Wednesday, December 16, 2015


     We were young—it was Christmas and our anniversary and we wanted to celebrate our very special day with a memorable dinner. Our pocket s were fairly empty—at that time—chorus dancers and singers didn’t earn much so we scrounged and saved for a few months in order to reserve a place at The Russian Tea Room, a restaurant on 57th Street in Manhattan that gives it address as “Slightly to the Left of Carnegie Hall.”
     After the Russian Revolution, dancers, musicians and actors—once stars in St. Petersburg and Moscow—began to emigrate to New York City and the Tea Room became a hangout for White Russians looking for a taste of their former home. In its early days the restaurant had many owners including the former owner of a halvah factory in Moscow and it was he who introduced full meals.
     The artists were homesick for the gossip, intrigue, intellectual discussions and the sweets and pastries of the Czar’s Russia. Feodor Chaliapin, a commanding Russian opera star and Michel Fokine who introduced Americans to the Imperial Russian Ballet were among the newly arrived talents who enjoyed the food and the ambiance.
     I don’t know why I wanted to eat at the Tea Room—it’s still a mystery to me. Though my grandparents came to America from Russia, they came to escape the pogroms and traveled in steerage class. Our family was poor and my grandfather worked as a shoemaker. They couldn’t wait to arrive at Ellis Island, study and become American citizens. Perhaps it’s just something about Royalty that intrigues Americans.
     The room’s setting, warm and welcoming, greeted us with green walls that served as a backdrop to vivid scarlet leather banquettes that displayed tablecloths and napkins pink as the first blush of spring wine. Christmas decorations—brightly colored ornaments that would remain all year—garlanded the room along with polished samovars that sparkled and ignited my imagination with dreams of tea being carried by Tartars—nomads who traveled across Asia brewing tea to slake their thirst. Buffed wood and gleaming mirrors reflecting images of the elegant clientele seated around the restaurant promised a dinner we would never forget.
     The waiters attired in Red Russian tunics and the busboys in green paid attention to their guests without being intrusive; we settled down and each ordered a Bloody Mary to toast our anniversary. A Russian restaurant—vodka was and is a specialty of the bar
     We began our dinner with the Tearoom’s traditional hot borsht made with red beets, shredded cabbage, and the freshest vegetables of the season. The borsht, flavored with dill, was crowned with sour cream. Piroshki—little meat filled dumplings made with puff paste and filled with beef, parsley, onions, eggs and Tabasco attended the borsht.
     The main course, Chicken Kiev—rich with sweet herbed butter stuffed in a boned and breaded chicken breast, then deeply fried came next. The dish is thought to have been created by a French chef at the court of Alexander I.
     We lifted our forks in preparation for the first succulent bite of the chicken than glanced at each other. We thought we heard a soft whimper. The whimper sounded again and we looked at the adjacent banquette. The moans came from a sweet, baby-faced woman sitting on the bench much to the concern of an equally young man who sat at her side. Soon everyone in the restaurant had stopped eating and began staring at the couple. From our banquette, I could see the woman was pregnant and leaned over to ask if there was anything I could do. My only experience was watching movies where someone always boiled water. A flutter of her hand said, “Go away.”
     The maitre d escorted a distinguished fellow to the table.
     “Madam, I’m an obstetrician. May I help you?”
     “Not yet,” she said. “Not yet.”
     The Tea Room had grown silent. No sound of a fork, spoon or knife could be heard. No glasses clinked in tribute to Christmas or the Holiday season. No one was sure what the proper etiquette was. Does a caring person continue eating when someone may be about to give birth? The doctor looked as confused as every other diner in the restaurant.
     The young woman stopped moaning and slowly sank to a prone position in her booth. She couldn’t be seen and she couldn’t be heard—conversation resumed. We relished each bite of our Chicken Kiev and ate every last bit of our dessert—Baklava made with sheets of thin phyllo pastry and sweetly layered walnuts, honey, and cinnamon.  
     We’ve never forgotten that Christmas anniversary dinner and I’ve often thought about that woman. Did she give birth on Christmas? At the Russian Tea Room? A boy? A girl? And did the doctor finish his dinner?   




