Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Writer Looks Back...

For all of us who muster up the courage to put our thoughts on paper and who by some miracle get them turned into books, there is more than one moment of trepidation. First, our work goes into the hands of others--it leaves our own world, just like when our children leave our care and start to make their way without us.

I am having a little of this as my new book, My First Best Friend, is starting to be unpacked in book stores and is being put up on computer screens. When I first saw Victoria magazine come off the printing presses in the middle of the night, I could hardly breathe. Up to that point, it was in my backyard, now it was going out to the wide, wide world on its very own.

Of course, it is the heart and soul behind a creative endeavor that matters most. I have always felt that whatever I did, if I did it with the right motives and as best as I could, readers would understand if I made a misstep here and there. Will there be a comma out of place in My First Best Friend? Probably, although some very good copy editors worked to make the text "letter and punctuation" perfect, if there is such a thing. I've been in those chairs myself. No matter how sharp the pencil, perfection is near impossible. I like to think of how the Amish view the making of their quilts: They include a mistake to remind us all that only God is capable of perfection.

The perfection I do find in My First Best Friend is the pure and honest responses I got from women about this precious part of their growing up. I was asked to pick out some moments from the book--some "words of wisdom," so to speak--that summed up the more than 30 stories I had to tell. And so, I was looking back at the book and distilling something that I hadn't consciously done in the writing. Here are several that strike me now as almost having a life of their own:

What a silly thing to remember all these years, and what a blessing to have someone in your life who does.

We saw each other as a star....we each shined for the other.

The continuity in our lives...feels good. We will never be out of touch.

These times were life-altering for me.

Who else remembers?

Things small, personal, and heartfelt--the comfort of years and the blessings of friendship...for all the years.

These are just a few of the insights I have rediscovered as manuscript pages became a flesh and blood book. For those of you who have already read My First Best Friend or have your own inspiration to share, please do. You can go to the Notebook page on the official website and leave me a message, or you can share your memories here. I have discovered that despite common themes, at heart, each friendship story is like a snowflake; it is unique. Believe me, yours is, too. I hope that the book inspires you to look back and savor the glad times of childhood. Read and remember, as wise woman and Mitford author Jan Karon entreats us. While at the site, be sure to read Denise Di Novi's foreword to the book and a charming recollection of her friend, Kit. What a lovely story.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Harney & Sons

On a snowy day, I took first one train, and then another, to travel to Harney & Sons in Connecticut. I have known John Harney for many years. As I was developing Victoria magazine, John was beginning Harney & Sons Fine Teas in a big way. We are talking about the mid-1980's when there seemed to be some kind of magic in the air for rediscovering the tastes and aesthetics of another time.

John Harney is as delightful as the tea he purveys. A firm handshake and a ready laugh are trademarks of the gentleman who is a wonderful blend himself. John is a passionate advocate for tea drinking as well as a very accomplished businessman with a Connecticut Yankee's good common sense. John and I greeted each other as the old compatriots we are in the belief that tea is more than just "a cuppa."

It was Trica Foley who reminded me of the author Edith Wharton"s comment about "the charms o
f tea." That was a perfect heading for the section that would be in issue after issue of Victoria. Many different topics were included over the years--and Harney & Sons was definitely one of them. In addition, John Harney was always willing to speak at Victoria teas and to do anything he could to help us promote the beauty and intimacy of drinking tea.

How very warm to be greeted by John at the door of his factory. It is an amazing place, as Harney & Sons has expanded to purveying over 300 teas that ship all over the world. Teas from Connecticut to Great Britain--John and I had both had to smile about that. But the Brits want the very best teas, and they can count on this master brewer for that to be sure. Today tea is 4 times the business it was in 1990, thanks to the John Harneys of the world.

John, and his son Michael have both been kind to
Victoria and to me-- crediting us for helping them in the tea crusade. If so, from our early and consistent support, Harney & Sons have done just fine on their own. What a pleasure to see both of these men so proud of their product and accomplishment. John couldn't wait to show me the factory--after we all donned little white hair nets. It was like a Willie Wonka chocolate factory experience. Machines that you couldn't imagine how anyone dreamed them up to create packaging and packing. It was somewhat like visiting a vineyard-- interesting as Michael Harney came to tea after his experiences in France.

Walking along the aisles and aisles of boxes of tea, I realized how far we have come from the teas we used to have to choose from: English or Irish breakfast, and perhaps, Earl Grey. To help consumers understand all the teas, where they come from, and how to brew them, Michael has produced the Harney & Sons Guide to Tea. On it's pages you'll be introduced to white teas, for example. I brought home a tin of Chinese white tea with peach flavor. I have used it in the past, especially for summer iced tea. (By the way, John and Michael have recently begun bottling iced teas! I told you there was a smart businessman in John Harney...) There are also sections on black teas, yellow teas, etc.

Harney & Sons were the originators of sachets (a delicate fabric "tea bag"--a term I use reluctantly, as they are nothing like the paper bags we have become accustomed to recently). This afternoon, still under the Harney spell, I made a cup of their Paris tea with a sachet. Oh my, I am in love again.

