Star power sparks an inn-filtration

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You'll meet everyone you ever dreamed of meeting on the terrace of your restaurant," a wise man told me one day as my partners and I began plans for our new inn and restaurant in tiny Big Sur, Calif. I smiled. Real celebrities, to me, had always been people who'd really accomplished world-class deeds.

Over the years I'd met Winston Churchill, Adlai Stevenson, Eleanor Roosevelt. Now those were real heroes. Was I to get excited by hanging out with mere famous faces? Movie stars and that sort? That'll be the day, I sneered to myself.

Fortunately, that glorious day did arrive, and in the nick of time. On the resort's opening day, I was feeling frantic. We were located in the middle of nowhere. A huge mortgage was staring at me. Most of my partners had jumped ship by then, and I was alone on what felt suspiciously like the Titanic.

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Although lots of cars drove by, none of them stopped. Our new staff stared at me with only one question on their sad faces, a question for which I had no answer.

I'd grown up in celebrity-laden Beverly Hills, but had never learned the power of pure celebrity. Nor did I understand a phrase I kept hearing: word of mouth. What was that "word of mouth" compared with the money I no longer had to buy ads in glossy magazines? "Everyone knows you have to advertise," I sobbed to a longtime pal one day on the telephone. "I guess we're doomed."

"Oh, no you're not!" she shouted back. She raced up the coast from L.A. to see our new place. She had a warm heart, beauty plus brains, and I showed her around proudly.

"Listen," she finally said, "you're not broke. You're exclusive. You choose not to advertise as a policy. Get it?"

Well, not really. But Candice Bergen knew what she was talking about. Soon enough, she got two friends, Steve McQueen and his wife, actress Ali MacGraw, to come up and stay with us. They were terribly nice, kept coming back, but after all, they were just actors. What could they do for us? Boy, was I dumb.

Just mentioning they had stayed at this fabulous new inn in Big Sur, that's what they did for us. Others came to see, and did the same. I failed to hear a growing, rumbling sound, like a landslide, behind me. It was the roar of famous faces responding to the most powerful advertisement in the world: word of mouth.

"Being rich doesn't have the cachet it used to," Truman Capote once said. Well, fame still did. Reservations started pouring in. My banker called a few months later. "Quick! Build the rest of the guest rooms," he shouted. "You've got a hit on your hands! "

The next thing I knew, the president of Columbia Pictures was calling me from Hollywood, unhappy about a guest room he'd been assigned by us. I told him honestly that we only had two suites and both were booked at the time he wanted to come.

"You don't understand!" he shouted. "I can't be seen coming out of anything except the McQueen suite!" I almost asked him which one that was, but stopped in time. Then the head of production at Universal Studios wanted to hold his wedding at our place, as did the granddaughter of Ireland's president.

Even Doris Day was married at my little house in Carmel. A newspaper columnist in San Francisco, now calling me constantly for guests' names, once suggested I put wedding cake on the menu. Was he joking? I had no experience at this. Of course, I also had no experience in paying our bills on time, but all that was changing, too.

A month later I told a waiter to take some butter to the thin lady at Table 16, "the table next to that blond Goldie Hawn look-alike." Our restaurant manager crept up and whispered to me: "Sir, the thin lady at Table 16 is Joan Fontaine, and the blonde actually is Goldie Hawn."

"What are they doing here? "I asked in honest shock. I got over it quickly. They all wanted to meet the boss, in case they had trouble booking a room next time. My key job now was to shake hands, smile a lot, and bring more butter to their tables.

Soon, we were booked every weekend for six months ahead, and for the entire summer as well. I was saying hello to people that I knew were famous. But I had to be really careful, for I didn't know most of their names.

Then the phone in my office started to ring with famous names who couldn't get reservations.

"Sir, Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston wonder if they can stay a little longer, but we're booked solid." Soon I was sleeping at any motel on Highway 1 still available, and famous names without reservations were sleeping throughout my own home.

"Sir, Art Garfunkel, Francis Ford Coppola, Alec Guinness, Kenny Loggins, David Lean, and John Denver have called for reservations. We've no rooms left. What shall we do?"

"Sir, Herb Alpert is arriving tonight. What is our policy on trumpets?"

"Sir, where can we land a private helicopter a guest wants to arrive in?"

"Sir, Chevy Chase said he was sorry if he scared you. He really didn't hurt himself falling down the staircase. He says he was just kidding around."

"Sir, Mrs. Frank Sinatra, the Robert Redfords, Clint Eastwood, Alan Ladd Jr., the entire editorial staff of Rolling Stone magazine, and the Larry Gelbarts are arriving this week, and our water source just quit."

"No water?" I gulped.

"No water. We can truck some in from Monterey." Truck in water 30 miles? I had to lie down.

I remember one day shouting in my office: "OK, that's it! I want to see the reservations night clerk, now!" She came in, terrified, followed by a worried general manager. "Yes, sir? "

"I've just been told that you got a request for a reservation from a lady in New York named Onassis? "

"Yes, sir. Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. We were booked solid, so I told her we'd put her on our waiting list. Was that wrong?" I leaned back in my chair, keeping calm, and replied gently: "Let me see if I understand this. You told the widow of a president of the United States that you'd put her on our waiting list?"

"Well, sir, I don't see what's wrong with that. When the White House called two weeks ago, I told them the same thing, and when the governor called, I...." Apparently I looked as if I might faint. The general manager urged me to leave it all to him and suggested I take a few days off. "Promise me you'll move her to housekeeping today," I hissed.

How did this all happen so quickly, saving us and making us famous and crowded for 25 years? I long ago sold the inn, but I've been trying to figure that out for the longest time. I still don't have an answer. I reread all the free editorial copy on us one day, looking for a clue.

"Enormous, calm power," said one. "Honest and casual," a famed New York magazine wrote. "Friendly, humble, and shrewd," said another. (What did that mean?) I finally gave up. We never did advertise. Who had time to gild a lily? And Joan Fontaine was waiting for her butter.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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