Sometimes a Wednesday at Michael’s is all about bold face names and celebrities (not that I’m complaining, mind you) and sometimes I can barely wrap my head around the brain power (let alone ambition) contained in one room. Today was one of those days. When my friend Betsy Perry asked me to attend a lunch she was giving for her aunt Phyllis Lee Levin, celebrating the publication of her latest book, The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams (Macmillan), I had no idea I’d be sitting with a who’s who in journalism and some of the most interesting folks I’ve chatted with in a long, long time. The lively, collegial group at Table One included a Pulitzer Prize winner (Manuela Hoelterhoff), best-selling authors (John Searles, Will Schwalbe), the former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones CEO (Les Hinton), a revered editor (Mandi Norwood) and some seasoned politicos from both sides of the pond. If I had my druthers, I’d still be there asking everyone at the table every question I could think of, but in service to you, faithful “Lunch” reader, I offer this week’s dispatch of dish from 55th and Fifth.
Phyllis’ new book is the culmination of a decade’s work. “When I’m doing a book, I have to work every day,” Phyllis told me. “I’m not one of those people who can go out to lunch and talk about other things when I’m doing a book. I’m not a multitasker.” But she is an incredibly inspiring and charming woman whose impressive career spans several decades, starting out as editor of the iconic college board issue of Mademoiselle to a long career in the women’s news department at The New York Times. “They called it the ‘women’s pages’ then with fashion and recipes,” said Phyllis. She went on to work “part-time” for Vogue for many years (“Those jobs paid so little you had to have money or live at home to do them, which seems to be what’s happening now in a lot of places’). Besides the obvious status the job at Condé’s top title conveyed, she recalled with a feisty twinkle in her eye, “It was quite a nice job for woman with four children — as my husband often liked to remind me.” I asked Phyllis, who was a working woman in New York City at a time when the ‘work/life balance’ of women wasn’t constant fodder for a self-congratulatory blogosphere, what she thought of the current climate, where the minutiae of motherhood is endlessly written about and discussed. She said simply, “It’s boring!” then added, “Everyone is so serious — but I do think it’s harder than ever to have a career and raise children.” No argument here.
In her second act as an independent historian, Phyllis’ work has been characterized by lively, empathetic writing grounded in meticulous research. In her previous books, including Abigail Adams: A Biography (St. Martin’s Press) and Edith and Woodrow, she spent many hours analyzing the important roles of two very different women in American history and told me that examining the role the family played in shaping John Quincy Adams made for a much more nuanced and interesting portrayal in her latest project. When she examined the official memoir of her subject at the Historical Society she found that “all the personal observations and neuroses were removed by the family’s historians” because, she explained, “That was the style then.” Delving into his voluminous writings, Phyllis told me she uncovered a more well-rounded and sympathetic look at the man “who has been written off as a one-term president and a cranky one at that.” On January 29, C-SPAN will be covering Phyllis’ talk about the book at the Massachusetts Historical Society. If you want to get a look at terrific role model for women — and men — of all ages, tune in. I know I will be watching.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Guest of honor Phyllis Lee Levin, presiding over a table full of underachievers, including her adoring niece (and my friend) journalist Betsy Perry; Les Hinton and his wife Kath Hinton, adviser to former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who has written for The Daily Telegraph; Manuela Hoelterhoff; Niche Media’s SVP/editorial director Mandi Norwood; John Searles (Help For the Haunted, Boy Still Missing), who moonlights as a book critic; Will Schwalbe (The End of Your Life Bookclub); editorial director/EVP for Macmillan and founder of Cookstr and Kate Levin (Phyllis’ daughter), principal Cultural Assets Management/Bloomberg Associates and former Commissioner Cultural Affairs NYC for the Bloomberg Administration; and yours truly. I learned all kinds of interesting factoids about my dining companions (Kath became a U.S. citizen last year. Congrats!) but time is short…
2. Andrew Stein and an attractive gal we didn’t recognize that hobbled in on crutches
3. “Mayor” Joe Armstrong and David Zinczenko, who is starting the new year off going great guns. The guys were celebrating Dave’s latest book, The Zero Belly Diet, which hit No. 1 on Amazon last weekend. Dave has been making the rounds to promote it far and wide with appearances on “The View” and Toronto’s “The Marilyn Denis Show.” And he’s off to Palm Springs at the end of the month to speak on the main panel at The Clinton Foundation’s Annual Summit, which will be focused on veterans’ health issues. Congrats!
4. Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff, looking very collegiate and dashing in his fuchsia V-neck sweater
5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman with, so we’re told, Rupert Murdoch‘s investment banker
6. Dr. Gerald Imber, Andy Bergman and Michael Kramer
8. New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia, who stopped by our table to grab a quick snapshot of Phyllis
9. Louis Vuitton’s Nancy Murray
11. Patrick Murphy with Aon’s Pam Newman
12. Michael Kassan
14. Simon & Schuster’s Alice Mayhew
15. Laurie Tisch
16. PR maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky with Cathy Vasapoli (Paul Shaffer‘s wife), model Kim Charlton and Westchester (Bedford) real estate broker Camille Branca.
17. Amy Kliger, who was kind enough to introduce me to her guest, Joan Breibart, founder of the PhysicalMind Institute. Joan, you should know, virtually started the Pilates boom in 1991 when she introduced the first Pilates certification program in the States. No wonder she looked so tranquil.
18. LAK PR’s CEO Lisa Linden (who I “Lunched” with last week) with Joel Moser and Charles Millard. Lisa was wearing a gorgeous pair of aquamarine earrings by designer Judy Geibe “in honor of the launch of Joel’s Aquamarine Investment Partners fund.” Just thought you’d like to know…
20. Producers Joan Gelman and Sandy Pearl
21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher, with an elegantly appointed lady in brown tweed (but of course!) and social fixture R. Couri Hay
22. Howard Meitiner of Phoenix House
23. Gilt Groupe’s Kevin Ryan
24. Christine Falcone of the World Economic Forum
25. Michael Peterman (Holly Peterson‘s brother)
26. Leesa Rowland
27. Billy Kimball
Diane Clehane is a FishbowlNY contributor. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.