Mid-November weekend in New York
Fifth Avenue foliage. Photo: JH.

Mid-November weekend in New York and a brief tour of an Upper East Side neighborhood. Saturday was bright yet the air was unusually  damp and hazy almost as if the smoke from burning  autumn leaves was wafting (without redolence) through the air. After a lunch/business meeting at Swifty’s, I took a brief lens-stroll with JH and the Digital over towards the Park, stopping to photograph the house at 55 East 74th Street, between Park and Madison, the last Manhattan residence of Eleanor Roosevelt.

The onion soup at Swifty's

Mrs. Roosevelt purchased and shared the house in the late 1950s with Dr. David Gurewitsch and his wife Edna. The doctor was Mrs. Roosevelt’s confidant, traveling companion and personal physician during the last 15 years of her life.  She died in November 1962. 

A neighbor of Mrs. Roosevelt during those years, just down the street at number 23, between Madison and Fifth, at the Volney, was Dorothy Parker who moved in about the same time Mrs. R. purchased number 55. The Volney has had a number of celebrated residents including one of the earliest Warhol Factory stars, Jane Holzer (then known as Baby Jane Holzer) who may also be the building’s owner.

Madison Avenue on a beautiful autumn Saturday is a very busy thoroughfare for Upper East Siders out strolling in their weekend/country casual duds, often with dogs and/or children.  We then went around the corner to East 73rd to have a look at number 11, the Joseph Pulitzer mansion which was completed by McKim, Mead and White for the publishing tycoon in 1903.

Looking west on 74th Street between Park and Madison Avenue
L. to r.: 55 East 74th, the last Manhattan residence of Eleanor Roosevelt; The Volney at 23 East 74th, the home of Dorothy Parker, who moved in about the same time Eleanor Roosevelt purchased number 55.

Mr. Pulitzer’s name is famous today perhaps only for the annual prize given out to writers, journalists, etc., but the publisher first of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later the New York World was instrumental in raising money to fund the building of the base of the Statue of Liberty, as well as the founding  of the Columbia School  of Journalism and the fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel.  

The limestone – clad, four story house’s plot is 98 feet wide. Stanford White’s design was based largely on the Palazzo Pesaro and the Palazzo Rezzonico , both 17th century structures by Baldassare Longhena.

Crossing Fifth and 73rd towards Central Park

Pulitzer's eyesight had greatly deteriorated by the time he had commissioned the design and was unable to enjoy the grand and elegant work and had to rely on verbal description to enjoy it. 

He died after living in the mansion for only eight years and the house was vacant for several years after the family moved out.  In 1930, his sons leased it to investors who planned to replace it with a new apartment building. The Depression buried those plans before they were even started. In 1934 the house was leased to a residential real estate developer who hired James E. Casale to design a conversion of the building into apartments that would retain the façade and many of the lavish interiors. These plans were carried out but the developer dropped out and in the late 30s, the Pulitzers sold the property to the Astor Family Estate who sold the building in the early 50s to yet another developer with plans to replace it with a 13 story apartment building.  Obviously, that never happened either. Today it remains in its private glory as a 17 apartment co-op.

The view from DPC's terrace
The Joseph Pulitzer mansion at 11 East 73rd Street
Fifth Avenue foliage

Last Thursday night I attended the Cold Spring Harbor Research Laboratory Double Helix Awards dinner at the Mandarin Oriental in the Time Warner complex because of two people who would be present and participating: Dr. James Watson, the co-discoverer of the DNA and Muhammad Ali. Two heroes of our time; two giants.

This was the very first  major benefit gala held for Cold Spring Harbor in the city. So there were doubters among the supporters that it might not be ready for the New York charity circuit. I was told by one of the vice-chairmen that Gail Hilson was instrumental in actualizing the event on this scale. This “first” dinner raised $2.5 million for the research laboratory.

Phil Donahue opened the evening explaining that when he married Marlo Thomas he also married a hospital, referring to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which was founded by her father, the comedian Danny Thomas. Today it is the nation’s 3rd largest health-care facility. Amazing when you think of what Thomas did with his talent to amuse.

Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman gave the invocation. All of us were expecting a prayer, but Msgr. Hartman, a broadchested, ruddy-complexioned, white haired man surprised us by telling us that he had Parkinson’s  and of the day he found out “Why ?” or “Why me?” was not the question that came to his mind. “What’re you gonna do about it?” was the question. Now head of the Hartman Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, he was there quite clearly because he believes in the work of Cold Spring Research Laboratory.

Later I watched this sturdy-seeming solidly built man being helped from the podium back to his chair where his dinner partner, a young woman, helped him move his body around with great personal difficulty. Those who are ignorant of horrors and ravages of this disease should know that NO ONE fakes its symptoms.

