Chance meeting with literary idol allows writer to realize own worth
Calgary Herald, September 2019. Find the original article here.
A few months ago, while working at a New York-based magazine, I got an assignment to write about a party at a Fifth Avenue apartment. The upper strip of Fifth Avenue features some of the most expensive real estate in North America. At the time, I didn’t know the apartment belonged to the widow of a Wall Street mogul, or that it once hit the market for $120 million USD. Or that I would soon meet the famous author whose work had inspired me to become a writer.
I slogged uptown from our magazine’s offices in Tribeca, dressed in jeans, ignorant to the wealth and excess that awaited. Of course, I’d heard about these Fifth Avenue parties, whether in the work of Tom Wolfe or the pages of Vanity Fair. Still, upon arriving at the party, I was surprised to discover that the two-floor apartment featured 12,000 square feet of exquisitely detailed space, including a secret library, a wine cellar, a smoking room, and a restaurant-grade kitchen. In Brooklyn, where I uncomfortably lay my head, I pay $1,000 a month for 90 square feet in the basement of a five-bedroom duplex.
I’m originally from Calgary, approximately 3,900 kilometres and several cultural strata from Park Avenue. Calgary’s closest thing to a cultural gathering is The Calgary Stampede, which is basically a citywide drunken rodeo. So, how did I end up here? After working briefly at a Calgary newspaper, I did my masters’ in journalism at NYU, before landing an internship at New York Magazine.
The cocktail portion of the evening was held upstairs, with its dramatic views of Central Park. You could reach the upper floor by ascending 24 steps. (Yes, I felt compelled to count these, since that sort of elevation is unheard of in a New York apartment.) Everything glowed red and plush in the soft candlelight. There was a cosy nook with antiquated books. A chair with a turtle shell back. An oil painting of a wistful-looking figure. Approximately 30 people consorted, wielding cocktails with names such as Tumerictini and Schisandra Spritz.
Claire Olshan, host of the party, moved through the room with poise. She’s known for founding FiveStory, a luxury clothing and accessory store. Most recently, she launched Dada Daily, a line of healthy, artfully packaged snacks for those who care equally about nutrition and esthetics. The evening was to celebrate the launch of a new Dada Daily product.
At the end of the room, seated beneath the rueful painting, was Susan Gutfreund (GOOD-friend), owner of the apartment. Gutfreund’s late husband, John, is a Wall Street legend. In the ’80s, under his leadership, Salomon Brothers transformed into one of the world’s largest security traders, according to The New York Times. As John amassed wealth, the couples’ social profile rose in the city. Susan earned the nickname “Social Susie.” Apparently, she once lamented, “It’s so expensive being rich.”
As everyone settled in for dinner, the author arrived. I recognized his thin frame and trademark sponge of black hair. He was seated at the important table, with Olshan and Gutfreund, while I was relegated to the party’s equivalent of the kid’s table, with the less socially distinguished. Beside me sat a wonderful writer from Vogue. She was elegant and talkative. A tip for anyone looking to throw a party: it’s troublesome to seat writers together. Their combined criticism can be devastating, especially when confronted with pretentiousness bordering on absurdity, which is how I would describe the meal.
The food seemed designed to fill guests with wonderment, not calories. Opulence was a means unto itself, practicality be damned. One course, called “Un-Earthed — Carrots in Soil,” was served in a small flower pot, and contained roasted carrots in a bed of hazelnut-pumpernickel dirt. Another course, “A Sole In a Sole of a Sole,” involved eating roasted cauliflower out of a $500 Jimmy Choo high heel.
A server was invited to sing at the dinner. He stood in the middle of the dining room, guitar across his chest, and belted an original tune, in French no less. While he crooned, the other servers marched around the room in a strange, conga-like procession, carrying — and I’m not kidding — hammers. It evoked the “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” scene from Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. The servers worked for StoryCourse, a company that pairs dinner service with interactive entertainment. It’s part catering, part Broadway. They eventually used the hammers to break a cracker atop a course called “Smash! Smash!” For dessert, guests went into the kitchen, where chocolate mousse and sherbet was splayed atop a hulking marble countertop. We all grabbed spoons.
Titled, partially, from the alcohol and nicotine, I made a move toward the author.
“Mr. Gladwell,” I said in a gesture of mock confidence, unaware that I was cutting in on his conversation with Leandra Medine, founder of the ever-popular fashion and lifestyle website, Man Repeller. “I just wanted to introduce myself.”
Malcolm Gladwell was my introduction to serious reading. It started with Outliers. Then David and Goliath and What the Dog Saw. The clarity of his prose and penchant for sniffing out delicious topics were perfect for my lazy, intellectually-averse college brain. I told him that I was a reporter for New York Magazine, which I suppose lent me some credibility. Knowing that he had roots in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, I told him that I had read his books at Western University in London, Ont.
“Always nice to meet a fellow Canadian,” he said, curtly.
When I relayed that he’d been influential at a formative juncture in my intellectual life, he bowed almost perfunctorily, as if he’d developed a system for responding to compliments about his work. This obviously happened a lot. I asked if he considered himself a “pop writer.” In hindsight, I think it might’ve been misconstrued as an insult, since popularity is often considered antithetical to quality, but I truly meant it as a compliment. He replied that he writes in his own voice. We briefly discussed the fact-checking process at The New Yorker, which he confirmed to be Draconian. Then we parted ways.
Since that night, I’ve reflected on the importance of my encounter with Gladwell. It was slightly embarrassing, of course, since there’s nothing less cool than tipsily gushing about your favourite author, right in front of them. Beyond that, though, I experienced a psychological shift that had lasting effects. Early in my writing career, I was desperate for artistic validation, which manifested in a constant thrum of anxiety. The validation-seeking, however, suffocated my voice and inevitably narrowed my point-of-view to those I wanted to impress.
This paradigm fashioned me into a timid imitator, not an artist. Common wisdom suggests that you should never meet your idols. Doing so supposedly fosters disappointment. For me, it turned the idealized version of the artist, someone only accessible in the pages of a book, into something immediate and concrete. Since then, I’ve endeavoured to conceptualize myself as equal to the artists I previously worshipped, and the anxiety quietly dissipated. Plus, now I can tell my friends, “I met Malcolm Gladwell at a fancy New York party, you losers.”