Charlotte Curtis discusses her book "The Rich and other atrocities"
BROADCAST: Nov. 19, 1976 | DURATION: 00:56:32
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Studs Terkel Ever since Samuel Pepys and his diary we've we've had an understanding of what a social critic is. Sometimes we find out more about a society and the way people live through somebody who has a sharp eye and a sense of humor and has insight observes how the rich and the powerful live that is during their leisure time parties. They're called society editors today. There are society editors. Society editors. But the the prima of all it seems to be Charlotte Curtis who is now associate editor of The New York Times and runs that very exciting op-ed page. For a number of years she was the family styles. Is it family styles? Life style.
Studs Terkel Now the New York Times Charlotte Curtis and her book, her new book and it's a marvelous title it tells a good deal, "The Rich and Other Atrocities," and Harper and Row are the publishers tell us a good deal about the beautiful people so-called the way they live. And in a sense, what are, what the values are of those who run our world. Harrison Salisbury, a colleague of Charlotte Curtis, said of her "she may well be the sharpest social critic of our times and not a rapier she concealed beneath the satin velvet of her impeccable prose. It's a scalpel and when her surgery is complete the victim may not even know he/she has undergone an operation" and thus the book is about that. It's funny but mostly revealing. So the program in just a moment with Charlotte Curtis after this message.
Studs Terkel This morning is the rebroadcast of a conversation with Charlotte Curtis. She was a society editor had been of the New York Times for a good number of years now as an editor. This conversation took place in 1976. One of the programs we're rebroadcasting. The program, a moment, after this message.
Studs Terkel Cha-I thought before your thoughts and readings from the book, "The Rich and Other Atrocities". I met Jerome Zerbe who was sort of the he was the inventor of fashion phot- that he photographed the beautiful
Jerome Zerbe From 1935 to 1939, I worked [on?] Morocco and I invented a thing which has become a pain in the neck to most people. I took photographs of the fashionable people and sent them to the papers. They were really the top top social. And what do you mean by society? That's difficult to define. These were the people whose houses one knew were filled with treasures. These were the women who dressed the best. These were the women who had the most beautiful of all jewels. These were the dream people that we all looked up to and hoped that we or our friends could sometimes know and be like.
Jerome Zerbe As I remember I don't think they ever mentioned them, never socially because I've always had a theory. When you're out with friends, out socially, everything, must be charming and you don't allow the ugly. We don't even discuss the Negro question.
Charlotte Curtis Sweet
Charlotte Curtis Well I thought Studs that maybe I ought to talk that way, too. It really doesn't take that much practice to talk about the two, two, top, top people who hope that we let's see, what did he say 'I've always had a theory everything must be beautiful.' Well, he is absolutely flat wrong. Things really aren't that beautiful darling.
Charlotte Curtis Well I don't think they're paying attention to the world as we know it. I think that's one of the points. I think that's the very interesting observation that we've just had illustrated. I remember in Palm Beach certainly in the 60s between 1963 and 1969, 70, I never heard Vietnam mentioned once. The whole civil rights question, the whole civil rights marches. None of that even took place as far as Palm Beach was concerned because they were on an island and at night they pulled up the bridges and if there was trouble nobody could get to them. They were 25 miles at sea. Now this ostrich in the sand business is not prevalent but it's certainly there today in 1976.
Studs Terkel I find just as you say that yet some of these very people who are not all of them are equally powerful equally power- but some of these people are, have strength in the society and have clout. And yet when they among themselves, they don't discuss or social or don't discuss these matters.
Charlotte Curtis Well but these aren't, these aren't primary concerns to this kind of people. I mean these these are have neveop-edr been the concerns of these people. And then the obvious question is well why should we bother with these people over and above the fact that we should know about all parts of our society. The sociology of it whether you're poor, rich, whatever you are. The most important thing here is that these people have power in this country. They may be 5 percent of the country but they have 30 perhaps 40 percent of the power of the money of the property of the influence. And therefore we have to pay attention to them because what they do affects our lives.
Studs Terkel A friend of mine has said he always reads the society page particularly your when you were the society editor. He said he always read that first, and I says, "Why? How come?" don't you read the newspaper editorial or some sports page or op ed. There was no op-ed then. He said, no I read that first because that tells me a great deal.
