Oscar The Epicure
( Originally Published 1931 )
Of all the men who sprang from the Boldt regime, it is unlikely that any has achieved such world-wide affection and esteem as the kind-faced, solemn, quiet fellow now known as Oscar of the Waldorf-Astoria.
Whenever people, in America at least, speak of the art of eating, they invariably mention Oscar. His name has been inevitably associated with the Waldorf-Astoria; the lives of this man and the institution he has served so long interpenetrate. The fame of each has complemented the other. Yet Oscar's last name is one of the mysteries that the public never troubles itself to solve. Everyone has been content to refer to him simply as Oscar, or "Mr. Oscar," or "Oscar of the Waldorf," and not even wonder why. One day he was asked to tell how arid why he is known in public—and often privately, for that matter—by no other name nor by any other tide.
"It is quite simple," he said. "My last name is Tschirky. Whenever people used to address me they invariably stumbled in front of that last name. Even my superiors were perplexed by it. People would stammer over it and then, exhausted, would just gasp out `Oscar.' This was so at Delmonico's, when I was in charge of the catering department. It was embarrassing at first. At the Waldorf, people just ignored that last name and simply called me 'Mr. Oscar.' I accepted the situation gracefully enough; it solved a problem for me. Finally, whenever I was referred to in the newspapers, it was as Oscar. They usually did, of course, grant me the courtesy of a 'Mister' but beyond 'Mr. Oscar' they would not go. Indeed, they never even thought of me as a maitre d'hotel or a general manager. The name Oscar of the Waldorf, I soon was made to feel, was a title unto itself.
"Today, if a stranger were to address me as Mr. Tschirky, I'm almost afraid I'd be a little confused. For I, too, you see, have fallen into the habit of thinking of myself simply as Oscar."
The story of Oscar is the story of an epicure at heart as well as by reputation. His fame, it would seem, has rested securely upon the condition that the public—erroneously, as we shall see—regards him as an artist who has composed sonatas in soups, symphonies in salads, minuets in sauces, lyrics in entrees. He has presided over the destinies of far more than a million people a year; that is to say, their stomachs.
Oscar was born in Lode, Canton de Neuchatel, Switzerland. He attended school at Chau de Fonds and Fribourg, the home of the first suspension bridge. He came to this country in May, 1883, the day before the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge.
An hour after his arrival he had applied for naturalization. (He received his papers on August 13, 1888.) And a little later on the same day he applied for his first position at the Brunswick. There was nothing available at the Brunswick, so he went to the Hoffman House, located at Twenty-sixth Street and Broadway (the building still stands today at the same address). There he secured his first position at five o'clock on the day of his arrival in the United States —a remarkable example of courage and determination.
But Oscar knew what he wanted. In spite of his youth he had determined ideas about hotels and restaurants. It was not long before people in the restaurant business learned of this. In 1891 he was on the staff of the old and famous Delmonico's, then standing at Fifth -Avenue and Broadway (at the juncture where Twenty-sixth Street crosses). He became head of Delmonico's catering department and his fame soon spread. The name "Oscar" began to be a by-word among the town's epicures. Eventually he went with Hoffman's to take charge of its famous Down-Town Restaurant and there he remained until he became one of the most colorful figures on the staff of any hotel in town.
How he proved himself fit to join the Waldorf is interesting. Although Oscar was well known and the Waldorf management was anxious to have him on its staff, Boldt, a stickler for business proprieties, requested formal letters of reference from Oscar. Oscar replied with only one letter. But it was nearly ten foolscap pages long! On those pages appeared the signature of some of the most famous New Yorkers of the day, for they had gladly put their names to a testimonial Oscar had drawn up. John W. Mackay, Sr., was one of them. Chief Justice Andrews, H. McKay Twombly, Dr. Seward Webb, and George Gould were others. It would be simple to find the other names just look into the social register of the early nineties, for a good many of the names therein were represented on Oscar's testimonial.
From that time on, Oscar's fame continued to increase. It was not only as a well-known hotel man: he was one of the colorful figures of the 'nineties. The old Herald had a habit of referring to him sometimes as the "friend of gourmets and epicures, a confidant of swelldom." Why not? Everybody thought so well of him. It was not surprising that Sir Thomas Lipton wrote, "I can assure you that in all my travels all over the world I have never been better cared for than while in your own good hands." Nor was it unusual that Mrs. Mark Hanna wrote him frequent notes of a complimentary nature. For that mat-ter, the newspapers accepted him as an indispensable figure of the town. You might pick up a paper and see such an item as this crowding out a pompous foreign or domestic political story:
"Oscar says that the way to make French rolls is to mix a quart of flour with a little salt and two eggs, a table-spoonful of lard and two of yeast, with enough milk to make a good dough. Work it well and set out to rise for the night. In the morning work it thoroughly again and form it into rolls. Let these rise again and bake in a quick oven."
