The estimable Denver Nicks and I drove an excellent Buick Regal TourX wagon some of the Oregon Trail (well, he drove, I superintended,) and the result is the best damned bit of writing you're ever likely to see on Uproxx:
When asked to list my favorite authors or books, I’m sometimes criticized for not including enough (or indeed any,) women. When I say that it’s because I like funny books, said critics can get pretty angry.
Of course I don't mean that women aren't funny - of course they are (or rather, can be, just as with men,) but a few unfortunate historical factors come together in a kind of Venn diagram for why the shelf of great female humorists is lamentably small. First, there aren’t that many funny authors of any sex - I think humorists are the unsung heroes of literature, almost always written off by critics as unserious and therefore not literary. Second, for most of history the proportion of male to female authors of any kind has been ludicrously unbalanced. Third, a sense of humor is just one of the many qualities of character which has for a very long time been roundly discouraged in women but encouraged in men. I fear generations of readers have suffered an unknowable misfortune in the many funny books which went unwritten by women.
But of course there are funny women authors: Nancy Mitford, Flannery O’Conner and Jane Austen spring immediately to mind. Unfortunately they’re few and far between. This is why I was so happy when someone recommended Betty MacDonald to me. I’d never heard of MacDonald, but she was an incredibly popular author in the 1940’s and 1950’s for her comical memoirs and children’s books, selling millions of copies and gaining national fame (as well as a dedicated fan-base in the UK.)
One the best things about MacDonald’s memoirs is that they are explicitly about the life of women of her time and indeed what might be considered uniquely female experiences, but the humor is confidently universal, never boxing itself in by struggling to seem self-consciously “feminine” in style or target or intended audience. This seems to me a very rare and bold and wonderful thing for a female author to do in the middle of the last century. Or any time, probably.
Her first and most famous memoir, “The Egg and I,” tells the story of young Betty, newly married, following her mother’s advice for marriage and agreeing to support the career and wishes of her husband, whatever they may be. Unfortunately for Betty, during their honeymoon her new husband Bob announces that what he’s really always wanted to do is start an egg farm in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. Knowing nothing about farming, egg or otherwise, but desiring a happy marriage at any cost, Betty agrees and the two take up residence in a small leaky cabin somewhere in the thickly-wooded mountains of Washington State.
What ensues is Betty’s deep-end plunge into the worlds of crop rotation, animal husbandry, bear defense, and foraging added on to the traditional wifely duties of cooking, cleaning, and birthing and raising children, all while her husband, increasingly invested body and soul into the raising of their little egg empire, grows more and more estranged from her life and needs.
Like Jerome K. Jerome, MacDonald, while always unimpeachably funny, occasionally digs into her toolbox to really impress the audience and set a scene with vivid description:
I watched mornings turn pale green, then saffron, then orange, then flame colored while the sky glittered with stars and a sliver of a golden moon hung quietly. I watched a blazing sun vault over a mountain and leave such a path of glory behind that the windows of mountain homes like ours glowed blood red until dark and even the darkness was tinged and wore a cloak of purple instead of the customary deep blue. Every window of our house framed a vista so magnificent that our ruffled curtains were as inappropriate frames as tatted edges on a Van Gogh. In every direction, wherever we went we came to the blue softly curving Sound with its misty horizons, slow passing freighters and fat waddling ferries. The only ugliness we saw was the devastation left by the logging companies. Whole mountains left naked and embarrassed, their every scar visible for miles. Lovely mountain lakes turned into plain ponds beside a dusty road, their crystal water muddy brown with slashing and rubbish.
I loved the flat pale blue winter sky that followed a frosty night. I loved the early frosty mornings when the roofs of the chicken houses and the woodshed glowed phosphorescently and the smoke of Bob’s pipe trailed along behind him and the windows of the house beamed at me from under their eaves and Stove’s smoke spiraled thinly against the black hills.
Another specific talent of MacDonald's are her sometimes mouth-watering accounts of food to rival M.F.K. Fisher:
I accepted as ordinary fare pheasant, quail, duck, cracked crab, venison, butter clams, oyster, brook trout, salmon, fried chicken and mushrooms. At first Bob and I gorged ourselves and I wrote letters home that sounded like pages ripped from a gourmand’s diary, but there was so much of everything and it was so inexpensive and so easy to get that it was inevitable that we should expect to eat like kings. Chinese pheasant was so plentiful that Bob would take his gun, saunter down the road toward a neighbor’s grain field and shoot two… and come sauntering home again.
