I was only eighteen. It was the late 1970s. I was working as a houseman (assistant to the maids) at the famous Fairmont Hotel on San Francisco’s Nob Hill. It wasn’t at all glamorous, though a lot of celebrities passed through, either to stay at the hotel or perform in the Venetian Room, or both. I was working the night-shift, five in the afternoon until one in the morning. It was my first job. The ladies who ran the housekeeping department were very strict Germans who all but terrorized us employees–she-wolves of the SS! The parts of the hotel that the guests didn’t see were crawling with giant roaches and busy with fast-moving mice. The place stank. There was no joy there. Some days, in the beginning, I cleaned out toilets in the men’s locker room, a dungeon where the vermin fed on the garbage left by workers. Whenever I could, I sneaked into maids’ closets and read Henry James or Kafka or Garcia Marquez. I was taking a year off from college.
When I became an assistant maid, I no longer had to clean out toilets; instead, I helped bring towels to rooms and create king-size beds out of (I think) two double beds. This was how I met Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Late one night I received an order to go up to a suite and make a king-size bed. When I got there, I saw the night manager, a distinguished older man in a black suit and bow-tie, fussing around and straightening things out. There were also two women speaking a foreign language. I recognized one of them and said to the night manager, “Who is that?”
“Miss Gabor!” he whispered.
A few minutes later I proceeded to roll the beds together, put a strip between them, and so on, in this makeshift way creating a king-size bed.
“What are you doing?” said Miss Gabor. “I can’t sleep like that.”
I explained to her that this was how we made a king-size bed in rooms that didn’t have them. When I was finished, I stood in the middle of the room. The night manager and Miss Gabor’s Hungarian lady assistant had dropped out of sight and it was just us in the bedroom. She accepted the bed I’d made for her now, but still complained how standards had gone down since the 1950s. She was friendly and impressive. I felt I was in the presence of royalty. She must have been in her early sixties then. She was at once innocent and domineering. As she spoke, she put her hand on my cheek. I’ll never forget that. I was so young then, almost a child. I wonder if her gesture would be considered appropriate today. She didn’t stroke my cheek, just put her hand there gently for a second or two. It was her right hand and my left cheek. Then she went to her purse and took out a five dollar bill and handed it to me. I wished her a pleasant stay and said good-night.
I was star-struck and everyone down in Housekeeping could tell, and whispered about it and laughed.
The next evening, by coincidence, I got a chance to enter Miss Gabor’s suite after she’d checked out. I was helping the maids and noticed Zsa Zsa’s pillow. It was black and brown and every color in between, the relics of her nightly beauty regimen. One of the other housemen looked at the dirty pillowcase and shook his head. “Not very glamorous, if you ask me!”
This happened over thirty-five years ago. At the Fairmont that year I rode the service elevator with Ella Fitzgerald, brought a rollaway bed to Tony Bennett’s suite, and was stopped and questioned by security guards outside the Pavilion Room the night of Princess Margaret’s banquet. But the most memorable moment was the one with Zsa Zsa Gabor. RIP.