Saturday, March 25, 2006

Elsie de Wolfe Would Weep

Nowadays you have to book early to get a table at Lady Mendl, the unmarked tearoom and curiosity that opened in 1994 at Irving Place, near Gramercy Park. It’s easy to forget that there are houses on the avenue there, and go looking for The Inn at Irving near the house where Washington Irving lived for a time, which lies diagonally across.
Picture of Lady Mendl tearoom interior from

The second townhouse of the pair (built in 1834 without ornamental effusion) has been added to expand the Inn above, so the entrance to Lady Mendl now spans the two first floors and creates an impression of spaciousness. There's a little lobby with a round table loaded with a giant vase of flowers, behind which a congenial receptionist, who will direct you to a separate place for coats, is found seated at a tidy little bureau plat. The decoration sort of goes with the millwork that was probably added late in the nineteenth century, though it would probably make both Elsie de Wolfe (aka Lady Mendl) and Syrie Maugham, her rival and co-conspirator in painting the world’s woodwork white, choke and gag. It’s a puzzle why the designers of the tearoom missed this well-known fact about her position on these matters when there is a huge and well preserved example of Elsie de Wolfe’s work at 62nd and Park (yes, she did the new building too). This is not where she lived wth Miss Marbury either. Anyhow, looking around at the busy patterning, the intentionally mixed, sometimes tufted, and otherwise variously upholstered armchair seating, the presence of embroidery, plant stands, and other Late Victorian accoutrements, and also at the dreadful, chunky millwork stained either pale pine or somewhere between mahogany and ebony, the confused total effect somewhat endearing in its earnestness, it’s not hard to see what made Edith Wharton despair and head for the Berkshires to vent.

Leaving Victoriana: Interior by Elsie de Wolfe, picture from vintage

At three in the afternoon, the tables are laid more or less for dinner, and the menu announces that High Tea is forthcoming. Unaccountably, this starts with a mesclun salad, which might encourage you to believe that a New York variation on High Tea, with patés and cheeses, if not pigeon pie and Scotch Woodcock, could soon appear, never mind the time of day -- but you would be wrong. Instead, regular afternoon tea is rendered as a series of courses after the salad and a change of plates. This means if you don't eat your smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches, you won't get your tiny scones with all that clotted cream and jam, and if you don't eat up your scones you can't have your pate feuilleté or paté au choux. While stuffing oneself, there is a selection of teas, including infusions that are no relative of tea. Lady Mendl, who famously said, “I don’t take soup. You can’t build a meal on a lake,” would probably have scorned all of it in favor of moving along quickly towards the cocktail hour and a Pink Lady.

Nevertheless, the service is constant and smiley without being overbearing, and it is tempting to overstay one’s welcome instead of running away to Payard or the new Sant Ambroeus downtown or Teany. Still and all, New York's answer to High Tea and more High Tea is Sunday Brunch, not this.

Above: Picture of Elsie de Wolfe from NYSD

Lady Mendl in later years, not taking tea. Picture from

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Turquoise Bee

On the subject of writers dying young, I turn to the story of Tshangyang Gyatso, the egalitarian poet who, as His Holiness the Sixth Dalai Lama, refused his monastic vows, and instead lived hard to produce a body of songs and poems still loved, revered and sung by Tibetans today (hear Dadawa’s 1998 recording of The Sixth Dalai Lama's Love Song). This year marks the tercentenary of his early and mysterious death.

In the wake of the recent fundraising campaign for New York’s Tibet House, my friend Fortuna Valentino invited me to meet Robert Thurman, who was giving a lecture and presentation about HH the Sixth that evening. It was a great pleasure to watch Dr. Thurman read out the poems of Tshangyang Gyatso in sonorous Tibetan, while deconstructing earlier translations and providing his own.

