Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shaw at the Players

One of the marvels of this city is that there is always some type of theatre happening and usually in a distinguished, history-laden building. Last year I came across a wonderful program called Project Shaw. On the third Monday of each month, the Gringold Theatrical Group puts on a reading of a George B. Shaw play at the legendary Player's Club overlooking Gramercy Park. Between 2006 - 2009, they presented every sketch, full length and one-act play that Shaw had ever written. And they are continuing the tradition again this year, still at New York's most legendary private club.

The Player's was started by a Mr Edward Booth in 1888. He was America's leading Shakespearian actor at the time and wanted to create a private "gentleman's club" based on the Garrick in London. According to the Player's website, the purpose of the club was "the promoting of social intercourse between members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, architecture, sculpture and music, law and medicine, and the patrons of the arts...."

Mr Booth certainly seems to make a dashing Hamlet in the picture below. And not withstanding a historical scandal in his family - his younger brother John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln - his memory lives on in the form of a bronze statue standing in the park, directly opposite the Player's.

He also had some very influential friends. Mark Twain founded Player's with Booth and the famous architect Stanford White was in charge of converting the 1847 townhouse at number 16 Gramercy Park, purchased by Booth in 1888 for the handsome sum of US$75,000. This building - a national historic landmark since 1963 - sits in one of the most coveted neighborhoods in Manhattan. Not only is the private park surrounded by the most beautiful townhouses, inhabited through the years by politicians, actors and artists, it is also home to the National Arts Club and only residents facing the park are granted a key to enter the hallowed compound.
When I wandered there late one afternoon in fall, I had to make do with peering through the wrought iron fence and only imagine walking along the impeccably maintained pathways.

But back to Player's. Some of the more notable members have included Henry James, Norman Rockwell, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart and Cornelius Vanderbilt. In 1989, women were finally allowed to become members and greats like Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury and Liv Ullman have all wandered the grand rooms of yesteryear. The walls are full of wonderful portraits of past members including some by the famous artist and Player's member, John Singer Sargent. There are also props and costumes on display from notable theatre productions - like the throne used in Booth's first production of Hamlet.

Even if you don't like musty old men's clubs, it is worth going to a Shaw reading just to get inside a legendary institution and breathe in the talent of so many famous past artists.

IMAGES: Player's, wikimedia, mine

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Vinegar Hill

I had brunch today again at one of my favorite haunts over in Brooklyn, Vinegar Hill House. It is situated in a once derelict carriage house in a neighborhood that is so tiny and obscure that not even native New Yorkers have heard of it. Vinegar Hill - the neighborhood and place of VH House -  sits snuggled against DUMBO, behind the Brooklyn naval yards and is only about a 4-5 block radius. It is a truly isolated 'hood full of 1800's brown stones and belgian block streets flanked by a power station and derelict warehouses and unfortunately now, ugly new apartment developments. There is honestly nothing here except a few closed store fronts, a notice board that I think is still used and now VH House.

According to the wonderful Forgotten New York website, the name Vinegar Hill had nothing at all to do with vinegar. In 1800, a certain John Jackson purchased this area of land and hoped to attract Irish immigrants, thus naming the area Vinegar Hill after the battle site of the Irish rebellion of 1798. In Ireland, the name "Vinegar Hill" was an English transliteration of a Gaelic term meaning "Hill of the wood of the berries". 
I don't think the owners of Vinegar Hill House have taken this into consideration with their less-than-Irish menu. However, I guess, like an Irish tavern, this space is wonderfully warm and eclectic, with mismatching chairs and tables, a worn copper bar, vintage wallpaper and an assortment of decorations such as a colonial flag, succulents, a random piece of stained glass and lanterns.

The owners are a husband and wife team who met when they worked at Freeman's (another super cool eatery in an alleyway on the Lower East Side). They serve yummy brunches on weekends and dinner only, during the week. In summer, there is a gorgeous courtyard out the back, to eat under the shade of a fruit tree. And when it's time to amble home, why not walk across the Manhattan Bridge and take in the sublime view!

Images: Yelp, Telegraph, New York magazine, we heart new york, mine

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Tin Pan Alley

I walked down Tin Pan Alley today. Who knew such a place really existed except in a song sung by Stevie Ray Vaughan and in musicals and films. In fact, it very nearly doesn't exist today. In November 2008, apparently five of the historic buildings on West 28th St between 5th and 6th Avenues went up for sale. Luckily for the preservationists, the sale was forestalled by the economic crisis, so they now have more time to make a case against another ugly residential development going up. 
Tin Pan Alley is fondly referred to as "the birthplace of American song". From the 1890s to the 1950s, this stretch of 28th Street in Chelsea was the place where music publishers and songwriters - including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer - were concentrated. Jewish immigrants opened up sheet-music publishing houses and created songs in their offices. Composers, arrangers and lyricists all came to this once dense musical enclave to grind out ragtime, jazz and blues hits. Apparently it got its name because of the chaos of sound produced by so many pianos playing at the same time on one street, which was said to sound like the clinging of pots and pans, which at the time were made of tin. 
I love these old New York stories. I must dig out more.

