By JOHN LELAND
Published: January 21, 2012
THE president of the National Arts Club, Dianne Bernhard, sat on a loveseat the other day and spoke affectionately about the man she succeeded. Her lawyer sat opposite.
Read more articles in this week's Metropolitan section.
Amid Finery and, Some Say, Vermin, Elite Arts Club and Its Ex-President Battle (December 15, 2011)
Times Topic: National Arts Club
Ashley Gilberston for The New York Times
“I miss my friend,” she said, gazing across the club’s plush Victorian parlor toward Gramercy Park. “He hasn’t said anything to me still. He can’t look at me.”
The friend in question is O. Aldon James Jr., who ran the club from 1986 until a group of board members led by Ms. Bernhard ousted him in June. At a club hearing this week, the same group will push to remove Mr. James, along with his identical twin brother, John, and Steven Leitner, a longtime friend, as members of the club and evict them from their apartments in its adjoining residential building. Court papers filed for the board accuse Aldon James of using club checks and debit cards to make hundreds of thousands of dollars of purchases at flea markets and elsewhere for his own use, and of commandeering club apartments and rooms to stow the stuff, causing $1.5 million in lost rental income. They accuse both twins of harassing club members. Deciding the matter will be the club’s board of governors, including the same people bringing the charges.
In the meantime, the club is under financial investigation by the state attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney over nonprofit irregularities. Mr. James, in turn, is suing both to block the hearing and to remove Ms. Bernhard and others as club officers.
Feelings have been trampled. Birds have died. Leopard-print rugs have been rolled out in “Age of Innocence” interiors. This is a story of power and ego and money and hoarding and real estate. Don’t expect it to be pretty.
“It’s like something out of ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,’ “ said Shawn Burkley, a club member and resident who said the James brothers had seemed “quirky but fun” until John James threatened his wife, saying he had “nothing but time and money” to come after her. “You want to go back and write the novel. Their biggest crime was being mean. I don’t think anybody would’ve cared about the rest. There’s something vindictive there. They needed to express some power.”
To others, though, this story is about Shakespearean betrayal, in which a protégée turned against her more gifted mentor.
“Dianne Bernhard is a cultural fraud,” said Laurence Cutler, chairman and founder of the National Museum of American Illustration in Newport, R.I., who has been a club member for 20 years. “If you look at her art, it’s the kind of stuff you see on velvet. I could never understand how Aldon could have this vacuous woman at his side, and then she turned out to be Brutus.”
THE National Arts Club, founded in 1898 by Charles de Kay, a former art and literary critic for The New York Times, occupies the Gothic Revival mansion of former Gov. Samuel J. Tilden of New York, plus an adjoining 13-story residential building with 38 apartments. Club members have included three United States presidents, along with prominent artists and patrons. For most of its history it has been a genteel presence on the city’s most exclusive park.
But for the past decade it has been more visible for its controversies and internal disputes, including a series of highly public lawsuits waged against the Gramercy Park Trust. The club’s dining room operator and Mr. James’s brother, John, were investigated over allegations of tax evasion and pleaded guilty. John James agreed to pay more than $500,000 in fines and restitution and spend three months in a psychiatric institution for misusing the club’s tax-exempt status to buy and sell jewelry.
Through it all, Aldon James, 64, a college dropout of independent means, served as the mansion’s ubiquitous figurehead, presiding over the club’s growth to more than 2,000 members now from 385 in 1985, with cash assets of over $1 million.
“Aldon made that club,” said Marguerite Jossel, a board member who joined in 1970. “Before that it was an old ladies’ club. He came in and made it exciting.” Of Ms. Bernhard, she said: “She’s pretty. She couldn’t be sweeter to me. I like Dianne, but I can’t believe she says she loves Aldon like a brother. I never met anyone who could turn like that.”
Supporters and critics alike compare Mr. James to Max Bialystock in “The Producers,” who used all his wiles to coax dollars from wealthy women.
The James brothers and Mr. Leitner declined to be interviewed for this article. Their lawyer said they denied all charges against them.