Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas

My Dear Friends,

Blessings to you all for a holiday full of good cheer and good will. Christmases past inform us, Christmases present bring us joy, and Christmases future, hope. It is the spirit of the season we honor by keeping Christmas in our hearts every day of the year. And in the words of Tiny Tim: God Bless Us Every One.

I will be back online in January with my winter journal. I have stored up some lovely things to share with you...

With fond thoughts,


Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Lights of Christmas

Don't we all just adore the way our towns and cities glisten with Christmas lights? It's almost as if the stars have descended on us this time of year. How is it that such a twinkling landscape elevates our spirits? And so it is all over the world where the season to be jolly is celebrated.

In New York, thousands marvel at the tree in Rockefeller Center every year. Once I was on a Fifth Avenue bus at dusk and the thoughtful driver proudly slowed down so we could all enjoy the site from the warmth of our seats. The lights had certainly charmed him. In Montreal one year, I marveled at the enormous illuminated wreath on one of the bank buildings. I think it might just take the prize for a decoration of its kind. You can see the wreath and the Noel Bleu display in this delightful video.

I have always felt special being invited to The Tavern on the Green in Central Park during the holidays for their festival of lights, inside and out--an attraction all year long. But at Christmas it seems even more spectacular. All the surrounding trees are outlined in clear lights. I don't know what the future of these displays will be, but The Tavern as we know it will close at the end of this holiday season. Lights will go out in many hearts who have celebrated special occasions beneath the cascade of chandeliers. Things do change, but this is one that many New Yorkers and tourists to the city will lament. But I thank The Tavern here for many happy times. It was like being in a fairy palace at twilight.

But when it come to Christmas lights, it's the ones on our own trees we come to love the most, don't you think? Hitting that switch for the first time is as meaningful to each of us as the tree lightings that go on into town squares all over the country. Think of our forebears putting candles on trees and lighting each one. It's as good a metaphor as any of how time really changes us. One year, when I was editor of Victoria, we were invited to share Christmas with Tasha Tudor. That lady who loved living with the grace of the past had lit candles on her tree--a challenge for our photographer Toshi to capture. (I believe there was a pail of water nearby.) I always remember a phone call from the staff at that session and am still amused that assembled at Tasha Tudor's were Tova, Toshi, and Tricia. When my husband heard me reciting this, he thought his ears were deceiving him. I can say that the results suited our readers to a "T."

One of my favorite Christmas poems is from Christina Rossetti. These lines light my heart:

Love came down at Christmas... Star and angels gave the sign.

We can hope that each light on our horizons is a sign of love. Lights you love? Tell us about them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Jane Austen Fans--A Holiday Gift

On a bitter cold day, I walked from Grand Central down Madison Avenue to The Morgan Library & Museum. I used to live in the neighborhood and would visit The Morgan on a routine basis. It is a marvelous place and I am especially drawn to it these days as The Morgan family figures prominently in the research that I am doing for a new project, hopefully to be a book.

Three Morgan brothers came from Wales in the 17th century--Miles, James, and John. The first two settled in Connecticut and their families are quite extraordinary. Of course, one of Miles's descendants, John Pierpont Morgan, is the most remembered. It is his fortune and imagination that has given us The Library. It is the descendants of James that I am most involved with--they were the men who brought us our insurance industry during the Gilded Age.

On this cold December day, I met my dear friend, Margaret (affectionately called "Tuny") at The Morgan for tea and then a delicious tour of the discrete Jane Austen exhibit. This event was our Christmas gift to each other. We decided a few years ago that to spend time with each other doing things we love was the best way of gifting for us. Tuny traveled down from Boston this year; I have made the reverse commute in times past.

You can go online to see many of the items in the exhibit (what a joy!) and there is also a film online you can spend a few minutes with. I didn't love the film because the people they asked to comment on Austen seemed a bit out of character to me, with several exceptions. But all of them reminded us again and again why we love Jane Austen so much. If I had to sum, I think it would be that she was able to see and understand the drop of water in the ocean. She dealt with a world close at hand, but it reflected the whole wide world in an incredible way that has never gone out of style. Times change--human hearts don't seem to. (Foolish people remain so, too.)

I was also intrigued by her letters--written both vertically and horizontally. I struggled with this practice in the Civil War letters I have been working with. Paper was precious in both these time periods. And I almost want to write all my own correspondence with brown ink on cream paper--so lovely. Of course, I do not have that restrained penmanship that makes Jane Austen's writing so appealing. I suspect if she wrote a laundry list we would all be in awe.

So, it's a gift to view the exhibit--and if you plan to go, do the homework on the site first. It will be so much more informative and thus enjoyable.

For a lovely biography of Jane Austen, I recommend Carol Shields Jane Austen: a Life. We lost Carol's voice far too early, but her writing is not unlike Austen's in the sense of her delft touch. She must have really enjoyed doing this book. I gave this as a Christmas gift to another friend a few years ago.

