American stars and bars: The Manhattan movers' shaker

Hoy Wong mixed martinis for Marilyn Monroe and Bob Hope, and is still pouring drinks aged 90. David Usborne heads to the famed Algonquin Hotel to meet New York's oldest bartender
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The Independent US

As the commercial capital of the New World, New York loves to celebrate all things that are its oldest. Bowling Green is its oldest park, Pete's Tavern its oldest restaurant and crocodiles in the sewers its oldest myth. And today, the town will stop to salute a man who, as far as anyone can tell, is its oldest living bartender.

Hoy Wong, who turns 90 this morning, is indeed still alive and thriving and, more importantly, still showing up for work five nights a week to watch over his flock of corporate-card spenders and would-be literati at the Blue Bar in the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street, which, while not quite the oldest hostelry in the city (built in 1902), is surely one of its most storied and most antique in atmosphere.

It is a nostalgic match made in Heaven. The Algonquin is the hotel where Dorothy Parker held her writers' salons after the First World War, accompanied by the likes of Robert Benchley and Harold Ross, who conceived The New Yorker magazine there. Hoy Wong, meanwhile, is the only martini shaker left who can reminisce about the stars of an era, all of whom he served and befriended. Think Marilyn Monroe and Dean Martin, Judy Garland and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

The hotel, which had no difficulty discerning the chance for a little free advertising, is not allowing the birthday of Hoy Wong, known to everyone here as Mister Hoy, to pass by quietly. A party for some 350 of his friends and most loyal regulars was planned in the Algonquin's main reception room last night. Also on hand to raise a glass to him will be CNN and a throng of local reporters.

All of which might be a bit too much for anyone of lesser stamina than Mr Hoy, who commutes most days from Queens across the East River. As a concession to his comfort, he is being put up this week in one of the guest rooms. After an early mid-morning catnap, he stirred himself yesterday to descend to his nocturnal home, the Blue Bar, to share some of his many memories with The Independent.

He settles in one of the upholstered benches (leather, in blue, of course), sharply dressed in a summer seersucker jacket with a Stars and Stripes pin in one lapel. Around the walls are original drawings by the legendary New Yorker cartoonist, Al Hirschfeld, depicting performers from hit Broadway musicals, from The Sound of Music to Chicago. Members of staff, soberly dressed in their all-black uniforms with silver name-tags, pop in every minute or so to greet their favourite co-worker. "Good Morning, Mr Hoy!" He smiles, with eyes more lively and keen than someone his age is usually entitled to enjoy.

"It's rare in your life when you meet some who really is the real deal, like him," says the hotel's general manager, Bill Liles. "He is by far our most dependable employee, always a smile on his face. And he has quite a female following, quite a sex symbol in New York. He is an icon, really."

The lapel pin is Mr Hoy's homage to the country that has given him such fortune. He arrived in San Francisco from Hong Kong in 1940, before moving to New York two years later. In 1943, he enlisted with the US Army Air Force, and from 1943 until 1946 was stationed first in India and then in China. His memories of those days are still vivid and anyone who asks should be ready to spare a few minutes.

His first bar job came in 1948, when he began work at a now-defunct Chinese restaurant and bar on 53rd and Lexington called Freeman Chums. "The boss, he knew a lot of politicians, a lot of people," Mr Hoy recalls in his still-fragmented English, signalling he is ready now to begin with his list of celebrities he has known and for whom he has mixed drinks.

Judy Garland came in regularly with a friend but was generally "very sad". She was also, he confides - isn't there a barman's code of discretion equivalent to the Hippocratic Oath? - quite a person for downing the booze. "She said keep going," Mr Hoy says amidst a protracted spell of chuckling and making the gesture of pouring a drink. "Keep going, keep going." Garland liked Johnnie Walker mostly, apparently.

Jerry Lewis used to go into Freeman Chums when he was in town, as did Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Danny Kaye, who would pull his jacket over his head as he came in to elude the attention of fans on the pavement. "Marilyn Monroe came in for lunch every Wednesday when she was in New York with her second husband, Arthur Miller," he reports. "Always Beefeater Martini, dry. Never change!"

