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!
The Central Park Zoo in the mid-to-late 1960s barely resembles today’s facility. The centerpiece, the Sea Lion Pool, which remains pretty much as it was (with the addition of plexiglass walls, so you can see the seals swimming underwater). But the rest of it, which resembled a prison for animals, has been dramatically remodeled to be the more “naturalistic” habitat seen today.
For one thing, back then you could tell when you were close to the Zoo by the strong smell of excrement. Today, the smell is gone, with one exception: the Penguin room which has a fairly strong scent of guano. Well, they do have a lot of water birds paddling around in the simulated Antarctic environment; the main attraction is their own indoor large plexiglass pool where the aquatic acrobats can be admired while “flying” through the water. According to the penguin keeper, they love it when the keepers “turn the rain on.”
Back in the mid-1960s, I remember a row of cells behind the Sea Lion pool, where incarcerated animals could be seen behind two rows of bars. There was a gorilla, a leopard, and several other inmates. They either sat at the bars looking out sullenly, or paced back and forth endlessly.
From the hall of ersatz messages, we walked around the corner to the authentic original temple of modern dining, the Automat.
Long before McDonald’s and Burger King moved from strip mall paradises out on Highway 50 in Orlando to urban centers near Grand Central, Horn & Hardart had reigned supreme as America’s original fast food restaurant. Like the post office, the walls were covered with tiny glass windows displaying Salisbury steak, sandwiches, macaroni & cheese, pudding, or slices of cherry pie, all fed by kitchen staff behind the wall. After inserting either coin or token into the slot and turning the handle, you could raise the window and take out the delicacy.
There was also a cafeteria line if you had more time to wait.
Everyone has a shining moment. My Dad’s bears repeating. He really slayed it!
So Dad got the idea for a fantastic business related to patent filings and infringements, kind of an amalgam between legal and IT but not a legal practice, strictly speaking. As I am able to remember it, he had become friendly with Ed Greer, who was head patent counsel for the Union Carbide Corporation. Union Carbide was one of the biggest chemical corporations of the day and was headquartered in their own magnificent skyscraper two blocks up Park Avenue from the Pan Am Building.
It was a probably a simple matter for Dad to put it together that large corporate patent owners could benefit from some form of computer calendaring.
Keep in mind that a large company like Union Carbide owned a large portfolio of patents. They would initially file patent applications in the home country, USA for Union Carbide. And as they were a large multinational corporation selling their wares everywhere, once the patent applications were accepted here at home, they would then engage in an international filing program elsewhere, typically the largest 15 countries in Western Europe and then Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and maybe Brazil and South Africa to boot.
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.
Above: beautiful Charolais cows in France. Livestock photo by the author.
During my furtive job search in 1985, Brown Brothers Harriman was obviously not the place where yours truly got closest to the Finest Escape from an injurious job situation. That distinction belongs to an interesting entity called the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company (“MHT”), otherwise known as “Manny Hanny.” A storied bank that had grown on the back of multiple acquisitions, by the mid-1980s it was one of the largest in New York City (and the world, for that matter).
However come 1992, it was no more. Kaput.
But in its day, one of its core strengths lay in its international banking operations, which was my particular interest. Plunging my contact list, I came to visit the headquarters numerous times at 270 Park Avenue. Astute readers may recognize that very same address from previous posts as Manny Hanny had purchased it from none other than Union Carbide. This was the very same building that Dad had dragged me to when he went trolling for secretaries in the 1960s, see my post “THE BIGGER IDEA (AND ME AS WINGBOY).”
It was the locale of the big score in my family, in other words, hallowed ground. Maybe it would be the same for me, personally.