31 December 2014

New Year's Eve

I don't know about you but I'm happy to say good-bye to 2014. It wasn't the worst year but it wasn't great either. So let's all raise our glasses and make a toast for a better and brighter new year. And whether you're going out or staying in tonight, I hope you all have a fabulous time. 

America Today

"America Today: City Activities with Dance Hall" Thomas Hart Benton (1930–31)

In 1930, painter Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by Alvin Johnson, the director of the New School for Social Research in New York, to create a mural for the school’s boardroom. The result, “America Today,” is a sweeping portrait of American life in the 1920s.

The New School displayed the mural for 50 years before selling it to AXA Equitable Life Insurance for their New York headquarters (the school's provision when selling was that the mural could not leave the country nor be broken up). In 2012 AXA had to remove the work from their lobby for building renovations; they ended up donating it to the Metropolitan Museum of the Art where it is currently on display in the exhibit “Thomas Hart Benton’s ‘America Today’ Mural Rediscovered.”

Comprised of ten panels, “America Today” is epic in scope and quite stunning. The colours are rich and varied with aluminum leaf moldings created by Ziegfeld’s designer, Joseph Urban, framing the panels and defining individual scenes. The majority of the panels represent life in different parts of the country: New York, the South, the Midwest, and the West. The largest, “Instruments of Power,” showcases modern technological advances in power and transport while the smallest “Outreaching Hands,” symbolizes the Great Crash with hands holding money across from those reaching out for coffee and bread.

Included are multiple characters—flappers and mothers, farmers and steel workers, preachers and jazz musicians. I particularly liked the panel, “City Activities with Dance Hall,” which shows New Yorkers dancing, going to the movies, and drinking (illegally) while high above them a man on Wall Street watches the ticker tape.

In two nearby rooms, visitors can view Benton's studies for the mural including photographs of people who modelled for some of the figures (interesting note: Jackson Pollock, who was a student of Benton's, posed for his teacher). There are also related works by other artists including photographs by Berenice Abbott and Lewis Hines. Yet nothing compares to sitting in the room with the mural, surrounded by so much colour and life.

“America Today” is on display at the Met through April 19, 2015. For more information, visit here.

21 December 2014

Santa Baby

“Santa Baby” is one of my favourite Christmas songs. Written in 1953 by Joan Javis and Philip Springer, it’s a slightly naughty (in a 1950s way), humorous take on the traditional list for Santa. This one asks for things like a sable; a ’54 convertible, light blue; a yacht; the deed to a platinum mine; and decorations bought at Tiffany’s.

Eartha Kitt with Henri René and his Orchestra recorded it that same year for RCA Victor Records with Kitt putting her particular stamp on the song. Many people have recorded the song since including Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Mariah Carey yet no one can top Kitt who herself would go on to re-record the song a couple of times. (Side note, I saw Kitt perform many years ago in San Francisco. She must have been in her 70s, and she was absolutely amazing. And she sang this song).

So if you somehow haven't heard it yet this season, here's the song with lyrics. Enjoy.

15 December 2014

Art Roundup

"Woman Viewed from Behind" Edgar Degas (ca. 1879-1885)

This fall has been filled with loads of art from exhibits to performances to screenings. As much as I tried, I fell behind in trying to write reviews of everything so before the season is officially over, here’s a short wrap-up of some of the things I saw.

In the summer of 1937, an art exhibit was held in Munich comprised of 650 pieces of art deemed degenerate by the Nazi Party because it “insulted German feeling” among other things. At the same time another show, “The Great German Art Exhibition,” showcased Nazi-approved art. You can guess which one had the highest attendance: more than 1 million people saw the degenerate show in its first six weeks. In September, I caught the last day of a fascinating exhibit at the Neue Galerie, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” which compared 80 works from both exhibits. Seen side by side, there’s no argument that the “degenerate” art was far superior; including works by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, it was a collection of some of the masters of modern art. Perhaps most striking of all in the exhibit was a room with empty frames symbolizing the art that was lost, most likely destroyed by the Nazis. The exhibition catalogue can be found here.

