Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Putting your feet up

A three-hatted family. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
Wednesday, June 26, 2013. Another very warm and humid day in New York. The kind that subtly saps your energy so that by the end of the day you just feel like putting your feet up. By nightfall by the river, there was a good breeze, however, slightly warm but refreshing.
NYSD's Advertising Director Gail Karr with the ageless and "very hot" Diane Keaton standing in front of the Ralph Lauren Women's store on 72nd and Madison Avenue last Friday afternoon. Gail stopped Ms. Keaton to tell her how great she looked: "you look exactly as you did in your Annie Hall days!" The gracious Ms. Keaton replied with, "Well, thank you! You look great, too! And I love your belt!" After some more pleasantries, Gail gave the lovely Ms. Keaton the rundown on what she was wearing: An Anne Fountaine blouse, a 2013 Ralph Lauren Summer collection belt, skirt from Calypso, and 2012 Tiffany & Co. Central Park Conservancy tote. Life in New York.
Walking the dogs (quickly – they don’t like the hot pavement) late this afternoon, I was thinking about what New York must have been like before air-conditioners. Reader who visit often know that I don’t own an a/c. When my family lived here in the 1930s, my mother used to tell me, people slept out on the fire escapes and lolled in cold baths. New York, including Manhattan, was a city of neighborhoods – I mean neighborhoods of working people. And full tilt ethnicity. My eldest sister’s best friend was an Armenian (parents) in the building next door, for example. Children played in the streets and at certain times the Fire Department opened fire hydrants to spray them. Heaven.

I was discussing this with a friend who grew up in Florida. She’d asked me if we had air-conditioning in my family’s house when I was growing up. No. No one I knew did (1940s and '50s). It was considered quite a luxury when it first became available to the mass market.

She asked me if I remembered the heat of Summer back then. I don’t, except for a couple of times when it must have been relentless for days. Although there was a children’s pool in the park at the end of our street and, we used it nearly everyday. At night we slept with all the windows and doors open (screened in, of course), and on top of the sheets. We didn’t have fans either.

Sometimes my older sister and brother-in-law would take me with them for a late night dip in Russell Pond, a very cold natural pond in a village nearby. Heaven again. Some neighbors kept their shades drawn until nightfall. Then they’d sit on their front porches after supper until it was time for bed (9 - 10 pm). People didn’t turn the lights on in their houses until they went inside, just before bed. The only light when it got dark was from the street lamps, and the moon when it was bright. It was calm. The world seemed calm to the kid. You didn’t lock your door at night (or ever); there was no danger, in a small New England town.
Meanwhile back in New York, on today’s Diary, Jeanne Lawrence covers an opening exhibition in the new Museum of Chinese Art (MOCA) in Chinatown. I haven’t been there yet but I was introduced to it by Patty Tang. We ran a picture of Patty and her daughter and her mother who was celebrating her 101st birthday at Sistina. They had taken over the restaurant for a birthday lunch.

Madame Aileen Chiang Pei, with her granddaughter Penelope Tang August, and her daughter Patty Tang, at her 101st birthday celebration this past Friday at Sistina.
I met Patty and her husband at a dinner party a couple of  years ago at the downtown house of Corice Arman, wife of the late French-born American artist. The Tangs are Chinese but have lived all or almost all of their lives here in New York, so they’re as American as this kid. Except they are more worldly and more sophisticated culturally.

I had lunch with Patty at Michael’s one day about a month ago. She told me about her family’s past. These are the Chinese that abandoned China with the coming of Mao. Obviously they were upper class Chinese and their properties were being confiscated, as well as their assets. This generation has lived long enough to see that world change and then change again. And if we give them a little more time, God knows what the changes will be.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek lived in the neighborhood also, at 10 Gracie Square, until she died 10 years ago. Evidently she’d lived there for years among a host of famous New York names like Jock Whitney, Mrs. Mellon Hitchock, Brooke Astor, Gloria Vanderbilt et al.

I was living there at the time, staying with a friend when I first came back to New York. One afternoon in winter I was leaving the building when a group of Asian men in black wool overcoats suddenly emerged from the building into the motor passage (that runs through the block from 83rd to 84th, inside the building). I noticed they seemed to secret a tiny, really tiny lady with black hair into a waiting limousine. Once in the car, she was in the middle between two of these men, and so small, the back of her head was barely visible through the rear window. Then, followed by another limousine with Asian men in black overcoats, the cortege left the building.

“Who was that?” this curious writer asked Frank the doorman. “That was Madame Chiang Kai-shek.” Every Thursday at five she went out for her ride. She liked to go up to Grant’s Tomb at 123rd and Riverside. Often. She was about 98 then. She five or six years later. May-ling Soong, one of the fabled Soong Sisters.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek in 1965.
Patty Tang’s mother and her friends all knew Madame Chiang quite well. It must have been something like a court in exile because she and her family and her. Hannah Pakula has written a thoroughly engrossing biography of the women, once one of the (few) most powerful women in the world. She lived in exile like a queen, just down the block from where I live now, which no doubt was all she knew.  Some of the dresses/ costumes from that era  made for and owned by Madame Chiang and her friends are on display at MOCA now through September 29. They were smart and chic, even now.

Also in today’s NYSD is  piece on food and traveling by Delia von Neuschatz who, with her husband, recently visited the Basque City of San Sebastian on the northern coast of Spain. I am not much of a traveler (although I’m always glad when I’m there) and not really a foodie, but this visit / diary of Delia’s is extraordinary. She’s written in two parts – which is good because I can hardly wait to read about what else she’s seen (and eaten). San Sebastian, which I’d heard of but knew nothing about, sounds like a place I’d love to visit, maybe even for a lifetime. No matter the level of your enthusiasm about the subjects, I dare you not to think: hmmm, I could like that. Delicious is a word that rescued her often on this culinary journey.

So let it warm and grow more humid in Manhattan, I don’t care. We can all dream of faraway places and other times and wait for the rains to wash and cool our streets and wake us up. This is New York.
Delia's fantastical dessert at Arzak in San Sebastian.

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