By Harry Keaney
The wealthy and the powerful, the famous and the influential, slip quietly in and out of Manhattan’s exclusive 21 Club. And there, welcoming them for the last 25 years, has been Harry Lavin, the concierge of that oasis of opulence on West 52nd Street. But the 67-year-old Sligoman won’t divulge much about those he meets and greets. That’s because, at the 21, discretion is the rule.
Like St. Peter at the gate of heaven, Lavin, perennially on duty just inside the 21’s front door, is master of all he surveys. With his ever-alert, straight-as-an-arrow military bearing, his social graces honed to perfection, he is a study in diplomacy and tact. After more than a quarter century, his familiar and friendly presence has forged countless personal links, if not a chain of continuity, between the illustrious institution and its array of discerning regulars.
The 21 is not a club in that one has to be a member to enter. In essence, it’s a top-of-the-market bar and restaurant, with 10 private dining rooms, including a new dining room in its storied Prohibition-era wine cellar, where up to 20 guests may enjoy a six-course meal — with wine to accompany each course served by the 21’s sommelier — all for "the nominal" price of $400 per person, according to beverage manager Christopher Shipley. The cellar also holds wine stocks for a gallery of celebrities; a quick glance reveals tags bearing the names of Ivan Boesky, Gerald Ford, Elizabeth Taylor and the estate of Richard Nixon.
Lavin began his journey toward the 21 in 1950, when he left Creevagh, a townland in south County Sligo, near the neighboring County Roscommon village of Ballyfarnon.
After four years in London, during which he worked in the famous Yates Wine Lodge in Knightsbridge, he came to New York. He got a job as a waiter in Toots Shors Restaurant and eventually became maitre d’. Along the way, he made the acquaintance of 1950s icons such as Jackie Gleason, Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. Apart from a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, when he served in the Mediterranean, he worked at Shor’s until 1974, when he moved a few blocks to the 21.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
Lavin is now acknowledged as a master concierge. As to what’s the secret of the job, Lavin has no hesitation. "Patience, you have to have a lot of patience," he said. "You’ve got to like people. It’s just a way of handling people; if you are nice to people, they will be nice to you."
As Lavin spoke, a woman struggled to put on her leather coat. With one step, Lavin was there to help. Another woman popped out from the restaurant to ask him to give her driver a bag. Others came and went, Lavin, brimming with charm and courtesy, showing them to the restaurant, the bar, the private dining rooms. Then, in a rare moment of quiet, a young man entered, unsure if he was in the right place.
"Good afternoon," ventured Lavin. The young man, with obviously little English, muttered something. "Looking for work?" Lavin inquired. The man nodded, and Lavin directed him to where he should go.
"You’ve got to be able to read people," said Lavin, his performance bearing ample testimony to skill born of years of practice. "You’ve got to have a good memory for names and faces, and, even if I don’t remember someone’s name, we will look at each other and make a connection."
Lavin particularly remembers meeting Prince Rainier of Monaco and his daughter Princess Stephanie, as well as the entertainer Liberace. He met John Glenn three weeks after his historic orbit of the earth.
Lavin is not the only Sligo connection to the 21. Three years ago, the place was taken over by Orient Express Hotels and is now managed by Bryan McGuire, whose father came from Easkey, Co. Sligo. But, after a quarter century, it’s Lavin who personifies the 21’s character and appeal.
"There is no room for a bad day," he said. "You always have to be up."