Monday, December 28, 2015

This Wonderful town

Christmas Day scene in new Jersey. Photo: JH.
Monday, December 28, 2015. Continuing unseasonal fair weather here in New York and elsewhere in the Northeast. Yesterday the temperature was in the low 60s. But overcast which in wintertime means grey, grey, and more grey, a desolate version of greige. By mid-afternoon it was foggy, foggy enough to entirely cover the top half of the skyscrapers, and lightly misting on the streets and avenues below in the greige.

By nightfall the dampness looked like it had been raining, but it was more like a heavy mist. I mention these details because Bob Schulenberg reported Saturday night that it was 27 degrees in Fresno, California where he is living, and Blair Sabol out in Scottsdale reported that it was 37 degrees in the desert.  Which is even very cool for those locations.
All is quiet on Madison Avenue at 77th Street looking south and from the same location looking north on the day before Christmas.
This sounds like I’m a gatherer of meteorological information but mainly it’s about the mood we’re in that interests me. This month’s very fair weather in the Northeast has left many not disoriented but with a feeling of greater uncertainty about Mother Nature’s plans.

There was a Full Moon on Christmas Eve. A Full Cold Moon, it was referred to; the first since 1977 and the last on that day (December 24th/25th) until 2034. It was a beautiful night, cloudy but not enough to hide the moon that brightened the night. I started out at a Christmas Eve cocktail party at Joan and John Jakobson’s.
Joan and John Jakobson.
John is a lifelong New Yorker, and Joan – who grew up in Massachusetts – has been here since the late 1960s. She and I met when we were volunteers in Carter Burden’s first campaign for City Council in 1969.  John had a long career as a specialist on the New York Stock Exchange. If you didn’t know that and you met him, you’d think he was a writer and a humorist – because he most definitely is the latter. It’s the wit, the delivery and irony in the denouement which cracks people up. You get the impression that’s simply how his mind works. Of course he comes from a generation that learned from their fathers and mothers how to tell a story or a joke. Common sense and decorum was and is the ticket to the tell. John has that.

I review these little histories because it explains their guest list. The people who read the papers, and the books, and see – or are involved in the theatre, and the politics, but not as authorities so much as just a matter of fact. A lot of people they’ve known, and many who have known each other for years; and whose children have known each other. Gemutlich on Park Avenue – “in a New York state of mind.”
Taken from East 61th Street and Park Avenue looking south, The Helmsley Building lit up like a Christmas tree at the foot of Park at 45th Street. Once upon a time, before the Met Life Building (which was built as the Pam Am Building) was constructed, this building was the tower on Park Avenue. Built in 1929 as the New York Central Building, and designed by Warren & Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Terminal, it still commands the avenue in all its ancient glory, thank God.
From the Jakobsons I went on down the avenue to Gay and Nan Talese who have a townhouse just off Park in the East Sixties. They and their daughters Pamela and Catherine host this party every Christmas Eve, and have for years. I’m guessing but the guest list might be a couple of hundred. The party extends throughout the living rooms and the rest of the house if someone needed to go upstairs or wanted to see the decorations that the Talese sisters had done up just for the party. “Just for the party” in Talese lingo means “just for the people.” Us. It is that kind of a party. You don’t just feel welcome, you feel “at home.”

Nan and Gay eloping in Rome, 1959.
I first attended a number of years ago when Alice Mason asked Gay if she could bring me along. It intrigues me that the recollection I have of the house itself is different from the house I now go to. It seemed smaller in memory and although it’s not a mansion, the house was built in 1913 (or some date around that decade, and the rooms are ample). The Taleses have lived there for decades now. Their girls grew up there. They used the land behind the house to create a large two-story room which is basically floored and covered backyard, a perfect entertainment venue. At this annual Christmas Eve party it is set up with a bar and several large round tables with chairs. That’s where the guests have dinner, or dessert. Or drink.

This is a very sophisticated New York crowd. By sophisticated I mean worldly, literate and of course many are literary, ambitious, imaginative in a city that officially reveres it. There are many well known writers who join the Taleses year after year. You almost feel you’re in a room of a large family – maybe Italian – or relatives, distant those most may be. I see Michael Bloomberg there every year. He always looks very relaxed as if he’s just having a great time just talking to people talking to him. Everybody talks to each other. It is a great pleasure, and there is also the magic of it to this writer.

I must admit that although I’ve been to this party a number of times, and I have been in this business long enough to know, however casually, many of the guests who are famous and/or celebrated -- you could say I’m used to it; and I am.  But, when the moment comes – Christmas Eve – to go to this party I remain very impressed, almost like a kid from the sticks who only knows the thrill of it all.
With Nan in Rome, 1984.
Gay and Nan photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.
A good part of that is the hospitality of this family. The author, the editor, the painter, the photographer, all out there in the world and yet gemutlich. A very good old friend of mine Philip Carlson was there and he wrote me about it yesterday: “... I loved being there. It is truly remarkable, the degree of goodwill those walls give off. Everyone is so genuinely glad to be there.” 

That’s the essence; like a moment in a village. Wonderful town.
I had my camera with me and there were quite a few "names" present at the creation, but I did not feel that it was appropriate to play paparazzi in someone's house, particularly since many of the guests could enjoy the privacy and a chance to be yourself. Sort of. However, I did take this photo of a bookcase in the living room because I was curious to see what the famous writer and famous editor had on their bookcases. This is one small bookcase in a house of readers. The bottom shelf was almost entirely Tom Wolfe, a contemporary of Gay's and also along with Gay, one of few remaining writers of that great era of American literature in the last half of the 20th century. There was another shelf almost totally devoted to Irwin Shaw's work. And John Updike. All of the books, by the way, had been read, page after page. On the far right of the photo you can see a man with glasses talking to another guest. He is the great Lyndon Johnson (and Robert Moses) biographer Robert Caro.
I’d got there at about 7:30 and left a little after 9:30. It was a beautiful night outside. I crossed Park Avenue to an island to try to get a picture of the Cold Full Moon rising in the eastern sky, surrounded by clouds illuminated by it. My photograph is amateur, but it was a beautiful sight and a reassuring moment, no matter how brief it might be. Later in the evening just before turning in, I went out on my terrace to get this other shot, as it was just rising to its peak. A good night to be grateful.
Full Cold Moon rising over Manhattan as seen from the island in the middle of Park Avenue at 10 o'clock on Christmas Eve.
And the same moon two hours later as seen from the terrace looking south on East End Avenue.

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