She Sets the Stage for History Makers

Times Staff Writer

It takes someone like Marina Jiang to answer this one: When there are 16 presidents staying at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, which one gets the presidential suite?

With trademark tact, Jiang, the Waldorf-Astoria’s director of diplomatic affairs, says: all of them and none of them, because there is no presidential suite. President, prime minister or potentate -- they all stay in three-bedroom apartment-sized spaces known as empire suites. And for one of them, Jiang ran out and bought a new Persian carpet Friday because she knew the guest would like the colors. They’ve repainted rooms at a guest’s request, just for a week’s stay.

It’s just another part of the job for Jiang as world leaders from nearly 200 countries converge on New York for the United Nations’ General Assembly on Tuesday, with at least 20 delegations staying at the Waldorf. She’ll be living at the hotel until the U.N. meeting ends on Oct. 3 so that she can field those 3 a.m. requests for sushi, suit pressing and sleeping pills. Her oddest request? Equal artificial sweetener in plastic tubes -- 100 pounds of it.


“You have to love this job, because you can never unplug your phone,” Jiang said.

There are 12 flagpoles adorning the entrance of the Waldorf Towers, almost a hotel within the hotel. Most of the top officials stay in one of the 180 units originally designed as residences. But with 16 heads of state arriving, Jiang has to juggle a bit to make sure that each leader sees his flag waving as he walks through the door. “They always notice that,” she says.

Jiang, 35, originally from Shanghai, speaks fluent French, German, Chinese and English, and knows greetings in several other languages. She studies current events so she can converse knowledgeably with heads of state as she shows them to their quarters. “I think they appreciate it,” she says.

“Sometimes they say, ‘Most Americans don’t even know where my country is on a map.’ ”

But Jiang is also discreet. If you’re looking for dish or details about a particular president’s peccadilloes, you won’t get it from her. She won’t even confirm which countries have reserved rooms, although the flags advertise the fact that delegations are coming from the U.S., Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Kuwait, Burundi, Monaco, Ukraine, Germany, Lebanon, Brunei, Spain, Cyprus and the Philippines.

Likewise, she is mum on information about security arrangements, an especially sensitive subject this year, a month after the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. Police are already beginning to close down the streets surrounding the hotel -- a pet peeve of East Side New Yorkers and taxi drivers.

But if you head a country, you’ll get everything else you could desire, and if she has her way, before you even know you desire it -- including home-country newspapers and satellite TV channels.

“We are in touch with them year-round, so after a while, I really get to know their personalities. I know some of their favorite colors and foods, and who prefers plants or flowers with no scent. We try to anticipate -- if they’re arriving late, we expect them to be hungry and have everything ready.”


Food is a special concern. Many delegations send ahead a grocery list so they can eat their home favorites whenever they crave them, whether it’s Indian curry, lemon grass soup or that 3 a.m. sushi. (“We can get almost everything in New York,” Jiang says.) Many bring along a personal chef, and the hotel provides them space in the kitchen -- one of the largest in the world. For a state dinner hosted by Chinese President Jiang Zemin three years ago, his chef insisted on making the first course: shark’s fin soup. The Waldorf chef cooked the rest.

The food requests are not so much odd to the international staff, but oddly specific: Freshly squeezed watermelon juice and sandwiches cut only in quarters. There is a sign in the kitchen that says, “The difficult, immediately. The impossible takes a few minutes longer.”

“Sometimes we are impressed by powerful people, but they eat the way we do and they sleep the way we do. Once you know their special requests, you look at them in a totally different way,” Jiang said.

President Bush handwrote a thank-you note to the cook for a meal he especially liked. Philippine president Gloria Arroyo took photos with all of the hotel staff from her country. Sometimes a head of state will ask Jiang, in the course of a conversation about current events, “What do you think I should do?”

So? Has she ever seen policy changed because of her answer? Been offered a job as political advisor?

“That would be like ‘Maid in Manhattan,’ ” Jiang said, referring to a recent movie filmed at the Waldorf, starring Jennifer Lopez as a maid who falls in love with a wealthy businessman staying there. “That’s a fairy tale,” she insists. “It doesn’t really happen.”


But plenty else does happen in these halls.

U.S. President Herbert Hoover spoke at the opening of the hotel in 1931, and lived there after he left office. In 1946, representatives of the U.S., Great Britain, France and Russia signed the Allied victory peace treaty there. More recently, The Waldorf was the scene for secret negotiations that led to the Irish peace accord. Secretary of State Madeline Albright hosted a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat which spurred the 1998 Middle East peace talks.

President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell will be sitting down at the hotel this week with their counterparts to hammer out the next steps for the Middle East and Iraq. And U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte lives there -- the Waldorf has housed the official U.S. ambassadorial residence since the U.N. was established.

To ensure that the hotel continues to be the stage for diplomatic history, Jiang is working around the clock. But the job has its side benefits. Three years ago, during the U.N.’s Millennium Summit, the heads of state from the Security Council’s five permanent members -- the U.S., Britain, China, France, and Russia -- held a meeting in the hotel. She had just finished making sure everything was in order, and stood inside the room as they prepared to begin.

“Outside, the traffic had stopped, but inside, it felt like the world had stopped,” Jiang said. Even though she knew what time they each liked to wake up, their allergies and favorite colors, she was in awe. “I am in the room with the world’s five most powerful leaders,” she thought. “They are shaping history, and in my small way, I am part of it.”