Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Things Are Just Where They Should Be, Tonight...

Have I ever mentioned that I'm a total Cabaret Queen?  I'm going to guess that that's not a total surprise.  I just believe that honest songs, sung simply, can communicate more clearly, more tellingly, more directly than anything I know...

So anyway, this evening, I had one of those moments, one of those things that mark out, somehow, the glory and splendor and weirdness of our lives.  Nothing special, really - just driving home, after yet another office party (the season is winding down, and soon we'll be done with those, blessedly, at least until September or so).  So maybe, yes, I'd had a glass or two (something we're really not supposed to do, in these parts that take a very dim view of Demon Rum), and yes, maybe I'm just a little tired and ready for vacation (coming soon, and more of that anon).  Whatever; I think it was a gift.

Just one of those realizations, really, as I pulled around the corner, in my silly little car (have I ever talked about my Rolling Midlife Crisis?  Perhaps not.  It's red, and convertible, and very inexcusable, but kind of fun), and down our street.  One of those thoughts that strike one, now and then:  how inexpressibly odd and unpredictable and, more than anything, worth treasuring, this life is.  It all came to me, suddenly: how strange, to be living here in the middle of Arabia Felix, accompanied against all odds by someone who thinks, for reasons I simply cannot fathom, the world of me, not to mention two (two!) mad terriers, and living in a large white house with a garden full of bougainvillea and hibiscus (me from a cold small town in Pennsylvania, where we waited each year for a tulip or two and a few stunted roses in the garden), and...

In any case, suddenly, cabaret seemed the only thing that might explain this sudden rush of something, half sentimental, half bittersweet.  I first heard this song sung by the marvelous Miss Andrea Marcovicci, but since she's unavailable on YouTube, I do think this gentleman, Mr. Eric Michael Gillett, does a very creditable job.  If you've ever wondered, actually, what I myself might be like on stage, had I not abandoned such things early on in the face, ineluctable, of No Talent At All, he's not far off (except talented), although I think I'd eschew the sweater, and I'm not sure I'd in the best of circumstances have quite such a firm grasp on staying on key.

"there's a key on the table/such a beautiful sight/as I hoped that it would be..."

And the dogs come rushing down the stairs, and from upstairs I hear, "Where have you been?" And... things do really turn out differently than one ever imagined - but sometimes, so much better.  As the dear Pet Shop Boys once asked, in a very different vein, what have I done?  Myself, I can't imagine, but I do, now and then, count my blessings, every one.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Buddy System

After all these years, Chet and Ted had it down to a science.  Chet would pretend to read a letter from his Dad, and Ted would start in slow.  If something developed from there, well... Betty and Elaine weren't due home from the Junior League 'til 4:30.  Some things had never changed, not since that first magic summer at the Charlotte Watson Memorial Presbyterian Bible Camp back in '56.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Decoration Day

This is a holiday that always makes me just a little blue.  If you've read Ask the Cool Cookie's excellent meditation on the subject, you'll more or less know why. 

I wonder, from all these thousands of miles away, if anyone is looking after the little knot of graves I wrote about a few years ago, clustered there on their hillside looking out toward the Lake.  I imagine not, as none of us live anywhere near there, now, and like Cookie, I expect I'm about the only one left likely to think of such a thing, even on Memorial Day.

Once upon a time, of course, this was a real holiday, not (or at least not only) an excuse for picnics, long weekends, and blowout sales.  It meant not just the beginning of summer, but also the first of the year's three ritual calls on the, as it were, extended family, those gone before.  The other visits, of course, were Labor Day, for a pre-autumn tidy, and finally Veteran's Day, to make sure things were set for another long, cold winter.

First, we - my mother and I - would get up early, or rather earlier than than usual (Mother Muscato being very much a morning person) and go to the garden center, for geraniums.  Then she'd tool her ginormous Gran Torino around town, picking up first Grandmother Muscato, then Great Aunt Edna, and then, most years, our second cousin Louise whose only living relatives we were.  Then it was up the hill to the cemetery, and the process reversed itself, with Louise dropped near her family just by the main gate, and Aunt Edna near hers in the shadow of one of the vast Victorian mausoleums (mausolea?) in the middle, and then finally the first of our two stops, to take care of Grandmother Muscato's people over by the far side (a small blue cottage across the street being a handy landmark; when I was last there, in 2007 or so, it still was). 