The Conformist (1970)

Film Forum showed a restored, director-approved version of Bernardo Bertolucci’s masterpiece The Conformist (1970). Based on Alberto Moravia’s novel, the story takes place in 1930s France and Italy where Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant) joins the Italian Fascist party and finds himself tasked with the assassination of one of his old college professors. The film cuts between the present and the past, showing how an attempted sexual assault and presumed murder during Marcello's isolated childhood caused him to grow up craving a normal life. There are numerous great scenes including the climatic encounter in the woods, which would later influence The Godfather, beautifully shot by Vittorio Storaro who incorporated Art Deco design and Fascist-era architecture with stunning effect. Available here.
For the 75th anniversary of the book about the little girl who lived in "an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,” the New York Historical Society celebrated with “Madeline in New York: The Art of Ludwig Bemelmans,” which showcased the Madeline books and their creator, Ludwig Bemelmans, whose own story seems invented. Abandoned by his father as a child, Bemelmans grew up in Germany and Austria, and worked at his uncle’s hotel before an incident involving a shooting led to his being sent to America. It was here in New York that he began to write the tale of Madeline. The exhibit was wonderful, filled with drawings from the Madeline books as well as ones from the Ritz Hotel (where he once worked) and panels from the Paris restaurant he owned. A selection of books and nearby sofa where one was encouraged to sit and read was an added bonus. The exhibit can currently be seen at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts through February 22, 2015. For more info, visit here.

Anna May Wong's Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924, National Archives at San Francisco.

Another, more serious exhibit I saw at the Historical Society was “Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion,” which looks at the history of trade between the US and China, and the plight of Chinese immigrants who, thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act, were not legally allowed to immigrate to the US until 1943. From the beginning of the tea trade in the 18th century to the building of the railroads in the 19th to their successful fight to become citizens in the 20th, Chinese Americans have had an impact on this country. The exhibit includes items from the gold rush (a large reason for Chinese immigration in the 19th century), multiple oral histories, and a recreation of barracks at Angel Island near San Francisco where Chinese immigrants were held while their immigration status was confirmed or denied. Also included is screen star Anna May Wong’s Certificate of Identity, a card that all Chinese, no matter how famous, were required to carry at all times. The exhibit runs through April 19, 2015. For more info, visit here.

I will do almost anything to see a performance by the M
ark Morris Dance Group (MMDG) and so I made sure to attend the opening night of the Fall for Dance Festival at New York City Center where Morris debuted a new work, Words, set to the music of Mendelssohn and specially commissioned for the event. One of four groups performing that evening, the MMDG was the last and best. With all 16 dancers dressed in simple outfits by Maile Okamura, their movements, as with so many of Morris’ work, led you down one path only to surprise you with a sudden twist or turn. A plain cloth carried by two dancers acted as a screen behind which dancers could enter and exit. It was in short, a complete joy to watch. For more about the MMDG, visit their site here.

Rossy de la Palma and Rossy de la Palma in Traveling Lady

Journalist Nellie Bly set out in 1889 to beat the around the world in 80 days record of Jules Verne’s novel; she came in at 72 and was a worldwide news sensation. Jessica Mitrani’s new multimedia piece, Traveling Lady, which premiered at the FIAF Fall Festival, is inspired by Bly and looks at feminine stereotypes via music, film, and well, dancing dresses. At the center of the piece is Pedro Almodovar muse Rossy de la Palma whose larger-than-life presence on stage and in some of the film clips made the show worth seeing.

Powerhouse, a play by Josh Luxenberg and the Sinking Ship Ensemble, tells the story of the eccentric composer Raymond Scott who in the 1930s attempted to reinvent Swing music with his band the Raymond Scott Quintette and who spent his life inventing countless electronic musical gadgets. Scott would likely be forgotten today if it were not for his music catalogue that he sold to Warner Brothers who in turn used many of the pieces for their Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons including the highly recognized “Powerhouse,” which is often used for assembly line scenes. The play, which includes musical performances, dance, and puppetry (some of the funniest scenes in the show), is more than just your run-of-the-mill story of a famous person's life—it shows the madness that is at the heart of creativity. 

05 December 2014

Make 'Em Laugh

A little lightness at the end of a dark week—Donald O'Connor giving a splendid performance of "Make 'Em Laugh" in Singing in the Rain (1952). Enjoy.

04 December 2014

All Men Are Created Equal

It seems like we could do with some words from Atticus Finch this week.

“Thomas Jefferson once said that all men are created equal, a phrase that the Yankees and the distaff side of the Executive branch in Washington are fond of hurling at us. ...We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe—some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cake than others—some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.

"But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal—there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest JP court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird).

03 December 2014

Return of the Vicious Circle

"Algonquin Round Table" Al Hirschfeld

Caricaturist Al Hirschfeld was famous for his spot on black and white drawings of noted actors, writers, and other celebrities of the 20th century. “Return of the Vicious Circle,” a new installation at the Algonquin Hotel, brings together 25 Hirschfeld portraits of members of the renowned Algonquin Round Table and their friends.

I attended a preview reception and it was quite nice to walk in and see those familiar faces looking down on the people in the lobby. The whole gang's there: Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Irving Berlin, Alexander Woollcott, Harpo Marx, James Thurber, and Tallulah Bankhead (to name a few). And hanging proudly above the round table itself is Hirschfeld’s group portrait. Cocktails and treats were served, there were sightings of various theatre and literary folk, and the hotel was decorated for the holidays including a large gingerbread village.

"Dorothy Parker" Al Hirschfeld

The installation is up through January 9, 2015. So stop by the Algonquin to see the portraits and have a drink (or two). 

02 December 2014

Death Becomes Her

This year I spent Halloween at a favourite place, the Met (you thought I was going to say a cemetery, didn't you?), where there were a series of activities including performances by a magician, drawing by candlelight at the Temple of Dendur, and readings of Edgar Allan Poe. The biggest attraction was a very fitting exhibit, "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” featuring American and British mourning wear from 1815 to 1915.

The exhibit was crowded with visitors dressed up in all manner of costumes, including some very impressive Victorian outfits, and everyone’s favourite street photographer, Bill Cunningham, was there, snapping away while people took photos of him. It was all a bit too much so I went back another day to view the exhibit properly.

In the 19th-century, people had a different relationship with death than we do now. The high infant mortality rate and shorter life expectancy for adults meant that death was a constant reality for most people. The living chose to remember their dead in various ways: jewelry was fashioned out of the hair of the departed, photos were taken with the actual dead (creepy), and specific clothing was worn.

The Victorians, with their strict code of conduct, naturally created a whole industry around mourning wear with rules on what to wear and for how long based on the mourner and the deceased. The death of a parent or child called for one year whereas the death of a sibling was just six months. The longest time was reserved for husbands with widows expected to mourn for two years. 

Mourning itself was broken into four stages. Full mourning, which was what widows were expected to do for a year and a day, involved wearing all black including loads of dull crepe (no shiny materials allowed). Then came second mourning, which was less severe than full with some of the heavy crepe removed from outfits. Widows would observe this stage for nine months. Ordinary mourning saw the removal of crepe all together although clothes remained black. For a mourner like a sister, attending a ball was allowed. And finally the fourth stage, half mourning, which allowed mourners to forgo black in lieu of mauve, purple, and gray. Men had it much easier, often getting away with just adding a black tie and gloves to their usual dark suits. They were also only required to observe mourning for three months.

For widows, the donning of mourning wear could send out mixed messages. While a widow's black garb signified a loyal wife showing respect for her departed husband it also said to men that here was a sexually experienced woman who might have a huge fortune at her disposal. Included in the exhibit is an amusing series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson called “A Widow and Her Friends” from 1900 in which a young, attractive widow is hounded by interested suitors and finally winds up joining a nunnery to get away from them.

British evening dress of black moiré silk, lace, and jet, circa 1861.

There are 30 ensembles on display (including a few for men and children) and a selection of accessories and jewelry. The gowns run the gamut from demur and plain to downright glamorous. The French designed ones (surprise, surprise) seem the most fashionable like a silk gown by Charlotte Duclos (1910-12) that features glass beading while a British evening dress circa 1861 made of moiré silk has the most exquisite pattern woven into what appears at first to be solid black. Another gown of note is an American wedding gown from 1868 done in gray to acknowledge those who had died in the Civil War.

For the wealthy, mourning clothes for the most part followed the latest trends save for the colour. It’s easy to see how a pretty woman with means might have looked fetching in an off-the-shoulder black evening gown. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, upon seeing her in mourning wear for Queen Victoria, remarked, “If I die, I see you will not remain a widow for long” (their unhappy marriage ended in divorce before that could happen).

