Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 120 in October, 2009.
The best writing about the Four Seasons Restaurant was done almost 2000 years ago, by Petronius in his Satyricon—e.g.:
We were invited to take our seats, and the meal began with sumptuous hors d‘oeuvres. As for wine, we were fairly swimming in it, and it was fine Falernian at that. After several more courses we had begun to doze sleepily off, when Quartilla said: "No sleeping, gentlemen. Must I remind you again that the whole night has been consecrated to Priapus?" (1)
(1) — The Satyricon, copyright by William Arrowsmith 1959, published by the University of Michigan Press
For "Priapus" read "Seagram House." For "Seagram House" read "money" or "power." Rising 38 stories from its sterile plaza on Park Avenue, the building, with its testicles bunched to the East on 52nd and 53rd Street, should, of course, have been made of gold, solid gold (not gold-anodized aluminum, like its neighbor on texington Avenue), but the vulgarity of New York, 1959 is more subtle than that of Nero's Rome: The building is bronze. The consumption is inconspicuous. Mr. Bronfman, the principal stockholder of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, Inc., may or may not be Mr. Trimalchio.
Samuel Bronfman, encouraged, and perhaps persuaded, by his daughter Phyllis Lambert, decided to build a monument. At the time (circa 1955), Mrs. Lambert, with the help of Philip Johnson, who was then director of architecture at The Museum of Modern Art, began a 2 1/2 month, cross-country talent search, which was widely publicized. She discovered Mies van der Rohe, then 69, buried in a mid-Western city called Chicago. (At the same time other people were reviving other aspects of the Twenties like Chanel heads, dixieland jazz, cloches, blazers and racoon coats.) Mies and Philip Johnson, his long-time disciple and propagandist-with the architectural firm of Kahn and Jacobs, to handle such necessary humdrum details as adequate elevatoring and toilet facilities-succeeded. in designing the most expensive skyscraper, per square foot, ever built ($43,000,000 for about 850,000 gross feet, or 550,000 net). The building proved, once and for all, that "less is more," though not in the sense that Mies originally meant his famous words. The next step was to design what would be the most luxurious—and, axiomatically in this school of architecture, the most expensive—restaurant ever built. This plum was given to Philip Johnson, solo, but he did have the help of a few experts: William Pahlmnnn Associates, interior designers; Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable, industrial designers; Eleanor Charles, uniform designer; Karl Linn, landscape architect; Emil Antonucci, graphic artist; Richard Kelly, lighting consultant; Dr. 0. Wesley Davidson, horticultural consultant. . . . The credits are almost complete, the screen darkens for a few seconds. and then in hold biography (perhaps designed by Antonuccii: PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY RESTAURANT ASSOCIATES. INC. As with Hollywood movies, where Wall Street lurks in the background but seeks no public credit, The Four Seasons has its anonymous institutional tie, too, a very strong and close one. It is with The Museum of Modern Art. The wedding of talents is like an incestuous gangbang.
So enter Restaurant Associates, known to Seagram, Bronfman, Lambert, Johnson, and to almost everyone with an expense account, as the operators of The Forum of the Twelve Caesars, a Cadillac-style restaurant which opened on the south shore of Rockefeller Center in 1957, and from which it was expected a Rolls-Royce could be forged. To understand the orientation of The Four Seasons, look first at The Forum, and then watch the evolutionary process at work.
The Forum restaurant was designed by William Pahlmann and his associates, who were "inspired" by twelve bigger-than-life-size 17th century portraits of the Imperial Caesars. The paintings are attributed to Camillo Procaccini, whoever he may he. They have nothing to do with art, much to do with decor. Twelve bronze busts of the Caesars echo the theme in the bar, where there is also a Roman mosaic mural. None are any more distinguished than the paintings, and not quite as interesting as the curtain of colored beads covering the bar windows which front on 48th Street.
The entrance and bar are paneled in cherry. The walls of the main dining room are covered in red Italian Fortuny, banquettes around the perimeter of this room in dark brown leather, and those in the center in beige leather tooled in gold, dining chairs in red leather studded with brass tacks. The table linens, silverware and appointments are imported from Italy and modelled on Renaissance Rome. The salt cellars are supported by pairs of elephants. They look too heavy to steal.
