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.

Send to Kindle
Share
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.

 

Send to Kindle
Share
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?

Send to Kindle
Share
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.

 

Send to Kindle
Share
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.

Send to Kindle
Share
04/10/14

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Prostitutes rue Saint Denis, 1960.

Prostitutes rue Saint Denis, 1960.

The Sultanette will never turn down a gooey evening of romance. Candlelight, moist eye contact, a brush of hand on knee, a glass of Bordeaux the size of a fish bowl haven’t lost their power to get me flailing by night’s end. Unlike their preferred approaches such as sexting, guys know the intimate dinner is the PC way to get between a woman’s legs, the more stars to the restaurant, the better the chances.

Romance, the bedrock of love American-style, has always looked to the French for inspiration: Doris Day’s head spinning in the 1952 film, April in Paris – the song originally written in 1932 for Broadway; Sartre and de Beauvoir chain-smoking at the Café de Flore. When the Good Ex and I announced to the New York advertising agency where we had been surreptitiously dating, that we were getting married and moving to Paris, we became instant poster children of the fantasy.

Paris nosh.

Paris nosh.

So quelle surprise when I learned upon moving there as a young bride that the City of Love was the City of Subsidized Lust. Hookers were stylishly dressed on the Rue St. Denis. Transvestites can-canned before roaming headlights in the Boise de Boulogne. Oral sex was a noontime nosh if you parked your car along ritzy Avenue Foch. There was a “couples” club down the street from our apartment in the bourgeois Eighth arrondissement. And naturally affairs were de rigueur.

I was reminded of that epiphany upon reading La Seduction: How The French Play The Game Of Life by Elaine Sciolino. A former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times, Newsweek foreign correspondent in Paris and Rome, and chevalier of the Legion of Honor who now lives in Paris, Sciolino trains a steely eye on chestnuts in blossom. Her survey of the French prediliction for seduction in politics, art, society and fashion, including chapters on the French kiss, lingerie, and a class that teaches bourgeois women how to strip, are downright educational.

Titus36, Wiki Commons.

Titus36, Wiki Commons.

Relevant here, is a chapter on tits and ass, or the fesse, which translates less specifically than “buttock” to the overall curvature of the behind. According to a 2003 survey in the news weekly L’Express only 38% of French males were breast men while 50% preferred the fesse and legs.

“Paris” 1920, Shalva Kikodze, 1895-1921.

“Paris” 1920, Shalva Kikodze, 1895-1921.

Across the pond, a girl soon learns the American male’s fixation for mammaries of all types and sizes. I’ll never forget working in Chicago after college when news of a tit-sighting – a topless sunbather on a neighboring terrace – spread through the office like a California wildfire. Grown men in suits abandoned their PowerPoint’s to crowd the nearest window for a view like they hadn’t seen a set of jugs since they’d suckled at their mother’s breast.

Naturally Frenchmen take a more philosophical approach to ass appreciation. In Breve histoire des fesse, Jean-Luc Hennig traces the derrière’s influence in art and society from classical antiquity to the present. The Hidden Side of the Fesses, a documentary produced by Arte, the PBS of France, describes how the tush has contributed to the advance of civilization. When it was aired in Christmas 2009, the companion book sold out in bookstores – the perfect stocking stuffer.

Does the French male get this as a petit chou or is it in the DNA? One soggy grey afternoon in Paris, I was walking along the Boulevard Raspail when a kid approached in the opposite direction, walking his bike. I had barely noticed him or any premeditated behavior, so I was entirely caught off guard when, upon passing me, he copped a squeeze of my left cheek, jumped on his bike, and rode off.

My initial reaction was righteous indignation. Who did this impudent prepubescent think he was! But when I turned to offer a Franglais rebuke and watched his young fesse pedal off, I thought, “I’m a married woman who just got her ass grabbed by a boy on a bicyclette. Tant pis!” I now understand that he was fulfilling his inborn right for fesse appreciation.

Doris and Ray.

Doris and Ray.

But I’ve strayed from the original topic of romance and its best-selling sequel, true love. See how easy it is to get distracted when unadulterated lust comes into the picture? How can this preoccupation with body parts lead to the Holy Grail of sexual intimacy?

