After seeing all episodes of Ekaterina available on Prime, I re-read Robert K. Massey’s marvellous Catherine the Great, which I’d read when it first came out. There were things in it that either didn’t make an impression then but do now or that I’d forgotten. The scandal of Catherine wasn’t that she had so many lovers — she was a very romantic person and it was a kind of serial monogamy with her — but that the ones she took in her later life were so much younger than herself, the men twenty-odd to her 50-odd. That Potemkin bedded his three nieces one after the other when they were in their teens garnered no censure. That Orlov seduced a thirteen year-old relative was used as an excuse to break up with him but no other problemo. And of course, John Paul Jones, the founder of the US navy was tried for having raped a 12-year old and this led to his leaving the Russian navy. I’d also forgotten that though serfs in theory were tied to the land, in practice their lot was one of slavery and they were bought and sold with no regard for kinship ties as African-American slaves were in the US. Serfs were emancipated in 1861. Slaves were freed in the US in 63. It also struck me that Catherine lived then as many gay men do now, with former lovers adding up to an extended family and support network.
Robert K. Massie’s book is a truly great popular biography, history as page turner, all 656 pages of it and i re-read it in what felt like one huge gulp. Her dangerous beginnings, the murder of her husband, Russian expansion into Poland and the Crimea, her correspondence with Voltaire and Diderot, her art collection, her palace building, her faiIure to free the serfs even as she vaunted the liberty of men, are all clearly written, based on enormous learning, and streamlined into a drama in which the central protagonist is made knowable and admirable. I highly recommend.
I highly recommend Dylan Jones’ oral biography of David Bowie. I’ve only ever seen the form applied to sweeping historical subjects and was first introduced to it by Studs Terkel’s landmark work, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970). It’s interesting to note how this form, developed to put the personal back into the historical, to give first-hand accounts of vast social changes, evolved into first-hand accounts of one person’s experience of a historical period (for example the Nella Last’s Mass Observation Diaries, turned into books and which Victoria Wood then used as a basis for Housewife, 49.) and latterly, as a form of biography cobbled together from interviews of people who knew the subject at various points in their life (Michael Zuckoff’s excellent Robert Altman: An Oral History, 2010)
Jones’ book has the great advantage of getting dozens of first-hand perspectives on Bowie across a long period of time whilst almost entirely keeping the ‘author’ out of the narrative, which, if you dislike him as much as I do, is a good thing He brags, without a soupćon of irony about bringing Giles Coren, Rod Liddle, Piers Morgan. AA Gill and Boris Johnson to write for GQ. You can imagine all as teenagers, wearing their public school top hats, burning £5 pound notes and throwing rocks at that David Jones with the long hair from Bromley.
What comes across in David Bowie: A Life is a very nice man, unfailingly polite, constantly curious, trying to find form in sound and image to express states and feelings, and seeking to do so with great interest, curiosity and application. Students of film will find his constant process of developing, trying on, marketing and discarding personae so that the changes in personae become the persona itself, particularly fascinating. Fans of Bowie will find an incredible amount of detail on the recording of some of the great pop music of the last century. Those interested in the salacious will also find what they seek in this book.
We’re so lucky now to be able to follow this type of book whilst listening to and seeng all the music and films referred to on you-tube. I was surprised at how familiar I was with all of it, much of which I wouldn’t have recognised by titles alone. In listening and seeing now, I remember what I felt then, but can now name, contextualise and articulate. Great book.
Orry-Kelly was a bachelor all his life; he was chief costume designer for Warner Brothers between 1932 and 1944; lived with Cary Grant in the late Twenties and was furious when Grant moved on to Randolph Scott in the Thirties; was bestie to Texas Guinan, Ethel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Fanny Brice, Hedda Hopper and other formidable women; and oh did he love his mom. But it was only upon finishing the book proper and reading Catherine Martin’s Foreword and Gillian Armstrong’s Afterword to Women I’ve Undressed that I could be sure he was gay.
Gilliam Armstrong, the superb Australian director of Mrs. Soffel (1984), Starstruck (1982) and many other films that deserve to be classics (Little Women, 1994), had made a documentary on Orry-Kelly called Women He’s Undressed (2015). Orry-Kelly, born in Kiama, New South Wales, Australia and winner of three Academy Awards for costume design, was internationally one of the most famous Australians of the first half of the twentieth century — his billing in Australia often read ‘costumes by our Orry-Kelly’ — and of clear interest to an Australian filmmaker and an Australian audience (and beyond). It was amidst the publicity surrounding the release of the film that the memoir came to light. As Armstrong recounts, ‘ I mentioned Orry in an interview on a Newcastle radio station and a friend of Orry’s grand-niece contacted me, wondering if I’d be interested in meeting his niece who, by the way, had his memoir! She had been keeping Orry’s memoirs in a pillowslip in her laundry cupboard for her mother for over 30 years.’
