Monday, August 31, 2015

"400” List: Time Marches On

The full moon on Saturday night. 10:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, August 31, 2015. It was a beautiful weekend in New York. I put the top down and drove over to the West Side for Zabar's and a few other merchants like Citarella and Laytner’s Linens as well as the Discount household supply place on 84th and Broadway.

I took this photo while waiting for the light on 79th Street and Broadway looking west to New Jersey – in which are located the two towers at the end of this photo. The next block beyond Broadway is West End Avenue, and after that, Riverside Drive and the West Side Highway, and then the mighty Hudson.
On the left is the Apthorp which was built between 1906 – 1908. Designed by Clinton and Russell architects. Encompassing the entire block between 78th and 79th, through to West End Avenue, it is built around a large courtyard. The apartments have large, high-ceilinged rooms and lots of light. Many celebrated New Yorkers have lived there including Nora Ephron, Rosie O’Donnell, Cyndi Lauper, Steve Kroft. In the 19th century it was a farm owned by a Mr. Apthorp. About three hundred acres of peace and glory.

Friday afternoon about 1 p.m. At the light. This is the center of the West Side I go to almost every weekend. It’s got a different temperament than the East Side which still can seem slightly staid and starchy compared to the gemutlich with just right amount of grit. This is the great variety of New York that intrigues so many. Over here you’re looking out at the beginning of continental America. Back on the East Side we’re looking out at the beginning of our being here. The building on the right is the Apostles Church. I don’t know its history but it’s been there for a very long time.

Today we’re running an excerpt I wrote for Quest magazine about their annual “400” list which was published in the August issue. This was our 20th annual list.  If you look at enough of these lists, they all look the same. However, twenty years later, 1995 to 2015, it’s not the same.

That is mainly because as time marches on, so do we. And there is always an emerging generation who make their mark on their time. Maybe not everything but many things change. So I thought I’d take a look at the original List and its members to recall the time and the tenor of the time.

These people had lived all their lives up until just about that moment – the mid-90s – without a cell phone. Everywhere you went they were talking to each other. It was a lively time.
Mrs. Astor holding court in her mansion on Fifth Avenue.
Twenty years ago — more than a century after Mrs. Astor and McAllister drew up their “400” list — Quest introduced a “400” list. In 2015, when reviewing the “400 list” we introduced in 1995, it was interesting to note the differences between then and now. There are no private ballrooms like Mrs. Astor’s to reference, and no hostesses sitting like a monarch on a throne to greet her guests. (As The Mrs. Astor did, dripping in diamonds -- they called her the human chandelier.)

The social scene had expanded commensurately with the population of New York. Society had become more democratic in the long run and has become even more so in the past two decades. Our method of identifying those individuals and families for the earlier list was non-scientific.

It was not dissimilar to the original in the sense that it was based mainly on how often people were seen at social events, as well as their prominence in the community. Quest’s “400” list even had a “Mrs. Astor,” or Brooke Astor: the only “Mrs. Astor” of the time, she was among the most prominent as the widow of the Mrs. Astor’s grandson, Vincent Astor.

Brooke Astor in 1957, two years before her husband's death.
But, by 1995, there were no social arbiters, by anyone’s agreement. Modern life was more complicated, including the state of modern marriage. Brooke, for example, had been Vincent’s third wife, preceded by Helen Huntington (whom he married in his early 20s). That marriage lasted years, but was more like the marriage of his grandmother and grandfather except in Vincent’s case, it was the wife who wanted to get away from the husband.

Minnie Cushing and Vincent Astor aboard his yacht The Nourmahal as they embarked on their honeymoon voyage in 1940.
Then there was Minnie Cushing, who became the second wife of Vincent. For about 10 years, she was “the mistress” (it was not a secret) while Vincent remained married.

Finally, Minnie’s mother shamed Vincent into making Minnie respectable. After a decade of marriage, Minnie wanted out. She was often credited with having “found” Brooke to succeed her, as Vincent didn’t want a divorce until he had a replacement. The task wasn’t so easy, since Vincent had a heavy, lackluster, somewhat lugubrious personality and was known to be “hard to live with.”

Minnie was famous as the eldest of the three sisters, daughters of the country’s first neurosurgeon: Dr. Harvey Cushing. The Cushing sisters were famous for their marriages to rich eligible men. The youngest, Barbara (who was known as Babe and Dad's favorite) married Stanley Mortimer (an heir to Standard Oil) before marrying William Paley (founder of CBS) to become Babe Paley. Babe and Minnie both died in 1978.

