ON LEAVING THE DAKOTA
|View from The Dakota, Room 103 on 9th floor overlooking the Central Park. Photo by Indra Tamang.|
Anyone reading my blog knows the story that made news when Ruth Ford died. I inherited her apartment and the smaller one upstairs where I lived for a very long time with Charles Henri Ford. Ruth’s apartment was sold, but I kept the smaller one, 103, on the 9th floor. I was no longer living in it, I have a nice house in Queens, but I kept it as an office, and a place to house the many boxes and file cabinets full of art, papers, photos, and memorabilia from Charles and Ruth, and my own artwork as well. Because renting it out is not allowed, eventually the expense of keeping it no longer made sense. So I made the decision to sell it, but not without mixed feelings. There is relief in not having the added worry and responsibility of keeping it, but also sadness at saying farewell to this venerable building after so long. There is no place on earth more familiar to me than the Dakota.
This month marks forty-five years since I first came to New York, to live in 103. It was November 1974 when I came. While I don’t remember the exact date, I know that I left Kathmandu with Charles on September 9th and we went first to Crete for a month, then to Paris, and then on to New York. Forty-five years of memories lie between that November day and this one. How shall I begin?
|In my early days at The Dakota with Charles and Ruth. Photo by Dotson Radar.|
All of my memories are of a very privileged existence, of living at a very privileged address thanks to Charles and Ruth. Apartment 103 was small compared to Ruth’s apartment, but Charles and I were able to share it comfortably enough. Charles started introducing me to people immediately, inside and outside the Dakota. He knew everybody, the way he did in Paris. Thanks to the Dakota itself, I got to know many interesting neighbors over the years, who shared the same hallways, staircases and elevators. John and Yoko were among the first people I met. I remember John carrying the baby, Sean, and I remember watching the Thanksgiving Parade from the rooftop of the Dakota with them and a group of other neighbors. There was Rex Reed, Leonard Bernstein, Lauren Bacall, and Roberta Flack. I once shared a taxi with Roberta Flack, when she dropped me at the spot uptown where I’d parked my car. I used to talk to Connie Chung in the elevator.
When I first came, in 1974, Ruth was still hosting her famous salons. She was involved “romantically” with the writer Dotson Rader, who was much younger than she was, and they were considered such a hot item that People magazine devoted a whole article to them. Dotson Rader is the person who took me down to the cellar of the Dakota and showed me how to use the coin-op washing machine. It cost one quarter and one dime. He also gave me advice on how to grow taller—because he felt I was not tall enough—and his advice was that I should drink milk every day and do a little jumping-jack exercise, which he demonstrated, and I’ve never forgotten the sight of him doing that.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, all the galleries were mostly downtown in SoHo before the art scene moved to Chelsea. Charles and I would take the number 5 bus that went all the way down to Houston Street, and go to all the openings. Sometimes after the galleries, we would walk all the way back to the Dakota. There was a Woolworth’s on Amsterdam Avenue then, where I bought a little flowered autograph book which closes with a zipper. I still have it. It is filled with signatures, notes, and doodles from all kinds of characters, and it always delights anyone I show it to. Salvador Dali signed it for me when Charles took me to visit him at the St. Regis Hotel early on. I had no idea who Salvador Dali was at the time, but his long and elaborately arranged mustache reminded me of a tea seller I used to see on the walking trail between Kathmandu and the village where I grew up. I think I had a fairly unique point of view in those early years, which was that I met a lot of very famous people while having no idea how famous they were, and therefore I didn’t have any preconceived notions. I now feel lucky to have started with that blank slate. Salvador Dali liked to host teas just like Charles did. Every Sunday Charles hosted a tea and invited friends to 103. In New York, Charles was a destination for many people the way that his old friend Paul Bowles was in Tangier.
Now that 103 is almost entirely emptied and its contents safely stored near my house in Queens, I’ve decided to sit and try to write down the names of every notable person I met in that little apartment, even though it is almost impossible. What I have managed to remember amounts to a feast of name-dropping. But that is part of what makes 103, and the entire Dakota, so fascinating. The Dakota is a vault of history. It’s the reason people want to visit the Dakota, even just to look at it from across the street. I’m going to list here all the names that my memory has allowed, in no particular order, and hope I haven’t forgotten too many. To those that I do forget, my apologies—there will be other blog post opportunities for me to remember!
There was Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, the film director Christopher Miles, there was Bob Kingdom, a funny man who impersonated Truman Capote (although I don’t recall meeting Capote himself) and there was Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith. The singer Asha Puthli would come over to visit from the San Remo. Penny Arcade was another regular, Nina Hagen came, and Quentin Crisp. Carolee Schneeman and Caterine Milinaire were there, and Gregory Corso, Bob Moore, Richard Bernstein, Ching Ho Cheng and Tally Brown. Lincoln Kirstein visited, so did Ray Johnson. I remember Marisol, Richard Howard, William Burroughs, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Philip Johnson, Lynne Tillman, David Leddick, Paul Grillo, Ulla Dydo, Valery Oisteanu, Charles Plymell, Allen Frame, Jane and Richard Ross. Pierre Le-Tan, Felice Picano, Rane Arroyo, and Ronnie Burk all sat here having tea, and so did Paul Cummings, Lil Picard, John Wilcock, Tom Weigel, David Bourdon, Larry Sawyer, Chi Chi Valenti, Steve Luttrell, Martin Miles, and Shiv Mirabito. Ira Cohen was one of the most frequent visitors, and he was also one of Charles’s friends who I knew the longest, since the early days in Kathmandu.
