At Large: Listening with my Eyes

I grew up through the Bridges & Tunnels of New York City, in Queens and Brooklyn to be exact. Manhattan was viewed by me through the eyes of an outsider. My father was an educated man, fluent in several foreign languages, very much an intellectual and a gentleman who led and taught by example. A Colombian of Spanish descent, he was the son of an entrepreneurial Spaniard aristocrat and entreprenur, from a prominent family of Conversos, who emigrated to the new world’s southern hemisphere where he became a business leader in the local community of Armenia, the center of the coffee growing region in Colombia, South America. My grandfather married down, as some would say, by marrying a woman (my grandmother) of Colombian Indian heritage and raised his children, including my father, Catholic.

My father left the relative comfort of a well connected, prominent and affluent family in his own country to come to the United States, and create a life in New York’s Bright Lights, Big City before Jay McInerney wrote about it. He became just another hard working professional in New York City trying to support a family. A man torn between his love for two countries, with family in both, was my father. No matter where he was, there was always a longing for those he cared for. You could see it in his eyes and his manner. It still brings tears to my eyes now to think of the depth of love and heartache my father had to experience in his lifetime. If you see something chivalrous or generous in me, it unquestionably comes from my father.

My mother grew up in a working class family of Italian (Genovese), German & Austrian heritage in Chelsea (it was a bit different back then) From my mom, I learned discipline, humility and common sense (which unfortunately I do not always apply). Their working lives and the people they knew opened my eyes to Manhattan. I had summer jobs on Madison Avenue working for the engineering firm for which my father was employed. When my parents separated, my stepfather worked for a Trump, Fred Trump. Donald was a prodigy on the verge of extending the Trump brand and taking it to a new level, in Manhattan. The next great thing he was or so my stepfather advised me. He was right! When you think of New York, a few names come to mind: Giuliani, Trump, Rockefeller, De Niro and Jeter etc.

You see, we knew people. People in my family ALWAYS knew people. We worked for them. There was honor in that and never any shame. Most of the time. Some people were more affluent and had more money but we never felt lesser nor did we begrudge anyone their success or good fortune. You see, there were also even some people that we could not really talk about knowing. It was not something that we discussed outside the house. That’s what happens when you grow up in a family of Italians (Northern and Southern (by marriage)) and Colombians, even if mom’s heritages was more WASP like. My father grew up in relative affluence but did not place a high value on material possessions, as much as he did his history books and music (Beethoven to Barry White). But it was o.k., it made me realize that we were different. My father taught me how to appreciate the subtle beauty of life, art and culture and respect for the alternative view. He challenged me to think and question everything and helped to fill in the gaps in my education.

Years later, I am still more proud of my letter of recommendation from Donald Trump on Trump Organization letterhead than I am by the law degree I received from the University of Pennsylvania, Donald’s alma mater. Because of Mr. Trump, a borderline candidate became a shoe in at UPenn Law. As my well connected college girlfriend’s family of prominent Philadelphian’s asked, “how does a kid from Brooklyn know anyone, in our town no less?” Well, very simple, my step father worked hard for an honest man (Fred Trump), who rewarded loyalty. In turn, in the summer months I found myself employed by the Trump Organization as a Janitor/Porter in Trump apartment buildings, sweeping floors, mopping hallways and packaging trash, not exactly “networking.” When I grew out of that, or thought my education elevated me above such work, even though the pay was significant for someone my age, I chose instead to work as a lifeguard at Trump building pools. The perks? A union wage and being the most popular kid with all the cute Brooklyn JAPS in the neighborhood. It was not a racial slur, rather it was an aspiration or so I later learned in college. When I went to Boston University and the University of Pennsylvania I was informed that JAPS or “Princesses” did not come from the boroughs but rather from places like the Fives Towns of Long Island, even though their mother and/or father often traced his or her heritage to Brooklyn.

