Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Changing New York

Playing hide-and-go-seek in Central Park. 1:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, March 28, 2017. Overcast, light rain, and in the high 40s, yesterday in New York.

Changing New York. Having nothing on my calendar last night, I went out to get some supplies for dinner. I took this photo across the avenue on the block below me because of the lone 19th-century apartment house still standing. New York before and after and bigger and higher.
The entire block was once only these narrow five story buildings which had businesses on the ground floor (this one has a liquor store), and four floors of apartments above, four to a floor. Right next door they are excavating the basement of what will be a new building for the Brearley School. Before that the land was occupied by three other buildings just like this survivor.

On my way down 82nd Street to the grocery store this sign made me laugh. I don’t know why; it’s not funny. On this block just a few doors ahead in a large old brick apartment building, lived among many others, Harper Lee, the woman who wrote “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Miss Lee, who also lived in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, lived in a modest rent-stabilized apartment here. She died at 90 last year.
Home decoration. I’ve never had an interior decorator do my apartment. I couldn’t afford one but even if I could I wouldn’t want someone to distract me in my work place. Furthermore it doesn’t interest me. My apartment is my books, my desk, the sofa, chairs, tables, lamps, and a piano. And my pictures; photographs that I keep around like a moveable photo album.

My eldest sister Helen, who died last November, kept photo albums all her life, many of which she generously passed on to me. I never had her discipline of organizing although I love the idea. They’re records of a life, reminders of lives, times, of characters, stories and the natural elements of change.

I keep personal photos all over my small abode. Most family photos, I keep in the bedroom. Others I have framed and hanging over my desk. And the rest are covering many of the shelves of my bookcases and on top of my piano and on other surfaces. I’ve got a glass top table by my front window which provides two bookshelves as well as a table top for photographs. This particular group is one I look at more than once or twice a day simply because it has a lamp which I turn on and off every night.
I don’t recall how I made the decision, but this group has elements of autobiographical about it. The white haired man with the dazzling smile (he’s easy to laugh) is my friend Schulenberg whose pages of sketchbook memories we run every Thursday. Schu, whose name is Bob, which is what I call him when addressing him, is a very old friend. We have known each other and kept up an ongoing communication since the mid-1960s. He has an extraordinary memory for details both visual and spoken, and a joie de vivre that is expressed in his drawings as well as his smile.
The beautiful young woman in the silver frame is Dorothy Hart Hearst Paley Hirshon, photographed by Horst for Vogue in 1938. Dorothy was thirty that year, and had been married to Bill Paley since 1931. Irene Selznick, who knew Dorothy in her late teens, before she married her first husband, Jack Hearst, wrote in her memoir “A Private View” that Dorothy was known as the most beautiful girl in Southern California.

With her marriage to young Hearst, she moved to New York which was the center of his father’s world, and it soon became the center of hers. The marriage turned out to be brief after Paley moved in on the scene and stole her away. Cuckolding, it’s called.

Dorothy Hart Hearst Paley Hirshon.
At the moment this photograph was taken she was one of the most glamorous women in New York. She was also a young woman with an ambition to improve the world. You can see the cool determination in Horst’s portrait. In the early 1940s she started the first daycare center in Harlem. In that same time frame and she a black minister from Harlem canvassed all the hospitals where medical staffs were segregated, and finally persuaded one to integrate. Changing the custom forever. She was one of  the early supporters of The New School’s University in Exile to provide haven for scholars whose careers and lives were threatened by the Nazis.

I met Dorothy in 1990 in her 82nd year. I was researching a book on the Cushing Sisters, one of whom, Babe, had been her successor in marriage to Paley. I’d been told by (Sir) John Richardson that Dorothy really knew the score about everybody, and was a very bright and charming woman. Using his name, I’d contacted her, met her and interviewed her, and as it could be with Dorothy, I became a friend.

Although I never wrote the book, I did write a piece on her for Quest in 1993, called “The First Mrs. Paley” (which was subsequently followed by a piece on Babe “The Second Mrs. Paley”). Dorothy had a memory like a steel trap, as they say, and it was steely in assessment as well. She saw things as they are and/or were in all their glory or ghastliness. After her divorce from Paley, she remarried again briefly to a Wall Street specialist named Walter Hirshon.

