The Center of Attention

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The King catching a few ZZZs back home in the jungle. Photo by Peggy Siegal.

Monday, July 26, 2021. Sunny but humid yesterday afternoon and into the evening breaking that spell of sunshine and cooling rain that we were under.

Today is my birthday, the 80th. Shocking is not the word for it. I don’t know what is because it’s brand new, the feeling, which isn’t really any feeling, seasoned with the fear that comes with the arithmetic.

Giving a birthday toast at Swifty’s on my 65th — I don’t know what I’m telling the guests, and it looks serious, but I see Anne Slater on the lower left is laughing. Anne liked to laugh but it had to be something that amused her.

So to celebrate the big day, we came up with a Diary about birthdays such as mine and maybe yours or someone in your life born around this time of the years. Happy Happy to all those out there who share this birthdate …

New York life. It’s been very hot in New York this week in case you haven’t noticed (or don’t live here). While it’s not oppressively humid, it is the kind of weather where people stay in as much as possible. It’s also corn on the cob and heirloom tomatoes in vinaigrette with buffalo mozzarella time. On Wednesday and Saturdays in Union Square, the local farmers from upstate and New Jersey come to town to sell the fresh fruits and vegetables (and cheeses and baked goods and preserves and flowers and plants).

Over in this corner of the room, it’s Leo time as you Leos and your friends and relatives all know. The last week of July through the third week of August. People born during those times were born under the astrological sign of Leo.

I am one of them. Leos are said to be very self-centered. This is symbolized by the sign being ruled by the Sun and therefore the center of the Solar System (although, alas, not the universe). Another symbol is the Lion. King of the jungle; hello out there. Cowardly Lion too. And likes to relax luxuriantly.

Leos are also very royal in their attitude about their relationships to the rest of the world. Of course not all kings are beneficent. And many can be hard to handle if they don’t get their way. So Leos don’t get off the hook being royal.  It is also true that a Leo can always make him or herself feel at home in a palace. And can be very generous too, like munificent monarchs. They’ll give you the shirt off their back (although they probably have a lot more where that came from). And, contrary to what a lot of people around them may think, they really are very sensitive. By which I mean, sensitive to their environment, sensitive about others  and of course sensitive about themselves.

All of this is very general, but also in many ways true. Leos love attention. As I often tell people: flattery will get you everywhere with them. They also love others being generous (to them), and prefer anything that is first class (even if it means someone else might have to take second, or even third class). And, they love attention. Mick Jagger anybody? A Leo. Mr. Clinton? Again, a lion. George Bernard Shaw. Attention. Jackie Onassis? Peter Duchin? Attention attention, attention. Leos also love Show Business, theatre, movies, wherever there is performing, because they love the act of showing off.  That’s not quite the same as Showing Off, now is it?

Leos are also very loyal, even at times to a fault, and often very disappointed to find that others are not. The Lion heart is passionate and constant and warm. It is not fickle. Nor is it generous when betrayed.

None of this means that any of us can be held to the characteristics of our particular sign. But it does fuel the imagination about the nature of the human condition, something we are always interested in since it’s about us.

As a Leo, I have two favorite Leo examples. They are both people I never met and know very little about except for what I’ve learned through research on projects. But both are people whose personages appeal to my sensibilities.

John Hay Whitney [1904-1982].
One was Jock Whitney. John Hay Whitney (named after his maternal grandfather, Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary) was evidently remarkable for his good qualities in relationship to others but also his good qualities in relationship to himself. Of course, few would ever tell me much about his “bad” qualities. Although perhaps he was one of those rara avis (and there are those) who really did not have much to criticize.

Mr. Whitney, who was born in 1904, was born to great wealth. Here in New York the family lived at 972 Fifth, just two houses south of 79th Street, in a house designed by Stanford White for his parents. He was the second (and last child) with a sister Joan (Whitney Payson who started the Mets) who was a couple of years older. He was an intelligent boy, a Yalie, a goodlooking young man who was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in the world until he married a very beautiful young woman from Philadelphia named Elizabeth Altemus (and then known for the rest of her life as Liz Whitney or Liz Whitney Tippett — her fourth husband).

John ‘Jock’ Hay Whitney with his first wife, Mary Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Whitney née Altemus.

The marriage didn’t take very well, however. Mrs. Whitney, a horse (and animal) woman of the first order spent her times in the stables and young Jock spent a good deal of the time (this was in the 1930s) in Los Angeles where he was anxious to make a name in the picture business.

