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Brushes with the rich and famous:Diana

With the arrival of TIFF, Lady Gaga and Jessica Chastain, Andre Leon Talley in the city, I think about some of “the stars” , one in particular whose memory was conjured by her passing twenty years ago last week. Pictures and media reminders of Princess Diana sparked a memory of my own, one that along with a dinner sitting practically adjacent Bill Clinton in Martha’s Vineyard Black Dog, reminded me of chance encounters in our lives. 

Back when Bob Rae was premier, we were invited to the yacht Britannia with the Royals for a supper on board. When an invitation arrived, we believed it a hoax perpetrated by someone with a deliciously wicked sense of humour. But when it was followed up a day or so later by a thickly- accented attaché on the the telephone, we knew we would be in for an adventure.Instructions followed on proper protocol as we were instructed on bows and curtsies , dress lengths and no touching of the bodies of the Prince or the Princess, should I decide to greet them both in great bear hug. As the day approached, I fretted over velvet or taffeta and hair- dos, curly or straight, manners and behaviours that were deemed appropriate and proper for the event.

The night was rainy and dark. We stopped our car in line, told to wait until a uniformed person with a huge umbrella escorted us towards the boat and our car disappeared. The captain formally met us at the door, smoothly welcoming us on board as if we had known him for ages. I marvelled at his ease of making tinkling conversation, relaxing and settling us into light and charming conversation. I glimpsed Norman Jewison, Cito Gaston, John Tory,Lincoln Alexander, a few others of the chosen gathered for the opportunity to gawk at the monarchy at close range.

We heard all food and drink had been brought from England, thus dispelling the worry of anyone attempting to poison his and her highnesses. Years ahead of Games of Thrones, the attendants on the royal yacht were not taking any chances that the wines, each perfectly aligned to food courses, might be laced with more than vintage wine.

We searched with our eyes to find some prized trinket, engraved soap, list of seating arrangements for visitors to take home, discreetly removed while we supped, but sadly nothing lay about to testify to our presence there that night in 1991 : only our memories would survive the few scheduled hours.

Greeted by Prince Charles, I was surprised by his warmth, his knowledge of architecture pertaining to Ontario and especially Osgoode Hall, his learned ability to chat, converse, even raise knowledgeable insights. He had memorized our bios well, poised and attentive, providing us with several pleasant minutes. All stylized and customized, but mesmerizing. I even found him attractive unlike his newspaper pictures.

But interrupting this choreographed reception entered Diana- regally tall, exuding a presence of aloneness and no desire at all to be present. I noted her stunning black dress and her huge pearl earrings , the like I have never seen before or since. Enclosed in her self- contained circle momentarily, she seemed to rebuff any interaction with the invited on board.But suddenly the spell was broken as her boys, William and Harry, appeared. She ran towards them. She swooped towards them , gathering them into her outspread arms, and pulled them close. No longer, the unapproachable distant icon, she was transformed into the adoring mother, a person who was smitten by her children, instructing them to shake hands and nod to the visitors. In that instant, she became human, the ice melting around her. The Currier and Ives photos, the slightly frayed rug, the others in attendance all vanished. The emotion of love eclipsing all else, dispelling the Cinderella myth for the reality of pure parental adoration. Not the pretence of royalty, but the simple pleasure of a mother with her children.

She never spoke to us, inclined her head, or even managed a smile during dinner- once her boys had been taken back to their suites. No doubt where she longed to tuck them into bed and read them a story. Without even a passing look between Charles and Diana, they were obviously two very distant constellations.

So many years later and especially last weekend when she was chased to her death by the paparazzi, I think of that evening, but especially of Diana. And as it has been reported and retold, she was so much more than her position, the people’s princess.

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Finding Suitable Clothes

Iris Appel in her oversized glasses and bold boas has been in the fashion news later. And although I’m never impressed by too loud or. Overly extravagant clothing , at age 95, she is worth a second look. In a recent interview, she addresses the fact that there are not really great choices in clothing for “ mature” or older women. I absolutely agree. Whether checking out cheap pieces or even ready to dole out big bucks. I find it frustrating to locate something that wows- even subtlety.In fact, most outfits are geared towards much younger women, and surprisingly, prices are such that I gasp, incredulous that those who still own their youthful shapes have the big bucks to pay for these adventures in fashion.

