Weighing-in. September 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Whatever happened to professional drinking? You know, the Mad Men two fingers of scotch to seal the deal, the neat whiskey and a steak that sustained 60s Vogue editor Diana Vreeland or the vodka rocks imbibed by the first supermodels – Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker and Dovima – in the 1950s. Between them, Hemingway and Dorothy  Parker probably drained a couple of wine lakes before breakfast.

Today, if you order anything stronger than a Badoit or a kale smoothie with a business lunch there would be an intervention. The perfidious Human Resources departments would be giving you a verbal warning. Before the death of the studio system, Hollywood was fuelled by liquor. Those who tipped over into the abyss – W. C. Fields, Bob Mitchum, Judy Garland and Spencer Tracey – were shielded until the addiction could no longer be hidden by good make-up and lighting.

I was fortunate to work in fashion magazines as a kid when energy was kept-up by an intravenous drip of Bolly and after-work drinks in the offices at National Magazine House were Monday to Friday. The last truly hell-raising editor was GQ’s late Michael Vermeulen. I interviewed him in the early 1990s and even an hour in the office made me think that this was what Warhol’s Interview magazine must have been like.

But, in the words of Evita, that’s all gone now. We all have to adapt to the new puritanism or be viewed as dinosaurs by younger colleagues. What I find interesting is the disparity between professional conduct and what young people get up to on Instagram and Twitter. The three most popular subjects on social media are alcohol, sex and pets in no particular order. It appears that as soon as the people with plastic ID cards hanging around their necks get within spitting distance of a public house they behave like a pack of mad dogs.

It seems to me that it is all about appearing in control of one’s life these days and, of course, being seen to be very very busy. Most distressing on the streets of London is the army of ear piece people who take urgent hands-free calls as if they are heading-up Madonna’s security team: all furrowed brows and Transatlantic accents. When do these people have time to smell the diesel fumes and ponder an ashy, dying window box for the love of Lydia?

I must say gym culture has made a vast improvement on the street totty; particularly in the summertime. There is no getting around the fact that a gym-toned body of any age is bound to be a finer sight than those who have surrendered to the pull of gravity and the lure of fast, processed food. In this respect you’ve got to admire generation smoothie who probably spend more time in Fitness First than they do with their significant other.

A couple of years ago, I thought gravity and Gavi would have their wicked way. I imagined all of us lunchtime drinkers like the elves at the end of the Lord of the Rings  film drifting off to another land because they had outlived the one they were living in. Naturally, lunchtime drinkers would probably prefer to drift off on a decommissioned P&O ferry with a fully-stocked bar rather than a fairy galleon but you catch my drift.

However, comes a time when one realises that if you’re going to do even a quarter of the hell-raising you did in your youth then keeping relatively fit is fundamental. As you know, I got out of the habit of my morning swim for months. I then joined the Marshall Street baths in Soho made famous by Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library.

Much as I appreciated the men’s changing rooms at Marshall Street it simply proved too far from Bloomsbury to haul one’s tired old bones out of bed at 6.30am. So I’ve switched allegiance to the glorious if slightly faded Edwardian hotel the Waldorf on Aldwych. The swimming pool in the Waldorf basement is darling. It is reminiscent of a conservatory with stucco walls, mirrored panels, loungers, a sauna and steam room.

It was my debut swim this morning but by Christmas I should have toned-up sufficiently to bear all on a Balearic beach without fear of unkind comments. I am all for body confidence and feeling comfortable in your own skin. But I feel more comfortable in mine when it actually fits.

You need to be fit to live in London now. That isn’t necessarily the same thing as being thin. It was the Duchess of Windsor who first said ‘you can never be too rich or too thin’ but, as it turned out, neither could she be entirely happy. I think there is such a thing as optimum weight and once one gets past forty being super skinny isn’t a plus.

There is such a thing as a naturally healthy body and by that I don’t include muscles like walnuts and veins that stand out like the Great Wall of China from space. I can’t bear the gym – hence the swimming pool – and would rather a swimmer’s body than pumped-up, dehydrated and sustained by protein shakes.

