Letters from Venice – Part IX

December 14, 1982

Sunday, two days ago, was perhaps my coming out party in Venice. Sandy had a lovely party at James Mathis and Verena Freu’s apartment in Campo S. Vio, near the Anglican Church, wherein I had my theatrical debut as well.

Campo S. Vio

At James and Verena’s earlier in the day, we cooked and ate lunch, and I met Geoffrey, an English painter-hedonist-shockeur who invented seedy sides to some of the loveliest people I’ve met in Venice. Anyway, he roped me into reading at the Christmas Carol sing at the Anglican Church, Mathew verses 1-11 to the most devout Episcopalians I’ve met since St. Paul’s School. Each reader bowed or bobbed or nodded or inclined at the altar before reading , and all read with various personal inflections of English – I, the last and only American of the readers, was frightfully aware of the sharp edges to my words. But then last night, in the Vaporetto, speaking of Carol Bertrand’s very nasal lecture (American from California a la Libbet Lewis) said that when Americans speak, they “sing,” which was a lovely, if unique viewpoint on the difference between English and American speakers. Anyway, back to Church. The organist so butchered the Christmas carols by playing them at a lugubrious 17 rpms, that all conceivable joy was sopped from Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Also, I was seized by giggles because my friend Sylvano was there and had to share the hymnal with an incredibly uptight old biddy named Jeanne di Bianco – the next day I saw why I had recognized her. She is the president of the Circolo Bretannica in Venice. After the church (the service was run by Peter Lauritzen, well known historian in Venice, who looked quite a bit taken aback when I announced to him I was going to read), Sandy’s party was lovely, and I met some really great people. I got a call from one painter, Bob Morgan, whom I had talked with at length at the party. He went to Princeton in “65 and has been living in Venice for almost 10 years, except for two years which he spent in New York during those ten years. He is very interested in the theatre – we will go sometime when something besides Lady Chatterly’s Lover is playing – we both agreed it would be too embarrassing to go to it. I have seen one of his paintings at the Rylands – a portrait of Philip which is lovely, and which Augustus coos at when Philip is not at home to fill the role of coo-ee. Others of interest at the party were Marcia and Mary, two painters from Florence. They are Americans, too, but are here to study Europe’s cache of reproducibles. I saw the slides and pictures of Marcia’s work – really wonderfully done – she has a skill in drawing unequal to anyone I’ve seen in it’s verity to detail, but as she admits herself, there is a point after which one must stop copying, having learned and to on from there. I played traduttrice (translator) for Marcia and Sylvano who discussed her drawings. It was fascinating. All together, an exhilarating evening – at 12:00, James started playing his jazz records and we jitterbugged on the marble floor of their flat.

Last night I went to the Circolo Britannico – joined actually, and heard Carol Brentano’s lecture on the nativity paintings (selectively from 13th Century to 16th Century, which was fascinating. Afterwards, we went to a concert at San Stae, free, I Giovani in concerto, playing Vivaldi, Marcello, Mozart. They were for the most part pretty talented young musicians, but the most interesting thing to watch was their insegnatore (teachers), whose facial contortions and mannerisms would befit any page of Joseph Andrews, or any work by Hogarth. Really incredible. I disgraced myself by giggling throughout.

After San Stae, Louisa and I went to Montin’s where Virginia was showing her slides of the famous regatta, and of Venice proper. They were wonderful. She has a special eye for color and the possibilities of seeing the reflections in the canals of the palazzos – they looked like paintings by Munch, or Kirchna, with their distortions and too-close-for-comfort descriptions of a city of Atlantans, who only occasionally emerged to walk above the water on the rough boards flanking the Basilica. Some of them were really quite extraordinary.

Tonight we are purported to have the pleasure of having a real “Venetian” meal prepared for us by a friend of Louisa’s, Giorgio, who wants to come here with his food and do it in our kitchen! Sounds good!
Tomorrow we are celebrating Louisa’s birthday by going to the Fenice to see a ballet called Renard, by Stravinksy and another by Eric Satie, and a last piece by….oops, don’t remember.

