Mermans and Mermaids

Hans Christian Andersen was an ugly duckling who tried all his life to become a swan. Born in Denmark in 1805, his childhood was dominated by poverty, mismatched parents, and an ambiguous sexual identity. Attracted to both men and women, for a while he focused his emotional attention on Edvard Collin, the son of his benefactor.

“Agnete and the Merman”, a traditional Danish folktale, tells how one day while Agnete is walking by the sea, a merman jumps out of the water and proposes to her.  Impulsively, Agnete accepts and goes to live with him in the sea where the couple have several merbabies. All goes well until Agnete hears the village church bells ringing. Impulsively, she returns on land for a visit but, having her feet back on the ground once again, Agnete decides to stay and not go back to her merfamily.

Andersen rewrote the folktale in the form of a love poem and sent it to Collin. For Andersen, the story of Agnete was that of “the never satisfied longing of the heart, its wondrous yearning for a new, different way of being”. Collin, instead, greatly criticized Andersen’s efforts saying that the poem was trivial, childish and desperately misshapen.

To escape his disappointment and overwhelming feeling of loneliness, Andersen decided to travel. In Rome, from 1833 to 1834, Andersen lived at via Sistine 104, in between the Spanish Steps and the Fountain of Piazza Barberini. Here he began “The Improvisatore”, the novel that would make him famous in Denmark. The novel begins with a description of Bernini’s Fountain with its Triton calming the waters by blowing on his conch shell.

Fontana del Tritone

Triton, Poseidon’s son, is half man, half fish. In other words, a merman like the one in the story of Agnete”. But Rome has mermaids, too, such as that of Piazza Navona’s Fountain of Neptune.

A couple of years after living in Rome and learning of Collin’s wedding engagement, Andersen wrote “The Little Mermaid”. It’s a story about how a mermaid falls in love with a prince after saving his life. In order to be able to follow him on land, she gets a magic potion from a sea witch that will transform her tail into legs. But it will also make her mute.

The prince finds the Little Mermaid and finds her amusing but certainly is not in love with her. Instead he falls in love with and marries a princess from a neighboring kingdom.  The Little Mermaid’s sisters arrive with a magic knife and tell their sister to kill the prince then pour his blood on her human legs so she can become a mermaid again and go back to the sea with her family and live another 300 years. But the Little Mermaid’s love for the prince keeps her from killing him. Instead she throws herself and the knife into the sea. The water starts turning red and the Little Mermaid starts turning into foam. Then suddenly she hears voices telling her that she will be rewarded for having spared the prince’s life. Instead of turning into foam, she’ll turn into air. And this will give her a chance to do good deeds so that one day she can go to the Kingdom of God.

In other words, “The Little Mermaid” is a form of gruesome religious propaganda disguised as child entertainment.  Love is not joy but self-sacrifice to earn your way into Heaven.

I find Andersen’s fairy tales spooky and disquieting. His paper cut outs are much more entertaining. Before TV and internet, people use to entertain themselves in other ways and one way Andersen kept himself entertained was by making paper cut outs. He would carry a pair of scissors in his pocket. Often invited to social gatherings, he would tell stories while making these silhouettes then give them away.

“Paper cutting is the prelude to writing” he once wrote.

Paper Cutting

One of Andersen’s paper cuts greatly resembles those sculpted figures of a woman hold her fish tails often found on Romanesque capitals. The important Colonna family of Rome used this figure as their emblem because the siren defied the tempests.

The Sirenca

Andy Warhol was enchanted by Andersen’s paper silhouettes and a year before he died did a series of screen prints based on them.

Anderson & Warhol

Make believe is often a form of survival.


To read more about Andersen: Hans Christian Andersen : The Life of a Story Teller by Jackie Wullschläger on



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Effie or Effigy?

Grosvenor Gallery

Sir Coutts Lindsay and his wealthy Rothschild wife, Blanche, were both amateur artists who’d aspired for more. What they didn’t have in terms of talent, they made up for in terms of money. So in 1877 they opened The Grosvenor Gallery in London focusing on artists snubbed by the mainstream. One such artist was James Abbott Whistler, a snob himself who turned his nose up at paintings expressing sentiments and morals. Art, he’d said, should exist only for the sake of art. Hugh and I didn’t really agree however we went to his exhibition at the Grosvenor with great enthusiasm. Whistler’s compositions were severe and his use of colour melancholic.

