Friday, November 30, 2012


Looking towards The glowing Carlyle Hotel from 73rd and Madison. 4:30 PM. Photo: JH
Friday, November 30, 2012. Sunny and cold, yesterday in New York, but not very.

Judy Price invited me to a lunch at her Park Avenue apartment yesterday. It was to meet Helene Dubrule, the Directeur General of Hermès Maison. I know Hermès from the ties women automatically give men when they can’t think of anything else and the men know they could always use a good tie.
Looking North on Madison Avenue.
I worked for Mrs. Price for three years beginning in 1997 as editor of Avenue Magazine. She had started it in the mid-'70s, ran it sleekly and profitably until she’d had enough a quarter century later. She was successful as a magazine publisher because is a born saleswoman (“’No’ is just the beginning…”), and also because she is a culture maven, intensely interested especially when it comes to art and architecture, ancient and contemporary. And she is knowledgeable.

It is commerce. Or maybe  “commerce is all.” The advertorial wasn’t invented by Judy Price but it came into its own because of her. A lot of the top purveyors of of the products of art and culture, both here in the US, and in Europe advertised in Avenue for those reasons. (Although they would probably tell you they just finally gave in to Judy Price’s sales pitch and tactics and signed an advertising contract.)

Coincidentally, she sold Avenue in 2001, shortly after Jeff Hirsch and I left to launch the NYSD. She and I have remained friends ever since. Five years ago she created the National Jewelry Institute, with an eye on founding a jewelry museum. She’s also turned our three or four books on the history of jewelry.

When Judy gives a lunch it’s business. But so is any lunch you go to in New York today.  Just what I did not know although she had told me was what it was for and for whom.  I personally have little interest in such lunches – and they are rife --  but I make an exception for Mrs. Price because she always has guests who are doing something interesting. And selling it.

Helene Dubrule, Directeur General of Hermès Maison.
Yesterday our hostess gathered eight people, including this writer. I took a picture of the table to show you the style of our hostess. What I didn’t realize when I took the picture was that Madame Dubrule’s products were on the table. What I did realize was easy. Beautiful silver, elegant, simple, exquisite. Puiforcat.

What? Puiforcat. Jean Elysee Puiforcat was a French silversmith, sculpture and designer, born in 1897 (died in 1945), recognized as the “most important French Art Deco silversmith. In a short life, he had a long career, starting in his twenties after World War I. He used ivory, onyx, lapis lazuli and rosewood in his silver designs, as well as gilding. The man himself died in 1945 in his 48th year, and Art Deco went out of style for what turned out to be a brief period.

However, in the 1970s, Andy Warhol first started collecting silverware, having discovered it in the basement of the Puiforcat studio. His interest in it provoked a revival of interest. When Warhol’s Puiforcat silverware collection was sold at auction 1988, it fetched $451,000. A tureen of Puiforcat of his went for $55,000.

Helene Dubrule told us about the silver flatware, and the plates, also designed by Puiforcat. Our lunch was created by Feast and Fetes, Daniel Boulud’s catering company. This is luxury; not everyday for the likes of me or most of us, but such things do illustrate what real luxury is, as a term of intrinsic value. It was a beautifully prepared luncheon, and delicious. After lunch we all walked down the block to Madison and Helene Dubrule gave us a tour of the Puiforcat on the third floor (Maison Hermès) of the store. I didn't dare ask the price of anything because as J.P. Morgan was alleged to have said to a man who asked him the price of his new yacht "Corsair" -- "If you have to ask you can't afford it." Nevertheless, to be around it all raises everything to another level of aesthetic and art, however briefly.. Later, infinitely curious, I did check out the catalogue and the How Much. My hunch was correct, and, after all, beauty is priceless, no?
The table.
Madame Dubrule told us that when the royals went on picnics, they took their good china. But to prevent it from chipping or breaking, it was made with a sterling silver rim to protect it. These plates have that silver rim, along with the sterling silver flatware.
At the Hermes Maison, a tea set
A cup for champagne, sterling silver. The cup is designed so that the rim near the bottom of the cup keeps the bubbles circulating and the pointed bottom pushes the bubbles up to the surface, as you can see in the photo to the right. The inside of the cup.
A classic Puiforcat silver service.
Created in Paris during the reign of Louis XIV, this engraved helmet ewer with its etched decor of spiral motifs and passementerie was originally crafted from silver-plated metal. Now recreated entirely in sterling silver, its S-shaped rim is reminiscent of the tilted helmets of Greek warriors. Its octagonal pedestal rises to a body adorned with lambrequins against an amati background. A palmette motif is embossed under the spout, overlapping a central trim. The upper part of the body is etched with square panels embellished with quatrefoils. The elongated grooved handle is crowned with a griffin's head. $82,900.
The Puiforcat classics.
An Art Deco chess set, designed in 1927 by Jean Puiforcat, the sterling silver chess set was first presented that same year at the Salon des Artistes Decorateurs in Paris. The shape of each piece is determined both by its possible path on the board, and the characteristics of its "individual personality.".Fashioned from sterling silver set with ivory (although I was told these pieces are not ivory -- which is now illegal in this country), or ebony, each of the 32 pieces , created using the "cliquete," requires exacting and meticulous work. $95,000.
This past Wednesday night over at Doubles there was a party for the 25th Anniversary issue of Quest magazine, a competitor of Avenue, not so coincidentally, and one in which I have now had an association of twenty years.