I’ve always looked at fashion as wearable art. When the trend turned clothes inside out so one could see how the piece was put together , coupling the process with the product, I was impressed. People have always appreciated fine craftsmanship and design, but to declare it on the outside rather than keep it hidden in the seams of a garment required a fresh and interesting approach.Today, a zipper will not recede behind a placket, but may be employed as part of the sartorial statement. Come des Garçons years ago exaggerated , folded and used cloth in unique ways, changing and obscuring the actual shape of the wearer. Now I’m not asking for such dramatic inversions, but something that flatters the female form: that has sadly softened, sagged and morphed over time.

Clothes matter and many people I know still “ dress up” when they have occasion that requires more than jeans- although designer jeans or ones festooned with jewels or embroidery can look pretty spectacular. Maybe that also means more attention to fixing one’s hair, a special piece of jewellery or a dress kept at the back of their cupboard only taken out when a little glam is required. But unless you are an executive who is presenting to an audience on a fairly regularly or consulting with clients, it’s unlikely you put great effort into work clothes on a daily basis. In fact, my daughter tells me the techies at her firm look as if they have rolled out of bed, hair askew and in combinations that might as well be their pyjamas.

However, if you are over 60 and hit the shops, it is difficult to discover something chic and wearable.so I hope that like me, you have hung on to some old pieces, now considered “ retro” to which you can return when you need to dress up just a little.

Clothes hold special meaning- at least for me. My earliest memory of an outfit is of a rose red suit my mother knit for me when I was 13. I had been invited to a bar mitzvah. That would have given her a 6 week leeway so likely she would have begun her work months before the event because a pleated skirt that swirls has hundreds and hundreds of stitches alone. Sometimes.I imagined her like the elves that appeared at night in a fairytale , spinning hay into gold thread. When she completed the skirt, I recall it felt heavy but hung perfectly with three levels of symmetrical pleats overlapping. . The jacket to me resembled a Chanel double- breasted trimmed topper with the most luxuriest of wools, in the barely affordable angora wool. She would have been able to purchase only one tiny ball ( no doubt scarfing it up on sale and saving it for a later creation) so likely the trim at the edges must have been composed of only two, or maybe three rows. I worried she wouldn’t be finished in time, but she of course, she did. And in spite of all the rich girls attending the festivities, I felt proud and elegant in my suit.

Of course since then, there have been other dresses. Of special note was a three piece velvet ensemble tastefully enhanced with a few well placed gold embroidery pieces by a now defunct company called Mondi. I first glimpsed the outfit in the pages of a magazine, and gasped out loud. I thought it so beautiful, the textures so rich, yet elegant that I knew I must possess it

As if captured by an addictive drug, I searched for that outfit everywhere. But sadly when I located a shop where the startling ensemble was sold, the price was prohibitive. So I stocked that outfit, visiting it every few months, hoping it would not be sold, and maybe should I be lucky, find the cost reduced. Months passed and seasons changed along with the trends. And eventually the pieces did go on sale and then thankfully, deeper reductions were added ( although I could not comprehend why some socialite hadn’t fallen in love with the ensemble) , until my guardian angel must have whispered in my ear, keeping it safe for only me from the hands of other covetous shoppers, until I could seek my reward for patient waiting.

When my husband and I were invited to have dinner on the royal yacht Britannia when Prince Charles and Diana were still together, I proudly wore the exquisite jacket and matching cami, renting a long skirt as required by royal protocol. Although Diana looked spectacular in her own black silk dress with the hugest pearl earrings I’ve ever gasped at, I felt great in my ½ outfit, my Mondi fantasy.

I like to be noticed in my clothes, again not brazenly, but to be considered well put together. For that, I commandeer my artist’s eye, and consider the colour or tones ( usually white, black or a subdued shade), a contrast of textures rough and rich and something eye catching. Besides my passion for art, perhaps my obsession, harks back to the millions of paper dolls I cut out as a child, creating new and unusual dresses for them. I don’t recall playing dress up, for likely my mother’s old clothes were stored at the back of her cupboard awaiting an opportunity to be taken out for a stroll; and not rearranged or dragged about by her child in play. But my mother would comment on the overwhelming heap of paper scraps that overflowed everywhere. And she too often demurred about the days of her youth, when she helped her own dressmaker design uneven hemlines, snoods, decades before they were popularized in pedestrian fashion.

