A Blind Date

Caterine embraced Olivier when we arrived at his sumptuous East 54th Street apartment. It seemed to me very much the perfect bachelor pad. Very masculine in taste, it boasted comfy black leather Chesterfields, modern furniture and huge picture windows overlooking the New York skyline. Olivier, as it turns out, was one of those natural cosmopolitans that feel at home anywhere they go, as long as they have their creature comforts. Originally from Paris he had been in New York for a few years by this time, having successfully established himself as someone who could feel the pulse of the people, could predict trends and could attract capital to his business ventures.

New York nightlife
New York nightlife

I ignored the knowing glances between Olivier and Caterine as he shook my hand. It appeared to be a wink of approval and, for a brief moment, I had the horrible feeling I might have been brought along by Caterine as a “playmate” for Olivier. But, as he made no specific attempts to chat me up, that particular thought evaporated. He grabbed me by the arm and ushered me into the living room where a group of people were already drinking and chatting. The introductions were brief and I squeezed myself into a sofa beside Howard Oxenberg, the ex-husband of Princess Elizabeth of Jugoslavia.

“From London?” Howard guessed correctly, breaking the ice.

I nodded, “Yes. Do you know it?”

“Only too well. In fact the last time I was there I met your Queen.”

“Really? How did she strike you?” I asked.

Howard Oxenberg and his wife, Princess Elizabeth of Jugoslavia
Howard Oxenberg and his wife, Princess Elizabeth of Jugoslavia

“To tell the truth, I struck her!” he chuckled, “I was standing in line with Elizabeth, my then wife, waiting to be introduced to her. Very formal it was. Some stuffy dinner at the Palace. Evening gowns, tiaras and all that. Elizabeth was whispering something to me about bowing low and kissing the Queen’s hand. She told me to observe the others ahead of us in the line, see how they did it. Well, I watched but obviously didn’t get the hang of it. I’m quite tall, you see, and I think when the Queen held out her hand to me I bent down just a bit too far. I guess I was nervous about making a good impression. When I turned my head upwards and looked for her hand it was way above me and I didn’t have much choice. I either had to hit her hand with my head on my way back up or kiss her hand on the wrong side, on her palm which, apparently, is not the done thing!”

I laughed. “How did she react?”

“Oh, I think we were not amused at all! One of those famously sour looks. You know.”

“I know your ex wife” I said.

“How so?” he looked intrigued.

I told him about my Serbo-Croatian lineage. I told him how I’d met Elizabeth and most of her relatives in London over the years. In fact the long family association had started with our respective grandparents.

“So we’re almost related?” he joked.

“Hardly!” I laughed, “No royal blood in my veins. Just good rural peasant stock!”

I told him my grandmother and I had visited Elizabeth in the New York hospital when she had given birth to their second daughter, Christina.

Catherine Oxenberg, 20 years later in Dynasty
Catherine Oxenberg, 20 years later in Dynasty

“I even babysat Tina and Catherine in London a few times when Elizabeth was living nearby me in the King’s Road.”

“No kidding!” he laughed, “Quite a handful my girls, I bet?”

As time passed and people began to get hungry, Olivier announced: “I’m sorry, dinner’s a bit

late. We’re waiting for Joe.”

That explanation alone was enough to make everyone smile. It was obvious by their expressions that this Joe, whoever he was, made a habit of being late.

As if confirming this point, someone asked. “Joe Dever? God, don’t wait for him. He’s always late!”

Without exception, the guests nodded in agreement. “Yes, don’t let’s wait for him, for heaven’s sake. You know him, he might not turn up till midnight!”

So we filed into dinner. The empty chair reserved for Joe just happened to be, or was intended to be, beside me. We were halfway through the meal, listening intently to Olivier’s latest plans for a new nightclub, to be called The Hippodrome, the largest of its kind in New York, when the door opened and Joe Dever walked in. What I saw was a middle-aged man, pale skin, blond hair, slightly effeminate, with a very gentle face. What I also noticed was everyone’s face light up with surprise and pleasure. Despite being notoriously unpunctual, it was evident that this Joe was still a popular man amongst this particular group of New Yorkers.

Olivier stood up. “Welcome, Joe. You know everyone, of course!”

Joe looked around, nodding at the assembled gathering. Then he looked at me.

“Not me, yet,” I said, holding out my hand.

“Joe, this is Caroline Kennedy. Caroline this is Joe Dever. Why don’t you sit right there, Joe, next to her?”

Neither Joe nor I knew at that moment that this was a planned meeting – a set up, a blind date arranged by Olivier and Caterine. We shook hands and Joe sank down beside me. We were unable to talk for the first half of dinner as the guest on his other side proceeded to monopolize him in a lengthy discussion about a charity event she would be hosting in a few weeks time.

