Sunday, July 01, 2012

In search of a topic: Natalie Barney, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein

In 1972 I was a graduate student in search of a thesis topic. Actually I wasn't even ready to start on a thesis yet, as I had 2 years more of coursework and exams before I would be considered a PhD candidate. But I was living in Paris in the presence of writers, poets, painters
and photographers, and wanted to find a subject I would become passionate about.

That subject was Natalie Clifford Barney, an American woman of letters who lived in Paris from the 1890's until her death in February, 1972, in her 96th year.

Edouard Roditi and Andre Ostier, literary critic and photographer, told me that she would be leaving her large archive to the Bibliotheque litteraire Jacques Doucet - a research library/archive attached to the Universite de Paris and whose collections include manuscripts of many important 19th and 20th century French writers.

In March, 1972, without much forethought, I decided to find out everything I could about Natalie Barney. I found all her books available either at the old bookstores on the Left Bank where I lived or at the Bibliotheque Nationale where I was spending part of my days studying. As I searched through her writings, and particularly her 2 volumes of memoirs, I started getting a picture of a woman who celebrated life stating: "I don't collect things, I collect people."

So why not meet some of these people, I thought. I was young, enthusiastic, spoke fluent French and had a background in literature. I was a student in search of a subject, and hot
on her tracks.

To this end I interviewed almost 25 septuagenarians or octogenarians.
Some of the writers or public figures were almost as old as Natalie: Paul Geraldy, a sentimental writer very popular in the 1910's and 1920's, was 87 when I interviewed him in April, 1972 and lived another 11 years; Georges Cattaui, a French/Egyptian writer, was only 74 and soon would die. Maurice Goudeket, Colette's third husband, was a sprightly father of a two year old at age 73 when he received me. These French literary figures mingled at Miss Barney's Fridays at 20 rue Jacob with many women and frequent visiting Americans. Janet Flanner, Marcel Jouhandeau and even Anthony Blond in England were co-conspirators in this research. Her salon became an international way station for visiting writers.

When Truman Capote came to Paris in 1947 he got an introduction to Natalie Barney through Jenny Bradley, the top agent for American and English writers in France, and visited Miss Barney, first as he describes in Paris Review #61, pp. 118-123.

In May, 1975, shortly after the "Natalie Barney Garland" appeared in Paris Review, Capote came to San Francisco on vacation, as I remember, and I just had to get in touch with him. Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle's daily "town crier, party chronicler, city swell" mentioned that Capote was in San Francisco and was staying at one of its' fancier hotels. Aha! So I called up The Stanford Court Hotel and asked to speak to Truman Capote.

"Hello" rasped the effeminate contralto of Mr. Capote

My goodness, I had the real thing. No one could answer the phone or talk like him: high, rasping, an arching drawl like an imitation of a Southern drag queen. I had to think quickly, as I hadn't prepared any questions, but just hit pay dirt.

I introduced myself as a graduate student writing my thesis on Natalie Barney and wanted to get some of his memories of her.

"Oh, she was such a nice lady. Wonderful sandwiches, very good drink. She entertained very often. She was one of the first literary people I met in Paris. I was so young, didn't know anyone. She took me around; took me to see these huge paintings - all in gray, black and white - of all these famous women. The artist was Romaine Brooks who was her lover, but who didn't live with her. All these paintings were kept in a studio on the right bank of Paris - maybe in her sister's building. It was far away. Miss Barney kept me like a child under her wing. And she gave me more letters of introduction."

Romaine Brooks, known as the "Thief of Souls", documented the who’s who of a certain wealthy, exclusive and perverse society.  Portraits of Ida Rubenstein, Gabrialle d’Annunzio and Natalie Barney as well as portraits of Una Troubridge and Radclyffe Hall, authors of “The Well of Loneliness” are now part of the Smithsonian Collection.  

Una Troubridge as seen at the Smithsonian and Radclyffe Hall
were celebrated in the 1920’s.  Lily de Clermont-Tonnerre,  Lily de Clermont-Tonnerre was one of Miss Barney’s and Romaine Brooks’ best friends.

When the subject of our conversation went from Natalie Barney to Romaine Brooks, I asked Capote if he had seen the recent biography of this artist: "Between Me and Life:A Biography of Romaine Brooks" by Meryle Secrest.

"Oh noooo," he said in a dismissive drawl, " I don't read any of those books. I knew the artist, that was enough." Note: for more on Romaine Brooks see the Strangeflowers website.

"Oh", I said, "the book wasn't great at all, even if it was very well received and quite positively reviewed by Anais Nin in the New York Times Sunday Review of Books".

"Well", Capote gushed,"That doesn't mean anything. Anais Nin is a silly little cunt who doesn't even know how to thread a needle!"

If he could have seen me gasp and almost swallow my tongue on the other side of the telephone he would have burst out in laughter.

