12/11/14

CULTURE SNATCH Visits Mme. Cézanne

SultanetteSeatingChart1Verboten in The Male Harem is the query, “Where have you been?” It smacks of time squandered obsessing over another’s absence that might be better spent doing twenty pushups or slowly sipping a very dry martini.

That said, if you still dare to ask where I’ve been, you obviously haven’t visited CourtneyPrice.com where The Sultanette, along with unveiling juicy tidbits on male maintenance (Inspired by The Sultanette), threw a fantasy dinner featuring infamous rogues alive and dead, as depicted here by the artful Ms. Price.

Frivolous socializing, you say? Think it’s easy to make small talk with Machiavelli or out-snark Roger Sterling? Then there’s The Male Harem risk factor of committing to the companionship of exquisite transients. In that sense, a romantic dinner is not unlike a love affair – or a marriage for that matter. When the stimulating conversation peters out and the clothes that were tossed off in the heat of passion are untangled, we retreat to our separate worlds.

The Sultanette Saturday Night at the Met.Living solo in the company of The Male Harem continues to nourish. But like any behavior not endorsed by the cabal it requires the occasional psychological selfie: How ‘my doing? Does this float? Is it still safe out here? Has the park closed? So when I learned of the exhibit on the portraits of Madame Cézanne, a lifelong intimate outsider in the artist’s world, I hightailed it to The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Sultanette revels in the privacy of the Met.On a Saturday night, naturally. The Met is open until 9pm on weekends allowing visitors to actually see what’s on the walls and feel its vastness. Where else in New York City on a Saturday night could you escape cell phones and long lines and see and be seen by no one? After years of this practice, I’m amazed at what a City insider’s treat it remains. I always love spotting the tweeded-out Upper Eastside septuagenarian couple on their Met date, help off for the night.

The Sultanette views the Met holiday tree.Admittedly on this Thanksgiving Saturday there were holiday ogglers at the tree to negotiate. But devoid of schmaltzy canned Christmas tunes the spirit of the season prevailed at the nativity. And speaking of women living outside the line, if the Blessed Virgin couldn’t find more acceptable amenities than a lean-to with manger plus shepherds and three dusty kings for paparazzi, Mother of God!

Photo of Young Woman with Loosened Hair by The Sultanette.Which brings us back to the portraits of Hortense Fiquet, aka Madame Cézanne. The first was painted two years after they met in 1869 when she was nineteen and he was thirty. There is a nubile innocence in this “Young Woman with Loosened Hair” that never reappears.

Between that portrait and the solid gaze in “Portrait of Madame Cézanne in the Conservatory” painted twenty years later she has been his most painted subject. She has also birthed his child, there have been acrimonious separations, a secret marriage, and upon learning of the liaison, Cézanne’s banker father has threatened to disinherit.

The exhibition neatly sums up this “lifelong attachment” in a single sentence, describing the woman who “profoundly influenced [Cézanne’s] portrait practice for more than two decades” as being “not well received by either his family or his friends.” Yet over those twenty years she sat before him, still for hours, letting him pour over her every angle and inflection. Watched. Composed. Made art of.

Photo of Cezanne Red Dress series by The Sultanette.Referring to his red dress paintings from the 1880’s, the show quotes Cézanne, “Only I know how to paint a red.” But Hortense is no Madame X. She neither flirts nor defers to the man who commands her presence. For all the silent and not so silent indignities she must have absorbed, she appears neither broken, self-righteous, nor embittered. Unscathed by the rancor of petty minds she sits, hands folded, eyes fixed on a distant place.

Cezanne sketch book, photo The SultanetteWhat anchored her? Was it knowing that unlike the domineering father and dismissive friends, she had a piece of the artist no one else could touch? That only she had felt those silent hours of undivided attention when Cézanne reached for his deepest passion? With all our clamor for lasting connections, it was enough to immortalize.

Madame Cézanne can be seen at the Robert Lehman Collection, first floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 15, 2015.

CULTURE SNATCH is a series on The Sultanette’s ramble among the arts. Watch for BETWEEN THE COVERS book reviews and DICK OF THE WEEK commentaries on notable or notorious males in the news.

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10/29/14

Save The Date For The Sultanette Dinner

Dinner at the schlass, Jorge Royan.

Dinner at the schlass, Jorge Royan.

Except it won’t be dinnertime (the most wicked fun happens in the afternoon) and it won’t be a “date”  because that term is stricken from The Male Harem lexicon due to its fostering of bazaar expectations and sex-by-numbers. (Third date? You snooze, you lose.)

Minor details aside, stay tuned for The Sultanette’s fantasy dinner hosted by Courtney Price Design. If you’re not following Ms. Price’s tasty blog on culture, fashion, interior design and the best martini in San Francisco, you’re missing critical factoids on the art of living with style and heart. What better venue to  treat The Male Harem in the manner they’re accustomed than @courtneymprice where Emily Post meets C.Z Guest and Madame de Pompadour pops by for an aperitif?

Mae West,1936.

Mae West,1936.

So I’m presently assembling a guest list of philosophers and soldiers, miscreants, roués, and a rock star – alive and consigned to posterity (with respect to Mae West’s advice that the best husband is rich and dead). As with Male Harem membership, relationship status is irrelevant. Married, single, sig other, all that’s required is an informed love of women, high intellect, good manners, and a penchant for raw sex.

And just in time to pre-empt those tedious holiday dinners with Uncle Dick and Aunt Muffie! So be prepared for a feast of the mind and senses with this contrarian curation along with some penetrating remarks from The Sultanette on life, liberty and the pursuit of sex. Finger food only.

“She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked”, Gustave Dore.

“She was astonished to see how her grandmother looked”, Gustave Dore.

By now, you must be starved for more rousing tales of The Male Harem, and they’ve been collecting faster than The Sultanette can say “Trick or Treat!”. I hope you appreciate that unlike somnambulant marriage, The Male Harem requires constant field work. And that when I’m out there tirelessly testing the waters, allowing myself to be indulged, and cajoled by people with penises, I do it all, loyal followers, for your inspiration and edification.

And just when I wondered if this mad scheme might be climaxing, it’s gotten vigorous new insertions. On a recent Harem Event (no “dates” allowed, see above) Ivy League, Esq., exhibited the full spectrum of his privileged education. He was engaging, gallant, droll, insightful, and adept with hooks and zippers. Another new recruit Sky Walker and I are carrying on a tantalizing digital affair covering everything from Paris in January, Wittgenstein in Vienna, eyeliner in India, neurotic bankers, Norman Cousins, and the orthography of “Yuk!”.

Also a shout out to ongoing member Young Preppie, whose subtly bawdy propriety and impeccable Southern breeding played my +1 to the hilt at last weekend’s New Hampshire wedding. And to Nom de Plume, who just procured tickets to Chrissie Hynde’s New York concert at the Beacon.

"We have an excellent table for you in Novia Scotia, sir." Ericbodden.

“We have an excellent table for you in Novia Scotia, sir, just next to the lavatory.” Ericbodden.

Politically incorrect confession: I revel in the attention of men with the chops to genuinely appreciate the opposite sex. Before you pass this off as the frivolous indulgence of a horny woman, I paid a good price to get here – sixteen years with One&Only who could ignore me better than a waiter at a four-star restaurant when you’ve been seated in Nova Scotia. Confrontation-phobic? Once when I’d managed to wheedle him into a “talk” he jumped up, announced it was time to go to dinner, turned out the lights and bound for the door, leaving me per usual, in the dark.

No need for more examples, you know the drill. The countless incidents you gloss over until what you’re left with is so highly polished there’s not a groove for a toehold. On that night of no return with One&Only, the end of us was the least of it. Staggering away from the expectation that I’d ever be cared for the way everybody says you’ll one day be, was the seminal moment.

Ophelia, Henrietta Rae, oil on cavnas,1890, Walker Art Gallery.

Ophelia, Henrietta Rae, oil on cavnas,1890, Walker Art Gallery.

The sex part of The Male Harem was initiated a few months later in the back stairwell of an Upper Eastside apartment building. Crass? Crude? Tawdry? Yes! After being true to an illusion for sixteen years, that hot, furtive, dangerous body slam was just what Dr. Feelgood ordered.

