Behind the Scenes at the Waldorf Astoria's Posh Presidential Suite

President Obama stays at the Waldorf Astoria for United Nations meeting.

September 21, 2009, 7:04 PM

Sept. 22, 2009— -- Want to sleep like the leader of the free world? Then be prepared to shell out $7,000 a night for the presidential suite at New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel.

But for that kind of money, you really do get a piece of history.

President Obama checked in this week, becoming the latest world leader to stay in the four-bedroom suite. In fact, every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover has either stayed in or lived at the Waldorf's towers.

While it might be a great honor to have the president stay in your hotel, it's no easy task. With more than 100 world leaders and countless ambassadors gathering in New York this week for the 64th United Nations General Assembly hotels across the city are busy putting on their best show.

John Doherty spent 30 years working at the Waldorf, 23 of them as executive chef. He said this week brings an exhilarating challenge: besides Obama, there are roughly two dozen other heads of state staying at the hotel.

Doherty, who is now a partner at restaurant group Wolfpack Hospitality, said the chefs work with the State Department to learn what foods the president likes and dislikes. They then review a series of menus for all of the public dinners or meetings that the president will have at the hotel. For instance, President Ronald Regan had to avoid spices and nuts.

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And no, despite rumors, there is no government taste tester checking each dish for poison, Doherty said. However, the government is present in the kitchen as meals are being prepared.

George H. W. Bush was particularly interested in the food being served and would often quiz Doherty when staying at the Waldorf.

"Everybody made a big deal of him not liking broccoli but he was a real foodie. He loved everything and wanted to talk about the food and what was in it and how it was prepared," Doherty said.

One time, Doherty said he was waiting with Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft for then British Prime Minister John Major to arrive for dinner.

"President Bush wanted to know what we were having that night," Doherty recalls. "I can tell you the other two couldn't give a darn -- by their body language and all -- but the president was totally engaged and wanted to know what they were going to eat."

The Waldorf and the Presidents

The Waldorf's history with U.S. presidents goes back to its start: President Hoover delivered the welcoming address at the hotel's 1931 opening ceremony. (He later moved into the hotel after leaving office.)

Since then, the presidential suite has become the commander in chief's home when visiting New York. With each passing year, a bit more of history is added.

For instance, the room on the 35th floor includes the personal desk of General Douglas MacArthur -- donated by MacArthur's widow, Jean, who lived in the hotel from 1952 to 2000. Nearby is one of President John F. Kennedy's rocking chairs. Reagan donated the gold oval mirror and eagle-based table in the entrance. President Jimmy Carter provided the eagle desk set and the eagle wall sconces were a gift from President Richard Nixon.

All of the paintings in the presidential suite are by American artists. It first featured American colonial-style furnishings and was redecorated in 1969 to resemble the White House.

Whenever the president or first lady is in residence, personally monogrammed towels are placed in the master bathroom. Even the phones can be set up to identically match the White House phones. If the second button on the left in the White House calls the first lady, so will the same button at the presidential suite.

From time to time there are even multiple presidents in the hotel.

Take one single day back in 1963: President Kennedy and former Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Hoover were all honored at separate events, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived at their U.S. home at The Waldorf Towers and then Vice President (soon to become president) Lyndon Johnson moved in, which also happened to already be the home to then former vice president Nixon (before he became president.)

Other past guests include: Former French President Charles de Gaulle, Israel's David Ben-Gurion, Romani's Nicolae Ceausescu and the Soviet Union's Nikita Khruschev. One floor away from the presidential suite is the permanent residence for the American ambassador to the United Nations.

While the hotel has in the past talked about the suite, the Waldorf refused to comment for this story.

"We take pride in the fact that every United States President since Herbert Hoover has called The Waldorf-Astoria home when in New York City. Yet in keeping with our long-standing tradition of discretion, we will have no comment on particular Presidential visits. We consider ourselves host to the office," said Matt Zolbe, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.

While the presidential suite goes for $7,000 a night -- the White House usually negotiates a government discount at hotels -- his presence in the hotel is worth a lot more to the Waldorf in marketing.

Not just anybody can stay in the room. The hotel does special security checks on an unknown guest attempting to book the presidential suite and if you don't quite fit the room's profile, they might deny it from you just to keep up appearances.

Even if you do manage to get a key to the room, you might be kicked out at a moment's notice. If the president makes a last-second trip to New York, the room is his, no matter what. (The Waldorf will find you another suite, just not as presidential.)

What About the Ritz, Four Seasons?

So why in a city with two Ritz Carltons, a Four Seasons, Peninsula, St. Regis, Mandarin Oriental, as well as local favorites, such as The Plaza, Carlyle and Pierre, does the president always pick the Waldorf-Astoria?

Some say it has to do with the experience of the staff, others say it is because of the hotel's unique design. The Waldorf is one of the few New York hotels to have a driveway that goes under the building. In hotels without such drives, the Secret Service typically puts up a tent. But having this extra layer of security can't hurt.

The hotel also used to have its own underground train platform that connected to the nearby Grand Central Terminal. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt could reportedly be driven in his car right off the train and straight into the hotel's freight elevator.

The Waldorf isn't the only hotel to host world leaders this week.

Over at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, there are several heads of state getting some shut-eye, although the hotel wouldn't say how many or who they are. Several stay there each year since the 7-year-old hotel opened, according to Cynthia Chung whose job is dedicated to serving the visiting dignitaries.

"It's an honor and privilege for The Ritz-Carlton to be the home away from home for heads of state," she said. "My entire professional career has been dedicated to gaining valuable insight into the protocols, nuances and relationships required in this community."

The hotel doesn't have a presidential suite per se but three signature suites: the Royal, the Ritz-Carlton and the Central Park.

So who gets these top suites and who gets the lesser suites?

Chung said it is a combination of stature and repeat business.

"If we know they are coming back, we pretty much know the suite they want," she said. "There's certainly always competition for the big suites and new countries inevitably try to claw into the big suites but we our best to protect them for the heads of state that repeat into that specific suite."

The hotel's chefs learn to cook various dishes catering to the palates of the world leaders. Sometimes, the dignitary will bring his or her own chefs who are given space in the hotel's kitchens.

A large part of the hotel's job involves service. For instance, how do you address the visiting big shot?

Presidents, foreign ministers and ambassadors are typically referred to as "Your Excellency." Kings, queens and other royals are typically called "Your Majesty" or "Your Royal Highness."

Mr. President vs. Your Excellency

Granted, every country or leader has their own preferences.

"So it's really just knowing your countries well enough to know what they like," Chung said. "Some heads of state preferred to be addressed as 'Mr. President' as opposed to 'Your Excellency.'"

The Ritz has renovated suites for visiting dignitaries, converted rooms to offices and has even brought in special artwork, favorite flowers, scents, and bedding. The hotel's satellite dish is used to beam in the TV broadcasts from the dignitaries' home country. Once, Chung said, the hotel added mirrors in the elevator for a VIP who was a little bit claustrophobic.

"We maintain very significant relationships with our guests and we'll do whatever we can to accommodate them," she said.

Over at the Four Seasons, heads of states and their entourages typically take up one floor. The security detail usually converts a guest room into a meeting room and uses it as a command center, according to spokeswoman Leslie Lefkowitz.

The room is prepared as requested for the guest, then the Secret Service sweeps it with dogs. There are a number of other security measures taken -- most of which the hotel would not talk about -- including providing names of all employees who potentially come into contact with the head of state to the Secret Service.

So if you are walking around New York this week and see a limo parked outside one of these hotels, remember it might be Obama or one of the countless other world leaders hanging around town this week.