Memoir Blog #9 First of the Free Spirits

From 1963 onwards Manhattan’s social events were considered incomplete without the presence of Christina Paolozzi, the daughter of an impoverished Italian Count and a wealthy New York socialite. Christina, referred to in the society pages as “The first of the Sixties free spirits”, provided an invigorating breath of fresh air to those New Yorkers who had managed to shake themselves loose from the moralistic shackles of the 1950’s.

Christina Paolozzi, my very special friend
Christina Paolozzi, my very special friend

To the majority of them, however, who remained judgmental and bound by strict codes of behavior, Christina managed to provide insult after insult. Her initial shock was to conduct a very public affair with a married man. And he was not just any married man. The man in question was Yul Brynner, the bald-headed Russian actor who was then at the height of his fame, following his successes in “The Magnificent Seven” and “The King and I” for which he received an Academy Award.

Over a decade later, in 1977, I went backstage of the London Palladium, accompanied by my two small children to see Yul after watching a matinee performance in a stage revival of “The King and I”.  Somewhat timidly I knocked at the door of his dressing-room. After all this time I wasn’t even sure he’d recognize me.

“Remember me?” I asked as he opened the door slightly and peered out.

“My God, Caroline Kennedy!” he beamed, “Of course I remember you,” he tossed some make-up tissues towards a bin beside the dressing table, “with our wonderful Christina in New York. How long ago was that? Have you seen her recently? How is she?”

yul brynner
Yul Brynner in The King and I

Oh, she’s fine. “ I replied. “She’s – well…She’s as she always is….She’s Christina, isn’t she? Still raising eyebrows and still creating wonderful mayhem wherever she goes.”

“I can’t believe it. It’s so good to see you again, come in.” He stepped back and gestured for us to take a seat among the mountain of clothes that were hastily being removed by his dresser. I ushered my two small children through the door.

“By the way Yul, these are my children, Elisar and Mayumi!” I announced proudly. He bent down and cuddled each one in turn. They eyed his bald head and exaggerated stage make-up suspiciously.

“So, “ Yul announced, “you’ve done the same as I have. Well done, Caroline!”

“What? What have I done?” I asked puzzled.

“Got yourself two of those,” he replied.

“My children, you mean?”

“Yes. I adopted two Vietnamese children too, didn’t you know?”

I did know but my maternal pride bristled to think he hadn’t even recognized them as my own.

“They’re not adopted, Yul!” I retorted. “Nor are they Vietnamese. They’re all mine. And their father is Filipino!”

For a moment Yul appeared dumbstruck. Then his face broke into a huge grin.

“Well, good for you anyway. They’re just beautiful – both of them.”

We had well and truly broken the ice after so many years. It was good to see him again. I told him how I had enjoyed his film “Westworld” where he had played a robot cowboy. It was a brilliant portrayal and had rightly won him many accolades. He immediately got up and gave the children an impromptu demonstration strutting robotically up and down the dressing room, stopping abruptly to aim a pretend gun at his own image in the mirror.  His performance looked all the more absurd since he was still dressed in his King & I costume. The children giggled. He had won them over. We reverted to discussing Christina for whom, it was obvious, he still held enormous affection.

christina avedon
Christina Paolozzi by Richard Avedon 1961

I reminded him of the second outrage Christina performed on stuffy New Yorkers – posing nude for the fashion photographer, Richard Avedon, in Vogue magazine. For this deliberate offence to respectability Avedon was catapulted to fame but Christina was immediately struck off the Celebrity Register, the bible that every society-conscious New Yorker desperately wanted to be included in.

“Christina couldn’t have cared less.” Yul laughed loudly. “She said to me, “Me respectable? You know me better than anyone, Yul, I wasn’t born to be respectable, was I ?”

I am sure I left Yul that night reminiscing on his old flame. To all of us Christina was beautiful, capricious and affectionate. Her passion for life, her compulsive flirtations and her need to test traditional boundaries were judged by most New Yorkers as distinct character flaws but to us, her friends and admirers, they were considered all part of her undeniable individuality and charm.

