Thursday, January 28, 2010

Objectives and remembrances

Row boats along The frozen Lake in Central Park. 3:45 PM. Photo: JH.
January 28, 2010. A bright, clear sunny day and not too cold; yesterday in New York.

I went down to the Museum of Arts and Design
(MAD) on Columbus Circle to have lunch with Barbara Tober at ROBERT, the new restaurant on the 9th floor of the building. The last time I visited the museum was also with Barbara – who has been one of its driving forces and developers – and the restaurant was still a reinforced concrete shell with wires hanging from the ceilings and jutting out of the walls and the rough cement floor.

Today it is sleek and airy and offers one of the most wonderful, least seen sights in New York: Columbus Circle looking north up Broadway, north northeast up Central Park West and across the vast span of the great Park and the buildings along Fifth Avenue and the East Side. It’s a beautiful sight.
The view from ROBERT at the Museum of Arts and Design with Broadway on the left and Central Park West on the right, and the Trump Tower in the middle.
The same view from our visit in April 2009.
On arrival I mentioned the development of Columbus Circle since both of us have been around long enough to remember when the old (didn’t look old) New York Coliseum was there and the Trump building to the north was the Gulf + Western when it was the creation of a guy named Charles Bluhdorn. Charlie Bluhdorn, as he was known, somehow got the idea that Columbus Circle was going to be a mecca.

Huntington Hartford might have had that idea when a decade eaerlier he put up his museum which today houses (after a re-design) MAD. Even William Randolph Hearst years before tried a steady hand at developing it years before Charlie Bluhdorn or Huntington Hartford was a babe.

But Columbus Circle did not take off. Nothing wrong with that but now, since the Time Warner Towers went up and Whole Foods moved in and Jazz at Lincoln Center moved in and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and MAD opened, Columbus Circle is a popular destination in the city.
Holly Hotchner, Director of the Museum of Arts and Design and Barbara Tober, now Chairman Emerita of the Board, before a work from the special exhibition last Spring.
Barbara Tober told me that fountain with the statue of Columbus in the center is the actual center of Manhattan from which all distances are calculated.

Mrs. Tober is one of those New York forces, women’s division. I qualify because a century ago if she didn’t belong to Mrs. Astor’s Patriarchs, she wouldn’t have had a dent of influence in the city, as a woman. However, that was then, this is now of course.

She was the editor of Brides magazine for about three decades, so she understands managing creative ideas and gross income. And deadlines. And opposition. And objectives.
The bare bones of the restaurant on the ninth floor that would be ROBERT, the museum restaurant with its spectacular views.
ROBERT, the finished product.
Barbara and her husband Donald Tober have been involved with The Museum of Arts and Design since it was a small operation and mainly someone’s dream. The Tobers got involved through their own interest ignited while window shopping art galleries on Madison Avenue one autumn Saturday afternoon years ago.

They saw something. They made a purchase. They loved it more. One thing led to another.

The restaurant. The view’s so sensational it almost seems like the food doesn’t matter. But it does, and it’s good. And light.
The installation from the current Works in Paper exhibition, more spectacular than it even
looks in the picture.
There’s a Paper exhibition going on right now. The last time I was there the main exhibition featured a massive tapestry made entirely of crushed bottle caps. It was sensational. And powerful. And affecting. It was made by an artist in Ghana who has a number of people working with him to make his objects. The work was commanding. It had great power.

If you haven’t been to MAD, go. You will be amazed and astonished. And glad to be there. Some of the objects are so beautiful that you begin to feel as if its creators are indeed as beautiful too. It’s a vote for us.
The bottle-tops tapestry, exhibited last Spring.
Louis Auchincloss died yesterday in his 93rd year. He was born September 27, 1917. There is a natural desire to write about his life here but in fact I did not know Mr. Auchincloss personally, except from an obvious distance, and his prolific career as a writer will be recorded elsewhere frequently, at length and with knowledge of the man that I don’t possess. He was long an important writer to this writer, for what must be obvious reasons by now. Although my personal favorite chronicler of the American scene which is distinctively chronicled by Mr. Auchincloss, has always been John O’Hara.

Nevertheless, I will always be in awe of the man’s perspicacity, productivity, patient observations and the talent with which he portrayed the concealed lives of his subjects. He was out of Edith Wharton. I was thinking on Tuesday when I was writing the piece on the Stotesburys and their house Whitemarsh Hall, that Louis Auchincloss would have been able to shed a particular light (and probably facts) on the subject of the couple and their marriage and their world. And who they were in his world.

