Atop Rome's Spanish Steps Roberto Wirth Manages the Destiny of His Five-Star Grand Hotel

updated 08/25/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/25/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

From the penthouse terrace of the Hotel Hassler, at the top of the Spanish Steps, Roberto Wirth can see the sweeping panorama of Rome's timeless landmarks—the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, St. John Lateran, the Quirinale, the Castel Sant' Angelo and St. Peter's itself. The sounds that rise from the street are those of a great city going about its business—the car horns, the sirens, the church bells, the tumult of humanity. But for Wirth, general manager of the venerable Hassler, such sounds are for others to absorb. Wirth, 36, and one of the youngest, hottest hotel managers in Italy, has been totally deaf since birth.

The 105-room, five-star hotel prides itself on privacy and service. Its cuisine has won praise from King Farouk and Nelson Rockefeller, who especially relished its oysters, Meryl Streep, who orders Florentine steaks big enough for two, and Kirk Douglas, who dotes on cannelloni. Among those who have enjoyed its gracious touches, such as personalized stationery for each guest, have been Dwight Eisenhower (both as general and President), Richard Nixon, the Kennedys (Ted and Robert) and, in June, Miami Vice's Don Johnson.

When Wirth became general manager in 1982, he admits it was over the hesitation of his mother, Carmen Bucher, 73, who had run the hotel with the help of a general manager since her husband's death in 1968 and was concerned that her son's handicap would prove too great an obstacle. "Sometimes," he says, "a mother does not want a son to fly alone."

Wirth began to cope with his silent world when he was 5. Accompanied by his German nanny, he was sent to Milan to attend a special school where he learned to read lips. "It was the first time I was separated from my mother, and I cried all the time," he admits. At 11, he was off to Marseilles to learn how to speak, then back to Rome at 12, where he enrolled in a normal junior high school and was first in his class.

Despite his handicap, young Roberto had the hotel business in his blood. "When I was 12, my father said, 'If you really want to work I'll give you a job,' " he recalls. "He knew I hated to get up early in the morning to shop for food. But I did it and I learned to buy the best quality. After I made my point, he said, 'Now you have to learn to write numbers,' and put me in the accounting department. I really hated that. Then I learned carpentry, to be an electrician and to fix phones." Finally, at Roberto's urgings, his father sent him at 15 to a hotel school in Stresa.

Later, to cope with his deafness, his mother sent him to the American School for the Deaf, a specialized high school in West Hartford, Conn. He graduated in 1969, enrolled in the Gallaudet College for the deaf in Washington, D.C. for six months, then transferred to the Rochester Institute of Technology, but for only one year. "What I really wanted to do was go to a hotel management school," he says. "They told me there was a famous school, Cornell, in Ithaca, N.Y." He persuaded Cornell to take him as a special case, and a year later he became a regular student, graduating in 1975. After a year in San Francisco working at the Mark Hopkins, he took off for Hawaii, where he worked some, studied some and was unemployed for six months. Finally in 1978, the call of Rome became too much to ignore.

"I felt the Hassler needed me," he says. "I have a big love for this hotel. I went to work as the assistant manager because my mother wasn't used to having me around. I wanted to make a lot of changes, but it was very difficult at first because my mother had been here so long." Finally, his mother gave him his chance when the manager left, and now the 101-year-old hotel is his.

Wirth isn't fazed at not being able to hear. "Many times I have asked myself why I am deaf," he says, "but I am not afraid to go ahead. My only frustration is when there are a lot of people and they don't realize I cannot follow them all at the same time, but just one person at a time."

Telephones present a special problem: "Someone will call and talk for a long time with my secretary, and then she sums it up in one sentence. I feel so frustrated; I want to know what they said." But for secretary Patricia Dijkgraaf, her boss's deafness is just a part of the day's business. "On the phone I get the secretary's revenge," she says, "because, you know, the big shots don't talk to secretaries. They get huffy when I say, 'Can you tell me what it's about?' and they say, 'No, I want to talk directly to the manager.' And then I say, 'Well, I'm afraid you'll have to tell me, because he can't talk on the phone; he's deaf.' "

Wirth lives in his bachelor apartment on the Via Cassia. (A live-in maid is there to handle telephone calls.) "My father didn't get married until he was 56," he says, "so I have plenty of time." He has plans to build himself an apartment on the rooftop of the hotel so that he will be able to stay close to his guests. Even when the right woman comes along, his first love will remain what it always has been: keeping the family tradition alive by maintaining the Hassler as an abiding refuge of luxury and serenity.

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