Archive for April, 2014

Gotham Diary:
Ronde de printemps
3 April 2014

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Last night, I watched Roman Polanski’s 1988 thriller, Frantic, with Harrison Ford and Emmanuelle Seigner. There were a couple curious things. First, I remembered only two scenes clearly, the rooftop cliffhanger (in which Mr Ford’s character gets rid of his shoes and socks) and the finale; but only the rooftop business did I remember before the movie began; the ending, I had completely forgotten until it was there before me, and then I remembered it all. Funny. Second, I liked the movie. I didn’t like it the first time, when it was new. I think I can see why: it’s a movie about dread, not excitement. It’s not so much, Where’s my wife and how can I find her as What if I never see her again? When I bought the DVD a few days ago, I surmised that Frantic was a template for at least two of the big hits that Liam Neeson has enjoyed in his maturity, Taken and Unknown, and Frantic bore this out, but only as to story and complication; the earlier movie is, still, a lot less exciting. But: Paris. It’s rare to see an Anglophone movie that captures the City of Light as well as any good French picture does. But of course Mr Polanski hails from Poland, not California.

The most curious thing, however, was the sense of the passing of time. I watch old movies as a matter of course, without feeling any remoteness, but Frantic made me unusually conscious of the thick pile of years that have passed since it was made. Because Harrison Ford is one of the great action movie stars, Frantic is thoroughly compelling, especially for viewers who have outgrown the need for raw excitement, and it is almost amusing to watch him huff and puff and make things look difficult (always a trademark of his action style) twenty-five years ago. More! His unlined face and leonine head of hair seem almost comical — as if there were a style of commedia dell’arte so sophisticated that Harrison Ford himself was a stock character, requiring only a few bits of costume.

Being older (and knowing that she would soon disappear), I paid a lot of attention to the kidnapped wife at the beginning. She’s played by Betty Buckley, who is so good that you understand why she has to be removed from the action: it would never happen if she were in charge. And yet that’s completely wrong, because it is her decision to respond to the phone call from the lobby in person that triggers the plot. Back in 1988, I probably thought that Ms Buckley seemed so much older and wiser than Mr Ford that it was hard to believe that he really appreciated her, and even last night she looked, well, older. But that’s Hollywood for you; he was born in 1942 and she in 1947 — the most normal difference imaginable for a married couple. But Ms Buckley is very unlike, almost the opposite of, Selah Ward (born 1956), who plays the trophy wife opposite Mr Ford in The Fugitive. Betty Buckley’s character not only knows more about Paris than her husband but has seen more of life itself. From the beginning, then, Frantic had, last night, the air of a catch-up game.


Watching Frantic was all I was good for, after a ronde de printemps that ought to have left me staggering — Ray Soleil will know what I mean by that. He was with me the whole time, from the visit to the florist to the rest stop at Penrose. In between, lunch at Demarchelier, Crawford Doyle, the Museum, and an urban nightmare. About the florist, the restaurant, and the bookshop, I need say nothing, except that I was grateful to the point of stupefaction to find them all still there in the spring. Of course I’d been to them all during the winter, now and then, but always under the psychic carapace of hibernation that protects us from the cold. As on Tuesday, I could not get over how nice it was to be outside, doing things.

About the Museum: we went to look at the Carpeaux, and then (a first for Ray) the Marville. The work of both artists struck me by its ties to the Eighteenth Century; both Carpeaux (for all his “romanticism”) and Marville are fundamentally ancien régime artists with Second-Empire accents. (The Marville show catalogues have sold out— bravo! The Museum hopes to have another printing by May. I cursed myself for not wanting to carry the book around after prior visits.) One thing is for sure: there will be no more talk about Atget without an awareness of his far more objective predecessor. Marville doesn’t deprecate Atget, but he does make us realize that, Berenice Abbott’s modernist admiration notwithstanding, Atget was an inspired loony.

