Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam

I'm a sucker for a little royal extravaganza, and while by Britannic standards the Dutch do things in a very low-key way, I've enjoyed watching events in the Netherlands the last day or two, helped in no small part part by some extremely erudite and amusing bloggers, not least the presiding genius of The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor and dear Ella of the late lamented Mad Hattery, who now presides over the very thorough A Tiara a Day.

Having lived overseas, I think, gives one a rather personal feeling about the kinds of gatherings seen above, representatives of families ranging from the the House of Orange itself (its central players decked out in blue from head to toe, including some truly startling sapphires - go find some snaps of the new Queen Maxima if you're looking for today's sparkle fix) right on down to our own dear Sultanate.*

As the Sultan rarely joins what Queen Victoria called the Royal Mob, the Al Said family is represented by H.H. Sayyid Haitham bin Tariq (the gentleman at the very top of the back row there, in between the two in more traditional-looking Arabic headgear; he of course is wearing the distinctive Omani massar, or turban).  He's nice; I met him once or twice while living there. He used to pop up occasionally to open an exhibition or some such sundry duty, driving himself and usually startling the organizers by not requiring more fuss.

Also representing the region was the formidable Sheikha Mozah of Qatar, uncharacteristically sober in black and midnight blue, but the clear winner of today's Largest Necklace stakes.  I also like that her purse brooch matches her earrings. It's all in the details, kids.

The spectre at this feast, I think, is the mysterious Crown Princess Masako of Japan, decked out in unflattering thick vanilla brocade and looking as vacant and lost as she has ever since she forsook her career in the Foreign Ministry to join the imperial family. Having lived in Japan when her royal romance was daily tabloid fodder, it's hard to reconcile this woman with the lively, worldly girl who then disappeared into the maze of protocol and tradition.  It was a rare international outing for her (she is said to be fond of the Dutch royal family, who have been especially kind to her, perhaps one reason for the trip), and while it's to be hoped that this means that her lingering malaise may be lifting, her wan appearance is not encouraging.  While I'm dropping names, I suppose I could mention that also I've met her brother-in-law, the Crown Prince's brother (and winner by default as the heir presumptive, Masako not having had a son) who came backstage yonks ago when I was working on a production in London.  No one seemed quite sure who he was, exactly, but he was terribly polite; it turned our star had met him in Tokyo. Smoked like a chimney.

Charles and Camilla are there as well; one wonders what he makes of his Dutch counterpart's smooth transition from heir to monarch.  Watching Queen Beatrix turn herself back into a mere princess, in a simple ceremony that was actually rather moving, it was easy to see the virtue of having abandoned the principal of "the king is dead; long live the king."  Given the Windsor women's ever-expanding longevity (if things go on like this, Princess Anne will make 120), Charles must wonder if he'll ever get to stand in the center of a group of congratulatory visiting royals.

But today belongs to Willem Alexander, the first Dutch king since before Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, and his Argentine consort, who as of today commands a jewel box that would send Eva Peron into fits of jealousy.  They seem to have started out very well indeed, and it will be interesting to watch their story play out, the three little girls in blue growing up and now-Princess Beatrix fading properly into the background.  The secret of royalty is the seductive combination of spectacle and time, impassive continuity and little human touches. They look like a pleasant family, and there's something cozy in thinking that when I'm an old man, 30 years or so from now, I'll watch the inauguration of new Queen Amalia, perhaps with whoever the new Windsor now waiting to be born turns out to be looking on...

* One wonders if the Tongans have done something to offend; they seem to have dropped off the invite lists for these affairs...

Monday, April 29, 2013

Memory Lane: And as the Evening Falls

One of the things that keeps coming to mind as preparations for our move gather steam is all the music I've listened to all through the time I've been living overseas.  In these, the waning days of my expatriacy (is that a word?  It or some variant ought to be), I find myself searching out the various songs of all these fourteen years or so.  I hope you'll forgive me if over the next few weeks, we occasionally glance at one or two of them; they're an odd mix, I readily admit, and some I admire as much for the specific time and place they recall as for the music itself.

But not this one; I remain pretty crazed about the both song and its singers, "New York City Boy" by Pet Shop Boys.  It came out just a few months after I stopped being one myself (An NYCB, that its, not a PSB), and the memory it carries isn't Manhattan, but rather Accra, the West African capital in which I suddenly found myself, a place almost as mad and entrancing to me as my former home is to the twink who's transported there in the video.  He found Studio 54; I found great late-night jazz bars and local joints that played highlife music by the sea, long lazy days out at one of the beaches, afternoons of lobster kebabs and the terrific ice-cold local Star beer, and my own parties at my little white villa set in a garden full of bougainvillea and papaya trees.

To me this song is tied irretrievably to driving around the crazy streets of Accra, dusty and full of surprises, unpredictable flocks of tiny, hyperactive goats and peddlers selling everything from last month's Vanity Fair to giant forest snails (a local delicacy, albeit one I could never quite get into myself).  It was my first car (in Manhattan, who needs one?), a beat-up old green Jeep with a black hardtop.  For the first few weeks I wondered why sometimes people would duck aside as I pulled up at corners or outside one of the shops made from old shipping containers where I did my grocery shopping.  Only after the dozenth or so time did I finally think to ask someone, and they told me that there were to most people's knowledge only two cars in town that looked like that - and the other one, identical albeit a great deal spiffier, belonged to a particularly deranged cousin of the country's then Leader for Life (who actually, in a step rare for Africa then and now, stepped down a year later, much to everyone's surprise; the cousin, however, continued to be a local menace).  Until they got used to the white guy getting out of the Wrangler, people assumed it was Cousin o'Prez coming to cause trouble.  When we would occasionally pass each other, coming or going somewhere on the Ring Road or in Black Star Square, he would honk and throw me a thumbs-up for no good reason.

