It was 1982 in New York City. I was working as a secretary at Wells Rich Greene in the sales promotion department. Mary Wells Lawrence was the chairman of this agency. Mary was married to Harding Lawrence CEO of Braniff. It was her idea to paint the planes and dub them the “Flying colors”.
The Pucci “Airstrip” was her idea, too. Stewardesses started off in long pant suits and ended up in sassy, bootiliscious hot pants, mini skirts and go-go boots upon landing. She also coined the classic Alka Seltzer jingle, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” …
…along with the Benson & Hedges “Cigarette Break,” a campaign that demonstrated the extra long length of the ciggies by having them burn holes through newspapers as businessmen held them up in front of themselves as they read or have them break as a result of a hippie’s necklace.
She was an ad legend. Creative guru. The first Mad Woman and could beat the pants off of any Mad Man alive.
I met her because her daughter was in my sorority in college, and who is still a very dear friend – stunningly beautiful, inside and out. When her mom, Mary, came for initiation I bossed her around the Theta house.
“No smoking in the house please and please put it out. You can’t come into the chapter room with a cigarette.”
I had no idea who she was.
I later found out from her assistant that she loved my moxie. Every one in her steed kissed her behind, daily. I am guessing my naïve, forthright manner amused her, as she was used to people kowtowing to her. Me? Not a kowtowing cell in my body.
After an internship in Dallas that Mary offered me and an SMU interterm in NYC at her agency during which I had made connections, I packed a bag and jetted off to find my fortune in the Big Apple. So here I was working for her, Mary Wells Lawrence, on the 28th floor of the GM building, right across from The Plaza and Central Park.
One day she called me down to her office. I was scared I was getting fired. One too many days showing late. Or maybe I had insulted one of her staff from her South of France villa, Fiorentina, that she brought over to work at the agency.
One in particular named Gumersindo seemed to be perpetually perturbed by me as I would every Monday like clockwork forget to turn on my boss’s lunch order that was wheeled in on a lunch trolley for him every day.
But here’s the rub: he (my boss) would always go out to Madison Ave to eat at a French cafe so he gave his catered lunch to me. I would sit at his desk and gaze out across Central Park from my bosses corner office on the 28th floor of the GM building. So in effect he was upset at ME for forgetting to turn in what would be MY lunch order.
During the Fall, the leaves would turn colors in Central Park and I could see a breathtaking view from my boss’s office, a corner office…the scene was brilliant and simply unforgettable, the Park awash with a tapestry of burnt orange, red and gold.
I took all of this utter fabulousness in as I ate with anxiety for fear of being discovered by Gumersindo, should he come back to fetch my boss’s lunch tray and scold me like a naughty child.
But back to my being called down to Mary’s office. I was not being fired. Au contraire. I was being extended an invitation to a Valentine’s Day party that would be honoring Prince Albert of Monaco.
Her assistant told us it would be casual. Great no problem. Back in those days, casual meant a little silk dress and pearls. A vestige left over from my sorority days.
So the night before, I just couldn’t sleep. I was so excited about meeting Prince Albert of Monaco. I had seen him around the agency, as Mary employed all of her client’s kids as interns as summer interns and now, her neighbors in the South of France. The Prince was about to be a Senior at Amherst.
I had seen him flash down the stairs and past my secretarial station a few times. I was shaking in my cowgirl boots! I was told that we’d get limos to pick up us.
As fate would have it, it snowed the night before. February in Manhattan can be treacherous. So at 6:30 sharp up pulls a limo. We didn’t have cell phones in that day so I think I clomped down the eight flights of stairs in my black patent leather Ferragamo flats (especially slippery on the cold, marble stairs) to the front door and waited, shivering behind the glass-paned door. I was wearing a hot pink Talbots dress with a high neckline and a sash at the waist. A string of pearls (of course) and thin white hose, as was the fashion back then. So up pulls the limo. I gingerly make my way in my size 10 Italian boats across the sheet of ice that had formed and over the huge snow banks and into the limo. Next to me sat State Lawrence, Harding’s son.
“Next stop, Park avenue. Albert Grimaldi, ” State said.
