Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bring out your ashtrays, your finials, your tongs. That is, if you “found” them at the Waldorf-Astoria before 1960.

A few months back, the Waldorf-Astoria initiated an amnesty program in hopes of getting some of the items that light-fingered guests have packed in their valises between 1893 and 1960. Among that goods that have found their way out:

…flatware, plates, bowls, creamers, coffee cups;…monogrammed napkins, towels, bathrobes;  ashtrays, mirrors, wooden hangers, and lampshade finials molded into the shape of the Waldorf’s crest; etched Scotch tumblers, ice buckets, tongs, side-armed coffee-pots; table-top bells that once summoned bell-hops; autographed pictures of Herbert Hoover and Cole Porter and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco, of little Anderson Cooper and his mother Gloria Vanderbilt;…silver soup tureens, brass candlesticks, huge copper room keys, glass bottles that once held relish prepared by the Waldorf’s erstwhile maître d'hôtel Oscar Tschirky, progenitor of the Waldorf salad. Etc. (Source: The New Yorker – subscriber content.)

If you’re wondering what a “side-armed coItem imageffee-pot” is – as I was – here’s a picture found on eBay of a side-armed Waldorf-Astoria tea-pot that’s for sale on eBay for $149.99. That’s where a lot of Waldorf-Astoria goodies reside (at least temporarily), including plenty of demitasse spoons, serving platters, a decanter, and a set containing 54 pieces of flatware. (Now that valise must have weighed heavy when it left the prem. Not to mention jangled, unless all those forks, knives, and spoons were wrapped in a W-A towel. Why not: hung for a sheep as a lamb…)

Not all the stuff on eBay was necessarily acquired through five-finger discount.  There’s one very cool Waldorf-Astoria patrolmen’s badge for sale for $100. How cool is that: a hotel had Item imageenough cops to issue numbered badges that ran into the 600’s. (Too bad it wasn’t Badge 714…)

Matt Zolbe, the Waldorf’s marketing director, sees all sorts of Waldorfian stuff for sale on eBay all the time, but doesn’t want to start paying folks off for things that are rightly the Waldorf’s to begin with. (Sort of like dealing with terrorists and kidnappers.)

While plenty of the purloined items that the Waldorf hopes to retrieve were in plentiful supply – like hangers, ashtrays, and demitasse spoons - some of the things that went missing are one-offs.

I’m assuming that the picture of Anderson and Gloria is on that one-off list, but there’s also “a mural of an Asian emperor addressing his subjects” which someone cut out of its frame in a public dining room and walked off with; and a two-foot tall bespoke silver trimmed crystal vase commissioned for the hotel’s 20th anniversary in 1913. The “owner” had it appraised for $30K and is willing to sell it back to the Waldorf…

I’ve stayed at the Waldorf a number of times, but never before 1960. (I don’t think I was in any hotel before 1960.) For the times I did stay there, I have nothing to show for it.

Other than an occasional wooden hanger I might have ripped off, back in the day before so many hotels started using the kind that you can’t make off with unless you dismantle the entire closet, I’ve never actually taken stuff from hotels. Other than the mini-shampoos and the cute little jam and ketchup jars that come with room service.

Maybe stuff was just cooler – and more monogrammed – in the olden days, but there’s never really been much in a hotel room that I found much worth stealing, even if I were so inclined.

One time, we did come home from a hotel stay in Portland, Maine, with a pillow. We had gone up to L.L. Bean and done a lot of shopping, and had tons of stuff in our room. So we used one of those carts to put all our luggage and shopping bags on. Somehow, a pillow made its way onto the cart. The bellboy packed the trunk, and it wasn’t until we got home and unpacked that we noticed that we had a pillow with us. (You’d think that bellboy would have noticed and said something, but maybe he thought it was ours.) Anyway, the pillow was nothing special, and we didn’t bother to return it: too much trouble, and probably not worth much more than the cost of shipping it back to them. It eventually went the way of all pillows.)

I do remember, years ago, going to a party at a colleague’s house, where she had a very funky, art deco-ish drink cart. At some point during the 1930’s, her parents had drunkenly wheeled off with it from their hotel. But that was, I believe, from the St. Regis, not the Waldorf. (Just checked on eBay: it’s not there.)

Not that I’m so 100% honest that I’ve never taken anything.

When I worked for Durgin-Park (famous old Boston tourist spot), I lifted a crudely and cheaply framed placard that was hanging in the waitress cloak room, that read:

 If you work for a man, in heavens name work for him!If he pays you wages that supply you your bread and butter, work for him speak well of him, think well of him, stand by him and stand by the institution he represents. I think if I worked for a man I would work for him. I would not work for him a part of the time, and the rest of the time work against him. I would give an undivided service or none. If put to the pinch, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. Elbert Hubbard (Source:

This bromide was particularly inapt. When I worked at Durgin-Park, the owner was a viciously mean, borderline insane, drunk-as-a-skunk lout who made everyone’s life miserable. No way anyone but the most supreme toady would “speak well of him”.

I may have the placard around somewhere; maybe not. (If I do come across it, I’ll drop it off at Durgin if they’ll let me see whether the waitress cloak room has been updated since 1973. At that point, it hadn’t been touched since 1873…)

I must confess, as well, to having taken a plaque that was a bit more valuable than the words of Elbert Hubbard from the Union Oyster House, another venerable Boston establishment where I waitressed while in college. The plaque was some sort of oil painting with a haute-relief of a sailing ship on it. I can’t remember what my motivation was for lifting it off the wall of the booth one evening. Bad tip night? A near miss stepping on a rat? (When I worked there, the place was crawling with them. Screaming when one ran across your feet was a firing offense.) Parting gift?

Anyway, I passed it on, and I believe it still hangs somewhere. Just not in a booth at Union Oyster House.

But hotel pilfering? Not me.

So I’ve nothing to contribute to the Waldorf amnesty program.

Apparently I’m not the only one.

To date, the amnesty program hasn’t yielded much. A young woman who works in sales at the Waldorf surrendered a sterling salad fork her grandparents had cadged on their honeymoon in 1949. (Ah, romance.)

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