Service with Charm: The Mystery of the Sheraton Hostesses
by Diane Lapis
Step back in time and imagine yourself at the Mermaid Lounge at the Sheraton Alms Hotel.
The warm colorful room and brightly patterned plush carpet usher you in for a relaxing evening, allowing a sense of escape from your daily routines. Beautiful mermaid and sea folk paintings adorn the walls. Ronnie Dale, the noted organist from the Cincinnati Reds at Crosley Field, entertains you. He alternates between the piano and organ, and plays popular tunes in his inimitable style. A beautiful gowned woman appears, greets you with a smile, asks for your name and takes your drinks order.
A postcard, like a time capsule, can capture the essence of an era or place. The postcard below captivated me, not only because of the colors, patterns, and perspective, but the handsome woman who seemed to be floating above the green carpet. Her diagonally plunging neckline and distinctive way of holding the cocktail tray brought to mind similar postcards and a swizzle stick all from the Sheraton Hotel!
I soon discovered that the mastermind behind these winsome women was Mrs. Edna Gilbert. She was the mistress d’ at the Mermaid and about twenty other Sheraton lounges across the country. Hired by the chain in 1948 to raise the cocktail lounges’ revenues, Mrs. Gilbert promised to increase sales up to 70% with her team of glamorous hostesses. Formerly a pioneer airline stewardess and Broadway musical dancer and comedienne, Mrs. Gilbert employed and trained women between the ages of 25 and
35 to be, what she called “service-aides,” at the various lounges. Specific physical requirements of the applicants included a height of no less than 5’5”, a bust size no less than 34”, a waist between 24 - 26”, and statuesque legs.
Mrs. Gilbert taught most of her recruits how to walk, speak, dress, style hair and apply makeup. Others newly hired were coached at a finishing school. These stylish ladies were trained to keep ashtrays clean and bowls filled with popcorn. The women not only memorized the cocktail menu, but were schooled in understanding the clientele such as: the one who “wants” to drink or likes the atmosphere, the one who is depressed and “needs” a drink, the one who is happy and “owes” himself a drink, and the one who entertains guests. Earnings between $80 to $200 a week were the norm, which translates to $835 - $1,800 in today’s dollars. A married woman could only work at the lounge with her husband’s consent. He had to promise to stay away from the hotel and not cause trouble!
The costume de rigueur were gowns designed and sewn by Mrs. Gilbert to the tune of $75 each. The long flowing transparent skirt was topped by a taffeta décolleté blouse. Open-toed gold or black sandals were required footwear. In some cities, like Newark and Cincinnati, the see-through skirt was deemed indecent by the local police, and the ladies were required to wear a petticoat or an opaque garment. According to Mrs. Gilbert, it was the hostesses’ prompt and courteous service, not the be-gowned attractions, that increased bar sales.
Mrs. Gilbert’s business model delivered glamour and swank to the Sheraton’s cocktails lounges coast-to-coast. Postcards and swizzle sticks were give-aways featuring the alluring fancy-frocked maids to remind guests of their high-class evening out on the town.
The Sheraton swizzle stick captures the exacting standards of Mrs. Gilbert’s “service-aides.” Holding the swizzle up to the light, one can see the diaphanous flowing gown revealing long shapely legs. The figure’s buxom top is accented by a narrow waist. A menu is depicted in the right hand with a cocktail glass in the left… recalling the days of “Service with Charm.”
Diane is the co-author of Cocktails Across America with Anne Peck-Davis