Saturday, July 22

N.Y.'s oldest bartender tells drinking stories continued

Still working at age 90

Wong's birthday is Wednesday but the Algonquin is getting a jump on the festivities by holding a party for some 350 of his friends and admirers on Tuesday in the hotel's Oak Room.

"I didn't expect it," Wong said during an interview Monday at the hotel, surrounded by Al Hirschfeld drawings of some of the same celebrities he used to mix drinks for.

Wong is not old enough to have been at the Algonquin during its Jazz Age heyday, when Dorothy Parker, Harold Ross and the rest of the Round Table gang traded quips over a liquid lunch.

But he is a link to New York's past, when a martini cost a dollar and a shot of Scotch was 75 cents.

Wong is slight of build and looks much younger than 90. His eyes twinkled as he reminisced about a life that took him from his birthplace of Hong Kong to San Francisco in 1940 and New York in 1942.

He served in the U.S. Army Air Forces from 1943 to 1946 and was stationed in India and China. Among his cherished mementos is a menu from Thanksgiving Day 1945, when he was a mess sergeant in Canton. The bill of fare included roast capon, candied yams and "Corn O'Brien."

Wong himself has not had a drink since he had a heart attack in 1982 and does not miss it.

Duke liked his drink, ordered a second one

His daily routine would tax the energy of a man half his age.

Up at 5:30 a.m., he goes for a walk around the block, then goes back to sleep until 12:30 p.m. After lunch and another nap it is off to work at 3:15 p.m.

He spends his shift on his feet, sometimes manning the bar solo.

"He goes nonstop regardless of the business flow," Liles said. "He never gets behind."

He likes to mix classic drinks but if a customer orders a cocktail he is not familiar with, he asks what is in it and does his best to make one.

And if a customer does not like his drink? "Change it for them. They're spending their money," he said.

Wong credits his longevity to healthy living and a relaxed attitude.

"It doesn't matter what happens," he said. "Turn around, I can forget it."

Not that his life has been without pain. His 56-year-old daughter, the oldest of his four children, was injured and has been comatose for two years. "Six months later, my wife cannot stand it," he said. "She passed away."

But happy memories outweigh sorrows.

"I feel very lucky," Wong said. "I met a lot of nice people, even in the service. All of my commanding officers, they were very nice to me."

His proudest moment came in 1961 when he mixed a drink for the Duke of Windsor. "He said he wanted a House of Lords martini in and out on toast."

The wait captain was prepared to send Wong into the kitchen for a piece of toast, but Wong knew the duke wanted a martini with a lemon twist ignited with a match.

"After he drink, he liked it," he said. "And he had a second one."



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