An Overcast Monday in New York

Looking north along Fifth Avenue. 2:45 PM. Photo: JH.

A busy one with Mother Nature thinking of snow (but only thinking).

Down at Michael’s I lunched with Denise LeFrak Calicchio and her public relations man Jim Brodsky to discuss her new book, just out, “High Rise Low Down,” which she wrote with Eunice David and Kathryn Livingston.

DPC and Denise LeFrak

Denise grew up in the New York real estate business, one of three daughters (and one son) of builder-owner Samuel LeFrak who developed enormous amounts of real estate in the greater metropolitan area.  Mr. LeFrak did not sequester his children from his business, taking them to visit sites, to watch the construction and completion of his projects, from the life of the building to the lives within the buildings. His daughter grew up thoroughly inculcated with the excitement of her father’s business. When she was old enough, she got her license and became a broker, working for Sotheby’s for a number of years.

It was that experience that inspired her to do this book knowing the fascinating complex history of some of the smartest apartment buildings in the city, and knowing a little something about some of the very interesting lives therein.

The project took the better part of two years, and the result is a page-turner of information that reads like (good) gossip in a small community, which in some ways is what New York is.

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The co-ops of the city are notorious (and that is the word) for giving people a hard time gaining entrance into their buildings along the avenues (especially Fifth and Park) of the Upper East Side.  She tells the story of Tommy Hilfiger who made a bid on an apartment in the very tony 820 Fifth Avenue (with one apartment to a floor) with residents like Jayne (Mrs. Charles) Wrightsman, one of the major benefactors of the Metropolitan Museum. Mrs. Wrightsman, once upon a time, was just a little girl from Michigan (and then Los Angeles) who married the very wealthy Charles Wrightsman (oil) and became an honest-to-god connoisseur of 18th century decorative arts and furniture. A great deal of her collection is now housed in the Wrightsman rooms at the Met and Mrs. Wrightsman (whom Truman Capote once cracked would never have added a “y” to her name if she had known she was going to be in the Met) is the ne plus ultra dowager of New York society today.

So when Mr. Hilfiger, manufacturer of baggy pants for hip-hop kids made his application, there were many who had their doubts about his chances at the feet of Mrs. W. However, he had the good luck or smarts to hire Alice F. Mason as his broker. Mrs. Mason who first started selling co-ops (her first client was the late Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt) fifty years ago and is legendary for her cleverness in cinching a deal. According to “High Rise Low Down”, she advised Mr. Hilfiger to get letters of recommendation from a variety of people in the designer’s life, from friends that he grew up with in upstate New York to prominent New Yorkers. This went over well. But what impressed Mrs. Wrightsman the most, according to the book, was that Mr. Hilfiger was also a benefactor of the Met. The way to a connoisseur’s heart is through his or her philanthropic desires. Mr. Hilfiger got in the building, astounding not a few rich and desirous New Yorkers who knew they never stood a chance of gaining the same access.

The stories of these great residential buildings of New York are the tales that created the American literature that started with Henry James and Edith Wharton and later Louis Auchincloss, with scores of potboilers and fleshy roman a clefs along the way and in between. Buy the book and see for yourself.

After lunch I got a ride back uptown with my authoress, stopping at Swifty’s to catch a quick shot of a birthday party that was just winding down for Henry Breck who was celebrating his 70th on the first day of Aquarius. Mr. Breck, who has a wife – Wendy – is a very popular man with the ladies. In fact, all of the guests yesterday afternoon were ladies with the sole exception of Sean Driscoll (impresario of Glorious Foods).  I got there just as the birthday boy was finishing unwrapping his copious gifts, all clever and chic and packaged as if Carolyne Roehm herself had done the wrapping.

Henry Breck's birthday party at Swifty's: Clare Potter, Sydney Shuman, Wendy Breck, Helena Martinez, (Cynthia Phipp's fur hat), the Birthday Boy, Duane Hampton, Lee Niven, Susan Burden, Lorna Graev, Alexa Hampton, Missy Taylor, and Sean Driscoll. Inset: Birthday girls Alison Cameron and Fredericke Biggs were celebrating birthdays of their own.

