Tuesday, August 30, 2016



On second thought. Look now.  Quickly.  Before it's gone...

While Jean is away, Valerie gets wistful for the good old days (that's what old people do, right?)

Jean and I like to think of ourselves as pretty forward-thinking, but both of our neighborhoods are changing, and not in a good way.  Just for today, I'm going to indulge in a little kvetchfest about mine.

When I moved to midtown Manhattan nearly twenty years ago, the streets in my neighborhood held countless treasures - some hidden, some in plain sight - but on any given day of the week there would be something to see.  Walking through midtown was inspiring.

One of the most amazing losses midtown suffered was that of the American Folk Art Museum on West 53rd Street.  This architectural gem, right next to the Museum of Modern Art, was designed to house AFAM's holdings, but in subsequent years the museum suffered from a disastrous series of problems it could not extricate itself from.  AFAM closed, the property was subsequently bought by MOMA, and torn down within a decade of its completion because the structure could not be annexed.

AFAM's gift shop, visible from the street, was itself a little jewel.  One day the gift shop had ten different spray-painted foam rubber hand puppet devils in its vitrine.  Newly arrived, they made quite a splash, and came with a handout explaining that they were made by a puppeteer in Vera Cruz, Mexico.  This was the kind of random pleasure New Yorkers once enjoyed as a matter of course.

One of my all-time favorites, and one of the first to disappear, was a shop called Folklorica which, on any given day, would have anything from pre-columbian ocarinas to beaded pubic aprons from Cameroon.  Staffed by owners Jack and Pam and their star employee Rosa, who became my good friend, I could always count on them to have fascinating stories to tell about the merchandise.  Rosa gave me the two African hats shown above.  Also on 53rd Street, Folklorica's space is today the home of LIM College.  Colleges are a good thing to have anywhere, but Jack and Pam's window on the non-industrial world is deeply missed.

Another favorite eye-popping store was Takashimaya, which opened  with a bang on Fifth Avenue and 54th Street in 1993.  Their first year or so they held blockbuster exhibitions of Japanese art.  On a few occasions, they displayed huge, airy kimono-like gowns made and hand painted by Margot Rozanska which hung, kite-like, from the high ceilings.  (Above, a huge Rozanska scarf.  I heard that one of the floating kimonos was bought by a Saudi princess.  No way to verify that...)  The top floor housed a florist who carried unimaginable blossoms, and made Takashimaya the best place to see a gorgeous array of nature's plants if you couldn't travel to a botanical garden.  In the basement, next to a restaurant that served amazing box lunches, there was a loose tea shop that offered dozens of varieties of fresh Asian teas, delicate Japanese cookies and, best of all, tiny chocolate truffles shaped like mice, with colorful little rayon tails.  (Probably made by Burdick, from whom the photo below is borrowed.)

After a few short golden years, perhaps in tandem with the bursting of the Japanese bubble, Takashimaya gave up on its ambitious arts program and installed cosmetics on the main floor.  Their recherche tastes unappreciated, they closed with a whimper in 2010.  The space changed hands several times, and now houses Valentino.  Many people who remember Takashimaya still speak of it with awe and reverence, as if reminiscing about a lost cathedral.

The first place I saw these Keith Haring chairs was at Felissimo, another Japanese store, which opened in a Gilt Age townhouse at 10 West 56th Street (once owned by Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd).  Walking up and down their winding marble staircases alone was a thrill.  Felissimo was always filled with marvels for the eye that brought smiles to the lips.  On the top floor there was a tiny tea shop with an amazing chocolate souffle on its dessert menu.   Felissimo closed with no notice years ago, and the building doesn't seem to have been used at all since then, but while it was in operation, it was like a lustrous ring in a tiny lavish jewel box.

We still mourn the loss of Julie Artisans Gallery on Madison Avenue near 65th Street, which sold one of a kind jewelry and clothes by extraordinary craftspeople.  Julie herself was one of a kind for bringing so much great work under one roof.  The colorful felt necklace shown here was made by one of Julie's artists, Danielle Gori-Montanelli.  In the years since Julie closed her shop, no one has come close to attempting anything similar in Manhattan.  The space now hosts a shoe store with shops all over the world.