Charlotte Curtis Sure it does. It tells you where the emphasis are. You know one of the awful things in this country is that we have fashions, not just in clothes and in people and in parties but fashions in foreign policies fashions in economics. I mean whether we're going to have Keynesian economics or whether we're going to emphasize the questions of inflation or unemployment. I mean which we're going to do. Rich people tend to worry about inflation. Poor people tend to worry about unemployment. You know. This kind of thing.
Studs Terkel I gotta to ask you this before, I ask you if you'd read a passage I think almost and the introduction, that and about the book too. How do you maintain, this is a question. Well, Zerbe is one person, you're another two different wavelengths two different worlds of course but how are you able to maintain that eye? It's a detached eye or the humor at the same time you are welcomed in all these circles and it's pretty lush kind of world in which you're, how come you're not caught in them become the sycophant?
Charlotte Curtis Well I think mostly because I'm the professional outsider, the professional observer. I carry a notebook everywhere. I put it on dinner tables. People know that that's the way I'm going to arrive and I have no aspirations in this world. I mean this world does not interest me. My aspirations have to do with being a good reporter and a good writer.
Studs Terkel Do they know? Now we come to something. We'll come to your style in a moment which is an understated style. You don't use this as Harrison says the scalpel. But it's there you report things. Now don't they know that sometimes it comes out?
Charlotte Curtis Ah, but wait Studs. You know the answer to that as well as I do. I have to say one thing. You know a woman who makes a decision every night or now and then a couple of times a year as to which tiara to wear. I mean her kind of decision when she tells me darling I just don't know whether it should be the rubies or really, really, should it be you know the saphires? When she does that kind of thing and she reads it the next day in the New York Times. She doesn't see anything wrong with that quotation because that was her decision. That was not your decision. That was not my decision. We find that decision odd perhaps in a in a trying world. She does not.
Charlotte Curtis This is from the introduction. Yes. "What endures is the belief in America as utopia where all things are possible when in fact the reality is never jived with the fantasy. The big rich regardless of century can and do live out the dream thereby setting the pace and perpetuating the myth. While the poor whether envious, resentful, or even hating their economic betters do not reject the dream, they aspire to it. Among the unalienable rights is upward mobility. The leveling up process until somebody pushes too hard then upward mobility becomes social climbing or status seeking. But in the process the overachiever sets the goals for nearly everybody else."
Charlotte Curtis Well and also you know we see it even in miniature with the lottery winners and all these new they suddenly get a thousand dollars a week for life or hundred thousand dollars. And immediately they say things for quotation and I'm going to buy mother a Cadillac and have a house in Florida and yes I'll give some of it away. But I'm, you know there's always a mink coat or something in there you're going to do with this. And it is materialistic
Studs Terkel But then as you cover these beautiful peoples as we use the word beautiful people that's phrase now with quotes about it are capitalized. When you cover it, you're covering this this fantasy world.
Charlotte Curtis Yes
Charlotte Curtis Well, but we are. When you add us up we are defined by our trivia you are defined by your check, sure. For instance, I mean it's quite obvious that helps to define you well so as a woman who spends seven thousand dollars for a ball gown or buys a tiara.
Studs Terkel You know what Sally Rand said just before the voice of Jerome Zerbe on the recording you heard was Sally Rand, the fan dancer of the past. You know what Sally about the [tiara?] about each one defined. Sally said they called me oh you know, a non-respectable because there I was in my altogether Lady Godiva though I had a little wrap on she said but the others I went to a fancy ball where all the very rich went and bread lines outside and one woman came with a dress made of thousand dollar bills. Now, who is the more obscene, she or me? asked Sally was very perceptive
Studs Terkel Isn't that what we're talking about, too. Your book. Now we come to Charlotte Curtis' book which is a collection of her observations while working in that capacity for the New York Times. Today she's associate editor and it starts with the playgrounds of society's social world, the playgrounds and the social capitals and the home bases and you name several playgrounds. Now Palm Beach. Now the very sound Palm Beach has a special connotation doesn't it?
Charlotte Curtis Oh, sure it does. It's never neverland. It's, it's the home of the Wizards of Oz, the home of the defang lions where nobody grows old, where you party all day long. Dawn comes up at 11 o'clock goes all day with cocktails and changes of clothes and switching the diamond bracelets. Seven days of parties straight through the
Charlotte Curtis I don't know that it's that because Monte Carlo is probably the biggest of them all, the baddest of them all in some ways but certainly it's the American it's the American resort, the last resort.
