Want A Major Motion Picture About You? Be Dead And Famous, Ladies

Neta Snook and Amelia Earhart in front of Earh...
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Why do women have to be dead and famous to be the star of a popular film? So asks New York Times‘ film critic Manohla Dargis in today’s paper.

The latest two entries are Amelia Earhart, in a new film played by Hilary Swank and Coco Chanel, played by Audrey Tautou. Safely buried, the messier details of their lives hidden in the end-notes or indices of their multiple biographies, only then, Dargis argues, can women be resurrected and burnished to Hollywood’s standards. Sometimes the gutsiest and most accomplished women have made some decidedly controversial choices about other areas of their lives. Seems obvious to me, but I think that also scares off producers.

There are so many women, dead and alive, whose lives and choices intrigue me. I’d be happy to pay $12 for a well-made movie about: Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Canadian suffragist Nellie McClung, birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, social activist Dorothy Day, women’s wear maker Lena Bryant, physician and surgeon Virginia Apgar, scientist Marie Curie, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, journalists and war corespondents Marguerite Higgins and Martha Gellhorn, shooter Annie Oakley, explorer Isabella Bird and Gertrude Bell, the first woman to work for British military intelligence in 1915, an expert on the Mideast.

Who would you like to see a film about?

The Ladies (and Men) Behind The Labels; A Few Labor Day Kudos

Lion cubs playing in the Serengeti
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Do you know of Martin & Osa, a national chain of 28 clothing stores, elegant casual wear, a bit like J. Crew, usually found only in malls? I figured the name was made-up, since J. Crew isn’t a real person. Not so.

This fall, the Martin & Osa stores are finally honoring their namesakes, Martin and Osa Johnson, a husband and wife team whose books and films brought the world into the homes of Americans long before television. The stores are now carrying their best-selling book “I Married Adventure”, whose original zebra-patterned cover remains a favorite accessory in shelter magazine layouts. Their museum is in Chanute, Kansas and their website explains:

From 1917-1936, the Johnsons set up camp in some of the most remote areas of the world and provided an unmatched photographic record of the wildernesses of Kenya, the Congo, British North Borneo and the Solomon and New Hebrides Islands. Their equipment was the most advanced motion pictures apparatus of the day, some of it designed by Martin Johnson himself.

It seems a little sad to me that, in a nation often obsessed with designer labels, some of their best and most interesting backstories are lost to history, while multi-million dollar PR machines make sure we know the latest, not-so-great “stars” vying for our dollars. Lane Bryant, once a popular line of clothing for plus-size women, is named — mistakenly — for Lena Bryant, a Lithuanian immigrant whose name was misspelled by a bank official when she went for a loan. Widowed after the birth of her son by her second husband, David Bryant, a jeweler, in 1898 she sold her diamond earrings, bought a sewing machine and started making lingerie in Manhattan for pregnant women. I love her spirit and determination.

Nancy Talbot, who died August 30 at the age of 89, created a successful catalog and chain of red-doored stores selling a quality, Nantucket-y, classic look nonetheless affordable for many women.  At worst boring, at best classic, well-priced and durable, the clothes and accessories have a democratic spirit, bringing a clean, crisp style to a  mass market. There really were Brooks Brothers, the sons of the founder of that store, begun in 1818. As many know, the Lacoste crocodile on that 70-year-old sportswear line, named for a famous French tennis player, Rene Lacoste, honors his nickname, “le crocodile.”

And, in the town just south of where I live are the headquarters of Eileen Fisher, whose comfortable, simple clothing makes up an embarrassingly large part of my wardrobe, from my go-to washed silk LBD to a charcoal wool winter coat I look forward to wearing every year. There’s an inherent modesty to the clothing I like that reflects the ethos of the woman who designs it. I saw her recently, sitting at the table next to me at a restaurant beside her offices. I tried not stare, but it was so odd, and pleasant, to see the real person behind a brand so well-known and, by some, so well-loved.

This long weekend, I’m finishing up a terrific biography of Coco Chanel, a ferociously ambitious orphan whose name is still synonymous with Parisian chic, many decades later. She was clearly not a terribly nice woman, but what a survivor! A new film, Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, opens in theaters this month, focused on her early years in business.

I wear Prada and Gucci, but only their perfumes, and not because of the brand names, but because people I don’t even know very well happily sniff me, asking, “What is that wonderful scent?” If that’s as close as I get to wearing a Big Name Label, OK by me. It’s their stories I find most interesting anyway.

Reading Books For Pleasure. Radical Idea!

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Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. — Groucho Marx

Can you live a day — a week, a month, a year — without reading a book? Whether on a Kindle, borrowed from a friend or the library (i.e. depriving us authors of our desperately needed royalties), bought for 50 cents at a yard sale or thrift store, or, maybe, purchased at full price in hardcover, are you still reading books at all?

Gotta love the irony that the film (which, of course, began with a blog) “Julie and Julia” has now turned Julia Child’s cookbook into a best-seller. “This was a secret dream,” Nora Ephron, the film’s writer and director, recently told The New York Times, “that the movie would sell a lot of books. I’m completely delighted that people are walking out of the multiplex and into the bookstore.”

The Wall Street Journal recently ran this essay on why so many of us turned away from modernist novels — with all the allure of eating overcooked vegetables in their pitiless difficulty — and started reading fun stuff about vampires instead. The New York Times, in a front-page story this weekend, focused on a schoolteacher taking the radical (?) step of letting her students read what they prefer, albeit nudging some of them toward tougher and more challenging material, instead of the same-old “To Kill A Mockingbird” and its reading-list equivalents. I don’t have kids, but if they did, they’d have grown up as I did, in a home where every shelf is filled with books, from reference works on art, design and architecture to cookbooks, travel guides and fiction. A life without books is, for me, a life without oxygen. Continue reading “Reading Books For Pleasure. Radical Idea!”