Patricia Morrisroe

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Not sure what readers of the HOUSE column will make of this week’s interview since we discuss, with writer Patricia Morrisroe, shoe lust that is “a carnal blend of animal hides with a splash of insanity”, small town America and Robert Mapplethorpe’s sexual obsessions—not to mention insomnia. 

Click to order 9 1/2 Narrow – My Life in Shoes.

These have all been the subjects of Patricia’s books, her latest being a memoir, “9 1/2 Narrow – My Life in Shoes” (Penguin Publishing Group). She admits that she likes talking even more than she likes writing—and she definitely does like talking … but that’s okay as long as the talk is interesting, which it was.

We wanted to ask you why you decided to write a memoir connected to shoes, as opposed to just a memoir?

To sell it!

That’s very honest.

Well, unless I had been sexually abused or you know, was born in prison or was related to the royal family and was Prince Charles’s love child, it is very tough to write to a memoir. The shoe thing though … I had been approached to do a book on Alexander McQueen because after doing Mapplethorpe I became a specialist in anybody in who leads very dark lives and ends up with a tragic death … so I did some research on McQueen … and I think when you do a biography of someone you really have to be able to walk in their shoes.

The last shoes that McQueen designed were his 12-inch crustacean armadillo booties. I saw those and I thought “uh-uh, not going there. I thought [to myself], I want to write something that makes me feel happy. The shoe thing was in the back of my mind and I just started to write it not knowing it was going to turn into a book.

In the front entrance hall a group of 16th century copper engravings purchased at Stephanie Hoppen in London surround a Regency gilt wood mirror from R. Brooke.
A photo by Annie Leibovitz from James Danziger Gallery hangs atop wallpaper from Rose Tarlow.

So was it a happy experience?

Well, it’s like when you go on journey—you never how it’s going to end up. My mother was alive when I wrote the book and she died right before the book was sold. And my father died two months before the book was about to come out. There was an urgency to it that allows you to be a lot freer with your writing.

I’m just wondering if you’re going to have that line on your headstone, the one about  “inhaling the scent of shoe lust—a carnal blend of animal hides with a splash of insanity” … let’s talk about our fascination with shoes. Do you have any clue as to why we love shoes so much?

Perhaps more than any other item of clothing apart from maybe buying a bra, they really indicate certain rites of passage. Also with our fairy tales—the whole Cinderella story—what does the shoe represent? Of course, historically it was the men that wore the high heels. And shoes aren’t always easy to wear but they’re easy to buy.

Peeking into the living room, which was designed by Barbara Simmons. A 19th century carpet from Amritsar was purchased from Fred Moheban Gallerie.
A pair of English Regency candlesticks arranged atop the living room fireplace mantel was purchased while Patricia and her husband, Lee Stern were on their honeymoon in London. The custom chairs flanking the fireplace are covered in a linen velvet from Lee Jofa. The tiger velvet pillows are from Le Décor Francais.

A photograph of Alice Liddel, “Althea”, by Julia Margaret Cameron hangs above a Buddhist altar cabinet. The lamps are from Lars Bolander.

A group of copper engravings of Venice from Lyons Ltd. Antique Prints in Palo Alto hangs above a sofa covered in Brunschwig & Fils ‘Ashmore Woven’. The side pillows are covered in Fortuny fabric.
Custom bookcases display boxes, favorite objects and old books collected over the years.

One of Patricia’s favorite biographies was Geoffrey’s Wolf’s Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, so she had Tarot cards and a letter addressed to Crosby’s Paris apartment faux painted atop a Pembroke table.
Intricately carved boxes from travels to India and England are displayed on the shelves of the living room bookcase. On the bottom shelf is a Venetian Jewelry box bought by Lee during a trip to San Francisco.

It seemed that you had this negotiation with your mother throughout your life concerning shoes.

There was always the push-pull in Reinholds department store. Reinholds was not far from church, so it seems like I got the shoes and then always wound up in confession.

When you mentally line up the significant shoes from your life, after the Mary Janes and the Beatles boots, what comes next?

Oh, it would be the Annie Hall Oxfords.

