Monday, April 6, 2015

A kind of “debut”

Witch Hazel (Winter Bloom) in Central Park with the Beresford behind. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, April 6, 2015.  A beautiful Easter/Passover weekend in New York. The weather was fair with some cloudiness, a prospect of rain that did not arrive, and lots of sunny hours on Sunday morning and early afternoon. People were out on the Promenade (including a dance company rehearsing) overlooking the river in my neighborhood with lots of children playing, and lots of dogs too.
A Springtime window at Lexington Gardens, next door to Swifty's where I dined on Saturday night.
Their windows always catch your eye and invite you in.
The new Quest is on the stands. The editorial theme is Philanthropy which plays a major role in the social life of many prominent New Yorkers.

Among our features is an article by our regular contributor who writes under the nom de plume Audax about philanthropist, art and book collector, politician and businessman Carter Burden, a remarkable man who first came on the New York scene in the early 1960s when great societal changes were sweeping the world.

The following excerpt of my Diary in this new issue is about Mr. Burden, and is of historical personal interest to me as you will see. Time has given me the opportunity to see what is possible in the helping of one’s neighbor, and how transformative such acts are for all involved. Carter Burden’s story, and life, is a fine, even sterling example.

Born in Los Angeles in 1941, named for his father, S. Carter Burden Jr., always known as Carter, he was tall, willowy, and patrician – a word rarely used to accurately describe someone – in his comportment. He was an heir to what was the last great Vanderbilt fortune -- possessed by his great-grandmother Florence Vanderbilt Twombly.

Carter Burden's great-grandmother Florence Vanderbilt (Mrs. Hamilton McKown) Twombly, the last surviving granddaughter of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt (who died in 1877), arriving in her maroon Rolls with her chauffeur in maroon livery, at the Opera on a Monday night. Florence Twombly kept up the style of her Gilded Age youth right to the time of her death at 98 in 1952. The staff at Florham, her New Jersey estate, numbered 126 including 30 gardeners, 4 footmen, and 8 housemaids.
Mrs. Twombly, who was 98 when she died in 1952, was one of four daughters of William H. Vanderbilt, and the last surviving grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune. Two of Mrs. Twombly’s brothers --  Cornelius II and Willie K. Vanderbilt, were her father’s main heirs. Her husband Hamilton McKown Twombly, however, managed to increase his wife’s and his fortunes many times over, leaving her far richer than all of her other siblings including, in the end, the two eldest brothers.

Carter Burden was born in Los Angeles and brought up in Beverly Hills in a house designed by Wallace Neff for stage and screen actors Frederic March and his wife Florence Eldridge (and later owned by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston). His father, after whom he was named, Shirley Carter Burden was an Easterner who had married Flobelle Fairbanks, a niece of Douglas Fairbanks the legendary movie star whose spectacular career spanned the history of the film industry, from the Silents right into the era of the Talkies. 

Young Carter was educated in Catholic schools including Portsmouth Priory in Rhode Island and then at Harvard where he majored in English and graduated cum laude. After Harvard he attended Columbia Law. The first time I ever heard his name was when one night in the late summer of 1962 a girlfriend of mine came knocking on my door unexpectedly around ten o’clock. She was very upset -- having just been to the birthday party at Le Pavilion -- at the time probably the chicest restaurant in New York --  for Carter Burden’s 21st. 

It had been a kind of “debut” in New York for the young man, and my girlfriend who was from a similarly socio-economic background personally hated the social swim that came with her place, and the personalities it attracted. She’d come to me, seeking the refuge of this would-be-but-not-yet writer, from the “celebration” that was immediately establishing the “rich” young Vanderbilt heir in New York.

Portrait of the man, circa 1973.
Two years later in 1964, Carter Burden married Amanda Mortimer, the daughter of Babe Paley, one of the most famous fashionable and highly publicized ladies of the day who was married to CBS founder William Paley. The combination of wealth and social celebrity made for a princely marriage in the eyes of the press and the fashion magazines.

The young Mr. and Mrs, Burden were the sleek new leaders of a social world that still had many of the rules and folkways of the American elite from which they both sprang. They were goodlooking, rich and lived sumptuously in a vast “starter” apartment in the Dakota that was photographed for Vogue.  A memorable touch in the décor in the dressing room of the man of the house was a small rug, a woven facsimile of a dollar bill, a kind of humorous when-you’ve-got-it-flaunt-it that ironically suggest a sensibility of the times we are living in now.

