Fabulous Dead People | Mary Wells
While not every Motown aficionado thinks Chris Clark got all the obscurity she deserved, there is other glue that binds. No one disputes that romanticizing the eat-or-get-eaten early days of the label’s artists was a great act of myth building. Diana Ross’s father got so tired of hearing what a rough childhood she had in Detroit’s Brewster Projects, he told one of her biographers how nice the lawns and courtyards there were. “The apartment we were in had three bedrooms, a full basement, a living room, kitchen and dinette,” Fred Ross said. “It wasn’t so terrible at all, believe me.”
The problem is that sometimes it really was terrible — too terrible to put in a press release. Mary Wells (1943-1992) once defined misery as “Detroit linoleum in January — with a half-frozen bucket of Spic and Span.” Wells was 12 or so when she began helping her mother on her rounds as a cleaning woman. “Until Motown, in Detroit there were three big careers for a black girl,” she said. “Babies, the factories and daywork.”
Wells was fabulous on many levels. She recorded “My Guy” – along with the Ronettes’s “Be My Baby,” one of a handful of pop masterpieces that cannot be improved. On two songs that, like “My Guy,” were also produced and written by Smokey Robinson — “The One Who Really Loves You” and “You Beat Me to the Punch” — Wells was swept along on Robinson’s love of calypso and of Harry Belafonte, creating a sultry musical mini-genre whose compass points were halfway between the Motor City and Trinidad. Together she and Smokey taught Detroit to cha-cha.
Wells sang with a pout, which isn’t easy, that made her seem almost dangerously sophisticated. On stage and in publicity stills, she had a tendency to dip, assuming a charming, slightly crouched pose that was all her own. In the language of the day, the Beatles were completely “gone on her.”
“Hey, ask any one of the Beatles who his favorite girl singer is and he’ll give you just one answer,” Shindig’s announcer cheered in 1965. “She’s the girl they recently invited to England to appear with them. And here with her first million-seller.”
The subject of a biography by Peter Benjaminson to be published next year, Wells was in (1960) and out (1964) of Motown before she knew what hit her. Having reigned so briefly and disappeared from the charts so suddenly, she seems a distant figure, part of an earlier era — grainy, black and white, and crowned with bad wigs — than she actually was. Yet if Wells were alive today she would be only 67.
If her run was short at least she was first. When Wells had her own car and driver, the Supremes were literally hitching to gigs. Mary Wilson of the Supremes recalled how Wells would swan through the lobby of Motown with “her entourage behind her and we’re standing there like, ‘Wow, yea, that’s, that’s the way we want to be.’”
It meant nothing at the time, because the Supremes were nothing, but in the ’80s, when Wells’s career was on the skids and she was limping along on the oldies circuit, smoking two packs a day, there was some satisfaction in being able to say that the boss’s mistress had done her grunt work. Diana and company are behind Wells on “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” and, I’d bet because only one person sang through her nose so alluringly, “My Heart Is Like a Clock.” Because of Wells’s association with Robinson, I always assumed the men who sang backup with such suave complicity were the Miracles. In fact it was the in-house Love-Tones. Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations was a Love-Tone for the time it took to cut “Two Lovers” with Wells, filling in for a group member who couldn’t make the session. “The lead singer got stabbed to death, and they kind of fell apart after that,” Wells remembered.
She could claim other victories over the Supremes — and over the Motown founder Berry Gordy. In the label’s waste-not tradition of recycling musical tracks, Wells was there first with “Whisper You Love Me Boy.” Dying of throat cancer and evicted from her home, she took on Gordy, filing suit for breach of contract and infringement of right of publicity. For 25-plus years Motown, which Universal acquired in 1988, merrily operated on the belief that Wells’s contentious exit deal with the company included a name and likeness clearance, which it used to sell a monumental number of records. According to Wells’s lawyer, Steven Ames Brown, there was no such clearance. Mary’s husband, the singer Curtis Womack, says the $100,000 out-of-court settlement she obtained was split 60-40 with Brown.
“Universal protected itself against any claims by demanding indemnity prior to buying Motown, so resolution was funded by Gordy,” says Brown, a royalty recovery specialist who has represented assorted Vandellas and successfully litigated for the return to Nina Simone of many of her masters. “I told Mary when we sued, ‘Don’t worry, sooner or later Berry will call me: My father was his podiatrist.’ And he did call. Some of the Motown artists were no better than their oppressor. But others were abused. Mary was one of them.”
Coached by her first husband, Herman Griffin, Wells sought to disaffirm her contract when she attained majority. Gordy paid her 3 percent of retail, less taxes and production and promotion costs. As an advance on a two-year deal, 20th Century wrote her a check for $250,000 — more than $1.7 million today. Accepting a portion of her royalties for the years remaining on her Motown agreement was maybe the worst business decision Gordy ever made. It’s fashionable for Motown partisans to dismiss “Never, Never Leave Me,” one of Wells’s two 20th Century releases, but with Wells turning up the pout, it’s a uniquely charismatic record.
Atco, the label she jumped to next, should have been a good fit. But when after one so-so album Wells was told to get in line behind Aretha Franklin and wait a year for studio time, she walked. “We could do nothing with her,” Jerry Wexler, the Atco chief, says in the notes to the excellent Wells compilation, “Looking Back.” “The fault wasn’t Mary’s. Nor was it ours. She was an artist who required the idiosyncratic Motown production,” which could not be duplicated. “Most importantly we didn’t have Smokey Robinson.”
Mary had a thing for the Womack men, and when she switched labels yet again, it was to work with her first husband, Cecil Womack, on two forgotten albums for Jubilee. Womack went on to eclipse Wells, writing the Teddy Pendergrass smash, “Love T.K.O.,” and teaming with his second wife as Womack & Womack.
By the time Wells was told she had cancer, she had burned through her 20th Century advance and more. With no health insurance, a trust was set up at the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, with contributions from, among others, Bruce Springsteen, Ross and Gordy, whose $25,000 check Wells singled out in an interview on “Entertainment Tonight.” “He did come through,” she said.
Wells “knew little about the trust,” Brown says, “except that someone else seemed to be using the funds for something other than Mary’s care. My reaction to the interview is that she was being gracious because of the settlement” Gordy made with her. Curtis Womack says Aretha Franklin insisted on bypassing the Foundation, sending $15,000 directly to Wells.
Doctors told Wells they could save her by removing her vocal chords, an option she rejected. “I miss my voice, you know, but hopefully it will come back,” she said in the same “Entertainment Tonight” appearance the year before she died. “I’ve been singing all my life. I don’t know any other trade.”
Fabulous Dead People | Decorator Bill Willis
For four decades, the architect and decorator Bill Willis was the unlikely point man in Morocco for voluptuous houses redolent of concubines and the woozy, opium-fogged dreamscapes of 19th-century Western painters like Georges Clairin. Nothing in his background — Willis was from Memphis and spoke French with an unforgettable Delta drawl — suggested that one day he would be reviving zellij mosaic work or polishing rendered walls with river stones and waxing them with savon noir to an alabaster sheen.
Having jump-started high-end Islamic architecture and rescued those Eastern design elements on the verge of extinction, Willis prompted a hundred style books (of which even he would probably agree 97 are redundant). An Orientalist in the tradition of Clairin, he appropriated an aesthetic language, then reinvented it. If anyone in the West beyond decorative arts scholars knows what zellij is today, Willis, who died last year at 72, gets the laurels. Gettys, Rothschilds and Agnellis queued up for his services, employing him to share his fastidious knowledge of keyhole arches, honeycomb vaulting and Moorish garden pavilions.
