Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Oh, Kay!

Miss Francis, just because we haven't seen her in a while. Seen here in one of her Pre-Code successes, although, judging from her expression, perhaps she's had a troubling glimpse into her future...

Record Time

Yes, I admit it. I am a gentleman of artistic tastes of a certain age. And, it seems, of a fairly specific demographic.

I have been reflecting on this while spending far too much time today on iTunes, becoming the proud owner (insofar, in this digital age, that one ever actually owns anything) of - and I suspect this won't exactly comes as a surprise - both the new Barbra and the new Madonna. It's only flaunting my age to note that I don't as yet, plan to get the new Whitney, Mariah, or Britney.

How are we ever going to explain, to a wondering future, the thrill of rushing to a record store to get the latest and greatest? I once spent the better part of a day - and a school day, to boot - waiting at Plastic Fantastic outside Philadelphia to bag a brand new Lene Lovich album. Now you just press a few buttons and it all comes rushing down the 'Tubes, in the Deluxe version.

Fun to have, but, in the words of a song that might as well be on Streisand's new collection of standards, The Thrill is Gone.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Star Power

Dalida, matchlessly splendid. Only the veil protects you from immolation by Total Glamour.

Good Night, New York

I ran across this photo the other day, and for no particular reason it took my breath away, bringing on a sudden wave of longing like I haven't had in years.

It's been more than a decade since I've lived there, more than enough time to have grown up and away from my youthful crush on the city and even to have had all it meant to live there mellow into something poised between nostalgia and a half-forgotten dream.

But then you see a picture like that, and it all comes rushing back, fierce and strong, washing away, if only for a moment, Africa and Egypt, sailing up the Nile and driving across Burkina Faso, meeting Mr. M., all the good and bad and really quite amazing that's happened, all of it paling in the memory of walking up Seventh Avenue late some weekend night, mischief afoot and the lights reflected in wet pavement and the gleaming shop windows.

Not to sound grand, but when I get in this mood I think about one of my favorite poems, "Ithaka" by C.P. Cavafy, the great Greek-Egyptian poet of urban melancholy. Like its hero, I think of my city as a goal, and somehow see myself after all again there:

...Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

You can read the whole poem, and, if you care to, learn about the remarkable man who wrote it, here.

I have a lovely life, but right now, to quote a rather less elevated source

New York is where I'd rather stay -
I get allergic smelling hay.*
I just adore a penthouse view;
Dah-ling I love you but give me Park Avenue!

*For which, substitute "sand".

Bein' Good isn't always Easy...

Just ask Dusty. In that outfit, I would think that being good is either impossible or beside the point.

Being fabulous, on the other hand? Inevitable.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Brief Encounter

"Really, Chet? What a coincidence - I'm wearing one, too!"

The Mrses. Grant

Poor dear Cary; such a complicated private life. He started with a luminous star, made immortal by Chaplin but essentially the celluloid version of a One Hit Wonder...

He continued as one of the two non-titled husbands of the World's Richest Girl, Princess Countess Mrs. Princess Sra. Baroness Princess Barbara Woolworth Hutton Mdivani von Haugwitz-Reventlow Grant Trubetskoy Rubirosa von Cramm Doan, seen here by Beaton...

...before moving on to a refreshingly simply named actress.

Who was followed, after a while, by a far less restful successor...

...before rounding things out with a granddaughter substitute.

But through it all, he never looked happier than when he bunked with the cowboy star who also shone in FredandGingerland. There's a lesson for us all there, but I'm too distracted at the thought of Randolph Scott in Barbara Hutton's tiara to think it through...

Lamé Ladies

Our favorite foursome, seen here taking their moniker a little too literally. I think, based on this snap, it's entirely possible that Betty White's hair is actually not able to be styled any differently.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Dream, Girl

In her black lace mantilla and matching collar and cuffs, the heavenly Hedy Lamarr is lost ... in a revery of Fabulon.

(If nothing else, I've always thought the career of La Lamarr proves definitively that Garbo could act; if it all were down to beauty alone, Hedy would have been the greatest star in history...)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

That's Mr. Egypt to You

Egypt's leading contender for world recognition in handsomeness pageants, the delectable Mr. Tarek Naguib, is sadly no more immune than his Bollywood counterparts to Questionable Fashion Choices.

This little ensemble raises two questions: how much larger would the wristwatch have to be before it actually affected his balance? And: would the outfit have looked more or less silly with the necktie tied (which brings up one more question: is that shirt actually cut so that it's physically possible to bring the top buttons together?)?

According to pageantcentric blog the beauty mania® (with its arguable tagline "everybody is born beautiful…™" - have they seen the Indonesian Mega Baby?), Tarek may be ditching the Manhunt franchise (still no word on this year's iteration, alas) to make a run at Mr. World. We wish him luck - and better stylists. With the raw material he's got, I think they should opt for a "less is more®™" philosophy, don't you?

A Rainbow Tour for Our Time

Between the UN General Assembly and the gathering of the G20 (oh, yes, I do keep up!), world leaders have been much in the news over the past week, and that, to me, raised one pressing question:

What of Cameroon's glamourous First Lady, Mme. Chantal Biya?

