Friday, November 21, 2014

Amalia Kicks Off the Holidays in New York


Last year Amalia celebrated Christmas in Nicaragua, touring the outdoor nativity scenes on view everywhere.  This Christmas she’ll be making snowmen and hanging her stocking over the fireplace in Grafton, Mass. at Yiayia and Papou’s house.  But last weekend in Manhattan Amalia kicked off the holidays in New York City style.

On Friday with Mommy and Yiayia Joanie she went to Rolf’s German Restaurant at 22nd Street and Third Avenue, which is so famous for its over-the-top Christmas decorations that you absolutely have to have a reservation during the holidays.

Here she is sharing the view of decorations on Mommy's phone with Papi, who's in Nicaragua for the week.

At Rolf's there are so many decorations hanging from the ceiling that you start worrying about them falling on your head.

The next day, Saturday morning, the three of us went to see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular --a New York ritual since 1933.

First Santa took off from the North Pole, headed to Manhattan with the Rockettes serving as reindeer.

Next came Amalia's favorite part--where  we put on 3- D glasses to see Santa fly in over Manhattan, with gifts tumbling out of his sleigh and falling right  towards us.

Of course everyone loves the famous  Wooden Soldiers number featuring the Rockettes falling down like dominoes.

The Rockettes boarded a two-decker bus that visited all the famous Manhattan locations in their Christmas glory, including skaters in Central Park and dancers in Times Square.

As always, the finale was the living Nativity, with real animals, and as always, I cried--just as I did nearly 40 years ago when I took my own kids to the Christmas show.

Next we walked through Rockefeller Center where the skaters were skating and the giant Christmas tree was being decorated behind scaffolding.

But the angels leading up to the tree were already blowing their trumpets.

We walked to the Plaza Hotel and had lunch in the food court in the basement with Uncle Bob and Aunt Robin, then paid a visit to the store of "Eloise at the Plaza". Amalia was so fascinated playing with pretend tea things in the tea room that we could hardly drag her  on to see the other rooms, including the fashion room and the play room and the Concierge's room.  She was having a rawther fancy tea.

But we finally coaxed her into the theater, where she played on Eloise's pink piano, surrounded by mirrors.

Before leaving  to walk home through Central Park (where she fell asleep in the stroller as soon as we started)  Amalia said good-bye to Eloise's portrait and opined that she might come back in December when Eloise will be hosting rawther fancy teas with Santa as a guest.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Older Women and Long Hair—In the Olden Days.

(What do I do about my blog when outside writing deadlines are driving me crazy?  I re-post something from the past!  This post appeared in December of 2010 and has drawn almost five thousand hits since then, so I guess it's a hot topic.)

On October 21, The New York Times ran an essay called “Why Can’t Middle-Aged Women Have Long Hair? by Dominique Browning,  originally written for her blog  “SlowLoveLife.”

The subject clearly hit a nerve. The Times received 1200 comments, overwhelming its editors until they finally ordered an end to the discussion. 

Dominique Browning cited the way her own long hair disturbed people, including her mother, because she was well over 40 (In fact she’s 55).  She asked why long flowing locks were considered inappropriate for older women. “Why do people judge middle-aged long hair so harshly?” 

Passionate opinions were submitted on both sides of the argument.
Because I’m an avid collector of antique pre-1900 photographs, I wondered if some of the acrimony about long hair may have been coming from our national subconscious.   Did we inherit the attitudes of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation—that long hair was too sexy to be seen in public—and do we even today feel that sexy hair is not appropriate for women of a certain age?

In my grandmother’s day (she was married—to a Presbyterian minister—in 1896) a girl was expected to pile her locks on top of her head on the day she became a woman and entered society.  She was supposed to bind her tresses into a prim bun with hairpins, and then never let any man see her with her hair down except for her husband.

In fact the older women portrayed in my earliest daguerreotypes often wear lace mob caps—like Martha Washington—to cover their hair INSIDE THE HOUSE. (Their outdoor bonnets would be put on top of these caps.)

You don’t need to be an anthropologist to draw a parallel from the mob caps of America’s founding mothers to the hijabs of Muslim countries today.

Before 1900, no reputable woman would wear cosmetics or dye her hair.   (I once owned a Ladies Home Journal magazine from the  early 20th century that solemnly warned:  women who dye their hair will go mad.)

Today’s erogenous zones—bosom, legs, butt, thighs—were never seen in the early days of photography.  (The first photographs were  daguerreotypes, beginning in 1839 .)

In the dags in my collection from the 1840’s and 1850’s, women’s breasts were tightly bound and a flat piece of wood or whalebone, called a busk, was inserted into the corset, so that it was physically impossible to slouch.

