Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Main characters

Midtown sunning. 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, June 12, 2018. Fair and sunny, yesterday in New York with temperatures in the mid- to upper-60s, a really beautiful late Spring day.

I had an appointment up in JH’s neighborhood, and afterwards he left his desk to join me for a walk back to my neighborhood and one of our rare face-to-face meetings. Yesterday we walked Park Avenue starting in the mid-90s to the low 80s.

Walking in New York inevitably stimulates my memory of buildings and places that have been part of my life since I first came to live here after college in the early 1960s.

At 81st Street we passed 941 Park Avenue where Baby Jane Holzer, then the “It” girl of Andy Warhol’s New York, lived. I knew this because I lived around the corner from her at 106 East 81st. That was our first apartment when I got married in 1964. It was one of those great “finds” you could get in New York in those years.
Our first apartment when I married in 1964, at 106 East 81st was on the sixth (top) floor, had 12 foot ceilings, one bedroom, a small but adequate kitchen (with a window!), a small entry gallery, a large living room with ample room for our grand piano; a working fireplace; all under rent-control for $180 month!
The other side of the street were five and six story townhouses, so there was no barrier to the bright sunny morning or evening full moons. Jerome Robbins, the famous Broadway choreographer/director, lived in one of them. Two houses down Mica and Ahmet Ertegun occupied another. Author Amanda Vail grew up in the building next to us at 108 East 81st.  When she was writing her biography of Jerome Robbins, her mother informed her that as a young girl walking her dog, the man she used to see walking his dog who lived in the house across the street was: Jerome Robbins! She had no idea at the time; she was a kid.
Jerome Robbins lived and worked at 117 East 81st Street from 1967-1998.
Walking along 81st moving east, we passed Madonna’s big, beautiful brick mansion, the entrance of which is concealed by a tall black fence. Madge, as some of friends refer to her (when she’s not present), has several houses across the world, so I don’t know how often she’s here. The shades and curtains almost always drawn, as if there’s no real life inside.
Madge's compound on 81.
And farther down that block (between Lex and Third), Antonucci, the Italian restaurant that is so popular with the neighborhood that it’s hard to get a reservation unless you call a week in advance. So I don’t bother.
Then across Third Avenue at 81st is Eli’s. Eli’s is the East Side version of Zabar's. Or rather Eli is a Zabar, the youngest of the brothers. He has a small empire of restaurants and food stores on the Upper East Side, with prices that match the rents which long ago lost their rent-control status. I prefer the West Side store for several reasons, not the least of which is price-wise. But Eli’s nevertheless can lure you in with the vast array of fresh, quality foodstuffs, coffees, produce, meats and chickens (a restaurant in the complex, next door to the entrance); flowers and plants, breads (their own), an array of waters, ice creams, spices, sugars, teas and even magazines and newspapers. It’s where the wives of hedgefunders, bankers, real estate tycoons and their maids and butlers go to fill their shopping carts. I got myself a ham and cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich on raisin bread: $8.95.  Hit the spot!!
Eli's flora and fauna ...
... and fresh herbs.
Eli's raison d'être (for me anyway): a ham and cheese, lettuce and tomato sandwich on raisin bread.
Last night at seven, I went down to the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) on 22 East 60th Street where author Caroline Weber was having a “conversation” with Bill Goldstein of the New York Times Book Review about her new book “Proust’s Duchess.” How Three Celebrated Women Captured the Imagination of Fin-de-Siecle Paris.

DPC with Caroline Weber at Michael's about the time she was starting the book.
The talk was held in FIAF’s 8th floor FIAF Le Skyroom with its tall and wide studio window wall looking up at the buildings surrounding.

I happen to be reading Caroline’s book which is a tome. It is the kind of book that its thickness (600 pages including a fascinating Appendix) would keep me away from it because I have so little time for reading for pleasure. Two months ago I received the galleys before it was released. I was instantly awed and intimidated by the length.

I don’t get a lot of time to read ONE item so it has been a slow visit although I am now at this moment forty pages from the end and I know I’m going to naturally want “more” when I finish.

It is one of the greatest books I have ever read. Caroline’s main characters are three women of varying social backgrounds who were very prominent socially in Paris (and London and elsewhere throughout Europe at the end of the 19th century). Their personalities, backgrounds and presence in the gratin of Paris of that time are portrayed in such details, as compelling as gossip, and as impressive as distinguished history.

Click to order “Proust’s Duchess.”
The author has a natural way of talking to you the reader. She ignores no truths no matter how revolting or slovenly they might be. And the wit and the melodrama is practically everywhere too. It’s like listening to a neighbor go into rich details about the lives of the couple next door who always keep their curtains drawn, and have a mxied and steady stream of visitors. Furthermore, the author is so personally knowledgeable thanks to her unerring research of everything ever written down or painted about these lives including thousands of personal letters (people made copies and saved them in those days and those hotel particuliers).

Women in those days and even at that level of the social scale, had No Rights. They had the rights of children. None. They were the Little Woman. There were talented ones who gained access via their talent or physical attributes. They could be alluring (to the “right” man) if they came from families of grand and/or ancient titles. But they were not free nor even considered worthy. They were there to produce an heir (it was hoped)or to satisfy the man and the family. These three main characters in Caroline’s brilliant biography were some of the few exceptions. They found a way to put themselves “out there” to become salonierres who entertained the swells and the world of authors and artists (of prominence). They were, in essence, women on the road to liberation, another aspect of the feminist revolution that was just at its very beginning in our society.

Very few activities made Proust happy but reading was one of them, so stated Caroline in this Insta post.
Their stories are told by this author who has the intimate  touch of the personal in writing to her reader. She also has the knowledge of an expert, and the talent of a very good grade school teacher or graduate school professor who can mesmerize her students with the story.

I have been one of those students, reading “Proust’s Duchess” and the experience is an awesome experience, with the result yet to be determined. It will be awhile before I’ve digested this extraordinary story of the three women who were Marcel Proust’s inspiration in creating his character of the Duchess de Guermantes in his immortal masterpiece À la recherché du temp perdu or In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past.)

It is so involving that I am at times left thinking: this must be genius. Where there was a will, there was a way; and it was theirs: the Comtesse Greffullhe, Laure de Sade de Chevigne and Genevieve Halevy Bizet Straus, the kind of women men feel compelled to write books about, and now a woman has done just that.
Geneviève Halévy Bizet Straus.
Laure de Sade, comtesse de Chevigné.
Comtesse Greffulhe.

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