Monday, October 25, 2010

A friend of a friend

That there are six degrees of separation between me and anyone else on the planet is a concept that both troubles me and makes me skeptical. Nonetheless, I was reminded of it one weekend recently at a party in another state where I knew none of other people present - I had one of those well, that explains a lot moments, when I learned something about an acquaintance here from a friend of a friend of a friend - a man whose other plans at the last moment fell through and he attended the gathering at which we were also last-minute guests.

What I learned, and I use that word advisedly, is of no consequence and neither should it be, but what is important is that the world if one moves in certain circles really is growing smaller and tighter. I cannot imagine there are six degrees of separation between me and the Queen but if I moved in her circles I might well find it to be so. And so another connection was made when I received an email - an instance of a correspondent helping me with my thoughts about Roderick Cameron - in which he writes "As I recall there was another part of that circle, a gentleman named Ludington who lived in Santa Barbara and had a strong impact on Mr. Baldwin. Just a data point for you."

"I had known Wright Ludington all my life, and his house in Santa Barbara remained the one thing in America I wanted to see and had not. So I was doubly delighted when he called to ask me to come out for a visit.

"Even if I had not known Wright's special magic, I would have felt it in that house. As we walked through the rooms, I could feel the powerful force he exerts on his environment - in the architecture, the decoration, and especially in the pictures and sculpture that fill his world.

"'Come,'  he said. 'I'll show you to your room.'

"He opened the door not to a guest room, but to an art gallery. We entered at one corner and looked down what seemed like an endlessly long room - at least sixty feet. The white walls were filled with a fantastic collection of paintings of every period and nation. I stopped at every picture. Suddenly, it occurred to me that there weren't any windows - yet the room was filled with light. I looked up to see an ingenious skylight that extended the room's entire length. No one has ever awakened to such glorious sunlight.

"At each end of the room was a four-poster bed with blue-and-white curtains. Each bed had its own table, chest of drawers, books and a good light for reading. The beds were so remote from one another, and the curtains pulled so cozily around them, that even if you had to share the room, it would be like having the place all to yourself.

"Beside my bed was the bath and dressing room, painted brilliant yellow, with an enormous window directly over the tub. From that window I could look down the tawny-grassed valley to the blue Pacific far below."

Billy Baldwin does not give a date to his visit and clearly he is describing a room other than this. The point is, I think, not that Ludington - the donor of 175 works of art to the Santa Barbara Museum and erstwhile owner of Val Verde, an estate described as "a retreat for the nation's gay cultural elite" - knew Roderick Cameron, but that he was a life-long acquaintance of Billy Baldwin who employed Arthur Smith a good friend of Andrew Crispo, who very possibly walked along the same street as William Pahlmann, called "the best known decorator of his day," by Mark Hampton, who worked for David Hicks, who was influenced by Van Day Truex, who in turn was a friend of Roderick Cameron, who may well have danced with a man who'd danced with a girl who'd danced with the Prince of Wales.

However small the degree of separation it is membership of a circle that matters. It is perhaps facile to think of circles, cultural elites, and in a way too horizontal, siloing being more to the point. Siloing is a name for a form of vertical segregation of society where depending on your belief, sexuality, race, income etc., you belong to your silo and have little or no connection with the members of other silos. As a phenomenon it is pretty obvious in modern-day American society - there are the broader categories: straight, gay, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, black, white, Democrat, Republican and within those are smaller categories such as ideology, denomination, sect, club, team, university,redneck, yankees, red-haired stepchildren, young, old, male, female, immigrant, illegal, left, right, center, etc., etc, etc.

Friend of a friend, indeed, you might say.

Photograph by Ezra Stoller (I think) from The World In Vogue from the Viking Press, 1963.
Quotation from Billy Baldwin Remembers, Billy Baldwin, Harcourt Brace Jonanovich, 1974

Friday, October 22, 2010

Red pants, white cups and blue dragons

New purchases, for me, like new ideas, are not embraced immediately: they sit prominently displayed where I – crab-wise and apparently typically of my zodiac sign – walk by, look askance at, consider, reject for a while, even play with... until I finally trust them. So it was with the red pants I bought three weeks ago: only yesterday were they taken out of their packaging and moved on to the next part of the journey to what will be part of a splendid outfit. So it will be with the white, mark-embossed Meissen demitasses I bought on Saturday - they sit in their box by me on the dining table, yet to reach the china cupboard - and so it is with my writing about Roderick Cameron and his circle.

In many ways I walked backwards into Cameron and now shortly will begin an amble through his circle of friends - people who, in the main, held him in deep affection and appreciated his talents. His sister, particularly, loved him deeply and judging by her autobiography, was also in awe of him. As well she might have been, for in her book the man who hitherto I saw only in glimpses now has shading and depth. In a profession where we tend to exalt those with talent, and it must be said, those without a shred of it, I found it refreshing to read about man of quirks, pretensions, standards, erudition, talent, taste and, very definitely, clay feet. Affectionate, though, this portrait of one sibling by another is, it's no canonization.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the more I learned, the more connections made, that my scope should widen and a greater picture would emerge, however faded and overlaid with the chicanery of memory, of a band of men who, to a great degree, were outlaws in their own time. Socially acceptable only because they were obliged to hide their inner lives, their sexuality and their partners. It is a dichotomy that continues today in the lives of many and leads in increasingly more instances to unspeakable tragedy - except where anonymity can be bought. 

I have mentioned before, how fortunate I've been in receiving positive comments, suggestions for further research, anecdotes from people who worked for him and on occasion scans of images from magazines not available to me. One correspondent scanned the photograph of Cameron's Paris living room - yet to be used in a post but no less welcome for that. If it were possible to tell you who these people are I would, but they generally speaking wish to remain anonymous. Another such kind soul, the blogger le style et la matière sent me the photograph above of Cameron's Anglo-Indian room, his study at Le Clos where he wrote his books - The Golden Riviera, the book I've just finished being one of them.

"By the time Rory had finished Le Clos itself, the top two floors consisted of six bedrooms and ensuite bathrooms and the ground floor was the dining room, a library and a large sitting room. The walls were painted the palest of pale olive green. I watched him pick an olive leaf and, turning the back of the leaf over, he got the painters to match the color. The sofas were large and opulent, covered in off-white, thick textured cotton with matching cushions. The chairs were large and Louis XV. Stripped to a pale olive grey, they were also covered in heavy cotton but in the lightest of lemon yellows.

Rory was, I believe, the first person to conceive the idea of the modern-day tablescapes. Large tables were covered in thick layers of material that flowed to the floor and on them he would place his flower arrangements and his precious collected pieces. He would go to the Nice market and buy tuberoses, carnations, lilies, and roses, all in the palest of pinks, whites, creams and yellows. He would cut off the stems and arrange large bowls of massed flowers. The rooms all had french windows open to the sunlight, which used to filter through the leaves of the olive trees and dance on the Aubusson carpets. The scent of the flowers would drift through a house bathed in the glow of warm Mediterranean sunshine. One of the sitting room walls had Louis XV panelling to frame Rory's collection of beautiful leather-bound books, many of which were first editions of the Belgian botanical artist Pierre Redouté and the 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. There was a secret panel in the carving and on pressing one of the rosettes, a door would swing open, leading into a library where other first editions lay opened and displayed on easels, their pages changed each day. Not nearly as large as the sitting room, the library walls were also panelled and housed the rest of his famous collection of books."

Soon I shall move away from Roderick Cameron - not entirely, for I'm not yet done with him - to his circle and beyond. Some are well-known, others less so. Not all are known for their decorating skills but all were in their times famous or even notorious for how they lived their lives.

Interesting, isn't it, that Cameron's sister credits him with the invention of tablescapes - that pleasurable if not always beautiful arrangement of favored objects so indelibly associated with David Hicks - a great friend of both Cameron and his sister. Those early arrangements of objets de vertu arguably are the parents of many a tabletop agglomeration of ... well, just stuff, and which of us is not tempted by such a display, especially when persuaded that we too can live the life portrayed by magazine proppers and stylists? But that is a discussion for another day.

Blue Dragons? Roderick Cameron in The Golden Riviera begins a lovely account of an early morning on the Pointe de Saint-Hospice with "How one becomes attached to routine, always the same china: Royal Worcester's 'Blue Dragon', a stylised pattern dating from the last century and one that is to be found in countless English houses." I will continue with this story in a later post but for now here is Royal Worcester's 'Blue Dragon'.

Quotation from A Lion In The Bedroom by Pat Cavendish O'Neill, Park Street Press, Sydney, 2004.

Photo of Roderick Cameron at his desk in the Anglo-Indian room and of the library at Le Clos from the book mentioned above but for which there is no attribution given.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An anniversary

On Friday on The New York Social Diary in an article about Nick Olsen's place I read a phrase new to me - gay adjacent. Considering that when I googled the phrase just now I find an article written four years ago for The Guardian I'm way behind in my knowledge of current language. Each day I listen to my students - some from the mid-west, others from the smallest of country towns in Georgia and Alabama - talk amongst themselves and I am delighted by what I hear. Delighted not so much by what they talk about but by the music of their accents.

Growing up as I did up North at a time when on the wireless and early television, an accent such as mine belonged to people who were portrayed as thick (stupid) or even worse, the salt-of-the-earth inhabitants of the gritty, sooty land of mines and cotton. These, too, were the times when received pronunciation held sway and regional accents were banned - everyone on the radio, in the theatre, the flicks and on television, even the nurse on the first hospital TV drama, spoke with the strangulated accents of a royal family lackey. An example of the class system at work in a deferential society and one that was a fundamental lesson about one's status as personified by one's accent. The message of the class system was clear and its effects remain.

Much in the same way children are taught by the use of language such as faggot, queer, fruit, to describe homosexual men - men perhaps who are members of the family, who live in the neighborhood, or even attend the same congregation. A child grows up hearing these names and learning the lessons inherent therein, and though I hesitate to use the overused word hate, there comes an appalling day when that child realizes that he is a hated one and that he alone of all his acquaintance will be a disapointment to his parents, despised by his friends and anathema to his church.

Such is the power of language, the keenest of double-edged swords, that in the light of the gay teen suicides last month, and another yesterday, today's anniversary of Matthew Shepherd's murder, and the online-bullying-caused suicide of a young girl but days ago, that it can kill. I remember a student, only  a few years ago, who was told by his father, too shamed by his son's homosexuality, not to come home for Thanksgiving - the first after his supportive mother had died. What kind of parent is this?

I wonder how the descendants of those brought through the horrors of the Middle Passage to live a life of slavery in an alien land, proud inheritors of the Civil Rights Movement, victims of racial hate crimes that still continue, can now as self-appointed bishops and pastors, stand in pulpits across this land condemning, in the name of God, children and young adults to a life of fear and possibly violent death. What kind of hypocrisy is this? What kind of god is this?

I wonder how the pundits and the politicians can spew their messages of execration with such relish and spend so much money on denying fellow citizens simple rights of partnership and marriage and creating a climate of fear and loathing for their fellow citizens. I wonder too how such a church as that in Salt Lake City can enter politics as it did with Proposition 8 in California and remain tax-exempt. What kind of church is this?

I wonder how the President, himself subject to so much invective and malevolence, can play politics with the lives of his servicemen by not repealing DADT. We talk about the culture wars, the increasing piety of the American people and the religious tolerance of which this country is so rightly proud - yet what we seemingly cannot accept, even from our own children, fellow citizens and those serving our country is difference.

We could accept difference - the relinquishing of prejudice is a simple decision to make. It was once explained to me as seeing the face of God in everyone and though it's an attractive idea I'm not fully convinced. There is no gay agenda, no gay lifestyle or even a post-gay life as portrayed by the grandstanding egos - we are people not demons. It's as simple as that. We have children, we have partners, we have husbands and wives, mortgages, friends and family, pay taxes, and we make the same stink in the bathroom as anyone else - even the fragrant Coulters of this world.

Two thousand years of anti-semitism, two World Wars, three-hundred years of struggle for freedom, the continued battle for subsistence in parts of the world, the hanging of gay teenagers in Iran, the subjugation of women in mullah-led societies, and many a diaspora, seemingly have taught us little.

This year Matthew Shepherd would have been thirty-four years of age. He died at the age of twenty-one,  having been tortured and left for dead hanging on a fence.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Scent and the Golden Riviera

This morning I awoke from a dream that convoluted around dahlias and bread. For the bread I have no explanation but the dahlias are another thing: for the dahlia, in this household at least, is a flower one either despises or one loves - the one finding them vulgar and the other loving their merry color. Well, standards of taste are always subject to change if not downright erosion and now the dahlia after a long banishment is acceptable - barely, but with good grace.

For me, the dahlia, together with michaelmas daisies and golden rod, announced the end of a summer that had in its time begun with walks in bluebell woods - woods that, when I look at old photographs, were really more of a sparse stand of trees, not extensive at all, surrounded by low stone walls providing shelter for, and it has to be a carpet not a few clumps, of softly fragrant blue bells. Actually getting to the bluebell woods was difficult - the farmer whose land the lane crossed was always angry at anyone from the encroaching suburbs, the same suburbs that within a few years obliterated his scrubby, cowclap-dotted fields, the bluebell woods and the centuries-old dry-stone walls, with rows of houses and lawns.

Then I just saw a man resentful of those he looked on as trespassers but now he resolves into a man scared of the ending of his way of life - his medieval farmhouse, and medieval is was if memory serves me well, within a few years to be torn down, his barns sold for hen pens and firewood and his final herd sent to the slaughter house. The picture is quite clear, but no doubt at this remove mostly manufactured, of a short, cloth-capped man straddling the right-of-way that ran across the farmyard between his house and barns, threatening us with the bobby if we didn't get off his land. Rather than use the iron turnstile to the side of his gate we'd unlatch the gate and swing on it. Far more fun to swing on a romantic five-barred gate, than sedately walk through a turnstile for the result was the same - being shouted at. Looking back there must have been many a time when the farmer was in his fields and not awaiting our onslaught, but childhood memory is not that forgiving.

The dahlia, thus, joins my grandfather's marguerites and sweet peas neither of which were grown regularly but which shine bright in my elegy-inclined memory - emblematic not only of lost times but also of regret for a quality of life gone and seemingly unregarded.

A sore disappointment to me is the way flowers, generally speaking, don't smell. I write this wreathed in the reek of lilies on the table next to me - a scent so powerful that I cannot, despite the fact that I love the flower, forget my grandmother refused to have them in the house because for her they represented death - as well they might, for she was born at a time, the latter decade of the nineteenth-century, when the dead attended their own wakes and lilies were used to mask any smell of putrefaction. Anyone not raised by Victorians will not have that association but anyone knowing me will, undoubtedly, have been told of it too many times.

Scent, in most cases, may have been bred out but color, as strident as any plastic grave ornament, has seemingly been bred in to the few species chosen by supermarket buyers. Who remembers that pinks and carnations once smelled strongly and sweetly of cloves or that roses once had the most romantic of scents, redolent of spice and silk roads, or even had the most delicately subtle coloration? I wonder, too, how we got from this to the specious promises of plug-in freshness-thru-fragrance and the smell of cinnamon brooms that meets one at the supermarket door  - a noisomeness that in its own way announces the turn of the seasons.

The Givenchy Style, a beautiful book and one, as is to be expected from an essay about one of the most subtle couturiers of the twentieth-century, that isn't saturated with crude color and from which one can almost imagine an air of L'Interdit, the perfume created with Audrey Hepburn in mind, rising from the page.

That book reintroduced me to Walter Lees, Givenchy's close friend and seemingly the model for Philip Cliffe-Musgrave in Nancy Mitford's Don't Tell Alfred - a tale of English diplomats in Paris that frequently causes me, not wishing to interrupt the soft burble from the head on the pillow next to mine, to stifle a chuckle as I await my own signal that sleep is ready for me. Not for one minute have I ever lost the childhood feeling that if only I could read one more paragraph, one more chapter .... too swiftly followed by a gentle touch on the shoulder and a declaration that coffee is ready.

I'm still occupied with Roderick Cameron and quite possibly will be so for a while. The Celt ordered me a copy of The Golden Riviera, Cameron's journey through the history and life of South of France, and a book in which scent is clearly as important as form, color and scale, to a knowledgeable plantsman.

"I hesitate to go into too much detail about the garden; amongst the more obvious sweet scented things that we planted were the handsome Carolina Magnolia grandiflora and Latin America's graceful trumpet flowered datura, also clumps of the white Hedychium conronarium from India. Among the less obvious odiferous plants, and probably the strongest smelling of them all, comes the Cestrum nocturnum, the night blooming jasmine, known romantically in the Spanish speaking countries as damas de noche. An inconspicuous shrub with tiny clusters of yellow-green flowers, it is difficult to locate the first time one comes across it in someone else's garden; it is a question of degrees of smell. At the gates we massed a collection of Australian acacia - better known here, of course, as mimosa. At Christmas time they explode in a honey-scented, yellow cloud, to be followed later by the equally sweet-smelling Coronilla glauca, indigenous to several parts of southern Europe, and which we had naturalised in the maquis under the stone pines."

Absorbing - at least to me! Christopher Petkanas described the book here as "a sometimes delightful, often unreadable" ... well, I began with the delightful and have not yet been faced with the unreadable.

Chapter two gives an account of the designing, building, the eventual sale of La Fiorentina and its gardens, and the move back to Le Clos, the house Cameron lived in whilst the big house was constructed, and whose gardens under the care of Mr Givenchy you see here.