And speaking of Victoria, included in the exhibit are gowns worn by two very different queens. Queen Victoria famously wore mourning wear for the rest of her life after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. A gown from 1894-5, some 30 years after Albert’s death, shows the Queen still wearing solid black. Nearby are two half-mourning gowns owned by Queen Alexandra, Victoria’s daughter-in-law. Designed in 1902 by Henriette Favre (again, the French) in two shades of purple, they are light and sparkly, a far cry from Victoria's heavy black. 

World War I put an end to mourning wear. With so many men and boys dying, it was seen as self-serving to put on such a public show of grief. While people still wear black to funerals today, the age of mourning wear ended with the arrival of the modern age.

“Death Becomes Her” is at the Met through February 1, 2015. For more information, visit here. Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

01 December 2014

Hello, December!

Here we are at the last month of the year. The month that is a constant rush of wrapping up projects and presents, attending parties and events, and finding time to spend with family and friends before the new year arrives. I am going to try to do my best and finish as many posts as I can before then so check back often for some reviews and photos and other bits of news. In the meantime, follow me on Instagram and Twitter to see what's going on. December is guaranteed to be one busy month.

28 November 2014

Black Friday

Harold Lloyd and Ann Christy in Speedy (1928)

Instead of rushing off to the shops this Black Friday, I spent the morning with a friend having a leisurely breakfast at the Café Sabarsky before seeing the Egon Schiele exhibit at the Neue Galerie (more on this later). While I'm sure I missed out on some good bargains, it was way more civilized than fighting the crowds (I do that every work day anyways on the Grand Central shuttle). Might just have to spend every Black Friday this way. 

27 November 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney

Judy and Mickey wish you a Happy Thanksgiving! 

I hope you had a relaxing day, wherever you are. I am looking forward to spending the next few days visiting some museums, watching movies, and not working. And while it's very tempting to go shopping, I like the idea a friend of mine had of supporting a Native American cause instead like the American Indian Graduate Center, which gives scholarships to Native American students (more info here). Enjoy the rest of the week, everyone!

26 November 2014

Liz & Jimmy

Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean in Giant (1955)

Among the many men in Elizabeth Taylor’s life, some of the ones she was closest to were not husbands but friends—Roddy McDowell, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson. These co-stars found in a Taylor a loyal and trust-worthy confident who stood besides them through thick and thin and, in the case of Clift, even saved their lives.

One of the most memorable of her male friends was James Dean. Their seemingly close bond is all the more striking when you consider the fact that their friendship began only a few months before Dean's death.

James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor on set. Photos: Frank Worth.

They met on the set of Giant in June 1955. Taylor was a big Hollywood star who had been acting since childhood. Dean was the farm boy turned method actor who had only made two films. Some cast and crew members were turned off by Dean's sometimes disruptive behaviour and odd sense of humour but not Taylor; she found him interesting and funny. Dean on the other hand was in awe of Taylor. When it came time to film their first scene together, he found the courage to get through it in a very Dean-like way: he turned his back to Taylor and urinated in front of a large crowd of onlookers. He later told co-star Dennis Hopper that "It was Elizabeth Taylor...I was so nervous I couldn't speak." He thought if he could do that in front of a a group of people then "I would be able to work with her."
Photo: API/Gamma-Rapho

Photos: Richard Miller

Nerves gone, the two quickly became friends. When filming wrapped for the day, they would often stay up late and Taylor, ever the good confident, would listen to Dean talk. Later in life, she would write of Dean, “We had an extraordinary friendship. We would sometimes sit up until three in the morning, and he would tell me about his past, his mother, minister, his loves, and the next day he would just look straight through me as if he'd given away or revealed too much of himself. It would take, after one of these sessions, maybe a couple of days before we'd be back on friendship terms. He was very afraid to give of himself."

