The Sounds of New York series takes aural urban moments that, together, capture the sensory experience of being a New Yorker. All recordings taken with my iPhone. 

Summer Concert at the Naumburg Bandshell

Promenading up the Mall in Central Park is one of the city's recreational rites of passage. An iconic spot in film and lit, it's a pleasure sauntering along this broad pedestrian avenue, canopied by elegant elms filtering late afternoon sunlight into abstract patterns on the concrete beneath you. Life's great pageant passing by, it's a rewarding path to take home from work after a trying day, an important reminder of why New York is the only city to call home.  

But the voices, buskers, and ambient traffic fall silent when you pass the Naumburg Bandshell.

In an instant, New York becomes Paris in the '30s, when Beethoven and Chopin were played en plein air in the Luxembourg Gardens. Since 1905, the Naumburg Orchestral Concerts have been staged every summer at the bandshell, a heavenly neoclassical structure crowning the east side of the Mall. You realize you've forgotten what real civilization looks like until you see rows of speechless people seated before a pianist at a Steinway. And all outdoors.

The night I happen upon the scene, an orchestra called The Knights is playing renditions of Sufjan Stevens, but I'm so glad I lingered for Ori's Fearful Symmetry by Russian composer Ljova. A lush, tear-jerking suite, he conceived it as an anthem for Israeli youth.

As those cinematic strings float across the balmy breeze, it's just getting dark enough to see the fireflies dancing by the elms. People are waltzing with their babies; heads are resting on shoulders; hands are pairing up. It's a major moment to be human.

Entering Anya Firestone's sun-drenched apartment in Hell's Kitchen, my eye intuitively pivots toward a blazing pink glow down the hall at left. It's unmistakable from the photos I'd seen that this is her bedroom. Like Belle mesmerized by the enchanted rose in the Beast's West Wing, my eyes are fixed on it even when we exchange la bise, the French salutation as natural to Anya as her taste for macarons.

Anya Firestone in her Hell's Kitchen living room. Top, Julien David. Skirt, Prada.

I'm seeing her for the first time since a chance café meeting on Rue des Martyrs in Paris, June 2012. I was vacationing, renting an apartment in Pigalle before studying abroad in the southeastern city of Grenoble. She, however, was in the painstaking process of completing a Masters in French Cultural Studies at Columbia University's Paris campus, writing the thesis that prepared her for her current work as a curator and professional aesthete in her native New York. "I had no adjustment period when I went to Paris," she says unequivocally. "It was so comfortable.

Before heading into the famous boudoir to see what outfits she selected for our shoot, I poke my head beyond the foyer. It's a capacious two-bedroom residence on a corner, awash in warm cream tones punctuated by Anya's colorful artwork on the walls -- a self portrait with her mother, a collage of salvaged price tags in the shape of Manhattan -- and some statement furnishings of an Architectural Digest variety. But the real drama is the panoramic backdrop of Midtown skyline enticing me out onto a small brick terrace. The sunlight is particularly piercing today, and Anya's hometown is in HD.

A Manhattan vista from Anya's kitchen window.

Turning back toward the bedroom, I'm bombarded by two miniature cocoa poodles with jangling collars and little silk scarves. The tinier of the two is named Zsa Zsa, the larger Cyrano, and for a hot second I'm back on the Left Bank watching doting moms in Hermès feed their pooches from small marble tables outside the Bon Marché. 

Cyrano (front) and Zsa Zsa, Anya's very French poodles. 

Paris is omnipresent chez Anya. Returning hurriedly to New York after the New Year for a job, she still has an apartment in the 7th arrondissement housing a few pairs of wedge heels that didn't make it into her luggage. It's fitting really, since she'll always have at least one foot in the City of Light.

When you investigate French culture, and specifically French Cultural Studies, the subjects and obsessions within them are those that have always been inherently mine as well,” she explains. “Those streets! Paris is overwhelming — in a [Mark Rothko]-staredown-intense kind of way. At times I can’t fathom why everyone around me isn’t dramatically crying their mascara off professing how good it all looks. Even the dirty parts. They too are suspiciously special.

Her wardrobe is a sartorial treasure trove spanning whimsy, humor, and even the formidable. There's no unifying element throughout marking some defining preference, yet it's immediately plausible that all of this could end up in a style exhibit at the Met bearing her name. But to Anya, curating isn't restricted to the museum -- it's a way of life.  

Dress, Jean-Paul Gaultier.