But best of all, in the great tradition of humorists like Mark Twain, MacDonald’s writing shines in the dialogue and dialects of her characters, no more so than in the mouths of her neighbors, the ever-cussing Mrs. Kettle and her lazy lisping husband Paw Kettle:
Mrs. Kettle began most of her sentences with Jeeeeeesus Key-rist and had a stock disposal for everything of which she did not approve, or any nicety of life which she did not possess. “Ah she’s so high and mighty with her ‘lectricity,” Mrs. Kettle sneered. “She don’t bother me none - I just told her to take her old vacuum cleaner and stuff it.” Only Mrs. Kettle described in exact detail how this feat was to be accomplished. As Mrs. Kettle talked, telling me of her family and children, she referred frequently to someone called “Tits.” Tits’ baby, Tits’ husband, Tits’ farm, Tits’ fancywork. They were important to Mrs. Kettle and I was glad therefore when a car drove up and Tits herself appeared. She was a full-breasted young woman and, even though Mrs. Kettle had already explained that the name Tits was short for sister, I found it impossible to hear the name without flinching. Tits was a Kettle daughter and she had a six-month-old son whose name I never learned as she referred to him always as “You little bugger.” Tits fed this baby pickles, beer, sowbelly and cabbage and the baby ungratefully retaliated with “fits.” “He had six fits yesterday,” Tits told her mother as she fed the baby hot cinnamon roll dipped in coffee…
…Paw alone retained his savoir faire. He came clumping up onto the back porch exuding barnyard odors and good will, and after a few hearty stamps to loosen any loosely caked mud or manure he settled himself full length on the shiny leather couch. Mother said to Mrs. Kettle, “Do you mind if I smoke?” “Not at all, not at ALL,” boomed Paw. “Thmoke A WHOLE CARTOON if you have a mind to. Anyone want a THIGAR?” and he laughed uproariously as he proffered a much-chewed cigar end.”
The other MacDonald book I read was “The Plague and I,” one of the sequels to the first book. Betty is now divorced, although this is never explicitly dealt with in the book (it was still something of a taboo subject in the 1940’s,) and she is raising her children with the help of her mother and sisters when she is diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to live in a sanitarium.
It’s a credit to MacDonald’s brilliance as a storyteller that she can chronicle a year of near-inaction in the rarified and morbid setting of a TB clinic with so much wit and humor. Again, she reveals to the reader a world most people don’t experience firsthand - then it was egg farming, this time it’s a very possibly terminal illness - and a way of living and type of experience that would have been unique to women at the time: the nearly thankless realm of a farmer's wife in the first book, the enforced ennui of a women's hospital ward in the second. In both instances, MacDonald is thrust into situations that are not of her choosing, whether it's by wanting to please her selfish husband or by being laid low by illness and then feeling a pressure on all sides to get well at all costs.
MacDonald’s descriptions of hospital life and the oppressively dull routines forced on her and her fellow consumptives are funny, depicting a place where anything joyful is forbidden in the name of resting the lungs and the nurses’ directive seems to be to to remind the girls how lucky they are to be convalescing in such a wonderful institution. She chronicles each day’s minutiae with wit:
Sunday morning at five o’clock I heard the sweet-faced, gentle Catholic Fathers going softly from room to room on the promenade, blessing their people… and even though I am an Episcopalian I often wished that one of them would stop at my bed. …The other ministers came too, but only on occasion and usually during visiting hours. No doubt their intent was good but to attempt to make contact with God during visiting hours was as futile as trying to pray at a cocktail party.
Again, MacDonald is at her best with her characters and dialogue, in this case a somewhat fluid cast of nurses, doctors, and roommates who come, go, and reappear at various stages of her treatment. Most notable among these are Eileen, the oversexed rule-breaker with red fingernails, Minna, the tattling southern belle and darling of the ward nurses, and the unforgettable Kimi, an unusually tall Japanese girl with a dry and morbid wit coupled with inborn grace and poise:
When the nurse made her rounds that evening Minna said “You know that ole list didn’t have a bed lamp on it and it’s so dahk and lonely heah in the cohnah. Ah wrote mah Sweetie-Pie to bring me a bed lamp but it won’t be heah until next visitin’ day. Ah suah am lonely.” The Charge Nurse brought her a bed lamp, which had probably belonged, Kimi gently reminded her, to some patient who had died. At the time Eileen didn’t have a bed lamp either and she was furious. As the Charge Nurse finished attaching Minna’s lamp, Eileen said “Well, Jesus, honey, it’s dark ovah heah too,” but all she got was a cold look.
