This Ding-a-ling Culture Values Warhol and Time

With Memorial Day, summer officially begins, more or less. If normal patterns hold, most systems will blast off this coming weekend, then June will be a kind of phony war, followed by the Verdun of July, the Passchendaele of August, with the dese-but-never-“please” brigade making a Balaklava-like final charge on the redoubts of decorum over Labor Day. All in all, a heartening prospect.

I was looking forward with relish to the coming summer, if only because it would provide a further opportunity to record the adventures and philosophical deliberations of Artie Gimlet, a late 30-ish bond and derivatives trader in whom some see a late 20th-century Barry Lyndon.

I encountered him quite by chance last July 4 at the American Hotel. People seemed to enjoy reading about Artie. Many said they knew Arties of their own, and variously identified him with Wall Streeters of personal acquaintance, publishers of weekly newspapers and other media figures, and at least half to three-quarters of the guest list at any Alice Mason dinner party. At least one friend accused me of an intergenerational transsexual switch, and claimed that Artie’s prototype was for sure a woman who aspires to be a landmark of Hamptons society, an aspiration which, in this chronicler’s opinion, is based on the illusion that there is, any longer, any such thing. This is the time of year that clubs circulate lists of proposed new members for comment, and I am told by those in the know that this year the lists really do look like a Bear Stearns broker’s commission book or a Madame Claude alumna roster. This gives teeth to what one club person of my acquaintance advocates: “If we are going to have these awful people standing in line next to us at the grill,” this person said, “let’s at least auction off the new membership slots to the highest bidders and use the money to fix up the lounge. After all, since all these people have to offer is their money, why not make them compete on their merits? Why should the Van Rensselaers be the only ones to make out financially for getting them in? Why not the rest of us? I’m not asking to be flown around in the private jet, or even to be invited to the salmon camp, but a decent sofa would be nice!”

An interesting thought, one that I intended to ask Artie about since he once said to me at Patroon, exhaling a great fat cloud of Cohiba vapor and studying the soft play of candlelight in the amber depths of a beaker of $100-a-shot single malt, “Great thing, you know, America being a meritocracy. I mean, it makes it possible for guys like me to, you know, hang out with anybody we want so long as we got the price.”

I meant to ask him “the price of what?” but forgot, and now I can’t locate Artie. Something terrible has happened. My friend has disappeared! Gone up in smoke (like the exhaust from a No. 4 Partagas, he would want it said), just like that! And on the very cusp of summer! And just after Artie scored what was surely going to be hailed as a truly envy-provoking, cutting-edge, Hamptons-summer-of -’98 life-style coup by trading in his Range Rover and his 600-series Mercedes plus $30,000 cash for a matched pair of chrome Volkswagen Beetles, he has vanished!

Rumor reports that he disappeared somewhere between Ascot Chang and the Shinnecock Canal. But that’s a vast territory, an immense psycho-societal swamp. We’re talking literally thousands and thousands of acres: the very waist of Long Island, that plump belt of aspiration, resentment and insecurity that stretches from, say, Huntington in the north through Massapequa in the middle to the Five Towns on the south shore, and is bounded to the west by Queens Boulevard and to the east by the Tanger Mall in Riverhead.

As you’d expect with someone as well known and loved as Artie Gimlet, gossip concerning his fate and whereabouts is coming from every direction. Some say he was arrested in Cedarhurst on a charge of cutting too close to the bone, and sentenced to a summer of community service as a towel boy in the gin rummy room of a Hewlett beach club. Others say he stopped on his way to the Hamptons at a diner near the Robert Moses turnoff, where he was overheard advocating to a hapless waitress that what you see on The Charlie Rose Show and read in Time should be taken seriously. Since anyone making such representations is obviously drunk or dangerously deranged, one group of wary patrons called 911, another called nearby Pilgrim Psychiatric Center; the guys in the white coats and the police arrived simultaneously; there was a brief jurisdictional dispute in which the former prevailed; and Artie is currently said to be held incommunicado in the funny farm for observation. He’s even rumored to have been spotted in Westchester County, in some place like Pelham, although to a chap with Artie’s ambitions, the very thought of the Whitestone Bridge is what a cross is to a vampire. Most dire of all is an unconfirmed report that a pair of Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers embroidered with the crest of the Brook Club and the initials “AG” has been found abandoned at the ferry dock in Sayville. This has given rise to the nastiest sort of Fire Island speculation, gossip of a kind which this writer, personally, won’t even dignify with comment.

