By Stanley Paul
My first job in New York City was at a little club located on the corner of East 55th Street and Second Avenue. It wasn’t a fancy place, just one of the many clubs in those years that featured a piano player. It was 1960, my hours were from 10:00 PM to 4:00 AM, and I was getting $125 a week. (Can you imagine?)
One night, a very well-dressed couple came into the club and sat at a table beside the piano. They seemed different somehow from the customers who usually frequented the club – they were much more sophisticated – and they asked me if I would play a Cole Porter song for them (Miss Otis Regrets, a song from the 1930s). At the time, I had been working hard to add Cole Porter to my repertoire, so I was proud of myself for knowing what they had requested.
The couple stayed until the club closed, at which point they asked me what my hours were. They were delighted when I answered that I started at 10:00 PM. They then asked me if I’d like to play an early party they were giving on Saturday evening… I was so excited that someone requested me to play for their event, especially when I heard the address: Park Avenue. I had walked past the street’s great buildings many times, and often wondered what it must be like to look out from them instead of looking up at them. Now, I was about to find out.
I put on my tuxedo and showed up at their building that Saturday evening at 7:00 PM. As the doorman announced me, I just stood there gaping. Entering their living room, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: it was as big as a restaurant and decorated with beautiful antique furniture. I took my place at the Steinway baby grand, in the midst of women wearing beautiful gowns and men in white tie–remember, this is when everyone dressed, so different than today. Nobody was really paying any attention to me, but I didn’t care. I was pleased just to be a part of it, trying to take in the elegant surroundings.
Within a short time, I was receiving lots of calls, all asking me to play for similar type parties. I was on the “playing for rich people” circuit, and loving every minute of it! My repertoire was daily growing, adding Noël Coward, Rodgers & Hart, and every Cole Porter song in the book.
A few weeks later at one of these parties, a very striking, older woman stood by the piano watching me for a while, then asked, “Could you play a little Cole?” I remember just gawking at her thinking, “Who is this person? I think I’ve seen her picture in the paper or somewhere.” I knew she had to be someone special since people seemed to be fawning over her. I thought she might have been a silent film star or something.
She was quite regal and dressed so elegantly, though not quite what I’d consider pretty. When she moved across the room, she just sort of floated. And the jewels she wore! With them alone, you could pay the national debt! I was mesmerized!
During my break, I went into the kitchen (where I always went between sessions) and asked one of the kitchen helpers who “that lady standing by the piano” was.
“That’s the Duchess o’ Winza!” I was told.
“Winza? Where’s Winza?” I asked, never having heard of the place before.
“Not Winza, Winza!” she repeated in her thick Brooklyn accent, a sarcastic expression on her sour face. “Ya know… in England? The royal family? Ever hear o’ them?”
“No, of course not! You just don’t get it, do ya?”
At that, she disappeared through the door with a tray of just-filled champagne glasses.
“So who is she?” I asked the cook, still not the slightest bit enlightened.
“Ever hear of Wallis Simpson?” he said.
“You mean the woman who married the King of England?” I gasped.
“Well, thanks to her he ain’t now!” he scowled, as voices from everywhere suddenly started in.
One of them chimed in, “You know I, hear they even get paid for coming to these parties.”
“Leave it to the kitchen to help fill you in!” I thought as I quietly slipped back out into the living room, remaining behind my piano for the rest of the evening.
It was a night I shall never forget!
Photo credit: Bachrach studio
From the personal collection of Stanley Paul