My professional life as a writer in New York got started with Quest. My first Social Diary was published in Quest and I began writing for the magazine at this time in 1992.

The following is the New York Social Diary in this November issue (the 25th Anniversary), outlining the history of Quest and my own “quest,” a resilient career.

Twenty-five years on.

I was living in Los Angeles when Quest made its debut in September 1987. I was first aware of it shortly thereafter when a friend, Larry Ashmead, an executive editor for HarperCollins (then still Harper & Row), would send me a copy every month. He knew that the charming little magazine’s histories of prominent New York families would interest me.

It wasn’t until five years later, in the autumn of 1992, that I found myself in New York working on a book project that was already floundering when I serendipitously met Quest’s publisher/founder Heather Cohane at a cocktail party at the Chanel store on East Fifth-seventh Street.

Mrs. Cohane and I had a mutual acquaintance, a Philadelphia social figure named Gloria Etting.  So, on meeting after telling her how much I liked her magazine, I told her of our friend in common. It turned out that she knew about me because of a story I’d done the year before in Connoisseur magazine about the famous Cubist art collector  Douglas Cooper and his adopted son and heir, Billy McCarty. (It had been Gloria Etting who introduced the men to each other back in the 1970s.)

That night at Chanel, Heather asked if I’d like to do a story for Quest on Gloria Etting. Naturally I said yes, and so began what turned out to be a twenty year, and ongoing -- relationship (with a brief interlude at a competing magazine at the end of the decade) with Quest.

Heather, who had no previous experience at such ventures, started the magazine in the true spirit of American enterprise. She was an Englishwoman living in New York with three children of school age when her husband Jack Cohane died suddenly, leaving her in a very dicey financial situation. Looking for a solution, she hit upon the idea of a magazine to promote high end Manhattan residential real estate. The editorial would naturally favor stories related to the topic, i.e., families and their histories.

A party pictures page from Quest, October 1993.
Although the magazine’s first editorial offices were in Heather’s Upper East Side home, by the time we met, Quest was operating out of a pleasant little room on the second floor of a building (still standing) on the corner of 80th Street and Madison Avenue. There were four desks – one for Heather, one for a receptionist/editorial assistant, one for Matthew Harrigan who manned the computer, and one for the freelance art director who designed each issue. It was a cozy little place, with lots of windows looking out on the busy corner below and dog bowls for Heather’s three (or was it four) little white Westies.

The Gloria Etting piece was good enough for Heather to ask me if I’d like to write something else for the magazine. Within a few months I was turning out a couple of articles a month for Quest and unconsciously forging a topic of expertise based on a lifelong interest.

Quest’s early years had been a bootstrap affair.  Less than a month after its launch in the autumn of 1987 came the great Black Monday stock market crash that was felt (in markets) around the world when the Dow-Jones Industrial Averages dropped more than 22% in one day. The panic that followed smacked every business (albeit temporarily). People were in fear of a repeat of the Great Depression. Quest’s advertising contracts flew out the window.

Heather had no alternative but to work harder and keep pushing. Within little more than a year’s time, her advertising clients were back and Quest was becoming the bellweather for high end residential real estate, a position it has held and then some for the past twenty-five years of its existence.

Heather had the Englishwoman’s knack for making do rather elegantly on whatever’s available. It was her idea for realtors to advertise their product by showing interiors in the ad itself. All these years later it is so commonplace that most assume it was always thus. It wasn’t; it was Quest setting rules.

In late 1993, about a year into my association with the magazine, Heather one day casually asked me if I’d be interested in writing a column. Coincidentally, unbeknownst to Heather, writing a social column had been a secret/unexpressed ambition of mine from early youth. I had always been an avid reader of social and entertainment columns.

Growing up in a little New England town, it so happened that my father who was a born and bred New Yorker, got the two top New York tabloids of that era (mid-century): The New York Daily News and the Daily Mirror. I started reading them when I was a ten year old and already hoping that I’d grow up soon so that I could live in New York. I’m not sure what sparked my interest although it was probably my mother and father’s breakfast table conversations about New York  -- besides my father being a native, my mother loved the city--  and what he’d read in the tabloids.

Feature columns in the age of newsprint were hugely popular all over America. At his zenith Walter Winchell had 30 million readers a day. Even farmers in the Midwest read Winchell. Society columns had an added flavor for this kid growing up in smalltown America. They were about the big life –lionized by all the popular print media, not to mention the great American writers like Wharton, O’Hara, Fitzgerald, Marquand, Hemingway.

Party Pictures in the Quest July/August 1996 issues.
So when Heather Cohane presented the idea to me one day in that cozy little editorial room on a corner of Madison Avenue, I said yes.