Tuny hurried off in a cab to escape the wind, and I wandered back toward the train station, still basking in the wit and wisdom of Jane Austen.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Material of Giving

'Tis the Season for Luxury. Oh yes, in yesterday's The New York Times T Magazine, the editors suggest a bit of lace. I think it is absolutely incredible--a museum piece--the dress they show. However, it's $16,000+ price tag did take me back more than a bit. Imagine all the bits of lace one can give for Christmas for that price. Might one get a lace car, for example?

And then there was the plain sweater, a straight knit affair that we who can make needles sing might whip off in a couple of days with maybe $100 of the best yarn we can find. Well, you can buy the sweater shown for a mere $1,600. I do believe that there is something to see the best in design and materials. And for those of you who can afford such price tags, perhaps it's just fine to indulge and keep the high-enders in business so they may continue to be an inspiration to the rest of us. It's an age-old dilemma. Must admit I almost ran to the needles--but I have a cardinal rule which I learned from an old Cathy cartoon strip: Never start knitting the first week of December! Bless that girl.

So, it's also the season to access our luxuries. Is there a bit of lace to add to a lovely wool or silk scarf, even one you might be passing along? Is there a bit of treasure in the china or linen closet that will bring tears of joy to a friend or family member? Is there an ornament that you probably wouldn't buy for your own tree, but will make a friend smile when they hang it on their own year after year, thinking of you? This year, I am giving my friend Lisa a wedding cake ornament that I just couldn't resist. She was married earlier this year. It is absolutely lovely, handmade, and was a bit expensive.

Far be it for me to suppress the spirit of giving. I'm just thinking of all the very personal ways we can gift. Let me tell you about one such present I received a few years ago: When I was in Copenhagen with my family--our son was on business--I visited the writer Karen Blixen's house on the sea. It was a short train ride from the center of the city. Karen Blixen is more commonly known as the writer Isak Dinesen, who gave us the incomparable Out of Africa. (Her life was the basis for the Meryl Streep film.) I was amazed at the art gallery at the house, works by Dinesen when she was struggling to become an artist. I fell in love with her work and snapped up a bunch of postcards depicting it which I sent from the hotel the next day. This was in the summer. That Christmas, one of my long-time neighbors presented me with a little music box. I recognized the image on the top and it puzzled me for a minute. Was this not one of Dinesen's paintings? Indeed it was. As the events started coming together in my mind, I turned the box over and found the postage stamp that had been on postcard. Later I found out that, my friend had found an old music box at a sale that just fit the post card. She assembled the gift that is one of the most precious and thoughtful I have ever received.

Do you have a gift of hand and heart you'd like to share with us?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

You Are There--Leslie Caron in New York

Last night hundreds of fans lined up to buy Thank Heaven, Leslie Caron's autobiography, and to hear an interview with her.

What did she wear? A lovely long herringbone brown-gray jacket with a matching skirt. Her blouse was a brown satin and she wore knee-high black boots with an elegant shine. The show stopper was a large brooch--a spray of stones in shades of pink. To sum: She looked terrific, like a movie star should, and her fans were not disappointed.

The room at Barnes & Noble on Broadway in New York was filled to capacity with standing room outside the doors. Even folks who had purchased books were not able to get into the room. New York obviously loves Leslie Caron. And no one was disappointed with her comments about her life and work. I think hearing about her first screen kiss from Gene Kelly might have been a highlight of the night. She was very young and had been asked to do a screen test with him. "He knew I could dance, he had seen me in the ballet, but he wanted to know how I would handle the scene." Obviously, she did very well because she got the part in An American in Paris. (By the way--both Gigi and An American in Paris have been recently re-released on DVD with commentary by Leslie. Very informative and inside stuff.)

It was also an inspiring note when she admitted that she had eliminated negative comments about people who might have earned such distinction in the book. She felt in writing that nothing would be achieved by settling old scores and with time most things had worked out well. Not dwelling in negativity is a hallmark of this book. However, if ones reads between the lines, there is a truth that can't be denied.

Of course, the fans who showed up--one gentleman had traveled all the way from Washington, DC for the event--are just the tip of the iceberg. I hope Madame Caron takes a great deal of heart in how much joy she has brought for so many years.

She continues her journey on stage and screen in February when she will be in a French production of A Little Night Music. If I could wiggle my nose to get to Paris, I'd be there for one of the six performances. Kristin Scott Thomas will also be in the production.

I feel very honored to be acknowledged in Leslie's book and to have had a seat at last night's event. It was very special to me. My only regret--I wish we'd more personal time for "girl talk" or to shop. Perhaps next time she comes to New York. She's a very busy lady on this trip and the show must go on--as it does to California where, among other things, she'll get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame--next to Gene Kelly. I'm sure it will make her very happy, as does the enthusiastic reception of her book.

A sad note: She has closed the Auberge in France. Economic conditions forced the decision as American travelers have cut way back. But I also suspect that it was a very demanding for her. It's for sale, as she informed us last night.

A charming note: There are to be Leslie Caron paper dolls in 2010. For aspiring ballerinas, a must gift.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Thank Heaven...

