Dorothy’s World

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The glass console by my front window which provides two bookshelves as well as a table top for photographs. This particular group is one I look at more than once or twice a day. That’s Dorothy in the frame on the left. In the center is Lillian Sydney, who was the acting coach at MGM from ’38 to ’52 and who later hired me to write a memoir for Debbie Reynolds.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024. Beautiful weather yesterday in New York with temps in the mid-50s and lots of sunshine. According to our weatherman, these temps are forecast to continue into the next few days.

Memories are made of this. Our Diaries last week about Truman Capote and his Swans reminded me of one who was not on that list — and certainly never wanted to be — a charismatic subject named Dorothy Hirshon whose portrait by Horst for Vogue in 1938 I keep in a silver frame. Dorothy was very sharp and knowledgeable and had great allure. I’m still amazed when I think that I never met her until she was in her 80s because the personality was so powerful and magnetic (for me) that she had no age.

Dorothy Hart Hearst Paley Hirshon, photographed by Horst for Vogue in 1938.

When she died in January 1998, she was less than a month away from her 90th birthday. Her final moment came in her car which she was driving and had stopped while waiting for a red light to change. She was on her way to the store to pick up some items for a dinner party she was hosting at her house that night. That final moment was a shock for everyone who knew her.

Among the responses we got from readers when I wrote about it for the Diary was a message from a prominent woman here in New York. I didn’t know of the connection until I got this e-mail in which she wrote:

“I loved your column today especially the part about Dorothy Hirshon. I was very fond of her the years. I knew her on the Board of Phoenix House. I knew bits and pieces of her story but this filled in some parts. She was at ease with everyone and never looked down on anyone or bowed to anyone. Her wry humor and dead-on opinion of anything she cared to comment on was a treat. She never grew old and it was a treat to be included in her life. Thanks for the memory!”

Dorothy in a sketch by Cecil Beaton.

I was surprised, but not really, to learn of someone else’s enthusiasm for this special woman. I refer to her as “special” with full knowledge that like all of us, Dorothy had her cons as well as her pros. One telling issue — in the eyes of some — was her smoking. She smoked all her life, until the last minute. It flew in the face of many of her values, or so it seemed, but it was also her lifelong habit and frankly never looked out of place. The attitude that it encapsulated was sort of Bette Davis-like, but Dorothy was sheer silk chiffon to Davis’ prickly wool. There was an attitude, a stature to her presence but an enormous attraction.

Dorothy in the mid-1970s. Notice the dog ears on the right. Dorothy was a great rescuer of dogs and cats. At the end of her life, she had three dogs and seven cats in residence with her, most of whom she had rescued from roadsides and even the Grand Central Parkway.

Diana Vreeland described her as a woman “who was always surrounded by men but never gave a damn about them ….” You could get that feeling, although if you got to know her, you got how MUCH she did indeed give a damn (about men and many other things).

From her first days in New York she was actively involved in the development of the New School; and with a black reverend from Harlem she promoted integrating the medical staffs of New York hospitals, as well as launching the first daycare center in Harlem.

One who probably wounded her the most was her second husband, William Paley. Nevertheless she was a girl who would get on with it, and get on with it she did, outliving most of her contemporaries including all three of her husbands. Ironically, she had a snapshot, taken in Venice in the summer of 1931, standing with her husband, Jack Hearst, as well as William Paley and her third husband Walter Hirshon. She lived in a big yet very small world.

Dorothy and Bill Paley, circa 1935.

Anyway, this particular message about Dorothy from someone who knew and observed her as I did, inspired me to look for the various images I have of this memorable woman at different stages of her life, along with a brief piece I wrote about her for the Sotheby’s catalogue of the auction of her possessions after she died.

She was a very beautiful woman, all her life. She had great allure. It was many things about her. The voice, her flashing eyes. The way she dressed, her jewelry, the houses. She had natural all-American chic, always smartly dressed. She was the prototype of that first modern generation of American women. The femme fatale, idealized and portrayed by movie stars who were her contemporaries, like Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell and Constance Bennett. Beautiful, clever, powerful and vulnerable.

Dorothy’s life was theatrical and big, like in the movies. She had a vast and sophisticated scope of intense interests — the arts, philanthropy, and civic duty. She had endless curiosity and enthusiasm. She was a keen observer and had a vast reservoir of knowledge of many things and a great many people.

From the time she came to live in New York from Los Angeles, as the 19-year-old bride of Jack Hearst, throughout her almost ninety years, she met and knew the world — movie stars, politicians and presidents from FDR to Clinton; artist, authors, kings, scientists and rich girls. And they all knew Dorothy.

She had several residences in her lifetime and always a place in town. When she was married to Hearst, they lived in a duplex penthouse on 79th and Park. With her second husband, William Paley, she built a townhouse (still standing) on Beekman Place (later owned by Mary Lasker and Princess Ashraf of Iran). With Mr. Paley she bought their Manhasset estate, Kiluna Farm. Later she owned a double townhouse on East 74th Street.

Dorothy loved jewelry and was a good friend and frequent visitor to the Fifth Avenue atelier of her friend Fulco Verdura, who made these wrist cuffs for her.
And later, returning from South America with Colombian emeralds Bill had acquired for her, Fulco designed this necklace for her.

Dorothy was eighty years old when she built and moved into Pond House in Glen Cove. It was just down the road from Willow Pond, a much larger house and a piece of property that she’d had for more than thirty years (and which she shared briefly with her last husband Walter Hirshon). She had a great eye for beauty, so she was surrounded by it.

There were lots of books, lots of paintings and flowers everywhere. Pond House had large rooms with cozy spaces, high ceilings, and lots of glass.  The master bath on the first floor was large and long, a throng of ferns and flowering plants crowding up against an entire wall of glass — like a hothouse — looking out on the back lawn. Its openness was astonishing at first sight.

One wall of her living room at Pond House in Glen Cove, behind which was a floor-to-ceiling wall of her books.

The living room was paneled in a rich, emerald green bleached wood. Chair coverings were pastel shades of lavender, lime green, and ivory. A Coromandel screen behind a white and green chintz-covered sofa commanded one wall, its dark luster adding warmth and mystery.  Another wall of three tall arches revealed a narrow passage banked by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

On another wall the gallery of art. And one wall of glass, looking on a lovely pond occupied by a pair of swans, whom Dorothy fed and watched with interest that led to familiarity.  The place had a strong and luxurious indoor/outdoor feeling; a style reminiscent of her native Los Angeles. Space, light, swans, dogs and cats (all strays); flowers, legions of friends, fine art, antiques objets and Dorothy. Her world. All now a memory. Brilliant and remarkable. Like Dorothy. Great legs, too.

This photograph of Dorothy was taken in 1993 by photographer Todd Eberle in her 85th year, seated in her living room of Pond House in Glen Cove. Notice the cigarette, and the expression of what could be interpreted as slight suspicion or even skepticism. Dorothy’s beauty was never quite captured by the camera. It always seemed to me to be her lack of interest in a portrait. Behind her is a charcoal sketch of her by Henri Matisse, done in the summer of 1938. From Sally Bedell Smith’s Paley bio: “… (William) Paley arranged … to have Matisse paint a portrait of her. For three weeks she spent every morning at the artist’s apartment in Montparnasse while he did hundreds of charcoal sketches, each drawn in one continuous line …. At the end of the sessions, he gave her one of the drawings, dedicated (in French): To Madam Dorothy Paley, your respectful servant, Henri Matisse 1937.”

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