I continue from last week’s post FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1 with Bill’s very unexpected description of my Grandmother, Margaux Alain, at work in her salon. Notice the use of the Prussian Frau Landlady as a foil:
The French dressmaker was a constant revelation to Frau Landlady. In the coldest days of winter, the dressmaker would be bitching up a storm about the lack of heat when the landlady would come tramping down the stairs lit by a fifteen-watt bulb, her body covered with heavy wooly underwear and layers of sweaters, bearing a huge thermometer in her fist to prove to the French madame that there was ample heat. When the landlady would tap at the door, she always got the shock of her life to find the French madame running around on ten-degree-cold days with just a bra and panties. She couldn’t design fully clothed; she found inspiration only flowed to her fingers when she was almost naked. Of course, the landlady would hit the ceiling, wildly screaming, scaring my customers out of their wits.
I remember my Grandmother at her sewing machine, cigarette in mouth, wearing a bathrobe with, I guess, nothing else on but just a bra and panties. Now I know that she didn’t bother to wear that bathrobe when I wasn’t around.
Read More “FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 2”
Just because I was a schmo working at Polo Ralph Lauren who sold twenty fugly ties to Elton John (and pants to Carl Sagan) didn’t make me a fashion genius. Sure, I could match neckties to shirts, but look at what I was working with – Mr. Lauren made it easy!
No one in my family had any significant interactions with Ralph (my inconsequential meeting aside). But we did enjoy a relationship with someone at Ralph’s level. And by this I am referring to my maternal Grandmother Marguerite Alain and her lifetime friend, Bill Cunningham.
An iconic New Yorker through and through, Bill was a soft-spoken milliner who shared a commercial studio adjacent to my Grandmother’s Design Studio in the 1950s. They both loved flamboyant styles and clothing that made a statement. When hats went flat in 1960, Bill emerged as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and then for the New York Times, where he was often seen riding his girl’s bike around midtown, stopping to take pictures of well-dressed women on the street. Up through 2016!
Read More “FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1”
With great sadness, I regret to inform my readers of the passing on September 29, 2016 of Kit Davidson, Director and Producer of “3RD AVE EL.” I find myself fortunate to have interviewed him for this blog a few months before his death. Please see my post above for a review of his film; I compared it to Roshomon! This news was sent along to me by Mr. Joseph Frank, former police officer, who found my stories about THE LOST LINE.
You see, Joe grew up by the 3rd Avenue El and recently found my web site due to his interest in elevated trains. Specifically, he is from the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan — where I live — which is an old German and Hungarian enclave from the 20th century.
Read More “84TH STREET STATION, 3RD AVE EL”
Well, not exactly. But he did, in the 1950s, come up with the idea under which a majority of equity and debt trades today are effected in current financial markets. Not that the markets followed his proposal at the time. Far from it. But with this idea, my Dad did actually see around the corner. Let me explain.
Dad was essentially an inventor at heart. This is what engineers do, conceive of new things. As People’s Exhibit No. 1, consider the following work:
This is the cover of a treatise entitled “Motor Design.” It was his final project for his first year at Cooper Union. Dated May 18, 1938, it concerns engines for boats. Of course boats! What else would a waterman write about?
Read More “MY DAD INVENTED THE INTERNET”
“The Lost Weekend,” as previously noted in my post of the same name, was the Academy Award best picture of 1945. It not only reveals Gotham of yesterday by way of moving images, like the main actor stumbling haggardly under the Third Avenue El in search of a drink, but also by way of the language and the accents of the era. Unlike the 1960 classic “Butterfield 8,” the personalities in “The Lost Weekend” engage with each other directly, with a minimum of game playing or social charades. It was the 1940s way.
Significantly, as it relates to The Bernard Olcott Story, it’s about a writer! There’s even a reference to my distant cousin James Thurber (on my mother’s side) in the first few minutes.
What can you say about the film noir world of the 1940s, the formative decade for my Dad? Well, for one thing, there were a HELL of a lot of barber shops. Everywhere!
However, the first thing I noticed were the strong New York accents, most notably as spoken by the bartender Nat. He routinely addresses the main character, Don Birnham, as “Mr. Boy-nam.” This brings me back to working at Olcott International in Weehawken in the late 1970s and afterwards, please see my post “GOODBYE 212, HELLO 201?”
Read More “LOOKING BACK AT THE FILM NOIR 1940s”
(This post is also known as “THE LOST LINE, PART 2.” Next week, Part 3!)
The Third Avenue El in New York City was dismantled in 1955, so… it’s gone. Forever. It only today exists in our memories, collective consciousness, photographs, moving pictures, and really strange blogs (know any?).
Cosmologists explain that, from a multi-dimensional point of view, time can exist as a distinct physical address. So, if you were to be a sentient being that exists in, say, 5, 6, or more dimensions, you could easily wander to the following spatial coordinates as if you walked from one house to another:
- Longitude: Third Avenue,
- Latitude: 53rd Street,
- Altitude: street-level, and
- Time (CE): 12 Noon, August 22, 1943 (the date of Bernard Olcott’s mother passing).
Just go to that location right now and look up! You’ll be looking at the 53rd Street Elevated Station!
Given such liberty, it would be possible go anywhere in time, forwards and backwards, as if these were all reachable places. Logically, all times past and future exist NOW; it’s just that they are inaccessible to us mortals.¹
The Bernard Olcott Story blog, unfortunately, cannot literally take the dear reader to the past (or future). But what it can do is to present a brilliant short art house film that brings the Third Avenue El back to life, in sight and sound (complete with a harpsichord accompaniment). It’s about eleven minutes long and follows four passengers as they journey uptown and downtown. Click the Read More link right here to see the film:
Read More ““3rd AVE. EL””
Dad was a man of letters. He loved to write to anybody and everybody. Whether he was writing to one of the greatest minds of all time (Albert Einstein) or the Chief Patent Counsel of Apple Computers (Paul Carmichael), I was often astonished at the response rate (at least at the onset).
In fact, writing letters was his preferred and (for a while) just about sole marketing tactic for Olcott International in the 1980s and 1990s. I recall that he really got started by composing a 4 page template on an Olivetti electric typewriter around 1982. This sample letter, into which he could drop hundreds of names and addresses via mail-merge, was a direct and personal appeal to the Chief Patent Counsels of large corporations, the ultimate decision makers on the customer side. Dad’s letters would, without much of an introduction, launch into 1) not-so-brief technical descriptions of his helicopter and air conditioning patents, 2) how he pioneered the concept of calendaring and paying patent renewals by computer in the early 1960s, and 3) how the Chief Patent Counsel’s company could save hundreds of thousands of dollars by delegating such to Olcott International.
For the convenience of the reader, I have boiled the letter down into those three sections. In reality, it was a difficult-to-read, long, rambling, monster of a letter, replete with malapropisms.
Read More “A MAN OF LETTERS”
So when my Dad put on his Dress Army Uniform that night in 1954 (to go out to the Stork), what the hell was he getting into?
The Quebec Connection, that’s what. Quebec City is a city but it ain’t New York City. In comparison, QC comes off as a sleepy government center with a walled old town (unique for a North American City) and a lingua franca that is neither English nor Spanish (again, very unusual in norteamérica). Both offer quaint streets and lots for tourists to see and eat. However, the most apparent difference is the money game that is the core of New York, New York and la Francophonie which is the heart of Québec, Québec. NYC has culture too, but more in a polyglot way (and not so much French, although that is changing today as the economy in France continues to suck eggs)
That fateful night at The Stork Club, Dad was introduced to the retiring antiques sales clerk at Wally Findlay Gallery, my Mom Michele Rousseau. She came from a long line of Quebecers stretching back to the 17th century (which is very common north of the border). Like my Dad, she was the younger of two children born to her parents Margo Alain and Paul Rousseau.
As for Margo, she was also the youngest of seven and quite possibly the most ambitious. Together with her older brother Gaston, they were the only children that worked with their Father, my Great-Grandfather P.A. Alain (everyone called him P.A. which you have to say as “Pay Ah” in French). Margo had a private office in her Father’s salon de fourrures where, as my Mom tells it, she would “do nothing but just chat on the phone with her friends all day long.”
As the dear reader can infer, my Mom and her Mom had a complicated relationship.
Read More “THE QUÉBEC CONNECTION”
3 East 53rd Street, back in the day. Today this location is an attractive pocket park with a water fall.
Of all the gin mills on this planet, Humphrey Bogart got thrown out of this one in New York City in the 1950s.
You see, the owner Sherman Billingsley was “the man” of his times, the arbiter of who was in and who was out. His bar and restaurant, The Stork Club at 3 East 53rd Street, was the most prestigious nightclub in the city, frequented by celebrities, royals, sports figures, debutantes, and café society (except Bogey and a few other blacklisteds). Black tie (or military dress uniform) was standard wear, any night. The bartender’s name was “Cookie.” Female patrons were given a small vial of “Stork Club” perfume and flowers. Also for the ladies, Sunday night was the balloon party; balloons would drop from the ceiling at a preset time filled with presents like folded $100 bills. If you needed a ride home, Sherman had a private car for use by preferred guests. Regular patrons received a case of champagne as a Christmas present every year. As he told his employees, “If you know them, they don’t belong in here.” There was a 14 karat gold chain at the entrance; if the doorman unclipped it for you, you were admitted. Just don’t misbehave.
If there hadn’t been a Stork Club in the 1950s, you would be reading something else right now. Because that is where my Mom met my Dad sometime around 1954.
My Dad and Mom had interesting paths to that gold chain. Since Dad wasn’t high-born, he had to get there the hard way.
Read More “THE HEIGHTS OF EXCLUSIVITY”