Presidential Sightings Upping the Ante in the Competitive Sport of Celebrity Spotting
Sure, we’ve spotted Susan Sarandon at Cross River’s D’Agostino, George Clooney at the Burns Film Center, and Bobby Kennedy spearing fish in the Hudson River. But until you’ve got a bona fide sighting of Bill Clinton under your belt, you’re not even in the game.
By Lois Podoshen
Illustration by Ismael Roldan
One of the most fashionable, most sought-after commodities, if you live in Westchester, is a “sighting.” No, not a sighting of little extraterrestrials (after all, this isn’t Roswell), but of a Rhodes scholar and a Yalie, of the man who defeated President Bush Sr., of the man who sent troops into Bosnia and weathered scandals only to increase his popularity rating. Yes, it’s a sighting of Bill Clinton, which has become a “must-have” for many Westchesterites.
“Everyone needs to have a Bill sighting,” says Chappaqua resident Jean Sheff. And even though Chappaqua is home to other celebrities such as Vanessa Williams and Jeff Van Gundy, it is Bill that has put this quiet little upscale town on the map.
“I was on the phone ordering from L.L. Bean the other day,” Sheff declares, “and when I gave the customer-service representative my address she asked, â€˜So, have you seen Bill?’ If nothing else,” Sheff says, “at least now people can actually pronounce the name â€˜Chappaqua.’”
So had she seen Bill? “The first time I saw him was at Grafflin Elementary School on Election Day,” answers Sheff, whose daughter Juliana attends the school. “There was a large crowd with people milling around, just like a movie star was there. You see President Clinton in photos and on TV, but when you stand next to him, there is an energy field. He’s a magnetic personality. Now I get it. I didn’t understand until I saw it for myself.”
Cindy Factor, another voter who was there that day, concurs. “He is tall and captivating, a real presence. He looked so presidential.” He shook hands with Cindy and her mother and “high-fived” her children Benjamin and Daniel. “The kids were really excited,” she says, “and he was really nice.”
Jennifer Eyges, an opera singer and a music director and voice teacher at the Northern Westchester Center for the Arts in Mt. Kisco, got more than a CD when she stopped off at Borders. “He was dressed in a parka jacket with U.S.A. on the back,” she says. “His charisma enveloped the entire room, and he looked directly into my eyes when he spoke to me.” With the permission of the secret servicemen, Eyges asked him for his autograph. “It’s framed and sits on top of my refrigerator,” she says.
Cathy Sontag Nish, Westchester Magazine’s Fantastic Finds editor had a serendipitous sighting at the Chappaqua Restaurant & CafÃ©. She was showing her friend a picture of her son taken, of all places, at the podium of the White House briefing room, when a tall impressive, silver-haired man walked in. Getting up her courage, she said to him, “I want to welcome you to the neighborhood, Mr. Clinton.” He graciously autographed the picture, and the next week, Nish saw him yet again. “He remembered me and came right up to me,” she says. “He makes everyone feel like he knows him or her. He made me feel like a million dollars.”
Skidmore senior and Mt. Kisco resident Sarah Boxer had to go all the way to Ireland for her sighting. She was just leaving The Merrion Hotel in Dublin when Clinton got into his limo right in front of her. “I knew I’d probably never have a chance like this again,” says Boxer, who was in Ireland studying English and Celtic studies. “I yelled out, â€˜Mr. Clinton, I’m from Mt. Kisco, New York.’ He got out of his limo, shook my hand and asked me what I was doing in Dublin. I was surprised. He held everything up just to say hi.”
Outgoing. Friendly. Magnetic. Charismatic. These are the words that people use to describe Bill Clinton, Chappaqua resident. But is this the real Bill or just his post-presidential personality, his Westchester demeanor, his suburban self?
Bob Raymar, an attorney in Newark, NJ, has known President Clinton since the early ’70s, when they both attended Yale Law School. Raymar has been in touch with him ever since and even helped put together the first White House reception the Clintons ever gave, on January 21, 1993. “He’s very gregarious and a genuinely outgoing guy. Whether it was at the Grand Ole Opry or the Sheridan in New York, he would always go up to people. He had something to say to everyone. He remembered people, could build a whole conversation around a shared moment and make you feel like you were sharing a moment in time with him.”
“He also loves policy,” Raymar continues. “I sat with him at a White House dinner one night, and when the meal was over, he wouldn’t get up. Most guests, including Hillary, were dancing to the Marine Band. But Bill wanted to talk policy, and soon people circled the table three rows deep to talk about Bosnia and the deficit. He just loves to talk to people. That’s Bill Clinton!”
Maya Goldschlager, a real estate agent for Renwick & Winterling in Bedford Village who also remembers Bill Clinton from his Yale days, agrees. “He really enjoys people—it’s not fake. At Yale, Bill was always jolly and hanging out with people. He is outgoing and very bright.”
when the outgoing and bright Bill first moved to Chappaqua, the Clinton house became somewhat of a tourist attraction. People drove back and forth to look at it and perhaps get a glimpse of the dynamic Clinton duo. (I hate to admit this, but I too was compelled to go back and forth past this now famous Dutch colonial on Old House Lane. Secret service men please note: I am not a stalker, just a harmless writer.) This lovely but modest 114 year-old home the Clintons bought for $1.7 million is certainly nothing like the 67,000-square-foot mansion they had been used to. In fact, its only resemblance to their former abode is that it is white and surrounded by the ever-present secret servicemen.
