Friday, November 30, 2012

Working for the Weekend

If there's a slight somnolence in these parts, it's because Mr. Muscato and I have escaped the National Day madness and holed up at our favorite little place in Dubai.  It's not quite what Messrs. Rodgers and Hart had in mind in terms of A Small Hotel, but we enjoy it.  The Villa Muscato pays, once a year, for its enviable location by being in the very heart of this annual celebration, which mostly consists of local youth backfiring their enormous SUVs and tiny, exotic sportscars all night long while covering any unwary foreigners in silly string and foam.  It's terribly pleasant, if you like that sort of thing - which, of course, being sane people (most of the time) we don't.

Meanwhile, today has been memorable in the Sandlands because we've had rain, and not just a drop or two - great sheets of it, for hours at a time.  In a place where there is simply no drainage whatsoever, and people have no (but no) idea of how to drive, this poses some problems.  Let's just say the drive up was fraught.  Fortunately, our Hotel specializes in what local custom forces us to refer to as "free-flowing bubbly grape."  We feel much better.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ev'rything Old is New Again...

Over in his cosy corner of the cyberverse, dear Cookie has been regaling us with tales of real estate and family furniture - perennial hot topics, both, whenever two members of my extended family gather.  The Farm and Why We Lost It looms large, as does We Never Saw That Chiffonier Again After Your Aunt Ginnie Got Her Hands On it, and variations on both can take us well into the night, outlasting both patient spouses and the cocktail supply (the former by a lot, the latter only very slightly).

Quite independently of all that, I've been thinking of furniture now and again, mostly in the form of wondering whatever happened to mine.  Oh, I know, well enough, but after all these years overseas, it all feels rather abstract.  Back in the beginning, when the Great Emperor Clinton ruled the West, I thought I'd take a flyer and see what the expatriate life might be like.  I gave up my (rue the day - rent-stabilized!) Manhattan apartment and, on the instruction of my new employer, put all my things into storage.  "Don't get rid of too much," they told me, "Many people only spend a year or two out and then come back to the Home Office."  Well, we know how that turned out.

So there it all sits, still, my life more or less frozen in amber, some two tons of it (what?  A lot of it's books), as it existed back when Cher was having her seventeenth or twenty-third comeback with "Believe."  Among the great mass of regrettabilia that I can still remember are something on the order of 160 snowglobes (a passing fancy that snowballed, as it were, into a collection only because people kept giving them to me), an acid-washed tour jacket for a production I worked on (which I might still be able to wear, were abbreviated boleros ever to have an unexpected renaissance), and, I think, a fair amount of the product of Catalina Studios, on VHS.  Surpassing all that, however, in terms of sheer bulk, is a remarkable amount of Victoriana, much of it passed on from relatives - three china cupboards of various capacity, a bowfront secretary, several clocks, a great many spindly end tables, and so many impractical things on which to sit that, for a while, some of them hung from the walls and some acquaintances referred to my place as "The Chair Museum."

"Your apartment," a friend once told me, "is very nice.  For an exiled archduchess.  For you... well, I'm not surprised you're single."

Were all of that ever to descend back on me - now us (and so there, Gene Boarderman!*) - I'm not quite sure what we'd do.  Some of the things have sentimental value; some fewer are inherently attractive; and as for the chairs, my grandfather's vast tufted armchair aside, I'm not sure there's a single one on which either Mr. Muscato or I could sit without endangering it and us.  Market wise, the bottom has fallen out of nineteenth century furniture, and none of my various nieces and nephews show any sign of wanting to become the next generation of caretakers.

All of which brings us to the image above, the work of one Darci Goodman, who put this rather beguilingly rethought settee into a "Colorful Ranch House" she designed.  You see, sitting there in some East Coast warehouse, among the tawdry videos and doubtless now unusable rolled-up carpets, is a love seat very like this one, albeit still clad in the dowdy hunter-green shot silk I put on it when Grandmother's lilac velvet finally gave up the ghost in 1989.

Perhaps, when my Long Lost Possessions and I are finally reunited, this is the way I'll go: throw caution to the wind and run a little wild.  Having had the domicile of a Pym heroine in my twenties and thirties, perhaps I'll become the male equivalent of those women who constantly recite that "When I am Old I Shall Wear Purple" poem and decorate wildly.  I'd like that settee in my foyer, wild orange stripes and all; I can only imagine it will go better with what I've picked up on the road - African totems and huge Ottoman brass trays, Egyptian knick-knacks and such - than the shot silk.  Rather nice to think: while I may have no choice but to grow older, at least my taste can grow a little younger as the years roll by, no?

* Name changed to protect the catty and inaccurate.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

We're Soaking in it...

The Muscato beauty regimen (artist's impression)

Oh, dear.  Trying days in the Sandlands, kids.  This is the week before The Beloved Country's national-day celebrations, and the hyperbolic leader-praising that's going on would make pikers like Tito or Ceausescu just a little bit throw-uppy at the overkill.  Sometimes I think the local copywriters have been studying at the Pyongyang Academy of Obsequious Loquacity, so effusive are the encomia and so perfervid the prose ("Grateful Sons of the Union Greet Sheikh's Boundless Generosity with Joy" is a not-atypical kind of headline).  Portraits of the various dear leaders are being tacked up everywhere, and you can tell those houses occupied by local nationals (a minority, even here in the capital), as they are draped (sometimes literally and completely, Christo-style) in flags and banners in the ubiquitous national colors.  It's all rather hard to take with a straight face, which is absolutely necessary.  And it only gets worse for the next week or so.  Oy.

On top of that, things are being even more than usually diffy at what passes for my place of employment.  I mean, wouldn't be nice if sometimes, just for a moment or two, people wouldn't insist on being so stupid?

