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Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Healthy Eating, Healthy World, a book review


A Healthy Read:  A Review of Healthy Eating, Healthy World

by J. Morris Hicks and J. Stanfield Hicks


For those in search of a clear, concise introductory overview of the many arguments in support of a plant-based diet, including both human and environmental health, Healthy Eating, Healthy World is a great place to start.  Drawing upon a host of major authors in the canon of books and research papers on plant-based nutrition (including T. Colin Cambell, Caldwell Esselstyn, John McDougall, Dean Ornish, Joel Fuhrman, and Neal Barnard), Hicks and Hicks make a strong case for the myriad benefits of this kind of diet.  While much of the text is drawn from other sources (including a number of extended passages quoted from the authors listed above), Healthy Eating, Healthy Worldmakes a superb sourcebook of the most pertinent research findings and key lines of reasoning in favor of shifting from the standard American diet to one rooted in whole plant foods.

The first section of Healthy Eating, Healthy Worldbegins by painting a portrait of the current global health crisis, including the epidemic of obesity and the increasing incidence of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and related diseases of affluence.  Hicks and Hicks introduce the major figures involved in recent research on the relationship between human diet and health.  The authors point out how the results of all these researchers’ efforts all indicate the pitfalls of the standard diet (replete with sugars, fats, animal products, and highly processed foods) and the benefits of changing to a whole-food, plant-rich diet instead.  “The same simple diet,” the authors observe, “is good for preventing all diseases and also for promoting vibrant health.”  Rather than focusing on what not to eat, Hicks and Hicks emphasize what we should eat, based upon “the cold hard scientific facts.”  Their overview includes an examination of popular misconceptions about this kind of diet, such as concerns over getting adequate protein (there is plenty in the plants we eat), having access to vitamin B-12 (a supplement may be wise), getting omega-3 fatty acids (try flax seeds, not fish oil), calcium (plants have lots), and vitamin D (get outdoors at least a few minutes a week).

The second section of the book shifts from the scale of the individual to the current global situation, explaining in detail how “what you eat affects far more than just your health.”   Hicks and Hicks reveal the environmental destruction wrought by factory farming, including soil erosion and degradation, water scarcity and pollution, greenhouse gas contributions to global warming, and habitat and biodiversity loss from conversion of wild land to farmland.  Animal-based agriculture also carries a huge energy demand.  “On average, about twenty times more energy is required to produce meat calories than to produce whole-plant calories.”  A plant-based diet also solves the problem of world hunger, by meeting the caloric and nutritional needs of every human being while requiring under half the area of arable land currently available.  Furthermore, conventional factory farming is highly barbaric toward animals by keeping them under miserable conditions for their short and brutally-terminated lives.  “The prospect of ending the worldwide suffering of animals raised for our dinner tables,” the authors note, “is an excellent reason to begin an aggressive shift to a plant-based diet.”

The third and final section of Healthy Eating, Healthy World, entitled “Taking Action: What Can We Do?”, provides readers with a basic blueprint for making the lifestyle change to whole plant foods.  Along the way, Hicks and Hicks point out how our current economic and health-care systems work together to prevent the promulgation of the findings presented in this book.  Switching to a plant-based diet improves human health, meaning fewer illnesses, less need for physicians, less need for drugs, and less money for the medical establishment.  It also means less money for the meat and dairy industries.  Interestingly enough, three quarters of the government funding for agriculture (subsidies) go to meat and dairy corporations, and less than half of one percent to fruit and vegetable growers.  Hicks and Hicks then provide readers with tips for making a dietary transition, including recommendations for meal planning and additional resources with recipes and menu suggestions.  In this last part of the book, the authors also share their original concept of the “4-Leaf Health Promotion Program”, a five-step (zero to four leaves) rating scale for evaluating one’s diet.  The scale is based upon two easily calculated parameters:  percentage of calories from whole plants, and percentage of calories from fat.  The ideal (4-Leaf) diet, according to this rating system, provides 80% or more of its carliers from whole foods, and 20% or fewer of its calories from fats.

Toward the end of their book, Hicks and Hicks offer this inspiring quote from The Food Revolution by John Robbins:  “To me it is deeply moving that the same food choices that give us the best chance to eliminate world hunger are also those that take the least toll on the environment, contribute most to our long-term health, are the safest, and are also far and away the most compassionate toward our fellow creatures.”  This passage effectively captures the central accomplishment of Healthy Eating, Healthy World: to bring all of these arguments for a plant-based diet together in one volume, in flowing, well-expressed prose.  I hope that this book makes it into the hands of many people open to exploring the relationships between diet, human health, and our environment, because it offers an excellent starting place for those ready to embark on a journey toward healthier eating and a healthier world.

Krishna Das, a Dream that continues for over 50 years….

Michael and Krishna Das sit in the Shantideva Temple, Ithaca, NY, Sunday morning 14 October 2012.

a Zebra unveiled…

The entrance to our newely completed “Zebra Room” in the Log House.

