Mrs. Astor Collects.

January 14, 2013

Brooke Astor on collections and collecting, as published in Architectural Digest, 1982:

Taste is a very elusive thing. The person who dresses with style and taste may have a banal or even hideous house. The one who collects magnificent pictures may have no idea how to hang them. Some people have good taste in everything but food; in the most delightful surroundings, they may serve you a half-cooked meal. And worst of all, some of the nicest people have dreadful friends.

I have found that my taste changes with the years. I used to love 18th-century English furniture—mahogany sideboards and large breakfront bookcases; paneled rooms with sporting prints on the walls. Then, by way of a divorce, I moved away from the English furniture and the house, into an apartment, where I had French furniture—small, pretty chairs, which were easy to draw up for conversation, and small round tables. Now I like a mixture. I want pure comfort, with some good wood pieces and low Chinese tables—and mirrors in every room. My mother used to say, “Mirrors in a room, water in a landscape, eyes in a face—those are what give character.” My mirrors are a mixture of French and English, all in old gilt, and they are there to reflect the room and to give it spirit.

There are two volumes on taste—The Economics of Taste, by Gerald Reitlinger—that I advise new collectors to read. Of particular importance is Reitlinger’s warning that you should not be so foolish as to throw away your grandfather’s stuffed bear, or your great-aunt’s ivory glove stretcher, because they may become the rage overnight and the bids will soar at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

Collecting is a personal matter, which is why museums with the most complete and unusual collections can be overpowering at times. The point of view of a museum is to show as much as possible, in a gallery, of whatever that gallery is meant for. A museum must look for the best, but, at the same time, offer a range of lesser art, in order to illustrate the evolution of the perfect example and to satisfy both casual visitor and scholar. To accomplish all this, the museum must be totally objective. A museum must judge with an eye from which a great deal of passion has gone. There is no place for frivolity or for slipping in an unworthy object just because it is amusing or has an odd charm of its own.

Unlike the museum, the private collector can run totally amok. He can put the most outré painting on his wall and place below it a fourth-century Greek sculpture and an Axminster rug. His is not necessarily a happy mixture, because to be a collector does not always mean to be endowed with good taste; it can be purely a case of a desire to possess.

I caution that there are three catches to collecting: The first is the changing of your own taste, which entails a good deal of weeding out—a rather difficult process if you are at all sentimental. I recall asking a friend of mine, a delightful lady in her middle 90s, who was incredibly full of life and charm, what the secret was that kept her so young and on her toes. She answered thoughtfully, “I think it is because I try to make one new young friend a year. It challenges my outlook.” I did not dare to ask what she did with her old friends. Did she slough one off each year? Second, must you send one of your treasures to a thrift shop or auction room every time you replace it with another, so that your collection will not outgrow your house, but will show the fruits of your choice to advantage—not squeezed together, making a hodgepodge? And, last of all, possessions are a responsibility. They need care, as does everything. They must not be allowed to collect dust. China and glass must be washed. Pictures must be cleaned and restretched periodically. Books must be taken off the shelves, their bindings oiled and then rubbed down with lamb’s wool. Bronze must be guarded against the bronze disease. Nothing can be beautiful forever, if uncared for.

I started collecting paintings of dogs about 15 years ago. Dogs have always been a part of my life; I don’t believe I could survive without them. Inspired by their ever-loyal friendship, I started to adorn my walls with pictures of them. I chose works from the 19th century, mostly English, with a few Spanish and French, and have stuck to that. Queen Victoria, who was as sentimentally addicted to dogs as I am, had every one of her pets painted and her courtiers quickly followed her example. Thanks to that prolific period of dog lovers, I now have 74 dog pictures in the front hall and on the staircase wall of my house in the country. I have never bought a costly dog painting—say, by Stubbs—but I have Landseers, Herrings, Ackermanns, and so on. I have pictures of dogs tearing up a newspaper with a picture of Gladstone on it; dogs obviously adoring their masters, and carrying notes or slippers or gray top hats in their mouths; dogs mourning their masters; dogs sleeping or playing; and others simply posing. The dogs are my only really large collection, and the staircase was the right place for them, although they now also fill the upstairs hall.

In my smaller collections, the important thing is arrangement. I like to arrange objects as I would arrange a bowl of flowers, making a mixture that is pleasing and that brings about the best in each flower or object. In my New York apartment, the rooms are not large; so the objects all had to be fairly small.

In my blue “morning room” (named for the morning sun) there are several arrangements, including one of my favorites: Against a blue-fabric-covered wall I have hung five large Meissen plates—the heart of a dinner service painted for Frederick the Great of Prussia, to be used in his hunting lodge. I hung them over a Hepplewhite satinwood cabinet, on whose top I placed objects to enhance the animals painted on the plates.

I have a collection of teapots, also. One group is on a Regency black-and-red stand, and the other is on what is meant to be a hanging shelf, but I have placed it on the floor. The teapots are mostly European, late 18th and early 19th century, with some Oriental ones thrown in.

In the hall leading to my bedroom, a Brazilian marble dog prances between English candlesticks atop a console, and in my bedroom two Chinese Chippendale-style étagères hold a collection of English porcelain dogs.

All these things are not particularly rare, but even at the risk of sounding smug, I do think they are attractive together. I, myself, when I happen to look at them at night on my way to bed, feel they have found a good home, and I like them where they are. Anyway, they make me happy, and I hope it will be many years before they find their way into the auction rooms. I hope that then they will be loved as much as I love them, because I believe that nothing exists that is unresponsive.

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Back, Sadly.

June 5, 2012

It is with a heavy collective heart that your editorial staff breaks its lengthy silence today, which it does out of the necessity of reporting the demise of an old friend and benefactor of humanity: The Queen’s English Society, dedicated these past four decades to the proper use of Her Majesty’s language.

Rhea Williams, chairman of the Society (whose punctuation guide alone runs a hefty 6,000 words), announced the venerable organization’s departure from the stage in a message to its members. Despite her gender, Ms. Williams insists on the title ‘chairman,’ in accordance with proper linguistic practice. Her crusades have, over the years, included efforts to raise the speech of BBC commentators, whose local accents the Society has derided in favor of Received Pronunciation, a structuralist term for what’s proper. In explanation – or defense – of its mission, the Society has stated “we prefer the prescriptive approach to the descriptive approach, as we do not want the language to lose its fine or major distinctions.” The British paper The Daily Mail blamed the demise of Ms. Rhea’s group on Twitter, contractions, and Americanisms.

At the news of the Society’s closure, Gyles Brandreth, a former Conservative member of the English Parliament and patron of the Society, sounded an optimistic note: “The Queen’s English isn’t under threat,” Brandreth told The Independent. “Her Majesty can sleep easy. The language is still in the good hands of all the people who speak good English.”


Think much? Drink more.

October 18, 2010

The website of The Atlantic magazine recently published an interesting chart having to do with the correlative relationship between the levels at which people’s brains function and how much they drink. The gist is surprising: on average, the smarter you are, the more you drink.

Drink_graphThe chart is based on years of research into British schoolchildren: “very bright” students participating in the study grew up to drink substantially more than their “very dull” classmates. The study controlled for “both income and education, as well as childhood social class and parents’ education.”

The logic behind the surprising results might be what English philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “the ordeal of consciousness”: the smarter the adult, the greater his need to occasionally disengage: high-functioning brains might sometimes need to unplug in the way that racehorses need to be walked off a track and back to the stables… they can’t run everywhere, all the time.


Bill Millin, War Piper, Dead.

August 21, 2010

The Scottish bagpipes, because of their inspirational properties in war, were outlawed in their native Highlands centuries ago. Though the ban faltered after, it was resurrected by the English after World War I because of great losses suffered by British soldiers following the pipes into battle.

“Ah, but that’s the English War Office,” Lord Lovat, hereditary chief of the Fraser clan, told bagpiper Bill Millin on the eve of D-Day. “You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”

Bill Millin at Edinburgh Castle, 2001.

Bill Millin was born in Glasgow to a policeman in 1922, and first played the pipes for the 7th Batallion of the Highland Light Infantry. He volunteered for the British commandos in 1941 and met Lovat while training at Achnacarry, north of Fort William. The Scottish Lord took Millin on as his personal piper and, when Lovat’s men disembarked later at Normandy’s Sword Beach, Bill played them ashore. From The Telegraph‘s obituary:

“Millin began his apparently suicidal serenade immediately upon jumping from the ramp of the landing craft into the icy water. As the Cameron tartan of his kilt floated to the surface he struck up with Hieland Laddie. He continued even as the man behind him was hit, dropped into the sea and sank.”