Well, she did indeed participate in some of the UN-related fun. There is, however, good news for Chantalites, and there's bad news.

The bad news, sadly, is that she has not that I've found been captured in all her glory in any of the assemblages of spouses that have taken place of late. But not all hope is lost, for the good news is that her comings and goings have at least been covered, albeit accompanied only with this highly inadequate shot, by her nation's doubtless unbiased, free, transparent, and neutral press.

Yes, thanks to the good work of the scribes at Cameroon Radio Television, we can know that no sooner had the divine Chantal and her essentially irrelevant husband, Paul, arrived at their "suit" at the Waldorf Astoria than "a large crowd of Cameroonians living in the United States of America that has converged to say welcome Mr. President made the atmosphere even more feastive." Due to security concerns, "the crowd staged their displays along the Park Avenue Way, a short distance from the entrance of the hotel."

That would indeed have been a sight to see on Gotham's fabled Park Avenue Way, just one block over from Madison Avenue Lane. Not least because, we learn, "Their songs were pregnant with goodwill messages, some urging the President to run for the next presidential elections due in 2011." What a coincidence, that these New York-based singers should steer so close to Mr. President's own agenda (and that of his exquisitely coiffed spouse)!

I hope she had a chance to get out and about on her own a little, see some of New York, maybe pick up a trinket or two. Imagine shopping at Tiffany - or Century 21, for that matter - and running into Chantal: could anything UN-related be more fabulous?

Pinin' for the Fjords Nile

Now, normally, few people are more immune to the charms of cute-animal videos than I. However, when faced with a parrot getting down to the beat of Egyptian popular-song star Saad el Sagheer, I find myself helpless.

I also found myself, on first viewing, trying to figure out just of whom it was that the manic avian ecdysiast reminded me. And then it hit: he's channeling the legendary Reverend Alecia!

Friday, September 25, 2009

"Adam-12, Adam-12: See the Birthday Boy"

Many happy returns of the day to perennial small-screen leading man Kent McCord, who along with partner in playacted-crime Martin Milner enlivened my childhood Saturday nights. Grandmother Muscato and I rarely missed an episode, and I suspect we both enjoyed it largely because of the eye candy, although it's not something we discussed (ditto on our shared fondness for Lyle Waggoner).

Adam-12 may have been McCord's career highlight, but he's gone to be a leader in the Screen Actors Guild and quite steadily employed, still not hard to look at in his late 60s and generally apparently an okay guy. Grandmother Muscato always did have good taste...

Niche Marketing

I'm going to guess that if you're living in, say, Omaha, this is likely not an ad that will appear when you're leafing through YouTube looking for amusing early talkie musical numbers. Here, it's a staple, along with various ads for Arabic music-video channels or Islamic televangelists (yes, they do exist, and yes, they're pretty much as annoying as, say, Rex Humbard or Mother Angelica, even if they don't rise to the heights of Jimmy Swaggart or legendarily flatulent Robert Tilton).

But even this doesn't seem as random as the lengthy listings in several local publications in which members of the NRI (non-resident, i.e. expatriate, Indian) community advertise their matrimonial intentions. It takes a while to get used to the idea of someone listing themselves as the "Christian Kerala boy, 37, clean and well-employed" looking for a bride, or for that matter the parents of "Educated Mumbai-origin girl, 28, MBA and own visa" hoping for the best by looking to a free pennysaver for their daughter's future.

But is it any odder, I suppose, in the end than Manhunt?

Honey, We're Home!

Well, our Eid mini-break was a smashing success, interrupted by moments of trauma and ending up with a domestic disaster.

Good stuff first: a lovely trip, really, visiting both the usual destination for depravity in these parts, Dubai, and several of its satellite emirates (one, Abu Dhabi, is actually the center off which the others, even Dubai - especially Dubai, these days - depend, but don't tell Dubai that). We lazed poolside at our favorite hotel and were pummelled into submission by large, stern Indian masseurs. We ate and, yes, drank immoderately. We shopped, we caught up on the local gossip (the general opinion: the bottom, although perhaps not yet here, may be in sight, although it's still dispiriting to see all the half-finished towers languishing), and in general we enjoyed life on a slightly larger scale than is generally possible in our own little Sultanate.

We also got lost, a lot, for signage is not always this region's long suit, especially given how frequently, up in the Emirates, construction has gone on well ahead of common sense, meaning that you will realize just as an exit ramp fades into the rear-view that the sign really meant... all very boring. On the other hand, we certainly did see parts of the various statelets that we would have missed by going direct from points A to B.

And let's not even talk about the traffic. Mr. Muscato and I agreed that one of the less salubrious developments over our time in this part of the world is that the Sultanate's drivers have in that time managed to catch up with and even exceed their neighbors in sheer badness of driving, with the local specialities - extreme tailgating and signal-free lane weaving - adding a very special frisson to the travel experience.

