‘…unbefriended men with long-simmering rage and elaborate plans for revenge.’ – Incendiary by Michael Cannell

May 3, 2017 at 10:52 pm (Book review, books, New York City, True crime)

   New York’s so called Mad Bomber was just such a man. From the early 1940s to the late 1950s, he terrified the city with homemade explosive devices. He placed them in movie theaters,  train stations, phone booths, and rest rooms. All anyone knew about him was that he held a powerful grudge against Con Edison.

For sixteen years, the New York City Police pursued this wraith, with no results. Finally, in desperation, they consulted Dr. James Brussel.

An assistant commissioner of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, his day job  was supervising the treatment of more than six thousand anguished souls at Creedmoor and other public asylums in and around New York City.

In addition to his responsibilities to the city, Dr. Brussel also saw private patients.

The question the police had for him was this: From the brief, handwritten correspondence provided by the Bomber, in addition to his actions and methods, could this distinguished psychiatrist venture any conclusions as to who this cunning and elusive person might be?

He could. And did. Hence, the book’s subtitle: The Psychiatrist, The Man Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling.

In Incendiary, Michael Cannell does a first class of job of reporting, particularly on the reporters themselves. He brings the world of the mid- century newsroom to vivid life. You can almost hear the noisy clattering of the typewriters and smell the tobacco smoke that suffused these places. In fact, the city itself, in that era, springs vividly to life. (As one who spent a fair amount of time in Gotham in the early sixties, this portrait really resonated.)

Standing on the corner of Forty-Third Street and Broadway, F.P. [as the bomber was known at first] could see the full neon honky-tonk shine of Times Square pulsating above him. Camel cigarettes. Admiral appliances. Chevrolet. The billboards glimmered and blinked with the wattage of a thousand light bulbs, as if to compensate for the gloom of a dying afternoon.

As I was reading this book, I found that George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, especially the adagio (middle movement) kept resonating in the back of my mind. And in my mind’s eye I kept seeing Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.  My husband, ever the helpful and resourceful onsite IT guy, put the two together for me:

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“fresh data on what it’s like to be human”

August 10, 2016 at 1:44 am (Anglophilia, Art, New York City)

Peter Scheldahl writes about art for the New Yorker. The short piece in the August 1 issue of the magazine is entitled “Young Master.” Here’s how it begins:

Seeing an unfamiliar painting by Rembrandt is a life event: fresh data on what it’s like to be human.

The Rembrandt in question is called “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver:”

rembrandt-first-masterpieceRembrandt painted this when he was twenty-three years old. It is considered to be his first masterpiece, and is currently in the news because it has been lent to the Morgan Library and Museum, one of my favorite places in New York. The Morgan will exhibit it until September 18, at which time it will presumably be returned to the private collection whence it came.

I thought that finding out where that private collection is would be a deep dark secret, but I had very little trouble discovering it. Both the Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons identify it as Mulgrave Castle in Lythe, Yorkshire.

But that’s where the confusion begins – at least, for me it does. Wikipedia explains that Mulgrave Castle actually refers to three separate structures: an ancient ruin supposedly built in the sixth century, a later castle probably of Norman origin, and a country house built by one Lady Catherine Darnley presumably in the late 1600s. In 2003, supermodel Elle Macpherson comes into this mix! (check out  the aforementioned Wikipedia entry for details.) The Wikipedia entry contains no mention of the Rembrandt.

The estate is currently owned by Constantine Phipps, Fifth Marquess of Normanby. It is situated near Whitby in North Yorkshire. Whitby is a storied place. We were there in 2007. The town has interesting shops; when you’re walking along the commercial avenue and you look up, you behold, high on a distant hill, the ruins of Whitby Abbey, originally established in AD 657 and destroyed in the mid 800s by the Vikings. A Benedictine monastery was established there in 1078. This in turn fell to ruin after King Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic religious houses in 1539. And that is what you see after you put your wallet away, secure your purchases, and turn your gaze upward.

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Whitby3

(This almost supernatural collision of past and present is one of the reasons why I love England so much.)

When you go  to the website for the Mulgrave Estate,  it’s all business – not a hint of poetry anywhere. And once again, not a word about the Rembrandt….

 

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Christmas card

December 22, 2012 at 2:34 am (Art, Christmas, New York City)

Met tree

Click here for the concert that I was privileged to attend on Sunday the 9th, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine assembled before this magnificent Christmas tree, in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. (You can toggle back to the first screen and gaze upon the tree, while listening to the music.)

For more on this music, and on Christmas in New York, click here.

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Christmas in New York City, 2012

December 13, 2012 at 1:45 pm (Art, Christmas, Music, New York City)

It’s been many years since I was in Manhattan at Christmas time. I was there last weekend. Wanting to be as close to the Metropolitan Museum as possible, I stayed at a small hotel on the Upper East Side. There were some delightful decorations along Madison Avenue. The windows of Ralph Lauren’s flagship store were gorgeous!

(The building seen at 00:28 through to 00:34, a French Renaissance revival edifice completed in 1898, is called the Rhinelander Mansion.)

What I was most excited to see was the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each year the Museum puts up a Christmas tree decorated with eighteenth century figures from Neapolitan Nativity scenes. It’s been many years since I’ve seen this moving and beautiful display.

(Thanks go to my husband Ron for creating the above video montages.)

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Sunday night my friend Helene and I attended a concert at the museum. Directed by Kent Tritle,  the Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine presented a program of sacred music entitled O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery’). In all my years of going to the Met, I’d never been there when the museum was not completely open. Certain galleries were lit, especially those that led to the Medieval Sculpture Hall where the concert was to be held. Others were roped off and dark. We came in through the Roman Sculpture Court.

This was the set-up for the performance: metconcert . The choir entered from the right; we heard them before we saw them. They were singing a Gregorian Chant entitled Veni, veni Emanuel. They entered slowly, grouping themselves directly in front of the Christmas tree.

Here, the chant is sung by the Christendom College Choir and the Schola Gregoriana:

Neither photography nor videorecording were permitted on this occasion, so I have selected some YouTube videos of several of the pieces performed by the choir. This setting of O Magnum Mysterium  by Tomas Luis de Victoria is sung by The Sixteen:

Hans Leo Hassler‘s Verbum Caro Factus Est is sung here by Domchor Fulda:

Several of the pieces on the program were by twentieth century composers. I was especially taken by this Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, a composer with whom I was not familiar.

Franz Biebl  1906-2001

Franz Biebl 1906-2001

And I was delighted to find a video of Chanticleer singing this luminous work in the very same space where Sunday night’s concert took place:

I had heard the music of Morten Lauridsen before – specifically, at one of the Bach concerts I regularly attend with my friend Emma. I knew his O Magnum Mysterium would be gorgeous, and it was:

This performance is by the King’s College Choir,  King’s College, Cambridge. It’s accompanied by these comments from the poster:

Probably the best and most moving piece of music I have ever heard. I was lucky enough to be able to watch this on “Carols from Kings” on Christmas Eve 2009 and it left me in tears. The beauty of the harmonies and the control of Kings College Choir transcends all words and I was left in a state of shock quivering and speechless. I have never heard anything like this in all my life! I never want it to end!

The piece that I heard at the Bach Concert earlier this year is called”Dirait-on:”

Can music be too beautiful? For me, “Dirait-on” comes close…..

At the close of the concert, the choir, once again singing Gregorian chant, made its stately way out of the Medieval Sculpture Hall, to the gallery at the right.

Here is Conditor alme siderum, sung by the Schola Gregoriana  Mediolanensus of Milan, Italy:

How could something be so magical? We were transported. O Magnum Mysterium, indeed.

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The Met Museum in March

March 31, 2012 at 1:08 am (Art, New York City)

I went to New York City this past weekend and spent roughly ten hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Of course, it was not nearly enough.

How could it possibly be? The Met’s website contains this statement: “Today, the Museum’s two-million-square-foot building houses over two million objects, tens of thousands of which are on view at any given time.” So you see, ten hours was downright paltry! (The building itself was designated a National Landmark in 1986.)

My first goal was to see the newly revamped American Wing:

The Metropolitan Museum’s collection of American art, one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world, returns to view in expanded, reconceived, and dramatic new galleries on January 16, 2012, when the Museum inaugurates the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. The new installation will provide visitors with a rich and captivating experience of the history of American art from the 18th through the early 20th century. The suite of elegant new galleries encompasses 30,000 square feet for the display of the Museum’s superb collection.

