Thursday, September 24, 2015


You can hear the soft serene sounds of crystal being placed on the Irish damask and lace tablecloth by a white-gloved hand in preparation for the formal dinner, a dinner served to the aristocratic inhabitants in a centuries old English manor.
In actuality this estate isn't in England but it has the look that transports you across the Atlantic and into the English countryside to an the kind of estate that has evolved over centuries of English design. It's meant to look that way. Nathan and Jessie Paine idealized their English heritage in the home they would build in Oshkosh, Wisconsin using Kasota limestone quarried in Minnesota and oak and walnut felled from the forests of Northern Wisconsin. Their souls live there but they never occupied the interiors of this illustrious mansion. What they did do was to fill the manor with the finest craftsmanship and furnishings they could find in the early to mid- twentieth century with the purpose of leaving the estate as a museum for all to enjoy.
Today the manor and grounds remain a gracious and generous gift that does just that. It is also the perfect setting for an exhibit, Dressing Downton, fashions from the PBS series, Downton Abbey.
Unlike the Chinese exhibit at the Met, the Paine was able to place the costumes against backgrounds that made you see more than the clothes. Pairing the clothes with the soft light of Tiffany lamps and the furnishings selected by the Paines you can see the characters from Downton slipping into these fashions and becoming the characters many of us have grown to love.
You can hear the clink of cultured pearls as the ladies prepared to make their entrances down the royal staircases on their way to an evening of social engagements.
The contrast of the fashions between the upstairs and downstairs occupants was never more obvious than in the starched uniforms from down below and the couture look of the gentry living above.
In one vignette inspired by the Paine mansion you could sense the anticipation of the great front door opening and a row of coachmen standing at attention waiting to take the lady of the manor and her luggage to meet her steamer that would take her abroad for a winter holiday.
Menswear was by no means left out. The protocol of military dress was on full display as the Earl of Grantham prepared for a formal event in the master suite. The royal red jacket pointed back to the adage of how attractive a man in uniform can be.
For those of us who are major Downton fans the exhibit gave an insight into the characters we've learned to love over the past five seasons as we prepare for a final farewell to the series. The Dowager Countess in her purple  half-mourning day dress, her cane in hand and her sardonic humor at the ready was perfectly placed in the breakfast room with the Oshkosh sun streaming in.
Since the series takes place over several time periods from pre-WWI through the Jazz Age there's a significant change in hemlines. Just as transportation was moving from a horse-powered time to one being propelled by automobiles
so would fashion change from the floor length bustled dresses of the dowager to the flapper length of the emerging roaring twenties.
The fact that most of the costumes, if not all, were vintage pieces kept in mint condition was one of the most amazing aspects not so much of the exhibit but a tribute to the astounding respect the shows costumers, actors and handlers gave to an art form made from such delicate threads and beads.
We were once again lucky to have caught this exhibit the day before it closed. Oshkosh doesn't usually show up in the top ten list of most critics of fashion or fine art but this museum and exhibit are a significant reason to keep an eye on the Paine's calendar.
After having toured the Paine we were all up for lunch but not sure where to go. We had gone to Oshkosh with our long-time friend, Leslie Watkins. It was her quick fingers and social media savvy that got us to a list of the best restaurants in Oshkosh on her iPhone. That might seem like an oxymoron to some. She landed on Pilora's Café and since neither Rick nor I had a better suggestion we went for it. Rick loaded the address into his iPhone and Siri did the rest guiding us to Main Street and the parking lot for the cafe. It was already 2:45 and the restaurant that only served breakfast and lunch was going to close at three. The exterior didn't look all that promising, standard diner eighties building with little to recommend it. It looked a lot like a Bob's Big Boy without the big boy statue. Rick was already looking for a backup just in case. Inside, the restaurant was a bit more promising, styled a little more café-like than strip mall diner. We took a table in the center of the room. There were a few straggling diners but you could tell by the amount of empty seats that the end of the day was fast approaching. I was nervous our late entry might be met with a sour reception but our waitress gave us a whole different vibe. She was as bubbly as a foaming Wisconsin craft rootbeer spilling out over the edges of a frosty mug.  Marilyn was a woman in love with her job. She couldn't have cared less that the sign outside said closing at three. She wiped off our table with a clean cloth and wiped out any fears I might have had about what this dining experience was going to be like.
There wasn't a thing on the menu she didn't know about. She wouldn't stop raving about the food in hyperbole rivaling the reading of the Constitution, but the highlight was the mac and cheese... and she was right. This was without question the best mac and cheese I've ever had, smooth and rich with a little kick and a crusty top. The best part was you could also buy it in one pound or two pound containers to take home. After we had licked our plates clean Rick and I ordered the two-pounder while Leslie punked out and only went for the one-pounder.
To top all this off Marilyn said there was still enough blueberry bread pudding to make a whipped cream topped plate big enough for the three of us with accompanying spoons for all. I notched out another hole on my belt and dug in.
If you ever get to Oshkosh you have to put Pilora's Café on your must see or eat list and say hey to Marilyn for us.
Gentlemen at a WWI Veteran's Parade, 1966
Tony Ray-Jones, photographer
Represented by James Hyman Gallery, London