“Everything at Dar es Saada is laid out with an order in which I can safely deposit my disorder,” Yves Saint Laurent said of the first Marrakesh house that Willis designed for him and Pierre Bergé. Willis’s oeuvre made an important contribution not merely to the lush life of North Africa, says Bergé, but also to the Moroccan arts: “It was Bill who coined the design vocabulary of today’s Morocco. Even if he was from the South and drank too much bourbon, he was not American. He struck America from his life.”
When Bergé and Saint Laurent hired Willis a second time, it was to collaborate with the decorator Jacques Grange on Villa Oasis, built by the painter Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Grange is fond of saying that his late colleague had so many disciples, “we can speak today of the school of Bill Willis.”
Paleys and Rockefellers braved the dust and chickens of the Marrakesh medina to visit Willis in his thickly layered lair, once the harem of a minor 18th-century royal. American interior designers, from David Easton to Stephen Sills, also made the trip — part pilgrimage, part primer. I met Willis in his adopted city in 1986 during a marathon of celebrations for King Hassan II’s Silver Jubilee. “You think the royal palaces are grand,” Mary McFadden, traveling with the society decorators Chessy Raynor and Mica Ertegun, could be heard to crow. “There’s a rotunda at Marie-Hélène’s as big as a cathedral.” She was referring to Baroness Guy de Rothschild, for whom Willis built a villa from scratch. He was also meant to furnish it. But as he was infamous for never making an appearance before 2 p.m., artist and patron fell out. Darling Bill was replaced by Geoffrey Bennison.
“His energies and his appetites were prodigious, his hours unusual,” Christopher Gibbs, the British antiques dealer, said in his eulogy for Willis. “There was just enough time left to entertain delightfully and almost enough left over to work on the projects he took on.” At fete after fete during the Jubilee, Willis — who was notorious for his withering two-word character eviscerations — held the ladies in his thrall. But by then he had traded his almost impossible beauty for a prematurely ravaged look — very Keith Richards, hippie-eyeliner chic — that became as much a trademark as the fireplaces he created using hundreds of tiles laid in a dozen eye-bending patterns. In the 1990s, Willis received Sills at home at the end of a long candlelit hallway dressed in a caftan and lying on a sofa with several hundred pillows “like something out of The Arabian Nights,” says Sills. “It was ingenious of Bill to bring back all those exotic Moroccan color schemes, like peacock blue with goldenrod and terracotta. He was a rarefied bird — very charming, grand, very clever. And kind of mean.” Easton met Willis in New York in the ’60s at the jeweler Fulco di Verdura’s. They dined together decades later at the Marrakesh restaurant Dar Yacout, whose Willis-designed cocktail of low-slung banquettes and giant colored-glass lanterns remains intact.
Much of Willis’s work is seen admiringly as an homage to the French writer Pierre Loti, an observer on the French mission to the court of Sultan Moulay Hassan in 1889. Out of that trip came Loti’s “In Morocco.” Willis never reconstructed, as Loti did, a mosque whose stones were hauled to France from Damascus. But he would have understood.
Willis was the only child of parents who divorced when he was still a boy. He was sent to military school and orphaned in his teens, “told on returning from a wild, illicit night out,” Gibbs says, “that his mother had slipped down a cliff” and perished. In 1956, he attended the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, returning to the States to work for the powerhouse dealer-decorator Roslyn Rosier in New York. In 1963, he opened an interior design practice and antiques shop in Rome, where he also designed home accessories for Valentino. (For Saint Laurent, it would be bath towels). Three years later, Willis gave his best friends John Paul Getty Jr. and his wife, Talitha, who would die of a heroin overdose in 1971, a Moroccan honeymoon as a wedding present. Willis tagged along. The “gave” is part of the Willis mythology: He was always broke.
The trip ended in Marrakesh. “None of us wanted to leave,” he said, so the Gettys bought the Palais de la Zahia, commissioned by the Glaoui of Marrakesh in the 18th century. Willis waved his wand and set up housekeeping with the couple “to live a kind of dolce vita.” Entertainment for their legendarily druggy parties was recruited from the Djemma el Fna marketplace. “Tea boys” balanced trays of mint tea and burning candles on their feet. Willis did up the Zahia twice more: for Alain Delon, who purchased it from the Gettys, and for its current owner Bernard-Henri Lévy.
Willis got his own palace in 1973 and never budged. In his eulogy, Gibbs went on to say that because of his pal’s “willful nature, his unusual mix of indolence and exigence, the way he allowed his desires and enthusiasms to rule his life,” he was “surprisingly unsung in the great wide world, never having achieved the material successes granted to many infinitely less gifted.” Willis in recent years had stopped working and his health had declined, according to Marian McEvoy, a minor member of the Saint Laurent cabal through her long friendship with the garden designer Madison Cox. “He didn’t leave the house much and stopped answering the phone,” she says. The designer died of a brain hemorrhage with scarce notice of his death anywhere, “more or less forgotten,” Bergé says. No beautiful room goes unpunished.
Fabulous Dead People | Laura Ashley
People tend to think of Laura Ashley as being ironically fabulous; actually, she was genuinely fabulous. When Ashley introduced mix-and-match home furnishing fabrics in tiny florals in the ’60s, it was the shot heard ’round the world. Prints with reversible ground and motif colors became her signature. Some of them were twee, but they raked in millions. It’s a look the industry has been feeding off ever since.
Ashley (1925-85) is in the news again for the other cap she wore, that of fashion designer. (She was that rare double whammy, a powerhouse both in ready-to-wear and in the home sector.) While cargo jackets blooming with roses caused the Times’ fashion reporter Eric Wilson to hear Laura “corralling the troops” at Donna Karan’s spring show, the awning-striped muumuu that Prada showed last month is a dead ringer for one of Ashley’s first dress designs, as documented by Martin Wood in the monograph “Laura Ashley.” She wasn’t the bubbliest woman in the world, but surely Laura deserves a livelier writer than Wood: “As Laura Ashley became well known and gained what in marketing circles they call name recognition…”
The wonder is that despite an overheated climate in Britain in a decade that brought dolly birds, Biba and the Beatles, Ashley gained a massive following for her canny take on Victorian gentility. (She would also become an immense success in America, but not until the early ’80s.) A brilliant forecaster, she knew before her customer did what colors she would want to wear, what flowers she would want to see on her curtains as she glanced out from her fourposter bed. It wasn’t grannies who made her rich. Armies of young women wore Ashley’s pin-tucked nursery maid bodices and bought bolts of S24, a botanical lifted from a fragment of a 19th-century blue-and-white transfer-printed soup tureen.
“Surely you want to leave some contribution of the age we’ve lived in?” her friend Terence Conran once needled her.
Laura replied, “I’m only interested in reopening people’s eyes to what they have forgotten about.”
The company was Ashley, and she was the company. It was made in her image — or one of them, anyway. According to Anne Seeba, the author of “Laura Ashley: A Life by Design” and the writer Ashley did deserve, there were two Lauras: the painfully diffident homemaker she presented to the public and the imperious rage-aholic at the office. Employees who were also friends could call her “Laura” after work but were firmly instructed to address her as “L.A.” during the day. And as Ashley’s purse grew, so did her taste, becoming so rich and sophisticated that it risked sending her fan base running for the hills. It’s the old Lady Gaga problem. You start carrying a Birkin bag and expect everyone to understand.