And the song that was playing, very likely, was "New York City Boy."  Oddly, it never made me feel nostalgic for the life I had left behind.  Instead, it seemed the perfect soundtrack to the new one I had embarked on, and it still feels that way, fourteen years later.  I won't be a New York City Boy - or any other kind, for that matter, given the years gone by - on our arrival back in the States, but I still relish the little thrill this song gives when it shifts into angel-chorus overdrive.  PSB have it right: the deal is real, and you'll never have a bored day.  One way or another, I don't think I ever have.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Birthday Girl: She's Hip

If nothing else, perhaps we can consider a few moments spent considering this lovely artist a corrective to yesterday's rather, I suppose, heavy-handed musical interlude.  Nothing, I think, could be less like that than the sophisticated magic of Miss Blossom Dearie, who had she not returned to Fabulon four years ago would be an I'm sure still girlish 89.

I still can't quite conceive that Manhattan no longer boasts the kinds of rooms in which Dearie and her fellow spirits once flourished, nor that she is no longer at the helm of some amusing boite on one side of town, while uptown a few dozen blocks one could find the likes of Bobby Short or Barbara Carroll and downtown somewhere warm and cosy hosting Karen Akers or Anne Francine.  I was lucky enough to live there in the waning days of cabaret, when going to see Blossom was just something one could do of a weekend; she tended to play in places that might have a cover charge, but not the kind the one had to save and plan for (as we did for the Rainbow Room or the Café Carlyle).

And don't be deceived:  her music may seem featherlike, but her lilting voice was still an instrument of remarkable suppleness and range, and her singing boasts a diction matched only by that of Mabel Mercer.  On top of that, she was a formidable pianist, able not merely, as here, to swing out a standard or two en français, but also wholly to reinterpret a number you think set in stone.  Don't believe me?  Check out her "Ladies Who Lunch."   It's eons away from Stritch - who does, admittedly, own the song outright, and never more so than in this sad week when she leaves New York behind - but in its own way equally implacable.

While she was around, Dearie was too often dismissed as just another fixture of the scene, a singer of knowing little novelty numbers like "Peel Me a Grape" and "My Attorney Bernie." She did them superbly, of course, but listening to her now, we know how much more there is to the kinds of songs she used sing in late-night clubs and can appreciate, now that they're all but gone, how singers, musicians like Blossom Dearie brought them to life.  C'est vraimença:  c'est le printemps.  Et je l'embrasse, toujours...

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: EgyptProp

"It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized - or at least apolitical."
Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Herewith a little slice of Socialist-Realist extravaganza, Nasser-style.  Filmed in the late '50s, at the height of Egypt's attempt to create a Pan-Arab union, this remarkable number is El Watan El Akbar (The Great Homeland).  It features not only the composer, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, as the apparently only moderately enthusiastic conductor, but a range of the Arabic world's greatest stars, including Abdelhalim Hafiz (the Frank Sinatra of the Nile) and - the first female vocalist - the remarkable Sabah, who is still very much among us at an age rumored to be anything from 89 to 101.  Together, they present a regional pantheon, backed up during their solos by Ethnic Dancers of Many Lands.

In Arabic, this kind of patriotic pageant is called an "operetta," something that, if you are new to the region, can lead to false expectations when attending a state occasion, given the light years that separate them from something like The Merry Widow.

As a whole, this piece reminds me somehow of the finale of There's No Business Like Show Business as reinterpreted by Madame Mao. It's a reminder, perhaps, that there is not as much distance between the anything-to-entertain sensibility of Busby Berkeley and the aesthetics, such as they are, of authoritarianism as would entirely please either side...

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ticket to Ride

A remarkably hectic week, this, and now that it's Friday morning, I'm pleased it's over.  I had to go up to Dubai for a few nights (staying at our favorite hostelry, who really do treat one beautifully - when you find the right place, one of the few things the Sandlands really does right is mindless pampering, which even in a business context, which this very much was, is always a rather soothing thing).  It was a whirl of the usual nonsense, meetings and discussions and much backing-and-forthing, morning to night.

These days, thanks to the dubious blessings of modern technology, such trips require one to be in two (at least places) at once.  All the time that you're doing one thing, with the people with whom you are physically interacting, dealing with Very Important Out-of-Towners and the Critical Matters they have to discuss, you're also surreptitiously answering e-mail and checking texts and trying to figure out how to keep everyone back at the office content.  I wish I could claim to travel under such circumstances with all the aplomb that dear Miss Dietrich so effortlessly displays, but I fear that by Wednesday, when I finally got to come home, that was far from the case.

This trip was all the more surreal, for as it was happening, the background chatter with which I was dealing on the sly was of a sudden mostly about the remarkable fact, which has all just in those few days gelled to the point of no return, that in a matter of weeks we will be winging our way back to the only semi-familiar Great Unknown of life in the U.S. of A.  Flooding the BlackBerry was a tide of messages from travel agent, movers, veterinarian, and more, all requiring immediate answers about routing, packing, visas, shipping, you name it.  From that distance, it seemed a shade unreal; confronted back in the office with a stack of forms and an undeniable itinerary, right down to seat assignments, it suddenly is real.  Still terrifying, but now if nothing else plausible.

Mr. Muscato and I had a rather dazed and all-too-brief reunion on my return, for he has jetted off for a few days of well-earned fun with some old pals, during which they will doubtless cut a wide swathe across the loucher stretches of the Edgware Road (look out, Jon and other Café UK regulars, and keep an eye out for a stout Egyptian and a gaggle of amusing fellow-travelers).  That leaves me here with the dogs, who are increasingly suspicious about the various goings-on that signal change - piles of old clothes for sorting, stacks of magazines for throwing away, and worse.  Within a week or two we'll start breaking up the house in earnest, and then those few weeks of in-between that are a periodic feature of the nomad life, moving through a time when you go from being the proprietor of a comfortable, if anything overfurnished, house into a phase in which all you really have is a suitcase or two (or, if you're Miss Dietrich, ten), and then, as the shippers work their magic, gradually back again.

And on the side, what is more or less a whole new life, or at least a very different one.  House-hunting, for example, is something I've not had to do since the first Clinton administration (or rent-paying, for that matter).  We'll have to arrange for utilities and pick an Internet and cable plan and Heaven help us learn about recycling, which is not a feature of Sandlands life.  Expatriates are often warned about reverse culture shock when going home, and I have a feeling I'm in for a doozy.  In the meantime, though, I will study the serene resolve with which Dietrich approaches her voyage, and do my best to do the same.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Goodnight Mrs. Frankweiler, Wherever You Are...

