It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a property in the Swiss Alps is in no need of a house in New York City. With apologies to old Jane, I am seriously contemplating giving up living in the Big Bagel after close to seventy years. It’s elementary, dear readers, the place simply ain’t what it used to be; In fact it’s the lack of glamour and chic, the utter coarseness of everyday life, and the total lack of manners of its denizens that have driven me to contemplate leaving what used to be the most glamorous and exciting place on earth.
My first view of Manhattan was in 1948, being driven in from LaGuardia Airport by my father’s chauffeur and seeing the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings lording it over other skyscrapers. It was like a promise of great times to come. After so many years of war in Europe, those great towers of the city clustered on a narrow island glittered in the afternoon sun. The city looked untouched by war, colossal and imposing, and—compared with a world of loss and ruin back in Europe—majestic. We moved into a large suite at the Plaza Hotel on 5th Avenue and 59th Street, and from my window I looked at a large RCA sign on the most imposing of all buildings, Rockefeller Center. Above it, an electric fox terrier moved its head and looked up at a sign that read “His Master’s Voice.” I didn’t sleep a wink that night. After four years of war and six months of a civil conflict between communist guerrillas and royalists, beautiful Athens had been torn to shreds, pockmarked by bullets and blown apart. Gotham was like walking into paradise.
The next day, on Fifth Avenue, I saw people as glamorously dressed as those I had seen in the movies. One could feel that 5th Avenue was the essence of America, its omnipotence and its promise that anyone could join. Men wore hats and suits, while women wore gloves with hats and high heels. Most people were fair-haired and Nordic-looking, as were the tall Irish cops—because of height rules, now abolished—who were everywhere. My honeymoon with the city didn’t last long; I was sent off to boarding school after three days. But New York remained always on my mind, a dreamlike obsession for its glamour and unsaid promise that anything was possible. Especially romance. After six years I was back in the city for good and with a vengeance to make up for lost time. I was 20 years old.
The city’s nothing-is-impossible promise was no white lie. My family had moved from the gigantic French chateau look-alike Plaza Hotel across the street to the steeple-topped Sherry Netherland, facing Central Park. This became the center of operations for me, or as my father put it, Opération Cherchez-les-Femmes. New York back then was a magnet for every pretty young woman, even more so than Hollywood, hence a well-off horny young man had no trouble finding dates. The two most glamorous nightclubs were the El Morocco and the Stork Club, and I became a regular at both places in no time.
Mind you, I suppose there was crime and dirt back during those halcyon days and nights, except ensconced on the Upper East Side, one never experienced it from up close. There were no-go areas in Harlem and in the Bronx where criminals killed and robbed other criminals, but throughout the years that I lived on Fifth and Park Avenues I remember only one murder. The party lasted until the late ’60s, when hippies and antiwar freaks, lionized by the media, took over the night scene. Both Morocco and the Stork closed and were replaced by large impersonal halls that catered to druggies, gays, and outrageously dressed show-offs. The WASP establishment moved out—literally—as it already had been replaced on Wall Street and in the banking sector. Elegance was out, as was restraint, not to mention good manners, and public showing off, swearing, and ugliness à la Andy Warhol and his freaks were in and on the front pages.
At this late stage, whenever I read about the suffocating confines of ’50s America, I want to reach for a you-know-what, but if I was caught carrying one, and being white with a clean record and all that, I’d most probably die in jail. Let’s face it: America today is not the same country I once encountered as a bright-eyed 12-year-old. Denunciation, once a communist custom, is now more American than apple pie, and mob rule is almost an article of the Constitution.
The America of today gives me the impression it is resigned to its own decline and weary of its values—not least too much freedom for criminals to enjoy equal rights with the rest of us. While hundreds of thousands from Central America besiege the borders in order to enter the U.S., Americans believe they don’t deserve the nation’s success and deny their own virtues. Success is now seen as a privilege that deliberately puts other groups at a disadvantage. There is something very wrong when a man can lose his job if he even hints that he finds a woman attractive, while 3-year-olds are being taught by teachers that they can change their sex and become girls or vice versa. Time to move to the Alps, and I’ll tell you all about that next time.