During my 35 years in the corporate world, I encountered my share of job applications. But the one I filled out in June 2009 was the first that required a dance audition and a photograph of me in a tuxedo. This application wasn’t for a job per se, but for a gig as a “gentleman host,” where in exchange for free passage on a 30-day luxury cruise from Cape Town, South Africa, to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., I would (mostly) dance with single ladies of a certain age.
At 74, and retired for 12 years from my position as president of a $20 million, world-wide company, I felt my life had become stale and sedentary. I needed a new challenge. The role of gentleman host seemed perfect. I’d financed my first trip abroad— a student tour of Europe in 1955— by giving ballroom dance lessons and, ever since, I’ve loved to dance. I also love travel, especially at sea. And I love people… or so I thought.
After I boarded the ship in Cape Town, I learned from Ellie, the ship’s social hostess and my direct supervisor, that my responsibilities would encompass much more than a few fox trots and rumbas. I’d host a table of “Solos” (as both women and men traveling alone are known) at breakfast; assist with half-hour dance lessons twice a day; join Solos for cocktails; make up tables and host Solos for dinner; accompany a Solo to the evening show; and, finally, dance with single women until midnight, a time when any sane person my age would already be in bed. I’d need to learn and use all of the Solos’ names— roughly 45 of them— greet all of the 700 guests aboard with a cordial “good morning” or “good evening,” and always smile, smile, smile! And, Ellie said, I must never enter a passenger’s stateroom under any circumstance. There must not be even a hint of impropriety.
I spent my first few hours exploring my home for the next month, one of the most luxurious small cruise ships in the world. First, I located the Horizon Lounge, where most of my hosting activities would take place. It featured a long bar, a small stage and dance floor and scores of low-slung, heavy chairs that wouldn’t slide around in a rolling sea. Then I peeked in on the ship’s several dining rooms and the open-air pool deck, with its rows of deck chairs. Access to these attractions and many more— the theater, a computer center, the library, the boutique, a casino, a disco bar— was from a beautifully decorated atrium that soared from Deck 3 to Deck 11.
Then I met Heinz, the other host aboard who would share my 300-square-foot stateroom. At 67, Heinz had been traveling as a gentleman host since 1997. Tall and thin, with white hair and a mustache to match, he was from Munich and spoke with a slight accent. He favored a white dinner jacket and colored shirts, and wore rectangular Jil Sander glasses by day, and round-framed ones embedded with multi-colored speckles at night. He had seven pairs of shoes, some with contrasting laces, and immediately dismissed my Crocs as ugly and inappropriate, even after I’d explained that they were the only shoes comfortable for my feet and that I had gotten special dispensation to wear them.
At the opening cocktail party that evening, I met the first of the Solos. Brenda was retired from a career in private banking, and would (oddly, I thought) soon become addicted to the onboard casino. Terry was a jolly former bookie from London, obviously on the prowl for a single woman. Patrick, from Australia, emphasized points by drawing out vowels and dramatically blinking his eyes. Shirley, a retired airline stewardess, immediately announced I should be “ready,” because she loved to dance. And Mariella from Los Angeles was a sleek, Afghan hound-like divorcee who’d been married to several men (at separate times) in the movie industry.
Over the next day or two, I met more Solos. Gabriele was a 70ish, slight and stylish widow with carefully coifed gray hair and a long neck like a gazelle, which was often circled with a sparkling cuff of silver or gold. Born in Switzerland but now living in Florida, she spoke with a charming accent. Always elegant, and elegantly dressed, she favored the cha-cha, which she performed with an ease that could only have been achieved through many lessons. She shared my love of photography and when I showed her the sharpening function on a photo editing program, she declared me a genius.
Margot, on the other hand, was not so easily charmed. When we met, she insisted that her name was pronounced “Margo,” but spelled with a T. “Remember that,” she warned, pointing an arthritic forefinger in my direction. Margot didn’t often dance, but when she did, her girth and intransigence made leading her across the floor like steering a tank. One night at dinner, Margot got into a serious dispute with a woman named Diane, about some place in the world each had visited.
“Isn’t it strange?” Margot said, leaning toward Diane. “The limes there are yellow.”
“No,” said Diane. “They’re green.”
“No. They’re yellow.” Margot was not giving up.
“They’re not yellow,” Diane insisted.
“Yes, they are, dear. I’ve been there. And they’re yellow.”
“I’ve been there, too. And the limes are green!”
“Can one of you reach the butter?” I asked, falling back on years of corporate experience in conflict resolution by saying something, anything, to change the subject.
Then there were the Claudines— One and Two— French ladies in their 60s who spoke no English and were always beautifully dressed. They didn’t care about actual dance steps so long as they could push and pull me around and endlessly twist on their toes to the beat. Trying— not always successfully— to keep up with one of them on a moving dance floor, I often had to apologize in my stumbling, high school French for stepping on their elegantly lacquered red toes.
One night just as I was knotting my black tie in preparation for the captain’s reception, Ellie called my stateroom to ask if I could escort a Solo named Dr. Ruth to the boutique. The Dr. Ruth, I wondered? When I rang the bell to her suite, the woman who opened the door was as small as Dr. Ruth but otherwise quite different. Her dark hair, short and spun casually around her head, framed a face so full of wrinkles that its only smooth surface was at the bridge of her nose. She was stooped and slightly humped from osteoporosis but her dark eyes were alive with intelligence and mischief.
“Oh,” she said, “I deedn’t expect such a handsome gentleman.” She smiled and took my arm for the short walk to the elevator. “Be careful, Dr. Ruth,” I told her. “The ship is jumping around a little.”
“Not a problem for me. Joost as long as I haf you,” she said with a coquettish grin. “And pleese call me Dr. Reetah.”
