Surprise, surprise

Riverside Drive. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, November 22, 2010. A beautiful weekend in New York.

There was a surprise 65th birthday party on Friday night for New York real estate mogul Richard LeFrak, orchestrated by his two sons Harrison and Jamie, and presented at the Hammerstein Ballroom on 34th and Seventh. Event planner/creator Bronson van Wyck designed the shindig and at least 300 or four or five attended. A lotta people.

Mr. LeFrak’s wife Karen got him there by telling him they were going to see a ballet piece she was working on and that his mother would be there to join them. Oh com’on, on his sixty-fifth? He believed that “ballet”? That was the best you could do Karen? Well. I would guess he might have been suspicious at least by the time they drove up to the Hammerstein with all the taxis and limousines double parked outside. It was easy to see this was somebody’s night.

Karen and Richard LeFrak.
The company they keep. A great deal of the town’s wealth was present including New York’s two richest men (as far as anybody knows), Mayor Bloomberg and David Koch, who between the two of them are said to have the aggregate wealth of a hundred billionaires.

Not that there weren’t quite a few other billionaires in the room, not to mention the most famous one, The Donald, who is now always backlit for any public occasion, thanks to the paparazzi trailing behind.

These New Yorkers not only share business interests (when they do) but also see each other coming and going in the Hamptons and in Palm Beach. So they were glad to be there once again. Glorious Foods catered and one of the first to hit the dance floor when the disco was started was none other than the old disco hound himself, His Honor, the Mayor.

Love and Marriage.
And more billions. And maybe not. An ill wind has been blowing across the starry meadows of one of the most popular couples in the international set. He is a billionaire too, while we’re on the subject, and she is a force and much acknowledged for it. This breakup, rumored to be in the offing, will come as big a shock as their last ones, especially at this time in their lives.
Another one of Mother Nature's own masterpieces of color yesterday on the west side of Third Avenue between 80th and 81st Street.
Friday night on the way home. Madison Avenue between 65 and 67th Street, traffic stopped (and very annoyed because of it) while they were shooting an Edie Falco segment of Nurse Jackie by the building with the spotlight on its facade up ahead.
Looking south at more of standing still irate traffic (11 p.m.).
The holiday window of Oscar de la Renta on 68th and Madison.
The latest holiday window of John Rosselli on 73rd and Lexington.
The windows for this year's holidays are already a sensation and Bergdorf's launched the celebration with these, characteristically brilliant and inventive displays.
Our Diary last week about having lunch with three “Finchies” at Michael’s inspired quite a bit of mail about the college that was founded in 1900 as the Finch School by Jessica Garretson Finch Cosgrove. Ms. Cosgrove was an alum of Barnard and NYU and was very liberal thinking for her time as leading women’s rights activist, as well as a Socialist. Ironically her school had a reputation for being haven for debutantes and rich girls. A reputation, that is; not necessarily the reality.

Ms. Finch-Cosgrove was also very practical. For faculty she hired actors, fashion designers, politicians, poets, musicians and people working in the New York City area. Her curriculum was a combination of liberal arts and hands-on learning. The girls were going to learn how to take care of themselves.

Our lunch last week didn’t cover any of that business but the three Finch women at my table were quick to reminisce and recall their years there not only with pleasure but with a sense of having had a special experience.

This was reflected in all the mail about the lunch. The following are three of them from NYSD readers who attended Finch.

Caryle Newcombe Pressinger, age 19, Class of 1922, Miss Cosgrove's Finishing School, later official Finch College.
Dear David:

I very much enjoyed your few paragraphs on Finch College today in your NY Social Diary.

I went to Finch College in 1951 because my mother, Caryle Newcombe Pressinger,  went there in 1922 when she called it "Miss Cosgrove's Finishing School."  I still have the photograph of her graduating class - about 10 girls - in lovely long dresses and gorgeous bouquets. 

Finch was in connecting buildings on East 77th and 78th Streets. I walked by the 78th Street building recently, and it was so familiar, I almost walked in.

In 1951 I lived in the "dormitories" Finch had on the 12th and 14th floors of
903 Park Avenue (at 79th Street). We had our own dining room, and our own house mother, of course. 

