Every great home starts with a great story, non? The tale of this gorgeous New York City apartment owned by the late gossip columnist Aileen Mehle, nom-de-plume Suzy, and designed to the nines by Mario Buatta has a fabulous past. Once upon a time, a wealthy Philadelphia scion by the name of John R. Drexel commissioned illustrious architect Horace Trumbauer to construct the four-story French mansion on a lot just off of 5th Avenue. Alice, Mr. Drexel’s wife, was in a particular circle of grande dames using Mr. Trumbauer to outdo one another with a bigger and more sumptuous palace. In 1903, she triumphed with the 40-room Gilded Age marvel.
A dramatic foyer ushers you into the breathtaking apartment. Brunschwig & Fils velvet covers the Louis XVI chairs that flank a French console. The floor? Painted in a faux marble finish. (Photographed by Frances Scott for Architectural Digest, 2011)
We can’t go any further without giving Horace Trumbauer his due! He and his eponymous architectural firm created some of the Gilded Age’s most exquisite manors. He showed restraint where it counted and gave all his buildings a semblance of historical integrity. The first major undertaking for the Philadelphia-based Trumbauer was in the 1890s when he built Grey Towers, a stone castle in Pennsylvania for sugar-refinery baron William Welsh Harrison. Whitemarsh Hall, known as the “American Versailles” followed and did not disappoint in the square footage department with its 147 rooms. The film adaption of Annie used Trumbauer’s Shadow Lawn Mansion to portray Daddy Warbucks’ estate and it also served as the summer White House for President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. Horace’s Manhattan projects, like the John R. Drexel mansion Aileen resided in, came about when his Northeastern patrons were ready to conquer New York City.
Once the ballroom, it was converted into the main living space. The 19-foot walls gave way nicely to Aileen’s antique secretaire. A swath of Brunschwig & Fils leopard velvet adorns a footstool and Clarence House blue velvet was used on a Louis XVI wing chair. (Photographed by Frances Scott for Architectural Digest, 2011)
After the Depression, the John R. Drexel mansion was split into separate apartments which were inhabited by the likes of Ernest Hemingway and Joan Rivers in the years following. Aileen Mehle’s particular pad had many a fancy resident but according to her, none left their mark on it more so than Italy’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and heiress to the Fiat fortune, Susanna Agnelli.
Apricot silk by Grey Watkins for Stark envelopes the former ballroom. A French chandelier delivers drama in spades. (Photographed by Frances Scott for Architectural Digest, 2011)
Writes Mehle for Architectural Digest in 2011 “Susanna loved to entertain, and she had turned the two-bedroom apartment into a party place. She built a second kitchen, and she covered the 19-foot-high ballroom walls with a fabric that was a dizzying, eye-popping concoction of exotic flowers and figures in russet, blue, gray, beige, yellow, and more. Attached to one wall were two huge sofas, stepped back and one atop the other. Bleachers in a ballroom? I could imagine Alice Drexel whirling in her mausoleum.”
Perhaps my favorite dining room of all time! This tented confection is enrobed in Scalamandré fabrics and topped with a French crystal chandelier. Two de Gournay porcelain cranes enjoy their perch upon antique wall brackets. (Photographed by Frances Scott for Architectural Digest, 2011)
What is one to do with such an, ahem, eclectic decorating dilemma in a place you just leased? Well you call your close friend and aptly titled Price of Chintz, Mario Buatta. Mario and Aileen purchased every last yard of moonlight-hued Indian silk on the island and went to town tying a tassel onto anything that wasn’t moving. The Buatta magic is evident in every last detail of this sublime home, particularly the fantastical dining room.
A parquet painted floor adds extra charm and a Stark floral carpet completes the space. (Photographed by Frances Scott for Architectural Digest, 2011)
In the bedroom, Mario and Aileen left the gorgeous fabric upholstered walls as is. The ornate floral covering was originally installed by Susanna Agnelli; she had also put a marble bathtub right in the middle of the room which Mario promptly moved into the bathroom. We end our apartment tour with this chic chambre but the eye candy continues below!
