It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a property in the Swiss Alps is in no need of a house in New York City. With apologies to old Jane, I am seriously contemplating giving up living in the Big Bagel after nearly 70 years. It’s elementary, dear readers, that the place simply ain’t what it used to be; in fact, it’s the lack of glamour and chic, the utter coarseness of everyday life, and the total lack of manners of its denizens that have driven me to contemplate leaving what used to be the most glamorous and exciting place on earth.
My first view of Manhattan was in 1948, being driven in from La Guardia Airport by my father’s chauffeur and seeing the Chrysler and Empire State buildings lording it over the other skyscrapers. The scene was like a promise of great times to come. After so many years of war in Europe, those great towers of the city, clustered on a narrow island, still glittered in the afternoon sun. The city, colossal and imposing, looked untouched by the war. Compared to a world of loss and ruin back in Europe, the skyline was majestic.
We moved into a large suite at the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue and 59th Street, and from my window, I saw a large RCA sign on the most imposing of all buildings, the Rockefeller Center. I didn’t sleep a wink that first night. After four years of war and six months of a civil conflict between communist guerrillas and royalists, beautiful Athens had been torn to shreds, pockmarked by bullets and blown apart. Gotham was like paradise.
The next day, I saw people as glamorously dressed as those I had seen in the movies. Men wore hats and suits, women wore gloves, hats, and high heels. Most people were fair-haired and Nordic looking, as were the tall Irish cops—because of height rules, now abolished—who were everywhere. My honeymoon with the city didn’t last long. I was sent off to boarding school after three days, but New York remained always on my mind, a dreamlike obsession for its glamour and unsaid promise that anything was possible. Especially romance. After six years, I was back in the city for good—and with a vengeance, to make up for lost time. I was 20 years old.
The city’s promise that nothing is impossible was no white lie. My family had moved from the Plaza, a gigantic, French chateau look-alike, to the steeple-topped Sherry Netherland facing Central Park. This became the center of operations for me, or as my father put it, operation cherchez les femmes. New York back then was a magnet for every pretty young woman, even more so than Hollywood; hence a well-off horny young man had no trouble finding dates. The two most glamorous nightclubs were the El Morocco and the Stork Club, and in no time, I became a regular in both places.
Yes, there was crime and dirt, too, during those halcyon days and nights. But ensconced on the Upper East Side, one never experienced the danger up close. There were no-go areas in Harlem and in the Bronx, where criminals killed and robbed other criminals, but throughout all the years I lived on Fifth and Park Avenues, I remember only one murder.
The party lasted until the late 1960s, when hippies and anti-war freaks, lionized by the media, took over the night scene. Both the Morocco and the Stork closed and were replaced by large impersonal halls that catered to druggies, gays, and outrageously dressed show-offs. The WASP establishment moved out—literally—as it already had been replaced in Wall Street and in the banking sector. Elegance was out, as was restraint and good manners; in their place was public showing-off, swearing and ugliness, à la Andy Warhol and his freaks, who were in the front pages.
Today, at this late stage, whenever I read about the “suffocating confines” of 1950s America, I want to reach for a pistol. But if I were caught carrying one in New York (being white and with a clean record and all that), I’d most probably die in jail. Let’s face it: the city and the country today are not the same ones I encountered as a bright-eyed 12-year-old. Denunciation, once a communist custom, is now more American than apple pie, and mob-rule almost an article of the Constitution.
The America of today gives the impression she is resigned to her decline and weary of her values—not least of which is too much freedom for criminals to enjoy equal rights with the rest of us. While hundreds of thousands from Central America besiege the borders to enter the United States, Americans themselves deny their own virtues and believe they don’t deserve their nation’s success. In fact, success is now perceived as privilege that deliberately disadvantages other groups.
There is something very wrong with a country where a man can lose his job if he even hints that he finds a woman attractive, while three-year-olds are being taught by teachers that they can change their gender. Time to move to the Alps! (And I’ll tell you all about that, next time.)
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