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Charm

September 22, 2014 | by

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Detail from the cover of The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm (1962)

When I was in tenth grade, I went through a phase when I cut class all the time. Not in a fun way—I never told any of my friends what I was doing—or to be rebellious. In retrospect, I think I must have been depressed; I simply could not face other people, or think beyond hiding myself in the library in a small nook on the second floor. For some reason, I always read The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm, from 1962.

Polly Bergen died this week at the age of eighty-four. She was a polymath: an actress, singer, professional sophisticate, and (evidently) advice-giver. I knew none of this when I first picked up the book—why it was in my high school's library is another open question—but quickly I learned about her country-music career, her success in films like Cape Fear, and, of course, the development of her signature look, which involved big glasses and a pouf of a dark coif. It’s not hard to see what attracted me; the cover features Bergen, in evening dress, peering out seductively from behind a cellophane curtain.

Bergen would go on to be a successful entrepreneur—she sold makeup, jewelry, and shoe lines—and an outspoken feminist. She was what was known as a “big personality” in the day, and was open about her ambition and strong will. Her recent obituaries have been laudatory, and quite moving.

In tenth grade, I didn’t know anything about Bergen’s life past 1962, but during those few months of intense intimacy, her brassy sixties-era confidence was deeply comforting. I liked how definite she was about beauty tips, the elements of charm, and the importance of establishing a “type.” I remember her writing that she was really only herself in her glasses; I liked that this was an essential part of her glamor.

One day, I got caught by my favorite teacher. He had checked with the nurse’s office and found that I had lied about being sick. (I had been in the library, reading The Polly Bergen Book of Beauty, Fashion and Charm.) This man was a wonderful teacher; I loved his history class, and I knew he liked me, too, and thought I was smart. I know exactly why I had skipped his class that day. I was ashamed; I had not wanted him to see me depressed and unprepared and as I really was. I wanted to keep his good opinion. “Why did you lie to me?” he said, seeming really hurt. And I didn’t know what to say. Of course, he didn’t like me after that.

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No Hours But (Sort of) Sunny Ones

September 19, 2014 | by

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From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: a mad tea party.

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From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum”

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From Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”

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From Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: “Off with her head!”

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From Galligantus

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From Peter Pan: away he flew.

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From Jack and the Beanstalk Giant

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From Wagner’s The Rhinegold and the Valkyries

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From Wagner’s Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods

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From The Three Bears

You could spend hours marveling at Arthur Rackham’s work. The legendary illustrator, born on September 19, 1867, was incredibly prolific, and his interpretations of Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Rip Van Winkle (to name but a few) have helped create our collective idea of those stories.

Rackham is perhaps the most famous of the group of artists who defined the Golden Age of Illustration, the early twentieth-century period in which technical innovations allowed for better printing and people still had the money to spend on fancy editions. Although Rackham had to spend the early years of his career doing what he called “much distasteful hack work,” he was famous—and even collected—in his own time. He married the artist Edith Starkie in 1900, and she apparently helped him develop his signature watercolor technique. From the publication of his Rip Van Winkle in 1905, his talents were always in high demand. Read More »

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Inherit the Earth

September 18, 2014 | by

REBECCA

From Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca, 1940.

The moment of crisis had come, and I must face it. My old fears, my diffidence, my shyness, my hopeless sense of inferiority, must be conquered now and thrust aside. If I failed now I should fail forever.
―Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

It must be wonderful to be one of those pedestrians who own the streets. To be one of those people who walks where he likes with Ratso Rizzo–like entitlement, or, better yet, is gracious enough to usher a car forward when, in fact, the car has the right of way. Such people, of course, never give a timid wave of appreciation—a tacit “thank you for not killing me”—when a car lets them cross.

It must be wonderful never to assume your name has been left off the list, or that your card will be declined. It must be wonderful not to have the moment of anxiety, every time you pass through automatic doors, that they will not open. It must be wonderful not to cry every time someone slights you, and feel bruised for days afterward. It must be wonderful to be Rebecca de Winter, rather than her nameless successor.

Whether you consider Rebecca escapist fun, or an uneasy picture of the Electra complex run amok, or a masterpiece of Gothic storytelling, one thing is for sure: du Maurier paints one of the most accurate portraits of shyness in all of English literature. The narrator has none of Jane Eyre’s reserves and mysterious poise, none of the position and dignity of Jane Austen’s uncomfortable heroes. She is instead consumed by the particularly agonizing egotism that is shyness: a paralyzing self-consciousness that is reinforced by every slight, every harsh word, every reaction of the world, real and perceived. (I suppose I should add a spoiler alert here, for those unfamiliar with the plot of Rebecca.) Read More »

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Life Studies

September 17, 2014 | by

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A subway ad for the latest “Body Worlds” exhibition.

With the passage of time come certain revelations. Sometimes these are melancholy; people you love are aging, your window for having a family is shrinking, you will never again know the euphoria of youth. Others are welcome. It is comforting to know there will always be more good books to read than there is time in the average life. And I know I can die happily—and will—without ever going into space, swimming with dolphins, or visiting any one of the endless iterations of that “Body Worlds” exhibition.

When the first such exhibition made its grand tour (in the manner of young gentlemen of a past age), it was a novelty. Vaguely shocking, even—remember the ethics review? Everyone was amazed at the artistry of the preservation. One could lend credence to the creators’ arguments that it taught valuable anatomical lessons and educated the public about biology and physiology and, in so doing, helped encourage healthy lifestyle choices. Imagine how much effort such a show might have saved Michelangelo—to say nothing of grave-robbing Scottish medical students! Read More »

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As Dolls to Wanton Kids

September 16, 2014 | by

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Detail from the cover of The Doll’s House.

It is an anxious, sometimes a dangerous thing to be a doll. Dolls cannot choose; they can only be chosen; they cannot ‘do’; they can only be done by. Children who do not understand this often do wrong things, and then the dolls are hurt and abused and lost; and when this happens dolls cannot speak, nor do anything except be hurt and abused and lost. ―Rumer Godden, The Doll’s House

Rumer Godden was preoccupied with dolls. In her many stories about dolls—including Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, Little Plum, Home Is the Sailor, and, of course, The Doll’s House—we are presented with a cast of characters who are at the mercy of children. Some children are rough and wild; others are conscientious and intuitive. They are little gods, and the dolls are their playthings, and when they feel powerless in their own lives, it is the dolls who bear the brunt of this powerlessness. Godden wasn’t the only author to recognize this essential dynamic—The Velveteen Rabbit, Hitty, and later Toy Story truck in the same themes—but no one makes that reality as scary and lonely as she does.

Of all the books, The Doll’s House is perhaps the most sinister. We have Tottie, the stable peg doll; the doll father, who seems to suffer the aftereffects of a rough owner; the mother, who is made of celluloid and so somewhat dotty and scattered. And there is the evil, beautiful Marchpane—more financially valuable in the real world than the others. The dolls are survivors who have found each other—their relationships are resolutely asexual, by the way—but their peace can be shattered by a gust of wind, a candle flame, a child’s whim. It is scary stuff, and compelling, too. There is tragedy here, but even before the tragedy, there is menace.

Of course this appeals to a child. Children are both dolls and masters; they know their powerlessness and need to understand their power. While the subject matter sounds sweet, it becomes a stage for something far darker.

They made a film of The Doll’s House, and while I don’t think it captures the charm of the book completely—Tasha Tudor illustrated one version—it is strange and forceful in its own right.

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The Subtle Thief of Youth

September 15, 2014 | by

selfie stick

The beginning of the end?

Yesterday I saw my first selfie stick. I had read of such things, but I’d never seen one in the wild. It was being wielded by an extremely chic Japanese tourist who held her iPhone at, well, stick’s length, her face shaded by a floppy-brimmed hat, a cigarette drooping from her lips. People tell me such sticks, or “Smart Phone Boom Arms,” are ubiquitous in other countries, and I’m sure they’re all over the place here, too—but it still seems to me that it would take a lot of chutzpah both to carry an implement so explicitly dedicated to the pursuit of narcissism and then to publicly voice-activate it for good measure. “They’re all over the Vatican,” reported one friend.

If you prefer a more private form of solipsism, may I suggest you search for your own first name on UrbanDictionary.com? The rabbit hole that led me to this was a long one—I was curious about the name Beryl, if you must know—but, shamefully, it ended in my finding such reader-supplied entries as: Read More »

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