I started practicing being alone. One birthday, I passed on dinner with friends and took myself to a play about Shakespeare’s women, appropriately called Women of Will. It was performed in a church basement in the Village. When I resurfaced, Washington Square Park was laced with a fairy dusting of snow. I snagged a spot for dinner at the bar of Minetta Tavern and ordered a flaming desert.

I didn’t want to do this long enough to become a habit. Just long enough to know I’d never again be tempted to sublet in someone else’s life. Along with going solitaire, I began cultivating The Male Harem. Nearly three years later members continue to appear like the magi, bearing gifts of cleverness, candor and desire. As for the emotional intimacy bit, I prefer to get that from girlfriends who are always better at it.

Banquet of the Gods, Frans Floris, oil on panel c. 1550, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

Banquet of the Gods, Frans Floris, oil on panel c. 1550, Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

For my birthday this year I accepted the offer of Abdul, the cook at my neighborhood café, to cater a dinner party. A dozen friends showed up – half longtime loyal chums, half new harem members. We sat on a mound of pillows on my living room floor around the low table Abdul provided and drank copious liters of wine haphazardly paired with an unending parade of Yemeni perfections. There were soups and stews. Meats and birds roasted, spiced, marinated and sauced. For dessert, Abdul’s wife had prepared a multi-layered pie soaked in honey that, like sex, you could only partake of with your hands and totally surrender to sticky fingers.

Now that’s what I call a real Male Harem dinner. Imagine what happens at the fantasy version. See you there?

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10/1/14

Let’s Stay Together

Wife hands husband her chastity belt key, Neinrich Wirrich, c1590, British Museum.

Wife hands husband her chastity belt key, Neinrich Wirrich, c1590, British Museum.

Sure they had their marital snags – the usual irreconcilable differences – but was it worth splitting up over? Creating a rift that would upset the world order?

No, The Sultanette isn’t talking about Jay Z and Beyoncé. The Male Harem has weightier issues to mull over than the fate of JayBey (though I’d trade these pins for Beyoncé’s thighs faster than you could say “booty call”). The marriage in question united Scotland and England in 1707. The question now was whether to call it quits after three-hundred-seven years or stay together. YES or NO. Black or white. No surprise, NO won.

So why is breaking up so hard to do? Why are we so easily seduced into thinking we’ve found true love and so resistant to admitting it’s over? Is love blind or the end of it?

Take a Leap, Eron Main, '06.

Take a Leap, Eron Main, ’06.

There’s a thing about walking away: the unknown. It’s always a leap. Yet conventional wisdom tells us that taking a ride on the bungee is sheer folly unless we’re able to know exactly how we’ll feel diving towards an unpredictable bottom before defying gravity to meet up with terra firma again.

Just look at how the rhetoric, collected from the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, played to both sides of the Scottish Independence Referendum. The We’re Outta Here side was fed a diet of dire warnings about market uncertainty, volatility, sensitive interest rates, currency suffering a fall, and the prognosis of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s broken heart.

On the Better Together side, wafted words like stability, relief and recovery, buttressed by wisdom, rationale and safety. Finally, as in all cases when the kids are rough-housing, mom was called in. As reported by the FT, the Queen’s media advisors orchestrated a “chance remark to a churchgoer near Balmoral that Scottish voters should ‘think very carefully about the future’”.

Who was that masked man?, 1956.

Who was that masked man?, 1956.

Though The Sultanette has never been invited to Balmoral, I’m no stranger to Scottish castles – or taking a dip into the unknown. The summer after my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, I worked on Princes Street in the shadow of Edinburgh castle selling tartans to Germans. I had never been that close to a castle or so far from home. Never before understood that there was an entire other world that didn’t look, feel, dress, eat, talk, or think like people in the Midwest. It was thrilling.

My college roommate Ellie’s father, a University of Wisconsin professor, had arranged the trip through an exchange student of his. Neither of us had seen the other side of Madison’s Lake Mendota let alone the Atlantic. Except for a trip to California when I was five, documented in volumes of photo albums, the only escape I knew was holiday visits to aunts and uncles in Milwaukee. So when Ellie asked me if I was up to sending resumes to The Tartan Gift Shop and living in University of Edinburgh student housing, my answer was an unequivocal YES.

Edinburgh_Ale_by_Hill_&_Adamson_c1844

Edinburgh Ale, “a potent fluid, which almost glued the lips of the drinker together” c1844, Met Museum.

We joined the flock of shop girls watched over by the roaming eye of the store’s supervisor, Mr. Wood, who would fetchingly lift his kilt above his knee when anyone asked what was under it – a question he wholeheartedly encouraged. On the way home we’d pick up fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and dine in the crackling warmth of our coin-operated space heater – Scottish currency only. For exercise, there were pub crawls featuring beer that had no resemblance to the Pabst back home.

One Saturday we hiked up to Edinburgh’s famous outlook. I no longer remember its name, the climb, or the friends who joined us. I only remember the clouds. Not the distant ethereal shapes that floated above my hedge-lined backyard in Wisconsin but magnificent billowing masses that scudded in from the sea like separate continents.

Wild_Haggis

Wild haggis, Loch Lomond, StaraBlazkova.

At lunchtime we’d head for kippers on High Street where everyone shared tables before communal dining was chic, and the proprietor burst into arias above the clatter and conversation. It was there that I met Alistair, a lawyer from Aberdeen, red-haired, tweeded-out and fully adult. Alistair introduced me to the finer themes of Scottish lore – single malts, the Firth of Forth (the name alone could have existed nowhere else) and haggis, a dish rumored to be made of sheep innards but sworn by the Scots to be stewed from a furry, four-legged creature that was a Highland delicacy.

Proof of Alistair’s hardy resilience was that he put up with my last gasp of virginity. I was at the ALMOST stage then. Almost convinced I could toy with a man’s sex without penetration. Almost sure I didn’t have to save myself for my husband. Almost stupid enough to believe it was worth it. Alistair, if you’re reading this now, The Sultanette is ready to make it all up to you!

Undaunted, he invited me to the family home in Aberdeen. I have no idea the impression I made on his uppercrust parents. Maybe they saw me as a charming bumpkin. Hopefully, coming from the American hinterlands, I was forgiven everything.

I believe I concealed my amazement at their country club the first night when an entire dairy department of cheese rolled up on a trolley. I know I kept my mouth shut at a family dinner when Mother, suddenly rankled over something Father had said, rose up as if to fetch more tea, and instead, pitched her shoe in a perfect arch at him across a half-mile of fancy porcelain to the opposite end of the table.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, 78th Highlanders Regiment, Wm. Dyce, c1840.

Francis Humberston Mackenzie, 78th Highlanders Regiment, Wm. Dyce, c1840.

Who were these people, so properly defiant, whose national dish was the stew of a mythical badger? Who distinguished their fierce, warring clans by variations on plaid pleated skirts, and dangled tasseled purses over their packages? An FT piece on the referendum quoted George Bernard Shaw as saying, “God help England if she had no Scots to think for her.” So in not flying the coop, was Scotland merely being kind to its bloviating cousins? Or prudently resisting the unknown? Anybody who’s been in a relationship that overstayed its welcome has considered the maxim, better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

In September, I kissed Alistair good-bye, sold my last tartan, and headed back to Wisconsin. We continued to correspond and one day a package arrived – an ivory cameo with a note attached in his lawyerly hand. Would I come back and consider a life with him? I was taken aback. There was still school, piano lessons, football games, losing my virginity. Still so much to sort out. My souvenirs of that Edinburgh summer weren’t of an enduring love but clouds with a bigger imagination than me. And so to a Scottish union, I said, NO.

What if …? Arun Kulshreshtha, 2006.

What if …? Arun Kulshreshtha, 2006.

Years later, after a marriage and move to Paris had segued back to single life in New York City, I came upon the cameo among collected keepsakes. Was the college co-ed too fickle to appreciate the finer points of a singular man? Was Alistair mad to think he could import a novice, unseasoned by experience, into his clubby world? Would we now be sipping single malt together by the fire? Would I have become adept at hurling shoes across fine china? Does life have a way of sorting out who we are?

There are times to stay and times to go. Times to make peace with the familiar and times to make a mad dash for the unknown. You can always say NO and stay put. But you’ll never escape WHAT IF.

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09/4/14

Looking For Mr. Wrong

B-25_Wolf_Bait_Nose_Art

Wolf Bait, WWII B-25 Mitchell bomber, Ed Uthman.

