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What I Learned from the Waldorf

A Waldorf Story by David Freeland
I had known and loved the Waldorf since my early years in New York, but I never fully understood its true significance, within the life of the city and country, until beginning research on my book, American Hotel: The Waldorf-Astoria and the Making of a Century, published in 2021. Beyond gaining renewed appreciation for its design and architecture, I was amazed to discover how the Waldorf, as an institution, played a role in the development of virtually every social movement - from women’s rights to the struggle for racial equality - that defined 20th century American life. Through the act of hosting, creating a space for diverse groups of people, the Waldorf provided a forum in which key social issues could be analyzed, debated, and - given the hotel’s prominence as a center of media attention - presented to the larger public, through newspaper, radio, and television coverage. At times, such as during the Conference of Foreign Ministers, a meeting of the four major Allied powers (Great Britain, France, the USSR, and the US) held inside the Waldorf in December of 1946, the hotel moved beyond the national to occupy a place of influence on the world stage. What I came to learn, though, is that this was not the product of mere ambition on the Waldorf’s part; rather, it exemplified the fulfillment of what hotelkeepers viewed in the 20th century as an industry creed (first published in the 1920s by an anonymous writer): “I am manager of a hotel - a community center where men, women, and children from every station in society congregate…” To me, the Waldorf was, in Conrad Hilton’s words, “the greatest of them all,” because, more than any other American hotel, it lived up to this sense of mission - by showing hospitality, by opening doors.