Monday, June 20, 2011

History all over the place

Father's Day paraphernalia. Photo: JH.
Monday, June 20, 2011. A warm, sunny, quiet weekend in New York. I went to dinner at Swifty’s on Saturday night with old friends. Cool enough that we didn’t need a/c, the restaurant’s front windows were pushed back so that the room was open to the avenue, which was also quiet. A lovely weekend night in the city.
History all over the place. For many years I went to Southampton on summer weekends, even leaving on Thursday nights -- this was before NYSD came into existence and Thursday nights became work nights.

When I first went out there in the 1960s the houses were cheap if you wanted to buy (and could afford to) – old cottages right on the beach for under $50,000. There were still a lot of farms and miles of potato fields everywhere east of Southampton. It was country flat and peaceful. And then there was the beautiful beach, one of the most beautiful in the world.

By the 90s, like everything else, it had become a parking lot, getting there, being there, and returning. It’s the world we live in. The mentality for the Hamptons has for many transitioned from getting away to getting with it.

For me it was good for my work. Eventually, however, it felt like work. On a weekend. If I had a house of my own out there, would I go? I would. And I'd stay. Far from the madding crowd, out east. It’s a beautiful place, madding crowd notwithstanding.
On Saturday I went over to Barnes & Noble on Broadway and 82nd to get a couple copies of In the Garden of Beasts (by Erik Larson) which is a natural sequel to the much read and talked about The Hare with Amber Eyes. Aside from being compelling stories about people in the midst of a global conflagration, they are documents of what happened and what happens.

I’m only about halfway through the David McCullough The Greater Journey about the first Americans who went to Paris in the early 19th century for the same reason anyone still loves going to Paris today. A lot of reasons, and all good.
In the Garden of Beasts. Click to order. The Greater Journey. Click to order.
McCullough’s good-professor documentarian style is also the story. We travel with his scintillating guidance through the better part of the 19th century in a country (France) where forty, sixty, eighty years after the fact, the nation had not recovered politically and economically from the Revolution of 1789 and its Terror. There was ongoing political upheaval throughout the next century and economic hardship for most everyone but the rich. And yet, there was Paris -- as it was even for Adolf Hitler who, like everybody else, just wanted to conquer it – if not as an artist, then as a dictator.

All of this is presented in McCullough’s immensely entertaining scholarliness. The author allows you to read between the lines (in practically bold print) if you are so inclined. Like the other two aforementioned books, we see that Man tends to not notice the obvious until the obvious notices him. And by then he’s cooked. Just ask old Louis XVI and his Marie A. And so it was.

The only regret you might have about this book might be that you will find yourself wishing you could have been an American in Paris in the 19th century, right now. The world as we know it now, was just getting started.
Marilyn Monroe with Jane Russell and Charles Coburn in a publicity shot from the film "Gentleman Prefer Blondes." Monroe's dress sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction in Beverly Hills on Saturday for $1.2 million.
Post Revolution in Hollywood. This past Saturday in Beverly Hills at the Paley Center for the Media, the first of the auction sales of Debbie Reynolds's 3500 piece collection of costumes from the movies. 500 items, at the final tally grossed more than $18 million and more than a third of that came from the sale of costumes of Marilyn Monroe, including $4.6 million for the white dress from the “Seven Year Itch” and $1.2 million for the red sequin dress she wore in a musical number with Jane Russell in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” Debbie paid $200 for that white dress and people thought she was crazy to pay that much for it at the time.

The White Dress for Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's production of George Axelrod's "The Seven Year Itch." Sold for $4.6 million.
In 1971 when 20th Century-Fox was dumping most if not all of its costume and props departments (50 years of accumulated stock), de-accessioning was the corporate by-word. It was the tail end of a studio system that made Debbie Reynolds, like many others, a Movie Star. Those studio sales were the last hurrah for a business when it was at its most creative, most brilliant, which actually defined the culture of the American century. The classic story too: Creative genius disposed of by accountants.

Debbie bought up as much as she could afford in those days, protecting these items destined for history so they wouldn’t be destroyed like so many other things from that seminal moment. I doubt she ever thought for a moment that they would be worth millions Her vast inventory is an archive of the first half century of the industry known as Hollywood. She built that serendipitously, thinking only of saving this piece of history from destruction.

It must have been some auction room to be in. A costume worn by Rudolph Valentino in the 1922 silent film “Blood and Sand,” went for more than $200,000. The dress designed by Adrian for Judy Garland as Dorothy in the “Wizard of Oz” went for more than $900,000. Her original ruby shoes – the ones used in the tests, went for $510,000. Chaplin’s “Tramp” bowler sold at $135,000. A lock of America’s first movie star, Mary Pickford’s hair went for $3500. The dress Grace Kelly wore in “To Catch a Thief,” filmed in Monaco where she would later become Princess Grace, sold for more than $400,000. Elizabeth Taylor’s costume from “National Velvet” for $60,000. Joan Crawford’s “Mildred Pierce” waitress dress sold for $22,500.
Monroe's costume for the Heat Wave number in "Gentleman Prefer Blondes." Sold for $510,000.
Clockwise from top left: The original Ruby Slippers designed for Judy Garland in the "Wizard of Oz." Sold for $510,000; Elizabeth Taylor's jockey uniform for "National Velvet." Sold for $60,000; The bowler worn by Charlie Chaplin in his role as "The Tramp." Sold for $135,000.
The dress Grace Kelly wore in “To Catch a Thief." Sold for $400,000+.
The waitress dress designed for Joan Crawford for "Mildred Pierce." Sold for $22,500. Adrian's dress for Judy Garland in the "Wizard of Oz." Sold for $900,000.

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