She and I discovered an immediate and enduring kinship that survived both our marriages and living on different continents but finally succumbed, after twenty years, to staying out of touch for too long. Her carefree attitude, her naïve immorality and her sense of fun were contagious. I had never met anyone quite like her. Her warmth, her spontaneity, her rebellious streak and her generosity of spirit had a lasting impact on me and on all those who knew her. Christina loved life and she loved living it to the full. I think her unspoken motto must have been: “If you don’t ever try anything once, you’ll die regretting it.”

maxs kansas city
Max’s Kansas City in New York, 1964

Many nights Christina and I drove around town, either on our own or with a group of friends, to see what mischief we could get up to. We would start in downtown Greenwich Village, dropping into places such as the Peppermint Lounge, Ondine’s, Max’s Kansas City and the Scene, checking out the music, the atmosphere and the people. When, finally worn out, we would end uptown, either in her Park Avenue apartment or in the studio above Carnegie Hall that I shared with my boyfriend, the newspaper columnist, Joe Dever

One summer night Joe had a friend in town. Mark Birley was the owner Annabel’s, the most successful nightclub in London.  Joe suggested we show Mark a different side of New York, something a world away from fashionable Berkeley Square – a visit to the famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Used to the stuffy atmosphere of London’s social scene, Mark was thrilled at the idea. Although Harlem at night was considered dangerous territory for anyone other than its own residents and, thus, out of bounds to most white New Yorkers, neither Christina nor I gave it a second thought. The four of us piled into an uptown bus and watched out of the window, fascinated, as the architecture, the mood and the character of New York changed in front of our eyes. There was nothing subtle about these changes. The well-maintained buildings of Fifth Avenue soon gave way to drabness, decay and dereliction the further uptown we went. Wretched poverty and a sense of futility, despair and hopelessness were etched into the faces of the people in the street.

Apollo Theatre, Harlem, 1960s
Apollo Theatre, Harlem, 1960s

The crowd gathering outside the Apollo when we arrived that night looked at us suspiciously. This was understandable since we were the only white people there. No doubt they immediately recognized us for what we, undeniably, were – four upper middle class whites out looking for some action.

Inside the place was literally jumping. Martha and the Vandellas were playing live onstage. The audience were clapping, dancing and singing along with them. The lights, the atmosphere, the colours, the fashions, the music, the noise and the sheer exuberance, in stark contrast to the streets of Harlem outside, were exhilarating. Mark, in his very British way, was enchanted by the whole scene.  I realized how different it must have seemed to him compared to the staid, somewhat prissy atmosphere of his own club in London.

As we danced to Martha and the Vandellas that night, Christina and I had no idea that this would not be our last visit together to Harlem – the next one under very different, far more serious, circumstances.

Martha and the Vandellas about to go onstage at the Appollo Theatre
Martha and the Vandellas about to go onstage at the Appollo Theatre

Not long after our visit to the Apollo, Christina did something that astounded all her friends, even me. She announced she had fallen in love. Not, as we would have imagined, with a handsome playboy jetting her off in his private plane to the polo fields of Argentina nor with a famous movie star sweeping her off to life in a Beverly Hills mansion nor, even, to a romantic, but impoverished, European nobleman like her father but with a young intern trauma surgeon, Howard Bellin.

“Howard who?” Joe asked.

“You might not have heard of him now,” Christina replied, “but give him ten years and he’ll be more well known than me.”

In her choice of Howard, Christina was, for the first time, showing a different, more sober, side to her personality. Perhaps the timing was right for her and life in the fast lane was beginning to pall. To us, as onlookers, their opposing characters could have clashed abysmally but, as it was, they both appeared to benefit from each other, blossoming in opposite ways. Howard became more outgoing and less obsessed by his work. And, while not losing any of her sense of fun, Christina managed to stifle some of her natural exuberance to settle into life as a young surgeon’s wife.

Joe, for one, didn’t think the marriage would last.

howard bellin
Dr Howard Bellin

“Christina’s far too headstrong,” he predicted, “she’ll opt out within a couple of years, you’ll see.”

I was a romantic. The idea of a failed marriage, particularly such a short one and one involving two of my best friends, upset me.

“I think you’re wrong.” I protested, “Christina has met her match this time. You haven’t seen them together like I have. Howard’s absolutely right for her and she knows it. She adores him.”

“We’ll see!” It was obvious that Joe, like many of our friends, needed convincing.

Most could not believe that the ubiquitous blonde with the piercing blue eyes, the girl who loved to be everywhere at the same time, the enchanting rebel who loved to shock, would ever settle down to a normal family life. How wrong they all were. And how happy I was when, some summers later in London, Howard and Christina proudly introduced me to their two sons, Marco and Andy. I could see then that, despite the normal ups and downs endemic to all long term relationships, theirs was, without doubt, a strong marriage.

