Thursday, February 24, 2011

The city is quiet

Riverside Drive looking towards The Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Monument. 3:10 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, February 24, 2011. Sunny and cold in New York. The city is quiet. You see it on the roadways midtown midday. Except where there’s construction, there are no traffic jams. This is a relief and also always a surprise. Going down to Michael’s for lunch.

I get out of the taxi at 57th and Fifth by Van Cleef’s and Bergdorf’s and hoof it the two blocks to 55th. This is the crossroads of luxury shopping in America and it’s usually mobbed at this time of day. It’s also the fashion crossroads where sometimes you can see Bill Cunningham of the New York Times with his camera surveying the fashion of New York women and men.

The Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Monument.
Yesterday it was quieter – although of course never without people passing. Except, on the northwest corner of 56th and Fifth, where there was a line – around the block – waiting to get into Abercrombie & Fitch. Mainly very young people, but not entirely. Looks like families. I’ve never been inside so I don’t know what they’re getting, but from the crowd outside, you could think they’re giving something away.

That block (between 56 and 57th) always has a lot of tourists -- people with cameras taking pictures of each other in front of the Tiffany logo and the Playboy plaque right across the avenue, as well as the entrance to Trump Tower where people are often waiting for a Donald sighting (and a picture). Occasionally they get lucky and the man himself emerges, obliging his fans, always gracious, glad to have ‘em.

Michael’s was busy, as usual, but quiet for a Wednesday. It was the vibe; muted. Michael McCarty told me it was the school vacations – both public and private coinciding with the long holiday weekend, with families off to the slopes for their final time of the season. Nightimes they see lots of the in-town people.

In session, many regulars as well as occasional guests including: Stan Shuman, Dave Zinczenko, Keith Kelly, Jean Doumanian, George Malkemus, Barbara Liberman, Michael Gross and Jessica Aufiero; Fern Mallis and Jack Kliger, Judy Price and Libby Kabler, Betty Liu, Jaqui Lividini, Jack Myers, Ed Pressman, Malcolm Morley, Marcy Bloom, Eric Korman.

Last night in New York, friends invited me to dine at Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud, in the Surrey Hotel on 76th Street between Madison and Fifth. The café is not a secret, but rarely talked about and always busy. It draws a local crowd which can include familiar and even famous faces (including Mick Jagger when he’s in town and staying across the avenue at the Carlyle). It’s not that easy to get a table because the place fills up every night and the clientele is still coming in at 9 and 9:30. The food is excellent, the service is thorough yet never intrusive. This is another New York restaurant that has a very steady clientele so there’s also a neighborliness to it – people often seeing people they know which is what makes it seem like a small town. Sort of.
The estate built in 1868-69 for Gouverneur Morris Ogden, which was designed by Charles Coolidge Haight. George Vanderbilt bought it in 1889, immediately doubled its size, and renamed it Pointe d'Acadie. It was torn down in 1956. Courtesy of Maine Historical Society.
Today’s Diary incudes a piece by our esteemed contributor Brad Emerson of Downeast Dilettante about the great summer houses of Bar Harbor that were occupied by various members of the Vanderbilt family. It was the patriarch – William H. Vanderbilt, son of the Commodore, who first favored the resort in the last quarter of the 19th Century, and so he was followed by several of his children and grandchildren.

I love Maine. I went to college there at Colby in Waterville, and have spent time in summers by the sea around Mount Desert Island. The Maine coastline, and especially the area around Mount Desert, has long been a (long) enclave for Proper Bostonians and Mainline Philadelphians (and very occasional New Yorkers) for more than a century and a half. In its day Bar Harbor was a destination for many of the tycoons of the Gilded Age who came by yacht and private railroad car. It was far from the city and the prying press and remote except to those who were invited.
Marble House, Newport. Rhode Island, the confection of William H. Vanderbilt's daughter-in-law Alva, Richard Morris Hunt, architect..
Its New York cousin, the town which the Vanderbilts are really famous for, Newport in Rhode Island, went limestone with its grandeur, commanding much more attention from hoi-polloi for obvious reasons. Summer people in Maine, however, preferred the intimation of the rustic versus what many regarded as the vulgar. As a result you can still enter a very old cottage in Northeast Harbor, and it has that powerfully nostalgic mustiness of other summers that envelops and assures the senses.

Bar Harbor was once the jewel in that crown of the northernmost society summer resorts. However, a great fire and a Great Depression swept away much of its grandeur almost a century ago.

The entire area is still, however, a destination for the quiet money. Martha Stewart owns the old Edsel Ford estate in Seal Harbor. It’s a nine hour drive from New York and air travel, except for private jet makes it not a convenient distance from the big town. This is one of the reasons it appeals to many people. They really get away. From the rest of us, and a little peace and quiet. You probably would too; I know I would.
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