I continue from last week’s post FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1 with Bill’s very unexpected description of my Grandmother, Margaux Alain, at work in her salon. Notice the use of the Prussian Frau Landlady as a foil:
The French dressmaker was a constant revelation to Frau Landlady. In the coldest days of winter, the dressmaker would be bitching up a storm about the lack of heat when the landlady would come tramping down the stairs lit by a fifteen-watt bulb, her body covered with heavy wooly underwear and layers of sweaters, bearing a huge thermometer in her fist to prove to the French madame that there was ample heat. When the landlady would tap at the door, she always got the shock of her life to find the French madame running around on ten-degree-cold days with just a bra and panties. She couldn’t design fully clothed; she found inspiration only flowed to her fingers when she was almost naked. Of course, the landlady would hit the ceiling, wildly screaming, scaring my customers out of their wits.
I remember my Grandmother at her sewing machine, cigarette in mouth, wearing a bathrobe with, I guess, nothing else on but just a bra and panties. Now I know that she didn’t bother to wear that bathrobe when I wasn’t around.
The French Dressmaker, hard at work.
In last week’s post, the evil landlord had threatened Bill with increased rent. Bill decided he wasn’t “gonna be taken for any sucker” so he moved out in 2 weeks.
I’ll never forget the look on the landlord’s face when I had stripped the salons of all their fancy slipcovers. All that was left were the broken walls and tenement atmosphere. Only the white ceiling with its gilding remained from the elegant décor. I took a temporary place at 56 West Fifty-Sixth Street with the French dressmaker from the second floor, and we quickly set up our businesses, with her taking the back room and me taking the front room with the northern light. I couldn’t afford an apartment, so I just camped there, without a bathtub.
In other words, Bill camped out in his commercial space. Kinda like living in a Metro storage locker in Southampton during the summer.
The shop on Fifty-Sixth Street was a terrible place. Madame was always cooking her French recipes on the electric stove, which we hid from the fire department since it was against the law to live there. Madame’s cooking attracted a large following of the fattest cockroaches. One morning I was about to try a hat on a very distinguished customer, one of the overfed cockroaches fell out of the hat and onto the floor. It had been sleeping off its dinner on the crown. Thank God the customer didn’t see it – with one motion I pulled the hat down on the lady’s head and slammed my foot on the cockroach as it ran across the room. Mrs. Nielsen, who was standing near me, turned sick and almost fainted – she had to flee the room. I must say I never blinked an eyelash but went on chatting about the hat. (I never put another hat on a customer without first looking inside the crown.)
Within a year the fire department caught up with us and tossed us out.
Cooking, was she? When my Grandmother wasn’t sewing, entertaining, or spilling champagne, she was most likely busy flambéing a chick.
Most likely in this iron cauldron:
This pot is one of my most cherished inherited items. Margaux bought it during her Paris sojourn in the 1920s. I watched her fire up entire chickens more than a dozen times while preparing Coq au Vin. It’s one of her (and my) favorite dishes, which she no doubt prepared for Bill, cockroaches notwithstanding.
My Grandmother not only fired up birds in this pot for Bill, me, my brother John, Mom (she liked the necks), Dad, her son Alain, his wife Madeleine, and my cousins Denis, Anne, and Hélène, but she was there 10,000% for us.
In body, spirit, and soul.
Just approaching the door of her apartment, you could feel the tendrils of love down the hallway.
Around 1963, Margaux moved from her former digs at 17 West 54th Street to new ones at 60 Sutton Place South, a modernist red brick structure facing the Pepsi Cola sign in the East River. The building is distinctive for it’s driveway, views of the East River, and the statue of Icarus (surrounded by little shooting jets of water) in the lobby.
The Icarus fountain in the lobby, 60 Sutton Place South.
As a child, I often came with my Dad, and each time our arrival and welcome followed the same script. A short hop of an elevator ride to the second floor, where you would turn left and walk to number 2E. The smell of French cooking hung in the hallway like mistletoe, just as Bill must have sensed it.
Even though the doorman had called her to announce our arrival, we would nevertheless haplessly ring the doorbell and wait anxiously. Obviously, she had been too occupied in the kitchen. Soon, we could hear her approaching the door from the other side, as she chirped “oui, oui” in her sweet, high-pitched, probably timeless, voice. Her hands moved the chain out of the way and then the latch for the lock was turned.
If anyone knew foreplay, it was my Grandmother.
The elation built as the door creaked open, and then a crescendo of opera music and peppery-perfumed air spilled out into the hallway.
It was like the second coming of Jesus — every time — arms extended in joyful exultation, she grabbed Dad and me as her very own. The warmth and glow of this reception was like an overflowing wall of foam escaping from a bathroom plumbing malfunction. You needed a towel to dry yourself off.
As for my Dad, she adored him, and felt that she completely understood him. After all, they were both reinvented Americans. It was really fun to watch Margaux laugh and cajole Bern.
In the 1970s, the party grew bigger as Dad brought my hot stepmother, Gloria, over for visits. The threesome got along famously in her spacious living room overlooking that soft drink sign across the river.
And, of course, my Grandmother shared an interesting trait with Gloria. When they got talking about sex, things got toasty.
When Gloria wasn’t rating my T and A for me (with the T and A in question literally inches away from my face through the car window), my Grandmother, fueled by a few glasses of sherry, would rhapsodize about how men just wanted to see, as she called it, “the sex of a woman,” or how English men liked to “come from behind.”
I was kinda young when I heard these expressions and hadn’t yet made the mentysical connections between all these concepts. Sometimes I wondered if females were going to jump me, for God only knows what reason!
I knew, of course, that I was not the only boy that my Grandmother looked after. She told me how she cared for Bill when he had rough days — which he really did not cover in his book. She had genuine affection for him. They were both snazzy, cutting edge, and adventurous stylists.
As a photographer, Bill himself was notoriously camera shy. But he never hesitated to pose for me. Here’s Bill on the prowl at a Central Park Philharmonic Concert on the Great Lawn in the 1980s.
Bill and me in two selfies I took on 42nd Street on April 12, 2016, just weeks before he was hospitalized.
Sadly, Bill Cunningham left us on June 25, 2016. His book Fashion Climbing is available for purchase at Amazon or at your favorite bookshop. It’s refreshing to read a compelling book about one of New York City’s major industries by someone who knows exactly what he is talking about.
In the world of fashion, that is no small achievement.
All excerpts from Fashion Climbing reprinted either with permission or under Fair Use.
Loved every line of Flights of Fancy. So much to know and wonderful memories of an astonishing lady. Congrats!
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I’ve been reliving some wonderful memories of my Grandmother over these last few days. Moved to tears more than once.
Now, that story’s a hum-dinger. My great aunt lived for many years in a duplex on Sutton Place. Maybe Lolly and the ‘French madame’ were neighbours! More important than my mere place-dropping is your finely crafted prose that doesn’t evoke old NYC but takes the reader back there.
Wonderful loving memories you share…. Loved all the Bill Cunningham photos! Delicious story.
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Thank you Gail!
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Margeaux and Bill thru James’ eloquent writing. The picture that was shared of Margeaux showed what a beautiful woman she was, as well as creative. I can see where James gets his talent & creativity. Her joie de vivre leapt off the pages. It was also obviously she had that je ne sais quoi !
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