Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Captivated over lunch

The fiery moon sets over New Jersey. 10:30 PM. Photo: JH.
January 27, 2010. Tuesday was a not-very-cold day in New York, winter sunny. Charlotte Ford invited me to join her, her sister Anne, and Liz Smith for lunch at the Four Seasons.

Number one. Liz Smith is the best lunch partner in New York. And we were captivated. She can keep you enchanted, shocked, laughing and listening for an entire lunch. And it’s all done miraculously without the faintest damn. So we were all ears and much laughter.

The Four Seasons is to CEOs what Michael’s is to media, a place that they can’t help lunching at. Despite the cut of their bespoke suits and crispness of their bespoke cuffs, and the cost of the cravat, they are personally just as thrilled to be there as are the rest of us. This is because it feels like a club, and thanks to Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson with some assist from William Pahlman, it’s peerless. And now a half-century later, it’s an old chestnut.
The Grill Room at The Four Season's. Photo: The New YorkTimes.
Meanwhile yesterday, amidst our LizSmithian what’s-up, I noticed late in the lunch hour how the round table of five businessmen (clearly) across the aisle behind us were all suddenly looking in our direction. At first I thought our direction. I quickly realized, observing as I do, that they were looking beyond us, like behind me.

Not once, not twice, but several times. I didn’t turn around right away (first having to delude myself that I am subtle) but finally I couldn’t resist. It had to be someone like George Bush or some amazing woman.

Amazing woman. I said to Liz, “who’s sitting behind me?” Liz said to me: “Daphne Guinness.” I turned around; the hell with it, I wanted to see too. With Bernard-Henri Levy, the French dreamboat/ philosopher/journalist/rich boy.

Daphne Guinness.
Bernard-Henri Levy with Arielle Dombasle.
Ms. Guinness is astonishingly beautiful and doesn’t look like anybody else. Although looking at the photographs of M. Levy’s beautiful wife, the French chanteuse Arielle Dombasle, you can see he has a type, non?

It all looks like Truffaut, or maybe Vadim. Or maybe Dombasle ... In the Four Seasons at Tuesday luncheon.

I saw them once before at Michael’s several months ago. They got the same reaction although then there were also a lot of women in the room. They seemed oblivious to the intense curiosity-looking.

Looking them over. And wondering. Wonder no more. However. Usually people as clearly defined intellectually and fashion-wise as this couple are rarely unaware of their surroundings.

Although there’s always the possibility of magic.
Last weekend I found myself engrossed in a book called The Twilight of Splendor; Chronicles of the Age of American Palaces by James T. Maher. Mr. Maher, I believe (I’m not absolutely certain) was a very well known musicologist and jazz aficionado who also wrote this book (published in 1975 by Little Brown) and a novel. He’s a witty, almost droll, knowledgeable and critical writer. The result is maybe a new insight to an old story
If it’s the same man I’m speaking of, he died in 2007.

The author chose to chronicle the history of four or five large American houses, including James Deering’s Viscaya, John and Mabel Ringling’s Ca’ D’Zan; The Huntington Library (originally the Huntington house), and Whitemarsh Hall, the Stotesbury estate outside Philadelphia.

I’d been aware of that property for a long time but a few years ago Michael Kathrens published a history of architect Horace Trumbauer (Acanthus Press). I wrote about it somewhere in these pages at the time. It was a beautifully produced coffee table history of the man’s work – which was substantial – and the Stotesburys’ Whitemarsh Hall is considered by many to be his triumph of design and engineering.

The Twilight of Splendor: Chronicles of the Age of American Palaces.
Click to order.
I remain, as it was when I was a kid, fascinated by business of a castle/palace/mansion. My amazement has taken different perspectives over time. For example, as a kid, I would have fantasized playing king, cops-and-robbers, hide-and-seek in the place. As a teen-ager I would have seen myself having wild parties and being so-cool.

As a young adult it might have been the King of the Hill syndrome (Benny Bigdeal). Now older than the 62 Mr. Stotesbury was when he moved into his palace, I can only think, I can’t imagine all that space.Where you live? It seems absurd.

However, somewhere in all this is the crux. Mr. Maher’s book fired my curiosity about these people who have somehow remained outside the annals of late 19th/early 20th century social history in America. I couldn’t help wondering what motivated this couple.

I’ve concluded Edith Wharton knew who they were. May have even thought them vulgar. But good material. I’ve concluded something along those lines as well as something different, for they were not tragic in any way, a life and time took all of its inevitable tolls.

In a separate posting today, NYSD Social History, I capsulize this extraordinary time, and this couple who lived in a world that is now beyond our ken as Americans, having been drastically re-defined and transformed by a stroke of history we now know as the Great Depression.
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Photographs by Cutty McGill (Placido).
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