With Grandfather, Aunt-Marie-Who-You-Never-Knew, She-Married-Poorly-and-Died-Young, and Great Grandmother taken care of, we'd go up the hill to Father Muscato's side's plot, in those days nearly unoccupied except for a maiden aunt and a child or two.  Earlier on, Edna and Louise would already have made their way there on foot (later on, when they found the hill more daunting, we'd pick them up again en route) and we'd tidy up this largest and most impressive of the plots, its single monolith with the family name safeguarding the empty spaces.  One got the sense that Edna and Louise, mother's side, always felt vaguely out of place, obliged to say something nice about the view, but not much more.  Mother was unsentimental about Father's family, and her tidying was faster here than down below, the geraniums less carefully placed and the shrubs clipped more hurriedly.  Afterward, we'd go for lunch at the Club, sitting in the less formal of its two dining rooms in recognition of our gardening clothes.

Now, these forty years or so later, I'm the only one of that Gran Torino-load left, and the only one not tidily tucked in there in that green and pleasant cemetery.  Grandmother (who was born, I just realized, the year of the last Diamond Jubilee for an English queen), Edna, and Louise were all girls together not too far off from the time of the Pickfordesque girl above.  Grandmother, in fact, had once upon a time attended an encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic with her own Grandfather, who was at Antietam.  Somewhere (unless its been discarded by the Evil Stepmother who has somehow ended up in custody of so many family things), there is a charming photograph of her, 'round about 1908, perched in her starched, frilled dress and big round hat on her Grandfather's knee, surrounded by a circle of grizzled veterans.  Mother was a Depression child and a Second War bride, but now she's up there as well, up on the hill with the side of the family whose graves she spent all those years short-shrifting.

I always assumed I would go and join them there, come the time, but now that seems unreal, unlikely.  The family is scattered, quarrelsome, preoccupied with our very different lives in very different places.  I can't even get Mr. Muscato into the U.S. for more than a visit alive, let alone (very) permanently otherwise, and he's significantly less enamored of the family even than Mother at her most acerbic.  Worrying about what one wears to lunch (especially when what one is wearing is a tweed suit or, if you're Louise and slightly daring, a pantsuit) seems as antediluvian as, well, encampments of the Grand Army. 

On Memorial Day, it's good to spend a moment considering all of this, even in such a muddled and inconclusive way.  Summer's coming, after all, and we might not think of them again 'til fall...

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Meanwhile, Over at Glamor Shots...

Nobody, really, was all that surprised when Barbie left Francie.  Of course, they'd been together for years - all the way back to Malibu and those hardscrabble days in that terrible band with Ken and Allan (not to mention that grade-A bitch PJ - she was the one who forced them into those mortifying fringe costumes, before she just up and disappeared), long before Barbie even dreamed of being a vet, let alone a TV news anchor, a fashion designer, an astronaut, and a presidential candidate.  Still, these things happen, and suddenly good-hearted, sensible Francie was yesterday's news.  Last I heard, she was still teaching algebra, but thinking maybe she might after all have a vocation.

No, the real scandal didn't start until after Barbie joined the Lipstick Ladies Bowling League.  Life without Francie at the Dream Condo® was pretty quiet, and she needed a hobby.  The girls' regular Tuesday nights got pretty raucous in the Bowlarama bar, and who should Barbie discover one Tuesday, after a couple of margaritas, was tending bar there but an old friend? 

Midge was nearly unrecognizable after her stint in the adult-film industry, but there was no denying she looked good.  So, anyway, they're trying to give it a go.  Turns out Midge even still had Ken's number and they're in touch sometimes.  Small world - he lives just a couple of miles away with Joe, an ex-G.I.  Maybe they'll all get together for brunch some Sunday and laugh about how strange things can turn out in the end...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Birthday Girl: Miss Peggy Lee (and Friend)

North Dakota's finest export, Miss Norma Egstrom, might have been 92 today.  Peggy Lee didn't live quite that long, but while she was around, she ruled.  We see her here in 1969, delivering a definitive take of her most curious hit, "Is That All There Is?"  A charting number in a year in which the competition was deathless numbers of the ilk of  Lulu's "Boom Bang a Lang" or, at the other extreme, David Bowie exploring the universe in "Space Oddity," the song - unsettling, unsparing, brittle - would seem to be a long shot in the popularity stakes.

But it works, in spades.  Lee, at this point in her long career, is a daunting presence, totally in control even as she she seems on the edge of shattering.  It was a quality she retained to the end, when she was little more than a ruin tricked out in wig and caftan, carried on stage and deposited into the spotlight in ever smaller and more unforgiving rooms.  I last saw her a year or two before her curtain finally fell, but she still drove home every stage of this song's journey - fire, circus, love, the story of a life, really - and still made you want to break out the booze and have that ball...

