the skies for people like us…. We pulled up at the Gramercy Park Hotel and everyone went in.” Bono later immortalized these first impressions of New York on Rattle and Hum‘s “Angel of Harlem.” 

Their stay at the Gramercy was also the first time they met their idols the Clash. Bono recalled it to music journalist Michka Assayas: “The Clash were staying there, the Slits. It was like an American bohemia. I remember the Slits hadn’t got guitar straps. They were so punk. Their guitars, they were around their necks by strings. I think Edge put out his hand to shake one of their hands, and the singer, Ari Up, slapped it. She said: ‘We don’t do that.’…

“We saw the Clash in the lobby. They were just so cool, and we knew we weren’t,” Bono continued. “I had a fur coat, which was funny. I remember I walked out to the street. It was snowing in America. I just wanted to take it all in, standing at the corner in my fur coat and my crap haircut. And this unusual looking man just stops on a bicycle beside me and says, ‘Hey, honey, where are you going? How are you sweetheart?’ And I was like. ‘Urrggh! Not so bohemian after all. I want my mother!'”

In the early 1980s, the club Danceteria moved in around the corner, at 30 West 21st Street. It was a hangout for artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat along with Duran Duran, Billy Idol and the Smiths. Madonna worked there as a hat-check girl. Parties that began in the club often ended in the Gramercy.

Madonna’s manager at the time, Camille Barbone, had a business partner, Adam Alter, who happened to do the hotel’s penthouse landscaping and was friends with my uncle Steven, who was himself an accomplished musician and remembers meeting Madonna at Gotham Records:

“I met her in a recording studio that was owned by my friend Adam… She had some great songs but her voice didn’t project at the time. Because she didn’t have the exercise. She didn’t have the stamina. She didn’t have the vocal training. She didn’t have the muscles, nothing. She didn’t have the figure. She was bottom-heavy. They had to work her, get her into shape, vocal lessons. She was made. She was created. She was a very hard worker. She wanted it and was going to do whatever it took. And she never let up.”

Later, the group came back to the hotel and Steven invited his wife, Madalyn, to join them. Steven grabbed a key for Room 1202, facing Gramercy Park. Madonna started stroking Madalyn’s back and offered a threesome with Steven. Steven thought she was joking – “She did that to everybody!” – but Madalyn took it seriously and jumped up and went to a different couch. (Madonna hasn’t responded to requests for comment on this anecdote.) In the months that followed, Madalyn liked to tell her story of the girl who called herself “Madonna” and offered a threesome with Steven. Madonna, meanwhile, got a big break when the DJ at the Danceteria played her tape. After Madonna became famous, Madalyn stopped telling her story because nobody believed her anymore.

During Blondie’s recording of their commercial breakthrough, Parallel Lines, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein lived in a small dark room in the hotel’s annex. Jerry Lee Lewis stayed and enjoyed himself at the bar so much he was three songs late to his gig at Tramp’s. Elvis Costello told Steven he had his first martini there. When punk became popular, the Squeeze, the Buzzcocks and Siouxsie and the Banshees all stopped by. According to the hotel’s former general manager, the late Tom O’Brien, Sid Vicious stayed but was banned permanently after throwing a television out the window. Sometime later, O’Brien told me, when Sid wanted to book the Gramercy a second time, my grandfather refused him. Fatefully, Sid chose the Chelsea Hotel instead, where his girlfriend Nancy Spungen was later murdered.

The stories are endless. And beyond rock stars, the Gramercy attracted artists of all kinds – writers, photographers, filmmakers. In 1975, part of the cast of Saturday Night Live took up residence during the show’s first season, including John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. (After Steven procured Belushi some rolling papers, he was offered a ticket to the first episode of Saturday Night Live, hosted by George Carlin, and the premiere party that followed.) Once, when some of the writers had a maintenance problem in their rooms, it was fixed by Boris, a Czech painter, and his assistant, both known in the hotel for their wild dance moves and frequent Studio 54 visits. According to Steven, this incident later spawned the creation of the “Wild and Crazy Guys” sketch.

Martin Scorsese used the hotel for rehearsals and pre-production when he made Mean Streets, and a few years later filmed a scene from Raging Bull in Room 1501, as well as cut the film there. Like U2, Scorsese was also a fan of the Clash, and he first met them at the Gramercy. The director wanted them to work on the soundtrack for a film he was planning called Gangs of New York, but when the movie was delayed (by a couple of decades) he offered them a small part in The King of Comedy instead. Scorsese and Robert De Niro attended one of the Clash’s legendary concerts in Times Square at Bond’s International Casino in 1981. The Clash stayed at the Gramercy during what became a 17-show residency at Bond’s, and their presence made the the hotel’s bar scene buzz even more than usual. Some years ago, I asked Scorsese about his time in the hotel, and with a bit of nostalgic glee he said he visited “when all the rock bands were there.”

