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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Jewelry for Gentlemen. June 2018.

Dear Rowley,

One of the greatest pleasures for an author is the moment when advance copies of work that has taken the best part of a year to write and photograph finally lands in Thames & Hudson’s office in London. You can see the layouts on screen for months and even get the proof print-out but nothing quite prepares for the images printed on high quality glossy paper with all the layouts as pristine as you would have hoped.

Jewelry for Gentlemen – so titled because it is one of Thames & Hudson’s conventions to take the American spelling for jewelry – landed at Bloomsbury Towers a couple of days ago. I am absolutely thrilled with the result because I think we’ve really gone in deep into uncharted territory: the black tie brooch, the stickpin as lapel decoration, gem-set cufflinks and contemporary jewellery collections by the greats Shaun Leane, Theo Fennell, Stephen Webster, Solange Azagury-Partridge and David Yurman.

We’ve got antique and modern pieces by the masters – Cartier, Tiffany & Co, Van Cleef & Arpels and Boucheron – and pieces of jewellery made for the last Tsar of Russia, the Maharaja of Patiala, Cole Porter, Winston Churchill and Marlon Brando. Thanks to antique jewellers Bentley & Skinner, Hancocks, Wartski, Lucas Rarities and Harry Fane I was loaned pieces by Fabergé, Paul Flato, Fulco di Verdura and Pierre Sterlé to style on the best of British bespoke tailoring courtesy of Henry Poole, Turnbull & Asser and Sir Tom Baker.

Getting an early copy when publication isn’t until the end of August is rather like delivering a baby or getting a new pup and not being able to let it out of the house for two months. Needless to say, this doesn’t stop me showing the advance copy to all of the jewellers or from signing review copies for friendly magazine and newspaper journalists.

Jewelry for Gentlemen is a return to a subject I covered in newsprint and the glossies for many years that took second place when I was fully immersed in Savile Row. The purpose for the book was not only to show off the incredible contemporary jewellers dedicating their talents to men but also to reimagine antique jewels that might have been set for women in a world where there is much more fluidity in taste and less judgement about what constitutes a man’s jewel or a woman’s.

This doesn’t mean that I have been photographing tiaras on male models even though a precedent for that has been set. What I chose to concentrate on was the naturalistic style of brooch popular in the late Victorian era – the bees, spiders, starbursts and floral motifs – that have legitimacy of scale and design to be worn with pride on a man’s lapel. I was also interested in how a jewel such as a stickpin – originally created to hold the folds of a cravat – can migrate to decorate the cape of a cocktail suit or black tie.

Jewelry for Gentlemen is a risk as was Savile Row when I wrote it. There is a similar buzz in the media about jewellery for men and I was able to find exquisite photographs of contemporary idols such as Lewis Hamilton, Alexander Skarsgard, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Pine, Jared Leto and John Hamm who are all early adopters of seriously good men’s jewellery. I was also seeing a boom in high street costume jewellery for the young that falls into a similar category as a tattoo … only body adornment that you can take off at the end of an evening.

The book made some bold choices and doesn’t shy away from expensive pieces by great historic jewel houses that already have great value on the secondary market. The mission was to inspire men as well as reflecting what is happening in the broader cultures around the world. What I was keen to establish was that whatever culture you consider be that imperial Chinese, Romanov Russian or Victorian England there could always be found a strong tradition of male adornment in precious metals and gemstones.

What I don’t see is men being furnished with a jewellery wardrobe like the Duchess of Windsor or Elizabeth Taylor. Men tend to wear pieces of huge sentimental value be that old family jewellery or pieces bought by spouses of both sexes. This hit home to me when, at the beginning of the year, I had a sizeable amount of family jewellery stolen from my apartment. To borrow a Harry Potterism, it was like destroying my horcruxes: losing items of jewellery that were so important to me that they had become a part of daily life and external indications of who I am.

I suppose the onus now is on re-building a collection of precious jewellery and re-making an exceptional diamond and ruby ring that had belonged to my grandmother. I rarely took that ring off my finger and it was fated that the night I chose to wear silver instead was the evening of the first burglary. I’m still trying to get over the loss and won’t fully until I commission one of the jewellers in the book to bring the piece back to life.

