It’s hard for 79-year-old concierge Thomas Wolfe to move through San Francisco’s historic Fairmont Hotel without a tale of celebrity or bit of high society gossip popping into his mind.
A passing dog reminds him of when Lassie’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, stayed in the 1907 Beaux-Arts landmark. A settee prompts him to tell the tale of Vogue’s André Leon Talley taking up the entire piece of furniture with an expansive gown.
“When they told me royalty was going to be here,” Wolfe told the famous fashion journalist, “I didn’t realize it was going to be you.”
Wolfe, celebrating five decades of service, has cared for actual royalty (when he met the Queen Mother at the Ritz in London, he knew “exactly what to do”) and celebrities ranging from Marlene Dietrich and Ivana Trump to Bob Hope and Tony Bennett. The Fairmont has been the choice of every president, from William Howard Taft to Joe Biden. But a concierge doesn’t take care of only the rich and famous.
The etymology of “concierge” is Latin for “fellow slave,” and the duty of a concierge is to “be subservient almost to a fault,” said Elizabeth Wilson, administrator of the prestigious Les Clefs d’Or society for elite members of the profession.
Not every concierge receives the distinction of entry to the Les Clefs d’Or (it’s more difficult to become a member of the group than to get a job at the FBI, people have told Wilson), but everyone in the field aspires to it. Now with 44 member countries in the organization, Wolfe set up the American chapter himself as the first representative of the profession in the U.S.
“He is a treasure,” said Evan Baker, director of communications at Les Clefs d’Or. “No concierge in the USA would be where we are today without him.”
The proof of a Les Clefs d’Or concierge is the organization’s signature pin—two crossed golden keys in honor of both its name (it means golden keys in French) and the profession itself, since concierges used to be the ones to keep the keys for medieval castles, the only ones trusted with access to all rooms.
Wolfe greets every person who passes by with a smile and a cordial greeting. For him, there’s nothing more important than showing people they are valued—something everyone needs but which can feel in short supply these days.
“It’s not just taking care of the guests,” Wolfe said. “But all the people who are around you.”
Everything about Wolfe makes you feel like you’re interacting with a character in a Wes Anderson movie—more specifically, M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wolfe sports bright red glasses and long coattails; he has a half-chihuahua, half-greyhound service dog named Chanel; he cracks witticisms and inside jokes.
Wolfe landed his first hotel job as a humble desk clerk in Washington, D.C., before moving on to a similar position in 1967 at a swankier venue: the Ritz in London. It was there that he first fell in love with the job of concierge, a position that didn’t yet exist in the U.S.
“I was amazed by his great style, by the way he carried himself,” Wolfe said of the concierge he met in London. “I thought to myself, 'I’ve got to have this job. This is the job for me.'”
But he soured on the idea after learning how long it could take to become a concierge—as much as 18 years—and moved to San Francisco in 1973, lured by the sophistication and quality of life in the city.
Within a month of his new job at the stately Fairmont, hotel owner Richard Swig told him of his dream: building the first concierge program in the United States. Swig said he wanted Wolfe to start it, in part because of his European experience.
“That’s not opportunity knocking,” Wolfe said. “That’s opportunity smashing the door down.”
That wasn't the only time Wolfe seemingly manifested his reality, according to his recollections. After Donald Trump bought the Plaza Hotel in 1988, Wolfe heard Ivana Trump—who was in charge of managing the new acquisition—talking on television about her vision for Manhattan’s most famous hotel.
She wanted the best of everything, including the “best concierge in the country.” Wolfe took note, and he eventually wrote a letter to Ivana Trump in the language the family understood: highly self-confident.
He referred to the Plaza in flowery terms, calling it the “jewel of Fifth Avenue,” and then he staked his claim. “You said you wanted the best concierge in the country,” Wolfe wrote. “Mrs. Trump, I am that man.”
Wolfe sent off the letter almost as a joke, assuming it would never reach her and that it was more likely to end up in a dumpster, unopened.
Four days later, he received a call from the Plaza. Ivana wanted to know how quickly he could get there. Two weeks later, he flew to New York City for what he thought was a job interview, but upon arrival, he was told where his desk would be—he already had the job.
Wolfe worked at the Plaza for five years, where he fielded some off-the-wall requests. Once, a business magnate from Switzerland demanded a Ferrari GTO, one of the rarest cars in the world.
The concierge didn’t miss a beat. He asked, “Do you have a color preference, sir?” Wolfe’s love of cars (the concierge drives a black MGB sports car) came in handy—he procured it for the hotel guest by the end of the day.
Wolfe has also been on the receiving end of some good fortune, thanks to his position. Of all the celebrities Wolfe has met, Tony Bennett remains one of his favorites. When the beloved baritone came to San Francisco for the 50th anniversary of his legendary song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” Wolfe received a surprise call after he had left work.
The announcer for Bennett’s show had laryngitis, and the Fairmont’s manager had a request: Could Wolfe, with his radio announcer voice, step in to introduce Bennett in the Venetian Room, where the singer had first crooned his famous San Francisco-themed ballad? Of course, Wolfe said yes.
“That’s it,” he later told his wife. “I’ve done everything now.”
It’s not all glitz and glamor—Wolfe is also part security person at the Fairmont, attending to some of the more quotidian duties of the job. Walking through the hotel's elegant lobby, he tells a guest to get their feet off a coffee table and chides children for playing with the revolving door. He takes care of the grande dame just as he does his guests—all of this wouldn’t exist without her.
While Wolfe has handled the fabulously wealthy for five decades—from London and Tokyo to New York and San Francisco, once rolling out a (literal) red carpet for the diva Marlene Dietrich all the way from her room to the service elevator to the stage and then rolling it up again—he demurs when asked what it’s like to have intimate access to such elite characters.
“No matter who it is, we’re just a couple of people here,” he said.
Julie Zigoris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org