Cornell’s “First-Year Parents’ Weekend”, On a Fine Sunday Morning…

What a wonderful group of people this weekend! It was Cornell’s “First-Year Parents’ Weekend” and everyone was visiting their Cornell Freshman; the weather was perfect.

The famous sign at Jennings Pond, just down the road…

This afternoon after everyone left I took a walk over to Jennings Pond. It was a near perfect weekend…

I Like This Picture…


The China Study, a meeting to bring the information to Lithuania

Sitting in with Rebecca Michaelides (Instructor Team Coordinator, T. Colin Campbell Foundation) while Petras Vainius discusses how the Klaipeda University Medical School would welcome Professor Campbell to speak at next years Ann Wigmore Memorial Education Conference.

Krishna Das and Crew Arrive in Ithaca…

Preparing for a dozen hungry vegans… We have an exciting weekend coming up, Krishna Das ( is scheduled to arrive with his
ensamble, Tulku Sherab Dorje ( and his assistant Jason and finally Petras Vainius and his wife Loreta of the Ann Wigmore Conference ( Lots of good people busy helping other bodies, minds and souls to heal themselves… Amen

Krishna Das performing at the Hanger Theater Friday night.

Krishna Das & Crew having lunch prior to Saturday’s workshop and Kirtan.

Krishna Das with Amit Singh Saturday evening after Kirtan.

Yes, a Pancake Prayer Breakfast with a Buddhist Rinpoche.
Tulku Sherab Dorje in the Shantideva Temple where he led the recitation of the “Heart Sutra”. He has been a student of many of the 20th centuries Buddhist Masters including His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Khetsun Zangpo Rinpoche, Dung Say Trinley Norbu Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche.

and finally on Sunday morning Krishna Das sits in the Shantideva Temple (

and on Sunday evening Petras and Loreta Vainius arrived. Recently returning from the Ann Wigmore Memorial Education Fund Conference held in Lithuania.

Food Adiction: Part Two

Breaking Food Addictions

         In my last post, I explained how we are instinctively drawn to certain foods, foods that our hunter-gatherer forbearers needed to survive.  Animal products, oils, and refined foods are all calorie-dense.  These sources of pleasure and comfort have become sources of addiction as well.  Just a taste of one of these foods causes the neurons in the pleasure centers of the brain to fire, releasing dopamine, a drug that makes us feel good.  So instead of being rewarded for making healthy food choices, our brain is rewarding us for unhealthy ones.  How do we break this behavior pattern?  The basic answer is simple:  we need to stop eating the unhealthy foods we crave.  In particular, we need to stop choosing calorie dense foods and start choosing foods that are nutrient-dense, such as whole vegetables and fruits, beans and grains, and nuts and seeds.

As Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhamer explain on page 168 of The Pleasure Trap, “Eradicating self-destructive dietary and lifestyle habits is a task equivalent to breaking free from drug addictions.”  Eliminating these unhealthy food cravings is usually easier, in the long haul, by quitting them altogether.  The good news is that the desire for them will vanish as we retrain our taste buds to be satisfied with salads instead of steaks.  As Mike Anderson observes on page 76 of The RAVE Diet & Lifestyle, “Stay away from these foods for at least three weeks, and the cravings should be under control, if they’re not gone altogether.´

What, exactly, should we choose instead?  There are a number of excellent, reliable diet books to guide you back to healthy eating:  Eat to Live by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.; The Spectrum, by Dean Ornish, M.D.; The Starch Solution, by John McDougall, M.D.; The Engine 2 Diet, by Rip Esselstyn; and The RAVE Diet & Lifestyle, by Mike Anderson.  All of these authors recommend diets that are variants of a basic theme:  eat a plant-based, whole-foods diet instead of one rich in fats, oils, and processed foods.    Beyond that, these authors provide a number of helpful suggestions for making the dietary transition easier.

It can be very helpful to think of the change as involving both diet and lifestyle.  Exercise, in particular, should be an important element of daily life.  Aerobic exercise (such as walking) helps stabilize the body’s blood sugar level, improves the immune function, gets more oxygen into the bloodstream, strengthens bones, helps us handle stress, and increases the quantity and quality of our sleep.  Half an hour or more a day of moderately vigorous exercise can work wonders.  The better we feel, the more likely we will stay the course with our new food choices.  In a similar manner, getting more sleep each night can be highly beneficial.  When we get the rest we need, we awake refreshed, and go through the day with natural energy, rather than looking to food and drink (like caffeinated soft drinks and chocolate) to get us through.  Indeed, researchers have found that feeling fatigued actually heightens our cravings for calorie-dense foods.

If you wish to avoid unhealthy foods, it is an excellent idea not to keep any of them in your home.  Remove all those calorie-rich junk foods from your pantry shelves, and you will be less tempted to try to snack on them.  “The key is not to demand perfection,” as Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhamer explain in The Pleasure Trap, “but simply to put resistance in the path of transgression.”  I have personally caught myself seeking out unhealthy foods in the kitchen and, not finding any, making better food choices as a result.

There are many other helpful tips for breaking food addictions more easily.  Preparing a filling, healthy breakfast that is high in fiber (like half a cantaloupe or a large bowl of old-fashioned oatmeal) can start you off on a day of wise eating, and help you stave off hunger pangs throughout the morning.  Devising a weekly menu based on healthy recipes from books like The Health Promoting Cookbookby Alan Goldhamer or The Engine 2 Dietby Rip Esselstyn will insure that you stay the course from day to day.  The menu should include a wide variety of colorful foods make the meals more inviting.  Choose recipes featuring new combinations of herbs, spices, and sauces to further enliven your food.  It is also beneficial to assemble a “car pack” of healthy foods to snack on during road trips, to avoid the temptations of unhealthy fast food or convenience store food options.

Like any addiction, the desire for unhealthy foods is not an easy one to break.  The good news is that you will find in only three weeks that your cravings for sugars and fats have largely vanished, replaced by an appreciation for nutrient dense whole foods that make you feel healthier, more vibrant, more alive.  As Lisle and Goldhamer reassure us on page 170 of The Pleasure Trap, the effort to leave these addictions behind is definitely worth it:

Breaking free can result in rediscovering long-forgotten, and marvelous, feeling states.      Rested, healthy, and fit, free from chronic pain, fatigue, health concerns, excess weight        and its associated psychological baggage, you will discover spontaneous feelings of      optimism and vigor.  Your tolerance for life’s stresses will be substantially increased, and    you will be better equipped to face any challenge.  Living truly well means that you are       investing daily in your life’s foundation.  There is probably no better investment that you could make.

Food Addiction: Part One

When It Comes to Food, Don’t Trust Your Instincts!


            When it comes to making sensible choices about what foods to eat and which ones to avoid, do we really need to seek the advice of scientists and science researchers such as Joel Fuhrman, T. Colin Campbell, and Mike Anderson?  Can’t we just trust our instincts, our innate drive to guide us toward healthy, nutritious foods?  Unfortunately, in today’s Western culture, where we are practically drowning in rich, processed foods, the answer is no.  Our instincts are part of the reason we are making poor food choices in the first place.

To explain why, we have to go back in time a few thousand years.  For most of human prehistory, human beings were hunters and gatherers, using their wits (and early tools) to secure enough food to survive and raise the next generation.  In a world where humans were just getting by, it made evolutionary sense that we would become drawn to calorie-dense foods, because they were the ones that were the most life-sustaining ones available, the foods that would help prevent starvation.

Indeed, our bodies evolved to be sensitive to certain experiences or substances, because they were critical for reproduction and survival. That is why sex and good food both produce pleasurable sensations.  They both prompt the brain to release dopamine, a pleasure-inducing chemical.  Recreational drugs induce a similar effect.

Nowadays, calorie-dense foods are everywhere, in the form of animal products, oils, and highly-processed foodstuffs.  But we retain, from our hunter-gatherer ancestry, an innate craving for those very things.  And what is more, we have grown addicted to them.  While carbohydrates and proteins have an average of just four calories a gram, oils and fats contain more than twice that many – nine calories per gram.    Therefore, it is not surprising that most people prefer meat, at 1,200 calories per pound, to salad, at 100 calories per pound.  We make the salad more palatable by adding oil-laden, calorie-rich dressing to it.  We each have a collection of “comfort foods”; typically, these are foods that are highly processed, high in sugar, fat, and salt.

How do these food addictions work?  Just as a smoker comes to tolerate cigarette smoke on her body and clothes and in her home, and a drug user comes to need more and more of the drug to achieve the same high, so our brains have developed a tolerance for our calorie-dense diets.  The same foods that once triggered a dramatic pleasure response  by causing neurons to fire rapidly within the brain come to have much less of an impact.  So we continue to hunger for them, needing more to achieve the same effect.

As if that were not enough, many of the foods we prefer also contain opiates themselves.  Researchers have found that sugar triggers the release of natural opiates in the brain (and tends to stimulate the appetite, so that a small taste of something sweet often makes you crave it more).  Dairy products have been found to contain traces of morphine, codeine, and other opiates produced in the cow’s liver.  It also contains high amount of a protein called casein.  This protein breaks up in the digestive tract, releasing casomorphins, a class of opiates.  Scientists have theorized that cows have evolved to produce opiates in their milk because these drugs help calm the calf, and thereby contribute to the development of the mother-infant bond.  Unfortunately, researchers have also found that at least some of these casein fragments actually reach the human brain about forty minutes after dairy products have been consumed.  Finally, meats have also been found to have a similar, though less pronounced, opiate effect on humans.

What can we do about this addiction to unhealthy foods?  As Douglas Lisle and Alan Goldhamer conclude, on page 50 of The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health and Happiness,

Choosing to consume a diet that is more consistent with our natural history will help          you to avoid the predictable consequences of an overly rich diet.  The proper diet for            humans consists predominantly of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts        and seeds, and is the foundation of good health.

How do we transition from our current dietary choices to healthier ones?  And what guides should we rely on as we undertake that journey?  These questions will be considered in my next post, tomorrow night.

Meanwhile, to learn more about our unhealthy addictions to calorie-dense foods, I recommend two books:

1)   The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health and   Happiness, by Douglas J. Lisle, Ph.D. and Alan Goldhamer, D.C.; and

            2)  Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings – and 7       Steps to End Them Naturally, by Neal Barnard, M.D.

Steven Weissberg, Last Night’s Guest… Forty Years Later, Memories from The Gramercy Park Hotel…

 Steven Weissberg arrived last night with his son Jonathan. Steven and I have been close friends for over 40 years. Below are two articles that I’d like to share. I find it ironic that for so very many years I would frequent his hotel, sometimes I would even live there; now the day arrived that I can repay Steven for the many favors he and his family extended me with a tear…

Heartbreak Hotel

For nearly 50 years, the Weissberg clan has been quietly running the legendary Gramercy Park Hotel. But when David Weissberg jumped off the roof last month, his death exposed a family torn apart by drugs, illness, financial woes, and family feuds. Is it too late to restore a New York institution?

By Sarah Bermard, New York Magazine, July 8, 2002

(Photo: Photograph Courtesy of Gramercy Park   Hotel)

It was a typical weekday afternoon in Gramercy Park: High-school kids were crowding the corner of Lexington Avenue and 22nd Street. The park gates were swinging open and shut for a steady stream of local nannies pushing strollers and guests of the Gramercy Park Hotel, escorted by hotel doormen in their forest-green uniforms. Steven Weissberg, CEO of his family’s 509-room hotel, was in his second-floor office returning calls. His wife, Cameron, was out on Long Island with their young son. On the fifth floor, Steven’s younger brother, David, and his wife, Marilyn, were arguing in their suite. This was not unusual; since their wedding at the Elvis Presley chapel in Las Vegas two years ago, they were known for their tempestuous rows. But this time, Marilyn had packed her bags and insisted she was leaving for good. David suggested they go up to the roof garden for air. Marilyn agreed, hauling her suitcases with her. After a few minutes in the penthouse party space where Humphrey Bogart married Helen Menken, Marilyn said good-bye and took the elevator eighteen floors down to the lobby.

Left alone, David made his way to the roof’s northeast corner. He unbuckled a fanny pack containing $4,000 in cash and dropped it on the floor before climbing up onto a ten-foot ledge. He removed the gold Ten Commandments necklace he always wore and clasped it in his hand. Then, just as Marilyn emerged from the hotel’s revolving door, David jumped. He landed in front of the hotel bar.

“Marilyn was hysterical,” says a witness. “She sat down right next to him with her back against the wall. The doorman from the building next door tried to console her.” Moments later they were joined by Steven, who would spend the rest of the day huddled in the hotel’s lounge with the police as Marilyn was taken to the hospital to be treated for shock. “Someone on my staff came into my office and told me. I went downstairs,” he says, “and saw the horror.”

For Steven, his brother’s death was only the latest in a string of family tragedies set against the background of the shabby genteel hotel whose history is intertwined with theirs.

“It’s like they’re the Kennedys or something,” says a neighbor. “They have their own family curse.”

“Well, the Kennedys did stay here,” sighs Steven. “Maybe they rubbed off on us.”

Beloved by celebrities and civilians alike for its threadbare charm, the Gramercy Park Hotel is a one-of-a-kind New York institution. In an era of corporate chains and high-end Ian Schrager-style boutiques, it’s a throwback, an eccentric family-run operation in stately, if neglected, prewar quarters, where rooms under $200 a night make up in size what they lack in amenities. Guests still get metal keys instead of plastic key cards, and the kitchenettes come equipped with hot plates instead of microwaves.

To many, its retro character is part of the appeal. But to competitors, it’s a fabulously underdeveloped opportunity. A week after David’s death, André Balazs, the proprietor of the Mercer and the Château Marmont, invited Steven to dinner. “It’s been a dream of mine to own it,” confides Jeff Klein, owner of the ultraluxe City Club Hotel on West 44th Street. He isn’t the only one. “Seven years ago, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” says restaurateur Jonathan Morr, who owns the Townhouse Hotel in South Beach. “I’d just go and sit in the lobby and think about what I’d do with it. I called my broker and said, ‘I want to take it over!’ But the father didn’t want to sell.”

“Every hotelier in the world loves that hotel. It’s something everybody, anybody, would want to put their hands on,” says Morr. “Tell Steven to call me.”

The hotel’s most coveted asset, of course, is its enviable location opposite the city’s only gated, private park, accessible solely to those fortunate enough to have a key, a privilege that comes with a Gramercy Park address. Once a bastion of late-nineteenth-century elegance, the park itself has become a lightning rod for high drama in the form of legal combat between Aldon James, president of the National Arts Club, and the park’s trustees over everything from tree pruning to racial sensitivity. Picking sides in the various battles has become a favorite dinner-party pastime for residents, as has speculating on the outcome of the district attorney’s investigation into the club’s finances. But while the neighborhood gossip swirled around them, the Weissbergs, the largest lot holders by far, remained curiously and determinedly below the radar.

David’s death changed all that, shining an unwelcome spotlight not only on his family’s problems but on the hotel’s uncertain future. To observant regulars, it has been clear for some time that all was not well. Eighteen months ago, Herbert Weissberg, the 89-year-old family patriarch and once a hotelier of some renown, reluctantly gave up the day-to-day running of the hotel because of failing health, but the succession has been far from smooth.

Last winter, Steven, who had been appointed CEO by his father, fell out with his older half-brother, Martin, 59, who’d been in charge of the hotel’s advertising and marketing. Accusing him of stealing from the hotel, Steven launched a $1 million lawsuit claiming Martin not only made “extortionate threats” against him but also used the hotel coffers as his “own private candy store.” Martin quickly countersued, denying all charges and claiming he was owed $500,000 in unpaid services.

In March, Steven uncovered a cache of assault rifles, shotguns, and ammunition that David, 46, was hiding in his room and the hotel’s basement. Steven called the police, and the story made the tabloids. David’s drug use had been an open secret for years. He and Marilyn had attended a methadone clinic together, and because of several earlier heroin arrests, the new gun rap could have landed him in jail.

Then, one Monday night in April, to the astonishment of those both working and drinking there, Steven abruptly closed the hotel bar and restaurant — with neither warning nor explanation.

None of this could have been easy for Steven, who had already endured his own personal tragedies — the death of his first wife from cancer in 1997, followed shortly by the death of his 19-year-old son from a drug overdose.

“It’s been one monumental tragedy after another,” says Arlene Harrison, president of the 2000-member Gramercy Park Block Association. “It’s hitting him more and more every day. But Steven was not the cause of all of this. He is not the person that made the problem.”

The Gramercy’s guest book would rival a Liz Smith column for name checks. Babe Ruth was an early patron; Joseph Kennedy rented out the hotel’s third floor when his son John was 11. In the seventies, it was such a rock-star haven that Cameron Crowe insisted on filming scenes of Almost Famous in the lobby. Debbie Harry took up residence; the Rolling Stones stopped by. “When I was a kid, I used to hang out and have Shirley Temples and eat dinner in the restaurant,” says fashion photographer Terry Richardson, whose father lived in the Gramercy for seven years.

More recently, an hour or two at the piano bar would almost guarantee a glimpse of Matt Dillon, John Waters, Ethan Hawke, Steven Tyler, or Andy Garcia. Chloë Sevigny seemed to conduct all her interviews in the low-lit lounge. And one night around 11:30, Phyllis Love, the regular Monday pianist, met Jewel and her date for the evening, Leonardo DiCaprio: “We weren’t supposed to let people sing — most people can’t sing — but she said she’d sing something I would know how to play. So she sang ‘Summertime.’ There was a huge round of applause that must have woken someone up because, believe it or not, I had a complaint as soon as she finished. But she did give me a nice tip.”

The hotel had its share of homegrown celebrities, too. There were the octogenarian silver-haired Harvey sisters — Jacqueline and Evelyn — who dressed identically and sipped multiple martinis at their VIP table facing the bar. Aunt Bee, 96, the hotel’s oldest tenant, has kept the same room for 60 years; during the summer months, she can be spotted sunbathing in the park, with the help of a tinfoil-covered album cover tilted toward her face. European travelers are a constant presence, none more notorious than the Savile Row–suited businessman who drank six Bombay Sapphire martinis directly after arriving from London. When finished, he headed to his room, only to reappear shortly thereafter sans suit, ready to order another.

The week after his brother’s death, Steven Weissberg is on an FF&E tour, accompanied by Yvonne English, his head of housekeeping. “Furniture, fixtures, and equipment,” he notes. Weissberg is in the early stages of a modest refurbishment that he hopes will make up for the years of benign neglect the hotel suffered under his ailing father. David Rockwell bamboo, Frette linens, and Jonathan Adler rugs may never make it to the Gramercy, but at least the black-and-white TVs were replaced with color sets and DVD players; coffee-makers and microwaves are edging out the dangerous hot plates.

Returning the faded lobby to its former glory is his next goal. He’s already fixed a series of chandeliers at the entrance. “Five years from now, I want to see the hotel look like it did 50 years ago,” he says. “I want to bring back the Roaring Twenties with chesterfields, the leather wingbacks with gold nail heads.”

