October 28, 2012

And...she'll do it again.

Full moon in Los Angeles, just the way I enjoy it, alas, I am in bed nursing a %&*+ relapse and plenty of time to read.

In an age of stupefying untruths and incredulous myths designed to fool, bedevil and deceive, it is beyond refreshing to discover an unrepentant figure in history who was not remotely cowered by her skirmishes with sin, shame, vice or deplorable conduct, but in fact, emboldened by her forcefulness to hold sway over the faint of heart.

Browsing, I came across this delightful read, what enlightenment it revealed!

Let’s take a moment to parse, shall we?

We all know that hard times can increase, and even accelerate, our own dismaying dreams of wealth, excess and the ridiculously obscene, particularly when it comes to those insufferable souls who flaunt it. Our fascination with, not only the identities, but the behind-the scenes lifestyles of the impossibly well heeled, can soothe our own troubled brows like no other induced stimulant — prescribed, casked, home-grown, Pyrex-baked or fermented — can.

Perhaps that explains why Norman Mailer’s long cherished Marilyn has been replaced atop the biography list with Aimée Crocker’s renowned tome And I’d Do It Again.

The skeptical might, legitimately, ask who is Aimée Crocker? And if we are to fawn over the lives of the inscrutably rich, why covet hers? Here is why, dear readers. She was a woman of means, not always a lady and never what you might call ‘proper,’ but she managed to acquire and surpass extravagance with flair, invincibility and unapologetic gusto. No shying, hypocritical, piously-pitied patsy she.

Aimée (formerly Amy) Crocker (1863-1941), was the daughter of Judge Edwin B. Crocker, legal counsel for the Central Pacific Railroad, Justice of the California Supreme Court and founder of the Crocker Art Museum. Her father was also brother to Charles Crocker, one of the “big four” California railroad barons. How blessedly lucky at birth can one be?

By the age of sixteen, the voluptuary vixen had already tumbled for a German prince “who had the most romantic saber scars,” and a Spanish toreador (“his touch left scars on my soul”).

To the great relief of San Francisco society columnists, Crocker’s wounds healed quickly and she went on to hula á deux with King Kalakaua of Hawaii, jitterbug through the jungles of Borneo with a bona fide head hunter, and hootchy-kootchy her way into the harem of the Rajah of Shikapur.

Following is the account of her memoir And I’d Do It Again as reviewed by Time magazine, September 28, 1936.
“The silliest of the new crop [is] a muddled concoction written with a lurid, Sunday-supplement archness, by a daughter of the wealthy and picturesque Crocker family of San Francisco, detailing her travels in the Far East, her love affairs with a Japanese baron, a Chinese tyrant, a Borneo chieftain and a four-yard boa constrictor named Kaa. Aimée Crocker first became aware of the lure of the Orient when, at the age of 10, she demanded that her mother buy her an elaborate Chinese bed that she saw in San Francisco. “Very young indeed was I.” she writes, “when the finger of the East reached out across the Pacific and touched me.” No sooner had the East put the finger on her than her mother sent her to Germany to be educated. There she fell in love with a German prince (un-named), and was taken to Madrid, where she fell in love with a bullfighter.

The impressionable young lady then returned to San Francisco, married, was almost killed in a train wreck on her honeymoon, got a divorce, hired a 70-ft. schooner and set out for the South Seas, scandalizing the missionaries in Hawaii on the way by taking part in an “orgy,” the precise details of which she does not disclose.”

Clearly, the adventurous Aimée, five times a bride, did not feel compelled to curtail her bed hopping during bouts of matrimony. Consequentially, her marriages tended toward the rather abbreviated variety. It is one thing, after all, for a sophisticated spouse to shut his eyes to a love triangle; another altogether to overlook a veritable polytetrahedron of passions. Even the most peripheral paramour, however, seldom proved completely problem-free–particularly the type who naively featured himself as leading man rather than best supporting actor. Ah well, that was simply the gaucheness of youth. “They all get over husbands, given half a chance,” giggled Crocker.

As to whether the quintet of unfortunate grooms (Including a Russian prince almost forty years her junior) who wed the wealthy wanderlust-victim ever got over her, Crocker wasn’t much concerned. “Husbands, at best, have little to do with ‘people,’” she sniffed. “I know, because I have had a certain number of them.”
Indeed, by the time she sat down to write her memoirs at the age of seventy-four, the cultured coquette had “had a certain number” of almost everything, including some truly bizarre bedfellows. Not that she deigned to bat an eye when a boa constrictor, the pet of a Hindu princess, slithered into her boudoir one night and proceeded to do as boas do, enveloping her body in a sun cross-species hug. In fact, it seems, Crocker found the reptilian rendezvous quite a turn-on: “He gave me a strange, tickling sensation that was, I confess, very enjoyable.”

Still, for the professional flirt, the conquest is vastly more compelling than its consequences. Another seduction successfully completed, Crocker was soon snoozing away as the smitten snake, still coiled about her, lay staring into the dark. “It was like being in the strong embrace of a man,” shrugged the world-weary party girl. “I was more than comfortable.”

