Convalescent Note:
Getting Better, Slowly
9 January 2019

As threatened, I re-read Nora Webster. Then I re-read The Blackwater Lightship, which I was surprised to discover that I’d read in 2014. Now I’m in the early chapters of The Heather Blazing, but, fond as I am of this novel, I may have set it aside. I re-read it in 2014 as well, but the incident seems much more familiar than did that of Blackwater Lightship. I feel that I’ve spent enough time in Enniscorthy. 

Nora Webster was nothing like the quiet charming book that I recalled. Each of the many episodes seemed fraught — doubtless because I wasn’t feeling well. The antibiotic has done a great job on the wound, but it has also made me weak and somewhat inane. I try to avoid sources of anxiety, but literature is not at present an escape from care. Reading about the illness that overtakes Nora after she tries to paint her back-room ceiling was harrowing, and when Maurice, her dead husband, appeared to her in her bedroom — it’s the climax of the story, I think, but I’d somehow forgotten it — I was almost as unsettled as if something of the kind had happened to me.

On the housekeeping front, aside from the pile-up of dust — not yet really noticeable — nothing is in worse shape than it was before the fever struck. I went to Schaller & Weber and to Fairway on Monday — without incident. I took a cane with me for two reasons. One, I have been in bed for two weeks, and sometimes feel unsteady on my feet. Two, canes signal disability, and offer a modest protective advantage in the scrum of the busy intersection that I have to cross twice to get to Fairway. (In the pinball chaos of Fairway itself, the shopping cart provided plenty of stability and caddied my cane nicely.) I bought almost everything that I was looking for, and everything that we needed. But I was exhausted when I got home, carrying only two shopping bags — the rest were delivered — that the doorman took from me as I was walking toward the entry of the building, without asking. He carried them to the elevator — most helpful.

Yesterday, I went down to pick up last week’s wash-and-fold. I dragged the laundry bag upstairs like a child, something that I’d started doing before I got sick. When I had put the clean laundry away, I filled the bag with the contents of the hamper, as well as the bedlinens. (We celebrated my birthday on Sunday by changing the sheets). I dragged the laundry bag back down to the concierge. Along the way, I ran into our very helpful mail carrier. She had noticed the mail was piling up in the box, but also that she wasn’t seeing me. I explained my situation and added that Kathleen cannot open the mailbox eveen with my key, something that we’ll have to report to the building when I feel better. Changing the sheets, shopping at Fairway, and dragging the laundry up- and downstairs each left me as exhausted as if I’d built one of the Pyramids. That’s how it goes with Cipro. 

Tomorrow, I see the wound specialist at Lenox Hill to whom my internist is sending me. I’m apprehensive about meeting with a new doctor in a new location, but Kathleen will be with me (not only for moral support, but to fill out the forms — my handwriting is unreadable), Once that’s behind me, I expect to be something like cheerful.

More anon.

New Year Note:
Illness
3 January 2019

I have been very unwell, with an infected foot, and I am not entirely out the woods yet. But for the first time since before Christmas, I feel comfortable enough to post an entry. I wish all Daily Blague readers a very Happy New Year. 

How long it will take to get back to normal, I can’t say. This morning, I was just able to do a load of laundry. After more than ten days in bed, I was exhausted throughout the whole process. But I rallied. This afternoon, Ray Soleil helped me clear out the refrigerator. (As always, he did all the work.) I hope I didn’t overdo it, but it’s nice to see that the apartment is a little less dingy.

I’ve done a good deal of reading, as you may imagine, but almost everything has depressed me. One book, William Tryon’s novel, Elizabeth Alone, was almost unbearable. The fraught plot — four women in a women’s hospital, reflecting on their lives while recuperating from operations — was tough enough, but the side-stories about the men in their lives, each one as searing and intense as the best of Tryon’s short stories, made for an extremely concentrated atmosphere of trouble. In the bag that I kept packed in case I had to go to the Emergency Room (dread thought), I stowed a copy of Colm Tóibín’s Nora Webster, one of my favorite novels, and one that combines tranquility with great interest. If I don’t simply fall asleep, I’ll start re-reading it this evening. 