I like that she shares her day with a survivor of a very different kind, an even more imposing self-creation: the Queen-Empress, dowager extraordinaire, superb creature who started out as a sort of semi-royal poor relation of Queen Victoria, but who ended up as the grandmother of the current occupant of Victoria's throne - Queen Mary.  I have long had a soft spot for that unapproachable grande dame, and I like to think that, while she  might not have approved quite entirely of "Fever" or "Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)" (the latter of which, by the bye, Peg not only sang, but wrote - she was a good songwriter on top of everything else), she might have felt a pang of recognition, had she had the chance to hear "Is That All There Is?"  She had, heaven knows, seen her share of fires and circuses.

File Under Unexpected Situations, Unlikely

One presumes he means the engagement...

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Memorial Day Reminder...

Whatever the temptations you may face heading into this holiday weekend, keep one thing in mind:  white shoes really ought not to be worn until the morning after the traditional May 30 celebration of this important holiday.  Better safe than sorry.

This has been a public-service message brought to you in memory of Grandmother Muscato, a strict observer of all things Decoration Day.  She might not have approved of each and every one of Mrs. Sutphin's methods, but she would have found her motivation irreproachable.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Birthday Girl: Last Star Standing

This demure creature has turned out, against all odds, to have had one of the longer, more interesting, and certainly more varied careers of all the many ladies who've passed through these pages.  Joan Collins is an actress, author, pundit, philanthropist, and all around Personality.

If no one has ever accused her of being Helen Hayes, Margaret Atwood, Maureen Dowd, or Miss Alice Tully - well, nobody beats her on the Personality front, and today she stands almost alone, one of the last reminders of the heady days when stars were Stars, who dressed and acted and acted out like it every hour of the day and night.

It took the then-unlikely concept of a nighttime soap-opera to rescue what had never been an A-career from what had sunk to truly Z levels, and ever since her triumph as Alexis Morrel Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan (and yes, I did do that from memory, and only missed Rowan) she's had a perfectly marvelous time.  She's one of the reasons (along with Princess Michael and Sheikha Mozah of Qatar) that I'm addicted to Hello! magazine, as she seems to appear in almost every issue, often on the arm of Percy, improbably taut and evidently devoted, the fifth and longest-lasting (ten years to date) of the Mr. Collinses.

Miss Collins, of course, is ageless, but it is whispered that this year she hovers on the brink of octagenarianism.  I wish her many more, all of them mascara-ringed, gloriously bewigged, en-furred, bejeweled, and entirely convinced of her iron-clad allure.  We shall not see her like again...

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Pearly King

Mr. Valentino proves that while it may be possible to wear more pearls at one go than the late Queen Mary, it is probably not aesthetically advisable to do so.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Baby Take a Bow

It's been ages since we've had a look at one of the wonders of Egyptian cinema, hasn't it?  Today, we revisit the glory days of 1950, when King Farouk looked serenely solid on his post-war throne, and Hollywood on Nile was addressing its longstanding moppet shortage by starring the remarkable tot seen to great advantage in this number from a musical called Yasmin.

Her name was Fayrouz Arteen, and she occupies more or less the exact place in Egyptian movielovers' hearts that Miss Shirley Temple does for fans in the West.  She made only a handful of films, but remains even today, sixty years and more later, much beloved, living quietly in retirement in Cairo.  She's part of an extended performing family; two of her more famous cousins are the great stars Nelly and Lebleba, for what that's worth.

Here she's paired with veteran star Anwar Wagdi (more or less the Clark Gable of the East).  It's a long number, and Fayrouz doesn't get to strut her stuff 'til 4:30, but the whole thing is worth sitting through. 

It's a lavish production by Cairo standards, reaching, if one needs an equivalent, up from Monogram standards to reach, if only through the number of costumes and more-or-less dancing extras, the level of a middling Columbia second feature.  Still, Fayrouz does her considerable best, and it's all really rather charming, I think. 

Which must be worth something, since you know I loathe children.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Birthday Girl: The Beat Goes On

Cher by Avedon, Mononym to Mononym
She's been famous, in different ways in each, in six different decades.  She is perhaps the most self-aware of performers, one laugh ahead of her worst critics and always ready to admit that she's an unlikely bet to have become both one of the greatest and most durable of stars. 

Early on, before settling on her defining monosyllablism, she was briefly known profressionally as Bonnie Jo Mason, Cherilyn, and Cleo.  She's got her Oscar, not to mention a shelf-full of lesser honors, not to mention a fortune conservatively estimated in the hundreds of millions.  Notwithstanding that she headlined a multi-year, multi-continent Farewell Tour once upon a time earlier this century, she's getting ready to hit the road again this fall.  Just as well; the world could always use a little more Cher.