Manhattan was a world I did not understand. Sure it was “my city” or so I bragged to non New Yorkers. The retort that I was was often met with was, “dude you are not from New York. You don’t live in Manhattan….you live in phucking Brooklyn with all the other bridge and tunnel people. You even talk like that guy, what’s his name, Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back Kotter. Too bad you don’t look like him, you might get laid more.” My girlfriend was right! Just kidding ;-) BUT, the fact was that on some level he was right. The lives being led there were so far different than my own, that I had to read about and watch movies to get insight and perspective about my “hometown.”

The first thing I did with the assistance of my college girlfriend was work on my elocution. While I liked Brooklyn and still do, being annointed with my home borough’s name as my nickname, “yo Brooklyn”, in college was not a good thing. If they only knew I was born in Queens, between Kew Gardens and Forest Hills to be exact. Being called a Queen at that age could have been catastrophic. But like most things in life, as time goes by what was once stigmatized becomes “hip”…much like Brooklyn is now the new Manhattan or having Soprano like people in your family tree. It was not like it is today where every kid growing up in suburban affluence who happens to have a surname that ends in a vowel and has maybe watched too many episodes of the Soprano’s or the Gotti’s fancies himself a “gangsta.” I want to bitch slap some of these people. When times were lean after my parents separation, my mom served us alot of rice & beans and spaghetti with meatsauce. This is now considered “latino fare” and “pasta bolognese” for which you will spend a pretty penny at some trendy restaurants. Even mac & cheese is now an appetizer at some of the very same places. Go figure. We just ate that stuff because we had no money ;-)

I educated myself because I aspired to be “one of them.” As it turns out I now come home exhausted most evenings, looking forward to a warm bath followed by placing my head on a pillow. After putting in a 12 hour day at work downtown on select evenings, like tonight, I find myself camera in hand inside tony Upper East Side townhouses, places like the Doubles Club in the Sherry Netherland Hotel, the Park Avenue Armory and the Waldorf Astoria covering society and the world of philanthropy. Why? Because somewhere along the line I fell into wanting to capture the story, and to really understand how my city works, rather than be the story. I once wondered what it was like to be a guest at these parties. But now, truthfully, in observing and taking pictures I am enjoying myself more than if I were the guest of honor. Capische? You see, New York has two classes of people. Those who work and those who well let’s just say “work it.” Frankly, it is unlikely that you will ever see me “lunching” at Michael’s. I just don’t do lunch. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Wall Street, where Michael Douglas playing Gordon Gekko states to the somewhat eager and green Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen that, “Lunch is for Wimps.” But I digress. Many who work it do so for the benefit of others. As for posers unfortunately you are always going to have those in any social setting. For me, they are just part of the background noise. Consider the woman who I ran into at a Fresh Air Fund fundraiser a couple of years ago who waxed on about how she has been big supporter of the fund for years now because of the important work that the fund does for the enviornment. I rolled my eyes in disbelief and had to cough to refrain from laughing but did not have the inclination to correct and advise her that the Fresh Air Fund actually sends under privileged youth to summer camp or the country homes of sponsors for select summer weeks so that they can experience country life outside of their urban enviornments.

What is charity but the fulfillment or enabling the dreams of others less fortunate? To me the fact that there are some truly genuine people who devote their lives to philanthropy is inspirational and fascinating. This is no less true because there are social perks associated with doing so or that they often choose to celebrate their philanthropic endeavors with such regal style and flair. So what if they draw attention to themselves? The fanfare by which philanthropy is celebrated in the highest echelons of New York’s social world is really just part of the show. It is enabling, not disabling and is a necessity for it to survive.

So what is a typical evening like for Chris London ? Tonight I photographed Rockefeller’s, several of them actually, met some happy fella’s at the bar, definitely saw a good fella (you have to trust me on that one). I spoke to a Junior Leaguer, a Wall Streeter, took a picture of a former East Street Band Member but walked by a famous Auctioneer because I had already taken his photo several times before.

I listen with my eyes and document what I hear with my camera. I do not always know why but I know I like it and will continue to do it even if it never gets me anywhere. They say life is about the journey and not the destination. The turbulence I have encountered in my life is not quite that experienced by those aboard the Titanic even if I did meet Kate Winslet on this trip. Speaking of Kate, I did not even know who she was until about six (6) stiff drinks of dialoque she fessed up. How clueless am I? A socialite walks in the room, my head pops up. I am seated drinking with one of the world’s most famous actresses for a couple of hours and to me she is simply “Kate”. But then again it was more interesting that way. And with her I just listened and watched….and left the camera in its place because it was also much better that way. There is a time and a place for everything, I suppose.

