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Gramercy's Gadfly


The incident with the Washington Irving students resulted in an embarrassing item on the Post's "Page Six" and a ferocious missive from Steven Leitner, one of two Gramercy Park trustees who happens to live at the club: "I do not understand how Sherry could face and humiliate 50 young schoolchildren," Leitner wrote to the park's third trustee, Arthur Abbey. "To let each one of them know that they are unwanted for any reason reminds me of the Nazis making Jewish children wear a yellow star on their sleeves."

"We have Baruch College right around the corner, and you don't see anyone inviting them to the park," says Mrs. Benenson, waving a hand. "Is the implication that we should be nice to these minority students or they might kill us? Should we be afraid of them?"

Since the summer of 1994, James has filed lawsuits against Benenson and one of the two other park trustees, charging them with "arborcide" and general recklessness regarding the park. He's lost the case and two appeals but claims he's going back for one more. Several years ago, James was also involved in lengthy litigation over the rent-stabilized status of the club's 33 apartments; an appeals court finally decided that the club was exempt from rent stabilization because it served an educational and charitable purpose. Some of the plaintiffs in the suit were evicted, including a few who were elderly and terminally ill, and no one has forgotten the bloodlessness of this action. "It's a clear case of misuse of an arts-club building to run a personal fiefdom for Aldon and his buddies," says a lawyer for the evicted tenants.

The ornate, extraordinarily valuable duplex apartments are now leased at the discretion of James and the club's board. Sources claim that James recently contacted Stribling Associates to explore the possibility of selling them as condominiums. Stribling refused to comment.

Dissidents in the association also took him to task for several changes to the club's by-laws at the time he took over the presidency. Even supporters of James concede that as the club has become more open in spirit, it has become far more covert in its day-to-day operations. The complete list of members is no longer made available -- even to other members. The inventory of art has not been recatalogued since James's election (though he insists that new works are entered in the old catalogue and says the club has a curator). Nomination to the board has become more difficult -- one must submit a petition signed by more than 25 percent of the club, a bit tricky without the list of fellow members.

Says a young member of the National Arts Club, “It’s like if David Lynch made a movie of a Henry James novel.”

Those opposing James also had to sue on multiple occasions in order to gain access to the National Arts Club's financial records. The group hired a forensic accountant from the firm of M.R. Weiser; James refused to give the accountant access to the club's photocopier, nor would he allow her to take the documents from the building to, say, Kinko's. Finally, the accountant rented a copier, only to find several of its wires snipped one morning.

The accountant's report alleges that the club redirected profits from the members' dining room, skimming off the top for James's personal expenses, gift-tax fraud, and mishandling of its valuable art collection. "This report was paid for by people who were on their way out of the building," James responds, "and the courts threw it out." Though it's true that no charges have been brought, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI's art-theft squad are said to still be looking into the matter.

"Look, there are such things in literature as people who are wildly ambitious," says Mr. Benenson, settling into an ivory armchair next to a picture of the tremendous family yacht. "Ahab was ambitious -- he perished along with his ship. Brutus was ambitious. Aldon is wildly ambitious."

Few members were in evidence one rainy Monday morning when James accompanied me on a stroll through the club's west wing, all the while detailing the "very important" people who live in Gramercy Park. "We have Julia Roberts across the street, Gregory Peck's daughter, Winona Ryder, the wonderful Jellybean Benitez, and the dress designer Richard Tyler," he began. Then he went to the little boys' room.

Suddenly, from the other direction, a man emerged, identical to James minus the bow tie. He was carrying something wrapped in aluminum foil and coming down the stairs so quickly it looked as if his legs weren't moving at all.

I followed him down to an anteroom on the club's ground level. He had taken a pork chop out of the foil and was feeding it to a fat, grizzled pug.

"Aldon?" I asked.

"No, I'm John James," the man said in a voice as soft and gentle as Aldon's is strained and nervous. "Aldon is my best friend, my only brother, my closest family relative. We live together here in a duplex apartment. But we have many family homes. Right, honey?" he said to the dog.

A much rarer presence in the club than Aldon, John describes himself as a "writer who discussed my journal with Andy Warhol" as well as a photographer who has taken pictures of every famous person to pass through the club -- "I have many photos of JFK Jr. and Princess Di," he says. "God bless them both."

John's right pinkie sported a fifteen-carat diamond ring he said belonged to his recently deceased mother. Rumor has it that the ring is not the only piece of their mother's jewelry the brothers own: Jaws dropped at a recent benefit when a member arrived wearing a 40-carat ruby necklace borrowed from the brothers -- "Even Liz Taylor doesn't have rocks like that," says a friend.

John stretched an arm under an overstuffed chair and pulled out a red spike-heeled Ferragamo. "Oh, here's dear old Sylvia's shoe," he said, proffering it to the dog, who sniffed it warily. "This is Malcolm," he told me. "Malcolm is famous." Indeed, Malcolm once belonged to actress Sylvia Sydney, who died last summer, and after her passing Malcolm was bequeathed to the club. "We keep the shoe near him all the time, because it smells like Sylvia," explained John.

Just then, two people knocked on the door. Their heads were shaved, but their scalps were blue with stubble growing back in. They were carrying hot-pink parasols that matched their hot-pink dresses. They had hot-pink eye shadow, hot-pink fingernails, and hot-pink shoes.

"Eva and Adele!" John shouted in greeting, the first time he had raised his voice above a whisper. Eva and Adele giggled in unison. "Eva and Adele stay here sometimes," John explained. "Eva and Adele are international artists. Eva and Adele are twins. Just like me and Brother."

"But we are of the future," said Adele, who seemed to be a man with a German accent. "You are of the past."

"That's true," John agreed.

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