My new home in New York was a studio above Carnegie Hall I shared with my boyfriend, society columnist Joseph X Dever. Our neighbours in some of the other studios included the jazz pianist and cabaret singer Bobby Short, the Italian impresario Gian Carlo Menotti, the famous milliner and NY street photographer Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer Richard Avedon, the fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt and the Actor’s Studio run by Lee and Paula Strasberg.
“There are enough characters and stories in this building to write an epic novel.” Joe said to me as Cecil, the elevator operator, helped us move my bags across the hall to studio 906 the day I moved in, “Isn’t that right, Cecil?”
“Perhaps the Princess will do it someday!” Cecil replied, beaming at me.
From that moment on I became Cecil’s “princess”. He watched out for me, looked after me, counselled me, carried my bags for me, hailed taxis for me and escorted me to my door whenever I was alone. He was a gentle giant from Jamaica, adored by all the residents of the Carnegie Hall Studios at 881 Seventh Avenue, my new home. I asked him one day why he insisted on calling me “Princess” and not Caroline.
“You got class!” he announced, “You’re kind, you’re pretty, you’re intelligent. You’re not like the rest of the ladies in this town! You just got class, Princess!”
Joe’s studio was a huge double height room with a minstrel’s gallery. On the second floor, off the balcony, was the only bedroom, a minute room with a porthole window, very much like a ship’s cabin. There were floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides of the main room and spectacular views facing east towards the river and uptown towards 72nd street. On the third side of the room, below the balcony were copious bookshelves, stuffed with books, files of newspaper cuttings and magazines.
And, on the ground floor, flanking each side of the entrance, was a galley kitchen and a small bathroom.
Despite being owned by Joe who, by the time I arrived on the scene, had been a confirmed bachelor for over 40 years, studio 906 was surprisingly clean. Cecil’s aunt, Lillian, who lived in New Jersey, came once a week to sweep up, dust, polish and gossip about the antics of her extended family. Lillian was very happy to meet me that first day.
“Mr. Joe needs a woman,” she confided, “he been alone too long. You can see it. It’s not right – a man alone, you know. You make him plenty happy, girl. Mr. Joe, he be a good man. He deserve a good woman! And Cecil tell me you be a good woman, you be a princess!”
“I’m not so sure about that, Lillian!” I laughed.
“You’re young. You’re healthy. You be that woman!” she replied emphatically, leaving no room for argument.
At that moment the door opened and “Mr. Joe” arrived.
“I’ve got Jeannie and the tree!” he announced, “Where are we going to put it, Lillian?”
A couple of days earlier Joe had told me, “Jeannie Campbell lives above us, you’ll love her, she’s completely mad. I’m the godfather of her and Mailer’s daughter, Kate.”
I certainly knew Jeannie by reputation. She was the granddaughter of Lord Beaverbrook, founder of the Express Newspapers. She was a political journalist and, before arriving in the States, I had devoured her weekly columns in the Evening Standard on political life in Washington and New York.
There were two things in particular about Jeannie that had intrigued me. The first was that she had been married to one of my idols, the bad boy of American literature, Norman Mailer, by whom she had her eldest daughter, Kate.
The second was that wild rumours had spread across the Atlantic, fuelled I’m sure, in part, by Jeannie herself, that she had been carrying on a longstanding affair with Jack Kennedy. In 1964 for anyone to admit publicly to such a thing about someone as sacred as Jack Kennedy was almost tantamount to treachery. Consequently, Jeannie was vilified by the public at large and shunned by many of her journalist colleagues for besmirching Kennedy’s, thus far, spotless reputation.
Some close to Washington, however, knew the truth about the President’s relationships with women but preferred to remain silent. Others chose not to believe any of the many stories that gradually emerged over the succeeding years while, at the same time, wondering if there might be some kernel of truth in them. Still others, entirely convinced of JFK’s sainthood, genuinely disbelieved them. It was fortunate for him that he had been so canonized by his own publicity machine that very few women dared admit to having had an affair with him during his lifetime and for some years beyond. A decade later, of course, all that would change dramatically.
