Hotel Kid, Con Man, Founding Father.(BOOKS)(BIOGRAPHY)

Article excerpt


Keeping up with the Joneses' is an American saying, but it has never been an American ideal. We have always been more interested in getting ahead of the Joneses than in trying to match them. Two new biographies and a memoir remind us that onward and upward, by one means or another, has long been the American way.

Hotel Kid: A Times Square Childhood (Paul Dry Books, $22.95, 214 pages, illustrated) by Stephen Lewis, is the story of how one New York family stayed ahead during the Depression. Mr. Lewis' father was the manager of the Hotel Taft, at that time the biggest hotel in midtown [Manhattan] and, until Rockefeller Center went up, the tallest building in the neighborhood. Mr. Lewis and his brother Peter spent an enchanted childhood living like little princes in the Taft. They were spoiled by the staff while their father, legendary for his attention to detail, and their mother, legendary for rarely being satisfied by the efforts of Taft employees, ruled the hotel like benevolent despots.

The Taft had either 2,000 or 1,437 rooms. The former figure was the nice round number preferred by the Taft management. The latter was the New York Times more realistic estimate. But, as Mr. Lewis writes, "[i]llusion is as necessary to a hotel as passkeys." Once inside the revolving doors, everything in the Taft, from the jumbo size of the drinks in the Tap Room to the dance tunes played by the then-famous Vincent Lopez orchestra in the Taft Grill, and from the "four check-in clerks and three check-out cashiers and two or three clerks to hand you your key and your mail," to the European chefs, was carefully calculated to foster the illusion that the hotel represented the best of everything: "[H]otel life was like a French fairy tale: inside, magic; outside, dark and wintry woods."

Hotel Kid is one of those memoirs that sets out to perform a specific, if limited, task - in this case, to evoke another age and introduce the reader to a charming and eccentric family - and does it successfully with brevity, wit and (Mr. Lewis is, after all, his fathers son) painstaking attention to detail. The authors mother, in one of her typical complaints, once said: "[The roast beef] looks as if it has a lot of fat on it and I don't 'like it when they leave all that fat on. That's pure fat." She would no doubt be glad to know her son has written a memoir with not an ounce of fat on it, just pure, nostalgic, delicious narrative, about how one family stayed ahead during the Depression, when the Joneses were falling behind.

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Another way to get ahead is to persuade otherwise rational, prudent human beings to give you money based solely on your word that you will make them rich (see recent financial headlines for details). In Drake's Fortune: The Fabulous True Story of the Worlds Greatest Confidence Artist (Doubleday, $22.95, 224 pages, illustrated), Richard Rayner tells the story of Oscar Hartzell (1876-1943), whose long-running con game was so ingenious that it eventually took the combined efforts of the United States and British governments to bring him to justice. Even after his conviction there were still thousands of people eager to give Hartzell their money, so strong was their belief in his integrity.

His scheme (which he inherited from two other sharpsters) was simplicity itself: If you gave him money he promised to eventually give you a fabulous return, because he alone knew how to claim the unimaginably large fortune of the great Elizabethan adventurer/pirate/hero, Sir Francis Drake. …