The Man Who Reinvented the Ritz: Luxury-Loving John Coleman Turns Small Hotels into Big Business

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Do you require 18th-century pine-paneled walls in your hotel dining room? Do you insist on a wood-burning fireplace? John Coleman does, and the New York hotel scene just wasn't up to his standards. So what can a demanding hotelier do but build his very own Ritz-Carlton smack in the middle of Manhattan? "New York needed a charming little inn filled with warmth and tradition," Coleman says of his newest hotel, which he opened last December.

His mini-empire of luxury hotels now includes Chicago's Whitehall and Tremont and Washington's Ritz-Carlton, once the Fairfax. Their indisputable success, due to Coleman's persnickety refurbishing, has enabled him to take on New York. It began three years ago when he paid $10 million for the well-located but stodgy Navarro Hotel on Central Park South, then plunked down $10 million-plus to renovate its 240 rooms into a cushy English country home. After licensing the Boston Ritz-Carlton name, he hired decorator extraordinaire Sister Parish (she helped restore the Kennedy White House) to transform the lobby into a British drawing room and to create a hunt club atmosphere in his adjoining Jockey Club restaurant.

What's good enough for Coleman had better be good enough for his guests, for the Ritz is really a larger version of his elegant East Side Manhattan duplex. Indeed, $1 million worth of art from his personal collection adorns the hotel and Jockey Club walls; guests dine on the same Spode china that John enjoys at home, and the tapestry carpet in the hotel hallways matches one in his apartment. With his hotel rooms running from $145 to $750 a day, the entrepreneur has spared no extravagance: mahogany four-poster beds, Chippendale chairs and lacquer cabinets (reproductions, to be sure, but good ones), English chintzes, marble baths with dimming theatrical lights, monogrammed soap and thick white towels. In case that's not enough pampering, he insists on a terry cloth robe, a bottle of Courvoisier, Krön chocolates, down pillows and three telephones in each room. Explains Coleman: "I want my guests to feel they're coming home."

While he is certainly attentive to the sensibilities of his guests, "King" Coleman's management style leans toward the imperious. "People told me I was mad to work for Coleman," says Frank Bowling, former manager of the elegant Carlyle Hotel, who was persuaded to take over a similar post at the Ritz-Carlton. "I have found him demanding, but he has great brain waves. He's all over the place, working like a demon, getting what he wants." These same qualities, however, drove off another staffer: "I left because he was always breathing down my neck. He doesn't trust anyone." Nor is patience one of Coleman's charms. "Do I have to listen to this bullshit?" he was overheard snapping at Parish. "Just do it right."

The adopted son of a Boston plumbing supply manufacturer, Coleman had a comfortable upbringing in suburban Chestnut Hill. When applying for a passport while in his teens, he discovered he was adopted, a fact that has haunted him ever since. After graduating from Rutgers in 1957 with a degree in history, he went on to Harvard Business School but impatiently quit to work in investment banking. He formed the present John B. Coleman and Co. in 1964 with $100,000 in savings. His passion for globe-trotting contributed to his success in industrial investments and helped his foray into the hotel business 10 years ago. With ample bank loans he overhauled each U.S. hotel he acquired to resemble a gracious European home. "There's a strategy to my business," explains Coleman, whose four hotels are worth about $200 million. "I don't buy and sell. I keep the operations and hire the best people in the world to run them."

He also gets the best people to show up. His splashy fund raisers for the arts at Washington's Fairfax-turned-Ritz draw political luminaries. Nancy Reagan, Art Buchwald and Henry Kissinger have dined at his restaurant. Private parties hosted in his D.C. Jockey Club have fueled gossip that Coleman is a social climber. But he is a confusing example of the breed, for he is neither an eager hand-pumper nor an easy conversationalist. He throws black-tie soirées for "business" reasons, but then may not show up.

As his financial prospects soared, his marital fortunes soured. His first marriage, to Washingtonian Linda Lichtenberg, lasted less than a year; the second, to author Margo Howard (columnist Ann Landers' daughter and now wife of actor Ken Howard), ended after eight years and three children, leaving him in anguish. "I worked all the time, traveling and thinking about how to succeed in business," Coleman explains. A third trip to the altar in 1978, with Joanne Field (daughter of newspaper publisher Marshall Field IV), was annulled after 30 days. "I guess I wasn't cut out for marriage," he says.

At the time of his second divorce, Coleman put himself through 18 months of psychotherapy as an outpatient at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kans. "I had trouble coping with my adoption," he explains. "I was insecure, and I lied about my background. I always set myself up for rejection, and consequently I was afraid to give love." These days Coleman tries to be fatherly to his children, Abra, 20, Adam, 17, and Cricket, 15. "He didn't do this while he was married to my daughter," says Ann Landers, "but he has shaped up since then." The future, however, continues to look work-centered and far-flung: more hotels ("maybe Beverly Hills, maybe London or Paris") or perhaps a venture in documentary films("so people can see and avoid the bad side of life"). His rooms filled to the frills with guests, Coleman can easily say: "Money isn't the most important thing in life." But he, after all, has built a diamond as big as the Ritz.

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