A Manhattan landmark for fifty years, the Taft in its heyday in the 1930s and '40s was the largest hotel in midtown, famed for the big band in its basement restaurant and the view of Times Square from its towers. As the son of the general manager, Stephen Lewis grew up in this legendary hotel, living with his parents and younger brother in a suite overlooking the Roxy Theater. His engaging memoir of his childhood captures the colorful, bustling atmosphere of the Taft, where his father, the best hotelman in New York, ruled a staff of Damon Runyonesque house dicks, chambermaids, bellmen, and waiters, who made sure that Stephen knew what to do with a swizzle stick by the time he was in the third grade.
The star of this memoir is Lewis's fast-talking, opinionated, imperious mother, who adapted so completely to hotel life that she rarely left the Taft. Evelyn Lewis rang the front desk when she wanted to make a telephone call, ordered all the family's meals from room service, and had her dresses sent over from Saks. During the Depression, the tough kids from Hell's Kitchen who went to grade school with Stephen marveled at the lavish spreads his mother offered her friends at lunch every day, and later even his wealthy classmates at Horace Mann-Lincoln were impressed by the limitless hot fudge sundaes available to the Lewis boys.
Lewis contrasts the fairy-tale luxury of his life inside the hotel with the gritty carnival spirit of his Times Square neighborhood, filled with the noise of trolleys, the smell of saloons, the dazzle of billboards and neon signs. In Hotel Kid, lovers of New York can visit the nightclubs and movie palaces of a vanished era and thread their way among the sightseers and hucksters, shoeshine boys and chorus girls who crowded the streets when Times Square really was the crossroads of the world.
This literary memoir, ideal for chuckling at with a glass of port near a roaring fireplace while surrounded by sleepy grandchildren and old photos, is perfect for those who long for the way things were. For New Yorkers of many decades and for the younger set who push strollers along upper Madison Avenue to church on Sundays, Lewis the founder of a New Mexico memoir-writing workshop produces pages of carefully honed prose about his childhood growing up in the landmark Taft Hotel, where his father was general manager. The nostalgic goings-on unfold in the Times Square hotel and in the New York suburbs during the 1930s, WWII and the postwar boom years. With an appealingly innate whimsy, the author dutifully tries to provide psychological insight into human motives ("If power corrupts, hot fudge corrupts absolutely"). The book is as much a family history as a time capsule, as Lewis chronicles the menu from his father's bar mitzvah dinner and tells of collecting victory stamps with the hope of turning them in for a war bond. Lewis, who is kind in print to his family and those he knew, wraps up his book with a contrasting snapshot of his old Taft Hotel home in its new incarnation as the Michelangelo, and speaks with distaste of the "Roy Rogers Family Restaurant and TGIF on the corner." Sweet and unchallenging, this is a friendly portrait of a bygone Big Apple. Photos.