Growing up, I clocked a lot of time at Sardi’s, the landmark restaurant in New York City’s theater district that is home to one of the most famous portrait galleries in the world. My grandfather, an attorney for artists, had a standing lunchtime reservation there, and he worked hard to ingratiate himself with Vincent Sardi—even, supposedly, handling some divorce work for the restaurateur. Still, these machinations did not earn him a place in the Sardi’s hall of fame. The Sardi’s caricatures, with their exaggerated features—depicting everyone from Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball to Oscar Hammerstein—weirded me out, but they also instilled in me a lifelong fascination with restaurant and hotel portrait galleries.
Even as a kid I knew that they were a coded map to power, and that having one’s picture up on the wall really mattered to a certain breed of adult. When management would move the pictures around (or, worse, banish one entirely) in accordance with the ebb and flow of their subjects’ successes, the reshuffling prompted all sorts of glee and schadenfreude among other customers. It was an idiosyncratic spectator sport.
These days, in the era of #MeToo, the musical chairs politics of such portrait galleries has accelerated, as scores of former masters of the universe have become pariahs overnight. Pictures of offenders have been hastily removed from restaurant and hotel walls across the country, leaving bare spots and dangling wires behind. Read more in this story about the famous portrait galleries around the world in this moment of upheaval.