Lunch with Photographer Betsy Pinover Schiff

Diane Clehane and Betsy Pinover Schiff

There was plenty of holiday spirit in evidence at Michael’s this Wednesday with a jam-packed dining room full of media A-listers who were celebrating the season before everyone starts taking off for their year-end sojourns. It seemed only fitting that my last Michael’s lunch of 2018 would be with Betsy Pinover Schiff, whose new book, ‘Tis the Season New York (Schiffer), is a great big Christmas card to the city filled with her photographs of many of Gotham’s most iconic sites and larger than life street decorations all dressed up for the holidays as well as some lovely shots of some unexpected places around town with their own charming yuletide sparkle.

‘Tis, the Season New York‘, is Betsy’s fifth New York-centric book which came to be after she discovered Winter’s Eve on the Upper West Side at Lincoln Center two years ago. “I followed a procession of puppets, watched an ice carver, and ate delicious food from street vendors while listening to a jazz group. As a native New Yorker, I had no idea this [event] occurred, and I thought there must be a lot of other [holiday] events out there I wasn’t aware of,” she told me after we dispensed with ordering (an omelet for her, chicken paillard over kale for me). So, she went off to scour the city – mostly on foot — during the holidays for three to four hours each night “armed with my camera” to capture the fun and excitement of the season. “Each night was a different adventure.”

And she was delighted by what she discovered. “It became clear that New York merited a book to communicate the fun, fantasy and endless heartwarming moments in the city at Christmastime,” Betsy writes in her book. Interestingly, she did not look at the images of New York during the six-week period between Thanksgiving and Christmas she’d taken right away. Instead, she waited until the following fall to see just what she’d captured on film. “I often wait to see if what I have amounts to something,” Betsy told me explaining, “You can see things very differently after a while. With distance and time, I’m able to look at my photographs differently.”

Betsy obviously knew she had something worthwhile, and when 2017 rolled around, she decided she had the makings of a book. “It became clear that New York merited a book to communicate the fun, fantasy and endless heartwarming moments in the city at Christmastime,” she writes in the author’s preface of her book. Also, Betsy knew what she had to do to bring it to fruition. “I decided to be a tourist in my own city,” said Betsy who was raised on Long Island but has lived in the city on the Upper East Side since she was a graduate student at Columbia University. In preparation to scour the city, she “did a lot of research and talked to a lot of people to make some very complication arrangements to experience and see the city in a new way.”

That entailed canvasing the five boroughs of Manhattan as a tourist would (she shot mostly at night)– taking a horse and buggy ride, setting sail on a holiday cruise with a live jazz band, seeing the sights from the upper deck of a Big Apple tour double-decker bus, going to see the Big Apple Circus, taking in a number of family-friendly events and even braving a pedicab ride in search of little known spots as well as celebrated restaurants, pubs and churches all decked out for the holidays worthy of being included in a book about New York during the holidays. She photographed church choirs and pageants and observed the Jewish Festival of Lights. Iconic spots like Rockefeller Center and St. John the Divine in Harlem are featured in the book as well as heartwarming, intimate images Betsy captured off the beaten path on streets in and around the city.

While Betsy got access to swanky members-only clubs like Doubles, the Lotus Club and the National Arts Club (which are all featured in the book), she also was intent on including images of holiday events that “were not just for the affluent” and was clearly touched by what she discovered at places like The New York Foundling (also in the book). “They have a gift-giving event for Christmas where kids come by bus from the Bronx,” she told me. “They give out 6,000 gifts. I’d never been there before, and I didn’t know they did that.”

Lest you think ‘Tis the Season is a just glittering holiday travelogue, think again. Betsy has cleverly organized the book not by locals or neighborhoods, but by moods like “Romance,” “Wonder” and “Celebration” and has included quotes from notable New Yorkers like Vartan Gregorian and Emily Rafferty as well as her postman of thirty years who share their memories on what makes New York so special at Christmas. ‘Tis the Season New York, which took Betsy about a year to complete, was a true labor of love. “I did everything – I got the people for the book, wrote the captions, did the layouts. It was a lot of work.”

Having devoted an entire year to capturing her own vision of Christmas in New York, I assumed Betsy was an ardent fan of the holiday only to learn I was wrong. “I’m not a big Christmas person,” she said. For her, “It’s all about the aesthetics, the color, the light” that drew her to the subject matter. Not unlike, she explained, the reasons she’s done books on the gardens of New York City (more on that later) but has no real interest in gardening. (“I’m not a gardener.”) “In some ways gardening photography and [photographing] Christmas in New York are not all that different. There’s the pressure of time, the issue of weather. It’s all about one’s vision. It’s about what one wants to communicate.”

Another surprise was discovering that despite having produced five books of her photography, Betsy didn’t have any great lifelong desire to become a professional photographer (although she did study at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts). Before picking up her camera full-time, she oversaw communications for the New York Public Library and worked at Sotheby’s managing promotions and publications involving rare books. “An astrologer once told me books would always play an important role in my life.”

It was when her husband, an attorney, talked about living in Guatemala after retiring that Betsy decided to rethink her career path. “I thought if he was going to do this, I better leave my six-day-a-week job [as head of communications for the New York Public Library] and do something else.” Betsy wisely decided to pursue photography in earnest and has amassed an impressive body of work. She has been the principal photographer of six garden books; four of which feature New York City gardens. “I think I have the first book [Gardens in the City: New York in Bloom (Harry Abrams, 1999) on city gardens.” Betsy has become well known for her images of landscape architecture and gardens which have been described by no less than The New York Times as “an ambrosial paean to public and private spaces.” Reporter James Barron, the Times’ Metro columnist, who once profiled Betsy for the paper, wrote the foreword to ‘Tis the Season. Fittingly, his birthday is on Christmas Day.

Right now, Betsy isn’t sure what’s next for her. She’s mulling over the possibility of doing a book of photography on Mexico since she’s spent much time there. “Publishing also interests me more now,” she said as we finished our coffee. “I’ve been involved in all aspects of publishing, so that’s a possibility.” It looks like that astrologer knew what she was talking about.

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Lou Iacovelli and three gals we didn’t recognize on Table One … Mickey Ateyeh and Dan Scheffey (who arranged my lunch with Betsy) on Table Two. Thank you! … ‘The boot is back!’ In case you didn’t know, whenever there is a golden cowboy boot on Table Three, that means ‘Mayor’ Joe Armstrong is in the house, and this week he was lunching with his good friend Galvanized Brands’ CEO David Zinczenko. Joe flew in from Texas to attend Wednesday night’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Foundation gala where President Barack Obama was honored with the Ripple of Hope Award and received his award from none other than Ethel Kennedy (“She’s ninety!” marveled Joe, who has been a very close friend of the family forever.) Dave joined Joe at the celebrity-packed soiree where Discovery Communications’ CEO David Zaslav was also honored. A little birdie told us Michael’s regulars Discovery ID’s Henry Schleiff and Kerry Kennedy were also there … We’d love to have been a fly on the wall: The New Yorker’s media reporter and critic Ken Auletta with MediaLink CEO Michael Kassan on Table Four … Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman at his usual perch, Table Five … Dr. Robi Ludwig, PR maven Judy Twersky and Kathy Levine celebrating the season on Table Six.

Moving On … Bookseller Glenn Horowitz on Table Seven … A double feature on Table Eight: New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia with Brooke Hayward for the first seating; Jill Brooke, Roger Friedman and Bill McCuddy lunching at the table later … Producer Francine LeFrak on Table Nine … Penske Media’s vice chair Gerry Byrne on Table 12 dishing with three blondes. Anyone? … Barry Frey on Table 14 … The lovely Jean Shafiroff, who I ‘Lunched’ with last week, was nice enough to introduce me to Matt Rich, who she was dining with on Table 16. Jean recently returned from an exciting trip to London where she attended a private reception for Prince Harry in recognition for the work he’s done with the Wounded Warrior campaign. I told Jean he has an open invitation to lunch with us at Michael’s anytime. #Lifegoals2019 …  Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel on Table 18 … Marie Claire’s Nancy Berger on Table 20.

And finally … Quest’s Chris Meigher, who came over from Table 21 to ask Betsy what she thought of the story on ‘Tis The Season in the magazine’s new holiday issue. Of course, it’s fabulous … I’m sorry I didn’t get over to say hello to Jack Kliger and his guest on Table 23. It turns out the handsome mystery man was Keith Lieberthal, who is married to one of my favorite actresses, Julianna Margolies. I did get to meet him quickly while I was sitting with Joe and Dave when Jack brought him over for a round of introductions … Long time no see: Sheila Cutner (Loved the leopard pants!) on Table 26 … After Betsy and I said our goodbyes at my favorite people watching spot, Table 27, R. Couri Hay swept in with his guest for a late lunch.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours. See you back at Michael’s next year!

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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