Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Blossoming of Romance Under the Fascist Sky

My parents met as teenagers on a bicycle trip in Germany and Italy in the summer of 1939, on the eve of the outbreak of the second world war.  Although both of their families lived in the Detroit area, and they had friends and acquaintances in common, they had never met before.  That's not entirely surprising, though, since both of them went away to school.  That summer my mother, MD, had just finished her final year at Oldfields and was heading off to Sarah Lawrence in the fall, and my father, FD, was approaching his last year at Hotchkiss, with Yale in his sights thereafter.

FD and MD photographed in Germany, summer 1939
Found by RD in MD's jewelry case after she died

My siblings and I find it remarkable that our parents were sent off to spend the summer of 1939 riding around on bicycles in the two major Fascist countries in Europe, at the very brink of war.  What were our grandparents (on both sides) thinking when they agreed to allow them to go on such a trip, and in such countries, when the storm clouds of impending war were thought to be more than apparent to even the most casual of observers?  Although staunch and conservative Republicans, neither sets of grandparents were exactly pro-Fascist in their sympathies.  But those were different times with far less information available than we take for granted today.  I highly doubt that my grandparents would have consented to send their children on such a trip if they had comprehended that Europe was at risk of exploding into war within only a week or two of the conclusion of the bicycle trip, when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

MD photographed at the time of her debut in 1939

I vaguely remember MD talking about how she recalled that Germany was covered with flags emblazoned with the Nazi swastika that summer, and that she didn't care much for that country or her time there.  Mainly I remember her saying that she was exhausted and sore most of the time from riding on her bicycle all day, and that she never got enough to eat.

MD photographed for a "Debs of Detroit" story
that ran in Life Magazine, 1940

My sister Camilla recently sent me a postcard that MD sent that summer to a friend of hers back home, from Venice, in which she said she much preferred Italy to Germany, particularly for its food.  I've copied her newsy missive here, below:

I have a knife that my father bought in Germany that summer, but I don't recall him ever speaking about the bicycle trip, only my mother.

Father Darling's knife

I wish that I could ask both of them questions about it now, but I'm not able to since they are long dead.  It is interesting to me, as I write this blog and look back and ponder those that came before me, how often I wish I could pick up the telephone and review what happened with the person I am writing about, who is no longer alive to tell me the story once more, or to answer the questions that I have.

MD with Willard Huffstadler (KIA during WWII)
Photo taken in Germany, 1939

But I do recall MD telling me that it was during that bicycle trip that she began to fall in love with my father.  There were other boys in the tour group that she liked, and who liked her (such as Willard Huffstadler, shown with her in the photograph, above), but it was my father whom she came away wanting to see more of.

FD photographed around the time he met MD

And since they conveniently lived near each other she was able to, at least during breaks when they were both home from school.  MD made her debut in the winter of 1939, over the Christmas holidays, and I believe my father attended some of the parties, but I don't think he was one of her escorts.  They started to date in earnest in the fall of 1940 when he went to Yale, which was but a short train or car ride from Sarah Lawrence.  And they became engaged when they were still undergraduates, after the U.S. entered the war in December 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

FD's Yale freshman Branford College class, 1940
FD is second row, standing on the far right

MD dropped out of Sarah Lawrence to marry my father when he was drafted into the army in the spring of 1943, during his junior year at Yale.  As it was for a lot of people of that generation, they had a sense of urgency to get married in the face of the mighty conflict, and their parents--both sets of whom came of age during the carnage of the first world war--encouraged them to get married even though they were very young, not much more than twenty years old.

FD shortly before he and MD married

There was very little time to make arrangements for their hurried wartime wedding, since they had only several weeks before my father was required to report for duty.  Grandfather Darling officiated at the morning ceremony, held in the church in Grosse Pointe where he was minister, which was followed by a luncheon at one of the nearby clubs. I don't believe there were more than twenty-five people who attended their wedding, only immediate family members and the closest of friends.

