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21 July 2014

Herbert H. Highstone Reviews… no. 2

Edwin Hubble: Mariner of the Nebulae by Gale E. Christianson


Edwin Hubble holding Nicolas Copernicus to which "endless pages" are devoted


A Few Points That Interested Me Concerning Hubble Bio
Three Stars

One wonders why Hubble didn't have any children. He was basically a country boy deep inside, and it seems likely to me that he would have wanted children. So who stopped that from happening? I suspect that his wife Grace played a part in that situation. If she didn't want kids, she had ways to prevent pregnancy.

The book contained a number of derogatory comments about Hubble's British accent and fancy clothes. But that's what got him access to the 100-inch telescope. The American astronomers who controlled the 100-inch were bowled over by Hubble's elegant facade. He did what he had to do in order to use the world's largest telescope (at that time).

No one has commented about Grace's bizarre decision to cremate her husband and then bury his ashes in a secret location. THis is a classic symptom of a hyper-controlling wife who has secret issues with her husband and denies him the grand funeral that he must have wanted. It's like Grace wanted to erase Edwin from the surface of the earth. Such a hostile thing to do!

A prophet is not without honor except in his own country. There is a Russian bio of Hubble that praises him in totally unrestrained language. But here in the USA, we seem to have the "tall poppy"principle at work, where the excellent is the enemy of the good and must therefore be cut down to size.

One reviewer mentions the fact that dear Grace had access to the Hubble files after her husband's death, and had ample opportunity to destroy anything that she didn't like. I'll bet that she kept the good old incinerator pretty busy. If she prevented Edwin from even having a decent funeral, I'm sure that her need for control was total.

Any good biography must be selective. I wasn't reading a bio of a famous astronomer to gain access to endless pages about his wife's cats. The entire episode of his WWII work should have been cut down to 3 pages maximum.

The Russian bio of Hubble also contains the long-suppressed details about how a gang of younger astronomers formed a cabal to deny Hubble the access he wanted to the new 200-inch telescope. Those little rats did a real number on Ed. Hubble's trusted confidant, the mule driver that he turned into a famous astronomer, also seems to have played both sides of the fence. Such gratitude!

The upshot was that Hubble's speech at the 200-inch dedication ceremony was canceled, and he wasn't even officially invited. He came anyway and stood in the shadows, watching silently. The frosting on the cake came when Hubble wasn't selected at the director of Palomar. When the hyenas really gang up on you, they don't stop until nothing is left.

I mentioned a Russian biography of Hubble. It's much shorter than "Mariner" but it contains a lot of information that "Mariner" leaves out. The moral to this story is simply the following: You need more than one biography to discover the whole truth about anyone!

Note from EEE: HHH's review brought to mind the recent Pope Francis controversy about childless couples (or single women) and cats.  For a completely different reading of Hubble's relationship with his (rather than his wife's) cat, visit the Huntington Library's blog here.  

17 July 2014

Nick Olsen on Decorating by the Stars


Hands down the most fun I've ever had writing an article has been for the current issue of House Beautiful.  It was a true triumvirate of friendship between designer (Nick Olsen), client (a family friend) and moi-meme.

Read the full interview here  where you will discover that Leos (like the client) adore fiery red and that both the client and Nick have an almost unhealthy passion for chairs.

Post-script from Nick:  My one regret is that I've only now realized that Monsieur Saint Laurent himself was another Leo enraptured by bold colors, expansive collections, and tribal/animal prints! It's so fitting that one of his fabrics [see the print on the settee above] would set our entire scheme in motion. 

Post-script from the Owner: The sheets are Pratesi, not Frette.

A big thank you to Newell Turner, Shax Riegler and Vicky Lowry for keeping in all my favorite bits.  Photo by Maura McEvoy for House Beautiful.  

09 July 2014

Herbert H. Highstone Reviews...

Young Toscanini, DVD of the 1988 film directed by Franco Zeffirelli


Introductory Note: I recently stumbled onto the prolific Amazon reviewer Herbert H. Highstone and I so enjoyed reading his exuberant, strongly opinionated critiques, I am sharing one – the first of many, I hope – here with you.  In an age of puff pieces and ego massaging, Mr. Highstone is refreshingly and fearlessly frank.  Bravissimo and encore!

Totally Delirious Excess – Mr. Z Does Not Disappoint US!
Five Stars
I caught a glimpse of this outrageous movie on late night TV. This film includes a delirious, dream-like staging of Verdi's Aida that goes far beyond excess in a way that will delight the loyal fans of Mr. Z! Elizabeth Taylor, wearing very heavy brown makeup, looks dazed and confused as for once in her life she is totally outstaged by the most monstrous production of Aida that you can't imagine until you see it on your own screen.

