Times just past

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The last of the fall foliage in Central Park. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020. And here it is, the last month of the year. About to fly on by. Yesterday was a beautiful autumn day in New York with temps in the middle, comfortable 60s. Warm for what used to be December. 

It started out with heavy clouds delivering sometimes steady rain, along with gusts of strong winds rushing the remaining leaves from the trees. They’re a bright, vivid yellow, but a gentle color. And the winds shaking the trees brush them off and onto the wet pavement and roadways.

I know; I’ve written about this before and I’m repeating. But truthfully I’m almost compulsive about going out on the terrace first thing in the morning (several times) just to look at it. It’s a Work of Art. You’ve heard this from me before also. But, it’s so beautiful, such a beautiful sight, just posted by the winds and the rains, that it lifts my spirits in this wretched down time for all of us. It reminds that Mother Nature is still in charge, and oh boy!

Which takes me to our edit. You’ve heard/read my rap about the blank calendars where they used to be overloaded. And so it is. Last week I was going through our archive, curious to know what we were doing and thinking back then (September marked our 20th year online). And I came upon this piece about a New York man of times just past, who lived the life of adventure, luxury, good times, big times, right to the hilt. Geoffrey Leeds was his name. He was a player in the New York scene and other parts of the world in the last half of the 20th century. He lived it up, and fast and well. A good man, a good friend to many, Sharon Sondes wrote a remembrance of her friend for the NYSD in the summer of 2011. It’s a sweet and gentle memory of a friend, but also a look back at a time not so long ago but now far far away …

Geoffrey Leeds and Cheever Hardwick on Mount Langtang in Nepal.

Geoffrey Leeds was a man’s man and his pals were a talented and diverse bunch. Just a few that come to mind are pianist Peter Duchin, photographer, artist and diarist Peter Beard, filmmaker Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, who brought James Bond to 17 box office hits based on 007’s exploits; investment manager Peter Gregory, Salvador Dali, who Geoffrey brought to my debut at the St. Regis Roof, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and publisher of the New York Journal American newspaper, Joseph Kingsbury-Smith, and society photographer Slim Aarons.

Even before he graduated from New York’s Browning School, Geoffrey was extremely creative and resourceful, already showing signs of the visionary he was to become. His first important job was while he was still in school. Family friend, New York Mayor Robert Wagner hired him to be a kind of liaison between the City and its building projects. He was given an office and the use of a City chauffeured limousine even though he could only work after school and on weekends!

My Debut at The St Regis Roof. Geoffrey Leeds is in white tie at the far right.

After graduation, he was taken under the wing of New York real estate mogul, William Zeckendorf Sr., who recognized his extraordinary talent and foresight. He was intrigued with Geoffrey’s proposal for the first discotheque in New York, which was called L’Interdit. A chic little private club, subterranean in what was then the Gotham Hotel at 55th and Fifth, the now famous sculptress Marisol received her first commission (a trio of musicians) which overlooked the postage stamp-sized dance floor. He followed this with the lavish and instantly successful Shepherds in the Drake Hotel, where patrons dined and danced to a progressively dimming light which mimicked the coming of night in a huge tent at the edge of the desert in Egypt.

Among other projects, Zeckendorf commissioned Geoffrey to come up with an original idea for a $2 million renovation of the ballroom of the Hotel Astor which for decades graced Broadway at 44th Street. Geoffrey’s famous and offbeat sense of humor came into play when he recreated the ballroom as an elegant version of the Sistine Chapel. He had the domed ballroom ceiling painted as Michelangelo’s famous “Creation of Adam,” where God reaches out towards Adam and the angels. Although because the ceiling was over three stories high, you had to know what you were looking at to see the joke!

Mr. Zeckendorf was going through some difficult financial times at the moment, and Geoffrey had Zeckendorf as God, his hands full of money, and the angels with their hands full of invoices! The real estate mogul, hwoever, was not amused and the offending details were painted out.

Salvadore Dali (also at my debut) sitting with me and Claudine Kalachnikoff.

Geoffrey loved to eat and he was a great gourmet. One of the last club projects he created was a private one in a five-story townhouse behind the Plaza Hotel called Escadrille. Its decor was based on the Lafayette flying unit during World War I, and it boasted the best chef in New York City.