While the Harneys are proud of sachets and the small round carry-along tins they developed so you can take a small sampling with you wherever you go, Michael does have this to say in the introduction of his book:

I will insist you set aside teabags and try a teapot and loose leaves.

Michael then goes on to give other very specific brewing advice, as he does for every tea he covers in the book. This is a tea bible you won't want to be without if you are serious about the subject. And tea for health is large part of the Harney mission as well as for the pure enjoyment of the experience. How lovely that one can have both in a ritual that is ageless.

Leaving the factory, John took me by his nearby tearoom complete with a tasting room, just like many a vineyard. The snow was getting fierce by now--but the room was warm and welcoming. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I had those two trains to catch. My bag was full of tea samples...teas I never could have dreamed of long ago when John Harney and I were younger and our passion for tea was just being fired. On their web site you can experience a world class tour of teas.

Harney & Sons is my February entry for my year of taking tea journal. How could John Harney not be part of this journey? This was not only an education day, but a reunion around tea. How many of those I have had, and how many more I hope to indulge in. I doubt I can sample all 300 Harney teas--but I'm sure going to take Michael's advice and stick my nose into the teapot to savor the aroma of all the beautifully blended flavors of those I do. For today, Ah Paris--a relaxing Earl Grey blend created for me by a master blender and friend.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


We all do so much online...are we missing the wondrous magic of browsing? On Sunday, I had some extra time to spend in a bookstore. The shop was small and jam-packed with enticing tables of books arranged by new fiction, old non-fiction, etc. All the cookbooks are together as are accessories such as journals and day books, which were on sale. After all, the year is getting to be two months down, so who would buy a day book? Shall I respond with a resounding, ME.

I know I will get wonderful comments telling me you discovered Paperblanks a long time ago. Oh, I wish I had because a lot of gifts would have been easier to find. I found slim volumes with the most beautiful reproductions of French silk patterns. Not only did I buy an almost out-of-date book, I bought several. The price was right and the quality of the product just captivated and amazed me.

When I worked on a furniture collection for Hooker Furniture, I gave all the people who worked with me on the project guest books. They were very nice, discrete leather-bound books. But Paperblanks gives you so much more in patterns and textures and many with pedigrees like Tiffany or William Morris. They will be my choice in the future. Unfortunately they don't sell online, but they do give a guide to finding a retail store in your area. I discovered there is one right next door to the hair salon I frequent.

When I started this blog, I wanted to pass along endeavors just like Paperblanks. It is obvious they have a point of view and a quality that is refreshing. And if you think they are a bit pricey, then do what I did, browse and you just might find a bargain.

I also found a book I couldn't resist. It's called The Cello Suites. I hadn't heard of it before, although it has won much acclaim. It's a mystery as well as a book for music lovers of Bach and Pablo Casals. Again, one of those things that make me realize there are still folks who do the heavy lifting so the rest of us can share some mighty impressive things. Once on a flight I sat next to Yo Yo Ma AND his cello--a fact I can't resist sharing.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Enter Roses..

Every year, we at Victoria looked forward with great relish to the February issue. We just had so much fun finding stories as delicious as Valentine candy. And our pages were filled with roses, roses. Kim Freeman, who compiled many of our favorite things section, was given the assignment year after year to introduce readers to roses in yet another way. One of my last February issues, ironically enough, featured first roses in the Favorite Things section. Brides and babies were among the topics.

The other day I stopped at Dahlia flower market in Grand Central Station in New York and bought the whitest white roses I think I'd ever seen. The comments I got as I walked along with them brimming proudly out of my bag led me to believe that I wasn't the only one seduced by their unique beauty.

But Valentine's Day calls for red roses, doesn't it? The most spectacular ones I ever received had to do with Victoria being named Adweek's Magazine of the Year in 1990 (for 1989). They were long-stemmed and the bouquet so grand that I had trouble cradling it in my arms. (Well, I was a bit weak just coming off a bout of pneumonia. Getting the magazine to that point, only two years after our introduction, did take a bit of work and maybe I overdid it somewhat.) Just think: In 1989, Victoria not only went monthly, but we became the first magazine in the world to be done completely on computer. Just how brave were we?

Bryan McCay, our art director, was the guiding genius behind taking Victoria into the computer age. Bryan had been in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam and I don't think he thought there was a task he, and we, couldn't tackle. You have to understand that this was not like going to buy a new stereo. Every single aspect of the process had to be customized to our operation--and there was no precedent. Looking back, I think Bryan should have been hugging those roses, and I smile when I think of our Bryan, a burly type with Scottish blood, in such a pose.

Interestingly, I just read somewhere that women prefer roses other than red ones--but men have consistently stuck to the notion that they indeed are the true expression of romance. In keeping with what "the guys" think, here is a bouquet for you--rendered by the artist Leon Belsky. He is represented by The Catto Gallery in London, and while I only rarely buy a painting from them, they send me the most marvelous catalogs of all their exhibitions. I have saved this one for an occasion like this: Happy Valentine's Day.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Playing with Pictures--The Art of Victorian Photocollage

If you happen to be in New York between now and early May, you might find this exhibit a charming stop. If not, go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art's web site and see some very interesting examples of the work in the exhibit. There is also a catalog if you find yourself carried away with how aristocratic Victorian women were combining photographs and watercolors, long before 20th-century artists took up the medium.

