Monday, October 24, 2016

Epilogue as Prologue

Fall's arrival in Central Park. 3:50 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, October 24, 2016. It’s a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon here in New York as I write this. The temperature is hovering around 60 and there is a fresh, not quite chilly breeze gusting about the avenue.

Seasons end. The plants on the terrace are not reacting positively to the whistling of the winds. They know. The budding leaves on one of the crotons wilted over night. That’s it; in they go. One of these days the impatiens, vinca and potato plants will be finished, and all that beauty I’ve been visiting first thing in the morning and last thing at night, will be gone. Soon the west end of my living room will be filled with plants in for the winter. The plants don’t mind it, but they’re definitely indifferent.
The plants on my terrace on Saturday morning.
The plants in my living room on Sunday afternoon.
On the rainy, grey Saturday afternoon, I was going through our archives searching for something (which I don’t remember), when I came upon a page from October 5, 2004, less than a month before the re-election of George W. Bush. (I’ll be you can’t remember who ran against him that year. Neither could I.)
Saturday afternoon on Park Avenue.
What caught my eye at first were the familiar faces – but twelve years ago. Several no longer on the scene. I didn’t even read a word of it until I wondered why I’d come to this particular site at this moment.

It was very busy that October, although the “busy” is different today from those days. There was a big birthday celebration for Daisy Soros. A smash! I don’t recall how “big” it was because now it would be small or smaller anyway; such is life. And then there was an obit on Janet Leigh who had died a couple days before; and a story of four women.

I sent it to JH who found it all very interesting again too. And so we are sharing it with you ...
The Fete de Swifty tent on 73rd between Lexington and Third Avenue. 9:00 PM. October 4, 2004.
October 5, 2004: Last night they held the first annual Fete de Swifty under a tent that covered the block of East 73rd Street between Lexington and Third Avenues and it was a big big hit. The Fete de Swifty was created to raise funds for the Mayor’s Fund that is designated for the Parks AfterSchool Program. Three thousand kids between six and thirteen benefit from this program that is set up in 33 parks around the city. They raised more than $500,000.
The scene behind the bar.
It was Liz Smith’s idea. When she turned 80, she asked friends instead of sending her a birthday present, to contribute something to the Mayor’s Fund. The fund received more than $200,000 in her name. She was so moved by the result that she got the bright idea of expanding the possibilities. Fete de Swifty, a name created by her longtime friend Peter Rogers, the advertising guru, is a tribute to the earlier Fete de Famille that was held two blocks up the avenue in the 80s and 90s by Glenn Birnbaum and Mortimer’s Restaurant.

In the beginning, when the committee was first formed – there was a lot of doubt about the potential of a new charitable venture in New York. Liz ignored all that and insisted that we move forward. To prove her point she rustled up almost a hundred thousand dollars in seed money from friends and supporters. Before the night was finished, that sum had reached close to $600,000.
Joel Getz, Steven Attoe, Peter Rogers, Susan Rotenstreich, Mayor Bloomberg, Chris Meigher, Liz Smith, Robert Caravaggi, and DPC
Nan Kempner
It was just a great big festive cocktail party – lots of food from Swifty’s – tea sandwiches, those little hotdogs that you can eat by the dozens, shellfish, little hamburgers, tables full of desserts, two big bars, acrobats, juggling acts, people on stilts, a jazz band and a disco, as well as a live auction conducted by Jamie Niven which raised about $25,000 and a silent auction that raised another ten or fifteen.

Mayor Bloomberg came and spoke, and thanked the crowd, and everyone decided that this was going to be a very successful annual affair. It started at six and by 8 o’clock there must have been five hundred people crowding the block long white tent. By eight-forty-five when I left, it was still going strong. JH and the Digital and I took lots and lots of pictures which we’ll run over the next couple of days.
Helen O'Hagan and Peter Rogers
John and Susan Rotenstreich with their daughter
Jamie Niven
Clockwise from above: The entertainers; Liz Smith, Victoria Gotti, and Joel Getz; Diana Taylor, Peggy Race, and Barry Diller.
Hats on
Martin Bregman and Ahmet Ertegun
Passing by the Whitney Museum (after leaving Fete de Swifty) where they were holding its annual gala, "Art Now." 9:10 PM.
Last Saturday night, a friend of Daisy Soros’ gave her a birthday party – a Roaring Twenties party at her country house. About 200 drove up from the city, men mostly in black tie and women dressed in the flapper style – lots of pearls and bandeaux, feathers and fringe, beads and sequins, boas and fox furs.

