I have three older brothers: the first, a former Green Beret, is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.; the second is a successful diamond dealer in Antwerp; the third, James, broke my parents' heart. Born in Paris, educated at an English boarding school and at Stanford University, James turned down many job offers to become a rock 'n' roll musician instead. He toured the country playing bass and singing lead in such mostly forgotten bands as Bwap, Edge City, and Seatrain.
But the difficult reality of financial survival began to eat into the passion. To make ends meet, James sang backup for Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. Then, at the age of 39, when my parents had long given up hope of his ever settling down, James got a haircut, put on a tie, and landed a job as an assistant concierge at New York's Mayfair Hotel on Park Avenue at 65th Street.
The concierges that our parents were used to in such bastions of class as London's Connaught hotel were usually lackluster, entrenched older men who had started in the hotel industry at 16 as bellboys and worked their way up. Men whose sole job was to nod and satisfy your request as long as it was legal. None of us could imagine James molding himself into that role, and so as not to jinx him we all steered clear of the Mayfair's plush marble lobby. But after seven years he still professed to love his second career, so I finally had to find out why the job suited him so well. On my next trip to New York I dropped in on James during his working hours, and what I uncovered tells as much about a shift in our mores and attitudes toward service as it does about my brother.
At first I hardly recognize the man behind the front desk at the elegant and refined Mayfair. Disguised in a black cutaway, gray vest, and black tie, James seems like something out of an Offenbach operetta, one of those glass figurines that dance when the clock chimes. Could this be my brother, co-writer of such songs as "Jesus on the Golf Course" and "Loose Hips, Loose Lips"?Would they not soon uncover his real identity and promptly fire him?
I am chatting with James when a diplomat phones down and asks him in French, "Please, please, mon cher, get on the line with my wife and tell her I am not drinking and not sleeping around with call girls." So in the middle of his workday, at a time when most clients are asking for dinner reservations and theater tickets, James listens to a woman crying on the phone. In impeccable French, he tells her that Monsieur is working extremely long hours and is comporting himself like a perfect gentleman. Nothing stanches her tears.
Finally he says, "Madame, why don't you come to New York?You will see with your own eyes." That changes the mood. She sniffs and says she will consider it. The diplomat thanks him warmly.
Overhearing this incident, it occurs to me that today's hotel concierge has assumed the role of the personal butler of Victorian times. In our socially mobile, egalitarian world, the concierge provides one special service that has not been eliminated by technology. On the contrary, it has become more important—he is our Jeeves, our social secretary, facilitator, and co-conspirator all in one.
Every concierge can recall at least one bravura performance, like the one who was ordered to ship a yacht cross-country. In James's case, a film actor once told him, "Fly me to Taos and book me into a detox. I need to dry out." A week later he called to say, "Send champagne. There's no liquor in this hellhole."
But such feats are overshadowed by the day-to-day aspect of the job, which reveals the vulnerability of the rich and famous, and how invaluable a good concierge can be to them. For instance, James helped a European queen sneak out with a friend to see Thelma and Louise on a rainy afternoon, without the royal entourage finding out. Another time, an Italian count who had broken his leg skiing in Aspen called James from the slopes to say he did not trust American doctors and wanted an immediate flight back to Switzerland.
Often what concierges do is downright banal: mostly, they arrange for limousine service to and from airports, find the best available theater tickets on short notice, and make restaurant reservations. "You build up relationships with maî tre d's all over the city," says James. "The guest may be told there's no table available, but when I call and tell my friend Philippe that this is an important client of the hotel's, I often get results."
James's most cherished memory is of the time the French artist Jean-Michel Folon was looking for glue to complete a collage he was due to deliver to the Museum of Modern Art. It was late Sunday night and all James could find was Krazy Glue. When he explained the dangers of this powerful bonder, Folon ended up making James do the work. "I felt like the sorcerer's apprentice," recalls James, "placing boats, sunsets, all of it with no margin of error because the glue stuck immediately."
A concierge has to know how to meet all kinds of emotional and physical needs. The exact limits of his role, never clearly defined in the past, have become more blurred as guests start to recognize that he is not a mere servant. This can lead to major misunderstandings. The wife of a Texas billionaire once asked James to escort her to an after-hours club. A striking six-footer, she was used to getting her way with men. But James knew she was in the middle of a nasty divorce from her jealous and powerful husband. He politely suggested a "legitimate escort service." The woman snapped, "If I wanted a bodyguard, I would have hired one." Still, James excused himself.
"The client is always right," says James.
Of course, some clients are more right than others. The official line on tipping, says James, is "We don't expect a thing. A guest can get a lot of mileage from a concierge without tipping, just by treating him or her as a human being." But a gratuity is a not unimportant aspect of the relationship. "In a hotel, lots of things happen out of the blue," he says. "I can be given two tickets to a hit show or to a championship game by a guest who can't use them, and obviously I'll give them to a guest I remember."
James's profile is not unique. In the United States, there is a new breed of concierges who possess eclectic talents and a worldly flair acquired in unrelated careers. Among these younger concierges, one meets many actors and musicians, people who know how to be onstage and wear a public persona. In New York, Anthony Pike at the Westbury Hotel is a former jazz drummer, Dwight Owsley at the Carlyle is an aspiring opera singer, and Giorgio Finocchiaro at the Mark used to be a clarinetist in Argentina. "This phenomenon is quite American," says Giorgio Chiesa, 37, senior concierge at Le Grand Hotel in Rome, who started as a . "In Europe we're more conservative and traditional; we have less turnover in these positions."
And in America, at least, women are increasingly filling these typically male positions. They too are often actors, painters, poets, or musicians. Since many client requests involve cultural issues—which museums to go to, what shows to see—artists are well suited for the job. With Ray Charles, James discusses music and gets invited backstage—but that doesn't mean he's nostalgic for the Bwap years. "I still write songs," he says, "but I don't miss playing in dives where my equipment was stolen and club owners wouldn't pay me."
James's international background, the fact that we all grew up fluent in three languages, has meshed with the job's unexpected challenges. One day the king of Spain asked my brother through which of three possible entrances the king of Morocco would enter, so he could position his 40-strong retinue for a formal greeting. When James went out the side doors of the Mayfair to reconnoiter, Hassan II was just walking up the steps. James, who was surprised to find himself suddenly alone speaking French with two monarchs, says, "I indulged in my first foray in international diplomacy." Recently, my brother was named the head concierge of the Michelangelo hotel on Manhattan's West Side. "Being a concierge is terrific," he says. "It has forced me to get into every aspect of New York. At any moment of the day I need to know exactly what is available in the city, where to get it, and from whom. So it's not only a job—it has introduced me to friends in all walks of life and a city I never really knew."
Alan Jolis's memoir, Speak Sunlight, describes his young days in Europe. His new novel, Love and Terror, will be published in May by Grove/Atlantic.