Tuesday, October 27, 2009

How To Acquire a Warhol and a Rauschenberg

:en:Ellen DeGeneres at :en:Hotel Bel Air in :e...Image via Wikipedia

One night, upon returning from a “Musica Sacra” concert at Carnegie Hall, we saw our doorman propping up against the front wall a tall, drunken young lady. Mateo (the doorman) is a small man and was in bad need of help.
“It’s Amy—In 10E!” Mateo said.
Needless to say, we —my husband and I— immediately lent the poor doorman a hand, and in no time we walked Amy into the lobby and settled her in the wooden bench right across from the reception desk. In a while, Amy sobered up a little, letting us know that she could now walk. Since Mateo could not abandon his post, we decided to accompany Amy to her apartment. The rocking motion of the old elevator must have made her sick, for an abrupt avalanche non-digested hors d'oeuvres soiled her black taffeta cocktail, divinely deep-décolletage dress and my sequined sweater and white silk pants. Even my husband’s Armani tux got speckled.
The next day, Amy called.
She apologized profusely and I told her the same white lie my beloved grandfather had told me when I threw up on his new suit on Christmas Day when I was five:
“Marc’s tux was new and a man’s suit never really hangs right until it has been dry cleaned once, Amy. My grandfather taught me that, and, as for me, I am way too messy to wear white pants without spilling something on them. Red wine this time. Not to worry, sweetie—been there done that!”
A couple of weeks went by and I forgot about the incident. I would have forgotten it altogether had it not been for my husband’s eagle eye.
“Mary Patricia!” I heard my husband yelled with definite urgency. “Hurry, come see Amy.”
Being addicted to the TV series “Law and Order” —and all their spin-offs— we tape them all and watch them every day. When I reached the living room, my husband, standing, was poking at the TV,
“Right here—there she is!”
“Oh, yeah! She looks pretty. Is she a member of the jury?”
“No, she’s the court recorder.”
Amy was a young actress, tall, pretty, a sweet voice, and what one would call ‘stage presence.’ Was she from Boston? Did that well-mannered sweetness say Boston? Although we were never close friends of hers, we loved seeing Amy play many roles in TV shows. We saw her being interviewed by Oprah on a piece about struggling actors. Later in the week, billed as the nameless face you’ve seen in so many TV shows, we even saw her do an impromptu dance with Ellen DeGeneres. For a while, she seemed to be in every talk show and situation comedy; never a big star, but always busy.
That summer we gave an evening party in her honor.
Marc and I live in a penthouse apartment and we used to have a terrace, but I convinced my husband, the co-op board, and the city to let me seal it in. For many years, Van Johnson —a mega movie star of the fifties— lived in our building before he moved to Sutton Place; something that made us proud of living in this building. And now that Amy’s career was taking off, gave us even more reason to feel pride once again.
Amy was the belle of the party.


One evening as Marc —my husband— went for his walk, he told me that he had seen Amy in the lobby and that she was a nervous wreck; that she looked bad: red-eyed, shaky hands, twitching lips. Men can be so curt. Not only do they tell you half a story, but in the next instant they turn on the news, leaving you dangling, eager for details. Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t get a good idea of what he meant. But going around and around, finally between him and the TV, I got the whole story. Amy —because of her drinking— had been fired from different shows. And that was true, for we no longer saw her in TV; at least not with the same frequency as before.
“Going through a rough patch, isn’t she?” I said.
“She said she couldn’t afford to live here anymore.”
“Maybe she should move into one of those empty studios—temporarily,” I said.
“She’s broke.”
A couple of weeks later, since Marc was running out of his Merlot, I went to the Lexington corner store to order a case of Chilean wines that he likes so much. Amy was there. How can one miss a tall, gorgeous young lady in stretch pants, Hermes scarf casually draped, and oversized dark Coco Chanel sunglasses on top of her head. What a pity, I thought, such lovely features being ruined by booze.
Yet, an aura of class, chic, and mystery seemed to glow around her. The mystery part of the equation disturbed me a lot because I, without reason, attributed it to an unnatural dread, an impending gloom. Though I am practical woman, I’m also quite intuitive and can sense tragedy and disaster before they hit.
Amy and I chatted for a while. She intimated that her brother in Connecticut had been helping her with the maintenance payments, but that he couldn’t do it anymore.
“The cupboard is bare,” she said.
I admired her candor.
“Now I have to scrape some money to fly to L. A. I have a screen test next week,” she said, her sweet voice cracking a bit. “It’s a small role,” she added. “But like Maggio for Sinatra, it could be my ticket to the big leagues.”
Of course I didn’t offer to help since this is only the second time that we’ve talked. When I saw that Amy’s eyes clouded with, what I took to be, frustration and despair, I must declare though, that the thought of giving her a loan crossed my mind. Filled with excitement I ran home to tell Marc about Amy’s possibilities in the ‘big leagues.’ Naturally, my telling was laden with hints that perhaps he should open up his wallet. Marc, who has a soft spot for damsels in stress and distress, without any direct prodding, agreed quickly that we should help; monetarily, that is.
“Below that rough exterior there’s a velvet heart,” I said as I planted a loud kiss on his wide and ample forehead.