At Lexington and 64th Street was Pylones, a shop aimed at children of all ages.  To give you some idea of the range of their merchandise, above, a bicycle lock designed to look like a snake.  Below, an inflatable boy friend.  (I still haven't opened it.  Him.  Whatever.)

After a good decade in that location, Pylones closed, and a nail salon opened in its place.

Last year we lost two Donna Karan stores.  First to go was her flagship store on Madison Avenue and 68th Street.  It was a wide open space with dramatic Hollywood-worthy stairs, and filled with surprises.  In addition to her marvelous fashions, one was equally likely to see delicate handmade porcelain dishes by Christiane Perrochon or one-of-a-kind pieces by 1970s metalsmithing sensation Robert Lee Morris as hand carved Dogon ladders.  But the take-your-breath-away moment was always going into the small courtyard in the back which, far from being stuffed with merchandise on some very expensive real estate, was given over to a small koi pond, a stand of bamboo and a sense of peace and quiet.  The above photo does it no justice at all.

At almost the same time, the DKNY shop on Madison Avenue and 59th Street closed.  This was another shop that was full of surprises, including a health bar on the second floor.  The two humongous white felt rings above were purchased there.  Few will talk on record so one never gets the full story, but usually when stores close there are rumors about leases ending, and the new rent tripling or even quintupling.  Stores that don't sell enough merchandise to cover the new rent close, and their place is taken by businesses with a much higher turnover.  (Guess what kinds of businesses have much higher turnover.)  It is common now to see spaces that remain vacant for over a year.  While they're closed, they earn a tax write off.  When they reopen, they make all the money back by tripling the previous rent.  It seems somewhat akin to the 21st century version of tulipmania.  (If you're not familiar with Holland's 17th century tulip mania, read here.)
photo by Rolly Robinson

FAO Schwarz, the world renowned toy store on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, closed more than a year ago, and no shop has opened in its place.  The red polka dots balls in the photo above were part of the joy and mischief that was FAO Schwarz.

In this neighborhood, there used to be three second hand boutiques.  Now there are none.  One has become an art gallery, another has become a hair salon, and the third is so recent that what happened - and will happen - is still a mystery.  For those of us who eschew norm core, losing a second hand store is similar to watching technicolor movies on a black and white television.

photograph by Denton Taylor

Crate & Barrel, where I got this black and white picnic bag by the wonderfully creative Paula Navone, has left Madison Avenue and 59th Street, lock, stock, and eponymous barrel.  They were great for printed napkins, Marimekko sheets, home furnishings, and colorful kitchenware, including their collapsible silicon funnel

(which made a great hat on one occasion, and would probably make a helluva breast plate).

Last on this list is the Barnes & Noble at the Citicorp Building at 54th Street and Third Avenue, whose lease was not renewed when the building decided to make major structural improvements.   I have little time for pleasure reading anymore, but I did count on Barnes & Noble for all my calendar needs.  B&N has supplied me with many a pocket calendar.  Below is my now tatty 2013-2014 Van Gogh pocket planner, which treated me to a different Van Gogh picture every month.

For my desk at work, I've had the Audubon bird-a-day calendar (my name, not theirs) for the past three years.  I don't learn much about the birds except their Latin names, but I'm endlessly intrigued and stimulated by the birds' color combinations, shapes, and behaviors.  Both of these calendars are going to be a lot more annoying to find if brick and mortar bookstores disappear.  I'll also have to pay shipping charges, as if I lived 30 miles from the nearest town.

Some of you, on reading this, will say that I am kvetching about shopping.  I'm not.  I'm kvetching about the disappearance of the ideas and work of creative, interesting people, which used to pepper the city, and was celebrated as one of the primary benefits of paying exorbitant taxes.   I'm kvetching about the disappearance of flavor, surprise, variety, and sheer joy from the fabric of daily life.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


While Jean is wrestling with household demons (more on that, hopefully, in weeks to come), Valerie reports:

Yes, that's a great big red and gold bow on my finger.  It's that old mnemonic device to help me remember...  uh... whatever it was I was supposed to remember.  We get to this age and we we start forgetting.  Could be our lives are simply too complicated to remember everything.  Could be most of it is too trivial.  Or could it be we don't remember what we had for breakfast because we were in too much of a rush to care, and it didn't taste all that memorable anyway?  I thought I'd write today about what I do to remember.  Or, more accurately, what I do so I don't have to remember more than once.

Like so many people before me, I keep a one year pocket calendar, and have for more than twenty years.  And I don't throw them away.  This one is dated 2001 in the upper right corner.  I can see I got my hair done, had a facial, probably did jury duty, and recorded the name of a book I wanted to buy.  (Not to put too fine a point on it, but you know those questions your gynecologist always asks you?  I could answer all of them, accurately, for decades, thanks to my annual pocket calendars.)  Even then, I was writing things down, and crossing them off when I'd taken care of them.   But the pocket calendar doesn't work for everything.

At one point I got into a cycle of paying my bills late.  Either I would leave bills in my pocketbook or lose them in the jungle of papers that is normally my desk, and I wound up getting second notices.  So now all that stuff goes in a charming red shoe box on my desk, and I never forget to pay bills in a timely manner.  The shoe box is also a great place to keep such other stuff as a comb shaped like fish bones.  You never know when you might need one of those.

I have to confront my mirror every morning - that's where my toothbrush is - so it's a great place for little reminder stickies.  These are things I need to do eventually, so there's no use putting them in the calendar: if the date passes, I won't look at that date again.  This way, I have to face my neglected tasks every morning, and I can write in new ones as they occur to me.  The one in the center reminded me to renew my passport.  Another has a possible blog topic, another reminds me to man up (so to speak) and finally toss or sell a vintage jacket I ruined, and am clearly (fifteen years later) never going to fix.  The white one is a label for a magazine I subscribe to.  When I called about it, I got a recording asking for my subscription number.  I didn't have it when I made the call, so when I found it, up on the mirror it went.

But what happens when you leave the house?  Sometimes I put stickies in my pocket calendar, but that's not good for highly time-sensitive matters.  For that, I use the back of my hand.  'Rent' reminds me to take a check to my agency by hand, because they've screwed up too many times (always in their favor, by odd coincidence) when I've given them access to my checking account.  'Dry' means pick up something at the dry cleaner before they close; 4:30 might refer to a phone call I have to make, or to something I want on Ebay.

Everyone pines for a valet like the ones we've seen on PBS programs about the old English aristocracy.  (Here, the wonderful Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie of Jeeves and Wooster).

It takes a lot of cheek to call this inanimate little frame a valet, but that's what we're reduced to 100 years later: a stand for one jacket, one pair of pants, and a little tray to hold whatever is fished out of the pockets.  But wait!  It gets worse!  Nowadays, a receptacle no bigger than a man's jewelry box can also be called a valet.  Jeeves might have said "For this evening, might I suggest, sir, the gold cuff links with the family crest on them?", and Wooster might have replied yes, not having the faintest idea where they had been stored until Jeeves produced them with a flourish.  Today, every man must fend for himself.  And for me it's worse still.

The holy trinity without which I cannot leave the house are my keys, my watch, and my office pass.  On too many occasions, I'd found myself at my place of work without my pass or my watch.  Since I can't lock my door without my keys, I unfailingly remember them before I leave, so I learned to put the other two more forgettable items with the keys.  But as I have no valet of any kind, they sit on my oversized television, which I disconnected four years ago, but can't bring myself to either store or throw away.

After you write your checks to pay your bills, you have to remember to submit them.  That's a whole other kettle of fish.  I leave them at the front door where (usually) I take note of them.  (Here, circled in green.)  I generally keep them in my hand till I reach the mail box because if I put them in my bag, there's no telling when they'll next see the light of day.

The front door has its other uses, too.

These shoes needed new heels, so I left them at the door where I might trip over them, to remind me to take them to the shoe maker on my way to work.  When I do this sort of thing, I also set my alarm clock to wake me 15 minutes earlier than usual.  The next morning, when I see I've awakened 15 minutes early, first I'll say "what the [expletive deleted]?" and then I'll realize I've cleverly given myself enough time to do something extra.  When I get to the front door, I realize what the something was.  (Sometimes I even remember without any help.)

I am my building's volunteer to recycle the building's batteries.  They're heavy, so I take them in small amounts.  It only takes a minute to drop them off at the recycling center on my way to work, so I don't have to build in any extra time.  I just have to make sure to hang them on the door knob.

When Jean and I go out to some wonderful event to report on for you, we take our business cards with us.  They're large, so we carry a few at a time, except for special events.  If I remember to pull out the filing cabinet drawer in the morning, I'll see the cards on my way out in the evening.  Otherwise, I'll rush out without thinking about them.

NO WIRE HANGERS!!!!  They leave dents in your lightweight clothes and sag under the weight of your heavy clothes.  But they are good for bringing your dry cleaning home, so I return mine to my cleaner for recycling.   These are too large to sit on the door knob, so I hang them on my lamp.  They're an eyesore there, so I'm very motivated to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

The Boulevard of Broken Earrings.  I've previously written about organizing my jewelry box, so earrings by rights should be in it, and not on top of my chest of drawers.  But if I put them back in my jewelry box, I'll forget about them and they'll stay broken forever.  So I leave them in plain sight to force myself to deal with them.  If it were as simple as super glue, they'd all be fixed by now.  The black ones aren't actually broken - they're too heavy for their clasps, and fall off my ears.  What to do?!  And the fish tails need more drastic measures - one hinge died of metal fatigue.  For the time being, the broken one has been 'fixed' with an extra clip and double sided foam mounting tape, which after one wearing has proven to be a very iffy solution.  (Collage postcard of the Guggenheim hat by Elaine Norman.)

Similarly, when it was time to admit I could no longer wear my beloved yellow suit (see that post here), I put it out where I was forced to deal with it.  For the earlier blog posting, I hung it on the inside of my closet door to 'frame' it, but in reality it hung in the doorway of my bedroom, so I was forced to wave it out of my way several times a day until I finally got fed up and took care of it.

I was well trained by both of my parents to turn off lights when I left a room.  Both of them quoted my father's Depression-era parents to me: "What, are you trying to make Con Edison rich?"  So I turned off lights, until I realized I associated that with 'closure'.  Once or twice I awoke in the morning to see I'd left the ice cream out (oh, no!  not the ice cream!), or the dishes undone.  So now, when I turn off a light, I check to see if I have any unfinished business.  If I do, I'll leave the light on to make sure I go back and finish what I started.

So those are my tips for remembering.  Or forgetting less.  Now if I could just figure out what to do about people's names...

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Murder on the High C's" - Florence Foster Jenkins

The title of this post is also the title of Naxos Records' recording of nine of Florence Foster Jenkins' songs. (In other words, we ripped it off, but we HAD to.  It was too good not to share.)

On the hottest, muggiest day of the summer, with severe heat warnings, Jean had to cajole Valerie into accompanying her to see Stephen Frears' film about Florence.  She even bought tickets ahead of time online and sent Valerie the link, so all she'd have to do was show up at the theater and tap her phone to show the bar code. Sheesh.

Valerie was a catalogue of NOs.  She would first have to come up with an outfit she wouldn't schvitz too much in, walk through oppressive, soupy, motionless air while standing up to relentless sun to join Jean in the air-conditioned movie theater.   Then (she thought, remembering some previous experiences) there would be waiting on lines, paying $5 for watered down sodas, arriving on time only to face half an hour of commercials, finding no seats in her comfort zone, sitting next to (take your pick) screaming children, stage-whispering adults or people on their cell phones in the dark.  And paying the price of a darned good cocktail for the privilege.  Cajole may not be the appropriate word here.  Perhaps twist Valerie's arm is closer to the mark.

But Valerie relented, partly because the prospect of wearing very big hats in the theater was just too tempting.  (For those of you cocking an eyebrow now, yes, we always take them off before the show begins.  Except this time, when we sat in the last row where they wouldn't bother anyone.  Except Valerie had to take hers off anyway because the hat brim kept hitting the very high back of the very comfortable seat.)

When is the last time you laughed out loud at a movie? Needless to say, it was only a few moments before we, and everyone around us, were merrily chuckling and laughing and whooping up a storm. Another revelation is Simon Helberg (in the photo above) as Cosme McMoon, Florence's soft-spoken accompanist and partner in crime. Best known as Howard Wolowitz on "The Big Bang Theory", Helberg speaks volumes by just raising an eyebrow, swallowing hard, opening his eyes wide and flashing an ever so fleeting smile.  And, for the record, Simon Helberg plays the piano himself in the flick.

"Lady Florence", as she liked to be called (or "Madame Florence", as she was called throughout the movie), was an American socialite described in Wikipedia as an amateur soprano known and mocked (albeit generally out of her earshot) for her flamboyant performance costumes and notably poor singing ability. What that description doesn't convey is how endearingly funny and heartwarming the movie is and how amazingly Meryl Streep portrays the wildly impulsive music lover. Kudos to Streep for having the guts to portray Jenkins, an heiress infamous for her joyously ornate performances and energetic but off-key singing.

Streep brings to life a woman who had (until the movie) been mostly forgotten, but was at one time mentioned regularly in the New York newspapers.  Watch her face, and watch her timing.  Because Jenkins was a generous benefactor, no one wanted to risk her good favor, so in this movie a lot must be conveyed not by words but by subtle facial expressions and body language.  In fact, for this movie, watch everyone's face, body language, and timing.  If you check your email while watching this movie, you will miss half of it.

Above is the widely published photo of Florence in costume, compete with angelic wings inspired by "Stephen Foster and the Angel of Inspiration", hilariously recreated by Streep in the film. Don't take our word for it. Check out Florence's singing for yourself:
Florence Foster Jenkins - Queen of the Night by Mozart. - YouTube

Who was FFJ, really? After a false start with a ne'er-do-well first husband which caused her family to disinherit her, Florence separated from him but kept his last name. It is unclear whether they ever actually divorced. She eventually worked her way back into the good graces of her family, inheriting a sizable trust when her father died, and additional money upon the later death of her mother.
photograph www.telegraph.co.uk/Getty

In 1909, she met British Shakespearean actor St. Clair Bayfield (pictured above), who is variously referred to as her second "husband" or "partner".  They were a couple for nearly forty years.   A documentary was made about Florence in 2014.  Click here for a link to it.

St. Clair, played by Hugh Grant, is a complex character whose true relationship with Florence is revealed as the movie progresses.   For those of us accustomed to seeing Grant in the role of shy, young, bumbling suitor or the cad-about-town in his prime, it was a really interesting change to see him in a mature role.  The film teases the viewer to expect that St. Clair is only in it for the money, and is laughing at Florence behind her back, but St. Clair shows nothing but tenderness, admiration and fierce loyalty to his partner, even as everyone else in the film is endeavoring mightily to stifle their laughter.  Fortunately, we in the audience were under no such obligation, and just about rolled in the aisles.  There is a short scene in which Grant does some truly marvelous swing dancing.  Turns out he took lessons for two months.  Great return on investment.  Still, we can't see go see this movie for this scene alone.  Absolutely every scene is a carefully crafted jewel.

Wanna see the trailer?  (Remember to hit the little square at the bottom right corner for a larger view.)

Once she came into her inheritance, Florence became a big supporter of New York musical theater, producing lavish tableaux vivants, invariably casting herself as the main character in the final tableau in an elaborate costume of her own design.

If Hugh Grant did his own swing dancing, we hear you asking, did Meryl Streep do her own singing? Well, remember we're talking about the woman who spoke in a Danish accent for Out of Africa, a Polish/American accent for Sophie's Choice, an Irish accent for Dancing at Lughnasa, a plummy British accent for Iron Lady, and belted out the hits in Ricki and the Flash.  So yes, she did her own singing.  Deliberately singing off key has to be just as challenging as singing on key.

Kudos also must go to Frears' hair dressers, make up artists and costumers.  Everyone looked exactly as though they'd stepped out of the magazines of the day.  In particular, keep an eye out for the Women of a Certain Age in the movie.  They are exquisite.

Take our advice and go see Florence Foster Jenkins. And do report back to us.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Party, Party, Party!

photograph courtesy Denton Taylor

We received one of those invitations you can't turn down from Ruthie Darling (her blog here; her Instagram here), announcing that she was celebrating her imminent departure for six months of touring with Kiss of the Spiderwoman and another show at Collections, a curated vintage shop in up and coming Bushwick (in Brooklyn, like so many other of-the-moment phenomena).  A follow-up email announced that Debra Rapoport would be bringing a Japanese film crew with her, and suggested that we all dress up (ha! as if we otherwise wouldn't have).  Of course, when we say an invitation you can't turn down, that excludes work obligations.  Jean was traveling that day, so Valerie had to represent two people all by herself.  A tough job, but someone's got to do it...