The middle sister, Betsey Cushing, was first married to James Roosevelt, the eldest son of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. They divorced after 10 years, and she married John Hay Whitney (who was known as Jock). Jock was one of the richest men in the United States.
Babe, Betsey, and Minnie in 1937.
At the time of Quest’s first“400” list, Betsey Whitney was still with us probably the last living grande dame in the city, living in a style that evoked the title. She resided in a kind of splendor, in homes including: a townhouse on East 63rd Street; an apartment on Beekman Place; a huge estate called Greentree in Manhasset, Long Island; and a shooting plantation in Georgia. And she possessed one of the best privately held art collections in the country.

Betsey Cushing Whitney.
Her contemporary, Brooke Astor (who was six years her senior), could have been categorized as a grande dame as well, but Brooke was socially far more active, relishing her public role as a philanthropist and curious to know and meet the creative talent in the city.

Another member of Quest’s “400” list, a contemporary of Brooke and Betsey was Dorothy Hart Hearst Paley Hirshon. Dorothy was a California girl, born in 1908 (the same year as Betsey Whitney). Irene Mayer Selznick in her autobiography “A Private View,” recalled that Dorothy was considered by many to be the most beautiful girl in Southern California.

She first married Jack Hearst, one of the five sons of Millicent and William Randolph Hearst, when she was 19. They moved to New York, where Hearst worked for his father. Three years later, in 1931, she left Hearst for William Paley, then a budding broadcasting tycoon. That marriage ended in 1947, when Paley left her for the recently divorced Babe. A few years later, Dorothy married Walter Hirshon, a specialist on the New York Stock Exchange.

Dorothy was active philanthropically in areas of health and education from her early twenties. In the early 1940s, she and a black reverend from Harlem together canvassed New York hospitals (where the medical staffs were segregated). Finally, they persuaded one to integrate their staff. That started the ball rolling until it became an entire fait accompli. She also started the first day care center in Harlem.
Dorothy Hirshon photographed by Todd Eberle in 1993, at age 85, seated in the living room of her house in Glen Cove which she had designed and built five years before. Behind her is a charcoal sketch of her by Henri Matisse, done in the summer of 1936. From Sally Bedell Smith's Paley bio: "... (William) Paley arranged ... to have Matisse paint a portrait of her. For three weeks she spent every morning at the artist's apartment in Montparnasse while he did hundreds of charcoal sketches, each drawn in one continuous line ... At the end of the sessions, he gave her one of the drawings, dedicated (in French): To Madam Dorothy Paley, your respectful servant, Henri Matisse 1937."
Dorothy, who died in 1998, was very sociable and actively interested in politics. She knew personally every president from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. She was a major supporter of the United Nations at its founding, as well as an working advocate of culture and human rights. In the early 1930s, when Adolf Hitler was coming to power, Dorothy, who was not Jewish herself, was active in organizing the New School’s University in Exile for many Jewish academics escaping from Germany.
Dorothy Hirshon, then a member of the Board of Trustees of the New School, seated next to New School President Jonathan Fanton (left) and August Hecksher II. Heckscher, who was the scion of a rich German-American family here in New York, was an intellectual and author whose work explored American liberalism in political leaders, served as President John F. Kennedy’s Special Consultant on the Arts, and was the first White House cultural adviser.  He was also Mayor John Lindsay’s Parks Commissioner.

Sally Bedell Smith wrote in her biography of William Paley (“In All His Glory,” Simon & Schuster publishers) that Diana Vreeland described the young Dorothy – when she was married to Paley, her second husband --  as a “very cute, nippy girl and very smart. She never had two decisions on anything. She didn’t give a damn about men. She was always surrounded by men though."

These two photographs of her including Todd Eberle’s portrait of her seated in front a charcoal sketch Matisse did of her in the late 1930s, tell the story. Her face in repose in the Eberle photo was the Dorothy that you’d see in private company when she was thinking or not in conversation. Her face in the photo of her with Fanton and Heckscher is the face a man might see when in her company. Especially if she admired him. Any man who knew her experienced both those expressions. The combination was her allure. It was powerful.
An inveterate reader, information-gatherer, theatre-goer, and film-goer, she was drawn to intellectuals, writers, and artists. It was she who persuaded her Paley husband to collect art, advising him on acquisition of much of what is, today, the William S. Paley Collection at the Museum of Modern Art. She was a charter member of Eleanor Lambert’s International Best-Dressed List. She was also a strongly committed rescuer of animals. At the time of her death, she had three canines and seven felines in residence at her house in Glen Cove, Long Island.

Aileen Mehle.
Eleanor Lambert.
Of the aforementioned “grande dames” on Quest’s“400” list, none was a committed social arbiter, and only Brooke Astor agreeably participated in the daily social and charity life of New York of the 1990s.