It's as if driving offered the normally congenitally mild-mannered and intricately polite local citizen an irresistably enticing outlet for aggression and rudeness, one which they seize with highly uncharacteristic gusto. When you're surrounded with worse drivers than those in Cairo or Dubai, you know you're facing some of the world's most challenging roads. Sadly, the local fatality statistics reflect the situation all too accurately, and I'm starting to be surprised that the Powers What Be, normally so concerned with maintaining the image of pristine perfection in regard to all things local, haven't taken more vigorous steps.

Our homecoming, alas, was not quite the idyll promised above by the euphoniously enamed Cyril Ornadel and his terribly formal-sounding Westminster Orchestra of London (which also seems vaguely redundant - one wouldn't expect, after all, a Westminster Orchestra of Bucharest, would one?). No, indeed; we instead were faced with a distraught Ermilia and tales of a broken pipe and an inundation that wreaked havoc upstairs, including completely flooding our cosy parlor.

The combination of the climate and the concrete construction used to create the Villa Muscato (and all its neighbors, for that matter) pretty much guarantees a slow drying-out and the possibility of vicious molds, but fortunately Ermilia is extremely resourceful and had already marshalled a platoon of plumbers, cleaners, and other necessities, likely minimizing the longer-term difficulties. As it is, we may be in the catbird-seat position of at last persuading the landlord to remove several rooms of regrettable wall-to-wall and possibly even a full bathroom makeover. We shall see.

The dog, of course, was quite delighted by the chaos and the chance, disgusting creature, to roll around on sodden rugs. It could all have been a great deal worse, but as it is we've lost a stack of books (don't you keep some handy in the bathroom?), will have distinctive strips of lost finish around the feet of various pieces of furniture, and will have to make unaccustomed use of our mostly-for-company downstairs drawing room until we regain possession of the flood zone. Bother.

But we've resolved not to let all that interrupt our enjoyment of our last day of Eid holiday, instead working to maintain our mini-break-induced zenlike calm so as to be ready for what promises to be a busy few months. Tomorrow it's back to the grindstone, and I for one don't plan to let a little extra water here and there distract me from a last day of lounging, reading, and a little something cooling. Just like Mr. Ornadel's be-peignoired pal up there, in fact.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Road Trip

Yes, it's true. Ermilia has been busy stuffing my best toilettes with tissue, the bags are out, and we've laid on the lap rugs and picnic hampers. While the Muscato Mobile may not be quite on the order of this lovely 1939 Delage Chaperon roadster, we are nonetheless off for a few days of motoring in the region, or at least of motoring interrupted with large doses of luxurious lethargy, the occasional bout of gluttony, and, one hopes, lashings of Champagne or what passes for it in these parts.

If the techno-gods allow, there might be a little checking in from parts yet more exotic, but if not, I trust you all to behave yourselves. Au reservoir!

Of Holidays, Pancakes, and Pronunciation

Hereabouts we have just launched into celebrating the Eid al-Fitr, the festival the marks the end of Ramadan. It's a good time for all, with (more) feasting, a return to daytime eating and drinking, and generally lots of going out, hanging out, and (respectable) carrying on.

To an English speaker, it's a bit of a challenge, pronunciation-wise. "Eid" is clear enough, with foreigners getting away with "eed" even though the "ei" actually stands in for the dreaded "ain", a letter the sound of which has no direct English parallel and which in the wrong hands can sound like a cat having its neck wrung ("ain" is responsible for much of the off-key nasal harshness that pops up with some Arabic speakers). "Fitr" is more troublesome, as there is, ideally, no vowel sound at all between the last two letters.

Thanks to a cranky and difficult colleague of days gone by, Mr. Muscato and I tend to giggle inappropriately when friends try to use the holiday's full name. This gentleman was the kind who makes one wonder why Americans ever think of venturing overseas: pompous, condescending, and extremely thick, all at once. He felt it necessary, one year, to gather the full staff of many nations together at our place of work to give us a little greeting before, grudgingly, sending us off on the long Eid break.

Throughout his turgid remarks, he might have wondered why they were being greeted with muffled coughing, muttering, and finally outright giggling. Fortunately (or not) he considered all of us, of whatever nationality, as at best The Staff and at worst The Natives, and simply went away, leaving the rest of us to fall about at his having, over and over, talked about the "Aid el Fateer" - turning the coming few days from "the feast at the end of fasting" to "the feast of pancakes," which in Arabic - trust me - is far funnier than the nearest English equivalent, which I suppose would be nattering on about "Christ's mask" or something like that.

But, in any case, we've, in the words of Ms Ciccone-Penn-Ritchey, made it through-oo-oo, and our little Sultanate is more or less closing down for the holiday's duration - the papers stop printing, offices are abandoned, and only the nightlife starts to gear up, preparing for another busy season. And we get to eat breakfast when the good lord meant us to, in the morning, noonish at the latest, and not at six-something in the evening.

For those celebrating, a happy and blessed Eid!

Pleasant and Effective

I have to believe that even the hardiest of late-Victorian marketers must have quailed at the prospect of having to peddle this to an unsuspecting public. What can you say? "Now in Fig - Only Half as Disgusting as Sarsaparilla!"?

News Flash

"Well, it mustn't get around, but... it's all true. Stephen Haines is stepping out on Mary. Her mother told me. Yes, that's right - the one with the strange ideas about swastikas..."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

When it Comes to Happiness...

