John Fitzpatrick is remembering back to the crystallizing day in his life as a hotelier – the day his hotel in Manhattan became more than just a place where the Taoiseach stayed and Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne could be spotted at the bar, and Irish shoppers fell over themselves and their suit- cases taking the Fitzpatrick limousine to the airport, bags stuffed with Christmas presents. It wasn’t about a fundraiser for Hillary and secret service men descending on the place because former President Clinton had decided he wanted to be in on the act. It was 9/11 and it was about people.
“People were calling from all over Ireland saying, ‘Listen, my daughter lives in New York or my son lives in New York, we can’t contact them but I know they’ll go to your bar.’ And people were stopping into the bar and saying, ‘Listen, will you take my name down because I know my mom will check here.’”
John became an unofficial ambassador that day, working with the Irish Consulate, swapping lists of names and other information, and finding places for those unable to leave the city – many slept in the lobby of the hotel that night.
Those who know John will not be surprised that this day stands out in his long career as a hotelier. He’s very much involved with the Irish, both in New York which he has called home since he opened the doors of the Fitzpatrick Manhattan in December 1991, and in Ireland where he was born and raised. He has received numerous accolades both for his business acumen and his philanthropic work, but at the end of the day he is proud to call himself an innkeeper.
John honed his craft at his father’s side – the famous Paddy Fitzpatrick, who worked his way up from hotel manager at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, to owner of Killiney Castle Hotel, County Dublin, and Fitzpatrick’s Shamrock Hotel in Bunratty, County Clare.
His mother Eithne, a former Miss Ireland, he credits with giving him his sense of style. She worked with his father on building up the family business and on every aspect of the interior design – even arranging the flowers in the luxurious Killiney Castle Hotel. (The striking renovation that the Fitzpatrick Manhattan has recently undergone attests to the fact that John has inherited his mother’s eye for detail.)
The second eldest of Paddy and Eithne’s five children, John was not content to spend his career in his father’s shadow, and struck out for the United States at an early age. He broadened his knowledge of the hotel business in Las Vegas and Chicago – working his way to manager of a hotel in Oaklawn, Illinois – before the call came from his father to come back to the family business in Ireland. He was happy enough for a while – he learned to fly a helicopter so as to stay on top of the ever-expanding Fitzpatrick hotel empire – but he always had a hankering to get back to the States. In 1990, with his father’s blessing he began looking at various U.S. cities, finally settling on New York, and the site at 57th Street and Lexington Avenue – a small residential hotel in a prime location that needed a complete renovation. John oversaw every detail. To save money he stayed in the empty hotel during construction, padlocking the door after the crews went home at night. The hotel opened its doors in December 1991. Soon it was the epicenter of the Irish community in New York – popular with heads of state and the Hollywood A-list alike. So successful was it, that a couple of years later John opened another New York hotel – The FitzPatrick’s Grand Central.
Such is John’s reputation in the hospitality industry that he is in his second term as chairman of the New York Hotel Association. Its membership includes 245 of the finest hotels in the city, representing more than 65,000 rooms and 32,000 employees. When he is not about the business of his hotels, John is a regular on the social scene in New York City and in the Hamptons where he has a weekend retreat. His name has been linked with a number of glamorous women, but he would be the first to admit that, for now at least, he is married to the job. On the morning of our interview, he is leaving for a skiing holiday in the French Alps with friends from boyhood. He’s looking forward to it, but one can sense that he will enjoy it all the more in reflection – when he’s back at work in New York. As he fends off calls and deals with last-minute business before he leaves for the airport, I’m struck by the fact that he is taking the time to call in a favor – a concert ticket for the daughter of a friend.
He is a warm, elegant man, with an easy manner and a knack for making people comfortable. These characteristics, the key to his success as a hotelier, were also useful when the peace process was moving warily towards the Good Friday Agreement, and he opened his hotel to the loyalists and unionists, for they are “Irish too.”