I knew it was going to be quite the scene at Michael’s today when a little birdie told me that there was going to be a lunch for Liz Smith celebrating the grand dame of gossip’s upcoming birthday at Table One. Suffice to say I wasn’t disappointed. None other than Shirley MacLaine stopped by to say hello to Liz (more on why later), and I got to chat with the legendary actress about her guest-starring stint on Downton Abbey. While the entire restaurant swiveled in our general direction, I jumped up from my seat to ask about her experience on PBS’ smash hit and she couldn’t have been more gracious.
“I loved doing the show,” she told me. “Everyone was so welcoming and great about everything. I was amazed that no matter what the weather — because it rained a lot when we were shooting — they all went on as if the sun was shining. They were wonderfully professional.” Her character, Martha Levinson, appeared in only two episodes but left quite an impact on viewers — particularly when Martha sparred with Violet, the Dowager Countess played by the legendary Maggie Smith. “That was one of my favorite days on the set,” Ms. MacLaine told me of the scene where she and Ms. Smith sat for hours in a church pew waiting for the ill-fated wedding of Lady Edith to begin. “We spent eight hours talking about life, and we never ran out of things to say.” I bet. Before she dashed out the door — she only stayed long enough to say her hellos — I asked whether she’d be returning to the series and she said, “Yes. We start shooting soon. I’m looking forward to it.” So are we.
Now, back to Liz’s lunch (described as a “southern confab”), which Hearst’s Deb Shriver put together with scribe Julia Reed and ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong. Deb was putting the finishing touches on the table, which included a bouquet of yellow roses arranged in Joe’s Texas bronzed boot and a specially designed menu (fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread) featuring a photo of Liz at a year old. Liz and Joe have a long friendship that dates back to 1968 when Joe first arrived in New York and met the fellow Texan. They forged an unbreakable bond. “I didn’t know one person when I came here and found out she was raised a block from where my mama grew up in Fort Worth. She was the only person I met who I thought didn’t talk with an accent.” The two have been great pals ever since.
Southern belle Deb, who has written two fabulous books on New Orleans including the gorgeous Stealing Magnolias: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyard, surprised Liz with one of the most unusual birthday cakes ever served at Michael’s or anywhere else for that matter, and had a Brooklyn baker recreate the Steel Magnolias armadillo red velvet cake. Ms. MacLaine, as you might recall, was one of the stars of the 1989 film, and she arrived with the film’s screenwriter Robert Harling to jazz up the festivities. They departed before Michael’s staff paraded through the dining room with the life-size armadillo on a platter, raising more than a few eyebrows. Clearly thrilled by the gesture, Liz was served the head of the baked beast while the rest of the guests dug into the ‘carcass.’ Mmm… yummy.
I was seated at the very next table with jewelry designer Angela Cummings and Mickey Ateyeh. Before we even had a chance to order, diners were lining up to pay homage to Angela, a true legend in the jewelry biz, who now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah and is in town working on an exciting new project with fine jeweler Assael. Among the well wishers was David Patrick Columbia who, upon meeting Angela for the first time exclaimed, “You’re a brand!” Dr. Gerald Imber stopped by the table to tell Angela that he wished she’d design another collection of men’s cuff links since his favorite pair from her is now 12 years old. “I miss your things so much,” he said. “Everything you designed always had such style and good taste.” She may not be doing more cuff links any time soon, but she is about to unveil an absolutely gorgeous collection of couture pearl and diamond pieces with Assael.
Angela’s return to the jewelry business is sure to be heralded by industry watchers. When she decided to close her business in 2003, she was one of the country’s best known and best-selling designers among the one percenters. A favorite of Bergdorf Goodman’s, Saks and Neiman Marcus, Angela went out on top having close to $13 million in sales the year before the company ceased operations. Her extraordinary run started when she designed for Tiffany’s in 1968 before starting her own company in 1984. She met Mickey at Tiffany’s when Mickey was running the silver floor at the Fifth Avenue store. Mickey, after a stint at Hermes, became president of Angela Cummings shortly after Angela formed her company, and she oversaw every last detail of Angela’s new collection. “We’ve never had an argument,” Angela told me of her decades long friendship with her colleague. “We understand how each other thinks and it’s always worked out beautifully.”
Before lunch Angela and Mickey went to Assael and visited the company’s vault. “It was like going into King Soloman’s mines,” Angela said with a laugh. “I could not believe the things that were there — all these big boxes of pearls. It was a whole room filled with beautiful pearls.” I got an exclusive look at Angela’s upcoming collection of all new designs that will be launched in February/March. Even in sketch form, the necklaces and earrings are positively breathtaking. The dazzling pearl pieces are adorned with diamonds and some are inspired by Angela’s signature pieces like her famous double diamond swirls. In the new collection, coral and seahorse-shaped accents in 18k gold give some statment pieces Angela’s distinctive flair and are sure to show up on red carpets in Hollywood as soon as the top stylists can get their hands on them. Angela and Mickey are planning some very special events here in New York to introduce the collection to and celebrate with the well-heeled set the week of April 8.
I asked Angela, who is one of the most soft-spoken and low-key designers I’ve ever met, what makes this venture so different from having her own company? She replied without missing a beat. “It’s wonderful not to have to worry about the business,” she told me. “Assael is taking care of the retail aspect of the project, and without that responsibility I can focus all my attention on designing.” Even so, adds Mickey, “Angela has always had a great sense of what is right in business. We’ve always been of the same mind.” Perhaps it’s Angela’s Zen-like approach to her life and work that keeps her so grounded. “I’m just so grateful. I’m a creative person and I know that you can’t please everyone. Some artists are sensitive and can’t take criticism. I’m just very happy to be here. Life is meant to be enjoyed.” Amen.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Liz Smith, being feted by Hearst’s Deb Shriver, journo Julia Reed and ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong, with HBO’s Shelia Nevins, author Jon Meacham, whose new book on Thomas Jefferson is on our must-read list, Toni Goodale and New York Social Diary‘s David Patrick Columbia and Jeff Hirsch toasting the ageless birthday gal. (Thanks to NYSD for the picture of the revelers) No word on who ate — and who passed up – the armadillo red velvet cake.
8. The Paley Center’s Pat Mitchell, rocking an incredibly chic black and white ensemble with two equally elegant ladies
9. Star Jones
10. Oscar winning screenwriter and director (Kramer vs. Kramer) Robert Benton
11. Producer Francine LeFrak
14. Attorney Rob Barnett in town from Washington, D.C
15. Penske Media’s vice chair Gerry Byrne
16. AOL’s Jolie Hunt
81. Wenda Millard
17. Former New York City council president Andrew Stein and a gorgeous — and tall! — young woman we didn’t get to meet
18. Cablevision’s Tad Smith
21. Quest‘s Chris Meigher
23. Pavia Harcourt’s Jordan Ringel
25. People‘s managing editor Larry Hackett
26. Richard Bressler
82. Conde Nast president of entertainment Dawn Ostroff
27. Chuck Pfeiffer
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