Stepping off Madison Avenue into The Carlyle is like walking into a time capsule—starring hotel regulars George and Amal Clooney, Mick Jagger and a clarinet-wielding Woody Allen

There is a distinct difference between something being old and something being classic. The Carlyle, a Rosewood hotel in New York, is a classic. 

The hotel opened 89 years ago, and very little has changed since. The iconic black marble floors of the lobby still sparkle, the walls of Bemelmans Bar still feature the original faded murals by Madeline illustrator Ludwig Bemelmans—it’s his only work on public display—and the restaurant remains clad in hand-painted wallpaper by Milanese artist Enrico Brus and lined with banquettes dressed in antique Turkish kilim.

Even the staff seldom change. Ask around, and you’ll find that the majority of the team have worked there for 20, 30 or sometimes even 40-something years. Some of them have become local legends in their own right—a bellboy, concierge or lift operator, of which The Carlyle is one of the last hotels in New York to employ around the clock.

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Above Eartha Kitt, Daniel Day-Lewis, Mia Farrow and a friend at the Café Carlyle in 1994 (Photo: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images)

All About The People

“To us, it’s not just a business; it’s a friendship,” says hotel ambassador Hector Ruiz, who has worked at The Carlyle for 30 years. “We pay a lot of attention to our guests’ needs: what they like, what food or wine they prefer to have when they’re here. I always call them or their assistants ahead of time to see if there’s anything we can arrange for them or to find out if they’re here for any special occasion—it makes a world of difference. It’s all about the little things that you do, and that comes from building rapport and trust.”

Countless stars have entrusted The Carlyle’s staff with their secrets. “A hotel is only as good as its ghosts,” wrote intellectual and author Bernard-Henri Lévy in his essay Life at the Carlyle. “Tell me who haunts you and I’ll tell you who you are. Tell me whose memories are preserved within your walls and black marble floors and I will tell you what you are worth.” 

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Above Bobby Short (left) and Jack Lemmon play a duet at Café Carlyle in 1982 (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

The Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Elizabeth Taylor and Hunter S Thompson are just a few of The Carlyle’s ghosts. Once upon a time, Jackie O and Audrey Hepburn were spotted having a heart-to-heart in the lobby. Anthony Bourdain called it “completely nuts”—in the best way possible. Today, the hotel is frequented by the likes of George and Amal Clooney, Jack Nicholson, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Bemelmans Bar and Café Carlyle are among Bill Murray’s favourite New York hangouts, where he sang and danced for his 2015 Netflix special A Very Murray Christmas. The air at The Carlyle is thick with their memories—which, in synergy with its current guests, creates an electricity like nothing and nowhere you’ve felt before.

But despite the stellar list of names that have graced its lobby, The Carlyle is not the kind of place one goes to see and be seen. It is a place where secrets are closely guarded, and where even the brightest stars can come, sink into its bolstered leather banquettes and disappear.

“In the old days, we would never even take a walk-in. We’re very protective of our guests,” says Ruiz, adding with a smile, “We have a lot of ways of getting guests in and out of here without being seen.”

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Above David Bowie in 1983 (Photo: Art Zelin/Getty Images)

Setting the Mood

And of course, there’s the music—a medley of the canonical pop and jazz that’s a soundtrack of New York nostalgia. Bemelmans Bar, a piano bar and a New York institution, opened in 1947. Here, Emmy Award-winning composer and pianist Earl Rose has held court for 24 years at the Steinway grand that anchors the room.

“I play a lot from what they call the great American songbook: George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington—classic songs that some of the great artists of America have given to the world,” says Rose. “There have been numerous times when Billy Joel would come in and we’d play duets together. He loves the American songbook, so if I’m playing the top part of the piano and he’s playing the bottom, we’ve choreographed it so we can switch places without missing a beat.”

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Above Jacqueline Kennedy leaves The Carlyle in 1962 (Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images)

An Intimate Affair

Not too long after the opening of Bemelmans Bar, Café Carlyle opened in 1955, originally as a New York supper club where Upper East Siders could rub shoulders, sip martinis, dance and enjoy live music deep into the night.

Enveloped in a Marcel Vertès mural, which depicts a fantastical version of life on New York’s Upper East Side: dancing bears, perfectly groomed Yorkshire terriers and portraits of the city’s upper crust frolicking with instruments in hand. The stage, like the venue itself, is small—Café Carlyle seats just 90 guests, and the ambient cocktail chatter is as much a part of the soundtrack as the live show. But that has always been the allure.

“That right there is the beauty of Café Carlyle: that it’s small and intimate,” says Ruiz. “We have a lot of regulars from the neighbourhood, and of course the people who come and stay at the hotel who just want to have some fun. It’s not rare that some of them will go down and join in and sing along with the entertainer.”

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Above The Carlyle (Photo: Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Pianist George Feyer played here for 13 years, with his stint at the venue followed by the legendary era of Bobby Short, who was a feature performer there for 36 years. For the past 16 years, Woody Allen has taken to the stage every Monday night to play the clarinet alongside the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band. Allen’s got a hell of a set of lungs, and he’s been known to throw himself into wildly impressive renditions of pieces by jazz greats like Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. 

One October night, I watched him get lost in a reverie of Dixieland jazz in the hushed blue light that floods Café Carlyle, and, for a brief moment, I found myself wondering, “Is this real life?”—which I learned happens quite frequently when you stay at The Carlyle.

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A hotel is only as good as its ghosts. Tell me who haunts you and I’ll tell you who you are.

- Bernard-Henri Lévy -

No Place Like It

Reading these stories of antique decor, unexpected celebrity encounters and 24/7 lift operators, The Carlyle might seem like a sitcom parody of New York City life. But it’s all authentic—and it’s hard not to succumb to its charms. Being here is like being part of a well-kept secret or a strange and spectacular family. For many guests, it is this sense of familiarity and comfort that keeps them coming back.

That same evening, I found myself in conversation with Antonio DiLuzio, the Carlyle restaurant captain. I mentioned offhandedly that I was a huge fan of Hunter S Thompson, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski and other writers from the Beat Generation.

The next day, a package was delivered to my room—it was a beautiful old copy of Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad, who Antonio knew to be one of Thompson’s favourite writers. It was then that I understood what it meant to be a part of the Carlyle family, embraced by all the wonderful weirdness that floats through the gilded revolving doors of this classic New York time capsule.

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