Thursday, October 2, 2008

New York Lives

Construction in the rain. 4:30 PM. Photo: JH.
10/2. Thursday. Today is the birthday of my colleague and NYSD co-founder Jeff Hirsch. Most readers around this block don’t see him because his labors at the desktop consume his days and most of his nights, but regular readers have come to know quite a bit of him in the photographs he takes that lead the Diary each day. As some readers know, his photographs have been so popular that last May at a special exhibition of them at The Chinese Porcelain Company on 58th and Park, he sold quite a few and raised $30,000 which he donated to the Women’s Committee of the Central Park Conservancy.

He’s a New York kid and grew up across the street from the Park. He’s old enough to remember when as a kid it wasn’t safe to go into the Park alone, even during the day. It was a danger zone, as well as rundown and coming apart. The Conservancy’s work has special meaning for him, and now many times the place is his palette for the NYSD. If you’d like to give the man a birthday remembrance you can always send a check to the CPC in his name or make a donation by clicking here. Five bucks’ll do ya. Or a c-note or a grand. A bench, a bush, a fresh blade of grass; it all goes into the great city’s oasis.

Otherwise, Happy Birthday JH; long may you live. And photograph. And all the other things that make the NYSD.

NewYork Lives.
Yesterday I went down to Michael’s to lunch with Ann Ziff. Mrs. Ziff is a Vice-Chairman of the Board of Director of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. NYSD readers saw our visit to her home a couple of weeks ago to a cocktail kick-off for the upcoming “Lincoln Center’s Night of Dinners Celebrating Fifty Years.” Taking place on December 8th, the evening will begin with “Dinners for the 50th Anniversary” held all over town. There are more than 50 of these dinners planned and they will be hosted by prominent New Yorkers. After dinner, the guests will go to Lincoln Center for a special performance for them given by Michael Feinstein.

DPC with Ann Ziff
The public relations woman asked if I might interview her as a device for publicizing the upcoming 50th Anniversary of Lincoln Center. President Dwight D. Eisenhower broke ground at a ceremony in early 1959. It was a rundown New York neighborhood that had been swept away by the demolition team. The public had been apprised of the grand plans to make this a great cultural center. No doubt on first being revealed many believed it was a noble idea but perhaps a bit of a stretch. Today, with 12 different art organizations under its umbrella, it is perhaps the greatest metropolitan cultural center on the planet. And like the aforementioned park, which has been overseen by the same sensibility, the Lincoln Center complex is guided by its noble charter.

I said yes to the suggestion to “interview” Mrs. Ziff because I’m always interested in how people in the city’s structure get to their positions of influence and power. And why. Mainly why because therein lies the truth.

Ann Ziff was born in Manhattan into the boomer generation, daughter of a doctor and an opera singer, raised first on East End Avenue and then West 86th Street near the Hudson. (From both homes there was close proximity to water. Today she lives up on Fifth and looks out at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir.)

She went to Birch-Walthen and then on to Whittenberg College in Ohio. After college she got a degree in social work and went to work for the state working with children and young people from domestic abuse situations. Drugs, alcohol, deprivation, starvation, physical abuse. She told me about one child who was in the home up in Westchester where she worked. The girl’s fingers on one had had been burned repeatedly almost to the knuckle as that was the mother’s way of disciplining the child.

The business of restoring, rehabilitating, revitalizing a child from these abusive circumstances are not only grim but very expensive. Huge sums are spent on each child. They used to come into programs – homes – to stay for a duration, Today they are always temporary. The budget can’t accommodate more. Ann Ziff said that most of the children and young people go back into the abusive environment and have very little hope of building good lives for themselves. Children.

After several years she transferred to St. Croix doing the same kind of work. She saw the same problems but she also saw how the warm climate made like easier for even the children. Because there was space, open sky, fruit that could be picked off a tree, warmth to be found in the sun, fish to be caught with a stick, a line and a hook.

After several years in this profession she decided to change her profession and she went to work in the editorial department of Ziff-Davis Communications. The long and the short of it is she married the boss, William Ziff. Together they had three sons -- now grown, and three nephews (son’s of Mr. Ziff’s sister) who spent a great deal of their childhood with the family. Mr. Ziff passed away two years ago.

A number of years ago, as her family was growing up, Ann Ziff wanted to get into some kind of cultural/philanthropic activity. Because of her mother she was an opera as well as a music fan. Through a friend of her mother’s, Rise Stevens, the mezzo-soprano, she was introduced to Lincoln Center and joined the board and has been there ever since. Her interest in Lincoln Center started with her interest in getting culture and music into the lives of children who otherwise might not have the exposure. This has become a big project for many cultural institutions now, a kind of free way of nurturing hopes and dreams and aspirations in children and young people.

Her other favored charity is Smile Train, a charity started eight years ago to help children with cleft lips and palates all over the world. Founded by Brian Mullaney and Charles Wang, it developed a medical team who can perform reconstructive operations for $250 a piece. So far 300,000 children have had the surgery in 74 of the world’s poorest countries. Last year they raised $84 million for the cause.

Ann's earrings, designed by Ann herself.
Her other passion is jewelry -- designing and making. It began with a long time “hobby” of making beaded necklaces. Her husband encouraged her to take it to the next step and use precious stones. In the past two years she’s had two exhibitions, here and in Florida where she also has a home. In that time she’s developed a private clientele. The next step is to retail here creations. In the meantime, she was wearing the diamond earrings she designed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lincoln Centers (see photograph).

Because she’s lived in New York all her life, and Upper East and upper West, I asked how the town has changed for her. She recalled her childhood on both sides of town where a seven-year-old child was free to go around the corner to the store and buy something, or go off into Riverside Park by him or herself to play; or to ride the buses or the subways (tokens were a nickel). The neighborhoods she grew up in felt more intimate, more like a small town. There was more sky then too. Once out of midtown or Wall Street, there was rarely a 30 or 40, not to mention a 60 or 70 story apartment house looming. Now they are everywhere. Neverthless also in that time there has become the Lincoln Center adding to, Ann Ziff believes, allure of the leading city of the world, New York, New York.

And now for a completely different diet Coke. In the evening, I went down to Bergdorf’s where Interview magazine was giving a party for Brigid Berlin, the veteran Warhol Factory girl who is in the process of auctioning off some of her warehouses of objects, artworks, jewels, etc., that she has created/acquired over the past forty years since she first went to work with Andy at the Factory.

I first heard about Brigid Berlin about the same time that Warhol was creating his Factory and making what was then called Pop Art on the New York scene. Although we’d never met, she and I had a mutual friend who grew up with her and her siblings here in New York and in Westchester. Brigid was the eldest daughter of Honey and Richard Berlin, oldest sister of Christina, Richie and Richard.

Brigid Berlin and Andy Warhol.
Brigid Berlin and Andy Warhol in a Scene from "Pie in the Sky."
Richard Berlin in the 1940s through the late 1970s was a major force in American media back when it was called the newspaper, magazine, print business. He was famous among the elite as well as in the media world for having rescued and restored Hearst Corporation and making it into the media giant it is today. Mr. Berlin started out as an ad space salesman for Yachting Magazine and ended up saving not only the Hearst publishing empire (which then consisted of a major chain of national newspapers, plus magazines) but also making a fortune for himself.

His wife, known as Honey, was a brittle but goodlooking blonde who was 22 years younger than her husband. They lived in a maisonette at 834 Fifth, at their house in the country, and they traveled in the social set that in those days was made up of Café Society, Show Business (theatre and movies) and traveling royals. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were counted as “friends,” the equivalent in their world of having Charles and Camilla as dinner and yachting pals.

The Berlins had four children in fairly short order. The eldest, Brigid was a cute little towhead that had an early predilection for overeating and putting on weight. This displeased Honey Berlin. The first time I heard Brigid’s name was when my friend told how the mother (Honey) was so vocal and disapproving of her children’s weights that when important guests came to stay at the country house, the children were put in their own house so they wouldn’t be seen.

By adolescence Brigid was “getting back” at Honey. Besides filling her face with her obsessive-compulsive appetite for key-lime pies (consumed in avarice and abundance), she hooked up with Andy Warhol who was putting together an “artistic community” of rule-breakers and adventurers which would be known as his factory and became a kind of cultural legend.

Thanks to her childhood medical treatments of diet pills to remove the unwanted glare in her mother’s eyes, Brigid developed a compulsive appetite for those shoot-em-up drugs that kept her moving along through the day and, if so desired, night. This she talked about publicly and frequently (when anyone wanted to hear), when she starred in Andy Warhol’s “Chelsea Girls” which was the talk of the town (New York anyway) because there she was, Honey Berlin’s kid, Friend of the Duchess of Windsor’s kid, in all her avoirdupois-ical (excuse my frenchifying but I couldn’t resist) glory, in the buff omigod, omigawd! Up there on the big screen for the whole world (the whole neighborhood), and everyone else to see.

You’ve got to see the DVD “Pie in the Sky,” which is the story of Brigid’s life. The case study. With the case now sitting all these years later right there in her chintz drenched living room, telling just exactly. If you’re a shrink in training, you’ll love this documentary. If you’re not, you will be by the time you get to the end of the film.

The parents, like so many in the 1940s, filmed the family picnics, outings, birthdays, parties. The kid was destined to play herself. And play herself she has. Now in what she calls her 70th year (she was 69 last September 6th), she looks about as much like a Warhol factory girl babbling one camera nude as did the Duchess of Windsor. So take that, Honey!

All these years later, mother and father long gone, children, all four still surviving, all made wealthy (they’d probably call it comfortable) by the father’s largesse, Brigid was holding forth at Bergdorf’s last night before a big crowd (audience really) of friends and family and fans, and looking rather like one of her mother’s bridge partners after a hard day’s playing.

A cross between a sit-down version of Elaine Stritch’s standup shtick and some Park Avenue matron’s persnickety attitude, Brigid lives a life so much like her mother’s or at least like her mother would have wanted her to live, that you could almost wonder what that was all about.

Although that’s putting it simply and the Brigid Berlin story, as well as the Berlin family story, is far from simple, or at least serene. So last night she held forth, first sitting, then standing, then sitting. She told us how she does all her going out these days on the phone, After that she’s in bed by 8:30 with her little lovies (pugs) and watching Fox News so that she could be a flack for Roger Ailes or Hannity or the Mad Irishman, she loves them so much. From far-out to far-in. And she’s funny.

“Somebody told me the other day that I looked like Pamela Harriman,” said the former more than zaftig hoyden, the bane of her mother’s existence. “I said,” she added, “if I can look like that broad, then I’m happy.”

See for yourself, tonight over at Doyle Galleries
on East 87th Street between Lex and Third, from 6 to 8:30, where there is going to an exhibition of some of Brigid’s jewels which she is putting up for auction next Monday, October 7th. Mama wudda loved it. Brigid’s going to be there too. It’s a Noo Yawk moment, brought back by popular demand (for interesting people who really did go out there and live it all); a don’t miss if you’re in the neighborhood or nearby.
Brigid Berlin holding forth, first with one of her loved ones in her arms, and then with the mike explaining how she likes to talk ... and talk ... and talk. And then sitting surrounded by her admirers, fans, friends and curiosity seekers (audience) listening to the tart witticisms coming from the "broad" who wouldn't mind looking like Pamela Harriman, as some friend suggested. Someone else thought she was just like ... her Mother!
Julie Britt and Richie Berlin Christina Berlin, Andrea Fonyo, and Bob DiNapoli
Richie Berlin and Lance Goodwin Brigid's agent, Mimi Strong and friend The Berlins' nieces, Dana and Ellie Berlin (daughters of Richard Jr.)

Photographs by DPC/
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