Monday, August 13, 2018

Social conquests

Taormina and the Mount Etna as seen from the terrace of the Grand Hotel Timeo in Sicily. Photo: JH.
Monday, August 13, 2018. It’s sunny and warm, as I write this on a late Sunday afternoon in New York. It’s not oppressively hot (and humid), which is a gift. And in my neighborhood, there’s a strong, pleasant breeze keeping things milder, and getting people out on the Promenade by the river. That’s where neighbors often sun themselves during the summer, although this year on any weekday or weekend, the benches have been mainly empty. Too too much; the air and the Sun.

Walking the dogs this noontime, I couldn’t resisit catching the clouds moving through, suggesting more rain. That can also mean wind and thunder, which we’ve had quite a bit of lately. 
I'm fascinated by the clouds these days. I think of the Joni Mitchell lyrics " ... but clouds got in my way," because the weather's been so intense and even extreme at times all over the world. To me the clouds articulate it with a universality beyond language. I took these photos Sunday morning down by the river when the temperature was warm but summery and the humidity was lower and the Promenade was under the Sun and the neighbors were out enjoying. But to the South were the clouds — moving past us as it turned out.
Back at my apartment camera still itching, I also couldn’t resist taking some photos of my “garden.” I put garden in quotes because it’s brainless and the only real work, other than planting (which isn’t work) is keeping everything watered. I learned about impatiens (not being a gardener) when I lived in Los Angeles where its often is used as ground cover on hillsides around a house. It flourishes. and so everyday I get to look outside my door at some real beauty (and none of the anguish around us).
Around May every year I buy some impatiens and plant them in pots in my little terrace. I get a lot of light but only real Sun mid-afternoon and the impatiens do the trick. The green big leaf plant was rescued from my laundry room in the basement ten or twelve years ago. It had one measly exhausted leaf beginning to brown at the edges. Water and light and occasional plant food as well as summers outdoors, and now it's got about three dozen leaves and sprouting two more. The croton, same story. It's really great to walk outside of my apartment without "leaving it" and having these beautiful miracles of nature. Oh, I also keep flypaper suspended 24/7 and it collects A LOT of visitors.
Going through my archives yesterday, I came across this one from March 2011, which naturally I’d forgotten about (now having written two or three thousand of these diaries – it becomes a blur!). This one was inspired by an obituary in the London Times of Sam Green, a well known New Yorker in the 60s through the 90s (or rather until he died at age 70).

Sam had a very creative life. I use the word “creative” because he had a public relations man’s sense of things. His preferences were art and personalities, specifically social personalities, as you will learn in this obituary that we are re-running.

Among his social conquests was the famously elusive Greta Garbo. To those under forty, or maybe fifty, her name is, at most, vaguely familiar. But to more than two generations before, she was legendary as a movie star, and later as a movie star who purposely (sorta) who quit at her zenith and consciously stayed out of the limelight. “I vant to be alone,” whether she said it or not, was the famous quote attributed to her.

Garbo and Green walking in Corsica, 1973
In real life Garbo lived mainly here in New York in a grand apartment on East 52nd Street and the River, and loved to walk around the city.  I’ve known many who actually knew her, but I never saw her.  Many people I know did see her – on the sidewalk, or waiting for the elevator at Bergdorf’s or dining rarely in public. The image she created for herself had a quality of hostility about it. In other words, you might see her standing next to you, waiting for the light to change to WALK, but her “mystery” was intimidating enough that you wouldn’t utter a word to her (“oh, Miss Garbo, I ...) Garbo ignoring, cold staring ahead). Fuggettit.

However, Sam Green befriended her and, as you will learn in the following, even went on walks with her.  He even had her phone number and could call her. And she even would call him and if he weren’t home, she’d leave a message on his answering machine.

A stickler for privacy, it never occurred to her, evidently, that her messages were “recorded.” Nor did it occur to her that those recorded messages which were brief but with an economy that was part of her “legend”, might be heard by somebody she didn’t know. And, as it happened they were. Sam Green was a very pleasant fellow but he also liked people to know who he knew and Greta Garbo was a prized get in the know department.

