ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

Interview: Mary Gannon Graham talks about the art of singing badly for her new role as Florence Foster Jenkins in “Souvenir,” at 6th Street Playhouse through May 27, 2012

Award-winning actress Mary Gannon Graham, a Sebastopol resident, tackles the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the famous socialite opera singer who couldn’t hold a tune, in 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” May 12-27, 2012. Photo: Geneva Anderson

When Sebastopol actress and singer, Mary Gannon Graham, took on the role of Florence Foster Jenkins, the famous tone-deaf diva, for 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Stephen Temperley’s  Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, she had to learn the art of vocally decimating opera’s most beautiful arias.  Doing this authentically—impersonating Jenkins without turning her into a mere caricature—wasn’t easy.   Revered by audiences and critics in throughout the Bay Area for her fluid performances in Always, Patsy Cline and Shirley Valentine, Gannon Graham agreed to talk about her fascinating new role as the spirited coloratura whose botched high notes, disastrous pitch and intonation, and crippled rhythm delighted her enthusiastic audiences.

Souvenir, which opened Friday night, at 6th Street’s Studio Theatre, is a poignant comedy, a fantasia of memories and experiences related by Jenkins’ witty accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, portrayed skillfully by John Shillington, who sings and plays piano throughout.  It’s also a story of personal fulfillment and victory.   The story starts in 1964, on the 20th anniversary of Jenkins’ death, and goes back to 1932 and moves forward through the 12 years of McMoon’s relationship with Jenkins.  Jenkins was born in 1868 in Pennsylvania and dreamed of becoming a great opera singer but her wealthy father refused to pay for voice lessons.  When he passed away in 1909, she inherited enough money to follow her bliss, took voice lessons, became very active in social clubs, and gradually began giving recitals for her friends.  She was renowned for her annual concert at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom where she performed famous arias in elaborate costumes she designed herself, raising loads of money for charity.  Tickets to her Carnegie Hall concert, on October 25, 1944, which she gave at age 76, sold out in two hours.  The audience, consisting largely of service men, busted their seams throughout, some stifling their laughs and others not.   Gannon Graham plays Jenkins with sweetness and vibrant off-the-mark singing.

Is it more difficult to sing properly or badly? 

Mary Gannon Graham is Florence Foster Jenkins and John Shillington (right) is Cosmé McMoon, Jenkins’ accompanist, in 6th Street Playhouse’s production of Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” May 12-27, 2012. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Mary Gannon Graham: Singing badly, and doing it well, is a lot harder than you think.  I had to learn to sing all these arias correctly first before I could go out and butcher them.  For that, I’ve had a wonderful vocal coach and opera teacher, Beth Freeman, who has been working with me a couple of times a week.  The concern was that I wouldn’t damage my own voice and that I’d sing in an authentic way.  Florence Foster Jenkins practiced non-stop—her barking wasn’t accidental, it was studied.  Our director, Michael Fontaine, has told me that I’m hitting too many right notes.  It’s strange to get feedback from your director that says ‘No, you’re singing it too right.’

What are the technical issues with her voice—intonation, rhythm, timbre?

Mary Gannon Graham:  It’s a little of everything.  When you listen to her recordings, and they are on YouTube, she was in the ball park a lot, but was basically a quarter note above or below.  One of her reviewers wrote that ‘she mastered the art of the quarter note,’ and he was trying to be kind.  Her rhythm was not always what was written.  The play is a fantasia, so a lot of it is made up.  She talks about obfuscating the tempi, how accuracy gets in the way of true singing, and how music comes from the heart and that the notes are simply guideposts left by the composer.   This is the gist of what she believed—she had her own musical interpretation and she practiced very hard to perfect it.

It’s interesting that she chose opera, an art form with such rigorous standards.

Mary Gannon Graham:  Oddly, she was also a piano teacher, so she knew something about music.  She left her father’s home after he disowned her and this was because she married against his wishes.  She married a man, Jenkins, who was about 15 years older than she was and he was a consummate cheater and he gave her syphilis.  So she left her father and then her husband and made her own way in the world teaching music.  She had this love of classical music and believed herself to be a true coloratura soprano and felt she could master the very high ranges.  I’m a mezzo and singing really high, and not using the meat and potatoes of my voice, is very difficult.  It’s awful to sing like a barky terrier, which is what we’re going for here.  This is a small intimate theatre too, so to sing lighter, and not use my full voice, is also challenging.

As a performer, are you aware enough of the audience’s reaction to tell if something has gone South?  What are your thoughts about Jenkins’ awareness while performing?

Mary Gannon Graham: I try not to pay attention to that—if you’re worried that you’re hitting you’re mark, you’re not in the moment.  If I’m playing comedy, I do need to hear the reaction, but every audience is different.  As an actor you are aware—I call it the actor’s brain—and are focusing on a million things at once, one of which might be channeling the energy the audience is giving, but it’s mainly focusing on what is happening on stage.  Florence Foster Jenkins was completely under the spell of the music.  She was enamored with Verdi and Mozart and all the great composers and music was her drug, her religion, her bliss.  I don’t think anything meant as much to her as music and promoting music.   She was quite the philanthropist, and when she charged people their $2.40 to attend her concerts, she donated all that money to charity and never kept it for herself.   She wanted to share music with the world and she heard herself in a different way and was blind to what the audience was experiencing.

She must have had been part Teflon or maybe she just didn’t care what people thought—what type of character did she have?

Mary Gannon Graham: She had this indomitable spirit and didn’t let the opinions of others dictate how she felt about herself.  She had this almost childlike assurance that what she was doing was beautiful and perfect and right.  She also had quite an ego and could be manipulative when it came to getting people to attend her performances, but it wasn’t with mal-intent.   In the play, for example, she always says ‘It was proposed that we play here,” or ‘It was proposed that we move our recital.’  She had a lot of money and I suspect that she went out and shopped herself. After her father died, she inherited this huge chunk and that’s when she went to town.  She stopped teaching piano and really pursued music—she took voice lessons and morphed into this singer.  She had wanted to do this as a child but her father said no and when it came to her late in life, she went for it.

Describe her relationship with her accompanist, Cosmé McMoon.

Mary Gannon Graham: Cosmé McMoon was not her only accompanist but he was her last accompanist, the one who played Carnegie Hall with her.   He is the only one in the play.   She actually went through several accompanists and fired them because they weren’t up to snuff.  She initially had her niece playing for her at the Ritz-Carlton.  The play starts with her interviewing Cosmé to play for one of her first public recitals.  In Stephen Temperley’s play, Cosmé’s very protective of her.  I’m not sure about this in real life.   I’d expect that anyone who played with her would have had to have been protective.  People would stuff handkerchiefs in their mouths to stifle their laughter whereas she thought they were so overcome with emotion, they were sobbing.  She saw what she wanted to see and believed that she wanted to believe.

When you played the role of Shirley Valentine, you mastered many personas.  Is this the role that most prepared you for Florence Foster Jenkins?

Mary Gannon Graham dons ostrich feathers, wings and tiaras as socialite opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” at 6th Street Playhouse through May 27, 2012. Photo: Eric Chazankin

Mary Gannon Graham: Every role an actor pays helps them towards the next one.  Singing Patsy Cline in Always Patsy Cline —doing so many performances—helped me find what I think is my voice, which is not Florence Foster Jenkins’ voice, and it gave me real confidence.  Shirley Valentine, as a character, goes through a transformation of courage—from being a doormat to her husband and children, to becoming this woman who has to go out on her own and make it.  Taking on characters is an act of osmosis and parts of them stay with you.  Acting is very much like fine tuning an instrument—sometimes you bring up one part and sometimes it’s another.   Aside from the singing, finding her age has been challenging—she was 25 years older than I am.  She started her singing career probably in her late 50’s and gave that Carnegie Hall Performance when she was 76.   It is not something that we, the director Michael and I, ever talked about but I suppose there is a part of me, the actor, that is aware of the passage of time.  I slowed her walk a bit and made a conscious effort to use the arms of the chairs to get up and down. I can’t explain her voice, it’s just what comes out.

How many costume changes do you make through-out the performance?

Mary Gannon Graham: I have 14 costume changes and most of them occur in the scene for the Carnegie Hall performance where Florence is singing different arias and serially dressing for each role she sings.  Florence designed her own costumes and had them custom made.  She was especially inspired by a painting called ‘Inspiration’ by Steven Foster of a winged angel and had a beautiful angel costume created for her Ave Maria aria.  Costume designer Pam Enz has really duplicated that very nicely.

Is Florence Foster Jenkins’ celebrity deserved?  

Mary Gannon Graham: She had incredible chutzpah  and did a lot to promote music.  This was the era of clubs and she was a club woman in New York, which meant she was on the boards of dozens of clubs.  She was the founder and president of the Verdi Club, a music club, and she was a celebrity within her own circle.  When she made those famous single aria recordings, she became even more popular and she believed she was popularizing really good music.  When she recorded the infamous aria “Queen of the Night,” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, she got her friends together and she played recordings of famous singers doing that aria and hers would be in the mix too and she’d ask them which one they liked best.  Most of her friends could recognize her voice and would pick her, to her delight.  When someone didn’t select her as the best, she would accuse them of not having any sense of music.

Because she promoted music so much and was such a philanthropist, I think she earned her notoriety and her fame.  And  she is more popular today worldwide than she was in her day, which is really something.  Enrico Caruso, Arturo Tuscanini, Tallulah Bankhead, and Cole Porter went to see her, not so much the general public, but she was covered in the society pages and some of her recitals were reviewed.  She didn’t give two shakes what people thought about her.  One of the great lines in the play is ‘Art cannot be ruled by caution.’  I don’t know if she actually said that, but she lived it.  If we all were our authentic selves it would be so freeing.  That’s the great lesson of this play—have courage and believe in yourself.

Mary Gannon Graham is opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins and John Shillington (left) is Cosmé McMoon, Jenkins’ witty accompanist, in Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir,” at 6th Street Playhouse through May 27, 2012. Photo: Eric Chazankin

 Did she have children or much of a family life?

Mary Gannon Graham: No, she devoted herself entirely to her career.  No one knows if she actually divorced her first husband, Mr. Jenkins.  He did give her syphilis and she lost all of her hair, was bald as an egg, and so she always wore wigs.  She was quite eccentric.  She would carry around all of her important documents, like her will, in her briefcase with her.  She didn’t trust it to be anywhere but near her and was secretive about who her voice teachers and clothing designers were.  She had a common-law husband, St. Claire Bayfield, who she married in a ceremony that wasn’t legally recognized, and they started out romantically but ended up very good friends.  They didn’t live together but wore wedding rings and, later on, he acted more like her manager than her husband.  He’s not mentioned in the play and I’m not sure why.   She promised him all kinds of money and ironically, when she died, no one could find her will, after all this carrying it around with her.  Consequently, her estate reverted to some cousins who came forward to claim her fortune.  Cosmé actually went to court and claimed that she was secretly in love with him too and had promised him this money.  He didn’t get any of it either.

In your research what are some other interesting things you’ve learned about her? 

Mary Gannon Graham: Well, the rumors about her are legend but this is what I’ve read or been told—

She collected chairs that famous dead people had sat in.  She would buy their chairs and would say that so and so sat here.

She loved Manhattans.

She loved jewelry and wore rings on several fingers at time.

She had autographed photos of famous people all over her hotel room.

She lived at the Hotel Vanderbilt in New York but, in the play, we have her living at the Ritz Carlton.

Her Carnegie Hall performance sold out and they turned 2,000 people away.  The only other two concerts that were so successful and sold out so quickly at Carnegie Hall were for Judy Garland and the Beatles.

John Shillington and Mary Gannon Graham after Friday’s opening night performance of Stephen Temperley’s “Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins,” at 6th Street Playhouse. Photo: Geneva Anderson

What we can all take away from Souvenir?

Mary Gannon Graham:  Constantin Stanislavski, the method acting teacher said, ‘Love the art within yourself, not yourself within the art.’   Florence Foster Jenkins did that.  It’s not about being good, it’s about being and trying to give the audience something that they didn’t come in the doors with.  In this case, it’s not letting other people tell you what you should and shouldn’t do and pursuing what you love with every fiber of your being.

Souvenir’s Team and Cast: Stephen Temperley’s  Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins is directed by Michael Fontaine and features Mary Gannon Graham as Florence Foster Jenkins and John Shillington as accompanist, Cosmé McMoon.

Special Event:  A post-show discussion following the Sunday, May 20, 2012, 2 p.m. performance.  San Francisco theatre writer and critic Richard Connema recalls attending the 1944 Carnegie Hall concert featuring Florence Foster Jenkins.

During the last week before he shipped out to the Pacific as an Air Force photographer during WWII, 18 year-old Richard Connema, and a few of his Air Force buddies, took the one hour train ride from Fort Dix in New Jersey to New York’s Penn Station and to the USO and got comp tickets (orchestra, no less) to see Jenkins perform at Carnegie Hall.  He recalls that the place was packed… “I’d sort of say she floated out to the stage…and she that earnestly faced the audience and began to sing.”  Hear him relate the full story at the post-show discussion.

Details:  Souvenir: A Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins runs May 11 to May 27, 2012, at 6th Street Playhouse’s Studio Theatre, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa.  Performances are at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 2 p.m. on Sundays; and at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 26, 2012.  Tickets: $15 to $25.  Order tickets by telephone at 707.523.4185, online here, or purchase at the door.  The Studio Theatre is small and advance purchase is highly recommended.  For more information:  www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

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May 13, 2012 Posted by | Opera, Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy Valentine’s Day! Big Girls Need Big Diamonds …“Cartier and America” exhibition at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor delivers

Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton at the 42nd Academy Awards on April 7, 1970, wearing the Taylor-Burton diamond in its Cartier setting in public for the first time.

World over in February, couples celebrate Valentine’s Day with thoughts of love and tokens affection.  Red roses, chocolates and poetry are standards but fine jewelry takes “Be my Valentine” to another level.  A trip to the Legion of Honor’s spectacular “Cartier and America” exhibition which runs through April 18, 2010 will set you back $20.00 ($40.00 for two) but it will fill that longing to browse amongst jewels of rare artistry and to learn about the famous people who possessed them and about Cartier, the French company that made it all possible.  Marking Cartier’s 100 years in the United States, the exhibition features a spectacular array of some 300 objects from the Belle Epoch (1899-1918), Art Deco (1918-1937), pre and postwar periods and beyond. ranging from one-of-a- kind stunners like the Star of Africa diamond to white diamond suites, to the highly-colored exotic creations of the 1920s and 1930’s, to mystery clocks whose hands seems to float in air.  And, pure luxury aside, ARThound would be remiss not to mention the cuteness factor of Cartier’s dogs and small animals for the vanity, carved of stones like smoky quartz, amethyst and rhodonite.  

Curated by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s, Martin Chapman, Curator of European Decorative Arts, the exhibition is as much about breathtaking design and engineering as it about the social history of America’s wealthy—the famous “haves” who, during the heydays of American capitalism, were obsessed with European aristocracy and refinement.  American who married royals, heiresses, Hollywood stars, and other notables all considered Cartier essential in affirming their status and giving them an essential edge out-blinging one another. A fascinating aspect of this show (which is not traveling after its run at the Legion) is that Chapman had full access to Cartier’s extensive archives and included as much detail as could be found about prominent San Franciscans and their connections with Cartier.  And several exquisite pieces that have never been exhibited before—the Duchess of Windsor’s diamond encrusted Flamingo brooch, her panther bracelet, Grace Kelly’s engagement ring—shine brightly at the Legion alongside more well-known Cartier classics.

Should you question the placement of jewelry in a fine arts museum or the inappropriate whiff of commerce surrounding any Cartier exhibition, FAMSF patron and board chair Dede Wilsey—who lent a bracelet—will answer that it is not the stones per se– but the technical skills that Cartier craftsmen brought to their work that make these luxury jewels worthy of exhibition in any museum in the world.  After examining these pieces close-up, their design, refinement and engineering are certainly worthy of high art.  It is regrettable that the highly-skilled members of the Cartier design team remain anonymous under the ever-powerful Cartier brand.  When the company was formed, these artisans started out at age 14 and labored for 10 years with Cartier before they were able to work on a piece alone.  Nowadays, they start at age 21, after studying at design school.   

Cartier in Paris—a bold move to establish a signature style 

Founded in Paris in 1847, the House of Cartier originally sold a wide range of luxury goods made by others, including luxury jewelry made by several local Parisian ateliers.  Everything changed in 1899, when it moved to rue de la Paix (right next to Worth, the most influential Parisian fashion house), set up its own design studio at these new headquarters and developed a signature style for its own jewelry. 

Rose and Lily Corsage Ornament, Cartier Paris, 1906, platinum, round old- and rose-cut diamonds, millegrain setting, 19.5 x 29 cm. Sold to Mary Scott Townsend, Cartier Collection, CL 134A06, Nick Welsh © Cartier

Cartier rejected the popular Art Nouveau style which was deemed static and incapable of much evolution in terms of unique jewelry production and introduced its “garland” style inspired by the neoclassical style of the neoclassical-period which emphasized tassels, ribbon-bows and dangling glittering diamond pendants.  Cartier’s biggest and most risky move was introducing platinum over the traditional gold and silver as its preferred setting material.  Platinum’s greater stability allowed more diamonds to be set in a piece in a small area and enabled the number of articlulations to be increased without endangering the global solidity of the piece. It was also tarnish-free. Tiaras could now hold thousands of tiny diamonds. With the advent of electrical lighting which transformed the interplay between light and jewels and the availability of relatively cheap small diamonds from the new finds in South Africa, Cartier’s risk-taking paid off.   Cartier quickly became a de rigueur destination point for European royals and for wealthy Americans visiting Paris whose conspicuous consumption was targeted towards emulating European aristocracy.

Even as the royal courts of Europe were undergoing their final moments, Cartier was outfitting American women with diamonds mounted in the refined Louis XVI style inspired by French royal jewels of the 1700’s.  The early galleries house a dazzling array of Cartier tiaras, brooches, pendant necklaces and stomachers (brooches worn over the breast or stomach in the 17th and 18th centuries).   Mrs. Townsend’s “devant de corsage” “Rose and Lily corsage ornament” commissioned to Cartier Paris, 1906 -is exceptional in its craftsmanship.  3-D sprays of blooming lilies are entwined in a garland of lifelike roses; it  is sculpted entirely diamonds in the taste of the late eighteenth century.

In this bygone era of luxury steamship travel, glittering balls and society debuts, American socialites such as railway and coal heiress Mary Scott Townsend of Washington D.C. ordered elaborate diamond-studded tiaras and wore them.  In fact, Cartier’s archives reveal dozens of orders for diamond-studded tiaras from the 100 or so Americans who married into British aristocracy– and thus were technically entitled to wear them–and from others who had no European royal or aristocratic marriages.  Martin Chapman explains in the exhibition catalog that tiaras remained fashionable with America’s upper crust up until WWI but there are several instances of Americans, like Marjorie Merriweather Post (Post cereal fortune heiress and formerly Mrs. E.F. Hutton) who had no connection to royalty  but wore tiaras through the 1950’s and 1960’s.  These women complimented their tiaras with substantial bling that covered their head, neck and bosoms so that they literally became top-heavy with diamonds. 

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III, ca. 1909 wearing her 1909 Cartier necklace in its original form, a 1909 Cartier tiara amd 1904 Cartier rose brooch from Princess Mathilde.

A 1909 photograph of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III shows her wearing it all– a stunning Cartier diamond-set rose brooch from Princess Mathilde, the cultural icon of France during the Second Empire, a necklace she commissioned from Cartier in 1909 of huge hexagonal diamond pendants, and a grand “Russian style” Cartier tiara from 1909. 

All that survives from her necklace is a single hexagonal

Pendant, Cartier Paris, 1909, Diamonds and platinum, 11.9 x 4.7 cm. Sold to Grace Wilson (Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III) Cartier Collection, CL 269A09.

 pendant, which at 4 3/4 inches in length is substantial in itself.  Thanks to Cartier’s thorough records, explained Chapman, we can reconstruct how most Cartier pieces looked in their original forms.  From the early 1900’s, a photograph and a plaster cast of each piece was made as it left the Cartier workshop in order to enable craftsmen to copy, repair or alter the piece at some future date. The plaster cast of Vanderbilt necklace is displayed beside the portrait, along with the pendant.   These extensive archives also reveal the fascinating and successive transformations a piece of jewelry went through due to change in ownership or evolving taste.  

Because many pieces from the old world were sold through Cartier to the new world, Cartier served as a bridge between the old European and the new American aristocracy explained Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s director of image, style and heritage.  Some of the famed jewelry of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napolean Bonaparte III, was sold off by Third Republic and bought and traded by Cartier.  Marie-Antoinette’s famed pear-shaped diamond earrings were purchased from Cartier by Mrs. Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1928

Pendant brooch, Cartier London, 1923; altered 1928, Cartier New York. Emeralds, diamonds, platinum and enamel, 20.3 x 5.1 cm, Hillwood estate, Museum & Gardens, bequest of Marjorie Merriweather Post, 1973.

Post was one of Cartier’s most important American clients.  Her stunning emerald and diamond pendant shoulder brooch from the 1920’s, which graces the catalog and exhibition poster,  is one of the most spectacular pieces Cartier ever made, incorporating fabulous Indian carved emeralds, one of which dates from India’s Mughal era.  She had Cartier New York alter its top to the buckle in 1928. 

Cartier’s New York Store—paid for in pearls

To accommodate its clients, Cartier opened branches in London (1902) and New York City (1909).  After securing a rather blasé second floor space on Fifth Avenue, Pierre, the second of the three Cartier brothers, finagled the Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street Plant townhouse for the Cartier flagship store from financier Morton F. Plant.  Plant sold his mansion for a dollar and a stunning two strand Cartier natural pearl necklace valued at $1,000,000, which he gave to his wife. The New York store initially attracted clientele that included Gilded Age heiresses like Evalyn Walsh McLean, Daisy Fellowes, Barbara Hutton and a bevy of Vanderbilt women, all of whom deemed Cartier the essential measure of refinement.

The San Francisco Connection

Exploring the connection between San Franciscans and Cartier was a priority of curator Martin Chapman.  The only San Franciscan found in Cartier’s Paris archives with a San Francisco address is Mrs. Newstatter, wife of a clothing manufacturer on Market Street, who in 1908 purchased a diamond studded choker with a big pendant underneath.  There are, however,  indirect connections to San Francisco.   

American-born Lady Granard, the 8th Countess of Granard, was raised in San Francisco as Beatrice Mills, the daughter of financier and philanthropist Ogden Mills (Mills College, Millbrae).  She was a regular client of Cartier London and was particularly fond of enormous tiaras, ordering three between 1922 and 1937.  

A life-size Giovanni Boldini portrait from 1905, owned by the Legion, depicts one of the Cartier’s San Francisco’s clients of the Gilded Age, Virginia Graham Fair Vanderbilt, “Birdie,” the second of William K. Vanderbilt Jr.’s five wives.  There are several pieces of her jewelry throughout the exhibition but it is not known if she is wearing Cartier in the portrait.  She was born Virginia Fair in San Francisco and was the daughter of Silver King James Fair, (“Slippery Jim”) who made a fortune overnight off the rich Comstock Lode in the Virginia City, Nevada, the largest deposit of gold and silver ever found.  In the late 1800’s, Fair (then Senator Fair) purchased the hillside at Mason and California Streets.  After he died, Virginia and her sister Tessie built the famous Fairmont Hotel in 1902, the jewel in the crown of Nob Hill.

Scarab buckle brooch, Cartier London, 1924, Ancient Egyptian faience, smoky quartz, enamel, diamonds, emeralds, platinum, and gold, 5 x 13 cm. Cartier Collection, CL 32A24

Art Deco: Cartier’s Shining Glory

During the interwar period,or ” Art Deco era” (1918-1937), Cartier established the repertoire of Art Deco for the upper crust with its display at the definitive Paris exposition of 1925, the world’s largest international fair dedicated to the display of modern decorative arts.  Cartier did not exhibit with jewelers, but anchored itself in high fashion at the Pavillon de l’Elegance, alongside leading couture  houses like Worth and Jenny and dictated the “new” style–tiaras worn low on the brow, long ear pendants, a large brooch at the bust and a necklace slung across the chest that fastened to the dress at the back.  New geometric designs incorporated pearls and diamonds with strong bursts of specific color combinations—brilliant green from emeralds, a signature Cartier coral (in a unique shade between pink angel skin and the darker Mediterranean coral) and black onyx.  

Hindu necklace, Carter, Paris, special order, 1936, altered in 1963, platinum, white gold, marquise-, baguette-, and round old-cut diamonds, thirteen briolette-cut sapphires weighing 146.9 carat in total, two leaf-shaped carved sapphires, 50.8 and 42.45 carats, sapphire beads, one sapphire cabochon, square carved emeralds, fluted and smooth emerald beads, and emerald cabochons, 43cm. Nick Welsh, Cartier Collection, © Cartier NE28A36

Exoticism was a strong force in Cartier design in the 1920’s and 1930’and was important as counterbalance to the hard-edged International Modernism of the 1930’s.  A number of pieces on display are inspired by decorative arts of Egypt, India, China and Japan.  The discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, for example, inspired several Cartier pieces, artworks, that incorporated fragments of actual Egyptian artifacts.  Three faience buckle-brooches, never exhibited together before, shine in their elegance, incorporating scarabs with deco style. One buckle was owned by Cole Porter’s wife, an important client.

The “tutti frutti” design that Cartier pioneered in its Indian style jewelry was coveted for its vibrant mix of emeralds, rubies and sapphires—these pieces seem to scream “I’m terribly expensive” and “I’m playfully beautiful.”    The “Hindu” necklace commissioned by Daisy Fellowes, the Singer sewing machine heiress, in 1936 is unparalleled.  Modeled after a 1935 Cartier design for an Indian maharajah—the necklace has over 1,000 stones—cut diamonds and sapphires and carved ruby, sapphire and emerald leaves imported from India.  Interesting note—these jewels were made for and worn by males in India but experienced a sex change when they came to the West where they were coveted, custom-ordered and worn by American women. 

Cartier actually established a trading post in Delhi, India in 1911, to buy emeralds and to solidify relationships with important Indian maharajas who were strong clients. Rainero explained that gemological studies have confirmed that “Indian emeralds” from the Mughal Empire (1556 to 1707) were actually mined in Columbia in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and brought to India by the Portuguese who controlled India’s harbors.  The history of jewelry is thus entwined with world trade and economic history and sales transactions have been telling indicators. 

Mystery Clocks

Cartier’s magical mystery clocks are its largest and most complex artworks and eight are in the exhibition. On prominent display, as you first enter the show, is the Belikan Portique Mystery Clock in the form of a Shinto Shrine Gate, bought in 1923 by opera singer Ganna Walska, second wife of Chicago industrialist Harold F. McCormick (1872-1941),

Portique mystery clock, Cartier Paris, 1923. Rock crystal, onyx, gold, enamel, diamonds, platinum, coral, and clock movements, 35 x 23 x 13 cm, sold to Ganna walska, Cartier Collectio, CM 09A23

 inventor and manufacturer of the harvest reaper.  This clock was the first of six in a series of portique style rock crystal gates created between 1923 and 1925.  The clock is transparent and its platinum and diamond hands seem suspended in air as they float around the dial.  How and where was the watch movement be hidden?   Gazing intently at the front and rear of the clock doesn’t provide any clues.  These mystery clocks were the result of collaboration between Louis Cartier and clockmaker Maurice Couët that started around 1912.  The designs varied but there were five principle types that were produced in small lots with slight variations. The designs grew more complex and exotic over time, progressing to figural clocks which incorporated intricately carved Chinese figures, usually made of jade.  The hands either floated on or behind glass with no apparent mechanism.  In the case of the portique clock, the hands are mounted on glass discs and the disc is driven from the movement hidden in the lintel, above the pillars.  A team of lapidaries, horologists, jewelers and designers spent up to a year creating a single clock.  Today, just a few artisans know how to make this movement. 

Ganna Walska was a notable Cartier patron who was profiled colorfully in a 1934 Time Magazine article “Countess Reincarnate” describing her opera performance as one that “should be seen and not heard.”  In 1941, she bought the Santa Barbara “Cuesta Linda” estate and transitioned it to “Lotusland,” a retreat with extensive botanical gardens. (See hilarious 2006 Wall Street Journal article “What the Diva Wrought.”)  So determined was she to complete this magnum opus that she auctioned off her Cartier jewelry to finance and endow Lotusland.

Great Transactions– Historical Diamonds

Cartier’s legacy goes hand in hand with the sale and resale of famous historical diamonds—remarkable diamonds whose value goes beyond the tradtional perameeters of valuation because they are a part of history.

The Star of South Africa, prominantly displayed at the Legion, was the first important large white diamond to come from South Africa and is credited with turning the tides of fortune in South Africa .  In 1869, it was picked up by a Griqua shepherd boy near the Orange River who traded it to a Boer settler for five hundred sheep, ten oxen, and a horse.  It weighed 83.5 carats in rough crystal form and was cut into a 47.69-carat old style pear-cut diamond.  The stone was later called the “Dudley diamond” after the Earl of Dudley who purchased it for his wife, Lady Dudley, who wore it as a hair ornament surrounded by 95 smaller diamonds. The stone was also owned by J.P.  Morgan before it made its way in 1917 to Cartier, New York, and was reset as a magnificent brooch.

In 1912, Pierre Cartier sold the legendary 45.52 carat Hope Diamond–the rarest and most perfect blue diamond in existance–for $180,000 to Evalyn Walsh McLean.  She was the wife of Ned McLean, wealthy publisher of the Washington Post, and the only daughter of Thomas Walsh, an immigrant miner and prospector turned millionaire.  The diamond’s last private owner, she delighted in flaunting a jewel that many thought cursed and wore it flamboyantly until her death in 1947.  Harry Winston Inc.,  of  New York City, purchased her entire jewelry collection, including the Hope Diamond, from her estate in 1949 and in November, 1958, donated it to the Smithsonian Institution, where it almost immediately became its premier attraction.  The Hope Diamond is not on display.

Richard Burton’s spectacular gifts of jewels to Elizabeth Taylor were media events that marked the 1960’s.  His most famous purchase was the 69.42-carat pear-shape diamond, later named the Taylor-Burton Diamond from Cartier in 1969.  Certified by the GIA’s Gem Trade Laboratory, the stone was graded as Internally Flawless, F Color.  The diamond is not at the Legion but the story is worth repeating.

In a highly publicized auction, Burton bid on the necklace for Liz but was outbid by Cartier whose winning bid resulted in the stone initially being named the “Cartier” diamond.  Right after the sale, Burton was determined to acquire the diamond from Cartier and offered to buy the stone. Cartier agreed to sell it to him under the condition that it could be displayed at its Chicago and New York stores as the “Cartier.”  Of course, everyone in America knew the story, and more than 6000 people a day flocked to Cartier’s New York store to see Liz’s rock. Taking advantage of the terms of purchase that allowed them to re-name the stone, Liz and Dick re-christened it the “Taylor-Burton” diamond when they took possession.  Liz wore the diamond the first time in public for Princess Grace’s 40th birthday party in Monaco, and the diamond’s transport was a media event in itself.  In 1970, she had Cartier re-mount it into a necklace and wore it to the Oscars in 1970, where she was a media sensation.  Following her 1978 divorce from Burton, Taylor sold the diamond for $5,000,000 to NY jeweler Henry Lambert and used part of the proceeds to build a hospital in Botswana.  Its current owner is Lebanese diamond dealer Robert Mouawad.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor— A Panther Phenomena

Flamingo clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1940, Diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, citrine, and platinum, 10 x 6 cm, California collection.

Wallis Simpson, the controversial Duchess of Windsor (1896-1986), was an American socialite whose third husband was Prince Edward, Duke of Windsor and former King Edward VIII of England.  The King’s desire to marry a twice-divorced American with two living ex-husbands caused a constitutional crisis in England that ultimately led to his abdication in December 1936.  After abdicating, he became the Duke of Windsor and married Simpson six months later, who became the Duchess of Windsor but was denied the style “Her Royal Highness.”

The Duchess made the Paris Couture best-dressed list in 1935 and remained there for 40 years, famous for her elegant but simply-tailored clothes and chic jewels.  She was Cartier’s most important client during this period after her marriage and several of her masterpieces are at the Legion.  “She was willing to be quite cutting edge,” explained Pierre Rainero, “ to wear things that other women would not wear and she wore then very well.”   She amassed a huge collecion of important jewelry that was sold at auction in 1987 for a shattering $50 million.

Rainero went on to explain that, usually, Cartier’s most daring objects were made for stock, and that special orders that adhere strictly to the request of customers are almost always “looking backwards.  The Duchess of Windsor, however, fell under the category of a notable exception—a client whose strong character led to her strong pieces that were an expression of her character.  The duke and duchess forged a special relationship with Cartier’s Jeanne Toussaint (1887-1978) who had been in charge of Cartier’s precious jewelry since the mid-1930’s and all the Duchess’s most important jewelry were collaborations between the duke, the duchess and Toussaint.

Panther clip brooch, Cartier Paris, 1949. Sapphires, diamonds, yellow diamonds, platinum, and white gold, 6 x 3.7 cm, sold to HRH Duke of Windsor, Cartier Collection, CL 53A49

The Duchess’s Flamingo clip brooch (1940) is arguably her most famous piece of custom- designed Cartier jewelry and is exhibited at the Legion for the first time.  The piece was  fabricated from the Windsor’s own collection of bangles with the collaboration of Toussaint. The flamingo’s body and long stilt legs are of pave diamonds while the vibrant bristling plumage is fabricated of calibré-cut rubies, sapphires and emeralds.   The attitude is “quite daring” in this landmark piece, explained  Rainero.  “It has a real sense of humor for a Duchess and it marks the end of certain period, as it was delivered to her just days before the Germans invaded Paris in June, 1940.”   In the late 1980’s, the flamingo’s status as an icon was secured when it became a knockoff by costume jeweler Kenneth J. Lane   The original was sold at auction in 1987, privately acquired.

Another of the Duchess’s iconic stunners is her diamond and sapphire panther clip brooch, bought as a stock item from Cartier Paris in 1949.  The regal panther is crouched in a life-like pose on a perfectly round 152.35 carat cabochon star sapphire.  It was this very panther that launched the “big cat craze, ” which swept up the duchess herself.  Her 1952 Panther bracelet, also exhibited at the Legion for the first time, is set with calibré-cut black onyx and diamonds and is so finely articulated that it wraps around the wrist like fabric.  Other jewelry collectors, such as Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton followed suit.  She had Cartier make her a draping Tiger brooch and ear clips (also on display) of yellow diamonds and onyx resembling the ram’s skin suspended from the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece.

Flamboyant Jewels for Film Stars

María Félix in 1975 wearing her 1975 Cartier crocodile necklace and 1967 Cartier emerald ear clips.

The show’s final gallery includes some delightful short film clips of movie stars who, over time, garnered media attention as the new aristocrats and who famously wore Cartier.   Their famous jewels are on display too.  Gloria Swanson is wearing her Cartier diamond bracelets from “Sunet Blvd.”   Tallulah Bankhead surrenders her Cartier for bait in  “Lifeboat.”   Gace Kelly polishes her 10 carat emerald-diamond engagement ring (from Prince Rainier of Monaco)  in her last movie “High Society.”   And, while poolside in Cap Ferrat, in 1957, a gorgeous young Liz Taylor, captured in a home movie, gleefully recevies ruby and diamond earrings, a necklace, and bracelet from husband Mike Todd.

María Félix, the wildly beautiful siren from the golden age of Mexican cinema, is famous for having turned down the small film roles offered by Hollywood’s Cecil B. DeMille with the reply, “I was not born to carry a basket.” 

Crocodile Necklace, Cartier Paris, 1975, gold, 1,023 brilliant-cut yellow diamonds, two navette-shaped emerald cabochons (eyes), 1,060 emeralds, and two ruby cabochons (eyes). Cartier Collection, © Cartier

Félix found the perfect expression of her bold personality in the huge snake and crocodile pieces she commissioned from Cartier Paris. Her 1968 snake necklace, of platinum and white gold, is encrusted with 178.21 carats of diamonds and finished in the mille-gras. 

 Pure shock factor aside, the necklace demonstrates Cartier’s meticulous attention to detail.  When handled, it mimics the slinkiness and weight of a real snake with hundreds of individual sections that are hinged internally.  Its underbelly feels slithery due to gorgeous enameling that also protects the wearer’s neck.

Her 1975 detachable double crocodile necklace features two baby crocs—one of 1,000 yellow diamonds and the other with over 1,000 circular cut emeralds–that wrap around the neck with heads resting at the center of the throat.  As the legend goes, one day in 1975, Félix visited Cartier Paris absolutely unexpectedly.  She did not come alone but had a baby crocodile in a jar with her and requested that Cartier make her a necklace in the shape of the baby reptile and not to dally as it was growing by the day.  In 2006, to pay tribute to Felix and her necklace, Cartier debuted its La Dona de Cartier collection, featuring the La Dona de Cartier watch, crafted in gold with half-moon, reptilian-like links, something on a more affordable scale for the masses.   But, as we all know, the real Cartier, the Cartier of legends, does not cater to the masses.

February 13, 2010 Posted by | Art, Legion of Honor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment