“Black Man, White Ladyship”

Nancy Cunard’s face is a stark and inescapable presence on my wall.  It is arsenic-white and cruel, wracked with a harsh intellect and a furious and judgmental beauty.  Her eyes are wild and pale, surrounded by thick kohl borders. Her fleshless hands, like those of an unconvincing angel, are lightly clasped beneath her chin.


Equally remarkable are her arms, hidden beneath a cascade of thick bracelets, a carved paradise of wood, bone and ivory.  None of the massive bangles are the same:  they are an exotic anthology of colors and textures, an inviolable river extending from wrist to elbow. They are eloquent accoutrements that weigh heavily on her skin and speak of a desire to escape and explore. Their reflection of Nancy’s interest in Cubism and African culture, her feral, eccentric appearance and her family name were like spurs that goaded the media into action. Throughout the 1920’s her pale and intense face could be seen everywhere.

At first she was mocked for what surely seemed like the artistic pretensions of an heiress yearning for some bohemian freedom.  However eventually fashionable society came to recognize this style, labeling it “the barbaric look”.   But it’s very possible that Nancy Cunard did not care one way or the other.

Her mother, however, cared very much.  She was Maud Alice Burke – an American heiress and influential London society hostess called by the London Times “probably the most lavish hostess of her day”.  She invited to her salons politicians, poets, writers, artists…anyone, so long as they could insure an amusing evening.  She was a supporter of Wallis Simpson – hoping the American would marry her king and so possibly be given a court appointment herself.  She renamed herself Emerald – she would be seen with oceans of bracelets covering her arms in a green froth.  She ignored her daughter when she was a child.  When she was an adult, she disinherited her altogether.

Doubtless, she was displeased with Nancy for many reasons – she was a member of society as well, but the uninhibited society of experimental thought and act.  Nancy investigated the artistic underbelly of the 1920’s, a world of modern frights which would have sent the Bright Young Things skittering away in their rolled down nylons and beaded dresses.

But the one truly unforgivable thing that Nancy did was to be seen – and to move in with – an African-American man:  Henry Crowder, a gifted jazz musician whom she met in 1928 in Venice.  Self-taught, with a career that began in the parlors of the brothels in Washington D.C., he rose to importance when he moved to Europe.


When she first heard of this association, Maud exclaimed, in tones of high-pitched aristocratic outrage, in a voice trained for the patrician slur:

“Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?”

It was.  In addition, Nancy became an activist for civil rights in the United States.  She visited Harlem – not to sit with the curious audiences at the Cotton Club, or Gladys’ Clam House (where Gladys Bentley wears a tuxedo and high hat) – but to see for herself the racist attitudes that stewed there and beyond.


She befriended the mothers of the Scottsboro boys, exchanging letters with them and taking over much of the fundraising involved in their campaign.  This case involved nine African-American teenagers accused in Alabama of raping two white women on a train in 1931.   It was a legal embarrassment:  with lynch mobs, frame-ups rushed trials and bigoted judges.

Three years later she helped edit the groundbreaking Negro Anthology, which she dedicated to Crowder.  It included prose and poetry by African-American writers such as Langston Hughes and George Padmore, in addition to her own account of the Scottsboro case.  The media – still fascinated by her cultural eccentricity – paid such extensive attention to her project that she began to receive anonymous threats and hate mail.  Some were published in the book, though some were not because as she explained, with regret, that they were “obscene, so this portion of American culture cannot be made public”.

But it was in 1931 that Nancy published her most savage assault:  on racism and on the English aristocracy, culminating in an attack on her mother:  an icon for all that was wrong in society.  It was a pamphlet entitled, “Black Man and White Ladyship”.  Lady Cunard’s high-strung query, undoubtedly still ringing in her daughter’s ears, is quoted.  She suggested that her mother attend one of the “choicer lynchings” in the “cracker southern states of U.S.A.”


The work is full of questions that riddle its pages like bullet holes:

“How come, white man, the rest of the world is to be re-formed in your dreary and decadent image?”

“I believe that no fallacy about the Negroes is too gross for the Anglo-Saxon to fall into. You are told they are coarse, lascivious, lazy, ignorant, undisciplined, unthrifty, undependable, drunkards, jealous, envious, violent, that their lips, noses and hair are ugly, that they have a physical odour-in the name of earth itself what peoples, individually, can disclaim any of these?”