This final phase of the American Wing renovation project is comprised of 26 renovated and enlarged galleries on the second floor. The new architectural design is a contemporary interpretation of 19th-century Beaux-Arts galleries, including coved ceilings and natural light flowing through new skylights. The redesign, which has added 3,300 square feet of gallery space, also allows for a chronological installation of the American paintings and sculpture, and improved pathways connecting to adjacent areas of the Museum.

(For the full text of this article, click here.)

In order to view this marvel, one must penetrate to the farther recesses of the museum. I chose to enter via the Egyptian Art Gallery. Well, to heck with goals; there was no rushing through this:

For more on the Met’s amazing Egyptian galleries, go to the list of “Galleries” on the museum’s site. The Egyptian Galleries are ninth. If you can’t stop yourself from looking at other things along the way – well, believe me, I understand!

And we will get to the New American Wing – eventually….

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A Night at the Opera: Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at the Metropolitan

March 29, 2011 at 1:28 am (Music, New York City, opera)

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed The Queen of Spades in the late 1880s. the year 1890 saw the premiere of this opera, which was based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin.  The composer’s brother Modest wrote the libretto.

In this strange story, passions run high – it is Russia, after all – and supernatural elements are deftly woven into the plot. The action opens with  Hermann, an army officer, professing his love for a young woman whose name he has yet to learn. By the time the first act ends, he has  found out that her name is  Lisa, she is the granddaughter of an aged countess – and she is already betrothed, to a fellow officer no less. While Hermann struggles to come to terms with this shattering news, he receives additional intelligence of a curious nature. This has to do with the card games that are such a popular pastime among the young soldiers and aristocrats.  The countess, Lisa’s grandmother, is supposedly in possession of a powerful secret: If three cards are played in a specific order, the player cannot fail to win the hand, and all the money that has been wagered on it. Now at this point, not only is Hermann already in love with Lisa, he also perceives that despite her betrothal to another, she is likewise attracted to him. And so he thinks to himself: why not use this budding liaison to extract this valuable knowledge from the countess?

And so a plot is hatched, a conspiracy that ultimately leads to  disaster. But on the way to this inevitable end, we were treated to much glorious singing, spectacular sets, and gorgeous costumes. God bless the Metropolitan Opera; they never do anything by halves!

Karita Mattila as Lisa and Vladimir Galouzine as Hermann

Dolora Zajick as the Countess, with Vladimir Galouzine

Here are two of the opera’s opulent crowd scenes:

In the scene in this video, Lisa (Karita Mattila) sings a duet with Tamara Mumford, as her sister Pauline. This was a delicate moment, perfectly executed. The audience loved it, with good reason:

I should say that I came to  this opera cold: not only had I never seen it or listened to it, I had no knowledge of the story line. I like to approach a work of art in this manner, sometimes. Of course, loving Tchaikovsky’s music as I do, I was reasonably certain that I would not be disappointed. In the event, it was a thrilling evening. One of the most unexpected delights came in the Second Act. At a masked ball, the guests are treated to an entertainment with a pastoral theme featuring both song and dance. The following video is of the same production we saw, but from an earlier year and with a different cast.

Everything about this interlude is utterly lovable, from the backdrop that is unrolled at the beginning and resembles one of Fragonard’s huge, dreamy canvases, to the music which is such a charming homage to Mozart, a composer Tchaikovsky revered. Aren’t the children wonderful? And those costumes!

Click here for a full summary of the plot of The Queen of Spades. And here are two reviews of this production, one by Anthony Tommasini the New York Times’s wonderfully knowledgeable and articulate music critic, and another from Operaticus, a site new to me.

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On Tuesday I bought this collection of Pushkin’s stories; I wanted to get acquainted with the opera’s source material. It turns out that Tchaikovsky (either Piotr, Modest, or both) altered certain aspects of the original story. To begin with, Lisa is not the countess’s granddaughter. She is her ward, and she gets treated like a cross between a companion and a servant. Oddly, this put me in mind of the ingenue in the recently discussed novel Rebecca,  who, when we meet her in Monte Carlo, is at the beck and call at the imperious and insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. The countess is similar to Mrs Van Hopper, but worse:

The Countess N. was, of course, not an evil soul, but as the spoiled pet of society, she was capricious; she had grown mean and sunk into a cold egoism, like all old people whose fondest memories lay in the past and to whom the present was alien.