"Well, I've got to go now", said Mr. Capote, "But you can write me at my home. Just send me mail to Truman Capote, Bridgehampton, New York. They all know me there, you don't need any more of an address.  Everybody knows me there"

He repeated Bridgehampton again, and cordially wished me luck.

I hung up the phone and immediately transcribed our conversation. What impressed me was how fluent he was: how the words flew off his tongue without rage or even disapprobation. Just a statement of fact, his fact.

Since I'm talking about dead writers and places, there's one more piece of urban legend I would love to dispel.

Gertrude Stein in 1906 by Picasso.

Her quotation in the 1930’s about Oakland, where she lived from ages 4 - 16 approximately, "There is no there there" has often been interpreted derisively as a slight to the town. Quite the contrary. Not at all a slight to the town across the bay from San Francisco, she simply notes that her life in Oakland was her family, and that presence, that "there" is no longer there.  And it seems she wasn’t able to find her childhood home when she made the trek there.

On February 3, 1974, we celebrated Gertrude Stein's centenary at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, not more than 7 miles from where she lived as a child. There was there there.

Note: Several biographies on Natalie Barney have been published since her death in 1972. George Wickes (editor of the Paris Review #61 Natalie Barney Graland) published "The Amazon of Letters" in 1976 - her chosen American biographer, and Jean Chalon's "Portrait d'une Seductrice" (a French newsman whose relationship over 20 years with Natalie resembles "Harold and Maude" type story) show 2 sides of Miss Barney. Suzanne Rodriguez-Hunter's bio benefits from the previous writers works and archive access. Wild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris

Friday, April 15, 2011

Grateful Dead War stories: The Harmonic Convergence

Inspired by a recent post on by Oakland local, Blair Jackson, I've written one of my favorite Grateful Dead "war" stories from the road.  From 1986 - 1995 my wife Annetta and many other friends joined me in "grateful dead jet setting".  From Eugene to Berlin, Paris, Memphis, New York, Philadelphia and Las Vegas, the circus never stopped.

Here's my story of the weekend of August 14 - 16, 1987, in Telluride, Colorado.  The Grateful Dead had never played Telluride before or after this weekend in 1987.  Some "New Age" prognosticator had deemed this time, particularly the Sunday of the weekend, to be the time of "The Harmonic Convergence", so we all converged on Telluride in Southwest Colorado.

Telluride is at the base of a beautiful box canyon.

  •  What is particular toTelluride are several things: 
    • It's exclusive
    • It's expensive
    • Bill Graham had a place there
    • It's not necessarily open to hippies
All of these issues presented big challenges for the growing empire of Deadheads throughout the states by 1987.  When the Dead and Dylan played a series of 6 shows the month before, Bill Graham, the Dead's principal producer, and Grateful Dead Productions, warned "the ticketless masses" to stay away from Telluride if you didn't have a ticket.  The capacity was limited to 10,000 I believe, though I was never sure of how Bill Graham Presents counted...

We were fortunate to have tickets to see the Dead outside Denver at Red Rocks Ampitheatre - 1 of the most beautiful places in the world to see anything.

Our war stories are always happy ones: at Telluride in 87 we got to town Friday afternoon without a place to stay. Yes, we had sleeping bags & a tent in our car, but we're really not campers. On the road into town we met a woman who had a sign: room for the weekend! Right on. Her cottage about 3 blocks from the Town Park, where the Dead would play Saturday and Sunday in the afternoon,  was barely 2 bedrooms; there was no door for our bedroom - $200 for the weekend, a steal by Telluride prices - just an Indian bedspread. It made me think of Berkeley in 1967.  Our hostess, Laurel,  had a wonderful big dog, Burke, who liked us, so we were made in the shade. The $200 was her approximate winter heating cost, so we really made a positive impact on her life. It was the most romantic weekend - our second honeymoon, having been married August 2 the year before (and having missed Red Rocks, our intended first honeymoon in 86). Our time in Brokedown Palace as we lovingly called this place was one of the greatest honeymoons we've had.

Nothing compares to the wonder of the Dead road experiences.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Metaphysical License: I love Amma

On the urging of one of my co-workers, I thought I should write a short recap of some highlights of a visit with Amma almost a year and 1/2 ago.  I had written the majority of this in November, 2009 and just came upon it.  I hope to see Amma when she returns to the Bay Area in 2 months, and in re-reading this I feel ever closer to that moment.