Last night in New York (with Mother Nature still thinking about some snow), I went down to the Four Seasons restaurant on 52nd Street for a book party for Terry McAuliffe, the Clintons’ main fundraiser. Mr. McAuliffe got started in fundraising for the Democrats right out of Catholic University when he went to work in the Carter-Mondale campaign. As chairman of the DNC from 2001 to 2005, Mr. McAuliffe pulled the party out of debt for the first time in its history (and during a Republican Administration and Congress).

The party was called from 7 to 9 in the pool room of the restaurant. By the time I got there – about 7:30, there were already a couple of hundred milling about with cocktails waiting for the big cajones which were purported to be The Author, his mentor, the former President Clinton and his wife, and now Presidential candidate, Senator Hillary Clinton.

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While everyone was enjoying the camaraderie, I was marching around with my digital. I saw Tom Suozzi who is the Executive of Nassau County who ran in the Democratic Primaries against Elliot Spitzer for Governor of the State of New York.

We all know what happened there but in the meantime, the ambitious and effective Mr. Suozzi introduced himself to statewide politics in a major way. I recall going to a dinner party that a couple here in New York, Tom and Diahn McGrath gave for Mr. S when he was considering the run. Amongst their guests was a woman here in town who is known for her political acumen (and fundraising). I found his dinner table talk very impressive. I asked my friend with the political acumen what she thought. She too was impressed but thought of the evening as a “good introduction” to the man whose candidacy at that moment she considered “premature.” Although a future, however, she said, he has.

I wanted to get a picture of him but not by himself, so I introduced to him to Liz Smith who was there with our mutual pal Peter Rogers,  who was happy to meet him and oblige. Although there were several prominent New Yorkers as well as members of the media present including Mike Wallace, Joe Conason, and Bill O’Reily, it was mainly a political crowd, the faces you see at campaign after parties (and in the offices of politicians, as advisers and assistants); people who live, eat and sleep politics.

By eight o’clock I was getting nervous since I was supposed to be at a dinner at the Museum of the City of New York by 8:15, and the Clintons who were expected at the McAuliffe party hadn’t showed up. Waiting by the entrance to the  dining room (along with a lot of other people), I was talking to Richard Hall, a cameraman from CSPAN in Washington, who told me Clinton would be arriving very soon. I asked him how he knew. He said you can feel it in a room when the arrival is imminent, that the energy changes. It starts, he said, with someone (who’s connected by wire with the entourage) saying they were “just two minutes away” and soon the word spreads.

Bill Makes his entrance.

Well, it wasn’t two minutes; more like five, but suddenly coming down the corridor was Bill Clinton, looking slender in his bespoke navy suit with high double vents and distinguished with that full head of white hair. He was just through the portal when the guests besieged him with greetings of affection as he stopped to say hello.

There was a flank of cameras (including Mr. Hall and Patrick McMullan) aimed directly at him and outflanking this digital-duffer. You can see what I saw.

Despite his slender physique, his handsome face and beautiful hair, Mr. Clinton looked older than the last time I saw him a couple of years ago. I mentioned this to a couple of people who felt the observation was too critical (although not insulting). They misunderstood. Both the former President and his wife are known to be hard-working, really indefatigable, and time has begun to engrave that on the man.

Despite his status as an ex-President, and although he looks like the very well dressed wealthy New Yorker that he now is, his manner remains warm and congenial as he meets and greets his many admirers.

Having got a tourist’s glance, I had to dash. Although I lost my coat check and spent the next twenty minutes searching through the Four Seasons automated coatroom, in a sea of navy winter long coats. Damn. I was now very late for the dinner although it was too cold outside to go without.

Tom Suozzi, Liz Smith, and Peter Rogers

Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel and Carl Spielvogel with Sylvia Steiner

Bill O'Reilly

Sally Minard and Paul Beirne

John and Margo Catsimitidis

Patty Raynes and Debbie Bancroft

Kathleen Gerard with Maurice Sonnenberg

Richard Hall

Joe Conason with Harriet Feltzer

Al Sharpton and Ed Koch

Stan and Sydney Shuman

Terry McAuliffe and friend with Ed Koch

Cheri Kaufman and Terry McAuliffe

Campari Feld

In the Pool Room of The Four Seasons

Kathy Sloane and Gay Talese

Marcie McDonald and Karen Feld

Craig Libman and Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel

I arrived at the Museum of the City of New York just as the guests were finishing their first course in the second floor gallery.

