Rooftop Honey

I used to buy honey from a farm stand in Manhattan’s Union Square Green Market. I still do, but for almost ten years, I’ve ordered directly from the farm online. Either way, it is absolutely the most luscious honey imaginable (along with the best wild blueberry jelly in the world). I miss shopping for the honey in the city. I liked to look up from that farm stand in the crowded city market to survey the Union Square roofs on all four sides of the market square. Skyscrapers look so antiseptic. But I imagined all those bees at work on the roofs and enjoyed thinking about the hives traveling up and down in their high-rise-apartment-building elevators. The hives were situated just high enough to soften the skyline and enhance perspective of the horizon. I savored that bucolic image of beehives atop the roofs of those otherwise undistinguishable city apartment buildings. It made living in the city seem as sweet as rooftop honey. 

I live in a Center City high-rise and am all for cities soaring into the sky—it is exhilarating to think of inhabiting a penthouse that exposes the latitude and longitude of the curve of the world below your windows. But there was a definite charm in America’s most charming era to the cityscape that reached for the sky while maintaining its connection to the landscape. It was melodic. You could reach to grasp your dreams from the skyline, but you were on a rung climbing the ladder of nature. So you could keep your footing steady because you were as much part of the ground below as of the sky above. 

I figure I created this Penthouse image after a one/two punch more than half a century ago. One, when Decca Records re-issued Gordon Jenkins’s Manhattan Tower, his narration and music chronicling living in an urban high-rise on a two-disc 78-rpm set. And, two, of course, a movie. Although The Robe (1953) was the first Cinemascope movie to be released, Jean Negulesco’s How To Marry A Millionaire (1953) was the first movie filmed in Cinemascope. Big screen—big cast of stars—big, glorious Technicolor: that sophisticated comedy cinched the deal. It was my dream to live in the clouds. And looking to that classic film today, I’m still awed by its mid-century glamor. Particularly by drinking champagne afternoons on a massive brick terrace above the streets of the working city.

When a theater curtain opens, it reveals a full orchestra in formal attire playing an overture. The 20th Century Fox Orchestra is arrayed before the camera to perform "Street Scene," conducted by its composer (and Fox studio music chief) Alfred Newman. This serves to highlight CinemaScope's new four-track magnetic stereophonic sound system and widescreen visuals in wide shots with no close-ups of Newman or any of the musicians.

Then shots of a beautiful penthouse boldly splash clean lines of mid-century high-end décor influenced by French antiques, including (when not pawned) a baby grand piano across the gigantic screen. The movie sets the address of the penthouse at 36 Sutton Place South (on the corner of East 55th). Luscious sets and costumes and big-screen cinematography are served by the worldly screenplay and glamorous direction of a charming story about gold-diggers Lauren Bacall (in her most tolerable role), Betty Grable (1950s comedy gold with first billing in the credits), and Marilyn Monroe (the mesmerizing icon-in-the-making, who was billed first in all the advertising) and their three amiable husbands-to-be—with a bonus, the stand-out gentleman performance of William Powell.

But my impression is all about that penthouse terrace. Floor-to-ceiling windows open from the lavish interior and substantial brick walls surround the large, comfortable terrace permitting postcard views of Manhattan. Easy. Relaxing. Elegant. Just the place for this beautiful trio to do their work and land themselves millionaires. All in good fun. On the terrace, Loco Dempsey (Betty Grable) dubs their husband plan “the deepest thing” she has ever heard as their conversation, that we know will resolve itself happily, invites us all to enjoy warm afternoon sun, city views, deli groceries, vintage champagne…and rooftop honey.