Entertaining and compelling real-life stories with valuable
lessons on how to succeed in business and in life.
The author is successful business, real estate, and media entrepreneur Dick Kazan.
Published on March 22nd, 2011

Today: Helen Chaplin, who built a very successful business career starting at the advanced age of 47.

Helen was a renowned top manager at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, which caters to world leaders, celebrities and high income businesspeople.

U.S. Presidents, Britain’s Royal Family, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, the Dalai Lama, Elvis Presley, Elton John and Chris Rock are but a few of the famous that have been guests at the hotel.

How did Helen land such a big job?

Born in New York City in 1913, Helen graduated from Hunter College with a degree in history and married Charles Chaplin, who was in the advertising business. The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1942, and 10 years later they divorced.

Helen was 39 years old in 1952 and had no children, lived in a small Beverly Hills apartment and needed a job.

At that time, most executive positions were reserved for men, and many of those men referred to women as “girls” and treated them that way.

How did Helen get her job? “She said, ‘I need a job,’ and she applied at the hotel,” said Victoria Yust, who later became Helen’s executive assistant for 10 years and today is an architect. Said another way, Helen walked in the door and filled out a job application.

But Helen was not hired into senior management; far from it. She was hired as a secretary on a “temporary basis” said Victoria. That was the start of her 35 year career at the Beverly Wilshire in which she rose into top management.

For her first eight years at the hotel, as a secretary Helen not only fixed coffee and ran errands but took on important responsibilities that she was neither paid nor recognized for.

And she watched far less capable men get promoted over her. That changed in 1960 when the colorful new owner Hernando Courtright came in and discovered Helen’s talents and work ethic.

At 47 years of age, Helen began working closely with Hernando and the general manager and she blossomed. Among her projects, she oversaw a multi-million dollar hotel renovation, dealing with the architect, contractors and suppliers. The renovation came in under budget and ahead of schedule.

Eventually, Helen managed many of the hotel’s departments and with the general manager, was responsible for its 500 to 600 employees, and the Beverly Wilshire thrived. But what she became best known for was her extraordinary treatment of guests.

When Conservative commentator William F. Buckley was a guest, the special peanut butter he loved on his toast was waiting for him. When King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga arrived, one of his favorite dishes, McDonald’s Big Macs were served hot and juicy to him.

Today top hotels can easily cater to their guests because the information is on computers. Before computers played this role, the hotel industry wondered how Helen worked such magic. How she did it is a valuable lesson to you and me in whatever we want to accomplish.

Helen did it by keeping a “guest history” on note cards for each of the hotel’s frequent or famous guests. When they arrived, she was well prepared, confident and not dependent on her memory.

Whatever system you use such as a Blackberry or a computer or handwritten notes, what matters is you accommodate the needs of others and make them feel important. If you use this advice, it could have a profound impact on your career and on your life.

But there’s more. Helen made herself interesting by reading extensively: books, magazines and newspapers and was well informed. When she spoke with others she engaged them by speaking knowledgeably about practically any subject that interested them.

Although she never remarried or had children, Helen lived a full and satisfying life. She travelled the world and attended operas, ballets and listened to classical music. And she was involved in the lives of thousands of guests, employees and others in her industry.

She also had a special love: Muppets. “One of her favorite characters was the Cookie Monster,” said Victoria as she laughed with joy. “She could impersonate the Cookie Monster, do the voice. She had a Cookie Monster cookie jar on her desk. She wasn’t afraid to show her childlike side.”

This offers us another great tip: laugh often and with others. Doing this lets us release our stress and it makes others happy as well.

But for Helen, after 35 years at the Beverly Wilshire, in 1987 at the age of 74, she retired. Soon she got bored and her friend Bill Wilkinson, head of a major hotel chain recruited her as a Vice President at one of its prestigious hotels, the Checkers Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

There she played a crucial role until 2004, when at 91; she retired for good. But this time she was ready and stayed actively involved with her circle of friends and in reading extensively.

Then at the age of 97, on December 19, 2010 Helen passed away from age related causes. She is survived by her large group of friends.

Helen is also survived by numerous women for whom she helped to crack the glass ceiling which held them back from promotions, raises and recognition. And it all began when she filled out a job application and started a “temporary” job.

Success Tip of the Week: Of the wonderful tips we learned from Helen, the nicest one is the gift of laughter. Adopt a Muppet or another childlike character and bring more humor into your life and the lives of those around you.

Editor’s Note: Thank you to Jennifer Cooke who handles public relations for the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and to Victoria Yust, who were invaluable in telling Helen’s story. If you would like to know more, please see Helen’s Los Angeles Times obituary: http://articles.latimes.com/2010/dec/21/local/la-me-helen-chaplin-20101221

In the next KazanToday: The story of a man who found there is opportunity, even in the worst of times.

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Many of these short, inspirational success stories are about people from all walks of life who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve remarkable results. These stories contain practical advice and a recipe for success for each of these renowned individuals. Some of their stories may help you to avoid some of the costly and time consuming mistakes that many of us make in life and at work. Learn from some of history's greatest winners on how to become a winner yourself, no matter what the obstacle, and no matter how daunting the task before you may seem. Good luck!
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