One evening, during the feverishly hot summer of 1966 Christina called me,

“Caroline darling, you’ve gotta help me out!”

“What is it?” I asked, half expecting her to answer, as she often did, that we should all go downtown for an evening’s fun and games.

“There’s a local nurses strike, haven’t you read about it?” she continued breathlessly, “You must come and help Howard at his hospital. They desperately need nurses!”

“But…” I stammered. I was about to tell her that I fainted at the sight of blood.

“No, you’ve got to help, Caroline, I’m asking all my friends. Please come!”

“OK, OK, I’ll do it.” There was a sigh of relief at the other end of the phone. “Which hospital should I go to and at what time?”

“The Harlem Hospital Center,” she replied.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“Harlem, 120th Street!” she replied, “near the East River.“

“Harlem? You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“I’ll pick you up at six. OK?”

“In the morning?”

Harlem Hospital

“No, the evening. We’ve gotta do the night shift you and I. That’s when Howard’s on duty!”

“All night? Christina, honestly I really don’t think…..”

I should have learnt by now that it was a waste of breath trying to say no to Christina. Her charm won out every time. I folded immediately, realizing there was no use fighting it.

“Caroline?”

“OK, yes, that’s fine. I’ll be ready!”

“Thanks, I love you. I won’t forget it.”

“You might not forget it but you may regret it!” I laughed, “See you tomorrow at 6pm.”

I put the phone down. I looked over at Joe. “You won’t believe that!” I said, “That was Christina wearing her Florence Nightingale hat. She wants me to be a trauma nurse at Harlem Hospital Center tomorrow night!”

“And you said yes?”

“I guess I did,” I replied, not fully convinced that I had, in fact, accepted her “invitation.”

“What our darling Christina wants….:” Joe began.

“Our darling Christina gets,” I finished off, “Yes, that’s the way it always is.”

Due to the ongoing transit strike in New York, Christina had ordered a chauffeured car to pick me up. I felt as if we were going off on one of our nightly jaunts to the discos. But, instead, we were heading uptown to a very rundown general hospital right in the heart of Harlem. I was not sure the nurses, who were probably on a picket line outside the hospital, would appreciate our altruistic reasons for being there.

As we made our way uptown, Christina gave me some idea about what I was about to experience.
”There are shootings every night, particularly at this time of year,” she said, referring to the hot summer months when tempers fray easily, “and stabbings too. Howard usually stitches them up and then they insist on going home. They’re normally back the following week, Howard says, with some other injury.”

I was beginning to feel sick already. I wasn’t cut out to be a nurse – that much was obvious.

“Have you done this sort of thing before?” I asked her.

“Only over the last couple of days – during this nurses’ strike,” she replied. “But I am already planning your reward.”

“What reward, what are you talking about?” I was offended that she thought I needed to be recompensed for a doing her a favour.

“I didn’t mean that. But Howard and I are planning to give a dinner party for Leslie Uggams when she opens at the Cocacabana. We thought it might be nice if we invited all our ‘nurses’ to come along.”

Leslie Uggams 1964

We arrived at the hospital and, as I suspected, a handful of uniformed nurses with placards were stationed outside. I felt like scab labour. We couldn’t very well pass ourselves off as patients up in Harlem. So, with heads held high, we catapulted ourselves out of the chauffeured limo and made a dash for the door of the Emergency Department.

The scene inside was utter bedlam. Young mothers with howling children, lone adults in slings and plasters wailing loudly, youths with various injuries picking a fight among themselves as they waited to be seen by a doctor. The floor looked like it hadn’t been swept for a week. There were bloody swabs everywhere, soiled dressings and discarded food wrappers, drinks cartons and cigarette butts.  I took one look and started to panic.

“What shall I do? Where shall I start?” I shouted to Christina above the racket.

“Let’s go and see Howard first,” she said, taking me firmly by the arm and whisking me away, “just to let him know we’re here. He’ll tell us what to do!”

She led me towards the operating theatre where Howard, unrecognizable in blue cap, mask, surgical gown and gloves, was preparing for an operation.

I stood silently outside the room thinking ‘what the hell am I doing here?’ I watched, transfixed, as Christina donned her own gown and mask, scrubbed her hands, eased on a pair of rubber gloves and went to stand beside Howard.  She nudged one of the “nurses”.

