Helen Chaplin, a sprightly senior executive at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel for more than 40 years who won the hearts of European royalty, heads of state, political pundits and A-list celebrities by attending to their whims as guests, has died. She was 97.
FOR THE RECORD:
Helen Chaplin obituary: A news obituary of hotel executive Helen Chaplin in Tuesday's LATExtra section quoted Bill Wilkinson, the former president of Ayala Hotels who hired Chaplin to work at the Checkers Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, but failed to note that Wilkinson died in July. The interview with Wilkinson was conducted in 2008, when the Chaplin story was being prepared. —
Chaplin, a longtime resident of Beverly Hills, died Saturday of age-related causes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, her close friend Katie Haupt said Monday.
"Helen is credited with creating hotel public relations as we know it," said Los Angeles publicist Craig Donahue, a longtime friend. "She knew how to take care of a high-end clientele."
In the early years, friends said, Chaplin made up her methods for catering to the powerful as she went along. She kept abreast of who was who by reading newspapers and magazines and seemed to remember it all thanks to a formidable memory. Still, she left nothing to chance.
"Helen kept a card on every frequent guest of the hotel," said architect Victoria Yust, Chaplin's assistant for 10 years. She made a note if they traveled with their own bedsheets, their own food, their own staff. If she didn't know everything about a guest, Chaplin asked Yust to do further research.
"For Helen it was all about the details," Yust said. "She was curious about everything, and she enjoyed people's quirkiness."
Chaplin had stories to tell, but never before a guest checked out. Then, she might mention that the kitchen staff peeled grapes for Japan's Emperor Hirohito while he was at the hotel in 1975, or brought in a meal of 30 Big Macs for the hefty King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga during his stay. For conservative commentator William F. Buckley, Chaplin ordered a supply of the peanut butter he put on his breakfast toast.
Several major celebrities lived at the hotel or kept a suite there over the years. Warren Beatty held the keys to the penthouse through the 1980s. Elvis Presley had the "presidential suite" on reserve in the late 1950s. Chaplin might admit to that much, but seldom offered more.
"Helen was very involved in protecting people's private lives while they were at the hotel," Donahue said. She might, however, drop a few names to trusted friends, "which is why I loved having her for dinner with a bottle of red wine," Donahue said.
No task was too insignificant. Several times Chaplin helped visiting royals unpack their luggage because they were traveling without a personal maid. "I was always dressed in navy or black; they couldn't tell the difference," she said.
"Helen was there to help; it wasn't a big deal," recalled Tia Gindick, former society reporter for The Times. "She wasn't intimidating."
Her talent for putting people at ease "reminded you of your wonderful aunt," Gindick said.
Chaplin joined the hotel staff in 1952, newly divorced and in need of a job. She started as a secretary but quickly moved ahead when the hotel's flamboyant new owner, Hernando Courtright, took charge in 1960.
That year he promoted Chaplin to assistant hotel manager after she brought in a major renovation job ahead of schedule and under budget.
Courtright liked to do things in a big way. When Queen Margrethe of Denmark, nicknamed Daisy, stayed at the hotel in 1976, fresh daisies filled every hotel flower pot. Norway's King Olav, a yachtsman, was once welcomed after he crossed a gangplank set up in his honor. Heads of state, ambassadors and cabinet members from around the world were greeted with mariachi bands, bagpipers or trumpets while their nations' flags snapped in the breeze between the hotel's wings. Chaplin was behind most of it.
"Courtright gave Helen the orders, and she found a way to get them done," said Bill Wilkinson, former president of Ayala Hotels, which included the Checkers Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
She was promoted to vice president of the Regent Beverly Wilshire in 1985, a rare achievement for a woman at the time. "She would have been the hotel manager if she had been a man," Wilkinson said. "Thousands of people in the hotel business looked to her as a role model."
Born Helen Vorisek in New York City on April 26, 1913, she graduated from Hunter College in New York. She married Charles Chaplin, who was in the advertising business, and moved to Los Angeles with him in 1942. They divorced 10 years later. The couple had no children, and she never remarried. She had no immediate survivors.
Chaplin retired from the Regent Beverly Wilshire at 74 but had a new job within a few months. Wilkinson hired her to be his vice president, based at the Checkers, in the late 1980s. He sent a car and driver to pick her up every morning from the small apartment in Beverly Hills where she had lived for decades.
Chaplin retired a second time at 91 but kept up an intimate circle of friends. For her 95th birthday, Donahue and PBS television personality Huell Howser took her to lunch at Philippe's, the vintage Los Angeles restaurant known for its French dip sandwiches. Yust hosted a birthday luncheon at home, with celebrity chef Thomas Keller, formerly the executive chef at Checkers, among the guests.
A memorial birthday celebration is planned in April.
Rourke is a former Times staff writer.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun