Lights, Camera, Action!

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Nicole Kidman leaving the set of the HBO limited series, "The Undoing," at the former George F. Baker, Jr. mansion on 93rd and Park. Photo: JH.

Thursday, March 21, 2019. Low 50s, sunny and bright on the first full day of Spring in New York.

Look back, la-dee-dah. Our friend Robert Caravaggi, co-proprietor of the late, lamented Swifty’s restaurant, as well as the maitre’d of the long, long ago lamented restaurant Mortimer’s, sent us this menu he found among his storage items. When. Its proprietor Glenn Birnbaum opened the place in March 1976 on the northeast corner of Lexington Avenue and 75th Street. It was an instant hit, especially with the social set who lived on the Upper East Side.

Robert Caravaggi and chef Steven Attoe at Swifty’s, photographed by Harry Benson.

Glenn knew what he was doing and whom he wanted for clientele: cheap a/k/a reasonably priced, good home-style (high style homes) food. A nettlesome fellow even with his best customers at times, he was a shrewd and attentive proprietor. Quality was at the forefront and the “quality of qualities” were given the table in the window and those close to it. You couldn’t make a reservation for that or any other table; “no reservations” was for the hoi polloi. CZ of Babe or Jackie O always had their social secretaries call ahead. Glenn was democratic with the rest of us although it might require waiting at the bar (which was part of the main room and not a bad place to wait and people watch).

Although, I recall one late afternoon almost-dinner time, when I was sitting with him at a table next to the bar. The room was otherwise empty of people. A well-dressed man and woman, strangers to the place obviously, entered and stood at the door waiting.

Glenn shouted across the room in a rather annoyed tone: “may I help you?” The man responded that they’d like a table for dinner. “Sorry; all filled up tonight.” They definitely were new to the restaurant although they were as pleasant and presentable looking at any Mortimer’s customer. He just didn’t want to give them a table.

Mortimer’s opening day menu, March 16, 1976. These were the prices of that time.

What struck me and will strike you about this menu are the prices. Yes, it was forty years ago, but prices today in the same corner or any restaurant of its kind, a salad for example, will be at least 20 or 30 times Mortimer’s’ simple tossed green salad at eighty-five cents. I think that’s what we used to call inflation according to these prices.

Two of Mortimer’s menu covers drawn by Joe Eula, who also did the Swifty logo.
An ode to Mortimer’s.
The original Swifty’s menu cover.

Glenn also owned the building in which the restaurant was located, and lived in one of the apartments. When Glenn died in September 1998, Mortimer’s went with him. He left his entire multimillion dollar estate to an AIDS-care division of New York Hospital and the building was sold to the owners of Orsay, the restaurant which is now located in the same spot that was Mortimer’s.

43 years later, restaurants anywhere in New York have far, far higher prices than what Glenn Birnbaum offered his customers in March of 1976. Here, for example is an Orsay menu which reflects a moderately priced restaurant of a very similar style to the original Mortimer’s. The prices are reasonable to today’s world although next to its predecessor’s early menu, it’s astounding, no?

Orsay’s menu, 2019.

Going Hollywood, or which is Hollywood. Yesterday afternoon JH was taking a walk in his neighborhood when right around the corner he noticed a lot of activity around the old George F. Baker Jr. mansion on 93rd and Park Avenue. They were shooting, he soon learned,“The Undoing,” a limited series for HBO starring Nicole Kidman (who is also executive producing).

Lights, Camera, Action! JH also walked by 2 other shows or movies being filmed just yesterday. Pictured here are big Tungsten lights outside the Americas Society at 680 Park Avenue, originally the residence of Percy Rivington Pyne, a prominent New York financier.
The Harold Pratt house, now the headquarters for the Council on Foreign Relations, was also lit up. This photo was taken at 7:00 PM if you’re wondering.
Another big production in front of the Brook Club on 54th Street between Park and Lex. It turns out there were 94 TV shows and movies being filmed in NYC just since this past January!
“For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever …”

Back to Nicole Kidman on 93rd Street. The film follows Grace Sachs (played by Kidman), a successful therapist on the brink of publishing her first book. She has a devoted husband and a young son who attends an elite private school (hence the George F. Baker, Jr. mansion as shooting location). Weeks before her book is published, she witnesses a violent death, her husband goes missing, and then comes a chain of terrible revelations.

You’ll have to watch the series to learn more, but sounds like a good distraction. In the meantime, JH took these shots to show you what filming Hollywood in NYC looks like.

The five-story building was originally built for financier Francis F. Palmer, and completed in 1918. George F. Baker, Jr., another financier, purchased the mansion in 1927 and expanded it with three extensions: a garage (69 E 93rd Street), ballroom wing (1180 Park Avenue) and townhouse residence for his father (67 E 93rd Street). All four buildings were designed by Delano & Aldrich. It is cuurently the home of the headquarters of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.
Spotted! Nicole Kidman.
Talking through the scene.
Taking a few minutes to herself.
Walking back to the set.
As you can see, Ms. Kidman is considerably taller than her co-stars.
Cut! Print it! After only 2 takes, the star was off!
The “Lucy” and “Desi” trailers are the crew bathrooms. Besides being a nod to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, the smile-inducing labels are also meant to keep away non-crew members who might take advantage of a clean toilette in the middle of a city street.
If you dare to park, it will be you’re “Undoing.”
The catering truck trumps all.

And while all this was going on, literally just around the corner at the Corner Bookstore on Madison Avenue and 93rd Street, they were having a a book party for Bill Doyle’s newest children’s book, Escape This Book! Titanic, published by Random House.

The book is the first in a series of three “choose your own adventure” books that Bill is writing for Random House. Bill has written over 30 books, and he is the Executive Editor of Scholastic News for third grade. Bill’s book is ranked number 14 nationally as of this morning for Barnes & Noble sales (but, please buy it from the corner bookstore!) He’s also an Upper West Sider and just happened to be JH’s neighbor when JH lived up there. Small world.

The Corner Bookstore on 93rd Street and Madison.

The book, for the 8-12 year-old-age group, is interactive, and the young reader stabs, punctures, folds, and draws their way from page to page, actually destroying the book in order to follow clues and successfully “escape” the Titanic.

Bill describes it as such: “Doodle, decide, and demolish your way out of history’s greatest events. This new series is Choose Your Own Adventure meets I Survived meets doodle book!” Much better than Fortnight, don’t you think?

Oh, to be a kid again.

Nancy Druckman, Billie Tsien, Bill Doyle, and Tod Williams. Click to order!
Bill with his editors at Random House, Josh Redlich, Caroline Abbey, and Leslie Mechanic
L to R.: Spencer Stevens, Sean Stevens, Bill, and Piper Stevens; Vanessa Wise, Riccardo Salmona, and Amanita Heard
Sascha Radetsky, Stella Abrera Radetsky, Bill Doyle, and Riccardo Salmona

And over on the Upper West Side, just a hop, skip & a jump from the Corner Bookstore, we stopped by Peruvian Connection on 76th and Columbus to check out their Spring window displays.

It turns out they are having a wardrobing event this Sunday, March 24th at 11AM, where they will be serving a light brunch. Expert stylists will also be on hand and there will be an opportunity to win a fabulous Peruvian connection item valued at $250.

Plan to stop by and you will be pleasantly shocked (or in awe) of the quality (and the good price) of the clothes.

RVSP: or 212.239.1219 

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