Friday, May 21, 2010

The sun shone bright

Looking towards The Beresford on 81st and Central Park West from within Central Park. 11:00 AM. Photo: JH.
May 21, 2010. Yesterday was an absolutely gorgeous day in New York. The Sun shone bright. The temperatures were high in the 70s, the streets were filled with people who’d shed their jackets and coats and were glad of it. I went down to the Four Seasons restaurant to have lunch with Ambassador John Loeb.

Ambassador Loeb is senior to me but we’ve got to know each other a bit since the time he celebrated his 75th at a great party at Blenheim Palace a few years ago (see NYSD 6.13.05). It turns out we share a fairly intense interest in New York history and its financial development. The Loebs – his Loebs anyway – have connections to several families known (principally from a ground-breaking social history by Stephen Birmingham published forty years ago called Our Crowd) as the Our Crowd Jews in New York.

Ambassador John Loeb.
What is notable isn’t so much the great wealth which many of these families accumulated around the turn of the 19th century and onwards, but moreso what they did to participate at that time in the development of the city, its culture and its institutions. They set the standard which is still being striven for to this day.

John Loeb and I are a little more than a half generation apart. Our backgrounds are dissimilar socio-economically and religion-wise and yet in conversation we came from, grew up in, the same America of folkways and mores now gone; and we have both lived long enough to have witnessed the technological revolution (which was once identified simply as: Progress) that has changed everything for all.

We both grew up in the America of family, family connections, loyalties, warfare, affection and disdain. We both grew up in the world of Sunday dinner and family tables. We both have lived long enough to see those cultural and sociological institutions disappear altogether, to be replaced by – basically – nothing at all but a catch-all called “leisure time.” So there is always much to talk about.

The Four Seasons is the Tiffany of the business luncheon place. Its elegance, provided by a half century ago in the creation by William Pahlman, Philip Johnson and Eero Saarinen are intact, now classic, always modern and entirely elegant. Its clientele is enhanced by their mere presence. This sounds like so much hyperbole, but in the scheme of things known as New York, it is utter truth. Plus, it’s good.

We don’t have a new NYSD HOUSE entry this week because of circumstances beyond our control (a collaborator is out of town and out of reach). This is always a disappointment for me because I love this section which is done entirely by Sian Ballen, Lesley Hauge and my co-founding NYSD partner Jeff Hirsch, who photographs.

So we are re-running one of our earlier stunning pieces – this one is a visit to interior decorator Tom Britt. I don’t know Tom Britt although we’ve been introduced a couple of times. He’s a droll fellow, at least on first meeting. So it was interesting to see him in his personal dwelling here in the City. You can see for yourself, but it says all kinds of things about its creator and inhabitant.

Tom Britt.
This is a man who has a genetically disposed notion of New York glamour. It is at once past and future with a touch of the (shrug) thrown-away. Have a look.

The business of interior design is of interest to me only in my imagination. I can’t imagine taking the time it takes to create, concoct, conjure up these spaces that people do in that business. It must take so much time and focus where even distraction is focus.

However, I’m a compulsive looker-atter of interiors. I can’t resist Architectural Digest (which editorially is one of the shrewdest and most interesting magazines of the 20th century on many levels). I’m almost a sucker for coffee table books on interiors and architecture. It dates back to the little kid who always wanted to live in a castle (that was then). I’m always in awe of the time and energy people can take and expend on “decorating.”

What interests me most in looking at an interior of someone’s house/apartment/ abode, however, is: where do they live? And how much do they live there? All of which adds up to: what are they like; what is their life like?

As I said, I’ve never conducted any of the HOUSE interviews, but yesterday, considering the situation, I asked myself how I’d do it if I had to. Many thoughts crossed my mind but I was mainly reminded of a piece we did in one of the first Diary posts almost ten years ago.

It was a book that had just been published on the life and marriage of Matilda and Walter Gay. Mr. Gay was a well-known painter of his day (the Gilded Age) and his métier was interiors. He was not a decorator’s “renderer.” He was commissioned by the owners to paint the interiors (or exteriors) that they possessed. And he was very good.

A Charmed Couple; the Art and Life of Matilda and Walter Gay.
Walter Gay was born in 1856 in Boston. He grew up there. In those days Boston of his family background could be/was accurately characterized by the lines:

And here’s to dear old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod;
Where the Lowells speak only to Cabots,
And the Cabots speak only to God.

