Saturday, May 27, 2017

A FORGOTTEN PRE-WWII ERA NEW YORK SOCIETY GENTLEMAN OF STYLE AND TASTE CHEZ LUI: LIFE MAGAZINE PROFILES 'CHOLLY KNICKERBOCKER" AT HOME IN NOVEMBER 1941... PERHAPS A LOST WILLIAM PAHLMANN INTERIOR WAITING TO BE REDISCOVERED?


Born in 1890 into a Main Line Philadelphia family of distinction, the relentlessly debonair Maury Henry Biddle Paul is nearly forgotten today. It's a genuinely lamentable state of affairs. He represented a sort of stylish, well born, affluent, instinctively socially worldly, unstudied discretely homosexual man about town that has essentially disappeared from the social scene in New York society - or any big city in the USA for that matter.  I'd hazard to put forward a thesis that he was very likely an influence of the last generation of such similar gentlemen if his ilk that I used to observe  and seek for my own guidance growing up in the 1970's when I began to observe the world and develop my own aspirations about how I would like to live and the things that would be important in my life and career. Such men of erudition, learning, culture, taste, wit, panache who managed social life with unstudied adroitness seem to have essentially disappeared or ceased to be sought out and appreciated when they emerged today.  Gentlemen of this breed enlivened social life, elevated taste, encouraged good manners and inspired others to make life as beautiful as they could with whatever resources they could command. 

Maury was born into affluence but he had to work. Good fortune, and an unerring instinct for networking allowed him to make a remarkably good living doing what he loved. For just over a quarter century, until his early sudden death that came in the wake of a heart attack in July 1942, as the USA was just getting involved in WWII, Paul was one of the most avidly read society gossip columnists in North America.  Taking on the nomme de plume of "Cholly Knickerbocker" he was an acute, witty, often acid tongued social chronicler of the Pre-WWII Era and spared NO ONE!  But while he was feared, it was said in a profile about him published in November 1941 in LIFE Magazine that "He chides, he humiliates, he insults, but he never tells all he knows. Many socialites he knows would rather be attacked than ignored"!  After working for other journals that seem to have merged and morphed into other journals. Paul ended his career when he was writing  for William Randolph Hearst's Journal American

Sources on the internet vary about when he started taking over the "Cholly Knickerbocker" column observing the comings and goings of New York's social elite. According to once source by R Bruce in findagrave.com, "Maury Henry Biddle Paul ~ For over a quarter century was society editor of the New York Journal American, and colorful chronicler of New York Society's events and personalities, under the pen name of 'Cholly Knickerbocker'. He was born in Philadelphia, the son of William Henry Paul and Eleanor Virginia Biddle. He attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he was graduated in 1914. That year he began newspaper work on the old Philadelphia Times, soon leaving it to become society editor of the New York Press. In 1917 he took over the Cholly Knickerbocker column in the New York American, which later merged with the Evening Journal. Mr. Paul was also the author of numerous articles about Society and its celebrities. He called many of the town's social leaders by their first names." 

By the time LIFE Magazine did a feature about him in late 1941, Paul's column was syndicated in 119 newspapers and read by approximately 5,000,000 eager followers. At a time that an upper middle class family with a motorcar in an affluent suburb in the USA would be happy to claim an annual income of $10,000,00, "Cholly Knickerbocker" was reported in this same article to earn an annual salary of $50,000.00!

Below we see Paul scoping out the audience at the former Metropolitan Opera before the curtain goes up as photographed in LIFE Magazine.  Incidentally, "Cholly" was a phonetic pronunciation of "Charlie" as pronounced by most of the upper crust of old New York moneyed society.


Among the contributions that Paul made to today's still used social lexicon was the term "Old money" referring largely to the "400" that constituted the unquestioned ranks of established elite society in New York. And he is accredited with also having coined the term "Cafe Society" to designate the newer more fashionable circles of the moneyed elite influencing the tone of the social scene and who congregated more in restaurants and clubs such as the Stork Club, El Morocco, and The Colony Club where Paul is seen below seated with his signature white carnation in the button hole of his lapel and seated on the right of the legendary luscious tongued Lucius Beebe on the left. 


Lucius Beebe, relatively openly (albeit subtly) homosexual for the time, and his partner of some years Jerome Zerbe and an unidentified lady are seen in the photo below lunching with Paul. All this set were part of a socially indispensable circle of elegant socically pursued gay gentlemen about town who were always noted in the society press as "Bachelors". Paul is seen on the left. 


But, like Beebe and the rest of this set, Paul was a vital and integral part of a substantial much wider social world and network which included the very best of society that included all the great names such as the Astors and the Venderbilts. In fact, it was Paul who dubbed the redoubtable Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, seen below in her New York drawing room, as  "Her Grace".  She loved it! And if she feared his sometimes acerbic observations, it didn't keep her from once accosting him at a dinner they were both attending on which occasion she took his arm to lead her out as the party was winding down, saying "Don't let people think we've been scrapping"! This anedote was also reported in LIFE Magazine.


