The Year Everything Important Happened



Henri Matisse “Luxe, calme, volupté” 1904.  Oil on canvas, 12 7/8 x 16″ MoMA © 2014 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Remember that one brief shining moment, sometime after the war (WWII) when air travel was affordable, and gas was cheap and people went places and ladies wore hats and gloves?  Now everything is a luxury.  Room for your legs is a luxury.   What was leg room like in steerage?

Not having to do something is a luxury.  Not having to stand in line, not having to pack your own bag, or bring your own bag, or check your bag.  Nothing is free now.

The title for Matisse’s painting comes from a poem by Baudelaire, “L’invitation au voyage,” sometimes translated as “luxury, serenity, pleasure.”  All luxuries, you might say.  Expensive.  Even serenity and pleasure are expensive.

But not always.  Travel was not always something everyone did or did for pleasure; it was not always enjoyable.  There were dangers and discomforts.  There were highwaymen.  Your family and friends got into their Conestoga wagons to go west and you said goodbye, knowing they might die along the way, they might have children and lose children before they got to their final destination, they might be scalped or eaten or left abandoned by the side of the road; you might never see them again.

Every journey is a beginning and an end.   “I will miss you,” my neighbor says.  “Oh but I’m only going over the hill,” I reply to mitigate the moment, to ease off a goodbye, to side-step the sentiment but he waves my words away.  He is older and wiser.  He knows that Time is the real luxury.  We are only here for a little while.  We are all on our way to somewhere else.


What Matters


Witley Park, the ballroom under the lake [Source]

In the midst of Life, or rather in the midst of Moving, you find yourself thinking it all comes down to money and real estate.  What’s the point? you ask yourself.  Let it all go.  Toss the keys inside as you close the door and walk away with nothing but a loin cloth and a begging bowl.

Whitaker Wright committed suicide in 1904, at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, immediately following his conviction for fraud.  Cyanide capsule.  He was the son of a Methodist minister but that didn’t stop him from making a vast fortune swindling folks.  With the money he bought and then greatly expanded Witley Park (formerly Lea Park), adding more wings and outbuildings and follies than you could shake a stick at, and then yet more land and gardens and even a ballroom – actually a billiards room – constructed of iron and glass beneath one of the ornamental lakes on the sprawling grounds.  But in the end, all the money and real estate in the world couldn’t help keep him out of jail, so he killed himself.

Speaking of real estate and killing yourself, there’s the curious case of a number of wealthy British investors (and a Russian oligarch) dying or killing themselves over a land development deal in Moscow apparently gone very bad.  Friends of the bankrupt property tycoon Scot Young who recently fell to his death out the window of his London flat, have also been turning up dead in what some are calling a “Ring of Death.”  Coincidence?  How many friends of yours have to fall on the subway tracks before someone notices a pattern?

But as I said, I’m moving so all it takes for me is the packing up of a few personal effects to make me question the point of owning anything in the first place.  Give it all away, I tell myself.  Nothing’s worth dying for.  But then I don’t know.  Say you really do relinquish all your earthly possessions.  Then what?  You go off and Seek the Eternal Truth and What Really Matters and then in a couple weeks you’ll wish you had your stuff back.

Art and Artifice


Tony Duquette’s Dawnridge

In 1904 Elsie de Wolfe retired from a career on the stage and set about making the world a more beautiful place.  She had a talent for getting other people to spend their money on her, which helped.  And she had a wonderful eye, not just for beautiful things but for interesting people.  Spending the war years (WWII) in Los Angeles, she discovered young Tony Duquette, a window dresser at Bullocks.  She asked him to design a ‘moy-bul’ for her, which was Elsie’s French for ‘meuble’ and Tony dutifully obeyed, delivering a grand ebony escritoire with elaborate bas relief panels of Javanese dancers jiving on its doors, bucolic landscapes running amok in rococo splendor on its writing shelf front, and enough visual interest in faux ivory mounts, mirrors, rhinestones, jade leaf bangles and fretwork to keep the shortest of attention spans focused.   A piece of furniture, which is to say, that was so much more than a conversation piece, it stopped conversation; it stopped traffic.  Jaws still drop.  Elsie was delighted.  A star was born.

