December 20, 2015: Before starting my own business, I ran the flower shop of The Carlyle Hotel from 1988 to 1991, where I was in charge of the florals for the public spaces, restaurants, private banquet rooms, and 35 floors of guest suites. Working at the hotel was one of the most cherished times in my career because it was nearing the end of an era when ladies were ladies, and gentlemen were gentlemen. It set a high bar as to what was expected of my work, while teaching me the importance of discretion and respect for the privacy of my clientele.
At that time, The Carlyle was the only five-star hotel in New York for over a quarter century, and early in the morning on my first day, the hotel’s concierge stopped by with greetings and to offer a bit of good advice: “No matter how rushed or overwhelmed you may get during the day, when the phone rings always be calm when answering because you’ll never know who is on the other end.” Boy, was he right.
Literally everyone who was anyone at one time or another rang the shop for orders, from movie stars to politicians to the titans of industry and the ‘ladies who lunched’. Many times they would stop into the shop, especially if they were staying at the hotel: Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy (he owned an apartment in the hotel), Henry and Nancy Kissinger, Annette Bening and Warren Beatty, Kitty and John Kenneth Galbraith, Dixie Carter, Bobby Short, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Brooke Astor, Olivia de Havilland, Jayne Wrightsman, Julie Andrews, Happy Rockefeller, Lauren Bacall, Elizabeth Taylor, Nancy Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Imelda Marcos, and various Kennedys and Vanderbilts.
You get the picture. Eventually I just got immune to all of them but the one person who could always get my heart racing was Jacqueline Onassis. She was always kind and complimentary of my work, and on some days she could make me laugh out loud--on purpose.
One such day was 25 years ago today. Mrs. Onassis would walk down Fifth Avenue in the mornings on her way to work, and take Madison Avenue for the walk back to her apartment at 1040. Aside from window shopping, it was very clever because that way her back was to traffic, minimizing gawkers and those who might become annoying.
Many times on her walk home she would slip into the side entrance of the hotel for a ‘pitstop’ to the ladies room. Once inside, she’d have to walk by the restaurant where there was always a large, showy flower arrangement in the center of the room, then on through the Gallery where high tea was served every afternoon.
The flower shop was in a prime location, just a few feet from the ladies powder room. It looked like a little jewelry box and I kept it filled with flowers from around the world to entice the ladies just a few steps further, especially after having a few glasses of champagne during high tea.
When Mrs. Onassis would show up and our eyes would meet, she would always walk a few more steps and push open the door with her usual greeting, “Splendid job this week, Rusty”, which always made my day. But today when she pushed open the door she said, “Rusty, those paper whites are just beautiful! I’ve never seen so many in one container! I’d like to take them home with me”, and then she disappeared into the powder room. She was referring to an enormous azalea pot of them that I’d created as a window display. I started to panic.
The hotel was very specific about things going out of the flower shop. Every arrangement was distinctively packaged and accompanied with a clear glass plate to prevent scratches or water stains on our clients fine furniture. Since these paper whites were for my window display and because it was so large, I didn’t have a protective clear dish to go with it. The only thing I had was one of those ugly, orange-colored, plastic dishes you’d see in a Home Depot under a ficus tree, and I certainly wasn’t going to send her home with that.
I quickly came up with what I thought was a good solution for saving face. I’d have them delivered to 1040 which would give me time to procure a proper protective glass plate. When she returned I told her I’d have them sent around to her place within the hour, but to my surprise she insisted on taking them with her.
Explaining my dilemma (and embarrassment),I showed her the only solution I had available, how the hotel would disapprove of it, and that she should use one of her beautiful porcelain or silver plates, but without missing a beat she quipped, “Oh Rusty, don’t be so pretentious, this will be just fine”. At that instant I looked up at her in shock to see her wicked grin and we both burst out laughing. She got me good like only she could, but I insisted that I carry it out of the hotel and hail her a cab because they would certainly frown if they saw her carrying such a heavy thing through the public spaces. She agreed.
Once into the cab, I placed it upon her lap and wished her a Merry Christmas as I closed the door. As the cab pulled away she rolled down the window and in a really happy tone, she wished a “Merry Christmas to you!” right back to me.
I'd forgotten all about that particular exchange until eight years later, when reminiscing through Marta Sgubin’s book, “Cooking for Madam”. When I came to page 210 the memory of that day came flooding back and I couldn't stop smiling at that picture. There it was, that ugly dish with my paper whites sitting right behind her in the drawing room. She was a true original. Nothing pretentious about her and she was always fun and truly interested in what new project I might be working on.