I saw him fairly regularly over the years. I covered a number of evenings which featured or honored him. I don’t recall being introduced outside of the mass how-ja-do’s that occur at these things. Naturally I was fascinated simply by his presence. My admiration for his accomplishments and achievements has similar sentiments to those of a kid who idolizes a Red Sox pitcher.
Brooke Astor and Louis Auchincloss at Malcolm Forbes' 70th birthday party.
I know he was aware of my presence as a writer, although he never expressed it directly. He once told a mutual friend, referring to something something I’d written about Mrs. Onassis after her death, that I’d “got it right.”

I took that as a very high compliment, believe me, despite its distance. However, over the years, as we were in the same room, under some same roof together many numbers of times, he never demonstrated even an inkling of curiosity of making contact. Such as a simple “hello” in response to mine as we were standing next to each other. There was a moment one afternoon several years ago in the Society Library on East 79th Street when I went in to research something and he was sitting at the end of one of reading tables. I was the only other person in the room. He was reading something. I noticed him when I entered, of course, and he looked up at me. I smiled and nodded, in passing. He looked at me as if he didn’t notice. Or didn’t care to.

It makes me laugh to think of that moment now because it later occurred to me that he had a kind of shyness, that WASP reserve that can be very hard to read if you’re outside the realm (or want to read).

Louis Auchincloss in 2003 at Doubles. Photo: JH.
I could say I was disappointed that I never had the opportunity to converse with him, but I wasn’t really. Frankly I always felt a little awkward in his company, as if I might say the wrong thing and catch a glare from those saturnian eagle eyes. Later on it occurred to me that perhaps it was he who was feeling awkward and that’s what I was picking up. Life’s funny that way. Furthermore, the gold in a writer is in his work. That is the greatest friendship any good writer can offer his fellows. Louis Auchincloss more than lived up to that.

When he was a little boy growing up in Manhattan, his nurse used to take him out to the Park and walk along Fifth Avenue. That was in the early 1920s, an age when the great houses of the Gilded Age were just being replaced by the large luxury apartments that exist today.

Many of those big old houses were empty and evidently the nurse knew how to gain entrance to look at their interiors, now bereft of life. The kid was hooked too. It was there that his fascinations began. Learning that struck me especially because I had a somewhat similar experience when as a small child my mother brought me to New York on a Sunday excursion. We took an open air bus ride up the avenue. I saw for the first time large four- and five-story buildings, still standing among the tall, grand apartment houses. One of those smaller buildings was under demolition. It was so huge that I was surprised when my mother told me it had once been somebody’s house. You could say I never got over it.

The New York of Louis Auchincloss was still in existence when I first came to the city, out of college. Although it was there only in remnants. Some of the old crustier ones still lived in the townhouses between Madison and Lexington at 740, 720. Earlier in the century their townhouses and brownstones lined Madison Avenue as well, right up into the late 1920s when Louis Auchincloss was a young man.

Because there was never a conversation between us, I have no distinct feeling of his personality or the man. But the photograph that Jill Krementz lent for our use on this page tells us many things about him – from his friend dressed for the party, Brooke Astor, to the expression on his face as he listens to her. Is he is looking at her subject? Is he evaluating a scene as she shares a thought or remark, or is he ignoring and watching a moment unfold? Or checking someone out? Louis? Whatever it was, you know Louis Auchincloss noticed it, registered it, saw it. That was the man. That was his gift, to all of us.

Yesterday a man with a gun robbed a high end jewelry store RJ Durant on Madison Avenue near the Whitney Museum. At the top of the day. He shot and killed one of the staff, a 71-year-old man from Long Branch, New Jersey. And he got away with some pieces, according to the reports. A life for some jewelry.

This is this neighborhood. Jewelry stores aren’t that easy to get into on Madison Avenue because they are, by and large, the high end stores, some of which sell stones that run into the millions. Graff, for example. So Madison Avenue is a mecca for thieves who are not people out trying to get their hands on a loaf of bread.

The exterior of R.S. Durant, where a man shot and killed an employee during a robbery attempt. Photo: Robert Miller, NY Post.
Years ago the late Audrey Meadows (who played “Alice” to Jackie Gleason’s “Ralph Kramden” on the Honeymooners) told me she was walking down Madison Avenue one weekday mid-afternoon in early Spring with a friend.

They were strolling along, enjoying the beautiful day. She was in from Beverly Hills where she lived and was exhilarated being in New York. She was wearing a large pear-shaped diamond on a gold string necklace. Suddenly, out of nowhere, on the corner of 63rd and Madison, a tall man, well-dressed man in hat and coat, shoved her up against the wall, held her at what felt like gunpoint in her stomach, looked her right in the eye, (terrifying her momentarily) and with the other hand ripped the necklace from her neck, and was gone. It happened so quickly that even passers-by failed to notice until he was fled into the crowded street. She never got it back and he was never apprehended.

Money. Yesterday’s Social History on the E.T. Stotesburys and their Whitemarsh Hall palace outside Philadelphia, elicited additional information from readers who “knew one of them, or a nephew, or the son, her son ...”

