Waldorf Astoria – The Man From Rugen
(Originally printed in 1931)
Seemingly alone and obscure in the Baltic Sea there is a tiny island seldom, if ever, to be found on old maps, and on modern ones only because it has become a popular German summer resort.
It is called Rugen. The general name is applied by the natives only to the roughly triangular main trunk of the island, while the larger peninsulas are considered to be as distinct from Rugen as the various beaches and resorts that dot its towns and the islands that cluster about it.
The feeling that even the summer-resort visitor has on this island is a complete isolation from all the world. Yet it is less than two miles off the Prussian coast line. On a clear day you can see it from the mainland, its chalk cliffs rising sheer 400 or more feet above the water, but the rest of the country, flat and solid, tapers down to a low, rugged line that seems to meet and surrender itself to the sea.
The character of the natives long has been like that of the island—rugged, aloof, undisturbed by all the world currents that usually affect nations and humans alike. They are an insular people, unrelated in dress, in customs or in dialect to the thousands that swarm every summer to their beaches.
This is so today as it was several decades ago. Life has changed but little. Then, as today, most of the natives raised cattle, or geese, or worked in the herring fisheries. They were a people untouched by outside influences. They were frugal, honest, hard-working people.
From such a family of pioneers came George C. Boldt. He was born on the island in 1853 but, unlike the children of others, he had this social advantage: his parents enjoyed the fruits of education and social refinements. His father was the caretaker of the tiny island. Still, there was little opportunity for young George to learn much on that island and his imagination assumed more importance than a formal education.
It gave to George Boldt wings for his restlessness, hope for his ambitions. As he grew up he looked out upon the never-ending expanse of water that crowded around the island like an impenetrable wall. There were times when he could stand on a high promontory and look over to Stralsund, beckoning always. The craft that came often to the island’s unpretentious quays lingered there only a brief time. All this must have brought into George Boldt’s mind the conviction that the world immediately about him was not his world. He had ambitions, keen desires to travel and the hope of boundless achievement. He must have been a strange lad then, among those kindly island folk, dreaming and dreaming of the happy hunting-lands of fortune, so far beyond their horizon but not his own.
So one day he left the island, where his hopes and his youth had been chained by the ebb and flow of the sea. He went to Stralsund and eventually landed in New York City, for then, as now, youths in many lands were thinking eagerly, daringly, of America.
Young Boldt hadn’t the slightest idea of what he could do in the new country. Somehow he was drawn to the old Merchants Exchange Hotel. It stood then (in 1869) at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. He got a job in the hotel kitchen. That well may have been how Boldt became “hotel-minded.” He went to another hotel, the Arlington. Then sickness overcame him.
But Boldt had saved a little money, so he determined to get out of New York. It really wasn’t all America. Beyond lay the West, a great country, only partially opened, with people telling of opportunities. He got as far as Texas. He worked at odd jobs and made his home in a log cabin. He had a little money. He was learning the country, there was hope, the horizons were opening up before him—and then suddenly water again swept into his life and brought disaster.
The river that flowed by Boldt’s cabin one day broke out into a torrential flood. It caught that cabin up and destroyed it, wiped out Boldt’s fortune, and barely allowed him to save his own life.
But the young man from Rügen escaped the tyranny of water this time as he had once before. He returned to New York. Its hotels were calling him. And it was then that his career as one of America’s greatest hotel men really began.
For a time he worked in Parker’s Restaurant, then a well-known oyster house at Thirty-third and Sixth Avenue. He served so well there that the owner of a small hotel on Cornwall-on-the-Hudson engaged him to run it for him. Then he received an invitation to join William Kehrer, who was manager of the Philadelphia Club. There he made so many friends that his name slowly began to assume as much importance as the Philadelphia Club itself.
Certain patrons soon put him into the Bellevue and he made it famous. The hotel was small, standing a little brazenly at Broad and Walnut Streets in Philadelphia. It was only four stories in height, with about twenty sleeping-rooms—stretched into thirty when necessary. That is to say, Boldt let people use his own private suite of rooms when there was a shortage of rooms. Its demolishment in 1904 was something for connoisseurs of hotels to mourn. It was succeeded by the Bellevue-Stratford, which, on a grander scale, took its place in the Quaker City’s affection and esteem.
Boldt, meanwhile, engaged in other projects which need no enumeration here. All were highly successful. He seemed to have a magic touch in hotel management that conveyed itself to others. Among those who had heard about it were Abner Bartlett and, later, Astor. They decided Boldt was the man who should guide the destinies of the new Waldorf. The negotiations were swift. When completed, it was agreed that the Astor estate should receive five per cent annually on the cost of the Waldorf Hotel building, in addition to six per cent on the ground valuation.