Or, in perusing the sports news, you were apt to find that information concerning John L. Sullivan or Corbett was mixed up with some such intelligence as this:
"Oscar's recipe for making the famous Waldorf sauterne cup is as follows: Put in the bottom of a punch-bowl or large glass pitcher a little shaved ice and sugar or syrup made of white sugar; add two ponies of brandy, one pony of Benedictine, and two-thirds of a pony of maraschino. Stir all together, put in a good-sized piece of ice, pour in a quart of sauterne and two bottles of plain soda. Decorate with fruit in season and garnish with a bunch of mint."
If you seek a reason, subtler than his record, to explain his popularity, perhaps it may be found in his philosophic views on the art of eating that were constantly digested and applauded by the fastidious. It must be remembered that in the 'nineties America in general had by no means approached Europe in its recognition of epicurean values. There are some who tell us we still lag. That is neither here nor there in this story. Oscar, however, helped to make us conscious of the merits to be found in leisurely dining. Here is what he wrote more than thirty years ago, and it remains a choice bit of commentary on the subject to this day:
"To eat one's full merely to appease one's appetite without finesse or selection is an avowal of barbarism worthy only of the wild beast or the savage. To savor and enjoy a banquet—one of our modern achievements of culinary art and imaginative effect—implies an enviable degree of race development in mind and manners.
"I admit frankly that when I am called upon to tempt the appetite of a cultured gastronomic organ, where eye and ear must serve as a whet, I receive my greatest delight and inspiration. Add to this order that other carte blanche —which lays no limit upon expenditure—then indeed one realizes that he has received a summons to create a work of artistic good cheer that should live in the memory of every participant. I have made it a rule, whatever the purpose of the feast, to work out my dinner with a settled design, what musicians would call leit motif."
No wonder that when the elder J. Pierpont Morgan dined at the Waldorf he not only insisted that Oscar alone should supervise his meal, but would allow no one else in the private dining-room to serve him!
This philosophy of Oscar's entered not merely into the creation of a great banquet, nor a private meal, but even in directing the booking of a single minor item. Once, for instance, when Malini, the famous conjurer, was in the United States he paid a visit to Oscar. He thought he would entertain the maitre d'hotel with an appropriate exhibition of magic.
"I make to appear," said Malini, "an egg from your mouth." And he did. An egg was extracted from Oscar's lips. But Oscar was not entirely surprised at this magic.
"It is nothing," observed the Waldorf's maitre d'hotel. "From the egg I will produce an omelette which cannot be rivaled in magic." And he did. The magic of that omelette so appealed to Malini's taste that he later wrote his own magic was as nothing compared with the famous Oscar's!
Yet here is the paradoxical thing about it all: Oscar is not and never was a chef. He never did any cooking for a hotel and his position always was administrative or managerial. Popular fancy made him a sublime cook when all he ever pretended to be was an overseer of public comfort. In this capacity, it is true, he supervised the appetites and gastronomic tastes of the Waldorf's patrons. That, of course, is the job of a maitre d'hotel. But prepare salads! No, his job was too big for such a detail.
Under him were the cooks and the chefs and the waiters who carried out his orders.
'What Oscar really was and is was expressed back in 1898 by the Sun:
"The maitre d'hotel is one European institution that does not flourish in America. One may see the title in a list of hotel employees; shadow of the important European maitre d'hotel, who is monarch of all he surveys--and he surveys everything and everybody. In the ordinary hotel of Europe he stands an imposing figure, at the door to welcome you. He assigns you to a room; he oversees the porter's care of your luggage; he orders your dinner and superintends its serving; he engages your carriage, buys your theater tickets, plans your excursions, and when the day of your departure arrives he graciously deigns to pocket half a sovereign, gives you his blessing, and waves you a genial au revoir as you start for the station.
"Such a personage would be an impossibility in a great American hotel. No human being, unless he, like Cerberus, were three gentlemen in one, could personally attend to all the details of hotel management. Then, too, American hotel proprietors, while too dignified to do the actual work, like to run things themselves, and fear to trust implicitly to a subordinate. The chef, the head waiters, the clerks all twinkle in their own spheres and the proprietor careens among them like a distracted meteor.
