Mrs. Parish, as photographed for Architectural Digest
I've always had a passing interest in Mrs. Parish, not only because of her accomplishments and the lore surrounding her, which is considerable, but because she and my eldest sister Camilla both share the same nickname of "Sister." As a small child my brother Frecky had a hard time pronouncing "Camilla" and instead called her the more easily pronounced "Sister," which stuck -- at least within our immediate family. Outside the family Camilla is universally known by her given name, thank you very much.
The only interaction I had with Mrs. Parish occurred many years ago (well, how could it not?) one evening in Anne Rosenzweig's "Arcadia," an intimate restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan considered at the time to be a jewel of culinary and decorative pleasure. I was there that night as the guest of my dear friend George Pinckney, a debonair southerner, who generously took me there to celebrate my birthday, so this was a special treat and not a throw away, happenstance occurrence.
During dinner I had the eerie sensation that someone was talking about me, so I turned around to scan the half-empty room (it was July), and caught the gimlet eye of "Sister" Parish who was sitting in a banquette with of all people, "Slim" Lady Keith. Given that I caught her with her mouth open, obviously making a derogatory comment about me or my companion, or the both of us, her mouth went slack as she aborted what she was saying. While I had never met Mrs. Parish, I had in fact only recently met Lady Keith when invited to her apartment one afternoon for "tea" (that was what it was billed as -- the only thing tea-like was the color of the brown liquor served).
With that as fortification, I got up from my table and walked over to theirs. Both looked up at me coolly but somewhat apprehensively as I approached them, a glimmer of "I've been caught, now what?" on their faces. When I arrived I addressed Lady Keith, and reminded her that I had enjoyed spending an afternoon as her guest and what a lovely time I had and how pleased I was to see her this evening and hoped she was well? She, with some relief, pretended to remember (she did a credible job of it, I recall) and turned and introduced me to her dining companion.
I smiled as our eyes met and said that it was a pleasure to meet the venerated Mrs. Parish, particularly on an evening such as this, my birthday, and how lucky I was to be my friend's guest in celebration of my milestone, for these were strange and exotic environs for a lad such as I to find myself in, and I hoped that her evening would provide her with but a fraction of the pleasure mine was giving me?
She looked at me with a mixture of hauteur and scorn, obviously putting on a show, and responded with a "Harumph!" and a dismissive "Yes, you may go now." This prompted me to burst out laughing at her rudeness, which clearly unnerved her, and I turned and walked back to my table, smiling with the self-satisfied pleasure that I had, in fact, caught and then busted that tough old turkey.
For more on Lady Keith, see my December 20th posting "My Slim Keith Story"
I never knew there was a Madame Tussauds in New York, what a good exhibit. Peks and all.ReplyDelete
The phrase 'old trout' comes to mind. Well done, Mr Darling, and very amusingly told.ReplyDelete
My grandfather, till his dying day last year at the age of 91, was known as 'Buzz'. His little sister wasn't able to say 'brother' but could only manage 'buzzer'.....ReplyDelete
how old are you? They died in 1990 and 1994 respectively!ReplyDelete
yes -rude question -i'm just confused!
