The Encyclopedia of Superlatives

Sherry Britton, 1940; Cornelia Guest, 1983.Photo: Bettmann/Corbis; Unimed/Rex USA

By Liz Goldwyn
author, Pretty Things
Part of the appeal of the burlesque queens of the thirties and forties was that they were kind of approachable, even a little bit rough around the edges. But Sherry Britton wasn’t like that—she was a diva. She behaved as though she were too good for burlesque, and that created a fantasy: that Sherry was a princess who just happened to be traipsing across the boards of the Bowery, regal even when she was balancing two glasses of water on her breasts. Of course, backstage she would get into knockdown, drag-out fights with other queens like Margie Hart, and her sexual affairs were legendary. But even so, Sherry had this air of dignity and grace: She was a star, and she had the attitude of a star.

By William Norwich
Doris Duke was introduced to society in 1930, at age 18, and presented at no lesser place than Buckingham Palace. But her heart just wasn’t in it. Brenda Frazier was fabulous. Secretly, though, she was miserable, and confessed the sorrow of it all to Life magazine in 1963. Beautiful Jacqueline Bouvier did it for her family and thought it was all pretty silly. So the tiara goes to Cornelia Guest, the postmodern, modern deb who not only had a ball, or several, but also managed to curtsy her way from real palaces to disco palaces, creating the template for today’s industrial-strength celebutantes—like Kim Kardashian. And she got home in one piece, several years ago, to Templeton, the 28-room family house, stables, and gardens in Old Westbury. “As my mother says,” Cornelia said in 2001, quoting her beloved mother, C. Z. Guest, two years before C.Z. died, “anybody can go off. The trick is coming back.”

By Adam Platt
The Oyster Bar pan roast—still being served at the Oyster Bar in the bowels of Grand Central—is a silky concoction, thicker than soup but gentler than a stew. It’s made with half a dozen Bluepoints, sweet butter, a dash of secret chile sauce, and flagons of country cream, all poured over a comforting mattress of soggy toast. I would argue that it’s grander than that other great New York icon the pastrami sandwich on rye, more versatile than eggs Benedict (invented at the Waldorf-Astoria) or the porterhouse steak, and heartier than vichyssoise soup, which the great chef Louis Diat first served at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on 46th Street in 1917. The last time I enjoyed it, the steamy bowl took exactly four minutes to reach my place at the bar, which is more or less what you’d expect for the greatest New York restaurant dish of all time. In that magisterial, eternally bustling room full of strangers, it tasted exactly the way it did when I ordered it for the first time, 40 years ago, with my grandfather, a lifelong New Yorker: opulent, mysteriously spicy, and faintly like the sea.

J. P. Morgan, 1911.Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

By Felix Rohatyn
There have been other titans, Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller in particular, but no one has come close to J. P. Morgan’s capabilities. He saved the financial system in 1907 by inviting the leading business figures of the day to his home. Then he locked them in until they committed themselves to the rescue.

Marc Benecke, 1979.Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Polaris

By Jim Holt
What makes a great nightclub doorman? The first test is consistency—a test that Armin Amiri, who manned the velvet rope at Bungalow 8 a decade ago, willfully flunked. “Someone might be allowed in four nights in a row, and not the fifth, just to keep it interesting,” Amiri once boasted. The second test is kindness—not among the virtues of the late Haoui Montaug, chief vetter at the Palladium, Danceteria, and other eighties clubs too numerous to mention. (“Back to the kennel!”)

Despite their flaws, such legendary club doormen of yesteryear showed an undeniable flair in their role of nightlife arbiter elegantiae. But none rivaled Marc Benecke of Studio 54. Improbably young (he was a 19-year-old Hunter College political-science major when Steve Rubell hired him), hatchet-faced yet preppily handsome, he possessed a regal demeanor enhanced by the full-length Norma Kamali down overcoat he wore against the cold. Atop a fire hydrant next to the entrance, he cast the perfect party out of the most glittering raw materials—fashion, Hollywood, royalty, rock, drag, art world, Eurotrash, punk.

