Going to the White House and need to borrow a $10,000 fur coat for the evening?
Want $1,000 worth of flowers on short notice?
Is it essential that your daily newpaper be delivered from Kyoto within 48 hours while you're stateside?
Need 25 taxis on a snowy night?
No problem. Cast your fate to the concierge, respectfully known as hotel Houdinis.
"A rock group was staying with us," recalls Jack Nargil, 33, head concierge at the Four Seasons. "Their manager called one morning saying that one member of the band was getting married that afternoon and the manager wanted to get some flowers into the room in between the time that they went to the church and came back.
"I ordered approximately $1,000 worth of flowers; I had to use more than one florist and get all these flowers in the room in two hours' time. And, for $1,000 worth of flowers, that was quite a bit of flowers."
Nargil, well-spoken and clad in uniform of tails and starched white shirt with Mona Lisa cuff links at sleeves' end, will recount instances when he had to get two boxes of very expensive cigars overnight for "a very eccentric Greek gentleman." These pricey cigars were unavailable in D.C., so he had to get them from New York and have them delivered to "a mansion out in Virginia."
And, on several occasions, "in a matter of hours, of course," Nargil has to come up with a jet plane to go from D.C. to Texas. "Price is no object, Jack, just you see if you can get me that flight. I just want to get down there real fast," Nargil recounts in his best imitation Texas drawl.
At The Madison and Dolley Madison Hotels, Rene Sauthier, the new general manager, is in charge of training two new concierges. Coming from the job with the same title at New York's Hotel Pierre, he relays the story of how Georgio Finocchiaro, the legendary concierge there, got a Kyoto businessman his local paper 48 hours after it was off the press.
"Georgio (concierges are usually known by their first names) called up the Miyako Hotel in Kyoto and told the concierge there that 'we have one of your businessmen from Kyoto staying at this hotel. He will be here for six weeks and must get that local newspaper every morning. What can you do?'"
As luck would have it, international airline crews stayed at the Miyako Hotel regularly and every morning the concierge there left the paper for a crew member to put on the plane for New York, where it was picked up at the airport and delivered to the guest.
Although Bettye Bradley -- dubbed "the Mississippi belle" by Lillian Hellman in a note to Leonard Bernstein -- recently left her concierge desk at The Watergate Hotel, the stories still spill out about her famed Watergate clientele. The "belle" is really from Georgia, but Hellman identified Bradley's lingering southern accent as that of a Mississippian.
Bradley, who is in her fifties and was at the Watergate for five years, will never forget the time Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin broke through his security ranks and "came over and just planted a big kiss and said 'Watergate has such pretty girls.' " Nor will she forget how she cajoled the late Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, who rarely gave out autographs, to sign a copy of his book for her.
But if Bradley garnered the impossible from guests, she also gave the impossible. "The Austrian bankers were in town one night. There must have been 50 or 60 of them that came in a group and their bus didn't show up. It was snowing and you just couldn't find taxis. I was out on Virginia Avenue and I literally raked up 25 taxis and got these guys off to their dinner and back."
Then, there was another snowy night, this one a New Year's Eve, when Bradley was working the graveyard shift.
"I guess it was about 11 o'clock or midnight and ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and a group were going to Alexandria to a party and there weren't any taxis anywhere. So, finally, I just said 'I'll take you myself' and I put them all in my car -- and I have five of them, all Russian ballet dancers and they all have these fur coats on. And, in a Granada, you can imagine how packed we were. And off to Alexandria I took 'em."
The most unsettling experience for Bradley was when Italian pianist Maurizio Pollini sent his frock coat to the valet shop and needed it back for that evening's 8 p.m. performance. Her phone rang at 7 p.m. Pollini wanted to know where the coat was. Nobody had alerted Bradley to be on the lookout for it, the valet shop had closed for the day and Pollini didn't have a spare. Several frantic phone calls later, Bradley located the shop's owner and persuaded him to send someone over to open the doors and retrieve the coat.
"There happened to be a limousine driver in the lobby," says Bradley. "And I said, 'I don't care who you're picking up, you're going to take this man to the Kennedy Center and I'll explain to the guest and they can wait.' And as soon at I put that coat on him, I shoved him in that limousine and sent him to the Kennedy Center."
Daily life, however, isn't all mad capers and scrambles for unusual requests.
"Headaches are something I must deal with," says a sometimes-harried concierge who always manages to appear cool on the outside. A concierge, for example, could manage to secure tickets at the last minute to a sold-out show, and then see a guest's temporary euphoria turn into anger when he sees his seat.
"Everyone wants to sit fifth- or sixth-row center," laments one concierge, "and that's just impossible."
"The concierge tends to be remembered for all those crazy things," says Christiane Juster, the concierge at The Fairfax who was born in Mougins, France. ("Nobody knows Mougins. My only claim to fame is that the doctor who signed my birth certificate also signed Picasso's death certificate.")
"We do a lot of very usual things that are just as important as getting a hairdresser in the middle of the night or having a show dog that is worth a lot of money and finding a reliable sitter for the dog. Restaurant reservations, airline confirmations, all these things are just as important because if you don't do them you have a catastrophe on your hands."
Nargil, Bradley and Juster all belong to Les Clefs d'Or (The Golden Keys), U.S.A., an arm of the international professional society designed to maintain standards and uphold traditions of the European role model. European concierges, sometimes known as "hall porters," have been around for as long as anyone can remember. When talking about American concierges, "You're really thinking about a new child in this country," notes Juster. (Les Clefs d'Or, U.S.A., was founded in 1977.)
Membership requirements are stringent. The concierge must be stationed in the hotel lobby and it must be a hotel -- no condominiums -- and be at the service of all guests. If a concierge serves in that capacity for one year, he or she is eligible for consideration for an associate membership; three years of continuous service brings full voting rights.
Members of Les Clefs d'Or strive for longevity in the profession and most stress commitment. "It's not the type of position," says Nargil, "where you want to bounce around."
Les Clefs d'Or serves as a fraternity. Members wear symbolic key pins, and when they gather informally or at their conventions, it isn't to swap jokes about how many concierges it might take to change a lightbulb or to exchange stories on crazy requests.
"The truth of the matter is," says Nargil, "we're very tight-lipped, even amongst ourselves. We like to see each other and make friendships that way and that is how our ability as a concierge increases. By making these new friends all around the world, I can, for example, call Paris and talk to Gerard at the Plaza Athene'e and I know that I'm going to get my work accomplished because Gerard assures me that I will. For concierges, this is a network, a large family."
"Lately the word 'concierge' has really started to take off," says Eugene Ferguson, 53, current president of Les Clefs d'Or, U.S.A. "This is because the hotel industry has found that over the past few years, the smaller, more personal-service hotels were doing a better business as compared to . . . the very commercial-type hotels with very little staff and very little service.
"It's not a position that I believe every hotel would even care to market; it's sort of a very sophisticated service for a very sophisticated hotel."
At the sophisticated Four Seasons, Nargil emphasizes that his job is to "deal with all requests individually, each as if it were the most important . . . And, everyone who walks through my door, I treat him or her as a king or queen and that is very important."