The Good Ol’ Days

As the days dwindled down and the sea turned gray in early September, the rich and famous of the period headed for the center of the universe, New York City, the shining city on the hill, as Jan Morris described the place in her magnificent opus Manhattan ’45. Let’s face it, once the war was over, the only city left intact was New York, having come into its own while Paris, London, Berlin, and Rome burned. I’ll never forget when I first laid eyes on the place. I had just flown more than 14 hours with six stops on a TWA airliner that provided not only beds, but also first class service by beautiful stewardesses, back then unashamedly picked for their looks and figures. With diplomatic passports, my mother and I went through customs in a jiffy and my father’s car drove fast through Queens and just over a bridge I first saw Manhattan and its skyline. Words fail me because there are no words to describe the grandeur of those shining skyscrapers to a 10-year-old that had seen war and hunger for five long years. The Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, Radio City, this was Alice in Wonderland stuff. Then followed a quick walk down Fifth Avenue from the Sherry Netherland, where I was to spend the next 20 years of my life. The men wore suits and shoes without laces, loafers they were called, and the women all wore hats and gloves and were chic and unapproachable. The cars were large, they were yellow and red and blue with white sidewalls, and everyone seemed very well off.  

Ten years later, I was through with school and hit the scene running. The city was teeming with rich Argentines, Brits on the make, and Midwesterners with more money than manners. The richest and most glamorous couple was Winston Guest, a 10-goal handicap in polo and a Phipps mother and a distant cousin to Winston Churchill and his wife C.Z., a Boston aristocrat with ash-blonde hair and a beautiful face that had been immortalized by Diego Rivera, who scandalized society at the time by also showing C.Z.’s bare breasts. Guests, Cushings, Whitneys, Vanderbilts, Mortimers, and so on made society back then. No celebrities were allowed into their Long Island inner sanctums on the weekends except for the Gary Coopers and Douglas Fairbankses. El Morocco was the top nightclub for society types, the Stork Club leaning more to celebrities. El Morocco’s owner, John Perona, was the first to install a Siberia, the side of his zebra-lined banquettes reserved for couples that did not fill the bill. Outrageous snobbery was the order of the day, and not a single soul objected. Men without women were not allowed into “Elmo’s,” except for the round table where the owner sat nightly with his friends. (My father was a regular at that particular table.) Humphrey Bogart was famously physically evicted when he arrived drunk accompanied by a giant panda doll that he claimed as a date. Bogie struggled hard but lost.

Audrey Hepburn and James Hanson at El Morocco in New York, 1952.

Unabashed and undisguised gossip in the press was an American invention, libel laws being non-existent in the land of opportunity. Invading the lives of the famous in society and revealing their secrets and excesses empowered both the purveyor and audience. Women like Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest, the Cushing sisters and Fifi Fell were like today’s pop stars, pursued by the paparazzi and applauded at premieres. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were considered a catch over on that side, with a few dissenting voices, that is. Ironically, gangsters were also stars. Frank Costello, the Godfather, was shaved every morning at the Waldorf Astoria barber shop and once asked me if I would introduce him to Gianni Agnelli, the Fiat owner and Italy’s foremost capitalist. (“My foirst car was a Fiat, I stuck a gun on the man who drew the lottery and he drew my numbah.” Gianni and he never met.)

C.Z. Guest with her dogs in Palm Beach.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor in Sussex in 1939.

Manhattan was a sprawling Hopper painting: grand, golden, with news stands and candy stores, diners and cinema palaces mixing headily with red-hued apartment houses laced with fire escapes. I took a young Joan Collins to El Morocco and the cameras snapped away. I was 20 and Joan 23. We’ve been friends ever since. Balls were given by society ladies in their beaux–arts townhouses, and the only charity shindig back then was The April in Paris Ball. People entertained at home and everyone finished the night at El Morocco. Downtown in Greenwich Village was Bohemia for us uptowners. Easy women and drugs could be found there, not that anyone took drugs back then. Hard drinking was the order of the day. Dunhill Tailors was the choice tailor of the time. Everyone was always dressed to the nines, young New York trust fund WASPs eager to outshine their British cousins. The Biltmore Hotel on Vanderbilt Avenue was the place everyone met under the clock from before F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time, and last year I watched in disbelief as the whole block was razed. As they say, the place no longer is what it used to be. In fact it stinks.

Frank Costello
The old New York Biltmore Hotel.