Saturday, August 25, 2012

Two Gentlemen

This portrait stunned me at Newport’s Rosecliff Mansion.  The hypnotic blue eyes looked deep into mine as if casting a spell.  I felt I knew him.  There was no identification on the wall next to the gentleman, so I did a little research later at home. His name was Richard Thornton Wilson and he made his fortune in finance.  His promising beginnings were in Georgia but he later lived among the moneyed elite in Gilded Age New York City. It was a bit of a mystery to me how he ended up on a Newport wall so I dug deeper and discovered that his children were called "The Marrying Wilsons" having all "married up" into Newport society (think Vanderbilt’s and Astor’s).  By all accounts, he was a gentleman, kind, and very generous.

Indeed a handsome man, Margaret Mitchell is rumored to have used Mr. Wilson as the model for Rhett Butler in her novel Gone With the Wind.  I can see why but I realized that this portrait really reminded me of a tall, handsome, polite but very shy boy I went to school with.  My classmate was so silent and mysterious that I cannot recall ever hearing him speak although we shared an English class.  I wondered about him, as I secretly watched his long lanky steps, his reserved politeness. Always unobtrusive, yet one of the few boys who held doors for the girls and teachers. He never made any trouble.

Almost three years ago, I received an email from my classmate out of the blue.  He said hello and then asked, "Did you go to the principal’s office the day I was struck in the face?"  Slowly, the memory came back to me in rolling waves.  Our high school was infamously overcrowded and traversing the hallways was almost impossible with wall to wall bodies, clumsily lumbering together, trying to reach a myriad of locations at once.  One afternoon sophomore year, as I struggled to reach my class, I heard punches being thrown over my shoulder and saw the handsome classmate fall to the floor.  The school’s arrogant bully, a hockey player, for no reason that was apparent made a flash decision to attack with three fierce punches.  I hesitated but soon my righteous indignation overtook me and I ran to the school office.  Breathlessly, I reported what I saw and was made to sit in a wooden chair by the door.  In a few minutes, the gentle classmate and the bully were brought in together and told to shake hands.  I shot up from the chair like a rocket, "You don't understand!  He wasn't doing anything!  It was unprovoked!".  But the principal thought I was impeding progress and ordered me to class.  The next day when I saw my even more subdued classmate, his wounds were evident, inside and out.  I spoke to him but don't recall what I said.  I'm sure I tried to convey that I felt sorry about the act of violence put upon him.  He nodded, turned away from me, and we never spoke again. I could see that he just wanted to be left alone.  Two years later on graduation day, a picture was taken of our class in caps and gowns.  My classmate and I were photographed just feet apart, our young faces forever recorded on a grainy picture for the yearbook.  Over time, I forgot the terrible incident and the sweet Gentle Ben classmate, until the email.  I answered, "Yes, it was me".  Soon a reply, "Thank you - I knew you were there and I knew why.  Thank you." 

And so, when I came face to face with Mr. Richard Thornton Wilson, my amazement was profound.  I called my gentleman friend, the aforementioned classmate, to my side.  "Look!  It’s you!  The beard but especially the eyes – they’re yours!"  Astonished, we both stared at the portrait...but it was my own gaze that Mr. Wilson seemed to knowingly hold in his.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Married women will still have their favorites...

Letter from Sarah Haley, Newburyport to Nabby Angell, Boston  ~ June 2, 1777
Dear Cousin Nabby,
May I flatter myself, My Dear Girl, that a letter from a sober matron, quite removed from all the polite amusements of the times, and who has very little consequently to say for herself, can be quite acceptable to you?
You desired me to scribble you a few lines and I am willing to think you will deal as sincerely with me, as with others.  If not, you have only the poor consolation of answering this letter, as I am determined to accept nothing less from you.  Make no excuses that you have nothing to write back, as such an evasion will not do, as I am sure Headquarters can easily furnish something worth communicating, especially when embellished by your able pen.  As for me, I can only say that I love you as well as ever – which perhaps you will say is of little consequence and that my own pen grows cleverly and looking like a little Indian which may be still.
Has any of the lasses secured themselves a gallant among the Independents or did they think them not worth the trouble?  Cartwright is here recruiting and drank tea with me the first day he came to town.  He told me that Miss Corliss had represented to some lady in Boston, that he was the author of a song, which upon his honor, he says he never wrote!
Some of the lads in their letters to their friends, exclaimed against Providence, and with their great warmth upon the whole, I think they were in general, much neglected.  I was half in love with one of my partners, a Captain Brown, a much agreeable well behaved man, of about three and twenty and with the addition of a handsome face made him one of the principle figures in the room.  My next favorite (you see, married women will still have their favorites) was one of the homely agreeable.  Mason, with a broken nose – but no matter for that!  So, I hear as well, the redoubtable Colonel Russell is writing to your brother’s late flame and Cousin George has at last got married – was not you a little surprised?  I think it is my sister Polly and Corliss’ next turn.
Your situation begins to be pleasant and you are never at a loss for company, or I imagine you spend time gaily.  And so Mrs. Tilston, a lady of my acquaintance has come to spend an hour which obliges me hastily to subscribe myself and so,
Your Affectionate Cousin,
This letter was given to me by a friend who collects such things.  He also collects Revolutionary War pay vouchers which are interesting to look at until the tenth in a row, and then one finds oneself screaming for something about bonnets and ribbons instead of lead and ammunition.  And so, this amiable little letter was dropped into my hands and now I find myself with a new passion for women’s letters.  Recently, I bought one written by a woman to her seamstress in 1869.  It is full of buttons and bows – just the kind of feminine fluff I like.  This letter, however, is appealing too.  It’s authored by a married woman, Sarah Haley from Newburyport Massachusetts, to her cousin, Nabby Angell in Boston.  “Nabby” was a girlish nickname for “Abigail”.
Nabby had requested a letter from her cousin, and Sarah being married (and older, I presume), laments that she is not sure she will have anything of interest to tell her single cousin.  But here, she tells Nabby many things and paints an alluring snapshot of  life in a coastal village during Revolutionary War times.  Apparently, Sarah has attended a party where she “partners” (dances?) with a handsome Captain who is her “favorite” among the soldiers and she asks Nabby if  her friends have also met any attractive soldiers.  The rest of the letter is filled with bits of happy gossip about love, courting, and anticipated unions and marriages.  The missive ends when another friend interrupts Sarah for a short visit and perhaps tea.
Women’s letters are notoriously scarce and so I have imagined that this one was tucked away by a beloved granddaughter or niece who found it equally charming.  It’s a simple domestic letter written by a young wife during an extraordinary time.  But for me, a woman possessed by the past, what I read between the words was as satisfying has having watched a full length Merchant Ivory film.
Picture Credit:  Henrietta Johnston 1674-1729. Subject: Mrs. Pierre Bacot  

