ENTERING LIZ ROSENBERG’S sprawling apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side is like happening upon a meticulously curated and almost entirely nonsensical mini-museum — a beautifully appointed gallery in which collections of antique head-shaped vases share space with a miscellany of organized dolls, and where shelves of ceramic 1950s spaghetti poodles square off against a wall of sparkly red lips in every variety, size, shape, and shade of red. It’s a space in which carefully presented food is front and center, arrayed in every possible configuration and accommodating every potential craving. And yet none of it is actually edible. The curiosities housed here reflect a very particular sensibility and sense of humor that is as warm, funny, and unpredictable as Rosenberg herself, who has spent the better part of the past five decades amassing and quietly perfecting her collection. “I absolutely get tremendous joy coming back into my house and seeing all these things on my walls,” says Rosenberg, gesturing around the apartment. “I’m also very sentimental, and so many of these pieces have a story attached to them. I think of my things as sort of toys for grown-ups. Some people get fancy cars, I get fake food.”
While all her various collections delight in their own ways, it’s Rosenberg’s assortment of fake food that is the true pièce de résistance. Walking through her dining room, one is confronted with heaping plates of burgers, shiny slabs of saucy ribs, stacks of cakes and candies, piles of scooped ice cream, milk frozen mid-pour into bowls of fruit loops, and hot dogs as far as the eye can see that are cast and arranged in every possible iteration. The displays of culinary fakery range from the disturbingly realistic to the weirdly fanciful — food ornaments mingle with the crystals of an overhead chandelier and trompe-l'œil chocolate kisses, and candy bars festoon the parquet floors that lead into her kitchen. Food-related ephemera and food art are tucked into every nook and cranny of the space. Rounding the corner into a guest room, an operational child-sized Oscar Mayer Wienermobile sits parked at the ready.
Asked to consider the possible roots of her fake-food fixation, Rosenberg responds as someone who has already given the subject a fair amount of thought. “I always had a very difficult relationship with food; it was very love-hate,” she says. “I was always on a diet. When I would see fake food in restaurants or in stores, I thought that if I just had some beautiful desserts — some lovely cakes — I could just look at them, and then I wouldn’t have to eat them. And from there, it just started to grow. I went to flea markets and looked around everywhere. Sometimes you’d find yourself in a furniture store and you might see fake food being used as part of a display, so I’d ask if I could buy it, even though it might just be a little bowl of fake nuts or something.”
Asked if she has a favorite fake meal floating around, Rosenberg laughs and shakes her head. “I mean, I do have a lot of fake hot dogs, which I suppose could be a very Freudian thing,” she says. “But it would be hard to choose. I will say that I appreciate the more fattening fake food, things like ice cream. I do have some lovely fake green salads, but they just don’t have quite the same appeal. Looking at a plate of cheeseburgers, however, is pretty thrilling to me.”
For anyone who knows her well, the whimsical nature of Rosenberg’s collection makes total sense. She is funny, warm, and an amazing storyteller, always quick with a mind-blowing anecdote from her many years of working in the music business. For anyone who might not know her personally, her reputation as one of the most famous and formidable publicists in the industry definitely precedes her. “I always think it’s funny when people say they were afraid of me,” she laughs. “I’m like, really? Being a publicist can be a lot like being a salesman, but it's also a lot of caretaking and reality-checking if you're good at it. It’s not about being mean.” Having personally shepherded the careers of Cher, Stevie Nicks, and, very famously, Madonna, it would be easy to assume that collecting things would provide a welcome respite from the rigors of tending to demanding pop stars. Still, even as a hobby, collecting is something that Rosenberg has approached with a certain amount of seriousness.
“There's nothing like being at a gigantic flea market with tons of fabulous, shitty stuff, and all of a sudden you go, ‘Oh my God, there it is.’ It’s about seeing that thing that says, ‘Yes, take me home,’ or spotting that one little treasure among all the junk,” she says. “But no matter where you find all of these things, I think it’s very, very important to be respectful of the objects. When we expanded this apartment many years ago, we had an interior designer help us. I remember her saying to me, ‘Well, we have to do something for your installations.’ And I was like, ‘What? What does that mean?’ I hadn’t thought of these things like that before — as installations of art objects — or that I’d been displaying them that way. But it occurs to me that if you’re going to go to all the trouble to collect these things, you owe it to the things to present them nicely.”
Aside from all the beautiful collections in Rosenberg’s apartment, one is equally struck by the warm narrative of the other objects. There are family photos, gifts from her esteemed clients (such as a glorious, bronzed art-deco shoe, gifted by Stevie Nicks), or the assorted pieces of incredible folk art scattered throughout. Standing in a guest bedroom, Rosenberg points out an airplane made entirely from aluminum cans of Tab that soars above us, suspended beneath a ceiling painted to mimic a cloud-filled sky.
“When I'm in a house, even a really fabulous house, where there's nothing, I can start to hyperventilate at the minimalism of it,” she laughs. “It actually makes me feel a kind of despair. I'm like, ‘Oh, you've got nothing on the counter!’ Just ... why? I can't take it. Maybe I would gradually come to appreciate it, but don't you want a little something? I always go into houses like that and wonder, ‘Who is this person?’ At least when you come into this apartment, you get a real sense of who I am and what I love and what makes me happy. It may be crazy, but it’s definitely me.”
T. Cole Rachel Writer
T. Cole Rachel is the managing editor of Departures. A Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media, his writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Interview, and the Creative Independent.
Joshua Sanchez Photographer
Joshua Sanchez’s debut feature film "Four" won the Best Performance Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. He’s a member of the Writers Guild of America, East, and has contributed to the Guardian, the Creative Independent, and Lambda Literary.