The Queen of Clean
Published: May 2009
By Ben Neihart
When the author was six years old, his grandmother got a job running housekeeping
at Florida's Diplomat Hotel. He got to tag along.
At the emotional core of the melancholy 1969 buddy movie Midnight Cowboy, a forlorn Dustin Hoffman imagines himself at a beachfront Florida resort, populated by sun-bronzed trashy-chic women of a certain age. He gambols by the ocean, exchanges wistful glances with his best friend, Jon Voight, and dazzles the guests with a seaside cooking demonstration, barbecue and steam trays perched atop buffet tables covered by garish orange floral tablecloths. Shortly after filming was over, my grandmother Valerie, the director of housekeeping at the resort, the Diplomat Hotel, had the tablecloths made into curtains for her home. Midnight Cowboy was the first and last X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar, and the resort was without a doubt the world's best day-care center.
I speak with authority.
My little brother, John, and I weren't connoisseurs of much, but we were experts on the many varieties of organized day care. Our parents' divorce, when I was just starting first grade and John was not even in kindergarten, left us entrusted to an ever-expanding hodgepodge of caretakers, preschools, church schools, and after-school centers. This was the early 1970's in Hollywood, Florida, and it seemed as if we had a hundred friends in day care, an entire generation. We hated to miss a day. But as joy-inducing as day care proper was, it was mere child's play compared to the time we'd spend at our grandmother's hotel, on the weekends Mom had to work.
The Diplomat Hotel, on Hollywood Beach between Fort Lauderdale and Miami, was glamorous in a gold-lamé, glass lobby fireplace, "drinks for the Sammy Davis Jr. party" sort of way, a playground for rich Northerners down for the season in their fur coats and string bikinis. The facilities were glitzy in the manner of vacation spots you'd visit after a win on The Price Is Right: tennis, golf, shopping, manicurist, bingo, canasta, saltwater swimming pools. My grandmother, Valerie, made sure everything ran smoothly.
She and her best friend had gotten jobs as housemaids there on a whim in 1959, a year after the hotel opened. An expat from a bitter-cold Pennsylvania mining town, she hadn't been in Florida long. She liked to clean, she liked to order people around, the tips were great, and the big names, the Dean Martins of the world, performed for 10-day stretches in the Café Crystal, supping nightly in Les Ambassadors or the Celebrity Room. It wasn't long before she was promoted to management.
The Diplomat was a genuinely otherworldly playground for us. We'd flip-flop into the coffee shop for ice cream sodas, grilled cheese sandwiches, french fries, and cake—and then the waitress would ask us what we wanted for dessert. In the arcade, every game was free; your coins rolled immediately into the return slot, and the pinball bumpers lit up. The children's shop, Bobby Dee's, gave us designer clothes. Rich Boston kids envied our familiarity with the bell staff, the bingo caller, the salesgirl in the Elaine Shop.
And about every 10 minutes, like the star of her own variety show, our grandmother would appear poolside, or in the coffee shop, or across the lobby. We would freeze, watching in awe as she "worked." Unlike our mother's bone-wearying job as a nurse, which we never witnessed, and our father's inscrutable wheeler-dealering, which bored us, our grandmother's work was all glamour. She strutted through the hotel in flowing caftans and vivid yellow pantsuits, her orange hair in a casual teased-shag, laughing, carousing with guests and staff.
By the time my brother and I were Diplomat regulars, my grandmother was at the peak of her housekeeping powers, famous for her ingenious methods of cleaning the uncleanable and executing the impossible whims of the hotel's mercurial entertainment director, Bill Foerst. She was an affable general, white glove—testing the chests of drawers, poking through linen closets in search of "tattletale gray," ordering windows cleaned and recleaned. When the floor-to-ceiling Austrian lobby curtains seemed dull with smoke and dust, she asked the house staff to soak them in the kiddie pool, which she'd spiked with Woolite. The men stomped the curtains like grapes, rinsed them with hoses, and hung them poolside to dry. Her playful inventiveness was contagious: if the laundry got stuck near the top of the eight-story chute, Clem, the houseman, would make sure she saw him launch himself through the top chute-door and slide all the way down, unclogging the chute and landing in the basement laundry pile.
The diplomat was almost frantically festive. Every day there was a party orchestrated by Bill Foerst. Bill was a superstar. He'd done the Mike Todd party in Madison Square Garden in 1962, staged the Ball for Queen Elizabeth at the Park Avenue Armory, overseen Frank Sinatra's wedding to Ava Gardner, and masterminded both the reception Grace Kelly's parents threw for their daughter and Prince Rainier and the White House wedding of Lucy Baines Johnson. He'd traveled with Winston and Clementine Churchill on their tour of Florida, arranging for the floral displays in their rooms.
