Rome

No Place Like Rome

Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, Rome was the coolest city on earth, synonymous with fashion, style, design, glamour, a vibrant if sometimes disreputable nightlife – and, of course, movies. The epicenter of all this excitement and frenetic activity was a hitherto-unremarkable 200-yard street named Via Veneto. It was here that international high society would gather: the rich, louche and beautiful. There were movie stars and international financiers; haute couture tycoons and minor noblemen; millionaire playboys and stunning models, dressed to kill. The stories that emerged from this small street made it one of the most famous places on earth.

 

The after-dark activities, and sometimes outlandish behavior, in bars, restaurants and nightclubs on and around Via Veneto were the stuff of worldwide gossip. It looked like one long, wild party to which only the gilded and glittering were invited. All this lasted a decade or more, and from the outside, at least, it looked like a sweet life. No surprise, then, that the greatest film documenting the era was called La Dolce Vita – even if its title was sardonic.

 

What a scene it was. On any day in this feverish period it was hard not to catch sight of people so famous they could be identified by their surnames alone: Bardot. Sinatra. Ekberg. Welles. Lollobrigida. Mastroianni. Loren. You might glimpse Prince Rainier, Aristotle Onassis, the Aga Khan, Jackie Kennedy, King Farouk. Not to mention Burton and Taylor, or Liz and Dick, as the papers called them when they visited Rome to shoot the epic Cleopatra, and carried on an illicit affair that made global headlines for weeks on end.

 

While the film was being shot in 1962, the couple stayed at what was then called the Grand – which has been known as The St. Regis Rome since the turn of the century – and it became one the film’s informal production offices, with ordinary Romans waiting in line to be auditioned for lavish crowd scenes. The gorgeous belle époque palace, founded in 1894 by the legendary hotelier César Ritz, had become a Roman home away from home for dozens of stars, ranging from Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and her then husband Frank Sinatra (sometimes quarreling furiously) to Fiat’s playboy tycoon Gianni Agnelli, who maintained an apartment there all year round.

 

Jess Walter’s bestselling 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins, gives a flavor of the place. One of his characters, an Italian man of modest means named Pasquale, enters the hotel to see hundreds of extras for Cleopatra being cast: “The mahogany door opened on to the most ornate lobby he’d ever seen: marble floors, floral frescoes on the ceilings, crystal chandeliers, stained-glass skylights depicting saints and birds and glum lions. It was hard to take it all in, and he had to force himself not to gape like a tourist...”

 

Via Veneto was heaven for the press, even in daylight, with all these famous people strolling and behaving impeccably. After all, they were rich, elegant, fashionably dressed by chic designers – and their images sold newspapers. Journalists and cameramen worked the Via Veneto beat in pairs, nosing out juicy titbits of gossip. Any celebrities behaving in an unseemly manner found their activities captured as they fled from gangs of ruthless cameramen, indifferent to their feelings and privacy. These men – some on Vespas, some simply sprinting – came to be known as paparazzi – after Paparazzo in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the photographer sidekick to Marcello Mastroianni’s gossip columnist.

 

The paparazzi made the lives of some celebrities sheer hell. One of their favorite targets was Anita Ekberg, famous from La Dolce Vita as the sex-goddess actress who provocatively waded into the Fontana di Trevi and beckoned Mastroianni to join her. She and her husband, English actor Anthony Steel, were often out late on Via Veneto, sometimes openly arguing, with Steel frequently quite tipsy. He would literally fight back at the paparazzi, throwing punches. On one occasion Ekberg felt so persecuted by paparazzi who had tailed her all the way home, she grabbed a bow in her house and fired off arrows at her pursuers.

 

The standoffs between celebrities and paparazzi, out for scandalous photos that hinted at adultery or inebriation, became an almost nightly melodrama. Scuffles, shouting, chases and recriminations were commonplace. It wasn’t always seemly, yet the whole world seemed to be watching.

 

The phenomenon of La Dolce Vita seemed to emerge from out of nowhere, and several unlikely elements contributed to bring it into being. The most remarkable thing about it was the speed with which it happened and its time-frame: only a few years previously, the Eternal City was a devastated place, having been occupied by invaders – first the Nazis, then the Allies – with large sections of it reduced to ruins. Plus, of course, Italy had been on the losing side in World War II; it was a Fascist nation ruled mercilessly by the tyrannical dictator Benito Mussolini. Yet only five years after hostilities ceased, it felt as if the western world had swiftly forgiven Italy, and Rome re-assumed its place as a friendly international playground.

 

Three great neo-realist Italian films, all shot so cheaply and convincingly they looked like documentaries, helped to sway opinion, especially in America. Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) convinced the world that Rome’s citizens were mostly poor, decent and struggling to get by in their beautiful but war-ravaged city.

 

It also helped that Italy underwent an economic resurgence in the post-war years: “il boom”, as it became known. This was partly due to generous American aid under the Marshall Plan, but was also thanks to the country’s production of well-designed products for mass consumption: domestic appliances, Fiats and Vespa motor scooters, all of which introduced us to items that were both chic and iconic.

 

After the war, the population around Via Veneto changed. Although once a hangout for artists, writers and intellectuals, after the US Embassy opened for business in 1946 in the old Palazzo Margherita, the street became the heart of an unofficial American colony, which the Yanks nicknamed “the Beach”.

 

Brigitte Bardot is snapped by the paparazzi in Rome, 1970

(AGT/REX/Shutterstock)

 

By the end of the 1950s, it boasted a Harry’s Bar and a Café de Paris, establishments already existing in cities favored by jet-setters, and the airline TWA began operating direct flights between New York and Rome. The city’s status as a glamorous destination was sealed; and Via Veneto was the hub of a neighborhood where visiting Americans, especially wealthy ones staying in luxury hotels, might feel at home.

 

As for movies, the genesis of La Dolce Vita was rooted in a pragmatic business decision. The Italian government, like others in Europe, was alarmed by the overwhelming post-war success of Hollywood films and passed legislation to defend its film industry in a number of ways. These included a strategy known as “blocking” funds earned in Italy by American films, insisting they could only be spent in the country where they were earned.

 

Hollywood studios circumvented this by making films abroad, using blocked funds as their budgets. Italy was a beneficiary of this gambit: it boasted a reliable climate for uninterrupted shooting, and great locations including beaches, coastlines and the glories of Rome. Above all, it had Cinecittà (Cinema City), a world-class film studio conveniently situated on the outskirts of Rome. Opened in 1937, the dream factory was Mussolini’s brainchild (something Italians are still a little sheepish about). Il Duce grasped how potent moving images could be for propaganda, and resolved to make Cinecittà the equal of Hollywood studios. This was a dictator who genuinely loved movies (he founded the Venice Film Festival); with Cinecittà, he effectively created a viable film industry for Italy.

 

So it was that 20th Century Fox shot Prince of Foxes, a medieval adventure story starring Tyrone Power and Orson Welles, wholly in Italy. On its release in 1949, it grossed enough money to make shooting Hollywood movies in Italy seem a shrewd idea. In its wake, MGM upped the ante, announcing an epic production of Quo Vadis, set in ancient Rome and starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. A huge production, even by Hollywood standards, it boasted a then remarkable budget of $7.6 million. Statistics about the film’s scale were bandied about by publicists. Some scenes used 30,000 extras, all of them job-hungry Romans. A record 32,000 costumes were designed for the movie. The production took over Cinecittà for a whole year.

 

Quo Vadis was such a big deal that, in June 1950, Time magazine ran a leading piece about it, and the significance of making American movies abroad (now known as “runaway production”). The piece was titled Hollywood on the Tiber, and the phrase quickly stuck.

 

If it seemed a risky proposition, it paid off. Quo Vadis went on to gross three times its budget in North America, and became the highest-grossing film of 1951. As a place for making Hollywood movies, Rome was suddenly hot.

 

And Hollywood kept on coming. The next big film was wildly different, but also advanced Rome’s credentials as a destination for Hollywood film-makers. Roman Holiday (1953) was a charming romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. She played a princess, in the city on an official visit; she abandons her duties when she falls for Peck, playing a reporter who takes her sightseeing on the back of his Vespa (of course), taking in the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum and the Trevi fountain. Director William Wyler chose to shoot largely out in the streets, aware that the real city looked better than any backdrop the movies could devise. Thus, the film had three stars, Hepburn, Peck – and Rome, at its most ravishing.

 

No-one would argue that Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) was much of a movie. Its premise was paper-thin: three young American women, in town and looking for love, toss their loose change into the Trevi Fountain and make a wish. But it was a huge hit and its title song, crooned by Sinatra, topped the charts and won an Oscar. Rome? It looked as lustrous as ever.

 

Looking back, it feels as if Cleopatra (1963), a film that was a spectacle but failed to justify its absurdly expensive budget, was the high-water mark of the La Dolce Vita era. No bubble suddenly burst, but as the 1960s progressed, it seemed other cities (notably London) had seized Rome’s mantle. The Café de Paris moved out, as did Harry’s Bar.

 

They have since returned, and although Via Veneto is a less frantic street than in its heyday, it still has a real allure. It’s not hard to conjure up images from its illustrious past: a young Sophia Loren striding down the street, heading for the stardom that awaited her; Mastroianni, avoiding the gawping gaze of passers-by, and looking rueful; Ava Gardner, flashing her brilliant smile as she leaves a restaurant. And, of course, the ever-present paparazzi, jostling, shouting and waving, their flash guns popping. Times may change, but good stories never die.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Rome

 

 

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1962

(AP/Topfoto.co.uk)

 

 

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 Scooting through Via Veneto

(Getty Images)

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A Life of Give and Take

Every day, from when he was 20 years old, Vincent Astor slipped into his pocket the most valuable thing he owned: the watch used by his father, John Jacob Astor IV.

 

While personal heirlooms are normally of sentimental value to bereaved children, this watch was particularly precious. John Jacob had been one of the nation’s wealthiest men, and one of New York’s most keenly chronicled social figures, and the watch was in his pocket when he boarded the Titanic in Southampton with his young (second) wife, Madeleine, in 1912. Although Madeleine survived, John Jacob perished, and when his body was retrieved from the freezing waters and taken back to New York, the gold watch that had been in his pocket beneath his life jacket was presented to his son. It was never recorded whether the pocket watch still kept the time or if its hands were stilled, or even whether its numerals were still readable, having been immersed in water for days. But it remained in Vincent’s pocket for the rest of his life.

 

The two men had been extremely close. As the biographer Justin Kaplan writes in his book When the Astors Owned New York, “Vincent adored him and was adored in return”, obliquely referencing Vincent’s mother, Ava, who was unadoring, if not hostile, to both men. “Jack spent much of his time away from Ava in the company of their son... he was happiest sailing with Vincent on board Nourmahal, the steel-hulled steam yacht he had inherited from his pleasure-loving father.”

 

With the sinking of the Titanic, everything changed in Vincent Astor’s life. Having been a carefree undergraduate at Harvard, he suddenly became “the richest young man in the world”, with enormous responsibilities – and an empire to run. Alongside his father’s precious timepiece, $87 million cash and vast swathes of New York real estate, one of the most valuable items Vincent inherited was the St. Regis Hotel in New York City. An elaborately wrought and technically advanced building opened by John Jacob in 1904, it was, according to Frances Kiernan, an Astor biographer, “one of his proudest assets”.

 

There was much about the St. Regis Hotel to be proud. Architecturally, the Beaux Arts–style edifice was celebrated as much for its expertly articulated ornamentation as it was for the state-of-the-art engineering. As Robert A.M. Stern describes it in his book New York 1900: “The St. Regis [was] an accomplished design that used a vocabulary of ornamental details based on contemporary French practice to set a new standard for the luxury hotel.” The hotel’s general manager Rudolf M. Haan, wrote at the time of the opening of the 18-story hotel at Fifth Avenue and East 55th Street: “My hotel is not a place for billionaires only, but a hostelry for people of good taste who have the means to live as comfortably as they choose.” And the critic Arthur C. David said in a 1904 issue of Architectural Record that the elegance, grandeur, and domestic feel of the city’s finest townhouses “have been transferred to a hotel, and have in some respects been transcended”. He added that those who gravitated to the hotel were taken with the fact that it was “somewhat quieter and more exclusive” than other fashionable hotels.

 

Vincent Astor in 1910, the year he graduated from St. George’s School in Middletown, Rhode Island

 

 

 

Brooke Astor, photographed by Horst P. Horst

 

When the hotel was first built, it was situated in what was then a decidedly upscale residential neighborhood, but was, as Arthur David put it, “plainly withdrawn from the ordinary places of popular resort”. By the time Vincent had inherited the hotel, however, it was a locus of New York society life, and its very existence had transformed the surrounding neighborhood into the city’s premier shopping area. Nevertheless, for reasons that remain unclear, Vincent sold the hotel to industrialist Benjamin N. Duke, who added the famous St. Regis Roof, with its elegant, frescoed dining room, and the Salle Cathay, both of which played host to some of the era’s most prestigious parties. By the early 1930s, however, Duke had allowed the hotel to lose its sparkle. In 1935, Vincent Astor regained control of the property through a mortgage default and immediately set about returning the St. Regis to its former glory. He modernized it, hiring the highly respected Anne Tiffany to redecorate, and made it financially profitable within just two years by placing his brother-in-law, Prince Serge Obolensky, on the executive board. La Maisonette Russe (formerly known as The Seaglades) became one of the most popular supper-nightclubs in New York. The Roof was turned into The Viennese Roof. The Iridium Room replaced the Salle Cathay and swiftly became one of the city’s hottest spots, complete with an ice-skating platform that rolled out from beneath the orchestra floor.

 

The hotel was a source of immense pride for Vincent. Although he was never a handsome man – who dressed in rather unimaginative suits, and was described by his mother as “stupid” as well as “clumsy and lumpish looking, with big feet” – he certainly understood the beauty of impressive buildings. He owned exquisite homes in Bermuda, Phoenix, Rhinebeck in upstate New York and Northeast Harbor, Maine – many of them considered among the finest houses in America. In the city, the building at 120 East End Avenue in which he lived with two of his three wives in the 23-room penthouse was considered one of the most luxurious apartment blocks of its day. But the most coveted of all of the homes he owned was a Manhattan townhouse he’d commissioned in 1927. The Regency-style townhouse on East 80th Street (now the headquarters of the New York Junior League) was so deep that it ran the full length of the lot to 79th Street and incorporated both a sunken garden and garage. It was, according to Robert A. M. Stern in his book New York 1930, a masterpiece, whose plan was “exceptionally gracious” and whose individual rooms were “delicately scaled”.

 

Real estate was in Vincent’s blood, and as well as creating beautiful homes for himself, he created vast housing projects across New York. Recognizing the increasing demand for upscale residences in Manhattan, he began to transform entire neighborhoods with new buildings, many of which still exist today. On East End Avenue, for instance, at the corner of East 86th Street, he erected fashionable and handsomely appointed Georgian-style apartment houses that still remain stolid fixtures in the neighborhood. Working together with Obolensky, he converted a row of Victorian-era brownstones between 88th and 89th streets into something he fondly referred to as “Poverty Row” (a reference to the fact that he envisioned young artists and professionals moving in who hadn’t yet made their fortunes in life, but would). 

 

Not all of his life, though, was taken up with business – or mixing in high society. In fact, in marked contrast to his grandmother, who had established “The Four Hundred”, a collection of 400 members of American high society, Vincent was drawn to charitable rather than social causes. Despite the fact that John Jacob Astor, Vincent’s great-great-grandfather, had been one of the founders of the New York Public Library, the Astors were not especially famed for their civic or social generosity. In fact, prior to Vincent’s involvement, many of the apartments controlled by the family had devolved into slums – something the young man set about trying to put right.

 

By 1935, he had become instrumental in establishing America’s first managed housing project. Having sold a significant parcel of the Lower East Side to the New York City Housing Authority for less than half its market value, he built eight five-story walk-up apartments, meant to house poor and working families, many of them immigrants. On East 79th Street, he constructed housing for working people that, for the first time says David Patrick Columbia, co-founder of the New York Social Diary, took into consideration their health, “being constructed near water, with fresh air and ample space around them. He was sensitive in that way, very involved.”

 

Alongside housing projects, he funded youth projects at the New York Hospital and the American Red Cross, set up playgrounds and youth centers around the city, and built the Astor Home for Children in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “During his own childhood he was mistreated by his mother,” Columbia says. “So, as an adult he became extremely sensitive to the needs of children who were mistreated and needed love and attention.”

 

Given his relationship with his mother – and the fact his father’s second wife was only a year older than Vincent – it is hardly surprising that his private life was less successful than his business life. A man not known for natural bonhomie, nor interested in the activities required of his class, Vincent preferred to spend time sailing on the yacht he commissioned in 1927, a new Nourmahal, named after the vessel on which he and his father had passed such happy times. The 264-foot yacht, which he later donated to the U.S. Navy during World War II, boasted eleven staterooms, a dining room for 18 and a crew of 42. With its cruising range of 20,000 miles, the yacht allowed Vincent to travel the world for months at a time, even bringing home tortoises and other exotic specimens he found during his trips to the Galapagos and donating them to the Bronx Zoo. Back on dry land, while his successive wives continued to socialize at galas and fashionable functions, the biographer Kiernan notes that “Vincent went to the office every day. And when night came, he was a virtual recluse, wanting nothing more than to enjoy his dinner and relax by the fire.”

 

Of his three marriages, his last, to Brooke Astor in 1953, was perhaps the most successful. Unconventionally, the match had been set up by his second wife, Minnie. Vincent and Minnie’s marriage had long been over, but she agreed to divorce him only when she could find him a suitable wife. When Brooke’s previous husband died in 1952, Minnie arranged a dinner party, seating the widow opposite Vincent. Within weeks he had proposed.

 

By then, so astute was Vincent as a businessman, he had already doubled the family assets and initiated several notable ventures. One of these included providing the funds to merge Today magazine with a then defunct publication called Newsweek, to create a more politically progressive foil to rival Time. He became the famous magazine’s chairman from 1937 to his death in 1959. But perhaps his most dramatic and lingering financial undertaking was his establishment of the Vincent Astor Foundation in 1948, the goal of which was simply “the alleviation of human misery”. It was a big motto to uphold, but if any charity has come close to realizing that goal, it has been this foundation.

 

After his death in 1959, Brooke inherited $67 million to give to charitable causes: half the value of the estate. Until it was all spent in 1997, funding was given to countless institutions small and large: to dance troupes, the New York Public Library, neighborhood literacy programs, the Bronx Zoo (which built its monorail, among other features, with the grant money), the restoration of Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Corporation, and the installation of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Astor Court, a full-scale replica of a traditional Chinese garden and house.

 

Today, Vincent Astor’s legacy is present in so many aspects of New York life that the city would be unrecognizable without his munificence. Not only did he build neighborhoods that are mainstays of Manhattan and fund many of the city’s key cultural institutions, he also helped children gain access to good housing, recreation and education.
 
It is more than ironic that one of Vincent’s first heart attacks occurred as he was entering a theater in Poughkeepsie, New York, to attend a screening of A Night to Remember, a feature film that depicted the Titanic disaster. The story of his extraordinary life had come full circle.

 

Your address: The St. Regis New York

 

Images: Getty Images, Pars International/Newsweek, Rex Pictures, Mary Evans Picture Library, Alamy

 

Skaters take part in an ice show on the rink in The Iridium Room at The St. Regis Hotel

 

 

The St. Regis Hotel in the early 1930s

 

 

The New York Public Library, funded by the Vincent Astor Foundation

 

lennonbeyondissue7

Come Together

When John Lennon left Britain to begin a new life in America in the summer of 1971, the transatlantic move represented something more than just a change of location. Encouraged by his wife Yoko Ono, it was a decisive step in shedding what remained of his Beatle skin, and, he hoped, towards reinventing himself as a radical chic bohemian. He no longer wanted to be just a rock star.

 

Happily assured of wealth for the rest of his life from the songs he’d already written, his emigration was achieved in some style as he and Yoko moved into two adjacent suites on the seventh floor of the elegant St. Regis Hotel on New York’s East 55th Street. The St. Regis played a significant role in mid-century Manhattan life, attracting a mixture of high society and bohemia that made it the place to be and be seen. From there Lennon would fall in love with New York, as Yoko showed him around what he described as her “old stomping ground” – that is, the city in which she’d begun her career as a conceptual artist.

 

The St. Regis and Manhattan were a complete change from the Lennons’ previous home and surroundings, Tittenhurst Park, a Georgian mansion and 72-acre estate near Ascot, 20 miles southwest of London. There, the nearest neighbors had been a small herd of former seaside donkeys in a field outside the couple’s bedroom window, along with a Hare Krishna troupe, who, until their chanting got on his nerves, Lennon had allowed to decorate a small temple in his extensive gardens. 

 

The tranquility of the English countryside might have helped him write and record the Imagine album, which would top the U.S. charts shortly after he and Yoko arrived in New York, but it was too sleepy for the ever-sparky Lennon and his ambitious wife. Brash, boisterous New York, with its cosmopolitan population and aggressive cultural energy, was the place to be.

 

At the time, I was a journalist at London’s Evening Standard newspaper and had been befriended by the Lennons during the break-up of the Beatles over the previous two years. So I was intrigued when, a few weeks after they moved to New York, they invited me to fly across and join them at The St. Regis and then celebrate John’s 31st birthday by attending an exhibition of Yoko’s art at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY.

 

Almost as soon as I got to the hotel, John was enthusing about his new hometown. In a grand suite stacked high with newspapers, magazines, fan mail, posters and film-editing equipment, he raved about how the jaunty abrasiveness of New Yorkers reminded him so much of the people of his Liverpool youth. Like every craze he had, and New York was his latest, he threw himself into it with total enthusiasm.

 

Before then, the only time he had visited the U.S. had been with the Beatles, where the band were held prisoners at the heart of mass hysteria. But now, having “divorced” himself from the group, as he put it, he was getting to know America properly, starting with New York. And he talked about how, just a few days earlier, fellow St. Regis guest Fred Astaire had knocked on the door of his suite to say “hello” and immediately agreed to appear in an experimental film that the Lennons were shooting there. The following day, Jack Palance, also a hotel guest, was happy to be filmed there, too.

 

To John, the openness and acceptance he and Yoko experienced in the U.S. were in stark contrast to the treatment they’d received back in the U.K. in recent months. There, Yoko had been overwhelmingly blamed for the Beatles splitting up, and John had been forced to defend her, while a public exhibition of his erotic lithographs had provoked predictable tabloid outrage and inevitable police charges. (The private gallery owner presenting the exhibition later got off on a technicality.)

