In Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Rich Boy” the action moves from New York Fifth Avenue where “young women were already gliding along Fifth Avenue in electric “mobiles”‘ to a “big estate in northern Connecticut”. This was a Fifth Avenue where “there was a patient flowing of cleaning water along the ghostly pavement…and the shadows of two night women flitted over the dark facade of St Thomas’s church”. Also, in “The Adjuster” both Mrs Alphonse Karr and young Mrs Charles Hemple at The Ritz could have preferred “to walk home (up Park Avenue) through the April twilight”. Here was a world of the rich who “are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand”. Well, this is the world that we were aiming for this winter.
We are in Darien Connecticut. It had just gone past 0630 and I was already awake, partly jetlag but more down to water leaking into our bedroom. The water was pouring down the seam between the bedroom wall and the wardrobe cum closet! We had to wake the landlord. Thankfully he lived in the same building. It was sorted. He went up to the roof and cleared off the snow.
It was our first night in Darien. Also it was our first snow this winter, more like a sprinkling than anything else.
We had flown in from Birmingham to JFK. On the way into Darien, we stopped for lunch at The Restaurant at Rowayton. Jan and I had lined bass on a bed of risotto with mushroom sauce. Our meal was accompanied by an excellent bottle of Pinot Grigio. Then it was home to a white clapboard house in New England style where our apartment was shared with the landlord. You enter into the front room from a veranda. The sitting room was empty except for a decorated Xmas tree. Then there was a straight corridor that led on one side to our bedroom and on the other to the kitchen. At the end was the master bedroom. The floor was polished hardwood, probably maple.
After a short rest and catching up we walked a mile and a half to the local beach. Across the sound you could see Long Island. Very picture perfect in the evening light. The houses hereabouts are detached and substantial in size. There are very few walkers and little evident life, but nonetheless the whole area was very attractive.
It was getting cold. We walked back and the houselights, dull yellow in the dusk and darkening sky was, shall we say, heart warming. There’s something of the hearth about house lights in the winter when the curtains are yet to be drawn and you can see the Xmas decorations and lights. Sometimes if you can see a family round a table with candlelight, it’s even better still.
We travelled by train from Darien to New Haven. This was the slow train and it stopped at South Norwalk, Westport, Fairfield, Fairfield Metro then Bridgeport. Now, Bridgeport was like a ruined city of towers, chimneystacks, derelict warehouses, and stretches of poor neighborhoods. It was apocalyptic in scale. The port too was empty of ships. It must have thrived once.
Stratford was another God forsaken place of vacant lots, fenced off land, and more derelict warehouses. The ugliness was made the more stark by the wintry landscape of nude trees. Suddenly, an Orthodox Church with glistening golden domes appeared. Another church spire jutted upwards amidst a tangled mess of motorways. Then it was Milford, West Haven and then New Haven.
We were heading for Sterling Library at Yale. The library was built to the design of a chapel or cathedral. You enter and you’re then in a hall with a high vaulted ceiling held up by rosewood beams and decorated with gold painted rosettes, garlands, and acorns. At the far end is a neoclassical painting of knowledge holding a ball and an open book, standing regally and being adored by a flock of people. The pillars have lamps pointing upwards,. The whole effect was exquisite.
Yale looked older than it was. The buildings were all in weathered (artificially weathered) stone and were imposing edifices. The Master’s House had a tower that was reminiscent of Gaudi’s cathedral except that it was smaller. It had the same asymmetric plan, the same twisting plane that wrong footed the eye.
After lunch we visited the Yale Museum of Art. The Ives sculpture of Undin rising from the Waters was a masterpiece of sculpture in which a wet garment carved in stone looks exactly as a wet cloak would. It is draped round the female form, clinging to her thighs, torso and betrayed all her sensuality. Her belly rose from her groin upwards, the focal point was her navel. And then the wet cloak creased over the slope of her breasts and like a smock over her nipples clung to it. It was simply a triumph of the diaphanous over the coldness and solidity of marble.
