Vamping it up in old New York
PetroneIla Wyatt says the past is alive and kicking in Manhattan
I WISH I had been born in 1908. That would have made me the age I am now in 1938. Were I the age I am now in 1938, I could have trained as a vamp: 1938 was a golden year for vamps. Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Lana Turner, to name but a lot. And where was Vamp Centrale, the ne plus ultra of vamp metropolises? New York City, stupid.
Whenever I am in Manhattan I make believe I am the bad girl in a black-andwhite film, playing opposite — directly opposite — William Powell or Robert Montgomery. (Cary Grant was too British and James Stewart never looked quite at home in New York.) I have a past, not shady exactly but with decidedly ambiguous moments. I am dressed impeccably, by Chanel and Balenciaga. My jewels are from Harry Winston. My conversation, for once, is as glittering as my rocks.
But where do I go to enact this fantasy? Surely contemporary New York is all about rap, ethnicity, fast-food and brash modernity, not cigarette-smoking in ja77 lounges? This is not true. As long as you know where to look, New York still does the vamp experience like nowhere else on earth.
First, the vamp must have a place to stay — preferably a suite in an impeccably smart hotel, the sort that gleams with spit and social polish. One such hotel is the Carlyle. Perhaps because it is run by an Englishman. James Sherwin, the Carlyle is a citadel of traditional style. They treat you like the Empress of Japan from the moment of arrival, when you are escorted into the old-fashioned lifts with their gold filigree sunbursts. The Carlyle is the only hotel with liftboys to ensure that women are not followed to their rooms. If they don't wish to be, that is.
The rooms themselves are grand but unfussy, without that ghastly minimalism that makes you want to hang yourself from the naked light fixtures. The bathrooms have two telephones and the linen looks as if it comes from Blenheim Palace. The public rooms are mirrored and frescoed, yet discreet enough for trysting. The bar is bathed in permanent dusk and adorned with period murals.
But the place worth the price of the air ticket to New York alone is the Café Carlyle. Its star attraction is Bobby Short. Bobby Short is the only worthy descendant of all those singers in old movies, such as the incomparable Dooley Wilson in Casablanca. He sings like a combination of Hutch and Frank Sinatra, and there isn't a single number in his repertoire written later than the Forties. Last time I heard Short he had acquired a tenpiece jazz orchestra to back him up. On occasion, his friends Colin and Alma Powell are in the audience, eating oysters and Eggs Benedict along to the music.
But the vamp has to go out and about, too. The first thing she should do, especially during the winter, is go to Barney's department store and buy a hat, preferably a kind of fedora that can be worn a la Lauren Baca11, eyes hidden from those prying gossip-columnists.
Now that she is ready not to face the world, where does she lunch? At the new Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station, perhaps, making wisecracks over a glass of champagne and little neck clams. Then there is the Aquagrill in SoHo, which is to the mollusc what the Long Bar at Raffles, Singapore, is to the cocktail. Balthazar, a couple of blocks away, remains the smartest of French brasseries, with back-to-back banquettes perfect for overhearing other people's indiscretions, while Aureole, near Madison Avenue, has empowered the power lunch.
But still I return to the 21 Club, the original rendezvous for the Lays and Lamarrs and the city's most celebrated former speakeasy. The doorman looks oddly like a White Russian émigré and the outer area has been turned into a drawing-room. But the inner sanctum remains as it was when Walter Winchell, the first gossip-columnist, had a regular table here. Hollywood later made a film about Winchell, Sweet Smell of Success. The old scribe, as Damon Runyon called him, was played by Burt Lancaster, while Tony Curtis took the part of a grovelling publicity agent. My most abiding memory of the film is Lancaster sitting at his regular table at 21, turning to Curtis with an unlit cigarette and snapping, 'Match me, Sydney.'
It's almost cocktail hour by now. Were you a vamp with intellectual inclinations, you might have sauntered off to the Algonquin Hotel with its Round Table of wits and snits, including Dorothy Parker and Robert 'I must get out of these wet clothes and into a thy martini' Benchley. The hotel is still there and so is the urbane lobby lounge, which is a soothing spot for lubricated conversation.
But you can't yammer all the time. Entering the Royalton Lounge at the Royalton Hotel on 44th Street is like stepping on to a Fred Astaire film-set. The King Cole Bar at the St Regis on East 55th Street is close to perfect: lush and luxurious, with Maxfield Parrish murals salvaged from the old Hotel Knickerbocker. The martinis — the best in the world — resemble liquid diamonds. Jackets are compulsory — hurrah! — so the people who come here dress like grown-ups and not overlarge teenagers.
Dinner might be at Daniel, owned and run by the chef Daniel Boulud. A more exquisite dining place is not to be found. The madeleines served with the coffee arrive sensuously hot, like mounds of corn warmed by the sun. Then there is Le Bernadin, a swanky seafood restaurant where Dietrich would have torn the lobster claws apart. The restaurant in the Mark Hotel serves Grand Marnier soufflés like the French once made them.
It's now around ten and the night is beckoning. Forget the rave joints and all that oldfashioned stuff. Do you remember the nightclub in The Thin Man? It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. The Supper Club in the theatre district does its best to live up to its standards. The floors are shiny, the dance-floor is as big as Lake Michigan and the orchestra has 17 pieces. Where in London would you find more than three? It's swinging, baby, and the younger the crowd the hotter the swing becomes.
Once upon a time there was the Cotton Club. Can you hear those dancing feet? Those pedal extremities belonged to Jean Harlow and Cab Calloway. The original doesn't stand any more, but there is a reincarnation of the great Harlem club on West 125th Street. In the old days, there were shoot-outs on the dance-floor; now there are exhibitions of old dance routines and live jazz and swing. The Rainbow Room used to be the most romantic nightclub in New York until it disintegrated into a sleazy, peeling-paint, pick-up joint in the Eighties. Now it has been bought by Arrigo Cipriani and has retrieved some of its former charm. Unfortunately, the Rainbow Room has become a private club, so the only way to go along is to make friends with a member.
It's nearly midnight. Broadway babes might not have slept in the Thirties, but now they have jobs to go to the next morning. Even so, it seems weedy to call it a night entirely. Why not stop for a nightcap at the Swing 46 Jazz Club on West 46th Street? The club is all swing, all the time. New York women often go there in long evening dresses, and the club does scrambled eggs and hash browns for breakfast. The live big band is reminiscent of Benny Goodman's — one of its staple tunes is the haunting 'I'm Getting Sentimental Over You'. It's enough to jerk the tears from Nero's eyes.