 

 

  

 

 

As he fashioned his new ex-Beatle persona, Americans, and especially 
New Yorkers, would, he felt, respect “nutty John”, as he would laughingly 
call himself, more than his own countrymen

As he fashioned his new ex-Beatle persona, Americans, and especially New Yorkers, would, he felt, respect “nutty John”, as he would laughingly call himself, more than his own countrymen. “Look at this,” he said to me, picking up a letter. “A university in Tennessee is offering me $60,000 just to talk. Just to talk! I don’t even have to bother singing! It’s unbelievable. Invitations like this come every day.”

 

Indeed, one invitation, the retrospective of Yoko’s work in Syracuse, had already been accepted. And when we flew up there the next day, accompanied by Phil Spector, who had just produced Imagine, and secretary May Pang, who would become John’s lover two years later, it was unabashed lecturers as much as their students who mobbed the ex-Beatle and his wife.

 

This appealed to John’s new image of himself. As he moved around the exhibition, with its water theme, which also contained works by Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg and Willem de Kooning, he let it be known that he wanted to be considered an artist, too. Although, as usual, there was a joke in his artistic contribution – a plastic bag half-filled with water which he titled Napoleon’s Bladder.

 

Two years earlier he had written and recorded the anthem Give Peace A Chance, a song that students across America were now singing at every anti-Vietnam War demonstration. So, later that day, he sat singing it for a group of Syracuse college kids as slices of his birthday cake were passed around. His career as a musician (not to mention his lack of academic qualifications) had meant there had been no college for him after the age of 18, so to be lionized at universities was flattering.

 

He didn’t want to be one of “four gods on stage” any more, he told me that week. Deep down he wanted to be considered an intellectual, and, always on the side of the underdog, a beacon of protest.

 

With this in mind, the next day we were off in a limo, followed by a caravan of media vehicles, to visit a tiny Native American reservation, the inhabitants of which were taking on the state of New York, which was claiming the right to build a road through their land. Whether the publicity the visit generated did any good or not, I have no idea, but, unbeknownst to John, the regular protests with which he had now become associated were not going unnoticed. The FBI was compiling a file on him as an anti-war activist.

 

Back in New York, the Lennons’ HQ in The St. Regis would have looked to the FBI, had they seen it, like the headquarters of a counterculture movement, as the notorious social activists, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, quickly latched on to the politically naive John. Quite what the front reception desk thought as the Lennons’ new friends passed through the lobby was never recorded.

 

Not that it was all demonstrations. Records were good for protests, too, so John quickly turned the melody of the folk song Stewball into the festive song Happy Xmas (War Is Over) while sitting with his guitar on a sofa in his St. Regis suite. A few weeks later, he and Yoko would record it together with 30 children from the Harlem Community Choir a few blocks away at the Record Plant on West 44th Street. It wasn’t exactly John at his best, but we still hear it played on the radio every Christmas.

 

Music was always there. One afternoon when John and I were engaged in a singsong of old rock ’n’ roll hits while riding in the back of his limo, he told me rather regretfully that since his divorce from his first wife Cynthia in 1968, he’d lost track of his boyhood collection of early Elvis records. I fixed that with a quick phone call to RCA Records, who sent a complete collection of Elvis singles over to The St. Regis a couple of days later. Hound Dog would be a regular on John’s jukebox for the rest of his life.

 

Yoko had already begun showing John around Manhattan, introducing him to Max’s Kansas City, the Russian Tea Room and the Museum of Modern Art, and, energized by the sheer verve of the city, he felt, tragically, as it would eventually turn out, that he could move around untroubled by fans. “It was Yoko who sold me on New York,” he would say later, “as she made me walk around the streets and parks and squares to examine every nook and cranny. In fact you could say I fell in love with New York on a street corner.”

 

The street corner he most fancied was that at 1 West 72nd Street, which housed striking gothic millionaires’ apartment building, the Dakota. It offered a spectacular view across Central Park, and, while I was staying at The St. Regis, John put on a suit and tie to go to the Dakota and be interviewed by the reputedly stuffy board of residents there. He was unamused when Yoko’s dress for the interview was a pair of floral hotpants, and he insisted, not altogether politely, that she wear something more sober for the visit. When it came down to it, John knew very well how to behave like the well-mannered middle-class young man he had been brought up to be.

 

I left New York the following day, carrying a private letter from John to deliver to Paul McCartney in London, an attempt by him to bypass the managers and lawyers who were engaged in the bitter feud between the two former best friends. As it transpired, the legal wrangles, which included McCartney filing a lawsuit against his bandmates, would drag on for years, so my efforts as a go-between clearly didn’t work.

 

John and Yoko moved out of The St. Regis at the end of October 1971 to rent a two-room apartment in Bank Street in New York’s West Village, at which they would become further involved in political demonstrations and protest records, and from where they would also explore their neighborhood by bicycle. John’s new radical-chic persona would survive for only one more year. With the FBI increasingly anxious to have him thrown out of the U.S., and him anxious to stay there, in early May 1973 he and Yoko achieved a long-held ambition when they bought an apartment in the Dakota building. This would be the eccentric millionaire’s last home and the location of his murder in 1980.

 

Reflecting on why he preferred New York to London, to which he never returned, John would tell interviewers: “If I’d lived in ancient times, I’d have lived in Rome. Today America is the Roman Empire and New York is Rome itself. New York is at my speed.”

 

Your address: The St. Regis New York

 

John and Yoko enjoying breakfast in 1972

 

 

Above: the gothic-style Dakota building on New York’s Upper West Side,
Lennon’s home until his death in 1980

 

 

Issue6_TheHouseThatJackBuilt_Gallery_No1

The House That Jack Built

John Jacob “Jack” Astor IV was the American equivalent of a crown prince. His blue-blooded mother, Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, shaped and ruled the New York social elite in the Gilded Age. From his father’s side, he inherited a legendary name and a vast fortune based on Manhattan real estate. No family has ever owned so much of an American city as the Astors owned of New York: thousands of buildings, miles of riverfront property.

 

The family fortune – worth about $6 billion in today’s dollars – was split between Jack and his first cousin William Waldorf Astor, who spent it in suitably lavish style. The men lived in a world of dazzling marbled mansions, liveried servants, palatial country estates, summers at Newport, social intrigue, elaborate balls and yachts (Jack’s 230-footer could seat 60 in its dining saloon).

 

Although the two cousins had grown up in neighboring mansions on Fifth Avenue, they did not like each other. William, 16 years older, believed in high moral seriousness and looked down on his younger cousin as a dilettante who frittered away his time on thoroughbreds, motor cars, parties and other idle amusements. When their fathers died in the early 1890s, and the two young men took over management of their fathers’ business empires, each immediately tried to outshine the other by building competing luxury hotels.

 

William landed the first blow with the Waldorf. After his mother’s death, he knocked down the family mansion and started building the grandest hotel the world had ever seen – right next door to the home occupied by his cousin Jack and his aunt Caroline. Caroline was a small, plump, regal woman who hosted the city’s most exclusive parties and cotillions in the mansion’s magnificent ballroom. Eighteen household servants, in blue uniforms modeled on royal livery, served ten-course French dinners on solid-gold plates. Caroline wore so many diamonds that one guest described her as “a human chandelier” and another as “a dozen Tiffany cases personified”.

 

When William’s engineers and construction workers started to build the hotel, she was, naturally, furious, and moved out. The situation was little better when the hotel was completed in 1893. Not only did it dwarf her mansion and cast her garden into shade, but it gave her a view of a 13-story brick wall.

 

Jack was enraged. He was devoted to his domineering mother, who had pampered him thoroughly, aided by her four daughters. He commissioned an architect to build her a four-story French Renaissance chateau with the largest ballroom in the city, 30 blocks uptown on Fifth Avenue, then announced plans to demolish her former mansion and build a row of stables there, so the Waldorf would have horse dung to contend with.

 

When his advisers cooled him down, Jack came up with a more ambitious scheme: to build a much bigger hotel next door. Teams of lawyers and accountants went back and forth, and eventually a truce was inked, allowing the two hotels to be connected by corridors. The double-hotel was named the Waldorf-Astoria, and a provision in the contract allowed corridors to be sealed off if the truce collapsed.

 

With 1,000 rooms and a ballroom that could seat 1,500 people for a dinner dance, the Waldorf-Astoria was bigger than any royal palace in Europe. The central corridor was 300ft long, marbled and mirrored, and lined with glittering displays. It was known as Peacock Alley, and 25,000 people promenaded through it on a typical day. The novelist Henry James, not an easy man to impress, described the hotel as “a gorgeous golden blur… one of my few glimpses of perfect human felicity”.

 

The desire to build luxury hotels wasn’t anything new for the Astors. The founder of the dynasty, John Jacob Astor I, had erected the family’s first in 1836 to commemorate his name and his extraordinary wealth, which he had created from absolutely nothing.

 

The semi-literate butcher’s son from Germany had crossed the Atlantic in 1783, at the age of 20, and found a job cleaning rabbit and beaver pelts on the New York waterfront. By 1830 he had made so much money in the fur trade that he began to buy land on Manhattan Island, and when New York boomed into a world capital, Astor became the richest man in America and the nation’s first multi-millionaire.

 

Astutely, he never sold any of his land, but instead leased it to developers and collected rents from tenement buildings. The only thing he built with his own money was his grand luxury hotel, Astor House on Broadway. Hailed as “a marvel of the age”, it contained such wondrous innovations as indoor plumbing and running water, pumped around the building by a great steam engine in the basement. There was a French chef with 12 cooks and 60 waiters, and a new menu printed every day on an in-house printing press. When Astor died in 1848, his hotel was widely acknowledged as the best in the world (although at the close of the century it was on its last legs, and was demolished soon afterwards).

 

Jack Astor was the founder’s great-grandson, and he called himself Colonel Astor after commanding his own artillery regiment in the Spanish-American War. Tall, thin and debonair, if slightly gangling and awkward, he married one of the great beauties of the American aristocracy, Ava Lowle Willing of Philadelphia. But it was an arranged marriage, and it turned out unhappily. Jack took refuge in his yacht, as his father had done before him, the many gentlemen’s clubs he belonged to, the corporate boards he sat on almost by birthright, his collection of 60 motor cars and, increasingly, his laboratory.

 

 

A postcard of The St. Regis New York,
then the tallest hotel in the world 

 

 

 

He was fascinated by machines, electricity and the future, and he invented a new brake for bicycles, a marine turbine engine and a “pneumatic road-improver” that removed dirt from road surfaces and won first prize at the Chicago World’s Fair. He also wrote a science fiction novel called A Journey in Other Worlds, which predicted space travel, global warming, melting polar ice caps, television and genetic engineering. “He had imagination and a mystical side, but he was engineering-orientated really, and a damn good inventor,” says his 90-year-old grandson Ivan Obolensky, whose father, Serge Obolensky, a White Russian prince, married Ava Astor, Jack’s daughter, and was appointed to the board of The St. Regis New York. “He was the richest man on the Titanic, and if he’d have lived longer, he’d have died even richer. He was getting into torpedo designs and some really advanced stuff. The air conditioning system he designed for The St. Regis was a brilliant scheme.”

 

Having built the Waldorf-Astoria, the cousins continued to expand their hotel empire by constructing dueling hotels on opposite sides of Times Square. William had started with the 17-story New Netherland. When Jack started designing the $6 million St. Regis, he decided it would be 18 stories high: the tallest in the world.

 

Named after a vacation resort in upstate New York popular with Manhattan’s power elite, The St. Regis was his masterpiece, reflecting both his love of splendor and his passion for innovation. The limestone exterior featured decorative wrought-iron balconies and elaborately carved garlands, in the fashionable Beaux Arts Parisian style. The interiors, of creamy Caen stone and Istrian marble, were designed in a style inspired by the palace of Versailles, with ornate woodcarvings, antique furniture and Flemish tapestries.