“I’m a very difficult person,” Jeremy Irons.

Untwist your knickers, scandalmongers! The Sultanette is not looking to add Jeremy Irons, aka “serial snogger” aka “the thinking woman’s pin-up” to The Male Harem. Yet. He does however, share one thing in common with each and every harem member along with wicked charm, a shameless love of the feminine form, artful duplicity, and the basic requirement for membership, a penis. They are all difficult men.

I may have denied this last feature even to myself before reading Cristina Nehring’s A Vindication of Love. Women who are drawn to rascals must “secretly believe they don’t really deserve a ‘good’ boy,” writes Nehring. ”It’s chalked up to low self-worth.” But when men pursue women who cause them “trouble and turmoil” Nehring contends, it’s credited to their “high spirits, predatorial adrenaline, to chutzpah, competition, and courage.”

As you know, I hold the harem in the highest regard for their intelligence, sophistication, and cultivated manners. But that doesn’t rule out the fact that they are rascals. So emboldened by Nehring’s revelation, I hereby confess that I have a history of men who behave badly beginning with the kid who tied me to a tree in grade school.

Cannabis sativa, print, 1887, Hermann Adolf Kohler.

Cannabis sativa, print, 1887, Hermann Adolf Kohler.

I met my first gut-wrenching kick-in-the-teeth heartbreaker fresh out of college after moving to Chicago to work as an advertising copywriter on Oscar Mayer Bologna at J. Walter Thompson. Forget the ex-frat boys with rich futures on the Options Exchange who packed the singles’ bars on Rush Street. (Their life expectancy may have been short but I would have been a rich, young widow.) My sights were set on Bad Boy, the mop-haired director of the agency’s research department who had dropped his PhD thesis at Northwestern to major in cannabis.

Grand Central Commuters, 1936, Jim Pickerell.

Grand Central Commuters, 1936, Jim Pickerell.

Coming from my cracker-barrel Wisconsin roots, I was awed by his lineage. He’d grown up in a John Cheever short story in Connecticut. His father, a bona fide Mad Man, had commuted everyday between Y&R and their Frank Lloyd Wright home in Westport where Bad Boy had actually mowed Paul Newman’s lawn for extra change. That’s when he wasn’t getting thrown in jail with his buddies after raiding the wet bars of the Eastern aristocracy. (His mother finally tossed his books into the cell and told him to study for a change.)

Bad Boy’s other exotic credential was a motorcycle. I was soon on the back of his black BMW cruiser heading for the local bike races – testosterone-fueled events starring teenage daredevils who catapulted around the track creating clouds of Castrol that hung heavy in those sultry Midwestern watermelon nights. Dinner on the way back was the insiders’ wiener treat at the Tastee Hastee stand in Gladstone Park where, awash in red and yellow fluorescence, your dog rolled down a mini-gauge metal conveyer getting heaped with the works.

Desert lightning, Arizona, Shredex.

Desert lightning, Arizona, Shredex.

Then Bad Boy started packing the BMW into his Ford van and unloading it for camping tours in the Rockies and the Four Corners. I bought my first sleeping bag, threw jeans and vintage silk blouses in a backpack, and found my inner biker chick: tucking into a nest of pine trees off a mountain road or under the flat starry sky of Monument Valley to bed down for the night; breathing in the desert after a rain – the smell of a vast damp basement; passing through abandoned mining towns and stopping at roadside diners where sullen rednecks hunched over Formica counters; huddling under a shelter of lashed-together windbreakers at the timberline when black clouds marbled with lightning blew in; experiencing a psychedelic sunset that filled the biggest sky I’d even seen while streaking down a ribbon of road at a hundred miles an hour.

Third-Rail-Danger-SignI loved the peril Bad Boy exposed me to, with him it all seemed safe. I could even overlook his fierce and unpredictable temper. His steely anger was never directed at me but existed in a place that was off-limits for my affectionate groping to make us whole. Though it kept a part of him beyond reach, after three years I was in thrall.

One day Bad Boy said, “Why don’t you ride your own motorcycle?” Who me? Yes! That Christmas I found a tricked-out café-racer under the tree, a white Honda to his BMW black. Given my 5’2” height it was no hog but I was ready to burn rubber. Bad Boy took me out to a parking lot and showed me the basics. I started off falteringly. The bike felt ungainly powerful under me. Filled with sudden doubt and real fear, I was tremulously making my way across the lot when I heard him shout, “You’re riding like a girl!” Who me? Fuck you! I took off. Nobody was going to challenge my moxie.

She called one day when I was cooking dinner – the lawyer he’d met on those business trips he was taking for focus groups in San Francisco. I had not a clue. Sheepishly for a change, he told me he was moving there. It’s the only time my legs crumpled under me. When I called his mother to tell him we were finished she said, “He’s a dog.”

A month later, still staggering from the body blow, I remembered that the motorcycle race we’d planned to go to was coming up. As the day approached, I knew what I had to do. The freeway seemed bigger that night but my café racer slipped easily between the eighteen-wheelers. I parked in the surrounding field along rows of bikes and found a spot on the bleachers. Watching the race from this vantage point was different than the one I had borrowed – more vivid and personal, sadder but somehow cinematic. It was my movie now, no leading man.

Bikers at night, 2008, Chris Heald.

Bikers at night, 2008, Chris Heald.

After the race, I blended into the thick crowd heading for the parking lot in a litter of crushed beer cans and the sweet smell of pot. It was late and the ride back to the city felt long. First one, then another biker began revving up around me, filling the night with grumbling engines and the surreal blaze of headlights. How would I make it out of here? Find my way back home on the freeway? Suddenly out of the cacophony, I heard Bad Boy’s indictment, “You ride like a girl!” I kicked my engine to a start and navigated my way across the rutted ground. When I hit the entrance ramp of the freeway, I revved the gas handle hard and blended into the trucker traffic with a surge of grace.

“Could it be that the feistier members of both sexes actually go for bad boys and bad girls,” Nehring asks, “not by accident but on purpose, not because they have been traumatized in their childhoods but because they have been emboldened and have courage and enterprise to spare? Could it be that the choice of a challenging love object signals strengths and resourcefulness rather than insecurity and psychological damage, as we so often hear?”

Manhattan Rush Hour, 2011, Alex Proimos.

Manhattan Rush Hour, 2011, Alex Proimos.

Some men soothe our souls, coddle our insecurities, allay our fears, and protect our feelings. Some kick up our mettle, challenge our doubts, fuel our daring, and trample on our sacred ground. Who says which one is good or bad? Right or wrong? You?

I most likely would have found my nerve without Bad Boy’s help but I wouldn’t have learned how to ride a motorcycle. The following year, I sold the bike and took off for New York City.

 

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08/12/14

Loving On The Edge

Eyes of a Tiger, Arendra37.

Eyes of a Tiger, Arendra37.

SINGLE MAN SEEKS adventurous female with passion for travel and curiosity for life. My hobbies include fencing and snake charming. Speak twenty-eight languages. Briefly endured Oxford. Enthusiastically agnostic. A fave Saturday night is hosting a simian dinner party to catalog the vocabulary of monkeys. I also enjoy exploring forbidden locales in disguise and have discovered the source of the Nile. Full disclosure: I’ve called marriage a barbarous and indelicate exhibition but am open to it provided you’re okay with random disappearances for indefinite lengths of time. Friends insist I have the eyes of a tiger and the voice of an angel but you’ll be the judge of that. Having done extensive research on the erotic impulses of apes and sexual practices of the Swahili, I can make you very happy.

“I have undertaken a very peculiar man,” Isabel writes to her mother upon tying the knot with the brilliantly quirky, cage-rattling Richard Burton but she never doubted her choice. Not when after proposing marriage (“I would rather have a crust and a tent with you than be queen of all the world; and so I say now, Yes, yes, YES!”) he promptly took off for the Nile expedition. Not when after a stint with the Mormons she learned he’d returned from America through a headline in The Times.

Gypsy Encampment,1850s, Wincenty Smokowski, Nat’l Museum Warsaw.

Gypsy Encampment,1850s, Wincenty Smokowski, Nat’l Museum Warsaw.

Not when she was forced to keep up appearances at his posting in Damascus after he went MIA for four months. Or nursing him through bouts of fever after his exotic trespassing or editing his manuscripts or negotiating with publishers and foreign offices to prop up the reputation he was dedicated to besmirching. “Since Richard would not fight his own battles I fought them for him.”

