City Life
Along Ground Zero with 7 WTC behind. 3:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Last Thursday night ... Library report. Thursday night there was a forum in the Celeste Bartos Room of the New York Public Library. Guest panelists were Louis Auchincloss, Jane Stanton Hitchcock, Nick McDonell, and Candace Bushnell.

The topic (I’m a little vague about this) was: how the city affected the writers’ stories. Mr. Auchincloss was of course the most impressive member of the panel. Now in his late 80s, he has written 60 books, mostly novels, copious short stories and some magazine articles. Furthermore, much of this was achieved during his working years when he was a fulltime partner in a law firm. Writers with that much quantity, not to mention quality, under their literary belt is almost unimaginable to this writer.

Louis Auchincloss

Louis Auchincloss is a patrician who was born into a world of manners that has mainly faded to entropy. He speaks with what used to be called a mid-Atlantic accent, a mix of American and British without being either. Prrrrr-l. Bih-rd. For pearl and bird. From a man my age it would sound like a peculiar affectation. (The last time we heard it was in George Plimpton who was ten years younger than Auchincloss.) From a man of Mr. Auchincloss’ age, it is a charmingly intriguing cultural remnant. Furthermore it’s the real McCoy.

The moderator asked him if he thought  we should be preserving/landmarking more? He cited Henry James’ returning to New York more than a century ago, after being away for twenty years, and how lamentable all the changes were to him. Mr. Auchincloss wrote a short story inspired by James’ visit, which pointed out that the constantly changing architectural face is just business as usual in this city of commerce.

He also reminded us that a century ago, all of Fifth Avenue from the 40s through the 90s was private residences and today is all skyscrapers, hotels, institutions and apartment houses. (I think there are only three or four privately occupied houses left on Fifth Avenue.)

Candace Bushnell

The razing of these enormous houses that lined the avenue began when Auchincloss was a small child. After a house had been vacated and waiting for the wrecker’s ball, he said, there was an interval when people were permitted to go in and have a look. He had a nanny who was very interested. So, with her young charge in tow, she visited many of these mansions, all empty of furniture of course. The audience got their first real clues of the origins of a writer’s inspiration.

Mr. Auchincloss also reminded us that of all the great houses built along the avenue, none of them was lived in for more than one generation of a family. (With a few exceptions, most prominently the Benjamin Duke House which recently changed hands for the first time since it was built in 1901.) Mr. Auchincloss could have added that many of them, especially the grandest, were often not lived in by the original family for more than ten or fifteen years.

After the opening observations, the forum discussion on Thursday night drifted into where the “best addresses” are, the astonishing cost of square footage of residential property anywhere in the city, and how this affects peoples lives. This factor, Auchincloss believes, as do many others, is very bad for the fabric of metropolitan life.

Nick McDonnel

Candace Bushnell believes the high cost of shelter is what drives the young people out of their houses and into clubs and restaurants where they commune in that gregarious, garrulous style that New Yorkers like to think of as uniquely New York. Ms. Bushnell has a point – with no room in their own houses, they have to go “out” to visit with their friends. Or not be alone. Although city life has always been about a social hyperactivity.

Nick McDonell published his first book Twelve when he was in his late teens about life among the privileged preppies of the Upper East Side. Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times referred to it as “as fast as speed, as relentless as acid.” A long long way from the kind of childhood and youth experienced by Louis Auchincloss, and more than a hop, skip and a jump from the worlds of Ms. Hitchcock and Ms. Bushnell

Jane Stanton Hitchcock writes about the brutal social (and financial) ambition of the Beautiful People who occupy the sprawling co-op apartments of the Upper East Side. She talked about the contemporary tyranny of the co-op boards. This may not be so new as much a last ditch attempt by the now thoroughly intermingled social groups to follow the old WASP model of exclusivity, or more aptly, exclusion – the Not Our Class syndrome – a psychopathology not unique to WASPs. Hence we now have Jews discriminating against Jews as much, if not more than the WASPs discriminated against Jews or each other (although that still goes on also). There is not yet much evidence of blacks discriminating against blacks although that is not so rare either, given the right economic atmosphere. None of this was brought up in the discussion.

