The Lotte Berk Method flagship exercise studio on East 67th Street is closing, after catering to the rich, famous and saggy for the last 35 years. “It’s like a divorce,” said Upper East Side writer and dismayed devotee Cathy Rubin after her 8:15 a.m. class yesterday. “Really, it breaks your heart.”
Lydia Bach, the owner of the Method-an excruciatingly tough fitness regimen built on the tenets of ballet and yoga-is leaving the rented townhouse, her central base of operations, around the end of this month, said Al Valente, one of two directors at Lotte Berk’s licensing company. Neither Ms. Bach (said to be traveling in India, observing club-foot surgeries) nor her deputy, Barbara Boolukos, could be reached for an explanation, though in an interview with The Observer earlier this year, Ms. Bach said that the studio had been having financial difficulties, which she blamed on Core Fusion, a rival program started by two former Lotte Berk instructors. She mentioned contemplating selling the Lotte Berk studio in the Hamptons, as well as her own big house there-the one with a wrap-around porch where she has enjoyed summertime cocktails with the writer Tom Wolfe, one of her long-term clients in the 90’s.
Mr. Valente said that company management is turning its attention to international franchises, adding that the company’s Bridgehampton studio, run out of a quaint and airy potato barn, will become the future headquarters of the Lotte Berk Method. “The emphasis now is on taking more of a global look,” he said, “to license studios in other cities and out in the suburbs, where we think entrepreneurs can do very well with a 35-year-old brand that is a proven protocol.”
Out in the suburbs. The phrase falls before the Lotte Berk ladies of Manhattan with a thud. Can it be true that the quintessential New York fitness method, soon to be unavailable to New Yorkers themselves, will now be practiced by the desperate housewives of North America?
It was never supposed to be this way.
Ms. Bach developed the Lotte Berk Method in the 1960’s, when she visited Lotte Berk herself in the London basement where she was teaching fitness to a small, high-powered clientele. Ms. Berk, a bubbly German Jew who narrowly dodged the Nazis, ran her small business with Vidal Sassoon, who would do actresses’ hair while she taught them to tone and tighten their bottoms. Ms. Bach adapted the regime, named it after her hero and opened up shop on 67th Street in 1970. In addition to the barn, there was a short-lived studio in Los Angeles that opened in the 1980’s and closed in the 90’s. Beyond that, Ms. Bach spurned lucrative licensing deals, preferring to keep her small operation a well-kept and expensive secret of New York’s upper crust.
As she became more interested in traveling than in running an exercise studio in the 1990’s, Ms. Bach identified her heirs: two longtime employees, a married couple named Fred DeVito and Elisabeth Halfpapp. But after a soap-operatic falling out with Ms. Bach, Mr. DeVito and Ms. Halfpapp broke off and joined “exhale,” a spa with two Manhattan locations. They subtly revised the Lotte Berk Method, adding more yoga and meditation, called it “Core Fusion” and began luring clients and instructors away from Ms. Bach. More than half of Core Fusion’s current 15 instructors were poached from Lotte Berk, as well as about a quarter of its 5,000-person client base, Mr. DeVito told The Observer earlier this year.
But he’s not gloating now-not explicitly, at least. “It made me sad, because it’s the end of an era,” Mr. DeVito said. “I feel sorry for the people who’ve stuck with it for so long. All former employees of mine, I feel for them-now they’re out of work. They’re going to have to collect unemployment. It’s a shame.”
Does he feel responsible at all?
“Why should I?” he said. “When I used to work for Lydia Bach years ago, people came down the road to compete with us, and as a young employee I would freak out. But I learned a lot from that lady. She used to say, ‘You just need to take care of what goes on inside your building. As long as what you do is top-shelf, you don’t have to worry.'”
Mr. DeVito appeared to have absorbed this lesson thoroughly. The “exhale” spas are pristine and warm. They offer facials and massages in addition to fitness lessons, special price packages that undercut Lotte Berk and three different kinds of tea after class. “They made their choice,” Mr. DeVito said, speaking of the many customers who have defected from the drafty 67th Street townhouse, which looks like an old ballet studio with its flowered canvas curtains, medicine balls and dull mauve carpeting.
