My tea with Margo Feiden
There are two Margos that I adore, Margo Channing (fictional) from “All About Eve” and Margo Feiden (larger than life), of the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd. and curator of the legendary caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s collection.
To paraphrase Addison DeWitt from “All About Eve,” ‘To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, attend art gallery openings or know anything of the world in which we live – it is perhaps necessary to introduce Margo Feiden. Her native habitat is the art world and the theater – in it she has toiled for 70 years. She is essential to the art world and the theater.’
I myself am a native New Yorker, born 1955, NYC tour guide today, who since childhood followed and revered Al Hirschfeld’s imaginative drawings that so precisely capture an artist’s voice, personality and movement with the stroke of a pen. I had always hoped that I one day I would get to meet him. That day came on March 21st, 2001 at a benefit performance at The Martin Beck Theater (now ‘The Al Hirschfeld’) of “Nothing Like A Dame,” featuring the who’s who of legendary ladies of the theater. He signed my Playbill and I gently touched the hand of genius as he etched that famous boxed signature.
Hirschfeld sadly passed away on January 20, 2003 in his sleep, just five months short of his 100th birthday.
June 22nd, 2011 Doyle’s Auction Galleries held an auction of his estate, one of the many things I bought was his shoulder bag which still has his handwritten name tag attached, written in his trademark squared signature.
November 14th, 2013 Henri Bendel’s Department store on Fifth Avenue celebrated Christmas with a tribute to Hirschfeld, filling their window with three dimensional figures of his drawings. Inside the store, a figure of Charlie Chaplin sat in the atrium, high up in a tree overseeing all the goings on – it was magical! Helping to create the displays and attending the event was the divine Margo Feiden herself. I showed Chris Fiore the president of Bendel’s my Hirschfeld bag, “I’m going to take you to Margo!” he said. (Shades of ‘All About Eve’!) She welcomed me with open arms and warmth. There I was, after 49 years of collecting Hirschfeld, sitting with Margo Feiden, holding hands and telling her my Hirschfeld stories.
Henri Bendel’s Hirschfeld Christmas window November 14, 2013
Charlie Chaplin observes the proceedings at Bendel’s
Six years later in June of this year, I am contacted by Margo, it was her secretary on the phone, “Is this Hans Von Rittern? I have Miss Feiden on the line, is this a good time for you take the call?” There was that unmistakable voice, she has never forgotten me and would I come to tea? My heart stopped. Tea with Margo in her Stanford White townhouse – I gladly said ‘yes’! It was arranged for Friday, June 14th, 4:00pm.
June 14th, at precisely 4:00pm, I rang the bell. I was greeted by her personal assistant who took me up the steep staircase to the main floor ballroom, I was in awe. There are the huge leaded glass windows Stanford White designed, the fireplace and all the moldings exactly intact to this day. The walls are filled with Hirschfeld art and . . . sitting in a chair by the sofa is Charlie Chaplin, the sculpture from the Bendel’s Christmas show. On the cocktail table was an assortment of teas and cookies awaiting me.
Six years later, Charlie awaits me in Margo’s ballroom
I was shown the bins of drawings, the hallway filled with iconic images we have all seen over the decades – there they were – in person.
Next to the hallway is ‘the front office’ where two of her staff were busy on the phones. It is filled all the way up to the high ceiling with Hirschfelds that are now part of the American landscape. There was Marilyn, Ella, Bogey, both Hepburns, Sinatra, the Beatles and above the fireplace Margo Feiden’s Hirschfeld portrait. I was agog.
Giddily her assistant asked if I would like to go down the cast-iron spiral staircase to the ground floor – down we went. A treasure trove of more Hirschfeld art and the lovingly curated collection of Margo’s glass and antique collection, meticulously displayed in shadow boxes and old wooden display cases. You could see the passion and care that has been put into these collections.
We arrived back in the Ballroom and still no Margo. ‘Hmmm,” I thought, ‘maybe this was just to be a tour of the townhouse.’ I stood there turning about marveling at the stupendous Ballroom chandelier, when suddenly, her assistant invited me to, “See the upstairs”. Gulp. We ascended the grand sweeping staircase from the Ballroom, the stairwell filled frame to frame with jaw-dropping art. All the way up to The Deck we went, where presiding over the residential court is a centuries old tree filled with the songs of birds, not a city noise could be heard. Oh the stories this tree could tell.
We stood there for a while and I wondered, ‘Where is the mysterious Margo? Am I to meet her at all?’ After some time we descended back down the magnificent staircase to arrive again in the Ballroom. At about 5:00 pm, it was announced, “Miss Feiden will be ready to receive you now, please have a seat.” I sat on the sofa next to Charlie and waited anxiously.
Then, suddenly, Margo appeared, poised midway, posed gracefully on the sweeping staircase, attired in one of her trademark quilted hats and jackets, hand painted sneakers and a ponytail almost down to her knees, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
The sweeping Ballroom staircase
I sat there stunned. ‘Hans, get up…say something!’ I thought. I answered as I rose, ”You know how to make quite an entrance, don’t you?!” We spent the next four and a half hours talking about our lives.
It turns out Margo is an avid reader of my blog “In The Wit Of An Eye” and was concerned that she no longer saw me posting my stories. She suggested telling me some of her own stories to get me to write again.
I explained I had stopped writing the blog in 2014 in order to write the life story of my mother Ursula Von Rittern and three generations of the independent women in my family, a telling of how they survived two world wars in Germany in a book entitled, “Last Train Out of Berlin.” My mother Ursula was 88 at the time, and I felt time was fleeting, so by age 90, we had finished the book and even received a complimentary letter from Meryl Streep after she had been handed a copy of the manuscript by me personally. (At age 93, Ursula and I are are still looking for a publisher.)
