Monday, March 30, 2009

Coolish second weekend of Spring in New York

Looking towards the Empire State Building from 33rd Street and Ninth Avenue. 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Mild, but coolish second weekend of Spring in New York. Weekend climaxing with lightning, thunder and heavy rain to wash down the streets of New York on Sunday night.

Counts, countesses and no-accounting: Word comes from across the sea, that New York Housewives’ Luann deLesseps has flown off (desperately?) to Europe to see husband Alex in an attempt to save their crumbling marriage. Alex, the Count de Lesseps has, it is said on the streets of Geneva, taken up with a beautiful Ethiopian beauty who is not only quite a bit younger than he but also quite a bit younger than his wife.

In the meantime, the sixty-something count has slimmed down, tanned up and looks years younger, according to friends, which once again raises the age-old question: Ain’t love grand? In photographs of times past, Alex De Lesseps bears a vague physical resemblance to Bernie Madoff.

Countess Luanne de Lesseps, Count Alex de Lesseps, and Marcia Mishaan (Photo:
Off-camera, he’s a jolly yet serious personality who has had an interest in a variety of international businesses including microfinancing and real estate (hotel) investment in Cuba. An earlier De Lesseps was given the title of Count by Napoleon. Another built the Suez Canal and also presented the Statue of Liberty to the United States.

The present Count De Lesseps and his Luann have long been a popular couple (as Alex and LuAnn) in the US and on the international social scene. Friends say that since returning to the US several years ago, the countess, who is an American with native American descendents, has focused on developing her acting career.

The success of New York Housewives,’ some believe, has been detrimental to her marriage. That may be, although it also may be the common affliction of many marriages of long duration: terminal ennui, also known as bored to death.

Meanwhile, more accounts of countesses. Friends of the couple engaged in the matrimonial mismatch now playing itself out in the Hartford, Connecticut courts between former United Technology CEO George David and his Swedish countess wife, Marie Douglas-David, say that the marriage was no picnic for the Swedish countess.

Even during their engagement, with the countess was wearing the large diamond that turns out not to have been hers (but his), any opinion the lady might express was treated dismissively with aggressive disinterest. The picture presented was one of a young woman who was treated with the kind of indifference that is not good for the soul.

The news media is making hay out of her demand for more than the $43 million post-nup as an example of a girl’s greed. That may be, but it may also be the work of the matrimonial lawyers who are making their own hay of this divorce case.

The countess was born into the crème of European aristocracy. Her uncle, Gustaf Douglas, is one of the Forbes’ richest with a fortune estimated at $1.7 billion. Her paternal aunt, Rosita, was up until her recent divorce, the Duchess of Marlborough (third wife of the duke who has just taken a fourth). Another aunt is the wife of Prince Max of Bayern, the Duke in Bavaria, and one of Marie’s cousins, Princess Sophie of Lichtenstein is the wife of Prince Alois whose family controls a $5 billion dollar fortune.

Marie Douglas-David
Countess Marie’s father, Philipp Douglas, (who is a couple years younger than his son-in-law) is the youngest of the four children of late Count Carl Ludwig Douglas, a Swedish diplomat (of ancient Scottish origins). Once a very successful businessman like his older brother, Philipp at one time, was the largest stockholder in Volvo. Philipp Douglas’ fortunes took a great and sudden reversal when the man was fifty. His daughter was fourteen. He was convicted of some kind of tax fraud and subsequently spent several years in a minimum security prison (he was allowed to leave the prison for ten hours a day, everyday, to study Italian), and forbidden from engaging in commercial activities thereafter.

Meanwhile, the man’s beautiful young daughter grew up surrounded by wealth and castle-owning relatives with royal connections throughout Europe. When she was old enough, she came to America to study and make a good life for yourself. She worked in Wall Street and eventually found herself a rich CEO for a husband. Some said this pleased her father who found social revenge in his daughter’s marriage. And now this.

And now this. Meanwhile back on the sidewalk.
On Saturday I went over to Madison Avenue to run an errand. I started out in the high 80s so I could take in the weekend passing parade.

