Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Baroness von Langendorff

One of the most fascinating members of the great passing parade in New York is the Baroness W. Langer von Langendorff, who is easily spotted in any crowd, gilded or no because of her tall and tumbling flaming tresses, her satin and/or taffeta evening dresses, and above all, her famous milkmaid complexion — and above above all, her ensembles of astonishing jewels. Which are always in ample supply, generous weight, high lustre, and, in short, unbelievable on sighting.

The baroness is one of those individuals of indeterminate youth and age, to put it politely, whose legend, long having departed reality, provides a rich lore that may be more enticing than the facts (although maybe not). Her presence reflects a New York that is almost entirely a memory, where women were placed on pedestals (albeit, if temporarily) as birds of paradise, living paeans to glamour and luxurious living, to be adored, and above all, worshipped.

Like most people, I do not know the facts about the baroness, and also prefer the legend. Even people who do know her, it should be added, often don’t know much about her and prefer the legend also. It may be that her great jewel collection, for example, was acquired through her own purchase — because she is known to be a veddy veddy shrewd businesswoman — and a very clever negotiator, although the far more intriguing and romantic notion is that they are gifts from over-awed and smitten admirers, not to mention some constant and arduous husbands.

The baroness is the widow of the man who created White Shoulders perfume and sold millions and millions and millions of bottles of the alluring fragrance for years and years and years. When he died, he left his widow very rich. Or, richer.

Legend: It is said that before her marriage to the baron, the baroness was the object of adoration and affection of some of the richest, most powerful (as well as famous) men in the world (including, among others Averell Harriman) who beat a path to her gilded doors again and again to bask in the light of her rare, rich, and subtle charms. In other words, a courtesan of the highest order, commanding the highest tokens of the highest (and may sometimes low-down) esteem.

She has been a prominent figure in the highest circles of New York and Europe for years, although the first time I saw her was in “21” several years ago. She was with a very distinguished looking man and another couple. They looked like a circle of friends with the baroness at the unmistakable center. At first, not knowing, I thought she was an opera diva, for she was so immaculately and sumptuously turned out, picture perfect, that she looked like she could have just come down from a production by Franco Zefferelli on the stage of the Met and come straight to dinner at “21.”

She has a sweet face and a very unassuming manner, and the speaking voice when you hear it is far from operatic to the ears, rather small and sweet. Her couture and jewelry, however, are anything but unassuming and have all the command of a Wagner aria. She tends to wear bold colors: reds, oranges, and greens with gold threads prominently woven through, all that match her fantastic earrings and necklaces that adorn her belle pointrine.

At a dinner hosted by Piaget at Le Bernardin a few years ago, Lillian Ross writing in the New Yorker quoted the baroness as saying: “’I never wear a watch at night. I don't want to know what time it is at night.’ Then,” Ross continued, “the Baroness raised a hand that supported a ring with a diamond the size of a prune.” That particular evening, Ross reported, the baroness was wearing “huge sapphire-and-diamond earrings and a giant sapphire-and-diamond necklace.”

It is also said that the baroness has fur coats dyed to match her emeralds, rubies, diamonds, and sapphires. On hearing I couldn’t imagine what that meant until one dull and grey rainy winter afternoon I spotted her in the Duane Reade on East 59th Street just around the corner from the Pierre Hotel where she is said to have not one but two apartments. She was wearing a big green fur coat. Green like the colors of begoorra, me pal.

Her handsome companion who is always by her side night times, is always impeccably dressed, (as are her friends). His attentiveness toward her, also reflects a style and manner that is now only a memory (or completely unknown) for most.

Legend: The baroness was living at the Pierre a number of years ago when there was a huge jewel heist and the hotel's safety deposit boxes were looted. Many lost a fortune in jewels. Never to be seen again. Except for the baroness, who, it is said, was one of the few, if not the only one, who got everything back.

She has resided at the Pierre for many years now, and spends weekends at her estate on the North Shore of Long Island where when she entertains at dinner, the men wear black tie and the women of course wear long dresses and jewels. In the summertime, she leaves these shores for Monte Carlo in July and August. “A sunny place for shady people,” to quote Somerset Maugham. And then there is the bright and colorful and beaming baroness von Langendorff.