In Steve Rubell's Swank New Hotel, the Most-Favored Guest (at $78 a Month) Is Beulah Baer, Age 96
Beulah and Boy got together at a small (154-room) hotel called Morgans, which was more or less named after J.P., the tycoon who once kept a mansion and library a block down Manhattan's Madison Avenue. These days the 23-year-old super-rocker from England often makes Morgans his home in New York. A lot of celebs—Rod Stewart, Brooke Shields, Cheryl Tiegs and Jodie Foster, to name a few—have checked in since Steve Rubell, formerly of Studio 54 fame, opened the "boutique" hostelry last October.
And Beulah Baer? Well, she has lived in the 20-story building, now refurbished with a neoclassic limestone-and-glass facade, for 58 years. Which is why, under New York's rent control laws, she pays only $78 a month, whereas other accommodations at Morgans go for $95 to $375 a night. Back in 1927, when she moved in, the hotel was called the Duane and was rather chic. Later it became the Executive, which gradually decayed until it turned into a prostitutes' haunt. Through it all, minding her own business, the genteel Beulah stayed on in her one-room apartment filled with memorabilia of better times.
The daughter of a builder, she was born in Singers Glen, a village founded by her ancestors in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. In 1914 she entered the federal civil service, working for the State Department and later the Justice Department until retiring in 1959. Her favorite years came after World War I when she worked at the U.S. Passport Agency. Newspapers of the day cited her as an "angel of patience" who "answers thousands of foolish questions a day and has never been known to lose her temper." She assisted countless Europe-bound movers and shakers. Many sent "To Beulah" photos of themselves—Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, Lionel and Irene Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Hedda Hopper, Sophie Tucker, Marion Davies.
Appropriately enough for a passport expert, Beulah traveled some too—to China, South America, though never to the altar. There were "My Captain," an Army officer who died of anemia, and other beaus (she still uses the term), including one who gave her a triple-diamond "engagement ring." Why didn't they wed? " 'Cause I think he was married at the time," she deadpans.
About two years ago Steve Rubell came into Beulah's life. Chastened by a year in prison for tax evasion ("I deserved what I got, but it's behind me"), Rubell, with former Studio 54 co-owner Ian Schrager, who was also jailed, went into the hotel business by buying the Executive. (Developer Phil Pilevsky has become the third partner.) They had Paris designer Andrée Putman transform the seedy relic into the classy, contemporary Morgans (black-and-white tile baths, Robert Mapplethorpe black-and-white photos of flowers on room walls).
Meanwhile, the new owners received a letter from longtime tenant Beulah Baer. "She said she was afraid, that she was used to her room, that she didn't have the strength to move," recalls Rubell, who hastened to assure her that there would be no eviction. Instead, Morgans was rebuilt around Beulah's fourth-floor, 11-foot by 18-foot room, with bath and foyer. It was touched up with paint but otherwise left the way she wants it.
"The guests like her, and the staff loves her," says Rubell. "She's not manipulative, never imposes." Miss Baer manages on her government pension and a comfortable inheritance, enjoys a "Beulah cocktail" (gin and cranberry juice on ice) and is delighted to meet new neighbors. Like Boy George? "I've lived in New York many, many years," she says after a thoughtful pause. "I've always made friends, rarely lost one. I take people as they are and I think he's great. But I didn't know he sang."