|Andy Warhol and Brook Shields at Studio 54. Photo by Indra Tamang.|
Tennessee Williams was another regular, but Tennessee was never satisfied with the tea. At a party Charles threw for Leonora Carrington, Tennessee insisted that surely there must be something stronger than tea, and I think I came up with a little vodka that was hiding in the back of the freezer. It was at that party that Tennessee and Norman Mailer ended a feud they were having right before my eyes. I don’t know what the subject of their disagreement was, but I remember one of them saying, “Are we speaking?” And the answer was, “yes.” I remember Taylor Mead, and Bill Levy, publisher of Ins&Outs Press who was visiting from Amsterdam and actually brought Miss Holland with him. I don’t remember her name, but she was very nice, very pretty, and very tall.
Henry Geldzhaler was a good friend who often came to have lunch with Charles, which I would prepare and serve. Eduard Roditi came whenever he visited from Paris, I think Paul Cadmus came, and Ned Rorem was another one who visited often. Mary McCarthy came for tea during the time she was teaching at Bard College. She was someone we visited a lot in Paris at her beautiful apartment. Kimon Friar would come to visit, the man who translated all the modern Greek literature into English.
The longer I sit thinking, the more people I keep remembering. Leee Black Childers, Arthur Tress David Diamond, Fabrice Couillerot, Donald Windham, William Eggleston, Richard Kostelanetz, Divine, Holly Woodlawn, Jayne County, and Cherry Vanilla, they all used to sit at the table around Charles, and I use to serve tea to everyone. Someone Charles liked very much was Ted Joans, who would come down to the Dakota from Harlem and bring sweet potato pie. After Charles passed, Steve Dalanchinsky wrote a tribute to him in the Brooklyn Rail, published in 2003. He wrote about Ted refusing to bring him up to visit Charles at the Dakota. Ted was worried that Steve would be rude. But Steve admired Charles and everything he did with the View magazine, and at least he saw Charles out and about. Quite a lot of the people I’ve mentioned here have passed away, most recently Steve Dalachinsky himself. And I think that Charles would have liked for Steve to visit.
The only person I can think of who was specifically not invited to the Dakota was Sylvia Miles. I used to see her out and about all the time, for years. She was always nice to me, but she had a reputation for not always being very pleasant. And because of some kind of disagreement she had with Ruth, Sylvia was persona non grata at the gates of the Dakota.
I have a memory of Mariel Hemingway being there. I remember the librettist, Gian Carlo Menotti coming, and David Amram, and I remember a certain friend of Ruth’s, a very dignified man named Desmond Guinness who had a castle in Ireland. I made tea for Desmond Guinness, and then of course, I put him into my camera. I photographed countless people over the years at the Dakota.
|The Dakota, as seen from the Central Park. 1894. Photo: Museum of the City of New York|
In 2002, after Charles passed, I saw Yoko out in front of the building and she stopped to give me some words of encouragement, which I will always remember. And I will never forget the night, years before, when I was awakened by a lot of noise from downstairs,. I remember hearing the news on the radio the next morning that John Lennon had been shot right down in the driveway. Years passed, and I watched Sean grow up and become much taller than me. In later years, I would see Lauren Bacall walking her cute little dog every day. The dog was a white-blonde, just like she was. They were perfectly matched, and she always said hello.
I am sure that I have missed some names, but all the names I mentioned here is a proof that Charles and Ruth had such a great influence, such cultural reach. Since their passing, I’ve hosted historians, researchers, museum and art gallery curators from all over, at the table where Charles sat for his teas. I’ve seen that the interest in Charles and Ruth is just as keen as ever, that their influence has not lessened because of they are no longer with us, or in the Dakota. So much of my own life was lived in this building full of stories. It will always be a part of me, just as Charles and Ruth will be too. I will continue to keep the flame of their legacies lighted. I’ll just be doing it from a different address.
|Charles and Ruth at The Dakota, Room 103. Christmas 1999. Photo by Indra Tamang.|
It’s true that all things must come to an end, but I don’t think we ever feel it’s gravity until the end is upon us. When it really hits, it can be very painful, but we have to learn let go and cherish all the memories. So it’s with much sadness that I let go of the Dakota, but the time has come to do it, and with luck, I have a lot of good life left yet to live. When Charles was the same age as I am now, he still had decades of life ahead of him, the same with Ruth.
Standing in 103 today, I notice that the ceiling is much higher than I ever realized. Against one empty wall is a large painting, a portrait that Harold Stevenson made of Dotson Rader long ago, which he had given to Ruth as a gift. Dotson looks very young in the painting, which he was at the time Richard painted. When the moving truck came, I kept it aside to give it to Dotson. I think he’ll be glad to have it.
|In front of The Dakota. 2010. Photo by AP.|
- Indra Tamang.
The Dakota, Room 103, November 2019
copyright © Indra Tamang 2019, all rights reserved.