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, visually 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?

Yesterday, published an editorial in response to Salon columnist Dan D'Addario (author of the hilarious "Sex and the City 3" parody account on Twitter) and his lashing of homophobic comments at this year's Golden Globes. Jared Leto and Michael Douglas were given awards for their portrayals of transgender and gay people, respectively. Yet while onstage, both appeared eager to reclaim any perceived loss in masculinity during filming. Leto proudly quipped that the "little Brazilian bubble butt" he showed in Dallas Buyers Club was not prosthetic (no secret that Latin men are sexually stereotyped in the gay community), while Douglas feared his being cast as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra meant he'd been caught "mincing" (I haven't seen that much of 1962 since the beginning of Mad Men). D'Addario said that Douglas' insensitive comment actually discredited his own performance (i.e. What kind of homophobe can truly connect with a gay character?). But Time made an important distinction here: Bad behavior doesn't make bad artists.

Jared Leto does the macho dude-point after accepting his Globe for playing a transgender woman.  (Credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

Naturally, yes, I'm wearily disgusted that, in 2013, Hollywood heavyweights blithely bro out at the expense of the LGBT community. Considering all the recent legislation in favor of LGBT rights, and the increase in social acceptance of them -- helped by some potent film and television options with relevant themes -- we still have a long way to go before even playfully knocking and trivializing gays becomes truly uncool to those who can't know life in our shoes. But as unnecessary as their comments were, and as much as they revealed both men's fear-based need to confirm their hyper-hetero status, Michael Douglas and Jared Leto aren't diminishing their talents by making stupid remarks in front of millions of people.

Dan D'Addario wrote that Douglas' use of "mincing" in reference to the mannerisms of gays calls into question his ability to "find humanity in such people." Having seen Behind the Candelabra, I think it's majorly over-reaching to call either the film or Douglas' performance a tasteless caricature of Liberace's gaudy, gay world. No drama is without its intended comic relief, but nothing about that movie glossed over Liberace's personal trials, addictions, and self-betrayal.

It's quite obvious when an actor isn't adequately connecting to the character he or she is playing; straight or not, the result is forced and phony. There's no way Douglas could have so convincingly brought Liberace to life if all he planned to do was "mince" on camera in sequined bell-bottoms. The voice, the pompadour, the sashaying, the bizarre plastic surgery. . . it was an over-the-top portrayal because Liberace was, by all accounts, anything but subtle. Flair and drama defined him -- publicly and privately. And regardless of his public treatment of homosexuality, Douglas didn't fail to deliver a compelling Liberace. If he had approached the role insensitively, it would have indeed come off as hilarious, because it's far easier to make any flamboyant person look more funny than complex.

For gays, sexuality is an important part of who we are, but it's still just one part of the whole. The question here is not "Do straight actors understand gay characters?" Rather, "Do actors understand who they're playing?"

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. 


Location: 42nd Street/Times Square NQR Platform

This city has -- arguably -- the best public transport system in the country. It's still the cheapest of the great cities, and the most efficient, regardless of how impatient New Yorkers tend to be with it. Herding oneself in and out of subway cars is a daily ritual in New York, and returning home to the Midwest, I find myself missing the muted ding that heralds the opening and closing of train car doors. It's often these small elements that give us an enormous sense of place in the world.