This is a true story about a young couple in love and the most glamorous hotel in the world. We are telling the story together because it is so indelibly a part of both of our lives that we didn’t think either of us could tell it alone.
One rainy October evening, thirty years ago, I sat in my room at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, staring at a navigation lesson and thinking of Jean. I had met her the previous August in Chicago, just before my summer leave expired, and I had fallen in love with her. Three days later I was back in Annapolis, surrounded by rules and regulations, while she was a thousand miles away, surrounded by eligible bachelors. Things looked bleak indeed.
There was one bright spot on the horizon. Jean had promised to come east to Philadelphia for the Army-Navy football game in November. We had been invited to spend the weekend as houseguests of my uncle and aunt in New York. If there was going to be any hope at all for me, that weekend was going to have to be one that she would never forget. I shoved my books aside and wrote the following letter:
Room 5455 Bancroft Hall
U.S. Naval Academy
15 October 1948
New York City, New York
On Saturday afternoon, November 27th, I expect to pick my way across the prostrate bodies of the West Point football team to a seat in Memorial Stadium where a girl will be waiting—a very special girl who I hope will some day follow me from port to port on the “Far China Station.” We will hie away by taxi to the railroad station where we will entrain for New York. Once there we will again take a taxi, this time to your hotel—and that, dear sir, is where you and The Waldorf-Astoria come in.
I am very much in love with this young lady, but she has not yet admitted to an equivalent love for me. Trapped as I am in this military monastery, the chances I have to press my suit are rare indeed. Therefore this evening must be the most marvelous of all possible evenings, for I intend to ask her to be my wife.
I would like a perfect table—neither too close to nor too far from the orchestra. There should be candlelight, gleaming silver, and snowy linen. There should be wine and a dinner that will be the culmination of the chef’s career. Then, at precisely midnight, I would like the orchestra to play “Navy Blue and Gold” very softly, and I intend to propose.
I would appreciate it very much if you could confirm this plan and also tell me approximately what the bill will be. I am admittedly not getting rich on thirteen dollars a months, but I have put a little aside. So please give me your estimate of the cost—and I’ll bet it will be plenty!
Very truly yours,
E. S. Ince
I sealed the envelope and, before I could lose my nerve, stuffed it into the mailbox. The minute it was gone I regretted having sent it. It seemed to me that it was callow and smart-alecky and, above all, presumptuous. The manager of the most famous hotel in the world was certainly not going to be interested in the love life of an obscure midshipman. The letter would be thrown into the wastebasket, where it belonged.
One week went by and then another. I forgot about the letter and tried frantically to think of some other way that I could convince Jean in thirty-six hours that she should spend the rest of her life with me. Then one morning I found on my desk an envelope upon which was engraved “The Waldorf-Astoria.” I almost tore it to shreds in my eagerness to open it, and read:
Dear Midshipman Ince:
Your very nice letter has been receiving some attention from our staff here. Just for fun I am going to attach the reply from our Mâitre d’, the famous Rene Black.
Frankly, unless you have private resources, I think it is entirely unnecessary to spend so much money. I would be happy to make a reservation for you in the Wedgwood Room and will see to it that you have a very nice table, the best of attention, flowers—and you and your girl order directly from the menu whatever intrigues you. You certainly can have a couple of cocktails and very nice dinners and a bottle of champagne for one third of what Rene Black suggests. However you are the only one who can make the decision so let me know how you would like to have us arrange your little party.
Henry B. Williams
P.S. I think your delightful letter inspired our Mr. Black!
Needless to say, I hastily unfolded the piece of yellow paper on which Rene Black had typed his reply. Here is what it said:
When Lucullus dined with Lucullus, his gastronomic accoutrements were planned as you now do, every detail in presentation of the festivity. Times and manners have changed but little the unobtrusive elegance and distinctive “savoir faire” of amphytrionic distinction—to include Hors d’oeuvre deluxe; the Potage generally omitted by ladies (and not to be forced on her); the traditional fish course to be presented as an entr’acte of surprise; the resistance of the menu to show the bird being caught in the nest (which will help your philology in carrying the battle of the nuptials), or as we say in French “la poulanie,” and like Talleyrand, will highly praise the artisan of the casserole as having been the Cagliostro of your machinations.
The price of this manoeuvre, including wines, gratuities, flowers, and everything named, will be in the vicinity of one hundred dollars, with which we hope your little cache is fortified for complete victory. Following is a description of your menu—