Hmm, now why does that name sound familiar? I just couldn’t place it but I was certain I knew it. We pull up to a tan Park avenue brownstone.
Then it clicked: PRINCE Albert Grimaldi…the Prince! Prince Albert!
Of course! He got in and was quietly pleasant, but not your typical over-friendly (sometimes annoying) Texas kind of guy. No smile how are you, my name is…nice to meet you. He just sort of nodded to State, with whom I had quite a spirited convo with on the way to Park Avenue. Albert, the Prince, was wearing a light blue jacket and was very distinguished. I then played the Texas Do-You-Know-Game, i.e. where do you work, where did you go to school, etc.? For some reason Goldman Sachs came up and I asked him if he knew some guy, the name of whom I can’t remember. He didn’t know him.
Silence….and more silence, so much so that it hurt.
We inched along like we were in a funeral procession as we approached our final destination, Mary’s penthouse on East End Avenue. Inside there would be no caskets – only those who were shining and electrically alive.
When we arrived, there was a long line of limos in front of the building. When we got into the elevator, we stood appropriate distances apart, observing only the most conservative of personal space boundaries.
As the doors opened, I was puzzled. There was no front door. It just opened up, right up into, the penthouse. Mary was standing at the door, greeting and hugging everyone. The first thing I see is an amazing painting or etching by Picasso or some famous artist. Pan left and there she is, Mary Wells Lawrence dressed in a shimmering gold short dress, a shiff.
She greets me with a glowing smile and a hug. She welcomes me inside and after a few pleasantries, I hear, “Lisa, will you please introduce Cecelia around the party.” Who? Cecila, Peck, as in Gregory, as in Gregory Peck.
Uh. Oh. Okay. Sure, let me not throw up as I am doing it, I thought. I knew no one there. Please come with me, Cecelia, I’ll show you a good time! And off we went, me in my shock of pink and Ms. Peck in her proper Chanel attire, and descended into a sea of black. Everyone was wearing sexy black. Everyone. And then there was me, this in a blinding hot pink Talbots dress with a Puritanical high neckline.
I would clear my throat with an “ahem” or get in direct eyesight with the ring leader of the group and then say something, a spirited hello, or a sweet ‘Scuse me, so as to break into the conversations at hand. I might have touched an elbow or two to garner attention. But it felt like everything I did was stunningly AWKWARD.
I finally manage to get her, Cecelia, talking to some folks and then just shrink away to find Pam, Mary’s daughter. My only friend there. Soon it was time for dinner, the casual dinner. We were guided into a grand room with floor to ceiling windows with a breathtaking view of Manhattan, the kind you see in movies by Scorcese or Woody Allen.
In the room there were two round tables with white, perfectly pressed table cloths. The total number in attendance, perhaps around 20. I was seated next to William Doyle. Of the famous art house a la Sotheby’s and Christi’s on Madison Ave.
According to the Wiki, “William Doyle gallery – one of the world’s most foremost auctioneers and appraisers of fine art, jewelry, furniture, decorations, coins, Asian wroks of art and a variety of specialty categories,” from their web site. They have auctioned off possessions by the rich and famous: James Cagney, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Rock Hudson, Rex Harrison and Ruth Gordon.” Oh and Beverly Sills, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. You get the picture.
At each place setting were a dizzying number of utensils and at the square center top above my plate was a little box. A party favor. Each of us had one. We all oohed and aaahed and commenced opening them….to our delight and amazement they were baubles from Tiffany’s. Men got a money clip – I can’t remember whether it was gold or not. The women, a classic Tiffany floating heart necklace-definitely in gold.
I glanced over at the other tables. The guests were tickled and enjoying their gifts. I was told later that at this table sat a guy who was the son of Zeppo Marx and Barbara Sinatra (see below.) Name: Robert aka “Bob” Marx, pictured below with his mother.
So next the food came around that was dished out so perfectly with nary a spill by the attendants from Fiorentina. Now, the dish that was being dolloped onto my plate was supposedly some French chicken soufle. To me, it looked like Mamaw’s chicken pot pie.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and afterwards they all swooped in like clockwork and scooped up the plates and were gone.
