Gramercy’s Gadfly

“Then this woman said it was against the law to feed pigeons!” shrieks O. Aldon James Jr., his polka-dotted bow tie twitching furiously as his Adam’s apple bobs up and down. The woman in question is Sharen Benenson, chairman of the Horticultural Society, the Mercantile Library, and, most important, of the Gramercy Park Trustees. Aldon James, her inflamed nemesis, is president of the National Arts Club, the century-old institution on the south side of Gramercy Park that the bespectacled, brogue-shod, seersucker-suited grandee proudly calls “the country’s premier vertical artists’ colony.”

Civic pedigrees notwithstanding, Aldon James and Sharen Benenson have spent the better part of six years in an ugly fight over one of the city’s more beloved bastions of gentility, the gated and manicured Gramercy Park. James, who fancies himself the private garden’s Oberon, wants the formally sculpted park to cultivate a more romantic aesthetic, and, gasp, be opened to the public. Benenson, who occupies a lifetime seat on the board, has stubbornly resisted any such change. She favors the clean geometry of an Italianate garden; James would prefer to restore traditional French shade canopy – “with its former magic and mystery and natural wildness.” The conflict has generated a flurry of lawsuits, charges and countercharges that have cost the park trustees and the National Arts Club hundreds of thousands in legal fees, to say nothing of the dead fish someone deposited at James’s door.

“That woman illegally cut down trees in the park to improve the view from her apartment!” charges James. “She’s engaged in arborcide. She is no friend to trees!”

“Aldon wouldn’t know an English elm from an English muffin!” retorts Benenson’s husband, James Jr.

The battle reached a new pitch last week, when Aldon escorted a phalanx of 50 Washington Irving High School students into the park for a day of “environmental education.” When Mrs. Benenson spied the pack of mostly black and Latino students from the living room window in her fifth-floor duplex, she frantically bustled down and ordered them to leave. (Use of the park is officially limited to some 350 key holders, who pay $2,000 per year to the park trust.) After numerous calls to the school principal and the police, James complied, but not before shouting at the teenagers: “Don’t talk to this woman! She kills trees!”

“When I first met that woman, I thought she was a sweet church mouse,” says James. “Now I see she’s an attack rat.”

The tug-of-war has the president of the National Arts Club a bit frazzled. One morning, he stands in front of an eighteen-foot bay window on the club’s parlor floor, recounting past skirmishes in such a torrent that it’s often difficult to understand him. “Then that woman had the groundskeeper withdraw the water dishes, so now the poor birds – people were going in there, trying to fill – I mean the woman is unbelievable! There are birdhouses – people had beautiful Victorian birdhouses in the park – and you say, ‘Well, surely she would restore them?’ Well, no thank you! And now she wants to build birdhouses with no holes because she doesn’t want sparrows in the park! And why? Because they’re not a Native American bird!”

James stops suddenly and peers out at the park, a glass of Perrier fizzing in his hand. “Oh, oh, oh! I don’t even like to go into the park anymore! It just upsets me too much! This woman is crazy! When I first met her, I thought of her as a church mouse. Now we see that she’s an attack rat! This woman – “

“This woman” may be a thorn in James’s side, but he proudly describes the institution he has presided over for the past fourteen years as a “multicolored bouquet of roses.” Is he the ribbon around the bouquet? “I am one rose,” he demurs modestly. “I’m merely one more player on this volleyball team,” he says, raising his fist, “throwing in my heart and soul!”

If Sharen Benenson is so far winning the battle to keep change from infiltrating the wrought-iron gates of Gramercy Park, change itself runs happily amok within the walls of its dowager neighbor, the National Arts Club. Founded by New York Times art critic Charles de Kay with the mission of uniting “art lovers and art makers,” the National Arts Club is a private-membership club that has been a part of the city’s cultural fabric for more than a century. Its members once included collectors like Pierpont Morgan and Henry Frick and a vast assortment of famous artists, including Mark Twain, Stanford White, Alfred Stieglitz, and Salvador Dalí, who was wont to arrive at the club accompanied by his ocelot. “Gramercy Park is called the American Bloomsbury, and we are the keepers of that tradition,” insists James. “We can be very immodest about that.”

Comprising two row houses that were originally the residence of Samuel Tilden, later renovated by Central Park co-designer Calvert Vaux, the 40-room Gothic mansion is as impressive as the club’s name, which often misleads visitors into thinking that the private institution has a public function. Visiting dignitaries have made trips to the club, and their photos hang in the club’s entryway alongside the likes of Robin Leach’s and Marla Hanson’s. “Last week a woman came in and started shouting, ‘Where’s President Clinton? I have an appointment with him!” confides one employee. “She waited in the foyer all day.”

