The older I get, the smaller the world seems to get. Such was the case at Michael’s today when my good friend Cindy Lewis arranged for me to lunch with two of the most fascinating people I’ve met in a long time – Joe Cicio and Suzanne Slesin to talk about Joe’s new intriguingly titled new book, Friends* *Bearing Gifts. Suzy’s (as she prefers to be called), imprint, Pointed Leaf Press, published it.
The weighty tome arrived a few days ago at my home and I just couldn’t put it down. It’s hard to describe the book in traditional niche publishing terms. Its cover is a striking modern collage of images of Joe and friends Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Josie Natori and Joan Rivers which is a piece of abstract art. Inside, its pages are filled with stories of an incredible life (Joe’s) filled with extraordinary friendships. The endpapers are lined with the names of Joe’s friends whose stories – and gifts – are featured in the book.
And believe me, it’s some list. Here’s just a sampling (in addition the names I already mentioned: Bill Blass, Rose Marie Bravo, Carol Channing, Prince Charles, Brooke Hayward Duchin, Erté, Princess Grace, Lady Nancy “Slim” Keith, Kenneth J. Lane, Eleanor Lambert, Dawn Mello and Robert Mondavi.
The book unfolds rather brilliantly featuring beautiful photography of Joe’s Litchfield, Connecticut home taking the reader on a tour room by room with the stories about the friends and their gifts organized by room. It reads like a memoir and is infused with warmth and humor on every page. The foreword was written by Nancy Kissinger, who wrote, “No one understands and articulates the value of friendship more sincerely than Joe.”
For those of us who grew up in retail, Joe is nothing short of a legend in the business. His life story would make a compelling book on its own. Born in Brooklyn, he spent three years as a monastic monk before returning to the secular world and began his career at Lord & Taylor then moving on to Macy’s where he oversaw the department store’s extraordinary success during its heyday when it was considered one of the most innovative merchandisers in retail. He went on to become Chairman and CEO of I. Magnin in San Francisco and later Donna Karan’s President of Retail Development. After corporate life luster its luster he became a sought-after retail consultant for a host of upscale brands.
When Joe arrived at our table for lunch, I told him I’d first met him decades ago when I was a trainee in Macy’s Executive Training Squad and he came in to speak to our class about the wonders of retail. “I used to love doing that and seeing all those fresh faces!” he said.
I’d never met Suzy, but I’d certainly read scores of stories she’s written and pored over the beautiful pages in the magazines she’d edited. After a thirty-year career in print journalism covering home design at the New York Times, New York Magazine and House & Garden and a five-year consulting stint on O The Oprah magazine’s home magazine, Suzy started Pointed Leaf Press in 2002.
All I can say is when Joe met Suzy, it was a match made in design and publishing heaven, but to hear them tell it, the book almost didn’t happen. I sat back and listened to the two of them try to tell me the story of how Friends* came to be out of their fateful summer lunch two years ago:
“I told her, ‘I’m not pitching a book. I need advice,’” recalled Joe. “I loved the idea and I loved Joe,” said Suzy. “I took it back to the office and thought there is something here. I like telling people’s stories.” “Never in 200 years did I think I was going to hear from her again,” said Joe.
When Suzy suggested the book needed to include photography of Joe’s house to give it its structure, he demurred wanting to wait. “I told him then we’d have to wait another year because you want to shoot in the summer.” They started by shooting the house room by room and the objects to be featured in the book. Suzy knew they were on to something when her twenty-something managing editor at Pointed Leaf Press read the manuscript and loved it. “I knew it had to have heft but frankly, he didn’t like [the title].”
“I have a very strong point of view,” said Joe, “And I thought the last thing the world needs is an illustrated book with a house or garden on the cover. I wanted something different and modern.”
Joe also had a rather strange request for an author. He didn’t want his name on the cover. “I didn’t,” he protested. Suzy laughed (which she did a lot of throughout lunch), turned to me and said, “Can you imagine?” Suzy and her team cleverly came up with a solution. The physical book itself features the original collage created for the book. There is a clear plastic cover that wraps around it imprinted with the title – and the author’s name. “Suzy always won,” said Joe. “She has incredible taste.”
While working together the book evolved from its initial concept to something deeper.” It was organic,” said Suzy. “It went from being centered around the objects to the relationship Joe had with the people who had given him these gifts And Joe filled the book with truly incredible stories about his friends. The first time I opened the book I came upon the chapter about Prince Charles which, as an obsessive anglophile enthralled me.
Joe came into Prince Charles’ orbit several years ago when it was suggested he might be just the man to fix the prince’s Duchy Originals, his organic food business which includes 230 products sold in 30 countries that all started with an oat biscuit (which Joe and I both agreed was delicious.) The profits from Duchy fund the many projects and charities the prince has supported. “People have no idea how many people he has helped,” said Joe. The prince has since sold it to Waitrose but back in the day, when Charles wasn’t happy with Duchy’s management Joe stepped in to reinvigorate the business which had “incredible opportunity” for growth. Unbelievably, he took on the project gratis, only reimbursed for his expenses. “They talked to me for about two years. “’If ever I was coming over …’” and I said, “I told them it’s business. Send me a plane ticket and get me a hotel. Well, finally one day the prince was at his wit’s end and finally said ‘Get me, Cicio!’”