Once Ashley’s business took off, she lost interest in the fashion side and immersed herself ever more deeply in the home division, developing high-calorie fabric collections and otherwise raising the bar in ways that the firm feared would alienate her constituency. Having acquired a 22-room chateau in Picardy in 1978, Laura demanded 100 percent cotton for the bedding that carried her name, pooh-poohing objections that it was too onerous to launder: “Oh, but surely everyone sends their sheets to a laundry these days?” Not 20 years earlier she had been living in what a friend described as “grinding, almost Dickensian poverty,” drinking out of jam jars not because it was quaint but because she had nothing else.
As Sebba writes in a book whose frankness is all the more remarkable given that it was approved by Ashley’s notoriously bullish husband, Bernard, who died last year, Laura believed “fervently … in the universality of her own experience.” But as with bedsheets, she could be wide of the mark. To animate the chateau’s 25-acre park, she imported a flock of Texel sheep. She also bought a Welsh pony with the airy notion of harnessing the animal to a trap and doing the marketing in it, a fantasy that proved unworkable. Despising accountants and always looking to save her customer a penny (“I can see what you’re doing,” Laura once famously told her controller, “you’re trying to make excessive profit”), she insisted on using an old-fashioned abacus. Then there was the time she got a Jersey milker and taught herself to milk. But as nobody could bear the stuff, the milk went rancid and the cow was sold.
Laura knew what she didn’t like. When a dress found its way into the line without her consent, she went berserk, storming out of a Paris boutique where she had spied the offending garment and Telexing headquarters to ax the design. Later, she wanted to give her daughter a nightdress for breast-feeding and was mortified that her stores offered nothing that was functional and attractive. Though a reasonable concern, it was communicated in almost violent terms. “I have asked for this so many times,” Laura seethed at a flunky, “and if you don’t produce a sample within a month, I shall go to the Clapham workroom and make it myself and put it into huge production.”
None of this sticks with the picture most people had of Laura. When I started thinking about her again, I couldn’t even remember if she had been there when I did a story on the chateau. It turns out we did meet, but that’s how little of an impression she made. From her point of view, she had succeeded: invisibility was desirable. A fault-finding media only enforced Ashley’s belief that journalists were not even a necessary evil. Branded a tax exile in the British press, she was at pains to explain that if she and Bernard remained in the U.K. and either of them died, it would be virtually impossible for the empire to be passed wholly on to their children. Her son Nick, then design director, thanked his parents for the sacrifice by telling the Daily Mail in 1984 that “my mother is totally subservient to my father,” who “has to be king of the jungle.”
Sixteen months later, Laura fell to her death after mistaking the stairs for the bathroom in the middle of the night. Plans to take the company public went forward anyway. The Malaysian investors who today have a controlling interest celebrated a pretax profit this year of $17.4 million, earned with the help of licenses for insane products like medical scrubs and none of the family’s DNA. There were 271 boutiques worldwide when the business was floated as opposed to 488 today. Save for a few fabrics Laura might grudgingly sanction, her Arcadian legacy has been lost. The brand she created is chillingly unrecognizable.
Amid all the excitement at the Chatsworth Attic Sale earlier this month, everyone forgot that 25 years ago the Duchess of Devonshire led Laura through the back stairs, where they discovered bundles of old maids’-room prints that Ashley re-edited. She was there first.
Fabulous Dead People | Mark Hampton
In “Interior Decoration,’’ as far as anyone knows the only play ever written about a decorator, the characters Gerald and Phillipa Detweiler (rhymes with Rottweiler) are at a job site waiting for a client when Phillipa reminds her husband what he owes his success to.
“We are a couple, Gerald, and that is what makes us different, and approachable and fun in a way that simply out-enriches what even the most talented of the unattached can bring to the connubial decorating experience.’’
It’s a toothless line, unless you know that “Interior Decoration’’ is a play à clef. The comedy’s author, William Hamilton, best known for his New Yorker cartoons set in the 10021 ZIP code, was once on the same cocktail-party loop as Mark Hampton (1940-98) and his wife Duane, who inspired the Cowardesque clink-and-tell. Mrs. Hampton claims she is unaware of Hamilton’s tribute, but if she were, she wouldn’t be pleased.
In their heyday 30 years ago, the Hamptons were either toasted as worthy social aspirants or roasted as archetypal social climbers. “Nobody worked a room like Mark and Duane” is something you still hear on the banquettes at La Grenouille, whether as criticism tinged with admiration or admiration tinged with envy. Whatever your feelings about the Hamptons, the point is that with their eye on the prize and Mark’s undeniable star quality, the undertaker’s son from Indiana and co-editor of the “Vogue Book of Etiquette” made it to the top.
As a unit they conquered high society. Princess Margaret came to dinner. Professionally, Mark reigned as a wolfish defender of what is still just barely known as Park Avenue decorating. Jackie O., Brooke Astor and the Kissingers asked for help with the drapes. Did Mark have any ideas for a scheme in Bush père’s White House sitting room using a rug Barbara had needlepointed? He did. Work in Kennebunkport followed. The Hamptons were the first guests to stay on Pennsylvania Avenue after Poppy’s inauguration, “in the Lincoln bedroom, of course,’’ writes Duane in “Mark Hampton: An American Decorator” (Rizzoli), out this month. For a weekend in Maine with the First Couple, the Hamptons flew on Air Force One. Rich stuff. All that shoulder rubbing must have gone to Mark’s head, right? With relief we are told that he ‘‘loathed pretention’’ and ‘‘had no time for grandeur. ’’
While you won’t hear an echo of Gerald Detweiler’s poisonous thoughts on his marriage in ‘‘Mark Hampton’’ (‘‘Philly, did it ever occur to you that except for the business we are completely incompatible?’’), there are other reasons to own it. Included is the impossibly opulent library the designer considered his chef-d’oeuvre, explaining, ‘‘ I wanted the room to be very consciously a 19th-century fantasy of the kind that I hope Sir John Soane would have liked.’’ (The piling on of words is a perfect capsule of the way Hampton spoke.) Mahogany bookcases climbed 14 feet, the shelf edges ribboned with leather. Hampton faced the walls in red wool, then earned his reputation as a maestro of furniture placement with quantities of Edwardian upholstery, sofas so big they had to be built on the job and Empire stools that resembled overripe melons. For its creator, the room was an act of love.
When Vogue published the library, the client was unnamed, but everyone knew it was Carter Burden, one of the original Beautiful People. Hampton is pictured with French cuffs shooting through the sleeves of an Anderson & Sheppard suit, arms folded, one leg cocked, toe stabbing the floor. He looks like the cat that swallowed the canary.
I knew Mark slightly. Like him, the book has a smug, let-them-eat-cake atmosphere. With sofas so big they had to be built on the job, how could it not? His interiors were never rich in the crude, tape-à-l’oeil way that, say, Scott Salvatore’s are. All of Mark’s idols were patricians. If you said ‘‘mansion’’ (so Non-U!) instead of ‘‘big house,’’ it was like you’d slandered his mother. Still, his rooms packed a lot of calories, as documented on page after page of “Mark Hampton.” It’s smarter and better organized than the usual decorator monograph, though not without its rhetorical howlers (‘‘The Hegelian progression from thesis to antithesis …’’). The book’s other failing capsizes every woman who sits down to write about her beloved dead husband. We take for granted that she thought he was fabulous. But there is something unpleasant about the widow saying it, and saying it often.
Hampton was raised a Quaker. He was a precocious child and not athletic. His mother remembered how during a bridge foursome one day, he told two of her friends how pretty their dresses were. When the third asked why he hadn’t commented on hers, Hampton said, ‘‘Jean, it doesn’t do a thing for you.’’ He was 6. At Indiana’s DePauw University, the future taste broker alarmed his roommate by performing an elaborate toilette on his rubber plant involving milk. In the same period, Mark ‘‘only took out girls who were ‘hot, rich, pretty and talented,’ ’’ Burden wrote in a catalog accompanying an exhibit of Hampton’s art work. (I’ve never understood the fuss people make over his twee watercolors.) Things started clicking in 1961, when he took his junior year in London and worked for David Hicks, who had recently married Lord Mountbatten’s daughter. In that hothouse environment, it might actually be impossible not to become a snob.
It took Duane a day to fall in love with Mark after meeting him at an American Express office in Florence the same year. In 1963 he charmed the pop pearls off Sister Parish and scored a summer job. The Hamptons married in 1964, nesting in a $125-a-month walkup with $45 “Louis XVI” Door Store armchairs while he acquired a master’s degree in art history at New York University. Mark went on to run Hicks’s New York office before joining the silk-stocking firm McMillen and forming his own company in 1976.
Hampton wrote two books, “On Decorating” and “Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century,” both indispensable. The second reveals why, by his own definition, Hampton was a good designer but not a great one. Everyone in “Legendary Decorators,’’ from William Pahlmann to George Stacey, broke new ground. Of course, Hampton had a ready answer for critics who found his work lacking in news and, well, boring. “I don’t consider myself very ‘original,’ ” his wife quotes him as saying, a tad defensively, “but I maintain that doing what comes naturally, what grows out of precedent, has led to more good design than innovational overreach.’’
Maybe. But it doesn’t change the fact that Hampton — as my old boss John Fairchild once said cruelly but accurately of Valentino — never had an original idea in his life. Valentino was an exquisitely talented couturier, but he did not change the way women dress. That’s how I’ll always think of Mark Hampton, as the Valentino of decorating.
Fabulous Dead People | Bubbles Rothermere
As with many society deaths, there was nothing strange or startling about Lady Rothermere’s when it was first announced. The former B-movie actress universally known as Bubbles, for her favorite beverage and her effervescent personality, had died of a heart attack in her Riviera villa — once Garbo’s — on Aug. 12, 1992. If French doctors had been believed, that would have been that.
But as is also often the case with society deaths, details disputing the first announcement came hard and fast. The 63-year-old wife of Vere Rothermere, who at his own demise in 1998 had holdings of $1.7 billion in the Daily Mail newspaper empire, was not allowed to go without an inquest. According to The Independent, when Bubbles hadn’t appeared by late afternoon on that August day, her maid, finding the door to Madame’s bedroom locked, entered through a balcony window. Her boss lay in a heap on the floor. A month later, the Westminster coroner declared a verdict of “death by misadventure.” Bubbles had been traveling with some 2,000 pills in 75 bottles. “Society hostess died following drug overdose,” trumpeted The Independent.
Even if you were barely sentient in the ’70s and ’80s and only had a doctor’s-waiting-room relationship with Tatler, you can’t help but recall Lady Rothermere engulfed in the frills and furbelows confected for her by Zandra Rhodes, Gina Fratini and that dreadful couple who did what’s-her-name’s wedding dress. With the kind of pert, retrousse nose beloved of fashion illustrators like Fred Greenhill, Bubbles had gone from being the astonishingly beautiful film starlet Beverley Brooks (ever see “Reach for the Sky”? I didn’t think so) to, well, Miss Piggy.
The most enduring images of Bubbles — who at her happiest moments literally bubbled over, as if she were about to unleash a giant, wet guffaw — are from this, her Hogarthian period. In everything you read about her, no one makes the connection between her tremendous weight gain and wild clothes choices. Maybe it’s too obvious. One year when I have nothing to do, I’ll lock myself away with three decades of Tatlers and all will become clear. In any case, the assumption remains that having become indecently fat, Bubbles called attention to the fact with ever more extreme frocks. In this way she was the first to comment on her chubbiness, thwarting, if not silencing, critics.
Who can shake the picture of a desperately jolly woman in her 960 Fifth Avenue penthouse buoyed by a tent’s worth of watered-silk taffeta? (Bubbles also had homes in Beverly Hills, East Sussex, Round Hill in Jamaica and on London’s Eaton Square.) As only her head and hands emerged from the tent, she looked positively celestial, as if she might take to the heavens as a plus-size putto.
If anything, Bubbles was too easy a target. “An Unlikely Hero,” the book Lord Rothermere commissioned on how he saved The Mail, pulls back the curtain on Bubbles’ history of depression and feelings that she was misunderstood. Assailed by a nervous ailment called tricholtillomani, she pulled her hair out, literally, disguising the damage with wigs.
Bubbles wanted to be loved for her mind, not for her parties, and not for the crazy Rhodes getups that could make her look like she was wearing the curtains. In “People Like Us,” Charles Jennings roasts her to a crisp, drawing on his tenure as her daughter’s tutor. Greeting him at home at noon, surrounded by awards for her charity work, Bubbles wore a “nightie covered in make-up and food spillages. … The physical evidence … contradicted her wishful thinking so completely, it was like Lytton Strachey putting school boxing cups on his mantelpiece.”
Laugh all you like, but Bubbles often had the last word. In 1980, she upstaged all the women at a grand fete for more than a thousand guests at Versailles, including Princess Grace and the Maharani of Jaipur. Of course, stealing the show and being the best-dressed girl at the party are not the same thing. Bubbles took what she could get.
As the ambitious and fearless daughter of a middle-class architect growing up in Hertfordshire, Bubbles wanted it all: rich husband, sparkling social life, splendid career. “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was her handbook. At 17, she enrolled in secretarial school, dropping out to become a model. In 1953, she wed Christopher Brooks, a charismatic, good-looking and wealthy captain in the Coldstream Guards with whom she had one daughter. He and Vere Rothermere had been at Eaton together, and when Rothermere expressed interest in Brooks’s wife, she said her husband advised her to have an affair with Rothermere but not to marry him. He may have guessed how difficult the world would make it for them to bridge their class differences. “Talk about bitchy and cutthroat,” Bubbles roared to The Times decades after her 1957 marriage to Rothermere, which furnished three progeny. “I’ve never seen anything like it.’’
Bubbles consoled herself with the spotty power she wielded as the spouse of a press baron. Suzy Knickerbocker had Bubbles in her pocket, and when The Mail relaunched in 1971, Bubbles was instrumental in getting her a (failed) column. In 1975, on the occasion of “Funny Lady,” the most embarrassing film Barbra Streisand has ever made, if you don’t count “A Star Is Born” (but what about “Meet the Fockers”? you might well ask), Bubbles gave a party in her honor. The Mail later ran a negative review. Humiliated, Bubbles leaned on her husband to fire the paper’s editor. David English issued his resignation, but it was all for show. English stayed. Bubbles’ humiliation was redoubled.
