Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Making the rounds

Looking south from the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011. Yesterday in New York was overcast, cool, with temperatures in the 60s, and showers in the early evening.

I started my rounds at the Upper East Side apartment of Karen Collins and Jesse Kornbluth ( who were having a book party for Josh Ritter, the singer-songwriter-guitarist and now author of his first novel Bright’s Passage.

Mr. Ritter, who was born and grew up in Idaho, was inspired to learn to play music as a kid listening to Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” on his parents’ copy of Nashville Skyline. He was also inspired to write fiction and Bright’s Passage is the first work he’s “wanted anyone to see.”

Songwriter, musician, jolly good fellow, now novelist Josh Ritter holding his first Bright's Passage at a booksigning last night at Karen and Jesse Kornbluth's. Click to order.
The great Erica Jong holding a book of pieces she edited called Sugar In My Bowl; Real Women Write About Real Sex at a book party last night. Click to order.
This was a first meeting for me and Mr. Ritter. He’s quick to laugh and easy to talk to. He now lives here over in Brooklyn in the area now known as DUMBO.

Parties at the Kornbluths, aside from the camaraderie that goes with their hosting, are especially notable because of the beautiful Mrs. K’s excellent hors d’oeuvres (wrong word, right idea) which are always beyond compare (and that is no exaggeration, believe me).

Frankly, because I had other places on my itinerary, I knew I wouldn’t have much time, but I stayed long enough to sample the fare, such as: Corndogs – Beyond; Coconut Shrimp – Beyond; little (teensy) salads served in pastry cups -- Beyond. A few of those and I had to get out of there, otherwise I would have just stayed and gnoshed all night.

The Kornbluths live near Fifth Avenue in the 90s and I was heading from there down to the Sherry Netherland at 59th to another book party -- this one for Erica Jong.

Fifth Avenue in the 70s through the 90s was closed off in the early evening because of a “museum walk” (from the Whitney to the Met to the Gugg to the Museum of the City of New York), so a few score of pedestrians could walk in the middle of road (rather than on the ample space of the sidewalks) that would ordinarily be used by thousands of cars and buses, and so we had to go east to go south to go west.

The idea of closing off a large portion of Fifth Avenue roadway in the middle of the week during rush hour (and on a rainy day no less) in one of the busiest cities in the world is inconvenient. However, the people who dream up these things are busy proving something to themselves that may seem absurd at best (to be kind) to us citizens making our way, but nevertheless proves they can do any cockamamie thing they want, no matter what.

Meanwhile. Erica’s book party was held in the apartment of friends high above the city, with spectacular views that yesterday were made more dramatic by the moisture gracing the roadways and the trees.

The book, Sugar In My Bowl; Real Women Write About Real Sex, edited by Erica and with pieces by more than two dozen distinguished writers (many of them friends of Erica) including Gail Collins, Anne Roiphe, Susan Cheever, Daphne Merkin, Fay Weldon, Honor Moore, Liz Smith, and even Erica’s daughter, the novelist Molly Jong-Fast (whose contribution is entitled “They Had Sex So I Didn’t Have To”). “When it comes to sex, what do women want?” is the question posed on the book’s jacket flap, adding “In this eye-opening and courageous collection, Erica Jong reveals that every woman has her own answer.”
The view from the apartment of Erica Jong's hosts last night overlooking Fifth Avenue, Central Park and Central Park West. You can see the empty roadway created for the "Museum Walk" along Fifth Avenue in the rain.
From Erica Jong’s book party, I got a cab at 59th and Fifth (regular traffic from the 70s, south) and went down to the Players Club on 16 Gramercy Park South where the Players Foundation for Theater Education was “celebrating The Stork Club” – the famous nightclub started by Sherman Billingsley in the late 1920s that was a destination for theatre and movie stars, celebrities, café society and their ilk right up through the early 1960s.

Among those expected were some of the off-spring of the Stork’s stellar clientele, including Sherman Billingsley’s daughter Shermane, Maria Cooper Janis (daughter of Gary Cooper), Joan Benny (daughter of Jack Benny and Mary Livingston), Jane Lahr (daughter of the now immortal “Cowardly Lion” Bert Lahr), Marni Nixon, and cabaret entertainer Steve Ross.
The Players Club on Gramercy Park South, once the home in the 19th century of America's greatest Shakespearean actor of his age, Edwin Booth, who later turned it into a club for friends and interested patrons of the arts. Next door (on the right), is the National Arts Club which in the same age, was the home of Samuel Tilden, once governor of New York and the first to win the popular vote for the Presidency (in 1876) and lose the Electoral vote.
Gramercy Park at this time of year is in its legendary glory, with its gated park square in full bloom and its many 19th century buildings reeking with history. The Players was originally the home of the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth – considered the greatest actor of his day.

In 1888, Edwin Booth (who in 1869 also founded Booth’s Theater – originally at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue) with fifteen others – including Mark Twain and General William Tecumseh Sherman – turned his residence into a club. Their objective: “The promotion of social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine and the patrons of the arts.”
The townhouse just a couple of doors east, originally the home of Mr. and Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish before they moved uptown in the early 20th century to 78th Street and Madison Avenue to a house designed by their Gramercy Park neighbor Stanford White, which is now being refurbished for occupany by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's private foundation.
Among their many members was the architect Stanford White, who lived just a few steps across the park on 21st Street and the beginning of Lexington Avenue, and visited frequently.

