Friday, September 23, 2016

The idea of doing it

Fall flowers at the Met. 8:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, September 21st was an anniversary for the NYSD. It was on that day in sixteen years ago in 2000 that Jeff Hirsch and I launched the New York Social Diary online. We both recall it with the memories of how we had very little idea how or what we were doing.

The idea of doing it online was inspired by the era now referred to as the dotcom boom. I had started writing the Social Diary in Quest in 1993-94 and then beginning in 1997 in Judy Price’s Avenue magazine. They were all monthly columns. I had wanted a daily. Liz Smith, who knew this generously and without my asking, kindly went to the three dailies in town to the big boys who make the decisions, suggesting at each visit that they hire me to do it in their daily. All nixed it. Aileen Mehle writing on her famous nom-de-plume of Suzy was beginning to put aside the task after five decades, and no one saw a need anymore for a social column in New York. Being a boy from out of town myself, I knew the world out there was interested. So I knew the only route and perhaps the best one for me was the web.

It took some time to get myself to actually do it. All the “experts” in this new area of communication said I’d need a million bucks and a business plan (to raise the million) to get it off the ground.
DPC and JH at Swifty's, the day after leaving Avenue magazine to start up the NYSD in 2000. The enthusiasm on my face makes me laugh now.
That wasn’t going to happen. Serendipitously, in June of 2000, however, I found myself in a situation where if I didn’t do it, someone else would. The decision to do it happened overnight. On June 15th I told myself I was going to have to jump in. The following morning I went into the office and told my assistant of one year, Jeff Hirsch, that I was going to leave in the middle of August and start a web site. Jeff characteristically took the news matter-of-factly and seemed to understand  the motivation without being told. His response caused me to realize I knew nothing about computer technology and he was 24 and knew it the way we all know how to use a telephone. So asked him if he wanted to join me. And in his characteristic, low-key way, he said “sure.” 

And so it was. We both resigned from Mrs. Price’s magazine mid-August and a few days later set about figuring out how we were going to do it. Jeff actually was the one who figured it all out and designed the site and put us online and has five days a week (and sometimes six) for the past sixteen years! The cost of launching our product was 8000 bucks (initially).
Our principal mode of communication.
Jeff and I have worked closely ever since although in the history of our working relationship, we have never worked in the same building or even neighborhood. Communication is entirely by phone or digital messages. It is frequent daily, but we have been blessed with the privilege of not getting in each other’s way (or hair).

I was fifty-nine at the time and Jeff was 24. He’s forty this year, and I am (do the math). Jeff has updated and upgraded and re-designed the site a number of times over the years, making it one of the easiest to navigate as well as fresh and good looking. He also has developed an exquisite talent with his camera – something that he does for entirely professional reasons, with no ego about the excellence of his work except to admit when it’s not worth any praise at all.
No doubt fixing a setting on my camera.
I can’t remember why I chose to write about the subject of our very first Diary except that it was a newly published book at the time and I hadn’t heard of Walter and Matilda Gay until then. Looking through the book for the first time, it was easy to see that the subject fit easily with the “Social” Diary. As you can see ...
He was from a fourth generation prosperous Boston family. She was from an old New York family; both born in the middle of the 19th century. They met in Paris, where he was establishing himself as a painter of interiors. She spotted him first, and introduced herself by asking him to give her painting and drawing lessons. The following year, they were engaged. In April 1889, they were married in London and embarked on a marriage that endured for almost a half century, and can best be described as ideal, idyllic, and something that most might only dream about, but never realize. 
Walter Gay in his atelier.
The book is called “A Charmed Couple; the Art and Life of Matilda and Walter Gay,” by William Rieder, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and just published by Harry N. Abrams, Publishers.

Click to order "A Charmed Couple: The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay."
It is a beautiful and intriguing book, recording an artist's career, life and times with scholarship and intimacy. The author was greatly assisted by a diary that Matilda Gay began in 1904 and continued almost to the time of her death, forty years later. 

The Gays, being very well connected socially in New York, Boston, and Newport, attracted many prominent American travelers and émigrés (such as Edith Wharton, Henry James, Elsie de Wolfe, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, James Hazen Hyde, Anne Morgan, Bernard Berenson, Henry Adams), French and English aristocrats, as well as fellow artists (John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu), all of whom came frequently to lunch, to picnic, or to stay. 

After their wedding, the couple set up housekeeping in fairly grand style for an artist (or anybody else for that matter) in Paris, first on rue Ampere, and later on rue de l'Universite, as well as a small summer house outside of Paris, and finally at the very large Château du Bréau, also within driving distance of Paris.
Clockwise from top left: Edith Wharton; actress Marie Dressler, Anne Morgan, and Jules Bache; Elsie de Wolfe; James Hazen Hyde; Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt; Bernard Berenson.
Paul Helleu painted by John Singer Sargent.
It was assumed because of their style of living, that they were wealthy. Although both came from moderately wealthy families, the couple supported themselves mainly on Walter's substantial earnings as a painter. By the time they first leased the château in 1905 (they purchased the property in 1907) his work had become very popular both in America and in Europe. 

Life at Le Bréau was supported by a staff of twenty, many guest bedrooms (decorated by Matilda), and frequent visits to neighboring châteaux, such as Vaux-le-Vicomte, owned by their friends the Alfred Sommiers; the Duc de Trevise at the château Livry and Hubert de Ganay at château Courrances. All would-be guests knew that a visit to bréau would be interesting visually, socially, and even intellectually.
Château du Bréau.
Matilda Gay's diaries bear witness to a way of life that simply no longer exists. Her reflections on the changing times are trenchant and remind us of how "the experts" are very often the last to notice. She wrote of Matisse, with much agreement in the art world, "There is a certain force in his things, but they are shocking in color, in drawing, and in subject. Diseased art." She called Art Nouveau "a modern atrocity." Of Impressionism, she said, "What is amusing is that the wild impressionists try to trace their inspiration from Ingres and admire him reverently; I wonder what he would say to them?" 

