Magic Hour

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Enjoying a summer evening on the rooftops of Manhattan. Photo: JH.

Thursday, August 10, 2023. Very warm and sunny with temps in the mid-80s yesterday in New York. With lots of rain and wind predicted for today. We’ll see about that; the actual city weather is usually milder than the winds and precipitation around us.

Quiet much?!

Tuesday night I was invited out to dine at home by Gigi and Harry Benson. Gigi called it for 6:30, “a picnic on the terrace.” It’s rare these days to be invited to dine at someone’s home. 

Aside from the quiet summer nights of the city right now, the habit for entertaining/dining with friends has been in restaurants for quite some time. At home dining with guests is still done but not as frequently as it has been in the past. There was once an art to it and people, particularly women vied for the title of Great Hostess. My personal theory is that those days are gone because women’s lives have changed. They no longer need a social “platform” to establish their “power.”

Gigi Benson’s dinner party was “a picnic” which meant casual. She was doing a string of them, getting friends together at home. I knew it wouldn’t be boring because Gigi whose birthday is three days after mine, leads a very active life, much of which has managing Harry’s extraordinary career.  And it turns out Harry has published about a dozen books of his photographs taken over the past seven decades.  Historically his work has recorded  the characters of those decades including all the Presidents since Eisenhower and scores of celebrities and movie stars and famous people, as well as us ordinary folk.

A large, lush terrace surrounds Gigi and Harry’s penthouse apartment.

The Bensons have a penthouse on the Upper East Side, with a spacious terrace that is perfect for picnic-ing. There were five of us. The Bensons also have two fulltime housemates, a dachshund and a bulldog. They can often be found snoozing on the living room sofa with their master.

Versions of the Beatles ‘Pillow Fight’ hangs near a portrait of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (Harry asked him what made him happy and he replied ‘Breathe’ – and Harry took the shot.)

Gigi and Harry have been traveling quite a bit since returning from their annual winter sojourn to Palm Beach. Harry likes it down there because he can swim every morning. Gigi organizes book parties for Harry’s achievements which started for the public when he first came here with the Beatles who were appearing on Ed Sullivan.

We forget that the Beatles were the most famous rockers on the planet in the early 1960s. Their influence on the culture, including fashion, was enormous at the time. Harry was sent out on that assignment to get a lot of photos of the boys. The pillow fight was staged because they were all together in the same room and in their pajamas. I’m sure you’ve seen it and remember it.

Harry has been a photographer all his life, now nine decades later. He told me that once he got a camera, as a kid, all he ever wanted to do was look at life through the eyes of that camera.

This is one of Harry’s first photographs taken when he was not yet seven years old at the Calder Park Zoo in Glasgow (which Harry’s father founded).

After dinner we three guests were looking at some his books. It is inevitable because they are books with hundreds of stories, of characters, of moments, and as familiar as if they were your own. Gigi gave me a copy of his New York New York. There’s a photograph in it of me at table in Michael’s restaurant with Joy Ingham, Emilia Saint-Amand and Topsy Taylor.

Harry’s first camera casually sits on the windowsill off the living room.

It was an arranged photo — a book of New Yorkers that Harry was doing with Hilary Geary Ross. When they asked me if I would like to participate, I didn’t like the idea of a solo photo of myself (I’d rather look at somebody else) and I suggested we get those three girls to join me and publicize their fund-raising work for City Harvest, New York City’s largest food rescue organization.

The four of us were seated at “my table” and Harry seated himself about 12 or 15 feet directly away from us.

So we sat here chatting, aware that we were waiting for Harry to give us any directions. This went on for a few minutes until I finally turned and said to Harry: “When are you gonna take the blankety-blank picture??”

To which he casually replied, “I already did.”

What?! He already did?

And here’s the photo …

Topsy Taylor, DPC, Emilia Saint-Amand, and Joy Ingham at Michael’s restaurant photographed by Harry Benson in in 2010 for his book, NEW YORK NEW YORK.

Frankly, it looks like me and probably because I wasn’t at that moment self-conscious about the camera.  Same with the women; they all look wonderful; and it was a wonderful moment. I realized that this is what Harry does. He gets you when you’re not even looking, and that is what you really look like out there in the world. I’ll call it magic.

Meanwhile, after a pre-dinner cocktail, we moved out onto the terrace about 7:15. It was still light out of course and the temperature was in the low 70s, so it was very comfortable.  It was the perfect dinner: a wedge of Brie, Parmesan asparagus, thinly sliced salmon fillets, mushroom brown rice, and a spinach salad. Salted with a lot of conversation about people and adventures and memories and highlights. Three of us had birthdays that last week in July (Harry’s in December).

Dinner set up on the terrace.

The terrace is on the 18th floor and surrounding in the distance are other towers higher and beginning to light up as the Sun goes down. It’s very quiet up there, but then of course, the avenues are quieter at this mid-evening hour in August in New York.

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