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Reading Swans on the Beach

We’re back in San Diego , our oasis and we are being revived: the weather of 70 plus the blue skies have mitigated the greys of Toronto and its sudden spark of unbearable heat. Although referred to as” May greys “ here, we are greeted with California brightness. 

Back to our routines almost immediately, we walk up to Bristol’s for lunch and then traverse the mall to see what new shops have been brought by construction promised to be finished by October. Well, maybe. Supper at Tender Greens reveals the harvest salad with the sunflower seeds, citrus and local offerings has been removed.☹️Still the falafel is still good, but I am disappointed. Yesterday at Solana Beach the tide is far out and the sand is perfect for walking as minuscule red crab limbs are washed up along with tiny opalescent shells. This time we can meander almost to Dog Beach but I decide I’ld rather spend my time finishing up The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the fictionalized description of Truman Capote and his fascination with Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, founder and magnate of CBS, in years that preceded Andy Warhol in New York. So I hurry back to my chair to read on the beach, crashing waves my backdrop to the lurid tale.

It is a mesmerizing narrative of Capote’s magnetizing force on the societal elite. In the afterward, author Melanie Benjamin reflects on her own growing up in a place far from New York.She peruses the pages of Vogue and The New Yorker, and all the celebrities pictured in an extreme unimaginable lavish lifestyle. Writing her book, her search back into Capote is very different to the image she had previously held in her head: the short pudgy myopic lisping one- that I admit I also carried with me. The creature who captured and held Babe’s attention was lithe, handsome, charming and witty – before his plummet that coincided with the publication of his In Cold Blood and The Black and White masquerade Ball he designed to out- ball all New York Balls ostensively to honour Washington Post’s Editor Kay Graham, but really to showcase his connections to the richest and most famous that selectively included Sinatra, Bacall, the Kennedys, along with the detritus of Cold Blood.

The focus of the neurotic Capote is the pursuit of beauty and recognition. Winning the trust of Babe and her famous friends, the Swans, he betrays their confidences. When unable to produce good copy, he reverts to revealing their secrets. Although foreshadowed by his irreverent game of gossip into the lives of high society others as diversion at lunch at the Ritz, he nonetheless is trusted. But Capote succumbing to alcoholism and drugs and his inability to follow up In Cold Blood, rationalizes that he is a storyteller. So what did the Swans expect him to do with their stories?

Worse he hurts Babe, the person Capote loves best. She is surface upon surface, never allowing herself to be seen without makeup, even waking before Bill to arduously apply layer upon layer of moisturizer, coverup and false teeth. Also the product of a driven mother, Babe is enchanted by Capote, opening herself to him as to no one else. She angel- like even understands and forgives Capote’s open revelations of Bill’s discretions in Capote’s piece La Cote Basque while the others openly reject him. However, she too will never speak with him again.

The relationship between Babe and Capote is the stuff of fairytales, her even sleeping chastely beside him and willing to confide her fears. While Capote values her as perfect, he also has gained entry into Bill’s inner circle as friend. Originally repelled that Bill asks him to set him up with a blonde woman he spies, Capote later decides he will procure an arrangement , afraid he will be ousted from the inner circle, rationalizing his betrayal of the one he apparently adores the most in the world. Constantly in search of his mother’s praise and acceptance, Capote can never satisfy his desire for not being accepted or as an insider to the wealthy and famous.
Like the worm that burrows deeply into the apple, Capote destroys the paradise he has been privileged to breach:

 “Truman leapt into their midst and suddenly the gossip was more delicious, the amusements were more diverse. He had sat on the beds of everyone of his swans and whispered how beautiful they were. How precious. They all knew he was saying the same thing to each one of them. They didn’t mind. Because beneath the beauty, they were all so … lonely.”

The world Benjamin reveals is of course a façade for loneliness and true commitment to love; however, it is postwar fabulous , a gem of extravagance , polished manners, excess and air kisses. Just as Capote, we are drawn in and fascinated by the players photographed as living the existence of princesses, the illusion of an exclusive life. The Swans, carefully coiffed wearing gems as big as eggs, swathed in furs, dining and drinking and laughing at 21, are eventually rendered as human as the rest of us: hung over, stringy hair, set upon by the ravages of not just age, but as Babe, set upon by a fatal illness. For one brief shining moment for Capote and the Swans it was Camelot, unmindful that eventually facades crumble, and behind it all: only the fable of the gloriousness endures.Benjamin keeps us riveted and exhumes the names that marked the days of rosebuds.