The next thing that happened was most interesting.
I was served a bowl of clear broth soup, but no one acknowledged this course, and the conversations continued.
I thought, well, I’ll just dip my spoon in and take a small taste. No big deal. Just casually enjoy it. So I dip my spoon in and stir it around casually. I then take a sip.
Hmmm. Interesting. Kind of lemony…but also, there’s another taste I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. I wanted to gag and it took all the strength I could muscle to stifle a throaty “UGH.”
Just as I was about to take a another sip of this odd concoction, my spoon in the bowl, the next thing I saw was most odd: people were putting their fingers INTO THE SOUP.
Now I can assure you that I was most embarrassed of my thinking that this was a food item. It was not. It was, as you’ve already guessed, the finger bowl.
“Will you please retire to the butler’s pantry for the duration of the meal? Clearly you do not know how to conduct yourself among the civilized.”
This is the voice I heard in my heard.
Instead, what I heard was a distinct, loud clearing of the throat, a Man Throat. I turned to my upper body to the left ever so slightly to see the source of this grunt, and it was Gumersindo, my arch enemy, standing sentinel. His eyes narrowed and he mouthed, “Put the spoon down.”
“What?” I said.
Gumersindo reached towards me, grabbed the spoon out of my hand, slipped it into his pocket, and returned to his post as Table Guardian. We locked eyes for a second, and he gave me a smug smile.
I quickly looked away from him, and glanced around the table. From what I could tell, I was home free with Mary and the Prince, as they were in deeply engaged in an eye-locked conversation.
But then I saw her, the lone, stern faced, Margaret Hamilton society matron at the table who had spied me taking a sip. Her lip was upturned like she had just smelled a bad fart.
I broke into a full fake smile, then averted my eyes up to the white rose centerpiece, and looked at it as if I was looking into a crystal ball searching for meaning.
I wanted to instantly combust and disappear.
Needless to say I quickly dipped my finger tips into this bowl, this lemon soup, and wiped them on my stiff white napkin. It the bowls were removed and we were served coffee and dessert. The perfect ending to a sumptuous feast. Along with my pre-dessert lemon soup.
It was nightfall and in the picture window were the iconic lights of the Manhattan skyline, a constellation of stars that relentlessly twinkled and seemed to flutter in tempo with my quickening heart.
We were then lead to another floor via elevators where a famous guy – might have been Michael Feinstein, the then-famous Broadway entertainer – was playing show tunes on the piano. He was in a tux.
We marveled at the gorgeous room, rich in silk upholstery in deep moody hues of gold, brown and green. On the walls, more paintings by Modern geniuses, art masters. I think Leger, Mondrian. Picasso.
Then in came my good friend, Gumersindo, with a tray bearing various after dinner drinks, cognac, brandy, and more which was followed by chocolates on one tray and cigarettes on the next. He was sick of me by then, I’m sure. I may have caught a turned up lip, a snarl, but as he was walking away from me, I grabbed his sleeve and whispered, “Thank you,” to which he softened and returned with, “But of course.” I think I had finally made a friend.
The piano player broke into a rousing rendition of “One” from Chorus Line and everyone swarmed the piano. I started singing with the group and all of a sudden, I felt an arm intertwine mine and there she was: the spectacularly glamorous and beautiful Mary Wells Lawrence.
We were locking arms in square-dance style, kicking our legs, singing our guts out. We sang and laughed and then, just as quickly as Mary slipped in, she vanished. And was gone. Like a puff of smoke.
It got to be around midnight and most of the guests were leaving. It was time for my shuttle limo to leave. I said my goodbyes, offered my most sincere air hugs and air kisses, got my modest winter coat I got on sale at Neimans Last Call and off I went.
I don’t think I slept that night. I kept thinking how did I get here? And for that matter, get there, where I was for a brief moment in time? However or whoever put me there to absorb such finery was an evening by which I sort of pine for and subconsciously judge all other occasions and parties…it was, for me, my shining moment among the stars. One that when I open up my heart, I smile, giggle and fawn over. One that is in a room in my soul…where memories live, like this one, untouched, magical, and yes, eternal.