Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Pierre

Until a few years ago, when it was “done,” the Pierre at East 61st Street and Fifth Avenue was exquisitely shabby, among the only famous landmarks in New York City that had not been attended to since the sixties. They really should have called in the Smithsonian to preserve it as an endangered portion of the national estate. I suppose it was inevitable that it would be Trumped or Starbucked like the Plaza.

In the grand ballroom, White Diamonds, the fragrance formerly associated with Elizabeth Taylor, hung like marsh gas in secluded corners, lurked in the carpet, drifted from behind palm, screen, and pelmet, whispering lewd suggestions. On the barrel-vaulted ceiling clouds scudded across a trompe l’oeil sky. Fat columns and long, bevilled mirrors alternated with swags of drapery fastened with gold rope, and parted curtains with dirty hems and fringes. Scurrying between tables laden with spring flowers – almost as fresh as the day they were plucked from the cool stores in Rotterdam – hordes of staff brought their allotted tasks to completion with that mixture of world-weary compromise, jaw-set determination and barely concealed contempt that you occasionally observe in the terminal stages of a doomed marriage.

About the menu the less that is said the better, except that it recalled Psalm 60: “Thou hast shewed thy people heavy things: thou hast given us a drink of deadly wine.” The orchestra, meanwhile, picked its way from tune to tune with all the zestful frivolity of the Sunday afternoon egg-and-spoon race at an Alzheimer’s unit. It was one of those occasions when an hour flashed past in just sixty minutes.

I was there with my director to attend the 236th annual ball of the St. George’s Society, one of the oldest charitable associations in America. It was originally established to assist indigent or otherwise distressed English colonists. Since these are fairly thin on the ground in New York nowadays, the society now spreads its beneficent mantle over those scattered, grateful peoples of the British Commonwealth who through no fault of their own find themselves in a spot of bother stateside: Jamaican widows and orphans, old Gurkhas, crippled Maltese, the odd cashiered sailor from Hong Kong, and – so a senior member tells me, in that soothing tone one reserves for especially slow or dim-witted children – Australians.

Among the suspiciously large number of decorations pinned to the gentleman’s chest, I recognized only a companionship of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, that rather recent and junior addition to the Imperial honors system (1888). The rest of his medals, several adorned with heraldic animals of the double-headed eagle sort, smacked of Ruritania.

Apart from office bearers and the geriatric set, who wore dusty tails, only a few of the other guests went beyond the conventional tuxedo. But the 300-odd full-length evening gowns were mostly astonishing. It was as if the red carpet at the Oscars were viewed through smoked glass. Many ladies looked as though they had barely survived an explosion in a sequin factory. Others had what someone once described to me as a ‘Dresden complexion,’ not white and creamy like the china so much as bombed to smithereens, and expensively rebuilt years afterwards.

The golden apple surely went to the woman in flesh pink. If she were a building, you would notice the flying buttresses. Her dress was made from an environmentally friendly fabric. Not a single natural fiber was harmed in the process of spraying it from the can, one of those playful acrylics upon which the current prosperity of China was built. I looked in vain for evidence of foundation garments, yet the bosom, ample and cleft, was suspended in the search-and-destroy manner of a battery of ground to air missiles, made spangly with ominous glitter.

The skirt, a richer tone of flesh, managed to be filmy and teasing, voluminous yet somehow ur-limp, and was divided by an alarming, thigh-disclosing split, all the way up the front – upwards, ever upwards – bringing the pinking shears to those extreme altitudes where oxygen is necessary, the dressmaker’s equivalent of an Annapurna or Cotopaxi. Hair by Pfizer, make-up by whoever embalmed Mao, and the nails not buffed and manicured so much as alloy coated by a skilled pit mechanic fresh from the Indianapolis 500. Just as marble statuary requires adequate support at the base, so this brave woman tottered on the kind of vertiginous sandals one imagines being snatched by a resourceful bag person from a dumpster behind the kitchen of a Bal Harbor retirement home for artists of the burlesque.

Who on earth was she?