It was the Sixties that had begun glamorously and extravagantly with the Presidency of John F. Kennedy when the past of the Establishment was about to be confronted with a future of what seemed like radical social change. John Kennedy’s brief but exciting and dynamic time in office suggested that; and young people were especially inspired by the President’s summons to service of upcoming generation of Americans. It was the dawning of the liberation movements coupled with a paradoxically, looming American involvement in the War in Viet Nam.

A year after Kennedy’s assassination, however, the call for “change” took hold on this new generation including Carter Burden. He went to work for Robert F. Kennedy who had resigned that year from his office as US Attorney General in the now administration of President Lyndon Johnson, and in November 1964 was elected U. S. Senator from New York succeeding Kenneth Keating.

Bill and Babe Paley with Amanda and Carter Burden, Jr., on their wedding day in 1964. ©Ben Martin/ Time magazine archive.
Burden’s job was as the new Senator’s liaison with the Puerto Rican community of East Harlem and helping establish the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development Project. The Vanderbilt heir from Beverly Hills was surprisingly, after his initial public “social” image, not above, and open to, all of it.

Four years later, while campaigning for the Presidency in 1968, Robert Kennedy was assassinated on June 5th as he was leaving the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after he’d just defeated Senator Eugene McCarthy in the California presidential primary. The lives of everyone associated with Senator Kennedy changed immediately and forever. Carter Burden became one of the founders of the New Democratic Coalition which was opposed to the old Tammany Hall politics long in need of reform, and decided to run for office.

The publicity accompanying that decision likened him and his new wife to a new version of Jackie and Jack Kennedy, and it was highlighted with a photo portrait of the couple on a cover of New York magazine. He’d decided to run as a (liberal) Democrat for City Council in New York in a district which included the Upper East Side and East Harlem. The New York Times, noting his public image as a socialite “partygoer” endorsed him as “well-informed ... committed to public service” and concluded that his “political independence is a quality the Council badly needs.”

This writer, who was living in the district in the East 80s at the time -- then working as a stockbroker for the then venerable firm of Harris, Upham -- was one of scores of volunteers from the neighborhood who joined the campaign.

Campaign headquarters were in an old vacated supermarket on the northwest corner of Second Avenue and 79th Street (now long ago replaced by a large luxury apartment building). It was my first experience working in a political campaign. Carter Burden attracted many of his generation, and his past, albeit brief, political experience and means also attracted some sharp, experienced campaign advisers.

The neighborhood which was then known as the Silk Stocking District (Ed Koch won the district’s Congressional seat that same year), was made up of a socio-economically wide variety of voters. The job of the volunteers was to canvass any and all apartment houses, especially those of the middle to lower-income residents who had long dwelled in the tenement flats that then occupied the great demographic that ran from the East 70s to East Harlem and from Third Avenue to York.
The candidate at his East Harlem headquarters with children of his constituents and campaign volunteer Joan Caraganis Jakobson. Inset: The newly elected councilman with his then wife, Amanda on a Lutece (restaurant) bus which he used in his campaign. The photo was a gift from the councilman-elect to all his volunteers (Photos courtesy of Mrs. Jakobson). Inset, right: Founding members of the NYFC, Susan Burden and Oscar de la Renta.
Burden himself was out there on the pavement canvassing like the rest of us. Among his volunteers were family members and associations like his cousin, the suave and debonair Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who went out knocking on neighborhood doors one night with Christina Onassis who had been brought into service by her stepmother Jacqueline Onassis. Today most of that neighborhood and its resident families are long gone, replaced by apartment towers. These were neighborhoods in the old fashioned sense, much of it occupied by people who had lived and brought up their families there for generations. The special attention that Carter Burden’s campaign gave to these people – many of whom were elderly and often widowed, living on pensions and Social Security – was probably the strongest vote that elected him Councilman.
A party at George Plimpton's with the host seated in the lower left hand corner, from Audax's piece on Carter Burden.
From this writer’s experience in the process, Carter Burden’s political point of view, representing his constituents, responding, helping, assisting people who had little or no voice without him, was an eye-opener of what a politician could do effectively. Everyone inside and outside his campaign headquarters were well aware of his wealth and lofty social position. It was impossible to avoid. One might imagine that a man of his status would have little experience in the world of the workaday people. Instead, however, he made that his focus. He won with 81% of the vote, and was sworn into office on December 31,1969.

