Sunday, June 8, 2014
A Modern Rabbit Tale
On Easter day, we made our traditional pilgrimage to The Modern, that bastion of edible and potable delights where, after a hard day of being photographed, we had the great pleasure of receiving chocolate rabbits from The Modern's Manager, Dan Jones, above.
Not too long afterward, we had the additional pleasure of meeting The Modern's Executive Pastry Chef, Marc Aumont, who made the rabbits. Taking center stage is one of his wonderful creations, below.
Need a closer look? Yes, we thought so. Here you go.
What Chef Aumont was too discreet to tell us is that the two bunnies are exact scale model replicas of Mrs. Ethel Bunny (nee O'Hare) and her adorable daughter, Barbara. For the American history buffs among our readers, yes, that's the philanthropic Bunny family, the one that put down roots in America long before the revolution. The same Bunny family without whose early largesse the Museum of Modern Art would not have been able to acquire many of the masterworks for which it is world renowned today.
We know this because we did a bit of research. (That's why it's taken us so long to finish our Easter story.) With the recent focus on couturier Charles James, a number of hitherto unknown Charles James letters have come to light in the Cecil Beaton archives, and one letter describes a pair of gowns that James made for Ethel and Barbara, most likely when Barbara turned 18. Amazingly, the letter is accompanied by several photos. These are of James' first drafts, not of the final gowns. This letter to Beaton offers some invaluable insights into James' creative process. Here are a few snippets from the letter:
Ethel and Barbara present some interesting challenges, as you know, because of their unique proportions, but these have been worked out to everyone's satisfaction. Young Barbara has little say in the matter, but Mrs. Bunny has good instincts and knows how best to flatter her daughter's figure. (Did I tell you they look almost alike, despite the age difference?) Mrs. Bunny is frightfully proud of the family ears, so I've done a huge portrait collar to showcase Barbara's. The rest of the dress is fairly simple so the collar can stand out. Spring green is good for a young woman, and polka dots are coming back in a big way. I have been calling it the squid dress, as it has so many legs, and the big point at the top of the collar. (The legs in the final version will have wires to hold their shape.) Horst P. Horst was passing through on his way to Paris, and took this picture. Very unlike his usual style, isn't it? I do wish you had been here to take a few photos, Cecil. Mrs. Bunny would have loved to tell all her friends.
Mrs. Bunny is going with something much more subdued, but that is not to say she intends to fade into the woodwork. She bought yards and yards of a gorgeous antique silver lame on her last trip to Italy, and had it sent over. A local manufacturer made me a copy to work with. (Not nearly as lustrous or as marvelous to touch, but it gets the job done.) Mrs. Bunny is inordinately fond of her tail ("And so is Mr. Bunny", she told me, eyebrow arched, when Barbara was in the next room), so I've given her a giant fish tail she can wave about instead of one of her exquisite hand carved cigarette holders, now that she's quit. She initially had her heart set on one of my lampshade gowns, but I think this works quite well on her, don't you?
The Bunny family has a collection of huge baroque pearls which, according to the family lore, got snipped from one of Queen Elizabeth's dresses in the 17th century. They are first recorded in the accounts of Mr. Bunny's great great great great great grandfather, James Gardencarrot Bunny, a wealthy Boston shipping magnate, who passed them to his son and daughter in law in 1652, and all the women in the family wear them at least once. Mrs. Bunny wanted to criss-cross her bosom with them, but there are so many that I've added them to the hem and the fish tail too. After Horst photographed Barbara, Mrs. Bunny rushed into her dress to be photographed as well. I had to pin it up in the back where the zipper is supposed to be, but you get the idea.
The letter then goes on to other topics. There are no gowns like these in any known collections, so we assume they remain in the Bunny family, or possibly the Rabbit family. (In additional research, we found that Barbara married John "Jock" Rabbit of the illustrious Rabbits of Providence. She carried on her mother's philanthropic activities, had many children, and steadfastly eschewed the spotlight. The only other thing we found in public records was that in the 1960s, the Bunnys lodged a suit against Playboy magazine for unauthorized use of the family name. The suit was settled out of court, and details of the settlement remain confidential.)
Because the Bunnys are notoriously private, it is not known what the actual James gowns looked like, or where or if they were worn. Indeed, the family has not acknowledged that they own any James gowns. With the exception of the photograph below (part of the same letter to Beaton), no pictures of Ethel and Barbara together have ever surfaced publicly. It is clear, however, that James had an unerring eye - mother and daughter do look very much alike, and it's no wonder they're proud of the family ears.