Out of Seasons

Rhonda Lieberman on the Four Seasons auction

The Four Seasons during the press preview for the Wright auction. (All photos: Matthew Carlson)

ANOTHER NEW YORK ICON BITES THE DUST—or in this case is auctioned off—as Gotham is made over for the convenience of global capital, entitled frat-type party people, and conspicuous consumers eager for the next buzzy “spot.” I am used to mourning the chic midcentury NY of my fantasies. This one is especially tragic, as even this yard sale is beyond my price point.

I attended the press preview last week for the auction, by Wright, of everything in the Four Seasons Restaurant not landmarked, down to the pots and pans in the kitchen. The art is long gone: Le Tricorne, the Picasso stage curtain heralding one’s passage between the Grill and the Pool Room, is now in the NY Historical Society. The Pollocks and Miros, also gone. Of course, the place itself is a work of art. (Check out the merch online at www.wright20.com.)

Lore on this Philip Johnson–designed masterwork has been well covered by architecture and food mavens and trend reporters: the high-end schmoozers preening at “power lunch”; the $40 baked potato (olive oil included); the reverent Jackie sightings; Johnson’s favorite lunch table; Sophia Loren jumping in the Pool; and more recently, selfie takers and revelers.

I arrived early to take in the scene, before remarks by Wright directors, renowned foodie Mimi Sheraton, and the co-owners of this modern shrine where movers, shakers, and suck-ups were known to hobnob and feed.

A gentleman in a black hat caught my eye. He had an ironic expression. Looking for coffee.

“Are you here to bid or to cover—or both?”

He paused: “Maybe an ashtray—preferably cracked!”

Delighted, I fastened onto this promising yenta.

My seventyish instant buddy and I sat on a sleek Philip Johnson banquette (pair estimate: $2,000–$3,000) with our coffees and a view of the Pool (smaller than I expected). Furniture, fixtures, and every item (except the landmarked Pool) were tagged by the auction house.

“When you think an ashtray…”—his coffee buzz was kicking in—“with the banning. Talk about a relic! When did the Nazis ban smoking? Whoops—Oh no, ‘not Nazi’—people will think it’s a reference to Philip…” I hit the jackpot with this one, a design and urban planning veteran who knew all the principals from way back.

Left and right: The Four Seasons during the press preview for the Wright auction.

“I won’t say your name,” I promised, taking out my notebook.

“You can make it up! No one uses their real names.” He is a media veteran as well.

He confided: “In the inmost of Philip’s heart…” Pause. “There was always a cold spot—for a Jew. You can put that.” I was scribbling furiously.

He mimicked spitting on the floor. “Since you’re a Yiddisher, you understand I could say we spit on the memory of Stalin, on Walter O’Malley”—who moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn. “I’m thinking of really evil people.”

“Haman!” I offered the villain Jews traditionally boo on Purim.

“You can say I’m someone who had been in interior design back when they called it interior decorating, if you know what I mean. Feel my arm.” He flexed. “Because I installed! Back when we used tools…” We surveyed the aggressively chic dining room, ground zero for midcentury FOMO. My interlocutor seemed to know all the design machers haunting the place. Gossip de rigueur for this power-lunch spot where such tidbits were the plat du jour: “Let me tell you about a Jewish girl from West End Avenue who aspired to Park Ave…”

“Ada Louise Huxtable—Jewish! Ah, the married name,” I amended my list.

“One of her first jobs under Johnson was doing silverware, before she ascended to the Times. She was a habitué here. This is just background.” We took in the airy Pool Room: Expansive yet soothing, one felt swaddled in validation just for being there. The floor-to-ceiling windows seemed to float far above the schleppers on the street. Yet we were cushily grounded on the sleek banquette.

“Now they’re hungry for ‘content’ but they don’t pay—you write something a little unique and they all put it online without paying…” He gave me shpilkes about my own lot. But I’m used to questioning my life choices whenever I find myself in a swanky joint on the Upper East Side.

“When Paul Goldberger was a groveling person at the Times…”—where my charming informant did time as well. “Johnson recommended him. He was always beholden to Johnson because of the lunches… In 1979, Johnson was on the cover of Time. The AT&T building,” he chuckled. “This building was designed from the top down—the ‘Chippendale’—the lobby sucked! You had to move around that sculpture, people in coitus. Johnson’s partner”—John Burgee—“was the talent.”

“Some people come to admire, some come to spit on the floor,” he intoned, taking in this mise-en-scène for power players of yore. “The guy is dead. Fuck ’em. It’s a nostalgic piece. As the design critic for TV news, they trotted me out to do the obits because the bimbos at the network had no history. I was like the specter from The Seventh Seal. Funerals.”