But enough about the weighty issues of the day. It is two weeks to go before the London launch party of Jewelry for Gentlemen at Bentley & Skinner and the guest list is shaping-up to be a real friends and family plus the royal family of London jewellers. Glorious tintanabulations, the New York launch is also back in play so – fingers crossed – Broadway here I come again. Until next time…

 

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Keep Young & Beautiful. August 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Much has been made of the body image pressures imposed by social media; the endless stream of ripped torsos and pert bottoms that interrupt one’s timeline and make you pause in between great big bites of that juicy chocolate eclair. Frankly, this is nothing new. I recall that Jazz Age ditty ‘Keep Young and Beautiful’ that exhorts one to be wise and exercise all the fat off and take care of all those charms and you’ll always be in someone’s arms. I always found the tone more threat than promise.

The song concludes, ‘keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved’ and it has be said few of us don’t have an inkling that there might be an element of truth to it. I might say that I go swimming for inner peace, committing to fitness and mental wellbeing but the byproduct of buns of steel and a flat-ish stomach are of course to ascend the snake and ladders board that is dating in London.

I recently got back on the horse the other day by joining the Marshall Street baths in Soho. There has been a bathhouse on the site since 1850 and the present Art Deco marble swimming pool with vaulted ceilings was completed in 1931. When I joined the staff member asked whether it was my first time in the pool. I replied that I had last visited before the pool closed. His eyebrows shot up. The pool had closed in 1997. I felt like Cher in Mama Mia: Here We Go Again.

Asked whether I wanted to have a gym induction, I decided to show willing so reported for duty at 9am the next morning. They play Techno in gyms. My tempo is Cole Porter. Two bufty-tufties were being put through their paces by a shaven-headed trainer who looked like he’d served time in Sing Sing. The Muscle Marys were taking it in turns on a machine that looked like a waffle iron closing up and down on their splayed feet. The sound coming from them was reminiscent of a yeti having his bikini line waxed.

I was offered an hour training session or a tour of the gym during which the hottie instructor would demonstrate all the machines. No fool I, I took Option B, Bob. To be fair the trainer did get me on a running machine but we kept the setting to Dot Cotton struggling down Petticoat Lane with her shopping cart. Any faster and I would have shot off like a lemming.

The gym and I will never be friends. It reminds me of PE panic attacks as a gay young blade and frankly I don’t want to be anybody’s fantasy body builder or brickie thank you very much. A swimmer’s body is much more preferable to me even if the Tom Daley physique ship sailed many years ago. Actually, I think men benefit from a bit of meat on the bone after forty. Nothing wrong with a bit of stewing steak rather than flash fried.

I think when you get past forty it is all about maintenance. The mistake many of us make – me included – is to think our bodies can absorb all the shocks we put them through in our twenties. Oh no they don’t. When one reaches an age, exercise is not about achieving the body of an Adonis. It ie making sure the joints are still supple enough to enjoy the Hurley-burley of the chaise longue with the best of them.

At my old pool in Bloomsbury I have to admit the exercise was kept to a minimum. For every minute in the pool there would be twenty reading the paper on a lounger or lying back with my trotters up in the steam room. With Marshall Street, it is a brisk fifteen minute walk to and from with a solid half hour of lengths in between. I won’t be entering for an Iron Man any time soon but at least I will fend off being a ‘Hey Fatty Bum Bum’ for another decade.

Along with swimming comes natural life adjustments that can only be a step in the right direction. I don’t wake up wanting to jam a cigarette in my gob like Bet Lynch in early episodes of Coronation Street. Drinking deep of an evening is also too punishing when you’ve got to get up and on the road by 7am. It’s not quite from Jeffrey Bernard to Zola Budd in a fortnight but I do believe we have the power to rebuild him…

What else is new on the Rialto? Well, a dear friend gifted me membership of the London Library in St. James’s Square; the thinking being that I need a new working environment to get inspired and reinvigorated. I’ve been twice already and I must say it is already doing the trick. At the moment I am researching the Italian Riviera.

