The Countess Commends

Who needs the Oscars? The Countess singles out the best—and most boorish—with her own awards.


It’s the time of year when everyone waits anxiously for the thick vellum envelope with the regal crest to arrive in the mail. Only a select few will get one, and that number is dwindling (postage is so expensive these days).

I’m talking about the Ester Awards. Never heard of them? I’m not surprised; they don’t mean much. But I wish they did—even for just a few seconds. Those getting one shouldn’t expect a trophy or cash. As you know, I’m cheap. It’s an award in name only. Take it or leave it.

• For music, Valery Gergiev, who conducts like a dancer. He has no podium and stands amid the musicians waving his hands. Beautiful. The players in his Kirov Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra are wonderful as well. Another conductor to watch is Philippe Jordan, who recently was guest conductor at the New York Philharmonic. At 33 he’s half the age of many of his peers.

• An Ester also goes to Sir Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, who came from the London Symphony (which the Queen rarely attended). Now he’s put Carnegie Hall back in the realm of the most beautiful concert halls in the world, and the program must make Avery Fisher Hall and the New York Philharmonic shake in their boots.

• James Wolfensohn, chairman emeritus of Carnegie Hall, rarely misses a performance. He was there the night Gergiev and the Kirov played Act II of Aleksandr Borodin’s Prince Igor and Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Wolfensohn was off to see Vladimir Putin the next day, and as I took in the music I sensed the frightening power of Russia. Will New York, like London, be invaded by New Rich Cossacks? By the way, he was reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Young Stalin, which he said he couldn’t put down.

• Which brings me to authors, because I’ve been on a bit of a Russian kick myself, reading Letters From Russia by Astolphe de Custine (things haven’t changed much) and A Writer at War by Vasily Grossman, about the Russian front in WWII. Then there is Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, both of which I reread; Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson; Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees; Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran; and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives.

• I also could mention Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men but wanted to praise the Coen brothers’ film version instead. The acting is wondrous, but all I could think was: Is that really how America is now? Greed, greed, greed?

• Over the river in Queens—yes, I’ve been there—I recently had a most delicious meal at Manducatis, especially the appetizer of red peppers, ricotta cheese and radicchio. And if you go, sneak over to have a suit made at Rocco Ciccarelli’s nearby.

• Political leaders. Do any deserve an Ester? I’ve decided to give a special Energizer Bunny Ester to my friend Nicolas Sarkozy and his fiery ex-wife Cécilia. They’ve had quite a busy year. As for our presidential candidates, I’d award them all Sorriest Bunch. (Hillary Clinton gets a special note for smirkiness.) But best mayor goes to Michael Bloomberg. Let’s hope he runs for president or governor one day.

• Then there’s the Bumbler Ester, which goes to both British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. They both entered office with huge acclaim and have since made one misstep after another.

• Fashion designers. Who to pick? Marc Jacobs for being late and posing nude? Ralph Lauren for 40 years in business? Oscar de la Renta for super technique and grace? Valentino for his swan song? I’m still thinking about it.

• Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau for putting the finger on Anthony Marshall’s alleged bilking of his mother, Brooke Astor. A special Ester goes to dear Brooke as a symbol of elderly rights.

• The final award goes to those who fought for quality over the past year, because it’s rapidly disappearing. Look at the stores in New York: They’re a mess. The carpets behind the counters at Bloomingdale’s look like they haven’t been vacuumed in years.

But at least some are trying to maintain standards, like the jacket-and-tie requirement at top, top restaurants. The French object. “C’est démodé,” they sniff when asked to put one on. Since when are standards démodé? Not in my world.