Tuesday, May 28, 2013

English Country in the City

Have you seen British style-writer and interior designer Rita Konig's New York apartment in The Selby? (Rita is the current T Magazine and former Domino editor.) It is a little piece of heaven. She has turned a small West Village apartment into a sort of "Jane Austen meets modern day magazine editor's" cozy retreat. It feels like a country cottage in the midst of New York City. And how smart, since I can imagine that if you lived in New York, nothing would feel better than coming home to a soothing and enthralling oasis after a day in the city. I am smitten!

Her apartment feels fresh and at the same time evokes a strong feeling of home. Like a little house with a country feel in the middle of the city.

In an interview for New York Magazine, Rita said that the fireplace and the windows were the reason she took the apartment. She goes on to say, "I have always liked decorating my small apartments as though they are just a few of the rooms in a much larger house, so you have the feeling that you could, should you want to, wander off to the drawing room, library, dining room, but for the moment are just choosing to be in this rather cozy study."

The prettiest room is the bedroom. Feminine and romantic, it would be like sleeping in a little garden.  

I love Rita Konig's design philosophy. She says (from the interview above), "You just have to be able to sink back at home. If there aren't comfortable chairs or a sofa, you are sunk. I am more interested in that, really, than the trim on the curtains. Sitting and chatting is what I really like most of all in the whole world."

I couldn't agree with her more. The most inviting homes are a personal narrative of the way people live, a reflection of who they are. Books, art, travel souvenirs, and family heirlooms give a cozy and lived-in look to a home. I once heard a decorator say that rooms should be collected not decorated. I think Rita Konig has accomplished that goal and created a home that is warm and welcoming. 

To see the full tour of Rita Konig's apartment, go here.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Summer Cocktail

Summer is almost here and you may be searching for a fun, new cocktail to serve your guests on a warm summer evening. I have the perfect solution for you and it even has some Jazz Age glamour!

The drink is "Juice of a Few Flowers." Gerald and Sara Murphy made it at their villa in the south of France in the 1920's. Their guests were some of the brightest literary and artistic talents of the time; Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Picasso, Cole Porter and Dorothy Parker. They were all in attendance at the legendary parties given by the Murphys, considered by many to be the most sought after invitation on the French Riviera.

Everyone seems to be talking about the Jazz Age right now with the release of the new film "The Great Gatsby."  I love stories about the writers and artists living in Paris and the south of France during this era; it was a magical time, beautifully depicted in Woody Allen's film "Midnight in Paris." So I thought I would draw upon a previous blog post and give you the recipe (modified by a friend of mine) for "Juice of a Flowers" to make this weekend.

Here is a description of the parties given by the Murphys at their villa in Antibes:

"Sara had a phrase, 'Dinner-Flowers-Gala,' derived from the notation carried on ships' menus for the captain's dinner: it was Murphy language for any special occasion, and there were many...usually dinners for eight to ten. First there were Gerald's special cocktails on the terrace, cocktails that he claimed contained 'just the juice of a few flowers'...These Gerald mixed, Phillip Barry said, like a priest preparing Mass, and he served them ritually; you were only allowed two cocktails, and you were not offered anything else to drink before dinner. During cocktails the children would come down in their bathrobes and sing a song or dance...afterwards they would go up to bed. And then there would be dinner under the linden tree, by candlelight, the women in their beaded dresses and the men in their dinner jackets, with everyone so young and merry and clever."
-- from Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill

Wouldn't you have loved to have been a fly on the wall?

Last week a friend made me a "Juice of a Few Flowers." One sip and in my imagination I was there: summers in the south of France and the glamour of the Jazz Age. With summer coming up and everyone talking about "The Great Gatsby," this would be a great cocktail to include in your summer menus. The recipe is from Ina Garten, but make sure you add some simple syrup to taste (as my friend did) and rim the glasses with sugar. Why not infuse your weekend with a little Jazz Age glamour!

Juice of a Few Flowers Cocktail

1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 cup freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
1 cup good vodka, such as Grey Goose
Extra lemon juice
Granulated sugar
Fresh mint sprigs

Combine fruit juices and vodka in a pitcher. Dip the rims of 4 martini glasses first in a dish with lemon juice and then in a dish with sugar. When ready to serve, place ice cubes in a cocktail shaker, add the cocktail mixture to fill the shaker three-quarters full, and shake for about 30 seconds.  Pour into the sugared martini glasses and garnish with a sprig of mint. Serve ice-cold.

Recipe via here
Photos via here

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Rose By Any Name

My rose-covered arbor

I went to a spectacular garden tour over the weekend. It was a feast for the senses: masses of old-fashioned hydrangeas, lavish displays of perfumed roses, pergolas covered in vines, neatly trimmed boxwood hedges, and stately garden ornaments and fountains. There were sights, smells, sounds and textures to enjoy. Spending the day walking through beautiful gardens is a spirit-lifting experience. As Keats wrote, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever." The beauty we saw over the weekend was inspiring and will stay with us forever. Ultimately a garden tour is a personal experience and each person takes away something different and uses it in their own special way. I found myself drawn to the pergolas and arbors clad in roses and vines.  
I came home and thought about my own small garden. It has been growing for three years. Some plants have thrived, others have not. As every gardener knows, a garden is a series of trials and errors. Vita Sackville-West wrote: "The most noteworthy thing about gardeners is that they are always optimistic, always enterprising, and never satisfied." But planting it and watching it grow is one of the joys of life. One part of the garden that has finally taken hold are the climbing roses on the arbor. Each year at about this time they come into bloom and turn one little part of the garden into an enchanted place. The two roses that have happily merged together and bloom at the same time each year are Cecile Brunner and Pierre de Ronsard, also known as Eden. Even their names are enchanting and I discovered that I had the perfect book to find out how they got them.  

I have always been curious about the names of roses -- many of them are so beautiful and romantic-sounding. A Rose by Any Name tells the fascinating history behind rose names. Maiden's BlushJardins De BagatelleYork and Lancaster, Constance Spry, and Apothecary's Rose are just a few of the names explored in this book. The stories about roses are endless. Did you know that roses in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were mainly raised for medicinal purposes; that Empress Josephine did away with stuffy botanical names and championed rose names that were romantic, flirty and personal; and that English poets such as Keats, Spencer and Shakespeare loved the Eglantine rose so much that they frequently mentioned it in their poetry and plays?  

  I decided to do a little research on the origin of the roses on my arbor 

Cecile Brunner rose

Cecile Brunner, also known as the Sweetheart Rose, was a French-bred rose that entered horticultural history in 1881 under the formal name of Mademoiselle Cecile Brunner. "Mademoiselle Cecile," born in 1879, was the daughter of Ulrich Brunner, a rose-grower from Lausanne, Switzerland. Cecile Brunner is a fabulous climbing rose with small, pink flowers. It blooms profusely throughout the summer. 

Pierre de Ronsard (Eden) rose, on the right

The rose that I have always known as Eden was originally named Pierre de Ronsard. It seems that only in the United States is this pink and white French climber called Eden

Pierre de Ronsard (Eden) rose 

Its namesake Pierre de Ronsard was a sixteenth-century French poet who wrote a sonnet called Roses. In the sonnet roses symbolize fleeting amours. It turns out that Mary, Queen of Scots was one of the poet's greatest admirers and she presented him with a silver rose. 

Pierre de Ronsard is another wonderful climber. The dark pink flowers are tinged in creamy white and are full and beautiful. 

If you love roses and are interested in the history behind their names, be sure to get this book. The stories are far from dry and actually read like chapters in a romance novel. There are tales of tragedy, mystery, and scandal. The story about Empress Josephine and her obsession with roses is one of my favorites. This book is a great read and you will devour it from cover cover. It is filled with all kinds of fascinating trivia and tantalizing delights, including a recipe for rose water.

 Rose Water

You will need four cups of loosely packed fresh rose petals (not sprayed with pesticide), preferably picked early in the morning when the flowers are just opening. Among old garden roses, those with red and deep pink flowers tend to have the strongest perfume.

Place two cups of petals in a three-quart saucepan. Reserve remaining two cups petals in a large heatproof bowl. Boil approximately two quarts water. Pour enough over petals in saucepan to cover. Cover pan tightly with lid or aluminum foil and let steep for 15 minutes. Do not heat.
Place a strainer over the bowl of reserved fresh petals. Pour liquid from saucepan through a fine-meshed strainer onto fresh petals. Cover bowl. Discard first batch of steeped petals.
After contents of bowl have cooled, pour liquid through strainer into a glass or jar. Use the rose water immediately or refrigerate for up to two weeks. 


By the way, my favorite garden writer Beverley Nichols wrote:

"... a garden is a place for shaping a little world of your own according to your heart's desire."

An inspiring thought for all the gardeners, garden lovers, and garden dreamers out there!  

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Diary of an Ordinary Life

I cannot resist a good book list. You know the kind... tips on what to read from friends, writers, journalists, bloggers, you name it -- I am interested in the books that other people love. After all, I am always looking for something good to read. I file the lists away in notebooks or my memory (not always the Most reliable source) and eventually obtain the books. But my favorite source for book suggestions comes from interviews with writers. The New York Times Sunday Book Review  features an interview with a writer each week called "By The Book." Other newspapers and magazines do the same. The interviewer inevitably asks the following questions: what book is on your night stand right now, which book made you want to become a writer, do you prefer books that make you laugh or cry, which book do you return to over and over, which book has taught you important life lessons, and which book do you read simply because you love it and it makes you smile.

One book that keeps cropping up in these interviews (especially in answer to the last question) is The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield. After hearing about it for so many years, I finally read it and am so happy that I did. This book is utterly charming and laugh-out-loud funny. It is one of those books that takes you by surprise. It sort of sneaks up on you and wins you over when you are not looking.

And so you might ask, what exactly is "The Diary of a Provincial Lady"? Many people today are unfamiliar with it. But when it was published in the 1930's, this book was very popular. It seemed to hit a nerve with many people who thought it sounded very much like their own lives. "The Diary of a Provincial Lady" is a fictional diary, a novel written in the form of a journal that covers the course of one year. The "lady" in question, who is never named, is a middle-class English woman with two children and a husband living in a country village in England during the 1930's. She is married to the remote and incommunicable Robert and has two adolescent children, a son named Robin and a daughter named Vicky, whom she adores. Her husband is the land agent to the local noble family, represented by the high-handed and superior-acting Lady Boxe. She has the irritating habit of just dropping in and always managing to make our "lady" feel inadequate. The other inhabitants of the  house are the French governess, Mademoiselle; the parlor maid, Ethel; and the cook.

The heroine writes a daily journal of her domestic life and covers topics such as incompetent servants, the interminable visits of the vicar's wife, the village fundraisers of which she always seems to be the chair, keeping the peace between her disciplinarian husband and her spirited children, an incorrigible French governess, lack of hot water, a house that is never warm enough, and a perpetual shortage of money. She is insecure about her looks and her clothes, aspiring to but never quite succeeding in being chic. She has a dear friend Rose, the godmother to her children, who is widowed, childless and lives in London. Occasionally she goes to visit Rose and get a taste of her friend's glamorous and artistic life. These visits cause the heroine to write in her diary that she almost envies her widowed and childless friend, realizing with horror after reading what she has written the flawed nature of her thinking.

And this is where the humor of the book comes in. Although her diary entries record the quotidian events of her days and reflect the relentlessly domestic nature of her life, they also include biting and hilariously funny parenthetical asides that reflect her true feelings. She desperately wants to be known as a nice person and absolutely lives to keep the peace all around her, but she expresses subversive opinions and insightful observations about her household and village life. The contrast between her longing to please and the critiques displayed in her diary is where the comedy of the book exists. These parenthetical comments which usually begin with "Mem:" or "Query," are a humorous trope throughout the diary that allow the provincial lady a way to express her real feelings.

Many of the funniest diary entries involve the heroine's interactions her husband Robert, Lady Boxe, and the servants:

Here are a few examples:

December 11th. -- Robert, still harping on topic of yesterday's breakfast, says suddenly Why Not a Ham? to which I reply austerely that a ham is on order, but will not appear until arrival of R.'s brother William and his wife, for Christmas visit.  Robert, with every manifestation of horror, says Are William and Angela coming to us for Christmas?  This attitude absurd, as invitation was given months ago, at Robert's own suggestion.
(Query here becomes unavoidable: Does not a misplaced optimism exist, common to all mankind, leading on to false conviction that social engagements, if dated sufficiently far ahead, will never really materialize?)

December 16th. -- Very stormy weather, floods out and many trees prostrated at inconvenient angles.  Call from Lady Boxe, who says that she is off to the South of France next week, as she Must have Sunshine.  She asks Why I do not go there too, and likens me to a piece of chewed string, which I feel to be entirely inappropriate and rather offensive figure of speech, though perhaps kindly meant.
Why not just pop into the train, enquires Lady B., pop across to France, and pop out into Blue Sky, Blue Sea, and Summer Sun?  Could make perfectly comprehensive reply to this, but do not do so, question of expense having evidently not crossed Lady B.'s horizon.  (Mem.: Interesting subject for debate at Women's Institute, perhaps:  That Imagination is incompatible with Inherited Wealth.  On second thought, though, fear this has a socialistic trend.)
Reply to Lady B. with insincere professions of liking England very much even in the Winter.  She begs me not to let myself become parochially-minded.

March 4th. -- Ethel, as I anticipated, gives notice.  Cook says this is so unsettling, that she thinks she had better go too.  Despair invades me.  Write five letters to Registry Offices.

March 8th. -- Cook relents, so far as to say that she will stay until I am suited.  Feel inclined to answer that, in that case, she had better make up her mind to a lifetime spent together -- but naturally refrain.  Spend exhausting day in Plymouth chasing mythical house-parlourmaids.  Meet Lady B., who says the servant difficulty, in reality, is non-existent.  She has NO trouble.  It is a question of knowing how to treat them.  Firmness, she says, but at the same time one must be human.  Am I human? she asks.  Do I understand that they want occasional diversion, just as I do myself?  I lose my head and reply NO, that it is my custom to keep my servants chained up in the cellar when their work is done.  This flight of satire rather spoilt by Lady B. laughing heartily, and saying that I am always so amusing." 

January 20th. -- Take Robin, now completely restored, back to school.  I ask the Headmaster what he thinks of his progress.  The Headmaster answers that the New Buildings will be finished before Easter, and that their numbers are increasing so rapidly that he will probably add on a New Wing next term, and perhaps I saw a letter of his in the Times replying to Dr. Cyril Norwood?  Make mental note to the effect that Headmasters are a race apart, and that if parents would remember this, much time could be saved.
Robin and I say good-bye with hideous brightness, and I cry all the way back to the station.

January 22. -- Robert startles me at breakfast by asking if my cold -- which he has hitherto ignored -- is better.  I reply that it is has gone.  Then why, he asks, do I look like that?  Refrain from asking like what, as I know only too well. Feel that life is wholly unendurable, and decide madly to get a new hat.
Customary painful situation between Bank and myself necessitates expedient, also customary, of pawning great-aunt's diamond ring, which I do, under usual conditions, and am greeted as old friend by Plymouth pawnbroker, who says facetiously, And what name will it be THIS time?

One of the most endearing characteristic of the heroine is that she has literary aspirations. She regularly submits essays and stories to literary competitions in her favorite magazines and frequently wins honorable mention if not the actual award. In addition to being literary, she is also very funny. She never complains or feels sorry for herself. She writes about her life in a dry and English way with a great deal of wit. Although she mostly leaves out feelings, clues to her emotions are scattered throughout and the reader can figure out what kind of person the provincial lady really is.

After finishing "The Diary of a Provincial Lady," I was happy to learn that there are several sequels. This is a good thing since I am not ready to say good-bye to her. I am looking forward to reading more about the adventures and misadventures of the "lady" of the house as she ventures outside the world of her country village and (hopefully) becomes a writer.

(Mem.: if ever asked do I prefer books that make me laugh or cry, I would answer books that do both. But if forced to choose, I would say laugh.)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Garden Tour Season

Put on your garden hat and enjoy the beautiful month of May. It is garden tour season. If you live in the Los Angeles area, don't miss The Friends of Robinson Gardens Annual Benefit Garden Tour. It is a spectacular event and will give you all kinds of inspiration for your garden. Hope to see you there!


Monday, May 6, 2013

Grey Gardens and Good Books

The film "Jane Eyre," 2011
Photo via here

A couple of weeks ago it was grey and drizzly here in Los Angeles and my thoughts turned to books such as Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and other novels set in inclement climes where the characters are always putting on the kettle and making cups of tea. Poor Jane and all those grey and rainy days she endured. But she also enjoyed sunshine and flower-filled days when she was falling in love with Mr. Rochester. 

My garden on a grey day

"He strayed down a walk edged with box, with apple trees, pear trees, and cherry-trees on one side, and a border on the other full of all sorts of old-fashioned flowers, stocks, sweet-williams, primroses, pansies mingled with southernwood, sweet-briar, and various fragrant herbs. They were as fresh now as a succession of April showers and gleams, followed by a lovely spring morning could make them: the sun was just entering the dappled east, and his light illuminated the wreathed and dewy orchard-trees and shone down the quiet walks under them."
-- Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre


But back to the weather here at home. Knowing that it will be hot soon enough, I couldn't help but welcome the grey skies that day. Everything outside looked beautiful and the misty weather combined with the green of the garden was a lovely sight. The greens take on a depth and richness on this kind of a day.  

My book club was meeting that morning and the drizzly weather was a perfect setting for the occasion. It was a great day to stay inside and talk about books. Our hostess has a lovely garden with old-fashioned and romantic elements such as climbing roses and wisteria, espaliered apple trees, fragrant herbs, vine covered arbors and a fountain. It looked beautiful on this misty day. (I could picture Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester walking through it.) We decided it was too cold to eat on the patio and so we sat around the kitchen table and had a delicious lunch. Afterwards we gathered in the family room in front of a fire in the fireplace. Outside a light rain was falling and we were cozily ensconced in the warm environment our hostess had created. Everyone was very happy to be together, glancing occasionally through the window at the garden. We had a riveting discussion of a wonderful new book. 

The beautiful garden at the home of our hostess

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver is a new novel inspired by the famous 1936 Dorothea Lange photo "Migrant Mother." You know the one -- a young woman with a weathered face staring into the distance, with two children clinging to her. It was a photo that had a powerful effect on this country's attitudes towards the poor during the depression.

The novel is told through the viewpoints of three characters:  Mary Coin, a native American migrant laborer and mother of seven, the subject of the famous photo; Vera Dare, a polio-stricken photographer who takes the photo; and Walker Dodge, a present-day cultural historian who is exploring his own family's history in central California. His family was a major landowner in California and employed migrant workers. I especially loved the story of Vera Dare, the photographer. She was a woman with many disadvantages, but lived a bohemian life and pursued her artistic vision at a time when not too many women were artists. She struggled to be a good mother.
This book is about many things: art, motherhood and survival, to name just a few. It is about the affect that a monumentally famous photograph can have on the lives of the subject and the photographer. For me, the most powerful feature of the book is Marisa Silver's lyrical prose and the way it captures the essence of the migrant movement. I was reminded of the way I felt when I first read John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. The plight of the poor during the Depression is rendered by Marisa Silver in a way that goes straight to the heart. Dorothea Lange's photo and Marisa Silver's words both paint a powerful portrait of an unforgettable time in American history. You don't want to miss this book. 

Grey skies, gardens, good books -- they all came together for an inspiring and magical day. 

Thanks to Flowers and Stripes for reminding me of the quote from "Jane Eyre"

Friday, May 3, 2013

Call The Midwife

Have you been watching the wonderful show Call The Midwife that airs Sunday nights on PBS?  I am crazy about it and each time it opens with Vanessa Redgrave's voice narrating the story, I get a little emotional. Most episodes I am in tears by the end. Last week's was especially poignant as it juxtaposed a story about the general good health of babies born in the fifties with the issue of the unavailability of birth control and women having as many as 10 children while living in poverty.

The midwives, along with the nuns of Nonnatus House, provide free and safe maternity care to the impoverished women living in London in the 1950's. They deliver babies among the slums and dockyards of London's East End. They live along side the nuns at the convent and the relationships between the nuns and these modern girls are the heart of the show. They watch out for and respect each other, learning precious life lessons along the way. Their meals together around the big table in the convent's kitchen is a highlight of the show. As is the vision of the girls and the nuns making their rounds on bicycles wearing their prim uniforms with red cardigans and nurse's caps.

I recently read that writer and producer Heidi Thomas almost passed on this project, but after reading Jennifer Worth's memoirs, upon which the show is based, she was powerfully moved by the stories of the midwives, nuns, young women and mothers all living together in this part of London and the problems they all faced. She realized that the universal theme of childbirth with its inherent dangers as well as joys would be a powerful one and make fascinating viewing. She was right.


If you want to be further immersed in this era of London during the 1950's, be sure to watch The  Bletchley Circle that is currently airing as part of Masterpiece Theatre. (Have you noticed the high quality of so many of the dramas on television right now? There seems to always be something good to watch.) The lead characters are four women who worked together during WW II in the espionage department of the government cracking enemy codes. After the war, they turn their analytical skills into solving murder mysteries in London in 1952. This show is fabulous!


And if you would like to round out your picture of London in the fifties even more, throw in a Barbara Pym novel. I am happily rereading my favorite Excellent Women and adoring the story of the central character Mildred Lathbury and all her adventures in the little world she inhabits in London at this time. A clergyman's daughter and a spinster living in London, her life is shaken up by her glamorous new neighbors and unexpected developments for the vicar next door. She tells the story with humor and insight. Her world may be small, but her observations about human nature are universal.