Sunday, September 29, 2013
Sunday, September 22, 2013
The story of Fifth Avenue in the second half of the nineteenth century is fraught with social wars waged with engraved calling cards dropped in silver card receivers just inside the entrance of palatial free-standing mansions. It was a war waged above all by the ladies, while their spouses competed on Wall Street or at the race track or in fancy gambling dens, or in regattas where they raced their yachts. These wars were fought with fervor and conviction, and for those involved, if not for society at large, the stakes were high. The battlefield was an avenue well built up to the south, but stretching on northward as a rutted lane into a semirural wasteland that a visionary few – mostly real estate developers, one suspects -- had christened the city’s future Axis of Elegance. Confirming their vision in 1853 was the decision by Archbishop John Hughes to build a majestic Catholic cathedral on Fifth Avenue between 50th and 51st Street, a decision followed by excavations and a sprouting of walls but nothing more, owing to a lack of funds. Still, the promise of a cathedral, albeit Romanist, did seem to foretoken a thoroughfare of taste and distinction.
One citizen who shared this opinion was Charles Lohman, a free-thinking self-appointed physician who in 1857 must have driven north over the rutted course of the avenue through an area given over to stockyards, truck gardens, scattered institutions, a few dispersed houses and shanties, and finally a rocky wasteland of scrub pines and bushes fit only for grazing cattle and goats. Quite possibly he took his wife with him, so he could show her some land that he was tempted to buy. The pending construction of the cathedral, and the city’s plans to begin work on the magnificent new Central Park, seemed certain to enhance the value of the Avenue. What Lohman had in mind were ten lots at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street that the archbishop was said to want for his official residence. Since His Grace had seen fit to denounce Madame Restell, the abortionist, from the pulpit, and since Madame Restell was the nom de guerre of Lohman’s wife, the couple deemed it deliciously appropriate to snatch the property out from under the archiepiscopal nose. On May 1, 1857, Lohman did exactly that, outbidding the archbishop handily. Informed of this, respectable citizens offered Lohman a substantial sum for the property, but he refused to sell. Later that year a panic erupted on Wall Street, sending real estate prices plummeting, and halting construction along Lower Fifth Avenue. Had the Lohmans made a mistake? After a year of “pinching times” the stock market recovered, trade picked up again, and construction along the Avenue resumed. No, the Lohmans had not made a mistake.
|The Lohman residence, a palatial brownstone.|
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
Respectable society was now venturing farther uptown, building brownstones along the Avenue in the 50s. Then, in 1862, ground was broken on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street, where the walls of a handsome new mansion began to rise: the Lohmans were building at last! Horrified by the thought of the town’s most notorious abortionist residing grandly in their midst, adjacent property owners offered Lohman a reputed $100,000 for the property, but he spurned it. The construction took two years but in the end produced a four-story brownstone with a monumental entrance, its recessed doors flanked by pilasters and topped by a protruding ornamental hood, with gardens and stables adjoining: a monument worthy of the Avenue and destined to catch every passing eye.
So Madame had installed herself just two blocks from the rising walls of the unfinished cathedral, and just across 52nd Street from, ironically (given her profession), the spacious grounds of the Catholic Orphan Asylum. “She’ll have no society!” opined the neighbors were certain that she would have no society, but sometime later the windows were ablaze with gaslight to receive a jam of carriages with arriving guests: wealthy merchants, brokers, railroad moguls, physicians, lawyers, and even a few magistrates and legislators, all lured there by the hostess’s charm and notoriety, and the thrill of witnessing her ill-gotten wealth; some of them – unthinkable! – even brought their wives. All four floors were on display: three ground-floor parlors in bronze and gold with frescoes by Italian artists; the second floor with the Lohmans’ sumptuous bedroom; the third floor with servants’ rooms showing Brussels carpets and mahogany; and the fourth with a billiard room, and ballroom whose windows gave a fine view of the Avenue and the Park. Guests danced, played cards, smoked expensive cigars provided by the hosts, feasted at a table laden with delicacies, and gaped at the luxurious furnishings.