Margo started to tell me parts of her life story and presented me with rare clippings and mementos of her amazing life, shown here. To know Margo is to receive a history lesson of New York City and it’s art scene.
In 1961 at the young age of 16, Margo Feiden then ‘Margo Eden,’ was the youngest person ever to produce and direct a musical version of “Peter Pan.” This was at the 41st Street Theater in the Wurlitzer Building. Her unique vision was to produce it with mostly high school age actors to fit the parts accurately. These were young professionals from the revered High School of Performing Arts. The fact that the High School of Performing Arts permitted their students to miss school in order to rehearse and perform in her production of Peter Pan, shows the importance they attached to Margo’s production. History was being made.
Here is a rare New York Times Broadway A – Z listing showing the “Peter Pan” production, but let your head spin to see who else Margo was on the boards with at the time: Henry Fonda in “Critic’s Choice,” Carol Channing (later in life to become Margo’s close friend) in “Showgirl.” Ironically Mary Martin was appearing five blocks away at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater in “The Sound of Music” and Cyril Richard the original Captain Hook was appearing in a production on 45th street. As well as Patty Duke in “The Miracle Worker,” Lucille Ball in “Wildcat,” Richard Burton & Julie Andrews, Elsa Lanchester, Phil Silvers, Zero Mostel, Tammy Grimes, Maurice Evans…the listings go on. As you can see it was a time on Broadway never ever to be again.
The New York Times Broadway A - Z listing, April 1, 1961
The following year, Margo had penned “Out, Brief Candle,” a three act play about dope addiction. Featuring 30 actors, it centered around ‘Bob’ whose life long dream of becoming a surgeon is destroyed by his heroin addiction. In 1963 Margo prophetically returned to the 41st Street Theater where she directed and produced the play herself.
She was heralded in the ‘teen magazines’ of the day, Hi-Teen 11/1962 and Teen Time 01/1963 as “News maker” and “Teen of the Month.”
High Teen Magazine, November 1962
Teen Time Magazine, January 1963
At age 17, now known as a child prodigy of the Broadway theater, Margo became the agent, as well as producer, director and publicist of Kuda Bux, a Pakistani mystic and mentalist performer who could read and see despite being heavily blindfolded. They appeared on stage and television together.
Oh, did I mention she is a licensed pilot? Has gone camel racing in the desert? So it is also no surprise, that Margo also happens to be a member of MENSA, the largest and oldest high IQ society in the world, open to those people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardized IQ test.
In 1969, Margo opened her first art gallery, but she had no art to display. So her girlfriend, who just so happened to be iconic photographer Diane Arbus, suggested they exhibit her work. Margo told me, “In the morning within an hour, I had rented myself an art gallery but had no artwork, by midnight, Diane and I had finished hanging her work.”
Also ahead of her time, on December 10, 1995, Margo became the first person ever to hold an art auction on the World Wide Web, when she auctioned five Hirschfeld works on the Internet to benefit New York City Meals-on-Wheels (god bless her).
We talked and talked about the wonderful and even curious stories she has to tell. It was now 9:30pm, the summer sky was casting it’s dark hues into the ballroom, it was time to end my delightful tea with my fellow Sagittarius Margo. Perhaps I will tell some more of her stories here. My favorite (so far!) is of the fateful meeting of Hirschfeld and Charlie Chaplin in 1932. I teared up as I sat on the sofa listening to Margo tell the tale, gazing into those sparkling blue eyes of hers. Thank you dear Margo.
This November 19th, 2019, is the 50th anniversary of the Margo Feiden Galleries Ltd. Margo is penning her memoirs to follow hopefully thereafter. I dare think it shall be Auntie Mame, er ah, Margo telling tales that will keep us captivated!
I hope you will also stay tuned for more stories from me as well, especially hopefully one day, my book, ”Last Train Out of Berlin” – – – Berlin, March 21st, 1945: A charismatic opera singer receives secretive warning that Berlin is doomed by advancing Russian forces and that there is one last train out of Berlin leaving in four hours. A true story that spans three continents and three generations.
STAY TUNED . . .
(with a special nod
to my extra-special line editor…you know who you are!😉)
Photo of the day: A GRANDE DAME – OPERA SINGER ANNY CORNELIUS, MY AUNT
Royalty had proposed marriage to Anny. She could have any suitor she wanted. Her sister Amahlie married, Anny…was married to the passion of her music – her career. She had music in her soul! She sang for the soldiers during the bombing attacks in Berlin. He presence lit up a room. Her laugh was a rolling waterfall of notes. The life of every party, which is why Callas would always invite her.
The letters from Callas are all gone. Anny was one of the first people to recognizably die of Alzheimer’s disease. Although at first it was assumed it was old age senility. She retired in a home for opera singers paid for by the German state. My mother, her sister and I lived in New York. We couldn’t be by her side all the time in her last months. Mom supported the family, ‘oma/grandma’ took care of me. Her neighbors knew of the Callas treasures and talked her out of them. When we arrived in her last days, most everything was gone. All we have are a few distant remnants of her glorious past. She is hard to find on the internet although some opera buffs have found recordings of her we have yet to find ourselves. We only own one record and her publicity photos. Here she is at the height of her career. Anny was my Auntie Mame to the fullest. Grande dame, dramatic, ultra chic and worldly – she taught me how to “live”. Anny Cornelius – today is her birthday.