I don't care; this is the kind of thing in the face of which I'm perfectly helpless. As so often, though, if you pay too much attention, it grows deeper and, inevitably, darker. Happy go lucky? Sometimes. Her own superintendent? Rarely, and least of all here, a star on the ascendent. And there's the way that the choreography - and Judy is too rarely praised for her gift for motion, if not, strictly speaking, for dance - seems just barely to be reining her in.

And that happiness? She didn't, at least consistently, have her share; but how much more she gave, and gives.


Superb. Eternal. Even when, for reasons unknown, sitting on the floor.

File Under "Exposition, Needlessly Complex"

Not to mention "Interrogatives, mispunctuated."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Birthday Goddess

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety...

Dear Diaries

As previously mentioned, I have been on something of a journal-tear of late, digging into a variety of diaries, mostly mid-twentieth century, and all quite, in very different ways, fascinating. The latest are early ones of one James Lees-Milne, an utterly English creation, great expert on country houses, a dabbler in louche adventures, and a friend of any number of fascinating creatures, many if not most titled, talented, or terrifying.

Among the last, if not all three, would have to be the late Queen Mary, who was more in the nature of an acquaintance. Having met the regal personage in the course of showing her around a charity exhibition, he describes her as "contradictory, splendid, and awful" even as he acknowledges her tremendous expertise in antiques and royal bibelots.

This first installment of his journals (which precede by several decades the more famous ones he wrote with publication very much in mind from the 1970s) start with a bang in the midst of the War and end up in the mid-fifties, after his highly advantageous and apparently quite happy marriage to a lady of means, the Viscountess Chaplin (herself hardly a dull creature and sometime intime of Vita Sackville-West, among others). As a result, we begin with air-raids, accounts of food shortages and wartime privations and end with our hero diving into bed with his wife in their villa on the Côte d'Azur. In between there are long stretches describing his travels around England as part of his work for the National Trust and any number of interesting encounters with everyone from the last surviving Edwardian hostesses and dandies to Prince Rainier ("I believe the Prince does not live in the Palace [where the Lees-Milnes have been lunching] but with a film star in a villa in Beaulieu...").

Toward the end of the volume, he reflects on his own character and writes that, with the passing years, he becomes "more and more fascinated by persons, places and things. I am a late developer more than most men of my generation and in some respects still quite adolescent, an opsimath indeed."

I love learning new words. In 1953, when Lees-Milne wrote that, he was just about my age, and now I have a new ambition: to remain, as I think I am now, an opsimath, one who continues to learn and to love and be astonished with new things late in life. Aren't you?


Remember my little Ann Sothern problem? Things haven't gotten any better.

Now, like all sensible people, I find people who talk about their dreams almost invariably incredibly boring. But of course my dreams are different. Especially this one, which has now popped up at least three times.

In this dream, I am planning to meet friends at New York's old Ballroom, once the most interesting cabaret room in town, for a special surprise. It's a surprisingly realistic dream, taking in my flat in Chelsea (four sordid rooms indeed), a walk up Ninth Avenue in what seems like an autumn rain, and arrival at my old stomping grounds.

The surprise, it turns out, is the act already under way when the doors open: the cabaret debut of Miss Katharine Hepburn, circa 1967 and resplendent in a jersey pantsuit number like one of those from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. The song she is singing? Nothing else but that staple of 80s MOR radio, Ashford & Simpson's "Solid."

Words fail; fade to black.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Hear Ye, Hear Ye...

I can't prove it, but I can't shake the feeling that these gals must be the Faith Tones' younger, prettier, meaner cousins.

Birthday Girl: Miracle Worker

Seen here looking uncharacteristically starlet-demure, Anne Bancroft more usually seemed quite comfortable being Larger than Life. She was that rare performer who could handle with equal ease the kind of anarchic comedy that she bought into as Mrs. Mel Brooks and took to quite different heights in The Graduate, high drama on the order of Agnes of God, and material like the childhood and raising of Helen Keller that in other, less capable hands could have dripped treacle and cheap inspiration.

I still think it's a shame she was cheated of her last act, as a grande dame of stage and screen on the order of Jessica Tandy, Sylvia Sidney, or Ruth Gordon; you can be sure she had some great old ladies in her, but now we'll never know.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

She had a Song

A very sad day at the Café, and many other places, with the news that we've lost Mary Travers. I'm only relieved that over at JMG and elsewhere, others have already revealed how much "Puff, the Magic Dragon" made them cry (still can, here), and for me add to that list "Early Morning Rain," "Blowin' in the Wind," and even "Lemon Tree."

For a long time it was fashionable to laugh at folk music and the sixties folkies, at what seemed to cool punks/new wavers/new romantics like us the solemn pretension and the laughable idealism. That, of course, turned out to be just silly. I think I realized that, once and for all, when watching (and rewatching) the beautiful Christopher Guest comedy A Mighty Wind, which set out to lambaste folkies and neo-folkies but ended up with something lovely and even, in a subplot about a bittersweet reunion between a once-hot duo act, a song ("A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow") almost as moving as anything PP&M once sang.

