Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Life of a Modern Monarch

Looking north along Madison Avenue from 41st Street. 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, January 18, 2012. Grey and rainy in New York with temperatures rising out of the teens into the high 40s.

Social life is very quiet in the city, as it always is in January. It is a time when those who can afford it go away – to Florida or the Caribbean, to Aspen, Sun Valley, Vail – or off to the Hamptons or Connecticut for the long weekends.

I like the slower pace but am always presented with what am I gonna write for the Diary. I’ve been spending as much time possible reading which is something I like more and more as I get older.

In this week’s New Yorker I came across Peter Schjeldahl’s piece on Damien Hirst’s global show at the Gagosian Galleries across the world. I read about this exhibition but personally have no interest in seeing Damien Hirst art. It’s a matter of taste. I don’t like looking at the stuff.

The New Yorker's Peter Schjeldahl and Dana Schutz. Photographed by JIll Krementz.
I’m probably not in the minority but it doesn’t matter anyway. The fact is Mr. Hirst is a big deal in the art world, a very big deal. Big prices, big bucks, big deal. That’s all right too. That’s business. Larry Gagosian started out a Southern California boy selling autographed posters on the sidewalks of Westwood Boulevard in L.A. Now he’s got a multi-billion dollar art business all over the planet. Not bad, right?

All that to lead into this little morsel: I rarely read Peter Schjeldahl as I’m neither a collector, a connoisseur, or an art historian. I’m a looker-at-it-or-not. So I didn’t “get” Damien Hirst. I, like many of the unsophisticated and uninformed about these matters of Art today, I didn’t get what Damien Hirst was up to, except for the Making a Lot of Money part.

Schjeldahl cleans up that matter concisely and precisely in a short two pages. He’s very heady if, like me, you are unsophisticated and uninformed about the Nature of Art. So some of his sentences require a pause and a re-reading and a thinking about it. It’s like getting on his wave-length. But when you do, you see that he explains it all clearly and brilliantly. What at first seems opaque becomes transparent.

My reading habits being what they are, when I finished that piece, I turned over to a piece on about Fukushima and the Deep Water Horizon. Again Schjeldahl’s idea sprung up: the ying and the yang.

If you’ve never read anything about Damien Hirst, and don’t regard yourself as knowledgeable about art and/or the art world, read the Peter Schjeldahl piece, “Damien Hirst’s global show.”

If nothing else you’ll understand what those colored circles of Damien Hirst’s “Moxisylyte” (2011) are about. If something else you’ll see how it’s all tied together. We are all tied in together. In one neat little knot. Looking for the bow.

Warhol, who said it first: “The business of art is business.” Hirst’s art is the business is art.
DPC and Sally Bedell Smith at Michael's.
I had lunch at Michael’s last Friday with Sally Bedell Smith the author of the newly published Elizabeth the Queen; The Life of a Modern Monarch (Random House). She’d been in town publicizing her new book. When we met she’d just come from an interview on Fox-TV. She was excited because they’d put false eyelashes on her, and it was a first in her life, and she wanted to know what I thought.

They were very good. I had to look very closely to see the “falseness.” You can see in the picture that she looks very natural. And very pretty, which she is. Those eyes are almost bashful but not quite, and the smile is frequent and enjoying the pleasure, whatever that may be.

I have long admired her as a writer. She’s been prolific. In the last twenty years, she’s turned out six best-selling biographies of William Paley, Pamela Harriman, Princess Diana, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Bill and Hillary Clinton and now, the ultimate: Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor, also known as, Elizabeth II.

I say the ultimate because if you read this book you’ll get the picture. I love this book. I can read it in those mini-snatches I employ, maybe a couple of pages at a time, even a couple of paragraphs to keep my head in it.

Official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh on her coronation day June 2,1953.
The mother with her first born Prince Charles.
the Princess Elizabeth with her father King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
The Queen and Prince Philip arrive.
She is a very serious woman, Elizabeth the Queen. Every bit as serious as she appears to be when she’s out in public. Although when she’s home with her feet up (so to speak), she’s quite animated and garrulous with those close to her. The Queen’s role, however, is to be the Queen. That’s her job and she is one of those women who is very serious and thoughtful about her responsibilities to others.

Back at the Palace she moves comfortably in and out of that role, always aware of what she is doing. But out in public, it is The Monarch and what that means to her subjects, the people. I always thought it was a marketing role. I first thought otherwise when she put on the green and set foot in Ireland despite the implied threats. The Queen is the One. The Woman.

Smith puts it all out before you to see and consider and think about. She’s painting a portrait of this remarkable woman and you’re there at the canvas on the easel with her.

Mother. That’s the first thing that came to mind. She’s the mother. Of us all. I’m being figurative but then so is she. She has unearthly self-discipline. It sounds more like a kind of Zen serenity.

She makes me think that women should be the main leaders. It must be something for those Prime Ministers to go to meet with her every Monday evening at 6:30 where they discuss life in the world and on the home base.

Because even though they’re Numero Uno, she’s The Queen. She knows everything. And she does. She’s read all the papers, knows all the secrets, is aware of everything and everybody – because she’s naturally curious and reads. ON a daily basis. She’s in the moment if anyone ever was.

