Friday, February 18, 2011

Il Gattopardo

This brooch from 1957 - a contemplative, if not downright melancholic leopard of gold, platinum, rubies, diamonds, emeralds and pearl - is a beautiful thing and has the simplest of connections with this post - Fulco di Verdura was the cousin of Giuseppe Tomas di Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo or, as it is called in English, The Leopard. The eponymous movie, from 1963 and starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon, was made by Luchino Visconti, a friend of Verdura's since the 1920s in Paris.

I have not read the English translation of The Leopard and being still at the come si dice stage in Italian 101 it'll be a while before I get to read it in Italian - if ever.

When we were in Italy at Christmas, it quickly became evident that to really understand what was going on around us, some fluency in the language was necessary. I'm not talking about the allegation that tourists in Venice pay more in restaurants than do residents, or that one takes on trust the English translations in churches and museums - more that, without a real knowledge of language, one only skims the surface of a culture - never actually experiencing it, beyond commerce, at all. Yet skimming the surface may only be what is required if the destination is yet the latest of a long list of trophy places to be brayed about across dinner tables in the fashionable restaurants.

While on the subject of fashionable restaurants - last night we ate with friends and new acquaintance at Atlanta's latest offering, where to my amusement the waiter as part of his spiel about the chef's sourcing of ingredients locally, the rampant popularity of certain dishes... at this point I switched off and read the menu where there was nothing overly attractive except for fois gras with strawberry conserve. I've mentioned before, I think, that I find fois gras irresistible, but yesterday I discovered I don't really like it with sliced strawberries and dry rusk-like toasted brioche. It truly has become a culinary cliche, this fois gras with fruit, and when the combination is a stretch, or not even well-done, it falls flat on its gras little face.

What brought me back to my manners, the company and the waiter was his reference to an item on the menu as "my personal favorite..." clearly, he hoped, the most persuasive of all accolades. Now, I realize I live in a democracy and if I am to retain some semblance of civilization, the delusion that we are all equal has to be maintained. But, call me a snob if you must, I really don't care what a total stranger's personal preferences are, at table or anywhere else, for that matter. What I do care about is that someone, whether I like them or not, stranger or not, isn't humiliated - so, in the case of the waiter, though a retort was on the tip of my tongue, I kept quiet and sipped the sweetest, and possibly the worst, Manhattan I've ever had. Of course, the waiter was only doing what he hoped was the best interpretation of instructions from the manager and I as a customer was doing the best I could to play the game. But, I suppose, it's all part of the disneyfication of eating out and what a pity it is.

Last week I quoted a remark, snobbish, delicious and apt, that Fulco di Verdura made about David Hicks; and maybe Hicks was humiliated by what was meant to be a skewering of his pretensions, yet Hicks was undoubtedly a snob. You might say, if you were being polite, he had standards. Standards, and by that I mean accent, culture, and manners, are not normally innate - and here I am really stating the obvious - they are acquired. Upbringing is but a starting point, for beyond that we make the acquaintance of those from whom we continue to learn - those useful connections and introductions into circles previously beyond our ken or reach. In Hicks's case, and in relation to my posts of the last few months, it was Roderick Cameron, Wright Ludington, et al, from whom he absorbed, but did not necessarily copy, perhaps even had confirmed, other standards and taste. A chameleon-like aspect of character must never be ruled out when it comes to social climbing but it behooves one to remember the old saw about people in glass houses.

As I remark above, David Hicks, in my opinion one of the most significant decorators of the 20th century, was undoubtedly a snob, but in that he was no different from many a modern decorator or, as they frequently prefer to be called, designer - another step in the dance of status and branding. Arguably, if being a snob is part of your brand and you profit from it who's to say that it is wrong? Which of us is free of pretension - or snobbery for that matter?

Photograph of the leopard brooch by David Behl/© Verdura from Verdura: The Life and Work of a Master Jeweler, Harry N Abrams, New York 2002.

Photograph of the Gallery of Mirrors of the Palazzo Gangi at Palermo, the setting for the ballroom scene in Visconti's movie, is by Marc Walter. From the book Private Splendor: Great Families at Home, Alexis Gregory and Marc Walter, The Vendome Press, 2006.


  1. I hope the dinner wasn't a complete disaster..!

  2. A delicious post, dear Blue. Complex, layered, skewering, clever, and right on point; and yet balanced and fair, too. Well done!