This was a special evening for the museum because it inaugurated the Louis Auchincloss Prize which firstly honored the distinguished author and is intended for the future recognition of other distinguished artists whose works are inspired by New York City.

Mr. Auchincloss, who has written more than sixty books as well as many articles, was born in New York in 1917 and went to Yale and then the University of Virginia Law School after which he worked for four decades as a trusts and estates partner in a major white shoe law firm. It was during that time that he also wrote almost all of those volumes of history, biography, fiction and literary criticism, an oeuvre that leaves a writer in awe. 

Louis Auchincloss

Among those at the honoree’s table was Tom Wolfe (in his signature whites – with white frame reading glasses) and Pete Hamill, both of whom later expressed their personal awe of Mr. A’s literary accomplishment (and achievement).

After the dinner, several people spoke including Evelyn Halpert, former headmistress of the Brearley School and a longtime friend of the author.

Mrs. Halpert’s short speech was woven with amusing anecdote and witty remarks (including quotes of Noel Coward’s: “a person, on meeting Mr. Coward praised a book of his and asked ‘who wrote it for you?’ to which the playwright/lyricist replied: ‘I did, and who read it to you?’” 

Mrs. Halpert was followed by Pete Hamill who grew up in Brooklyn and went to a private day school in Manhattan (Regis on East 84th) in the midst of Auchincloss country. He explained how Louis Auchincloss had so profoundly affected his view of life. 

Then the portraitist Everett Raymond  Kinstler spoke about painting the man and mentioned the year of his birth (1917) when both Rodin and Degas died (John F. Kennedy was also born on that year), and one year after the death of one of his literary forebears, Henry James.

Tom Wolfe compared the great man to another great American writer, William Faulkner, drawing comparisons between Louis Auchincloss’ Manhattan to Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in terms of its depiction of and impact on American society, culture and mores.

There were amusing references to the author’s New York accent, an inflection that is mainly lost today, with its broad “a’s” and pursed and curled “r’s,” leaving a lasting impression of ancient hauteur and imagined snobbery. Those references as well other references to Mr. Auchincloss’ quiet modesty and certainty brought laughter (small bits of it) to the man’s lips.

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Finally the man of the hour got up to speak. He very prudently read aloud his handwritten speech, telling us how he’d become involved in the Museum of the City of New York in the early 1960s when Mrs. Winthrop Aldrich, one of the city’s grande dames called upon him to volunteer.  He described his courteous protesting of any participating by telling Mrs. Aldrich that it wasn’t worth “coming for cocktail to discuss.” Mrs. Aldrich, who knew her hauteur said, “I knew your ma and you be here at six.” When he showed up and did protest, she simply wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, saying that the museum needed his help in getting started. He later served on the board as President or Chairman from 1966 to 1999. Thank you Mrs. Aldrich.

The Museum of the City of New York is dedicated to the preservation of New York history, so much of which is wiped away annually by its ongoing real estate and commercial development.  Louis Auchincloss’s life work has developed a protection of that past so that it will never be forgotten.

It is impossible to sufficiently relate the gravity and the camaraderie of the dinner, including the private thrill of being in the presence of men like Hamill, Wolfe, and of course Auchincloss. In other words, you had to be there – to witness the crowd (a very much Auchinclossian group, many of whom can trace their lineage back several generations), to hear and appreciate the wit and insight of the speakers, and to realize how these people help provide us with an anchor in reality. 

In the gallery, along a cornice bordering the grand staircase is a quotation from Abraham Lincoln, emblazoned in gold leaf against an ivory-colored background:  “I like to see a man proud of the place in which he lives. I like to see a man who lives so that place will be proud of him.” And there you have it: Louis Auchincloss, New Yorker.

Sidney Offit, Susan Henshaw Jones (president of MCNY), and Joan Davidson

The table centerpiece

Bruno Quinson addresses the crowd at the Museum of the City of New York


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January 23, 2007, Volume VII, Number 14


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/