As his new bride, MD followed my father to the various army bases here in the U.S. where he spent the remainder of the war (he never saw active combat), setting up housekeeping in small apartments or crowded boarding houses nearby.  And so they began their married life.  They stayed married to each other for thirty years or so, twenty of which worked, followed by ten that didn't so much.

FD and MD as college undergraduates, early 1940s

As the youngest of their four children, I mainly recall the time in their marriage after things had started to unravel.  I vaguely remember when their marriage still worked, and when they still enjoyed each other's company, but not with any great vividness, and only through a boy's eyes.

After they got divorced MD methodically destroyed every photograph that she had that showed the two of them together, including all of the ones taken when they got married.  I was able to spirit away the photograph that I am showing here, however, which I keep in a frame on my bedside table.  It's the only one I have of them together, where there aren't any other people in the photograph.

And I hold it dear because it is a reminder that, yes, there once had been a time when they were young, and in love, and still looked forward to a happy life together until death did them part.  I see it in their smiling faces in this early photograph, taken long ago, when they were easy and comfortable with each other, and still in love.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Consider the Pince-Nez

Reggie has reached a stage in his life--well, perhaps a state in his life--where he requires the wearing of spectacles to be able to comfortably read the printed word.  It all started shortly after he turned forty, when he first noticed it was increasingly challenging to read menus in dimly lit restaurants, particularly if the font was small and the ink was anything but black.  Over time, Reggie found it more and more difficult to read print in newspapers, on food cartons, and in instruction manuals without some form of magnification.  And then there was the phone book.  It eventually became impossible for him to read its maddeningly tiny print without wearing spectacles or, good heavens, clutching a magnifying glass.

A pince-nez-wearing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(note stylish cigarette holder, too)

As a child I thought that a magnifying glass was a mere curiosity, most well employed in the focusing of the sun's rays on a combustible object so that it would eventually burst into flames.  It didn't occur to me that one would ever require such a thing to read fine print.

A selection of our magnification tools at Darlington House

Growing up, Reggie's grandparent Darlings had beautiful magnifying glasses on many of the tables in their house, made with handles of ivory, bone, silver, and brass.  Reggie also recalls one that had a pale lavender shagreen handle.  As a boy I thought they were merely decorative (my grandparents had lots of wonderful things), but I have since come to appreciate that my grandparents owned as many magnifying glasses as they did not only for their beauty, but also because they were useful.  I haven't a clue as to what became of their collection of magnifying glasses, but I wish that I had it today.  Since I don't, I have collected a number of my own over the years.  And I use them . . . because I need to.

But one cannot, or should not, exclusively use magnifying glasses to read in one's office or at one's computer, so one must also employ the use of spectacles designed for such activity.  But as many of my middle-aged readers well know, if one doesn't require the wearing of glasses at all times it is devilishly easy to misplace them.  Or, in Reggie's case, lose them.

The first pair of reading glasses I bought were foolishly acquired from the very carriage trade optometrist Friedrich's Optik on Park Avenue in New York.  No, I was not foolish for frequenting such a purveyor, but rather I was foolish to think that I wouldn't soon lose such a purchase, given my propensity to losing umbrellas, keys, and gloves.  To give those unfamiliar with Friedrich's an idea of exactly how carriage trade it is, their only other store in the U.S. (they are based in Hamburg, Germany) is on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.  I think I paid over $700 for mine, and that was over ten years ago.  They were a thing of great beauty, and beautifully made . . . and I lost them within a week of acquiring them.

The sad, empty case that once held Reggie's reading glasses

Fortunately, I still have the sunglasses that I bought at Friedrich's several years ago.