And what is sexual intimacy anyway? Is it feeling physically close?  Erotically simpatico? You can get that on a one-night stand. The American translation as it relates to committed love seems to get all tangled up in emotional security. We’re intimate because it’s you-and-me-and-nobody-else and if I catch any hanky-panky I’ll have your balls in couples’ therapy before you can say, “Hi Honey, I have to work late at the office.” That’s the true of true love – no need to account for individual passions, provocations or inclinations.

Or is it time for another definition? Cultural critic Susan Sontag wrote in her diaries, “Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.”

Dangerous Liaisons, Illustration Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1796, "Valmont entrant la chambre de Cécile".

Dangerous Liaisons, Illustration Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, 1796, “Valmont entrant la chambre de Cécile”.

In La Seduction, Sciolino references a book on men and fidelity. Ben, a sociology professor, married with three children and “deceitful monogamist” lists a 17-point “honor code of the unfaithful but loyal husband.” Along with guidelines for covering your tracks (“Monitor the contents of your pockets, your mail, your e-mails, your cell phone.”) smart boundaries (“Never sleep or even flirt with the wife of a friend, colleague, neighbor or relative.”) major no-no’s (“It is unacceptable to frolic in the home of your wife and children”) and damn straight behavior (“Surround your wife with true, sincere, loyal love and genuine attention.”) honor code Number Eight is stunning: “Never fall in love. Know how to keep your heart if not your hormones under control. Affairs don’t count.  With them, you relax. You don’t fall in love.”

Relax? What a concept! In a world suffocating in obligations to spouses, partners, children, in-laws, ex’s, employers and God if you have one, is the affair more necessity than luxury? A sexual rendezvous with a harem member is a blessed escape from my work, my worries, my lists of lists, myself.

Theda Bara,1917 film Cleopatra.

Theda Bara,1917 film Cleopatra.

In preparation, I pomade like Cleopatra, roll out the heavy artillery lingerie, review meaty topics for intellectual foreplay, and finally turn off all electronic devices to fully participate in the attentions of a smart, generous, sensual, worldly grownup. A man who, married or not, is here like me, to carve out a space of pure pleasure in a life he takes full responsibility for. We have sex. We make love. But we don’t fall in it.

But we all know that falling in love is easy. It’s tolerating someone else’s toe jam that gets icky. Borrowing from Thomas Hobbes’ description of the life of man, committed relationships can be solitary, nasty, brutish – and if you’re lucky – long. They’re also bound by mutual understanding, true affection and shared experiences. But why do we expect ourselves to run that lifetime gauntlet without an occasional shift in the conversation? Spark of unexpected attraction? Thrill of outside attention? Curve of another body?

With this delinquent attitude, how will The Sultanette ever find true love? Don’t know. But if it’s ever April in Paris again, I hope I’ll remember what sex has to do with it.

Send to Kindle
Share
03/27/14

A Miracle Pill for Marital Bliss? Depends On How You Swallow It.

Fish_Oil_CapsulesA warning to all women in long-term relationships. According to The New York Times you are suffering from HSDD (hypoactive sexual-desire disorder) registered in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder as SIAD (sexual interest/arousal disorder) and otherwise known to The Sultanette as POFB (plain old fucking boredom). To wit, you’re “tired of sex” with your partner and you need a pill.

If you doubt this, be assured by the Times’ images of gently aging women copping clueless poses that accompany last May’s Sunday magazine piece by Daniel Bergner, “Unexcited? There May Be A Pill For That.” Apologies for not reporting this late-breaking news sooner but since it’s an indisputable fact that we women have sluggish sex drives, what’s another few months of abstinence?

16c satirical German woodcut, “The useless of chastity belts in ensuring the faithfulness of young wives married to old ugly husbands.”

16c satirical German woodcut, “The uselessness of chastity belts in ensuring the faithfulness of young wives married to old ugly husbands.”

I was reminded of the piece after reading “The Monogamy Trap” by Sandra Tsing Loh in this month’s Atlantic. It’s a review of Love Illuminated, a “rumination” of the Times’ “Modern Love” columnist, Daniel Jones on the many letters he’s received over the years.

