Illustration by Hilary Knight, courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Remember the story of Herbert J. Sukenik, the famous Central Park West “hermit holdout?” Developers paid the rent-controlled curmudgeon $17 million and gave him a free massive pad overlooking the park in a legendary buyout. His female counterpart might be one Fannie Lowenstein, whom none other than Donald Trump is said to have ended up bestowing a sprawling suite in the venerable Plaza Hotel at 1 Central Park South, complete with a Steinway grand piano and maid service. For zero dollars a month. For life. Here’s how the story of the woman the hotel staff referred to as “the Eloise from Hell” became yet another Manhattan rent regulation legend, as told by Vice.
While the original “Eloise,” Kay Thompson’s pint-sized pain-in-the-neck of a curious little girl, may have caused her share of disruption, Mrs. Fannie Lowenstein, ensconced in the storied hotel for 35 years and paying about $500 a month for a three-room suite, had a reputation of her own. She and her Wall Street bigwig husband moved in just after WWII, managing to snag a rent controlled studio, though they could afford market-rate rents. Her husband died shortly thereafter, leaving the widow Lowenstein with a Plaza suite overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park that might cost the average guest over $1,000 a night.
Hotel employees remember Mrs. Lowenstein in Suite 1001-1003 as “a scourge who exploited every wrinkle in rent-control law with the subtlety and skill of a top-tier real estate attorney,” and, at best, an eccentric character. As general counsel for the Plaza from 1977 to 2004, attorney Gary Lyman remembers, “She complained about everything…Everyone was terrified of her–this little woman, who was then about eighty, of small stature…We referred to her as the Eloise from hell.”
She certainly made herself at home in the shabby old-world elegance of the late-20th century grande dame of a hotel, frequently joining a tattered collection of neighborhood eccentrics at the Palm Court, wearing, “the same old purple dress.” Lyman remembers that she didn’t seem to have much else in the way of clothing, other than “a long coat and a small pocketbook, even in the summer.” With an accent that was “sort of British,” though Mrs. Lowenstein was not British, “she walked around as if she owned the Plaza.”
In 1987, infamous landlord Donald Trump moved to buy the Plaza, when he was told, “The biggest issue… is Fannie Lowenstein,” according to the New York Times. He reportedly offered her an apartment in the hotel that was nearly ten times the size as her small suite, with a view of Central Park and new furniture, new dishes, and, at her insistence, a Steinway grand piano. By Mr. Lyman’s account, the two had a one-on-one meeting shortly after Trump completed the purchase of the building, and she agreed to the deal.
Soon thereafter, failing health forced Mrs. Lowenstein from the hotel (she was convinced her room harbored toxic paint) into the Park Lane, where she died in 1992 at the age of 85. Under Trump’s ownership the hotel foundered, declared bankruptcy the same year, and was sold in 1995. Though Fannie Lowenstein and the old New York in which she lived are both long gone, the legends of these rare, lucky and often cantankerous holdouts remain.
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