Wednesday 11/12/09: Darshan with Amma. Visited Amma's ashram in San Ramon: for an evening public session to be hugged by the most huggable person in the world. I'm accompanied on this visit by 2 French young women who are staying with us for the Fall as exchange students in the Bay Area. One is an art student, the other a therapist. They are willing to leave home in the middle of the afternoon for a 6+ hour adventure barely 1/2 hour from our house in Oakland to experience Amma's darshan. Part of the experience, not unlike the prep for a Grateful Dead concert, is getting there early, standing in line, being in another line; another lineup, this time in a chair where you'll sit during the first 2 1/2 hours of her evening's event; carousing around her center's outer buildings, dining hall and large meeting hall; waiting; eating some wonderful Indian food and drinking Chai; buying stuff in the marketplace around the perimeter of the hall; getting in the spirit of being in a South Indian ashram, and marvelling at how devoted her followers are. I've come here 6 times over the last 7 1/2 years and every face I remember is doing the same volunteer task - handing out tickets for the lineup to get darshan; controlling the aisles from the left side or the right side of the stage; offering information about the evening's program; helping others find seating, food, comfort. Most of the volunteers are wearing some form of Indian dress in white; some with pashmina shawls; some in saris - both American and Indian women; many with other signs of Indian spirituality - like the small beautiful seeded bracelets of sandlewood or rosewood. They are a constant and devoted bunch.

The meeting room ressembles a country church with balcony space on both sides and the rear, and seating on the main floor, surrounded on one side by a marketplace for Amma's books, videos and other Indian trinkets, and with educational information tables on the other.

When Amma arrives with her entourage she's royally greeted.  She makes her way down the center aisle, touched every now and again by those she passes by, feted with flowers and arrives at the stage where she's surrounded on a raised dais by a goodly number of beautiful Indian children and some of her spiritual devotees. One devotee then tells a  story of his life since he's met Amma - how she helped him understand that the only real change is from within - and how he's taken on her teachings. He's adopted her positive attitude of loving all and everything and it works.

Next comes an hour of singing bajans - spiritual songs of praise - praise to Ganesh, Shiva, Krishna, Mother Divine, the mother of all. Amma seems almost in a trance singing along with these hymns in Malalayam, Sanskrit, and other Indian dialects. The text of each song is displayed on monitors and the message of each song is the same: one of unconditional devotion to God/Mother. Amma is the all loving mother.

Then comes a guided meditation led by one of her students called simply Swami, then Amma's darshan. People in the hall get a little ticket when they arrive which determines their place in the line to get hugged by Amma. When a ticket range (typically 40 per letter-number combination) is done, numbers & letters on 2 posts either side of the room, are advanced and now that bunch gets to line up to be hugged. Not just lined up, but sat in chairs where you get to play an advanced form of musical chairs always moving forward to the goal. When you are within a couple chairs of the Amma, one of the volunteers makes sure to take your belongings & stow them; another asks your native language; a third asks: "are you single or with some one" - so as to efficiently organize the seekers. Finally you are on your knees, sitting on your heals and just behind someone who is being hugged. You move forward and basically fall into Amma's lap as she then cradles your head and chants something in Malayalam in your right ear. She looks at you a couple of times, squeezes you tightly and makes you feel like you are the most loved person in the world. She releases you and gives you a Hershey kiss or some other sweet. You stumble away.

A year before I hadn't seen Amma for several years. I wasn't feeling very good about my work, my company, my well-being in general. Not out of desperation, but rather the goal to divest myself of a certain despair, I decided to visit Amma. I needed to remember what it felt like to be loved by my mother, and she gave me that loving attention.And I haven't looked back since.  In a few short moments in her arms all pain desists, all worry vanishes, all fear is dispelled.  I felt one and only one thing: the love of my mother, of life, of God.  All the same, undifferentiated. 

Remembering, I feel strongly compelled to cry:  from the first moment I saw her that night, each subsequent visit, and even now when I'm writing, tears well up in my eyes.  Tears of joy.  Mother is home.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Proust Questionnaire

Vanity Fair, the magazine, upholds a tradition on its last printed page: the Proust questionnaire.  The Proust Questionnaire is a questionnaire about one's personality. Its name and modern popularity as a form of interview is owed to the responses given by the French writer Marcel Proust.

