The hotel that New York built

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The Carlyle ambassador takes us behind the doors — and into the elevators — of the storied landmark


  • Hector Ruiz, the Carlyle Hotel's ambassador. Photo: Andrew Moore

  • The Carlyle's East 76th Street entrance. Photo: Justin Bare

Hector Ruiz technically never has a day off and wouldn’t have it any other way. As the ambassador of The Carlyle Hotel, he makes himself available even when not on the clock, taking guests’ calls for coveted reservations on his cellphone.

The Puerto Rico native, who moved to New York when he was 12, has spent 26 years at the legendary Manhattan property, which symbolizes old-world grace, once welcoming names like President John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana, and still being relevant today, with celebrity devotees like George Clooney and Harrison Ford.

When asked what gives the 76th and Madison corner address its staying power, Ruiz credits its 440 employees’ upmost attention to detail, including a seamstress who monograms each guest’s pillowcase, as well as discreteness. Adding to those high standards, he notes, are the longevity of its staff and, of course, its breathtaking views of Central Park.

The documentary “Always at the Carlyle,” which opened on May 11, sweeps audiences into the allure of the hotel’s 87-year history, while celebrating its continued prosperity. Audiences learn about Prince William and Kate staying there during their first visit to New York, watch old clips of Bobby Short serenading Cafe Carlyle, and hear about one of its original owners, Peter Sharp, for whom Ruiz worked before joining the team there. We also board their elevators, one that once held Princess Diana, Michael Jackson and Steve Jobs, and referred to as the most famous elevator ride in history.

We caught up with Ruiz, very fittingly, on his day off, as he was prepping to travel to London for the film’s premiere there. “Yeah, it’s a quick trip,” he said. “We’ll be back on Wednesday and back at it again, which is good.”

The film stresses the fact that employees are trained not to divulge information about guests. Who can you tell us about?

Well, basically you can talk about Princess Di, who’s no longer with us. In those older days, there were a lot more people who were in “Forbes.” There weren’t that many billionaires, but there were a lot of millionaires years and years ago. And these were people who didn’t want anybody to know that they were that wealthy. Everything was kept very quiet and a lot of times, they stressed that we didn’t have to worry about the budgets or making money, the most important thing here is the guests, to service them. The managers and the owners worried about the money. And Peter didn’t really need it. That wasn’t his money maker; he was a real estate developer. But he had to keep it at a certain level of quality and discreteness, because a lot of these people he sat down and had dinner with. It was important to make it very special and it’s the business that his family had been in for many, many years. After the hotel was sold to Maritz Wolff, everyone then really knew what it was to work in a hotel, because before, it was basically word of mouth. There wasn’t a big reservation department, or central reservations or getting online where anyone could book a room.

What does your job as ambassador entail?

I was the executive assistant manager when Giovanni Beretta came to manage the hotel. And he realized that it was different, this hotel. And it was amazing that one person had so many people who never called the reservations department; they only called me. And there was another gentleman before me, and his name was Ronald Hector. He’s well known throughout Europe and the States. And everybody called him for their reservation. And when he passed, they came to me, because I had known Ronald for a long time, before the technology of these days. He used to send me faxes to the apartment and I would (quote) the average rate for the day, the occupancy, so Peter could see every day. So I had a good rapport with Hector, and then when I went to work there, he just sort of took me under his wing and then all of the sudden, I became the Ronald Hector for all these people. Tommy Lee Jones calls me for his reservations. I do Clooney. I do a lot of these people who have been going there for many years and that’s the way they did things. And, you know, a lot of the people, they don’t like changes.

Tell us a story about a guest.

Yesterday I got a call from a lady who produces “Jersey Boys” and other plays and she’s from California. And she was making a booking. And I said, “How are things?” And she said, “Oh Hector, don’t ask. My gardener left me and didn’t give me any notice. Now I gotta look for a gardener.” So I had to call her back and the machine came on, so I started speaking to her in Spanish and saying, “I understand you need a gardener and I would be very interested, but unfortunately, I live in New York and you would have to come to New York to interview me and I work at The Carlyle.” And right away, she knew it was me. So she called me because she was playing back messages, and said, “You know, I laughed so much when I received that message. And I still laugh about it. So I just had to call you and tell you.”

What have been some memorable moments from your career?

When Mr. President [Clinton] came and he was going to a party on Park Avenue and he decided to come there to freshen up and take a little rest. And before he left, he went around and shook everyone’s hand and his photographer took pictures. And they sent us all a picture. I was pretty impressed; here was the president and he took time to shake everyone’s hand. I was in room service and did a lunch once for Princess Di and she wrote me a little note. That was very memorable.

The hotel’s underground tunnel is also mentioned in the film.

There is a tunnel. We have a way to get you in and out of the hotel with no one ever seeing you come or go. And that’s because we own the building next door and the garage, so someone could drive in. Paparazzi can’t go in there. They pull down the gate, you bring them through the basement, and up through the elevators, because the main elevators go to the basement. And they could go right up to their room and never be seen.

What are your future plans?

To relax, play a little more golf, be there when the clients are there. It’s like, I think of leaving, and I just don’t think of myself; I think of all these people that I deal with it. I mean, today, I’m trying to get out of here, and people are calling me here on my mobile and I’m making reservations from my apartment. I do that a lot. And no matter if I’m away on vacation...but I keep that open for them and that’s important because they call and know they’re gonna get an answer and they know that I’m gonna be back to them within an hour.

“Always at the Carlyle,” directed by Matthew Miele (“Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” “Crazy About Tiffany’s”) is playing at Quad Cinema.

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