The menu, printed on handsome creamy paper, is bound with purple faille, held together by gold sealing wax (with staples underneath). The typography is in a heavily seriffed Roman style, black and red, with various decorative garlands in gold and gray. The variety of dishes listed is over-whelming—e.g. such "PROLOGUE" items as "King Crabmeat and Pink Caviar—A LUCULLAN FANTASY 2.75"; "Belgic Pate with Wild Boar. Sauce of Damascus Plums 3.00: "THE GREAT FORUM ARTICHOKE, Filled with a Puree of Oysters 1.65"; and such "A HARVEST FROM THE SEAS and RIVERS" as "An Ocean Perch Aflame on Rosemary Herbs, Lemon Ginger Sauce 3.95"; and "Planked Whitefish Broiled with Mussels, OLYMPIAN Butter 4.25"; such "SUMPTUOUS DISHES FROM ALL THE EMPIRE 'DE GUSTIBUS NON EST DISPUTANDUM'" as "Double Cutlet of Meadow Veal, Sauteed with Smoked Salmon and Gruyere, HELVETIAN CREAM 4.50"; such "BIRDS—WILD AND OTHERWISE" as "Truffle Stuffed Quail, CLEOPATRA—Wrapped MACEDONIAN VINE LEAVES, Baked in Hot Ashes 9.00"; and three kinds of crepes; and five kinds of coffee; etc.; etc.
The Forum is supposed to be "a fun place," a place to entertain in-town and out-of-town customers. It works.
The Four Seasons is supposed to be art. The art hits you as you enter the lobby east of Park Avenue on 52nd Street. Facing you, there's a sculpture by Hadju, called “La Tête Blanche,” on one of those moderne lucite pedestals. There’s a placard at the base which states that the piece was selected by the Museum of Modern Art for The Four Seasons. On the walls of the entrance lobby are three Miro tapestries, two of which are about seven feet by eight, and the other almost seven feet square. They are reported to have cost more than original works of similar size by any living artist under fifty, and as much as the original paintings by Miro would have cost ten or less years ago. This entrance lobby is a spacious travertine womb, a cool womb. The art it houses does little to raise the temperature. The detailing throughout, as elsewhere in the restaurant, is clinically perfect. The phone booths and private switchboard operator's room must have cost more than the average American home. The men's and women's rooms are palaces: the former in Bardiglio Fiorioto marble and Macassar ebony; the latter in Rose Portas, rosewood, and gold Fortuny, with theatrical vanities surrrounded by bulbs. There are marble shelves containing ashtrays adjoining each stool.
An almost free-standing travertine stair invites you to walk around it before climbing to the dining rooms. You try, and fail, unless you are a midget or willing to crawl. As you walk up the stairs you wonder how they neglected to install a gold (or bronze) escalator or a king-size pneumatic lift which would shoot you right to your table. Wondering, you enter the bar and grill.
The bar is a square island. (Well, no bar is an island.) It is defined above by a canopy of clusters of square gold-dipped brass rods, of varying lengths, designed by Richard Lippold. Over a section of the grill mezzanine there's a smaller, related piece by Lippold. At a distance, both have a surprising visual density-intensely illuminated, as they are, by Mr. Kelly’s lighting, and almost invisibly supported by fine wires. When one walks closer, or sits at the bar, they become delicate and airy. But neither up close nor at a distance do they work as sculpture. There is no sense of emotional content or of spacial conquest. They work, rather, as decor, and in this context they are overwhelmed by the scale and opulence of their surroundings. They don’t even have the power of the Caesar busts at The Forum. They become simply another "good design" appointment.
The ceiling is about 20 feet high, which for the comparative area of the bar and grill (or the main dining room, when we come to it) is roughly equal to more than the height of a typical Wall St. main banking floor, about equal to that of a Metropolitan train station, and not quite equal to that of a Gothic cathedral. This scale is emphasized by the simply detailed interior walls, and particularly the floor-to-ceiling windows at the perimeter of the building. Spaced about five feet apart and separated by vertical mullions, the windows are covered with three tones of gold-anodized aluminum chain in the style of Vienna curtains. These chains, as brilliantly illuminated as the Lippolds, and undulating upward because of the draft from the floor level air-conditioning convectors (reportedly an accident), gives something like the effect of a series of upside-down waterfalls.
A familiar-looking bartender, wearing a raw linen mess-jacket, and green vest (summer uniform), said to me, as he may say to everyone who sits at the bar, "I’d hate to run on that," pointing up at the Lippold, "barefoot, upside-down." At a loss for a reply, except that I would hate to run barefoot, upside-down on anything, I asked him if J & B was the scotch most in demand. That’s what I was drinking and I had beard several other people ask for it. "It’s called for," he replied, "it's quite popular, but the bar Scotch—White Horse—is more popular." A woman who was drinking a "grasshopper" several seats away held a cigarette to her mouth. The bartender got to her fast and lit the cigarette with a grand flourish. Suddenly I remembered where I had seen him before. He had worked at Chambord, where the bar scotch was Martins 20-year-old. I also remembered that White Horse's American distributor is Seagram.