When we reached the boutique, Dr. Rita explained to the saleslady that she had regrettably left her jewelry at home and needed something to wear with her dress. Dr. Rita tried on a few necklaces before selecting one with an array of mauve glass beads set in silver. She turned to me and said, “Vat do you sink?”
Most of the Solos were so invested in themselves that it wouldn’t have occurred to them to ask my opinion about anything. “I think it’s lovely,” I said. And I did.
I found Dr. Rita a comfortable chair in the Atrium and, embarking on my usual conversational overture, asked her about her travels. “Oh,” she said. “I travel a lot. Zee last time, I tell my grandcheelrin to get in anozer line from me. I know zee immeegrashun vill stop me since my passport includes stamps from Eerahn and Pakeestan and Eyerak and Afghaneestan.”
What followed was one of the most interesting half-hour conversations I’ve had. Born into an intellectual family in Romania, Dr. Rita had tried to hide her background when the Nazis invaded. A friend who owned a foundry rubbed her hands with salt to try to roughen them enough to persuade the Nazi colonel that she was a worker there. But when confronting her, the colonel made an offhand remark that was part of a quotation from Goethe, and without thinking, Dr. Rita finished it. That little slip sent her to a concentration camp from 1941 to 1945. Later, she’d come to the United States and was now a psychiatrist specializing in the psychoses of nations. She told me that she believed the many generations of Shiite victim-hood augured a rocky future for Iraq, and that the ancient pride of the Persians would make it very difficult for Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions. What a truly fascinating person she was, and what a relief from Margot and Diane and their spat about the limes!
As the cruise continued, my days settled into a routine. I got up early to photograph the sunrise, sneaking out of the stateroom in the dark so I wouldn’t wake Heinz. (The forced intimacy of our roommate situation had not made us bosom buddies, to say the least. I got along with him only by being obsequious, not exactly natural to my post-managerial personality.) Then, I’d stop by the computer center to check my e-mail and enter the previous day’s experiences in my blog before the buffet opened at 7:30.
After breakfast, I was free until 9, when I returned to the Veranda to host the Solo breakfast table, engaging with Solos over their own bacon and eggs. During days at sea, at 10:45 and again at 1:45, I assisted with the dance lesson for the day— salsa, quick step, merengue, slow waltz— perhaps grabbing a little sun and a welcome, solitary lunch in between. Following the dance lesson in the afternoon, I usually retreated to the shady side of Deck 5 and slouched in a deck chair with a book, hiding behind my sunglasses and my baseball cap.
On days in port, I was free, like any regular guest, to join a shore excursion. Or, if the buses were full, I might act as host, counting heads and carrying a first-aid kit for possible emergencies. I took the cable car up Table Mountain in Cape Town, photographed the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and visited a rum plantation built in 1643 on Barbados. I’ll never forget the extravagant, lavender agapanthus in the lush gardens at Longwood House on St. Helena.
Each evening at 6:30, it was back to the lounge for cocktails and more smiling, and for strategically creating the table arrangements for dinner, struggling to incorporate the whims of the 15 to 20 Solos: “I don’t want to sit next to her;” “Don’t put me at a table of more than six;” “Not that table— we sat there last night.” After dinner, I’d escort a Solo lady to the evening show that might feature a pianist, juggler, magician or singer— often someone young on the way up in their career, or someone older, on the way down— before returning to the lounge for that final hour of dancing, spreading myself equally around among Shirley, Marlene, Marissa, Mariella or one or both of the Claudines.
Each night, I fell into bed exhausted, not so much from physical activity as from the mental and psychological gymnastics devoted to keeping the Solos happy.
To my surprise, as the days passed I grew to feel a little sorry for many of the Solos, so snugly wrapped in their affluence, ego and status. There were various reward levels— bronze, silver, gold, platinum and titanium— earned by accumulated lifetime nights aboard the cruise line’s ships. These levels were attached to certain perks: free laundry, free computer time, free phone calls, a daily copy of The Wall Street Journal, priority in reservations at the two upgrade restaurants on board, discounts on future travel. Although most guests claimed these perks meant little, they spoke of them often. “On my next cruise, I’ll become a Gold and get the paper.” Or, “I can’t wait until my laundry’s free.”
Even toward the Solos who annoyed me, I began to feel some sympathy. Or perhaps it was pity. Some were really sad: Patrick, after too much wine at dinner, disturbing other guests seated around him by snoring through the evening’s show; lonely Rosalie, who already had five cruises booked for 2010 with nothing better to do than work on her itinerary for 2011; and even Margot, her underlying anger preventing her from establishing any genuine intimacy with her fellow passengers.
Near the end of the cruise, I was offered another hosting gig on the same ship for the first few legs of a world cruise, 47 nights from San Diego to Singapore. The invitation prompted me to evaluate my experience even before I’d returned to Baltimore, unpacked and caught my breath. I had found the sea travel calm and soothing, and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting South Africa, St. Helena and Brazil. I’d grown very fond of some of the guests: Libby, the talent manager with the infectious laugh who was my best audience; Lise, from Montreal, who happily anticipated her next cruise with her 5-year-old granddaughter; and the fun-loving Millers from London, who surprisingly knew the entrepreneur there to whom I sold the company from which I retired.
But I didn’t always enjoy the forced intimacy with the many shallow and uninteresting characters so invested in their status. And I certainly didn’t like rooming with Heinz, who had already accepted a host position on the San Diego to Singapore run. So, I graciously declined the offer. Anyway, I needed at least a short break from the always-smiling intensity of the role of companion-tour-guide-raconteur-diplomat- manager-dance partner necessary to being a gentleman host.
Good and bad, I had definitely found the challenge I’d been seeking. As Arthur Murray once said, “To put spice in your life, try dancing.” Samba, anyone?