December 31, 2009

The Last of 2009

“As you grow older you grow lonely because your associates are no longer of your own generation. The companions of your youth are gone and the new generation speaks a language without an echo. Until finally the last and the best, the faithfullest, the wisest, the finest, most upright of all, are gone”.
from my mother's journal

On his last visit Russ was staying in "The Tower" on Sunset which has seen many re-incarnations.

Everybody has his or her favorite spot in L.A. Russ’ for a long time, was the Polo Lounge. However, the smell of canned pine had lost its charm. The Polo Lounge, no longer conjured up Sharon Tate or Jaqueline Susann. Just a week after Thanksgiving we had our last tête-à-tête there. We shared remembrances of old Hollywood and Beverly Hills. What was it like? Different we agreed.

Peter Finch suffered his fatal heart attack here on the red carpet leading from the parking lot to the foyer.
"There but for the grace of God"…said Russ, days before his own demise.

"The Tower" has seen many transformations. The dank smell of stale booze and smoke has vanished beneath a thousand coats of oatmeal colored paint. In the penthouse, framing a spectacular view, shiny glass glistens in the sun’s rays, and in the night, the city beckons with a million lights. The terrace wraps around the entire building. Truman Capote, Claudette Colbert, Errol Flynn and, of course, Montgomery Clift, among others, had all stood there and watched a thousand dusk fall.

The Hollywood hills rise sharply behind, with their houses perched on stilts, roads cut into the crumbling sand, and below the cities of the plain stretch into the haze. 

Thirty years ago, I adored this view and my heart raced just to stand above it. In my imagination, I summoned Monty, and we stood there together looking at the city.

The night before Russ was to return home, we had dinner with a group of Hollywood friends, at Dan Tana’s the old eccentric on Santa Monica. We were in great form, full of life, deeply anarchic, and of course, hysterically funny. We shared the Hollywood we all had loved. The other tables were sullen and speechless, lost in anesthetic by comparison. We on the other hand were raucous, tipsy, and overflowing with stories. Russ had an impressive narrative of “the juiciest skeletons in the choicest closets”. Opinions were aired and squashed. Entire careers were polished off in a sentence. Others were enhanced by some extraordinary revelation. Russ knew them all. It was a magical evening and we closed the restaurant.

Back at the Tower we stood on the terrace. The ghosts were all out on the streets of West Hollywood, shadows flitting through the air, rats watching from the palm trees. Somewhere down there, the next blockbuster was being written by a lonely tech geek hunched before a computer.

Strands of streetlights shimmered in the misty desert night, mile after mile, as unimaginable as the universe, and all of us up here on the terrace looked down in wonder. Truman, Claudette, the Duke, Errol, Monty, Russ, and I.

Now, one more ghost has joined the party.

December 24, 2009

so this is Christmas, again

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This season I will miss:

Mrs. Conroy's fudge
Mrs. Ruth's potato latkes
Bill's knockout eggnog
Uncle Augusts' rendition of Silent Night (in Swahili)
and, last...
Russ' irreverent, ribald version of
The Night before Christmas (Santa blushed), on Christmas morning.
To you and all whom you hold dear, heavenly Holidays.

Joyously, Ms. Edna

December 16, 2009

Where is Drosselmeyer? ...

...we need the Sugar Plum Fairy and a Nutcracker Prince.

I’ve always considered myself a fairly laidback godmother, so it came as quite a shock when I discovered that Clive, who was then age 8, thought that I was the rat king, from the Nutcracker.

Of course, he did not come right out and say so, but that is what the psychiatrist said he was thinking, and who am I to question a psychiatrist?

The whole thing started one Sunday afternoon when Clive and I were off to see the Nutcracker. A children’s Christmas tradition, so I am reminded.

This, unfortunately, was not the over-idyllic version, but an extravagant story of puppets and rats becoming the projection of the dreams of an adolescent girl. Closer to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s dark vision.

When I dropped Clive off at home Larissa said, “You had a good time today I can tell didn’t you?”  “Yes – great,” Clive replied. “The ballet was full of murdering rats and a great, spooky magician called Herr Drosselmeyer who had a big crush on his goddaughter.”

Around one in the morning, a blood-chilling shriek pierced the air. Larissa and Ed rushed into Clive’s room, he was sitting up in bed, and he appeared to be extremely frightened. He was scared. Of what? Both where genuinely surprised, for up until this point in his life, Clive had never shown any indication of being scared. He was scared of the rat that was chasing him. Absurd there were no rats here. Yes, there were, and there was one under his bed right now. They looked under the bed, just to make sure that some rat hadn’t put one over on them, but there was nothing there except an empty cereal box and some toys that had been missing.

Then it suddenly dawned on them that Clive was having a delayed reaction from seeing the Nutcracker. Both sat down on the edge of Clive’s bed and together they tried to allay his fears.

First of all, they pointed out, he could not have been chased by a rat king, because he was still in his bed; he must have dreamed about it. Secondly, there could not be rats anywhere in the neighborhood, because the enchanted Malibu homeowners’ association would not permit it. Thirdly, even if there were a real rat king in the neighborhood, how could he get into the house without a key? Lastly, rat kings are fictional creatures they live only in people’s fantasy.

“That is not true”, objected Clive. “What about the rat king I saw this afternoon?”

“He was just a make-believe rat king, dear”, said Larissa in a soothing voice.

“If he was just make-believe, how could he cause so much trouble?” ask Clive skeptically.

After dad finished his long explanation of make belief to his eight-year old he ask,”Now do you understand about make believe?”

“Yes”, he answered, “but I’m still scared. I want to sleep in your bed.”

Before long, Clive was sleeping peacefully.

Larissa called me the next morning to inform me that there could be no more scary entertainment for Clive until he was a lot older. Apparently, this proofed too stimulating to him.
The same nightmare, apparently, returned five nights in a row. I was wondering if he was overdoing a good thing. How long could a person-even an eight-year-old-go on being frightened by the same rat?
I ask Larissa what she indented to do next. “Well,” she said, “I was talking with our neighbors today, and did you know, dear, that they have been taking Billy to a child psychiatrist ever since he bit his piano teacher?”
“I heard the teacher play, and I don’t blame Billy,” I said.
“No, I am serious,” said Larissa. “Maybe somebody like that could help.”
I could see she was not going to be satisfied until she had sought the advice of an expert. I could hardly wait for the outcome.
Larissa called me the next day. “How did it go?” I ask. She sounded evasive. “I will come to see you right now.”

When she arrived, she flashed me a rather peculiar smile.

“What’s all the secrecy?”

“I’m afraid you’re not going to be pleased,” she began hesitantly.

“You mean I am not going to be able to take Clive to any more kiddy matinees?”

Larissa fortified herself with a deep breath, looked at me, and said, “Dr. Freeman doesn’t believe the ballet has very much to do with Clive’s nightmares. He says the ballet just acted as a trigger mechanism that set off symptoms of some deep-seated psychological problems that are disturbing him. According to Dr. Freeman, Clive is going through a rough stage. He is in love with both of us, and he has a conflict over this.”
“What has that to do with rat kings?”

“It’s very simple. In Clive’s dreams, the rat king is merely a personification of his godmother. It is not a rat king he’s afraid of-it’s you!”

“Me?” I could not believe my ears. “Are you trying to tell me that Clive thinks I am a rat king? Is that what that quack told you? Why, that’s absurd. Why should Clive be afraid of me? Why-I’ve been nothing but nice to him ever since he was born. Rubbish! If the ballet didn’t have something to do with it, why is Clive suddenly dreaming about rat kings?”

“The rat king is only a symbol”, explained Larissa. “It just so happens that you took him to see Nutcracker when he was on the verge of this new stage.”

I tried hard to follow the good doctor’s explanation and advice. I took Clive out, bent over backward to be nice to him. I studied him in amazement.  This cherub-faced, towheaded boy, who was barely three feet tall with his shoes on. It was hard to imagine him the third person in a complicated triangle. However, I had no choice but to do as the doctor ordered.
The next weeks were devoted chiefly to making Clive think of his godmother not as a rat king. We spent many (happy?) hours together. I did not do any punishing, nor did I speak any harsh words to Clive, no matter how much his behavior warranted it. I simply turned the case over to Larissa. She would see to it that he got his just deserts.
Dr. Freeman had recommended an excellent system. Larissa was the disciplinarian, and I was the amiable social director. There was only one problem with the system: the situation was not improving.
Ed was getting tired of the situation. “I’m sick of this nonsense,” he finally said one morning after a sleepless night.

He did not tell Larissa, but he decided the he’d been patient enough, and that the time had come for action.
It was half past twelve, when Clive came tiptoeing into the room.

“Daddy, there is a-“

“Out!” Ed roared, sitting up in bed and pointing to the door.

“Don’t give me that rat king routine. Go back to you room and go to sleep.”

“That’s no way to speak to our son, can’t you see he is frightened?” said Larissa.

“Frightened my eye. What he needs is a good sound spanking.”

“Nobody is going to spank this poor defenseless child-you big bully,” said Larissa, “Why he be traumatized for life.”

With that, Ed moved himself into one of the guest bedrooms and tried to go to sleep.

Just as he was drifting off he saw a figure steal into the room and over to the bed. He was short and wearing pajamas.

“Daddy,” said Clive in a loud whisper.

“What do you want?” ask Daddy.