Then Bruce Stillman, President of Cold Spring Harbor spoke, followed by the soprano Andrea Gruber of the Metropolitan Opera who sang Verdi’s Madre Pietosa Vergine from La Forza del Destino.

Phil Donahue and James Watson at the first annual Cold Spring Harbor Research Laboratory Gala.

Then Phil Donahue introduced Dr. Watson who fifty-three years ago gave his first public talk at Cold Spring on the double helix structure of DNA that he discovered three months previously with Francis Crick. He told us that “just as the discovery led to revolutionary advances in medical research,” he hopes that the funds raised from the Double Helix Gold Medal Awards will accelerate the pace of discovery “already in motion at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.”

It’s all about the money was at the bottom of  Dr. Watson’s message. He talked about the research for cancer, for autism,  for Alzheimer’s, for Parkinsons is moving very fast, so much faster than fifteen or thirty years ago and that all that is really holding them back is funds for research. The government does not provide adequately for what is needed to keep the pace. I thought of all of the rich among us, including  several people in the room who now earn even more in a year than they can spend in a lifetime, and how some magnificent gifts and endowments from them can change everything for all of us.

Jim Watson, as he is known to myriad friends, colleagues  and admirers, speaks clearly but with a sense of humor and an utter optimism. It was he who coined the motto of Cold Spring – “impossible is nothing.”

Dr. Bruce Stillman, Dr. James Watson, and Suzanne and Bob Wright with their Double Helix Medals
Yolanda Ali with her husband Muhammad Ali
Dr. Bruce Stillman, Dr. James Watson, and Muhammad and Yolanda Ali
Dr. James Watson
Meredith Viera
Dr. Bruce Stillman, Deborah Norville, Dr. James Watson, and Dr. Phillip Sharp

Meredith Viera presented the award to Muhammad Ali, the most famous man in the world.  I am old enough to remember when the young Cassius Clay Jr. came on the scene proclaiming “I am the Greatest.” Many at the time were amused by the proclamation but few knew the power of that truth. Muhammad was ahead of us, and in many cases remains there. In his career as a professional boxer he proved unbeatable and, in fact, the greatest. But then in his public life  outside the ring, over time it became apparent that he was a spokesman for the human race.

He is today the “most known name” in the world. And he is also, at 64 (he’ll be 65 next January 17), racked by the ravages of Parkinson’s. That great spirit, with all its physicalness, is silent  now, his ability to express himself verbally has been taken from him by this long and painful degenerative process. Dr. Watson and his colleagues  at Cold Spring and elsewhere in the world believe that help is possibly not far off because of the incredible advances in technology and medical  science.

After the award presentation to Ali, Deborah Norville presented the Double Helix medal to Dr. Phillip Sharp, a 1993 Nobel Prize winner who has concentrated his research on molecular biology of gene expression relevant to cancer and the mechanisms of RNA splicing.  Dr., Sharp worked as a Senior Scientist at the Laboratory before going to M.I.T.  He shared the Nobel prize with Dr. Richard Roberts of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Then Jim Watson presented a Double Helix Award to Suzanne and Bob Wright who have a grandchild diagnosed with autism. Did you know that 1 out of every 166 children born today will  be diagnosed with autism. 1 out of every 166? There are 1.5 million cases of it in this country alone with three children born every hour who will  be diagnosed.

The Wrights treated the news like Mgsr. Hartman and his Parkinson’s: what are we gonna do about it? Mr. Wright is the head of NBC-Universal. He was in the position to exercise influence. His wife was in a position to carry out that influence. Together they founded Autism Speaks, the largest organization devoted to autism in the country. Aside from their active engagement in several other philanthropies, they are devoted to raising funds to facilitate and quicken the pace of research,  to raise public awareness of autism and to give home to all those who suffer from this disorder.

TO  GIVE  HOPE  could have been the title of the evening at the Cold Spring Harbor Research Laboratory’s first major New York fund raising benefit because HOPE and its mentors COURAGE and IMAGINATION was the context of the evening, with its personification  in men and women like James Watson and his colleagues and supporters and the Double Helix Award winners. Hope filled the room, and in a great yet small way, briefly filled its treasury earmarked for research and progress and success. For impossible, in the credo of James Watson, is nothing.

Gail Hayman
Norma Dana, Michael Kennedy, and Mitzi Perdue
Eleanora Kennedy and Lisa Kennedy Diloreto
Dr. James Watson and Diane Fagiola
Zev Braun and Cathy Soref
Diane Fagiola
Charlie Prizzi
Cathy Soref and friends


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November 13, 2006, Volume VI, Number 176


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/NewYorkSocialDiary.com