That’s enough for now.

December 2018

People Note:
Facereader
18 December 2018

¶ To be honest, “facereader” isn’t right, because I didn’t really get a good look at the woman’s face. “Voicereader” would have been better, but “facereader” is what came out when the checkout clerk asked me if I was a mindreader.

At the Schaller & Weber counter, I was being taken care of when a petite woman of a certain age (older or younger? I couldn’t tell) sidled alongside me. Her hair was too dark and too curly, and from the corner of my eye I noticed an assertive lipstick. After she sampled a piece of ham or turkey that the counterman had handed to her, she pointed to a stack of loaves directly in front of me and asked what kind of bread they were.

They were not bread; they were stollen, which is of course bread basically but too larded with sweets for anything but breakfast. And the loaves were priced at $30. I had decided, while being taken care of, that $30 was too rich for me.

The counterman told the woman that the loaves were cake. She didn’t seem to hear this. She didn’t seem to hear anything that she didn’t want to hear. There was some inarticulate fussing. The stollen had caught her eye, and she had to have it. Her order complete, she pulled a loaf from the countertop and headed for the checkout desk. I could tell that she did not bother to check out the price.

My order complete, I quickly followed her. I heard her say “oh,” and watched as she carefully set the stollen loaf to one side, indicating that she didn’t want it after all. She had seen the price. She paid for everything else, and left the shop.

“I knew that she wasn’t going to buy it,” I told the checkout clerk. Whereupon she asked me if I was a mindreader, and out came my dimwitted reply.

Yes, bought the stollen. 

Thought Note:
Colloquy
17 December 2018

“Why is anybody a racist?” Kathleen asked.

Strictly speaking, no one is a racist, because there is no such thing as race. If it is understood, however, that “race” is simply a scientific-sounding way of referring to “people who don’t look or act like us,” and that nobody likes to be in a minority, then almost everybody is a racist, and I said so.

“Think about it,” I said. “You might say that you’re not a racist because you’re too well educated; you’ve had racism schooled out of you. But the truth is that, as a result of your schooling, you don’t like to be around stupid or uneducated people. Like everybody, you can take one or two stupid or uneducated people at a time — you might even enjoy their company. But you would be uncomfortable in a room full of them. Education simply changed the center of your comfort zone.”

Just trying to make sense of these uncomfortable times.  

“I suppose,” said Kathleen doubtfully. 

Holiday Advisory:

Yesterday was Beethoven’s birthday. It’s okay now to play Christmas carols. 

Gotham Diary:
Can’t Live Without
14 December 2018

¶ The clutter in the foyer has been reduced by half, but even I can’t see the difference, because the room is still a mess. And the dining table, which was already a fright, is now only marginally usable for its intended purpose.

It may get worse before it gets better. Most of what remains to be dealt with is paper, but there is an ABC Carpet shopping bag — itself made out of carpeting — that is stuffed with “components,” odds and ends of an electrical nature. I hope to be able to dispose of most of these items, but I’m afraid that my hope is based entirely on ignorance. Once I dig in, I’ll find things that I “can’t live without.”

Where do we learn, so to speak, that we “can’t live without” things that we never use, never even see? I blame Robinson Crusoe, where everything comes in handy sooner or later. 

Then there are some really big photographs of the original me. My parents had a studio portrait of me taken when I was eleven months old. It’s a cute picture, but it’s huge, the sort of thing that people used to display on piano lids. (If I inscribed it and had it framed, visitors would probably find it more disconcerting than droll.) There are two others, only slightly smaller, that appear to be enlargements of pictures that my parents took, some time earlier I should say. One shows me lying on their bed on my back, the other in my crib on my tummy. Unlike the studio portrait, in which I at least can discern signs of the Santa to come, the enlargements show a generic infant who is neither remarkably ugly nor winningly adorable. Frankly, I see elements of my character in these photos, too — the pain-in-the-ass elements.

Whenever I get to the last page of Edward Gorey’s The Curious Sofa, I think of my mother at the moment when she realized that she, too, had made a terrible mistake. 

Film Note:
Fascination
13 December 2018

¶ There’s a long story about this week’s small Audrey Hepburn binge; it involves the frequency and enthusiasm with which Ray Soleil and Fossil Darling talk about Stanley Donen’s Charade. This was not the last movie that Hepburn made with an older leading man, but it is possibly the worst of the run. If you ask me, it’s Cary Grant who’s the problem. Suave and imperturble, Grant reprises his Roger O Thornhill role, from North By Northwest, thus inviting many odious comparisons. So much so that Audrey Hepburn compares unfavorably to Eva Marie Saint. And as for Walter Matthau! Donen’s film is hideously, unfunnily jokey. 

But then I decided to watch an older instalment, one that I may never have seen before, because I was too young to see it when it came out, in 1957 — although I still have the sheet music to the movie’s theme song, “Fascination.” Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon is one of his most auteurial movies, studded with sparkles of mitteleuropäisch self-indulgence and wallpapered with both the luxury of the Ritz Hotel in Paris and a band of csardas-playing “gypsies.” By some ingenious alchemy, Wilder presents Gary Cooper as exactly who he is: a rich American who doesn’t know how to act. And he turns this incapacity into catnip for Hepburn’s articulate but innocent teenager. That is where the film’s magic lies. For Hepburn does know how to act, and I have never seen an actress whose face and beauty have not quite set exhibit such extraordinary dramatic powers. In an early scene, the girl takes a match to an ashtray full of crumpled-up kiss-off notes — and Hepburn upstages the fire not just by being gorgeous but by feeding her final attempt, neatly tucked into an envelope, to the flames. In Love in the Afternoon, Audrey Hepburn is romance. 

Love in the Afternoon is so good that even Maurice Chevalier is genuinely appealing. 

Clerical Note:
Misdirected
12 December 2018

¶ Tucked under the front door this afternoon was a love note from the building management, a First Notice concerning non payment of rent. This occasioned several trips to the management office. 

I had paid the rent on Monday. I had slipped the envelope into the little mailbox that the management has installed in the wall next to its interior entrance. Could I remember the check number? I was asked. Miraculously, I could: 726. But the last check that the management had received from me was numbered 715 — last month’s rent. I went back upstairs to check. Yes: 726 was the check number.

When I returned to the office, I was met with a curve ball: was I, by any chance, a customer of Diner’s Club?

It became obvious at once. I had printed three checks on Monday, one of them to AT & T, one of them to the building management, and one to Diner’s Club. Then I affixed postage stamps to the two envelopes that needed to be mailed, but not to the rent check, because that was headed for the little mailbox downstairs — no postage required. Then, on my way out to run errands, I grabbed the envelope that didn’t have a stamp on it and slid it through the slot. At the Post Office, I mailed the other two bills. But the unstamped envelope that I deposited in the management office’s receptacle wasn’t the rent check. I had made a little mistake, and then compounded it by not looking at what I put into the management office’s  mailbox. The very nice women in the office remembered finding a Diner’s Club payment amidst other people’s rent checks. They hadn’t opened the envelope, and there was no return address (I can’t be bothered), so they didn’t know who the sender was, but they kindly put a stamp on the envelope and sent it on its way. Now, two days later, they made a connection, bearing in mind that I always pay the rent on time. 

I had brought down a blank check, which I filled out in payment of the rent. Whether I’ll be charged a late fee, and what will happen when check 726 arrives in the mail, remains to be seen. 

Believe me, it would all be much, much worse if I tried to make use of automatic online payments.

Rep Note:
Ham ‘n’ Cheese Redux
11 December 2018

¶ I’ve grown terribly tired of sandwiches. It’s the bread. I can’t find the right bread. The problem is, I’m looking for a bread that doesn’t taste like bread.

Or I was.

