A tale about Joan

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From the terrace after dinner, looking east and south across the East River and Long Island City and its towers of the new century.

Monday, March 20, 2023. For the record, New York had no snow this winter save for three brief snow showers that lasted for no more than hour or two max, and melted as soon as it hit the ground. New York in wintertime is a much duller place without the snow. With it, it’s a challenge for the body and the nerves and much more difficult to get around. And the city’s a bigger mess. But, the snow demands that you slow down, whether you like it or don’t. Because you don’t have the power to stop it or change it.  Only Mother Nature, or whatever you think is the ultimate power of the Universe, can do that.

That is how it is with everything including all of our human activities en masse. Such as Money and Power. It appears that it is in our hands as individuals, or rather, some individuals. We’re taught money is power, it’s natural and it’s even nature. Except it’s not Mother Nature. That’s another story, and a long one, longer than we are capable of imagining.

The headlines and editorials these days are about the bankruptcy of Silicon Valley Bank in California. Silicon Valley is currently one of the power centers of Modern Times. It is also one of the population clusters of invention and inventory in the world today. It’s what Detroit was to the automobile in the first half of the 20th century. Big and bursting and prosperous and lively. The 20th century automotive giants where a man named Henry Ford was the Primo Creater, all resided in Detroit. That was then. Silicon Valley is today’s Detroit. Detroit’s gift to us, the People of the American 21st century.

Friday night I was invited to a St. Patrick’s Day dinner party hosted by Susan Gutfreund at her apartment overlooking the East River and Queens and Brooklyn. It’s one of the great views of New York, especially these days with Long Island City and its burgeoning neighbors in Brooklyn now sporting the bright lights of their newer rising business and residential towers to match Manhattan’s.

The view from Susan’s terrace looking West. The tiny white tower between two dark towers is the Chrysler Building, built by Walter Chrysler (with his own money) in 1930. His intention: to build the tallest building in Manhattan. His classic achievement lasted for no more than a year as more towers followed. The tallest building in this photo, taller than all surrounding is Trump World Tower that we covered when it opened in the early 2000s. 90 stories (70 according to Buildings Department records), 60 years after Walter Chrysler’s dream.

There were eighteen at table — and a grand one it is that can seat the number comfortably. Because of the “holiday” (I know, I know, but it does still have a parade to match the legend) Susan decided on an “Irish” menu, prepared by her excellent chef. Irish, in the case of this menu including the starter and the dessert, meant GREEN. Everything. Except for the main course, which was of course Corned Beef and Cabbage. And was it delicious? That was the point the work of the master, the chef. Excellent.

Susan’s dinner table is often set for sixteen to eighteen, and abounds with conversations. Friday night our hostess toasted the holiday by first asking if any guests were of Irish descent. Only two raised their hand — this writer being one of them. Because it occurred so quickly – hand up, hand down — I never saw who the other exception was because she was at the other end of the table, and everyone was talking. Nevertheless, like all of Susan’s dinners, it was full of active conversations and a broad variety of guests and interests including guests from across the seas.

After the dessert course, guests moved back to the living room where the final serving was … Irish coffee!

Apres dinner was the final touch of the theme: Irish Coffee.

Before taking a seat, however, I went out to the terrace to take a picture of the fantastic view that extends from mid-Manhattan south all the way to the Statue of Liberty. It’s so vast and varied and near and far that I can’t resist getting a photo of it.

The bright red neon lights on the lower part of the scene is the now generations-old Pepsi-Cola sign on the Williamsburg side, on the edge of the riverside. It is the sole commercial promotion in the vast view and directed at some of the most exclusive neighborhoods of the city. It is now in its seventh decade and has become in fact an enormous piece of art in the environment. Everyone passing by by the tens of thousands every day and night love seeing this sign that represents the American dream. It’s now a landmark.

Looking directly east with the southern tip of Roosevelt Island with its 19th century hospital remnants lighted, beyond to its right, in the dark, is the long final strip of the island and the FDR memorial park. The arrow is pointing the classic red Pepsi sign that is almost three stories high.

The bright red lights of Pepsi, are large enough to see clearly particularly at night, surrounded by the towering lights of the dark tall buildings in the area. There is a long held story that the idea for the Pepsi neon location (directed specifically to Manhattan’s Upper East Side) came from Joan Crawford (yes, that Joan Crawford of Hollywood fame and fortune). Later in her career, Crawford in the mid-1950s married Alfred N. Steele who was then CEO of Pepsi. (It was a short marriage — Steele died suddenly four years later at age 58).

After his death, Mrs. Steele (Crawford) was very helpful in actively promoting Pepsi, then the main competitor of Coca-Cola. In the early ’50s with Crawford’s assistance, Steele had increased Pepsi’s financial numbers by eleven times, making it Coke’s main competitor.

“Every time you drink a Pepsi, I want you to think of Joan Crawford.”

After Steele’s death Crawford became a director of the company, and continued her promoting Pepsi. It was at that time that she also decided she’d like an apartment in the River House on East 52nd Street and the East River with its grand duplex apartments and magnificent views of the boroughs of Williamsburg and Brooklyn.

Crawford’s residential plans were for naught: it was said she was turned down by the (then) board. Not pleased with the decision, it was said that it was she who had the big, bright red soda commercial Pepsi sign installed in that specific location — so that the Board who turned her down could look out the window of their living room or  dining room at the bright red commercial sign blazing across the way.

Looking directly across the water at Long Island City. That skyline of apartment and commercial towers did not exist in the last century. Whereas it was forever before a working class community of New Yorkers, a lower rent area, part of Queens. Today it is a destination if not a residence for a whole generation or more of creative professionals, working people, artists and writers.

Crawford herself moved  inland to an impressively spacious penthouse at 2 East 70th Street on the corner of Fifth Avenue with a magnificent view of Central Park. And now it’s been more than 60 years later, and the Pepsi sign rather than annoying the residents of the Upper East Side, is like a wonderful landmark, and a signal that Pepsi remains a major advertiser in the world market into the new century. So everybody won in the end.

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