Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Bright, bold, and rich

The fiery sky post sunset. 9 PM. Photo: JH.
June 24, 2015. Hot in New York, like heavy air wafting from a furnace with temps close to 90, and the Real Feel over 100. The weatherman predicted thunderstorms in the late afternoon. The sky turned dark by 6, a little rain fell, and that was that – the storms moved out to sea.

Ann Downey died yesterday in Palm Beach. She and I were friend-of-a-friend friends. Ann and I met through our mutual friend Judy Green in the early ‘90s when I first came back to New York.  I was new in town and had been happily swept into Mrs. Green’s very active social life.

DPC and Ann Downey in Palm Beach in 2007.
Ann at her Everglades Island home which she shared with her late husband Morton Downey.
Coincidentally, I had known Ann’s late husband Morton Downey who had died a few years before at 84. I knew him years before she met him only because in his previous marriage (he had been widowed) he had been stepfather to a friend of mine, and I would see him at times when I visited the Downey apartment at 640 Park. Ann knew mine was a very casual connection but it gave our relationship something other than my being Judy’s friend.

She was a tall, slender woman with a friendly generous personality who was very energetic and often on the move. She had a long, successful business as an interior designer with clients here in New York, as well as Palm Beach and elsewhere in the world. She particularly loved bright, bold, rich colors, as you can see from not only the rooms of her houses and apartments but also from her personal style. Billy Baldwin, who met her when Kitty Miller had brought him to Ann’s house on the lake in Palm Beach, was struck by her daring use of color. “To use color is the most difficult thing in the world,” he told friends as well as shelter magazine editors, “and Ann does it wonderfully.”

A blonde, usually wearing dark blue tinted aviator glasses in both day and night, she dressed simply in blouses, sweaters, skirts and pants. She once told her friend, the journalist and social chronicler Billy Norwich that her hair was her priority, that if a woman’s hair always looked great, she could wear anything she wanted to and would look good. She dressed very sportily in blouses and pants and jackets but always was well accessorized in mainly gold jewelry. It was a look, like the rooms she decorated, that stood out. The colors, if not black or white, were bright and intense yet never loud or gaudy.

She was born Ann Trainer in 1932 in Akron, Ohio where her father had been an executive with Firestone. She had been married three times – first to a Mr. Barry about whom I knew nothing except that he was the father of Ann’s daughter and only child, Mona de Sayve. Her second husband, Howell Van Gerbig was a clubman, ardent golfer -- Ann was a scratch golfer -- and yachtsman, and kept homes in Brookville, Long Island and in Palm Beach. Mr. Van Gerbig shot himself in the bathroom of his South Ocean Boulevard house five months after their marriage. Five years later, in 1970, after a courtship of a few weeks, Ann married Downey, who had been widowed six year before. He was also thirty years her senior.
Daughter Mona de Sayve and Ann by day.
Ann and Mona by night.
The Downey marriage lasted until his death sixteen years later. Morton Downey, the most famous Irish tenor in America, son of a Fire Chief from Wallingford, Connecticut, had been one of the most popular singers on the radio with his own show through the 1930s into the early 1950s. (Today he is often confused with his son Sean who professionally was called Morton Downey Jr.) He was a highly sociable individual with a natural wit and enormous charm that brought him friendships with the rich, the famous, and the man on the street.
Morton Downey with children, circa 1952, l. to r., Sean (Morton Downey, Jr.), 19, Tony, 15, and Michael, 21.
A very close friend was Joseph P. Kennedy. The two men lunched almost daily at the Colony. In the early 1940s when Downey’s CBS radio show was sponsored by Coca-Cola, Downey suggested to Kennedy that he invest in Coca-Cola Bottling Companies. Kennedy asked him why he didn’t invest in one if it was such a good idea. Downey confided that he didn’t have that kind of money. “How much?” is that kind of money, Kennedy wanted to know. “$250,000,” Downey answered.  The next day an envelope was hand delivered to Downey’s apartment. It was from Joe Kennedy. Inside was a check for $250,000, and Downey acquired his first Coca-Cola bottler, a move that would eventually make him a millionaire.
Ann Downey with her poodle Apple pool side at her Everglades Island home.
Apple in repose.
The colorful dining room of her Everglades Island home.
Ann's living room.
And reception room.
The marriage brought Ann into a more glamorous world of show business and international society, since her husband seemed to know everybody. The couple were popular both in New York where they kept an apartment at 580 Park, and in Southampton where Ann leased a house. Vincent Minuto, who worked for them in Southampton, remembered a social life full of good times. When he was hired by them to cater their parties in 1980, they were renting a big house with close friends Arlene Francis and Martin Gabel, and Judy Green who was recently widowed.

Coincidentally, Downey had been a close friend of Judy’s husband Bill Green whom he knew through Frank Sinatra. Frank and Barbara Sinatra were often guests of the Downeys in Southampton and in Palm Beach.
Downey's playful decor.
After her husband died, she sold their apartment in New York and gave up the house in Southampton. Her daughter Mona was living in Paris, married a Frenchman, the Comte de Sayve, and had a son. So Ann, who had been enamored with the City of Light since the first time she visited at age 12, bought an sprawling duplex penthouse on the Left Bank in Paris which she decorated with the same enthusiastic panache that was her trademark, and divided her time between there and Palm Beach.

In 1998, arriving back at the apartment on Avenue Rapp
after a lunch at the Ritz, when she got to her apartment on the top floor of the building, there were three men she did not know on the landing, apparently waiting for her. Opening the door to her apartment they barged in behind her, hit her on the head and restrained her on the floor. After they’d gone through the apartment gathering her valuables, lying there hoping that they’d think she was unconscious, she noticed that one of them had a blackjack. As he approached her, she heard another say, “No, no, don’t ....” And the burglar didn’t. Instead they sprayed her eyes with Mace and made a run for it.

Paris would never be the same for her after that. She gave up the flat and Paris.
Ann Downey in the living room of her second Palm Beach house with Apple in 2007.
To my surprise, a photo of yours truly lounging by Ann's pool at her previous PB home was proudly displayed. Behind me under the chaise is a little dog named Mrs. Fa Fa, a sweetie, a rescued shih-tzu who lived with me for ten years.
Her great friend Judy Green died of pancreatic cancer three days after 9/11. Ann had gone through the dreadfully painful, months-long experience of her friend’s suffering, staying with her in her last days, and until the moment she died. The experience of caring for and consoling her friend was traumatic.

She returned to Palm Beach and concentrated on her business. She sold the house on Island Drive where she’d lived for forty years when someone came along with an offer she couldn’t refuse. She moved herself into a new house, and poured herself into re-decorating it. 
Ann's racing stripes on the door to her Lexus.
Eventually she took another pied-a-terre in New York at the Volney on East 74th Street. Ann loved dressing up rooms – for herself, for her friends (which she often paid for) and for clients. Business took her all over the country. When her daughter Mona eventually was divorced from her husband, she moved back to Palm Beach. Ann also loved dogs and always had at least one which she traveled with. She was always working on new projects, almost until her last days. She had been diagnosed with Lymphoma a few years ago although it had gone into remission shortly after the diagnosis. She wasn’t the kind of person who let these things keep her from working. Although the time came when it did. She will be missed.