The party was held in the athletic house on the friend’s estate. The swimming pool was covered over and bordered with potted palms for the cocktail hour. When the dinner hour came everyone moved down onto what in everyday life is an indoor tennis court. You had to be in the know to know that because whoever designed this party created a movie set from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical – black and white tile dance floor, tables set with crystal candelabra festooning white roses and gardenias, the walls draped in a black gauzy fabric lit with thousands of shimmering lights and the ceiling hung with chandeliers and covered with a billowing gauzy fabric. The stupendous décor set the tone. Vince Giordano and his Nighthawks played their authentic 1920s jazz and soon the dance floor was mobbed with revelers.
The tennis court turned ballroom.
After the first course, the Soros’ two sons, one of whom lives in London with his family and the other who lives in Los Angeles with his family, got up to toast their mother. Daisy got up to read a poem she wrote, inspired by Irving Berlin’s “Thanks for the Memories,” and then her husband Paul Soros read a tribute to the “Three Faces of Daisy.”

"As he described his wife’s evolution from childhood to adulthood to motherhood, to grandmotherhood and philanthropist, they flashed images of her changes on the screen in the middle of the room."
She was born in Hungary and was there as a young girl when the Nazis invaded. However it happened, she got to America with her young husband (also Hungarian – brother of the famous financier George Soros) who studied to be an engineer. The couple eventually ended up living in New Canaan and in New York where they participate in a number of philanthropies including the opera and the ballet at Lincoln Center.

Mr. Soros, who is a courtly man with glasses and a face that reposes in a smile, has a thick head of white hair and speaks with a soft, yet clear, deliberate tone. As he described his wife’s evolution from childhood to adulthood to motherhood, to grandmotherhood and philanthropist, they flashed images of her changes on the screen in the middle of the room.

The effect was very touching to the many of us who have experienced Daisy’s generous, warm and direct personality. One of the sons remarked that although she didn’t suffer fools gladly by any means, her favorite phrases were “isn’t it fabulous?” and “isn’t it wonderful?”

She speaks in what to these American ears
is a distinctly Hungarian accent although her English grammar is superior to many of us who speak it natively. She is one of those women who, perhaps because of her directness, quickly develops intimacy in relationships: you feel as if you know her well. What you remember after being in her company is her forthrightness and her laughter.

On this night it was forthright festivity and laughter. The dance floor was always jumping and the costumes were sparkling. Although the party was held on the 2nd of October in the sign of Libra, Daisy is actually a Virgo, born on the 7th of September. The date was adjusted to accommodate her myriads friends who like her are still away at that earlier date (the Soros go to Nantucket in summer).

A good time was had by all. Dinner was provided by Sean Driscoll of Glorious Foods and topped off by baked Alaska and champagne. By midnight the cars and limousines were filling and everyone was heading back to Manhattan.
A photograph of Daisy's grandchildren flashed across the screen
Mary McFadden and Raul Suarez with Jackie Weld and Rod Drake
Daisy Soros with friends
On the dancefloor
Susan Burke and friend
Soros flappers
Rand and Jessie Araskog
Barbara de Portago
Susan Gutfreund
David Beer and Lee Thaw
Gaetana Enders and Harriett Levine
Raul Suarez and Carlos Picon
Jewel Bickford and Connie Spahn
Marife Hernandez and Mary McFadden
John Dobkin and Louise Grunwald
Marlene Hess and Jim Zirin
Joan Rivers and Edwina Sandys
Gale Hayman Haseltine and Dr. Bill Haseltine
Muffie Potter Aston and Dr. John Espy
DPC's place setting
The dancers
The centerpiece
Susan Burke's black-gloved hands across the table
Boas galore

Janet Leigh the movie actress died at her home in Beverly Hills on Sunday at age 77. Her role in “Psycho” kept millions vigilant every time they took a shower for years after that famous scene in which her character was stabbed to death by the mad Tony Perkins’ character in Bates Motel.
I knew her circuitously through Debbie Reynolds, for whom I wrote an autobiography (in collaboration with her of course) in the late 1980s. Debbie and Janet were both stars on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot when they were in their late teens.

Debbie Reynolds in the office of Lillian Burns Sidney on the MGM lot, circa 1950.
Their mentor, Lillian Burns Sidney, who was instrumental in hiring me to write Debbie’s book, was for years the “acting coach” at Metro. I put quotations around the term because there were a number of stars who took issue with her methods of coaching.

Nevertheless, “Burnsie,” as she was affectionately known to the stable of “more stars than there are in heaven” had the very respectful ear of Mr. Mayer, as he was referred to by all who worked for him, and because of that for many many years she was the highest paid (earning $100,000 in the 1940s – more than a million in today’s dollars) and most powerful woman executive in Hollywood (late 30s through the early 50s). As the wife for three decades (40s, 50s, and 60s through the early 70s) of director George Sidney, she wielded a social power in the film community too.