 

But hidden inside the bowels of the building was a labyrinthine network of ducts, channels, tubes, wires and pipes that Astor designed himself. There were mail chutes on every floor, telephones in every room, and outlets for dust-sucking machines connected to a big central vacuum. Adjustable thermostats in every room accessed his novel heating, cooling and ventilation system that “purified” the air by forcing it into the rooms through cheesecloth filters, and cooled it with fans blowing over melting, evaporating ice. It combined American invention and European opulence, making it, as Astor had hoped, the finest hotel of its age.

 

Like his first hotel, this one, on Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, caused Astor big trouble with the neighbors. This was a very exclusive residential area known as Vanderbilt Row, and its tycoons and socialites did not want their mansions towered over by an 18-story skyscraper. Led by William Rockefeller, they blocked the hotel’s application for a bar licence, on the grounds that it lay within 200 feet of a church and so violated the state liquor law, and boycotted any events held there. The battle went on for two years, until an Astor-friendly senator changed the law to exempt large hotels.

 

When Prince Sadanaru Fashimi of Japan stayed at The St. Regis for two weeks, Vanderbilt Row was impressed and opposition started to fade. Soon after, Mr. and Mrs. William Vanderbilt announced that they would move into the hotel for the winter, and in the following years, Marlene Dietrich and Salvador Dalí would live at The St. Regis on a seasonal basis. Of all the hotel buildings commissioned by the Astors in New York, only The St. Regis still remains. Now modernized and refurbished, but fully in keeping with its original style and splendor, it is Jack Astor’s greatest legacy and the cornerstone of the St. Regis group.

 

Although Astor’s hotel empire was flourishing, his personal life was less successful. A year after his mother, Caroline, died in 1908, his wife, Ava, divorced him on grounds of adultery – to the horror of the high Episcopalian ministers in his family church. With his unhappy marriage finally behind him, though, Jack gained a new lease on life. He started to entertain lavishly, and accepted more invitations to society weddings and costume balls. In the summer of 1910, he met an attractive 17-year-old debutante called Madeleine Talmage Force, at Bar Harbor, Maine, and they fell madly in love.

 

The entire nation was shocked when their marriage was announced. No Episcopalian clergyman would perform the service and, after a frantic search, Astor found a Congregationalist minister who was willing to do it for $1,000 cash. The couple exchanged vows at Beechwood, the Astors’ summer mansion in Newport, and many guests showed their disapproval by staying away. “I’m afraid Madeleine was the Scarlet Letter in our family,” says Obolensky. “She came right out of the blue.”

 

The newlyweds spent the winter of 1911-12 in Europe and Egypt, but when Madeleine discovered she was pregnant, they decided to travel home in grand style. They booked a luxury suite for the maiden voyage of the biggest, most impressive ocean liner that had ever been built. With Jack’s valet, Madeleine’s lady maid and private nurse, and an Airedale terrier named Kitty, they boarded RMS Titanic at Cherbourg as the sun set on April 10, 1912.

 

Four nights later, after feasting on caviar, lobster, Egyptian quail and plovers’ eggs, as the string orchestra played Puccini and Tchaikovsky, the gentlemen in first class escorted their ladies down the grand staircase to their suites. At 11.40pm, there was a sudden violent shaking that lasted no longer than a minute. As the iceberg floated away, the ship sailed smoothly again, but fatal damage had been done, and Captain Edward Smith ordered the lifeboats to be prepared and all passengers on deck.

 

Jack Astor helped Madeleine into a cork lifejacket, showed her to a lifeboat, and inquired if he might join her since she was in “a delicate condition”. The lifeboats were for women and children only, he was told, and he accepted it gracefully. “The sea is calm,” he told her. “You’ll be alright. You’re in good hands. I’ll see you in the morning.”

 

Madeleine survived and gave birth to a son, but Jack Astor died: probably killed by a falling smokestack as the Titanic went down nose-first with her stern in the air. His body, clad in a lifejacket and a blue serge suit, with $2,500 in cash and a gold watch in the pockets, was found floating a week later by a passing steamer.

 

Thousands of people mourned the colonel as his coffin passed through the streets of New York, and songs were composed about him and legends multiplied. He sank with the ship while waving farewell to his bride, people said.

 

In the film Titanic, he drowns clutching on to his money like a miser, an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of a generous soul, says Ivan Obolensky, who was born three years after his grandfather’s death. “He was only 47 and really coming into himself. It was a terrible loss to our family, although we were too stoic to talk about it. He was a good, steady human being, benign and honorable, and disappeared in his prime.”

 

Carousel images courtesy of Mary Evans Picture Library, Getty Images, Corbis

 

Behind the wheel of one of his 60-strong
collection of cars in 1903 (Photo: Corbis)

 

 

The opulent Louis XVI-style foyer in 1904,
the year of The St. Regis’ opening

 

 

John Jacob Astor IV dressed as Henry IV of France for the lavish
Bradley-Martin Ball, held on February 10, 1897 at the Waldorf Hotel,
which had been built by his cousin William (Photo: Corbis)

americanbeauty-featured

American Beauty

Twentieth-century New York was full of fashion role models: high-society ladies whose wardrobes were as stylish as any European aristocrat’s, whose jewelry was priceless and whose elegance was the result of years of devoted attention. But none had quite the grace of Babe Paley.

 

Babe was the style icon of her day. The leader for a decade of the Ten Best Dressed list and an inductee into the Fashion Hall of Fame, she was a friend of and hostess to some of the most famous people in America. Babe was part of a circle alongside supposed wartime spy Gloria Guinness, actress and fashion designer C. Z. Guest, Hollywood socialite Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli, wife of Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, and Pamela Harriman, daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill and a future United States Ambassador to France. Truman Capote (a friend until he wrote an unflattering, minimally fictionalized exposé in 1975 that severed their bond) called these elegant women “the swans”, due to their propensity to group and glide through society like graceful birds.

 

What made Babe stand out from the rest of the swans was her compelling presence. As her friend, jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane, put it, Babe Paley, like the Mona Lisa, had a face that was both memorable and elusive. Eerily attractive and supremely charismatic, she was a product of a time when society figures were household names – and when women were schooled to be the epitome of elegance.

 

“One look from Babe and you melted,” Lane says. “You fell in love with her the moment her marvelous eyes looked at you. Every waiter in every restaurant fell in love with her. She made you feel that she was in love with you. If she walked into a room, people didn’t quite stop breathing altogether, but they held their breath for a minute. She had an aura.”

 

She also knew how to live in supreme style. After her marriage to CBS founder William S. Paley in 1947, she established an estate, Kiluna Farm, on Long Island, where the couple spent weekends and guests included the likes of Lucille Ball, Grace Kelly and David O. Selznick. In Manhattan they occupied a magnificent suite at The St. Regis, which Babe remodeled with the help of society decorator Billy Baldwin. “I was in my early twenties when I first saw their apartment at The St. Regis,” recalls Lane. “It was a corner suite, and it had been tented by Baldwin. There was a wonderful birdcage chandelier hanging in the middle of the drawing room.”

 

As David Grafton, who wrote the definitive biography of Babe and her family, The Sisters: The Lives and Times of the Fabulous Cushing Sisters, describes the apartment: “Using yard upon yard of Indian cotton… Babe transformed the space into an exotic fantasy.” Later, when she and her husband moved into their 20-room duplex at 820 Fifth Avenue, while still keeping her St. Regis suite, Baldwin “recreated their old St. Regis living room, which he had installed originally as a jewel-like library”.

 

Babe didn’t have to work her way up in society. She was born into it on July 15, 1915, to Harvey Cushing, a pioneering brain surgeon, and his wife Kate, a gracious but determined society hostess in Boston. As Grafton writes, “Early on, the Cushing sisters learned to entertain and cater to the comforts of an eclectic mix of personalities, many of whom were masters of their own medical or social fiefdoms.” The late Millicent Fenwick, a friend of Babe’s and a New Jersey congresswoman, remarked, “Each of the girls, and especially Babe, entered the world convinced that they were the most attractive young women in the world, combining beauty and brains.”

 

Barbara was the youngest of the five Cushing children – hence her nickname, Babe – and she and her sisters were groomed from the start to marry well, a goal that became a virtual profession for their mother. Kate proved instrumental in engineering the 1930 marriage of her first daughter Betsey to James Roosevelt, eldest son of Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Minnie would eventually marry Vincent Astor, Jr., who owned The St. Regis in New York.

 

In 1940 Babe married Stanley Grafton Mortimer, Jr., grandson of one of the founders of Standard Oil. She had been working at Vogue, less as a day-to-day line editor and more as one of the magazine’s legions of young, socially prominent women forging connections with designers of the day – the likes of Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Cristobál Balenciaga. She was still at Vogue when the couple divorced in 1946, and she first met the significantly older, still-married Paley.

 

Their union in 1947 was, in some ways, unlikely, in that Paley, although powerful, was the son of Jewish immigrants – a detail that remained unsettling for Babe’s WASP mother at a time when such issues mattered among America’s elite. But with his intellect and contacts, and her social abilities, the couple became the hub around which high-society events revolved.

 

While powerful men need not be handsome or even charming, powerful women, especially in the mid-20th century, had to be beautiful. While Babe certainly possessed the beauty, she also had, as legendary interior designer Mario Buatta says, “substance and a sense of humor. I remember being at a client’s house for lunch one Sunday. Babe was at the table, about ten of us, and she was very quiet for some reason. But then she secretly put a piece of spinach on a front tooth. Finally, one of her friends at the table pointed it out to her. It got her the attention she wanted and it brought her into the conversation – a skill she never had any problems with.”

 

David Jannes, an art collector and former PR who handled some of New York’s most glittering society events, says, “You have to remember that Babe Paley and the women in her circle were true individuals. The society women of today don’t stand out in the way people like Babe Paley did. She dedicated her life to beauty – in her personal appearance, the objects she acquired, the people she surrounded herself with, the homes she made at The St. Regis and Fifth Avenue and elsewhere.”

 

The couple entertained CBS stars such as Edward R. Murrow, visiting dignitaries and politicians, and writers including Capote, who once famously said of his former friend, “Babe Paley had only one fault. She was perfect. Otherwise she was perfect.” Style was everything at their Fifth Avenue apartment. Sheets were ironed twice, once in the laundry, and once on the bed. Menus were archived to avoid serving the same meals to returning guests. Visitors complained of not being able to get into the bathroom because there were so many flowers. To cap it all, Paley had amassed a distinguished art collection, a centerpiece of which was Picasso’s Boy Leading a Horse (previously owned by Gertrude Stein, and which now hangs in the Museum of Modern Art, a gift from Mr. Paley).

 

Much has been written about Babe and Paley’s troubled marriage, both then and subsequently. Paley was devoted to Babe and keenly aware of the cachet she brought him, yet he was also a conspicuous womanizer. “Bill was Bill
and she knew it,” says Kenneth Jay Lane, who maintained a close friendship with Paley after Babe’s death. “She adored him. He was a fascinating man and much of her role was to make him happy.” Yet Capote, quoted in Gerald Clarke’s biography of the writer, said, “I never met anybody who was so desperately unhappy as she was… Once she tried to leave [Bill] and I sat down and said, ‘Look… Bill bought you. It’s as if he went down to Central Casting. Look upon being Mrs William S. Paley as a job, the best job in the world.”