Studs Terkel Mrs. Cheatham one of the one of the veterans her husband is chairman of the board of Georgia-Pacific Corporation says, "I do try to work for few charities. I think it's one's obligation".
Charlotte Curtis Sure
Studs Terkel Also, now here's something. This is John Kurtz's coverage. I'd like to read this if I could. The Kimberly is about Mrs. James H. Kimberly, the Kimberly-Clark paper products heir, oh, in quotes, 'I'm just a stockholder.' By the way this is something you find since you're dealing with powerful people. They in- they deny that they have power.
Charlotte Curtis They tend to want yes and they tend to put it down. I mean I'm just a little you know country doctor and they've just invented the vaccine or something. Yes that's that's the way they talk.
Charlotte Curtis Oh well, I love. Yes I know it was Colonel, Colonel Byrd in Dallas. Yes, who told me, I'm he said you know there's this big rich lady and there's little rich. Now, he said the big rich start about 10 million. No, 20 million up but you're little rich if you have five to ten million and he said I'm just one of your little rich.
Curtis & Terkel [Laughter]
Studs Terkel Here's the Kim-. So anyway. Mrs. Kimberly is saying about the nine boats which they all keep in their backyard docks. Now let's see. Ms. Kimberly trying to remember which boat was which. There's the Gray Fox. Perhaps, you should read it. It's your book. I think this is a tells a good deal.
Charlotte Curtis Yes but she's trying to add up the nine, the nine boats for me. Now let's see, she says. There's the Gray Fox and it's 90 feet long and the Blue Fox and it's 51 foot. It's a 51 put sport fisherman and then the Little Fox 2 which is an inboard speed boat and that's made of fiberglass and the 16 foot Boston Whaler. Yes and let's see that's the Silver Fox the one we use for water skiing and that, she said, pointing to one over there, that's the 13 foot Boston Whaler, the Foxy. The only one that's just for me. Now let's see what have I forgotten.
Charlotte Curtis Now again you see if you have nine if you had nine boats and a yacht out front yard and you start tallying them up and you have nine names for them and you can't remember all the names. It is not a paradoxical when you then read about it because darling you cannot remember how many boats you have.
Charlotte Curtis sure
Charlotte Curtis Oh I know where that was. That robbery was in Saratoga and it was Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and she was really terribly upset about the whole thing. I mean they took practically everything as she said. She said afterwards, "Oh dear I'll have nothing to wear nothing at all to wear except my pearls and my tiara".
Charlotte Curtis Well you see. She was down to that. You know she went on from that then to buy paste jewelry. She'd explain that she never bought fakes before but at this stage she was desperate and needed something very quickly so that she was going to have some phonies run up for her.
Charlotte Curtis I don't think so. I don't think so. I think there were in the late 60s meaning that the tail end of the Open Door Society the all. I mean that we were all affected at all levels. I mean so were the poor and so were the middle class affected suddenly by a kind of vengeance and violence within the country but there not as many robberies as used to be and besides now the ladies all run about in copies of their jewels
Studs Terkel that's
Charlotte Curtis and
Studs Terkel That's what I was about to ask. So there's more, more copies. I must tell you a quick story connects with this celebrated film actress now retired. In fact vice president of a big soft drink company. And I never knew it was one of the strange meetings and I ordinary don't. Someone said you got to it's very important. She'd been to South Africa and I was there but we-two different wavelengths involved. She's much taken with the colors of South Africa. Adrian designed her gowns, South African motifs and so I was lost then. And then she said she's going to show me things and she was in the suite at the hotel here. She says shows me the various dresses she wears, changes five times a day and the various shoes and then she says, 'Now my jewels. See these.' I said 'Wow!'. They're fake. I swear. What do you mean they're fake? You have of real? Of course I have real ones, my box at Chase National Bank. They're in the box. I say but there's a policeman outside. Out our suite was a cop guarding it because she's very celebrated. And I says what's he guarding? Oh that's the facade. You see the real ones are in the safe. So illusion is an illusion upon
Studs Terkel Isn't it? So there we come to that's Palm Springs and then there's the dilemma of a baroness who was visiting there and but she had adjusted herself very well. One of on the page 30. We'll go from we'll just skip around but on page 30. There's a baroness who comes to Palm, is it Palm Beach?
