Beanie Babies Take East Fifty-seventh Street

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – March 5, 1998

Beanie Babies Take East Fifty-seventh Street

BY KURT ANDERSEN

IN 1960, TIME INC. MOVED into a brand-new Sixth Avenue high-rise that was big and white and square. In the early eighties, during the twilight of A.T.&T.’s monopolistic imperium, the company put up its Darth Vaderish headquarters on Madison. Donald Trump is famous for flashy casinos in New Jersey and shiny, shiny skyscrapers in Manhattan. In other words, when well-known companies associate themselves with prominent buildings, the architecture usually makes some kind of expressive sense.

But not always. A couple of weeks ago, Ty Warner, the founder and owner of Ty, Inc., bought the six-year-old Four Seasons Hotel, on East Fifty-seventh Street, for two hundred and seventy-five million dollars. Ty Warner’s fortune is the Beanie Babies fortune, which he has been amassing just since 1993. Beanie Babies (for readers who have neither grade-school children nor talc-scented, overcaffeinated great-aunts) are the two hundred and twenty-five different beanbag animals at the center of the longestlasting and most lucrative plush-toy mania ever.

The only quality that Ty and the Four Seasons seem to share is a nine-figure net worth. The distinguishing feature of Beanie Babies (aside from the heartshaped tags, which collectors fetishize) is their small size; Teeny Beanies, which come free with some McDonald’s Happy Meals, are even smaller. The Four Seasons, on the other hand, is the tallest hotel in New York, and vastness is the overriding characteristic of its lobby and guest rooms.

Beanies are the apotheosis of mass-market cuteness—little and soft and preternaturally colorful critters, each with its own birthday and adorable name. Nothing about the Four Seasons is cute. The hotel is neoclassical, hard and handsome, tasteful but almost ferociously grand, clad inside and out in French limestone—“the same stone,” the hotel’s architect, I. M. Pei, says, “that I used at the Louvre.”

Beanies are inexpensive—about five dollars apiece. The Four Seasons is probably the most expensive hotel in Manhattan. An ordinary room goes for six hundred dollars a night. And, just as patrons of the Four Seasons are not generally the kind of people who spend a lot of time clicking around Beanie Web sites, a Beanie devotee would have to be nuts to spend sixteen dollars for a Martini at the hotel bar when, for the same money, he could buy Mystic the unicorn, Canyon the cougar, and Nibbler the rabbit.

Ty Warner and Ty, Inc., have an obsession with privacy. Warner generally gives interviews only to Beanie Baby fanzines; the address and the phone number of his headquarters, in a Chicago exurb called Westmont, are unpublished; no one from Ty, Inc., including the woman in charge of public relations, would return my phone calls. The Four Seasons, packed with people who yearn to be interviewed, is on Fifty-seventh Street between Madison and Park Avenues, pretty much ground zero for both media engagement and see-and-be-seen spectacle.

Still, the modern impulse toward corporate synergy could just begin to bridge this cultural chasm. Until last week, I. M. Pei, whose offices are right down the block from the Four Seasons, hadn’t heard that his hotel had fallen into the hands of the genius behind Beanie Babies. Asked about the new owners, he said, “I’ve never met them, and they’ve not paid me any visit.” He suggested that, since the hotel will still be managed by the Four Seasons Corporation, the Beanie connection might go unrealized. “I guess they’ll keep it nice,” he said. “My guess is they will. Since the room rates are so high.” When I bruited the cross-promotional prospects of Smoochy the frog and Patti the platypus for sale in the lobby, or a complimentary Beanie Baby on each guest’s pillow at night, the architect was quiet. Then he said, “I hope not.”©