AT THE HELM OF THE HILTON
By Vivian McInerny
He dangled over death. Nazi soldiers waited on one side of the house. A three-story jump onto a brick wall awaited on the other. The teen-ager clung to the edge of the roof, with feet flailing and arms aching, clung to what he believed was the very edge of life.
And then he fell.
His life was spared, but his youth died with that drop. He lost his parents. Arrested in 1942 for activities in the French Resistance, they never were seen again. He lost his home. He couldn't go back because the soldiers were waiting. He lost his past, when a sympathetic stranger, a woman about his mother's age, spotted the bruised boy and hid him for a few days before sending him off to a new life in the Underground.
High above Portland, Serge D'Rovencourt surveys the city. The street lights far below flicker and brighten, ignoring nature's attempts to settle down for the night. Cars roll off in a line of light. Boats on the river are dwarfed to tub toys. D'Rovencourt, 60, adjusts his bold, gold cufflinks and smooths the satin lapel of his tailored tuxedo with one quick, determined stroke. From his perspective on the top of the Hilton, most things look manageably small.
The dining room is set for a private party. As manager of the hotel, and host of the party, D'Rovencourt oversees the final touches. Carved ice bowls, illuminated with small candles, glow in the half-light of dusk. Silver platters of fresh seafood balance atop them. Crystal goblets wait for wine. It's picture perfect.
But D'Rovencourt can't resist the urge to rearrange the fresh flowers that perfume the room, aiming to make them even more perfect.
Forty-odd years after leaving France as a penniless war orphan, D'Rovencourt finds himself surrounded by luxury. He shrugs his shoulders at the dramatic differences.
``I'm a survivor,'' he says simply. Serge D'Rovencourt lays a sort of welcome mat for visitors to Portland. His hotel forms the first impression for tens of thousands of tourists who pass through its rooms each year. He also is the host-behind-the-hosts of many community events. He usually can be spotted hovering protectively over the many business banquets, political fund-raisers and charitable soirees held in the hotel.
In his 25 years in the business he has experienced the joys and sorrows of serving masses of guests, from presidents to suspected terrorists. He has had to deal with everything from common complaints about rooms to suicides and murders. He is ringmaster of a 24-hour circus with 365 performances a year, a circus that occasionally needs to call in the clowns.
``This is like a small city,'' said Tom Terrill, director of property operations at the hotel. ``And he is the mayor.''
It's a vertical village that keeps D'Rovencourt running up, down and all around. One minute he's deep in the basement of the building making sure that the laundry crew is using the right detergent, and the next he's checking on the chicken in the roof-top restaurant. And, of course, there are the 20-odd floors in between. His involvement in work is so intense that employees find themselves admiring and fearing his drive and ambition every time he strides by.
``He's very corporate-minded,'' said one employee who asked not to be identified. ``Sometimes more corporate than employee-minded.''
D'Rovencourt, almost literally, eats, drinks and sleeps Hilton, taking meals in the restaurants, nightcaps in the bar, and sleep in the apartmentlike suite on the 21st floor that he shares with his wife, Magaly.
``He's a workaholic,'' Magaly D'Rovencourt said with a warm laugh. ``When we go on vacation, I don't know how many times he calls the hotel.''
But the Hilton represents even more than work to D'Rovencourt. It's the secure home he had to abandon in France; the family he lost; the roots that were torn up by war.
Like tiny leaves from an international forest, his postage stamps lie scattered across the desk. With a magnifying glass in one hand D'Rovencourt looks each over, carefully categorizes it, and places it in the proper book.
``I started collecting before the war,'' he said, his voice drifting off.
His childhood stamp collection, like everything else, was lost. So now he pores over his stamps every evening after work, usually for an hour or two, creating order out of chaos.
D'Rovencourt was 17 when the war ended. His parents were dead. American and French aid came to his rescue, offering him a place in the European trade school of his choice.
``They gave me a list of about 20 trades. Electrician. Engineer. All things. I crossed them off one by one,'' he said, scribbling across an imaginary paper. ``Hotel management was the last one.''
It was not a very enthusiastic start for a man who today, by all accounts, is just this side of obsessed with the business. But back then, it all must have seemed rather dull and routine after two years spent roaming the countryside in the French Underground army fighting the occupying Nazis.