For years she kept a big country house in Glen Cove, and then in her late seventies, she sold the property and built a somewhat smaller California style house nearby. An avid Democrat, she knew every President from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton. Two weeks before her 90th birthday, she was driving to the market one late morning to pick up some things for the dinner party she was having that night when she stopped at a red light, lit a cigarette, when a car hit her on the side. She died instantly.

The mass of red hair belongs to my friend Elsa Braunstein who was a housemate of mine sometime during the 1980s in Los Angeles. Elsa, who is a photographer and now lives in Vancouver, was having a cigarette when I took this shot. I love it because she looks like a photographer with her face naturally obscured by light and yet artfully posing.
And this is Lillian. Lillian Burns Sidney. I don’t know the photographer but this was a studio shot taken of Lillian sometime in the 1940s when she was the acting coach at MGM and the person who decided who would get the studio Star Treatment (where they turn you into a star).

I’ve written about Lillian on these pages before. She was a fascinating woman, strong and steely and wise. At the studio, the stars all called her “Burnsie,” and as proper as she was in her behavior – a child of the beginning of the century, born in Chicago – she too, knew the score and could hold her own with any of the moguls.

Louis B. Mayer valued her wisdom and her instincts and in her day, she was the highest paid non-acting woman in Hollywood. It was Lillian who gave her approval for me to write Debbie Reynolds’ autobiography, a big step up for this struggling, new and not-so-young writer.
The blonde is from my childhood. Ann Colton. I saw her for the first time when I was six years old on the first day of first grade in the Teachers Training School in Westfield, Massachusetts. Because of our names we were seated next to each other (in separate rows).

My reaction to seeing her seems questionable to me now all these decades later, but I still distinctly recall being mesmerized by her. Although six-year-olds have no sexual sense, she made a big impression on me. She was not aware of that although by the time we were teenagers, we were dating and necking in parents’ living room on Saturday night after coming home from the movies.

Ann Colton.
This is her graduation photo from the MacDuffie School which she attended for high school. After that she went to Smith College where she was a top student and now was dating boys from Amherst.

Far far above me now, in my opinion (and probably hers), we lost contact with each other after college. She married, had children, moved to Westchester. In the early 1990s, she read a piece I wrote for Quest and looked me up in the New York phone book, wondering if I were the same David Columbia she knew back then, and called me.

We reunited. She’d divorced and remarried. Had three children from her first marriage, became a grandmother and briefly lived in Manhattan just a few blocks up from me. After that we saw each other or communicated regularly. Of course we talked about our early lives and she told me, although I did not believe her, that she liked me as much as I liked her.

She was quite a serious person but deeply empathic, with a light sunniness of personality and easy to laugh with a silly tinkling giggle that could instantly transform into a warm blurting guffaw. I loved it when I could make her laugh, naturally. She last lived in Old Lyme with her husband, where she died a few years ago, too early for her, of lung cancer. And when I think of her as I do now, writing about her, I can hear that laughter that still makes me smile at the memory.

The young woman in the photo with me, check to cheek, is Joy Ingham (then Briggs), born Hirshon, the stepdaughter of Dorothy through whom we met and have been friends ever since. This photo was taken of us when we first knew each other more than 20 years ago, at the annual Hat Lunch of the Central Park Conservancy.
And then there’s this guy, the director, the writer. This was taken in Los Angeles in 1992, shortly before I moved to New York. The photographer was Bob Stone, a once very prominent New York fashion photographer who turned his back on it all quite some time ago and lives in Carmel, California. Stone and I met through Schulenberg, who was a friend of his from his UCLA days.

He was working on a portfolio of portraits and asked if I would be willing to sit for him. I said yes because I respected his work although these were particularly difficult times in my life. My struggling career was not appearing to go anywhere; a long relationship I had had ended sadly, and nothing seemed bright. Looking at this photo now, I see the great technique of Stone who made something interesting of the guy in the picture who was feeling far from optimistic about his life and his future.
However, when I look at the table of photographs and the characters in the story, I see that although I wouldn’t have believed it at the time, I was on the right road.

Another table is this guy, Dempsey, from the Lange Foundation/Animal Rescue, Care, and Placement in Los Angeles. The caption reads: “Rescued in Honor of David Patrick Columbia.” Look at that dear, sweet face. Imagine someone missed out all being in that presence of all great natural affection and loyalty.
Schulenberg sent me this photo yesterday from his little garden up in Fresno. Most of these he started from cuttings or seeds. Beauty and wondrous, like his work.

Contact DPC here.