Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The blizzard still fresh

Looking south from the Great Lawn. 2:20 PM. Photo: JH.
December 22, 2009. A sunny, cold, slushy day in New York. The blizzard was still fresh excitement and despite the difficulties of getting around, the mood on the streets was buoyant, as always happens after a big snow.

I went down to Michael’s to meet the author Deborah Davis for lunch. Ms. Davis, who has written a couple of best selling books about the creatures of society (Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X and Party of the Century, about the famous Truman Capote Black and White Ball) has a new book out, Gilded: How Newport Became America’s Richest Resort.

And if you’ve ever been to Newport, just a drive down Bellevue Avenue will explain what the author means. And why there’s always more to tell about it.

Ms. Davis, it turns out, grew up in nearby Providence.
DPC and Deborah Davis at Michael's yesterday afternoon (photo: Steve Millington).
I grew up a hundred or so miles to the west in Massachusetts. We both, as kids, had visited Newport with our families, as tourists. For me it was back when the big houses were first opening up to tours, although I never toured a house. One summer in the mid-60s, my wife at the time and I used to visit a friend who was working in Newport for Lily Pulitzer for the summer had an apartment on the property called “Clarendon Court,” which was purchased a couple years later by Klaus and Sunny von Bulow.

Newport was in a transition stage at that time. There were still people occupying a lot of the big houses but also many had become derelict and were either being demolished or turned into multiple apartment dwellings.

Click to order.
Actually, there are/were two Newports, and they were very separate – the town where the year-round population lived and some kind of naval officer’s training academy (which is almost invisible to the “resort” visitors to Newport); and the oceanfront area that runs along Bellevue Avenue and what is known as the Ten Mile Drive of “cottages” as the rich quaintly called their multimillion dollar palaces. Some of them, like the Breakers and Marble House would easily cost $200 to $300 million just to build and furnish, and cost comparable amounts in the 1890s when they were constructed.

Seeing all this (from the street, looking through the fence), or as it happened later on, staying on a property with easy access to Cliff Walk (the public walk that borders the oceanfront properties), is very impressive, no matter who you are. When you’re a kid, you understand it even more clearly. Kings live in palaces. Kings rule. A highly alluring notion to a kid, not to mention a lot of grown-ups.

I don’t know if Deborah Davis was affected by her first visit to Newport in quite the same way as I was, but she definitely was inspired by the place. Her book spells it out, and you might be too. It’s also one of those places that is intriguing on many levels. John F. Kennedy and Jackie married there on her mother and stepfather’s estate.

Doris Duke
lived there all her life and even committed an egregious “accident” when one grey and rainy day she rammed her station wagon into her “boyfriend” (who was opening the gate for her) and ran him across the avenue and up a tree. Hmm. She said the accelerator got stuck. That’s for sure.

Miss Duke was already the richest gal in town and before the matter was settled, she showered a little of her massive largesse on the history of the town and restored many of its colonial houses. And they are incredibly (beautifully) restored. The boyfriend, of course, went to heaven, while Doris stayed on for several decades finding out what fresh hell is this, as Dorothy Parker once said. To her boyfriend.

Sorry, I got distracted. The story of Newport will do that to you. Deborah Davis’ Gilded will do that to you.
Seated next to the lavendar jacketed lawyer-turned-novelist Linda Fairstein is (former prosecutor) now NY State Supreme Court Justice Ann Donnelly; behind are three powerhouse Manhattan DA's Office leaders, l. to r.:  Martha Bashford, who with the woman on the far right, Melissa Mourges, runs the country's first Cold Case DNA Unit; and in the middle is Kerry O'Connell, who is the chief of the Child Abuse Bureau. Law and Order: SVU (the real deal) meets Michael's at their annual Christmas lunch.
As I was leaving I noticed the snow in the terrace room at Michael's. This terrace is actually a garden in the apartment building in which Michael's in located, and it was the thing that attracted Michael McCarty to the space because he also has a terrace garden in his Santa Monica restaurant. The two paintings on the left are by Kim (Mrs. Michael) McCarty and the large one on the right is a Frank Stella.
A friend gave me a copy of Dominick Dunne’s new book, Too Much Money. The advance buzz on it has been so-so and even not-so although the critic in the New York Times liked it.

So I opened it with a couple of thoughts. First of all, Dominick knew this was going to be his last book. He’d visited a famous psychic on one of his travels several years ago, and the psychic told him this book would be his last. He could have rationalized and thought to himself that he had now had a long career and might just retire. Except Dominick was very realistic about his life at that point. He was past his eightieth. He’d had a bout of prostate cancer which he’d pretty much licked, and then there was a new one.

He liked his life. He was not an unhappy man. He was grateful for all the great success he’d had in the latter years of his life. Fame and fortune just the way he would have ordered it up in a Hollywood script. He’d lived long enough to know what a reward that was in and of itself. He also knew that at that age, he might be on his way out.

He also had serious legal problems having to do with Gary Condit, the Congressman who sued him for $11 million for slander. And he had immersed himself in the Edmond Safra death that was not favorable to Safra’s widow Lily. Furthermore all of his work for Vanity Fair took up time, and he led a very active social life. It was a good life, over all, with serious, even dangerous problems.

That was where he was at when he started this book. I’m a little more than halfway through. When I put it down last night, I thought how I wished Dominick were still here for two reasons, because they’d lead to so many interesting conversations which he also loved. 1: so I could tell him how he’s grabbed me with the story line, and 2: who are the real people behind the stories of these characters? Because I know enough about the scene that I know some, if not all the stories (as well as many others not in this book).

Too Much Money reads as if Dominick had concluded that this would be his last, and that he might very well not live to see its reception. There is death all around.

It’s about New York in the last 20 years or so, almost right up to the moment. It turns out it is timely. Although one of the upshots of this “novel” is how you feel about the people. The title is the story.

Yesterday the judge in the Astor Trial delivered his sentence to Mrs. Astor’s 85-year-old son Anthony Marshall and the lawyer Frank Morrissey. One to three.

I first heard about it after lunch (and all that talk about all the greed and avarice, arrogance and folly that came before between me and Deborah Davis). A friend of mine who has lived all his life in the society of Mrs. Astor, her son, and their world, including the plaintiffs, a man who also knew/knows all of them one-on-one sent me the following email with the news. He wrote:

“Sentenced to death for making the wrong marriage.”

Anthony Marshall with his wife Charlene in court.
In a later email, he wrote: “I have never been so ashamed of the genteel world I grew up in and of a class of people I have lived among for much of my life ... Were we always so pitiless?”

I can’t answer that question. I haven’t been around long enough. I do know these are the same people in Dominick Dunne’s new book. And, in the book, at least, you don’t like many of them for good reason. At least not for how they choose to behave toward others. Greed and avarice are very democratic ailments, however. You could even call them infectious. So beware.

I personally feel sympathy for Mr. Marshall. I don’t know him, never met him. But I heard his mother and his mother’s friends talk about him for years before this all happened. It started with the mother. I knew that. It never would have gone out without her tacit agreement. I’m prejudiced, however. I have never understood adults denigrating and insulting their own. To me it’s abuse and the world is not a better place for it.

Mrs. Astor knew these things although she too, like many of us under the circumstances (self-centered), was vulnerable to small thinking.

So I had sympathy for Tony Marshall having to live all his life amongst that. Yes, I know, there are worse things. But that is all relative.

I should also add that I believe that Brooke Astor, whom I had met (and interviewed) several times, but was not a social acquaintance of even the most distant kind, in her right mind, cared very much for her son. And he was a dutiful son whose presence in her life after the death of Astor, made it easier for her to be the merry widow (without a man) that she was.

The last thing she EVER would have wanted was to see her friends put her elderly son behind bars! Really; think about it. They were, at the end, close enough in age, mother and son; and he was flesh and blood.

This, I know, is not a legal argument. It’s just an opinion, a matter of opinion. And it is surrounded by many opposing points of view, including some who share many of my sentiments about The Son. And his wife. However, as my friend’s message asked yesterday afternoon: Are we really so pitiless?
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