Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Back to the party

Birds of a feather. Central Park. 10:30 AM. Photo: JH.
January 5, 2016. Yesterday was a sunny, very cold day in New York with temperatures in the 20s. The night before they went into the single digits. It’s what we might expect here in New York at the beginning of a New Year. However, it’s quite different from the weather we’ve had up until now. What’s funny about it is that the hard cold seems surprising. People are leaving their buildings suddenly realizing they should have worn their gloves. Without a hat, the head hurts. That kind of cold. I have a feeling many are hoping for a return to the “milder” temps we’ve been experiencing.

The world is a mess. There’s horrible news everywhere you look. Of course a lot of people aren’t looking, they’re looking at their screens, be they phone or computer. There the news is not so bad, unless you’re one of those people who can’t stay away from the story of civilization. However, let’s turn the page for a minute and have a look back.

My friend Schulenberg, the man who has that Page of sketches of his memoir we run on the NYSD every Thursday, sent me the following photo layout from LIFE magazine of New Year’s Eve 1956, photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt. He found it on another website with an eye called
Kitty Miller (left) greeting Vogue editor Despina Messinesi.
This was a famous party given every year by Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert Miller at their apartment at 550 Park Avenue and 62nd Street. Gilbert Miller was an international theatrical producer and theatre owner, and his wife Kitty was one of two daughters of Jules Bache. Jules Bache, the man, has returned to natural obscurity a hundred years later, but in his day he was a Wall Street banker out of the era and legend of Otto Kahn and Pierpont Morgan -- in the first third of the 20th century. He died a very rich man and left his considerable art collection to the Met. There was (at least) one painting, however, which the Met shared – six months and six months – with Mr. Bache’s daughter Kitty (Kathryn) until she left this life.
Guests at cocktail hour at the Gilbert Millers' New Year's Eve dinner dance on December 31,1956. The painting hanging above them is Goya's famous "Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga" (also known as Goya's Red Boy) now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum as part of Jules Bache's bequest. The man on the far right is the famous painter/illustrator Constantin Alajalov. Holiday window treatments were created by Billy Baldwin.
Kitty Miller was famous in her set. She was very fashionable and social. She was not a beauty but rather what was referred to in polite society as belle laide. In her set, or staff, or anyone who was in her company, she was known for her straightforward personality. To put it politely. Yes, she was charming as a hostess but among those who knew her well, it was her “outspokenness” which in today’s parlance would be put more directly: her mouth. She did not consider herself so. (And why should she have?)  She was naturally inclined to say whatever was on her mind, and always in terms that could be understood by anybody  no matter their stature. And she could be very funny too. It was she who is credited with the New York maxim: "hang out the ham and they'll all come running.
The lady on the left is Janet Stewart, standing next to her daughter Nancy Ryan. Stewart is still remembered as Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart known in her day (1930s and thereafter) as "the most beautiful woman in New York." First married to banking heir Allan Ryan Jr., in 1936 she divorced Ryan and married Stewart, who died 9 years later. In 1948, she married James S. Bush, brother of Senator Prescott Bush and uncle of George H. W. Bush and that marriage ended in divorce. She was on Eleanor Lambert's first Best Dressed List, and famous for her salon cocktail hours held at her apartment weekday afternoons from 4 to 7. She was forty-seven at the time of this photograph.
Kitty Miller was also famous for her lifestyle. Besides the apartment at 550, there was a country house in the Cotswolds or thereabouts, a London townhouse on Green Street in Mayfair, and a leased house in Palm Beach in wintertime. Wherever she was she was making a mark with her dinners and other parties.  When she rented the Palm Beach house for the Season, the furniture was removed and replaced by her own, as were the gardens. She had only the one sibling, a sister, Hazel, who married, and bore three daughters whose issue and grand-issue still tend to Kitty’s father’s fortune.

Kitty was childless, however, and spent her income on herself, and then a lot more, on her lifestyle. At the end of her life when the piggy bank was about to be coinless, and her lawyers and advisors were beseeching her to cut back, her response was the universal “No.”

“My father had always insisted I should have what I want, and I don’t intend to stop now.”
Gaia and Salvador Dali.
This is the same Kitty Miller who when burglars worked their way past the butler in her Belgravia house one morning, and into her bedroom where she was having breakfast, and stole her jewelry still laid out from the night before -- thousands of pounds worth -- as they were leaving she told one of the burglars that he was so handsome she insisted she deserved a kiss from him, since he was stealing all her precious gems. And so it was. That story may not be entirely accurate but it has taken its place in posterity and its essence is intact. Kitty Miller.
Observe the way parties were photographed 60 years ago. All of these guests were well aware of the camera yet none of them are "camera ready" or even paying attention to it. Unlike today's instant vanity posing, the result here is a more interesting photo with more interesting subjects.
Back to this party. There were forty or fifty for dinner. Another one hundred were invited in after dinner. There was a Viennese orchestra who performed in the proper regalia. It was the place to be in New York among the social set. These were the social people who emerged with the era of Café Society – when the old Edith Wharton society had relaxed into the automotive age and radio and movies was changing the culture of the entire world.

John Galliher who was often a guest of Mrs. Miller always attended this event. He recounted the party when Greta Garbo said good night to him well before midnight. “But where are you going Miss G?” he asked the screen legend, who replied in her soft, almost cooing, Swedish accent: “to Times Square ... to pick up ... a sailor.” And she was off. Although most likely not to Times Square.
Janet Stewart again talking to two other guests. To her right is agent/producer Leland Hayward.
Mrs. Stewart again. Besides her afternoon salons (which were not a rare social event in the homes of several prominent New York women), Mrs. Stewart also worked at the Actor's Studio. She died in 1982 at age74.
1956, LIFE was the most widely read weekly magazine in America. It delivered the world to everyone’s door across the country in photos taken by some of the greatest photographers of the era. To this boy growing up in a small town in New England, the metropolis of New York was a fascination by the time I was ten years old. I wasn’t the only kid in the neighborhood looking at those pages with wonder. The magazine brought everything so near and yet so far away.

This Eisenstaedt piece on the Miller party shows modern life in New York social/celebrity circles at its glamorous best. That was the sensibility. Glamour was not a world used by these people to describe themselves, but an aesthetic, a message to the reader.
English actors Dirk Bogarde, center, and Kay Kendall, who was having an affair with Rex Harrison with whom she starred in "The Constant Husband." Harrison was married to actress Lili Palmer at the time. Harrison learned from Kendall's doctor that she had myeloid leukemia -- Kendall was never told -- and with Palmer's agreement, he decided to divorce and marry Kendall so that he could care for her. She thought she merely had an iron deficiency, and Harrison and Palmer thought they would remarry. Kendall died in September 1959, working right to the end in a film with Yul Brynner, "Once More With Feeling." Palmer and Harrison didn't remarry as Palmer married her lover. 1956 was the year Harrison would open in the role of Henry Higgins in Lerner & Loewe's "My Fair Lady" with newcomer Julie Andrews at the Mark Hellinger Theater that year.
The man in the center is T. Reed Vreeland, husband of Diana. The Vreelands lived in the same building as the Millers.

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