Monday, February 9, 2009

It was about the money

Looking north from 97th Street and Park Avenue. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.
February 9, 2009. Sunday in New York was sunny and spring-like. In my neighborhood, Carl Schurz Park and its adjacent Promenade along the East River was crowded with families, walkers, joggers, strollers, children, men, women, dogs, even a cat on a leash looking somewhat distracted. All in the bright winter sunshine flashing off the waters beside us. This is joy. You can actually feel it around you. The little dog run was jammed and jammed by its fences with spectators watching the little ones play like children. There is a welcome relief in these little creatures celebrating life in a way which eludes almost all of us. Hearts smile. Soften even.

It was one of those Sundays in New York wintertime where the shining faces of the crowds enjoying their leisure are the main attraction. It was good to see everybody and their dogs and their kids; whoever they may be.

There was an article by Allen Salkin in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times about living on $500,000 a year. “You Try to Live on 500K in This Town.” In it he ran through the upfront costs like taxes (chomp chomp) and then the perfunctory young family items like schools and clubs and philanthropy. Mr. Salkin, who interviewed me when he was working on the piece, quoted a remark I made about what it can cost a woman in the New York Social world, dress-wise, for her social season. A lot. I said something like $10,000 to $13,000 for a dress maybe three or four times a year. Mounts up.

A reader wrote to suggest I was being an Elitist with this observation. I was just stating a fact. Fashion at a certain socio-economic level of New York is expensive. It was always thus, comparatively. If you only look at Bill Cunningham’s Times photographs of the passing fashion parade along the avenues of Madison and Fifth, you’ll see a lot of money spent on clothes. Men too, but the women who like to dress, spend.

Yes, it is an extravagance. Extravagances come and go. Even Barbara Hutton, one of the most personally extravagant people of the 20th century, ran out of money. Although she was doubly fortunate as she ran out of money at just about the same time she ran out of breath, never knowing the difference. Never knowing much happiness either, if you’ll pardon the cliche.
On The Street/Bill Cunningham.
Last Thursday night I went to a small dinner party given by Sarah and Mitch Rosenthal. Mitch, Dr. Mitch, is a founder and still driving force of Phoenix House. His vivacious wife is also a therapist (although she does a wicked Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion), and is currently writing a book about her mother. Or her father; I’m not sure which; maybe both. Our mothers and fathers never lose their power of interest.

There were about 20 guests -- two tables. There were journalists, financiers, political operators, public reletions executives, civic leaders and philanthropists at the table I was at. That was pretty much the mix of the list. The atmosphere at the Rosenthal dinners is always gemutlich, like a group of old friends (an exaggeration but the right idea). So with a group like that. and an atmosphere like that – a cozy but spacious apartment high above the East Side, surrounded by the all-night jazz patterns of the metropolis below and beyond – this is good. What can I say? You think, how lucky to be in New York at this moment, this very moment.

Sarah and Mitch Rosenthal
The news isn’t good. This is the news. Everybody seems to know this on some level. The cabdrivers. The retailers. The conversation starts with Madoff (and that can run for quite some time because they are new stories everyday). From Madoff it ran naturally about the banks and the bailouts and the bonuses. And Obama of course.

The opinions expressed were often cogent because of their expressers – people who know their business. Nevertheless, the urgency was not present. The urgency is something Mr. Obama has been obliquely referring to when he says it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better.

Yesterday Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, added to that urgency in collaboration with New York University economist Nouriel Roubini by creating a Facebook page where Americans can petition the Federal Government to make the bankers return all their bonuses.

Mr. Taleb and Mr. Roubini are very influential men these days. Influential perhaps not with the politicians but definitely with those who have been following their financial ministrations. They have been Right On the Money and well ahead of most pundits and almost all economists.

Only very few years ago Mr. Roubini was almost jeered off the stage by well-heeled bankers and their boys. And girls. That was when he said the bottom was going to drop out and that it would start with the subprime mortgages. Many thought he was full of it. Now that looks like common sense. Actually it always looked like common sense. In retrospect for most of us.

Sunday in Connecticut. And Westchester.
Also a beautiful day. With hundreds of protestors led by an organization called Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA) marched by the houses of Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack and Greenwich Finance CEO William Frey among others. The march was part of what the NACA called a “Predator’s Tour.” NACA also is in the business of helping restructure morgages.

