Wirth the Lire

Circa 2001
Roberto Wirth
Roberto Wirth

Few people can enjoy lives that seem to come from the pages of a best selling romantic novel…living in the heart of Rome and having dignitaries and celebrities seeking your company…taking part in daily activities that excite the imagination and the senses.

Magnificently positioned on the top of one of the Seven Hills of Rome and looking down on the famous Spanish Steps, the small but sumptuous Hotel Hassler enjoys an unequaled view of the city. For many decades an international cast of the powerful and well heeled have made the Hassler their first choice when visiting Rome. Its guest list has included such luminaries as U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Ford, Bush and Reagan; British Prime Ministers Thatcher and Major; Senators Robert and Edward Kennedy; Henry Kissinger; Nelson Rockefeller; King Hussein of Jordan; Princess Diana; Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco (who honeymooned there); Bill Gates; Elizabeth Taylor; Clint Eastwood: Oprah Winfrey; Kirk Douglas; Audrey Hepburn, Jack Nicholson and Jennifer Lopez, to name just a few. 

Purchased by Swiss hotelier Albert Hassler from the Marquis Salviucci in 1885, the hotel’s managerial duties were handed over in 1916 to Oscar Wirth, who became sole owner in 1964. During World War II, Mussolini changed the name of the hotel to “Villa Medici” to give it a more Italian identity. After the Allies liberated Rome the Villa Medici served as American Command Headquarters. It reopened for clients in 1947. Today, both names are used, although Hotel Hassler is given prominence.

The 100-room, five star hotel is now run by owner and general manager Roberto Wirth, Oscar’s eldest son. Wirth comes from a long line of hoteliers on both sides of his family, and looks as if he were cast for the part. Tali and distinguished, his handsome features enhance the appeal and elegance of the Hassler. The same is true of his wife and family. Bom deaf, Wirth received much of his higher education and training in the U.S., and both lip-reads and speaks several languages fluently.

ABILITY’S Chet Cooper had an opportunity to visit the Hotel Hassler and Signore Wirth during the annual ThinkQuest National Partners meeting earlier this year in Temi, Italy. Cooper found his gracious host to be a perfectionist and this shows in the finest of details throughout the hotel. Renovation of guest rooms and other facilities seems to be going on constantly. Wirth balances the stress of the job with exercise. One evening he invited Cooper to join him at the Roma Spa for a workout that emphasized cardiovascular machines. The visitor found the atmosphere at the upscale gym very similar to what he has experienced at such facilities in the U.S. Italians, it seems, want to stay healthy and youthful as much as Americans do.

Cooper’s conversations with Wirth took place over a period of several days at various locations in and around the hotel, including the manager’s office where the hotelier keeps an impressive collection of carved and ceramic turtles. Especially unforgettable to Cooper was the view from the Hassler’s spacious penthouse terrace, where one could take in the beauty of the great historical sites and architecture of La Citta Etema.

Over the years many of the worlds most popular celebrities and dignitaries have patronized the Hotel Hassler. Left: Roberto’s father and grandfather plus Audrey Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Anthony Quinn.

Chet Cooper: How long have you been managing the Hotel Hassler?

Roberto Wirth: Since 1982. This hotel has belonged to my family since 1916, and my family has a tradition in the hotel business that dates back five generations. It all started in Switzerland…always in five star hotels.

CC: What obstacles did you face in trying to achieve your goal of managing the hotel?

RW: When I was five years old, I did not realize that I was deaf because I went to a school for the deaf in Milan. They were all deaf, so it was easy to communicate with everyone. When I was 12.1 moved to a hearing school and I found difficulties, especially with hearing students. I did not realize how difficult that is. but I did not give up. When I was about 13 years old I asked my father to let me work in the hotel. But he didn’t think I could be a hotel man like him. He told me that to be a hotel man you need to talk with people, and also to use the telephone and be able to communicate with employees. So, I was scared. I was afraid that it would be a waste of time to go to hotel school. So. I started with a summer job.

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CC: So, your father thought your lack of communication skills would hold you back.