Another plan is to increase the number of monthly tenants in the hotel, à la the Chelsea Hotel. He’s thinking of transforming the roof garden into a high-end cocktail lounge like Grand Central’s Campbell Apartment, or building out two family-size apartments there that he hopes could draw $1,000 a day. Steven opens the door to Room 721–25. It’s a two-bedroom suite with an enormous terrace overlooking the park, which he wants to rent for $10,000 a month. He strides out onto the AstroTurf. “This is where I lived with David in the mid-seventies,” he says. “We lived here with nine dogs.”

As he walks the halls, Steven keeps up a running narrative on everything from the status of newly ordered clock-radios to how he played bass guitar in his college band. It’s hard to avoid the sensation that he’s trying to distract himself from his many sorrows. The visit to the morgue to identify his brother was his third trip in five years. In 1997, his wife, Madalyn, lost her fight with colon cancer. She was 46. They had been married for eighteen years. “We met at the Roxy,” he says with a smile. “I was wearing a black silk suit and roller skates.”

After her death, Steven moved his two sons, Michael and Jonathan, out of their Upper East Side apartment and into a suite of rooms at the hotel to be closer to his family. Uncle David, in and out of rehab for his $500-a-day speedball habit, had never spent much time with his nephews, largely because Madalyn wanted to protect her children from his erratic behavior. Her instincts turned out to have been right: On the night of his 19th-birthday party at the hotel, Michael collapsed from an apparent drug overdose — in David’s room. “From what I understand, he was unconscious for a while,” says a hotel-staff member. “If someone had noticed, he could have been saved.” It is something Weissberg refuses to discuss. “I’ve had a lot of loss. My wife. My son. David,” he says. “How do I do it? I don’t know.” He pauses: “See that air conditioner? I just bought a hundred of them.”

During his heyday, Herbert Weissberg’s empire included the Biltmore in Palm Beach and the Ponce de Leon hotel and casino (now known as the Condado Plaza) in Puerto Rico. In New York, he owned the Paramount and the Taft, now the Michael Angelo in midtown, before buying the Gramercy. Steven learned the trade by osmosis. During college at the University of Arkansas, while Bill Clinton was governor, he managed the Sam Peck, a hotel across from the state capitol. He moved to Detroit after his father acquired the famed 1,136-room Sheraton Book-Cadillac and renamed it the Detroit-Cadillac. Three years later, he returned to New York to run the Lancaster on Madison Avenue and 38th Street, known today as the Jolly Madison. Meanwhile, even though Herbert had sold the majority of his holdings in 1967 and moved to Florida to semi-retire, he couldn’t resist one last fling with the Gramercy. When an interim operator defaulted on payments, Sol Goldman, the building’s owner, tempted the family with an offer to take on the Gramercy’s lease. In 1976, after a nine-year absence, the Weissbergs returned to the park.

Each evening, Herbert and his wife, Ruth, who’ve been married 50 years, ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, a windowless room behind the piano bar where the staff outnumbered the customers and the Continental menu included Jell-O for dessert and kippers for breakfast. Despite the fact that the owners were on the premises, the hotel was on autopilot. “It was either that the owners trusted it,” says Shelley Gold, a lounge pianist for thirteen years, “or it was a form of anarchy that worked.” About two years ago, when a stroke forced Herbert’s second retirement, Steven was officially installed by his parents as CEO. Robert, the oldest of the brothers and a political-science professor at the University of Illinois, had no interest in the family business; David, clearly too troubled to have a role, aspired to be a photographer. Martin, however, Herbert’s second son, was not pleased. “He thought he was going to be the man,” says Shelly Legon, a hotel bartender for seven years. “He thought of himself as the sharpest of the brothers. Even afterwards, when we had a staff meeting, Marty was doing all the talking. Steven never said a word.”

Tensions came to a head in December when Steven unceremoniously fired his older brother, following up a few months later with the lawsuit. In it, he also accuses Marty’s Media Marketing Group of grossly mismanaging the hotel’s Website, at one point even shutting it down and leaving a stream of unpaid advertising bills, including some from the New York Times. The brothers’ five-month silence was broken only when the two were forced to acknowledge each other at the funeral home in front of David’s coffin. According to Steven, Marty tried to address their disagreement, but Steven refused to talk. Depositions in the case begin in August, and neither brother will comment on the details.

Despite the obvious need to drag the Gramercy into the twenty-first century, some of the former staff, many of whom still feel loyal to the hotel after working there for years, are unimpressed with Steven’s efforts in that direction. “One day he says to me, ‘I’m going to put a pizza oven here behind the bar,’ ” says Legon, the former bartender. “What kind of idiotic thing is that? Then he says, ‘I’m going to put a sports bar in the lobby and you’re going to run it.’ I said, ‘What, are you stupid? You’ll cannibalize your own bar here!’

“Despite everything, I love the guy,” says Legon. “I feel sad. A guy who was handed everything can’t figure it out.”

Even before the impact of September 11 on the city’s hotel business, the restaurant was losing $1 million a year, but what, the staff wondered, was the point of closing the profitable bar? Steven argues that it was a necessary move to stop certain employees who were stealing from him. But he had to pay out $300,000 in severance to union employees and forgo $100,000 in banquet bookings. “I had to help one girl re-book her wedding at the Soho Grand,” says Robbin Cullinen, the former food-and-beverage director. “The woman was in tears.”

