Tender Recollections

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Metropolitan Opera House. Photo: JH. 7:30 PM.

Monday, February 10, 2020. The mild Winter weather continues (in New York) with temps hovering around the mid-40s by day and high 30s by night. It’s a bore for those romantic types (as well as the kids) who love the snow and icy times. We’ve had exactly none of it this year. I kinda miss it but must admit, I prefer the warmer temps for convenience’ sake.

Memories are made of this: last Thursday night I was dining at a very busy Sette Mezzo when Oriente, the maître d’ and manager, came by my table to tell me that a friend of mine would be walking by on her way out. I turned and looked to see Charlotte Ford passing by, and turning to give me a little wave. She had been sitting farther back and so I missed her when I came in.

But the incident provoked a personal memory which I recounted at that moment to Oriente, of a very busy Sardi’s restaurant fifty years ago where I first saw Charlotte when I had a part time job there. She didn’t see me that time — although she’d walked right by me — because we hadn’t met. However, the subject of Sardi’s remains a rich memory for me. That was my first experience of daily “seeing the world passing through.” 

Back then, in the mid-60s, as a very young man first in New York out of college, I pursued an acting career. It started with an acting class taught by Lily Lodge at the HB (Herbert Berghof) Studio in the Village. 14-year-old Liza Minnelli started in the same class, too. She was a little kid, famous only as the daughter of Judy Garland, and very nervous. But as it turned out, she used it as they say in acting classes, and became the famous Liza.

Obviously, a little encouragement from mama Garland didn’t hurt.

After the HB Studio, I had a year at the Neighborhood Playhouse under Sandy Meisner. That was not easy and I should have known then. But I continued on, determined despite my self-doubts, starting out making the rounds to agents and casting agents, going to auditions. I did some summer stock and some off-Off-Broadway stuff, but nothing of  even remote distinction. Then three years into it, there came a moment at the Lake Placid Playhouse when during a performance I had this “aha!” moment: I realized that I was working with (some) people who were deeply committed to their craft. And I wasn’t. You’ve got to be deeply committed. So, soon after, I quit that road.

I still have several good friends from those times, and I also had a part time job that became one of the fondest memories of my early days in New York. It was working with Jimmy Molinski, the headwaiter/maître d’ at Sardi’s restaurant in the heart of Broadway, on West 44th Street. I’d got the job through a friend of mine, Peter Gina (pronounced Gin-ay), the nephew of Vincent Sardi Jr. who owned the restaurant. I was hired to work the dinner hour — 4:30 to 7:30 — Tuesday through Friday, and the lunch hour on matinee days (11 to 2) Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Vincent Sardi Jr. with his reservation book.

Sardi’s was at that time, and for decades before, a mecca for the Broadway community. It was also the go-to restaurant for theatre-goers having dinner before and after theatre. It was a large restaurant and packed every night. Beginning at 5:45 p.m., the dinner filled the house until 7:45 when its clientele left for the shows at theaters throughout the area.

Everyone in the theatre business came through those doors and often daily. The greatest stars in the world, the most famous statesmen, politicians, writers, playwrights, composers, actors, legends, silent screen stars too; plus movie moguls, playboys, society matrons, lyricists, producers. They all came in daily. Shows that were rehearsing often took their lunch breaks at Sardi’s with the star cast sitting around a big table in the first section. In its early days. back in the 1930s and ’40s, Vincent Sardi Sr. used to feed the actors out of work, let them run a tab and often forget about it if times were tough.

I never got to see Marilyn as it was a little before my time, but here she is in 1955, about 10 years before I worked alongside Jimmy, attending the premiere of The diary of Anne Frank at the Cort Theater of Broadway. That’s young Susan Strasberg, cheeks resting in her palms, looking up at the camera.

In the 1960s, Arlene Francis broadcast a daily radio show from a table at Sardi’s. The New York Times was just down the block and many of the Times journalists, editors and executives lunched and/or dined there daily. Actors hung out at the bar just to hear what was going on and also make themselves known to the community.