If there were a potential social arbiter on Quest’s early “400” list, it would have been Aileen Mehle, the society columnist who wrote for more than four decades under the name “Suzy” (and later, under the name “Suzy Knickerbocker,” as her star rose and she succeeded from the New York Daily Mirror to the afternoon daily, the New York Journal-American). A little girl from El Paso, Texas, who grew up to become internationally famous for her wit and sophistication, Aileen possessed movie star beauty and glamour. She was the darling of international society for decades because of that wit and the discretion with which she used it. Her presence at any gala or opening added luster to its importance. There are more than a few prominent New Yorkers who owe their prominence to blessings provided by her pen.

Also on our list in 1995: the aforementioned Eleanor Lambert, who came to New York from Crawfordsville, Indiana, in her twenties to be a writer. During the Great Depression, she turned her need for work into a publicity and public relations business that was a major influence in the growth of the American fashion industry. Eleanor worked up until two months before her death at age 100. Until the very end, when she needed to talk to someone about a project, she called herself. I will never forget seeing her at lunchtime in Swifty’s, a few days after her centennial, waiting for someone who was late for his or her appointment.

Kitty Carlisle Hart.
Another potential grande dame who devoted her life to her interests was Kitty Carlisle Hart, the widow of playwright Moss Hart. A film and stage performer and singer from her youth, Kitty was still working well into her eighties, also active as a spokeswoman for the arts in New York.

If there were a male social arbiter on this list, it might have been a title worn by John Fairchild, the longtime editor-in-chief of Women’s Wear Daily and the creator of W, the society magazine that was read all over the world. John, who was feared and admired at the same time, was less of a social arbiter and more of a professional newsman who built his father’s industry trade newspaper into a nationally read, daily publication.

With his editorial direction, he melded the fashion industry with contemporary society in a way that changed the definition of both that remains to this day. He also, like Andy Warhol (with his Interview magazine), transformed the editorial direction of the magazine business to reflect the great changes in society that began occurring in the 1960s.

John Fairchild.
C.Z., Glenn Birnbaum, and Cornelia Guest at the Fete de Famille, 1989 (Photo: Ron Galella).
Another man on the list who was potentially an arbiter was restaurateur Glenn Birnbaum, the proprietor of Mortimer’s on Lexington Avenue at 75th Street. The restaurant was patronized by almost everyone on our list provided that Glenn would have them. He could be nettlesome and cranky. I was once sitting at the bar in his restaurant chatting with him before the lunch hour, when none of the tables had yet been occupied.

A couple came in, the man neatly dressed in suit and tie, and the woman well turned out in a lovely dress. They had the expression of “tourist” on their faces, however.

“Yes?” Glenn gruffly inquired from across the room, as if he didn’t know why they had came through the door of a public restaurant. The man asked if they could get a table for lunch. “Sorry, we’re fully booked!” he said, turning back to his conversation with me. I expressed surprise that he was fully booked since it was a warm summer day when business could be very quiet (which it was). “No,” he answered with no explanation. He just didn’t like their looks.

He could be just as gruff with his favorite customers too. One day, one of his fashionable ladies a woman known for her chic and her taste was seated waiting for her lunch partner when Glenn passed by. Without stopping, and in his typical grumbling tone, he commented: “I don’t like the color of your lipstick.” Without skipping a beat, the lady rejoined: “Well, darling, you shouldn’t wear it then.”

Bill, Jackie, and JFK Jr.
L. to r.: Nan Kempner and Jerry Zipkin; Anne Slater.
John Galliher.
Galliher with Pat Buckley.
The young Hamptons (Duane and Mark) with Dominick Dunne.
Liz Fondaras in her penthouse apartment on the Île Saint-Louis.
Oscar and Annette de la Renta.
Leonard and Evelyn Lauder.
L. to r.: Bill Blass with Barbara Walters; Virgil and Betty Sherrill.
Brooke Astor and George Trescher.
DPC with Alice Mason.
Nevertheless, everyone went to Mortimer’s. Jackie Kennedy was a regular, and so were Beverly Sills; international party-giver Ludovic Autet; Anne Ford Johnson; acid-tongued but highly popular Jerry Zipkin; Anne Slater (the dazzling blonde whose signature was her blue glasses); Pat Kennedy Lawford; man-about-town John Galliher; Liz Fondaras; interior decorator Albert Hadley; Oscar and Annette de la Renta; Evelyn and Leonard Lauder; John F. Kennedy, Jr.; David and Helen Gurley Brown; Joan Rivers; Betty Sherrill and her husband, Virgil Sherrill (the investment banker); Kay Meehan; Diego Del Vayo; the crisply chic and gentle Lee Thaw (whose name the bitchy Jerry Zipkin liked to pronounce as “Lee-thul”); Chessy Rayner and her business partner, Mica Ertegun, with her husband, Ahmet Ertegun (the record impresario); the most worldly gentleman of pianissimo and the American Songbook, Bobby Short; Poppi Thomas; C.Z. Guest; Nan Kempner (who lunched there every day, all snazzed up because she never left her apartment at 79th Street and Park Avenue without looking smashing); and Pat Buckley, Nan’s “partner in chic” who staged the annual Costume Institute Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when all the Swells (and the Nobs) turned out looking glam.