No gold speculator or thriving war contractor could match Madame’s dazzling debut on the Avenue. But if she and her husband gave receptions regularly thereafter, and they were well attended, it was mostly by gentlemen who didn’t bring their wives. Ann Lohman had all the trappings of wealth – costly millinery, a palatial residence, and five carriages and seven horses – but she waited in vain for calling cards to be dropped in her card receiver, cards that would acknowledge her acceptance by Society, cards that never came. So despite a promising beginning, Madame had lost the war.
Chagrin at her defeat may at in part explain why, in May 1867, a large silver plate bearing the engraved word OFFICE appeared on a gate in the low iron railing at 1 East 52nd Street, informing sharp-eyed neighbors that the mistress of the mansion would henceforth carry on her profitable business in the basement. Soon, closed carriages began arriving and depositing heavily veiled women who descended to the basement and, sometime later, came back up, still heavily veiled, to depart discreetly; the neighbors watched, shocked. Complaints to the authorities proved useless; Madame had arrangements with them. Only she knew which husbands mounted the steep stoop to her receptions, and which of their wives descended to the basement, and her lips were sealed. But this was revenge of a kind. For moralists, the persistence of this shadowy business on the Avenue proclaimed the impotence of justice and the rewards of crime and vice; as for the house itself, they labeled it the House of Death.
Not even an abortionist’s presence on the Avenue could slow down the relentless push uptown of the wealthy. In 1869 Mrs. Mary Mason Jones, a dowager of impeccable pedigree and, incidentally, an aunt of Edith Wharton, shocked everyone by moving to the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, an area still afflicted with slaughterhouses and shantytowns, and charitable institutions that, however noble their purpose, were not deemed fit neighbors for the mansions of the affluent. And once again the pioneer proved right: others followed and the area was soon filled with brownstones topped with a mansard roof.
|Mrs. Astor, as painted by |
Inhabiting these residences, often as not, were fresh waves of parvenus who relied on their vast fortunes to worm their way into Society, and whom others labeled Avenoodles. Determined to be a bulwark against the inroads of these moneyed barbarians was Caroline Astor, the wife of William B. Astor, a wealthy grandson of old John Jacob, whose older brother John Jacob III ran the family business, leaving him to a life of idleness given over to race track attendance, pursuing women other than his wife, and yachting. Unburdened by a usually absent spouse, Caroline, a Schermerhorn who could lay claim to even more illustrious ancestry than the Astors, acquired a court chamberlain in Ward McCallister, a Society-obsessed Southerner who had long since come North, traveled abroad, studied the manners, genealogy, and heraldry of European aristocrats, and married an heiress.
Together, in 1872, this like-minded twosome created the Patriarchs, a group of social eminences including both Old and New Money, who inaugurated the Patriarchs’ Balls, exclusive affairs reserved only for those deemed socially acceptable. Well covered in the press, these affairs made it very clear who was in and who was out, thus imposing a rigorous order on what might otherwise have been a chaotic social flux. Supplementing the balls were private weekly dinner parties at Mrs. Astor’s Fifth Avenue and 34th Street mansion, where conversation was limited to food, wine, horse flesh, yachts, country estates, cotillions, and marriages. Lacking both beauty and charm, Caroline Astor through force of will and cunning quickly established herself as the reigning queen of New York Society – “Society,” be it noted, with a capital S. McCallister christened her “the Mystic Rose,” a reference to the celestial figure in Dante’s Paradise around whom all other figures revolve; she didn’t object.
|The Vanderbilt mansion, flanked by brownstones. Suddenly, palatial brownstones like the Lohman |
residence began to look drab and dated. French chateau style was definitely in.
Into this rarefied world, or at least butting up against its barriers, came the Vanderbilts. Not just one but a whole bunch of them who, between 1878 and 1882, built residences between 51st and 58th Street, a neighborhood redeemed at last from scandal by Madame Restell’s arrest and suicide in 1878. Mrs. Astor was not inclined to let these upstarts into her charmed social circle, even though the Vanderbilts had more money, and the grandchildren, well educated and well traveled, had put a distance between themselves and the founder of their fortune, old Cornelius, a gritty character who never quite shook off the rich profanity and rough ways of a wharf rat. But Alva Vanderbilt, the wife of William K., was determined to make her way socially, and got her husband to commission a new Fifth Avenue residence at 52nd Street, a palatial edifice modeled on Francis I’s sixteenth-century chateau of Blois. The result was an imposing three-story chateau in gray limestone (emphatically not brownstone) with a steep slate roof, like nothing the Avenue had ever seen before; it launched a vogue in French chateau-style residences that changed radically that thoroughfare’s look. In no time the east side of Fifth Avenue above 59th Street would be crowded with such residences facing the Park, earning the Upper Avenue the name Millionaires Row.