In Pushkin’s story, Lisa is not engaged to anyone, is alone and lonely except for the countess’s incessant demands:

Lizaveta Ivanovna was the martyr of the household.She poured the tea and was scolded for using too much sugar; read novels aloud and was blamed for all the faults of the authors; accompanied the Countess on her rides and was held responsible both for the weather and the condition of the pavement.

And on and no it goes, with nary an expression or gesture of affection toward the poor girl. Oh, she is an easy mark, poor Lisa, and Hermann has every intention of taking advantage of that fact. Love – at least, on his part – doesn’t enter into it at all.

This story is artfully wrought. It’s climax is shattering; the subsequent outcome – at least, for some of the characters – is  downright prosaic, though ironically so. Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” serves as yet another reminder of the sheer brilliance of the great Russian writers.

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin

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A sojourn in New York City begins at The American Museum of Natural History

March 24, 2011 at 8:43 pm (books, New York City, Travel)

When my friend Helene and I are together, the talk of books is inexhaustible. I always come away with urgent recommendations that grow out of whatever we’ve been talking about. This time it was Russia and the Russians, and our perennial fascination with medieval Europe. I was receptive to the suggestion of the Stoppard play, having recently seen and hugely enjoyed his Arcadia. The Lewis title was new to me. I confess that I’ve had trouble reading this venerated author in the past, but I shall give it another go with this book.

I began my first full day in the city by going to the American Museum of Natural History. This is a place I used to visit as a child. I hadn’t been back in many years, but at Helene’s suggestion, I made it my destination. As I entered, I noted with satisfaction that the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall looked wonderfully old. (Was it always called that? I didn’t remember it being so.) The place was thronged with visitors. It took half an hour just to clear admissions – and I got there ten minute before the ten o’clock opening. I headed straight for the Rose Center for Earth and Space, inspecting some of the fascinating exhibits on view; from thence, to the Hayden Planetarium.

This was not the planetarium of my youth. The original building was demolished in 1997, to be replaced by a new state of the art facility. When it reopened in 2000, even sophisticated seen-it-all New Yorkers were stunned by what they saw:

The Hayden had also been equipped with the latest technological innovations. The the show that I attended was entitled “Journey to the Stars:”

Once inside the sphere, the visual and audio effects are mind boggling.

My next stop was the Hayden’s Big Bang Theater. In this venue, visitors arrange  themselves around a circular railing and gaze down rather than up, while Liam Neeson tells you about the origins of the universe. Shorter than “Journey” (which was narrated by Whoopi Goldberg), but no less impressive.

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Upon leaving the Rose Center I got lost, finally fetching up at “Body & Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings.” At the front of the long hall serving as the display space for this exhibit was a sign proclaiming: “This is a quiet gallery.” That alone was enough to persuade me to enter. Due most likely to the rather esoteric nature of the subject matter, the exhibit was sparsely attended. After the raucous exuberance of the crowds in other parts of the building, I was very grateful for the respite.

Here’s a brief video concerning the medical paintings:

Click here for more images from the exhibit.

I savored the contemplative interlude afforded me, and I loved this exhibit.

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Next up: Helene and I go to the opera…. 

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“This prolific author’s last book is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” – A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss

February 22, 2011 at 7:28 pm (Book review, books, History, New York City)

When I heard that a memoir by Louis  Auchincloss was due to be published posthumously, I knew I’d want to read it. Born in 1917, Auchincloss grew up in a world of wealth and privilege among the creme de la creme of New York society. This slim volume is filled with lively anecdotes. One of my favorites concerns Auchincloss’s Uncle Ed, who sent his shirts to Europe so they’d be properly laundered!

The Auchinclosses moved in exalted circles, although as is usual with children, young Louis took it for granted that the family should socialize with the elite of the period, including the Vanderbilts. I liked this summing up of that high profile clan by one of the era’s supreme chroniclers:

Edith Wharton spoke of the family as engaged in a constant Battle of Thermopylae against bad taste, which they never won.

(Wharton, a huge influence on Auchincloss, was known to his grandmother from their summers at Newport, Rhode Island.)

Edith Wharton

Some of the author’s recollections are poignant. For instance, he went to law school (University of Virginia) with Marshall Field IV. This scion of the wealthy Chicago department store and newspaper owners suffered a nervous breakdown in 1956 and endured a lifelong struggle with drug use. He died in 1965 at the age of 50. Auchincloss comments that “the story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus.”  (These allusions to the classics and to ancient history serve as a dismaying reminder that a basic knowledge of these fields of study used to be presumed for all and any educated Americans.)

In the domestic sphere, Auchincloss’s mother did not have to do without: she had two nurses to assist with the care of four minor children, a cook, a waitress (!),  a chambermaid for general housekeeping, and a chauffeur: “Her days were thus free for some not very taxing charity work, lunches with friends at her clubs, matinees or concerts, visits to museums.” Once again, this profusion of servants, a state of affairs that seems almost unimaginable to us now, would have been something that Louis and his siblings took for granted. To this description, Auchincloss appends some provocative observations on the status of women of that era:

It was commonly said that because so many women were possessed of great wealth in their own right, that they exercised considerable economic power. It is truer to say that they could have. But all that was left by tacit consent to the men. Women, before they took jobs in the professions,  were content with the power they exercised in the home, where they ran the household and the children, selected the life style and the friends, chose the vacation spots and the charities to be supported and even the church to be attended.

In this passage, Auchincloss delineates those that comprised the entity called “society,” as it existed in New York City in the 1920s and’30s:

These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square  and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn’t seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics.

He adds that “Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one, either.” I suspect that’s a bit of an understatement. Re Roosevelt: does one not frequently hear that he was considered “a traitor to his class”? I also liked the part about “nonpracticing Jews.” Better lose the skull caps and prayer shawls, fellas, if you want in!

Louis Auchincloss crossed paths with many who would later attain fame (or in some cases, notoriety).  At the elite private boys’ school that he attended in Manhattan, he knew two future actors of some disctinction: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Mel Ferrer.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (198 - ) as Don Alejandro in the made-for--TV film "Zorro," in 1990

 

Mel Ferrer, 1917-2008

Then it was on to Groton, the prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, where he counted William Bundy as a classmate. Bundy and his older brother McGeorge – called “Mac” by intimates – went on to become security advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At the time that Auchincloss was at Groton, Reverend Endicott Peabody, the school’s founder, was still headmaster. (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, was an earlier scion of the same illustrious clan.)

William P. Bundy

McGeorge Bundy on the cover of Time Magazine 1965

Reverend Endicott Peabody

Auchincloss went to Yale and then, as mentioned above, to the University of Virginia Law School. Finally in 1941, he obtained employment at the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. The movers and shakers there were the Dulles brothers, Allen, the fifth director of the CIA, and John Foster, future Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At different times during his tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, the author worked for both brothers. He makes interesting observations about them:

Foster was sober, grave, dedicated to work, deeply religious, and utterly unimaginative in his dealings with clerks and staff. Allen, on the other hand, was hearty, cheerful, outgiving [sic], full of charm and humor.  Where he was devoted, perhaps too much so, to the fair sex, Foster was strictly a faithful monogamist.

Allen Dulles

President Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956

Probably Auchincloss’s most intriguing connection entered his life in 1942, when his father’s cousin Hugh D. Auchiincloss married Janet Lee Bouvier. It was his third marriage and her second. She already had two daughters, one of whom was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous women: . (Hugh Auchincloss’s second marriage was to Nina S. Gore, mother of author Gore Vidal.)

Louis Auchincloss recounts a fascinating anecdote about Jackie Bouvier, as she then was. He had just written Sybil, and Jackie, at the time engaged to one John Husted of New York, strongly identified with the novel’s eponymous protagonist. She told him:

‘Oh, you’ve written my life….Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.’

Auchincloss writes that at that moment,  he had a premonition of an entirely different fate awaiting his pretty cousin. Still, he admits that no one in the family “…predicted her remarkable destiny.” (One week later, her engagement to Husted was broken.)

In his introduction to this memoir, Louis Auchincloss voices the hope that in taking us on this journey to the past – his past and ours – he will bring that past to life. In this effort, he has succeeded admirably.

