Mementos

The smell of honeysuckle entered from my bedroom window. The summer heat had intensified its sticky sweetness and the aroma was making me dizzy. Luckily I was reading in bed so I didn’t risk falling.  Connie had lent me Lee Harper’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Set in a small Alabama town of the 1930s, it’s the story of how a black man, unjustly accused of a crime, is defended by a white lawyer, Atticus Finch.  But Atticus knows that no matter how well he defends his client, his client will be found guilty simply because he’s black.

Some people respect prejudice more so than they do truth.

Atticus’ statement that “the one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” inspired me to be a better woman. That’s why, in August of 1963, I found myself in D.C. for the March on Washington. Civil Rights leaders had organized a protest against racial discrimination and 200,000 people had gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr speak.

“I have a dream—I have a dream that…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers” King said. The crowd, wanting to dream too, roared with emotion and, resonating together, all felt related one to the other.

After the march I met up with an old friend from middle school, Clyde. Clyde and I were both romantics. We liked heartbreaking mariachi music, chimichurri sauce, and rainy Sunday mornings. A friend of his from church, Lillian Rogers Parks, had invited us over for tea. Lillian was a tiny little woman who liked wearing fake pearls and a smile full of adjectives. Having suffered from polio as a child, she used crutches. But she hadn’t let her handicap turn her into a victim. Both Lillian and her mother had worked at the White House as domestics for 30 years. Together they’d collected quite a number of White House souvenirs now displayed in a large mahogany Victrola given to Lillian by President Hoover and his wife.

The little cabinet of curiosities was loaded with photos, fans, figurines, and perfumes. Lillian’s collection also included the dress worn by Mrs. Coolidge for a portrait, a ribbon from Queen Elizabeth’s bouquet, two of FDR’s canes as well as his Bible, and Mrs. Harding’s mourning items. But more than objects, Lillian had collected stories. She was initially uncomfortable with the idea of writing about her White House experiences thinking it would be too audacious. But her mother said that “if a cat may look at a Queen in England, a maid may write about a First Lady in America”. The result was the bestselling book “My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House”.

Much of Lillian’s work dealt with sewing. She made drapes and tablecloths but also did much mending. Lillian had mended White House towels and tablecloths as well as FDR’s sweaters and Eisenhower’s golf stockings.

While working at the White House, Lillian had a chance to observe the Presidents and their attitude towards Blacks.

When Coolidge was president, the Mississippi Delta risked flooding. To save the cotton plantations, Black communities were flooded in order to reduce pressure on the levees. Now, not only homeless and without food, Blacks were forced by guards to help fortify the river banks. But the levee broke and hundreds of black labourers were swept away and died.

When President William Howard Taft’s wife became First Lady, she substituted police with Blacks as doormen at the White House believing the latter to be less intimidating.

Woodrow Wilson believed in segregation and backed the Klu Klux Klan.

Eleanor Roosevelt was the first to invite Blacks to the White House as guests. When Queen Elisabeth came for a visit, Eleanor’s mother-in-law said that it would be best to have only white domestic helpers. Eleanor ignored her. However, in 1942, despite Eleanor’s civil rights activities, her husband enacted one of America’s most racist executive orders by forcing 100,000 Japanese Americans into concentration camps.

Harry Truman grew up believing in white supremacy but the brutal violence of racial lynchings he saw as President forced him to create a Civil Rights committee.

When Nikita Khrushchev visited the White House in 1959, he took a look at the Black employees and asked Eisenhower “Are these your slaves?”

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional and that Black students in Little Rock, Arkansas couldn’t be prohibited from attending the local high school. So, although “understanding” why Southerners wouldn’t want their sweet little girls sitting next to some “big black buck”, President Eisenhower had no choice but to send U.S. army troops to escort the Black students to school.

Lesson learned:

Historians obviously write about the Presidents from a particular point of view. But someone like Lillian, who spent her days at the White House as a domestic, had the possibility to observe things historians couldn’t. Like how the Roosevelts loved to have loud and rowdy meals whereas the Eisenhowers enjoyed being alone and eating dinner in front of the TV. And only an insider would know that Harry Truman washed his own underwear or that Taft was so overweight that a special bathtub had to be made for him (and maybe the reason why his wife introduced twin beds in the White House).

Convictions take courage.

And you don’t have to be President to live in the White House.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Tricky Tangos

In the dimness of my room, I’d often imagined myself dancing a tango while a Carlos Gardel look-alike sang “La Cumparsita”. Just the thought made my heart flutter and sigh. The only way to liberate yourself from a desire, they say, is to actualize it. So, to emancipate myself from leg wrapping fantasies, I booked a flight to Buenos Aires.