Looking here, at Peter, Paul, and Mary, the boys in suits and Mary in her lady dress and heels, I realize that this is just about the time I was born; the same year, at least. They are living, here, in a world in which segregation is still having to be beaten back, in which women work in typing pools, and in which a terrible war is gathering strength on the far side of the world. I don't know that you can argue that folk music, or sixties idealism, or any single factor at all, can change the world. I do know that some combination of all of those, however much we dismiss the decade as a marketing hook or what seems to some a half-forgotten bad dream that ended poorly, did, in fact, change the world.

By the time they sang the same song again in a video made in Tokyo (of all places - but the audience sings along), decades later, the boys balding and Mary a trifle more matriarchal, all three less certain of voice but still singing, think how different - how much better, though still so far from perfect - our world was and is today: more justice, more freedom, and more love. That's the legacy of Mary Travers, and a damn fine one it is.

I think for a while I won't think about this any more; I'll just think she's left us on a jet plane, gone 500 miles, don't know when she'll be back again...

The Perfect Blendship

I'm especially fond of pictures of Judy - and there are many - with her friends. They tend to be taken at times that reinforce the mantra one hears from so many people who knew her: that at least some of the time, and often much of the time, she had a wonderful time. That's somehow comforting.

Of course - this being Judy - it also stirs up feelings quite opposite, ones that dwell on the special sadness of someone who knew and was adored by everyone interesting in the whole world who still managed to squander all that and die alone, sharing a house with someone who, by comparison, she barely knew.

One can also marvel at the idea that one of these remarkable creatures is still with us. Images like this seem as much ancient history as if they were of Jenny Lind, David Garrick, and Lillie Langtry.

Chapter One

It's not every video that can deliver classic pop, a dose of Valentino, and an all-too-telling glimpse into a onetime fairytale marriage, but Elvis Costello manages it in 1983's "I Write the Book," which also features deeply cool backup singers and a lead vocalist looking several decades younger than I ever remember seeing him. Or maybe it's just that the rest of us have grown a couple of decades older...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

No Thank You Please, Mr. Robinson...

I have to say that, crazy as I am for alternate foreign-language titles for famous films (and the often fabulous posters that accompany them), when I think Perversidad, Edward G. Robinson is pretty much the last thing I want to pop into my mind.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Read All About It

I'm going through a bookish phase - what else is there to do in Ramadan, really? - and have been having a wonderful time. Diaries, mostly, but also dipping into favorite books of essays (it strikes me that there's not nearly enough shouting about Sarah Vowell, for example, let alone David Rakoff, who appears to be that rare creature, someone who doesn't write enough).

Our Sultanate got its first really good bookstore (a Borders, quite incongruous in these parts) a year or so ago, and as a result my reliance on Amazon has declined (it's cheaper, yes, but I'm all about the instant gratification). Nonetheless, when I linked to the site earlier this month it made me feel good to know it's still there.

Also gratifying: when I did add the link to Mr. Lerman's The Grand Surprise, it was loitering somewhere in Amazon rankings below 500,000. Since then, I've seen it as high as 125,000 or so, although it's as of right now down a shade. Now, I'm not claiming to have sold all that many copies, but it's nice to feel I've played a part.

So what are you reading?

A Journey to a Star...

...began with a tentative guess, and then a ringing affirmation. Yes, we have two winners of our latest mystery-lady challenge. Dear Normadesmond noted something charlottegreenwoodische about our fur-cloaked enigma, but it was the enigmatic MC who jumped in with a definite and entirely accurate answer. She is indeed that diva of the Fox backlot, the doyenne of the speciality high-kick number, Miss Charlotte Greenwood.

Mabrouk, as we say in these parts, to them both, and also to all who chimed in - Irene Ryan is certainly plausible, Helen Mirren's grandmother distinctly amusing, and dear Bill's offering of La Stanwyck is at least a sporting try.

Above, by the bye, we see fabulous Charlotte in the final moments of what is very likely my favorite film of all time, The Gang's All Here, in which she is joined by the entire cast - which ranges from Carmen Miranda to Benny Goodman and back again -who appear as floating, bobbing heads to sing one more round of the picture's hit song, whose name forms the title above. Aficionados of this landmark in cinema need to head immediately over to Shadowplay (whence I cribbed the pic) for a savagely funny takedown of this number.

He's a Rebel

But I think it requires further investigation before I would be willing to state categorically that he'll never ever be any good.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Accept Some Substitutes

Thinking about Judy Garland requires accepting a certain blurring of boundaries: in the way that she herself performed, turning a standard concert recital into a kind of primal drama uniting the spectators and the spectacle (will she? can she? she must! she can!); in the way that images from the end blur with the beginning, Dorothy overlaying TV Judy or, just a few years later, The Oldest Woman in the World; or how even today we look for Judy moments in her daughter (think how hard it must be, at 60-odd and one of the bigger stars in the world, to have people still startled - and somehow not always pleased - that you're still alive, let alone performing, let alone frequently doing so quite well).

The boundaries even blur between the woman who was born Frances Gumm and the image that she became, which continues, in ways large and small, to flourish even in her still-mourned absence. Here we see, for example, Garland impersonator extraordinaire Mr. Jim Bailey, who has been performing Judy onstage almost twice as long as she did. When he did a series of concerts in London this past summer, one paper wrote, "Bailey inhabits Garland’s persona to such an extent that, well, there she is. It is a supreme illusion, a sort of perfect madness... It is not like someone acting. It’s almost insane." And that seems right, appropriate.

I first saw Bailey more than twenty years ago; he was Judy-Dorothy at a Wizard of Oz convention held, of all places, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In attendance were celebrities big (Margaret Hamilton*) and small (literally - a number of the Munchkins). Bailey was the no-questions-asked star, however, and marvelous. Now it strikes me that more years have passed between that lovely Philadelphia Saturday 'round about 1980 and today than did between Dorothy-Judy and the Sixties-Concert-Judy Bailey currently performs. And he's been doing it, one way or other, long enough that Judy herself coached him on the fine points.

It's all enough to make one a little dizzy, but somehow that seems right, too. I think I need to sit down and listen for a while, perhaps to Carnegie Hall Judy, perhaps the finest one of all...

* Tiny, sharp, and very dear. I have her autograph tucked away somewhere - she appended next to her signature WWW in memory of her role, long before those letters meant anything else.

Why Don't You...

...spend some time perfecting the art of making an entrance? All the best people are doing it. Especially Beardsley heroines. And goddesses...

Birthday Boy: Go West!

Let's pause for a moment to celebrate the birth of Randy Jones, eternal Village Person; he's 57 today, still wearing the cowboy hat and going strong.

Joining him are a raft of the great and good: single-profiled superstar Claudette Colbert, terrifying soapstress Eileen Fulton, Velvet Fog Mel Tormé, Designing Woman Jean Smart, etiquetteuse Judith Martin, and Mr. Patricia Neal Roald Dahl among them. There's clearly a major diva-streak running through the day - could they all have been conceived on New Year's Eve?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Haven't You Met?

I do believe you've encountered this regal lady, splendid in her furs, in these parts before - but do you recall her name?

A King and Two Queens

Here at the Café, you will have observed, except when deeply exercised, we generally steer clear of things political. When those matters are of local concern, that seems to me only a combination of sensitivity to local feeling and common sense. Still, I can't help calling attention to a story highlighted by sterling local blogger Muscat Confidential, although not really for the reason he's picked up on it.

It appears, you see, that some perfectly dreadful-sounding jumped-up member of Parliament has, over the years, occasionally visited our quiet little corner of Arabia, which the deeply trashy Daily Mail has seized upon to include in his catalogue of otherwise quite dull transgressions. Like all official visitors, he has departed with a trinket or two, which is apparently Not Allowed, or at least the cause for some holier-than-thou finger-wagging.

But all of that, some fascinating personal details (which do cast the local travel industry in a more than usually interesting light) aside, that's all rather dull. The real interest of the story comes in the illustrations, which show for no evident reason the Sultanate's remarkable sovereign at various stages in his life, most thrillingly here posed between two of our favorite people. Look carefully and you'll note the wild-eyed creature in the background, who was also, for a while, you may remember, of some note. This was 1983, and HM is still fetchingly salt-and-pepper, and between his gold braid and his orders, almost able to challenge these merry wives of Windsor in terms of bling.

Even in such formidable company, I think he more than holds his own.

Friday, September 11, 2009

From Bod to Worse

Lorna, poor thing, thinks she's the star, but as usual, it's all about the Beejay.

Getting Ready

You know, for such a relentlessly up-tempo number, "Get Happy" has, when you think about it, an almost bizarrely dark lyric. It presumes, from the get-go, that the singer - and presumably her audience, whom she exhorts - are in a place that's by definition not happy. It's about a place that's "quiet and peaceful" - but there, on the other side, where we're not, yet. And, when we do get there, what we'll get is The Judgment Day. It almost ought to be called "Get Ready."

But what Judy Garland doesn't know about, against all odds, chasing one's cares away isn't worth knowing. She knows, and shares with us, her wisdom: getting happy doesn't just happen. On the worst and even on the best days, it's something you have to shout for, cross the river for, and be ready for. The sun is shining, c'mon...

A (Second) Evening in September

Artists' Party at Skagen, by Peder Severin Krøyer, 1888

A year ago, on September 12, I wrote:

Mr. Muscato and I gave a party last night. We hadn't thought about the date when we decided to have it, and it was only in sending the invitation that I realized, and just said "do come this Thursday," rather than putting in the date.

All day, getting ready, during those hours when thoughts of Clarissa Dalloway hover 'round as one buys flowers, discovers that one of the glasses is cracked, worries that the food won't be enough or won't taste well together or simply will be vile, on and on, I thought about about the day. Mr. Muscato is the cook, so front-of-house is my responsibility, and I kept stopping to remember, as I moved chairs around and tried to recall where I'd put the candle-lighter, the way seven years before had felt.

Of course, it was not encouraging. We cannot - blessedly - go back to the raw horror of it, the visceral fear (I was in Washington, close enough to hear the boom and feel the shake a mile or so away even as we watched, puzzled, what was happening in Manhattan). In the years since, God knows, we've had enough additional nastiness, large and small, to almost obscure what seemed at the time the Great Dread Moment that would define us for a very long time.