Marc called Amy and congratulated her on her screen test and asked her if we could take her out to dinner and celebrate.
“No dinner, please!”
Instead, Amy insisted that we should come to her apartment for cocktails.
“An extra pound, and there goes the screen test,” she explained.
Weight, nutrition, eating well, feeling good about one’s body is something I truly understand. So I spoke over Marc’s voice: “Drinks is fine!”
Moments later, down we went to see her.
“What are you going to wear?” I asked Amy, my mind racing ahead, already envisioning her reading her part.
She brought out an outfit that was mostly black, way too New York in my opinion and wrong for her coloring. Launching into my favorite prattle on the power of color, especially on film, I knew I had Amy’s complete attention when I told her she was a “Spring” and that black made all Springs look old.
While Marc got busy with the TV to find a soccer channel, Amy and I went to her bedroom, straight into her closet.
In a New York minute, I suggested to Amy that she wear a peach open weave Jacket, a periwinkle silk tailored shirt, a rust linen knee-length skirt that was the color of her hair, a cream Prada bag and fabulous creamy beige Chanel sling backs.
“I’d never thought of that,” she said, a semi-tone of caution and doubt in her voice.
I smiled to set her at ease. “You realize this combo reflects your coloring: peaches and cream skin, bright blue eyes and auburn hair?”
Then I explained to her the concept of ‘signature’ to a woman, and suggested we look for some ‘signature’ jewelry.
She paled and gave me distraught look.
Given her dire financial straits she had sold everything of value. I ran to the penthouse and returned with a peach pearl freshwater 18” necklace, graded for 4-8 mm and matching 7 mm studs. When she put them on, they were just perfect for her for they enhanced the exquisite peach-like texture of her angelic face.
“Now, that is elegance!” I exclaimed.
Yet a definite nervousness shone in her eyes.
“Doesn’t borrowing real jewelry bring bad luck?”
“Who’s borrowing,” I said. “This is a gift.”
Confused, she kept quiet.
“These pearls are all wrong for me. I have a pink set which are much better for me. So I want you to have them. Peach will bring you good luck.”
For a second I thought she would not accept the gift. But she did.
Amy hugged me and thanked me as we ambled into the living room to join Marc.
The furniture in Amy’s apartment was sparse. “Minimalist,” Marc said later. Somehow I got the impression that Amy did not wish to be anchored to the place; “weighed down,” would be a more apt description. Yet, her long wall in the living room had a few pieces of original art. An original graphic by Andy Warhol and a small canvas by Robert Rauschenberg caught my attention. Unable to contain my admiration I let her know how envious and covetous I felt.
“Both artists freeze time with their icons,” she said casually.
“You’ll be an American icon—soon,” Marc (Mr. Amiability) added.
“I’ll tell you how I came to own those two pieces some other time—not today.”
That laconic remark made me think that perhaps such event would account for that veil of melancholy that seemed to shroud her divine countenance.
Marc is now retired from business, but during his long career, he’s handled many individual and institutional investments. He’s never embarrassed to talk money. So, as I expected, in no time he had the situation under control. Placing a check on the coffee table all he said was:
“This will get you to L. A. and back.”
Amy nodded, and whispered what I took to be ‘thank you.’
That was the last we time we her; in person—that is.

