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The Queen of Clean

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.

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