Sad news in the New York Times this week (I'm just catching up):  E.L. Konigsburg, author of a longtime favorite children's book, the magical  (and magically titled) From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, has gone to spend her nights in a more celestial place even than the Metropolitan Museum.

Growing up in a Pennsylvania town, reading The Mixed-Up Files was a window into a world I fully intended someday to find my way into - if not as a runaway, like its heroes, at least some day, somehow.  And I did.  I first visited the Metropolitan Museum on my very first trip to New York, and while in one way it was a bitter disappointment - the Egyptian collection was closed, under wraps as part of a long-term renovation - otherwise it was all Mrs. Frankweiler promised.  When, years later, I moved to Manhattan, the Met was one of the anchors around which life revolved.  Of course, by that point it was an updated place, increasingly glitzy and retailized and not quite the slightly fusty, slightly eccentric sanctuary in the book.  Still, even today, it has its quiet corners and places where, if you stand still enough in some far corner, you can half fancy you, like Konigsburg's two runaways, might want to spend the night.

The offbeat story of Mrs. Frankweiler and her files appeals, I think, to children who already know they may be a shade eccentric themselves.  While for me she was a one-off author, known for only the Files, reading her obituary and learning of her other books confirms that that was a prime audience for her: children who would take naturally to stories about, for example, Eleanor of Aquitaine narrating the story of her life from a comfortable seat in Heaven.  I like the the author's words about her own Pennsylvania childhood:  “Growing up in a small town,” she said, “gives you two things: a sense of place and a feeling of self-consciousness — self-consciousness about one’s education and exposure, both of which tend to be limited. On the other hand, limited possibilities also mean creating your own options.”  She also said, “I think most of us are outsiders. And I think that’s good because it makes you question things.”

The next time I go to the Met - skirting the crowds, defiantly refusing to pay the outrageous "suggested donation" (which you must remember is voluntary and quite contrary to the wishes of the founders of what is meant to be a museum open to all) - I'll climb the grand staircase and, as I've done before, thank the mysterious E.L. Konigsburg (E. for Elaine, it turns out - I don't think I had even ever really thought about her gender) for bringing me there.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Birthday Girl: American Beauty Nose

The Greatest Star, en style (faux) Warhol

Half a century on from what is to me still her most beguiling era - when she was the kooky fresh discovery with what seemed like a trick voice - today Miss Barbra Streisand turns a somehow unlikely 71.  She is what she is, much loved and much disliked.  As for me, I think she's swell.  How many people could sing "I'm the Greatest Star," confident in the knowledge you'll believe it?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Eyes Have It

I have to admit that she's never been my favorite actress (too nervy, and the slew-of-adopted-chidren thing has always smacked too strongly of some kind of neurosis, not to mention the whole Woody/Woman Scorned thing; nonetheless, she's popped up hereabouts once or twice), but there's no denying that when dear Mr. Eisenstadt snapped her (on this day just 46 years ago, 'round about the time she was filming a little horror movie that made her a star), Mia Farrow was a presence to be reckoned with.  Is there anyone today with this kind of simplicity and intensity, not to mention a complexion of such extraordinary perfection?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Birthday Boy: American Auteur

The artist and his muse

One of America's great contributions to the world of cinema came into the world 67 years ago today, and in many ways, he has been as influential in shaping my appreciation of the movies as anyone this side of Griffith and Gish.  Working with the extended repertory company he recruited in the back alleys of his native Baltimore, John Waters made stars in much the way of the classic studios: by finding extreme types and then figuring out what really made them shine.  From Divine to Patty Hearst, he has given birth to some truly landmark performances: Edith Massey as the Egg Lady, Kathleen Turner as serial-killing sweetheart Beverly Sutphin, Johnny Depp as teen reprobate Cry Baby.  His very personal vision of cinematic glamour - equal parts pinup and puke, as it were - has proven amazingly durable, and while these days he's as much a writer and personality as director, he remains a consistently, even reassuringly, contrary voice of reason, sanity, and, of course, Bad Taste - of the highest order.

It's quite a day, for one could assemble a perfectly workable Dreamland cast just out of some of Waters's fellow celebrants - imagine the script he could craft around a roster consisting of Charlotte Rae, Glen Campbell, Jack Nicholson, Marilyn Chambers, and Sherri Shepherd, with a very special cameo by Bettie Page.  Throw in a couple of the regulars like Mink Stole and Mary Vivian Pearce, and he'd be all set.

In the absence of such a doubtless celluloid atrocity/triumph, I guess we'll have to make do with our well-thumbed DVD of Female Trouble, to me the film that most closely guarantees Waters a kind of cinematic immortality.  It's smoother than Pink Flamingos, a shade less full of shock-for-shock's-sake than Desperate Living, and even after all these years as serious a look as can be imagined at how  show business and the mania for celebrity can warp minds and lives.  The Midnight Movie might have gone the way of the dodo, but it's nice to know that Waters is still with us, keeping a jaundiced yet boundlessly appreciative eye on the foibles and messes of the world and prescribing for the least sign of boredom a little discreet mayhem.

Given the goings-on that he's depicted at at least one birthday party, though, I think a little e-appreciation like this is just about as far, at the moment, as I'm willing to go.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

On The Avenue...

On this date in 1951, the inconveniently Midtown course of the ticker-tape parade in honor Gen. MacArthur forces a couple of unlikely pedestrians off the sidewalk and into the street.  He looks rather put out, but isn't she reveling in the unexpected attention?  a one-woman parade all on her own, really.  Looks to be this close to just centering herself in the middle of the Avenue and starting to wave.

Funny, isn't it, how ever more difficult it gets, as time passes, to credit that theirs was considered a Great Romance?  Here they look more like they've hardly been introduced, and wouldn't have much in common (taste in overcoats aside) once they were...

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Mind Your Manners

This 1947 gem from no less than Mrs. Edwin Main (Emily) Post actually contains a great deal of very useful advice - little nuggets that, judging from the dinners I go to, not a few persons in comparatively lofty positions could learn much from.

