The Year Everything Important Happened

What I Find Most Astonishing

kate hepburn

Katharine Hepburn, 1935, by Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)

“What I find most astonishing -” Agnes begins saying to her husband Tobias at the start of Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, and then she interrupts herself with an aside – about the astonishing idea that she might go mad one day – before she completes the thought, while her husband pours them after-dinner drinks, that what really astonishes her is her sister Claire.  Claire is an alcoholic.

What is most astonishing to me is the use of language in Albee’s play, the nuanced word play, the ‘delicate balance’ between saying what you mean and meaning what you say, the bitter battles over the definition of words, of what words mean, literally and figuratively.  Agnes isn’t really “astonished” by her sister’s alcoholism, of course, but it sounds nicer than saying she loathes and resents Claire.  She isn’t concerned about her sister’s “madness” any more than she’s concerned she may go mad herself.  It isn’t losing her mind Agnes is worried about, but losing her temper, losing her balance, losing control – and of course in polite society, these sorts of loss are dangerous but also easily confused.

Claire refuses to be an alcoholic because she’s not like “those people” at those meetings.  The implication of naming or defining the problem is far worse than the problem itself.  What is the nameless fear, the Terror, that drives their best friends Harry and Edna to show up unexpectedly in the night?  One can’t ask.  It isn’t polite.  It isn’t done.

And yet at the same time what one does say, or how one says it, is critical. “The rule of an aphorism,” Tobias begins to explain to Agnes, but she interrupts – “An epigram, I thought,” Agnes corrects him. “An epigram is usually satiric,” he counters. “And I am grimly serious,” Agnes replies. “I fear so,” Tobias concedes.

They correct each other as well as themselves.  “It must be instinctive with you,” Agnes says, then, ” – no, it’s a reflex…” – as if this subtle distinction made a difference.   Albee’s characters are always seeking just the right word, fine-tuning their meaning and challenging each other to do the same, without ever quite getting around to telling the real truth or naming the real emotion – whether it’s grief, or fear, or hate – that drives them, motivates their action, or rather their inaction, their inability to change without upsetting the delicate balance of their world, their relationship, their lives. delicate

Katharine Hepburn, A Delicate Balance, 1973, screen grab.

So many of us live in polite society these days,  and while there are so many outlets to express ourselves there are so many words we’re no longer allowed to use that we all seem to be struggling to find other words to say what we want to say without saying what we really want to say – and I’m as guilty as the next in that regard.  The problem is, you get upset enough, angry enough, frustrated enough, and you may find yourself saying not something you didn’t mean, but something you didn’t mean to say out loud.   There is terrible pain and rage beneath the surface.

I just watched again the exquisitely nuanced film production of A Delicate Balance, (1973) directed by Tony Richardson and starring Katharine Hepburn as Agnes, Paul Scofield as Tobias, with Lee Remick, Joseph Cotten, Kate Reid and Betsy Blair .   This fall, Glen Close will play the role of Agnes in a new Broadway production.  I urge you to see it.

What I Don’t Understand


Japanese Soldiers Capturing Korean People,” Artist Unknown, 1904

August 22, 1904: Negotiations are concluded on the Japan-Korea Protocol of 1904, between the Empire of Japan and the Korean Empire.  The treaty required Korea to engage financial and diplomatic advisers designated by Japan and severely limited Korea’s ability to make treaties or conduct business with foreign powers without consent of Japan.  Almost immediately Korea sought by appeal to the international community and through other means to invalidate what was widely considered a coercive agreement; the Protocol of 1904, however, was not officially rescinded until 1965.

Korea was caught in the middle of a battle between expanding empires during the war between Russia and Japan, and being in the middle is never easy.  Neither is dealing with those who would oppose you, of course, or with those who disagree with you and don’t see the world the way you do.

“What I don’t understand,” my mother used to say, “is how the minister’s wife can possibly think horizontal stripes would be flattering on a figure like hers.”  Or, “What I don’t understand is why the McTavish children aren’t all maimed or dead, the way they’re allowed to run around loose and unsupervised, terrorizing the neighborhood.”  That sort of thing.

“What I don’t understand…” followed with criticism is not an admission of any lack of understanding, obviously.  My mother was a smart lady and a keen observer of the world.  She knew perfectly well what she thought of those whose choices and opinions and behavior differed from hers.

But “What I don’t understand” is not a strong position to take if you are seriously engaged in promoting understanding.  Neither is the rejoinder my mother could almost always count on, coming from a friend or confidante who would sigh and nod sadly and say, “It’s not worth trying to understand, either; I’ve given up.”