  3. I read this with great amusement, yes David Hicks and the little I know of him does seem to reveal that he was a man of "high standards' which personally I have no fault with, show me a well known highly respected "designer" who doesn't have a lot to say whose words might be taken to mean they too are a "a snob" is societal in that industry and never makes me raise an eyebrow.
    Onto the dining.....I laughed because we were in a NY restaurant about a month ago, a very well known restaurant whose staff prides itself on seemingly being every patrons equal. We had a "testy and somewhat snobby" waiter ourselves who spent far too much time rambling on about his personal favorites. Our friend who was with us and is a San Francisco acclaimed food critic, had no patience (nor did we but we were more polite and obligingly smiled through clenched teeth I might add as he recited his faves) but our friend who could take no more, and abruptly said" I think we will take it from here, and give us a few minutes to look over the menu". He basically dismissed the stunned waiter, short and sweet.... poof! he was gone. I saw the incredulous look on the waiters face, but have to admit i was glad our friend took us out of our misery in having to hear him enjoy hearing himself!
    Turns out we had a fabulous meal....and the waiter got the hint loud and clear, he was precise and on target but very to the point for the rest of the my point in all these musings is I think when one has an audience, they may try to be a little more audacious if they feel they can get away with it. Take the audience away and they snap out of it! As long as anyone in any field has the audience who will adoringly admire them no matter what, they might test those waters of audacity, snobbishness, high standards...and if it works or they become known for it, then it so remains. And sometimes even become well known for it.
    interesting isn't it, how we are all wired and how society and its responses to our behavior help shape the limits to where we go.

  4. A friend was the guest at a dinner in a home out here in Middle America where the chef came out at the presentation of each course to tell the name of the dish and why it was chosen to compliment the preceding!

    I met David Hicks in the early 90s when he came to speak at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was completely "put out" among what he perceived to be non-wealthy Commoners, totally ungracious, and just ugly in every sense of the word. (He had also lost his looks, as they say). He was the ultimate decorator snob.

  5. The traditional accompaniment to foi gras is a fig compote or preserve, a glass of sauternes wouldn't hurt! The idea of strawberry preserves brings the yuck to mind. i agree, a bit of a stretch.

    The Leopard is a wonderful book you must read. BTW enjoying inmensely the LM Diaries, thanks for the push!

  6. AH! Come here for dinner. No waiters. Just good company, food, wine, art and conversation.

    I have the English translation of that book.

  7. Marvelous, balanced, and touches upon so many things that entertain me that I cannot begin to comment on them all. (and what a delicious little jewel---if I were ever to do drag, this is the sort of bling I'd want)

    Personal Note: Interestingly, since I started blogging, as I've watched some of my fellows prattle on far too much about their social positions and their social markers, and the status they attach to their possessions and garb, it has had the unexpected and salubrious effect of causing me to take a hard look at those very qualities in myself and how they impact those around me, or those reading me,and I have been assiduously scrubbing the excess from my own musings. Turns out maybe we are never too old to learn.

    As to waiters and over-accessorized foie gras: I've recently been re-reading a 1965 cookbook, with an eye to a post, that resulted from what was our region's most modern and fashion-forward restaurant of the 1950's. It is almost touching, in light of the absolutely silly pretentiousness of modern culinary showmanship, to read how retro and old fashioned and elegantly simple (simply elegant?) these recipes now seem.

  8. Very fine essay, practicing us deliciously in contrarian surprise with a seemingly consoling, "the sweetest," before the contradiction, "and possibly the worst Manhattan," so that a negative could later be appraised by worldliness.

    By coincidence I refer today to a snob, by reference - Elliott Templeton; who went to his deathbed having lost all of the aspirations of his snobbery with its virtue still intact, his belief in himself. Without that, snobbery is mere knavery, as you imply directly enough, I hope you'd agree.

  9. Columnist, it was not quite a disaster. The personal favorite of the chef turned out to be a new york strip with truffle fries which I did choose because it, frankly, was the most interesting of the entrees. Imagine my amusement when it turned out that after the glowing recommendation from the waiter he discovered the kitchen was out of steak. I shall not return. Also, I cannot taste truffles - paper is more flavourful.

  10. Thank you, Reggie. Always good to hear from you. When you come to Atlanta I shall give you the name of the restaurant so you can avoid it.