French D. Porthault bed linens play nicely with a bevy of antiques including a French chaise lounge. Scalamandré silk makes an appearance on an armchair and vanity stool. (Photographed by Frances Scott for Architectural Digest, 2011)
If a particular piece (or 10!) from this splendid slice of decorated heaven has caught your eye, it can be yours as Aileen’s estate is up for auction through Doyle starting May 24th. I thought about keeping this information to myself but I’m so grateful to have any readers at all that I absolutely must share! Here are some pieces I spotted in the above interiors for your perusal and consideration:
An Italian rococo style painted stool, isn’t it darling? You’ll recognize it from the bedroom.
This Eugène Baptiste Emile Dauphin painting once hung on her bedroom wall, c. 1890.
The Louis XVI Painted Wing Armchair from the ballroom can be yours!
If you love all things ornate, this pair of George II Style Giltwood Pier Mirrors is calling your name!
Own a silken piece of history, this upholstered sofa is the one Aileen is perched upon in the first photograph!
P.S. If you missed the post on Aileen Mehle, or “Suzy” as most everyone knew her, and her fascinating life and career, you can read it here.
Whilst waiting under a dryer at the salon last weekend, I became engrossed in a Vanity Fair article chronicling the last interview of famed society columnist Aileen Mehle. She passed away this past November, aged 98, leaving behind 5 decades worth of gossip columns and a fascinating life story. Aileen, best known by her nom-de-plume “Suzy,” was the type of bon vivant that would wear gold sequin hot pants to a formal dinner at the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s home (in the early 1970s, mind you) and have even the stuffiest of guests applauding her bold sartorial choice. She had an infectious disposition, garnering invites to many a glitzy event and just about every guest would want Aileen sitting at their table. Intrigued yet?
Mehle with the Duke of Windsor at a party for Liza Minelli.
Little Miss Suzy
Aileen Mehle came from an El Paso, Texas oil family and grew up in California. Shortly after attending UC Santa Barbara, she toyed with the idea of becoming a movie star but moved to Florida for love instead. Once in Miami, she joined the most fabulous party circuit and was rubbing elbows with the beau monde from Coral Gables to Palm Beach. Aileen counted C.Z. Guest and Lorelle Hearst as girlfriends and flourished as the ultimate social butterfly. One night at a soirée her friend and publisher of The Miami Herald, Dan Mahoney, was lamenting the lack of a great gossip columnist for his paper. Aileen thought she might be fit for the job, Dan chuckled and said he couldn’t imagine her staying home long enough to write a couple of sentences. The next day, she authored three sample columns, mailed them to The Miami Herald and became their very own gossip columnist under the alias of “Suzy.”
Hot off the press c. 1960. Collection of Aileen Mehle.
She migrated up the East Coast from Miami to D.C. and eventually settled in New York City after her second divorce, always keeping her ear to the ground for interesting tidbits. Aileen wrote at theDaily News for 17 years covering the chicest galas, international events and saucy scandals that rocked the social scene. At the time there were 7 society columnists belonging to the major daily newspapers in the city. Her competition were the likes of Walter Winchell, a legend in his own right, and “Cholly Knickerbocker,” written by designer Oleg Cassini’s brother Igor. She would inherit the Journal-American column upon landing at the paper in 1963 and became “Suzy Knickerbocker.” In 1967, she moved to her longest assignment at The Daily News, in 1984 to the New York Post and finally, in 1991 to her last post at Women’s Wear Daily and W magazine. She penned her farewell column in 2005 at the age of 87. Aileen was published in 90 papers worldwide and reached 30 million readers, making Suzy a household name.
Aileen reposing in her NYC apartment. Photograph by Raymundo de Larrain for Vogue, July 1973.
A Fine Romance
“I’ve had a couple of husbands, which is one too many for anyone,” Aileen Mehle to Life magazine.
A charmer she was, dating and marrying some of her generation’s biggest heart throbs and eligible bachelors. After her first marriage and divorce to a handsome U.S. Navy ensign, she found love with one of what would be a few fancy suitors. Enter Wooly Donahue, heir to the Woolworth fortune, a globetrotter and life of the party.
“Suzy” and Woolworth Donahue in the 1940s, they would date for 5 years. From the collection of Aileen Mehle.
