Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Things You Can Learn From Edith Wharton

"... the beauty, the power, the immortality dwelt not in the idea, but the struggle for it.”  — Edith Wharton.
Things You Can Learn From Edith Wharton.  Also — Ringo Starr ... Cameron Diaz ... Givenchy ... and my memorable handshake with Audrey Hepburn.
by Denis Ferrara

“FOR GENERATIONS, for centuries man had fought on; crying for liberty, dreaming it was won, waking to find himself the slave of the new forces he had generated, burning and being burnt for the same beliefs under different guises ... And as the vision of this inveterate struggle rose before him, Odo saw that the beauty, the power, the immortality dwelt not in the idea, but the struggle for it.” 

This is from Edith Wharton’s first novel, 1902’s “The Valley of Decision.” 

The book, set in Italy, was one of the results of Wharton having drenched herself for years in European and particularly Italian culture and customs — although she is best known for her icy and elaborately incisive books about America’s social climbing and foibles, such as “The Age of Innocence” and “House of Mirth.”

I came across the quote while reading Hermione Lee’s massive 2007 biography on Wharton (I’m on page 111. 700 more to go!) 

I can’t say much about Wharton at this point, other than she appeared to hate her mother, and while complaining constantly about her health, lived and worked quite vigorously, even in the years that preceded her greatest fame — which came when she was well into her thirties and, not at all coincidentally, when she was no longer a married woman.) 

But I was struck with the concept, that the struggle for liberty — of any sort — is the meat of the matter, as the ideas, ideals, realizations, always seem to fall short, or are so delayed or so compromised they hardly seem recognizable as the bright-eyed noble concepts intended.  Everywhere, every day, unavoidably we see and hear “ideas” and ideals of who and what we are, or should be.  Some of these are misguided (from my point of view).  Others are admirable, although I often have my doubts as to the wisdom in how they are expressed, by whom and for what audience.  

But I agree with Wharton — the beauty and power is in the struggle.  In the end, nobody really wins for long, and truly not ever as we — or “they” — intend. Victory is never as sweet as we hope; defeat does not last forever. Not in America, anyway.  Not even now

It’s the fight to win that makes history. 
Wharton in France during WWI with soldiers and Walter Berry.
OBVIOUSLY, I have not been thinking much recently about the latest Marvel movie, the impending end of the Angelina and Brad divorce negotiations or anybody named Katy, or Cynna, Kendra, Stacy, Taylor or even Justin (Theroux or Bieber) or Jennifer (Aniston, Lopez or Lawrence). Not even about Cameron Diaz, who has announced her retirement from filmmaking. Too bad — I’ve always liked her as an actress.  She never seemed to take herself very seriously.  (Maybe when Daniel Day-Lewis changes his mind about retirement, he’ll come back in a rom-com with Ms. Diaz!) 
Credit Mario Tursi/Miramax Films
Sometimes I just turn away from the internet, turn off the TV and allow the New York Times to sit unopened, at the edge of my overstuffed couch.  I attempt to escape by reading 700 pages on the life of Edith Wharton!

So in that vacuum things go by.  For example I had no idea until I decided to peruse Billboard’s cover story on Demi Lovato, that Ringo Starr has been knighted!  He is now Sir Ringo.  I couldn’t be more pleased.  He is adorable, still, at age 77, the most likeable, accessible Beatle. The late Lennon and Harrison were too acerbic and mystic, respectively, their genius aside. And Sir Paul is, well ... much more likely to insist on being called Sir Paul than Ringo would. 

(By the way, Demi Lovato seems like a quite interesting young woman, not that I’d ever go out of my way to listen to her music — nor would I know it if I heard it. But in reading about her, I can understand why she is so popular with her fan base.)

Something else occurred during one of my “breaking news” sabbaticals.  The great designer Hubert Givenchy died earlier last month, at age 91.

I’d recently had Givenchy on the brain, while watching the glossy 1963 melodrama “The VIPs” with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Givenchy designed La Liz’s clothes, and I wondered what he thought when he saw the cushiony Taylor in his beige knit, high-necked, arm-revealing number, or the pink, Empire-waist negligee.  I know what I thought!  (In this film, the as-yet-unmarried ET and RB suffer the pangs of the end of their 13-year marriage, which was startlingly prescient, as Taylor and Burton would divorce for the first time in 1974, 13 years after the start of their famous affair on the set of “Cleopatra.”  The film is stolen, really by Maggie Smith, Margaret Rutherford and Orson Welles.  Liz n’ Dick were just there to put backsides in the seats.)
La Liz wearing the pink Empire-waist Givenchy negligee in “The VIPs.”
But, of course, it was Givenchy’s relationship with Audrey Hepburn that became legendary — seven films and almost all of her personal wardrobe. They were “just the perfect blendship” as Cole Porter put it. He was perfect for her; she was perfect for him.  I read in one of Givenchy’s obituaries that in the partnership between the movie star and the designer, “Hepburn normalized fashion for the ordinary woman.”  Hmmm ... did any woman actually think she could look like Hepburn?
Audrey Hepburn wearing a yellow floral dress by designer Hubert de Givenchy for her film Funny Face, 1956.
I think women, overloaded with images of busty sirens such as Monroe, Taylor, and Loren, were relieved to see thin, modestly endowed Audrey elevated.  She wore her clothes and floated through her films so effortlessly, perhaps women were convinced that with the right dressmaker, they too could float, and even perhaps project the charm that was Hepburn’s great gift. (She didn’t have huge range as an actress, and she didn’t need it — most of the really iconic ones don’t, by the way.)  I was also reminded in these tributes that Hepburn allowed herself to become the face of Givenchy’s fragrance, as a favor!  Few stars of her status do favors when there is a possibility that somebody else is going to make money off their name, image, or participation. 
I met Hepburn only once, when she was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  It was a grand night, spoiled only by too many “My Fair Lady” clips of Hepburn singing.  The choice to dub her voice in that film was a heartbreak to her and denied the star an Oscar nod for an otherwise superb performance. (Julie Andrews who did “My Fair Lady” onstage, was nominated and won for “Mary Poppins,” one of the eye-rolling mysteries in cinema history.)   
Audrey attended the party after at Tavern-on-the-Green.  I was determined to say something, and to put it vulgarly, “Get a good look.”  I was with a friend, the writer Michael McWilliams, also an admirer. Stationing myself right near the door, I somehow found a moment within the tumult of her entrance to extend a hand, and introduce myself as a representative for Liz Smith. She took mine, in an admirably firm grip and said, “Oh, how lovely to meet you, and how is Liz?”  I said Liz was fine, and then before she was spirited off, I pulled my friend — not usually shy — toward her and said, “This is Michael McWilliams.”  Hepburn took his hand, and murmured something about being glad to meet him, too.  She was gone and we stood in happy shock.

Her appeal, her human warmth, was no trick of the camera, or a clever script, or expert press agentry.  Not even the beautiful Givenchy gown she wore that night could compare with her straightforward personal grace.  (And she wore it with the same élan as she had another Givenchy confection in 1957’s “Funny Face,” running down the stairs of the Louvre — “Take the picture!  Take the picture!”)
“Take the picture!  Take the picture!”
When Givenchy spoke of Hepburn after her death in 1993, his eyes would often fill with tears.

I am sure all of Givenchy’s women met him upon arrival in that great couture house in the sky — Jackie, Callas, Capucine, Garbo, Dietrich, Bacall, Babe Paley, etc. 

But first in line was Audrey. 
Contact Denis here.