She's 66 today, and that seems like the most improbable thing of all.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


I hate surprises.  Perhaps it was a childhood that veered between the idyllic and the volatile, with not quite enough in between.  Perhaps it's just that I'm a dedicated, unregenerate, evil control freak.  Whatever.  It's the just the way it is.

Still, we had a surprise party last night, and by that I mean that two weeks ago, Mr. Muscato sat me down and told me he was having a party for my birthday, that he'd organized it to start while I was off at yet another office-sponsored cocktail extravaganze, that this was the caterer's menu and that that was the guestlist, and would I please find a way to not come home until I received a missed call at about 7:30 p.m., and for God sake's try and look surprised.

Which I did, in a far more convincing way than any of the stiffs that Philips hired as party-guest record-cover extras (and there's a narrow corner of the show-business, no?) for the LP above.   It all came off quite well, and while I still loathe being surprised, my cold heart was really rather touched by the glee that so many of the guests (a great many of whom had come on from the earlier, business fête) enjoyed at having "fooled" me for the past week.  Now, of course, I have to go back to work tomorrow and undoubtedly spend a great deal of time congratulating them ("boy, you really did get me, didn't you?") on their cleverness.

The rest of the time I'll have to spend planning my revenge on Mr. Muscato.  Oh, he told me about the party, yes - but he didn't run either the flowers or the music by me in advance.  Have I mentioned that I might, just might, have a few teeny-tiny hospitality-related control issues?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

We'll Never Get That Recipe Again...

A great star, gone too soon.

In the summer of 1983, I shared my first apartment with three friends from sophomore year - a straight couple who'd hooked up during first semester, and another guy, single like me, but (despite all appearances and everything you will read in these few lines) straight.  We first looked at the place halfway through spring semester, and it seemed perfect, especially compared with all the other dumps we'd been looking at.  Top floor of a West Phillie rowhouse, exposed brick walls here and there, skylights, new kitchen, two bathrooms, you name it.

We moved in after classes broke, earliest June, and we found out about roommates.  The straight couple made love like alley cats in their double room, and she cooked odd things at odder hours.  The other singleton (we each had a tiny room and shared the other bath), working downtown at his first summer internship, turned out to be just a little OCD and had an invariable routine:  up every morning at the same time, same breakfast, had to have his shower at the same time, etc., etc.  Most of all, he played the same music, a mix tape (how high tech that seemed!) someone had made for him.  It consisted, at least the part that has seared itself into my memory because I heard it so often, of David Bowie's "China Girl," Duran Duran's "Girls on Film," Hall and Oates's "Maneater," Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams" - and Donna Summers's "She Works Hard for the Money."  Every day, all summer, starting at 7:15 a.m.

Play any of those songs, but especially the last, and there I am, back in that apartment that, come late June, we discovered was cheap for a reason - a top floor flat in West Philadelphia, with exposed brick walls and skylights, is hot.  Oven hot.  Boiling, roasting, mind-numbingly hot.  On the odd occasion that the apartment was empty, I would take a cold bath with all the ice from the freezer floating in it.  Even so, we had a great time, punctuated, over and over again, with those songs, that music.  

We had the greatest party of my life until that moment (and in some ways ever since) for Miss Rheba's 21st birthday.  Some bikers showed up about 2:00 a.m., as did, for reasons no one has ever understood since, a genuine fedora-and-bell-bottoms pimp with a couple of girls, and every one had an especially good time with "She Worked Hard" given the company.  About 3:00, the downstairs neighbors came up, because we'd brought down their ceiling while dancing to "Glad All Over" (its "Yes, I'm feelin' ... BOOM BOOM ... Glad all over!" having proved fatal).  They weren't pleased, exactly, but they joined the party.

Eventually, 'round about dawn, I put on my patented room-clearer (Connie Francis singing "Where the Boys Are") and disappeared with someone who turned out both to be my summer beau and to have an air-conditioner.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  At least the air-conditioning did.

And that's what I thought of when I heard, just now and 29 years later, that Donna Summer's gone to Fabulon.  She did work hard for the money, and we know it was real.  Unconditional, on the radio, right through to the last dance.  RIP.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tarzan, Save Me!

On that never-to-be-forgotten Tuesday evening in September, 1966, all of Skip's fondest, most improbable dreams came true.  He never saw Mom or Pops again, and he never returned to Utica, but in the years after, he never looked back...

