Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Director of Communications, William Cunningham, is not a guy who spends much time fretting over his boss’ taste in furniture.
“I hadn’t even thought about it until you asked,” he said over the phone. “It’s a house. It’s furnished …. I really don’t think that the President or the Governor or anybody else who’s going will be there to report on the furnishings.”
Mr. Cunningham had called to say that there was no one in Mr. Bloomberg’s administration who was interested in discussing the décor of the Mayor’s limestone mansion on East 79th Street near Central Park.
On Wednesday, Feb. 6 Mr. Bloomberg will open his Jamie Drake–decorated bachelor’s pad for a $15,000-a-plate fund-raiser for Governor George Pataki. President George W. Bush is slated to attend, as is former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan and socialite Marylou Whitney. If Lady Luck shines on the soirée, former Sen. Alfonse D’Amato will also show and give Mr. Bloomberg a few pointers about how to impress the ladies.
Whether Mr. Bloomberg grasps this or not, the event will mark the moment that his private domain becomes the New York equivalent of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion and not just because of those leopard-print accents in the Mayor’s spiffy library.
Mr. Bloomberg is not only the wealthiest man to hold the city’s highest office, he’s the first Mayor in modern memory to run a home equipped for the kind of high-level entertaining that governmental figures and political personages find necessary. Though Mr. Bloomberg has chosen to reside on East 79th Street rather than in down-at-the-heels Gracie Mansion-a house in need of a tremendous cash infusion-Mr. Cunningham wouldn’t exactly confirm the perception that Mr. Bloomberg would be entertaining more at the mansion. “He uses Gracie Mansion for a lot of functions and he uses his home as he sees fit,” he said. Election law prevents Mr. Bloomberg from using Gracie Mansion to host fund-raisers. No law prohibits him from using the house on 79th Street.
So tonight he’s introducing himself to political society with President Bush’s first visit to a private home in New York City. And it’s all happening at his house. Not since Park Ave.–traffic-glutting Bill Clinton was President.
But in throwing open his doors to raise money and build relations with the Governor and the President, Mr. Bloomberg is doing pretty much what that other wealthy bachelor on the West Coast does when he hosts a swim party at the Grotto: in Mr. Hefner’s case, it’s to attract the sex, celebrity and buzz that fuels his media empire, to have visitors take their pictures with Bunnies so they can go home and tell their buddies they spent the night at Hef’s. When Mr. Bloomberg opens his doors, it’s to attract the power and money to amass some more power, and probably to have contributors lift matchbooks and pocket silverware so they can go home and tell their buddies they spent the evening at Mike’s.
Mr. Bloomberg is at a distinct disadvantage, however. While Mr. D’Amato could certainly serve as the East Coast equivalent of Charlie Sheen, Mr. Bloomberg does not have a bevy of pneumatically endowed women to distract from the décor. No one’s going to be noticing that the hand towels in the bathroom are looking tatty when Misses June, July and August are playing volleyball in the backyard and George Clooney’s at the bar reminiscing about Ocean’s Eleven .
Mr. Bloomberg’s party will, of course, have President Bush, whom everyone wants a piece of these days. “I think President Bush will probably see a lot of people there and he may not even notice the furnishings. It’s going to be wall-to-wall people from the sound of it,” Mr. Cunningham said.
But once the dinner plates have been cleared and agendas have been discussed, the New Yorkers in the room will no doubt revert to the behavior that dinner parties always produce. They flit from room to room, skirting the Secret Service, and inventory the contents of Mr. Bloomberg’s digs. They will appraise Mr. Bloomberg’s home as if they are appraising him, and inevitably they will find something they do not like.
The reviews began coming in since Mr. Bloomberg was elected. Those who have not been invited to the townhouse are checking out its photos on CNN’s Web site: If you punch the name of Mr. Bloomberg’s designer, Jamie Drake, into the search engine, a story and a series of visuals pops up. The house is never identified as Mr. Bloomberg’s, but those in the know say it is. (Mr. Drake did not return several phone calls.)
The pictures aren’t great quality, but they show a lot of dark wood, the porphyry marble floor in the foyer, 19th-century French Empire mahogany and gilt bronze sideboards and the gilt-edged 1920’s China pattern that’s used at Chez Bloomberg. The paintings on the walls, which are all in ornate, gold frames seem to consist mostly of landscapes and masculine, outdoorsy scenes.
Mr. Drake is known for his work with colors, fabrics and patterns, and, if the photo of Mr. Bloomberg’s library is still accurate, that’s where the leopard print roams in a thicket of dark wood paneling. Mr. Drake told CNN that he envisioned Mr. Bloomberg’s library as “as bottle of cognac … held up to the light.”
It would be interesting to find out if Mr. Bloomberg was preparing to run for Mayor when he hired Mr. Drake to re-do his house. Because judging from a consensus of design-minded folk who’ve either visited Casa Mike or seen photos, Mr. Bloomberg’s redecoration is not that different from his Mayoral run: Besides the amount of money Mr. Bloomberg clearly spent, there’s a smooth, confident, purposeful disinterest in the pursuit. “It’s very attractive, safe and rich looking, but it doesn’t transport you to another world,” said one public-relations executive who’s seen Mr. Bloomberg’s place.
