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Author Archive

Birthday Girl

August 19, 2015 | by

silent star

From the cover of Silent Star.

Why lie? I first picked up Colleen Moore’s 1968 autobiography, Silent Star, because I wanted to read about the dollhouse. Yes, Moore is a pivotal figure in early Hollywood. Yes, Flaming Youth is considered one of the defining pieces of flapper culture. But it was the dollhouse that grabbed me.

The Colleen Moore dollhouse is indeed something to see, and plenty of people do: since 1949 the Fairy Castle has been on display at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, where once can marvel at the perfection of the elaborate interiors, the world’s tiniest Bible, and the miniature paintings contributed by Walt Disney. And the memoir does not stint on details about the house’s furnishing, its financing, the dozens of Hollywood designers and artist friends Moore tapped to decorate the fairy castle, which as a touring attraction would raise a great deal of money for children’s charities. (Necessary to mention for those who want to suggest a grown woman is “arrested” for squandering time and money on such an enterprise—or, indeed, reading about it obsessively.) Read More »

Form Versus Function

August 18, 2015 | by

The unreadable book.

 

It is always the unreadable that occurs. —Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying

People toss around the word unreadable a lot—invariably about something they have, by definition, read, at least in part. By “people,” I specifically mean people who read for a living, or part of it. It’s one of those conversation enders, a condemnation so sweeping and damning that one is powerless to argue. Read More »

Salmon Mousse, or Absolute Power

August 17, 2015 | by

First edition, 1988.

Cooking, as we know, is a constant test of character. It’s easy to pretend we’re all attracted to the high-minded ideals of fostering community, continuing traditions, and feeding souls. But catering for others is often competitive—even if the competition is only with oneself. There is the constant temptation to show off, to experiment, to give into exhibitionism, to put theoretical pleasures before a guest’s actual comfort. The turning out of a completely anodyne meal can be an exhausting exercise, because for every normal and pleasing dish served, there exist the ghosts of a hundred more exciting possibilities considered and abandoned, haunting the dinner table with their potential glory. The trick is keeping overweening ambition at bay. The trick is remembering that, for the duration of the meal, you have a kind of control over others.

And so the question really becomes: What does one do with absolute power? The Stanford Prison Experiment is always looming on the horizon. Benignity goes against nature. Read More »

We Are All Sensitive People

August 14, 2015 | by

From the cover of Let’s Get It On.

On an uptown local train during the height of an August rush hour, an old man fell asleep in his seat. It should be said that the man in question probably believed his music was contained; he was wearing earbuds. But either he’d neglected to properly plug the headphones into the outlet or the mechanism was somewhat faulty. Because for whatever reason, “Let’s Get It On” started blasting loudly in the otherwise quiet car.

The average urbanite sees a few things in a lifetime of public transit. Kids fighting. Women screaming. Perverts perving. Madmen ranting violently. And the occasional eel, escaped from a shopping bag, writhing wildly down the length of a J-train car. On one occasion, a seven-foot schizophrenic caked in filth spent the better part of an uptown express trip berating a woman whom he claimed had grabbed his ass, threatening to turn her into the transit cops for sexual harassment.

And yet, I have never seen a trainful of passengers more uncomfortable than in the moment when the first four insinuating notes started to play, and Marvin Gaye’s sensuous, passion-roughened voice filled the car. Read More »

Letters of Note

August 13, 2015 | by

Thomas_Rowlandson_-_A_Book_Auction

Thomas Rowlandson, A Book Auction, 1810-15.

In his late twenties, my father was a habitué of the Charles Hamilton Autograph Auctions at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, where he would snap up anything that went unsold at the end of the day; in this way he earned the nickname The Vulture. Charles Hamilton himself was a noted signatures expert who had given testimony in a number of prominent forgery cases. His auctions were known for their quality and their miscellany, and for the personality of their proprietor. ‘‘Unless you have a soul made of solid lead,’’ he purportedly said, ‘‘your pulse quickens and your eyes brighten when you look upon something that a great man actually held and into which he put his personal thoughts.’’

My father, due to his own somewhat indiscriminate buying practices, ended up with a somewhat unfocused collection of bargains. He had some good pieces of ephemera—two tickets to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, a dinner invitation from Thomas Jefferson—but he also had a single strand of John Keats’s hair. And then there were the ones that got away. There was that time Hamilton auctioned off Harry Truman’s World War I diaries, and the asking price was a bit high, and no one was allowed to inspect them before bidding, “and they might have been incredibly boring,” but still … Read More »

Here Are Ghosts

August 12, 2015 | by

Jose Bautista, Hotel Palace de Madrid, 2007

In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority. In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce. Every man is himself a class; every hour carries its new challenge. When you pass the inn at the end of the village you leave your favorite whimsy behind you; for you will meet no one who can share it. We listen to eloquent speaking, read books and write them, settle all the affairs of the universe. The dumb village multitudes pass on unchanging; the feel of the spade in the hand is no different for all our talk: good seasons and bad follow each other as of old. The dumb multitudes are no more concerned with us than is the old horse peering through the rusty gate of the village pound. The ancient map-makers wrote across unexplored regions, “Here are lions.” Across the villages of fishermen and turners of the earth, so different are these from us, we can write but one line that is certain, “Here are ghosts.”
―W. B. Yeats, The Celtic Twilight: Faerie and Folklore

In a Boston hotel, I sit waiting for a glass of sherry. The hotel is old and historic, but it is not what I envisioned; a corporate renovation has done away with all but the most stubborn traces of the past. Conference attendees stream through, “Jesse’s Girl” is blasting overhead. The menu has gone dubiously fusion. But then, this is why I can afford it.

No matter. I’m a master at ignoring the present. I find the reluctant concessions to history on that menu. I focus on the brass dial above the elevator, and the black-and-white photos in the lobby, and bury my nose in a book. The sherry is warm and sweet and awful, but that’s my fault. Read More »