Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sister Rosario

By the end of the fourth season, Shelly Morrison was basically the only Will & Grace character who didn't make me cringe.

Perhaps it was because she was the only one who didn't seem to be playing a six-year-old; perhaps it was because of all the good feelings about her I had stored up from early childhood:

In any case, I wish they'd given her a talk show!

Picture This: Gerald Murphy

Sara and Gerald Murphy were the "very rich" whom Hemingway said "are different from you and me."

They lived on inherited money and illusions, and they did it well, in fine style on the Riviera at their Villa America. Their lives, though, were more complicated than the sunny picture above might make you think. "If it weren't for the invented life," Gerald asked, "how could we bear the real life?" They loved and lost two sons (Dorothy Parker spent the better part of a year with them in Switzerland, watching one die of tuberculosis; she never said an unkind word about them, which says something), they loved each other deeply, but Gerald had an eye that roved to men...

And in the midst of it all, he painted. Just a handful of pictures - 14, and only 7 survive - as if his only goal were to prove that if he wanted he could have been the Great American Artist, and having done so, had had enough. Still, they are very lovely paintings.

Watch, 1925

Wasp and Pear, 1929

Razor, 1924

In a world in which living well now means some flashy blend of Paris Hilton and Emirati excess, the kind of hedonism the Murphys practiced - cultured, thoughtful, witty, and kind - seems very far away. And that's a shame.

A Speedy Recovery to Dame Shirley

Oh, dear - one of the Café's favorite Great Ladies, Dame Shirley Bassey, has had to have emergency surgery. We trust she will make a fast recovery and return to her usual fabulousness.

Dame Shirley Bonus #1: Anyone, by this point, who hasn't seen this needs to immediately.

Dame Shirley Bonus #2: The following Fun Fact: Dame Shirley is surprisingly popular in Egypt, despite the fact that - or perhaps because? - it seems that in Egyptian Arabic, "Shirley Bassey" means "take off my underpants" (!).

Friday, May 30, 2008

Art for the Masses

It's an oldie-but-goodie, I know, but some mornings it helps to look at things through the eyes of the Warholizer...

Meeting of the Minds

Fabulous, fabulous, fabulous. The joy of coordinating, age-appropriate sheath dresses; the joy of two performers with absolutely nothing in common trying to make it work.

Two thoughts:

- Was Miss Peg using some primitive form of botox? she seems oddly impassive throughout, especially from the brows up.

- The only thing I don't miss about variety shows: the dreaded amusingly re-written lyrics. The kind of people who used to be employed butchering perfectly good songs are now, I believe, the same ones who write awards-show patter.

But in any case, enjoy. And cringe. And enjoy...

Image du Jour: The Divine Sarah

Sarah Bernhardt, by Nadar, 1864

When my Grandmother was a very young woman, and Sarah Bernhardt a very old one, the former saw the latter, on stage in, of all places, Pittsburgh, PA. It was a benefit during the War (the first one; doesn't that seem far away?), and she was performing for France. She was tiny, Grandmother said, and was carried in on a kind of sedan chair, for she had only one leg. She was indescribable, she said.

One War later, and my grandmother herself lost a leg, to blood poisoning; oddly, although she wasn't living there, also in Pittsburgh, PA. If she hadn't been one of the first civilian recipients of penicillin, I would never have known someone who saw Sarah Bernhardt.

At least, said my Grandmother, smoothing her skirt over her artificial leg, I knew I was in good company.

Over the Borderline

Basically, the only thing thing that the Dubai border has in common with the Madonna song quoted as the title of this post are the lines

You cause me so much pain,
I think I'm going insane...

Yes, for various reasons, Mr. Muscato and I have been having to dart back and forth between here and Dubai a lot lately. It's actually not a terrible drive, although more than a litle dull, but the process of crossing there and back again really falls apart on the Emirati side.

This being a very tidy and appearance-minded Sultanate, our side of the border looks like the photo above - large convenient parking lot, a most substantial border post building (complete with coffee shop, convenience store, and even a Pizza Hut Express, although, alas, also with the lamentable bathrooms that will themselves, you lucky things you, be the subject of some future post), and even drive-through service for routine travel.

On the other side awaits the Horror. Despite priding itself on the biggest, tallest, newest, and generally mostest of the most, the Emirates apparently labor under the impression that the only people tragic enough to travel by land are the unlucky truck drivers of many nations who are forced to cool their heels (if nothing else, believe me) outside the tiny trailers in which the sullen immigration officers sit.

The border post is nothing more than a wide spot in the road, with parking that vies for space with trucks, lines of waiting visa applicants, and a number of seemingly permanently broken-down official vehicles.

The impression, by the way, doesn't get all that much better after you finally clear the various bureaucratic hurdles and get motoring again. The towns on the way to the metropolis are scrappy little settlements straggling along the main road, each with a strip of dispirited shops selling bad pottery, cheap rugs, and nasty-looking furniture. It's only when the Burj Dubai, for the moment the world's tallest building, looms into view out of the dust that you realize that you're in the fabled land of the future.

And now I've got that damn song stuck in my head (Keep pushing me, keep pushing me, keep pushing my loooooooooove.....). It's always something.

On the Café Menu

It's a fine weekend morning here, and I've been considering things culinary in the Café's kitchen.

Mr. Muscato and I have been eating out a great deal lately, and perhaps we've had a run of bad luck or perhaps it's a sign of the fallen times in which we live, but my goodness don't some restaurants - including many that should know a great deal better - serve up a disgusting Sauce Hollandaise?

In some places it's lemony library paste; in others it appears to have been made by adding red pepper to raw egg yolks. All this makes us that much happier that the Café Muscato relies so heavily on the old standbys taught us at our mother's and grandmothers' knees, and that we exclusively prepare the kind of Hollandaise popularized by the marvelous Miss Julia Child, seen here in the full flower of her gifts:

Hammer Time!

Miss Child has had a special place in my heart for a very long time, if for no reason other than her response to a journalist's query as to the secret of her long, healthy life: "Gin and butter!"

Sauce making, done correctly, is an exercise involving all the senses; it is both a kind of high-wire act, involving the need for split-second decisions, and infinitely calming. And at the end you have something that ennobles the simplest foods. If you haven't had a nice Hollandaise lately and can't drop by here in the next day or two, why don't you try this:

  • Whisk three egg yolks and a tablespoon each of water and lemon juice in the top of a double-boiler;
  • Continue to whisk at reasonable speed, slowly raising the heat, reaching all over the bottom and insides of the pan to avoid having mixture become overcooked and lumpy. The mixture will slowly become lovely and frothy, both increasing in volume and thickness. When the eggs are thick and smooth, turn the heat off or very far down;
  • By spoonfuls, add up to two sticks of very soft butter, whisking constantly to incorporate each addition. As you proceed, and the sauce becomes itself, you will find you can add the butter in slightly larger amounts, but always whisking in each new addition until it is fully incorporated;
  • When you have a lovely, velvety, silky sauce, you now have a few moments to adjust the final flavor to your taste. Still whisking, season the sauce lightly with salt and a dash or so of cayenne pepper. A little final lemon juice can add more tang, or a quick grind of black pepper will sharpen things up nicely.

Hollandaise is, of course, a classic with asparagus and an essential ingredent of Eggs Benedict, both of which we adore. It's equally lovely, however, over delicate fish, with perfectly steamed green beans, or, as in my own kitchen in more indulgent moments, licked reflectively from fingers while reading Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


...has a lovely personality... frequently a bridesmaid...

...knows better than any of us:

It's Barbie's world. Midge just lives in it.

C'est tellement simple, l'amour...

Have you seen this movie? If not, you now know what you should do this weekend. Beyond sublime.