Maybe I will learn my proper place, even if I am sometimes filled with existential angst, too concerned about how others perceive me or what they think I should be or could have been. As my Dad advised me at my law school graduation after taking my picture with Commencement Speaker, Senator Joe Biden, “son you are so smart, you could have been a doctor.” Never have I been content to accept wholeheartedly without qualification the projections or labels that some would bestow on me….whether it be photographer, lawyer, writer, bodybuilder, boy toy, boyfriend etc etc. What is so wrong about being a jack of all trades, if eventually you come to master more than one?

I closed my eyes, feeling the warmth of the bath water soothing my aching angles and thighs. In the background the radio played Neil Diamond:

“I am,” I said
To no one there
An no one heard at all
Not even the chair”
I am,” I cried”I am,” said I
And I am lost, and I can’t even say why
Leavin’ me lonely still

Did you ever read about a frog who dreamed of bein’ a king
And then became one
Well except for the names and a few other changes
I you talk about me, the story’s the same one
But I got an emptiness deep inside
And I’ve tried, but it won’t let me go
And I’m not a man who likes to swear
But I never cared for the sound of being alone

“I am,” I said
To no one there
An no one heard at all
Not even the chair
“I am,” I cried
“I am,” said I
And I am lost, and I can’t even say why
Leavin’ me lonely still

Written by Neil Diamond

The Society Show & the Straw that Stirs the Drink

Welcome back, my friends
to the show that never ends.
We’re so glad you could attend!
Come inside! Come inside!

There behind a glass
stands a real blade of grass
be careful as you pass.
Move along! Move along!

Come inside, the show’s about to start
guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth
The greatest show in Heaven, Hell, or Earth
(Chorus)
You’ve got to see the show, it’s a dynamo….

Emerson Lake & Palmer
from Karn Evil 9: First Impression, Part Two

Rch The Society Show, much like Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus, has a unique cast of chracters all its own. Whether your view is that of an insider or from the outside looking in a circus may certainly seem to be the appropriate analogy. The Players?   Socialites, Publicists, Philanthropy, Fashion, Cocktails, Photographers and Press galore, all interwoven in a mix that writer Michael Gross  previously referred to as Social Life in a Blender. (Photo: R Couri Hay at a Holiday Musicale at the home of Janna Bullock on the Upper East Side of Manhattan by Gregory Partanio for Manhattan Society.com)

In modern day New York we still find remnants of the old guard, a veritable self-appointed society mafia who consider themselves part of the existing social order. Behind the scenes they serve as gatekeepers in an attempt to insure some antiquated notions of preserving the public trust that went out with Edith Wharton’s, the Age of Innocence. And some think that this is rather unfortunate. Preservation of exclusivity, style and a regal element is certainly in the best interests of "the Show" but I am not sure whether all aspects are necessary or helpful. Afterall, excluding those with large checkbooks, however, is philanthropically shortsighted, if not foolish.

The similarities between "Made Men" in the Mafia and "Socialites" as accepted within the existing social hierarchy is uncanny. Case in point, Lorraine Bracco, none other than Dr. Melfi from the Soprano’s is one of the more active (in a meaningful way philanthropically) ladies on Manhattan’s social circuit these days. Daughter Stella Keitel, from her “relationship” with Harvey Keitel (one of this writer’s favorite actors along with Pacino & DeNiro) appears to be following suit. The making of a "Socialite" is either an evolutionary process or by birth right. When a Socialite gets "whacked", however, she may just find herself banished to Page 6 infamy where ironically she can perhaps become more infamous and notorious many of those attempting to preserve the existing social order. Maybe she can ever cross over in to "Celebutante" status, see Paris Hilton.  Once a celebrity or a celebutante maybe she will even be welcomed back into the fold, even if the Co-op Board of the Luxury 5th Avenue apartment buildings banish her to East of Park or worse yet midtown.