Here’ s a definition I found on the internet:

Originally, a busk was a piece of carved wood or bone that was set into a pocket in a corset front to make the front completely straight and ridged. Busks were nearly always used in Tudor and Elizabethan corsets, and in certain styles of the 17th and 18th, and the early 19th century.
Elaborately carved busks were a common gift from a young man to his sweetheart. Sailors carved bones with Scrimshaw designs as gifts for the girls back home

So for our grandmothers, the sexiest thing they had going for them was long, beautiful hair.  Victorian advertisements  for hair-growing lotions were a sort of soft-core porn,  often featuring voluptuous women naked except for their astonishingly full and long hair.  (Like Lady Godiva.  And then there’s Rapunzel—the subject of the animated film “Tangled” which is currently a huge success.  I think long hair is definitely having a moment right now.)

Then there came a moment—in the 1920’s—when cutting one’s hair into a short, flapper’s bob was considered scandalous, daring, a statement of female rebellion against society’s mores—like smoking a cigarette in public. 

For the best description of just how daring short hair was in the twenties, check out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” from 1922.  (You can find it on line.)  A sophisticated, popular “mean girl” tricks her unpopular country cousin into bobbing her hair in hopes of winning popularity. When it backfires, the country cousin takes revenge in kind.

Today the tables have turned again—the rebel is not the woman who bobs her hair—she’s the women of middle age or beyond (even crone-hood!) who dares to wear her gray-streaked or white hair long, even though she’s far past girlhood.  I can think of a handful of well-aged women who flaunt their flowing locks—Cher, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton.  Among personal friends, I immediately think of a very chic Manhattan beauty, Marina, whose cascade of white hair has become her trademark and earned her a place in a New York Times feature about people who have their own unique style.

Personally I’ve never worn my hair long—except for the period in the  late sixties when I rocked a beehive.  I’ve always taken the easy way out, with short hair, but for those middle-aged women like Dominique Browning, and even past-middle-aged beauties courageous enough to flaunt their crowning glory, I think there should be a medal of honor, say a Croix de Cheveux.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

President Reagan's White House Ghost Story

Just because Halloween's over, I'm not going to overlook my tradition of posting the White House ghost story that President Reagan told me in 1986.  Especially since I see that another blogger has borrowed it (and attributed it to me--thank you!) for his Halloween blog post.)

Ever since the White House was first occupied in 1800, there have been rumors of hauntings, but I got this story direct from the President. No, not President Obama. I first heard about the White House ghosts directly from the lips of Ronald Reagan.

It was March 18, 1986, and my husband Nick and I had been invited to a state dinner in honor of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The State Dining room was filled with gold candlesticks, gold vermeil flatware and vermeil bowls filled with red and white tulips. I had the great privilege of being seated at the President’s table along with Chicago Bears’ running back Walter Payton; the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife Mila Mulroney; the president of the Mobil Corporation; Donna Marella Agnelli, wife of the chairman of Fiat; Burl Osborne, the editor of the Dallas Morning News, and Pat Buckley, wife of William Buckley.

The President, a brilliant storyteller, entertained the table throughout the meal and the story I remember best was about his encounters with the White House ghostly spirits. Here is how I wrote it later in an article about the dinner for the Ladies’ Home Journal: “According to the President, Rex, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel who had recently replaced Lucky as First Dog, had twice barked frantically in the Lincoln Bedroom and then backed out and refused to set foot over the threshold. And another evening, while the Reagans were watching TV in their room, Rex stood up on his hind legs, pointed his nose at the ceiling and began barking at something invisible overhead. To their amazement, the dog walked around the room, barking at the ceiling.

'I started thinking about it,' the President continued, 'And I began to wonder if the dog was responding to an electric signal too high-pitched for human ears, perhaps beamed toward the White House by a foreign embassy. I asked my staff to look into it.'

The President laughed and said, 'I might as well tell you the rest. A member of our family [he meant his daughter Maureen] and her husband always stay in the Lincoln Bedroom when they visit the White House. Some time ago the husband woke up and saw a transparent figure standing at the bedroom window looking out. Then it turned and disappeared. His wife teased him mercilessly about it for a month. Then, when they were here recently, she woke up one morning and saw the same figure standing at the window looking out. She could see the trees right through it. Again it turned and disappeared."

After that White House dinner, I did some research and discovered that half a dozen presidents and as many first ladies have reported ghostly happenings in the White House. It’s not just the ghost of Lincoln that they see, although he tops the hit parade. He caused Winston Churchill, who was coming out of the bathroom naked but for a cigar when he encountered Lincoln, to refuse to sleep there again. And Abe so startled Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands that she fell into a dead faint when she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Lincoln standing there.