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


I'd been in New York for a week before Rick and Emmy came in to spend the weekend. It would be another week after they had come and left before I could go home. I'm never comfortable with being away from them for that long. It was good they'd come. The ache of missing them was gone for those few short days but the thought that they'd be gone so quickly played on my heart. They were to arrive on Thursday, late afternoon, but a weather front moving through their flight pattern kept delaying their departure. Originally they were planning on flying on Friday, giving them another day at home with our new puppies and Emmy could squeeze in another day at work but that would mean traveling on nine-eleven. We don't get on planes on nine-eleven. It wasn't until late evening, while Steven Colbert was interviewing the Vice President that I heard the key in the lock and they walked across the threshold of my anxiety.
It was a beautiful September day, a day without haze or clouds or humidity. The crispness of autumn had dipped its finger into that September day. It was a Tuesday, the second day of a week filled with milestones. Emmy was starting kindergarten. She had been accepted at Friends, a Quaker school, and a school whose philosophy was governed by peace and inclusion. They had divided her class of eighteen into two sections. The first section would attend Monday for a partial day. The second section would do the same on Tuesday and then both sections were to convene on Wednesday. Thereafter they would progressively add more time to the day until the class reached its allotted time for a full day of kindergarten. Emmy was in the Monday group. She had no school that Tuesday.
We were living in an apartment on East Twenty-ninth Street. We were on the thirty-first floor facing north with a magnificent view of the midtown skyline. We used to tell Emmy that the lights on the Empire State Building were her nightlights; they were so close to bedroom window. It became her nightly visual lullaby as the colors on the Empire State Building changed throughout the week. She never had to go to sleep in the dark.
Rick was already at work at 8:46 on that Tuesday morning. Angelina, our nanny, was getting Emmy's breakfast. I was getting ready to go into the office. From our windows we could see the cloudless clear blue sky drifting over all the architectural jewels of upper Manhattan. We were oblivious to anything south of Twenty-ninth Street. We reveled on that Tuesday enjoying one more full day with Emmy before she slipped one more step away from us in her educational journey.
At 8:46 I was just finishing shaving, Emmy was sitting at the dining table waiting for her breakfast, Angelina was at the kitchen stove stirring Emmy's oatmeal when the phone rang. It was my sister asking me if I was watching TV. She never said what was happening. She just told me to turn on the morning news program.
Fourteen years later all three of us were back in New York for a wedding. I still have a hard time dealing with that day fourteen years before. We left the apartment deciding we were in a direct flight pattern to the Empire State Building. We went to the office and stood with so many others staring down Sixth Avenue as the Towers burned and human specks fell from the sky. I have never wanted to go down to the site since the buildings collapsed. Our last apartment in New York was on John Street a block and a half from the World Trade Center. I avoided that block and a half for the entire time we lived there. It was too sacred to me. It belonged to those who were not intending to be heroes, men and women going to work or having boarded planes to destinations other than lower Manhattan or Washington D.C. or a field in the middle of Pennsylvania.
On Friday night, September 11, 2015 Emmy and I decided to go to Brooklyn Bridge Park and an event called Photoville, a free exhibit of curated photographs housed in re-purposed shipping containers. The event had been scheduled to open the night before but the same rain that had delayed Rick and Emmy's flight had pushed back the opening to Friday night unintentionally on the anniversary of 9/11.
On every anniversary, on the evening of every subsequent 9/11, the ghosts of the World Trade Center are projected on the New York sky emanating from the footprint of what once was the Twin Towers. Two beams of light pierce the sky in a way no plane can bring down. Even though we had come to see the photos of Photoville on that night there was no more powerful image than the sight of those two beams of light.

