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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Park Avenue Haversham

For a number of years my mother was president of the Chapin-Brearley Exchange, the wonderful now-defunct consignment shop that benefited the scholarship funds of those two New York City girls’ schools. The Exchange originated as a swap meet of sorts for school uniforms morphing over the years to include party dresses and sporting equipage, and eventually women’s, men’s and boys’ clothing. Drawing from a pool of crème de la crème New York closets, including after her daughter, Caroline, started going to Brearley, Jackie O’s, the Exchange was a treasure-trove of incredible finds. 

Years before Patricia Field was dressing Sarah Jessica Parker in vintage, my sister and I on our limited allowances were combing the Exchange’s racks for bits of finery to adorn ourselves. You never knew what you’d find there and it was the source of many divine articles of clothing that are still in my closet 35 years later: a beautiful gold silk 1940’s kimono jacket that looked like it could have been worn by Katharine Hepburn, a pair of sealskin Lapland boots with turned up toes and an ivory bangle carved from (I’m sorry to say) an elephant tusk to name just three. What I liked best were the things that seemed to have been picked up on a whim during someone’s far-flung travels, only to be jettisoned later on when they returned to their homes and reality.

The Exchange set the stage for one of the most unusual New York stories I know. The year must have been 1969 because my sister was still at home (she graduated from Brearley in 1970). My mother had received a call from the lawyer of an alumna—I forget from which school—who’d recently died and had left her personal effects to the Exchange. There was such a quantity of belongings, and I suspect my mother, fearing the potential feeding frenzy that might occur among the Exchange volunteers when confronted with such booty, had everything brought to our house for pricing. 

This is how our living room came to be transformed temporarily into Ali Baba’s cave. There were boxes and boxes of unopened Caron perfume, silk scarves, Indian saris, beaded evening bags and cashmere twin sets, most of them never worn and in their original wrapping. In addition to these items, there were some exotic robes including a magnificent Chinese brocade tunic. It was a special piece and my mother arranged for a curator from the Metropolitan Museum to examine it. He concurred with her assessment, noting that the number of digits (eight I think?) in the claws of the dragons featured in the design signified the rank of emperor. (The robe was donated to the museum on behalf of the estate.)

Though this was all very exciting to a 12-year old girl, the really interesting part occurred before the things arrived at our house. My mother had met the woman’s lawyer at her apartment on Fifth Avenue to see what was what. After they finished, the lawyer told my mother that his client had another apartment that might contain additional items. 

The second one, which she’d used as her office, was a few blocks away on Park Avenue. At first upon entering the apartment, it appeared to consist of only one room containing desks for her social secretary and herself, but the lawyer opened a door to reveal additional rooms, which had been closed off for over forty years. 

It clearly had once been a very elegant space, but was now completely derelict. My mother described how the paint was hanging in sheets off the walls and draperies that were in tatters. The windows were filthy and everything was covered in a film of dust including the breakfast dishes still on the table. In the bedroom closet, beaded flapper gowns hung in shreds, and in the bathroom and kitchen was the evidence of long ago quotidian life. To say my mother was floored, is not an exaggeration. On an ordinary day in the middle of New York, she’d run up against a real-life, 20th century Mrs. Haversham.

As it turned out, the day the woman’s husband died in the 1920s, she’d walked away, shutting the door on her life and the apartment only to return once it had been altered into her office space. All these years later I am still astounded by the person who would make such an extravagant gesture in terms of grief and wealth holding onto that valuable piece of real estate all those years. 

I wonder if it worked. Wouldn’t being in the same city/neighborhood/building, have been only less painful by a matter of degrees than in the apartment itself. Of course, I have no way of knowing the particulars and she may well have left New York for a period of time after her husband's death. But all that aside, the story stands as an amazing tale in the annals of New York (and beyond) and it makes me wonder at what else is out there.

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