Remembering Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs passed away on April 25 in Toronto, at the age of 89—and her legacy as a writer and activist will be felt in New York enduringly. From her seminal 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, to her legendary battles with developer Robert Moses, Jacobs had a profound effect on urban planning, both locally and globally.
“Basically, she’s a New Yorker, and part of that breed of New Yorkers—often Villagers, often women—who have challenged both development and the conventional thinking of government,” said Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society. “I remember at one meeting she grabbed the microphone out of an official’s hand. It was a brand of activism on behalf of the urban fabric that nobody had ever contemplated.”
“I think what Jane Jacobs showed is that people understand cities and that human beings have participated in building their own settlements for millions of years,” said Mr. Barwick. “Wisdom does not reside only with professionals.”
“Well, her influence goes beyond New York City,” said Paul Goldberger, architecture critic and Parsons dean. “She was one of the most influential people in the world. A lot of her ideas—which seemed radical 40-plus years ago when The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written—are now part of the common wisdom.”
“Like all great prophets, people did things in her name that she did not approve,” said Mr. Goldberger. “They were simplistic fundamentalists. She was a fresh observer. Cities were organic, living, changing things.”
“She was one of a number of women who were writing books that were changing the world,” said journalist Alice Sparberg Alexiou, author of the forthcoming biography Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary. “Betty Friedan’s book came out, too. Rachel Carson came out with her book. These women took on these huge subjects. She was a real pioneer.”
“She has been a friend for over 30 years,” said Roberta Brandes Gratz, journalist and author of several books on cities. “On a human level, she celebrated the interchange of neighbors on the street. In her own life, I would sit with her on her porch in Toronto. She was as much of the humanist as her writing about cities reflected.”
“The Lower Manhattan Expressway would have been one of the great destructive acts in the history of New York,” said Mr. Goldberger. “How could anyone but a madman have advocated that?”
“She was a giant slayer,” said Ms. Gratz. “If it were not for Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses would have sliced up New York with more highways and interventions than I could imagine. She was the David to his Goliath.”
So Bill Buckley Walks Out of an Elevator ….
“Bill!” someone yelled when the elevator doors slid open and William F. Buckley Jr., in his red-and-blue-striped tie, stepped out onto the second floor of the Union League Club. Swarms of men rushed to greet the founder of the National Review. Most of them needed to reintroduce themselves.
“I got a funny story for you,” said a balding man in a pinstriped suit to Mr. Buckley. “So the ship gets trapped in the Northwest Passage to the Bering Sea, the Canadian Coast Guard tells him to turn back. He calls up the old premier. And the Canadian says, ‘Alright, sir, go right ahead!’”
Mr. Buckley turned his red, razor-burned cheeks up to the ceiling and offered a burst of laughter. He excused himself to talk to a priest. It turned out the priest, too, was telling jokes. “Adam and Eve are being driven from Eden, and Adam turns to Eve and says, ‘My dear, we live in a time of transition.’”
There is perhaps no greater trinity of clues that one is mixing in a wealthy conservative crowd than references to boating, religion and William F. Buckley Jr. On the afternoon of April 21, the old guard had come out for the sixth annual William E. Simon Foundation awards. The $250,000 prizes, imagined as a sort of Nobel Prize in philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, were named after the businessman and 63rd Secretary of the Treasury, who served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
This year’s recipients were top conservative philanthropists Richard and Helen DeVos and Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the presiding matriarch of America’s Democratic dynasty, for her founding of the Special Olympics.
“I don’t think there are any ideological prisms on this,” Mr. Buckley said of the political chasm between the two honorees. He also noted that “most of them are right-wingers in that room.”
That room was full of two dozen or so round tables, all covered in white cloth and set with plates full of filet mignon and snow peas, glass bowls brimming with raspberries and blueberries, and trays of cookies frosted pink and cut in the shape of the Easter bunny.
On the right side of the room, under a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, sat Dan Mahoney, who was last between these walls to talk rifles with a Vatican Swiss Guard (“I was interested in their armory”) and who would return that same night to attend the 25th anniversary of The Dartmouth Review (“I was a red hot Dartmouthite”). On the other side of the room sat Emily Ernsdorf, a blond and tanned 24-year-old who runs the Simon Foundation’s “Sound Body Sound Mind” program, which builds fitness facilities in Los Angeles schools. (Soundly, she ate only half her steak.) Between them, Everett Raymond Kinstler, the portrait painter, insisted that he never does lunch (“My mistress is daylight”) but was making an exception for the Simon family, as he had painted William Simon nine times. (“I told him that they get cheaper by the dozen.”)
