“Quiet please,” reads a black sticker on the tall red door to the ground-floor apartment that artist Richard Bernstein kept at the Chelsea Hotel. And for almost two weeks, this city seemed all too willing to oblige.
On Oct. 18, Bernstein’s body was found on the other side of that door, in his high-ceilinged studio apartment that once was part of the Chelsea’s grand ballroom. Bernstein, whose 63rd birthday would have fallen on Halloween, had been suffering from AIDS and an ailing heart and, according to friends, a note found in his apartment that said simply “Do not resuscitate” left some with the suspicion that he had taken his own life.
Eleven days later, after Bernstein’s body had been claimed by his family and buried at Mount Ararat Cemetery in Farmingdale, Long Island, those who had worked and played with the Bronx-born, Long Island-raised artist were still learning of his death, and his passing had yet to be noted by the paper of record, The New York Times .
The quiet of Bernstein’s death was ironic in light of the fact that his artwork had amplified the celebrity of so many. For 15 years, beginning in 1972, Bernstein’s signature artwork graced the monthly covers of Interview magazine, that seminal celebrity chronicle of the social, fashion and art crowd that had met in Andy Warhol’s Factory and the back room of Max’s Kansas City in the 60′s and catalyzed in the sybaritic heat of Studio 54 in the late 70′s.
Using an airbrush, pencil and pastel on photographic portraits, Bernstein made the up-and-coming celebrities of the era-Sylvester Stallone, Calvin Klein, Madonna, even wholesome Mary Tyler Moore-look as sleek and sexy as our nostalgized memories of that era. “Things are stronger, faster and further,” Paloma Picasso wrote of Bernstein’s oeuvre in a published collection of his work, Megastar . “Superstars became Megastars.”
But though Bernstein’s work helped put many a celebrity into the hot zone, he never seemed to be able to make the same conversion in terms of his own career. “I never felt that Richard got the full recognition for his contribution to the art world,” said Steve Newman, director of still photography at 20th Century Fox studios. “He never got the representation or put himself out there enough to earn the kind of reputation that other contemporaries of his did. I still think it’s a great shame.”
“He was an astonishing person who lived up to about 25 percent of his potential,” said his friend, the artist Toby Rabiner.
Indeed, Mr. Newman and other friends and acquaintances of the artist said that, though he continued to create his hyper-realistic portraits on commission-designer Tom Ford was a recent subject-Bernstein’s art had moved in more abstract directions.
“The last thing he wanted to do were portraits,” said the photographer and lighting designer Arthur Weinstein, a friend of several decades who lives in the Chelsea Hotel. “He was pretty actively painting up until about six months before he died.”
Some who knew Bernstein said he never broke out because his work, which was clearly influenced by Warhol’s art, was too often confused with the Pope of Pop’s work, and that Warhol, who enjoyed autographing the covers of fans’ copies of Interview , didn’t work too hard to disabuse them of that notion.
Other friends said that Bernstein was too nice and not ambitious enough, and that he was often taken advantage of by those who were in a position to help him.
And still others, such as Mr. Newman, said that, though Bernstein “would have liked a little more recognition,” he essentially “was happy.”
“Material things didn’t mean that much to him,” said Mr. Newman, who remembered that Bernstein’s father once had offered to help him buy a condominium in the city, but that, after considering it briefly, the artist decided he’d rather live in his artwork-crammed studio at the Chelsea.
“He was very appreciative of small pleasures,” said Ms. Rabiner, who noted that, in recent years, both she and Bernstein had lived on a shoestring.
About a week before he died, Ms. Rabiner said that she treated Bernstein on a walk in a small park near the Chelsea Hotel. During their excursion, he turned to her and uttered a phrase that the two friends often used with each other when one had done something thoughtful for the other: “Another happy-with-so-little story.”
But in the heady days of the 60′s and 70′s, Bernstein saw much higher highs. “I can’t think of anybody who had more fun than him, including [Studio 54 co-owner] Steve Rubell,” Mr. Weinstein said. “He never had any money, but he had great friends.”
“He lived this amazing bohemian lifestyle,” Mr. Newman said.
“He knew everybody. He was one of the great social magnates of Studio 54. He had so much knowledge-firsthand knowledge,” as well as “an amazing ability to walk up to anybody and engage them in a conversation.”
“There was an elegance about him,” said the publicist Jules Feiler, who had done some recent work for Bernstein, including getting his art displayed on the fifth floor of the Gershwin Hotel. “When you went in to have an ice coffee and a cigarette with Richard Bernstein, it was like visiting royalty.”
The son of a haberdasher, Bernstein got his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Pratt Institute and did some graduate work at Columbia. After showing some early work at the New York’s Terrain gallery in 1965 and getting some critical, he fell in with the crowd in the back room at Max’s Kansas City. He called the room the “Bucket of Blood” and would eventually immortalize it in a red-hued print that became a coveted gift for friends and associates.