Isabel Burton had hardly been trained for this peculiar Englishman who declared that England was the only country he never felt at home in. As Lesley Blanch tells it in The Wilder Shores of Love, she was born in 1831 to a family that traced back to the time of William the Conqueror, and enjoyed the delicate Victorian indoctrination of “country delights, bird-nesting, following the hounds on a fat pony, … pet dogs, pet lambs, pets everywhere … coachmen and footmen in dark green and gold liveries.” But she would peer through the barred windows of the fifth-floor London nursery when the lamp-lighter came by on his rounds. And befriended the gypsies camped in the woods near the country retreat, who nicknamed her Daisy.

Man Bows to Woman, Alfred Grévin (1827-1892).

Man Bows to Woman, Alfred Grévin (1827-1892).

And she read that explorer’s books. His tales of exotic places and impossible ideas would not have been acceptable topics for the “myopic prigs” who courted her after she made her London debut. So when by pure chance, she met the author while strolling with her sister on the Ramparts of Boulogne, she knew Richard Burton was meant to be her savior. This man with weather-beaten complexion, fierce and melancholy expression, who “smiled as though it hurt him” would rescue her from a life of “unimpeachable dullness.” Ten years later, after pleading with, cajoling and finally defying her parents, she became Isabel Burton. (Nuptial luncheon conversation: “Richard! How does it feel to have killed a man?” “Quite jolly Dr. Bird.”)

Isabel and Richard wouldn’t have shared mutual algorithms on OKCupid. She, the elegantly dressed, socially conscious, pious can-do. He of shabby travel-worn coat, impatient contempt, and Arab fatalism. Her life was driven by organization. His by transgression. What was the glue that held their companionship fast?

Arrival of Prince Humbert The Rajah at the Palace of Amber, Lord Edwin Weeks (1849-1903).

Arrival of Prince Humbert The Rajah at the Palace of Amber, Lord Edwin Weeks (1849-1903).

Here’s the I Got You Babe bit: Rising before the sun for breakfast and a morning of “Literature” followed by a swim and fencing. The shared passions – pets “from leopards to lambs” and 8,000-book library. The diplomatic postings in Damascus, Brazil, Trieste. Voyaging in the desert, their eyes lined with kohl. Travels to Rome, Venice, Vienna. “They took trains across Europe as other people took cabs across London,” writes Blanch. Ostrich races in Goa and dinners with rajahs on jewel-studded gold plates “in their sumptuous palaces, the princes dripping with pearls and uncut rubies.” Sign The Sultanette up!

Now comes the I’ll Cry If I Want To bit: “Men drink when they are sad, women fly into company” Isabel writes during a period when Richard had evaporated from her life, perhaps in one of the many disguises that allowed him to explore incognito, the mosques, bazaars and erotic underworld he wrote of, “but I must fight the battle with my own heart, learn to live alone and work, and when I have conquered, I will allow myself to see something of my friends.” Isabel’s nemesis wasn’t “another woman” it was Burton’s other worlds. “It was the hidden, mysterious aspects of his life in the East of which she was jealous,” writes Blanch. But hadn’t the faithful wife, doting caretaker, and tireless champion, earned automatic access?

Scheherazade und Sultan Schariar, 1880, Ferdinand Keller.

Scheherazade und Sultan Schariar, 1880, Ferdinand Keller.

Considering that the Victorian woman had precious few paths to pursue her own destiny, it’s hard to fault Isabel for seeking her escape through a man. And easy to see why she was smitten. In a time when explorers were celebrities, Burton was a superstar. “He was the foremost Orientalist of his day,” says Blanch, “the explorer of the Great Lakes region, one of the world’s outstanding linguists, author of the greatest version of the Arabian Nights.” He was the fascinating outsider, always dancing on the margins and daring the center to stray.

But oh the peril of believing that we are owed admittance beyond another’s velvet ropes. Is there a space between two separate souls that need never be colonized? Is allowing for unexplored territory more honorable than mapping every square inch of intimacy? I engage on the margins of the male harem’s lives. No apologies for superficiality. The Sultanette is ready to wager that the most intriguing, intensely thoughtful, passionately daring, and original aspects of ourselves might exist at those edges under the radar, where there is no pressure or temptation to be compromised.

Lady Isabel Burton, 1869, photographer unknown.

Lady Isabel Burton, 1869, photographer unknown.

But the edge is not warm and cozy and gravity’s pull to the center is tough to resist. Upon Burton’s death in 1890, he bequeathed to Isabel all of his writings including what he described as his crown achievement, erotic esoterica bound to cause shockwaves, The Scented Garden “to be overhauled and examined by her only, and to be dealt with entirely at her own discretion, and in the manner she thinks best, having been my sole helper for thirty years.” Did he not smell the danger?

“When I locked myself in his rooms,” Isabel wrote in a letter to the Morning Post, “I read this (manuscript) … and I remained for three days in a state of perfect torture as to what I ought to do about it.” She protested valiantly over why she burned not just The Scented Garden but every page and word of his journals. She would not subject his legacy to critics who might accuse him of writing “from the impure point of view.” He had appeared to her in an apparition and told her to burn them.

Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), Rischgitz/Stringer.

Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890), Rischgitz/Stringer.

But in the end, the woman who regarded Richard Burton as “the most interesting figure of the nineteenth century” was capable only of leaving us her version of this complex, controversial, reckless, unconventional, deliciously flawed being – her sanitized Life of Sir Richard Burton in his most unseemly disguise.

“We live on the fourth floor because there isn’t a fifth” Isabel had boasted of their domicile in Trieste. The Burtons now rest in the mausoleum Isabel built. It is an Arab tent – symbol of the freedom to wander like the gypsies she had been drawn to as a girl. Only this tent is chiseled out of great blocks of unyielding Carrara marble. Together at last.

If you doubt Isabel’s love was true, take a listen to  Tammy and the Ronettes …

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07/21/14

The Sultanette Does D.C.

Washington_Monument_-_Washington,_D.C.For those of you who’ve kept your sparklers sizzling waiting for The Sultanette’s debriefing on her Fourth of July mission to Washington (see previous post) your patience is rewarded with excellent news. Cast away those images of ruddy-jowled senators drawling on C-Span, hordes of wailing children at the Smithsonian, and crowds in corny T-shirts massing around the Capitol. Washington, DC is sexy!

For starters, its most prominent monument is The Big Penis. I was struck by its gargantuan presence from my first cab ride after arriving at curvaceous Union Station, a far cry from New York’s dissolute Penn. Upon boarding the Acela Express there, I had asked an Amtrak employee which was the Quite Car. Sizing me up, she nodded behind her and said, “It’s right here but you don’t look very quiet.”

The Watergate's murky waters, photo TheSultanette

The Watergate’s murky waters, photo TheSultanette.

It takes more than that to cow yours truly so I found a seat and pulled out the list of restaurant and cultural tips supplied by Deep Throat, the intriguing stranger with a whiff of espionage I’d recently met at a foreign policy lecture, who had captivated me with his views on counterterrorism.

Just past Philadelphia an email pinged informing me to my relief that the “staff” of the lodging I’d reserved, affiliated with the obsessively eccentric arts club I belong to in Manhattan, was awaiting my arrival.

I was even more relieved that someone actually showed up when I rang the bell, a courteous man from the kitchen crew who carried my bag up two flights of stairs to my room and instructed me on the operation of a remote control ceiling fan circa 1980, and an AC unit tethered to the window by two giant umbilical cords. Amenities included an assortment of crocheted hangars in the closet which also served as storage for the bravely aging mansion’s bric-a-brac.

The parlor awaits my arrival, photo TheSultanette.

The parlor awaits my arrival, photo TheSultanette.

But I had fluffy towels, a four-poster bed, grand windows, a key to come and go (I scarcely saw anyone there again) and the sensation of living in a Washington home – no less the former residence of the fifth president of the United States of America, James Monroe. Time for lunch … but first a caveat.

If you’re expecting the Sexploits of The Sultanette, save it for scandals brought to you by our raunchy members of congress. Have I not made it clear that The Male Harem is not about getting laid? Surely we can all get that anytime with the slightest lowering of those high-minded standards we so courageously cling to.

Caught in a moment at the Corcoran

Caught in a moment at the Corcoran, photo TheSultanette.

No, the Washington I experienced was on the make with a mix of hustle, intelligence, frankness, sophistication, and flirtation. The height of engagement without an agenda. Stimulation without the downer of obligation. If that’s sacrilegious to the Bible of Committed Relationships let me be eaten by locusts. I’ve had forever and it didn’t last. Now I’m gambling on the immutable present.

I headed for Kramerbooks in nearby Logan Circle. Googled under “Quirky Washington” it lived up to its SEO – a sixties throwback indie bookstore and café featuring quinoa salads and a career waitress who called me “sweetie” and upon carefully arranging my utensils with paper napkin, explained, “I don’t want to upset Emily Post.”

Explosion time at The Big Penis, photo TheSultanette

Explosion time at The Big Penis, photo TheSultanette

Sipping on my cappuccino (“That’s the best I could do, I kind of failed foam.”) I considered my folly: A loner weekend on a major family-fun holiday in a city I barely knew. Would I feel lost among the millions assembled for fireworks on the mall? Abandon my mojo dining alone at restaurants packed with Independence Day revelers? I glanced up from my guide book and took in the café crowd. At the table next to me a couple was lost in their iPhones. Another couple, silently and persistently, looked everywhere but at each other. With my brilliant insider’s guide and a desire to discover, I had all I needed to succumb to Washington’s seductions.

I could leave you yearning for a taste of the chicken liver crostini with figs and fresh thyme at The Red Hen, the bacalao crudo jalapeño at Estadio, and a pizza so decadently doughy at 2Amys my mouth still waters over it. Between courses, there was Louise Nevelson’s waterfall at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and Venus bathed in a rainbow of light at the Corcoran. But while Washington gave good museums, menus, and monuments, what it gave best was people.

2Amys Ladies' Bathroom sign, photo TheSultanette

2Amys Ladies’ Bathroom sign, photo TheSultanette

At The Red Hen, two guys on a man date, Sweet and Sour, promptly surrendered to a ménage à conversation over dinner at the bar. There was the prohibitively good-looking Italian at Estadio who knew how to devour women with his bedroom eyes and delighted in hearing about The Male Harem. And the trannie in short-shorts bumping and grinding for the crowd at the Kenya concert on the Mall.

The women I met, drawn to the city’s power and worldly charisma were another treat. Twenty-something Minnesota (nom de guerre) was freshly fired from her teaching job and defiant about making a life here. We bonded over chicken pot pie at Founding Farmers on the Fourth of July, and she lead us to the ideal vantage point on the mall to watch the explosions.

Venus at the Corcoran, photo TheSultanette.

Venus at the Corcoran, photo TheSultanette.

My lodgemate, the fetching and fearless Natasha, a mix of crusader and operator, was in Washington from London to wangle support for her African foundation. The residue of an Eastern European accent gave everything she said, whether concerning her chaotic love affairs or where we should meet for brunch, the weight of a fatalistic pronouncement.

If you’re still along for the ride, come with The Sultanette to the city’s famous Eastern Market for the final reveal of Washington unplugged. Underwhelmed by the generic objets on sale, I was heading back to the subway when a handwritten sign on a corner caught my eye: BOOKS.

I followed its arrow down a side street to a dog-eared building posing as a store front where a guy sat at an outside table littered with CDs, playing Chicago blues. At the top of a rickety stoop, Capitol Hill Books proved loyal to its signage. Books were piled everywhere, stacked in precariously leaning towers (a history of Russia fell on my head) and stuffed into shelves that were practically an afterthought.

Couples counseling anyone? photo TheSultanette.

Couples counseling anyone? photo TheSultanette.

For the next two hours, I became lost in its labyrinthine aisles and inscrutable organization – “Foreign Language” books (including Colloquial Arabic that I succumbed to) stacked next to mops in the bathroom, “Literary Criticism” under an electric range hood with no stove in sight, “Gardening” in a downstairs cave that also hid “Journalism” (featuring the optimistic title The Deal from Hell). The “Love, Relationships, Marriage” section was indicated by an arrow pointing south and “Feminist Theory” shared space with “Harry Potter + Tolkien.” All of the above was recorded on signs hastily inscribed with black magic marker.

Photo TheSultanette.

Photo TheSultanette.

The proprietor sat slouched at a desk at the door. When I asked him how much time he spent organizing everything, he said, “Too much.” Yet down a book-choked passage just past “Death + Dying” (another arrow pointing south) I found the ultimate Washington message laced with allure, politics, and promise: “for DREAMS please see side board to your LEFT. Thank you.” In DC, all your desires are just within reach.

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06/23/14

Let’s Go Crazy

“In the Hammock”, 1917, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Nat’l Museum Warsaw.

“In the Hammock”, 1917, Zygmunt Waliszewski, Nat’l Museum Warsaw.

Occasionally The Sultanette manages to steal a frivolous New York minute from writing for hire (marketing haiku) grocery shopping (martini olives, mayonnaise, mouthwash) pushups at the gym (really?) and the naughty demands of The Male Harem (Behave!) to read the morning paper.

Given this overextended lifestyle, imagine my surprise when I learned upon reading a June 19, piece in the Wall Street Journal by Eric Morath, A Day in the Life: More Rest, Less Work, that according to a Labor Department survey the rest of America is on sabbatical.

Matteo Ianeselli.

Matteo Ianeselli.

I put it to you, fellow over-worked, sleep-deprived followers: Do you know anyone who works just 3 hours and 28 minutes a day and logs in 8 hours and 44 minutes of sleep? Okay that’s an average taken from age fourteen, and includes weekdays and weekends, but it’s 10 minutes more sleep than 2003. This prompts The Sultanette to add another 5 minutes to the snooze alarm just to catch up with the national average.

To be fair, when limiting the stats to anyone still employed work time leaps to 7 hours, 33 minutes a day – just a minute less than 2003. But if these roustabouts are only on the job a minute less, why the indolent excuse for 10 minutes more sleep? The answer may be found in America’s #1 hobby as identified by the survey: watching television. That 2 hours, 46 minute glued to the tube must be exhausting.

Of course the recession is cited as a significant influence in the decrease of working hours but a more insidious culprit is the “greying” American – 8,000 of them recklessly turning 65 every single day. Are you sitting down, Baby Boomers? Probably not, because you’re playing shuffleboard. Yes, that’s right. According to The Journal, “Many of those individuals are retired or working part time and thus have more time to sleep, watch television, play shuffleboard and other nonwork activities.”

Prenovljeni_frizerski_salon_v_Gosposki_ulici_v_Mariboru_1960_(2)The Sultanette admits to a few grey hairs slyly concealed applying methods pushed by our youth-obsessed culture (this summer I‘ve gone “Riviera Blond”) but had I been on the calling list of one of those Labor Department survey representatives, I would have given him a reality check: “Like, hello! … I’m having the best sex I’ve ever had in my life? Like, you think multiple-orgasms are a walk in the park?”

But America’s youth to the rescue. Apparently our Millennials are taking advantage of the lack of opportunity in the workforce to get smarter. The Journal reports that “Younger people with shaky job prospects are spending more time in college and less working, perhaps reflected by Americans’ spending an extra minute a day on education.”

Descartes thinks about being with Queen Christina of Sweden. And is.

Descartes thinks about being with Queen Christina of Sweden. And is.

When you consider other areas that have lost traction on the daily agenda, a minute extra for higher education looks pretty good. The Journal reports that “other types of leisure” that have edged down since 2003 include “reading, socializing in person [that would be with people as opposed to handheld devices] and taking a second to think.” I think therefore I … sorry, your time is up!

As for the other 19 hours, 3 minutes when we’re not sleeping, working, or watching Game of Thrones, the survey tabulated men’s weekend activities. (Either they didn’t bother to account for women’s leisure time or it’s TSTM). The Journal reports that males spend 38 minutes “playing videogames and other ‘computer use for leisure,’ which includes posting pictures on Facebook and mindless surfing the Web.” Since other surveys have reported that thoughts of sex enter the male’s mind every 7 seconds, The Sultanette postulates that “computer use for leisure” doesn’t include Googling lawn mowers unless Trixie is riding on it.

So what are we doing with the rest of our lives? To keep The Male Harem on the cutting edge of the cultural conversation, I’ve invited a guest blogger to share his timely thoughts – Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

Born around 4 B.C. without the advantages of tweets or blogs, Lucius settled for marketing his thoughts in dialogues and letters. He wrote the dialogue quoted here, On the Shortness of Life, in his late-forties. By then he’d negotiated a double career in the courts and politics of Rome, was a celebrity author and dramatist, and had spent eight years in exile over spats with Caligula and Claudius. It was most likely written after he was recalled and appointed tutor to the boy, Nero, who would later implicate him in the assassination plot that compelled him to commit suicide.  Quite a CV.

“It’s not that we have a short time to live,” he muses to his friend, Paulinus,  “but that we waste a lot of it.” Not unlike the U.S. Department of Labor survey, Seneca bids Paulinus to “hold an audit of your life. Reckon how much of your time has been taken up by a money-lender, how much by a mistress, a patron, a client, quarrelling with your wife, punishing your slaves, dashing about the city on your social obligations.”

Man occupied on couch observing David’s Napoleon, Agnostic Peachers Kid, 2010.

Man occupied on couch observing David’s Napoleon, Agnostic Peachers Kid, 2010.

So not much has changed over 2000 years in the way we spend our time. And if you think Seneca was only referring to those dashing around the forum, here’s what he had to say about slackers: “Some men are preoccupied even in their leisure: in their country house, on their couch, in the midst of solitude, even when quite alone, they are their own worst company. You could not call theirs a life of leisure but an idle preoccupation.”

Anyone who’s spent a weekend in the Hamptons knows from whence he speaks. “If such people want to know how short their lives are,” Seneca concludes, “let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”

One may have hoped that after 2000 years of reflection we’d have figured out how to own more of it. But from Seneca to Oprah we seem to have lost time rather than gained it. Where do we find a minute between work and sleep, between due diligence and indigence, loving and quarrelling, punishment and indulgence, idleness and dashing about to figure out what part of life is ours?

IANAC-DREAMS-FALLING-1After I left One&Only, it felt like time became unhinged. We had settled into the shared New York life of the Friday night movie, the neighborhood restaurant, couple meet-ups, Sundays in Central Park, shared families and family holidays. It was predictable, easy, comforting – a warm quilt of companionship for sixteen years. Until it wasn’t. Girlfriends advised me to stick it out. Men are dense, they said, he’d do what he was told. But something told me otherwise. I still don’t know how I left or completely understand why. But I knew I wouldn’t have figured it out in 2000 years.

Tam O’Shanter escaping,1866, John Joseph Barker.

Tam O’Shanter escaping,1866, John Joseph Barker.

“A mind that remains in its senses,” Seneca says, “cannot reach any lofty and difficult height: it must desert that usual track and race away, champing the bit and hurrying its driver in its course to a height it would have feared to scale by itself.”

Life with The Male Harem isn’t predictable or easy and there is no safety net except for me. But I own a bigger portion everyday. Maybe that can happen under the quilt. Maybe it can get too comfortable to care if it does.

Train Tracks, Josh Bluntschli.

Train Tracks, Josh Bluntschli.

So further inspired by Seneca I’m off on another track. This Fourth of July The Sultanette boards a high-speed Amtrak to spend a solo weekend (no harem member allowed) in Washington D.C. where I’ll ponder what would have been the twentieth anniversary with One&Only and celebrate my independence from the tyranny of time.

Other than staying at the former digs of James Monroe the plan is no plan. No agenda except to  find the gap between minutes. The fringe between the throngs. To see how those who get less than 8 hours and 44 minutes of sleep a night celebrate the day that gave us a whole country to free ourselves in. It might be crazy but I know something about being unhinged now.

If I have time, I’ll tell you all about it.

 

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06/2/14

Knock, Knock … Who’s There?

Hand_Shaped_Door_Knockers-JaffaI know, I know, virtuous readers, you’ve had it with The Sultanette’s tales of sadomasochism, dominatrix couplings, and courtesans gaming the system. So as a break from unbridled fornication and low-life’s, I’m taking you on a picnic with celebrated harpsichordist and Victorian lady, Violet Gordon Woodhouse.

It’s August, 1899. Violet has ordered a wardrobe from Lady Warwick’s for the occasion, a horse-drawn caravan to New Forest with her lady’s maid, Dulciette, husband Gordon, and his Cambridge chum, Bill Barrington. Gordon has filled the hampers with homemade tarts, early plums and gooseberries, foie gras and fromage from Fortnum & Mason, American ham, Belgian chocolates, wines from the cellar, and the cook’s cordial.

English: Holyday,1876, James Tissot,oil on canvas.

English: Holyday,1876, James Tissot,oil on canvas.

After stopping to admire Lord Leighton’s frescoes at St. Michael’s Church in Lyndhurst, the entourage spends a week amongst New Forest’s ancient oak, beech, and chestnut trees, chasing after rare butterflies, and cataloging wild flowers.

I suppose I’ll mention that Bill is madly in love with Violet. That Gordon is copacetic with this “civilized understanding” in the interest of keeping the little woman from becoming listless. That future applicants, Max and Denis, will soon be enlisted. And that these “original and cultivated men” will enthusiastically choose cohabiting in Violet’s fraternity over conventional marriages in a lifelong ménage à cinq.

I rediscovered Violet in Betsy Prioleau’s Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love but I’d been captivated by her story since reading Violet: The Life and Loves of Violet Gordon Woodhouse ten years ago. Back then I was still drinking the Kool-Aid of everlasting happiness with One&Only but Violet may have planted the first seeds of The Male Harem. Her great niece, Jessica Douglas-Home, had written the biography after becoming enthralled by a cache of letters, photographs, music, hats, and scarves. How is it that this woman continued to beguile from the grave?

Feathered femme, 1910.

Feathered femme, 1910.

In the seductress category, Violet was hardly the Bird of Paradise sort that feathered the boudoirs of the day. Instead, think pigeon.  Prioleau describes her as having “a small fist of a face, pinched lips, and dark circles under heavy-browed eyes.” So while you digest that notion, a look at the men that flocked to her.

Sex was not the calling card in her marriage to Gordon but in those days of contracted nuptials it seldom was. After she was presented at Court – the dating game for aristocratic matches – Violet had fought against a conventional suitor and convinced her parents that Gordon had the chops for the job, always with the intent that it would be a platonic meeting of like-minded souls.

But it would be too easy to write Gordon off as a sexually ambiguous twit content with filling picnic hampers while Violet toyed with her boys. How many bonafide heterosexual husbands remain adoring and indulgent after the passion has cooled? Or would stay in the game if disinherited of their fortunes, as Gordon was by his mother when she learned that Barrington was co-lording the manor?

While Gordon filled the role of wife, Bill of the Lords Barrington of Oxfordshire,  blue-eyed, golden-haired cricket enthusiast and handsome devil, played the hottie dumb blonde. A family anecdote about his mastery of French at a Switzerland boarding school had it that while he’d learned “oui” and “non” he’d remained befuddled over which meant “yes” and “no”.

Little Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf, Walter Crane (1845-1915).

Little Red Riding Hood Meets the Wolf, Walter Crane (1845-1915).

Max Labouchere filled the intelligence pool and enjoyed his own wing at the compound. Descended from Dutch Huguenot merchant bankers, he was a “collector of literary and historical miscellanea.” Prioleau describes him as “wolfishly handsome with a whip crack repartee” and Violet credits him for “educating her in everything but music.”

And what ménage à cinq is worth its salt without a boy toy? Rounding out the reality show is seventeen-year-old cavalry officer, Denis Tollemache. Violet the cougar? Consider that Denis fell in love with her at the age of eight while watching her perform at a harpsichord recital. When penis caught up with pre-pubescent infatuation, he packed his tooth brush and joined the party.

Sussex Country Cricket Club, Cricketer Harry Butt, 1896.

Sussex Country Cricket Club, Cricketer Harry Butt, 1896.

The boys played together well. When Violet held court with the eclectic composers that populated her musical world, Max, Denis and Bill hightailed it to Sussex to watch Oxford and Cambridge vie for the county cricket championship. When Violet assigned the gardening to Bill, Gordon maintained the herbaceous borders.

And Violet gave as good as she got. Prioleau writes that she “reserved time alone with each devotee, distributed customized keepsakes, composed florid love notes, played off lovers, and feigned illnesses in emergencies.” Yet attentions aside (and The Sultanette can vouch that male harem maintenance is back-breaking) what was it about this “little dark magician” that held them?

Venus Anadyomene, circa 1850, oil on canvas, Ingres, Louvre.

Venus Anadyomene, circa 1850, oil on canvas, Ingres, Louvre.

We could ascribe to her a goddess-like allure. Assume that her privileged upbringing granted her immunity to the encumbrances of mundane obligation. Pass her off as not being one of us.

But Violet’s father had at once championed and abandoned her. Her precocious musical talent lead her to grow up feeling both exceptional and isolated. The free spirit that drives an artist to break through barriers was in constant war with her compulsion for control. OMG. She was mortal.

The world seduces us into believing that we must polish up to fulfilled lives by becoming capable, self-assured, sensitive, shatterproof, ambitious, unselfish, consistent. Yet Violet was insatiable, self-seeking, icy, vulnerable, ostentatious, unconventional, erratic. “Her intermittent coldness,” Douglas-Home writes, “was a weapon that she used to deadly effect.” Yet the ménage found her “fragile appearance, quicksilver movements, provocative gaiety, and changes of moods completely irresistible.” Was Violet’s intoxicating charm that she dared to be unassailably herself?

And before you relegate her to male-obsessed enchantress consider how she dealt with her world unravelling. “During World War I” Prioleau writes, “the bell jar paradise temporarily shattered.” Max died in battle, Bill and Denis returned shell-shocked, most of Gordon’s assets were lost. And Violet went to work. She made a name on the international concert circuit. Signed a three-year contract with Gramophone to produce the first harpsichord recordings of Bach, Scarlatti and Couperin. Played for the Queen. Got fan mail from Pablo Casals. Continued to master the works of Scarlatti into her sixties, encouraged by a lover twenty years her junior, Sachie Sitwell, brother of Edith and Osbert. In her music and her men, she stayed vital and purposeful. But mostly she stayed her inimitable self.

Chorus of Orestes, 408 BC, Euripides, papyrus 200BC, Austrian National Library.

Chorus of Orestes, 408 BC, Euripides, papyrus 200BC, Austrian National Library.

Violet’s younger sister, Dorothy, who never married, kept a forty-year diary that weaves throughout the biography. Like a Greek chorus, it tsk’s in dogged rhythm over her older sibling’s impolite life. Upon learning of Violet’s living arrangement in 1901, Dorothy writes, “It is no good fretting now, we must grasp it and look it in the face! … I am very sorry!!”

After the war, Gordon, Bill, Dennis and Violet settled into their Gloucestershire estate. When Denis died in 1942, Violet mourned “this beautiful friendship & love for 50 years ever since he was a little boy and he has never failed me.” Bill and Gordon were with her when she died at seventy-seven in 1948. The Times wrote in her obituary, “No one who ever heard her can ever forget her playing.”

Who in life ever asks us to be fully ourselves? Not family or friends, lovers or work. No matter how populated our ménage that permission can only be granted by one.

Knock-knock.  Who’s there?

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05/12/14

You Can Leave Your Hat On

Derby Girls.

Derby Girls.

Were it not for my tweeps clamoring for a report on the Kentucky Derby, the following post including sex, nudity, gambling, and the excessive consumption of mint juleps and biscuits with gravy would have been quietly filed away in the annals of The Male Harem.

So first let me say in my defense that none of the following was premeditated. As you all well know, when I chose a life more provocative than predictable, I unloaded past ballast, let go of daydreaming about the future, and staked my tent in the spontaneous present.

So what better place to begin than an impromptu tumble atop the grand piano of a darkened stage in the empty ballroom of a swanky midtown Manhattan hotel? (Stay with me, tweepettes, we’ll get to the Derby soon.) It had started innocently enough when the gregarious and persuasive Piano Man emailed me to join him at his hotel’s cocktail lounge conveniently located near my freelance gig. And when I later declined his suggestion to continue the conversation in his deluxe suite, he kindly offered to escort me through the lobby to a cab.

imagesThough I suspected Piano Man was an operator, I hardly expected a detour to the ballroom. I’d been served many a plate of rubber chicken in that venue but I’d never been lifted to the heights of its onstage Yamaha and offered a tasting menu. Rest assured The Sultanette made it to the taxi stand with lily white reputation in tact but I won’t deny the grin I was wearing. The fun of being swept off my feet, literally. The risk of getting discovered by a hotel event planner while being tickled on the ivories. The heat of passion caught off-guard. It beats cold leftovers in the frig.

The Sultanette's Chapeau.

The Sultanette’s Chapeau.

Time to escape Manhattan and slip into the easy momentum of a road trip with Young Preppie whose ancient insights and wry humor make for endlessly delightful company. (His spiffy Jaguar doesn’t hurt for creature comforts either.) The original weekend plan had been to explore his family’s roots in the Kentucky mountains, so learning that his father might have free tickets to the Derby was a game-changer. I borrowed a hat from a former Derby dame and packed a chirpy yellow dress in my duffel bag alongside T-shirts and hiking boots.

The tickets came through – and through. Doesn’t everyone drive to Louisville in a Jag, stop for breakfast in a private rail car at the train station before being bused to Churchill Downs (leave the parking to us) and a suite on the inside track with hot and cold running help shaking up mint juleps on the upstairs deck? Were there horses?

IMG_0324

The Sultanette’s view from above.

Sometimes it’s good to get lost in the crowd and others it’s just dandy to be above it. My chapeau was the perfect shield to the ideal 70-degree sunshine, and Young Preppie, a card-carrying Kentucky Colonel in his pastel Brooks Brothers’ finery, was a princely date.

Pressed against the suite’s upper deck railing minutes before the Derby race began was more thrilling than I’d ever imagined it could be after watching it for years on the tube. In honor of The Male Harem, I’d put money on Candy Boy – luckily only the cost of a tube of Chanel lipstick because the sentiment profited nada.

kentucky-derby-race-horses-6851But when the gates flew open and those sleek, sinewy, powerful creatures thundered past just below my chin I understood why this world could completely seduce. More than about winning, it was about witnessing the exquisite convergence of strength, will, heart and grace in “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” That’s how a thoroughbred lives in the moment.

But wait! There’s still more!

Moving from the sublime to the outrageous, let’s fast forward to four days after returning to New York. Come with me down an all but forgotten spiral staircase, plaster crumbling from its surrounding walls. We check our coats in a makeshift hallway, then walk through a doorway to an explosion of music, stylish partiers and high-camp glam.

Surf your turf.

Surf your turf.

We are in the basement of the Paramount Hotel at a neo-theatrical experience involving audience participation called Queen of the Night. For the next three hours we will be exposed to unrelenting stimuli, e.g.; a long stage presenting a narrative starring a lithesome, haughty Queen interspersed with acrobatic acts; the sudden appearance at our table of metal contraptions piled with lobsters and chunks of meat to be eaten or bartered with fellow diners at will; the post-dining clearance of said plates performed by men in white helmets and jumpsuits who sweep all tables clean in one urgent drive-by; rafter-pounding music.

Courtiers to the Queen.

Courtiers to the Queen.

I was doing my Sultanette best to ingest it all with two favorite friends and Dr. Zhivago, when the Mystery Maiden appeared. Taking my head in her hands, she looked into my eyes and in a deep, delicately accented voice (from where? Bali Ha’i?) invited me to follow her. I was riveted. We walked down a low candlelit hall to a cave-like room. More flickering candles lined the edge of a deep bathtub under an arched ceiling. (NOTE: The memory blurs here between reality and the fantasy of memory.)

Mystery Maiden held up a white sheet, concealing herself behind it. “Would you like to take a bath?” I looked at the tub, steam rising from glass-still water, and said to the sheet, “You mean take my clothes off?” “Yes,” came the calm reply. And there it was. I slipped out of my black silk dress. Gold shoes. Wolford stockings. Cuff bracelets. Fingerless gloves. Untied the gold ribbons of my crystal necklace. The sheet waited patiently. Next thing I knew, I was swaddled in cotton and sinking into delicious warmth. I was alone now. Muffled pounding music seeped through the thick stone walls, just enough to remind me there was a world out there. What I remember most is breathing.

Tartar Tent, Lionel Allorge.

Tartar Tent, Lionel Allorge.

Minutes later (how long was it?) Mystery Maiden fetched me. When I  got back to our table, Dr. Zhivago and friends looked at me as if I’d just come off of the space shuttle. Where had I been? What had they missed? What had happened?

Oh, just another encounter with the unexpected where I live. It’s not always this good. Uncertainty is exhausting. Doubt wakes me up at night. I wonder if I’ll be punished for choosing to be desired rather than required, and answering to myself before pleasing the herd. But as long as I can do it with strength, will, heart, and grace, I’ll keep staking my tent in the heady combustion of spontaneous moments. And I’ll dress, or undress, for them all.

 

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04/24/14

The Courtesans And The Art Of Male Maintenance

Courtesan, 1520, Bartolomeo Veneto (1470-1531).

Courtesan, 1520, Bartolomeo Veneto (1470-1531).

Lady Cavendish of the Devonshire clan pronounced one of their kind to be “a woman of notorious, shameless character.” The memoir of another was said to be a “list of dirty laundry.” In sixteenth century Venice, Sumptuary Laws forbade them from flaunting in public the gold, silver, silks, and gemstones that were the spoils of their sorcery. Nor were they allowed to “stand, kneel, or sit on the benches that in the church are occupied by noblewomen … taking care not to give offence to other decent persons.”

The Sultanette can think of no finer authorities on the art of male maintenance than the pleasure-loving, shunned, wily, worldly courtesans.

But wait! Weren’t these misguided damsels at the mercy of their masters? Marginalized by society? Dependent upon the beneficence of their caretakers? Or was that their wives?

 “… for I can never submit to the control of a husband, or put it in his power to say I have been imprudent in life.” Courtesan Sophia Baddeley

If you have cozied up to the notion that the courtesans were hapless victims or reprobate she-wolves, I invite you to read London Times’ best-selling author, Katie Hickman’s Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century.

The first myth Hickman dismantles is that the courtesan’s fate was to die destitute. Consider the items auctioned from the “handsome greybrick Parisian home” of courtesan Cora Pearl in 1886, after she died “in great poverty and distress.”

Satyr copping a feel, Pompeii fresco, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Satyr copping a feel, Pompeii fresco, Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Highlights include the pearl necklace (20,000 francs? Sold!), an “exquisite silver tea service” from lover Prince Bonaparte, books illustrated by another lover, Paris lingeres of “extraordinary fineness,” a satin upholstered bed, and plaster cast of her breasts. (When asked what was the optimal size breast to attract a lover, courtesan Ninon de L’Enclos replied, “Large enough to fill the hand of an honest man.”)

 “My Independence was all my fortune, and I have known no other happiness; and it is still what attaches me to life.” Courtesan Cora Pearl

Another assumption that Hickman quashes is that the courtesans were bimbos in nice clothes who relied solely on sexual charms and were inconsolable at not being allowed entrée into Downton Abbey.

Nikolai Sheremetev, oil on canvas,19C,Vladimir Borovikovsky, State Russian Museum.

Nikolai Sheremetev, oil on canvas,19C,Vladimir Borovikovsky, State Russian Museum.

Consider their clientele. Men born into the power club when England was an empire and Europe a chessboard maneuvered by the inbred elite. Too smug to be arrogant, this crowd would have had a Jamie Dimon or Lloyd Blankfein, Vladimir Putin or Bill Clinton for lunch. (Though randy Bill might have given them a run for their money on skirt-chasing.) Occasionally a war might put them in their place but certainly not their wives.

The courtesan’s legendary sexual prowess might have been enough to attract the attention of these masters of the universe but hardly enough to keep it. One begins to get the niggling sense they had other assets on their calling cards.

Hickman quotes the nineteenth century novelist and man of letters Georges Ohnet: “It requires more intelligence to succeed in being a whore kept in luxury than to make a future in a respectable business.” Indeed, Courtesan Laura Bell was rumored to have exacted today’s equivalent of millions from Nepalese Prince Jun Bahadoor for one night with her.

Marquess de Pumpkin, Nino Barbieri.

Marquess de Pumpkin, Nino Barbieri.

Yet when the Marquess de Sévigné made a move on Ninon de L’Enclos her white paper was definitive. The Marquess had “a soul of boiled beef, a body of damp paper, with a heart like a pumpkin fricasseed in snow.” Where did a courtesan get the idea she could choose her penises?

 “I will be the mere instrument of pleasure to no man.” Courtesan Harriette Wilson

La Belle Otero, circa 1880.

La Belle Otero, circa 1880.

Not only were they choosy, they lived extravagantly. Cora Pearl was dressed by the famous couturier Charles Worth and once dyed her dog blue to match an ensemble. (Alas, the pooch died.) There were taffetas imported from Baghdad, linens from Rheims, Persian silks, negligées, muffs, sable and fox. A Cartier bolero of diamonds, gold and jewels owned by Belle Epoque courtesan La Belle Otero, was kept in a Crédit Lyonnais vault.

A cross between Lady Gaga and Arianna Huffington the courtesan had an innate talent for creating a persona and working it. Hickman tells of aristocratic ladies scrambling to copy the single-piece, skin-tight riding habit of courtesan Catherine Walters, even as it was purported in outraged letters to The Times that she wore nothing underneath. Ann Cately’s hairdo was so envied that to achieve it was to become “Cately-fied.” A cocktail was named “The Tears of Cora Pearl.”

Beyond artifice there was art. The sought-after salon of Ninon, nicknamed Notre-Dame des Amours by Horace Walpole, was frequented by Moliere, Scarron, and Voltaire. How could a man resist being drawn into competition within the scintillating atmosphere the courtesans created in the shadows of the demi-monde?

More than wily, these women knew who they were. They knew the style in which they wanted to live and the rules of the game they needed to play to achieve it. How like a man, even today. But men do business. They don’t do magic. Being female creatures, the courtesans imbued beyond their charmingly mercenary quality, a magic that only a woman possesses.

Lovers in a Landscape, 18C, Pieter Jan van Reysschoot, Yale Center for British Art.

Lovers in a Landscape, 18C, Pieter Jan van Reysschoot, Yale Center for British Art.

Hickman describes the enduring attraction to Cora Pearl of the financier and diplomat, the Duc de Mornay. “With all her laughing grace, her wit and her tremendous intelligence, Cora was more than a match for him. … She was always so physically at ease, with her very un-French exhibitionism and her taste for voluptuous eccentricities, so unabashed and sparkling with erotic energy.”

In turn, Cora had a genuine affection for de Mornay. “He was one of those who never grows old,” she said. “My greatest delight when I was with him was to listen to his delicate irony and his fine criticism.” They talked of poetry and theatre and when she snuck up his secret staircase, he played the piano for her “charmingly, wearing a violet velvet suit.”

The courtesans reveled in the indulgence of these men who lived so exquisitely but they also enjoyed their company. Did they share a similar arrogance? Not about to surrender their autonomy for any Tom, Dick or Marquis, they made a business of their pleasures. They enjoyed sex, not for the security a woman feels she is owed for cracking open the inner sanctum but for the freedom it gave them as CEO’s of their libido. A paltry freedom perhaps when looked through today’s lens, but not at a time when even highborn ladies were men’s chattels.

Greek courtesan engaging in precarious pleasures, Euphronios-potter, Onesimos-painter, British Museum.

Greek courtesan engaging in precarious pleasures, Euphronios-potter, Onesimos-painter, British Museum.

And with apologies to those modern women who see it as a capitulation in the war between the sexes, The Sultanette confesses to a hot and high regard for the penis-wielding enemy. Unattached beyond the precarious pleasures of Male Harem membership, they’ve proven to be more than enough. Mature enough to treat me beautifully, clever enough to be amusing, generous enough to take a shot at being themselves, open enough to see me. I like them even when they’re male enough to be the oafish, unsentimental, inappropriate, self-absorbed breed that is the reason they’re called opposite. We’ve had our run-in’s and scrapes. Some have crashed and burned. Others continue to delight. Always, I find enough of them and more of myself.

In ancient Greece, Hickman writes, the courtesan Neaera, was so beloved by her patrons they organized to buy her freedom. From then on she gained the honorific, “Herself mistress of herself.”

If you’re looking for tips on male maintenance that might not be a bad place to start.

This is the first in The Courtesan Chronicles. Expect more profiles of these exquisite outlaws in weeks to come.

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