It had been one of those days - weeks, actually - where New York tried to compete with Seattle for the most precipitation.  That always affects one's clothing decisions, particularly one's shoes, but one willingly sacrifices for a party.

Here's the low-down from Valerie:

I ran into the Baroness at the train station that takes one directly into the heart of trendy Brooklyn, so we made our way ther together.  A few blocks from our destination, we came across this work by gumshoeart (Angela China) and HAD to photograph ourselves in front of it.

This was harder than you might think, because it was raining, we were both carrying stuff, we didn't want to put it down where it might get wet, and of course we didn't know anyone.  But we did manage to snag a charming and good natured young man so we could be photographed together.  We gave him very strict instructions (like 'please get the feet in', and 'please get the whole painting in'.  The result was that we got neither, but it's enough for you to get the idea.  To be fair, it is hard to complain (try though I may), because after all it was raining, he did us a BIG favor, he was on his way somewhere, and he wasn't a professional photographer.  So we're actually very grateful.  And a link to the gumshoeart Instagram account is included above, so you can see more pictures of this work there.

When the Baroness and I arrived, the party was already in full swing, with guests nibbling on British munchies (Ruthie is from Across the Pond), and trying on wonderful vintage selections from the Collections collection.  Denton Taylor convinced us all to go outside during a lull in the precipitation, and got the group shot you see at the head of this post.  The brains behind Collections is LucyAnn, far left, who moments before had been blowing gigantic bubbles, some of which can be seen in the lower left corner of the photo.

I fell in love with Ruthie's dress, and have to give you a better view of it.  It looks for all the world like it's aluminum, but it must be polyurethane, or a variation.  It's very supple and light.  The wonderful pouf is accomplished by turning the hem back under the dress and sewing a hem that forces the skirt to splay outward.  The black straps are a great contrast.  Ruthie found the dress that day at Collections, and it went home with her.   It seems Bushwick is full of outdoor art.  Don't you love the oil rigs above Ruthie's head?
Photograph courtesy of Denton Taylor

Diana Gabriel took home this '80s jumpsuit.  In the lead photo, she's wearing a similarly graphic full length skirt with fabulous pockets, which she turned into a dress.
photograph courtesy of Denton Taylor

Do all of you know Ricky Aloisio, The New York Times Art Director?  My camera phone shows signs of going the way of all things, and it took this VERY bad photo of him.  Ricky has an amazing gift for matching and contrasting colors and patterns in his clothes.  If you haven't seen his Instagram account, here's the link.   Did you look?  If you did, you'll recognize this pose, despite my uncooperative camera.  Time to trade up to the iPhone 6!

Matthew, one of LucyAnn's employees, modeled a pink cheong sam, graphic duster, matching pink parasol, fan, and Prada shoes.  And you KNOW I tried to find him a hat.

Continuing with the pink theme, one of the guests found a frothy pink dress with layers of tulle.  Unbelievably, this dress goes even further back than I do, so I'm not sure whether it's a highly formal debutante dress, or a less formal sweet 16 or prom dress.  In any case, I really liked the tulle panel that fans out at the bust.  Very feminine, and more than a bit come-hither.  Completely respectable, revealing nothing, yet offering willing assistance to any active imagination.

When Debra arrived with her Japanese film crew, the party switched into high gear.  Collections is a narrow shop.  It's more than ample sized for street traffic, but the party put a strain on the walls.  Here's Debra being filmed.  It was similar to being at a rock concert, where one has to hold the camera high above one's head to take the picture, and hope that it captures what you want.

Once the film crew had its interviews, Debra joined the rest of the crowd.   This party brought together a very creative group.  Debra, for example, is wearing a hat and necklace of her own making; Martina Dietrich has her own atelier; and the Baroness, who designed her own latex outfit, and has her own boutique in Manhattan.

Ruthie Darling, in addition to being an actress, aerialist and blogger, also currently writes for the fashion section of The Bushwick Daily.  So if you'd like additional information or pictures about this party, click here for Ruthie's rundown.