At the end of 1984, Polo Ralph Lauren acquired a twenty-year lease on the landmark Gertrude Rhinelander Waldo House, a five-story French Renaissance Revival palace completed in 1898 at the corner of Madison Avenue and Seventy-second Street in Manhattan. Waldo, a socialite, had spent half a million dollars erecting her tribute to a chateau in France’s Loire Valley. A riot of bay windows, dormers, statuary, and chimneys, its Gilded Age exuberance contrasts with the neo-Gothic brownstone plainness of its next-door neighbor, Saint James Episcopal Church, where New York’s oldest families — families with names like Rhinelander — still worship.
For reasons unknown, Mrs. Waldo never moved in, but her sister, Laura, and her son, Rhinelander, a hero of the Spanish-American War and future New York police commissioner, lived there until 1912, when a bank foreclosed on the property. In the 1920s, it was converted for commercial use and was occupied over time by an antiques dealer, interior decorators, the Phillips auction house, a society florist, and one of Eli Zabar’s specialty food boutiques.
After it reopened in 1986, with its newest owner, the Rhinelander mansion became the Polo mansion, the engine driving Lauren’s image — his Disneyland and Disney stores rolled into one. It also became New York’s newest tourist attraction, with its oak floors, Honduran mahogany paneling, vaulted ceilings, ornate plasterwork, Waterford chandelier, antique Cartier vitrine and green glass Art Deco panels etched with polo players (discards, appropriately, from the old Polo Lounge in New York’s Westbury Hotel), gas-burning fireplaces, and a plethora of “real” old drawings, photographs, bound volumes, aristocratic bric-a-brac and shabby chic gewgaws: elaborately framed photos, walking sticks, picnic baskets and hatboxes, steamer trunks and sticker-covered old luggage, antique tennis racquets, fishing rods and lacrosse sticks artfully left about as if waiting for the house’s long-departed occupants to finish packing for a summer in Newport, on the Cape, in the Adirondacks, or in Sun Valley.
But most of all, people came to see its central staircase, modeled after the one in London’s Connaught Hotel. Dressed up with antique carpets, green felt walls, and hand-carved balustrades, it’s studded with the sort of gilt-framed ancestral portraits one might find in a drafty old English country house. Whose ancestors are they? The forebears of the worshippers next door at Saint James, no doubt.
No matter. Lauren has claimed them as his own, as props for his personal movie.
On the day the Rhinelander opened, Lauren took Marvin Traub, the former chairman of Bloomingdale’s, the New York store most associated with Polo, and his wife, Lee, on a private tour of what the designer called “the ultimate Ralph Lauren shop.” Traub admired the detail, the fanatic perfection of each department, each display, each luscious, colorful pile of Shetland sweaters. Then, Lauren walked them down that ceremonial staircase and stopped beneath one of those portraits of an unnamed and quite likely unloved English gentleman — a man whose descendants, assuming he had any, had long since disposed of his picture.
“That,” Ralph said, pointing up at the old Anglo-Saxon’s face, “is Grandpa Lifshitz.”
As with all good jokes, there was pain underneath it. Ralph Lauren admits he has little or no idea where he came from — and he’s never stopped to look. So his heritage has remained a mystery to him throughout his sixty-three years. What Ralph didn’t know, and may not to this day, is that through his mother, who was born Fraydl Kotlar, he is related by marriage to a Jewish dynasty that was considered aristocratic as long as, if not longer than, the Anglo-Saxons whose portraits hang on the walls of the Rhinelander.