Like falling onto an exquisite velvet cushion and finding a treasure trove of diamond, I stumbled upon a magical place in New York City last weekend.
It’s called Assouline.
A friend and I took our daughters to Manhattan for a spur-of-the-moment theater trip. They are twelve: that stunning age full of bravado and sassiness but steeped in childish wonder. We had tea at the Plaza in the Palm Court, a room I used to visit in my 20’s when I was a wide-eyed bohemian theater lover who had read so many Neil Simon plays that my veins were drenched in the romantic glamorous fantasy of New York City as a place to fall in love and engage in endless witty banter in between watching plays. (As a moony-eyed 16-year-old, I even wrote short stories about the day I would live at The Plaza and spend my afternoons soaking in a hot bath with strawberries and champagne.)
But alas, my 22-year-old reality was quite different.
When I visited NYC as a young actress and belly dancer, I slept on a friend’s ratty couch in a one-bedroom in Tribeca, trying not to inhale the steady stream of reefer smoke that permeated the air. It was the type of apartment a steady stream of 22-year-olds crashed in, and I hated staying there, but it was free. The place belonged to a friend of a poet-friend of mine, Jeremy, who had just graduated from Carnegie-Mellon, wore a fedora, spoke in long hilarious philosophical ponderings of the world, and dreamed of getting a job as a creditor so he could forgive everyone’s credit card debt. Of course no one would hire him, so he stayed a poet by day, a waiter by night. I had met him one night in Los Angeles after I spent the night dancing alone on the dance floor with my favorite band, Chuck E. Weiss and the Goddamn Liars. He slipped me a long poem he had written while watching me dance—something about the poetry of my movements and my dewy skin. We became friends and when I finally was able to buy myself a plane ticket to NYC, fulfilling my lifelong dream of going to NYC, I hadn’t thought about where I would stay. I thought I’d figure it out once I was there. (Never a good idea). Jeremy and his friends let me crash on the couch. One of the guys sleeping in the apartment had a job and paid the rent while the rest entertained him with their theatrical stories of their own job hunts during the day, told in between hits on a massive water bong. One night at 2 in the morning when we were all sleeping in various spaces around the living room, I was telling them about the power of positive thinking, encouraging their job search. Jeremy said, “So, you’re saying if I think positively enough, my bong will float over to me right now?” This comment, of course, sent the indolent stoners into deep belly laughs.
Eventually my crash pad moved to a cleaner friend’s 6th floor studio walk-up. Vin was a good friend who actually had a job as a stylist for a photo studio. He was obsessed with Farrah Fawcett and Diana Ross and he planned to have two children one day, a boy and girl one named Diana, the other Ross. And his last main obsession was Lucille Ball. He came home every day for lunch to have lunch with “Lu.” He would watch episodes and cackle while he ate a bowl of cold cereal before heading back to work. He was always kind enough to let me sleep on his futon for free when I visited my beloved NYC. And each time I went, I would drag all of my ragtag crew to The Plaza for tea. Back then, the place was dusty and dated, filled with elderly ladies with dripping bejeweled earrings and I would watch, fascinated, as they carried their trembling tea cups to their lips, and I wondered how it would be to actually be able to afford the tea. We would all order water, and if they made us order something, we would order the cheapest thing on the menu and split it, even though my comrades complained the whole time about being forced to sit in a place full of old people.
In any case, the Plaza at 47 is the best for me because I can finally afford the tea! Plus, the Palm Court is now refurbished and is more glamorous and gorgeous than ever. With its arched stained glass ceiling and towering palm trees, it’s pink lights and mirrored tables reflecting the light, the entire room is bathed in a soft glow. The tea for the girls comes in fancy china adorned with Eloise, the iconic children’s book character, and there’s a bar in the center full of well-dressed people drinking pink cosmos in adorable glasses.
On my journey to the powder room, I was delighted to find I had to walk through a bar full of red velvet and cheetah print cushions—maybe my favorite style of décor—and then, I glanced sideways and saw a room of books with the word “Assouline” above it. I ran excitedly up the stairs and felt like beauy was raining over my head. Filled with large beautifully displayed coffee table books on all my favorite subjects, I did a little jig as I ran from book to book: Vintage Cocktails, Marilyn Monroe, Cecil Beaton, Paris in the 20’s, Kiki de Montparnasse, Jackson Pollack, Jackie O., Frida Kahlo, Cartier, Grace Kelly, Monte Carlo, Elizabeth Taylor, Mae West, the glittering jewels of India, gorgeous hotels…
And then there were the books on famous costume balls—and I do so love an amazing costume: the more extravagant and creative the better. It was almost like someone had cracked open my brain and said, “Let’s make a bookshop of Marci’s favorite things.”
I ran from book to book, cooing with delight, loving the curios intermixed with the books: the antique snake letter opener and magnifying glass, the large works of art taken from the books, and in a basket on the floor, right on top, was my girlfriend’s recent book, Brioni, The Man Who Was: Gaetano Savini. I ran and opened it up, thrilled to see her name, Michelle Finamore. She is the Curator of Fashion Arts at the MFA in Boston and she wrote this fabulous book on Brioni, the iconic menswear designer. And it was on top, prominently displayed.
I ran downstairs as fast as I could to get my crew: the girls and Rosemary (the other Mom with us). They were dying to get to the Eloise shop downstairs, but I said, “Oh no! This is amazing—you will thank me.” They walked in and, being 12 and not being particularly interested in glamour, they said, “Hmmm.” But then I showed them my favorite books, the photos, the gorgeous fashion, the fantastic magnifying glass,and they were hooked. As we left, the man working the front of the shop, Diego, was busy wrapping books to ship in white paper and sealing them with a wax seal.
“Are you making wax seals?” I asked, delighted.
“My favorite part of my job,” he said. I pointed to a book on a shelf behind him on jewels in India, which seem to be popping up in my latest mystery novel. Diego happily pulled it down for me so I could scroll though the glorious glittering pages. I showed the girls some of the stunning photos and they gasped and cooed over the sheer beauty.
As we left the shop, I saw an Indian wedding and a parade of beautiful women in stunning saris walked by and all the men were wearing pink velvet turbans–I’m not kidding—pink velvet turbans! My Grandma Lupe used to wear glitter turbans with her sparkling heels and red toes. I called George to tell him I planned to rock the pink velvet turban look when I hit 75. Then I did a happy jig out of the Plaza with an Assouline hardback catalog that I can’t wait to order from. Imagine… your mailbox filled with books wrapped in paper and stamped in wax…
So see, The Plaza has layers of secrets and a little bit of exploration can unveil untold riches in so many ways. I expected the riches in fashion inspiration and high tea fun, but I was not expecting riches of the mind and soul, my favorite kind.