Thursday, August 10, 2017

Book Review: Oscar of the Waldorf

Title: Oscar of the Waldorf

(This image is of the reprint edition; it may be a copy of a paper dust jacket that my book no longer has, but it's not the first edition, which is what I have for sale in real life.)

Author: Karl Schriftgiesser / Oscar Tschirky

Date: 1943

Publisher: Dutton

ISBN: none

Length: 238 pages

Illustrations: several black-and-white glossy plates

Quote: “Being a hotel man has been more than my job. It has been my life.”

Who was Karl Schriftgiesser? Why is this biography of Oscar Tschirky, copyright by Oscar Tschirky, written in the third person “by Karl Schriftgiesser”? Was Oscar of the Waldorf vain enough to invent a biographer in hopes of sounding more modest...or was he prudent enough to hire an assistant whose native language was English in order to produce a well-written book in English? It hardly matters now, because this is not the story of Oscar, personally. It's the story of his hotel.

Oscar and the Waldorf Hotel flourished in the “Gilded Age” between 1890 and 1930, a time when Marxism flourished as a reaction to the extravagance of the obscenely rich. Money did, of course, trickle down in its slow inefficient way. “Wealthy Willy” Waldorf Astor built his luxury hotel on the site of his father's home, in the hope that his own name would displace his father's name from history, with a mission of making himself famous by operating the most extravagant luxury hotel the world had ever seen. He succeeded, possibly because he hired a sturdy Swiss immigrant away from Delmonico's and basically put that immigrant, Oscar, in charge of stocking the hotel with the people William Waldorf Astor wanted for friends. Oscar and a full crew of cooks, waiters, cleaners, messengers, even live elevator operators, profited from Astor's dissipation of his inheritance. If they didn't become rich in the sense that Astor was rich, Oscar, at least, had no worries about retirement.

Oscar didn't chatter at the customers, he tells us. He was not the head chef, but the head waiter, or as they say in Europe the maitre d'hotel. Over the years, because he gave good service and wasn't chatty or gossipy, he did come to seem like a friend to some of the hotel's patrons. Sometimes he heard things. Once, he says, once in his lifetime, he was able to tell some of them something important enough to make him break his rule and speak before he was spoken to. Oscar had his small part in the design of the Panama Canal.

Celebrity gossip is of course the main attraction of his memoir. Most of it is bland, amusing, newspaper-style gossip. John “Bet-a-million” Gates, an early patron, wagered a hundred dollars that one raindrop would reach the bottom of a window ahead of another one (he won). Lillian Russell couldn't make up her mind whether she wanted cantaloupe or ice cream for dessert; Oscar gave her half a cantaloupe with ice cream in the center and named this dessert “cantaloupe a la Lillian Russell.” Horace Fletcher, an eccentric medical researcher who believed in eating very plain food very slowly, frustrated Oscar by ordering bread and water for lunch. When a Barnum & Bailey employee turned eighty, still on the job, the company paid Oscar to make a banquet for 400 mostly famous people into a literal circus, with trapezes overhead. Early in his career Oscar had published a book of recipes he'd collected from New York's best chefs, with the result that people thought he was a chef himself; he continued collecting recipes and encouraging chefs to invent new ones, and his “war cake” recipe appears on page 173, but most of the recipes he collected were for enormous amounts of food—and one of his favorite finds, he says, came from a prison chef and could have been officially named “Clam Chowder a la Sing Sing.”

By the 1940s, when friends urged Oscar to write this book, it appears that he had become a somewhat nostalgic and querulous old man, always missing and reminiscing about an era that had passed. In the early twentieth century conservation laws forced him to stop offering endangered wild animals as main courses. Then the World Wars forced him to curb the extravagance and comply with “shortages” and “austerities.” Prohibition forced him to ruin, in his own mind, his terrapin soup by making it alcohol-free. The Depression took all the fun out of being extravagant, and eventually his beloved hotel closed down. It reopened on schedule, but it just...wasn't...the same.

Not that he was bitter. Having invested his whole life in the hotel had its benefits. At seventy-five, Oscar could probably have retired in any place and style he might have fancied...and he chose to move into the “new” Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where he was allowed to work part-time as a greeter for as long as he wanted. (His wife, whom he doesn't embarrass by mentioning more than three times in the book, moved in with him.) That the children and grandchildren of the “old” Waldorf's early patrons kept coming back, among other things to see the institution Oscar had become, gives his memoir a happy ending.

Oscar Tschirky had no problem with extravagance, snobbery, or inflated prices, and it probably wouldn't bother him at all to know that his memoir has become a collectible book. If you don't demand the first edition, of which I can't guarantee I'll find more than one, a copy of Oscar of the Waldorf will cost $30 per book plus $5 per package (four books of this size can fit into a package) plus $1 per online payment.