Leslie Caron has written an enchanting autobiography appropriately titled, Thank Heaven. I am proud to call this lovely woman of film and stage a friend of many years. We met when she portrayed Colette for us in the pages of Victoria, and then later when she performed a dramatic reading of Colette's work in New York. It was to sell out crowds in all of her performances, several for French speaking students.

On December 1, Madame Caron will be signing her book at Barnes and Noble's Lincoln Triangle Store on Broadway at 7:30. She will also be in Philadelphia on Wednesday, December 2 at the Free Library of Philadelphia and on December 4 at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California.

I hope some of you are in areas where you can come out and hear the interviews she will be giving. I'm sure some will be in the media as well. Hers is an inspiring story in many ways. As she looks back at her life, she, like many of us, finds the moments that were highs and lows, and comes to a place in her life where she has resolved old issues. Thank Heaven she has written this book. (Of course, the title comes from a song in her famous film role of Gigi.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Family Recipes

The best way I could think of to share Thanksgiving with you is by sharing a family recipe. My husband's Aunt Mary passed it along over the years. But it was his sister, Ann Burckhardt, who brought it up to date for us. She's great at that. Her last book, which was considered one of the best cookbooks of that year by The New York Times, revisited all the standard hot dishes and made them work in today's kitchens with the best ingredients. It's called Hot Dish Heaven, published by the Minnesota Historical Society. Ann's been a kind of food detective in Minnesota, bringing back many of the grand old favorites.

This year, we finally decided to give up on the baked mushrooms we've considered a holiday standard. We forgot to bring the recipe west with us and neither of us could remember it exactly. Additionally, I'd noticed that the past few years guests just weren't thrilled with it. We're trying a new vegetable dish instead. But we're going to try it out before it makes its way to our Thanksgiving table. It's always a good plan.

A few years ago, The New York Times printed a letter I wrote about Thanksgiving and the joy of sharing it with others. It was in response to an article about how annoying it was to have "orphan" guests. I guess the author of the article had a poor experience. My experience has always been just the opposite. And in New York, there were always people who couldn't get home to be with their own families. These guests made us even more thankful that we could share what we had with them. Having them grace a seat at the table was a precious tradition. That's a recipe for a Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Images to Make One "Happy"

In a previous entry, I mentioned my friend, Suzy Taylor. Suzy has been a friend and associate since she decorated my son's seventh birthday. (He's a bit older now.) It was a favor to me because Suzy is and was a recognized product designer, artist, and interior designer. I still have a coffee table she designed. Even she hasn't hung on to the design--but I have. It has several different positions, although I usually keep it at dining table height--perfect for afternoon tea.

Several years ago, Suzy moved to an exotic town in Mexico, and has just recently launched a wonderfully colorful web site, displaying her paintings and her other design work.

I think Mexico has definitely had an influence on her--her flower paintings are vivid and exuberant. Visit the gallery online and say hello to my dear friend and former colleague.

Lady Mendl's Tea Salon in New York has a very enticing program through the holidays and into the New Year. If you are looking for an event when visiting the city, consider this an elegant step back in time. And if you have tea rooms in your community, you might inspire them by letting them in on the very active events at Lady Mendl's. The salon is located at The Inn at Irving Place, which was featured in Victoria, and where we sometimes used the pristine backgrounds for photography for the magazine. The Inn consists of two beautifully restored townhouses that date to the mid-19th century.

For pure delight and fun, check out the Anthropologie site--their "snow house," in particular. These folks go a long way in making their site, stores, and catalog a wondrous experience. Not that we are all going to don "the gay apparel" they feature, but if you want to get into the mood for winter holidays, it's a nice trip across the internet. I thought the "outfits" put together with themes like "iced branches" and "lamplight" were very expressive. And "at home" is the place to find a product that will put you in mind of sleigh bells ringing.

"We're happy tonight," evokes the song--and the folks who create these images sure must have been. Snuggle up and enjoy. And thanks to Tricia Foley for sending it along.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Creating New Traditions

A few years ago I did a series of interviews on television and radio on this topic. I was surprised how many men were interested in the topic, too. First, all of you have your own ideas based on your families. It's the kind of creativity that may need just a small candle light to ignite it. If you've been thinking of something and haven't gotten around to do it, maybe the time is now.

I have always regretted not keeping a holiday log. How simple it would have been to jot down the menu, a recipe or two, and most importantly, who were the guests that year. We spend time these days trying to recreate moments that would have taken just a few to record. One of my favorite gifts for new homeowners in such a log. It doesn't have to be an expensive one. There are such things, but one can make it as simple as a notebook. However, the leather bounds do have a way of not getting lost or misplaced. If you go overboard, the project is likely to be too demanding to keep going year after year. You can find some great journals at sites such as Etsy, Jenni Bick Bookbinding, or Rustico.

I was interested in the comment about having Thanksgiving in one's own home for the first time, rather than bundling up little ones and heading to grandmother's house. Both are marvelous experiences. But if this year, the torch is being passed to your table, it's a great time to start a new tradition and keep some of the beloved ones, too. We Americans move around a lot--and it means that many of us are putting down new roots every few years. How comforting to have a cutting from a previous root to plant in a new community.