Yet now as a “mature” lady myself, I ponder that it cannot be that difficult to hide the overflowing 😊figure flaws one assumes with age, and I don’t mean squeezing the body into Spanx so you cannot breathe or pee. I’m talking about flattering necklines and shifts with dropped waists that do not remind one that their mid sections have expanded and that their boobs no longer are perky. For women my age, shopping for a new frock is a horror, not a delight and so we must return alas! to scour our own cupboards making do with a golden oldie or begging a dressmaker to let out seams so that the over stretched cloth will conform to a now enlarged body.

I truly don’t get it: why designers haven’t cottoned on to the needs of my boomer group, most with a bit of cash to pay out for a beautiful flattering dress. No wonder, there is such a focus on dieting: so that you can fit into a younger style; or conversely just throw on shapeless items to avoid revealing any strange dislocations in your form. I guess that is the reason for your aunt Minnie in Miami wearing terrible tropical muumuus. The For my generation whose heads at 69 and 70 still feel bright and active and young, the fashion industry should take a hard look and create anew for us

Of princesses and presidents: brushes with the Royal and Famous

I think everyone at one time or another in their lives has crossed paths with a movie star, politician, someone notable or notorious. Just yesterday a cousin referred to a comment uttered by Carlos Santana overheard as she sat closeby in a restaurant. Andy Warhol is credited with saying that we all will experience 15 minutes of fame. I’m not sure if that includes close brushes, or being thrust directly into the news with the rich and famous. For us, it was a princess and a president.

Back when Bob Rae was Premier of this province, we were invited to dine on The Grand Britannia when Charles and the then very vibrant Diana visited Toronto. The year was October, 1991.

Receiving a phone call, we were queried, “Will you attend?”, before a formal invitation would be sent: a small dinner for a select few with the Royals seemed the stuff of society mags or daydreams. The glitterati would include Norman Jewison, Cido Gaston, Lincoln Alexander, John Tory, Howard and myself, a gaggle of ladies in waiting and others. The protocol included dress length, curtsies and information on how to behave when confronted by the Queen or her family. At first we giggled, believing we were being set up for a wild prank or ruse, someone thinking we were so gullible to actually believe we might be asked to break bread with the prince and princess. But in the end, it was, in fact, a real invitation.

On a stormy night by the harbor, our car magically disappearing into the hands of men in red, we were whisked beneath huge umbrellas onto the ship and then formally welcomed. I remember the ship feeling very British with Currier and Ives prints, slightly frayed carpets and a long stairway that lead upwards. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming: we might have been in the living room of an aged aunt’s who could care less about impressing. A smiling Captain at the doorway greeted us as if we were old friends, his comments easing the tension of the idea that we might soon might feel the press of a Royal handshake. Almost immediately, we imagined we were regulars at Court, accustomed to the low key fanfare, the quiet swish of servants preparing an evening for guests.

There was silent milling around, but no music in the background, just a sense of expectation or brightness on that dreary fall evening during thundering storm. Eventually a receiving line formed, our names announced as if we were debutants emerging in ball gowns to be introduced into society. A relaxed Prince Charles appeared charismatic and charming, even handsome: conclusions that I would never had drawn until I stood so near that one arm’s reach could have poked him in the royal ribs. More than appearances, his warmth of interaction, his ability to focus, listen and respond, no doubt polished and perfected throughout his public life, impressed me. He spoke with Howard about the architecture of Osgoode Hall and was knowledgeable and passionate on the subject. Although he must have been prepped on our bios; and his handlers would have connected pertinent aspects of our backgrounds to real interests of the Prince, his interest in architecture was not feigned, and for 3-5 minutes, a lively conversation occurred. Then, perfectly choreographed, our chat seamlessly concluded without a feeling of abruptness, slight or boredom ( on his part); the next in line commencing a new discussion, ushering in their own few minutes of fame.