RW: Yes, he thought of my younger brother (instead). He is one year, nine months younger. He is a very communicative person—speaks a lot of languages—so my father told my brother he could keep the family tradition and I should try something else. But, I loved the hotel business, so I kept going to summer jobs to see if I could do it or not. I went to hotel school in northern Italy but had a big problem because of communication. So, I (learned) to read lips because I had no interpreter. Then I went to America to learn English, because I thought it was important to learn English as a second language. English is the most widely used language in the hotel business. I worked in Boston, San Francisco and Honolulu, Hawaii. And, I went to Gallaudet University

CC: Did you learn English along with American Sign Language at Gallaudet?

RW: No. I learned English in Europe. Gallaudet taught me to be self-confident—secure to communicate with people…to see different opportunities. Because Galiaudet is big in sign language, I had occasion to see possibilities that are not (found) here in Europe. After two terms, I left Gallaudet. They didn’t have any courses for the hotel business.

CC: Did they teach you to read lips at Gallaudet?

RW: No, I learned that in Europe. Gallaudet teaches you to communicate with the deaf. Gallaudet is a very good school. I am on its board of associates. I also go there two times a year. Anyway, from Gallaudet I transferred to Rochester Institute of Technology where I studied for a year in the college of business. From there I went to Cornell for hotel management. I got job experience at that time.

CC: Through an internship at Cornell?

RW: Yes. It was a work-study program in San Francisco and then Hawaii. When I was in Hawaii I learned about hotel engineering and maintenance. When I finished Cornell, I worked in Honolulu. I was president of Silent Aloha Magazine for the Deaf.

CC: Did you write for the publication?

RW: No, I was president-editor. There were other people that wrote for the magazine. We brought out information on what was happening there and on the mainland, like San Francisco and New York, every month. I came back to Italy in December 1977. The last 23 years have gone by so fast.

CC: Did you have to go back to your father to apply to be the general manager?

RW: No, my father had passed away (and) my mother took over the hotel. When I came back in 1978,1 was assistant manager. I didn’t get along with the manager who worked for my mother. I found many things wrong. When I took over, I made a big difference because I knew the hotel business. At that time, I was the youngest and—the Italian newspapers said— the hottest hotel manager in Italy. It got a lot of publicity.

CC: What do you like least about running the hotel?

RW: The hotel is very small—100 rooms. Most people think it is a big hotel with many rooms. This hotel is not part of a chain. It’s private. The most difficult thing is the unions.

CC: How many employees do you have?

RW: We have 150 employees represented by three different unions. So, it is a challenge to make everyone happy and have things run smoothly.

CC: What do you like most about the hotel?

RW: Meeting a lot of great people. A lot of famous people come here, and I get to interact with a lot of VIPs. So, I have the opportunity to meet actors and political people and learn from them. It helps balance out the hard work I have to put in running the hotel.

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CC: So, the world comes to you.

RW: We have been able to provide the highest quality environment. I have tried my best to make it the perfect environment. The message has gone out…and the number of VIPs have significantly grown and they continue to return year after year.

CC: And each year they are seeing more gray in your hair.

RW: (laughs) Yes.

CC: Is there any one guest that you would consider your favorite?

RW: Audrey Hepburn. While filming the movie Roman Holiday, she had an apartment in Rome, but then moved to Switzerland. Whenever she returned to Rome she always stayed here. Every’ year she sent me Christmas cards and we became friends. She was a very beautiful person both inside and out. She used to be ambassador to UNICEF.

CC: I read in the New York Times that you had to ask Madonna to leave. Is that true?

RW: At different times she has wanted to stay here (to avoid) the crowds. I said “no” at first. But. then I said “okay” after she had her daughter because she calmed down and became more mature. When she came here, many people were outside. And she came back a second time. We were very happy that there was no problem.

CC: In that same Times article, it mentions a confrontation over your evening dress code that requires a tie in the restaurant.

RW: Yes, it was Mike Tyson. He was very mad because I insisted that he wear a tie. I even told him I would lend him my tie. He got up. pounded on a marble counter and punched the door as he stormed out alone. So, I called the police.