Throughout her life Nancy Cunard railed against society’s racism and the “stultifying hypocrisy” that tainted its sweet shallows.  Her passion was such that it seared the flesh from her bones, until all that remained were her undisciplined good intentions.  At the end of her life she was found wandering the streets in Paris, with nothing left of her triumphant life as political and artistic muse except her wits, twisted into paroxysms of fury.  She weighed 57 pounds.

It Knows Not What It Does


In a way it is such a modest admonition.  It is true:  the recipient of such a judgement should cease its damaging ways immediately.  And yet the word also indicates a type of bemused shock; an alarm that is both subdued and charmed.

But I was not bemused or charmed – or any of those show-moving emotions.  I was surprised and angry.  And yet this was the first word that came to mind.

My verdict was directed towards the cat.  She has always looked to me like the very essence of Pet, for which I hope she will forgive me.  Yet she is indeed a very soft and rounded girl.  All muscles and instinct, a velvet trust inherited from her ancestors, have been hidden under a life of grooming appointments and bowls of salmon broth.    All of her wild gifts were forgotten.









A bell hung from her throat, like a dainty insult.  And she wore a collar bearing a name that she did not want.  She is a domestic animal, yet her blood is unquiet with an undefined threat.  She still moves like a subtle hellion.

I see her most days.  Usually she is in possession of a square of sidewalk, waiting for the warmth of the concrete to saturate her tamed flesh.  But one morning she was most attentive, and I was not included in her hard, golden stare – which occasionally has been my honor.

And then she began to move.  Not run…but to move with the noiseless bearing of a hunter; a half-forgotten locomotion commandeered by the silent, mindless intent of a sociopath.

I tried to warn her intended victim – a mourning dove:  foolish, oblivious and feeding – but its escape was a low, depleted flight.  I watched the savage miscreant’s launch into the air, the arch of her torso and the extended, hopeful limbs.

I saw the gleam of her claws as they singed the dove’s feathers; I saw her gaze expectantly into the sky.   And I stood awhile, waiting to forgive the pet that knows not what it does.

I Should Not Envy Them

“Her name, accompanied as it was by her title, added to her physical person the duchy which cast its aura round about her and brought the shadowy, sun-splashed coolness of the woods of Guermantes into this drawing-room…I came to know many of the Duchess’s distinctive features notably…her eyes, which captured as in a picture the blue sky of a French country afternoon broadly expansive, bathed in light even when no sun shone…”

  • Marcel Proust

Remembrance of Things Past:  “The Guermantes Way”

I should not envy them so; these beautiful, languorous women, collapsed like corseted kittens on their sofas, conversing with their boudoir skin; their soft, fragrant intellect.

Subtle and notorious, these ladies controlled a groveling society that stared into their dance cards and invitations like so many pools of Narcissus.  They held the reins – a silken touch resting on the demimonde’s gilded shoulders.

So I insist that I should not envy them.  But their lives were like honey – thick, lazy, sweet.  Their wealth was undeniable; their seductiveness incurable.  So I do envy them:  for their romantic, animal lives; their velvet wit; their exotic rapture.

By all rights they should by now be long forgotten.  But their images remain – and this alone will guarantee that they will live forever.

I am thinking of one photograph in particular.  It is a famous one and has woven a hypnotic path through my consciousness for many years.  It is known for the beauty of its subject and for the twisting, loving embrace of her gown.







Ėlisabeth, Countess Greffulhe, Proust’s Duchess of Guermantes, was the Queen of late 19th century Parisian salons.  Personalities from James Whistler to Gustave Moreau to Marie Curie to Edward VII populated her rooms, where the high words of art and science could entwine and grow only to evaporate in the smoke of the King’s ubiquitous cigars.

The Countess was a magnificent creation – statuesque yet sensitive, with an expression full of dignity and incantation.  Her eyes were dark, reflecting a mysterious violet light.  A besotted writer, Mina Curtiss, described them as “The dark purple-brown tinged petals of a rarely seen pansy.”

But we might never have seen her face had the photographer not taken pity on our curiosity.  He has arranged his stately subject so that she stares into a mirror. An expression echoes back at us, as pert as a spoiled school girl’s:   with an upturned nose, the eyebrows arched and mocking.   She might begin a flirtation or a discourse on modern dance…or just as easily pull a competitor’s pigtails.

Her hair is swept into a chorus of curls, crowned with a galaxy of pearls:  the twisting movement continuing through her neck and brought to a stop by the soft plateau of her shoulders. The rest of the photograph is dedicated to her celebrated gown.