A month went by and we never heard from her. One day, when I went to pick up the mail I asked Mateo if Amy had returned from L.A. Shocked, perplexed, and ice-cold, I learned that she had moved out. Moved out! I kept repeating to myself as if the echo would somehow deny the fact. Neither a telephone number nor a forwarding address had she left with the front desk. For some time Marc and I were a little disappointed that she had scamped without saying goodbye to us. We felt sorry we had befriended her, not because of the loss of the money ($5,000) we had loaned to her, but because of the breach of trust and cruel indifference.
To add insult to injury, one day the super —a plump wide-girthed Irishman— asked me point blank,
“When are you going to pick up that crate?”
“What crate?”
“10E left it. It’s marked ‘To be stored in PH.’”
Finally, I couldn’t hold my disgust much longer, and I exploded:
“What am I—a storage facility? Isn’t it bad enough that she ran out in the middle of the night without even saying, adieu, so long, auf viedersehen!”
The next day, one of the porters brought a crate half as tall as I was and about as wide as the door, but it was December and, up to my neck in the usual festivities. I put it away in the pine closet. But time that heals all wounds healed our wounded pride and never gave the crate another thought.

When the movie for which Amy had tested and gotten the part came out, Amy became an incredible success. We went to see it and Marc all but took credit for the acting performance, and with puffed up chest, much like a father who is proud of an accomplished child, he lavished praise on Amy for days on end. Other movies followed; all successful to say the least. At Oscar nights, Marc and I would see her on the red carpet posing gracefully —sweet, articulate, gorgeous— yet melancholy. During the awards ceremonies, when the cameras panned and focused on her, Marc and I would swoon and become intoxicated with her success.
Nothing gave me more pleasure than to see Amy always wearing my pearls. She hadn’t changed in that respect—she wore no jewelry other than the necklace and earrings I gave her for the screen test. That detail didn’t escape my attention; and in moments of solitude I would entertain the thought that she really never forgot us.
With much awe, love, and adoration we followed her career. Amy’s mega star fame and success spilled over to us, for we felt that we were the partial architects of her fate.
This last year, she was nominated for supporting actress. Dressed in a Dior Periwinkle strapless chiffon with a slight Grecian drape, and my pearls, she was a vision reminiscent of Grace Kelly —the star who became a princess— and that night we prayed fervently for her to win the Oscar, but to no avail.
“Close, but no cigar,” Marc remarked with obvious disappointment in his voice.
“Next year she will—for sure, maybe she will wear an American designer,” I said.
But there was no next year.
By now, newspapers, magazines, and TV, have well recounted all the gruesome bits of the accident that took her life—an insane fatal DUI. Despite the abundant coverage in the media, no written article or TV piece did ever capture that mysterious beauty that seemed to emanate not from her looks, but from her soul: the sweet lilt of her speech; the languor of her hesitant smile; the dreamy mystic stare of those who linger on visions of the other shore.
She was buried in her signature periwinkle blue and peach pearls; she had not reached 30.
We were devastated.
When the torrential news cycle wore down to a trickle, Marc asked me,
“What are we going to do with that crate?”
“She had a brother in Connecticut,” I said. “We could ship it to him, if we knew his address.”
Amy’s name was a stage name and we didn’t know her real name. The managing agents for our building were useless; she had sold out her co-op and were reluctant to help.
So one weekend, we opened the crate. An envelope contained a brief note:
Dear Marc and Mary:
It makes me happy to know that you love these two pieces.
Enjoy them. I never did because they came to me as part of
the division of assets of my failed and much painful marriage. My ex husband purchased them for $5,000—a long time ago! Thanks for the loan.


The Warhol and the Rauschenberg now hang in the long wall of our living room, next a small shrine that honors Amy’s loving memory.
The writing techniques I employ in this article are all explained in Mary Duffy's writing manual:

Sentence Openers

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