Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On puttin' on the Ritz...

HALLIE: The Ritz Carlton (now Taj Boston) was once THE hotel at Boston to see and be seen. It had a world class dining room, a dark cozy bar, and a roof garden where a band played and dancers could pause and look across at a moonlit Public Garden. When my parents wrote a play that opened in Boston, I stayed there with them, an easy walk to the theater district.

Ken Sullivan knows all about what it was like from the inside. He's a mystery reader with a taste for Robert B. Parker and Anthony Trollope who worked behind the scenes in the kitchen and room service in the hotel's heyday when the hotel guests were a virtual Who's Who of the rich and famous.

Ken, when did you work at the hotel, how old were you, and what did you do?

KEN: I worked at the Ritz from June 1965 until Sept 1966 when I was in my late teens. I was hired as a dishwasher and after a month or so became a "kitchen runner", a job that was probably unique to the Ritz.

The Ritz had a room service set-up that was different from any other hotel that I know of. Each floor had a kitchenette/pantry that was operated by a room service waiter who was responsible for two floors and who never worked in the dining room and never even went to the kitchen. Instead, The waiter would write up the guest's order, place it and a carbon in a capsule, and drop it down a pneumatic tube to the kitchen runners. We'd enter the order in the kitchen, pick up the order, check it out through the room service cashier and then send it to the proper floor on a dumbwaiter.

HALLIE: What were some of the luxury features or services that we commoners would never have known about?

KEN: The most remarkable feature of the Ritz for me was the wine cellar. It encompassed the entire front half of the basement of the building. Even though I didn't know anything about wine at the time, I was still impressed. Knowing a lot more about wine now, I'd love to have a chance to go back in time and just wander through it again.

HALLIE: Who were some of the most gracious famous guests you met?

KEN: I have several great memories. Tom Yawkey, the owner of the Red Sox at the time, and his wife Jean lived at the Ritz during baseball season. They had a suite on the top (16th) floor at the corner of Arlington and Newbury Sts. and were the easiest people to get along with. They always ate in their rooms and had the same meal every night when they dined in: prime rib (rare), parslied potatoes and French style green beans. Mrs. Yawkey got a reputation as a nasty person after Mr. Yawkey's death when she took over the Red Sox, but nobody had anything bad to say about her during my time at the Ritz.

The pianist Artur Rubinstein stayed at the Ritz while he was in Boston for a Sunday afternoon concert at Symphony Hall when I was working there. I broke every rule the hotel had by delivering his brunch order to him directly instead of sending it up to his waiter and got to listen to him practicing Chopin while I set his meal up. Can you imagine? Artur Rubinstein playing and I'm the only person in the world listening. What a thrill! I broke another rule and asked for his autograph, which I still have. I keep it in the slipcase of his recording of the Tchaikovsky piano concerto.

Robert Preston stayed at the Ritz when he was in town performing in the stage version of "The Lion in Winter." I told him what a big fan of his my mother was and asked for an autograph for her. He actually wrote her a nice little personalized note which she treasured for the rest of her life.

For some reason that I can't begin to remember, Debbie Reynolds' movie "The Singing Nun" had its world premiere at the Cleveland Circle theater and she stayed at the Ritz for the occasion. I happened to be in the pantry when she popped in and asked if she could have some tea. The regular waiter was taking care of someone else, so I made tea for her. I don't remember what we talked about, but I know I made sure I didn't mention Liz Taylor. And, come to think of it, I don't think we ever charged her for the tea.

HALLIE: And who were the most monstrous?

KEN: I never met her so this is not first person experience, but I remember that Edna Ferber had the reputation of being the most ill-mannered guest in the history of the hotel. I was really disappointed to learn that one of my favorite authors had behaved so badly.

Speaking of monstrous behavior, in its early years well before my time there, the Ritz was "exclusive" in the worst meaning of the word. People of color and with certain ethnic last names or appearance were not welcome. In your introduction you mentioned dancing at the roof garden. In the 30's and 40's, Benny Goodman performed there regularly, but he would not have been allowed to stay there as a guest.

Then there was the most eccentric guest I encountered while working at the Ritz. In the summer of 1966, we were suddenly told that the entire 4th floor was off-limits to all employees and unauthorized guests. Boston police officers were actually stationed on the floor to make sure no one had access by way of the stairs or elevators. After a while, we learned that Howard Hughes had taken over the entire floor while he was in town negotiating some sort of business (I think he was selling TWA). He had his wife (Jean Peters?), some business associates, and his own chef with him to supervise the kitchen in preparing Hughes' food. He also had one of the room service waiters assigned to him full time. (The waiter had his own room on the floor and was even allowed to have his wife stay with him, but he was on call 24/7.)

After a while, security loosened up and we were allowed access to the floor. The waiter, Henry, was a friend of mine and I went up to visit him one evening in November (Hughes had stayed there for 5 months.) Henry handed me a menu and told me to order anything I wanted. I hesitated because it sounded dishonest to me, but Henry said everything was OK. Hughes had completed his business a couple of days before and had left town, but he didn't want word getting out for a week (he'd actually been taken out of the hotel on a stretcher to an ambulance by the delivery entrance without anyone, even hotel management, knowing it was him) and he'd instructed Henry to continue to order food as if he were still in the hotel and do whatever he wanted with it.

So, Howard Hughes bought me dinner at the Ritz Carlton.

