Champagne, Oysters and the Harvard Club
December 13, 2005
Richard J. Garfunkel
Not far west on 44th Street, just past Brooks Brothers and J.Press stands that bastion of the Cambridge Ivy League in New York, the stately Harvard Club. The Harvard Club was founded in 1865 by a small group of alumni who were interested in perpetuating the Harvard spirit in New York. Eventually within the year there were about 98 members who met regularly at the Delmonico’s restaurant and other locations. By the early 1890s with 600 members, a permanent location was picked out 44th Street where a block of stables existed.
At number 27 West 44th Street, with the gift of a design by the celebrated architect Charles McKim, who himself was a club member; the Georgian-facade style club arose in 1894. Today it is a landmark (designated in 1967) and it’s interior is festooned with artifacts from the 1850’s which chronicle Harvard’s illustrious past.
It was a cold late afternoon as I parked in the packed Tarrytown RR Station area. It was much easier to take the rails into the city, at this time of the year, then to fight rush hour traffic. So it was on to the 4:47pm Hudson Line train. It pulled into the station, which sits in the shadow of the Tappan Zee Bridge, right on time. I put my heavy British warmer onto the rack with my brown broad-brimmed western hat from Sedona, and sat down with my half-read book by Jerry Lewis, Dean and Me, (A Love Story). We made excellent time and before long I was walking out into the frigid but windless air of Vanderbilt Avenue near 43rd Street. I walked briskly up to 44th Street and West to Fifth. Lo and behold at the corner was Linda who met me at Fifth. I would have been a minute or so earlier, but I had stopped to gawk at the jackets in J. Press. Wow! There wasn’t a jacket under $500 and some of the pants were over $250. I’ll never give away some of my better clothes again. She had walked down from 55th Street and we were to meet a Barnard colleague at 6:00pm.
Of course we waited and waited, and during those few minutes I scouted around looking for a portrait of FDR that I seen many years before. Linda and I had been to dinner there as guests of my brother-in-law Charles Hale, a graduate of the business school and my sister Kaaren. The club’s entrance was different then and I was later told it had been expanded quite a bit. As I recalled there was an oil painting of FDR in an undistinguished place near the stairway to the restrooms. Of course that was way back in the early 1970’s when Nixon was president. In my search I was gratified to see it on the main wall of the restaurant in a much more prominent place. The Harvard Club has all of its university presidents honored along with other famous alumni like FDR, JFK and Theodore Roosevelt.
When her friend did not show up we checked our coats and went back to the incredible Harvard Hall room that featured a huge Christmas tree, five bourses with different champagnes, and beds of ice covered by oysters. Besides those goodies there were veggies and cheese platters galore. Before long we found her friend, who had missed the train from Larchmont and had driven instead, No wonder she was late. Along with us there were 277 others. The party was sold out to capacity and everyone who registered came to the event. In other words it was crowded and the food was consumed as if a swarm of locust had landed.
We had fun, met some interesting people, took some pictures and generally enjoyed the happening. Upon returning from taking a picture of the World War II Memorial Bronze, which listed the men of Harvard that gave their lives in the war, (President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Class of 1904 and his sixth cousin Theodore Roosevelt Jr., class of 1909 were listed) I saw Linda talking to this dark-skinned man with a colorful Sephardic-style kipa on his head. Well I quickly found out that he was one Dr. Ephraim Isaac, president of the Yemenite Jewish Federation of America, and he was the Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies in Princeton, NJ. Of course our long and great friends Lynne and John Weiner had taken part in operation Magic Carpet, in 1949, which had eventually evacuated 48,818 Yemenite Jews, with the help of Alaska Air Lines (believe it or not) and their chief pilot Robert Maguire. Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurian called Bob Maguire, who died in June of 2005, at the age of 94, the “Irish Moses”. He had directed almost all of the 430 flights and was so well regarded that Leon Uris based a character on him in his prize-winning novel Exodus. Dr. Isaac was very excited to hear that our friends had the only films of that effort. Lynne, a reporter by training was a young wife of World War II veteran, John Weiner, Captain USA (retired) from Livingston Manor, NY. Lynne, who was the daughter of the famous psychiatrist Philip Lehrman, and had sat on the laps of both Sigmund Freud and George Gershwin (try to beat that) had brought her 16” mm movie camera with her to Israel, and they hopped a ride with Bob Maguire to Yemen. We promised to inform the Weiners of Dr. Isaac’s interest in their film, and of course, Lynne, who has written a book about her exploits, wants to find new venues for her work. Therefore my next assignment is to get them together!
So as we talked, on and on, the Champagne was quaffed, the oysters slurped, the canapés were gobbled and a good time was had by all. By 8:30pm we decided to catch the 8:48 pm from Grand Central, and we hustled out into the bone-chilling night air of 44th Street. Next stop Tarrytown!