Most people go to the Frick Collection, a museum housed in industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s 1913 Upper East Side manse, to swan about in Edwardian splendor and see his collection of art, much of it worthy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I go for the bathroom.
There are thousands of objectionable bathrooms in New York City, both official (in the putrid dungeon of a pizza place, bare bulb dangling) and unofficial (marked subway stations.) Those are not the sorts of places visitors should have to expose their most private selves, even for a minute. And yet, in a city where public bathrooms are as uncommon as pristine taxis, you have little choice but to hold your nose or just hold it.
If Ms. Norma Jean herself were to twirl in and powder her nose in the lounge’s mirrored wall, I wouldn’t bat a false eyelash.
Ah, but the Frick’s ladies’ room is an oasis: a powder pink jewel box the same hue as Priscilla Presley’s flawless blush. Enter the Frick home’s grand foyer, descend the stairs, glide past a stuck-in-time telephone booth (if you don’t know what that is, read this), and you step into another world. And in this magical world there are makeup vanities on either side of the lounge and a vintage dream of a spotless bathroom itself, all polished tile and antique porcelain. It’s an experience straight out of the 1953 Marilyn Monroe film How to Marry a Millionaire, of over-the-top glamour that almost—but doesn’t quite—tip into parody. If, during the many happy moments I’ve spent there, Ms. Norma Jean herself were to twirl in and powder her nose in the pink ladies’ lounge’s mirrored wall, I wouldn’t bat a false eyelash. That the rooms upstairs hold masterworks by Bellini, Titian, and El Greco hardly matters to me, not with that refuge for steel magnolias downstairs.
My own New York bathroom was, I can admit now that I’ve escaped it, a horror show. One autumn a steady trickle of water drops fell from the ceiling thanks to the century-old plumbing of the octogenarian living above me. Calls to my lovable but hapless Irish super went largely ignored, even when the trickle became more of a waterfall. Then one night, at approximately 2:31 a.m., the culmination of eons of New York stress came crashing down. Literally. I awoke from my slumber to a collapsing rumble, opened the bathroom door a sliver, and saw that the ceiling had fallen down, sending layers of aged wood and what appeared to be dirt (yes, dirt, made over the decades within the walls) onto my white tile floor. Did I mention my husband and I shared but a single loo?
So you can see why the Frick—pink as rose petals, talcum tea gloves, ballet slippers used and yet no worse for wear—was a reprieve, the essence of femininity. There’s not a drop of fallen water, much less a speck of dirt, nor a smudged towel to be found. It’s as calm and orderly as the streets of Times Square are loud and bustling. When you’re there—no matter how many European tourists are preening before the looking glass—it’s yours, and yours alone, and you can feel, for a fleeting moment, like the Queen of New York.
Kathryn O’Shea-Evans is a Colorado-based writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other outlets. Follow her on Instagram at @kathrynosheaevans.