My grandmother's job was to execute Bill's "vision." For the Arabian Nights party, that meant a Visqueen riverbed meandering through aisles of low tables, hundreds of pillows dyed in desert pastels, lemon chiffon tented from the 40-foot ceilings, and elaborate birdcages filled with parrots my grandmother had borrowed from every pet store in town. One poor bird kept shouting, "Help me! I'm afraid! Help me! I'm afraid!" from setup through last call. There was the July birthday party with a Christmas theme—snow machines, reindeer, and dozens of trimmed trees in the Florida heat.
For every celebrity performer, living quarters and pressroom would be redesigned. When Liza Minnelli came, the pressroom became the Kit Kat Club from Cabaret. For Dionne Warwick, there was a subtler touch: her name spelled in lights the length of the room, framed by peacock feathers. When The Jackie Gleason Show was shot at the hotel, Sheila McCrae (Alice) decided she should get married there. She loved the décor of her suite so much that she gave my grandmother her credit card, begging her to furnish her new house, just up the beach.
Foerst also needed her help managing his chaotic personal life. One day, his handsome young lover was slashed across the stomach, a warning that he'd be killed if he didn't pay the mob his $10,000 gambling debt. Foerst enlisted my grandmother to take up a collection from the staff. She went worker to worker, but still came up $2,000 short.
Foerst's instructions were to deliver the cash to a small pink house not far from the hotel, but he broke into a cold sweat. "Valerie," he cried, "I can't go; you've gotta go!" So my grandmother drove to the small pink house with the young slashed lover and a paper bag full of cash. They waited inside, kept company by a tiny old couple who spoke very little, until finally a man in a fedora came, accepted the money, and told my grandmother to put Tommy on the first bus out of town if she knew what was good for her.
Last spring my grandmother returned for the Diplomat's grand reopening. I went with her. The old hotel had been demolished and in its place was a sleek, silvery blue tower of glass, a hole cut in the center. With a lobby full of towering freeze-dried palms, infinity rivers, and a spellbinding double-decker glass-bottomed oceanfront pool, the hotel is far more luxurious than the old Diplomat, and wired for the new age. We stayed in adjoining rooms, one of them an enormous suite.
On our tour, my grandmother quizzed our guide about the laundry facilities, the storage, the size of the cleaning staff, and the variety of uniforms. I kept looking for the old hotel logo, an insignia that had been stamped on everything—champagne flutes, the good heavy café silverware, swizzle sticks, beach towels, and napkins. It was a proud D, circumscribed by a heroic golden sunburst. I finally saw it on a floppy tan bucket cap in the golf course pro shop and bought the hat.
That night, we got dressed for the evening's grand gala. I zipped my grandmother's sequined emerald evening gown, which had been kept in storage since her days at the old Diplomat, and we headed across the promenade as klieg lights shined the sky and flashbulbs popped. My grandmother's sight isn't what it once was, so she held my hand as we entered the dark ballroom for cocktail hour.
After a few glasses of champagne, we made our way inside for a lavish dinner and a concert by one of the old hotel regulars, Paul Anka. Midway through his performance, my grandmother leaned close and whispered, "It's the same show he gave in 1973!"
Dessert was poolside, and as fireworks exploded over the silvering night surf, we ran into my grandmother's cardiologist, who'd crashed the party on a whim.
Touching her sleeve, he asked why she didn't dress this way for her checkups. I could see how much it meant to her, showing her doctor that she'd lived the high life before he'd even thought about medical school.
Finally, we went to bed. Or I thought we had. After I brushed my teeth, I knocked on the door between our rooms to say good-night.
"Um, Grandma?" I called, slowly pushing the door open.
The room was empty.
I wasn't worried, exactly, but I stayed awake for another hour. When she came back, I couldn't help blurting out, "Where were you?"
"Oh, I wanted to say good-bye to that journalist at our table, so I went down to Satine."
"Paul Anka was there," she murmured, "and everyone was dancing, and I just didn't feel like leaving yet."
With that, she kissed my cheek good-night. It was the only time I'd ever smelled champagne on her breath.
Ben Neihart is the author of two novels and a forthcoming book about a turn-of-the-century Harlem brothel, Rough Amusements (Bloomsbury).