So when I came face to face with Jeannie it was obvious she was not as I expected a wife of Norman Mailer or a lover of JFK to be. For some foolish reason, I expected both men to go for trophy women, blonde, curvaceous and long-limbed. And Jeannie was definitely none of these. Although she was a handsome woman with a commanding presence, she was certainly not what would be described as “beauty queen” material. It was a warm spring day in New York and Jeannie was dressed very conventionally in Scottish tweeds, with a pastel lambs-wool twin set and row of pearls and what I refer to as “sensible” shoes, English leather brogues with laces. She had dark curly hair and a typically Scottish, pink and white, complexion.
“Jeannie, this is Caroline! Caroline this is Jeannie!” Joe introduced us at the door.
“Yes, the one you never stop talking about, Joe!” Jeannie smiled and then drew me to her ample bosom and kissed me heartily.
“You must be special to have got our Joe,” she laughed, “All us girls love him in this town, so make sure you look after him otherwise you’ll upset a lot of women!”
She abruptly let go of me, strode into the studio and swivelled round.
“Now where are we going to put this rubber tree, Lillian?”
“Couldn’t you leave it in your apartment upstairs, Miss Jeannie, and I promise I’ll water it every week while you’re away?” Lillian suggested hopefully.
A fine idea I thought, considering the size of the tree waiting outside in the hall.
“Oh, no, I can’t possibly do that. I promised it to Joe,” Jeannie said, “I’ll take it back upstairs when I return.”
That appeared to be the end of the discussion. So the four of us proceeded to grab the tree at various points and drag, push and haul it into the studio, spilling gravel, earth and dry leaves as we went. Lillian was muttering away under her breath about the mess we were making as we struggled to pull the tree over her newly polished hardwood floor. Eventually, we managed to resurrect all 30 feet of it, up against the balcony, securing it with a rope.
“There, you see!” Jeannie exclaimed, proudly standing back and admiring it, “I told you it would look great here, Joe. Now you can climb up the tree to bed at night instead of using the stairs. It’ll be a good exercise for you!”
She said her goodbyes, kissed us all, including Lillian and left in a typical rush.
“That’s Jeannie for you,” was Joe’s explanation, after she slammed the door shut. “So what do you think of the woman who has no navel?”
“I beg your pardon?” I asked, not quite grasping the question.
Lillian blushed, “Mr. Joe, please….”
“No navel, it’s true!” he continued unabashed. “She had it surgically removed, or covered up, not sure which. She thought it was an ugly thing! You ask her next time you see her.”
I contemplated the idea of a woman with no navel. It sounded suitably surrealistic for Jeannie but I couldn’t imagine what she would look like in a bikini.
“It’s a little bizarre, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Well, it certainly jump-starts an interesting discussion at dinner parties!” Joe laughed.
“When will she be back?” I asked.
“With Jeannie, who knows?” Joe replied, “Next week, next year. She’s got a new man in her life and he lives in Jamaica, so maybe never!”
Lillian said, “My, my! Miss Jeannie, no navel, I do declare! Wait till I tells my husband that!”
And then, placing her hands on her aproned hips, she laughed uncontrollably as she strolled to the kitchen to find the broom.
And thus my life with Joe in the Carnegie Hall Studios started. One thing was evident, it was never going to be boring.
“And, best of all,” Joe said, “if on the rare occasion we are bored and there is nothing else for us to do, we can always go downstairs to Carnegie Hall and get free seats in the stalls or standing room at the back.”
That too was true. I knew I couldn’t complain. In my time as a resident there we listened to artists such as Arthur Rubenstein, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Ray Charles – all for free
In those days most of the residents of the Studios never even bothered to lock their doors. Musicians, opera singers, actors, photographers and ballet dancers simply dropped by, at any time of the day or night – some for a chat, others, like Robert Redford (who was studying at the Actor’s Studio), to borrow money for his cab fare home.
One of our fellow “night owls” in the Carnegie Hall studios was the jazz pianist, Bobby Short. Bobby was the highly successful resident cabaret performer at Manhattan’s elegant Café Carlyle. Often, on the way home at night, Joe and I would drop by the Carlyle to enjoy Bobby’s unique talent on the piano.
One afternoon, soon after I moved in with Joe, Bobby dropped into our studio,
”Joe darling, Frank Sinatra’s in town. Gloria and I are planning a dinner for him next week. I hope you and Caroline can come.”
The “Gloria” he referred to was his very close friend, the designer, Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper. Independent and headstrong, Gloria, had recently defied the wrath of her wealthy family and shocked New York society when she decided to move in with Bobby, the gay black pianist.
The dinner party numbered around twenty people. And, even though we literally lived just down the corridor, Joe and I predictably arrived late.
Dinner had already begun. Bobby got up to welcome us. He was dressed, not in his usual impeccable pinstriped suit but in a flowing white beaded caftan. He drew me to an empty chair next to Bill Paley, the founder of CBS Television. On my other side was Peter Duchin, the popular resident pianist at the St.Regis Hotel’s Maisonette Club. Peter’s wife Cheray Zauderer was seated across from us. Frank Sinatra sat a little further up, on my side of the table, between Gloria and Bill Paley’s beautiful wife, Babe. There were several other people there, some of whom I recognized, such as society beauty Fiona Thyssen and publicist Earl Blackwell, and others I did not. When we arrived the conversation and the wine were both in full flow.
Mouthing excuses, I edged into my seat. Bill Paley was very gracious. We had already had a nodding acquaintance at various functions before but this was the first time I was able to talk to him at length.
I told him one of my best friends, Rupert Hitzig, worked for him.
“Talented young man he is, he’ll go far!” Bill predicted.
And, although neither of us could have possibly known it then, he was right. In another ten years, Rupert Hitzig would replace William S Paley to become the head of CBS.
Our conversation then veered towards the one person in New York that always managed to shock, fascinate and amuse me, Truman Capote. It was no secret that Truman was infatuated with Bill’s wife, the very beautiful Babe Paley. There was a time when Truman was so often in her company and in her homes in New York and Long Island that the Paley marriage could have been accurately described as a “ménage a trois”.
“Aren’t you just a little bit jealous?” I teased after a couple of minutes warm-up.
“Of Truman?” he asked incredulously, “Why? He keeps my wife amused, entertained and flattered while I’m hard at work. What more could a man want?”
I could see his point. “You mean all gossip and no sex?”
He laughed again, “You got it! Hey, you’re a bright kid. When you need a job come and see me!”
He raised his wine glass and winked.
By the end of the night, toasts were being made, each one more slurred and more cringing than the last. Most were in praise of the evening’s “special” guest, Frank Sinatra, telling him what a great man he was, what a privilege it was to be in his company and how fortunate we all were to know him.
Personally, I had never seen the attraction of Frank Sinatra, neither as a man nor as a singer. It seems there was a huge difference in his appeal for those born before and those born after the war. To the Sixties generation not only was he not of our decade, he didn’t seem part of our century. To us, brought up on the Beatles, the Byrds, Elvis and the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra was irrelevant. He was history, a relic from another era, much like the dinosaur.
I found it hard to understand the adulation he enjoyed among my parents’ generation. To me, he was physically ugly, too thin, too small and his ears stuck out too far. His language was vulgar, his manners coarse and he was already infamous for treating women with lecherous contempt and men with physical and verbal abuse.
