New York's Townhouse Bar, on the Upper East Side, describes itself as the city's "only truly elegant gay bar." Well, perhaps, but on the evening I arrive to meet with the writer Felice Picano, the first thought that comes to mind, over the sound of Madonna pumping from the stereo, is, We should have gone to the Pierre.
The idea had been to drink somewhere in the same orbit as the legendary Rizzoli Bookstore that from 1964 to 1985 occupied a prime spot on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. It was an era when books still mattered. For Picano, who arrived there in 1971 as a would-be novelist with rent to pay, Rizzoli, with its rococo chandeliers, marble floors, and lavish Italian shelves, was the stage for a series of glamorous encounters that fuel his lovely bagatelle of a memoir, Nights at Rizzoli (OR Books). Where else would you encounter Maria Callas, outfitted with a glittery clutch as though "she had been dropped through the ceiling for a Richard Avedon fashion shoot," or find yourself the object of Philip Johnson's amorous advances one night, and Salvador Dali's another?
For that matter, where else could you find Gregory Peck, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, or Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the same room? As for the small woman in "dowdy rain gear," with whom Picano spent 20 minutes chatting about photography one evening, how was he to know that he was talking to the most famous woman in the world? After she finally selects a book, the impeccably polite Picano asks his customer her name:
All I heard was a lot of low-voiced "esses."
"Excuse me? Again please?"
And this time I did actually hear "Mrs. Onassis."
I don't think a red exists on the standard color wheel for the shade that I turned.
Then there was Rose Kennedy, who took such a shine to Picano that she walked into Rizzoli one evening, upended a box of photos on a table, and invited him to help her select shots for her upcoming autobiography, complete with chatty asides: "See how skinny Jack was. Ate like a horse."
Picano, naturally enough, looks back on New York of the 1970s as something of a golden age, when to be gay was to have entree to the best the city had to offer. He recalls dating the composer and diarist Ned Rorem. "Through him I got to meet Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. Copland was this tall old guy, very elegant, always with a different tall young blond man every time I saw him. I don't know where they came from, but I remember him saying, 'Felice, I wonder if anyone will be listening to my music 30 years from now.' "
As that anecdote suggests, Picano is the best kind of raconteur, with terrific recall. In another recent book, the essay collection True Stories: Portraits From My Past, he describes a narrow escape with a falling flowerpot in New York's East Village:
"Oh, my Gawd!" we heard someone expostulate above us. We turned to look up to the third floor, where an astonishing head was peering out a window over a small parapet at us. "I hope I haven't killed anyone," the head said.
The head proceeds to invite Picano and his friend George Sampson up for tea. It is a few months later, at a friend's dinner party in Chelsea, when Picano is reintroduced to his tea-proffering host -- none other than poet W.H. Auden. "Why, you naughty young man! I know you," the poet exclaims, cementing another memorable friendship in Picano's life.
Auden died in 1973, a couple of years before Picano published his first novel, but he doubts the great poet would have approved. "He sort of looked down on writing," he says. "He described it as a 'horrible profession.' " So did another of Picano's literary idols, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whom he got to meet one evening at a rival bookstore, Scribner. In Nights at Rizzoli he recalls announcing to Singer that he, too, was a writer, only to have his lofty ideals cut down to size. "Worst job in the world," Singer grumbles. Picano, though, persists. Was there no writer, perhaps one from the past, that the Nobel laureate might like to meet? Singer thinks for a minute, then finally replies, "Wait! Maybe Leo Tolstoy," before adding the zinger: "But I wouldn't cross the street for him."