Yet she needed people like English, if only to clean up after her. When it looked like “Hero” might be suppressed following Vere Rothermere’s death, a former senior Mail executive noted how “the great fascination of the book would be … the extraordinary lengths to which the paper would occasionally go to keep some of [Bubbles’] activities out of other newspapers.” One London daily reported that her name had been excised from the address book of the gay hairdresser Michael Lupo before he was convicted of four murders. The Rothermere’s son Jonathan had veto power over the contents of “Hero,” and while it does not shy from a discussion of Bubbles’ warts, there is no mention of her requiring disaster control, or of Lupo.
“Mere Vere” rescued The Mail, but wasn’t Bubbles the real hero? In 1967, her sister-in-law Mary threw down the gauntlet, proclaiming she was pregnant. If Mary supplied a male, the hereditary title and control of the empire would pass to her branch of the family through her son. Bubbles had almost died delivering her second daughter, but no risk was too big, given the prize. She and Rothermere got busy and produced Jonathan.
The pair legally separated in 1978 but kept on excellent terms. After Bubbles died, Rothermere wed his longtime mistress, a onetime hand model from Korea. Officially, Bubbles’ coroner ruled out suicide; the overdose, he said, was accidental (“misadventure”). She was found with twice the prescribed amount of a sleep aid in her blood and five times that of an antihistamine she took as a sedative. Rothermere paid her a seven-figure sum, in sterling, every year after they separated, so funds weren’t the problem. Or were they? “Money is a fantastic thing,” Bubbles once mused, “but it can make you kind of dead sometimes.”
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: September 16, 2010
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the school that Christopher Brooks attended. It is Eton, not Eaton.
Fabulous Dead People | Millicent Rogers
In this new monthly column, Fabulous Dead People, T looks back at the movers and shakers who once had the temerity and gall to break all the rules, so that today’s fashion faithful can break theirs.
It seems like we’re always coming off, or having, a Millicent Rogers moment. Her grip on style is that strong. Born in 1902, Rogers died just 51 years later, succumbing to what her doctor only half-jokingly suggested was a romantic heart. Three husbands (including a gold-digging Austrian count and a wealthy Argentine aristocrat), Clark Gable, Roald Dahl, Prince Serge Obolensky, Ian Fleming and a twirl around the dance floor with the Prince of Wales had taken their toll.
Rogers, the Standard Oil heiress, gave high fashion a good name. She was an aesthete with a fine, searching mind, not a ditz or a brat (like some of her more tabloidy colleagues one could mention). Nor was she particularly troubled, psychologically or otherwise, about having a colossal fortune she did nothing to earn, as her friend Cecil Beaton observed in “The Glass of Fashion.” No one ever called Millicent Rogers a poor little rich girl. On the face of it, at least, she took a (relatively) healthy, straightforward pleasure in the sometimes obscene luxuries indulged by her inheritance. These numbered a 24-karat-gold toothpick she did not hesitate to use at table (the one habit no one has ever been able to square with her merciless chic); traveling with a pack of seven dachshunds; and a penchant for the same four-figure Charles James couture blouse, which she literally ordered by the dozens. (Not incidentally, Rogers wore those blouses; never for a second did the blouses wear her.) When gas rationing made it impossible for Rogers to keep her usual car and driver during World War II in New York, she found her elegant way around this inconvenience by hiring a yellow cab and cabby full time.
Rogers favored Mainbocher, Adrian (whose wife, Janet Gaynor, was a BFF), Schiaparelli and Valentina, but she is best remembered in fashion terms for her unique association with James. This association tended toward collaboration, which was all the more amazing considering how proprietary and unbending James was about his work. Both client and designer are on the brain again — as the inspiration for John Galliano’s spring-summer couture collection for Dior and as a focus of “American High Style,” an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum opening May 7 and running through Aug. 1.
The new exhibit promises plenty to chew on, maybe even a glimpse of how the building of a James frock for the likes of Rogers was a ‘‘mathematical problem solved with calipers and equations,’’ as Elizabeth Ann Coleman noted in the catalog of a 1982 show about the designer, also at the Brooklyn Museum. In a remembrance of his patron published in The New York Journal-American after her death, James wrote that she “as no one else did” brought out the best of his talent, despite withering competition from Mrs. Randolph Hearst Jr., the Marchesa Luisa Casati, Babe Paley, Chanel on her way to becoming Coco … the list goes on.
Rogers lived as well as she dressed, in settings equal to her wardrobe. She grew up in Manhattan, in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., and in Southampton at Black Point, a 1914 Italianate villa on the ocean commissioned by her father, with gardens by Frederick Law Olmsted. In the 1920s, Col. Henry Huddleston Rogers II went on to consolidate a breathtaking 1,200 acres of meadows, ponds, woods and wetlands rich in wildlife on Southampton’s Cow Neck, a peninsula reaching into Peconic Bay. He christened the property Port of Missing Men (which takes the prize for the most flummoxing name ever harnessed to a piece of real estate.) It was the largest tract on Long Island until 1998, when the financier Louis Moore Bacon purchased nearly half of it for $25 million.
Port of Missing Men, designed by John Russell Pope in the style of a hunting lodge, was originally intended as a manly retreat from formal life in the big mansion on the beach, according to Ann Pyne of McMillen, the blue-chip firm that decorated it in an 18th-century country vernacular, with hooked rugs, Windsor chairs and the kind of collectibles that a ship captain might have brought back from his travels. Almost everything remains in the house, which is now owned by Countess Salm, Millicent Rogers’s daughter-in-law. Bacon donated his 540 acres as a conservation easement.
Preservation was an impulse Rogers understood. At the beginning of World War II, she exchanged the charm of her Hansel and Gretel period in an Austrian chalet (where her uniform was a dirndl, an apron, an embroidered vest and a peaked Tyrolean cap) for the colonial grandeur of Claremont, the 18th-century country estate in Tidewater, Va. ‘‘I consider it a desecration in Virginia to change even one single architectural detail,’’ Rogers announced. ‘‘Inside, you can do whatever you want.’’ The family friend Van Day Truex, later president of the Parsons School of Design and design director at Tiffany & Company, hung the rooms with Rogers’s ravishing collection of Watteaus, Fragonards and Bouchers and furnished them with ceramic stoves, a desk that once belonged to the poet Schiller and the museum-quality Biedermeier furniture that was a spoil from Rogers’s marriage to Ludwig von Salm-Hoogstraten, the playboy count.
McMillen decorators re-entered the picture when Rogers acquired an apartment in one of the Phipps tenements on Sutton Place that Dorothy Draper famously painted glossy black with white trim, giving each door a different brilliant color. In her living room Rogers reached back for inspiration to the draped salons of the Empire period, cloaking the walls with miles of crimson satin swagged from rosettes at the cornice. It was not a tame look.
No professional decorator is linked to her last house, Turtle Walk, an ancient adobe fort in, of all places, the high desert of Taos, N.M. Surrounded by the Spanish Colonial furniture and native American textiles, pottery, jewelry, baskets, santos, tinwork and paintings that she lovingly amassed, Rogers secluded herself here in 1947 after concluding it was time to stop falling in love. (She divorced her last husband, Ronald Balcom, a stockbroker, in 1941.) In Taos, her uniform was an authentic Navajo blouse, a long and full skirt propped up with multiple petticoats, a shawl and bare feet.
Soon after her death in 1953, one of Rogers’s three sons created a local museum in her name to showcase his mother’s trove of regional artifacts, a collection acquired in record time. Not that long before installing herself in New Mexico, Rogers had been racing around New York in a chauffeured, custom Delage coupe that Billy Baldwin said was so stuffed with throws and other sable accessories he could barely squeeze in. Our heroine was nothing if not adaptable.
