As a travel writer and baseball writer, I use hotels a lot.
In each one, I look for certain things: a quiet room, a bathtub, blackout curtains, a king-sized bed, and enough electric outlets to accommodate all my 21st century devices, as well as enough garbage pails to accommodate all the newspapers and paperwork I always bring.
I also try to find places where Internet, parking, and breakfast are free. A pool and a Jacuzzi are pretty important to me, too.
My wish list coincides with that of Stanley Turkel, long-time hotel executive, historian, and author who served as general manager of several New York properties.
Turkel adds two things to his want list: an in-room sprinkler and a location on a low floor, so that he can escape in an emergency.
The author of four books and nearly 300 articles, Turkel received the 2014 Historian of the Year award from Historic Hotels of America at its October gala at the Hotel Hershey in rural Pennsylvania.
The award was well-deserved — Turkel not only has a national reputation as a hotel consultant, but writes for print and online hospitality publications, serves as an expert witness in hotel-related court cases, and lectures at the NYU Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. He also serves as honorary Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the City Club of New York.
Asked how he does it, Turkel had a ready reply. “I don’t waste my time. I eat well, sleep well, and keep my brain functioning.”
Turkel served as general manager of two prominent properties in New York City: the Summit and the Drake. He was also resident manager of the Americana.
Those jobs required him to be on duty 24/7. His long list of anecdotes includes an incident involving television comedian Milton Berle. A maître d’ once burst into Turkel’s office and told him there was a problem in the dining room. It turned out that Berle was unhappy with his breakfast and was taking out his feelings on the wait staff, fellow customers, and anybody else within earshot. Suddenly, Turkel became a baseball umpire, empowered with the authority of ejection.
Uncle Miltie, a fellow New York native, was not smiling that day.
Another celebrity he encountered at the Drake, boxing great Muhammad Ali, belied his reputation. “In sharp contrast to his reputation as a loudmouth and a blowhard,” Turkel recalled, “he was a model guest.”
Pianist Arturo Rubenstein also enjoyed his stay — and sent Stan Turkel a hand-written thank-you note that the historian framed and hung in his office.
Though related to the late Chicago writer Studs Turkel, the hotel man prefers his surname be pronounced tur-KELL, with an emphasis on the second syllable. But he’s first in the minds of many who need an experienced, ethical, and conscientious hotel consultant.
His latest book is Hotel Mavens: Lewis M Bloomer, George C. Boldt, and Oscar of the Waldorf. A previous tome, Great American Hoteliers, contains stories of 16 hotel men from Fred Harvey and Henry Flagler to Conrad Hilton, George Pullman, and J.W. Marriott..
Turkel’s other books are Built to Last: 100-Year-Old Hotels in New York City and Built to Last: 86 Old Hotels.
The father of four finds time for writing through a five-pointed formula:
1. Careful planning
2. Focused attention
3. Love of his subject
4. Maintaining a good memory
5. Avoiding writer’s block
According to Turkel, the New York City Landmarks Commission saved 18 of the 32 New York hotels built at least a century ago.
“I came to realize these old hotels deserved special attention,” Turkel said. “I was intrigued by their façades, great interior spaces, kitchens, ballrooms, and even things I found in the back of the house.
“These are some of the most beautiful hotels in the world, surpassing many in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East.”
Turkel, author of more than 275 articles about old hotels, said his research showed that most pioneering owners, managers, and architects never attended hotel management schools — mainly because they didn’t exist at the time.
He cited the Plaza Hotel, featured in more than 30 Hollywood movies, as a prime example of what great old hotels should look like.
Born, raised, and educated in New York City, Turkel says he loves New York and lives here by choice. After graduating from NYU, he joined a commercial laundry business run by his immigrant father in the Yorkville section of Manhattan.
Working as a laundry consultant, he handled Tisch Hotels before the Tisch brothers founded the Loews chain. His client list also includes the old Traymore in Atlantic City’s pre-gambling days, the Jung Hotel in New Orleans, and the U.S. Grant in San Diego.
“I was lucky enough to have had exposure to some historic hotels,” recalls Turkel, who managed hotels that range in size from 680 rooms to 1,842 rooms. Every day was a new adventure.”
Although he has worked and stayed in dozens of historic places, Turkel says his favorite is the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia. He calls it “a stunning place,” and points out that its lobby was used in the 1939 filming of Gone with the Wind.
He also has special feelings for Mohonk Mountain House, a New Paltz, NY resort owned and operated by the Smiley family since 1869.
Had Stan Turkel not thought of it first, this column could bear the name he picked for his own: “Nobody Asked Me But…”
In this New Year, while millions of New Yorkers are obsessed with bringing in the new, Turkel believes that older is better. As a fellow historian, as well as a fellow traveler, I think he’s onto something.