Baltimore restaurant legend dies

March 09, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

For nearly 70 years, John C. Brooks swung wide the door at Marconi's, welcoming the famous and the little-known with modesty and hospitality.

The thin, always erect Mr. Brooks became a familiar figure to generations of Baltimoreans. He started at Marconi's in 1926. He was a waiter, a maitre d' and manager. For two decades he owned the venerable restaurant.

Mr. Brooks left work early Saturday afternoon, feeling slightly ill. Monday, he died of a stroke at his home on Wilkens Avenue at the age of 89.

"I can think of no other Baltimore institution that has been so personified by one individual for so long as Marconi's has by Mr. Brooks," said John Dorsey, restaurant critic for The Sun during the 1970s and 1980s. "For seven decades, he tirelessly served his restaurant, his calling and his community. We will not see another like him."

Among the celebrities who favored Marconi's when visiting or performing in Baltimore were actor and director Walter Huston, opera diva Lily Pons, writers James M. Cain, Alexander Woollcott, Sinclair Lewis and Joseph Hergesheimer, publisher Alfred A. Knopf and band leader Fred Waring.

Their first encounter would always be with Mr. Brooks, who removed their coats, took their hats and seated them.

From a menu that, like Marconi's, changed little over the years, Mr. Brooks retained sharp recollections of customers' preferences.

"Mencken usually had lamb chops or a filet. He came in often with Sara when they were married and living on Cathedral Street," he said in a rare interview in 1986.

A native of Hanover, Germany, Mr. Brooks moved here at the age of 4 when his family settled in West Baltimore. He began his career as a busboy at the Southern Hotel on Light Street and, after his father's death, became a waiter in the hotel's dining room.

In 1926, he joined the staff of Marconi's (the rowhouse restaurant at 106 W. Saratoga St., then 6 years old), hired by the Italian-born founder and chef, Fiorenzo Bo.

Mr. Bo, who lived upstairs, had a habit of sitting in the window and watching the people below -- until Sept. 10, 1947, when he fell out of the window. He lived his last seven years in a nursing home, and Mr. Brooks became the owner.

Mr. Brooks was familiar to generations of Baltimoreans. He was always dressed in conservative three-piece suits of banker's gray and wore what are locally known as "Baltimore pinks" -- glasses with translucent, slightly yellow-tinted frames.

"Whenever I took out-of-town guests there, I told them that the maitre d' was the king of Sweden, King Gustav," said William Stump, a former Baltimore magazine editor and the last editorial page editor of the News-American, commenting on Mr. Brooks' strong resemblance to the monarch.

Mr. Brooks seemed little impressed by the best of Broadway, New York and Hollywood, and remained faithful to his local customers.

"Sometimes we have three generations of the same family that come in here, and I think that's very nice," he said in the 1986 interview, one of the few times he talked about his restaurant career.

"I'm a shy man," he said. "I don't want a lot of publicity for myself. I've been a very, very lucky man. I've been fortunate in the help I've had. If I hadn't had good help I couldn't have done it."

Chef Antonio Sartori, hired by Mr. Brooks in 1956 and only the third chef in the restaurant's history, described him yesterday as being "like a second father to me. He was my best friend after my wife for the last 38 years. He really was Marconi's."

Mr. Brooks was officially the manager, having sold the restaurant in 1972 to jeweler Louis Booke. The current owner is Ilene R. Booke, who took over in 1978 after the death of her father.

"Mr. Brooks really ran the place and set the tone, and he's as much a legend as the restaurant is," Ms. Booke said yesterday. "The name of the restaurant and Mr. Brooks are synonymous."

His wife, the former Pauline Welsh, is remembered in one of Marconi's famous creations, Oysters Pauline, made with lobster, oysters, wine, butter and a cream sauce. The couple had been married 46 years when Mrs. Brooks died in 1976.

He is survived by a brother, Henry Brooks of Arizona; and many nephews and nieces.

Services were to be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Hubbard Funeral Home, 4107 Wilkens Ave., with interment at Loudon Park Cemetery.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 43025, Baltimore 21236-0025; or to Zion Lutheran Church, City Hall Plaza, Baltimore 21202, of which Mr. Brooks was a longtime member.

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