All of which makes it all the more endearing that this evening when I arrived home (late, hungry, irritable, and all-around All In) I discovered Mr. Muscato lying on a sofa, terrier on lap, face hidden most uncharacteristically* under a mud mask.  "I got you one," he said, pointing carefully without moving his face.  "It says on the package it's relaxing."

It was, and so we've had ourselves a little soir de beauté, and I must say we do feel the better for it.  Any calming beauty secrets you'd like to share?  We're clearly in the mood for more...

* Our pal Miss Rheba once confided to me that when she thinks of Mr. Muscato, she is reminded of those nymphomaniacal women in '40s movies (frequently played by Judy Canova and her ilk) who exclaim "It's a MAAAA-yun!" whenever they see a hot soldier walk by.  He actually used to be a hot soldier, but that's another story.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sister Act

They tried to start a fan club.  Finally, their glamourous Cousin Nancye (who sang alto with her own trio) finally had the sense to pull the ringleader (Jolene, left) aside and tell her in no uncertain terms that they were never going to get anyone to sign up for something called "The McCancers."  She later thought she might have gone too far when she added that they really had to stop Sadie Jo (center) from making their stage costumes.

Not long thereafter, the girls took their own advice and headed for the Lights of Home.  For all I know, they're still there.  Well, except for Liddie (right) who later moved to Fresno to become a key-punch operator.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Accept No Substitutes

So.  I hear people have been talking about her a little this weekend.  That certainly wouldn't surprise her, although the low-rent context might - that was one thing she never was.

And God knows, she was many things.  Star - no, for her it can be said: superstar.  Beauty, at moments nearly unparalled.  Actress, and at times a damn good one.  Bonne vivante, gourmande, and acolyte of excess in almost every conceivable form. Wife (also at times a good one), mother, grandmother, philanthropist, activist, author, entrepreneur (few in Hollywood died richer).  Child, girl, woman, old woman, all in the very middle of the public eye.

All I have to say about this latest assault on her legend is to echo what another Hollywood survivor, Mr. Bugs Bunny, might have said:  da noive.

This impertinent attempt does conjure up one question:  has there ever been a really satisfactory incarnation on film of a film legend?  The only one that springs to my feeble mind is Betty Comden in Garbo Talks, and she was given only the (daunting) task of impersonating the star's back.  I know that Blanchett won an Oscar for her Hepburn, but I found it vaguely embarrassing, a party trick at best (and not, in the end, all that precise an impression).  Downey's Chaplin is close, I suppose, but the movie was all over the place, and after that it's kind of a yawning void - Mr. Barbra Streisand and An Unmarried Woman were hardly a satisfactory Gable and Lombard, and Dunaway as Crawford strays perilously close to Lizanddickland.  In the sixties, there were two attempts at Harlow, both flops (deservedly), and more recently Kirsten Dunst as a pretty blonde called Marion Davies, but nothing like the original in manner or looks.

One thing the last twenty-four hours have taught us:  when it comes to a force of nature like Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Chevalière de la Légion d'Honneur (among countless other gongs, two Oscars not the least of them) - the viewing public would have been a lot better off, last night, watching BUtterfield 8.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ten Thoughts on a Low Dive

While we were lolling about in Istanbul, Mr. Muscato and the Egyptian boys decided they wanted to see the real Turkey, to go off the beaten tourist track of Taksim and Sultanahmet.  Through friends of friends, they had heard about a little pub on the wrong side of the tracks, frequented by the right sort of clientele.

That's how we found ourselves, latish one night, rattling along in the tram out past the bright lights of touristland, out along an avenue that grew progressively less cosmopolitan with every stop.  The slight lip-service of at least a little English on signs seen elsewhere in town disappeared, and soon enough we appeared to be the only non-Turks aboard.  I had been the Internet researcher that turned the boys' vague memories of friends' accounts into a name and an address, and so I led us at what seemed to be the right stop out into the darkness.

It turned out I'm a better navigator than you might have thought; we found the place.  It was all that it had been painted, and more.  I'm pretty sure that almost everyone there was a direct descendant of one of the gentleman above.  Hell - I think some of them might have been the gentlemen above.

Following, in no particular order, are the things I learned about a night out at a wholly non-Westernized Turkish nightspot catering to (to steal a phrase from Papa Hemingway) Men without Women:

1.  Nowhere else on earth will you ever feel so completely not-Turkish.

2.  Not to mention not-butch.  In this joint, Charles Bronson would feel like Totie Fields.

3.  When compared to about 80% of the men present, that is.  As one’s eyes adjust to the dim light, one realizes that she was in fact a good deal butcher than about 15% of these boys.

4.  The remaining 5% may in fact be Totie Fields.

5.  Wherever they register, however, they all have moustaches.  If they’re really butch, their moustaches have moustaches.

6.  In general, this is a very good thing indeed.

7.  In the hands of the right house band, Turkish pop combines the energy of its Arab counterpart and the melodramatic darkness of Slavic folksongs.   The result is disconcerting but not unalluring.

8.  Especially when it’s making half of those present dance, and the other half weep.

9.  Whether dancing or weeping, however, everybody’s singing.

10.   When you find yourself dancing, weeping, and singing, it’s time to go home.

In short, we had a Very Good Time. 

A couple of things surprised me about the joint.  For one, even though Turkey remains a country ferociously devoted to smoking as a nearly mandatory social pastime, the place scrupulously observed the no-smoking-in-public rules flouted in cafés and restaurants all across Istanbul.  For another, there was a casual cheerfulness about the place (even with all the minor-key induced weeping - it really was as if every other song were a cross between "Danny Boy" and "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," albeit with a belly-dance beat, from the reaction they were getting) that belied its outside grittiness.  It sort of gave you the impression of a gay Turkish Cheers, if Cheers had been ten times more crowded, and Carla had been a man (actually, one of the barbacks was disctinctly rheaperlmanesque, right down to the perm).