It is black velvet, with a latticework of white lilies that travels down her spine, all the way to the hem where it pools into an exhausted garden.  It lies flat against the panels of whalebone and grips the strong slow curve of torso and hips. With the pinched, breathless waist, the outline of irresistible femininity is complete.

Yet the Countess did not like the idea of her photographs being circulated; such invasive reality was a private thing – meant only for an elect few.  She also disliked Proust and his hysterical worship.  Observations such as “in her there is not a feature that can be found in any other woman or anywhere else” – she found sticky, over-wrought and in poor taste.

What would she say if she knew that such envy and admiration would continue unscathed for more than 100 years?  And what would she think of those who still choose to write about her – and who dared commit her image to memory, holding it as they would hold it in their hands?

The Changling

I might have walked too close

Or passed within the shadow

Of the nursery hidden in the trees

For I quickly felt the parent’s rebuke

A pierce and pluck of hair 

A painful scold above me

Intuitive and mindlessly brave


I faced my aggressor

In whose amber eyes

Glittered precision and suspicion

Diminutive and vicious dominion

With anger lurking in its blood

DNA waiting to surface

Into the new and pastel colored season


Then after a perched debate

And avian consideration

It vanished with invisible decision

And like handwriting that had come to life

But with no pen for guidance

My hair arched and curled in its grip

Destined for a bed built out of shadow and green


And throughout the day my head throbbed

Victim to such tiny fury

That rang through the air pealing surprise

But at night though my windows were closed

I heard soft flutters

The gentle murmurings of flight

And the soft crush of feathers across my cheek


Silent Bells

It burst in front of me like an iridescent cloud.  Blooming with seraglio colors it hovered and dipped like a wayward carpet, alive with Byzantine patterns.  Its tinted sinews smeared the spinning flight:   magenta and green flexed in the air.

It swooped, dipped and paused in mid-flight.  A doubtful sprite of velvet reflections, it traced an invisible latticework of tracks and pathways:  meandering, creative, senseless.   It was as if femininity’s frail nucleus was compressed like coal in an invisible hand, writhing within nameless muscles, waiting and suffering.  And when the birth was over, the hand would open to release a diamond faceted with color– and the hummingbird, in a grateful blur, would fly away.

I heard the impudent buzz in my ear; taking tiny dares to hide in my shadow, to follow in my footsteps. I saw it dive into gardens of flowers, to pierce the fragrance, to shatter pockets of pollen into a gilded mist.   I watched it disappear into bowers of vines and thorns, into cradles of blossoms – to emerge satiated and ready to continue on its chaotic progress.

This tiny vision has stayed with me; Nature’s whimsical compromise between insect and bird. And yet I recall another vision:  one of a garish thing, engraved and metallic, heavy and debauched. It is what is now referred to as “novelty” jewelry, but what in reality is a travesty that only the misguided creativity of the Victorians could produce.

It is a necklace; made up of a single golden tier, decorated with shields seeming ready to be carved and quartered with the family crest by the jeweler’s steel quill.  But instead, as part of the creation of this necklace, many delicate decapitations were committed.  Affixed to each shield was a hummingbird’s head; each mounted at a different angle, so that when the lady opened the velvet case she would be struck by the light that angled across the deceased feathers.


A lady’s magazine of the time described the petite corpses “…as plump and tempting to epicurean palate as any ever served up broiled on toast.”


And when the lady held the dainty executions to her throat, bloodless and gaping, she would admire the kaleidoscope of colors that mirrored across her skin.  She would love the golden beaks, the echo of life in the glass eyes – the deaths done in her honor, inconsequential, ultimately, because they were so small.

She would always treasure her frivolous horror, her captured prisms:  the errant lives that now hung from her neck like silent bells.

The Girl’s Pearl Earring

I have always had an affinity for pearls.  It could be because the pearl is my birthstone.  Or because I once read that it symbolized “tears of joy and sorrow”:  its split personality struck me as both tragic and evocative.  Perhaps it is its silky richness – its delicate decadence.  Or just maybe it is the pearl’s origins – in the belly of an oyster, rooted in its bed far beneath the sea.

Jan Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring” sounds like such a humble thing; yet it is a miracle of color and light. There are no lines in the painting, no harsh borders:  only subtle frontiers that are seen by the mind as much as they are by the eye.  The juxtaposition of texture and shadow is as imperceptible as the descending twilight that softens yet changes the landscape.  The touch that molded her face is as ethereal as gossamer.









Vermeer painted with light as if it stood in waiting pools on his palette; it is the defining grace of the portrait.  It stretches in blue valleys across the girl’s turban.  It glows like a melted star from her lower lip.  It warms her moon-like face in a hushed, radiant patina.  But most of all, it is the creating force; the central, incandescent life of her pearl earring.

The singular bauble hangs like a dainty planet, stolen from its galaxy and forced to glow in metallic glory by itself.  Softly oval, the pearl’s gentle curves nestle against the acquiescent shadows of the girl’s neck.  Within it is a world of elusive prisms:  silver, brown, gold, lavender, blue.  The colors are stirred together to create an object as warm as an alchemist’s elixir yet cool enough to calm the rich flesh of a young girl.

The girl’s earring must have weighed heavily from her ear – as if it were trying to get her attention.  If she listened, what would she hear?  The painful throbbing of the steel hook that had inelegantly punctured her earlobe – the tincture of rust that now ran through her blood?  Or perhaps she heard something else.  Perhaps she heard the sound of her treasure’s parents: childless, buried at sea and softly crying.

My Imagination

The imagination can be a very mischievous child.  If it doesn’t want to go home, it wanders through the garden, hoping to get lost – if it doesn’t want to do its work, it stubbornly closes its eyes the better to dream.  When it is time to speak, it chooses to be thoughtful…and when it is pulled to safety, it breaks free to drift into the shadows.

But it always comes back with something lovely; so all is forgiven, always.

Does this make me a poor parent to let this child of mine roam so?  An irresponsible one?  Or am I merely indulgent?  After all, my imagination always does return:   its logic is often fanciful – metaphors that have traveled a long, hard road.  But when I am ready, I can embrace its lucid madness, its creative rationale.  And sometimes the art lies in the journey itself.

I was out walking on a particularly shining afternoon, down an unfamiliar street:  so it was already ripe with possibilities.  I passed by a sepia tinted building, empty save for a beige sofa which combined prettily with the Victorian color scheme of the place.  Threads dripped from its back, endangering the tracks of the faint brocade – an aged topiary fading in the strong sunlight.

Inside there were wooden floors and columns of dust were suspended in the air, trapped by the rays of light venturing into the dull interior.  And it was then that I felt a tap on my shoulder – and I knew that it was my imagination, asking me to pause awhile, while it did some benign trespassing.   So I was left there to wait, peering through the smudged windows.

I knew that my better half was wandering through the rooms that lurked in the shadows hidden from the sidewalk.  They expanded like a kaleidoscope – a labyrinth of shapes and angles fit together like geometry that had taken leave of its senses.   I sensed it running its fingers over the wooden walls, across the forests of color and varnish.  It reveled in the grisaille palette of the interior, in the melting grandeur and dusty bowers of the lonely sofa.

When my imagination returned – tousled but exhilarated – it had these things to tell me and more.  We discussed them all the way home.

Sometimes the imagination lies hidden, like an unfinished pearl – yet it is there, content to wait.  It doesn’t atrophy because it has been ignored or unused.  Everyone is accompanied by his or her own frolicking child.  No one  is truly barren.

Her Unusual Gown

The photograph was taken at the most opportune time.  The studio of Professeur Edouard Stebbing had suddenly become oppressive and murky and his subject, the lady with the undulating body, Mademoiselle Paule Morly, would never be the same.

The artists that shouted and theorized in the cafes lining the Boulevard des Italiens – Tortone, Paris, Frascati, Francais – must have noticed it curling between the fumes of coffee and absinthe:  the gray, nautical scent of the ocean.  Even though it was over 100 miles from the coast, the Professeur’s workplace on the Boulevard seemed to rock on invisible waves.

Inside, Mademoiselle Morly had begun to notice the alterations in her dress – but they were not the type that would have been wrought by a seamstress’ fingers.  At first she was annoyed – for it had been chosen carefully for her:  a silk bandage wrapped about her curves, designed to adore her femininity.  But suddenly the fabric had turned chilly and uncomfortable and the folds clutched at her skin:  she felt them moving like currents, like the roaming tides.

The hem that had hobbled her ankles slowly, inexorably, extended into a shoreline of froth; she sensed the green motion ripple around her feet before drifting towards an unknown coastline.  The gown had become a living thing – as real as the elements, as muscular as the sea.  The silk had melted away, yet she was still covered.  But the seams had been replaced by latitudes and longitudes; her gown was no longer silk, but a verdant breath of fog and salt.

