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The Queen of Clean

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.

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