I particularly enjoy the several things that many would now think likely to be the height of gaucherie that Mrs. Post reminds us are quite correct:  drinking from one's soup cup, for example, or the almost entirely forgotten fact that bread plates are not used at a formal dinner, and the bread (if any) is simply deposited on the tablecloth (for sopping purposes only, please, no butter).  I'm also quite taken with the parade of horrors committed by Mrs. Inexcusable Cigarette, who was clearly unused to human companionship of any kind, poor thing.

And wasn't American food plain?  Those cubed potatoes look to be strangers even to a little pepper, and you just know that Mrs. Post's cook had never heard of cilantro, fenugreek, or hoisin sauce.  At least she rose to exotic little touches like that challenging ethnic treat, SPAH-ghetti, and bravo to attractive Virginia Hopkins for managing it so deftly.

This missive from the Emily Post Institute (Emily Post, President) may have been filmed a decade or two before my time, but this was the world I was raised in.  There is not a little resemblance between Mrs. Post there in her garden and my sainted Grandmother Muscato, who actually did serve whole poached fruit for dessert and expect one tidily to cut around the stone, at a table that was never less neatly set than here, three meals a day.  Under her expert guidance, her Alice (She's a Treasure)* put out sauces no less drenching than Mrs. Post's Hollandaise, not to mention a creampuff in syrup that I'm sure would give Mrs. P's a run for its money. Even now, all these years later, I still feel a twinge of guilt, a cool draught over one shoulder, when I eat a bowl of cereal, milk poured directly from the fridge, perched on a stool, sans underplate, sans placemat, sans any of the things that "separate us from the savages, dear.  Sit up."

At a time when we may need more than a little reminding of the basic rules of civilization, on levels even more significant (if such were possible! cries the shade of Grandma M.) than table manners, they do remain a place to start. Tonight I think we'll eat in the dining room, and while we may not rise to finger bowls, we can at least be more Virginia than Inexcusable.  It's a start.

*  I actually for a little while thought that might be the housekeeper's last name...

Friday, April 19, 2013

Elegy for April, 2013

Science, Bella Pratt, Boston Public Library.  Summer 2008.

I don't usually post poetry I've written here.  Today, I can think of nothing else to say.

Elegy for April, 2013 
There is evil in the world.
Ideas that poison minds, blight lives,
Twist whole nations in their circus-mirror
Non-reality.  Evil knows no borders.
There is evil in the world.

There is evil in the world.
It can be well-meaning, right-thinking
Just as easily as endlessly malign:
Impersonal and fixed on triumph,
There is evil in the world.

There is evil in the world:
The drone in the sky, the kettle-bomb;
The killing idea that I-am-more if
You-are-less; the notion, horrible,
That might trumps all.
This is the evil in the world.

This evil in the world
Ignores the least of us
Ignites the worst of us
Destroys the best of us
Demands the mind to shut
The heart to stop
The hand to slap and not
To touch the tender sleeping face
Of one who dreams of only love,
Tomorrow's breakfast, summer, joy, and not -
Not yet - this evil in the world.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Fine and Dandy

When it's proved to be one of those weeks (and I won't deny this is one, O Best Beloveds), sometimes all it takes at least to start to feel that little bit better is to spend a while looking at the alluring work of M. René Gruau.

Known more for his ultra-chic ladies, resplendent in New Look Dior, Gruau (born, you know, the Count Ricciardelli delle Caminate) is almost equally adept at turning out very fetching gentlemen.  His swooping, calligraphic lines, so free and yet so precise, are somehow particularly attuned to bringing life to a very specific kind of urban type, cosmopolitan and good humored; his men all seem to be variations on the type that dear Mr. Ethan Mordden has immortalized in his own persona: The Cocktail Dandy.

Here we see an especially example, looking very dapper in his Ben-Day jacket and cap, his discreetly arched brow promising at the very least an amusing afternoon out - ending perhaps in a quick drink at one of those quiet little bars over on the East Side, on the edges of Covent Garden, or in the shadow of the Opéra Comique.  After that... who knows?

And after a trying week, isn't that an awfully attractive prospect?  Much pleasanter, you know, than reality just about now.  But that, I think, is point of disappearing, now and again, into le monde de Gruau...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Birthday Girl: The Baroness

The remarkable creature seen here came into the world 128 years ago today, in a place called Rungsted in the Danish countryside.  She went on to become, among other things, a baroness, a farmer, a socialite, a recluse (and then back again, improbably, into a kind of late in life party girl), and possibly the world's most glamorous invalid.  Oh, and a writer.  A very great writer.

She wrote as Isak Dinesen (except when she was Pierre Andrézel or Osceola); she was born Karen Christenze Dinesen; she was formally the Baroness Blixen-Finecke.  Her friends called her Tanne.  What her many lovers called her, we will likely never know, for despite being an inveterate self analyst, she did keep some secrets.  She was a shape-shifter who reveled in her various identities, playing off the grand-dame aristocrat and the raffish author, among other personae.  She was enormously famous in her lifetime, and then her work received another surge of notoriety when a vast, lumbering, and rather terrible movie was made out of her memoir (of sorts), Out of Africa.  She has appeared on the Danish currency, is the subject of museums in Denmark and Kenya, and the fact that she was considered for, but never received, the Nobel Prize for literature is a blot on that august institution's record.

Nonetheless, I have a feeling that her work is a little less than fashionable at the moment.  Alternately pitilessly searching and extravagantly sentimental, full of high-flying and obscure references to classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the eighteenth century, and things like the commedia dell'arte (hence her Pierrot costume here), her works can be off-putting.  Then, too, there's her take on colonialism: she liked it.* Rather, she liked (mild word indeed) her years in Africa, running a coffee plantation and discovering that she was more than just a well-bred Danish bluestocking - that she was in fact a woman of passion and intellect, a frightening hard worker, stubborn beyond belief.  And, in the end, one destined for tragedy, for, as she wrote in Out of Africa, "The land was in itself a little too high for coffee, and it was hard work to keep it going; we were never rich on the farm."  