Talked to Mom last night, and we are equally excited about her visit. She arrives eleven days from today! She said Strohmeyer (her editer at the Bethlehem Globe Times, where she was a life-style editor) was running around the office telling people it was her birthday, but apparently no party resulted. Damn. It was a grossly unsubtle hint to him to arrange something. So, things are looking up. I am loosening up, allowing myself to let go of what I don’t have here, i.e., MWM, Bob, Bill, Susan and Laura, and to embrace this city as the elegant terrarium in which I am potted for nine months! Having some liquidity financially has rounded my view of European living, I must say. Ciao for now.

Letter from Kaja McGowan, a dear friend from high school, St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire

Dated: December 15, 1982

Dear Els,

            It is ten days until Christmas and I wonder what it must be like to be in Venice. I’m so tempted to take you up on your offer to go and maybe I shall?! One never can tell what may happen. You’ll be surprised perhaps to know that I am now in Los Angeles. I came here in flight, so to speak, fearfully flying from commitments and the comfortable habit of living a domestic sort of life. I have such trouble at times resolving all the women in my soul. It is like Doris Lessing’s multi-colored compartments; I wish eventually to let all my women blend into one Golden Notebook. Conflicts forever arise between the woman biologic and the woman artist. I love Mark, but my soul felt trapped, my creative instincts submerged. What makes matters worse, is that I do not know the clar calling of my heart by I patiently wait for signs and manifestations for the nourishment of my soul. I had considered graduate school at UCLA, then I began to try for a folk ensemble dance company called Aman, and then suddenly,  I woke one day and knew my calling. I know begin the process of return to Bali and Indonesia, where I have been invited by my old teacher. I received a letter from a very famous Indonesian novelist/poet/ and philosopher, Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. I met him in Bali, now two years ago, and he wrote a poem about me entitled, in translation, “the opening of a flower.” I choreographed a dance to the poem and performed it at  his art center in the mountains. It seems so long ago, and suddenly I received a letter inviting me back! It is so strange, because before the ltter arrived I had dreamed of my old teacher Tbu Reneng, and now I shall be returning to her and to the biography I’ve been dreaming to write on her life. Still, often, I do not always know if I have chosen rightly, those renunciations that I place at the foot of ‘art’! I love Mark, but my sould yearns for Bali? I believe that if feelings are strong between two people, love can withstand such inquests for the soul…

            And how are you and what are your dreams and plans? I shall always be close to you in spirit, but I feel a loss of touch somehow. It is frightening to think that is has already been more than four years since we have seen one another. I long to hear of your thoughts and your passions, how you are changing and the internal conflicts, if any, that you are facing…Tell me of Venice, too; I have such romantic thoughts about Venice! How will you be celebrating Christmas? I love what you write by Gauguin. It is so true. I close with a poem and a wealth of warm thoughts for a friendship renewed on paper bu internalized for eternities.

            If but to set this life upon one course

            And know the wiles that wait at every bent,

            T’would be such comfort to put all one’s force

            Toward singular intent.

            Yet life seems all one dabbling; of here & there,

            Of ebbe & flow, of never reaching far enough ahead

            Diversions trail like tousled hair,

            Ne’er taut as Ariadne’s silken thread.

 

            I wish you a very Merry Christmas

                        And an Equally Wonderful New Year!
Let’s attempt to meet sometime during the year to come – I’ll come to Venice!!!

                                                            All my love,

                                                            Kaja

 

P.S. I shall be returning East in January to begin negotiations for Indonesian visas and perhaps to attend the Cornell Language Program in Java. Who knows, but if you write after January 11th, then my home address is best. Take care again and ride in a gondola for me – have you been serenaded nightly? (Just curious!)

