Sunday, June 23, 2019

414. Donald Trump Soaked in Sweat and Other Tales of the Plaza




BROWDERBOOKS


Good News:

#1.  I'm on Instagram!  Just one photo now, but more to come.  Go here

#2.  Fascinating New Yorkers, my latest work of nonfiction, has been announced as an award-winning finalist in the Biography category of the 2019 International Book Awards.

 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg


A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him

Reviews

"What a remarkable novel!  Clifford Browder's The Eye That Never Sleeps is an exciting cat and mouse game between a detective and a bank thief that is simultaneously so much more.  A lively, earthy stylist with a penchant for using just the right word, Browder captures a city pullulating with energy.  I loved this book right down to its satisfying, poignant ending." --  Five-star Amazon review by Michael P. Hartnett.

"New York City in the mid-nineteenth century is described in vivid detail. Both the decadent activities of the wealthy and the struggles of the common working class portray the life of the city."  --  Four-star NetGalley review by Nancy Long.  

"Fascinating!"  --  Five-star NetGalley review by Jan Tangen.

For the full reviews of the above three reviewers, go here and scroll down. 

"Well written, flowing with a feeling for the time and the characters."  --  Reader review by Bernt Nesje.  

This is the fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York. Three more, and then the big one; stick around.

My nonfiction work Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books. Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC." For the whole review, click on US Review.


For more about my other books, go here.



    DONALD TRUMP SOAKED IN SWEAT 

     AND OTHER TALES OF THE PLAZA


         There are three sections of the Sunday Times that I almost never read: Sports, Styles, and Real Estate.  Imagine my surprise, then, when on the first page of the Real Estate section of June 9, 2019, I saw an article by Julie Satow that I absolutely had to read.  Topped by a large photo of a massive French Renaissance-style building of circa 1907, it bore the title, “The Widows of the Plaza,” and the subtitle “Forget Eloise.  Wealthy dowagers once held court at the luxury hotel.”  In a chapter entitled “Legendary Hotels” in my unpublished but (I hope) ultimately forthcoming work of nonfiction, New Yorkers: The Feisty People of a City Where Anything Goes, there is a chapter, “Legendary Hotels,” that includes a brief account of the Plaza, a soaring mass of a hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, just across from the southeastern corner of Central Park.  There I mention its celebrity guests over the years, and its famous Oak Room, closed in 2011 because of champagne- and drug-ridden orgies by Lady Gaga and her rowdy pals.  There too, and elsewhere in the book, I mention the reservation of a room in 1964 for “four English gentlemen” who turned out to be the Beatles on their first American tour.  The attempts of female fans to access the Fab Five, including two who mailed themselves in cartons to the hotel, caused the management to vow never again to house these superstars, a privilege that they gladly ceded to less legendary and more riot-tolerant hostelries.  For the Plaza, in its heyday, was quiet, elegant, and sedate, the perfect home for the multitude of dowagers chronicled in the Times article.

File:Plaza hotel.jpg


         The Plaza’s most famous resident never set foot there, for she was a fictional creation.  I mean, of course, Eloise, the precocious and mischievous six-year-old featured in Kay Thompson’s series of children’s books published in the 1950s and illustrated by Hilary Knight.  Eloise endeared herself to readers and later appeared in a film.  But even Eloise cannot top the real-life wealthy women who, right from its opening in 1907, resided and reigned royally amid the late Victorian splendor and sedate elegance of the hotel.  Julie Satow’s article brings them memorably to life.

         When Princess Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy moved into the hotel’s largest suite in 1909, 90 percent of the hotel’s guests lived there full-time.  The Princess, who liked to be addressed as “Your Highness,” arrived with three French maids, three attachés, a marshal, a courier, a butler, a chef, a bodyguard sporting a tall plumed hat and a sword, a dog, two guinea pigs, an ibis, a falcon, several owls, and a family of alligators.  Divorced twice, she had obtained her title from her second husband, a minor Russian prince.  Photos show an attractive woman with a mass of dark hair topped by a bun.

File:Self portrait of Vilma Lwoff-Parlaghy.jpg
Self-portrait of Princess Vilma.

