By Mitch Broder
I walked into the Iroquois Hotel, selected a book called “New York Confidential,” opened it up, and saw a picture of Mayor Ed Koch milking a cow.
You just can’t do that at the Algonquin.
Assuming that you’d want to.
One good reason that you can’t is that the Algonquin is boarded up. It’s enduring a renovation that could drag on till the summer. But you couldn’t even do it when the Algonquin was open, because, unlike the Iroquois, the Algonquin never had the New York Library.
The two hotels do have things in common. They’re both over a century old. They’re both named after Indian peoples. They’re both on the same block of West 44th Street. But after that, everything changes. The Algonquin got famous. It had its Round Table. It’s had its Cat. It has an entry on Wikipedia.
The Iroquois has accepted this gracefully. And now it is accepting gracefully that for possibly half of this year its bigger competitor is on the DL. It has a chance to show Algonquin patrons what it’s got that their place hasn’t, which may not be an awful lot but does include Koch and his cow.
The New York Library is a room off the Iroquois lobby whose name leads some people to think that it’s a branch of The New York Public Library. It is not. But it is an eclectic collection of books about New York City, which may be freely enjoyed by hotel guests and by suitably discreet visitors.
The titles include “Subwayland” and “Old Penn Station,” “Broadway Musicals” and “Times Square Spectacular,” “Wall Street” and “212 Views of Central Park.” There’s “Lost New York,” “Antiquing New York,” “Tales of Gaslight New York,” “The Battle for New York,” “The Best Bars of New York,” and, nostalgically, “Great Blizzards of New York City.”
The books are accompanied by likewise quaint offerings such as newspapers and magazines, along with warm apple cider in the cool months and cool citrus water in the warm ones. All this can be savored on the leather sofa or the matching leather chairs, in the sunlight from the street windows or in the glow of the chandelier.
The faux-vintage room replaced an actual-vintage barbershop about twelve years ago, in the course of the hotel’s own renovation. It seeks a balance in time, since it’s also equipped with two computers, a printer, and a touch screen for airline arrivals and departures that made me jumpy just to look at.
Ironically, all its books don’t do much to help the Iroquois compete with the Algonquin’s literary past. Nor does its own claim to fame, which is that James Dean slept there. For years. Guests ask to stay in his room. But it’s not the same as a legendary lobby.
Of course, there’s the other Iroquois story. That’s the one about Paul Geidel, the teenage bellhop who murdered a wealthy guest for a nonexistent windfall. He was locked up in 1911 — and stayed locked up for sixty-nine years. For his stretch, he made it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Dean and Geidel together, though, can’t equal Dorothy Parker and Matilda the Cat. So the Iroquois, library and all, is content to keep its place. In fact, the manager, Robert Holmes, told me that he sympathizes with the hobbled Algonquin. He added only: “It certainly doesn’t hurt us that they’re closed.”
Get between the covers at The Iroquois New York, 49 West 44th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues, New York City.