Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Kiss on the Hand May Be Quite... CARTIER!

“Kissing your hand may make you feel very good
but a diamond bracelet lasts forever”

       Anita Loos                                  

Recently I had the great privilege of twice viewing a truly exceptional exhibit of the most extraordinary and rarified objects, moreover objects superbly displayed and exquisitely lit, and housed in what is arguably one of the most beautiful small museums in the world.

However, in spite of my great delight at having spent over seven hours indulging my eye, I both times came away with what I can only describe as a nagging sense of disappointment over missed opportunities to give a deeper “context” to the very amazing pieces on exhibit.

The point of all this context would have been to place these staggering jewels and “objects” (for the exhibit was CARTIER IN AMERICA, at the Palace of Legion of Honor in San Francisco) in greater perspective, making a stronger point of the fact that they were but mere bagatelles in the almost unimaginable lives of these enormously wealthy people, many of who were also quite fascinating personalities

The thing that puzzled (and yes, bothered me) was that the exhibit notes provided relatively little background for the jewels. Each item had a little descriptive tag next to it, but these tags were only “thumb-nails”; the major Cartier stylistic changes were synopsized (the 18th century revival so beloved by the Edwardian's, the Art Deco jewels, the Russian-style pieces inspired by the fashion for Fabergé, etc.); and a few of the famous women who had commissioned or owned the pieces (like the Duchess of Windsor) were given slightly more in-depth profiles. Mind you, I wouldn’t have thought that Wallace Windsor would have needed an explanation, any more than Coco Chanel does (although I am told otherwise). However, who (for instance) was this Daisy Fellows, who owned so many of these spectacular jewels?  

Cecil Beaton says that Daisy Fellows was one of the “smartest” women in Paris in the 1920s, and made other women look foolish by the elegant simplicity of her dress.  But there was nothing “simple” about her jewels (the biggest “tutti-frutti” bracelet with rubies, emeralds, sapphires, AND diamonds galore was hers).  And there was nothing simple about her life either, with her houses, and her servants, and her yacht.  How enlivening it would have been to read Beaton’s description of a Mediterranean cruise on the Sister Ann, where her guests sent themselves telegrams feigning emergencies at home, so they could leave mid-cruise without loss of face... 

November 21, 1938
Daisy at sea
(Cecil Beaton photo)

Actually, the audio tour does flesh out some of the details (for instance, we learn that Daisy Fellows was the Singer Sewing Machine heiress). For me, the highlight of the audio tour were the comments by San Franciscan Dede Wilsey, who is herself  a wealthy socialite and philanthropist in the tradition of Marjorie Merriweather Post.  (Indeed, she tells a delightful story about meeting Post as a little girl, when the former was a guest of her parents.  Post asked little Dede if she would like to try on her diamond and emerald necklace; and then, since she was wearing one of those great 1950s dresses with a wide, bouffant skirt, asked the little girl if she would like to see her twirl!)  Not only a charming story, but it spoke volumes about Mrs. Post, and suggested the delight she must have taken in both her own good fortune, and with sharing it.  Thus, it gave her collecting exactly the sort of context that I wished there had been more of!

Or what of Mrs. Harrison Williams?  Mona Williams Bismarck was an American socialite and a great beauty, with lovely Aquamarine-color eyes and prematurely grayed hair.  She had a magnificent house on Long Island (think indoor tennis courts), and another in Palm Beach (famously decorated by Syrie Maugham, with fantastic 18th century Chinese wallpaper in the drawing room and a pair of Syrie’s famous long, modernist sofas, the cushions edged in miles and miles of moss fringe...)  There is a wonderful Beaton photograph of Mrs. W. wearing her Aquamarines (they matched her eyes, you know), and she apparently was, in addition to her wealth and her beauty, a warm-hearted woman who had a real gift for friendship...  AND of course fabulous taste...

Mrs. Harrison Williams
(Cecil Beaton photo)

And who was Nancy Lancaster?  Mrs. Lancaster was originally from Virginia, and thus American by birth. Her second husband was Sir Ronald Tree (of the famous English political and artistic family) and she lived in England (both as Mrs. Tree and later Mrs. Lancaster) at the tail-end of the reign of what has been described as “the wealthiest society on earth”.  She is perhaps best remembered for two houses (Ditchley and Hasley Court, which she rescued and then decorated to perfection) and for her association with the English decorator John Fowler, which union produced the (still extant) decorating firm of Colefax and Fowler. (Syble Colefax & John Fowler, Ltd. continue to reign supreme today for their dissemination of the English country house look; and Mrs. L. and her partner’s often stormy relationship was memorably summed up by Nancy Astor, who described them as “The unhappiest, unmarried couple in England”.) But Mrs. L. was also famous as a hostess, and in 1937 gave a glorious ball at Ditchley, her exquisite 18th century house in the English countryside, to which all the women were requested to attend wearing red and white.  What an interesting side-light to know this, while marveling at the magnificent necklace of Indian rubies and pearls she commissioned from Cartier.  (I wish I could tell you that she wore this necklace to her red and white ball, but perhaps she felt that after seven years it had already had too much exposure...)

Mrs. Ronald Tree
dressed for her red and white ball
(Photograph by Cecil Beaton)

However, as regards my disappointment, perhaps the curators didn’t want the exhibit to be too “gossipy”, and wanted the jewels to stand mostly on their own.  But good Lord, these were the people whose lives revolved around gossip.  (Who do you think Walter Winchell was writing ABOUT in his “It’s the Talk of the Town” column?  Not Jake the Plumber--unless of course Jake played a part in an amusing story about Lady Mendl (the erstwhile Brooklyn expatriate Elsie de Wolfe) loosing one of her Cartier hair ornaments down the drain at the St. Regis.)

In the exhibit, next to a charming little miniature temple rendered in calibré- and baguette-cut diamonds, we read that there is a picture of de Wolfe wearing a similar model on her cloche hat.  We in the decorating world probably know at least something about Elsie, but she is hardly the household word she was at the height of her fame.  Once upon a time, she was THE most famous decorator in the World, a great figure in society, known for her wit, her “poils”, and the enormously high prices she charged for her services. She practically invented the way interior decorating is practiced to this day, and her innovative mix of antiques and modern comfort still resonates more than a hundred years later.

(There is a wonderful Cecil Beaton photograph in the exhibit catalog of Elsie [by that time the very grand Lady Mendl] sitting up in bed, the subject of which is nominally the Cartier clock on her dresser.  However, looking closely at the details, one notices her hair, tied up in a wisp of gauze and fastened with a diamond pin, the three strands of her famous pearls, her exquisite lingerie and bed jacket, her beautiful manquillage, the diamond bracelets at her wrists, the quilted silk-upholstered wedge against which she is sitting, the silk sheets, the blanket cover of uncurled ostrich feathers, the three vases of beautifully arranged hot-house flowers, and the implied scent of both perfume and money, with the suggestion of servants hovering in the near background...)

“you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take away her “poils”
(Cecil Beaton photo)

On the subject of hat ornaments: in books, these Cartier pieces are often described as “Jabot ornaments” and tho they may have done double duty as such, their primary role was to ornament the head-hugging cloche hats that were such a hall-mark of the 1920s.  In the exhibit, they are referred to as “Cliquet Pins” (“cliquet” being French for “catch”), but how interesting it would have been to know that in the 1920s women did indeed pin these through their hats!  

(The ascerbic Margot Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, once complained of the then-current fashion of the cloche pulled low on the brow and covering the eyes saying “I cannot recognize all of my friends by their teeth.” These hat ornaments, along with dress clips and stomachers, are items which have entirely passed out of the fashion repertoire--as dated today  as the sautoir and the tiara.)

Or further, like Mrs. Condé Nast, you could have the ruby- and diamond-encrusted gold frame of your black suede handbag engraved with your address (1040 Park Avenue) in case you accidentally “mislaid” it. (And does everyone automatically realize that Mrs. Condé Nast was the wife of the publisher of VOGUE magazine, the man arguably responsible for inventing “Fashion”? He had an exquisite penthouse [decorated by--who else?--Elsie de Wolf, with 18th century furniture and boiseries, leopard-print chintzes, and a ballroom hung with yet more of that coveted 18th century Chinese hand painted wall-paper] and he gave the most glamorous parties in New York, entertaining the likes of Irving Berlin, Gertrude Lawrence, Fred and Adel Astaire, and of course dear Cecil, who went everywhere and photographed absolutely EVERYONE in the process.)

