Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New York Lives

Watching the world go by in Central Park. 4:20 PM. Photo: JH.
February 17, 2009. Sunny and cold. Holiday quiet, meaning: a lot of people on the street but not in such a hurry. I had lunch with a friend at Sette Mezzo on Lexington between 70th and 71st. I don’t go to Sette Mezzo very often but it is one of my favorite UES restaurants because the menu is great. Garden fresh Italian, ample but never too much. It’s basically -- like Swifty’s two blocks north -- a neighborhood restaurant that attracts a clientele who just happen to live in the neighborhood; and many of whom happen to be high profile New Yorkers. For many of them it is their Sunday night early dinner restaurant. They see their friends there, and their neighbors; it’s familiar and the food is fabulous.

Leila Hadley Luce
New York Lives. Leila Hadley Luce died last Tuesday at her apartment on Sutton Place. I met her about fifteen or sixteen years ago when I was first writing the Diary for Quest, a magazine she followed. She was a very short woman, stout, very stylish, and very friendly. She came up to me at a party, introduced herself and immediately started talking about something I had written and why she liked it. That is an excellent way to meet a writer. In fact, it can almost seal a lifelong friendship. I’m half-joking because Leila, I soon began to see, was one of those people who made friends everywhere, and forever.

I’d heard about her long ago through our highly respected and generous mutual friend (highly respected and generous at least to writers, and little animals; take that any way you like), Larry Ashmead, the longtime executive editor at Harper&Row/ HarperCollins Larry is possibly more responsible for my having a writing career than anyone else. He’s a booster.

One day over lunch he happened to tell me about Leila who had just married Henry Luce III (known as Hank).

I think Larry told me about Leila because he knew she was the kind of character who might find her way into some story of mine. She was described as a highly sociable character, a writer, very well traveled and well read; a gadfly amongst the cognoscenti as well as the society crowd; who had finally married Hank Luce after a very very long – years – relationship with him while he was married elsewhere and so was she.

Hank Luce was first described as “not easy.” On meeting one could see how apt was that description. He could be boorish, undoubtedly unaware; very macho in his vintage preppy-Princeton (or was it Yale?) sort of way. Friendly when he felt like it, a grumbler when he didn’t. All of which, in a story, meant that Hank Luce wasn’t a day in the country. For Leila, and probably anybody else, for that matter. And never had been in all the years before marriage.

Leila Hadley in 1972 at 46. Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times.
But Leila was resolute: she was going to be Mrs. Henry Luce III one day. And so it was. Younger generations in New York wouldn’t understand the significance or gravity of that title. But the world that spawned and nurtured Leila Burton Hadley Smitten Musham Luce of New York, Mrs. Henry Luce III was, in her book, tantamount to a duchess.

Leila came of age in the world that Time-Life ruled. In the magazine business which up until ten minutes ago was the most glamorous of media businesses, Henry Luce and his empire were without peer. The fact that Hank was an ornery fellow at more times than you might like -- and God knows what else -- was ignored. As much as possible.

Leila made friends everywhere. In her later years she had a lot of young friends, just as she had a lot of older friends when she was a young woman. No doubt some of her best friends in the last years were forty and fifty years younger than she, maybe even more. Because she was youth personified, winnowed; always gracious, sophisticated, perspicacious (these are words for Leila, so pardon the polysyllables) and enthusiastic. Furthermore, thanks to her latter-day Don Juan, Mr. Luce, she still had the means to entertain, to get out, get around and meet people.

Since I had known Leila for only a decade and a half, I never saw the young and diminutive woman who was an ambitious young journalist -- that breed of pre-Women’s Lib female who went out and grabbed the world by the tail. These same women exist in today’s young professional women in New York: they keep life interesting for themselves as well as for those around them.
Leila in Africa in the 1950s when she was writing guidebooks for travelers with children. Patrick A. Burns/The New York Times.
The Times obit by William Grimes goes into quite a bit of detail on a lawsuit that one of Leila’s daughters filed against her and Hank Luce several years ago. Mr. Grimes’ piece explains it more knowledgeably than I can (so visit this link here). This family matter had been brewing for many years. I had heard about it when I first knew Leila, years before it became public. The issue as it has been presented is very troubling to consider. It is also one of those things that is hard to imagine from knowing the principals involved (Leila, Hank and a daughter). It is therefore a matter that is “believed” by some and “disbelieved” by others. This is almost universally true of matters of having to do with intimate family relationships. Whatever the truth, there was a problem. Exactly what it was may never really be known to anyone other than the principals. That is often the nature of family. Mendacity becomes a tool often skillfully used in maneuvering ambition’s highway.

By the time I met Leila Hadley Luce her ambitions had been met. She was dealing with the encroaching vagaries of getting older and just getting around in general. For a woman like that, always a young girl in mind and spirit, it had to be like having your new car traded in for a very old one that is always breaking down. Leila would have laughed at the description while knowing exactly what it was. I saw her a few times after her daughter’s lawsuit hit the papers. I didn’t ask her about it but she mentioned it. Whatever the story, this was a deeply humiliating moment in the life of a woman close to her eightieth year. She bore it. And wrote another book.

I found several pictures we've taken over the past few years of Leila. She still loved getting out in New York, surrounded by friends and people she wanted to know.
Dominick Dunne and Leila; with Louis Mirrer of the New-York Historical Society.
Francesco Scavullo and Leila; with Toni Goodale.
Leila, Dan Dutcher and Liz Smith; Leila with Amy Fine Collins at a party she gave for Larry Ashmead.
This picture (below) was taken at Table 52, Art Smith’s restaurant in Chicago on Valentine’s Day. Our friends Patrick and Patsy Callahan were dining with Christina and Rod Gidwitz and were pleasantly surprised to see that the President and Mrs. Obama were also celebrating Valentine’s Day there. He looks like a kid, doesn’t he? A really happy, dear, sweet guy with a very pretty girlfriend. I suppose that could be read as a partisan statement since in real life he’s President of the United States, but I don’t see it that in this picture -- just a nice shot of six real people in a Chicago restaurant on Valentine’s Eve ...

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