After the farm was gone, and she returned, wounded, to her childhood home, she started writing in earnest.  She wrote about her time in Kenya, and she drew on her memory of childhood stories to tell her tales.  She spun yarns of mysterious divas and brilliant cooks and long Nordic winters.  at the same time, she lived a singular life, by turns holed up in her father's house, writing and living the life of a country gentlewoman (albeit one whose walls were bedecked with spears and tribal masks, and one whose preferred diet consisted, in nearly its entirety, for long stretches, of Champagne, asparagus, and oysters) and traveling on voyages that came to resemble pilgrimages in reverse - the object of veneration coming to the faithful, rather than vice versa.  Never again to Africa, but as far as New York City, where she was lunched by Babe Paley and, famously, met Mrs. Arthur Miller, who had had a couple of identities herself when you stop to think about it.

She had a marvelous time; she was a force of nature and an incredible life force.  At the same time, it seems likely, in retrospect, that she romanticized her ill-health (based, putatively, on syphilis passed to her during her unsatisfactory marriage to her Baron) and in the end starved herself to death, a genius and an anorectic.

Whatever she was, however, her works stands on it own, only burnished that much more brightly by the legends of her life.  I think she would be pleased to be remembered on her birthday; perhaps I'll have to see if we have any asparagus.  I know we have some Champagne.

If she is a little too warm for current tastes on the idea of colonialism, I think it's important to recognize the extraordinary warmth with which she depicted her Kenyan employees and neighbors, as well as the genuine affection with which they regarded her memory for decades after she left Africa.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Shake, Shake, Shake

Well, it's been an interesting day out here in the Sandlands (not that it hasn't anywhere else).

There I am, more or less on the mend from my pulmonary nonsense, having a quiet afternoon at home (having ducked out of the office with what seemed, and may yet be, a migraine).  A little nap seemed in order, but I had no sooner gone into the lightest of dozes when the dogs started annoying me; something they were doing was shaking the bed.

I woke fully up just in time to realize that it wasn't the dogs - who were frozen at the foot of the bed, watching the curtains sway and the pictures lightly rattling on the far wall.  And the bed continued to shake, although now with a rather sickening lateral sway in additional to the shaking.  And then it stopped.  It seems the earthquake - apparently an enormous one - that struck in Iran this afternoon was felt all this way away on the other side of the Gulf.  As with the previous earthquakes I've experienced - in Egypt and Japan, on the exotic side, and in suburban Philadelphia, of all places, on the other - there is a surreality to the moment you realize what's happening, as well as a sound - a low rumble, primordial and relentless - that you can never afterward quite explain or describe, but that, given a choice, you'd opt never, ever to hear again.

I called downstairs to Mrs. Gallapatti-Da Silva, who was serenely washing dishes and had apparently missed the whole thing (she suffers from vertigo and likely just thought it was one of her Lucile Austero moments, although I doubt she thinks of them in that way exactly).  I thought it might have been a dream, but then the stream of calls and texts started coming in:  the office was evacuating (we're on a high-ish floor, and apparently I missed a festival of screaming in the tongues of many nations); people saw the shelves swaying at this mall or the chandelier doing a little dance at that hotel.  And a few hundred miles away, much, much worse.

But here, my Africa training kicked in, and I grabbed the passports and threw them in a bag filled with useful things that we keep for such purposes slung over the back of the bedroom door.  I headed downstairs and outside with the very clearly freaked dogs and by now hardly less freaked tiny Sri Lankan lady, and we sat for a while in the shade of the terrace, me be-laptopped and regularly hitting "refresh" on the U.S. Geological Survey's invaluable real-time earthquake monitor.  The aftermath of an earthquake, a mild one that is, is a funny moment.  You know that something else - and presumably worse - may happen, but that equally it may not.  In the moment, you feel rather foolish.

So that is where we are right now: anticipating aftershocks, nothing worse.  But unnerving all the same.  Perhaps we're getting out of here at the right time...

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why Don't You...

...cultivate an enigmatic expression?

After all, it was terribly effective on dear Miss Aline MacMahon here.  And her usually so jolly, too...

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Largest Moving Object in the World

A year ago today there was much to-do, but 100 years, after all, seems somehow more worth observing than 101.  Nonetheless, I think it would be too bad to let it go unrecognized that this is the date, 101 years ago, that the hubris of the Edwardian world was well and truly shaken by the sinking of the ship someone had what turned out to be the very poor idea of describing as "unsinkable": White Star's magnificent RMS Titanic.

Here we have the first few numbers of the Sydney production of Maury Yeston and Peter Stone's musical on the subject.  When the Broadway version was in preparation, back in the late '90s while I was still living in Manhattan, the show was the subject of much malicious speculation regarding just how big a flop it would turn out to be, mavens of such things all expecting a turkey of, well, titanic proportions, a kind of seagoing Carrie or Moose Murders.  Come opening night and the knives were out - but the thing itself proved something of a hit.  A few months later I took a flock of nephews and a niece, and they were enthralled and I impressed by the whole thing.

Tucked into this 2006 Australian cast, which seems on the whole to me vocally the equal to or better than the one I saw on Broadway all those years ago, is the great Antipodean diva Joan Carden, who plays Ida Straus against the distinguished tenor Robert Gard.  The Straus' story caps a series of plotlines of young love and marital devotion that punctuate the musical, and their duet late in the second act, the almost operettische "Still," (in which Carden and Gard shine*) is inexpressibly touching.  Not surprisingly, the Strauses were reduced to a single fleeting shot in the James Cameron film, which was longer on sex than sentiment (except about the ship itself).

Remarkably, what seems to be the entire Sydney production is YouTubable, for anyone who'd like a look at a work that I think has some of the finest ensemble and choral writing of any recent musical (if some longueurs in the recitative and solo writing).  The Broadway production suffered from a certain lack of visual panache that this one hasn't escaped, but the various sliding panels and rising and falling bridges do the trick.

