From Waiter to Manager of Gotham's Big Hotel

Willis Steell in Herald Magazine

December 1 1908

From Waiter to Manager of Gotham's Big Hotel

Willis Steell in Herald Magazine

December 1 1908

From Waiter to Manager of Gotham's Big Hotel

Willis Steell in Herald Magazine

SOME power (equivalent to the “little cherub watching sailors up aloft”) whose care is lest men see too much at once provided that Oscar Tschirky, general manager of the Waldorf-Astoria, should not foresee his life from his landing in this country in 1883 to this day. The twentyfive years of hard, incessant work, a grind of an average of eighteen hours a day, winter and summer, would have seemed too depressing. It requires habit, association, all the tendrils that attach a man to one kind of life, one sort of work, and no other, before the life can be carefully lived, the work conscientiously done. In retrospect the monotony is forgotten, and in the light of success the tasks that were so gray acquire rosy edges. “Oscar,” as a small but very influential section of New York society continues to call him in friendship, says, and probably says truthfully:

“I have always been content; I have never been blue; doing the same things over and over has never given me nerves ; I love my work.”

When a man like Oscar, a man who is in earnest, says “I love my work” the platitude shines like a new form of speech. His firm lips, his strong chin, the lively gleam in his black eyes, indicate that he is of such elements that he could have carved out success from almost any sort of material. He is good natured, quick witted, full of life and the joy of life, yet his eyes have looked on life only within the very ornate walls of a modern restaurant or hotel. Nevertheless, he has seen “all,” and nobody knows the human animal in all its phases— stupid or diverting—better than Oscar.

Four years in the dining room of the Hoffman House, five years at Delmonico’s and sixteen years at the Waldorf cover the hotel experience of this man, which he has traversed step by step, always upward, until he is now the “court of last resort,” but under the eyes of such a man the human comedy has not worn out its interest, but remains immensely diverting, reasonably fascinating.

He scarcely knows New York below Twenty-fifth Street, and his knowledge of the upper part of the city, exclusive of the houses of the very wealthy, is largely conjectural. Eighteen hours of daily superintendence of a great hotel .eaves no time at all for sightseeing.

“T have never seen the new Delmonico’s, Sherry’s, the St. Regis, the Gotham ; I have seen none of the great hotels or restaurants of this city. This winter I am going to try to call on some of my confreres, and I expect good pleasure in making my rounds.”

When Oscar was fifteen he left his native Neufchatel in Switzerland to join his brother Brutus in New York. They were the only children, and Brutus, since dead, was a great chef. The family cannot trace its lineage far back ; indeed, so far as the younger son knows his father was the first Tschirky. No one can tell whence comes the name. In that renowned hotel keeping country the Tschirkys had the distinction of not keeping a hotel, and Brutus was the first to follow a branch of that line. Oscar had been intended for the army and was brought up by his father under militarylike discipline. Habits of sternly attending to what he had to do and to nothing else, a book knowledge of English, these were about all that the lad brought as capital when, a few days after the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, he landed and was met by his brother. Graphically he describes that first day :

“I was all eyes and ears in this strange city, where it seemed to me I would like to linger and wander and loiter for days, listening, seeing. But at my brother’s behest I stifled these wishes. He took me at once to the City Hall, where I made application for my citizen’s papers. That was one o’clock in the day. From there he took me to the Hoffman House, and at five o’clock of that day I was at work in the dining room. Since then I have never ceased to work. It was one o’clock in the morning, four years later, that I quit the

Hoffman House. At six o’clock of the

same morning I was at work in Delmonico’s. As maître d'hotel I was more than busy at one of the Assembly balls at Delmonico’s when Mr. Boldt sent for me to take the same position under him at the Waldorf-Astoria. Two hours later I was installed there. These changes have been rapid, but not violent.”

It scarcely requires exposition to convince people that the “head” of a great city restaurant must have many kinds of ability. To be a good executive is not enough. The character and career of European maitre d’hotel have furnished the subjects for ex~

tremely interesting studies that chroniclers of manners in London, Paris and Vienna have never despised. Most of these have been personages, some of them have absolutely influenced the currents of society—a few have made and unmade leaders. Oscar Tschirky would have been as successful in either of these foreign capitals as he has been here, for to an untiring energy he unites cleverness and ambition. That he possesses urbanity is not surprising, for without that trait a hotel man would prove quite a failure. It has to be exercised, but in varying degrees and with a different

complexion, in the public dining room and in the helps’ hall.

The advantage nature has given to' this man is that his urbanity is real and not assumed. He never imagines that the persons who consult him about their little dinners (at $20 the cover) are keeping their private sentiments under lock and key—remembering his power and so treating him respectfully to his face. On the contrary he meets them, for all their money and influence, as fellow human beings to whose innocent enjoyment he is glad to bring anything in his power. He feels no subserviency and shows none. His clients like this and are happy, too, to have no necessity to propitiate—to rub the right way— so business dealings are conducted on both sides with cordiality and good spirit.

On the other hand, and in the lower realms, the regiment of cooks, the cohort of dishwashers, the army of waiters, have not been taught to scrape and bend, to be false and mean. The general who directs all these underground forces started in by letting them feel that downstairs as well as up justice prevailed. He has shown his willingness time and again to listen to anybody’s just complaint and he makes no decision, renders no judgment, until the entire evidence has been sifted. In kitchens as well as in. Cabinets there is politics. “General” Tschirky will not have the meanest scullion lose his job if there is no better motive than politics to force him out. Once in a while he makes a mistake, but in the main there is no business conducted in a fairer manner to all concerned than the business that is now, after sixteen years of gradual promotion, within his absolute control.

“For the first year at the Waldorf I was in charge of the public dining room. Soon the private rooms were put in my charge, and my standing there finally became what it had been at Delmonico’s. Upon the departure of Mr. Hilliard I became general manager.

“It was possible for me, being present at the beginning of the hotel, to benefit by my experience in the way of improving the service. My suggestion to place icebox, pantry and complete outfit for serving meals in rooms on each floor was adopted, and four service elevators were constructed for that purpose. Each waiter on a floor has a series of small tables which he sets

complete, places the dishes as ordered on them and carries them to the rooms without loss of time. The innovation has worked most admirably and has since, I am told, found its way into most of the modern hotels. Better and quicker service can now be given and at less expense after the first outlay has been paid for.”

“I have never been away from my work three days in succession,” the Swiss, who is in feeling now much more American than Swiss, said, in accounting for what persons call, somewhat to his own surprise, his great success. “In the beginning I was far from realizing, when my brother Brutus left me, a stranger and quite unskilled, in the Hoffman House, what I had undertaken, what had befallen me. I loved books, I loved music—-with both I hoped to study to become—what I did not know—a writer, perhaps, or a musician. To earn a little money as a waiter in a restaurant—it seemed a mere incident in my life, an affair by the way.

“I am glad that I soon had sense enough to see that by specializing and giving no thought to anything beyond my business was the straight road to success. When I had so seen, the hotel life became my exclusive occupation, my whole life’s chief concern. Little by little, one after the other, I put aside all my vague dreams and longings, my thoughts of a different career, and I dropped them all to give myself completely to learning my business. That is the story, that is the secret—not a great story, nor a profound secret—quoi !

“It is the same with me as with many men—men who are veritably great. I concentrated on the one thing that offered me more than a bare subsistence. It has brought

comfort and happiness into my life. I still read occasionally books in English, French and German ; I hear good music when it is possible, but I do not go far afield. Here (and he pointed to the great hotel corridors swarming with the motley human life) is my life. I have no more illusions and I never had regrets.”

The school of life this man attended taught him very much more than his trade. He is not a man who could see all sorts and conditions of men passing under his notice without learning from them. Nor is he the man who can sit still and see young men commit follies under his eyes and say nothing. There is more than a story extant that this accomplished maître d’hotel has several times gone out of his position to straighten up the scions of rich homes who came to New York for a splurge and got into bad company and under the eyes of the house detectives.

When accused of this sort of benevolent interference “Oscar” made an attempt to waive it aside, but the point being pressed he confessed that it had happened to him occasionally in his career to play the selfelected mentor.

“I have now and then made the sermon,” he admitted, “but it is nothing to be talked about. Who likes to see a young man ruin his brain, his health, his career and waste all his money? To moralize is not my inclination and to condemn is not my nature. But if a friendly word given like a medicine—one very small dose—will avail, I, who have sons of my own, will drop it. But it is very seldom, very seldom, I assure you, that I have figured as the doctor of the soul.”