31 August 2010

To the Sea

I just returned from a much needed mini break with the girls on Block Island (off the coast of Rhode Island). As you dear readers know, I am quite fond of the sea and often lament the fact that I do not live near the water (no, the Hudson River does not count). So when I stepped aboard the ferry to take me out to the island, I felt an instant sense of happiness rush over me.

We stayed at the historic Atlantic Inn (quaint Victorian styled rooms), which sits upon a hill near the Old Harbor. Evenings were spent sipping cocktails on the veranda (one night a group of women burst into a rendition of "Hello Dolly") while morning coffee was had out in the Adirondack chairs on the hotel's sloping lawn. 

Our view from the hotel included a small farm that houses an eclectic collection of animals, including two camels. The first evening on the island, the girls thought I had indulged in one too many cocktails when I blurted out "there's a camel" until they too saw the animal walking slowly around its enclosure. 

During the day, we explored the downtown area with its picture perfect 19th-century houses and lovely gardens filled with wild roses and butterfly bushes. 

On one particular walk, we stumbled upon a cottage that was for sale. It was cute but it was the surrounding yard that made me fall in love with the place. The moss covered rocks and low swooping trees immediately conjured up images of sitting beneath its branches while listening to the sounds of the pond beyond.

We also ventured out to the Mohegan Bluffs to see the Southeast Lighthouse and the incredible views. The sites were so breathtaking, I forgot to take a photo of the lighthouse. A twisting set of stairs led down to the rocky beach below.

One morning, the girls bicycled off to see the North Lighthouse while I stayed behind to loll on the veranda and finish a mystery (The Blackest Bird). I know I missed another beautiful view but a few hours spent with a book with the sea breeze hitting my face was well worth it.

The highlight of the trip though was the beach. Walking along the shoreline, I took my time picking up small rocks and the occasional piece of sea glass for mementos. Standing on the sand while the water rushed up and ran over my bare feet and legs or running straight toward the waves was pure bliss. I could do this everyday.

Back in New York, I am dreaming of the ebb and flow of the water and the sound of the crashing waves. I am counting the days until my next visit to the sea.

Photos by Michele.

22 August 2010

Happy Birthday Mrs. Parker

Happy Birthday, Mrs. Parker. The original Mrs. Parker that is.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it is said of Hermia that “though she be but little she is fierce.” Shakespeare could have been describing Dorothy Parker, one of America’s great wits and a New York City literary icon.

On 22 August 1893 Dorothy Rothschild was born in West End, New Jersey (she would always regret that her parents couldn’t make it back to New York in time for her birth). An unhappy childhood (she lost her mother at four and didn't get along with her stepmother) didn’t stop the precocious little girl from developing her unique take on language and the world. Expelled from Catholic school for describing the Immaculate Conception as “spontaneous combustion,” her formal education ended at 14. A voracious reader (her favourite character was Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair), she wanted to be a writer and worked on her verse, getting a poem “Any Porch” published in Vanity Fair the magazine in 1915. A job at Vogue soon followed.

A few years later she married the first of her two husbands. While the marriage didn’t work out, Edwin Pond Parker II gave Dorothy Rothschild one of the most important gifts she would ever receive, a new name, and for the rest of her life she would be known as Dorothy Parker.

She would go on to work for Vanity Fair, eventually becoming its theatre critic. (On Katherine Hepburn: “[she] delivered a striking performance that ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”) There she became colleagues and good friends with Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood. When the magazine’s editor, Frank Crowninshield, famously invited her to brunch at the Plaza only to fire her (one of her reviews had angered Flo Ziegfeld), Benchley and Sherwood walked out in protest.

"A Vicious Circle" by Natalie Ascencios, a painting of the Algonquin Round Table members, hangs in the hotel today. Mrs. Parker and Mr. Benchley can be seen at the far left.

The three would lunch regularly at the Algonquin Hotel and as their group grew (members included Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, Edna Ferber, and George S. Kaufman) so did their fame, and they were soon dubbed the Algonquin Round Table. Mrs. Parker’s acerbic comments and witty bon mots (Asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.”) made their way into fellow diner Franklin Pierce Adams’ popular newspaper column “The Coning Tower,” and Mrs. Parker became famous as the woman who said clever things.

This reputation would come to haunt Mrs. Parker who was no frivolous flapper but an intelligent woman who wanted to be a good writer. Writing did not come easy to her. "I can't write five words but that I change seven," she once said. Writer’s block would cripple her for months at a time and her own insecurity in her writing didn’t help either. “Dear God, please make me stop writing like a woman.”

But she could write and write well. I dare you to read one of her short stories like “Big Blonde” or "A Telephone Call" and not feel moved by the plight of the female characters or read one of her poems such as “Inventory” or “Symptom Recital” and not nod your head in agreement with the truth of her words.