In 1952 I lived in one of the dormitories on 78th Street. We had many lovely New York girls, of course (and some who came to Finch after taking time off for a "debutante year.") We also had wonderful girls from all around the country who wanted to come to "finishing" school in New York City. 

We held our "tea dances" at the Stork Club! And there was a Finch Ball, as well. But, believe me, we studied hard and had great instructors. I was a theatre major under William Post, an actor and wonderful teacher.  

Dr. Roland DeMarco was the President of Finch when I was there, and it was during his tenure that Finch became a four-year college.

Though financial concerns were primary, I believe the closing of Finch was hastened by a water main break on Park Avenue. The college suffered damages and insufficient insurance for adequate repairs. This may not be completely accurate, but it was the story I heard in later years from a Finch alumnae.

One of my fondest memories on my graduation day in 1953 was walking in cap and gown down Madison Avenue to St. James Episcopal Church and looking up at the Carlyle Hotel where my great aunt was living (in seclusion — she had been quite a beauty, I believe, and would not meet with any of the family in her later years),  and there she was with her head out the window waving at me. In those days you could walk 5 blocks down Madison Avenue in cap and gown and it didn't seem odd at all.

I did return to Finch in the fall of 1953, when I was working for CBS, to share a room Finch "rented" to me and a classmate. That was a wonderful arrangement!

Thank you for the memories!

Susan Billings Banker
still a Finchie and still in New York City
Finch Graduating Class 1922.
Dear Mr Columbia:

I am an avid reader of your column. I recently watched your interview on bigthink.com. I so enjoy your perspective. It amazes me how you inhabit this world with ease, yet at the same time see it with such clarity. I think you should write a book of thinly veiled fiction – under a pseudo name of course.

I always enjoy it when you mention Finch College because I am an alum and was there (sadly) when the school closed. 

I also enjoyed the photos of Blair Sabol at St Ambreous immediately following the description of Finch. Were you aware that Finch was located ½ a block away on 77th and 78th between Madison & Park. I have often met my old Finch buddies there. 

“Ring by spring” was a phrase that was long gone when I was at Finch. Although the school was never seen as an academic powerhouse, the classes were very small and quite rigorous and the professors were accomplished and demanding. By the 70’s we all expected to have careers and conquer the world, and many of us did. My Finch friends remain among the most literate and cultured women I know. 
 
I would like to say that the “society” aspect was a misconception but as I reflect I realize that my Finch classmates included a princess (Yangchen Namgyal, whose father was King of Sikkim and whose stepmother was Hope Cook), a countess (a De Brantes), several heiresses to family fortunes who’s names would be recognized by many (Marci Syms, Cannon Towels, Sandler Shoes among others), a direct descendant of Robert E. Lee, and a number of young women making their debuts (although that was terribly out of fashion at that time).
 
I have read that Debbie Bancroft also attended Finch in the 70’s. 
 
On a completely different note, I have been haunted by your description several weeks ago of being at a gala and speaking to a business mogul who had returned from China and felt the financial and technological advances in that nation were a serious threat to our supremacy. You reflected on the people in the room and you were reassured by the fact that they were all very successful, all very capable and all good examples of the success of the American way, American ingenuity and American know how. You concluded that if this was America we would be OK.  
 
Instead, at times when I read your column and look at the lavish galas I am reminded of Venice in the settecento, when in a decadent frenzy the Venetian upper classes spent the last remnants of their wealth that had taken a millennia to accumulate. I think of France before the revolution, and the cliché of Marie Antoinette saying “let them eat cake” which was simply ignorance – not as coldhearted as history has portrayed. I think of the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, and the fact that his downfall took the CIA and our diplomats completely by surprise because all of their contacts were the ruling elite who also never saw it coming. 
 
The conclusion I am trying to draw is that the upper classes are the most immune to societal distress and are often the very last to recognize a decline and even the demise of a way of life.

SM.

I also sent these messages to another Finch friend of mine to read. This was her response:

Without question S's email made me proud to be a Finch graduate, and she is a most articulate woman. Amazing how much Finch changed in those few years from when we graduated to when Sarah graduated but I think I always felt that Finch was a doorway for me to a more interesting life and I wanted to work even back in the early 60's.