Image: Gothamist

Monday, January 18, 2010

Grey Gardens

"Raccoons and cats become a little bit boring, I mean for too long a time."
- Edie Beale -

A portrayal of one of the strangest and most riveting local, true-life stories won deserved recognition last night at the Golden Globes. Drew Barrymore won for her portrayal of "Little" Edie Beale in HBO's Grey Gardens, which also won for best mini series/movie. 
I had never heard of the Beales or Grey Gardens until I moved to New York. But it was a mother and daughter story so complex and sad and wonderful that I had to find out more.
Edith "Big Edie" Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale were the aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Big Edie bought Grey Gardens of East Hampton in 1924 and together with her daughter lived here for over 50 years. Most of that time, they lived in utter squalor and total isolation. When the house was built in 1915 it looked like this:
By the time the Beales left it looked like this:
Thankfully due to the much-needed restoration by the new owners in 1979, it now looks like this:

The Beales were infamous in East Hampton well before the general public learned of them, due to the total disrepair of the house and the stench that emanated from it. In the fall of 1971 and throughout 1972, their living conditions were brought to light in an article from the National Enquirer and a cover story in New York magazine after a series of inspections (which the Beales classified as "raids") by the Suffolk County Health Department.
With the Beales facing eviction, Jacqueline Onassis and her sister, Lee Radziwill, stepped in - quietly - to provide the necessary funds to repair the dilapidated house so that it would meet Village codes. 

The Edies' story and living conditions became the subject of a mesmerizing now-cult documentary, filmed in 1976 by the Maysles Brothers. Shot in a house overrun by cats, mice and raccoons, with junk and rubbish piled so high in the garden it is hard to find the house, the two Edies seem to live in a fantasy world completely oblivious to their surroundings. The documentary has fascinated and horrified audiences for nearly thirty-five years. How could two women related to American aristocracy have fallen so far, with such little regard for their living conditions? 

One of the most remarkable aspects of the documentary is the naked vulnerability of its subjects, the blithe openness of people living in a fantasy world. With Little Edie doing most of the talking, you cobble together the life of a privileged woman who was once a singer and dancer, feted by society and pursued by many men, until her mother pulled her away from life in New York to come and look after the cats at Grey Gardens. From there, life became a series of memories in an increasingly squalid way of life. The constant struggle between artistic mother and flamboyant daughter is certainly based on a dysfunctional relationship, but it is underpinned by a strong love and need for each other.
This is an early image of Edie from a beauty contest:
And this is Edie at Grey Gardens

This story and its characters have become legendary. Little Edie's kookie fashion (she lost all her hair throught either stress or a self immolation action, depending on what you read) including a jumper wrapped around her head or leotards and a long silk scarf to go swimming in, was updated and seen on the catwalk to coincide with the launch of the Grey Gardens mini series. Her philosophical sound bites from the documentary - "I had my cake, loved it, masticated it, chewed it and had everything I wanted" - show there is more to this woman than a bitter and strange eccentric. Whatever the reason, the Beales and Grey Gardens add a texture and color to an otherwise sometimes bland world.

"Big Edie" died in 1977 and "Little Edie" sold the house in 1979. She died in 2002 at 84 of a heart attack in Florida. She wasn't found for five days.
If you want to read a first hand account of the Beales, there is a wonderful story in the 1972 edition of New York magazine. It is written by a neighbor who became a regular visitor of Grey gardens.  
In 2008, Little Edie's niece published a book on her life. Edith Bouvier Beale of Grey Gardens: A Life in Pictures is full of letters, photos, drawings and scrapbook pieces, putting together the life of a fascinating, privileged and once beautiful woman.

Images: USA Today, Grey Gardens,  Duke Magazine, HBO, East Hampton History, Amazon

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New Year, New Decade, New York

After two incredibly hot and regenerating weeks under the aussie sun,  I am back and excited about this year and this city. Tumbling headlong back into this dense and noisy concrete jungle after the open space and quiet of Oz is always an assault on the senses, but the energy of this place quickly reminds you why it is such an inspiring place to live.

2010 is going to be a special year - I can feel it. As we continue to argue about how to refer to the last decade - the double-o's, the naughties, the post-9/11 era - I prefer to look forward to this new decade and what it may bring. Unfortunately, the events in Haiti have kicked off this year with a disaster like so many other years - the bushfires in Victoria last year, the Asian tsunami of 2004 -  but somehow they also unite the world with a humanitarian cause. My hope is we all take the opportunity this decade to look at things differently and make a difference for the better.

My resolutions this year? To continue to explore this city and its five boroughs. In two years I have only scratched the surface. I will put on my sporting cap and go to a Mets game, watch ice hockey at Madison Square Gardens, visit all those local museums that often get overlooked, hear jazz in Harlem, eat greek in Astoria and watch the russian mafia stroll along the Brighton Beach boardwalk. And all this with my now fave song "Empire State of Mind" as my theme song: "New York....these streets will make you feel brand new, these lights will inspire you".

Let's get out amongst it! Happy New Year.

Image: Penn Uni