Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Last times but not lost forever

Along the Hudson River with the GW Bridge behind. 5:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, September 4, 2012. So it’s September already. That was fast, heat and all.

This past weekend in New York, the final weekend of “summer,” was mainly cloudy and grey and looking like it could rain any minute. It didn’t.

Friday night. A very good dinner with friends at Café Boulud in the Surrey on 76th and Madison. Boulud is a favorite with a lot of people. A kind of a quietly “in” restaurant with the residents of the platinum neighborhood. I was surprised to see it filled on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend, but not really.

I think this was Daniel Boulud’s first restaurant when he ventured out on his own (now many years ago), and it still seems (and looks fresh). It has a lot of regular customers so it’s important to make your reservation in advance.  On the other side of the lobby is a bar which is now one of the most popular bars among the smart set and the 20/30-somethings in the nabe (UES/Madison/Fifth). Like Boulud, smart, chic, low-key and very popular.
Friday afternoon along Fifth Avenue and 59th Street.
The weather all weekend in the city.
Meanwhile, the weather all weekend in Wainscott, East Hampton.
Otherwise I strayed not far from the hearth for the entire weekend: Zabar's, then Eli’s, back home where I had a lot of work waiting as well as a book I’m finishing about these two ...

“Love, Fiercely; a Gilded Age Romance” by Jean Zimmerman. Inspired by the famous Sargent portrait – which hangs in the Met, Zimmerman tells the story not only of their family backgrounds, their personal relationship, but the time and world in which they lived, so far from and so foreign to New York a century later.

Click cover to order or buy today at Archivia, 72nd and Lex.
We think of that age with its gargantuan Newport cottages and Fifth Avenue chateaux as overly rich, harshly staid and rife with social foolishness and frippery, as drawn so accurately by Edith Wharton In her novels. True on all counts, it was also a time of simmering great change in our society and our culture. A decade after the Civil War which devastated families and communities and decimated an entire culture, women were stepping up and stepping out for the first time. Not all women – but the women of society, the privileged who had some power because of their (or their husband’s) money. These women were motivated greatly by the minds around the Suffragette movement, even when they rejected it.

The “Fiercely” in the title is the nickname given to the main character – Edith Minturn – by her younger brother. The “love” would have been directed at Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, known always as “Newt,” whom Edie had known since childhood growing up on Staten Island (an idyllic spot in the country five miles across the water from Manhattan).

They were their own version of a “new age” couple – totally conventional by today’s standards, yet with raised consciousness more sensitive to their environments than many of their ilk. They looked like, and for some time were, the couple who had everything. It was a love match. Although there were signs in their youth that that might not be so. Then there were signs middle-age of the pitfalls of life lived with everything, even with the best intentions.

Sargent’s portrait, so good on the eye, suggests mystery in their glorious youth, wealth and good looks. Flaming youth with fires quelled with time and those disappointments life presents to one and all, underscored by encroaching age.

These were the (kind of) people Edith Wharton wrote about. She knew  them and they knew her. You can’t read this without thinking of “The Age of Innocence,” which could have been the title of Sargent’s portrait. One of the things I love about this book is the author’s ability to demonstrate What It Was Like To Live Then – no matter who you were or where you came from. Newt Stokes, who loved his New York, lamented the laying of the grid on the island of Manhattan, that “little old New York” that he grew up with (on a farm in Murray Hill) will be lost forever.

The birthday girl in the mid-2000s.
Last times but not lost forever. Over the past few days, two friends died, marking or indicating the end of a time, an age, for this history of mine.

Elizabeth Fondaras, known as “Liz” to her many friends, died at home here at 2 East 70th. She was 96 last March and despite handicaps created by the vagaries of old age, I saw Liz only a little more than a month ago at the ballet.

Coincidentally, she bore a certain resemblance to Edith Wharton – an American bred in another age who moved in society, and who adopted France as her home.  I would classify her as a “friend” only in the slightest sense that can occur normally in New York where one can meet so many people.

We met at dinners, at parties, at benefits. We were sometimes dinner partners and I was occasionally a guest when she entertained at home. What distinguished her from many in such intermittent relationships, is that Liz was always warmly friendly. Not unsophisticated but nevertheless with a real down-home American personality. In other words, there was nothing fancy in her self-presentation. There needn’t be: she was comfortable with herself.

We met through our mutual friend Heather Cohane back when I first started writing for Quest  magazine (which Heather started in the late 80s) in the early 90s. Heather, who now lives in Monte Carlo, sent me this message about Liz on Friday:

She was the first American I knew. We met in Kitzbuhl Austria when I was 17. I was with my Mother staying in a wonderful old castle, and Liz chaperoned me to all the nightclubs with her dog Wig. I loved her dearly,  and when I was in New York in May I stayed with her in East Hampton. She was a wonderful friend.
Liz Fondaras in her Paris penthouse on the Ille St. Louis.
The view from Liz Fondaras' penthouse looking towards Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.
Liz was born in Boston on March 19, 1916 – Elizabeth Temple Robertson, a descendent of an old Virginia family. I learned that from the Times obit and it explained her natural, understated but thorough graciousness. She married first to a wealthy lumberman named Charles Miller from the Northwest. 

