Tuesday, October 4, 2005

The Root of All Evil and Home Sweet Home

I0.4.05 - I flunked out of college at the end of the first semester of my junior year. That might have been, should have been, could have been, very troubling for a young man about to embark on the Big Search For A Life. But it wasn’t. I’d flunked four semesters straight of the “science and mathetmatic” requirement. I also had a working scholarship which was burdensome to a child who liked to play and to read and to socialize: I was not “serious.” But in December of that fatal semester, just before the Christmas break, I entered a One-Act playwrighting contest. It required writing a one-act play, casting it and putting it on. Three were chosen for performance and mine was one of them.

It was called “Twelve Picassos and a Green Rug,” about two college roommates and their “philosophies” about life. In those days – maybe it’s so even today – college students often sat around and discussed many things, such as the anticipated Great Big World out there after college. In my play, one of the characters believed you could have anything you wanted in life (such as 12 Picassos and a green rug) by simply wanting it, while the other character fervently believed life was about playing by the rules and taking things one step at a time. The young man who believed you could have anything you wanted by simply wanting it won the playwrighting contest. The prize was $100.

The winning was a seminal experience of personal achievement (I was twenty) and remained so in my consciousness for many many years thereafter. It motivated me to eventually become a professional writer.
The usual formula for flunk-outs was to go home, get a job, take some college credit courses locally and return to start over again. I knew this was never going to happen. I wanted to go to New York.

A college friend, hearing of my plans, asked me where I was going to live. I had no idea. She did. Her mother had an apartment which she rarely used because she spent most of her time on her property on the Maine coast. Perhaps I could stay there for awhile. That sounded fine with me. During the Christmas vacation, I got a letter from my friend telling me that everything was set and they were expecting me right after the New Year.

So in early January 1962, I came down to the city by train with a couple of suitcases and a portable Smith-Corona, ready to begin life. Outside Grand Central I got into a Checker cab and gave the cabbie the address: 71 East Seventy-first Street.

It seems incredible in retrospect that I had no knowledge or even anticipation of where I was going except that it was “an apartment,” where I could live rent-free for the time being – all magic words to a bumpkin.

740 Park Avenue
The “apartment” turned out to be a sixteen room duplex at 740 Park Avenue (with its side entrance address at 71 East 71). It was the family’s apartment, although everyone had grown up and moved away (except for my friend who was still in college). There was a German cook who prepared a breakfast of bacon and eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice, served on a tray in the library every morning by a round and trundling and otherwise silent Irish maid in uniform. My bedroom, which had been the bedroom of the man of the house who was now infirm and living in a care-facility, had two large French doors that led to a small terrace and looked south to Rockefeller Center and the RCA (now the GE) tower. I could also see the blue IBM digital clock on Madison Avenue in the Fifties. My room had its own bathroom (something new in my life) that was by anybody’s standards large and luxurious.

By architectural standards, and certainly by the standards of how I had grown up (in a simple New England farmhouse built in the 1840s), it was very grand. The elevator stopped at the apartment’s door with a small vestibule that led to a large gallery with a marble floor and 12-foot ceilings, at one end of which was a circular marble staircase, and off of which was a very large living room, a wood paneled library and a large formal dining room with a folding screen that covered the entrance to the pantry and kitchen.

Aside from the architecture, however, the décor was homey and even threadbare and very lived in. There was also a scent about the place which I have never been able to articulate adequately; not a perfume but more of a clean, neat mustiness. Recently I was telling the architect Robert A. M. Stern about it and he called it “the smell of money.” That seems adequate.

The environment bespoke order, like the mail and the New York Herald-Tribune which was perfectly placed by unseen hands, fresh on the long table just inside the front door every morning – or the World-Telegram and Sun which was placed there in the late afternoon. The wood furniture pieces were all excellent antiques, well cared for and polished, and the lamps were porcelain or brass, although the draperies, the cushions on the sofas and chairs were faded and well-used with time, and punched up daily by the maid to keep them looking fresh.