Oh, drat it all. I always hope to hear that larger-than-life figures were unexpectedly nice and down-to-earth. No such luck in this case I guess, but sounds like you handled it with aplomb.ReplyDelete
P in Phoenix
I too share the Sister moniker , dubbed so by both older brothers and even my mom now that we are living together. Less so-else with Sister Parish, though I don't know anything about her overall disposition-it sounds like another case of loving her work(I do appreciate it-though love is a strongish word here) but not so the person. It is an idea that so intrigues me, as we seem to put these decorator-desecrators on pedestals that they don't belong on-it is another case of -oh, I would love to have lunch with Mme X-in this case, no thanks sista.ReplyDelete
Too funny! Great story. How people put up with her I don't know. To dismiss you like a family retainer...precious that you got the last laugh.ReplyDelete
People with good manners are taught to ignore the bad manners of others and would certainly never post something negative about someone else on a public blog. You make such a show of being well bred but this post clearly outs you as having no breeding what so ever. I will never read your blog again and will make sure that my friends don't as well.ReplyDelete
Well done, sir. Well done indeed.ReplyDelete
She had a bad reputation as a polite human being, to be sure. But there would be such a large hole in the design world without her--Bunny Williams, Albert Hadley, Keith Irvine worked for her directly, and then the 'grandchildren' such as Richard Keith Langham and Mario Buatta, who worked with Mr. Irvine---and that is just the tip of the iceberg, to be sure. Yeah, an old bat, but a massively important one historically.ReplyDelete
What a fabulously funny story! Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Mrs. Parish was a great decorator and I respect mightily her contribution to the profession and to the beautification of the lives of her fortunate clients. Her influence on subsequent generations of decorators, as well as American decorating in general, cannot be underestimated. I shared this story as an amusing trifle for my readers, with the acknowledgment that I did not know her other than this silly exchange on a summer's evening many years ago. She was generally known as a bit of a prickly pear, particularly in her later years, and my experience that evening leads me to believe such a reputation was not without foundation.ReplyDelete
Personally I love tales of her pushing a tea cart through the rooms of her abashed clients, loading it up with all the many things she deemed unacceptable. I wish I had her nerve.ReplyDelete
I named one of my dogs, Apple, after her daughter.
ArchitectDesign: I am old enough to have been a young man when this story took place, in the late 1980s, and today--to quote Mame Dennis--I am "somewhere between forty and death"ReplyDelete
Anon 12:19: Welcome back! I'm somewhat surprised to hear from you again, since the last time you commented on my blog you said that you would never return. By the way, aren't you accusing me of something that you are doing yourself?
Exactly my reaction to Anon 12:19! As ever, well said, sir.ReplyDelete
Oh my, yes. I'd like to pretend that I subscribe to the 'if you can't say anything nice about anybody, don't say anything at all' rule, but nah. My two encounters with Souer Parish were short, and breathtakingly crisp. Too bad that she missed the part about good manners to everyone. My own personal bete noir was Mary McCarthy, the now half forgotten novelist/critic. Her intellectual snobbery was huge, her disdain for my particular fluffy intellect not hidden at all, and her manners non-existent. It was my misfortune to often be seated next to her at several dinner parties in my own youth...I finally cracked much as you did one day and mustered my best sarcasm. sigh. I'm older now.ReplyDelete
Too much. I mean really how can some people be so uptight. I think you handled the situation beautifully!!ReplyDelete
DED: Ms. McCarthy, I believe, was generally known to be one of the most waspish ever to walk the planet, a character trait fueled in part by copious consumption of spirits. I loved her rivalry with Lillian Hellman and how nasty it was. Do post a story or two about her, please!ReplyDelete
Karena: Thank you, I thought her reaction to a young man stopping by a table to say hello was quite remarkable, indeed.
Years ago a kindly southern gentleman told me that "Sis" was the bain of his existence. This person saw her every week, 9-5, Monday thru Friday for decades until she died.ReplyDelete
I suppose this is rather damning gossip, but remembering the famous, their deeds and misdeeds is all part of remembering the famous...don't you think?
There is something wildly disconcerting about this anecdote, Reggie.ReplyDelete
The pertinent question is not whether Mrs Parish was an incorrigible snob (that seems patently true from all accounts) but why someone of her stature and that of her companion Lady Keith would bother to throw disparaging glances in the direction of your table, unless at that point in the evening you were dancing upon it. In addition to this, Lady Keith seemed charmed by your youthful insouciance on a previous occasion. Something essential is being omitted here, which is the perspective that your maturity ought to supply, even if it amounts to a form of mild self-criticism. In other words, fairness to all concerned, including not only Sister and Slim but the young man who was Reggie in those far flung days.
Toby Worthington: Interesting comment. The only thing that I can think of that may explain why Mrs. Parish was disparaging me and my friend that night is that we were two young men having dinner together in an expensive restaurant on a night when there were few other diners in the room to talk about. Neither of us are (or were at the time) the types to draw attention to ourselves by inappropriate behavior in public places, nor were we doing anything that night other than quietly enjoying each other's company and a dinner out. Nothing more, nothing less.ReplyDelete
"Parrish The Thought"ReplyDelete
The thing that strikes me now about Parrish's work is not how dated most of it seems, which is to be expected, but how formulaic it was. There are prominent exceptions, but overall, most of her projects were boring, derivative, or both.