There is a great deal of imagination displayed in images like a giant butterfly whose wings display small albumen silver prints of gentlemen. The watercolor work is vivid. The artist is Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier (French 1831-1906). You might think of your own scrapbooking in a way. But for us photography is as ordinary as white bread. Not so for these women. This was a fascination with something new and obviously challenging.

My personal favorite is "Diamond Shape with Nine Studio Portraits of the Palmerston Family and a Painted Cherry Blossom Surround." It is the work of Frances Elizabeth, Viscountess Jocelyn (English 1820-1880). The portraits are Victorian--the costumes enchanting. However, the composition and the artful way the photographs combine with the artwork is a such a happy combination. Apparently, this was done for the Jocelyn family album.

As many of you know, Queen Victoria's own watercolors of her life, and especially of her children, are delightful and illustrate the fact that all upper class and royal women were instructed in the arts. The exhibition includes another royal, Alexandra, Princess of Wales (English b. Denmark, 1844-1925). The photographs are a tumble of life as lived in and around palaces. (Who can resist Victorian children?) The border is composed of painted ribbons. It just might give you an idea how to frame your own collage of photos of your family. Save those snippets of holiday ribbons and see where it takes you.

I never see things like this exhibit without trying to find a way to make my life and my work a little more interesting.

Enjoy the exhibit here, online at the Met, or in person if you happen to find yourself on Fifth Avenue. And how are you archiving your family's record? I know that cardboard boxes are passe and digital files are the way of the world. What would our Victorian ladies have done with this challenge?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Promise Kept

There is a kind of book that we at Victoria used to call Read with Tea. This phrase was originated by Michele Slung. I read a review that Michele wrote of a James Heriot book where she ended her comments about the English vet's animal stories with the phrase read with tea. I called our literary editor, Kitty Ross, into my office and asked her to contact Michele. I wanted her to bring this genre of book to our readers, with her special taste and take on a subject.

Kitty did find Michele and she began as a regular contributor to our pages. We even created a graphic to go with her columns. I read some pretty interesting stuff with my tea, thanks to Michele. And what's even more rewarding is that she and Kitty have become great friends. The three of us have had some delightful lunches over the years. And I had a dream of creating Read with Tea press featuring books that women would find, well, delicious.

Now to the subject of A Promise Kept: I told you that I'd read and review the new biographies of Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Both are pretty heavy going, and I must admit that it took a certain amount of diligence to read them. What we love about their writing is the charm of girls growing up. Of course, not everything in the stories of Little Women and Anne of Green Gables is sweetness and light; but we delighted in their adventures while we held their travails close to our hearts.

When I wrote Jenny Walton's Packing for a Woman's Journey, I pledged to relate the best I had to give. If I have to sum up the lives of these writers, I would say that is exactly what they did. And I almost question why we want or need to know of Lucy Maud Montgomery's troubles with her son Chester, for example.

A friend and former colleague recently said something very interesting--that she doesn't enjoy reading about people's lives when so much of it centers about the difficult times. Rather, she said she wanted to know about and read about accomplishments--and how they were achieved.

I am not, however, discouraging you from reading these two biographies. The Montgomery book is incredibly well-researched and that in itself deserves attention. But these are not casual reads. They will enlighten you about women's lives at the time these women wrote and they will give you the seed bed of their fiction. But they are not read with tea books. They are reads to delve deeply into the creative process and to appreciate how creativity can rise above life's difficulties. For pure joy, I'd return to "the best they had to give"--the stories that helped raise us as women and kept us as girls returning to the library week after week to savor every word.

What is your favorite childhood book? Tell us why...

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Hint of Spring

By the time January draws to a close in places where snow is lingering long, a hint of spring is welcome. If you'd like to indulge in an online experience, explore the Lexington Company site. This is a Swedish firm that has a love affair with American style. You might think Ralph Lauren with Northern Lights. They don't have any shops in the United States, but they do in the United Kingdom and several other countries.

It's refreshing to see how Americana is appreciated by folks who see us through their own lens. Their dining collection this spring features my favorite blue and white. While you can't buy the items here or even online from the United States, you can get plenty of decorating ideas to perk up your own home on this side of the Atlantic.

I just loved the baby things and the photography of children. It's very much like looking at a magazine with not only primary images but also intriguing details. Stay long enough to view the movie--and think of New England beach houses. Show me blue and white checks and you've won my heart. There's a fabulous men's scarf that I bet you can replicate somehow. It's not that we are trying to take anything away from Lexington Company's sales, but if we can't buy things, we can at least be inspired by them.

Catalogs and retailers are getting more and more magazine- and movie-like--something those of us who love magazines, for example, need to take note of. A stylist friend of mine mentioned recently that the catalogs had all the whistles and bells she used to bring to magazines. Visiting Lexington Company is certainly an experience. They made me want to bring a hyacinth home and look longingly at iced tea glasses. Are you finding ways to brighten winter days with thoughts of the spring to come?