NEW YORK — Marilyn Monroe came Wednesdays for lunch and ordered a Beefeater martini, very dry. Danny Kaye pulled his jacket over his head to avoid being recognized. Judy Garland sat in a corner drinking Johnnie Walker Red.
“Judy Garland, very sad,” said Hoy Wong, who is about to be feted by his employer of 27 years, the Algonquin Hotel, on the occasion of his 90th birthday. “She always had a cocktail glass in her hand.”
Wong, or Mr. Hoy, as he is known, has been working as a bartender for 58 years. Unless another candidate steps forward, his bosses seem safe in calling him the city’s oldest bartender.
“He never misses a day,” said Bill Liles, the Algonquin’s general manager. “If the weather’s bad he shows up early. It’s just really an honor to work with someone like Mr. Hoy.”
Wong’s birthday is Wednesday but the Algonquin is getting a jump on the festivities by holding a party for some 350 of his friends and admirers on Tuesday in the hotel’s Oak Room.
“I didn’t expect it,” Wong said during an interview Monday at the hotel, surrounded by Al Hirschfeld drawings of some of the same celebrities he used to mix drinks for.
A link to the past
Wong is not old enough to have been at the Algonquin during its Jazz Age heyday when Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross and the rest of the Round Table gang traded quips over a liquid lunch.
But he is a link to New York’s past, when a martini cost a dollar and a shot of Scotch was 75 cents.
“With ten dollars I can take my girlfriend out, go to a movie,” he said, chuckling. “And have dinner. Still have change.”
Wong is slight of build and looks much younger than 90. His eyes twinkled as he reminisced about a life that took him from his birthplace of Hong Kong to San Francisco in 1940 and New York in 1942.
He served in the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1943 to 1946 and was stationed in India and China. Among his cherished mementos is a menu from Thanksgiving Day 1945, when he was a mess sergeant in Canton. The bill of fare included roast capon, candied yams and “Corn O’Brien.”
Back in New York, Wong got a job tending bar in 1948 at a now-defunct Chinese restaurant called Freeman Chum. It was there that he encountered Monroe, Garland and other notables including Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Bob Hope.
“They were all nice people,” he said.
There were more famous faces at the Algonquin, where Wong has worked since 1979. Once, he recalled, a woman sitting at the bar next to Anthony Quinn got so nervous she shook.
Early riser doesn't drink
Wong himself hasn’t had a drink since he had a heart attack in 1982; he doesn’t miss it.
His daily routine would tax the energy of a man half his age. Up at 5:30 a.m., he goes for a walk around the block, then goes back to sleep until 12:30 p.m. After lunch and another nap it’s off to work at 3:15 p.m.
He spends his shift on his feet, sometimes manning the bar solo.
His proudest moment came in 1961 when he mixed a drink for the Duke of Windsor. “He said he wanted a House of Lords martini in and out on toast.”
The wait captain was prepared to send Wong into the kitchen for a piece of toast, but Wong knew the duke wanted a martini with a lemon twist ignited with a match.
“After he drink, he liked it,” he said. “And he had a second one.”
© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.