Tuesday, December 17, 2019

John Barrymore, Svengali, Bohemia and Squab with Chestnuts and Sausage

Barrymore as Svengali by Beaton

Well, it's the end of the year and I decided I would pull out all the stops since it's been months since I've written here.  What I thought would be a quick post ended up taking weeks of research spent reading volumes, looking at a zillion pictures and having a fabulous time learning about a remarkable moment in history –– editing was painful.

It all started with  John Barrymore.

Dr. Jekyll                                      Hamlet                                Richard III                               Mr. Hyde
I fell in love with  John Barrymore  all over again this fall (I wrote about him here nearly 10 years ago!). What an actor. What a face. Critic Heywood Broun  said of Barrymore’s profile, “it slides into a scene like an exquisite paper knife.” Women gasped at his beauty when he walked on stage -- yet Mr. Barrymore was always happier hiding beneath ghastly disguises.

When I first discovered him as a kid, John Barrymore’s silent films were nearly impossible to see. Now, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Sherlock Holmes, The Sea Beast and Don Juan are available on YouTube or Amazon on demand. Let the bingeing begin.

              Sea Beast                                                  Don Juan

I segued from his silent films to sound and watched him in one of my favorites –– his classic 1931 film, Svengali. In it, he is a force of nature as George du Maurier's master mesmerist. John Barrymore was drawn to the brilliant fiend and threw himself into the part with the volcanic energy he always summoned when a part inspired him (he had an affinity for du Maurier characters –– he had triumphed on Broadway in 1917 as a tragic Adonis in his transcendently romantic work, Peter Ibbetson). In the end, his performance shattered the perception that Svengali was merely a 2-dimensional villain.

                Peter Ibbetson                                             Svengali

There is a something of the Beauty and the Beast legend in Svengali – he is in love with his victim.  It is not reciprocated. This love has no happy ending. Svengali pays for his mad, tormented love for Trilby with his life. It is a classic fairytale with Bohemian Paris as the enchanted kingdom.

After watching it this time, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never read the 1890’s book that inspired the film or really explored La Vie Bohème, and decided that needed to be remedied. As it turned out – the book is quite different from the film and, weeks of research later, I can tell you the Parisian Bohemia of the mid-19th century was a storied place indeed. It was as much a character in the story as any person.

To begin with, Svengali was born in a novel called Trilby which in turn was born in Bohemian Paris.

Originally, he was only a small but brilliantly conceived character in the 1850’s Bohemian-artist-firmament of the story. The ‘three musketeers of the brush’ -- the Laird, Taffy and little Billee were the stars of the show. There were many rollicking adventures for the 3 comrades and their very colorful friends and lots of charm to engage the reader. Little Billee’s forbidden love for the artist model Trilby provided the pathos for the story (his mother would not approve of a model for her son – they were considered little more than prostitutes during that time). Svengali contributed drama and a dark humor (qualities that Barrymore sharpened and heightened - he wanted acid to cut the tale's sweetness).

The book was dramatized almost immediately after it was published. It was in the play that Svengali became a main attraction. 

The original stars of the novel now provided color and context but the real drama comes from the mad musician Svengali and his control over the beautiful model, Trilby. Barrymore’s Svengali controls the film.

Physically, Svengali was described in the book as rather grotesquely NOT English. He was, “… well-featured but sinister. He was very shabby and dirty, and wore a red béret and a large velveteen cloak, with a big metal clasp at the collar. His thick, heavy, languid, lustreless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his shoulders, in that musician like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long, heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black which grew almost from his under eyelids; and over it his mustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists.”

The name Svengali has become synonymous with evil manipulation, but the character was also a musical genius who could hypnotize an audience with his music. “Then Svengali and Gecko made music together, divinely. Little fragmentary things, sometimes consisting but of a few bars, but these bars of such beauty and meaning! Scraps, snatches, short melodies, meant to fetch, to charm immediately, or to melt or sadden or madden just for a moment, and that knew just when to leave off—czardas, gypsy dances, Hungarian love-plaints, things little known out of eastern Europe in the fifties of this century, till the Laird and Taffy were almost as wild in their enthusiasm as Little Billee --a silent enthusiasm too deep for speech. And when these two great artists left off to smoke, the three Britishers were too much moved even for that, and there was a stillness...”

In a crazy way, Trilby was a musical instrument for him – he played her as brilliantly as he played his flageolet. His assistant, Gecko explained how Svengali transformed tone-deaf Trilby, " We took her voice note by note—there was no end to her notes, each more beautiful than the other—velvet and gold, beautiful flowers, pearls, diamonds, rubies—drops of dew and honey; peaches, oranges, and lemons! en veux-tu en voilà!—all the perfumes and spices of the Garden of Eden! Svengali with his little flexible flageolet, I with my violin—that is how we taught her to make the sounds—and then how to use them. She was a phénomène, monsieur! She could keep on one note and make it go through all the colors in the rainbow—according to the way Svengali looked at her. It would make you laugh—it would make you cry—but, cry or laugh, it was the sweetest, the most touching, the most beautiful note you ever heard—except all her others! and each had as many overtones as the bells in the Carillon de Notre Dame."

I won't give away the whole story or the endings of the book or the film –– 

Svengali captured the public imagination almost immediately…but then, so did the whole story by the transplanted French Punch cartoonist, George du Maurier. His humor and astute observational skills would serve him well in telling his story and he provided the many delightful illustrations for the book.

No one expected what happened next –– poor Mr. du Maurier hated it and died in 1896.

You see, du Maurier’s 1894 book, Trilby, was the first run-away best seller in publishing. It first appeared as a monthly serial and was a phenomenon from the start. It flew off the shelves. Libraries couldn’t stock enough of them and there were lines around the block wanting copies to devour. Fans hounded the author.

                  drawing by A.S. Boyd

A reviewer at the time wrote, "There are people not a few who will remember the first half of 1894 not for the hard times, not for the strikes, nor any other thing of public interest or private concern, so much as for the pleasure they had in in reading 'Trilby.' Never before did the month intervening between installments seem so long nor did so many readers anxiously await the next development in a novel..."

By 1895, Paul M. Potter’s  play version of Trilby opened all over the US and UK – there were dozens of companies that played to sold out houses in cities big and small.

                                                       Actors in the original 1895 NY production

The fad was called Trilbyana.

People couldn’t get enough of Trilby. They would have Cosplay Trilby parties in their homes -- dressing up and playing their favorite scenes “to dissolve the boundaries between life and art” as they imagined living la vie Boheme.

Trilby’s famous song, the 1848 Ben Bolt, became a huge hit all over again in the 1890s – the sheet music was sold as ‘The Trilby Edition’.

                                            Actors in original NY production

One of the most enduring Trilby contributions was not in the book - the famous “Trilby” hat. The hat was first seen in the play and then in the film and is still on the hipster head today (short brim and low crown— a Trilby).

Trilby was a marketing machine. 

I read in ‘Trilby-Mania’ by Erica Haugtvedt, that a man named Sewell wrote a popular song about the mania:

‘For we’ve got Trilby jugs and Trilby mugs and Trilby chairs and lamps
We’ve all got Trilby plates of meat, and carry Trilby gamps [umbrella]—
This Trilby craze will end my days—at home we’re all insane
We’ve Trilby, Trilby, Trilby, Trilby on the brain’

All of that Trilby memorabilia/ephemera gave fans a physical attachment to their beloved story (a lesson that Disney learned?). What made it so beloved? I think it’s because it reflected a longing for youthful passions when art, creativity and divine madness was what mattered. The characters were full of life and adventure. You either missed it or mourned that you never had lived that life. Longing for a fairytale Paris of your own – that was at the heart of the phenomenon (especially if you lived in a small town in the mid-west).

Trilby was based on du Maurier’s own adventures as a young artist in 1850’s Paris with some of the tone and structure of Henry Murger’s famous 1851 novel,  Scènes de la vie de Bohème. Murger had enjoyed the same Bohemian lifestyle but unlike du Maurier, Murger wrote about it contemporaneously as a young man. A 60-year-old Du Maurier wrote of a distant past in Trilby.

Du Maurier, like Murger, employed the camaraderie of artistic vagabonds as the glue of the story. But because of his distance from the time, du Maurier added to that the feeling of saudades for those lost times, colored with the patina of decades of fond reflection on his Parisian youth. The right story at the right moment and the powerful force of Svengali reignited the passion for the cult of Bohemia

Café Momus – where the Bohemian’s convened

For over one hundred years, artists have been drawn to the lifestyle that Murger and du Maurier evoked so vividly – a life of poverty and passion, incredible friendships and adventures. Bohemia never really died but it did move around the city as Paris reinvented itself.

There were even floods of new habitués in the 1890’s after Trilby came out, and again in the 1920’s when another golden age flowered with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the rest of the Lost Generation partaking in the Parisian moveable feast after WWI. All of this came from the rare atmosphere for artists in Paris – of specific areas of Paris.

Paris was not the only city with a Bohemian culture. There were enclaves in Moscow, London, Berlin and New York among others. Bohemian Greenwich Village was a magnet for artists, writers and actors –– like John Barrymore.  From 1917 to the early twenties,  his happiest and most creative years were spent in a Greenwich Village Bohemian garret that he dubbed The Alchemist’s Corner. It was much like the garrets described by Murger and du Maurier. Barrymore took great pains to dress his aerie with a devil-may-care, Bohemian aesthetic -- a jungle of plants, blue glass from Italy and dozens of hand-picked antique treasures with gilded walls and a medieval inclination. A few generations later, I remember my own student days in Greenwich Village with madcap friends, adventures, all night talks about art and lots of drinking – you leave it but it never leaves you. My arsenic green walls and old garnet-colored damask curtains are still remembered very fondly – but I digress – back to Paris where it all began.

Theophile Gautier 1856 Nadar photo

The original Parisian Bohemians of the 1820s and 30’s were men like Theophile Gautier and Balzac , Alfred de Musset  and Gérard de Nerval who lived in the Carrousel district on the Impasse du Doyenné.  Here they held what was termed the first cenácle – a gathering for men of arts, letters, philosophy.

Of this time Gaultier reflected, “yes, we believed, we loved, we admired, we were drunk with beauty, we had the magnificent mania of art! As you so well express it, after Anacreon, we have the little mark upon our heart, and by it we shall recognize each other, in whatever oblivion the age may leave the fine things which so rightly impassioned us”.

But this original paradise for youth and genius would not last. Baron Haussmann’s  modernization of Paris would soon be devouring the first Bohemia. How it blazed before it disappeared!

Orlo Williams in his 1913 book, Vie de Bohème  said Bohemia was for the young, “What stood out in retrospect, in the special case of la vie de Bohème, was the happiness of youth that would never return, its insouciance, its untrammelled companionships, the poetry of its first love, its gaiety and irresponsible humour, its courage, its ready makeshifts in adversity.”

He continued, "Bohemia must be young; it must be continually renewed. If the Bohemian were more than thirty, he might be confused with the rogue." “We Englishmen can hardly understand the magic of this joyous phrase, vingt ans; through French prose and poetry it sounds again and again like a tinkling silver bell calling those who have lived and loved in youth to hark back for a moment in passionate regret, in an ecstasy of remembrance”

La Vie Boheme wrote of an Age d’Or - a love song to young men their 20s and the way they burned hot and devoured life. Murger also believed Bohemia was for the young and voiced sadness at the loss of that youth and enthusiasm which could not be recaptured, “Ah, do not boast of having driven him away, this enthusiasm, it was both the rose and the song on the brink of your sorry twenty years, it was the proud opulence of your age, it was your grace, your genius, your pride, O youth -- all your youth…”

The Bohemian fables of Murger and du Maurier portray a life before the sad metamorphosis that most of us go through. You begin your adulthood as wild and colorful creatures but end in a cocoon of staid middle-class life or die young from flying too close to the sun (or never seeing the sun or feeling the pulse of talent that could sustain you).

Illustration from Trilby of the painters in a cafe

Williams also reflected sadly on those gray men for whom those days were painful reminders as well as beautiful memories, “The ex-Bohemian had, what the Bohemian had not, a contrast by which to measure his regrets—the cares of domesticity, the wearisome demands of society upon its members, the responsibilities and cares of an assured position, howsoever humble, the dulling of pleasure's edge, joints stiffening, hair bleaching.”

The old disorder and the individuality of the neighborhoods were lost when demolition commenced on the romantic tangle of ancient buildings in preparation for Haussmann’s ‘regularization’. Gone were the crooked floors, walls and streets. Even Trilby’s Taffy felt that the Bohemia of his day wasn’t as vibrant as that of the 1830’s. He called his present, “this ghastly thin-faced time of ours….” But before it was all destroyed, it was a mad paradise for the artist – you can see why the terroir of the place was a perfect medium to grow the spirit of the young artist – chaotic and exploding with energy

              Place du Carrousel Fox Talbott photo,1843    

      Place du Carrousel Henri Le Secq 
         demolished, 1851 

Vue des Ruines de la chapelle du Doyenné before it was destroyed

It was here in the Carrousel district that Gerard de Nerval discovered a perfect location for a clubhouse for the first Bohemians:

“However, he did more than find a quiet, romantic corner hidden away in the busy heart of Paris with a ruined priory to give distinction to its prospect; he also found an appropriate dwelling. In one of the old houses of the Impasse du Doyenné there was a set of rooms remarkable for its salon. It was a huge room, decorated in the old-fashioned Pompadour style with grooved panellings, pier-glasses, and a fantastically moulded ceiling. This decoration had for a long time been the despair of its owner and had driven away all prospective tenants, the taste for curiosities being at that time undeveloped. In vain had the landlord parcelled it out with party walls; it was still mouldering on his hands when Gérard came thither on one of his swallow-flights. He at once persuaded the good-natured Camille Rogier to transfer his household gods from the Rue des Beaux-Arts, the party walls were knocked down, and Bohemia entered on its ideal home…”

And what a clubhouse it was – mad revels were the norm and Williams shared Theophile Gautier’s memories of one such festivity:

“Ladders were quickly erected, panels and piers were parcelled out, and the work began. It is a scene on which to dwell in envious imagination. They were perched on ladders, the merry band, smoking cigarettes, singing Musset's songs or declaiming Victor Hugo, with roses behind their ears—a counsel of Gérard's, who, contenting himself with a general survey of operations, recommended a return to the classic festal usage of garlanding the head with flowers. Camille Rogier, smiling through his beard, was painting Oriental or fantastically Hoffmannesque  scenes; the burly Gautier executed a picnic in the style of Watteau, a tantalizing subject for thirsty dancers; Nanteuil, with his long golden hair, limned a Naiad; and Adolphe Leleux produced topers crowned with ivy in the manner of Velasquez. Other friends were pressed into service, Wattier, Châtillon, and Rousseau; Chassériau contributed a bathing Diana, Lorentz some revellers in Turkish costume, and Corot on two narrow panels placed two exquisite Italian landscapes. Any comrade might lend a hand, and it was on this occasion that Gautier first made the acquaintance of Marilhat, the Oriental painter, whom a friend brought in and who drew on a vacant space some palm-trees over a minaret in white chalk. It is to this acquaintance that we owe Théo's recollections of this remarkable day. If that room, decorated thus because a few louis d'or for refreshments were not forthcoming, were now existing, only a millionaire could buy, and only a great gallery worthily house, it. Yet regrets are misplaced, for it served its day, and it is well that the salon of Doyenné, with its furniture and its painted panels, in which the happy, money-scorning Bohemians danced at their culminating festival, should vanish before mercenary dealings could soil its freshness.”

One of my favorite characters is a denizen of Murger’s Bohemia - the antiquities dealer, Medici. Medici would feed starving artists in exchange for a poem or a sketch or buy furniture to pay a bill – only to sell it back during flush times, “His shop on Place du Carrousel was a magic spot where one could find anything he might desire. All the products of nature, all the creations of art, everything that issues from the bowels of the earth and from the genius of man, was an object of sale or exchange with Me'dicis. His business included everything, absolutely everything that exists — indeed he dealt in the ideal. He purchased IDEAS, to put them in practice himself, or to sell again. Known to all men of letters and all artists, an intimate friend of the palette and familiar with the writing-desk, he was the Asmodeus of the arts. He would sell you cigars for the rough draft of a novel, slippers for a sonnet, fresh fish for paradoxes; he talked by the hour at so much the hour with writers paid to retail society scandal in the newspapers; he would procure tickets for you to the galleries of the chambers of Parliament and invitations to private parties; he let lodgings by the night or week or month to homeless embryo artists, who paid him in copies of the great masters at the Louvre.”

Oh that there were such fairy god-fathers today! It’s a lost breed to be sure but at home and indeed cultivated in the ancient streets the Bohemian’s traveled -- where kindness and generosity was part of the lifestyle in that one-for-all-and-all-for-one way they had. I understand the fascination completely. I would love to have spent a few years there – I would love to think that it such a place existed.

I discovered some remarkable photographs of this golden age of Bohemia by Charles Marville  (the official Paris photographer), Henri le Secq  and the Societé Heliographic .

These men were assigned the job of capturing the world that was quickly receding as the Haussmannization of Paris was taking place (one of Marville’s jobs was making the old city look sad and rotten by putting water on the streets as if it were sewage but which ended up making a better photo with the ‘wet-down’).There are hundreds of them. They might help you get a sense of the landscape of old Paris – the urban canvas for Trilby.

Rue St. Nicolas du Charonnet
Rue du Marché-aux-fleurs

Tourelle de la rue des Prêtr

Charles Marville, 1853

 Rue de Venise
Atget Cour du Dragon 
 Passage du dragon 1853

The original Bohemians were already looking back with longing as they saw what changes were looming. Alfred de Musset said in 1836, “We live on debris, as if the end of the world was coming.” The original Bohemians of Gautier’s youth saw the Doyenne Quartier (the Carrousel in Paris between the Tuileries and the Louvre), razed in 1852 during Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris – Medici’s shop was now only a legend. By the late 1840s, Murger’s Bohemia had begun moving to the Latin Quarter in the 5th and 6th arrondissement on the Left Bank (called Latin because of the abundance of universities in the area – thus Latin being read and even uttered on the streets from time to time).

The Latin Quarter was du Maurier’s Bohemia as well -- the first Bohemia was now being cleared of rubble to prepare for the clean, straight rows of uniform houses being built where the Doyenne quarter used to be.

Rue Pirouette 1860 

Bievre River – Rue Gobelins 1862

What of the interiors?

Williams described the poor, barely furnished artist’s lodgings we have come to expect in Bohemia: “There was no question of bare attics on a sixth story, their tiny windows looking on a dreary sea of roofs, of rickety chairs and peeling wall-paper. In spite of its bare floors, its faded colours, its chipped corners, and the incongruous presence of plain easels among its ancient splendours, its riches were princely. Bohemian disorder might reign among paints and palette-knives, ends of paper inscribed with scraps of verse might dot its unswept floor, the débris of eating and drinking might litter the seats on which fastidious cavaliers once delicately sat, but no realities of a careless existence could spoil its romantic atmosphere. Without its merry clan of inhabitants, no doubt, it would have seemed odd and ghostly; yet if they brought back to it the necessary colour of youth, it tinged, in turn, their life with a patina of old gold that never faded from their reminiscences.”

Oscar-nominated Svegali sets 1931 – German expressionist inspired – a rejection of sterile modernity or bourgeois cleanliness.

One of the most famous artists gathering places of the old Bohemia was Jehan du Seigneur’s studio where the first cenácle took place: "In a little chamber," wrote an older Gautier, "which had not seats enough for all its occupants, gathered the young men, really young and different in that respect from the young men of to-day, who are all more or less quinquagenarians. The hammock in which the master of the dwelling took his siesta, the narrow couchlet in which the dawn often surprised him at the last page of a book of verses, eked out the insufficiency of conveniences for conversation. One really talked better standing up, and the gestures of the orator or declaimer only gained a more ample scope. Still, it was extremely unwise to make too free with your arms for fear of knocking your knuckles against the sloping ceiling." It was a poor man's room, but not without ornament, for it contained sketches by the two Dévérias, a head after Titian or Giorgione by Boulanger, two earthenware vases full of flowers on the chimneypiece, the inevitable death's-head instead of a clock, a looking-glass, and a small shelf of books. On either side of the glass and in the embrasures of the windows were hung the portrait medallions which Jehan made of his friends. They had no money to get them cast in bronze, so the world has lost in them a valuable appendix to the well-known busts of his contemporaries executed by the more distinguished Romantic sculptor, David d'Angers.” Here they would all gather of an evening.

Du Maurier’s drawing of the artist space from Trilby

Du Maurier described an artist’s garret in Trilby –– The Laird, Billee and Taffy reside in a multi-cultural, unconventional paradise:

“The big studio window was open at the top, and let in a pleasant breeze from the northwest…the big piano…on the wall opposite was a panoply of foils, masks, and boxing-gloves.

“A trapeze, a knotted rope, and two parallel cords, supporting each a ring, depended from a huge beam in the ceiling. The walls were of the usual dull red, relieved by plaster casts of arms and legs and hands and feet; and Dante's mask, and Michael Angelo's altorilievo of Leda and the swan, and a centaur and Lapith from the Elgin marbles—on none of these had the dust as yet had time to settle.

19th c artist space

“There were also studies in oil from the nude; copies of Titian, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Rubens, Tintoretto, Leonardo da Vinci—none of the school of Botticelli, Mantegna, and Co.—a firm whose merits had not as yet been revealed to the many.

“Along the walls, at a great height, ran a broad shelf, on which were other casts in plaster, terra-cotta, imitation bronze; a little Theseus, a little Venus of Milo, a little discobolus; …

“Near the stove hung a gridiron, a frying-pan, a toasting-fork, and a pair of bellows. In an adjoining glazed corner cupboard were plates and glasses, black-handled knives, pewter spoons, and three-pronged steel forks; a salad-bowl, vinegar cruets, an oil-flask, two mustard-pots (English and French), and such like things—all scrupulously clean. On the floor, which had been stained and waxed at considerable cost, lay two chetah-skins and a large Persian praying-rug.

“And there were alcoves, recesses, irregularities, odd little nooks and corners, to be filled up as time wore on with endless personal knick-knacks, bibelots, private properties and acquisitions—things that make a place genial, homelike, and good to remember, and sweet to muse upon (with fond regret) in after-years.”

Their home was filled with souvenirs of their life in Paris, exotic pieces from their travels and with their own art. These objects were freighted with meaning and memories that would remain with them even as they moved away. And they did move away.

Later Bohemians would eschew cheap, new furnishings and crockery to furnish their garrets and acquire old broken things to copy authentic Bohemian style – but they were amateurs – that’s what Williams thought: “We will mention one other singular variety of Bohemians, who may be called amateurs. They are not the least interesting. They find life in Bohemia an existence full of charm : not to dine every day, to sleep in the open air under the tears of rainy nights, and to dress in nankeen in the month of December seem to them the paradise of earthly felicity, and to enter therein they abandon, one the family hearth, another the studies that lead to a certain result. They turn their backs abruptly on an honorable future in order to run the risks of a hand-to-mouth existence. But as the more robust do not take kindly to a diet that would make Hercules consumptive, they soon abandon the game, ride back at full speed to the paternal roast beef, to marry their second cousins and set up as notaries in a town of twenty or thirty thousand souls ; and in the evening, sitting in the chimney corner, they have the satisfaction of describing their poverty when they were artists, with all the gusto of a traveller describing a tiger hunt.”

Were the Englishmen in Trilby amateurs or the real deal? The original Bohemian, Theophile Gautier, reflected that even for the real Bohemian there was an expiration date on the experience if not on the memory "No doubt such joy could not last. To be young and intelligent, to love one another, to understand and commune in every realm of art—a more beautiful manner of life could not be conceived, and from the eyes of all those who followed it its dazzling splendour has never been obliterated."

Williams, admittedly writing 50 years after the Bohemia he was describing, was not so positive, “It may safely be said that in the real Bohème there was no such goodly company of industrious, gifted, morally austere, intellectually gay, unselfish young men, and that there never will be in any society till the coming of the Coquecigrues ”.


Who’s to say if their idyllic Paris was only a Coquecigrue??

So, what did they eat in this artist’s aerie with a gridiron, a fork and a frying pan?

They drank a great deal, went out when they could and complained of hunger when they couldn’t -- but the Englishmen weren’t poor. They seemed to be able to eat regularly and drink well at their favorite neighborhood eateries. “Good distending soups, omelets that were only too savory, lentils, red and white beans, meat so dressed and sauced and seasoned that you didn't know whether it were beef or mutton—flesh, fowl, or good red herring—or even bad, for that matter—nor very greatly care. And just the same lettuce, radishes, and cheese of Gruyère or Brie as you got at the Trois Frères Provençaux (but not the same butter!). And to wash it all down, generous wine in wooden "brocs"—that stained a lovely æsthetic blue everything it was spilled over.”

For 3 francs, Little Billee, “would dive into back streets and buy a yard or so of crusty new bread, well burned on the flat side, a fillet of beef, a litre of wine, potatoes and onions, butter, a little cylindrical cheese called "bondon de Neufchâtel," tender curly lettuce, with chervil, parsley, spring onions, and other fine herbs, and a pod of garlic, which would be rubbed on a crust of bread to flavor things with.”

Trilby cooking for the Musketeers of the brush

For Christmas, no expense was spared to feed everyone and the spread is quite luxurious. It was brought in already prepared – not much cooking necessary.

“Wines and spirits and English beers were procured at great cost from M. E. Delevingne's, in the Rue St. Honoré, and liqueurs of every description—chartreuse, curaçoa, ratafia de cassis, and anisette; no expense was spared.

“Also, truffled galantines of turkey, tongues, hams, rillettes de Tours, pâtés de foie gras, "fromage d'Italie" (which has nothing to do with cheese [it’s like spam or bologna]), saucissons d'Arles et de Lyon, with and without garlic, cold jellies peppery and salty—everything that French charcutiers and their wives can make out of French pigs, or any other animal whatever, beast, bird, or fowl (even cats and rats), for the supper; and sweet jellies, and cakes, and sweetmeats, and confections of all kinds, from the famous pastry-cook at the corner of the Rue Castiglione”

I decided I would make something from the period and found a book by Louis-Eustache Audot from the 1840s, French Domestic Cookery  full of things they might have enjoyed. Partridges a la Chipolata (chipolata are thin sausages - á la chipolata usually means there are onions, sausages, chestnuts and bacon). I despair of boiled meats so I brown them a little before adding them together. It’s a marvelous ragoût that you can easily up-scale to as many as you need.  It serves 2 as an appetizer and one as a substantial main course.  I would say you could use a cornish hen or a small chicken but double the rest of the recipe.

 Partridges(or squab or chicken) a la Chipolata (recipe per each bird - serves 1-2)

1 squab, cut into 6 serving pieces (I used the leftover bits to make stock) seasoned with s&p
1/2 c pork sausage (I added extra sage, marjoram, nutmeg and allspice) into patties
1 strip of bacon diced large
2 T butter
5 pearl onions
3 mushrooms, sliced
5 chestnuts roasted (cook for 20 -30 minutes at 425º after scoring the bottom- they split when done)
1 T butter
2 T flour
1 c stock (with extra if needed)
1/2 c white wine
1 T madeira
pinch of sage
Herbs for garnish

Put sausage in paddies and then saute till lightly browned. Set on paper towels and toss the fat.
Sauté and remove the bacon. Brown the cut-up bird in the fat and remove.

Add 2 T Butter, Sauté 5 onions, chestnuts and mushrooms until golden

Make a roux of flour and 1T more butter

Add stock and White wine and madeira and stir to mix.

Return the squab to the liquid (I balanced the breast on the other pieces so it could stay medium rare).

Cook till squab done - about 10 minutes covered (more if you are using Cornish hen or chicken) and serve on toast or with toast.

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Thursday, July 4, 2019

Good Omens and Duck Breast with Lavender and Blackberries

I positively shivered with delight last fall when I discovered a much-loved book,  Neil Gaiman and Terry Prachett's Good Omens, was being made into a series for Amazon -- then mourned the desolate months that lay between me and the premiere on May 31st. When the waiting was taking its toll on my patience, I watched the trailer – multiple times, then  I re-read the book. The inconceivably delicious idea of an angel and demon working together to save our miserable planet resonated mightily for me because, frankly, I am sick to death of the internecine political war that is shredding our world – so much pettiness and venality. The book offers something much needed today,  a friendly peace between adversaries, love, courage and hope (although I am not sure we deserve it), served with generous lashings of wit and sly humor.

Yes, I needed it.  I realized recently that I hadn’t read a book for fun or escape in ages. Everything was work related. I actually felt guilty when I binged  The Prisoner, and guilty when started on a reading spree – but no more. I've come around to Neil Gaiman's point of view – it's good for you, “If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.”  Read to escape, refresh your creative muscles and move outside your work box -- a box that can become a prison so stealthily you don't notice you are it and it is you!

Happily, Neil Gaiman's series Good Omens was everything I had hoped (the book was co-written in 1990 by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett who sadly died in 2015 - Gaiman wrote the series on his own).  I binged all 6 episodes in one deep, delicious gulp opening night with David Tennant and Michael Sheen playing the demon and the angel -- ooh la la – and no guilt at all!

A few weeks later, to my enormous delight, I met the author, Neil Gaiman, at a DGA showing of the first episode. HE was everything I imagined he would be and he stayed and spoke with everyone for hours.

However brilliantly captivating he may be with words and stories – he is equally eloquent in the silent language of listening. He had a way of listening that made you feel as if what you were saying was the most important thing in the world – a very rare quality to be sure.  I got to thank him for the curious side-effect that reading Good Omens had on the constantly churning No Exit  dreams that were feeding my insomnia years ago (scenarios of inescapable, hellish situations – trapped with ever-changing casts of horrible people turning me into the Scheherazade of nightmares). Read before bedtime, his angel and demon-made detour from Armageddon was just the weapon I needed to banish No Exit  from my dreamscapes -- no idea why it worked but it did. One of my favorite Gaiman quotes seemed apt, “People tend to find books when they are ready for them.” I might add they sometimes find them when they need them. I believe many people have been touched by Good Omens – for a million different reasons and often for different reasons at different times through the decades of their lives from youth to middle age when it is revisited – I most certainly saw it with different eyes when I read it again this winter (he said some people read it every year!).

We chatted about the production design and about the opening titles which delighted me. I asked if Peter Anderson Studios had done anything like it before and he said no – they were told to let their imagination run wild and they did. I told him the great story about Orson Welles and his camera man for Citizen Kane, Gregg Toland. Welles had never made films before and didn’t know what he couldn’t do so asked Toland ‘how about…?’ – and Toland said why not? Toland had asked to work on it because he was tired of studio directors and wanted a brilliant amateur who could push his envelope. The result of the collaboration is legendary.  Mr. Gaiman was amused with the connection.

I couldn’t get over how genuinely kind he seemed. This is a man that loves what he does and it shows, “I’m an author. We don’t want to lead. We don’t need to follow. We stay home and make stuff up and write it down and send it out into the world, and get inside people’s heads. Perhaps we change the world and perhaps we don’t. We never know. We just make stuff up.”

So, what made me love the book and then the Amazon series??? Probably the improbable friendship of the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley who have grown too fond of their earthly secondments to let the planet be destroyed by a duel between Heaven and Hell.  David Tennant and Michael Sheen add such depth to the relationship between friends with a 6,000 year history -- it's a wonder to watch the affectionate badinage -- these actors are at the top of their game.

In Good Omens, Heaven is as dull as dishwater – empty whiteness,  with a smug, handsome, impeccably dressed, violet-eyed angel Gabriel (John Hamm) and the halls are alive with Sound of Music because all the great composers are in’ the other place’.

Hell is a dreary gray basement office that has leaky plumbing, endless damp paperwork to be shuffled and catchy motivational signs. The Lord of the underworld Beelzebub is surrounded by flies and covered in suppurating sores.


Neither the demon Crowley (dressed like a rock star with an insanely divine 1934 Bentley and a fondness for 80’s Queen tapes) OR the angel Aziraphale (dressed like a Dickens’ character, owner of an antique bookstore and very partial to fine food), have any business in either of their respective home offices above and below - they are solidly earth-centric now. Banking on the plodding bureaucracy of Heaven and Hell (no one notices their lacklustre commitment to their missions), they perform enough miracles for better or worse to keep their side happy but actually cancel one another out and, in fact, begin working together – taking turns with assignments. Over the centuries, they have softened one another’s hard edges. The demon often questions the hardness of heavenly punishments. Most of what he gets up to could be described more as naughty than evil (screwing up phone service all over London?). The angel is overly fond of art and possessions and comfort – not quite up to the 7 deadlies but not purely spiritual any longer and that’s a GOOD thing. You can see why they don’t want their earthly assignments to end - - and neither do we!


The story involves quite an unconventional cast of humans beginning with the 17th century witch who wrote The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter (full of gems like ‘buy Apple stock in 1980' and 'don’t buy Betamax in 1972’). Her prophecies are still saving the day in the 21st century. Her story and descendants are also connected to some down-in-the-heel witchfinders (not the most successful plot-line) and a psychic dominatrix. Next are a group of young friends of the Anti-Christ named Adam who is set to begin the countdown for Armageddon on his 11th birthday after a hell-hound is released (a hell-hound who turns from a snarling red-eyed great dane monster into a sweet little terrier that Adam names Dog, thereby avoiding detection and endearing himself to the normal-boy-appearing Anti-Christ). There's also a Kraken to exact revenge on whale hunters, Atlantis reappearing, kindly aliens arriving and nuclear power plants operating without reactors – well basically anything the newly empowered Anti-Christ gets into his head after reading conspiracy theory magazines – although he has no idea that his wishes are coming true. Oh and let's not forget the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse  who are the guests of honor for the Armageddon party.

In the end, love, friendship and some pretty slick tricks conquer all and the world remains for a while longer –until the next time at least.

The locations are real or really well made. With all that needed to happen, a London street wasn’t going to be easy to requisition so they built one! You can see what the film constructed and what is computer generated – lovely work.

The charming village of Tadfield may have never existed – but it is beautifully played by Hambleden in Buckinghamshire -- midway between London and Oxford.

The show is full of many Easter eggs . One of the sweetest is co-author Terry Pratchett’s famous black fedora and scarf in Aziraphal’s bookshop on a coat rack, favorite books are also placed on the shelves in a subtle way. There are mentions of Dr. Who – kids threaten “exterminate ” and license plates tease clues (SID RAT is TARDIS backwards).

What about food in an Armageddon scenario??I know you are wondering by this point how am I going to get the customary recipe from this? Not to fear, contrary to everything you have ever imagined about angels and demons – in Good Omens, these otherworldly creatures eat and drink and enjoy it! Starting with Aziraphal swooning over sushi at the beginning, running to Paris for decent crepes during the French Revolution (in a tone-deaf but delightful Aristo outfit for which he nearly loses his non-citoyen head), and meeting to celebrate the earth’s reprieve at the Ritz where the story concludes – food has a role in the story.

That brings us to another Easter egg which is a substitution. Although the script says the Ritz, Aziraphale and Crowley meet at the Criterion, built in 1873, and famous for the fact that Dr. Watson meets a friend who arranges an introduction with Sherlock Holmes as a possible roommate in 1881 in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock story, Study in Scarlet. The director Douglas McKinnon had wanted to shoot there since he worked on the Sherlock series and finally got his wish . Basically, the Criterion played the Ritz in Good Omens.

     The Criterion

The real Ritz Restaurant – much… Ritzier!

HAY-AGED BRESSE DUCK Beetroot, Pickled Blackberry and Lavender £90


Although Crowley and Aziraphale go to the Ritz to have their crepes (they are famous for their Crêpes Suzette), I have already written about those Crêpes Suzette HERE (I include the original recipe) and thought – well they probably didn’t just have dessert – and they have a table of sweets before them on the table, giving you the feeling they dined richly. You aren’t just going to have a sweet and a glass of wine when you are celebrating saving the world are you?

Since they don’t mention a main course – I felt I had carte blanche to choose something for them. I looked on the Ritz menu and found a lovely dish -- duck with Beetroot, Pickled Blackberry and Lavender. It feels a little related to the famous 11 Madison Park Restaurant's duck. I used Madison Park’s honey/spice rub, and found recipes for lavender beets and pickled blackberries. I made a little blackberry sauce for a dessert and found it brought the whole thing together when used with the duck. Grilling the duck is simple as could be and it gives that lovely smoke to the meat. It can be done in the pan and the oven if you don’t have a grill handy.

I served it with a wild rice salad with dried cherries, pomegranate, pecans, parsley and green onions and an orange vinaigrette

Grilled Duck with Lavender Beets, Pickled Blackberry and Blackberry Sauce serves 2-4 depending on appetite

2  Moulard duck breasts from D'Artagnan (about a pound each)
2 T honey (a single source honey is great – pine or lavender or heather)
2 T Szechwan peppercorns
2 T coriander seeds
1 T cumin seeds
2 T lavender

Salt and pepper

Pickled blackberries* these should be done a few days in advance
Lavender beets
Blackberry sauce

Score the duck skin in a diamond pattern, being careful not to cut through to the flesh. Rub all over with the honey. Put the spices and lavender in a spice grinder and grind a few times – still leaving a rough texture. Sprinkle liberally over the duck - leaving a little of the spice mix for grilling,  then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Let sit, uncovered, in the fridge for a few hours or the night before.

In the meantime, prepare the lavender beets and the blackberry sauce.

Heat a cast-iron skillet. Place the duck skin side down and let cook on medium for a minute until it renders some fat, then increase to medium high for 4 minutes or so. Save the duck fat for other things.

The meat is still fairly raw at this point and the skin not fully cooked – this cooking in a pan is just to render off some of the fat so it doesn't get lost in the grill.

Remove to a platter and cover with foil. Let rest a few hours un-refrigerated. Sprinkle on the rest of the spice mix to make up for what was lost in the pan frying.

Heat the grill. I like to use wood chips for extra flavor. Remember the duck is still quite fatty and will still cause flares so grill with care if you like to eat the skin. It’s safest to put it slightly away from the center, skin side down. I didn’t and the skin blackened quite a bit but the duck meat was still perfect.

Leave it on the grill for 4-5 minutes, then turn for another 3-5 minutes depending on how rare you like it.

Remove from the grill and allow to sit for 5 minutes then slice and serve with beets, pickled blackberries and blackberry sauce. The breasts are quite large – I find that 1 is enough for 2 people.

· If you don’t have a grill, sauté skin side down for 6 min, then flip for 1 minute, then put in 400º oven, fat side down for 6 minutes for rare.

Let set for 5 minutes and carve

Pickled Blackberries (based on Food and Wine recipe)

4 peppercorns
2 allspice berries
½” piece ginger
1 bay leaf
1 c red wine vinegar
3 T sugar
1 ½ T salt
1 shallot sliced thinly
1 sprig thyme
1 box blackberries

Crush spices in mortar. Add all save blackberries to saucepan and bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar. Cool and add the blackberries and refrigerate for at a few days.

Lavender Beets

1 bunch small-ish beets
2 T honey
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 T lavender
1T hazelnut oil (optional)
S & P

Pre-heat oven to 400º. Remove the greens and long tails from the beets. Put them in foil with another piece of foil beneath. Roast for 50min for small beets to 1:30 for very large ones – you can check them with a knife – baby beets might be even less.

Let cook in the foil for a while then slip the skins off when they are cool enough to handle. Cut them into smaller pieces if large and toss with honey and the rest and set aside – can be served warm or at room temperature

Blackberry Sauce

1 package frozen blackberries
2 T sugar
1 t lavender
1T cassis (optional)

Cook the blackberries until sugar is dissolved and berries are softened. Put through a foodmill or strainer to get rid of the seeds and store at room temperature or put in fridge if made a day ahead. You might want to double the recipe – it’s very good on ice cream or even other berries.

Crêpes Suzette for 2, original recipe

Crêpes, original recipe (makes 4 good size crêpes)

3 eggs
2 T flour
1 T water
1 T milk
pinch of salt
1-2 T butter

Stir to the consistency of thick olive oil and let rest for 30 minutes to an hour (modern change, I put all the ingredients in a blender and mix then strain the batter and use it after it rests 15 minutes).

For the first crepe, generously coat the pan with butter… but do not puddle it… too much butter makes bad crepes. After that, add a smear of butter for each crepe (I often use a stick of butter and paint the pan with it). Make crepes using all the batter and fold each one twice, forming a wedge shape and reserve.

Crepes with less egg

¾ c milk
2 eggs
½ c flour
¼ t salt

Put everything in the blender and blend. Strain into a bowl and cover for 15 -30 minutes then continue with the instructions above.


Piece of lemon peel the size of the ball of your thumb, cut in thin strips
Piece of orange peel the size of the ball of your thumb, cut in thin strips
OR use a micro plane and grate the zest into the sugar (which is what I did)
2 T vanilla sugar (you can make this by scraping a pinch of vanilla off the pod into the sugar or stir a drop of vanilla into sugar)

Combine and let sit 2 days (I am not sure this is really necessary, I think you can use it soon after making it)

¼ lb butter

5 oz. (he calls for 5 ponies) of an equal blend of maraschino, curaçao and kirshwasser (if you don’t have them all, you can use just Curaçao or Grand Marnier or Cointreau or Triple Sec which are all orange-flavored like curaçao)

suprêmes of 1 blood orange (skinless, membraneless segments cut away from the orange -I threw the juice that collect from doing it into the butter)

orange zest for decoration (optional)

Melt butter. When it bubbles, add 3 ponies of liqueur blend, light on fire –– there will be a LOT of fire (it will go up about 6”) so pay attention, have a lid handy just in case. I didn’t need it but good to have to be on the safe side… don’t have anything flammable hanging around it!!!

As the fire goes out, add the vanilla sugar and stir till it is melted. Add the crepes and turn them ‘deftly’ in the hot sauce. Then add 2 more ponies of mixed liqueurs, flame again and serve. I had trouble with the second light. Might be good to light the alcohol in a small skillet and pour or at least warm the alcohol to get the vapors going. Place the crepes on the plate, toss the suprêmes and zest on top and pour the sauce over all.