An air of mystery

Cumulonimbus mammatus clouds after the rain. 8:30 PM. Photo: JH.
July 1, 2009. Midway through the New Year. Yesterday’s weather: beautiful, sunny and then a storm shower late in the day around six. And then clearing with masses of grey clouds amidst the white ones, creating a mysterious light at dusk. Walking along the park side of Fifth Avenue on my way to a book signing, I was reminded of “Blow-Up,” the Antonioni movie and those darkness in the green of those park shots. And then later, after dark, came the half-moon rising over the Manhattan towers. New York.

The Day. On the heels of the Bernie Madoff sentencing yesterday. In the news, the Wall Street Journal reported that New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is selling Madoff-related investment fund manager Ezra Merkin’s fantastic art collection which will raise $191 million for his beleaguered investors. The Attorney General’s office arranged for the artwork to be sold to an anonymous buyer for $310 million. Some of that will go for commissions, some for other fee and liens on the art. New York State Court Judge Lowe said he would approve the sale. The money will be put into a special account at Bank of New York Mellon pending distribution. A brokered arranged the sale. Christie’s handled the appraisals, attesting to the fairness of the sale in terms of the art’s value.

740 Park Avenue, Merkin's residence.
Mr. Merkin’s attorney Andrew Levander described it thusly: "As Mr. Merkin continues to defend against the actions brought against him by the New York Attorney General and others, he and his wife have decided to sell the core of their art collection in a private sale. The Merkins believe the lawsuits are without merit and have agreed, without prejudice to their rights, to place the net proceeds of the sale in escrow while the litigation continues.”

The Attorney General alleged in his complaint against Mr. Merkin that the proceeds of those wayward investment funds was used to purchase art for his collection. The Attorney General is looking to reclaim those “assets” to pay back the investors whose funds were bilked in the Madoff participation. Some of Mr. Merkin’s investors include Yeshiva University, NYU, New York Law School and Bard College. They lost tens of millions. There were also many individuals, even lifelong friends of Mr. Merkin who lost millions. Lifelong friends of Mr. Merkin.

Mr. Cuomo has charged Mr. Merkin with civil fraud, alleging he lied to his investors (even his lifelong friends) about how he invested their money. Mr. Merkin has denied these allegations and any knowledge of Mr. Madoff’s fraud. As manager of the investment funds, he put more than $2 billion with Mr. Madoff.

The Merkins are residents of 740 Park Avenue, one of the crème-de-la-crème cooperative apartment houses in New York. Built by James Lee, the maternal grandfather of Lee Radziwill and the late Jacqueline Onassis (they lived there as children), designed by Rosario Candela for luxurious living (space, height, light, security, privacy, location, excellent service), it is a very expensive piece of real estate, and expensive to own. The Merkin art collection was awe inspiring to those who saw it. Mr. Merkin had a collector’s eye.

A friend of the family wondered to me yesterday wondered aloud to me what it will be like for the family to see the art removed from its walls. I imagined that perhaps one day far from now one of the children, in reflecting on his family’s and his father’s life, will realize more clearly how it felt. As it happens, shock in the oourse of events is often masked by the day-to-day.
Some of the gang with the author: Nancy Collins, Jane Stanton Hitchcock, Fran Lebowitz, and Kathy Rayner.
Down at Michael’s Arlene Dahl and Jane Powell, two of MGM’s stars of yore were lunching with friends at the big round table in the bay. Elsewhere Tom Guinzberg, long the head of Viking, was lunching with Arnold Scaasi; Simon & Schuster’s editor Alice Mayhew was lunching with an author, and Mort Janklow’s partner Lynn Nesbit was lunching nearby. At the table next to ours (I was with Brooke Hayward and Alex Hitz), Tina Brown was lunching with Catie Marron, of The New York Public Library Board of Trustees.

After she’d finished her lunch, Lynn Nesbit joined us and inevitably the conversation turned to books and the books business which is way off right now.

One very famous editor claims that this is the worst he’s seen publishing in his now long lifetime. People aren’t buying books. People don’t read. People use the libraries more. Library membership is up 50% in some places. Ah, so, people do read. Those who do.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Madame Chiang during a 1943 visit. (AP Photo).
The conversation turned to what to read. Lynn just finished her client Hannah Pakula’s big book, a new biography of Madame Chiang Kai-shek. She said it’s a page turner, and I can believe it. It took Hannah more than ten years to research and write about this incredible woman, one of the most powerfuil political figures of the 20th century. The book’s coming out in the Fall.