Mr Hoy admits that even today at the Blue Bar, where he has worked since 1979, new brands of drinks come in every day and each day he learns new concoctions from his patrons. "Always learning. My whole life I learn, mostly from my customers." It's part of what keeps him buzzing, that and just the joy of meeting fresh people every night.

One occasion when he needed help sticks in his mind, all the way back to his days at Freeman Chums, where he stayed until it closed in 1960. The Hollywood actress, Judy London - still a big name in those days - came through the door. "She asked me to do a martini 'on toast'," he remembers. "I said, 'I don't know how to make this drink'. So she came to the bar and showed me how to do it. A real nice woman."

The martini on toast is almost Mr Hoy's signature drink nowadays. The television stations interviewing him for the breakfast shows yesterday had him demonstrate on air. He shakes the martini as usual - vodka or gin - and then takes a piece of lemon zest, lights a match and singes it. Or rather toasts it.

The lesson from Judy London came in handy years later in 1961, by which time Mr Hoy had transplanted just a few blocks to a joint called Six Happiness on 56th Street. One evening the owner invited two special guests in for dinner: the Duke of Windsor and his wife Wallis Simpson.

No one was more particular about his drink than the Duke. He ordered not just a martini on toast - the gin had to be House of Lords, an obscure brand of years gone by, which Mr Hoy was still serving until only recently at the Blue Bar - but, more precisely, a "martini in and out on toast". The waiter who took the order started towards the kitchen to order a slice of toast. Mr Hoy knew better and intervened, but he still needed a little assistance with the "in and out" part. Today, of course, he knows just what to do. Pour the vermouth over ice. Remove the ice (the in-and-out part), before adding the gin.

Mr Hoy obviously remembers the Duke of Windsor in the Six Happiness as one of his proudest moments, not least because his version of martini in and out on toast, with House of Lords gin, went down a treat. "After he drink, he liked it," he remembers. "And he had a second one."

With four grown-up children, two daughters and two sons aged 55 to 45, Mr Hoy obviously has the right regimen for staying fit. He gave up drinking for good in 1982 after a heart attack. He rises at 5.30 in the morning to take a brisk walk, before returning to bed to sleep until around noon. At 3.15pm it's off to the subway and Midtown Manhattan for his eight-hours shift at the Algonquin Hotel. There is no special stool for Mr Hoy. He stays on his feet the entire shift, pouring drinks, chatting to punters.

Just like Mr Hoy, the Algonquin, with its plum spot on "Club Row" between Fifth and Sixth avenues, has no trouble trading on the past and on the names of those who have passed through its mahogany and brass front doors. Its lobby, though spruced up and fitted with wi-fi internet access, is pretty much as it was in 1902. All is meant to evoke the club's heyday of the Thirties and Ms Parker's Round Table. Aside from Ross and Benchley, other alumni of her still-legendary literary gatherings included the comedian Harpo Marx, columnist Heywood Broun and playwright George Kaufman. The Algonquin can also boast that it was a favourite overnight haunt of John F Kennedy as both senator and president. It is also where William Faulkner penned his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Nowadays the Algonquin, under Japanese ownership since 1986, and the Blue Bar attract more tourists and businessmen than movie stars. With its dark panelling and studded leather bar, the place is a little fusty for the Nicole Ritchies and Paris Hiltons and their ilk, who prefer the haunts of SoHo and the Meatpacking district. It attracts money, though. For $10,000, punters with deep pockets and the urge to propose to their fiancée can buy a martini with a diamond lurking in the glass.

But Mr Hoy says he has no intention of following the headline makers to SoHo - or to anywhere else, even though friends in the business from time to time still try to pry him from his perch at the Blue Bar. His answer, he says, is always the same. "This is my last stop. They offer job for me and I say 'No thank you'."

Be they famous or humble, his customers clearly appreciate Mr Hoy's style. What is his secret? "You just keep your mind on the job, give attention for the customers and the waiters," he says. "You talk to them and you make them feel like they are at home and they come back to you."

And when, you have to ask, will he put away the shakers, the ice buckets and the matches for making toast and take a well-earned rest? "I have no idea," Mr Hoy replies, giving no hint at plans for retirement. He looks to the ceiling with a mischievous smile. "It depend on the God."