|Alva Vanderbilt, costumed for her ball.|
Alva filled her new residence with Renaissance and medieval furniture, tapestries, and armor, and announced a costume ball for March 1883 that the city’s elite, seeing it as the most spectacular event of the season, decided they simply must attend. Dressmakers toiled day and night for weeks, and groups of young ladies of the appropriate status practiced complex quadrilles to be performed on the magical night. Among them was Caroline Astor’s daughter Carrie, a school acquaintance and friend of one of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s daughters. But no invitation for Carrie came.
Puzzled as others received invitations, and well aware that her daughter had her heart set on performing in the quadrille, Caroline Astor put out cautious feelers: why no invitation? Through third parties, the word came back: Mrs. Vanderbilt would love to invite dear Carrie, but how could she, when she didn’t know Mrs. Astor? So there it was: the Vanderbilts might be upstarts, but her daughter’s happiness was at stake. “It’s time for Vanderbilts!” declared Mrs. Astor. Going up the Avenue in her carriage, she sent a footman in Astor-blue livery to deliver an engraved calling card to a servant in Vanderbilt-maroon livery at 660 Fifth Avenue, who dropped it in his mistress’s card receiver. Mrs. Astor hadn’t even entered the Vanderbilt chateau, but the calling card sufficed; the invitation came. With this simple act, the Vanderbilts were “in.”
The ball itself was the grandest event to date in the city’s history. Outside, police held back a dense crowd of onlookers as guests, their costumes masked, stepped down from their carriages and entered the brilliantly lit mansion, while other carriages drove slowly past so their uncostumed occupants could peer though the windows. Inside, palms and ferns, and orchids of every hue, had transformed the mansion into a tropical forest. In the oak-paneled ballroom the young ladies performed their quadrilles to the satisfaction of the other guests, who were costumed splendidly as knights, brigands, monks, bullfighters, Music, Fire, Summer, Louis the Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth, Bo Peep, and the Electric Light. What Mrs. Astor wore I haven’t been able to ascertain.
|Mr. Roland Redmond, whose costume |
I haven't been able to decipher.
|Mrs. John C. Mallory, well garbed,|
The affair was amply recorded in the newspapers, and guests were encouraged to visit a designated photographer, lest their magnificence be lost to posterity. Many did, and the photographs have been preserved, showing the elite of the day posing very seriously in white satin with gold embroidery, black velvet with puffed sleeves, gauze wings when appropriate, gold-trimmed velvet and gray tights, flowered chintz, and a hundred other materials, all taking themselves very seriously, sublimely unaware that viewers of a later age might find them just a mite pretentious, if not downright silly. Among the guests were ex-President Grant and his wife, who hopefully were not required to wear costumes.
Despite the advent of the Vanderbilts, Caroline Astor extended her sway for years. To show her distinction, she announced that she would simply be known as “Mrs. Astor,” and had her calling cards printed accordingly. In 1888 Ward McCallister explained to a Tribune reporter that there were only 400 people in New York society, a group small enough to fit comfortably into Mrs. Astor’s ballroom; outside that group were people who wouldn’t be at ease in a ballroom or would make others ill at ease. So appeared the term “the Four Hundred,” which occasioned much comment and criticism. And his Mystic Rose had thorns; for the socially ambitious, not to be invited to the annual Astor Ball was calamitous. But in 1887 the Social Register appeared, a list of two thousand socially prominent names with ample information about each: a challenge to Mrs. Astor’s Four Hundred.
Not all the Astor clan acquiesced in her assumption of the title “Mrs. Astor.” Her nephew Waldorf Astor particularly resented it, thinking his wife just as deserving of the title, and moved to England to insinuate himself into the British aristocracy. By way of revenge on his aunt, he tore down his residence adjoining hers and in 1893 opened on the site the luxurious thirteen-story Waldorf Hotel. Caroline Astor was, to put it mildly, chagrinned, remarking sourly, “There’s a glorified tavern next door.” Her son John Jacob Astor IV now finally persuaded her to join the exodus northward, and in 1893, having leapfrogged the Vanderbilts just as they had leapfrogged her, she settled into a magnificent French chateau-style residence at Fifth Avenue and 65th Street, really a double residence housing her on one side and her son and his family on the other. In 1897 the son then built the seventeen-story Astoria Hotel next to the Waldorf Hotel, and later the two were joined to become the first Waldorf Astoria, whose successor is now on Park Avenue.
Mrs. Astor's new residence at 65th Street.
Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
In her palatial new residence the Mystic Rose, now a widow, continued to stage the Astor Ball, exclusion from which banished one to the depths of social degradation. The art gallery featured a massive marble fireplace at one end, and satin-paneled walls with a vast array of gilt-framed paintings under a ceiling of elaborate molding with huge crystal chandeliers. This was the scene of the annual event, and many other receptions as well, where the hostess greeted her guests under a painting of her by the French artist Carolus-Duran, her very real fleshly presence rivaling the likeness above her in formal dignity and chilling authority. Yet this social dominatrix now spent five months of the year in France, three in her palatial summer home at Newport, and only four in New York. Even in her absence, her authority was felt.
|Mrs. Astor's new art gallery/ballroom. It could hold twelve hundred guests.|
But it was not to last. The Mystic Rose was fading, and McCallister departed this earth in 1895, his funeral well attended by the socially elite. By now many were questioning the relevance of the Four Hundred, or even the Social Register’s Two Thousand, including some who might reasonably aspire to inclusion. Such feelings were intensified by the publication of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives in 1890, a pioneering work of photojournalism that documented the squalid living conditions of the city’s poor, which he blamed on the greed and neglect of the wealthy. As the new social awareness grew, Mrs. Astor’s balls came to an end, and her last years were ravaged by periodic dementia. But she didn’t give up easily: at times she was seen standing pathetically at the entrance to her empty ballroom, greeting throngs of imagined guests. She died in 1906, spared the news of her son’s death in the Titanic disaster of 1912, and her expatriate nephew Waldorf’s becoming the 1st Viscount Astor in Britain in 1917.
Me and junk mail: I hate it. It comes every day in huge batches, appeals from worthy causes who got my name and address from the other worthy causes to whom, in weak moments, I give modest but reliable donations. They try every conceivable ploy to get me to open the envelope: fake or real handwritten addresses; URGENT; RUSH RUSH RUSH; 2 FOR 1 GIFT OFFER; FREE GIFT INSIDE; PETITION ENCLOSED; no return address; CHECK ENCLOSED. If there is no return address, I discard the envelope unopened along with all the others. CHECK ENCLOSED / DO NOT MUTILATE OR TEAR ENVELOPE is a new gimmick perpetrated recently by the National Cancer Research Center. God knows I’m in favor of the war against cancer, being a cancer survivor, but how much can you do? Still, I opened it and there, sure enough, was a genuine check for the princely sum of $2.50. They invited me to accept the check, but suggested that I donate that amount or a larger one to the fight against cancer instead. Any decent, right-minded person would have at once made a substantial donation. So what did I do? I cashed the check. Gleefully, without a smidgen of embarrassment or shame. In the war against junk mail, I give no quarter. And if they phone me, you can imagine my response: “I don’t take solicitations by phone!” and then I immediately hang up. In the war against junk mail and junk phone calls – made even in the name of compassion, health, and a better world – I am ruthless. “Scrooge!” some may cry. “Skinflint!” “A grinch who’d steal Christmas!” Guilty, guilty, guilty as charged. But it’s me or them, my sanity and serenity versus their relentless attacks. And I intend to win.
Coming soon: Who really runs America? A look at conspiracy theories and the alleged existence of a permanent unelected government, with emphasis on the prime suspect, a multimillionaire and lord of think tanks who grew up with the Unicorn Tapestries in his bedroom, and who knew everyone in the world who counted.
