Friday, March 23, 2018

Going out like a lion

What's left of Wednesday’s nor’easter. Photo: JH.
Friday, March 23, 2018. The third day of Spring. We had a nor’easter, number four here in the Northeast on Wednesday — as anybody who lives here or watches the weather knows. It was presented as a possible disaster for a lot of people and that is true. When it was. For those of us living in the city it was forecast as a potential disaster and as a result Schools were closed and so were a lot of businesses, including doctors’ offices.

It was a no-school day for more than the young people and small children who go to school. I have two schools in my neighborhood — both private — Brearley and Chapin. Closed. So for me, this writer, gadabout, go around towner gathering information/whatever, it meant exactly that: No School. As in Yippee!

Click to order "Diving for Starfish."
I spent the day mainly at my desk reading (I read only at my desk). I just finished a fascinating book called “Diving for Starfish” by Cherie Burns. Ms. Burns wrote a biography, published a few years ago, about Millicent Rogers the Standard Oil heiress who lived in the first half of the 20th century from February 1, 1902 to January 1, 1953. She almost made it to age 52, but not quite. Rogers was famous in her day as a much married heiress, but particularly as a fashion plate, a stylist, a forerunner, and a liberated woman in the way the many women could not be back then. She could because she had the money and the father who was helplessly in her thrall.

The book was about the Starfish, a brooch designed in the early 1930s at a Paris jeweler house called Rene Boivin. I knew nothing about these matters although now I know quite a bit. The piece’s significance has serious historical aspects because it was designed by a woman for women, another mark of the times that were a-changin’. That was — believe it or not — in the early 1930s, a FIRST. But that’s part of the fascinating story of the author’s search.

Not ever having been a collector or even an interested follower of jewels and jewelry, it opened a world, an aspect of the world, of which I am an ardent and life long follower. 

Why the Starfish? You have to read the book (it was published this past Tuesday), although it begins with an incident only a few years ago when Ward Landrigan of Verdura hosted a book party for Ms. Burns when she published her Rogers biography. He had borrowed a Starfish as a kind of center piece for the reception. It was the first time the author had actually seen the actual brooch.
Millicent Rogers wearing her starfish.
There were only three original Boivin Starfish, at least initially. The first one was purchased in 1935 by Claudette Colbert, and the second by Millicent Rogers. The third owner(s) was a mystery for a long long time (about 75 years) because that’s the way of the world in the magnificent jewelry business.

Burns solves that mystery sort of, but not before she educates you about the nature of that business and the people who are part of it, from the designers, to the artisans to the sellers and especially to the buyers whose last names are spelled with words like M-O-N-E-Y , Royalty, Military and all those crowds who hover around the center.
The actual starfish.
The result is Possession and Beauty. It’s art, in other words, and another aspect of our complicated consciousness. Art ultimately is Beauty, and in between it is many things that make life interesting, beautiful, suspicious, delicious, and, however briefly, a pleasure.

The book was a learning for me. Not an introduction but a learning. Coincidentally when finished, I turned to the galleys of “Proust’s Duchess” by Caroline Weber (to be published by Knopf in Ma) who wrote a best selling book called “What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.” It sounds “clever,” and as a title it is, but Ms. Weber who is a friend of mine and a treasure of an intelligence, talent and interest in history, only writes serious (and even amusing) stuff about  us humanoids.

Click to order "Diving for Starfish."
“Proust’s Duchess” is another biography, of three French women of the late 19th century who made their way in society the same way women who collect precious jewelry are curious. These women specifically were the inspiration for Marcel Proust’s immortal novel “A la recherché du temps perdu” (“In Search of Lost Time”). I have not read that classic. I’ve made vague, forgettable attempts. I have several friends who have read it more than once. I have a friend now in her mid-90s who is reading it for the second or third time. When I learned that fact, I had to face the reality: it’s got something I’ve missed for myself.