Last night’s event was a big stroll down memory lane for a lot of those attending. When I first came to New York, fresh out of college in the early 1960s, I had the good luck to frequent the Stork Club which was then in its waning days but still drawing (although not as frequently) many of the longtime habitués of the club.

At that time there were seven dailies in Manhattan and twice as many columnists covering the restaurant and nightclub scene and the Stork was still a stop for many of them – including Earl Wilson, Dorothy Kilgallen, Cholly Knickerbocker (being ghosted by Liz Smith), John McClain, Louis Sobel, Walter Winchell.
Sherman Billingsley's Stork Club on 3 East 53rd Streeet (just off Fifth Avenue), circa 1938.
Billingsley entering his club to begin a night's business. The bar just inside the entrance (and beyond the velvet rope) of the Stork Club, circa 1942.
One of them, Jack O’Brian, who wrote a television column for Hearst’s afternoon daily the Journal-American and also had a daily talk show on WOR radio, would sometimes, with his beautiful young wife Von, invite a girl I knew and me to join them at the Stork on Friday nights.

My friend was the step-daughter of a good friend of O’Brian’s, a man named Morton Downey, who was a very famous singer in America on radio throughout the 30s and 40s, and also a longtime friend of Sherman Billingsley. Morton Downey (whose son Sean later became a famous TV personality as Morton Downey Jr.) was also a very close friend of Joe Kennedy whose son John had recently been elected President. All this was heady stuff to this country boy from New England.

With the O’Brians we’d go to the Stork about eight-thirty and be seated at Table 50 in the Cub Room – the VIP room just off the bar and away from the main clubroom where there was a live orchestra and dancing. Table 50 was the table right by the entrance to the VIP room.
The main clubroom of the Stork, which also featured a dance floor and bandstand, also circa 1942.
The famous Stork Club ashtray, a much sought after memento found in many smart homes across America.
The famous Cub Room. Table 50 is on the front left. Orson Welles is seated there (in profile and striped suit). Just beyond him, the woman with the bangs is the film star Margaret Sullavan. To the right of her, the man with the crewcut, in profile, is her husband the agent and producer Leland Hayward (parents of writer Brooke Hayward). At the table in the center, the grey haired man is the 9-times married Tommy Manville, a famous playboy (and Johns-Manville Asbesto heir). The man on the right at that table is Sherman Billingsley. The man in the dark suit at the table, right, front, is Morton Downey.
Sometimes we’d be joined by two or three others including two young guys (although quite a bit older than us kids), one of whom was famous -- albeit even infamous -- Roy Cohn, because of the McCarthy hearings several years earlier; and one of whom I knew of only because his father had recently acquired the daily newspapers read back in my hometown – The Springfield Republican. His name was Si Newhouse.

Sherman Billingsley would always join our table for a few minutes and sometimes longer. I was completely starstruck to be within such close proximity to this man who was a kind of folk-hero of the metropolis. Although he was a quiet-spoken man who looked like a well tailored banker from Greenwich, I later learned he cut his teeth as a club owner during the days of Prohibition where the Mob called the shots in the nightclub world. Mr. Billingsley – as we young ones called him – was a very pleasant and congenial host.
The Kennedy brothers, Ted, Jack and Bobby, at the Stork.
The man who would become President and his bride.
Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billingsley , and John O'Hara in the Cub Room.
Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio.
The young Nancy and Frank Sinatra and their children Frank Jr. and Nancy Jr.
A later Sinatra wife, Ava Gardner with her then husband, bandleader Artie Shaw.
I once asked him if there were anyone who could be trouble for him in his club. He told me without hesitation that there were two: John O’Hara (whom I idolized as a novelist) and Frank Sinatra.

Why them? “Because those two could get so drunk you never knew what they were gonna do or who they were gonna slug,” he answered.

By then, the history of the Stork Club had begun to supersede its present, although there was still a lingering glamour of the earlier age before television changed the nighttime habits of Americans.
Mary Hemingway, Gary and Rocky Cooper, and Ernest Hemingway.
Arlene Dahl, Rock Hudson, and Fernando Lamas (Dahl and Lamas were then married).
Nancy and Ronald Reagan.
Judy Garland and her then husband Vincent Minnelli.
The teenage Elizabeth Taylor with her mother and father.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
The legendary Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, and Sherman Billingsley.
The very young marrieds, Lennie and Dominick Dunne.
When we finished up on those nights around Table 50 in the Cub Room at the Stork, Jack and Von O’Brian always liked to stroll a few blocks north to another famous restaurant at 58th and Fifth called Reuben’s (where Bergdorf Mens is today) and have a cup of coffee and its famous sandwich named for it, or grab a cab over to Lindy’s on Broadway and 53rd and have some of their famous cheesecake. Delicious and still delicious to recall.

All this from a trip last night down to the Players Club to celebrate the Stork. Today, as some New Yorkers still know, the Stork Club is a plot of land known as Paley Park, created by another former habitué of the club, William Paley, founder of CBS, who bought the property and turned it into a pocket park dedicated to his father Samuel Paley.
The Stork in the late 50s, only a few years from its final days.
Paley Park, created by William Paley in memory of his father on the site where the Stork once played host to the worlds of fame and fortune.

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