“NEW YORK’S NEW TOWER” by Gay Talese – May 1965

The Pan Am Building is the current king in the city’s line of dominating skyscrapers

Like thousands before him, Tom Kyle came to New York hoping to be­come a stage star, and like thousands before him, he did not make it. So to­day, after years of trying and only a few small parts to show for it, Tom Kyle, at thirty-four, works full time be­hind the information desk in the lobby of the fifty-nine-story Pan Am Building, at Park Avenue and 45th Street. Strangers approach all day with questions like:

“Say, fella, about how many windows in this place?”

“About 8,000,” Kyle says, standing erect in blue uniform behind his desk. “Excuse me,” another man asks. “Where’s Mitsui and Company?”

“Thirty-eighth floor, sir.”

“Pardon me,” says a tall brunette, dressed in a tight-fitting tweed suit. “How do I get to the Sky Club?”

Kyle looks at her. She is lovely and a little out of breath.

“It’s on the fifty-sixth floor, ma’am,” Kyle says, taking her in during the few seconds he has before she disappears. “The elevator is at the far end of the corridor.” he says, a little regretfully.

“Thank you,” she says, smiling again, turning quickly toward the elevator, watched by Tom Kyle.

“Fringe benefits,” Kyle thinks.

Tom Kyle is not unhappy with his job. He has held onto it while ignoring opportunities elsewhere, in fashion modeling and show business, because the Pan Am Building is the swingingest skyscraper in town, and he has become addicted to the action it offers.

It starts at 9 A.M., when the secretaries arrive, swinging their hips, and does not end until midnight, when the charwomen leave, swinging their mops. In between, this big glass skyscraper is tense with 17,000 tenants, sways slightly in the wind, vibrates to the rumble of trains moving through Grand Central Terminal below Each working day it glows with 42,000 lights, gurgles with 60,000 gallons of water, taps with 10,000 typewriters, rings with 18,000 telephones. Its sixty-five elevators, the fastest in the world—they were hopped up a bit to surpass those of the Chase Manhattan Bank downtown—can travel at 1,700 feet per minute, and they slice through the worlds of Japanese bankers, Italian chemists, British steel men, American law firms, advertising agen­cies, stock brokerages, moviemakers, magazine editors, Mrs. America, Inc., and the Association for the Prevention of Drunken Driving, Inc.

The Pan Am swings because it is the largest new skyscraper in New York, the new girl in town, and is in its glory. This is temporary, of course, for in New York all skyscrapers sooner or later fall from fashion. As they get older, they are overshadowed by newer, brighter buildings that attract the more prestigious tenants. Tenants are as fickle as ticket buyers on Broad­way: they want to be in on the newest hit. New York is now filled with sky­scrapers that once were the first of the town but now merely stand, occupied largely by strugglers, not strivers.

Downtown is the Woolworth Building, all the rage a half century ago but now passé as office, address or land­mark. In the 1930’s, the Chrysler Building was fabulous, but today even Chrysler’s executives have abandoned it and moved into the Pan Am. And finally the Empire State, most famous of all skyscrapers, is fighting for its position; there is a plan to build two 110-story skyscrapers in downtown Manhattan. If this succeeds, and it has a good chance, the Empire State will never be the same.

But today it is the Pan Am that throbs with excitement and prosperity. Tom Kyle, from his vantage point in the lobby—giving directions, watching 368 people per minute flashing past his desk—feels he is part of a hit show. He sees beautiful women move by all day, a kind of musical revue with laughs, intrigue, mystery, and all sorts of characters who play themselves.

Through the crowd Tom Kyle spots Charles A. Lindbergh slipping into an elevator to be whisked lip to the forty-eighth floor for a conference with Pan American Airways. A moment later he sees Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton strolling in, about to ascend to the fourteenth to  discuss films in the offices of Seven Arts Associates Corp. Later Kyle may see Richard M. Nixon look around the lobby, glare, then disappear in an elevator up to Coudert Brothers on the thirteenth floor.

Then Kyle sees coming out of an elevator a fat tycoon and a buxom blonde—the same couple Kyle had seen going up in the elevator late the afternoon before. Did they spend the night in his executive suite? Possibly, Kyle thinks, because the blonde is now wearing dark sun glasses, and the tycoon is whistling a tune and trying desperately to seem inconspicuous and innocent.

Maybe Kyle should write a book, as he says, but its success would depend on his ability to pad the story, because his lobby-view of life is full of empty spaces. He overhears only bits of conversations, never sentences. He can only speculate on what is going on in passers’ minds, but he is never sure. This incomplete quality to everything contributes to the mystery and magic of his job—and in a sense, is also representative of the mystery and magic of Manhattan, where nobody is sure, nobody knows all that is going on around him, nobody can say with confidence, “This is how it is.”

