Fernanda Eberstadt’s Park Ave Childhood: Warhol, JFK, Camels

Earlier this month, The Observer reported that octogenarian photographer Fredrick Eberstadt–he’s also a psychotherapist, poet Ogden Nash’s son-in-law, and Gore Vidal’s pal–had sold his longtime apartment at 791 Park Avenue for $6.7 million. His novelist daughter, Fernanda Eberstadt, just sent along memories of the pistachio-colored place. (Note to Wes Anderson: Option this for a film.)

My parents’ apartment at 791 Park Avenue was on the second floor, dark and cavernous. They bought it in 1959, and they lived there forty-seven years–an ice age, in Manhattan terms. For forty-seven years, they talked about moving somewhere bright and airy, with outdoor gardens and glorious views. They shopped for penthouses on the East River and palaces in Mexico and India. But they never did move, so instead they redecorated the apartment endlessly. (My father finally moved out this fall, after my mother died.)

When I was a child, there was a gold Andy Warhol Marilyn in the living room and an alabaster statue of a panther from a Greek temple. The dining room walls were covered in pistachio-green velvet, and paneled in eighteenth-century French wallpaper of Oriental pagodas and turbaned natives riding camels. There was also a real-life camel–a four-foot, wooden statue of a cigar-store camel that children were told in vain not to ride on.

I was born in 1960. When I was little, there was an enormous fire-engine-red chintz sofa in the living room–so enormous that when it arrived, it had to be lifted into the apartment through the living room window by cranes, since it wouldn’t fit in the elevator. Behind it, a high red lacquer table. My blissful childhood memories are of hoisting myself up onto the table and doing flying somersaults down into the sofa. There was another table covered in a heavy floor-length, dark-green table-cloth. I had a fort under the table, complete with flashlight, books, pillow, a stash of candy, and I used to hide there, reading, and eavesdropping on the grownups’ conversations.

The most famous party my parents gave was in 1962. It was a costume party. They moved out all the furniture and brought in a reggae band, and Jacqueline Kennedy, who was then First Lady, came to the party, with a lot of Secret Service men, and everybody danced till dawn, when they were served bacon and eggs. Unfortunately, I was too little to attend.

But funnily enough, my first memory of Park Avenue also involves the Kennedys, and like lots of first memories, it’s flawed. I am standing outside our building with my nanny. Both sides of Park Avenue have been emptied of traffic, because President Kennedy is riding by, on his way to the Carlyle Hotel. We wait for hours. Finally, President Kennedy appears. He is riding a big black motorcycle, and he pulls over to the curb to say hello to my nanny. Later, my brother, who is five years older, told me it was actually a cop in the presidential cortege, and not JFK himself.

791 was a magical realm. In the nineties and two-thousands, after my brother and I had each long left New York and had our own families, the grandchildren all begged to be taken back to visit. My daughter Maud fell in love with the same room that entranced me as a child: my mother’s dressing-room, in which even the doors were mirrored, so that you could enclose yourself in a triangular glass corridor of infinite reflection. Through one mirrored door, a walk-in closet the size of most people’s bedrooms, where you could try on my mother’s white leather Courreges mini-dresses, her velvet brocade Fortuny tunics, her sequined stilettos.

Inside that apartment, some of whose windows had been walled over and where the lights were always dim, you had no sense of night and day.

As for the outside street, Park Avenue itself always seemed too mineral, too grey, too mausoleum-like. As a kid, it seemed to me you had to go a long way to get anywhere fun. When I was a teenager, I was embarrassed about living on such a notoriously expensive street and used to tell friends who didn’t know the East Side well that I lived “between Lexington and Madison.”

Nowadays, Park Avenue seems even richer, but still dull. A lot duller since my mother died, and my father moved away.