“What I don’t understand” doesn’t get you anywhere.  It accomplishes nothing in the bigger arena of life, and in social discourse, political or cultural or otherwise, it doesn’t lead to greater compassion or peace or anything else.   It’s not even very useful or effective as disguise for judgment and condemnation and contempt.  It’s not really clever or polite.  At worst it helps justify and encourage smug self-righteousness.

The world is not all that mysterious or inexplicable.  What we have in common with other human beings is much greater than what distinguishes us, fashion statements and unruly children aside.  The other side is just as angry and hurt and afraid as you, if not more, and they want to provoke you.  Don’t pretend you don’t know what they’re doing.  You do know.  And it’s worth understanding.

August 20, 1904


Jamie Dornan. [Source]  Because he’s Irish, and because he’s the star of that film based on that self-published book you were never going to read or ever go to the movie of, until you saw the trailer.

August 20, 1904, The Irish National Theatre Society receives a license to operate the AbbeyTheatre.  On December 27, 1904 the Abbey Theatre opens with Yeat’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan, On Baile’s Strand and Lady Gregory’s Spreading the News.

So you want to live forever


Matthew Bourne’s Dorian Gray.  The Artist as Photographer and Dorian as Eternal Model

Oscar Wilde met young, beautiful John Gray in 1889, nearly two years before he became involved with Alfred Douglas.  As Rupert Croft-Cooke writes (Feasting with Panthers, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967), John Gray’s story was fairly traditional: “the ‘artistic one’ in a working-class family leaves his dull home to find a place in the flashy and pretentious circles of ‘the West End’.  With good looks, a flair for conspicuous clothes and social graces and with willingness to be accessible to men or women who can help them,” young men like John Gray are able to escape “unsympathetic families who find them frivolous or effeminate in their love of elegance,” and go off to discover, if they have any talent to exploit, the attentions and patronage of an older set in a world beyond the imagination of their parents.  “Their lonely ambitions,” observes a somewhat jaded Croft-Cooke, “are for a time fulfilled and though their destinies are often pitiful they sometimes triumph and rarely regret the initiative which took them first to certain streets, bars, restaurants, music-hall promenades, in which they met a more interesting fate than could ever have been theirs at home.”  (Croft-Cooke, p. 208).

Sound familiar?  It should.  Whether you read between the lines of the latest article on Madame Claude in Vanity Fair this month, or sit in on a casting session for practically anything in this town, you are bound to run into a boy (or a girl) without financial resources but looking to capitalize on his/her looks and charm.  John Gray was the eldest of nine children of a journeyman carpenter in Woolwich, “a pretty and graceful child” (writes Croft-Cooke, ibid) “with a remarkable aptitude for learning and for what his family found esoteric and useless occupations.”  When Wilde met him, in a bar near Shaftesbury Avenue, Gray was twenty-three, he’d dropped the dialect of his background, had learned how to dress and act the part of a young man about town, and was writing short stories and poetry.

John Gray was probably not the ‘original’ of Dorian Gray, but he certainly didn’t try very hard to deny the connection, even signing  letters to Wilde, “Dorian.”  The relationship with Oscar didn’t last, however.  Gray eventually met and took up with the very wealthy and deeply unattractive Marc-Andre Raffalovich, son of a Russian Jewish banking family.  Raffalovich loathed Wilde,  which might have had something to do with his passion for young Gray.  According to Croft-Cooke (p. 215, ibid), Raffalovich saw in John Gray “all he could never be, all he most admired.  A snob but not a genealogical snob, he thought the young man with his self-confidence, good looks and promising place in the only kind of society they both knew, a heroic figure and he at once threw himself with all his large resources, at Gray’s feet. ”  Raffalovich set up Gray in smart quarters in Park Lane, took him to Paris, and bought a yacht to take him cruising the Mediterranean.  The two of them were seen everywhere together, “bejeweled and over-dressed, very consciously men about town but with an inevitable touch of vulgarity about them.”

You have to admire the John Grays of this world.  Muse to an artist, kept, coddled, adored and showered with gifts?  It’s no easy task.  Most sleep their way to the middle, if they’re lucky.  Few make it as far as Gray did.  And then to top it all off, in 1898 John Gray decided to become a priest; he was ordained by Cardinal Respighi a few days before Christmas in 1901.  In 1906 Fr. John Gray was appointed first parish priest of St. Peters, a church and clergy house in the Morningside district of Edinburgh, built and paid for by Raffalovich.  Talk about giving you anything you want.

In 1904 Gray and Raffalovich, who continued their relationship until they both died, months apart in 1934, published The Last Letters of Aubrey Beardsley, with an introduction by the Rev. John Gray.  Most of the letters had been written to Raffalovich who  had supported Beardsley financially at the end of his life, with a few letters included to Gray as well.

Rev. John Gray did not exactly achieve immortality, perhaps, but as these things go, he didn’t do too badly.   Better than Dorian Gray: a beautiful young man who wanted to live forever.

