Monday, October 6, 2008

An crisp autumn weekend in New York

Lantern on Park Avenue South. 7:00 PM. Photo: JH.
“Sometimes a concept is baffling not because it is profound but because it's wrong.”

– Edward O. Wilson

10/6. An autumn weekend in New York, chilly and mild. I didn’t venture out much except to hit Archivia, the art and culture bookstore on Lexington Avenue between 71st and 72nd. If you are book-obsessed, Archivia is a place to avoid unless you are willing to be led into temptation.

Renee Zellweger and Andre Balazs (image via
On Saturday night I had dinner with a friend at Swifty’s. It was fairly quiet for a Saturday night, but cozy, as Swifty’s is. Two tables down Andre Balazs was dining with Renee Zellweger. My friend could barely concentrate on our conversation, his eyes helplessly drawn to the charismatic blonde who appears to be quite effusive. Of course my eyes were averted too, although I tried to control my curiosity so as not to embarrass (myself).

What is it about movie stars? We just like to look at them. And of course discover something we hadn’t known before (from watching them on the screen). Ms. Zellweger has a very warm and friendly personality from the looks of it. You can see that at a glance. Or a stare, depending. There is also apparent, another side: a kind of diffidence; maybe not distrust or skepticism, but maybe uncertainty. But maybe none of the above; maybe it’s just that she has one of those faces that you can assign a character to. Maybe that’s what makes a star.

Mr. Balazs, on the other hand, looks like a movie star but he is a real estate impresario-tycoon. He’s the man who created the renaissance of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. You probably know he had a long relationship with Uma Thurman, another beauty; and before that was married to Katie Ford of Ford Models. Now the romance appears to be with the bashful blonde.

I finally distracted my dinner partner from stealing Zellweger glimpses (actually I’m exaggerating) by discussing politics. He told me to watch Tina Fey as Sarah Palin on SNL. I hadn’t before.

It went on just as I got in the door from dinner. The guy doing Biden was pretty funny too. Even though none of it is funny. Watching it and having a good laugh at both of the characters, I was thinking how the only good thing about it (the situation with these characters running for office) is that it’s funny. Or tragic, depending.

People and money. The current financial situation has New York in its grips right now. It has cast a pall over people’s thinking. Those who are thinking. Perhaps, many are thinking, perhaps it will be brief. Whatever “it” is. There are increasing stories of Wall Street casualties and increasing commentaries from anyone you might ask. If you read a variety of reports and commentaries, as I do, you can easily fall into a near panic. Surely, like the Presidential race, there must be something hilarious on the other side of this.

Click cover to order.
At Archivia I picked up a book I hadn’t seen before: “The Court of Mrs. Astor In Gilded Age New York” (Wiley 2008) by Greg King. An excellent distraction; I love the mirror of history. It is an escape but one that offers possible insight.

I opened to the chapter on jewelry because it’s a matter that been brought to my attention several times in the last couple of weeks. There’s an auction tomorrow of some of Brigid Berlin’s jewelry at Doyle’s. There’s the National Jewelry Institute’s exhibition of ancient jewelry from the cradle of civilization now at the Forbes Gallery. There’s the upcoming sale of some of Babe Paley’s jewelry at Verdura. Men buy jewelry. Women too, of course. But men have bought it all through history for its value and then of course for its beauty and/or rarity. And in times like these too.

In the chapter in “The Court of Mrs. Astor…..” the writer talks about what the ladies of society in New York decorated themselves with a hundred years ago in the now mystifying Gilded Age. He put the value of “collective contents of the jewel caskets of the ultra-fashionable set in New York society approximate closely to $170 million (or $3.9 billion in today’s dollars).” Yes, that’s billion. I wondered if you added up the collections in the private vaults of the social world today, would the sum be similar?

A century ago pearls were de rigeuer. White ropes of Oriental pearls draping the neck and shoulders as well as the diamond sparkling coronets. Diamonds were forever. A great big brooch, a “corsage” of diamonds worth $75,000 (or $1.7 mill in today’s battered buck). The hostesses who counted (they gave copious dinner parties for twenty, forty, a hundred) had a number of parures and demiparures, which consisted of tiara, necklace, earrings, brooch. Tiaras were “in.” You could wear your diamonds and rubies or emeralds or sapphires and/or pearls, on your tiaria (as well as hairpieces set with precious stones).
After George Jay Gould married the pretty actress Edith Kingdon, against his mother's wishes, his loathed financier/doting father, gave the young married couple a Victorian mansion on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 67th Street in 1886.
When Florence Adele Sloane married James Burden in 1893, she received, King writes, “a diamond tiara from her husband, a diamond sunburst brooch from her father; a large diamond and sapphire necklace from her mother, and from her uncle Cornelius Vanderbilt II, ‘a most gorgeous stomacher of diamonds.’”

Wait, one more: “Edith Gould, wife of Jay Gould’s eldest son, George, possessed a collection of jewels valued at more than $1 million ($23 million in today’s currency). ‘She was very fond of jewels,’ recalled one acquaintance, ‘and wore them almost constantly, changing them from day to day.’ For motoring Edith habitually wore her famous pearls. George had purchased five perfectly matched strands of pearls for his wife from Tiffany at a rumored cost of $500,000 ($11.5 million in today’s dollars), although she rarely wore more than three at a time. She frequently wore a tiara of five large diamond fleurons, each hung with an exquisite freshwater pearl; George also purchased eight large diamond peacock feathers adorned with emeralds that had belonged to the Emperor of China, and had Cartier craft five of them into a lavish tiara, the remaining three fronds forming a magnificent brooch.”
And you thought we were extravagant?

Postscript about Mrs. Gould’s Fifth Avenue life.
Her husband George J. Gould was the eldest son of the wily and ruthless financier and railroad tycoon Jay Gould. As a young man he fell in love with an actress named Edith Kingdon, much to the dismay of his mother who, like many in those days, regarded actresses as one step up from prostitution. Wily though he might have been, and a financial scoundrel, Father approved, however, and the two married, honeymooning on the family's 230-foot yacht, the Atalanta.
After the couple had a family of seven little ones, and the tycoon father had died and left his vast fortune, George Gould had the original house razed and hired Horace Trumbauer to build him a larger mansion, grander and mainly French in style.
Edith Gould turned out to be clever in moving the family into the society that denied any position to her in-laws. This prompted father-in-law to give the couple their own mansion at 857 Fifth (now Number 1 East 67th Street). After Jay Gould's death, George and Edith, now ensconced in their own Fifth Avenue mansion, were even invited to Mrs. Astor's balls two blocks down.

In 1906, now with seven children, the Goulds decided to demolish the house and hired Horace Trumbauer to build them a bigger house on the same site. The family moved in in 1909 and used the house during the New York social season until 1921 when Mrs. Gould died of a heart attack on their private golf course of their estate Georgian Court in Lakewood, New Jersey.

In preparing to examine the body, doctors discovered that she'd encased herself completely in rubber from ankle to neck in an effort to maintain or regain her youthful figure and appeal to her husband. After her death, ironically, Mr. Gould provided reason for her concern: he married his mistress of eleven years, and acknowledged his three illegitimate children by her.

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