This past week in New York, Matthew Miele and the crew of his latest film “Always at the Carlyle” enjoyed a slightly surreal moment when they retired from the Paris Theater where the documentary had its premiere back to the famed hotel where they had spent the last four years making it.
“It’s just an amazing thing because you think about the parties that went on here, and so many film premieres have parties here, but to be part of one and have the film be about the hotel just made it even more special,” enthused Miele, who certainly had to be tickled by the notion that he was continuing a tradition after preserving it for posterity, having become one of the foremost chroniclers of New York’s high society in recent years with the triptych of films, “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” “Crazy About Tiffany’s” and now “Always at the Carlyle.”
Although The Carlyle’s commitment to privacy has been part of its mystique, Miele has found the right degree of reverence mixed with the inquisitiveness of someone who’s tired of pressing their nose against the glass in his profile, which is perhaps why such typically reticent interviewees such as Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford look positively giddy in recalling their experiences at the boutique hotel at the corner of Madison Ave. and 76th St on the Upper West Side, though the latter still is slightly chargined with paying $1100 a night for a room with a peeling radiator. Then again, it’s the way that the Carlyle hearkens back to another era that’s a considerable part of its appeal, attracting guests such as George Clooney and Jack Nicholson to spend months there at a time — or decades in the case of the late Elaine Stritch, who called it home, with the staff dutifully monogramming their initials onto their pillows specifically for their stay and an elevator operator always around to tip their cap and direct them to their room.
Miele’s lively history traces The Carlyle from its roots as an American answer to the great hideaways of Europe where elegance and discretion were considered accouterments as important as clean towels and fresh bedsheets to how the hotel has maintained those qualities, which have taken on a different value in the contemporary age. Knowing what they’ll discuss is rare and at risk of disappearing entirely if it’s history isn’t recorded in some fashion, celebrities and staff share memories of wild nights in the cafe where Woody Allen regularly holds court with his jazz band, and even gives glimpses of them — catching Bill Murray, David Johansson and Paul Shaffer all onstage for a raucous performance — and the cultural creations that have been birthed there, whether it’s the only place to publicly see the original artwork of “Madeline” creator Ludwig Bemelman or Paul Newman tinkering with the recipe that would become Newman’s Own salad dressing in the restaurant.
As the film opens up the Carlyle to audiences everywhere this week, Miele spoke about how he was able to gain access to a place so secretive they were able to keep a royal visit from Kate and William under wraps, as well as his ongoing interest in preserving New York history.
How did this come about?
I’m originally from New Jersey and I would come in [to New York] every now and again as a kid and you’re awestruck by the buildings in Old World New York that you kind of get just a touch of when you’re walking up and down the sidewalks. But I always had that curiosity about what happens here and what’s behind the facade of this townhouse or hotel? You’ll walk into a room at the Carlyle, and you’re like, “Oooh, what happened here?” And I always am searching for those places that are hanging on and preserving the history of New York, so that we can immerse ourselves in it and and continue it to show what makes New York special.
As you establish in the opening minutes in this film, no one can talk about what happens at the Carlyle, so how do you get around that?
In those first few minutes, I wanted to show people what I was up against by just having people say, “I can’t talk about that…” but then slowly but surely — and this happened over the course of four years as I was making it — people started opening up to me. I got a little more familiar and the hotel started to feel a little better about my telling of it. Obviously, I got people to start saying some things that are in the film, and obviously, we tell the story of JFK and a few other notables — Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson and going further back, Bobby Short, who got established there, but I think I walked the line pretty well by not destroying the discretion.
Given how much activity goes on there, were you actually able to set up interviews from casual conversations just hanging out?
Being at the hotel a lot over the past four years, it’s very hard to approach anyone because you will see someone daily who is a notable or a person of influence in whatever sphere you’re talking — politics, sports, Hollywood — so you have such temptation in front of you to want to go over and put the camera on them. You’d see Woody Allen playing all the time in the cafe and you’d want to go over to him. A couple times, it happened. When Bill Murray was walking through the lobby, we were able to quickly put him on camera, and there were a couple others, but it wasn’t anything we wanted to try and do because we liked the more formal interviews and ultimately, I was very pleased with what we ended up with.
If you spent four years making this, is there some crossover between your other films – “Bergdorf’s” and “Tiffany,” if you’re embedded in New York high society?