Jewels! Gold! Four-foot trumpets blaring out the famous triumphal march! Even the mad King Ludwig would be pleased by this lunatic dream of a movie. The actor playing the young Toscanini looks exactly like Dr. Zhivago, but who cares? We're on another planet and we're loving it! Verdi is totally conquered and overwhelmed by this postmodernist drama of infinitely lavish excess. Drag out your carefully hoarded bottle of absinthe and get ready for the head trip of all head trips!


Visit to Sissinghurst… More London Diary


Two things I remember from childhood are the ubiquitousness of the English poet and gardener Vita Sackville-West's books and the constant discussion of the moving and dividing of hostas.  Only until this year did I see the point of either.  In a recent interview, Rufus Wainwright remarked, "I was so averse to anything relating to gardening because I did always find it the most boring, retired-person thing to do. That being said, we have a garden now, and I’ve never been more excited in my life than waking up and seeing a little pea come out of the earth. It’s like a Wagnerian opera..."  Like Rufus, the cultivating of one's own patch of dirt has proven to be a game changer and I now affectionately look after several hostas and have even had my first family conference on their relocation.


In anticipation of visiting Sissinghurst on this trip (which merely spanned several days, not months as my blogging pace might lead you to believe), I dusted off a few of the Sackville-Wests inherited from my grandmother.  The first to be tackled was The Garden (full disclosure: first on account of its slimness and charming illustrations by Broom Lynne).  Published in 1946, the book is in fact a 135 page poem traversing the four seasons with the presence of war felt throughout.  It is elegiac and evocative, but, on my current high carb diet of reality shows, my attention soon wandered and it was in a moment laid down for V. Sackville-West's Garden Book.

Roses climbing along the tower's walls

Now we were cooking with gas.  Not only was this a collection of articles culled from her Observer column that ran between 1947 and 1961, it was an anthology, a best of the best if you will, taken from four previous already curated anthologies of articles.  Organized by month the article was originally published, one can dip randomly into April and read "The merits of grit" or December for "Companions for roses."

A view of the tower where Sackville-West wrote; she kept several small bud vases on her desk and curated their contents with different seasonal blooms

I soon found myself in the index, cheating, looking up Small Gardens:
"I should plant only the best things in it, and only the best forms of the best things, by which I mean everything should be choice and chosen.  When you only have a very small area to your command you cannot afford to be otherwise selective."

I then was curious to see how she would weigh in on the much maligned gladiola (yet beloved by the aesthete Oscar Wilde).  Her abridged thoughts:
"I am never quite sure what I feel about the gladioli.  Handsome, yes; wonderful in color, yes; … supreme in the late summer flower shows, yes, in those great peacock-tail displays like swords dipped in all the hues of sunrise, sunset, and storm.  Here I come to a full stop and start saying No.  I don't like their habit of fading at the bottom before they have come out at the top… I don't like the florist-shop look of them.  No, take it all around, I cannot love the big gladiolus.  It touches not my heart."

View from the Tower

Sackville-West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson purchased Sissinghurst Castle in 1930 where they lived until her death in 1962.  As her daughter-in-law Philippa Nicolson describes in the foreword, Sackville-West formed a gardening philosophy: be ruthless (don't keep anything that displeased you the previous year); let plants self-seed and ramble; an architectural plan - with hedges, paths, and walls as well as with the relation of plants to each other - is essential; and, very interesting to my mind, not all parts of a garden have to always be in bloom.  An area can be spent and attention can shift to another area.

Maeve's and my calves in the White Garden

Finally the fateful day had arrived and my friend Maeve and I drove to Kent.  We arrived just before 5, having underestimated traffic and overestimated a map, but it was all for the best as we practically had the grounds to ourselves bar a German here and there.  One enters the property via a long dirt road enclosed by ancient hawthorn hedges.  Maeve told me one can date how old a hedge is by how many other vines have grown into it.



Sissinghurst's collection of roses is one of its great lures.  Maeve was on the hunt to see one plantswoman (and wife of Adam Nicolson) Sarah Raven extolled, but alas we concluded it must already have bloomed.



I admired this pink beauty which was blowsy but also formal.  As you rose connoisseurs already know, THE rose nursery is David Austen which Maeve and I decided is our next outing.

