Tag Archives: beauty

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?


Theda Bara

The twilight came

Shuttering like an eyelid

Cobalt and kohl stained

Theda Bara stretched across the sky


Her golden cobras

Spat and curled into the sunset

Her venomous hair crawling

Her dark vanity and vampire perfume


Sparking through her curls

Stars pierced her dangerous skin

Blood dripping towards the sun

And bubbling like a witches’ brew


Then the moon came

To scold her wayward minions

For making her rise

To defend a fellow goddess in pain



Birth Marked

The shadows grew flustered with color.  Their depths became lurid, pulsating with hidden meaning.  Trees shifted nervously as they felt their bark become an agonizing skin.  One's suffering was particularly dreadful.  The cold air, fragrant with the earth's seasonal decay, had comforted it for hundreds of years.  But suddenly it had become humid, drumming with the activity of invisible fingers – fingers that stripped the bark away, that polished the raw flesh until it was smooth, rounded and white.

Roots recoiled out of the ground.  Branches merged together and lost their splintered netting:  birds, carrying building materials in their mouths, flew elsewhere.  The canopy of leaves exploded, tearing apart the living embroidery.  And the sun illuminated what the modest trees had been hiding.

The surviving buds and leaves wafted down, settling on the white figure that was stiff with pain and the fear of separation from the forest and the maidens of Artemis.  Knots in the bark disappeared except for two – and they became parallel and uniform:  liquid, living galaxies of light.  This chosen unfortunate felt its sap become thin and quick, running down a filigree of paths that marked a fleshy interior.

When the trunk split, it cried.  And the sound drove the homeless birds flying through the torn ceiling.  Around each piece there were vines and lianas, grasping fruits and spinning tendrils.  It dragged behind it the emblems of its former life:  clouds, mangroves, tropics, forests coniferous and evergreen.

However, its new circulation, its sparks that seemed to fire everywhere and nowhere, were insistent.  And it walked forward, poised and praised, marked with triumph and transition.

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You Made Me Crazy

That is the translation of the song title, 'Du Hast Mich Toll Gemacht'.

With her sweep of citrus-colored hair, chopped and blunt, her elongated talons encircled with jewels, she is a picture of cruelty and decadence, fully capable of driving a man to madness.  Her eyes are occidental, yet oriental, their edges smeared with black kohl.  Almond-like and extended, they are deadly optical curves, predicting tragedy, seduction and pity.  The green shadow, vaulting above like cathedrals, was extracted from the emerald mines of the Ural Mountains, India and Columbia.  Crushed and smeared beneath her suffering brows, it is thick and rich, like honey.

She epitomizes Germany between the wars:  a country of brutal art, cultural savagery, mutilated veterans, prostitutes staring from open windows.  All of the danger, confusion, sex, brilliance and hunger from that time have collected in her face.

It is a map of exquisite perils, a poisonous topography.  It yields, it dares – with colors that are passionate and feral; with a beauty that can make you crazy.

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“We All To Conqu’ring Beauty Bow”

Last year I bought this lovely book:  large, heavy, solid – but full of ethereal things, colors, beauty and thoughts.  I swam through its luxury quite happily.  Amongst its illustrations I found two portraits which were sisters in beauty, but strangers in personality.

The first one is a gossamer rendering of Charlotte Philippine de Chatre de Cange, Marquise de Lamure.  Her name speaks of lands, country homes, acreages – a world of possession and contented wealth.  Her beauty is gentle and soft, and the artist wisely chose pastels to capture her fairness.

The clothes she wears are fashionable and modest – a fur tippet circles her neck and subdues her breast.  Modified gloves edged in fur warm her arms.  Silver tassels decorate her corset.  Rows of lace rest at her elbows.  Pearl earrings glow at her ears.  The painted fan is poised, ready to flick open and hide her heart-shaped face.  The colors are cream, beige, faded rose and the coldest, most melting of blues.

But there is still something open and candid about her dark eyes.  They gaze straight at me, daring me to enter the frame and interrupt her immovable goodness.  She invites, but she provokes, too:

The subject in the second portrait has no name, but the painting does.  Originally called A Lady In Masquerade Habit, it is now known as The Fair Nun Inmasked.  The picture was engraved as well, with an inscription added beneath it - taken from Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock:

"On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore
Which Jews may kiss and Infidels adore."

In all probability, this pale 'nun' is a prostitute.  In the 18th century – when both of these portraits were created – the rogues, the men who frequented the demimonde, the 'men of intrique' referred to prostitutes as nuns and their protective madams as abbesses.  The 18th century was nothing if not ironic.

This little nun is dressed in russet, black and silver.  A sheer veil belies her profession, and her lowered eyes – turned away from the viewer – mocks it.  But her dress is wonderfully decollete, and the small ruff around her neck only emphasizes it, as well as emphasizing her demure seduction with its complete uselessness – worn only as shameless decoration.

She holds a mask, dotted with beauty marks – several more than any respectable woman would consider – and embroidered on the edges with painted flowers.  The masquerade – such as the one our naughty novice (stop it, Aubrey) is attending – was considered scandalous by its critics.  To hide behind a mask, to suddenly be free and able to behave as you would never dare – whether it be by act or word – under the guise of such a beautifiul, unknown facade, had a shy, seductive appeal which was exciting and dangerous:

These ladies were so lovely and evocative.  I just had to share.

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I’ll Quit When I’m Ready.


Are you in your 40s and more fabulous, beautiful, sexy, sassy and confident than ever? Now it's time to tell the world.   From now until Friday, March 16, you'll be able to craft an essay detailing why your beauty and confidence now makes you happier and more comfortable in your 40s than you were in your 30s or 20s.

This is a contest that USA Network is sponsoring, to herald their new series, "The Starter Wife".  About a woman.  In her forties.  Divorced. (stab of terror-ridden sci-fi music)  The line they use, "Wife goes on" is clever, but outside of that tiny witticism I could care less about the series, and I'm not going to watch it.

Still.  There is something that does concern me:  this contest.  It irritates me.  The wording is…offensive

Here's the thing:  the initial question makes it sound as if once you're out of your 40's, you can kiss fabulousity, sexiness, sassiness and confidence goodbye.  Apparently it's enough of a biological anomaly that you're That Way in your oh-oh 4 0's – once you hit 50, please stop using hair dye, stop with the lipstick and why are you dieting anyway.  Please.  You're just embarrassing yourself.

I'll be 50 in June.  And I dare anyone to tell me that I have no right to be fabulous/beautiful/sexy/sassy/confident after that particular birthday. The wording for this contest leaves me feeling rather left out.  I mean, this is rather a pickle:  years are not like pounds.  You can't lose them.  When I bounce into my 50's, I wonder if anyone will sneer at me for dressing up for work and wearing make-up and dying my hair.  Well, damn them.

Am I over-reacting?  Very possibly.  But this has been on my mind.  What I wanted to say is that I'll stop reaching for those brass rings of aplomb when I'm ready.  And it isn't now.

(Marlene Dietrich in 1950 – 49 years old:  go, Shanghai Lil!)

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