© 2013 Clifford Browder
Sunday, September 15, 2013
Early in the nineteenth century Fifth Avenue was a muddy rutted road leading north from Washington Square, where the city’s most distinguished bankers and merchants had just built handsome Greek Revival houses fronting three sides of the square. Optimistically, the city opened the avenue to 13th Street in 1824, then to 21st Street by 1830, and to distant 42nd Street by 1837. But the “avenue” was at first inhabited by only by those few who, having little need of company, preferred a landscape with rock outcroppings grazed by goats, and clusters here and there of squatters’ ramshackle shanties.
This changed in 1834, when Henry J. Brevoort, Jr., was so adventurous as to build a Greek Revival mansion on the northwest corner of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street. Indeed, from about 1830 on the city’s prosperous merchants grew increasingly discontented with their Federal style row houses on Lower Broadway, and were motivated to move north partly by the influx of commerce and the lower orders, and partly by a desire for the greater space and splendor of a freestanding house. With Washington Square at its base to shield it from commercial inroads, the new Fifth Avenue drew these migrants like a magnet, and in time the wide thoroughfare, now tree-lined and paved with cobblestones, was built up well to the north with long rows of handsome Greek Revival houses, their stoops rising grandly from the sidewalk, and here and there a Gothic mansion with pointed entrances and windows, and crenellated towers more suggestive of a castle than an urban residence. By the 1840s the avenue was lined with elegant residences all the way to 14th Street and beyond.
Then, in 1858, the six-story white marble Fifth Avenue Hotel opened on Fifth Avenue between 23rd and 24th Streets, offering accommodations for 800 guests and such unheard-of luxuries as sumptuously decorated public rooms, a fireplace in every bedroom, many private bathrooms, and that startling new invention, the vertical railroad, later known as an elevator. “Too far uptown!” proclaimed skeptics, but once again they were proven wrong; the hotel prospered from the start, inaugurating an era when Madison Square, at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, became the center of the city’s fashionable world.
Already, by the 1850s, a new style had come into fashion along Fifth Avenue and its parallel, Madison, and the cross streets between them: Italianate brownstone, which would characterize these and other thoroughfares for many years. Brownstone, obtained from quarries in New Jersey and Connecticut, was now viewed as more dignified than wood or brick, though in fact it was used simply to cover over brick façades and give them a dark “romantic” look. This soft stone also allowed for richly carved façades and lavish ornamentation, in contrast with the elegant restraint of the Greek Revival style, now seen as plain and dowdy. So from now on, for exteriors and interiors alike, classical simplicity was out; Victorian clutter was in.
|Brooklyn brownstones today. The rage for brownstones spread |
all over the city. The high stoops are typical.
Who were the inhabitants of these brownstones? First of all, Knickerbockers, old Dutch families that could trace their lineage back to the days of New Amsterdam, but also old English families that came to the city in colonial times. They lived tastefully and quietly in homes where the somber gilt-framed portraits of their forebears, governors and mayors and their wives, stared down austerely from the walls. Some had made fortunes in whale oil and tobacco and sugar, but by now often had transitioned into landholding, which seemed a bit more genteel. It was a world where everyone knew everyone, who their forebears were, and how they made their money. They socialized and married among themselves and were leery of the “new” people. It was a tight little world, conformist, predictable, and dull, but its residents found the dullness reassuring, a bit of stability in a world of endless change.
|A mansard roof|
For change was all about them, gnawing at the edges of their world. In 1858 William B. Astor, Jr., and his brother John Jacob Astor III, built adjoining townhouses on the northeast corner of 33rd Street and Fifth Avenue, John Jacob’s house featuring a mansard roof, a style fresh from imperial Paris that at once became all the rage. And who were these Astors? Grandsons of John Jacob Astor, the German immigrant who came to America and made a fortune in the fur trade before branching out into other profitable fields of endeavor, a man remembered for sharp dealings and the ruthless accumulation of wealth, a philanthropist in his later years, but one who had no time for appeals from the needy or the outstretched palm of a beggar in the street. As was usually the way in America, the grandchildren and great grandchildren were glad enough to put space between themselves and the founder of the family fortune, who was often more skilled in the ruthless amassing of money than in the social graces. Whatever the Knickerbockers might think of them, the Astors were now on the scene as exemplars of Old New Money, as opposed to upstarts like the Vanderbilts, foremost in the mounting tide of New New Money.