Sally Rand, in her heyday in the 1930s
Sally Rand, in her heyday in the 1930s

“You must come and write about it, Joe, please say you will. Just everyone’s going to be there. We’re hoping to raise $100,000. Guess what, I’ve got Sally Rand – remember her? – doing her famous fan dance. And I even took you up on your suggestion to ask dear Robert to open it for me.” (I later found out she was referring to Mayor Robert Wagner).

“Sally Rand, my God, she must be over 80, isn’t she?” someone asked, “Does anyone really want to see her dancing nude on stage at that age?”

The charity organizer looked offended. “Darling, she’s still got the most faaaaabulous figure, you’d be sooooo jealous. I’ll sell you some tickets in a minute, you really must come see for yourself.”

Joe looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. I could see he was bored but, as I soon learned, being a good listener was all part of his job. He had to listen otherwise he wouldn’t have anything to write about. And he genuinely enjoyed it, which was probably the secret of his popularity. Unlike other New York gossip columnists Joe was not intoxicated by the sound of his own voice, did not have a gargantuan ego, nor was he in the least bit opinionated. He simply listened quietly and people naturally trusted him.

When he eventually managed to extricate himself from the one-sided conversation Joe immediately turned to me. And, as soon as I spoke he knew where I came from. Like many Americans of his generation, he was a great Anglophile and he had particularly fond memories of London. And also, like many New Yorkers, he had Irish ancestry, hence his middle name, Xavier. Yet again, I thought, the American Vice Consul in London had been right. New Yorkers, and that included Joe Dever, appeared to be entranced by my English accent.

I have little recollection of what we talked about during dinner but it was enough to know that Joe and I would become, at least, good friends. I was nineteen but looked about 15. Joe was already 45 and looked, possibly, older. But to me at that time anyone over 40 tended to look old. I was impetuous, headstrong and excited at being in New York but, although I didn’t realize it then, I was totally out of my depth in a city where the majority of society people I’d met so far had struck me as being phony, jaded and materialistic. I discovered immediately that Joe was none of those things. He was very open with me from the start.

“Listen, darling,” he told me, “I have no excuses. I’m a hack writer of a trashy gossip column. I know I could do a lot better but right now this is how I make my living.”

Joe, I discovered that night, was also a procrastinator and a dreamer.

“One day, darling,” he continued, “I’ll write my magnum opus and, believe me, it won’t contain one shred of gossip!” He continued to say this to me over the next thirty-five years I knew him. In fact, a week before he died we spoke on the phone and, despite being seriously incapacitated by a stroke, he vowed he would be back typing out the manuscript for his long-awaited book as soon as he replaced the receiver.

Needless to say, we left Olivier’s together that night.

Joe told me later, ”I called Olivier the next day to thank him for inviting me. I told him, Olivier you may have changed my life forever!”

“How so?” Olivier had apparently asked him, already anticipating the answer. After all he had been responsible for setting us up.

“Introducing me to Caroline, I’ve haven’t felt this way about a girl in years, I’m so grateful!”

“That, mon ami, was very obvious to everyone!” Olivier had chuckled, “Good luck!”

As we headed towards my apartment in a taxi, Joe suddenly asked,

“Would you do something with me?”

I half expected an invitation to his place and bristled slightly that he would put me on the spot so soon.

“If you’re going to invite me to your apartment, the answer’s definitely no!” I said more emphatically than I felt. For some reason the thought of returning to my second floor walk up that night to be faced by loaded questions from the ever-inquisitive trio of Ming, Rupert and Manny did not seem at all inviting.

Joe laughed. “No, no! Not that. I hope you don’t think….heavens no! What I wanted you to do,

Offices of the World Telegram in the 1960s
Offices of the World Telegram in the 1960s

if you don’t mind a late night, is come downtown with me while I file my column.”

As a budding journalist, this idea naturally thrilled me.

“Of course!” I replied, little imagining that, by accepting his invitation, I had started a routine that would last over the next three years.

The office of the World Telegram & Sun, a Scripps Howard newspaper, was housed in dank warehouses downtown on Houston and Canal Streets. Electric light bulbs swung on wires suspended from the ceiling of the newsroom, flies buzzed around them, typewriters clattered noisily in the background and the night editor, peering out from under his green eye shade, barked out his orders to the hovering journalists waiting around on desk duty. For a young journalist, this was heady stuff. This, I decided, was where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. Phones ringing, news breaking, excitement mounting, a surge of adrenalin immediately pumped through me.

Joe sat down at his typewriter, pulled out his notes and started typing. He looked up at me every so often, worried that I might be bored.

“You don’t regret it?” he asked.

“Are you joking?” I laughed, “This is pure, unadulterated heaven to me!” And I meant it. I could have sat there all night absorbing the atmosphere, observing the frantic goings-on, listening to the breaking news stories.

At around 3am, tired but exhilarated, Joe dropped me off at my apartment. I sneaked in hoping not to wake the others and collapsed on the sofa, unwilling, for once, to share my bed with Manny. Something had happened that night and, although it was probably obvious to all, I couldn’t yet figure it out.

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