As the evening wore on, the guests arrived, we waited - for this was a Ramadan dinner, an
Iftaar, the breaking of the fast at sunset - for the evening prayer call before starting, and I looked, as one does, at the rooms full of people brought together (with the flowers and the candles, the polished silver and even the cracked glass), and did feel encouraged. Here we were, mostly far from home, one way or another, from half-a-dozen countries, almost as many faiths, 8 to 70-something, eating and drinking (juice only, for we are very proper this time of year), Koko buzzing excitedly around scrounging scraps, talking and laughing and carrying on with our lives.

Call it a Whoville Moment, sentimental, foolish:
they tried to take all this away, and failed. So there. But it's so. And tomorrow it's back to work, and on with life... In the meantime, we have flowers in the dining room and the poor dog, replete, will likely sleep for days.

We're doing it again tonight, our Iftaar, and again the date fell by happenstance, not calculated choice. Next year, as the solar and the lunar calendars continue their celestial dance, the date will fall at the very end of Ramadan, or perhaps even in the Eid el-Fitr, the celebration at the month's end. I think I'll miss the way we've marked this day these two years; regular parties might not seem appropriate, but this one does.

Eight Years On: The Hour of Lead

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Birthday Girl: Grand Dame de la Mode

Surrealism and wearability might seem, when it comes to couture, polar opposites, but the divine Elsa Schiaparelli, 119 years young today, proved otherwise. Here, for example, is a 1938 creation featuring a pattern of elegant rips, by Dali.

Schiap interspersed her largely highly tailored, perfectly cut collections with these sorts of amuses bouches, which is almost a pity, as the memory of her shoe hats and lobster gowns can at times overwhelm her achievements as couturière and businesswoman. She even had the good sense to get when the going was good, closing her maison in the early fifties and, for the rest of her life, having a lovely time doing other things. There's a lesson there, I think...

Fashion Don't

Our dear Upen Patel really has had some questionable fashions foisted on him whilst modeling. Here, he proves definitively that even the handsomest man is no match for a male shirtwaist (a mirtwaist?) in some Subcontinental version of macramé.


The Mike Douglas Show, August 1968. When was the last time you saw something like that on television?

I'm afraid we may be heading into a bit of a Judy binge. I hope nobody minds.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Calling Gloria

Miss Swanson is having a moment. If I had those furs, I don't think I'd ever do anything else. I especially love how they appear to be stippled with castoff rough drafts of her eyebrows...

Happy Holidays!

Just in case you were wondering: yes, Ramadan is becoming almost as commercialized as Christmas.

(This isn't, by the way, a local creation, although we are all Very Excited hereabouts by news that in fact a Burger King - possibly two - will be opening very soon. Sometimes I wonder why I bother living abroad at all. Although at least here we're spared teabaggers, which is something, I suppose).

Life and Leo Lerman

Leo Lerman, by John Koch

I am still thinking about The Grand Suprise, the journals of editor, bon vivant, and aesthete Leo Lerman, into which I've been diving repeatedly in recent weeks and which I have inveigled, as a result of previous posts, at least two dear Café regulars to buy (you can, if so inclined, get one for your very own, here. I think you ought to).

Over the years, he knew everyone, went everywhere, and was caught up in the midst of what I've always thought of as The Great Wide World - Maria Callas in Venice, Princess Margaret in London, Lily Tomlin in Los Angeles, on and on, a waterfall of names and evocative locations, parties, late-night phone calls, premieres, confidential luncheons on banquettes at the Ivy and La Côte Basque. His is a sensibility drenched in love for beautiful things and interesting people, deeply informed by literature (Proust above all), music, theatre, art. At the same time, entwined all through and inextricable, are both his own inner life - wry, often unhappy, deeply hopeful - and the private life of family (extended, colorful, impossible as is the wont of families) and of love - of friends, of a small number of greatly beloveds, and of life itself. To write all of that together, as one chain of being, is to me something of an astonishing feat.

I love the book, in the end, both for the quality of the writing and the insight it gives into Lerman's life and times and also for the way it makes me think about my own life, and the life I craved in my New York days, and the ways in which that life intersected, at times, with Lerman's own Grand Surprise.

I met him, you see, now and again, long ago. Some of the people he writes about were known to me, and a very few of them fairly well. I've even stood at the door, though never, alas, further, of his beautiful apartment at the Osborne just cattycorner from Carnegie Hall. When he writes a flip, dismissive anecdote about the pretensions of an '80s trophy-wife socialite, I remember visiting her fabulously atrocious Upper East Side triplex, where an enormous and wholly inappropriate Francis Bacon triptych dominated the foyer (and the powder room had an exquisite little demi-Cranach) and not only the lady of the house but the nanny and the baby were fully made up at two in the afternoon. When he writes about the long, sad decline of Marlene Dietrich, I remember a time I sat waiting in an office while someone sat, listening to a long-distance call, with a face like stone, before softly putting down the phone and saying to no one in particular, "The Lady. Perfectly fine in the mornings, but talk to her after that and..." as he made a drinking gesture.