Lobsang Gyatso, The Great Fifth, was the first Dalai Lama to gain control over all of Tibet, which he accomplished with the help of the Khoshut or Dzungar Mongols, eventually withdrawing from public life and dying at 65, before his gigantic winter palace at Lhasa was completed. His standing regent, or Desi (not to be confused with the other word) Sanjé Gyatso - believed by some to be his son - sent out the customary search parties, and in about two years found a remarkable young boy in southern Tibet with a history of extraordinary events surrounding his birth, but kept the little boy in hiding as a virtual prisoner for twelve years longer, first at his birthplace of Mön, and later at Tsona and Nakartse.

Meanwhile, to keep the death of the Great Fifth a secret, Sanjé Gyatso engaged in a variety of eleborate subterfuges, using impersonators on ceremonial occasions and arranging for long retreats. Finally, at fourteen, Tshangyang Gyatso was brought to the court, recognized and ordained. Presumably, Potala was closer to completion by then.

As it turned out, the Sixth had no interest in monasticism. It is said he enjoyed archery and song, and inviting his friends to Potala, where he set aside protocol to serve them food and tea himself. He walked instead of using the state palanquin, gave public discourses and lived at times in a tent on an escarpment outside the palace. As Dr. Thurman described him, he wore blue silk robes and jewels in his long hair, called himself The Turquoise Bee, although his novitiate name meant Ocean of Melodious Song, and spent as much time at the taverns and brothels below the palace as he did seducing aristocratic beauties. Most notably, though, he wrote a body of such fine paeans in praise of all women alike, as well as the wine consumed in quantities in the process, that they are still sung today.

Lovers who met while traveling
Were fixed up by the wine-shop woman
If trouble or debts are born from this
Please take care of her for me

Dr. Thurman suggested with a twinkle that this Dionysian way of life was simply a case of Raging Hormones, but also said that HH The Fourteenth Dalai Lama believes that the Sixth considered the time was ripe for a return from monastic to dynastic rule. Because of certain notable lines of his poetry, still others hold out that the Great Fifth had adopted the teachings of the Tantric Nyingmapa towards the end of his life, and that the Sixth was merely bringing forward that interest in a new incarnation. In any event, when the time came to take his full monastic vows from his tutor, the then Pachen Lama who was abbot of Drepung Monastery, he not only refused, but returned his novice vows, threatening suicide if his wishes were not respected.

Desi Sanjé Gyatso, himself a bon vivant, is said to have developed a paternal fondness for the Dalai Lama, despite his frequent exasperation with the young man's behavior. Over the years, he had maintained the alliance that the Great Fifth had established with the Dzungars, who were hostile to the Manchu, whereas the Manchu emperor, Kang Hsi, had forged an alliance with the Mongolian Qosot leader, Lozang Qan (see a more detailed account). The Desi had tried to kill Lozang Qan twice, but instead, in an ensuing battle, the Qan defeated the Desi and beheaded him, leaving the Dalai Lama unprotected.

On June 11, 1706, the Qan removed Tshanyang Gyatso from Potala to the nearby Lhaku Gardens, declaring him a dissolute, now deposed, but when troops tried to remove him to take him to Beijing, they met with huge resistance from both laity and monks, who spirited him away to Drepung. On June 29, when the Qan's artillery opened fire on the monastery, the Sixth, then twenty-four years old, gave himself up to avoid a massacre, and left this poem to be conveyed to his love of the moment:

That bird—white crane
Lend me your skill of wing
I will not go far
I’ll return from Litang

Some reports say he lived on, but the Manchu court issued a statement that he had fallen ill on the way to Beijing and died at Kunganor on November 15. Nevertheless, many say he was murdered. Either way, the emperor Kang Hsi approved and signed a proposal to abandon his body. Then, it turned out that the Seventh Dalai Lama was indeed born in Litang.

The Sixth had earlier planted three sandalwood trees at his birthplace, Tawang, now in Arunachal Pradesh, and predicted that they would grow into identical shapes before his return. To the amazement and dismay of the people of Tawang, the trees first grew into the same size and shape, and then burned down in 1959, just before the present Dalai Lama, then twenty-four years old, passed through Tawang in flight from Tibet to exile in India.

Dr. Thurman spoke about the concerns that led him to discourage a film production about British and Russian interests in Tibet at the turn of the last century, which threatened to depict nothing but strife among Europeans played out in khaki tents in a bleak and dreary landscape, leaving aside the presence of Tibetan people altogether - which I dare say would have been much in the manner of The Jewel in the Crown (or the short story called Servants of the Map, written without the much-rewarded author ever setting foot in the place she writes about so mistakenly). He said that His Holiness had voiced his own objections. “Where would all the Tibetan girls be, and all the Tibetan weddings?” he said.

HH The Fourteenth Dalai Lama when young from
(click on other photographs for links)
A few articles about the Dalai Lama's proposed visit to China:
St. Petersberg Times,
Peoples Daily Online

Monday, March 20, 2006

Death of a Writer

A list of links to my preferred pages about Rachel Corrie, who died on March 16th, 2003:
In Memoriam
Rachel's War
e-mails to her family published in The Guardian
links to more articles
electronic intifada
Who Remembers Rachel?
The Second Death of Rachel Corrie
Vanessa Redgrave in CounterPunch
Too Hot for New York
Philip Weiss in The Nation

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Palais Royal

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2006 opened with Palais Royal! , the bright comedy written and directed by Valérie Lemercier, who plays the lead role as well. Speeded up with snappy editing by Luc Barnier, it's even cleverer than it looks at first, and exposes every trick of fictionalization ever used in a book, play or movie. The predicaments in which modern royalty finds itself could apply anywhere in Europe, but the requisite spliff jokes and certain other sly digs occur in England. The crisp pastel and gesso bedroom and kitchen décor is spot on, as is the stream of visual gags, large and small, from the triple strand of pearls worn with the first two strands entwined, to state visits in vaguely Germanic and Indic parts of the world played out in skewed tempo, to the compulsory visit from the sober-looking Nordic third cousins, a tiara dipped in spinach soup, and some pointed instruction in state dinner table manners that sends up all the upstairs-downstairs teacup ministrations served up in British costume dramas. Is this what would happen if Catherine Deneuve were Queen of England? The British release scheduled for April must be another big joke. In addition, this film has the silliest score (by Bertrand Burgalat) to come out of anywhere since Ennio Morricone made La Cage Aux Folles sing and dance.

Preview material and coronation mugs are available at:
Palais Royal! and through Gaumont
all photos from Gaumont

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Curving Space: Rebecca Kelly Ballet

Last night I saw the flowering of a new dance form. The elastic ballet that Rebecca Kelly has developed over the past Twenty-Five Years combines novel elements of movement and the traditional use of turnout with surprising fluidity. Unexpected turns of ankle, knee, hip and wrist, many from non-Western dance forms, together with sinuous backs, rippling shoulders and arms and innovative grips, curve the spaces around and between the dancers to create a level of intimacy that is at once modern and obvious as well as delicate and lyrical. There are two new works: Air is a breathtaking piece for three dancers, set to the music of harper Martha Gallagher, in which the use of the spine certainly brings the human lungful into the picture, rather than just the amorphous stuff swirling around us, but nevertheless leaves an impression of weightlessness. Silver Circles, with music of the same name by Adrian Carr, features the interplay between a sizeable ensemble and two principles, starting from two distinct vocabularies that become merged. The Travelers, from 2002, set to music by the now-dismantled team of Craigmix, is about leaving the bumpy road of the quotidian journey in response to crisis, for multiple pas de deux that explore the realms of emergence and possibility.

all photographs by Adrian Buckmaster

Throughout the many innovative
arabesques and lifts, Rebecca’s extensive use of attitude to the front and back creates both the sudden arachnid moment and greater warmth in partnering -- a warmth borne out as well through other lifts in second, and not a single limb anywhere used like a stick. Bourrées are never used to get around, but instead played out briefly in adagio from time to time as a contemplative moment, or to punctuate an ongoing narrative. Floor work is thoroughly mixed into the pas de deux, where there seem to be as many drops and slides as lifts, and makes the partnering look as tactile and organic as it has to be. In the narrative piece called Jose’s Dream, Therese Wendler, playing Carmen, uses discrete sets of gestures out of this extended vocabulary to switch back and forth quickly between coquette, seductress and lover, while Sasha Anatska and Alexander Forsythe, as Young and Old Jose respectively, play very different men even as they are brought together for a moment in absolute synchrony. Not to be missed, there is vocabulary enough still left to provide for a comic interlude that seems to be set at Bellevue.

The dancers in this production are superb. Like Rebecca herself, they bring experience from widely varying dance and cultural backgrounds (ABT, Budapest Opera, Riverdance, Ballet Metropolitan of Caracas, Joffrey, Suzanne Farrell, Boston Ballet, Raw Dance, the Opera NovaTheatre of Poland, Dance Theater of Harlem, to name a few) to make common cause for this new lexicon of movement.

Lighting by Tony Marques
Costumes by Anne-Alisa Belous, Andre Cornelius and Betty Crawford Heller
At the Gerald, W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College through March 11, 2006

Happy Losar! - 2133 - Year of the Fire Dog

At ten, I had an allowance enough to get myself an ice cream after school, buy the occasional book, add Picture of hilt from petrus
to my stamp collection, and so on. But I soon discovered that if I eschewed Bulgarian stamps, I could cross Janpath after school to where refugees from the failed uprising against Mao's occupation of Tibet were selling off family treasure, along with other handcrafted goodies, and, after rummaging about in the little boxes at the front of the stalls, scoop up a bit of treasure myself. To be sure, I didn't have enough to acquire anybody's ancient family prayer wheel, or great sword, or ritual dagger sheathed in opal-encrusted silver, but, with a bit of restraint, I could buy rings with dragons clutching globes of jade, a belt with Tantric motifs, turquoise- and coral-studded parrures, all in an idiom that was distinctly non-Indian, yet easily understandable from India. To this day, I have no clue whether the big, smiling women in their black bakkus -- sorry, chubas -- their brightly striped married-lady aprons and middle-parted and tightly braided hair were humoring me, because it seemed so outrageous. Yet, despite one visit to Dharamsala long ago, and many more to Darjeeling since, and the enduring presence of Chamba Lama in Kolkata, I never thought again until recently about how sad those early sales were, let alone that failure to regain the homeland that led such glamorous people to make India their home in exile.

Here's how Kiran Desai describes their exodus in The Inheritance of Loss, as seen from
Kalimpong: "Monks had streamed through the forests, garnet lines of fire pouring down the mountains, as they escaped from Tibet along the salt and wool trade routes. Aristocrats had arrived, too, Lhasa beauties dancing waltzes at the Gymkhana Ball, amazing the locals with their cosmopolitan style. But for a long time, there were severe food shortages, as there always were when political trouble arrived on the hillside."

s Losar ushered in the Year of the Fire Dog, which is special, for reasons I'll explore in another post, so when

Dominic Farinacci, playing for Harlem in the Himalayas

Maura Moynihan called it Tibetan Independence Day, I had no doubt it should indeed be celebrated as such. The weather in NYC cooperated yesterday, dipping well below 30 degrees and tossing in a brisk wind. Most tropicalized AISers remained indoors, see lament below. Stalwart Johnny Close, on the other hand, said, "How can I resist? Two ladies are asking me!" and made the journey to Chelsea, despite the fact that he a) prefers jazz on the car radio, smooth, chill, whatever, and b) looks about as happy facing down the wind howling along Seventh Avenue as he might huddled in darkest night in a hutment far downwind of the Potala Palace, shivering in felt blankets even while wrapping his mittened hands around a nice warm mug of salted red tea laced with yak butter. I exhorted him to take the view that the correct response to cold is to unbutton one's loden and march hatless from brazier to brazier, but he wasn't having any of it. Wisely, he plied me with Scotch mitout ice on arrival, and perfect hostess Maura, seeing my tötung, vanished and quickly returned in a fine steel-grey chuba, with a string of opals and agates.

