Monday, February 1, 2016

How-ja-do

Stationary Citi Bikes. Photo: JH.
Monday, February 1, 2016. It was 55 degrees in New York on Sunday early afternoon. There are still snow banks all over, diminishing as they are, now black dirt encrusted. Now, about halfway through the winter season, one can at least easily guess that we will not have a harsh winter. Blizzard Josh aside.

Last Thursday night, over at the Lotos Club at 5 East 66th, they held a “State Dinner” for Frank Stella, the distinguished painter and print maker of minimalism and post-painterly abstraction. Stella’s works are all commanding, and offer the idea of the monumental even in their smallest sizes.
I don’t know him although I’ve been introduced to him a couple of times at social gatherings -- usually something civic or cultural. Nothing memorable.  A brief how-ja-do. Other than having nothing of import to say to him, I am awestruck nevertheless by his achievement with his work.

When I was a very young man first in New York, he was a young star in the New York art world, already commanding comparably high (for the time) prices for his canvases. He was producing work which emphasized  “the picture-as-object,” rather than a representation of an object. Some of these have since become iconic examples of his work, and now command prices in the millions. 
Guests for the State Dinner gathering in the house's entrance gallery awaiting the arrival of the guest of honor, Frank Stella.
The cocktail reception. Mr. Stella is standing in the far distant corner -- the man with glasses.
This was in the early 1960s, and it was a breakout time for American modern art including the Pop Art. The area we now call downtown -- which had been an industrial area slowly abandoned by exporting manufacturers -- was incubating into the vast upscale community that it is today. Its grand expansiveness commercially and socially was borne by the art moment of that time. It was the artists and their world that created what we now call SoHo, Tribeca, and every other neighborhood acronym in that part of Manhattan.

Stella has a modest manner in social situations. By which I mean, the man is a giant, almost a legend in his field, as well as enormously successful, like his paintings. Yet while he is gracious and by no means self-effacing, but direct in his conversations, he has a manner about him that looks like the kind of guy who is most comfortable around his own house or studio, working on his work.
The reception line.
The honoree with a guest who has a friend
recording the moment.
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Stella (Dr. Harriet McGurk).
The Lotos Club is a literary club which now resides in a Gilded Age mansion that was designed by Richard Howland Hunt for Maria Louisa Vanderbilt Shepard, a granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt. It was a post-wedding gift from her mother to her daughter and son-in-law William Jay Schieffelin, who was a grandson of John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The Schieffelins, who had been married since 1891, moved in in 1900. Mrs. Schieffelin’s younger sister Edith also married in that last decade of the 19th century, to Ernesto Fabbri, and they too were given a mansion on East 62nd Street. (ed.’s note: the Fabbri’s house and story were featured on NYSD on John Foreman’s “Big Old House”). Coincidentally both of the sisters’ mansions (Fabbri and Schieffelin) are still extant and in daily use in the community that is New York.
The Lotos Club in its early years.
Margaret Louisa Vanderbilt by John Singer Sargent, 1888.
The Schieffelins lived in the house for about 25 years. Mr. Schieffelin who worked for his family’s wholesale drug firm, was also president of the Armstrong Association whose object was “the stimulation of interest in schools for the industrial education of the negro in the South.” In late November 1906, the Association met at the house where the main speaker that night was Booker T. Washington. Many years later, in 1932, Mr. Schieffelin was chairman of the defense committee for the Scottsboro Boys.

In 1925, Mr. and Mrs. Schieffelin gave up the mansion to their daughter and moved to a large apartment at 620 Park Avenue, viewed as smaller and more practical for an “aging couple" (late 50s/early 60s).
The Grille Room with its walls covered with State Dinner honorees.
The Lotos Club was founded on March 1870 by a group of young writers, journalists and critics. The club’s charter was to be “more inclusive, more comfortable and ... more active, and more enjoyable” than any other New York club at the time.

They took the name “Lotus” from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lotus Eaters.” An early member (1873)  Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) called it “the Ace of Clubs.” In the 19th century its membership included, besides the journalists and writers, scholars, musicians, painters, sculptors, art collectors, historians, college presidents. When Whitelaw Reid, then editor of the New York Tribune became president of the club in 1872, he inaugurated Ladies’ Days – very very rare in New York in those days. Mr. Reid also started the tradition of hosting “lavish dinners for distinguished figures from all walks of life.”
A wall of State Dinner honorees.
Those dinners are now called “State Dinners” (as was Thursday night’s). Such dinners have been held for Gilbert and Sullivan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, U.S. Grant, Woodrow Wilson, Enrico Caruso, George M. Cohan, Amelia Earhart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Robert Moses, Harry Truman, Leonard Bernstein, Robert Frost, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Beverly Sills, Margaret Mead, Linus Pauling, Saul Bellow, Joe DiMaggio, Roy Lichtenstein, Arthur Miller, Dave Brubeck, Angela Lansbury and many more including more than a dozen New York mayors.
Hartley Manners, a very famous Broadway and London playwright of his era (early 20th century) who was married to the legendary stage actress Laurette Taylor who made her greatest triumph in a play he wrote for her, "Peg O' My Heart."
The Broadway Legend, "Give My Regards to Broadway," George M. Cohan who wrote his shows, his songs and starred in them.
And there's Sam himself who called the Lotus, "the Ace of clubs."
The one, the only Bonfire boy ...
They were located on Irving Place in the beginning. In 1877 they moved over to 149 Fifth Avenue, then to 45th Street and Fifth Avenue. In 1909, Andrew Carnegie, a member, backed the building of their own house at 110 West 57th Street. In 1947, they acquired the Schieffelin house on East 66th Street. In 1977, the club extended membership to women. In 2010, they voted in the first woman president of the club. Today the club has many events for its Members and their friends and families. The Grille Room is a very popular dining and lunching spot for members, their families and friends. I have to say that when you’re present in the clubhouse whether or a large reception and dinner such as Thursday night, or meeting a friend for a late afternoon tea or cocktail, the atmosphere is what the founders sought: “more inclusive, more comfortable and ... and more enjoyable” than any other for all of the above brought together, as they were for Mr. Stella’s State Dinner.
 

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