On the way from the bar and grill room to the main dining room, I passed, first, a concierge, in an- other travertine womb (this time a small one) who handles such things as hotel, travel, and theater reservations, and then a very large Picasso, which might just as well as have been signed Procaccini. (Might just as well, except for the price which is supposed to have been considerably in excess of $100,000). The work, on a stage curtain about 20 feet by 22 feet, was originally executed by Picasso for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes production of "Le Tricorne" in 1919. It is "neo-classic" Picasso, literal and unemotional, though quite sentimental. The view into a bull ring may have been successful as a stage curtain seen from a low and fairly distant seat in London’s Alhambra Theater. It’s even moderately successful as seen from the lobby of Seagram House through the glass wall of the narrow passage in which it hangs. But it is completely unsuccessful when seen as a closeup as one must see it in the passage. It has no interest as a painting per se, and little as a sketch drawing. Even the distraction of sleek alabaster floor fixtures doesn’t help. Nor does the next entertainment: a wine "cellar" (above ground and behind glass), a walnut honeycomb filled with perfectly arranged bottles, whose orderly image is reflected in a mirrored wall.
The main dining room is at the same scale as the bar and grill, and the golden aluminum waterfalls are still flowing upward. Somewhat off center there’s a marble pool about 20 feet square, flanked by four fig trees that almost reach the ceiling. (Ficus decora, nature’s gift to nude art.) Feeling the scale of this space, one realizes again, as in the bar, that an existing space was taken and turned into a restaurant, with no consideration given to use, to human need for intimacy. This main dining room, like most architecture of the Miesian school, is not intended for people. People become insignificant in these surroundings. The space is designed for a pool, and for furniture, and for fig trees (that organic touch), and for the Vogue models who will ultimately pose here. All is angular elegance: Mies' 1930 "Brno" chairs (less familiar than his "Barcelona" chairs, which are downstairs in the lobby), banquettes designed by Philip Johnson, service wagons that are engineered like sports cars (with gas burners fed from pressure cans), selected rawhide panels on the interior walls set in French walnut, hand-loomed carpeting, specially designed china and glassware, flatware and holloware imported from England, France, and Italy, etc. You are at a good design show at the Museum of Modern Art. About everything is done according to the official rules. These are not only esthetic, but even include not meeting the budget, which was originally $2,500,000 and had to be upped to $4,500,000.
It seems as though you have left the world of The Forum behind—and maybe you miss it. If you do, you needn't for long. The menu will remind you that you are eating on the other side of the same coin. The paper that this menu is bound in is rather more fashionable, sort of Japanese, and the typography and layout are as hip as the latest Container Corporation ad. But there’s "BOUQUET OF CRUDITES, Hot Anchovy Dressing 1.75"; and "Small Clams with Green Onions and TRUFFLE 1.65"; and "BEEF MARROW in Bouillon or Cream 1.65"; and "Crisped Shrimp Filled with Mustard Fruits 1.85"; and "Rack of Lamb Persillé with ROBUST HERBS, for Two 13.00"; and "Stuffed Breast of Chicken with TARRAGON, Demi-Deuil 4.85"; and "Avocado with Sliced WHITE RADISH 4.25"; and three kinds of crepes, again; and six kinds of coffee (seven, including iced coffee, which is listed separately and priced 25c more than the hot); and, of course, no dollar signs. In short, everything but Van Gogh’s ear.
Across from the main dining room on a mezzanine, there is one work that is clearly art, Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles (1952). It turns out that this painting was rented from a private collector by Seagram until a commission by Mark Rothko is completed. Pollock's painting, seven feet by sixteen, would be perfect in shape and scale for the space presently occupied by the Picasso. But, more important than its architectural appropriateness, would be its richness, density, complexity, ecstasy—in short, its humanity. It is impossible to know at this time how well Rothko will fulfill his commission, hut it is not impossible to guess why it was given to him: his position is considerably more officia1 here and now, in 1959, than was Picasso's in 1919 Paris, before the concept of "museums of modern art" existed. From the point of view of such museums and that of the architects approved by them, Rothko’s more recent and regimented paintings can hardly exist, except as historical objects. It will be a surprise if he, any more than Lippold, transcends decor. Part of a statement Rothko made for the Museum of Modern Art’s 15 Americans show in 1952 was: "A picture lives by companionship, expanding and quickening in the eyes of the sensitive observer. It dies by the same token. It is therefor a risky act to send it out into the world." Since then Rothko has played his own distribution close to the vest, picking his spots carefully. This one is challenging. We'll see.
With so much at The Four Seasons, it is surprising they don’t have music—music, that is, not Muzac. Today’s equivalent of a small string orchestra playing Vivaldi (though not necessarily "The Four Seasons") would be the Modern Jazz Quartet. But where are they? The lights dim. The waiters in their green vests go off to distant corner tables where they eat their supper. The place is silent, and almost empty, the way it is supposed to be, the way Johnson (and Mies) must like it.
I want to return often, as often as my money lasts, because I believe this restaurant is a culminating symbol of the 'Fifties, as perfect for its time as the Riker's chain (also owned by Restaurant Associates) was for the 'Thirties, And also, in the ecclesiastical atmosphere of The Four Seasons, I want often to ponder a question of taste: What is the real difference between a Cadillac and a Rolls-Royce? It’s the sort of question which might have intrigued Encolpius at Trimalchio’s banquet.