"The List" is undoubtedly in flux but evolving as a result of a variety of factors. For one, there is commericalism and a proliferation of local print and online media domestically and internationally, covering the phenomenon of "Society", each with their own take on it and a reality TV based culture looking for more "celebs" of the moment. As a result, you will find reality TV stars making grand entrances or glorified appearances around the city at charity and cultural events posing as actual celebs, often with their own publicists in tow. "Oops, sorry I did not see you on the Apprentice. I just noticed that you had err uh uh "nice cupcakes". So since you were fired by the Donald, what else have you been up to?" Oh it wasn’t Donald? Oh yeah I forgot Martha Stewart had a show also."

Secondly, there is also the never ending infusion of international monied classes into Manhattan from around the world which has further led to an expansion of what is considered "the List".  For that reason alone, it appears "the List"  largely depends on who’s making it and how much actual fundraising one would like to accomplish. That perhaps explains why David Patrick Columbia’s list differs from that of Jason Binn or Amy Sacco’s at Bungalow 8 or for that matter Suzanne Bartsch at Happy Valley. If nothing else, it proves that no matter how cool you are, not everyone will ever think that you are cool enough to be on their list. The fact is that on any given night almost anyone can be summarily turned away out of the blue and made well to feel sort of like a Gatecrasher or a "Shaggy" (a.k.a., a shaggy haired party crasher extraordinaire with a hair line resembling a french poodle and notoriously questionable hygiene who has become infamous for his ability to sniff out an open bar on any given night in Manhattan).  Believe me I know. There is many a list that I am not on and it does not bother me, as much as it amuses me. If I have learned anything in life it is that doors open when you least expect them to and also when you are not preoccupied with having them open. I am simply more curious that there so many actual doors to open.

Society even has its own Hired Papparazzi, which are referred to as "celebrity" photographers. A designation which I informally received myself despite the fact that I photograph exclusively the world of philanthropy: socialites, business leaders, politicos, philanthropists and much less actual hollywood celebrities.  With this style of photography permission is implicit.  Jumping out of bushes is not necessary nor is a zoom lens to capture them from 1,000 feet. That would be impersonal, impolite and inefficient but also rather unnecessary.  Par for the course is full length close ups from close range to capture fully the magnificient coture designs that often these ladies are paid or asked to wear to important events.  Sure its about being seen but being seen in Vera Wang, Douglas Hannant, Ralph Lauren, Lily Pulitzer etc etc. In New York, it is certainly about who you know, who you are and what you do or have done but, it is also very much about who’s designs you wear. In many cases, what you find the upwardly social wearing may very well exceed the net worth of some small countries, much less those photographing them.

If I had 15 Minutes while I was Out & About to take a stroll down the Avenue to peruse the beautiful Young on the Guest List at this week’s hottest event, in a Quest to figure out how A, let’s call him Andrew,  knows B, lets call him Ben (a blonde bomber who is often gawked at and is anything but a "Gatecrasher" and usually always on the List), is also connected to C, I probably would not need to ask Richard Johnson for the Lowdown or check Page 6 to confirm that the straw that stirs the drink behind many a society cocktail is none other than C, simply meaning Couri or R Couri Hay, publicist, columnist and man about town. Flamboyant? Sure. Aggressive? Perhaps at times. But, is he effective? Most definitely.  R Couri Hay is a Social Maestro, an integral cog in the wheel of philanthropy and high end social life in New York City, often conducting the flow of publicity by cultivating relationships with the press leading them to a story before, during and after events in this town.  Much like a magician or puppeteer, even when he is not present, or you cannot trace his fingerprints to a story it is his work or that of his able bodied staff, that may often be at play.  Couri certainly seems to have his competition with the growing ranks of trust fundafarian socialite/publicist/event planners each of whom have carved out a special niche and clientele in  the world of fashion and philanthropy. Ironically enough they can often be seen mixing about in the same social shark tank eyeing their prey, networking with the over networked.  Air kisses aside it is not surprising that there is a juicy under current of cattiness, envy and pretense as well as some ruthless competition, except I am not a gossip so that is as far as I will go with this. Then again, sometimes you find them working in concert at or behind the scenes for the same organization, never really sure how or who is being compensated for what is transpiring.