A native of Baltimore and Rehoboth Beach whose family fortune was built on AT&T stock, James is a devout Methodist who has never had a drink in his life. He appears to be in his mid-forties, though he won’t reveal his exact age. James’s parents were supporters of the club, and he often visited on their trips to New York. Though members whisper that his disagreement with Benenson has careered wildly out of control, the slender, twee gentleman seems genuinely beloved by his flock: “He’s generous, smart, kind, a true leader,” says a longtime member. “And – well, yes, eccentric.”

In the decade and a half he has served as president, says James, managing the association’s affairs has kept him from sleeping more than three or four hours a night. Raising the club’s profile has been one of his priorities, a mission he has accomplished in part by giving out an astounding number of awards to celebrity intellectuals. Quarterly club newsletters capture him in nearly every photograph, beaming, an arm slung around recent honorees such as Betty Friedan (Lifetime Achiever), Emanuel Ax (Medal of Honor), and author John Berendt (Literary Medal). “I told Mr. Berendt we have our very own garden of good and evil,” James quips, “right here in Gramercy Park.”

Like all officers of the association, James has never been paid for his labor, apart from a ceremonial $1 per year. He has an apartment at the club, where he can be seen moving boxes of newsletters or restocking the bar at 3 a.m.

“I was living at the club while finishing a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay,” recalls biographer and novelist Nancy Milford. “One night, Aldon told me he was taking care of a little bird he had discovered in Gramercy Park. Well, it turned out to be a baby raptor – which is an endangered species – but anyway, Aldon had been feeding it milk and cookies, until another member said that wasn’t sufficient for a growing raptor: He had to feed it mice. Now, this was all simply too macabre for Aldon. So one night he just opened the window to his bathroom and released the bird, just let it free into Manhattan.”

Of course, James’s memory is somewhat different. It was a kestrel, he says, and moreover, he fed it the requisite mice until it was grown up enough to be released – in Union Square.

But more than pigeons and kestrels and dusky untamed gardens, advocating the arts is James’s enduring passion. “Art is not a luxury,” he insists. “Artists, like the water supply, need the wetlands – a refuge, somewhere like the National Arts Club. Father, who was in medicine, always said, ‘Art is the best medicine.’ Now, I say that art is oxygen! No one would say, ‘Well, in these budget times, we’re cutting out oxygen,’ would they? Well, no thank you!”

Certainly the club itself has prospered under Aldon’s energetic if erratic reign. During his tenure, the number of sponsored events has grown to over 300 a year, and annual membership, which costs from several hundred dollars a year, has more than tripled. “I would challenge anyone to get this much honey out of 1,900 strangers,” says James, adding that this is yet another thing “we can be very immodest about.”

In accordance with James’s mandate to reposition the private club as a public-minded institution, nonmembers are now invited to hold parties and benefits in the space. The club hosts a wide array of lectures and art exhibits as well as meetings of such societies as the Mystery Writers of America, the Quilters’ Guild, a rug-enthusiasts group called the Hajji Baba Club, and the Dutch Treat Club, a society that was established to discuss the arts over brown-bag lunches.

Perched on a hardbacked salmon couch in her expansive Gramercy Park duplex, Sharen Benenson sighs deeply and folds her thin hands in her lap. Her handsomely graying husband stands by as she gazes out the window at her handiwork – she weeds here almost daily and commissions such design elements as the planting of boxy bushes and the removal of the privet hedge near the statue of Edwin Booth. “Gramercy Park is so heavenly,” she says, nodding a head of long chestnut hair braided into a chignon. “It’s a terrible thing, this fighting with Aldon. He’s just a confused child.”

Her husband snorts. “Sweetie, the guy’s an ax murderer!”

“Oh, they call me a fascist and a Nazi and an attack rat,” says Mrs. Benenson. “Now he calls me ‘that woman’ – he won’t even say my name.” James’s charge of anti-sparrow bias, she insists, is ridiculous.

The hassles have made the Benensons exhausted, righteous, and paranoid. “I told Sherry, don’t walk through the park at night,” says Mr. Benenson: “Aldon and his goons could come out of nowhere, and who knows what they’d do.” And more outrageously: “Who’s that little fella who runs the parks? Henry Stern? Well, you know that Aldon gave him a free membership in exchange for testimony against my wife about the tree incident.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Stern retorts. “It’s like inviting Winston Churchill to become a citizen of the U.S. I don’t hang there.”

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.