While the beloved boa did not enter her life until she had returned to New York, its obsessiveness for her charms compelled it to remain “constrictively” close to her at all times. So entranced were the twosome, Miss Crocker was rumored to have thrown an elaborate dinner party in its honor. The dinner, according to all in attendance, was a great success, although an unidentified sleuthing snoop passed it to the newspapers, who quickly picked it up turning the story into, what else? That of an orgy. Characteristically, Miss Crocker tossed it off with a laugh, declaring “Things always happen to me.”

October 22, 2012

…utterly bloody terrifying.

I have prepared a plate of food, pot of coffee, and have locked the door because today I will wallow in the biting prose and meticulous observation of human foibles by Molly Keane.

Molly Keane was an Irish novelist and playwright. She loved booze, hunting and her dogs and a great chum of Elizabeth Bowen, her co-chronicler of the decline of the Anglo-Irish stately home and way of life.

Her work, in case this jewel of a writer has escaped your notice, falls pretty much into two separate time periods, separated by almost forty years. The first lot is pretty good if you fancy whiling away a few hours in a mannered pre-War drawing room from a time that died. The second lot are the real stunners.

Molly's adolescence was marked and profoundly affected by the Easter Rising of 1916 and the subsequent Black and Tan war, spelling the end of the iron ruling by the Anglo-Irish upper classes and the final death throes of that way of life. Her mother was remote and her father was weak - her unhappy childhood is revisited over and over again in both her early and later novels, which are peopled with wonderful characters that will stay with you.  She takes no prisoners - if you can't hunt and don't love horses, you have no place in her world. Tough, unsentimental and absolutely certain that drinkies and a dog to hand cure most ills. In this world of victims and blame culture, she renders me nostalgic for a period I never knew.

Her early career, in the 1930s and 40s was written under the pseudonym MJ Farrell, a name she spied on a pub hacking home from a hunt one afternoon. To her sort, writing was hideously déclassé, so her books and plays were kept a secret from the huntin' shootin' and fishin' types she lived among. Her plays even ran in the West End. She suddenly stopped writing in 1946 - partly because her husband, Bobby, the love of her life and father of her two young daughters, died suddenly and tragically at the age of 37; and partly because the crisis in the economy caused the sources of income from the Empire to dry up to almost nothing, spelling the end of that peculiarly upper class way of life. The huge houses fell into ruin over the ensuing decades, wardrobes and stables grew empty and the lower orders no longer knew their places.

For almost forty years, she kept her head down and her nose clean, then, suddenly, dripping wickedness and a rapier wit, Good Behaviour appeared in 1981. There are many of us who think she deserved the Booker prize for it. This was followed by Time After Time (1983) and Loving and Giving (1988).  These books are, bluntly, bleeding brilliant. The characters are observed with a heady cocktail of spite and intelligence. They are dark, often hopeless, always amusing. This is what happened to those glamorous people after the war. Lack of money, crippling snobbery, equestrian obsession and huge albatrosses of house around their increasingly wrinkly necks. Uppity servants, clouds of dogs to feed, tarnishing silver and fading albums. Beautifully observed and possibly the best accompaniment to a crackling fire on an autumn day. 

My abiding regret is that I never got to meet her. When I made a visit to Ireland, after her death, I mentioned this regret to my host a seriously tough old boy. He said, 'Ah, you are keen on her books?  I'm glad we never had to invite her over to meet you. She was utterly bloody terrifying.'

October 7, 2012

Never underestimate Dahling Alice

'Dahling Alice, this is all very well my deah, but is this really the right time to swan about, seducing all the neighbours, banging away at your ukulele, swathed in jewels and keeping a pet lion?'


Anja and Clive know the obsession I have with the mystery surrounding the murder of Lord Erroll and how unspeakably dull and hectoring I can become when the subject is mentioned.

Well, I just finished another set of books and in one titled The Temptress by Paul Spicer it would appear that dahling Alice (de Trafford, de Janzé, née Silverthorne a.k.a. the fastest gun in Gare du North) was the one who done did it (are you paying attention Sherlock?) - portrayed with glazed and dirty elegance by Sarah Mills in White Mischief.  

In the past week I have been dissecting the book. She was riddled with madness and style, abandoned her children, adopted a baby lion, etc., etc., etc. . . . as the King of Siam was wont to say.  The writing is diligent, but dull, and its accuracy I am unable to vouch for, but The Temptress made for interesting and entertaining reading.  Let’s call it Kenyan Rashomon.

I think that in his book Vertical Land, Frédéric de Janzé painted the most intimate portrait of Alice.

Alas, the telling of her fascinating story was long overdue.  Perhaps a more intuitive author will write another someday. 

Ah well, while residing in my happy valley the urban hipsters in our reading circle, blood sugar low because they've just had double maths, have worked themselves into an indignant lather because they weren't born in Kenya – “It’s were all the action is!”

In the meantime I’m putting on Alice’s hat; park my derriere on a veranda, minus the lion cub, and shout at the houseboy to bring me Sundowners.

Thank you Anja.

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