Peter Goldman, worlds best innkeeper, dies at 81

As a young boy, David Goldman was floored by the wad of bills his father, Peter, left as a tip after dining at a San Francisco restaurant.

"I remember comparing it to my allowance and it was 10 times as much. It was a 25 percent tip, maybe more," recalled David Goldman, whose father started out as a waiter in the city's Fairmont Hotel and eventually worked his way up to being a top hotel executive.

"My father said, 'Well, when you were a little boy, I used these tips to buy baby food for you. Maybe [the waiter] has a son like I had a son.'"

Peter Goldman, remembered by family, friends and business associates for his generosity and brilliance as a hotelier, died Friday in his Greenbrae home after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 81.

Goldman escaped Nazi Germany as a teenager in 1939, sneaking onto an Italy-bound train in his native Breslau, and hopping on a boat to Shanghai. He scraped out an existence in the city's Jewish ghetto for almost a decade, meeting his future wife, Rose Borowski, in 1948.

While Borowski immigrated to the United States a year later, Goldman was only able to obtain a visa to South America. He jumped ship in San Francisco, however, and traveled to Paterson, N.J., where he married Borowski, dining afterward on "a borrowed chicken," according to his younger son, Michael. The young refugee soon took a job as a busboy in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

Meanwhile, Goldman's childhood friend Henri Lewin had landed a job as the Fairmont's banquet captain. He lured Goldman west, where he became a waiter. Goldman would climb the Fairmont's ladder for 30 years, eventually becoming the hotel's general manager in 1968. Moving over to the Hyatt chain in 1979, Goldman served as a general manager and regional vice president until his retirement in the early 1990s.

"When I went around the world representing Hilton and I came to London and Germany and said I was from San Francisco, people said, 'Do you know Peter Goldman?' And I said, 'Of course,'" recalled Lewin, who lived across the street from the Goldmans in 1932, and followed Goldman to Shanghai. "There isn't a person who ever disliked Peter Goldman. If you find him, it must be Adolph Hitler. Nobody else."

The Goldmans were charter members at Reform Temple Judea in Daly City in 1953. The congregation merged with Beth Israel in 1969, forming Beth Israel-Judea in San Francisco, where David Goldman is still a member.

Goldman's longtime friends and business associates remembered him as a friendly and honest man, and an excellent hotel manager.

"He was one of the finest people I have ever known. He would fight for a piece of business like we all did. Yet if it came to looking out for someone, he was right there at the forefront," said Bob Begley, the executive director of the California Hotel Association and a friend of Goldman's for 50 years.

"We were lucky," said Lewin, the former vice president of the Hilton chain and current chairman of Aristocrat Hotels. "We had a hobby. Our hobby was our work. Peter wanted to get up at 6 in the morning to go to the office."

Said Goldman's son David: "I don't really recall him asking anything of anyone except maybe a favor for someone else. He worked double shifts for 40 years. I'm a pretty busy lawyer, but I don't think I'll ever outwork my father. He was a giver, not a taker."

Peter Goldman is survived by his wife, Ruth; younger brother Hans of Burlingame; daughters Vivian McClure and Monica Abrahams of Greenbrae; sons David of San Francisco and Michael of Urbana, Ill.; and eight grandchildren.

Services were held Tuesday at Congregation Beth Israel-Judea. Donations can be sent to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, William Black Medical Building, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, 710 West 168th Street, New York, NY 10032-9982, or the Hospice of Marin, 150 Nellen Ave., Corte Madera, CA 94925.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.