Mora’s Jean Cartier is an elegant young woman whose smile, and direct eye gaze spoke of honesty and freshness. Her arms were abducted but the hands turned backwards, she was balanced on her right foot and the left pointed forward with the heel half lifted off the floor. She was wearing a silver shoe. Her skirt was orange and there was a colorful silk garment knitted into her skirt, gypsy fashion. Her top was tight fitting and held up by strings so that her shoulder and arms were uncovered. The background was a screen of peonies, I think. She was beautiful and full of promise.
Giacometti’s Standing Woman was a frail, elongated form with a near absent waist and she was erect, perpendicular and stately. How we humans face the gigantic forces of nature, resolute and unbending, yet frail and prone to failure.
There was a Modigliani, Portrait of a Young Woman, in his signature flesh tones. He saw the sitter both as herself and also as a type, stylized lengthened neck, elongated face and a nose that drove the eyes to look into the horizon. Modigliani has that ability to distort the sitter yet retaining what was essentially them and throwing a hook down into their soul and fishing it back up. It was as much a cartoonist’s trick as a sorcerer’s.
The Yale Museum of art makes it easy to see the transition from the Italian masters to modern art. Suddenly after being gorged on catholic symbolism, of the Madonna and Christ, of the Ecce Home, you come to Van Gogh and Gauguin, to color that is iridescent and of space that is both flat and deep. Light glances off the darkest incalculable shadows and what was sterile by being pervaded by surface ritual and artifice rises like a dragon from sleep, that growls first and then roars.
I gave an elderly black man, a beggar one dollar and 75 cents. He was grateful. He was outside Atticus bookshop. This transaction between two black men, he and I, of about the same age was troubling to me. I am African in a way that’s unquestionable. He too is African but dislocated and lost. The claim to ancestry made possible a dignity that was at once unfathomable and depthless. The beggars in Lagos are professionals at a disreputable trade, a bit like prostitution, but it was a job that required persistence, morality, a code, and honor. My man outside Atticus bookshop was begging out of destitution, he was derelict. His begging was impregnated in sorrow. Once again as in New Orleans I noticed the avoidance of eye contact. Shame colored this transaction on both sides. I felt shame in giving and he felt it, perhaps more in asking and receiving.
This morning we set out for East Rock. We climbed to the top of the Rock and looked out over New Haven. It was a great spot to look at the city. Then we walked back down and aimed for Hammonasset beach. It was a cold day yet there were dog walkers, horse riders, other people too, simply walking like us. I had never seen so many washed up dead fish, flounder, and some looked like bream. Sea gulls dived down unto the sand and pecked at these dead fish, poking out the eyes, the gills, and not much else. The sky was dark and troubled, glowering down at us as if given the chance it might just snow.
Next was Old Saybrook, a beautiful picturesque town. But out of season it was practically deserted. We stopped to visit the old pharmacy that was run in the 19th century by Miss James, the first qualified African American pharmacist. The building was now owned by a Moroccan American but was shut. We then drove to Essex. Now Essex is a place to visit. The Main Street had the names of inhabitants from the 1800s on the doors: Ezra Clark, Timothy Starkey, Ephraim Bound and many Haydens. The light over the river was exquisite. It was a blue tone of grey and in the dusk merged with the river. Coffee was in a small place with a singlehanded barista. I had cappuccino.
The drive back from Essex to New Haven had us behind red tail lights framed against a backdrop of sunset colors in tiers of black through blue to orange. The orange was bordered by fuzzy hair, the bushy, denuded branches of wintry Connecticut.
Now, for New York by train. We were staying at The Roger on Madison. It was in midtown Manhattan, on the corner of Madison and 31st. It was a modern hotel. Our room was on the 11th floor. For New York it was a large room. Strangely there wasn’t any coffeemaking machine and this was New York.
