Meanwhile, back in the neighborhood

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Looking south across 93rd Street from Second Avenue. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Cold and sometimes sunny this past weekend in New York. Very cold last night, the kind that nips the tip of your nose; bundle up time. The weatherman sort of predicted snow which evidently blanketed the eastern states to the south of us but we got off with nary a flurry.

Meanwhile, back in the neighborhood, I received a handwritten letter over the weekend from a longtime NYSD reader (thank you!) possibly inspired by last week’s Diary references to the avenue on which I live. The reader — who signed the missive simply: “a fan” — obviously lives in the nabe or at least very nearby, and has for a long time. And, if not a journalist (could be), the reader had a lot of interesting neighborhood information.

I was reminded of when I was a seven or eight years old in summertime and my mother liked to go for a walk after dinner. Because of my age, she liked me to go with her rather than leave me home alone (my father was working). Those walks were always interesting to me as she’d tell me about the houses and the families who lived therein. In retrospect they were part of the early foundation of what little David would grow up to be. Coincidentally I was reminded of those “walks” when I was putting together Friday’s Diary.

The letter writer had just read the New York Times obit of Babs Simpson who died at 105. She had been a fashion editor at Vogue in the heyday of mid-20th century fashion when Paris couture was the ultimate and Seventh Avenue was working it not far behind. Babs was not famous in the world of celebrity but she was famous among celebrities and society, a milieu into which she was born.

Babs Simpson photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, 1949

I didn’t know her but I did interview her once in her office at Vogue in 1991. She was pleasant, matter-of-fact and on subject. The interview was about the mid-20th century fashion icons, specifically Babe Paley.

Babs had been recommended to me as a source who not only knew her business but also knew the icons because that was the world she was born into. At the time of our meeting I was still living in California. When I moved back here a couple of years later, I got the apartment — where I continue to live — and it turned out that Babs lived here too, a few floors above me.

I learned this one day when we were both waiting for the elevator and I was carrying a flowering plant that someone had sent me, and Babs admired it remarking how much she loved the flowers (I can’t remember what they were). I got off the elevator on my floor and she went on up to hers (the 9th). When I got into my apartment I called the doorman and asked him where she lived. I then wrote a little note of admiration and left the flowering plant with the note at her door.

Babs Simpson photographed by Horst P. Horst, Vogue, 1939.

She moved out of the building a number of years ago. I’d heard from our neighbor Charlie Scheips who knew her quite well that she’d sold a house she’d had in East Hampton for years for a large sum and decided (I think she was in her 90s then) to move to a very comfortable assisted living community in Rye. I missed some chances to join Charlie visiting her there, unfortunately, and never saw her again.

All this background just to get to the letter I received Saturday, which I quote:

“Did you know she (Babs) used to live in your building? She had a glorious apartment with fabric on the ceiling. There were yards and yards of material gathered together in the center of the ceiling with a giant fabric-covered button. It reminded me of something you might see in the palace of an Indian maharajah … certainly not like any other small NYC apt. I’ve ever seen.”

Page 1 of the handwritten letter I received over the weekend …
Page 2.

The letter continues: “Her ‘bohemian’ boyfriend with whom she had very long term relationship was a man named Paul who was very knowledgeable about art. He also lived in your building on the 1st floor in the apartment with windows facing the northeast corner of 83rd Street …” See what I mean about “a journalist” giving you all the details so you get the picture.

Continuing, the letter gives a tour (my mother would have loved it too!) … “Bea Lillie lived in 25 East End, Arthur Godfrey in One Gracie Terrace (ed. note: at 82nd Street and the East River), John O’Hara lived in splendor in 1 East End Avenue (ed. note: where Johnny Carson’s first wife Jody lived after the divorce) whilst O’Hara’s brother lived in a nearby railroad flat with his wife and six children! Don Ameche lived in 45 East End, Anthony Quinn in 60 East End (ed. note, also Lady Sarah Churchill granddaughter of Consuelo Vanderbilt lived there with her third husband); Andre Kostelanetz in 10 Gracie Square, Ernie Kovacs in 55 East End, along with Orson Bean and Donald Pleasance. Patricia Neal lived in 45 East End where Walter Cronkite lived until he became famous.

Clockwise from top left: 25 East End Avenue; 1 East End Avenue; 60 East End Avenue; 45 East End Avenue.

“East End has been home to so many wonderful people — some were celebrities but most were just a wonderful; mix of rich, poor, not so rich, not so poor, kind hearted people who made it a great place to live with lots and lots of animals!!”

Writing out that list of former residents, (to which I’ll add Gloria Vanderbilt and Madame Chiang Kai-shek) all of whom were famous names when Babs Simpson was in residence, and some of them, like O’Hara who was my “Scott Fitzgerald” in terms of inspiration; Anthony Quinn, the great Bea Lillie, and Arthur Godfrey who was the most famous man in television with three different format shows a week on TV, were all famous in America mid-last century, and for the most part forgotten today.

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