26 February 2013

Surrealism and a Rabbit

Francis Picabia "Olga" 1930

The Morgan Library consistently has some of the most interesting exhibits in the city on all matter of subjects. This was never more evident than on a recent visit when I saw two exhibits that couldn’t have been more different from each other.

First up was “Drawing Surrealism,” a collection of more than 160 graphic works by the leading artists of the Surrealist movement including examples of all sorts of drawings from sand paintings and automatic writing to collage and the always-entertaining exquisite corpse (sort of like the old game in which each participant adds to what the prior person has written). There were some favourites on view like Joan Miró and Apollinaire, and a fine piece by Roland Penrose. I particularly enjoyed some pieces by Georges Hugnet like his collage “Frileuse.” Being a fan of the Lost Generation, I am familiar with the movement and many of its artists. Yet nearing the end of the exhibition I came to the realization that Surrealism is not exactly my cup of tea. Perhaps it’s because of the misogyny that runs throughout so much of the work (Lee Miller, who I adore, seems to have been one of the rare examples of a woman being allowed to play with the boys). Or maybe it's because of the pieces done intentionally for shock value. Whatever the reason, while I do appreciate the work and like some of it in small doses, I don’t think you’ll find me saying that I love Surrealism.

Upstairs though was a completely different story. “Beatrix Potter: The Picture Letters” was an exhibit that I fell in love with the minute I walked through the doors. The room was filled with books, drawings, photographs, toys, and most importantly, letters. Potter would often write letters to children of family friends in which she would tell them stories accompanied by drawings (hence “picture letters”). Out of these letters sprang the tales of some of her most beloved characters including one letter to Noel Moore, the son of Potter’s former governess, that began “My dear Noel, I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter.” The 22 picture letters, composed on brown paper and covered in Potter’s fine writing and detailed illustrations, were fascinating to look at and read. 

Also on display were items Potter created that were meant for gifts like doilies hand-painted with scenes from Jeremy Fisher's Dinner Party that appropriately resembled lily pads. There was also merchandise based on her characters, much of which Potter countered with her own versions that she helped design like a Jemima Puddle-Duck doll (she had many a fight with copyright infringement, most particularly with a toy manufacturer in Germany). But perhaps my favourite thing of all was a series of miniature letters written by the likes of Peter Rabbit and other characters that were delivered to fans via equally small mailboxes. Adorable.

“Drawing Surrealism” is at the Morgan through April 21, 2013. For more information, visit here. Sadly, Beatrix Potter has closed but there is a nice online exhibit where you can read her picture letters here.

23 February 2013

Screwball Comedies

Today I'm guest blogging over at Quite Continental on a topic that I love: screwball comedies. Written by the stylish Mariah Kunkel, Quite Continental is one of my favourite blogs, filled with posts on fashion, vintage photographs, and some pretty brilliant gift guides (among other things). Every February sees the appearance of the Quite Continental Charm School, a "modern guide to creating a charmed life," and I'm honoured to be one of this year's contributors. So please be sure and check it out. 

22 February 2013

Gorey Doodle

“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.
B is for Basil assaulted by bears.”

So begins the opening of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, just one of the many brilliant books by Edward Gorey. Born on February 22, 1925 in Chicago, this tall man who liked to wear fur coats and tennis shoes, has long been the writer and illustrator of choice for fans of the macabre and gothic.

His house in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts is now a museum and although his beloved cats are gone, it still looks very much like it did when he lived there, filled with his books and collections of various objects. I visited a few summers ago and have a large dried leaf on my bookshelf that came from the magnolia tree in his back garden.

Today Google is honoring Gorey’s birthday with his very own doodle. Be sure and check it out and have a wicked weekend. 

21 February 2013

A Cup of Sweden

As a fan of Swedish mysteries, one thing I've learned is that Swedes love their coffee. And so last month when I was by the Plaza and desperate for some caffeine I decided to nip into Fika NYC, part of a small chain of Swedish Espresso bars in the city. Fika roughly means to take a coffee break, something that I love to do. And so I took my time and enjoyed a delicious cappuccino prepared by an extremely nice barista. It’s now my go-to place when I’m shopping (or more likely window shopping) on Fifth Avenue. And just this week I went to their Tribeca location, which houses their chocolate factory (oh yes, they make chocolates as well). I think a tasting should be on the agenda for the next visit. Don’t you?