And this night, at Bobby Short’s dinner, I was about to witness Frank Sinatra at his undeniable worst. When the toasts were over he raised his arms, stumbled to his feet and reached for his own glass to respond. The toast he made was not quite what everyone was expecting. Carefully surveying the room, eyeballing each woman in turn, he said,
“And I am privileged to be here. Thank you, Bobby, for inviting all these beautiful hookers. I want you all to know that…”
He paused for dramatic effect and then, very slowly and deliberately pointing to each of the “hookers” around the table one by one, he said:
“I have fucked every single one of them,” until his finger arrived at me, hesitating briefly, he added, “except her, who is she?”
A chill of complete horror pervaded the room. No one dared look anyone else in the eye. Wives, mothers and daughters froze. Husbands, fathers and sons glared. On both sides of me, I felt Peter Duchin and Bill Paley shift uncomfortably. Everyone looked deep into their wine glasses, not daring to say a word.
I think the immediate reaction of all of us must have been had we heard right? Had Frank Sinatra just said what we thought he said? Everyone looked at the drunken singer desperately hoping he was going to laugh, say it was a joke, apologize for his bad taste. But no, he was still standing there, innocently swallowing the contents of his glass, studying the expressions around him, thrilled at the mayhem he had just caused.
One by one heads started to look up, each person looked at their escort. Doubts and questions must have been flooding their minds. Could what he said have been true? Was it just possible? When? Where? How did it happen? How dare he? How dare she?
I shuddered to think what the conversations would be like later behind closed doors.
This was my first and, considering the circumstances, fortunately, my last close encounter with Frank Sinatra and it clearly illustrated to me what an odious, obnoxious and belligerent character he was. He had broken every code in the book and he still stood there, conceited, gloating and self-satisfied as he watched everyone else in the room squirm. Drunk or not, there were no excuses to be made. And, besides, there was no doubt he was enjoying himself immensely. If nothing else, it clearly demonstrated he had no class at all. If he was determined to make such a compromising statement he should have made it in his own home, not at the home of someone he called his “friend”. By announcing this at someone else’s dinner party he had committed an unspeakable offence. Poor Bobby Short looked more shell-shocked than anybody.
I decided there and then that I despised Frank Sinatra and I silently vowed to sully his name in public whenever and wherever I had the opportunity. I was thrilled, decades later, when I met the diminutive blonde author, Kitty Kelley, and she handed me a copy of “His Way”, her devastating unauthorized biography of him. And I noted with glee that, despite threats against her life, despite moves to injunct the book, Sinatra and his mafia friends were unable to prove successfully to a court that the lurid details it contained about his links with organized crime and many of the disreputable activities he was involved in throughout his career were not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
But my favourite resident of Carnegie Hall Studios was none of these celebrities. In a tiny room on the top floor of 881 Seventh Avenue, lived the frail-looking eighty-something-year-old Miss Tiffany, with her rheumy eyes, a plumed black hat, an ancient accordion and her pet chihuahua, Toots.
Miss Tiffany and Toots, I soon found out, were two of New York’s most endearing characters. Nobody could remember a time when they hadn’t seen Miss Tiffany, in her Edwardian black dress and her plumed hat playing her accordion at night on the street outside Carnegie Hall with the increasingly infirm and emaciated Toots curled up asleep beside her.
Every night for forty years, come rain, sleet or snow, Miss Tiffany was there. The little money she made, she told me, she kept in cash under her mattress. But when she took me upstairs to inspect her “little money”, as she referred to her lifetime savings, it amounted to no less than $11,000, a small fortune in those days. (Equivalent to $88,000 today).
“Don’t trust the banks, Caroline,” she sighed, trying to stuff a thin wisp of grey hair back under her plumed black hat, “they steal your money!”
Whether that was meant as a warning or as a belief based on personal experience I never found out.
About a year after my first encounter with Miss Tiffany, Toots died at the venerable age of 13.
Or, as Miss Tiffany put it, “He was 91 but I thought he’d outlive me!”
She was inconsolable and, to those of us residents worried about her welfare, we became increasingly concerned that she wouldn’t survive without him.