I had a girlfriend who lived five blocks down the avenue
at 640 Park in an apartment that was far more lavish in the glamorous sense with famous art and sumptuous upholstery and crystal chandeliers. My hostess, who was an heiress to a large family fortune (as was her husband), lived, despite her extensive property holdings, very frugally by comparison. Nothing about her costume reflected her financial or social position. In fact, she wore a faded and even ratty-looking old mink coat whenever she went out in cold weather. Although she was a very kind woman in intention, her outward manner had a certain hauteur not unlike Katharine Hepburn, and so that there was no mistaking her place in the social order. Her telephone book was the Social Register (literally) and entertainment was a very occasional trip to the theatre or lunch at the Colony Club, or more frequently a card game with a couple of friends and her elderly mother who lived nearby but nevertheless arrived in her chauffeur-driven Bentley.

John D. Rockefeller Jr.
My hostess and her husband had moved into 740 many years before (and into a much larger apartment initially), encouraged by one of the Rockefellers who were family friends (John D. Jr.’s widow was still living there). When she was in town, as she was every few weeks, usually when a son or daughter was briefly in residence, dinner was served in the dining room at 7, after a cocktail in the library, and a jacket and a tie was the unspoken rule for the boys. If she were there on Thursdays – which was the staff’s night off – we’d go over to the Polo Lounge in the (now defunct and condo-ed) Westbury for dinner. My hostess had no familiarity whatsoever with the kitchen. Once when she and I went into the kitchen to make some coffee, I realized she was on foreign and very uneasy territory which made her nervous and almost girlishly insecure (for she was otherwise a woman who exuded – in that Hepburn way – confidence).

It was a very very quiet place to live,
as most of the time I was there by myself, and high above the town (about fifteen floors), there was little sound of the hustle and bustle of the city. Once, one of her sons, who was a contemporary, was in residence for a few weeks and decided (with my help) to have a party. He invited a lot of friends (I knew hardly anyone in the city at the time), hired a band, bought the booze and we rolled up the carpet in the living room to make a dance floor. This little foray turned into a major faux pas. When Madame next returned to New York, she was evidently informed immediately of the goings-on and was very put out. That aforementioned hauteur kicked in big time: son was mightily reprimanded and so was I for not having the sense advise him otherwise. In retrospect, it was a harmless incident. Nothing was broken or damaged and there were no private episodes in the bedrooms, but it was evidently just something that was not done.

That, it seemed, was the manner of the building’s tenants, although I knew none of them and saw very few of them in the lobby. It seemed as if most of the residents were like my hostess, little old ladies who never left their apartments without their hats and their gloves, in their laced up low-heeled shoes. I wasn’t staying there long before I realized that the residents were all very serious, or at least appeared to be in their own minds, and as they walked across the carpeted lobby to their waiting limousines.

Oddly enough, although my “lodgings” were first-rate and then some, at that age, I was still anxious to have “my own place.” About six months after moving in, I found it: a tiny one bedroom apartment, with a kitchen in the wall of the living room, on East 87th Street between Lex and Third, with a college fraternity brother, for $110 a month (split two ways), and quite happily, I moved out of the grand building on 71st Street and Park Avenue.

My hostess finally sold the apartment in the early 1970s after having it on the market for a few years. She had bought it in the late 1950s and at the time of the sale, I was told that it went for about the same price she paid, which was in the low six figures. Today that apartment would sell for upwards of $15 million.

All these years later, Michael Gross has written a riveting book about 740 Park, just published, and its extraordinary history. In the years between the present and my initial stay there, I’ve known a number of its residents and have come to understand that it has long been considered one of the most desirable (if not these most desirable) cooperative apartment building in New York. It certainly is one of the most expensive.
Lee, mom, and Jackie when they lived at 740 Park
Thelma Chrysler Foy when she lived at 740 Park
740 Park Avenue; the Story of the World’s Richest Apartment Building is one of the best social documents of the past seventy-five years in New York. The building, designed by Rosario Candela, was begun in 1929, the year of the stock market crash, built by James T. Lee, the maternal grandfather of Jacqueline Onassis and Lee Radziwill (who lived there as children with their mother and father), at a cost of $2.25 million – the highest amount per square foot ever spent on a residential building in the city’s history. Completed and first occupied in 1931, the Depression all but destroyed Mr. Lee’s original business plans and the building limped along financially until Abby and John D. Rockefeller Jr. moved into the building in 1938.