The piper, bearing nothing in the way of arms save a ceremonial dagger stowed in his kilt, kept it up along the beach all that day, fielding requests from Lovat for different tunes. When the brigade moved further inland, Millin piped along the road to Benouville. Lovat’s men took sniper fire along the way and stopped their march long enough to stalk and kill the shooters. Returning from a field with the corpse of one, Lovat told Bill, “Right, piper. Start the pipes again.”

“I shall never forget hearing the skirl of Bill Millin’s pipes,” said Tom Duncan, some years later. Duncan had been wounded contemporaneous to the invasion and heard Millin play later, in a field hospital. “It is hard to describe the impact it had. It gave us a great lift and increased our determination. As well as the pride we felt, it reminded us of home and why we were there fighting for our lives and those of our loved ones.”

German prisoners later told Millin, whose pipes sustained shrapnel damage at one point but who was never himself harmed, that they hadn’t shot at him because he seemed to have “gone off his head.”

Millin took a job on Lord Lovat’s estate after the war, but was soon bored and left to tour and play with a theatre group. He returned to play the lament at Lovat’s funeral in 1995.

Bill Millin died on August 17, 2010. He was 88 years old.


In Decline, Graciously

July 2, 2010

Via The New York Times:

Satisfaction with our national progress should not make us forget its authors: the very Protestant elite that founded and long dominated our nation’s institutions of higher education and government, including the Supreme Court.

Unlike almost every other dominant ethnic, racial or religious group in world history, white Protestants have ceded their socioeconomic power by hewing voluntarily to the values of merit and inclusion, values now shared broadly by Americans of different backgrounds. The decline of the Protestant elite is actually its greatest triumph.

Like any ethno-racial or religious group, the population of white Protestants is internally diverse. It would be foolish to conflate the descendants of New England smallholders with the offspring of Scandinavian sod farmers in the Middle West, just as it would be a mistake to confuse the Milanese with the Sicilians, or the children of Havana doctors with the grandchildren of dirt farmers from Chiapas, Mexico.

So, when discussing the white elite that exercised such disproportionate power in American history, we are talking about a subgroup, mostly of English or Scots-Irish origin, whose ancestors came to this land in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their forebears fought the American Revolution and wrote the Constitution, embedding in it a distinctive set of beliefs of Protestant origin, including inalienable rights and the separation of church and state.

It is not as though white Protestants relinquished power quickly or without reservation. Catholic immigrants, whether from Ireland or Southern Europe, faced a century of organized discrimination and were regularly denounced as slavish devotees of the pope unsuited to democratic participation.

And, although anti-Semitism in America never had anything like the purchase it had in Europe, it was a persistent barrier. Protestants like Abbott Lawrence Lowell, a great president of Harvard in the early 20th century, tried to impose formal quotas to limit Jewish admissions to the university. The Protestant governing elite must also bear its own share of responsibility for slavery and racial discrimination.

Yet, after the ideals of meritocratic inclusion gained a foothold, progress was remarkably steady and smooth. Take Princeton University, a longtime bastion of the Southern Protestant elite in particular. The Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald was segregated and exclusive. When Hemingway described Robert Cohn in the opening of “The Sun Also Rises” as a Jew who had been “the middleweight boxing champion of Princeton,” he was using shorthand for a character at once isolated, insecure and pugnacious. As late as 1958, the year of the “dirty bicker” in which Jews were conspicuously excluded from its eating clubs, Princeton could fairly have been seen as a redoubt of all-male Protestant privilege.

In the 1960s, however, Princeton made a conscious decision to change, eventually opening its admissions to urban ethnic minorities and women. That decision has now borne fruit. Astonishingly, the last three Supreme Court nominees — Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — are Princeton graduates, from the Classes of 1972, ’76, and ’81, respectively. The appointments of these three justices to replace Protestant predecessors turned the demographic balance of the court.

Why did the Protestant elite open its institutions to all comers? The answer can be traced in large part to the anti-aristocratic ideals of the Constitution, which banned titles of nobility and thus encouraged success based on merit. For many years, the Protestant elite was itself open to rising white Protestants not from old-family backgrounds.

Money certainly granted entrée into governing circles, but education was probably more important to the way the Protestant elite defined itself, which is why the opening of the great American universities has had such an epochal effect in changing the demographics of American elites. Another key source was the ideal of fair play, imported from the ideology of the English public schools, but practiced far more widely in the United States than in the class-ridden mother country.

Together, these social beliefs in equality undercut the impulse toward exclusive privilege that every successful group indulges on occasion. A handful of exceptions for admission to societies, clubs and colleges — trivial in and of themselves — helped break down barriers more broadly. This was not just a case of an elite looking outside itself for rejuvenation: the inclusiveness of the last 50 years has been the product of sincerely held ideals put into action.

Interestingly, this era of inclusion was accompanied by a corresponding diffusion of the distinctive fashion (or rather anti-fashion) of the Protestant elite class. The style now generically called “prep,” originally known as “Ivy League,” was long purveyed by Jewish and immigrant haberdashers (the “J.” in the New Haven store J. Press stands for Jacobi) and then taken global by Ralph Lauren, né Lifshitz. But until the Protestant-dominated Ivy League began to open up, the wearers of the style were restricted to that elite subculture.

The spread of Ivy League style is therefore not a frivolous matter. Today the wearing of the tweed is not anachronism or assimilation, but a mark of respect for the distinctive ethnic group that opened its doors to all — an accomplishment that must be remembered, acknowledged and emulated.


A Way To Win

January 22, 2010

Since assuming control of the nation’s armed forces, President Obama has authorized the use of more Predator attack drones than any military chief before him, and for good reason: the drones are efficient and deadly, and they keep American soldiers out of harm’s way. 

Each Predator is controlled by two “pilots” who use joysticks and video screens to steer it from a remote base. A trigger attached to the joysticks fires its missiles. The images pilots use to guide the robot planes are gathered by the Predators, beamed to a satellite, and then re-directed through 12 time zones to the control bases in states like California. This takes about a second. 

The U.S. Predator drone.

Each Predator carries one 500-pound bomb, or an attachment of equally deadly Hellfire missiles. 

Though not without obvious merit, President Obama’s liberal deployment of the machines presents two dangers, and one tertiary benefit. 

The first danger remote-controlled war robots present is what game theorists call “signaling.” By refusing to commit our own blood to a conflict, we signal to an enemy that we lack resolve. This is heartening to them; the under-dog martyr mentality often inspires soldiers and spurs armies to fight on. Imagine the Jews in the mountain caves of Masada, so enraged by Rome that they took their own lives rather than be captured; or, the few Spartans who stood against thousands of Persians at Thermopyle, fortified in the throes of patriotic resolve. When soldiers sense they are more dedicated to a cause than their enemies, their fervor can prolong and worsen conflicts, even in the face of overwhelming odds. 

The second, and more pressing, danger is that lasting peace isn’t won by soldiers, but by the statesmen who come after. If that’s not done properly, peace deteriorates quickly. This is old news, but consider: for every Al Qaeda operative killed by Predator drones, two more appear. This is because the people they recruit believe in Al Qaeda and hate America. The equation makes it ironically impossible to win a war of attrition with these terrorists: they’re an Arabic Hydra, growing two heads for every one chopped off. By killing them, we make them stronger. The only way to beat something like that is to prevent new heads from growing. 

In Afghanistan, the answer is to reverse potential recruits’ mindset. They need to be taught to believe in America and hate Al Qaeda. This is a hard lesson to teach people who see robot planes flying overhead, firing missiles which often either miss their mark completely, and destroy an innocent building next-door, or kill civilians who happen to be in the vicinity of the drone’s target. Predator drones are wonderful for eliminating high-level enemies, but not for winning the hearts and minds of locals, and real victory requires both. This means boots on the ground… but construction boots, not combat boots: friendly faces who, after the fighting has cooled down, help build dams, schools, hospitals, roads, water treatment plants, and governments. Without this shift, any peace bought in any country becomes worthless quickly. 

Afghanistan is a place we should be in. We need a friend in an unstable (and often violently anti-Western) region to be our eyes and ears (and military staging area, if necessary). We need to have friends near all that oil, which is a national interest. We need to help it form a stable, just government, which is a humanitarian interest. 

