James Carrière
The Fairmont San Francisco's own William May.
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The Big Hello

Carolyn Jung / November 2012

He can juggle luggage, move cars, hail cabs, dispense advice, give directions, chit and chat, and remember your name, all while making you feel as if you’re the only one among hundreds of thousands who’s ever arrived for a stay at the Fairmont San Francisco. William May does lots of other things, too. Carolyn Jung shows why he—and all other doormen—are so important to hotels.

At the entranceway to one of San Francisco’s grandest, most historic hotels—where kings, queens, and every American president since William Howard Taft has stayed—the scene is often full of pomp and ceremony, plus a shimmer of surrealism as on this particular evening. A guest bounds through the revolving glass doors, down the crystal chandelier-illuminated carpeted marble steps, and directly into the blustery evening fog, dressed improbably in an overgrown schoolboy uniform of matching jacket, cap, and shorts. The man clutches a bright red inflatable guitar—a clownish vision of Angus Young, AC/DC’s raunchy lead guitarist. One right after another, taxis and cars pull up, depositing shivering tourists returning from the Wine Country or picking up bejeweled women to whisk away to swank soirées. Two more guests soon join the queue, in desperate need of a cab to get to a party clear across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, with, incredibly, a rapidly melting ice sculpture in tow.

It’s just a typical Saturday night at the venerable Fairmont San Francisco, a 105 year old landmark that was not only the setting for the signing of the charter establishing the United Nations, but the place where Tony Bennett first crooned the immortal “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” At the very center of this gilded entrance stands a tall figure in a dapper three-piece navy uniform with gleaming onyx cuff links, a proud gift from an appreciative hotel regular. At 60, William May possesses a confident gait, an elegant yet take-charge manner, and what he likens to a “Ph.D. in people.” In 26 years as the most veteran doorman at the Fairmont, he’s pretty much seen it all, too.

“I enjoy coming to work each day. I look forward to it,” he says, before driving a guest’s Audi to one side of the narrow horseshoe-shaped drive-through to allow other cars access to the front steps. “It’s not stressful, only because I’ve been doing it so long. You learn you can’t manage chaos. You roll with the flow.”

May never gets flustered, not when buses are blocking the street in, not when a line of honking taxis has backed up the driveway, not when a woman calls frantically from London about the whereabouts of the town car to take her client from the Fairmont to the airport, even though no such reservation can be found.

“William is a San Francisco treasure,” says Charlotte Shultz, San Francisco’s chief of protocol officer, whose late-husband, Mel Swig, once owned the Fairmont. “He is so articulate, so warm, and so real. I’ve seen him welcome presidents, heads of state, the weary traveler, limos of rambunctious teenagers arriving for a prom. He treats them all with grace. Not only is he an asset to the Fairmont, but he is an ambassador of good will for the city of San Francisco.”

You might even say it’s a calling. Because what the American Ballet Theatre is to an aspiring ballerina, what The French Laundry is to a striving culinary student, the Fairmont San Francisco is to doormen like May, cut from old-school cloth that proudly envelops guests in personalized, polished, and can-do service.

It says a lot that May still remembers the exact date he was hired: February 17, 1986. Born in Ohio, the middle son of a father who was a tailor and a mother who worked as a maid, he moved to California in his early 20s, only because he says he was too afraid to go to New York City by himself. With a natural-born sense of style inherited from his father, who was always turned out in a proper shirt and jacket, May started working at the Emporium department store on Market Street. In men’s suits, of course.

Later, he took a job at the downtown Holiday Inn Union Square, while also working at The Huntington Hotel on Sat­ur­day nights, before hearing of an opening at the Fairmont. “I always wanted to be a doorman there,” says May, who back then used to study the mannerisms of another famous Fairmont doorman, Bill Swan. “I’d come here and stare in awe.”

