By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
GRAMERCY PARK — The venerable National Arts Club recently honored Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough, had standing-room only for a "Macbeth" soliloquy by Liev Schreiber and hosted a black-tie party for Philippe de Montebello, the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But the veneer created by parties for Manhattan's art-power-money set masks what insiders describe as a fraying organization run at the whim of board president O. Aldon James — a man known to favor bow ties, exotic birds and pink eyewear.
Allegations against James include that he has inappropriately rented some of the club’s apartments located at its landmark Tilden Mansion at 15 Gramercy Park South to trustees at below market rents and that he is secretly using apartments to hoard his personal junk.
James and the club's PR firm and lawyer declined numerous requests to comment. While many members of the club's board of trustees also declined to comment, some went on the record to defend James, pointing out that he doesn't take a salary for all the work that he does at the club. But other board members and employees have described "crazy" behavior, "out of the blue" firings and furtive dealings regarding nearly 40 apartments.
"Our president has gone from eccentric to totally crazy," said a current board member, who claims to have tried several times to get James to hand over financial records about the apartments and the club.
The National Arts Club and Tilden Mansion are located at one of Manhattan's most exclusive addresses, overlooking the gated Gramercy Park. But the club's most recent tax records show that James is leasing an apartment in the historic Calvert Vaux-designed mansion to his twin brother, John, for $356 a month. An 800-square-foot two-bedroom apartment next door at 13 Gramercy Park South is on the market for $6,500 a month, according to Corcoran.
John James, who served five years' probation and three months in a psychiatric hospital for past tax misdeeds at the club, is not the only person close to the president who has gotten a steal. Tax filings from 2008-09 show that James' friend Steve Leitner, a real estate lawyer and fellow board member, paid $858 a month for another apartment.
Aldon James himself paid $1,143 a month, according to the filing. Three other trustees paid $7,600, $4,392 and $2,380 in monthly rent, the records showed.
"We are not sure why people are allowed to live there," said a former club member who requested anonymity. "There is no formal application process for living there, and certainly not all of the tenants are artists."
Two former employees of the club provided DNAinfo with photos of the club's interiors. Some, purportedly taken in December, show 10 of the apartments allegedly being used by the James brothers and Leitner to hoard lamps, paintings, books and other assorted junk. The date the photos were taken could not be verified, but sources confirmed they were of club apartments. Other photos give a glimpse of alarmingly messy offices from 2009. Some of the pictures had been previously posted on Flickr.
"It's a fire hazard and health hazard to the club,” said Miguel Serrano, who worked at club's front desk for a decade before being fired on Dec. 17. "If these guys keep doing this for 10 more years, that building will be destroyed."
Luis Garcia, a former assistant to Aldon James, photographed loose papers strewn across every available surface in an office where he worked in 2009.
A Jan. 7, 2010, inspection by the fire department resulted in a violation for obstructed exits and hallways, according to an FDNY spokesman. The spokesman said that if fire inspectors had deemed the building unsafe, they would have shut it down.
While the mess has been an ongoing issue so, too, has erratic firings.
Guy Frazier, a former nine-year board member, said Aldon James would "from time to time" terminate employees "out of the blue." That includes the firing of Serrano and another longtime worker who was cut loose on Christmas Eve — moves that shocked Frazier.
Frazier also said that Aldon James has been "under assault for years."
Shortly after James took the reins as club president in 1985, he fought tenants over rent-stabilization at the club, which resulted in the eviction of four elderly tenants. Seven other tenants were later ousted for supporting rent stabilization, according to news reports.
Still, Frazier felt the National Arts Club was lucky to have Aldon James, whom he described as an extremely well-connected New York power broker. He called James "the right man" to be running the club, commending him for maintaining the "soul" of the place.
"In some ways, people think we're the greatest place since chopped liver," Frazier said. "Others think, 'What a loony bin.'"
The club has more than doubled its membership under James' leadership. Martin Scorcese, Robert Redford and Uma Thurman are among its members, according to the club's website.
James and other board members do not take a salary.
Board member Arnold Davis said he's known the James brothers for "100 years" and that he would back Aldon James "100 percent."
Davis said trustees were "very informed" about the apartments, adding that the board approved the James brothers' rents "because they do not get any salary."
Still, he didn't know what the National Arts Club's apartments were going for.
That potential misuse of apartments by trustees could raise red flags with nonprofit laws.
"Charities are prohibited from operating for the private benefit of those who control them," like a board of trustees, said NYU Law School Prof. Jill Manny, who's also executive director of the school's National Center on Philanthropy and the Law.
Compensation for services rendered is allowed, Manny explained, but the amount "must reflect the market rate for the services" and "should be included in a written agreement entered into prior to the date that the services commence."
It must also "be properly treated for income tax purposes both by the charity and by the service provider," Manny said.
The club's tax documents did not list the apartments as compensation.