Our main event on our first evening was going out to see King Charles III. Tim Pigott-Smith was a convincing Charles. Even though you could hardly say that there was a striking physical resemblance, but Pigott-Smith took on that curved upper back, the slow ponderous movements and the accent. He was persuasive. The language was Shakespearean as was the intensity and tragic ending. But more importantly the play revealed how useless, how ill fitting to Britain’s current needs was the monarchy. It also uncovered the complexity of the inner life of those most unfortunate to have been born to one end only, to rule others without the gift or talent for it and except for reliance on a suspect formulae of divine birth, no proper excuse for indolence and empty grandeur.
The next night we went to see The Color Purple where Cynthia Evarito was a revelation- a small, puny, all too petite figure singing and acting as if she were a giant. The play was bleak and uncompromising in its portrayal of early 20th century America with its ridiculous and wicked segregation. The place of black women and the violence from within the black community itself was distressing to watch. Although it was not all bleak, there were islands of humor, lively and comic exchanges, in the end it was a sad tale that ended far too sweetly for truth. My main gripe was the mythical Africa that related to no real place, that spoke of Africa as if it was a country, that spoke of Africans exactly as white people speak of black America, in symbols and en masse.
We couldn’t come to New York without jazz outings. Johnny O’Neal at Smalls in East Village was enjoyable. His trio consisted of Johnny on piano, Luke Selleck on bass and Charles Gould on drums. Johnny had previously, in the 80s played with the Jazz Messengers and it showed. The crisp sound was reminiscent of Art Blakey on drums. Behind us was a Brazilian who told Luke during the break that he was a musician too. Luke told him that his bass was made in the inter war years in Prague. The Brazilian looked exactly as a Brazilian from Bahia does, brown skin and portly, a cross between a short West African and a Spanish or Portuguese man of Picasso’s build. Johnny was at least as old as me. His baggy trousers were complemented by a crocodile skin jacket stained in indigo. He wore a hat over a short ponytail. Charles Gould was a most serious young man. His drum playing was exact, absolutely in time. The music was enjoyable, exhilarating and the atmosphere was what you expected of a jazz dive from the high days of New York jazz, the 40s.
The following day was a different affair. We set off to the Village Vanguard. Dinner was cheap and fast, at Two Shoes, a pizza place. Then annoyingly, we had to wait 45 minutes in the coldest winter evening at -9 degrees before being let in. The Village Vanguard big band played for an hour at a cost of $ 20 plus the cost of a drink! Only the compositions by Tad Jones were worth listening to. Big band is only great when it heeds Ellington’s rule that it produce a soundscape that is varied, lush and fresh. Always aiming for the sea, the deepest forest, the bleakness of the Sahara, and the tundra or Siberian steppes, never the sidewalks of New York with the unvarying tempo of motorcars or police sirens. That was the problem, music that might as well have been trapped in a coffin.
These two experiences were separated by a visit to the Metropolitan Museum. The highlights were Greek, Roman and West African art. It was marvelous to see Hadrian’s bust, that of his wife, and of course Antinoos his homosexual lover. Then there was Marcus Aurelius. There was no Cicero, no Seneca, no Caesar, but one can’t have everything. The centerpiece of the African section was Benin art from the punitive British expedition of 1886. The small ivory companion pendant (to the one at the British Museum) of Queen Mother Idia was singular under its own spotlight. Then the varying door panels, hip pendants, and ivory pieces far from their original home and from their ritual value seemed to me be lonely and lost in the vastness of the museum space, bereft of their symbolic meaning, their aboriginal valence. Everything African in this setting was adrift like African Americans too. The Dogon art that in context is powerfully evocative of the Unknown, of what it is that concealed knowledge reveals at night under the splendor of chanting, of the possessive trance that calls to specially selected souls and then takes hold of their bodies to enact stupor, dance, gyration, in this place was dead to interpretation.