For more info on Fika NYC, visit their site here

19 February 2013

The Heiress

Jessica Chastain is The Heiress. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Last month I saw the Broadway production of The Heiress, Ruth and Augustus Goetz’ adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square. Set in 1850 New York, the play takes place in the front parlour of the fashionable home of Dr. Austin Sloper and his daughter Catherine. The well-respected Dr. Sloper is disappointed with his plain daughter who while shy and socially awkward, displays intelligence and a sense of humour when alone with her Aunt Lavinia who has come to stay with the Slopers since the passing of her husband. Into the house one evening comes Morris Townsend, a young man of looks and charm but no fortune. Dr. Sloper immediately suspects that his intentions toward Catherine are dubious but she believes Morris to be honourable and starts to think that perhaps, finally, she has found love. After an extended trip to Europe with her father in an attempt to get her to forget her suitor, Catherine returns only to discover the truth about Morris’ feelings for her.

The play was enjoyable to watch starting with Derek McLane’s set filled with loads of mahogany and dark reds and crystal and Albert Wolsky’s period-perfect outfits for the cast. Yet at times it felt like eating a sugary meringue—light and lovely but without a lot of weight to it.

Part of this had to do with the casting. David Strathairn’s Dr. Sloper came across as stern but not as tyrannical as he perhaps should be for the story. His treatment of his only child whom he has never forgiven for not growing up to be more like her mother who died shortly after childbirth was hard to watch but maybe not hard enough.

Dan Stevens did a serviceable job as the shallow Morris but seemed to lack the cunning that one would expect from a character of that ilk. He did look the part though and to his credit it only took a few minutes to forget that you weren’t watching Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey.

Judith Ivey as Aunt Lavinia stole the show whenever she was on stage. At times bringing to mind Aunt Pittypat from Gone With the Wind, her over exuberant outbursts and general silliness served, for most of the play, to mask a sharp mind. Of all the people who crossed the threshold of the Sloper household, she was the one who seemed to be most aware of what was going on.

And then there was Jessica Chastain as Catherine. The young woman who is funny one moment and a stumbling mess the next, living in fear of her father yet constantly seeking his approval, is a complex woman who by the play’s end transforms into a hardened spinster. While Chastain looked the part, her portrayal felt disjointed. Part of this was due to her manner of speech; a drawn out “yes” in answer to a question for example was distracting and just odd. It’s unfortunate because I know Chastain is a fine actress, perhaps one of the best in Hollywood at the moment. Maybe her next time on Broadway, which I am sure there will be a next time, she will have a role that she can make more her own.

The Heiress has closed but you can see some short videos about the production here.

18 February 2013

Writer's Block

writer's block: a usually temporary condition in which a writer finds it impossible to proceed with the writing of a novel, play, or other work.

I don't know if what I've been feeling lately can be called writer's block but something has kept me from writing as much as I've wanted (not taking as many photos can be chalked up to the horrible temperatures we've been experiencing). I could say it's because I've been tired, which is true (I do have a full-time job) but I'm afraid it might be due more to my propensity to over think everything. Instead of just writing a quick post about an exhibit I've seen, I have to ponder it forever and then agonize over every word I choose. The truth is, I need to just get on with it and write and not worry about every post being perfect or profound (as if I've ever written one that was). I've written for a living before and had no choice then when to finish something because of deadlines I had to meet.

This week I'm going to attempt to catch up as it were and go through my list of things I've done/seen recently that are already over/closed and write some quick posts about them. Moving forward, I'm going to try my hardest to publish reviews right after I've seen something so you dear readers can attend if you find it interesting (save for one-time events, of course). And if they're not as long as ones I've written in the past, then so be it.

I first started this blog so I'd have a place to write about my love of old movies and history and about living in New York; basically, I wanted to write about things that I enjoy. I feel though like I could be doing much more. For example, while I'll write about a museum I've gone to, I rarely mention restaurants or shops in the city, something I could start doing more of. So don't be surprised if you start seeing a broadening of my posts about things to do in New York and other topics. See you back here shortly.

15 February 2013

Beautiful Words

"The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so."—Gore Vidal

I know that it is not the thing to gloat. I know that one should strive to be gracious and modest. Yet, sometimes, you just need to say "I told you so." It really can be so satisfying.  But back to being nice. I would like to say a big thank you to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln for being born in February, allowing me to have a three-day weekend. I plan on seeing more of the 1933 series at Film Forum, looking at some art, and catching up on some much needed sleep. Have a great weekend everyone! 

14 February 2013

Valentine's Day

It's Valentine's Day and although most of us will have to go to work wouldn't you rather spend the day at home in bed eating chocolates à la Jean Harlow in Dinner at Eight? I know I would. So whether or not you have your own valentine, I think we all deserve a nice box of bon bons today. 

11 February 2013


Filmmakers have always faced challenges, from budgetary problems to fights with the studios. The later was especially true under the Production Code when studios would scrutinize scripts, demanding changes from word choices to deleting whole scenes and plot lines. Even the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, ran into trouble making his films. With Suspicion (1941), the studio objected to the film’s original ending so Hitchcock changed it to placate the studio. Yet in doing so, he gave us a film with a delightfully ambiguous ending that viewers are still debating.