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Louis Auchincloss was a remarkably prolific writer. Here is his oeuvre, courtesy of  Wikipedia:

Novels

  • The Indifferent Children (1947)
  • Sybil (1952)
  • A Law for the Lion (1953)
  • The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956)
  • Venus in Sparta (1958)
  • Pursuit of the Prodigal (1959)
  • The House of Five Talents (1960)
  • Portrait in Brownstone (1962)
  • The Rector of Justin (1964)
  • The Embezzler (1966)
  • A World of Profit (1968)
  • I Come as a Thief (1972)
  • The Dark Lady (1977)
  • The Country Cousin (1978)
  • The House of the Prophet (1980)
  • The Cat and the King (1981)
  • Watchfires (1982)
  • Exit Lady Masham (1983)
  • The Book Class (1984)
  • Honourable Men (1986)
  • Diary of a Yuppie (1987)
  • The Golden Calves (1988)
  • Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits (1989)
  • The Lady of Situations (1990)
  • Three Lives (1993)
  • The Education of Oscar Fairfax (1995)
  • Her Infinite Variety (2000)
  • The Scarlet Letters (2003)
  • East Side Story (2004)
  • The Headmaster’s Dilemma (2007)
  • Last of the Old Guard (2008

Short story collections

  • The Injustice Collectors (1950)
  • The Romantic Egoists (1954)
  • Powers of Attorney (1963)
  • Tales of Manhattan (1967)
  • Second Chance: Tales of Two Generations (1970)
  • The Partners (1974)
  • The Winthrop Covenant (1976)
  • Narcissa and Other Fables (1982)
  • Skinny Island: More Tales of Manhattan (1987)
  • False Gods (1992)
  • Tales of Yesteryear (1994)
  • The Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss (1994)
  • The Atonement and Other Stories (1997)
  • The Anniversary and Other Stories (1999)
  • Manhattan Monologues (2002)
  • The Young Apollo and Other Stories (2006)
  • The Friend of Women and Other Stories (2007)

Nonfiction

  • Reflections of a Jacobite (1961)
  • Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists (1965)
  • On Sister Carrie (1968)
  • Motiveless Malignity (1969)
  • Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time (1972)
  • Richelieu (1972)
  • A Writer’s Capital (1974)
  • Reading Henry James (1975)
  • Life, Law, and Letters: Essays and Sketches (1979)
  • Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle (1979)
  • False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King (1985)
  • The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age (1989)
  • Love without Wings: Some Friendships in Literature and Politics (1991)
  • The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others (1994)
  • The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles (1996)
  • Woodrow Wilson (Penguin Lives) (2000)
  • Theodore Roosevelt (The American Presidents Series) (2002)

Adaptations

Auchincloss’s The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) was adapted for television in an episode of the Climax! series (Season 4, Episode 22; Broadcast 27 March 1958).

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It is difficult to believe that it was only only last that we bid Louis Auchincloss adieu. His work and his life belong so completely to a bygone era. The Kirkus reviewer of A Voice from Old New York commented that this last book from the author’s pen “…is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” Auchincoss would most certainly have agreed with this assessment.

Louis Auchincloss receiving the National Medal of Arts in 2005

Louis Auchincloss in the Yale yearbook, 1939

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Quotidian moment, frozen in time: Vermeer’s Milkmaid

November 13, 2009 at 3:30 am (Art, New York City)

vermeer_milkmaid

It was the light. I was completely unprepared for it.

The painting seemed to be emitting light.

The colors, especially the blues, are rich and deep. The milkmaid concentrates on her task; she is probably making bread porridge. The prosaic task of pouring the milk is frozen in time forever. The bread looks good enough to eat!

But I kept coming back to the light, which seemed both ordinary and unearthly. The scene depicted in “The Milkmaid” is not ostensibly a religious one; nevertheless, the painting confers a kind of benediction on the viewer. I felt exalted in its presence (as did those on either side of me, judging by the rapt expression on their faces).

Currently mounted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Vermeer’s Masterpiece the Milkmaid” is a small exhibit. (In “Dutch Touch,” his article in the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl pronounced it “an example for recession-era museum practice.”) Also on view are the Met’s other Vermeers – they own five in all – plus other works by Dutch Genre painters.

What a gift these artists gave us, showing us people going about the business of life at  the height of The Netherlands’ Golden Age. Centuries before the advent of photography, they have captured these quotidian moments for us to see all these many years on.

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Art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s piece in the September 21 issue of The New Yorker- unfortunately the full text is not available online – is an odd mixture of masterful writing and puzzling assertions. First, he comments that Vermeer’s “View of Delft “doesn’t do a lot for me….It’s so bizarrely special – a fairyland city persuasively identical to an actual city….”