  11. Lindraxa, thank you. I've had fois gras many times and increasingly I find it ditzed about with silliness. I've eaten it with the fig compote and loved it and the interesting thing is that this time I was not even offered the sauternes. Under separate cover I'll tell you the name of the restaurant.

  12. Bruce, thank you. Be careful, I might take you up on the invitation!

  13. Dilettante, thank you. I think we all use certain possessions as talismans and emblems of our journeys but if the conversation is only about what one owns or, more likely, what one can spend then it becomes tedious. At such a time I tend to sit back and look as bored as I am.

    The older cookery books are wonderful. I just discovered a whole trawl of them in the university library and though they do reflect new ingredients, new fashions and mores they are the best source for well-made, simple food, that is not meant to become the the whole topic of conversation at the dinner table and a means of boosting the ego of the cook. The simpler, the more elegant - you're right!

  14. The Devoted Classicist, thank you.

    Your friend's experience just makes me think of how tragically competitive, and comic, some people can become. it also leads me wonder who our very own Edward Gibbon will be!

    I have heard something similar about David Hicks from other people who met him. I never met him and probably would not have cared to. For thirty years I've watched the antics of a distant relative struggling to climb but forever descending - it has been both a privilege and a salutary experience to watch it.

  15. Laurent, thank you. A compliment, indeed!

    I'm not sure belief in oneself absolves one of a charge of knavery - but it gives me something to mull over during the sipping of this evening's Manhattan. It's a very interesting ethical and philosophical question.

  16. The enchanted home, thank you.

    How many times have we met an arrogant waiter? And the ones, so bumbling, it's heartbreaking? I have no wish for servility - efficiency and non-intrusiveness is all I really ask for, beyond good food that is. I have no wish to feel I'm raining on someone's parade because I'm sitting at his table.

    Years ago here in Atlanta a restaurant opened and its waiters were so rude - I was there one evening when a guest was taken to task for staining the table cloth - a full-page negative review was written in the local paper. The restaurant became even more popular - hard to imagine, but true. To your point, the audience loved the performance!

    Over the years I've wanted to do what your friend had the presence of mind to do but have always held back because I know I can be very direct. I do reserve the right, however, to complain if things are not right and, if the service isn't good, not tip. One-fifth of the tab is a lot to pay for bad service.

  17. David Hicks was his own biggest fan. This the man, who dictated which royals would/could attend his funeral, and changed anything or should I say set out to change anything he did not like the looks of asthetically. He uprooted the classic English room as we traditionally know it and butchered the look with his bold geometric clashes and audacious mix of styles. He did not lack being bold or ruthless and widely pronounced that his strong opinions on design cost him many a friend.
    Though I never met him,, the only person I know that did on a number of occasions found him to be beyond arrogant, narcisstic and complelety in awe of himself. They talk about him as a legacy and as a pioneer; I fail to "get it" and am personally not a fan of any of his work. Well done piece though above and very entertaining about the dining experience.

  18. This has been a fascinating roundabout. If I am recalling correctly Mr. Worthington was saying that Mr. Hicks should be judged on his talents and not on origins (suburbia). I think we all chuckled a bit too much at the lusciously witty comment (reminded me a bit of the Margot Asquith-Jean Harlow flapdoodle). For the record I'd like to say that given my great grandmother was Cherokee, I find greater offense in the naming of Hick's daughter India. Just thought I'd throw another log on the fire. I'll get another Manhattan, Blue and let's chat.

  19. Anonymous, thank you. You are, perhaps, the fourth person who has written to me with a strongly negative opinion about David Hicks's character. Arrogance is mentioned each time, and I must say that trait is entirely to be seen from published interviews and his books.

    I do like most of his design work, though not all. Hicks's curtains, bed hangings and roman shades I find particularly bad. Some of his textiles, and I have a couple of original showroom memos, are not as exciting as they appear in photographs - to my eye they appear rather lacklustre and do not live up to their celebrity. And it is the celebrity of Hicks's name that enables his designs to be brought again to market. Having seen them, considered them for my own place, I felt that for my purposes the designs were too obviously Hicks - for me the equivalent of wearing a logo on clothing. The world had moved on - the very thing that happened to Hicks towards the end of his life.

    Was he an original? I think he was, and I think too that he injected many a necessary jolt of color into the faded and dusty post-war color palette. In many ways he destroyed the then current notion of good taste in decoration - a very retrograde notion embodied today in the form of a unadventurous neutrals. I wish we had his equivalent today.