I dread the day I shall lose these, too

But getting back to the subject at hand . . . I realized that it would be punishing financially and demoralizing emotionally if I continued to buy my (fast disappearing) reading glasses at the likes of Friedrich's, so I looked into what other alternatives were available.  And I learned that--at the time--the only choice I had was between spectacles custom-made by optometrists, running in to the hundreds of dollars a pair, and what was available off the rack in drug and discount stores for around ten bucks a pop.  The problem with the former was the price and the inconvenience of waiting for them to be made, and the problem with the latter was how they looked.  Cheap glasses look, well--cheap.  But practicality in this case trumped vanity, and Reggie became a devoted customer of cheap reading glasses.  And he bought them with abandon, to the point that he littered his world with them.  To this day I find them scattered about me everywhere I hang my hat: in drawers and under seat cushions in our apartment, in the glove compartments and seat pockets of our cars, and in every nook and cranny at Darlington House.  I also have half a dozen squirreled about my office, and I can always rely on finding a pair by searching through the pockets of my jackets or coats.  In addition to the places where one would expect to find them, my reading glasses also turn up where one wouldn't: I recently came across a pair sitting atop a wood pile in our barn that I had inexplicably left there last winter.

Woodrow Wilson, President and pince-nez wearer

Which reminds me of a story.  Once upon a time, long, long ago, when Reggie was a little boy, no more than six or seven years old, he accompanied his mother, MD, to the drug store, where she was picking up a prescription from the pharmacist.  Both of his parents, and each of his older siblings, wore spectacles at the time, all of which were procured from traditional, independent optometrists.  Reggie did not yet then require wearing glasses, but he did have his eyes checked regularly, as it was assumed to be only a matter of time before he would require spectacles himself.  While standing in the drug store with his mother, waiting in line for the pharmacist, Reggie noticed what appeared to him to be an old man looking through a rack of spectacles.  It had never occurred to Reggie that spectacles could be bought from anywhere but an optometrist, and he found it fascinating that this man was considering buying ready made ones at the drugstore.  "Mummy," Reggie said, "why is that man looking at those glasses?"  MD replied that he likely needed them to read.  "But why is he buying them here instead of going to the Eye Doctor like we do?"  She said that the glasses we bought were expensive, and maybe this man didn't want to pay so much for his.  This astonished Reggie.  "Then he must be very poor, isn't he, Mummy, because he can't afford to buy them from an Eye Doctor?"  Reggie felt intensely sorry for this man who was reduced to such base poverty that he couldn't afford "real" glasses like Reggie's family could.  MD responded that Reggie shouldn't speak so loudly in public and that she would explain it to him after they left the store.

It was with amusement that I recalled this exchange many years later when I found myself in a drugstore, searching through a rack of cheap reading glasses for my prescription.  I had, in fact, become the very man that Reggie had felt so sorry for, all those years ago.

A favorite pair of eyebobs reading glasses

But one needn't be reduced to buying one's reading glasses at drug or discount stores any longer.  A number of years ago I came across a purveyor of ready-made reading glasses that bridge the gap between expensive optometrist ones and flimsy cheap ones.  They are made by a company called eyebobs, which was started by a graphic designer who--like Reggie--was frustrated that there were no reasonably priced, good looking reading glass options available.  eyebobs designs and markets numerous lines of reading glasses that are terrific looking and well made, and that sell for around $65 a pair.  They are available at specialty retailers (Reggie bought his first pair at Neiman Marcus) and also online at  So now, thanks to eyebobs, Reggie sports a collection of handsome reading glasses instead of nasty cheap ones (although he hasn't thrown the cheap ones away, he just doesn't wear them in public anymore).

eyebobs spectacles are cleverly named

But Reggie doesn't only wear reading spectacles, for he also has a pince-nez.  That's right, a pince-nez.  In fact, I am wearing mine as I sit writing this essay.  Here's how that came about.  Half a dozen or so years ago Boy and I attended a benefit for the local historical society in the county where Darlington House sits.  The benefit was held in conjunction with an antiques show where there were dozens of dealers in "smalls."  One of the dealers had a display of antique spectacles, including a dozen or so pince-nez.   Boy zeroed in on and bought a pair of dashing spectacles made with silver frames and green glass lenses, probably dating from the first half of the nineteenth century.

Boy's rather swell antique green spectacles

I, on a lark, tried on several pince-nez.  And much to my surprise, one of them was in my prescription!  With but a moment's hesitation, I bought it on the spot.  And I have worn my pince-nez regularly since then.  Not only does it aid my vision when reading print, but it is quite comfortable lightly pinched on the bridge of my nose.