Of concern to Old and New Money alike was the announcement in 1853 by Archbishop John Hughes, the leader of the city’s Catholic minority, of plans to build an impressive cathedral far to the north of the settled parts of Fifth Avenue, on its east side between 50th and 51st Street – a location so far to the north that the whole project was greeted by many with skepticism. But once again the visionary proved right. The cornerstone was laid in 1858, and slowly, very slowly, the white marble walls of the Gothic structure began to rise. The WASP majority, leery of Romanist plots and the boozy doings of Hughes’s mostly Irish parishioners, began to take note: the construction, however slow, of such an edifice seemed to confirm developers’ predictions that Fifth Avenue, stretching on to the north, would be the city’s axis of elegance.
In the 1860s Fifth Avenue’s growing renown as the axis of elegance was enhanced by two developments. In 1859 the new Central Park was opened, prompting a steady flow of shiny equipages north on the avenue to the park entrance at 59th Street and Fifth, en route to the park’s pebbled Drive, where Fashion went to see and be seen. Soon after, the outbreak of the Civil War halted construction at first, but by 1863 a whole new horde of parvenus began appearing, their fortunes fattened by war contracts and speculations. More fancy brownstones went up, clogging the avenue with piles of brick and stone, huge mortar-mixing appliances, teams of workmen, and mountains of barrels, boxes, windowframes, and doors, making the ride to the park an ordeal. And for whom were these imposing new brownstones being built? Gold and cotton speculators, stockbrokers, factory owners, railroad and patent medicine men, patented shirt manufacturers, and occasionally the inspired inventor of a truss. One can imagine the horror this inflicted on the genteel Old Money residents of the lower avenue.
The last several decades of the nineteenth century – the so-called Gilded Age -- saw brownstone mansions supplanted in turn by the ornate French chateau style, and a flocking of Old and New Money alike to the Upper Avenue, which came to be known as Millionaires Row. The social wars that raged there, above all between the Astors and Vanderbilts, will be recounted in a future post. Suffice it to say that Upper Fifth Avenue was the most elite residential section of the city, the lavish balls and receptions of its denizens much reported on in the press, much envied, and much criticized.
|The William K. Vanderbilt residence, a French-chateau-style |
house, flanked by brownstones.
With the coming of the Twentieth Century the character of Fifth Avenue changed radically, as commercial enterprises moved in and both Old and New Money moved out. The Avenue was still an axis of elegance, but renowned now not for residences but for fancy hotels and stores. To assure the proper tone for the Avenue, merchants and residents joined forces in 1907 to form the Fifth Avenue Association, which exists to this day. A guarantee of elegance and cultural eminence was the completion in 1911, between 40th and 42nd Streets, of the New York Public Library, a magnificent Beaux Arts structure owned by a private nonprofit organization, now rated as one of the five greatest libraries in the world. I have spent many hours there doing research for this or that project.
Flanking the steps of the library’s main entrance on Fifth Avenue are the library lions, two stalwart marble sentinels guarding the troves of information inside. Mayor Fiorello La Guardia christened them Patience and Fortitude, deeming these the qualities New Yorkers needed to get through the Great
Depression. Much photographed and much reproduced in art, they have been adorned with holly wreaths in winter, floral wreaths in spring, and baseball caps in summer, while witnessing the many parades that now proceed up or down the Avenue. They are to New York what the four horses of San Marco are to Venice. But Venice stole those horses from Constantinople, whereas the beloved library lions are most decidedly a work of our own, via the skillful hands of sculptor Edward Clark Potter.
But not all residents took flight from the Avenue. In 1914 industrialist and real estate operator William Starr Miller built a handsome red brick and limestone residence with a mansard roof at 86th Street, its quiet restraint contrasting with the ornate palazzos then typical of Upper Fifth Avenue. In 1944 it was acquired by the eminent socialite Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, and today it houses the Neue Galerie, which I have often visited to view its exhibitions of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century German and Austrian art. Coming from the subway, I never viewed it from across the street and as a result failed to appreciate what a marvel of architecture it is; I discovered this only now, in preparing this post.
|Even today, surrounded by taller buildings, the Miller |
residence, now the Neue Galerie, stands out.
|Dalí with an ocelot. No ocelot|
at Bonwit Teller.
