“Whatever happens here, stays here.”
Don’t bother asking the staff of the iconic Carlyle Hotel about their high-profile guests because they won’t tell you anything about them. The pinnacle of elegance and discretion in New York City, the Carlyle isn’t as famous as The Plaza or the St. Regis, but it serves as a home of sorts for mega-celebrities like Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, and George Clooney. The high society clientele list also includes standouts like John F. Kennedy and the British Royal Family. Since its creation in 1930, the Carlyle has been the destination for jet-setters and New York’s most discerning; probably because the staff treats every encounter with their idolized patrons as “what happens at the Carlyle, stays at the Carlyle.”
Paparazzi line up around the entrance, a visual shorthand for the dissonance between appearances and what happens behind closed doors. Elevator operators have all of the stories, but the tightest lips, not surprisingly, George Clooney praises them as the secret MVPs of the institution. Even former employees like Tommy the bartender, when faced with proof of stories, refuse to spill the beans. Admirable. Some memories are told, albeit decades later, about encounters with JFK, Newman, and Nicholson, but only because of what those moments meant to the staff. Idle gossip wouldn’t be tolerated at the Carlyle.
For those who could never afford to stay inside its hallowed walls, Always at the Carlyle brings audiences a little closer to the renowned institution and those who inhabit it. Documentarian Matthew Miele (Harry Benson: Shoot First, Crazy About Tiffany’s) brings a glitzy sheen to the goings-on of the Carlyle by interviewing A-listers about their own experiences as well as the staff who’ve been there for decades. Jon Hamm declares the Carlyle as the place you go that certifies that “you’ve made it.” When Miele asks if Hamm has stayed there, he bemusedly says “no.” George Clooney calls it one of his favorite places. Anjelica Huston shares fond memories of her time there. Even the typically curmudgeonly Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford have nice things to say about the Carlyle. And from the breath-taking skyline views overlooking Central Park, the bold art deco design, Weenix paintings in the lobby, Bemelmans Bar, and the Cafe Carlyle, what’s not to love?
Yet the quality that keeps residents coming back to the Carlyle is in short supply elsewhere: intimacy. Bobby Short’s shows at the Cafe were a slice of heaven that couldn’t be found anywhere else; his sound synonymous with the class and sophistication found at his venue. Watching Jeff Goldblum’s jazz group riff for an evening could only be an option at the Carlyle. Every night, interaction, and meal exists as a time capsule for those who partake of it to savor. Privacy at restaurants onsite assures that the bubble created by the staff is never punctured. The Carlyle could take measures that would allow for additional revenue: alter staff, make concierge services more automated, but to do so would violate the purpose of the establishment. The atmosphere of the Carlyle is a familial one. The same men and women who greet you, answer calls, serve meals, and make your stay a welcome do so for decades.
Still, as the film notes, people move on and times change. As Anthony Bourdain simply states, “How much longer can this exist?” A regular presence in the film, Dwight the concierge, is about to retire, and a part of the reason why he’s saying goodbye to his profession is that lack of connection. He sees it as a death of a way of life. Dwight isn’t the only talking head interviewed to come to this conclusion either. Patrons of the Carlyle lament change, but Miele doesn’t check them on any of their unfounded anxiety. Stasis is a privilege of the super-wealthy, and while it’s understandable that those interviewed wouldn’t want to see Carlyle changed, there’s little evidence that it will, rendering the point moot. Which leads to the biggest complaint about the documentary’s focus: there isn’t one.
By not steering any of the stars toward any kind of grand unifying theme, Always as the Carlyle never elevates itself beyond a long-form commercial for the hotel. Miele does well in explaining why the Carlyle is adept at providing a singular experience for all who grace its doors, yet there’s little in the presentation to go gaga over. Part of the Carlyle staff confidentiality means that the conversations that make up most of the film will not be all that intriguing. And, at one hour and 32 minutes, there’s still fat on the bone. As curios go, Always at the Carlyle more than succeeds at peeking behind the drawn curtain of a lifestyle few would ever experience. But there is a heart present beneath the A-list lap of luxury. When Elaine Stritch, who frequented the Carlyle often, becomes overjoyed by the announcement of her own commemorative plaque, it is an exquisite pleasure that the audience shares vicariously. It’s that moment in which viewers get it; in addition to becoming a shared part of a legacy, it’s like being welcomed home.