One recent year, I was separated from my family on Thanksgiving Day. My dear friend Ann invited me to her apartment. I met old friends and made a few new ones. Ann and her family have spent holidays with us over the years. It wasn't at all like being "alone." My dad always used to say it wasn't Thanksgiving unless we had at least two new people at the table. He did his best to keep that faith, I must say. Dear Kim has spent a few holidays with us recently because she had to put her wings down as a result of a horse riding accident. The moral of this story is that the holidays are for good cheer with those we love and those who love to spend time with us.

When creating new traditions, it would be a nice idea to get input from the whole family. Tom, at Ann's, creates the place cards. It was his idea as a little guy and has continued for this college student. And dad can do more than carve the turkey or the roast. As I suggested, men I've talked to want their own part of the festivities. And how many men do we have in the kitchen these days? Well, there's one in my house.

Would love to have you share your new traditions, as well as the ways you keep the holidays in your family. And best of all, how a new tradition blends beautifully with the time-honored ways we celebrate. My friend Suzy, who now lives in Mexico, recalls every Thanksgiving of seeing the parade in our New York offices of Victoria. We watch it on television now, wherever we are, and remember what it was like being eyeball-to-eyeball with those balloons. Suzy writes an email from Mexico--and it's like having her with us--an old tradition blends with a new one. And while I wouldn't have missed the parade for anything when we opened our offices to dozens of people and their kids, I enjoy not getting up at five in the morning to do it.

Happy to have so many good comments; you are all sharing such heartfelt thoughts and ideas. It is exactly what should be happening--Bravo.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tradition At Home

Dear All,

Your comments continue to gladden my heart. And while I valued every one of the readers of Victoria, it is especially wonderful hearing that young people were coming to our pages. And one all the way around the world from Sydney.

I am in my home in Ames, Iowa, where we plan to spend Thanksgiving. Going back and forth between two residences--1,500 miles apart--has its charms and its hassles. For example, the night I left the New York area, the Yankees decided to play in The World Series. I am (and have always been) a Yankees fan, but the traffic jam getting to the airport made me wonder. They redeemed themselves by winning. And the pilot of our plane got us to Des Moines a whole 45 minutes early. What culture shock coming from streams and streams of cars to highways almost deserted. Of course, it was ten o'clock at night. While New York is the city that never sleeps, Des Moines most definitely does.

A few years ago, the city of Ames took it into their heads to tear our house down in order to widen the street I live on. We live in an old section of the city, and our house was built by a local architect in 1937. (Would you believe that the apartment I live in on the Hudson River was built the same year by the same chaps who were responsible for the Empire State Building?) Ours was not the only house or property in danger and what was really lovely was that the citizens of Ames came to our rescue saying they didn't mind waiting a few more minutes at a traffic light. They didn't want to see fellow residents lose their homes. There's something about these Midwesterners that makes one very proud.

Our house is here for this Thanksgiving and we hope for many more to come. Because it is near my husband's Iowa family roots, it's something of a museum of family things, although over the years we have given some treasures to an historic house nearby. Our son's artwork still graces the wall at the bottom of the staircase, and my mother-in-law's "art treasures" hang in the dining room. She bought them on her world tour of Europe, and my husband grew up with them. How different my two homes are. While I have many family treasures in both places, the ones here seem to defy time. They seem to defy whim. There's a certain "don't tread on me" when it comes to style and sophistication. Rather nice.

Great-grandfather Robert Walton looks down from the mantel--his elegant profile made more majestic by the Grand Army of the Republic hat he is wearing. His picture is next to an old clock that belonged to my husband's grandmother from his dad's side. It hasn't worked for years and has defied all effort to have it keep time. Today I found a huge laundry bag at the back of the closet--our son's name was stamped on it. It's the one he took to camp when he was 12. How could I part with it? Back it goes.

We have all been talking about keeping traditions--and the best part of the discussion is the creation of new ones. I must admit that my family always tells me I call forth tradition on anything that's been done more than once. So be it. As so many of you have suggested, it's the glue that makes families. I've loved hearing from you, and hope you continue to jot down ways you keep the holidays as we travel along this season.


Monday, November 2, 2009

Traditions to Keep

Christi's comment on Saturday's post inspired me to continue on the idea of tradition. There are several reasons I admire your comment, Christi. Of course, I'm proud and pleased that our dear Victoria magazine had such an honored place in your life. When I first began the magazine, I used to say, perhaps too lightly, that Victoria was made a successful publication by women who loved their grandmothers, as I did mine. It also seems, in your case, that grandmothers were proactive, too. Bless her.

For those in the world who didn't understand the magazine, they would be surprised to know that young woman were so taken with our editorial. It never seemed to matter that "our numbers" always proved our claims. But that didn't matter as much to me as did stories like yours. What you know in your heart and soul is way more important. We even had babies named Victoria. And those were definitely younger women having those girls!

And now to the subject of this entry--traditions. You have given us all some great inspiration. Using decorations made by your children and lovingly caring for legacies from your grandmother are so wonderful. I can't think of any other way to express it. You are putting family, your family, at the center of your celebration. And you are doing it in your own special way.

