With virtually all of the East Side shut down this morning, it was quite a slog getting to Michael’s today. I waited behind the barricades at the corner of 55th and Fifth for about fifteen minutes until Vice President Joe Biden emerged from The Peninsula Hotel and was whisked away in a 10-car motorcade. When the coast was clear (with the street still lined with police cars), I made my way to the restaurant wondering if anyone else would even make it there today.
Luckily, my ‘Lunch’ dates arrived at the appointed hour. I was joined by Tony Cointreau, heir to the Cointreau liquor fortune, whose new book, A Gift of Love Lessons Learned From My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa, was feted last night in this very dining room. Tony was accompanied by his partner of 50 years (!?) Jimmy Russo (“We like each other and we laugh a lot”) and PR maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky, who arranged our get-together.
It wasn’t too long into our conversation that it occurred to me that Tony’s life story makes a pretty interesting book of its own — and did in his memoir Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa … and Me . His life reads like a Judith Krantz novel (I know, I’m dating myself). Tony grew up in the lap of luxury shuttling between a Park Avenue apartment and châteaus in France. Eager to escape his unhappy childhood, from a very early age he ran with international socialites like Lee Lehman, wife of Lehman Brothers’ head Robert Lehman, who “adopted” him and treated him like a son for the rest of her life. “She was the first of my three mothers,” he told me. He had a lifelong friendship with Merman (more on that later) and together with Jimmy, became one of her closest confidants. His singing career was launched by designer Pierre Cardin at Maxim’s in Paris and Tony spent the next decade performing for sold-out audiences throughout Europe for the next decade. See, I told you it was one for the books.
Tony has compiled the 10 most important lessons learned from Mother Teresa during the most transformative period of his life in a new book, A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned from My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa. From that life-changing experience, the idea for his book was born. In the foreword of the book he writes: “If I can reach just one person who is flailing around in panic and fear while trying to help a loved one at the end of their life, my journey will have been worthwhile.”
When I asked Tony what compelled him to go to Calcutta in 1990 and spend the next 12 years volunteering at Mother Teresa’s home for destitute men dying of AIDS in Greenwich Village, his eyes welled up with tears at the memory. “I was looking through a magazine,” he said while wiping his eyes. “I saw a picture of a volunteer holding a dying man in her arms and I knew, I knew, I have to go and do this.”
During his time as a volunteer in both Calcutta and New York, Tony told me he did everything from wash floors to sing to patients — and offer comfort to the dying. Over 100 AIDS patients died in his arms.
He visibly brightened when he described his relationship with the recently canonized saint. He told me that he and ‘Mother’ spent hours sitting on the terrace of the Mother House of the Missionaries Charity in Calcutta. “Sometimes she’d ask me to sing, so I would sing for her. You don’t say ‘no’ to Mother.” He laughed when he recalled her “great sense of humor” during one of their earliest exchanges. When Tony first arrived in Calcutta he “didn’t want to lower my standard of living” and checked into “a marble palace.” After visiting him at his hotel Mother Teresa asked him how much he was paying for his suite. “I told her and then she said, ‘No, not by the week, by the day.’ I told her it was the day [rate]. She said, ‘You didn’t take a vow of poverty, you took a vow of luxury.'”
I wondered if during his years as a volunteer, he’d ever seen Mother Teresa and Princess Diana together. “Princess Diana met Mother only once,” he said. “[Their relationship] has been built into this thing that never happened, but they admired each other.” We all agreed that it was still a bit spooky that the two women died within days of each other in 1997.
That led to a spirited conversation (funny, right?) about how those we love remain close to us after death. “It’s very comforting to know that [the people we love] stay with us. That’s beautiful,” said Tony. He told me that he “talks to Mother all time” — especially during the writing of his new book. “I sat down at the computer and said, ‘Mother will you help me?’ and I felt her presence on my right shoulder,” he said. “I wrote for about three hours and when I read what I had written I couldn’t believe it. I knew it was Mother helping me.”
When he finished the book, Tony asked for Mother’s help again. “I said, ‘What can we do to give this book a boost?’ The next day, the Pope announced he was canonizing her.” In a bit of fortuitous timing, said Tony, the canonization took place a few weeks ago on Sept. 4 — two days in advance of the book’s pub date. “I never said ‘No’ to Mother, and she’s never said, ‘No’ to me.”
Somehow, the conversation veered from Mother Teresa to Ethel Merman. Stay with me on this. Tony and Jimmy’s stories about their relationship with the late actress are jaw-droppers. “They actually have a lot in common,” explained Tony. “They were both very loving and very maternal. They were both mothers to me.”
Tony told me a dishy story about author Jacqueline Susann, who modeled the tough-as-nails Broadway star Helen Lawson in Valley of the Dolls on Ethel. “The truth was Jackie was in love with Ethel. She came to Ethel’s hotel room banging on the door at two in the morning,” said Tony. When she was turned away, Helen Lawson was the author’s revenge. “That was really Jackie’s lowest moment.”
Tony and Jimmy, who split their time between their homes here in New York City and Palm Beach, say Ethel, who passed away in 1984, is still very much in their lives today. The couple housed all of her showbiz memorabilia in a closet in their New York apartment for 32 years. The actress’ beloved table top Christmas tree, which she kept illuminated every day, has a place of honor in their home. “Once, the lights on the top went out,” said Tony. “I said, ‘Ethel, What do I do?’ And they went back on — and have stayed on.”
The urn containing the actress’ ashes — along with those of her mother, father, daughter and husband — were all in Tony and Jimmy’s apartment until recently. A few weeks ago, Tony insisted Ethel’s son come and retrieve the urns. “I told him he had to take them because we’re not going to be eternal,” said Tony. I’m not so sure about that.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. New Form Digital’s Ed Wilson and pals
2. Lynn Sherr and Peter Price
3. Act One: Andrew Stein; Second Seating: British Heritage Travel’s CEO Jack Kliger and Luis Arteaga, CEO of Albion, an upscale tour company working with Jack to create luxurious tours for stateside Anglophiles.
4. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman
5. Sole man Steve Madden (Does he ever take off that baseball cap?) and gal
6. Legendary Broadway producer Fran Weissler and Sharon Bush. I wanted to go over and ask her who else besides ’41’ from the Bush family was voting for Hillary, but I ran out of time. Fran came over to our table to say hello to Jimmy and Tony, who gave her a signed copy of his book.
8. Harriet Moss
9. NBCUni’s Karen Horne
11. No reservations: Sir Harry Evans was a walk-in!
12. Bonnie Reiss
14. Jay Fielden and Robert Zimmerman. I stopped by their table to say hello and congratulate Jay on Town & Country’s renaissance (If you haven’t read the magazine lately, pick up the anniversary issue) and check in with Robert, who is the Democratic National Committeeman from New York, about the next week’s debates. He predicts Hillary Clinton will emerge victorious. When I told him I’ve noticed a flurry of new Trump bumper stickers in Westchester and Greenwich, he smiled and said, “It will be fine.” Alrighty, then.
16. United Stations Radio’s Nick Verbitsky
18. Armando Ruiz
20. Lynn Forester de Rothschild
21. Sony Music’s Richard Rowe
23. Mark Carbone
25. Steve Lando
26. Ken Chandler
27. Tony Cointreau, Jimmy Russo, Judy Twersky and yours truly
Faces in the crowd: Liz Wood dining solo and a few of New York City’s finest grabbing a quick bite at the bar. I know I speak for everyone who lives and works in the city when I say Thank you NYPD!
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.