A hawk. A city. A love story.
Imagine Conan O’Brien pulling off a feature length doc where a Belgium boy –
fleeing his clueless dad’s insistence he become a lawyer – escapes to the Big
Apple, moonlights running a Manhattan hair salon in order to support his movie
muse detailing the unbelievable story of a large predator who gets his talons
on some pricey Central Park digs with views to die for. Whew!
In 1993 Frederick Lilien was
desperately trying to make something of his Gotham exile when he first spied
the creature: a wild red tail hawk hunting for a nest. The bird – dubbed “Pale
Male” by a female naturalist for his distinct plumage – eventually built his
nest near the rooftop of a expensive Fifth Avenue co-op building. In the course
of the next sixteen years Lilien would stake out the nest – along with an
astonishingly close-knit clan of New York bird lovers – producing a real life
love story with every possible peril and heart stealing beat, climaxing in an
unimaginable showdown when the Dracula’s castle like co-op board decides to
evict the nest.
Frederick Lilien spent a lovely
half hour with me, munching pastries and describing the origins of the best
bird story since The Parrots of Telegraph Hill.
“I was a typically
immature twenty-three-year-old who didn’t want to go to law school, but didn’t
have the guts to tell my father. Finally I screwed up the courage to write him
a letter from London explaining that I was going to New York to find myself.”
David Lamble: Why the hawk?
Lilien: I was already a nature lover – my father used
to take me on Sunday camping trips. I so hated my job at an Upper Eastside
Manhattan hair salon that when I saw the hawk in the tree I just decided to
realize a childhood dream to become a naturalist filmmaker.
Lamble: Why do think this story captured so many
hearts in Gotham?
Lilien: It was in some ways the perfect Hollywood
story – the nest on the co-op building created a natural theatre from which we
could spy on the hawk every day as he went about his business catching pigeons,
fighting off crows and trying to start a family.
Lamble: You get a lovely third act star turn when
Mary Tyler Moore – a resident of building – decides to mobilize the tabloid
press in favor of the hawk.
Lilien: She had not been present when the board first
acted to remove the nest, but then she mobilized and went down in the street to
talk to the press on behalf of the bird, climaxing with an appearance on David
Lamble: What did you learn about your adopted
Lilien: New Yorkers never give up. Despite the
incredible cold weather they mobilized every day -- wearing bird costumes,
picketing the building and rallying the media.