Frank Sinatra called her “doll” and mesmerized her with his blue eyes. President Harry Truman cheerfully asked her to join him and his wife, Bess, for breakfast. But Ernest Hemingway was uninterested in her greeting, and Lena Horne, though beautiful, seemed icy.
Getting ready to reprise her role as a “Century Girl” for the 20th Century Limited express passenger train brought back these memories and more for Joan Jennings Scalfani.
“It was a fabulous job because I love to talk and I love to listen,” said Scalfani, 80, recalling her days in the early 1960s as a hostess aboard the historic line. “Those were happy days.”
The Williamsville resident returned to New York City’s Grand Central Station recently as a featured guest for one of the events of the iconic hub’s centennial celebration. A collection of railway cars, including an observation car from the 20th Century Limited, was on display.
Scalfani beamed just thinking about her trip back in time. “This is the highlight of my life,” she said.
On a recent afternoon, the Scalfani sparkle that once charmed Sinatra, Truman and others was working on a young designer who flew in to fit her with a muslin form that would be used to re-create her old Christian Dior uniform in, as she remembers, a “rivermist” blue.
As Scalfani held still so the designer could pin together the pattern and remake her uniform in time for the celebration, the story of her serendipitous career spilled out.
Alex Hartman, working fast to finish the measurements so she could catch a plane back in a few hours, admired her subject’s age and grace.
“You’re my goal,” she said smiling. “You have such a great hourglass. So we’re going to try to keep it.”
Scalfani’s smile fit the glamorous black and white publicity photo from her time as a Century Girl in 1960 and ’61. Scalfani, then 27 and 28, was one of five young women with the public relations job of making sure passengers, famous or otherwise, were comfortable and attended to with services such as sending telegrams and baby-sitting.
The posh train, featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” was known for its passenger-welcoming gifts of small bottles of Chanel No. 5 perfume.
The line ran between New York and Chicago, and made special stops to let on celebrities out of view from the crowds, as it did when Sinatra made his way east to President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
“They would kind of slink in,” Scalfani said.
She put her hands together and looked up, as if in prayer, when she recalled meeting Sinatra. She found herself staring at the singer and actor.
“When that door opened and I looked into those blue eyes, I just about fainted,” she said. “He was standing there with a smile on his face because he knew what was going on.”
She asked if he needed a postcard stamp. He smiled.
“Doll, if I want a postcard mailed, I’ll be sure and call you,” he told her.
Then she ran into him a second time when he took the train back to Chicago. “I thought, ‘Oh, no, not again!’ ” she said. “I got out of there so fast.”
“You shouldn’t have left,” a porter told her later. “He had nice things to say about you.”
The train would leave Grand Central Station at 6 p.m. and arrive in Chicago by 9 the next morning. It had about 26 cars with staterooms, smaller compartments, and dining and lounge cars.
One Century Girl was assigned to each trip.
“The train was beautiful,” she said. “In the center lounge car there were love seats. … It was a very classy-looking interior. It wasn’t trainlike; it was like a living room,” Scalfani said.
During the recent weekend, the collection of train cars at Grand Central Station included the “Hickory Creek.” It was the last car on the 20th Century Limited, with an observation lounge and wraparound windows.
It was the sort of car where Harry and Bess Truman might have stayed when she asked them during their breakfast whether they had rested well.
“The president said, ‘Won’t you join us?’ And I certainly couldn’t say no,” she said. “They were very pleasant and very down-to-earth.”
Silent-movie comedian Harold Lloyd asked her to join him for lunch. “You’ve been so kind to me,” he told her. “I’d love you to join me for lunch.”
“He really appreciated the fact that I spent so much time there at his doorway,” Scalfani said.
Decades later, she still regrets not accepting his offer.
As she remembers it, Hemingway was less talkative. The author “was more interested in having dinner,” she said. “I didn’t stay too long.”
Horne, traveling with her jazz pianist husband, Lennie Hayton, was lovely but even less interested. The singer and actress “looked like she wanted me to get out of there,” Scalfani said. “In person, she was even more gorgeous.”
In 1961, after 15 months on the job, the Century Girls were among the thousands laid off after a railroad strike. Scalfani, who grew up in Baltimore, eventually moved to Buffalo in a marriage that ended in divorce. She raised two daughters here. Her career in nonprofit management included almost a decade as director of Episcopal Charities.
During the weekend, for the first time since the 1990s, she traveled back to Grand Central Station and her Manhattan neighborhood.
She talked with people, autographed photos and read a story – “Two Little Trains” – to children. A videographer interviewed her, and she participated in a panel of railroad people to explain what train travel used be like.
Scalfani said she found train passengers to be in-depth people with a leisurely attitude. They had time to sit, look out the windows and think about the towns and countryside rolling by. And they talked.
“It’s like, ‘We’ll never see each other again, so I can bare my soul,’ ” Scalfani said. “They took the time, and it was just special.”
She looks forward to putting on the Century Girl suit that always made her feel stylish.
“It’s like being able to turn the clock back,” she said.