However, with a capital “H”, Miss Garbo got wind of this little detail from someone whom Sam played the messages to and who went on to tell someone else until word got around to the Legend herself. And that was that. Sam never went for walks, or even entered a room where she was present, ever again.  I don’t know what happened to the message tape. Some lawyer might ...
Green and Garbo on the city streets, mid 1980s
I knew Sam Green, although very superficially. He was a friendly fellow to meet and full of interesting, often intriguing, bits of frequently provocative information – just in passing. Which gave it its own kind of charm.

He had a particular kind of curiosity that I share. For example, when we met, because he knew I was a friend of Lady Sarah Churchill, he told me a story about the time she was clearing out the Southampton house of her late grandmother, Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan who had recently died. Madame Balsan who had lived well into her late 80s, had accumulated massive amounts of personal belongings and wardrobes dating all the way back to the turn of the 19th century to the 20th. Her granddaughter Sarah, seeing little use in anything that had no auctionable or practical domestic value, tossed all kinds of things that are now considered treasures to today's collectors.
Sam Green with Christine Biddle and Heather Cohane, January 2007.
Sam, for example, rescued from the trash barrels left out in front of Mme. Balsan's property on Ox Pasture Road, Mme. Balsan's telephone book – which had numbers dating all the way back to the time she was the Duchess of Marlborough, now more than a century ago. Among her entries in her personal phone book was the private number for Nicholas II, Czar of all the Russias, at whose palace she had dined as a very young woman (and duchess).

Although I didn't know Sam well, after publishing his obituary last week, I learned from those who knew him, more about his very labyrinthine social and emotional life. He was a bit of poseur at times. He made stuff up if it suited his objectives. For example, he called himself Samuel Adams Green to promote the idea that he was related to the Adamses of Massachusetts, especially Samuel, one of the founders of the Commonwealth. Whereas Sam's middle name was the same as his father Sam's middle name: McKee. Samuel McKee Green.

He was an adventurer in the jungle of the social order. There is a timeless type of character you will find prospecting in the canyons of Manhattan. They follow social lights. They become arbiters in a sense, or at least in their own minds. They are at the center of the Zeitgeist at a memorable moment. Sam was one of those.

Their lives are their creations and their occupations. Sometimes it becomes good for cinematic and/or publishing purposes. All kinds of things can happen. Even murder.

I'm telling you all this because the other day the Telegraph of London also published an obituary on Sam Green. This one offers another view of the man, enhancing the portrait you might begin to paint of him in your mind's eye.

Sam Green, who died on March 4 aged 70, was a leading light in the promotion of American pop art — particularly the work of Andy Warhol — and later became known for his close association with celebrities as diverse as Greta Garbo, Cecil Beaton and John Lennon.

Samuel Adams Green was born in Boston on May 20 1940. In later life he would claim descent from the Bostonian Samuel Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and from two American presidents. His father, also Samuel Green, was Dean of Fine Arts at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Sam Green with Andy Warhol and (centre) Edie Sedgwick at the artist's New York studio, The Factory.
At the end of his freshman year at the Rhode Island School of Design, Green abandoned any academic aspirations to launch himself on the New York art scene. When, aged 22, he was introduced to the avant-garde art dealer Richard Bellamy, owner of the Green Gallery on 57th Street, Bellamy was amused by the coincidence of the names and hired him on the spot to man the front desk.

In 1964, after less than six months at the gallery, Green secured the loan of more than 50 works which, through the influence of his father, were exhibited at the Davison Art Center at Wesleyan University. Within the colonial splendour of the Davison, Green installed some of the decade's most audacious art: Tom Wesselman's Great American Nude #39 hung above a Boston sideboard, whilst Yayoi Kusama's Ten Guest Table, a dining table and chairs festooned with phalluses, replaced the early Regency furnishings that normally occupied the space.

One afternoon in 1963 Andy Warhol, then relatively unknown, wandered into the Green Gallery. He mistook Sam for a relation of the owner, and Sam — never one to downplay his credentials — did nothing to disabuse him. It became a relationship of mutual exploitation. Green perceived in the then unknown Warhol a new and explosive direction for "pop art", while for his part Warhol saw in Green an entree to New York society.
Sam Green (third left) and Cecil Beaton boarding an aircraft in Peru in 1970.
Green became director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia in 1965, when he was only 25, and he took Warhol with him, the two men making their museum debuts together; it was Warhol's first retrospective. Green chose Warhol's S&H Green Stamps as the 40x40cm invitations he sent out for the preview – and for the design of the silk tie that he wore under his white Gucci evening suit. For a space that held 300, he invited 6,000.

