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Annie - San Francisco, CA

I don't live-blog from the tents.

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Monday
Nov072011

Influences: Cleopatra

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemed Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel, 1887.

Over the past few weeks I've been deeply immersed in Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. Having finished its detailed, dense, and scholarly 300 pages, I'm intrigued by this powerful Egyptian queen, who wasn't really Egyptian but Greek. Not merely a seductress, as Schiff demonstrates beautifully, Cleopatra was a politician, a living goddess, a mother, a diplomat, a generous patron, a scholar, a strategist, a lady, and yes, a passionate lover. What is even more intriguing is her lasting influence over the millenia. From Plutarch to Shakespeare to Cecil B. DeMille, this woman's political savvy, allure, and style have inspired art, film, music, dance, and fashion.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1964. Massive sets, location changes, budget overruns, a solid gold dress, and Le Scandale - did anyone actually think this movie would turn out okay?

Claudette Colbert at Cleopatra in 1934. I don't care for Colbert's Cleopatra - she's entirely too smiling and too saucy to really be right for the role. Indeed, as one of the last pre-code films, Colbert plays up the "Cleopatra as sex vixen" aspect. However, her costumes are spectacular.

As Chip Brown mentions in his National Geographic article "The Search for Cleopatra" from July, 2011: "When not serving as a Rorschach test of male fixations, Cleopatra is an inexhaustible muse. To a recent best-selling biography add—from 1540 to 1905—five ballets, 45 operas, and 77 plays. She starred in at least seven films; an upcoming version will feature Angelina Jolie." Along with all of this are the many paintings and drawings of the queen, many of which date from the academic period of the late 19th Century, when all things ancient came back into vogue. The most famous film depictions of Cleopatra are of course the Elizabeth Taylor version from 1964, but also the Claudette Colbert version from 1934. Before filming, DeMille reportedly asked Colbert "How would you like to be wickedest woman in history?" It is this myth of wickedness that Schiff's book helps to dispel. Rather than relying on her feminine wiles, one can see that Cleopatra had true intelligence and an inherent diplomacy needed to calculate political risk, assert herself as a world leader, and protect her kingdom. The long-lauded affairs with Julis Caesar and Mark Antony are in truth, merely sidenotes to the real political intrigues.

The coveted Pegasus Necklace from Stella & Dot. $198

Cleopatra was also a calculated image-maker. She knew how to orchestrate opulence in order to woo a crowd, or even a Roman general. She knew what to wear, how to speak, and she spoke multiple languages. Her image as a wealthy queen, and as the living embodiment of the Goddess Isis, was part of her power, and one that was carefully maintained. Even the city of Alexandria maintained the standard with its libraries, technological advances, golden statuary, marble walkways, perfumes, and lavish meals. Schiff describes her dress as being bedecked with "plenty of pearls, the diamonds of the day."

She coiled long ropes of pearls around her neck and braided more into her hair. She wore others sewn into the fabric of her tunics. Those were ankle-length and lavishly colored, of fine Chinese silk or gauzy linen, traditionally worn belted, or with a brooch or ribbon. Over the tunic went an often transparent mantle, through which the bright folds of fabric were clearly visible. On her feet Cleopatra wore jeweled sandals with patterned soles.

But other than this, what Cleopatra looked like remains a mystery. The cover of Schiff's book shows a woman with her face turned away - perfectly appropriate considering there are no frontal views of Cleopatra's likeness. All of her portraits are in profile, showing a somewhat large nose and prominent features. It is understood that while Cleopatra was not beautiful, her allure, charisma, and intelligence developed enough attraction to hold many in her thrall.

Louis Vuitton's "Desert Goddesses" ad campaign from 2004, featuring Naomi Campbell and shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott.

Perhaps it is this alluring mystery that has inspired so many for so long. That, and the luxury of ancient Alexandria whose gold, silver, and pearls seemed to flow through the streets. Indeed, luxury fashion designers often return to Cleopatra and Egyptian iconography for inspiration. In 2004, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton developed his "Desert Goddesses" collection, with an array of black, gold, and turquoise looking like warm sands meeting the Meditterranean. In more recent seasons, Gareth Pugh sent gold and black striped looks down his runway for Fall 2011, offering a tough, almost robotic take on Egyptian motifs and headdresses.

Gareth Pugh, Fall 2011 collection.

Even more than mere fashion, the history of the age of Cleopatra lives on. HBO's series Rome offered a lush take on the relationships between the Egyptian queen and both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, while also showing a vivid portrayal of Octavian - the man destined to end the Ptolemaic Empire forever. Through many marriages and inter-marriages, both Octavian and Mark Antony's descendants were future Roman emperors including Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero. The histories of these emperors are celebrated in all their gory machinations in I, Claudius from 1976. Mark Antony's Roman wife, Octavia - sister to Octavian, comes out as the kindest and most generous of all, taking guardianship of not only her own children (3 by a first marriage), and her two children with Mark Antony, but also of the three children Mark Antony and Cleopatra had together.

At the end of Schiff's account of Cleopatra, she dispels the notion that the queen committed suicide by being bitten by an asp. Instead, she suggests that it was poisoned figs that did the job, killing Cleopatra and her two attendants almost immediately. Poisoned figs serve as a leitmotif for Octavian, who, 40 years later, after securing his empire and launching the Pax Romana, was rumored to be killed by his own wife Livia Drusilla with poisoned figs. (Peter Greenaway picked up on the poisoned figs in the 1980s in one of my favorite films, The Belly of an Architect. Apart from the main character Storley Kracklite's obsession with Octavian Augustus' tomb, he shows his growing insanity by accusing his wife of poisoning some figs.)

The famous Cleopatra Earrings by Wendy Brandes. 18K gold with 1.36 carats of diamonds. $9,000

So what can we expect as a trend response from Schiff's wonderful biography and the upcoming film with Angelina Jolie? Probably a lot of gold, pearls, and Grecian sandals, but perhaps with even more regal jewels. As with all bio-pics, there is usually a strong fascination that results in the general public. It was the same with Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, and it will likely be the same here, with designers adapting classic Grecian draping to modern tastes. One of the best parts of the Cecil B. DeMille-Claudette Colbert version of Cleopatra was the way the film's designers adapted the look for the sleek shapes of the Art Deco period of the 1930s. Not exactly historically accurate, but really great style.

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman, 1896

One thing that will certainly change with upcoming depictions of Cleopatra is the charge that she was merely a seductress, not a leader. As Schiff concludes: "It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life...Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent."

Images: 1) Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp 2) Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1963 by 20th Century Fox 3) Claudette Colber in Cleopatra, 1934 by Paramount Pictures - from Doctor Macro 4) Stella & Dot 5) 6) Fashion Gone Rogue 7) Wendy Brandes Jewelry 8) Public Domain

Thursday
Nov032011

Postcard: Mount Lavinia Hotel & Beach, Ceylon

When I found this postcard I had no idea where it was - it just looked like a very nice place to visit. After researching the Mount Lavinia Hotel I discovered a wonderful romantic legend from the days of colonialism.

The Mount Lavinia Hotel wasn't always a hotel, it was actually the Governor's mansion of colonial Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. The first governor, Sir Thomas Maitland, acquired this point of land in the village of Galkissa and decided to build a residence there around 1805. At this time, Sir Thomas (often called King Tom) fell in love with a local girl named Lovina, a dancer who descended from Portugese and Sinhalese parents, and a member of the lowest caste in the community. Because of their disparate circumstances, Lovina and King Tom had to keep their romance a secret. But as a token of his esteem, King Tom named his new home atop the cliff "Mount Lavinia" in her honor.

Sir Thomas left Ceylon in 1811, but successive governors lived in the mansion through the 1840s. After this, the history gets a little unclear, until World War II when the building was used as a military hospital by the British Army. I'm not sure if it was made into a hotel before or after this, but it's still a hotel today...

Thursday
Oct202011

Postcard: Autumn in Amish Country

Most eastern Holmes County farms were originally settled by Amish families whose ancestors still live on them. So, you'll still find many miles of farm land that is unencumbered by modern technology, with big red or white barns, big wood framed farm houses, and valleys unmarred by electric lines.

My parents sent this postcard to me in 1994 during a trip they took to visit family in Ohio. It always makes me want to live somewhere that actually has a legitimate fall season, with colorful leaves, harvests, and smoky smells...

Tuesday
Oct182011

What I've Been Doing...

I know posting's been a little sparse these days and I apologize. I'm trying to work my way through some back pain, which if you've ever known back pain you'll know, that it's a full-time distraction. Luckily, I think I'm on the road to recovery! Time will tell...

In the meantime, I've been trying to keep my apartment up, making some changes here and there. It's hard, because all I really want to do is rest, but at a certain point you just can't stand it any more and have to do something... But there's been a lot of planning going on. I have a new gallery wall concept which I'll post about, but I've somehow lost my hammer so the hanging of said gallery is temprarily delayed. If you see a random hammer lying around, it's probably mine.

