Twelve Picassos and a Green Rug

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Masking up on Park Avenue. 4:30 PM. Photo: JH.

Thursday, June 8, 2023.  What a day in New York yesterday: forget the temp and the Sun, we had the painted sky, thanks to the fires in Quebec, with the red (yes RED) air filling the skies all around us. At one point in the early afternoon, the air got redder and redder, as if the Sun were the painter. Plus you could smell it and your nose was reporting on it. Odd was the sensation. It started yesterday and the reddened skies looked like the 11 o’clock number (but not on the Broadway stage). No doubt you’ve already seen the evidence. The masks we’ve kept since you-know-when served an important purpose.

The smoke wafting over the East River at 7:30 PM. Photograph by Melissa Evins.

Meanwhile, doing some research I happened upon a Diary written in 2004, a piece of my personal history of New York, about  my introduction to it all. Naturally seeing it in words, I remembered it (it was also a brief topic in our documentary that was released last year, Last Night in New York). From the vantage point of time (years), I see my roots in this big town … And so I wrote:

I flunked out of college at the end of the first semester of my junior year. That might have been, should have been, could have been, very troubling for a young man about to embark on the Big Search For A Life. But it wasn’t. I’d flunked four semesters straight of the “science and mathematic” requirement. I also had a working scholarship which was burdensome to a child who liked to play and to read and to socialize: I was not “serious.” But in December of that fatal semester, just before the Christmas break, I entered a One-Act playwriting contest. It required writing a one-act play, casting it and putting it on. Three were chosen for performance and mine was one of them.

Fresh faced and up for anything.

It was called “Twelve Picassos and a Green Rug,” about two college roommates and their “philosophies” about life. In those days — maybe it’s so even today — college students often sat around and discussed many things, such as the anticipated Great Big World out there after college. In my play, one of the characters believed you could have anything you wanted in life (such as 12 Picassos and a green rug) by simply wanting it, while the other character fervently believed life was about playing by the rules and taking things one step at a time. The young man who believed you could have anything you wanted by simply wanting it won the playwriting contest. The prize was $100.

The winning was a seminal experience of personal achievement (I was twenty) and remained so in my consciousness for many years thereafter. It motivated me to eventually become a professional writer. The usual formula for flunk-outs was to go home, get a job, take some college credit courses locally and return to start over again. I knew this was never going to happen. I wanted to go to New York.

A college friend, hearing of my plans, asked me where I was going to live in New York. I had no idea. She did. Her mother had an apartment which she rarely used because she spent most of her time on her property on the Maine coast. Perhaps I could stay there for awhile. That sounded fine with me. During the Christmas vacation, I got a letter from my friend telling me that everything was set and they were expecting me right after the New Year.

So in early January 1962, I came down to the city by train with a couple of suitcases and a portable Smith-Corona, ready to begin life. Outside Grand Central I got into a Checker cab and gave the cabbie the address: 71 East Seventy-first Street.

It seems incredible in retrospect that I had no knowledge or even anticipation of where I was going except that it was “an apartment,” where I could live rent-free for the time being — all magic words to a bumpkin.

740 from the top.

The “apartment” turned out to be a sixteen room duplex at 740 Park Avenue (with its side entrance address at 71 East 71st Street). It was the family’s apartment, although everyone had grown up and moved away (except for my friend who was still in college). There was a live-in German cook who prepared a breakfast of bacon and eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice, served on a tray in the library every morning by a round and trundling and otherwise silent Irish maid in uniform.

My bedroom, which had been the bedroom of the man of the house who was now infirm and living in a care-facility, had two large French doors that led to a small terrace and looked south to Rockefeller Center and the RCA (now the COMCAST) tower. I could also see the blue IBM digital clock on Madison Avenue in the 50s. This was always a private thrill just to be seeing it. My room had its own bathroom (something new in my life) that was by anybody’s standards large and luxurious.

By architectural standards, and certainly by the standards of how I had grown up (in a simple New England farmhouse built in the 1840s), it was very grand. It was built in the late 1920s/early ’30s by James T. Lee, the maternal grandfather of  Lee Radziwill and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who, as children lived there with their mother and father.

The elevator stopped at my hostess’ 10th floor apartment with a small vestibule. That led to a large gallery with a marble floor and 12-foot ceilings, at one end of which was a circular marble staircase, and off of which was a very large living room, a wood paneled library and a large formal dining room with a folding screen that covered the entrance to the pantry and kitchen.