Friday, August 17, 2012


"It's not personal", we were told when a few good friends were laid off this week at work.  It will be personal to me Monday morning when I walk by one friend's empty cubicle.  I will miss his kind and funny ways.  It occurred to me that life is strangely divided between the time before the film You've Got Mail was made and the time after.  It's not surprising that 9/11 was just a few short years later.  It's a Mason Dixon line  - a great divide where we crossed over from hope and gentleness to something else.
You've Got Mail is the most perfect of movies. What's not to love about Meg Ryan's Kathleen Kelly - her sweet naivete, her adorable wardrobe, and great west side apartment?  It has Tom Hanks as the flawed Joe Fox, rich heir to a big bad bookstore chain.  The most violent scene in the film is when  Kathleen absentmindedly holds up to Joe's head the carving knife she's using after discovering he is the person threatening the demise of her charming children's bookshop, The Shop Around the Corner. The nostalgic music includes hits by Roy Orbison, Harry Nilsson, and Stevie Wonder. We see the very best of New York City which is as much a cast member as Jean Stapleton, the ever faithful Birdie, bookeeper for Kathleen's shop. And even though the film is about the new marvel of email, there isn't a single cell phone moment, nobody texts or tweets during dinner, there's no swearing, no meaningless sex.  Just intelligent banter, books, a few conundrums and then, a comforting and tender ending.  It entertains and makes me feel good, makes me laugh outloud, makes me think.  Since You've Got Mail, there have been few films that have left me feeling that way.  And that's why the intervening years are on this side of the great divide, where life seems harder, edgier, and impersonal. I liked Kathleen's response to Joe's admonishment not to take it personal that his company devoured alive her independent bookshop, "Just what does that mean exactly?", Kathleen demands. "Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal".  I could not agree more.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Fall Issue

Vogue has yet to give us a glimpse of the cover of its September issue but we do know that Lady Gaga will grace it. This is the much anticipated thick as a brick issue that has hundreds of pages of fall advertising. I love it but I do wish Vogue had models on the cover again and I really wish that the celebrities they select would at least be put in seasonally appropriate clothes and not the pale slinky gowns they wear on the covers now. In September and October I want to see burnished reds, nut browns, burnt oranges, cashmeres, tweeds, and wools. And what about red tartans?

I know where the gorgeous plaids and autumnal textured knits are, however. You can find them on my vintage Seventeen magazines of yore. How I anticipated the huge August Seventeen issue that arrived in my mailbox the first week of the month. My sister and I would take it to the beach and spend hours upon hours of prime sun tanning time pouring over the Bobbie Brooks ads for wide leg window pane plaid pants with cuffs and simple Shetland sweaters in primary colors. The surf couldn't pull us away from the lovely Berkshire hosiery ads, Bonnie Doon knee socks, and Bass shoes. The pictures were always fetching and romantic, with a boy-next-door model to set off the clothes and imply that an after school tailgating picnic was happening. We especially loved the Ladybug ads with capacious illustrations of menswear inspired clothes; plaid pantsuits with ruffled blouses, argyle sweaters, chunky heeled shoes, newsboy caps and Breton hats, all matching and coordinated. We dreamed of school starting and what we would wear and bring along on the first day. We made lists which, including lingerie and makeup, loose leaf notebooks, colored pens, "baby" barrettes and it all began with the opening of that big August Issue. The girl on the cover enticed us to enter her world, with her happy smile in her happy clothes and it made leaving behind our summer loves and friends almost painless. Seventeen made us feel it was alright that time was passing – because there was plenty of it and summer, if not endless, would at least return again and again. But not until after a shining new school year filled with the latest flicks, clothes, and the Boy Trap Sandwich #51.

Seventeen told us that Herbal Essence Shampoo would give us "the most beautiful shampoo experience on earth" and our hair would smell like the Garden of Eden. We were told that Wrangler jeans were the only jeans to wear to school and that "3 out of 3 girls preferred Yardley's Watercolor Eye Shadows" in the new applicator compact. We bought every color and shared them between us, along with a bottle of Chanel #5 which was selling for just $5.00 at the local Rexall. Seventeen also told us Danskins were not just for dancing and so we put the new bodysuits on our list too. And maxi coats and miniskirts and leather tooled handbags for each of us.

It wasn't just the ads that we loved so much - the editorial staff at Seventeen knew just how to talk to us. There were articles about careers, the Peace Corp, boyfriends, and the generation gap. The magazine's optimism made us feel that anything we imagined was possible and the future was our oyster.

So now, when my September Vogue comes in the mail, I may sniff at bit at the skimpy frock the celebrity du jour is wearing on the cover. But I know when my sister and I crack open that massive tome on our beach blanket Labor Day weekend, we'll be plotting our next moves.