Young Walter Gay went to Paris to study painting. And never came back. To live, that is.

He was from a fourth generation prosperous Boston family. She was from an old New York-Newport family; both born in the middle of the 19th century. They had met in Paris, where he was already establishing himself as a painter of interiors.

She spotted him first, and introduced herself by asking him to give her painting and drawing lessons. The following year, they were engaged. In April 1889, both in their early 30s, they were married in London and embarked on a marriage that endured for almost a half century. It can best be described as ideal, idyllic, and something that most of might only dream about, but never realize.

The book about their life is called A Charmed Couple; the Art and Life of Matilda and Walter Gay, (Harry N. Abrams, Publishers) by William Rieder, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is beautiful and intriguing, recording an artist's life and times with scholarship and intimacy. (The author had major assistance by a diary that Matilda Gay began in 1904 and continued almost to the time of her death in 1943).

Forecourt, Château du Bréau. Photo: Collection of The New-York Historical Society.
The couple, being very well connected socially in New York, Boston, and Newport, settled in France where they attracted many prominent American travelers and émigrés (such as Edith Wharton, Henry James, Elsie de Wolfe, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, James Hazen Hyde, Anne Morgan, Bernard Berenson, Henry Adams), French and English aristocrats, as well as fellow artists such as John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu, all of whom came frequently to lunch, to picnic, or to stay at their famous, very large Château du Bréau, within driving distance of Paris.

Most assumed they were wealthy considering their lifestyle. Although both came from moderately wealthy families, they nevertheless supported themselves mainly on Walter's substantial earnings as a painter. By the time they first leased the château in 1905 (they purchased the property in 1907) his work had become very popular both in America and in Europe.

Life at Le Bréau was supported by a staff of twenty, many guest bedrooms (decorated by Matilda), and frequent visits to neighboring châteaux, such as Vaux-le-Vicomte, owned by their friends the Alfred Sommiers; the Duc de Trevise at the Château Livry and Hubert de Ganay at Château Courrance (see NYSD 10.3.05). All would-be guests knew that a visit to Bréau would be interesting visually, socially, and even intellectually.
Château du Bréau by Walter Gay, oil on canvas; private collection. The Open Window, Bréau, by Walter Gay, watercolor on paper, 1915. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C.
Matilda Gay's diaries bear witness to a way of life that no longer exists. Her reflections on the changing times are trenchant and remind us of how "the experts" are very often the last to notice. She had her eye on the future but not on the pulse. She wrote of Matisse, with much agreement in the art world, "There is a certain force in his things, but they are shocking in color, in drawing, and in subject. Diseased art." She called Art Nouveau "a modern atrocity." Of Impressionism, she said, "What is amusing is that the wild impressionists try to trace their inspiration from Ingres and admire him reverently; I wonder what he would say to them?"

Her observations bring her past to life: "Tea with Anne Vanderbilt in her gorgeous white marble palace on Fifth Avenue. Why do such houses always seem like splendid prisons?" After a visit to the studio of their friend John Singer Sargent: "His personality gives one no idea of his great talent. No glimmer of genius ... It is all absorbed by his pictures. What remains is a pleasant, embarrassed, affected society man, with an artificial accent and the fond is distinctly ordinary."

Matilda's abiding main interest was her husband and his work. She never saw a picture of his that she didn't like and she never met a professional opportunity for him that she didn't encourage. His work, his art, was her work and her art.
Elsie de Wolfe's Drawing Room, 123 East 55th Street, New York by Walter Gay; oil on canvas. Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, Los Angeles. Villa Trianon, Versailles, Walter Gay. Oil on canvas. Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, Los Angeles.
Mainly forgotten and unknown today where the camera has replaced the deft hand and eye of the artist, Walter Gay had a great career as a painter of interiors for both European and American aristocrats and the rich of the early part of the 20th century.

Their Château du Bréau was set in a 300-acre park surrounded by 200 acres of woods and fields. The four-story brick and stone house was built in 1705 on the foundations of an earlier house. It was a dream house to all its visitors. Edith Wharton used it as a model for the Château Givre in her novel, The Reef.