We all have such traditions that bring us great joy. And now is the season when the boxes are getting unpacked and the holiday china is being taken down from the china cabinet and run through the dishwasher (but only if appropriate).

In our house, one of the first things I do with Christmas in the air is polish the silver and cranberry glass pitcher that has been in my husband's family since 1902. The Walton quilt, a log cabin design made on an Iowa farm, is only on display during the holidays. It is the essence of our family--and while we take good care of it, we love to share its artistry with others. The first ornament on our tree every year is a tiny Santa that was given to our son the year he was born.

And so, again, thank you Christi for reminding us of how endearing our traditions are. Traditions to keep. Tis the season. Please share yours with us.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween Weekend

My door is decorated with Mr. Pumpkin, an engaging fellow from Simply Gianna. You may recall I was going to add him to my decor--and I did for this special season. He'll hang around through Thanksgiving.

All of us adore seeing the little ones who come to the door and delight in all the princesses, pirates, witches, and goblins with grinning faces. Moms and dads are usually hanging back with careful eyes on their young ones. It's a nice holiday when it's all in good fun.

Halloween is also definitely a season changer. After the masks are hung up, we adults start planning for Thanksgiving. I am a holiday kind of person. I love all the tradition, the good will and good spirits, and try to keep the stress level down. I'm always thinking about how to make our home prettier and more welcoming. And there are so many things to help us on the market these days. But aren't the best decorations the ones you and your kids make.? 'Tis the season to be creative and have a jolly good time.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Promises to Keep

And I shall about the two biographies of Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery. However, the two books add up to almost a thousand pages and may take a little time to devour. The Alcott book was written by a screenwriter, while the Montgomery was written by a scholar who has been involved with her life for decades. The later reminds me of the book my friend Judith Thurman wrote about Colette's life. Judith spent years in research and her book is a testament to her skill as a researcher, writer, and literary critic. A subject can take over one's life.

This morning, I spoke on the phone with a research librarian at Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside, in Irvington, New York. I could tell by her voice what enthusiasm she has for her work. Catalina Hannan will be exciting to work with. She, too, is working on a book about life in the 19th century, having discovered a cache of letters in Irving's family. "It is the everyday life that fascinates me," she said in our long conversation. "And I always know that the avenue I am taking will lead to so many more things to discover." I am beginning to think there is a "fine madness" about rediscovering the past, and those of us engaged in it keep turning pages and in every one there is the possibility of revelation.

And so, we will not be rushed. I have to give Mary Henley Rubio her due on her Montgomery biography. It will take some time to truly appreciate it. But what I can say, is that such an endeavor is in itself admirable. I have questioned before whether biographers chose their subjects, or if it the other way around. I'm inclined to think the latter. This is the book that Rubio was meant to write and to which she had pledged the very best she has to give. What is also important is to tell the story so that the reader comes along with the same passion as the writer. That is what I will be looking for in this book.

I am delighted by the comments I have been receiving from those of you on this blog. Anne, of Green Gables fame, was the one who gave us our kindred spirits reference. (I even adore being called to task for loving Daniel Green slippers. And I admit that this season's shoe with puppy faces give me pause...) What I love about our recent book discussions is that these are
works that have given us a common language with which to communicate; We can talk shorthand when we deal with things that have become so much a part of our lexicon.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning has been in mine since I memorized her poetry when I tried out for the drama club in high school. I didn't get in, but How Do I Love Thee? has never left me. And how much I liked doing the story in Victoria magazine that brought her world to life. I am touched that it was so meaningful to some of you.

And so, in the words of Robert Frost, I have promises to keep, and hopefully will fulfill them as we blog on.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Little Women

Women we never met helped to raise many of us. It was their words--the stories they told us and the characters they created--that tended us. A chapter a night, perhaps, we are indebted to them forever. Two among them were Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery. While I have known of both of their lives, I know Montgomery better because I have read her journals many times. It is one of my most treasured books. In Anne of Green Gables she gave her readers the essentials of her own life, but it was a thread rather than entire fabric.

The discussion of Louisa May Alcott and Orchard House, her home in Concord, Massachusetts, brings to my mind an important fact: Behind the children's classics that we have come to love and call our own own, each in our own way, were flesh and blood women--and women of their times. Their fiction gives us hints, but it is not the whole story of their lives.

Two new books on these icons of our childhoods, The Woman Behind Little Women and Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings, are biographies you may want to read. From what I know of them, they will have disturbing notes. But I've ordered them, and when they arrive, I'll talk more about each. But what I will remember most is the little girl in the Newfield Public Library devouring the books that seemed written just for her. What a gift for a writer to touch hearts and souls, perhaps even when her own life had hurt and sorrow.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On a Perfect Autumn Day

The poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, wrote one of my favorite poems. I quote it so often, I see my family and friends take a deep breath when I start. It is called, God's World, and begins,

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!

Well, today was a day with bright sunshine and glorious color--and what beckoned me was a trip to Stone Barns.

For years, I've walked the Rockefeller property in Westchester County, always looking with great admiration at the French style stone barns in the distance. Several years ago, an organic farm and ecological center was developed on this property and now Stone Barns is open to the public. (You pay a small parking fee which is refunded if you spend $15 for lunch or in the gift shop). How can I be so fortunate, I say to myself, to live so near such a unique place?

Their kitchen garden alone is a delight to visit. You must drive carefully on the winding roads as you might encounter a chicken sauntering across the path. But who would speed at Stone Barns? So many things to see. Sheep, Black Angus grazing on the hillside, snow white turkeys, and so many other pastoral vistas. Stone Barns does have a renown restaurant, Blue Hill, but there is also a small cafe with an ideal lunch for a warm, fall day when you can sit outside at long tables. Everything is made from produce on the farm. A two-inch high frittata and a salad could not have tasted better. And the tiny chocolate chip cookies which came home in my bag probably won't make it past teatime.

The gift shop at Stone Barns has a well-edited selection of books including many cookbooks which emphasize it's mission. I always find stocking-stuffers for children--unique things like a woolly ram finger puppet. I once bought bright orange sweatshirts in wee sizes for newborn twins. They worn them on their first pumpkin picking outing. The shirts are decorated with a carrot, which is the emblem of Stone Barns. Today, I indulged in a mandarin and lavender scented candle made by Paddywax. The container, itself, a little work of art from recycled materials. Yes, I will save it and find a way to use it. Have no fear, it will be recycled yet again.

On the way home, along roads lined with rustling leaves, I am reminded of another of Edna's poems: Afternoon on a Hill. Forgive me if I have overused it in my writing:

I will be the gladdest thing Under the sun!

What is there about a perfect autumn day that so inspires--can it be it is simply pure perfection? Have you a time to share?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Something to Slip Into

A fuddy duddy virtue--comfy footwear. I see women in the city trying to reach the heights in high, high heels. It's called fashion, darlings, and as my grandmother used to say, "It hurts to be beautiful." Maybe their feet don't hurt, but there has to be a treacherous pothole or sidewalk crack that takes revenge on a too thin heel.

Today, I read that runway models are slipping into $350 leather flats from NewbarK Slippers. I have nothing against the savvy women who came up with the idea that one could carry comfy flat footwear for getting from place to place. In fact, I am highly in favor of it. However, for those of us in more down-to-earth spheres and with pocketbooks that scream at such an expenditure, I have a fuddy duddy suggestion--Daniel Green.

Not too long ago a friend of mine complained about having to go to a formal event where she'd have to stand for a long time and her feet always hurt under such circumstances. I directed her to Zappos and Daniel Green slippers as a solution. "Daniel Green?" she questioned in astonishment. "My dad used to send me to Lord and Taylor every Christmas to buy my mother a new pair. How could I possibly wear them to this event?" She did take my suggestion and found a nice pair of velvet flats at a price of about $40.

Daniel Green are no longer your mother's Christmas slippers. (Although if you are looking for such a pair, you'll find them at this old reliable company.) They have, however, anticipated the need for nice-looking and sometimes, rather "hip," footwear.

Recently, they've been offering an indoor/outdoor option. I love driving in mine and then popping into the supermarket. I wouldn't suggest a long hike on a rough road. Confession: I am almost an addict and maybe went overboard in the number I have. I'm often asked, "Where did you get your shoes?" I have to admit--they are my slippers--but my prince charming ones because when they "kiss" my toes, I feel like Cinderella.

I have absolutely no financial motive for passing along my "favorite things" slippers. I just want all my friends to know that its very chic to do so on those days when high heels might slow you down. By the way, what happened to the women who were wearing or carrying running shoes with them? Is that over? Fuddy Duddy better get busy on this now non-trend. At least the girls in heels don't knock you down on the way to the train--they have to go slowly. Those running-shoe types can be dangerous with the speed they travel.

And, oh, I have nothing against high heels. They are beautiful, and I love that. Some of them are almost like sculptures. Fortunately, statues aren't on the move on busy streets. Now, you've been blessed to slip into something comfortable when you're on the run. NewbarK or Daniel Green or your own discovery. Pass it on!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Found Treasure

To begin, I just read something about the English--that they have a high tolerance for "messiness" in their homes. I feel the drizzle of English blood I have, on my father's side, rise to the occasion. I have been trying to order the books that have been pouring in on my new project. Sometimes, I have to yank myself out of the 19th century to answer the door or pay a bill. And I have not been the great housekeeper I would like to be and never have been. Piles of books and notes seem to be an ever-increasing menace to navigate around here. But I am trying; and this morning, I picked up a book in a place that hasn't been touched for a while, opened it, and found treasure.

The book, Our Famous Women, An Authorized Record of the Lives and Deeds of Distinguished American Women of Our Times, is the 1886 edition. (Low and behold, the book is now in paperback on Amazon!) It was a gift given to me many years ago from good friends, Joe and Marlene Wetherall. Marlene worked freelance for Victoria and Joe is a favorite friend for his enthusiastic support of my son's music. Whenever he plays Where or When I think of Joe requesting that beautiful song--and asking Paul not only to play it, but sing it! Heaven!

Well, my dears, this book got shelved at a time when a busy life didn't give me too much time for 700-page books. And it's lovely binding with gold placed it in the decorative rather than the reading column. I'm sure a dust cloth has come in contact hundreds of times over the years, but this morning I opened it. The amazing thing is not just the women written about--but the women who did the writing. I just never thought of Julia Ward Howe fulfilling a publisher's request to write about Maria Mitchell, the American astronomer. Thanks to Trish Foley, we had a wonderful story about her in Victoria, or I might not have known who she was.

Of course, I don't recognize the names of all the writers. I was pretty good on the subject of the profiles. Susan B. Anthony's story is told by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and since she was a shoulder-to-shoulder suffragist, she was well-versed in her life, times, and accomplishments. Harriet Beecher Stowe is the author of the chapter on Catherine E. Beecher, the poet and teacher who wrote to help women manage their homes and families. She was Harriet's older sister.

What a wonderful idea they had at A. D. Worthington & Co., Hartford, CT. And yes--it is, as they claim, "superbly illustrated," although some of our foremothers seem a bit stern, with the exception of Mary Clemmer. She opted for a profile to show off her elaborate hairstyle and rested her chin on her hand. Mary was a journalist who reported on the surrender of Maryland Heights in September 1862 from her own personal experience. According to her biographer, Lilian Whiting, "Mary Clemmer has ennobled journalism by her profound conviction of its moral significance." We could use some of that today, me thinks.

The moral of this story is to keep your treasure and delve into it once in a while. You never know what you might find that makes your day as this did mine.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Scooping The New York Times!

My journal seems to have had the story on Rachel Ashwell's new shop and book before The New York Times. Scoops are something that persons with journalistic blood respond to. The Times, however, with a few more resources than my journal and a lot more reach, have a comprehensive review of Rachel's career in the Home section of the paper today. The article deals mainly with trends and business decisions.

For those of us who just like Rachel's style and pluck, it was a lot to take in. I am sorry that some bad business decisions led to the closing of many of her stores. There has been a time in our national life when success has meant more instead of best and better. And not in just our country: When I was in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, there were four corners with as many Starbucks (at least it seemed that way to me). I guess if you were desperate for a latte, you should not be asked to cross the street. I'm not in the business of marketing coffee, but it is a puzzlement to those of us who would walk a mile--or cross an ocean--for a cup of properly brewed tea with milk (never cream!) and a scone.

I have a chaise that has more than a few pillows. One of them is a Shabby Chic that Rachel presented me with at one point in my Victoria life. Actually, she sent a box full--and several of us now tuck one behind our back when a good book turns into a long reading session. (I am supposed to be keeping my nose to the grindstone in research and reading for my new book, but I have sinned recently with Provenance by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. The subtitle tells the compelling mystery: "How a con man and a forger rewrote the history of modern art." It's a page turner. And the cover was so seductive, it lured me into buying it.) I like the soft, aged look of the fabric and it is soft and comfy.

I'm happy that Rachel is getting one of those "second acts" that Americans are not supposed to have. I think we need to edit that old saw, don't you?

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Girl in the Attic

When I started this blog, I had the same trepidation I had when I began work on Victoria. Would I find enough material to engage readers and followers? The first day that the doors of our new offices opened at Victoria and we were joined for the first time with the advertising staff (an unusual situation in the magazine world back then), I absolutely panicked. I called my husband and related that here were all these people whose livelihoods were depending on whether or not I would be able to produce enough engaging material. The wise man, I love so, remarked: "Nancy, you could make a good story out of a piece of ribbon." Well, I don't know about his unbounded confidence, but we did manage to produce issues of the magazine for a good many years--a good many stories. And some of them about pieces of ribbon.

I have just finished reading a review of Francine Prose's new book, Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife, entitled The Girl in the Attic. It's evidence that when you keep your pores open, good material comes your way. Francine wrote for us several times as Victoria, and I'm sure that she would have been a writer in residence if I had stayed on at the magazine. She's not only a gifted writer, but a woman committed to her subject matter. She had a core that I've always admired. (On a personal note, one of our staffers lived near Francine's mother in Ulster County, and we all felt a personal connection to her through this lovely lady.)

By the way, I stay fiercely proud of our writers program. We brought good writing and good writers to our audience. Some were familiar, like Madeleine L'Engle; some were new voices, like Susan Minot. Kitty Ross, our literary editor, did a fabulous job of managing our literary side. The book she edited, called The Quiet Center (it has since been retitled) was a celebration for our 10th anniversary. What better heritage could Victoria have than to encourage talented and perceptive women in the last decade of the 20th Century to write of their lives and times?

So it seems that material comes naturally to me for this blog. In many cases, blending my past editing with my present inclinations. Read the review in The New York Times Book Review, and you'll realize what an inquiring mind Francine Prose has. When you combine that with good writing and good instincts, you have a work in the tradition of books to pay attention to.

And now to Anne Frank's diary: One of the things I took comfort from in the review is that many publishers in America turned the book down. All kinds of reasons, for saying "no thanks," and among them was the quality of the literary content. This book that has been read by millions the world around and its relevance was missed by the people who were supposed to know what people want to read. I suppose that as a person who has been told "I don't think so," more than once, I have to toast the brave souls who said "Yes!" and took a chance on something they believed in. There should be a special hall of fame for them somewhere; some prize that goes to the publishing house or film studio that went with their better instincts instead of the prevailing winds. I don't know if houses have an office for the "no's" to be reviewed, but it wouldn't be a bad idea. They might discover a book like The Diary of Anne Frank or a film like Casablanca.

If you're being told you're crazy about your pursuing your aspirations, always listen. After all, there are lots of wonderful and successful books published by people who know a thing or two. But also give the judgment a healthy degree of skepticism. If something is burning a hole in your heart, pay attention. It might take time and courage, and even if it doesn't work, at least you tried. If I sound like a Pollyanna, blame my grandmother. She taught me to tilt at windmills when I really thought I had a good reason to. Success stories, please.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mary Morris, I miss you...

Once in a while this computer of mine gets a mind of its own. At least, that's how I explain a stray comma or a missing word. At Victoria, there was an incredible person who presided over our copy like a general in the field. Mary Morris was our "word" person and one of the best line editors in the business. I think her proudest day may have been when a group of English teachers wrote to compliment us on our use of the language.

As an editor-in-chief, one is the face of the magazine. But everyone knows that many talents have to toil to put out a good product month after month. Mary was an unseen hand, and what I liked about her most was she never made compromises. And she often kept me on track. Her rewrites were impeccable. No copy was considered unimportant. A caption in Favorite Things always included extra information that the reader wouldn't have missed if it weren't there. And Mary had writers she relied on who were great researchers. One writer once told me that Mary made her a better writer by simply reminding her that she didn't have to tell the reader what one could plainly see; she was to dig deeper than that. Caption writing is an art and Mary is a master. The next time you read a magazine caption, see if it passes the Mary Morris rule.

I don't get to see Mary as often as I'd like. We manage a lunch with a former colleague now and then--and there is the momentous birthday party that brings us all together. I miss our everyday encounters with words, and I sure miss her taking a sharp point to my writing. (I've been hitting the keys pretty hard these days with one book in proof stage and a new one piling up pages of raw copy.) But I guess this is one of those situations where one has to be thankful for what we had for as long as we had it. I learned a lot from Mary Morris, and so did the millions of readers of Victoria. Tip your hat: She deserves it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Shabby Chic Interiors

Rachel Ashwell is the high priestess of the found object. She's been preaching her creed of pretty, casual, and love of orphans from stray pieces of lace to vintage wallpapers. But that doesn't mean she's old news. Rachel has a new shop on Mercer Street in New York and a new book--Shabby Chic Interiors. She was featured both in Victoria magazine and in a Victoria book, Designers in Residence. It was one of my favorite of all the Victoria books because talented designers shared their homes along with great ways for readers to enrich their own.

Since, Rachel has gone on to producing product in line with her design concepts and her philosophy: "...wherever I am, I make my nest, even in a rented home or hotel. With flowers, music, candles, and beautiful comfortable things, a home will be a much lovelier place for our hearts to be." Sounds great to me. I also like Rachel's practice of enjoying some of her finds for awhile and then passing them on. I've done some of this myself. I think, in a way, it gives us permission to go on collecting--knowing others will enjoy the treasure we couldn't resist. Although Rachel admits, as do I, that there are some "forever" favorite things.

What I like about Rachel's approach is that almost everything is accessible. And she encourages her readers to be a bit brave in their decorating choices. Some of the things in the book are simply fun to look at. Even I, who believes in the ever-changing landscape of home, probably wouldn't ever have a tablecloth made of layers of ruffles and lace. But it sure is fun to see--and maybe a ruffle or two might be added to make a short cloth longer for a new table. I also enjoy Shabby Chic's soft palette. The pretty pale pinks and friendly shades of worn linen are comforting. And of course there is the emphasis on casual. It's hard for some of us to accept a look that isn't perfect. On that score, I have become very accepting of the "delicate" touch my cat, Kitty Foyle, has added to my "forever" sofa. And I was pleased when I bought a new needlepoint footstool that she enjoyed trying out her claws on. It now has the look of one I might have owned for years. Fortunately, Kitty is very selective in her conquests and not very persistent.

I have a ritual of display inspiring spreads from books I like. I have a stand that Wisteria sells (I actually have several) at a very reasonable price and designed for cookbooks. Mine can be found just about anywhere from a window sill to the dining room table--which often looks more like a library table. Shabby Chic Interiors has several good candidates including a wonderful photograph of hydrangeas drying in a very old soda bottle. I think on a snowy day, I'll remember to display this.

It's been nice to visit an old friend and find she is still keeping faith with her personal style. One of these days, I'll venture downtown to Mercer Street and see the pages come to life. In the meantime, I'll enjoy anew some of "my favorite things."

I hope you will do the same with yours.