Toward the end of filming, Taylor gave Dean a Siamese kitten whom he named Marcus after his uncle. Dean adored the kitten. A few days after he had finished shooting his final scenes, he eagerly made plans to head up to Salinas, California in his new Porsche 550 Spyder to compete in a race event. He left Marcus with a friend along with a detailed list of instructions on how to take care of him while he was gone. Dean was killed shortly after in a car crash on September 30, 1955. The story goes that on the day he died, Marcus ran away.
Stevens was the one to break the news of Dean's death to Taylor who burst into tears. The next day, it was business as usual. Rock Hudson said, "George forced her to come to work after Dean's death. He hadn't finished the film. And she could not stop crying." Taylor, in a fury, stormed off set. Shortly thereafter, she collapsed and was admitted to the hospital.
One can only speculate, of course, but I'd like to think that if Dean had lived, the two would have remained dear friends. Looking at the photos of them, it’s clear that they enjoyed being together; they look so relaxed and at ease with each other. What a beautiful couple and what a beautiful friendship.

18 November 2014


Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome,
Im Cabaret, au Cabaret, to Cabaret

A revival of one of my favourite musicals, Cabaret, returned to Broadway this year with the Kit Kat Klub once again taking over the legendary Studio 54. The production is guided by the team of Rob Marshall and Sam Mendes who co-directed the 1998 production, and Alan Cumming reprises his Tony-winning role as the Emcee who instructs the audience to "leave your troubles outside."

Cabaret, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, is based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, which itself was an adaptation of the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood. The musical first debuted on Broadway in 1966 with Joel Grey as the Emcee and Jill Haworth as Sally Bowles. Directed by Harold Prince, it ran for 1,165 performances and spawned multiple revivals in New York and London as well as an Oscar-winning film in 1972.

Set in 1930s Weimar Berlin, Cabaret opens at the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightclub where second-rate performers, including an English good-time girl named Sally Bowles, and their audience are overseen by an androgynous Emcee. Cliff Bradshaw, a bright-eyed American, arrives in the city with plans to write a novel. He rents a room from Fräulein Schneider, a spinster being wooed by one of her boarders, Herr Schultz, a Jewish fruit vendor. That night Cliff winds up at the Kit Kat Klub where he meets Sally who is immediately drawn to him. In a blink, she finagles her way into sharing Cliff's room and bed. At first life is beautiful and the actions of the rising Nazi party are ridiculed at the club (the Emcee “cheekily” displays a swastika on his behind) but soon reality creeps in. Herr Schultz’ shop is vandalized and Fräulein Schneider, afraid of losing the little she has, breaks off their engagement. Cliff, sickened by the realization that the errands he's been running for his friend, Ernst Ludwig, have been on behalf of the Nazi Party, is beaten up when he refuses to continue. He decides to return to America and begs Sally, who is now pregnant, to come away with him but Sally, unable to see beyond tomorrow, gets an abortion and returns to the club where she declares that “life is a cabaret, old chum" as Cliff departs and begins writing his book: "There was a cabaret, and there was a master of ceremonies ... and there was a city called Berlin, in a country called Germany ... and it was the end of the world." The plays closes as it opened on the Emcee, only this time instead of suspenders and a bow tie, he’s dressed in a striped concentration camp uniform adorned with both a yellow star and a pink triangle.

One of the reasons why I love Cabaret is its wonderful score filled with a bevy of memorable songs from the opening "Willkommen," in which the Emcee introduces the audience to the Kit Kat Klub boys and girls to the humorous "Don’t Tell Mama" to the naughty "Two Ladies," to the chilling "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" (first heard as a recording played on a turntable). And, of course, there's Sally’s swan song, "Cabaret," in which she promises that “when I go, I’m going like Elsie” (her roommate who died from excess). While most people remember the songs sung by the Emcee and Sally, there are also the songs by the older lovers, Herr Schultz and Fräulein Schneider, which shouldn't be overlooked: the sweet "It Couldn’t Please Me More" and the poignant 'Married."

And then there is the set. For this production, the orchestra and mezzanine of Studio 54 have been transformed into the Kit Kat Klub with cocktail tables and chairs replacing traditional theatre seats. The blurring of the line between stage and seating allows the audience to become part of the show as when the Emcee walks out and chooses people to dance with him. Another ingenious decision is placing the orchestra above the stage inside a large, lit-up picture frame. This use of space gives the actors an opportunity to make an entrance or observe the going-ons down below.

