Thursday, December 7, 2017

Love and Loss

Under the tent last night for the Central Park Conservancy's first annual Belvedere Ball honoring Douglas Blonsky. 10:15 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, December 7, 2017. The autumn temperatures we’ve been experiencing for the past few days in New York went away Tuesday night when the rains came brought in by some chilly winds. Yesterday in New York it was fair although not very sunny, and cooler in the lower 40s turning into the mid-30s by late evening.
Christmas trees for sale along Columbus Avenue.
Last night, JH attended the Central Park Conservancy's Belvedere Ball (formerly the Autumn in Central Park) held under a heated tent at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. The evening honored Doug Blonsky, President & CEO of Central Park Conservancy, who is retiring at the end of the year after dedicating the last 32 years of his life to the betterment of the park.

Doug fell in love with the park when in 1984 he met his future wife there, Mai Allan, while she was working as a city Parks Department landscape architect around Wollman Rink. A year later, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the conservancy's founder, hired him as a construction supervisor. And that's when Doug's love affair with the park really began. Anyone who has set foot inside Central Park over the last 32 years has Doug to thank for his sheer dedication, protectiveness, and deep historic knowledge of the world's greatest and most visited park.
Norma Dana and Douglas Blonsky.
Douglas Blonsky and Gillian Miniter.
He's moving on to an advisory role for the Board of Trustees, but don't be surprised if you see him shoveling snow, raking leaves, repairing benches or doing anything necessary to continue to keep the park pristine. And if you see him sitting on a park bench reading the paper, as is (now) his wont, make sure to say hello and thank him for perfecting and preserving this city's great green oasis.
Adelina Wong Ettelson and Elyse Newhouse.
Sylvester Miniter, Danielle Hirsch, and Jay Diamond.
Alexandra Lebenthal and Michelle Smith.
The event's Co-Chairs, Shelly and Michael Carr, Kitty and Tom Kempner, Gillian and Sylvester Miniter and Jenny and John Paulson were joined by Vice Chairs Elizabeth H. Atwood and Judy and Russ Carson.  Following the dinner, Young Associate guests chaired by Nicholas D'Angelo, Samuel P.C. Dangremond, Meggie Kempner, and Catherine Smith along with 300(!) other juniors, joined the party for dessert and dancing with music by DJ Kiss. The Belvedere Ball was generously supported by Northern Trust.

They raised $2 million last night for the Central Park Conservancy.
Cocktails under the tent.
Belvedere Vodka was the drink of choice.
Entering the dinner tent.
The first course: white asparagus and prosciutto.
A winter wonderland in Central Park.
The juniors starting to arrive around 9:30 PM. There were 300 juniors by the end of the night.
Selfies with snow nymphs.
Tuesday. Susan and Coleman Burke hosted their  annual Christmas Cheer! Luncheon in the private dining room at 1 East 77th Street on the corner of Fifth. It was called for noon. I was late so I took a cab. But when we got to the corner of Madison and 77th, the cars and delivery vans were gridlocked all the way down to Fifth.

So I got out on the corner and walked the block. As soon as I got out of the cab, in the distance I could hear a tuba playing outside. As I got closer to my destination, I could see he was sitting by the door to the luncheon. Playing Christmas melodies. And in his Santa cap. This is a touch of our hostess.

The Burkes give this luncheon every year early in the month, anticipating that by the third week of the month many will have left town for their holiday destinations. The hosts, for example, go to Wyoming with all the grandkids.

There were 45 guests this year. Many are familiar faces seen at other occasions with the Susan and Coley, as he’s known to friends. The list had got up to 95 last year, Susan told me, but the room was too crowded. It begins with a drinks reception. About one we sat down.

Susan is one of those women who loves to entertain. This year’s theme was gold. She was inspired. The centerpieces were (dead) ginkgo trees. Did you know: the Ginkgo (ginkgo biloba), also known as the Maidenhair tree, is the only member of its specie that is not extinct. It is found in fossils dating back 270 million years. These ginkgos on the tables are working ex-specimens, dressed for the occasion by the party design team of Bowman Dahl who transformed the room. Meanwhile, Bob Hardwick was on the grand playing Christmas tunes until it was time for him to loudly remind (marches) the guests to sit down for lunch.
Because it’s a luncheon for their friends, the tables are full of conversation. It’s not formal although the men all wore jackets and ties. The menu was delicious; it started with Alain the chef’s special Cheese Souffle, follow by the main course of Lobster Shepherd’s Pie, and finished off with Isle Flottant/ Floating Island (the hostesses' favorite dessert “in the whole world”).