 

Throughout her decades-long tenure as a society leader, the embodiment of high fashion, and a fundraiser for her favorite charities, Babe also occupied a role that could only have existed in her day. Certainly to fashionable women in New York, but also to those in the far reaches of America, Babe Paley was a recognized name, the exemplar of style and grace. Such was her power that one warm day, upon leaving a Manhattan restaurant, she removed her scarf and tied it to her purse. Paparazzi recorded the moment and “in no time, women throughout America were tying scarves to their handbags,” recalls Grafton. “So great was Babe Paley’s charisma that women of all ages and from every walk of life would do nearly anything to emulate her. They wanted not only to look like her but to be like her.”

 

 

Portrait by Horst P. Horst, 1946

Although Babe died in 1978, she is referenced for her style and look as if she were still attending parties and opening the door to her apartment to receive guests. “I think one of the reasons Babe endures is that she doesn’t look outdated. She looked like a modern-day woman even in the late ’40s and ’50s,” remarks Annette Tapert, who included a chapter about Babe in her iconic book, The Power of Style. “There’s also the fact that her name keeps getting passed down in style folklore. Young girls at fashion magazines today invoke her name.”

 

Poignantly, it was probably in part the pressures of maintaining the image of style icon and socialite supreme that created fissures in her marriage and contributed to her premature death. While Paley liked to see his wife project an image of impossible glamor, forever draped in furs and the most expensive jewelry, Babe’s love of fashion and design made her an early champion of the unconventional pantsuit. As she aged, rather than attempting to preserve an illusion of youth, she eschewed hair dye and presented her graying locks to the world.

 

Like many other women of her time, Babe also smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. Just a day before she entered a New York hospital to begin treatment for the lung cancer that would eventually lead to her death, she called her friend Kenneth Jay Lane, and invited him to meet for lunch. “She showed up wearing a long strand of big green beads,” he says. “I loved them. I said, ‘Babe, are those…’ and she said, ‘Yes.’ They were emeralds and I’d never seen the necklace before. ‘I haven’t worn this for years,’ she said, ‘but I knew you’d love them and I wanted to wear them for you.’ That’s the kind of person she was.”

 

Your address: The St. Regis New York

 

Images: Horst P. Horst © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis, CBS Photo Archive/Contributor, Erwin Blumenfel D © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis

 

With William S. Paley at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s
inaugural ball

Issue 1 - Playground Of The Gilded Age - Image 3

Playground of the Gilded Age

Squeezed between Vermont and Canada in the north-easternmost corner of Upper New York State lie the wild, remote Adirondack Mountains. At first sight it is an uninhabited wilderness; on closer inspection you will find, nestling by myriad lakes and folded into the hills, some of the most spectacular vacation homes ever seen in North America. These are the so-called “camps” and “lodges” built by the steel, oil and fur tycoons of the late 19th and early 20th century, among them the names of the great families who formed America’s first aristocracy. Except they were hardly “camps” in the true sense of the word, but rather luxurious feats of rustic architecture, which have been documented in Gladys Montgomery’s book An Elegant Wilderness, a fascinating history in sepia that celebrates an extraordinary period in American life when moneyed New York sought to reconnect with nature.
 
Bluff Point, for example, on Raquette Lake, was home to Sara Stewart Van Alen, a descendant of the mighty Astor family. Although built in rural-backwoods style, within these vast log cabins there existed the height of urban luxury. Bluff Point had its own bowling alley, boat launch, clubhouse, a separate dining tent of gaily striped canvas and a network of covered walkways and bridges leading to an island gazebo. Playing at “country” by no means meant roughing it. Few of these gilded pleasure houses are still in private hands, but those days of high luxury with an Astor connection live on in the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from Central Park – the city’s own patch of wilderness. A splendid Beaux-Arts hotel built by John Jacob Astor IV in 1904, its name was borrowed, at his niece’s suggestion, from Upper St. Regis Lake – an idyllic spot popular among the vacationing Astors and their wealthy circle.
 
By the turn of the 20th century, the Adirondacks had become a playground for America’s aristocrats of the eastern seaboard. Easily accessible from the fleshpots of New York for a weekend round trip, this wilderness was where the Gatsbys of the Gilded Age acted out the plutocrat’s version of the simple life. With their luxury timber cabins and secluded lakeside villas, they fished, sailed, walked, shot deer, painted, played tennis and golf and acted in amateur dramatics. It all made for a country-club set in genuine wild country. And what a vast country club it was. The Adirondack Park, where most of the camps and lodges were to be found, is around six million acres – bigger than Yosemite, Glacier, Everglades and Yellowstone national parks combined, claiming more than a hundred peaks.
 
Among the members of this wilderness club were the leading families of the day: the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Cabots, Guggenheims, Astors and others. The Astors were the most famous of all. Descendants of 18th-century German immigrants, they made their vast fortune out of fur trading. In a strange accident of fortune, many of the beavers that had died in the name of the Astor millions were, in fact, caught in the Adirondacks. The Astors then turned to property speculation, earning the moniker “the landlords of New York”, lending their name to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel and the neighborhood of Astoria in Queens.(When John Jacob Astor IV went down with the RMS Titanic in 1912, he was the richest man aboard.) As the Astors and the other elite dynasties took up residence in their Adirondacks homes, they opted for a more rural-looking chic. The log cabins they slept in had a fine pedigree. Eight presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, had been born in log cabins, albeit more rugged ones than the superluxe Adirondacks versions that later came into vogue. At the 1876 Centennial Exposition of Arts and Manufacture in Philadelphia, the Swiss chalet had been a big hit. Soon afterwards, the Swiss chalet and log cabin became fashionable styles for homes in resorts, from the national parks of the west to the Adirondacks in the east.
 
Architectural elements that had originally been purely pragmatic – porches, screens, natural materials, gables and bays – became must-haves for the new millionaires. Particularly fancy owners, such as the Connecticut governor Phineas C. Lounsbury at his Echo Point Villa on Raquette Lake, had the names of their villas picked out in twig work on their front porches. Distinguished architects, such as Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis, published sought-after designs for weekend retreats, from cozy cottages to rustic British country houses. Ultra-luxe campsites were built, too, imitating the layout of Civil War military camps, but without the tough lifestyle.
 
The push towards the New York country weekend had been sparked by the 1869 publication of Adventures in the Adirondacks, by the Reverend William Henry Harrison Murray. Reverend Murray sang the praises of the free and open wilds to a new generation of tourists with enough time and money on their hands to explore the countryside on their doorstep. Already the Hudson River School of artists had enshrined the beauty of the land lying north of New York City, a few days’ journey up the Hudson River. In 1837, the founder of the school, Thomas Cole, visited Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks. In the same year, the painter Charles C. Ingham accompanied the geologist Ebenezer Emmons on New York State’s first-ever natural-history survey, when he came up with the name Adirondack, taken from the Iroquois word for the Algonquin Indians.
 
The Adirondacks became the hot destination for aspiring wilderness artists – among them the ladies of the Horicon Sketching Club, a group of well-heeled Manhattan women who canoed across the lakes to find the most picturesque vistas. They painted in broad bonnets and immaculate white cotton dresses, their packed lunches carried in wicker “Adirondack baskets” by robust guides. Then, in 1871, Dr. Thomas C. Durant of the Union Pacific Railroad completed the line to the Adirondacks – or “a Central Park for the world”, as the New York Times called it, now that it was so easily reachable from Manhattan. America’s first accessible wilderness was open for business – with perfect timing. Just as industrialization was roaring across the nation, ripping open the landscape for mining, despoiling it with mills, chimneys and factories, so Americans woke up to the romance of their disappearing countryside. The Adirondacks were under particular threat as they were progressively stripped for their timber. However, in 1894, the park was granted state constitutional protection, ensuring that the territory would be “forever wild”. The lodge and camp owners were determined to preserve their holiday retreats, setting up the Association for the Preservation of the Adirondacks in 1901.
 
This new class of tycoons certainly had money to burn. In 1892, the New York Tribune published a list of 4,047 American millionaires, a large chunk of them in New York, their fortunes founded in steel, railways, oil and textiles. The story of these princes of the American Renaissance are the subject of a new NBC series, The Gilded Age, written by the creator of the British period drama Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes. The Gilded Age refers to the title of an 1873 novel by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who both vacationed in the Adirondacks. They, in turn, borrowed the expression from Shakespeare’s King John:
 
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily...
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”

The gazillionaires may have played up to the simple life, but their behavior was dictated by codes as strict as those that ruled their weekdays in the city. In her 1923 book on etiquette, Emily Post wrote a chapter on the Adirondacks house party: “Let no one think that this is a ‘simple’ (by that meaning either easy or inexpensive) form of entertainment. ‘Roughing it’ in the fashionable world (on the Atlantic coast) is rather suggestive of the dairymaid playing of Marie Antoinette; the ‘rough’ part being mostly ‘picturesque effect’ with little taste for actual discomfort.” For these brief spells in the country, the new rich pretended to defer to a new order where country skills outranked wealth and position. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson lampooned the idea:
 
“Look to yourselves, you polished gentlemen!
No city airs or arts pass current here
Your rank is all reversed; let men of cloth
Bow to the stalwart churls in overalls;
They are the doctors of the wilderness,
And we the low-prized laymen.”
 
Of course, this was all an illusion. The kings of Wall Street guarded their country retreats as jealously as they did their Fifth Avenue palazzi. At the entrance to Camp Uncas there was a forbidding sign saying: “Private Park. All trespassing hereon is hereby forbidden under penalty of the law. J. Pierpoint Morgan. Owner.” Morgan was the banker and art collector behind J.P. Morgan bank and the Morgan Library in New York. But it wasn’t all log cabins for the deep-pocketed. Some wanted to live like their European counterparts in vast, stately homes. Grander cabins were fitted with stained-glass windows, antler chandeliers, Moroccan wall hangings, Gothic Revival roofs and Mock Tudor paneling. The Wild Air cabin on Upper St. Regis Lake, built in 1882 for Ella Spencer Reid, the niece of the publisher of the New York Tribune, had its own billiards room. At Bull Point Lodge on Upper Saranac Lake, the banker Otto Kahn had two billiard tables.
 
At Litchfield Park, Edwin Litchfield built up one of the best-stocked hunting estates in America, wrapped around a château in the French regal style found at Fontainebleau and Chambord. Often, however, the urban incomers weren’t much good at the country sports they idolized. Between 1898 and 1900, three guides were shot dead by clueless weekenders who’d mistaken them for deer and bears.
 
At Sagamore, the Vanderbilts holidayed in a “Swiss chalet” the size of a schloss, with its own separate, free-standing dining hall. They got there from New York in a private Pullman car, the Wayfarer, finishing the journey in carriages drawn by four horses. In the evening, the dinner menu was printed in badly written French. But they were hardly slumming it with “huitres on the half shell, consommé Paelermo, Truite du Lac grillé m’d’hotel, Quartier de Venaison St. Hubert, and Poulets rotis, Salades Grape Fruit, Plum-Pudding and Patisserie.” They ate off silver and drank from glasses etched with the spruce logo of Sagamore. The lodges had to be vast, given the number of guests that these wealthy families often invited to stay. In the mid-1930s, the Garvans of Kamp Kill Kare invited the Yale and Harvard baseball teams for the weekend so that they could slug it out on the Garvans’ private diamond. They also had to accommodate an enormous staff. In 1903, at Knollwood on Lower Saranac Lake, the lawyer Louis Marshall employed 24 maids, chefs, grooms and butlers to maintain his simple “country cottage” lifestyle.
 