I became Cinderella that night. I had had to rent a long velvet skirt because the protocol was such. Although I later noted that Dixie Jewison flaunted the rule by wearing a dress shorter than required. And when my husband’s secretary had murmured, “You’re not going with that curly hair are you?”, I decided to have my hair done up so I felt beautiful and charmed that evening. Perhaps a fairy godmother had touched her wand to my head and transformed me from an ordinary teacher- that I was back then- to one of the few chosen to dine with the most famous couple in the world at that time. I felt the magic dust adhere that entire evening: until our coats magically reappeared and we were standing in the rain on the ship’s deck, listening to the band discharge its salute.

That night I looked for souvenirs on the ship: a copy of the menu, soap, something tangible as a keepsake, but place settings and even the posted menu were whisked from our hands by smiling ship’s table attendants. The three course meal had been brought from England so as to avoid any tampering- as in the Borgias- as was the wine that was artfully and perfectly paired with the perfectly seasoned dishes. I sat just three places from the Prince and was fascinated by an evening in which the person on your right engaged you in conversation for one-half the meal; and then like a programmed dance, your seat partner turned to his companion on your left for the remainder of the meal. A seated ballet where the participants were all ready cognizant and well practiced in the steps. When the Prince and Princess finished their meals, ours were likewise removed. The ballet concluded.

Immediately after, men were ushered into one room for cigars and ladies into another. Swift, smooth, effortless: the dance coming to an end as it had done so many times before in so many locations, flawlessly executed, no rattled cutlery, not even a sneeze or suppressed cough to destroy the fairytale quality of the evening, no cue missed.

For me the diva of the night was Princess Diana. She was a quiet withdrawn diva, not one who cast herself into the spotlight by choice, but one created by her role. I say “diva” respectfully as there was a quality of quietness, or aloneness of her being pushed into the center of activity and knowing she must- if not perform, hold her presence on stage for a certain amount of time before she could retire.

Clearly star struck, I was surprised how majestically tall she was. That night she wore black and the most gorgeous huge pearl earrings, I had ever seen, hung from her ears. I reflected then –on the solitude that also hung on her, and that she really didn’t seem to want to be there. I felt that isolating loneliness that encircled her even as she was encircled by polite but overtly interested guests. With a certain weariness in her eyes, she was conveying ( at least in my mind) that she was putting up with another laid-on rubber chicken dinner (an expression! – as the food was delicious and flawless). She seemed withdrawn, fulfilling her expected role, but clearly not smiling nor enjoying the company as her husband appeared to be. I witnessed no relationship between them although one could not expect sexy or knowing looks, winks or some such behavior at this kind of event- even between spouses. Simply two unattached people in a room of strangers who were likewise strangers to one another.

Yet, there was a moment when Diana did come to life and it was with her adored boys.

She was doggedly enduring, waiting until Wills and Harry emerged with their nanny. When she saw them, she dropped to her knees, threw open her arms and they came running to her –delightedly throwing themselves into her adoring arms. She swept them up and the rest of the stuffy, suffocating crowd ceased to exist. She dropped her cold royal tinsel and was transformed into a loving mother, like any mother in the world who is crazy in love with her children. That was the magic moment in the evening for me.

And when she instructed them on how to shake hands in the receiving line, she was again transformed, just like you or me, a mom preparing her children for grownup life and the proper ways in greeting and meeting. She was a revelation.

Likewise, it was the same humanity I experienced when I saw President Clinton ( in the next blog), respond in a natural thoughtful way to my ten year son in Martha’s Vineyards: the extraordinary made ordinary.

There are always people who put on airs because they think their money or position singles them out for special attention or favors. I learned that as a kid at Forest Hill, my former school mates, the girls with pearls and golf club memberships, assuming that society has blessed them to be viewed as society’s elite and thus deserve better, more…

What mattered for me then and now is the inner person, that Little Prince mantra, that what is essential is invisible to the eye- that the one who drops pretense and acts as a human, displaying true care, love and just being a mensch is truly the person upon whom light shines.

For all of Diana’s flaws and faults and so-sad end to her unhappy life, she was someone who let all of the façade drop on the Royal Britannia as she gathered her boys to her in a way that proclaimed her essence. Perhaps what makes the rich and famous so special is that they are just like us in our best moments.

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