D'Rovencourt and his older sister, Paulette, stuck close together through it all. She had escaped harm that spring night in 1942 when their parents were arrested, because she was visiting a girlfriend. The siblings met up a few days after the raid, and joined about 25 others in makeshift barracks on an abandoned farm to form a command of inexperienced resistance soldiers. Although she lives in Florida, the brother and sister remain very close.
D'Rovencourt doesn't like to talk about those earlier days. But he has the bullet holes in his legs as constant reminders.
``They're in the back of my legs,'' he said, dismissing any ideas of heroism. ``I was so young I didn't fully understand what we were fighting for at first. But I did come to understand.'' By the late 1940s, D'Rovencourt said, he finally was getting his feet back on the ground. He'd finished hotel school. He had a steady job at a top-class hotel in Paris. Life was good. But the prospect of fighting in another war in Indochina hung heavily over his head.
``I went to the first country that would give me a visa,'' he said.
And that country was Venezuela.
Young and optimistic, D'Rovencourt set out to the jungle to strike it rich on diamonds.
``I didn't find any,'' he said with a self-mocking smile.
But he did pick up Spanish, which helped him land a job with a hotel in Caracas a couple of years later, where he stayed until 1960. It was then that he immigrated to the United States.
While working in a Hilton hotel in Puerto Rico he met an exotic, round-cheeked woman, a tourist from the Dominican Republic, who would become his wife.
``My father was very, very strict. A typical Spaniard,'' said Magaly D'Rovencourt, who was sent to Catholic boarding schools in Florida and Michigan for much of her education, and never went out without her chaperone. ``He didn't like any of the boys I dated. He always found something about them. One was too lazy. One was not good.
``One was too handsome!'' she said with deep, rich laugh. ``But he liked Serge immediately because Serge was a self-made man just like himself.''
Serge D'Rovencourt's work and home life blended and blurred.
He and his wife raised their three children in Hilton hotels. The lobbies were their backyards. Regular guests became their playmates. And black-tie banquets, their finishing schools.
``We always went to dinners (business functions) in the hotel,'' said Lisette D'Rovencourt, 22, the eldest of the children. ``My dad hardly went anywhere without his family, and everyone knew that and accepted that.''
The children quickly developed the manners and maturity of adults. They met celebrities and senators. They dined with dignitaries. They played with Amy Carter when her presidential dad vacationed in Hawaii. On special occasions, they even were allowed to ring for room service.
On the downside, they never learned to ride bikes. They weren't allowed pets in the hotels. And all three longed for a real house in a regular neighborhood at certain points in their lives.
But all in all, the hotel business must have left a favorable impression. Lisette D'Rovencourt works for a Hilton in Los Angeles. She found a teddy bear on her desk one morning. Her father sent it for no other reason than to remind her that he loved her.
Jacques D'Rovencourt, 20, in his final year of college in Las Vegas, Nev., often wakes up to a friendly phone call from his father. Jacques so admires his dad that he hopes to follow in his footsteps in the hotel business after graduation.
Michelle D'Rovencourt, 17, still is deciding on a major. A few weeks ago, in her mailbox at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, she found a large envelope stuffed full of crossword puzzles. Her father sent them because the two used to spend hours playfully arguing over the answers when she lived at home.
``He's always told us that we were the most important things in his life,'' Michelle D'Rovencourt said. ``There are always tears when he says things like that.''
Though the family is spread out in three different states, D'Rovencourt holds them together with his thoughtful gestures.
``I look at my youth and at theirs,'' he said, shaking his head at the differences. ``But in spite of the comforts that they have, I think the final results are about equal. I'm very, very proud of how they have developed.''
The photographs are meticulously mounted in a plain paper scrapbook. Each black-and-white snapshot dated 1967 shows the same, ordinary, blocky house. It's pictured from the front, from the sides and from the back. There is absolutely nothing extraordinary about it. But D'Rovencourt turns the pages tenderly.
A red dotted line, drawn with a felt-tip pen, follows the edge of the roof. It stretches to the corner of the house. And there it stops and drops to a brick wall three stories below.
The next page of the scrapbook shows D'Rovencourt with his arms around an older French woman. Though both are smiling, there's a sadness in their eyes. It is the woman who found him on the bricks so many years ago. The woman who sent him off into a new life in a new world.
D'Rovencourt finds his eyes misting over the pictures. He closes the scrapbook quietly. He puts it back on its shelf in the office closet. Then clapping his hands together, shattering the sad silence, he dashes out into the lobby.
``Let me show you the hotel,'' he says enthusiastically.