Tortured Elegance Done Painlessly

Miss Jackson if you’re nasty.

Assembling my door of celebrity influence last Summer, people of the era who were important to our generation but not so much to me were not included. Like the Beatles or Martin Luther King. I preferred the Stones and Malcolm X. John & Yoko made it, however. And in place of King, Mahalia Jackson was substituted.

When I was young the adults watched their variety shows laden with jazzy night club acts I was not interested in. But when Mahalia was on the screen she commanded attention. Like Moira on Schitt’s Creek, she took words we all used but accented the wrong syllable or elongated them beyond recognition to invent her own new language.

Her dramatic style was mesmerizing. The grown-ups laughed when I mimicked her. Which taught me to use humor to buy time and deflect attention as I pursued my real agenda: I wanted to be her. She was so powerful.

Because of Mahalia’s artistry, her appeal only increased over time. She was not just another childhood icon quickly caught on to then discarded along the wayside.

She was near the podium at the Lincoln Memorial when King gave his speech. There was a story a few years ago how either new technology or a newly discovered tape gave a better sense of what was happening on stage as he spoke. It made it possible to decipher some of the ambient noise around him.

Mahalia knew his sermons well. When she felt he was starting to lag that day, in the background is her encouraging voice: “tell about the dream, Martin.” That’s all it took.

A portal to yesterday. And tomorrow. If it’s rockin’ don’t come knockin’.

I was a devotee of W, the monthly off-shoot of Women’s Wear Daily, since it first came out in 1972.  It wasn’t necessarily  about the things it covered, the fashion and home decorating items. It was more about the lives of the oversized personalities it exposed.

Having money helped in amassing objects, of course, but the intelligence the rarified few applied to what they did created ideas accessible to everyone. I still make the Coach House Bread Pudding and Fettucine Fredde Alla Pronto clipped from W’s pages fifty years ago.

The firmament included all of Truman Capote’s Swans as well as other wealthy women whose publicists worked overtime to get their names in print.  People like Mica Ertegun, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Vanderbilt, Betsy Bloomingdale, and Annette Reed.

This in turn begat subsequent sub-firmaments of dilittantes like Nancy Reagan and today’s Kardashians. These followers had the savvy to know which designers to collect and the money to buy their fashions. But their understanding of what they were purchasing went no deeper than the label.

In the early days of unimportant but important celebrities, however, a smattering stood head and shoulders above the rest.

I became aware of Mrs. William S. Paley when I read about Jackie’s Advisory Committee to restore the White House. In a group photo Jackie and Babe both stand out amongst the grey old men and dowdy Congressional wives in unfascinating hats. Jackie looked youthful and accessible. Babe’s matte finish perfection looked otherworldly.

She was asked to be on the Committee because she had connections and knew how to get things done. Babe also had money. She was counted on to make at least one major acquisition to donate to the White House.

I didn’t hear of her again until W came along. She was not a publicity hound although her quotes were always novel. My favorite was “you’ve got to be able to mix the good stuff with the dime store stuff.”

The Babe

Diana Vreeland said that elegance is denial. I interpreted it to mean have the courage of your convictions not to show all your cards at once. Hold something back especially if it was expected.

Whereas most society egos demanded the photographer make them look beautiful, Babe was happy to have her face obliterated if it helped the composition of the photo. She had an artist’s sense.

Vreeland was also at a Balenciaga show in Paris during the late 1950’s. Back then they were conducted in the intimate salons of the fashion houses. Not the corporate extravaganzas seen in today’s sports palaces.

The elegant simplicity of that collection stunned everyone. No one more so than Gloria Guinness. She was so overcome, Vreeland described her deep chair slouch slowly melting until her butt was just inches off the carpet.


Balenciaga not only mastered the simple line, he was also as haute as couture ever got.. The things that make the garment great were ones no one saw or cared about: hidden seams, weighted hems, boning and interfacing, cutting on the bias and impeccable lining.

Like the International Style of Architecture, a plain facade is the easiest thing in the world to knock off. But like those buildings, clothes that are not constructed with quality materials or a sound infrastructure will never present or endure like the original.

Gloria Guinness was the master of turning understated simplicity into drop dead gorgeousness. It was rumored she’d begun her climb up the ladder as a prostitute in her native Mexico. She never discussed it but neither did she go to great lengths to deny it. She just didn’t care.

When Aristotle Onassis was grieving the death of his only son in a plane crash, he and Jackie visited Gloria and Loel Guinness in their Acapulco home. Ari was in the anger stage of grief and tore into his wife over dinner one evening. “Why can’t you be more like Gloria? She’s pretty, she makes an effort. You just go around like a village peasant woman in your headscarfs and espadrilles.”

An understanding Jackie didn’t fight back: “You’re right, I should try to be more like Gloria.”

At the polar opposite of elegant simplicity was the flamboyant Jacqueline, Comtesse de Ribes. There was something mannishly odd about her look: tall and angular with a nose like a prehistoric bird. Rather than disguise these features she chose to incorporate them.

Her poses were filled with symmetry, discipline and artifice. She carried herself as if every second of her life was an Oscar-contending moment. She was too much. In a marvelous way.

When Brian had his dress shop at Fillmore and Bush he said the Comtesse had been in one afternoon with a Pacific Heights socialite. They weren’t introduced but he was adamant it was Jacqueline de Ribes. She picked out a few items then bought them under her friend’s name.

Brian wouldn’t line a garment if his life depended on it. So it’s hard to imagine her wearing one of his creations. She was chums, however, with many of the Paris designers. There might have been some appealing element she wanted to share with them so she might have bought items as samples.

Brian lied all of the time but never in a malicious way. He would invent stories to entertain me then deliver them in such a convincing manner. Most of them were not true but some were. So you never knew.

In an era where most gays were adopting the frou-frou Hollywood air kiss, Brian and I invented the JdR handshake. You slouched backwards as far as you could and then allowed the other person to clasp your extended hand. It worked best when one of the two greeters remained upright. If two slouched simultaneously you both had to have long arms.

Brian and I had long arms.

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