December 21, 2009
Historically, at least in America, people who seek to thrive in the theatre, publishing, finance, media, or even the gossip columns, make their way to Manhattan. Once here, the climb begins, and it’s tougher than any mountain in Nepal. As E.B. White, the great Big Bagel chronicler wrote, “all it takes is a willingness to be lucky.” But first one must get through the velvet rope.
I was kept out until 1978, when Clay Felker, the man who discovered Tom Wolfe, and countless others, decided it was time for the poor little Greek boy to stand up and be counted. I flew from London to New York and went to work almost immediately. He spiked the first piece but then I struck it rich with a story about William Paley, the rich all-powerful head of CBS, and the prominent women trying to land him after his wife, the legendary Babe Cushing Mortimer Paley, had died. I described him as a man so old he was considered middle-aged even in Palm Beach, and gave the women names of various fish, blow fish, the barracuda, shark, etc. Clay was over the moon and called me at five in the morning offering me a job.
“I’m going to make you famous,” was Clay’s way of luring writers he liked. Fame, however, never meant a thing to me—chasing girls and excelling on the tennis courts or on the mat counted for much more. Esquire magazine back then was a must-read, and being a regular columnist on it meant doors flew open. Americans take hacks seriously, something I’ve never understood, but I took full advantage by spending my nights at Studio 54, Elaine’s, Le Cirque and various other Manhattan hot spots. The fun and games lasted almost ten years, until low-life Brit lad magazines took over the field. Then my father died, and I went back to the Olive Republic in order to attend to business, keeping only my house and a very low profile in the Bagel. Oh yes, I did start a couple of publications of my own in New York and Washington, one now only a fond memory, the other still going with my name on the masthead.
But Manhattan during the Fifties and Eighties is always on my mind. New York when I was very young was literally the shining city on the hill. Only recently I noticed that those wonderful Edward Hopper, red-brick houses with fire escapes and stoops on the outside are still there, but not really. They’re disappearing faster than Christians in Baluchistan. Roll down gates of storefronts are the next thing to go. The city has declared them to be on a par with fatty foods and smoking. So the sound of hearing them clang shut late at night will soon be a memory, like so many other pleasant noises offered by the city that supposedly never sleeps.
And yet, there’s always the Empire State Building, its many shades reflecting the mood of the city, a true Everest for city slickers, and Rockefeller Center, its gray-slate exterior varying during rain or shine, time of day and light. Its magnificence and richness, however, is omnipresent, witness to a once upon a time unconquerable America. Further uptown, the white-gray marble and huge windows of Bergdorf – Goodman with its mansard roof looms as an anchor as well as a border, delineating the shopping from the residential areas further north. Now, at Christmas time, the festive lights affirm that come hell or high water people will shop and spend and be merry.
Further north come the great beaux-arts and art deco apartment towers, the backdrop to our visions of urban glamour, witty badinage and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing in white tie and tiara to a Cole Porter tune. There is a real dinner-jacket, very dry Martini atmosphere, with Central Park acting as the background to the rich enjoying themselves in their penthouses. (So what’s a mugger or two, or three, or four?) It is elegant and ethereal, and, most importantly, it reminds me of my happy youth and first loves.
The great Central Park West buildings and those of Fifth Avenue fronting the park created New York’s most memorable and humane skyline. The museum mile, as its known, is like a city within a city, an area vile developers have yet to desecrate. The last one who tried, one Aby Rosen, a German, got shot down, but he’s still lurking. Beaux-Arts and modernist principles make the museum mile the humanist urban place it is today. If the developers ever get their hands on it, goodbye humanity, hello greed and misery.
Wallace Stevens wrote that “sentimentality is a failure of feeling,” a witty remark but only that. What’s wrong with feeling sentimental over limestone buildings and mansard roofs, young blondes with bobby socks, fictive existences of silver screen idols long dead, plays, essays and poems about a mythic city on the Hudson? Not to mention F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald jumping into the fountain in front of the Plaza, or Langston Hughes’s Harlem? Or snowy Christmases gone by, with neighborhood kids singing carols and even using the word Christmas as in have a Happy Christmas. Which reminds me. The Pug’s Club Christmas card is probably the funniest and nicest holiday card ever sent out, and the one responsible for it is our president, Nick Scott. Pug’s have two of our 16 members who have been nominated for the Nobel Peace prize. Instead it went to a man who is doing to America what Blair-Brown did for Britain. With that unhappy thought, a very happy Christmas to all Takimag readers.