[EDITOR’S NOTE: With this article, Orb introduces a new writer who will, for the time being, be using the nom de plume Bergotte. We hope you like this fresh voice and point of view. If so, please let us know.]
Last Thursday, I made it my business to attend the memorial for the American fashion designer Scaasi, who created elaborate gowns for social creatures and celebrities and first ladies for over half a century. His long-time partner, now husband of three years, Parker Ladd, presided from the front pew of St. Bartholomew’s, the grand byzantine Episcopal edifice on Park Avenue across from the Waldorf.
En route from the subway, I passed the large group of homeless people the church takes care of; turning the corner on Park, I saw the remnants of New York Society walk up the steps and, with the care that age requires, proceed into St. Bart’s. It was a well-preserved and perfectly coiffed and dressed group, faces planed to perfection.
Truth to tell, it should probably have been held in the smaller chapel of the church; 150 people really dissolve in a place that size. But, as Tracy said about Hepburn in Pat and Mike, “There’s not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce.” This crowd was cherce. Elizabeth Peabody, Yanna Avis, Jonathan Marder, Amy Fine Collins, Susan Gutfreund, Iris Love, like that.
The best speaker was Stan Herman, also a renowned fashion designer for decades. He told of how he and Scaasi (born Arnold Isaacs) had been roommates, and how Arnold described him as “his first boyfriend.” When, in the dark ages (the 1950s), Stan was arrested on the charge of soliciting an undercover cop, Arnold was the one to come to bail him out. “Was he cute?” was the first thing he asked.
The anomaly of the former Mr. Isaacs being memorialized at St. Bartholomew’s, one of the pinnacles of WASPdom in New York, was delineated by Mr. Herman. A half century before, when Stan had tried to become a Broadway singer, Arnold went to an audition and told him that he would never succeed, as he couldn’t be heard. So very loudly, clearly, and, it must be said, beautifully, Stan Herman belted out the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, into the basilica.
Barbara Taylor Bradford O.B.E. told a very long story about herself, Scaasi, Baroness Sandy di Portanova, the history of Houston Texas, and a birthday cake. I thought we might lose some the truly elderly before it ended. She, and some of the other ladies, had astonishingly youthful voices; that can buy a woman 10 years.
Liz Smith, one of Scaasi’s closest friends, and associated with him for years with Literacy Partners, spoke of how difficult he could be – a truth universally acknowledged. “He Who Must Be Obeyed” was how she put it. Liz was set to be the final speaker at the memorial, but instead introduced an unlisted speaker, “the woman Arnold felt closest to in the world”, and whose name was on his lips as he passed, Gayfryd Steinberg, widow of the corporate raider Saul Steinberg.
Mrs. Steinberg, dressed in white and softer, chicer, and more beautiful than in her social heyday, spoke movingly of her friend and mentor of 30 years standing. Her emotional final passages were the other height of the afternoon (along with Stan Herman’s comments). She had been perhaps his best customer and advertisement during the Nouvelle Society ‘80s, but “when my life took a turn, with the illness of my husband, I could no longer be the customer I had once been.” Scaasi didn’t care a whit; he maintained their close friendship in the bad times as well as the good.
Being at a memorial at that beautiful place set my Proustian heart aflutter with remembrances of funerals past. I have “covered” many, if not most, of the interesting farewells to New York notables since the mid ‘70s; I consider it my duty as an amateur historian and social observer.
In that very church I went, in 1981, to the funeral of Elsie Woodward, who died at 98. It was held in the side chapel, making it look very well attended. She was a central figure in a huge New York scandal, in which her daughter-in-law, a former showgirl, “accidentally” shot Elsie’s son. Elsie stood up for the woman, Ann Woodward, to preserve the family. Ann later killed herself when the story was told in Truman Capote’s “Answered Prayers” excerpts in Esquire. The only mention of this notorious series of events at the protagonist’s funeral was the officiating minister’s statement that “she faced adversity with great courage.” Indeed.
I sat with a lovely petite elderly grande dame named Nin Ryan. Mrs. Ryan did not know that I knew that she was the daughter of Otto Kahn, had been brought up in a palace on Fifth Avenue which is now the Convent of the Sacred Heart school, and had Enrico Caruso serenade her at her debut, c.1917, when the fee of $10,000 really meant something. Nin and I discussed our mutual memories of Elsie, mine gleaned from the tabloids.
St. Bart’s was also the scene of Lillian Gish’s funeral in 1993; she too had almost hit the century mark. Douglas Fairbanks JR. and Irene Worth spoke. I remembered Bette Davis’s comment when the two were filming The Whales of August: “Of course she does a great close-up – the bitch invented the close-up.”
Miss Gish had been a devoted parishioner, and many of the attendees (such as Teresa Wright, Malcolm McDowell, and Lauren Hutton) had known her. Many more came to see the remains of the theater and movie world. Speaking of remains, St. Bart’s is the final resting place of both Gish sisters, Lillian and Dorothy, as well as their mother Mary. What is more glamorous than having a Park Avenue address for eternity?
Yet another great funeral in this exquisite sanctuary was Malcolm Forbes’s in 1990, attended by Tout New York and everywhere else. The mourners ranged from Elizabeth Taylor to Richard Nixon, who was seated within spitting distance of his nemesis Katherine Graham. Her stalwart support of her reporters and editors at The Washington Post had speeded the premature demise of his presidency. No fists flew on this occasion.
I ended up sitting down front with some of Forbes’s biker friends, clad in motorcycle funeral attire. A suspicion I had always harbored was confirmed: yes, they all had B.O. Malcolm went out with a bang.
All in all, you have to admit St. Bart’s is a swell place for a big sendoff. When Liza sings, “When I go, I’m going like Elsie,” she might mean Elsie Woodward.