One step forward, two steps back

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Every rose has its thorn. Photo: JH.

Friday, June 26, 2020. Very warm early summer days with temps in the high 80s (and a higher Real Feel) by day, and low 70s by night.

Progress. Restaurants and fast food establishments were partly opened this week for the first time in more than three months. All of the table business is outside. And of course, the warm weather made it a bigger pleasure. The city is still comparatively quiet.

I was invited by some friends to dine last night at Nello’s on 62nd Street and Madison Avenue. Outside, on the sidewalk – about ten tables, all occupied. There was very little auto traffic on the avenue, so it was not like dining on a subway platform. Around the corner between Madison and Fifth, Amaranth had even more tables, all occupied and with part of the road lane was fenced off for more tables. The mood everywhere for this simple fact of change, was “up” and positive.

Beach Cafe at 70th and Second Avenue.
Amaranth on 62nd Street between Madison and Fifth.
Nello’s at 62nd and Madison Avenue.
The view of Harry Macklowe’s residential tower at 56th and Park. Tuesday night at 8:15.

Today we return to our look back at NYSD  in the early to mid-90s which we began on yesterday’s Diary.

Khalil Rizk

December/January 1995. Launch of Khalil Rizk’s The Chinese Porcelain Company at 59th and Park. Everybody and his uncle Harry turned up which was like 4,000 people in a single subway car. Except most of these people wouldn’t be caught dead in the subway. Waiters desperately  maneuvered through the turmoil of serge and taffeta to provide the champagne. On three different occasions the trays came tumbling down, smash/crash.

The reason for the pandemonium: Mr. Rizk, a fresh beaming light on the social scene, a youngish Lebanese man, very popular, and said to have loads of dough often throws at-home dinners for ten, 20 or 30 of this one, that one and the other. One night uptown or downtown, another night Eurotrash, or high-born Europeans. Hang out the ham, Kitty Miller used to say, and they’ll all come running.

The very dressed up and black-ties in the crowd this night at the opening of the shop were going on to Alice Mason’s. Ms. Mason is a small soft-spoken almost taciturn woman who sells residential Manhattan real estate big time. She herself  lives comparatively modestly in a not vast East Side apartment full of her favorite things.  Her signatures are her pearls and an adorable white Maltese often blissfully ensconced under her right arm. 

New York’s hostess with the mostest Alice Mason in her library at one of her famous dinner parties.

A number of years ago, she gave a large but cozy seated dinner party for some of the best known people in town (and the world), many of whom could be clients. Aileen Mehle (a/k/a Suzy) wrote about it. Right then and there Alice Mason was on the map where she remains today as one of the mostest hostesses in New York. Her dinners have become a tradition. 

What are they like? They’re homey, relaxed. There are always 56 guest seated comfortably (a logistic miracle), mainly rich and/or celebrated and/or creative and/or social men and women dressed up and raring to go. Who wouldn’t want to be there?

March 1995.  “Don’t inquire of Georgie Raft, why his cow has never calfed. Georgie’s bull is beautiful, But he’s gay.” —   from “Farming” by Cole Porter from his 1941 Broadway musical “Let’s Face It.”

Gay people in New York social circles are nothing new. 60 or 70 years ago, the block of houses on Sutton place between 57th and 58th Street were owned by several women including J.Pierpont Morgan’s daughter Anne; Willie K. Vanderbilt’s second wife, also Ann; and Elizabeth Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe.  The houses were said to be connected to each other by a secret tunnel so that the girls could visit one another without the world ever knowing they’d left the house. 

Bessie Marbury and Elsie de Wolfe, 1923.

Marbury and de Wolfe had been living together openly since before the beginning of the 20th century. They were famous for their salons which were frequented by many members of Edith Wharton’s New York including W. K Vanderbilt and Vincent Astor’s father John Jacob IV. What was known to the guests about the Marbury/deWolfe relationship was obviously  irrelevant in light of their charm and hospitality, although it was no secret. It was simply not mentioned or referred to publicly. 

Late in life Miss de Wolfe left Miss Marbury (sort of) and married Sir Charles Mendel, becoming Lady Mendl. Why she did this, I do not know, although practically speaking the title enhanced her already long-thriving decorating business, and Sir Charles got a secure and rather luxurious roof over his head as well as the space to chase after pretty girls.

