Stanley Turkel, Manager and Avid Historian of Hotels, Dies at 96
Stanley Turkel, whose career as a hotelier, hospitality consultant and historian required him to check into more hostelries than a million-mile frequent flier, died on Aug. 12 in his own bed in Arlington, Va. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by his son, Marc Turkel.
In 10 books and 270 blog posts, Mr. Turkel (pronounced tur-KELL) explored the idiosyncrasies of lodgings in New York and around the world — from the history of the original hyphen in the name of the Waldorf Astoria in New York to the revelation that the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Piano Bar in New Orleans revolves on 2,000 steel rollers.
He introduced readers to César Ritz, the namesake of hotels, a snack cracker and an adjective. He recalled the ubiquitous windup figure of a harried executive that the Sheraton chain featured in a campaign with the slogan “Keyed-Up Executives Unwind at Sheraton.”
Mr. Turkel was more than a hotel maven; he was also a polymath. A civic activist, he was president from 1967 to 1978 of the City Club of New York, an organization whose influence over municipal government waned in the final decades of the 20th century. He subsequently served as chairman and was a trustee of the club for 30 years.
Beginning in 1978 Mr. Turkel edited The Gadfly, the club’s bulletin, and delighted in posing what he called impertinent questions to public officials, both in print and in person.
He was also active in the civil rights movement; he attended a six-lecture course with W.E.B. Du Bois in 1956, joined the March on Washington in 1963 and wrote his first book, when he was 79, on Reconstruction.
Mr. Turkel was highly opinionated and expressed his views on a wide range of subjects without reservation. He was an inveterate correspondent to The New York Times: Some 40 of his Letters to the Editor were published between 1961 and 1989 — on subjects from a recommendation that major corporations adopt subway stations to a complaint that the offensive strategies used by professional football coaches had become “boring, hackneyed and wholly predictable.”
His professional expertise, however, was hotel management, a field he entered after apprenticing in his father’s laundry business in Manhattan.
In 1963, he was hired by the brothers Laurence and Preston Robert Tisch, who owned the Loews Corporation, to manage their 1,800-room Americana Hotel on Seventh Avenue in Midtown Manhattan (now the Sheraton New York Times Square). He then ran the Drake Hotel, at Park Avenue and East 56th Street, and the Summit Hotel (now the DoubleTree by Hilton Metropolitan), on Lexington Avenue and East 51st Street.
His avocation was hotel history, which he wrote about on his blog and in books, among them “Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry” (2009), “Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York” (2011), “Hotel Mavens” (2014) and “Great American Hotel Architects” (2019).
He researched the origin of the American plan of dining (“cheap, unlimited food included in the room rate”) compared with the European plan (“the guest paid only for his room”). He also investigated claims that the 74-room City Hotel, built in 1794 on lower Broadway, was the first structure erected solely for use as a hotel, and that the Parker House in Boston is the oldest continuously operating hotel in America.
Apartment hotels proliferated in New York in the late 19th century because they were exempt from the stricter construction codes that applied to tenements and other residential buildings. Of the 32 100-year-old New York hostelries in his book, Mr. Turkel wrote, only 20 began as full-service hotels.
As for the Waldorf’s on-again, off-again hyphen (it’s off again), it symbolized the truce between William Waldorf Astor, who opened the Waldorf on Fifth Avenue in 1893, and his cousin John Jacob Astor IV, who demolished his mother’s house next door in 1895 and built the Astoria hotel. Both hotels stood on the site of what is now the Empire State Building.
Stanley Howard Turkel was born on Sept. 2, 1925, in the Bronx. His father, Nathan, an immigrant from Poland, owned New York Wet Wash Laundry, which catered to hotels and other commercial customers. His mother, Molly (Kurtzman) Turkel, was a homemaker.
“As late as 1949, the so-called ‘home routes’ (close to East 91st Street) were serviced by horse and wagon,” Mr. Turkel wrote in a letter to The Times in 2000. “When I sometimes worked as vacation relief for the regular routemen, I discovered that the horses knew the customers’ addresses and invariably stopped in front of the next building for a pickup of dirty laundry.”
After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School when he was 15, he attended New York University’s Bronx campus. He enlisted in the Army Air Forces when he was 18 and returned to complete his education at N.Y.U. in what is now the Stern School of Business, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
He worked for his father’s laundry company, enrolled in a one-year program at the School of Laundry Management at the American Institute of Laundering in Joliet, Ill., and served as a laundry consultant with the Victor Kramer Company for seven years before joining Loews in 1962.
He left the Summit Hotel to manage the Sheraton hotel brand for the ITT Corporation from 1968 to 1975, where in 1970 he launched what was said to be the first 1-800 telephone number for reservations. (It was promoted by an advertising jingle performed by the Boston Pops.) In 1976, he started his own consulting firm.
His marriage to Barbara Bell ended in divorce. In addition to his son, he is survived by a daughter, Allison Turkel, from that marriage; his stepchildren, Josh and Benay Forrest; one grandson; and two step-grandchildren. His second wife, Rima (Sokoloff) Turkel, died in 2014.
He lived in Flushing, Queens, until he moved to Alexandria four years ago.
Mr. Turkel was named Historian of the Year in 2014, 2015 and 2020 by Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He was working on a memoir at his death.
If he had a favorite hotel, his son said, it would have been the Drake, which he managed for two and a half years after the Tisch brothers bought it in 1965. It boasted Shepheard’s, which billed itself as New York’s first disco. He also rehired a former fixture of the New York music scene, the cafe society pianist Cy Walter.
“The Drake was both classic and contemporary,” Marc Turkel said in a phone interview. “Shepheard’s provided nightlife and entertainment and was ‘hot’ when he managed it in the early to mid-1960s. Yet he brought back and then championed the career of Cy Walter, then an older man, and luminaries such as Arthur Rubenstein, the classical pianist, who stayed there. My father loved that dualism.”
Mr. Turkel did have a favorite management maxim, which amounted to a version of congestion pricing: A lower rate is better than nothing.
“Nothing,” he told The Times in 1995, “is more perishable than an unoccupied hotel room.”