When I got a copy of Caroline's book — it is THICK (about five or six hundred pages of small print) —  I would have started reading it out respect for the author whom I admire as a writer and a friend. However, would it keep me involved, I wasn't sure. Now having read the first fifty pages, it could be a thousand pages and for me it wouldn’t matter. If history were a house, “ ... Starfish” would be a vault, or at least a gilded closet. “Proust’s Duchess” is a voyage, rich in atmosphere and intense, that turns the house into a planet. I am in awe of the author’s research and ability to look at us under a microscope in the channels of human history. It’s bound to become a best friend for those who are curious to know. To learn. And to take home to absorb.

Meanwhile, our snowy day, our “fourth nor-easter” in three weeks was being presented as a 12 to 14 incher even in the city. I knew that wouldn’t happen because the last three, while snowy, were heavy snows and winds that by the next day were over. As if a film company came in and decorated the neighborhood for winter and then when the shoot was over, they took down the sets and left.

In the course of Wednesday’s nor’easter in New York, I’d get up from my desk from time to time to take some pictures of it, thinking I might get the progress of a heavy winter storm. They’re always exciting to me, having grown up in New England where March “went out like a lion ...” And was cold and snowy, I’m always hoping for one of those repeats to take me back completely.

So canceled businesses, schools, transportation in the Big Town did some of that for me, and here are the photos I took in the order of the experience:
I took this shot about noontime. Although you can’t see it the photograph, it was snowing heavily (my camera doesn’t capture what the eye can see in sequence). We’re looking north toward  86th Street and East End. What looks like fog is the snow. It’s heavy and in very short time it’s begun to leave its mark.
By late afternoon, the snow was coming down heavily (although it’s not apparent in these pictures) and you could comprehend how it could accumulate because its volume is not letting up at all. If ...
This was taken about 7:30 in the evening. It had been snowing almost non-stop, and heavily since late morning. Yet as you can see, though the salt had been spread in anticipation, the earth isn’t cold enough to hold it, especially the roads that are naturally heated by the moving tires.
It’s about 10:30 in the evening,  and the snow is still coming down heavily. You can “see” it in the “fog” around the street lights, and it’s been snowing and blowing for about ten hours.
It’s after midnight, now Thursday, the second day of Spring and it’s still snowing hard (the mist around the street light), but look at the road; it’s wet, partly from traffic but also because the earth is warmer. And the city is warmer, if for no other reason than the millions of us inhabitants.
And I am ensconced gratefully in my abode, my book hovel. You’re looking at a good piece of my library. Among my photos as well as copies of art (that’s a Picasso repro on the upper left almost-top shelf). On top in the red frame is me meeting Jimmy Carter here in New York about fifteen years ago. On the 4th shelf down is me meeting the Dalai Llama. In the middle on the shelf, far left next to the top is me with Mrs. Clinton and Barbara Tober when Mrs. was running for Senate. And beyond in the frames are people I love.  The stuff on the chairs are teddy bears and the like that have come to me over the years and I didn’t have the heart to throw them out. This is their home. On the chair in the middle is a painting of the beach and ocean in East Hampton by Paige Peterson. Let it snow, let it snow ...
And on the bench by the window (in daytime) is this beautiful collection, confection of flowers filling the room with their fragrance, their heavenly beauty, reminding of what’s to come when the clouds roll by.’
And here we are yesterday, at 4:30 Thursday afternoon, nor’easter long gone (twelve hours later) and the trees getting ready to budge.
I think of Oscar Hammerstein’s words/lyrics about this moment:

March went out like a lion
A whippin’ up the water in the bay.
Then April cried and stepped aside,
And along came pretty little May!
May was full of promises
But she didn’t keep ‘em quick enough for some
And the crowd of doubtin’ Thomases
Was predictin’ that the summer’d never come

But it’s comin’ by gum
You can feel it come
You can feel it in your heart
You can see it in the ground ...
 

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