Like many people I thought it was Maya Angelou who wrote “ When I am old I will wear purple…” or some words to that effect; however, in checking on the cite, I see it was Jenny Joseph.

Jenny Joseph in Warning Poem writes,

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.

And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves

And satin sandals…

Funny how we grow into purple, a colour I shook my head at when my younger daughter adored it – always. But now, passed age 60 I cannot get enough variation of it, from lilac to purple-gray to almost fuchsia, it draws me like a hummingbird. From plum eye shadow to lavender shoes, it tickles me. I find it rich and regal and delightful, funny and fantastic. No surprise then it was once considered a royal colour , a spiritual colour highlighted by ermine by monarchs, its value cherished due to its longevity, obtained from Mediterranean sea snails.

Most people will tell you that getting older sucks. My mother used to guffaw at the notion of The Golden Age. There are more deep wrinkles, more aches, slower moves, more forgetting names and a trend towards being a lesser-you—unless of course you have the body of a power athlete and the sharp brain of a scientist. Perhaps that is why we spend hours on bettering ourselves on games such as Luminosity every morning and twisting into the difficult El Doa poses at Pilates as we try to preserve what is vanishing like snow that once glistened on the roof.


what I do find enjoyable is how people of a certain age have begun to dress, carving out their individuality through their wearing apparel.

And it seems to matter less how I look on a daily basis so if I slip out to the store with a bright green fannypack slung low on my protruding tummy, I hardly care. Wearing makeup for a jaunt to the grocer’s seems downright silly too. I see others my age behaving similarly. Hair is less than coiffed, maybe with a baseball cap pulled low, pants comfy and relaxed, not the tight pinched jeans emblazoned with designer monikers once purchased to display curves. I see in these other passerbys that I do not approach a kinship, a community of women who would, like me, adore wearing purple. Instead of following the latest fashion fads, they have become relaxed about themselves, their outward appearances, forgoing trends for individual eccentricity. Many have forged their own unique style. . I like that.

A month ago I observed at the corner of Yonge and Roxborough a mature woman who had put herself together as Annie Hall might have, hat, upturned collar, slouchy pants and I gasped –in pleasure. Not a Halloween getup but I assumed an outward expression of her appreciation of a way of dressing. Inwardly I laughed but thought if this were California, no one would even looked twice but applauded her ingenuity- or perhaps it was her own style that merely reminded me of Woody’s paramour Annie. In any case I enjoyed her way of arranging herself that spoke out.

In contrast 65 year old Caitlin Jenner’s pinup pose left me cold. When I read Judith Timson in The Star’s Current affairs, on Jun 03 2015 , I realized that Jenner was calling on the “ beauty” of her generation, not the present day, to identify herself as a fully attractive woman, complete with bustier and boobs. So it seems that even when we strike out, society has brainwashed us with indefatigable images – such as even the iconic Annie Hall- as we are tied to uphold and exceed the ideals with which we first struggled. To explain ourselves as women, we call on the concepts we associate with our sense of what is /even once was considered desirable ,packaging ourselves as society has suggested we might be, even quirky versions.

But rather than veer into the psychological, I prefer to stay on the outside , the textural superficial that charms the eye . For that reason I I love to contemplate the aesthetics of clothes and when Comme des Garcons, many many years ago first put seams on the outside of garments I thought it brilliant to turn a fabric inside out to reveal the construction of a piece of clothing. We could simultaneously view process and product. Wearing the internal on the external, bringing both parts together? How post-modern is that?

I adore the texture, the structure above all, the cloth, the design of things: from doorknobs to fabrics. I have thought that fashion is merely wearable art in the hands of a gifted crew. Who cannot gasp at the clothes of the protagonist in Scandal as she emblazons in white, donning her modern gladiator togs suitable for a heroine in Washington battling Evil. Maybe it is the reverse of the old you can’t tell a book by its cover, but here, oh yes! You can as the avenging angel avenges-so stylishly.

I have friends who put down Vogue magazine, noses pinched tightly above the glitter of fashion, but for me it is a rich picture book, often with Grace Coddington weighing in by visual references to paintings in her thoughtful borrowing from famous art works, landscapes in her fashion shoots. The recent gory tantalizing Hannibal television show does the same, rearranging his corpses a la Botticelli and it is so terrifyingly beautiful, you cannot tear your eyes from the scene as you peruse the horror of the frozen images arranged for perpetuity.

Perhaps art is in fact that: life fixed forever in a framed canvas. So why not elegantly painted scenes in the ground stones of cobalt or the Madonna faces that look beyond into another dimension or even the flashes of billowing colour combinations that speak to tensions, and freedoms and the presence that exceeds reality?