Notwithstanding his great power, Marc was kind. He never yawned ostentatiously on the many nights when Grace Jones arrived in the nude. And he was consistent. Even his rare blunders had a way of bearing fruit. When he refused entry to the creators of the disco group Chic despite their exotic appearance, they were so incensed that they went home and wrote a bitch-song about it, which evolved—fuck off … freak off … freak out—into the monster hit “Le Freak.” Marc once even let me into Studio 54 for free when I told him it was my birthday—although he did make me show him my driver’s license.

Woody, Mia, and Soon-Yi in 1987, before things got weird.Photo: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

By Michael Musto
As told to Mary Kaye Schilling
Most recently, there was the Charlie Sheen rampage at the Plaza Hotel, which had his suite in shambles, an escort in the bathroom, and his publicist saying it was because of an allergic reaction to medication. Or the marriage of Liza Minnelli and David Gest in 2002; I wrote at the time that when Dominick Dunne showed up at the church, it certified it as a crime scene. In 1991, we got our own big-haired Dynasty-style scandal with the Trump divorce. But the No. 1 juiciest bit of gossip and scandal, because it became a topic of watercooler conversation for months—for years!—would have to be the revelation of Woody Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn. People were so outraged! Everybody loves a triangle, but this one was deliciously sick, from the dark side of everyone’s imagination: The wronged woman (Mia Farrow), the overentitled man (Allen, betraying his nerdy, lovable persona), and the other woman, who, in this case, was Mia’s adopted daughter. I remember O. J. Simpson saying to me at the time—and this was before his own scandal—“Go Woody! Get some!” He was in the minority. Of course, Woody got the last laugh: They’re still together.

By Pat Di Lillo
Co-founder, The Phun Phactory
About four or five thousand artists came through our doors [at the original Phun Phactory, a nonprofit supporting graffiti artists], but Child will always stick out in my mind. He was a young kid, about 19 or 20, when I met him in 2001. Of course I loved Iz the Wiz, who co-founded the Phun Phactory with me. From the beginning, he would paint on the trains. And he had the most ups—it’s all about how many times your name is up and where. But Child did 3-D stuff, which was kind of unheard of at the time. You’d have to stare at his work for a lot longer to decipher it. Back in the day, there had been some kids trying to do 3-D—bubble letters that were easy to read—and eventually some of them graduated to a style and technique like his. But Child had been doing it from the get-go.

By Lydia Davis
I might opt for Grace Paley’s Aunt Rose—“I was popular in certain circles”—or the acid Holden Caulfield. But it is the enigmatic Bartleby, from Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: a Story of Wall-Street,” who may be most compelling in the end. On his third day of employment in the narrator’s law office, when asked to read over a copy, he says that he prefers not to. And from then on, his succinct refusals, his silence, and his pale composure, as though he were occupied elsewhere, in some mental space to which no one else in the story has access, make him at once mysterious, dignified, bizarre, comical, and touching. He dies curled up on the ground in a prison yard, by his own choice, decisively beyond reach.

Jim Jensen, 1977; Joe Gallo, 1959.Photo: Courtesy of CBS Photo Archive; Henry Griffin/AP

By Pat Kiernan
Jim Jensen was an authoritative presence on WCBS for three decades—in a no-nonsense era of TV news. New Yorkers paid attention when Jensen was on the set, not like today where audiences have been watered down by busier schedules, cable, and the Internet. No, Jim “owned” the chair.

Washington Market, circa 1910.Photo: Courtesy of Library of Congress

By Jason Epstein
The old Washington Market at Washington and Fulton Streets was a vast culinary world trade center: It had hundreds of stalls staffed by purveyors in white coats and straw hats. I remember racks of pheasant, partridge, quail, and grouse in their feathers, sides of beef from Scotland as well as the Midwest, Belon oysters from France, baskets of crabs, turtles, entire swordfish, sides of tuna, smelts, stripers, hundreds of cheeses domestic and imported, live and dressed poultry. Imagine Russ & Daughters, Di Palo’s great cheese store, Citarella, Lobel’s, Zabar’s, all the city’s Greenmarkets, the Indian spice shops, Chinatown, under a great cast-iron roof, and you will begin to get the picture.

By Kenneth Jackson
Editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City
The greatest streetcar system on Earth is probably gone forever. Starting with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s administration, the city assumed that the internal-combustion engine would be the solution to all urban transit problems, and it encouraged the ripping up of 1,344 miles of trolley tracks. Losing Penn Station was bad enough, but choosing roads over rails was catastrophic and essentially irrevocable.