This may seem like a critique of the social system in place in New York, Palm Beach and the Hamptons. I can only truly speak for New York City, in particular the Island of Manhattan. To the contrary, "the Show" is a necessity for fashion, philanthropy, arts and social life to thrive and flourish in this town. Without "the Show" New York would really not be New York. If you think a drink is a drink and that clothes are merely cloth to cover your weary limbs perhaps you do not understand or comprehend what is at play here.  Hollywood has celebrity. New York has Society. No doubt, a merger of the two seems to be evolving to some degree, but not entirely, as more and more Hollywood celebrity types become omniprescent on the New York social scene mixing among the cities socialities, philanthropists and business leaders. Perhaps this is a wise move for those in the entertainment business who find themselves between sitcoms, film roles or on the downward side of a career cycle in an attempt to keep their name in the headlines if not the social pages.  The star system in New York, however, is a tad different than it is in Hollywood and the flavor a bit more up close and personal. Not everyone can handle it.

Hollywood celebrities often require civilian guests and press to remain at an uncomfortable arms length distance which can take away from the intimacy of an event. I recall being almost knocked to the ground by an overzealous body guard several years ago inside the tent at Tavern on the Green at a benefit for the Fresh Air Fund. The reason? I was a guest, without a camera (yes there was a time Chris London, B.C., before camera) within 50 feet of Mariah Carey (who by the way in my estimation looks alot better now with more junk in the trunk and on the grill as well) who was coming in with an entourage and my back happened to be to the entrance.

It is the illusive but accessible quality of "the socialite" that gives her a powerful star like draw which in many cases exceeds that of celebrities. Ask any event planner what it means in New York City to have Amanda Hearst, Lydia Hearst or Gillian Hearst in attendance at your social event with or without Anne Hearst and the man who wrote the quintessial modern New York novel which brought the world’s focus to an element of New York Nightlife in his book Bright Lights Big City, Jay McInerney. Beauty, wealth and education seem to enhance one’s pedigree whether you trace your roots to the Mayflower, 5th Avenue, the Hamptons, Palm Beach or even Forest Hills. As one who has photographed many of the leading "stars" of New York Society, the thoughtful photographer must appreciate the need to be creative but efficient in how you photograph them. Do not monopolize their precious time because others will need to photograph them. The Socialite must be permitted to find a comfort zone that enables her to relax and enjoy the event so that the pleasure of her company may be enjoyed by many, including her personal and intimate network of confidants who undoubteldy came to lend their support for the evenings charitable recipient. This is the reason why I will usually keep my dialoque brief and polite wth the Hearst Girls, Debbie Bancroft, Coralie Charriol Paul, Tinsley Mortimer, Allison Aston, Bettina Zilkha, Zani Gugelmann, Alex Lind Rose, Mona Wyatt, Emilia Fanjul Pfiefler (and her office full of model like socialite babes every one stylish, wall mannered and beautiful as the next) etc etc. These women are sexy, beautiful and engaging creatures but frankly they are part of "the show" and last I checked I was not the only one with a ticket.

Society’s stars pump up the volume in a look at me way that well says…look at New York. Look at our beautiful venues, great art and architecture and these wonderful charitable organizations, and the people behind them even if it sometimes feels that charity is an afterthought and not the preveiling thought. And yes look at some of the great work of fashion designers being done in the Fashion Capital of the World.  For some reason a highball at McFadden’s Pub does not taste quite the same as does a glass of Veuve Clicquot in a Champagne glass at the Park Avenue Armory or on a schmooze cruise aboard The Highlander, the Forbes Family Yacht, in the New York Harbor while flirting with a Hearst, a Forbes or one of the other young, beautiful and upwardly social ladies of Manhattan. For those who Gawk and poke fun at this "scene" recognize, they have also enabled your journalistic career to some degree. Cheers and welcome to 2006 where the show is just getting underway.