The Pierre, New York City

| By Edward Kiersh | From John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

When relaxing in the Rotunda, watching Neptune, Venus and other mythological figures cavort in the puffy, rococo clouds overhead, guests at this fabled Beaux Arts landmark are immediately bewitched and transported to the glorious era of The Great Gatsby.

That's the magic of The Pierre, the cream-colored hotel that has been synonymous with European-styled elegance ever since restaurateur turned hotelier Charles Pierre Casalasco collaborated with E. F. Hutton, Walter P. Chrysler and other Wall Street financiers to realize his dream of opening a grand French château on Fifth Avenue.

The son of Jacques Pierre, the owner of the once internationally known Hôtel Anglais in Monte Carlo, Charles first won rave reviews for his haute cuisine at Sherry's, a restaurant favored by J. P. Morgan, the Astors and the Vanderbilts. Befriended by these powerful figures, this Corsican immigrant in the late 1920s raised the then-astounding sum of $15 million to create a hotel that he hoped would be "a majestic monument to simplicity, beauty and refinement."

Indulging guests with oversized suites, magnificent wood-paneled salons, cuisine by August Escoffier ("the father of French chefs") and an unbeatable location facing Central Park, the Pierre quickly became a mecca for European heads of state and American tycoons. As a 1930s New York City guidebook extolled, "This hotel is beautiful, gorgeous, distinctive, catering only to those of refined tastes who can afford the best in the way of hotel luxury."

During the Depression this grande dame fell on hard times and was bought by Standard Oil's John Paul Getty for $2.5 million. Under Getty's reign, many of the rooms were sold as cooperatives to the likes of Richard Nixon, Cary Grant and Elizabeth Taylor. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts assumed management in 1981, and after a $70 million renovation in 1992, the Pierre is as elegant as ever, retaining 77 co-ops, but offering 202 rooms, a fitness center handsomely decorated in Italian marble, spacious suites with panoramic views of the park, twice-daily maid service, and critically acclaimed cuisine.

Particularly appealing for breakfast and lunch, there's the muraled Rotunda, the hotel's signature room, where those playful trompe l'oeil sprites are a perfect accompaniment to raspberry-covered waffles, herb-filled omelets and afternoon teas. Graced with images of Minerva, Neptune and the river gods (along with a figure who strikingly resembles Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis), this pastoral setting has become a favorite meeting place for New York's high society and is the perfect backdrop for any discreet or romantic rendezvous.

Equally intimate, the softly lit Café Pierre is an Old World triumph, evoking the era of Escoffier with exemplary contemporary French dishes. Praised by such magazines as Bon Appetit and Gourmet, restaurant chef Ciaran Hickey delights patrons with a filet of Dover sole swimming in a fine herb sauce, grilled lamb chops surrounded by garlic mashed potatoes, and his always-appetizing beluga caviar with buckwheat blinis. Such desserts as the flourless chocolate cake and Tahitian vanilla bean crème brûlée are also memorable, and the café is understandably proud of its 10,000-bottle wine cellar, which features many superb Cabernets, Pinot Noirs and Champagnes.

After dinner, or even during the day before a shopping excursion to the fashionable boutiques on Madison Avenue, cigar lovers are encouraged to visit the café's adjoining piano bar. Here the pampering continues with aged Scotch, Port, such classic Martinis as the Charles Pierre (Ketel One vodka, vermouth and Kalamata olives), the J. P. Morgan (Stolichnaya Cristall vodka kissed with Pernod and fresh mint), and an extensive array of Montecristos, Avos, Paul Garmirians and Ashtons. These delights are as alluring as the soft music and the profusion of flowers. Yet one word of caution. Don't be surprised if you wind up sitting next to Mick Jagger, Barbara Walters or Dolly Parton, all of whom frequent this cozy and charming hideaway.

When savoring those cigars, the Tintoretto-inspired mural in the Rotunda, or the Pierre's impeccable brand of service, the hotel's devotees will remember Charles Pierre and his dream of creating "the world's most-perfect hotel." Shortly before his death in 1934, dispirited by the Depression, Pierre lamented the passing of the Gilded Age and wished society would again see the "days when rare dishes, fine wines and gracious living counted."

Brilliantly, and with unmistakable flair, those hallmarks of the good life have been restored, at The Pierre --Edward Kiersh

Florida-based writer Edward Kiersh is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.

Fifth Avenue at 61st Street Phone (212) 838-8000; or (800) 332 3442; Fax (212) 758-1615 Rooms $430 to $895 from superior to boudoir; one bedroom suites from $695; two bedroom suites from $1,175