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Maestro of the Polo Lounge

June 05, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's cocktail hour at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel. An immaculately dressed Italian in a light wool suit and Savile Row tie stands at the reception table chatting amiably with the maitre d'. A young, briskly efficient American receptionist fields a small storm of phone calls. The first possible break and she turns to the Italian, thrusts out her hand and cries, "Nino! We haven't met. I am Katrina. I'm new. It's an honor to meet you! You're a legend here."

The Italian is briefly startled. He takes the eagerly extended hand, but he doesn't shake it. Rather, he lifts it to his lips, kisses it lightly, cups it ever so briefly with his free hand, then gives it two small pats, as if to say "Thank you."

This infinitely gracious recovery, the kiss, the pats: This was the language of the Polo Lounge from 1968 to 1998, the 30 years that Nino Osti was its manager. It is the style of a man who waited on the crown princes of Europe and made Hollywood celebrities feel like royalty.

"Nino was a maestro," says Piero Selvaggio, the proprietor of Valentino in Santa Monica. Selvaggio, the presiding host in Los Angeles, started as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel more than 30 years ago. "It was the most magic place in Los Angeles. But if you think about it, the Polo Lounge is just like an empty stage, a room. But it came alive every night. It was a temple, not for food but for society. Nino orchestrated it."

Osti retired four years ago. There are those who will argue that madcap elegance of old Hollywood retired with him. Coaxing him back to the Polo Lounge for even a brief visit took concerted importuning. He wasn't sure he could stand the disorienting mix of the comfort of nostalgia and shock of the new.

The walls are the same rich green they have always been. There is the booth where LeRoy Neiman used to sit and sketch the guests. There are even jacks for plug-in phones.

But the jaunty pink tablecloths are gone. The boisterous page, a midget Osti used to introduce as the bouncer, is dead. The cigarette girl is long gone. There is piped music filtering in, a curious reggae cover of a Cat Stevens song. Strangest for cocktail hour, the place is less than half full.

In Osti's day, says Selvaggio, getting in was a trick. "Nino became the password."

That applied in spite of the place's being lushly formal. Men had to wear jackets and ties. Overseeing this room, Osti wore suits at lunch, a tuxedo in the evening. For Osti, the tux was a uniform with a code of confidence every bit as binding as a priest's collar. Press him for details about who came in with Frank Sinatra, who left with Orson Welles, what Ronald Reagan drank, how much, how often and how he held it, Osti will school you in the gentle art of evasion.

"Ah, I could name names," he'll say, "but I don't want to forget someone."

"Ah, so many memories, I couldn't choose one."

"Ah, I could talk about it for hours, but that would be torment."

Open the clip files, and one finds that on the rare occasions when he rewarded prying columnists with a scrap of gossip, it was something painfully obvious--that Welles spoke loudly, or that Jack Lemmon was an amusing drunk.

Read enough of them, and one can't help but notice that the profiles, ostensibly about Osti, are always about those whom Osti served, never about Osti himself. It amounts to a peculiar kind of flattery, this invisibility. Osti's art is like the seam in a good suit. You don't notice it.

Osti didn't so much learn his trade as be born to it. The son of a restaurateur, he grew up in Milan. In 1943, at 14, he was already busing tables in Biffi, one of the city's top restaurants. By 17, like so many Italians of his generation, he was off to Switzerland, to Lausanne, to a job in a plush hotel. On the train north, he spotted a petite, dark-haired girl with a round face, an unwanted admirer and a temper.

"She had a shoe in her hand, ready to hit this guy in the head," says Osti. The girl, a Sardinian named Ada Manca, turned out to be a laundress at the Royal Savoy, the same place he worked. She ironed fine linen and lace, the most special and delicate of garments, of the elite guests, he says.

Osti got up the nerve to ask her on a boat ride, during which a sudden swell scared the girl into a screaming terror. The next day, says Osti, "A customer from the hotel said, 'Nino, who was that wild girl you had in the boat?' He was Juan Carlos, king of Spain."

From Switzerland, it was on to a chateau in Luxembourg and waiting on Perle Mesta, the "hostess with the mostess'" who was Truman's ambassador there, or "Madam Minister," as she liked to be called. The eating habits of the teetotaling Oklahoma-born Christian Scientist shocked the Italian.

"She said to me, 'Young man, this is a business dinner. When I put my plate down, clear the table.' So I was watching, and she was a really fast eater. I thought, 'Oh my God. What am I going to do?'"

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