At Camp Inman, the boathouse was outfitted with its own casino, while on Upper St. Regis Lake, the Vanderbilts commissioned a huge, floating teahouse, a Japanese pagoda with swooping roofs supported by ornate, painted pillars. Inside, even modest cabins were decorated with Eastern touches – Japanese fans and parasols and Cantonese china were popular. Some weekenders took to wearing Chinese peasant hats as they paddled Indian canoes across Raquette Lake.
 
Taxidermy, too, was fashionable – stuffed water buffaloes, tigers, zebras, bears and bison populated the drawing rooms of the grander cabins. In the summer of 1926, President Calvin Coolidge stayed at White Pine on Osgood Pond, built in 1913 for half a million dollars for Archibald White, the president of Ohio’s Columbia Gas & Electric Company. Time magazine reported how the President awoke to the sight of a portrait of the Emperor Napoleon, and heard “the soft voice of luxury speaking through French tapestries, Oriental rugs, Italian paintings, a Japanese pagoda, an alpine rock garden, a billiard cabin, a bowling alley, a grand piano, a personal telephone exchange and private house-movies.”It was these levels of luxury, comfort and modern conveniences that John Jacob Astor IV determined to bring back to Manhattan for his new hotel. As the 20th century progressed, Astor’s fellow Adirondacks holidaymakers also headed back to the city, for good. For many, it was no longer practical to pour money into maintaining these beautiful but sprawling country piles. As the dynastic heirs repaired to their Park Avenue palazzi, their old holiday homes were neglected.
 
The state’s constitutional pledge to keep the Adirondacks “forever wild” seemed at odds with the preservation of these grand weekend cottages. Nehasane, the elaborate camp of Lila Vanderbilt Webb and William Seward, was even destroyed by the state in keeping with the wilderness sentiment. In recent years, that attitude has changed, and the camps and lodges are increasingly seen as an integral part of the Adirondacks landscape. Today, a tiny number of survivors remain as family retreats, the way they were intended to be. Others have become university teaching facilities, homeowner associations, non-profit educational institutions, destination lodgings and country clubs. The camps and lodges of the Adirondacks may have only had a brief flowering period of 80-odd years, but they left a continuing, living legacy in the form of The St. Regis New York. The grand hotel was the last word in turn-of-the-century glamour, and rapidly became the drawing room of choice for the emerging tycoon dynasties of Manhattan, before the horrors of the First World War, the Great Crash of 1929 and the Depression which followed it brought this golden age to an end. But to this day it is that legacy of life as lived by a new American aristocracy – of the Astors and Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Carnegies – that gives The St. Regis New York the air of the most luxurious of private homes.
 
An Elegant Wilderness: Great Camps and Grand Lodges of the Adirondacks 1855-1935 by Gladys Montgomery is published by Acanthus Press, $75.

Issue 2 - A Prince In New York - Image 1

A Prince in New York

Serge Obolensky’s life reads like a work of fiction. There is a fairy-tale beginning: he was born a Russian prince and married a princess. There is adventure: for our prince was brave as well as handsome… a dashing young cavalry officer in the First World War, he escaped from the Bolsheviks with a price on his head, while in the Second World War he became an American commando who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe. There is Gatsby-era glamor: the second Princess Obolensky was a renowned American heiress. And a dash of cocktail lore: legend has it that he inspired the creation of the Bloody Mary in the King Cole Bar of The St. Regis New York. This heady concoction sounds too extraordinary to be true, but life can be stranger than fiction, as Obolensky well knew.
 
Let us begin, though, at the beginning, in 1890, when Serge Obolensky was born, the heir to one of Russia’s grandest aristocratic families. Decades later, in his memoirs, he recalled the vanished country of his youth: the winter sleigh-rides to his grandmother’s palace in St. Petersburg, the summers spent on his parents’ vast estates, the fun of Countess Tolstoy’s costume ball. And there were trips abroad, for like other wealthy Russians, the Obolenskys travelled widely – visiting Paris, or fashionable belle époque resorts such as San Sebastian and Biarritz.
 
Obolensky’s education was rounded off at Oxford, England, where he played polo and joined the exclusive Bullingdon Club, while out of term he was a hit with London’s leading hostesses. Many of the friendships that Obolensky formed at this time would be important in his later life.But in both London and St. Petersburg, he was experiencing two great imperial capitals on the eve of enormous change. In London he recalled “an air of massive elegance and leisure all but inconceivable in any later period. I believe I saw the end of it… the mellow grandeur of the Edwardian age.” In Russia, revolution was about to bring the Obolenskys’ world crashing around them.
 
Obolensky called his memoirs One Man in His Time, but what is remarkable is his knack of being in the right place, if not at the right time, then at a fascinating time. Even with the advent of war, when he joined the crack Chevalier Guards regiment, he enjoyed one final “cavalryman’s paradise”, as his regiment covered the Russian army’s slow retreat in “a form of warfare that will never come again”, as the age-old hegemony of mounted soldiery gave way to an era of trenches and tanks.
 
If Obolensky’s recollections make the war seem almost fun – more fun than the trenches, certainly – it is worth noting that he also won the St. Andrew’s Cross for valor three times. Meanwhile, like many of his class, he sensed the coming crisis as the vast Empire of all Russias began to fracture under the strain of war. In 1916 he married Princess Catherine Yurievskaya, the daughter of Tsar Alexander II and his aristocratic mistress (and later wife). Catherine had grown up in France and wasn’t close to the current Tsar, Nicholas II; nor was Serge. Yet their lives, like that of millions of Russians, would be turned upside down when Nicholas led the Romanov dynasty and the nation into the abyss.
 
With the onset of the Revolution, the big cities were plunged into chaos, and Serge and Catherine joined an aristocratic exodus south to the Crimea, that Riviera-like coastline of palaces and villas he’d known well as a child. There he joined the “White” forces fighting the Bolshevik “Reds”, but as the horrors of civil war unfolded, even a battle-hardened Obolensky found the mix of horror and beauty “sickening... the total destruction of a childhood memory”.
 
Around this time the society painter Savely Sorine drew a sketch of Obolensky, capturing something serious about the eyes as well as the elegance of the young officer. This portrait would eventually wind up in Obolensky’s apartment in Manhattan, where in 1970 he was photographed alongside it for a New York Times feature headlined: “Serge Obolensky: a Society Legend at 80”. All those years later, he is recognizably the same man. But just like its subject, the sketch had gone through some dramas along the way. It acquired a spray of bullet holes when the Reds shot up Catherine’s palace in Yalta. Then it was displayed with the inscription, “Serge Obolensky, Wanted, Dead or Alive”, until Sorine bribed a guard with three roubles to let him take down the sketch and then smuggled it out of Russia. More importantly, the artist also spirited Catherine out of her ransacked palace and into hiding. Husband and wife would be reunited in Moscow, both in disguise, having endured hardship and danger. They eventually escaped to London, via Vienna and then Bern, where Serge could access the $200,000 he had cunningly squirreled out of Russia into Swiss bank accounts.
 
A tiny fraction of the Obolensky fortune, this was still considerably more than many exiles managed to escape with. During the 1920s former Russian debutantes worked as cabaret dancers in Shanghai, while one Romanov prince eked out a living as a Paris taxi driver. Many White Russians never quite got their heads around these reversals of fortune, their grief at what had been left behind or the sorrow of exile. Presumably Serge Obolensky felt all of the above keenly. But just as impressive as his derring-do flight from Russia was his ability to shed any Russian might-have-beens and get on with his life. “He never looked back,” his son Ivan Obolensky agrees. “He had a resilience, an ability to hang on to happy memories, but always to look forward.”
 
Serge’s father had intended him to be a modern agriculturalist farming the vast family estates. Now the estates were gone. What remained, however, was Obolensky’s extraordinary charm, surely key to his remarkable ability to land on his feet. People liked Serge Obolensky. This had probably saved his life in Russia, where he had been aided by a former employee, an old shoemaker of his acquaintance, and a nurse he’d never met before, all at considerable risk to their own lives. This quality would serve him well throughout his life. “He had such ease,” his son recalls, while his secretary told the New York Times, “He could charm the birds from the trees.” And looking at the photographs of him whirling celebrated beauties around the dance-floor, it is clear that women adored Serge Obolensky. And he certainly married well – as princes in stories are meant to.


 

Sketch of Obolensky by Savely Sorine,
made around the time of the Russian Revolution;

 

the Obolensky coat of arms


Obolensky’s first wife, Princess Catherine and
her children, 1920;

On escaping Russia, Serge and Catherine lived increasingly separate lives and then divorced, amicably. Serge moved into the flat of his cousin, Prince Felix Yusapov (famous as one of the men who murdered Rasputin) in London’s Knightsbridge, and then after an ill-starred trip selling farming equipment in Australia, settled down to the prosperous, bowler-hatted life of the London stockbroker. Then one night he went to a costume ball and danced with Alice Astor. He was dressed as a Cossack. She was wearing a Chinese dress and a necklace from the tomb of Tutankhamun. They promptly fell in love.
 
Alice’s father, John Jacob Astor IV – one of the richest men in America – had built New York’s celebrated St. Regis Hotel. He went down with the Titanic, but Alice’s mother Ava, the formidable Lady Ribblesdale, was very much alive and strongly opposed to her daughter marrying “an impoverished Russian prince”. However, when Alice came of age, she got her way, and their marriage was the wedding of the London Season in 1924. Or rather weddings, for there were three: an Anglican one at the Savoy Chapel, a civil ceremony, and then an Orthodox one at the Russian Church. Alice’s British cousin, Viscount Astor, gave away the bride, while Serge’s old Oxford friend Prince Paul of Serbia was best man. They honeymooned in Deauville, France, and thus began their luxe, but peripatetic, married life spent on ocean liners and yachts, in grand hotels or at their spectacular homes in London and upstate New York.
 
“Nothing world-shaking happened – which was pleasant for a change,” Obolensky quipped of this time. Looking back, their decade together was “a haze of golden memories... I enjoyed it enormously.” But one senses a quickening of the pulse when, after Alice filed for divorce in 1932, Obolensky started working in earnest for her brother, Vincent Astor, who tasked him with restoring the luster of The St. Regis New York, which had just returned to family ownership. “Vincent suggested that I look things over and make my suggestions,” he explained, “as I had lived much of my life in the best hotels of Europe. He made me a sort of general consultant, promotion man, and trouble-shooter… This is how I started in the hotel business. I found it captivating and a challenge.”
 
Obolensky turned out to have a genius for hotel-keeping. When Obolensky took over The St. Regis, he says, “the old-fashioned lobbies were dark and uninviting. There were no wine cellars, and the food was conventional. Yet the building was an architectural masterpiece. When Colonel John Jacob Astor IV had built it, he’d wanted to make it the great luxury hotel of the New World.” Working with the decorator Anne “Nanny” Tiffany (and “various impoverished but brilliant Russians”, as Ivan Obolensky recalls) Serge and Vincent set about updating the public areas. The roof garden soon became a “Viennese fête champêtre”; a rink was installed for ice shows; and the hotel acquired a Russian-themed nightclub, the Maisonette Russe, complete with a gypsy orchestra and a chef who had cooked for the Tsar. (He was a friend of Vassily, the Obolensky family chef who’d escaped Russia with Serge.) Most notably, the Maxfield Parrish painting of Old King Cole (from another old Astor property, the Knickerbocker Hotel) became the centerpiece of the new bar. It was here, as legend has it, that Obolensky made his contribution to the creation of the Bloody Mary. The story goes that he asked barman Fernand Petiot to spice up his tomato and vodka cocktail – thus introducing the dash of Tabasco.
 