Between courses we sang Christmas carols, accompanied by Mr. Hardwick at the grand. Susan provided a booklet with all the words, and everyone sang. It was a pleasure for everyone’s midday in New York. Merry Christmas.
Rain had been predicted all day Tuesday although when I left my apartment to go to the luncheon it was only overcast. I didn’t take an umbrella, and I didn’t need it. By early evening, Jackie Rogers had invited me to go with her to a screening of a new HBO documentary “Agnelli,” directed by Nick Hooker and produced by Graydon Carter. Jackie, who knew Gianni Agnelli quite well when she was a model working in Europe back in the 1950s and ‘60s, was one of those interviewed for the film.

I picked her up at her apartment at 6:30 for a 7 pm screening at MoMA. It started to rain very lightly while I sat in the cab waiting. By the time we were on our way, it was raining. And I didn’t bring an umbrella. Neither did Jackie.

We were delivered to the MoMA entrance on 53rd between Fifth and Sixth only to learn that the screening was in a room only accessible from 54th Street (same block). And it was now raining outside. At that late moment, we had no alternative other than walking around the corner of two half citywide blocks. When we took our seats I was very uncomfortably damp, if not quite wet. If I’d been alone, I’d have left and gone home. Under the circumstances I didn’t have that choice.

I knew very little about Gianni Agnelli’s life except what you could read in the papers and the social columns. The message was always: charisma. His image was one of the ultimate sophistication, sleek, swank, chic and even macho.

From the moment the fim begins you’re drawn into the fascinating personality and way of life. Born in 1921, by his mid-30s, early 40s he was world famous as a glamorous playboy, prince of his world, heir to a great automobile empire. It was the “play” part that drew the world’s attention. He lived a kind of dream life, always surrounded by beautiful and often famous women and sophisticated, often powerfully rich or political men. Yes he had a wife Marella both beautiful and every bit as elegant as her husband. She was the mother of his daughter and his son. The film lets you in on his whole life, inside and outside.

On our trip from her apartment down to MoMA, Jackie told me about his life that she knew. She had a brief affair with him. His first big affair, as a single man was with Pamela Churchill, recently divorced from Randolph, son of Winston. In his leisure he was a big coker – which always comes as a surprise – “big,” Jackie emphasized. This was not a secret among friends, and it also came out in the docu. He was a daredevil when it came to physical challenges. He loved fast cars and drove them at speeds you could only consider very dangerous in the narrow streets and roads. He was an elegant and daring skier. He had a beautiful sailing boat where he entertained his friends along with his family and royalty.

His father died suddenly in his forties. Gianni was therefore the heir to his grandfather Giovanni Agnelli, the man who started FIAT. The grandson was brought up to enjoy his life. When his grandfather died, Gianni was considered too young to take over the company, and so he was free to enjoy himself in the ways now familiar to the world.

He fought bravely in the Second World War which destroyed much of his family’s industrial properties. For his pleasure seeking, he was growing up to be the man who could assume the responsibilities of being the leader of the family and of FIAT.

There are interviews with nearly 40 family members, professional confidantes, rivals and friends including Henry Kissinger, Valentino, Jackie Rogers, Sally Bedell Smith, Roger Cohen, Jas Gawronski, Lee Radziwill and Diane von Furstenberg (whose first husband Prince Egon von Furstenberg was a nephew of Agnelli).

The documentary includes newly discovered Super 8 footage shot by photographer Benno Graziani, as well as portraits by photographers Richard Avedon and Ugo Mulas, along with archival video and personal photos that showcase the complexity of the Gianni Agnelli’s personality, known for his political power and as a family man as well, who often had failings as a father.

There is much beauty in the film because Agnelli was surrounded by it, be it in his dwellings, on his yacht, in his relatives’ living environments, as well as the physical beauty that he was naturally drawn to. Watching the development of this young Italian boy’s life into a sophisticated man of the world is a great pleasure, rather like watching a movie of a prince’s dream life.

As he grew older, he was dealt more serious hands in terms of business and politics — all of which he appears to have handled with finesse and fairness. He was not regarded as “sentimental” but he was a decent man. At one point in FIAT’s post-war prosperity, business declined measurably and he was advised to lay off thousands of workers. His response was that if he laid them off they wouldn’t have the money to shelter and feed themselves and their families; so he could not do that.

Besides the viewer’s fascination with him, besides his charm, there develops an admiration for his humanity.

Then as he comes to maturity and (old) age, he must make decisions about the future of his family’s empire. What follows for him was life altering, and for the viewer it was witnessing a great tragedy. As Gianni Agnelli was a very important man in his family and life, his story delivers a clear message about life itself. Reality is highly democratic; there is no escaping its vagaries. Loved this film.

Agnelli debuts Dec. 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on HBO and will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO Now, HBO Go and affiliate portals.

Contact DPC here.