History of a time long past

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Sunset high above Manhattan. Photo: JH.

Thanksgiving Dinner. I was a guest of Gillian and Sylvester Miniter at the Union Club. Also among guests was their daughter Serena and their son Quint plus two men, a married couple from L.A. who are friends of Gillian. And two men who know each other only through Gillian’s late mother who died suddenly this past fall.

The Union Club is the oldest men’s club in New York, created in 1836. It is a perfect setting for many individuals to share the stately rooms together and separately. It’s a day of families when everyone becomes family, with mainly  middle-age to older people.

The Union Club’s present day location, its sixth iteration, on 69th and Park.

It’s very grand architecturally but also very comfortable in terms of atmosphere, accommodation, and staff.  One of the men serving “special drinks” was said to have been employed there for more than 40 years. The staff is taken care of.

The club’s entrance on 69th Street.

The club’s Thanksgiving dinner is a massive and elegant buffet served in what looks like a small ballroom. There were more than 200 dining on this day, in this great mansion of a clubhouse. The menu is vast and varied with all kinds of meats, vegetables, salads, breads, and desserts. Everything beautifully prepared.

I always like watching the youngest generation (age 10 and under) begin to take part of this “special” dinner — especially when they line up waiting to be served the dessert of their wishes. I’m reminded of my own experience at that tender age. The approach is single-minded and very serious especially around the cake and ice cream. What a treasure that was to behold (and consume totally).

There were at least two other large dining rooms in use. One of my dinner partners pointed out that Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday of all, including the religious ones. It’s a particular holiday for everyone. Those of us who are natives were already pre-programmed for generations, along with the story of the quest of the “Pilgrims” at the Plymouth Colony. That matter of fact/fiction was an honorable one to bear in mind, growing up. But we are a society that does not have a mind for that sort of thing anymore.

The First Thanksgiving 1621, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1899) shows common misconceptions about “the event” which still persist today.

The day remains simply a gift to be thankful for. The world stops for a moment; many people get together however briefly. There is goodness in it. It not old-fashioned but in fact; it was/is a moment of good fortune for many.

Our table (the four o’clock group) was finished by six-thirty. We’d all had more than enough — which is also a Thanksgiving habit which I’m sure the real Pilgrims were grateful and greedy for. And soon the tables in all the rooms were beginning to end.

What often fascinates me about New York is the history of the buildings and the changing neighborhoods. We see it daily in the constant construction going on all over the city. New York City back in 1836 was center south of Canal Street. Beginning in the 1820s as the city began to grow, so too did the club and its main quarters.

The Union Club’s fourth home on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 21st Street soon after its completion in 1855.

The Union was and remains the “Mother of Clubs.” It had strongly conservative principles. And it had power. During the Civil War, the club refused to expel its Confederate members. Such decisions motivated members to form other clubs such as JP Morgan’s Metropolitan Club, as well as the Union League Club and the Knickerbocker

Membership clubs are by their nature political, and a major power scene of 19th and 20th century New York. Created in an age before the age of electricity, the telephone and the automobile, “clubs” provided centers for men to gather to prosper. Their exclusivity was primary. Wealth and power politics are natural mates. In the past century’s aging into an electronic universe, the origin of men’s clubs are now simply history. “Exclusivity” protects that history.

Delano’s trademark entrance at the Union Club, where, according to architect Peter Pennoyer, the first floor is raised one flight within the entry leading him to a radical solution for the entrance columns. This is to satisfy and accommodate the geometry of an entablature that sits between curved and straight walls.

In 1927, as the city was growing, club members voted to move uptown to a quieter, less crowded location. They hired architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich — who had previously designed buildings for the Knickerbocker Club, the Brook Club, and the Colony Club — to design the new clubhouse. Completed in 1933, the current building, on the northeast corner of Park Avenue and 69th Street is the club’s sixth clubhouse and the third built specifically for the members. Its stone façade implies opulence of its privacy. At one point the building featured five dining rooms and a humidor with 100,000 cigars.

At the beginning of the previous century, there were only private townhouses and mansions on Park Avenue after the power that convinced Cornelius Vanderbilt that the Grand Central rail tracks had to be concealed from public view.

In the first decade of the 20th century, on that same northeast corner of 69th and Park where the Union Club stands today, once stood a double mansion, one of which belonged to William Rhinelander Stewart, a very famous-at-the-time businessman/real estate heir, and socialite whose second wife, Janet was often referred to in the press as “the most beautiful woman in New York.”

The mansion originally built for Mr. Geraldyn Redmond by McKim, Mead & White, and leased by William Rhinelander Stewart, was torn down in 1929 making way for the present day Union Club.

The Rhinelanders were an early New York family of German/Dutch environs, and early acquirers of Manhattan Island real estate back in the 18th and 19th centuries when the island was still mostly rocks and hills and forests. Hence the great mansion on 69th and Park, designed by McKim, Mead & White (as in Stanford White) was actually two five-story residences.

Janet Newbold and William Rhinelander Stewart on their wedding day.

There was a story about Janet Stewart involving Vincent Astor, whose father John Jacob Astor had been a prominent member of the Union Club, and who was a “best friend” of the late Mr. Stewart (Janet’s husband). There came a time, after Mr. Stewart had moved on to his heavenly rest, when Vincent’s wife, Minnie Cushing Astor (2nd wife), told Vincent that she wanted a divorce.

Vincent was very troubled not by her wanting a divorce, but by how was he going to live without a wife. He insisted that Minnie stay until she found one for him. She suggested Janet Stewart — whom she knew had the right birthright for Vincent. She suggested that Vincent ask her himself, to show what a gentleman he is/was.

And so the day came when Vincent traveled down the avenue to visit Janet Stewart, the most beautiful woman in New York, etc. He explained to Janet that Minnie wanted a divorce and would Janet marry him?

And Janet allegedly replied: “Marry you?! I don’t even like you; why would I marry you?”

And Vincent allegedly countered: “Well, I’m not in good health and I don’t know how much longer I’ve got and … there’s my estate …”

Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart leaving The Colony, New York, 1938. (Photo by Bert Morgan/Getty Images)

And that was that. And as it happened, that story about Mrs. William Rhinelander Stewart telling Vincent Astor to get lost spread around their world of the post-Gilded Age in New York. A recent widow herself, Brooke Marshall, heard about Vincent Astor’s dilemma, and got herself a brief volunteering at a retreat up in Connecticut where Vincent would occasionally go to “dry out.”

And it was there that he met the apparently caring and attractive Mrs. Marshall, widow alas, but nevertheless. And one thing led to another and she became the Last Mrs. Astor, a role which she played with finesse, although it wasn’t an easy or pleasant task. And indeed, six years into the marriage, both she and he had retained divorce lawyers. Then Vincent Astor died in bed. And left his wife a rich woman, but even more importantly the Final Word in delivering his vast foundation to those charities and projects that were his final noble bequests.

Brooke Astor at 100 at the Living Landmarks Gala in 2001. Photo: JH.

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