It stars, of course, Arletty, the very definition of the very French concept of jolie-laide - not really classically beautiful, but mesmerizing. She is Garance, a lady of the stage and of the demi-monde (and whatever happened to that?), and she is heartbreaking.

She delivers the film's most famous line (see above) with a kind of supreme, attenuated world-weariness. She knows, in her heart, that it isn't true, that love is far from simple, but she has no choice but to believe...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"The Lady"

We try and keep things light here at the Café, but sometimes it's useful to be reminded that glamor comes in many forms, and that gallantry and courage exist outside old movies. It's a fouled-up world all right, but as long as there are outraged souls who won't back down, we've got a rope to cling to.

It's a Living

Do you suppose she ever wondered, just for a moment, just where it all started to go wrong?

Image du Jour: All Nude!


Great art can be so inspiring...

This is a snap from the museum on the Palatine Hill in Rome. In the words of the divine Countess de Lave, "Have you noticed the play of his muscles? Musical! Musical!"

Portrait Gallery: Elizabethiana

I find myself helplessly transfixed by Elizabethan portraits of young men - their elegance, their dressiness, their occasional messiness - tumbling curls, stubble, sense that there might be something under the fingernails. It's best when they wear a pearl earring, but, as here, a lace collar will do.

He might have been Robert Devereau, Earl of Essex. Or just some fop, as seen by Nicholas Hilliard. Either way, I'd take him.

When She Danced

Isadora was the first bra burner
Ain't you glad she showed up?

Exactly 131 years ago, in fact.

She was a great, tragic, troublesome, brilliant, stupid woman who Lived Large decades before it had a name and died, having earlier re-invented Dance and been a presiding spirit of Art Nouveau, into Legend: "Je vais à la gloire!" she cried, stepping into the open car in which, moments later, she would die, strangled by her extravagant silk scarves.

Proving, as Gertrude Stein remarked, that affectations can be dangerous.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Image du Jour: Kay Francis

I don't think I've gone on nearly enough about how I feel about Kay Francis. At some point, I'll probably have to tell you exactly how fabulous, misunderstood, and generally incredible she was.

Until then, bask in the beauty of this middle-late period still.

Attack of the Giant Knick-Knacks

Those responsible for beautifying public areas in Muslim countries face a challenge: in varying degrees, local sentiment frowns on depictions of human beings. Where I live, the challenge is especially acute, as the local leadership is extremely aesthetically minded and is intent on having the capital and other cities serve as showcases for local culture and progress.

The solution: instead of statues of historic figures and local notables, planners have settled on the sometimes odd practice of using giant versions of everyday items.

The result: traffic circles adorned with giant incense burners (I especially love this one because the coals glow red at night, very festive):

Or a globe, supported by mosaics depicting the glories of local history (in a surprising failure of imagination, it neither rotates nor light up particularly interestingly):

Or gilded coffeepots (sadly, here you can't see the smaller pots that surround these three, which are also fountains):

Or water jugs, which rather more naturally act as fountains:

It's a form of gigantism that creeps into other aspects of design, so that a water tower, for example, can be transformed into the largest incense burner of them all, looming unsettlingly on the horizon like a landing saucer:

There is, however, one notable exception to local practices on Graven Images: when they involve the Beloved Leader. Come November, 'round about the annual celebration of His Birthday, royal portraits grace every lampost, overpass, and large flat surface in the land:

Fortunately, he's not that hard to look at, especially compared to some of his neighboring sovereigns (ever had a look at some of them? They'd stop clocks). That's especially a good thing, as his portrait isn't just outdoors - it's everywhere. Shops, restaurants, offices, you name it, this is what you'll see:

Aren't you glad we don't do that back in the U.S.? Imagine having to see that every time you want to go shopping...

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Portrait Gallery: Queen Tiye

This yellow jasper head of an Egyptian queen - likely Tiye, mother-in-law of Nefertiti (among other accomplishments) - is one of the great treasures of New York's Metropolitan Museum.