The couplet is the calling card of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. The words are also the name of a secretly hidden restaurant in the West Village. One If by Land, Two IF by Sea opened in 1971 in a carriage house that dates back to 1767. For a time from 1794 to 1804 the property belonged to Aaron Burr. Some of its notoriety is tied to the Burr-Hamilton connection. It's a very old-fashioned restaurant and we hadn't been back in decades but this is where I wanted to have my birthday dinner. We had planned it for Saturday night, a few days before my actual birthday since Emmy and Rick would be back in Madison on the fifteenth. The inspiration for choosing One If came while we were in Portugal. A British couple staying at the Quintado Convento da Franqueira while we were there had suggested a restaurant they had gone to the night before. The oddity and the intrigue was that at this seaside restaurant where fish was in abundance it also included Beef Wellington on its menu. Beef Wellington is also the signature dish at One If. We decided against it in Portugal but I remembered and loved the Beef Wellington back at this almost fifty-year old restaurant in the Village. Since we were all going to be in New York and I wouldn't be back home on my birthday I asked for dinner at One If and a chance to have one of my favorite dishes one more time.
The week had been exhausting with temperatures consistently in the nineties but on Saturday, the day of our reservation, the heat broke and we had a wonderful breeze to carry us down to Barrow Street from the Upper Westside. The exterior of the building has very little to indicate its existence.
Next to the carriage doors is a small lit box displaying a menu and little else. The wooden door bares a window with an etched silhouette of Paul Revere and his horse. Not much had changed since the last time, decades ago, when we passed through this threshold into this restaurant filled with so much of New York's history.
The bar still stretched along the north wall. The baby grand with a pianist playing Satie took me back to the first time we came here. The restaurant felt like a worn-in pair of fine Italian leather shoes, classic and comfortable.
My only disappointment is we weren't seated in the main room. Instead we were taken up a side stairway to a room with two fireplaces and seating for maybe forty guests.
The room was never full the entire time we were there and we could still hear the classic piano coming from the room below.
We chose from a selection of prix fixe menus: one with three courses, one with six and the most indulgent a menu with eleven courses. We watched as several tables were served. The plated portions were generous. They were definitely not new wave and looked significantly larger than mere tastings.
With our stomachs in check we felt completely comfortable ordering the three-course menu. There was no equivocating with the main course, but we did a split decision on the first course. I went for the onion tart while Rick and Emmy had the gnocchi served with fava beans, porcini mushrooms and pancetta.
After we had placed our orders and prior to the first course an amuse bouche of tuna tartar was served on small ceramic spoons.
Soon after the first courses were brought out. We all did a tasting of each others dishes with the gnocchi winning rave reviews and the onion tart not that far behind.
The main course for all of us was going to be the Beef Wellington served with a coat of foie gras and mushrooms under a cap of phyllo pastry. The dish came accompanied by asparagus and roasted heirloom beets. The Wellington was perfectly prepared a succulent medium rare, pink and full of flavor.
After a sufficient amount of time our waiter came with the dessert menus. Emmy and I chose the chocolate soufflé. They brought our steaming soufflés to the table on long white plates accompanied by a ramekin of vanilla ice cream and a triangular sugar cookie. Emmy and I dipped our spoons into our warm chocolate soufflés digging out the molten centers
while Rick cut into the hard chocolate coating on his chocolate mousse that arrived with a scoop of raspberry sorbet.
The sweetest part of the evening was a little dish of mini-cookies with a single candle and the words Happy Birthday written in chocolate. It came with grace, no particular fanfare and the decency of a single candle.