From the video footage, the band of protestors up there in Greenwich and Rye certainly didn’t resemble the sans-culotte of Louis XVI’s day. The Ralph Lauren and J. Crew version maybe. Bright yellow pullovers, parkas and buttondowns, they could have been out on along the Promenade in Carl Schurz Park. If they were in Manhattan.

Funny to watch as a video but it wouldn’t be surprising if Mr. Mack found it not exactly a laff riot. A Day In the Country it was not exactly; even with that grand weather. Although who knows, maybe Mr. Mack was in Lyford Cay, and only just heard about it. Life’s funny that way.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t like they stormed the gates of Versailles and took the King and the Queen back to Paris as hostage. So let the brows unfurrow and the hackles rest. Although ole Louis and Marie-Antoinette didn’t have Stewart, Colbert and Letterman to kick them around every night.

Me on this brilliant weekend, I was reading Trollope.
I was reading Trollope. I’m one of the people who loves the sound of that sentence. “The Eustace Diamonds.” (First published in 1873 in London. But some things never change. According to Trollope.)
Atlantic College, St. Donat's Castle, in Wales, UK.
Also last Thursday evening, a cold cold night in New York, over at Time Life in the Henry Luce Conference Center, the U.S. Foundation for Atlantic College in Wales UK held its 4th annual UWC Speakers Series.
The speaker was Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time Magazine.The title of the lecture was:“Mandela and Obama, a discussion of their transformative leadership.”
Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle who is the current president of the Foundation, introduced Mr. Stengel who spoke for about 20 minutes about the similarities and the differences between South Africa’s ex-president Nelson Mandela and president Barack Obama.
Atlantic College's famous waterfront (the cliffs of Glamorgan).
Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle at Atlantic College in Wales.
Mr. Stengel collaborated closely with Mandela on his autobiography “Long Walk To Freedom” and is now writing a book on Mandela’s “ Lessons on Leadership.” He has also spent the last two years leading Time's coverage of president Barack Obama's electrifying rise to power. He talked especially about both men’s steady temperament, recalling a time when he interviewed president Obama right after he had lost the New Hampshire primary and how he seemed calmer than ever at the end of a hectic and disappointing day.  When he got on his plane, at 9 o’clock at night, he loosened his tie, put his feet up and said to Rick, “So, how is it going?” With a smile on his face ... 

Among the more than 100 attending were: Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle and Chris Whittle, Louise Grunwald, Mary Stengel, Isabel Rattazzi, Andi Bernstein, Donna Wick, Paige Peterson, Diana and Charles Revson, Sean and Ginny Day. (Big supporters of the school, and parents of a current student), and about 100 ex-students from the New York area also attended. 
Sasha Whittle, Chris Whittle, and Andrea Whittle (currently attending Atlantic College) taken at AC in Wales.
Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle as the captain of the beach rescue team at Atlantic College in 1974.
Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle is the current president of the US Foundation for Atlantic College. She is an ex-student of Atlantic College and her daughter, Andrea, is currently attending Atlantic College. Atlantic College is an international high school located in Wales, UK, in a medieval castle called St. Donat’s, which was among the personal property of William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and 1930s. He bought it site unseen in 1925 after seeing pictures of it in a magazine.
(UWC stands for United World Colleges. 12 international schools scattered around the world in the UK, USA, Canada, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Singapore, Hong Kong, India,  Swaziland, Italy, Norway, and Bosnia Herzegovina, linked by common goals of promoting international understanding, service to others and merit scholarships. Students who graduate from these schools tend to want to save the world and work in the public sector, like foundations, the World Bank and the UN. An increasingly popular field is environmental studies).
Ginny and Sean Day talking to Caroline Mwaniki and Oumou Leye Richard Stengel, Louise Grunwald, Chris Whittle, and Andi Bernstein behind him (Henri Luce room)
Priscilla Rattazzi Whittle and Louise Grunwald Former students, Vanessa Henderson, Kithinji Muriira, Gosia Jarema, and Dominic Muntanga
Paige Peterson, Mary Stengel, and Charlie Moss (photos from Time-Life collection in the background). Richard Stengel, Matt Wallaert (former student from Hong Kong UWC), and Chris Whittle

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