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Birthday Boy: The Royal Historian

The man who was born 156 years ago today is rarely - if ever - included in lists of Great American Writers.  That's a shame, for I think I a real case can be made that Lyman Frank Baum has had as significant an effect on the American consciousness as many of his more appreciated fellows (and more than many, too, for that matter - I'm looking at you, Herman Melville, you over-praised old bore, you).

Is the Emerald City, beckoning in the distance, any less potent a talisman than Fitzgerald's green light on a Long Island dock?

Here we see a healthy sampling of some of Oz's better known citizens toasting their sovereign, the enchanting Ozma of Oz.  The Oz books are can be surprisingly complex things, with their intricate plots and sudden, odd explosions of dark whimsy.  I readily admit that as a child I was particularly taken with Princess Ozma, for example, because she first appears as a little boy, enchanted by an evil witch and only rescued by that same Glinda who sent Dorothy home with a click of her heels (which, in the book are silver; ruby came later).

Somewhere off in storage are all my Oz books, gathering dust these dozen years or more since I got swept off from my own Kansas (well, Manhattan) to this desert as fierce as the Great Sandy Waste that surrounds Oz.  I look forward, some day, to diving back in.

On his birthday, then, let's ourselves (as varied a group, I think, as any gathering of Oz-ites, and twice as fanciful) raise a toast to L. Frank Baum, The Royal Historian of Oz, unsung hero of American literature.  156 seems to me a very Oz-zy age indeed, and I hope that celebrations in that far-off land are appropriately festive.

Spectacular John R. Neill illustration borrowed from that cornucopia of all things Oz-ian, Hungry Tiger Talk

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Redux: M is for...

No, she's not my mother. Actually, we lost Mother Muscato almost ten years ago, and I'm still getting over the surprise.

Despite all she went through in her last couple of years - a familiar litany of complaints for women of her generation, the harsh follow-ons from everything that had seemed so au courant when they were girls, principally smoking - despite all that, I truly believed, on some level, that she was simply too strong-minded to let anything else, even cancer, have its way.

Until the end, she was a paean to the virtues of denial, stoutly maintaining that of course she was fine. Everything was fine. We didn't think all that much about it; her total distaste for bad news of any kind was an ingrained fact of life. When I moved away from home, after a few surprises I learned to phone home now and then for a rundown with her of elderly family and friends; "Oh," she'd admit grudgingly, "didn't I tell you? Cousin Adele died six months ago. Oh, come on, it's not all that sad - she was 87, for God's sake..."

I think, at the end, she must have thought a lot about just why she wasn't, in fact, a circus showgirl, or whatever it was that actually had been her dream a long ways back. I deeply suspect that where she ended up was pretty far from what she'd planned.

She married at the very tail end of the War and for more than half a century led a life that was was an almost entirely conventional blend of children, family, work, and church. In all that time, I don't think we ever, as you do, really thought all that much about her, if you know what I mean.

Until, of course, it was too late, which I didn't realize until we were clearing out her things. Having married into a family of packrats (just this side of Collyer-brother hoarding, really; Father Muscato has a warehouse he's never told the Evil Stepmother about), she went to the opposite extreme. Over time during her last couple years, she had pared her own possessions almost to nothing, easy enough to do when surrounded by her husband's and her children's plentiful detritus.

There were a few pieces of jewelry (charm bracelet, string of pearls, her mother's garnet set and her grandmother's jet mourning brooch...), a drawer full of neatly filed records (bills, taxes, mortgage) - and almost nothing else. She seems to have disposed of several generations worth of papers from her side of the family, from her great-grandparents' civil war letters to the correspondence her mother's mother had carried on with any number of interesting people she had met on long-distance freighter cruises (Great-grandmother Muscato shared a passion for penal reform with one, the gentleman who wrote 20,000 Years in Sing Sing; they had gotten to be chums somewhere between Shanghai and Juneau, and their letters had been numerous and voluble), and almost every scrap related to herself (this in a house that contained every Christmas card received since the Truman administration).

Except: in one dresser drawer, an unmarked envelope, large and faded yellow. In it were three or four magazines, story monthlies from the early 40s. There wasn't much to link them - they included a romance anthology, a "true confessions" format, and a Western, I believe. It was only as we passed them around, my siblings and I, that we noticed that each carried a story by an author whose name was an amalgam of our mother's mother's and her grandmother's maiden names.

We showed them to our father (already, although we didn't yet know it, trying to decide whether to wait until after the funeral to announce his engagement - but that's another story), and he said offhandedly that oh, yes, your mother had always wanted to be a writer. Those must be hers.

