Uniformly Gracious

updated 02/14/2000 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/14/2000 01:00AM

For more than a half century, Joseph Szorentini stood outside New York City's Plaza Hotel, greeting the ordinary people, celebrities and Presidents who passed through its doors. But the 79-year-old doorman, who has a heart condition, took a final bow Jan. 16, the day he retired from his post. "He's been our Fifth Avenue ambassador," says general manager Gary Schweikert. "You're judged by how well you take care of your guests. Joe's done a great job."

Born in Martinsburg, W. Va., Szorentini moved to Manhattan at age 19. He spent five years in the Army, including wartime service in the South Pacific, before taking up his duties at the Plaza. A father of five, he plans to do charity work and spend more time at home in Paramus, N.J., with wife Veronica, 70. He reminisced about his glory days with writer-reporter Joseph V. Tirella.

It all started in January 1947. I was walking down 59th Street when I saw the doorman at the Plaza Hotel. Back then there was a lot of brass on the uniform, and he looked like a general. I thought, "I've been a corporal my whole life—maybe I'll be a general!" I went to personnel, and they hired me then and there for $12.40 a week.

At first I operated the service elevator, but even then I ran into movie stars: I saw Charlie Chaplin and Edward G. Robinson my first week. After I started working the front door, I got to know some of them. Cary Grant would say, "Hello, Joe. How are you this morning?" Jackie Gleason, a regular at the Oak Bar, once asked me the biggest tip I ever got. I told him $50. "Who was the cheapskate who gave you that?" he asked. "You, sir," I said. He laughed and handed me $100.

Another memorable tip was from Kathie Lee Gifford. She was trying to hail a taxi across the street, but they'd all pass her by and come to the Plaza. Finally, when I was free, I called her over and put her in a cab. As she was getting in, she said, "I don't have any money, but here...," and she kissed me on the cheek.

Oprah Winfrey is big-hearted, too, really sweet. She once tipped me five bucks, which surprised me because all she had was one little piece of luggage and a makeup bag. And Frank Sinatra was always good for $5 or $10. Even if I missed him coming in, Sinatra would tell the driver, "Give Joe a tip." One time a bellboy told me Sinatra was up on the sixth floor chasing Lana Turner around. No one knew they were an item yet. I later caught them sneaking out a side door. I saw Rita Hayworth and Prince Aly Khan do the same before people knew they were seeing each other.

The greatest escape was made by the Beatles when they did The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. There were thousands of screaming kids behind police barricades outside the hotel's front door. So I took the Beatles downstairs, through the kitchen, out the employees' entrance, through the subway station to the street exit, where their limos were waiting. We didn't say much—we had to move so fast—but they were real down-to-earth guys. I loved their accents. Brian Epstein, their manager, gave me $20. Later he gave me two tickets to their Shea Stadium concert. I took my daughter Cyndy, and she went crazy.

I've never seen Bill Clinton, but I met every President from Eisenhower to Reagan. Back in the '50s, I knew both John and Robert Kennedy because their mother, Rose, had a penthouse apartment next door to the Plaza, and I'd put her in a taxi every Sunday for morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. She was very strict and kept her sons on a tight allowance. One time, Bobby was short of money, and he borrowed $20 from me. (He paid me back a week later.) You couldn't have met two nicer guys. They'd come stay with Rose and would always ask, "Are you taking good care of my mother?" I'd say yes, and once I asked if they ever went to church. John laughed and said, "Yeah, sometimes we do." I saw his son JFK Jr. a few times, and I'd always say, "Good morning, Mr. Kennedy." But he walked so fast and wasn't as easygoing as his father, who used to stop by and chitchat.

I've spent more time at the Plaza than I have at home, but I have a lot of happy memories: Michael Jordan autographing a baggage claim check for me; actor Johnny Weissmuller shaking up the Oak Bar with a Tarzan yell; Jack Paar getting mad because I thought he was Johnny Carson. The years have been wonderful. But I knew right off the bat that I'd be happy.

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