Liquor Heir Tony Cointreau on His New Book, Lessons Learned From Mother Teresa

The roster of media mavens, moguls and boldface names spotted today at Michael's.

DianeClehaneLunch_FeaturedWith virtually all of the East Side shut down this morning, it was quite a slog getting to Michael’s today. I waited behind the barricades at the corner of 55th and Fifth for about fifteen minutes until Vice President Joe Biden emerged from The Peninsula Hotel and was whisked away in a 10-car motorcade. When the coast was clear (with the street still lined with police cars), I made my way to the restaurant wondering if anyone else would even make it there today.

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Jimmy Russo, Diane Clehane and Tony Cointreau
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Luckily, my ‘Lunch’ dates arrived at the appointed hour. I was joined by Tony Cointreau, heir to the Cointreau liquor fortune, whose new book, A Gift of Love Lessons Learned From My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa, was feted last night in this very dining room. Tony was accompanied by his partner of 50 years (!?) Jimmy Russo (“We like each other and we laugh a lot”) and PR maven extraordinaire Judy Twersky, who arranged our get-together.

It wasn’t too long into our conversation that it occurred to me that Tony’s life story makes a pretty interesting book of its own — and did in his memoir Ethel Merman, Mother Teresa … and Me . His life reads like a Judith Krantz novel (I know, I’m dating myself). Tony grew up in the lap of luxury shuttling between a Park Avenue apartment and châteaus in France. Eager to escape his unhappy childhood, from a very early age he ran with international socialites like Lee Lehman, wife of Lehman Brothers’ head Robert Lehman, who “adopted” him and treated him like a son for the rest of her life. “She was the first of my three mothers,” he told me. He had a lifelong friendship with Merman (more on that later) and together with Jimmy, became one of her closest confidants. His singing career was launched by designer Pierre Cardin at Maxim’s in Paris and Tony spent the next decade performing for sold-out audiences throughout Europe for the next decade. See, I told you it was one for the books.

Tony has compiled the 10 most important lessons learned from Mother Teresa during the most transformative period of his life in a new book, A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned from My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa. From that life-changing experience, the idea for his book was born. In the foreword of the book he writes: “If I can reach just one person who is flailing around in panic and fear while trying to help a loved one at the end of their life, my journey will have been worthwhile.”

When I asked Tony what compelled him to go to Calcutta in 1990 and spend the next 12 years volunteering at Mother Teresa’s home for destitute men dying of AIDS in Greenwich Village, his eyes welled up with tears at the memory. “I was looking through a magazine,” he said while wiping his eyes. “I saw a picture of a volunteer holding a dying man in her arms and I knew, I knew, I have to go and do this.”

During his time as a volunteer in both Calcutta and New York, Tony told me he did everything from wash floors to sing to patients — and offer comfort to the dying. Over 100 AIDS patients died in his arms.

He visibly brightened when he described his relationship with the recently canonized saint. He told me that he and ‘Mother’ spent hours sitting on the terrace of the Mother House of the Missionaries Charity in Calcutta. “Sometimes she’d ask me to sing, so I would sing for her. You don’t say ‘no’ to Mother.” He laughed when he recalled her “great sense of humor” during one of their earliest exchanges. When Tony first arrived in Calcutta he “didn’t want to lower my standard of living” and checked into “a marble palace.” After visiting him at his hotel Mother Teresa asked him how much he was paying for his suite. “I told her and then she said, ‘No, not by the week, by the day.’ I told her it was the day [rate]. She said, ‘You didn’t take a vow of poverty, you took a vow of luxury.'”