[L: LEO LERMAN; R: GRAY FOY]
"We missed the twentieth century; we were living in the nineteenth" - Gray Foy, May 7, 2007, New York Magazine
Leo Lerman, for decades the soul and artistic barometer of Condé Nast, may have given legendary parties full of famous people, but Gray Foy, his companion of 46 years, has long been haunted by another of Leo's guest lists: It would be so extraordinary," he says, "to open the front door and find that all the people who had owned every single thing in there had now come to claim them."
"Here" is a nine-room apartment bought by Leo Lerman and Gray Foy in 1967 for less than the yearly maintenance paid today. It is in the Osborne, a mysterious apartment building across the street from Carnegie Hall, a place with thick walls, high ceilings, cornices and crevices lined with mahogany, it's outer surfaces caked with the traffic smog of 57th Street. The Osborne's lobby is a dark terracotta brick in a style you might call Byzantine Moroccan Fountain.
Gray Foy still lives surrounded by those things that once belonged to other people, the collections he started with Leo Lerman: paintings of volcanoes, prints of 17th century fireworks, effigies of bears, wings of butterflies, flowers under glass, Staffordshire figures, Majolica plates, effigies of biscuits, real Tiffany lamps, silver boxes, horn boxes, a giant iron dragonfly, treen, darning eggs, seashells, Victorian lamps, chairs and sofas from the sets of plays, and a massive over-strung piano that could never hold a tune, so Leo had its strings removed to turn it into a desk.
The first glimpse of the apartment from the landing at the Osborne includes yards of white canvas fireman's hose curled outside the door, which seems to be set up in relation to the fiery eruptions of Vesuvius and Etna that crowd the gallery foyer. Leo Lerman, as features editor of Mademoiselle, then Vogue, then briefly editor of Vanity Fair before becoming the in-house sage of Condé Nast, had a true eye for talent that helped shape the culture of the 20th century: he pushed Truman Capote, Margot Fonteyn, Maria Callas, the whole roster from divas to writers to comediennes. In the course of his life, he inspired and mentored countless people—artists and their appreciators, the journalists who swam in Leo's wake.
He taught generations of young journalists how to listen, feel, appreciate and behave. Three years ago, a small portion of his voluminous journals, entitled The Grand Surprise, was published by Knopf. They had been painstakingly deciphered and edited by his former assistant, Stephen Pascal, whose introduction to the book is on a level with Robert Hass' introduction to the Rilke Poems.
Leo died almost sixteen years ago, but his bedroom is untouched, pristine, full of stuff, the red, blue, white and black Welsh bedcover still on his bed. Many of the books have gone to the Columbia University library. Gray Foy continues to entertain—Christmas and New Year's, Halloween and Valentine's Day, now with Joel Kaye, an old friend whom Gray and Leo met when they moved into the Osborne in 1967. Joel Kaye's father had created the Russian Tea Room across the street, next to Carnegie Hall, and saved the Osborne from destruction by raising the money to turn it into co-ops in 1963. Joel and his partner Lloyd [Williams] became fixtures in the Lerman-Foy universe. After Leo Lerman's death, Gray Foy came down with cancer. Joel Kaye announced, "I'll stay with you and see you through it till you're old and gray." "And he did," says Foy, "and he stayed on." "What," asks Joel, "leave you alone...?"
Foy, now 87 years old, is an artist. He stopped doing his obsessively detailed drawings years ago, but one hangs at the museum of Modern Art, a gift of Steve Martin. He had just had his first show at the Durlacher Brothers gallery in 1948, and got by with a night job in the art department of Columbia University, when he went to a party Leo Lerman gave for the couturier Peirre Balmain in his basement apartment in 1948, and never left.
And briefly; myself: In 1973, I was perched in my chair at British Vogue when the editor-in-chief, Beatrix Miller, said, "You must phone lovely Leo Lerman, he's Features in New York". "New York" meant American Vogue. The phone call began a friendship that lasted for 22 years, until Leo died in 1994. The voice was wise, genial, knowledgeable and curious. On the other end of the line I heard delight, enchantment, an appetite for more. I talked to him, I talked for him, I wrote to him. And so it went for decades.
Our first lunch was two years away; but when it came, in the Rose Room at the Algonquin, I met a kind of magical sage, a protector, a wish-granter, a polymath who knew everyone and enjoyed the pattern and the detail of it all. He wore a purple shirt; his beard was white, his long hands were always cold because, he said, he had been born dead. He walked with a cane; a taxi accident on the way back from a party during the war had left him with a limp.