Reggie's steel-framed pince-nez

Reggie does admit that he rarely wears his pince-nez outside the confines of Darlington House, for even he recognizes that most people would likely stare and point at him if he did, and that those of the basest sort would likely burst into derisive laughter once they realized what Reggie had perched on his nose.

President Theodore Roosevelt,
arguably the most famous pince-nez wearer of all time

But that doesn't dissuade Reggie from wearing his pince-nez, at least at Darlington House.  Not only is his pince-nez a wizard at doing the job it was designed for--allowing Reggie to read the printed word--but wearing one also puts Reggie in good company: at least three of our presidents--both Roosevelts and Woodrow Wilson--wore them.  While researching this post Reggie came across a number of other, like-minded afficionados of said spectacle, including one by the name of LeDandy, who has devoted an entire blog to the subject: Pince-Nez Renaissance.

I encourage those of you who require reading glasses to consider buying an antique pince-nez to wear from time to time.  Almost every antiques mall or show has several dealers with antique or vintage spectacles and pince-nez for sale, and if you try enough of them on you will likely eventually come across one with your prescription.  Reggie isn't suggesting that you should make a pince-nez your primary reading spectacle, but he does like having one to wear every now and then, and he thinks you might, too.

All color photographs by Boy Fenwick.  Black and white images of our pince-nez wearing U.S. presidents courtesy of the Library of Congress 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Oh, Those Beautiful Boardmans

There are many paintings in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that I stop and admire when I visit the museum, which is something I make a point of doing regularly.  One of my favorites is a portrait, painted in 1789 by the American artist Ralph Earl, of Elijah Boardman, a prosperous and handsome young drygoods merchant.  The sitter poses at a standing desk in his shop in New Milford, Connecticut, bolts of costly textiles revealed in the storeroom beyond. The painting is one of the Metropolitan's masterpieces of early American art.

Elijah Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1789
83 x 51 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I vividly recall the first time I saw the painting, for it literally stopped me in my tracks.  Not only was I impressed that it was a wonderfully composed, beautifully painted portrait, with the subject painted life scale, but I was--to put it mildly--astonished at how handsome the sitter was.  Of course I had seen many early American portraits of distinguished and sometimes handsome men and women over the years, but this painting was something else altogether.  I had never seen such a gorgeously dressed, manly, and jaw-droppingly handsome specimen of male pulchritude in an American portrait of the eighteenth century.   It took my breath away.

Elijah Boardman, painting detail

Once I recovered myself I wondered who, exactly, was this Elijah Boardman, and how did he come to have his portrait painted by Ralph Earl?

And this is what I found.

Elijah Boardman was the son of major landowners in the Connecticut River Valley, where the senior Mr. Boardman was active in various official posts, befitting a man of his stature.  The Boardmans lived in a sophisticated world of like-minded citizens, where wealth and refinement mirrored industry and service to their young nation.  Elijah was one of seven children, with an older brother named Daniel and a younger sister named Esther.

Elijah and his brother Daniel began their careers as drygoods merchants in New Milford, where they remained in business together until Daniel moved to New York City in the mid-1790s.  Over time, Elijah became one of New Milford's largest landowners and eventually assumed his father's prominent position in town.  He eventually became active in state and national politics, ultimately serving in both the Connecticut legislature and the United States Senate.

The Boardmans were Ralph Earl's greatest patrons, commissioning numerous paintings from the early American master painter over a ten-year period.  In addition to painting Elijah Boardman's portrait in 1789, Ralph Earl also painted portraits of his brother Daniel and his sister Esther the same year.

Daniel Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1789
81 5/8 x 55 1/4 inches
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. 

While clearly a good-looking man, Elijah's older brother Daniel is not as handsome as Elijah.  Befitting his standing as eldest son, Daniel is portrayed as a country gentlemen in a more august, pastoral setting than his younger merchant brother Elijah, with the town of New Milford in the distance, referencing the Boardman family's extensive landholdings.  Like Elijah's, Daniel Boardman's life-size, full-length portrait is substantial, measuring four and a half feet by almost seven feet.  Impressive indeed.