Jane Stanton Hitchcock

All of the writers did tell us enough of their backgrounds and experience for us to understand how they came to write the books they wrote. And all revealed a freshness of personality and intelligence that intimated why they were selected to be sitting there: smart, clever, acute observers with a healthy dose of certainty about their spheres of interest.

Although the evening did not soar and leave the listener with a new insight or knowledge about the matter of writing about New York, it was impossible for it not to be interesting and occasionally amusing; think of it: Auchincloss, Hitchcock, McDonell and Bushnell, spanning three generations of New Yorkers.

The difference in New York wrought by time’s changes was there to see, right up on the podium, in McDonell and Auchincloss. The former, in his early 20s, dressed casually in a fresh white shirt, black denim pants and a heavy weather lace-up boots, seated erect, arms on the sides of his chair, as if ready to spring into action if need be; while three seats away, Mr. Auchincloss sat in his version of casual repose — an everyday (for him) professorial suit, grey-ish shirt and tie, looking grandfatherly and courtly, vigorous in his responses with his eyes and his smiles, yet without the piercing youthful energy of McDonell, as if it had been stored away long ago like so many other extra garments no longer needed: youth out of style. Vive la difference. 

Beautiful winter weekend in New York: no precipitation, cold but bright sunshiny days and brrrrisk chilly nights.

Friday night, having come in from dinner at Rughetta, a delicious Italian restaurant on 85th between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, I stayed up late watching “The Madness of King George” on DVD. First time viewing.

King George III

We, the “Americans” were the bane of the king’s existence, we are told from this picture. We are also told that he was in some very important ways a loving man – toward his daughters, if not his sons, and toward his wife. He was also autocratic and used to getting his own way and being called “king,” a corruption of the human spirit if there ever was one. His madness was directly related to what we now call porphyria, which is a physical ailment that causes very erratic behavior that used to be construed as madness. According to the film, he was cured by a doctor whom all the other doctors regarded as a quack. From the looks of things, he was a quack in quackdom, however, for none of the doctors in those times knew very much about medicine, compared to today.

The film also provides a sensible view into the nature of monarchy and primogeniture and heirs (or heiresses) to thrones. A lot of “rubbish” (a favorite word of the current Prince of Wales, according to his latest diary revelations) but nevertheless the real deal. The poor Prince of Wales (I’m talking about George III’s son) had nothing to do but get himself in trouble (and “illegally” marry a commoner). Although as we know he turned out to be an innovative interior decorator. In the end the poor prince succeeded to the throne and became George IV and was beset forevermore by financial problems thanks to his own spendthrift ways. His monarchy included a problematic wife named Caroline whom he had to marry but with whom he had no workable relationship and whom he divorced shortly after he became king. It was his mistress, Mrs. FitzHerbert, a Roman Catholic whom he regarded as his wife. Sound familiar?

King George IV

George reigned for ten years and was succeeded by his younger brother William IV. William’s only surviving offpring were with his mistress, an actress named Mrs. Jordan and not his wife. Mrs. Jordan and he had several children, none of whom could succeed to the throne because they were “bastards.” Thus, when William died in 1837, he was succeeded by the only surviving legitimately born child of all of George III’s children: the daughter of the duke of Kent, Victoria.

I bring all this up because, according to the historian A.N. Wilson, in his book (which I’ve written about here before), Victoria’s purely royal lineage is somewhat questionable. I quote (click here):

So, as you can see, it's all in the family, always, no matter the family.

Early Saturday afternoon, having stayed up late for the movie, I slept in – the only day I really can. At noontime, still in my pajamas, sitting at my desk eating my oatmeal, reading the newspapers and reveling in my empty appointment book, I get an email via Blackberry from my friend Margo Howard:

Norris Mailer and Margo Howard at Swifty's

Norris and I are at Swifty’s. Where are you?

Oy!! Nowhere, that’s where. I’d completely forgotten a lunch date I’d made with her and Norris Mailer more than a month ago.

About twenty-five minutes later I was sitting at their table at Swifty’s. Margo lives in Boston. Norris lives in Provincetown most of the time with Norman, her husband, the legendary great American novelist. She was in town because they recently “got (their) apartment back,” it having been occupied for the past couple of years by one of their children with spouse.