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Monday, October 12, 2015


     Who discovered the America? There are several contenders. Christopher Columbus, the Genovese controversial explorer sought a westward route to the East Indies and until he had departed this life, claimed he had achieved that desire. He never believed he had planted colonies in Central America. The there is Amerigo Vespucci—for whom the USA is named—the Italian navigator who explored South America and realized that the New World was a new continent and not part of Asia.
     According to one account—the Icelandic Eiriks saga—the second son of Erik the Red—Leif Eriksson was on his way back home to Greenland when he sailed off course. Erik landed in Nova Scotia and he named the land Vinland. Some believe Vinland comes from the wild grapes the crew found growing there. The Groenlendinga saga says he learned of the land from an Icelandic trader and it was his intention to land there.
     In 1960, indications that support the theory of a Scandinavian settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows, New Foundland were found. Was it the early Viking adventurers and explorers—no longer followers of the Norse Pagan Gods and converts to Christianity and intent on converting natives—the first ones who discovered what would become a new continent named America?
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Tuesday, August 25, 2015



     Extended through September 7—Labor Day—because of great demand the Met Museum’s China Through The Looking Glass curated by Andrew Bottom of The Costume Institute is an exciting, enchanting and impressive exhibit to behold.
     Since the beginning of the west’s awareness of China in the 16th century European designers, artists and architects have been inspired by Chinese designs. The exhibit on three floors begins with Buddhist sculptures—serene faces, some with a gentle smile gift the viewer with an air of peaceful meditation. On the opposite wall is a film of magnificent dancing and in the center stalactites of glass project downward.
     Porcelains, jade and calligraphy are on view as well as the Astor Court with a circular “moon gate” that frames a rectangular doorway. Plants, a spring of water and Taihu rocks rest on a floor of gray tile—the half-pavilion is styled after those found in northern China.
     Fashions designed for Haute Couture by western designers such as Christian Dior, Paul Poiret and Yves Saint Laurent attract cameras and amazement with their colors and conception. Three striking black gowns introduce Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star. Wong began her career during the silent film era and became a fashion icon. Her career continued into the talkies but though an acclaimed and accomplished actress, her roles were stereotypical and limited because of America’s anti-miscegenation laws which would not allow her to share a kiss on-screen with a person of another race. She moved to Europe in 1928 and received the acclimation she deserved.
     She returned to America in the 1930s and in 1934 and was voted “The World’s Best-Dressed Woman” by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York.
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Wednesday, August 5, 2015


    Theatre director and writers or their characters will often cast against type. Think about the sweet, innocent child who wrecks havoc on his playmates and siblings—a monster who cannot be saved by parents, priest or psychiatrist. Example: The Bad Seed written by William March, later made into a film, where a mother begins to believe her child could be a cold-blooded murderer.
     And who hasn’t written or read about the handsome, personable and intelligent man who is—unfortunately, a serial killer who revels in matching wits with detectives, police or the FBI? There’s a prime example in Dr. Hannibal Lecter, starring in a series of horror novels, penned by Thomas Harris. How many readers fall for the virginal, usually blonde ingĂ©nue whose obsessive love, jealousy and neediness will ruin the lives of people whose lives touch hers. Read Leave her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams—another novel to film with Gene Tierney, Jeanne Crain and Cornell Wilde.
     The affectionate relative or teacher who turns out to be a pedophile? Or not? Doubt—a play written by John Patrick Shanley kept audience members debating for days after they left the theater. Did Father Flynn molest the boy or was Sister Aloysius, a woman of iron convictions, accusing an innocent man who was guilty of nothing but befriending the child and personalizing the priesthood?
     The bad stepmother has been handed down from old folk tales—what about Snow White and her jealous stepmother—the Queen—characters written by the Brothers Grimm. Books that tell us about the good stepmother who gives her all? There aren’t many. One that stands out is Butterfly’s Child by Angela Davis-Gardner. The story takes place after the geisha Cio-Cio San kills herself leaving her child Benjie to her lover—the child’s father and his new American wife. The author’s inspiration—Puccini’s opera—Madame Butterfly. Perhaps more books are waiting to be written about the good stepmother.

