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.