Next came a successful real estate developer, Mark Kenneth Frank Jr, whom she married in 1953 in Palm Beach. To keep things exciting, Aileen went on a date with Wooly the night before her nuptials to Mark. Talk about a rehearsal dinner! This marriage wouldn’t last either. She rebounded with her new post at the New York Daily Mirror and revived “Suzy” after a brief hiatus playing the role of wife and mother. Fun fact, Mark’s little daughter Suzy was the inspiration for Aileen’s nom-de-plume! To keep her busy in the relationship department, she began to date Walter Wanger, Hollywood mega-producer of Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton and Joan of Arc starring Ingrid Bergman. Wanger, as it turns out, had a colorful past. He shot talent agent Jennings Lang (not fatally!) in 1951 after finding out he was having an affair with Wanger’s actress wife Joan Bennett. Aileen found that his jealous streak had softened a bit with age and was on his arm from 1963-68 until he passed away.
Aileen gets a peck from Peter Pagan and Walter Wanger enjoys his biscuit and tea, 1960s. From the collection of Aileen Mehle.
Her most famous beau of all? Frank Sinatra. After his divorce from Mia Farrow, Ol’ Blue Eyes was looking for someone he could take his toupee off in front of to go swimming in his Palm Springs pool. Aileen’s words, not mine! They would enjoy a fun-filled couple of years together until he had a meltdown on a royal’s yacht off the coast of Monte Carlo over a dinner he hosted for the Queen of England’s cousin Princess Alexandra of Kent that did not go as he had planned (tasteless canapes? unpolished silver?). Sinatra would prove to be a great friend even after they parted ways, giving her one of the biggest scoops of her career; Suzy’s column was the first to announce his retirement.
Sinatra showered Aileen with gorgeous baubles, some of which are on the auction block this week through Doyle! See them all for yourself here and don’t forget your bidding paddle…
If you’ll recall the scene in Steel Magnolias where Annelle can’t bring herself to disclose her personal turmoil and, in unison, Clarie and Truvy exclaim “of course you can!” that’s exactly how I picture Aileen getting her headlines. Funnily enough, her socialite friends like Nan Kempner and Truman Capote were happily her best sources. Because Aileen never hit too hard, her peers trusted her and delighted in seeing their names in Suzy’s column. Someone who wasn’t too flattered to be written about? Jack Kennedy, then a young senator. Aileen would very often be on the same flight as Kennedy from Palm Beach to D.C. and observed what most wouldn’t dare divulge.
Black and white and chic all over, ready to dish the latest! From Harper’s Bazaar.
Aileen recounted her infamous column highlight to Vanity Fair “Jack Kennedy looked like hell.His shoes were scuffed. His socks were down. His pants were rumpled. His jacket was rumpled. His hair was all higgledy-piggledy. So little Miss Suzy wrote, ‘Jack Kennedy has got to straighten up and fly right, because he doesn’t know how to dress. He is a mess.’” This sent the Kennedy clan into a tailspin over who this Suzy was as her identity had not yet been revealed. Aileen would have many Kennedy encounters over her career but none more personal than when she alerted Jacqueline Onassis at a San Francisco brunch gathering in 1979 that her sister Lee Radziwill had left her groom, hotelier Newton Cope, at the altar.
Marion Jorgensen, Mehle & Joan Rivers at Buckingham Palace. Photograph by Jonathan Becker.
In today’s celebrity obsessed culture (Brangelina! Bennifer!), it’s hard to remember that there was ever any interest in the beau monde, the world’s most glittering set who didn’t necessarily appear on your television or at the cinema. We’re still just as fixated on famous figures, but perhaps more so on Real Housewives than royal subjects. But fear not, as Aileen told Vogue in 1973 “Real glamour will never die. It is the whipped cream on top of everything. It’s the fun and spice of life that everyone wants to read about. Gossip—that’s all anyone ever does anyhow, morning, noon, and night. I got a letter from some nuns who read me because I provide them with a slice of life every day!”
P.S. Later this week, I”ll be sharing one of her exquisite NYC apartments done up to the nines, you won’t want to miss it!