All well and good - it also features one of the sexiest mouths anywere, ancient or modern. Just a few inches high, the fragment stops traffic.

Birthday Trifecta

Too much richness to choose from today on the birthday front, so I didn't.

Instead, let's just spend a few minutes thinking about three very different careers. Two of our ladies have moved on to thrill audiences in the great beyond; the last is still on this mortal plane (as much as anyone recently touring in Hello, Dolly! can be).


When I was a child - an Opera Princess, as it were - I was fascinated by Beverly Sills - so American! So Funny! But so... Operatic! I did see her, once, in Philadelphia, in The Barber of Seville. How much yet more sublime it would have been had it been, as here, as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux.*

Sills joins the inevitable Miss Davis as the only, to me, truly convincing Elizabeths (yes, I'm looking at you, Miss Blanchett; Dame Judi's turn was a camp, and so doesn't really count).


Jeanne Crain may hold a somewhat less superstellar place in the celebrity firmament, but it was a fine enough career, the stuff of Photoplay covers if not all that much more, really.

I was going to write that at least she escaped, unlike many of her contemporaries, making a late-career shocker. Then I discovered she in fact headlined what must be a nifty little picture, one that although forgotten now is, titlewise, right up there with the best of the worst: 1971's The Night God Screamed. One can only imagine.


Finally, a Great Lady of the Stage, still trouping: Miss Leslie Uggams. It was never as big a career as it could have been (she is big; it's the musicals that got small), but she's working, and there's a lesson for us there somewhere, kiddies.

*Remind me someday to tell you my story about Beverly Sills's ring. Total diva heaven.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


Why not slow down for a moment today and consider the glory of Lena Horne?

She sings "Moon River" as if she were just thinking of it, glorious in Louise Brooks wig, pencil sheath, and just a pearl or two.

Mr. Hudson Ponders

I don't know about you, but I always sit around the rec room in my trunks, ogling Burl Ives records. What I don't understand is what part of that wholesome activity requires licking ones fingers as if turning a page...

But no matter. Wasn't he lovely?

Princess Royal

Poor Princess Anne. She's the Hardest Working Woman in Royal Business, and yet these days she seems increasingly to be thought of as "who's that woman in drag near the Queen?" because of her recent penchant for appearing in one of the various uniforms that comes with her position:

But the fact is that she works remarkably hard, albeit at tasks that principally require being attentive, responsive, and punctual. As anyone who has worked in sales can attest, however, those are not exactly a piece of cake.

She has to listen endlessly to people withot visibly ridiculing their ponytails:

She must be unfazed, even by choirboys in crypts*:

She has to keep her composure, even when presented with the fairly appalling spectacle of the Prime Minister of Fiji's calves:

Looking at her today, with her severe suits and rather uncompromising taste in hair color, it's easy to forget that she was once a tow-headed child of undeniable charm:

And even more that she had a season or two, after her stint at the Olympics and around the time of her first marriage, as a genuine beauty:

Still, few families understand image as well as hers. Given the remarkable vigor show by her mother, grandmother, and various other female relatives, it's quite likely that she'll go on visiting orphanages, riding in processions, and opening hospitals for the next forty years or more.

There's something comforting in knowing that in all that time, she will look more or less like this:

*I rather like, by the way, that one of the most tireless campaigners for children in the world is reputed not to be very fond of them ("You don't have to like them to be interested in their welfare," she is supposed to have said). I'm also impressed that she does what she does with neither the fawning publicity that accompanied her late sister-in-law nor the slightest trace of sentiment (another quote, when asked why she didn't engage in a little Diana-style hug-and-tickle with the kiddies: "The very idea that all children want to be cuddled by a complete stranger I find utterly amazing.").