I’m hyper-aware of words, language, and images, and I know that there are ways in which I can put things together in patterns that have not yet been arranged or styled before. New combinations can provoke new ideas about the life of art, and art in life.

Shoes, Dolce & Gabbana.

Anya's taste is anything but minimal, yet none of her clothes, books, or furnishings appear superfluous, and nothing is there by chance. There's a person, a laugh, or at the very least a reason behind each accoutrement in this aesthetic sanctuary. "Every item I have has a provenance,” she says. And she rarely experiences buyer's remorse, a natural advantage to being hyper-selective when shopping. 

When I see something [I like], I have a visceral reaction to it, and not just art objects. If it’s a shoe, a pastry, a clutch, a painting. . . how it’s crafted. I value tremendously the human ability to create.

Anya's bedroom is a potion of elegant tricks, wit and her famous puns ("Je pun, donc je suis" is her personal mantra, not just her Instagram bio). Antique hand mirrors hang above her Rococo headboard, framing reflections of the pink wallpaper intricately scrolled with gold on the opposite wall. An ornately framed buzzer leans against an electric candelabra on her dresser, reading "Press for champagne." Her Olympia Le Tan clutch is a classic fashion pun, an accessory disguised as Emile Zola's novel Au bonheur des dames, about a Parisian department store catering to the capital's conspicuously consuming women.     

"Zola" Clutch, Olympia Le Tan.

Holding court: Maurice, one of two reigning Persians chez Anya.

But Anya's intellectual aesthetic is very much grounded in warmth and comfort, making her personal museum above all a livable private domain. "I could stare at a [Rothko painting] for hours, but I‘m not sure if I could take his looming forms staring at me before I put on my makeup or drink my coffee in the morning." She pauses. "But, you know, if someone offered me a Rothko, I’d take it."  

Being in a curator's home is an especially enlightening experience, because the decorative stakes seem substantially higher in the dwelling of someone for whom artistic selection is an occupation. For someone like Anya, whose curatorial sense is acutely heightened, the field of artistic sampling is huge. But that works for the curator, because making unexpected pairings of creative products -- be they sculpture, furniture, colors, or clothes -- is what she does. It's an ability to assemble the vast options and then make dynamic choices from them that's so admirable. 

"[At a party,] I’d play Kanye West. And then some belly-dancing music. But I’d start the evening with Ella Fitzgerald."  

Photos by Christian Frarey | Copyright 2014

Any Manhattanite wandering the stately streets of Uptown is highly aware of the regal ghosts who made it what it is today. Any of the ornate townhouses and occasional free-standing mansions that punctuate Fifth Avenue's frontage of Jazz Age apartment buildings are formidable proof that, despite all revolutionary efforts to prevent it, American royalty did once exist. Through November 2014, the Museum of the City of New York's Gilded New York provides record of our nation's cosmopolitan elite and how they lived from the late-19th to early-20th centuries (or the 40 years prior to the standardization of income tax).   

View of Fifth Avenue at 58th Street, looking south, with the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion at right, ca. 1880.

The MCNY is a small wonder at 103rd and Fifth Avenue in East Harlem. Though off the beaten path of the average tourist, those with a taste for the historical identity of this city -- not just the icons -- are familiar with its reputation for modest but exquisitely curated exhibits. Staffed by a variety of natives hailing from surroundings blocks and the Upper East Side alike, this is a museum for New Yorkers, who have long been accustomed to playing global gatekeepers. 

Fifth Avenue entrance of the Museum of the City of New York, East Harlem.

It was during the Gilded Age that New York became not just America's true cosmopolitan mecca, but a global cultural and industrial contender, and those who supervised the prosperity made a point of publicizing it. Prior to 1870, rich Americans had various ways of articulating their wealth, but never before had they actually flaunted it. Gilded New York details the era's superlative opulence in clothes, objets d'art, and splendid portraiture. 

The Tiffany & Co. Gallery of Gilded New York, Museum of the City of New York • © Julie Saad Photography

Evoking an Upper East Side salon ca. 1880, the surprisingly small, rectangular room (the newly inaugurated Tiffany & Co. Gallery) is an aesthetic feast and fantasy. Don't look for any diversity of perspective here; the socio-economic disparities of the time are not the takeaway in this jewel-encrusted temple. Naturally, the only word to describe it is aristocratic -- exactly what the objects' original owners intended.

