14 Feb A Personal Reflection on the End to the Waldorf Era
I use this blog to write about politics and economics. I review a lot of books. And I occasionally delve into USC football as well. It is a political, economic, and cultural blog, but more than any of that, it is my blog, so I have decided to use it in a variety of different ways over the years. I do seek a connection with my readers, generally those who share some common ground in matters of ideology and faith. But I also will get personal every now and then, certainly around my annual Thanksgiving reflections, and occasionally just because. I am an open book in a lot of ways, but intensely private in others. I write transparently, but I doubt very many readers know much about me personally just because they know of my belief in the free and virtuous society and my affections for the principles at the root of America’s foundation. But as I ramble on about the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, I guess I hope it will offer a little perspective on how I view the markers that exist in our lives, and what those markers mean to us existentially.
I checked out of the Waldorf-Astoria in NYC today after a week-long business trip. As my driver carted me away en route to JFK for my flight home, I tried to not think about the fact that this was the last time I would be leaving this glorious property. I couldn’t dare to count how many times I have stayed there over the years, and I wouldn’t want to neglect so many of the memories I have made there. But this goes beyond the mere loss of a place which holds many fond memories. It goes back to the very beginning of my career in wealth management, and along the way captures so much of what God has done in my life, my marriage, my career, and the very dreams I have as a person. So as the Chinese insurance company which paid $1.9 billion for this museum of a hotel prepares to spend another $1 billion converting the bulk of it into condos over the next three years, I reflect on this period of time that began with my first stay there over fifteen years ago and that ended today with my driver pulling out of the 50th Street towers exit en route to JFK.
In January of 2002 Joleen came out to New York City to visit me. We had been married four months, and I was spending an entire calendar month in Weehawken, NJ directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan where I was doing all-day work with Paine Webber, the first Wall Street firm I worked for after selling the company I ran for seven years doing business management and agency work for musical artists. It was a thrilling time for me, being both a newlywed and in the midst of a professional reinvention. 9/11 had happened on the first full day of our honeymoon, and the U.S. stock market was in the midst of what would prove to be a nasty three-year market run. I had prepared for this for what felt like my whole life, having always dreamed of managing money for a living. I was now engulfed in the world’s greatest city all day and night, either staring at the NYC skyline from my waterfront hotel and office in Weehawken, or taking the Lincoln Harbor ferry into the city for what felt like the most energizing experience I had ever encountered. We had a long three-day weekend in mid-January around MLK Day and Jo came out to see me. I had taken a 70% pay cut after selling my business for the first year pay at Paine Webber, and we normally would not have been looking to stay in midtown Manhattan’s most elegant and iconic hotel on our newlywed budget. But in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the hotel costs in the city were laughably low and we jumped at the chance to stay in the Waldorf at a price that we rightly imagined we would never see again. I recall our first night that weekend sitting in the iconic bar at the Bull and Bear. There was an overwhelming appreciation for the beauty of the room around me, the history, the meaning, and its cultural tie-in with the glory of capital markets. The Bull and Bear is known imagery for stock market gains (bulls) and losses (bears), and this bar, its reputation, and its motif had all pre-dated the Depression in one form or another. It felt like a ceremonial beginning to a career as Joleen and I sat there. When Jo and I returned from dinner this last Friday night (Davios Italian Northern Steakhouse a few blocks down Lexington Ave from the hotel), we went back into the Bull and Bear, the same bar, same décor, same people with which it all began 15 years earlier. This time around I was enjoying a nice cup of coffee (lots has changed since 2002), but the energy, history, and vibration was still the exact same.
Since the January weekend stay in 2002, I worked tirelessly, often 20 hours per day for years and years, to build a wealth management business that I am very proud of. Over the years I had a frequent need to return to NYC, developing a growing group of clients in the tri-state area (including some who would become among my very best friends in Peapack, NJ, in Brooklyn, NY, and in Newtown, CT). Additionally, as my business grew and achieved scale in 2005 or so, I had developed a plethora of relationships with money managers (initially U.S. equity and fixed income, but eventually hedge funds and emerging markets asset managers as well), and my need to visit the city increased. In early 2007 I got recruited away from UBS (who had bought Paine Webber years earlier) by the New York investment behemoth, Morgan Stanley. My need to visit NYC was now doubly intensified, and my pocketbook would now allow me to bypass the Marriott Marquis and Westin Times Square in favor of the hotel which really held my heart – the Waldorf Astoria.