Fabulous Dead People | Rudi Gernreich
Rudi Gernreich (1922-1985) is a great example of how far we haven’t come. Forty-six years after he introduced the monokini, public beaches in America are still scrubbed clean of naked breasts. Women who want to seem enlightened and “European” but are no more likely to air their chests than install a dance pole in their basements are lucky. The law gives them cover. Impress your friends! Keep your clothes on! It’s never been easier.
There are no topless swimsuits in the April 21 auction of Gernreich designs at Leslie Hindman in Chicago, but there are fireworks; they just won’t get you arrested. Even if the knit coatdress goes for the high estimate of $900, it may be a good deal: an identical one brought $1,245 in 2008 at Christie’s. Doyle’s holds the record for Gernreich, set in 2002: $8,500 for two minidresses with peekaboo vinyl inserts.
Vinyl was one of the many elbows that the Austrian-born Gernreich thrust in the side of French couture, which he loathed for the physical restrictions it imposed on women. There were other jabs: body decals, thong bathing suits, a trippy palette and the “no-bra bra” that torpedoed the torpedo look. Giraffe-spotted panties matched the suit, which matched the shoes, which matched the tights. Then there were all those minis. What the Hindman catalog calls a tunic is actually a dress. When Gernreich designed a mini, he meant it.
Twenty of the Gernreich lots on the block are from the collection of his muse and model. No, not that one. You’re thinking of Peggy Moffitt, the Van Dongen sylph with racoon eyes photographed by William Claxton in a monokini. No, it is Leon Bing, who is letting her Rudis go. Bing is one of fashion’s great second acts. With “Do or Die,” her account of infiltrating muderous teen gangs, she remodeled herself as a gritty nonfiction writer. In “Swans and Pistols,” a rather pungent memoir, she recalls how she, Moffitt and Gernreich appeared on the cover of “Time” in 1967. One naturally wonders how it works when two muses attend the same designer. A long, loud silence followed when I asked Bing about her relationship with Moffitt. “Peggy was an exemplary model,” she said eventually. They can both be found on YouTube in “Basic Black,” regarded as the first, all-Gernreich fashion video. If you miss the charm and naïveté of the ’60s, it will just about do you in.
An only child born in Vienna, Gernreich had a privileged but anguished youth. He was 8 when his father, a hosiery manufacturer, committed suicide. Gernreich learned the grammar of feminine adornment in his aunt’s dress shop. “He told me about his first childhood images of sexuality,” Bing writes, “leather chaps with a strap running between the buttocks of street laborers’ work pants and the white flesh of women’s thighs above gartered black stockings.” Following the 1938 Anschluss, Gernreich and his mother fled to Los Angeles as Jewish refugees.
They survived on the pastries she baked and he sold door to door. Gernreich’s first job was washing cadavers for autopsy. “I grew up overnight,” he remembered in an essay by Marylou Luther in Moffitt and Claxton’s “The Rudi Gernreich Book.” “I do smile sometimes when people tell me my clothes are so body-conscious I must have studied anatomy. You bet I studied anatomy.”
Captivated by Martha Graham, Gernreich joined the Leslie Horton Modern Dance Troupe from 1942 to 1948. Three years later, having been convicted in an entrapment case, he became one of the five original members of the Mattachine Society, the gay-rights organization founded by Harry Hay, then his lover. But Gernreich never declared himself publicly. He did not come out, as it were, until after his death, when his estate and that of his partner of 31 years, Oreste Pucciani, provided an endowment for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Gernreich finally hung out his shingle in 1952. Soon after, he met Pucciani, who as chairman of the U.C.L.A. French department was instrumental in bringing Sartre to the attention of American academics. Obviously, the two were not your average fashion household.
The furniture in their Hollywood Hills crib was by Eames, Van der Rohe, Bertoia and Rudi himself. Under license, he designed tables that resembled doors and crates, arranging them on squares of burnished leather sewn together to make luxurious floor coverings. For his friend Pucciani, the photographer George Hoyningen-Huene conceived a “floating” reflecting pool. Bing called the place a “walled fortress,” a reference to her boss’s mania for privacy.
On page after after page of “The Rudi Gernreich Book,” its short (5-foot-6) subject with the chiseled head and full toupee looks borderline grumpy, the opposite of the burn-the-candle-at-both-ends caricature of a dressmaker in the Halston mold. Well, Gernreich did take his job seriously. But when he showed his last collection, in 1981, it was clear he had overstayed his welcome. By then, Gernreich only resonated with people who could make a dime slapping his name on some irrelevancy. Bing wishes he had gotten out earlier, so there would be no evidence he once donned a chef’s toque to promote a line of soups. Gernreich’s taste for wigs and jumpsuits wasn’t doing him any favors either. Posing with a model wearing his pubikini, a garment whose name should leave nothing to the imagination, he looked like Tracy Ullman as a porn entrepreneur.
Fabulous Dead People | Rory Cameron
Roderick Cameron — “Rory” to chums like Somerset Maugham and the media empress Anne Cox Chambers — would have liked to be remembered for the eight travel and history books he wrote, including “The Golden Riviera,” a sometimes delightful, often unreadable look back at the Cote d’Azur. But in death, as in life, Cameron’s flair for what Balzac called “the science of living” as it is applied “to the most trifling material objects” keeps getting in the way.
Was the waspish Cameron, as confirmed by the handful of people capable of judging such things, the man with perfect taste? Those laurels are usually settled on his close friend Van Day Truex, who shared the same quivering domestic sensitivities. Both men were crazy about Imari dishes as ashtrays, Moustiers faïence, Royal Worcester Blue Dragon china, bamboo-handled cutlery, Chinese everything. But unlike Truex, a high-profile teacher and prodigious designer, Cameron — an American who died of AIDS in 1985 at age 71 — never needed or wanted a commercial platform for spreading his gospel: His great wealth freed him from ever having to earn a living. The houses he decorated, mostly for himself and mostly in France, had that rarest of qualities: an atmosphere of inevitable chic, of absolute rightness, of un-strived-for, well, perfection. Run off his feet meeting the obligations of world-class host, collector and bon vivant, Cameron left it to Truex to bottle the look, which, of course, he famously did at Tiffany.
As suggested on An Aesthete’s Lament, a blog whose demise we’re still suffering, Cameron was “the aesthete’s aesthete” (if not quite Harold Acton). Most firsts of the kind credited to him are a nightmare to verify, nay impossible, but it seems churlish not to award him the infinity pool. For pure theater, the pool he designed at La Fiorentina — the Palladian-style villa in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat he shared with his scandalous mother beginning in the ’40s — has never been eclipsed. A sisal doormat Cameron spied at a restaurant in nearby Eze inspired him to have the material woven into vast floor coverings, a shot heard ’round the world.
Long before David Hicks, a frenemy to the last, coined the term “tablescape,” Cameron was composing emotionally resonant tableaux on any flat surface that offered itself up. In his last house — the ruin he restored in the late ’70s in Ménerbes, a pocket of Provence that Peter Mayle would soon turn into a comic strip — a tea caddy lamp presided over a brass barque-shaped dish, a spoil from one of the Chinese Opium Wars; a Utrillo tempera of a mouse in a worn gilded frame; a dark stone bust of a child; and a couple of small round objects that might have been boxes but could have also been stones.
“An inlaid ebony and mother-of-pearl powder horn from the Rajasthan might look well on an embroidered cloth from Ispahan,” Cameron once remarked in Vogue, struggling to explain his elusive art, “and quite pointless lying on a majolica-topped table.”
An intuitive gardener, Cameron also launched the fashion for daubing tree trunks with lime, an ancient method of discouraging insects in the Mediterranean. But he had his own reasons for adopting the custom: He simply liked the way the milky wash harnessed the light sifting through the rough dark leaves of the orange trees at La Fiorentina. Yet the idea of painting other people’s tree trunks, of hanging out his shingle, made him shudder. Pulling himself up to his full 6 feet 3 inches, Cameron told a reporter three years before his death, “I just can’t see myself … being nice and charming to people whose taste I can’t fathom.” When Maugham, a Cap Ferrat neighbor, asked him to vet a purchase, Cameron could be unsparing, says Pat Cavendish O’Neill, Cameron’s half sister. “Willie,’’ he would say with a sigh, “you’re going to have to take that back.’’ No one had a lower threshold for ugly.
Fabulous son, fabulous mother. Cameron’s was the Australian-born Enid, Countess of Kenmare, a k a “The Lady Who Killed All Her Husbands.” For years she was alleged to have finished off one of them, Marmaduke, Lord Furness, with a morphine overdose at La Fiorentina in 1940. But an apologetic letter uncovered in 2004 and signed by the party seeking conviction, Furness’s previous wife Thelma, acknowledges that the allegations were baseless. Enid’s name was cleared.
Countess Kenmare, who died in 1972 at 80, had a thing for shipping heirs, whether from Leicestershire (Furness) or Staten Island (Roderick Cameron, Rory’s father). Mother and son spent World War I on the move, skipping between Egypt, France, Australia and India. One of Cameron’s earliest memories was of his mother descending the steps of the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo in a cumulus of gray chiffon, a bunch of Parma violets tucked into her tiny waist. English boarding school and Swiss prep school led to studies at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. In World War II, Cameron was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence agency that morphed into the C.I.A. On loan to England, Cameron was a regular at the dinner parties given by the irascible Emerald Cunard in her Dorchester Hotel penthouse. “Providing you weren’t getting yourself blown up,” he remembered decades later, “World War II wasn’t all that bad.”
Cameron enjoyed both men and women. Princess George Chavchavadze, born Elizabeth Ridgway to a hugely rich American family, was a mistress. He was also extravagantly smitten with the diplomat Donald Bloomingdale, who died of a heroin overdose supplied, but not administered so far as we know, by Cameron’s mum. His last love was his gardener Gilbert Occelli, who quickly followed him to the grave. O’Neill says many of his possessions “disappeared” after he died, including a Stubbs painting left to her. “Gilbert took them,” she told me.
As with all taste titans, Cameron was not universally loved. A serial guest at La Fiorentina, Taki Theodoracopulos, recently called him, on his online Taki’s Magazine, a name that cannot be printed on a family Web site, claiming that his host had used the villa as a lure to fill his bed. But Cameron could give as good as he got. Touring the villa after it was sold to Mary Wells Lawrence and decorated by Billy Baldwin, he found the lamps too big, the colors brash, the whole thing “strident.” Baldwin might have slapped back with a send-up of Cameron’s prose, which has a tendency to curdle on the page. “So much for these time-misted beginnings,” goes one passage from the “The Golden Riviera,” “and from here we swing right into the pre-Christian era.”
He should have stuck to decorating.
Fabulous Dead People | Frances Faye
In the late 1950s, the cabaret scene on the Sunset Strip was so feverish, you could hear Christine Jorgensen and Frances Faye in different rooms on the same night without leaving the building. Jorgensen played the Interlude; Faye the Crescendo downstairs. Jorgensen’s set included “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” sung, apparently, without irony. A robust performer even on a bad day, Faye could be heard through the floorboards, violently slapping the piano keys and inquiring, “Gay, gay, gay, is there another way?”
Frances Faye was that rare thing, a white chick who could not only shout but swing. She had a dry, gruff voice she put in the service of a deadpan, declamatory style, nudging listeners to consider standards in a different way: stripped of obvious sentiment. Is Faye’s brash recording of “Am I Blue” the most knowing version on the books? People who thought Teddi King and Mildred Bailey and Felicia Sanders said it all have concluded “yes.”
Faye made more than a dozen albums, collaborating with the aristocrats of pop-jazz arrangers, Dave Cavanaugh, Marty Paich and Russ Garcia, and musicians like Maynard Ferguson and Herbie Mann. Faye was partial to a Latin beat, and Jack Costanzo, the great bongoist, often supplied it. If you own nothing of Faye’s, “Caught in the Act” is a good place to start. So is Terese Genecco, who performs songs identified with Faye at the New York club Iridium. Please don’t stop reading. Genecco is no dumb tribute act. She does not want to be Frances Faye; she does make you understand why she’s so important. With Nick Christo it’s more the other way around. Christo is an Australian singer whose entire show is devoted to Faye. His chirpy, wide-eyed approach is at odds with her material. Also, he’s not a girl.
Faye’s music and sexual identity were inseparable. She had been married twice when, in the mid-’50s, she met Teri Shepherd, who was some 20 years her junior and became her manager. As Shepherd tells Bruce Weber in his film “The Chop Suey Club,” she and Faye were a couple for 31 years when Frances died in 1991 at age 79. (Shepherd still has the house they shared in the Hollywood Hills.) Onstage, Faye — one of Weber’s all-time heroes — mischievously changed “him” to “her” when singing love songs and peppered her sets with L.L.J. (Lite Lesbian Jokes). “That’s why I never go with girls,” she’d say when a woman hollered from ringside. “They’re so aggressive when they’re drinking.” The gays loved Fraaahncis. They still do.
For Faye’s longtime fans as well as those new to the party, all roads lead to Tyler Alpern, 45, of Boulder, Colo. Alpern began listening to Faye in 1988 but was frustrated by the lack of information about her. Ten years later he found a mention in a biography of Peter Allen. Since then, Alpern has traced Faye’s life in a rambling essay that runs to more than 18,000 words on his Web site, though if you dig deep you will also find some adamant score-settling: “I keep reading that although a top-notch entertainer, Frances Faye ‘did not have a great voice.’ I disagree!” As there is no biography of Faye, Alpern’s site will have to do.
If you knew nothing of Frances Faye, saw a clip and thought, That woman could only be from Brooklyn, like Fanny Brice could only be from Brooklyn, you’d be correct. Faye’s mother was a Russian immigrant, her father an electrician and arsonist familiar with Sing Sing. David Daniel Kaminsky — Danny Kaye — was a second cousin. Faye scored her first gig at 15, quit school and before she was 20 played the Cotton Club and speakeasies like the Calais Club. Gangsters, including Al Capone, adored her, some paying $1,000 a pop for requests. Discounts were neither demanded nor offered. Eight thousand dollars bought “Love for Sale” eight times. Faye was so at home with goons, she wed one, Abe Frosch, who did time for running a gambling syndicate. Her second marriage, to Sam Farkas, who had been a professional footballer, got off to a bad start. Faye was “broken to bits,” Alpern says, in a car accident on their honeymoon. Also, Farkas beat her.