Friday, May 23, 2008

Image du Jour: Centaur

I try, as a matter of principle, not to get involved in the madness that is the annual Eurovision Song Contest (fearing it is the kind of thing that could take over one's life), but I found myself arrested by this image, in today's London Telegraph, of one of the entrants.

Perhaps it's just because Mr. Muscato and I finally got around to seeing Narnia last night (labored and somehow not quite over-the-top enough), but I can't help thinking that an all-white-tap-and-tails number, à la Fred and Ginger, would spice up almost any of the burgeoning number of fantasy films now making the rounds...

Photography Lessons

Lesson One: Photographing the Difficult Subject

Once there was a big star; the first really big star, in fact, on radio: Kate Smith.

Trouble was, Kate was big in more ways than one. She had a figure just made for radio:

When she wanted to go into pictures, her avoirdupois became something of an issue. The studio's still photographers did all they could to flatter and to minimize. As above, they tried polka dots.

They supplemented busy little patterns with distracting foreground objects - flowers came in very handy:

When a full length study was required, they combined even busier prints with props that were both oversized and patriotic (she was, after all, the singer who debuted "God Bless America"):

In the end, though, there was only so much that could be done. Kate's screen debut, 1933's Hello, Everybody!, in which she played the challenging role of "Kate Smith", was not a success. Even so, her populaity continued for the rest of her life, and she's still fondly remembered.

Bonus #1: I bet you never knew that Kate had been a flapper in vaudeville:

Bonus #2: For a look at how television, several decades later, dealt with some of these same issues (with the gallant assistance of Bob Mackie), I strongly suggest that you click here now. You will not regret it, however giddy it makes you.

Image du Jour


Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra - just because.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Marry Me a Little...

Thinking of Forster, and Egypt, reminds me of how lucky I was to find Mr. Muscato that fine evening not far from the Nile almost five years ago. The good news from California makes me wish we could be there in a couple of weeks so we could get formally hitched.

In the meantime, all combine to remind me of this snap: flowers and our rings on the nightstand of a Cairo hotel. We knew what was going on within a couple of days, but held off on the rings for almost a year.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Portrait Gallery: "Only Connect"

Here we have E.M. Forster - author, traveler, and genteel Confirmed Bachelor - by Sir William Rothenstein.

Actually, he had a rather tumultuous life for someone so congenitally mild-looking, including an affair with an Egyptian tram conductor that became his Great Love, as well as a happy and longstanding ménage in later life with a London policeman.

I cherish Forster not just for his novels - who can resist the von Schegel sisters? - but for his travel writing and especially for his deep and abiding fascination with the city of Alexandria. He helped give the world Cavafy, and in its turn that helped give us Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.

Have you been to Alexandria lately? When you go, you must have coffee at the Trianon at the Hotel Metropole and then walk past Ramla Station toward the Royal Jewelry Museum. When a tram passes, you might see a tweedy Englishman making discreet eyes at the conductor...

Dark Lady

Somehow in all the excitement this week, we managed to overlook a major event: Cher's birthday. She was 2,435 years young and still as thrilling as ever. Rather than making snide remarks about Cher looking plastic, I thought we'd look at Chers that actually are.

The original Cher doll, produced by a company called Mego, was Barbie's first serious rival. She was a little taller - which meant annoyingly incompatible fashions - but she was also... moodier. Fiercer. Frankly - trannier:

This being Early Period Cher, she was of course inevitably accompanied by Sonny:


Bob Mackie dressed Doll Cher, just like the real one:

Nonetheless, for some reason, almost all the Cher dolls currently on the market end up wearing this:

Unless they've fallen on really hard times:

Mego followed up with a whole line of TV stars - Farrah and Miss Ross I remembered, but did you know about Suzanne Somers? The Captain and Tenille? Laverne and Shirley?

What fun it would have been to give Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams makeovers in the more glam stars' outfits, or equally to en-frump Diana! Anyway, you can find out much more about all this over at the Mego Museum, and you really ought to.