George Sidney dumped Lillian very unceremoniously
after the death of their friend Edward G. Robinson, and married his widow Jane. Jane had been a receptionist here in New York for a designer named Nettie Rosenstein who catered to society and movie stars. The first Mrs. Robinson, Gladys, who, like a lot of Hollywood women, used to come East to buy her wardrobes, and took a liking to Jane whom she invited to visit her and her husband in Beverly Hills. Jane accepted the invitation and ultimately moved in, ending the first Robinson marriage.
Edward G. Robinson and his first wife, Gladys.
The Robinsons’ divorce settlement was a sensation at the time because it caused the breakup of the Edward G. Robinson art collection, then considered one of the greatest in the world. Much of it was sold in one transaction to Stavros Niarchos, the shipowner, creating the foundation of his great collection. The proceeds from the sale were split down the middle, community-property style and was a crushing blow to the sensitive art-loving actor who became famous as a tough guy mobster in “Little Caesar.”

Lillian Burns Sidney, circa 1946, when Janet Leigh first met her at MGM Studios.
DPC and Lillian Sidney in 1988 at a book party in Los Angeles for Debbie Reynolds.
Mr. Sidney, who was several years younger than his wife Lillian, already had a long time behind the scenes reputation for chasing the ladies, especially the starlets on the casting couch. Their marriage breakup was a devastating blow to the little woman (she was 4’11” in her youth) who had so much power in the Hollywood studio system and who had guided her husband, among others, to and through many cinematic successes. To make matters worse for her, Mr. Sidney and Mrs. Robinson also helped themselves to much of the couple’s joint financial assets as well as much of the 18th-century English antiques that Lillian acquired in London auction houses over the years of their marriage.

The divorce left Lillian, then close to 70, in dire financial straits as well as emotionally bereft. Three women came to her rescue: Debbie Reynolds, Donna Reed, and Janet Leigh.

It was principally Debbie, who initiated the assistance, and who relied profoundly on Lillian’s unerring eye and theatrical know-how. For the rest of Lillian’s life (almost thirty years – she died in 1998), in varying degrees of financial participation (principally Debbie’s), the women assumed many of Lillian’s living expenses, including the cost of the daily maid, communicated with her daily and included her in family gatherings on holidays and special occasions. When Donna Reed died in 1986, the responsibility shifted more to Debbie and Janet who gave even more of her time to looking after Lillian, since Debbie (who called her every night of her life) was on the road as much as forty weeks a year with her nightclub act.

Lillian, despite the havoc her former husband wreaked on her finances, remained, thanks to these women, ensconced for the rest of her life in a very comfortable co-op on the Wilshire corridor, smartly decorated with the little that was left after the big house on Tower Road was vacated and emptied by George Sidney and Jane Robinson who liked her predecessor’s taste.

I first met Janet Leigh at a cocktail party at her house in the late 1980s. Her career had long passed and she was now famous as the mother of Jamie Lee Curtis, and her second daughter, Kelly Curtis. As Hollywood women go, Janet, or Jenny, as Lillian always called her, was especially lady-like off-camera. Gracious, modest in her demeanor, she was educated. as all those girls under contract at MGM were, to have a sophisticated presence.
Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh with their daughters, Jamie Lee and Kelly, 1960.
She was born in Janet Helen Morrison on July 6, 1927 in Merced, California, an only child. She was literally discovered when she was eighteen by the great MGM star of the 20s and 30s, Norma Shearer, in a ski lodge where her mother was working. Shearer who was married to a professional skier, Marty Arrouge, was also the widow of film production legend and MGM co-founder, Irving Thalberg, was also the largest individual stockholder in MGM at the time. She easily arranged for the girl to have a screen-test which was overseen by Lillian – their initial meeting.
Janet Leigh as a teenager
In her long career she made more than sixty films – including some classics besides “Psycho” – “Little Women,” Orson Welles’ “A Touch of Evil,” and John Frankenheimer’s “Manchurian Candidate” and in the last two decades of her life, wrote a memoir – by herself – There Really Was A Hollywood, and during the early 1990s, a roman a clef about Hollywood called House of Destiny, on which she worked closely with Lillian as an editorial adviser.
Janet Leigh and Frank Sinatra in "The Manchurian Candidate."
With Charlton Heston in “A Touch of Evil."
She was always a very popular figure in Hollywood and never known for any kind of star temperament. When I knew her, later in her life, with her career mainly behind her, she seemed very much the proud mother of two daughters, who worked conscientiously to maintain a professional life as a writer and an actress. She was a popular star for more than a quarter century and the public’s perception of her – a lovely lady with a witty (and occasionally wicked) sense of humor – was accurate.

Although her biographies state that she was married four times – the second to Tony Curtis by whom she had her two daughters – for the majority of her adult life she was married to businessman Bob Brandt, who, along with her daughters, survives her.
Janet Leigh with Bob Brandt and Jamie Lee Curtis.

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