You realize not just any woman could play this part so powerfully and with such steely grace. She also keeps her own counsel and expresses it only if circumstances demand it. She conducts her monarchy with this policy and when you read this book, you realize you are reading about the most powerful woman in the world, and actually the only known Real Leader on the planet right now.

Although I feel for Prince Charles. The Queen was not the Mother she had when she was a child. She’s a working mother, and always has been. She’s had the advantage of much assistance including that of her husband, the father. But as it is in families, fate plays its hand and the future’s up for grabs.  But I think Charles deserves far more compassion and empathy (I don’t mean pity), because he has had an especially tricky role to play all his adult life which is thusly, basically: waiting for Mother to die.

Now what kind of a role is that for a vital, energetic and curious, educated man to play throughout his prime? That’s been Charles’ cross to bear. Whenever he “succeeds” to a role that comes to most men by their thirties – a professional identity – Charles will have a much shorter reign. The same thing happened to his great-great-grandfather, Edward VII.

This is not his mother’s fault, mind you. Although Mother lies (or rather, stands) at the end of every road in his life. That’s a very unusual situation for a man. Women are emotionally equipped, perhaps through social conditioning, to handle such a paradoxical identity. Men rarely are.

I could go on for hours about what I’ve learned and thought about, about myself, about my world, about life, about women, about men, about politics and about history when I read this book.

Yes that does sound rhapsodic but the Lady is an amazing being. The type that makes you think “it’ll be just fine; we’ll be just fine.” The way mother used to when you were kid, home in bed with the flu.

That’s all illusion, I know. Mainly this is a document of this odd, strange, manifestly ordinary, luxurious, other-worldly existence of this woman known as the Queen of England. Her Majesty to you and me.  She is a remote figure, almost inaccessible to what most of us would regard as ordinary acquaintanceship. It is simply the nature of her place which she assumed when she was 25, on her Coronation 59 years ago this coming June 2nd. And yet she's as real as any of us.
The Queen at her coronation with her family and all the crown heads of Europe.
After the Coronation with her children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, and their father, Prince Philip.
The Queen on her visit to Washington when Eisenhower was President. She had a special fondness for the man who as General of the Allied Forces led them to victory, and saved her country.
Sally Bedell Smith draws a detailed and beautiful portrait of this woman unlike any you’ve ever known who is at once odd man out and odd man in. You see that she intends it, that this is how she has defined the role she inherited  – that of the Queen.

I’m a slow reader. I’d started the book a week before and had only got through 150 pages when we sat down for lunch at Michael’s. I read in snatches, all day and night. It absorbs my interest so that I have been thinking about it often when not reading it. It fits into many things in my head right now about the world we live in, the world I write about, and the making everyday sense of that which is rendered complex.

This book is about all that, but it’s also about this amazing woman and her amazing life. I doubt that I’ll ever have the actual physical experience of seeing her up close and personal, but this book about her is maybe even better because you understand who she is among us, and what a human being is capable of in a good way.
Riding with President Ronald Reagan at Windsor.
With President Obama and the First Lady, the Duchess of Cornwall, Prince Charles, and Prince Philip, this past year.
But before I close this, because I could go on and on about Elizabeth The Queen (about whom I had very little interest before reading this), I wanted to share this from the book:

In springtime, the Queen has a series of “dine and sleep” gatherings at Windsor Castle, which she regards as her real home. The guest list numbers eight or ten and is made up of people in the arts, diplomacy, the clergy, business, the military, academia, etc. Philip co-hosts these weekends with her. This well-planned-out event (like everything relating to the Queen whose annual calendar is laid out a year in advance) ...

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“... Each couple arrives between six and seven o’clock, to be greeted by an equerry and lady-in-waiting and escorted to their suite in the Lancaster, York, or King Edward III tower. The customary accommodation includes two large bedrooms and bathrooms, a ladies’ dressing room and commodious sitting room furnished with desks equipped with writing paper and pens, tables laden with mineral water, decanters of whisky, sherry, and gin, cornucopias of fruit, bowls of peppermint candies, jars of biscuits, and vases of fresh flowers.

“... She assigns a footman and housemaid to serve as each guest’s valet or ladies’ maid Their job is to unpack the suitcases, fold underwear in gauzy organza bags, line up cosmetics and perfume bottles in perfect order, whisk away clothing for washing and ironing (“better than any dry cleaner in London,” said the wife of a Commonwealth diplomat), draw the bath at the guest’s requested temperature, drape a large a towel over a nearby chair, lay out clothes, and before departure time repack everything with tissue paper. The size of the staff and level of pampering are unequaled, although museum director Roy Strong found it ‘unnerving to be descended upon by so many.’”

The Queen doesn’t. That wouldn’t be queenly. Or royal. Or Majesty. Which she is and you'll see why in this book. And there’s something very optimistic about it all. Not a placebo but a palliative. Incidentally ladies, after a royal meal in the presence of all, the Queen takes out her compact and her lipstick at table, and freshens up. Practical and proficient.

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