I always felt uncomfortable with the pressure to marry on graduating from college. The great love of my life has been New York and Finch introduced it to me in a very special way in terms of art history trips to museums and concerts and walking the streets with all the fascinating people who share that need to be here.

Women were doing interesting things with their lives where they were not doing so in the city where I grew up. I agree with Sarah, I found the classes stimulating and not remotely "finishing school" fare. I received a wonderful education. And that the upper classes are often immune to societal distress is so true, which makes the present situation so much more formidable. There are a lot of people with their head in the sand who cannot imagine that their world could be thrust asunder ... How lucky you are to be in a position to have a really interesting woman reach out to you and drop lovely pearls of wisdom in your life and now in mine. That makes life really interesting. Thank you.

Amanda Gordon reports from Boston ...
Entering Harvard Stadium.
Saturday was a day of revelry in Boston. It began with tailgating at Harvard Stadium for the Yale-Harvard game. Even this Yalie can say that no matter the final result--Harvard 28, Yale 21--on this balmy day bulldogs and the crimson were in good spirits. After all, the Game is social as well as an athletic contest, having to do with reconnecting with friends, remembering the cheers, and participating in a tradition. Some attendees were marking more than half a century of the tradition, or were conscious of following in the footsteps of others.

"Everyone on my mother's side went to Yale, and on my father's side Harvard," said Peter Creighton. That left the Bates graduate neutral on the rooting front. "I'm right down the middle."

Of course there were some boola boos -- and relief when the news came that a Yale linebacker who had been in a helmet to helmet collision on the field was doing okay. The only proper send off: see you next year in New Haven.
Governor George Pataki, Libby Pataki, and Hon. Richard Holwell.
Roger Blissett, Alexandra Blissett, Sean Pierce, and Miriam Prosper.
Renny Little, Harvard class of '55, wearing the raccoon coat of
his father (Harvard class of '23).
Peter Creighton's coat has been passed on a few generations. Swing Robertson gives Mr. Creighton's coat a try.
Anson Frericks Will Blodgett, Beth Fluke, and Andrew Vinci.
Maura and Luis Santiago. Edgar and Ellie Cullman.
Also on Saturday was the first day the public was invited to view the new Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This was a special day of free admission for the community to discover a new treasure. The 53 galleries were full of people who seemed very excited. The art was that good, and so is the flow of the space designed by Foster + Partners.

A ton of money was raised for this expansion and what is clear is that every detail has been attended to. There's a real intimacy in the rooms, in size, in the way the art is displayed, even in the voice of the wall labels. It's comfortable, too (note those couches, not benches, in the galleries). The telling moment of success was at the end of the evening, when the galleries were closing. Guards had to plea with visitors to leave.

— Amanda Gordon for NYSD
The MFA Boston's ever-grand entrance on Huntington Avenue, triumphantly decked out for the completion of its expansion.
The thrill of art was in evidence, 9:15 p.m. Saturday, the first day the new wing was open to the public.
In a gallery of Sargents, his painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882, rests in between the Japanese vases owned by the Boit family that are found in the painting.
Up close with Andrew Wyeth's Sandspit, 1953. Admiring Sargent's Mrs. Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and Her Daughter Rachel, 1903, painted at Isabella Stewart Gardner's home.
The Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard, shot from the staircases of the new wing, looking toward the old MFA, originally designed by Guy Lowell.
A sculpture of Medea, and a wall of Hudson River School painters (Cole, Church, Innes) in the Salon. "Welcome to the 19th century," reads the wall text.
Liu Xiaodong, Painting, What to Drive Out?, depicts Boston teenagers and includes their own hand-written commentary on violence; the work responds to a Ming Dynasty scroll depicting scholars cavorting, and is in the new show "Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), curated by Hao Sheng. The show, five years in the making, engaged 10 contemporary Chinese artists to respond to works in the MFA's collection; it's up through February 13.
The plaque noting the luminaries behind the new wing -- the MFA Boston's director, Malcolm Rogers, and architect Sir Norman Foster among them.
Discovering Impressionists on Level 2.
Looking toward the Egyptian galleries in the "old MFA" through the new courtyard.
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