Suspicion is the story of a young spinster, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine), who falls in love with John “Johnnie” Aysgarth (Cary Grant), a charming man who cons his way into situations and people out of their money. After a short courtship the two marry, much to the disappointment of Lina’s father. With a wife and home to support, Johnnie is forced to get a job. His attempts to go straight don’t last long though, and he is soon fired for embezzling from his cousin’s firm. When Lina’s father dies leaving her only his portrait and her annual allowance of £500, Johnnie persuades his kind but dimwitted friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) to finance a land development scheme. When Beaky dies shortly afterwards under questionable circumstances Lina, who has caught Johnnie in repeated lies, becomes convinced that he killed Beaky and that she is his intended next victim. Does Lina, a fan of mystery novels, just have an overactive imagination or has she married a murderer?

The film is based on the 1932 novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the book there is no question that Johnnie is bad. He swindles, steals, seduces, and ultimately murders. At the end of the book an increasingly disturbed Lina knowingly drinks a glass of poisoned milk given to her by Johnnie because she loves him too much to think of going on without him.

When it came to the film version, Hitchcock would later claim that he wanted the film to end with Lina drinking the poisoned milk but first asking Johnnie to post a letter to her mother in which she has revealed that Johnnie is her murderer. The last scene would show an unknowing Johnnie dropping the letter in the mailbox, sealing his fate.

Although no script with this ending exists, there are signs throughout Suspicion that would support the theory that this was Hitchcock’s intended ending. Letters play an important role throughout the film. In the opening scene where Johnnie first meets Lina on a train, he asks her for a stamp to use in lieu of cash to pay for his ticket and tells the puzzled train conductor who accepts it, “write to your mother.” When Lina leaves home to elope with Johnnie, she tells her parents she is going to the post office. Throughout the film there are shots of the village mailbox (Hitchcock’s screen appearance is him posting a letter), and Lina is shown reading and writing multiply letters. 

The problem with this ending was that the studio, RKO, didn’t want Cary Grant to play a murderer (they didn’t think audiences would buy it) and the production code didn’t allow for suicide, which is what Lina would essentially be committing by letting herself be murdered. So Hitchcock was told to come up with an alternate ending in which Johnnie is innocent.

In the final scene, Johnnie and Lina are driving along the cliffs. Johnnie speeds up, and Lina’s door opens. She begins to fall, and we see Johnnie’s hand reaching out toward her. She struggles and screams. The car stops and the two jump out. Lina, who has been dreaming up outrageous situations for some time, believes Johnnie was trying to push her out of the car. Johnnie swears he was trying to save her and tells her that he won’t bother her again. Lina comes to the conclusion that he's planning on committing suicide. Throughout her explanation for why she thinks this, Johnnie remains silent. Finally he states, “Yes, but I saw that was a cheap way out” and swears that he’s going to turn himself in to the authorities and serve his time for the stolen funds. The film closes with the two driving back home, Johnnie’s arm lying across Lina’s shoulders.

The studio got the ending they wanted. Or did they? What if Lina’s original assumptions were correct, and Johnnie is a murderer? One of the brilliant things about this film is that the ending can be interpreted in different ways. Some people see Johnnie as innocent and use the final scene to support that belief. Others though believe that Johnnie is guilty and view the final scene is a different light.

Look at the film again with the idea that Johnnie's guilty. Shortly after their second meeting, Johnnie and Lina are shown engaged in a dramatic struggle on top of a wind-swept hill. Johnnie says, “What did you think I was trying to do? Kill you?” While the mood soon dissolves into the comedic with Johnnie playing with Lina’s hair and giving her a nickname, “monkey face,” the darkness of the first part of the scene hints at dangers that lay ahead.

Johnnie, who is friends with local mystery writer Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee), is constantly getting her to tell him the secrets behind some of the murders in her books and asks her brother who's a doctor about a new undetectable poison. After Beaky dies in Paris from drinking a large amount of whiskey (everyone including Beaky himself knows that whiskey can kill him), Lina is told by the police that Beaky was with an Englishman whom he called by a name that sounds an awful lot like “Old Bean,” Beaky’s nickname for Johnnie who, by the way, cannot account for his whereabouts on the night of Beaky’s death. Later, Lina learns that Johnnie borrowed a book from Isobel about Richard Palmer, a murderer who killed someone with the same brandy trick used to kill Beaky.

Lina then discovers that Johnnie has been enquiring about her life insurance policy. Returning home one evening, Johnnie locks the door and reminds Lina that the staff have the night off and that they are all alone. He offers to bring her a glass of milk to help her sleep. If you believe Johnnie to be guilty, then there’s only one thing that can be in that milk, poison.