Splitting the bill with Bing Crosby at the Paramount on Broadway in 1932 led to Faye’s first movie, “Double or Nothing,” which starred Crosby, and to her first record deal, with his Decca label. Visually it was hard to know what to do with Faye in that era. She wasn’t thin, and the camera did not love her nose, which was never small. (Faye went on to make her appearance part of her shtick, with flip deprecations like “I think when you’re pretty it doesn’t matter how you wear your hair.”) All of 24 in “Double or Nothing,” Faye doesn’t look a minute under 50. She wasn’t so much costumed as slipcovered. Playing a nightclub performer, she has one delirious scene in the film. For nearly five minutes, she and Martha Raye engage in a barkfest, scatting their brains out, two aliens from planet Zazz Zu Zazz.
The ’30s were also Faye’s big years on West 52nd Street, where she shuttled between the Hickory House, Club 18 and Leon and Eddie’s. Back on Broadway in 1943 in “Artists and Models,” she was joined for one big number by four female jazz harpists. (Not the novelty it sounds: Daphne Hellman made her debut at Town Hall around the same time.) In about 1950, fed up with orchid corsages and portrait necklines, she scalped her hair and dyed it blond, earning an attack from Leonard Feather in Downbeat when Capitol Records signed her. “After studying the physical characteristics of typical recording stars,” he wrote, “… you wouldn’t be likely to pick … a matronly looking woman with a Brooklyn birth certificate, arthritis, a tough vocabulary, a quarter of a century in show business and hardly any records at all. …” Feather later tried to make it up to her by crowning Faye “the consummate nightclub performer.” Which she was.
In 1958, Faye tripped on the carpet in a Las Vegas hotel room, broke her hip and walked with crutches or a cane for eight years. Still, she worked. She’d be carried to the piano with the lights down and discovered by the audience when they went up. She was out of hope when a third hip operation proved successful. In 1977, parts of her act were filmed for “Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn,” a TV movie about gay runaways, and before retiring in 1981, she was cast as the madam in Louis Malle’s “Pretty Baby.” A series of strokes that silenced Faye seemed especially cruel.
For Nick Christo, Frances was “like a sequined piece of driftwood.” But to quote the lady herself, “Does that sound too camp?” Having floated a fragment of music ripe with innuendo, it was the question she often asked just before leaving the stage. The way she framed it, it sounded aspirational.
Fabulous Dead People | Richard Olney
If you were lucky enough to be invited to Richard Olney’s for lunch in the dry and scratchy hills outside Sollies-Toucas, north of Toulon in Provence, two things were certain: That you would have a meal you would never forget, and that he would greet you in his herb and vegetable garden in a pair of beat-up espadrilles, a ravaged shirt left completely unbuttoned and a tiny excuse for a bathing suit. Because he was always running back and forth between the garden and kitchen to check on whatever was on the hob, a dish towel hung in his waistband.
Born in Marathon, Iowa, but a resident of France almost his entire adult life, Olney (1927-99) was a locavore 50 years before the designation was coined, a champion of seasonality, terroir, purity and authenticity before those terms were hijacked by even the corner burger-flipper. If you have never heard of him — and if you lift fork to mouth, I really don’t see how that could be possible — consider this: Alice Waters has said, in so many words, that she wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for her great friend Richard. His food politics became hers. Hers became ours, Michael Pollan’s and Michael Moore’s.
Olney’s reputation rests largely on one book, “Simple French Food,” published in 1974. The “simple” is relative. If you don’t know how his brain worked, you might think he meant it as a joke. The first time my mother became seriously ill and went into the hospital, I asked friends to dinner and made a Provencal gateau de crespeus from “Simple,” a cold loaf of five layered omelettes, or crepes, each no more than a half inch thick with a different filling (courgettes, spinach, mushrooms, black olives and a hamless piperade: onions, tomatoes and sweet peppers). The omelettes are stacked in a charlotte mold, and a mixture of yet more eggs and butter-stewed sorrel is poured between and around the tiers. The gateau is then cooked in a bain marie. The procedure fills four full pages in my Penguin paperback edition of “Simple” and requires 20 eggs. The dish was not good (nothing to do with the recipe, which couldn’t be more precise), but it did distract me on a day when I needed to be distracted.
“Tap the bottom of the mold smartly against a muffled tabletop:” That line from the recipe caused me to fall a little in love. I had never seen language like that in a cookbook. (Charmingly, Olney goes on to recommend placing a couple of folded towels on the table to cushion the blow.) In “Reflexions,” his erratic, undernourishing memoir, he uses a flamboyant word like “ravish” in straight-faced ways one would not have thought possible in a food context: “The baby adored the limp waffles … but no one else was ravished,” and, “Julie, to her ravishment. …” Musing on bouillabaisse, Olney sniffs that “the Marseillasis drink the white wine of Cassis with it, but I thought that a tannic young red wine with an adolescent edge of sparkle could better support the alliaceous, cayenne, saffron and acid-sweet tomato onslaught.” Adolescent sparkle! Alliaceous onslaught!! Now I was really in love.
Olney wrote “Simple” on an ancient manual typewriter. He lived without a telephone almost till the end, didn’t drive and owned neither a radio nor a television. He was an old-fashioned personage but also a polarizing one, and not just because of his fetish for deboning, mousseline forcemeats, turning chickens inside out without damaging the skin or flesh and poaching birds in pig’s bladders.
While his neighbor in the Midi, Simca (as Simone Beck was known), adored him, her co-author, Julia Child, was not ravished. My opinion of Child was greatly adjusted downward when I read the quote she gave R.W. Apple for Olney’s obituary in The Times. Until then I had no idea she could be so mean. “He could be absolutely charming,” Child sniped, “if you treated him like the genius he considered himself to be.” She didn’t know it at the time, but Olney had been yet meaner about her and her husband, Paul, slamming them in a 1975 diary entry that was folded into Olney’s posthumous memoir. “The Childs appear to be more bitter, more destructive and more irrationally anti-French than ever,” he seethed. What really galled him was the couple’s assertion that only Americans — i.e., themselves — understand French cooking. Should there ever be another movie about Julia, perhaps it will engage with this less cozy side of her.
Whether you agreed with them or not, Olney’s contrarian opinions made you question your own. As his assessments were based on personal, often long experience of the demigods he dismembered, they could not be dismissed. He found M.F.K. Fisher likable enough but without a lot upstairs. Her writing was “silly, pretentious drivel.” Drinking tumblers of sweet vermouth all day would have destroyed her palate, if she’d had one. O.K., Richard, now tell us what you really think. (His own fondness for the bottle could be disruptive and embarrassing. Had Olney’s reputation been any less bulletproof when he appeared on French television soaked to the gills, the incident would have brought him down.)
James Beard fared only slightly better than Fisher. Olney accused Beard of brashly using him to advance his own agenda, resorting to lies, even, if that’s what it took. Elizabeth David was one of the few holiest of holies who escaped intact. To Olney, she was magical, witty, generous, literate and kind, her “devastatingly accurate” observations “funny” but “never cruel.”
After meeting Olney in Sollies-Toucas in 1988, I returned to New York thinking I could get him some magazine assignments. I had no motivation beyond wanting to read him. He didn’t need the work, but he wouldn’t have refused it. Here was this fabulous, legendary figure, I thought — if you have to pay someone $2 a word, it might as well be a world-class authority, right? Actually, no.
My idea probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. Olney was used to having his say. If he thought a puréed and boiled sauce of rabbit lungs, heart, liver and red-wine marinade “looked and tasted like vomit,” he said so. Thanks to his harsh, categorical words, Pont l’Eveque will always be ruined for me. “I haven’t tasted a decent one in twenty five years,” he once wrote. “It is not I who have changed, it is Pont l’Eveque.”