“The Lotte Berk studio itself is very Spartan compared to others that may be in spas,” Mr. Valente conceded. “Somehow, that got judged as being a not-so-good thing. Suddenly a posh environment is more important than a good workout.”
But Manhattan’s Lotte Berk fans-many of whom have been attending $30-a-pop classes at the studio for decades-might argue that the low-key surroundings are part of the charm. “This is the death of a New York institution,” said one despondent woman, standing in the doorway before one of her final classes. “Everybody’s just feeling really low, really depressed right now.”
Ms. Rubin the writer, a young-looking 45 (“I have Lotte Berk to thank for that”), has been taking Lotte Berk classes regularly for 10 years. She said Ms. Bach still has “a lot of loyal followers” in the city that wish she wouldn’t give up on the Manhattan studio. They’ve put together an e-mail list, which sits on a clipboard at the front desk, so downtrodden acolytes can sign up in hopes of keeping in touch and helping each other scout out a Lotte Berk replacement. “It’s taken awhile for the news to sink in,” she said. “We really don’t know what we’re going to do.”
“It’s really a shame that they’re closing, because they’re really good at what they do,” said Rick Friedman, 51, a former dancer who has taken classes at the Bridgehampton studio four days a week during the summer (when the studio is open) for eight years. “It’s funny, because all the women who work out there are exceedingly well-heeled. I’m sure if you pass a hat around, you could raise enough money to go for another two years or so.”
The fact is, the devoted klatsch who never abandoned Lotte Berk-or who left for a short time and then returned- like the studio the way it is, now more than ever. Since attendance has dwindled, the classes are smaller and they get more personal attention. And so they are praying-without much genuine hope-that Ms. Bach will return from her travels and mount one last effort to save her studio.
“Lydia, come back from India,” pleaded Ms. Rubin into the ether. “Get back and fight for what’s yours!”
Mr. Natural’s Night
If it’s possible for someone to look both elated and in pain simultaneously, counterculture cartoonist Robert Crumb seemed to be pulling it off as he slouched and grinned inside the Stella McCartney store in the meatpacking district. Mr. Crumb was there on the evening of April 12 not to shop, but because he’d collaborated with the designer and Beatle offspring in designing a T-shirt available in a double-layer tank-top style for women ($175) and a short-sleeve crew-neck style for men ($155).
According to a press release, Ms. McCartney has been a longtime fan of Mr. Crumb’s work, enjoys “the eccentricity of his characters” and “his take on human nature,” and is “thrilled with the collaboration.”
Mr. Crumb, wearing a cheap suit, looked somewhat dignified with his thick glasses, sunken cheeks and medium-length beard. The 61-year-old brought to mind Abe Lincoln-if the 16th President had been an acid freak and sex maniac in his youth, like Mr. Crumb.
Speaking to The Transom via his reflection in a full-length mirror-as if to face us directly might do damage to his soul-Mr. Crumb made it clear that he had zero interest in fashion. “I hate the fashion world,” he said. “It’s a bunch of bullshit.”
So how did Ms. McCartney persuade him to make an appearance?
His opinion of New York City in 2005?
“It’s a hellhole.”
Good place for an artist?
“No. Awful place for an artist. I come back here every year to see old friends.”
“We’d rather be in Europe than here,” said Aline Kominsky, his artist wife of 27 years.
For the past 15 years, the Crumbs have lived in the South of France. In the 1994 documentary Crumb, directed by Terry Zwigoff ( Ghost World, Bad Santa), Mr. Crumb made explicit his dislike of modern-day America, and one of the reasons he and his wife relocated was to protect their daughter Sophie from the evil influence of current American culture. Sophie, who now lives in Brooklyn and works as an apprentice tattoo artist, devoured comics as a child and began drawing them herself early on, contributing to the strip about the Crumb family that was collected in 1993’s The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics. Ms. Crumb studied art, acrobatics and clowning after high school, taught English for a spell and now has her own strip, Belly Button Comix.
In the two days before the Stella McCartney event, in between book signings and walks around the East Village (Ms. Kominsky went to Cooper Union), the Crumbs had been hanging out with their daughter, who was at the moment dancing to the music of Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, the 10-piece jazz band entertaining the crowd that evening.
