Liz Smith: Vanity Fair Recalls the Great Ladies Who Really Lunched!

Our Gossip Girl on Manhattan’s glamourous golden age

“I think ‘lunch’ is one of the funniest words in the world. That’s one of the reasons I used it in the song,” says Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim.

He is quoted thus by uber society reporter Bob Colacello in a riveting Vanity Fair piece on the Manhattan back in the day when ‘the ladies,’ who actually did often lunch with one another epitomized a fashionable glamour that modern day Lady Gagas can only wonder at. (We’re talking New York in the mid-60s, the 70s, and the 80s – plus just a bit of the 90s, trailing into the two thousands.)

“Here’s To The Ladies Who Lunched!” goes the title for this nostalgic article, speaking mostly of cafes past – Le Pavillon, The Colony, Quo Vadis, La Caravelle, La Cote Basque, La Grenouille, Orsini’s, Le Cirque, Mortimer’s, the Carlyle, Lutece, and “21.” And the entertaining thing about the article is that many of the women left alive and interviewed about “the ladies” by reporter Colacello all denied that they’d ever been one who “lunched.” They were, say they, too busy to lunch. (Count Aileen Mehle, Judy Taubman, Mica Ertegun, Lynn Wyatt, Princess Firyal, Mercedes Bass, Louise Grunwald, Susan Gutfreund, and Deeda Blair in this modern day denial.)

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BACK THEN, John Fairchild, the man who invented fashion gossip via his Women’s Wear Daily, claims his W deserves credit for Sondheim’s song phrase. Fairchild also thought up sending photographers to snap those who didn’t really like to be photographed – Babe Paley, Mariella Agnelli, the Duchess of Windsor, Jackie O. “The idea was that there was a certain group of ladies who were admired and were dressed, and in those days that was important,” said Mr. Fairchild.

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Well, Vanity Fair’s cover for February boasts three famous Hollywood guys (Daniel Craig, George Clooney and Matt Damon) but inside, in the “Lunch” article, it’s the ladies who are important, including the late Nan Kempner. (Publisher Fairchild said Nan would always “throw” herself in front of the camera.) W then had a lensman named Bill Cunningham, who quit the fashion newspaper because it became so sarcastic about coverage of his favorites. Colacello notes that Bill soon went to the Times “where he is now an institution.”

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In the early years of the 20th century, upper-class ladies began going out to the Colony and the Cosmopolitan clubs. Then The Colony restaurant, established at 61st and Madison Avenue, confused people who didn’t know better, for the Colony Club was only a block away. (Colacello says to confuse the two was a major social faux pas.) Then, in the 50s at smart cafes, ladies began to out-number men six to one. Socialites were stepping out instead of eating at home. And, no restaurant in the good old days allowed women to enter in trousers — not even Marlene Dietrich or Kate Hepburn. Pavillon and La Cote Basque’s Henri Soule’s anti-pants edict didn’t fall until the end of the 70s).

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I do admire the manner in which V.F. has enhanced Colacello’s article with gorgeous photos that even I, an old-timer, have never seen before. The Duchess of Windsor, prominent, leaving La Cote Basque, with the elegant C.Z. Guest right behind her, ghostly grey and wearing a hat. These contrast with an urbane Truman Capote and his then pal Lee Radziwill, both wearing shades, exiting The Colony restaurant together. (We get some other glimpses of attentive men over the years – Jerome Zipkin, Glenn Birnbaum, Kenny Jay Lane, Bill Paley, Irving “Swifty” Lazar, Roy Cohn, Norman Parkinson.)

The more recent era of Mortimer’s and Swifty’s, pattered a bit on the informal old P. J. Clarkes, was ushered in. Many of the old established cafes fell by the wayside. Colacello notes that of the originals, only La Grenouille and Le Cirque are left. Swifty’s,
really recent, is going strong. (One of its owners is Robert Caravaggi, the son of an earlier owner of Quo Vadis!)

But La Cote Basque, La Caravelle, and Lutece passed away in one fell swoop in 2004. Women started turning up in the mostly male enclave of the Four Seasons Grill Room. Brooke Astor once told me it was the only place to lunch “because it’s the only place you are guaranteed to see important men!”

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Nowadays, TV and literary types go to Michael’s ,which is slightly to the west of Fifth Avenue. Here you might find Roger Ailes, Barry Diller, Bill Clinton and lots of the ladies who still lunch – but usually, it’s all for business.

The end of this article about the few who still like to sit around, shooting the bull and passing the time, is less interesting. “Ladies” and just plain women friends, do now and then like to meet, eat, and talk. But these worthies, with PR’s Peggy Siegal in the lead, can’t be compared to the glamour lunchers of the past.

Minor celebrities and wannabees seeking overnight forgettable fame are still operating in our midst, but I don’t think many people are watching.

Glamour is glamour, and very few have any of that these days!

2 comments so far.

  1. avatar Frannie says:

    Where has all the glamour gone? Hollywood tries to put it on for all the red carpet award ceremonies and everyone is so “handled” by stylists etc, they look beautiful but it’s almost too much and there is so much overkill that the elegance is gone. I love seeing how beautiful they present themselves and dressed in the gowns, but it sometimes seems more redundant than glamourous. Too much focus on the who designed it where did the jewelry get borrowed from and so on. Seems less real than in days past.

    I often wonder what the 30-40 somethings will reflect on in another 25 years? Will they think that this era was the best for style and beauty, and that current celebrities have more elegance and grace than what they will witness in the future? If so, then I am not sure I am looking forward to the “elegance” of the future.

  2. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    Ladies who lunch usually munch more than lunch.  And they love the “scoop du jour.” For the most part all were, and are, vapid creatures with either indulgent husbands or indulgent trustees and of course indulgent publicists. Publicists far more important than anything else.  But they did give everyone else something to talk about. And, regrettably, aspire to.  No comments on your list of ladies who lunch although I adored Nan Kempner who had a certain “tongue-in-cheek” approach to it all, altough she did seem to have a certain Pavlovian response to flash bulbs, along with Aileen Mehle. Everyone else, well, they truly believe that civilzation would have collapsed without them.  Brooke Astor really was too busy to lunch but still managed. But Broooke Astor was Brooke Astor. And no publicist could have ever created her. Unfortunately her legacy is a son who stole from himself. If you believe the district attorney. Which I didn’t. And don’t. And I suspect her “friends” who ensured that legacy are going to be greeted by her in heaven. If any of them actually make it to heaven. And won’t be greeted warmly.  Far more money-grabbing than her son ever could have been. And grabbing it for “charity” doesn’t make it less offensive. There was a point where she worried about runniing out of money. Her own. Not the foundation’s. Her son managed to “turn it around.” Little details left out here and there. Left out, I might add, by many of the ladies who lunch. And munch.