Lee Miller & Marianne Moorehouse
photographed for 
VOGUE Magazine
in the drawing room of Mr. Condé Nast
(photograph by Cecil Beaton courtesy of CondéNast Publications)

Marion Moorehouse (Mrs. e.e. cummings)
wearing a sautoir AND service stripes
(photo as above)

That was the world in which those jewels moved, and tho the people all seem very glamorous and their lives very enviable, in the end they were human beings too, just like the rest of us (except of course with a lot more money...) And some of them (like Barbara Hutton) were even fabulously UN-happy. (Someone once wryly described her as "a fugitive from a chain store...")

Don’t get me wrong--for all my exceptions the exhibit was unquestionably spectacular, the jewels & objects exquisitely lit and superbly mounted on silk covered presentation boards which were both imaginative and elegant in their own right.  However, it did seem as tho there were many good opportunities for increasing the intimacy of the viewing experience thrown to the wind, of which these examples are but a few.  

I mean, wouldn’t it have been a kick to explain that Mrs. Linda Porter gave her composer husband a gold- and jewel-encrusted cigarette case to commemorate each of his opening nights, and to have this mentioned next to her own over-the-top Cartier tutti-frutti pieces? (Interestingly, the cigarette case was also the male equivalent of the diamond bracelet, and a present you gave to your male lover or favorite gigolo the same way you gave a bracelet to a chorus girl or to the little woman when she caught you out...) 

But perhaps everyone who attended the exhibit knew these plummy little details, and I’m just a lone voice crying in the wind?

Obviously, I’m firmly convinced that helping people understand what they are looking at invariably makes for a richer viewing experience.  Inspecting the beautiful and almost chaste powder, lipstick, and cigarette case that had been given to Chanel by the Duke of Westminster, one could oneself surmise at the origins of her own taste for simplicity.  (Tho famously independent, she was also famously influenced by each of her lovers, creating little sailor suits inspired by the yachts and sports-wear inspired by the polo-players.)  But sadly, no mention at all was made of the punning inscription on the gold interior of the case, which reads “Amour Ben d’or/24" (or: “Love Ben of Gold/24”, Bendor being her paramour’s pet name.)  What a charming lover he must have been, too, and what fun it would have been to have the severe Mademoiselle made a little more human and captivating!  

(The first time I visited the exhibit I was so dazzled by this inscription that I shared it with the couple standing next to me, and they too were delighted!  But I had to get down on my knees and peer into the case to read it, and this sort of thing always makes the guards so nervous... Mind you, this little tidbit was mentioned in the audio tour, but I felt it should have been posted next to the piece itself for everyone to enjoy.)

Increasingly over the last 40 years, Museum-going seems to have become a form of popular entertainment, but I sometimes  feel as though the text accompanying the exhibitions is being unnecessarily simplified.  Perhaps it is merely that curators now choose to write the descriptions to best suit that part of their audience that no longer reads much and has short attention spans.  However, with the demise of the soft-cover, carry away leaflet and the advent of the expensive catalog, I think viewers are being cheated out of part of the viewing experience.   

The deeper purpose of Museums is to educate people, to deepen their appreciation for art, and to give them a greater understanding for the world and (often) for the past: all things which serve as a civilizing influence.  The desire to create is innate to the human experience, and is one of the things that links us to our human past, generation upon generation, out of recorded time to our very earliest ancestors.

Along with many of the great visionary collectors whose endowments have created and enriched the great museums, all educated people must concur that exposure to art in all its forms, and to the amazing creative potential human beings posses, is a vital and important (and singularly enriching) activity.

The Marjorie Merriweather Post’s and the Dede Wilsey’s and the Mr. and Mrs. H.O. Havermeyer’s and the Dominique de Menil’s of this world understood that sharing their treasures & the fruits of their highly cultivated sensibilities, and using their often enormous wealth and privilege to benefit the community, has a spiritual aspect to it.  (Not for nothing have museums sometimes been called the modern cathedrals.)  After all, one has to believe in something, and it’s awfully hard to base your spirituality on the behavior of stockbrokers or politicians.  