Losar predates both Buddhism and Tantrism in Tibet, as it is part of the much older Bön religion, and evolved from a festival initiated to celebrate the use of a lunar calendar for agriculture. The one-day version I'm told we are allowed nowadays in NYC by the Dalai Lama seems to focus quietly on an auspicious start for a New Year. But the main first day celebration, when done whole, involves eleborate sacred ceremonies where huge quantities of incense are burned - although feasting, firecrackers, performances and other merriment are a major element in the still extant original fifteen-day version.

Maura took us on a tour of her favorite parts of the extraordinary collection amassed by Donald and Shelley Rubin, and In the spirit of cultural connectedness, we spent some time exclaiming in recognition of Desi dieties and the similarity of the writing to Devanagari script. Maura is Desi, and is also an exponent of Bharat Natyam, which is why she was demonstrating mudras before the avalokiteshwara paintings (above). Eventually, Phelgie Kelden joined us and took us to look at an astonishing gilt bronze statuette -16th Century (Gregorian), if I recall correctly - which seemed to depict both a thousand-armed Chenresig and his consort. Phelgie explained that compassion is considered a masculine virtue, and wisdom a feminine attribute, and that the Divine, no matter how enraged, remains nevertheless distinct and different from a demon. How clear the transition from the more pictorially-minded Desi depiction of Shiv-Shakti, abstracted here into the father-mother Yab-Yum in Tibet, and from there no doubt abstracted much further and more solemnly into Yin-Yang in mainstream Chinese culture! Yet so fast are the cultural bonds, going both ways, that the Tibetan Year of the Fire Dog is also the Chinese Year of the Fire Dog.

The Subcontinental people present included a Delhi-Lahori group, including Sophie Ali, about to leave for Delhi to start a new tv show
for older children, to be called The Magic Tent (she had a portfolio of beautiful drawings of the characters), a tiny Kolkata contingent consisting of Rahul and Sharon Basu and myself, and many others in semi-darkness. AISers missing by an inch (or a few miles) on such short notice included Sanjiv Handa, Brenda Isenberg, Grant Fox, Joel Baird, who was recording with Jeff Campbell, aka Orchestra Naif, and possibly John Blee, who was at the 67th Street Armory, relinquishing the last of thirty-three (33) paintings...ah well.Phelgie and Maura at the end of the party (pics are frames from my footage on Tootiloot's dvcam)

Friday, March 03, 2006

Splendorous Farewell

Last Friday,
Gian Berto Vanni, Frani Gay Vanni and Lita Semerad threw what I can only call a many-splendored party to say goodbye to Barbara Porter, who's leaving on the 11th for Jordan and a very glamorous new job - after many long years in New York, during which I had the pleasure of hearing several of her sparkling lectures at the Temple of Dendur -- and resuming the lifelong peripatetic habits of her far-flung family. Surrounded by the gemstone iridescence of a fifty-two year retrospective 0f Gian Berto's paintings, of which I reproduce a small sample here, a crush of good friends wearing extraordinary textiles and unique ornament made uncommon conversation and shared much gentle laughter...Barbara's visitors in Jordan will be legion....

No former wild child could hope for a more tolerant, amused, forgiving, good-humored,
calm, steady and stylish friend!

TaTa For Now Bush Uncle, Laura Aunty

Laura Bush and Nafisa Ali with Boombah, Chamki, Aancho and Googly of Galli Galli Sim Sim (photo from yahoo)

Here are the best collections of pictures and text I've seen so far from the triumphal Bush visit:

Spring Break
Bush Uncle
from Sepia Mutiny
Bush Rides Wave of Popularity
Melvin Durai
Hindustan Times
ISB Hyderabad

The Hindu
Purana Qila
Times of India seven page article with pictures
(photo R. from The Hindu)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006