Consider: Even when Geoffrey Bennison was constrained by a budget, he found ways to make a room original and exciting. When Nancy Lancaster was old and out of money, she could take a stable filled with rundown, beat-up furniture and give a small, somewhat squalid coach house genuine charm. David Mlinaric, in the Sixties, could do arresting work on a budget that even today looks quite good.
But when you get away from the handful of clients who had boatloads of money and/or lots of good family furniture (e.g., the Whitney house in Saratoga), how many of those Parrish rooms would you care to live in today? (Sigh. I must add the qualifier: If you could afford to live in something different that cost as much or more.)
Keith Irvine has the right idea about Sister Parrish.
Quel outrage at a famous grumpy old woman! Reggie, I venture you were being passive aggressive yourself by pointedly catching her out with that somewhat oleaginous approach to Lady Keith. C'mon, the score was one all.ReplyDelete
I'm sorry, my last comment was rude and out of nowhere -but for some reason I thought you were 30 and thought I was missing something and that this was an excerpt from a book perhaps. So lucky to have had such an interesting meeting rather than a 'how nice to meet you' regular boring introduction. Her true personality shone through! haReplyDelete
Rose: I was amused as opposed to outraged...ReplyDelete
Great story Reggie. Sister Parish did the "Blue Library" at my boss's home. It's been mostly untouched since she did the work. I didn't know much about her and it's great to read your experience with her!ReplyDelete
Loved it! Very funny. By the way, don't u think that Sister and Ekaterina Golytisina rather look alike?ReplyDelete
I hoped that her evening would provide her with but a fraction of the pleasure mine was giving me? I LOVE THIS! Good for you.ReplyDelete
Wow! Her loss...too many years of pouf vs footstool, swag vs pleated drapes.... how could she be so harsh with such a savy birthday boy delivering healthy respect to her on your special day. You are the one to know!
ArchitectDesign: Not to worry, Reggie is flattered you thought him so young, not offended at all.ReplyDelete
Butler: I am sure it is a lovel room, indeed.
Dame Poulet: Thank you, I am glad I was able to give you modest pleasure -- which is my goal for this website, to be an entertainment for my readers...
I have rewritten by previous "anonymous" post and if you chose to run it would prefer you use the following, clarified version-
By every account, Sister Parrish was an enormously unpleasant woman. Burdened from young adulthood by the loss of her family's fortune in the Depression, she was sharply critical of the supposed vulgarity of those who possessed "New Money" and spitefully envious of those in control of older fortunes. I have it from an unimpeachable source that when she accompanied her client and supposed friend, Betsey Whitney on shopping expeditions, she would select items for herself and instruct the hapless merchants to charge them to Mrs. Whitney's account. Mrs. Parrish evidently felt it was nothing more than her "due" and the enormously rich Mrs. Whitney either failed to notice or simply ignored the bamboozlement. Bunny Williams offered a perceptive assessment of Mrs. Parrish in an interview she gave for Mrs. Parrish's biography, wherein she recounts that Mrs. Parrish was often not very nice even when speaking about people who were friends of hers. Time and a largely gay posthumous fan club have softened the rough edges and Mrs. Parrish is today recalled as a wonderful old "character". I think your experience is probably much closer to the truth: Unless she could sniff a commission or was otherwise in awe (and this rarely happened), She was a bad tempered, ill mannered old cow. Both she and Lady Keith (and this is probably a central element to that July birthday evening) were also drunks. I am sure that by the time you approached their table they were on their third Bourbon apiece, and as we all know, liquor does very little to insure propriety and civil behavior.
Anon 2:11: Thank you for your interesting comment, I found the information in it quite interesting, indeed. Do come by often!ReplyDelete
Someone said Mrs. Parish was the master, and her clients, the slaves!ReplyDelete
I enjoyed your story, and one can read more like it in the Sotheby's catalogue from her sale...