Writer Glenn O’Brien was the editor of Interview when Bernstein was hired in 1972, and he remembered his former colleague as “an old-world bohemian type that you don’t see much of in New York anymore. Nobody was allowed to smoke pot at the Factory, but Richard was the only person before Jean-Michel Basquiat who could get away with it. He would light up with impunity. If anyone had any attitude, he would tut-tut them and correct their attitude.” Mr. O’Brien added: “Fred was fun, but Richard was loose.”
With his dark, wavy hair, good looks and unfussy fashion sense-black jeans, leather jackets-Bernstein attracted members of both sexes, and though he was gay, he had at least one significant relationship with a woman, the actress and photographer Berry Berenson.
Bernstein was dating-and at one point, according to Ms. Rabiner and other friends engaged to-Ms. Berenson when he began working at Interview . And, many of those friends said, he encouraged Ms. Berenson to interview the actor Anthony Perkins, upon whom she had developed a crush, for the magazine.
“He lived to regret that,” said Ms. Rabiner. Ms. Berenson fell for Mr. Perkins and Bernstein was crushed. “He suffered a nervous breakdown at that point,” said Mr. Newman.
Still, Bernstein maintained a close friendship with Ms. Berenson and was devastated a second time when she died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Eventually, Bernstein was able to lose himself in the drug-and-alcohol-fueled scene that sprung up around Studio 54. His friends ran the gamut from French actor Alain Delon to disco proprietress Regine to Virgil Thompson to the angular actress and singer Grace Jones.
In a phone call from London, Ms. Jones recalled that Bernstein was “more like family than a friend. He was a godfather and art father to my son, Paulo. We called him Uncle Richard.”
“He was an extremely loyal friend,” Ms. Jones added. When times were flush, Ms. Jones said she often threw lavish parties with “bathtubs full of Cristal champagne” and her mother’s Jamaican cooking, but she recounted how once, during a later, leaner time in her life, she asked friends to bring their own liquor to one of her soirees. “I remember only about five people showed up,” she said. Bernstein was one of them. “So you can see he was very special in my life,” she said.
Indeed, Ms. Jones said that she and Bernstein served as mutual muses for each other. He did the artwork for her first single, “I Need A Man,” and then for every one of her albums up to 1980′s Warm Leatherette . Bernstein also worked with artist Antonia López on Ms. Jones’ 1986 vampire movie, Vamp . And she said it was Bernstein’s idea to dress her as a luminescent chandelier for her dramatic performance of “La Vie en Rose” at a tribute to the artist Erté at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And Fox’s Mr. Newman said that he met Bernstein in 1985 when the studio executive was working with Ms. Jones on the James Bond film, A View to a Kill . Mr. Newman said it was Bernstein’s suggestion to hire the photographer George Hurrell and photograph Ms. Jones in the glamorous 40′s style for which Hurrell had become famous. “The pictures of Grace ran in magazines all over the world,” Mr. Newman said.
“Richard to me was the connection between the old glamour of Hollywood world and the art world, but he added his own contemporary sensibility to it, which was like his art work,” Mr. Newman said.
And, like a number of friends, Mr. Newman is worried about what is going to happen to that art work. Friends said Bernstein had written out a will, but failed to sign it before he died. Since his death, his apartment has been sealed by the police department pending settlement of his estate, according to management at the Chelsea.
Bernstein is survived by a sister Ellen Trifon, and a brother, David Bernstein, as well as a number of nieces and nephews. (Though friends said Bernstein was estranged from his family for many years because of his lifestyle, chances are, the fate of his estate-Mr. Newman estimated that his friend left behind “thousands” of artworks, including his Interview output, though Mr. Weinstein said the number was much smaller-and his legacy as an artist will be determined by their actions. “It’s in the family’s hands,” Mr. Newman said. “I just hope that the family understands the value of it.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Jones said she was planning to start an AIDS foundation in Bernstein’s name. “His birthday would have been on the 31st. We were supposed to meet then,” she said. “I’m going to miss him but we have to celebrate his life before. He would like that.”
Britney at the Bat
Bare-bellied pop star Britney Spears is following through on her August pledge “to rejuvenate spiritually and to just play.” Play ball, that is.
Despite reports linking her with Backstreet Boy Nick Carter, The Transom hears that Ms. Spears spent a recent Friday night out in Manhattan with a new Ivy League swain, Steven Duke. Mr. Duke, a 21-year-old from Bayside, N.Y., is the senior captain of Yale University’s baseball team, a member of one of the college’s secret societies, and a brother of the Delta Kappa Epsilon-or Deke-fraternity that counts both Bush Presidents among its alumni.
Reached by The Transom for comment, the young Eli was reluctant to dish about the experience, but gamely answered a few questions.