By Arthur Nash
author, New York City Gangland
Joe Gallo was a street hood who eventually went on to challenge the most powerful mafia dons for control of the underworld in the sixties. As early as 1957 he was one of the assassins of Albert Anastasia, boss of the Gambino crime family. And he only moved up from there. He testified in the McClellan Hearings and famously pleaded the Fifth. Then he did a ten-year stretch for attempted extortion. When he was released, he declared himself the head of a sixth mob family and waged war on the old ways of doing things. Who knows how far he would have gone if he hadn’t been killed. If you ask ten people, eight of them would award the infamy crown to Al Capone or Lucky Luciano, each of whom created more work for the undertaker than Gallo. But Joey Gallo, with his habit of bucking the prescribed order of things, resonates more loudly today than those dead bootleggers.

Paul Tough, writer, co-founder of Paris in the 20s: The corrections that are the most entertaining are the ones that snowball: “A film review on September 5 about ‘Save Me’ confused some characters and actors. It is Mark, not Chad, who is sent to the Genesis House retreat for converting gay men to heterosexuality. (Mark is played by Chad Allen; there is no character named Chad.) A hunky fellow resident is Scott (played by Robert Gant) not Ted (Stephen Lang). And it is Mark and Scott—not Chad and Ted—who partake of cigarettes and ‘furtive man-on-man action.’ ” It’s also nice when a particularly awesome phrase is included in quotes, like “furtive man-on-man action.”

Stephen Sherrill, writer, co-founder of Paris in the 20s: Here’s another one. The mistake itself is actually just a preposition. “An article on Tuesday about DreamWorks Studios’ completion of a round of financing and its announcement of some film projects include an incorrect title for one of the movies. It will be called ‘Dinner for ********,’ a Yiddish vulgarism meaning ‘jerks’… The film is not ‘Dinner with ********.’ ” The asterisks force you to think through every possible vulgarism. And there’s one asterisk per letter. They weren’t going to get that wrong.

PT: They made sure to be really precise with that.

SS: And then there are the ones that are funny not because of the mistake made, but because of the description of the article the mistake was made in: “Because of a transmission error, the Personal Computers column in Science Times yesterday about a program called a browser that is used to find information on the world wide web misstated the electronic address for information on a program called Slipknot. It also misstated the address for a treatise on how to cause grapes to explode in flames in a microwave oven.”

Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine, right, 1935.Photo: Bob Cranston/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

By Steve Lewis
Club Manager
Studio 54 is one of the greatest. People don’t mix the same way now: You don’t have drag queens dancing at straight clubs anymore. Area was a top club, but it was very much based in a drug culture. You cannot deny Danceteria: It was an artists’ club. But the World was the conjunction of all these things. It was edgy at a time when clubs defined the edge. Back in the eighties, fashion was being created in clubs. And the World was a place where hip-hop and house were breaking when nobody else was playing it. Gay, straight, rich, poor, everyone was there. You would have kids straight up from the projects a few blocks away getting in for free, because that was the criterion. If you had no money, you got in for free, mixing in with Carolina Herrera wearing emeralds.

By Chuck Close
I think I first saw a version of Edward Steichen’s Flatiron Buildingin the early sixties. Years later, I was asked to curate a show from the collection of the MoMA, and in the process, I was shown a box of his prints of the Flatiron. I saw many versions (all from the same negative), some black-and-white and some toned in dramatically different ways. Some were contrasty—others looked as if the fog had moved in to almost obscure the image entirely. The twilight view is one of my favorites. The almost Zenlike calligraphy of the black branches is in stark definition against the twilight. The hansom cabs and the piercing lights coming through the inky atmosphere are all set against the seemingly impossible Giacometti-like thinness of the tower. It’s truly one of the greatest building portraits.

By Thomas Reppetto
Former president, Citizens Crime Commission of New York City
The average term for a police commissioner is about two and a half years, but Lewis J. Valentine served for eleven, from 1934 to 1945. That’s still the record. Valentine made his reputation as a shoofly, a cop who investigates other cops, and when he became commissioner, he cleaned up a force that had been absolutely demoralized and overwhelmed by the corruption of the Prohibition era. If some cop was sacked for corruption, he’d have the guy marched into his office, and he’d say, “Throw this bum out!” The brass, the rank and file—they were all afraid of him.

