After I’d checked in at the hotel and got to my room, I was surprised to find the Queen of the Palace, Leona M. Helmsley, dressed up as Whistler’s mother, esconced in a rocker and watching TV. Alarmed, I reached for the phone, but she said, with a smile. “I never get up to change channels. Why should you?”
I dropped the receiver. “But I’ve only just arrived,” I responded, lamely I felt. Her confidence made any demurral seem churlish. “Do you always watch TV en travestie?” I asked, my curiosity roused.
“I insist on a large cup of coffee. Why shouldn’t you?” Leona continued, with the innocence of a media victim drunk on stagecraft.
The television chatted on, its volume low. Using a remote control device, Leona switched channels. “I want to watch Fawlty Towers,” I insisted. After all, it was my room.
“Are you sure this is the only Palace in the world where the Queen stands guard?” I called from the bathroom, where I had gone to unpack my imitation Louis Vuitton toilet kit. Her voice drifted in from the other room. “I wouldn’t drink from a plastic glass. Why should you?”
I stepped back into the room. “When a hotel is letter-perfect, guests keep coming back,” Leona stated.
“I’m not back,” I said. “I just got here…but where am I, anyway? The Park Lane? I thought—“
Leona didn’t let me finish my sentence. “I use the magnifying mirror when I shave,” she went on. “And if you think I’m fussy about television, wait till you try your bed,” she said, the smile still in place. What a querulous little gabbler she was!
Room service arrived. Two frightened bellboys—I could see there’d be no help from them—hovered over tureens filled with lobster. “When you want an hors d’oeuvre, why settle for peanuts?” Leona asked. One felt, when listening to her, that small talk at the very moment of its finest flowering was, at the same time, being extinguished.
“This is my room,” I said to the bellboys, childishly. They looked at Leona—in fear? in wonder?—and left. “And take those crabs away,” I added.
“The truth is, I’d really like to have a quiet night, Leona. Just relax…nothing personal….”
“From the glow of the tapers on the 4-foot candelabra to the 100-year-old pastel panels of a royal court in amorous play, I ensure the grandeur as a promise that each function held in the elegant oval-shaped Versailles Ballroom is one to remember. What better way to lavish my royal family. You—“
“That use of ‘lavish’ bothers me, Leona,” I said. “And it would bother Fowler, too.”
Leona looked roguish. Could she be aware that she was in the presence of someone to whom the new criticism, structuralism, destructionalism, and so on were mere child’s play? “And what’s the ‘M’ after Leona for?”
“When you’re relaxing with cocktails at Harry’s Bar, I make sure you get a free hors d’oeuvre such as a chilled shrimp and hot canapés. Even while you listen to your favorite songs from the piano bar, including my all-time favorite, ‘I’m Just Wild About Harry.”’
“You mean your husband, don’t you?” I asked her. Should I mention the rumor, too vicious to be credited, that while the Helmsleys lived at the Palace, the Spears languished at the Helmsley? I was too much a gentleman to let the canard pass my lips.
“I’d really like to turn in and read, Leona.”
But Leona merely brightened. Free association was her yin and yang.
“The bright lights of New York aren’t all on Broadway,” she said. “Wait till you turn on the 3-way reading lamp by your bed.”
I had had enough. I threw my Brooks Brothers washables into my bag, marched out, and, as I was closing the door behind me, heard Leona say, “From the mint on every pillow to the sparkle in the bellboy’s smile….”