Tony’s Dawnridge is a magical place, a testament to Tony’s ability to create enchantment out of mirrored hubcaps and shells spray-painted gold; a fairyland kingdom of chandeliers and teak Thai spirit houses and salvage trim from old Chinatown restaurants and Old World chateaux and palaces and Midwest mansions and movie studio backlots.  More is more at Dawnridge, and at night the effect is truly sublime.

We were there to celebrate the publication of Charlie Scheips’ wonderful new book on Elsie, [Photos/Getty Images here].  Dawnridge was the perfect other-worldly setting for the story of an extraordinary woman and a fascinating time.  I urge you to get your own copy as soon as possible.


Detail, interior door panel, monumental escritoire, by Tony Duquette for Elsie de Wolfe, photographed in situ, Dawnridge, Los Angeles, December 8, 2014.


November 28, 1904


Nancy Mitford (November 28, 1904 – June 30, 1973), photo by Cecil Beaton

Bianca reminded me, yesterday was Nancy’s birthday.  It really doesn’t get much more 1904 than Nancy, you know, unless it’s Cecil.

Nancy was an ironic snob, an aristocrat at the end of an era and aware of the fact; a tease with a broken heart who learned to cover disappointment with wit and get away with it.  Which is to say she played her part well, even too well, taken seriously when she she only meant to be amusing, and seemingly sweetly oblivious when bitter sadness over loving badly would have been so much more justified.  It’s not an unreasonable reaction to heartache, or the decline and fall of empire, of course, to be funny; her sisters found other ways of coping: one fell in love with Hitler, another married the head of the British Fascist Party, and still another managed to become a duchess and survive.

Nancy wrote wickedly delightful novels, plus four very good biographies, a number of brilliant essays and wonderful letters.  “If one can’t be happy,” she wrote to a friend, “one must be amused, don’t you agree?”

I agree.

Chateau, Cont’d.


Hearst Suite, guest suite window.    William Jennings Bryan backed NY Representative and newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst for the Democratic Party nomination in the 1904 presidential election but Hearst lost to Alton Parker who was easily defeated by Roosevelt.

The Chateau is a big H, for hell or heart’s desire, depending.  If you’re looking at the Exit Route In Case of Fire Diagram, I’m in the upper left, alone, at the top, facing the Hollywood hills, the Observatory, the Sign, and the rear of the Korean Presbyterian Church.   The Hearst Suite, as it’s called, where William Randolph and Marion Davies once entertained, is downstairs lower left, on the second and third floors with an internal connecting stairway.  Marion’s balcony looked out on Wilshire, a quiet street back then.

The upper right quadrant historically seems to attract strong female energy; it’s also the fertile wing where most of the babies and children are.  Bonnie lived over there with her boy, in the ground floor unit on the back courtyard.  She put a basketball hoop outside her kitchen window which attracted many of the men in the building but management made her take it down.  Then there’s the serenely blonde supermodel with her hot dark South American boyfriend and now not one but two babies on the second floor.  And the lesbians who used to live until recently on the 4th floor with their son.  And Dragana, the Eastern European wife of a documentary film-maker and mother of Dmitri and Natalia who have now moved to West Hollywood to be closer to friends from other former Soviet bloc nations.  Also Mother Courage, the squat Italian grandma whose husband grows pots of tomatoes out by the dumpsters and once drove their Impala into the neighbor’s wall after a fight and too much Chianti.  Tough, resilient women, all of them.  Before Bonnie was the exotic dancer, a fierce force of nature in her own fashion who developed a taste for crystal and the boys who sell it, some of whom used to climb the parking lot gate for visits at unexpectedly early hours.  Or late, depending.