Esther Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1789
42 1/2 x 32 inches
Private collection

Their younger sister, Esther, was painted by Earl dressed and styled in a manner similar to the fashionable young English ladies painted by Thomas Gainsborough.  Painted in subtle, earthy tones and with a restrained palette, Esther Boardman's three-quarter-length seated portrait measures a more moderate size of less than three feet by four feet.  These three paintings of the handsome and beautifully dressed Boardman siblings comprise one of the more remarkable groupings of portraits painted in the New Republic.

But wait, there's more.

In 1796, seven years after these portraits were painted, Earl returned to New Milford and painted a portrait of Elijah Boardman's wife, Mary Anna (Whiting) Boardman, with their firstborn son, William Whiting Boardman.  Like those of her husband and brother-in-law, Mrs. Boardman's portrait was done on a grand scale, and depicts the sitter expensively dressed (befitting the wife of a rich drygoods merchant) and in a sumptuous setting.

Mrs. Elijah Boardman and Son, painted by Ralph Earl in 1796
85 1/4 x 56 1/4 inches
The Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California

Also that year, Ralph Earl painted pendant portraits of the senior Boardmans.  Although executed on a smaller scale and in a more restrained manner than those of their offspring, the elder Boardmans' portraits are masterful nonetheless.

Sarah Bostwick Boardman and Sherman Boardman, painted by Ralph Earl in 1796
each approximately 47 x 36 in.
The New Milford Historical Society, New Milford, Connecticut

But yet, there's still more.

Also in 1796, Elijah Boardman commissioned a painting by Earl of the "mansion house" and shop that he built on the green in New Milford in 1792, when he married Anna Whiting.  Like the portraits of Elijah Boardman and his wife and son, the painting of the house and shop is generously scaled, measuring four by four and a half feet.

Houses Fronting New Milford Green, painted by Ralph Earl in 1796
48 x 54 1/8 inches
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Boardman house still stands on the green in New Milford today, where it is currently occupied by law offices.

The Elijah Boardman House, built 1792
New Milford, Connecticut
Image courtesy of the New Milford Historical Society

It is fascinating to think that at one time three of the paintings shown in today's essay--the one of Elijah Boardman, another of his wife and son, and the one of the house and shop--once resided in this house.  And now they are scattered to the winds.  It must have been thrilling to see three such impressively scaled pictures hanging in one house, and in such a time that few Americans had ever seen such a display.

Not only was Elijah Boardman one of the handsomest men of the Connecticut River Valley in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but he was also one of its greatest artistic patrons.  We are all richer for the record he commissioned from Ralph Earl of his life and that of his family, and we are fortunate indeed that these masterpieces of our nation's patrimony are displayed in museums and collections today such that you and I may study, know, and enjoy them.

The primary source for information and images used in this essay is "Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic" by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, published by the Yale University Press in conjunction with the Wadsworth Atheneum of Hartford, Connecticut

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Peale, a Plant, and a Pot Update

As a number of my readers may remember, earlier this year I posted a story titled A Peale, a Plant, and a Pot, about finding a clay pot modeled after one containing a geranium that appears in the portrait of Rubens Peale, painted by his brother Rembrandt Peale in 1801, in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.  In the post I described a trip that Boy and I made to the studio of potter Guy Wolff, who made the pot--known as a Peale pot--to purchase it in several sizes (along with a number of his other beautiful pots and vessels).  And where, serendipitously, I received a gift of a cutting of the geranium that appears in the painting, given to me by Erica Wolff, Guy's wife and business partner.  For the Wolffs had been given a cutting of it by the horticultural curator at Monticello, who did so when he learned that the Wolffs were making such a pot.  Apparently, Thomas Jefferson had received a cutting of the geranium from Rubens Peale, and its offspring resided in the collection at Monticello.  So, not only did I come away from the Wolff studio with a Peale pot, but I also came away with a cutting of the very geranium depicted in the painting.  It was all so deliciously--and unexpectedly--six degrees of separation.