Crossing the Atlantic last summer, we thought a lot about that cold April night.  Among our tablemates, there in the dining room of the Queen Mary 2 (grander by far than could have seemed possible in 1912), was a lovely older couple.  A few days out, they confided that they had decided to come across on the Queen because the husband's great uncle had been a crewman on Titanic, and they wanted to see the spot, or as close to as they could, where the great ship foundered.  They had his last letter home, sent from Southampton, and a memoir written by a cousin of how the family learned the sad news - White Star, a few days after the tragedy, telegraphed the big house in their village to confirm the death.  Sitting there over our Baked Alaska, with the dark ocean rushing by outside, it all seemed very close.  One morning they were taken down to a crew deck at the stern - as close as you can get, apparently, to the water - and threw a rose out into the wake, in memory of a young baker who had given up his apprenticeship in the local shop to go sea.  Watching the crew arrive (on stage) and register their wonder ("There she is!") makes me think of him.  Godspeed, indeed...

* It's about halfway through the fifth and final YouTube segment

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Hula-balloo

"We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

In this case, the fantasy appears to be Robert Young's, a few decades before his immortalization as Dr. Marcus Welby.  That it features perhaps the least Polynesian person ever to live, Miss Eleanor Powell, is one of the elements that elevates this particular number to the Camp pantheon.  That and her costume, which bears about as much resemblance to a grass skirt as it does to a lamé piano shawl.

This clip, from Honolulu (which also featured Burns and Allen for comic relief), is neither the most riotous nor the most ridiculous SSCE one could imagine, but it's nonetheless a genuine insight into Hollywood's ideas of the "exotic," circa 1939.  Powell's home studio, MGM, was less a center for these kinds of tropical fantasies than, say, Fox (with its South-of-the-Border spectacles anchored by Carmen Miranda and her Banda da Lua).  Nonetheless, Metro applied its usual level of polish to this little gem, for at this time Powell was one of its prestige stars.  I've always found her oddly weightless somehow, a star without consequence.  She gamely did her job, but had she never existed, I don't think she'd be much missed.  Still, here, in her rigorously affixed lei and equally fixed smile, she's pretty swell.  Who else could carry off a tap hula?

Friday, April 12, 2013

On Finer Newsstands Now!

Accept no substitutes.

Ever since I dug up an issue way back in 2008 (do you believe it?), this classic periodical has gained a certain discerning little following.  Dear Donna Lethal discovered several back numbers over in her droll corner of the cyberverse, and dear Jon has even come across an issue or two over in Blighty (perhaps he found them in some tempting corner of the Portobello Road?).

As with the legendary Flair, though, complete sets are hard to come by, and I do believe we can all live in hope of finding new editions.  Later issues seem to be especially rare - there's no denying dowagers were an endangered species once Mamie Eisenhower left the White House...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Never Jamwal Today

In my endless quest to broaden your horizons,* you Philistines you, and remind you that there's a great wide world out there beyond Hollywood hegemony, I happened this morning across a name and face new to me.  Instantly, I knew he was someone you, too, would want to know more about; he is one Vidyut Jamwal, a quickly rising star of the Subcontinental cinema.  Isn't he pretty?

While he's only made a handful of films, in Hindi, Tamil, and Telegu, over the past two years, he certainly doesn't lack presence.

His first big splash, a 2011 epic called Force (the mind reels) paired him with Café perennial, the dear Mr. John Abraham, and resulted in this arresting image.  In many ways, I'm with Janet Weiss in not liking a man with too many muscles, but in this case, I suppose I could make an exception.  And Janet never said a word about two men...

* Which, yes, pretty much does consist only of reading the features section of our woeful English daily and then doing some Google image searching - but really, if finding alluring snaps like this is the result, ought you complain, really?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Line from the Sickroom

Rather under the weather, darlings - a most annoying lung problem that involves having to huff and puff at a clinical-looking and diabolically loud machine, not to mention any number of other indignities, chief among them a cough that combines the least attractive aspects of a wretching cat and a volcano mysteriously spewing phlegm in place of lava.  Oh.  Oh, dear.  Sorry for that.  Must be the meds.

But don't you think a Society Nurse could be awfully useful at times?  She would be devoted to returning to health an ailing reputation, making sure one appeared in amusing snippets in all the right columns and perhaps arranging for an especially chic stay at Gstaad, Cannes, or Baden Baden.  Think of all the people you know who could use one, private duty and 'round the clock...

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Now it's Time...

...to say goodbye.  When I was a child (and the shows were in reruns - it was the late sixties, mind you, not the show's late-fifties heyday) this song used to make me cry.  Watching it again last night, it came close to doing so again.  Can you imagine any children's show today closing in such a downbeat, even rather stately sort of way?

Thinking about it, it wasn't so much the song, although the minor key certainly turns the jaunty theme song into something more somber - it was the "see you real soon."  Maybe even then I knew that wasn't always true...

Monday, April 8, 2013

Equal Time

Just so I'm not accused of total favoritism, herewith proof that, when he naps, Boudi is almost as alluring as Koko.  He's a great deal more difficult to photograph, however, as he is distinctly a dog on the go when awake, and even (as here) when lost to the world, a light sleeper.  He's very fond of that blue velveteen sofa cushion, so I suppose it will have to accompany us on our upcoming journey even though it came with the house.  As to why he sleeps with one hind leg tucked up under his chin, I couldn't say.  He is Belgian, if that explains anything...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Heat and Dust (and Rain) (and Cheese)

Summer returned to the Sandlands this weekend.  It does so, of course, every year, generally in April, but it decided to do so in more dramatic fashion than usual this time around.

Normally, you see, I realize that our far-too-short cool season has ended when, one weekend morning, I have to finally shut the windows and rev up the aircon by 8:00 a.m. or so.  This weekend, instead, we had a two-day dust storm of Griffithische proportions.  The above actually does give one an excellent impression of the expression on my face when I was foolish enough to open an upstairs window Friday around sunset and got a full-on blast of the nastiest, wettest, hottest air I'd felt since, well, last November when the hell-weather finally broke.

