March 1974. I invited Mary Milton to come with me to Reno Sweeney, the very popular newcomer to Manhattan’s cabaret life.
To add to the fun I persuaded Mary to wear the blonde wig that I’d bought her at Bonwit Teller on one of our Saturday shopping escapades! That was the day that she’d been photographed by Bill Cunningham near The Plaza Hotel.The blonde coloring was so perfect for her that it was like a thousand volts of blonde charisma!
If only there were something so simple and instantaneously transforming that a man could do — a lot of men would be a lot less neurotic about their own appearance!
The next evening I’d been invited by Bernadette and Stephen Lirakis to attend dinner and a performance of the opera, Les Troyens by Hector Berlioz at the Metropolitan Opera. I was to meet at Stephen’s mother’s apartment at 5:30 for drinks.
Les Troyens has had a long and complicated history and the Metropolitan performance was only the second time that the complete five act opera had been performed in New York — a little more than 120 years after it had been written! That was the reason for meeting so early and this was a hot ticket for New Yorkers since it had had a lot of promotion in print.
During its existence the production of the complete five act opera had been so complicated that Berlioz had been requested to strenuously cut much of it and initially and frequently only two acts had ever been staged. Berlioz never even saw a completely intact version of it as a fully staged five-hour production of it was only accomplished in 1957 — 99 years after Berlioz had completed it!
So this was to be a very big event and even though I’m not really a major fan of opera I was excited to be invited!
But let me back up a bit.
Bernadette Sabatier was a Parisian friend that I’d known in Paris since she was a teenager, whose older brother Bernard was a good friend of mine. After a number if years, Bernadette finally came to the United States to live for awhile.
While in Manhattan she stayed in my other apartment, the one across the hall that was presentable to the public while I remained in the apartment that was a chaotic studio (but also my primary living space).
She had some exciting adventures traveling through the U.S. and some of them were so hair-raising that as she shared them with me she’d constantly plead, “please don’t tell my brother!”
She went to Rhode Island and liked it enough that she got a waitress job in Newport. “Don’t tell my brother!”
She also told me that she was dating a young man named Stephen Lirakis who worked in a Newport boatyard. She said he lived very simply and had only a pair of khakis and the jeans he wore to work.
I agreed with her that this would not be welcome news to her big brother, a successful international designer in Paris who’d opened a small restaurant as a kind of hobby. He lived a quietly elegant life there and was so discreet that if we were at the Café Flore and he was called to the telephone he used a fake name.
His friends all knew to use the fake name if they were calling him somewhere public. It reminded me of The Gilded Age in Turn of the Century Manhattan where people of a certain class thought it was vulgar, or at the very least, unacceptably common, to eat in a public restaurant!
Finally, her boyfriend Stephen invited Bernadette to come meet his mother in New York as things were getting serious. She accepted and was pleasantly surprised to find his mother, Marjorie Atwood, living in a prewar duplex apartment on Park Avenue at 71st Street!
That, I could tell her brother!
A long story short, she married him and there was a grand marriage in France with a very happy ending for everyone!
So I was invited for drinks at Mrs. Atwood’s apartment.
She was a very elegant woman and after a bit it was time to leave and we joined her driver who was waiting downstairs with the doorman. In the car, a limousine, Mrs. Atwood’s friend Bill Murray offered to refill of my glass of champagne that I’d been encouraged to bring along and as we arrived at the Metropolitan. With drinks still in hand we were escorted to the Grand Tier Restaurant where a table awaited us and another couple, Mr. and Mrs. Van Heemstra, a diplomat and relative of Audrey Hepburn, were already seated waiting for us.
After introductions we ordered dinner and as the first course arrived we heard the signal that the curtain was going up for the first act.
Nobody paid much attention and I reconciled myself to the reality that even if we missed some of the first act it was a five-hour opera and there was a lot more.
I noticed that there were quite a few people still in the restaurant and that in fact, people were just arriving.
We finally finished dinner just in time to go to the box to catch the last of the first act.
Then everyone returned to the Grand Tier Restaurant and, except for the Van Heemstras, remained for most of the second act! At this point Stephen, Bernadette and I gave up trying to follow the opera and just went with the flow!
And the champagne.
As may be imagined, I don’t recall much of the opera but as we left the Opera House everyone was saying what a marvelous performance it was and what a magnificent opera even though there were almost as many people in the Grand Tier Restaurant drinking champagne as there were watching the opera throughout the whole five hours.
But I’m certain that the next day these same people were saying that Berlioz was divine and it was a shame that such a masterpiece of music hadn’t been staged in its entirety for over 100 years!
The night after the opera I met with Art Harris, a friend from Los Angeles who came to Manhattan on a business trip. We went to Ruskay’s which I knew he’d enjoy as it was unlike anything in LA.
Actually it was also unlike anything else in New York!
I believe the young man with the crew cut (below), which was unusual in 1974, was Richard Ruskay!
The following Friday there was a screening of Applause starring Helen Morgan and directed by Rouben Mamoulian at MOMA. Ray Smith and I had become fascinated by Mamoulian ever since seeing and studying the movie Becky Sharp, the first three-strip Technicolor feature film which Mamoulian had directed in 1935 two years after the short feature, La Cucaracha.
He had visually organized the film by using color schemes. For example, peaceful sequences are composed of soft tones of blues and pinks and abruptly a battle scene will be dominated by violent reds and hot yellows!
Previous to his time in Hollywood he’d had successes on Broadway with DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy and then the Gershwin’s operatic treatment, Porgy & Bess. He also directed Carousel and Oklahoma and Lost In the Stars. His theatrical experience appears to have served him well while making films.
Along with Applause, the Museum was showing Mamoulian’s Blood and Sand in Technicolor using the color schemes inspired from Spanish painters El Greco and Velázquez.
But with the early talking film Applause, Mamoulian used innovative sound and camera movements.
Seeing it was also a chance to see Helen Morgan who died of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 41 and whose dramatic life was later fictionalized in films not once but twice.
Afterwards, Ray and I went to Yellowfingers again to rehash what we thought about the films we’d just seen.
Finally it was time to wrap it up and go home. I had work to finish with deadlines to meet and Ray had to go home and nap before spending all night at NBC preparing stuff for The Today Show.
Life in The Big City!