Mr. Buckley sat at table in front of the podium, leafing through The Harvard Ichthus, “a journal of Christian thought.” Ms. Shriver, dressed in a powder blue jacket and white pants, sat at the adjacent table, chewing an Easter cookie.
On the way to his seat, Mr. DeVos, the 80-year-old but still spry founder of Amway, a multi-billion dollar company built on the back of an all-purpose cleaner, stopped to consider what made him most proud in his long career.
“I’m proud of my wife that she insisted that we tithe,” said Mr. DeVos, in a down-home Michigan accent.
“Suggested,” his wife said demurely. She spoke softly and rarely and wore a blue skirt and jacket and carried a white purse with a shimmering clasp made of pearls.
As they crossed the threshold into the dining room, a blond woman named Katie Morris came up to the couple to complain about a man unknown.
“He just had to have the boat,” said Ms. Morris. “It’s a money pit.”
“It always is,” said Mr. DeVos.
“I said, ‘Can I please get the summer house before we get the money pit?’ But he just keeps throwing money at it.”
When everyone took their seats, screens played a brief biographic film about Mr. Simon, who wore Coke-bottle eyeglasses and was called a “captain of industry” and a “warrior.” The muffled sound quality of the film accentuated the tinkling fork tines and knives working on the plates.
After uniformed waiters and waitresses cleared the tables, Mr. and Ms. DeVos stepped to the podium to claim their award, which they bequeathed to social groups, including Jubilee Jobs. During Mr. DeVos’ acceptance speech—“We are all together sinners and yet God uses us to make a difference in the world”—Ms. Shriver feverishly revised her own words with a pencil. She applied red lipstick, which she capped when it was time to clap. Mr. Buckley slipped out of the room before Ms. Shriver climbed to the podium. (“An engagement uptown,” he said.)
Ms. Shriver karate-chopped the lectern with Kennedy flair and spoke in a fiery Boston accent about the “human spirit that knows no boundaries.” She brought the conservative crowd, sans its lion, to its feet.
On Our Honor
Several things became evident throughout the course of the evening of Tuesday, April 18, at the PEN Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History. One was that Diane Sawyer looks damn good for her age—she was the evening’s master of ceremonies and was beaming down from the podium dressed all in white, sort of like those glowing old people in that movie Cocoon. Another was that the PEN invite is clearly a hard one to turn down; everyone seemed to be present, milling around the museum’s foyer, from the ubiquitous Salman Rushdie (does he ever stay home?) to the recluses (Jonathan Franzen).
And a third is that sometimes, navigating a room full of fancy literary types celebrating freedom of expression can be its own perilous task.
When The Transom finally located its table—No. 57 beneath the big blue whale—most of the others were already seated, staring into dinner salads that featured electric orange poached pears. After a few introductions, the “Guest Writer” at the table, a poet named Honor Moore, leaned over with narrowed eyes.
“Oh!” she huffed across the table, a knot of gold beads quivering at her neck. “I had an awful experience with The New York Observer!”
Ms. Moore recounted an extremely long, convoluted headline verbatim (it had the word “lesbian” in it, and pertained to Ms. Moore’s 1996 book, The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by Her Granddaughter), which The Observer had printed 10 years ago. Ms. Moore was not happy. However, that was not to last long, as she had to attend to the boy-novelist who served as her date.
The young man, whose name is Bryan Charles, looked to be in his early 20’s and wore cute chunky glasses and a preppy-formal jacket and tie. He said that he and Ms. Moore had met at the MacDowell Colony for Artists, in New Hampshire, and that she’d invited him to the PEN gala at the last minute, part of an offer to shepherd him around New York literary society. Mr. Charles’ first novel is coming out in June, called Grab On to Me Tightly As If I Knew the Way. He claimed to be unsophisticated in the ways of the New York publishing scene and seemed grateful for the attention from his well-connected mentor. When Ms. Sawyer appeared on the stage, Mr. Charles gasped and described her as “a fox.” At one point his patron gripped his arm and turned to The Transom. “Do you know that he has a novel coming out?” she asked.