When I moved to New York he welcomed me into the new life. The apartment at the Osborne was then beset by teetering columns of books that Gray alternately cursed and dusted, books which were removed at intervals by museums and libraries. There were Christmas parties and tea parties, but none of the wild Dietrich-Leonard Bernstein-Maria Callas jamborees that Leo had held before Vogue. On the other hand, every meal with Leo and Gray was a party—suppers after concerts or screenings, dinners around the big table in the corner at the Café des Artistes, dinners at Pearl's, dinners at my apartment, or me in my kitchen on the phone to Leo in his kitchen, discussing weather meatloaf was better made with beef or beef mixed with ground veal, what the point of the egg inside was, and would our friend Rudolf [Nureyev] be all right at the Paris opera?
Leo handed me much wise counsel over the years, but the most emphatic advice he ever gave me was simply this: "Give parties!"
It's just after noon on a Sunday in the winter of 2010. We're at the table in the kitchen in the Osborne, where a full-on British high tea has been set out on a tablecloth that suggests India meets Bulgaria. A brass frog that Leo loved is on my left; delicate china cups, cakes, silver spoons, and on the refrigerator, a huge Majolica punchbowl. Joel Kaye officiates, while Gray Foy, regal and ethereal at once, sits on the other side of the teapot.
Joan Juliet Buck: What year did you get together with Leo?
Gray Foy: 1948. I was still a downy child.
Joel Kaye: Gray was born in 1922, he was 25.
Gray: My friend Robert Davison had come to New York City after the war, and he and Leo were renting in this house at 1453 Lexington Avenue. Robert had the parlour floor and Leo had the basement floor. I had ten drawings in my show at Durlacher Brothers, on 57th Street, and sold them all, which was very good, that sort of made my first little mark—scratch, more like it. Robert came to the gallery to see the show and he said, "A friend of mine is giving a party, would you like to come?" And I said yes... having nothing to do.. I was not very happy. In fact, Easter of that year I had said: My life has to change. Well, it did, and that was it.
Joel: Robert was Gray's first love.
Gray: I was very dodgy. I was involved with Philip Johnson.
Joan: You weren't!
Gray: Not long! Like an hour, an hour and a half... It was my hour, of course. A year or so, off and on... He wanted me to live with him but once I knew that he was a Nazi sympathizer, I was very put off. He even had brown pyjamas. I never saw him wear them but he had them.
Joel: Gray sat in the field while Philip Johnson was putting in the stakes and the strings for the Glass House and cutting down trees.
Gray: I think he was just showing off. I sat on a rock on a river... anyway, I came to the party. I guess the first person I met was Truman. The party was a hodgepodge of people I'd never heard of before, but I'd certainly heard of him. And Ruth Yorck, the writer, who was marvelous. We got to be very, very best friends. I'd never met Leo. Being the host, he came up and introduced himself. He said, "I've seen you elsewhere". And I said, "I think you're mistaken; I never go anywhere!" And that's how it began.
Joan: What did he look like?
Gray: Leo was very slender. And he was so mystical to me, because he had this rather scant beard, and those eyes... very strange eyes. They were a little asymmetrical, so you couldn't figure out which eye was looking at you. He wasn't cross-eyed, but it was a very strange gaze. Leo was involved with a man named Richard Hunger, who was having an affair with a man called Howard Rothschild.
Joel: Robert Davison, who lived upstairs and asked Gray to the party, had had expectations that it would start up again between him and Gray. Expectations were not met.
Gray: There was a lot of inning and outing—people were coming and going, you didn't know who was with whom, it really got to be quite silly—a farce. I went with Leo, and Richard went with Howard Rothschild and Robert finally moved to Mexico. And after that, we all had a marvelous life. The party began, and I never have seen it end—I couldn’t' imagine anything like this, and I have a pretty decent imagination. Little did I know it was going to lead to dinner with... Edith Sitwell!... who came to dinner and said, "I don't eat salads." That was fortunate as we didn't have any salads. We had this mess of something called Magulala made by this crazy lady who cooked for us, but miserably.
