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.
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!
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.
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?
“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?”
(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: