Monday, September 30, 2013

Edith Wharton at the Library: A Writing Life

I recently had the chance to sit in on a lecture at the beautiful New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street about the great American writer Edith Wharton. I have read a lot about Edith Wharton in the past so I was interested to attend the lecture which was giving by Robert Armitage, of the library's research division, and lasted one hour and forty five minutes.

Edith Wharton's career is an iconic American story because she, as artists do, completely invented herself. Edith Jones was born into the rigid upper class of Edwardian New York when women were expected and allowed to do nothing beyond marry and raise a family. Edith grew up in a mansion at 14 West 23rd Street, which is about exactly where our friend La Peckham lives now in a loft in a building that Robert Mapplethorpe once lived in. Edith was determined to be a writer but society and her mother discouraged her. "Her literary ambitions were ignored and scorned," noted Armitage. He told a story about how in one of Edith's early stories, a character wanted to tidy up a drawing room for a guest. Her mother read this and icily noted, "Drawing rooms are always tidy."

But Edith was undeterred in her drive to capture in words the Edwardian world of manners and style.
Edith Wharton in furs -

She became friends with many of the artists and writers of the day. Here she is with her friend Henry James on the left at her house in Lenox, Massachusetts, called The Mount, which is now a destination for visitors.

Edith married Edward "Teddy" Wharton, but is was an unhappy match.
Later Henry James introduced her to journalist William Morton Fullerton, with whom she had an intense love affair. Handsome.

For me as a reader it's always a pleasure to return to the refined world of Edith Wharton's novels and the elegance of Edwardian New York. I like Henry James too, but Wharton's writing to me is less flowery, less complicated, simpler, clearer, more American. But under the gilded surfaces of her rarified world are some very harsh stories and characters.  I recently read The Custom of the Country and I could barely finish it because the central character Undine Spragg, though noted for her great physical beauty, is completely unlikable. At the lecture Armitage described Undine as "vain, vulgar, self-absorbed and heartless." Her well-meaning husband is destroyed by her ambition and she gets her way in the end. Beneath the beauty and glamour is a tale that is tough to digest.

Edith of course persevered with her work and became one of the most highly regarded authors in American literature. Her novel Ethan Frome is required reading in many schools (we read it in New Hartford in seventh grade) and she won the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman to do so, in 1921. Armitage noted that Edith Wharton published 48 volumes in her career, which he said was two books a year. That's a lot of writing. With talent and determination she overcame her obstacles and pursued her art which is an inspiration in any age.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

3.1 Phillip Lim for Target

At the collection launch party with my friend Scott on the left and George Kotsiopoulis from Fashion Police in the middle.
Designer clothes at affordable prices – that's what Target's collaborative programs cleverly offer customers, and the latest Target mash up features the work of Phillip Lim, the popular fashion designer who creates cool, quirky clothes for young women and men. Phillip Lim was born in Taiwan to Chinese parents, and the family then moved to Orange County in California. In New York City, Lim and a friend decided to start a fashion company called 3.1 Phillip Lim because they were both 31 at the time. The other night, my friend Scott and I bravely ventured into the Target collection launch party which was held in a big loft in Tribeca and mobbed with fashion's devoted followers. Many were snapping up the clothes and accessories like good looking handbags, and heading to the busy cashiers. George Kotsiopoulis from Fashion Police wandered by so naturally we said hello. Fashion Police with Joan Rivers is one of my guilty pleasures along with Chelsea Lately. George was wearing a black leather jacket from 3.1 Phillip Lim for Target and it looked great. The collection went on sale this week in Target stores and a lot of it is sold out already due to popular demand but you can check it out online! 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Square Dance in Bryant Park

"Hold hands with your partner and circle to the right." (click on photos to enlarge)
At the end of the day I was passing through Bryant Park which is located behind the beautiful, big, old public library on Fifth Avenue. This park was once dark and dangerous. Now it is a wonderful, small, gorgeously groomed park right in the middle of Manhattan where people can sit and enjoy the tall trees and flowers landscaped by renowned designer Lynden Miller. At this time of year, it was recently the site of the big tents of New York Fashion Week, but the fashion shows have moved uptown to Lincoln Center.

It was a pleasant, warm night as I walked through and I was thirsty. As I passed through the park I heard a country blue grass band playing and saw some special food and drink tables set up. The outdoor Southwest Porch lounge located at the southwest corner of the park was offering delicious draft beer for sale.
Well, I could not resist.

As I sipped my cold draft beer, a big square dance was starting in the park. Hundreds of people in all ages, shapes and sizes were gathering on the green lawn for a free square dance. The lively Foot and Fiddle Dance Co. band took to the impromptu stage and the dance director, or "caller," Pat Cannon came to the center of the lawn with a microphone. Anybody could join in. You didn't have to have a partner, Pat would find you a partner.
Soon everyone was promenading to the left. And promenading to the right. 

Do-si-do your partner

Now swing your partner -

Up on the stage, Pat Cannon was very good at directing hundreds of people in a friendly way.

All in to the center –

Everyone was smiling - those dancing and those sitting on the side watching the dance. It brought a happy country spirit into the middle of the city; there are two more square dances coming up in September. In square dancing, you move on from one partner to the next so strangers were having fun dancing with each other.

With the different kinds of couples dancing, as partners switched sometimes two women or two men, strangers, would end up paired together. "It's ok!" said Pat Cannon. 'It's 2013! It's ok!"

City lights came on the office buildings surrounding the park. 

And dusk fell over the fine library.

It was a moment. In New York who knows what you are going to come across next. And that is one of its great joys.