Mad Hatters Tiptoe Through the Tulips Up in Central Park
Amongst a sea of hats at the 24th annual Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon. 12:30 PM. Photo: JH.
A beautiful day in early May and the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy held their annual (the 24th) Frederick Law Olmsted Awards Luncheon at the Conservatory Garden in Central Park at 104th Street behind the Vanderbilt Gates.

The Vanderbilt Gates, if you didn’t know, originally sat on 58th Street and Fifth Avenue, facing what is now the Plaza Fountain, where Bergdorf Goodman stands today. From 1882 through 1927, the largest mansion on Fifth Avenue, occupying the whole block of Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Street, stood on that site. It belonged to Alice Gwynne and Cornelius Vanderbilt II. Gloria Vanderbilt’s father Reggie, grew up there, as did Wendy Vanderbilt’s grandfather Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr., as did Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney who founded the Whitney Museum. Mr. Vanderbilt died in 1899. His widow Alice Gwynne lived in the house for another almost thirty years. For many of them she was basically the only resident of the 153-room house. An awful lot of space for a little old lady to ramble around in. After the house was razed to make way for the Bergdorf’s block in 1927, the gates were moved up to 104th Street on the Park.

The Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion at 58th Street and Fifth Avenue; The gates of the house now located at 104th Street and Fifth Avenue.

A long way around to the luncheon, no? (Couldn’t resist.) The luncheon is legend and now ritual in New York social life. It has replaced the famous Easter Parade in the psyche of social New York, although in a decidedly understated way. It also raises a huge amount of money – this year $2.4 million – which goes into the fund that maintains the Park.

The Conservancy, which was founded 26 years ago by five women with vision, manages the Park under a contract with the City of New York. It provides more than 85% of the Park’s annual operating budget, funds major capital improvements, provides horticultural care and management, and offers educational and other programs. The Women’s Committee has grown to become one of the most prestigious and influential philanthropic organizations in New York and it attracts a large number of affluent and influential New Yorkers who work very hard to keep up the standards set down by its founders.

There were 1200 attending yesterday, arriving like a mass photo op, in their spring millinery and couture, a cacophony of color and milliners’ antic artistry. Moving through the Gates, they descended several steps into the arrival area where everyone was standing looking at everyone arriving and everyone looking. Looking, looking, looking. JH and the Digital was looking too. It was impossible to see them all. It was impossible to even claim to have seen the best of them because there’s so much to see.

There is something endlessly amusing about looking at the hats. There’s something like over-the-top, along with the chic and how great the willingness, individual by individual. There’s also something very nice, clean, fresh, harmless and lovely, however brief the moment, in these harried times. There’s also something intriguing about watching this crowd – composed of personalities with curiosity raging into almost (but not quite) pandemonium. Novels could be written, mysteries, comedies and even sagas. And oh the biographies and memoirs. All remaining unwritten probably. All right there before your eyes, until everyone finally adjourns to the enormous white tent that finally shelters the Mad Hatters’ chic and cheek.

With 25 million visitors each year to its 843 acres, Central Park is the most frequently visited urban park in the United States. When Betsy Barlow Rogers came along as Mayor Koch’s first Central Park Administrator, the Park was suffering from years of tight budgets and lack of proper care and maintenance. Mrs. Rogers, however, was one of those women with vision (and expertise – she had a Masters from Yale in City Planning). She enlisted the interest of four other women, prominent in New York life – Jean (Mrs. Howard) Clark, Norma (Mrs. Charles) Dana, Marguertie (Mrs. Richard) Purnell, and Phyllis Cerf Wagner. Mrs. Wagner was the best known, widow of Bennett Cerf, founder of Random House, widow of Robert Wagner, once mayor of New York City (and cousin of Ginger Rogers and one-time RKO starlet herself). These women began what turned out to be a great adventure that affected the quality of life of tens of millions of people and brushed up the face of New York, making it shine.

Co-Chairmen Hilary Geary Ross, Karen Thornwell May, and Kathy Thomas

Co-Chairmen Simone Mailman and Thorunn Wathne with Nancy Paduano, president of the Women’s Committee

To manage the Park, Conservancy crews aerate and seed lawns; rake leaves; prune and fertilize trees; plant shrubs and flowers; maintain ballfields and playgrounds; remove graffiti; conserve monuments, bridges, and buildings; and care for waterbodies and woodlands, controlling erosion, maintaining the drainage system, and protecting over 150 acres of lakes and streams from pollution, siltation, and algae. Thanks to the Conservancy these things are taken care of.

Meanwhile, the luncheon: Nancy Paduano, president of the Women’s Committee took the podium and greeted the chatty Cathys barely listening (you think it’s only third graders who can’t shut up when someone is speaking?). She introduced William B. Harrison, chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan Chase. They presented the award to Patti and Ray Chambers. Mr. Chambers is a businessman who was in business with the late Secretary of the Treasury (under Ford) William Simon in a very successful private investment company called Wesray. These days, among other activities, the Chambers are big supporters of the Park, funding the renovation of the Heckscher Playground. For the past two decades, the Chambers have helped restore landscapes including Peebler’s Point and Scholar’s Gate. Their interest in Parks extends beyond New York City. They are working with the City of Newark on the restoration of several parks including another “Olmsted” park, Branchbrook Park.

After the Chambers’ acceptance in which they lauded the work of Phyllis Wagner who could not be there (but heard the applause over a telephone), Karen LeFrak was introduced. Mrs. LeFrak is a former president of the Women’s Committee. She started out talking about walking into the park one morning, and falling in love. That quieted everyone down; they were all ears. I’m not kidding. You could almost hear a fork hit the plate. Then she revealed (her husband was present) that her new love wasn’t a man but a bridge. Haha. The good news was everyone shut up long enough to hear Mrs. LeFrak’s gracious words about all of the people who’ve given of themselves, of their money, to assist the ongoing project.

After that it was dessert. But I was ready to leave and get onto the next. As they do every year, they handed out umbrellas (donated by the Wathne sisters – who were there with their mother – also blonde, natch) either pastel purple or lime green. One of the things that I’ve grown rich in since starting this column is umbrellas. If it ever starts to pour while you’re visiting me, I’ve got an umbrella for you. And a nice one too; a Wathne. And you don’t even have to return it.

Tulips in the Conservatory Garden

Purple and green umbrellas donated by the Wathne sisters


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May 4, 2006, Volume VI, Number 77
Photographs by DPC & JH/


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/