The date was arranged by Mr. Duke’s childhood friend Danny, who has been casually dating one of Ms. Spears’ backup dancers. When Ms. Spears asked Danny to bring a friend around for her, Danny tapped the lucky Mr. Duke, who seemed to take it all in stride.
“I wanted to treat her like a regular person, so I just wore what I’d wear to a party at school,” said Mr. Duke, who went with “trendy jeans and a collared shirt.”
“I kept telling myself over and over, ‘Be normal. Be normal,’” he said.
When the foursome met up at the meatpacking-district lounge Trust, he found his toothsome date similarly decked out in “trendy jeans,” although her shirt “was kind of see-through” and she was wearing “those shoes that are pointy in the toe-I think you call them ‘stilettos.’”
The group soon piled into Ms. Spears’ black Yukon, accompanied by her bodyguard and driver, and headed to Suite 16, where Ms. Spears sipped Midori sours and partook of some group shots.
“There I was, grinding on the dance floor with Britney Spears,” recalled Mr. Duke. “It was the most surreal half-hour of my life.”
All was well until Britney’s own ditty, “I’m a Slave 4 U,” began blasting, and the singer became uncomfortable. Mr. Duke said that Ms. Spears announced it was “time to go” and directed her entourage out the back door, where paparazzi had begun to gather.
Mr. Duke’s date concluded at a bash thrown by Stella McCartney at the Gas Light Lounge.
“All of the sudden, Paul McCartney’s daughter is coming over to our table and saying, ‘Britney, I’d like to introduce you to Bono and Christy [Turlington],” said the awestruck but determined Mr. Duke, who was not about to leave without Ms. Spears’ digits.
He told The Transom that his line went something like: “Hey, if you’re gonna be in town, you should give me your number. We should hang out.”
Hey, it worked. According to Mr. Duke, Ms. Spears ponied up her private line.
But, alas, the ballplayer didn’t score … or even make it to second. Mr. Duke said that when Ms. Spears dropped him off at Grand Central in time to catch the last train to New Haven, he gave her a chaste goodnight kiss on the cheek.
A few days later, Mr. Duke said he left a message on the singer’s voice mail, but had yet to receive a call back.
Even if a romance never develops, Mr. Duke doesn’t feel like he completely struck out.
“I’d consider the night the equivalent of hitting a double,” said Mr. Duke. “I think she had a good time.”
Sedaris Cleans Up
Getting to Carnegie Hall used to require practice, practice, practice, but essayist David Sedaris has found a shortcut. “You can’t get any lazier than me,” the gap-toothed Mr. Sedaris told a crowd of 2,800 at his sold-out reading at the concert hall on Tuesday, Oct. 22. “I mean, I read out loud. It’s pretty amazing to me that you can just read out loud and be here !”
Looking like a leprechaun in a striped pink shirt with a blue and red tie, Mr. Sedaris’ head was barely visible above the podium as he read essays covering topics from gun control to Dutch Christmas customs to his experience with a product called the Stadium Pal-a device that collects urine in a bag strapped to the user’s leg, thereby eliminating bathroom breaks. Mr. Sedaris had employed a Stadium Pal so that he could sit at book signings for hours on end.
During the question-and-answer session at evening’s end, he was asked to sing, and obliged with a verse of “Amazing Grace” done to the theme from Gilligan’s Island . He also confirmed a rumor that Smoke director Wayne Wang was considering making a movie of Mr. Sedaris’ life.
But who would play him?
“That guy Corky from the TV show Life Goes On !” said Mr. Sedaris’ sister Amy at the after-party backstage. Ms. Sedaris is best known for her role as a menopausal ex-drug addict who goes back to high school in the Comedy Central show Strangers with Candy . When she’s not acting, Ms. Sedaris sells cheese balls and cupcakes from her West Village apartment.
Who would she want to play her in the movie?
“Eric Roberts!” she shrieked.
“Tom Hanks would be a good pick to play David,” said Lou Sedaris, the guest of honor’s elfin, 79-year-old dad. “Tom Hanks is married to a Greek, so at least there would be some association there.” Slightly hunched with sad brown eyes, Papa Sedaris was in from his family’s hometown of Raleigh, N.C. He said he could name all of his five children, but wasn’t sure of their birthdays. “I’m proud of everyone of them in equal amounts,” he said. There was a pensive pause. “But when they were growing up, if I had a favorite, it wasn’t David. He was a dropout.”
Did Sedaris père ever think he’d see his son perform at Carnegie Hall?
“Well, I thought maybe I’d see him cleaning Carnegie Hall,” he said, referring to the fact that his son was once a house-cleaner.
Nearby stood David Sedaris’ boyfriend, painter Hugh Hamrick, with whom he lives in Paris.