Submission by Shaver/Melahn Studios for World Trade Center Memorial design competition

Friday, September 11, 2015


I had gotten off the plane at LaGuardia Sunday afternoon and was back in the apartment by four. Habit had me plugging in my computer to check my email and catch up with the news on MSN. As I scrolled through the email hitting delete, delete, delete I stopped at The Daily Beast's midday post just after trashing another request for a political contribution and before I got to an announcement about the next big plague coming to my part of the world. I can whip through most of the Beast's list of missives fairly quickly but a post on The Met's most successful fashion show ever peaked my interest. I clicked on it and read the entire article. For someone with a miniscule attention span having read the entire article was a real testament to its intrigue. The exhibit was titled "China: Through the Looking Glass". Almost 800,000 visitors had seen the exhibit besting the previous most attended fashion exhibit, a retrospective of Alexander McQueen's work which was held in 2011. Both shows had been extended giving more visitors time to wander through. For the China exhibit the museum kept itself open until midnight the last Friday and Saturday before its scheduled closing, but now Monday was going to be the very last day. I really wanted to see the show for myself. Monday morning I got up, dressed and walked across the park to the Met. I got there about 9:45 fifteen minutes before the Met opened. The line to get in must have begun to form at dawn. There were two lines running down the steps and then one turning south and the other north both about a block long by the time I got there. Before the doors opened the lines had stretched another block in both directions, but once the doors opened the lines moved quickly.
I got my ticket, slapped the September seventh sticker to my chest and followed the signs to the exhibit. Normally the fashion shows are confined to the Anna Wintour gallery but this show stretched from there upward and outward into all of the Eastern Asian galleries. I entered mid-tier some how on a staircase with a view of Chinese military wear from the Mao era.
It was like walking through the blood vessels of the museum. Everything was awash in red with a mix of Mao, military and Warhol.
I was swept from there down another staircase much like Alice through the looking glass right into the Wintour gallery and the kaleidoscopically hallucinogenic tour pairing fashion greats with historic artifacts of Chinese design.
There were dragons by Laurence Xu winding around graceful silhouettes
that culminated in a waterfall train.
There was a man's dinner jacket designed by Ralph Lauren perfect for cocktails at the Copa.
Inspiration stood behind execution on costume after costume designed by fashion icons like Yves St. Laurent and Tom Ford all set in a display that disappeared into black lacquer backgrounds doubling as mirrors to infinity.
The detail in craftsmanship and accessories was a story in fabric and thread that took me on visual journeys through the history of Chinese textiles.
These majestic costumes were accompanied by massive screens tying in film and how it portrayed China on the celluloid screen.  A long hallway of monitors ran through the middle of the Wintour gallery with mirror images from The Last Emperor making everyone who walked through it feel like a celebrity doing their own red carpet walk.
This in itself would have been enough but the exhibition continued throughout the entire Chinese galleries on the floor above.
My first step into the second floor put me in a gallery dedicated to chinoiserie with its use of massive patterning and intricate layering of Chinese motifs from a western perspective. It was a journey in Chinese history evocative of the fairytale pagodas with their Ali Baba slippered roofs, birds dripping in colorful plumage and blooming lotus flower symbols of serenity.
Even the attendees came embracing this approach to fashion.
From there my eyes literally swam into a room wrapped in blue
with some of the most magnificent examples of fabric and design
inspired by China's blue and white porcelain.
Beading paired with fabric perfectly defining the term China Doll.
It was Anna May Wong, the epitome of Chinese-American sophistication in the time prior to the Second World War,
whose recreation lived again in a hallway connecting the porcelain images to the mysteries that lay ahead on the rest of the second floor.
China has always been known in the West for its silk in both fabrics and wallpaper. The luminescence of silk was captured in both the costumes and the walls displayed in the next gallery I wandered into, a symbol of the West's fascination with the East dating back to Europe's initial contact with China
One of the most impressive pieces took up residence in a gallery of Buddhist idols. In the center of the minimalist gallery surrounded by the serenity of its sculptural inhabitants was a beautiful lotus inspired gown by Chinese designer, Guo Pei.
Both Christian Dior and Coco Chanel embraced the design aspect of the orient's calligraphy in the second to last gallery incorporating the symbols into their fabrics and then onto their creations. There was real sophistication in the simplicity of these dresses.
The final space leading out of the China galleries was devoted to a literary fantasy known as wuxia. It created an imaginary place where martial artists with superhuman powers joined monks and bandits and burglars in a code of chivalry encompassing justice, honesty, benevolence and disregard for wealth and desire.
The white tube forest hides these warriors while a huge screen showed clips from House of Flying Daggers and A Touch of Zen
As much as I love having a home in the low-key Midwest, having dual residence and given the opportunity to step into the world of New York City on a regular basis and experience wonders like China Through the Looking Glass makes me very grateful.

Anna May Wong, 1935
General Photographic Agency
Getty Images