Friday, June 30, 2017

Dinner at 8: midcentury meals in a Manhattan townhouse, preserved over nearly a quarter-century in a rare entertainment diary

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12 E. 81st Street (center, red brick facade) Google Maps, 2017

“A decorative stone panel is set into the facade and, nearly hidden behind the tree branches, two stone urns are perched on the parapet.”- Daytonian in Manhattan, April 21, 2016

From Henry Bemis Books’ ephemera collection:

Brentano’s Dinner Party Record, (undated, “37, Avenue de l’Opera, Paris; New York etc.” c. 1927). Leather bound, softcover, gilt titling and fore-edges, 8 x 10”. Spine gone, covers deteriorating, sewn binding. Green-gold shamrock designed endpapers.

150 cream-colored pages with slightly visible page rulings for entries in gatefold spreads for each event. One page features a Plan of the Table, with remarks; the other, space for noting Where Given, Date, Guests Present and Unable to Attend, Menu, Wines, and Particulars of Table Decorations.Sixty pages cover social events in the lives of Stanley Adams Sweet (1884-1952) and his wife, Grace Avery Ingersoll Sweet (1889-1955) between 1927 and 1950, in their residence at 12 E. 81st Street, New York, between Madison and Fifth Avenues. HBB price: $750.00.

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“If these walls could talk,” the old saying goes.

Henry Bemis Books has proof that, in rare instances, they can: a Dinner Party Record diary for the residents of 12 E. 81 Street, New York City, between November 23, 1927, and sometime in 1950.

Sold by the Paris branch of Brentano’s, the American bookseller, the softcover, 150-page volume offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of wealthy mid-20C New Yorkers. We have only found a record of one other, kept by the Civil War veteran, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, industrialist and Delaware US Senator Henry Algernon Du Pont (1838-1926). His copy covers the period 1913-16 and is held in the archives at Winterthur, the Du Pont family, home/museum.

Architectural historian Tim Miller, who blogs as Daytonian in Manhattan, begins our tale:

Although architects Arthur M. Thom and James W. Wilson designed some prominent structures—the Centre Street Criminal Courts Building, the impressive Nevada Apartments, and the Harlem Courthouse among them—they would be most known for their innumerable rows of speculative cookie-cutter rowhouses they cranked out for developers.  Among these was a row of 11 brownstones erected between 1883 and 1884 for developers William and Ambrose Parsons on East 81st Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues.

On May 15, 1884, Max Goldfrank purchased No. 12.  As was customary, the title was put into his wife’s name.  With Max and Bertha Goldfrank in their new home were son Walter and daughter Edna.  The family existed quietly, their names appearing in society pages rarely.  An exception was the announcement of Edna’s engagement to J. A. Strausser on October 30, 1905.

Less than three years later, on March 12, 1908, the funeral of 71-year old Max Goldfrank was held in the house.  Bertha stayed on until 1919 when she sold the 23-foot wide house to Stanley Adams Sweet for $60,000—about $275,000 in 2016.

Sweet was the 37-year-old head of Newburgh, New York-based Sweet-Orr Co., founded by his father, uncle, and great-uncle in 1871. Arguably the first manufacturer of jeans in America- even before Levi Strauss, the founders were Irish immigrants who, after working in the California gold fields, saw a need for well-nigh indestructible workmen’s overalls. They set up in Wappingers Falls, whose villagers called the venture Orr’s Folly. The three invested every penny they had, and within a few years the folly was doing so badly they moved to it a bigger, converted oilcloth factory in Newburgh, a Hudson River town 61 miles north of Manhattan.

Sweet-Orr overalls were soon the stuff of legend. As one library blogger put it,

Supposedly, customers kept sending letters to the company about how their Sweet-Orr pants (or coat) had saved them from fires, drowning, falling from great heights, and more.

Naturally, Sweet-Orr began to use these customer testimonies in their advertising, complete with dramatic copy and illustrations. There was only one problem—no one believed the advertisements. The stories sounded just too amazing to be true.

Not to be deterred, the company thought up a new plan: the dramatic advertising was pared down, and a new campaign was developed to demonstrate the durability of Sweet-Orr pants and overalls.

Company representatives began visiting factories and work yards, promising Sweet-Orr pants to any six men who could pull a pair apart in a game of tug-of-war. No one ever managed to do it, and the demonstration became iconic, eventually becoming the company’s logo in 1880.

By the advent of World War I Sweet-Orr’s products were not only indestructible but unshrinkable (“not even one-sixteenth of an inch!”).

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The Sweets moved up fast. Stanley studied art in Paris, graduated Yale in 1907, married Grace Ingersoll in October 1910, and by the time he bought the five-story, 6800-square foot Goldfrank home, he could afford to wait two full years to move in while it was remodeled in the newly-popular neo-Federalist style:

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The Sweets- Stanley, Grace, 32, and Stanley Jr, 5, took up residence in 1921. They took their first season in the 23-foot-wide house as a shakedown cruise. Daytonian reports,

It appears that Grace Sweet and the butler, named Simmons, came to a mutual agreement in 1922.  On May 4 that year he placed an advertisement in the New York Herald seeking work.  “Experienced, well trained Englishman, medium height, neat appearance, 36 years old, would like situation as butler and valet.”  Although Simmons explained he was to be “disengaged May 15,” he was still living in the house and offered “excellent references.”

Life was flush in the Roaring Twenties. Sales Management magazine reported the company reached half a billion value in today’s dollars by its 1921 half-century mark:

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Stanley Sweet moved between the company’s plants and his board memberships, which included the American Hard Rubber Company, the Fulton Trust Company, the Union-Made Garment Manufacturers’ Association and the International Association of Garment Manufacturers. An accomplished painter, he was a member of the Business Men’s Art Club. “In 1932 he displayed “Tide Water Creek” in the Business Men’s Art Club show; and later his works were exhibited at the Salmagundi Club, the Yale Club, and the University Club.  He received prizes for the latter two,” Daytonian found in contemporary news accounts.