“I love this band,” said Mr. Crumb, clapping along and smiling wide. “The greatest band in America. It’s the only thing that’s making it worth being here.”
“It’s his favorite band,” Ms. Kominsky said. “When Stella McCartney asked me what could we do to get Robert to come, I said, ‘Hire this band.'”
Fashion people, gossip columnists, a guy in a Zorro costume and Yoko Ono (in black shades and a snap-brim hat) were pressing forward to say hello and pose with Mr. Crumb. “It’s really hard for him to be in a public situation,” said Ms. Kominsky. “He’s a very, very shy man. So this is hard for him tonight.”
What was going through his head?
“‘Oh, when is this going to be over?’ I mean, he hates skinny women and he hates fashion. But he really likes Stella-thinks she’s a great woman.”
What would have to happen to cheer him up?
“Serena Williams would have to come and give him a piggyback ride.”
“I don’t have shit to say about me,” Sophie Crumb said out of earshot of her parents. “I’m becoming an alcoholic-that’s what I’m doing. And I don’t want to talk about my father.”
Explaining that she hadn’t done anything yet, Ms. Crumb promised us an interview in five or 10 years. In a 2004 interview with Suicidegirls.com, it was noted that Sophie has taken drugs, traveled the world and done tattoos on pig’s feet. “I can be really shy, then I can be reckless and wild,” Ms. Crumb was quoted saying. “It depends on the situation and my sobriety [laughs].” In another online interview, she joked about maybe having to sell drugs in Brooklyn to make a living.)
After flipping off some pals with both middle fingers, she bummed a cigarette from The Transom and lit it right there.
“I’m the daughter-I can smoke here!” she said, before making a failed grab for our tape recorder. She was soon joined by her boyfriend Doug, a disheveled young man with a long beard and a button-down shirt completely open; he was all lit up and getting out of control. According to another guest at the event, Ms. Crumb later handed him some long, white cylindrical pills, but that didn’t help matters.
“He started talking shit to random people,” said the guest. “Then he punched me in the stomach as hard as he could. I just laughed at him. He said he was in jail twice this week.”
A bouncer who had taken notice of Doug hoisting two glasses of vodka and smoking booted him from the party, telling a bouncer by the door, “Don’t let him back in!” Doug stayed outside despite the pleading of several adult guests (“But he’s R. Crumb’s daughter’s boyfriend!”).
Later on, Ms. Crumb and Doug followed The Transom to a Paper magazine party nearby at Pop Burger. Doug seemed to have sobered up as he walked past Michael Stipe, Boy George, Tatum O’Neal and various drag queens, but by the time he made it to the pool table, he was back to his rowdy self. A game was in progress, and Doug saw fit to end it by knocking in a bunch of balls. One of the players, Crystal Moselle, the producer of the new documentary on Warholite Taylor Mead ( Excavating Taylor Mead), protested. Doug then picked up her drink and downed it.
“Stop fucking around-you’re going to get thrown out!” Ms. Crumb was overheard saying. With that, Doug grabbed a full glass of red wine and slammed it against a table, sending glass flying, hitting one person in the eye. Soon a bouncer showed up and told Doug, “Everyone wants you to leave.”
Reached a few days later, Ms. Moselle recalled the incident. “I was trying to play a game of pool, and he was being fresh with me and my friends, and I slapped him,” she said. “I put him in his place. He was not very well put-together. I was disappointed, because R. Crumb inspired me to do documentaries.”
Reached by e-mail, Ms. Crumb apologized for “Doug being incoherent and belligerent” and mentioned that he was “ashamed today (and sick) … whatever.”
“Like I said already,” she continued, “I don’t really wish to talk about my dad, and I don’t have much to say about myself! I am sorry, please understand … and please don’t write about my drunk boyfriend! Thanks and take care! Let’s talk in five years. Sophie.”
Danza’a Deep Thoughts
The first word on the latest in a series of panel discussions hosted by Sir Harold Evans, editor in chief of The Week magazine, was actually more of a gasp. Held last Thursday at Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse in Grand Central Terminal, the panel brought together for a conversation on the prospects of peace in the Middle East such diplomatic heavyweights as Henry Kissinger, Dennis Ross, the widow of Anwar Sadat and … Tony Danza! No, not some “Tony Danza” from Brookings. Not Tony Danza, assistant to a Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee. Not Ambassador Danza. Good old manicured Tony Danza, of Who’s the Boss and The Tony Danza Show-that Tony Danza, and at such a tony event!