Perhaps the most apt description of the National Arts Club comes from Lucy Grealy, an author who lives in one of the 33 apartments leased by the association. “It’s like if David Lynch made a movie of a Henry James novel,” says Grealy. “My apartment is very small and very French-garret, but in the best possible way. I feel like Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin.” Another young member gushes: “I feel like I’m living on a cruise ship.”

And certainly there are as many activities here as on any cruise. The National Arts Club is run by a remarkable number of committees, among them music, art, exhibitions, theater, books, dining, residents, nonresidents, and – most prestigious – the 21-person admissions committee, which must decide unanimously whether candidates invited for membership live up to the club’s stringent standards. Few are rejected.

Boundlessly enthusiastic, James offers a friendly haven for almost every inductee. Works of art by members past and present hang on nearly every wall of the club, and paintings by William Merritt Chase, founder of the art school in Shinnecock, and American Impressionist Wyman Adams give the club a moody but grand appeal – it’s been used for many film shoots, including The Age of Innocence and Quiz Show (both directors, Scorsese and Redford, are club members). “Asking me which piece of our art I like best is like asking Rose Kennedy to choose her favorite child,” quips James.

Not only has Aldon raised $1 million in gifts during his tenure; he has also advocated several controversial exhibits, like a benefit for menswear designer Tom of Finland, whose clothing line is inspired by erotic gay Finnish drawings from the twenties. “We once had a billiards party here, with thousands of artist-made cue sticks,” says James. “And you say, ‘Cue sticks, isn’t that vulgar?’ Well, no thank you! Because when you meet the artists of these cue sticks, they become objets like Fabergé!”

Though today’s National Arts Club includes well-known personalities such as Kitty Carlisle Hart and Frank McCourt, the majority of members do not make their living as professional creative people; many are retired. “I’m living my life in reverse,” says an attractive new member named Janet Jameson over an early-evening cocktail in the members’ bar. “I recently got divorced after 30 years. I left Bridgewater and moved into the city – living here has always been my dream. And the club has been such a support to me – so friendly, so deliciously creative.”

In the parlor floor gallery, septuagenarian Flora Giffuni chain-smokes Benson & Hedges cigarettes as she presides over the hanging of the club’s pastel show, for which she is not only curator but receptionist and stamp-licker. She lights another as Aldon serves up the latest dish on that woman. “So now she had an exterminator poison 60 pigeons with Avitrol – one died right here in the club vestibule, just awful – and Pat Hackett of The Warhol Diaries – tremendous woman – said that the exterminator said that he didn’t actually kill the pigeons; he only drugged them!” exclaims James. “But then the exterminator took them away in a big bag anyway, because he didn’t want them to be killed in the traffic! Now, that’s like saying we put the Jewish people in ovens because we didn’t want them to have a torturous death!”

Giffuni gives her cigarette a precise flick. “Everyone has a dream, and mine was always to be around artistic people,” she says, shrugging her rounded shoulders as she arranges announcements for the show in neat piles. “I just feel like a queen here.” After her Jamaica Estates mansion was burglarized nine times, Giffuni’s children encouraged her to move into the Arts Club – she agreed as long as she could bring her live-in maid. She brought something else, too: a tax-deductible “gift” of $77,777, most of which was allegedly used to refurbish her apartment.

She points at a delicate brooch on her lapel – a little golden monkey climbing up the length of a tree. “This is my favorite piece of jewelry – it’s from Tiffany’s,” she says, running a finger over the monkey’s mouth. “Look where they put the diamonds.” She chuckles. “Up his butt.”

For their part, the Benensons’ vow that the battle is not over. On one of the blustery days last week, nestled in their apartment, they spoke eloquently about their vision of the park, one in which Eva and Adele might not feel welcome.

“Clubs should have a board downstairs with colored pegs showing which member is in the club at the time,” declares Mrs. Benenson, who is still a dues-paying member of the National Arts Club. Mr. Benenson brings out a membership book of the Yacht Club, another group to which the couple belongs. “This is the way it should be done,” he says, flipping through its creamy pages. “Betsy Rodgers, Felix Rohatyn, Dillon Ripley – the ex-head of the Smithsonian – a whole variety of Rothschilds, David Rockefeller – I’m still on the Rs – and here’s Fred Rose, who funded the Public Library’s reading room. Poor Fred. He’s dead.”

“He did the planetarium too,” Mrs. Benenson muses, and then, softly, nostalgically: “You know, at Christmas, we bring our trees to the park, and we put the ends in a big chipper and make a pile of mulch from it. The kids jump right up on it. They call it ‘Gramercy Mountain.’ ” She sighs. “That’s the way things should be.”

As the wind picks up outside, you can almost hear Aldon saying, “Well, no thank you!”

Gramercy’s Gadfly