Being in airports always makes me feel somewhat displaced. Because in an airport, I’m inbetween here and there which is basically like being nowhere. I look at the strangers around me and realize we have something in common.  We are all transients. One transient who caught my attention was sitting on a lounge chair as if she were sitting on a throne. Her appearance was screaming to be noticed so I did. The woman’s hair was blonde and she was wearing tinted eye glasses, a fur trimmed jacket, and, among other things, an impressive emerald ring.  Her talent seemed to be that of wearing too much in such a way as to make it look like just enough. Intrigued, I nonchalantly took the seat next to her. She smelled of tonka bean as she was wearing Shalimar, a perfume not to be worn on a hot day (although perfect for winter nights).

To pass the time, we exchanged a few words.  Her name was Fleur Cowles and she was the wife of LOOK magazine’s publisher. Fleur, public relations-like friendly, was pleased about my presence only because she needed an audience. A journalist, she was on her way to Buenos Aires to interview Evita Peron. But before more could be said, our flight was announced.

Fleur’s sillage* was still stuck in my nose when I boarded the plane but, like a fleeting fragrance, by the time we’d landed, I‘d already forgotten her. Then, a couple of years later while browsing around Rosengren’s bookstore, I noticed Fleur’s name on the cover of Bloody Precedent,a book about the similarities between Juan and Evita Peron’s regime with that of Juan and Encarnacion Rosas 100 years before. It was obvious that Fleur couldn’t stand Evita and depicted the Perons as typical South American despots. The idea of Fleur’s and Evita’s duello of egos made me chuckle inside.

Despite Fleur’s criticism of Evita, the two had much in common. Both had obscure beginnings (whenever asked about her childhood, Fleur would be reticent saying it was too painful to discuss). Both women, blondes, were ambitious and addicted to wealth and power. Both women loved to be praised and indulged in self-flattering. Fleur, for example, boasted that she had an idea a minute and that she was a “born idea” herself.

Fleur’s biggest accomplishment could be considered FLAIR magazine that she was able to publish thanks to her husband’s considerable financial backing. FLAIR was lavish and unique and offered a juxtaposition of articles and stories by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jean Cocteau, Tennessee William, Salvador Dalì, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and even the Duchess of Windsor. FLAIR was extremely expensive to produce as die-cutting, textured paper, and pull-outs were used.  Controversial and innovative, the magazine was just too costly to last long.

As a young girl, Evita had arrived in Buenos Aires with a cardboard suitcase packed with darned stockings and tattered dresses. But, recognizing the power of appearance, once she was the First Lady, she carefully constructed her look and took advantage of her husband’s power and wealth to create her image.

A few weeks before her death, Eva rode next to her husband for his second Presidential Inauguration. She was so weak that an armature had to be made to help keep her upright. Many believed her weakness to be the result of cervical cancer. But others believed she was weak because of the lobotomy her husband had subjected her to. He said that the operation had been done to help her deal with the pain caused by the cancer. But there are those who believe her skull had been perforated mainly to muffle her intentions.

Evita wanted to arm trade union workers with pistols and machine guns so they could form their own militia. Obviously, to defend their money and power, Peron and the elite could not permit this or many other of Evita’s initiatives. But they didn’t have to worry long. In 1952, at the age of 33, Evita died. Fleur, on the other hand, was much luckier. She died at the age of 101.

Lesson learned… Both Fleur and Evita started off poor but died excessively rich. Evita’s jewellery cases were loaded with expensive jewels and closets had to be custom made in order to make room for all of her shoes, purses, hats, and designer clothes (she loved Dior’s New Look). Whereas Fleur, also addicted to designer clothes, owned many painting by famous artists that she used, along with other exclusive objects, to decorate her many homes scattered across the world.

When too much is not enough, there’s a problem.

*Sillage is the term used to indicate the lingering smell of a perfume

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Bibliography: Cowls, Fleur. She Made Friends and Kept Them. Harper Collins. New York. 1996.

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Color Theories

It was thanks to some oranges that I got to meet Elizabeth Taylor.  I was handling some pears at Campo de Fiori’s outdoor market when the woman standing next to me asked what color fruit went best with blue walls. “Well oranges, of course”, I replied. Surprised by my lack of hesitation, I told her that I’d studied Itten’s color theory with great care. “Color has a tremendous effect on us”, I continued.  “Just think of Hitchcock’s bizarre dinner parties.”

“Once he had all the food tinted blue—blue soup, blue bread, blue mashed potatoes.  Can you imagine eating a blue chicken? Blue, the color of bruises, is an appetite suppressant. That’s why you’ll eat less if your food is served on a blue plate”. Fascinated, the woman invited me for a glass of wine and that was the beginning of my friendship with Muriel Spark, author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Even though it was based in the 1930s, it’s such a contemporary story. Miss Brodie, accused of teaching Fascism, is forced to retire. The accusation is made by the student she trusts most, Sandy. After the betrayal, Sandy studies psychology and writes “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace” before becoming a nun. Why Sandy, a stone throwing sinner, felt the need to betray Miss Brodie is the real dilemma in the book. Because it’s the story of how one dogma substituted another but continued to dress in black.

Anyway, Muriel told me that a film was being made based on her book, In the Driver’s Seat, starring Elizabeth Taylor and she felt obligated to host a party in the actress’ honor. Muriel’s book had been inspired by the new French writers especially Alain Robbe-Grillet’s “repetition, boredom, despair, going nowhere for nothing”. You know, an existential hangover. But what did I care as Muriel had invited me to her dinner party where I met Liz and had a great time.

In the months following the party, Muriel and I often met for dinner at Galeassi’s in the heart of Trastevere. Rome had taught her how to become glamorous. She’d lost a few kilos and started wearing designer clothes. Muriel loved Rome because she said it was a place where you could assume the identity that you wanted. Her entourage of friends were straight out of a nouveau roman— charmers, flatterers, and borderline aristocrats. They were part of her new look until she started hanging out with the artist Penelope Jardine. You could tell the two felt really comfortable with one another. Eventually Muriel and Penelope moved to Tuscany and, for 30 years, they travelled around Italy in Muriel’s Alfa Romeo in search of new things to discover. Gossips speculated that it was a lesbian relationship but I don’t think sex had anything to do with it. Muriel wanted something the men she’d loved hadn’t been able to give her—companionship.

Lesson learned from Muriel: Everyone needs to live abroad for at least a year.

Muriel was from Scotland but had lived in Southern Rhodesia and New York City before moving to Italy. She understood the advantages of living abroad.

When you live abroad, you’re forced to do things differently than you did at home. This expands your peripheral vision permitting you to see more than you did before.

Learning to adapt to new ways of doing things will make your dendrites grow. Complicit with your imagination, you will learn to adapt which, according to Darwin, is the basis of survival.

Affronting the unknown is a stimulus. Even going to the grocery store can become a happening. The routine broken, boredom is obliterated and life is a thrill.

Comparing and contrasting old ways with new ones gives you more options when having to make choices. Plus the initial uncertainty that comes with living abroad helps build character and self-esteem.

Often creative people feel like aliens in their own country which can lead to a feeling of frustration and insecurity. When you live in a foreign country, it’s ok to feel different.  Italo Calvino said that the ideal place is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Related: Muriel Spark (1918-2006) + Muriel Spark and Penelope Jardine + some of Muriel’s friends in Rome included Brian de Breffny, Count Lanfranco Rasponi, Dario Ambrosiani, the Honorable Guy Strutt + Muriel Spark lived at Palazzo Taverna, VIA DI MONTE GIORDANO

Read  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie  by Muriel Spark (1961) online + watch The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie online + Watch The Driver’s Seat on youtube

Stannard, Martin. Muriel Spark: The Biography.

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Bitter Tea

Hollywood, sunny and shallow, had welcomed us with its palms spread out like opened arms. Mona and I, thanks to one of her many suitors, were tinsel town tourists and on our way to the movie studios. We’d been invited on the set of Frank Capra’s The Bitter Tea of General Yen.  Sicilian men, I’m told, make terrific lovers but terrible husbands. I don’t know if Capra was an exception. He was short, stocky, and had eyes that penetrated like swords. Sensuously intriguing, he seemed to have a penchant for whispering in women’s ears.

Known for his post-Depression “fantasies of goodwill” movies, Capra had decided that goodwill would not win him an Oscar so he was out for a Hollywood Makeover. And that makeover was going to happen thanks to The Bitter Tea of General Yen. I’d read the book and, after learning that the author was also on the set, left Mona alone with the flirtatious Capra and went to look for Grace Zaring Stone. So after wandering around, I found the author standing at the coffee counter next to Barbara Stanwyck! My initial reaction was that Grace looked quite stuffy all dressed in white. Even her beret and gloves were white and she was clutching her purse as if she needed something to hold on to. Plus her mouth looked as if it had been ironed into place. But after a closer look at her facial muscles, it became obvious that, more than stuffy, Grace was just very uncomfortable in that situation. So when Ms. Stanwyck was called back on the set, I walked up to Grace and introduced myself as one of her biggest fans because, as my mother always use to say, flattery can get you anywhere.

We found a nice secluded place to sit and talk. Grace was the great-great-granddaughter of the social reformer Robert Owen. And, said Grace, Owen descendants read books and kept diaries. So before writing novels, she wrote diaries. Married to a naval officer, Grace travelled a lot and lived in various parts of the world. For two years she’d lived in China.

The setting for The Bitter Tea of General Yen is that of the Chinese civil war of 1927. Megan Davis, prim New Englander, is engaged to a missionary doctor and goes to meet up with him in China so they can get married. But when she arrives in Shanghai, her fiancé is caught up in conflict somewhere else. So when the elderly missionary, Doctor Strike, sets off to rescue some orphans, Megan, restless, goes with him. Unfortunately, rebel skirmishes separate them and Megan winds up under the protection of the warlord, General Yen.

For three days, Megan is a guest in Yen’s palace, a palace “made for a life which began and ended with the rising and the setting of the sun.” Megan and Yen reciprocally try to convert each other. Megan pushes God and goodwill whereas the General promotes intelligence and culture. “Have you read any of our poetry?” he asks her. “Do you know about Li Bai, a poet of the Tang Dynasty?”

Li Bai roamed around the Yangzte River Valley drinking wine and writing poetry. The poet loved anthropomorphism and often got drunk with his shadow. He used a free style that greatly influenced Ezra Pound. One night he took a boat ride and, seeing the moon’s reflection in the water, tried to embrace it. He fell in the water and drowned.

Furthermore, says Yen, the Chinese invented gunpowder for fireworks. Western culture, instead, uses gunpowder for guns. And that tells you much about the difference between the two cultures. Slightly overwhelmed, Megan is unable to use God to counter rebuttal Yen’s observations and says “I want as a matter of fact to see your point of view as far as I can. I believe I can do it better when you don’t argue with me.”   

“In religion, even when the reward is far, the hope is so immediate.”

Despite their differences (or maybe because of them), Megan and the General, in the film, are erotically attracted to one another. But whereas they are able to go beyond their differences, the American public could not. Capra’s film was a box office failure. Americans could not accept the idea of an oriental man having a romance with a Caucasian woman. At the time, miscegenation, the mixing of different racial types, was illegal in the USA and remained so until 1967. Marriage, cohabitation, and sexual intercourse between a white person and a person of another race were prohibited. In fact, for the role of General Yen, to avoid having problems with racial laws, Capra chose Nils Asther, a Swedish actor made up to look as if he were Chinese.

Grace had two other novels turned into film: Winter Meeting, and Escape. For the latter, an anti-Nazi thriller, she used the pseudonym of Ethel Vance to avoid creating problems for her daughter, Eleanor, who had married an impoverished Hungarian aristocrat, Zsiga Perényi, and lived in Hungary that, after WWI, had been given over to Czechoslovakia.

Grace, who lived to be 100, eventually moved to Connecticut to be near Eleanor now back in the USA. Mother and daughter enjoyed sitting on the terrace drinking and smoking and storytelling. Eleanor had a fabulous garden with ornamental flowers, vegetables, and espaliered pears. Sometimes she would organize dinner parties inviting people like Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Elizabeth Bowen, and Mary McCarthy. Eleanor wrote a best seller about her garden as well as an intriguing book about her Hungarian years, More Was Lost.

Lesson learned: Prejudice is an a priori judgement. That is, a judgement based on theory and not on actual experience. To have a prejudice is like wearing a uniform. Instead of reflecting your own individuality, you standardize your thoughts according to norms not created by your own experiences.

As I grow older, will I be a victim of my own prejudice?

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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Related: Grace Zaring Stone (1891-1991)

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Kiki de Montparnasse

It had been a while since we’d walked together in the moonlight. So, hand in hand, Hugh and I took a stroll around Montparnasse.  We wound up at Le Jockey Bar where Kiki de Montparnasse was singing “La Haut Sur La Butte”. We enjoyed it so much that we offered her a drink. Kiki was wild and exciting in a debauched way. She was living with the Surrealist photographer, Man Ray, who often used her as a model. To accommodate his surrealistic fantasies, he completely redesigned Kiki’s face. He’d removed her eyebrows just so he could redraw himself and gave her stenciled lipstick lips.

Too bad for him that it was easier to manipulate her face than it was to manipulate her personality. He should have taken that into consideration when he dumped her for Lee Miller. I was there in the café when Man Ray told Kiki that it was over. Kiki went into a rage and started throwing plates at him with such violence that he was forced to hide under a table.

Afterwards I lost contact with her but later heard that, not only had she opened her own cabaret, Chez Kiki, she’d also started painting.  Self-taught, Kiki’s Naïf paintings sold out at her first exhibition. In 1929, she wrote her memoirs with an introduction by Hemingway.

But living in a whirlpool caught up with her. Without an anchor, she drifted away from her talents and mimicked herself when she sang for tourists in the Montparnasse cafes. Although always in need of money, Kiki said that she could survive with an onion, a piece of bread, and a bottle of red wine and she could always find someone to offer her that.

Kiki’s addiction to cocaine and alcohol eventually killed her. She was only 52.

(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)

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