Monday, March 25, 2013

I guess they listened

Apparently the outcry over removal of the Pied Piper was so great that the Palace reconsidered.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

You have to pay the piper....

Today my friend Shannon McSmith sent me a link that told me that my San Francisco is dying.

For years drinking in the United States--for the serious drinker, the sophisticated drinker, the drinker who knows that drinking is not only good booze and good company but a good setting, a dark and smoky room where the walls are oak, the ties are silk, and the fate of the world is being decided in a corner by two bankers and an oil magnate--has been bracketed by two bars, one in New York City and one in San Francisco (the only two cities in America that have ever really mattered). They are the kinds of places where the Kennedys would go to drink with Sinatra, or where corporate execs would wine and dine presidents, or where lonely artists would go once in a while to soak up the atmosphere of what life among the top dogs during the Mad Men days. 

While shouts should go out tot he Oak Room and the 21 Club in New York City (I have dined in the cellar dining room at the 21 Club, where they have private stock with presidents' names on the bottles), and to the Top of the Mark in San Francisco, the real bars that matter most, the most beautiful drinking establishments in the world, are King Cole's at the St. Regis in New York City and Maxfield's Pied Piper at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, and it's because of Maxfield Parrish. On opposite ends of Interstate 80, these two bars allowed you to drink in the presence of true artistic greatness, a sublime experience which can be duplicated few places on earth. 

In 1906 John Jacob Astor IV commissioned Parrish to paint the Old King Cole mural for the bar at the Knickerbocker Hotel (with Astor himself portrayed as the old King). It was moved to the St. Regis in the 30s. In 1909 Parrish painted The Pied Piper of Hamlin for the Palace in San Francisco.  I now live in New York, but when I lived in San Francisco, Maxfield's was one of my treasured spots. I didn't go there often--I couldn't afford even a beer in that place most days--but on special days I would, just to sit at the bar and drink a good whiskey and stare up at the mural. If you've never seen a Parish mural up close, they are amazing sights. Parish is one of my favorite American illustrators. His work has a magical, dream like quality to it. It is extremely romantic. Ecstasy and Daybreak may be the two most beautiful paintings of the 20th Century. But the Pied Piper has always been my favorite Parrish. It is huge. The colors are almost three dimensional. The way his checkered cape flows through the painting it almost jumps out at you. The first time I saw it in person, my jaw dropped to the floor. 

Today Shannon, who was my girlfriend during some of those years and loved San Francisco and Maxfield's as much as I did, sent me this link. The Palace has removed the mural and is selling it at at Christie's American Art sale in May.  It will probably be on view for five days in May, so I will make an effort to go see it then. It might be the last time I get to. 

It raises the old question about ownership and art. Some people are naturally upset about a cultural treasure being removed from San Francisco. Other's lament the passing of an era when great art graced the walls of hotel bars. Most people really could not care less. To whom does such a treasure belong? The hotel that legally owns it or the community that cherishes it? The answer, of course, is the hotel, but some people think that in itself is wrong, that art should not be privately owned, that it belongs to the people. 

The value of the Parrish is estimated at about 4 million dollars (I think that is low, and that it will fetch a much higher price at auction). When the St. Regis had Old King Cole restored in 2007 it cost them $100,000. Insurance on a $4,000,000 painting has got to be huge. Can we blame the owners of a business for deciding that putting $4,000,000 in their pocket is better than the ongoing costs of owning, in a public place, an icon of 20th Century art? No, I can't. It upsets me that it is going away--I'm furious--but I can't really complain. It's a business decision. I worry about who will buy the painting. The obvious hope is for the DeYoung museum, so that it would remain in San Francisco. It won't be another bar. Bars don't invest in that kind of art anymore. It could be a bar in Vegas, I suppose. I could totally see Steve Wynn or Sheldon Adelson buying it and putting it up in a casino in Vegas. Of course the fear is that it would be bought by one of them and end up in a casino in Macao. But the biggest fear is that it ends up in some private collection somewhere, and we never see it again. That would make me terribly sad. 

Regardless, my San Francisco, which was the San Francisco not only of the Jefferson Airplane and the Greatful Dead, but of Dashiel Hammet and Armistaud Maupin, of the Hearsts, the Spreckles, and Joe DiMagio as well, is losing one more piece of itself. Both Oscar Wilde and Tony Kushner compared San Francisco to heaven. Heaven is losing one of its most beautiful sights. 

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