A sign by the mailboxes last night invites everyone who’s around to stop by #201 for Thanksgiving food and fun.  Obviously someone new to the building, I think, who doesn’t know better.  Or doesn’t know worse, depending.  And I’m right.  I meet them coming in, hauling loads of Trader Joe bags.  Or the boy is, chest and biceps straining a t-shirt much too small while the tiny pixie with a pinched Disney mouse face clutches a Target welcome mat to her chest and directs.  “Is that everything?” she asks, peering and sniffing at the bags suspiciously, as though she’s used to not trusting men.   She looks up at me and the wide eyes narrow to slits.   I offer to hold the elevator doors (it’s working again, miraculously) and she relents but reluctantly.  “Hello,” she replies, interposing her body between mine and her boyfriend’s, who’s cute but please, not that cute.

It’s all perspective, of course.  I see where this is going: a Hallmark horn of plenty in the works, a big happy H for harvest meal cooked by this mini dynamo, an energetic Every Woman determined to have it all, a Hollywood career, a boyfriend who’s a series regular on a CW network show aimed at teens and queens, a horde of FaceBook friends she can wine and dine and network with, then retire to the roof for a smoke and cocktails and Instagram the ensuing hilarity later while competing for most piercing shrieks, then tears and accusations and messy hair in the courtyard later still.  Throw in a few crying babies, some stumbling holiday revelers, music and mayhem, a walk of shame or two at dawn with high heels in hand and bitter recriminations shouted out in parting (such bitter sorrow), and the Heartbreak Hotel greets dawn as Hangover Square.

Ah youth, youth, people say when they’ve got nothing left to say.    Enjoy your winter vegetables, your pumpkin pie, your autumn leaves.  It’s time for me to go.  I’ll be packing this Thanksgiving and giving thanks I’ve got new adventures waiting for me, on the other side of those hills.

Ain’t No Chateau


Photo by the author

As reported in the Boston Journal, November 23, 1904, “The skeleton of the man who first caused the rappings heard by the Fox Sisters in 1848 has been found between the walls of the house occupied by the sisters, and clears them from the only shadow of doubt held concerning their sincerity in the discovery of spirit communication.”

In Hydesville, New York, in 1848, two little girls, Maggie and Katie Fox, had claimed to communicate with the spirit of a murdered peddler in their house; through a series of demonstrations of their ability to communicate with the dead the sisters’ fame spread and helped to foster the growth of spiritualism in America.

Forty years later Maggie recanted their story, admitting it was all a hoax, but in 1904 the discovery of a skeleton walled up in the cellar of the house the girls had lived at the time of their communications seemed to contradict her confession.   Further investigation, however, would reveal a further twist, that the bones discovered weren’t human and were in fact mostly from chickens, placed in the cellar as a practical joke.  Some spiritualists still challenge that verdict.

There’s truth and truth, of course, and past truth and future versions of it.  There are levels of reality.  There is a reality just below this one, I’ve discovered, and you can access it by just a tip of the head.  A slight downward gaze, and there it is, another version of the world, another plane of existence.  Very similar to the one you’re currently familiar with, more or less; the differences are subtle yet significant.  And I mean more than just a change of perspective on your life, although you may be inclined to see it as nothing more than that, simply seeing life from a different angle, from someone else’s point of view, even if that someone else is you.  Another you.

I’m moving from a place I’ve loved, but no longer suits.  “Why would you give this up?” a friend asks.  “A drafty box you pay too much for,” another friend scoffs.  “A fifth floor walk up.”   “But the view,” someone else sighs longingly.  “You can look on your Instagram feed when you miss it,” that other friend, the practical one, advises.  “Don’t be surprised if they keep your deposit, landlords aren’t human you know.”

