ON a recent Monday afternoon, men gathered like crows around a black Lamborghini parked outside the Pierre Hotel. Tucked into their dark suits, they all had the conspicuous sheen that comes from a lifetime of elliptical training, beef cheeks and Chateau Margaux.
The car was up for auction at a black-tie event for 500 people inside the hotel. The men will remain unidentified because this is the Pierre, a province of the old world, where the rich worked hard to stay out of newspapers rather than get in them.
The Pierre is one of the few quasi-public domains of true wealth in New York City, the "discreet society sister of the Plaza and the Waldorf," in the words of William Weathersby Jr., an editor at Architectural Record who has completed a book about the hotel. Inside its glass revolving doors dwell those who are served and those who serve. Few see even one side of the Pierre's upstairs-downstairs universe; almost no one sees both.
A 41-story Georgian-style structure at Fifth Avenue and 61st Street, the Pierre has the anachronistic appeal of an old castle, with the added benefit of live servants: 66 chefs, 115 housekeepers and a pediatrician from China who will shine your shoes. Rates range from $495 for a 280-square-foot room (no park view) to $3,800 for the 1,300-square-foot Presidential Suite. The hotel goes through an average of 15,000 pounds of freshly laundered linens a day, 40 pounds of foie gras a week, 30,000 stalks of flowers a month. A walk-in refrigerator is devoted solely to Champagne.
As the holiday party season picks up, the buzz of activity inside the hotel, usually concealed behind an army of doormen and desk attendants, intensifies. As a woman who checks coats at the Pierre put it: "This is mink time. All the minks are coming out of the vaults." Herewith, a few stories from a world that many thought had vanished long ago.
Hotels like the Pierre aren't built anymore. It was opened in 1930 by a Corsican named Charles Pierre Casalasco with the financial backing of Otto Kahn, E.F. Hutton and Walter P. Chrysler. The Depression drove the hotel into bankruptcy, and after passing through a series of owners, including J. Paul Getty, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts took over its management in 1981.
The Pierre has been owned by a co-op since 1959. Thirty of the 76 co-op owners live at the Pierre permanently, their apartments scattered amid the 201 guest rooms. That fact lends the place a familial air that spills over into the bar, which is filled with regulars, and the Cafe Pierre, a restaurant that feels like a private dining room.
Richard Nixon set up temporary headquarters here after the 1968 election. Truman Capote's story "La Cote Basque, 1965," which got him excommunicated from the swell crowd, features an unflattering episode thought to be based on a thinly disguised William S. Paley slumming at his Pierre pied-a-terre.
For a place that still sends notes written only in black ink, the Pierre is decidedly unstuffy. Lizzie Grubman was married here. A cover version of the Guns N' Roses song "Welcome to the Jungle" blared at a bar mitzvah. Siegfried and Roy once brought two tigers that peed on the rug.
At the heart of the hotel is the rotunda, an ornate room where afternoon tea is served. On the wall is an odd and elaborate mural, painted in 1967 by Edward Melcarth, that, like the hotel, is the subject of much speculation and little recorded history. Also like the hotel, the mural has an unexpected high-low appeal: on one side is a wild-haired Jackie O, on the other is Erik Estrada posing as a biblical Adam. On the south wall, an unidentified black man in an elegant jacket fingers a golden cross on a chain around his neck. "That was his way of zinging it to high society," said Marco Magrini, a Pierre waiter who is the recognized in-house mural expert. "All men are equal."
Maybe. Maybe not.
The staff's mantra is do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. This means they will get you into Barney's at any hour of the day or night. The in-house dry cleaners have been known to bend state environmental regulations to get a gentleman his trousers on time. Once, a security guard helped a man load a chair into a cab, not realizing that the chair belonged to the hotel.
The new chef at Cafe Pierre, Rafael Gonzalez, a former sous-chef at Jean Georges, will prepare a seven-course tasting menu that may feature a sauteed scallop with caramelized endive and apple in a sea of Beluga caviar, foie gras terrine with spice bread and a 1998 Sauternes, and pumpkin creme brulee. It is well worth it, if a $395 dinner bill won't keep you up at night.
