The Garden Party

Calla Lily DialogueArleen Solomon RotchinComment

You are invited to join me and five inspirational women to The Calla Lily Dialogues Garden Party.  My guests include:

Diana Athill (1917) British publisher, editor, memoirist.  ‘I think being ‘the other woman’ suited me down to the ground,’ she says.  ‘In fact, I think it was what I was best at.’  

Diana Athill at the old People’s Home where she has lived for several years. Photo by Sarah Lee for  the Guardian  

Diana Athill at the old People’s Home where she has lived for several years.
Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian 

But Somewhere Towards the End, a series of reflections on her life and love affairs and the vagaries of growing old has been translated into 8 languages and now she chuckles, I have a serious tax problem. Never thought that would happen!

Judy Chicago (1939) American artist, writer, educator and leading figure in feminist art. She is best known for her project The Dinner Party (1979), an installation of a triangle of tables with elaborate, personalized place settings for 39 female figures from Ishtar Virginia Woolf.   It was denounced as ‘genitalia served up on plates.             

Photo by Donald Woodman, Judy’s third husband        

Photo by Donald Woodman, Judy’s third husband        

Ms. Chicago, a bright ginger-head, arrived to the party wearing gold sneakers, purple glasses and a gauzy top with hot pink sleeves.  She was carrying a copy of her 1975 memoir Through the Flower, my Struggles as a Woman Artist.                   

Louise Bourgeois (1911) French born-American sculptor who gained fame only late in her long career when her abstract sculptures had an effect on the work of younger women artists.  

Bourgeois is seen carrying this object, nonchalantly tucked under her arm in a portrait by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Bourgeois is seen carrying this object, nonchalantly tucked under her arm in a portrait by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Perhaps the most provocative was Fillette (1968) a large, detached latex phallus. 

Shirley MacLaine (1934) dancer, actress, author.  She and her husband had an open marriage both having affairs, then finally divorcing after 30 years in 1982.  Although she was nominated many times, her only Oscar was for Terms of Endearment.    ‘I’m Over All That and Other Confessions’ is her 12th book.    

 Dean Martin with Shirley MacLaine (1958) Allan Grant/Life Picture

Shirley was only female member of The Rat Pack and considered their mascot.

Deborah Turbeville (1932) American fashion editor for Mademoiselle (1966) turned photographer. In 2009 Women’s Wear Daily wrote that Deborah Turbeville transformed fashion photography into avant-garde art.  She was the only woman and the only American in the triumvirate that changed fashion photographer from sedate to shocking.

Photo from American Vogue, 1975 ‘The Bath House’

Photo from American Vogue, 1975 ‘The Bath House’

We are sitting in a circle, sipping vodka martinis and chewing the fat. On my right (my good ear) is Deborah.  She is the guest I have the most in common with because of the many years I spent in photography.  

I tell her I own her coffee table book Wallflower and I adore the way she draws the viewer into otherworldly environments.

‘Yes, my photos walk a tightrope.  I am not a fashion photographer, not a photo-journalist, and I don’t do portraits.  I guess my photos are a little like the women you see in them.  A little out of balance with their surroundings, waiting anxiously for something to happen.  They seem to be uncomfortable with the harsh present.  I have done a lot of fashion photography in my career, but I never thought the clothes were the main thing.  I push the fashion part of it in the background when I work and focus more on the identities of the character.’

‘Yes, the clothes in your photographs are almost beside the point,’ Judy Chicago chimes in.  ‘The outfits are barely visible.’

‘Women don’t just sit there in my images.  I go into a woman’s private world.  Who is she, what is her mood and why is she so sad?’  

‘Hanging unanswered in the air, of course,’ I say.

By the late 1970s, articles on photography had begun to refer to ‘the Deborah Turbeville look as ‘not the kind that mother used to admire in Vogue.'

Chicago, like Turbeville, also considers herself part of a long line of female artists misunderstood by the establishment. 

 In her thick Chicago accent, she says to no one in particular, ‘I was raised in a family that believed in equal rights for women, which was very unusual for that time.  The bad news was they never bothered to tell me that not everyone else believed in that too.’  

Louise has a question. ‘Do you think the position of female artists has changed since you began your career?’

‘Here’s the good news, women artists as well as artists of colour can be themselves in their work in ways that were unimaginable when I was young.  Would you agree, Louise?  At the same time at an institutional level, which is where my efforts are aimed, there has been little change.  The only monumental work at the Brooklyn Museum that is expressly women-centered, I believe, is The Dinner Party. I’m not kvetching, ladies.  I’m into making art that is thought-provoking.’ 

‘Yes, I’ll have another vodka martini,’ says Shirley. ‘Well, girls, here we are vibrant and totally lucid and do you know why?  Because none of us have slowed down and retired.  I feel 50 today!’

‘I recently saw your latest movie.  It was wonderful.’

‘Thank you.  I loved playing Elsa.  She lied about everything but she certainly introduced Fred to La Dolce Vita- the sweet life.  I adore playing bitches.   I look at my own life and as far as my work and stuff, I’ve done everything and I just want to keep on doing what I’m doing. 

I’ve signed on to play Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora, the Countess of Gantham on Downton Abbey. My character arrives from New York for a family wedding and creates chaos on the stuffy formalities of the English gentry.  It’s such a delicious part to play. 

Shirley MacLaine has joined “Downton Abbey,” as Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora, Countess of Grantham.Photo courtesy of Carnival Film.

Shirley MacLaine has joined “Downton Abbey,” as Martha Levinson, the mother of Cora, Countess of Grantham.Photo courtesy of Carnival Film.

‘And you, Diana Athill, are the shining example of ageing with dignity, grace and refined intelligence,’ Shirley says to Diana.  ‘My theory is that you have inspired admiration because you have lived a life which many might wish to have led had they been less cautious, or less hidebound by convention.’  

‘You think so?  But actually I led it rather secretly.  I didn’t make a stand against my family when I did things they would have disapproved of.   My first flight from convention was with an RAF pilot with whom I fell in love with at 15 years old.  He took me to see a friend of his who he said was ‘a pansy’ but a lovely man.  He had a cold and was in bed.  So we got in on either side of him and there we lay drinking whisky and I thought I’m in bed with a pansy!  Drinking whiskey!  This is wonderful!  This is the life!  And instead of being shocked, I was delighted.’

She looks around the circle and she laughs and says, ‘Here’s a good one for you, girls.  ‘My long-time lover the playwright Barry Reckford moved in with me and then after some time our relationship evolved into something more like a friendship,  so he brought his young girlfriend in too, for 6 years in the 1970s.  We all got along famously.  He was very against possessiveness and so was I.’  

Four years ago, when Diana turned 91 years old, she moved from her beloved apartment to ‘an old person’s home’ as she calls it.  It was the most painful decision she’s ever made but she says it gradually became liberating.  ‘No more shopping, no more electricity bills, no more laundry. Getting old is often terrible really but if you’re lucky, if you keep your health, if your aches and pains aren’t too bad, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a perfectly agreeable life discovering new and nice things.’

Louise Bourgeois had fallen asleep in her chair.  She was snoring!