Charlotte Curtis All right. The mansion. The mansion she rented was handsome enough white with lots of mirrors, several living rooms and a pool but no push buttons to summon the chef and the maid she brought from Paris. Mr. Capote finally told her in Palm Springs one either yelled at the top of his lungs or used the intercom telephone. The baroness is using the telephone.
Charlotte Curtis He had really had the party of the decade the party of the maybe more than the decade. He had four, 540 people in the Plaza Ballroom of the in New York. And I think the significant thing about that ball was the incredible list of names. Everybody who was anybody, whatever that means at the time, was there. It was a masked ball with people in black and white, mask costumes, feathers all kinds of things [in the face up
Charlotte Curtis everything
Charlotte Curtis Oh Truman. Truman knows exactly what he's doing all the time. He- Truman has perfect insight. He understands exactly what he's doing. I mean I think particularly his newest works show that.
Studs Terkel Yeah
Charlotte Curtis Oh and people left town. People left town. People said they were invited when they weren't. I mean scores of people told me in the weeks before they were invited. I, I really was amazed that people would go to this trouble and other people just said they couldn't be there because they were out of town and actually left town. There was no question.
Studs Terkel You know, funny as you cover that that's a celebrated one that's really the beautiful people. Yet many of the parties you cover are those of people really in power the party for Forbes magazine. Forbes magazine. And there again the denial of power. But these are the less celebrated gatherings. But there's where the
Charlotte Curtis are less celebrated only because the press doesn't have access to them and you don't hear about them and they're done in quiet. And the last thing they want are reporters there. But of course this is the gathering of the powerful. I mean the Forbes party case they had the chairman of the boards of I don't know how many dozens and dozens of major American corporations.
Studs Terkel power
Studs Terkel But Charlotte, as you describe its, here again I think is the the insight of Charlotte Curtis. This is a Forbes anniversary, a VIP co-This is Forbes magazine anniversary. The Business Magazine September 1967. And what comes out here, is interesting as to is powerful and poor little Hubert he's just there as a guest, and he says I'm the only vice president here. But as he's tossed around and about meeting the various ones. It wasn't long before quoting Charlotte Curtis, the vice president, on familiar terms with Lammot DuPont Copeland, president, i.e. DuPont in a [unintelligable] company, he reminded Mrs. Copeland the last time he had seen her they had what he called a nice dance together. Now it wasn't long before he, the vice president, was on familiar terms with DuPont not the other way around which is your way of putting it of course.
Charlotte Curtis Well in our society I think that's the way to put it. You know it's like saying in Palm Springs that promise with Palm Springs is a democratic place it will play golf with a man EVEN if he is president of the United States because you see in the end, it really, they are so busy with their own thing it doesn't matter.
Charlotte Curtis Yeah
Charlotte Curtis yeah
Studs Terkel This is what we're talking about. In contrast, you cover all parts. You cover there's another one celebrated in a rather perverse way. And that was Leonard Bernstein party for and his wife on behalf of the Black Panthers during the time that's when Tom Wolfe did that very deft hatchet job called Radical Chic and the phrase came into being because you were there and you saw something else.
Charlotte Curtis Well I I my story created a great furor in New York. It is the story on which Tom Wolfe based his reporting in his book. But I think more significantly it was misunderstood that party was misunderstood. The effort was on us to do something for the Panthers. It was a major important effort. It did help despite the bad publicity and as it's turned out we know something about who was pursuing the Panthers and all the allegations they were making at the time that turned out to be true about what the FBI was doing and how the police were hunting them down and shooting them. I mean it happened the shooting right here in Chicago. But more importantly I think we ought to remember that Felicia Bernstein has been a civil libertarian since she was virtually a little girl. She was a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union in her living room. It is consistent with what she did. She was one of the few beautiful people who consistently marched against the war in Vietnam.
Studs Terkel It's funny though how, that see, to me is significant is YOU, the journalist, seeing a scene and with your own sense of values and someone else whose talents I respect. Incidentally Wolfe did something. It's not that HE was the one most culpable to me but those who picked up on it who never gave a damn about anybody. What I call I don't give a damn chic is far from a pervasive and radical chic and the great rationale to do nothing about anything and not give a damn. And the kidding someone like Bernstein's guests.
Charlotte Curtis Well and also the people who ran from the fight when it was over. I mean the fair weather friends the Bernsteins stuck, stood there and took it, took the criticism and their friends ran off and wouldn't answer the telephone.
Studs Terkel Listen to this about human valu- just occurred to me a crazy thought when Truman Capote tossed that little boy party, people LIED to say yes they were there or invited. And I hear it when something took place concerning values and life when
Charlotte Curtis Yes.
Studs Terkel Wow. Charlotte Curtis is my guest. You can see she's a social critic indeed and Harrison Salisbury is right. And we take a slight pause and return to her, more thoughts about the book and readings from it and other voices. It's called "The Rich and Other Atrocities". By the way her styles are a salubrious one and some of the stuff is good out loud reading. [laughter] We'll come to some in a moment. Harper and Row the Publishers and we'll resume the conversation just a moment after this message.
Studs Terkel Resuming the conversation with Charlotte Curtis and how the beautiful live. You covered the Met. Oh it's always a big event in any city when the opera season opens first night and first night at the Met is especially special isn't it?
Charlotte Curtis Well it has been. It is. It isn't right now but it all but it always was into the last few years. You know it was the kind of thing where everybody dressed to the teeth and marched through the doors. And there was a battery of photographers and my favorite used to be that they would march in. And if the photographers didn't catch them the first time they would march out again and then march in a second time to make sure that the photographers caught them. I mean the question of whether they were there for music or for being reported as having been there are you know,
Studs Terkel But somehow the Met. You know when you think of the golden- and there's you describe a number of the society people there. Oh, there's one, you must, before I ask you Mrs. Kavanaugh and there's song goes along with it. Mrs. We always say we always say the word Mrs. Astor is now a it's been a catchphrase for years. Mrs. Astor means society doesn't it?
Charlotte Curtis Now this is describing the first Mrs. Astor, THE Mrs. Astor. In those days her neckline was wide, the better to display her diamond collection. The bodice was wreathed with the draped bertha that covered her ample shoulders or was high necked with puffed sleeves sometimes fattened by the insertion of small pillows. There was an extensive train. Her jewels particularly the diamonds Stomacher that resembled a string of electric light bulbs. The diamond tiara she wore with other diamonds and her pompadour and a triple strand diamond necklace were prominent among the genuine glitter cited as a reason for calling the lower tier of box seats the Diamond Horseshoe.
Charlotte Curtis Not as much as you know now that of course the argument would go, now that everybody has them you don't need to wear them. Now we're going through street chic, peasant chic. I mean which is another form of radical chic. You know it's understated. Now you wear these little bits of ebony or ivory or carved bone but you don't wear diamonds at the moment. I mean diamonds are for cufflinks that go with blue jeans.
Charlotte Curtis Always
Studs Terkel So if this becomes the important thing in life then they really don't know when they're kidded when that we don't know the fact that it's reported in itself is a tribute to them they think.
Charlotte Curtis Mrs. Kavanaugh was the lady who put her leg up on the chair who has been obviously widely photographed but from the book it said, "Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh could have weighed her diamonds by the pound. In 1944 one of Mrs. Kavanaugh's vintage years, the 77-year-old platinum blonde did herself up in a slim crepe with little curls for a hairdo. Her eyebrows were thin black lines that gave her a surprised look and her lips like a lot of lips in the late thirties and forties were painted into a bright red sweetheart bow. Her jewels that night included a diamond tiara, a diamond necklace with a pendant the size of a baseball and an assortment of oversized diamond rings. She wore four diamond and emerald bracelets on one arm and a big platinum and diamond spray on the other. She would have worn more jewels the dowager said later but there was a war going on."
f1 Well men another opening at the Met. Oh it's sure good to be back in harness again, huh? That's two scotch on the rocks please. Hey, there's Rudolf Bing. Hi Rudy, hi ya. Oh, there's the curtain call. Hey, isn't that music gorgeous? Two more scotch on the rocks please. You know men, I've loved the opera every since I was a little kid. Oh way back before Newport was a blue port. Before Vanderbilt was just a phone exchange. I spent my youthful days done up and stay amidst the potted plants. I'm a slightly potted plants. On the family grain in 9900 in my mind. Portrait of. Ted. For my credenza my son. Banner from where he still submits.
F20 And I was married off quicker than you say Amityville. They wrapped me up in tulle and orange blossom and flung me at an old merchant prince. From that day on my heart's been playing possum, but ever since.
F21 I'm one of the nails in the horseshoe at the opera. Without me the joint would never run. Every music lover plucks when they dust off my box. When I open it, the feeding has begun, Hello Brenda. You look wonderful! She
F22 Now the mezzanine at the Metropolitan exuding chill on sable with my pompadour and pearls and must know I'm a good drippin Pearl of how they begged to see my leg up on the table. Now I sound like Debussy and I.
F22 All the fact of the matter is I love just everything just everything. Why in the hell I have to say that I'm. Afraid to parrot them at all. Oh I never hear a single note of course. I'm to the nails
Studs Terkel Now I guess in all there's always somebody isn't there an upper crust or doe who's talked about who maybe a little more obviously gauche, there's a gaucherie throughout with some are more graceful than others. But there's there's always somebody more raffish isn't there in all these circles isn't there.
Charlotte Curtis Sure sure. But it's you know the most interesting ones probably were in the 30s when they hit the oil wells in Texas and they came into Neiman Marcus in [baubles windows?] and said, I'll take everything behind that counter which would be 3 and 4 necklaces. And if you've never been educated to these tastes, why would you care? It's like Molly Brown in Denver.
Studs Terkel And then you have the old money. And so we come to Boston, all we're doing now is touching numerary cursory fashion of Charlotte Curtis' book. There are many of the cities in Boston. Here we come to the Brahmin's over here and we come to Boston the specialist
Studs Terkel But I'm thinking about that story that occurred and you know the one there was a Jewish guy named Kabatchnick. You know that one, don't you? Do you know that one? Oh! There was apparently a Jewish guy coming out [unintelligible] Kabai, wanted to change his name to Cabot. He lived in Boston and the Cabots did this, whose case? The Cabots objected. And the judge said he has a right to change his name. He changed his name to Cabot. And so some Boston columnist wrote this is the city of Boston the land of the bean and the cod where the Lowells belong to Cabots and the Cabots speak Yiddish by God.
Studs Terkel the Cabots speaking to God. So there was a, there was an incident but there also is the old. There's always someone I'm sure whom you like, I guess everybody does, the old dowager with her sense of values. She's no sense of absurd to things and some cases, she's a humanitarian. There's a sense air of, the air of truth
Studs Terkel Yeah
Charlotte Curtis Mrs. Robert Homans is the fourth Abigail Adams a direct descendant of the first president, second president of the United States. The first Abigail Adams. Bostonians like to remember the stormy night that Mrs. Robert Homans turned up at the Somerset club asking to be put up for the night. She wanted a room in her husband's club she said, in unmistakably aristocratic tones because the roads were impassable and she couldn't get home. But the club, a rigid and supremely awesome establishment refused her. It had a house rule forbidding a room to a woman alone. In that case said the impact-, impeccably correct Mrs. Homans starting toward the door, 'I'll go out and get my taxi driver'. Abigail Adams got her way.
Charlotte Curtis Sure
Studs Terkel Throughout the book there also these are Philadelphia stalwarts. Also you have certain photographs that are telling in their own way and there's reality. And yet you know it isn't real and yet it is. And so how do you choose the seat you chose a number that that first the playground which Palm Palm Springs.
Charlotte Curtis But this is the intermingling you know in the one thing is there is a democracy of sorts even at the upper levels. Very old families marry showgirls. People get quic-, rich quick with things like hair curlers and hamburgers and catch up on all kinds of things. I mean the meat packers of Chicago for instance
Charlotte Curtis My father was professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and I was a little girl, very little girl when I left here but I, no I feel this is my home. I'm very proud of Chicago.
Studs Terkel One of the lines that Regina has in Lillian Hellman's "Little Foxes" and that was about 1900 or so toward the Deep South. She wants to go north. She wants to make it in society. She's got the money now. Husband is dead and she got the money. She wants her daughter to go with her she says I'm going to Chicago. Now, I gotta ask Lillian Hellman a question some days why she said that and there must be a reason because at that time the Chicago woman was quite
Studs Terkel You also name there cities in the south and you also hit the international spots in the coverage of the Shah of Iran's party and now he was able to just cover up all the horrendous aspects of Iran there.
Charlotte Curtis Yes. There is no way to do anything except specifically what we were permitted to do in the process of covering it. We stood outside barbed wire fences and at one point I was standing just at my dress on and not even a coat so that nobody would think for a minute I was armed just a little dress in the desert with my notebook. And the soldiers turned guns on me.
Charlotte Curtis In the reporters covering this were kept at arm's length for the most part. Or if they weren't kept at arm's length they were watched 24 hours a day for fear that we would see something that we shouldn't write about or we would do something that the government would not like. Part of the security was because of the 70 heads of state. They didn't dare take the chance of an assassination. But Iran is full of terrorists whom they denied. The terrorists were for the most part people who were at the bottom who would like to see the power in Iran change. And as I said at one point when I was trying to go through a gate wearing just a little dress and carrying a notebook so it was obvious I didn't have a Tommy gun anywhere. Soldiers turned and pointed guns at me and the reporter Hugh Mulligan who is the AP reporter yelled from a taxi behind me. Charlotte do not move. They really thought that I was going
Charlotte Curtis Yes
Charlotte Curtis We see the face, the only way you saw the face behind the mask in Iran was by going and reporting Iran ahead of time or reporting Iran afterwards and going without government participation. And of course as we hear more and more
Charlotte Curtis Yes
Studs Terkel So we come also. This is so your book coming back again to Harrison Salisbury's comment. Charlotte Curtis social critic. You talk of different cities in the south and south the stories cities. You know New Orleans Charleston and is a great deal of family. Inbreeding appears often in many places you talk about. GROSSE, we forgot about GROSSE POINT. That's where big dough is.
Charlotte Curtis automobiles
Charlotte Curtis salt.
Studs Terkel [Laughter]
Studs Terkel But since you mentioned the South in your book and cousins parties and masked balls and memories I was in Montgomery and during the Montgomery summer I saw Madera Spencer who was a society editor, Montgomery Advertiser and I asked her why this is a time of historic events the voice of Martin Luther King is heard outside speaking and Dick Gregory. And we hear it within the city room we hear the voices in the distance but she says nothing is happening. I ask her about how society in Montgomery which you called the cradle of the Confederacy and so may we hear her voice.
Madera Spencer So we have, I think we are known more than anything else, as the cradle of the Confederacy, as you have possibly already heard. And Montgomery has been thought up the center of social life of the south for many many years many generations.
Madera Spencer Well Montgomery surprisingly has an extremely active social life. New Orleans and Charleston as you know are noted for their Mardi Gras festivities. Montgomery has 15 mystic organizations even more than Mobile and New Orleans and Charleston. And these are elaborate costume balls that begin not not particularly during Lent but they start in October and they are scheduled about every few weeks through until Lent begins every year. And that's the prominent people of Montgomery belong to the costume balls. They all masked. They never unmasked. You are supposed to never know who the members are but they are 15 of those through the year.
Madera Spencer Yes.
Madera Spencer No, no. It has a theme just as a New Orleans Mardi Gras ball it has a certain theme every year which maybe My Fair Lady type costumes or Under the Sea or any number of things. And you can imagine for all the years that they go on and on and they are different themes for every ball.
Charlotte Curtis [Laughter]
Studs Terkel in common. So we come to your book and every aspect is covered pretty much of this world. And who are the arbiters toward the very end we ca-. This is the part we I'm saving for the end. We heard Jerome Zerbe earlier. The name Ward McAllister as one of the social arbiters of another time. We have Cleveland Armory and Earl Black on the social register. There are such, aren't there who more or less are called upon by others aren't they?
Studs Terkel But toward the end the last one you save November 1970 who's a somebody depends on who's doing the choosing and only Charlotte Curtis could do it and bring it to the reality of the absurdity. And there's a guy named David Lefkowitz who is over and beyond Earl Blackwell and Ward McAllister. Suppose you set the scene for us and I'll do David Lefkowitz. Suppose you set the scene about. We're talking about autograph hounds and everything aren't we. Now why don't you tell who David Lefkowitz is perhaps you know
Studs Terkel and he generally hangs around where celebrities may be society or theater people. He's there in the crowd and he rushes out toward that person but he decides so I'll be David Lefkowitz and why don't you read your column verbatim as you wrote it.