I did find my itty-bitty craft hammer though, which was enough to hang my new vintage poster in the bathroom. It's an old lobby poster for It Should Happen to You - one of my favorite films of the 1950s. If you've never seen it, put it on your list because it's a treat. Judy Holliday and Jack Lemmon are perfectly matched - comedically and romantically. And then there's Peter Lawford being Peter Lawford... But it's Holliday who is a laugh-riot in this movie, playing the dizzy blonde to perfection. She's charming and endearing and full of the ambitions all of us have longed for at some point.

When I came across this poster, I thought it was the perfect thing to bring out the vintage pink pottery I have in my bathroom...and it always reminds me of the film too.

Yesterday's grocery run found some great flowers at Trader Joe's. Sometimes when you hit it at the right time, you can get really good stuff. I got black dahlias for $4.99 per bunch, and a mixed bouquet of gerber daisies, roses, and hypericum berries for $3.99 per bunch. I thought the deep plum of the dahlias would work well with the pinks and burgundies in the mixed bouquet, so I put the two together in some of my favorite vases from Jonathan Adler. In the end, I think they look a lot more expensive than a $10 bouquet!

Who'd have thought that a trip to Trader Joe's would inspire like this?

Wednesday
Oct122011

Postcard: Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto

 

"Built in 1397 by the Shoguns, and repaired in 1955, it rests surrounded by still waters and colorful autumn leaves."

This postcard was printed in Japan by the NBC - Nippon Beauty Card Center Inc. - and judging from the fonts used, it is probably from the 1960s. Since it is from Japan, it provides the proper name of the temple, Kinkaku-ji, but it's legendary name is actually "The Temple of the Golden Pavillion". A three-story structure that is an historic Zen temple, the top two floors are adorned in pure gold leaf. While this postcard makes it look yellow, the building is actually quite metallic when you see it in modern pictures. 

The original Shogun owner, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, had the pavilion and its grounds turned into a Zen temple upon his death. Six and a half centuries later, the Kinkaku-ji Temple is one of the most-visited locations in all of Japan. The architecture, it's garden and reflecting pool are all built according to the Western Paradise of the Buddha Amida, illustrating a harmony between heaven and earth.

Friday
Oct072011

Bon Weekend!

 

Like most people who work on a flexible schedule, I find that leaving town mid-week makes for a much better (not to mention less-crowded) get-away than a weekend one. If you have the time, I highly recommend it!

 

I'm just heading back from a few days in Montecito/Santa Barbara where I enjoyed the lush gardens, the wind-swept beaches, the green grass of the polo fields, and the creativity of a few friends. I got a lot of work done and hopefully this trip will spur me forward through the fall! 

Sometimes all you need is a quick trip out of town...

 

Wednesday
Oct052011

Postcard: Bouquinistes

 

Sometimes there just isn't enough Paris on my blog, so I always work hard to remedy that...Today's postcard shows a vintage view of the Seine with a Bateau Mouche, Notre Dame, and some of the famous Bouquinistes...

The antiquarian booksellers along the Seine in Paris, commonly known as Bouquinistes, have a tradition that dates back to the 16th Century. There are so many treasures to be had in these little stalls, but you have to be patient because there's a lot of less-worthy things there too. Bad reprints of Mucha and the Impressionists may be right alongside an original print of a Gruau drawing for Dior. You just never know what you may find, which is why they're so fun...

Monday
Oct032011

What I Wore: Arm Party


Bracelets by Banana Republic, Stella & Dot, BCBG, J. Crew, and Louis Vuitton.

Yes, I agree, I am late to this party, but people have been stacking bracelets for millennia so what's the big deal? As you probably know, I am much more of a ring and necklace gal than a bracelet fanatic. I wore them all the time a few years ago, but then adapted my interest to bigger statement pieces. Also, as a writer, I find it difficult to reconcile wrist bling with a keyboard - they just don't mesh well.

In the past few months I've been noticing a lot of the blogger gals picking up this trend however, ( in real life - not just outfit posts,) and I've been slowly working my way back to bracelets. My feeling is, you can't really do all three: ring, necklace, bracelet. You need to edit to just two areas of adornment to keep things chic and eye-catching. There can't be too many different areas of focus or the whole look gets cluttered.

So, I wear my bracelets carefully, and usually only when I'm wearing another accessory that's much smaller. I mix some old ones with new ones, and try to keep them all sort of neutral - lots of browns, blacks and metallics. I'm loving the leather wrap ones - and I'm so glad I held on to my Louis Vuitton "luggage tag" bracelet from years ago...