If you want an example of a passionate Mayor, there’s Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudy Giuliani. His equivalent in home decoration would probably be Susan Gutfreund, who hired the late master, Henri Samuel, or leveraged buyout mogul Henry Kravis, whose Park Ave. apartment was decorated by Francois-Joseph Graf, a European designer with an encyclopedic historical knowledge and the ability to execute interiors of true regal splendor, and who took part in the restoration of Versailles. Mr. Kravis is said to be amassing one of the great collections of French furniture. As one socialite once said of Mr. Kravis’ place: “It makes everyone else look poor.”
According to one interior decorator, if Mr. Bloomberg had an social agenda, he would have hired Mica Ertegun,” the wife of Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. If he wanted to live Le Style Rothschild, he would have hired Mr. Graf or possibly David Easton or Peter Marino. “But in hiring Jamie,” the decorator said, “it suggests he wanted a comfortable house.” And to paraphrase the writers of Seinfeld , there’s nothing wrong with that.
The CNN.com picture that’s hardest to look at and hardest to look away from is the photo of Mr. Bloomberg’s bedroom, with its drab beige-at least that’s the color in the Web site’s digital photo-upholstered headboard fading into a similarly hued wall. The room looks like a Hilton suite in Nags Head, S.C., not the Boom-Boom Room for New York’s Mayor, let alone a billionaire media mogul. In the copy that accompanies the CNN picture, Mr. Drake says: “I think the reason for the serenity derives from the fact that although it’s soft and comfortable and feminine in its shapes, there isn’t a lot of pattern.”
But just bringing up the subject of Mr. Bloomberg’s bedroom, makes another interior designer, Jeffrey Bilhuber, a little queasy.
“Mayor Mike’s bed! Eccccch ,” Mr. Bilhuber said. “I’m much happier thinking the Mayor doesn’t sleep.”
Mr. Bilhuber brings up an interesting point that can’t be ignored when a public figure starts giving the world a peek at his private residence. It’s one thing to do it in the pages of Architectural Digest or InStyle where there’s some degree of control, but when you start letting real live humans past the front door, they’re always going to find a way to check the medicine cabinets and peek in your underwear drawers.
“Think of it this way,” Mr. Bilhuber said. “There is a sense of privilege to be toured through Gracie Mansion and you really do want to see all of the rooms, including bedrooms, which I’m sure are quite historic. There is a sense of invasion of privacy, almost voyeuristically of seeing the Mayor’s private residence. And perhaps that is worth considering here.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mr. Bilhuber said. “[Mayor Bloomberg’s] a man who’s done tremendously well and unlike many of the previous Mayors is one who does not need the accommodations of Gracie Mansion.” But the interior designer said: “I happen to adore Gracie Mansion because it’s so friendly. I like the way it sits on that grassy knoll, I like the color of it. The architectural integrity is interesting. It shows a house that has been in transition since it was first used as the Mayor’s residence and that reflects a lot about how open we are to change. And that house exhibits that.”
But isn’t Gracie Mansion a little frayed at the edges these days? The Observer asked Mr. Bilhuber.
“Please,” he replied. “Aren’t we all?”
Mr. Bilhuber said that of all the government residences with which he’s familiar, “I find Gracie Mansion to be incredibly accessible and approachable. It is truly so genteel, a sort of glorified farmhouse. I think that’s a wonderful message to send out in an age of increased accessibility. I find that Gracie Mansion accomplishes all of that. It does not have the pretensions that many other government houses would. Whether they’re for mayors, vice presidents or Presidents.
“I know it well,” he said, “only because I’m such a great fan of [the design firm of] Parrish-Hadley” which took part in the 1984 renovation of the Mansion during the Koch administration.
“I think Albert [Hadley] especially did a wonderful job. It’s a very gracious house. From what I can see about Bloomberg’s townhouse is that, although gracious, it certainly reflects the success he has achieved on a business level more than what Gracie Mansion reflects, which is success we have all achieved through the goodness of political choice.”
Mr. Bloomberg has reportedly drafted Mr. Drake to think about a rehabilitation of Gracie Mansion. When Mr. Hadley read this, he said that he wrote Mr. Drake a note telling him “to go for it.” Mr. Drake wrote him back, Mr. Hadley said, saying that he would keep the focal point of Parrish- Hadley’s redecoration-the mansion’s dining room-as it was.
“I don’t know Drake at all. I’ve just seen the few things he’s done that have been published,” Mr. Hadley said. “I think it’s fine, if he respects the house and freshens it up. I think there has to be a certain integrity, a certain honesty about it.” Mr. Hadley said that Mr. Drake’s redecoration has to accomplish one more thing- something that Mr. Drake couldn’t have been thinking about when he worked on Mr. Bloomberg’s home. Said Mr. Hadley: “It does have to represent the city and the Mayor.”
-additional reporting by Tom McGeveran