Mara Palmer

Published: The New York Times, December 2, 1996

Mara Palmer, an interior decorator who worked on yachts and offices as well as private homes in the United States and Europe, died on Nov. 20 at her home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She was 77.

The cause was lung cancer, her family said.

Among Mrs. Palmer’s assignments were the Restaurant Daniel on East 76th Street, a French restaurant that opened three years ago, and the Upper East Side apartment of James Berry Hill, owner of Berry-Hill Galleries, whose home was featured in Architectural Digest in 1992.

Mrs. Palmer is survived by a brother, Angel Srebrov of Lucerne, Switzerland; a stepdaughter, Audrey Palmer Neville of Los Angeles; a stepson, Michael Palmer of London, and four granddaughters. Her husband, Paul Palmer, died in 1983.

I count Mara Palmer among the one-of-a-kind people I have met.  Her brief obituary, though it hints at her celebrity as an interior decorator, barely captures her dynamism.  Our encounter was entirely by accident.

It was well after midnight on the second floor of a popular bar on Duval Street, Key West at the height of the winter season in the late 1980s that I met Mara Palmer. She stood at the end of the polished wooden bar smoking a cigarette and sipping what appeared to be Champagne. She was wearing an extremely attractive evening dress and her legs were showing to full advantage.  I brazenly approached her and introduced myself, adding that her stunning appearance had not escaped me.  Mara later told me she had been a model at one time.  When I met her she was in her sixties and none the worse for wear.  Her European accent fit well with her comportment and complemented her urban glamour.

I cannot now recall the thread of our subsequent late night conversation but the next day I found myself knocking at the door of her house in Key West.  She had just bought the place as a winter resort.  Mara was on the telephone at the back of the house overlooking the garden, pacing to and fro, furiously smoking, engaged in a highly animated and decidedly spicy conversation with someone she later explained was her lawyer in New York City.  She demanded her lawyer immediately institute a law suit against the person who had sold her the house.  Rain was coming through the roof.

While this was going on the doorbell rang.  “Thank God!”, blurted Mara. She knew it was a courier, and over her clamouring with her lawyer, she instructed me to tell the courier to bring his delivery into the kitchen.  The delivery was a large crate made of slatted boards from which straw protruded.  It was her Champagne from New York City.  Still on the phone, and smoking her ubiquitous cigarette, Mara motioned me to open the crate and put the Champagne in the fridge.  When I instinctively objected that the bottles would not all fit into the fridge she abruptly told me they would.

I opened the door of the fridge and discovered that it was completely empty.  Not only was there no food, there weren’t even any shelves or crispers.  The thing had been stripped bare. Mara told me she couldn’t abide the quality of Champagne in Key West and had therefore ordered her favourite from New York City.  I proceeded to pile the Champagne bottles on their side in the refrigerator.

Several months afterwards I traveled to New York City.  I arrived on a Friday evening and rallied with Mara at her digs on Park Avenue.  Her address was something like 525 Park Avenue not far from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.  Once I got past the concierge, I discovered she lived in an apartment which occupied an entire floor of the building.  The elevator stopped at her front door, a grand entry foyer.  Mara took me into the spacious, high ceilinged drawing room of the apartment where we lounged and chatted.  We were alone for the time being.  I wasn’t however surprised that our privacy was subsequently disturbed.  I had gathered from the little I knew of Mara that she was accustomed to entertain gentlemen, usually younger.  When in Key West, for example, I understood that Mara had had a tryst with a youngish businessman (whose name I recognized) from Toronto whose yacht was moored nearby. Before long a smart looking fellow dressed in evening wear arrived at the apartment.  He was apparently on his way somewhere for dinner but stopped by for a drink.  The only thing Mara drank was Champagne.  The evidence of her indulgence was everywhere. Wooden swizzle sticks (which she used to rid the Champagne of its bubbles) were located throughout the apartment including the bathrooms. The visitor clearly knew the routine and secured a bottle of Champagne from the pantry.  Returning to the drawing room with the bottle of Champagne, he headed for the fireplace and grasped the sheathed sword which was leaning against one corner.  Removing the sword from its sheath he then very deftly I thought sabered the bottle of Champagne.  The cork and its cargo went rolling across the Oriental rug and he proceeded to pour out the contents of the bottle into the waiting stemware.  The visitor departed not long after that clever display.

Initially I had invited Mara to be my guest for dinner at a place of her choice. This proposal she denounced out of hand, adding, “Darling, the only people who dine out on Friday night in New York City are tourists!”  She said she would prepare dinner for the two of us which remarkably she did and very capably I might add.  It of course surprised me that Mara was so efficient in the kitchen.  Given her circumstances it wasn’t what I would have expected.  I knew for example that during the lengthy illness of her late husband he had remained in the apartment and been attended by round-the-clock nursing staff.  On other visits to her apartment I had seen massage therapists leaving the apartment.  Mara had an in-house massage at least once a week.

At the end of our very satisfactory meal (which included if I recall correctly a now dated though tasty dessert like Cherries Jubilee) we returned to the drawing room where the conversation acquired that not unusual texture of camaraderie peculiar to good food and good wine.  Promoted no doubt by Mara’s hospitality and as a gesture of reciprocal generosity I suggested to Mara that sometime she might like to visit Almonte.  I won’t repeat what she said in reply but it wasn’t what you’d call a mad embrace of the proposition.  It  was the only time she disappointed me though I accept that New Yorkers have a great deal about which to rhapsodize.