And it must not be forgotten than when Harold Ross began a new magazine in 1925 called The New Yorker, Mrs. Parker was one of its first contributors (Responding to Harold Ross' question of why she wasn’t in the office: "Someone else was using the pencil."). The contributions Mrs. Parker made in those early days helped to shape what would become arguably the most important literary magazine in America.

In addition to writing poems, short stories, criticism, and plays, Mrs. Parker also wrote screenplays in Hollywood with husband number 2 and 3, Alan Campbell. Her screen credits include A Star is Born (1937) (for which she earned an Academy Award nomination) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

She was also a political activist. In 1927 she was arrested in Boston for protesting the scheduled execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. Her support of left-wing causes would eventually get her blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s. When she died on 7 June 1967, she left her estate to Martin Luther King. After his assassination, the money reverted to the NAACP. Today, her ashes are buried on the grounds of their Baltimore headquarters.

Yet with all her fame, Mrs. Parker never seemed to find true happiness. Her marriages were unsuccessful (she probably received more happiness from her beloved dogs than from any of the men in her life). She attempted suicide multiple times and had a drinking problem. And she always had doubts about her writing.

But for me, she is an inspiration. Her fierce determination to succeed as a writer, her fearlessness in telling the truth, the fact that she didn’t try and hide her intelligence, her sentimentality and love of dogs, all of these things, I believe, are qualities to be admired.

So happy birthday Mrs. Parker. I shall be toasting your memory today.

Want to read some of Mrs. Parker's writing? Get yourself a copy of The Portable Dorothy Parker. For more information on her life, check out Marian Meade's Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? or become a member of The Dorothy Parker Society.

Life is a Cabaret

Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber” Otto Dix (1925)

An Otto Dix painting both repulses and fascinates at the same time. I learned this first hand Saturday afternoon while looking at works by the German Expressionist currently on display at the Neue Galerie New York.

With more than 100 works to view, I wandered from horrific scenes of World War I battlefields (Dix served in the German Army and was at the Battle of the Somme) to portraits from the Weimar Republic—performers, whores, lawyers, doctors—none of whom appear more “normal” than the other (according to the portrait, Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann would be right at home in a Tim Burton film).

One of my favourites was “Portrait of the Dancer Anita Berber.” A notorious dancer and actress, Berber flaunted her bisexuality and drug abuse before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 29 (a real life Sally Bowles). The vivid reds of the painting along with her exaggerated makeup gives her a vampiric quality and symbolizes the harshness of her lifestyle and the time.

Another favourite was a portrait of a mother and child. At first, it looked innocent enough. That was until I noticed that the baby’s feet, wrapped in cloth, seemed curiously long and twisted.

The Neue Galerie, home to a beautiful collection of 20th century Austrian and German art, is one of the loveliest museums in the city. Built in 1914, the former home of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III includes many lovely details like a marble and wrought iron twisting staircase and domed skylight.  

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte with a Wiener Mélange. Photo by Michele.

On the first floor is the Café Sabarsky, modeled on the famed coffee houses of Vienna. So, of course, I had to order a slice of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (chocolate cake with cherries) with a Wiener Mélange (espresso with steamed milk). Absolutely delicious.

The Otto Dix exhibit runs through August 30.

21 August 2010

Artful Water

My love of all things art deco knows no bounds nor shame apparently. Yesterday, when confronted with a dozen or more choices of bottled water at a Duane Reade, I found myself choosing the one with the deco name and shape, Aquadeco. From Canada, the water is good but let's face it, the cheaper options would have done the same job, quenched my thirst. But trust me dear readers, I will probably be buying this water again, lured once more by the design of the bottle. Good marketing Aquadeco. It worked.

18 August 2010

Votes for Women

Ninety years ago today American women won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. 

Suffragettes riding a float at the New York Fair, Yonkers (1913).

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." 

Inez Boissevain at a suffrage parade in Washington, DC (1913).

So let's take a moment to remember Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and all the countless other suffragettes who fought, and sometimes gave their lives, so we could have this fundamental right.

To see more images from the suffrage movement, visit the Library of Congress' collection "Votes for Women" Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920.

17 August 2010

The Bells Are Ringing

Chelsea is a neighborhood synonymous with art in New York. Yet on a recent morning, when I wanted to visit a musical art installation I had read about, I found myself climbing the steps not to a building but to a park that winds through the air 30 feet above the ground—the High Line.

A former elevated rail line built in the 1930s, the High Line was in disarray when a group of Chelsea residents suggested a novel recycling idea—turn it into a space that the public could enjoy. And so the High Line was saved and reborn. 

Black-eyed Susans growing amongst the tracks.

Strolling along the High Line.

Currently running from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street, the High Line is like no other park in the city. Wide wooden paths are bounded on each side by sturdy plantings that grow amongst the original rail tracks. On one side, visitors can get close-up views of architectural features hard to discern from street level while views of the Hudson River open up between the buildings on the other.