So maybe she didn't want to be a circus showgirl; maybe she dreamt of being Katherine Anne Porter or Taylor Caldwell or her favorite author, Mazo de la Roche. And on Mother's Day, each year, I sit a moment and wonder what else it is we don't know about the sharp-tongued, irritable, meanly funny suburban matron who raised us and, if nothing else, helped ensure we all got the hell out of Dodge even if she hadn't.

The stories? Never read them. My sister got hold of the envelope, and she's her mother's daughter.

M is for... first appeared on May 10, 2009.  I'm still getting over the surprise.  Happy Mother's Day, Mother Muscato, wherever you are... 

Natal Daze

Dear Miss Arthur and I share the day.  She would have been 90; I, regrettably and somewhat amazingly, am something over half that, clinging for one more year to the 40s. She's a good role model, actually, having truly come into her own in the second half of her life (it's always somehow improbable, seeing pictures of her as a young actress).

After the age of 12 or so, we never did much birthdays at our house.  In all fairness, the parties from toddlerhood until just about then were of an almost Crawfordian lavishness, at least by the standards of small town Pennsylvania.  By 15, it was a cake at dinner and a new book, with perhaps a little something tucked into a Hallmark from one or another of the great aunts.  It was a surprise to go off to college and see how much other people made of them, and I'm still startled at times when people remember mine (thanks, MJ!), or, for that matter, when people take it as a matter of course that that their celebrations are obligatory and obligatorily grand in scale.

So we're celebrating quietly enough (brunch deluxe over the weekend), which seems right.  It's an awkward age.  We'll save the fireworks for 90.  Perhaps even then I'll think of Beatrice Arthur; equally likely, I will have confused her with one of the great aunts.  In a way, she rather was...

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"They told us / What they wanted..."

In light of this weekend's cheerful news that among the "broad range of assets" to be deployed in pursuit of security at the upcoming London Olympics will be a high-tech "sonic weapon" capable of inflicting crippling pain, let's revisit this typically peculiar, unsettlingly prescient little number by the inimitable Kate Bush.  As the kids say, I'll just leave this here...

Even her Best Friends...

Beautiful?  Certainly.  Still, the truth was undeniable:  Lady Adelaide's intractable personal-hygiene issues were such that cats two blocks away would start yowling at the approach of her barouche. 

Fortunately, Papa had netted three quarters of Kensington when he agreed to wed Lady Adelaide's dear Mama (only slightly less afflicted), and so she married into a lesser branch of middling Balkan royalty; such things were practically insignificant at court in Cetinje.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Birthday Boy: Designing Man

All sorts of interesting people share a birthday today, as we'll shortly discuss, but one name jumps out at me - couturier Valentino.  He's 80, and, knowing his style, probably still as improbably orange as ever (A Boehner avant la lettre, really).  I wonder if he's having a party. 

In 2007, when Mr. Muscato and I made our first trip to Rome, we ran into traces of an earlier fête of his while dutifully seeing the sights.  From the Colisseum I looked out across the ruin-strewn landscape and saw the temple above.  Having been a Rome-wonk as a child, I was confused, as it resembled nothing in any of the large and heavy books from Grandfather Muscato's library that I'd spent so much time with, and on top of it looked suspiciously anachronistic.

It was only later, as we spent what seemed an eternity trapped in a taxi because of a mysterious late-night traffic jam, that we learned that Signore Valentino was entertaining a few hundred friends and had comandeered the site of Hadrian's Temple of Rome for the festivities.  Even from the backseat of a Roman cab, it looked like quite a do; you may, if so inclined, learn more about it here.  Despite his regrettable affectation, dermatologically, I've always quite liked Valentino's suavely classic creations; he seems, more than most designers of this low age, the Real Thing.

Were Mr. V decide, in some eventual ethereal plain, to host a group that share his day, he could have quite a bash.  They include Chang and Eng, the pair who put the Siamese into conjoined twins (and stand as among the earliest reality-style stars); two rather different geniuses of American music, composers Irving Berlin and William Grant Still; the King and Queen of the Character Actors, Comedy Division, Phil Silvers and Margaret Rutherford; dance diva Martha Graham; surrealist sultan Salvador Dali; actor and Simpsons-fodder Doug McClure; marryin' fool David Gest; the very gifted performer Peter North (better known to some of us d'un certain age as Matt Ramsey); eternal VJ Martha Quinn; and, sadly, gone-too-soon Natasha Richardson, the first really to reinvent Miss Sally Bowles out from under the shadow of Mrs. Gest.  If nothing else, the floor show would be great fun, no?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Perfect Relationships

Something about this just feels right for today.  I don't know about you, but I'm feeling a tad sentimental, and really very proud of Our President.  Oh, I know - took long enough, and all that, but what's said is said, and here we are.

