The opening of the Charles James show at the Metropolitan Museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center brings with it memories of New Yorks past: of ball gowns and ballrooms, of a society well costumed and closed. That world is all but gone. (And as for the closed part: Good riddance.) But there is, luckily, a kind of grand New York that lives on — in the lives of its grandest dames. Here are seven of them.
Photos by Norman Jean Roy. Styled by Kim Meehan.
*This article appeared in the May 5, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.
Profession: Artist. Age: 90. Greatest professional accomplishment? Blessed with the energy to keep working! Where do you live? Secret. How has New York changed? Radically. How has it stayed the same? The magic remains. Last book you read that you’d recommend? Middlemarch. Best advice? Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.
Profession: Philanthropist. Where do you live? Upper East Side. How has the city changed most? It has many, many more tourists, which proves it to be a dazzling place. How have social mores changed most? They have become much more tolerant. Your favorite hostess? The Duchess of Windsor. The best New York party you’ve ever been to? My own! One party had the Duke of Windsor playing bagpipes in my front hall; another had a six-foot bear on hind legs in the receiving line and then dancing with the guests.
Profession: Writer. Age: 97. Greatest professional accomplishment? Creating the art magazine L’Oeil in Paris. Greatest personal accomplishment? Making a new life in this country. How has the city changed most? The streets are worse than ever. How have social mores changed most? People are much slower to answer invitations. The best New York party you’ve ever been to? My 95th, on the terrace at the Century. Last book you read that you’d recommend? Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James.
Michele Oka Doner
Profession: Artist. Age: 68. Where do you live? Soho. Favorite New York memory? Sometimes I’ve caught a full moon moving across the sky on Spring and Mercer Streets. It seems as if the moon was meant to be framed by the stage set created by buildings on lower Broadway. How has the city changed most? Trees! Pocket parks have reached a critical mass. I can practically hop from one to another. How have social mores changed most? The notion of makers has settled into the borough of Brooklyn and brought us craft beer served up with the ancient ethic of handmade. Favorite thing to wear? A simple dress that goes over my head. The best advice you give others? Dogs don’t dig up another dog’s bones. Know your own bone. The best advice you’ve gotten? The closed fist receives nothing.
Christophe de Menil
Profession: Designer of jewelry and clothing—as well as costumes for opera houses. Age: 81. Greatest personal accomplishment? Overcoming life’s dramas. I cannot cry anymore. Favorite New York memory? Helping my sister Adelaide, in the 1970s, photograph Grand Central station from a hill on Park Avenue and 68th Street. She had to use a ladder that I brought to maneuver around the traffic lights. She had to move it back and forth from the street to the middle island and climb on and off in sync with the traffic lights. It was hilarious! How has the city changed most? Taylor Mead thought Elaine’s was indispensable. Now all the excitement is downtown. I like it just fine. How has it stayed the same? Thank God Central Park is still there!
Francine du Plessix Gray
Profession: Writer. Age: 83. Favorite New York spots: I come into the city from Connecticut about two days a week, and I stay at a place called the Phillips Club. You can leave your clothes there and come with a book bag … If I had a beau with a lot of money, which I don’t, being a widow, I would go to La Grenouille all the time. What do you miss the most about old New York? As a child, I used to love to ride those wooden horses on the merry-go-round in Central Park. I miss the fact that my own grandchildren don’t have a merry-go-round where they can grab the brass ring. Last book you read that you’d recommend? In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by William Gass. Typical writing routine? Right now I’m working on a book on the great chef Marie-Antoine Carême, of the 19th century. If I’m doing a first draft, I still like longhand. I think that we’ve been writing by hand for so many centuries that somehow our subconscious just gets transcribed better in longhand.
Profession: Interior designer. Age: 87. The best New York party you’ve ever been to? My favorite way of spending an evening is staying quietly at home. Your favorite restaurant? La Grenouille. The trick to keeping a good friend in New York? Don’t gossip. Your signature piece? I have two. One is an Hermès belt that I discovered lately, years after buying it in Paris, and now I wear it every day. Another is a white scarf made of linen, which I also wear every day. How has the city changed most? I have changed along with the city, so it is hard to separate the two. How have social mores changed most? Have they changed?