If a gaggle of teenage girls want cookies at 4 a.m., someone will bake them. One guest has a full-sized fridge brought to her room every time she visits so she can store her TV dinners. Burton Herman, a Boston entrepreneur who stayed at the Pierre an average of 100 nights a year over a quarter of a century, once ordered a club sandwich from room service, and the woman taking his order told him she would put the mayonnaise on the side so he wouldn't get an upset stomach. "It was like a mother was taking care of me," he said. "I'll never forget that."
The hotel maintains a database of all guests, which enables it to track mayonnaise preferences as well as who prefers limos with tinted windows and who is allergic to the standard-issue Bulgari bath products.
The choreography of the day begins sometime after midnight. Before dawn on a recent weekday, a deaf man buffed the Italian marble floor in the lobby in slow, silent arcs. In the basement, an auditor hunched like a buzzard over curls of adding machine paper. A guard paced in a darkened ballroom, guarding a $36,000 projector. By 6 a.m., the doormen have pulled on their white gloves and knotted their Addison on Madison ties. Milton Roldan, a doorman since 1988, can tell from half a block away who's coming to the Pierre and who isn't; "You just get a feeling," he says.
Not everything always goes as planned. A room service breakfast for two ($77) arrived with tepid, rubbery eggs and was missing a croissant. Luggage may languish in the lobby for 90 minutes before being delivered to a room (although a note of apology was sent).
Each morning at 9, about 20 staffers meet to discusswhat Guy J. Rigby, the impeccably dressed general manager, calls "glitches." It's like a medical morbidity and mortality conference, an hourlong dissection of what went wrong, why and what can be done about it. For example, three weeks ago, a guest claimed he lost his only pair of shoes, and a front desk agent took off his own shoes and gave them to the guest.
Most of the staff comes from decidedly modest backgrounds, and the hotel is a striking example of trickle-down economics at work. Dishwashers make $18.35 an hour. Employees, most of them unionized, get free meals, as well as health insurance and a 401K. After six months, every employee gets three free nights at a Four Seasons hotel anywhere in the world. Several times a year, management cooks breakfast for the line staff. And speaking of staff. . .
Joe Dacchille has the slightly watery eyes and ruddiness of a man born to liquor. His father was a bartender at the Biltmore for 47 years. His grandfather was a bartender, at a Coney Island saloon where Jimmy Durante waited on tables. Joe began mixing when he was 11 at the wet bar in his parents' basement in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
In his youth, Mr. Dacchille played ball with Sandy Koufax; they went to Lafayette High School together before Koufax started pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1954. In 1956, Mr. Dacchille was signed as a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox. His shoulder gave out before the season started, and he ended up, as he puts it, a member of the bar.
He has seen martinis come, go and return with odd extravagances like green apples. "To me," he said, with what would have been disdain if he were a man to express such sentiments while on duty, "there is only the classic gin martini."
He has served bourbon to Frank Sinatra and kept Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant warm with scotch. Gorbachev drank pina coladas here. Tony Blair tippled a margarita. But discretion being the better part of a barman's valor, Mr. Dacchille likes to tell stories only about dead people.
One day Jacqueline Kennedy appeared at his bar. "She wanted a port," he said. "In those days, the rule was any woman with slacks on I couldn't serve." Mrs. Kennedy was wearing a pants suit. "I said, 'I'm sorry, Mrs. Kennedy. I can't serve you.' Her pants suit must have cost $1,000. She said, 'Do you have any idea how much these cost me?"' She never got her port.
The Elevator Operator
Khady Gueyesall, 44, has been an elevator operator at the Pierre since 1990. "This is my office," she said, gesturing at the mahogany-paneled cabin of her elevator The cracked leather stool in the corner was the improbable site of a marriage proposal, which Ms. Gueyesall brokered through a combination of cunning, good humor and shopping advice.
On her jacket, Ms. Gueyesall wears a small American flag with a Secret Service crest given to her by a member of Hillary Rodham Clinton's entourage. She can exchange pleasantries in English, French, Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, German and Japanese. "Do you see that halo?" Beverly Sommer, a resident, said during one ride. "She's an angel."
Ms. Gueyesall used to sing in her elevator with Lady Mary Fairfax, the Australian newspaper heiress who reportedly sold her penthouse apartment in the Pierre to the financier Martin Zweig for $21 million in the late 90's. Elizabeth Taylor calls her Black Queen.