What I’d like is for the book to be embraced by the fashion industry and fashion and jewellery colleges as well as dedicated collectors of men’s jewellery. The tone is a ‘yes you can’ rather than a ‘so you should’ and I think that’s appropriate in a day and age when there are so few limits on self-expression. What I’d really love is for the book to inspire men (and women) to commission jewels special to them. If this is the case then my work has been worthwhile.

 

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Frida: An Extraordinary Life. June 2018.

Dear Rowley,

To the Victoria & Albert Museum this week to view the press preview of Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up which brings together 20o objects sealed in the bathroom of Kahlo’s place of birth and death the Blue House by husband Diego Rivera for over fifty years. The exhibit brings the Mexican surrealist artist back to life after her death in 1954 aged just forty-seven. And what a life!

My knowledge of Kahlo was purely based on image: the Revlon-painted unibrow, the flowers and jewels woven into her upswept hair, the elaborately embroidered and beaded tunics and floor-length pelmet skirts and the indigenous Mexican woven gold chain jewels embellished with freshwater pearls.

What I didn’t realise was the reason Kahlo painted herself as brightly as a butterfly’s wing and from whence her dreamlike magic realist style of portraiture came. As a child, Frida was bed-ridden with polio. Aged eighteen her body was shattered in a trolley car accident that confined her to plaster cast corsets that resembled instruments of torture. In later life gangrene deprived her of a leg. In short, the woman beneath the carnival clothing was at war with her body.

Kahlo’s tempestuous marriage to celebrated artist Rivera and numerous affairs – with French surrealist André Breton, sculptor Isamu Noguchi and Leon Trotsky to name a very few – psychologically complicated a life already blighted by physical pain. And yet the woman staring from fifty-five self-portraits depicts a Valkyrie of the Mexican Communist party who is as emblematic of South American dissidence as Che Guevara.

The pain is in the pictures and yet Frida Kahlo seems to transcend the tortures of her life. As she said of Rivera, ‘there have been two great accidents in my life. One was the trolley and the other was Diego. Diego was by far the worst’. Pictures of Rivera in the exhibition display a bulldog of a man who matched his wife infidelity for infidelity even having an affair with her sister Cristina.

And yet Rivera seemed to instinctively know that after her death, Frida’s reputation as an artist would far exceed his own. She had modest success with exhibitions in New York, Paris and Mexico – and was the first Mexican artist to be acquired by the Louvre – but Frida’s work was seldom bought until after her death. Now of course her canvases are exceeding the $10 million mark, Madonna is a collector and Salma Hayek played her in a movie.

One only has to look at the gift shop at the V&A to see how effectively Frida transcended her own physical pain and mental anguish having divorced and remarried Rivera and miscarried of three children. There are gaily coloured paper rose hair ornaments, canvas bags printed with her photograph and Frida-inspired bold gold jewels.

Had the exhibition not taught one so much about this complicated woman, you’d have thought she was a goddess of fashion who had danced a tarantella through life. The exhibit pulses with life and colour. Even Frida’s used Revlon cosmetics, her empty bottle of Guerlain’s Shalimar and the prosthetic leg fitted with intricately embellished red high-heeled boots evoke a glamazon rather than a woman crippled almost from birth who fought with her own body her entire life.

The curators Claire Wilcox and Circe Henestrona – not to mention main sponsor the Grosvenor Estates – tell a story of beauty being found in the darkest of places. The final room fitted with a huge vitrine of Frida’s clothing is as celebratory as a Mardi Gras parade. No artist before or since is so instantly recognisable from the identity Frida crafted for herself. Her story cuts so much deeper than the posturing of contemporary peacocks such as Gilbert & George or Grayson Perry.

I would predict that Frida Kahlo will inspire fashion collections in seasons to come. She was a master image creator and the collection of her personal possessions so much more magical for having disappeared for the best part of fifty years after Rivera sealed them in the Blue House.

The Victoria & Albert is so proficient in delivering these magnificent fashion-led exhibitions that they almost make it look effortless. Gift shop aside, what I appreciate most about the V&A’s work is the cultural connections they make with collections worldwide that bring such treasures to London’s feet. For sheer overwhelming impact, Frida is up there with the marvellous McQueen exhibit.

 

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The Business End. June 2018.

Dear Rowley,

Well, we’ve finally got to the business end of the Henry Poole book. The main texts are written and all that is left is to study each of the Hall of Fame great and good’s orders to fill in the important blanks about their dates, their orders and the amount of money they spent with the company. It is a daunting amount of research but these things need putting into perspective.

When I first encountered the Henry Poole archive there were over 100 principal books in a dusty basement room rotting from the inside. Water damage during World War Two had done a fair amount of damage and yet we still had the most comprehensive customer order books on the Row and arguably in the world.

The task of rebinding was an expensive proposition that to Poole’s credit they took the decision to complete working with the Wyvern book binders in Clerkenwell. Over the years, each book was lovingly stripped back to the pages and rebound in house green cloth then embossed in gold with the dates and the series number. The task was huge and without it my work would have taken years instead of a matter of moments my having catalogued each of the books with an index of famous or infamous customers.

This is worth remembering now I have the privilege to work in a custom-built Archive Room at No 15 Savile Row with all the ledgers fully restored and shelved by date. I was proud of the Gieves & Hawkes archive work but this is nothing compared to the task I was fortunate enough to contribute to at Poole’s. Now any researcher worth his or her salt will be able to negotiate the gold mine that is Poole’s historic archive and find exactly who they are looking for in the labyrinth of ledgers and boxes.

I work on project based terms so it is rare for me to have an association with a company that can be counted by years. In this respect Poole’s has been a constant friend and one that has seen me through many peaks and troughs. At times the archive seemed overwhelming: overwhelming that is until you give up an important part of the work to another craftsman such as the Wyvern bindery only for the magic to return once their work is done.

Several projects are reaching their climax at present. We should have the advance copies of Jewelry for Gentlemen - it being a Thames & Hudson protocol to use the American spelling – in the London office imminently. Jewelry for Gentlemen took over a year to write and photograph then had to wait like a plane on the tarmac for the optimum September launch date.

I can’t tell you how thrilling it is to see a book in its final form. No number of uncorrected printed proofs can prepare you for seeing the images sing out in the most luxurious paper quality and all of the cut-out images perfected. Jewelry for Gentlemen is a special book for me. It was a chance to step back into a world that I covered for the FT and the Trib for many years and inspired the formation of my own jewellery business Jewellery for Gentlemen Ltd.

I am taking a punt on pearls for men with the next mini collection produced by the Lucas Rarities workshops in Mayfair. In addition to white flawless Akoya pearls, I am going to produce pink, grey and black pearl tie studs and hope to produce a pink and grey diamond-tipped pearl cufflink before the end of the month. I am thinking about single pearl pendants on an 18ct white gold chain as well but these will have to wait for sales to fund.

It is terribly important for me to know what I want to achieve with my writing and designing activities. I think the optimum is for one to compliment the other at any given time. As an advertisement for fine jewellery for gentlemen, the J4G book is more than fit for purpose. I hope it sells to the fashion industry and to students and collectors of fine men’s jewellery. We have a launch party in September at Piccadilly fine antique jewellery showroom Bentley & Skinner and I am exploring launches in Paris and New York.

One thing that has become clear is that without a project to sink my fangs into, I find it terribly hard to relax and wait for the results of the previous one. In this respect Poole’s has kept me busy and will continue to do so while we research surviving garments in private as well as public collections. Who would have thought that a pair of plush peacock blue breeches made for the Khedive of Egypt’s entourage would have found it’s way into the Museum of London or that Buffalo Bill’s black frock coat with black silk facings would survive in a museum in Wyoming?

The Poole’s book publication in 2019 will be the culmination of almost a decade’s work. I have been so fortunate to work for the first Savile Row tailor to be christened ‘king of tailors, tailor of kings’. Those forty international Royal Warrants were never matched by another British business let alone a tailor though Mayfair gunsmith Purdey might come close with European Royal Families.

So what else is new on the Rialto? Well, I’ve been a bachelor boy for too long now and am ready to dip a toe into the dating game again. I’m repainting Bloomsbury Towers to reclaim the space after all the ghastly burglaries at the beginning of the year and am saving-up to have sufficient funds to remake my grandmother’s diamond and ruby ring that was stolen in January.

Then again, fate may be kind and the ring that meant the most to me might be found on the secondary market. We shall see what we shall see. Until next time…

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Judy. May 2018.