Minna had only one visitor…”Sweetie-Pie,” her adoring husband. Sweetie-Pie was about fifty years old, bald, fat, and doughy-faced, but he brought Minna flowers and candy and bath powder and fruit and bath salts and jewelry and perfume and bed jackets. She always referred to him as though he were a cross between Cary Grant and Noel Coward and said often, “Ah just don’ know how I was lucky enough to get that big ole handsome husband of mine.”…
…Eileen had said, “You can stop right after the ‘big old,’” and strangely enough Minna began to cry…
…After [Sweetie-Pie] had gone, Minna sat up and ate every crumb of her supper including two helpings of the main dish. Kimi looked over at her, wearing a new pink angora bed jacket and happily eating soup, while the mournful steps of the deflated Sweetie-Pie dragged along the corridor, then said softly, “With what a vast feeling of relief he will close the lid on your coffin.” I choked on my soup and Eileen shouted with glee. Minna said only, “Next week he’s bringin’ me a pink hood to match this jacket.”
It is of vital importance that a writer should have a good place to work. Fortunately, since I've moved to Baltimore, I've been able to afford the space to have two. I have a study on the second floor at the back of the house (more on that room in a later post,) but I also have a window in the bedroom. The bedroom - also on the second floor - faces the South and it gets more light than any other room in the house, and so is naturally the nicest place to be during daylight hours. When Sara leaves for school in the morning, I often carry my little writing desk into the bedroom to sit at the window and work.
The small, cozy, somewhat dark study is perfect for reading, reflection, and research. But I've found that for actually sitting down and writing, nothing is better than a second-story window.
I first discovered this when we lived in Jersey City and the bedroom window looked out onto a nice, lush tree. That street was narrower, which meant a bit less sunlight, especially with the tree in the way. But it was still a pleasant view: the light was dappled as a result, and I could watch the birds in the tree and listen to the heavenly sound of drops on the leaves when it rained. I wrote a good amount of my first two books looking at that tree.
Here in Baltimore we have a small tree growing outside the window. Barely thicker than a stick, it's topmost branch just comes parallel to the level of my knees when I'm at my desk. The street is broader, though, so there's plenty of sun, and there's a row of four very handsome fully-grown trees across the street, including one with big pink blossoms on it. They're not close enough to watch the birds playing in them, but they make a nice background to the scene.
And that's the main point of sitting at a window when writing: having a scene. There are just enough little bits of life happening for it to be interesting without being distracting. Children used to play across the street at our old apartment. Occasionally one of our disgruntled neighbors would come outside to chain smoke and swear into his cell phone or threaten his landlord with racist slurs. Here in our neighborhood in Baltimore, Canton, we often hear people drunkenly staggering home from the sports bar, and the sounds of bros saying frat-boyish things like "team" or "score" or "jalapeño cheddar," fill the air regularly.
One of East Baltimore's charming traditions are the often crudely-painted window screens, usually depicting some idyllic pastoral fantasy a universe away from the Old Bay-colored row houses of Canton. One of the purposes of these screens is to allow the resident to look out of their window without passers-by being able to see in. I can see the utility. I have been the subject of many inquiring glances from men in shorts or women in shorts or various baffled blondes when I've sat at the ground floor window in a three-piece suit working. They spend nearly as much time speculating as to what I'm up to as they do the cat in the window across the street.
On the second floor I don't have that problem, of course, although when I'm hammering away at my typewriter people occasionally look up in bewilderment. I usually just smile at them and they trundle off to watch sports or drink lager or make love to their cousins or whatever it is they do. Some day I'd like to have a bay window to sit in. Beau Brummell used to sit in the bay window at his club passing judgement on the people walking below. A nod from him would be an affirmation of style and status, a deliberate ignorance would be a sign of crushing disapproval. There's no word as to whether he ever spat or threw things at people, although at windows there's always a temptation.