The Waldorf would not necessarily be the first choice for a young business traveler in their mid-30’s (which I was by 2007). It was constructed at its Park Avenue location in 1931 and it isn’t like they were modernizing it each and every year as newer and sleeker hip hotel concepts came to town. It was a museum, and I loved it. It held in its walls the history of pre-war New York, of post-war Americana, of international travel and power, and of the nexus of politics and business. There isn’t any need to melodramatize what this place has been over the years. The hotel memorialized it all for me, with the most gorgeous black and white photography of their archives up and down their illustrious hallways, on every floor I ever stayed. At any hotel in the world, after a 16-18 hour long day of meetings in a suit, I’m returning to my room at night at a brisk pace, ready to de-suit and sleep. But no other hotel in the world is distracting me with photos of Richard Nixon toasting with Henry Kissinger, or JFK and Jackie dancing, or Paul McCartney singing with Bruce Springsteen. No other hotel in the world has a room called the Hoover Presidential Suite, named such because, well, President Herbert Hoover lived there for a decade or two. I once got upgraded to the Kennedy Apartment, which I thought was an adorable name for a fancy hotel room, until the butler greeted me and informed me that it was, in fact, once the Kennedy’s apartment. The ballrooms were utterly epic, a magnificent blend of art and history. Every detail of the design throughout the property is impeccable. I didn’t care that it lacked modern finishes I could exploit at other business travel venues around the country. It was a museum house of 20th century New York and American history. It is fitting that for all of my love of American political history embedded in this property, in one of my last stays there I enjoyed a 30-story+ elevator ride with Henry Kissinger, still patronizing it and all it’s grandeur at age 94, practically the same age as the hotel itself.
I wouldn’t write this story if it were just about my odd and eccentric love of an old building. Embedded in all this is more than just a hotel property, but also the place that God saw fit for me to associate with this incredible journey He has put me on. I have struggled mightily over the years like most people with profound disappointments and failures. And I have enjoyed unforgettable memories and victories as well. Joleen and I began a life together over 15 years ago, and I did find the very essence of what God called me to. My life’s journey pre-dates that sit-down in the Bull and Bear, and it certainly survives today’s checkout at the Waldorf Astoria. But this lengthy period bookended by these two events I described previously has been filled with the incredible agony of the financial crisis of 2008, the blessing of building what will soon be a billion dollar business, the drama of coming to Morgan Stanley, the thrill of leaving Morgan Stanley to start my own firm, and the careful precision and poetry of seeing my beloved clients through so many aches and pains in the capital markets. All of these biographical moments have shaped me and play a significant role in who I have become and am becoming as a person. The frequent trips to New York are not the essence of my life these last 15 years, and neither is the hotel in which I have chosen to stay. But they are a sort of marker for me, whether that makes any sense to you or not. We all have them – songs, movies, restaurants, whatever – that help memorialize an era in our lives. I am no different. Besides being a deeply nostalgic person, I have a memory that I’d put up against anyone’s (for good or for bad). The details of various memories are for me, whether remembering a painful thing or something triumphant, so fun, so real, so vital – I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.
I made reference earlier to difficult periods of life I’ve gone through. I wouldn’t trade those away either. But for me, becoming orphaned at age 21, coming from a broken home, entering adult life with barely a few nickels to my name, I believe there have been magnificent evidences of God’s grace throughout my entire life. My wife, my kids, my business, and my inner circle friends are the real substance of that grace, that love, that provision. And yet coloring the journey of my calling have been markers – things like the Waldorf Astoria – with which I can permanently associate so many fun experiences and seasons. It feels like living a dream, because it is.
The well-known bar song, Closing Time, says “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” I will miss the Waldorf, and who knows, maybe they won’t bastardize it to oblivion when they take out 1,000 of the 1,400 rooms over the next three years (believe me, they will). But my life and journey press on, and no doubt there will be lovely other hotels to try and a sea of memories to be made into the future. And as I move from this marker to the next, I’ll do it a better person, filled with the treasured memories the “Waldorf era” represented. She’s gone, but not forgotten.