Joe admitted he was “terrified” the first time he met Charles at Highgrove, his country home in 2004. “I had been told exactly what to do. Don’t touch him. You’re not supposed to touch royals. But he shook my hand. We were supposed to meet for forty-five minutes and [the meeting] lasted for an hour and a half. All this staff hiding behind trees were going crazy!” Joe was also captivated by his home. “It was the quintessential English country home. It was divine,” he told me. “I can remember every detail [about the day] down to the slightly frayed yellow with blue polka dots pocket square in his khaki jacket.”
Joe struck up a friendship with the prince (“We just clicked”) and was always amazed to find him on the other end of the phone when he rang up from England. “He’d call me himself on a Saturday afternoon. He writes letters, he doesn’t email. But his handwriting is so bad I used to fax his letters to Robert Higdon [who worked for the prince] in Washington and have his office translate them,” he said.
The man we think we know is nothing like his less than glowing press. “I adore him. He has a great sense of humor and he’s very sweet. After I met him I told Robert this man has the worst press agent in the world because he’s nothing like you’d expect.” Joe came to know Prince Charles and Camilla through a mutual friend – none other than Joan Rivers. “Joan was a good friend of Charles and Camilla,” said Joe. “I think she was one of only two Americans who were at their wedding.”
Joe shared a priceless anecdote about Joan when she was over in Britain and appeared on morning television a few days before she was to go to dinner at Buckingham Palace. “They don’t have the same thirty-second delay we have to hear and she said, ‘F— that.’ The channel goes dead and they asked her to leave the set,” he said. “The tabloids were going nuts. So she goes to this wig store and buys a brown wig – and went to Buckingham Palace wearing the wig. Camilla was all over her about it. Joan told her she’d said something on television.”
“Charles begged her to tell them what she’d said and she said, ‘Oh no, sir, I can’t .. I can’t.’ Charles and Camilla kept asking and finally, he said, ‘Joan, you must tell me. She told them ‘I said F— that.’ They laughed and laughed.”
Joe regaled me with stories of how Joan was an extraordinary friend once refusing to take no for an answer and accompanying him to a plastic surgeon’s office for a procedure. “Can you imagine what they thought when I showed up with her?” Joe laughed at the memory. “She sat very quietly in the corner and when it was over, I looked over at her and she gave me the thumbs up. I knew everything was okay then.” I told him I, too had been the recipient of Joan’s incredible generosity over the years and that she’d often show up at Michael’s bearing gifts from her QVC line for anyone who had told her they liked something. “People really have no idea what an incredible person she was and how many people she kept on her payroll just so they could have insurance.”
I told Joe that the book reminded me of the more civilized age that came to mind when I watched Barbara Bush’s funeral. We all agreed it harkened back to a time when people seemed to care deeply about their relationships and nurture them with human contact, not text messages.
“I do believe there is an audience for this kind of illustrated book,” said Suzy, who is planning to publish eight books this year. She doesn’t expect anything to be a blockbuster and that’s perfectly okay with her. “I like taking risks. Ian Schrager once told me years ago, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ I believe that.”The appeal of doing something so totally unique is its own reward, said Suzy. “This [kind of world in the book] doesn’t exist anymore. It’s amazing what people don’t know. Joe is a very soulful person and this is a very soulful book.”
“The world is so divisive right now,” said Joe. “We take our relationships for granted – until its too late.”For a deeply moving look at an extraordinary life where relationships were the true gifts, read Friends* *Bearing Gifts.
Scene & Heard Around the Room
Hollywoodlife.com’s Bonnie Fuller and Penske Media vice chair Gerry Byrne presiding over a packed table at their monthly lunch. We spotted Matthew Hiltzik in the crowd …Dan Abrams with his father constitution attorney Floyd Abrams and sister Ronnie on Three … William Lauder with a young gent we didn’t recognize on Table Four … Wayne Kaybak and CBS Sunday Morning’s Jane Pauley on Five … Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina and Andy Bergman back at their usual perch, Table Six, after a short Wednesday hiatus. Welcome back! … Bookseller Glenn Horowitz on Seven … Judy Price and Dana Schuster on Eight … PR Maven Liz Kaplow on Nine.
And there’s more…
Manolo Blahnik’s George Malkemus on Eleven … Fire and Fury author Michael Wolff on Fourteen … Tom Rogers on Fifteen … Ed Adler at Sixteen … Peter Price on Seventeen … Town & Country scribe Vicky Ward on Twenty-six.
See you next Wednesday!