One day Joe, Cecil and I hatched a plot and, when she returned home in the early hours she found a chihuahua puppy in a basket waiting for her outside her door. It was love at first sight. As she bent down to pick him up, the puppy leapt into her arms, dislodging her wide-brimmed black hat and messing her wispy grey hair. But Miss Tiffany didn’t seem to notice. Tears were flowing down her cheeks.
“Toots! Toots! It’s my Toots!” she kept repeating, over and over.
Cecil picked up her accordion, I picked up her plastic bag with her evening’s takings, Joe unlocked her door to let her in and then we left the two of them alone.
The next night Joe and I visited her in her favourite spot in front of Carnegie Hall. “Toots” was curled up beside her and she was playing her heart out.
“What have you named him, Miss Tiffany?” I asked, stroking the sleeping dog.
Miss Tiffany stopped playing abruptly.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Caroline was just wondering if you’d thought of a name for him yet,” Joe explained.
“Name?” Miss Tiffany looked nonplussed, “why should I think of a name? He’s Toots. He’s always been Toots. You know that. Why do you ask?”
Later she told me she believed in reincarnation and that there was no doubt in her mind as soon as she saw the new puppy that he was the reincarnation of her beloved Toots.
Two years later I had the sad task of helping Miss Tiffany pack one battered old suitcase, her trunk and her plastic bags. She was finally leaving the studio that had been her home for so many years. She was being taken off to an actor’s retirement home in the Adirondacks. As she sat on the sidewalk, bundled up among her packages waiting for the taxi to take her away, her plumed black hat askew and her accordion on her lap, she shed a few tears. I instantly noticed Toots was not curled up beside her.
”Where’s Toots?” I asked alarmed.
Miss Tiffany hunched her frail shoulders and wept.
“I had to give him away,” she whispered, “they don’t want him where I’m going. Cecil’s finding a home for him.”
I gave her a hug.
“He’ll be fine,” I said unconvincingly, “Cecil will make sure he’s well looked after. Please don’t worry about him, Miss Tiffany.”
“I can’t help it,” she sniffed, “he was all I had. He means everything to me.”
The taxi came and Cecil and I helped Miss Tiffany into the front seat, taking great care not to dislodge her plumed black hat. She insisted all her plastic bags were placed behind her on the back seat where she could keep an eye on them. I tried to imagine the taxi driver’s expression if he just happened to peek into one of those bulging shopping bags and seen Miss Tiffany’s “little money” – $11,000 in notes and cash!
I clasped her hand through the window as the taxi started to draw away.
“Wait a minute!” she said. Despite her weak voice, the command was strident and the taxi driver abruptly applied the brakes.
“What is it, Miss Tiffany?” I asked.
“Tell Joe, don’t forget to write me up,” she said.
I promised I wouldn’t forget. And, as her taxi pulled out of sight, Cecil gave me one of his big bear hugs. I think we were both sad to see her go, knowing that, without Toots, without her nightly station outside Carnegie Hall and faced with life in an old people’s home, she would probably not last long. Her life would just ebb away.
Joe fulfilled the promise I’d made to her and this is what he wrote:
“……The cast of characters that called Carnegie Hall “home” ranged from Leonard Bernstein, Giancarlo Menotti and Marlon Brando to the photographer, Richard Avedon, Bill Cunningham and Bobby Short, the jet set pianist bandleader whose triplex there looked like everybody’s dream of Paris in the 1930s.
The most unforgettable character there, however, was not a celebrity but a little old lady with the unlikely name of Lila Tiffany. Miss Tiffany played the accordion – not quite in Carnegie Hall but on the sidewalk outside.
She also lived in a tiny studio above mine. In time out of memory Miss Tiffany had been a fixture in front of the Hall, her Mexican chihuahua, Toots, standing guard over the money box.
Wonder of wonders, one day a casting director spotted Miss Tiffany and she wound up on Broadway in the role of the 101-year-old woman in the James Agee play, “All the Way Home”. The main requirement seemed to be looking 101 and, in that, Miss Tiffany was very convincing. So much so, they cast her in the movie as well. Meantime her accordion fell silent.