Sid Vicious, right, with Nancy Spungen and Mick Jones of the Clash at Max's Kansas City, 1978.Photo: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

By Thurston Moore
The fact that the Sex Pistols blew off New York City on their ’78 tour to focus on the Deep South and beyond was a remarkable move by Malcolm McLaren, but it really bummed us starving, 20-year-old, New Wave, no-wave punkoids. When the Pistols died a crummy death at San Francisco’s Winterland, it was seemingly all over. Almost within a day of hearing about it, there was an ad in the Voice for Sid Vicious and His Crew at Max’s Kansas City. There was no question, we were going. The place was jammed, drunk, and smoked out. Sid, with the New York Dolls’ Walter Lure and Jerry Nolan (holding Nancy Spungen’s hand, yow!), a drummer named Steve Dior, and on guitar, the amazing Mick Jones from the Clash! And the Clash hadn’t even played that first mind-blowing Palladium gig yet. They assembled behind the curtain, and Sid stuck his head through it and gave us the almighty Sid wink, and we knew it was gonna be fun! The curtain opened and Mick Jones led the band through primal Dolls and Pistols originals, as well as fifties juvenile-delinquent punk-rock classics (“C’mon Everybody,” “Somethin’ Else”). Nancy was playing (kinda) tambourine. The audience went ballistic. Every chair and table got crushed, with people spitting and throwing drinks. Just pure mania. French guys were pointing their fingers to the stage: “Seed Veeshus! Seed!” After the first song, some girl yelled “I love you,” to which Sid retorted, “Shut your fucking mouth, you stupid fucking cunt!” I’d seen bands get spit on, and the bands would usually scowl or, worse, complain. Sid spit back! You could see his goobers spelunking in French punks’ eyeballs! This had to be waaay better than any ol’ Sex Pistols gig, this was the flower and the poison in one glorious crash and burn. We left on fire, knowing we had witnessed punk-rock history. We were singed by it.

Photo: Courtesy of Ralph Lauren; Suzanne Vlamis/AP; First view; Rose Hartman/Globe Photos; First View (2)

By Amy Larocca

In 1944, fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert got word that Paris’s Fashion Week had been canceled, and New York’s was born. There have been a slew of memorable shows since, but a few that people never stopped talking about:

1984: Ralph Lauren “Safari.” He’d taught us to love prep and then took us around the world with a desert-inspired collection that looks as if it could have been designed last week.

1985: Donna Karan debuts “Seven Easy Pieces,” a wardrobe for modern women that was less about imitating men than it was about flattering women.

1992: Marc Jacobs for Perry Ellis “Grunge” collection. The show led to the immediate firing of Jacobs, but it is still regularly invoked as spectacular, mostly for the way Jacobs mashed up the boundaries of high fashion and street fashion.

1997: Calvin Klein does minimalism, and he does it on Kate Moss.

1999: Alexander McQueen shows in New York: hurricane conditions outside, a flooded runway inside, and models stomping through the puddles in many-inched stiletto heels. That McQueen wanted to show in New York was the ultimate endorsement for the city.

2000: Miguel Adrover’s “Midtown” collection. The unknown son of a Majorcan almond farmer popped up with a collection that stabbed right at the heart of the Zeitgeist, mocking the moment’s dual obsessions with luxury and “vintage”: a Burberry coat inside-out and backward; chopped-up Louis Vuitton handbags; and a dress made from the discarded mattress cover of Adrover’s recently deceased neighbor, Quentin Crisp.

Andy Kaufman and friend at Carnegie Hall, 1979.Photo: Ted Thai/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

By Reggie Watts
Most stand-ups come at comedy almost as a sporting event: Here’s my set list. How do I remember my set list? How was the comic before me? Andy Kaufman had a more artistic take. He wasn’t afraid to go into an awkward place, or one where people became resentful or frustrated or angry. He played around with those elements. That’s what he thought was best for the audience—he was their caretaker; they were his playmates. That Carnegie Hall performance where he had buses waiting to take everyone to get milk and cookies? Only someone who really cared about his audience would do that.

Reported by Eric Benson, Thayer McClanahan, Raha Naddaf, and William Van Meter.

The Encyclopedia of Superlatives