And the regulars really had a very Turkish kind of charm.  They tended either toward the mature:

Just a snap found online, but it conveys, I think, the butch-Totie conundrum...

Or the less so, but still not uninteresting:

Although, just to clarify, everyone that night stayed full dressed.  Pity.

We missed the last tram back to the more-traveled side of town, but all agreed it had been worth the excursion.  Once we stopped weeping and singing, that is...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: La Lupe!

"Camp is the glorification of 'character'... Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence - a person being one, very intense thing."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
In "Notes on Camp," Sontag includes a brief list of things that were, at the time she wrote the piece (1964) "part of the canon of Camp."  Most of them still ring true today (Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Thombeau's beloved Scopitones), although perhaps fewer people are enamored now of Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, and her final entry, "stag movies seen without lust" has gone from Camp to more or less a definition of contemporary popular culture.
Rereading "Notes on Camp," one entry stood out: "The Cuban pop singer La Lupe."  I didn't know her; I had to investigate.
Sontag was right: she is the very definition of "continual indancescence," a sort of half-crazed combination of Celia Cruz (herself no stranger to afficionados of Camp) and Janis Joplin.  We see her here on an early '60s Puerto Rican talk show; those curious to see her on a more mainstream stage might be interested in her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.  He speaks, retrospectively, of her having a kind of "pleasant menacing quality...a quality that's essential for most drama."  Suffice it to say that he ends the segment half-dressed; she would seem to have had that effect on people.

Meanwhile, in the Dormitory

Oh, that Rose-Mary. There was a reason the headmistress at Miss Crosbie's Academy for Young Ladies never allowed her to spend too much time with the new girls.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Turkey Day

Just a picture nabbed from the 'net, but a rather good idea of how the picnic table in the sunroom looked; Aunt Ruth delivers the flowers, in the processing getting a good first look at the turkey and the salad.  Speaking of which, can you spot the salad?

Thank you. Thank you. Simple words, so frequently tossed out, so little considered (except, inevitably, today). We say it to everyone, from God (if we have one; I seem to have misplaced mine along the way) to the nice man at the grocery store who carries your bags to the car (we're very spoiled in the Sandlands, as I might have mentioned once or twice). Sometimes we even mean it (speaking to either of the above, if the burden is particularly heavy, or indeed anyone else). As Americans, I've learned, we unconsciously judge others by its lack (some cultures don't require it) or its abundance (saying thank you in Egypt can take five minutes - thank you, a thousand thanks, bless you, bless your family, praise to your endless generosity and to the excellence of your forebears...).

It's a nice idea, Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted entirely to thank you, even though, of course, being thoughtless and foolish, we have diluted and benighted it, with sales and supersales, with routines that shade from traditional to onerous, with turkey-shaped candlesticks and the ominous shadow of Christmas just around the corner (Christmas creep has reached the Sandlands, by the bye - a tree towers over the escalator at our local supermarket, and the music switches neck-snappingly from Arab pop to what sounds suspiciously like one of those Firestone anthologies we used to get at the gas station, the records that jammed onto one piece of vinyl Brenda Lee and Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett and Julie Andrews. Boxes of stuffing sit on the specialty shelves next to Christmas crackers, for the holidays here are a curious Anglo-American amalgam, half Santa and Hot Wheels and half paper crowns and Christmas puddings).

Remembering Thanksgiving makes me nostalgic, but not sad (that's reserved, I suppose, for Christmas). As with so many aspects of life, Thanksgiving at our house was itself something of a neck-snapper, veering unpredictably between squabbling and unthinking generosity. Arguing about the menu, of course, never grew old, dinner conversations growing tenser as October moved into November: We never put chestnuts in our stuffing. I suppose she'll insist on bringing those creamed onions, won't she? Do we really have to have a ham as well? I'm sorry, there's just no question: that marshmallow-yam casserole is common as mud.

Meanwhile, preparations gathered pace: tablecloths ironed, napkins starched, all the silver (both the used and the just-for-show) relentlessly polished, the best water glasses checked for chips, and your great-great-grandmother's Haviland counted to make sure we didn't need to borrow any of your grandmother's Spode (Mother Muscato's wartime-wedding Lenox being deemed insufficiently grand for state occasions; it was the Tightum of dishes, only slightly less shameful than the aluminum rationware, trays and platters and cakestands, she also got as presents in lieu of sterling, banished to the basement but now I suppose fetching fortunes as Mid-Century Chic). Then the shopping and the pre-cooking (and more wrangling - turkey from the grocer, Mrs. Vetrone the grocer's wife expects us to buy from them, or from the farm, so much fresher and really, Helen, are you sure the Vetrones' place is all that clean?), the en-staling of the stuffing bread and the finding of the turkey platter (perpetually lost, and perpetually discovered at the back of the closet of the little room at the top of the stairs, where the photo albums and boxes of tattered Easter decorations lived).

And then the day.

The one question rarely asked, the one kind of bickering forgone: who should come? The answer, simply, was anyone, beyond just us, who needs to. Miss Brown the librarian, the year her mother at long last died and she was so very much alone; the random traveling salesmen or hapless businessman who turned up the previous night at the Club, not able to make the last flight out; even your Great Aunt Ruth from Youngstown, even though all she'll do is complain at having to come all this way and talk about the goddam Daughters of the American Revolution. One year a family, very quiet, a father and three weedy children, I had never seen even though they lived a block away, something Very Wrong only hinted at (be nice, not everyone's as lucky as you are); another, a whole family of cousins who neglected to let us know they were coming, all the way from Mamaroneck. It snowed, and they had to stay the night (and aren't you glad we have that ham, now?).

