New books — From the April 2017 issue

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You may find an hour of respite from the waking nightmare of American political life in P. Gaye Tapp’s HOW THEY DECORATED: INSPIRATION FROM GREAT WOMEN OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (Rizzoli, $55). It’s a coffee-table book that makes for pleasant bedtime reading — even if you don’t sleep in a lit à la polonaise, with satin curtains cascading from a dome like streams of light falling from a fringed chandelier, as the perfume empress Hélène Rochas did. (Louis XV’s Polish queen gave this hypnoconfection its name.) Or under a canopy of pink roses, gazing at matching walls, like the gardening expert Gabrielle van Zuylen. Or under a canopy of Porthault’s Pansy linens printed with blue butterflies, like the landscape designer and philanthropist Bunny Mellon. Why do wealthy women sleep with their heads covered? What horrors might befall them if they were forced to gaze directly at the ceiling? Such were my questions after perusing photograph after photograph of the dream castles inhabited by Lady Diana Cooper, Pauline de Rothschild, Babe Paley, Elsa Schiaparelli, Fleur Cowles, and Georgia O’Keeffe.

Come for the spreads, but try not to dwell on the insipid text. (“Rochas was passionate about cutting-edge style; more than making it plausible, she made it credible.”) The book is divided into four chapters — the dusted heirlooms of Legacy Style, the pricey dramatics of the Grand Manner, the bricolage of the Fashionably Chic, and Unconventional Eye, a category that (you guessed it) defies categorization. Inspiring women take risks that are just so: Schiaparelli is commended for balancing a television on a stack of eighteenth-century dictionaries, Evangeline Bruce for hanging paintings with ribbon. Thank goodness for Lesley Blanch’s mad orientalist fantasia, cluttered with tapestries and rugs and brocaded pillows and topped off with a soft, tacky leopard throw.

How They Decorated is filled with “pieces” that would look lovely piled atop a barricade. I admit it: I have no feeling for décor. Where others admire dapples of light on the eighteenth-century Italian parquet, I see only dollar signs. But try to be less vulgar than I. As Tapp reminds us,

While wealth afforded Mrs. Mellon the ability to buy anything she wanted, it was her innate ability to fuse disparate design periods, objects, and works of art into an incomparable aesthetic that made her unrivaled among her peers.

The book also reproduces a few paintings, and the spacious, gracious rooms of the ruling class are transformed by the medium: blurred into fantasy, softened into art history. Jeremiah Goodman’s smudgy painting of Rothschild’s living room makes her collection of chairs look positively inviting; Cecil Beaton’s rendering of Mona Williams’s Palm Beach living room turns cool glamour into charming hominess. The photographs, though, which are spookily emptied of inhabitants, do their best to help you forget that anyone lives like this. Just one bathroom is featured — Lady Diana’s, “done” in the Chinese style. The walls were painted with white trees and butterflies and hung with gilded mirrors. It was as big as most New York apartments, with room for a sofa, Regency chairs, a fireplace, and a lidded bathtub. Presumably she also had a toilet, but nothing that undignified, or grossly human, is in the picture.

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October 2019


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