Although still wary - the trend may be just too trendy for me - I'm enjoying the result and the "new" statement location for bling.

Wednesday
Sep282011

Postcard: Cliff House, San Francisco

 

"World Famous Cliff House since 1858. The Cliff House is built upon a cliff at the most westerly point in San Francisco, overlooking the Golden Gate Straits famed Seal Rocks and the ever-changing scenes of the blue Pacific Ocean. The present building is the fifth to be built upon this spot."

As any San Franciscan knows, the Cliff House is a part of our story. Burnt to the ground five or six times, changed owners, reinvented, and then absorbed as part of the National Parks, the place is still standing, still thriving, and still serving a darn good meal over 150 years later. I would sum it up or paraphrase it for you, but instead I encourage everyone to read this brief history of the place because not only is it fascinating, but it serves as a sort of microcosm of the whole San Francisco narrative: historic, regal, fun, and haphazard all in one. In fact, if you read one thing out of this post it should be this history of the Cliff House - I learned so much I don't know what to tell you first!

Of course this postcard is now a lie, of sorts. The Cliff House does not even look like this any longer, after a long and beautiful renovation in 2003. It's now the 6th or maybe 7th building to be on the spot, and the famous sea lions have since migrated to Pier 39 within San Francisco Bay. Ships rarely (but still do) founder on the rocks out there, but mostly its surfers these days. 

The only thing that really remains true are the "ever-changing scenes of the blue Pacific Ocean". But even that is sometimes gray, olive green, teal, turquoise, or cobalt, depending upon the weather, and always with a rim of frothy foam just at the edge.

Monday
Sep262011

Tintype Portrait from PhotoboothSF

There's a few reasons why I actually let myself get photographed at PhotoboothSF the other night.

1. I was with a lot of good friends who'd had their photos done and theirs were simply...beautiful. I loved the nuanced grays, the textures, and how the lighting blew out their usual coloring & features. It was them, but not them, and the change was incredibly interesting.

I was also really intrigued by the format - the tintype isn't exactly everywhere these days, and it was such a throw-back that I thought the portraits looked like something from a Ken Burns documentary...

Dear Mother -

The cab ride from The Marina took an eternity. Upon arriving in the Mission I was set upon by hipsters who plied me with a hand-rolled cigarette of sorts, which made everything even more confusing. Their faces were covered in hair, but their heads had none at all, which is why they covered them in baseball hats. The plaid was everywhere. So too, the Wayfarers. The night was dark and the corner we stood upon was active - there was music and laughter and I no longer knew or cared where I was after being absorbed by the general joie de vivre.

I didn't understand the cold touch of a metal can against my lips, nor the correct way to pronounce the word on it's side which was spelled "TECATE". I had forgotten that beer sometimes came in cans.

How did I get here? How do I get home? Are the ATMs safe on this side of town? Will a return taxi accept a credit card? Will you all remember me when I return? Or will I be so changed by these starving, hysterical, naked minds?

I send you my love...

2. It was a rough week. I deserved a fun night out, but I think I was still trying to shake off the mountain of stress I'd absorbed since the Sunday before. When Michael, the photographer, met me. He told me I looked intimidating. Me? Since when is that the read perfect strangers get from looking at me once?

He said "there's a lot of meanness around you." To which I replied, "well, there's been a lot of meanness coming at me this week."

"Well," he said, "it's time to give it back."

3. I was drunk. Yeah. For the first time in a very very long time. Normally I avoid cameras as much as possible, but I'd had just enough to drink to take the edge off of my fear. That, and Erin Dudley positively MacGuyvered me with the fastest hair and makeup session right before my turn. That girl has glamour to go in her little handbag...amazing.

Not that any of it mattered. I still look like a drunk crack whore. Or, as a friend said "it's a sexy mugshot"... Anne Sage of Rue Magazine said it looks like I was "picked up out of a flop house in the Haight in 1968..."

I'm not sure what was in my mind when I sat there trying to hold still for the full three-four seconds it takes to burn the image. I didn't feel angry or sad or any of the emotions that the image seems to convey, which, I suppose is what makes this type of portraiture so interesting. (That, and I think my necklace from Madewell provides a certain graphic texture that's really intriguing.) It's an intense moment - that camera is very close and it's a one-shot process, as opposed to our usual shoot & repeat of the modern, digital age. I had no idea that this "me" was the me that would come out...

It sort of looks like me, but it feels like this person is a stranger to me.