However, as I once again ruminate, moving from style to society mores to art, I want to recatch my initial fascination with how women dress. And in spite of Dial soap’s ground breaking decision to use real women in their advertisements, none, I believe, was wearing purple! Ha.

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

Last year, like this one, the winter was particularly ” brutal” : actually the word most people used, but eventually spring arrived. As my husband was preparing planting beds, I walked out to pick up a few things for supper. Outside of Havergal ( a private girls’ school), I notice coloured hot pink chalk markings and it looks as if someone was or practicing their Latin. I stopped and chortled for some things never change. The clever person had scribed : Semper ubi sub ubi. And for you non-Latin types, I translate,‘”Always wear underwear. “ Good advice, No? I laugh out loud.

I am catapaulted back to Grade 11 and the Latin class with the teacher nicknamed The Whip. To my surprise, I loved learning latin. It was a game as we were taught the declinations: agricola, agricolae, agricolae, agricolam, agricola, agricola: each responding to a specific placing in the syntax of a sentence, much like our parts of speech. There was a predictability to the placement of these words, somehow for me, a logic and a game of placing the puzzle parts in a particular order.

Perhaps too, I liked Latin because I was the president of the Latin class. Likely a position no one else wanted, but one I actually won in a class election. All that meant was that when or if the teacher was late or drawn away from class, I would run the show, and because I was very good at Latin, I had garnered some respect from the others.

I also appreciated the tactics of The Whip ( who later ditched teaching and went on to law school, clever woman). In several seconds, she could slice and dice through a student’s pretense of having prepared a homework assignment and reduce to tears even the most popular or haughty classmate. Strangely although. I admired this talent in latin I might have been the hapless victim in say, math or Chemistry.

Yet in this class, I guess I was experiencing Schaudenfraude where one enjoys the pain of another, and not because I could empathize but because I so loved to see one of the Forest Hill aristocracy, often the object of even fawning simpering, sycophantic teachers brought low with a few crackling brushes of The Whip’s sharp and non-emotional tongue lashings.
Did I imagine a wink at me from under her Boston brown haircut and no nonsense piercing eyes? Not likely.

As I surveyed the words on the sidewalk, I wondered if the girls at the school were also taught by someone whose mind was as razorsharp as The Whip’s and did she make even the dull-eyed, lacklustre types like myself feel they could shine.

Reading Vogue this month, an article by Hilary Clinton caught my eye. It was the same paperthin stuff one expects but then a story about her mother, Dorothy , perked my interest. Dorothy Clinton had a very difficult upbringing , raised by a hard grandmother, leaving home at age 14 to work as a nanny, etc. Hilary asked her mother how she had managed to maintain a positive outlook and her mother replied that small acts of kindness had enlivened her soul and given her hope.These were small acts, but kindly ones: when her employer noticed that Dorothy’s one shirt was washed nightly, the employer demurred that she had bought a shirt that was too small for herself and would Dorothy like it? Generous and thoughtful, people had saved Dorothy’s pride through offerings that might appear insignificant but were intensely meaningful to the young woman.

Was it an act of kindness the The Whip bestowed on me, treating me with respect and throwing the occasional smile my way when others received such scowling looks that could scorch any composed exterior?

We think of random acts of kindness that occur daily. I hold in my mind, a trip to Eilat in Israel when my foot caught in a crack along the waterfront and I tripped, falling so hard that I feared my arm was broken. My husband who did not notice I was no longer at his side , was many strides ahead, while I, stunned, lay flat out on the uneven ancient pavement. Although people gathered to help me up, one woman, pulled my skirt down that had flown up over my exposed panties.

I don’t think she was offended by the sight , but rather considered my humiliation as being laid flat and on public display and splayed, momentarily stunned and helpless. Although the arm took months of physiotherapy, my focus is on that one small act of covering my embarrassment. I remember a light hand, in a second of anonymous movement and my embarrassment was made less so.

The event also made me more intensely aware of how my father must have felt when his crutches lurched from his control and he fell, laid prone. He refused the help of others, insisting on somehow making himself erect. Only my mother might help him. For him, besides pride, I think it had to do with the concept of being a man who managed –even walking – for himself.

Jews say the best way to give is anonymously : that way the recipient does not feel indebted.I think that is wise and thoughtful. Not a huge granite cornerstone where we can murmur homage, what a good soul that was to donate…although many gifts are given in the pure spirit of giving, name or no name.. And like the unselfconscious act of Dorothy’s employer and the woman who pulled my dress back down, we so appreciate the thoughtfulness shown to us when most needed.

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