Charming a fuming Elizabeth Taylor, personally snipping a British duke’s hair or catering to the refined palates of Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge leaders.
It was all in a day’s work for Kurt Wachtveitl, as he looks back on 41 years running one of the world’s fabled hotels, not with nostalgic tears but plenty of juicy tales and trenchant thoughts about how Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel got to be so good.
A legend himself among the international hotel fraternity, the 72-year-old Wachtveitl retires this month, having amassed awards for the five-star hotel along the Chao Phraya River as well as an endless roster of famous and rich, albeit not always agreeable, guests.
“She treated me like a dog. You remember guests who are really terrible,” says the suave German-born hotelier, recalling how Hollywood superstar Taylor blew up because the hotel’s best room, the Oriental Suite, happened to be booked when she checked in.
The two had met before, when he worked at a hotel in Lausanne, Switzerland, where actor Richard Burton would meet Taylor for trysts.
“Usually they drank vodka by the bottle. Burton at three o’clock in the morning would fall down the staircase dreadfully drunk, crawling through the lobby,” says Wachtveitl.
Taylor would moan “Richard, Richard” as he drove off to his wife and Wachtveitl was left with helping the star to her room.
Back at the Oriental, the silver-haired Wachtveitl (pronounced Wacht-why-tell) managed to calm the actress down — and she even became an ally in 1993 when one of her best pals, rock star Michael Jackson, was holed up in the hotel and refused to give a concert to which thousands had already bought tickets.
Taylor flew from California and persuaded Jacko, who had just been hit with child sex abuse allegations, to perform.
“Celebrities are all easy to deal with if you do everything they want,” mused Wachtveitl recently. “If something goes against them, hell will break loose.”
Established in 1876 by two Danish sea captains, the Oriental’s A-list crowd in the early days included Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling.
They lived in what is now the colonial-style Author’s Wing, the original part of the hotel above which towers the 10-storey River Wing, completed in 1976.
The likes of Princess Diana, Mick Jagger, Sean Connery, George W. Bush, David Beckham and Elton John stayed there during the Wachtveitl years.