Fact or fiction: The legend of Waldorf

Published Oct 19, 2014, 8:26 am IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 8:25 pm IST
From the hotel that invented room service, comes a story that has inspired thousands over the years. But is the legend true?

When it re-opened in 1931, New York’s Waldorf Astoria was the largest hotel in the world. The lobby of the second edition of the building (the first was built in 1893) was an Art Deco masterpiece with a ceiling so magnificent, it has been the subject of numerous Hollywood productions. US President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline spent their wedding night at the hotel. Close  friend Marilyn Monroe was a frequent guest and even the salad at the Waldorf has a song dedicated to it. But earlier this week, the hotel went into the hands of China-based Anbang Insurance Group for a stunning $2 billion, making the Waldorf the most expensive hotel ever sold.

The legend
Ask any motivational speaker and chances are that he, or she, will be familiar with what’s known as the Waldorf Principle — a tale that attempts to explain how selfless service to others will one day return to benefit you. The anecdote tells the rise of the Waldorf Astoria’s first ever manager, George C. Boldt. Many years ago, on one stormy night, an elderly man and his wife entered the lobby of a small hotel in Philadelphia. Running from the raging tempest outside, the couple was desperate for an overnight shelter. “We’d like a room, please,” the husband requested the front desk clerk. The younger man looked down at the list of reservations and frowned — all the rooms were taken.

But with a winning smile he carefully explained: “I can’t send a nice couple like you out in the rain. Would you perhaps be willing to sleep in my room? It’s not exactly a suite, but it will make you folks comfortable.”  The stunned couple was hesitant. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll make out just fine,” the clerk assured them.
After a good night’s rest the husband, while paying the bill next morning, told the clerk: “Finding people who are both friendly and helpful is rare these days. You are the kind of manager who should be the boss of the best hotel in the United States. Maybe someday I’ll build one for you.”


The clerk smiled and bade the couple goodbye.
Two years later, the clerk received a letter recalling the storm and how gracious his gesture was towards the couple. But also enclosed was a one-way ticket to New York along with a note asking the young man to leave for the city immediately. The couple received him in New York and after a short exchange of pleasantries the husband took the clerk to Park Avenue and pointed towards a towering new building. As he pointed, the elderly man said: “That is the hotel I’d like you to manage.”

The clerk was Boldt and the elderly gent was William Waldorf Astor. The building he pointed to was the Waldorf Astoria, in all its glory. Boldt soon went on to redefine hospitality. He introduced room service, abolished the segregated ladies’ entrance, had his senior staff inspect the lobby round-the-clock and placed ashtrays at strategic locations, while insisting that all guests must be treated to fresh flowers and a copy of the day’s newspaper in their rooms. “Make the Waldorf so comfortable they will never go to another place,” he was once quoted as saying.

The truth
Much of that story is actually true. Boldt did manage a tiny hotel and yes, he’s the man who ‘invented’ room service. But in an obituary of Boldt, published in 1916, the New York Times finally revealed the true story. Turns out Boldt and his wife gave up their rooms at a resort for relatives of the Astors and their sick child. The child soon recovered and later, the relatives persuaded millionaire Astor that Boldt was the man he was looking for, to manage his new hotel in New York — the Waldorf Astoria. Making the Waldorf Principle almost 90 per cent true.

So, George C. Boldt did set the gold standard of hospitality. His is also a tale from the earliest days of earnest industry, filled with near-legendary levels of humility, which is now kept alive by thousands who still recite the Philly lore to both inspire and motivate. And except for a minor technicality, what Boldt built  form the blueprints of today’s growing luxury hotel industry.