But Obolensky’s strategy went way beyond hotting up the cocktails and refreshing the décor. A great metropolitan hotel is part of the swim and flow of a city. Serge knew this instinctively, and he knew how to deliver it – by inviting his fancy friends around. Time and again the society pages of the era contain an item headlined “Prince Obolensky hosts” – usually describing a dinner for a Vanderbilt, a Whitney or visiting European royalty. Obolensky was clearly very social, but these meticulously placed stories also show a hotel man hard at work promoting his hotel. And if all this was a formula, then it was one that worked well for Obolensky, keeping our hero gainfully employed for decades.
 
“Serge Obolensky abhors a vacuum,” teased one nightclub reviewer in 1959, as he’d transformed a hotel basement into “another of his imperial fashion bazaars. Colonel Obolensky has an eye for grandeur, réclame, décor and White Russian nights of gala. So he can be forgiven for not having an ear for dance music.” Harsh, perhaps, as Obolensky loved to dance, although maybe a man introduced to nightlife in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg might struggle slightly with the advent of rock’n’roll.


 

Obolensky with his second wife, Alice Astor, 1932;

 

In uniform, with actress and singer Grace Moor, for a wartime dinner
hosted by Elsa Maxwell in honor of a new Cole Porter show;

 

Obolensky with actress Phyllis Kirk at El Morocco nightclub in the 1950s;

 

Dancing with Jackie Onassis in 1975

In other ways, however, he was a modernizer, and as such the recipient of criticism from the kind of hotel guest who never likes change. The New Yorker magazine once ran a piece, a classic of its kind, interviewing a woman called Clara Bell Walsh who’d occupied the same hotel suite for 43 years. “They don’t have this sort of thing today,” she’d told the reporter, pointing to the original furnishings she’d retained in her room. “The Russians have kind of colored this place up too much to suit me,” she complained. “What, the Communists?” the bemused journalist asked her. “Serge Obolensky!” came her furious reply.

Only war seems to have got in the way of Obolensky’s extraordinary career as a hotelier – and even then, The St. Regis Hotel helped shape this, our hero’s next great adventure. Obolensky, who’d taken American citizenship (and dropped the use of his title) in 1931, was keen to fight for his adopted country. Too old to enlist in the regular army, he joined the State Guard. But the Guard seemed unlikely to see action in Europe, so he asked a friend in the military how he could transfer to the commandos. “That’s easy,” came the reply. “Why don’t you talk to Bill Donovan? He’s staying in your hotel.” Obolensky spoke to “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, who promptly took him on. And so after commando training which he said “nearly killed” him, Obolensky, by now 53, parachuted into occupied Europe, twice. In both cases, his mix of charm and courage won the day. In the first drop, he landed in Sardinia with just three other men and a letter from General Eisenhower to negotiate the surrender of the Italian forces on the island. Next, he jumped into France to prevent the retreating Germans from blowing up the power station serving Paris. He won over both the Resistance and the commander of the Vichy French. Then the main column of Germans finally surrendered to one Colonel Grell, “our plans officer, who had been my assistant manager at The St. Regis”.

In the 1960s Obolensky returned to the hotel where his career had begun, and in his memoirs discerned common ground between hotel-keeping and soldiering. “Hotels are a human enterprise,” he wrote. “You have to be known and liked by its rank and file, the waiters, the captains, the clerks, the manager – it all adds up to esprit de corps. Despite a good building and a good location, everything depends upon people – on goodwill, good service, and, in a sense, on personal friendships.” In a sense, human relationships lay at the root of the life Obolensky forged for himself in America. As that New York Times profile put it, “though cynics might attribute his success to the drawing power of his title, that would be to underestimate the magnetism of his personality and talent for friendship.” So did he ever feel slightly weary of another night of gala, of “Prince Serge Obolensky hosts”, of singing for his supper? If he did, he never showed it. “I just think that it would be the greatest mistake for an old bastard like me to quit,” he quipped when asked about retirement. At 80 he still did yoga every morning and went out most evenings, “leaving at midnight, without fail”, Ivan Obolensky recalls. “That was his rule.” Around this time, though, he gave up performing the celebrated Russian Dagger Dance. A highlight of New Year’s Eve balls for decades (with proceeds going to the victims of Communism), this involved Obolensky balancing on a rickety table while hurling flaming daggers at targets with a remarkable degree of accuracy.

He also abandoned his bachelor existence to marry for the third and final time to a woman four decades his junior, Marilyn Fraser Wall, from the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. And so it was there in 1978 that, some 88 years after it had begun at an Obolensky villa beside the Summer Palace of the Romanovs, this remarkable life drew to a close. Princely proof that life can be stranger than fiction.

 

Your address: The St. Regis New York
 

Images courtesy of the estate of Ivan Obolensky, Superstock, Illustrated London News Ltd, Mary Evans, Bettman/Corbis, Conde Nast Archives, Corbis, Getty Images, Wire Image, Bert Morgan Arhive/Alamy, Popperfoto/Getty Images


 

Obolensky arriving at the Southampton
Beach Club with actress Joan Fontaine in 1950;

 

With the Begum Aga Khan in 1960

 

With Alice Astor on their wedding day in London in 1924

Walls Of Fame - Old King Cole 2

Walls of Fame

On a chilly November night last year, about 120 people squeezed into the King Cole Bar and Salon at The St. Regis New York. The co-host of the evening, fashion designer Jason Wu, wore a dark suit and a slim black tie and stood in the center of the wood-paneled room, welcoming friends and colleagues to a party to celebrate the reopening of the bar after a months-long refurbishment. A DJ played jazz, and models in Wu dresses and celebrities including Emily Mortimer and Uma Thurman dotted the crowd. But the star of the night was a brilliantly-colored painting, just back from a $100,000 restoration and rehung in its place of honor above the bar where it has presided over similarly chic events for almost eight decades.
 
One hundred and ten years ago, John Jacob Astor IV asked a young artist named Maxfield Parrish if he would like to paint a mural to hang in the bar-room of The Knickerbocker Hotel, Astor’s glamorous new flagship on 42nd Street and Broadway in New York City. The fee was $5,000, extremely generous for the time, but it came with caveats.
 
First, the subject of the painting had to be Old King Cole, and second, while Parrish would have complete artistic freedom in how he depicted the nursery-rhyme character, he had to use Astor as the model for King Cole’s face.
 
“At first, Parrish wasn’t sure he wanted the job,” explains Laurence Cutler, chairman of the National Museum of American Illustration and an expert on the artist. “He didn’t like being told he had to do anything.” Parrish had other concerns as well: he came from a conservative Quaker family that frowned on alcohol and wasn’t thrilled that his work would hang in a bar. Plus, he had already painted a version of King Cole for the Mask and Wig Club, a private theater club in Philadelphia.
 
But Parrish’s father, an established artist with connections in Philadelphia and New York society, encouraged him to reconsider. “Basically, he explained how unadvisable it would be for somebody just starting their career to say no to somebody like Astor.”
 
Parrish had recently moved from Philadelphia to Plainfield, New Hampshire, where he and his wife, Lydia, were expanding a small estate they had built called The Oaks, which they would live in for the rest of their lives. He realized that the fee, the equivalent of $130,000 today, would set them up well and accepted the commission. He began work on Old King Cole in a studio that was too small to hold the whole mural, so he painted the three 8 feet x 10 feet panels one at a time. He placed the king in the center, flanked by jesters and guards. It was a more dramatic, less cartoon-like depiction than his first version of Cole for the Mask and Wig Club and, when it was installed at the hotel in 1906, it instantly became part of the fabric of a city and a culture hurtling toward the excitement and excesses of the Roaring Twenties. “The Knickerbocker Bar, beamed upon by Maxfield Parrish’s jovial, colorful Old King Cole was well crowded,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise.
 
Parrish picked a good time to accept a mural commission. At the turn of the century, wealthy industrialists like Astor were building mansions as quickly as they could and hiring artists to adorn the walls. “It was the golden age of American mural painting,” says Glenn Palmer-Smith, a painter and author of Murals of New York City. “There was competition to see who you got.”


 

Master of the golden age
The Lantern Bearers, an illustration painted by Maxfield Parrish
in 1908 for Collier’s magazine

Established artists were able to command huge fees, but the appeal was more than just financial. The country had recently glimpsed the nuance and complexity of mural painting at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, which featured frescos and murals by some of the US and Europe’s most prominent painters. American architects and artists were eager to embrace the medium.
 
Not long after the fair, ten of the country’s best-known illustrators and painters, including Henry Siddons Mowbray and Robert Lewis Reid, collaborated on a mural depicting the history of law for the lobby of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division building on Madison Avenue, which opened in 1900. “Can you imagine ten top artists collaborating on anything today?” says Palmer-Smith.
 
Dozens of similar projects began around the country. In the beginning, many of these works were commissioned and paid for by some of America’s wealthiest families. Along with his contribution to the Supreme Court Building, Mowbray painted a mural on the ceiling of the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York and one at John Pierpont Morgan’s library in New York City, which is now a museum. Another popular turn-of-the-century artist, William de Leftwich Dodge, spent most of his career painting murals for private homes and public buildings, including four for the lobby of the Astor Hotel in Times Square around 1900, titled Ancient and Modern New York. In the 1930s, William Randolph Hearst commissioned Dean Cornwell to paint a mural in the Raleigh Room restaurant at the Warwick Hotel. (After a disagreement over the fee, Cornwell added less-than-heroic scenes, including a man urinating on Sir Walter Raleigh.)
 
Towards the middle of the 20th century more and more murals were commissioned by businesses, local governments and, starting in 1939, by the Works Progress Administration as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The largest of these latter was James Brooks’s 235ft circular mural, Flight, at the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia Airport, which depicts man’s dream of conquering the skies, from ancient mythology through to modern-day reality.
 
Parrish went on to paint eight additional murals over the course of his long and influential career, including The Pied Piper in 1909 for the bar at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. But Old King Cole is arguably his most famous. It has all the hallmarks of his later illustrations and prints, including bold, luminous colors, classical architectural forms, and an impish sense of humor. “It launched his career,” says Laurence Cutler. “Immediately afterwards he received a commission to illustrate a cover for Harper’s Magazine, and from then on he worked non-stop for the next 40 years.”
 
When the Knickerbocker closed in 1920, Old King Cole went into storage, then briefly hung in a museum in Chicago, and was finally installed at The St. Regis, an Astor-owned hotel, in 1932. There, at the heart of Millionaires’ Alley, as 55th Street was called at the time, it made the transition from artwork to icon.
 
Longevity alone might explain the King Cole Bar’s popularity – New York City has been torn down and rebuilt so many times that its residents develop emotional attachments to places and things that survive the constant reinvention. But it is Parrish’s painting that patrons love and return to see over and over again.

James Brooks’s 235ft circular mural, Flight, completed in 1942,
at the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia Airport

Murals have adorned some of the city’s most famous eating and drinking establishments, and Old King Cole is just one of a long list of favorites. In the early 1930s, the restaurant Café des Artistes on West 67th Street fell on hard times as the city struggled with the effects of the Great Depression. Located on the ground floor of Hotel des Artistes, an artists’ cooperative apartment building, the café served the tenants who lived upstairs, as well as the general public. Howard Chandler Christy, a prominent painter and illustrator who resided at the hotel, offered to paint a mural that would, according to Palmer-Smith, bring in “crowds of new customers”. For a fee of $2,000, he composed a series of nudes in bucolic settings – frolicking in water, playing on swings, posing with parrots.
 
The work has a dreamy, salacious quality that shocked and, as Christy anticipated, enticed the public. Café des Artistes became a crossroads for the art and business communities. Generations of New York’s top editors and gallery owners, bankers and stockbrokers met there for quiet lunches and dinners, or a drink at the bar, which The New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton describes as having been, “one of Manhattan’s great dark-and-quiet cuckolding spots”. In 2009, after more than 90 years in business, the café went bankrupt and closed. When a new management team moved into the space in 2011, they changed everything about the room, but kept the murals in place. Now called The Leopard at des Artistes, the restaurant and its nudes have garnered excellent reviews and host a new generation of New York power brokers.
 
New York’s tradition of murals enjoys constant reinvention. In the late Nineties Sol Lewitt was commissioned by Christie’s to create a mural three-storeys high for the entrance to 20 Rockefeller Plaza. The artist submitted four designs, and the auction house plumped for Wall Drawing No 896, Colors/Curves, a voluptuous collage of bold undulations in red, blue, yellow, green, lavender, orange and black.
 
In 2006, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and three partners purchased Ye Waverly Inn, an historic Greenwich Village pub that had for years offered an old-world New York dining experience. Carter and his partners dropped the “Ye” and transformed the inn into one of the most popular and celebrity-filled restaurants in the city. During the redesign, they kept many original fixtures but commissioned illustrator Edward Sorel to create a mural that celebrated notable residents of Greenwich Village. He painted an outdoor scene filled with 43 caricatures in illuminating, sometimes hilarious poses. Norman Mailer lies naked and staring, Narcissus-like, at his reflection in a pond. Dylan Thomas sits on a rock looking unremarkable with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, except that his lower half is drawn with a satyr’s legs.
 
Back at The St. Regis New York, an early evening crowd is enjoying cocktail hour. A wide and shallow room adjacent to a more formal white marble lounge and dining area, the King Cole Bar has a polished wood ceiling and walls and is furnished with low cocktail tables and chairs. Twin mirrors flanking the black granite-topped bar scatter glimmers of Parrish’s brilliant palette around the room. The bar is far enough removed from the rest of the hotel to feel like its own entity, but close enough to serve as easy landing spot for newly arrived travelers seeking respite from Midtown New York’s hustle. The range of famous people who have enjoyed drinks in the bar over the decades (Salvador Dalí, Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few) is well documented, but it also hosts neighborhood regulars, out-of-town shoppers, and a chic slice of New York nightlife.
 
Old King Cole has a secret that any Parrish expert, St. Regis bartender, or knowledgeable 14-year-old boy will happily share. “He is called the Flatulent Monarch,” says Cutler. “If you look carefully you can see that the king is raised off his seat and that the jesters and guards are reacting to him passing gas.” Although Parrish publicly denied it, the story of his revenge on Astor for having insisted on being included in the painting became part of the mythology surrounding the artist. “Parrish had a bet with his friends that he could paint absolutely anything,” said Palmer-Smith. “Old King Cole proved it.”
 
Your address: The St. Regis New York

The 1999 three-storey mural created for Christie’s
at the Rockefeller Plaza by Sol Lewitt

Dali in New York

Dalí in Manhattan

DALÍ… IS… HERE!” For 40 years this gutteral cry announced that the greatest artist of the 20th century, certainly in his own estimation, had arrived in New York at his own private fiefdom, the fabled St. Regis. And whether it was in the hushed acreage of the restaurant, the lofty grandeur of the lobby, the dark enclave of the King Cole Bar or his gilded suite with adjoining studio, Salvador Dalí adored turning this hotel into the stage of his celebrity, his one-man theatre, his private palace and zoo.
 
Every winter from 1934 Dalí would appear like clockwork, or rather like some distorted cog from his own surreal timepiece, to occupy Room 1610, accompanied not only by his wife and muse Gala, but also a bizarre retinue of associates and animals, including his pet ocelot named Babou. Here he would happily swish around in his golden cape of dead bees or “accidentally” let loose a large box of flies. With arms stretched wide, cane held high, moustaches pointing to the heavens, nobody knew better how to make the grandest entrance. Soon not just fans but also tourists would congregate around the hotel hoping for a sighting of him on the steps of East 55th Street, growling his war cry, each loud sung syllable: “Da-lí… is… he-re!”
 
No city was better suited than New York to Dalí’s unique brand of showmanship and entrepreneurial hustle, “brand” being the mot juste for this groundbreaking artist who managed to turn himself into a business model and a limited-edition luxury product endorsed by the rich and famous. And no venue suited Dalí better than The St. Regis. (In fact few hotels are as closely associated with one particular artist as The St. Regis and Salvador Dalí.) For New York has as voracious an appetite for culture as for celebrity and commerce, and Dalí was the first to conquer the city by combining all these into one irresistible package: high art and high finance, and every sort of hijinks in between. Dalí’s true celebrity, his serious worldwide fame, was entirely due to the Manhattan media machine. There was an almost symbiotic relationship between the artist and the city’s press, feeding off each other in a mutual frenzy of outrage, a tornado of publicity stoked by Dalí’s pranks and posturings, as if neither could ever get enough of the other.
 
None of this was an accident, Dalí having plotted it all from the first time he stepped off a boat in New York. He understood that to be a truly modern artist in this one truly modern city he had to become a mainstream star. Which is why, when he arrived in Manhattan before World War II on the steamship Champlain, at the end of an expensive marine expedition from Le Havre subsidised by Picasso, nothing was left to chance. He had even prepared his own publication for the occasion, a broadsheet with the splendid title New York Salutes Me!, which was distributed on the ship and then to the awaiting newsmen when he stepped down the gangplank into New York for the first time ever, on November 14, 1934. Dalí had well and truly arrived.


 

Salvador Dalí photographed in New York by
the legendary photojournalist Weegee in the 1950s

The mutual attraction between the artist and the media when he stepped off the ship was immediate. In fact, when asked to single out his favorite work of those he had brought on the ship with him, he had one already prepared. Theatrically ripping away the wrappings, he revealed his chosen masterpiece: a portrait of his wife Gala with lamb chops on her shoulders, which made not just the next day’s papers, but that evening’s edition. By the end of his very first day, Dalí was already a hot gossip item.
 
And so the adulation continued. His debut exhibition at the Julien Levy Gallery proved an instant success, and he gave a hugely successful talk at MoMA. Soon, he was being photographed wherever he went. His famous “Bal Onirique” costume ball in honor of his return to Europe, organized by the bohemian Bostonite Caresse Crosby, was so outrageous that the next day there was a maelstrom of publicity, with photographs of his head bandaged in hospital gauze as he danced under a giant cow’s carcass.
 
Not that the artist stayed away too long. He soon set a pattern of travel, returning every winter, starting in December 1936 with another Julien Levy show that coincided neatly with the MoMA show Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism. This was accompanied by the ultimate accolade: a portrait by Man Ray on the cover of Time magazine, which dominated the newsstands and ensured that Dalí would have to sign autographs in the street for as long as he stayed in the city. As Time put it, “Surrealism would never have attracted its present attention in the US were it not for a handsome 32-year-old Catalan.”
 
Just as successful as his art-pieces were Dalí’s windows for Bonwit Teller department store, where crowds jostled six-deep on 5th Avenue to admire his surrealist woman with a head of roses complete with red lobster telephone. It was in these windows, in 1939, that Dalí staged possibly his most famous New York stunt, climbing into a bathtub in a window and then crashing through the plate glass – with the bath – to thunderous applause.
 
For Dalí, the best thing about this event was actually to be arrested and to spend time in a real New York prison with real American criminals, before being given a suspended sentence for disorderly conduct. As he admitted, it was “the most magical and effective action” of his entire life.
 
In spite of this, the artist was soon asked to create one of his most important commissions: his own pavilion at the World’s Fair of 1939, which he called Dream of Venus. In typical style, he came up with an outrageous plan, featuring semi-naked swimmers, and when sponsors objected, he wrote one of the best works of his life, Declaration of the Independence of the Imagination and the Rights of Man to His Own Madness, copies of which were showered over the city by aeroplanes as a full-scale public protest.
 
There was nothing more he loved than being noticed. As Nicolas Descharnes, the world’s leading Dalí expert, and son of his official personal secretary, Robert Descharnes, explains, “I remember my father recalling a walk with Dalí near The St. Regis Hotel in the 1970s, during which he was dressed in a black coat of panther skin, trying in vain to attract the attention of passersby while gesticulating with his stick. ‘Descharnes, have you seen?’ the artist apparently said. ‘It’s incredible how one can pass unnoticed in this city!’ ”

New York represented absolute energy for Dalí in his annual circuit between Paris, New York and his home in Port Lligat on Spain’s Costa Brava. It’s the city where he dynamized his career, whether during his long residence in America from 1940 to 1948 – when his and Léonide Massine’s ballet Labyrinth was shown at the Metropolitan Opera House, and he had a full retrospective at MoMA – or the winters near the end of his life.

Most of his meetings were in his “résidence d’hiver en St. Regis”, where he’d often hold court looking down on visitors from his 7ft chair, installed on the backs of four turtles. It was here that some of his most important engagements took place, whether that was receiving Helena Rubinstein’s commission to create her frescoes, or meeting for the first time the collectors Eleanor and Reynolds Morse, who went on to create the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. It was in this suite, in 1965, that he first met the young Andy Warhol, that ultimate New York artist. On a subsequent encounter he dressed Warhol up in an Incan headdress before tying him to a spinning wheel and pouring paint all over him.

It was also in 1965 that a remarkable film, Dalí in New York, was made, capturing all the magic and madness of the maestro in residence. Directed by a young Englishman, Jack Bond, the documentary captures Dalí and his circus preparing for his largest exhibition yet, at the Huntington Hartford Gallery. Bond himself stayed in a suite at The St. Regis and in the film we see much of the hotel of the era and Dalí’s “special relationships” with its residents and staff, including the famous waiter Stanley. We also see just how difficult Dalí could be. During one scene, he is filmed demanding 5,000 large black ants (having previously insisted on a sequence of exploding swans, much as at the World’s Fair he had initially conceived a set of exploding giraffes).

As Bond explains, “Dalí always knew exactly what he wanted and he got it. The doormen had to pay Dalí’s taxi fare. He was ‘grand’ in the real meaning of the word. He fitted New York like a glove, it was made for him, and The St. Regis was, and still is, the best hotel in the whole city. He was even able to paint there – he kept a special room as his studio.”

Bond’s film about New York is on permanent show at the Dalí Museum in Florida, a fitting homage to the importance of that one city, and one hotel, in the artist’s life, the place where he turned even his social world into one fantastic happening. As Hank Hine, director of the museum, puts it, “One of our greatest Dalí works is from 1976 and is entitled Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko). This masterpiece was painted in the studio that Dalí kept at The St. Regis. The hotel is a living reminder of the vitality of the life of the city and the special vibrancy of great hotels.”

The Dalí Museum is at 1 Dalí Boulevard, St Petersburg, Florida; dali.org

Your address: The St. Regis New York; The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort
 

Images by Getty Images, Bradley Smith/Corbis, Bettmann/Corbis, WireImage, David McCabe


 

Dalí first met Andy Warhol in his suite at The St. Regis New York in 1965.
According to David McCabe, who took this photograph,
“Dalí turned the whole event into theater. Andy was petrified.”