FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1

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!

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CHANGE AND REBOUND

Life is not easy. We all have problems-even tragedies-to deal with, and luck has nothing to do with it. Bad luck is only the superstitious excuse for those who don’t have the wit to deal with the problems of life. ”
Joan Lowery Nixon, In The Face of Danger

Problems?  Yeah, I had a few.  But let’s be real.  My weird situations are nothing compared to many suffered by others.

Consider Denne Bart Petitclerc, journalist, author, producer.  When he was 5 years old in 1934, his father took him to downtown Seattle to admire the holiday decorations.  Stopping in front of the giant Christmas tree, his dad told him to “watch the angel (on top of the tree), I’ll be right back.”  He didn’t return.  He left his child there, abandoning him to be an orphan in the December night.

At least I had a Father to love, to admire, to tell me funny stories, to join in the family business, and then to, maddeningly, watch as he withered away.  There were many good years, regardless.

I think we’ve all had pivotal moments like that, when everything changes.  Today’s story, a repeat, is about my night when the sky was darkest, and most unfamiliar.  Merry Christmas and don’t forget to count your blessings (and not boobies)!  

In the spring of 1962, I turned 4 years old. Mom and Dad were living at 1050 Fifth Avenue and Central Park was my playground. In the evening, I would play in my room and when I heard the door open and Dad enter the apartment, I would thrust myself down the stairs, yelling “Daddy, Daddy!” One time I came down the stairs so fast, I tripped and fell. I arrived at the bottom in a tumbled mess.

My Dad would have a seat on the couch, maybe after turning on the hi-fi or plopping the Four Lads on the phonograph. Mom would serve him a Rheingold. “What’s that?” I asked. “Beer,” he said. “Can I try some?” “Sure.” I did, it was not to my taste.

I was oblivious to the fact that the marriage of my Mom and Dad was finished.

CHANGE AND REBOUND

Mr. and Mrs. Bernard Olcott, January 1963.

In the spring of 1962, I turned 4 years old. Mom and Dad were living at 1050 Fifth Avenue and Central Park was my playground. In the evening, I would play in my room and when I heard the door open and Dad enter the apartment, I would thrust myself down the stairs, yelling “Daddy, Daddy!” One time I came down the stairs so fast, I tripped and fell. I arrived at the bottom in a tumbled mess.

My Dad would have a seat on the couch, maybe after turning on the hi-fi or plopping the Four Lads on the phonograph. Mom would serve him a Rheingold. “What’s that?” I asked. “Beer,” he said. “Can I try some?” “Sure.” I did, it was not to my taste.

I was oblivious to the fact that the marriage of my Mom and Dad was finished.

THE QUÉBEC CONNECTION

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.

THE HEIGHTS OF EXCLUSIVITY

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.

TALE OF TWO IMMIGRANTS

In the mid-1950s, Michele Rousseau was a beautiful, elegant girl working at Wally Findlay Galleries on East 57th Street. She was barely 20 when she was dragged out yet again one night to the Stork Club on East 53rd Street by her extroverted mother. There she met a handsome man in a uniform and her life would be changed forever as she would soon become wife no. 2.

I know more about Michele than any other wife for one simple reason. She was my Mom.

Like my Dad’s family, she was part of a family of immigrants. On both sides, my grandparents were foreign-born and had deep ties to the Old World. But on just about every other social, economic, or cultural basis, there the similarities ended. Whereas my Grandfather Mikas Arlauskas made the arduous sea voyage literally in steerage class in 1914 from Europe to New York, my Grandmother Marguerite Alain did the trip in first class in the other direction some ten years later to be married off to her fiancé Paul Rousseau in Paris.

Later on in 1948, my Mom arrived in New York, probably in her stepfather’s Cadillac, the hood hot from plying the New York State Thruway from Montréal.