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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Henry Stern

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-03-14

Henry Stern says that there's unlikely to be another Henry Stern again.

"I come from a different era," the director of the good-government organization, New York Civic - and state chairman of the New York Liberal Party - said yesterday. "I'm perhaps the last New York City kid who went to public schools, then the Bronx High School of Science, then City College - and then Harvard Law School - who served more than 40 years in city government."

Fifteen of those years were as parks commissioner under Mayors Koch and Giuliani, the longest such tenure in the postwar era. [Earlier, Robert Moses served as parks commissioner for 26 years, but he was also simultaneously in charge of just about every other bureaucracy dealing with urban development.]

"What can I say - I've been very fortunate," Mr. Stern continued in a husky low voice, with barely a pause to nibble at his salmon gravlax. "I've been appointed, promoted, transferred, examined, declared unconstitutional, legalized, fired again, and re-appointed, in those 40 short years."

Now Mr. Stern sat back to welcome the arrival of his main course, a delectable shad and roe.

"My, ummm, ooooh, my oh my," Mr. Stern said, appraising the dish with the practiced eye of a connoisseur of fine food and wines. Then he set about savoring the fish in silence for several minutes.

"Fortunately," Mr. Stern said, presently, "all those municipal job adventures were within the same pension system."

Mr. Stern, of course, was alluding to the fact that the jobs in seven city agencies all added up.

"The pension helps keep the wolf from the door," he said, with a chuckle that suggested his remark was facetious - not the least because Mr. Stern's wife, Dr. Peggy Ewing Stern, is director of child health at nine Manhattan clinics; she and Mr. Stern have two sons - Jared, 28, a vice president at Morgan Stanley, and Kenan, 25, who will graduate from medical school in May.

Indeed, the 70-year-old Mr. Stern makes a lot of facetious remarks. Even a reporter who's known him for four decades had some trouble sorting out his syntax.

For example, what to make of this comment:

"If I'd been Mozart, I'd have been dead twice over."

Or this:

"I'm very committed to the geography of the city."

Or this:

"We have a decent, honorable, intelligent and courageous mayor in City Hall. He's worth $5 billion. The issue is whether he can be an excellent mayor."

Or this:

"The attitude that I'm proudest of is my mock humility."

Or this:

"I really miss Boomer, my Golden Retriever, who passed away in 2004."

And consider this comment by Mr. Stern, whose still-youthful face is framed by a shock of grey hair:

"What's the secret of my success? I don't know. But as my former boss at the consumer-affairs department, Bess Myerson, who the country's first and only Jewish Miss America, once said, 'Every night before I go to bed I wash my face with Crisco.'"

As Mr. Stern spoke, two nearby diners seemed to be intently listening to him. They were people he knew - Patricia Burnham, the real-estate diva, and Leslie Crocker Snyder, the lawyer and former State Supreme Court judge.

"Ah," Mr. Stern said to them, "now could I have your business cards, please?"

"Of course, Henry," Ms. Snyder said. "But you already have my phone number."

"I want your e-mail address," Mr. Stern said. "I write these articles, and I like to send them to people who care about New York."

He had assembled an e-mail list of 14,632 names. No, make that 14,641 - in addition to Ms. Snyder and Ms. Burnham, Mr. Stern received business cards from seven other friends and acquaintances that stopped by his table to say hello. Another five diners who'd run out of cards either uttered their addresses - which Mr. Stern promptly committed to memory - or promised to revert to him with the information. And one surreptitiously slipped away before Mr. Stern could press his request.

Does this etiquette-equivalent of ambulance chasing bother him, the reporter said to Mr. Stern?

"Why should it bother me?" Mr. Stern said. "I have things to say about civic life in New York, and I enjoy writing about the city. When you're in power, you can get things done, you can accomplish a lot - even without other people knowing about it. But when you're out of office, you get a bit frustrated. Writing is my way of connecting with the city, making suggestions that I hope are useful - letting people know that I care deeply for it."

That, of course, is a benign view of Mr. Stern's current reinvention of himself, which was undertaken in 2002. Some people are less charitable in their assessment of his not-for-profit organization, calling it an exercise in political showmanship.

Still, there's little doubt that Mr. Stern has managed to retain his distinctive, I-know-the-score voice in a politically fractious city.

That voice was shaped in the Inwood section of Manhattan, where Mr. Stern grew up as the eldest of four children of Walter Stern, a tent maker, and his wife Jean.

It was sharpened during his early years with the state's Liberal Party, where he initiated a drive to fight bossism. Mr. Stern refined his political voice when he was appointed Secretary of the Borough of Manhattan, as an elected member of the City Council, and at community board meetings. He met a young activist named Edward Koch at one of those meetings.

As mayor, Mr. Koch appointed Mr. Stern as parks commissioner in 1983; Mayor Giuliani re-appointed him in 1994. Mr. Stern retired from the post in 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg took office.

"I feel a bit like Bush the Elder - I have a resume almost as long as his," Mr. Stern said.

He reminisces fondly about his years as parks commissioner.

"New York has 1,700 parks and playgrounds, and I was able to help in improving their safety and cleanliness," Mr. Stern said.

During his tenure, the 843-acre Central Park was largely restored, in partnership with the Central Park Conservancy. Mr. Stern also acquired thousands of acres for new parkland for the city, and was responsible for building more than $1 billion of park improvements as part of the capital construction programs of Mr. Koch and Mr. Giuliani.

In all those efforts, Mr. Stern said, he always sought to encourage and work with young people, many of whom now hold public office not only in New York but also around America.

"Some people get along best with rich people," Mr. Stern said. "Others like to be with beautiful people. Still others are driven by sexual attraction. But I am attracted to bright and motivated people."

As he spoke, a friend of the reporter, Meera Kumar, of the Levin Graduate Institute of International Relations and Commerce, stopped by the table.

"Well, hello there," Mr. Stern said, clearly appreciating the Indian-born Ms. Kumar's exotic appearance. "Do you have a business card for me?"

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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