Walter and Matilda Gay by Paul-Cesar Helleu.
Her observations bring the past to life: "Tea with Anne Vanderbilt in her gorgeous white marble palace on Fifth Avenue. Why do such houses always seem like splendid prisons?" After a visit to the studio of their friend John Singer Sargent: "His personality gives one no idea of his great talent. No glimmer of genius ... It is all absorbed by his pictures. What remains is a pleasant, embarrassed, affected society man, with an artificial accent and the fond is distinctly ordinary." 

But Matilda's abiding main interest was her husband and his work. She never saw a picture of his that she didn't like and she never met a professional opportunity for him that she didn't encourage. His work, his art, was her work and her art. 

Relatively forgotten today, Walter Gay had a great career as a painter of interiors for both European and American aristocrats and the rich of the early part of the 20th century.

The Château du Bréau was set in a 300 acre park surrounded by 200 acres of woods and fields. The four-story brick and stone house was built in 1705 on the foundations of an earlier house. It was a dream house to all its visitors. Edith Wharton used it as a model for the château Givre in her novel, The Reef. 

They moved down from Paris in May or early June, and stayed through New Year's. In the summer, they lived in a suite in the north wing on the ground floor. In the winter, they moved to a suite in the south wing on the second floor. There were guest bedrooms on all three principal floors. French friends stayed on the ground floor and the Americans on the second floor ("the French had a horror of stairs and our compatriots a horror of dampness.") Children and servants stayed on the third floor.
Various rooms and scenes painted by Walter Gay of the Château du Bréau.
Guests often came down from Paris for lunch. In her diary, Matilda noted the first visit of Comte Robert de Montesquiou: "For four hours we listened to his torrent of eloquence and witticism, which never flagged — nor did our interest. He is tall, striking-looking, with a large fine head and flashing black eyes — this thick hair and waxed moustache dyed carefully, and I detected a very adroit maquillage (makeup). In speaking of our neighbours he quickly made mincemeat of them all — and some of his wicked thrusts were merited." 
The dining room of Château du Bréau, where many a guest was entertained.
Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe, who was America's first interior decorator, were friends of Walter and Matilda. The most famous lesbian couple of their day, they shared two houses — one in New York on East 17th Street and the other, the Villa Trianon at Versailles. Known as "the Bachelors," they loved to entertain and their guest list was eclectic, as well as grand. John Jacob Astor, Willie K. Vanderbilt joined Henry Adams and Henry James, on the roster. Matilda wrote "some of the ... guests have unpleasant little stories of various kinds hanging on to them, which may be more or less true .... One meets respectable people as well — all kinds, in fact. It is the only really Bohemian house I know where the hostesses have themselves kept within the limit that their guests have frequently overstepped."
Elsie de Wolfe's Drawing Room, 123 East 55th Street, by Walter Gay. Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, Los Angeles.
Villa Trianon, Versailles, by Walter Gay. Elsie de Wolfe Foundation, Los Angeles.
Edith Wharton could not stand them however. "Those two women are really not fit to traffic with, and I always feel degraded when I go against my prejudices and treat them as if they were."

Elsie was more generous in her recollection: "Edith Wharton, as I remember her — I have not seen her for many years — was handsome, small and slight and with a wealth of blond hair. There was something sharp about her and she had a forbidding coldness of manner." Diana Vreeland later recalled de Wolfe's genius as a decorator at the turn of the century: "She simply cleared out the Victoriana and let in the twentieth century." 
Edith Wharton's Bedroom at Pavillon Colombe, by Walter Gay; 1926.
The Gays occasionally traveled to America to visit friends and relatives, to exhibit Walter's new work, and especially to get new commissions. During Walter's trip in 1908, (when he painted the James Speyer house at 1058 Fifth Avenue), he wrote back to Matilda:

The Entrance Hall to James Speyer's house, 1058 Fifth Avenue, by Walter Gay.
"How I long to get back anywhere over there! And away from this fearsome New York. It is always a perpetual tearing up of the city, and the noise and the smoke, now that the omnibuses have been replaced by autobuses, is enough to drive one mad."

In 1928 he was commissioned by Helen Frick to paint three rooms in the residence at 70th and Fifth (now the Frick Museum). The Gays were of course bowled over by the spectacular collection.

Although Matilda later wrote in her diary: "After dinner we visited the Gallery, where we had sat before an open fire before dinner. Miss Frick had arranged a curious lighting system. All the light was extinguished, with the exception of the special lights over the pictures; so that the pictures stared out of the gloom at us. This gave the effect of projections on the screen; the masterpieces therefore lost the quality of painting and looked like ghosts." 
Gay's painting of The Fragonard Room at The Frick (1926)
Everything about New York was too brash for their now European tastes and sensibilities. Nevertheless, new business was important, although Matilda might be skeptical of a new client. About Mrs. Oliver Gould Jennings who had commissioned Walter to paint several views of her fabulous new Fifth Avenue apartment, she wrote, "a pleasantish, youngish, prettyish woman, rather brand new, but of such are the kingdom of picture-buyers." Upon seeing the apartment, she wrote: "With W.G. in the afternoon to see the interior he has just finished of Mrs. Jennings — a very banale subject, which he has treated most skillfully." Nowhere did she reveal that Mrs. Jennings was in fact a stunning beauty and that the banale boiserie was as good as a very similar boiserie at Le Bréau. 
The Library of Mrs. Oliver Gould Jennings, 1920.

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