For the moment, there’s nothing I can do for Artie. Believe me, I’d like to help the guy. I’ve been making calls on his behalf. We’ll just have to see. I take some comfort in the fact that, so far, my friend’s disappearance hasn’t been linked to either Viagra or Seinfeld . My hunch is that he’ll turn up, although perhaps not in his old haunts.

Anyway, away with frivolity, which has no place in a forum concerned not with the social pifflery of an Arthur Gimlet and his circle, but with truly life-altering matters of society, culture and existence–such as where Harvey Weinstein was last Wednesday, or what’s become of “Morty.” Where truth-seekers of the Balzacian kidney can read serious, illuminating fiction like my colleague Joe Conason’s brilliant Washington roman à clef , Public Places, Private Parts , or Richard Mellon Scaife Is a Dick , which we have been serializing on the Op-Ed page.

For example, in separate sections of Newsday recently, I came across two quotes that make an interesting juxtaposition. The first was from an excellent profile by Becky Aikman of a 30-ish editor at Harper Collins: “It’s not enough for me if a book is great. I have to have some conviction that it will actually sell.”

Then there was this, as reported by Jack Matthews, whose film writing I always find top rank. The quote comes from Mike Nichols, whose Primary Colors opened the Cannes Film Festival (out of competition). Mr. Nichols, I should mention, is about the same age I am: “There was a time when [what people wanted to know was] ‘Was the movie any good?’ not ‘How did it do the first weekend?’ You may have read about those times. They were happy times. And for us, it’s important to re-create those times in making our own choices.”

The juxtaposition needs no elaboration from me. Mr. Nichols’ point was underscored by the artistic success of Frank Sinatra, who leaves a legacy that would not be a tenth of what it will eternally be if the man had not made his own choices. Sinatra was not one to be guided by focus groups. Nor was Larry David, who wrote and oversaw Seinfeld for eight of its nine years. The show was not as good this past year as in seasons previous, mainly, in my opinion, because it had come under the creative control of a 30-ish generation, many from Harvard, contemporaries of the young editor (a Yale man, I am abashed–but not surprised–to have to admit), who never “got” what made the show funny because humor, as judgmental a form of communication as we know, requires context, and education today provides none.

Recently, some meathead, an institutional or individual collector, paid $17.3 million for Andy Warhol’s Orange Marilyn . If any aspect of this transaction will cause comment 20 years from now, I will bet that it will be the idiocy of the price, rather than the quality of the art, because by then we will see Warhol for the artistic mediocrity he is, and this purchase for the dumb buy it was. Vivid embodiment of the standards of a sociocultural order in which the experience of art is a function of mouth and purse and the esteem of centimillionaires rather than of eye and soul and self-respect.

On the other hand, the received or conventional wisdom of the moment, especially if enunciated by dealers with closets full of Warhols or curators with reputations to protect, will applaud the purchase. Warhol is currently a brand name, and in a know-nothing, lists-conscious mass market, brand names sell, and what sells becomes a brand name. People who know nothing will only buy what they are told is safe, or what they see other people buying. In a market society, the most heeded advice as to what to buy is usually given by people who themselves have something to sell, often more of the same. Still, I would not like to be the one to have woken up on a recent Friday morning with the realization that I had forked over 17 big ones of my own or someone else’s money for a tricked-up silk-screen in an art market that displays all the taste and discrimination of a grunion run.

On the other hand, there is this consolation. If he wasn’t locked away in Far Rockaway or Melville or Smithtown or wherever he is, Artie Gimlet might have been the underbidder on the Warhol. Comfort is as comfort does.

This Ding-a-ling Culture Values Warhol and Time