He and his cousin Cornelius (“Sonny”) Vanderbilt Whitney started a company named Pioneer Pictures and produced the first full length Technicolor film, “Becky Sharp.” A few years later, in production partnership with David O. Selznick, one of Mr. Whitney’s assistants, a woman named Kay Brown, came to him with a then still-unpublished novel called “Gone With The Wind” and Mr. Whitney bought it. His partner Mr. Selznick made it into the classic although at the end of his life, he sold his share of the rights back to Mr. Whitney.

Jock Whitney’s  marriage to Liz gave him time and room to have other women in his life, and he did. He was very well known among his set for providing all kinds of financial security for the girls he spent time with.

In 1940, Jock Whitney divorced his first wife and married Betsey Cushing Roosevelt (recently divorced from James, the eldest son of Eleanor and Franklin). The couple maintained homes in Manhattan, Manhasset (Greentree estate), and several other locations. There were always scads of staff, greenhouses providing fresh flowers and private planes to take them where they needed to go. There is the story that once when he and his brother-in-law William Paley were planning a trip down to the Caribbean with the wives, Whitney suggested they send all their baggage down in his older plane ahead of them, and then they’d fly in the newer, faster Paley plane later. A prince’s sense of practical logistics. Once when Whitney was in bed with an ailment, Paley went to visit him. The two men were watching television together and when Paley couldn’t find the remote to change the channel, Whitney buzzed his butler. That was his remote.

John Hay Whitney, with his wife Betsey, when he was U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain.

After the Second World War where he served in the OSS and his lieutenants later created the CIA, Whitney invested some of his fortune in a fund that was referred to as “Adventure Capital.” The idea was to fund some of the business prospects and ideas of men he’d met in the service who would be looking for things to do when they got out. Their early investments included something called Memorex which became the infant of the now Digital Age. And MinuteMaid which was the beginning of the frozen orange juice  business. The term “Adventure” got shortened to “venture” and Venture Capital became a profession.

In the 1950s Eisenhower named him Ambassador to the Court of St. James. The British loved him because he was the most Anglo of any ambassador they’d had. When he finished his term, he bought the New York Herald Tribune and made a valiant albeit failed attempt to beat out the New York Times. Forty years later people who were there remember the Trib with fondness. Tom Wolfe got his big break on the Trib (writing for its new Sunday magazine called New York, which later became its own magazine). Dick Schaap started with the Trib, as did Jimmy Breslin, and Jill Krementz as a staff photographer. It was a good literate paper. The unions killed it.

Jock Whitney “house sitter” Shipwreck Kelly pole sitting in 1942.

Jock Whitney liked theatre people. Fred Astaire was one of his best buddies. And he was a loyal friend. A man named Shipwreck Kelly (who’d once been married to debutante Brenda Frazier) was given a lifelong residence on one of the Whitney houses on the Long Island estate.

He was always well turned out. He was quick to laugh, and always eager. He lived at all times like a king and shared the wealth. He loved the company of women and liked the world of sports. To those men and women who knew him he is remembered as “the consummate gentleman,” gracious, courteous, impeccably turned out, humorous, friendly, generous and walked with kings.

My other favorite Leo, whom the world knows all about is Jackie Onassis. Mrs. Onassis and Mr. Whitney definitely knew each other, at least in passing (Whitney was 25 years older). But if you consider the characteristics of Leos, you can see that Mrs. Onassis had many of them and wore them well.

She lived her life in a very regal manner but she did exactly what she wanted to do. She was a very friendly woman, and very curious (curious cat) but also could be remote. She was well aware of her public persona as a kind of martyr’s wife/heroine and she kept that image to her dying moment. She was always treated as if she were a princess by those around her, but in turn she treated everyone very democratically and without snobbery or hauteur.

She was also hip to the game that people play to jockey positions in society and positions in relationship to her and she used that to further her interests politically (the Municipal Arts Society is one example). She was not especially generous with the wealth she acquired but in her will she looked after those who needed it. The role that had been thrust upon her through her marriage to Jack Kennedy, was complex but the natural one for her. The young queen. Like the late lamented Diana, she enchanted the world with her beautiful young presence. Unlike Diana, she never had to deal with the husband who brought her to that position, because he died and left the field to her.

She brought up her children well, and always conducted herself with aplomb, self-confidence, self-respect and loved catching a quick cheeseburger at Soup Burg, just around the corner and a few blocks from where she lived.

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