Since then, the barometer has been all over the place, reminding me of an especially schizophrenic version of how it would behave in my Great Lakes childhood just before a storm came down from Canada - except this has gone on for something like three days, the air growing ever dustier, clammier, more ominous.  Finally, last night at sunset, while Mr. Muscato and I were sitting in the kitchen having an-I-must-say rather successful supper (I got How to Cook Anything for Christmas, and recommend it highly), we heard what at first sounded like a distant explosion.  Thunder is rare enough in these parts that it actually took three or four peals before it really registered.  Then, to steal a phrase from nigh-forgotten novelist Louis Bromfield, The Rains Came.

Rain is a rare phenomenon in the Sandlands; we may get a sprinkling three or four days a year, but it can easily be years between downpours of the kind we had last evening, and then again overnight, and then again this morning.  Usually, rain is a blessing, cleaning the air and taking some of the dust off the roofs and everywhere else it implacably lodges.  People drive even more insanely than usual, true, but for a day or two at least the air is clear.  This time, though, somehow the sandstorm managed to continue in between the rains and even, it seemed, sometimes during them.  As a result, the city looks as if it were caked, randomly, in badly mixed and quixotically poured concrete.  My poor little car, crouching in the adequate shelter of our carport, gives the appearance of having been abandoned for months, and we won't be able to look out the windows at work for weeks, until the next cleaning.

One upside of the bad weather, however, is that it gave Mr. Muscato an opportunity to indulge in his latest hobby.  Yes, dear readers, it's true: I now live with a man who makes his own cheese.  This has been going on for several weeks now, and I have to admit he's getting quite good at a kind of ricotta of various kinds, most recently venturing out into assorted flavors (of this weekend's batches, one, a black-pepper-curry mix, was a definite success.  Alas, the second, a daring - some might say reckless - experiment in mandarin-orange zest and chili, was less so).  I used one batch last week to make a bang-up cannelloni, and we've taken to having the occasional cracker with his creamy version and a dab of homemade strawberry-tomato jam.  Every once in a while I look at the man I met ten years ago, who quite literally had never boiled water, and think who are you?

Mind you, I'm not complaining.  At least about anything but the weather.  This evening, as the weekend's odd confluence of storms goes on to plague areas south of us, it's left behind the heavy, wet air that feels all too familiar, and while it's not yet really hot, we know all too well that summer is here to stay.  This year, though, at least we have the consolation of knowing we'll be well out of it by midsummer, if all goes as planned.  I look forward to seeing what the Mister will accomplish in the kitchen when given free rein at a Whole Foods...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Gotta Dance!

"The pure examples of Camp are unintentional; they are dead serious."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

Today's SSCE is a bit of a Redux, as this treasure has for years been one of my very favorite YouTube finds and popped up way back in the Café's earliest days.

It reminds of the early '80s, the glory days of New York Public Access TV, when, any time the possibility arose, my pal Miss Rheba and the rest of us would hightail it up to Manhattan - not (or not only, I suppose) to run around the East Village, try to second-act Broadway shows, and desperately attempt to feel worldly and sophisticated, but to sit around as stoned as our budget allowed, watching the amazing cavalcade of humanity that had taken advantage of a system that, it seemed, allowed anyone with a half-hour to spare and a dream to get on television.

We watched Channel J, of course, the soft-porn outlet that made a (bigger) star of Robin Byrd and featured the creepiest and most terrifying escort and fetishy phone-sex ads imaginable (people d'un certain age who lived through that era will never forget - with a shudder - the phrase "the extra 'E' is for extra peeeee!"  But I digress.  As if that were something new...).  They were certainly something we didn't have in one of your better Philadelphia suburbs.  But it was the other channels that really grabbed us, the ones that featured kooks and cranks and well-meaning souls like the alarmingly enthusiastic lady here.  She is, by the way, apparently one Reverend Alecia, and more than that the Internet does not tell much, although there is a little info about her here.  If you like her style, but think you'd enjoy seeing her moves set to something even more authentically of the era, you might try this.  I have a feeling you won't forget it...

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Story of a Divorce

Today marks what would have been the 115th birthday of the "benevolent volcano," Miss Bette Davis.  In the process of thinking about this august anniversary, I believe there's a chance I may have uncovered a little bit of a mystery, which I've found rather amusing.

In 1950, Miss Davis's birthday must have struck the actress as something of a mixed bag.  She was turning 42, not the easiest of ages for a lady of that era, especially one whose meal ticket depended - even though she was never technically a glamour star - on her appearance.  She was working, true, but for the first time away from the familiar waters of Warner Bros; The Story of a Divorce was her first go at being a freelancer, and she must have found the comparatively modest scale of RKO rather a change.  At home, her always rather inexplicable marriage to artist William Grant Sherry was foundering; she had filed for divorce the previous fall, but the couple had since muddled through.

As her birthday approached, the cast and crew of the movie threw her a birthday party in the studio commissary, an event extensively covered by Life lensman J.R. Eyerman.  She received a couple of odd gifts:

I do not see Bette Davis carrying a wicker purse.

Was there some sort of vogue for ostrich eggs in the latter part of the Truman era?  And why does this snap remind me so much of Divine's birthday party in Pink Flamingos?

It all looks festive enough, but by all accounts it was the end of her marriage to Sherry.  And here's where things get more interesting.  Most published accounts, including Davis's own in the bio that she quasi-authored, Mother Goddam, say that the party happened on her birthday itself, and that after it was over Sherry came and found her in her dressing room, where they had a final dust-up.

Somehow though, I came across this clipping, which tells a rather different story:

 From the Sydney Morning Herald of Thursday, April 6, it's a wire service squib dated to the previous day (Bette's birthday), saying that the party happened on Monday (which would have been April 3), and that Sherry actually appeared at the party and caused a ruckus.

In the photos above, Bette (for Bette) looks pretty festive; even, by her standards genial.  But then...

She receives an embrace that one could argue she looks rather startled by.  The gentleman behind her looks apprehensive.

Coming out of the hug, she moves from startled to what could be the start of full-on glare.  That's not a look I'd care to be the object of.  Note that the bystanders have mostly skedaddled.  I think what we see here is the very moment that the Davis-Sherry ménage ceased to be.  I think he actually did show up at the party, and that he wasn't expected, and Eyerman happened to catch it all.