His friend, Andy Warhol, shared Geoffrey’s craving for what they now call “comfort food” that used to be available on the menu at New York places like Longchamps, Schraffts, and Horn and Hardart Automats. This led them over a lunch one day of mashed potatoes and creamed chicken to invent the idea of a modern day version of an automat, to be called Andy-Mats. There were going to be pneumatic tubes to fly the customer’s orders into the kitchen and a light would come on at your table when your order was ready and you would get it and put it on your tray. Unfortunately, they never got it beyond the concept stage.

Architect Araldo Cossutta (who coined the phrase “Wiggly Lines Mean Wiggly Minds”), Andy Warhol, Geoffrey Leeds, and Cheever Hardwick.

Probably Geoffrey’s two most memorable feats were finding new uses for the soon to be dry-docked ocean liner, Queen Mary, and the old London Bridge, which was indeed falling down.

They used to warn visitors to New York not to buy any bridges, but this didn’t stop Geoffrey from selling one. His friend, Robert “Woody” McCullough, the Missouri chainsaw entrepreneur, was looking for a unique centerpiece for one of the cities he founded called Lake Havasu City in Arizona. Geoffrey brokered the sale of John Rennie’s 1831 London Bridge that was gradually sinking into the Thames River. It was dismantled block by block and reproduced over Lake Havasu, the whole project taking three years to complete.

Kooki Fallah and Geoffrey Leeds leaning on the bar.

After dinner one evening at my mother’s, we noticed Geoffrey and my cousin, Diner’s Club president Alfred Bloomingdale, in a corner deep in conversation. Geoffrey was persuading Alfred to purchase the retired ocean liner, Queen Mary, and redesign and re-purpose it as a 5 star hotel in the port of Long Beach, California. It still exists to this day as a major southern California attraction, featuring art deco staterooms, furniture and paneling.

Geoffrey loved the sea and especially the old ocean liners. He put together one of the great collections of ocean liner memorabilia, focusing on obtaining some of the fabulous art deco furniture and panels.  His apartment at the Mayfair House Hotel on 65th and Park Avenue was decorated to resemble a first class cabin and housed much of his collection.

He had loved traveling by ship ever since his childhood voyages with his mother from New York to Southampton, England. He much preferred oceanliners to planes, and occasionally, when he wanted privacy and time to think, freighters. That was how he came to write an international thriller, Double Play, about the mysterious disappearance of Britain’s Lord Lucan that was published in both the US and Britain.

Austin Hearst (left) and Geoffrey Leeds (right). Just as Geoffrey used to be able to drink almost anyone under the table, we expected him to outlive us all.

He was an exuberant athlete, and if he had to fly in a plane he preferred his own, a vintage Steerman. He was also an excellent rider, and skied every great mountain from Sun Valley to St. Moritz. If you heard someone yelling “Yahoo!” at full voice, you knew it had to be Geoffrey. Besides skiing them, he also climbed a few big ones in his day. One of his last was an expedition to Mount Langtang in Nepal with former New Yorker and London ex-pat, old friend, Cheever Hardwick. 

Geoffrey Leeds with Beth Dewoody and Emilia Fanjul at a party in Palm Beach for Kooki Fallah, March 2008.

Geoffrey and I grew up together in New York City and met when we were both still in school. When I think of him, I see the embodiment of the best of New York in the ’60s and ’70s. He was a fun person to be with, tall and handsome, sophisticated and smart, with loads of charm, and he was a witty raconteur who could talk with ease to anyone about anything when conversation was no longer an art.

In those days, party was still a noun not a verb and when society “went out,” they went “in” to opulent places like El Morocco and the Stork Club, or “slumming” in bars and after-hours hideaways like PJ Clarke’s on Third Avenue.

Geoffrey was a familiar figure on the dance floor of El Morocco and could have been a reincarnation of Fred Astaire. When the orchestra spied him, they would play one of his favorite Cole Porter tunes. Women loved him and he loved them and many beauties aspired to become the Ginger to his Fred. He also loved Russian song and dance and when he ran into his old friend, Prince Serge Obolensky, after downing a great bottle of champagne, they would serenade whatever place they were in with a gusty rendition of “Ochi Chornaya” often followed by a spirited Russian folk dance.

In later years, he moved back to his old passion, the ocean, and acquired a beach cottage steps from the water in Florida. There he could finally indulge his passion for buying, selling, and restoring vintage and classic cars.

He remained handsome, witty, and urbane to the end. There is a wonderful saying that a person doesn’t truly die until the last person who remembers him dies. Geoffrey was a remarkable and charismatic character, a true original, who will long be remembered.

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