The urban nightmare was occasioned by a demonstration on Park Avenue mounted by the “residential workers” — the doormen, porters, handymen and others who make Manhattan’s larger buildings habitable. Their union’s contract is up for negotiation this month, and there’s the possibility of a strike at the end, right after Easter. Why Park Avenue is the spot for a rally I have no idea, but by the time Ray and I left the Museum, traffic on Fifth and Madison Avenues had been halted by the police, as was downtown traffic on Park Avenue. Making this nuisance truly impossible was the clatter of a helicopter parked overhead. Oh, for a drone! The security state is one thing, but Boys with Toys are quite another, and, by the way, I caught a fire truck using its sirens on Second Avenue yesterday simply to get into 85th Street and expedite its return to the firehouse. For shame!

The want of taxis resulting from the brouhaha made it necessary to stop at Penrose. Mrs NOLA had told me about it, not perhaps thinking that greybeards might not be the favored clientele. It’s a perfectly nice bar — it calls itself a “local” — and we couldn’t have been more nicely treated. But, perhaps because I sat facing the door, and it was the beginning of Happy Hour, I was brought to a state near enchantment by the look on the faces of people — men and women both, but especially men — as they came in. They looked so hopeful. There was a happiness about this look that I hasten to note — nothing needy or “experienced” about it. You might have thought that a new route to romantic bliss had been announced in Time Out. By the time we left, my reasons for feeling that I didn’t belong there had nothing to do with my age.

At home, there were bags from the florist to unpack, and boxes as well, including one from Amazon that contained On Revolution — as yummy as the box of dark chocolates from See’s Candies. (I miss calling it “Mrs See’s.” The old lady is still on the box, in a Betty Crocker sort of way.) I made a pot of much-needed tea, and Ray and I fell into talk about old movies. When he spoke highly of some Elvis Presley numbers, I threatened to tie him down to make him watch Bedtime Story, the utterly unfunny original of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Soon, however, I was at the computer, ordering away, and, any day now, my film library will include Midnight Lace and Rome Adventure. Ray is very persuasive, but he also has a stellar track record — as long as you don’t listen to him on the subject of Elvis. I told him that I’m willing to forgive the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire her infatuation with the master of Graceland; and that I won’t be indulging his until he boasts a title just as grand.

I’m still trying to figure out, though, why I ordered Disney’s Planes. Will is in San Francisco!

Gotham Diary:
Just So
2 April 2014

Wednesday, April 2nd, 2014

At the bottom of this entry, you will find another photograph. Both images were shot from the same spot, looking in opposite directions. I wanted to celebrate my return to Carl Schurz Park by explaining how it came to be what it is today.

Robert Moses, Grand Pooh Bah (it didn’t really matter which title he was wearing), had a flat at One Gracie Square, the building more or less in the center, above. It’s the last near building on the left. (More distant structures are on Roosevelt Island and in Queens.) Every day, when Moses left his apartment, what he saw across the street was the wilderness of the abandoned Gracie Estate. At the far end of this property stood Gracie Mansion. That’s the yellow house in the picture at the bottom. That’s where Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City, lives with his family.

Thanks to Robert Moses’s bright idea.

Moses liked to maintain close contact with the mayor of the city, whoever that might be; he generally nabbed the first appointment in the mayor’s daily calendar.

It occurred to Moses that he might walk to this appointment — if the mayor lived in Gracie Mansion. So he persuaded the mayor of the moment, Fiorello LaGuardia — who, no Michael Blumberg he, lived in a Greenwich Village walkup — to move into the renovated house. The grounds of the estate were magically transformed into Carl Schurz Park, arguably the most multifaceted park (per acre) in Manhattan.

The new East River Drive (today’s FDR — its landfill foundations consisting of rubble from the London blitz, brought over as ballast in otherwise empty freighters) was topped by a riverside promenade. In a matter of minutes, Moses could stroll from his apartment to the mayor’s office. So much more convenient! If he wanted a change, he could follow one of the park’s many intriguing paths, getting plenty of exercise on the abundant flights of steps. He could cross the pretty little bridge from which I took my pictures. The bridge traverses a little walk that slopes down through the plantations until it reaches a small, round plaza, with a statue of Peter Pan in the center. You would never guess, standing there, how close, as the worm burrows, the roaring FDR traffic is. The plaza and the bridge are about as pointlessly decorative as you can get without actually building a monument to something.