Some time ago, I began stocking Fairway’s pastries — palmiers, almond danish rolls, and, when available, croissants. The croissants are good, but of course they’re not fresh, as in right-out-of-the-oven fresh, so they’re a bit heavy and dull. But if you slice one in half (equatorially, as it were), and spread on plenty of mayonnaise and a soupçon of mustard, and then pile on thin slices of ham — my favorite ham at the moment is Schaller & Weber’s Swedish ham — and Swiss Swiss cheese (not that French Emmenthaler, which is also pretty heavy and dull), the result is not just a convenience but a genuinely appealing sandwich. 

Be sure to wear an apron, to spare your clothes the shower of flaky, buttery crumbs.

Progress Note:
Boombox Retrouvé
10 December 2018

¶ A fairly busy day, paying bills, standing in line at the Post Office, collecting packages at the conciergerie. I spent a lot of time sitting down, resting up. Maybe that’s why the clutter in the foyer went untouched, not even one weensy bin or bag so much as picked up off the floor.

Did I mention that the boombox DVD player turned up? No? I had been wondering where it was. It was zipped into a Bean tote bag and stashed up against the wall, beneath a desk. In my much smaller kitchen upstairs, I wedged it onto a counter corner, so that I could watch movies while drudging. Not infrequently, I would replay a DVD the moment it was over, partly because the movie was good but mostly not to break the mood. I did that three times, once, with Polanski’s The Ghost Writer. I can’t imagine such bingeing now. In fact, I can’t imagine watching a movie while cooking. Listening to music is the limit of multitasking, and if I don’t know the piece, I get distracted. 

I have to admit, age simplifies things. But what do I do with the boombox?

Book Room Note:
Reshuffling Clutter
7 December 2018

¶ A banner week for the book room! The histories of commerce and finance were duly Evernoted and reshelved. The book cart was seriously reorganized for the first time since acquisition (last September). And, today, Ray Soleil and I switched the two writing tables. We did this because, sitting in my Aeron chair, I couldn’t fit my legs in the kneehole of the larger desk, and so could not use the desk for marking up drafts of the writing project.

In the process, we removed all the clutter that had gathered around and beneath the writing tables, mostly in mesh bins. As a result, while the bookroom looks spruce enough to receive a French ministre (compared, at least, to what it used to look like), the foyer is littered with all that clutter, which I now, somehow, have to purge before Christmas. 

Marie Kondo would point to the bins and remind me, quite rightly, that not a single item in any of them has been touched in the three or four years since I bought the bins. I can hear her bellowing (in her petite Japanese voice), Heave-Ho! 

Great Books Note:
Speaking English Using French Words
6 December 2018

Ordinarily, it’s enough for me to say that I liked a certain book, and maybe a little bit about why. But every time I read Richard Watson’s The Philosopher’s Demise: Learning to Speak French, I’m overcome by the urge to insist that THIS is a book that every educated American, perhaps every educated Anglophone, really MUST read. And oddly enough, I suspect that my enthusiasm thrives despite the suspicion that I wouldn’t really hit it off with Watson. He’s an exemplary product of the Heartland, an Eagle Scout, athlete, and avid spelunker. He is fundamentally convinced that Real Men do not Speak French. He believes that Jacques Prévert’s verse is “detestable in any language.” The fact that Watson is also an eminent Descartes scholar would probably not make our conversation any easier. 

As the subtitle suggests, Watson did not try to learn to speak French until he was already a philosopher. A long time ago (c 1950), he learned to read French in college; in those pre-Sputnik days, you could learn how to read a language without having to master touristy questions about the location of the toilet and so on. Remember Mrs Fisher’s line, in Enchanted April, when, having been asked for the Italian word for “castor oil,” she replies that “her” Italian does not cover that sort of thing; hers is the language of Dante? I hope that reading courses will be revived at some point, because we could all use plenty beaucoup of Dante’s Italian! For twenty-five years or so, Watson noodled along happily enough as a Descartes scholar at Washington University in St Louis, where the need to speak French has not been pressing for some time. Then he was asked to deliver a paper at a premium Descartes event not only in France but in French. This, after months of intensive tutoring, he managed to do. Along the way, however, he was struck by a determination, stoic and all but fatal, that he must learn to speak French.

If you ask me, he went about it all wrong. What he ought to have done was to immerse himself in some congenial community of French speakers and punted. He claims in the book to have grown too old and stiff for serious cave exploration, but he might have rented a room in the home of a spelunker in which no one spoke English. After six months of saying “pass the butter” and “Are you really going out looking like that?” (or at least listening to the maman saying it), he would have developed a serviceable patois that could be ironed out by the course at Alliance Française. Going straight to the Alliance, without any immersion, was a mistake — as Watson learned. Don’t take my word for this, just read Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Altre Parole

The pith of The Philospher’s Demise is a love/hate latter to the civilization of France. The words “mean” and “nasty” pop up with unsettling regularity, while the compliments are largely indirect. Eventually, Watson, a biological teetotaler, concedes that French cuisine’s reputation for excellence does not depend on everybody’s drinking too much wine to care what’s on the plate. The most indirect compliment (as befits a modest Midwesterner) comes near the end, when one of Watson’s best French friends observes that he, Watson, could hardly speak a word last summer; “Now you won’t shut up.” Left unspecified: speaking what? A running gag throughout The Philosopher’s Demise features Watson’s continuing frustration with the unwillinigness of his French colleagues to chat with him. They are always too busy. They ask him to give them a call, but they don’t take the call. When Watson has finally cornered his prize pigeon, the leading French Cartesian agrees to speak French — but only if Watson will stick to English. “Your French is terrible.” 

Yes, but he could speak it.

Social Note:
Insulting Compliments
5 December 2018

¶ Once upon a time, it was considered rude to compliment one’s hostess on the delicious food at her dinner, or the handsomeness of her drawing room. To do so was to imply that things might have been otherwise.

It would also have been insulting to observe that the late president was a gentleman. And, as we now see, confusing, too. 

Gastronomic Note:
Conundrum
4 December 2018

¶ All Kathleen wanted for dinner was a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich. So I made spaghetti alla carbonara for myself. And I noticed that it took a while, keeping me busy the whole time the water heated up. For one thing, I have taken to frying two pieces of bacon on the stovetop, instead of zapping them in the microwave (much less poking around the fridge for leftovers). It tastes better. I used make carbonara with pancetta, which I would slice and fry, too, and I turned to bacon because it was more convenient. But now I’m taking the same trouble with bacon — which I’ve learned I really prefer to pancetta. I ask myself: why do I, so lazy these days, so disinclined to cook in general, think nothing of standing up for half an hour to make spaghetti alla carbonara

Why? Because the result is unfailingly delicious. With this one dish, I produce exactly what I want to eat, every time. Sometimes I make too much, but usually there is not quite enough. Why just this one dish? Is it because I don’t really know how to cook anything else? Or is it because, like Kathleen, I want to eat only one thing?

Reading Note:
Stefan Zweig
3 December 2018

¶ For years, I resisted reading Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, because reviews of the NYRB republication had led me to expect a sickly, expressionist tale. But I couldn’t find anything in the shelves that was more promising, so I pulled it down. I began reading it late at night, so late that, the next day, I started out at the beginning again. I couldn’t quite finish it before bedtime, but I picked it up right after the Times the next morning, and was soon done. Sickly and expressionist it is not. 

Although the English title is not terrible, a more faithful translation of the original, Ungeduld des Herzens The Heart’s Impatience, perhaps — would be much better. “Beware of pity” is the hero’s warning to the reader, expressive of a regret repeated many times in the novel. But the heroine — think she’s a heroine — is impatient, too. She wants to be cured of the paralysis for which the hero, himself impatient to alleviate misery, pities her — and because of which he cannot love her. 

I gather from Joan Acocella’s introduction that the heroine is generally regarded as a witch, who fans her would-be lover’s conscience with searing waves of guilt. For my part, I found the hero to be a monster of callow vanity, so preoccupied by tending the flame of his self-regard that he doesn’t see that, like the worst of cads, he is leading a poor girl on. She, not unnaturally, takes his daily attention as a sign of affection, but he, understandably perhaps but somewhat less naturally, has simply become addicted to visiting the sick, or at least a a sick person who happens to be a pretty little girl living at the height of luxury. As one of the first novelists familiar with the teachings of Freud, Zweig presents characters whose motives are complicated in what has become a very familiar way. 