The Green Drawing Room of Mrs. Oliver Gould Jennings, by Walter Gay. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
The Living Hall, by Walter Gay. The Frick Collection. Oil on canvas. The Collection at Clayton, Pittsburgh.
Villa Barbaro in Venice.
Annually they moved down from their apartment in Paris in May or early June, and stayed through New Year's. In the summer, they lived in a suite in the north wing on the ground floor. In the winter, they moved to a suite in the south wing on the second floor. There were guest bedrooms on all three principal floors. French friends stayed on the ground floor and the Americans on the second floor ("the French had a horror of stairs and our compatriots a horror of dampness.") Children and servants stayed on the third floor.

Guests often came down from Paris for lunch. In her diary, Matilda noted the first visit of Comte Robert de Montesquiou: "For four hours we listened to his torrent of eloquence and witticism, which never flagged — nor did our interest. He is tall, striking-looking, with a large fine head and flashing black eyes — his thick hair and waxed moustache dyed carefully, and I detected a very adroit maquillage (makeup). In speaking of our neighbours he quickly made mincemeat of them all — and some of his wicked thrusts were merited."

Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe, who was America's first interior decorator, were friends. The most famous lesbian couple of their day, they shared two houses — one in New York on East 17th Street and the other, the Villa Trianon at Versailles. Known as "the Bachelors," they loved to entertain and their guest list was eclectic, as well as grand. John Jacob Astor, Willie K. Vanderbilt joined Henry Adams and Henry James, on the roster.

Matilda wrote "some of the ... guests have unpleasant little stories of various kinds hanging on to them, which may be more or less true .... One meets respectable people as well — all kinds, in fact. It is the only really Bohemian house I know where the hostesses have themselves kept within the limit that their guests have frequently overstepped."

Edith Wharton could not stand Marbury and de Wolfe, however, and quite generous about her sentiments. "Those two women are really not fit to traffic with, and I always feel degraded when I go against my prejudices and treat them as if they were."

The Entrance Hall, James Speyer's house, 1058 Fifth Avenue, by Walter Gay. Oil on canvas. Museum of the City of New York.
Walter and Matilda Gay, by Paul-Cesar Helleu. Drypoint etching. Private collection.
Elsie, however, was more generous (or gracious) in her recollection: "Edith Wharton, as I remember her — I have not seen her for many years — was handsome, small and slight and with a wealth of blond hair. There was something sharp about her and she had a forbidding coldness of manner."

Diana Vreeland later recalled de Wolfe's genius as a decorator at the turn of the century: "She simply cleared out the Victoriana and let in the twentieth century."

The Gays occasionally traveled to America to visit friends and relatives, to exhibit Walter's new work, and especially to get new commissions. During Walter's trip in 1908, (when he painted the James Speyer house at 1058 Fifth Avenue), he wrote back to Matilda: "How I long to get back anywhere over there! And away from this fearsome New York. It is always a perpetual tearing up of the city, and the noise and the smoke, now that the omnibuses have been replaced by autobuses, is enough to drive one mad."

In 1928 Walter Gay was commissioned by Helen Frick to paint three rooms in the residence at 70th and Fifth (now the Frick Collection). The Gays were of course bowled over by the spectacular collection. Although Matilda later wrote in her diary: "After dinner we visited the Gallery, where we had sat before an open fire before dinner. Miss Frick had arranged a curious lighting system. All the light was extinguished, with the exception of the special lights over the pictures; so that the pictures stared out of the gloom at us. This gave the effect of projections on the screen; the masterpieces therefore lost the quality of painting and looked like ghosts."

Everything about New York was too brash for their now European tastes and sensibilities. Nevertheless, new business was important, although Matilda might be skeptical of a new client. About Mrs. Oliver Gould Jennings who had commissioned Walter to paint several views of her fabulous new Fifth Avenue apartment, she wrote, "a pleasantish, youngish, prettyish woman, rather brand new, but of such are the kingdom of picture-buyers."

Upon seeing the apartment, she wrote: "With W.G. in the afternoon to see the interior he has just finished of Mrs. Jennings — a very banale subject, which he has treated most skillfully." Nowhere did she reveal that Mrs. Jennings was in fact a stunning beauty and that the banale boiserie was as good as a very similar boiserie at Le Bréau.

Walter Gay died in 1937 at his beloved Chateau. Their friend Edith Wharton died the same year at her beloved chateau nearby.
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