"In only one New York hotel, however, is there a personage deserving to be called a maitre d'hotel. Anyone who studies him closely will soon arrive at a firm conviction that he might quite as appropriately have been called General or Admiral, if circumstances had not led him into the hotel business. Oscar knows everybody. He has won his place because the hotel proprietor, not being three gentlemen in one, had to make over an immense amount of authority to some one he could trust, and found that man in Oscar."
There is something significant in this observation. For in latter days Oscar's position in the hotel world has been unique. The average modern hotel, it is true, is an excel-lent, smooth, carefully run machine—yet it often, unfortunately, remains a machine. It has sought to copy the old Waldorf idea of having assistant managers on the floor, but frequently they reflect as glaring an impersonality as the pillars that support the beautifully arched beams of the lobby. What often is lacking is the personal touch, the greeting of the old tavern host, expansive, jolly, who used to stand at the door and bestow his best wishes upon one and all who entered through the doors. Of course, hotel life, generally speaking, has become too complex for that today. But Oscar has remained (I feel quite safe in saying) the last of the tavern hosts. The Times said in 1905:
"Oscar has an office adjoining the great east restaurant, and each morning, as surely as the clock strikes nine, he bustles in, opens his desk, goes over his mail, and then strolls about through the various dining-rooms, over-looking in a general way the service of breakfast. With one sweep of his eye he takes in everything that he wishes to see, and this, to the visitor, is no small part of his greatness. For as a result, that one glance tells him the name of every person in the room. If a person has arrived, say that morning or late the night before, Oscar makes it a point to go over and greet him with wellmodulated fervor. Of course, if the person is a stranger —that's different."
It was Oscar, indeed, who introduced the European custom of greeting patrons by name and bustling about, attending to their personal wants.
Meanwhile he had many other duties. For instance, he commanded a staff of 1,000 persons in the hotel, besides conducting a school for waiters—at the time the only one of its kind in the United States. He had some very interesting subjects to discuss at this school and the rules he laid down were strict. Here are a few of them:
When a guest is going into his pockets for money to pay his check all the waiters in his immediate vicinity are not to stop work and stand looking to see how much he gives his own waiter.
Never take water from a bottle on a table where a guest is seated.
Never present a check to a guest until asked.
But his greatest problem probably had to do with that now highly recognized and accepted institution of tip-ping. For a time there was little tipping in American restaurants, although it long had been a custom in Europe. Even over there the matter was debated considerably in the newspapers. In 1908 the International Association of Hotel Keepers, meeting in Rome, Italy, finally voted that inasmuch as tipping could not be abolished altogether, it must be regulated, and that they were the people to fix the scale of prices. They therefore determined that thereafter, when travelers wished it, they would undertake to distribute the tips, charging 15 per cent of bills not exceeding four dollars and 10 per cent for larger bills.
This scheme made no appeal to New York's hotel men. They contended that Americans were too independent by nature to put up with such a plan and would resent being told what to do with their spare change. Oscar insisted it would mean a hotelkeeper was going into partnership with his help, which he would not do.
Discussion raged in the newspapers as to what amount of a tip a waiter deserved. In some European restaurants, it was noted, the 10-per-cent tip virtually had become compulsory. It was introduced over here.
Oscar did not object to this. His attitude was that it never should be compulsory for a guest to tip a waiter. Neither should the waiter at any time indicate that he expected a tip. On the other hand, Oscar felt that if the guest liked the service he received, it would be for him to decide the amount of a tip—if he cared to give one.
Of course, today the tip has become almost compulsory. True enough, there is no law governing it, nor is it made a specific expense, as is the couvert charge, for instance. Yet the guest knows and feels he is expected to pay a tip. For him to leave the restaurant without giving the waiter some "gratuitous" amount would be to carry away, perhaps, a guilty conscience that might threaten to wipe out the memory of an excellent meal. It has become an institution and it would be a little foolhardy for anyone to challenge it at this late date.
It was a more difficult problem, however, back in 1893, because it was something new. The public, in the first place, as usual felt meals were costly enough without paying tips. If you went into a first-class restaurant, the highest price you would have had to pay for a sirloin steak, with potatoes, bread and butter and coffee, was 85 cents. At one time, the standard price at Delmonico's, the Waldorf, and other famous houses was 75 cents for this dish. When Kinsley, who came from Chicago to manage the Holland House, dared to boost the price for sirloin steak, with fixings, to 85 cents, some of the very best people who dined out regularly wrote to the newspapers and charged he was an extortioner!