They were all there all the time. All of these people were on Quest’s “400” list, including the literary chronicler Dominick Dunne, who was often strategically seated within earshot. He gathered so much for his best-selling novels, including People Like Us, from those lunches and dinners. The food comfort food was excellent and, despite the platinum clientele, the price was right. In fact, it was even very reasonable. (Glenn’s chef, Stephen Attoe, and his maître d’, Robert Caravaggi, are now proprietors of Swifty’s which was named for Glenn’s pug which is two blocks south of where Mortimer’s was on Lexington Avenue.)

Another would-be arbiter was George Trescher, the public relations man who first saw New York from a United States Navy ship docked in New Jersey right after World War II. The sight of the city thrilled him so much that he said to himself: “That’s where I’m going to be someday.” George worked for years for Henry Luce’s Time magazine as a kind of public relations event director. After his retirement, he opened his own firm and handled many prestigious institutional accounts.

He was also a close advisor to Brooke Astor. It was said that in the early days of  her widowhood when she was just beginning her ascent as Brooke Astor (rather than the wife of Vincent Astor who never liked her to socialize or even talk to friends on the phone) — that Brooke was advised every step of the way by George, right down to the seating at her dinner parties.

Once, after looking over her seating plan for a dinner, he told her to change the placement of one particular man and one particular woman who she had seated next to one another, because although both were married, it was quietly well known, sotto voce, that they were having an affair. Mrs. Astor was fascinated and much amused. George knew everything. She relied on his advice on all levels of public appearance including fashion, for which his client was forever grateful.

Then there was the top dinner hostess of the time, Alice Mason. Alice was New York’s premier private residence real estate broker. Canny and shrewd, she was a women who knew her business the way a scientist knows his research. It was Alice, in her long career, who actually changed the rules of the co-ops in Manhattan by eliminating, even dissolving, the restrictions that turned so many people away in previous generations because of their religion, nationality, or race. Highly political, she raised more money for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign than any other individual and she repeated the feat for the first Clinton-Gore campaign. In  both instances, she did so at dinner parties in her apartment.

Her dinner parties were held once a month, 10 times a year (excluding July and August). For years, they were the most sought-after private invitations in New York. Her guest list which included socialites, financiers, authors, media executives, journalists, political figures of both sides of the aisle, film stars, and international diplomats always numbered 60 people. Her guests were seated at tables of eight in her living room, dining room, and library.

She made a point of seating people tightly so they would naturally be forced to participate in the table’s conversation. She mixed them all together, and served a menu that was provided by chef Daniel Boulud. Guests enjoyed the conversation with and introduction to the people who were making New York into New York. Her seating arrangements were strategized to appeal to each guest. Everyone talked to everyone at her tables.

Alice drew her guest list of several hundred she had she accumulated and cultivated with care and sensitivity in order to make an interesting mix for her guests. Dinner began with cocktails at 7:30 p.m. (sharp). Guests were finished and departing by 11, fully pleased by the pleasure of the company she kept.

It was a unique experience, even for New York, and there has never been anything quite like it since. (And from the looks of it, there probably never will be.) Alice is now in her early nineties, having begun her career in real estate in the 1950s (Marilyn Monroe was one of her very first clients, as was Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt). She has retired from party-giving and is now pleased to sit back and observe the fray from the peace and quiet of that apartment that the world came to gladly for so many years.

This, Quest’s “400” list, continues.
At the Stork Club, circa 1947, the young Congressman John F. Kennedy talking to Herbert Bayard Swope (the older man with the glasses) and Jean and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, father of the 400 List's Wendy Vanderbilt Lehman. Swope was the most famous newspaper editor and reporter of his age, considered the greatest journalist by many, winning the first Pulitzer Prize for reporting in 1917. He became a legendary editor in chief of Joseph Pulitzer's New York World. Known as "Swope of the World" he is credited with coining the term "the Cold War."

Contact DPC here.