".... to help explain the sale of Fiorentina. Left on my own, I was obliged to rent the place during the summer months and by degrees came to feel it too much of a responsibility..... As to the sale, there was another factor to be considered: my brother and his family lived in England, which meant that I was the only one to benefit from the place. Here I was hanging on to what amounted to a sizeable amount of the family capital, living in a house I no longer could really afford. I had made Fiorentina and in way it has become quite an institution, but how hampering to indulge in sentiments. Real estate on the Riviera in the late sixties was still at an enormous premium, and properties such as Fiorentina were able to command exaggerated prices. How long, one wondered, would the market hold? With these thoughts in mind, I suddenly decided to sell, and within a matter of months was lucky enough to find the ideal purchasers - Mr and Mrs Harding Lawrence. Harding, a good-looking Texan in his early fifties, is chairman of Braniff International Airlines, and Mary his wife better known as Mary Wells, a vital and alive woman, is president of Wells, Rich and Green, one of the world's leading advertising agencies. The saw the house and fell in love with it for all the right reasons, and the takeover went through in a wonderfully painless fashion. I took to the Lawrences immediately, and to make things even easier their decorator, William Baldwin, is one of my closest friends, an enchanting person, blessed with infinite tact. It could have been a difficult situation for Baldwin with myself sitting, as it were, at the gates, but he handled it with great discretion and on each visit made from New York stayed with me at the Clos ....

".... As to the house, [Le Clos] it dates from the end of the eighteenth century and is the oldest house on Cap Ferrat, or more exactly the Pointe St Hospice. It has no pretensions to architecture, but in its simplicity can lay claim to a good deal of charm, and is typical of the country: red tiled floors and white marble stairs, a Roman tiled roof, green shutters, and pinkish-ochre walls. Directly outside the front door stands the old covered-in well, once the house's only water supply. Constructionally the alterations were few. The rooms were on the small side, which meant knocking down walls and adding the extra accommodation needed ..."

"As regards the terrace and swimming pool furniture, I have purposely avoided bright colours. Living in the sun, I find one tends to avoid them, and this I feel, applies to any of the Mediterranean countries - something to do with the sharpness and quality of the light.

"The question of muted tones is also carried through to the garden, and wherever possible I have kept to a mixture of greens laid out in casual formality. Not actually occupying the house until recently, I have had years to plan the layout. As basic elements, I had the side of a hill buttressed with terraces leading down to the sea, also the stones from the ruin of an early-seventeenth-century fort to carry on with if any further construction was needed. The fort, as depicted in early drawings. looked a massive affair and was erected by Charles-Emmanuel I as a protection against piratical raids from North Africa. Judged a useless incumbrance by later generations, it was blown up in 1706 by one of Louis XIV's generals, and took two months of concentrated mining to tumble, the walls still bearing the marks where the powder blackened the stones. Along with the terraces, we also inherited some twenty magnificent olives which, judging from their size, must be at least six hundred years old. As is usual in this form of cultivation, the olives are planted in rows and are on the same level as the house, centred in a terrace about eight feet wide along which I have clumped great cushions of grey-green echium, a handsome contrast to the grey of the olives when they burst out with their blue candle-like flowers in the spring. Another feature of the garden is a walk of mandarin trees with their trunks daubed with whitewash. Under them, confined by a low border of box hedging, I have planted double rows of arums and it looks very effective when the lilies are out, their white chalices catching the light filtered through the mandarins' pointed leaves. In one place, copying the Italians, I have massed a bed of aspidistra and on the terraces to the left of the house, where the rocks begin to obtrude and the soil is thin, I have naturalized great drifts of the wild tulips from Greece and Turkey, also a collection of dwarf narcissi, a native of stony reaches of the Alpille. The steep banks behind are anchored with a solid flank of judas trees with, under them, blue drifts of anenome blanda alternating with clumps of pale iris stylosa.

"A garden is a fascinatingly mobile way of expressing oneself, and all the time new ways of presenting things occur to one. The idea, for instance, for the topiary work behind the house came to me while on a flight to Cape Town, the whole terrace, quite broad in this instance, being divided up with squares of box and in the centre of each square a tapering cone of the same plant - nothing spectacularly original but just the right accent, to my mind, at this particular point of the garden. From here stairs railed in a Chinese Chippendale design mount to a further terrace backed by cypress with an underplanting of agapanthus.

The terracing, of course, has played a major role in dictating the character of the garden. It has imposed a strict architectural setting, a frame into which I have tried to work a mixture of loose and tight plants. By varying from light to dark and changing from narrow to broad, I have been able to create an illusion of space, the garden appearing much larger than it actually is."

Quotations from The Golden Riviera by Roderick Cameron, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London 1973. 

Photographs: Inside. Paris/ C. de Virieu from The Givenchy Style, text by Françoise Mohrt, Foreward by Hubert de Givenchy, The Vendome Press, New York 1998.