A pair of ‘Cap d’Antibes’ iron and glass tables from Holly Hunt stand in front of a sofa topped with a center pillow from Fortuny and a pair of Ikat patterned pillows in fabric from Carlton Varney. On the far wall hangs an 18th century print by Andreas Cellarius from Graham Arader Galleries.
On the living room windowsill: a wooden cupola from Judy Frankel Antiques, a Tibetan hat that was a gift from a friend and an architectural model purchased from Jane Stubbs.
The Regency satinwood table was purchased in London and the carving of The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a Grand Tour piece.
Against the far the wall of the living room is a painted Gothic Revival chest displaying Murano glass purchased during trips to Venice. A celestial map by Andreas Cellarius from Graham Arader Galleries hangs above a 17th century gilt Venetian bookstand.

The silver vase holding the gorgeous peonies, once belonged to Patricia’s English grandmother. The coffee table is from Holly Hunt. The small brass shoe that Patricia coveted for years also belonged to her grandmother who, at the turn of the 20th century, traveled around the world.

None of the shoes mentioned in your book are “sexy shoes.”

That’s not who I am.

It seems to me that you lived your childhood and adolescence in an era that has definitely passed. I felt as if I was watching a black-and white movie about Andover. You talk about Reinholds department store, having your grandfather live with you, the nuns at your school, going to church. Was that era something you were trying to evoke?

I happen to be a very nostalgic person and it made me go back and think of things like Reinholds. I remembered things like the Brannock Device for foot measurement! It was very small town America. My father tutored Jay Leno in math … there were pictures of him on the piano! I mean my father was the community banker. He knew everyone in the town.

A pair of Anglo-Indian globe fixtures illuminates the front entrance hall. Banquettes flanking an English cabinet from R. Brooke antiques are covered in fabric by David Hicks.
Lee’s collection of walking sticks is on display near the entrance to the dining room, which was decorated by Barbara Simmons and Milly de Cabrol.
In the dining room a French iron-and-crystal chandelier hangs above 18th century Federal cherry side chairs and an English Regency table.

An engraving entitled “Girl from the Sandwich Islands” is mounted upon the dining room bookcases. Patricia and Lee’s collection of antique leather-bound books as well as books on photography and art fill a wall of the dining room.

Let’s talk about your other books. How did your biography of Robert Mapplethorpe come about?

That came about because I was asked to write a profile of him when he was having a show at the ICA in London. I just wandered into his loft on Bond Street … it was like, “Why does he have a cage and a mattress covered in black satin sheets?” He was there, probably stoned out of his mind with these glazed eyes and that’s when he dumped the X Portfolio on me. I really didn’t know what I was looking at. I saw it more as shapes. I think he thought I was going to vomit and run out of there.

Was there some connection because you were Catholic and he was Catholic?

It was the Catholic thing from Floral Park and not Andover but [his work] was arranged in, well he would say “little altars” but there was this symmetry to the way he saw things that I grasped very much because it’s the way altars are arranged.

What did you learn about him?

What I learned about him was that there was something very sweet about him. His images are very much about light and darkness—he encapsulated both those qualities. The concept of fame and celebrity was the most critical element of his life. He and Patti Smith were together—so many people told me—ruthlessly ambitious, ruthlessly ambitious.

A 1905 Arts and Crafts ceramic vessel is by Max Laeuger and the mahogany trolley cart is from J. Garvin Mecking antiques. Decorative artist, Joseph Zeman painted the walls in a caramel-colored, faux-leather finish.

“The Dress Tree Lamp,” a photograph by Tim Walker hangs above a chaise lounge by John Ryman. A mandolin that belonged to Patricia’s grandfather leans against leopard print pillows from Cowtan and Tout.

How much time did you spend with him?

A lot. Robert did not like to be alone and most of his friends went away on the weekends so he always wanted me to come on Sunday afternoons so I would be sitting there as the light was dimming with this man whose life was dimming.

What sorts of things would you talk about?

He mostly talked about sex. He wasn’t having a lot of sex at that time. At the beginning [of his career] he was interested in S&M. There were a lot of gay men at the time who just wanted those pictures to go away because they felt he was really setting them back. Robert could not talk about his work. He was not particularly articulate but was obsessed with discussing his sex life—obsessed.

What was your understanding of that obsession?

I think it was part of the times; it was part of the excitement. It was part of the drugs; it was part of the art world because I can’t tell you the number of key art world figures who were involved in that. It was networking.