Arlene Francis and Rock Hudson live from Sardi’s.

Opening nights on Broadway were always celebrated by the cast and company after the final curtain at Sardi’s. They were dressy. Black tie, evening gowns. A red carpet was rolled out on the sidewalk to the curb, and the limousines pulled up with the photographers’ cameras  flashing. And when the actors from the opening show made their entrance, the entire restaurant rose and applauded. An hour and a half later, the delivery boys from the Times would deliver tomorrow morning’s edition with the review — which made or killed the rest of the night.

My job was to stand inside by the door — wearing a maroon captain’s jacket — and greet people as they entered asking them if they had a reservation. If they did, I immediately passed them on to Jimmy standing at his station a couple feet away from me. If they didn’t, I politely told them there were tables available on the second floor. That filled up too.

If the person were famous — a movie star, politician, writer, etc. — I never asked but just directed them to Jimmy. I loved the whole thing. I was in the middle of the Big Town. The show biz gossip was part of the ambience too — the talk about shows coming in, the actors, the directors, the hits, the flops. All of it was awesome; they were the clamoring crowds.

It was there one night in what must have been the Spring of 1966, that I first saw Charlotte Ford, who came in with her sister Anne and their mother, also Anne, for a pre-theatre dinner.

Top: Charlotte with Lord Richard Lumley at dinner preceding Anne’s Debut ball. Above: Anne (mother), Anne, Charlotte, and Henry Ford II at Charlotte’s coming out party in Grosse Pointe.

In those days people dressed for theatre — jacket and tie for men (black tie at opening) — and evening dresses for women. It was a time when the fashion was high, and yet in transition. At that moment, Charlotte Ford was one of the most famous heiresses in the world. As famous at a moment as Jackie Kennedy. A famous debutante, coming out at a nationally publicized party in Grosse Pointe in 1960. Her name was often in the society and nightlife columns and the weekly news magazines, dating playboys and European aristos and even, as her sister likes to recall, Frank Sinatra. Charlotte and Anne were fashion “icons” of the era. Charlotte even eventually became a designer and had a fashion collection with offices at 530 Seventh Avenue.

In her early 20s she had famously married the Greek shipping owner Stavros Niarchos with whom she had a daughter Elena. The marriage ended in divorce. Anne had married an aristocratic Italian charmer, Gianni Uzielli. All of these details were known at the time by millions of Americans. Society girls, especially ones with famous family names, were always celebrities in the press in both the 19th and the 20th centuries. Aside from movie stars and royalty, the presence of society belles and dames sold newspapers and magazines. Unlike today, they were not — in most cases — looking for the publicity. The press was looking for it in them.

On this particular Spring evening in 1966, when the three Fords — mother and daughters — came through the doors of Sardi’s where I was standing ready to greet, it was a stunning first sight. And there was nothing for me to say or ask. In my memory’s eye, their entrance was a sudden pearl-ish haze of white and blonde; diamonds and sleek and bouffant. They were both beautiful girls. It was a Fitzgeraldian swoon for me — remember, I was in my early 20s and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work still filled my romantic sense of life in New York.  Although as they passed by so quickly, I barely had a chance to look at them.

Jimmy, already bowing and grinning with pleasure of serving them — these were the real VIPs — extended his left arm, and immediately led them to a table in the center of the first section where all the stars were seated and where the diners could all take instant notice. Who needed theatre when you could have this?

Once they were seated and dining, I’d leave my station by the door just to steal a quick glance at all that razzle dazzle. It is probably my memory’s imagination, but it seemed as if their diamonds, their blonde hair and their dresses were flashing about the room. Fitzgerald couldn’t have turned away from it.

The section where the Fords were seated.

