We’re going to file this week’s lunch in under ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same.’ Aside from a dining room full of the usual Wednesdays at Michael’s suspects, comprised of moguls (Barry Diller), media mavens (Bonnie Fuller, Connie Anne Phillips) and money men who keep the lights on all over town (Alan Patricof), I had an illuminating chat with Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York and the editor/contributor of the new book, Gilded New York Design, Fashion and Society (The Monacelli Press). We were introduced by Dan Scheffey, who, in his past life, has handled public relations for Disney, Miramax and most recently toiled at Conde Nast. Dan is currently working on Monacelli’s fall book list and is gearing up to launch the Spring 2014 list with Ellen Rubin. When he mentioned Gilded New York to me some months ago, I immediately wanted to know more. Donald, an independent curator specializing in the decorative arts and architecture, joined us to talk about his work on both the exhibition and the book on New York’s Gilded Age of the late 19th century.
By way of introduction to the period he explained, “The city’s old and new money used architecture, interior design, fashion and events — even lunch and dinners — as markers of status.” See where I’m going with this? I thought you might.
Donald, who traded his career as an architect to focus on curating exhibitions and writing (“I found working solely in architecture really boring”), explained his love of curating exhibitions as a way of producing “visual culture.” His current exhibition (which shares the same name of the companion book) “Gilded New York” runs through the end of next year and features a stunning collection of objects that lend a window into the fascinating lives of the early swells of New York City whose great fortunes built the vast Fifth Avenue mansions during what was arguably city’s most glamorous era. Among the relics of this bygone age visitors to the museum can see: an “Electric Light” dress by couturier Charles Frederick Worth dress once worn by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt. The gown (which didn’t really light up) earned its name from the glittering crystals that illuminated the bodice (a newspaper at the time breathlessly reported it had been trimmed in diamonds), Tiffany & Co.’s Bon Bonniere, a miniature purse designed to hold bon bons or small pieces of candy to be discreetly carried so it could be enjoyed while dancing, and a swan-billed flask crafted from engraved glass and silver. The funny thing is I have no doubt any one of the artifacts would be right at home worn by Sarah Jessica Parker or carried by — dare we say it — Kanye West — at the Met Ball, no?
The illustrated book, which was sponsored by the Tiffany & Co. Foundation (the company is also the major underwriter of the exhibition and provided funding for the room which bears the Tiffany & Co. Foundation moniker) is a treasure trove of information with stunning photograph (both historic and staged) showcasing jewelry and other designs from the period. The engaging text examines the social and cultural history of these years in essays by Donald, his co-editor Jeannine Falino, Susan Gail Johnson, Phyllis Magidson and Thomas Mellins. Donald wrote extensively about “New Media in the Gilded Age” and the effects of the emerging technological changes in photography for the book, which I found quite interesting indeed.
“This is the age where the social mix of old and new money, the modern concept of celebrity and the creation of very large corporations as well as the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty and many other landmarks put New York on par with London and Paris,” explained Donald. “The collision of the old and the new changed everything. These modern manifestations of wealth, like the skyscrapers, have obvious parallels. During the Gilded Age the giant culture of philanthropy also emerged with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum.” We all agreed that these days a great deal of Manhattan philanthropy seems to serve more as a backdrop to over-the-top parties than as pure altruism but then again, that’s probably what plenty of folks thought way back when.