Delft

“View of Delft” – a painting I personally cherish – is not present at this exhibit, but “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is:

pitcherThis is clearly a painting that Peter Schjeldahl adores. Here he is, waxing rhapsodic – not to mention quixotic – on the subject: “…a little patch of llapis-lazuli-tinted white, describing backlit linen in the head scarf of the Met’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher,” would have killed me a long time ago, if paint could.”

This rather disconcerting statement is followed by further (idiosyncratic and hyperbolic) expressions of rapture:

“The entering sunlight sustains all manner of ravishing adventures, throught the picture, but the incidental detail of the head scarf has affected me like a life-changing secret, whispered to me alone. I revel in it each time I see it–having misremembered it, of course, since the last time, helpless to retain the nuance of the color and the velleity of the painter’s touch. ‘Young Woman with a Water Pitcher’ is a Sermon on the Mount of aesthetiic value, in which the meek–or, at least, the humdrum, involving trifles of a prosperous but ordinary household, on an ordinary day–inherit the earth. Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world. At the same time, I know that my emotion is manipulated by deliberate artifice. An artist has contrived to lure me out of myself into aan illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.

Is it just me, or is there a bit too much of  “I” in this piece? Art criticism or psychotherapy? And as for being “manipulated by deliberate artifice” – why, Dude, it’s a painting! It is by definition a work of art – and of artifice, one that is superbly executed. (We agree there.)

As to “The Milkmaid,” Schjeldahl is awed but at the same time ambivalent: “Like ‘Delft,’ ‘The Milkmaid’ exercises more dazzling virtuosity than I quite know what to do with.” What – it’s too good? too close to perfect? Or perhaps a case of too much showy genius in the service of a prosaic subject? I confess, I am well and truly stumped by this statement.

Ah, well – moving right along…

The Met now has a wonderfully rich site that functions as a sort of online art college. Click here to see what is on offer regarding “Vermeer’s Masterpiece: The Milkmaid.”

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When I arrived at the museum last Friday, my intention was to proceed directly to this exhibit. In order to do so, you must pass through the Greek and Roman galleries. This I proceeded to do. But before I reached the Vermeers, I was stoppped dead in my tracks by these:

Greek vase3

Greekvase2

Greek-vase1

“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time…

Stay tuned for the further adventures of a passionate art lover, who is thunderstruck for the first time by the “Grecian Urns,” objects she first saw at the age of eight…

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Gotham Diary: the otherworldly beauty of the Kirov Ballet

April 23, 2008 at 12:09 pm (New York City, Performing arts, Poetry, Russophilia)

Thursday night April 10, I took my friend Helene, a balletomane like myself, to New York City Center to see the Kirov work its magic. The program consisted of scenes from four different ballets: Le Corsaire, Diana and Acteon, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere.

How was it? Superlatives fail me. I don’t have the words, but the poets do. I keeping thinking of two passages in particular:: Romeo’s astonished declaration that “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night;” and the final lines of one of my favorite poems, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Here’s the entire poem:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on,
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping song for ever new,
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

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As a meditation on the age-old desire to stop cruel time in its tracks, this work, for me, has no equal. I wished very powerfully that the performance we saw that night could be frozen in time, like “the marble men and maidens overwrought” on Keats’s vase. But I will cherish the memory. And there are pictures…

The corps de ballet in the exquisite La Bayadere.

Soloists in La Bayadere

Leonid Sarafanov, whose spectacular leaps and light-as-a-feather landings repeatedly thrilled the audience.* (Here’s a “head shot” of the astounding Sarafanov taken last year. Doesn’t he look as though he’s all of fourteen years old?!)

This photo of Diana Vishneva, taken by Andrea Mohin, appeared in the New York Times on Sunday April 13:

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The music, by turns robust and delicate, was played beautifully by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; most of the choreography was done by the great Marius Petipa. Helene and I gazed at the program in awe – such storied names…

Here is the Mariinsky Theatre’s official site. It is very oriented to the here and now – not much in the way of history, except for the acknowledgement, in tiny print, that this is there 225th season. For some interesting background, and great photos of the theater itself, see the Wikipedia entry.

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For a fascinating cultural hisory of Russia, see Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. (I won’t claim to have read through this massive tome; I’ve been using it primarily as a reference work since I purchased it several years ago.)

*For more terrific portraits of ballet dancers, see Gene Schiavone’s site.

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