Magazine article The New Yorker

PARIS ON MADISON; Renovations; Renovations

Magazine article The New Yorker

PARIS ON MADISON; Renovations; Renovations

Article excerpt

The Cafe Carlyle, a night club that has been around for more than fifty years and has always managed to actually look like a night club where people who went to night clubs would actually go, has been redone. About a year ago, James McBride, the Carlyle Hotel's manager, was planning to relocate the Cafe to the basement. His notion was to turn the ground-floor space where Woody Allen has played impassive, Bechet-ish clarinet for many years (and where Bobby Short kept Cole Porter standards raspingly alive for even more) into just another Madison Avenue boutique.

"Then I woke up one morning and realized that this was a terrible idea," McBride said the other day. "A lucrative idea, but a terrible one. The Cafe is part of the iconic status of our hotel. So we decided to redo it instead." The redoing, which began in July amid a frenzy of falling plaster that made the glamorous space look exactly like your kitchen when the contractor hits, has now been finished, and the people involved are happy to point out all the little improvements they have made: the ugly lunar-landscape acoustic dropped ceiling has been removed and real theatrical lighting has been installed; a glittering new wall covering, in a pattern called Scotch on the Rocks, has been pasted up; and a mirror has been removed from the column facing the stage (performers don't like to watch themselves).

The real event of the renovation, however, has been the cleaning, restoration, and gentle ersatz extension of murals by the artist Marcel Vertes, which line the upper register of the room, wrapping around the forty-by-thirty-foot space. Although the roughly contemporary murals by Ludwig Bemelmans that line the Bemelmans Bar, across the hall, are more famous--Bemelmans had the good luck, or sense, to write a well-known children's book, thus imprinting his style on the retinas of several generations--Vertes's work is just as charming and, in its evocation of a lost New York sensibility, is in a way more touching. Vertes, along with Bemelmans, defined Frenchness for Americans of a certain age, but he was actually Hungarian. He came to New York during the war and until his death, in 1961, worked all over the city, in a style that some future art historian may refer to as "high Gigi": his work combines elements of Picasso's Rose period, Matisse's "Music" period, and Chagall's decadent period, executed with a whiff of fake-but-still-sweet Frenchness, very much in the manner of the original 1952 "Moulin Rouge"--a film on which, as it happens, Vertes consulted, and won two Oscars. …

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