Absolutely. We would do one interview for something and people would say, “What else are you working on?” And I’d say the Carlyle and immediately they’d start talking to me [about it], so there was a lot of an ability to cross over a little bit. It was so great the turnout we got for the cast [of “Carlyle”]. They didn’t come for me. They came for the hotel. The loyalty is there and the Old New York thing has such appeal across the board, and everyone we interviewed had that common denominator of wishing it was still like that [elsewhere]. Some things are better now that the Carlyle is not full of cigarette smoke, but these days, it still has the same appeal and glamour.
It was interesting to hear George Clooney and Vera Wang become this amateur historians of the place – did you know before you did interviews just how much they might be able to talk about the hotel?
No, I didn’t. Those were two really valuable interviews to get. We wanted to interview Vera because she had a residence store there, a little boutique on the corner, but I didn’t know she goes back with the Sharp family — Peter Sharp was really the one who established the hotel and the tradition it has. And George stays there all the time. Now, he’s not only one of the Carlyle’s favorite guests, but he’s also very knowledgeable of it. I had seen him on a number of occasions and I finally circled around, hoping to talk to him and when he finally said “yes,” I didn’t know he had such a knowledge of Bobby Short and some of the Carlyle of the past. He used to drive around Rosemary Clooney, who sang in the cafe, and that’s why he got a really good sense of the place, being a little more anonymous when he was younger.
And of course, some of the most revealing moments in the film come with the staff and it seemed like you went on the daily rounds with them, like with Guerline, the housekeeper. Did you do that with all the various departments?
I was able to do that with the head of housekeeping who was doing the room and we did film some people at the concierge desk and at the front desk. Ultimately, I knew the staff were the heart of the hotel and why everyone keeps coming back, so I wanted to make sure they got a nice spotlight. All those things add up to such a rich story [because] the celebrities that I interviewed brought you in, but the cast [of regulars] is what sticks with you after you watch the film.
You also have these nice animated interludes. How did those come about?
There’s a calendar that The Carlyle puts out every year and it has these really wonderful illustrations — so each month has a different illustration so that’s how I got the idea. I was really thankful that those illustrators [Chesley McLaren and Kera Till] were at the ready to be part of it because I think they’re so cute and very traditional. It matched up well with Bemelman’s Bar and the illustrations in there, and I was really happy that I got a chance to include them.
Over the course of making these films about Old World New York, as you call it, has it become more important to you over the years to preserve this history?
I am just trying to satiate some of my own curiosity, but it’s very hard for me not to be in mixed company anywhere I am in New York where I say to somebody, “Aren’t you curious about that? or “Do you know who used to sit here?” I’m always trying to learn the behind the scenes of what made these things iconic and after “Bergdorf’s” and “Tiffany” and now “Carlyle,” I’m also doing individuals like Harry Benson, the photographer and the icons he captured, and the filmmaker Alan Pakula, who was such a classic New Yorker and who was iconic in his own right with who he worked with, so I feel like I’m just trying to put a spotlight on things that I feel like should be preserved somehow. When you capture these things on film and you have the interviews, it’s a time capsule. An article is one thing, but to have a visual and get these things on the big screen, it means a great deal.
It’s surely not something you’d have time to include in the film, but you have an interview with a former waiter at the Carlyle who talks about Paul Newman practically inventing the recipe for Newman’s Own salad dressing in front of him. Now he goes by Monsignor Jones – how did he become a man of the cloth?
Actually, he came to the premiere last night. [laughs] He just said, “I was a waiter for a few years and I decided to join the seminary.” But he was waiting on Paul Newman way back when, and it was always interesting to me who you could find. He was actually a dinner guest at another iconic restaurant, Rao’s, and he mentioned [the Newman story to someone] in passing and that person told someone at the Carlyle and then someone told me he has a Paul Newman story, so the happenstance as to how that happened was fun. Then when he comes in [to the Carlyle to do the interview] and he’s got this Brooklyn accent, he’s sitting down and he has the collar on, and you call him “Monsignor,” so you’re like, “You were a waiter here?” And he says, “I absolutely was when I was young and in my early twenties.” Then he lays the story on me and I couldn’t believe it because again, it’s one of those things you won’t be able to know unless you hear it through the grapevine and you marvel at because it sounds too good to be true, but it actually happened. And who better to believe than a priest?