I opened the door one day and a woman said, "I am Anna May Wong, may I come in?!" And then one night I went to the gate under the stairs—we lived, remember, in the basement—and there was Marlene Dietrich. I let her in, and she said, "Would you show me where the bathroom is?" She exuded kindness and generosity. She was an incredibly good friend. She gave us our first television set, saying, "Maria, my daughter, is going to do a play on television next week and I want you to see her. So I'm giving it to you."
Joel: She used to come and cook for them all of the time! And never ate. Even in Paris when she cooked for them she never sat down.
Joan: What was Leo doing at that point?
Gray: He was working for several places. He was working for Mademoiselle, Playbill, the New York Times Book Review. We had open house all the time, almost every weekend. We didn't have a kitchen, we didn't even have a sink... We had a refrigerator, and we had a cabinet, and that was all that was there. A tiny stove. No counters... none. Leo had to mix things on the windowsill. And we had the bathroom. We didn't have anything. We had no money, I made a little, Leo was always waiting for the cheques. We had tea in the front bedroom. That was it. And sometimes there would be 30 people for tea in the front bedroom. I had to do the dishes in the bathroom, a few steps away, off the bedroom... I think we paid $150 or $250, it was nothing. And we had the cheapest china we could find, just awful stuff. We had cheese and the cheapest wine you could buy! It only came in a jug. A large cheddar cheese and crackers and that was all... But people came and they ate it, I was so surprised. And they came back again!
Joel: Someone overheard Roger Straus and Susan Sontag talking about Gray's beauty. And they decided if they ever went to bed with a man—either one of them—it would be Gray!
Gray: We upgraded it as time went on, we had tree cakes from a Geiger's bakery on 86th Street, shaped like a tree, a spiral... There were many times where we would just have parties in the afternoon. Never a cocktail party—we didn’t serve liquor. Leo didn't drink. Nobody seemed to worry about drinking. We had tea parties. I think I poured the tea from a normal sized teapot, Oh God, that was a chore, I had to keep refilling it.
Joan: How many people would you ask?
Gray: Usually it would be very small—and they became more refined. Not that the people were different. But now we had nicer china. We had all kinds of people. Actors, actresses, dancers. Very few French people, though. Could be anytime. Anytime. We had everybody; LA people were the sweetest. So nice. The singers were hard to take. They have such egos! And none of them gave one another any hand, they always felt as if they were superior... careful about their voices, not generous. The sweet once were the dancers, they all knew their careers were very short. We gave a party for the Royal Ballet—Margot Fonteyn, Frederick Ashton, Markova.
Joan: The first party you gave here—do you remember the first party you gave here [at the Osborne]?
Gray: Times were more settled when we lived here!
Joel: Also, Leo was really working in those days at Vogue—to be a host when you have thirty people. You have to work! Parties were work!
Gray: When there were fifty people in a room, you can't do much about it except stand by. Living in a house like that, it's very difficult to keep it appetizing; parties were always on the parlour floor but they overwhelmed the house. In the end, we had four floors. We were terrified the stairs would give way. We had so many people. there were things going on everywhere, all over the house. But ultimately it's not fun, and you get nothing out of it, too.
Joan: That's a cherry quote about giving parties! What about the parties other people gave...
Joel: Truman's Black and White Ball.
Gray: I was late. I was in Chicago. Visiting my aunt. I took a plane back to New York and I had to change my clothes, I got to the party around 11:30 I guess. It was really on the go by the time I got there. These sinister looking people! Because it was peacocks on parade. Some of them had—well, the women especially had all these incredible things made and they had these special masks on sticks and their hair was all done, at that time like beehives, dancing away like fools everybody. Truman was there playing away and it was like every other play you had ever seen except that all the people that knew one another stayed apart. There was very little mixing. Truman was not a good host. He should have seen to it that people were introduced.
Joel: Remember the party Arianna Stassinopoulos [Huffington] gave for you?
Gray: Arianna said, "Gray...?" We'd been talking five minutes. "Gray, when is your birthday?" and I said, "August". "I am going to give you a party!" she said, and by George, she did.
Joan: She flew back from Martha's Vineyard, too. I remember that.
Gray: And I thought, my God, how's she done it?
Joel: 8,000 candles everywhere.
Joan: Each candle stuck in a peach.
Gray: I've never seen such an orchard. Agapi, her sister, was half on the floor and half standing up most of the time. But I mean, I didn't know her. And I was quite unprepared for that overwhelming hospitality. She and Arianna sang a little birthday song. She sang a little peasant song.
