Luxury in its many forms

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Looking south along Fifth Avenue from 89th Street. Photo: JH.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021. Cold, in the high 30s, low 40s, yesterday in New York with snow forecast (nope) and sunshine for the better part of the day. Other than that, it was a quiet Monday here in New York, topped off with dinner with an old friend talking about we’ve been seeing, hearing, and think. The holiday weekend is over and the new week has begun and right now it’s a blank page.

For me it’s been checking out a lot of the books coming on the market during the holiday season. Many interesting and one that was more interesting than I’d imagined (a pre-conceived notion). It’s about:

Luxury. When I was a kid and first heard the word used, I thought it meant “having the day off” or an electric dishwasher. 


Those were the sighs and wishes of my working mother.

But growing up, when I was a kid living in a small New England town back in the 1950s, I thought it was a Cadillac Eldorado convertible with the fin tail lights.

Actually I knew that was a luxury because my rich uncle had once talked about buying one but he backed off at the price (loaded): $7000 because he was afraid that if his first wife heard about, she sue him for more alimony (which was then the very generous $75 a week already).

There were only three new ones (’56) in town, two of which were two door sedans (yet very roomy for legs and feet unlike almost all cars today except for SUVs). I used to be on the lookout for them when riding my bike to the store to pick up something for my mother for our dinner.


My idea of luxury — a 1955 Cadillac Eldorado with “sharkfin” tail fins.

I knew who the owners were. One of them, Mr. Hammond, was a rich man and lived in a big house farther up the hill. He owned the local gas company. He got a new Caddy every year and it was a small thrill for this youngster just to see him driving home from his office at 5:15 every night. with his chin raised a bit while watching the road to demonstrate how he felt himself (above it all) behind the wheel.

Since those innocent days when the dollar was still worth a dollar (and not today’s 2 cents), the Cadillac looked the part (the luxury part), a cut (or more) above the averaged jalopy or Plymouth or Chevy. As I got a little bit older, Luxury meant “the money.” Those diamond rings that women wore after they married were sort of a luxury, but really only for women.

And then after college and now living in New York, Luxury meant something else entirely. I remember the first time I went to meet a girl at her family’s apartment on Park Avenue. The elevator stopped at the floor, and onto a tiny vestibule telling me that the apartment covered the entire floor. It opened to a large entrance gallery hung with two chandeliers, with spaces that led to the dining room, the library, the living room and the “office” of the man of the house. On the walls between the entrances were van Gogh, Degas, Mondrian, Matisse, all hanging over ancient highly polished chinoiserie. Beyond was eighteen (large) rooms.


The view from the top.

I’d never seen anything like it before, even in photographs in magazines. It was wealth and it was luxury to these eyes – a style and environment that was much much higher than Mr. Hammond and his brand new Cadillac Eldorado and its tail fins. Then again the apartment I saw for the first time, so brilliantly luxurious to these eyes, couldn’t hold a candle to Louis XIV’s Galerie of Mirrors. In the world of Luxury, there’s always more.


Louis XIV knew a thing or two about luxury.

There is a new book just published by Jill Spalding titled “LUXURY; A History.” I had no expectations on receiving it. We live in a world where the use of the word “luxury” is commonplace in the business of promoting products and locations. I first heard about it from a friend, Alejandra Cicognani who is representing the author in her effort to publicize her work (of art) on which she has labored assiduously over the years to complete with perfection.

Click to order Luxury: A History.

It’s a history – over the ages and civilizations and society right up to today. Its simple cover with its title in red with an otherwise entire background in gold is obvious but by itself, unimpressive.

This is a book that at a price ($75!) that can just decorate your coffee table elegantly with its physical presence and size. It is also a book that if you have a guest who happens to pick it up and start looking, make sure they don’t leave the party with it. I’m kidding, of course but it is that kind of a book — filled with beautiful images, with classic royal portraits, beautiful models, great art and architecture, along with how and by whom, and why it all came about.

It’s a book that from the moment you open it, will arouse your curiosity. It’s also book to read if you wish, but also a book to look at — which assures it being a great gift. Anyone who “likes” luxury and/or history, will find it riveting in how it feeds your eye, your imagination, and maybe even your dreams. It is a history of us, humankind throughout the civilizations of yore right up to the moment of reading these lines of edit.

On one level or another, and there are many levels to “luxury” when you think about it, it gives you the Satisfaction of reading and seeing — full of images familiar as well as many of which may be unknown to a reader.

Jill Spalding is a modern historian. She takes us on a voyage of Life from today all the way back to the ancients. It presents all aspects of luxury, and effects both recognizable or unimaginable until exposed. You will see and learn, and be reminded of those things and those people and experiences that may be familiar — or vaguely, or even unimaginable — all providing the thrill of discovery. A perfect book and a perfect gift especially at this moment at this time at the end of this year. Here’s a little teaser …


Marie de’ Medici by Frans Pourbus the Younger; between 1600 and 1625. Jewels. Massive amounts compared to a world where there were few if any at all.
Consuelo Vanderbilt arrayed for her ascension to the Duchess of Marlborough in a coronet by Boucheron and pearls once belonging to Catherine the Great. Consuelo was forced against her will to marry a man who didn’t interest her and who didn’t even like her and made that evident. She brought wealth to the Churchill family that is primary to the family more than a century later. She bore two sons, “an heir and a spare,” and divorced her husband after years of separation and married a Frenchman to her great satisfaction.
Alice Gwynne Vanderbilt dressed in a glittering, golden costume representing “Electric Light” at Alva Vanderbilt’s ball on March 26th, 1883. Designed by Worth, the dress even lights up, with a torch run by batteries hidden in the satin folds.
The Paris Salon ornamented by Henri Samuel for Count Huber and Countess Isabelle d’Ornano around the Countess’ ancestral portrait of Barbara Radziwill, Queen of Poland.
Daisy Fellowes wearing Christian Dior Queen of Africa costume before Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra, which was the inspiration for the party. Photograph by Cecil Beaton.
Carmen as the Frozen Queen, a silver-threaded embroidered silk extravaganza by Guo Pei, involving a labor of 30,000 hours by 60 seamstresses.
Siciliana: An Alta Moda creation by Dolce & Gabbana; entirely handpainted, a labor of 40 days.

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