Chrysanthemum print gown by Charles Frederick Worth, 1885 

Alexandre Cabanel, Olivia Peyton Murray Cutting (Mrs. William Bayard Cutting), 1887 | Museum of the City of New York

Michele Gordigiani, Cornelia Ward Hall and Her Children, 1880 | Museum of the City of New York

Life-size portraits of New York's first society empresses line the eggplant damask walls, forming a magisterial reception committee of New York's intermarried brahmin families: Halls, Schermerhorns, and Astors. Their faces radiate contentment, their poised figures imply a lifetime of pampering. If a toddler could ever appear blasé, Cornelia Ward Hall's daughter proved it in her portrait with Mother. 

Thomas Wilmer Dewing, DeLancey Iselin Kane, 1887; frame by architect Standford White | Museum of the City of New York

Frame detail.

Frog leather card case with gold and diamonds.

Of course, devouring all the diamond brooches, precious fabrics, and the talk of millions spent on costume balls with ensuing media scandals -- surrounding misuse of corporate funds to pay for them -- sent me boomeranging back to my own epoch. It was 2008 all over again.

Through the lens of history, all this material magnificence has great artistic value. But the pursuits and products of the rich in this period were widely derided by contemporary critics as superficial, mere variations on European originals. By the Gilded Age, rich Americans had fully departed from the patriotic austerity of the early 19th century in pursuit of an imitation aristocracy. French gowns by Maison Worth, chinoiserie, and other Continental glories filled the halls of New York's industrial monarchs who, says MCNY costumes and textiles curator Phyllis Magidson, "never asked about price, whereas [actual royalty] always did." For the newly monied Vanderbilts and Carnegies of the time, ostentation was the most memorable means of communicating economic dominance, a forceful complement to their calling cards.

High fashion and the decorative arts have naturally found their proving grounds among the wealthy, but our modern notions of conspicuous consumption can be traced to this period. Our tastes are more globally influenced and lifestyle preferences vary, but before those four decades of unparalleled extravagance, Americans weren't known for making a show of money.

For most of us, that level of personal wealth is the stuff of fantasy. But the detachment from reality we witness watching Bravo doesn't sit too far from Fifth Avenue's historic ballrooms.  

SoHo Sophisticate

Descend into coveted Downtown territory, and you'll find the polar opposite of Midtown's urban frat boy. The men SOuth of HOuston Street are uber-cool entrepreneurs, fashion publicists and ambiguously self-identified  "creatives" who don't venture north among the Burberry-clad masses unless their chic bosses demand it. Silver foxes over 50 and twiggy 20-somethings alike march this trapezoidal neighborhood between Houston and Canal Streets, all donning murses and piercing glances. When not working off Macbook Airs in their converted-factory lofts or sipping shots of Illy in between "concept" meetings, these types can be found Instagramming each other at brand launch parties or running fingers through their expensively coiffed pompadours over drinks at Pegu Club.    


Muted, mostly monochromatic ensembles. Anything designer, preferably by Alexander Wang. If you wear green, be sure it's olive. And any overt branding is verboten. If you can't tell who designed it, you should really take up space somewhere else. 


French 75, vodka soda, prosecco


Goldroom, Daft Punk, Janelle Monáe

Yesterday, you may have noticed a sumptuous, cosmic force pressuring you to wear your grandmother's cultured pearls instead of . . . whatever else you normally pull off the dresser. Or perhaps you found yourself thinking of the next possible occasion on which you could wear a full-skirted taffeta gown, ESPECIALLY one with a train. I felt an irrepressible desire to Instagram all my photos in black and white, and be photographed by a draped window in one of the salons at the Frick. This all makes perfect sense, of course, because yesterday was Cecil Beaton's birthday.

Before Penn, Avedon, and long before Leibovitz, Beaton was the monarch of fashion photography. So striking and clear were his images, they epitomized mid-century modernity. So statuesque and regal were his subjects, they evoked the classical monumentality of the old masters. Together, these elements elevated Beaton's work to an almost impossible beauty. When we think of the stark black and white of Hollywood's golden age, or the saturated hues of '50s society portraits, we're actually envisioning this one man's photographs. 

But Beaton's career encompassed an enviable mélange of fabulous talents. From film production to costume design, painting to diary-keeping, he was a true renaissance creative. 

All photos by Cecil Beaton |

Some of Beaton's most breathtaking work will be featured at the Met Museum's costume exhibit Charles James: Beyond Fashion, opening May 8. Legendary couturiers like James often partnered with great photographers to produce artistic advertisements suited best for museums, not magazines. 

Reality can be a tad overrated, no?