The celebrated novelist considers her relationship with one of New York’s most luxurious landmarks
How often is the writer the last to know the true meaning of his or her own story? More often than we ever admit. Writing a novel is a journey, one that leads through the subconscious and the tricky map of memory. What a writer finds in the corners of his or her own novel can be a true surprise. For every novel, there is a moment when the story itself is born. This moment of reality will transform into a fictional world — one that is sometimes unrecognizable to the writer herself.
My new novel, The Story Sisters, begins at the Plaza Hotel in New York, when three sisters attend their grandparents’ anniversary party. A series of irreversible events follow when the girls escape from the party and disappear into Central Park. Their lives, relationships and futures will all be altered by a single afternoon’s experience.
Certainly, the Plaza is a place of enchantment, the castle that represents all that is magical about New York. In 1955, Eloise moved in with her pug dog, and a world of girls were jealous of her fabulous life in the most beautiful hotel in Manhattan. Who doesn’t want to fall into a bed at the Plaza, look out over Central Park, order room service? It is the perfect place to be a New York Girl, whatever your age. It made perfect sense for me to begin my novel there. But it wasn’t until The Story Sisters was completed that I remembered that I, too, had experienced extraordinary moments at the Plaza.
When I was 12, the Beatles first visited the United States. Of course, they stayed at the Plaza. The only person I knew who was wild enough to skip out on real life and hightail it over to a place like this with me was my mother. Irresponsible, bohemian, beautiful, she was drawn to terrible men, and was so undomesticated she used the stove as a filing cabinet and the refrigerator as a compartment in which to store her jewelry. She fought for the underdog, fell in love stupidly, hated authority and was not exactly a picture-perfect mother.
She was, however, the perfect friend.
We lived just over the city line, so we took the subway from Queens, then a cab to the Plaza. We stood outside with hundreds of Beatles fans, screaming each time a curtain moved. Surely, hotel employees were the ones gleefully shaking the curtains, eliciting our screams, but it really didn’t matter. We were there at that extraordinary instant in time.
Several years later I had another enchanted visit to the Plaza. My grandparents gave an anniversary party there when I was 16. I wore a green sari – it was the ’60s, and I wasn’t the sort to wear an evening gown. Even then the Plaza’s luxury was fading: the paint chipped, the furniture musty and old-fashioned. But for me, a girl from Long Island who shopped at John’s Bargain Stores, it was a revelation. I was the Cinderella in my own life, a girl from the wrong side of the Southern State Parkway, for the most part abandoned by my well-to-do father, but invited to join in the party by my grandparents. I had suddenly entered the Castle. It was the first time I had stayed at a hotel by myself and I had hit the jackpot. Looking out at Central Park, I felt I had stumbled into a fairy-tale world, much as my characters do all these years later.
The Story Sisters may have begun on the day when I was 12, or the night when I was 16, or maybe the core of it began when I went back for tea. It was in the week before the Plaza was revamped, before it was reborn as the luxurious creature it is today. The service was bad, the tea unspectacular — and yet I had the same sense of wonder I’d had all those years earlier. The magic was still there, just as it was on the day I stood outside with my mother and waited for something extraordinary to happen. It was there just as surely as if I were still 16, ready for enchantment.
I went again last week, just to make sure the hotel hadn’t been irrevocably altered by its new facelift. I needn’t have worried. It’s still the Plaza. For me — and for thousands of other New York City girls — it’s still the hotel of our dreams.
Editor’s Note: Alice Hoffman is the best-selling author of 26 acclaimed novels, two books of short stories and eight books for children and young adults.