     When my creation twists, turns and changes the route I jotted down so carefully—I have to pay attention. A call from my character may be a surprise—sometimes pleasant, sometimes not—that alters the course of my book. I try to be ready to embark on an entirely different escapade. A not to be missed venture into the unknown.
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Tuesday, June 23, 2015


     I watched the new version of Poldark, a swashbuckler British television series on PBS last Sunday and at the end saw a dedication to the actor Warren Clarke who had played his last role as Charles Poldark on the program. Americans will join their English cousins in missing this fine actor.
     His work as Albert Robinson in another series Sleepers that crossed to America's shores brought him to my attention and I watched the programs faithfully. The plot has the KGB integrating two agents into British Society. The agents forget why they've been sent and become as British as the native born. Warren Clarke played a moderate trade unionist, a happily married man with children and a council house in the north of England. When the KGB realizes what has happened they pursue the agents closely followed by the CIA and M15. I never missed an episode of the series.
     Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe crime fiction are classics and they were presented as a series on PBS featuring Clarke as Detective Superintendent Andy Daziel--fat, crude and complicated. I--along with many, many fans--never missed an episode.
      On reading his obit, I learned of all the stage roles Clarke had played and wished we had been able to see them here in America.
     Rest in peace Warren Clarke.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015


     The Newseum in Washington, D.C. displays photos of rocks, circa 4,000 B.C., portraying people talking in Tassela, Algeria—is an elder relating a legend to young people about the past? A visit to Uluru, Australia, offers cave drawings of plants and animals drawn long before our time on earth by Indigenous Australians.
     The Lascaux Caves in southwestern France are famous for Paleolithic cave paintings thought to be 17,300 years old. 

     A tour of Sydney, Australia’s Opera House, where a Possum Drawing is exhibited, attracts the attention of local attendees and visitors avid to learn the history of this fascinating country.
      Pompeii’s mosaics and frescos, and portraits illustrate the history of the residents, work by poets like Menander and panels depicting scenes from the Iliad. I can picture our ancestors, sitting around campfires, exchanging news of food, shelter and survival and telling tales—non-fiction and fiction—of conquests, their vision of the future and how they came to live on earth—then painting, drawing and carving their stories on a canvas of rock.

     Text and coins proves that Julius Caesar used words to great advantage. He wrote a history of his military feats in 59 B.C. and minted coins to commemorate his victories. A daily news-sheet—Acta Diurna—was published and posted in places accessible to the public.
     Drums, bells, horns and gongs once carried messages to villages in Asia and Africa. Councils answered the call when the beat of drums meant danger or death. Bronze bells called the Chinese to worship, meet, plant and harvest in 600 B.C.—by 740 A.D., their descendants invented printing by pressing carved, inked blocks of wood onto paper.
     Stained glass windows in Cathedrals such as Chartres tell biblical stories that instruct uneducated parishioners who could not read the written word. Four panels originally made in 1145 survived the fire of 1195 and are displayed along with others were created between 1205 and 1240. The windows tell stories of The Virgin and Child, the Old and New Testament and the Lives of Saints.
Photo by Eusebius
     Koreans produced bronze type for molds in 1403, while in Cuzco Valley, Peru, Inca messengers recorded and tallied new conquests, birth, and death and crop yields on knotted, multi-colored cords called quipas. The quipas were then carried to local officials.  This was the century Johann Gutenberg invented movable type and type metal. Little changed for 400 years but with the development of the linotype—a typesetting machine—printing was revolutionized. Low priced publication of books and newspapers was now possible leading Thomas Edison to call the machine, “The eighth wonder of the world.”
     In 1609, printed weekly newspapers made their appearance around the globe—the first regularly printed American paper was the Boston Newsletter, printed in 1704. James Gordon Bennett published the first penny papers in 1833. Featured were lurid crime stories, human interest and diverting pieces of gossip—most far fetched—just like today’s tabloids. The front page of an 1835 edition of the New York Sun reads, “Exclusive! Creatures with Wings … on the Moon.” Science fiction and fantasy?
     A copy of The Charleston Mercury, dated December 20, 1860, announced the start of the Civil War; reporters followed the troops into battle providing the public with eyewitness news. Matthew Brady hired a team of photographers who covered nearly every battle of the Civil War. 
     Pulitzer and Hearst competed with their coverage of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The focus back then—railroads, civil rights, suffrage and immigration are still in the news today. Newspapers went unchallenged until 1920 when the public was introduced to newsreels, newsmagazines and radio. The Federal Radio Commission issued the first television station license W3XK to Charles Jenkins in 1928 and by 1948 cable television was introduced in Pennsylvania bringing television to rural areas and challenging motion pictures. An e-reader was first introduced around 1998 but didn’t take off until 2009 when new models for e-books began to be marketed and produced. In the 1930s, elevator music was easily available streaming media. Today we can hear stories and novels via audio books, stream via screen capture over the internet and yet love the feel of paper when we pick up a hard cover book. So many ways to hear tales, stories, fables, legends, fiction and fact.

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