While I can only wonder what it’s like inside the Clinton residence, an enterprising young man named Jonathan Schwebel, his twin sister Amanda and his resourceful mother Ellen, got to see it first hand. “It was surreal,” Ellen Schwebel says of sitting on the couch in the Clintons’ country-style living room. Little did Jonathan and Amanda’s seventh-grade teacher Mallory Chin know that her social studies assignment would gain the Schwebels entry into the Clintons’ home and get them their own 20 minutes of fame. Mrs. Chin’s assignment was to interview three people of varying ages and ask them how technology has influenced the way people live. The twins cleverly decided to ask their grandmother, their father and fellow Chappaqua resident Bill Clinton. They typed a letter, and Mrs. Schwebel enclosed a picture of the twins before she hand-delivered it to the secret servicemen.
“How soon can you come over?” Clinton’s aide asked Mrs. Schwebel the very next day.
“My mouth was open the whole time,” she says. “He was tall, charming, hospitable and talked to my kids like he was talking to Congress.”
“We talked about computers and the Internet and how it is so much easier to get access to information these days,” says Jonathan. Not only did the twins get a very good grade on their report but Jonathan also appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman.
Like many other retired CEOs, Bill Clinton is taking this time to pursue his hobbies—he has been seen jogging and walking his Lab Seamus on the track at Horace Greeley High School, and playing golf at Trump National Club in Briarcliff Manor (which he just joined), and we all know about his famous saxophone playing. And while the former President is busy writing his memoirs, he still finds time to become involved with local charities and organizations (he recently spoke at an event sponsored by The Westchester County Association that drew a capacity crowd of some 600) and with life as a Westchesterite. “We had just finished inventory when Bill Clinton walked in,” says Robert Geisman, manager of Bramson’s Music in Mt. Kisco. “He bought some saxophone books and a mouth piece.”
It was music that brought Geisman and Clinton together again. Geisman, a former member of the a cappella group Sing We Enchanted, was performing Christmas carols at Le Jardin du Roi, a local restaurant reputed to be a favorite of the Clintons, when the owner asked the group to stay a little longer because Bill and Hillary were coming. “I shook hands with the Clintons and gave them a copy of our CD,” Geisman, still delighted, says.
His next encounter with the Clintons was at The First Congregational Church of Chappaqua at midnight Mass. “I was just putting on my white gloves to play the hand bells when I looked up and saw Chelsea,” Geisman recalls. The Clintons were there at the invitation of the Reverend Doctor Timothy Ives, minister of the church. “It was a few days before Christmas 2002,” says the minister, “when I saw Bill Clinton in town and invited him to our church. â€˜I’m going to be there,’ Mr. Clinton replied, and I thought, well, maybe.” When Clinton actually arrived at the church, he said to Dr. Ives, “I told you I was coming.”
“It was exciting to have the Clintons here,” says the minister. “Chelsea wrote â€˜Merry Christmas’ in our guest book, and we found out that Bill is a great singer. He told me that he sang in the church choir in Arkansas.”
But The First Congregational Church is not the only religious institution to claim Bill Clinton as its friend. It was the day of Rosh Hashanah right after 9/11, when Joan Kolbert, a longtime member of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester, got a call from another congregant. “Which service are you going to, early or late?” Kolbert was asked. “We always go to the early,” she responded. “Come to the late service,” she was told. “Bill and Hillary are going to be there.”
According to the temple’s president, Stephen Adler, whose son Jason had been an intern for Hillary, the senator’s office called about attending services that night. “We never reserve seats, but we did for them,” says Adler. “The cordoned-off seats triggered many inquiries. When the Clintons arrived, they received applause and participated in the services by reading the English translation in the prayer book with the congregation. At the end of the service, the rabbi and the cantor invited them to the pulpit to sing â€˜God Bless America.’ They sang all the verses without looking at the words. After the service, the president answered questions about Al Qaeda from the pulpit, while Hillary held court in the sanctuary. It was a solemn and moving moment. No one asked them to be there, they just reached out.”
Bill Clinton and his family have reached out to the community in other ways as well. For the past ten years, Edward and Maya Manley have hosted a Family Fun Day for the Making Headway Foundation, an organization dedicated to the care, comfort and cure of children with brain and spinal-cord tumors. Last June, the Manleys invited the Clintons to join them at their garden party and mingle with the guests as they had fun at the pool, the petting zoo and the barbeque supper.
“They were very gracious,” says Edward Manley, whose own daughter, Cynthia, is a brain tumor survivor. “They talked to the families, and one little boy shook his hand and said, â€˜I’m never going to wash my hands again.’ Mr. Clinton bought some jewelry from brain tumor survivor and jewelry designer Stephanie Garwin. She was so excited when she saw a picture of Senator Clinton in Washington wearing her jewelry.”
like everyone else, clinton loves a good meal, and he apparently loves Crabtree’s Kittle House in Chappaqua. This is the place where he brings visiting dignitaries and family. “It’s interesting when he comes here,” says proprietor John Crabtree. “Sometimes he just shows up at the door and sits anywhere. He showed up at Christmastime with Hillary and her mother and just wanted to sit in the middle of the room. We bring to his attention anyone who really would like to say hello to him and he’s happy to that. He just has a natural affinity for people.”