There were Senufo masks, Ashante gold pendants, weights, and chest charms, also Bakongo Nkisi idols. And, Yoruba Gelede. We ended our visit with a quick walk through the Egyptian section. Anubis, Osiris, Isis and other God-Kings whose symbols continue to enthrall.
The Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan has a point that juts into the sky, a true skyscraper with its dagger end piercing the clouds. Wherever you stand you can see it as if it were a church spire in England or France luring and focusing the eye. Last night we went to the Met Opera to see La Boheme, a Franco Zefferelli revival. It was sumptuous in all regard. The second act, village scene, was made of a massed choir, children, soldiers, and the tavern. It was picture postcard perhaps Parisian suburb. The third act, outside the city gates in winter was set on an evening of snow. It was glorious white and Mimi and Rodolfo had dark costumes that played wonderfully against the snow. It was Maria Agresta’s debut at the Met and she was spectacular. Her voice was silky soprano. The combination of Puccini and Zefferelli, of music that like an ornate house built from flourishes, each room melodiously and deliciously interwoven and, visual artistry that mounted an arousing assault on the visual color centers in the brain and on the texture nodes.
Today we have wandered through Flatiron, through the magnificence of Eataly, then by subway to Brooklyn Museum. In a quiet place to one side, was a fragment of an Ife terracotta from 11th century. It is unbelievably eloquent in its gentleness, simplicity and yet grandeur. There are monumental pieces of various kinds, showy and hysterical in measure but nothing came close, not even the Benin pieces came close the repose and composure of the Ife piece. I am of course biased!
Brooklyn Bridge at dusk is a must. Wrapped in the noise of cars that were crawling over the bridge the lights of lower Manhattan are like pin point jewels of light, diamanté glints, in the far distance that gradually grew as Manhattan got closer. The skyscrapers were giant origami structures with a dull lamp shining through the slits. No camera could do justice to the phenomena that the eye saw.
We rushed to the Lincoln centre for our final treat, the King and I. Dinner was at a French restaurant where the waiter turned up his nose at the idea that he might have ‘house wine’. I asked for two glasses of Soave, very nice too. Very pretentious place- the waiter brought an already opened bottle and asked Jan to taste it, what on earth for? I had spaghetti with clams and Jan had sweet ravioli and walnuts, both splendid despite the pretentious air of the place.
The King and I was enjoyable and well presented but yet it was cringe making- a white woman teaching the King of Siam how to behave! Veritable colonial attitudes. But one has to give credit to Rogers and Hammerstein. They had their thinking hats on and used irony to undermine any idea of superiority of races. Nonetheless, this kind of subject matter harks back to times best quickly forgotten.
At dinner we sat next to an older couple, older than us I mean, who were out for their anniversary. He was a New Yorker and she spoke with an endearing Viennese accent. He was small, smartly dressed with a hooked nose. He was opinionated on every subject- the trouble with Simon Rattle was in spite of being very talented he pushed his idiosyncratic interpretations far too far; Kurt Mazur fell out with the New York Philharmonic because he couldn’t get on with the Chairman, a rich and powerful benefactor who wanted to determine the artistic direction of the orchestra, Pierre Boulez was conservative but experimented with due respect for the composer. They were most unimpressed that we did not know who had directed the revived Zeffirelli production of La Boheme that we had seen the night before. And very definitely preferred light opera to a musical like The King! Well, I now know that the conductor was Don Ettinger. Far too late though to impress them with this piece of knowledge! In a way we might not be that different, give or take another 10 years.
In “The Rich Boy” Anson Hunter “was at home in New York–there was his own house with “the kind of servants you can’t get anymore”and he “accepted without reservation the world of high finance and high extravagance, of divorce and dissipation, of snobbery and of privilege”. I can’t say that we resembled Anson and his like much. But, his Connecticut and Manhattan continue to intrigue.
Photos by Jan Oyebode