Zipkin Booty in All the Unfamiliar Places

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Published in the New York Times on December 14, 1995

THE remains of his day have been scattered among astonishingly diverse locations, from the home of Nancy and Ronald Reagan in California to the 26th Street flea market, with an auction at the determinedly unglamorous Holiday Inn in Dedham, Mass., falling somewhere in between.

In the six months since the death of Jerome Zipkin, the New York socialite and confidant of prominent women -- most notably Mrs. Reagan -- his 11-room Park Avenue apartment has been picked over by pin-striped auctioneers (for a Sotheby’s Arcade auction next week) and by people of a different stripe with such Runyonesque names, or at least sobriquets, as Fat Pete, Three Tall Women and Hercules.

The term “walker” was coined for Mr. Zipkin. His road to power, such as it was, was through his role as the escort of the wives of men unable or disinclined to keep up his social pace. Commuting between Park and Pennsylvania Avenues, Mr. Zipkin, the heir to a real estate fortune, was seen by many in New York society as a self-appointed St. Peter, assiduously guarding the social portals of the White House, determining by whim who among his fellow patrons at Mortimer’s and Le Cirque would ascend into the paradise of Mrs. Reagan’s court. There, among Hollywood pomp and borrowed designer gowns, swells reveled in the end of the cash-bar Carter White House.

For those who are now raking over his earthly possessions, there is plenty to choose from. Within those red-lacquered walls and on those zebra rugs lived a man with a thirst for the high life: Mr. Zipkin was an inveterate collector whose tastes ranged from furniture (Louis to Lucite) to Meissen figurines and precious boxes of every description.

“He had a wonderful eye,” said Kenneth Jay Lane, the costume jeweler, “and his apartment was like the cave of Ali Baba.”

And in fact, the scattering of the collection started before his death. In the last weeks before his death from lung cancer, Mr. Zipkin sent gifts to many of his friends and evidently planned the dispersal of his finer chattels with exacting care.

Louise Grunwald, who was at his side when he died, in June, said: “Jerry was a control freak. He sold a lot during his last year and made about 70 bequests to friends, many of which he gave before he died. He had his death planned in minute detail, and even had a photograph of each gift stuck onto an index card with the name of the friend who was to receive it. He wasn’t leaving anything to chance.”

Mrs. Reagan said: “That was typical of Jerry. He was an extremely thoughtful man, and he did take a good deal of care and thought to see that his friends were remembered.”

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Another close friend, Boaz Mazor, who works with couture clients for Oscar de la Renta, commented: “The richer you were, the bigger the gift. That’s how he valued life. The richest ladies got Faberge boxes, and several men received cuff links from his enormous collection.”

Mr. Zipkin owned over 2,000 pairs, surely qualifying him as the Imelda Marcos of cuff links.

Renowned for his acerbic wit and rudeness to waiters and cabdrivers, Mr. Zipkin is fondly remembered by his friends for his generosity, thoughtfulness and unswerving loyalty. “If you were on his good list it was one of the best places to be,” said Robert Woolley, a close friend.”And if you were not, it was no fun at all.” Mr. Woolley, the Sotheby’s auctioneer, added that he had advised Mr. Zipkin to make bequests before his death. “I told him he might as well get the pleasure of receiving a little gratitude.”

At the two-day Sotheby’s Arcade sale, 198 lots from his estate will be auctioned on Tuesday. Those items represent no more than a fraction of the myriad objects that cluttered the Zipkin family’s apartment, which he shared with his mother until her death in 1976. Perhaps the most fitting emblem for the king of the walkers is Lot 241, a mahogany walking stick with an 18-karat gold handle in the form of a coiled serpent.

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“My instructions were to sell everything and transfer the funds to a charitable trust in his name,” said Howard Daitch, of the New York law firm of Tenzer Greenblatt. Mr. Daitch, who was Mr. Zipkin’s lawyer for over 30 years, added that the estate was valued at over $2 million. He and the other executor, Robert Becker, Mr. Zipkin’s accountant, will administer the trust, which will make grants to encourage young people in the arts.