“Thanks, Jane, you can go now!” she whispered. “I can take over. The car’s waiting for you outside.”
Howard looked at Christina. I could see from the wrinkles forming around his eyes that he was smiling. Above her mask her distinctive pale blue eyes stared back at him. That look, I think, was the defining moment when I knew for certain their marriage was going to last. Christina had come of age.

Howard, peeling off his gloves, walked towards the basin to scrub his hands. Christina and another nurse started wheeling a trolley into the room.

Howard approached me at the door. He removed his mask and beamed at me.

“Thanks for coming, Caroline,” he said. “Isn’t Christina great for arranging all this. I don’t know what I would have done without her and all of you.”

“She’s very persuasive,” I smiled. “So now that I’m here, tell me what can I do to help”.

“Why don’t you stay out here in reception and, after the house doctor has triaged the patients, bring them into theatre for me. You’ll need to get a gown and mask. The receptionist will show you where.”

He started to walk back into operating room.  As he reached for the door, he turned back. “Oh, and if they’re any real emergencies alert me straightaway. OK?”

I was alone, or so it seemed. All kinds of people, in all states of distress and conditions, poured in through the doors of the Emergency Department. Getting them to line up at the Receptionist’s desk was a major battle. They finally formed a queue of sorts, after jostling, shoving and pushing their way as close to the front as they could. As is always the case, the stronger ones got to the top while the weaker, and probably the needier, ones were shunted behind.  It didn’t take long for the bullies to work out I had no idea what I was doing and they took full advantage of it.

Injured patient
Injured patient

Within half an hour the door burst open and a man, with his throat, apparently slashed from ear to ear, was being dragged in on the arms of another man. The man carrying him shouted for help but all I could see was the blood bubbling and frothing from his companion’s neck. I felt my own blood drain from my head. My brain started to feel dizzy and, before I knew it, I had passed out on the linoleum floor.

The next thing I was aware of was Christina propping me up on her lap, attempting to pour brandy down my throat.

“Hang on” I whispered faintly, “I’m a teetotaller, remember?  What happened?” I tried vainly to remember the scene.

“You fainted.”

I nodded weakly. “Yes, I’m sorry. I did try to tell you I tend to do that at the sight of blood!” I smiled. “Too late now, I suppose.”

Memories started to come back to me. “What happened to that guy – the one with his throat cut?”

“Howard’s sewing him up right now.”

“Who slashed him? What’s the story?”

Feeling better I sat up, eager to hear the gossip.

“Well, apparently, the guy who brought him in did it. They’re best friends but they had some fight over a girl. Howard says he’ll be OK but they’ll probably be back here next week. They’ll find another woman to fight over. It’s very common here, Howard says, they’re always fighting over women.”

“How romantic!” I joked, “I wish two men would fight over me!”

Not long after this experience Christina was offered a syndicated fashion column through the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA). She was thrilled at the prospect but doubtful she could handle it on her own.

“Grammar and spelling, Caroline,” she giggled, “are not my greatest talents, as you know!”

“You’re not kidding!” I replied. “Your spelling is atrocious!”

“Then should we write it together, the two of us?” she asked.  “Would you do it with me?”

I didn’t know much about fashion so I asked if we could meet the editor who had offered her the job and discuss, perhaps, the idea of writing on several other topics besides fashion.

“Social and celebrity interviews, for instance,” I suggested, “since both of us have the opportunity to meet a whole cast of characters who come through New York. Would he go for that idea, do you think?”

Christina was sure that he would and set up an interview. The outcome was positive. The editor seemed to be open to any ideas we suggested. As it turned out, we didn’t actually write articles together. I wrote mine and Christina wrote hers, although, as we agreed, she did pass a number of them to me for editing before she submitted them.

So, by the end of 1966, I finally had my first article published and syndicated across North America. And surprisingly it was Christina, not Joe, who I had to thank for the launch of my career as a journalist.

 

2 thoughts on “Memoir Blog #9 First of the Free Spirits

  1. Caroline, this piece caught my eye and I was scrolling vainly down to find anything juicy about Cristina’s jaunt in Persepolis with the Over-the-Top one — and specifically see how she got upgraded from outside the Tent-City with Imelda’s maids/society-matrons/ladies-in-waiting to a non-royal, non-head-of-state guest in Imelda’s tent. I mean how Imelda got around the Persian court’s set of protocol rules to add one more guest and of course, burden her own maids so that they had to care for one more person in addition to the Queen-bee herself and the dauphinette. But I didn’t see any.

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