In this connection it might be well to digress long enough to quote a few prices of the period. They're interesting. We might find that one newspaper, denouncing the price-boosting of the so-called "Beef Trust," printed the retail butcher shop prices for meat. These, by the way, were placed under the astonishing heading: "Prices That Stagger Humanity." Today they would stagger us with joy. Then they staggered people with chagrin, anger, etc.
Sirloin steak, it seems, was 24 cents; lamb chops, 18 cents; pork chops, 18 cents; ham, i8 cents. Sugar was four cents a pound; eggs, 14 cents a dozen. Potatoes were 35 cents to 45 cents a bushel; butter, 24 cents to 25 cents a pound. Top hogs were sold at $4.15; wheat was 70 cents a bushel; corn, 33 cents; Texas steers, $4.25 a hundred (hundredweight) ; a turkey dinner in a Boston boarding-house could be had for 20 cents; a breakfast for 15 cents; second class, but good hotels furnished excellent single rooms for a $1 a day; rooms without "extra accommodations" were 50 cents a, day.
To continue: "ladies' muslin nightgowns" were 19 cents each; French cheviots, water and dust proof serges, all high-class fabrics, warranted for color and wear, 79 cents; women's shoes, $1.19; corsets (they wore them then), 50 cents; gingham, 5 cents a yard; men's boxcalf shoes, $2.50; Stein-Bloch suits, $10 other suits, "once as high as $10," now $8.
Yet these facts are getting away from the original statement that food in hotels and restaurants was expensive in those days, even though today we think the prices extremely cheap.
But in time, it became generally accepted that the waiter deserved some form of practical thanks from the guest, especially when it was realized that the average wage of a waiter then amounted to 83 cents a day. The waiters at first tried to spread propaganda against the tip. The reason for this was obvious: they wanted more wages.
Then newspapers took up the battle and, without arguing about waiters' wages, were fiercely at odds about tipping. The Commercial Advertiser came out with the demand that tipping be forbidden—by law, if necessary. The World solemnly avowed that "the waiter should not be dependent on charity for adequate compensation." The Herald, with the air of the melancholy Dane, observed that "nothing can be done about it; tipping must go on."
The whole town was agog over this problem; letters were pouring into the newspapers. Finally the Sun, after taking a middle ground on the matter, came out in favor of a 10-per-cent tip. It based its suggestion on what it called the "Paris idea," although its vogue was as wide-spread in other European capitals.
At last even the waiters accepted the 10-per-cent-tip idea. Oscar, although accepting this arrangement and al-lowing it in the Waldorf (which, of course, spelled its success in America) was firm against one of the evils that threatened to arise from it. The waiters, it seems, had decided it would be an excellent thing to "pool" their tips. This was another European custom. All the money given as tips to waiters was placed in a common pool and evenly divided among the gentlemen who also serve. Oscar was definitely opposed to it. He insisted that the arrangement would not be just, It would enable the careless worker to get as much as the one who was courteous and attentive.
He won in that fight and it was an excellent thing for the dining public that he did. If he had lost, it might very well have resulted in a form of tyranny that would have been felt today by every guest who sits down at a table in a public restaurant: You would have not merely one waiter wondering about the size of your tip; the whole dining-roomful of them would be greatly concerned about it.
Such problems, as later chapters will show, were but minor ones in the life of Oscar. He was so greatly concerned with the art of dining and of living that he never hesitated to speak his mind about anything that threatened his public's welfare. He was the same way in his contacts with individuals and organizations that dined at the Waldorf.
I suppose that accounts for the fact that he is unique among all the hotel hosts of the world; he has been decorated by three governments. When Prince Carol of Rumania (now the king) visited the United States in August, 1920, he did not leave the Waldorf-Astoria without pinning the Order of the Crown of Rumania upon Oscar's breast. Reason? Excellent service, kindness and intelligent supervision of the prince's cuisine. Again, France sent him a medal which bestowed upon him the tide of Chevelier of the Ordre Merite Agricole. It was given "in recognition of your unfailing interest in and courtesy to citizens of France traveling in America and in particular for your untiring efforts in the entertainment of the French people who have visited the Waldorf-Astoria."
The third award came from the King of the Belgians during his visit in December, 1919. At first the king was informed Oscar was an Austrian. It was a sorry misunderstanding. But when the whole matter was cleared up the king approached Oscar and said:
"Oscar, I thank you very much for everything you have done during my presence. I am very sorry that this misunderstanding happened, but I shall see that you get your reward."
That reward came in good time. It was a medal of the Order of the Crown. Oscar forgave the king!