Walter Weiss, Longtime Maître d’Hôtel and Arbiter of Standards at ’21,’ Dies at 80

Every so often (usually in the obituaries) you run across these links to an arguably more civilized time and realize that more to the past than those black and white movies. Anyway, I found his story fascinating.

At a restaurant that prizes its history as a Prohibition-era speakeasy and its relationships, some as old and valued as the antique toys hanging from the Bar Room ceiling, Mr. Weiss was in charge of seating for more than 40 of his 54 years there.

He set the pecking order for the rich, powerful and not infrequently pompous diners who regard 21 West 52nd Street as club, fraternity house and first-aid station. There was no appealing his decisions, and there could be no doubt that considerable thought went into them.

He had to balance the management’s desire to make celebrities visible with the demand of some for privacy. Corporate feuds, matrimonial trouble and media feuds had to be taken into account.

John F. Kennedy did not rate a “good” table until he became a senator, reflecting Mr. Weiss’s strong belief that younger customers should have something to look forward to.

A tip on the way in could only backfire, because Mr. Weiss saw tables as something to be “earned” through regular visits, good behavior and patience. (That is not to say a tip on the way out might not be fondly remembered.)

“I’m not in the furniture business,” he said in an Associated Press interview in 1991. “If you’re secure, it shouldn’t matter where you sit.”

He gave preferred diners more than tables: he scrambled to fulfill their heartfelt and occasionally peculiar desires. Cary Grant liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so he dispatched someone to a nearby grocery as soon as Grant walked in. Since Frank Sinatra liked hot cherry peppers, he ordered some. He made sure Richard M. Nixon was served ChÅteau PÚtrus with his chicken hash without having to ask. He did acknowledge bending the rules on one occasion. He let Howard Hughes wear sneakers, the only time anyone has ever worn them.

Of all the famous people he served at “21,” Winston Churchill might have been the one he admired the most, Mrs. Weiss said. In his nervousness, Mr. Weiss dropped four pheasants at Churchill’s feet. After an eternal second of silence, Churchill laughed and helped clean up.

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