Not long ago, while grappling with the futility of a garage reorganization — I live in an attic-less Eichler north of San Francisco, so the garage is for stuff, not a car — I came upon a box of vinyl LPs. In this collection of my youthful musical relics there was an album called Manhattan Tower, a kind of pop operetta composed by Gordon Jenkins. The piece told the story of a young man coming to New York City, magically finding a penthouse at the top of a tall building, throwing parties (“Empty the ashtrays, get out the ice/ ‘cause we’re havin’ a party, and the people are nice …!”). The record found its way into the suburban New Jersey home of my youth — just 30 miles but light years from Manhattan — and the schmaltzy composition ignited a longing in me to live that way someday. And though it took many years, and was mostly accidental, I eventually found a Manhattan tower of my own. When I think of the place now, long after moving to the Bay Area, I usually insert the fairy tale beginning: Once upon a time.
My tower-apartment was on the 30th floor of a building on the Upper West Side named after the ambitious regicide Oliver Cromwell. Essentially one big room, the place was originally a gymnasium back when the building had been a residence hotel. So although it had only 600 or so square feet, the ceilings soared high, and there were windows and a balcony all around, with views of the Hudson River, Central Park and the Midtown massif. The place occupied the entire floor, so we had no next-door or upstairs neighbors. The elevator stopped at the 27th floor, and three flights of a dingy stairway led up to the door of No. 30, which gave us a feeling of splendid isolation.
The Cromwell had been put up late in the Twenties by the developer and architect Emery Roth, who also built such great Central Park West landmarks as the Eldorado, the Beresford, and the San Remo. Roth, Hungarian by birth, brought an imposing Old World look to his soaring towers (two each on the Eldorado and the San Remo, three on the Beresford). Our balcony had such massive balustrades that we felt safe having our young kids out there alone. A faux belltower topped off the building, adding to the tower’s classic appearance when viewed from the Sheep Meadow in Central Park.
How did I attain my tower? Many years after my Jersey youth, and after a period of living in Europe, I was working at a magazine in New York, and patching life together after a divorce. I was looking for a new place to live, and the search was increasingly desperate, as apartment searches in New York usually are. One day, my assistant came into my office and told me that a friend of hers had an apartment on West 72nd that he wanted to sublet. I was about to sign a lease for a place in Little Italy so gloomy that the bedroom had no window, and I was tired of looking. So I told her I’d pass. She insisted, however, and since she was more or less running my life, I agreed to take a look. Climbing the drab stairs, I held out little hope. But when my assistant’s friend opened the door, ushering me into the bright, white space with its wraparound views, I was hooked. Eventually, I inherited the lease, and in 1980, I bought the place for … well, never mind how much, but the price wouldn’t buy a parking place in today’s Manhattan.
It didn’t take long, living at the top of the Cromwell, to show me why towers have such a significant place in legends. Think of Rapunzel, imprisoned in a tower with no stairs, or the spiky spire of the evil wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, or the once-dreaded Tower of London. Traveling through Italy, I had seen the many towers of San Gimignano, built by quarrelsome clans as architectural “high ground” from which to throw missiles down at their enemies di giorno. From our 30th-floor aerie, I looked down at the Dakota, far below, where people lived who were richer and more important; yet somehow, perhaps easily deluded, I felt superior. (That elevation would, one sad night, give me a hawk’s-eye view of the police carrying the dying John Lennon into a patrol car.) Once, when there was an extended blackout, and the streets began to get dicey, I felt removed from the turmoil as I looked over the stone balustrade at the confused traffic on the streets below. Another time, when a wild and windy rainstorm struck right in the middle of a Diana Ross concert in the park, scattering the audience, I felt like Prospero, bringer of the tempest.
Because of my unearned feelings of lofty privilege, I often wondered if other tower dwellers felt the same way. I once thought of trying to form a club of tower people. I was sure the club would be exclusive, since, by my definition, a tower was always a penthouse, but a penthouse wasn’t necessarily a tower, and usually wasn’t. (It wouldn’t make much of a story to say that Rapunzel was held captive by an enchantress in a penthouse.) My boss in those days, Helen Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan, lived about ten blocks north on Central Park West in one of the three Beresford towers. The painter and art director Marvin Israel, whom I’d interviewed for the Village Voice, occupied a phantom-of-the-opera attic in a building near Union Square. While I lived at the Cromwell, Steve Jobs bought and began remodeling one of the two spires of the neighboring San Remo. My apartment looked directly across at the twin towers of the Majestic, so I might have found out from the doormen the names of those who lived on the top floors of that great Irwin Chanin-designed Deco building. (I did learn that in the 1950s several of the Majestic apartments had been owned by members of the Luciano crime family, and that Frank Costello had been wounded in an assassination attempt in the lobby.) But in those pre-Internet days, finding other potential members of the Tower Club proved difficult. So the club, and the Tower magazine that I had imagined (my editorial imagination tended to overreach in those days) never came to be.
Eventually, like the man in the Gordon Jenkins composition, I left my tower, and New York, to start another magazine in another city. On my last day there, I stood out on the balcony looking down at Central Park, knowing how much I’d miss the place, yet realizing that with growing kids the loft-like lack of privacy would have become a problem before too long. I have missed the tower, and the rare pleasures it provided. But I did have ten good years atop the Oliver Cromwell, looking down at the madding crowd, seeing the sun rise and the sun set. The man who bought the place from me, an architect, still lives there. He’s no fool.