Soon we were into the movies. I told them about seeing “King George” the night before. Both had seen when it first came out. I told them about “TheTalented Mr. Ripley.” Both had also seen that when it first came out too.

Truman Capote (DPC photo of Jill Krementz portrait)

Someone asked if I’d seen “Capote.” No, although having seen Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Mr. Ripley,” and so impressed with his performance, I was anxious to see what he’d done with the Truman Capote character.

Norris, it turned out, has known Hoffman since he was a kid in school with one of her sons. She’d seen him throughout his childhood when he often came over to the house. And what was he like? A nice kid, very smart, very friendly and outgoing, an interesting, clever kid. She loved the performance. And of course, none of us had a clue that we were talking about the man who the following evening last would win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in “Capote.”

The next question at the table: did you know Capote?

Margo didn’t know him but she saw him in person once, in Chicago, in front of the Ambassador East Hotel where he was waiting for a car. She had been walking by when she heard “this voice” ... and stopped and turned and just stood there listening: she could not believe it was a real voice. That was her Capote experience.

I recounted my experience of him (written about in these pages: “On Becoming a Writer and Having Met Mr. Capote.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Then Norris. She was the only one of us who really knew him, and saw him fairly often. Did she like him? She found him amusing but “like” wasn’t a word she would have used to describe her feelings about him. She had been around him long enough and frequently enough to get a good look at his brand of his well known mischief, not to mention his catastrophic alcoholism that could intrude, uninvited into the lives of those around him.

Norris is a very sympathetic, empathic woman but disaffected by a lot of nonsense. As time wore on in Capote’s life, as we now know, there was a lot of nonsense. For the fun of it, the hell of it, for ulterior motives which might have been better squelched at the inception, or in various altered states brought on by the booze and the coke.

Norman Mailer and Capote, however, had been friends from back in the days when they were young men and first being published writers living in New York in Brooklyn Heights.

Norman Mailer

One time they made a date to meet for drinks at a local bar. In those days (almost sixty years ago), the local bars in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood were regular working guys hangouts – gin mills they used to call them.

So Mr. Mailer, a macho sort of man as the world knows – certainly compared to Mr. Capote – met his friend at the bar. Although he was surprised at the sight of him when Capote, who was tiny in stature, and looked – at 24 – like he was 14, arrived wearing a very theatrical cape fastened at the neck. For a Broadway opening, okay; but for a working man’s bar in Brooklyn?

Norman Mailer walking into the place with the little man in the ... cape ... caused more just a little bit of notice among the guys (the real guys, the ones who really don’t, or didn’t use to, eat quiche). Nevertheless, the dear diminutive one was hardly delicate about it, no matter what impression you got from his ... cape. Big as life, he took his seat at a table, they ordered drinks, and shortly thereafter Capote affirmed to Mr. Mailer what was already obvious: that he was not at all intimidated. “I am not afraid of anything,” he stated quite credibly.

And from that Mr. Mailer concluded that Mr. Capote was one of the bravest men he knew. Sweeping into that bar of working men (and potential brawlers) in Brooklyn, in an Elizabethan cape, without fear, even Norman Mailer had to admit, now that was brave.

Truman Capote was never far from controversy, good and bad. And he knew how to beat the drums to gain the attention. Most who knew him remember him with a certain kind of fondness, despite the mischief making, along with the drugs and alcohol excess. It was worse for him: by the time he died, he had wanted to get out of this place.

Saturday afternoons in New York are my own tradition – sometimes carried out the afternoon before. And that's the Crosstown 79th Street bus from East End Avenue over to Broadway and my weekly visit to Zabars. Start at their corner sandwich gnosh shop – the ham and cheese croissant with a cup of the Zabar's java. Then into the main store for the coffee, the cheese, the wild Western smoked salmon; a banana nut muffin, a cheese Danish, the 7-grain loaf, the organic broccoli and then home again ...
The entrance to Zabar's gnosh shop and inside by the fish counter

March 6, 2006, Volume VI, Number 39
Photographs by JH & DPC/


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