“I did not have a nightmare tonight,” said Clive.

“Well, if you did not have a nightmare, what were you doing in our room?” Ask Ed.

“I just came to tell you about the mouse.”

“Mouse? What mouse?”

“The one that woke me up. I heard a noise and I went in the bathroom and there was a mouse.”

“It is running probably all over the house by now.” Said Ed.

“No, it isn’t,” said Clive. “I shut the bathroom door on it. It is still in there. I just heard it squeaking.”

That’s about all there is to the story. Ed cornered the mouse and there were no more nightmares.

But one day, two years later, when Mercedes was turning eight, she came to me and said, “Will you take me to see Nutcracker?”

“I’m afraid not,” I replied. Nutcracker is much too scary for children. It may give you bad dreams.”

“You took Clive to see it,” Mercedes reminded me.

“Well, I’m not taking you,” I said. “And that’s final.”

You can imagine my dismay when Mercedes said to me a few weeks later, “Guess what? You don’t have to take me to see Nutcracker. It’s going to be on television.”

Perhaps I shouldn’t have let this frighten me, but on the weekend Nutcracker was scheduled to air, I made sure the television was not working. Being a rat king once in a lifetime was enough for me.

December 05, 2009

Santa, baby…

…the benevolent Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and the North Pole.

Don’t let the children know, but Santa Claus lies dead and buried. His present condition-a heap of dust, a cranium, and a few splinters of bone-and his present whereabouts-in the hot heel of Italy-do not hinder his Christmastime polar flights, his descent down chimneys, or his lavish offerings, so there is no need for anxiety. Indeed, perhaps the real surprise is that Santa could have died at all, since that entails that he once was as alive as you and I, that he was young, perhaps beardless, and may have weighed less than two hundred pounds.

In his long history, Santa had traveled much farther than the distance from the North Pole. He actually descends from a very ancient thaumaturge, or wonderworking saint, who has been venerated in Europe since the sixth century: Saint Nicholas, bishop of Myra. The scarlet suited, cheery figure we celebrate today is a nineteenth-century creation. It was Washington Irving, in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, and Clement Moore, in A Visit from Saint Nicholas, who inaugurated in America the modern character of the Christmas holiday and its ritual largess. Although they represented the jovial lord of bounty with his sack of toys as entirely traditional, as an authentic and ancient part of Dutch Protestant culture in New Amsterdam, the personality of their Santa is largely an invention. Nevertheless, their version of the jolly Sinter Claes, the Lowlands’ patron of cookies and sweets whose feast is December 6, was enthusiastically adopted. Santa Claus became Manhattan’s saint and the genius of Western commercial Christmas.

Saint Nicholas, his avatar, was once of medieval Europe’s favorite saints. In France, the cathedral of Chartres narrates the story of his adventures and miracles on the south portal and in four stained-glass windows. In England, 385 churches were dedicated to him before the end of the fifteenth century, compared with 202 to the country’s patron saint, Saint George. His cult inspired the earliest verse dramas in Europe, tuneful musical liturgies and popular songs, and widely disseminated icon. His bones, which miraculously exuded myrrh, a fragrant oil of great power for healing, were the focus of one of medieval Europe’s most energetic cult.

Saint Nicholas has lain in the Italian port city of Bari since 1087. For more than seven hundred years before that, his body was venerated in his church in Myra, now in ruins, where, according to his legend, he was bishop in the fourth century A.D. Myra, a sheltered harbor on the southern coast in present-day Turkey, provided a refuge for his ships along that inhospitable shore, and the shrine was well attended by pilgrims giving thanks for the protection of Saint Nicholas. He could, they attested, fly through the air at will and still wintry storms. His flowing myrrh, gathered by the tomb’s guardians, who lowered the sponge into the sarcophagus and then squeezed the liquid into phials, was eagerly collected. This ability made him a special type of saint, a myroblythe, one who has the power to generate new relics perpetually.

The fame of the shrine spread, and after the Byzantine defeat by the Saracens at Manzikert in 1071, when that part of the Greek empire was occupied by the Moslems, the Christians of the western Mediterranean began to cast covetous eyes on the precious body of the saint. In an enterprise, that perfectly anticipates the Crusades in its blend of chivalry and crime, a company of sailors from Bari-sixty-two in all-sailed to Myra to save the beloved Saint Nicholas for the Christian world. They met with opposition, for the often-tolerant Saracens has left the sanctuary untouched, and its Greek clergy were still in attendance, attempting to prevent the Barians from stealing the relics. The Greeks “wailed and rent their priestly garments from their breasts,” wrote the chronicler Nicephorus soon after the event. Their efforts were to no avail. The Barians, declaring that they had been told in a vision to take the body, tied them up and scolded them: “It is only right that so important and illustrious a state as Bari should enjoy this great patronage.”

On May 9, 1087, Saint Nicholas was translated, as the liturgical phrase has it, and arrived in Bari. The feast of his translation is still celebrated on that day, the climax of a week of festivities. His arrival by sea is reenacted in the harbor, while the archbishop and notables of the town gather on land and in boats to greet the huge, garlanded effigy of the saint coming to shore.

Bari is prosperous today, the most well to do town in the new South, but then it was not “a great state” as the proud native son Nicephorus claimed. Saint Nicolas, it was thought, would help it to become one, just as Saint Mark, translated from Alexandria to Venice, had hallowed that city’s ambitions. Bari was a strategic base in the Norman kingdom that the family of Hauteville were consolidating in the South while their cousin William was conquering England. It was a crucial port for the great adventure in the East that would start with the First Crusade, a decade after Nicholas was translated. The acquisition of his wonder-working body contributed vitally to the aggrandizement of the town and of its new lord, Bohemond, the future prince of Antioch and cousin of Roger II, the future king of Sicily. Nicholas rendered illustrious the place where he came to rest, and by radiating holiness he confirmed his new owners’ legitimacy.

Bohemond ordered that the site of the former palace of the Byzantine governor be used for a new, splendid shrine to Saint Nicholas. The basilica of San Nicola di Bari rose quickly, an austere, uncompromising edifice. Just two years after Nicholas’s arrival, the new pope, Urban II, preacher of the Crusades, consecrated the crypt in which the saint still lies.

Colonnaded like a shady, mysterious grove and starry with sanctuary lamps hung from the vaults, this subterranean shrine focuses all attention on the tomb of the saint, in the center.

A huge four-teenth-century icon, covered in chased and beaten silver gilt, hangs over it. Above the crypt, in the chancel of the basilica, the high altar stands under an exquisitely sculpted octagonal ciborium.

The archbishop’s throne, behind it, is a remarkable example of fantastic Lombard sculpture. On the floor of the chancel, ornamented with inlaid marbles, a border of Cufic lettering gives the name of God in Arabic, while the crypt houses the world’s first Orthodox chapel in use inside a Catholic church. Saint Nicholas indeed has the power to overlook differences and effect reconciliations; like his Norman devotees, who employed Arabs, Greeks, Jews, and Latins in their kingdom in the South, he counts few people strangers.

Saint Nicholas’s powers extend into many spheres: he is a dependable guardian against explosives, the favorite intercessor for perfumers, and, in Paris, the patron saint of firemen; but above all, he is a protector of children, like his descendant Santa Claus. Also, as his biographer C.W. Jones put in his learned and witty study Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan, he has always shown” due respect for the material things in life” and so became the adopted saint of bankers, pawnbrokers, merchants, and shopkeepers. A typical miracle of Saint Nicholas, as told, for instance, in the twelfth-century comedy Le Jeu de Saint Nicolas, by Jean Bodel, shows the saint's sensitive understanding of the human acquisitive impulse and proper sympathy with the need for possessions in this life. In the play, an icon of the saint is set up to guard a treasure belonging to a heathen "barbarian. " When thieves steal it, the owner whips the saint's image in fury. In response, Nicholas appears to the robbers and terrorizes them into returning the hoard to its owner, who promptly converts to Christianity.

Money is again the issue in another miracle play, in Latin, that takes place in Myra during Nicholas's youth. A father with three unmarried daughters decides that he will have to sell them into prostitution one by one since he cannot provide them with dowries. Nicholas, hearing of their straits, rescues each girl in turn from her fate by throwing a bag of gold in through the window at night. This clandestine act of selfless generosity, so similar to the nocturnal and secret visits of Santa, was painted with a delighting sense of human drama by Fra Angelico in one of the two panels illustrating Nicholas's life in the Vatican Pinacoteca.

The three bags of gold eventually migrated from piety to commerce and became the emblem of moneylenders, the familiar sign of the pawnbroker's shop.

In still another miracle play, also much painted, Saint Nicholas revives three youths murdered for their money by an avaricious innkeeper, who salted their corpses away in a tub of brine. Gradually, the saint's care for young people transformed a clerical celibate into a grandfatherly figure: in some of his cult statues, Saint Nicholas appears with a child beside him, like a man taking out his grandson. This child, called Basileos, or Adeodatus, "given by God," was kidnapped by Saracens, according to the Nicholas legend, and then taken into slavery to be cupbearer to the emir of Crete. His grief-stricken parents visited the shrine of Saint Nicholas, and there, on the steps, a year after his disappearance, they found their son again, with the emir's golden cup still in his hand.

Like Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas has magical powers of displacement and can transport himself and others anywhere at any time.

