Owner: Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney
From: 1940 to 1942
Interesting factoid: The house was around the corner from the original Whitney Museum on 8th Street.
Tenant: Jean Bach
From: 1953 to present
Interesting factoid: When Jean and Bob Bach moved in, it was a stretch to pay the $350 a month rent. She’s still renting.
For all its charms, Washington Mews was a fairly humble abode for Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, compared with the mansion built by her father, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, on the site where Bergdorf Goodman now stands, or the Fifth Avenue mansion she’d lived in with her husband, Harry Payne Whitney. But for the last two years of her life, Whitney— a serious sculptor and legendary arts patron—lived here, purchasing a series of carriage houses in 1940 that she connected to make her new residence. It was conveniently located around the corner from the museum she founded and gave her name to (and which later moved to Madison Avenue and 75th Street). It also had a cozy, deliciously feminine bedroom for her beloved niece Gloria Vanderbilt, who would stay with her aunt during school breaks.
Even today, Vanderbilt dreams of her girlhood bedroom. Standing in her studio (she has a show of her paintings opening November 18 at the Andre Zarre Gallery), Vanderbilt, who painted her memory of the Mews house here, can still wax rhapsodic about it. In her memoir, Once Upon a Time, she lovingly describes the room’s “two French doors looking out onto the snow falling on the empty cobblestoned street below, framed by curtains of taffeta of palest lavender spilling from the ceiling onto the floor in pools of silk,” its elegant scale, its silver-papered walls, and the Venetian bureau and the daybed gessoed with water lilies and white butterflies.
Today, the mews houses another great arts patron: documentary filmmaker Jean Bach, who made the Academy Award–nominated A Great Day in Harlem. The grand piano in her living room (like her, the piano was born in 1918), which came from her family’s house, has been played by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Bobby Short; Dizzy Gillespie sat in the Louis XVI–style bergère next to the sofa for his interview in the film, and artwork from her friends Salvador Dalí, Tony Bennett, e.e. cummings, and Norman Mailer hangs on the walls. Bach and her late husband, Bob Bach, an independent producer, moved here in 1953 and entertained constantly. Edward Hopper lived across the Mews, and Ellington would often start the party at the piano. “When the seating ran out, people sat on the stairs,” she says. Too bad the walls can’t sing.