“I have a curse from a gypsy,” my neighbor downstairs offers, “I can give it to you but you only want to use it if you mean it, because I tried it on my last landlord and it really fucking worked, trust me.”  I admit I’m tempted, but I don’t think it will be necessary.  Most of the places I’ve lived in my life have burned to the ground or been demolished with no effort whatsoever on my part.  Even school buildings.  Dormitories.  Family homes.  Places of employment.  I seem to have that effect.  I don’t know why.

Change is a shift in perspective, a new development in the narrative, a reversal of what was previously thought, or debunked, or recanted or rediscovered.  But reality itself is mutable, infinitely faceted, layered, and open to interpretation.   I have lived many places.  I have lived for the last eight years in a marvelous place, a perfect place, and then one day I tipped my head, I looked down, and I saw it differently.  What I saw, however, was myself in another reality, another self going about his life, perhaps the self you see, or maybe not.  I was somewhere I’ve been and haven’t been, had never really been but was only pretending.  A home that said something once, that spoke to me, not quite rapping on the floor, but close enough.  Spoke to me, described me the way I thought I was and wanted to be. Now that’s changed.  I’m not sure why.

I’ve called this place the Poor Man’s Chateau, but it’s no chateau.  Neither is where I’m going.  But then again, I don’t know, maybe it will be, when I get there.

Morning Poem


George Balanchine (1904 – 1983)

Spirit yearns not for flesh but
For connection
For touch that touches
The body has become a disobedient distraction
A cheap suit better suited
For ill-fitting youth long fed up and departed.
Earth rides up wrong these days, pinches, sags,
Hangs odd,
Chafes longing,
Hurts in places without reason.
Soul resists, says, oh, let’s let this old lie lie.
Let’s fly;
Shuck off should, break crust, empty shell of self,
Let go and know again the artless dance
We managed naked easily before,
Weightless.  No waiting.  Hard when it mattered, and
Soft as new skin under carelessness flaked off,
Too much sun or temporary blemish,  simple to forget.

Telling Truth


Place of Epiphany: classroom in which Lu Xun attended the lectures of Professor Fujino (portrait on left) in 1904,  Sendai Medical Academy (now Tohoku University), Sendai, Japan.

This week it was the birthday of Ida Tarbell (November 5, 1857 – January 6, 1944), who wrote in 1904 the great muckraking masterpiece The History of the Standard Oil Company in which she exposed the corrupt dealings of the oil monopoly run by the richest man in America, John D. Rockefeller.  By trying to get to the truth, Tarbell invented a new kind of journalism.

Rockefeller heirs have recently announced they are divesting their fortune from fossil fuels.  How times change.

In 1904, the great Chinese writer Lu Xun (Zhou Shuren, 1881 – 1936) was studying western medicine at the Sendai Medical Academy in Japan.  The Russo-Japanese War had broken out, part of which was fought on disputed Chinese land, and at the end of class slides would be shown of recent developments in the conflict – the equivalent of newsreel footage that would become a feature of war propaganda during future world wars.   In a biology class, the professor showed a slide depicting a Japanese soldier about to behead a Chinese man accused of spying for the Russians.  The students in the class, all Japanese except for Lu Xun, cheered.   As Lu Xun wrote later, it was at that point he had an epiphany; he decided to give up the study of medicine and to become a ‘literary physician,’ someone who would seek to cure not the physical but the spiritual sickness in the world.  Lu Xun wrote to get at a new way of looking at the world, at truth, and he became one of the New Culture Movement writers in China.

Recently, the Japanese government has approved the restarting of the nuclear reactor at Sendai, the first to be restarted since the Fukushima disaster of 2011.

The Otolith Group has made a film about the Fukushima meltdown, trying to get to the truth of what happened, how the catastrophe opened up a ‘fissure in time and space,’ in the past and present and future.  The menace of radiation makes truth sound like science fiction; the danger is invisible, it will only be known from cancer rates later, from deformities in the future, how do you tell that truth?  You can’t see it.  It doesn’t seem real.  Like a picture of a countryman being beheaded.   Like climate change caused by fossil fuels; you deny it, it doesn’t seem real.   You need a new kind of fiction and film to tell the truth.  You need new literary physicians.

There’s a connection here.  The Rockefellers divest; Japan restarts.  What’s the truth?  What’s best for the people?  For the environment?  For the planet?  For the investor?  What’s safe?

This week a man who believes the Old Testament disproves climate change was elected to the United States Senate.  He will become the head of the Senate Committee on the Environment.   This week that’s the truth Americans have voted for.


Silver Chimes

Edwardian wedding
Silverware on twine
Wind chimes in Woodstock:
Rosebud repoussé swings slow to crooked tine,
Bent bowl spoons fork,
Tinkling tarnished sun.
Repurposing the Past, you said, pleased with the sound of it and I said, as
Sweet as candy colored candles dripped on cheap
Wine bottles, new delights in old.
We painted a rainbow on the front of a farmhouse in Ohio.

Such tie-dyed simplicity we savored in back then’s
Makeshift making do, undoing, doing less because we could;
Homespun for fun and unaware
When so much of what mattered was as free as
Love, how little a future world would make from ours.



Wallace Sterling “Violet” pattern, 1904

What Really Trickles Down


Remains of the Day.  Salvage Shop, Los Angeles, photo by the author

The German sociologist Max Weber wrote “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus) as a series of essays in 1904 – 1905.  Translated into English in 1930, Weber’s work attempted to explain how the Reformation, by taking away the Catholic Church’s guarantee of salvation for the faithful, had shifted the responsibility for getting into Heaven onto the individual, fostering the need for personal hard work to prove one’s worth to God.  And hard working workers, of course, were exactly the sort of impetus a capitalist system needed to expand and flourish.  Work hard, be good, be kind to those less fortunate while you serve your earthly masters and you get to have a beautiful Hereafter when you’re dead.

But times have changed.  Now that the 1 percent control half of the earth’s resources, the privileged elite running the world is beginning to look a lot like that controlling Catholic cabal the Protestants rebelled against; the whole system starts looking rigged.  Which it is.  But habits are hard to break.  Ironically, the Protestant Ethic is alive and well, but only at the lowest level.   In the years 2006-2012, for instance, charitable giving by those making less than $25,000 a year increased, while charitable contributions by those in the top 1 and top 5 percent (those making over $200,000 a year) declined, although at the same time the incomes at these top levels increased.  [Source].  The Noblesse don’t oblige no more, folks.

As 99 percent of the earth’s population fight over what’s left of the planet’s resources not controlled by a handful of the lucky corporate few, things are gonna get ugly.  They already have, in fact.  [Not sold in any store! Call now! Supplies limited!]  Water, for example (“With Dry Taps and Toilets, California Drought Turns Desperate“).  Shelter, as the so-called middle class moves into poorer neighborhoods in search of affordable housing.  In the old days we called it ‘gentrification,’ a fancy word for pushing out those with even less than we had.  Spruce up that ghetto, we said, and feel good about doing it too.  They’ll thank you for it.  Then the gentrifiers got pushed out and urban pioneers found themselves looking farther afield and deeper into the homeless squalor they’d shoved out to the edges, out of sight.

What really trickles down, you see, is not jobs or opportunity or goodness or kindness.  What trickles down is selfishness and meanness.   You and I buy cheap at Walmart and say we’re being thrifty, not thinking about the folks who work there who aren’t paid enough to feed and clothe their kids.  You know where you can live in this country on minimum wage and still afford a two-bedroom apartment?  Nowhere.  Not one state in the Land of Opportunity United States.  [Source]

But hey, don’t worry.  Right now the poor appear to be looking after those even less fortunate.  Suckers and fools.  Eventually, however, those who have only a little are gonna have nothing.  And then God help us all, when that last bit of goodness is squeezed out.

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