His care for children also inspired lullabies. In Apulia, tired mothers sing to their babies, telling them that the infant Nicholas abstained from his mother's breast out of piety and called instead for pen and ink and parchment. In these dialect songs, the miracle worker of Myra whose bones drip fragrant oil in the tomb in Bari often becomes recognizably Santa, provider of all things for children at Christmas.

When children consult with Santa asking for a special toy, they are unwittingly continuing the ancient Christian belief in intercession, so scorned by those very Dutch Protestants who were this country's first devotees of Santa, and keeping alive at the heart of Christmas materialism the religious cult of one of Christendom's oldest and best-loved saints.

November 20, 2009

Free-range chickens, Hollywood style.

When I drove into Hollywood yesterday I encountered an amazing sight in the parking lot…

…there he stood, bold as brass, looking at me.

And here is his story:
A band of "freeway chickens" in Hollywood? It’s true, although how they came to be part of the roadside ambiance of the Hollywood Freeway is still disputed. According to widely¬ believed lore, a poultry truck overturned near the Vineland Avenue exit in 1969, sending hundreds of suddenly freed chickens scurrying for safety. Some of the birds went to the Great Chicken Bucket in the Sky when their run for freedom abruptly ended under the wheels of passing automobiles, but enough survived the perilous dash to form a permanent colony of chickens living on the edge of one of the busiest freeways in America.

Or so says the legend. In true folkloric fashion, various folks have claimed to have been the ones responsible for those chickens coming to roost there, and each has offered a different explanation.

In 1990, Jeff Stein of Granada Hills claimed the following:

My wife and her twin sister kept the secret to themselves for years. Then, one day, someone mentioned the poultry truck story at her sister's house and my wife said, "That's not how the chickens got there. We put them there."

Janet Stein related how in 1968, when the girls were 12, they learned that a nearby school that raised animals was closing and that its resident chickens would be killed.

The twins scooped them up and succeeded in hiding them at home until a rooster awoke everyone at 5 a.m. The chickens couldn't stay.

"So there were these two little girls," said Jeff Stein, "hiking through a field to an open area near the freeway."

How many chickens did they dump?

"How many can you fit into two pillowcases?" he asked.

In 2000, Joe Silbert of Laguna Hills stepped forward to claim he drove the legendary poultry truck:

I tried to avoid a driver who cut in front of me and I turned over. I was taking anywhere from 500 to 1,000 chickens back from the Valley to a slaughterhouse in L.A. They were all hens. We never picked up roosters. These hens had stopped laying. They would eat but not produce, so they were costing farmer’s money. Anyway, I had a crate of eggs on the seat beside me, and when I turned over; my head fell into the crate. But I wasn't hurt. I started chasing one chicken and it was on the TV news that night.

One is left wondering if all the birds were hens that had stopped laying how this colony of chickens has managed to renew itself all these years.

So how the chickens came to roost where they do is in dispute. That they're there, however is not - the Freeway Chickens are still part of the Hollywood scene despite attempts at various times to head them up and move them out. In the late 1970s, the Department of Animal Regulation was prevailed upon to round up the fowls near the Vineland Avenue off-ramp. Nearly one hundred of the critters were shipped to a ranch in Simi Valley, where they pecked out the rest of their existence. However, at least a few members of the colony eluded capture and have continued to do what comes natural to hens and roosters.

Besides the original Freeway Chickens, a second colony known as the “New Freeway Chicken” makes their home alongside another portion of the Southland's freeway system. They reside at the Burbank on-ramp of the Hollywood Freeway, a location about two miles from their more famous poultry neighbors. In 1990, yet another resident of North Hollywood stepped forward to tell the tale of their origin. According to Carol Garnjost, the chickens came to be where they are after a pit bull chased off its owner's chickens and rabbits in 1985, the rabbit ending up in a neighbor's yard and the chickens coming to roost on a median strip of this on-ramp.

As for the original group and its fabled "poultry-truck accident" origin, though at first blush such an event might sound far-fetched, any number of odd items have found their way onto Los Angeles freeways over the years. A 1997 Los Angeles Times article reported:

Just about everything has fallen on L.A. roadways over the years. Some unusual, unscheduled deposits:
• About $7,000 worth of quarters on Hollywood Freeway; motorists jumping from cars reportedly get away with about 10% of the loot. (Sept. 13, 1982)

• Thousands of pounds of M&M candies on Orange Freeway in Fullerton; surprisingly, no motorists attempt to scoop up any. (March 26, 1986)

• One body on Hollywood Freeway from back of coroner's van. (Nov. 28, 1989)

• Hundreds of gallons of laughing gas on Foothill Freeway; happiest rush hour ever. (July 17, 1991)

• One 26-ton boat on Culver Boulevard; city crews move into action and remove it –36 hours later. (Nov. 6, 1989)

• Some 14,000 pounds of salsa on Interstate 5 in San Clemente; only chips in vicinity are CHP officers. (June 16, 1987)

• Forty-thousand bees on Foothill Freeway; it's so chilly they don't attack anyone. (March 14, 1985)

• More than 1,000 jugs of wine on Golden State Freeway; crews keep motorists away. (Oct. 9, 1974)

• One actress' resume ("Hair: honey blond; Eyes: hazel blue") on Foothill Freeway. (July 19, 1990)

Another article contains an equally impressive recitation of Los Angeles freeway finds: peevish bees, stampeding cattle, boats, pianos, mayonnaise, fish, broken watermelons, bananas, hot asphalt, soft drinks, margarita mix, tomatoes, beer, 150 tons of honey, a wild boar's head, a 5-foot-tall papier-mache rhinoceros, a U.S. Navy depth charge, sides of beef, mannequins, and a dead 15-foot 2,OOO-pound great white shark.

Those who lack the opportunity to see the Hollywood poultry in motion firsthand might want to dig up a copy of a favorite video game: Activision's Freeway, a 1982 amusement in which players were challenged to guide their chickens safely across ten lanes of busy freeway traffic.

boundin' and reboundin' weekend...
...thank goodness for Jackalopes

November 06, 2009

A Perfect Travelling Pleasure

The human race was designed, in my opinion, not to run for its physical recreation, but to walk. Most people look silly running, but one can walk with swank, one can walk with style, one can walk and feel wonderful parading down the Champs-Elysees. One can observe with dignity the passing scene, one can converse without panting, smile without strain, and take one’s exercise with the composure evolution evidently intended, when it stood us on two legs and made us lords of nature.

Once, on a French national holiday, I really did walk down the middle of the Champs-Elysees, feeling terrifically Gaullist, and I have felt distinctly exalted walking over the Brooklyn Bridge on a fine Sunday evening.

Few pleasures I know are more perfectly proportioned than a single night upon the Venetian island of Torcello, the one whose stalwart campanile you see, beyond the leaning tower of Burano, farthest away of all in the northern reaches of the lagoon. It is one of life’s rules that most pleasures are too much of a good thing. Only the very best of them come and go lightly, leaving you satisfied but not sated, with the sweet aftertaste in the mind that follows your awakening from a happy dream.

For me, such a pleasure is the pleasure of a night in Torcello, even in these times of touristic overkill. By definition it cannot last too long and by geography it cannot be too overwhelming, for the island is only about a mile around, has a permanent population of less than a hundred, and contains at the most a couple of dozen buildings. There are no cars on it, and no paved roads. That campanile greets its visitors with an easygoing tolerance still, knowing that though they may be here today, they will almost certainly be gone before tomorrow.

What I like to do is board the slinky excursion launch that takes the tourists out from Venice for lunch at the Locanda Cipriani, the islands long celebrated hotel. This gives me a flashy reentry to Torcello.

The experience offers a piquant mixture of sensations. The launch sails cautiously up the long narrow creek which is the main street of Torcello, beneath a bridge without parapet (alleged to have been designed by the devil) until it reaches the fulcrum of relative bustle-a moored boat or two, a few spectators hanging around-which marks the presence of the locanda.

It looks like a modest country tavern from the outside, but inside you will overhear confident accents in Parisian, Japanese, or New Yorker, gin fizzes and scampi and laughter between tables. When I watch the great pleasure launch sail away again, all sunglasses, designer pants and now vinous badinage, it is as though the great hard world itself is departing the island, leaving me naïve upon its shore.

On the green piazza beyond the restaurant women in straw hats, sell lace from a parade of canopied stalls. There is the rough-hewn stone seat once popularly supposed to have been the throne of Attila the Hun. Now occupied by a sprawling, lazy, spoilt feline, sic transit…

Tourists come and go in waves all afternoon. By the early evening, everybody is gone. Attila’s throne is empty too. A hush descends upon the island and the few score souls that remain upon it. It is time to go for an evening walk.

A man told me once that he found Torcello “dead as old bones.” He was speaking, though, as a Los Angelinos, to whom such a half-abandoned place, once a thriving municipality with heaps of money, may well offer funereal vibrations. Actually, by the standard of these generally sterile waters Torcello is like an animated oasis.

Dusty lanes take me through its fields, past brackish back canals, through plantations of sunflowers sagging with the weight of their blossoms, besides meadows of indeterminable vegetables and indefinable salad plants, where solitary men are still laboring away. Up a reedy creek, a fisherman rows his boat from the lagoon, standing cross-oared in the old Venetian way.