Joan: I remember a birthday of yours when I didn't know what to get you, John and I had just moved here and I bought you a massive watermelon at the Korean greengrocer's, and you wrote me a thank you letter in which you said that you were "knocked out, and about" by your gift.
Gray: By 1967, we had to move out of the house because it was falling apart, and we couldn't afford to do anything about it. It became quite obvious to Leo and me that we couldn’t' really live there... Leo's father didn't want us to buy it, because it was just too close to Harlem, he thought it was a bad idea. But Marlene Dietrich's daughter Maria Riva lived up there, and Al Hirschfeld, Better Comden and Steven Kyle, Viveca Lindfors, and Barbra Kafka, whom Leo told to become a cookbook writer, so she did. Down the street were Helen Frankenthaler and Robert Motherwell. One night Helen gave a dinner, someone called out, "What's for dinner?" Helen made bunny ears with her fingers and everyone put down their knives and forks. Anyway, this, the Osborne, was the first and only apartment we ever looked at.
Joel: Thirty-four hundred square feet!
Gray: It had belonged to [the comedienne] Imogene Coca's mother, who took in boarders during the depression and even rented out a tiny attic space above the kitchen.
Joel: You see that door in the ceiling? That's where the little room is.
Joan: When you moved in here, you must have done a lot to it.
Gray: Just painted it. For a long time it was painted by Leo's father's painters, the whole place for $200. The whole apartment.
Joel: It was white. Just a dozen bookcases. Bookcases in the dining room. Bookcases in the library. Bookcases in the hall.
Joan: I remember the phone conversations with you in the 1980s, about dusting, and the piles of books and the stuff.
Gray: There was not ever a room that was free of books. I mean, not just.. the parlour floor... we could hardly... they reached waist high.
Joel: The whole sitting room.
Joan: I remember he brought bags of books home every day.
Gray: He wanted to write a book about the migration of treasure, which would have been quite wonderful.
Joan: What was the first thing you and Leo bought together?
Gray: It was a windup tin alligator from a vendor under the railway arches up in Spanish Harlem. We also had trunks of Missionary dolls.
Joel: Leo always had this fantasy that he'd open the door of the apartment and there'd be a line of people of everyone who owned something in this apartment at one time or another—it'd be thousands of people because all the treasures here were owned by other people, nothing's new...
Gray: I just thought, how interesting, everything in this apartment was owned by somebody else.
Joan: Did you and Leo buy something everything weekend?
Gray: Pretty much.
Joel: Forget the weekend—during the week at Vito Giallo's, remember the shop on Madison Avenue? It would be Andy Warhol in there, and us.
Gray: Leo had been in the hospital for some surgery, an early, minor sickness, whatever it was. But not so bad that he couldn't see something in an antique shop—it was probably our first stop after leaving the hospital.
Joel: Whenever Leo got out of a hospital we went to Vito's, we went to his shop—always.
Gray: Yes, and he found a little leaf—a begonia leaf, or something like that...
Joan: They're very hairy, begonia leaves...
Gray: Yes, they are. Bit by bit, he began to be interested in those vegetable, art nouveau shapes. Ultimately we found Tiffany lampshades, which had been despised before, and Lillian Nassau came to a party in the house... and it turned out she started buying all that. She started getting into it.
Joan: I remember her shop! She became the main Tiffany lamp dealer in the world. What was the first piece?
Joel: Serendipity, wasn't it? In their first incarnation, on East 50-something Street.
Joan: The hot chocolate place with gifts, for kids?
Joel: Everything was for sale. The lamp on this ceiling came from Serendipity.
Gray: A dollar—something like that.
Joan: Tiffany lamp—first one?
Joel: From Peter Lindamood.
Gray: We were using a card table for the dining room. And there was a beautiful table, just beautiful Majorelle, up for auction, not expensive at all—I don't think it was more than $800, if that! Chairs that went with the table. So Lillian Nassau bought them and then let us buy the table. It was at Sotheby's. Anyway, we got the table—that was probably in 1965. And we found other lamps, with glass Tiffany shades, which were quite lovely, and we had about eight. And when we were moving out of the house into the apartment, we had three days in a row of taking things away. And somebody on that group, or somebody in the street—we had several vans working on our house—took three Tiffany lamps, three of the best lamps that we had, and we could never, ever find them again. We had private detectives, everyone that you could think of—by that time they were very, very valuable. They were probably out of the country to Japan or something... We had people watching stores.