In this day and age that more readily glorifies rapid-fire technological marvels over simple grace and civility, it may be difficult to imagine a doorman’s position as an object of desire, even if it’s a union job that includes benefits and tips. “Even my parents were like, ‘A doorman? What’s that?’ ” May says. “I still have friends who don’t understand what I do or why I do it. The job is physical and mental. I need to be friendly, welcoming, informative, and nonjudgmental. Getting the door and the bags is like the wheels on a Rolls-Royce. It goes way beyond that.”

One need only observe him for an hour at the door to know why he does what he does. With a warm smile, a throaty laugh at the ready, and an uplifting, “Have a successful day!” sendoff to guests in the morning, May connects with each and every person, much like an actor on stage whose performance can leave both audience and thespian invigorated.

What a stage it is, too. “What goes on at the hotel is nothing short of life itself,” he says. And May has a bird’s-eye view of it all. Brides get married here, following down the aisle of their mothers, who were married here as well. Visitors arrive to attend momentous graduations. Others come for more dire reasons, such as cancer treatments at a nearby hospital. Then, there are the regulars who come year after year for decades, until they abruptly don’t anymore and May can sadly surmise why.

It’s the ability to engage guests in conversation, no matter who they are or where they come from, that enables May to remember their names easily. He can multitask like no one else because he’s learned to intuitively read everyone’s needs at that specific moment. When there is a bottleneck in the driveway, May uses the traffic to his advantage, noting that one guest might be dallying to gather things in the backseat before getting out of the car, so he knows he has just enough time to walk another couple out to the sidewalk to get into a taxi. Committing guests’ habits to mind, May knows that, when a regular from Santa Barbara goes out for his morning stroll, to have the man’s car ready at the front exactly an hour later. Thomas Klein, Fairmont’s regional vice president/general manager, swapped jobs with May last year just for the experience, and at the end of the eight-hour shift, Klein says he was thoroughly exhausted. Yet, you’d never glean that from May. Even with all the juggling required, there’s never a trace of anxiety on his face, just a genuine joviality that hotel owners say can’t be taught.

“The doorman sets the tone for the guest experience,” Klein explains. “If you have someone out there with an ingratiating personality, that touches the guest. It’s what makes the guest feel good to be there.”

When a man or woman steps out of their car, May always helps them on with their coat. If a guest seems jittery or especially preoccupied, he’ll make a mental note of the number of the taxi they just exited in case it turns out later they forgot something. As a former marathon runner, May can recommend running routes to guests. He can even dole out suggestions for the best Bikram classes, because he used to practice yoga. He knows the city so well that whenever producer Jo Schuman Silver drops by, May’s not above making suggestions to her about what new additions she should make to her zany, long-running, only-in-San Francisco musical revue, Beach Blanket Babylon. “I have known him for years,” Silver says. “He’s always gracious, funny, and very well informed about what’s going on in pop culture.”

When then-Mayor Willie Brown formed a taxi task force in 1997 to study the city’s transportation needs, May was the only hotel doorman he appointed to it. But politics is one topic May won’t engage in with guests. With one exception. Bill Cosby, a regular at the hotel, often will sit at the valet station to banter about politics and philosophy with him.

May has been star-struck only twice: Once, when meeting Frank Sinatra. The other time, when Bryant Gumbel stayed at the hotel. “I thought, ‘Am I enunciating properly?’ ” May recalls with a laugh. One of his most memorable experiences was welcoming Thurgood Marshall, the country’s first black Supreme Court justice. Frail and in a wheelchair then, Marshall beamed when he saw the Fairmont, telling May that it was the first hotel to headline African-American performers at its legendary Venetian Room supper club.

On days off, May, a divorced father of a 10 year old daughter, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from the University of California, Berkeley. He’s now studying for a paralegal degree at San Francisco State University’s College of Extended Learning. Last year, he even completed a 15 week internship at San Francisco’s Legal Assistance to the Elderly. When he retires from the hotel, he would like to continue working in some capacity to provide legal assistance to seniors. But Fairmont regulars shouldn’t fret just yet. May doesn’t plan on leaving his post for at least another eight years. For now, that stage still beckons.