Dead as bones indeed! Tadpoles squirm in the little rivulets, beetles stalk the grasses, seabirds squawk, hens and pigeons scrabble in yards, cats eye and dogs gaze at me, lizards flick on fencing posts, tall asphodels stir in the breeze from the Adriatic. A distant bell rings across the lagoon, perhaps from the cypress-shrouded monastery of San Francesco del Deserto, and with a laborious gasp, the great bell of Torcello itself awakens to boom mellow and melancholy through the twilight.

So night falls, and I feel myself enfolded in velvet privacy among the waters. All alone I wander after dinner through the quiet shadowy monuments of Torcello’s lost consequence, its domes and its arcades, its crumbled pillars and indecipherable plaques, its campanile half-hidden in the darkness above. There is nobody about but me, unless some of the backpackers have unrolled their sleeping bags beneath the cathedral cloister; only me, the mosquitoes, the frogs, which leap around my feet and the little bats that forage in and out of the lamplight.

In the morning, the swallows have taken over, whirling dizzily around the bell tower and the chimney pots. Now, after breakfast, I look once more at the buildings. I have known this island for over 40 years, but I feel it my duty. Besides, they are not only few, but also marvelous. It was to this sedgy island, fifteen centuries ago, that the first off all the Venetians came as fugitives; the little cluster of buildings that is Torcello now represents the true beginning of all that we mean, all the dazzle and the beauty, all the power and the fizz and the sadness, when we speak the name of Venice.

What a claim! And what monuments, concentrated as they are within the space of a couple of hundred yards! Cool and calm in the simple domed form of the church of Santa Fosca, a though a princely stable has been converted for holy use. Infinitely touching is the lonely figure of the Madonna, high in her mosaic apse, which greets you in the bleached stoniness of the cathedral. Peculiar stone objects of unimaginable age litter the sacred purlieus, and it is a fine thing to sit on Attila’s throne, before the cat arrives, looking across the tiled domes to the mighty tower above. From time to time the bell assembles its energies again to announce that another Torcello hour has passed.

Noon, time for another meal. I ate my way into Torcello with the jet set; I eat my way out with the Italians, for the people who order their seafood or spaghetti at the Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo come mostly from Padua, Vicenza, Treviso, or Venice. This gives the restaurant an organic, family feel, very pleasant to take with a glass of wine and one of the rough rolls that, distributed from table to table out of big wicker baskets, constitutes Torcello’s very bread of life. The conversation and wine flow. Imperceptibly turns the cycle of the island’s life. I am hardly through the cheese when looking up across the patio, I catch sight of today’s boatload of cosmopolitans, looking just like yesterday’s, sailing well-fed back to Venice from the locanda up the way.

Heavens, my own vaporetto leaves at any moment. I pay my bill, grab my bag, and sprint to the landing stage just in time to see the humped shape of the Number 12 foaming up from Burano. And if I’m not in time? Well, I can always catch the next one; or I can start all over again, stay another night, with the frogs, the swallows, the mosquitoes and the great bell of the cathedral, and see how far a rule of life can be stretched.

itchy feet caravan weekend

November 04, 2009

One man’s joy

The perfect rebuttal to Mies van der Rohe’s dictum was embodied in the hilltop estate of the Los Angeles designer Tony Duquette. Where he had created a visual fantasyland firmly founded on the belief that more is more.

“Dreams caught in the net of reality,” he reflected, quoting the French poet Louise de Vilmorin, while he gazed fondly at the profusion of objects that he and his wife, Elizabeth, had fabricated and collected over forty years.

From the house, inspired by the Italian Renaissance, to the garden-a living Chinese coromandel screen, Duquette had managed such juxtapositions of antiques and exotica that anything as humdrum as a telephone was startling.

During his long career, Duquette had confected artful interiors for such clients as J. Paul Getty, Norton Simon, Doris Duke, and Elizabeth Arden. His last commission was the refurbishment of the Palazzo Brandolini in Venice for Dodi Rosenkranz. He was the first American to have a one-man show at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, in Paris.

When we met, he was a young seventy-year-old pinning me with bright eyes and a mischievous smile. As we meandered through the rooms and terraces, reminiscing, he seemed like a careful curator in a museum whose contents are old friends.

The house recalled memories of a trip to Venice. “All cities on the sea have a tremendous influence on me,” he said. “It’s the thing of the ship returning with its treasures, the galleon with the gold of Peru.”

The unexpected mélange gave the place its magic. It would startle and surprise the eye. He pointed out, “when someone says, ‘Oh, you must have had so much fun doing this,’ it’s insulting. It’s a struggle to give it that sense of lightness and pleasure.”

He was never offended by the comment people made that they loved it, but could not live in it. “Precisely”, he said, “I did not make it for them, but for myself.”

p.s.: some of the items from the Duquette estate went on auction and a friend acquired a set of frogs. When she set them up in her house, she was disappointed. “They look so déplacé.” Exactly.