Steven says he regrets only one thing: the lack of room service. “Breakfast,” he says. “I still feel bad about.”

Every morning, he provides a spread of bagels, Danishes, and OJ from an Igloo cooler in the former bar area to compensate. A few feet away, the smoke-soaked mauve curtains are still hanging; a carton of the hotel’s signature bar snack, Pepperidge Farm Cheddar Goldfish, still sits on a mirrored shelf.

How he handles the food-and-beverage operation will be Steven’s next test. He had decided to lease it out and had been talking to two chefs: Giuliano Bugialli, best known for his Italian cooking classes and TV specials, who was interested in opening a cooking school in the hotel kitchen; and then Peter Vuli, who owns Fino on Wall Street and Vuli in the Radisson on Lexington and 48th. Nothing happened with Bugialli, but Vuli says he has a tentative deal to take over the restaurant in September with a Northern Italian menu. “I was thinking of calling it Brazza,” he says. He has already planned a horseshoe-shaped bar. Steven will say only, “I’m putting everything on hold.”

Inevitably, there is no shortage of suggestions for the Gramercy’s future. Jeff Klein suggests only renovating 50 rooms to create a “hotel inside a hotel” and adding a Les Deux Gamin–type cafe. “It would be a really chic place where people went to smoke cigarettes, talk about literature or art. Somewhere you could run into Damien Loeb meeting with Blondie,” he says. Neighborhood residents, however, are keeping their fingers crossed for Danny Meyer, even though he’s indicated he’s not interested. “There is a lovely space on the second floor overlooking the park,” says James Benenson, who lives in Meyer’s building across from the hotel. “It could be like the Ritz hotel in Boston.”

But any substantial renovation of the Gramercy is a developer’s Catch-22. The Weissbergs’ long-term lease on the property isn’t so long anymore. In sixteen years, they will have to renegotiate with the Sol Goldman estate; the intervening time is long enough to lease out the restaurant but not to justify spending the $15 million to $20 million it would take to give the property the refurbishment it needs, and get much of a return.

“I don’t think just renovating some rooms would be enough,” says Stanley Bard, managing director of the Chelsea Hotel, the other eccentric family-run establishment famous for its artistic following. “You see, they should have done that over the years. We’ve had a restoration program over a ten-year period. We are interested in preserving and propagating a legend. It’s very difficult for a family that doesn’t have public financing or chain financing.”

“A family operation is different,” agrees Ira Drucker, Balazs’s partner in the Mercer and developer of the Chambers Hotel, who met with Steven earlier in the year about possibly partnering on a revamp. “Families doing business tend to hurt each other. The cash flow is probably eroding.” If it is, Steven is not admitting it. “I just looked at an 800-room hotel in Italy,” he notes, “and a 200-room hotel in Aruba.”

Today might be the day Steven finally has a meltdown. His lawyer is expecting him uptown; his mother is calling relentlessly from the hospital where his father is undergoing some tests. And Marilyn, David’s wife, has called the cops. After David’s death, Steven gave Princess, David’s Jack Russell, to a hotel guest who passed the animal on to a friend. But now Marilyn, who has moved back into the hotel temporarily, wants Princess herself. Unfortunately, the dog has disappeared somewhere in the wilds of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Jonathan, Steven’s second son, has been dispatched to the Kennel Club to try to find a replacement. A puppy, it turns out, costs $1,500. “Just put it on the credit card,” Steven tells Jonathan, his head in his hands.

Suddenly, he decides on a motorcycle ride. “It’s too nice out,” he shouts. Five minutes later, he’s revving his red-and-black 1999 Indian Chief up Park Avenue, past the Waldorf and back down Fifth, past the Pierre and the Sherry-Netherland. He drives by the building where he’s considering an office to separate himself a bit from the hotel. He is even thinking that when Jonathan goes to college, he might move Cameron and their infant son, Logan, out of the hotel altogether.

The couple were married Valentine’s Day, 1999, by Mayor Giuliani, and again in a service at Temple Emanu-El. “I converted,” says Cameron, a textile designer who grew up Catholic in Philadelphia. “I worked in the garment district. I always wanted to be Jewish.”

Since Logan’s birth, she’s been active in the neighborhood, partnering with Harrison’s Gramercy Park Block Association to launch Gramercy Babies, a group for new mothers and their kids to meet. For the first time in ten years, there will be an election in the fall for five new park trustees, and Cameron Weissberg is a strong candidate. “I would like to move out of the hotel some day,” she says. “But I love the park.”

Steven says hotel living is not exactly like the Eloise books he read as a kid. “Her parents were monthly tenants,” he points out, “Not hotel owners. And they traveled a lot. I don’t think hotel life is geared towards raising a child. It will be a new era. To be in an apartment, have neighbors, a home. I’d like more of a home.”