Charlotte Curtis Ward McAllister certainly wasn't the first American to make a list of those he considered better than everybody else. But since his invention of the 400 an awful lot of people have made an awful lot of lists. Inevitably such lists raise the momentous in some circles question of who is important and who isn't. And the old question came up again not long ago at the New York City cultural council's black tie theatre benefit. Crowds of New Yorkers lined up behind wooden police barriers to watch the rich, the celebrated, the elegant in the powerful stream into the Imperial Theater. The sidewalks' audience cheered for Lonna Lola Gina Lollobrigida. But when Mrs. John FC Price the associate, the A & P heiress. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Scull, pop art and taxicabs. Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein II, widow of the lyricist. Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Ameen, stockbroker. Pierre R. Pelz, jewels and Mrs. Charles Shipman Payson, horses and the Mets arrive, the crowd merely stared or commented on the clothes and jewels. It took Mayor Lindsay's appearance to get the crowd cheering again and clapping their hands and as the last of perhaps 750 theatregoers moved across the sidewalk and into the lobby a man who had been watching the proceedings delivered what to him was the final appraisal of the guests.
Charlotte Curtis The booming voice belonged to none other than David Lefkowitz and although his ruddy face brown corduroy jacket and baggy blue pants probably aren't familiar to Mrs. Bryce, Miss Lollobrigida, Mr. R. Pelz, or Mrs. Payson, he has been looking at them for nearly 20 years. Mr. Lefkowitz is a professional autograph seeker. Between April and the first of October he doubles as a Good Humor man. In the winters he may be found at virtually every highly pied, highly publicized movie and theater opening or benefit in the Broadway area. He disdains the French restaurant-
Charlotte Curtis Yet he's often at Sardi's issuing a passing verbal commentary on the wide variety of persons who go into the theatrical district restaurant for dinner supper and first night parties. He has been known to stand outside the New York Hilton, the Waldorf or the Plaza when what he calls
Charlotte Curtis But he did try to indicate how he rates the three or four thousand people whose autographs he has collected either for himself or for sale at prices ranging from two dollars for Joseph E. Levine, the producer to fifteen dollars for President Nixon.
Studs Terkel I like mayors, governors, presidents. Those are big people. Or famous stars or secretaries of states. I don't go for uh, for businessmen. I wouldn't bother Henry Ford the president General Motors
Charlotte Curtis Yet Aristotle Onassis who has as much or more money than either Mr. Vanderbilt or miss, or Governor Rockefeller is considerably lower down on the list because as Mr. Lefkowitz put it-
Charlotte Curtis Ingrid
Charlotte Curtis Yet John Hay Whitney, former ambassador to the Court of Saint James, racing enthusiast, member of an old and distinguished family and former owner of The New York Herald Tribune doesn't even appear on the
Charlotte Curtis Mr. Lefkowitz explained. Mr. Lefkowitz has never heard of Mr. Whitney's sister, Mrs. Payson nor of Charles Revson, chairman of Revlon Inc. And despite a recent Gallup poll showing that Martha Mitchell's name is familiar to 74 percent of the population, Mr. Lefkowitz hadn't heard of her either.
Charlotte Curtis Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Mr. Capote seems to be somewhere to the south of such loftiest as Mr. Vanderbilt, Mayor Lindsay, Racquel Welch, President Nixon, Governor Rockefeller and Gregory Peck. But he's above Joe Namath who has refused to give Mr. Lefkowitz an autograph on four successive occasions and Mr. Nemeth is well above Mr. Onassis.
Studs Terkel Charlotte Curtis and David Lefkowitz and the book by the way is an excellent one. And you can read out loud and [unintelligible] among friends because it's hilarious, absurd, it's Ionesco, it's Beckett. It's society and the beautiful people covered by someone with a very sharp eye indeed. And a good pen. "The Rich and Other Atrocities," by Charlotte Curtis and it's Harper and Row. It's available. Thank you very much.
Studs Terkel [LAUGHTER]
Studs Terkel Thank you. That's the program this morning with Charlotte Curtis, "The Rich and Other Atrocities" a conversation that took place in 1976. Tomorrow is the twenty-sixth of August and it's our annual tribute to Big Bill Broonzy usually played on the twenty-eighth. But we'll have a guest live on that day. And so tribute to Big Bill Broonzy blues singer tomorrow. Until then take it easy but take it.