November 01, 2009

Wie leicht wird Erde sein

nur eine Wolke Abendliebe
wenn als Musik erlöst
der Stein in Landsflucht zieht...
Nelly Sachs (1891-1970)

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October 30, 2009

A haunting anyone? (Yes Charles we do.)

Estes Park, Colo.: The Stanley Hotel (the Granddaddy)

Do you believe in ghosts? Accommodations across the country say they do. Whether it’s the historic Hotel Chelsea in New York City, the Queen Mary ocean liner that’s permanently berthed in California or the towering Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast in Oregon, these hotels offer something more than chocolates on your pillow: a room with a boo.

Stephen King’s visit to this 138-room Georgian hotel in Estes Park, Colo., inspired him to write “The Shining.” Picture it: King was there with his wife, in Room 217, in late October; the hotel about to close for the season, with its large, empty corridors and the threat of a Rocky Mountain snowfall on the horizon. Is it any wonder that he wrote a spine-tingling tale of terror about a possessed, alcoholic innkeeper and his psychic son? The Stanley Hotel says there are nonfiction ghosts, too. It offers tours of its most haunted rooms and places. Relax with a cocktail in the bar afterwards — just don’t order the “Redrum.”

Victoria, British Columbia: The Fairmont Empress

Visitors flock to the Fairmont Empress’ elegant lobby to indulge in the British tradition of afternoon tea. But you may wish to put down that teacup and cucumber sandwich for a minute to hear a tale of murder and mystery. Francis Mawson Rattenbury, the architect of both the Empress and the British Columbia Parliament buildings, met an untimely end, bludgeoned to death by his second wife’s 18-year-old lover. Today, guests frequently report seeing the figure of a tall, thin man with a mustache and a frock coat lurking in the hallway. Is that one lump on your head, Mr. Rattenbury, or two?

Groveland, Calif.: The Groveland Hotel of Yosemite Park

When this historic 1849 hotel touts “in-room extras,” it's not just talking about champagne and chocolates. Innkeepers Grover and Peggy Mosley delight in telling you about Lyle, the ghost of a gold miner who “plays tricks” on staff and guests in or near his former hangout, Room 15. It is said that Lyle does not care for clutter or women's cosmetics on his dresser. Whoosh! Could that be the curtains rustling, or is it Lyle knocking your stuff on the floor? It’s hard to say, when the lights keep switching on and off …

Jerome, Ariz.: Jerome Grand Hotel

The Jerome Grand Hotel, as it turns out, has more to offer than historic accommodations. The hotel’s Web site boasts “ghost hunter nights” where visitors can use “state-of-the-art equipment” to search for orbs and apparitions, including the ghost of Claude Harvey, who apparently prefers to hang out in the elevator shaft. Is that a smudge on your camera lens, or a visitor from another dimension?

Yachats, Ore.: Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast

Ocean mist swirls around this working 1894 lighthouse, towering 205 feet above the ocean. But is that really the mist … or is it a shadowy female shape that floats above the rocky cliffs? Some say it is Rue, the mother of a girl who fell off the cliffs and died, who’s been reported lurking about the keeper’s house and the attic. What is her purpose, we wonder? Perhaps she takes comfort in finding shelter in a storm.

Marfa, Texas: El Paisano Hotel

What’s that in the distance? Vehicle lights? Porch lights? Swamp gas? Or could it be the mysterious Marfa Lights? The unexplained “ghost lights” have been seen on U.S. Route 67 east of Marfa and attract tourists to town to sneak a glimpse of the strange, nocturnal orbs. Check into Marfa’s El Paisano Hotel for a convenient place to stay. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places and once hosted the cast and crew of the film “Giant,” starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and others.

New York City: Hotel Chelsea

The 12-story, blood-red Hotel Chelsea was built in 1883 as a private apartment cooperative. Nowadays, it’s quite the hip spot to visit. Famous artists, musicians and poets check in to the Hotel Chelsea — but some of them never check out. The poet Dylan Thomas died of alcohol poisoning here in 1953, and Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols is believed to have stabbed his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death on Oct. 12, 1978, a few months before his own death from a drug overdose. Is that anarchy in the elevator, or could it be that Sid’s back to raise a ruckus?

Milwaukee: The Pfister

Hark! Is that the sound of the Pfister’s blood-red awnings rustling in the wind? Or could it be the ghost of Charles Pfister? The founder of the Milwaukee hotel has been dead for quite some time, but several guests have reported seeing his apparition hovering over the grand staircase, peering over travelers as they check in.

Text “ghostwritten” by Robin Dalmas, Bing Travel;
photos Connie Ricca

for Charles, who believes we Yankees are "ghostless".