On the afternoon of the preview, one of Green's specially installed lighting fixtures fell down, damaging one of Warhol's paintings. Faced with a choice between keeping the room's distinctive cinematic lighting or Warhol's paintings, Green opted for the lighting: although they were re-hung the following day for the benefit of the public, all the pictures were removed from the walls for the private view.
Sam Green with Countess Pucci in Peru, 1970.
The event therefore went ahead "art-less", and resembled more a frenzied film premiere than a private view. Green made his entrance alongside Warhol and his muse, the socialite Edie Sedgwick, who wore a Rudi Gernreich dress with 20ft-long sleeves.

Green's tenure at the ICA lasted three years. In 1967, having been refused permission to organise a campus-wide sculpture exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania, he abandoned "the philistines" and turned to the city authorities to support an exhibition in Philadelphia that brought together works by artists such as Barnett Newman, Tony Smith and Philip Johnson.

It was deemed a triumph, and Green returned to New York an acknowledged master of contemporary art installation. The city's then mayor, John Lindsay, appointed him a cultural adviser.

Within six months Green had overseen "Sculpture and Environment",
an exhibition sponsored by the city of New York. He hired a team of gravediggers to work on the construction and deconstruction of Claes Oldenburg's Earthworks, executed in the shadow of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The complaints of conservative art critics were as loud as the accolades that Green received in the national and international press. Not long afterwards Green shut down the 59th Street Bridge and both lanes of Park Avenue to install a giant Easter Island Moai head in the forecourt of Seagram's Plaza.
Sam Green portrait by Cecil Beaton, courtesy of Sotheby's.
The idea was an impulse in response to the outrage at the planned conversion of the island into a jet-refuelling station. The campaigners were successful, and the bulldozers on Easter Island stopped.

Green "retired" from the modern art scene in 1970, when he was only 30. Thereafter he concentrated on cultivating celebrities and members of the European aristocracy. In 1969 he had been introduced to Cecil Beaton, and he now enthusiastically accepted the role of travelling companion to the great photographer.

Through Beaton, Green got to know many of the rich and titled people of Europe, some of whom remained friends for the rest of his life. In 1971, at Cecile de Rothschild's home in the south of France, he met Greta Garbo and the two formed an immediate bond. Green would spend 15 years walking Garbo through the streets of New York; she addressed him as "Mr Green", he called her "G".
Producer Jean Doumanian and Sam Green, 2007.
His other friends included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, whom he escorted to Jimmy Carter's 1976 Inauguration, to which he had secured an invitation. Later that summer he accompanied John and Yoko to Egypt, where his contacts at the Cairo Museum of Art allowed them access to an archaeological dig from which Yoko bought numerous treasures. Green would often speak of the moment in 1980 when he heard of Lennon's death, which he commemorated annually at Mortimer's dining club on East 75th Street.

In 1969 Green had a brief but tumultuous affair
with Barbara Baekeland, wife of the American Bakelite heir Brooks Baekeland. Barbara, a ludicrous figure who imagined herself as a sort of latter-day Zelda Fitzgerald, became obsessed by Green, once walking barefoot across Central Park in the snow wearing nothing but a lynx coat to demand entry to his apartment.

Green had a brief but tumultuous affair with Barbara Baekeland.
In 1972 she was stabbed to death by her son, Tony, at a flat in Cadogan Square in London, and a film about the murder — Savage Grace, starring Julianne Moore as Barbara — was released in 2007.

Green was played in the film by Hugh Dancy, and later wrote: "I will concede that I am brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Dancy. He is stunningly well dressed, and looks exactly as I did. It is as if he raided my wardrobe from those days."

Not so well-received, however, was the description in the film of Green as "a homosexual walker who spends his time tending to the needs of very rich women". "Although I never married," Green wrote, "this is untrue and a slur." He embarked on legal action against the filmmakers which was still unresolved at the time of his death.

In the last three decades of his life Green spent most of his time campaigning to preserve "sacred sites" around the world, from Bhutanese monasteries to Buddhas carved in the mountainsides of Sri Lanka. In 1997 he established the Landmarks Foundation, one of America's leading organisations for historic preservation.

In 2007 he observed: "The work I do now is not a reaction against a life spent mixing with the rich, it is a continuation of it. I put all the contacts I have made in my career to good use."
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