The Four Seasons bows out

Sunday, July 10, 2016

This post is pure trivia and escapism. I hope you’ll read my previous post on the racial crisis first.

In 1984, when my husband had been in management at IBM for 25 years, according to the IBM custom of those bygone days, he was awarded a posh luncheon for guests of his choice at any restaurant of his choice. He chose the Four Seasons in New York. About thirty guests and spouses ate together in a private dining room. The service, not to mention the food, was of such staggering quality that we were truly awe-struck, and our guests left talking about it.

That was the only time I have ever eaten at the Four Seasons. I never took a seat in the uniquely elegant Pool Room, nor the fabled Grill Room where the most important “power lunch” in the city took place 4-5 days a week for about thirty years, from about 1973 to about 2003, more or less. For me, it was way too expensive, too intimidating, too rarefied. But I had entered the restaurant that one time. I had gasped as I passed into the bronze-and-glass entrance, with the celebrated Picasso theatre curtain, and glimpsed the Pool Room. I experienced the glorious architectural spaces of the Seagram Building’s first floor, and I knew that the modernist period (in architecture, not in theology!) was for me.

I have had two major guilty pleasures in my life on which I have wasted a lot of time and about which I am somewhat embarrassed. I won’t write about one of them at the moment (I’m afraid it has to do with British royalty). Right now I’m thinking about the other one, which does not occupy me very much today, but was an absorbing hobby until about 2005 when I was no longer spending gobs of my time in New York City.  I used to love reading all about the haute restaurants of New York. I could rattle off the names of “Les Six” (Lutèce, La Grenouille, La Caravelle, La Côte Basque, Lafayette, Quo Vadis) like my French ABCs (which is pretty much all the French I have). I never set foot in a single one of them, with one exception: I was invited to lunch once, in a sort of fluke, at Lutèce, where fabled chef-owner André Soltner came out, in true French style, wearing his sky-high white toque, and greeted us…for once in my life I was tongue-tied.  Except for that one occasion, I never set foot in a single one of the gastronomic palaces. I was just happy to know that they existed. (All but one of them are gone now.)

Michael Korda, the publisher, was one of the so-called boldface names who had his own table in the Four Seasons Grill Room for the Power Lunch. I knew him slightly. He was an astute observer. He explained that the food was not really the attraction: “Powerful people eat in order to be seen with other powerful people.” The Four Seasons was founded in 1959, the year I was married, and until it was sold in 2000, it held its place at the top of the pecking order. For about twenty of those years–the 70s and 80s–most of the power players were in publishing and related pursuits. (After that, they were more corporate.)

Do I think that worldly power is a fit subject for preoccupation? Do I think it’s important to “see-and-be-seen”?  Do I really care about who is on “the A-list”? As a disciple of Jesus, certainly not. As an admirer of communities like the Bruderhof, definitely not. As a student of human society and its preoccupations, well, maybe. But in any case, I ask myself, why am I sad that a restaurant whose public rooms I never ate in is closing forever? (They are supposedly reopening a few blocks away. Good luck with that.)

I think it has a lot to do with the purity and elegance of the Seagram Building and of the restaurant spaces in particular. I’ll never forget my astonishment when I walked in. Just knowing that those stunning proportions existed made me feel uplifted. Knowing that they were appreciated during those years was comforting. The new owners don’t care. Sic transit gloria mundi.

And by the way: was Donald Trump a regular at the Power Lunch? Not on your life. He wasn’t interesting enough, or accomplished enough, or informed enough. He was Dullsville personified. He had nothing to talk about but himself and his deals.

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