First I will tell you what the map says about this location, and then I will tell you about the way it made me feel, all rose gold and silver armor. Welcome to Reading the City.
51. S.J. Perelman was a popular humorist like Dalí was a landscape painter. His style is steeped in irony, awash in vividly surreal language, and railing with fury at the indignities of life. You can thank him for the Marx Brothers, too. Later in life he lived at the Gramercy Park Hotel, 2 Lexington Avenue, popular with pop musicians and across the square from The Players Club, 16 Gramercy Park, where he was a member.
The New Yorker archives contain S.J. Perelman’s work. The Gramercy Park Hotel contains ghosts more personal than S.J. Perelman, including a version of the person I once was.
How can I describe the feeling of standing in the darkened doorway of the Gramercy Park Hotel, closed now because we are in the midst of a pandemic? 2020 is the deadliest year in the history of the United States, and it is impossible not to feel the weight of that all the time. The suffering is so ubiquitous now it is almost abstract, like a wave function of pain that keeps collapsing on people.
The Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel is the kind of room in the city made deliberately sexy, with deep velvet cushions ranging in shades of pink from blush to humiliation. I picture the art above the glowing mantle as a fantasy volcano, evocative of heat but not real lava, the kind that turns villages to ash and leaves the entangled bones of strangers dying in each other’s arms. Transparent liquor bottles in pastel shades glow iridescent on lit shelves.
Expect pricey drinks, the occasional semi-famous person, and a space that feels like a Victorian parlor for people who know how to pronounce Givenchy.
The Rose Bar is not a place I would have chosen. I tend to prefer ambient moods generated by connections taking shape in the moment or in interstitial spaces. While I would not have chosen it, it is nevertheless the kind of place I love ending up sometimes.
So many people are missing so much this year. Loved ones. Work. Stability. Any semblance of hope that normalcy will be restored in a nation tattered by two viruses at once, one physical and the other, I want to say mental — but it is almost spiritual. To miss dark bars with expensive cocktails at a time like this is like missing hot chocolate on a turbulent flight as the plane nosedives. But I do, even if I was only at the Rose Bar once, more than a decade ago.
When I walked in on that distant night, a candle burned. It smelled like absolute heaven. At the time I could not tell you the scent was a combination of sandalwood, cedarwood, cardamom, iris, violet and ambrox. This fragrance itself became a ghost in my life. Over the years it was resurrected, suddenly appearing in wisps, on corners, at events, reminding me of this night at the Rose Bar when people at the next table toasted the fleeting moment and a future with an uncertain face that looks different for everyone, lifting their mojitos:
Here for a good time, not a long time.
It was not my imagination, that this candle from the Rose Bar multiplied itself a million times over like an intrusive thought with no connection to the context of reality. The fragrance is based on Le Labo’s Santal 33, became downright cult-like. For a long time, the smell became so pervasive in the city it was like being offered food you once loved before the time it made you so sick you vowed never to touch it again. (Note: my agent Anna Sproul-Latimer read this and told me the scent is actually Cade 26, based on Le Labo’s Santal 26, not Santal 33. Nevertheless, they are related, and the smell of Santal 33 still reminds me of that night, though I always liked it less than the original scent and now I know why — they are not the same. But memory is like that, never the same as the actual event once was).
I never know what I will find or feel when I walk to the next location on this map. I also never know how living writers and editors inhabiting the publishing world today are going to influence the powerful ghosts the map sends me to meet.
For example, back in September, this journey took me to Max Perkins at Location 52: 597 Fifth Ave, Charles Scribner’s Sons. Then on December 3, The Center for Fiction (I am a supporter and founding member) hosted its Annual Awards Benefit. Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Chris Jackson of One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, received the 2020 Maxwell E. Perkins Award, presented by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
The Maxwell E. Perkins Award recognizes an editor, publisher, or agent who over the course of his or her career has discovered, nurtured, and championed writers of fiction in the United States. It is named for Maxwell E. Perkins, of Scribner, one of the most celebrated editors in American literary history.
I have not stopped thinking about Jackson’s acceptance speech since he gave it. I took notes that night as he delivered it. These notes are inexact like fragments of broken pottery found at the shore, but like pieces of clay, they contain the loops and lines of ink once painted on their surface. Here’s what I wrote, with apologies to Chris Jackson for the shattering:
Maxwell Perkins and eugenics books
Haunted by it
Hostile, not built for us
The ideal reader?
The editor of genius, scientific nonsense
This was the industry standard, an industry filled with poison
We can abandon the parts of the past that don’t serve us and imagine a new way
Exorcise ghosts, better imagine ourselves and a new world
My friend Shannon Stirone, who gave me the map that catalyzed this journey, recently wrote, in 2020 Was a Time Warp:
But time itself has felt different this year, our relationship with it altered significantly by the pandemic. Whatever comfort we once derived from considering the past is gone. Now it’s a stark reminder of all that we had, all that we took for granted, and what we must still reckon with — that our future is not likely to look like what we’re used to.
A knight guards a building in Gramercy Park, but he is not real. He is a statue, like the other knight also standing vigil in front of the same building. A reminder of ancient chivalries long since dead, battle cries in languages nobody can remember anymore. Why were we fighting? Probably the same old reasons on different land.
The past happened. We cannot change it, but we can examine it for the sake of asking ourselves which parts are worth keeping and which need to be left behind. We have rose-colored rooms in our imaginations, scented with the ubiquitous fragrance of an entire era’s trends, whether it’s everyone wearing Santal 33 or clinging to false beliefs. We were all born on a hunk of rock in space, ancient aliens in a young universe, blessed with an abundance of imagination and the ability to continue growing, to forgive ourselves for who we once were and to acknowledge that even then, we had our moments, our memorable evenings in glowing, dark bars, with our observations taking new shapes to become characters and stories we tell ourselves so we know who are are and who we might become, if we try. Even the award once named for Maxwell Perkins is now called the C4F Medal for Editorial Excellence.