We can’t do that with robots. We can only do it with people. Each is a necessary component, and the overwhelming success of one shouldn’t detract from the necessity, at the appropriate time, of the other. Lasting military victory without a sustainable humanitarian interest is impossible, just as sustainable humanitarian interests are impossible without a lasting military victory.  

The third danger, and possibly too the drones’ most notable merit, is that they allow American forces to become engaged in conflicts which would have otherwise quickly become unacceptable quicksand death-traps. Some countries historically counted on drawing foreign soldiers inland and then making them pay so heavily for the intrusion that their chiefs cut their losses; think of English redcoats during the American Revolution, United States troops in Vietnam, the British, Russians, and (it’s starting to seem) Americans in Afghanistan, the Nazis in Stalinist Russia, and the Persians at Thermopyle. Each was a superior force attacking a smaller enemy. And each force was drawn so far into that enemy’s home field, and suffered such great losses as a result, they withdrew. 

To countries like these, Predator drones announce the end of the tactic: Americans, if drawn into such a fight, will not be forced to cut and run from a mountain of casualties. Rather, they will stay and fight, and fight, and fight for as long as there are missiles available to load onto drones… and none of them will die doing it.


The “ECHL”

December 9, 2009

Author G. Bruce Boyer is best known as an essayist on the subject of classic men’s fashion; he is the author of several books on the subject and a contributor to, and editor of, The Encyclopaedia of Clothing & Fashion. He’s also the author of the short essay below “The English Country House Look”… or, ECHL, which first appeared on the web log A Suitable Wardrobe.

The Gothic Business Look (all laser-cut black suits and pointed shoes), the Made-in-America Blue Collar Look, the Neo-Japanese Preppy Look, the Neapolitan Relaxed Elegance Look. There are so many looks around these days to tempt a young man at the onset of his wardrobing life. What’s a fella to do?

May I suggest taking one step forward by taking two steps backwards: the tried & true English Country House Look (ECHL). It’s stood the test of time, has proven adaptable to virtually any body shape, continues to have enviable street creds, and can be worked and re-worked over and over infinitum.

Ralph Lauren & The ECHL.

In his distinctive book, On Decorating, Mark Hampton slyly puts his finger on the secret of the ECHL:

…rooms with old worn carpets and turn-of-the-century upholstered furniture which, instead of being newly reupholstered, is covered in loose slipcovers that look (and perhaps are) homemade. There are books everywhere and leather club fenders in front of smoke-streaked mantelpieces. This is commonly called the undecorated look. Sometimes it is the result of happenstance; sometimes a subtle effort has been made …

“Sometimes a subtle effort” would be a good title for a study of this subject that speaks to both interior design and to clothes. Since Mr. Hampton has noted the touchstones of the interior design genre, let’s look at the salient points of the ECHL pertaining to clothes.

  1. Aspirational gentility: the perceptive Ralph Lauren has, over these many years, firmly convinced us that our grandfathers all had mahogany-lined speedboats and polo ponies, even though they were in fact slaving away down some mine shaft or other. You can’t beat the past as a commodity.
  2. Disdain for technology: why would anyone bother with a Blackberry, cellphone, headsets, ipod, Kindle, or laptop when a simple Montblanc and Moleskin diary will suffice, and not ruin the lines of the suit. Let solitude be a time for thought.
  3. Untidiness trumps symmetry and organization: consider Nancy Mitford’s famous dictum: “All nice rooms are a bit shabby.” This applies to dress as well. Otherwise there’s the suspicion of calculation.
  4. A preference for the mildly tatty over the new and shiny. Flaunting new labels, or any labels for that matter, gives the impression of insecurity.
  5. Comfort triumphs: never sacrifice a cozy, warm, homey feeling to fashionable trends. You don’t have to.
  6. Eccentric within reason is charming: we preach individuality, but how refreshing to actually see it. Wear the orange cashmere tie and purple socks with the navy suit, or a plastic shopping bag for a briefcase.
  7. On the other hand, novelty is as unwelcome as excessive tidiness. Just because a person likes something is not a good enough reason to wear it. Denim dinner jackets and chinchilla bow ties are cute and whimsical. That’s the problem.
  8. Be sentimental: style is about attitude. Wearing Granddad’s old pocket watch from a chain through your buttonhole is a perfect touch, even if the face keeps falling out of it.

But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Ralph.