Up until several years ago most gay men in society couldn’t escape the designation of “walker” or worse, “gigolo” unless they were powerfully wealthy or famously successful, even if they were self-supporting. There were clever ones who, like their heterosexual female counterparts, found sugar daddies and managed to Get (at least some of ) The Money, thereby keeping on after youth was gone. A healthy portion of Cole Porter’s estate went to a man who later married and had a family (which today enjoys the largess of their father’s benefactor while adamantly denying the facts behind its source).

Babe and her man, Truman.

Gay men of a certain charm or wit have always been successful in society serving myriad purposes. For years Truman Capote was the husband Babe Paley never had. She and her highly married sisters were known to favor the company of gay men. For one thing, their husbands wouldn’t get jealous.  Capote was Babe’s man: attentive, devoted and faithful (unlike her husband), the hand to hold, the shoulder to cry on, and the soulmate. His bitchery and story-telling made him the must-have among his lady friends until he made the fatal error of exposing what was in their closets (such as lousy husbands). Hypocrisy triumphed and usefulness dissolved.  AIDS and the age of outing  has altered everyone’s lives dramatically. 

Nevertheless, the subject is no longer “the love that dare not speak its name,” as Oscar Wilde referred to it a century ago. Whether or not it’s true, it’s another indication of how radically things have changed. A number of years ago, in the days of yore, at an exclusive New England seaside resort — a WASP enclave — a young husband and father confessed to his wife that he was gay. The couple decided to divorce, and the wife asked that he tell her mother, a wealthy dowager on whose seaside estate the couple lived in the summertime.

“Mother, I’ve come to tell you that I’ve decided to come out of the closet.”

“Closet?” she asked, “what closet?”

“The closet I’ve been locked in all these years,” he replied.

“But if you’ve been locked in a closet, why haven’t you called a locksmith?”

Interestingly, the subject of gay people almost always refers to men. Perhaps that is because we are still a male dominated society. Years ago, Jack Warner, the movie mogul, was suspicious that his beautiful young wife Ann was having an affair. Eventually he concluded that the cuckold was Eddie Albert the actor whose career was just on the threshold of stardom.

The mogul confronted the actor who denied the accusation, pointing out that he was newly married himself and his wife was expecting a child. This meant nothing to Warner, and he stymied Albert’s career to the point where the actor had to come back to Broadway to make his living.

Marlene Dietrich sharing some very hot dish with Ann (Mrs. Jack) Warner.

Albert’s departure did nothing to stop Mrs. Warner, however, for the affair she was having was with her best friend, beyond suspicion and wife of another Hollywood power person. Although the matter seemed to elude her husband, Mrs. Warner was famous in the community for hitting on other women frequently, and at times indiscriminately. Why didn’t someone say something to her husband? Ever hear of shoot the messenger?

Eddie Albert with Barbara Lawrence in Oklahoma! (1955).

March 1997. Adieu to Pamela Harriman.  The news of Ambassador Pamela Harriman’s death from a stroke in February left a lot of people on both continents in shock. I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Harriman once, in January 1990, at the home of Kitty Carlisle Hart who was a great friend of hers. I didn’t recognize her when she first entered the room because from her photos I’d imagined a taller woman. She was a smallish, goodlooking, older woman with brown hair; and wearing a cardigan sweater, skirt to the knee and black stockings. She had good legs and a slender ankle. It was a charmingly sharp and inquisitive presence.

Fast friends — Kitty Carlisle Hart & Pamela Harriman. (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

I was there to interview Kitty and we were about to sit down when Harriman came into the room. She had come up from Washington to go to the opera the night before, and had stayed overnight as a guest of Kitty. 

When introduced she extended her hand with a smile and a curiosity in her eye which said: “Hmm, you look like you might be interesting.” And I was very flattered by the gesture and the eye. 

Then she went to the phone to make a call, and again looked my way with that curious glance. 

Finishing her phone call, she then came back to again thank her hostess, and again to say how nice it was to meet me. She then turned to leave the room, and as she passed through the doorway, she threw a quick backward glance at me. Her offhand yet sparkling gaze was completely flattering, and I understood immediately the fascinating effect she’d had on men throughout her lifetime. 

After that small turn of interest and she departed, I thought to myself “I’d follow her.” And when she was gone, Kitty said to me, sotto voce: “Now there’s a woman all the wives worry about being near their husbands.” 

I smiled to myself on hearing that; Kitty never noticed that “backward glance.” The sudden exit occurred, unnoticed in all her glory.

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