I also learned that the Lincoln bedroom was not a bedroom when Lincoln was President—it was his Cabinet Room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s well known that Abraham Lincoln and his wife held séances in the White House, attempting to contact the spirit of their son Willie, who died there and who has been seen walking the halls.

The ghost of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, appeared often in the Rose Garden, which she planted. There is even reportedly a Demon Cat in the White House basement that is rarely seen. When it does appear, it is foretelling a national disaster. While the Demon Cat may at first look like a harmless kitten, it grows in size and evil the closer one gets. A White House guard saw it a week before the stock market crash of 1929 and it was also reportedly seen before Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Abigail Adams’ ghost has been seen hanging laundry in the East Room—she appeared frequently during the Taft administration and as late as 2002 and is often accompanied by the smell of laundry soap.

Lincoln himself told his wife he dreamt of his own assassination three days before it actually happened. Calvin Coolidge’s wife reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost standing at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back gazing out the window (just as Reagan’s daughter saw a figure in a similar pose.) Franklin Roosevelt’s valet ran screaming from the White House after seeing Lincoln’s ghost . Eleanor Roosevelt, Ladybird Johnson and Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan all sensed Lincoln’s presence near the fireplace in the Lincoln Bedroom.

I’d love to find out if the Obamas have encountered any ghostly knockings, or if their dog Beau has suffered the same alarming anxiety attacks as Reagan’s dog Rex. Tomorrow, as the portals between this world and the other world swing open, I suspect the White House will be hosting a ghostly gala of the illustrious dead.

(If you have any  personal paranormal experiences to report, let me know about them at: )

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween Ghouls in Manhattan

 Strolling yesterday on Manhattan's Upper East Side after dropping Amalia at preschool, I discovered the truly terrifying lengths some New Yorkers will go to decorate their brownstones and apartment entrances for Halloween.  (Is that an Obama ghoul on the lower right above?)

 Walking on 74th Street from Lexington toward Fifth, I noticed a low-flying witch had been crushed by a giant pumpkin.

This brownstone included life-sized figures that could sing and/or move.

While this man's dog was investigating the singing skeleton and he was admiring the moving witch, he told us to go over to 72nd Street between Madison and Park to see another spooky brownstone.

A female zombie welcomed us.

A skull-lined staircase with an old woman at the top, flanked by a witch...

...and a zombie bride.

Four floors of ghouls beckoned us to come in.

The front courtyard hosted a dragon and a lot of spooky folks...

....including this head in a glass globe.

Someone told us that this house becomes a haunted house open to visitors at night, but I think we'll skip that on Halloween, and go trick-or-treating instead with Amalia on 76th Street, which will be closed to traffic for the little costumed ghouls who come in droves to each brownstone, including the home of former Mayor Bloomberg.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Last Chance: Jeff Koons’ Show and the Whitney Museum

The hot art exhibit of the summer in New York— “Jeff Koons: A Retrospective”--is about to close on Sunday, Oct. 19, and that will also be the end of the Whitney Museum as we know it. The Whitney will move into its new building in the meatpacking district and leave the iconic Breuer-designed building at Madison and 75th to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to use as a satellite space starting in the spring of 2016.
I’d already seen Jeff Koons’ gigantic, flower-covered “Split Rocker” at Rockefeller Center.  I even knew that the four-story-high structure was meant to represent a toy that had half the head of a rocking horse and half the head of a dinosaur. But I hadn’t been able to make it to Koons’ show at the Whitney until September 10th, when I finally saw it with some friends who had come all the way from Minnesota. 
I was familiar with Koons’ art— I’d written, at the time of Michael Jackson’s death, about Koons’ sculpture of Michael with his chimpanzee Bubbles, which sold for  $5.6 million in 2001 but would sell for much more after the death.
I saw one of Koons’ balloon dogs on the roof of the Met some years ago. (It’s made out of stainless steel, but it looks so much like a balloon that you really, really want to touch it to make sure.)  Last year the orange-tinted balloon dog sold for more than $58 million dollars, making it the highest price ever for a living artist.
And Jeff Koons, fifty nine, is really living.  I was aware that one room in the show was devoted to “Made in Heaven”-- giant-sized paintings of Koons having sex with his ex-wife, the Hungarian-Italian porn star Ilona Staller, known as “La Cicciolina”, who, when their brief marriage was over, took their son Ludwig back to Italy, where she has also served as a member of Parliament.  A long and painful custody trial ensued and Koons’ bitterness at losing his son is often echoed in his art (or is it just a longing for Koons own boyhood?)  Looking at his art, you realize the man, like Peter Pan, never grew up.
The review of the Whitney show in the New Yorker rightly called Koons “The most original, controversial, and expensive American artist of the past three and a half decades.”
There are plenty of critics who hate Koons’ work, and a lot of their comments are apt, funny and understandable. But I was won over by the humor and whimsy of his latest sculptures and paintings, which seem to have a spirit of fun and fantasy while at the same time mocking the kitsch and the commercialism of the things that he is parodying.  
The best thing about seeing Koons’ exhibit at the Whitney—for me anyway—was watching the visitors (and even the guards) interacting with the art.

