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!😉)
Mondays on Memory Lane: HAPPY 89th BIRTHDAY LAUREN BACALL !
In 1987, I lived at 160 Columbia Heights on the promenade in Brooklyn Heights, and Lauren had bought the upstairs penthouse apartment for Jason Robard’s father. I had no idea she owned the upstairs apartment, it was all hush-hush. One night, I had stayed out till the early morning hours at a night club and was coming home at around 6:00 am. I took my 3 little strays onto the elevator and pushed “L” for lobby. The elevator went up, allll the way to the penthouse level. I was so pissed that at this early hour, when my dogs were in need, that we were being hijacked “up”, I decided to refuse to acknowledge the person and kept my eyes closed. As we are going down I hear a knee crack and then all of a sudden, one of the most famous smokey voices on the planet, “oh they’re so cute!“ No one else has that voice, it couldn’t be. I opened my eyes and there was Lauren Bacall playing with my dogs on the elevator floor. “Wuuwhat??” It was totally surreal! After our first ‘meeting’, Bacall and I would often meet in the elevator and she would play with my 3 dogs regularly. I would always try to coax her to come to my apartment to sign some of my Bacall posters, she always politely declined. “One day…” I thought.
Photo of the day: WORLD AIDS DAY – RORY PATTERSON 1985
In the 1970’s and 1980’s I was what you call a “stage door Johnny.” I would haunt the stage doors of the theater district hoping to get an autograph of the greats of the time. Gloria Swanson, Ingrid Bergman, Richard Burton, Lauren Bacall, Anne Baxter, Eartha Kitt, Elizabeth Taylor, Ruby Keeler, Diana Rigg, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert and dozens more, it was a glorious time.
When the performance was over, I’d go into the theater pretending to look for something (not) left behind and grab a Playbill and then rush to the stage door to get an autograph. I was in high school and early college days and couldn’t afford the tickets to all the shows I wanted to see. What I could afford after my rendezvous with Gloria Swanson or Ingrid Bergman – was a hamburger at a long gone theater restaurant called “Charlie’s“. It was located on West 45th street, right off Schubert Alley between Broadway and 8th Avenue.
One of the waiters there was Rory Patterson. He had a magnetic charm and would always wink and give me a free drink from the bar. (He happened to be legendary actor George C. Scott’s favorite waiter and George would standardly tip him a $50 dollar bill no mater what the check came to.) Over the years Rory and I became friends. He was a cool guy to know because after the Broadway shows were over, many of the supporting casts would come to Charlie’s and sing around the baby grand piano. The walls were covered with framed posters of the shows, all of them autographed to the hilt, now worth a fortune. So Rory would invite me to stay at the bar and we would sing show tunes with the cast of “Applause” or “Sugar Babies” (sometimes Ann Miller herself would be there), “Sweeney Todd” , “Hello Dolly” or Eartha Kitt’s “Timbuktu”. I was star struck at the magic goings on after hours that many a theatergoer didn’t know about. There I was at one o’clock in the morning singing show tunes with Rory and Eartha Kitt!!
By 1978 I graduated college and life had to become a bit more serious and staying out all night till all hours weekdays wasn’t the smart thing to do, I had a job to go to. Rory continued on at Charlie’s and whenever mom and/or friends and I went to the theater, the natural stop afterwards was of course Charlie’s.
On Rory’s nights off he would appear in many of the local cabarets and night clubs, there were so, so many of them in those days. He was a talented singer and was developing a following, some of them famous. My family and I would have front row seats at many of his shows. He was finally ‘discovered’ for his great singing voice and good looks and was offered the lead role in a Broadway musical called (I think) “The Singer” (something like that…, but it never opened).
Rory was so terrified of the auditions he started to drink, heavily. So much so it became a detriment to his character and the part was taken away from him. He drowned what he felt was his failure and fears in booze and sex. Gay bath houses were in every part of town in those days and Rory would drink himself blind and wake up the next afternoon in one of the bathes. He’d show up late for his shift at work. His downward spiral caused him also to lose some of his friends. It wasn’t good to be seen with someone who slurred their words. “Wasn’t he supposed to star in that musical? What happened to him?” His mother couldn’t save him, his friends started to give up and slowly I must admit I drifted away too. As far as I knew Rory felt it was safer to just bar tend and wait tables than to face the terror of having to prove yourself to producers and backers and then audiences night after night.
Fast forward to September 26, 1985, it was opening night of Lily Tomlin’s brilliant one woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” and mom and I were thrilled to attend this genius of a new show. The show was a comedic masterpiece and mom and I reminisced about Lily’s earlier days on ‘Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In’, so… feeling nostalgic we thought we would celebrate the night by going to Charlie’s and surprise Rory and to catch up. We happily went to ’his section’ and waited to see his cheery smile. We were brought menus. Drinks were served and finally a waiter asked us for our order. “Oh no,” we said, “We’re waiting for Rory”. Our waiter rushed over to the bar, we assumed to get Rory. Dead silence fell over the staff. They all seemed to freeze in their spots and they all just looked at each other and no one would look us. It was that kind of awkward moment you see dramatized in a movie. Our waiter returned, “I think may not have heard,” his look was so grave we knew it wasn’t that Rory had merely been fired. “Rory passed away.” He leaned over our table and whispered in the lowest whisper possible “It was AIDS.” The word was not said out loud in those days. Nothing else was said. We just pointed to the hamburger on the menu and fought back the tears because we had already drawn attention, it wasn’t easy. We ate in silence. As we left the manager came over and hugged us and said “We all loved Rory, George C. Scott is a little richer now.” It was an awkward joke but we know how he meant it. Mom and I walked home and were guessing what this new plague AIDS was about. We simply didn’t know, it hadn’t hit us yet. It was a night that changed us forever.
The next day I found my old address book and contacted his mother. After a long consoling conversation she ended the call by saying, “He’s on the quilt, you know.”
In those days the AIDS quilt was only in the beginning stages and not that large yet. I contacted a Broadway AIDS charity of the time and they offered me to come by their office to see a photo of his quilt.
One of the volunteers in this tiny office handed the photo to me, there was ‘Rory Patterson’ spelled out in little hand made cloth light bulbs and underneath, lots of Playbills. I smiled, Rory in a unique odd way, had finally gotten his name up in lights without the stage fright, safe and secure, finally not wrestling his demons, but resting in peace.
The idea for the NAMES Project Memorial Quilt was conceived in 1985 by AIDS activist Cleve Jones during the candlelight march, in remembrance of the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. For the march, Jones had people write the names of loved ones that were lost to AIDS-related causes on signs that would be taped to the San Francisco Federal Building. All the signs taped to the building looked like an enormous patchwork quilt to Jones, and he was inspired. It officially started in 1987 in San Francisco by Jones, Mike Smith, and volunteers Joseph Durant, Jack Caster, Gert McMullin, Ron Cordova, Larkin Mayo and Gary Yuschalk. At that time many people who died of AIDS-related causes did not receive funerals, due to both the social stigma of AIDS felt by surviving family members and the outright refusal by many funeral homes and cemeteries to handle the deceased’s remains. Lacking a memorial service or grave site, The Quilt was often the only opportunity survivors had to remember and celebrate their loved ones’ lives. The first showing of the The Quilt was 1987 on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The Quilt was last displayed in full on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in 1996, but it will return in July 2012 to coincide with the start of the XIX International AIDS Conference, 2012.