Even by the time the star regained her composure and sat down with her gifts for a bite in a commissary booth, she wasn't a happy lady:

Either moments earlier or moments later, she gives a look of absolutely Tallulavian disdain:

Sherry wasn't photographed all that much (his stint as Mr. Bette Davis, 1945-50, being pretty much his only time in the public eye), but he was handsome in a bland and very period sort of way, and the hugger/booth partners looks like him.  I think that's Davis's co-star Barry Sullivan on the right, standing, but there's a resemblance between the two that, not having seen Payment on Demand (the only middlingly successful movie that Divorce turned into), that means I don't know quite certainly. That could be Sullivan in the booth.  What do you think?

The one thing that isn't a mystery about all of this is that it was right about the time of this party, when, with her marriage falling apart and her current movie, whatever the merits of the earnest script, rather a comedown from her days as Queen of the Lot, Davis might have been justifiably feeling rather blue, she got some marvelous news.  Claudette Colbert had injured her back and was dropping out of a film, which meant that Davis could sail from the dowdy of set of Divorce/Payment and the dubious charms of W.G. Sherry right into the arms of 20th Century Fox, All About Eve - and Gary Merrill.  Of course, that started her down another matrimonial trail of tears, but that, as they say, is a whole 'nother story.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Farewell to the Woman Behind the Men

This being a ridiculous week, I've only just seen the obituary for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who went off in search of a room with a better view yesterday at the fine age of 85.

Jhabvala was the silent partner in the magical film duo-really-a-triad known as Merchant/Ivory, the writer whose work underpinned much of what was best in their mostly very, very fine work.  Of them all, I must confess that it's her first Oscar-winner that's still, after 27 years (!), my favorite - indeed very nearly my very favorite film.  A Room with a View must rank as one of the most remarkable film adaptations ever - at once painstakingly faithful to E.M. Forster's dryly sentimental (an odd combo, but that's how he strikes me) view of the world and an achingly romantic, utterly cinematic creation.  It's a luxury wallow in beautiful clothes and wonderful rooms and stunning scenery, yet the wit and discipline of Jhabvala's screenplay make it ring true in every moment.  Let this fateful sequence represent the whole, even if it omits two of my pet characters, the dear Miss Allens.

Filling out Jhabvala's script, of course, is one of the more treasurable casts one can imagine:  fresh-faced and still un-Gothed Miss Bonham Carter, Julian Sands at the height of his considerable looks, Denholm Elliot rumbling away as his eccentric father, Daniel Day Lewis bechameleoned into an Edwardian dandy, young Rupert Graves in a small but toothsome baby-brother part, Dames Maggie and Judi as the straitlaced cousin and unbuttoned novelist, respectively, and - nearly as beloved as the Allen sisters - infinitely charming Simon Callow as the worldly Reverend Beebe.

Jhabvala wrote many more films, many of them marvelous indeed, as well as a great deal of distinguished fiction, but if she'd never done anything but this, she would still be a film immortal.  I've decided not to think about her dying; I think instead she has, like the Miss Allens, gone on to Constantinople.  The title of her last screen adaptation, after all, was The City of Your Final Destination...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Sleeping Beauty

Now, normally Koko is a distinctly shaggy presence, but the steadily advancing return of summer this year combined with at last finding a decent groomer (a rather shaggy but not uncomely presence himself, as it turns out, but that's another story), and so here we see the dear boy shorn.  And, quite characteristically, napping.  Would that we all slept the deep, untroubled sleep of a spoiled terrier...

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Spring Showers...

I've just realized that it's been several months since we checked in with longtime Café Bollyfave, dear Mr John Abraham.  Apparently, he's back to showering for photographs, which is certainly not something about which I'm going to complain...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Birthday Girl: Vamp until Ready

Something like 119 years ago today (there is a little discreet confusion over the actual year of her birth), the world was made a little richer with the arrival in it of the baby who grew up to become notorious silent-film vamp Nita Naldi.  We catch her here in full flight, relentlessly set on the not unpleasant task of seducing Rudolph Valentino.  That she does so in one of the truly epic fur coats in Hollywood history only adds to the glory of the occasion.  She reminds me of Quentin Crisp's (or was it Ethan Mordden's?) line about a character played by Marlene Dietrich - "a woman so evil even her daywear is backless."  This was what silent drama was all about: impossibly lovely people doing impossibly fraught things.  And, here at least, apparently ending up in the Van Cleve Hotel.

Naldi had the briefest of vogues, well under a decade, and after it ended never really found a satisfactory place in the world.  She's one of a number of stars - casualties both of sound and of changing tastes, and ranging from self-deluded Mae Murray to the alcoholic, reclusive shell of Mary Pickford - whose fates ended up amalgamated into the protean character who has come to stand, however unfairly, for all silent stars, Miss Norma Desmond.*  Naldi's legacy, like that of many others who weren't around to protest about it, was muddied by her inclusion in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (on the other hand, he also kept her name alive in a way that can't be said for for fellow vamps like Dagmar Godowsky or Jetta Goudal); her story is far more interesting than Anger's caricature.**

I don't know if it has anything to do with April Fool's Day, but the day is remarkable for the number of fascinating ladies who celebrate a birthday.  Beyond Naldi, they include Broadway legend Laurette Taylor (the first and greatest Amanda in The Glass Menagerie), West End treasure Cicely Courtneidge (how can one not adore an actress who starred in something called Gay's the Word?), spectacular jazzstress Alberta Hunter (somewhere, I know, her castle's still rocking), fellow silent star Mary Miles Minter (victim of a stage mother who makes Momma Rose look like Mother Goose), mystifying screen favorite Jane Powell, the ever-durable Debbie Reynolds (her book's just out - anyone read it?), and almost-as-mystifying-as-Jane-Powell seventies sensation Ali McGraw.  It's quite a crowd, but however fabulous any one of them might be, I doubt that any could wield that coat quite like Nita...

* The GloriaSwansonian creation, not the affable cyber-presence, of course...

** There is a treasure trove of fascinating Naldi reading at her eponymous fansite, which really is good fun and clearly very fond of its subject.