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Christopher Mason: The Adventures of a Raconteur

Thu, 08/13/2020 - 12:03
Whatever Christopher Mason sings at the ARF Bow Wow Meow Ball, he will certainly be wearing orange, his favorite color.
Durell Godfrey

Readers of this section are not likely to have seen “Surviving Jeffrey Epstein,” a two-part documentary that aired Sunday and Monday on Lifetime. If they had, they might have noticed a newly minted East Hampton full-time resident among those interviewed.

“I knew Ghislaine [Maxwell] very well in the 1990s,” Christopher Mason said, “and she hired me to write a song for Jeffrey Epstein’s 40th birthday. Usually I try to talk to as many people as possible to get a real picture of the person, but Ghislaine insisted I could not talk to anyone else but her.”

Mr. Mason found it odd that Ms. Maxwell, who was Epstein’s girlfriend at the time, insisted that the song should include that while Epstein was teaching at the Dalton School, he was the subject of many schoolgirl crushes.

A raconteur, writer, and composer of satirical songs, Mr. Mason has been coming to the East End every summer for 35 years, much of it spent at a friend’s house in Sag Harbor. Then, eight years ago, he met Ralph Gibson, an East Hampton doctor, at a friend’s party. The two recently announced their engagement.

When he was a teenager studying for his A-levels in Cambridge, England, his mother entered his study with a sign that said, “Ambition?” 

“She was trying to get me to focus on one thing,” he said. Had he heeded her advice, it would have been a loss not only for him but for the literary and social circles he has enhanced for almost 40 years.

Mr. Mason graduated in 1983 from Cambridge University, where he divided his studies between English and art history. “I really wanted to be an architect, but I decided I wasn’t cut out for figuring out drainage.” He also decided that, unlike most of his peers, he didn’t want to move to London. 

And so he moved to New York City, with no idea of what he was going to do there. He stayed with a friend, and for several months consulted his address book and “just went to breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinner every day.” He arrived with $2,000 worth of $20 bills in a suitcase.

“My bed was in an alcove, so I would just reach in and get a fistful of twenties when I needed them to go out. And one morning I reached into the suitcase and there was no more money. So I had to get a job.”

Serendipitously, he met George Trescher, one of the city’s most prominent fund-raisers, party planners, and public relations bigwigs, and before long he was at Brooke Astor’s apartment working on the seating plan for a party at Rockefeller University that would include 30 Nobel Prize winners.

Soon after, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis asked Mr. Trescher to plan the opening of the Noguchi Museum in Queens. “I got to work with her and hang out in her apartment on Fifth Avenue, just the two of us,” said Mr. Mason. “I thought, 'Wow! New York’s really fun.' ”

While still working for Mr. Trescher, Mr. Mason began writing satirical songs spoofing some of the high-society people he was meeting, and singing them at friends’ parties. One, called “Park Avenue Parvenus,” took aim at those who “used charity as a means of social ascent, while also benefiting some excellent causes.”

Mr. Trescher fired him after several years. Apparently he was good at hanging out with Brooke Astor and Jackie Onassis, but not so good at seating charts and other minutiae. “But he also said I was wasting my time, my songs were funny, and I should go into show business. I had no choice. Then it took off in a wild way.”

In 1987, Annette de la Renta was giving a dinner for Mrs. Astor at the New York Public Library. At Mr. Trescher’s suggestion, she hired Mr. Mason to write and perform a song about the local real estate titans who were tearing down buildings. Before long, Jackie Kennedy asked him to perform at a dinner for the interior designer Mario Buatta, and a day later, Ivana Trump invited him to sing at a lunch on her and her husband’s new yacht.

These days he sings only occasionally, but one of those occasions is coming up on Saturday evening: the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons Bow Wow Meow Ball @home, which will happen virtually this year. 

While Mr. Mason cannot be said even now to “focus on one thing,” by the 1990s he was primarily concentrating on writing, and for more than 25 years his articles have appeared regularly in The New York Times, New York magazine, Architectural Digest, and many others. 

His subjects have included John Richardson, Picasso’s biographer; the townhouses of Gianni Versace and Leslie Wexner; the ill-starred effort of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory to film scenes in Mr. Mason’s apartment; the photographer John Dugdale; Philip Johnson’s Glass House, and Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.

When news of Versace’s murder made headlines in 1997, Mr. Mason was already at work on his first book, “Undressed: The Life and Times of Gianni Versace,” for Little, Brown. When the book was finished, however, and already receiving positive pre-publication reviews, the designer’s surviving siblings, determined to protect his image, threatened massive legal action. Mr. Mason was able to keep his advance, but the book was never published.

In January 2000, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s embarked on multimillion-dollar expansions. “I thought it was a really interesting moment to look at how those 18th-century auction houses were reinventing themselves for the 21st century,” Mr. Mason said. During his research, which included interviews with all the principals, he read in The Financial Times that Christie’s had turned over 600 pages of evidence in connection with an antitrust investigation.

“I had to throw out all my research,” he said, “but it became a much more compelling story.” So compelling that, like several of his previous articles, it made the cover of New York magazine in 2000. It was then published in 2004 by G.P. Putnam's Sons as “The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby’s-Christie’s Auction House Scandal.”

In 2011, while still writing regularly, Mr. Mason added “television host” to his résumé. He had been a guest on “Power, Privilege, and Justice,” a show on Court TV hosted by his friend Dominick Dunne. After Mr. Dunne’s death, the show’s producer asked Mr. Mason if he wanted to audition to host a new series about murders in fabulous houses.

“Behind Mansion Walls” ran for three years on the Investigation Discovery channel. One of the 39 episodes focused on the bizarre case of Joseph Pikul, who was eventually found guilty of murdering his wife in their Windmill Lane house in Amagansett in 1987.

In March, Dr. Gibson, worried about the pandemic in New York City, suggested that Mr. Mason leave the city to stay with him. Mr. Mason has been here ever since. “I’m so used to being out here, and I love it. And it’s a really good test of a relationship if two people can live alone, not seeing anyone, and manage to get along for five months.”

Asked if he could have imagined, as a new arrival in this country, how his life would unfold, he said, “In 1983 I had no idea what my life would be like, I just knew it would be an adventure. And the adventure continues.” 


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