I'll leave you with the poem High Windows by Philip Larkin, which isn't especially relevant apart from the imagery of the window:
When I see a couple of kids
And guess he’s fucking her and she’s
Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm,
I know this is paradise
Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives—
Bonds and gestures pushed to one side
Like an outdated combine harvester,
And everyone young going down the long slide
To happiness, endlessly. I wonder if
Anyone looked at me, forty years back,
And thought, That’ll be the life;
No God any more, or sweating in the dark
About hell and that, or having to hide
What you think of the priest. He
And his lot will all go down the long slide
Like free bloody birds. And immediately
Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.
How to stay dandy and stay cool in India’s classic garment.
Hello! I wrote this article about Jersey City for the New York Times:
Try writing about Glenn O’Brien without using the word “cool.” Might as well describe the ocean without mentioning water. Glenn was so unassailably, impeccably, motherfuckingly cool you’d glance at the thermostat when he walked in the room. Glenn’s coolness was cosmopolitan and manifold, like the renaissance-man portfolio of jobs he juggled throughout life. He was all kinds of cool: stylish cool, cultured cool, witty cool, and just plain laid-back breezy cool. If someone were to say “don’t lose your cool,” they could just as well have said “be more like Glenn O’Brien.”
Speaking of Glenn & transport, one of the coolest things I can recall involves Glenn and a Metrocard. Glenn wrote the introduction to my and Rose’s first book “I am Dandy.” The artist Peter McGough had put us in touch with him. Glenn was skeptical of the project at first, but he liked Rose’s photos and – much to my delight – my writing, so he agreed. He also put us in touch with Bergdorf Goodman, who ended up hosting our launch party. Glenn only showed up at the very start and only for a few minutes. There are only a couple of photos of him there, one of him gamely standing next to your truly, the beaming young author. In his left hand are both a champagne glass and a Metrocard.
To a young writer with broad cosmopolitan tastes and interests, Glenn was an inspiration and refutation of the vogue for specialization. Interviewing him was daunting – as with masturbation you always got the sense the chap could have just done it better himself. Still, he smiled and thanked you when it was over. And that smile! Glenn could always deliver a devastatingly handsome look to camera with his beaming double-barreled blues sitting above his notorious cheekbones, but when he smiled the eternal teenager shone forth. Here was Tom Sawyer and Mark Twain in whole.
Whenever I saw Glenn at an event and said hello there was always a moment or two when I was struck by the fear that he didn’t recognize me. I’d feel nervous, prepared for the embarrassment accompanied by his unreadable poker-faced gaze. Then he’d always do something like turn to the person next to him – the sort of person who thinks being cool does mean not remembering young writers’ names – and say “This is Natty. He wrote a great book about dandies.”
If there were a heaven, St. Peter wouldn’t even need to check the guest list. Every bouncer knows Glenn’s invited to the party. And in the unfortunate event of Glenn’s sins tipping the scales in the other direction, hell would surely soon freeze over from all that cool.
I interviewed Norman Ohlet, author of Blitzed! Drugs in the Third Reich for Rolling Stone:
I wrote this little article about football player Cam Newton's style for Rolling Stone:
The moment is finally upon us to celebrate “We Are Dandy,” our second survey on international dandyism, this time adding two continents and ten countries to this mighty project. As the world seems increasingly fractious and unmoored, eminent photographer Rose Callahan and I are pleased to report that dandyism not only perseveres but does indeed flourish, even in unlikely and infertile soils.
We spent several months canvassing North America, Europe, Japan, and South Africa for elegant gentlemen, and found ourselves saddled with a surfeit of rakish toffs and sporty knaves all eager to preen and proclaim for our camera and pen. We also somehow managed to convince elegant icon and legendary smokeshow Dita von Teese to write the book’s preface.
I’ll take this opportunity to share a couple of my favorites with you, but I urge you to purchase the book when it goes on sale in the US very soon, ideally from our publisher Gestalten or at your local bookstore. (Although you could also have some company send it to your door via flying robot, I hear.)
Nathaniel “Natty” Adams
In case you missed it, my first New York Times feature was published on the front page of the Metro Section on Sunday, January 15th. The article, about the Loew's Wonder Theaters, involved a lot of research and reporting (75% of which, including my favorite historical episodes, sadly did not make it into the final piece.) The online version includes some beautiful 360-degree hi-definition panoramic photographs of the theater interiors. Read it below:
Of Dress Codes and Speech Codes
In the meanwhile, I am Dandy received a big bump when it was featured in a segment on CBS Sunday Morning:
I was also the subject of a mini-documentary called "Am I Dandy?"