The main reason for reading this book is because Orry-Kelly remains one of the outstanding costume designers of the classic era: when you visualise the Busby Berkeley musicals, or Warners gangster films or Bette Davis at her peak or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, you’re re-invoking the dreams, characters and stories that Orry-Kelly helped to create. Only Adrian, Travis Banton, Edith Head and Irene could be considered peers in Hollywood’s classic era. Plus, after his Warner’s period, he designed the costumes for An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), Auntie Mame (Morton D’Acosta, 1958), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) and many other classics. As Catherine Martin, the costume designer who in 1994 finally superseded Orry-Kelly as the Australian to win most Academy Awards notes, his influence continues to be felt, beginning with the impact his work had on hers, and illustrating it with a comparison between the costumes Orry-Kelly designed for Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) and what she herself designed for Nicole Kidman in Australia (Baz Luhrman, 2008).
Orry Kelly wrote the book for an audience of the time after his peak (the late fifties, early sixties) but not quite yet for publication so it’s full of all kinds of obfuscation that act as a kind of discretion (what kinds of crushes where those that Cary Grant had on all those women; were they akin to those I have when I meet a new friend — a kind of romantic idealisation of who they are – or was it sexual. It’s not clear) and all kinds of indiscretions that would never have made print had the book been published in his lifetime (Errol Flynn’s drug consumption, Joan Fontaine’s imperious demands, Monroe’s exhibitionism in Some Like It Hot). The book is full of superb anecdotes: Flynn explaining that he hadn’t stolen that emerald necklace in Sidney – it had been a gift; Fanny Brice eagerly watching and dissecting Bette Davis’ performances like the true fan she was; Katharine Hepburn ensuring that Ethel Barrymore regularly received fresh flowers in her last years…an many more.
The book offers a wonderful evocation of lost worlds: Bohemian Sidney post WW1; the underworldly New York of gangsters and speakeasys. These raffish milieus take on an even brighter sheen if, to borrow Alexander Doty’s phrase, one makes things perfectly queer; that is to say not only a personal and subjective reading but one informed by a knowledge and understanding of gay cultures and identities in the first half of the twentieth century, an important if rarely valued kind of cultural capital. Read through a ‘gay lens’, those milieus where prostitutes and petty criminals intersected with show business are not only where Orry-Kelly got his start designing but also those that intersected with homosexual sub-cultures; the rage and hurt expressed by all the bitchy attacks on Cary Grant become those of a deserted lover rather than merely an ungrateful room-mate; the love for the nightlife of Hollywood and Vine becomes textured with sexuality; the friendships with George Cukor, Cole Porter, and Somerset Maugham, a network of middle-aged homosexuals gallantly staving off the worst ravages of middle-aged spinsterdom.
I’m not sure that the book is doubly inflected in the way that Harry Louis Gates Jr. indicates in Blues, Ideology and African American Literature: A Vernacular Theory, where he writes of black performers putting on blackface to perform minstrelsy but doing so in such a way that white audiences remained unaware and understood it one way whilst black audiences understood that it was a black person performing and understood it another. Did Orry-Kelly doubly-inflect it that way so that his gay friends and contemporaries understood a layer of meaning unavailable to other audiences? I’m not sure. Can it be read to bring out this double (at least!) inflection? Without a doubt and to great pleasure and advantage.
It’s a fascinating book; I now look forward to the film.
Browsing through the bookshop of the National Portrait Gallery, trying to make sense of its superb and revelatory exhibition on Giacometti’s work, ‘Pure Essence’, I stumbled on a lovely object: Grey Tiger Books’ edition of Jean Genet’s essay on the artist, The Studio of Giacometti, in a new translation from the French by Phil King. It’s got a photograph of an abstract image — bits of white seeping through different shades of brown with a lashed layer of purple at the bottom — glued onto stone grey paper, with the title overlapping both the grey frame and the image itself. Inside, the pages are, appropriately, a lavender pink. More striking abstract images, all credited to Marc Camille Chaimowicz, break up, interrupt, and accompany Genet’s essay, itself a kind of kaleidoscope composed of brief bursts of inspiration on art in general and Giacometti’s in particular. It caught my attention almost immediately:
‘There isn’t any other origin for beauty than that of a wound’ Genet writes, ‘singular, different for each, hidden or visible, that all mankind keeps within itself…To me Giacomettis’ art seems to wish to discover the secret wound of any being and even that of any thing, in order to illuminate them’.
The book is a beautiful object, a mise-en-scène for allusive and eloquent writings that themselves become part of but exceed the object, on that which starts as a wound, sets out to illuminate and ends up being beautiful.