Few things ignite curiosity in me more than a portrait; a telling gaze, a beguiling smirk, a sumptuous setting all invite inquisitiveness. Aaron Shikler’s portraits are no exception, I’ve long admired his classically beautiful renditions that give the viewer so much more than a pleasant composition. Whether or not you are familiar with the work of Aaron Shikler, I hope you find this post interesting; I am positively fascinated with the tidbits behind his pieces! He was a prolific artist, a documenter of American history armed with charcoals, pastels, oils and canvases. He had sit before him the likes of US presidents, Hollywood starlets, titans of industry and pillars of society. Shikler passed away at the age of 93 in November of 2015 bequeathing to us an artistic legacy to treasure. Let’s have a look see, shall we?
Portrait of Elizabeth Cushing Dilworth, 1970, oil on canvas, 25.2” x 20”
His career as an artist would reach new heights when Jane Engelhard, the wife of industrialist Charles W. Engelhard Jr., took a liking to his work in the Manhattan gallery of Davis and Langdale.She commissioned a portrait of herself and proved to be an excellent patron, having a hand in the subsequent commissions of Lady Bird Johnson and the Duchess of Windsor.
Portrait of Charles de Gaulle, 1960, oil on canvas, 25” x 20”
It wasn’t long before former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was commissioning Shikler to paint her children. These studies of Jacqueline, Caroline and John Jr. paint Shikler as “a practiced observer, settling for a view of the sitter that is easygoing, tenderhearted and the reverse of unsettling.” (John Russell, from a 1979 review in the New York Times)
Portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy with Caroline and John Jr., 1968 gouache, 18” x 25” (Image via ArtNet)
Portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy with Caroline and John Jr., 1968 gouache, 18” x 25” (Image via ArtNet)
Study for the White House portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy, 1968, watercolor and gouache, 20” x 14”. I’m mad for the powder pink color of her dress in this version! (Image via ArtNet)
The official White House portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy. (Image via The New York Times)
“Anyone could paint her prettiness, I wanted to paint the haunted look in her eyes. She has this great inner passion, but it’s so strongly controlled. I tried to show in the hands that tension; stiffly under control but ready to coil out. Anyone could have made a languid lady out of her but that’s not what she’s like” Shinkler told the Washington Post in 1971. It now hangs in the Vermeil Room of the White House.
The official White House portrait of JFK Jr., painted in 1970. (Image via The New York Times)
Having only seen him from a distance once, he worked from pictures cobbled together of JFK’s face and Ted Kennedy’s body. The end result was a pensive study of Kennedy that drew some criticism for its melancholy undertones. Shikler responded to negative comments by saying that he felt it was important to depict a thinking president. These two incredibly iconic White House portraits would set the stage for a commission from Time Magazine to paint then president-elect Ronald Reagan for their 1980 “Man of the Year” cover.
Reagan picked out his jeans, buckle and blue work shirt for the portrait. Ronald Reagan for Time’s Man of the Year cover in January 1981. (Image via The New York Times)
During the short 90 minute sitting session, both Reagan and his aide fell asleep leaving Shikler no choice but to loudly scratch furniture on the floor to rouse the president-elect from his untimely slumber. Just awoken, Reagan stood up, hands in his back pockets, and that’s the pose that Shikler captured. Ronald Reagan wasn’t the first Hollywood face he had painted and there were many sparkling socialites in between. Below are some dazzling portraits of society’s most talked about ladies.
Portrait of Lauren Bacall, Seated in Profile, red chalk on paper 21.5” x 16.2” (Image via ArtNet)
Picture by Ike Edeani via The New York Times.
A 1982 portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt seen here in her NYC apartment. Shinkler had wanted to depict her barefoot but she protested as she wanted her pretty shoes immortalized in paint too. She regretted the decision afterward.
Figure in an Interior, another sensational portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt by Shikler.
Mrs. Vincent Astor, standing, 1983 oil on canvas, 16” x 8” (Image via ArtNet)
Mrs. Henry Parish II and Yummy the Pekingese.
Lady Bird Johnson standing in a field of flowers at the LBJ Ranch, 1978. On view at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library and Museum. (Image via ArtNet)
An early Aaron Shikler hangs in the California home of Jean Howard, from Architectural digest, June 1978.