But Broadway never beckoned again for Miss Tiffany. Someone stole her movie money and, in due course, Toots and his mistress were back in their favourite nightly spot, on the sidewalk outside Carnegie Hall.
Knowing I was a journalist, Miss Tiffany often talked about a musical she was writing, never losing a chance to audition her songs for me, usually as a captive audience in the elevator.
I can still hear her singing the theme song, “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword”. Her voice frail but on pitch, her performance surprisingly animated. But like some melodic time warp it all came out pure Gilbert & Sullivan.
One night, some months later, the snow was falling and the wind howling when we came home around 2am.
“The old lady is leaving,” said Cecil the elevator man, meaning that Miss Tiffany was off to the actors’ home in Lake Saranac. It was an 8-hour ride.
Feeling I had to make a gesture, I rushed to my studio, grabbed a handful of small bills and a bottle of brandy and hurried up to Miss Tiffany’s. As I stepped into her studio I nearly tripped over her. There she sat on all her earthly possessions, suitcase, a small trunk and a myriad shopping bags. Toots was standing guard over the accordion.
Feeling embarrassed I thrust the money and the brandy at her and said, “I’ll keep track of you, Miss Tiffany,” as I backed into the elevator. That was the last I saw of her.
Later that day I received a message from her. In the great tradition of theatre, she had requested, “Promise me, don’t forget to write me up.”
So, Miss Tiffany, wherever you are, I’m delivering on that promise.
Following Miss Tiffany’s departure, there wasn’t a day that went by that Cecil didn’t give me an update about Toots.
“If you talk to Miss Tiffany,” he would say, “please tell her that Toots is fine and misses her. My friends are feeding him too well. He’s getting fat. Please tell her that. And give her my regards.”
It’s hard for me, even now, to contemplate on the tragic event that befell my good friend and confidante, Cecil. Some years later, in 1988, I returned to New York and immediately went to pay a visit to Cecil.
Joe had long ago moved out of Studio 906 but Bill Cunningham was still there. Bill and I exchanged a few words as we rode up in the elevator with Jimmy, the other elevator operator who was on duty that day. I asked him about Cecil’s whereabouts. Jimmy shook his head sadly. He told me that some years back Cecil had been tried and convicted of second-degree murder and had been in prison for almost a decade. I was shocked.
“But, Jimmy, Cecil could never hurt a fly! You know that as well as I do! ” I protested.
Jimmy nodded. “I know it, Miss Caroline. They dun get him though!”
“It’s very sad,” Bill said, “we all miss him terribly.”
I was very upset by the idea of my gentle champion, Cecil, languishing in some U.S. jail, perhaps never to be free again. I desperately wanted to send him a message from his “Princess” or, better still, visit him but Jimmy told me no one knew where he was being held.
“Hasn’t he even told you when he will be let out?” I asked.
“Nope. Nothing.” Jimmy stared down at his feet. “He was my friend. Twenty years he was my best friend, Miss Caroline. And he’s gone.”
“And Miss Lillian?” I asked.
“She dun gone back to New Jersey,” Jimmy said quietly. “She was heartbroken.”
I didn’t push Jimmy further. It was obvious he was upset. I tried to change the subject.
“Remember, Jimmy, the first day I arrived in Studio 906 with Joe?” I touched his arm. “Do you know what I thought? I thought to live in Carnegie Hall, this is going to be heaven.”
Jimmy nodded again. “Mr Joe was a fine man,” he smiled. “and Miss Jeannie too – a fine woman.“
The memories were suddenly very clear. I realized I had been gone for over twenty-two years and yet, somehow, it all seemed so recent. I could even hear Joe’s voice as he had swung open the door of Studio 906 and ushered me into his studio for the very first time.
“There are enough characters and stories in this building to write an epic novel.”
One day, perhaps. One day.