Madame Chiang is a name that most people under 60, and maybe under 50, are unfamiliar with. She With her husband she proceeded Mao in ruling China (with the enormous support of American Foreign Policy). She was one of three Soong Sisters including Madame Sun Yet Sen (who disagreed wither sister and was placed under house arrest for it) and Madame H.H. Kung. Their father was a Methodist minister who got very rich selling Bibles to converted Chinese Christians. That set her on a fate and path providing wealth and political power over hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Madame Chiang however was not just some wife. She was the link to the Americans and the Cold War policy. She was powerful. She ruled. She was, as Hannah Pakula declares in her title, “The Last Empress.” At the latter half of her very life she lived at 10 Gracie Square, and she died just a few years ago at 105.

When I lived at a friend’s apartment in the building I would occasionally see the amazing woman who was often called the Dragon Lady by her myriad detractors.

She liked to go out for rides in her limousine (with security cars preceding and following) late on weekday afternoons. She liked to go up to Washington Heights and see Grant’s Tomb at Riverside Drive and 122nd Street. I don’t know what the allure of Grant’s Tomb was for Madame Chiang, but it was a favorite.

Then the discussion turned to “why” people don’t read. Don’t have time. Just don’t. Get it off TV or the movies. Frankly, a lot of it is habit and like any other habit, it starts someplace. With me it started as a child when my mother read to me at night. I almost rather read than do anything else although I am not by any means well-read. I didn’t have the academic discipline that included the classics. Although it’s not bad finding them at this late age.

Many young people don’t read because life’s new and too interesting away from the printed page, and besides they’ve been nurtured in a book-abandoned culture by their book-abandoned parents. One of the things that surprised me years ago when I worked in the brokerage business was how many big businessmen and bankers don’t even read the Wall Street Journal.

Readers, aside, the printed page has taken on a new concept for younger writers. Jodi Della Femina quoted about the writing of her new novel which she wrote with a collaborator, Sheri McInnis, By Invitation Only:

Jodi Della Femina and Maggie Kim.
"If I had written it myself, it probably would've taken a decade!" Della Femina laughed as her children indulged in jelly-filled chocolates. "Luckily, I had a writing partner." As for the most difficult part of the process? Filing the copy. "I wrote my outline and first chapter on my Blackberry," she confessed. "It's a good thing that I never lost it. When I sent it in to the publisher, I didn't realize that at the very bottom was a line that read, "Sent from my Blackberry.'"

When I read that on Fashion Week Daily, I thought: she wrote a book outline on a Blackberry?! That must have taken forever. And then a chapter, also on the Blackberry? We’re watching the evolution of writing, just like we’ve been watching the evolution of reading. What we can’t know is what it’s telling us and where we’re going. Time will tell us.

Nevertheless, NYSD readers hear about a lotta books from over here. That’s to sell books and to expose people to the absolute zen joy of reading. It’s a palliative for the psyche and a good one for their rare times.

That said, last night I went over to Kathy and Billy Rayner’s
very stylish, somewhat India-inspired townhouse for a book signing for their good friend Jane Stanton Hitchcock and her new novel, a detective novel of sorts, “Mortal Friends.”

Jane grew up here in New York, actually at 10 Gracie Square, where Madame Chiang was a neighbor. And she went to school across the street at Brearley. She was never late. Then she went to college and came back to the city, married a member of the Mellon family, acquired her own apartment at 10 Gracie and continued on in her life in New York. Today she lives in Georgetown (although she keeps an apartment here in Manhattan) with her husband, political pundit and columnist Bill Hoagland, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post and former Paris Bureau chief who received a Légion d'Honneur.

She’s written four or five novels, bestsellers, but she remains the kind of writer who will ask you what you thought of it, after reading her book. She’s also a devotee and exponent of Edith Wharton. Like Wharton, her socio-economic background has encouraged her Wharton-like curiosity about that world in which she’s been raised and dwelled. And like Wharton she has had access to it all her life.
Rayner guests relaxing.
This book is based on a murder case that has roots in reality, and containing characters who bear resemblances to people living and dead around Washington, D. C. where the story takes place.

Actually knowing Jane, who is also a serious reader and an avid information collector (not to be confused with gossipist although such attributes double the pleasure), the characters in her novel come from all sorts of authentic places and states of mind.

It takes all types and Jane Stanton Hitchcock knows that as well as anybody else. The only difference is she knows them and is compelled to tell you about them because their world is fascinating and sometimes beyond belief. Money does that to people, you know. Jane can prove it. Read the book.