Joan: What were they? What kind of trees did they depict?
Gray: One was a poinsettia, it was beautiful, and very much intact. And we had a beautiful large dragon fly. I've never seen one like it because the heads of the dragonfly came beyond the shade.
Joan: How many Tiffany lamps are left?
Gray: Authentic ones? Not many. We never got back the dragonfly.
Joan: But the wisteria?
Gray: We never had a wisteria. Truman Capote had one.
Joan: So in my mind you have a wisteria, but that...
Gray: I never liked them, they were kind of shapeless—well, there's a red one which is poppy, and one at the end of the room which is...
Joan: That's right, the flowers.
Gray: And there's one that's more of ... it's a white flower... God, it's only a wildflower in Virginia. The other one is a Tiffany base, and there's one in my room, by my bed, which is a reading lamp.
Joan: There was all that bear stuff everywhere... I remember the dining room was like bear headquarters.
Joel: There was a bear bench, and a bear chair, and there were Black Forest things... and some of the stuff from the apartment was there... The bear coat rack, the one in the window, with all the bears, and the great bear holding up the coat rack, my father gave it to them, it used to be in the window at the Russian Tea Room.
Gray: He gave it to us, we didn't know what that meant, but we were very pleased.
Joel: And so they got more bears, and they got more bears.
Joan: And then Tiffany's—the non lamp, Jack Loring, 57th and 5th china crystal glass and diamonds—asked you and Leo to decorate a table for a Bear tea?
Joel: And here's the menu!
Joan: Thank you! [reading]: Grizzly Delights. Watercress sandwiches. Shrimp paste sandwiches. Hot scones with butter and honey. Black Forest cake. Seed cake. Beehive cake. Russian caravan tea. Madeira. Sherry. Dried sweet biscuits. Chocolate sardines. Mixed dried fruit. And berries and leaves.
Gray: And then there were the fireworks.
Joan: And your volcanoes.
Joel: Leo said, "Three is a collection." So there were lots of collections—the flowers under domes.
Gray: I carried back the spun glass peacocks in the glass dome, on my lap. You can't imagine what we carried back. The bolster on the sofa is a Fortuny scarf that we had stuffed; We'd bring back cushion covers and leave the cushions behind.
Gray: Si [Newhouse] would come into Leo's office [at Condé Nast] and just sit there, and Leo would say, "Don't you have anything else to do?" And he said, "I just enjoy so much being here." I guess it was so quiet.
Joan: There was always music playing in his office, always, at Vogue or Vanity Fair, and when he moved up to the corporate floor, even more so. That's something that's truly vanished—the idea that you could go up to the office of someone important and just stay there because it was pleasurable and fun and you were wanted there, not because you were going to be pitching great hot ideas at them, but because there was something important in just presence, hanging out, having a desultory conversation, let your thoughts wander together... while Callas sang, not too loud. There was so much osmosis around Leo; you learned by breathing the same air as him.
Joel: Remember the George Spelvin lunches? They were for the advertisers at Playbill to meet the actors, and Leo was able to pull everybody on the one day they didn't work, to come to this lunch, and nobody else could do that. Everybody came! And you know, people even came here in the six months they were here [in New York]. They'd be invited for a Christmas party or a Halloween party or drinks or whatever, and they'd be here, you know, that sort of thing. And he got everybody jobs, he got everybody work, he came up with ideas for people to do things, he put them together, he worried about all of his children—which included you and everybody else. I mean, everybody. If you didn't have work, he gave you an idea to go out and do your own work. But he was the ultimate enabler.
Joan: It was more than enabler; he was the ultimate mentor.
Joel: Mentors just help you, but he enabled. He got connections; he told you to call somebody; he told you when to do something all so specifically. And because of that he was adored. He said come for lunch, you went to lunch. You know, you didn't want to go to lunch—you went to lunch. And there was nobody else who could do that—I don't think there's anybody else who can do that.
TEXT AND MOST IMAGES TAKEN FROM "CHEZ LEO & GRAY", ACNE PAPER #10, STORY BY JOAN JULIET BUCK, PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERIC BOMAN; SUPPLEMENTARY INTERIOR IMAGES TAKEN FROM ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST, OCTOBER 2005, PHOTOGRAPHED BY DERRY MOORE