         An artist as well as a princess, she advertised her portraiture services and soon recruited as a client Major General Daniel E. Sickles, who was 92 and minus a leg lost at Gettysburg.  When the two attended a Ringling Brothers circus at Madison Square Garden, she found a baby lion there so adorable that the obliging general bought it for her.  Named for him, the lion was lodged in the bathtub of her suite, which must have made Her Highness’s bathing awkward.  In time the lion outgrew the tub and the management’s patience, so the Princess donated General Sickles (the lion, not the general) to the Bronx Zoo.

         The source of the Princess’s wealth remained a mystery, but when World War I broke out, her wealth vanished.  Bedeviled by creditors, she decamped, leaving behind an unpaid hotel bill for $12,000.  In 1923 she died in a cramped room on East 39th Street, surrounded by unsold artwork and one maid, and still bedeviled by creditors.  Wikipedia, that revered source of online facts and trivia, adds that she was Hungarian-born, did (perhaps) a portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II and one of Admiral Dewey, lived in Berlin and Nice before coming here, and had a lifetime allowance from her second husband, the Prince.  And she is still with us, buried among notables in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

         You think Princess Vilma was the most eccentric of the dowagers residing at the Plaza?  Not necessarily, for she had plenty of competition.  How about the recluse who hadn’t left her room in years, but called for her chauffeur and car every day at 10 a.m.  Or the fastidious old woman who spent her days patrolling the hotel’s perimeter, clearing the sidewalks of cigarette butts by stabbing them with her umbrella.  And then, there’s Clara Bell Walsh.

         Clara Bell Walsh arrived at the Plaza in 1907, the year it opened, and exited horizontally a half century later.  The daughter of wealthy Kentucky family, she was a skilled horsewoman and hostess, credited with holding the first society cocktail party.  She held forth in her suite wrapped in ermine, her nails matching the color of her dress.  Her celebrity guests sat on brocade Edwardian sofas among tables laden with Chinese lamps, costly thingamabobs, and tiny animal figurines.  One of her soirées had the female guests dressed as poor little rich girls, and the men in little boys’ sailor suits. This aging kindergarten crowd had to run an obstacle course to get to the bar, where drinks were served in baby bottles.  The world-famous party-giver Elsa Maxwell urged party hosts to do the unexpected, the weird; Mme Walsh had no need of Elsa’s advice, for she got there by herself.  No hearth-clinging homebody, she was often seen in the Persian Room, the hotel’s nightclub, and sortied to dinner parties with fake eyes painted on her eyelids.  And to have her hair done, she patronized the men’s barbershop in the Plaza’s lobby.

File:New York City Snow Day, Christmas Day 2008 (3136498575).jpg
The Oak Room
Jazz Guy

         The most cantankerous of the Plaza widows was Fannie Lowenstein, a latecomer who arrived at the Plaza in 1958.  A young divorcée, she promptly married a fellow resident who had a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, and who lodged her in one of the few rent-controlled apartments at the Plaza.  When her husband died, she continued to live in splendor in their three-room suite, paying $800 a month for what might have rented for $1,250 a night – an arrangement that the city’s real estate industry decries to this day.  Since she couldn’t be evicted, the Plaza staff treated her with deference, fearful of provoking a tantrum.  When she came down for dinner in the evening, the musicians would serenade her with the theme song from the Broadway musical “Fanny.”  But one Sunday, when she came to the Palm Court for brunch and was piqued by some perceived slight by management, she is said to have relieved herself – urinated, I assume – on the rug in front of a shocked crowd. 

File:Plaza Hotel NYC.jpg
The Plaza in 1923.

         When Donald Trump bought the Plaza in 1988, la Lowenstein was one of the few widows still living there.  She was soon complaining of “indoor air pollution” in her suite, insisting that it caused her curtains to shrink and her Steinway grand piano to get moldy.  She called the city repeatedly to complain, and soon inspectors were bombarding management with urgent notices.  Though Trump was then divorcing his first wife, Ivana, amid rumors that he was having an affair with Marla Maples, his future second wife, he told The National Enquirer that his relationships with them were “smooth as silk in comparison to my contacts with Fannie Lowenstein.  When she’s done with me, I’m soaked in sweat!”

         Though always subject to caution, online sources add a few deft touches.  A little old woman of eighty, she walked around as if she owned the place.  The staff were terrified of her, called her “the Eloise from hell.”  Failing health finally dislodged her; she moved to the Park Lane and died there, age 85, in 1995.

                  Surrounded by their dogs, diamonds, and nurses, the dowagers lived extravagantly  and became known as the “39 widows of the Plaza,” though in time they numbered over 39.  People would visit the hotel just to rub elbows with them in the hallways, or glimpse them in the ornate downstairs lobby, where they might sit reading the New York Times.  One manager took to walking outside to get from one end of the building to the other, so as to avoid the lobby, where widows lolling on divans awaited him with volleys of complaints.  And the staff, when besieged by vociferous widows, developed a secret signal: a tugging of one ear indicated that a sudden summons elsewhere from a colleague would be welcome.  But when the Depression of the 1930s came, and the Plaza was in dire need of paying guests, it was the steady flow of rent from the widows that saw the hotel through.

File:Plaza Hotel May 2010.JPG
The Plaza today, as seen from Central Park.  Its Victorian elegance is overtopped by supermodern high-rises.


         As for the Donald, he has said that he “tore himself up” to get it, paying $407 million, or a record-breaking $495,000 per room.  But a few years later it went bankrupt, though he of course did not.  In real estate, the Trump touch is lethal.  As of July 2018, the Plaza is owned by Katara Hospitality, the hotel division of the state-owned Qatar Investment Authority of Qatar.  And is the famous Oak Room open today?  Alas, only for private events.


Coming soon: Descent into Darkness: Revelations, Fecundity, and Death.


©  2019  Clifford Browder

Sunday, June 16, 2019

413. Madonna: She Overwhelms Me, She Cuts Me to the Quick


BROWDERBOOKS


Good news: Fascinating New Yorkers, my latest work of nonfiction, has been announced as an award-winning finalist in the Biography category of the 2019 International Book Awards.


 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg


A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him

Reviews

"What a remarkable novel!  Clifford Browder's The Eye That Never Sleeps is an exciting cat and mouse game between a detective and a bank thief that is simultaneously so much more.  A lively, earthy stylist with a penchant for using just the right word, Browder captures a city pullulating with energy.  I loved this book right down to its satisfying, poignant ending." --  Five-star Amazon review by Michael P. Hartnett.

"New York City in the mid nineteenth century is described in vivid detail. Both the decadent activities of the wealthy and the struggles of the common working class portray the life of the city."  --  Four-star NetGalley review by Nancy Long.  

"Fascinating!"  --  Five-star NetGalley review by Jan Tangen.

For the full reviews of the above three reviewers, go here and scroll down. 

"Well written, flowing with a feeling for the time and the characters."  --  Reader review by Bernt Nesje.  

This is the fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York. Three more, and then the big one; stick around.

My nonfiction work Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books. Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC." For the whole review, click on US Review.


For more about my other books, go here.  


                                     MADONNA

  SHE OVERWHELMS ME, SHE CUTS ME TO THE QUICK



File:Madonna by David Shankbone cropped.jpg
David Shankbone

         She’s wild, she’s crazy, she’s noisy, she’s over-the-top.  She’s Catholic and sacrilegious, self-obsessed and sexy, Carmen Miranda minus the bananas, the queen of too-muchness, the witch of grotesque.  Also, at times, a frenzied super slut, a mindless singing G-string, a nun turned gymnast with gobs of stripper and a jot of clown.  Boldly lipsticked with long blond hair, she prances and dances, she pulsates, she leaps.  Not bad, for a 61-year-old with six children, four of them adopted, plus one by an ex-lover and one by an ex-husband.

         Her performances are showbiz on steroids, a cross between a cathedral and a circus, a light show and a Mass.  They engulf you like a cosmic explosion, a fireball of energy that will singe your eyeballs, scorch your ears, and leave you dazzled, glutted, gutted, limp as spinach, burnt out as an ash.  She is, in a word, Madonna.

File:Like A Virgin-Love Spent Seattle edit.jpg

Here, not quite a blonde.
flickr.com/photos/rwoan 

         She sounds inescapable, but I escaped her for decades, dismissing her as just another fad of the younger generation that would fizzle out in time.  Fads – they come, they go.  But this one is well-preserved, still around, still crazy.  The world’s  most famous female singer, she has sold more than 300 million records worldwide.  A corporation, I’m told, and worth $800 million.  Never fear, she’ll make a billion soon.

         She was born Madonna Louise Ciccone (yes, "Madonna" is really her name) to an Italian American father with a degree in engineering, and a mother of French Canadian descent, in Bay City, Michigan, on August 16, 1958.  Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, she was raised a Catholic, and boy, does it show up in some of her performances.  With the name “Madonna,” she has said, she had to become either a nun or what she is.  In high school she got good grades, did cartwheels in the hallways between classes, and hiked up her skirt during class, to give the boys an eyeful.  Not the behavior of a future nun.

         In 1968, at age 20, she dropped out of college and came to New York with $35 in her pocket.  It was the first time she’d ever flown in a plane or taken a ride in a taxi.  She began working as a backup dancer for other artists, became herself a singer, wore fishnet stockings and a crucifix, recorded, and exploded into fame; the rest is history.  Two husbands to date, both divorced, and a slew of lovers.

File:LikeAVirginMadonnaUnderground.jpg
Not always in a robe and cowl.

         I do wonder how I could have missed her.  I too am a transplanted Midwesterner who fulfilled himself in New York.  And her birthday, August 16, is the date of my partner Bob’s death.  But let’s not push it.  She and I are oceans and eons apart.  Yet at this late date my young friend Silas, a devoted fan of hers, teased up my morbid curiosity by announcing that he had just spent a small fortune to be in the front row of a concert of hers next fall.  Impressed, I decided to take a glance at this irrepressible phenomenon.  Some glance!  It was mind-shattering, it cleaved me to the quick..

         Having seen twice now, full-screen on You Tube, her Met Gala 2018 performance, I am overwhelmed.  The Met Gala is an invite-only annual fund-raising event for the museum’s Costume Institute, where female celebrities parade their lavish and impossible gowns before a battery of cameras.  The 2018 theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” was well calculated to inspire Madonna’s Catholic-obsessed psyche to heights and depths of fervor. 

         The performance starts out with clanging bells in what seems like a Gothic cathedral with stained glass windows and a procession of monks in long robes and cowls.  These shadowy figures, her all-male, all-gay chorus, sing Gregorian chants, with intermittent lightning flashes and pictures of the Virgin.  Then, as the audience’s excitement mounts and their ovation crescendos, she appears at the top of a flight of stairs, in a long purple robe and a cowl, fiercely lipsticked, her golden hair in braids, with not a wrinkle in sight.  Her voice projects resonantly the words of “Like a Prayer”:

                         “When you call my name
It's like a little prayer
Down on my knees
I want to take you there
In the midnight hour
I can feel your power
Just like a prayer
You know I'll take you there.”

         This I love, for she is singing a love song – “I want to take you there” echoes repeatedly – but, well-garbed from the neck down, she is anything but sexy.  Then she tosses the cowl back and slowly, still singing and always in a spotlight, she descends the steps.  Finally, at the bottom, she tosses off the robe and reveals herself in what looks like a corset over a white gown, which, Silas observed, is still the most clothed he has ever seen her.  Next, she is surrounded by four girls in white who paw her and grapple with her, as if to silence her, but this struggling woman is not to be silenced. 

         A second number follows, and then a third entitled “Hallelujah,” which almost has a Protestant touch, with two dark-clothed men in clerical collars walking solemnly behind her, followed by another processional chorus, against a backdrop depiction of Christ on the cross.  Not since Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” had I heard so many resonant hallelujahs.  This, too, I loved.  As for the whole pseudo-religious setting, I can only say, once a Catholic, always a Catholic, no matter how far you stray from the Church.  From its very start Protestantism, wary of overwrought ritualism and embellishments, and enamored of simplicity, had a good bit of asceticism.  Raised a Protestant, as I was, Madonna would never have become Madonna.  At least, not this Madonna.

