No More Grand Hotel For Contessa

For the last seven years, my cousin Lisa has lived at the Hotel Beverly, that tall neo-Gothic building with the aquamarine sign at the corner of 50th Street and Lexington Avenue. If Lisa had been paying the day rate for her stay, her checkout bill would be well over a million dollars (not including room service, laundry, dry cleaning and sundry other things such as dog-walking for her Shar-pei, Winnie). But Lisa’s grandfather, who just sold the place, never charged her. A real-life Eloise at the Plaza, it is time for Lisa to move out, and, as she says, “start to lead a normal life.” If that’s possible.

No one who knows Lisa would describe her as “normal,” and the hotel has always been a part of her peculiarly New York identity. She is 30 and has never had a job; her days are filled with the magic that can arise from money, randomness and the city’s surplus of idle crazies. “I remember the first time I met her,” says Michael Lewittes, the E! television gossip correspondent, “she says, Come up to her hotel, and I thought, What the heck is this? She’s this strikingly beautiful woman wearing this kimono-type deal. There were some sumo wrestlers in her living room, which I thought was rather odd.”

Lisa can’t remember how they got there. I’ve never visited her suite at the Beverly when there weren’t some curious guests resting or even living there, Lisa padding around serving oolong tea from some urgent afternoon trip to Chinatown to locate a special kind of almond cookie (a typical day). Lisa’s friends come from the grocery store, the street. They find her. You can’t miss her. “This has been my year of colored kneesocks,” she tells me. For a while she would wear nothing but beige-“until a homeless man came up to me and said, ‘I know you-you’re the Lady in Beige!’ and that’s when I knew I had to change my look.” She went through a period where she wore turbans on her head, “in rebellion,” she admits, against her hair, which is kinky and explosive. Sometimes she straightens it or smoothes it back with some costly, good-smelling grease, all depending on what she’s wearing-which can include denim jumpsuits and feather boas, Russian military coats, sparkly tube tops, platform sneakers, even all at once. (On Lisa’s part, I can never tell if this is ironic. She is forever asking, “Do I look O.K.?”) Last summer, I took Lisa to my boss’ wedding in a conservative suburb of Baltimore, where she donned a billowing pink gown and a pair of Elton John-sized yellow and purple sunglasses.

After that appearance, a colleague of mine dubbed Lisa “The Contessa”-not, I think, because she was in any way thought to be pretentious (she took her shoes off and led a group of hyperactive children in dancing the hora; it was not a Jewish wedding), but because with her beauty, innocence and thorough impracticality, my cousin Lisa poses a Jamesian question: What will become of Lisa?

“If she lived in a rural setting, she would be a child of nature,” muses the novelist Ted Mooney, who met Lisa at a party. You always liked to think of her being able to fly back to her perch at the Beverly, like one of those falcons that finds refuge on top of the Met Life Building.

She moved into the hotel in 1990 after graduating from Parsons School of Design with a sculpture entitled Suspended Libido . “When I first came to the Beverly, I thought I was losing it,” says Lisa. “I was afraid I was going to wind up like Miss Helen.” Miss Helen was another residential guest who lived on Lisa’s floor. “She was old and had millions of dollars, and she would go shopping all day and come home and rip up her clothes. I would call her up and try to be friends, and she’d say, ‘Fuck you!’ and hang up the phone. She used to sign her name ‘a.k.a. Queen Elizabeth the Second.'”

That is when the Contessa grew lonely and started to bring the people who worked in the hotel into her world; or was she in theirs? Many times when I’ve visited Lisa, she’s been cooking lunch for a group of housekeepers and bellmen lounging around her kitchen table. “They used to ask me if they could put their undergarments with my laundry, they would tell me about their hemorrhoids. I’ve ordered sex kits for them,” she tells me. What is a sex kit? “I don’t know, I got some catalogue,” Lisa blushes.

“Everybody very worried about Lisa moving out of the hotel,” says Samya Karachi, Lisa’s “personal housekeeper” at the Beverly. Samya calls Lisa her “best friend.” Lisa often visits Samya’s home, where she encounters the Tallest Man in the World. (Samya’s husband is his personal manager.) The two of them say they are each other’s “psychiatrists.” “She a very loving girl, she got a beautiful heart, she need a lot of love,” Samya says.

Not all the hotel employees take such a nostalgic view of Lisa’s departure, however-particularly not the ones who have had to clean her terrace. “One guy gagged, he almost threw up,” Lisa admits. “Winnie”-the dog-“has this problem.” Winnie had chronic colitis, which has made Lisa’s porch a minefield and earned her the nickname “Stinko” among certain staff members. One spring, as the snow and ice began to melt outside, the Winnie situation became critical. “I got some muriatic acid,” Lisa says, “and poured it on everything, and it started sizzling. And then all of a sudden, all the pipes in the hotel started to explode.” Lisa adds, “They’re old pipes.”

The Beverly, designed by Emory Roth, was built in 1927 as a hotel for middle-class travelers. When Lisa’s great-grandfather, Abraham Dreier (a Russian Communist, then American steel magnate and inventor of the manhole cover), bought the hotel in 1967, it had a quiet, somehow European elegance; now it feels more like an elegant fleabag. But this has always been the perfect backdrop for Lisa’s endless stream of parties. There was the one where the fare was sushi and cupcakes; a Japanese accordionist gave a monotone performance. At another, a man Lisa met on a subway platform played the washboard. There was the party with the “talent show.” Lisa did a tango with a professional astrologer; Samya belly-danced.

There was the party where many people claim to have seen the Columbia University Cyberstalker lurking in Lisa’s kitchen. “How did he know me?” Lisa asks, aghast. At that party, one of her goldfish disappeared. “I bet he took it,” says Lisa.

As much as the Beverly has kept her a child-“living in your family’s hotel is sort of like living at home,” she says, “or being put in a group home”-it may have actually given her a profession for her delayed adulthood. She has been working on a documentary film about her life there, which had no ending until recently, when she heard she had to move. “Everyone used to say, ‘What’s it like living in a hotel?’ and it was impossible to explain, so I just started walking around with a video camera.” She will have one of the bellmen hold the camera as she climbs into a cab with Winnie and drives away (some 30 blocks away, to her new apartment in the Flatiron district; yes, Winnie has a new terrace, with a drain).

“I’m going to miss having a 50-person staff,” Lisa says. “Like I can just call down and say I need batteries, and they bring them up to me. Or I would move pictures around in my apartment all day and have someone sit there and tell me if they looked right. I’ll miss all that because in the outside world, no one cares-you have to pay people for everything.”

She still intends to have her parties. “The next party is going to be the Night of Mental Illness,” Lisa says, her enormous eyes blazing bright. “All the waiters will have a different disorder-and you have to decide what it is.”

No More Grand Hotel For Contessa