Monday, March 12, 2012

Martha, Martin, and Lee

Riverside Park, 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, March 12, 2012. Sunny and cold but the clocks moved ahead giving us another hour of light. It’s a lift, and that, coupled with the barely sprouting buds of the forsythia and witch hazel in Carl Schurz Park up the block, is its own reward.

Remembering Martha. When I was a young boy of 23 who really thought the world thought I was a grown-up guy, I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, with the fantastical idea of becoming an actor. A few years later I came to the easy realization that it was only a fantastical idea. Nevertheless, much was learned.

One of the classes three times a week was a 90 minute class of Martha Graham dance taught by a man named Bertram Ross. Mr. Ross was tall and muscular in a sinewy way, and arch in his humor, and very funny.

Martha Graham and Bertram Ross, 1961.
The boys wore tee shirts and black tights and the girls wore body suits. I felt like a geek in the tights and was too self-conscious to like it. However. Bert Ross, imitating those of us who couldn’t/ wouldn’t/didn’t stand up straight, (and looked like geeks), in how we walked across a room, cracked me up. He taught the Martha Graham technique so well, with such verve and commanding respect, that I began to like it. I also felt better physically. It’s probably the best steady physical exercise that I, a non-athletic person, ever got.

I never met Martha Graham, nor did I see her. I had heard the name and knew it meant Modern Dance before I went to the Neighborhood Playhouse. Modern Dance had become established by then (mid-60s), and had grown in popularity despite the struggle to support it financially.

Somewhere around there Martha Graham was aligned with Halston publicly, which raised her public profile with younger people of my generation. In return, her presence gave Halston a boost of class and cultural distinction.

A few weeks ago, Jon Marder had asked me to lunch as a guest of Marvin and Lee Traub at the Four Seasons. The Traubs were working on something having to do with Martha Graham. Jon would also be there, along with Janet Eilber, the Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance.

It turns out that the Traubs are being honored on this coming Wednesday night at the Graham Company Gala. The evening begins at City Center with the great Russian ballerina Diana Vishneva performing. This is major in the dance world – Vishneva is the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov), classically trained, and performing Modern Dance creator Martha Graham.
Martha Graham in 1940. A dance of Martha Graham's, performed by Janet Eilber in 1976.
I had never met the Traubs, although I knew of them, as do many New Yorkers. Marvin Traub is a legend in his business, and Lee Traub has always had an active presence in the cultural life of the city.

What I didn’t know about was her very long relationship with Martha Graham and the Martha Graham school and dance. She first studied with Graham when she was fourteen. Her earliest intentions were to become a professional dancer, and for years later she continued taking classes.

When she came of age to go to college, she went to Smith, however, where they didn’t even have a dance class (now it’s a major). She has, however, in the ensuing decades, continued to support Graham and her works in many ways, eventually becoming a member of the board of the company. Hers is a lifetime of honoring her own passion for dance, and her respect and admiration for her mentor.
Marvin and Lee Traub with Martha Graham.
Mr. and Mrs. Traub have been married for 65 years, this coming December. They met when they were in their early 20s on a blind date. Marvin was at Harvard Business. They courted for a little more than a year and married in December 1947. Lee worked while Marvin went to school.

You can see just from looking at their early life together, that they shared a common and serious sense of responsibility in themselves as well as in their community and their relationship to it. This attitude about life is what does distinguish many New Yorkers in the worlds of the arts, culture, philanthropy and civic interests. These are the people who keep the city that is New York, the magnet.