Against this psychological modernity, Zweig deploys well-worn melodramatic plot devices with the deftness of a topnotch prestidigitator. In the most exciting of the many scenes that presage the climax, the urgency of avoiding an impending thunderstorm prevents the hero from explaining to the heroine’s ailing father, who shouldn’t be out in this weather, matters that really require a calmer setting. I found the encounter fresh as rain, and far too satisfying to be hokey, which it might well have been in lesser hands. Beware of Pity is also shot through with the hero’s innocent and unconscious denunciation of the Austrian Army’s unpreparedness for the war that interrupts everything at the end. Zweig’s prose is the literary equivalent of architectural Vienna, grand but rarely grandiose, leavened by a wit that is psychological rather than verbal. Beware of Pity is truly thoughtful box of delightful treats. 

November 2018

Big-Time Oops Note:
“Would You Mind Faxing Over That Great Pound Cake Recipe?”
30 November 2018

¶ I hope that you are not someone who has tried to make Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Lemon Poppy Seed Pound Cake according to the version of the recipe printed in the otherwise outstanding Guarnaschelli edition of The Joy of Cooking. If you’re not, you’re probably still trying to get your head around all the nomenclature in the previous sentence. But if you are, I’ll bet you were shuddering with horrible memories before it came to an end. 

I was almost an unlucky one. But a little voice registered complaint: a pound cake is so called because it combines roughly equal weights of its principal ingredients, eggs, flour, sugar, and butter. The recipe in Joy called for three eggs, a cup and a half of cake flour, and three-quarters of a cup of sugar — so far so good. But “25 tablespoons (about three sticks and one tablespoon) unsalted butter”? That couldn’t be right. And it wasn’t. I lugged Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible from a stack of cookbooks. The correct amount is 13 tablespoons of butter.

I hate to think. 

More about this when my silicone kugelhopf mold arrives. 

Retail Note:
Envelope, Please
29 November 2018

¶ Our calendars have arrived. Every year, Kathleen composes a spiral-bound calendar, a little more than eight inches by four, and has them printed by an Internet outfit; we send them out as holiday cards. The 2019 calendars arrived today. They look great.

The thing is, the Internet outfit doesn’t sell matching envelopes. Kathleen has searched the site in vain. For years, I went to Staples to buy bubble envelopes — the bubbles aren’t really necessary, but you can’t readily get envelopes in the right size without them — but now I order them from Amazon. I take a few to the Post Office, to find out what the postage is going to be, and then I buy a lot of stamps. That and the purchase of a Christmas tree are my seasonal chores.  

But why oh why aren’t the envelopes more conveniently available? How do the calendar printers think their patrons distribute the things? In person? Tell me I’m missing something, and then tell me what it is. Please.

Movie Note:
Ironing to George Clooney
28 November 2018

¶ The overall theme for November was Overwhelmed Paralysis. That’s not the best way of putting it, but there isn’t, and oughtn’t to be, such a word as “overwhelmence.” Having too many items on my to-do list (which existed only in my addled mind), I did almost nothing. I read and I wrote, because those are things that I like to do, but I neglected the writing project, and I took no notes on the barrage of thoughts about liberalism that have sounded in my head more commonly than music. Above all, I let the ironing pile up.

“The ironing” is a stack of pillowslips, napkins, and handkerchiefs that mounts higher every Friday, when I retrieve the wash-and-fold laundry from the conciergerie downstairs. As everything is neatly folded, there is no real need to iron anything, and when, as sometimes happens, I run out of pressed napkins, I filch a few from the stack. But I am not yet prepared to “let go” of this venerable chore, and, by last weekend, it had become a matter of running out of room for “the ironing.” The stack was wobbling, spilling over.

So I put on a movie. Michael Clayton, a random choice. Well, a random choice that I decided to go along with. I pulled out a drawer of DVDs and pulled up a sleeve: Michael Clayton. Sounds good, I thought. And it was good. 