Electra Havemeyer Webb
Jerzy Kosinski
Gayfryd and Saul Steinberg
Its original tenants included Mayflower descendants, Vanderbilt scions, Wall Street bankers’ great-granddaughters, a sugar heiress (Havemeyer) and people with names like Whipple and Hadley and Brewster and Hoppen and Thorne and Gerry. In its earliest days, with apartments difficult to fill because of the economy, Black Jack Bouvier (Jackie’s father) lived there rent-free, thanks to his father-in-law (who didn’t have much use for his son-in-law).

Despite Mr. Lee’s original intentions, the building became a rental (as happened to many other Manhattan buildings that were originally slated to be co-ops). Mr. Rockefeller’s solid financial status and active interest in his living environment eventually put the building on the (long) road to solvency. In the meantime it attracted some of the biggest names in American society and industry including Walter Chrysler’s three children – Thelma Foy, and Jack and Walter Jr., Peggy Bedford Bancroft, William Hale Harkness, Marshall Field; Campbell Soup heiress Elinor Dorrance, Frank Gould, Angier Biddle Duke, Gardner Cowles; a rich widow named Mary Weir who later married unhappily the author Jerzy Kosinski; Mellons, Gimbels, Bronfmans; Warner Brothers heiress Doris Vidor; Annenberg heiress Enid Haupt. Steve Ross lived there with his second wife, Amanda Burden and then with his third wife and widow, Courtney (who still has the apartment), Saul Steinberg lived there through two scandalized marriages, a third one which elevated him in society, after which he was confronted with near financial ruin, and finally sold his apartment for a record $31 million to financier Steve Schwarzman. Anne Eisenhower and her husband Wolfgang Flottl owned an apartment for eight years and never moved in, later selling it to a Tisch. David and Hilly Mahoney lived there and sold eventually to Ronald and Jo Carole Lauder. Screenwriter William Goldman (who is quoted “I believe I was the poorest person to ever live in that building”), Rand and Jesse Araskog, Henry Kravis and Carolyne Roehm, Ronald Perelman, a Goulandris, a Niarchos, a Santo Domingo and David Koch have all been owners (some still are).
Marie Josee Kravis and Henry Kravis
Charles Stevenson and Betsy Gotbaum
Rand and Jesse Araskog
L. to r.: Amanda Burden and Charlie Rose; David and Julia Koch; Steve and Christine Schwarzman.
The author’s painstaking but illuminating research provides the most fascinating details of the architectural, financial and social history of this incredible metropolitan residence, telling the stories of each and every family who ever inhabited its palatial apartments. It’s Dynasty all over again times one hundred. Anything that’s ever happened in the annals of human behavior has visited the rooms of this building and my only regret when reading it was that I couldn’t read it fast enough. It’s like eating popcorn while sitting through a thriller movie; you can get lost in the act.

It’s also a perfect example of how the roots of history are always conceived in what is always referred to as gossip. Michael Gross’ text takes you through the decades of social change – from the little old ladies who never left the building without their hats and their gloves to the contemporary men and women who dashed from the basement gym to their waiting SUVs in their athletic outfits. Divorce, murder, infidelity, anti-Semitism, embezzlement, mistresses, homosexual liaisons, bankruptcy and all the rest of the profligacies that visit and menace the human condition, are to be found in exquisite detail between the pages of this book.

It’s a big box of chocolates that transmogrifies into excellent nourishment for the historically minded and students of the modern metropolis.

Click book cover to order.