Immediately following the affair, tabloid and magazine reporters ran back to their newsrooms and gasped into their computers. The panel “drew such policy wonks as Tony Danza,” wrote Rush and Molloy in the Daily News. Editor and Publisher exhaustively dissected the crowd, a potpourri of retired pols and tired-looking celebrities, and after surveying the room concluded by looking house left, where the writer saw “none other than Tony Danza. Who presumably has some deep thoughts on the Middle East.”
And you know what? He does.
“Would I love to see it settled? Absolutely,” Mr. Danza told us after the event, re the Arab-Israeli conflict. “My goodness! But the way it looks …. ”
While other reporters were huffing about the makeup of the crowd, The Transom had a week to contemplate a world with “not two but 20 or 30 nuclear nations,” as Mr. Kissinger urged everyone to do, between glances at his watch, in the closing minutes of the heated hour-long discussion. We had a week to meditate on Mr. Tina Brown’s frenzied moderation of the panel-cutting some speakers off, glaring others into submission, punching the air when anyone exceeded the time limit. And a week to “read” The Week magazine (does anyone actually read The Week magazine?). And after all of that contemplating and meditating and “reading,” we decided we’d rather hear a little more from Mr. Danza.
“I was hoping to be optimistic when I left-you know, walk out of there with a little bounce in my step. But wow. It was a little bit of a depressing lunch in the end.”
Which is exactly how we felt! Except for one moment midway through, when we saw an exquisitely groomed Jim McGreevey sneak out early. The Transom was sitting by an exit at the far end of the room, and for a second we made eye contact with the former governor. Flush with false recognition (who in this man’s life could we possibly resemble?), Mr. McGreevey smiled and winked one of his icy blue eyes at us. Instantly, despite Mr. Kissinger’s ominous warnings in the background, we got all tingly inside. For our money, nothing cuts the anxiety born of thoughts of Mohammad Khatami dancing around with nukes quite like a suggestive wink from the gay deposed governor of New Jersey.
But otherwise, the afternoon was one hell of a downer. “Guest speakers” Hanan Ashrawi, representing the Palestinians, and Israeli ambassador Dore Gold did little to lighten the mood. So to make the scary, hopeless feeling go further away, the moment the panel ended, we immediately sought out celebrities. After all, their job is to distract us from these weightier matters, right?
The first one we ran into was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was so pleased to be there that he was practically glowing through a bright yellow shirt. Mr. Seymour Hoffman is starring as Truman Capote in an upcoming biopic, and since Capote is a personal hero of ours, we tried asking about the movie. Alas, the actor wanted to talk politics.
He was bewildered by Mr. Kissinger’s nuclear vision. “Having that come out of a conversation and no one jumping up to say, ‘That’s a bunch of crap’-I mean, that really got me,” he told us. Yes, we said, but what about Capote? Wasn’t he great?!
“I’m just an actor,” the amateur pol demurred. “What’s exciting for me is to come listen to these ambassadors on these issues. To listen to Henry Kissinger!”
Really? That’s what’s exciting for Philip Seymour Hoffman? The man’s almost a movie star, for chrissakes. Have we really become one big nation of wonks, where even the famous aspire only to listen to an old Secretary of State croak out his morbid pronouncements about our calamitous (most likely) future? What has the world come to when Tony Danza describes getting invited to a panel discussion hosted by The Week magazine as evidence that, as he told us, “I’m on top of my game right now!”?
We approached Rebecca Miller and her husband, Cat Stevens-er, Daniel Day Lewis, in his daytime role of Mountain Man. Tell us something light and bright, we begged. And this is what the stick-figure couple had to say: “I’m sorry. We’re just students. We have nothing to say.”
The excitable-seeming Christopher Walken, while staring down at a plate of poached salmon and asparagus, said blandly before the talk, “I’m looking forward to hearing what the people who are supposed to be here will have to say.”