Dec. 22, 1982

Interior Fenice Opera Venice

The Ballet was fantastic- I really learned what it meant to play with masks, and to realize fully the potential of a theatrical mask. The Renard piece fell pathetically short of this goal in its execution. The choreography was so loose that the dancers didn’t have much to show off – the whole piece seemed messy, though it had a fascinating ending in the crucifixion of Renard as a pseudo-Christ figure, with the emanation of “real” blood and the removal of his mask just as he was dead. But it seemed like a way of trying to save the piece with a convention, rather than concluding an already successfully deployed convention.

The second piece was a film  by Duchamp, Picabia, Rene Clair et.al,, backed by the music of Eric Satie, and was in a Futurist/Dadaist vein. Both because the film had these absurd images, like a funeral parade breaking into a jog, then a full run, and eventually so sped up it resembled some futuristic image by Boccioni, it was fascinating. Appropriately, Peter Borten, an American in residence with the Fenice Symphony this year told me that the musicians had been instructed by the conductor to skip some passages and hadn’t heard so that the music, which already lacked a totally harmonious cohesiveness became more in spirit with the film itself!

But the “Boeuf Sur Le Toit” by Cocteau, music by Darius Milhaud was by far the most spectacular of the three. The original Raoul Dufy set, was built in an exaggerated, larger than life scale, so that the actors, who wore enormous paper mache heads seemed in scale (at least their heads) with the brightly colored bar wherein the story took place. Here, too, was an example of their having studied precisely, and in detail , the character type they portrayed, so as to have the whole body in tune with their head. Truly fantastic. The true skill of acting with a mask on comes when you can convince the audience, by means of your other body movements, gestures, postures, that your face has undergone a change of expression. This was accomplished by several of the actors, in particular, the police man, whose expression registered everything from an insouciant smugness to the terror of being decapitated! We went across to the Taverna to have a glass of wine, and met Peter Borton, who seemed very nice.

Thursday night was Louisa’s birthday, and she went to Harry’s Bar with Alvise. Linda and I went to a weird chamber music (more medieval) concert at the Hotel Metropole.

Hotel Metropole, Venice

Friday night, nothing really.

Monday night went to a club here in Venice, invited by James, and Sandy. Fascinating group of people, and the club was lovely – drank too much Prosecco, and awoke with a god awful hang over.

Tuesday night a party at the Rusconi’s house to thank all the volunteers for the Venice Committee. Lovely party. Some new characters, like Buzz Brunetta, a ’56 alum from Princeton, who was, when he arrived at the party, already sloshed, and who only got worse as the party transpired. Carol and Bob Brentano, a California teaching duo, here in Venice this year. Sam Packard, a Fulbright Scholar from San Francisco, who is in Venice working for an architecture firm and teaching at the University. Peter Stafford, a 50-ish hotelier who is going to Edinbugh to help establish a new hotel there, Paola Doria, a lovely Venetian woman who works part time at the Venice Committee and her husband and sun. I will miss Sandy when she decides to move on – she is truly a delight. I look forward to her meeting Mom in three days(!) when she arrives.

Got a telegram today from MWM which was lovely. It was so reassuring to know that it was a message from the heart and “hot off the press” as it were, because he sent it last night at 5:45 and I received it today only at noon! So close. It’s reassuing to know that I can make contact that quickly.

December 22, 1982  Telegram from MWM

Dearest Els,

Please consider this coupon good for a dinner for two in Venice Greet your family there Package will follow  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year I love you

