One of the great hotels in New York at the turn of the century was the Hotel Astor on Times Square. The establishment was owned and operated by William C. Muschenheim, a German immigrant who lived the American dream to the fullest. With the backing of the prominent German-American Waldorf-Astor family, Muschenheim had built and expanded this landmark hotel on Times Square between 1904 and 1910. A room cost between $4 and $5 per night. $20 per night would get you one of the lavish suites on the forth floor. One of the great features of the Astor was the terrace roof garden, a large restaurant and bar on top of the hotel with great views of the Manhattan's skyline.
On August 13, 1914, as World War I took shape in Europe, Felix A. Sommerfeld, a German Naval Intelligence agent and official representative and arms buyer for Pancho Villa rented a three-room suite on the forth floor of the Muschenheim establishment. He lived there for the duration of the war. Many times in the months after Sommerfeld settled in New York, journalists loitered in the lavishly decorated reception hall of the Astor Hotel hoping to catch the German agent for a comment as he was checking for messages and telegrams at the front desk. Although most of Sommerfeld’s telegrams were coded, the receptionists knew from the newspapers that their wealthy guest worked for Pancho Villa, the famed Mexican revolutionary whose exploits excited the movie goers of the day.
On September 16, 1914, the former Imperial Secretary of Colonies Bernhard Dernburg gave a speech to several hundred German-Americans invited to the roof garden by the German University League. In attendance were the German Ambassador Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, the second counselor of the German embassy, Hermann Prince von Hatzfeld zu Trachenberg, and the German purchasing agent and paymaster of German clandestine missions in the U.S., Heinrich F. Albert. Dernburg, who defended the German invasion of Belgium, had charge of fund raising for German operations in the U.S., clearly the chief purpose of the event.
Almost exactly a year later, Heinrich Albert himself took a suite in the Astor. American agents had stolen his briefcase and published the contents in New York's largest papers. The scandal made the nondescript and shy German agent into an overnight celebrity. Reporters, investigators, and secret agents beleaguered Albert's office in the Hamburg-America building on 45 Broadway. Every move he made was recorded and reported. He moved his office to the Astor as a consequence.
On the morning of October 28, 1915, New York police rushed into the hotel, went to the forth floor and pounded on the door to Felix Sommefeld's suite. They arrested the German agent on a warrant that dated back to 1898. Handcuffed and visibly shaken, Sommerfeld was paraded through the reception hall of the Astor, causing a sensation in the evening papers. The German agent beat the charges but not before agents of the Bureau of Investigations had searched his rooms. A few years later, on June 21, 1918, agents of the U.S. Secret Service came for the German agent. Again he was paraded through the hotel in handcuffs and again the front pages of the New York papers reported on the scandal. After three days of debriefing, he was interned at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia as a dangerous enemy alien. Unlike the time before, Sommerfeld would not return to the hotel for over a year.
There are no records that indicate whether William Muschenheim had any idea that German agents used his establishment to plot their campaigns against America. However, he did particularly like Felix Sommerfeld, to whom, while in internment, he wrote a note in May 1919 wishing him Happy Birthday. After his release in the summer of 1919, Sommerfeld returned to the Astor where American agents noted that he again entertained all kinds of folk, plotting revolutions in Mexico. The Astor Hotel changed owners in the 1950s, and finally went out of business in 1967. In 1968, the hotel was demolished and made space for a fifty-four story skyscraper.