williamthomaswBy William Thomas

I have shaken the hand that shook the hand of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, Hollywood stars and the world’s greatest spies.  And last month I shook that cordial, soft hand for the very last time.

Jose Antonio Azevedo Afonso is retiring after 63 years as the doorman of the grand Hotel Palacio in Estoril, Portugal.  I have been greeted by this man at the entrance to one of Europe’s classiest hotels on five occasions and he always makes me feel I’ve come to stay in his home, where all the staff are family.  In his blue suit with a red cape and matching cap, set off by the white gloves and gold chains draped over his left shoulder, Jose Afonso wears the uniform of a doorman with pride.

He has bowed to greet the most beautiful women in all the world, including Rita Hayworth, Gina Lollobrigida, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Audrey Hepburn.  “Grace Kelly,” said Jose, “was very nice.”  With her, he had his picture taken.

Jose Afonso met Van Johnson and helped ensure Rex Harrison’s privacy when the English actor preferred to dine alone in the Grill Four Seasons restaurant.  Orson Wells, Ed Sullivan, Tyrone Power and Tony Blair – Jose has something nice to say about them all.  Maurice Chevalier hummed in the elevator.

Jose has had a quiet word with some of the world’s greatest movers and shakers, like Henry Ford II, the Agha Khan, the Rockefellers and the Rothschilds and Indira Nehru, later Gandhi and the third Prime Minister of India.

The close-knit towns of Estoril, Cascais and Sintra formed a triangular refugee camp for the world’s rich and famous.  What with World War II raging across Europe and Portugal being entirely neutral, this lush land sweeping up the mountains from the beaches of the Atlantic became a haven for deposed kings and ex-queens, as well as displaced dukes, duchesses, counts and countesses. Refugees with sprawling farms or four-story villas and bank accounts in Switzerland.  So many royalty lived in this tiny enclave, the Atlantic here was called “The Coast of Kings.”

One James Bond, George Lazenby of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service not only stayed at The Palacio, but the fictional James Bond was actually born here.  Ian Fleming returned to the Palacio after the war with the files of his favourite agent and friend, Dusan Popov, the Yugoslavian spy they called “The Tricycle.”  Fleming wrote on the balcony of Room #521 with a view of the ocean, the park and the Estoril Casino.  That’s where Popov became Bond and Casino Royale became the first of a series of 12 books that created an industry of 23 Hollywood movies.

A welcoming witness to all that fame – Jose Afonso was a 19-year-old kid from a poor family when he got his first job at the hotel as a bell boy.  You might not think that the job of a doorman is one to be coveted or cherished for 63 years, but this was The Palacio, the jewel of European hostelry.

Amid all the pomp and circumstance, a gaffe was bound to happen.  The American couple, Cindy Adams and Joey Adams, visited The Palacio in the 50’s – he to vacation, her to collect gossip.  Joey was a comedian and humour writer and Cindy was one of the most successful gossip columnists of her day.  The rich and famous who gathered for high tea every afternoon adorned with satin sashes and glittering jewels were rich fodder for Cindy’s writing.

The interview that Cindy drooled over was a one-on-one with a frequent visitor to the hotel, the King Umberto of Italy.  He was addressed at The Palacio as Sua Excelencia Rei, pronounced ‘Ray.’  For weeks Cindy hounded The Palacio public relations director to set up the meeting.  With little time left in her visit, the PR guy finally made the royal connection.  He was standing in the lobby next to the King of Italy when Cindy entered with bundles of handcrafted souvenirs and gifts for the folks back home.  Excited, she was showing off her purchases to the staff when the PR man finally got her attention and said:  “Your Excellency, may I present Cindy Adams.  Cindy, this is Rei Umberto.”  Bubbly, as was her nature and still not quite focused, Cindy cheerily replied:  “Hello Ray, what did you say your last name is?”  Cindy had stopped just short of asking him to help her with her parcels.  Kings don’t have last names.  Cindy didn’t get the interview and Joey Adams, a stand-up comedian, was likely crushed by being upstaged by his wife.

Please understand – I do not have the means to live in the lap of luxury, but once in awhile, like a curious cat, I like to jump up there to see what goes on.  Thank you Jose, for showing me around.

Adeus Jose Afonso!  You have earned a peaceful retirement in your beloved city of Braga.  The stories you tell your great grandchildren will sound like fairy tales, except they’ll all be true.

For comments, ideas and copies of The True Story of  Wainfleet, go to www.williamthomas.ca