A strong sense of gloom pervaded the Four Seasons’ pool room at the press preview a week before the auction that would sell off its Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen banquettes and tables, its Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable cocktail glasses, its Philip Johnson leather hassocks.
“How am I feeling?” echoed Alex von Bidder, whose co-directorship of the restaurant was about to end. “Hoarse from farewells.” About the 600wots of Four Seasons furnishings, including period ashtrays, wine coolers, and breadbaskets, he shrugged. “I was going to bid,” he said, “but I’ve learned that I can’t. So someone else can get Philip Johnson’s table—the same one as Princess Di’s—number 32.”
“It’s all about the memories,” chimed in co-director Julian Niccolini, and then his voice broke and he gestured to legendary food critic Mimi Sheraton, a spry, petite woman seated near what is known around the restaurant as Picasso Alley. “Say something,” he pleaded. “You know more about the making of the Four Seasons than anyone else.”
A bit embarrassed, Sheraton took the mike to explain that back in 1959, as the Four Seasons was readying to open under its first director, Joe Baum, she worked as a menu preparer, tasting 35 possible items a day. “One day I ordered goat,” she recalled. “Joe said, ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Sheraton had learned, already, to trust her instincts. “People will feel better eating steak,” she declared, “knowing they could have had goat.”
The dream—and it was a dream, for nothing like it existed—began with Samuel Bronfman’s 27-year-old daughter Phyllis Lambert, already a lover of modern architecture. It was she who told her father to build his Seagram building at 375 Park Avenue in the International Style and, with Philip Johnson advising her, chose Ludwig Mies van der Rohe for the job. It was Lambert who had Johnson design the interior of the restaurant that would be the Four Seasons, and it was Lambert who hired Baum to bring the restaurant to life.
Baum had made a name for himself with the Forum of the Twelve Caesars at Rockefeller Center, where waiters wore togas and brought Champagne bottles iced in Roman helmets. The Four Seasons, he decided, would celebrate fresh seasonal food, changing its menu accordingly and trucking in new seasonal plantings and putting its staff in new uniforms. Unlike nearly every other haute boîte in Manhattan, it would serve American—not continental—cuisine, against Johnson’s backdrop of sleek black banquettes and modernist tables, with a bar topped by Richard Lippold’s hanging tubular sculpture, like so many urban stalactites.
One of Johnson’s most brilliant touches was to chop the high-ceilinged space into two dining rooms: the walnut-paneled front ‘grill’ room, where patrons at widely-spaced tables could admire the shimmering metal-beaded curtains as they awaited their steaks, and the pool room, with its square, white-carrara-marble pool that dominated the space.
From the first, Johnson ate in the grill room almost every day, with a series of admirers who included Robert M. Stern, still in architecture school when he met his mentor. “A summons to lunch and the famous corner table was as near to Nirvana as a young architect could get,” Stern recalled.
Stern would be sure to arrive first, coming in the 52nd Street entrance as most guests—but not Johnson—did. “His office was upstairs in the Seagram building, so he would come in from that mid-block passage, usually at 12:30 p.m. to the moment,” Stern explained. He would greet well-known figures as he passed, dressed in perfectly tailored suits by Meledandri or Pierre Cardin, which he wore beautifully, even if they were a bit ridiculous.
“He was a brilliant conversationalist and gossip,” Stern added, “but very kind and curious. At the end of the meal he would say, ‘You must have this chocolate dessert!’ And then he would get two spoons and eat most of it.”
The restaurant Johnson had designed became, as the New York Times’ Craig Claiborne declared it, “perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in New York within the last two decades.”
Sophia Loren was the first, but not the last, to jump in the pool. President John F. Kennedy celebrated his 45th birthday at the restaurant before heading down to Madison Square Garden to hear Marilyn Monroe sing her sexy “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Brooke Astor was a regular; so was Jacqueline Onassis.
Still, by the early l970s, the restaurant needed a re-do. It got one from new directors Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi—more masculine, more rarefied—and so the power lunch was born. Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg coined the phrase and published a seating chart of which satrap sat where.
Publishers dominated: Jason Epstein of Random House, Michael Korda and Dick Snyder of Simon & Schuster, Alexander Liberman and S.I. Newhouse of Condé Nast, John Fairchild of Women’s Wear Daily, and Art Cooper of Gentleman’s Quarterly, who sadly died of a stroke at the bar. Super-agents Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit were there almost daily. Columnist Liz Smith was a regular, often dining with her close friend, Blackstone co-founder Pete Peterson. Writer Nora Ephron came because she lived nearby, Henry Kissinger, too.
In 1989, the Four Seasons was named an interior landmark, so great an example was it of the International Style that Phyllis Lambert had championed. Left out was the thick, 19-by-20 foot Picasso stage curtain, made in 1919 for Sergey Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes and hung in the corridor between the two dining rooms: the corridor became known, since the curtain’s hanging in 1959, as Picasso Alley. It wasn’t a permanent part of the restaurant. Nor were any of the furnishings. “We all thought the whole interior was secured by landmarks preservation,” said Stern. “But of course nothing is airtight.”
The first warning came in 2013, when the Seagram building’s new owner told New York Landmarks Conservancy president Peg Breen that he was going to remove the Picasso curtain because a leaking steam pipe from the kitchen behind it was damaging the work. Breen felt the curtain was too fragile to be moved. Soon after, she got word that the new owner planned a stealth mission to remove the curtain at 3 a.m. And so the battle of the Picasso curtain was joined.
The new owner was developer and art collector Aby Rosen, a son of Holocaust survivors, who with his business partner Michael Fuchs had made his name in New York real estate by buying the Lever House across the street. Rosen had given the Lever a loud and flashy restaurant; the Four Seasons appeared to bore him.
The Picasso curtain was ultimately moved, very carefully, to the New-York Historical Society. But the message was clear: Rosen wanted the Four Seasons’ latest co-directors, von Bidder and Nicolini, out when the lease expired in 2016. He wanted a new, very different restaurant in its place, with a younger crowd. The Major Food Group, creators of three loud and lucrative downtown restaurants (Carbone, Dirty French, Santina), have signed on to the challenge of making a profit while paying Rosen rent of $3 million a year.
Selling off the restaurant’s furnishings was legal, as it turned out. Holding an auction to disperse them was, to say the least, an unsentimental way of bringing the Four Seasons to an end.
The bidding, in a standing-only pool room, began precisely at 10 a.m. on July 26 with a bang. Emil Antonucci’s bronze Four Seasons sign, a mere 23 and ½ inches long and 14 inches high, was estimated to sell for $5,000 to $7,000. Richard Wright, shaggy-maned auctioneer and founder of the Chicago-based auction house that bears his name, nudged two unseen bidders higher and higher as the crowd, after several hopeful early hands shot up, sat back and watched in shock and chagrin. The gavel finally came down at $96,000.
Only one other lot sold for more: the Johnny Swing-designed nickel-and-steel lounge chair, a bold if uncomfortable fixture for years in the restaurant’s lobby. It sold for $112,500, unsurprising given its $100,000–$150,000 estimate.
Nearly every other item, from bar stools to banquettes, exceeded its estimate, as one after another disappointed regular or fan yielded, for the most part, to implacable phone bidders. Two white plastic Eero Saarinen Tulip chairs from the ladies’ lounge? $3,250. The Philip Johnson black banquettes? $8,000 or more each. The Mies van der Rohe bar stools: $14,000 for the pair. For frustrated bidders, there was one consolation: a handful of items at the last minute had been set aside for the Metropolitan Museum. Apparently a Four Seasons room is in the offing.
As the bidding wore on, Nicolini, in silver-toned shoes and a construction hard hat—advertising the new, as yet unfinished Four Seasons he and von Bidder plan to open at 280 Park Avenue—emerged from the kitchen with a towering platter of pink cotton candy: a birthday custom for restaurant regulars. As bidders pulled off bits of it with their fingers and passed it around, it seemed a kind of communion sacrament, honoring the spirit that was leaving the room, piece by sold-off piece.
Anyone who stayed until the bitter end needed more sustenance than that: the auction lasted, incredibly, 15 hours, wrapping up at 12:30 a.m. that night. By then the pool room was nearly empty, the phone bank bid handlers dazed, Richard Wright replaced by another auctioneer.
It had taken that long to consign the Four Seasons, at last, to history.