It still amazes me - all the more after a decade or more overseas, and living here so quietly in our little house on the Arabian Sea - that I once knew parts of Manhattan in the same familiar, intimate way as he (the stretch up Central Park West between Columbus Circle and the Natural History Museum, bits of the West Village, the restaurants and bars of 46th Street), and that I was, albeit in a vastly smaller, satellite sort of way, a part of it all as was he.

My New York is almost as much a memory as his, for the places are often gone or unrecognizable and many of my lodestone people (my own version of Capote's "swans") are, too. It seems, at times, quite unreal that I knew them (and even more so, somehow, that they knew me, if that makes any sense at all). I hardly ever talk, now, of those days; I'm always afraid it will seem like namedropping - or even worse, that no one will have any idea at all of who or of what I'm talking about.

That, really, is one of the reasons I like writing here so very much. It's a way to reconnect, to reconsider some of the people I knew either in themselves or through the people and things and phenomena they loved, and to feel - through this new, digital, high-tech medium - again a part of The Great Wide World. As far as I'm concerned, it's all still a Grand Surprise.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

(Belated) Birthday Girl: Mystery Revealed

Yes, it's true! The elegant and refined young lady whose picture we posted to tease with you a couple of days ago is none other than that hoyden of '60s TV turned theatrical staple, Miss Jo Anne Worley. She had a birthday this past Sunday, which is of little matter to one so ageless, but even so worthy of celebration.

As for the guesses - well, she really did change a great deal between high school and Laugh In, so no one can be blamed for not seeing the latent crazy in her debutante eyes. My favorite stabs at it were Matt Damon (and there really is a resemblance), courtesy of dear Bill, and Kevin's contribution, Big Edie. Raquel Welch was not at all a bad guess, nor Janis Joplin. I do think that Bette Midler, while a gallant attempt, would have meant that the girl in question would have been among the very few subjects in the early '60s to have undergone nasal enlargement.

Still, even though really she came no closer than any of the rest of you, I'm going to go ahead and declare Café newcomer Clare the winner, if only because she said such nice things and I am, as is well known, Greedy for Praise.

In any case, thanks to all for chiming in, and better luck next time!

Want to be Happy?

If so, even if you've headed back to the chain gang after a too-short long weekend, or are, like us, almost through another week but not quite there yet, watch this video: it will make you happy.

Yes, it's Ruby Keeler, all grown up and decades later, having her late-in-life triumph in No, No, Nanette! She and her chorus are caught here on shaky video that nonetheless makes crystal clear just why, in her day and in her way, the lady was a star. What didn't always work on screen, coming across as stiff or artless, is here transformed into pure charm, the sort of stage charisma that rolls across the footlights in waves of sheer warmth and good cheer. And make no mistake: the lady can dance.

There - don't you feel better, even on Labor Day Tuesday?

Dueling Bankheads

She knew, of course, that in a way she was immortal. Looking in her mirror, Tallulah must have sensed that what she had created had taken on a life of its own, and that long after the little girl from Alabama had gone on before...

She'd show up the damnedest places - as, for example, in a TV movie, played by Mrs. Dick Cavett.

Or as part of the one-man repertory company that is the legendary Jim Bailey.

The essentials of the impersonation are consistent: the sweep of hair and slash of lipstick; cigarette of course; frequently a mink, for clutching and throwing off the shoulders; most generally a cocktail...

She can be played younger, with a dose of the glamour that dominated her life in the '20s and '30s (Miss Kathleen Turner seems altogether too gamine for the part, but the setting is suitably deco)...

Or older, dire and in her cups - although here, Miss Valerie Harper looks less Talluvian than like Mayor Rudi Giuliani on a bad night.

She's been played by the great - as here, by illusionist supreme Mr. Charles Pierce (we saw him do Tallu, darlings, yonks ago, and were greatly twisted affected by his performance, which was if anything more astonishing even than his Bette)...

And she's been played by the simply inevitable - is there a one-woman show that Tovah Feldshuh hasn't done? I'd look it up to make sure, but frankly I don't want my suspicions that this was a musical confirmed.

She's most recently been taken up as the subject for their ongoing cabaret/drag/performance art act by the duo who give this post its title. They venture pretty far afield from the source material, but the fundamentals - liquor, lipstick, excess, and a knack for the outrageous - are true to life.

What makes it work - whether for a roadshow turn like Harper's or Feldshuh's or for the alchemy of Pierce - is that the lady herself rose above the persona, or rather inhabited it so fully and unstintingly, with a talent and a kind of greatness of spirit that shine through, on some level, even the broadest burlesque, even the ones (and they were many, too many for the good of her reputation as an artist) she inflicted on herself.

Ah, but on a good night - I have been assured by Ones Who Were There - ah, then the angels sang. I've heard it on good authority that on some nights, during her too-short run in a revival of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, she could by sheer force of personality and utter fabulosity, strike gay not only the entire audience, but passers-by of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre for a distance of up to two blocks.

She's a kind they just don't make these days, but at least we can enjoy, to varying extents, the ways that others bring bits of her to life...