CC: The police probably wouldn’t know what to do about a disturbance call involving Mike Tyson.

RW: I know. His trainer told me, “Stay away because he has become violent.” So, I quickly went to my office. (Both laugh)

CC: I’m glad I wasn’t here. I probably would have tried to protect you. (laughs)

RW: Next time, (laughs) But. he won’t be coming back a next time

CC: So, have you upset other people like that? Is that the way you treat your guests? (laughs)

RW: Depends, (laughs)

CC: When was the hotel first established?

RW: The hotel started in 1885. It was rebuilt during World War Two, adding four more stories. At that time, it was a two star hotel. It is now a five star hotel.

CC: Have you been personally recognized for your role in the hotel’s achieving five star status?

RW: Yes. In Hotel Magazine I was ranked the number two hotelier of the world. Gourmet Magazine lists me as one of the four Ambassador Hoteliers in the World.

CC: That’s a great achievement. How did you accomplish this without family support and after having a difficult time early on in school?

RW: I’ve always thought to myself, “Never give up, work hard and don’t get discouraged.” I had a difficult time because I had no encouragement. I would research successful people to see what they were doing to reach their goals. I learned that I had to do things for myself.

CC: What is the most important aspect of being a good hotel manager?

RW: Communication is very important in the hotel business. And you must know every aspect of the business. For example. I need to be able to go into the kitchen and talk with the chef and know what to do, even suggesting he add more salt. It shows the employees that I know what is going on. You need to talk to your people. We have a meeting every week with the department heads. We…discuss problems, and we work them out.

CC: Did you have any particular mentors?

RW: When I was a going to the school for the deaf I lived with my nanny. She gave me constant words of encouragement. She gave me the roots for my life. She was very close to my heart. When she died, I felt lost.

CC: So. you did have someone that encouraged you. In the biographies you’ve read, did you find a common denominator that all the subjects had at least one particular individual they credited for inspiring their success?

RW: There seemed to be someone that helped them work through the frustrations and overcome the challenges. President Bush, when he was here, told me how much he wanted his son to become President. So, (your new President) had family encouragement.

CC: Do you think your children will continue with the family business?

RW: I don’t know. If they like it, that’s okay. And, if they don’t like it, that’s okay. The most important thing is that they would want to. I don’t want to force them.

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CC: Is there anything you would like to pass along to young people who are deaf or hard of hearing?

RW: I want to see more deaf people taking responsibility for their own lives and taking charge. Some people see me as a role model. I am very active in the hearing world, but sometimes I miss being with my deaf friends.

CC: How many languages do you know?

RW: My mother language is Italian. I went to school in Germany, so I learned German. And I also learned French. But, I like English better because I speak every day with the guests. And I sign a lot. I use American Sign Language. Also, Italian Sign Language.

CC: When you are conversing with your deaf friends, do you ever use Universal Sign Language?

RW: No. We use American Sign Language. I feel it is the most beautiful language. I don’t like Italian Sign Language. American Sign Language is more complete. ASL is also easier when reading lips. I believe ASL is the most used throughout the world.

CC: Are you active in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community?

RW: I do get a lot of calls to be involved in different activities. I’m on a committee for the World Games for the Deaf, which this year will be held in Rome for one week starting on the 25th of July. This is the first year it’s been held in Rome.

CC: What are some of your leisure activities?

RW: I’m a little bit of an artist. I used to sculpt. But, I don’t have enough time these days, while running a hotel.

CC: Is there anything you sculpted that you are especially proud of?

RW: My favorite piece is a bronze hand that represents the struggle and the fight—to remember to never give up.

CC: You certainly have a lot of turtles on display in your office. When did you first find yourself interested in turtles?

RW: Many, many years ago…when I was a little boy. My first contact with an animal was a turtle. I was five years old. One thing I like about turtles is they don’t bother people. They sleep. They wake up. The turtles give me the feeling of balance and patience. Sometimes my position is stressful. The hotel is in the center of Rome. It sits on top of the Spanish Steps, so there are many people around. There is a lol of activity. Sometimes things are going too fast and the turtles help me slow down. I look at the turtles and they help me relax.

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