NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
Marg Helgenberger’s Guilty Pleasure is NYC (and we have the evidence to prove it)
CSI’s Marg Helgenberger loves New York for the accents, the street vendor hot dogs, the hotel bars, the three B’s, and…How much time do you have?
April 15, 2007
American Way Magazine
By Sarah Hepola
Marg Helgenberger grew up in a tiny Nebraska town – North Bend, population 1,200 – but left as soon as she could. “I got my Social Security card at the age of 11 because I knew I needed to make some money,” says Helgenberger, 48, a veteran actress best known for playing forensic scientist Catherine Willows for seven seasons on the top-rated CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. While growing up in Nebraska, she paid her dues working in the soybean fields, in the cornfields, and even in a meatpacking plant. At 23, she found herself in New York to join the cast of Ryan’s Hope. She now lives in Santa Monica with her husband and her son, but she still thrives on the energy of the East Coast’s cultural center. No fewer than five times during our interview, she ended some anecdote with, “I don’t know, I just love New York.” And it wasn’t for lack of something to say – quite the opposite. She was so jazzed about New York that she scheduled a second interview just to talk about it a bit more. “I love how everywhere you turn, there’s something new,” she says. “There’s a surprise right in front of you on every corner.”
You lived in New York when you were younger, right?
In the ’80s. I lived on the Upper West Side. I was right out of college, which is a good time to live in the city. Anytime is good, but that is a particularly good time. And I happened to move there with a job. I was going to school at Northwestern University, and a casting scout saw me in The Taming of the Shrew. Who would have thought that would happen? And before I knew it, there I was, in a soap opera.
That was Ryan’s Hope. Where did it film?
It’s no longer on the air, but it shot at two different locations: at a tiny little studio on 51st between Ninth and Tenth avenues, and at a new studio near the Hudson River, which is now where The View shoots. I’ve been on The View many times. Every time I go back there, I see the same crew guys; it’s a time warp. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, visiting my roots, but I have gotten so nostalgic again for New York.
What do you miss about New York when you’re not there?
Walking around the city. It just makes you feel stimulated. I miss the people, their energy and directness. They’re up-front in the way they deal with you. I love all New York accents, and I think New Yorkers have a pretty sophisticated wit. In California, you’re either at your home or at your job or alone in your car. In New York, you’re always around people. You have to see people.
Do you get recognized in New York? I’m especially curious about whether you get recognized by crime-scene investigators or by police?
I guess I do. I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s an overabundance of that. About a month after 9/11, I was coming to New York to do some publicity, and I wanted to go down to ground zero. They weren’t letting people down there yet. But I knew a guy in Los Angeles who had been with the NYPD, and I asked him if there was anyone he could call. The guy he put me in contact with was in charge of the Port Authority recovery mission, and his name was Lt. John Ryan. It was the most memorable experience of my life – to be down there, at that time, when things were still smoldering and falling apart. I get teary just talking about it. That day, I ended up having lunch at the firehouse with all these firefighters, and honestly, I’ll never forget it. John Ryan still sends me a Christmas card every year, and I send him the latest CSI DVD. That’s been since the second season, so he has a lot of DVD’s.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. When you visit New York, where do you stay?
I always stay at the Loews Regency Hotel. It’s old-school, really great service, a New York tradition. And it’s just one block from Barneys, so that can’t be bad. There’s a salon right around the corner called Mindardi. The guy who does my hair on CSI used to work there, so I have him hook me up with a nice blowout. What woman doesn’t want a nice blowout? Especially if you want to go out to some special place for dinner.
What restaurants do you especially like?
I recently went back to Babbo, which is good. I like Italian, period, and I love Italian accents. Another great little Italian place is a restaurant in Midtown called Osteria Serafina. And I still like grabbing hot dogs off the street. They hit the spot.
How does Marg Helgenberger take her street-vendor hot dog?
Mustard only. Sometimes with relish. Back when I lived there, I used to get it with sauerkraut. I can’t handle that now. Though I still think I can handle things, which is why I was drinking Patron last night. I went to see Talk Radio on Broadway last night, which was so great, and it’s set in the ’80’s, during the time when I lived there, so it brought on lots of nostalgia. I went out with the play-wright, Eric Bogosian, and Liev Schreiber, who was so great in it – you know, I worked with him on CSI – and we were out late. Ugh. Why do I still think I’m 23?
How many shots of Patron did you have?
Shots? I didn’t have shots! No, no, I was drinking Patron with soda and lime. I haven’t had shots in I don’t know how long. Well, no, wait, yes I do. It was with Quentin Tarantino and the Wu-Tang Clan.
No, you did not.
[Laughs] Quentin directed our Season Five finale, and he’s friends with the RZA. After the shoot, we went to the Palms Hotel and then on to this really swinging place. It was really special. But you don’t want to hear about that; that’s Las Vegas, not New York.
Honestly, I could hear about that all night. But we’ll get back to the subject. What’s your favorite New York bar?
Now that I’m a mother, I don’t really go to bars. I like the Library, in the Regency Hotel. It’s really cozy, with paneling and bookshelves. Feinstein’s is the Regency’s piano bar. They have a lot of really great people. Keely Smith – she’s a jazz singer who was married to Louis Prima – is there quite often. Diahann Carroll, Betty Buckley, even Donny Osmond! And I like hotel bars; I always have. They make you feel like you’re on a vacation, even if you’re not. There’s a mysterious feeling to hotel bars. I don’t like a scene; I’m not into it. I just like a regular bar – something to eat. God knows you need something in your stomach.
Where do you go shopping?
You know, I’m fond of the three B’s: Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman, and Bloomingdale’s. But going downtown is a whole other experience. There was a cool shop I happened upon in a Nolita called Hable Construction. It’s a tiny little shop owned by sisters – one of whom happens to be a fabric designer – and they make tchotchkes and pillows. When I was renovating my house, I used some of their fabrics, and one day, as I was walking down Elizabeth Street, lo and behold, there it was: Hable Construction. [The store in Nolita has since closed, but there’s another one open in the West Village.] That’s why I love to go into that area: It’s so arty and unexpected. You’ll find housewares next to clothing stores next to bodegas next to comic-book stores. Also on Elizabeth Street, too, is a place called Me&Ro, where they make great gold and silver jewelry with Sanskrit engravings and with a tiny little stone or a tiny diamond. I practice a lot of yoga, and I used to practice aikido, so I’m into that whole vibe.
There’s this leather-goods shop that apparently has been there for 20 years, according to the guy behind the desk. It’s called Peter Hermann, on Thompson Street. And it’s the kind of place where you see one thing in the window, and then while you’re paying for it, you see something else and then something else. There are great antique shops downtown. I stopped into one and bought a lamp, which they’re shipping to me. The place is called Paterae, and they have great lamps and chandeliers; it’s on Broome Street. And I went into a cool little stationery store called Greenwich Letterpress, which is on Christopher Street. I just can’t get over how much that street has changed from what it was like in the ’80’s. Back then, it was basically all shops for gay men; now it’s stationery shops and moms pushing their strollers.
Oh, and one last one I wanted to mention because the guy who owns the place was really cool. It’s called the Lively Set, and it’s this fun, funky antiques place on Bedford Street. It reminds me of that scene in Borat where he walks into the antique Civil War shop and starts destroying everything. In fact, the owner told me that last year Ashton Kutcher walked in, and the owner was worried he was going to get punked and that everything in the store was going to get broken. But as it turns out, Ashton was just another shopping tourist.
What’s your favorite museum?
I love the MoMa. I went to it about a year ago, after their big renovation. I actually explored some of the floors that I’d never seen before, the more contemporary art, as opposed to the impressionistic, which is kind of eye candy. And I could appreciate it now that I’m older. Fancis Bacon really stands out in my mind – so vivid and visceral. I love the Met, too, but I think you have to go with specific goals. Otherwise, it’s way too overwhelming.
If friends of yours had only a weekend to spend in New York, what would you tell them they had to do?
If there were a good play or musical going on, that would be on the list. I saw Grey Gardens on Broadway, and Christine Ebersole is brilliant in that. It’s one of those legendary Broadway performances. And I saw Spring Awakening, which I loved. Those kids just had this incredible excitement and exuberance. Or to go to some cool dance company would be great, as well, because there are so many great dancers and dance companies in New York. Obviously, a walk through Central Park. I especially love the Central Park Zoo. I think we’d head downtown and just explore, because it’s so completely different from Midtown, and it’s so much more intimate and funky and special, and there are so many pockets of ethnicity and artistry and people. People are just cool in New York. They’re hip and sophisticated and self-assured. You have to be tough to be in this city. Not in an aggressive way, but you have to be a take-charge person.
Way back when, my mother would visit me in New York, and that’s when I’d go and do the touristy things, like visit the Statue of Liberty, which I’d like to do again. The Empire State Building? Eh, I don’t know about that. It’s just one tall building. But the Statue of Liberty is interesting. You take a boat ride out there. And the UN is a fascinating place to visit. People kind of forget about it, because it’s so far east. But it’s pretty interesting. Riverside Park is another place people forget about. I used to go there all the time when I lived on the Upper West Side. I love waters and rivers. I grew up in a town that was on a river, so the Hudson is calming to me. And I hear they’ve cleaned up the Riverside Park quite a bit. Oh, and, wow, Union Square Park! I just went there the other day, on Friday; I couldn’t believe how lively it was. It was amazing. The city is an amazing turn-on. I just can’t seem to get enough of it.
*Thanks to Kelly Willows for transcribing this article. You can also find a scan of the article here.