Your favorite virtue:  Kindness

Your favorite qualities in a man/woman: Smiles, softness, forgivingness, insight

Your chief characteristic: optimistic blue eyes

What do you appreciate the most in Your friends: tolerence, patience

Your main fault: too quick to judge, quick tongue

Your favourite occupation: helping others

Your idea of happiness: tennis @ the Surf & racquet club, 8 am

Your idea of misery: wet shoes, uninvited cold weather, bad manners

If not yourself, who would you be?  Gandhi

Where would you like to live? In the sun

Your favourite color and flower? Blue, hyacinth

Your favorite prose authors: Flaubert, Theroux

Your favorite poets: Catullus, Baudelaire

Your favorite heros in fiction: Julien Sorel, Asterix le Gaulois

Your favorite heroines in fiction: Helen of Troy, Aphrodite

Your favorite painters and composers: Francis Bacon, Satie

Your heroes in real life: Wavy Gravy, FF Coppola, Dylan

Your favorite heroines in real life: my female companions

What characters in history do you most dislike: Hitler

Your heroines in world history: Joan of Arc

Your favorite food and drink: Truffles, Bordeaux

Your favorite names: Cassandra, Alphonse, Igor

What I hate the most: bad judgement, greed

What military event do you admire the most: D-Day Landing, Omaha Beach, 6/6/1944

The reform I most admire: recycling, the green movement

The natural talent I'd like to be gifted with: play the piano

How I wish to die: in bed, calmly

What is Your present state of mind: inspired, thrilled, a little scared

Faults for which you have the most indulgence: people's tardiness

Your favorite motto:  " I'm not always right, but I've never been wrong"

Most coveted posession: good health

Most overrated: affluence

Favorite historical person: JFK

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Flowers do the trick

I always used to give Annetta grief when she prompted me to buy her or someone else flowers.  "Please, please, my dear, please: put the crowbar away.  I don't need the reminder, thank you very much", is what I would say and then either act on the request or non-confront it.  About 50/50.

Over time I got better at heeding the requests, either subtle or direct, and found that flowers, candy and attention did get the job done & make my life better.

So last week I had 2 inspired moments, and flowers sealed the deal with both.

I left my fanny pack in a woman's car a week & 1/2 ago during a morning "casual commuting" ride into San Francisco from Oakland.  Lucky for me I had a bunch of my business cards in the pack, and when the wonderful woman (thank you Kiko!) noticed my fanny pack, she immediately called me up.  Her office is just a few blocks away from mine and the next day I met her at lunchtime to pick it up.  When she called the night before I offered to take her out to lunch, but she demurred.  Well, I know I'll come up with some good idea, I thought, and slept on it.  The next noon en route to her office I passed by a sidewalk florist: tulips!  A beautiful bunch of tulips indeed.  So when I met her, I greeted her, thanked her for returning my pack and whipped this bouquet of flowers from behind my back.  She blushed, smiled and my day was made.

Last Saturday I had another chance to thank someone for her good suggestions and directions and was certain that flowers would do the trick.  Nicole, my optomotrist, is very friendly, kind and quite humble.  She recently had suggested I visit an opthomamologist to check my field of vision and I followed her suggestions.  The results proved negative - the distortions in my field of vision are hereditary, not caused by some nerve damage - and I was really happy both for the reassuring results and the strong suggestion Nicole made for me to visit this doctor.  So I visited her store on Saturday and was able to see her before she had any appointments.  This time I had two bouquets of tulips.  After I greeted and thanked her for her great recommendation, I handed her the flowers.  She was at a loss for words.  She profusely thanked me and gave me a great hug.  I'm her's for life.

Yes, my dear, flowers do the trick.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

me and music

Takes all kinds of music to get me happy.

Music from New Orleans makes me feel happy, Hawaiian music makes me wanna jump on a plane, and Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings makes me want to curl  up into a ball and cry.  Sometimes I listen to a Bob Dylan tune - like "Tangled up in Blue"  or "Shelter from the Storm" and think I'm the protaganist: I'm Dylan on the road, heading to another joint.  Listening to the Dead makes me remember, no long for, friends we never see anymore, or rarely.  My nostalgia is fleeting, though, not manic.  Listening to Eric Satie makes me want to time travel back 100 years to Paris. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cafe at Chez Panisse

The Cafe at Chez Panisse has always held memories for me: it was the place where I took my wife-to-be on our first date on the afternoon of December 31, 1985; it was the place where I heard Fritz Streif, the cafe's host in the 80's, regale myself and others with tales of just having flown over the still smoldering Mount St. Helens in May of 81, barely a month after the cafe opened; in its former days, pre-renovation in 1981, it was also known as the cafe, but didn't have its own kitchen, pizza oven - it was just a wet bar & service area with a number of tables for overflow from the restaurant, as well as for lunch & drink throughout the day & night.  Most of all, I remember the after hours parties in the "cabinet particulier", a six seat private dining room off the east side of the room about where the host is found in the current cafe.

But little does this past history matter now.  The people I drank and caroused around with at that time now have different entertainments, as do I.  But every now and again I have the desire to eat at Chez Panisse.  Usually we go there in December near or on my birthday for a Monday night dinner downstairs. Or occasionally for an anniversary lunch if we're around at the end of the year.  But last Saturday I took my wife and two friends who had never been to Chez Panisse for lunch and was incredibly impressed. 

I've only photographed my entree and dessert, but these pictures should tell the story:

 Halibut with buerre blanc et legumes

Then dessert: a bittersweet mousse au chocolat

The appetizers were great; the Acme upstairs bread was super; the wine exquisite; the service and timing were perfect, and the company great.  It was like falling in love all over again.  Again.