The Carlyle hotel review: The New York hotel that’s covered in stardust

Designed by Dorothy Draper and stayed in by Kennedys, royalty and Michael Jackson, The Carlyle is a New York institution that cannot be bettered, argues Steven King.

A great hotel it indisputably is. A classic, a landmark, a grande dame. And by New York standards this dame is getting on a bit. (You’d never ask her age, I know, but look her up. Born 1930.)

Nevertheless, there’s nothing dusty about The Carlyle. Unless you mean stardusty. In which case, yes. Absolutely caked in it.

The stardust was there from day one, a great deal of it imparted by its interior designer, Dorothy Draper. Though she brought to the job practically nothing in terms of experience, she brought plenty in terms of social cachet — and, as good luck would have it, genius. Her kooky take on neoclassicism, particularly as expressed in the lobby, caused a sensation.

Even today it defies easy description, at once austere and opulent, angular and cosseting.

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Fire and ice in velvet and marble. Practically the only guests who dislike it are dogs that mistake the gleaming black floor for a body of water and refuse to walk on it. But what else are all those white-gloved, top-hatted doormen for, if not to scoop up confused canines and whisk them safely from one side of the lobby to the other?

In 1960, the Kennedys took up residence in a specially converted suite a few floors beneath a campanile modelled on the bell tower of Westminster Cathedral. The hotel became known as the New York White House and the stardust started falling thicker and faster than ever. You could barely scoop up a water-shy pooch in the lobby without risk of bumping into a member of a royal household, a show-business legend or a titan of industry.

Once, in the early 1990s, one of the lifts stopped three times on the way down, first for Diana, Princess of Wales, then for Michael Jackson, finally for Steve Jobs. They went their separate ways on the ground floor, though it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if they’d all turned right out of the lift and made their way to Bemelmans Bar in a fit of giggles.

Every good thing you’ve ever heard about Bemelmans can only be an understatement. It’s a version of heaven, with live music. Though the lights are low, the murals, by Ludwig Bemelmans, author and illustrator of the Madeline books, are radiant with life-affirming energy and good vibes; the massive, superbly made cocktails no less so.

One of the things that contributes to The Carlyle’s unique atmosphere is the way it’s run as both a hotel and a cooperative with privately owned apartments. First-timers often comment on how homely it feels — oddly, considering its fancy reputation. The intermingling of hotel guests and long-term residents has a lot to do with this feeling.

There was widespread consternation when Rosewood, The Carlyle’s owners since 2001, announced a sweeping refurbishment of a large proportion of the hotel’s rooms in 2018. This turned out much better than many (myself included) feared it might. The Greek key patterns in the carpet are an elegant tribute to Dorothy Draper; the extra Bemelmens panels are fantastic. And in any case a small but significant number of old, unreconstructed (but never dusty) rooms remain. Ask for 2108.

It’s a commonplace to refer to a good, big hotel as its own self-contained universe, but this really does apply to The Carlyle. I lived in New York for a while and I still think it’s one of the greatest walking cities on the planet. In this respect The Carlyle presents an interesting problem. The desire to walk out, to go forth, is so strong. (The Met! I could be there in seven minutes!) But the desire to stay put, to hang out, is just as compelling. (The Carlyle! I’m already here!)

Rooms at The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel, start from $795 (about £619). Visit for more information and to book.