In his chapter titled “Monotony” Jones shockingly reveals: “Among my fifty thousand strangers, I’ve heard from only a handful of couples who claim to have maintained sexually charged marriages through the decades.” And since the remedies posed by these flaccid strangers – like “reading to each other in bed from marriage-improvement books” – begged for massive augmentations of K-Y, I decided it was time to revisit the Times’ piece for an alternate cure.

Wundt-research-groupSure enough, there it was, the “female desire drug.” (No not, Quaaludes, horny people, that’s illegal!) This drug, if FDA approved, will be anointed by modern chemistry, and look at all the trouble they’ve gone through to bring it to you.

This mostly male panel of experts, has hooked you up to “vaginal blood flow measuring devices” and headgear that tracks the movement of your pupils “hundreds of times per second” while you watch X-rated images. They’ve recruited female hamsters and arachnids to mate so they can “glean insight into women’s sexual psyches.”

Mr. Rat-Butter, Beatrix Potter.

Mr. Rat-Butter, Beatrix Potter.

And if X-rated porn isn’t your cup of tea with its, shall we say, male focus, they’ve even penetrated your “neural networks of eros.” Alas, discovering that “the brain’s interwoven networks are too intricate for the technology to properly view them” they’ve turned to the next best alternative to slicing and dicing a woman’s desire: lab rats. (Given that many a rat has had us begging for more, this may prove the most reliable yardstick.)

The remedies along this crusade to cure your coital ennui have included a pill with “peppermint-flavored testosterone coating that melts in your mouth” enrobing a delayed-release inner tablet exclusively formulated to relieve your lack of dis-arousal by the man who just scratched his ass and flopped into bed next to you, boner waiting. Hellooooo!

Woman-wash-tubLinneah “swallowed a dose every day – and waited.” Reaction? A jump in blood pressure and vomiting. Back to the drawing board. The next version proved the better mouse, or rat trap. Zita recorded copulating five times a week instead of one, though her joy of sex meter offered less to be desired. “I would feel horny,” she reported, “and I got like a throbbing sensation, like I had to do something or it was going to bother me all night.” That and those three loads of wash piled up in the laundry room, Zita. But how did her husband feel about the drug? She laughs. “Happy!” Mission accomplished.

The Times’ piece bullishly concludes: “Perhaps the fantasy that so many of us harbor, consciously or not, in the early days of our relationships, that we have found a soulmate who will offer us both security and passion till death do us part, will soon be available with the aid of a pill.” Obviously, The New York Times has not consulted with The Male Harem.

From the culture that brought you the everything-bagel comes one-mate-does-it-all. We’ve propped up monogamy, or the illusion, as the acid test of coupling. If you’re not for it, you’re un-American. “Sexual fidelity is considered to be mature and realistic,” says couple’s therapist Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity, “while nonmonogamy, even consensual nonmonogamy, is suspect.” We want passion and predictability. Wild abandon with all the comforts of home.

Gilded Cage, George Hare (1857-1933).

Gilded Cage, George Hare (1857-1933).

In “The Monogamy Trap” Loh refers to three categories of bored spouses: the “Quashers” who settle; the “Sneakers” who stalk old flames; and the proactive “Restorers” who schedule date nights, dance classes, and “ten for tens” (ten hugs lasting ten seconds, ten times a day). The notion of stepping outside the trap isn’t considered. No rattling the monogamy cage.

After sixteen years of fidelity with One&Only it wasn’t lack of sex that did us in, it was having nothing else we could want passionately together. That’s when monogamy becomes monotony – when you’re no longer choosing one person for life but settling for one.

When we split, even without the aid of a “vaginal blood flow measuring device” I felt my libido spiking – pheromones pulsing from every pore. After sixteen years of Saturday night sex, there’s nothing like mashing in the backstairs of a New York high rise with a sinewy hunk of musculature after a sweaty session at the gym. (I’ll let you decide what “mashing” means.) Or sleepless siestas at the Ritz, Madrid. Or foregoing an uplifting homily at the First Presbyterian Church to get naked and do rude things on a Sunday afternoon. No, that’s not love. But getting back to those “neural networks of eros” for a minute, it’s a big chunk of human sensation I’m no longer willing to let wither away. And I’m not about to drug myself for it.

Some couples – those octogenarians holding hands in the diner– keep turning each other on for life. For some, I believe frothing it up doesn’t really matter. For the rest of us (and if you’re still reading this it might be you) that itch for eros could require more than popping a pill.

After a ten-year marriage and a good sixteen-year run with One&Only, I’m opting for the third rail, The Male Harem, my posse of clever, capable, sexy (whether we have it or not) and yes, desirous men. When we rendezvous it’s by choice. In their company, the pleasure is pure, not negotiated. Not under contract, there is no expectation of permanence.

William Hogarth, oil on canvas, c.1730, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

William Hogarth, oil on canvas, c.1730, Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

Instead of taking a pill to ramp up my lust, I’m taking in a heady dose of uncertainty. That can be unsettling for a girl brought up to be saved by a man but mostly it’s orgasmic. My desire quotient has skyrocketed and it’s a desire, not for someone snoring next to me, but for life.

Which brings me to the final revelation in the development of the female desire drug. “There was a lot of discussion about it by the experts in the room,” recalled Andrew Goldstein who was involved in FDA approval of one of the drugs in Washington, “The need to show that you’re not turning women into nymphomaniacs.“ Go ahead and feel good, girls. But don’t get carried away. Can you swallow that?

Send to Kindle
Share
03/13/14

The Sultanette Offers Tax Advice – Straight Up And Very Dry

Dinner Series, Wikimedia.

Dinner Series, Wikimedia.

It’s not all louche living for The Sultanette. Every year come April it’s piper-paying time when I’m forced to abandon my strict code of ethics and embroider the truth for unsexy people, i.e. have a come-to-Jesus with the IRS who could care less about The Male Harem.

But over the years I’ve developed surefire ways to streamline tax preparation which I share with you now so that we can all get on with the business of work and play and trust congress to misappropriate our hard-earned money for another year.

To begin: Whether you file with TurboTax, a tax service, accountant, or nettlesome relative, have all records categorized and calculated. To do this, collect documents and receipts and – this is important – turn off all electronic devices for total focus. That was easy, right?

Now arrange the above in piles, calculator at fingertips, work sheets handy, comfy cushion on chair. How about that? You’ve already accomplished your first goal – organization!

Next, stand up, stretch, walk to kitchen, open freezer door, and remove chilled martini glass. If you have not already made a determination re: twist, onions, or olives do so now. Prepare martini. Congratulations! You are ready to sit back and survey the task ahead.

A Blonde Woman, c.1520, Palma Vecchio, National Gallery.

A Blonde Woman, c.1520, Palma Vecchio, National Gallery.

As a reward, The Sultanette now presents useful martini history to share at your next cocktail party or with the nice IRS person who comes by to audit your taxes.

Marie Antoinette’s Left Breast: Before you suspect a gratuitous sexual mention, I submit the provenance of the martini glass which was only developed in the 20th century. Its predecessor, the  cocktail glass with slightly curved rim, was said to have been inspired by Marie Antoinette who ordered a set of “nipple bowls” to resemble her aforementioned anatomy.

These molded porcelain bowls resting on three goats’ heads were produced by Limoges for her “Pleasure Dairy” located in the Petit Hameau (Little Hamlet) – the mock farming village at Versailles where she and her ladies-in-waiting played milkmaid dress-up before weighing themselves down in satin, ermine and jewels to partake in 10-course debauches of gilded peacock at the expense of starving peasants.

A Milkmaid Climbing A Stile, c.1750, Thomas Gainsborough, Yale Center for British Art.

A Milkmaid Climbing A Stile, c.1750, Thomas Gainsborough, Yale Center for British Art.

The Queen’s homage to au naturale, the hamlet was surrounded by an English garden inspired by Rousseau featuring hills, streams, rambling paths, and a neo-Classical Temple of Love where more teats were no doubt exposed. At some point, the nipple bowl graduated from milk-quaffing at the Pleasure Dairy to Champaign toasts for the Queen – perhaps as consolation while Louis worked out his erectile dysfunction issues.

Next stop, London, 2014, and the domain of the sipsmiths: After stumbling (completely sober)onto this mecca for cocktail aesthetes, The Sultanette was ready to pack her bags and head for the next tasting event “One gin. One bar.100 Classic Martinis” on March 27. Forget that I don’t drink gin martinis, this broad can be broad-minded when the occasion calls for it. And this occasion takes place in an oak-paneled private apartment at Kettner’s. Oh and the Sirs Sipsmith have that “sexy in a scruffy but cultivated Brit boy look” that can only improve once they open their mouths and the accent gives everything they pronounce about cocktails, a dirty schoolboy irony.

I imagined hearing it as I read their explanation of the martini glass design as evolved from Marie’s nipple: the steeper sides and straight rim prevent the ingredients from separating and better support a toothpick or skewer of olives. The stiff stem – sorry I meant the long stem, well let’s just move along – ensures the cocktail stays crisp and frosty. They also describe on the website that, “We’re small, we’re independent and we craft truly artisanal spirits of uncompromising quality” and I believe everything but the reference to size.

Alas, unable to jump on the next Virgin flight to London, I headed to NOHO, the quartier “North of Houston” in Manhattan where Madam Geneva resides. Described by New York Magazine as “a bit of British colonialism on the Bowery,” it is named after the moniker for gin in preindustrial London. Martinis are served there in a charming little stemmed glass accompanied by a mini-carafe on ice to keep the surplus chilled. But when I was told that Madam carries only one vodka and I would love it, the gauntlet was thrown.

Lilian_Braithwaite_&_Noël_Coward

Noel Coward with actress Lilian Braithwaite, George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.

Not only was The Sultanette pleased, I was enthralled. Turns out Aylesbury Duck, a wheat vodka with Canadian waters in the recipe, is also artisanal, crafted by Eighty Six Noise and Spirits. As the bartender (a cute Yankee version of the Sips) explained, Eight-Six is a consortium of bartenders who have designed the bottle to be server-friendly. He demonstrated how the neck of the bottle can be grabbed just-so to facilitate a perfectly measured pour. (Not going there, do I have to spell out everything?)

Now that we’ve covered France, England and America, or New York anyway, I leave you with one more country, courtesy of Noel Coward’s recipe for the perfect martini: “Fill a glass with gin, then wave it in the general direction of Italy.”

And now I leave you to your taxes. Aren’t you done yet?

Send to Kindle
Share
02/27/14

What Happens In Venice Stays In Venice

imagesCan you keep a secret?

The year is 1753 and you are at the spot to lose your fortune, the Ridotto in Venice. The thousand-year-old Republic is still a few decades away from Bonaparte rounding up the horses on the Piazza San Marco, but at the Ridotto’s eighty gaming tables it’s faro (a variation on baccarat derived from the king card “pharaoh”) that is pillaging the coffers of Europe’s crème.

imgres-1You have paused in the sala lunga, the candlelit hall where the crowd lingers to lick their gambling wounds, when the long shadow of a slender boyish figure dances by like a moth in the flickering flames. It belongs to Andrea Memmo, twenty-four-year-old member of the Venetian ruling caste who is doing what such men are meant for – chasing after a captivating woman, seventeen-year-old Giustiniana Wynne, while her mother runs interference. “I don’t know how it all ended at the Ridotto,” he writes Giustiniana the next day. “As long as I was in your mother’s range I tried to conceal myself.”

Concealment was hardly a challenge at the Ridotto since everyone wore a mask – the black or white moreta covering only the eyes, or the bautta hiding head to shoulders. Except for the 9-day novena before Christmas, it was de rigueur for every Venetian from doge to vegetable seller to wore these objects of obscurity in public from October until Lent.

imgres-2This is documented in Andrea di Robilant’s A Venetian Affair, a literary aphrodisiac The Sultanette found at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s book shop. It begins with the discovery of a cache of frayed and brittle letters in an attic – letters pocked with wax marks and traces of wine, some written in mysterious code – evidence of the lifetime affair between di Robilant’s ancestor, Andrea Memmo, scion of a family who “had given seven doges to the Republic” and Giustiniana Wynne, of checkered pedigree.

Casanova (left) and the condom, Memoires, “Pleasant talk and a thousand amorous kisses occupied the half hour just before supper, and our combat did not begin till we had eaten a delicious repast.”

Casanova (left) and the condom, Memoires, “Pleasant talk and a thousand amorous kisses occupied the half hour just before supper, and our combat did not begin till we had eaten a delicious repast.”

The lovers had tantalized scholars for centuries. In the early 1900s, a researcher recognized Casanova’s Mademoiselle XCV as Giustiniana. (There is a fascinating interlude in di Robilant’s narrative when the infamous amoureux befriends Giustiniana and is accused by her mother of kidnapping her.) In the twenties, a Venetian historian published correspondence from Padua’s archives. The letters in di Robilant’s family attic were a crucial link.

They had been transported by Memmo’s gondoliers who would moor at a dock near the Wynne’s residence for exchange at a corner bottega. If Andrea was desperate for a sighting in those pre-skype days he would train a telescope on his beloved’s balcony. “Goodness, there she is, that naughty girl … will she look at me this time or won’t she … Come, look this way my girl!” Andrea once wrote to her of his attempt.

When they first met at the salon of English merchant cum art collector, Consul Joseph Smith, where artists, intellectuals and traveler’s converged, the attraction was electric (“Today my lips will not be able to tell you how much I love you,” wrote Andrea, “But there will be other ways … Will you understand what my eyes will be saying to you?”) and combustible (“I never thought it was possible,” writes Giustiniana after a rendezvous, “to love with such violence.”).

But you have already surmised, canny reader, that the love was ill-fated, even before Giustiniana’s mother cut off communication (or tried) knowing that her daughter would never find marriage between the pages of the patrician’s Golden Book. Giustiniana was shuttled off to London, Paris, and Austria, collecting enraptured men in every port. At last, she accepted the hand of Count Philip Orsini-Rosenberg, a 70-year-old widower from an Austrian family claiming Roman lineage, who had been named Imperial Ambassador of Austria to the Venetian Republic.

Chicken breed of Puduas, lithograph,1886, Jean Bungartz (1854-1934).

Chicken breed of Puduas, lithograph,1886, Jean Bungartz (1854-1934).

It was a coup for Giustiniana who had not one imperial corpuscle in her blood. But weren’t the times rife with such transgressions? Rich old geezers were putting their penises wherever they pleased, and worse, marrying the strumpets. They were deaf to the clucking of well-bred women who were as much renters in the patriarchy as were the courtesans, except with an official lease. Still, Giustiniana was underwhelmed by the privilege. She once wrote Andrea, “You want me to find a duke or an earl … I believe I want none of that. … A husband is a nasty thing.”

And the marriage provided further inconvenience. It was forbidden for local patricians to fraternize with foreign dignitaries – a prohibition Andrea ignored until his nose was smacked by the inquisitors who warned him, “In the future you will refrain from any contact whatsoever with the wife of [the] ambassador … at public functions and celebrations … an attentive eye will always be watching you.”

The Doge and the Senate, “Procession in St. Mark’s Square on Palm Sunday,” Matteo Pagan, Museo Correr, Venice.

The Doge and the Senate, “Procession in St. Mark’s Square on Palm Sunday,” Matteo Pagan, Museo Correr, Venice.

Andrea meantime, had made the requisite marriage with a woman who had a “bilious” character but bore him two children. He dutifully took on roles in the byzantine maze of Venice’s fading realm, complaining that the Senate (not unlike Washington’s chamber) was carrying on with “obtuse indolence.” He was appointed ambassador to Constantinople and defeated in a run for doge, all the while carrying on the dalliances demanded of a man of his station, until at last admitting to a friend that he had offered a lady “a cock that was not as hard as she deserved.”

But as life configured their separate worlds they kept finding each other. As the world around them changed, the Venetian affair continued. What secret kept their attention? What spark kept fueling their desire long after the thrill of the forbidden had ceased to be a novelty? What pull continued to draw these singular planets into each other’s stratosphere? “Mon cher frère, … the only crime I have committed is not having written to you for so long … I love you, I am your friend; my Memmo will always mean the same to me … Let me rise to this renewed expression of respect and friendship I receive from my Memmo, even if it means that everything might go to hell.”

AS4-1-410HRBorn to play out an irrevocable place in his privileged world, did Andrea envy the reckless freedom of this scrappy outsider? “I would be quite an ungrateful one” she wrote, “if I expected you to sacrifice the slightest pleasure for my sake … But you have to live in Venice, and I don’t. You have to cultivate the Venetian spirit, its genius, its weaknesses, and I don’t – though I can accept all these attitudes and prejudices in you.”

Weaned on pragmatism, was Giustiniana thrown off kilter by this man who tested her emotional metal? “I arrive; and I do not find you,” she wrote Andrea upon returning to Venice from London. “Instead I hear a lot of talk about responsibilities, affections, feelings apparently stronger than those I thought you harbored. … I humiliate my vanity. I destroy my expectations.  I vanquish my self-esteem. I even sympathize with you when you do not fly here to see me because love is apparently stronger than our very tender friendship.”

Do profound affections ever need to be unmasked?

Grand Canal Venice, Claude Monet, 1908, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Grand Canal Venice, Claude Monet, 1908, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

At 53, di Robilant writes, Giustiniana had become a respected intellectual, accomplished writer and collector of devoted friends and admirers, artists, men of science, and travelers at her Padua salon not unlike Consul Smith’s where she had met Andrea at seventeen, untested by life. Within the year she was dying, di Robilant speculates, of cancer of the uterus. And so Andrea arrived at the small, elegant palazzo she rented. He was at her bedside when the priest gave the sacrament of extreme unction. “And in the diaphanous early morning light,” di Robilant concludes, “Andrea bid his final farewell to her.” And to the Venetian affair. “Farewell, my Memmo,” Giustiniana once wrote, “love me and write me long letters.”

Giustiniana died on August 22, 1791. Andrea two years later. In 1797 Napoleon annexed the Republic of Venice to the Austrian state.

There are flings you think will last forever. And loves you can’t live without until you do. But some secrets are always worth keeping.

 

Send to Kindle
Share
02/12/14

The Sultanette And The City Series

ALL-NEW EPISODE: The Sultanette defies sleet, slush and hat hair to watch NYC’s downtown fashion subversives walk on the wild side of the runway.

Fashion Inspiration at Launch NYC

Fashion Inspiration at Launch NYC

Since the pre-pubescent Sultanette marched up the aisle of Our Lady Queen of Peace Church in white taffeta and rosary bead accessories to receive her First Holy Communion, I’ve been circumspect about how I dress up to get on my knees.

The next watershed moment was at the YSL couture show while living in Paris, by invitation of a Time Magazine journalist I’d met there. The venue, an imposing palais that looked like it might have hosted the Third Reich during their unstylish WWII sojourn, was now jampacked with the fashion cabal.

The Launch NYC crowd

The Launch NYC crowd

I followed my friend’s lead as she inched her way through the crowd until she snagged what had to be the last available seat. With no official ticket or press pass, I was now at risk of being ejected if I didn’t fly below the Fashion Police radar. Smarting at my unworthiness to be among the anointed In this high church of Saint Laurent, I spied a patch of floor at the end of the aisle and dropped to my knees.

For the next hour in that supplicant pose, I experienced the opera of haute couture. The feverish anticipation before the unveiling. Social X-rays rubbing elbows with the nouveau riche, all there to own a piece of the exquisite, psychotic, neurotic genius of Yves. Lanky creatures hip-jabbing and ass-swaying down the runway to the throb of flashing strobes and ‘80s disco. Lust, greed, envy, rapture ramping up with each new reveal.

Every year since then when Fashion Week comes to town, my retail libido is stirred with thoughts of that palais show and I’m content to channel Yves’s ghost rather than wrangle a ticket to the runway. But when I saw a news clip on Launch NYC, an alternative venue to Fashion Week’s main event featuring local designers, it sounded like an appropriately subversive harem diversion

Launch NYC beckons

Launch NYC beckons

Armed against New York’s latest weather dump in Vasque hiking boots, puffy coat and knit cap by Banana, I began my downtown trek through slush and frozen sludge. My chauffeur’s night off, the F train handily deposited me on Sixth Avenue, a quick schlepp to West Seventeenth Street where but for the glow of Launch NYC’s store front venue, the street was a dark, snow-crusted no-man’s land.

Given that I was about to invade the air-kissed world of the fashion cognoscenti, The Sultanette can be forgiven for a degree of foreboding upon making an entrance in tundra garb. So imagine my surprise when I was greeted at a VIP table by a lineup of smiling faces that might have been recruited from the counter of the Cupcake Café. Not on the list of poobahs, I roamed the snazzy crowd to stake out a good vantage point – and let the games begin.

Minnoji's urban guerillas

Minnoji’s urban guerillas

First up was Minnoji’s guerilla-chic collection complemented with leather helmets. Okay so maybe the most combat you’ll see decked out in this asymmetrical urbanwear is a scuffle over a skinny latte grande at Starbucks but few will question your metal in these threads.

Modu in fleece

Modu in fleece

Next on the catwalk was Modu with parings of elegantly composed fleece wool separates and thick-soled sneakers. The perfect look to throw in a duffel on your way to Hudson on the Hudson – or to shrink your travel time, the Marke on Madison.

Then came Mimi’s crocheted combustibles. Mimi is Anthropologie on multiple orgasms. Mimi conjures up Collette without the sad eyes and wearing come-fuck-me shoes like the rococo wedgies that play a supporting role to Mimi’s ethereal erotica.

Mimi's ethereal erotica

Mimi’s ethereal erotica

All this to a live DJ, DJ, so nice I said it twice. And a bar featuring designer caffeine. And a chance to actually purchase the merch in an adjoining retail space where I found off-beat cuff bracelots, skirts fit to print, and gold-paneled dresses at prices that won’t force you to sell your Paris pied-à-terre.

Headlining Carrie Hammer

Headlining Carrie Hammer

Which brings me back to that Paris spectacular that was all about Yves. Yes, we had gathered there to hold court with a member of fashion royalty. And yes, he had officially been immortalized for reinventing the tuxedo jacket with le smoking. But designers were still houses yet to be located on a trading floor. The art of cutting fabric superbly and conjuring up cutting-edge style was still more about being bodacious than making a bottom line. Collections were the labels of demented artisans, not brand extensions for celebrities. And the women who wore them were icons of style who combined wit and chutzpah with irresistible originality.

There was Isabella Blow with her game-changing chapeaus (“I wear the hats, to keep everyone away from me. They say, ‘Oh, can I kiss you?’ I say, ‘No, thank you very much. That’s why I’ve worn the hat. Goodbye.’”) And the shameless accessorizing of Iris Apfel, still going strong at 92 after her Met retrospective. (“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else.”).

And in that downtown store front, just a few miles below the fashion magnates at Lincoln Center, there was just enough irreverent handiwork scattered among the LBDs to suggest that fashion hasn’t yet contained itself in a $10,000 designer satchel. Exuberant that they’d pulled one over on the fashion establishment, this downtown crowd was actually having more fun than posturing. I kept circling the room, unwilling to head back out in the cold and miss being part of the ongoing filming, selfies, interviewing and networking of press, designers, models and fashioncentrics.

Fashionette

Fashionette

And then I spotted the mini-maven. Curled up on a leather couch, pink-socked feet tucked under her, she was playing an electronic game. Her father hovered nearby and her mother appeared to be a fashion player but she was unimpressed by the Swells surging around her. Might this uncontrived sylph, hatched in the scrappy freedom of this outré world, grow up to be our next Isabella or Iris?

Finally tearing myself away, I negotiated icy Seventeenth Street towards the subway at Union Square and considered The Sultanette’s Spring ’14 collection. Some new leather? A filmy dress? Pink socks? Call fashion frivolous, superficial and extravagant. At its best, it gives us an opportunity to masquerade as our most original selves.

“Fashion you can buy, but style you possess. The key to style is learning who you are which takes years. There’s no how-to road map to style. It’s about self-expression and above all attitude.”  Iris Apfel

Send to Kindle
Share