Over time passing, for those of us who follow these things, we learned that, as it is for the rest of us, life for the Fords had its ups and its downs. In Charlotte’s life and Anne’s life, and their parents’ lives, there were divorces, remarriages, divorces, etc, all recorded — often in headlines in the press and especially tabloids.

That first sighting was half century ago. As fate would have it, however, about thirty years later, Charlotte and I were seated next to each other at a dinner party one summer night in Southampton. We’ve been friends almost ever since. Those images my memory replays of that passing moment at Sardi’s have been tamed by the reality of familiarity and age (maturity?). For example, as glamorous as the girl can still look, and Charlotte was always well turned out, her only priority is to look her best. Whatever sparkle there is, it’s costume, not real stuff (yet it looks it). Charlotte has no yen for big jewels, I’ve learned; and never did. And the international jet set image has a gloss that neither she nor Anne carry or pretend.

A 1943 Ford family photo. Seated left to right: the wee Charlotte Ford with her great-grandmother Clara Ford and her great-grandfather, Henry Ford. Behind, Charlotte’s father, Henry II, Charlotte’s grandmother, Eleanor Ford, Katrina Kanzler, Anne Ford (Charlotte’s mother), her aunt Josephine Ford, and her grandfather Edsel Ford, who died only a few weeks later of stomach cancer at age 49.

They’re basically two down-home girls brought up in Michigan, in Grosse Pointe where the sensibility of behavior was modesty, humility, and respect. And they exude that in their relationship with each other and with others.

After they finished schooling, like a lot of us, they came to New York to make their lives. Charlotte’s life and times have taken her to many exotic places and connected to all kinds of individuals in the great big world. She’s made many friends but she’s the same Charlotte to all then and now.

Henry Ford II, Anne, Mrs. Ford, sister Charlotte, and brother Edsel at Anne’s debutante party, as seen in the Detroit Free Press, June 20, 1961.

Where many of the passing cavalcade of the ’60s and the ’70s have come and gone, and with time marking our lives now, the Ford sisters remain close to each other, to their children, their grandchildren and to their brother, his wife and their children. It’s the same sensibility that all Americans of a certain age were brought up with.

Aside from their marriages, Anne and Charlotte have both been naturally devoted to their motherhood, and to their community. Charlotte has been on the board of the New York Hospital for more than three decades because she’s intensely involved. As tabloidal as her young life was, she’s lived it all in very stable circumstances. I don’t think she’s ever had a drink, and chocolate is the only demon to fight off. Today her greatest interest outside of her charitable activities are her grandchildren whom she talks to by phone and sees frequently.

Charlotte’s birthday dinner in 2011 (l. to r.): Anne Ford, Elena Ford, Sasha, Charlotte, Cally, Buddy, Edsel Ford, and young Charlotte.
The Ford sisters today.

I don’t think I ever told Charlotte or Anne about that early “sighting” that evening at Sardi’s way back when. I love the memory. It remains so “literary” in my reverie, juxtaposed to the reality of knowing the person behind the image. The Charlotte I know, and I know rather well, is in fact so far from that “image” that was widely presented that it’s kinda funny, as well as ironic.

The Fords grew up just like the rest of us. Yes, there were differences determined by their socio-economic state, but in terms of the women, they’re still just folks. There were standards of behavior that were inculcated so strongly that they seemed to be part of the psyche. A half century later that way of life is defined as a fantasy called Family Values. In those days there was no name for it. It just was. You could find it in the lives of the people on Elm Street in Westfield, Massachusetts where I grew up, as well as along the gold coast of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, or anywhere else in America, for that matter.

Seeing them that night at Sardi’s almost 60 years ago, kept filling my memory’s eye the other night at Sette Mezzo. I was very amused by my very young self taking it all in, and this much older man recalling the thrill of it. When life is a symphony, as sometimes it is, this was one of them. Charlotte.

This is my favorite photograph of Charlotte. The Charlotte I know, surrounded by the loves of her life, taken in the early 2000s in Southampton for her Christmas card.

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