Of course, the Mr. and I do have a stake in this, as what keeps us overseas, at least in part, is that we have no choice.  We are a family (as they sing in sitcom-season-promotional specials), and it's nice to think that yesterday we moved one step more toward having that recognized.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Heigh Ho...

One's Social Life (Artist's Impression)*
...If not quite the Glamorous Life from the song, it's certainly a busy one at the moment.  I've been forced, alas, to relinquish the Suite Al Amir (and just when I was getting the hang of that damn coffee-maker, too, and was able reliably to find the bedroom without a breadcrumb trail) and have trucked back down to the capital.

It was nice to get a glimpse of the house, the dogs, and Mr. Muscato (not necessarily in that order), but then almost immediately it was off again, this time to dine.  Usually, a gala intime dinner at the town's most (to quote Cuddles Kowalsky) ra-sha-sha eaterie would be a treat, but my constitution is already tottering under the aftereffects of, over the past couple of days, far too many nibbly bits on trays, hastily grabbed conference pastries, and, truth to tell, cocktails-with-colleagues-one-sees-annually.

So, a three-hour dinner of almost obscene opulence (including a dish that was essentially lobster on a bed of crab) was, I'm ashamed to admit, really something of a trial.  At table, in addition to l'il ol' me, was an imposing group including two Excellencies and a former prince ("Oh, it's a very long story...").  Socially, sometimes one does feel very much like a Little Girl from Little Rock.  Economically, this is very much not a normal place.

For example, here are some conversational highlights of recent days:

"Ees good hotel, thees Wildorf Instoria?" - from a gentleman who explained that he really did hope so, as he's taking a floor for the summer so his family has a base in Manhattan;

"Oh, no, old boy - I'd never rent a car in the States - so much easier to buy something, an Escalade or that sort of thing, and then ship it back." - from another soon-to-be traveler, who explained that anything smaller wouldn't have room for his wife's shopping forays (they're apparently addicted to Sam's Club); and

"Of course, that's exactly what I told His Highness..." (or some close variant thereof) - the refrain of a gentleman who introduced his patron's name into the conversation far more frequently than poor Mr. Collins did that of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Well, at least it isn't dull, and with any luck a few quiet days on the horizon as we head toward the local weekend.  I need it, and the dogs will be so pleased...

* Sheer hyperbole, I know, and hardly representative.  Still, there is a connection, as this snap is from a Cuban Ball held in 1956 at, you might have guesssed - the Wildorf Instoria.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Random Snap, Dubai Edition

Conveyor belt sushi in Dubai, presided over by a vast and beneficent geisha, for no reason at all.

On the road for a couple of days, darlings, at a talk shop in the big city (just up the road from the sleepier capital, but light years away in so many ways; where we are, conveyor belt sushi is just a fever dream from the future, although at last we have a decent deli.  Count your blessings, I suppose). 

For reasons unknown, the hotel hospitality gods have deposited me in a suite the size of my first three apartments combined, and as it's early morning here, I'm off to hunt up the shower in the bathing complex.  It must be there somewhere; I'd be better prepared, but having just found the kitchen, I also found myself totally defeated by the futuristic intergalactic coffee maker.  It involves little coffeeische capsules and a great deal of steaming water, but no clear indication of how to actually create coffee out of the two.

Presuming the shower is more tractable, I should at least be rewarded for the effort of talking endlessly about synergy and emerging creative strategies with people I never hope to see again by that staple of conferences everywhere, coffee delivered from traditional urns and accompanied by those slightly squashed little fruit danish that seem so inevitable at any business confab involving more than 25 people.  Wish me luck.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ya Gotta Believe...

For anyone who found yesterday a little too wholesome - and, while I love her to death, I know that Alice Faye can have that effect on people - how about a little something, umm, less so?  The anti-Alice - the one and only, late lamented, totally demented Divine - shows us how it's done.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Birthday Girl Next Door

May 5 must have been an auspicious date for Twentieth Century Fox - it's the birthday of two of the studio's biggest stars:  Tyrone Power and the lovely lady seen here, Miss Alice Faye.

It sounds like an odd sort of compliment, but Faye might have been the most normal person ever to have achieved Hollywood's heights.  And make no mistake:  Alice Faye was a very big star, in films of course, but also on radio, before and after movies, and just a touch of theatre at either end of her career.  Throughout, though, she gives every impression that her work was just another way to make a living - honest work, and work she gave her best to, but no reason for a little girl from Hell's Kitchen to get a swelled head.