August 13, 1904


Evelyn Francisco (August 13, 1904, Little Rock, Arkansas – January 27, 1963, Corona, California).

Evelyn was one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, from 1924-29.  How well she could walk in the sand in high heels is unknown.  Evelyn had an older sister Betty who also enjoyed a silent-film career.

James Joyce’s first published work of fiction, his short story “The Sisters,” appeared in The Irish Homestead Journal on August 13, 1904.

Everything is connected.  Sometimes it isn’t clear what it all means, but understanding what it all means is overrated.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter if you understand.  Maybe you’re not supposed to.

Content, Context


The Louis Vuitton label was founded in 1854, in Paris.  In 1896 the signature monogrammed canvas was patented.  In 1904 the company created special travel luggage in crocodile skin for the royal family of Monaco. In 1913 the Louis Vuitton Building opened on the Champs-Elysee, the largest travel-goods store in the world.  During World War Two, Louis Vuitton collaborated with the Nazis (Louis Vuitton, A French Saga, Stephanie Bonvicini, Paris: Editions Fayard).

In May of this year Louis Vuitton, one of the world’s most valuable luxury brands, traveled to Monaco for an exclusive invitation-only showing of the cruise collection at the Place du Palais, hosted by Princess Charlene.

Feelings aren’t facts.  The thoughts and beliefs and ideas you think of as facts lead to feelings.  These so-called facts are beliefs that mobilize your emotions and imagination and you are off and running.   The world is a good place.  I will never fall in love again.  These are beliefs based on the facts as you see them – and you will conjure up supporting evidence if challenged, don’t argue with me, yes you will.  You can prove it.

But your beliefs may be contradictory, your facts upsetting.  Everything has to be understood in context.  What comes before and after is the context.  Where and how the beliefs are contained, if you are thinking of your mind as a traveling trunk, flat-topped for easy stacking and storage in the hold, in the trunk room, flat not rounded, an innovation attributed to Louis Vuitton, canvas and light-weight too perhaps.  With a famous pattern of quatrefoils and monogram and flowers.

Context and presentation.  The whole story.   How the sentiment is contained.  The feeling inside.  The content.  The Psychology 101 exercise, the connection of story to response, of fact to feeling, what comes before and after:

I love you.

I love you and brought you these flowers.

I love you and brought you these  flowers I stole.

I love you and brought you these flowers I stole from a cemetery.

I love you and brought you these flowers I stole from a cemetery off the fresh grave of a murder victim, a young child.

I love you.

Self Talk

Alain Delon-Cecil Beaton

CECIL BEATON (1904-1980) Alain Delon

We are taught to treat the unconscious mind like some feral beast within; inaccessible, untrustworthy, dangerous.  And our beliefs like deeply buried secrets.  Please.  Your beliefs aren’t buried, just unexamined.  They’re right there in plain sight in your conscious mind, treated like facts.

Last night, awake for no reason, I decide to speak to Self Within.  Rather the way you might if your Inner Self was a Ouija Board.   But how to begin?  Come to me, I say, rather boldly, to the darkness.  Meet me.  What do you look like?  Nothing, except perhaps a little tug of resistance.  I waited.  The message that seemed to come to me was, I look like you.

No, really, I said.  How do I picture you?  How do I see you?  How can I talk to you if I can’t see you?  And by the way, send me something from your side I don’t know.   Something, oh, I don’t know, something I wouldn’t know from being out here in the conscious waking world.

You will hear someone say -

Wait, you can tell the future?

In a way.  Is that what you want?

In a way?  No, I’m – wait, okay yes, not sure.

Someone will say, Thick over thin.  How you paint, how you start mixing and applying the paint and then how you build up from there, thick on top of thin.  Fat over lean.  Fat being the oil medium.  I am not a Ouija Board.

Sorry, I replied.  I’ve actually been thinking about researching painting in oils.  I took a life drawing class, why not.  For a character, for a story, maybe a play.  Ralph Mayer, Artist’s Handbook, bible to artists in the 1940s when it came out but suddenly it all feels very heterosexual, tough and hard-drinking, a filthy studio and no heat, bare mattress, cigarette smoke film noir atmosphere, possibly French, I don’t know why I think that.  And maybe it’s a little out of my time period anyway.  Is that what I should I do?  I ask.


That’s a belief, isn’t it.  


That I need to do something.  That I need to do something but I don’t know what it is.


A belief, lying right out there in conscious view.  Something we all think.  That there’s something to be done but you don’t know what it is.  Something that has to be done, or fixed, or accomplished.  And with that belief, you build up a life, a way of life, a picture of the life you have, thick fluid color on top of a lean base so it dries without cracking.  Words over words, thick over thin.  A way of painting in oil.  A way of looking at life.

The Big Front Yard

Carly Rae Jepsen - Call Me Maybe040

The Big Front Yard” is a science fiction short story by Clifford D. Simak (August 3, 1904 – April 25, 1988) about a house converted by aliens into a stargate portal.  The owner of the house discovers his front door now leads to a new front yard on another planet.

Yes, that’s Holden Nowell mowing the lawn in the music video for Carly Rae Jespen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

I was working on something recently involving lawn mowers and magic.  I think it might be one of the great American erotic fantasies, lawns and the boys who mow them, but then the whole idea of a big lawn rolling away democratically forever is a suburban dream drawn from pictures of English stately homes with landscapes by Humphry Repton and Capability Brown, and that brings us to Lady Chatterley and Maurice and the English aristocracy’s romanticizing of the yard and stable and garden staff and the things you can get away with in high unmown grass and in the hay as long as you don’t disturb the horses.  Who mows the lawn at Downton Abbey?  It’s a very big one, isn’t it, and we haven’t seen him.

When I was very young, I had a fantasy that I would walk out the front door one day and be in a different world.  I would sit on the front hall stairs and close my eyes and imagine it: the opening of the door on a summer day, the sound of the lawn mower louder now the door was open, the shift in the light and air.   And I would be in a new place, and I would be someone new entirely.

Beach Weather


PAUL CADMUS (1904-1994) “Two Boys on a Beach,” 1939, Etching

This is the time of year we used to go to the beach.  Jones, Will Rogers, Fire Island Pines,  Race Point, Saugatuck, Freeport, Nassau… those are just some of the names.  Now I don’t go but people still think I do.  I take the truck to the shop, and I text the office I will be late coming in.  I go across the street to Astro for breakfast to wait.  I have eggs and bacon and coffee on the patio.  A Paramount delivery kid comes in to pick up an order, stops on the patio to smoke a joint before he heads back.  My phone buzzes.  “Your truck is fine,” comes the reply from my co-worker.  “We all know you went to the beach.”  I text back that I’ve done no such thing, and then I wonder why I haven’t, didn’t, don’t.  It’s beach weather.

I recently bought a smaller coffee press.  Like so many things now, it’s become all about what isn’t good for you.  Too much coffee.  Too much sun.  Fair enough.  True enough.  All good things come to an end.   And I don’t need to spoil the memories by trying to relive them either.  The boys I used to go to the beach with on days like this are all gone now.   But the sun on that patio feels good.  And the aroma wafting over from that delivery boy in his tank top and shorts …

It’s the end of July.  Soon it’ll be Labor Day and the end of the summer.  Blink and it’s Christmas.  Maybe I’ll have another cup of coffee.  And maybe I’ll go to the beach this weekend.   For the sunset.


Palm Beach, 1904

Style is forever


EDWARD BURNE-JONES.  “The Adoration of the Magi,” 1904.  On view in the Grand Palais during the Christie’s sale exhibition of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, February 2009.  Withdrawn prior to the sale by Bergé and donated to the Musée d’Orsay, see Here for the work when in situ in the library of the apartment on rue de Babylone.

“Fashions fade; Style is forever” is the tag line for the new film by Jalil Lespert about Yves Saint Laurent and his life with Pierre Bergé which I got to see yesterday with Peitor and Graham.  Beautiful to look at, superb performances and a lovely score,  yet I couldn’t help wondering  afterward what we’d learned that we hadn’t known before about fashion, or style, or the creative process or creative people.  And I think the answer has to do more with the talent of managing talent, at least as far as this film is concerned.

As Calvin Coolidge, of all people, said, “Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent.” Talent gets squandered, lost, is dissipated in a thousand bad habits and poor choices and lack of discipline and goes unrecognized or dismissed all the time.  It’s the managing of talent that matters.  What’s interesting is how people like Pierre Bergé protect, encourage, nurture, love, scold, coerce and manipulate an artist.  Especially once that artist gains any kind of fame or attention and has become a celebrity.  Handling a celebrity is the worst job in the world, in my opinion, and anyone who’s ever had to tell a famous person bad news knows what I mean.  Which is why so many clever and talented people, with no one around them willing to tell them the truth, go out and make messes of their lives.

There’s a great moment in the film when Bergé says to Saint Laurent, “You have to decide if you want to live or die.  If you want to die, I can’t help you.”  I think it takes courage to say that to someone.  Fashion fades, yes; but so does pretty much everything else.  The trick is figuring out how to make the most out of what you’ve got while you’ve got it, and not throw in the towel and give up, and for that you may need help.  You may need someone around like Pierre Bergé, who’s willing to ask the hard questions, and to tell you the truth.

« Older posts

© 2014 1904

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