I found this arrangement centering the White Garden highly accessible and copyable


Entering the famous White Garden - Vita enjoyed planning one color gardens

A perfect photo to accompany the sage words of blog commenter superstar Home Before Dark:
"When I first started gardening I began the predictable path of being seduced by color and blooms. One of my mentors, gently explained the natural evolution of gardening. She said you know you have made to the other side when you think first of leaf color and form."


I love me a self-made obelisk.  I have two jasmine-vine covered ones at home.


On the outer edge of the grounds is the Herb Garden

The Barn, adjacent to which is the gift shop and cafe where one can enjoy a glass of white wine.

After the aforementioned glass of white wine and the obligatory purchase of a tea towel, Maeve and I departed, eyes and soul full.

Reading list:
Adam Nicolson, Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History   A marvelously intimate and frank history of the house, including its most recent history with the National Trust

Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage   On Harold and Vita's unconventional marriage by their son. The portrait of Vita by William Strang on the paperback's cover captured my curiosity as a young girl.

Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent  A novel written as a companion to friend and former lover Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own in which the heroine can finally live life on her preferred terms.  Spell-binding and high readable.  Get the version with Joanne Lumley's foreword.

__________, The Garden


And for your next 5 minute escape break, read this amusing Amazon review of Victoria Glendinning's bio of Vita.

Please excuse the undisciplined nature of this post.  Consider it an homage to Vita's preferred rambling cottage garden.

28 June 2014

Inside Nancy Lancaster's Yellow Room… London Diary, Part II


Like Mario and doubtless many others since, I've pored over photos of The Yellow Room so many times that it has become an old and familiar friend.  Yet unfathomably I had never stepped foot into Avery Row until this trip.

The exterior of 39 Brook Street.  Read Mario's book on how he first encountered John Fowler outside the shop in the 1960s… It is a charming tale of twin pocket squares out of Plautus.

Mario, Maureen and I were Colefax & Fowler's guests at Claridge's for lunch, a mere 20 paces away.  I had a glass of sauvignon blanc with the lobster bisque, served in a spa-like portion and fortunately augmented by spring peas ordered for the table.  I must admit the tremendous enthusiasm and anticipation my companions showed for these peas did arch an eyebrow, but after one spoonful, I am a now a devotee.  There may be nothing better than fresh English peas (rolled around in butter and basil I believe and al dente).  And if there is one other hot tip you must take away from this blog, it is to never miss going to the loo in a smart hotel or restaurant.  Claridge's ladies' powder room is mint green and black Deco deliciousness.  

C&F: the front room on the ground floor with green walls complemented by Mario's socks; Harry, an adorable young man who works there, is hiding in the window to the right

After cappuccino and an affogato for Mario who is a dessert-hound (he would alway brings cookies to our meetings.  Once, after we discovered a mutual passion for peanut butter-chocolate ice cream, he brought a pint of chocolate and a jar of Skippy as the grocery store didn't have this flavor of the gods in stock), we embarked on our short journey to C&F.

The wall paper inspired by the Anteroom of Drottningholm Palace Theater in Sweden, below

For those who haven't yet made their first pilgrimage, the shop is composed of a rabbit's warren of rooms, rambling from one to another. 




The back of the building looks out onto this courtyard garden.  C&F's archivist Barrie McIntyre, who is  an incredible repository of information and a jewel in the firm's crown, shared that Mrs. Lancaster was furious with Mr. Fowler when the walls (barely discernible now under the ivy) were painted and the two rowed for weeks.


On the first floor (or our second floor) one goes through this small room before entering the barrel-vaulted double-height Yellow Room.  Barrie told us that Mrs. Lancaster purchased the large old master painting (to the right) for the frame.  She then had the canvas cut up and applied to the walls and closet doors.

Even though the room is no longer  furnished with Mrs. Lancaster's antiques (Mario calls the room "a scrapbook of her life") it is still lyrical.

 The money shot: a close up of the glazed "egg yolk" walls

The faux marbre baseboards

At the far end of the room is a pair of double doors that open to this practical small butler's pantry complete with dumbwaiter

The bay windows are deep and conceal these closets


BEFORE: The room in 1947 (which I included in Regency Redux)
It was originally designed by Sir Jeffry Wyattville, George IV's architect, who most notably made extensive alterations to Windor Castle between 1824–1828

AFTER: In 1957, Nancy Lancaster moved into the set of rooms above the shop to economize. This photograph by James Mortimer shows it in 1982.

Reading list: John Cornforth, The Inspiration of the Past

Part III: Vita Sackville-West & Sissinghurst