They are partners in life. The real deal. Both outgoing but in different ways, and both accommodating each other’s interests. When he was traveling a great deal across the world for Bloomingdale’s, Lee went with him because he knew she could make the social inroads that would enhance their visit, their representation as Bloomingdale's, and good for business.
The invitation to a birthday party for Lee at The Water Club, attended by Martha Graham. A treasured note from Martha Graham to Lee Traub after the birthday party for Lee.
Marvin turns 87 May 14th. On the day of our lunch he’d come from his office where he runs a major marketing and merchandising  consulting firm. Jon Marder showed me his appointment calendar for a week that they ran in Women’s Wear Daily. He had appointments from early morning to dinner every work day of the week. His legs aren’t helping as much, ultimately a result of having been shot in the leg in World War II in the invasion of Utah Beach in Normandy part of  Operational Overlord of D-Day in June 1944. The wound took part of the bone and recovery was long and slow. Many years later he went back and actually stood in the pillbox from where the Germans fired on him. He was surprised they were such bad shots because he could see how exposed he was.

He was a child of the great American retailing industry that grew out of last quarter of the 19th century to its zenith at the end of the 20th, making many tycoons and fortunes along the way. Names like Rosenwald of Sears, Marshall Field, Gimbel, JC Penney, F. W. Woolworth, SS Kresge, Kress and Altman, Strauss, Magnin, Tiffany, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s are only a few of the great American retail giants who ushered the American consumer into the nuclear age.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, Martha Graham, and Lee Traub.
Both his mother and father were actively involved in the business at an important level. He began his career at Bloomingdale’s, after Harvard and rose to prominence when it was possibly the most popular retail store on Planet Earth.

For New Yorkers Bloomie’s was a pastime, a social regimen, a culture maven’s paradise. Everybody went there. Men and women just couldn’t stay away, always looking for that amazement Bloomingdale’s provided.

Back in the 70s, Blair Sabol wrote in her Village Voice column Outside Fashion, a piece on “How to Get Waited on At Bloomingdale’s.” Besides reading like the best of send-ups, Blair detailed the “experience of Bloomingdale’s,” which kept the enormous staff so busy. She reported among the “ways” to get waited on was the method of boldface Warholian character Tiger Morse. Morse dressed up in a cowgirl suit complete with boots, holster/gun and hat, jumped up on the counter and yelled “Where the f**k's the manager?!” Evidently it worked like a dream.
Lee Traub, Martha Graham, Ralph Destino, and Bianca Jagger.
People who worked at Bloomingdale’s were considered the best in the business. Ralph Lauren started selling his ties there first. Marvin Traub was impressed but he asked the newcomer designer to make the ties just a little narrower (which was the style at the time). Lauren packed up his case and moved along. Somehow that must have done it for Mr. Traub as Bloomingdale’s was soon selling the “new” wider, silk Ralph Lauren tie, and selling out. And they were expensive: $5.

The first time Valentino’s clothes were ever shown in America were in the Basement (known as Bloomingdale’s Basement – not just anyone’s). Bloomingdale’s was the first to bring Missoni to New York, and Fendi, and Rykiel. They had the first YSL boutique.

But that’s all history for Marvin Traub. Since retiring, he’s been in business as a consultant with clients that require him all over the world.
Marvin Traub, when he was chairman and CEO of Bloomingdale's. Marvin and Lee Traub today. She is wearing a jade necklace given to her by Martha Graham.
More remembering Martha. Lee Traub told me over lunch that Martha Graham regarded her work as Cubist. She and Pablo Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger. I had never thought of that and it made so much sense: the images she created with her movements. Graham had that kind of charisma where you automatically acknowledge. That’s the image – to me – of genius.

By 2:30, Lee had another appointment, Marvin had a meeting downtown, Janet and Jon had to get back to their offices. It’s not so unusual anymore, at least not in New York, but it is nevertheless remarkable that this couple who hosted me at lunch were as busy in their lives as they were 65 years ago. On Wednesday night they’ll be feted by hundreds of friends and acquaintances for all the good things they’ve done for the city. It’s quite a compliment.

However, I know that the Traubs themselves are looking forward to raising a lot of money for the Martha Graham Center, and Lee is going to be fascinated and perhaps thrilled to see the great Vishneva perform her great mentor, the great Martha Graham. This is New York.

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