14 July 2009

Wasp Chic, Circa 1989

House and Garden profiled this Sutton Place aerie in 1989 whose owner - in true WASP fashion - wanted to remain anonymous. It featured an outstanding art collection (which merited Picasso biographer John Richardson writing the feature) and decoration by Sister Parish who had known the client for decades. My Design Deepthroat revealed the owner as Betsey Whitney, one of the famed Cushing sisters who all made spectacular marriages (if your idea of spectacular is a great fortune and gilded name).

Sisters Babe Mortimer Paley, Betsey Roosevelt Whitney, and Minnie Astor Fosburgh,
from left to right, were the subject of this biography

After her husband Jock's death, Betsey downsized from a townhouse into this apartment leaving Mrs. Parish with a surfeit of delectable furnishings from which to choose. Richardson recounts how Sister would strike terror in the hearts of new clients when she would wheel a tea trolley through their home, piling on all the belongings she deemed eyesores - rest assured, Betsey was NEVER one of those.

Although Mrs. Parish was not averse to layering as attested to by these rooms in which every surface is covered with silver picture frames, fresh flowers (grown in her Long Island greenhouses, natch), and other bibelots, there is something about the full-blown clutter that epitomizes the excess of the '80s.

It is also interesting that the museum-quality art didn't dictate a conformingly sterile treatment, but instead enhanced the cozy and comfortable surroundings. Downplaying the importance of the collection goes hand-in-hand with the WASP abhorrence of flash and attention-seeking.

Over the black lacquer open shelves is Monet's Camille on the Beach, Trouville, a portrait of the artist's wife painted while on honeymoon, and which now hangs at the Yale University Art Gallery. Don't miss the interesting passementerie on the back of the side chairs....

Richardson recounts how Mrs. Whitney served the most incredible miniature vegetables - such as lima beans "the size of seed pearls", also grown on her country estate, and suggests this might have been the inspiration behind Truman Capote's declaration of "tiny vegetables [as] the acme of old-world luxe." Perhaps, but the feud between her sister Babe and Gloria Guinness over who could produce the tiniest vegetables was legendary.

I have to say I'm not loving how this napkin was folded in combination with the en suite placemat. However who can deny how gorgeous the embroidery (hand-done no doubt) of the linens. Perhaps it's by Marghab from Madeira, Portugal, reputed for its exquisite quality....

....and currently my favorite Ebay search term which uncovered this pristine set of 8 "Tropical Fish" cocktail napkins, an easy and affordable way to bring the genteel and civilized into one's home today.

Photos 1, 3-7 by William Waldron for House and Garden, in the October 1989 issue


Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Interesting document of a time, a place, a mindset and a very privileged perch in NYC.

Linen napkins: I love your eBay find, greats for drinks etc.
I think the days when tables were set with these rather frivolous big embroidered dinner table linens by blind nuns (well, they went blind doing the embroidery) and the young Indian girls--has passed.
A overly elaborate folded napkin, as you note, is definitely dated looking. My guess is that it was the housekeeper or butler who did that too-studied napkin folding which is far from chic. I doubt that Minnie did her own tablesettings--and therefore she was left with this 'puddle' and 'muddle' of a napkin.
I must say it all looks a bit fussy, however. Wish I loved it all more. I really do.

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

a puddle muddle is right! I have a book called the Butler's Guide to quelquechose which gives several ways to fold a napkin - every time I try one, it's always a catastrophe....so I guess I should be thankful the age of elaborate folds are over!


P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

EEE- Your thoughts on the interior and art are just exactly right. The art appears to be a part of it all- Living well with perfect understated elegance- and only the best. The side chairs are- just just SO & I love the bit about the lilbit vegetables. You don't say? tell more.
Perfect post. la

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I share your love of linens from ebay. I have found some real treasures that way.

Lovely waspy post.

home before dark said...

So, the smaller the vegetables, the smaller the mind? I think it could be a story a for a murder mystery. The comparison between today's post and the old world haunting beauty of the last are, indeed worlds apart. Paulette Tavormina puts beauty on her back and carries it to the finish line.

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

Pamela, I found the most exquisite handkerchief with an E monogram - but one should probably draw the line at second-hand handkerchief, no? I just discovered this site: http://gypsyrosalie.com/ - pure heaven. I think you'll like it - good prices too. EEE

Emily Evans Eerdmans said...

Home, it's incredible! These women had the world on the string, were jet-setting partout, and could meet anyone they wanted to, and their days were consumed with warring over miniature broccoli. Really puts things in perspective.

Mrs. Blandings said...

E - I've saved these tear sheets, too, and it is great to have "the rest of the story." Thanks for hunting around.

LPC said...

Museum quality art in a family setting, check. SO MUCH chintz, not sure. In case this is a group who likes the tongue-in-cheek stories of High WASPs, I'd like to introduce myself. Here is my modern day version of a calling card, if you don't mind my presumption. Thank you. http://amidlifeofprivilege.blogspot.com/2009/07/and-they-sometimes-call-it-nude.html. BTW, in the post I'm referring to khaki, not anything inappropriate.

Anonymous said...

The interior is perfect no matter what anybody says...EEE thanks for sharing this.

PS -LPC.. who cares about so much chintz when you have the deep pockets to do and buy what ever the
& *&*&*()() you want... we all should be so lucky and NOT judge that lucky decorator...throw the opinions out those windows into the river and just xxx

John Tackett said...

Actually, the Whitneys moved to this apartment as a temporary measure while the 63rd Street subway was being constructed beneath their triple-lot-width townhouse, their Manhattan outpost when that drive out to Greentree just couldn't be faced. Like so many things in the Big Apple, the construction of that new subway line ran years and years over in construction, and Jock Whitney died before it was finally finished.