This scene is clearly a reference to Johnnie's murder of Lina in the book. With sinister shadows cast on the walls, Johnnie slowly walks up the stairs carrying a small silver tray on which stands a glass of milk. Wanting to draw the audience’s attention to the glass, Hitchcock had a light placed inside it that literally made it glow. It's an incredible scene shot beautifully by Harry Stradling Sr. But Lina doesn’t drink the milk and the still full glass can be seen on her nightstand the next day.

In the end, when Johnnie speeds up the car and reaches toward Lina, one can read his action as he’s not attempting to grab her but rather he’s trying to push her out of the car to her death. Lina’s quick jump to conclusions that Johnnie planned to kill himself gives him an automatic out. Lina, who had been on her way to stay with her mother, is coming back to him, and he’s safe for the moment. The shot of Johnnie’s arm across Lina’s shoulders as they drive home can be seen as a menacing sign. It’s merely a matter of time before Lina becomes his next victim.

Hitchcock may not have gotten the ending that he wanted, but perhaps this one is better, leaving audiences guessing and arguing over whether or not Johnnie is a murderer and what will become of poor Lina.

08 February 2013

Here Comes the Snow

“A few feathery flakes are scattered widely through the air, and hover downward with uncertain flight, now almost alighting on the earth, now whirled again aloft into remote regions of the atmosphere.”—Nathaniel Hawthorne

Right now it's raining in New York and the wind is picking up. But by this afternoon snow will be falling and tomorrow the city will probably look like this photo (minus the horse-drawn carriages). Here comes Winter Storm Nemo. I plan on staying in and writing a bunch of tales for the blog (I'm afraid I've been falling behind with my goal of writing reviews of shows and exhibits before they close). And if it's not too bad, I might venture out and catch some of the 1933 films screening at Film Forum. Have a wonderful and warm weekend everyone.

This and other turn of the century New York snow photos can be found here.

06 February 2013

Hard Times

Just 13 years old, Rosanna Watson was sentenced to seven days of hard labour for stealing iron in Newcastle on May 2, 1873. She served her time in Newcastle City Gaol along with her accomplices: Mary Catherine Docherty, Ellen Woodman, and Mary Hinnigan who was just 11. What must their lives have been like that they had to resort to thieving? Were they encouraged to do so by a parent? Were they orphaned? 

The Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums in Newcastle upon Tyne, England posted this image along with other mugshots taken 1871-1873. Sadly, Rosanna is not the only child in the lot. There's Michael Clement Fisher, 13, and Henry Leonard Stephenson, 12, sentenced to two months for breaking into houses. And James Scullion, 13, sentenced to 14 days hard labour for stealing clothes. Upon his release he was sent to Market Weighton Reformatory for three years. The list goes on. All of them bring to mind Dickens and every other Victorian tale of misery that involves girls and boys. 

There's something very striking though about about Rosanna. Perhaps it's her direct gaze at the camera or the look on her face that says she's seen far more than any girl her age should. I don't know what happened to her but I hope that she survived and made it to adulthood, maybe had a family, and that she was able to carve out a better life for herself. Whatever her fate, I hope she didn't spend anymore time in jail.

To see more of these mugshots, check out Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums' Flicker set here.

05 February 2013

400 and Counting

This is blog post number 400! I can't believe I've posted that many. It makes me so happy, I feel like dancing. A big thank you to each and everyone of you who's stopped by to see what's going on at Tales of a Madcap Heiress. Here's to the next 400. In the meantime, let's dance.

Gif of Louise Brooks dancing in Pandora's Box from here.

04 February 2013

Dream Library

In my dream house, I have a large library. One with floor to ceiling bookcases, lots of artwork, a fireplace, and comfortable seats to curl up in with a book. For Donald Oresman, his dream library became a reality when he purchased a flat overlooking Central Park South. There he had a library built to house part of his large book collection, and I think it's pretty amazing with a nice blend of beauty and practicality. If I lived there, I don't know if I'd ever leave the room. And as an added bonus, look at that view.

To see more photos, check out the article in New York Magazine here.

Photos by Annie Schlechter.

01 February 2013

Happy Birthday Exene!

Today is Exene Cervenka's birthday. Born on February 1, 1956 in Chicago, Exene is a writer, singer, artist, and member of X, my all-time favourite band. I think I wore out every one of their albums in high school from playing them over and over again. And I definitely admired and copied Exene's style. I wrote her a fan letter back then and she wrote me back (I still have it somewhere). I remember she recommended that I read three authors: Flannery O'Connor, Harold Pinter, and Charles Bukowski. Exene has had some serious health issues in recent years so I'm wishing her good health and all the best today. Happy Birthday Exene!


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