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One On 1 Profile: Hotel Maven John Fitzpatrick Thrives With An Irish Charm

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John Fitzpatrick will do almost anything to please a guest at one of his hotels. Like the time famed actor Gregory Peck visited in the early 1990s, and wanted his own private phone line.

So Fitzpatrick went out and bought 30 telephone cords.

"I went up on the 17th floor and I kept connecting the cords and I lined them down to the second floor into my office to give him my direct line," Fitzpatrick recalls. "Then I rang all my friends and I said, 'Don't call this number 'cause if you do, Gregory Peck may pick it up.'"

Fitzpatrick may no longer have to buy telephone cords for his guests. But the basic idea of hospitality, learned working at his father's hotels growing up in Ireland, remains the same.

"We picked up little sayings from Ireland, from poets or literature, one liners, and we put them on the pillows," says Fitzpatrick.

He is the owner of the Fitzpatrick Hotel on Lexington Avenue and the Fitzpatrick Grand Central.

"I do spot checks," he says. "My management does it every day, but I like to do it every so often."

Fitzpatrick also serves as Chairman of the Hotel Association of New York, lobbying in Washington and Albany on behalf of the industry.

"People say, 'John you chance your arm a lot,'" says Fitzpatrick, using an Irish expression meaning to take a risk.

And that may well be the root of his success

Like the time he was at the Clinton White House for a reception for the Irish prime minister, and he introduced himself to then-First Lady and Senate candidate Hillary Clinton.

"I told her we'd love to do a fundraiser for her in our hotel, and she said fine, and I gave her the card," he says. "And everybody said, 'Only you would hand out your business card to the First Lady in the White House."

As evidenced by the pictures and letters on Fitzpatrick's office wall, the Clintons have become his friends.

Fitzpatrick moves easily among the powerful and the prominent, and there is often a connection to the old country.

"Bono has been a great friend of the family," he says. "They live close to us. We have a hotel in Killiney, on the hill, and his whole family lives down the hill and uses the hotel regularly."

"Last year I was in the White House on the 17th of March, and I knew in my heart and soul the following day I was going back to Ireland to do this undercover program where I would be in the worst areas of Ireland."

The undercover program he refers to is the Irish television show, "Secret Millionaire," where a well-to-do person spends a week out of contact with his business associates and friends. For the show, Fitzpatrick lived in a poor Irish town for a week, pretending to be an out-of-work American doing a documentary about the effects of the recession.

He eventually told people the truth, and then donated money to some of the groups he'd come to know and respect.

Fitzpatrick's philanthropy began in the 1990s through the foundation he established in his parents' name.

"We go into Catholic and Protestant areas and donate money to all of the areas," he says. "One of the biggest ones is Corrymelia Reconciliation Center. So it's great to see everyone is one now and everybody is together."

The Fitzpatrick Hotel played a quiet but influential role in bringing the two sides in the Northern Ireland conflict together, hosting meetings aimed at first achieving a ceasefire and then a peace agreement, which was eventually signed in 1998.

Fitzpatrick befriended Ian Paisley, Jr., whose father Ian Sr. was a long-time Unionist party leader with Protestant ties. The senior Paisley eventually became First Minister of Northern Ireland – and when he came to New York, he stayed at the Fitzpatrick.

"Six Irishwomen from Derry were walking out with six shopping bags, and they turned around and said. 'Dr. Paisley, what are you doing here?'" Fitzpatrick recalls. "And he had a great answer. He said, 'I'm Irish, why wouldn't I be here?'"

In 2008, Fitzpatrick was cited for his charity work and for his role in the peace process when he was awarded the Order of the British Empire.

"Very few Irish people have got it, so you have to look at it that way," he says. "No one came to me and said, 'Are you really going to take it?' Absolutely not. Because the Irish and English have really bonded together, and it's a total honor."

Fitzpatrick's mother was a one-time Miss Ireland, and his father ran a well-known hotel business under the Fitzpatrick name.

"We're all crazy about each other as a family, but as a business it was tough," Fitzpatrick remembers. "My father as very, very tough and dominating. Maybe that's why I got this urge to go and do something on my own."

So he left Ireland – ironically carrying his father's dream of opening a hotel in the States.

After stops in Las Vegas and Chicago, Fitzpatrick came to New York and made his father's dream a reality.

But Fitzpatrick quickly learned that the family name meant little here. Even worse, it was 1990, the heart of a recession.

"I remember my father ringing one day, and I picked up the phone and he said, 'Why are you picking up the phone?'" Fitzpatrick says. "I said, 'Because I'm the only one here.' He said, 'Where's security?' And I said 'Dad they're gone – we can’t afford it.'"

And there was one other problem.

"It was very funny (to be) an Irish hotel with no bar," Fitzpatrick says. "We had no liquor license, so it was a big joke – an Irish hotel in New York without a liquor license."

But much success soon followed, thanks in large part to the Irish connection. And the importance of that connection was never more evident than on September 11, 2001.

"People were coming off the street and saying, 'Can I leave my name here? My mom's going to call, I know she's going to call, tell her I'm okay,'" Fitzpatrick remembers. "So we put a book outside and said just sign your name and where you are."

"Parents from Ireland were ringing here and saying, "Listen, I'm looking for my daughter, tell her to call this number. We became like the unofficial consulate."

Fitzpatrick has an apartment in Manhattan and a place in the Hamptons, but the hotel is his real home. And the business seems to be his life.

"I'm not married, and maybe that's one of the reasons," he says. "'Cause any girlfriend I have says, 'I can’t put up with this, another dinner tonight, or you're going to this today.' But that's my life, and I love doing it."

There are some especially poignant moments in "Secret Millionaire" with Fitzpatrick and the kids he is helping – prompting a question that's apparently been asked more than a few times by his four siblings and their spouses.

Fatherhood?

"There's times I wonder, should I have? Or would I have? And maybe I will somewhere down the road. But I keep thinking I'm still 25 or 26. I just got back from snowboarding for a week, and people say, 'Snowboarding at 50?' And I say, 'Fine, I don’t care,'" he says with a laugh.

His adventures and social life might not make it into the Irish tabloids as much as they once did. But Fitzpatrick clearly leads a rich life.

"If you do get a chance to meet the president of the United States, you say to yourself, how lucky are you?" he says.

But his successes remain rooted in lessons from the past.

"My father would always say to me, 'Remember no matter how big you get, or how many hotels you have, you're an innkeeper,'" Fitzpatrick says. "And that grounds you."

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