Once the neighborhood of old time society, with some of yesteryear still intact, it remains the neighborhood of the very affluent, still stocked with the high end emporiums of fashion, art, jewelry, antiques, books and pharmacies. On Saturdays in springtime, the neighbors come out for brunch or shopping or strolling. Families, singles, all ages, some got up in the latest duds. Others casual and bundled up. Strollers, dogs, little ones; friends meeting up at sidewalk chats. It’s the village.

Not a shopper I nevertheless love to check out Crawford Doyle, the bookseller, just up the block from Frank Campbell. I always stop by the windows of Graham Arader and Kenneth Rendell. Graham sells ancient (antique) maps, lithographs and prints. Ken Rendell sells autographs. He also sells a lot of other things and built the private libraries of some of America’s biggest tycoons, but it’s the frame autographs in the window that always stop me. If it’s a birthday that day of a famous one like, say, General Douglas MacArthur, or Franz Liszt or Jackie Robinson, you’re likely to see a picture of the man along with an autographed portrait and/or a document or letter signed by him.

Zitomers on 77th and Madison is the Ritz of city’s drugstores (or what used to be called drugstores), carrying all the personal essentials for a well-fixed family right down to items for Fido, Rover and Tabby. They were out of what I was looking for. I moved on down a couple blocks to Clyde’s on 74th and Madison.

On my way, I passed a man, probably in his late forties, neatly dressed in jacket and pants, holding up to his chest a small white card. In very neatly printed out black ink: “No job, three children, can you spare anything for food.” Very quietly, almost whispering, as he looked at me, and said: “Please.”

In New York one encounters all kinds of people panhandling. All ages and types. Sometimes a woman wheeling a toddler in a stroller, with another little one standing beside her, stopping passers-by to plead for money for food. After you see the woman a few times, and she’s also asking for bus fare to get back to New Jersey, you wonder.

Other times it is a man (rarely a woman) who sits filthy, bedraggled and forlorn, with a sign, holding a cup, literally begging.

It’s hard to know who is the alcoholic or drug addict looking to score a few for the next shot or hit. It’s hard to know if the mother and child are gypsies sent out to do their day’s work, or just desperate to eat. You only know they are hungry. My instinct is to give, but then I don’t have enough for everyone I encounter. And I don’t really want to be part of someone’s scam either.

So on Saturday afternoon, passing the man with the card saying please, I shook my head and kept on walking. He very quietly said “Thank you, and God bless you” and backed away. He sounded Middle-eastern by accent. Although I couldn’t get rid of the words, “three children.”
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This was going through my head when I entered Boyd's Chemists, one of those super deluxe pharmacies full of the fragrance of perfumes and cosmetics that appeal to the masses and are accessible to the solvent, wealthy (or at least well-fixed) men and women in the neighborhood. Coming off the street, the store is like an emotional respite. The staff is well dressed or in smart store smocks, ready to assist. They had in stock what I needed.

In this sudden oasis away from the grit of the city, I was thinking about the man on the corner. It made me think about my own complaints, none of which are lack of food, shelter or clothing. I was thinking of my tax bill, as well as delinquent accounts receivables due, and my own trepidations about our financial future. I was also thinking that with all my troubles, I don’t have three little ones needing to be fed. And what if that man really does? The thought is terrifying to consider, and something many of us are lucky to avoid.

Leaving Clyde’s pharmacy, I walked back up in that direction whence I came to see if I could find the man with the three children. He was still there at 75th across the avenue from the Whitney. I pulled a twenty out of my pocket and folded it up and as I passed I slipped it to him saying only "here." He quietly said: “thank you; god bless you.” A twenty is still a lot in my wallet. Three little ones is a lot more; I’ve got friends who will always feed me. Some of us aren’t so lucky.

Postscript, Speaking of lucky and not so: Jack Dreyfus,
founder of the Dreyfus Fund, who died this past week at 95 was -- besides being very smart and clever – very lucky. I was told this years ago by a close associate.

Dreyfus loved to gamble, and was one of those gamblers who almost always won, according to my source. The odds, it seemed, were almost always in his favor. It came as naturally as blue eyes or brown.

He could, for example, pick up a racing form, run his fingers down a list; stop at a random choice, place the bet and win. Same with the ball games, the card games. He was a natural gambler, although possibly not addicted the way gamblers are known to be. Bet on the Super Bowl? Win? You bet.

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