Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Lives Behind the Canvas

It's a jungle out there. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, October 10, 2017. A Monday that felt like a Sunday here in New York. Rains moving through and then just damp and warm — in the 70s — by nightfall. The neighborhood was quiet, as if people were away (or staying in). A beautiful, calm day in my part of town — maybe everywhere, thanks to the occasional light rainfalls where not everybody feels they need an umbrella.

JH came over in the afternoon to have a look at my new scanner and why it wasn’t working. All of that tech mechanisms remain a mystery to me. When I planned to start this website back in the year 2000 and was working as Editor-in-Chief at Judy Price’s Avenue, JH was my assistant. He worked in the office and I worked at home. Having made the decision to leave, I went into the office on that day (June 16, 2000) to tell my assistant my — at that moment very private — plan.

Just a year out of college, Jeff took the end of a job mildly as a matter of fact. It was then that it occurred to me that he was of the age who knew the tech stuff, as to how to make a site (I hadn’t a clue and still don’t have). So I asked him if he wanted to join me. He said "sure," and there was the most brilliant move on my 'planned' enterprise. And thus, all these years later, with everything else on his plate JH still has time to stop by and give the Mac a slap and a tickle.

Click to order Joan Rivers Confidential
I’m taking a long time to get to a point. While JH was installing the scanner, I was looking at a new book that Scott Currie sent me on Saturday: Joan Rivers Confidential: the Unseen Scrapbooks, Joke Cards, Personal Files, and photos of a Very Funnty Woman Who Kept Everything. By: Melissa Rivers and Scott Currie.

I knew Joan. I wasn’t a close friend but I dined at her table and broke bread on some of the Jewish holidays at her apartment. Her personal sensibility and style was that of a well-educated, successful, ambitious woman who possessed a gift of intimacy, added by charm. The potty mouth on stage (I’m laughing when I think of it) was how to get your attention but she always knew what she was doing, like an excellent CEO, and she worked. She also had taste and with her money she lived it. But off-camera, away from the clamoring crowds she was an empathic, kind and considerate person who knew how to be a friend.

So I opened this book while JH was playing the keyboard and waiting, and I almost instantly came upon a page of Joan’s 3&5 joke cards. I first saw her on Johnny Carson in the summer of ’71, watching when this nice looking (but no beauty) young woman came out, well-coiffed, pearls, black dress, all good taste and conservative as well. And then Carson asks her a question and it begins.
From her joke cards: (subject: 28 and single):

My mother had a sign up on my chest – buy one, get one free.

Some of Joan's joke cards.
Or: I was so desperate I wrote my phone number on men’s rooms walls. All I got were calls complaining there were no paper towels.

If it weren’t for my mother, I would never have gotten married. I was 28 and single. She put a sign on my lawn ... 'Last girl before thruway.'

I started reading them aloud and both JH and I were guffawing. I was also reminded of that wonderful woman who worked hard, and seriously, and creatively, and was a good friend to those around her.

It’s a beautiful book (published by Abrams) coming out on October 24th; a biography in papers, photos, joke cards; legal documents, memories and just Joan. You’ll miss her once again but this book gives you time to look, to relax and go with her.

Which speaking of, on my Saturday trip to Zabar’s I found a parking spot right away in front of Barnes & Noble. I thought first about not going in because I get the shopping fever in bookstores and I have several books awaiting my eyes. But I went in anyway, and after looking quickly through the new titles on display, I was about to leave when I stopped at a pile of “Sargent’s Women; Four Lives Behind the Canvas” by Donna M. Lucey, (published by Norton)

Coincidentally I’ve recently been going through several books I have of John Singer Sargent’s works. I’m drawn to portraits of all the ages, always curious to see if I can perceive the person behind the countenance. Sargent’s portraits are highly attractive and elegant and yet he manages to give you a “sense” of the personality and attitude. I was familiar with the portrait on the cover although the name had escaped me: Elizabeth Chanler Chapman.

Click to order Sargent's Women.
I took a “quick” look at it when I got home. I accidentally turned to the chapter about the woman on the cover. I was vaguely familiar with the story of her family. She was the eldest girl child of the in-her-lifetime famous “Astor Orphans at Rokeby,” an estate in Dutchess County. Their mother was a great-granddaughter of William B. Astor Sr. She died at a very young age of a heart attack while pregnant with her 13th child. Despite the children’s inherited fortune, at age 9, Elizabeth was the eldest girl of twelve children. They were brought up by governesses and tutors, mainly on the Rokeby property. Their father, evidently traumatized by the death of his young wife, stayed away at his house in the city. And just a few years later, he died suddenly of pneumonia, and the children were still very young and totally parentless. Life at Rokeby was a bit like a wild animal farm (an exaggeration but indicative of the “out of control” temperaments that can develop in children naturally.

So accidentally, I started reading about Elizabeth Chanler and her family and their destinies, and I’m hooked. It’s a look in to life in New York and environs in the late 19th century amongst very rich people who are afflicted with the same tarnished fates of the times and the human condition, just like the rest of us. John Singer Sargent’s portrait of her possesses many of the qualities and misfortunes that this woman bore brilliantly to a kind of greatness. Good book.

Meanwhile, for those who are fans of Schulenberg’s Page, the man himself is coming in from the West Coast tomorrow to attend this exhibition:

Contact DPC here.