Mr. Miller left her a widow early, and she moved to Paris where she lived for ten years in grand style in an apartment in the Hotel Lambert on the Ile Saint-Louis. Her life in Paris had a profound influence on her. It was there that she met and married another American, Theodore Weicker Jr. of the Squibb Pharmaceutical fortune. The Weickers moved back to New York where Mr. Weicker was in the stock brokerage business.

Liz at her annual Bastille Day luncheon.
In the early-'50s Liz started a Traveling Scholarship Program that funded ten young French surgeons to work in American hospitals. In the mid-'50s, she started another scholarship program with the St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire. Over a half century the program supported the education of almost one hundred French boys and girls. Right up to the end of her long life, she was involved in philanthropies having to do with the Franco-American friendship.

Liz just liked people. She was nobody’s fool but took people on their terms. To Heather, for example, she was always the much older sister. She served on the boards of St. Paul’s, as well as the Children’s Storefront in Harlem, the Institute for International Education and La Maison Francaise here in New York.

Every year on July 14th, she gave a big Bastille Day picnic for about a hundred friends at her beachfront house in East Hampton (with the irresistible menu provided by Vincent Minuto of Hampton Domestics). She also gave a birthday party for herself each year at her apartment at 2 East 70th.

In 1971, three years after Mr. Weicker died, she married Anastassios Fondaras, a Greek Navy commander and former managing director for Stavros Niarchos. The couple divided their time between New York and Paris where they kept a pied a terre also on the Ile Saint-Louis. Mr. Fondaras died in 1999. There was a funeral service for Liz this past Saturday morning at St. Luke’s church in East Hampton. A memorial will be held at a later date here in New York.
Around the pool at Liz's annual Bastille Day luncheon.
On Friday morning, I got the following email from London:

Dearest Friends,

It is with great sadness that the family of Peter Evans must tell you that Peter passed away on Friday 31st August following a heart attack.  

We will inform you of the service arrangements once these have been made.


This came as a shock.  I later learned that he was at his desk, finishing up his memoir about his relationship with Ava Gardner, whom he met when she wanted a collaborator for her memoir.

Peter Evans at Saville Club on Brooke Street in 2006.
I knew him only in the past several years. I think we saw each other face to face two, maybe three times. He knew more about me than I new about him. Part of that, I later realized was that he was a master at learning about people, at letting them talk about oneself. For me, he was senior, someone I would run a thought by. If I were uncertain about something I was writing, I might ask him. I did that because I knew he’d be kind but also cut to the chase.

We were a good friendship separated by the Atlantic, although we frequently corresponded over email. I’d met him several years ago through our mutual friend Kitty Kelley. I can’t remember the reason for our introduction (which was also over the internet), other than that he was a writer and we shared some interests in subjects.

In 2004, he published “Nemesis,” the sensational story about Aristotle Onassis, his marriage to Jacqueline Kennedy and his alleged involvement in the assassination of Robert Kennedy. If you haven’t read it, it’s a page turner with all the plot points of Will Shakespeare’s tragedies. Or, more authentically: a Greek drama. People often ask me if I think it’s true (the story within) and I respond: I can’t confirm its truth but I know that it is the way many of “those people” can behave.

Last year I learned that another “new” friend, Philip Kingsley, the famous London (and New York) hair doctor and his wife Joan were old friends of Peter Evans and his wife Pamela. I learned from Philip that in the 1960s Peter was the entertainment correspondent for the Sunday Express, and that his profiles were the must-read around London.

“He was a very empathic interviewer,” Philip told me. “The stars all loved him and he often formed lifelong friendships with him.”
Peter, a few years later (2008) at Brown's on Albemarle Street.
I knew that although Ava Gardner decided not to do a book when she read the transcripts of what she told Peter, they remained close friends thereafter. His new book – about working with Ava on her memoirs – I’m sure will be another sensation. A few years ago, he wrote a short piece on their first meeting for the NYSD.

He had a gentle manner, almost a quiet man, but his thoughts were large and strong.  Philip Kingsley and he had been old friends, having met through a friend who once told him that every star he wrote about was coincidentally a client of Philip’s.

They became pals and in the '70s Peter joined a “fun football team” in London formed by Philip and some close friends – such as Terry O’Neill, Doug Hayward, the tailor; Nicol Williamson, Vidal Sassoon.

They called themselves The Mount Street Marches and met on Sundays in Hyde Park. The team became so well known with the media/show biz set that anyone coming to London would want to join in. A producer at Rank Studios  even paid for them to attend the World Cup in Mexico one year (although not to play).
Yesterday I received a second message from Pamela Evans:

Dearest friends,The funeral service will take place at St. Bartholomew's Church, Westwood Hill, London SE26 6QR on Monday 17th September at 12pm. This will be followed by a cremation at 13:45  for those who wish to join the family, at Honor Oak Crematorium, Cemetery Lodge, Brenchley Gardens, Forest Hill, London SE23 3RD.

You are welcome to join Peter's family and friends for the service and for an  'After show party' (as Peter would have called it) at Locale Restaurant, 58-60 East Dulwich Road, London, SE22 9AX.

Should you wish to make a donation to charity in remembrance of Peter, please make a donation to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association; SAFA Forces Help, 19 Queen Elizabeth Street, London, SE1 2LP.

We won't see him again but we’ll be hearing more about him. And Ava.

Contact DPC here.