Mrs. Stotesbury’s son by her first marriage, James Cromwell, grew up to be the kind of tall handsome man, Cary Grant might have modeled his screen image on. At least he looked like he could have been in a Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn picture long before those two hit the screen.

Delphine Dodge.
As a young man in his 20s, he married the Dodge motor heiress Delphine Dodge. Delphine’s father Horace Dodge, died in 1920 in his early 50s, leaving a huge fortune. Delphine grew up to be a poor little rich girl. Mr. Cromwell was her first husband, for three years.

Seven years after his divorce from Delphine, Mr. Cromwell married the 22-year-old Doris Duke who was the seriously rich sole heiress of the late James B. Duke who made his fortune in tobacco and utilities, for starters. The Dukes also lived in a house – on Fifth Avenue and 78th Street – designed by Horace Trumbauer who designed Whitemarsh Hall from Cromwell’s mother and stepfather.

When the Duke heiress married her prince, she was definitely new to the game and would have a long exotic life ahead of her. One could imagine the very young woman with the odd burden of way too much money for a 22-year-old woman, falling for him. It must have looked like the perfect package.

He was an older man to a girl who was her father’s little lady. He even had her father’s name. And from a good family. He was movie star handsome. And his mother and stepfather lived in a palace outside Philadelphia. Doris liked big houses and always would. By then, 1935, James or Jimmy as he was often called, was in his late 30s. He was worldly (a formerly married man) and experienced in Doris Duke’s bright young eyes. He was athletic. He piloted racing boats, played tennis with Bill Tilden, boxed three rounds with Tommy Loughran, a world light-heavyweight champion. Served in the Marines. He was also a literate and an enthusiastic backer of FDR (unlike his entire social class). He was the man. He talked (the talk) and in that no longer extant mid-Atlantic inflection, not unlike FDR’s, with its pursed “r’s” and “s’s.”

He must have looked like a dreamboat to the young girl. Evidently he wasn’t. The conjugal Cromwell was far less athletic, and more like a large barge, or jut a snore, when it came to nocturne time. For Doris, that is.

Doris Duke and James Cromwell.
In the meantime, in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed him Minister to Canada (at the time, an ambassadorship to a country in the British Commonwealth was only for the Court of St. James), and the couple moved to Ottawa. Five months later he resigned and they moved to her New Jersey estate, Duke Farms and he ran for U.S. Senate. He was defeated. Two years later Doris divorced him. He wanted $7 million, calling it “an endowment.” Doris was more than tight with a buck, especially if you’d asked her for it. She didn’t like to be asked, even if it were for charity. It wasn’t the charity, it was the asking. She got letters everyday, from strangers, all her life, asking for money. Not to mention cadres of lawyers, bankers, fundraisers, you name it. She thought everyone was after their money. In the end, she was right, and wronged.

The year of their divorce, Jimmy Cromwell married for a third time to Maxine MacFetridge, daughter of a cement company manager. This one lasted, twenty years until MacFetridge’s death.

Three years later, at age 74, James Cromwell took a fifth wife, Germaine Benjamin, a French-born widow of a very rich Standard Oil heir Henry Rogers Benjamin, a cousin of Millicent Rogers and grandson of Henry Huttleston Rogers, one of the original partners in Standard Oil.

Yesterday, a friend recalled:

“They (Germaine and Jimmy) lived in New York and Southampton, where she had a big house on Gin Lane. A real "bone of contention" in the Cromwell marriage was Cromwell's daughter by Delphine Dodge. I think her name was Christine. The poor girl was said to be feckless in every way and went through every dime she ever had. The last big pot of gold she was due to inherit was her share of the original Dodge fortune which was to be paid to her upon her grandmother, Anna Thompson Dodge's demise. It turned out, however, that the poor, misguided girl’s mother, Delphine, had already sold her interest in the Dodge trust many years before. The daughter was no favorite of her stepmother Germaine, and Jimmy Cromwell's repeated attempts to finagle money from Germaine for Christine caused enormous ill will. I was told that when Germaine died in 1987, she completely cut her husband out of her estate. He was left to subsist on a small trust fund his mother had set up which brought him an income of $24,000 per year.

This was told to me by a maid whom my mother did employ who had worked for the Cromwells. She also told me that ‘Mr. Cromwell’ was stunned when the will was read, and kept saying "why did she do this?”

Old Cromwell, once the swain, a movie star in a life made of money, had really seen it all and probably much more than we’ll ever know about. The Glitter and the Gold. And, eventually he moved to a retirement home in Mill Valley, California where he died in 1990. He was 93.
Enter your email address below to subscribe to NYSD's newsletter. It's free!


Photograph of Louis Auchincloss ©by Jill Krementz.
Comments? Contact DPC here.