And last but certainly not least, it is my great honor to have been profiled in 12 outfits (with one more to come,) for the artist Ike Ude's Chic Index:
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
...he makes a series of telephone calls to various men in skinny ties, pork pie hats, and sunglasses. It is clear to the viewer at this point that he’s either masterminding a heist or managing a ska band…
...He has a telephone in his sauna, a hidden bar in his bookshelf, and a god-awful plaid sofa set that looks like it was upholstered with Walkers shortbread boxes. He serves brandy in snifters the size of his head and smokes cigars the size of…well, very large cigars indeed. He’s prone to maniacal spasms of laughter, he likes to drink scotch while looking in the mirror, and he owns a bright orange bathrobe which suggests that he may have skinned a Muppet…
...His beach attire includes a safety-orange shirt unbuttoned to somewhere near his bellybutton, a pair of denim shorts with a two-inch inseam, and a big gold medallion lost in his blonde chest hair like a Spanish doubloon beneath the sand…
I haven't posted in a while, which isn't to say I haven't been busy. Quite the opposite - with the book in its second printing already and talks for a follow-up as well as a video project, Rose and I have been working hard on our next steps as well as continuing our promotion of the book. Above is the book trailer Rose made featuring me reading from the book's introduction. The trailer was also mentioned on United Style.
Most importantly, there are a few upcoming book events:
On Saturday, February 22nd, Rose and I will be part of a presentation and book signing at Disneyworld as part of their "Dapper Day" celebrations.
On Wednesday, March 5, Rose and I are participating, along with Simon Doonan and Dr. Andre Churchwell, in a panel discussion at the Fashion Institute of Technology museum. G. Bruce Boyer will be moderating.
Here are a few highlights from the past couple of months.
I was very honored to be named "Dandy of the Year 2013" by Dandyism.net. The Tweedland blog picked up on the story here.
I was also very proud to be featured for a second time on The Style Blogger, wearing outfits inspired by the men in the book.
Rose has a wonderful post full of photos of our event at The National Arts Club.
Prowlster wrote a glowing review of the book.
3:AM Magazine has a very thoughtful in-depth article about dandyism in general and the book.
CNN.com asked me and Rose to put together a slideshow with commentary about the book.
Esquire Latin America featured an interview with me and Rose in their most recent issue, and put a small slideshow online.
CBP magazine reviewed the book.
Design Boom did a feature on the book.
As did Buro24/7
The Fedora Lounge has a long thread devoted to the book.
The book is mentioned on The Journal of Style
VintageVille Magazine did a feature on the book.
StyleSight wrote about the exhibit of Rose's photographs at the National Arts Club.
Julija Hunt posted about the London launch party on her blog.
Zeit Online had a slideshow of images from the book.
Germany's Dandy Club reviewed the book.
I-Ref featured the book.
MDR Figaro covered the book along with the German edition of Lord Whimsy's book.
FahrradJournal covered the book.
GLAM magazine did an article about the book.
Last Sunday, October 20th, we had our second New York book event at Against Nature, the shop which I manage. As always, Rose has an excellent summary with beautiful photos over at The Dandy Portraits.
The big event of the night was when legendary New York Times street style photographer Bill Cunningham showed up and took some photos of the party. Rose and I were thrilled yesterday to find ourselves on the Evening Hours page of the Sunday Times.
An excerpt from the book - the profile of Dr. Andre Churchwell, pictured above, third from left - is featured in this month's issue of The Chap, along with a profile of yours truly! You can't read it online so you'd better go order a copy.
Esquire's blog did a very nice write-up of the book.
And GQ's blog featured a few of my favorite looks from the book.
Our friend at the Fine Young Gentleman wrote about the Bergdorf Party.
And Buffalo Dandy wrote a nice review of the book.
I'm sure there will be more press coming, especially because Rose and I both have a few events coming up:
On Tuesday, November 5th I'll be reading from the book at the Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series at Culturefix on the Lower East Side.
The following night, Wednesday, November 6th, I'll be judging Literary Death Match at Cake Shop.
And the following night, Thursday, November 7th, Rose and I will be signing books and celebrating with our friends (and newlyweds!) Matt and Enrique at The Fine and Dandy Shop. RSVP now!
And on November 18th, an exhibition of Rose's photographs will open at the National Arts Club, with a party to celebrate.
We hope to see you all in the coming weeks. Stay dandy!
They are Dandies: The Return of the Elegant Gentlemen from Gestalten on Vimeo.