One memorable year we sat down, 26 of us, the picnic table brought in and fitted with difficulty into the sunroom, looking oddly tarted up but somehow rakish under its weight of damask and silver, card tables in the living room and the children out in the kitchen. Our ladies - Fanny who was ours and Alice who was one grandmother's and Mrs. Blake who worked for the other (Mr. Blake had worked for grandfather in the old days, and hence her honorific) came and spent the morning, but then were sent duly off by noon for their own celebrations, a pie and a bottle of something warming for each joining the turkey that had been delivered to their houses on the East Side last Monday.  And then we ate.

And ate. And ate. After an hour or so, it wasn't unusual for one or another of the not-us guests, shifting uncomfortably as another helping of mashed potato was delivered on its way past, to observe, timidly, goodness, but you Muscatos certainly do enjoy your dinner, don't you, and Grandfather Muscato would stare them down from under his memorable eyebrows, look around the table (Great Aunt Ruth starting as she was caught shamelessly eating from the cranberry dressing spoon) and growl, we certainly do.

Laughter and arguing - the substance of memory, and of childhood. Something to be grateful for.

Today will be quieter; we're dining with friends at their apartment, ridiculously high up in one of the ridiculous new towers that dot the sandy coastline here. I'm taking Grandmother Muscato's corn pudding and of course a little Champagne. I think we'll have a very nice time, and I know my friends will forgive me if, at times, I'm only half in that glass-walled room on the 62nd floor and half back at another table, in another time.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Freeze Tag

Stop time.  Have her remember why they need to leave.  Decide to fly out that night, back to the capital, fly back to the children.  Think of a reason.

It is San Antonio, Texas, November 21, 1963.  They still have to do Houston and Fort Worth.  In the morning, they go on to Dallas.  She plans to wear her pink; she hasn't worn it for a year or more, since the visit of the Maharajah of Jaipur.  She has no idea.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tale of Woe

This has been, my dears, a trying day.  It started off on a very wrong foot and hasn't really gone uphill since then.  Which would have been easy, really, since the first thing that happened was someone slamming into the Muscatomobile as I eased out of the gates of the Villa Muscato (houses here are all gated; it's not like it's really all that fancy) and into our quiet lane.

I felt rather badly for the poor little Subcontinental gentleman who so inexpertly piloted his company's aging sedan into my dear little car (my rolling midlife crisis, I call it, for how else to explain a red convertible if you are a portly middle-aged gent?), as he was clearly horrified at having done so, but nonetheless the damage was done.  Sadly that damage was considerable, as he managed to hit the back of the car in just such a way as to maximize the impact by whomping me (forgive the technical term) into the just-opened gate, leaving a very nice series of punctures and gouges all along the side of the vehicle facing away from the accident, on top of the crumpled bumper and worse where he hit me.

I rang the police, as well as the office, and soon enough representatives of both appeared.  Routine road problems have been contracted out here, and the earnest officer-equivalent who came along was pleasant enough, but I was quite glad that I had our trusty public-relations man on my side, too (the PR manager - called a PRO in Sandlandian- is in these parts not someone who handles one's publicity, but rather one's interactions with all things official - if you are a lucky corporate stiff, your PRO does everything from renew your liquor license to, well, show up and wrangle with the contract cop when you have a fender-bender). 

The issue, it turned out, was that I had better insurance than the [company of the] man who hit me, and therefore it seemed only fair to the policeman (equivalent) that it all should be my fault.  Since everything that follows an accident here hinges on the first police certificate issued (without which you can't get a car repaired at all), it's thus rather important that fault be assigned correctly from the start.  It took a great deal of intense (and in Arabic, intense is intense, and all the more so when you throw some Hindi and/or Urdu into the mix) backing-and-forthing to finally wring from him the admission that since one side of the car was covered with all-too-clearly gate-induced gashes, it was unlikely in the extreme that I had deliberately pulled all the way into the street, prevailed on the gentleman to hit me, and then headed back to ensure that I dragged the car along the gate.

At long last, however, all was resolved, and I emerged triumphant with the certificate in my favor in hand.  Now all it will take is several weeks and doubtless endless bureaucracy to restore the poor car to something like its pre-whomping condition.

And the rest of the day?  Suffice it to say that the accident was in fact among the less annoying things that I've suffered.  Nothing fatal, nothing really even serious, but my lord it does seem to be a phase of the moon when everyone around one seems intent on testing the boundaries of that elegant phrase, "my last nerve."

Speaking of elegant phraseology, I include the rippling specimen above as a kind of calmative, both for me for having gotten through the day and you for having had to read at such length about it.  I think he's really rather appropriately automotive and a not at all untoothsome example of what dear Mr. Peenee so tastefully refers to as "muscle pussy."  So at least today has that going for it; here's to a better tomorrow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cover Her Face

Today, we're used to seeing famous people in disarray - either of their own making (coffee cups in hand, strolling around in torn shorts and sloppy tee-shirts, heedless of the telephoto lens) or of the relentless photographers' (that startled, universal expression that just precedes a more definitive response as some star or starlet leaves a nightclub, clandestine lover's house, or doctor's office).

Once upon a time, though, that wasn't so.  Stars were distant, perfect, glimpsed only at the behest of trusted studio photographers or social-column snappers who might get an idealized glimpse tableside at Ciro's or the Coconut Grove.  Those few who were, as it were caught in the act (often related to arrests, courtroom testimony, or similar indication of personal and professional turmoil) seemed, even more than ordinary mortals would have been, exposed, and somehow diminished (think of Robert Mitchum in jail, or Frances Farmer, dishevelled and struggling as she's dragged into night court).  Some survived this violation of the terms of fame (Mitchum came back); some didn't (Farmer sank into madness and obscurity, in part at least for so blatantly trampling her glittering blonde image).

