NYSD profile: Christopher Mason
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
A Lotta Talent Comes a Long Long Way. Christopher Mason arrived on these shores in 1983 at just about this time of the year, fresh from graduating Cambridge in England. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, knowing only that New York was where he wanted to be.
Serendipity as his guide, he happened to meet George Trescherwho was at that time (and possibly for all time) the greatest fundraiser/ partyplanner/public relations man of the city, and George gave him a job helping on the organizing parties and events he was doing for, among others, three important friends – Jackie, Brooke, and Liz. That is: Onassis, Astor and Smith.
Trescher was a taskmaster and detail was one of his strong points (as well as bete-noires). Christopher recalls working with him and Brooke Astor seating a dinner she was giving for Nobel Prizewinners when George, looking over her arrangements, exploded: “You can’t sit her next to him, he’s sleeping with her husband!” “Oh dear, oh dear, you’re right,” Mrs. A. responded.
Seating arrangements and the giving out of placecards can seem rather menial to some but for Christopher Mason fresh to America, giving out the placecards to the guests of the Hyannisport wedding of Arnold and Maria (Schwarzenegger and Shriver), or Caroline and Ed (Kennedy andSchlossberg), or organizing the Andy Warhol Memorial Service luncheon at the (then) new Paramount Hotel — heady stuff for the new boy in town.
After a few short years with George Trescher, where he learned the lay of the land (as well as who was doing the laying), George Trescher fired him. He told Christopher it was for his own good. “You’re too talented to be doing this,” George concluded aloud, “you should be writing.” Those of us who knew George, who passed away last year, would understand: he was tough but also tough-love personified – and he deeply respected talent.
Christopher, as it happened, was also one of those lucky fellows who is handy on the piano, with a penchant for making up songs and lyrics in his fashion of his idols: Tom Lehrer, Cole Porter andNoel Coward. George Trescher could relate to this for he was one of those guys who loved the musical theatre (indeed, his friend Peter Rogers used to complain that the only problem going to the Encore Series at City Center with George was that he sang all the songs along with the performers – and loudly).
In 1987, Annette Reed (later Annette de la Renta) gave a dinner for Brooke Astor at The New York Public Library (one of Mrs. Astor’s top philanthropic priorities), and at George’s suggestion, hired Christopher to write and perform a song about the local real estate moguls tearing down buildings.
Christopher was a big hit. The following morning he received a phone call from Jackie Onassis exclaiming her famously soft breathless voice: “I loved your song last night,” and she asked him to do one for an event she was chairing. Soon after, Mario Buatta, staging a major party “10 Treasure Dinner” at the Library invited him to write something for that occasion.
That night at the Library, they hooked up the sound system so that the 1200 who were attending the after party could hear his song about New York personas. Christopher had dipped his big toe into the champagne that is New York: Ivana Trump called the next day. She and her then husband Donald had just acquired the Kashoggi yacht and renamed it the Trump Princess.
‘I want you to sing on my yacht,” she told Christopher — for a ladies luncheon she was giving. It was a hit — “He’s so wicked,” she trilled in her heavy Czech accent, “I pay him so much money to insult me.”
Insults can be good for business. The next day Ivana called to hire him for another entertainment she was planning. Soon he was the toast of New York, written about in the Times, in Vogue, in WWD, in New York magazine, and then he was getting calls from cities all over America, all to perform his witty ditties for the rich and the powerful.
In the mid-1990s a friend at the New York Times called to pick his brain about a piece she was considering for the paper. After a few minutes conversation it occurred to her that Christopher was the ideal person to write it. A new career was born on the spot, unbeknownst to both editor and writer.
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Then on the last Friday in January 2000, Christopher was just finishing up the research he’d been doing for a New York magazine article on Sotheby’s multi-million dollar internet auction site (which later flopped) when Christie’s announced it had turned over documents to the Justice Department on an alleged price-fixing case they were investigating involving both auction houses.
Realizing this was a much bigger story, he went back to square one with his research. On the first of May, 2000, the story came out. Later that day at a party at Diane von Furstenberg’s Christopher ran into his friend Dominick Dunne who pronounced the work “fantastic” and advised him to follow the case to its conclusion.
A book was conceived, and four years later, almost to the day, The Art of the Steal; Inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s Auction House Scandal by Christopher Mason was published by Putnam (with a blurb on the cover quoting Dominick Dunne: “I was mesmerized from beginning to end”).
Everything the boy from Cambridge had come to learn, from all he’d come to meet, to seat, to organize, to entertain, to report on in New York, has come together in this trenchant chronicle about the greed, venality, high life, luxury, hubris and corruption borne out of that era of New York (and London and Paris) in the last fifteen years of the 20th Century.