But the most important—certainly it was unique—decision of all was to erect thirteen stories. This decision was not necessarily made by Boldt, but by his pretty, charming wife, Louise Kehrer, daughter of William Kehrer, Boldt’s former employer. She was to have much influence on Boldt’s activities in hotel life. Take that decision on the thirteen stories. She had an inverse superstition toward the number 13. Her first child, George, Jr., was born at 1313 Locust Street, Philadelphia; the second child in a room numbered 13 in a Berkeley, New Jersey, hotel. So Mrs. Boldt wanted the Waldorf, originally in-tended to rise eleven stories in height, to be increased to thirteen stories. And that explains, also, why the hotel was opened on the night of March 13, 1893!
For that matter, whenever Mr. Boldt had to sign any important papers he accepted this whim of his wife’s by deferring the date to the 13th of the month. While the hotel was being constructed, he moved temporary offices into No. 13 West Thirty-third Street. However, in 1895 he was forced to sacrifice the original No. 13 to make room for a five-story extension to the hotel, but a new “No. 13” succeeded it in the form of a private residence, also with thirteen rooms, so built within the hotel structure itself that its separate identity could never be suspected. This home the Boldt family occupied for many years.
From the very beginning, in spite of many vicissitudes, Boldt demonstrated his knowledge of human beings and his ability to run a hotel in a personal way so that it would appeal to the community as well as to the traveling public. That first year of 1893, because of the economic depression, was a difficult one. The guests were few at first; on one Sunday there were only 40 guests, compared with 970 servants, specialists, and others on the hotel’s payroll ready to answer their needs.
But gradually people began to hear about this man Boldt’s genius and how it was being reflected in the Waldorf. Hotel men all over the country studied his methods, and to this day they are copied by hotels in every part of the world. Here are a few brief examples: He conceived the idea of creating upon each floor, in central and convenient location, a “branch office” of the hotel. Gentlewomen were employed at each of these posts. They were in constant touch, not only with the main office, the housekeeper, and the kitchen, but with each of the rooms upon that floor. Go into any modern, large-sized hotel today and you will find that system in existence.
Another important innovation was the appearance of assistant managers upon the floor, mingling among the guests, adjusting their minor needs. Until their advent the American hotel was fast deteriorating into a colorless, impersonal machine. No matter how efficient the hotel might be, no matter how excellent its service, its cuisine, there was not the atmosphere of the old tavern, the feeling of cordiality and of personal contact between guest and host. Indeed, impersonality was the hotel’s most glaring defect.
Boldt was determined this should not be so with the Waldorf. He realized that he himself, with his multitudinous duties, could not hope to be on the floor very much. But there was a way to have himself substituted; so he inaugurated the assistant manager and he kept him moving about the floor. He impressed upon such employees that they were the real pulse of the hotel. It was thus that the guest went away from the Waldorf feeling, somehow, that he really had been a guest—not a “customer” there.
The desire of Boldt to make this hotel personality felt was expressed in another policy. It seems his guests would sometimes have minor financial difficulties and they would want a check cashed. Boldt simply went ahead and cashed it. To carry out this policy the hotel sometimes carried nearly $1000,000 in cash.
This was not gambling. It was, as has been said before, the experimental nature in the man, as well as his confidence in human nature. This was his philosophy as expressed once to his clerks:
“Unless you have very good reasons for suspecting a man, or his check, cash it—up to a reasonable amount. Men are not going to the bad—nor the penitentiary—for a twenty-five-dollar nor a fifty-dollar check.” He may have been wrong in this estimate of human nature—but human nature never caused George Boldt to change his opinion.
Boldt’s attitude toward his employees’ conduct is reflected in the present-day slogan of hotels, “The customer is always right.” That rather doubtful principle was not exactly expressed by Boldt. But he did emphatically insist that the customer be given his way when there was any doubt as to whether he deserved to have it.
Once, he said, salesmen in the ordinary sense were less likely to be successful in the hotel business than equally competent men from almost any other line of work. The reason he gave was that the high-pressure salesman’s success, at least, lay in his ability to bring customers to his point of view. And that, said Boldt, was the very thing that would not do in a first-class hotel. If a man did not like his room it would not be good management to try to convince him that it is the very room he ought to have, but to agree immediately, with the utmost cheerfulness, that he should have a different room —and hasten to get it for him. Said Boldt once: “Courtesy is cheap; so why shouldn’t we use it?”
But among all his policies perhaps none provoked such a storm (of both applause and denunciation, by the way) as his ban against beards. Boldt had a sound reason for this, even though it does conflict with one’s ideas about personal rights. Although he himself wore a tightly-cropped beard until his death, Boldt wanted his entire staff close-shaven. In the dining-room, for instance, he believed that the close-shaven waiter reflected the appearance of cleanliness and sanitation. But he went so far as to order others—even the cabmen who waited for customers at the Thirty-third Street curb—to be clean-shaven because Boldt felt it would improve their appearance, as some of them often forgot to shave themselves in those days. They were a colorful lot, by the way, standing or sitting beside their shiny cabs, their horses gallantly and patiently waiting for the next customer.
The public reaction to the dictum of Boldt’s was highly emotional. Some of the newspapers became seriously indignant about it. Always ready to wave the banner of “personal freedom” upon the slightest provocation, they did so this time with a vengeance. The esteemed Sun solemnly came out (“flat-footedly” it said) against the ban on beards. It criticized “those who wanted with hated lather and abhorrent razor to denude upper lips and chins of the adornment furnished by fruitful nature.” It was, said the Sun, the undeniable right of every free-man to wear his beard where, when, and in whatever fashion he pleased.”
That respectable journal, the Times, stated, gravely:
“The cabmen struck the clearest note of strength in their assertion that, if such a hirsuteless system be just, then the same rule should apply to the public servants of the people, viz., to the Governor of the state and members of the Legislature and other state and city officials.” The Times even published a picture of the then Governor Flower with and without a beard.
But if the Times thought it was going to bulldoze Governor Flower, it didn’t know that eminent statesman. There was an election in the offing. Even beards affected elections. The Governor pondered solemnly over the problem. Then finally, after deciding that the beard-andwhisker vote was an important one not to be denied, he rose in his dignity with a defense of the cabmen and waiters and declared that no man should be made to shave his face against his own will. Indeed, the controversy took on a decidedly official color when, in a formal statement, the Governor said:
“It was not so many years ago that I was a servant my-self, and I used to wear my beard as I pleased and my hair as long as I pleased. Had any man dictated to me that I should put a French twist to my beard or a Spanish curl to my hair I would have taken it as an insult. I will veto any bill regulating men’s beards!”
A brave man, the Governor. However, he carried the vote of the waiters and cabmen throughout the state, it is said.
Encouraged by the Governor’s pronunciamento, the hack-drivers and waiters combined to fight. The Liberty Dawn Association of Hack Drivers, Knights of Labor, met time after time. They resolved and resolved against such an outrage. There were secret meetings out of which came cryptic statements reaffirming their refusal to shave and describing the ban on beards as a defiance of the Bill of Rights, not to mention the Declaration of Independence.
But the tide of the times was against them and they did not know it. Boldt, as time went on, proved victorious. Hotel after hotel joined him in issuing ultimatums against mustachios and beards. And beards and side-burns, at least, gradually vanished from the faces of men who had not even the remotest connection with hotels. It would be fatuous to say that Boldt’s dictum caused the final downfall of the general popularity of flowing beards, mustachios, and side-burns. Yet it did in a sense mark the beginning of their end.
Boldt’s duties and prestige increased with the subsequent addition of the Astoria to the Waldorf. He was worried about the plot of ground immediately adjoining the Waldorf. One rumor said a hotel—a rival institution —might go up there. So Boldt went to George F. Peabody, agent for John Jacob Astor, owner of the property. Favorably impressed with Boldt’s abilities as a hosteler, Astor decided to tear down his big house at Thirty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue and build a new hotel to be called the Astoria and to be operated jointly with the Waldorf. The story of the grandeur it brought, when combined with the old Waldorf, is told in a separate and later chapter.
The new combined hotel eventually brought Boldt many profits. He was able to invest widely in banking. He was interested in the Trust Company of the Republic just at the time of the famous Dresser failure. With Stuyvesant Fish, Boldt was appointed a trustee to bring some-thing out of the ruined bank. It was his handling of the matter that brought him the friendship of the late J. P. Morgan. After that Morgan came often to the Waldorf-Astoria and would visit Boldt’s private office.
Boldt continued to increase his real-estate investments.
In 1907 he paid a million dollars for lots at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-seventh Street and soon sold all but two of the lots to Tiffany for two million dollars-the biggest real-estate transaction on record up to that time. On the two remaining lots he erected a home for his family. They had looked forward to it. It was something that Mrs. Boldt had dreamed of. But thirty days after they entered the place, she died. Boldt never really recovered from her death.
His remaining enthusiasm, to keep his mind detached from his grief and from the growing duties that had come to him as a millionaire hotel-owner, was the plan to erect a great castle-like home, similar to an ancient German Schloss, on Hart Island, one of the Thousand Islands across from Alexandria Bay. There, in his old age, he hoped to spend much of his time.
It was a splendid thing he had planned, too. The great stone walls went up and soon began to dominate that part of the St. Lawrence. There was the daily growing hint of beauty and grandeur about it; something created, one might think, out of a highly imaginative boy’s mind.
But before it was finished, George Boldt died. That was in 1916. Ever since the castle has been left alone. Its construction was stopped. It began to decay. Today its stone walls are crumbling. Ivy weeds and old vines are crawling about it. Time is crushing it. Visitors look at it, lonely and forlorn, and wonder why it was ever started and why it was never finished.
Of course, they do not understand. They cannot envisage what might have been there—a stately castle on a stately island, remote and alone; an old dignified man looking out over the water and dreaming of another island, of Rugen, where a small boy once stood many, many years ago, gazing over toward Stralsund, dreaming of the day when he would some day win success and achievement in a new and distant world.
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