On March 6, dozens of zebra finches were found dead outside the National Arts Club, at 15 Gramercy Park South. They belonged to the club president, O. Aldon James. The ASPCA is investigating the situation, though it’s been suggested that Mr. James was likely responsible for their demise.
“The finches, it was absolutely him,” said Helga S. Orthofer, an artist and former club member. “He did not know what to do with all the birds, and saw he had too many, and, idiot that he is, he let them out in the most horrendous storm.”
Birds have brought Mr. James trouble before. In 2000, renowned biographer and Pulitzer Prize finalist Nancy Milford told New York about Mr. James–a self- professed “bird man” and avid collector–and his problems feeding an endangered infant raptor. While she was staying at the club finishing a biography on Edna St. Vincent Millay (published in 2002), she said, “One night he just opened the window to his bathroom and released the bird, just let it free into Manhattan.”
Shortly after the discovery of the dead finches, the club announced that Mr. James would be going on a “well-deserved vacation.” Many current and former members of the club, some of whom spoke to The Observer on the condition of anonymity, believe the vacation should have come long ago.
The National Arts Club was founded in 1898 with a mission “to stimulate, foster and promote public interest in the arts.” Its members have included three presidents as well as distinguished artists, architects and actors. (Current members include Martin Scorsese, Ethan Hawke, Robert Redford and Uma Thurman.) The club’s building, the Tilden Mansion, erected in the 1840s, houses a public space, where events are hosted, and private apartments for some members. (The Poetry Society of America is also a tenant.) Long regarded as a treasured part of the Gramercy Park community, the club has become, under Mr. James’ presidency, one of Manhattan’s most controversial institutions.
Bizarre stories about the club seem lately to emerge on a monthly basis. In January, hoarding taking place in private suites was exposed by Luis Garcia, Mr. James’ erstwhile assistant, who posted photographs of rooms on the Web site Flickr. There were questions, too, about who occupied the rooms. In January, the local news site DNAinfo reported that Mr. James was offering a reduced rate to a former Mr. India New York, Robert “Bobby” Abit, whom Mr. James was said to introduce as “my pharmacist.” Most recently, former staffers told Gawker that Mr. James had paraded around calling minority employees words like “Japs” and “Tokyo Rose.”
Known for his bow ties (which he likes to refer to as “textile butterflies”), pinstriped suits and rose-tinted glasses, Mr. James is said, according to tax filings, to serve as president without pay–save for a ceremonial $1 a year. Yet, those filings report, he ran up a $37,000 tab for club travel expenses alone. He has occupied a duplex apartment with his twin brother, John James, overlooking Gramercy Park. Former residents of the club who had been members since Mr. James’ arrival told The Observer it might have rented for $8,000 to $12,000 per month; documents from 2008 and 2009 show that Aldon James paid $1,143 a month and John James $356. The president enjoyed hosting parties at the club for his friends–free of charge, according to Ms. Orthofer. Club newsletters captured Mr. James, a chronic name-dropper, in nearly every photo with his arm slung familiarly around celebrities from Anna Wintour to Betty Friedan.
While Mr. James cultivated a glamorous public persona, he indulged his private eccentricities. Club regulars say that the James brothers engage in frequent fistfights, and the president was frequently seen to be injured. “They get into physical fights with each other all around the neighborhood,” said one regular. “Recently, Aldon had his hand and head bandaged. He said he was mugged, but we knew it was them fighting each other again.”
Another former member, who also preferred not to be named, confirmed, “They beat each other up. A friend of mine saw Aldon punching John all over the head. This is not just rumor. Aldon’s father once said, ‘It could have been worse. They could have been triplets.’”
Aldon James is a native of Baltimore whose youthful ambition was to become a physician. He dropped out of Dickinson College in his first year; some claim that the departure followed a nervous breakdown. He’s not known for any significant artistic achievement, though he did supposedly spend his early years appraising antiques. One former member said, “When Aldon became president, we were delighted because he’d never had a profession, so we knew he could spend more time than any of us could.”
In 2000, New York reported Mr. James’ family fortune was built on AT&T stock, though that’s difficult to confirm otherwise, and one family friend who knew Mr. James’ father well said, “AT&T? He probably had one share of stock in it. [Aldon] claims his father was a surgeon at John’s Hopkins! His father was a country doctor. Aldon gets away with lying about his background because so many people exaggerate, and tell stories, but they rarely outright lie. He’s capable of lying about everything.”
Steve Miller, a former member of the club, and the recently retired executive director of the Morris Museum, told The Observer, “We never knew how Aldon became czar of the club. Was it voted? No information was ever available to us.”
Several years ago, Mr. Miller was among a group of members organized as the Concerned Members of the National Arts Club that pushed for greater transparency in the club’s operations. They wanted to see a full list of members, to know about voting procedures and to have some sense of how the club’s funds were being allocated. For instance, though Mr. James was said to serve as president without pay, the group wanted to know if there were other ways he was being compensated. Ultimately, they wanted little more than to be informed of the most basic elements of a club to which they belonged.
Their requests were met with hostile resistance. “Aldon went after me and suspended my membership,” Mr. Miller said, “and I have no idea why. It was fine; I went on to join a more prestigious club. But I still remember walking into the club and he’d be standing on the staircase shouting epithets at me, screaming things like, ‘We’ve got you figured out!’ I’d just look at him and think, ‘You are crazy.’”