All of which makes this picture all the more arresting. Joan Crawford was the absolute acme of the star-as-control-freak, the ultimate product of the ultimate studio, MGM.  Whether dining at PickFair at one end of her career or opening a Pepsi bottling plant in Paraguay at the other, she was always perfectly turned out, perfectly composed, perfectly... perfect.  And always, always, portrayed on her own terms.  Even her films - laden as they were with melodramatic excess - rarely, in the course of limning extremes of emotion, required the star to do more than look obdurately into the middle distance, a glycerine tear coursing a careful trail down her meticulously pancaked cheek (in a way, that's what makes her occasional moments of violence - slapping the egregious Veda in Mildred Pierce, for example - all the more bracing).  Oh, there were rumors, even at her height, that presaged her posthumous savaging at her daughter's hands, but they were offstage, distant thunder.

Here, though, she's giving way.  It's 1959, the funeral of her fourth and final husband, Al Steele, and although she remains beautifully dressed (although some might say the matching purse and pumps are just that little bit too much), for once her face betrays her, despite (perhaps because of?) the mask of veil and sunglasses.  Here she's Joan Steele, genuinely distraught, or as genuinely as Joan Crawford can be after, at that point, more than 30 years more frequently indicating than feeling deep emotion. 

Of course, she was spared the indignities that would be heaped on a star in this situation today - the microphones in her face, the mandatory questions ("How does it feel, Joan?" "Are you going to miss him?" "Where's Christina, Joan?") and the obligatory self-disclosure - right there, in the street; on talk shows; on Twitter ("@MrsSteele: Can't express too much my sorrow - we had the Best of Everything (in theatres now)").  Still, it's disconcerting.  You feel for her, for her double distress (at her loss, and at being seen experiencing it); it's an embarrassment, of a kind, and yet you can't look away.  Mine eyes dazzle; he died young, even if she didn't, and even if with her went the expectation that this sort of thing would be the exception rather than the rule of stardom.

 Photo from the invaluable The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

And Now, a Word from our [Defunct] Sponsor

This weekend's news has me down, albeit in a wholly nostalgic sort of way. It's been decades since I've had one, but the kid at :20 snarfing down his HoHo? Might as well be me. Hostess products were definitely my drug of choice, circa 1970, and HoHos the very best of all (Mother Muscato, in her inexplicable way, declared Twinkies common, but HoHos and Fruit Pies were just fine).

Ah, well.  Tout passe, tout lasse, tout casse...

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Sing

One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive... Considered a little less strictly, Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious.
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

The oddness of the setting; the surprise of first hearing the voice; the subtle wrongness of the vowels.  This is Miss Keiko Toge, Japan's foremost impersonator, vocally at least, of Miss Karen Carpenter.  She sings (at times, at least, says another Youtube, "with Richard's blessing"*) the late superstar's hits with a serene enthusiasm that hints that she understands not a syllable of the lyrics and nothing of the context of the singer's life.

I started today thinking of posting an actual Carpenters video, but I soon discovered what Sontag already knew: "Camp and tragedy are antitheses."  In person, Karen Carpenter's tragedy is still too near, too fresh; our knowledge of her dysfunction, of the unnerving family dynamic, of the falseness of the plastic smiles, all drain even the most over-the-top 'seventies clips of their potential camp value.  Someday, perhaps, or perhaps even now for someone younger, less aware of the time and backstory.  In the meantime, at least, we have Keiko, or for that matter Todd Haynes's Superstar (available on YouTube, despite years of Richard Carpenter's trying to suppress it), which mediates between the story and our experience of it by re-enacting it with fashion dolls.

One tragedy of Karen Carpenter - beyond her own sad story - is that it was only really after her death that many people discovered that she wasn't, in one way or another, a kind of pop-culture joke.  The voice is real, however buried in her brother's overproduction it sometimes is, and it still speaks.  Even in Keiko's awkward approximation, if you listen just right - it's yesterday once more.

* Their meeting is creepy in the extreme.

Friday, November 16, 2012

What Becomes...

For no particular reason except that it's a lovely thing, Miss Swanson in Blackglama.  The artists who worked on this campaign were both extraordinarily sensitive to the personalities of their remarkable sitters - initially, at least, legends indeed - and as heavy-handed with the retouching as anyone this side of MGM at its most shameless.

The genius of the Blackglama ads (as demonstrated in this gallery, which does the brand the disservice of including the more recent, distinctly less legendary, sitters) is that they simultaneously play on the image of each sitter (Swanson with her carnation, Ann Miller dancing, Hellman and her cigarette) and universalize them - not just by draping them in mink, but by reducing their faces to their most essential elements.  It's a different kind of retouching than was usually seen until then (the first ads ran in 1968), which frequently relied on soft-focus and a glow so intense the sitter could seem to be lit from within (the kinds of stills beloved of fallen stars now appearing in your local dinner theatre's production of I Do! I Do! or Forty Carats).  Instead, these smoothed-out faces are masklike, in a way that emphasizes why each legend matters.

Swanson looks softer and more reflective than was her wont.  Famously un-nostalgic, she survived the ultimate anti-nostalgia trip that was Sunset Boulevard by refusing to be trapped by Norma Desmond, even if she never did find another role as challenging. To look at an assortment of Swanson images over the decades is to be astonished at the strength and variety of her expressions.  In this picture, though, she ponders; it is uncharacteristic, yet arresting.  She may just be thinking about her lunch, or what she'll do that evening, or the oddness of wearing a fur coat and black leather gloves in what may well have been August, but she seems lost in a revery - as well she deserved to be - of her own fabulosity.  Perhaps that's what becomes a legend most...

