Three Reasons to Love New York — Part III

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In this column on venerable pop culture — what I call classic — I usually write about people who not only helped define an earlier era but were moderately famous. Elvis and Astaire, Dr. Seuss and Lenny Bruce. By the standard of fame, Phyllis Jenkins doesn’t exactly qualify. Her name doesn’t appear on many Websites; her exploits don’t grace nearly as many biographies and memoirs as they should. Her death earlier this year occasioned an admiring, admirable obituary in the New York Sun, but the New York Times didn’t acknowledge her demise.

So you might think that reading a long appreciation of Phyllis Jenkins would be as useless as learning Esperanto. But in the long view, everything has a use — including Esperanto, as more than one kolera leganto (angry reader) informed me when I made a joke in my last column. It happens that I’m a fan of the language, people; in my youth I had an Esperanto dictionary. And I know that Esperanto was approved as the world’s language by a majority of League of Nations delegates, and denounced by Hitler and Stalin.

But I detemig^i (digress). The point is that what we don’t know can diminish us; that the world is full of wonders we haven’t noticed; that there are plenty of exemplary people who don’t get into People — though Phyllis did grace the pages of Life magazine in 1953. In fact, Phyllis lived one of the fullest, most fascinating lives I know. And I’m sure I don’t know a tenth of what she did. But what I know was choice. I think it’s worth sharing with readers who could benefit from learning about an extraordinary lady — a classic.

The bare facts: Phyllis Adams Kirkland Jenkins was born into privilege on the East Side of Manhattan in 1923; came of age in a dazzling period for New York society; trod the boards as a young actress; reported on the Nuremberg trials of top Nazis; helped pioneer the daytime talk show; married a handsome actor and then an even handsomer designer of sets for stage and screen; gave unstintingly to Amnesty International and other worthy charities; left behind a loving, lovely family and a host of bereft friends.

Although you don’t know Phyllis, Phyllis knew everybody. I’m going to flood this column with famous names, and I might even boldface them in the manner of Walter Winchell, the gossip guru who featured Phyllis frequently, and always with respect, in his columns. It’s a facile way of saying that this woman you don’t know touched the lives of the rich and famous with whom she grew up and grew older. But Phyllis wasn’t the sum of her connections; she was the emotional glue that held them together. It wasn’t the people she knew who made Phyllis special. It was their knowing her that made them special.

Like Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame, Phyllis voraciously acquired acquaintances of all sorts and species, invited them into the salon that was her life, and made them feel at home. She adopted them, as Mame did her young nephew, and led them up the staircase of her indestructible optimism. My wife Mary and I were about 20 years younger than Phyllis, but she ran us ragged on our visits to California or hers to New York. She introduced us to a boat-load of celebrities whom she had known forever. We’re stargazers enough to have been dazzled to meet the gracefully aging stars of our favorite old movies and TV shows — Jane Wyatt, Claire Trevor, Dorothy McGuire, many others. To us, though, Phyllis was the star. If you stick around, I’ll tell you how she shone.


“In those days there were sub-deb parties at the Waldorf, and tea-dancing at the Plaza,” Gloria Vanderbilt writes in a memoir excerpted in the current issue of Vanity Fair; “it was Glenn Miller and ‘Moonlight Serenade.’ That was New York just before World War II.” Phyllis was a pert part of that era of money and moonlight.

Her father, Charles Edward Adams, was a noted New York burgher. He was chairman of the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co., which produced acetone and ethanol from the fermentation of molasses, and which, possibly before Charles joined the firm, was tainted by an incident called the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. In January of that year, according to one vivid report, a “a storage tank holding 2.5 million gallons of molasses exploded, creating a 15-foot tidal wave of sweetness that rushed at 35 mph through downtown Boston, leaving everything brown and sticky like a Mexican restaurant men’s room.... The Great Molasses Flood knocked down several buildings and an elevated train line and drowned 21 unfortunate (and evidently slow) people.” U.S. Industrial Alcohol eventually morphed into Chemstar, which (if I have it right) in the late 20th century gathered into its growing family another petroleum company: Enron.

Charles also ran the Air Reduction Company, which produced and sold high-purity oxygen, and which is still doing big business under the name AircoInc. During World War II, he served as an executive of the government’s War Production Board, which in months converted America’s peacetime economy to its mighty military alter ego.

The Adamses — man, wife and two daughters — had a country home in Sharon, Conn., a summer place in Southampton and headquarters in Manhattan, where Phyllis attended the distinguished Brearley School on East 83rd Street. Among the closest pals in her set were Oona O’Neill (Eugene’s daughter, later Charlie Chaplin’s wife), Carol Marcus (who later married William Saroyan, twice, and Walter Matthau) and little Gloria (whose gallery show opening Phyllis took us to about ten years ago). In 1986 Carol’s son Aram Saroyan published a history-memoir of Gloria, Oona and Carol called “Trio.” Since Phyllis was an intimate member of the circle, I figure the book should have been called “Quartet.”

One of the duties of a Manhattan baby in those days was two-end candle-burning: study all day at school and, in the evenings, frequent the better nightclubs. Phyllis lent her young radiance to such swank boites as the Stork Club and El Morocco, where, she said, Errol Flynn once proposed to her. (She didn’t say what he proposed.) “By her midteens, Phyllis was regularly getting her photo in the New York Times as a bright young star on the social scene,” we learn from Stephen Miller’s admirable obit in the Sun. “Adams’s debut [in 1941] was a stunning affair at the St. Regis Roof, reported in full in the Times, with the debutante receiving guests ‘before a bower of southern smilax and woodwardia ferns,’ and wearing an off-the-shoulder sky-blue gown ‘trimmed with small ostrich feathers tipped with silver.’” The 16-year-old was groomed to stardom, and had the quality for it.


A strange byproduct of this kind of death is learning how much you didn’t know about your friend. Phyllis occasionally referred in passing to her first husband, the actor Alexander Kirkland. His name and work were unfamiliar to me; but a glance at his career on IMDb and IBDb (Internet Broadway Database) opens a host of other connections in Phyllis’ life, and raises a dozen questions that, alas, she can’t answer now.

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