And here we were at another funeral. For a restaurant.

He exchanged a quick greeting with Goldberger. “I panned his book on Frank Gehry, née Goldberg. Goldberger’s a bit of a suck-up—the review got a lot of traction. People love that. Goldberger and Gehry were both indebted to Johnson for all the dinners here.”

(“Dinners turned his head? A nice piece of furniture maybe…” I considered.)

Left: Food critic Mimi Sheraton. Right: Four Seasons co-owner Julian Niccolini.

Food critic Mimi Sheraton took the podium, with droll anecdotes from James Beard’s special panel to develop the Four Seasons’s pathbreaking menu (“American with Continental Touches”): “They put goat on the menu so people would feel better about ordering steak.”

The Wright founder and president sounded like a fancy undertaker: “Everything not subject to landmark restriction is for sale. Sale is one form of preservation, perhaps not the ideal form. We’re also seeking homes in museums, etc.”

He eulogized: “The Grill Room, home of the ‘power lunch,’ Philip Johnson’s banquette where he ate lunch every day will be a special lot in the sale. The Huxtable-designed tableware and the cotton-candy machine, which ‘brought childlike magic to the meal…’ ”

Co-owner Alex von Bidder regaled us with the aura of power-lunchers past: “Every president but Nixon ate here. Princess Di sat at Table 32.”

He praised architect Phyllis Lambert, “daughter of the developer [Samuel Bronfman],” glossed the maven. Lambert recommended Mies for the Seagram building. Johnson, Mies’s assistant for that project, designed the “total work of art” now getting liquidated by the auctioneers.

We learn: In 1959, rhe Four Seasons was the priciest restaurant project ever: $4.5 million. Built in the same year, the Guggenheim cost a mere $3 mil.

A choked-up Julian Niccolini, Four Seasons co-owner, said simply: “Please bid. Take a part of New York home with you.”

“I want to know what’s the cheapest item.” My chatty source corrected himself: “Least expensive.”

Bidding began at $100 (Bread Plates, set of twelve) and went to $10,000 (to start) for a group of Mies furniture. Priced to move!

The yenta was just getting started on Ada: “She had an Achilles’ heel: vanity. She left her papers to the Getty because they flew her out for bullshit panels.”

Left: Four Seasons co-owner Alex von Bidder. Right: A double boiler.

If these Mies chairs could talk, they would divulge the choreography of career that took place in this cathedral of modernness, where Status was measured and stroked by the pros. If Morris Lapidus was the kosher-style midcentury architect of joy, sending up pretension with tongue-in-cheek for the hoi polloi at play, Johnson was the aristocratic Master of power, repression, and Monuments. This dismemberment of his Art by the marketplace is an awesome modern vanitas to witness. And an all too familiar spectacle in New York these days. Change that used to occur over a period of years now happens every two minutes.

Another yenta, a “film producer who was in finance,” had glommed on to us and was dropping juicy dish about finance, the film industry, and NYC’s current dismal conditions for young creatives, thanks to developers like current Seagram owner Aby Rosen. “Housing is so expensive they take a day job and in three years they stop making art.” He was crumpled and his soccer-dad attire incongruous in the posh space, which really does feel like a modern work of art: “All the money for these ugly new buildings comes from Russia, China, and Germany. All the rich people housing. The Chinese money gets Canadian citizenship…”

“I thought Canada was getting tough on immigration.”

“You can’t get tough on money.”

We were glued in a gossip huddle while everyone had dispersed for a last gawk at the designer goodies for sale.

“You’re an animal lover,” said Yenta #1. “A lot of people pissing here, leaving their marks, seeing and being seen, lifting their legs on Table 32. Something about the air here! There’s no art—nothing with a signature. What’s really here are the echoes of the gossip.”

The crumpled film guy took his leave.

“Do you know him?” I asked my informant.

“No! I thought you did! He’s really pathological, dropping all that info and he has no idea who we are.”

We had made our way into the Grill Room where tableware tagged by Wright was displayed in vitrines along the wall: the elegant chain-metal “curtains” gently shuddering up the floor-to-ceiling windows. The spikey Mad Men–esque Richard Lippold stalactites menaced over the bar. It was poignant: another “timeless” icon of NYC glamour soon to be erased by greedy developers marketing “buzz.” Well, as Yeats put it:

All things fall and are built again

And those that build them again are gay.

Sorry to see this stunning space go. The irony wasn’t lost on me: Perhaps the most fitting tribute to a modern masterpiece is to obliterate history and bring in the new. Modernism ain’t for wimps!