Dear Rowley,

In a weaker moment, I happened to see some of the BBC’s Big Weekend music festival from Cardiff the other weekend. It is a sign of ageing when you disconnect from contemporary pop music which must make me a thousand and three considering Madonna is my lodestone of happening music. For our delectation we had a young Canadian cutie who I’d never heard of, Taylor Swift who I have and Paloma Faith doing a terribly bad impersonation of Amy Winehouse.

What struck me was how little stage presence the poppettes these days can muster. Perhaps it is a consequence of pop being so throwaway and available to stream at any second of the day. Besides, we aren’t seeing them live. We are listening to playback over which the artists caterwaul and whip the audience into some semblance of collective frenzy. When the audience sing louder than the performer, you know someone’s not trying very hard.

Taylor Swift has charm. She engages with the audience and does attempt at least some of the lyrics with a live mic. But you never get the impression you are in the presence of greatness or that this is a happening that we are all privileged to witness. Call me old fashioned but I consider these performers minnows compared to the raw power of the Judy Garland concerts that were captured on vinyl.

I decided to play Judy at Carnegie Hall, the 1961 comeback concert, after sitting through an hour of the Big Weekend and the audience response preserved on vinyl was one of pure adoration and excitement. Judy died of an accidental drug overdose aged forty-eight in 1969 after one hell of a thirty-year career following The Wizard of Oz in 1939. She was arguably the only child star who managed to take her talent from the golden age of movies to concert audiences worldwide.

I suppose the point is – recordings and television specials aside – the only way to see Judy Garland live was to buy a ticket and show-up. The jeopardy of a Judy Garland concert was that the audience never knew whether she would be on form or plagued by stage-fright, illness and addiction as became increasingly common towards the end of her life. There was always a collective will in the audience to help Judy get over that damned rainbow every time she walked onto a stage. Perhaps that was the similarity with Amy Winehouse and why she too was such a powerful live performer.

I believe Judy Garland had the voice of the 20th century. She was also fortunate to be born into the era of the Great American Songbook and be the first performer to sing iconic melodies written by Harold Arlen, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rogers & Hart and Dorothy Fields. The songs written for her - Over the Rainbow, The Man that Got Away, I Could Go On Singing - became her biography and belonged to she alone. Only the brave would even attempt to sing one of Judy’s songs.

After listening to Carnegie Hall, I re-read Gerold Frank’s masterly 1975 biography of Judy. It is the only book that all three of Judy’s children – Liza Minnelli, Lorna and Joey Luft – and all five of her husbands agreed to co-operrate on. What emerges is a nation’s sweetheart for whom life was not kind. Mismanaged all of her life, Judy spent a good twenty years singing for her supper – and her family’s supper – to pay off outstanding back taxes. This was a woman who would sing the last eight bars of Over the Rainbow on a weekly basis to President Kennedy – a woman who all other singers including Sinatra bowed down to – who was trapped in a spiral of debt.

Judy – born Francis Gumm – led a chaotic life that began when she was put on sleeping and slimming pills by MGM in preparation for Oz aged sixteen. The pills would be a constant in her life and contributed to the star being declared ‘all washed-up’ when MGM fired her aged only twenty-nine having made a string of pearls of great musicals including Meet Me in St Louis, The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, In The Good Old Summertime  and Summer Stock. The tragedy was that post-MGM, Judy only made one more great musical A Star is Born in 1954.

Judy earned her living – or paid off her debts – by singing literally thousands of concerts worldwide which became a cult amongst her followers. Gay men adored Judy for her vulnerability, her fighting spirit and the uplifting nostalgia of a fallen star who planted her feet apart, put her hand on her hip and sung, goddammit. For such a diminutive woman, Judy had stage presence that made her a titan amongst lady singers of the 20th century.

Rarely a year goes by without another biography or biopic of Judy Garland, the latest starring Rene Zellwegger as 1969 Judy performing her last concerts at London’s Talk of the Town club. Personally, I hope that the film is kind. Talents such as Judy Garland’s come once in a lifetime. It is preserved in recordings and concert appearances that leave audiences that she always sang live on stage and on vinyl without the safety net of auto-tune or playback behind which to hide.

It is little wonder that pop stars today can’t hold a candle to Judy Garland. They are too young to have allowed all that life experience to flow through a lyric and, quite frankly, the music they perform is forgettable being kind or throwaway being blunt. I don’t admire Judy Garland because she fought to the end of her relatively short life with pills and liquor. I admire her because she produced some of the most powerful, moving music of a century.

 

 

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