Monday, June 1, 2015

Primates of Park Avenue

Looking across Central Park during the rain on Sunday afternoon. Photo: JH.
Monday, June 1, 2015. Another beautiful weekend in New York. Very warm, sunny and bright with skies darkening by late Sunday afternoon, followed by the predicted rains, steady although not heavy, for a couple of hours. At nightfall came the breezes that brought in the cooler air. The rain and the wind gave the city a fresh, end-of-weekend feeling, as if promising a good week.

The talk, if you want to call it that, was about a book. “Primates of Park Avenue; a memoir” (Simon & Schuster) by Wednesday Martin. The talk I was hearing was because of all the publicity Martin is getting for this new book. And who’s her publicist? Sandi Mendelson of Hilsinger Mendelson. Yes, she delivers. Of course it also depends on the deliverability of the product.

I first heard about it a little more than a month ago when I entered Michael’s restaurant for lunch at the same time that Wednesday Martin did. I didn’t know her (and I don’t know her) although I’d seen her at Michael’s a number of times and we had had the occasion to meet in table-passing.

I knew (I think she told me) that she was a writer. I concluded when we were introduced several months or more ago that she was an “ambitious writer” or at least an “ambitious” professional women. Michael’s is a magnet for that, and rightfully so. And she is a frequent guest on Wednesday’s – the day to be seen by media.

So that was my Wednesday Martin story until last week when Sandi Mendelson told me the book was coming out, and sent me a copy. We set up a date for me to lunch with Wednesday on this Wednesday the day after tomorrow, at Michael’s. I already knew from our brief conversations that she was easy to talk to and quite open about herself. And forthright (versus forth-wrong). 
Wednesday Martin doing her "field work."
I didn’t plan to read the book because from the sound of it ... what more do I need to know about the women and the world that I’ve been writing about and observing for most of my life. I planned to just get to know Wednesday and have a look at all that ambition I’d intuited from the first time I saw her pass my table entering the front dining room at Michael’s.

Actually, I wasn’t really interested in the subject UES  young mothers, etc. when I told Wednesday I’d have lunch with her.  I’ve seen it all my adult life and I see it now more than ever as I walk along the streets and avenues of that part of town. But then my friend Jesse Kornbluth told me I had to read it, that he had no interest in it but then couldn’t put it down and read it all in one day. Then Sandi Mendelson sent me the book. So I was committed no matter what I felt like doing.
"Map of the Island" from Primates of Park Avenue.
Jesse interviewed the author for the Observer, and yesterday there was a piece by Ginia Bellafante in the Times about it. However, after reading Ginia Bellafante’s article then the scads of comments, it was clear that Ms. Bellafante was not enamored. Referring to “intense reaction” to the book (and its author), she mentioned how the author “at Michael’s in jeans and heels, had seemed to so thoroughly embrace the manners of the women she had written about with such an imperious strain of sympathy.”

I like the “imperious strain” bit; great combination; veins in the neck showing. Wednesday’s in for it, I thought. Then I read through the Comments. Oy, as they say. Yes, she is in for it, I thought, reading on. Then I started to consider the inherent value in Sandi Mendelson’s work in promoting it. Jesse himself said to me yesterday morning that all the Upper East Side mommies/wives/authors were sharpening their knives. I guess so. Will the book still sell thanks to all that publicity?

I still hadn’t opened it. I was feeling a bit guilty, but I knew I’d read at least some of it before we lunched. Yesterday afternoon while thinking about today's Diary (like: what am I going to write?), I thought maybe I should take a look. The talk about it is now, so why wait until the day after tomorrow. All the storm clouds may have passed like yesterday’s rain.

So I opened it. In the introduction Martin writes about her interest in anthropology (Bellafante in the Times identifies her as “a hobby anthropologist”), and how she used the bones of it in developing her personal “memoir.” That’s a very constructive way for an ambitious woman to exploit a hobby when you think about it. Rather clever too when you get a chance to consider how like the monkeys and baboons we are. Laugh while you learn.

The intro explained her background – a girl from a small town in Michigan; unremarkable beginnings, college, New York ... and the story begins: She comes to New York as a young aspiring writer. She is now married, and going to have a child and decides with her husband to move from downtown to the Upper East Side in that gold coast strip “west of Lexington Avenue” running from 60th Street 96th and Fifth.

I like this book. Wednesday Martin is the classic New Yorker. The New Yorker who come from Out There to make it here – just like the song – with their talents, ambitions, curiosity and neurosis who make New York what it is to the world.

The girl from Michigan finds herself, having arranged herself, in the midst of the most ambitious of the young couples along that gold coast in her search for a new home for her oncoming baby.

And she soon finds that it’s just like what it is: High School. And it’s hilarious. This is not new but it never gets old because it is classic human behavior under certain circumstances and those circumstances are Too Much Money. And not enough flavor. Or favor.
So I read the first hundred pages. As for her references to anthropology, they’re informative for the curious like me. They are an excellent device to construct the model of social behavior she’s confronted with, dealt, and even envied. This story has been written many times before. Its universality never grows stale. It made an important literary career for Clare Boothe Luce when she wrote “The Women” three-quarters of a century ago, and it’s still working. This is the nuclear age rendition and it is on the money.

There have been criticisms that Martin has taken on a lot of the interests, likes and characteristics of those she’s written about “critically.” Of course she has. That is what we all do. That is what makes the Upper East Side such a magnet for innocent curiosity, and fresh currency for writers, photographers, artists of all kinds, not excluding interior designers, architects and sugar manufacturers.

This book is amusing to the jaded (sort of) New Yorker who has seen it all and even maybe lived a lot of it. But it’s also informative for the new arrival.  It’s a great book for all of those Out There who love this place, dream of it, hope to grow up and live there (here) one day. Because this is the story. One of them, of course, but a classic. This is New York and Wednesday Martin – willing to let you know what her weaknesses and temptations are – seeks it out, explores it, and writes about it with accuracy and a skewed eye. In her memoir, she cracks some codes.
A girl's gotta eat, no? Click to order.