New York Boldfacers Get Behind the Wheel
by neal santelmann
illustrations by daniel o’leary
Of the myriad thrills for the taking in New York, few offer the edge-of-your-bucket-seat excitement of muscling a car through traffic. And yet, though you’d never know it from the clogged streets, few New Yorkers ever experience it.
New York is the American city with the most zero-car households, and non-ownership is steepest in Manhattan, where 77 percent of households go car-less compared to 8 percent nationally, according to the most recent US Census figures. Even Mayor Bloomberg takes the subway to work.
Perhaps nowhere is car ownership less of a necessity than within Gotham’s loftiest realms, where corporate chieftains, society figures, celebrities, and the otherwise elite readily plant themselves in town cars to be chauffeured about. Yet plenty of boldface names own cars in the city. Diddy celebrated two birthdays of his son, Justin, with the gift of a Maybach—one before the teenager had even earned his driver’s license. Earlier this year Jay-Z scooped up Beyoncé and baby Blue Ivy from Lenox Hill Hospital in a Mercedes-Benz van, reportedly complete with hand-stitched Italian leather seats and a shower. Jerry Seinfeld keeps his Porsche collection in a private Manhattan garage. And Barry Diller famously plowed his white Maserati GranCabrio into Central Park snow in January 2011, inspiring a photo-op push from Katie Couric. Sigh. Leave it to a boardroom chief to drive something unfashionably pale in the dead of winter.
But, really, why would anyone who could afford a car and driver choose to keep an auto in New York? “Because I love to drive,” says Cornelia Guest of her passion for taking the wheel in the city. “I’ve never been a hired town car sort of person. And if I ever do get someone to drive me, it’s going to be in my own car!”
Raised as one of the fortunate progeny of society bright lights C.Z. and Winston Guest, Cornelia makes her home in Westbury, Long Island, her base for a wide range of activities, including a burgeoning catering business, animal activism, and cruelty-free fashion accessories. Whatever the address, she has always been a driver. “My first car was a hand-me-down VW Rabbit with a stick shift. I took it to horse shows and drove it for years. Then I got a Rabbit convertible. Then a BMW convertible.”
These days Guest drives an Audi A8, black inside and out but for the horse blanket draped across the backseat for her Great Pyrenees, Bear (as if a dog that woolly needs extra padding). “It’s a great car: fast, light, and it hugs the road. Last winter while headed out to Long Island, everyone was pulled over in a snowstorm, and I was just barreling along.”
“I’m fearless,” she concludes, flashing authentic New York attitude. “The only way to drive is to charge—you’ve gotta get where you’ve gotta go.”
Though Guest’s bravura might win applause from hardened New York drivers, not all in her social strata are so gung-ho. “Sounds fun, but I’m fortunate enuf 2 have a driver,” e-mailed advertising exec Donny Deutsch when we inquired of his driving style.
“We walk everywhere. We are gay and green,” typed Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large of Barneys New York, whose husband, designer Jonathan Adler, doesn’t drive either. Socialite and jewelry designer Ann Dexter-Jones says she “charged around the city for years” but no longer, having switched to subways and car services “when it got too difficult to find parking.” And Jamee Gregory, another society fixture and most recently the author of New York Parties: Private Views (Rizzoli; 2010), only uses her red convertible Mini Cooper in Southampton: “I’m scared to drive in town!”
Perhaps no driver has a better perspective on the dread that New York traffic can inspire than Amy Fine Collins, a special correspondent covering fashion and culture for Vanity Fair, an International Best-Dressed List Hall of Famer, and author of The God of Driving: How I Overcame Fear and Put Myself in the Driver’s Seat (with the Help of a Good and Mysterious Man) (Simon & Schuster; 2004). The book, currently in development by Curious Pictures, recounts Collins’ struggles learning to drive in Manhattan and her eventual success thanks to a handsome Turkish instructor.
Asked about her driving style, Collins pulls no punches. “At worst I’m totally phobic, at best hypervigilant.” Why? “Because everyone is driving around in a state of denial that they’re actually behind the wheel of a bomb. They might be drunk, stoned, stressed out with music blaring, and their mind on something else,” she says. “No one drives stick in America, and they should because that gives a better impression of what they’re controlling.”
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