The date is also set for the launch of Jewelry for GentlemenPiccadilly antique jeweller Bentley & Skinner is hosting and Thames & Hudson are working on the invitations as I write. I like book launches to be reminiscent of This Is Your Life with as many old friends and family in attendance as possible. I hardly think I will be in ‘peak physique’ by the 25th of September but Rome wasn’t built in a dayUntil next time…

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Country Life. July 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Forgive the radio silence, I migrated to my parents’ in Derbyshire for the weekend and have since been beavering away over the launch of Jewelry for Gentlemen in September. The highlight of the trip was a walk in the grounds of Chatsworth with Mum having dodged a million Chinese tourists as they ruthlessly took selfies in front of every important work of art or dazzling interior in the house. I always think ‘remember you are mortal’ when tourists in London or Derbyshire pose themselves in front of works of art that will still be there when they are so much dust. And on that cheery note…

I enjoy spending time with my parents – plus two friends with four paws – and find the clean air, quiet and lack of stress rather a relief after a prolonged period in London. London in the summertime is swarming with tourists and, my dear, in the recent heat it is difficult not to barrel through them like a well-flung bowling ball as you try to get through Leicester Square to Piccadilly Circus.

Of course sensible people with deep pockets spend the entirety of August out of town Instagramming themselves in tavernas and on beaches. I actually rather like August because you can get so much work done relatively uninterrupted and only the die hards – who can’t abide ankle-biters in airports – stick it out in London. Speaking of Instagram, I have gone back to the app after a few months off and must admit I’ve missed it. Of course you have the occasional ‘my beautiful life’ account that has you hoping that Fate and Nemesis are waiting in the wings. But, by and large, I find Instagram is a way of letting friends and colleagues know that you’re still trucking and like Dolly ‘glowing, crowing and doing swell’.

I wouldn’t say I am doing swell quite yet but have heard on the jungle drums that Jewelry for Gentlemen has had a good response in the Thames & Hudson press office and that we can expect decent reviews. This is so important to me having spent a year pretty much putting words and pictures together with a team of two: photographer Andy Barnham and art director Pete Dawson at Grade Design. Though one shouldn’t pat oneself on the back, I think between us we’ve made a beautiful and relevant book that explores a subject that hasn’t had such in-depth attention before.

As well as planning the launch party for Jewelry for Gentlemen, Pete and I are starting work on gathering the pictures for the Henry Poole & Co house biography. I’m in the archive tomorrow doing a sweep of vintage photographs, letters and books to be scanned at T&H. We already have a decent amount of in-house photography completed and I have been moving mountains to find images of our great and good customers within the time frame of their being customers of Henry Poole. I think the trick with this book will be to balance the contemporary and the vintage photography. Our readers are going to want to see Poole’s craftsmanship today as well as images of the icons such as Emperor Napoleon III, Winston Churchill, Tsar Alexander II of Russia and Lillie Langtry.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed researching the ladies in the Henry Poole archive. The lion’s share are royal and aristocratic such as Louise the Double Duchess of Manchester and Devonshire, Queen Alexandra, the Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia and Baroness Burdett Coutts. We also have the scandals such as the last Victorian courtesan Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters who was a customer from her teenage years to her dotage long after she had hung up her suspender belt.

The Henry Poole book is the conclusion of what has been going on for a ten-year project. If I hadn’t catalogued all the ledgers there would have been no way I could navigate the pages so quickly now and work out, for example, how much each famous customer paid and the tenure of their account. My personal favourite chapters of the book tell the story of the Poole and the Cundey families and their ongoing battles to keep the company solvent. We have letters, court reports, affidavits, statements and witness declarations about Poole’s many periods of litigation … one that lasted for thirty years after Henry died.

The real hero of the Poole’s book is the present chairman Angus Cundey’s grandfather Howard. It was he who stabilised the debts after Henry died in 1876 and eventually fought-off the other partners named in Henry’s will who were essentially leaching money from the company while Howard was trying to build it into the most famous tailoring concern in the world. Howard’s story is worthy of a novel but I think I have caught the essence of the urgency behind the scenes at Poole’s to fight-off the parasites and see the firm through World War I.