Whistler's Mother

One painting that stood out was a portrait of his mother seated within a geometric space that was all grey and black and undecided white. The mother’s hands were folded on her lap as if they’d never caressed a face, ruffled someone’s hair, or wiped a tear away. No wonder Whistler’s art was so formal.

While there we saw the art critic John Ruskin with his bushy eyebrows and lunatic glares busy scribbling notes and making faces. His vibes were so bad that it came as no surprise when we later read his savage review about Whistler’s work. Ruskin accused the artist of being a dandy audacious enough to ask outrageous sums of money simply for having flung a pot of paint in the public’s face. Whistler was incensed and sued Ruskin for libel.

It was all very exciting as it reanimated gossip about Ruskin. Everyone in the art world knew that Ruskin had once been married to Effie Gray, John Everett Millais’ wife. But the marriage had been annulled due to Ruskin’s “incurable impotency”. And when Millais and Effie married, Ruskin began to violently criticize the artist’s paintings.

Ruskin on the Rocks

Since Millais, being one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was not popular with the status quo, Hugh thought that having him paint my portrait would be a form of activism. So it was arranged that two or three times a week I would go to Millais’ studio on Palace Gate and pose for my portrait. The room was big with tapestries on the walls, several paintings on easels, and a stack of ornate frames leaning up against the wall.

Tea Time

After posing, Millais’ wife Effie would generally offer me tea and crumpets. Eventually we became friends. She was so very middle-aged, normal, and grounded that talking came easily. It took a few months but we began to exchange confidences and she then told me the story about her marriage to Ruskin.

Ruskin and Effie had met when she was just a young girl with no sentimental experience. Ruskin said he was in love and wanted to marry her despite his mother’s objections. On their honeymoon night, Ruskin took one look at his bride’s body and refused to have sex with her. Effie said her pubic hair had repulsed him. The only naked women Ruskin knew were statues and they were hairless.

Naked or Nude

This went on for six years until Effie’s friends Elizabeth Eastlake stepped in. Elizabeth, an art historian and critic, liked fresh flowers, Mendelssohn, and stern judgements. She didn’t like Germans, naughty books or John Ruskin. Elizabeth, with the help of others, convinced Effie to seek annulment on the basis that her marriage had not been consummated. Ruskin said his wife was mad but there wasn’t much he could say after a doctor certified her as a virgin. So Effie finally got rid of Ruskin and the following year married Millais. The two had eight children together.

Meanwhile, Ruskin asked Rose La Touche, his drawing student 30 years his junior, to marry him. Instinctively, Rose didn’t trust Ruskin so she wrote his ex-wife for advice. Effie told the young girl of the difficulties she had had with Ruskin so Rose refused to marry him.

Ruskin and Seances

But Rose had her own problems. She was anorexic and died a few years later. At that point the dam was broken and Ruskin became obviously wacky. Desperate over the loss of Rose, he began going to spiritualists hoping to re-establish communication with his lost love. Now there was no doubt about it. Ruskin was mad.

If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, beware of the beholder.


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Tea & the Spanish Steps

Spanish Steps

Right next to Rome’s Spanish Steps is the Babington Tea Room. It was established in 1893 by Isabel Cargill and Anna Maria Babington. They, like many other ex-pats, came to Rome in hopes of creating a new lifestyle for themselves. Obviously, they catered to the Anglo-Saxon community. The Brits adored the place as it was practically the only place, at the time, to get a nice hot cup of tea.


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Tallulah Bankhead and Insomnia

Tallulah Bankhead's Insomnia

Tallulah Bankhead suffered from insomnia. It was easier for her to fall asleep if one of her gay friends held her hand. Their contact worked better than drugs.


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The Power of Intention

Smoke in the Eyes

Sometimes it’s difficult to focus when smoke is blown into our face. Sometimes we are the ones doing the blowing. Sometimes we are distracted from what we need to do because our intentions are not clear.

In the Age of Reconfiguration, I realize that I can accomplish more if I give my day an intention. It helps if the night before I write down what my plans are for the next day–it helps to keep me from being swallowed up by distractions.

The power of intention is that it understands that the shortest distance from one point to another is a straight line.


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