THE NEW YORK OBSERVER
On the Town With Rex Reed
There are a million stories in the naked city, and Richard Osterweil has lived at least half of them. Who is Richard Osterweil? This much I can tell you. He's a struggling downtown painter with an uptown obsession for crashing the social events he reads about in gossip columns. For the past 18 years, he has dedicated his life to driving a cab and checking coats at the Cafe des Artistes while rubbing elbows with celebrities at $1,000-a-plate dinners, funerals, parties, benefits, opening nights and weddings of the rich and famous. A witty and resourceful loony, his urban adventures could fill a book of New York--type short stories. Now, in a fresh and delightful new movie called Painting the Town, director Andrew Behar and producer, Sara Sackner, aided by the music of Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Mozart, have brought the amazing secret life of this New York original to the screen with a zestful and endearing spirit that may end Mr. Osterweil's anonymity forever. It is playing a l5 -performance engagement from May 29 to June 3 at the new Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center, and I cannot think of more engaging proof that anything can happen in New York.
Mr. Osterweil is a cultured, soft-spoken man in tank tops and sneakers who talks about his obsession with militant candor. He helped Katharine Hepburn unload her car and stole her garbage (nothing in it, alas, but potato peels). He is a regular at the trials of both Leona Helmsley and Ime1da Marcos, who admired his shoes. He became Grace Kelly's phone buddy by posing as a classmate of Prince Albert's at Amherst. He wormed his way into Phyllis Georges wedding to Kentucky Governor John Brown at the Tavern on the Green by telling the bride he was invited by the groom and telling the groom he was invited by the bride, and ended up sharing the best table with Walter Cronkite and Sargent Shriver. He realized a long-festering dream of getting inside the Dakota by crashing a condolence call for Leonard Bernstein's shivas. He crashed Andy Warhol's funeral by identifying himself as Sao Schlumberger, not knowing she was a woman. The run paid off, since nobody else knew it either. He got into the funerals of Kitty Miller, Rudi Crespi, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, George Balanchine, Joan Blondell, Earl Wilson, Nora Kaye, Joseph E. Levine, Robert Mapplethorpe, Malcolm Forbes and Irene Selznick the same way. His list of celebrity funerals reads like a Who's Who of Famous Dead People. And he's irresistibly disarming about it all, not only giving us the hot skinny on these events, but rating the food as well. The memorial for Chairman Mao at the Chinese Embassy was just so-so, but the hors d'oeuvres at Harry Reasoner 's were first-rate once you got past the tuna fish.
To accomplish these feats of chutzpah requires the kind of strategy that would defeat General Schwatzkopf. He hides in utility closets at the Metropolitan Opera, poses as a telephone repairman, perfects an impressive range of disguises and foreign accents, fakes invitations, even dispatches friends to pose a paparazzi. When they snap photo, of him, the doors automatically open. At the Vienna Waltz ball, he even took over an entire table for his friends by convincing the real guests they were at the wrong table. One day he renewed his hack license in the afternoon, changed into black tie in his cab and dined as the King of Spain that night. And he's got the spreads in the New York Post to prove it. (The best way to assure success, he confides, is to position yourself next to Jackie Onassis. Liza Minnelli ain't bad, either.)
Sometimes the exhaustive subterfuge backfires. When he was evicted from Barbara de Portago's first wedding, he was so embarrassed he put a curse on the marriage. It was over, in 10 months. Now he's becoming as much as a celebrity as his original targets. He dines at Brooke Astor's, drops in for cocktails at Gloria Vanderbilt's and escorts Judy Peabody to the ballet. He even took his Russian grand-mother to the Peabodys' Christmas party last year and she ended up in deep conversation with Donald Trump. He still sleeps all day, breakfasts at 3 P.M., paints till dawn and lives on a $6-a-day food budget. After Painting the Town hits the screen, it could be goodbye to all that. He no longer has to pretend he's one of her dearest friends to crash Gloria Steinem's birthday parties. It's not as much fun as it used to be. He doesn't feel as comfortable with a legit invitation or a bona fide admission ticket in his bluejeans, so sometimes he tries to crash for old times' sake. But it's doubtful that Richard Osterweil will change all that much. He knows the difference between a dangerous wacko an a harmless eccentric. He's on a mission to break down the barriers between the haves and the have-nots. "My mind is like a roach motel' he says with a grin. "Facts enter but do not leave' Best of all, he reminds us all that New York is a town where you can create any illusion you want. You can invent yourself here. Haven't we all? Back to home page.
Copyright 2001-2009, Richard Osterweil All Rights Reserved