It’s a lovely story, and I made a lot of it up. Not everything, but so much, frankly, that, if I were you, I would corroborate every detail myself. The real story — well, it’s not a story, for one thing. It’s a complicated sequence of greater and lesser alterations (that’s how the city changes) that, were I to begin to relate it, would have you begging me to say a few (more) words about Hannah Arendt instead.

I did not make up the bit about the rubble of the blitz, though. That would have been unseemly. The rubble was just about all that Britain could spare as cargo for ships returning to the United States for urgently-needed supplies.

But, oh! To be in the park! How long has it been? Certainly I had not been to the park since the New Year, and almost certainly not for months prior to that, either. The park had a spare, windswept feel to it, owing partly to the complete lack of arboreal leafage but also to the quiet, unbelieving happiness of the people sitting on the benches, rediscovering the delight of sitting outside for pleasure. Lately quite unimaginable!

Tomorrow, I am going to visit the florist’s over on Lexington Avenue, to see what, if anything, they’ve got for the balcony. (If they having nothing at all, I won’t be surprised.) I want something to fuss over out there, and if need be will repot the spider plant that I’ve had rooting by the kitchen sink. The ivy in the large tub looks dead, although Ray Soleil assures me that it isn’t; the much smaller-leaved varicolored ivy that I planted by the wall seems to be doing well, and I have high hopes of its climbing a couple of inches of trellis this year. Everything else of a vegetable nature is extinct. Everything not vegetable is filthy. So there’s plenty to do.

Outside! What a concept.


Regular readers will not be surprised that my light reading, lately, has been the correspondence that Hannah Arendt kept up with Mary McCarthy from 1949 until her death, in 1975. Carol Brightman’s edition of the letters, Between Friends, has been a treasure of my library since it was published, in 1995. I can’t remember just what the attraction was back then, but it may simply have been the back-and-forth between two writers.

The pace of the correspondence picked up in 1959, I forget why. McCarthy was about to settle down with her last husband, James West, a Foreign Service officer attached to the OECD, and Arendt was instrumental in expediting her divorce from Bowden Broadwater. Flipping through the book to ascertain all of this — no more inventions! — I came across the following bonbon. Hannah to Mary, 20 June 1960.

I was away from New York, an idiotic affair at Baltimore, honorary degrees together with Margaret Mead, a monster, and Marianne Moore, an angel. Only one nice thing to report: we were talking about being taken to college next morning and being fetched separately, each one by her department. I said non-committally: nice of them to bother, or something to that effect. Whereupon Mead (one better call her only by her second name, not because she is a man, but because she certainly is not a woman) launched into a diatribe [about] how much all these people enjoy being with US — celebrities, etc. Before I could even get properly mad, Marianne Moore: “My, my, I can only hope we will be enjoyable.” And that was that.

I’d like to know more about why Arendt thought what she did about “Mead.”

I thought that I had read Between Friends through quite conscientiously when I bought it, but I had no recollection whatever — and surely I’d not have forgotten! — of W H Auden’s turning up at Arendt’s door with an offer of marriage, quite indecently soon after the death of her husband, Heinrich Blücher, in 1970. She turned him down — she and McCarthy both state that to do otherwise would have been “suicide” — but she gathered that Auden was so bitterly disappointed about not getting a chair at Oxford, or somesuch, that his fallback was to propose to a number of ladies, and she felt very sorry for him, which only made things worse.

I don’t know what to do. When he left he was completely drunk, staggering into the elevator. I did not go with him. I hate, am afraid of pity, always have been, and I think I never knew anybody who aroused my pity to this extent.

It turned out that Stephen Spender had already sounded out McCarthy about this proposal, on Auden’s behalf. “Are you mad?” she replied. In her letter to Arendt, she went on,

Anyway, of course I shall say nothing to Spender when I see him again. It’s typical of a homosexual — I mean Spender — to have been married for twenty years and know so little about marriage that he could venture such a thought.