You know one of my all time favourite Noël Coward songs is Sail Away. Coward lived by the lyrics: ‘when the wind and the weather blow your dreams sky high, sail away, sail away, sail away’. Well, in the years when rather a few of my dreams were blown sky high, I didn’t have Mr Coward’s luxury of boarding a Cunard liner and leaving a sky full of crap behind in London. However, with new dreams came a trip to New York that I have to say was my happiest time in Manhattan to date.
The invitation came courtesy of Evan Yurman whose father David and mother Sybil founded what has become one of the most directional fine men’s jewellers thanks to their ‘son also rising’. I stayed in TriBeCa a cross street away from where I lived with Mr Garland on Greenwich Street when I first came to New York in the late 90s. I am rather a Downtown boy and love the low rise West Village with its brownstones, blossom trees, cobbled streets and Muscle Marys.
I stayed at the Arlo which is a designated Hipster Hotel barely a year old. The room was smaller than Bloomsbury Square but had an absolute peach of a double bed with a TV the size of the Odeon Leicester Square at its foot. I could so live in a hotel though am inherently suspicious of ones with ironic vinyl collections, retro board game cabinets and a Post-It note wall. Oh, and hidden charges behind every 1970s pot plant.
New York is a curious city. Those skyscrapers can make you stand as tall as you ever have in your life or make you feel pitifully small. The billboards in Times Square either suggest you’re losing in life not to be up there or galvanise the ambitious to show some spunk and take Manhattan. Nothing quite says success like staring down on the city lights from the Art Deco Rainbow Room on top of the Rockefeller Center with a martini in your hand.
New York has style but not elegance, attitude but not aggression and as many psychics as shrinks. What I like about New York is that everyone from the bag lady to the Park Avenue matron will instinctively check their reflection in Bergdorfs’ window and do a valedictory hair pat. Just being a part of Manhattan street theatre equals success.
There is a lot of pride in New York City. There’s also an awful lot of poverty. I would imagine 90% of the people on the isle of Manhattan are there to serve the 10% coffee and Danish, shine their shoes, drive their cars and clean their apartments. Respect for the dollar is tantamount to a religion. If you’ve got a few bucks in your pocket to over-tip, New York opens up to you like the first act tap number in 42nd Street.
Now bearing in mind the rain was torrential for two of my three days in New York, I still had a blast. My friend Eric invited me for first night drinks and oysters at Balthazar and treated us to War Paint tickets at the Nederlander of which more in my second dispatch from New York.
The divas ruled this visit: not only Patti Lupone and Christine Ebersole as Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden in War Paint but also late night drinks in the bar above Joe Allen and Orso with Eric when a pant-suited Glenn Close still in vestiges of stage make-up blew in with a gaggle of gay men fresh from playing Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
Miss Close has style in spades and I don’t think she’s a stranger to three gawping queens with shy smiles and dancing eyes following her every move. It was Eric who suggested I queue-up for standing tickets the next morning to see Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! The show had only just opened, the reviews have been ululations of joy and I really didn’t think there was a hope.
Well, shows how wrong you can be. I met a charming gang in the line including a Noo Yawk broad who knew more about Broadway than Walter Winchell and a very sweet 71-year old sister called Charles. Turns out Charles used to go to the Continental Baths in the 1970s where Miss Midler’s career began singing to a gaggle of gay men wearing towels lounging round the pool.
The bathhouses in New York were legendary in the 1970s as was the Divine Miss M – or Bathhouse Bette – whose performance has been captured on a grainy YouTube film. Even then, she had it all: the energy, the camp, the belting big voice and the sheer joie de vivre at the absurdity of life. Charles told me that Miss M used to come out after the show and sit by the pool in a dressing gown and towelling turban.
Charles also told me that for an encore Miss M would sing Chattanooga Choo Choo and throw basket of poppers to the boys around the pool. Oh the 70s. How I wish I’d been a teenager in the 70s. Charles and I were both bemoaning that apart from a few heritage joints on Christopher Street, all the gay bars seem to have vanished.
Not that New York lacks a camp theatrical sensibility. One such joint is Chez Josephine on 42nd and 9th where Sally Morrison treated me to a late lunch. Chez Josephine belongs to one of Miss Baker’s Rainbow Tribe of children that she adopted in Paris. It is an exuberant piano bar that’s been around for thirty years.
You can read all about the Evan Yurman interview when Sartorial Treasures: Jewellery for Gentlemen comes out next year. Until next time…