“Grab your coat / Don’t forget your hat / Leave your worries on the doorstep / Life can be so sweet / On the sunny side of the street.”
On the Upper East Side of Manhattan stands a jumble of memories and grace called The Carlyle. It’s a hotel, but like The Pierre and other like buildings nearby, “hotel” isn’t part of the name. (I mean, one doesn’t.)
Some people live there. Others just live there — in the moments and scenes the Carlyle inspires (to wit: Bill Murray’s bananas holiday special, which I consider required end-of-year viewing, even if yourholiday celebrations don’t lean that way).
It’s the kind of place you go to feel part of something. New York. The past. Life.
Off the Madison Avenue entrance lie two New York institutions. On the right, the Café Carlyle, on the left, the Bemelmans Bar.
I discovered Café Carlyle first. It’s a classic supper club where you go to see amazing music in the most intimate of settings — you’re never more than about 20 feet from the stage. The waiters
wear those waist-to-shoetop white aprons. The drinks are huge and expensive. And good.
Even pushing 80, Judy Blue Eyes has a voice that’s still clear as a bell, ringing right through your heart.
But as I discovered, my heart was most at home across the hall.
“That certain night / The night we met / There was magic abroad in the air. / There were angels dining at the Ritz / And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.”
I do a mean Vera Lynn impression.
And in that one sentence, you learn a few things about me: One, I sing. Or did. Two, I have a deep passion for the music of World War II. Three, that mental catalog runs deep in my head.
Neither Tom nor I can remember why we ended up at Bemelmans. We thought Café Carlyle would be “our” place in New York. But whatever the reason, Bemelmans was where we ended up one night, at a tiny table barely big enough to hold the Bemelmans‘ bar snacks (these strange layered cheesy puffs, potato chips, and a pretty standard nut mix served in a tripartite stainless dish).
And here’s where Vera Lynn comes in.
Where Café Carlyle was the supper club, Bemelmans was the cabaret. And sitting in the center of it is a grand piano with “Bemelmans” painted on the side in gold. Every night of the week, there’s someone sitting and playing it and singing along.
The first night we were there, it was this amazingly elegant man. Ready smile. Warm-colored skin. Closely-cropped balding head.
And he sang like you wanted someone to sing in a bar that’s older than Judy Blue Eyes and decorated with murals from the illustrator of Madeline. Rich. Smooth. Witty.
And he sang what you wanted someone to sing in a bar like that. Sinatra. Cole Porter. And back to my deep catalog: Johnny Mercer.
If you paid attention, he also played a running commentary on what was happening in the bar around him.
One night we were there, a May-December romance was quickly going south in the bar’s prime seat — a corner booth between the door and the piano with sight lines to the piano. From said piano:
“That’s why the lady is a tramp….”
But I’ll save that story for another day.
“I never cared much for moonlit skies. / I never winked back at fireflies. / But now that the stars are in your eyes / I’m beginning to see the light.”
A fourth thing you should probably know about it me: it’s nearly impossible for me to hear one of those back-catalog songs and not sing along.
A thing you should know about him: he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he seemed to love that I knew these songs, even without the aid of a fakebook or iPad. And I did know them. They’re like old friends to me. I can’t tell you the name of someone I met yesterday, but I can give you the words of the rarely recorded introductory verse to that Casablanca classic, “As Time Goes By.” After all, this day and age we’re living in give cause for apprehension…
I don’t know why I love these songs so much. My guess is that, in many ways, those songs are from the last time the lyrics and the melody of a song really spoke to each other. When we really spoke to each other.
Even in the instrumental versions of songs from that era (see: “In the Mood” or “Take the A Train”) you could still almost hear the words that should have been. There was a consonance there.
Most of the time, the requests he got were what you’d expect in a piano bar like that. Sinatra. Porter. If you knew him: Gershwin.
But what I noticed: when there wasn’t a ready request (helped along by a $20 tip), he played songs that many people didn’t know. And he had this amazing ability to mash up standards of jazz with standards of classical and other genres. (I came to discover later that he was known for helping invent this “Jazzical” style.) He could take almost any tune and have it end up as “Rhapsody in Blue” or even Brubeck’s “Take Five.” It was divine.
But the day I discovered he could turn “Blue Skies” into Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue”? Magic.
“Never saw the sun shining so bright / Never saw things going so right. / Never saw the days hurrying by / When you’re in love, my how they fly….”
See, most people think you have to play only what people want to hear in a place like that. But what he did was special: he figured out how to take what people knew and loved and how to extend that to what they didn’t know. He knew how to speak to what was beneath what people recognized.
Maybe that’s because there’s nothing like music that speaks for the soul.
And he spoke to mine.
I can’t even tell you how much we spent in tips to him — and to the Maitre d’ so we could sit in the ring of tables from which he drew requests.
But even then, by just the second time we were there, he knew us. Even when Tom went to Bemelmans alone, in town on a business trip, he knew to play “Someone to Watch Over Me” (for Tom) and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (to remind Tom of me).
When I was there, it was almost like a game between us. I remember the old days of Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show,” when occasionally they’d play “Stump the Band.” I loved figuring out songs he loved that few ever asked for. But he knew them all, even though he wasn’t even a decade older than me.
Moonlight in Vermont.
I’ll Be Seeing You.
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.
I loved giving him something new to play (which he knew how to play from memory anyway).
One time he told me he loved hearing me sing along, even though it was really only loud enough for him to hear. It was the highest compliment I ever received. I mean that.
“So will you please say hello / To the folks that I know. / Tell them I won’t be long. / They’ll be happy to know / That as you saw me go / I was singing this song….”
Late last year, Tom and I were back in New York. We got to Bemelmans early enough to get our favorite table: just to the right of the door off the hall, in front of the piano, just a few feet away. We stayed until the end of his set.
And this time, he asked me to name the last song.
I asked for a favorite: Vera Lynn, “We’ll Meet Again.”
I had never asked for it before. And it wasn’t in his iPad. But together we pieced the song together. Afterward, he told me again how much he loved my voice. How he loved to see me there next to him at the piano.
It was the last time I’d see him.
“I’ll be seeing you / In every lovely summer’s day / In everything that’s light and gay / I’ll always think of you that way. / I’ll find you in the morning sun / And when the night is new / I’ll be looking at the moon / But I’ll be seeing you.”
It’s tempting, I think, to play to the room. And I’m sure there are hundreds — thousands — of people who have passed through Bemelmans without ever noticing, or even thinking about, why it was a place that spoke to them.
He played for them, too, of course. But what made Bemelmans — and him — so special isn’t that he played for them, or even me. He played for people like him. People for whom his music was — is — a language for life.
Music is a way to make the invisible visible. My husband, Tom, calls it “Music DNA”: the music that not only shapes who you are, it shows who you are. It’s the idea that the music you love says something about you. It reveals a piece of your Red Thread, the thing that makes you part of something. New York. The past. Life.
It’s a visible — audible — way to connect with what lies beneath. That unique combination of concepts that make you… you.
And once you see it, and hear it, you can recognize it anywhere.
And maybe that’s the power of it, too. It’s a way of seeing why you connect with who and what you do. A shared way of seeing the world. A shared love of how to show it.
That connection, that Red Thread, is the piece of you that lasts. When you’re apart. When you’re gone.
His name was Chris Gillespie.
He’s gone now, too, and New York — and Bemelmans, and the Carlyle — will never be quite the same.
But that connection? It’s tied to me now. In my Red Thread. Which means it lives on, even if only here in these words. In the only kind of song I know how to write.
“We’ll meet again, / Don’t know where, / Don’t know when, / But I know we’ll meet again / Some sunny day.”