Bonwit Teller closed in 1990. Though I myself never set foot in it, I have a story to tell. When I was a graduate student living on campus at Columbia, the advent of summer brought an exodus of Columbia College students and an influx of public school teachers from all over, but especially from the South, to take courses at the Columbia Teachers College. There was always a contingent of gay men among them and they made contact with the regulars like myself. So it was that, in the summer of 1954, I got to know a good-looking young man named Jim, very personable, who had a teaching job in his home community, a small town in the South. Ours was a social friendship, nothing more, and the second week I knew him he had a tale to tell.
A young woman from a wealthy family in his home town had arrived in New York for a shopping tour and asked him, an old friend, to escort her to Bonwit Teller, which he was glad to do. When they entered, she immediately asked for a consultant. This set the tone for their visit, for it said Money. A well-dressed older woman was summoned, and the girl announced that she and Jim were engaged, and she needed a whole new wardrobe. The engagement was news to Jim, but he played along. “From then on,” he told me, “the you-know-what was flying all over the place. ‘What a lovely young couple!’ the staff kept murmuring.” Over the next two hours the consultant, having learned the presumed fiancée’s needs and tastes, showed her a vast array of fashionable outfits, from which she made a large selection; money was clearly no object. “Would the gentleman also like to see some clothing?” the consultant then asked. “No,” said the girl, “he already has his things.” She was then given the bill and wrote a check that was immediately accepted without question. How the store had checked her credit was a mystery to Jim and me, but she left with a load of high-priced outfits, having arranged to have the rest shipped home. So ended Jim’s tale, my only glimpse into the world of high fashion and its workings. I warned Jim that the girl was obviously after him, but, not having seen him in later years, have no idea how the story ended. Being a young gay man in a small Southern town posed problems enough; as he got older, they would only increase. Maybe he ended up marrying her and, like many married men, lived a double life. I think he could have pulled it off.
I have set foot in Saks Fifth Avenue just once, when relatives from Indiana were visiting and chose to go there. We weren’t there for long, but I have two vivid memories. First, a salesgirl sprayed the women with a perfume – just a dash of it, done very courteously with a warm smile -- so as to give them a sample of one of the products. Second, the men’s room on the second floor had wood paneling and, at eye level just above the urinals, original art. Which struck me as the ultimate in – in what? Elegance? Sophisticated interior design? Pretension? Take your choice. How the artists would feel about it, if they knew, I hesitate to say.
By the late 1920s Art Deco skyscrapers were also going up in Manhattan, marking a sharp break with the Beaux Arts style and anything smacking of the Old World and the nineteenth century. Prominent among them was the Chrysler Building at Lexington and 42nd Street, the tallest in the world for all of one year, until the 102-story Empire State Building at 34th and Fifth was completed in 1931, holding that distinction for the next forty-two years. To make room for this, the most famous skyscraper in the world and a magnet for would-be suicides (the building staff take elaborate measures to forestall them), the original Waldorf Astoria was demolished. The Empire State’s distinction in height ended in 1973, with the completion of the World Trade Center towers, two big boxes that in my opinion weren’t particularly needed and never matched the elegance of the Empire State Building. That building is so much a part of New York that, when passing that way, I used to walk through the ground floor just to soak up the atmosphere, which is probably impossible now, given post-9/11 security. I have always preferred it to the Chrysler Building, but my partner Bob sees it differently; he prefers the Chrysler, seeing in it a touch of fantasy, whereas the Empire State strikes him as strictly business without frills. As for Beaux Arts vs. Art Deco, I like both; the library and Grand Central have a sumptuous Old World magnificence, and the skyscrapers have a soaring New World thrust and grandeur.