For example, the executive from Kenyon & Eckhardt is smiling now as he passes Kyle in the lobby. The executive’s smile inspires confidence. Yet he may have just lost a million-dollar account. The  telephone repairman who stands in the corner of the lobby, studying the wiring in the wall, may be with the F.B.I. on a wire-tapping mission. And this proper executive, Samuel F. Pryor, Jr., who is walking toward the elevator—what does he carry within his attaché case? Top-secret memos? Possibly. But it is equally possible, Kyle has learned, that Mr. Pryor’s attaché case contains miniature dolls. Mr. Pryor, a leading official with Pan American Airways, is also one of America’s foremost doll collectors; he and Mrs. Pryor have about 8,000 of them in their home in Greenwich, Connecticut.

Now, up on the eighth floor of the Pan Am, in offices occupied by the Commercial Union Insurance Group, the execu­tives are frowning. It is sunny in New York, the Commercial Union’s offices are bright and the firm is making lots of money; morale should be high. But not today. Word has just arrived that a big hurricane is expected to slash its way up the eastern coast of Florida and may bat­ter some property that just two days ago was insured by Commercial Union.

“Whenever there are storm warnings anywhere in the nation, you can read them on the faces of these top execs,” one junior executive pointed out cheerfully. “You’d see it on my face, too, but I’m not paid enough to worry.”

Strolling up on the fifty-sixth floor of the Pan Am Building, dangling a $16,000 check in his right hand, is a man who is paid enough to worry, but he does not seem worried that somebody will snatch the check from his hand. He is Gene Tunney, former heavyweight champion, here to drop the check off at Hayden Stone & Co. to pay for stock he just bought. After that, he will go to the Sky Club, on the same floor, for late lunch with a few other millionaires, and then return to his own office in the McCandless Corporation on the thirty-seventh floor.

The Sky Club is another of the building’s wonders. It provides a spectacular view of New York, the food is exceptional, the antique furniture exquisite. Most men who eat there regularly are millionaires, and it is usually 3 P.M., and sometimes later, before they have finished lunch and returned to their offices. However, there are some execu­tives. such as Al Fields of the Universal American Corporation, on the fifty-fourth floor, who do things differently. Mr. Fields eats at his desk. His food almost every day is yoghurt. He keeps it in the refrigerator of his plush office. (The private office refrigerator is the new big-business status symbol, having replaced British-sounding secretaries, who were losing their accents anyway.)

Mr. Fields, like some other executives, lives a hermetically sealed exist­ence; he rarely wanders into the city’s air. In the morning his daughter drives him from his Westport home to the train station and an overheated rail car; he rides it to Grand Central Station, takes the escalator up to the Pan Am’s mezzanine, waves at Tom Kyle, then rides the elevator to the fifty-fourth floor. He never wears an over­coat, even during blizzards. He never needs an overcoat. At 5:30 P.M. Mr. Fields takes the elevator down, catches the train, and is met by his daughter at the Westport station. Should his wife ask him how the weather was in New York, he has no idea.

“We live in a world of boxes,” Mr. Fields says gloomily. “We ride to New York each morning in a rail car, which is a box; take the elevator, which is a box; we work all day in an office building, which is a box; before we know it, we’re being carried out—in a box.” He shrugs, goes back to his yoghurt.

At twilight the Pan Am Building changes in tone and mood. Once the tenants begin to flood through the lobby and depart through the exits, the lights in the floors above begin to flick off: but the building is never completely quiet or lifeless. Detectives patrol the floors, searching for derelicts or thieves who might have slipped in unnoticed. The building echoes with the clanging pails and scrubbing mops and voices of the charwomen, who each night sweep out 40,000 pounds of waste paper and dump it into burlap bags. These are later collected by porters and hauled down to a storage room, where they are left for twenty-four hours ­to provide time for the recovery of valuable papers inadvertently thrown out. Then the haling machines squeeze it all into box-shaped hulks, each weighing 1,000 pounds and wrapped in wire so that it can be lifted into trucks arid delivered to paper and cardboard manufacturers. There it all will become typing paper, envelopes and memos again—millions of memos that will soon come back to haunt the nation’s office workers, including the 17,000 Pan Am people who each day pass Tom Kyle in the lobby and make him feel glad that he is there. ◊

One response

  1. Thanks for repudistributing these articles. There are historic reminders within them, here, for example, is a reminder that we were recycling paper before it was even a “trend”. I always wanted one of those baling machines, there was on in my elementary school’s janitor’s room and I yearned for it.

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