“It was touching to be in Carnegie Hall and see his little form on that big stage,” said Mr. Hamrick, who was clad in a black turtleneck. “It was special. Before we came, David was worried he’d be looking out at a half-empty audience.”
The Transom asked Mr. Hamrick who should play his beau in the movie.
“They’ve been talking about maybe Matthew Broderick …. “
Speak of the devil: There was Mr. Broderick, standing by the door with his extremely pregnant actress wife, Sarah Jessica Parker. She was wearing frumpy red overalls, a black tube top and kitten heels. Mr. Broderick seemed enthusiastic about the idea of playing Mr. Sedaris.
The feeling was mutual. “I’d be flattered if Matthew Broderick played me,” said Mr. Sedaris, entering the salon with a moist brow after spending an hour and a half signing books, programs and ticket stubs. “And I’d like for Denzel Washington to play Hugh. That would be my dream! Then I could vicariously watch Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick having sex.”
-Anna Jane Grossman
For the past week, a form letter addressed to Representative Carolyn Maloney has been circulating around Gramercy Park and its imposing adjacent buildings.
“As a constituent, and a resident of Gramercy Park, I find it quite disturbing that you are allowing a fund-raising reception in your honor to be held at the home of William Samuels,” the letter begins. “Mr. Samuels, as you may be aware, was intrinsically involved in the recent, highly publicized litigation between the National Arts Club and the Trustees of Gramercy Park …. This litigation-which was unnecessary, costly, and divisive-also subjected our community, which you represent, to being unjustly portrayed as ‘racist.’”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in January of 2001 by a group of New York City schoolchildren and parents, the National Arts Club and its embattled president, Aldon James, against trustees of Gramercy Park. The suit contends that the children’s civil rights were violated when a park trustee ejected them from the park while they were visiting as Mr. James’ guests. Some area residents have claimed, however, that the suit is a ploy on behalf of Mr. James and the arts club to gain control of the private park. Mr. Samuels, a businessman, was the principal financial backer of the suit, and many residents now harbor a grudge against him.
“[The fund-raiser] has upset some members of the Gramercy Park community because they were somewhat offended by the lawsuit,” said Bob Kohn, the president of 44 Gramercy Park North. “In my building and a lot of others, there is a lot of resentment against the people perpetrating the litigation. It’s painting our community in a negative fashion we don’t think is warranted.”
Mr. Kohn himself called the fund-raiser “unfortunate,” since it sent the message, he felt, that Ms. Maloney was not opposed to the suit.
Though several Gramercy Park residents said dozens of complaints were being directed, via mail and phone, to the Congresswoman’s office, a spokeswoman for Ms. Maloney said the fund-raiser would go on as planned. “The October 30th event is completely unrelated to any other events which may be occurring within the community,” read a statement released by Ms. Maloney’s office.
Mr. Samuels told The Transom that his ties to Ms. Maloney are deep. He helped her in her first City Council race 20 years ago and has frequently held fund-raisers for her in the past 15 years. Today, Mr. Samuels’ sister Jacqui is Ms. Maloney’s finance director and coordinated the Oct. 30 event.
“This has nothing to do with the Gramercy Park situation,” Mr. Samuels added. “Carolyn Maloney is an independent person from this.”
– Elisabeth Franck
Moldy But Not Dead
The Moldy Peaches are breaking up, and Friday is their last show EVER!
Well, not really-but that was certainly the impression some rock journalists got after reading a press release that the band’s publicity firm issued on Friday, Oct. 18. The release announced that the scatologically inclined duo of Afro-maned Kimya Dawson and Adam Green “have decided to go their separate ways,” and that their swan-song show would be Friday, Nov. 1, at Irving Plaza.
“It got back to me really quick,” Ms. Dawson told The Transom. “Our bass player’s sister’s roommate got it, and I said, ‘What the hell is this?’ It’s just crazy. I feel so bad.”
By way of an explanation, Steven Trachtenbroit, a publicist at the P.R. firm Big Hassle-who sent out the press release-said reports of the band’s breakup were, you know, just a rumor. “There was a rumor that they broke up, but it wasn’t anything like that,” he said.
But it’s already too late. Said Ms. Dawson: “I just got an e-mail from some kid in England saying, ‘The British press is saying the Moldy Peaches is breaking up-is this true?’”
What is true is that the Nov. 1 gig will be the Moldy Peaches’ last one for a while as Mr. Green, 21, and Ms. Dawson, 29, promote their respective solo albums. But don’t ask when they might reunite. “I feel like if we gave ourselves some sort of time frame, that would end up stressing everybody out,” Ms. Dawson said.
While Ms. Dawson added her album, i’m sorry that sometimes i’m mean , due out Nov. 5, won’t reference turds quite as much as the Moldy Peaches did, it still has one thing going for it. “I am getting a parental-advisory warning for the word ‘bullshit,’” she said. “It’s exciting.”
– Joe Hagan