Paule no longer wore a crown of glass and paste (valuables were not necessary for a photo shoot, besides, they would not be safe on a Boulevard crowded with strident and starving artisans).   It had been replaced by fluttering tiers of coral, waving a jade invitation to invisible mermaids, deadly on their perches of seaweed and song. It was heavier than her cheap tiara, and her plump shoulders ached, but she did not mind.

She was aware of a tickling down her back – not unpleasant, but alarming all the same, like a stranger’s knowing fingers.  She looked, and saw that her shockingly transformed gown had grown a cape – as thin as an insect’s wings, a delicate membrane shining with jade droplets.  Bemused, she held it between her fingers, to observe the studio light through the delicate tissue.   And it was at this moment of pleasant bewilderment that Professeur Stebbing snapped his picture.









That was over 100 years ago.  The picture postcard of Mademoiselle Morly has had more than one owner since then.  Someone had lovingly traced the folds of her unusual gown with glue before sprinkling it with green and blue glitter.  And now it is mine.   I don’t think that her image to be accentuated any more – so I have chosen to write about her.

This distant miracle never made the headlines.  Was it too shocking – too unbelievable?  Whatever became of the lady?  Did she disappear – to join the green faces curling out of the absinthe bottles that winked from  the bars of the cafes?  Did she ever travel to the coast – to melt into the water, to join her sister sirens?

No one knows.  And perhaps that is best.





The Butterfly I Found

If I hadn’t been observing the ripples and tiny colors in the sand so intently, I would have missed this living cameo, tucked like a golden intaglio in the silica dunes roaming at my feet.

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It was startling to see such an array of brightness and design – interlocking like panes of Chartres glass – so obviously alive yet so still as to give the impression that in all likelihood this fluttering illustration was dead.  The blue eyes, arranged at its edges like a scallop’s, were wide awake and unblinking:  an optic nerve that ran along its border, black-edged like a Victorian mourning card.

I knelt close to it, breathing lightly so as not to disturb the frosting on its wings, spun like stars frozen into the sky.  It was so still and foolish – foolish to think that it could hide behind its static brilliance.  It was as veiled as a sunset.

Within its off-kilter symmetry and cursive silhouette lay a history of art – Beardsley’s line, William Morris’ wallpaper, Klimt’s gold ingots; even Charles Worth’s gowns, ripe with the stirrings of Art Nouveau.

I watched the play of line and color; the rippling of pattern dancing like a silent ballet across its back.  Until I saw the antennae – curling and extending like frantic grace notes, trying to make sense of its cold, unwanted surroundings.

I am not one to leave stranded jewelry unclaimed, but this I left to its recovery:  a bauble that would live to decorate once more the vast and austere sky.

Hunting and Gathering

I think that my life is based on a peculiar anthropology.  Its vague miracles and modest wonders were not found in a manicured garden of curiosities.  They did not grow from seedlings and groomed saplings. I did not wait for them to grow, or to rise yawning, from their fragrant beds. I did not cultivate them out of confidence, or the expectation of what such a harvest could bring.

Instead, I hunted.  But my cache of weapons does not include guns or arrows.  I do not need to destroy in order to make my life remarkable.  Rather, I hunt with my eyes and my mind; making sure that I’m always accompanied by that map of whimsy and caprice, the imagination.  I hunt for what is hidden, for what lurks – for what waves its banner of lively beauty before disappearing, forcing me to give chase if I was quick enough to even notice.

And then I gather what I’ve found.  It might be thought that my yield is an unpretentious one…but to me they create a pattern of worthies which keep me warm throughout the year.  A sunset that melts like gold silk; birds that fly in a in a filigree of panic and hunger; autumn leaves the color of kitchen spices; the eyes of a 1905 beauty staring at me from the bottom of a box of sepia photographs; a statue of three sheep dancing the can-can – carrying a bouquet of orchids that someone had placed in their dainty, flamboyant hooves.  How thankful I am for that unknown person’s fey creativity.

Did You Think I Was Kidding?

Did You Think I Was Kidding?









These memories hang about me like jewelry heavy with charms:  I can stretch my arms out to watch them dance in the light once more; I can finger my neck to feel the decorations that hang there.   Like the richest of quilts, they keep me serene and content in the knowledge that I wear as fine a blanket as any that the nimble-fingered Fates could have woven.

So in a way I am a nomadic throwback:  a hunter and gatherer.  I’ve grown beyond the limitations of farming and its irksome patience.  Instead, I range far to bring home what memories I find:  to admire, to appreciate and to embrace all of their attendant joys.