But in Reggie's case it was not six degrees that separated him from Rubens Peale, but only three: the Wolffs, Monticello's horticultural curator, and Thomas Jefferson.  Well, maybe--Reggie isn't exactly clear about what happened to the geranium between Thomas Jefferson's death and when it was then passed on to the Wolffs.  But he is happy not to delve too deeply into that because he likes the story as it is just fine, thank you.

And I am pleased to show you my Peale-potted geranium several months later, sporting its very first flowering.  It is now well established and has put on a lot of growth over the summer.  I had been warned by Mrs. Wolff that it is a rangey, healthy plant that, once-established, grows like Topsy, requiring regular cutting back.  Such a reputation is well founded, I can say with assurance.  I plan on repotting the geranium soon in a larger Peale pot that I have waiting for it and also pruning it back to promote bushier growth, as Mrs. Wolff advised me when she gave me the cutting.

I cherish this storied geranium, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to have it at Darlington House.  I don't intend on keeping it only to myself, either.  For I plan on passing on cuttings of it to like-minded friends for as long as I have the pleasure of owning it.

Please click on the link noted above to see the original story, as well as for contact information for Guy Wolff Pottery

Photos by Boy Fenwick

Friday, September 17, 2010

Reggie's Advice For the Tongue-Tied Guest at Table Amongst Strangers

The other day Reggie received a telephone call from a lady friend.  A charming, game gal with a swell sense of humor and great style, she is at ease and in her element in the elegant drawing and dining rooms of what is left of society, the waters in which she and her dapper husband swim effortlessly.  They are a sought-after couple in the county where Darlington House is situated, where they spend the warmer months of the year in one of the great and important houses.  And they are a fun and interesting addition to any party or dinner table.  I like her, and I always look forward to seeing her when our paths cross.

Whoever did the seating here didn't follow the alternating "boy/girl" rule.
Plus, Reggie thinks those look like electrified candles!

She was quite exasperated when she called me.  "Reggie," she said, "I've got to ask you to write about something on that blog of yours.  Last night I sat a table at yet another benefit, and neither the person on my left nor on my right knew how to talk to me.  It was like pulling teeth just to get them to say anything.  After two inteminable courses of grunts and monosyllabic answers to my questions, and not a single one in return, I finally just got up and left.  I couldn't take it anymore!  Why do these people go to parties if they can't--or won't--at least do their dinner partners' the decency of talking to them?  Would you please write about this on your blog?  I think your readers would be interested to know what you have to say about this."

Lots of good conversation going on here, but whose hand is that
holding the cigarette on the bottom left?

Of course Reggie was rather flattered that such a lady as my caller would ask his opinion and think that he might even have something to say on this matter.  And since she did, he does.  For this is a subject that Reggie has given considerable thought to over the years.  Namely, how does one navigate the waters of social intercourse when one finds oneself at a table, adrift amongst a sea of strangers?  And, in particular, what does one talk about under such circumstances?

The answer is it is remarkably easy to start the juices of dinner party table conversation running, Dear Reader, and then keep them flowing for as long as one is at table.  It really only requires the most minimal of effort.  To start the conversation one need do nothing more than be a good asker of questions, and a good listener.  And then once the conversation has begun, it is easy to keep one's dinner partners engaged in pleasant banter throughout the meal by volunteering bits and pieces of information and one's opinions in response to one's dinner partners' comments, all with the goal of eliciting additional pleasant conversation for the duration of the meal.  But like many simple things, Reggie believes that achieving success at such intercourse requires effort, practice, and a willing audience.  Just as it takes a chef years to master turning out a perfectly roasted chicken every time he is asked to do so, it takes practice to become a good party conversationalist under all circumstances.

Nice, but couldn't they have rented some decent ballroom chairs?