True to his objectives that we volunteers promoted as we canvassed the neighborhoods, knocking on each and every door (that would answer), as City Councilman he kept close touch with these neighbors and once elected, launched a special office in a small storefront in the East 80s as a center for the older neighbors who had pressing needs of all kinds. This became the Burden Center for the Aging.

Susan and Carter Burden, Jr. January, 1990. Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd, Getty Images.
At another black tie affair.
Carter Burden served three terms on the City Council. He was defeated in his effort to win nomination for President of the Council and then experienced another defeat when the State Supreme Court overturned his very narrow victory in a county committee election for nomination to fill Ed Koch’s Congressional seat which he vacated when elected mayor.

Amanda and Carter Burden were divorced in 1972 after six years of marriage. Five years later he married Susan Lombaer to whom he remained married until his untimely death eighteen years later from heart failure at age 54 in 1995. As a man of great fortune, he kept close watch on his financials. In 1969, the same year he first won the councilmanic seat, he became the principal owner of the Village Voice which at the time was the country’s largest circulation weekly newspaper. Six years later he merged the Voice with New York magazine. The following year he sold those assets to Rupert Murdoch. He also founded Commodore Media which owned and operated 20 radio station on the East Coast, and remained a managing partner of his family’s William A. M. Burden Company (founded by his grandfather), which was a family investment partnership.

Philanthropically Carter Burden became a major supporter of the New York Public Library, the Morgan Library (to which he bequeathed a major portion of his collection of first editions and authors’ papers); the New York City Ballet, the Brookdale Center on Aging, Wellesley College and Survivors of Domestic Abuse.  His Burden Center for the Aging, now known as the Carter Burden Center for the Aging (to clarify the meaning of the word “burden” in this instance) started to help his constituents, has become a major center on New York’s Upper East Side where it serves hot lunches everyday for many of the neighbors, and services community needs with many programs supervised by scores of volunteers (and professionals).

Susan Burden, his widow, took on the mantle of her husband’s philanthropy and has grown these enterprises enormously to expand their assistance to the community. Mrs. Burden is also one of the principal (hands on) supporters of New Yorkers For Children which was the brainchild of former Commissioner of The Administration for Children’s Services Nicholas Scoppetta. NYFC, started in 1996 has with donations from individuals, corporations and foundations been able to support the child welfare community focusing on the individual needs of young people in foster care. Each year the NYFC directly affects the lives of almost 1000 youth in foster care with a Back to School Package Program, the Youth Advisory Board, and the annual College and Vocational Conferences to better serve youth in foster care. This is philanthropy.
Susan Burden today.
Two weeks ago, on March 18th, senior citizens, volunteers and staff from The Carter Burden Center for the Aging walked the runway at the Annual Fashion Show at The Carter Burden/ Leonard Covello Senior Program in East Harlem. Dressed to the nines in their own formal wear and full make-up done by Macy’s volunteers, the senior models dazzled in beautiful costumes, jewelry and accessories. Several seniors showcased traditional ethnic clothing from China, Africa and the Philippines, while others displayed ensembles created in sewing class at the Covello Program.
The Runway at the annual Carter Burden/Leonard Covello Senior Program Fashion Show.
The Senior Program which is located in a 28,125 square foot building in East Harlem, provides socialization, recreation and education through daily breakfast and luncheon meals, activities, day trips, computer training and holiday parties. Daily activities such as yoga, art, movies and dance classes are offered and are free to those who wish to participate. Additionally, the Covello Program offers case assistance to members who need help in applying for government benefit programs, addressing landlord/tenant disputes or accessing medical care.

The Carter Burden Center’s mission is to promote the well-being of seniors 60 and older through a continuum of services, advocacy and volunteer programs oriented to individual, family and community needs.  The Carter Burden Center is dedicated to supporting the efforts of older people to live safely and with dignity.  For more information, please visit  
Covello Seniors at the Annual Fashion Show event.
The partner in this event was Macy's, the largest retail brand of Macy's, Inc., which delivers fashion and affordable luxury to customers at more than 800 locations in 45 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Guam. Macy's is known for such epic events as Macy's 4th of July Fireworks® and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade®, as well as spectacular fashion shows, culinary events, flower shows and celebrity appearances. Building on a 150-year tradition, Macy's helps strengthen communities by supporting local and national charities that make a difference in the lives of their customers.
Rachel Oddman.
Paula Diaz.
Esther Sanchez-Polanco, William Dionne, and Sonia Diaz.

Contact DPC here.