Certainly, it would be hard to make a case for considering much of her oeuvre as art.  Fox was a factory as much as a studio, and one of the reasons Alice was such an ideal Fox star is her utter predictability.  Within her fach, as it were, there's no one better, but there's no denying it's very narrow terrain. 

She began in Hollywood with something of a false start, as a kind of singing, sometimes dancing Harlow, all platinum hair and surprised-looking pencilled eyebrows.  A few quick adjustments, though, and after half a dozen pictures, the real Alice emerged:  plucky, yearning, good-hearted and commonsensical.  She stayed that way for the next twenty-odd movies, moving from turns supporting Shirley Temple to leading spectacles like In Old Chicago to helming her own Technicolor epics (as above - here she's waxing sentimental in Weekend in Havana).  In each of them she sang - romantic songs, mostly, and often old-fashioned even when the movies were new, but with the occasional up-tempo novelty thrown in; she submitted to being romanced by Tyrone (and Don Ameche, and John Payne, and others in the Fox leading-man ranks); and she adroitly wore the almost uniformly horrifying costumes that the studio's not-exactly-Adrian designers came up with for her(When she turns up in Travis Banton's stunning gowns, simultaneously period-authentic and subtly Moderne, for Lillian Russell, it's something of a shock).

And then, once she had a family and it all started to seem a little silly (and is there anything sillier than her last big picture, The Gang's All Here?) - she decided she had better things to do.  Miscast - and fatally undercut by Fox's Daryl Zanuck, who was smitten by newcomer/supporting actress Linda Darnell - in her attempt at a noir, the Preminger-directed Fallen Angel, Alice took one look at the final cut and drove away.  She sang on her huband Phil Harris's* radio program (together they were more or less radio's last big stars; their eponymous show held out against TV until '54).  Much later she made a couple of perfunctory movies, seemingly more out a sense of obligation to her persistent fans than for any other reason (and heaven knows she didn't need the money), and she had a late-in-life stint as a motivational speaker for Pfizer pharmaceuticals (she came and talked at Mother Muscato's ladies' club, once upon a time - needless to say, a massive hit - "Such a lady!  And still so lovely!").  But mostly she lived the life of a prosperous California matron, and good on her for it.

Over at the Redundant Variety Hour, Thom & Co. are considering the not-dissimilar career of Miss Bobbie Gentry, another star who burned bright but briefly, and who has become even more resolutely private than did Alice.  When you think about it, the ones who leave on their own steam seem to have a pretty good time of it. 

Some are too big really ever to disappear (think of Garbo's 40-year undercover act) and some too small to have their disappearance make much of a ripple (would anyone really miss Amanda Bynes, Penny Pingleton notwithstanding, were she actually to make good on her retirement promises?).  In between, though, bracketed somewhere between Doris Day and Kristy McNichol, there is a fascinating stratum of performers who for various reasons reinvent themselves as private citizens.  Some, to quote that song, "met a big financier" (think Theda Bara, lucky lady).  Some, like McNichol, realize that the limelight is no place to deal with tricky personal issues. 

Nothing so complicated for Alice; she'd simply worked hard enough, long enough, to make her own choices.  Let her stand as the patron saint of graceful exits.  She would have been 97 today.

* Originally I had Phil Baker here - I always mistake the two.  Baker is a now-forgotten gadabout who pops up as "himself" in Fox pictures for reasons no one today can fathom.  Harris, of course, in addition to being Mr. Faye, is the voice of Ballou in The Jungle Book and so still beloved by legions of Disneyphiles.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Sic Transit...

May 2, 1989:  In that magic moment, Geena and Jeff knew - they just knew - that stardom was forever, that their marriage was a golden, shining thing, and that in a few hours (after the premiere that they've gotten so dolled up for) their latest joint effort, Earth Girls are Easy, would be a great, big hit that would vault them ever higher in the Hollywood firmament.

Well.  So what if they weren't exactly Newman-Woodward in the wedded-bliss department.  I hear she was terrif a few years ago voicing Stuart Little 3, and as for Jeff, well, a guest spot on Glee is nothing to sneeze at, no?  Oh, dear; time in its flight...

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day! Mayday!

"Goodness," thought Jillian, realizing she hadn't been nearly specific enough in discussing the day with Tammy and Annette, "this is not the way we used to celebrate at Bryn Mawr and not at all what I meant by Maypoles!"

Even so, she had some hope that the Morris dancing might be diverting...