Aside from the architecture, however, the décor was homey and even threadbare and very lived in. There was also a scent about the place which I have never been able to articulate adequately; not a perfume but more of a clean, neat mustiness. Recently I was telling the architect Robert A. M. Stern about it and he called it “the smell of money.” That seems adequate.

The environment bespoke order, like the mail and the New York Herald-Tribune which was perfectly placed by unseen hands, fresh on the long table just inside the front door every morning — or the World-Telegram and Sun which was placed there in the late afternoon. The wood furniture pieces were all excellent antiques, well cared for and polished, and the lamps were porcelain or brass. Although the draperies, the cushions on the sofas and chairs were faded and well-used with time, and punched up daily by the maid to keep them looking fresh.

I had a girlfriend who lived five blocks down the avenue at 640 Park in an apartment that was far more lavish in the glamorous sense with famous art and sumptuous upholstery and crystal chandeliers. My hostess, who was an heiress to a large family fortune (as was her husband who also possessed a large family fortune), lived despite her extensive property holdings, very frugally by comparison. Nothing about her costume reflected her financial or social position. In fact, she wore a faded and even ratty-looking old mink coat whenever she went out in cold weather.

Although she was a very kind woman by natural intention, her outward manner had a certain hauteur not unlike Katharine Hepburn, and so that there was no mistaking her place in the social order. Her telephone book was the Social Register (literally) and entertainment was a very occasional trip to the theatre or lunch at the Colony Club, or more frequently a card game with a couple of friends and her elderly mother who lived nearby but nevertheless arrived in her chauffeur-driven Bentley.

Inside the Rockefeller apartment.

My hostess and her husband had moved into 740 many years before (and into a much larger apartment initially), encouraged by one of the Rockefellers who were family friends (John D. Jr.’s widow was still living there). My hostess, when she was in town — as she was every few weeks, usually when a son or daughter was briefly in residence — dinner was served in the dining room at 7, after a cocktail in the library.

A jacket and tie was the unspoken rule for the boys. If she were there on Thursdays — which was the staff’s night off — we’d go over to the Polo Lounge in the (now defunct and condo-ed) Westbury Hotel for dinner. My hostess had no familiarity whatsoever with the kitchen. Once when she and I went into the kitchen to make some coffee, I realized she was on foreign and very uneasy territory which made her nervous and almost girlishly insecure (for she was otherwise a woman who exuded — in that Hepburn way — confidence).

It was a very quiet place to live, as most of the time I was there by myself, and high above the town (about fifteen floors), there was little sound of the hustle and bustle of the city. Once, one of her sons, who was a contemporary, was in residence for a few weeks and decided (with my help) to have a party. He invited a lot of friends (I knew hardly anyone in the city at the time), hired a band, bought the booze and we rolled up the carpet in the living room to make a dance floor. 

This little foray turned into a major faux pas. When Madame next returned to New York, she was evidently informed immediately of the goings-on and was very put out. That aforementioned hauteur kicked in big time: son was mightily reprimanded and so was I for not having the sense advise him otherwise. In retrospect, it was a harmless incident. Nothing was broken or damaged and there were no private episodes in the bedrooms, but it was evidently just something that was not done.

That, it seemed, was the manner of the building’s tenants, although I knew none of them and saw very few of them in the lobby. It seemed as if most of the residents were like my hostess, little old ladies who never left their apartments without their hats and their gloves, in their laced up low-heeled shoes. I wasn’t staying there long before I realized that the residents were all very serious, or at least appeared to be in their own minds, and as they walked across the carpeted lobby to their waiting limousines.

Oddly enough, although my “lodgings” were first-rate and then some, at that young age, I was still anxious to have “my own place.” About six months after moving in, I found it: a tiny one bedroom apartment, with a kitchen in the wall closet of the living room, on East 87th Street between Lex and Third — with a college fraternity brother, for $110 a month (split two ways). Quite happily, I moved out of the grand building on 71st Street and Park Avenue.

My hostess finally sold the apartment in the early 1970s after having it on the market for a few years. She and her husband had bought it in the early 1950s and more than fifteen years later, at the time of the sale, I was told that it went for about the same price she paid, which was about $250,000.

That apartment was later bought by a hedge fund owner who expanded it to the apartment next door, and was sold for over $50 million.

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