For when one accepts an invitation to a party, whether large or small, private or public, one enters into a contract to perform at said party appropriately.  And that means playing ball with the other guests.  No, not literally--unless the party is a tennis round robin--but figuratively, where the game played is one of wit and verbal volley.  And that means keeping the conversation going.  Just as many a party is helped along by the flow of spirits, so is it aided by the ready flow of conversation.  And the responsibility of a guest to keep the conversation going is a broad one.  It does not apply only to intimate private parties where the guest list is carefully chosen, and where conversation often runs freely as a result, but it applies also to more public gatherings, such as large benefit dinners, where one can find oneself assigned to sit at a table surrounded by strangers.

But if one is not as facile as Reggie or his lady caller are at instigating and carrying on such conversations (Reggie can converse with a door knob, if required), one shouldn't be content to just sit there quietly, either, waiting for others who are better equipped to do so to start and then keep the conversation going.  One must gather up one's bespoke britches and stride forth into the conversational maelstrom, leaving one's cautions and inhibitions behind to gather dust amongst the wreckage of dinner parties past.  For a dinner party--and I'm including benefits here, too--without conversation at table is a wreck of an evening, indeed.

Ah, the days of cigarettes at table . . .
An otherwise perfect dinner marred by those nasty folding chairs again

To address the very serious shortfall in the understanding of those who drove my lady caller to distraction, Reggie has come up with a set of pointers and suggestions for the tongue-tied party guest to grease the wheels of conversation when he (or she) finds himself sitting at a dinner table amongst strangers.  The employment of these conversational gambits, I might add, Dear Reader, will ensure that said guest will soon find himself (or herself) at the happy center of a freewheeling and enjoyable conversation that can last the better part of an evening, and certainly through at least the several courses required in a sit down dinner.

Success in these matters requires but that you ask any of these seven questions, either individually or serially:
  • Tell me, how do you know the host and hostess?
  • Are you affiliated with this charity/organization/worthy cause?  Do you support its work?  If so, in what way?
  • That's a lovely brooch/dress/tiara you are wearing, is there a story behind it?
  • Isn't this a lovely night for such a party?  What did you do today leading up to it?
  • Do you live here, or are you visiting?  If you do not live here, where are you from?
  • Are you here with a group, or are you on your own?
  • Isn't this a marvelous band?  Have you heard them before?  Would you like to dance?
Failing all of the above, here is a sure fire way of eliciting a response:
  • This party is a goddamn bore, would you like to do some blow?
Reggie is, of course, joking with this suggested last question . . . at least he thinks so.

Well, they thought it was amusing!

All funning aside, and with the exception of the last query, each of these are positive and leading questions that give one's dinner companions the opportunity to open up and volunteer information that can then be the basis for further questioning by the perspicacious listener.  And once your dinner partner's attention has been engaged, and the conversation is flowing, here are six further things to ask or say that ensure its happy continuation:
  • Do you really think so?
  • And then what happened?
  • Really?  How so?
  • Do tell me more . . . 
  • That's the most interesting thing I've heard all evening!
  • How remarkable, what a coincidence . . .
And failing that:
  • Would you like to do some more blow?
Wait a minute, that was supposed to be a joke!

That gal on the left would have a better time if she followed Reggie's advice

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.  You will find yourself a popular dining companion, indeed, if you take it upon yourself to engage in polite conversation at parties with those on either side of you that keeps your companions wanting more, rather than less, of your company.  If, on the other hand, you just sit there, awkwardly pushing your food around because you haven't anything to say, then you really shouldn't have bothered to go out that evening.  Parties require a certain level of behavior from the guest, and that includes keeping the conversation going in a pleasant and diverting manner.  If you are not able or willing to do so, then your time (and that of your unfortunate dinner companions) will be much better spent if you stay at home, alone, catching up on--and then taking to heart--insightful past Reggie Darling posts on matters of etiquette and social comportment.