|At sunset. But at any time of day it dominates.|
|As seen from Fifth Avenue.|
A must-see for visitors, Rockefeller Center screams BIG BIG BIG, but then, so does the city. I take the Center in small bites, one feature at a time. And there are many features: a cluster of soaring skyscrapers; at ground level, flags of many nations flying; on the Fifth Avenue side just across from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a four-story-tall, seven-ton bronze sculpture of Atlas bearing the heavens on his shoulders; a sunken plaza that becomes an ice skating rink in winter; and, dominating that sunken plaza, another huge bronze statue, this one gilded, representing the Titan Prometheus bearing stolen fire to mortals. The installation of a giant Christmas tree towering above Prometheus and the rink is an annual event widely hailed throughout the city, its lighting witnessed by thousands, while thousands more watch on TV. In winter I love to watch the skaters from above, and in summer, the gardens planted in the so-called Channel between La Maison Française at 610 Fifth Avenue and the British Empire Building at 620 Fifth.
|Skaters, Prometheus, and the tree.|
But a magnificent library, fancy stores, tall buildings, and an overwhelming cluster of Art Deco structures aren’t the Avenue’s only distinction, since Upper Fifth Avenue from 82nd to 110th Street is lined with museums both old and new, now ten in all, earning it the name of Museum Mile. To mention all the structures of that mile would require one or several posts, far more than can be undertaken here, so I’ll mention only those I have visited: the granddaddy of them all, the Metropolitan
|The Metropolitan Museum of Art, main entrance; the beginning of Museum Mile.Arad|
|Frank Lloyd Wright's snail, the Guggenheim, forming a sharp contrast with |
everything around it. Which is probably what the architect intended.
So the history of Fifth Avenue goes from muddy country lane to Millionaires Row to Museum Mile, an amazing trajectory accomplished in a mere century and a half. The Avenue is absolutely essential to the city’s image as a center of fashion and culture; who could think of New York without it? As for real estate values, in 2008 Forbes magazine ranked it as the most expensive street in the world.
Note on Frank Lloyd Wright: I have seen another of Wright’s curious spiral-shaped works, the Dallas Theater Center, where a play of mine was given a staged reading long ago. What accounts for this architectural obsession? In his childhood maybe he was frightened by a snail. But the results are remarkable.
Marianne Moore in the Village: Old Village buildings often bear a small plaque giving historical information about them and, being a history buff, I stop to read them. Last Sunday I encountered one on a nine-story residential building near the PATH entrance on Ninth Street: “35 West 9th Street. Last home of Marianne Moore, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, baseball enthusiast, and lifelong New Yorker.” I had no idea that she had been a resident of the West Village. Glad she could afford the rent.
Electioned out: Last Tuesday was primary day for New York voters and, yes, I voted, but frankly I’m all electioned out, tired, tired, tired, and fed up. We Americans are so proud of our democratic elections, but things can go too far. For weeks our mailbox was crammed with glossy appeals from candidates, and as the magical date approached, we got endless phone calls as well, some recorded and some not, the first especially annoying, since there was no one to shout back at. On the night before the election, the phone was ringing every eight or ten minutes, until I finally took it off the hook. As for the mail, at first I made an effort to scan it and absorb a few facts, but as it piled up I finally discarded all incoming appeals, no matter who from, till the wastepaper basket was overflowing. Especially culpable were the women candidates for Manhattan borough president: Jessica Lappin, Julie Menin, and Gale Brewer, who obviously have too much money. My revenge: I didn’t vote for any of them. In fact, I didn’t vote for Manhattan borough president at all, having no idea what the position involves. Nor for male district leader. Is there a female district leader? A transgender district leader? Who are these people, what do they do, and why must I or anyone vote for them? A bit of democracy is fine, but let’s not overdo it. Yes, I’m all all electioned out, tired, tired, tired, and fed up. And this was just the primary; the real election lies ahead.
Wienie roast: The above note was written before the election results were in. It seems that our new mayor is Bill de Blasio, whose fifteen-year-old son with an Afro did him a world of good on TV. As for Anthony Weiner, the would-be comeback kid asking for a third (or fourth? or fifth?) chance, after his resignation from the House following revelations of his e-mail sexploits, he got only 5 percent of the votes. Following his concession speech, he seems to have given a reporter the finger (the middle finger, that is), which is not the most genteel of gestures. Adieu, Anthony.
Coming soon: Next Sunday, The House of Death, the Mystic Rose, and Avenoodles. After that, Who Really Runs This Country? with a glance at conspiracy theories and one of the richest men in the world.
© 2013 Clifford Browder