MWM

Jan. 2, 1983

I put Mom on the plane to Milan this morning at 7:30, meaning our travels began at 5:35 from Fondamenta Nouve. We had a wild week, beginning on Christmas day, Saturday when Mom arrived. Linda and I cooked dinner, after her nap Mom came down to eat, but was really quite exhausted. Sunday AM we took Linda to the train to go back to England, then that afternoon, visited San Marco and walked around. Dinner Sunday night with Sandy, James and Verena. Mom was charmed by James, and we had a good quiche. Monday we spent shopping, and had a binge of clothes-buying for me, even at the Chi-chi Elisabetta all Fenice!!! Monday night we went to Montin’s for dinner with Sandy, stayed very late, drank very much. Tuesday AM we caught the 8:05 Rapido to Florence, checked into the Porta Rossa, went to the Uffizzi , looked for a couple hours, took lunch at the cafeteria there, then went back to the hotel for siestaville. Tuesday night, dinner at the Cantinetta Anitori, very nice. Wednesday AM, to the Academia to see David, then to the Duomo (or Tues. night to the Duomo? Yes) then went to the Palazzo Davanzanti and around to the Brunelleschi’s Loggia Dei Innocenti –

Brunelleschi's Loggia Degli Innocenti

lunch at Il Profeta, reportedly Harry’s Bar people. Afternoon train to Venice – dinner at home Wednesday night. Thursday lunch at Montin’s, after the morning at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (where the Venice Committee offices were) and the Academia.

http://www.scuolagrandesanrocco.it/  Scuola Grande Di San Rocco Scuola Grande di San Rocco Interior

Thurs. afternoon siesta. Thursday night “Pub crawling” with Sandy, starting at Harry’s, on to Floriano, on to Hotel Metropole for Jazz, and last to the Hotel Danieli for piano bar and prosecco! Friday night, after a crazy day of preparation, a New Year’s eve Party – Sandy, James, Verena and two friends of Sam’s, Deborah and Harvey. Good time. Saturday morning in, and afternoon at San Marco and home. Sandy over for dinner after drinks, and we talked until 11:00PM. Sunday 4:00AM up to go to airport…Phew. Not too much wasted time, though I’m sorry Mom didn’t see more of Venice’s sights – it seems we spent more time drinking than anything else!
Called MWM tonight to wish him happy birthday, etc. He has found a job driving a Sea Food truck in New York, no auditions yet. He spent Christmas out in Wisconsin with Kerri, who apparently is very unhappy. God, it was great to talk with him. He was talking about coming in May and staying until July, when he would fly back with me. Sounds spectacular, my only concern being that if we lose the apartment for June, he would really be up a creek. Damn. That would be a pisser. I am pooped. And so closes the Christmas chapter of Venice.

 

 

(Upon her returning to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Mom wrote the following column, which appeared in the Bethlehem Globe Times on January 5, 1983.)

Venice Doesn’t Dispute the 20th Century – It Ignores It

“Did you like the Academy?” Elsbeth asked as we exited Venice’s major museum.

“Yes,” I replied. “It was warmer than some of the other places we’ve been.”

I spent Christmas week with my daughter who is temporarily in Italy, and that comment was less the remark of a complete philistine than of a person exposed to such an unfamiliar profusion of art as to be dumbfounded. So many Titians, Tintorettos, Georgiones and Bellinis that, I am ashamed to admit, they began to run together in a blur. For an American whose proudest accomplishment in the past two years has been getting on speaking terms with a computer, spending a week in Venice teaches, among other things, a lasting lesson in humility.

In the United States, to be dubbed a holdover from the 18th century is a snide kind of opprobrium. In Venice, the centuries 12th through 18th are constant companions. The city, perched precariously on the northern rim of the Adriatic, subject to every caprice of tide that floods up its canals, preserves a museum of architecture and painting that recalls a philosophy in which man was noble, and God was king – along with the artists who described Him and the patrons who supported them. Titian’s tomb in the Venetian church of the Frari is as large as that of Cosimo de Medici in Florence.

It is not that Venice disputes the 20th century. It simply ignores it as irrelevant. With the web of canals and footbridges that cross them making automobile travel impossible in the city, heavy industry has centered in nearby Mestre. Venice remains a city of tourism, banking and art. With a population about the same as Bethlehem’s, it can be traversed by foot in little more than half an hour.

Elsbeth is connected with another great Venice industry – art scholarship – accompanying a graduate student with a fellowship to study the painter, Lotto, helping her to care for her 6-year-old daughter. That makes her part of the Venetian American community, a group of about 200, most of whom know each other, and have picked this city out of all the world as a place to live. Even after only a week there, it isn’t too hard to understand why.

One man I met made a fortune by the age of 38 with a shoe store in the Middle West. He has lived in Venice in a high-ceilinged antique-filled second-floor apartment overlooking the Grand Canal three of the 10 years since he retired. Since moving there he has read 400 books with discrimination, becoming an authority on the likes of Hemingway and Mark Twain, and exerting a magnetic attraction over artists, writers, publisher. While I was there, he was arranging for an apartment for the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, just then arriving from the United States.

It has been said of New York that the reason so many important things happen there is that people are crammed so close together that they constantly bump up against each other, producing a creative friction.

With its far smaller population, Venice seems much the same way. You can’t go out the front door, get in your car, and drive alone, privately to your destination. You walk. Starting out from a residential area with few people on the calle or stone-paved sidewalk, within a block or two beginning to meet others, till arriving near the Rialto bridge, the market center of the city, you are in the midst of a dense, chattering crowd.

If you choose to ride rather than walk, it will probably not be in the expensive gondolas or Chris Craft water taxis, but on the vaporetto, the lumbering boats that hold 70 or so people jammed together as in a bus.

People encounter each other in the piazzas and stop to talk a while, or they take coffee in a bar. In the winter tourists are fewer, but reportedly during the Italian equivalent of Mardi Gras, police are required to direct the press of pedestrian traffic, 40 percent of whom are dressed in costume even during the day.

The city itself wears a permanent costume-with its buildings rising straight up from the pavement, only an occasional vine peeking over a wall, a rare peek at a walled garden, it avoids barrenness by the variety of rooflines against the sky – the turn at the end of the twisting calle that opens on a bridge over a canal.

In December, geraniums still flamed in pots clustered outside second-floor windows, and outdoor flower stands were filled with roses and anemones. It is hard to find that American standby, carnations, anywhere. They are known there as “funeral flowers” and to give them is an offense.

Along the Grand Canal that snakes its watery way through the city, the palazzos appear boarded up, with their shutters closed and the paint peeling off their walls at the water line. But at night a lighted crystal chandelier elaborate enough to glitter at Versailles, glimpsed through a single open window gives a hint of the elegance of the life lived behind the mask.

Grocery shopping becomes and adventure – each item bought in its own special place- the bakery, where the baker called out to have a New Year’s almond cake not in his stock brought in – the open-air butcher shop where a female butcher skinned a chicken in one fluid motion – the green grocer where you may not touch the produce, but let him pick it out for you. Speaking in her charmingly hesitant but eager Italian, Elsbeth was given nothing but the best.

The one great disappointment was Harry’s Bar – the establishment once haunted by Hemingway, now frequented by celebrities who go there to hold court. We went only for a drink, having been warned it is too expensive a place to eat. When a new patron enters, every head in the place swivels expectantly toward the door hoping it will be a famous face.

The bar was crowded. There was one empty table.

We were asked if we wanted dinner. No, just a drink.”Well, you can’t sit down,” said the maitre d’, noting our interest in the table.

“But the bar is too crowded,” we said.

“You can’t sit down,” he repeated. “This is reserved.’

We stood momentarily, unable to believe we were actually going to be turned

 away. Could you say you’d even been to Venice if you hadn’t had a drink at Harry’s Bar?

            Apparently fearing we intended to remain rooted there indefinitely, our persecutor had a change of heart. “You can sit down for 15 minutes,” he announced.

            The dark paneling one expects to see is upstairs, I am told. We didn’t get that far. We sat in the tiny, brightly lighted room with a crowd of similarly unimportant people, who were far better equipped with furs and makeup. We looked at them. They looked at us. We each had one $5 glass of prosecco. Admittedly throwing it down in 15 minutes made it a fairly heady experience. We left.

            You can have Harry’s Bar. But Venice? Ah, that’s another story.

Shirley Collins

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