New Yorkers (Part Three: Bess Myerson)

January 17th, 2015 § 2 comments § permalink

Bess Myerson was crowned Miss America in 1945, the first (and only) Jewish woman to win this title. These days, the Miss America contest exists on the fringes of the national consciousness — a relic (thankfully) of a more sexist era that is quickly going out of style. But, in 1945 Miss America was a big deal and winning the title meant instant celebrity for Bess Myerson. Unfortunately, anti-semitism was prevalent in the United States at the time and three of the five Miss America sponsors withdrew their sponsorships when Myerson was crowned; in addition, her national “crowning” tour was met with blatant anti-Jewish hostility at stops all across the country. She overcame all of this and, before she died at 90 last month, led a colorful, tempestuous, productive, tragic life. During HG’s New York public relations career, HG encountered Myerson at many public events. She was New York City’s Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. Very tough. Very effective. Before that job, she was omnipresent as a star of television game shows. A gifted pianist, she appeared with a number of symphony orchestras. HG found her imposing. She was well over six feet in heels. Very beautiful. Statuesque. She thought beauty contests stupid (she only entered Miss America for the college tuition prize). Myerson studied at Hunter College in New York (and like BSK) graduated with honors. She didn’t like to be complimented about her looks. Not surprising. She grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative Housing Complex in The Bronx (not far from HG’s Kingsbridge neighborhood home). This was housing built by Workmen’s Circle (“Arbeiter Ring”), an organization devoted to socialism and the mission of keeping Yiddish culture alive. The cooperative was named after the famous Yiddish writer, Scholem Aleichem whose stories were the basis for Fiddler On The Roof. The occupants of Sholem Aleichem Housing Complex were Yiddish-speaking poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals forced to make a living as garment workers and artisans. Books, brains and art were what counted, not physical beauty. Bess Myerson (who was fluent in Yiddish) was esteemed in the community because of her piano musicianship, not her looks. (Marc Chagall, the Jewish/Russian/French painter lived at Sholom Aleichem for some months after fleeing the Nazis). Myerson was an icy lady but she softened considerably when HG greeted her with some Yiddish phrases. Beneath that cool exterior was a woman of volcanic passion and that led to The Bess Mess and great public humiliation: When she was Consumer Affairs Commissioner, she fell in love with Andy Capasso, a sewer contractor who did business with the city. He was married and much younger than Myerson. The doomed love affair lead to indictments and criminal prosecution (Myerson and her co-defendants were acquitted). Myerson retired from public life. Battled cancer and dementia before she died. Whether Miss America or ordinary citizen, the third act is always tough.


Thanks For the Memories

November 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In 1954 HG partnered with a Broadway press agent and opened HG’s first public relations office in an odd little four story building, 236 W. 56th Street, on New York’s west side between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. The other tenants, like HG, were impecunious and vaguely connected with show business. The ground floor and part of the second was occupied by Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, celebrated for being one of Frank Sinatra’s favorite dining spots. It was a delightful old school restaurant featuring robust Neapolitan dishes. Though only ten years old at the time (it was founded in 1944 by Pasquale “Patsy” Scognamillo), it felt as if it had been there for decades. Prices were modest, affordable for even hand-to-mouth HG. The hosts were welcoming, generous people. They must have known that HG was struggling in his PR career because they always gave HG exuberant portions and coffee plus wine on the house. HG’s partnership dissolved. HG’s fortunes improved. HG moved to more appropriate offices on Madison Avenue. Nevertheless, HG continued to patronize Patsy’s, relishing its mozzarella in carozzo, clams arrreganata, chicken contadina and giant veal chops. Gradually, HG shifted his patronage to two other fine Italian restaurants — Delsomma on W. 47th Street and Paul & Jimmy’s on Irving Place (both long closed). While restaurants came and went, Patsy’s rolled along. It’s now in its 70th year and still owned by the Scognamillo family (It has only had three chefs in its history—all Scognamillos). Recently, HG checked the Patsy’s website. Food prices, of course, are much loftier than in the past. But, what gained HG’s attention was the wine list. Very few bottles priced less than $50 and many priced between $175 and $1,500. Yes, HG knows that New York has been taken over by the oligarchs, but still…. HG mused that New York is like an old girl friend. Cherish the memory but don’t arrange a reunion.


The Wonderful World Of Public Relations

July 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

“If it bleeds it leads.” That’s the operating principle of local TV (and most national) news programs and newspapers. On that basis, Israel is losing the public relations war with Hamas. In Gaza, there are actual dead children, weeping women and maimed and bloody men. Newsworthy and capable of arousing profound emotion. On the Israeli side, there is only footage of a few destroyed buildings. But, very few dead and shattered civilian bodies. Daily fear and disruption is not visual. Yes, there is coverage of the funerals of Israeli soldiers. But, these lack impact. The horrific wars in Vietnam and Iraq have deadened emotions concerning military death. And, there’s an angry Netananyu behind a microphone. Not a big PR plus. Of course, it is not for lack of trying that Hamas isn’t giving Israel PR opportunities. By sheer luck (and Israeli anti-rocket technology) hundreds of Hamas’ rockets haven’t exploded in heavily populated areas. Israel had a better world image when the Hamas military wing, Izz ad-Din-al-Quassan, managed successful suicide bombings that littered Tel Aviv’s streets with Jewish body parts. Hamas has two public relations objectives. For the Arab world (and rival Fatah), Hamas wishes to appear “resolute” and able to “stand up” against Israel For the rest of the world, Hamas wishes to appear as the brutalized victim of Israel (the killer of women and children.) In any case, Hamas is achieving these objectives and winning the PR war. (Curiously, defying logic the suffering population of Gaza does not seem to blame Hamas and its policies for their role in their bloody predicament). The benefits to Hamas from its “victory” seem negligible and the cost in terms of bloodshed is huge. For Israel, punishing Hamas (and the Gaza civilian population) militarily will, in HG’s view, not bring security but only a temporary respite from violence. Is there a solution? Doubtful. There are too many ideologues, religious fanatics, political power seekers involved. The madness will continue since the human capacity for wasteful violence seems limitless. However, we have all been taught that miracles have occurred in this part of the world: Seas have parted and the dead have risen to new life. Time for the miraculous to again make an appearance.


William Zeckendorf, Jr.

February 15th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

William Zeckendorf, Jr., real estate developer and philanthropist, died recently in Santa Fe. Born in New York, son of the legendary, flamboyant developer William Zeckendorf, Sr., Bill was a quiet, cerebral version of his father. But, like his father, he took big financial risks resulting in major ups and downs. The sons of Bill, Jr. are real estate titans in New York these days, developing and selling condominiums at astronomical prices (they recently sold a $40,000,000 condo in a building they developed on Central Park West). Bill, Jr. hired HG (late 70’s or early 80’s in HG’s memory) to thwart community opposition and publicize a risky development–a 33-story condominium tower on the northwest corner of 96th Street and Broadway called The Columbia. Lots of development plans for the site had failed. This was before the West Side became a fashionable address for the upwardly mobile and Broadway still contained many nocturnal hookers and quite a few outdoor drug markets. HG met with officials of the local elementary schools and worked out an arts program for the construction fence of the condo. Sixth and seventh grade students used the fence as a revolving art show painting pictures on themes like “My dream home”, “Favorite New York building,” “My hero,” etc. HG organized a jury of community luminaries (including some anti-development firebrands) and prizes were awarded monthly for best efforts. It all received loads of publicity and TV coverage and focused attention on the development as a family friendly and community involved environment. The condos sold quickly and Bill, Jr. went on to do major developments on Union Square, Eighth Avenue and other locations until getting whacked by financing disasters. HG always enjoyed his New York business meetings with Bill, Jr. They took place at the Sparks Steak House. Bill, Jr. thought the steak house had the best wine list in town and introduced HG to many splendid vintages. HG has delicious taste memories of cabernet from the Jordan winery in California. Bill, Jr. was a member of the distinguished wine lovers association, Confrerie des Chevaliers du Testavin. He inherited his wine love from his father. William Zeckendorf, Sr. headed the Webb & Knapp real estate firm with headquarters on midtown Madison Avenue. Its conference room was a circular space on the top floor of the building. That’s where William, Sr. hosted his legendary business lunches. HG was present at one (in 1962 or 1963, a few years before Webb & Knapp went bankrupt in 1965). HG was present because HG had been hired to do a publicity project for Mile High Center, a W & K development in Denver. As usual, a superb French wine was served at lunch (by a quite formal butler). The majority of the luncheon guests were concerned bankers and others who were owed a great deal of money by Zeckendorf. One of the bankers sipped his wine. “Say, Bill, this is great wine. How much would a bottle of this good stuff cost?” Zeckendorf stated the price. The banker blanched. The others at the table looked shocked. Yes, William Zeckendorf may have been going bankrupt but he never lowered his wine drinking standards.


Toffenetti’s Restaurant: Birth Of A Sceptic.

August 11th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

HG is skeptical about most received wisdom and belief. HG looks askance at wise financial planners, passionate religious types of all denominations, declaimers of national virtues and realtors who assure the unwary that the value of their home will continue to rise. HG’s contrarian nature took birth at Toffenetti’s Restaurant, a dining palace of glass and chrome that fed the masses at 43rd and Broadway in Times Square (there were also six Toffenetti dining places in Chicago).

The founder, Dario Toffenetti, was a master of rococo, hallucinatory menu prose. Ham was described as “velvety”, the product of aristocratic, pampered hogs. A baked potato wasn’t a simple spud. It was “baked in volcanic heat to give it a crisp and crackling skin.” Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, HG was absolutely lured by the prose. Sadly, The menu was pure poetry and the food was prosaic. Much was too sweet to be edible. And no, those potatoes did not crackle, they wilted with mediocrity.

HG learned from the experience to not to be influenced by the artistry and wiles of the advertising and public relations community (even though HG made a substantial living during some 60 years of practicing high grade press agentry). Toffenetti had a long run: 1940-1968. At the end it introduced (to great fanfare!) an all-you-can-eat repast for $3.49. Nothing poetic about that.

More Woof Woof

March 30th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

A cautionary tale about hot dogs and Mallomars. Many years ago HG had a real estate mogul client. He was a big guy. His weight varied between 275-300 pounds. He was on a perpetual diet. Some lettuce leaves and cottage cheese for lunch. However, HG knew his guilty secret. His baronial desk had a drawer stuffed with Mallomars (an oddly regional and seasonal Nabisco confection of a cookie base, marshmallow top, all robed in sweet chocolate). Most evenings the mogul would pick HG up at his Broadway office and drop him off at his West Side (rent controlled) apartment en route to the mogul’s Westchester estate. Lounging in the leather seats of the chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, HG and the mogul would hatch various public relations ploys to further enrich the mogul and gild his image. Every night the Rolls would come to an abrupt stop at the Gray’s Papaya at Broadway and 72nd. The chauffeur would leap out and bring back six hot dogs and two pina coladas (the relationship between “healthy” papaya drinks and Hot Dogs that exists only in New York is a story for another day). The mogul would wolf them down while continuing his business conversation. “I can’t resist hot dogs,” he explained. HG is sure he had some more lettuce leaves and a piece of grilled (skinless) chicken breast for dinner in Westchester. He was a sweet guy. He died young. There is a park in Queens named after him. But, no memorial plaque at the Gray’s Papaya.

Rain. Rain. Rain. Paree Day Eleven.

February 23rd, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Serious rain today. That meant the perfect time for a long visit to HG and BSK’s favorite Paris museum, Les Arts Decoratifs. It is a beautiful museum, occupying a lyrical wing of the Louvre. Very well organized. Starting on the ninth floor you descend the history of design and decor. All of the eras–from the Renaissance through the 20’s’ 30′, 40’s’ 50’s into the present. Great art deco and art nouveau sections. The museum is encyclopedic without being dull. Always an interesting special exhibition. This time the show was of 100 posters by the extraordinary Polish graphic artist Michal Batory. He is in the great tradition of Polish poster art, a tradition he combines with French surrealism. The result is gripping.

A sardonic sidelight for any of us with long experience in public relations and advertising. One of Batory’s poster clients is a major theatrical group. New management came in. They fired Batory and turned poster design over to their ad agency. So, even one of the world’s greatest poster artists can get tossed when there is a change in bosses. HG and BSK pondered this truism over a rump steak and wine at the museum’s cafe (a showcase of modern design). Dinner tonight Chez HG and BSK. Irish smoked salmon and a wide variety of salads (cucumber, carrot, mesclun, etc). BSK has been sniffling all day so True Grit is postponed until tomorrow.

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