(Dominique de Menil wrote, “Art is what lifts us above daily life. It makes us more open, more human, more refined, and even more intelligent .”)

Interestingly, many of these great families earned their fortunes by providing people with something practical (work clothing, sugar, sewing machines, and breakfast cereal, to name but a few) and by being enormously successful at it.  How telling that our society now produces billionaires who make their fortunes on the backs of the community by reprocessing junk bonds and re-grading worthless mortgages...

In my own community there has been a recent outcry about funding for Child Protective Services being cut drastically while the local museum was awarded a grant to provide art education “for rich kids”.    And while I am not naive enough to suggest that an appreciation of art and culture will cure all of the world’s ills, I do believe that anything that deepens people’s humanity and sense of connection to one-another is good for the community and for the world.  What a dilemma to be put in the position of having to choose one over the other.

I felt extremely lucky in that I could spend over $100.- driving to the City, twice paying a $20.- museum entry fee, then renting an audio tour and purchasing a $30.- exhibition catalog; but I was struck by how many people cannot do this, and by the fact that today, museum-going is far from an egalitarian experience.  I realize that tickets to sporting events and to the Theater are also often prohibitively expensive; but tho one can watch sports on television, and rent movies for a dollar at a kiosk at the grocery store, there is nothing that replicates the experience of viewing art in the real.

(How vividly I recall seeing the Romaine Brooks exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum, almost 20 years ago, and remember what a revelation it was to view these portraits, painted by this extraordinary and relatively unknown American painter.  [Brooks is often described as “the thief of souls” on the basis of her psychologically revealing portraits.] Having previously only seen reproductions of these (largely monochromatic) works, I was dazzled to realize how much colour those seeming monochromes contained!  And no reproduction ever did more than suggest this embarrassment of visual riches.)

ANYWAYS (as I am ungrammatically fond of saying) the CARTIER was a BRILLIANT and incredibly evocative exhibit, showcasing these amazing “baubles” from a vanished age, made for the very, VERY wealthy and privileged.  And as is often the case with museum exhibits, it truly was a “dream” show, following me long after I left the museum itself.

I also came away felling humbled and amazed by what the hand of man can produce--and with the immortal sentiments of that great diamond connoisseur (and quintessential gold-digger) Lorelei Lee running through my head: “I just LOVE finding new places to wear diamonds.”

Franklin John Kakies
May 2010

(With special thanks to my old friend George Brazil, one of San Francisco's "Young Design Turks", who encouraged me to publish, kindly citing my “great point of view”, and to my great friends Sherman Warren & Ron Metzger (a man who definitely knows his jewels!) who took me to see “CARTIER IN AMERICA” the first time.  Also thanks to my editor & tech consultant, Dr. Michael Simkins.)

for those who like to read and are interested in further pursuing my “leads”:

THE GLASS OF FASHION--Cecil Beaton (1952)  My personal bible, which I was lucky enough to stumble upon at the age of 11, and which, I believe, set my path for life.

THE WANDERING YEARS--Cecil Beaton (1961) An inspiring tale of self-invention by a fascinating and rapier-eyed observer of the beau monde--which I have probably read, always with the greatest delight, at least 40 times.

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDS--Anita Loos (1926)  The ‘diamond-in-cheek’ story of the most infamous gold-digger of all time, which ran to more than 20 editions when first published.

GREAT WOMEN COLLECTORS--Charlotte Gere and Mariana Vaizey (1999) Effortless feminism, linked to impeccable scholarship. 

NANCY LANCASTER--Martin Fuller   (1996)  The most fascinating combination of biography and auto-biography.  Lancaster tells her own story in bold-face and Fuller fleshes out the tale in regular type.

ELSIE DE WOLFE (“A Life in High Style”)--Jane Smith (1982) One of the two best biographies I have EVER read, both of course written by women.

CARTIER--Judy Rudoe (1997)  Published in conjunction with the exhibition “CARTIER 1900--1939