Sweet’s interest in art and design had a practical side, as one can see from this 1911 Sweet-Orr design mark drawn from his signature:

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The Sweet’s first event in the Brentano’s Dinner Party Record is an event for “Mother Ingersoll’s birthday, 59-60” on November 23, 1927, apparently in Stanley’s hand. A dozen attended: close friends and family, as subsequent entries indicate. There is no record of the menu, wines, “Plan of the Table”- which got an adjoining page of its own- regrets, or “Particulars of Table Decorations”, nor is there for the next, a theater party of eight for “The Escape.”

Just what they saw is a mystery. A melodrama by that titled played at the Lyric in New York for twenty performances in 1913 (a New York Times critic wrote, “Mr. Armstrong appears to be the sort of playwright who when he does go wrong covers the whole distance”); the D.W. Griffith-directed movie did not open in Manhattan until May of 1928.

Stanley skipped noted a February bridge party of four, and the menu- but not the guests- for a dinner Leap Day Night, 1928. The first big event recorded is the March 12, 1928, stag dinner for twelve feting Thomson E. Goring, vice president of Sweet-Orr, to mark his fiftieth anniversary with the company. Goring was family: his father, Edward was an English immigrant to Wappingers Falls,

apprenticed to the trade of engraving to calico printing, which he followed from 1845 to 1860. For the succeeding nine years he was engaged in the coal business, and in 1869 he was a member of the firm of Disbrow & Goring, iron founders. He was supervisor for the Town of Fishkill, a member of the New York Assembly, and president of the village in 1879. In 1883 he was appointed, by President Arthur, postmaster at Wappingers Falls. Mr. Goring was a trustee of the Grinnell Library for thirty years. He was actively involved in a number of local enterprises including: the creating of the town of Wappinger from the town of Fishkill; the incorporations of Wappingers Savings Bank, and Bank of Wappingers respectively; the incorporation of Wappingers Falls as a village; and in the laying out of the new road to New Hamburg as a public, instead of a toll road, as chartered by the Legislature.

Stanley’s notes included  “50 pink roses put on chest at the head of stairs”; “about 60 telegrams and letters”, and a table setting of “yellow jonquils & mimosa- yellow candles”.  After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres came tomato soup; celery, olives, nuts, and crisp bread; tomato soup again; “fish souffle-lobster Newburgh”; mushroom-stuffed breast of chicken; peas, potato croquettes and dinner rolls; alligator pear salad with cheese sticks; fresh strawberry ice cream garnished with whipped cream; a white and gold Dundee cake iced with “TEG 1878-1928” and “with candle ‘50 Years’; after the meal, sherry, Benedictine and coffee were served.

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Thomson Goring (right), The Garment Worker, July 29, 1921, p. 1

There was a dinner party in early 1929 connected to the Stoll-McCracken Siberian-Arctic Expedition (“airship of Capt. Nemo on trip to Arctic Regions”); and birthday parties and other celebrations (including bigger events at the St Regis and Pennsylvania Hotels) in the sixty pages the Record covers. There are gaps and omissions- the recording is by another hand in the 1930s- and the details become more casual through the war years. The company continued to grow, obtaining licenses to supply the Boy Scouts of America:

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The Sweets were busy as well: through those decades they wintered in Bermuda, and, later, bought a summer place at Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Stanley Jr married Barbara McGraw (her father was chairman of the publisher McGraw-Hill) and took over Sweet-Orr from his father, who died playing golf at Old Saybrook in 1952. He left an estate of $42 million in today’s money.

Grace kept the townhouse until her death in 1955. The family sold it to an attorney, and it passed through multiple owners over the next half century, including a 1980s Cuban UN ambassador and a Wall Street telecommunications analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, Jack Grubman. He bought it for $6.2 million in 1999, when he was making $20 million a year inflating investment prospects for the industry and indulging enough self-dealing to be banned from securities trading for life:

In 1999, Mr. Grubman, then a high-powered analyst, bumped an AT&T stock from “neutral” to “buy,” thereby so appeasing AT&T CEO Michael Armstrong that he cast a vote on Citigroup’s board desired by chairman Sandy Weill. In return, Mr. Weill donated $1 million to the 92nd Street Y.

The smoking gun was a 2001 email to a friend: “You know everyone thinks I upgraded [AT&T] to get lead for [AT&T Wireless]. Nope. I used Sandy to get my kids in 92nd ST Y pre-school (which is harder than Harvard) and Sandy needed Armstrong’s vote on our board to nuke Reed in showdown. Once coast was clear for both of us (ie Sandy clear victor and my kids confirmed) I went back to my normal negative self on [AT&T]. Armstrong never knew that we both (Sandy and I) played him like a fiddle.”

After paying a $15 million fine, Grubman still had $75-100 million left, and in 2008 he listed 12 E. 81st for sale at $32 million.

That was rich even for the neighborhood. The price was dropped to $28.5, then taken off the market in 2009. In March 2010 the Grubmans sold it for $19.6m. It is now owned by a doctor specializing in child psychology.

Stanley Jr and Barbara had one daughter, Nancy Adams Sweet. After making her debut in Manhattan in 1966, she married Lawrence Master in 1970. Stanley presided over Sweet-Orr’s decline into a regional manufacturer, then licensed the rights to the company named to an Anglo-South African firm, B. Oppenheim & Co. Inc., and worked as a consultant before he died in 1989. Barbara died in 2001.

Sweet-Orr vintage clothing, buttons, and advertising materials are highly collectible.


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