Koons’ newest, and I think funniest, piece of sculpture is the gigantic “Play-Doh” which The New York Times critic  Roberta Smith  called “a new, almost certain masterpiece whose sculptural enlargement of a rainbow pile of radiant chunks captures exactly the matte textures of the real thing, but also evokes paint, dessert and psychedelic poop.” 
This pile of Play-Doh is dated 1994-2014.  He worked on it for 20 years! Mr. Koons, says the NYT critic, “spends much money and often ends up inventing new techniques to get exactly what he wants in both his sculptures and his paintings, which are made by scores of highly skilled artists whom he closely supervises.”
This is "Hulk (Organ) 2004-2014" and the organ really works
It was recently announced that, because the Koons retrospective at the Whitney is so popular—more than 250,000 people have seen it, making it among the highest attended shows in the museum’s history—that the director of the Whitney has decided to stage a 36-hour marathon, keeping the Whitney open from 11 a.m. Saturday, October 18 through 11 pm. Sunday Oct. 19. 
"Dog Pool (Panties) 2003
If you’re anywhere near Manhattan, I suggest you go to the Whitney marathon and buy a copy of the catalog.  There will be special activities, the bookstore and restaurant will stay open all night and, according to The Times, the director  "confided that Mr. Koons may make an appearance in the dead of night and be on hand to sign catalogs.”  (Maybe someday his signed catalogs will go for big money like his art!)

But if you can’t make it to the marathon, here are some scenes of what you missed—New Yorkers and art lovers interacting with and trying to figure out Jeff Koons’ very expensive art.

"Balloon Venus"

Monday, October 13, 2014

Was Columbus Really Greek?

 "Reception of Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella"

I realize I may sound like Gus, the dad in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" who chauvinistically insists that everything originally came from Greece and Greek culture, but a number of historians do believe that Christopher Columbus was not Italian but came from the Greek island of Chios, specifically the mastic-growing village of Pirgi.   (Only on Chios will you find the mastic tree, which produces a resin that has made the people rich since the 14th century. ) 

"Santa Maria--Flag Ship of Columbus"
When I visited Pirgi on the island of Chios, I learned that many families  there still have the last name "Columbus".   All the buildings in Pirgi, even churches and banks, are decorated with a unique kind of geometric patterns made by scraping away the top lawyer of white plaster to reveal the darker color beneath.
 This decoration is called  ksista (“scraped” in Greek) or, in Italian, scrafitti. It is believed to have originated in Genoa and spread to Chios when the island was under Genovese rule—from 1346-1566-- but it’s still done today in Pirgi.

"The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador October 12th 1492"

Here are some of the reasons that historians like Ruth G. Durlacher-Wolper, who wrote "Christophoros Columbus: A Byzantine Prince from Chios, Greece", believe that the discoverer of the Americas was a Greek from Chios.
"Triumphal Procession at Barcelonna in Honor of Columbus"
--He was said to come from Genoa, but the island of Chios was under Genovese rule from 1346 to1566, so it was part of the Republic of Genoa during Columbus's time.
--Columbus kept his journals in Latin and Greek--not Italian, which he didn't even speak well.
--He signed his named "Christopher" with the Greek letter X .
--He made notes in Greek in the margins of his favorite book--Imago Mundi, by Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly.
--He referred to himself as "Columbus of the Red Earth" and also wrote about mastic gum. Chios is noted for its red soil in the south of the island, which is the only place where mastic grows. 

--The name "Columbus" is carved over many doors in the villages of Pirgi  and a priest with that name traces his family on the island back more than 600 years.

Whatever the truth may be about Columbus's origins, I wanted to illustrate this Columbus Day blogpost with some of the many scenes on a bed coverlet that I have hanging on a wall  near my computer.  It was sewn in redwork (also called "turkeywork") by a woman with the initials "E M" in 1892 to celebrate the tetracentennial of Columbus's landing. Whenever I look at it, I wonder at the many hours it must have taken her to complete this tribute.