Friday, December 11, 2009

The Missing Sock

It's hard to explain why these things happen, but every now and then I would think of the letter a woman wrote the the New York Times many, many, years ago that went something to the effect that the only Velazquez worth any kind of money was Jorge Velazquez, a capable jockey who booted home winners on the New York circuit in the 70s and 80s.

In the context of the times, it was known what she was talking about. It seems the Metropolitan Museum had just shelled out a grand sum for a painting by the famous painter Diego Velazquez, an apparent masterpiece, "Juan de Pareja."

The woman was making a point that a Velazquez on top of a horse coming home first with her money on it was worth more to her than something on a wall in a museum. As always, everyone has an opinion about something.

Over the years I lost track of how the letter was connected to the bigger story. The Times must have thought so much of the letter to not only publish it, but to also accompany it with a picture of a jockey on a horse winning a race at Aqueduct. Then, and now, I seldom read Letters to the Editor, but the picture must have attracted my attention. In 1971, the Times even ran small offerings of verse on its editorial page, which was also probably a bit of a hook for me.

So today, reading about Thomas Hoving, the other sock was found. It was his controversial acquisition of the Velazquez that created so much attention that even the railbirds were taking notice. It did get A LOT of attention, and based on the obituary was apparently a great part of this style. Showy.

He was also apparently pugnacious. What 78 year old man can still have on his resume being "eased out" of the Buckley School in the fourth grade? He also punched a Latin teacher at Philips Exeter Academy, thereby getting himself banished after six months. Must have been a contretemps over declining verbs, or Ovid translations. The closest I can relate to that is thinking about throwing a piece of wood at the shop teacher. (I didn't.)

I remember as NYC parks commissioner he was responsible for Mayor Lindsay's "Fun City" attitude extending to Central Park. Prior parks commissioners, like Robert Moses, maintained Keep off the Grass signs. Hoving invited everyone in to roll around on it, so much so they had to reseed the Sheep Meadow. The crowds and the concerts wore it out.

When I first absorbed today's obituary my first reaction was that I would have thought he was much older. Seventy-eight is not tottering. Hoving was around so long ago, but he was also so young when he was doing it. At 46, his parks and museum days were behind him.

He got a lot of attention in both positions. I remember reading, perhaps in The New Yorker, how when he was in Princeton he and his frat buddies burned their Hickey-Freeman suits in the fireplace on graduation. It reminded me of my own joy at no longer having to go back to St. Andrew's Academy On-the-Sound (a pretentiously named dumpy Greek school in Whitestone, Queens, hard by the East River) that I jumped up on down on my grey blazer from Miller and Mack while waiting for the city bus.

Hovings have house numbers with single digits, followed by East. People from Queens have hyphenated addresses. But like today, I always did enjoy reading about him.

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