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Essay

A Life Well-Read

For Decades Her Passion Was the Beverly Wilshire--and Her Books. Now at Age 90, Helen Chaplin Can Still Out-Think Just About Anybody.

August 03, 2003|Dan Harder | Dan Harder last wrote for the magazine about the birthplace of the Tongva Indian god.

I've been lucky to have known, and loved, a few wizened wizards, venerable "elders" for whom life continually enriches thought and for whom thought reciprocally enriches life.

There was the retired furniture salesman from rural Nebraska who seemed as politely unnoticeable as they come until he saw our books and started to quote, from memory--rhapsodically and unstoppably--huge passages from many of the most obscure. I later discovered that he also had a passionate and, oh-by-the-way, encyclopedic knowledge of world affairs, both ancient and this morning's.

Then there's the Latvian expatriate who, despite a life distracted by almost operatic tragedy, is finishing the translation of a modern Baltic take on Goethe's "Faust" because, well . . . because it would be interesting for English-speaking audiences to think about.

And then there's Helen.

Helen Chaplin has told her doctors that if she must die--and apparently there's no way around it--she wants them to keep her alive long enough to finish "Remembrance of Things Past," all 2,265 pages of it.

And why not? After retiring 10 years ago, at age 80, she feels she has a right not to be interrupted by death while in the middle of "Swann's Way."

But she is interrupted, not by death but by an urgent call from a former colleague. Donald Trump is coming to town, she's told. He loves New York-style pretzels, needs New York-style pretzels. Where in the vast flatland of L.A. can such pretzels be found? Helen, in the midst of her Proust, must help. As the former vice president of the Beverly Wilshire, Checkers and Campton Place hotels, she's supposed to know about these things.

I don't honestly know if the pretzels were ever found. I do know, however, that Helen quickly got back to her Proust. She has her priorities. After all, she never really aspired to be vice president of some of the world's finest hotels. And she always loved books.

In fact, in 1952, when she and her beloved dog, Agnes, walked from her apartment near Olympic across the once-upon-a-time vegetable fields in search of a temporary job at the Beverly Wilshire, she was thinking only about what she would do if she didn't get the job. Two weeks earlier, her husband had left her, and she needed money, not an impressive career. After 12 years of marriage, she was alone, 39, and a few weeks from broke. Twenty-five years later, she would be vice president of one of the world's most famous and expensive hotels. Then, upon retiring from that particular job at age 74, she moved over to become vice president of the Ayala Hotels (Campton Place in San Francisco and Checkers in downtown L.A.).

Helen freely admits that she rose quickly in her role at the Beverly Wilshire, not because she was loved by the owners but because she made herself indispensable. Hernando Courtright, owner of the hotel from 1961 to 1986, was on the verge of sacking her when he exclaimed, "I know more about Beverly Hills than anyone." Helen curtly replied, "Yes, but I know more about the Beverly Wilshire than anyone." As there was no refuting this, she stayed.

Oh, yes, she stayed--41 years in the business. Just imagine all the celebrity requests, many far quirkier than pretzels. The stories she could tell, about Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Marlene Dietrich, Arthur Rubenstein and others, but she won't--absolutely refuses. No part-time discretion, no selling juicy little tidbits when the job is done. You take the stories with you when you go.

It's not that I haven't tried to wheedle a few out of her. I admit to the occasional urge to hear the tale of celebrity sin, but I get nowhere. Such tales may interest me, but they don't seem to interest her in the least. Saucy and strange as some may be, they usually pale in comparison to the stories she's reading. Years ago, when asked how she dealt with the complex and demanding realities of the Beverly Wilshire, she replied, "That's not reality. When I go home and read my books, that's reality."

As one for whom fiction is the most compelling way of telling the truth, I can understand perfectly. I can also understand why there is so little sitting room when my wife and I visit. Her apartment, the same one she's lived in since she and her husband moved from Manhattan in 1942, is filled floor to ceiling with books. There is the occasional break in the march of hard-bound bindings for some significant bit of memorabilia; a signed photo of one of the Kennedys, a drawing by Jackie O., a signed picture of the great ballerina Margot Fonteyn, a sketch from Maurice Sendak, a small, aggressively "impastoed" painting from Eastern Europe, but most of the space--vertical and horizontal--is covered with books.

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