Friday, October 22, 2010

The Tailcoat

Clothing makes a statement, it gives clues to the world as to who we are and even, to an extent, where we've been. Imagine Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine character in Casablanca wearing something other than his classic ivory colored dinner jacket. Sure he'd still be Bogey and he'd still deliver his lines in that inimitable fashion, but it wouldn't be the same. Nor would Mad Men be the fabulously addictive program that it is if it didn't have such an impeccable wardrobe for its talented cast--consider Pete Campbell's blue suits or Don's variations in grey. And the women's clothing, I'm terribly envious of the wonderful day dresses, gowns, gloves, and hats that are often sported by the female cast members.

And this brings me to The Tailcoat. For the past couple of days I've been able to visit dear old friends and help out with the work being done to ready Historic Mayowood Mansion for its Christmas season which begins in early November. I've loved Mayowood since I was a wee girl taking riding lessons in the Mayo's former stables and I learned a lifetime of lessons working at the house as an adult, it's as much a part of me as New England or horses or France.

On Wednesday we were putting away a few small artifacts in an upstairs closet and I noticed a beautiful gentleman's wool tailcoat with some other clothing. Because so many generations of the Mayo family called Mayowood home, there are clothes spanning eras from 1911 when the house was built all the way up until the early 1960s...there is everything from old style riding togs to beautiful handmade silk chiffon gowns. This coat stood out though. It was made from a beautiful medium weight charcoal grey wool and as we removed it from its special container for a closer look we could see it was custom made tailcoat in mint condition. The seams and hand sewing were works of art created by a skilled hand and the buttons on the front, tails, and sleeves were covered in a woven silk damask. Folded carefully beneath the coat was the matching pair of deep grey wool trousers and a silk vest with delicate pearl buttons. The entire suit was in perfect condition, not a moth nosh to be found. But who might have worn it? 

We examined the interior pockets on the coat a little closer--those slick, slim, secret pockets that held letters of transit or fashionable cigarette cases once upon a time--and found it had been made by Fieldcrest in Chicago for Dr. J. Mayo.
I felt an immediate and powerful pang of sadness at seeing his name in this beautiful garment, my heart sank a little in my chest. As my friend left the room to answer a question elsewhere in the house, I whispered quietly, "Oh, Joe, this is heartbreaking." I couldn't help myself, I always felt a real connection to Joe--Dr. Joseph Graham Mayo--from the first time I saw his portrait on a wall at Mayowood. 

Joe had been the second son in a family where the first son, Dr. Charles W. Mayo, bore a immense responsibility on very capable shoulders. Joe was an avid horseman and hunter and a lively soul. From all accounts, he had a big personality and razor-wit--possibly because he enjoyed freedoms that eldest sons from prominent families often don't have the option to pursue. He also was, to my mind, the great tragic figure of the Mayo family. He was killed in a car-train collision in November of 1936 (at the tender young age of 34) while on a hunting trip near the Alma/Cochrane/Buffalo City area of Wisconsin, leaving a young widow, Ruth, and two small children well as a heartbroken family and devastated older brother. His beloved hunting dog perished in the accident as well and it is said that the dog is interred with him. The premiere issue of Life magazine from November 16, 1936 featured a photo and short obituary of Joe Mayo in it--right below a blurb announcing the marriage of John Barrymore. President Roosevelt sent a letter to the Mayos the next day assuring them of his deep sorrow for their great loss. The stack of telegrams the family received after Joe's death was immense and a measure of the void he would leave in the lives of many people.

The tailcoat, vest, and trousers were a sharp reminder of the unfulfilled promise that young people like Joe Mayo leave in their wake. Had he worn them while dancing with Ruth at a lovely party, had the suit been made for a special occasion? They'd been cared for meticulously, the owner clearly intending to wear them again when the opportunity arose. Beautiful garments--be they gowns, tuxedos, or tailcoats--are meant to be worn. They are part and parcel of occasions large and small and this suit was a physical reminder of all the moments that Joe didn't have enough time to experience. 

Even after I'd neatly packed the suit up again, I couldn't get it out of my mind and I was (and am) still a little surprised at how deeply a mere garment could resonate with me. The passage of time can sneak up on us in unexpected places and in the oddest of ways, but I'm glad I spent a kind of stolen moment and spared a thought for a gentleman whom I never knew, but one I feel sure would've been a kindred spirit. 

Cheers, Joe, and here's to all the happy times you must have enjoyed in that magnificent suit. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

If These Walls Could Talk--A Glimpse Into a World Long Gone

This morning as I was scrolling through my always-interesting Twitter feed I noticed a piece posted by Valerie (aka @swannoir27) about a Paris apartment that had been shuttered for some 70 years.  The link pointed to a piece in the UK Telegraph newspaper about a valuable piece of art that was found within the flat and had recently sold for 3 million or so dollars at auction. The painting itself is interesting, if not more than a little over the top, but I found myself far more interested in everything the article did NOT mention and despite my best intentions to accomplish other things, I’ve spent much of today daydreaming over this long-abandoned Paris flat. There's a link to the Telegraph piece HERE and a link HERE with more photos to the lovely The Paris Apartment blog; plus THIS link with a few more images of the flat.)

The newspaper article mentions that the apartment had been closed up since before World War II--when the owner fled to the south of France--and it remained unoccupied until the owner died sometime in 2010. That means that this space was, for all intents and purposes, a kind of time capsule--a “through the looking glass” place that existed in its own time--free from the march to modernity that we've all been part of. Untouched, from what I can figure out, through the D-Day invasions at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and V-E Day. It’s a kind of silent witness…if those walls could talk.

Then imagine being the first person to open that door after 70 years--in my romantic mind it would have been a little like when Howard Carter first peered into the wonder that was Tutankhamun’s tomb. The photographs give us a tiny glimpse at what appears to be a place that was left abruptly. Had the occupant fled Paris, or merely left it for a safer existence in the south? Why did she never return? The rent, taxes, and other fees were continually paid, but apparently the owner, the granddaughter of Marthe de Florian, never went back after vacating the flat. Can you imagine having a comfy flat in the middle of Paris and not using it...for 70 years? This is a mystery as delicious as your favorite French pastry! 

Some of the furnishings and items that we can see in the photos are rather remarkable, others typical of early 20th century life. Attractive chairs and artwork in various states of framing are prominent in the pictures, as is the fantastic mirror that dominates the left side of the image. Even though there’s visible water damage, some of the wall coverings look to be a once-lovely damask and there appears to be some impressive plasterwork or carved wood moulding as well. The tall windows and heavy draperies belie a once elegant space with marble fireplace mantles and beautiful old carpets. Even the harsh angle of the walls as they meet in the corner evokes the quirky appeal of the quintessential Paris flat. There's an adorable stuffed Mickey Mouse toy (and is that a Porky Pig doll I spy behind him!?) sitting at the feet of an extraordinary stuffed ostrich--more than likely purchased from the famed Parisian taxidermy shop Deyrolle.

What I’d really love to see photographs of, though, are the contents of the kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom. What kinds of potions and tonics (in my imagination they are in charming, flowery bottles with glass stoppers) lined the glass shelves of the bathroom? Were there beautiful tiles on the walls so typical of many early 20th century baths? In the kitchen were there ancient tins of spices and bottles of liquor and spirits? Did a bottle of Veuve Clicquot happen to be stashed away in a cupboard for a special occasion? Perhaps there were piles of fashion magazines from the period, filled with the latest couture and haberdashery. One article does mention a number of calling cards from prominent individuals of the time--another treasure of a bygone era--as well as piles of love letters held together by ribbons of various colors.

There are so many things I want to know about this apartment, about the woman who occupied it--or didn’t, actually--for all those decades. I’m sure the contents were carefully inventoried and cataloged by a wonderfully bureaucratic French official, but I hope that someone else was there to document it all as well. I’d love to have a French writer’s take on the place and how it was allowed to exist out of time for so long. This apartment is a time capsule of the most wonderful sort and a veritable feast for any historian, archivist, curator or writer. The real story of this space is likely better than any fiction writer could conjure, but I wonder if we’ll ever know?

Not so long after stumbling upon this piece I read Roger Ebert’s poignant (and wonderful) review of the forthcoming Secretariat film. At one point during the review he mentions that his beloved friend and long-time co-host Gene Siskel used to say that, “his favorite movies were about what people actually do all day.” I immediately thought it was precisely that feeling which resonated so strongly and moved me so about this abandoned apartment. It was a scene from a day in the life of a pre-war Parisienne, a glimpse into a world long gone. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Willing Heart of a Champion

Sporting events large and small over the course of the past few days got me wondering about the nature of greatness. What separates the good from the great, the historic from the fleeting, the moments of collective memory from smaller instances of personal victory? It’s too simplistic to say it’s just about numbers. The most victories, the largest scores, and most copies sold are all measures of a certain kind, but are they the most important ones? I think there’s another yardstick, one with no numbers, which is a vital component of greatness--heart.

A huge heart--literally in horse racing legend Secretariat’s case--is for me the unifying thread among so many of my heroes and heroines, literary and athletic, human and equine. It is the act of recognizing in another being an iron will, a divine spirit, or a heart for battle. Heart is the intangible, unquantifiable nugget that elevates the good to great and the ordinary to extraordinary.

I realize none of this is particularly revelatory, but I think every now and then (not unlike Ferris Bueller) it is worth stopping, looking around, and assessing just to be sure we don’t miss something important. It’s easy to throw stones or snicker derisively at another’s accomplishments, but it’s far more interesting to step back and take a moment to appreciate moments of greatness. It’s the road less traveled and that path is almost always the more scenic and more enlightening. Records come and go, statistics will be asterisked and analyzed, wins and losses quantified, but when all is said and done, I don’t think that’s what remains with us. And that brings me to Zenyatta.

Anyone who was fortunate enough to be in attendance at Hollywood Park for her penultimate race yesterday got to see a genuine beauty in whom beats the willing heart of a champion. I have to say that for me, while her 19-0 unblemished record is damned impressive, what I love about this majestic soul has less to do with her statistical place in history and more to do with the manner in which she’s raced to such heights. It’s the same thing I love about so many horses, their grit and determination, their will to win…but add to that her natural ability and you know you have a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. Special and amazing are overused these days (and I’m as guilty as anyone) but Zenyatta is, simply put, a great horse. She is the kind of horse that people in the future will look back upon and say they wish they’d had a chance to see race in person. As the neighborhood nostalgic--to my mind, anyway--witnessing one of her victories will be the equivalent of having seen a race run by Seabiscuit, Secretariat, or Man o’ War during their glorious salad days. The best of the best, those who embody the word great, find ways to win and Zenyatta has always found her way to the wire like a perfectly calibrated heat-seeking missile. It is a privilege to watch truly great athletes compete and to see her run a race without turning a hair or sweating a drop--all the while toying with her competitors--is to witness greatness amplified by heart and elegance. I won’t ever see Zenyatta race in person, but I'll look forward to visiting her in the coming years and seeing her beautifully dappled bay coat glistening in the sun as she dances across a field. As time passes I’ll likely forget whom she beat in which race or by how many lengths she won, but I will never forget--nor cease to be in awe of--her love of running, her exceptional heart, and her classic beauty. And I’ll leave the comparisons and rankings to those with minds more mathematically inclined than mine.