In those first days of the Social Diary, I had no idea how to go about it except to get myself invited wherever I could get myself invited and write about what I heard or saw. By that time, the early 90s, the only important social columnist in New York was Aileen Mehle writing under the nom de plume of Suzy. Mrs. Mehle’s wit and style as a chronicler matched her glamorous and sparkling persona. She’s the only columnist, society or otherwise who looked like a movie star, spotlight and all. And her rapier-like champagne wit were the bubbles that drew you back for more. That was how New York (and the world) perceived a social column.

Although the Suzy column was perhaps the apotheosis, social columns (always known as society columns) reflecting the notion of the high life have been popular in American journalism throughout the late 19th century up until the late 20th century.

It was apparent in those early days of the New York Social Diary that the scene was changing. Social celebrity had become more mainstream. Even Mrs. Mehle’s column had become frequent jottings about the comings and goings of movie and television actors and actresses.

Change is always expected although the motivation is often seen only in retrospect. In 1992, for example, no one talked about the internet. The computer had come into our lives. Writers were abandoning the IBM Selectric for any number of computers. My first computer which I got in1986 was basically a super-typewriter (with printer attached).  Four years later, in 1990, Tim Berners-Lee published a proposal for the World Wide Web, but few of us even heard about it.

It is easy to see now how that cyber-technology has altered our lives radically, ultimately changing modes of ordinary behavior and social habits. But back then, talk of such “innovation” while being celebrated for its possibilities was a novelty that invited financial fantasy more than anything else. It was easy to realize that Communication would bring us (and the world) closer together but few imagined that paradoxically it would isolate us from one another in many ways also.

Starting a column. The first Social Diary I published was about the summer in Southampton that had just passed. The characters in the copy were mainly members of old New York families or the men and women of Nouvelle Society of the Roaring 80s and the Reagan days. These two separate factions had united as the New Money consciously took on the patina (and the club memberships) of the Old Guard.

Aside from the party calendar and the visiting dignitaries, the big news for a summertime social column was frequently an extra-marital affair among the natives in the estate section of Southampton. However, there were a couple of teenage sisters named Paris and Nicky Hilton, who were beginning to show up in the resort’s nightlife and often photographed by the ubiquitous social photographer Patrick McMullan. Teenagers out late were the new fodder for all kinds of gossip (including “how can their parents allow that?”). No one foresaw that these girls in the bloom of youth were becoming icons of the new cyber-celebrity bound for world fame and fortune.

Above, a portrait of Evelyn Lauder, taken in the summer of 2010, accompanying some of my words about her in a memorial piece.
The Hilton sisters’ bursting celebrity in the late-90s coincided with another phenomenon: the emergence of the Hedge Fund as a financial force with tremendous social and political implications. There had been many smaller hedge funds operating in the previous two decades, but in the 1990s, there was a game change – also the result of the changing technology and the internet. It finally was gathered in our consciousness as the Dotcom Boom. The money got bigger, way bigger, and the idea of major wealth inflated and amazed.

What followed at the dawn of the 21st century was “change.” Change in perception, change in style, change in outlook and change in substance. In the mid-1960s when I first came to New York out of college, the computer’s place in our society was dominated by Big Blue – International Business Machines and Mr. Thomas J. Watson’s well known code word: THINK. There was a storefront on the corner of Madison Avenue in the East Sixties, with exterior walls entirely of glass, with an entire interior occupied by a giant computer. This was the astounding symbol of the New Age.

Forty years later, that retail space that held that massive, incomprehensible, oh-so-futuristic machine is now a retail outlet for DKNY. There is no longer a need for those massive space-occupying business machines. Nor are they a mystery to the man on the street. Their contents are available to every man, woman and child in the form of a small handheld device known as the “cell,” which often completely dominates the time and thoughts of hundreds of millions of people across the world.

In the past twenty-five years of Quest, the expansion of informational content through technology has affected every aspect of our daily lives, our businesses, and our media internationally. In 1996, Quest was sold to a media executive, Chris Meigher, who had been trained in the hallowed halls of Henry Luce’s Time-Life empire and notably its People magazine. Under Chris’ supervision, with his superior training and education, Quest -- still a prized beacon for private residential real estate advertising -- has been transformed into a smart-looking monthly glorifying international high end advertising and editorial content for a faster, far more technically sophisticated reader.

The New York Social Diary column, naturally accommodating all those changes, is no longer just a record of marital kerfluffles or the nightlife of attention-seeking teenage girls. The Hedge Fund concept, following the Dotcom boom, has become a major source for participating in and funding the social ideas of charity in American life. Social life in New York is now dominated by fund-raising for all kinds of philanthropy, attracting new dynamic energy of men and women who have come of age during this revolution.

While the old continues racing to catch up with the new, and the new quickly becoming outdated by the newer, Heather Cohane’s clever little enterprise, its mettle well-tested by the vagaries of changing times, has sailed remarkably through the torrents, still prospecting the fresh comforts of social tradition, and unencumbered by the barnacles of a long journey.

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