Crabtree tells of an evening when the Clintons were having dinner with Micheal Eisner and his wife Jane. “I told the Clintons that I had a baseball from a young man who is a huge fan. I gave Mr. Clinton the ball and immediately both of the Clintons reached for their pens.”
Clinton has entertained Paul Kagame, former president of Rwanda, and Israel’s Ehud Barak at Crabtree’s Kittle House, but perhaps the most interesting experience happened when he was dining with Helmut Kohl. “There was a wedding going on downstairs in The Atrium Room and Bill and Helmut Kohl were upstairs. When the chef came in to bring the food to the wedding party, there was no one there. All 160 wedding guests were in the backyard waving up to Bill Clinton.” Clinton posed for a picture with the bride and invited Kohl to do the same.
People all over Chappaqua, and all over Westchester, are naturally curious about the Clintons, but some local shopkeepers and institutions (to their credit and this writer’s dismay) want to protect their own integrity and the Clintons’ privacy by not talking about their presence in town. One employee of a local establishment even claims that there is a “gag” order preventing workers from discussing the Clintons with the media. However, while Bill himself has granted few interviews to local press (after all, I’m not Katie Couric or Larry King), he isn’t exactly ensconced in his house protesting “I vant to be alone,” either. When he’s not with Hillary in Washington, working at his Harlem office or introducing the Rolling Stones in L.A., he can often be seen having coffee at Starbucks and just chatting with the local citizenry in town.
Purchase College student and Chappaqua resident Alma Brown was running to catch a train one morning to get to her first class when she saw him. “I thought he was a poster,” says Brown, who readily admits she didn’t get too much sleep the night before, “but then he looked at me with a big smile on his face. â€˜Hello, how are you?’ he asked. I was so surprised and scared that I just said, â€˜I have to go,’ and kept walking”—something that she now regrets.
Abby Frank, design consultant for Phillippvs Jewelers in Mt. Kisco, was not quite so timid. Upon hearing that Clinton was in town, she rushed from the store with her hair disheveled and her funky multi-colored reading glasses on. “He was on the corner of Main and South Moger in his jogging suit,” says Frank. “He just reached out to people, smiling. I ran up to him, kissed him and said, â€˜I love you, Bill.’” The surprised but quick-thinking Clinton said, “And I loveâ€¦your glasses!” Not to be outdone, Frank’s co-worker, Maria Mercado, had a sighting of her own the very next week. She had the luck of the Irish with her when she had her picture snapped with Clinton at the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
So, inquiring Westchesterites want to know, What’s Bill Clinton really like? According to Jerry Curran, a fire commissioner in Chappaqua, “Every interaction with him is positive and engaging. The Clintons are good citizens and nice neighbors. They appreciate the fire department and the fact that we’re all volunteers. On the first day he left office, Mr. Clinton and his family stopped by the firehouse on their way to their new home. On what must have been a memorable but tiring day for him, he thought enough to stop by and be part of the community. We have a special feeling for him.” Charlie Bergstrom, the former fire chief, even gave him a symbolic key to the firehouse.
But the firehouse is only one of Clinton’s favorite haunts. Ask anyone in town where you are most likely to have a sighting of our 42nd president and they will tell you, Lange’s Deli. So taken with Lange’s and its employees, Clinton gave the countermen special Christmas ornaments as gifts one year.
“Yes, I met him in Lange’s,” says Chappaqua artist Cynthia Amberg. “When the Clintons first came to town, my daughter in California told me to invite them to dinner. But I thought there was nothing compelling about us to make him come.” When Amberg finally met Clinton in Lange’s, she told him, “It would make my daughter’s day if you would give me your autograph,” Amberg recalls. “He was warm, friendly and outgoing. I touched him with my glove and the countermen told me to frame it.”
“Yes, the Clintons come in regularly,” says proprietor Rich Lange. Apparently even in a snowstorm! “It was in February, around George Washington’s birthday during a blizzard. The store was closed and our lights were out, but my wife and I noticed two people and a dog out in the snowstorm. It was Bill Clinton and the Senator with their new Lab. Mr. Clinton told us they were just going for a walk in the snow. I opened up just for them.” When he’s at Lange’s, Clinton is just like “one of the guys,” says the deli’s owner. It’s apparently not unusual to see the silver-haired statesman chatting with the countermen, right in front of the cole slaw, potato salad and chopped liver. So stop at Lange’s, and if you’re really lucky, your next corned beef on rye just might come with a presidential seal of approval.
Lois Podoshen lives in Westchester but has never had a “Bill sighting.” So, if you’re reading this article Mr. Clinton, she’d like to invite you to meet her at Lange’s for coffee. And if you’d like to autograph this article for her, that wouldn’t be bad either.