Letting the breeze in

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Stork Club's Cub Room, November 1944. From left: Orson Welles (with cigar), Margaret Sullavan with Leland Hayward, owner Sherman Billingsley (center table at far right), Morton Downey (at right). Time Inc.; photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt — Life magazine, November 6, 1944.

Monday, August 9, 2021. Good Weather weekend in New York. Traffic lightens up on Thursday afternoons. The exodus for the country begins — leaving a much quieter and lovely city. It’s August, and right now as I write, the weather is as perfect as a city dweller could want. And yesterday there was a strong but lazy breeze keeping things perfect; perfect weather.

JH and I have worked together on the NYSD for more than two decades. Because of the nature of the internet, we have never worked in the same building together in all that time. We communicate frequently, daily, often by phone or web but actually see each other in person only when necessary or for matter requiring both our presence.

JH and I met for brunch at Eli’s Essentials on 91st and Madison.

Yesterday was one of those days. We met for a brunch (Turkey and coleslaw on rye) at Eli’s Essentials on 91st and Madison. I’d been there before but not since the lockdown back in ’20. Mr. Zabar has expanded outside, like most restaurants in the city, but also inside; he’s also expanded the menu. It runs right up the scale from a cuppa to a sandwich or a salad to a first course to stay or to go. Or to a drink or an ice cream. It’s in a really more sophisticated 21st century New York deli. And the food is delicious! And it is a beautiful neighborhood and heavenly on a late Sunday morning with the breeze and the overcast followed by some very light rain.

The colorful entrance way to a townhouse in the East 90s.
With my Eli’s cappuccino in hand, JH bid me g’bye to myself.
This lady has the brightest, widest eyelashes.

I spent the better part of the weekend — with the terrace door open to let the breeze have its way. There is a “garden” I makeshift make every year as my little self-tribute to California living. The impatiens are my tribute to memory where they were often ground cover on hilly properties. It was beautiful when in lived out there in LA. This time of year was the “hottest” (when it was) but otherwise it was the sunshine, and the light, and (the end of) the pioneer spirit that affected many Americans.

L. to r.: My private garden of impatiens, looking north; And on the terrace looking south. The bright red ones, which I planted inside in the early Spring, were made from a single cutting that grew new roots.

Saturday and Sunday were one of those weekends here. I read a trio of novellas of  John O’Hara’s called Sermons and Soda Water. They were: The Girl on the Baggage Truck, Imagine Kissing Pete, and “We’re Friends Again.

I am an old O’Hara man at heart. By which I mean, I identify with the author/character in many ways. I did not know him nor did I ever meet him. No doubt it’s part of the Irish side of the heritage as well as the Roman Catholic side that I relate to — although I was brought up a Protestant — a rightful and protesting move on my mother’s part.

I mention all of this because it refers to the pleasure that this weekend brought in simple and thorough terms. O’Hara’s three stories were published in 1960. I bought the book(s) when first published — as I did with all of his books from the time I was fifteen.

His stories were generally contemporary for that time or era in the life of the author – 1930s, ’40s, ’50s. It was the time (‘40s) I came into the world and grew up in the ’50s. The world of O’Hara, the voice, was serious and very impressive to a kid who knew that before long, he’d have to find his own way in the world out there.

All of this came back in the reading experience. But what also returned was my personal opinions and feelings about the characters in his stories and how they’d changed over time. O’Hara’s use of dialogue to create a visual image is compelling. My present “take” on the characters are much clearer than they were for this teen-ager.

O’Hara in 1945.

I knew nothing about adult life and behavior. I knew that adults often “act like children.” At this stage of my life I find that to be truer than ever. I’ve concluded, temporarily or until I can conclude something else, that we “act like children” because we ARE children. The ones who never grow up inside ourselves. Often the Best part of the Self. Also not infrequently, the Worst part.

All of this from reading Sermons and Soda Water this weekend. I should add the paper on which these stories were printed was so substantial in quality that on first turning, the page was so thick I thought I’d stuck two together. I couldn’t help wondering if that high quality was because the author had made known what he expected for this writings. He was very successful for the publisher and there was an extra quality about the book because of it.

Briefly, which reminds me back in the early ‘60s’ when I was first in New York out of college, a girl I knew here was a friend of Jack O’Brian and his wife Von.  Jack was a longtime columnist for the Hearst papers and had a daily column about the world of Television in Hearst’s afternoon paper, the New York Journal-American. It was a Broadway-like column about the business, about a review or general opinions.

Von and Jack O’Brian with Dorothy Kilgallen and her husband Richard Kollmar, at the Stork Club in 1956.

O’Brian knew how to stir things up. He’d started out in journalism working for Walter Winchell. It was often said that the Tony Curtis role in “Sweet Smell of Success,” (which was inspired by Winchell’s life) starring Burt Lancaster, was based on Jack O’Brian. All of this was very impressive to this kid who’d read the columns and admired them.

Sometimes on a Friday night I was invited by my friend, to join the O’Brians after dinner at the Stork Club – which was still in existence (on East 53rd off Fifth where Paley Park exists today). It was the original clubroom where all those black and white photos of movie stars and socialites were taken with them seated in banquettes with white tablecloth and the black and white Stork Club ashtray prominent in the shot.

They were still doing a little business although the thrill and glamour of a busy New York night in the ’40s and ‘50s was definitely gone, along with the patrons who made it.

Damon Runyan, Walter Winchell, and Sherman Billingsley at the Stork.

Nevertheless I was still well able and imaginative to enjoy the thrill of seating at the same table that had been always reserved for Walter Winchell when he was make his club rounds (table 50) in the “Cub Room” off of the bar — where only the VIPs used to be seated back in the day.

The O’Brians occasionally had other guests, specifically a couple of times we were joined by two young men — not young but older to this college kid — who looked like brothers with names that were familiar but only vaguely to this kid still new in New York:  Si Newhouse and Roy Cohn. Sometimes Roy attended with woman who was very nice but very quiet. I knew nothing about Cohn’s private life and assumed that she was an odd date for the guy. I later learned the men were best friends from childhood and to the very end of Roy Cohn’s life.

More than once we were joined at table by Sherman Billingsley, the owner/founder. He was famous in America in those days because of the Stork. He looked like an old man to these eyes although looking up his age, I see now that he was only in his early 60s. He had died at 66 in 1966. He’d pull up a chair next to me so I had the opportunity to talk to him. I once asked if there were anyone whom he would NOT allow in his club.

Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billingsley and John O’Hara at the Stork.

He instantly told me there were two: Frank Sinatra and John O’Hara!

And why, I inquired further.

“Because there were both such terrible drunks that they would start fights” with someone if things didn’t go their way. “Oh my!” Mr. Billingsley added as he lightly slapped the right side of his face in wonder.

I learned more about O’Hara’s life as he grew older just from the foreword to Sermons and Soda Water. He explains that with age and time he had changed his ways for his own advantage. This reader continues to identify with him as the years move along. The world of his characters has changed, too.

Stork Club photographs courtesy of the private collection of the Billinsgley family, courtesy of Shermane Billingsley.

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