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Random Thoughts for Thursday

A busy day chez nous, darlings, as Mr. Muscato has launched once again into one of his domestic fits.  Pasta making, it seems, is the current thing, and while he's very good at it, it does involve my pitching in and helping drape long strands of the stuff everywhere possible.  Mildly exhausting.  Tomorrow, I am led to believe, we'll be moving on to ravioli and gnocchi.  After that, God only knows, but if I seem a little punchier than usual, blame it on a carb coma.

The snap above has nothing, really, to do with culinary goings-on in the Villa Muscato, but I rather like it.  It is the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, a curious and rather marvelous tourist attraction a few yards from the Hagia Sophia.  Once a primary reservoir for Byzantium, today, with its mood lighting, pan pipes, and teashop at the exit, it feels more like a lost set for Phantom of the Opera, lacking only Michael Crawford oaring about in a skiff.  Still, it's undeniably atmospheric, and the vast forest of columns drawn from hither and yon around the Eastern Empire to support the tidy brick vaulted ceiling inspires a kind of pleasant, abstract melancholy as you wander about (if, that is, you can ignore the tourist families and omnipresent camera flashes).

We're feeling very indulgent, about more than just fresh pasta - which with a splash of good oil, a sliver of garlic, and a little of this or that is delicious - as we've embarked on a long weekend.  Islamic New Year, you see, which is, I must admit, only moderately festive in and of itself, being celebrated with a notable lack of party hats, Champers, and "Auld Lang Syne."  Time enough for that, all too soon.  At least in the meantime, terriers permitting, we'll be sleeping in for the next couple of days.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Birthday Boy: Gentleman in Waiting

The lace-bedizened infant seen here in the impeccably regal (imperial, in fact) lap of his great-grandmother turns 64 today.  Charles Philip Arthur George (known formally as Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles, Prince and Great Steward of Scotland, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight of the Order of Australia, Companion of the Queen's Service Order, Member of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, and Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty) must certainly rank among the most patient persons in history.

As I do his sister, the formidable Princess Royal (perhaps the current member of the British family most like the occasionally terrifying Queen Mary), I rather admire the man.  He has managed to maintain a quirky individuality even as he's nearly faultlessly done his duty this past half-century or so, and while his personal life certainly had a rough patch after his unwise first marriage, he has taken from its wreckage two apparently well-raised sons and found very evident happiness in a second marriage that likely ought to have happened decades before it was finally manageable.

Seeing him here, cradled in that not-exactly-maternal embrace, it is rather astonishing what continuity this image represents.  Today, the baby's daughter-in-law is the Duchess of Cambridge, and a fetching creature she is.  In 1867 - just two years after the American Civil War ended - Queen Mary was (as unlikely as this may seem) herself a helpless babe in arms.  Her godmother was the last Duchess of Cambridge, a redoubtable woman who presaged the later longevity of the family by living from 1797 until 1889.  So, the ruddy-faced man who today opines on the environment and wears perhaps the most beautifully cut suits of anyone this side of his father was dandled on the lap of a woman who was, in the year that Marx published Das Kapital, brought to the baptismal font by a woman born in the year Napoleon deposed the last Doge of Venice.

All of which, because I am funny that way, makes me sit and think.  What I mostly hope is that, when she is given the chance, the Duchess of Cornwall emulates the style of her husband's great-grandmother and loads on the jewels with a trowel.  I think she'd look well draped in ropes of pearls en style Teck, and heaven knows the toque is ripe for a comeback.  In the meanwhile, I hope the Prince has a very happy birthday, secure in the knowledge that, if he can stick it out, eventually he'll take over the family firm.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Birthday Girl: Bright Young Thing

I think I could be forgiven had I been tempted to save this particular birthday girl to use as a future Mystery Guest.  Would you have connected this rather alarmingly coiffed, mildly Tallulahesque denizen of the '20s with Maude Findlay's sharp-tongued factotum Mrs. Naugatuck? 

But it's true, for decades before Hermione Baddeley became beloved of a generation of young filmgoers as the housemaid in Mary Poppins or, later on, traded barbs with Adrienne Barbeau, she was a stalwart of the British stage and screen.  Of all the things she did, I think, the one I'd trade my eye-teeth for (such as they are) would be the chance to glory in her turn, alongside her namesake, the immortal Hermione Gingold, in their pal Noël Coward's Fallen Angels.  That, I am quite sure, was a memorable night in the theatre.

I feel especially lucky today, for in my quest to find a good snap to pay tribute to Hermione B., I happened across a rather enchanting new destination:  The Fabulous Birthday Blog.  I can't think how I've missed it 'til now.  Go there immediately, but do come back; it gets lonely here without you...

Monday, November 12, 2012

...And Marion Never Looked Lovelier

I think Marion Davies must have enjoyed the late 'thirties more than any time in her life.  She didn't have to worry about getting up at the crack of dawn to pretend to be a movie star any more (hell, she hardly bothered to brush her hair), WR was getting old enough that he'd let her out on the town on her own every once in a while, and even if she was getting a little chinny, she still had the best rocks in Hollywood.  What did she care if stuck-up posers like Connie Bennett gave her the high-hat?  Doug Fairbanks still thought she was good fun.

Look at them.  You just know that the second the photographer finished, they ditched Miss B. and her lapdog, Gilbert Roland (she'd marry him, eventually, but here she's still the Marquise de la Falaise de la Coudraye, thank you very much), and headed back to the bar.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Arms and the Man

Sixty-three years ago today, Mr. Marlon Brando apparently celebrated Veterans' Day by pumping a little iron.  If nothing else, we can all be grateful that Life was there.  He's never been my favorite actor (extraordinary talent fatally undercut by what would seem to be the utter absence of a sense of humor), but in his youth, there's no denying he had a Certain Something, no?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Banging on a Different Drum

"...time contracts the sphere of banality. (Banality is, strictly speaking, always a category of the contemporary.) What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic... Thus, things are campy, not when they become old - but when we become less involved in them, and can enjoy, instead of be frustrated by, the failure of the attempt."

- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Well, it's still a pretty terrible song, and the girls don't really look any better than they did in 1982, but Sontag's right - on the whole, it's kind of fantastic.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Only in My Dreams

Here's one for gentlemen of a certain age:  I woke up this morning from a dream in which Al Parker was going to be coming to lunch today.  What on earth can it mean?  More importantly, what on earth would one serve?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Catherine the Great

After all this week's sturm und drang, I think we need a moment of quiet reflection.  How better to induce a little tranquility than to contemplate beauty?  Here, therefore, the exquisite young Catherine Deneuve, serene in what is apparently a high-fashion photo studio version of a high wind.  And still perfect.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

All Together, Shout it Now

So here we are, the morning after.  Four more years.  That's terrific, don't get me wrong, but as good as it is, I don't think the re-election of the President is the real game-changer that emerged last night (this morning, actually, out in these parts - it's been a long day).

No - the stunning, astonishing, and unprecedented thing - the thing that to me presages what America's Going to Look Like Next - is that in four separate states, four separate attempts, in different ways, to stop the rise of marriage equality went down in flames.  Not by vast margins, it's true, but decisively enough.  That's simply amazing.  For me, of course, this is a Big Deal issue; for me and Mr. Muscato, the lack of official recognition of our family is what prevents us from living in the U.S.  We love our life, on the whole, as quasi-nomadic expatriates.  In our nine years, we've lived in four countries, dragging our selves and our chattel and our longsuffering animals across two continents.  Even so, maybe it's time to go home, for me, and for Mr. Muscato to come along for the ride.  Last night's wins, I hope, take us that much closer, opening the way for the end of the Defense of Marriage Act and to immigration reform that means I'm no longer an exile.

To celebrate, here's Miss Streisand to sing us in - she's got two numbers, in fact, as I was searching for a killer "Happy Days are Here Again" and ran across this clip, in which she first sings the hell out of "Cry Me a River" (a pleasant  sentiment, I think, to direct at the Republicans and Fundamentalists and general Neanderthals who more or less went down in flames yesterday).  The quality's not great, but we even get a nice little Dinah Shore intro; at least she was wise enough not to sing (only Garland comes off well in a duet with Young Barbra).  I love this phase of Streisand's career, when she's still raw and bizarre and so very, very young. She never seems to be so much performing as just barely containing the voice, never quite sure what's going to come next and just as startled as we at what does.

Speaking of startled - I am, for it seems that this first aired on May 12, 1963.  I was born the next day.  And here we are, all these years later.  Howdy, gay times, indeed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Well Done, Sister Suffragette!

What, you may ask, does this imposing lady (and in that hat, is there any question at all that she was, very definitely, a lady?) have to do with Election Day?

Well, O Best Beloveds, she is no less than my great-grandmother, resplendent (and, with the hat, well more than six feet tall) in the second mourning (all black, but no veil) that she wore for the fifty years that followed her precipitous and early widowhood.  The black kid gloves, by the way, lingered on well into my childhood, objects of a kind of family reverence rivaled in my experience only by Lady Ambermere's for Queen Charlotte's mittens.

Left more or less penniless when great grandfather proved no match for a galloping consumption, and with two daughters just barely more than toddlers, she lost little time in self pity.  She took on jobs as they presented themselves (at various points running a theatrical boarding house, shepherding my grandmother into a not altogether unsuccessful run at the Vaudeville stage, keeping books, and selling real estate).  She wound up back in her small Pennsylvania hometown, an enormously respected county tax collector, a position she passed on to grandmother when she, too, found herself widowed in her thirties.

Through it all, she had two passions:  women's rights and travel.  She would work until she'd saved enough to leave her girls at her endlessly tolerant parents' house and take off for parts unknown.  She headed to Alaska at a time when that was a far frontier, as she wanted to see first-hand her church's missionary activities in Sitka, and like the Misses Allen in A Room with a View (clearly on my mind these days) and me, for that matter, she went on to Constantinople.  She marched in suffragette parades on both coasts, and while that sort of thing wasn't really done in small-town Pennsylvania, she devoted her formidable powers of organization to seeing that her friends and neighbors fell into line in support of the Nineteenth Amendment.

In the '60s, when to my parents' horror my sister, off at college, declared herself a feminist, my grandmother gave my mother (who was always, I think a little surprised and perhaps even disappointed not to have found herself an early widow) a rather sharp little lecture, reminding her that it ran in the family, and a good thing, too.

So I think of her on Election Day, and the work that she did.  She died in the early '50s, before the next great wave of agitation for further civil rights, and long before the flowering of all the many ways since in which Americans have echoed her drive to secure the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, most recently in the push for marriage equality.  She was indomitable in her sense of fairness, and I like to think she'd approve.  I vote in her memory and her honor.   Looking at that photo, at her strong-minded expression of mingled resolve and good humor, I'd hardly dare not to.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Back to Reality (or What Passes for It)

"The Signora had no business to do it," said Miss Bartlett, "no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!"

Having once read Forster - or seen Merchant-Ivory, for that matter - I suppose any hotel room that looks out on water will inevitably call up visions of Lucy Honeychurch and her trying Cousin Charlotte. 

