If you’re planning to drop by George Whipple’s Columbus Circle penthouse, it’s best to come prepared: You never know when a quick visit with the NY1 society reporter may turn into an impromptu night on the town.
It’s Friday evening, and Whipple arrives home a bit harried after a long day at the office. (Though Whipple is best known as a man-about-town and regularly appears on red carpets hobnobbing with the A-list, he spends his days as a Wall Street lawyer). He’s pressed for time: He’ll leave that night for vacation at a cottage in Northeast Harbor, Maine, where he’ll spend the next two weeks laying low. But before the 10-hour drive, he still needs to pack his Jaguar and sit for his Luxury Listings interview and photo shoot. And, oh yes, watch Cate Blanchett’s star turn at a 7:30 performance of Jean Genet’s “The Maids,” one of the hottest theater tickets of the summer.
At the moment, however, Whipple, who has recently shorn his iconic bushy eyebrows (as recommended by his stylist), is ready to relax. He changes out of a dark grey Dior suit and Brooks Brothers pink tie, showers and puts on a blue-and-white pinstripe button-down with white jeans and black dance slippers that bear his family’s crest, which features an elephant and shield adorned with swans.
He grabs a seat at the cozy breakfast nook in the kitchen, with its small, round green table and two red chairs. “This is my favorite place because it’s cozy and I love the south light, which is a photographer’s light,” said Whipple, who is a photographer himself. “It’s small and simple, and I find that really appealing.”
It’s a bit ironic, as nothing else about the apartment — or Whipple himself, really — could be described as “simple.” He’s lived in the art-filled one-bedroom rental since the late 1990s, and rumor has it that the home once belonged to Marilyn Monroe, though Whipple hasn’t been able to confirm this.
But there’s at least one other commonality between Whipple and the world’s most famous sex symbol: Andy Warhol. Above the working fireplace in the living room — which was lit that day for kicks — is an original gold-framed Warhol print of an electric chair that’s colored red and black.
And Whipple isn’t just a Warhol fan — he was also a friend of the late pop art great. “New York in the ‘80s was very small,” explains Whipple, who also ran with Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “There were no barriers between anyone in those days.”
“Andy,” as Whipple calls him, encouraged the young lawyer to get into photography by taking pictures of his friends, which eventually made their way to galleries. Then the New York Times got in touch, and Whipple spent six years snapping shots for their Styles section. He keeps his thick portfolio on display on a rung of his floor-to-ceiling built-in shelf in his living room, full of photos of models wearing formal wear.
“I like things that are meaningful to me, and that are decorative and interesting to me,” he said of his decor, sipping his third espresso out of a small white mug adorned with small peach flowers. “Pop art always attracted me.”
Other works include various portraits of Whipple — an idea that he admits he stole from Michael Chow, the restaurateur who’s known for his collection of portraits of himself made by famous artists. Whipple has nine total; not all are paintings and some come from unexpected sources: One is by David Bowie, and photographers Bill Cunningham and Patrick McMullan have lent their talents as well.
A standout is a portrait by Romero Britto, which, like the Warhol piece, is also prominently displayed in the living area. It shows Whipple in a multi-colored suit with his previous Jack Russell Terrier, Jackie Ruckles, whose fur is painted in white and accented with gold glitter dots atop a background of brightly colored stripes and dots. (Whipple’s present pup is named Mayfair.) Then there’s a small, framed black-ink scribble drawing of Whipple made by actor Jeff Bridges on white paper. “He said my eyebrows look like his brother’s, Beau Bridges,” Whipple explains.
Also in the pop art style is a framed poster that boasts several shots of Whipple’s face in front of green, blue and pink backgrounds — an advertisement for the NY1 segment “Whipple’s World” he’s had since 1994.
“I’ve had a very interesting life,” Whipple said. “A lot of it was happenstance.”
Whipple, who descends from three signers of the Declaration of Independence, has his main residence in Putnam County. And at that home, where he spends about 75 percent of his time, vintage prevails. It’s where he grew up and where he operates his grandfather’s farm, which has been in the family a long time. The property includes a small home built right after the American Revolution and a barn constructed around 1820. Whipple has the property’s original deed from the 1630s.
The historic feel even extends to the livestock; Whipple breeds and collects critically endangered early American farm animals, including Narragansett Turkeys, which were the turkeys used for the first Thanksgiving, he said. “I never ran from my roots,” he said. “A lot of people move, they move on, they move up. I never saw that as something I particularly wanted to do — just move to a rich person’s ghetto. I’d rather just live where I’d always lived.”
His Manhattan pied-a-terre also embraces this love of history. Whipple — an amateur historian who has authored books on the history of his family and of his hometown — has cool artifacts from his family around the space, and not just on his slippers. One, a print of the Daniel Webster statue in Central Park, is located in Whipple’s entry. Webster, a Massachusetts senator, was Whipple’s great-great uncle. But even more special is the bronze model of this statue that stands in Whipple’s living room.
There are also non-family-related antiques. A large wooden grandfather clock, with a country scene painted in soft yellows, blues and greens on its face, stands to the side of the living room. The bedroom, meanwhile, has a prominent antique wooden bed. And in his two planted terraces — one off the master, the other off the living room — Whipple grows antique roses and arborvitae, which he can’t do at his upstate residence due to the threat of deer and mold, he said. In the city — away from the upstate elements — “roses will bloom here until Christmas,” he said.
Admittedly a bit of an indiscriminate collector — “I collect objects,” he confesses. “I have always collected objects.” — Whipple recently culled his belongings. The goal was to put thousands of objects, like souvenir trinkets from vacations, African masks, bottles full of colorful sand from South America and communist memorabilia (“I was so terrified as a child of the communists,” he says) into storage and make the look of the home more streamlined and simple. “You reduce all the stuff, and it just gives a different feel,” he said. “It gives a more ‘today’ kind of feel.”
But perhaps the coolest aspect of Whipple’s pad isn’t what’s inside the walls — its what surrounds his Columbus Circle building. “This was actually a marginal and up-and-coming neighborhood,” he remembers. “Now it’s come and gone, and it’s a very expensive and glamorous neighborhood now, but always centrally located.”
When Whipple’s at home in the city, he’s in the thick of the action. He darts between Lincoln Center, the Lincoln Square and the Ziegfeld cinemas, and City Center — all located a stone’s throw from his penthouse. “This is the cultural hub of the world,” he says of the neighborhood. This especially comes in handy when Whipple glances at a clock and notices the time — he doesn’t have long to head to City Center before the curtains rise at 7:30.
“You want to see Cate?” he says of Blanchett, extending an invitation to us. “It’s supposed to be extraordinary.” Loading the Jaguar will have to wait until later, and the interview will have to conclude on the street.
We head to City Center as fast as our feet will take us, but Whipple keeps his cool. He’s clearly used to this kind of rush.