In the Nineties, the hotel’s golden era waned, but bands continued to pay visits and collect free drinks from my family members. The bar had changed little since the 1930s – mirrors lined the walls, and a musty scent mixed with cigarette smoke. There was always goldfish crackers on offer, and candles lit inside cherry-colored glasses.The bar’s clientele, like the hotel’s guests, were so loyal only the wallpaper had been there longer. The Harvey sisters, a pair of octogenarian martini drinkers, had been coming since the Sixties. Another regular was the librettist Ira Gasman, who would often sit with a rhyming dictionary and compose his lyrics. (When I asked him about this, he said, “Everybody uses one.”) Harmonica legend Paul Butterfield became a resident and lived hand-to-mouth on what the record company would give him. My personal favorite was Lionel George, a dapper Swiss polyglot who claimed to have an inheritance from a grandfather who invented the automobile clutch. Less frequent, but still regulars, were the director John Waters, the Carradines and hotel resident Matt Dillon, who always had a group of girls waiting for him in the lobby. No matter what celebrity was at the bar, however, the best seat was always reserved for Herbert R. Weissberg.

But signs of decline began to appear everywhere: The elevators filled up with graffiti. The waiters looked like they had slept in their uniforms. The chandelier light bulbs burned out and were ever-so-slowly replaced. The colorful world my grandfather had created began to dim.

David’s heroin addiction had never gone away, and it was discovered he was storing a weapons cache in the basement of the hotel. After Steven’s wife, Madalyn, died from cancer in 1997, Steven’s teenage son Michael and I, at only 16, started hanging out with David and were introduced to the “family dealer,” who sold us pot. Michael and David soon began dressing alike and doing harder drugs together. In 2001, on his 19th birthday, Michael died of an overdose in David’s room.

Months later, Steven called the police and reported David for his weapons stash. Still dealing with the guilt of Michael’s overdose, David was now also faced with legal trouble. On June 3rd, 2002, David stood on the rooftop patio of the Gramercy Park Hotel. From what I was told, he was wearing skinny-cut black jeans, orange-tinted aviator sunglasses, a gold Hebrew necklace and a grey-striped shirt. David methodically took off his necklace and removed a fanny pack stuffed with $4,000 he had recently gotten from selling his motorcycle. He dragged a banquet chair to the ledge and climbed on top. His wife, Marilyn, was on the street below, dragging her bags up Lexington Avenue. Only moments ago, she had told David she was leaving him. He stepped forward and, timing his jump perfectly, landed right in front of Marilyn. Patrons in the hotel bar noticed that something strange was going on outside, and the conversation slowly came to a halt as heads began to turn. The bartender called for an ambulance, but it was too late.

After David’s suicide, the Weissbergs were infamous. New York magazine printed an article about the chain of deaths in our family: first Madalyn, Herbert’s daughter-in-law; then Michael, Herbert’s grandson; and now David, Herbert’s son. In the article, Steven speculated that the family curse had been inherited from the Kennedys, who had lived at the hotel in the 1930s. Our family ghost stories turned into gossip on the Manhattan cocktail-party circuit.

Not long after that, Herbert died from old age, and the hotel was sold to Studio 54 legend Ian Schrager and billionaire real-estate developer Aby Rosen, who announced their plans to remodel. A few weeks before the old hotel’s doors closed, my older sister Nicole died in the December 2004 tsunami in Thailand. At the time, she had been a student in hotel school in Denver, hoping to follow in our grandfather’s footsteps and eventually buy back the hotel. “New woe for famed hotel family,” the Daily News reported. For me, the Gramercy’s legendary run felt over.

In 2006, the new Gramercy Park Hotel opened, a manifesto of modern design made possible by the artist Julian Schnabel, who decorated much of the interior. Within weeks of the hotel’s opening, it hosted a glitzy Marc Jacobs party that famously denied Paris Hilton entry. The Rose Bar, filled with high-profile works of art, soon became a top party spot, and Page Six and TMZ regularly camped outside on Lexington Avenue to snap photos of the many stars who visited. Rock & rollers who had been regulars in the Gramercy’s heyday, like Madonna and Steven Tyler, came back once again.

Far from being a shabby establishment, the hotel brought in guests like former presidents Bill Clinton, celebrating his 60th birthday, and Barack Obama, who ate at Maialino, the hotel’s restaurant, operated by Danny Meyer. Among the new residents in the remodeled annex (now called “50 Gramercy Park North”) were Jennifer Anniston, Karl Lagerfeld and an Icelandic billionaire couple who provoked a lawsuit by remodeling their John Pawson-designed kitchen with IKEA. The hotel’s intense hype briefly died down after Schrager sold his stake to Rosen, though the Rose Bar’s elegance did not wane.

At the center of the glossy new Gramercy, the heart of the old one was still beating – my grandmother and my uncle Steven continued to live there, with his wife and two children from his second marriage. But in October 2017, their lease was finally up, and the last Weissbergs moved out of the building. I was sad to see our family go. It was the end of an era. To me the hotel is a special place, not just because we owned it, but because it was a home to so many, including me. And because the story of the Gramercy, with its long, stubborn traditions and its eventual surrender to change, in many ways mirrors the history of New York itself. Its rises and falls, and its role as both a muse and enabler of self-destruction, continue to attract people from all over the world – a tradition I think will live on no matter who is in charge.  

Max Weissberg is a producer and filmmaker, and co-produced the 2008 documentary “Hotel Gramercy Park.”