You can find Shikler’s work in renown museums, the White House, private collections and up for sale at auction mainstays like Christie’s and ArtNet. Next time you spot an incredible portrait, take a closer look at the signature, it may just be an original Aaron Shikler!
Madame Hodson, Lord Wellington, Cardinal Wisseman, General Pelissier and the Queen of Sheba. Besides grand titles what, you may ask, do these subjects have in common? Collectively, they enjoy a good shaking free of debris, prefer being preserved in cold climates and only travel internationally via shipping container before being coaxed out of their beds by damp conditions. They’re tulip varieties, of course!
I, as I’m sure many of you do, take great pleasure in having cut tulips placed around the home. Usually, I’ll pick them up at my local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s wrapped in brown paper and ready to be arranged. As their blooming season is in full effect, I’ve become rather fascinated with Tulipomania. Let’s peel back the petals of these silken sirens and get to know them a little better, shall we?
Legend has it that they were first spotted by a Westerner in the 1550s when Austrian Ambassador to Turkey, Ogier Ghislain de Busbecq, saw them flourishing in the gardens of Constantinople. His interpreter was fervently explaining that their bright hues were reminiscent of Turkish tülbend, or turban, and so the moniker tulipam was born.
An elaborate floral still life by Jan Brueghel the Elder, most likely painted over the course of a year to render each season’s blooms in real time. (At the National Museum of Art, Bucharest)
Busbecq returned and gifted Carolus Clusius, former Prefect of the Imperial Medicinal Garden of the Austrian emperor Maximilian II (well aren’t you fancy, Carolus?), some bulbs. Carolus journeyed back to his native Holland with the tulip bulbs in tow and after seeing how the gnarled seed transformed into a gorgeous bloom, demand for the tulip exploded. Bulbs were now just as sound an investment as diamonds and their market value reflected that at Tulipomania’s height between 1634-37. It was said that Rubens, one of the most notable artists of his time, could only afford to gift his wife a single bulb for her birthday!
Artists such as Judith Leyster capitalized on the tulip bonanza. If patrons couldn’t afford to purchase bulbs, they would certainly invest in a lovely tulip still life or book of tulip illustrations. (c. 1643, Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem)
Overnight, anyone with a parcel of land was in on the tulip trade. Noblemen, chimney sweeps, footmen and maid servants were all harvesting bulbs. Some of these tulips caught a virus and suddenly changed colors, it was all too much for the Dutch. Prices for these fickle bulbs skyrocketed, an Admiral Liefkens sold for $750 followed by $1,825 being shilled out for a Viceroy and a Semper Augustus going for $4,000. It seemed to good to be true! Suddenly everyone was selling these colorfully named blooms but no one was buying them. Estates were mortgaged, tools discarded and businesses sold. The government stepped in and regulated the market paving the way for Dutch family companies to become the top producers of tulips the world over.
Bulb Dynasty: the Lefeber family in one of their D.W. Lefeber & Co. tulip fields in Hillegom. (Town & Country, March 1978 issue)
The iconic tulip fields of Sassenheim, Haarlem and Hillegom were cultivated by the likes of N. & J. Roozen, Ltd., J. J. Grullemans & Sons and other barons of bulbs. After World War II, a tulip tour de force was achieved when Piet Bakker began selling gift boxes of bulbs in 1946. He recounted to Town & Country in 1978 that “the Dutch were tremendously grateful to America and the rest of the world for their help during and after the war. Everyone wanted to send something in return. But what could we afford?” The treasured gift laid in tulips, the millions of bulbs left over from the war. Sending them in gratitude became a widespread Dutch gesture and soon launched Bakker’s company into the mass retail trade.
The perfect backdrop for a commercial that I was not a part of. The handlers at the garden quickly escorted me out of their shot as I tried to photograph these beauties!
Now we can all indulge in a pretty pick-me-up at our neighborhood flower shop or grocery store! I’d love to see the vibrant fields of tulips next spring, have any of your been to the Netherlands to experience them? If you have any travel recommendations or tips of tulip fields here in the US, I’d love to hear them!