The master bedroom, designed by Caroline Grant and Delores Suarez of Dekar Design is composed in soothing neutral tones. The silk curtain fabric is from Donghia and the sofa trim and fabric is from Kravat.
The bedroom TV is housed in a custom cabinet. The photograph to the left of the TV is by Edouard Boubat.
A photograph by Lillian Bassman hangs above a wingchair that once belonged to Patricia’s grandfather. The chair, covered in a silk stripe fabric from Cowtan and Tout, is topped with Lee’s baby pillow.
On the rear wall of the master bedroom a small mother-of-pearl mirror from Syria hangs above an English mahogany chest of drawers.

So it was connected to his ambition?

Robert loved playing power games and that was one way of doing it. He also knew no one else was going to be doing these photographs. He knew no one was going to buy these pictures and put them on the wall but he knew how to balance them off with his flower pictures and portraits. It was brilliantly done. I mean he really couldn’t talk about technique. He would take 12 pictures of people and that was that. He didn’t print his own pictures.

A lot of people say his work was very derivative and therefore not so shocking—do you agree with that?

Robert’s pictures are very much modeled on Baron von Gloeden, who had taken a lot of pictures of Sicilian boys … he was famous for posing very dark-skinned boys against the remnants of temples. From [Robert’s] S&M phase he became completely infatuated with black men. He and two other men, one a curator, and the other the son of a very, very wealthy man, would go down to [a bar called] Sneakers and pick up poor black men. They were trying to find the perfect black male and they were obsessed by this quest. And it was a quest.

A custom headboard is upholstered in Holly Hunt fabric. Bed linens are by Schweitzer and the coverlet is from John Robshaw. The vintage suzani was purchased on a trip to Istanbul.
A fresh orchid and a small crystal lamp from designer Barbara Simmons stand atop a table from Oly Studio.
A work on paper by Elliott Puckette from James Danziger Gallery hangs near the bedside table.
“Circus” by Joe Eula hangs near a Victorian bamboo-and-lacquer side table.
A photo of Patricia and Lee shares space with Patricia’s bracelet and beaded necklace collection.
Late 1950s lithographs by fashion illustrator Rene Bouche line the walls of the bedroom dressing area.
Patricia’s shoes, size 9 ½, narrow.

And he was completely open with you about this?

He never stopped talking about it! And then Robert fell in love with “Man in Polyester Suit”, Milton Moore, who was AWOL from the Navy and who was probably schizophrenic. But Robert was in love with Milton’s penis—and his eyelashes.

So as a sweet little Catholic girl from Andover, you picked about the most transgressive artist of the era to write about.

I know that. But Robert did not want a gay man writing his story and he loved to shock—although I was impassive.

Two vintage photos by Alfred Stieglitz (and one by an anonymous photographer) were purchased years ago from Roberta Kimmel.
In the study a group of photos including work by W. Eugene Smith, Inge Morath, Lartigue, Ruth Bernhard and Cecil Beaton are arranged above a velvet sofa from Classic Sofa.
The study.
Family photos.
Patricia’s custom writing table designed by John Ryman is tucked into a corner of the study.
Ceramic vessels from Morocco are arranged atop an Anglo Indian wardrobe.
Peeking into the guest bath from the study.
Patricia and Lee’s request for a Moroccan style guest bath is carried out successfully by Dekar Design. The tiles are from Walker Zanger and the sconces are from O’Lampia.

Did you like him?

I did—but I didn’t like a lot of the stuff he did. He was purely a visual creature. You had to be very careful about how you dressed around him. It was surface! I remember once I bought a Romeo Gigli [blouse] with a high collar and ideally you should have had your hair up but I had my hair down and he said, “That looks very confused.” But there was something so touching towards the end when his parents were going to see the show at the Whitney and he was so nervous. He wanted them in some way to like the show.

And finally, you wrote a book about insomnia. How well did you sleep last night?

Once the book came out people started to ask me, “How did you sleep last night?” and my sleep absolutely started to fall apart. I don’t sleep that well and nor did my mother or my grandfather. I learned that the whole concept of the straight eight hours is ridiculous. And I truly believe that our sleep differences are like our weight differences or our shoe size—one size does not fit all.

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