Ms. Gueyesall, who was born in Senegal and whose parents made their living by selling vegetables they grew in their garden, named her youngest son Ousseynou Pierre. When he was three months old, he got a $1,000 check from a movie star, whose name Ms. Gueyesall won't reveal. "Open him a bank account," the donor urged. "When he gets older, maybe he can marry me."
A certain room off a certain hallway contains a sliding wooden door behind which rows of keys hang clumped together like fists. They will open every lock in the hotel. Men in suits with tiny radio earpieces pass in and out of this room, where a live feed from the hotel's 45 security cameras plays on three screens.
John DeRosa, who worked for the New York Police Department for 20 years and the state attorney general's Department of Investigation for 10, has overseen this room since he became the Pierre's security director in 1995. Back when he was a cop, Mr. DeRosa once nailed a man carrying six pounds of cocaine; these days he spends more time making sure drunken wedding guests don't drive their $88,000 cars home.
Still, he must contend with two truths: Money attracts misery. One night in 1996, a man shot himself in one of the hotel's bathrooms. Mr. DeRosa never learned why the man had come to the Pierre, although he left behind a job, a family and a note. At 7:30 the next morning, the body was rolled out of the employee entrance on 61st Street as the guests rolled in.
Money also attracts thieves: About five years ago, a man from a tour group told Mr. DeRosa someone had stolen his attache case from the lobby. "I said, 'What was in it?"' Mr. DeRosa recalled.
"$200,000 of jewels," the man replied. The thief, who had been part of the tour group, was never caught.
Although Mr. DeRosa still wears a thick gold ring bearing an N.Y.P.D. detective shield, a suit from Macy's has replaced the overgrown beard and long hair of his past life A few weeks ago, when he took his wife to dinner at the Cafe Pierre, she asked him, "How could you ever leave this?"
Paul Nicaj, the director of banquet services, was born in Montenegro and began his career as a busboy at the Plaza 34 years ago, at the age of 18. These days he is known as Uncle Paul, and he casts a long shadow in the world of event planning.
The Pierre pulls in $20 million a year from special events, more than 4,000 so far this year. Weddings start at $200,000. Mr. Nijac masterminded a bar mitzvah a few years ago in which the 8,526-square-foot Grand Ballroom was dressed up as Times Square on New Year's Eve: decor included a subway turnstile and an actor playing a homeless man. Dick Clark came in and dropped the ball.
Mr. Nicaj's weeks are a succession of ice sculptures, bridal trains and wine. Gerard Madani, the executive chef, recently led Mr. Nicaj through the wine cellar, which is usually stocked with 12,000 to 15,000 bottles of wine. Mr. Madani put on his glasses and pulled out a bottle of Petrus 1992. "That's the king of kings," he said. The men were quiet for a moment, as if in the wake of a woman.
Maurice Dancer grew up in Starkville, Miss., a small college town, and was a modern dancer for 10 years before becoming concierge at the Pierre, a post he has held for nine years. These days he folds his long limbs into Armani suits.
One of his biggest challenges is convincing guests that New York has other restaurants besides Daniel, Jean Georges, Nobu, the Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. (Among his latest picks is Mix. "The burger is $65," he said. "So it's nice.")
Rain is his enemy. Some time ago, a family from London with tickets to "The Lion King" were stood up by their limo on a rainy night. There were no cabs. "I had to do it," said Mr. Dancer, speaking with the fatalism of someone discussing oral surgery. "With all diplomacy, I offered to escort them via subway to the theater. I said, 'The subway is a great New York experience,"' he recalled. "It's something we don't think about at the Pierre, because everyone takes cabs. But millions of people ride the subway every day." Mr. Dancer himself takes the train to work, from his apartment in Hell's Kitchen.
"I came from humble beginnings," he said. "I'm daily speaking with C.E.O.'s and executives. They are asking for my opinion, my feedback. I've grown tremendously. I've learned so much about life, patience, spirituality." Spirituality? "As a concierge, I'm where people vent," he replied. "If I were not able to be spiritual and centered, I would become a crazy man. But it's not about me. I'm a vessel that allows them to vent. It just goes right off my shoulders."
Mr. Dancer spends two weeks each year in Starkville with his grandmother, who will turn 101 in January. She lives in a wooden house with no phone and no electricity, although she does have running water. She lives by lantern light. "Nothing hurries her," he said. "You wake up in the morning, give thanks for being alive, and when the sun goes down, it is time to sleep."