Much of the attention given to Cabaret has been about the performance of Michelle Williams as Sally. I was interested in seeing her but the night we went she was absent (she’s since left the production and Emma Stone is now donning the green nail polish) so her understudy, Andrea Goss, went on in her place. To be honest, I ended up not minding because Goss was a very good Sally. From her black-bobbed hair to her crisp English accent, she looked and sounded the part while her singing and dancing were great if sometimes almost too good (Sally, after all, isn’t suppose to be all that talented). Goss normally plays one of the Kit Kat girls, all of who showed off their various talents from doing slow cartwheels to baring their assets as did the Kit Kat boys.

There were also strong performances by Bill Heck as Cliff and Danny Burstein as Herr Schultz as well as Linda Emond who gave an especially moving performance as Fräulein Schneider. Yet the star was Alan Cumming as the Emcee—the man who guides you through the play and acts as witness to the disintegration of the world. To call Cumming fabulous sounds almost flippant; no one (apologies to Joel Grey) owns this role like Cumming. He is immensely talented and a pure delight to watch as he sings, dances (sometimes in drag), flirts with the audience, makes faces when he doesn’t get the laughs he wants, and finally stands as a symbol of what horrors the Nazis wrought.

Cabaret is at Studio 54 through March 29, 2015. For more information, visit here. Photos by Joan Marcus.

14 November 2014

Happy Birthday, Lulu!

Happy Birthday to the one and only Louise Brooks. Born on November 14, 1906 in Cherryvale, Kansas, she was a dancer, screen star, and writer whose iconic bobbed hair led Kenneth Tynan to dub her "the girl in the black helmet." She lived life according to her terms no matter the cost, even when it meant the loss of her film career. Yet she always remained true to herself and her beliefs. She is and forever will be one of my role models (read more here). So today, let's all raise our glasses and make a toast to Lulu.

12 November 2014

Couple at the Opera

"Metropolitan Opera, New York" Garry Winogrand (circa 1951) 

At first glance this couple at the Metropolitan Opera (circa 1951) appear to be just another well-to-do couple enjoying some champagne between acts. Yet on closer inspection, one notices a few things. There is the tight cropping of the image that pushes them to the side, making the woman the center of attention. There is the woman's heavy make-up, her face a white mask compared to the muted shades around her. And then there are the raised glasses. Did they strike a pose, aware of the photographer, or did they just happen to be raising their glasses in a toast? And if so, what were they toasting? 

The photo is the work of Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), one of the great street photographers who documented life in New York and the rest of the country from the 1950s to the 1980s. He was a relentless chronicler of post-war America, shooting 26,000 rolls of everyone—the rich and poor, the famous and the unknown, animals at zoos and people at airports. Winogrand, who called himself a “student of America,” famously showed no interest in editing his work, preferring instead to be out shooting, forever on the hunt for his next subject. When he died, he left behind thousands of undeveloped images and contact sheets of work that were never exhibited, including this photograph.

Earlier this fall, I saw this in the Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Met. Of the 175 images on display, 65 were never seen during Winogrand’s lifetime. It was a fabulous exhibit that was also very inspirational. And it introduced me to this photograph that I find so intriguing.

The Met show has closed but if you’re in Paris, you can see this photo along with the rest of the retrospective at the Jeu de Paume through February 8, 2015. Or check out the catalogue here.

10 November 2014

A Visit to the Mount

On my recent trip to the Berkshires, I was able to spend a day at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s former home in Lenox, Massachusetts. I had been once before, years ago when the Mount was still being worked on, and was eager to see the home and gardens fully restored.

Author of more than 40 books and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for literature (1921), Edith Wharton was also a keen interior designer and gardener. Her first book was actually about design, The Decoration of Houses, which she co-wrote with architect Ogden Codman, Jr. in 1897.

When she and her husband, Teddy, purchased 113 acres of land in Lenox for $40,600 in 1901, she decided to design and build a house based on the principals of her book. Recruiting Codman and Francis L.V. Hoppin as architects and R.W. Curry as builder, Wharton conceived of a home with classical Italian and French influences and none of the heavy, Victorian excesses popular at the time. Finished in the fall of 1902, the Mount would be Wharton’s home for the next ten years and her last address before leaving Teddy and America to live in France.

The walk up to the entrance of the Mount. Photos by Michele.

Turning down the unfortunately named Plunkett Street, we parked near the front of the estate where the gatehouse and stables are located. A quarter-mile walk down a maple-lined drive brings you to the entrance of The Mount, which actually appears to be at the side of the house. You can go inside for a tour but we chose to explore the grounds first before the rain became too heavy.

