Thursday, August 2, 2012

A Visit to the Portrait Gallery

On our last day in Washington, while Mr. Muscato slept (Ramadan being, for the fasters, a time for mornings starting as late as one can possible manage it), I slipped out and went for a walk.  It was the first time I'd been able, what with matters business, medical, and bureaucratic, to get away and actually be in the city, wander around, enjoy it a little.

I am surprised to say it impressed me.  I've always spent as little time as possible there, hurtling in for boring corporate stuff and flying away.  When I was first spending much time there, I was a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, and part of that package is a certain snootiness about Our Nation's Capital.  Also, in those days, much of the central part of town, away from the Federal Disneyland, really did look like a bomb zone.

Now, though - not so much.  We stayed near Thomas Circle, an area I remember finding distinctly unsavory, and on my morning out I walked from there, in a circuitous sort of way, down to one of my favorite places, the National Portrait Gallery.  It's astonishing how much the whole area has changed.  I suppose it's all really gentrification at its worst, and has all sorts of negative ramifications invisible to the outsider, but my goodness - the restaurants, the shops, the tidy new buildings of offices and apartments (many of them unusually quite handsome, and most at least in keeping with the city's distinct architectural atmosphere)!

Even the Portrait Gallery, along with its sister Museum of American Art, has been given a once over, the historic building they share gleaming and a dramatic new glass umbrella covering its central courtyard.  Fortunately, on the whole it has been spared the fate of Kensington Palace (and not a few of the other Smithsonian entities - and yes, I do mean you, Museum of American History) and not been hyper-stupidified for the benefit of the imagined hordes of ADD-afflicted tourists who seem to be the prime target of museum designers these days.

So I had a lovely hour or so, checking in on friends old and new at the Gallery, and I'll likely be sharing a few in days to come.

For example, a highlight of the New Acquisitions room is the lovely drawing above, in unexpected polychrome, of one treasurable New Yorker by another.  I really can't quite grasp that neither are still around, but hasn't Mr. Hirschfeld done well by Miss Sills?

I'm an unabashed, star-struck Bubbles fan, which I know isn't strictly fashionable these days in opera-queen-land, but what can I do?  She was a staple of television when I was a tot at my grandparents' knees, and while I only heard her in full performance once (a Barber of Seville in Philadelphia - I remember principally that she wore a powder-blue gown and romped beautifully), I had the enormous luck to spend a little time with her, some thirty years ago.

She came to campus, as a Distinguished Guest, for a week of talks and other programming.  As one the university's more obviously aesthetic types, as it were, I suppose I was drafted into helping, and so ended up taking her from activity to activity, holding on to her things when she was speaking and generally presaging my future career as a modern-day Birdie Coogan to the Great and Good (a phase of my life that I often reflect on for its sheer oddness).

She was everything one could hope - charming, funny, sensible, and with that great gift of the greatly gifted of making you feel, when they speak with you, that you are at that moment the center of their attention.

She was not, as you may remember, a small lady - in any way.  Sills was tall, and zaftig, and when she laughed, she laughed, in a way that made you laugh, too.  She was perfectly turned out, in a succession of elegant diva-in-the-daytime numbers, the shoes, the bag, the bits of jewellery here and there, all of them almost exaggeratedly understated, as if to offset her own larger-than-lifeness.  At one point, she noticed me noticing one piece that remained unchanged throughout the week - a ring that was noticeable precisely because it was larger and a shade more extravagant than the rest of her discreetly elegant accessories.

"Ah, you caught me."  And she showed me the ring, large and round and, if memory serves, diamond-encrusted - with, in the center, a tiny, ticking clock.

"I was raised, you see, that it was rude for a lady to check her watch, especially when people are talking to you.  But I have to keep on schedule, and nobody ever thinks twice about a lady admiring her own ring!"

And for the rest of our too-brief time, I would notice her, during Q&As or chatting during the inevitable coffee-hours after, discreetly looking with satisfaction at her perfectly manicured hand, and starting to make her goodbyes.  And off we'd go to the next engagement.

Sadly, she said her final goodbyes far too early, professionally while she was still in relatively good voice (and could likely have gone for years in undemanding recitals and crossover parts) and then, at last, permanently.  I don't know that we'll again have opera singers with her kind of general celebrity.  Then again, I don't suppose we today have anyone quite like Al Hirschfeld to immortalize them.


  1. Sweetie, once again I have to say, my, the life you've led. The closest I got to any star was delivering a beer to one of the Smothers Brothers, and now I can't even remember which one it was.

    Isn't it remarkable, considering how little use he had for realism, how instantly recognizable Hirschfeld's subjects are?

  2. My first thought on investigating exactly who Miss Sills was, was "who knew Hillary Clinton could sing?"

    There remains no better cartoon portraitist than Hirschfield, and, so it would seem from your fabulous recollection, few sweeter coloratura divas than Beverly Sills.

    Fab. Jx