The Bookstore That Bewitched Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and Greta Garbo
When Rizzoli bookshop closed this past year on 57th Street, many people lamented its loss. It was the last really elegant shop of its kind left in Manhattan. But for some of us, while its closing was sad, it was a tempered sadness. After all it wasn’t the real Rizzoli bookstore that had opened at 712 Fifth Avenue in the 1960s. That particular shop, sold to Bendel a decade ago or so before, had been the ne plus ultra of American bookstores. Those of us who worked there during its glory years in the 1970s and early 1980s knew how absolutely unique it was, as I hope to show in my book, Nights at Rizzoli.
Italian media mogul Angelo Rizzoli had an empire of newspapers, magazines, and radio and television stations throughout Italy, and bought the building because his reporters and media staff needed a New York headquarters. The bookstore was opened as a way of presenting Italian books and culture to Manhattanites.
It was never intended to do anything as vulgar as actually earn money. If anything, it would lose money gently, elegantly, hopefully not very much at one time. Because the shop was emblematic of that peculiar Italian institution known as La Faccia, i.e. presenting the best face possible.
And did it ever! Situated between 55th and 56th streets on what real-estate brokers dubbed Millionaires Row, Rizzoli was next door to Harry Winston Jewelers, across the street from Tiffany’s and George Jensen Fine Glass.
Whenever anyone phoned for directions, the staff would say, “It’s on Fifth Avenue between the Plaza and the St. Regis.” Should the caller have the temerity to ask where they were, the phone call would be quietly ended.
Once in the glass entryway you would face Italian craftsmanship in the form of forest-green, black and white marble floors, Venetian chandeliers, and hand crafted fine wood bookshelves.
Every detail was not only perfect but itself a piece of art. Once framed paintings, drawings and aquarelles were hung on the few walls that were not mirrored, it might resemble a chateau, a small palazzo, a minor museum. What it did not resemble was any other bookstore in the nation.
Balconies in that same hand-crafted, polished to a high gleam, imported wood, jutted over the main area, one for the record department, allowing Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concerti and Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings to waft down. Another for the manager’s desk, and then the central rear stairway leading up to what would become the piece de resistance—the art gallery.
The presiding light behind this creation was a woman named Natalia Murray. An Italian actress, she’d been courted and wed by one of the founders of the William Morris Agency.
Relocated to Paris in the ‘30’s she hobnobbed with Gertrude Stein’s circle. There she met Janet Flanner, who would become a famed New Yorker correspondent “Genet”—for three decades. The third member of this ménage, Natalia’s son William Jr., became a best-selling novelist.
With this sophisticated tone set, the shop opened and developed a clientele. More importantly, it developed a staff unlike anywhere else. To work at Rizzoli you had to be fluent in several languages: three was the minimum when I began. Because it was an international shop.
But also, as I would soon discover, because customers like Salvador Dalí spoke a half dozen languages fluently, moving from one to another with ease—and he was not alone. A dynamic new store manager took over in the late 1960’s. He’d studied classical piano with Maurizio Pollini.
No surprise that the new staff always consisted of many serious artists, hired via word of mouth: musicians like Viki Roth, Dennis Sanders, John Brancati and record manager Ruth Oesch, a music scholar Igor Stravinsly used to “ghost” his official biography and the liner notes of Columbia Records’ “Stravinsky Conducts” series.
Artists included Carolyn Markowitz and night manager Antonio Ximenez, who would be gone weeks at a time prepping his art shows in Spain, Italy and France. Among writers besides myself were children’s book author, Alex Mdevi, and that detailer of life in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, Jack Markowitz.
Such a staff was needed because other clerks might be intimidated by the customers who soon began filling the shop in the evening and after dinner. You might find John Lennon with May Pang arguing over an author, while I.M. Pei wearing his signature beret scanned the architecture section, rousted by gregarious Paul Johnson.
Bianca Jagger was a regular. Often Mick would perch on those back stairs, perusing art books as he waited for her. Elton John needed to furnish a chateau in the south of France, and the Dubuffet upholstered living room set and the many Dalís in the art gallery proved to be the right decor.
In one corner of the shop, regulars like Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Abba Eban, would discuss photography with Senator George McGovern, while Anthony Quinn and Gregory Peck looked over fiction.
Eventually, among my own private customers were author S.J. Perelman, Dalí, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her mother-in-law, Rose Kennedy. Carolyn had her own customers, mostly art and craft mavens like Blanchette Rockefeller.
Because of the store’s location, people met there and went nearby for dinner: Jasper Johns, Sonia Delaunay and even Maria Callas just “passed through,” while other legends came in methodically, like Greta Garbo, for French fashion magazines.
One friend looked around in wonder and asked what it was like to work at Rizzoli’s. Remembering the dramas among the staff and customers that day, I replied, “Like the final act of an Italian opera”—because while it was beautiful and elegant, it still was a place of business. As managerial staff I had my hands full. As did the clerks at rush hour. As did the cashiers on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street. As did the stock room manager and his helpers.
Nor did it help when someone like Orianna Fallaci, Rizzoli’s most famed reporter, swooped into the shop, just freed from an Algerian prison, or on her way to beard an Iranian Cleric, making impossible demands.
What became clear was that the new manager’s grand plan was working: Rizzoli was suddenly in the black, big time. Soon he opened a shop at Union Square, and another in Soho, and eventually shops in seven other American cities—all initiated by our unique shop, one that could never be duplicated either physically nor in any other way.
For a half dozen years, and despite everything else that was going wrong with New York City politically and financially, Manhattan in the 70’s just happened to be the cultural capital of world. It was where everyone came, where everyone resided, where everyone of note worked, and where everyone famous had to be seen and had to be heard.
So it was no real surprise that when the Rizzoli art gallery did open with a exhibit of the work of art deco master, Erte, that Bianca Jagger and Mrs. Onassis were the hosts, or that everyone who was anyone attended, or that at the very last minute before the doors shut, Josephine Baker appeared, just flown in from Paris, wearing an ermine outfit designed by the artist for her a half century before. And art came to life—again—at Rizzoli.
Felice Picano's Nights at Rizzoli is published by OR Books.