Byline: Aileen Mehle
God bless America — and Americans with a lot of money. Without them, every cultural institution in this country and almost every other country would wither and die. Rich Americans with kind hearts, boundless pockets and a deep desire to support, preserve and maintain beauty and the arts and humanities all over the world are to be lauded and praised for their generosity. It’s so tacky — and so over — to bitch the rich.
Those very rich Americans, Mercedes and Sid Bass, love the American Academy in Rome and are its chief supporters. This is where such alumni as the architects Michael Graves and Richard Meier, artist Chuck Close and such intellectuals as Billie Tsien, Wendy Evans Joseph and the beautiful Adele Chatfield-Taylor, the president of the Academy, have pursued studies and research in idyllic, sylvan surroundings where Mercedes herself has even planted a tree or two in the gardens she has sponsored. Its board of trustees includes not only Mercedes and Adele but such worthies as Marella Agnelli, Academy chairman Michael Sovern, David Childs, Dr. Paul LeClerc of The New York Public Library, Agnes Gund of the Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Henry J. (Drue) Heinz 2nd, Barbara Goldsmith and Andrew Heiskell — no small potatoes in that tow sack.
Every year, the trustees give a big black-tie dinner, this year at Cipriani 42nd Street, the great landmark marble hall that once was the Bowery Bank of yore, where if your mind wanders from the speakers — it happens — you can count the soaring Corinthian columns. Every year, Mercedes and Sid host the grand party, and nobody does it better, with Mercedes planning the menu, the flowers, the music, the whole risotto. And every year, there are honored guests who are outstanding in their fields. This year, Jacob Lord Rothschild, the noted British preservationist, received the Centennial Medal presented to him by one Mayor Michael Bloomberg of NYC who was in rare form. The mayor twitted the lord for a moment or two — he was pretty funny — but flung out the compliments when he hung the medal on him. Others honored were the Hon. Corinne Boggs, our former ambassador to the Holy See, and J. Carter Brown, the director emeritus of the National Gallery of Art. You could hear them make their speeches in person as well as on a giant screen — a double whammy.
Everyone there was perfumed and barbered and dressed to kill — or at least maim — and, as almost ever, the vast room was a sea of black. It might as well not be spring. Adele was looking super-chic in black. Mercedes wore a ravishing black Balmain and an antique diamond choker. Beatrice Santo Domingo wore black couture. So did Jayne Wrightsman, Jane (Mrs. Michael) Eisner, Alexa Hampton-Papageorgiou, Katherine Bryan and Lally Weymouth. Brooke Astor didn’t wear black but she did wear her pearls and a little fur jacket. One of the most beautiful dresses in the room was a white silk Balmain buttoned down the front worn by Annette de la Renta, very nicely designed for her by her husband, Oscar. You would have loved it.
And this is just an itty-bitty sample of who was in the crowd: The eminent (and terminally lovable) playwright John Guare, who is also Adele Chatfield-Taylor’s husband; Lauren and John Veronis; Anna Wintour and Shelby Bryan; Shelby White; Doda Voridis; Nancy and Henry Kissinger; David Rockefeller; Marie-Josee and Henry Kravis; Barbara Goldsmith; Patricia Sovern; Evelyn Lauder; Paula Root; Jamie Niven; George McFadden; John Dobkin; Liz Mezzacappa; Freddie Melhado; Princess Firyal of Jordan and Lionel Pincus; Janet Ruttenberg; John Richardson; Boaz Mazor; Dr. Judith Ginsberg, and last, but never least, Ezra and Cecile Zilkha, who is known as the First Lady of the Met, as in opera. She raised close to $2 million at the grand gala, Onstage at the Met, which she just masterminded down to the last balloon. Read all about it here on Friday.
Meanwhile, a friend who knew Maria Felix, Mexico’s ultimately seductive diva, who died in her sleep on the eve of her 88th birthday in her lavish digs in Mexico, has this to say about the torrid beauty: “It [her death] was the day Mexico stood still. The heat Maria Felix gave off launched a thousand rumors, which were just so much guacamole. But just picture this woman in pre-Castro Havana in 1955 — Cadillacs with fins — crocodile handbags with matching sandals — “the Mexican panther” as the French called her — in pure white starched linen with a blood-red linen shawl draped around her strong shoulders, her eyes flashing, her curly black mane catching the breeze. Who could blame the bus driver for swerving into the wrong lane when he saw Maria going into ‘La Casa Quintana’ to buy jewels paid for by one of her five husbands? And speaking of things that sparkle — what rocks she had. Talk to me, Harry Winston! Cartier! Tiffany! Could Maria collect jewels? Can Asian tots play the violin? Hello! Or in this case, Hola!”
My favorite story about Maria was the one they used to tell about her in Deauville when she was at her peak. She loved men as much as they loved her. One day a handsome room service waiter came to her hotel room to serve her breakfast. He didn’t get out of there alive for three days. And that’s no guacamole.