Mr. Zipkin’s sole surviving relative was a sister to whom he had not spoken in 20 years, Mr. Mazor said.

What of the trove left after Sotheby’s had skimmed off the cream? Michael Grogan, a Boston auctioneer, organized the cleanup. “I was called in by the executor to make a cash offer,” he said. “The deal was to clear out the apartment and leave it broom clean. Going through his closets was like an archeological dig, finding quality stuff from the 40's and 50's that he had never thrown away. He was like a squirrel.”

Astonished by the sheer volume of Mr. Zipkin’s treasures, Mr. Grogan consigned a substantial portion to a New Hampshire auctioneer, Hercules Pappachristos, and it was he who chose the Holiday Inn in Dedham as the site of the auction on Dec. 2.

How would Mr. Zipkin feel about the bulk of his worldly goods having been auctioned by the boxful in suburban Boston? “He would have loathed it,” said Mrs. Grunwald, who is married to Henry Anatole Grunwald, the Ambassador to Austria in the Reagan Administration. Breaking into laughter, she added: “Actually, he might have been amused. After all, it’s so improbable.”

What did the folks in Dedham make of Mr. Zipkin and his possessions? “He certainly seems to have had an affinity with snakes,” said Ellen Marrs, who handled telephone bids at the Holiday Inn sale. Ms. Marrs pointed out one particularly macabre item, a tiny ceramic skull with a snake emerging through an eye socket.

(Some of the Holiday Inn booty has since moved back up in the world: a cache of horn cups from the Zipkin estate was spotted last Thursday, suitably marked up, at a Seventh Regiment Armory antiques show.)

Last weekend at the Grand Bazaar on 25th Street, an outpost of the 26th Street flea market, Debbie Feron, who helped clear out Mr. Zipkin’s apartment, was doing brisk business in selling a large assortment of his monogrammed black silk pajamas, slippers, shirts and boxer shorts.

Boxer shorts? Who would be interested in those? “You’d be surprised,” she said as shoppers passed. She announced to the milling throng, “They’re from Sulka -- fine cotton with mother-of-pearl buttons.”

Ms. Feron describes herself as one of a roving team from Brooklyn -- they call themselves Three Tall Women -- that searches out secondhand goods. Wearing psychedelic ski pants and yak boots to battle last Sunday’s cold, Ms. Feron was also selling an array of Zipkin furniture, his address books and even adult magazines still in their plain brown envelopes addressed to Mr. Zipkin.

The final clearing out of the Park Avenue apartment evidently involved a somewhat desultory crew. Ms. Feron, who had been hired as part of that team, said its overseer was a man she knew only as Fat Pete, a gruff person whose workers mentioned that he was principally involved in the building-demolition business in Queens.

Where else can Zipkinalia be found? The Strand, the secondhand bookstore, confirmed that a number of books bearing Mr. Zipkin’s signature were on sale there. And a spokesman for Swann Galleries on East 25th Street, a leading rare-book and autograph auctioneer, said that a small consignment of Zipkin books would be sold next year.

And so, it seems, you live, you die, and then your things have a life of their own. For Mr. Zipkin, the trappings of luxury abounded. But as Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman wrote in the title of their 1936 play, “You Can’t Take It With You.” Others can take it with them, though, in shopping bags.


GRAPHIC: Photos: In His Heyday -- Jerome Zipkin at a White House party with Nancy Reagan in 1986. (The White House); Next Stop, a Holiday Inn -- Items that didn’t make it to Sotheby’s were sold at a motel in Dedham, Mass. (Ed Quinn for The New York Times); End of the Line -- Debbie Feron hawks monogrammed Zipkin boxer shorts at her flea market booth on West 25th Street. (Frances Roberts for The New York Times) (pg. C1); Above, the late Jerome Zipkin at home on Park Avenue. Left, a cane with snake’s head, part of the Sotheby’s Arcade sale. Inset, the auction catalogue. (Sotheby’s (left and inset); Eric Boman); At the Holiday Inn in Dedham, Mass., on Dec. 2, treasure-hunters perused items to be auctioned by the box. (Ed Quinn for The New York Times) (pg. C4)


Christopher Mason