         It was hokey, it was supertheatrical, it was contrived.  But so, by its very nature, is all theater.  I liked it because it surprised me, it wasn’t what I had anticipated.  If you want to sample it yourself, go here.  But be prepared for sound.

File:Madonna at Coachella 2006.jpg

         The other performance that Silas showed me full-screen on YouTube was totally different, a kind of girlie show where she strutted and pranced and contorted herself in a far more secular setting.  This didn’t get to me at all, for girlie shows are a dime a dozen, and always have been.  At times she reminded me of Bette Midler strutting grotesquely on a stage in Washington Square Park following a Gay Pride parade of years ago. 

         Madonna, so Silas tells me, was hot stuff in the 1980s, when she first skyrocketed into fame, so shocking the Church that it threatened excommunication.  Today, he says, when younger people see her as a bit passé, her pseudo-Catholic hocus is routinely shrugged off.  But she did, for that generation, what performers in the past have done for theirs.  A long tradition precedes her.

File:Hellzapoppin.jpg
Hellzapoppin poster, 1938.  More girlies than hellfire.

         For novelty shows that seem to break all the rules, on Broadway there was Hair in the 1960s (I saw it, loved it), and Hellzapoppin in the late 1930s (I saw the movie, remember people being roasted over the flames of Hell).  As for girlie shows, nothing in its time matched the Ziegfeld Follies of the 1920s and before, which I also saw in a Hollywood film about Flo Ziegfeld.  I especially recall a soaring stage tower with a chorus of scantily clad chorus girls, climaxed at the very top by a male performer fully dressed in top hat and tails, singing genially.  

File:Lilyan Tashman Ziegfeld girl.jpg
Ziegfeld Follies of 1916.  Watch out, Madonna,
here's competition.  But maybe she can't sing.

Only the Great Crash of 1929, impoverishing Ziegfeld, and the impresario’s death in 1932, put an end to it.

File:Florenz-Ziegfeld-1928.jpg
Florenz Ziegfeld, 1928.  The year of my birth, one year
 before the Crash.  Is there a link?

         But girlie shows date back even further.  There were the Floradora girls of a Broadway show of 1900, a sumptuously clad sextet in picture hats with frilly parasols, who entranced the males of the time.  They all married millionaires and one of them, Evelyn Nesbit, a stunning beauty, was the unwitting cause of a famous murder, when her obsessively jealous husband shot her ex-lover, Stanford White, the most famous architect of the time, in the rooftop theater of the Madison Square Garden before scores of witnesses.

File:Kiralfy Bros "Black crook" LCCN2014636787.jpg


         The first girlie show was probably the Black Crook, a splashy Broadway musical of the 1860s and 1870s with an impossible and forgettable plot.  It featured bevies of chorines in flesh-colored tights, a hurricane of gauze, a grotto with nymphs and gods that rose magically out of the floor, fairies lolling on silver couches in a silver rain, angels dropping from the clouds in gilded chariots, and a cancan of 200 shapely legs kicking high, then turning to lift their skirts and show their frothy gauze-clad derrieres.  What Madonna was to the 1980s, the Black Crook was to its time.  It shocked, it titillated.  From it came the Broadway musical and the burlesque show, both of them offering skimpily clothed, exuberant female stars. 

         And before that?  The traveling circus, born in Putnam and Dutchess counties, New York, and adjacent western Connecticut, with clowns and elephants, and rhinoceri labeled unicorns, but no clothed or unclothed women.  And before that?  Great Awakenings, revival meetings with fire-and-brimstone sermons that terrified sinners into shakings and frothings at the mouth, and swoonings and cries of “hallelujah,” as they staggered up to the mourners’ bench to beseech the Lord to save them from the fiery pit.  

File:1839-meth.jpg
A Methodist revival meeting from the Second Great Awakening, 1839.  This is how the
Protestants used to do it.  Spectators were powerfully wrought upon.

          Americans have always wanted entertainments that were big, noisy, cosmic, and convulsive.  Madonna, you’re in a long and glorious tradition.  More power to you.  Rage on till you creak.

Coming soon:  The woman who left Donald Trump soaked in sweat, and other quirky moneyed denizens of the Plaza.


©  2019  Clifford Browder