It is sometime in the late 1950s and Cecil Beaton comes knocking at the door, or rather in those days, just walking right in. He probably was here to hopefully do the sets for a Broadway show or for whatever! He knew Newel and loved being there to play. And so it was at Newel in those times.
The antiques business was a sideline enterprise compared to the rental side of the business. Photographers of the best caliber rented from Newel for advertisements and fashion spreads. At that time, the theater business was thriving and every Playbill noted in the credits, “furniture and furnishing from Newel Art Galleries”. With an iconic set designer like Oliver Smith having a free hand in designing period and theatrical Broadway sets from Newel he must have been the envy of every interior designer. Ok, have a ball designing “My Fair Lady”.
Window display back then wasn’t too shabby either. If you ever walked over to Tiffany’s and checked out Gene Moore’s window displays you probably would just sigh at the site. If you wanted to see Newel in a full blown presentation, Saks Fifth Ave, across the street from Rockefeller Center, would surely be there to catch some attention. One favorite that I got to see at the very end of their existence was the venerable Cavanaugh windows on 57th Street.
With Broadway the rage, and photographers and window display in full gear, nothing could have prepared Newel for the beginning of the age of TV. At that time it is hard to imagine that all the production was LIVE; no second takes for dramas, and any theatrical production. It’s almost like the original You Tube. But the demand for supplying these live TV productions required sets on a weekly basis. This was pretty consistent and not at the whim of a Broadway audience. Today we have a great rental business, but on the scale of the 1950’s, no way.
TV Production in New York City has had its ups and downs over the last 40 years, but nothing like that era. However it would be the resurgence of the movie industry in New York that would later fill the gap. Movies were infrequently shot in New York in the 1950s and studios like Astoria in Queens that were employed by the Army in World War II lost their usefulness.
The most unique aspect of Newel during that time was the uncanny problem of always having a sign in the window “taking inventory”. How does that invite a customer to come in? Maybe my grandfather was shrewder that I thought, using reverse psychology; I don’t think so. The rental business was too good to pass up and all he had to do was just buy, buy, buy, merchandise. Selling was more difficult; with the rental it went right back in the same space and if you sold, what do you do? (Just kidding) But Newel did sell.
When Newel did sell, it was to someone who knew how to get in. The doors to the store were never locked and always open, with wrought iron furniture placed on the sidewalk every day. If Cecil Beaton could just walk in, well I guess Babe Paley could do the same. He did sets for Broadway etc, her husband owned CBS, a pretty good TV client at the time. Funny too, they seemed to be in the same social world, both at the top of any list for taste and style. They got to buy and play at Newel.
Billy Baldwin and his coterie of tastemakers had the only combination that worked to get in. However, the neighborhood didn’t lack for good locals either. Around the corner was Jimmy Amster, of “Amster Yard” who I remember most for introducing me to Biedermeier in 1969. As a society designer, Jimmy who also designed Peacock Alley at the Waldorf Astoria, was a classic and appreciated everything. His residence at the Yard was memorable.
Of course there was Katherine Hepburn who came in frequently and so did Rita Hayworth too, and the truth be told, she scratched her leg on a table. This was Rita Hayworth, whose legs were insured by Lloyd’s of London for $1 million dollars. As I remember hearing it, my grandparents saw the business going down the tubes! Not to be, she laughed about it and said no big deal. The 1950s were different times, but still Newel.