There are more obvious parallels we found flipping through the book over lunch (salad nicoise for Donald and Dan — who happened to be sporting virtually identical ties; the yummy dover sole for me). It turns out Worth was the grandfather of licensing way back in the 1870s, when he agreed to let Lord & Taylor copy one of his designs to show in store and sell “copies of the copy.” Observed Donald: “He worked at both the high and low end of the fashion at the time. Like Isaac Mizrahi did with Target.” Dan showed me some great photos of the era’s most infamous actress, Sarah Bernhardt. One notable image shot by the Byron Company (the Wire Image of its day, if you will) captured a elaborately attired Bernhardt swanning on the grand staircase of her Manhattan mansion with the clearly ghostwritten caption, “How I look when I go down to meet people.” So, it turns out more than 100 years before Us Weekly decided to show “Stars Just Like Us,” popular magazines of the time that wanted to give readers a glimpse of the luxe life replaced stiff portraits with stylized photographs of stars and socialites at home, thus touching off America’s obsession with celebrity culture. If only we could send Kim Kardashian back in a time machine. At the very least we might have been spared that heinous Bound2 video.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd (which had more than its share of interesting dining companions — ’tis the season!):
1. Hollywoodlife.com’s Bonnie Fuller reeled in a big fish for her monthly kissy confab: None other than Norman Pearlstine joined the overflowing group at Table 1, which included anchor-turned-producer Jodi Applegate; Adam Braun, founder and CEO of Pencils of Promise (and the brother of Scooter Braun, who manages Justin Bieber, if you’re keeping score); Eric Daman, costume designer of The Carrie Diaries; The Wall Street Journal‘s William Launder; Feren Comm’s Jenny McIntosh; and IcedMedia’s Leslie Hall, who brought along Greg Littley; Caroline Waxler, festival director of Internet Week New York; and Valerie Salembier, who now works as an assistant commissioner of the NYPD. Penske Media Vice Chair Gerry Byrne arrived just in time for coffee.
2. What were they talking about? A grizzled-looking Donnie Deutsch and social swan Cornelia Guest made for a cozy twosome.
3. “Mayor” Joe Armstrong and George Farias (who, it should be said, bears more than a passing resemblance to Colin Firth). In real life, he is the emeritus trustee of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
4. Cosmetic titan Leonard Lauder and Saks’ departing president Ron Frasch
5. Herb Siegel
6. Random celebrity sighting of the day: Gloria Steinem (who I have never seen in this dining room before today) with Alan Patricof and Bob Tobin
7. Donald Albrecht, Dan Scheffey and yours truly
8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia and Charles Stevenson
9. Authors Wednesday Martin and Chris Pavone
10. Glamour‘s publisher Connie Anne Phillipswith a dark-haired gal we didn’t recognize. We wanted to ask her about Keith Kelly‘s eyebrow-raising column in today’s New York Post, which reported the alleged “brutish behavior” of former Time Inc. CEO Laura Lang’s husband Steve Lang. Which during a trip to Los Angeles for the Golden Globes last year led five female staffers at her former employer, InStyle, to file complaints with HR upon their return (Kelly also reported that Connie was said to be upset about Steve as well), but we just couldn’t seem to find the right moment… Act two” “Proud Mama” Beverly Camhe with her son Todd Camhe, co-writer and producer of the new film, Sister, starring Barbara Hershey and Veep‘s Reid Scott and directed by David Lascher. Bev tells me the film, which deals with childhood ADHD and depression was financed by Our Kids First Foundation. Todd’s also planning an benefit in NYC on January 9 to raise awareness for this timely issue. Well done!
11. Accessories maven Mickey Ateyeh with Deborah Buck, who, a little birdie tells me, has a new book coming out about the imaginative window displays from her widely popular Madison Avenue emporium, entitled The Windows of Buck House (If I didn’t know better, going by the title, I’d think it was a Merchant Ivory film)
12. Man of mystery Erik Gordon (Don’t ask, just take our word for it)
14. Barry Diller
15. Marc Rosenthal
16. A festively attired Andrew Stein
17. Peter Price
18. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew
20. The lovely Joan Jacobson with documentarian Mary Murphy
21. PR guru and political commentator Robert Zimmerman
22. Jon Needham
23. Former Hearst exec George Green
25. Joel Rosenthal
26. Lauren Zalaznick
29. Vogue‘s Hildy Kuryk
81. Janet Goldsmith
Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.