HALLIE Were there other famous folks (besides you) who worked at the Ritz?

KEN: The most famous fellow ex-Ritz person and the one best known to your audience is Dennis Lehane. I met Dennis at a signing for "Prayers for Rain" at Barnes and Noble in Chestnut Hill in 1998. At the time, David Robicheaux and a crew from Channel 4 were doing a story on Dennis and they were covering the signing. I had brought all 5 of my Lehane books to the signing and, since the store didn't have all of Dennis' books in stock, David asked if they could take a shot of my books for the story. In the meantime Dennis and I started to chat and, somehow, the Ritz came up. He'd worked there in the 80's, either as a doorman or at the front desk, I'm not sure which. Meanwhile, I have videotape of him signing my books. Talk about a certificate of authenticity! I few years ago, I came across an Internet website that claimed that an autographed first edition of "A Drink before the War", his first book, was valued at $400!

RO: What stories you could write! I have very fond memories of staying at The Ritz when I worked for Crown Publishers and went to Boston for a meeting at WGBH. Yes, these were the eighties - today they'd probably put me on the Bolt Bus and send me home. But I was traveling with the publisher and he was a Ritz-y guy so they couldn't very well put me in the Dew Drop Inn. I felt so grown.

HALLIE: So, gentle readers, please share your questions of Ken and your own memories of tea or dancing or just breezing through the lobby of the Ritz.


  1. OH, the Ritz Martinis! Jonathan and I would sit in the bar, at a table by the window? If I remember correctly? And have those gorgeous martinis. (In the days when I could stilll drink a whole one, sigh.)

    It was so--welcoming. And the people were so--honestly charming, it seemed. And the beautiful bathrooms! (Why is it such a pleasure to go into a glowing, shiny, glam bathroom, filled with beautfil soap and fluffy towels and lotion and everyting? Sigh, It just is.)

  2. A really fun interview, Edna Ferber and Howard Hughes! I enjoyed this.

  3. What fun! Thanks for sharing your memories, Ken. I've always heard that Benny Goodman had a HORRIBLE temper - though perhaps he had reason. Can you tell us, did you witness any of the famous tantrums?

  4. Hi Ken,
    What great memories. Sadly, I've never been to the Ritz, but before we settled on our suburban home, my husband and I almost bought a condo on Commonweath Ave that would have given us concierge privileges there. I remember the condo price just seemed a little steep. I think it was under $200,000 (small and partly basement) -- HAH!!, we are still kicking ourselves.....


  5. wonderful interview--thanks Ken and Hallie for putting us in the Ritz for a day!

  6. Ken, I had NO idea. How absolutely fascinating! Amazing. You are a man of many talents and many hidden depths.

    Did the Ritz do a lot of employee training?

    And did famous people sneak in with assumed names?

    What's the secret of the Ritz Martini?

  7. Hi Ken and JR, I lived in Connecticut in the late sixties. A friend of mine was dating a young man from Needham then, and his father owned a beauty salon right near the Ritz. It had private booths so you could have your hair colored and no could see you. I can't remember the name of the place now, but I do remember being very impressed. Looking back now, it would have been a great place for a murder. Hmmm...

  8. I stayed at the Ritz once, in 1972--with my grandmother. And yes, we ordered dinner from room service.

    She used to tell the tale of spending the night there in the 1920s, possibly the first year it opened, on the way from New Jersey to the summer house on the Cape.

  9. Love your stories, Ken--particularly about Howard Hughes buying you dinner. What an adventure!

    Robert Preston was so cool. Our local community theater just put on Lion in Winter, but it's such a great play that I couldn't imagine them doing it justice. I bet Preston was terrific.

  10. Clea: The Ritz kitchen could be a pretty stressful place and I saw some nasty confrontations there, but nothing that probably doesn't happen every day at McDonald's. And I have no stories about guests behaving badly.

    Hank: People in my job weren't supposed to interface with guests (you'll notice I mentioned I was breaking the rules) so I got no special training and I'm pretty sure there were no entry level waiters at the Ritz, so I don't think training was considered a high priority, as opposed to learning how it was done at the Ritz. I do remember that a room service waiter once tried to open a bottle of champagne with a corkscrew, leading to a very unfortunate outcome, but I'm guessing that any experienced waiter would have been expected to know better than to do that.
    Can't remember any "alias" stories, either.
    I was 17-18 years old, coming from a household where nobody drank, so I doubt I knew anything about martinis back then (except James Bond drank vodka ones, shaken not stirred). I do remember that a dining room guest once ordered a Scotch and ginger ale and the bartender refused to make it. Instead, he filled an old-fashioned glass with ice, opened a split of Canada Dry, filled a jigger with Scotch, and told the waiter, "You mix it or let her do
    it. I just know I'm not doing it."

  11. I see I'm a little late here.

    Jan, if that condo was at 34 Commonwealth Ave, that's where I lived when working in nearby theaters. I used go in the Ritz Carlton all the time, mostly for coffee... somebody had a samovar? Can't remember. I don't know why they gave me coffee, either. I happily took it though. I just remember I went there when the capitol coffee shop seemed too far to walk to. That was my favorite coffee. Don't tell.

    I remember when Howard Hughes was there. Not that I ever saw him...

    All these memories. Fun interview, Ken & Reds. So sorry I am late, late, late.