The Rayners give a wonderful reception. They are very gracious hosts. Kathy’s sense of décor has many facets and color and rich natural beauty, and an idiosyncratic sense of art which charms as well as intrigues. There’s always enough of everything for the welcome guests and the guests feel so welcome they love staying around and enjoying the company, but ultimately with the Rayners, the company’s the thing. That’s the way it was last night, a beautiful summer night in New York.
The author signs for Lionel Larner. Click to order.
Pat and Stephen Attoe. These two have been married for quite a few years. And they didn't know I was taking a picture. Sugar Rautbord, who is giving a book signing for Jane in Chicago, and her host, Billy Rayner. Marianna Kaufman.
Christy Ferer. Christopher Mason, Sharon Sondes, and Geoffrey Thomas. Bill Hoagland and daughter, Lily.
Susan Cheever and friends. Peggy Siegal. John Rosselli and Duane Hampton.
Dailey Pattee and I were talking about the current phenomenon of the way a lot of young women pose for the camera, by crossing their legs just beneathe the knee. Supposedly they think it makes them look thinner. She was explaining how years ago a very famous model named Lisa Taylor told her the hand on the hip profile was the best way because it cinched the waist while the flip of the arm (the upper muscle) doesn't flop. Everyone got a good laugh out of that.
Bunny Williams and her longtime new friend Nancy Collins. Gale Hayman and Dr. Richard Bockman. Stephen and Pat Attoe, that long married couple again.
Kate Blum, Kathy Schneider, and Ms. Andreadis. Billy and DPC, the seersucker boys.
Joan Hardy Clark, Barbara Goldsmith, and Marjorie Rosen. Hilary Geary Ross. Sean King, David Garfinkel, and Sugar Rautbord.
Majorie Braman (who with Jennifer Barth was editor of Jane's new novel) Jane, and architect David Hottenroth. Mary McFadden and Mark deBary. George Farias and Jane Stanton Hitchcock.
The New York Times’ Art Section ran a piece yesterday on Lisa and Philip Falcone who gave $10 million to the High Line project, apparently extemporaneously, at the High Line inaugural celebration. For those who don’t know about the High Line, it is an excellent example of initiative and community improvement (and development of course) that articulates how this enormous city prospers itself: http://www.thehighline.org/

Lisa Falcone and Zaldy Gocco in Paris, 2007.
Mrs. Falcone’s announcement of her and her husband’s contribution was inspired she said, by a $10 million grant from Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg. Mrs. Falcone described her grant as a “matching” to that of the Diller/von Furstenbergs.

We first saw Lisa Falcone about this time two years ago at the American Friends of Versailles Bal de Marie Antoinette at Versailles. We noticed her immediately although we couldn’t identify her. She could have been a character from the Court two or three centuries ago.

She had a presence that at once demonstrated bravado and a slight diffidence. I wasn’t certain if she were American and I can’t even remember how we got her name and the name of her escort. We photographed them because they were so committed to their almost theatrical self-presentation at this spectacular event in a supremely theatrical environment (thanks to ole Loius Quatorze and his great-grandson, Louis Quinze). There were many women at the Bal who were dressed elegantly and with style and even chic, but Mrs. Falcone had drama and mystery.

Mrs. Falcone’s relationship to fashion looked to be more related to Art than to Society. Misia Sert, Rita d’Accosta Lydig, Millicent Rogers; a portrait of a sensibility that is always contemporary because of the attitude of the artist. That’s a lotta talk for: she puts it out there. And it’s fabulous to behold.

After all that, I still didn’t know anything else about her. Only recently when I’ve seen her name as a co-chair at major fundraising social galas, I remembered that moment at Versailles and wondered where she came from and where she wanted to be going. Because she came from out of nowhere; she suddenly appeared. This is what keeps New York interesting. And interested.

The Times piece (by Robin Pogrebin) explains all that quite nicely. Mrs. Falcone is a rising star on the social scene. This is a New York tradition and it goes way back to the days even before Caroline Astor became The Mrs. Astor and presided over the luminaries and very rich people who owned and influenced New York and its politicians. Le plus ca change… you could say, remains in place.
Lisa Falcone and Zaldy Gocco in Paris, 2007.
According to the Pogrebin piece, Lisa Falcone was a little girl from Spanish Harlem who early on in what was a difficult and uncertain life for a child, was rescued from the specter of treachery by the artist in her. Beauty kept her out of the dark.

Now, the Times. New York is about asserting yourself. No matter your profession, your interests, the objective is success as others perceive it, in one form or another. It is more easily assured if one has ambition. In some cases it is even more easily assured if one has lots of money. Philip Falcone, who is a hedge fund operator and had the common sense to see what was going to happen as a result of the subprime mortgage glut, monetizing his insight into a huge fortune, is a billionaire. Their relationship (17 years together) is romantic and even storybook.

This public notice is not an accident. Mrs. Falcone is a woman with ambition. Girls and boys who grow up in a stressful environment and get themselves out it and into the world, are ambitious. They have to be. The High Line got a $10 million grant thanks to that. Now the artist is developing a following. Viva New York.
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