The food left a lot to be desired, but that was soon forgotten by the constant gemütlich atmosphere at the bar where schnapps, every known eau de vie, liqueur and some excellent local wines were affectionately administered by faithful old Bruno the bartender. Although the lobby and dining room were fairly shabby, a rundown look of faded red plush, it couldn't have mattered less for it was always kept fastidiously clean. Gretl insisted on dressing her clerks at the front desk, Karl (shy and slim) and Fritz (jolly and stout), in well-tailored cutaways and striped trousers—an obvious attempt to distract from the general dilapidation. But it was the people, the varied personalities and eccentricities of the staff and guests, which made the place jump. Gretl had seen to that. It was her mixture of opera divas, writers, politicians and local impoverished aristocracy that gave it its colour. And always present in the front lobby night and day was the majordomo, the most eccentric of them all, kissing hands, murmuring sweet nothings, welcoming anyone and everyone who passed through those portals. A six foot four slim, elegant gentleman in his early seventies, with a shock of salt and pepper hair, heavy, bushy eyebrows, a chiseled face and aquiline nose, he was known by everyone including the odd busload of day-trippers as the Count. Handsomer than any matinée idol, he looked much too grand to be a mere employee. So, one day, I asked Gretl where on earth she'd found him.
"It vas 1958 during ze Communist takeover in Hungary. Vun afternoon zere vas a man at ze door of ze hotel. He vanted to see me. He looked terrible. He vas very tired, filthy and starving. His clothes vere like rags. But zere vas somesing familiar about him. Zen, I remembered—he had stayed vith his family at some of my father's hotels. I couldn't believe it.
"'Festitic? Is it you? Vat is wrong?'
"'I have been on the road for veeks,' he said. 'I have walked the length of Hungary and Austria to get away. All our lands have gone. They have taken everything—there is nothing left. I have no money, nothing anymore. Please, can you give me a job?'
"It was all I could do to meet my payroll as it was—but I could not refuse him. 'Festitic,' I said, 'vat can you do?' He vas silent. 'You've never done anysing. Do you know even how to open a bottle of milk?' He was silent. 'No. But I can speak six languages.' Zen a light vent on in my head. 'Go up ze street to zat tailor shop. Get fitted for a morning coat. Tell zem I vill take care of it. Zen go and get somesing to eat. You have a job, Festitic! You can greet ze guests. You are my new majordomo!' "
Excerpted from In Spite of Myself by Christopher Plummer. Copyright ?? 2008 by Christopher Plummer. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Published on October 28, 2010