Toward the end of the presentations, Rakhim Esenov, a novelist and journalist from Turkmenistan, climbed onto the stage to receive a 2006 Freedom to Write Award. The audience was informed, via a short documentary film, that only one book is legal in Turkmenistan, and that one was written by Saparmurat Niyazov, the country’s president for life. Mr. Esenov had been accused by the Turkmen government of smuggling 800 copies of his own banned novel in from Russia, and has alternately spent time in prison and under surveillance. He is suffering severe health problems; when he appeared before the crowd, the room got quiet.
Once the ceremony was over, however, most of the attendees bolted from their seats before one could say the words “crème brûlée with raspberries.” As The Transom made for the exit as well, Mr. Charles could be seen in a corner, still hovering dutifully at Ms. Moore’s side.
“Women can always show their shoulders because they never gain weight there,” said Donna Karan on April 20 to 400 or so fashion-design students at Parsons, her alma mater. She was explaining her “cold shoulder” dress, named for cutouts at the shoulders. “I thought this was a genius idea,” she said of the design, which was first panned by critics then donned by Liza Minelli and Hillary Clinton.
Ms. Karan sat at a square red lacquer table in the corner of a stage in Tishman Auditorium, legs crossed, her arms folded across her lap. Parsons dean Paul Goldberger, who interviewed her on stage, had been glad to announce prior to the lecture Ms. Karan’s gift to Parsons: an undisclosed sum of money upward of $2.5 million for a new professorship toward a graduate fashion-design program.
Ms. Karan ruminated on topics like her difficulty learning languages and her annoyance at winter window displays of spring clothes.
“This makes minus, minus, minus, minus sense to me,” she said. “Drives. Me. Crazy.”
She called her daughter, Gabby, her toughest critic.
“When she goes out and wears Chloé, I get really annoyed,” she said.
The floor opened to audience questions and a tall, skinny young man took the mike. He identified himself as a Paul Andrews intern, in collection shoes.
“I don’t know if you remember me, Donna,” he began.
“I do. How are you?” she replied.
“I’m doing good.”
“You did those marvelous leather jackets, didn’t you?”
Affirmative! The intern said he had seen a flier for the night’s event and wanted to come by to give Ms. Karan some stuff he’s made. He brought a brown paper shopping bag up to the stage. Ms. Karan rifled through it.
“Oh, totally cool. Oh, that is so cool,” she said and held up black beads strung together in connected loops.
“Did you make this? Oh, where did you get this?” she said. Next was a geometric black sleeveless wrap top. She put it on.
“That is so cool,” she said. “There’s modernity!”
She quickly removed the garment, realizing it muffled her microphone.
After the lecture a gaggle of designer wannabes surrounded Ms. Karan at the foot of the stage. Parsons graduate and graphic designer David Greg Harth brought his art project: a Bible signed by public figures, including Tony Blair, Muhammad Ali and David Bowie. Mr. Harth started collecting signatures in 1997 and will continue until 2017. He plans to display the pages in an art gallery or museum. Ms. Karan gladly penned her autograph perched on the edge of the stage.
“What a good idea!” she said.
What was Ms. Karan’s favorite look for spring? “I’m wearing it,” she said, swishing her loose below-the-knee see-through black dress of meshy fabric with oh-so-fashionable side pockets. She wore black tights underneath that ended below the knee—only visible if her dress lifted. She covered her shoulders with a light shrug made of brown suede tied in front with an inoffensive black bow.
For colors, she “loves everything off,” like navy with black, black with white, or red with black. And she said sunglasses “have to fit well.”
“I personally like sunglasses that are more north-south. Everybody likes east-west, but I don’t like the east-west ones that are like goggles,” she said. “You know, you want to feel comfortable in the glasses—they have to be a part of you.”
Her unpolished toes hanging over well-heeled black platform sandals tied around her ankles with black bands, Ms. Karan said those new super-high heels aren’t for her.
“They look great on the runway,” she said. “People who can wear them—God bless them.”
And unlike the stiffs at Burberry or H&M, Ms. Karan said she would use a model caught on tape snorting lines.
“I think we all go through our challenges in life, and I think facing them and dealing with them is brilliant. I have no judgments,” she said.
—Amy L. Odell