The happiest I ever was when I was a child was at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Now, I don’t think a hotel is supposed to be the happiest place in anyone’s childhood. Unless you are the heroine in a Kay Thompson story, in which case I wandered into the wrong hotel. I think I should be able to fudge my happiest childhood memory a bit, and say that I was happiest at F.A.O. Schwartz or in Central Park—though I don’t recall spending much time at either of those places.
But I can go back to the first time I walked into the Waldorf. I was 4, accompanying my parents, who were in New York for the Canadian Society Ball. (We lived in Chicago.) As soon as we walked into the lobby my nanny said, “Well, this is heaven.” Because I was 4, I took her literally. I was sitting on a chair by the H. Stern jewelry shop, and there was a necklace in the window that was a rainbow of gemstones. In the lobby was a flower arrangement I still remember as the largest and most perfect I have ever seen. Someone mentioned that there was never a night when there was not a party in the ballroom.
Rainbow jewels. A bouquet the size of a small planet. Eternal parties. Heaven. Sold. It was a really easy mistake to make.
I don’t think I figured out that we were not actually dead until the next morning. That night I was allowed to jump up and down on all the beds in the suite (not permitted at home, on the grounds that it was unladylike) and eat ice cream for dinner (also not allowed, on the grounds that this would simply be too much fun, presumably).
The next day I stood by the flower arrangement, searching for analogies to convey its wonder to my nanny. “Like The Jungle Book!” “Like the secret garden!” “Like . . . good flowers.” She paid no attention until I wondered aloud whether the flowers would ever change, on account of us being in heaven. If they weren’t going to, that was fine. I could be fine with that.
My reverie inspired her to explain life and heaven and the Waldorf.
I was not at all keen on having to be a person again. Back to that playground Realpolitik, all those snacks of applesauce, half-understood disciplinary visits to the preschool principal’s office . . . it’s enough to make anyone sit in the middle of a room and scream. Adults are so apt to think of children as harmless bit players in life’s dramas that they forget that to other children they are center stage, and extremely dangerous. Childhood is really the part of your life when you most need room-service-delivered ice cream for dinner, and also, frankly, a Scotch, although you don’t realize that until later.
But then I thought about how the smell of those Waldorf flowers mingled with the perfume my nanny always wore, and how nice that seemed. And soon I was whisked off to some nearby plaza—it might have been Central Park, but probably not—to run around with pigeons. I was fine again.
We went to the Waldorf once a year for the next few years. “This is heaven,” I would tell my nanny, jokingly. Approximately 700 times, I think.
After that my nanny went away. Because we live on earth, not in heaven, those things happen. Nannies go away, flower arrangements change.
She left behind a box of her clothing, stored in our basement. It smelled like her perfume. And then the smell faded away. Those things happen.
It’s silly, but I still think of that scent whenever I visit the Waldorf. I half expect the flower arrangements to smell just that way.
Not that I stay at the Waldorf. When I’m walking through the neighborhood I use its bathroom as most people use Starbucks. But H. Stern is gone now. The flower arrangements are not what they were. It’s no longer the early 90’s. Here on earth, life is ephemeral.
(Overall, it’s still a pretty O.K. lobby.)
There isn’t much about being a child I would repeat. (Applesauce! Playground fights! Abject confusion! No Scotch!) But 20 years later, I don’t expect anything will ever make me as happy as room service ice cream at the Waldorf did then. And who knows? Perhaps, when you finally check out of that hotel called life, you wake up the next morning a child at the Waldorf. Then you jump on all the beds and feel once again certain that good things can last forever.