One in particular left an enduring impression. At one of our weekly dinners after work at Reeve’s Bakery near the hotel, my grandmother pulled out some crisp 10s, a tip she’d received after a week’s stay from Clare Boothe Luce, the author, ambassador, and congresswoman, and a regular guest until she moved to the Watergate when it was a building, not a metaphor, in the mid-1970s.
The feminist author of The Women treated my grandmother, a fellow Catholic and a Roosevelt admirer, like an Irish maid from central casting climbing the housekeeping ladder rather than someone making beds for minimum wage. Despite the misconception, and Luce’s admiration for Nixon, they got along.
Luce was opposed to freeloaders and thought others should tip like her. She had an idea: have each maid leave a note on a nice card next to the mint on the pillow, hoping the stay had been pleasant, and wait for the tips to pour in. Luce then jotted down a note Nellie should deliver to management, co-signed by her “colleagues,” asking for a line to be added to the bill for a gratuity, like the one that exists for waiters.
The comparison to waiters was apt; they earn a mean annual wage of about $30,000, and housekeepers, about $25,000. To make her point, the patrician playwright reenacted her daily encounter with room service. The floor waiter (usually a he) rolls a breakfast cart into the room, removes the silver dome, and then dawdles while your poached eggs congeal—unfolding the napkin with a flourish, taking the paper hat off the orange juice, refolding the napkin—to give you time to add a gratuity on top of the automatic one of 18 percent.
He then goes off, leaving behind a mess. On the same principle that no one washes a rented car, few guests clean up after eating. So the housekeeper (it’s usually a she) will stack up the dishes, put the cart in the hallway, clean up the toast crumbs, and then proceed to the rest of her work of stripping the beds, picking up the supernumerary pillows on the floor, wiping the butter stains off the remote, and leaving the bathroom, now with coffee spills, gleaming. Not to begrudge waiters their tips, but why does he get two lines on the bill and the housekeeper gets none?
My grandmother’s reenactment of the reenactment didn’t mean she would do anything about it. You might as well have asked her to scale the Washington Monument and write an essay about it. But her admiration for Luce was less a response to her grand plan than to the attention paid. The hotel job wasn’t necessarily a step down from her prior employment, but it was a world apart from working as a nurse’s aide for 20 years at St. Elizabeth’s, a federal psychiatric hospital overlooking the city. She became invisible, interacting primarily with a mop. There was no one to pull up for a dance, no one to get to sit down, no one much at all. The first rule of Housekeeping for Dummies is, Do not speak to a guest unless spoken to first.