Then, across the room, we saw Geraldo Rivera squinting through giant purple plastic glasses, radiating warmth from a searing fake-and-bake tan. Finally, we thought-someone who will say something interesting, something snappy, something that won’t make us shiver with terror or lapse into a coma. What he said was: “We love Dr. Kissinger,” speaking for both his wife and himself. And after that: “Anwar Sadat’s one of my heroes.”
With that, we abandoned our plans for an upbeat afternoon. The crowd was awash in gloom, thinking about a Middle East with more plutonium than oil, imagining the lives of our children in such a world. Remembering the joy of Jim McGreevey, we made our way to the exit, bade farewell to the celebrities, and gave an oblivious Henry Kissinger one last hopeful wink.
Yadda Yadda Yaddo
Deep in the wholesale flower district at a book party on Friday, April 15, were Mike Myers and Helen Hunt. Why were they slumming with the literati at an event sponsored by Yaddo, the infamous upstate artists’ retreat? Apparently, Mike Myers, the Canadian boy wonder, met author Matthew Carnahan, whose book Serpent Girl was being honored that evening, at a David Letterman taping “four years ago, in 1989.” The Transom, momentarily baffled by the non-traditional mathematics, chalked it up to the Canadian-American exchange rate.
Mr. Myers also blamed Canada for his footwear, wool-lined boots, which looked a tad hot for the early spring evening. “I like to be prepared,” stated Mr. Myers. In case it snows? Ms. Hunt looked hot, in the appealing sense, in her own footwear. Bare-legged in black sandals, Ms. Hunt seemed very happy with her hand planted firmly in that of the auteur célèbre, Mr. Carnahan, her boyfriend of the past four years. The author, it seemed, had most recently written the address to his own book party on the back of his left hand.
Mr. Carnahan, looking as though he’d just stepped off a beach in Southern California with his shoulder-length blond hair and reddish complexion, explained that he had just finished a “grueling” week-and-a-half-long book tour. With light streaming in from the windows, dramatically striking his broad torso, he explained how he met Ms. Hunt. The author and actress had dated 15 years prior and then “went off and got to make all our mistakes with someone else.” They now have a child, Makena’ lei Gordon Carnahan, who turns one next month. Miss Carnahan, named for a town in Maui, was at home for the evening.
“Watch this,” Mr. Myers said wickedly before promptly sending a waiter to offer some curry puffs to his wife, Robin. “Tell her they’re from me.” He then turned around and whispered, “She hates curry.”
On Mr. Myers’ lap sat a copy of Mr. Carnahan’s first novel, Serpent Girl, which was marked with yellow Post-its. The Transom inquired if Mr. Myers was part of the show that was rumored to be taking place later that evening. “Show?” asked a shocked Mr. Myers, “It’s a reading!” Asked if expectations should be lowered, Mr. Myers replied, “Immediately.”
Four readers took turns reading from Serpent Girl, which is described on its book jacket as “a voyage into the darkest depth of carnie life.” The book was heavily influenced by Mr. Carnahan’s experiences working for Circus Vargas, the Southern California circus forever at odds with animal-rights groups, as a property master, rigger and clown. Mr. Myers, the first reader, introduced himself by saying, “Hi. I’m Mike. I play Shrek.”
Mr. Myers was followed by television writer Eric Gilliland, outfitted in an untucked light green Oxford, who had the good fortune to be assigned to read the crowd-pleasing line, “Yeah, I boned the limbless lady.” A captivating Ms. Hunt employed all her Shakespearean training to read Chapter 15, “A Dangerous Erection.” Or was it method acting?
After the reading, a persistent young man in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt was insisting that he help direct Ms. Hunt to a yoga class should she desire to attend one in Manhattan. Maybe it was the yogic-themed pendant around her neck that raised his expectations. The bi-coastal actress implied that she preferred not to worry about it while she was here and politely thanked the scruffy young man all the same.
Ms. Hunt explained that she is becoming a writer herself. She is working on a “screenplay,” but does not write with Mr. Carnahan because, she joked, “We would just make out and forget it.” The actress insists that the scene in Mr. Carnahan’s book where the protagonist makes love to the limbless circus freak did not give her pause. “The opposite. I thought it was sexy.”
When asked how he liked Serpent Girl, Mr. Myers replied, “I stand by my blurb,” referring to his back cover endorsement: “(the book) is disturbingly sexy.”