George Clooney has a reputation for being a really cool guy, and he plays that kind of guy in the Ocean movies, but in most of the films that I know, he is either harried or crazy. Crazy: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Men Who Stare at GoatsBurn After Reading. Harried: Up in the Air, SyrianaThe Descendants. For a matinée idol, Clooney has played a lot of unhinged men. And then there are the characters whom it is rather hard to like: The AmericanThe Ides of March. And let’s not forget the scamps: Three KingsGood Night, and Good Luck, roles that play Clooney’s inarguably adult masculine features against immature impulses. 

Before everybody gets too old, I would like to see a heist film in which Crazy George teams up with The over-the-top self-parody presented by Jason Statham in Spy

I got all the ironing done before Michael Clayton was overOr so I thought. Only when I put the ironing board back in its closet did I realize that I’d forgotten to open last week’s wash-and-fold. 

Art Note:
Sargent’s Genius
27 November 2018

When Percy Wyndham decided to commission John Singer Sargent to paint a picture of his three daughters, in 1899, it took some time for the sisters to juggle their calendars and settle on a date for getting together with the painter. Eventually, they all had dinner at Wyndham’s home in Belgrave Square. The women had given some thought as to how they should arrange themselves for the portrait, but in the course of that one evening, Sargent formulated the grouping that we see today in his masterpiece, The Wyndham Sisters: Lady Elcho, Mrs Adeane, and Mrs Tennant. Claudia Renton’s Those Wild Wyndhams: Three Sisters at the Heart of Power, newly published in the United States by Knopf, demonstrates that Sargent did a great deal more than paint pretty faces. The portrait’s subtitle, which simply lists the sisters in order of seniority, is not much help if you’re trying to figure out which is which, but in the unlikely event that you were to see the picture for the first time after reading Renton’s book, you would have no difficulty identifying each one. 

Unlike the handy little books that have been written about other Sargent paintings, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit and Mrs Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, Those Wild Wyndhams is about the sisters themselves, in which Sargent figures hardly at all. Renton’s subtitle attempts a justification for what is essentially a family biography: these women occupied significant positions in Edwardian London’s most glamorous social milieu. To be bluntly honest, only two of them did; the middle sister, Madeline Adeane, was a wife and mother who did not pursue what we would call a life of her own. That is why Sargent seats her apart, to the left of Lady Elcho and Mrs Tennant, and also why she seems to be looking inward even though her eyes are directed upward. Mary Elcho, sitting on the back of the sofa, is also looking offstage, as it were, but with the very different air of talking to someone whom we can’t see. Plumped in front of Mary, Pamela gazes at us, superbly pretty and imperturbably self-centered. Mary Wyndham had had reason to hope that Arthur Balfour would marry her, but when he didn’t marry her or anyone else, she settled into life-long companionship with him, meeting as often as possible, generally for two hours, one for spanking (she spanked him), and one for discussing political affairs. Pamela married the heir to a great chemical fortune and then, when he died, she married Lord Grey, formerly Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Minister whose 1914 remark about the lamps going out all over Europe has been famous ever since — so famous that I’ve seen it attributed to Churchill. 

Speaking of that terrible war, Percy Wyndham had five children: the three girls and, in between Mary and Madeline, two boys, George and Guy; between them, the siblings lost five sons. Actually, George Wyndham died before the war broke out, so in that sense he was spared the loss. Madeline was spared because the son for whom she prayed as she gave birth to daughter after daughter did not appear until 1907. 

But Those Wild Wyndhams is anything but dismal. The Wyndhams and the Tennants were core members of the social cluster known as “The Souls,” remarkable at the time for its patina of intellectualism but more interesting now because the men in the group genuinely liked women — even womanizers like Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Harry Cust (“bulging with sex” according to one lady friend, and the alleged progenitor not only of Lady Diana Cooper but of Margaret Lady Thatcher). Even without doing anything famous, these were very interesting people. Renton’s book functions something like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, explaining the mythological background (no matter how actually historical it was) behind a very great work of art.