At the Carlyle, Always an Observer
For decades, documentary filmmaker Matthew Miele has been a fly on the wall at the legendary hotel. Now it’s the subject of his newest release.
Put your phone away when strolling around New York with Matthew Miele. “The city is the capital of curiosity. One of my biggest pet peeves is when people walk around looking down, not appreciating what they’re passing by,” says the filmmaker, whose inquisitive eye has led him to make several documentary love-letters to his hometown, including Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s (2013) and Crazy About Tiffany’s (2016). “How can you just say, I’ll be better surfing the web than learning about where I am?”
Miele, who grew up in New Jersey, always kept his eyes peeled during childhood visits to Manhattan, stopping by Rumpelmayer’s in the St. Moritz Hotel for ice cream on summer afternoons, or making a family pilgrimage to see the Bergdorf Goodman holiday windows. As an adult, he turned his fascination with New York’s cultural icons into a creative career. “I started thinking, maybe my enthusiasm and passion will translate to an audience. Maybe they’ll turn around and appreciate something like I do, and it will have its moment.”
The latest city institution that Miele is giving “its moment”? The Carlyle Hotel, A Rosewood Hotel, which is the subject of this his latest film, Always at The Carlyle, opening this month. The legendary hotel has played a consistent, if supporting, role in Miele’s own life. “I first heard about it as a teenager—it was the place you go when you’re an adult,” he recalls. At 21, he went on a date at Bemelmans Bar. “I felt grown up, but I wasn’t even close to being mature enough to handle it.” He eventually became a regular at the bar, but still never felt like he entirely belonged. “I could feel the atmosphere, but I wasn’t part of it,” he says. “I was an observer.”
After getting married and moving to the Upper East Side, Miele would walk to the hotel with his baby every day, using it as his turnaround point. “I’d look at The Carlyle and want to tell my son, ‘Daddy used to come here.’ I was still this observer, just rolling my kid by.”
For Always at The Carlyle, Miele became more than an outsider. He delved into the hotel’s archives and spent months conducting interviews with staff and guests past and present—everyone from George Clooney and Naomi Campbell to Vera Wang and Condoleezza Rice. Interview by interview, Miele peeled back the layers of The Carlyle’s long, guarded history. He learned that Princess Diana and Jacqueline Onassis favored the same suite, and that some of the bartenders who served Harry Truman at his regular perch at Bemelmans continue to shake martinis there today.
Navigating around the staff’s famous discretion was a challenge. Danny Harnett, a bellman who makes frequent appearances in the film, has worked at the Carlyle since 1963, and witnessed the comings and goings of, among others, President John F. Kennedy. “He won’t tell you anything unless you ask him,” says Miele, “and even then he just gives you a couple words.” Miele stayed at the hotel for weeks after production after shooting was complete to edit the film. Halfway through, he learned that the room he’d been using was where JFK would sit for haircuts. “It was nuts to me,” he says. “How is that something you don’t say right away?”
Perhaps the aversion to spilling decades old secrets stems from the nature of The Carlyle’s clientele: famous, yes, but not constantly chasing the spotlight. “Everyone there has succeeded in a way,” notes Miele. “They’re the pioneers, the inventors who’ve aspired to something, but who don’t want to be ostentatious or carry their ego around in their back pocket. That’s why I was sheepish about being there in my early twenties. I hadn’t achieved enough to get there.”
With Always at The Carlyle, he continues, “I was allowed in, to let my camera roll and capture the hotel. It was interesting, and it continues to be interesting. But I’m still an observer.”
Always at The Carlyle premieres May 11, 2018 in New York City. Watch the trailer below.