    Again, thank you, especially for the compliment about the writing of the piece and the dining experience.

  20. home before dark, thank you.

    I fully appreciate Mr Worthington's point and don't in fact disagree with it. I'm glad you mentioned the silent-T episode because it reminds me that one of the aspects of Verdura's remark that made me laugh was its naughtiness.

    I think we might pour another manhattan and chat - but not here in Atlanta. I'm beginning to think that there is a generation of bartenders that cannot make good simple cocktails - whether such cocktails are too simple or not chichi enough, I cannot decide, but the result is carelessness.

  21. Now it can be told: When I was starting out as a designer, one of the
    destinations was a showroom called Connaisance which featured
    fabrics and wallcoverings by David Hicks. The staff were completely
    indifferent to me, unhelpful and icy until David Hicks himself, who
    happened to be in New York that day, appeared on the scene.
    He was charming and welcoming to this perfect Nobody, and I'll never
    forget the effect it had on the staff, who were shamed into a kind of
    belated courtesy.

  22. Blue --

    I wrote and then didn't post a long bit on what I liked and disliked about Hicks. The list of "dislikes" made up the bulk of it -- and it wasn't just the consistently dreadful carpets.

    He couldn't do basic things -- like properly light pictures or even a sitting room. And the delicate color sense he showed in his watercolors seldom translated to the paint choices he made as a self-styled "un-Fowler." Pieces of furniture were often too small for the room in which they were placed. Mirrors -- or "looking-glasses," as he would insist -- were sometimes put so high on walls that you would see -- at best -- the top of your head. And when you take away the Mountbatten furniture, his own places are at best wildly uneven. Etc., etc.

    And then there's his monomanical branding with the four letters H. It reminds me of Victor Hugo's ring -- engraved "Ego Hugo" -- but without the latent humor.

    OTOH, his wife seems to have loved him, and financially supported both his career and their compulsively grand lifestyle. (Their son delicately tiptoes around the fact that for all the attention David Hicks received, he could never seem to make and keep any money.)

    I confess that I have an inherent dislike of "fashionable" rooms -- rooms that will look dated within a decade. So perhaps I am not the right person to offer an opinion about Hicks. But I look at much of what he did -- cough, Niarchos, cough -- and I think, Fashion and Vulgarity are like conjoined twins in a footrace with each other: There can be no clear winner.

    Grumpily yours.

  23. I don't know anything about David Hicks but I do know about The Leopard and you MUST read it and see the film which has been re done and is being shown in art houses. It would be a crying shame to miss it.

  24. Hmm, I think there is a big difference between a decorator and a designer. Many people who are actually decorators CLAIM to be designers which drives me crazy. I think, generally, a designer can produce working drawings and has reached a certified level of education and passed some sort of accredidation. A decorator just chooses fabrics and relys on instinct while a designer can, or does, DESIGN and/or choose them based on a certain level of knowledge.

  25. Stefan raises a very important point, which goes to the tension between sensibility and technical competence.

    I once fired an immensely talented interior decorator (to whom I had previously paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars) when he/she appeared for his/her final proposal for a major room. He/she wanted the entire discussion to be based on a lapful of trims and a bagful of fabric samples.

    I kept asking about furniture placement, and all I got back was enthusiasm about all this (splendid) rubbish in his/her lap.

    Technical competence -- the ability to see past sensibility and ensure that the finished room will work (will function properly for the people who live there, will have the switches and sockets where they need to be, will have the curtains properly made and the paint rightly applied, the pictures rightly lit and the floor properly finished) in my view, trumps gratuitous displays of personal vanity every damn day.

    That said, sensibility is why you pick a decorator in the first place. (Not too long ago, I let go a very competent architect who had decorative ideas that were simply deplorable. All of which he added -- unsolicited -- to his monthly bill.)

  26. ArchitectDesign, thank you. You make a good point and to it, there is a legal difference between interior designer and decorator. It is a subject I shall return to in a later post.

  27. The Ancient, thank you.

    "Technical competence -- the ability to see past sensibility and ensure that the finished room will work (will function properly for the people who live there, will have the switches and sockets where they need to be, will have the curtains properly made and the paint rightly applied, the pictures rightly lit and the floor properly finished) in my view, trumps gratuitous displays of personal vanity every damn day."

    I could not agree more! As I remarked to Stefan I shall post about this in the near future.