Our pleasant little rooms this past weekend looked out on the Bosporus rather than the Arno, but it was a gratifying view nonetheless, even if the Otel Stella Theodora lacked the cosy English charm of the Pensione Bertolini (not to mention anything as toothsome as Julian Sands in his prime.  Or Simon Callow for that matter, who was truth to tell always rather more my taste).  A short trip such as this one was can seem rather surreal on one's return, sudden and unwelcome, to reality; that feeling is perhaps amplified when the contrast between two places - the immense energy and history, layer on layer, in Istanbul, as opposed to the lethargic artifice of this invented Sandlandian semi-metropolis - is so great.

But here I am again, and while Mr. Muscato continues his little autumn jaunt, I return to the grindstone, a dubious pleasure allayed only by the ferocious joy of two small dogs.  What they'll do when the one they really care about returns later this week, I hardly dare think...

Friday, November 2, 2012

Redux: Birthday Girl - Leading Lady

Let's wish a happy 120th birthday to dizzy screen favorite Alice Brady, seen here in her alternate incarnation as sophisticated stage star in a rather dazzling Steichen snap.

Brady's career is a nice example of both the richness of casting available to the studios back in the day and the dilemma that faced theatrical favorites as they considered their place oncscreen. A leading name on Broadway from the teens, Brady made dozens of silent films without ever really compromising her reputation with stage audiences as a glamorous leading lady, adept at both arch comedy and serious drama (and you don't get by in O'Neill, and especially not in Mourning Becomes Electra, on a cute profile and your comic technique - just ask Rosalind Russell).

When talkies beckoned, she likely thought she could follow in the footsteps of fellow luminaries like Ruth Chatterton and Helen Hayes, who essentially transferred their stage personae onto the soundstage, playing great ladies, socialites, and other parts that called for poise, diction, and the kind of wardrobe we see above.

Instead, Brady found herself in the company of theatrical veterans like Billie Burke and Spring Byington, players who discovered that what registered on Broadway as ladylike chic and nervy elegance made Depression movie audiences giggle. Rising 40, with features a little too broad for movie beauty and a definite tendency toward the dithery, Brady was transformed into a character lead, often a supporting player; of course, she also found a niche that guaranteed her, whether playing a foolish mother in Our Man Godfrey or the lady whose cow burned down a metropolis In Old Chicago, a kind of immortality.

Sometimes, before her too-young death in 1939, she must have wondered - even with the praise, the cash, and the Supporting Actress Oscar - whatever happened to the star whom Steichen saw. That her fellow stage ladies fared a lot less well than she over the long haul (with Chatteron, Hayes, and fellow travelers like Tallulah Bankhead all heading back to Broadway by the mid-thirties) must have helped. And, come to think of it, the cash couldn't have hurt as well...

This post first appeared on November 2, 2009.  I have updated the year, from 117.  Well, we're none of us getting any younger...

Travel Report

Well, Istanbul is all that memory and others' rave reviews have painted it - heaving with people, wildly international, and boasting, this weekend, perfect fall weather (if you live in the Sandlands, at least - having enjoyed a warm and sunny morning, I'm now relishing watching a thunderstorm roll in over the Bosporus from the balcony of our hotel room - it's a refreshing change actually to see weather).

We took it slow to start, arriving at our hotel off Taksim in the middle of the afternoon and only venturing out later for dinner and a long walk.  The Otel Stella Theodora* is just off a busy street, at a place where it seems the more-or-less real city meet Touristlandia.  That makes for a nice juxtapostion of backpackers, hipsters (domestic and imported), and other hapless types (like us, I suppose) running into large round ladies swathed in a fashion that recalls Moscow housewives circa 1962, with the babushka replaced with capacious headscarves.  Their sons and grandsons run about smoking with a grim determination rarely seen in the West these days, apparently eager to turn their toothsome selves at 27 into what their elders look like by 50.

As for the Otel, what it may lack in cosmopolitan polish, it more than makes up for in cost and a truly lovely view of the water, something one would never expect from its tight urban setting and unpreposessing facade.  It's not the Four Seasons, but it's cheap and cheerful, with a surprisingly fine mattress and lots of hot water.  The Egyptian boys are perfectly happy, because it's also two doors down from a very festive watering hole, which we will likely (among other dives) habituate this evening.

We did manage to cover a few tourist sites today, and while the terrifying line at Hagia Sophia means that we may try there again, we did brave a shorter queue to visit the Basilica Cistern (certainly the finest watertank-of-antiquity-based tourist attraction I can think of) and wandered about the hippodrome, with the Egyptians becoming wroth, as they are wont to do, about the presence there, as in what seems like every major metropolis we visit, of an obelisk pillaged at some point from the banks of the Nile.  I told them all about the massacre of the Janissaries, which happened more or less at its base, and they agreed that they probably had it coming to them (despite meeting their unfortunate end a millennium or more after the column's looting).

Then it was a lovely fish lunch at a shamelessly touristy restaurant nearby (full of shamelessly flirting waiters, which made it all worthwhile, even the acrid house white), and now here I am - and really the rain is pouring down now - having a little siesta while the boys go off and misbehave.

It really is the most remarable city - every platitude you can imagine about clashes of old and new, religious and secular, shabby and chic, all at once, and more so.  Somehow, the fact that everything's in Turkish comes as an odd surprise, as is the sensation (which you really don't get in much of Europe, where at least scraps of the language are familiar) of being able to read a sign, but not understand a word of it.

Fortunately, there is beauty everywhere, and in many forms, so one doesn't (at least after this little bit of time, so far) lose one's mind.   In any case, as Mr. Muscato (and have I mentioned how nice it was to see him again?  We've rarely been apart for ten days in our nine years together, and for the very good reason that neither of us like it) and I keep reminding ourselves, it's not the Sandlands, which right now is a very good thing indeed.

* Name changed to protect the dilapidated.