And with that, Reggie wishes to leave you with but a few more thoughts on this topic that are well worth considering:
  • Don't take this all too seriously, we're talking about parties here;
  • Believe it or not, your new found dining companion probably isn't as interested in what you have to say as they may appear to be.  They, like you, are at a party and likely understand that conversation at such gatherings is, by its nature, expected to be light-hearted and non-confrontational.  If they are asking you such questions it is because they are polite and well-versed in party etiquette, and they know how to keep the conversation going.  Don't read too much in to their attention; 
  • If you find success in your conversations, do not then monopolize them.  Allow your companions the opportunity to ask questions or volunteer information, too.  Do not become the dreaded Conversation Hog, as deliciously skewered by my quite brilliant fellow-blogger Social Primer;
  • Avoid the "no-no" topics of religion, politics, and money--and tread lightly in discussing one's work or profession; and
  • Watch you alcohol consumption--don't drink so much that your ability to navigate such events or conversational engagements becomes compromised.
So, who forgot to order the candles and centerpieces?

It's as simple as that.

Tell me, Dear Reader, what are the questions and topics in your conversational arsenal that you employ when you find yourself seated amongst strangers?

All photographs from LIFE Images; all cartoons by William Hamilton

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Squirrels of Darlington

One of the pleasures of living in the country is the closeness that one has with nature.  Although Darlington House is in a hamlet setting, it is surrounded by fields and forests teeming with life.  On our property stand half a dozen enormous old oak and black walnut trees that produce a bounty of nuts each autumn.  And where there are nuts, there are squirrels.

A 19th-century cast-iron and wood squirrel nutcracker

There are two types of squirrel that live at Darlington.  One side of the property is inhabited by red squirrels.  They are very playful, aggressive little creatures who spend much of their days gamboling about their territory, skittering up and down the trees and chattering in high-pitched voices.

A 20th-century cast-iron squirrel nutcracker
perched on the edge of a cast-iron birdbath

The other side of the property is inhabited by a population of larger and somewhat more docile gray squirrels.  We see more of the gray squirrels at Darlington than we do of the red ones.  That's because the grays live on the busier part of our property, where much of our day-to-day activities take place.  It is also where we keep several bird feeders, filled throughout the year.  The gray squirrels scavenge for fallen seeds on the ground below the feeders and occasionally try to get to the source themselves, often with hilarious results, as the feeders are designed to thwart such efforts.

A 19th-century cast-iron squirrel nutcracker,
surrounded by recently fallen black walnuts

The grays are are not as aggressive as the smaller red squirrels, and they appear less frantic and frenetic in their activities.  They are more of a "hang-out" squirrel, if there could ever be such a thing.

A 20th-century cast-metal squirrel sprinkler

Although there are more gray squirrels on the property than red ones, there is little risk that they will drive out the red squirrels anytime soon.  That's because the red squirrels are feistier than the gray ones and vigorously defend their turf from all encroachments by the grays.

The water sprays out of the squirrel's head

I've seen numerous altercations between red and gray squirrels at Darlington over the years.  And in each and every case the red squirrel has been the victor, with the gray one scurrying away at the end, having been soundly thrashed by the smaller red squirrel.  The red ones are tough little cookies indeed, and I certainly wouldn't want to tangle with one of them.

A 20th-century cast-stone squirrel garden ornament 

Boy and I are quite fond of the squirrels that live at Darlington, and we enjoy sharing the property with them.  We recently lost a very large, very old oak tree in a freak tornado, and we were concerned that our squirrel population would decline as a result of acorn diminishment.  But that doesn't appear to be the case, I am happy to report.

Two 20th-century cast-stone squirrel garden ornaments

Not surprisingly, and as is seen in this post, we've collected a number of squirrel-inspired objects over the years.  Most of them are vintage or antique, but we have some other, new ones as well.

A 19th-century squirrel taxidermy under glass

We always keep our eyes out for interesting, well-priced examples to add to our collection.  But we are discriminating in what we buy.  That is because if one isn't careful, it is possible to find oneself in possession of too many squirrels, since there are many opportunities to collect squirrel-related objects, given their popularity.  And just as one does not wish to be overrun with an explosion of live squirrels, one does not care to be inundated with a collection of inanimate ones, either.
Related Posts with Thumbnails