June 27, 2011


Calling all female sybarites: Imagine spending your days taking luxurious baths and lounging on cashmere-covered divans; indulging in nectar, sweets and tobacco; and gossiping with a group of attractive and cultured women of many races. Such was the image of the pampered life in a Turkish harem.

For many Europeans, the East arrived with the Arabian Nights, a work first written by a French Arabic scholar named Antoine Gallard as a diversion, based loosely on oral tales that circulated throughout the Middle East and India. Published in the first decade of the 18th century, the Arabian Nights immediately became popular, and spread the image of the seraglio, or royal harem, as a place of unleashed sensuality and violence. In the “frame story” which sets the tales in motion, the King Shahrayar finds his wife bedding one of his black slaves and kills her. Convinced of woman’s essential lechery and deceit, he resolves to marry and deflower a virgin every night and then kill her in the morning. An intended victim, Sheherazade tells the tales to captivate the king and avoid meeting her fate. In 1841 Edward Lane, who wrote an early ethnography of Egyptian life, published a family-friendly version of the tales, excising much of the sex and taming some of the violence. Later in the century, Richard Burton produced another version, which he published privately for a circle of friends that included several reputed “libertines.” Burton embellished the sex and the violence, appending his own thoughts about perverse Arab erotics. In all of these versions, Kabbani notes, the women characters are mostly “demonesses, procuresses, sorceresses, witches. They are fickle, faithless and lewd. They are irrepressibly malignant, and plot to achieve their base desires in the most merciless manner imaginable.”

Thus were Arab women created. . . for literate European tastes.

In 1997 the travel writer Carla Coco published Secrets of the Harem, a large-format coffee-table style book which opens the harems of 19th century Ottoman Turkish rulers, “penetrating” the “complex organization.” Lavishly illustrated with paintings by European artists, the author sets out to describe “the welter of needs, desires, hopes and dreams of oriental women,” as seen in “the most voluptuous place in the empire.”

We learn about the Turks’ origin on the steppes of Central Asia: “The pleasures of galloping on horses, raping girls, getting drunk, shedding blood and other acts of violence were mingled with feeling of tolerance and brotherhood.”

Somehow, though, “women enjoyed both consideration and freedom,” which Islam greatly curtailed, giving them in its place the luxury and sensuality of harem life. The hookah-smoking concubine depicted in Bridgman’s Odalisque thus shows how “The soft Levantine lovemaking replaced the rough love games of the steppes.” The topless African and European dancers in Marinelli’s 1862 Dance of the Bee in the Harem illustrate a diplomat’s report that they wore “garments so thin that they allowed ‘all the secret parts’ to be revealed,” but only to a few eyes. Gerome’s 1859 Guardian of the Harem showed one of the “Ugly, deformed and fierce-looking black eunuchs from Africa,” among whom “homosexual love flourished.”

Inside the harem, “Lesbianism was rampant,” and women enjoyed “happy hours of oblivion” brought on by coffee, tobacco, and opium, which Nouy’s 1888 The White Slave illustrates as the nude woman exhales wisps of smoke.

Yet danger always lurked: a double-page spread of Cormon’s 1874 Jealousy in the Seraglio shows a naked dark-skinned woman peering with tensed joy at the bloody body of a white-skinned woman that an African eunuch has just knifed. The caption explains that, “The harem, a wonderland of delights and pleasures, could become a treacherous place for the unfaithful concubine who displeased her master.” Two intoxicated women reclining together in Giraud’s Interior of a Harem somehow illustrate that in the 16th century the reins of government “passed into the hands of the women and the palace slaves, who used their power recklessly and with great cruelty.” And somehow Delacroix’s 1834 Algerian Women, which depicts three rather glassy-eyed hookah-smoking women attended by a black servant, illustrates how in the 19th century, “new sentiments were stirring, and the women, despite their poor education, were quite capable of thinking in addition to loving and procreating. . .” The book ends with “the elegant, ethereal princesses” wandering about the Imperial Palace “like ghosts, dressed in the best of French fashions,” as an unnamed “new leader” transforms the empire into a republic and passes laws which “formally establish equality between men and women.”

Illustrated by documents of the period, old and new photographs, and masterpieces by Renoir, Delacroix, Matisse, and Ingres among others is a beautifully illustrated book filled with false and misleading information about the 'wonderful life' in the Turkish harem.

The harem remains a mystical place of pleasure, an enticing institution of Islamic culture, perceived to represent family and sexual traditions far different from those of the Western world.

June 23, 2011

Easy Reader – “Infamous”, not the movie, the players.

NEVER say never, that, perhaps, is the moral of Peter Bart’s film career.

