Fortune’s Children

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The Frick Collection. 10 PM. Photo: JH.

Friday, August 2, 2019. Very warm and sunny, yesterday in New York, with no big RealFeel to make it really uncomfortable. The rains that finally came on Tuesday and Wednesday finally swept some of that away.

The city remains surprisingly quiet even for a weekday. My neighborhood would be exceptionally quiet, located where it is on the easternmost side of Manhattan, except for the two major buildings that the two private girls schools are building — which after all these years — are still under construction. 

Brearley’s massive building — which is an addition to its school rooms at the end of the block by the River — is nearly finished (thank God). Chapin’s behemoth on top of a behemoth, on top of the classic and elegant original building designed by Delano & Aldrich, has a ways to go. Someone told me 2022 is the final date. That’s just hearsay but it fits in with the experience of watching its present construction. Both designs, particularly the Chapin construction, look like the architectural version of a compulsive shopper.

L. to r.: The Chapin School at 84th and East End Avenue; The Brearley addition at 83rd and East End Avenue.

All this while we continue (for years) to hear about the deterioration of public school education not only in New York but everywhere across America. It now takes more than a village. In Chapin’s case, it takes $44,950 annual tuition. In Brearley’s case, the annual tuition is $49,680. Both schools, I am told, have large endowments that provide full education on scholarship when it is needed.  

Get that ice or else no dice. Yesterday I picked up a book that’s been sitting on a pile next to my desk for what seems like years. Maybe one or two, realistically. I hadn’t tucked it away on the shelf because the cover has always intrigued me. 

The book is called Fortune’s Children; The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt and it is written by Arthur T. Vanderbilt II. Mr. Vanderbilt carries the name of his father and grandfather and from what I could find about his background he is not a direct descendent of this particular line of Vanderbilts. Nevertheless, he is its most perfect biographer.

Click to order Fortune’s Children.

First published in hardcover by William Morrow in 1989, my copy — which was kindly sent to me by its author — was beautifully published in paperback by William Morrow in 2013. 

The cover is a tinted color photo of the William Henry Vanderbilt’s Triple Palace completed in 1880. It occupied the west side of Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Street. Next to it is the limestone William K. and Alva Vanderbilt chateau on the northeast corner of 52nd Street, completed two years later. The photograph was taken in the 1890s when the mode of transportation was horse and carriage, the roadways were dusty and the women’s skirts were full length. 

Cover intrigue or not, my passing thought about the book was that I’d already read a lot about that family and, in fact, knew several of its descendants. So before putting it on the shelf, I felt obligated to at least open the author’s generous gift.

The first chapter is about the creator of this branch of the family, Cornelius Vanderbilt. I thought I knew something about him. Ha! on me. I knew next to nothing. What a character — as we used to say in those days before we immediately relied on profanity to describe a very difficult, selfish, self-centered and even cruel — yet driven, hardworking, ambitious, clever giant of a personality. 

Arthur Vanderbilt’s talent as a writer is as compelling as the teller of outrageous gossip. You can’t turn away from it. And in the end, you’re caught up in it, just like those tall tales of gossip. But this is history; real, not decorated with awe and wonder. What a gift; what a way to learn, from another chapter about a very difficult man and his amazing life. 

They called him the Commodore. It was a fake title but he started out on creating his fortune following his childhood fascination with boats (he grew upon on an island called Staten) so it fit. That’s all he cared out. Almost, not quite, but pretty much. More than anyone of his issue who came after him. But that’s the tale that keeps you turning the pages.

“The Commodore.”

Meanwhile, George Gurley’s interview with the late Kenny Lane which we re-published a couple of weeks ago was a big hit because Kenny had one of those compelling personalities, not unlike that of the Commodore, although with a much more agreeable presentation — unique, powerful, and full of humor. Our friend Blair Sabol, the No Holds Barred reporter, was moved to write about the man and his work which she loved and for which she honored him and that personality.

Blair wrote:  Here’s a personal postscript to George Gurley’s magnificent KJL interview!  I met Kenny ten years ago on a column interview and he invited me up to his showroom where I proceeded to “collect” most of his vintage line of baubles, bangles and beads.  

His showroom is on West 37th Street and is a notorious Kasbah or Souk of the greatest costume replicas of David Webb, Verdura, Van Cleef, Schlumberger, and Kenny’s own magical designs.  It’s a moderate sized room packed with dangling necklaces, rings, earrings and bracelets pinned and displayed from floor to ceiling.  It’s really a “history” of jewelry.  And it can make you dizzy.

My KJL altar.

There’s the presence of Jackie O. and Barbara Bush in a wall of their pearls, the Duchess of Windsor’s diamond brooches, Gloria Vanderbilt’s gold earrings and Babe Paley’s cabochon bracelets.  It’s all there and alive and well in paste and fake gems!

For the last eight years (and even since Kenny’s death in July of 2017) I continue to do my glitz pilgrimage to West 37th, even though Kenny’s sharp tongue and cigarette smoke is long gone.  I really have no need to buy one more enamel bracelet or globe earring, but it has become my guilty pleasure.  More than that, buying KJL feels like I am purchasing the memory of a time and place of true taste and style.

Pearl poodle pins, rings, and boxes of earrings … all KJL.
One of five KJL bracelet bars.

Nowadays I don’t even wear any jewelry – but I continue to display all my jewelry bars and ring racks of KJL around my fireplace and bookshelves.  I actually have a KJL “altar”.  My buddha is donned in his necklaces!

I also continue to take a few friends with me on all my visits to the KJL Showroom.  And most of them, like myself, have dealt with this overwhelming display by indulging too much.  How can you not?  Even today his melody lingers on since KJL still does THE best costume jewelry.  Chris Sheppard is now in charge and has been with KJL for over 25 years.  He has steered the jewel encrusted ship nicely by re-introducing a lot of Kenny’s “discontinued” vintage designs.  His online platform is exploding with a lot of new “roll-outs” and the beaded beat goes on.

Some of my KJL ring collection.
L. to r.: Vintage KJL pearls decorating book shelf; Wearing my Pearl poodle pins.

Last November I took DPC up to the showroom for his first visit, and though jewelry isn’t his thing, he was blown away by Chris’s “wall tour” of all the necklaces, worn by whom, and why… and of course the gossip that goes with each piece.  I think David was also blown away by the sheer quantity of “stuff”.  Chris continues to be a terrific gatekeeper to his volume of classical treasures.

New KJL “roll-outs” that have been wildly popular with the younger set. So fun and easy to wear.
Nobody does color like Kenny!

As todays jewelry fades into retail hell with every cuff, watch and chain looking alike – KJL remains above and beyond the slew of Europe’s overpriced or China’s cheap array.  He once told me that “clothes don’t make the woman — her accessories always do — and especially the bling.  You want to change your face, change your earrings.”  

I agree and I still think of him everyday (when I look at my altar) as the last man standing in a crucial style arc (1950 – 2018) of high taste, great living, and sheer wit. That time is long gone – and he left at the perfect moment.  Meantime, I will never relinquish my vast KJL collection to eBay or the Real Real.  Every piece still “talks” to me.  For me, none of his designs are mere “Fabulous Fakes,” but the “Real Deal.”  And so was he!

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