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18 October 2014
Unflappable manager for three decades of a Hollywood restaurant with a stellar cast of diners
Ronald Clint was an Englishman who settled in Los Angeles and quickly became a fixture of Chasen's, one of Hollywood's most celebrated restaurants, where he was general manager for 30 years. He became close to the celebrities and power-brokers he served, who included Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Sinatra, Jimmy Stewart, Marilyn Monroe, and President and Mrs Ronald Reagan. Clint once summed up the enduring appeal of the restaurant for Hollywood old-timers; “You get food that looks like food and tastes like food. You don't get a lot of flowers on your plate. And it's served by professional waiters, not a bunch of actors who tell you their life story.”
Chasen's was founded as a barbecue stand — on the site of a bean field — in 1936 by ex-vaudeville comedian Dave Chasen, with financial backing from New Yorker editor Harold Ross. Bob Hope once rode into the dining room on a horse, and at his own bachelor party James Stewart was called upon to carve the meat only to discover a pair of diaper-clad midgets lurking beneath the silver dome of the carving trolley. Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy Davis in his favourite booth there. Clint once said in an interview that “anyone of fame” had visited the establishment. “One time we had both J Edgar Hoover [FBI Director-General] and Mickey Cohen [Los Angeles gangster] in the dining room, sitting near each other.”
The restaurant invented the non-alcoholic “Shirley Temple” cocktail for the child star, and its chilli con carne (a special recipe apparently rustled up by Chasen in Frank Capra's kitchen) was so compulsive that Elizabeth Taylor had it flown out to her on the set of Cleopatra in London and Rome. Producer Walter Seltzer once remarked that Chasen's ““instilled the feeling that you were in a private club, populated by your colleagues and by your peers and by your bosses. It was a social event.”
Referring to the photographs of celebrities that adorned the walls, Clint said: ''You only got up on that wall if you were friends [of the Chasens]. No restaurant got the clientele this one did.'' Clint also remembered how such regular customers as Errol Flynn, Alfred Hitchcock, Frank Capra, John Barrymore, WC Fields, F Scott Fitzgerald, Howard Hughes, Bing Crosby and Humphrey Bogart would freshen up before dinner in the steam room at the back, where there was a barber on hand.
Stanley Edward Clint — always known as Ronnie, a childhood nickname — was born in 1924 in Southampton, one of seven siblings. His father, also named Stanley Clint, worked for Cunard for about 20 years as a cabin steward. Clint went to work on the liners at about the age of 14 as a cabin boy. When the vessels were converted to troop ships during the war he and his brothers served in the Merchant Navy. After the war ended Clint worked on the Queen Elizabeth, and subsequently on the Queen of Bermuda.
It was during one of these voyages that Clint met and fell in love with a passenger, Anita Barselou, a young American travelling with her family, who came from the town of Cohoes, in upstate New York. They were married in 1952. A former shipmate living in California persuaded him to seek work in Los Angeles. Clint took a job at the Bel Air Country Club, as an assistant manager, and then was recruited by Davis Chasen to join his restaurant, while Anita found employment as an X-ray technician. He was made general manager of Chasen's in 1965.
He was “self-effacing, laid-back, unflappable — and ready for anything,” in the estimation of his friend Ronald Jones, a general manger of Claridge's in London. “He could share a joke with Jack Benny or Bob Hope” and could “maintain a stiff upper lip when Dean Martin turned down the wine with 'No thanks, not when I'm drinking'.”
One regular was Marilyn Monroe, Clint recalled. “Marilyn was a lovely girl. She was making a movie nearby — might have been her last. She would film all day and wear slacks on the way home. She would sneak in through a side door and eat in a corner booth because she wore slacks. Nowadays, she'd be considered dressed up.”
Alfred Hitchcock dined there every Thursday, always in the same booth, usually having sole, often falling asleep afterwards. One evening, while dining with his wife Alma, he bridled at the profusion of skimpily dressed female diners. “Ronnie, we want our check,” he said in his deadpan voice. “We have to leave. You're running a whorehouse now.”
James Stewart had his particular ordering habits. “He really has two separate periods,” recalled Clint for a Stewart biographer. “For a long time, he ate what we called Bubbly Squeak — sautéed, leftover vegetables. He had another period afterward when it was always vichyssoise, the Hitchcock sole, and one scoop of vanilla ice cream.”
Stewart's wife, Gloria, couldn't eat dinner without smoking between courses, so when California introduced a smoking ban she held cigarettes under the table while Clint and his team of waiters pretended not to notice.
Clint was so beloved of his customers that he could even get away with occasional irreverent backchat. For example, Shelley Winters was once giving an interview and told her interrogator that she had been proposed to three times in the very booth where they were sitting. “Isn't that true, Ronnie?” she asked Clint. “Yes, Shelley,” he replied, “and I fired all three of those busboys.”
Clint was also in charge of the restaurant's huge outside-catering business, which included taking meals to hospital bedsides as well as parties for hundreds of guests. He delivered Clark Gable's last meal to him in hospital in November 1960, only to hear by the time he got back to Chasen's that the film star had died of a heart attack. He organised parties — post-Oscars, post-Emmies, Superbowl, Christmas, birthdays — for such generous hosts as 20th Century-Fox mogul Marvin Davis and producer Jerry Weintraub. The Reagans were old friends, with the Ronnies bonding over their shared name, while Clint organised barbecue parties at their ranch north of Santa Barbara.
After Dave Chasen died in 1973, Clint continued to run the restaurant for his widow, Maud, and later for the Chasens' daughter and son-in-law. As Hollywood eating habits became more eclectic, Chasen's began to lose its lustre and announced its imminent closure and sale to a developer in December 1994. Clint worked for a year as a consultant at the Hillcrest Country Club, another legendary Hollywood hangout, before deciding to retire to his home in Santa Monica. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease a couple of years later and his health gradually deteriorated. His wife predeceased him in 2008. He is survived by his daughter Linda, who worked as an X-ray technician, like her mother, and married a radiologist, and his son Michael, a landscape gardener.
When Chasen's announced its closure, a six-month frenzy of attendance by regulars desperate to savour its final days had ensued. “The minute they released the news of the selling, all hell broke loose,” Clint told a reporter. “We've been turning down hundreds a day. It's ironic.” DreamWorks cofounder Jeff Katzenberg threw a birthday party for Elton John, there was an Oscars party for 1,800 guests, and 99-year-old George Burns was seen enjoying a farewell martini. “Chasen's has class,” noted Clint. “And that's one of the reasons, I think, why it's going, is because they refuse to lower the standards, and lower the class.”
Ronald Clint, restaurant manager, was born on December 9, 1924. He died on August 17, 2014, aged 89.