"The River That Flows Both Ways" by Spencer Finch.

Besides the art of the park itself, there are installations like the amazing “The River That Flows Both Ways” by Spencer Finch. Composed of 700 panes of glass, each pane represents the color of the water during a 700-minute boat trip on the Hudson.  No matter how many times I visit, I always find myself stopping to gaze at the variety of colors and marvel at the great beauty that water holds.

But my interest that day was in the newest installation, “A Bell for Every Minute” by Stephen Vitiello. Every minute, speakers in the tunnel near the 14th Street entrance play a different bell that Vitiello recorded from around the city, culminating on the hour with a combination of select bells. From the lush peal of the Trinity Church bells to the tiny ting of Cara’s bicycle bell from the Upper East Side to the apropos closing bell of the Stock Exchange at the 59th minute, the bells remind us how much their sound contributes to the heartbeat of the city. I have always loved the sound of bells, especially church bells, and so I sat and listened to them all, amazed at how even the tiniest clang can be completely beautiful.

If you go, try to visit in the morning before it gets too hot. And when you’re done, don’t forget Chelsea Market located nearby. The former Nabisco factory has been converted into a home for a variety of restaurants and food shops; it’s the perfect place to stop and grab some lunch. And if you listen carefully, you’ll probably hear a bell ringing somewhere.

Photos by Michele.

10 August 2010

Two Little Girls From Little Rock

Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe

Everyone, sing along with me, “We’re just two little girls from Little Rock. And we lived on the wrong side of the tracks.” These memorable lines are from the opening number of Howard Hawk’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and on a recent hot afternoon, I escaped into a cool cinema to watch a newly restored print of the film. And boy, what a film it is.

Showgirls and best friends Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell) travel to Paris via ocean liner, causing trouble and breaking hearts along the way. Onboard ship, Lorelei tangles with a diamond mine owner name Piggy while Dorothy falls for the private investigator tailing Lorelei. Throw in a frog-voiced young boy with a valet, a missing tiara, and the US men’s Olympic team, and you have nonstop fun.

The girls between scenes.

Monroe is at the top of her form in this film. Her Lorelei is a likeable mix of naïveté and shrewd smarts (“I don't want to marry your son for his money, I want to marry him for your money”). And her breathy rendition of the songs and perfect comic timing remind us just how good a performer Monroe was.

Russell, as the straight talking Dorothy, is the perfect partner for Monroe. Striding confidently across the screen, she serves as the voice of common sense while delivering zingers with the best of them.

Lady Beekman: You'll find I mean business!

Dorothy Shaw: Oh, really? Then why are you wearing that hat?

Yet Russell manages to show her character’s vulnerable side too so Dorothy doesn’t come off as too hardnosed. Seeing the two together makes one wish that Monroe and Russell could have been paired up in more films.

The French are glad to die for love.

As for the song and dance routines, where do I begin? Watching Monroe’s iconic rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” it's hard not to think about Madonna and the countless others who have imitated Monroe yet none can hold a candle to her. As for Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here For Love,” I defy you to find a campier and more enjoyable number. (Men in nude trunks wrestling. Need I say more?)

As for the print, the new restoration is beautiful. The images are sharper while the amazing costumes and sets practically pop off the screen in all their Technicolor glory. 

The film plays at Film Forum in New York through August 12. Even if you can’t make it, get a copy and watch it again. And just remember, “A kiss on the hand, may be quite continental, but diamonds are a girl’s best friend.”

08 August 2010

I Don't Like Sundays

Sunday morning, praise the dawning.
I've got a restless feeling by my side.—Lou Reed

I've never been fond of Sundays. Thoughts of what needs to be done on Monday usually crowd my head, leaving me feeling anxious and stressed and unable to enjoy the day (checking work emails from overseas doesn't help either). So instead of thinking about the reasons why I don't like Sundays, I'm going to think instead about the things that I like about Sundays, like spotting some lovely roses during a morning stroll.

Or having breakfast at Café Grumpy where the coffee is yummy and the croissants are huge (note: the cappuccino pictured here is served in a smaller than normal coffee cup but the croissant is still the size of a child's head).

Or meeting the local canine residents in my neighborhood like Betty the Boston Terrier who obliged me by posing for a photo. Most Sundays it seems like there's a dog parade going on in Chelsea so it's usually the best day of the week to take photos.

Or taking a few hours to lose myself in a good book. I just started Wigs on the Green by one of my favourite authors, Nancy Mitford. So far, very good.

And I can't forget that Sunday evenings mean Mad Men with the dashing Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Of course, this being New York, there are always plays and museums and films and concerts and dozens of other events to attend. Hmm, perhaps Sundays aren't that bad after all.

First three photos by Michele.


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