February 23, 1998

The Park Avenue home they still share may be beautiful, but there’s ongoing trouble amid the ottomans for interior designer Alison Spear and her husband, Carlos Gomez, who was recently charged with defrauding Citibank of $10 million. According to sources close to the situation, Spear’s name is on the million-dollar recognizance bond put up to release Gomez from jail. But soon after, attorney Judd Burstein – who has handled many of Spear’s matters, including her divorce from first husband Campion Platt – drafted a letter to Gomez threatening to have Spear’s name removed from the bond unless she was given veto power over any settlement arrangement with Citibank, and any remaining assets were placed in her name or her children’s names. (Burstein declined to comment on whether such a letter was written.) But when Gomez’s lawyer, Stanley Arkin, refused to comply with the letter’s demands, Spear backed down rather than send her husband to jail. Says Burstein, “In this kind of explosive and shocking situation, where tensions and fears run high, people say things in haste which they later recognize they didn’t really mean.” According to the sources, Carlos’s interest in satisfying Citibank, which is trying to recoup its losses, is not necessarily consistent with Alison’s interests or what she would be entitled to in a divorce. Burstein would not comment on Spear’s possible intent to file for divorce, saying only, “She married him for better or worse, and she’s trying to sort this out.” Arkin’s sole comment: “When there is great stress and concern, sometimes communications get affected.”

Call it the dimming-down of America: Sandy Weill’s Travelers Group is negotiating with its TriBeCa neighbors to lower the wattage of that famous red umbrella. Residents have been protesting since the corporate logo – a 50-foot-high umbrella outlined in blazing red neon – went up last May on top of Travelers’ Greenwich Street headquarters. A source close to the negotiations expects “some kind of compromise where the light will be turned off during certain hours and will be dimmed during other hours, so it won’t shine into people’s apartments.” Residents didn’t just bring in the lawyers, they brought in lighting consultants. “Ours lit up the Statue of Liberty,” says Tribeca Community Association president Carole De Saram. “Theirs lit up Times Square.” The neighbors’ attorney, Jack Lester, and Travelers’ spokeswoman both refused to comment. Weill has reason to hope these talks prove successful: If they don’t work out, a new activist group called the Protectors of the Sky is threatening to bring the protest home to Travelers’ chairman. “Bring your searchlights, bring your whistles,” warns a member. “We’re going to find out where Weill lives and we’re going to beam him back.”

CIVILIZATION AND ITS DISCONTENTS: Now it’s official: Manhattan really is more civilized than D.C. At least, that’s the verdict of Civilization magazine, which recently moved from the nation’s capital to the more sophisticated air of Manhattan. Editor Nelson Aldrich didn’t like going to Washington, reports one magazine insider, although he traveled south last Monday to tell his D.C. staff members that their office was closing. Four senior employees and several interns were invited to move to New York, and the remaining staff members were laid off, Aldrich adds. “There are limits to telecommunications, despite what you hear from John Malone and Bill Gates,” says Aldrich. “It’s just impossible to run a magazine from three hours away.” Instead, Civilization will keep an office inside the Library of Congress, which the magazine will be covering extensively in a new bimonthly column by Nicholas von Hoffman. All the changes were celebrated last week with a Lincoln Center party for guest editor Martin Scorsese.
FERGIE’S IRISH IS UP: Are competing loyalties tearing at Sarah, the duchess of York? Fergie has been invited to the American Ireland Fund’s black-tie gala in Pittsburgh on April 8, as the guest of her Weight Watchers boss (and head of Heinz), Tony O’Reilly. Did the duchess clear the invitation with Buckingham Palace? “Not that I know of,” replies Weight Watchers spokesman Howard Rubenstein, who extended the invitation to Fergie. “She probably would have discussed that, if she needed clearance. This is a U.S. group, raising money for cultural and civic affairs in Ireland. She did not clear it with the White House, either.” But a source close to the duchess demurs slightly, saying that, while the invitation has been received, it hasn’t been answered yet – leaving the clear implication that the duchess is, in fact, seeking clearance to raise funds for her ex-in-laws’ former territory before going off to dinner in Pittsburgh.
MELISSA’S MAN: Even before High Society opens on Broadway, the musical’s star, Melissa Errico, is floating on air. Skiing recently in Vermont with her boyfriend, Patrick McEnroe (tennis-playing brother of John), Errico came rushing over when he seemed to fall on the slope. But it turned out to be a proposal feint: On bended knee while still on skis, McEnroe proposed, and Errico was required to dig her engagement ring out of the snow. The couple, who went to grammar school in Long Island together, haven’t set a date yet, and there’s also no word on whether Melissa’s brother, musician Michael Errico, who’s just signed with Hybrid Records, will play the blues at the wedding.

When Madonna sees something she wants, she goes after it. So when the Material Mom, still on the apartment trail, spotted from the street a choice Madison Avenue home, she got down to business. According to friends of the couple currently residing in her dream digs, Madonna contacted the posh space’s dwellers and asked whether she could take a look at their apartment. Once inside, Madonna declared that she had to have it and persuaded them to take a look at her Upper West side spread. By a happy coincidence, they were equally in love with her home, and discussions about a swap are now under way.

If she could do the hooker with a heart of gold for Woody Allen, why not a singing nun on Broadway? That was evidently Mira Sorvino’s thinking when she threw her wimple into the ring – ultimately unsuccessfully – for the role that Julie Andrews originated in The Sound of Music. Last summer, Sorvino, Joely Fisher, and eighteen or so other Maria wannabes “sang ‘The Sound of Music,’ which is the big song, and they all read some scenes,” reports a spy at the audition, who says the Academy Award winner went all out to land the role in the revival, which opens March 12. “Mira Sorvino really wants to work in the theater,” the source adds. No wonder: Her boyfriend, Quentin Tarantino, will be appearing on Broadway around the same time in Wait Until Dark.Everybody auditioned,” confirms casting director Jay Binder, who’s also a Sound of Music co-producer, “and the very, very best person, after four auditions, was Rebecca Luker.” Binder already knew Luker, who was new to the city ten years ago, when he recommended her for Jerome Robbins’s Broadway; just weeks later, when Robbins was ready to hire her, she’d already landed the lead in The Phantom of the Opera.

Preservationists eager to win landmark status for Central Park South were “pleased” when Donald Trump hired Robert A.M. Stern for the exterior renovation of the St. Moritz, says one activist. But now Stern’s off the project, and it’s because of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Stern explains that Trump “had to make a change of architects because the Landmarks commission had a different philosophy than the one I was willing to go with.” Landmarks commissioner Jennifer Raab explains that Trump “had committed to preserve” the hotel’s “traditional look.” But, she maintains, “The plans we were shown did quite the opposite: They were about destruction, not preservation. Our opposition was about the architecture and not the architect.”

Oxford Health Plan’s stockholders aren’t the only ones grumbling about their treatment by the HMO. Its policyholders aren’t too happy, either. Five thousand members who had received reimbursement for medical expenses were recently sent 1099-MISC statements from Oxford, listing their reimbursements as taxable earnings. “I had to pull their teeth to get paid back in the first place,” says one frustrated policyholder. “Then they add insult to injury by calling it income?” A spokeswoman for Oxford explains that the 1099s were “sent out in error. It’s part of ongoing issues involved in the conversion of our computer systems. The 5,000 claims in question were tagged as vendors by mistake.” Letters of apology have been sent to the many 1099-afflicted, assuring them that “the error was recognized … prior to transmission of income information to the IRS, and has been corrected.” New copies of the tax statements, showing a $0.00 balance, have also been mailed to the affected members.

Additional reporting by Kate Coyne.

February 23, 1998