Monday, December 6, 2010

The holiday season

The crowd last night in front of Brick Church at 91st Street for the Park Avenue Tree Lighting Ceremony. 10:15 PM. Photo: Ann Watt.
Monday, December 6, 2010. Cold, mostly sunny weekend in New York.

Last night, for the 65th consecutive year, the imported Douglas Firs on the islands of Park Avenue were lit for the holiday season in memory of those who have lost their lives defending our country. The tradition of lighting trees began in 1945 with a small group of Park Avenue families, led by Susan V. (Mrs. Stephen C.) Clark, whose husband’s grandfather Edward Clark was one of the founders of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, as well as the builder of the Dakota and many other buildings in late 19th century New York.

There were 29 trees in the first year. Mrs. Clark worked at it and over time, interest has grown continuously, involving many prominent New Yorkers – many of whom who live on the avenue or in the surrounding streets and neighborhoods. In recent years there have been more than 100 trees.
Reverend Michael Lindvall. Minister of Music Keith S. Tóth.
The annual ceremony took place outside the Brick Presbyterian Church, Park Avenue at 91st Street. Holiday and Christmas songs served as a reminder of the original meaning of the lights and as a celebration of the season. Ann Watt was there to take it all in.

There must have been hundreds singing, for at one point I could hear them – very distantly but sometimes audibly from my terrace on East End and 83rd Street. It was very moving, as a mass of voices singing carols or religious songs always are. When I hear those sounds, coming through the streets of the east 80s, I couldn’t help thinking “this is the beautiful human race,” not even the words, just the sounds of the power of the human heart.
For the first few years of this tradition, costs were underwritten by the founding families. Today the Park Avenue Tree Lighting is managed by The Fund for Park Avenue, a non-profit organization whose mission is to plant, light and maintain the trees and flowers on the Park Avenue malls. The Fund relies on contributions from the community to ensure that from 54th to 96th Streets, this 2½ mile long memorial continues to be lit each year on the first Sunday in December. Any contribution will be helpful. It now costs about $300,000 to light them through the holiday season. It’s worth it, to all of us, on many levels.
Fund for Park Avenue Board of Directors: Ronald D. Spencer, Esq., Chairman, Mary Davidson, Eugenie Niven Goodman, Derek Limbocker, Helena Martinez, James McCollom, Jr., Judith Steckler, Margaret Ternes. Barbara McLaughlin is President, and Jo-Ann M. Polise, Executive Director.

The Lighting Committee was: Muffie Potter and Dr. Sherrell J. Aston, David Rockefeller, Michael E. Scully, Mrs. Paul Soros, Joanne Woodward, Jane Wyeth, Fernanda Kellogg and Kirk Henckels, Hugh D. Auchincloss, John Atwater Bradley, Mr. and Mrs. Bates Brown, Patricia Burnham , Mr. and Mrs. Bryan J. Carey, Stephanie and Fred Clark, Mrs. Charles Dana, Jr., Catherine and Douglas Davis, Eleanor Acquavella Dejoux, Debbie Fechter, Amy Mazzola Flynn, Jamie Gibbs, Martha Vietor Glass, Christopher Gray , Mrs. Mark Hampton, Madeleine Rudin Johnson, Victoria and Douglas Larson, Roman Martinez IV, Vanessa and Stuart McLean , Mr. and Mrs. Lester Morse, Jr., Melinda Nelson, Lisa Podos, Mrs. Warrie Price, N. Anthony Rolfe, Pat and John Rosenwald, Mrs. Arnold Schwartz, Ms. Muriel Siebert, Polly Vietor Sheehan, Samantha McLean Spruance, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas W. Strauss, John C. Whitehead, and Mr. and Mrs. H. Joe Witte.
Elaine Kaufman died last Friday at Lenox Hill Hospital. She would have been 82 next February 10. There has already been so much written about her by so many people who knew her far longer and better than I ever did, that it’s hopeless to try to add to the table.

I started going to Elaine’s in the 1970s, always with friends for a drink, often at the bar. It was already a major celebrity hang out in the late night hours – authors, movie stars, rockers, socialite, George Plimpton, you name it. They were all there and all sitting around tables often of six or eight.

I saw Elaine around the place then but I didn’t personally know any of her well-known customers at the time, and I didn’t know her; I don’t think we ever met. I finally met her in the early 90s when I’d returned to New York, through a mutual friend, Ann Downey.
Ann and our friend Judy Green liked to go up to Elaine’s with a group of friends for dinner. I met a lot of people and even made some friendships from those nights. This was, to me, a typical function of Elaine’s in many of her customer’s lives. My friends Colette and Peter Harron met there and later married. There was always a group. Elaine’s clientele was always a group.

Christmas 1994 I spent in Palm Beach at Ann Downey’s house, along with Elaine. We were the only two house guests. That tough lady some people saw in the restaurant was no where around or apparent. Off-stage, shall we say, Elaine was, in my experience, a not-shy but quiet, contributing guest. She loved conversation and even just loved listening to conversation. She had something to say; she had opinions. They came out like Hemingway: short and to the point but said with kindly self-assurance. Often punctuated with a quiet laugh heh-heh, and a smile. Elaine knew what she thought and common sense was her genius.
Elaine at Susan Calhoun Moss's birthday.
Elaine with Dominic Chianese.
She was also a New York kid. Anybody who grew up elsewhere and now lives here, immediately sees the difference between themselves and a New York kid. My father was one, so I’m familiar with the type.