But for now, the hotel will have to do. And there are certain perks. After a month of tsuris, Steven takes out his massive chain of keys and opens the gate to Gramercy Park. The ceremonial black ribbon he was wearing for David’s shiva is still in the inside pocket of his suit jacket. “I would not have predicted it,” says Steven, recalling that just three weeks before, the two of them had gone shopping together to buy white roses for their mother on Mother’s Day. “My feeling is that it was his feelings of defeat from the departure of his wife that were the main incentive.” It is possible that there may have been something else weighing on him, too. Only recently, the family had passed the difficult hurdle of the first anniversary of Michael’s death. Around Steven’s wrist is the silver-and-ruby bracelet that Michael used to wear. He walks up the gravel path and turns right. The first green bench has a brass plaque that reads IN MEMORY OF MADALYN WEISSBERG. The adjacent bench is dedicated to Max Weissberg, Steven’s grandfather, and the one after that is in memory of Max’s wife, Rose.

“Okay, Grandma,” he says. “We’ll sit on you.” The clouds shift and the sun’s glare makes him squint. He is tired. “This is a good place to sit,” he says, pausing. “Unfortunately, I need more benches.”


Hotel Gramercy Park and the Spirit of New York

By $blogger.title| April 27, 2008 03:13PM EDT

The audience at the world premiere of the documentary Hotel Gramercy Park offered a snapshot of the venerable hotel’s transformation from seedy palace of sin to mecca of upscale bohemianism.

Hotel Gramercy Park One noteworthy face at last night’s world premiere of the documentary Hotel Gramercy Park was the jewelry designer and Wes Anderson sidekick Waris, who is the kind of lower Manhattan nightlife nabob you might expect to see at the new and improved Gramercy Park Hotel, reinvented by boutique hotel legend Ian Schrager in 2006 as a bastion of contemporary New York cool. But many in the audience looked as if they were probably nostalgic for the old Gramercy, that crumbling palace of faded glamour and rock and roll hedonism which housed everyone from David Bowie to Madonna to the early casts of SNL, where no questions were asked as long as guests agreed not to burn the place down.
The film is about the transition between the hotel’s two eras, which occurred earlier this decade, and about the intertwined stories of the Weissberg clan, owners of the hotel from 1958 until 2003, and Schrager, the Studio 54 co-founder turned tax cheat turned celebrity hotelier. In introducing the film, a three-year undertaking, director Douglas Keeve stood beside a colleague wearing a sandwich board reading “Public Sale—Gramercy Park Hotel Closed—Entire Contents Must Go,” a reference to the liquidation of the hotel’s material assets that took place before Schrager closed it for renovation. Keeve made sure to thank the Weissbergs, whose personal trials and tribulations—which run from drugs to suicide to cancer—are given ample attention in the film. “They went through this with grace and dignity, and I am eternally in their debt.” He went on to give a shout-out to bad-boy artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, who collaborated with Schrager on the hotel’s redesign, noting, “Schnabel reminds us of the sensuousness of life with his amazing work… and I’ll try not to say any more than that” (Schnabel is a bit domineering in the film). And he recalled his nervousness in showing the final cut to Schrager, recounting how a plumber arrived just before one of the film’s “dicey” parts to talk with Schrager about a leak, prompting Keeve to fast-forward through the scene, then wonder, “What have I done?” According to Keeve, however, Schrager was gracious about the film, telling him, “Don’t touch it, don’t touch it, it’s great. There’s stuff I don’t like, but it’s great.” At the film’s outset, the photographer and former promoter Leee Black Childers, who was also in the audience, muses, “No one has ever given New York credit for its soul, and the Gramercy Park Hotel was New York’s soul.” For the next 80 minutes, Keeve sets out to demonstrate how true that is, using commentary from such éminence grises of the old Gramercy as Debbie Harry and Paper magazine’s Kim Hastreiter, extended interviews with lifelong hotel resident Jonathan Weissberg (the family’s youngest member, also present), and poignant portrayals of three delightfully quirky and quintessentially New Yorkian tenants who decided to stay on during the renovation. But despite Gramercy Park residents’ worries that Schrager would open the door to an invasion of yuppies, the hotel is clearly still a big part of the city’s soul, which is big enough to include everyone from new tenant Karl Lagerfeld to the aspiring young actors who serve as the hotel’s new staff. Probably the film’s biggest laugh was also the reopened hotel’s signature moment: its refusal to allow Paris Hilton into a party. Schrager may have brought the Gramercy upscale, but the hotel still carries a whiff of its old bohemian eccentricity. “The spirit of New York is change,” Childers adds later, and indeed, the Gramercy Park Hotel’s transformation—not the first in its storied history—shows that in New York City, change is itself a form of continuity.
As people streamed for the theater exits afterwards, actor Kyle MacLachlan could be heard exclaiming, “What an amazing story!” Everyone seemed to agree.

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