Other acquaintances that were part of the scene Paul covered as "Cholly Knickerbocker" and who constituted  such personages as Mrs. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte seen below. In fact, after WWII erupted in 1939, the horde of European titled nobility and royals that swarmed to the USA, obviously seeking safety,  and congregated to New York. There they were clearly a welcome addition to the social scene of these years as the USA had yet to enter the conflict in Europe until late 1941. And Paul delighted in adding to his social network such personages which also included various members of the Rothschild tribe in addition to Archduke Otto von Hapsburg and a veritable tsunami of assorted Continental princes, dukes, counts and barons...


Paul was born into gentility and he lived life to the hilt! This photo below was published of him in the 1930's being served breakfast in bed by a rather fetching butler wearing a white jacket. Note the stylish leopard skin throw over the twin bed.


But Paul was no idler. He worked constantly and was a virtuoso of that rare art of working intensely while appearing to be having a good time and he was unfailingly immaculately dressed. Below this photo from the LIFE Magazine article of November 1941 shows a typical day in his office


His prose was bouncy, sometimes subtle, sometimes caustic, and unfailingly appeared effortless. Enviable! Among other catch phrases he invented that have remained with us were such terms as "Glamour Girl". While perhaps "Cupid's Graveyard" is another term that has admittedly - though lamentably - fallen out of use today...  His style was innately pregnant with nuance and breezy.  And it came from someone who knew his place in the world with no qualms.  According to LIFE Magazine, "If it is not art, Paul's style is rich and distinctive. Paul's girls are not married, but "transformed into brides". Talk is 'chit chat', large numbers of people 'hordes', a lot of money 'oodles of ducats'. Lush with meaningful quotation marks, he will write '(So and so's) lovely 'ex' has been having what is called 'a time'. I'm so-o-o-o curious!"

Below is a photo of Paul with his assistant. It would seem he is already dressed to  dine out and in his shirtsleeves rushing to get a column on the typewriter in his apartment's butlers' pantry to meet an obvious deadline before he has to leave for the evening's engagements. According again to the same article in LIFE  Magazine "A hunt-& -peck typist, he feels that shirtsleeves make him kin to the working press" !


The article in LIFE Magazine that lured me into Paul's world was published in November of 1941. It was entitled Life Goes Calling on "Cholly Knickerbocker".  Above all, the article was a visit to Paul's smart, luxurious and spacious New York apartment located at 163 East 64th Street where he lived with his mother, Eleanor Virginia Biddle Paul ( 1859 - 1956 ).

As an article offering a glimpse into the private residence of a personage of the day whose entire life was about observing and recording the activities of the New York social elite, it was not surprising to read and see in the illustrations that Paul's great style was all pervasive and infused every aspect of his unapologetically sybaritic life. Good for him! Life is short and his was especially short! And he lived it with joie de vivre!

Below is a Getty Images photo as it appeared in the LIFE Magazine article with a wide view of the drawing room. I was immediately drawn by it's effortless chic and unstudied elegance. A busy man like Paul may have instinctively sought to create a worthy decor around him. But I was provoked to offer this essay on this blog because this modest but revealing article about his apartment and domestic surroundings published on the eve of his unexpected death at the age of 52 raises more questions than it has answers about who was responsible for pulling this drawing room and the other rooms so successfully. One can't help but detect the plausible professional assistance of such decorators of stature of Paul's day like George Stacey or possibly William Pahlmann. Both men of talent surely were not unknown to Paul (and the two decorators obviously knew one another)  and, as both were gay men who moved among the same circles it's perfectly possible one or the other had a hand in the decoration of Paul's handsome apartment.


Looking at a close up (seen below) that  I scanned from the LIFE Magazine article I wanted to get a closer look at the mirrored vaguely Neoclassical coffee table with inset mirrored panels in a wood frame characterized by tapering square legs. Having seen another example of this prototype in the house of friends whose parents had been clients of William Pahlman, I'm inclined to suspect he may have been the decorator of this forgotten decorative ensemble on East 64th Street. Additionally, many other Pahlmann characteristics are present. There is a joyful (and you can be certain well thought out) assortment of fine antique combining a wide variety of periods and styles including and English mid Georgian secretary desk, a walnut Louis XVI fauteuil en cabriolet with fine needlepoint, a Louis XIII os de mouton armchair, a Neoclassical Atheniene, and an old master painting that (if you really strain to examine the photo) may be an 18th Century landscape with ruins that could be by Hubert Robert or Giovanni Paolo Pannini or, at least, one of their contemporaries. This photo depicts a drawing room that not only welcomes... It beckons and begs inquiry from decorative arts historians about who is responsible for this remarkable room in which the even the Regency inspired curtains surmounted by festive pelmets worthy of Brighton Pavilion are a celebration of the art of living well!


I lean more towards the William Pahlmann attribution due largely to the coffee table which is a visual anchor in the room above and is a Pahlman signature that he seems to have designed. A version of the same coffee table is espied in a well known documented Palmann interior the decorator created for Mrs. Walter Hoving in 1948 seen below. It also has the same cosmopolitan unpretentious combination of various antique period and style furniture and appointments including the dramatic Chinese lacquer paravent that always lends an element of theatre!


Another of William Pahlmann's more memorable interiors in which the same very easy sophisticated combination of widely diverse but invariably ravishing furniture and appointments is in evidence is seen below in this 1967 drawing room that Pahlmann decorated for Mrs. Carll Tucker's New York City Townhouse. Two alternate views are seen below. Again this landmark interior by Pahlmann has many of the same trademarks as that of Paul's apartment as photographed in LIFE Magazine in late 1941.




Did Paul engage one of the best emerging talents of his day to undertake the decoration of his New York apartment in the late 1930's? The answer may perhaps be found in the Winterthur Library in Delaware where the William Pahlmann papers comprising invoices, correspondence, blue prints, drawings, sample books, client records and photos are maintained. The Hagley Museum and Library in Delaware also has papers that seen to feature what the library website notes as Pahlmann's "Publicity Books that comprise a series of twenty-six bound scrap books documenting William Pahlmann's career as an interior and industrial designer".

Perusing the other photos depicting "a day in the life" of "Cholly Knickerbocker" in the same 1941 LIFE Magazine article, we see Paul beginning his day in bed already conducting business on the phone - probably gossiping about the prior evening's social event with someone who was also there?

The article cites the inevitable leopard skin throw over the twin bed that we saw in the earlier photo from the 1930's that indicates that photo we see earlier above was taken in a prior residence. Or was it taken in a Florida residence that Paul and his mother also apparently maintained? Many questions yet to be answered!  The LIFE Magazine caption on this photo also notes the handsome portrait of Isabella Brant to be by the hand of no one less than the greatest master of 17th Century Flanders, Peter Paul Rubens! According to this same caption, it was an authentic portrait by Rubens of his wife and was acquired with the advise of no one less that William Randolph Hearst who knew a thing or two about collecting!


However, as I did some preliminary investigating online. I found that the only identical portrait of Isabell Brant accepted by the experts by the hand of Rubens is this version that is in the collection of The Mauritshuis, The Hague in the Netherlands. What happened to Paul's belongings after his surviving mother probably took them over? Another thing that would need to be investigated... What is very likely the case of what happened is that the portrait was subsequently concluded to be a good copy from the studio of the master. But again, the question of the portrait remains unanswered.  The "original" in the Dutch museum is seen below. 


Below is the photo of Paul taking breakfast "of fruit and tea" in his very Georgian inspired Hollywood Regency-ish dining room described in LIFE Magazine as "silver filled" and in which he is seated at the head of his table under what the caption assures the reader is  a portrait described as "Sir Godfrey Kneller's Duke of York". A preliminary foray into Kneller's portraits of such an important personage who eventually reigned very briefly as the despised James II of England indicated this portrait was very likely "optimistically" identified as a Royal prince to fetch a better price at auction or in a gallery.


By his own admission, Paul declared to LIFE Magazine, "I always smell to the Heaven"!  And the article included this rather surprising image of him toweling himself down after a shower in his bathroom to get prepared for another customary night on the town which was certainly all in a day's work for him!


And below are two additional photos from the same LIFE  Magazine issue in which a typical evening out is shown with Paul's arrival by taxi....


And below he is awaiting the taxi to take him home after ending another evening out at El Morocco...


As stated earlier above, this article that encouraged me to write this blog essay provoked endless questions about the life, the activities and the style that Maury Henry Biddle Paul LIVED and LOVED. There is a story here! Additionally, from the primary focus I have maintained here, there is also much to be discovered about the decorator to which Paul entrusted the decoration of his elegant New York apartment. If William Pahlmann was the talent responsible for providing Paul with an appropriately suitable cadre de vie, he also deserves credit for this fine tour de force!

Not much but a few internet websites (that include obituaries)  mention much about Maury Henry Biddle Paul. And amazingly, at a time that the subject of high society in mid 20th Century America and Europe are claiming increasing attention among social and decorative arts historians, a biography of this urbane and witty man is certainly needed.  For now, all we have is this very dated biography (seen below)  written shortly after his death in 1942 by his last assistant Eve Brown which has the fittingly festive title Champagne Cholly!