“This table is reserved for Mr X – but you can have it … ” The maître d’ at the Grill Room in New York’s Four Seasons showed me to the only free table in the restaurant, which is notoriously jammed at lunchtime. I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. “I’ll figure out what to do with Mr. X when he gets here … ”
Mr X (not, obviously, his real name) is one of the main characters in a book I’ve almost finished writing. Broadly, it’s an investigation exposing the shady stories of various real estate moguls who’d prefer people to think they’d made their money on the straight and narrow. It’s taken me more than three years to report and research; only a few days earlier Mr X, whom I’ve spent days interviewing, had called me to ask if he could possibly be relegated in the book from a “protagonist” to “passer-by”. He was coming under “pressure”. “I didn’t tell my wife I spoke to you,” he said. “I lied.”
Lying is a job requirement for many of the characters in the book – and their wives know it, too – so I told him to relax. I got on with writing.
I’d gone out to lunch partly because I wanted a break from the grubby world festering in my head; more practically, I’d wanted a change from the monotony of my routine. I have been like a robot. I sit down at the same hour each morning and type. Through one window I see the trunk of a leafless tree, out of the other there are the pale bricks of the building next door. I hear passing traffic but don’t feel part of it.
So “lunch” is a critical part of mental health maintenance. I sit there thinking: “Amazing … you can still talk!” Better yet, I can even talk about things and people who are not in my book. I feel normal, clean …
Except today. Mr X arrived. I waved. He ignored me. The charade continues.
On my way out of the restaurant I passed a peaceful corridor known as “Picasso Alley”, now the source of a noisy controversy. At stake is a 20ft theatre curtain depicting a bullfighting scene. Painted by Pablo Picasso for the Ballets Russes production of Le Tricorne in 1919, it has hung on a wall in the Seagram building since the Four Seasons first opened there in 1959.
While the building and its interior are protected by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the curtain isn’t protected as, technically, it isn’t architecture: it’s art. Aby Rosen, a developer who is the building’s owner, was reportedly overheard saying he thinks it’s a schmatte – Yiddish for “rag”. He wants it moved. The New York Landmarks Conservancy, which owns the curtain, argues it should not be moved, since it’s integral to the interior and moving it could damage it. For the moment, it is staying put: the Conservancy has won a temporary restraining order.
Perhaps my book research has jaundiced me but I find “the chatter about the schmatte” on one level rather humorous. New York developers sometimes go to absurd lengths to cover their tracks when dealing with historic buildings or precious artefacts. Deals are negotiated in secret and leaked only when it’s too late to stop them; public relations firms are hired to smooth over image issues. No one wants to get caught repeating, even in a small way, the tragic 1963 destruction of Penn Station.
Except Aby Rosen who, uniquely it seems, says what he really thinks aloud. “If we break it, we buy it,” his lawyer told the judge in reference to moving the Picasso – which, of course, only further enraged the “schmatte” preservationists who are aware that, for Rosen, such an expense is pocket change.
On to the New York Public Library where there’s another battle between culture and commerce, of a far more gargantuan nature. This one does have echoes of the Penn Station debacle and will potentially be billed to taxpayers, so there’s not much to smile about.
In 2008, the British architect Lord Norman Foster was selected to design a $300m renovation of the library’s glorious Beaux Arts main branch on 42nd St.
Late in 2012, after four long years, Lord Foster unveiled his design, which was described by New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman as having the “elegance of a suburban mall”. Worse, Foster proposed demolishing the steel book “stacks” that were an intrinsic part of the original design. A rival (American) architect confided in me that some trustees had begun to feel, too late, that they had been seduced by Lord Foster’s “British accent”.
Enter Anthony Marx: a sprightly man, named library president in 2011, Marx is an academic who does not want to go down in history as the man who ruined the library. He’s consulting with Lord Foster in the hope that a redesign will provide resolution.
Marx and I spent the afternoon looking at the library’s treasures. Among them was a handwritten draft of Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence, which, intriguingly, had an extra paragraph, underlined, in which Jefferson condemned the slave trade. Jefferson felt he had to excise it to placate delegates from Georgia and South Carolina before signing the final version. We stood contemplating the extraordinary ramifications of what would have happened if that paragraph had stayed in.
Home, finally, where my other half is hosting a fundraiser for two new colleges at Yale. This project is delightfully controversy-free since Robert (Bob) AM Stern, Yale’s dean of architecture, is in charge and the buildings are – like their architect – unapologetically old-fashioned.
As he showed his slides depicting airy rooms dedicated to learning, I wanted to be 18 again and go back to college. The images were reassuring for someone who has spent the past three years writing a book, something that people keep telling me is pointlessly out-of-vogue. Stern sipped his Martini and moved on to the last slide. “Here’s the library,” he said. He pointed at the shelves. “And those are books. Real books. I promise you they will be there, if I have to buy them myself!”
Vicky Ward’s next book is scheduled for publication by John F Wiley & Sons later this year