There he was, a young New York Times reporter, married and a father, happy covering New York. Suddenly he was asked to report from Los Angeles. He had no interest. In the men’s room, he asked David Halberstam what would happen if he declined. “You probably end up holding a very small piece of what you’re currently holding,” Halberstam said. So off to LA went Bart.

Bob Evans was a young man about town. He was not an actor, but he kept getting big parts. Peter Bart wrote him up. Charles Bludhorn, head of Gulf + Western, read that piece and decided - you are sitting down? - that Evans should be head of production at the London office of Paramount Pictures. Six months later, Evans was running Paramount in LA.

This gave Bob Evans an equally bizarre idea: Peter Bart should quit the Times and help him run Paramount. “I wasn’t equipped for this job,” Evans said, “so I want someone at my side that is also unprepared.” That is how, in 1967, a 35-year-old reporter tumbled into the movie business.

Paramount was so feudal that Bart had to threaten a minion to get decent office furniture. Bludhorn interfered at every turn, approving big-budget projects that were clearly destined to die fast and hard. Evans worked hard by day, but at night, no one partied harder.

Ah, the ‘60s…

“Infamous Players: A Tale of Movies, the Mob, (and Sex)” mostly deals with the revolution that Bart and Evans made at Paramount - getting rid of legacy directors and bringing in new blood like Francis Coppola and Roman Polanski. Bart gives you the top floor view, and he is eloquent at that altitude. However, that is not why we read books about Hollywood, is it? We want the dish. There is plenty, some very controversial, details? read the book.

More dish? “Virtually every party, and they were almost nightly, had their standard offering and lines of cocaine and piles of joints," Bart writes. [I can attest to that.]

“I smoked the joints and welcomed occasional cocaine high after an arduous day, and the hot tubs became habitual as did the subsurface wandering hands." If you know anything about the movie business today, you know it is different now - most notably, that it is run by MBAs and accountants. This is, of course, what we want in our executive class.

Alas, the fact remains, in just seven years, Evans and Bart made "Rosemary's Baby," "Goodbye Columbus," "Catch-22," "Nashville," "The Conversation," "Love Story," "True Grit," "Chinatown" and "The Godfather."

You might ask, you cannot help but ask, what have the new guys made? And, just to close the circle, what are the names of the memoirs they have written?

June 6, 2011

First of the summer reads.

Coming Home, John Betjeman.

‘To each his private pleasure. Mine is looking at buildings. ’ So wrote John Betjeman shortly after WW II. From the evidence of the decades of writing collected in this companionable volume, he might have added ‘church-crawling’, Walter Scott novels, ‘the slow descent into English winter’, Paddington (‘the London equivalent of Brighton’), Australian flora, the films of Cecil B de Mille, ‘the romance of decay’, seaside towns, the history of England and, of cource, poetry. An affection for ‘what is beautiful…regardless of date [and] association’ irradiates Betjeman’s prose, whether his subject is St. Pancras station (very apropos) or the elegies of forgotten eighteenth-century parson poets.

Secrets of the Harem, Carla Coco

‘So much tedium, so much languishing’ is how Theophile Gautier described the life of the harem in 1853. His is one of any number of opinions expressed by Westerners about an institution that came to embody all the perceived luxury, corruption, and voluptuousness of the Ottoman Empire. In this book, Carla Coco explores in detail the life of the imperial harem in Istanbul, first at the Topkapi Palace, later at the Dolmabahce-its eleborate rituals and covert ambitions of the inmates of this court-within-a-court. The text is beautifully illustrated and includes paintings by Guardi, Ingres, Delacroix, Matisse and Renoir; all testify to a European fascination with the opulent licentiousness of the world of the Thousand and One Nights. Secrets of the Harem, dispelling myths, nevertheless increases the lure of the vanished seraglio, which remains enticingly elusive.

Farewell My Subaru: An Epic Adventure in Local Living by Doug Fine

Doug Fine tells the story of his move to a remote ranch in New Mexico, his solar plights and triumphs and his veggie oil conversion. Humorous and candid, the book is fun to read. Although peppered with interesting Eco-facts, it is much more a personal memoir than an educational manual.

Although I enjoyed all of Farewell, My Subaru, the best part was the Afterword, in which Fine details what he feels are the five (or six) most important conclusions he's come to. It reads like a mini-Manifesto and is laced with great suggestions for demanding change of the people we keep in business.

This book is probably not a book for anyone wishing to learn more, nor is it likely to be a keeper, but if you're looking for a light read or a bit of inspiration from the library, you might enjoy Farewell, My Subaru by Doug Fine.

Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise, a biography by Sam Irvin. I've always wanted to know more about the enigmatic Miss Thompson, star of cabaret, movie musicals, and authoress of the famed Eloise at the Plaza series and, apparently, one of the great (and more complicated) creative characters of the twentieth century. Now that Mr. Irvin has come out with his well-received book, I have my chance.

I purloined Wendy Burden's Dead End Gene Pool from Clive. The book provides a window into the world of inherited wealth and storied privilege, it is also a rollicking good read and at times darkly amusing in the description of a world that by the time the author arrived on the scene had gone seriously awry.

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, the author of the delightful Snobs and best known for the screenplay to Gosford Park.  I do relish this man's prose.  I am only several pages into it, and enjoying it immensely.

P.S. A heads-up readers, Google is improving our sites, so there are bound to be some hiccups.

June 5, 2011

"If you want a friend in this town, buy a dog."

Books by insiders about Washington once were discreet, scholarly, and somber. No more. The genre of Washington best-sellers has become an exotic combination of intimate gossip, trade secrets, self-justification, and revelations about the immorality of power.

Serve-and-tell tales have created a booming market for Washington nonfiction leaving New York and Hollywood behind as sources for insider gossip.

Stigma and stain have bested discretion and dignity. The result has been to raise public participation in a, mostly, inconsequential body of knowledge. This has lowered the level of trust and increased the hunger for new sensation.

Only yesterday, it seems, George Marshall and Dean Rusk refused to write their memoirs because they felt the relationship between the president and his secretary of state should be sacrosanct. Dean Acheson, the secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, waited sixteen years to write his memoirs in 1969 for what was then considered a staggering advance - $200,000.

When she was first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy tried to institute a signed, no memoirs pledge from White House staffers, but she was dissuaded from pressing the idea. Her nightmare of insider revelations would become an established genre, and she a part of the establishment, an editor at Doubleday.

Watergate was what whetted the public appetite for the new genre. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not insiders, to be sure, but the next-best thing, great investigative reporters. When they laid bare the workings of power and helped force the resignation of a president, all restraints collapsed. No one questioned the fact of Richard Nixon on his knees praying with Henry Kissinger the night he decided to resign-only the propriety.

In the Reagan administration, the budget director David Stockman was the first to declare an open season on loyalty when he revealed the bankruptcy of supply-side economics in The Triumph of Politics. His advance of $2.3 million, including a $250,000 trust fund for his six-month-old daughter, set a precedent for Washington books.

Today it is a seller’s market for government employees hawking personal intimacies about the president and first lady to the highest bidder. Hot instant history commands astronomical advances – the greater the indiscretion, the higher the advance. Serve and betray has replaced kiss and tell. “Loyalty” is not a word used often in Washington these days. Rather, people love to quote Harry Truman’s apocryphal “If you want a friend in this town, buy a dog.”

Stockman’s impunity stirred the juices of greed and revenge. Michael Deaver’s Behind the Scenes, a defensive pastiche of anecdotes with little focus and a lot of mistakes, exploited the discrepancy between image and substance-a hallmark of the Reagan presidency. As a result, Washington books became obsessed with the mechanics of perception-the staging, the scripting, and the pulling of strings in this puppet show of power.

The avalanche of publications since then all qualify for what Rod MacLeish (a senoir Washington commentator) called “the breaking of the seal on the covenant of conduct and discretion.” The publishing of memoirs while the president is still in office has a debilitating effect on trust and discretion key elements of governing. When the covenant is broken, governance falters. People who write or ghostwrite such books while the president is still in office are either fools of scoundrels. Fools if they don’t understand the system, scoundrels if they do.

Still the quest for the next big disclosure goes on. And there all those new authors that came to town with President Obama…

Ms. Edna’s insiders list for DeDe.

For me, these books best express the intensity and complexity of how Washington works. The first four are “power books”, written by men who made history.

The others written by journalists and novelists capture the struggle for power and place in Washington, revealing the vanity and weakness of men amid the grandeur of their aspirations. Nobody has written the quintessential Washington novel yet, because in the nation’s capital reality transcends imagination; but, for me, Gore Vidal is the best, he has unlocked the emotions that accompany power.

Henry Kissinger, White House Years, Years of Upheaval and On China.

Harry McPherson, A Political Education

Richard Nixon, Six Crises and RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon

Tip O”Neill with William Novak, Man of the House

Tom Ross and David Wise, The Invisible Government

David Haberstam, The Best and the Brightest

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, All the Presidents Men

Theodore White, The making of the President

Roderick MacLeish, A city on the River

Seymour M. Hersh, The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House

Allan Drury, Advise and Consent

Ward Just, The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert and Other Washington Stories

William Safire, Safire’s Political Dictionary

Gore Vidal, American Chronicle series

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich