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An Ode To The Upper East Side

Why, for MR PORTER’s New York-based US Editor, there is no place like home

In dreams, on Instagram, on vacation – and even, perhaps, on our CV – we often imagine ourselves to be someone else, someone better, someone more. Leaner, maybe. Fitter. Quicker with a comeback. Wittier, wiser, more accomplished, more more-some. In these perfect worlds of our fantasies, we can think of ourselves as unbound by personal history, unblemished by the past, untethered to ourselves, our realities. Unknown and so free.

At home, though, in our real lives, there are constant reminders of our persistent banality. We are confronted everywhere by the everydayness of existence. Unless, of course, we can import a little of the romantic imaginings of our dream lives into our real lives.

That’s what I tried to do two years ago when I moved uptown, from the wonderfully ramen-shop-pocked East Village to the Upper East Side, and it has made all the difference. This part of town between Central Park and the East River is the New York I dreamed of before I moved to New York. Which is to say that, along these wide avenues of tulip-y medians, shiny shops and baroque mansions, I still see a primarily fictional space inhabited by the characters in books and movies I’ve loved. The neighbourhoods of Yorkville, Lenox and Carnegie Hills are, to my mind, the ancestral homelands of The Fisher King, site of the Glass family’s terrible scrapes, where the Tenenbaums had their dramedies and Hannah had her sisters. This is, after all, the Manhattan of Manhattan and, as problematic as that may now be, the appeal that the neighbourhood’s seeming erudition and elegance made to me as a kid hasn’t soured in the time since. Nor have the baroque buildings and sliding-into-shabbiness gentlemen’s clubs lost their architectural grandeur in the full light of their robber-baron builders’ treachery.

Fantasy, in the sense of the romantic imaginings among which I like to dream and travel, are baked into the concrete here, everywhere around you, the scaffolding on which to drape your day like so much tinsel. 

To wit, the beautiful Beaux Arts building at 55 East 77th street where, in Three Days Of The Condor, Mr Robert Redford’s Turner analysed books for the CIA-front American Literary Historical Society, is not all that far from Mr George Plimpton’s former apartment (541 E 72nd Street) where he created The Paris Review, a literary journal begun, in part, with CIA funding. A few blocks up, at 895 Park Avenue, the composer Mr Leonard Bernstein hosted his famous cocktail party in support of the Black Panthers in 1970, the party Mr Tom Wolfe wrote about in his legendary essay “Radical Chic”. Mr Wolfe, whose place was literally around the corner, on 79th, and from where it would have been an easy walk up to Elaine’s (1703 Second Avenue, at 88th Street) – the legendary watering hole beloved by artists, musicians, writers and politicians for much of the latter half of the 20th century – where Mr Wolfe might have come across Mr Plimpton or fellow star of New Journalism (and fan of the white suit), Mr Gay Talese. Since the closing of Elaine’s in 2011, Mr Talese has been known to go in search of his daily gin martini just down the road close to the designer Mr Roy Halston’s apartment (101 East 63rd Street), site of many a debauched after-party in the Studio 54 days.

While most of the characters who inhabit these memories, and the Upper East Side itself, are phantoms, ghosts, even myths, that is in part what makes it a perfect backdrop for insinuating oneself into their world. For starters, there are very few other people around to get in your way. The streets here, empty of anything even resembling cool, be it a shop or restaurant, are also empty of those who go in search of the new, the next, the hyped. And what is there is, in large part, unchanged, un-revivified, preserved in a way that makes it feel altogether new and authentic. The grand old La Grenouille, with its plush red banquettes, table lamps and over-stuffed floral displays, feels like I imagine it must have when it was packed nightly with the glorious demimonde in Bill Blass. So much the better, then, to get oneself up in full Mr Talese-style fig and flaneur about the neighbourhood, from The Plaza Athénée to The Guggenheim, all the while communing with the ghosts.

And even when the company is a bit more... corporeal – at, say, Mr Jay McInerney’s annual Christmas party at the velvety underground private club, Doubles Club, in the Sherry Netherland hotel or over splits of champagne in Bemelmans Bar beneath the famous murals at The Carlyle hotel – it’s hard to keep the focus from diffusing, from drifting into the worlds of Bright Lights, Big City, say, or even Ms Sofia Coppola’s Mr Bill Murray holiday fantasy set in The Carlyle. Sometimes these two realities merge outright, most dramatically in the case of Mr Ralph Lauren, the architect of modern Americana for much of the past 50 years, who constructed a mansion at 72nd and Madison Avenue to complement the 1890s French Revival one across the street that he’d made his flagship in the 1980s.

Just a few blocks away, at the staggeringly grand black-tie extravaganza to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mr Lauren’s brand in Central Park this September, Ms Oprah Winfrey toasted the designer, she said, for “50 years of designing our dreams”. Which, in a way, is what we all do now, borrowing from this inspiration and that to construct the tableaux of our Instagrams, to construct ourselves and the sort of augmented reality in which we live. This, in turn, is not terribly different from what the architects of this city were doing when they built this fairytale of a neighbourhood, enchanting it not with the magic of legends or warlocks and corrupt kings, but spun from thin air with a gilded-age aspiration and constructed with the express purpose of conjuring the magic I now find here today.

It could be said that, these days, this sort of construction and inhabiting of fantasy is our job, all of our jobs. Whether you work in banking or broadcast media, selling souls or the celebrity industrial complex, branding – as in exteriorising and exemplifying our aesthetic and ethical affinities – has become our main activity. So maybe I’ve just gone method, or meta. Maybe I just have an only-child’s wont for playing make-believe. Or maybe we’re all starting to lose our grip on tangible things, for better or worse, to slide a little bit more in the direction of our dream life. I’ve just found that the Upper East Side of Manhattan is a fun place to do it, though not by any stretch the only one. Don’t even get me started on Los Angeles.

Upper East Side stories

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