Birthdays, past and present

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Lightning lighting up the night sky. 9:30 PM. Photo: JH.

Friday, July 28, 2023. The weather right now is the story in New York (and many places elsewhere). Yesterday’s heat in town was Stay Out Of It. However, lots of sunshine which is always good.  The rains came — as predicted — about 9:30 last night. It didn’t make it noticeably cooler, but it felt better.

This week is birthday time around here. As you can see, this person had one Wednesday night at Sette Mezzo. It was small, just old friends and a couple of relatives — eight of us, including JH and his wife Danielle.

A good time was had by all although there was no cake — which is just as well — but the staff came over with a rectangular plate with the message on one side and the “Mr. Columbia” on the other. And only one candle to mark the day. If I were not the birthday boy, I’d be talking my head off. But when it comes to my bday, I could only think “What can I say?”

DPC takes the cake (3 to be exact).

Driving up Central Park West last night (after driving a friend home), I had to stop for the light at 73rd Street, next to the Dakota looming, as it seemed, over the darkening neighborhood. From my car window, peering up at the grimly commanding and legendary apartment building, right up to its gables and chimneys, and beyond to the night sky, I felt as if I were suddenly in a movie, watching it but while in it. Looming with many dark secrets within. Rosemary’s Baby. Or if you wanna take it from another kind of movie: “New York New York it’s a helluva town …” Remember, the guy who wrote that melody (Lenny to his friends and associates) once lived in the Dakota.

A film still of the Dakota from Rosemary’s Baby.
The Dakota c. 1890; notice how sparsely developed this part of town was.

The Beresford had canvas awnings back in 1931. Photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

The next stop for the light was at 81st Street and CPW where you make the turn onto the transverse going East. Again, before me: the greying presence of the nightshade on the massive Beresford, imperious and commanding, more of a throne than the Dakota. And with its darkening large square towers on each corner — one of which was occupied for many years by Helen Gurley Brown and David Brown.

Many lights were out in the Beresford also, implying that perhaps many residents were away. Except there was one shining out, high up in a tower, from an open window of what was David’s and Helen’s apartment. I lent my imagination to their presence at that moment in that lighted room.  That was a comfort. Then it was homeward bound and this Diary.

When I got home, I started searching for some birthday memories and I came across a few photos of me and Brooke Hayward from 2016 celebrating her 79th birthday at Michael’s (she just celebrated her 86th).

Brooke had been living in Litchfield County for years, and quite happily after years in the city, but she still would still come to town every few weeks for an occasional lunch at Michael’s.

DPC and Brooke Hayward Duchin at Michael’s in 2016 celebrating Brooke’s 79th.
Brooke’s Birthday sorbet.
The birthday girl blowing out her candle. The lady with the lavender scarf across the room under the Hockney is the great lady of song Judy Collins.

Of course, this got me thinking more about Brooke. Brooke was born in 1937, the daughter of Margaret Sullavan, star of the Broadway stage and movies. Sullvan married four times — to director William Wyler, actor Henry Fonda, agent/producer Leland Hayward (Brooke’s father), and lastly to actor Kenneth Wagg. Leland Hayward had married four times (including twice to the first wife, Lola Gibb); then to Margaret Sullavan, then Slim Hawks (later Slim Keith), and finally to Pamela Churchill (later Harriman) who would one day go on to be Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Paris.

Brooke was the eldest of three of her parents’ marriage, including her sister Bridget and her brother Bill. She is the only child of the Sullavan-Hayward marriage to survive, as both mother Margaret and daughter Bridget and son Bill took their own lives at different times in that order.

Brooke’s parents, Leland Hayward and Margaret Sullavan.

From a marrying family, Brooke had three husbands, Michael Thomas, the novelist; Dennis Hopper, the actor; and Peter Duchin, the musician/orchestra leader. She also has three children, a daughter and two sons.

I recount this information, a part of which Brooke set down long ago in a best-selling memoir, Haywire, about growing up with that mother and father which was later made into a television mini-series. It was a Hollywood tell-all that broke new ground for its frankness and candor in unraveling the lives of complicated people in the world’s most glamorous industry.

All that I’ve set down is to lead up to a brief anecdote from our conversation at lunch now seven years ago! Somehow it had led to the subject of Pamela Harriman. Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Mrs. Harriman is always an interesting subject if you should ever get into a conversation about her with someone who knew her. There are all kinds of anecdotes that patch together a complicated, driven, powerfully controlling woman who slept her way to the top as well as happily played mistress or mistress-in-the-making to several rich and powerful men.

Randolph Churchill and Pamela Digby Churchill. The marriage did not last long as Pamela had been having an affair with Averell Harriman whom she would eventually marry. Forty years later. (British Pathé & Winston S. Churchill MP)

Pamela Harriman around the time we met. Credit: Mark Reinstein/MediaPunch

Brooke came to hate Pamela and for good reason, although that is another story. I remember telling Brooke about the first and only time I met the then Mrs. Harriman back in 1991. I had heard about her affairs with the rich and famous men of the world when I was introduced to her at Kitty Hart’s apartment on a wintry Saturday late morning in January.

Mrs. Harriman had come up from Washington to go to the Ballet and had stayed over night with her friend. Ours was a very brief meeting, inconsequential even; and remembered distinctly because I personally experienced her legendary charm in that brief but profound moment. It left me … charmed. But that’s another story also.

My memory aroused Brooke’s memory of the first time she met Pamela. It was a summer day, like yesterday, in 1960. Leland Hayward had left his wife Slim and although not divorced, was living with Pamela (then) Churchill in a house in Bedford that he’d rented from Irene Selznick, an old family friend, the younger daughter of Louis B. Mayer, ex-wife of David Selznick, and producer of “Streetcar Named Desire.”

Brooke was at the time dating a man named Jones Harris, son of actress Ruth Gordon and Broadway producer Jed Harris. They went up to Bedford that day to visit Brooke’s father … and his new amour. Brooke knew very little about her except of course that she had been married to Winston Churchill’s only son Randolph.

When they arrived at the Selznick house, an MGM perfect rambling clapboard and shutters replica of a New England cottage (but sprawling) surrounded by forests and bordered by the Mianus River which flows through the town, Brooke was told by a member of the staff that her father and Mrs. Churchill were out by the pool on the other side of the house.

Pamela Harriman and Leland Hayward.

When they got out to the pool, a big pool, there was Leland in his bathing suit sunning himself on a lounge, and across the pool, on the diving board, there was Pamela standing with a touch of Venus, entirely nude, almost modesty abandoned, “the skin whiter than your shirt” (the shirt I was wearing at lunch). “White, white … and she had red hair, reddish auburn, and the brightest red … between her legs … and big red nipples and white white breasts.”

Brooke was shocked but moreso because Mrs. Churchill wasn’t at all abashed by her own presence in meeting her new boyfriend’s daughter. Later when Brooke asked her father about it, he told her that Pamela often did it. He told Brooke about being on a yacht in the Mediterranean with her, and while everyone was dressed for the Sun and the cruise, Pamela midday would be wearing only her birthday suit. It had a lot of appeal and evidently did not disappoint.

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