City Room - Blogging From the Five Boroughs
December 21, 2011, 7:15 am
Algonquin’s Roaming Diva Cat, Matilda, Has Closer Quarters
By JAMES BARRON
Librado Romero/The New York TimesMatilda, the cat at the Algonquin Hotel, is restricted from eating areas.
What fresh hell is this? They have surrounded the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel with an invisible electric fence.
The hotel hopes it will keep the health department happy by keeping its divalike resident cat from straying where food and drinks are served.
The cat, Matilda, a 5-or-so-year-old Ragdoll, had no comment. She cut short an interview, diving under the hotel’s front desk after only one question and leaving a reporter with more: Was she more acerbic than Dorothy Parker? More witty than Noel Coward?
There was a time before her time when they had the run of the place, too. But unlike them, Matilda was no Round Table regular. The Algonquin’s general manager, Gary Budge, said she only rarely strolled into the dining area at the lobby’s far north end.
The electric fence was installed in late summer after someone called 311. A dog lover? A dog? The health department will not say.
But it took action, sending a letter to the Algonquin that said someone had alleged that “a possible violation of Article 81 of the New York City Health Code or Subpart 14-1 of the New York State Sanitary Code, applicable to food service establishments may have occurred or is occurring at the abovementioned facility.”
E.B. White, who knew his way around the Algonquin, probably would have complained about the lack of a comma after the word “establishments.” Who knows what he would have said about the need for a hyphen in “abovementioned,” but surely the word “facility” would not have gone unnoticed? “The Elements of Style,” which Mr. White wrote with William Strunk Jr., contains this entry: “Why must jails, hospitals and schools suddenly become ‘facilities’?” What about hotels?
But back to the letter. The next line was: “The complaint alleges a live animal was observed in the facility.”
Ozier Muhammad/The New York TimesIn 2006, another Matilda was the resident cat at the Algonquin Hotel.
That would be Matilda, a celebrity in a hotel that has seen its share. Mr. Budge even says the Algonquin has a chief cat officer, Alice de Almeida. (Her business card gives her title as executive assistant.)
And the hotel markets Matilda. It advertises a two-night “Friends of Matilda” package that gives guests two cocktails in the part of the lobby that is off-limits to Matilda, but the package includes a plush model of her.
Mr. Budge said the package accounted for roughly 1 percent of the hotel’s occupancy a year. “And that’s just the package,” he added. “There are people who’ve been coming for years who expect to see Matilda. We have people who don’t stay here who come by to see Matilda.”
Matilda is the latest in a long line of Algonquin cats going back to the 1930s. The first, a stray who wandered in off West 44th Street with as much elan as a famous guest, was known as Rusty or Hamlet. Since then, each cat has been succeeded by another with the same name, Hamlet for the males, Matilda for the females.
Some of the current Matilda’s predecessors had real responsibilities. Consider what happened in the 1970s, when the playwright Mary Chase, who lived in Denver, checked in. At the time, her granddaughter was a student at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. Ms. Chase, who was famous for the Broadway play “Harvey,” invited her granddaughter and her granddaughter’s roommate to come by for tea.
They were deep in conversation when a mouse appeared in Ms. Chase’s room.
She called room service and was told something like: “Just open the door. We’ll send the cat right up on the elevator.”
Moments later, the elevator doors parted. The cat padded out. It was one of the Hamlets. In Ms. Chase’s room, he enjoyed his afternoon snack, and she and her guests went back to enjoying their tea.
The Algonquin says Matilda never goes above the first floor. But after it received the complaint letter, it faced a dilemma. It could not afford to lose Matilda. But it could not afford to have the health department write her up, either.
The solution was the kind of pet-confinement system that keeps dogs from going beyond their owners’ suburban yards.
Mr. Budge said the idea was to “condition” Matilda to remain “in a more, let’s say, neutral area of the lobby, where there is no food and beverage service” — the fairly narrow area from the front door past the reception desk and to the elevators.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
Under a cocktail table, part of an invisible electric fence system that makes use of mild electrical jolts to condition pets to stay within an enforced perimeter.
That explains the Frisbee-size transmitters that were hidden under the cocktail tables and beneath the wingback chairs.
If Matilda went into the wrong part of the lobby at, say, cocktail time, she would get a jolt, “kind of like a vibrating buzz,” Mr. Budge said. Not the kind of buzz the customers were getting from their martinis.
“She experienced it a few times” in training sessions, Mr. Budge said. “She got the message.”
A spokeswoman for the health department, Susan Craig, said that the letter about Matilda was “automatically generated” and that the department “did not find evidence substantiating that complaint.”
She said that during a recent inspection, the hotel had explained the ins and outs of the electric fence “perimeter outside of the food service area to contain the cat.”
Librado Romero/The New York Times“Our food safety inspector acknowledged this,” Ms. Craig wrote in an e-mail, “and concurred that cats should be kept out of dining, kitchen or other food-preparation areas.” For all her mentions in newspaper articles, Matilda has never been mentioned in the Algonquin’s restaurant inspection reports from the health department. (The New York Post reported last month that Matilda had been put on a leash or banished to nonpublic areas at the hotel after the Health Department gave the Algonquin a “reminder” that animals were not allowed in food-service areas. The leash, which was not tethered, was part of the training she was given as the invisible fence was being installed.)
The current Matlida.
The current Matlida.
In a few days, Matilda will no longer be an issue. The Algonquin is closing in January for a four-month renovation. Matilda will move to temporary quarters, “an exclusive cat spa,” Ms. Almeida’s house in Sunnyside, Queens. She has three other cats, “playmates or hiss-mates,” she said.
At the Algonquin, Matilda has had the run of the bellman’s coat closet, where there is a chair she likes. But who needs that when you can lounge on a luggage cart? Or the front desk when a guest in a leopard-skin coat is checking in, as was the case one morning last week?
“Hope it’s fake,” Ms. Almeida said.
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