The story of Poole’s is one of survival against odds that closed so many bespoke tailors in the 20th century. It was a privilege to tell the story and I am keen now to get together with Pete and start bringing the story to life with pictures. Until next time…

 

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Finding Prince Albert. July 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Sometimes it is gratifying when your past catches up with you. Not always, granted, but sometimes. About a month ago, I had a call from TV director Ian Denyer. Ian was the man behind the three one-hour documentary about Savile Row in 2007 and someone I consider a friend. Turns out he is directing a BBC documentary about the wedding of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840. Ian wanted to know if I had come across Prince Albert in any of the Savile Row archives.

As it happened, I had. You might recall that in the Noughties I was asked to curate a new archive room for Gieves & Hawkes at No 1 Savile Row. Robert Gieve was still alive at the beginning of the project but sadly died a matter of months into the task. I was left with keys to a vault in the basement of No 1 and instructions to scour every inch of the building for archive material. Mr Gieve also believed that a sizeable amount of the archive had been shipped out to a warehouse in Surrey.

On a mine sweep of the warehouse I happened to be searching through cardboard boxes full of financial accounts from the 80s and 90s. At the very bottom of one box was a tattered hand-written ledger that proved to be one of the few archive treasures relating to Hawkes & Co. The book was a transcript of letters sent by Hawkes in the 1840s soliciting business from titled customers. One of the customers was Prince Albert.

I never forgot that book because it was one of the very few clues to the illustrious customers of Hawkes & Co. I recall finding the Earl of Cardigan in there a full two decades before the Charge of the Light Brigade and also the Duke of Cambridge who was Queen Victoria’s uncle. What I couldn’t recall was whether the letter sent to Prince Albert pre or post dated his marriage to Queen Victoria.

It was rather lovely to return to Gieves & Hawkes after so many years and find the Hawkes ledger behind glass in a new display. Ian and I did a recce of the ledger and concluded that the Hawkes letter was written a matter of months after the wedding when Prince Albert had been made colonel in chief of the 11th Hussars. We decided to film with the ledger and make some logical conclusions as to whether Hawkes & Co had tailored the Field Marshal’s uniform that Prince Albert wore when he married Queen Victoria in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace.

I won’t spoil any surprises because you’ll have to wait until the programme airs close to Christmas 2018. But we did find evidence in the ledgers that Hawkes & Co had royal provenance that dated back to King George III and included a royal warrant from Prince Albert’s mentor King Leopold of the Belgians. We also found court Svengali Baron Stockmar mentioned in the letters.

I had forgotten discovering King Leopold of the Belgians’ Royal Warrant in the vault underneath No 1 Savile Row not to mention the warrant of Queen Victoria. Sadly Prince Albert’s Royal Warrant didn’t survive though a slip of paper discovered in one of the ledgers confirmed that Hawkes & Co made by royal appointment to Prince Albert and the Duke of Cambridge. On the reverse of this paper was a tailor’s sketch of a lay – where a paper pattern sits on a bolt of cloth – strongly suggesting that the evidence of Prince Albert’s Royal Warrant only survived because the paper had been used for a tailor’s doodle.

It is a miracle to me that so much did survive in Savile Row’s archives despite the businesses being run as such with zero sentimentality towards anything that was not a stock model or was being stored for a customer. There are almost zero Gieves naval uniforms left at No 1 Savile Row. Many were sold-off or sent to International branches as window dressing when they were subsequently lost. I recall a glorious list of Admiral’s Full Dress coats found in Mr Gieve’s files that had simply vanished from the premises. Almost nothing of Hawkes’s history survives except for the Solar Topee helmets that the firm patented and the occasional shako from the mid-19th century.

Having spent so many years working with the Henry Poole Archive, it was gratifying to go back to Gieves & Hawkes and see work done over a decade ago still valued and now kept behind glass in a temperature-controlled room. I feel like I should be kept on a temperature-controlled room these days but, on balance, I can still shake a tail feather in front of a television camera and sound vaguely coherent when asked to revisit history I hadn’t concentrated on for so many years. Until next time…

 

 

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Rumour Has It. June 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Would you agree that more tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones? The epigram tinged with melancholy was the title for Truman Capote’s never-completed novel Answered Prayers that destroyed the writer socially, financially and mentally.

When a chapter - La Cote Basque - was published in US Esquire in 1975 the puckish literary genius Capote was technically at the top of his game: the darling of New York’s fashion-leading society dames he christened his ‘Swans’ with immortality as an author guaranteed by his masterpiece In Cold Blood. His 1966 Black and White Ball in New York was remembered as one of THE parties of the 20th century. Yet when that chapter was published, Capote was cut down dead by his beloved jet set and never recovered from the ostracism.

It is the story of Capote’s downfall that Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott fictionalises in her rather brilliant new novel Swan Song. The author imagines the Swans – Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guinness, Lee Radziwill and Marella Agnelli – as avenging angels hastening Capote to his death. She breathes new life into these Manhattan princesses – including the more forgiving CZ Guest – and makes them so much more than the stereotypical ladies who lunch immortalised in the Stephen Sondheim song.

Capote’s perceived betrayal in La Cote Basque (the eponymous fashionable New York restaurant) was to tell the foulest tales about his Swans’ serially unfaithful husbands. The decision to pen this roman a clef was catastrophic for Capote. Invitations to Marella’s yacht, Babe’s Hamptons home and the Guinness’s private island ceased on publication. So deep was the betrayal of secrets that Babe Paley left instructions that under no circumstance was Capote – once her dearest friend – to attend her funeral.

The picture Greenberg-Jephcott paints of the Swans is bittersweet. Only CZ Guest appears to appreciate her marriage and her status. The others mask disappointment and unfaithfulness with exquisite taste in Mainbocher gowns, hothouse flowers and Verdura jewels. These ladies were the paragon of the American Dream and yet none seemed terribly happy with their lot. Pills, booze and chain-smoked cigarettes are passed between the Swans for the entirety of the novel.

My favourite character in Swan Song is the drawling, wise-cracking, bourbon-slugging, many times married Slim Keith. When married to Howard Hawkes, Slim discovered Lauren ‘Betty’ Bacall and tutored her in the art of effortless perfection. As Mrs Leyland Howard, she consorted with the toast of Broadway. Yet even the worldly-wise Slim lost her husband to man-eating courtesan Pamela Harriman … a villain of the piece in Swan Song.

Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel is a literary in-joke, written as a re-imagining of real people and events just as Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood was. It is a literary conceit that Capote established and Greenberg-Jephcott has developed as a fabulous flight of the imagination.

The author makes the Swans more than a Greek chorus for Capote’s downfall. We inhabit their seemingly glittering worlds and accompany them to the Black and White Ball. You believe every scene imagined by Greenberg-Jephcott. Even the cameo roles such as Diana Vreeland, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Onassis (Lee’s sister) have the ring of truth about them. This is a great skill.

What I appreciate most about Swan Song is the depth of sympathy that Greenberg-Jephcott evidently has for her Swans. Why Capote didn’t extend the same courtesy to these ladies in La Cote Basque is neither explained nor excused. Drug and drink addled as Capote evidently was for the second act of his life, he must on some level have known that publication of his acid drops in Answered Prayers would destroy him. But, then again, wasn’t it Capote who said the only thing that can destroy a writer is himself?

Having read Capote’s complete works including the loose chapters of Answered Prayers I am still at a loss as to why he took aim at his Swans: biting the hand that feeds and reads in one vicious nip. We know he could convert inspiration into great works of fiction such as Breakfast at Tiffanys. Practically every woman known to Capote claimed she was the inspiration for Holly Golightly even though my money is on first of the supermodels Dorian Leigh.

But Capote didn’t even bother to cover his tracks in telling scandalous stories about Babe and Bill Paley or about putting vicious gossip into the mouth of Slim Keith. If it was revenge he was seeking then revenge for what? The Swans treated Capote like a favourite clutch bag: he went everywhere with them and was humoured by their whiskey-slugging husbands.

We will never know why Truman Capote tore the wings from his Swans then feigned incredulity that they ostracised him on publication. According to Swan Song, Capote considered La Cote Basque as revenge on the unfaithful husbands but surely he must have known that washing dirty linen in public equalled social death.

In conclusion, Capote could have chosen different targets with which to discharge poison from his pen. Then again, he had form crucifying Marlon Brando in an essay and painting an ambiguous portrait of his friend Marilyn Monroe in a drugged and drunk state.

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