Growing up in the city is different from growing up anywhere else in America. New York kids grow up much faster and learn the ways of the world much sooner. I don’t care what part of town they live in. They all learn some part of that. They often thrive on it. Out of town kids, if they’re savvy, pick it up too. That’s New York. That was Elaine.

That Christmas in Palm Beach, Elaine brought a five-pound tin of Beluga as a house gift. For the three of us!! I don’t think we even made much of a dent, and we were always at it, just to give you an idea of how much five pounds of caviar is.
Elaine feted on her 81st birthday last February. Photos: Paige Peterson.
She was always very nice to me, and very kind. I had been doing my Social Diary in Quest for a couple of years at that point. Ann Downey was talking about it over cocktails before dinner one evening. She was curious to know about the impact the Diary was making. Elaine said, “oh they know who he is,” and she nodded. I can still remember the sight and sound of that remark. That was the stamp of approval for me as a writer. Elaine liked it. Elaine also just liked writers, all types. I was very impressed.

I think it was in Enid Nemy’s obit of her in Saturday’s Times that recounted a falling out she had with Norman Mailer. He wrote her a long letter of his take on the matter, etc. Elaine wrote on the letter as a reply: “This is boring,” and sent it back to him. She didn’t need a gun to kill that messenger. Boring is enough to knock any great writer, especially Norman Mailer, right out of his (or her) seat.
Elaine and DPC.
In those last years she was very heavy to the point where it looked like it must have been very uncomfortable just sitting on the wooden restaurant chairs as she did every night for hours and hours. She’d order drinks and often a couple of things to eat. Predictably Elaine liked rich and full in her diet. Double it. She drank her vodka too. I wouldn’t say she was in any way a boozer, but she had drinks when she wanted to.

Nothing stopped her. At eighty she still never aged in her manner and style and she didn’t go for plastic surgery to maintain that youth. She was hip. She just kept moving. She had her own style. Ahd she could be girlish. She liked good looking guys. Her massive figure made a lot of choices impossible fashion wise, but somehow Elaine always had some style. As famous a character in New York as Garbo. Or Madonna. Or Henry Kisinger, or anybody; they all got the same Elaine. She was part of our folklore. And if she knew you she was also really your friend.
Tedla Kahn, a 26-year-old associate at Goldman Sachs, felt very fortunate to be at Alvin Ailey’s gala the other night. "New York is fantastic. Just look at this room. You have multiple demographics, representing every cross section in the city,” he said, after Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel, sitting next to him, had encouraged him to talk to a reporter. She egged him on again, and he added: “It's one of the few places where someone like myself can sit down and learn from people like Janice Williams and Barbaralee. These are moments that you dream of."

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s opening night gala has been an important social event for years, with a ready supply of high-wattage things like celebrities (Oprah Winfrey two years ago, the gorgeous actress Alfre Woodard this year). But the gala, as Mr. Kahn so astutely (and precociously) recognized, is really about the Ailey community, year in, year out.
Hilton ballroom, 9:20 p.m. Awaiting 1,000 guests on their way from Ailey's opening night performance at City Center.
That community or extended family is made up of people who love very specifically what the company does — the athletic ability, the sheer joy, the legacy of an African American dancer founding his own company. It also consists of people who provide business services. There are those who choose to give money, or their time, or both. And there are the friends of all of the above.

All told, the crowd that gathers fills about 1,000 seats in a vast New York hotel ballroom. The result: The event is a serious matter for the company bringing in about 10% of the annual budget. (This year the gala raised $2.7 million; the budget is $29 million.)
Ailey dancers receive another round of applause.
In this very busy, complex scene, there is one person who is the event’s glue and glitter: Joan Weill, the chairman of Ailey, after whom Ailey's home is named. Her husband, Sandy Weill, made a fortune as a banker and both of them have shared it with organizations they care about. She’s been involved with Ailey for 30 or so years, and part of her success at the helm is a willingness to go with routine.

For example, for years she has had her own dressmaker turn out, at her direction, sparkling, long-sleeved gowns that project her style: efficient glamour. That’s the style of the gala too. Why change things up from year to year? Instead, Mrs. Weill and many other board members have their same spots in the ballroom. Not even changing the venue makes a difference.
Joan and Sandy Weill. NIcolas Rohatyn.
This year, though, Mrs. Weill did have to contend with something new. She was honoree. “It feels very, very strange,” she said as she stood next to her husband on the northwest edge of the dance floor, as they always do.

Strange and wonderful, that is, to be celebrating and celebrated. But there wasn’t too much time to reflect: another guest was approaching to say hello, and then it was time to officially begin the meal (rocket arugula salad, cornish hen, and chocolate bombe with pistachio halva).

-- Amanda Gordon for NYSD
Norman S. Benzaquen and Judy Zankel. Patricia Blanchet.
Gerald Hassell. Guido Goldman and Richard Frank.
Alfre Woodard and Pauletta Washington (Denzel's wife).
Patricia and Philip Laskawy. Kathryn Chenault.
Beloved Ailey dancer Renee Robinson.
Kenneth Jackson, author of the recently updated Encyclopedia of New York History. Geoffrey Holder.
Carl Spielvogel, Tedla Khan, Barbaralee Diamonstein Spielvogel, and Morgan Richardson.
Esra Ozer, Birgit Kleinfeld, and Helmut Wieser.
Raymond Happy. Sabina Forbes.
Jessica Bibliowicz gets a hug from her dad's current successor as chairman of Citibank, Richard Parsons.
Steven Roth. Simin and Herbert Allison.
Raymond McGuire and Ted Wells.
Adrian Fenty and Thelma Golden.
Agnes Hassell and others do the electric slide.
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