Continuing past the house, you come to an Italian walled garden with its arched walls and rock-pile fountain. Wharton called this her giardino segreto or secret garden. Steps lead up to a lime walk that runs behind the house, which makes you feel as if you've stepped into the past and are on the grounds of a French castle. Looking up, you find the back of the Mount with its wide terrace and distinct green and white striped awnings.

At the end of the Lime Walk is the French flower garden with its dolphin fountain. Wharton originally planted the garden with hollyhocks, phlox, snapdragons, and stocks, among others. Many of these same flowers are planted today, and we were fortunate to still find some blooms even late in the season. 

Looking out beyond the gardens the lawn slopes down to the trees and a small body of water courtesy of the some busy local beavers. To step out onto the terrace and look down onto the gardens and the trees beyond would never get old.

Leaving the flower garden and walking down a path in the woods we came around to the other side of the house and a small rise on which one finds a small cemetery where Wharton's dogs are buried. Wharton loved her dogs and was often photographed with them. Here lies Modele, Mimi, Miza, Jules, and Toto too. We discovered afterwards that Wharton had a view of the cemetery from her bedroom window.

The Gallery. Photo by Michele.

Looking down the long Drawing Room. Photo by Michele.

Back at the house, we decided to take the guided tour, which begins in the entrance hall created to resemble a grotto. Here visitors would wait to see if Mrs. Wharton was entertaining people (she famously disliked large parties; no surprise then that the Mount only has two guest rooms). If she was, the visitors were often greeted by their hostess bearing champagne. 

Side note, I was told when entering the house that I could take photos with my camera but no flash. No problem. I was shooting with my camera when I decided to take a quick shot with my phone so I could post an image on Instagram. My phone was dead. The guide noticed and said that it happens all the time, and they think it's the ghosts acting up. Later, when we stopped somewhere in town, I plugged my phone in to find it charged at 50%. Ghosts? 

Anyways, the tour continued through the rooms on the main floor, which include the Gallery where the Whartons displayed treasures from their travels; Teddy's Den; the Drawing Room, which reminded me of sitting rooms at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh; and the Dining Room where a jar with dog treats sits on the table, ready for one of Wharton's little friends.The library is also on this floor with oak panelling and shelves filled with books from Wharton's personal collection. It was a room where Wharton liked to engage in conversation with close friends like Henry James not, contrary to her publicity photos, where she wrote (she did that in her bedroom). 

A distinctly modern touch to the staircase. Photo by Michele.

The bathroom has its original tub and wallpaper. Photo by Michele.

It should be noted that when Wharton moved to France, she emptied the house of its belongings. When the Mount was restored, a select group of interior designers were invited to reinterpret a room, keeping Wharton's ideas in mind. This accounts for why the furniture is not original to the house and why there are some decidedly modern elements to be found like the leopard print carpeting on the staircases. 

Upstairs on the bedroom level is the West Guest Suite, the Henry James Suite (the room with the best view), Teddy's Suite, and Wharton's Suite, which is comprised of her bathroom,  bedroom, and boudoir (or sitting room). It was here in her bed that Wharton would write every morning, flinging each page to the floor for her secretary to collect and type up. Her boudoir next door, the most elaborate of all the rooms on this floor, acted as her office and the current furniture in the room mimics what was originally in the room including a table and chair, and chaise lounge by the window. 

It was at the Mount that the Whartons' marriage finally disintegrated. Although it was long and unpleasant, Wharton managed to write some of her best material during this time including Ethan Frome and my personal favourite, The House of Mirth. I like to think that that the house helped, giving her the space and quiet that she needed to work. 

Back down two flights to the ground floor is where you find the Kitchen, Scullery, and Laundry Room. The Whartons were good employees and made sure that their longtime cook, Mary Bagley, and staff were equipped with the latest gadgets. And speaking of staff, there were other small rooms in the house, including on the bedroom floor, where servants either did work (like sewing) or had their own bedrooms.

After finishing the tour we got a cup of much needed hot tea and sat outside on the terrace admiring the view. Such a lovely home and gardens. I can't wait to visit again, perhaps in the spring to see all the flowers in bloom. Until then, I'll just have to read some Edith Wharton.

For more information about the Mount, visit their website here.


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