I just read that the Four Seasons, the inimitable shrine to modernism and fine dining in midtown Manhattan is going to move. The news awoke deep and joyous memories and, like far too many things lately, brought tears to my eyes. I’ve had a fair share of meals there — celebratory dinners, business lunches. I was never among those who sat powerfully in the grill room, and preferred sitting in the luxe pool room watching the air roil the chain curtains on the massive windows. We toasted a friend’s long-awaited graduation there as an errant champagne cork popped into the pool, and marked birthdays and anniversaries nibbling rolls from their cunning bread trays.
What sprung most quickly to mind, though, was my first meal there. Our mother came from Pittsburgh to celebrate her birthday with her daughters. Over the previous years we all had migrated to the City and it was the first time all four of us had lived in the same town in more than a decade. Mummy came alone, leaving Daddy behind. She, and we, wanted the Four Seasons for dinner.
It was the mid-70’s, I was younger than my oldest child now, and my mother was about my current age. I was working in the printing business and living in the 47th St. Diamond District. My oldest sister was still committed to her radical politics, my two other sisters were involved in an evolving spiritual cult. It was a time when it was impossible to overdress for something like this, but I only remember that Mummy was wearing a gorgeous green Chinese brocade sheath.
Our reservation was a bit early, since we did not have the cache to secure a prime 8:00 seating. As we entered the pool room on that warm August night, I was transported to the Manhattan I had read about, to the city I had dreamed of living in. It really did seem as if nothing bad could happen here, to quote Capote about another meal in a different institution. While the captain did haughtily correct my sister’s pronunciation of truite bleu, the rest of the meal was seemlessly presented and beautifully paced. I’m sure we had a birthday desert, but that recollection, too, has escaped me.
As the meal was finished, my sisters talked about the commitments they had to return to — child, husband, boyfriend, housemates. I had nothing that required me, and I was frankly annoyed that they were running off so early in the evening. Mummy had insisted on paying for dinner, and I felt strongly that she should not return to her hotel to digest it. She had come to New York, we had to do something!
My relationship with my mother was fraught, more so than many less so than some, but it was complicated and often dicey. I was, however, determined that she, who ventured here alone to celebrate with her girls, was going to have a good time. I hadn’t been here that long and wasn’t quite sure where we should go to accomplish this. I opted for after dinner drinks at Sardi’s. It was someplace she knew of & it always held a sort of louche appeal for me. We went to the upstairs bar, ordered our cocktails and Vince Sardi chatted with us. The place filled up during surrounding theater intermissions and afterwards when we asked Sardi where we should go, he suggested Jimmy Ryan’s one of the only remaining jazz venues in midtown, where Roy Eldridge led the house band.
Eldridge, known as “Little Jazz”, was a virtuosic trumpeter from Pittsburgh. My mother was an admirer. We again parked ourselves at the bar. When I stopped by the stage to leave a tip and ask if he would dedicate a song to my mother, he willingly obliged and his next tune was for “Lady Grace, from Pittsburgh.” During his break, he joined us for drinks and he & my mum talked about old jazz joints in Pittsburgh. He was flirty and charming and he left us both in a swoon. We stayed for the last set and stumbled out into the summer night giddy and laughing.
Neither of us wanted the night to end. We went back to the Pierre and happily found the little bar there still open. After last call, we headed to the ladies room. Upon exiting, we discovered we were locked in a hallway that led to the locked bar. We found this hilarious in the way that only drunken people can, and our shrieks of laughter alerted someone from the silent lobby who came and rescued us. It was the perfect ending to a perfect night.
It is unlikely that one of the best nights I had in NYC was with my mother. It serves as a virtual time capsule of a time and place; a uniquely NY evening marked by world class dining, great music and kindnesses in unexpected places. It deeply saddens me that the Four Seasons will join so many other places in living on only in memory, but I am thrilled to have this one.