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.
Just because I was a schmo working at Polo Ralph Lauren who sold twenty fugly ties to Elton John (and pants to Carl Sagan) didn’t make me a fashion genius. Sure, I could match neckties to shirts, but look at what I was working with – Mr. Lauren made it easy!
No one in my family had any significant interactions with Ralph (my inconsequential meeting aside). But we did enjoy a relationship with someone at Ralph’s level. And by this I am referring to my maternal Grandmother Marguerite Alain and her lifetime friend, Bill Cunningham.
An iconic New Yorker through and through, Bill was a soft-spoken milliner who shared a commercial studio adjacent to my Grandmother’s Design Studio in the 1950s. They both loved flamboyant styles and clothing that made a statement. When hats went flat in 1960, Bill emerged as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and then for the New York Times, where he was often seen riding his girl’s bike around midtown, stopping to take pictures of well-dressed women on the street. Up through 2016!
So when my Dad put on his Dress Army Uniform that night in 1954 (to go out to the Stork), what the hell was he getting into?
The Quebec Connection, that’s what. Quebec City is a city but it ain’t New York City. In comparison, QC comes off as a sleepy government center with a walled old town (unique for a North American City) and a lingua franca that is neither English nor Spanish (again, very unusual in norteamérica). Both offer quaint streets and lots for tourists to see and eat. However, the most apparent difference is the money game that is the core of New York, New York and la Francophonie which is the heart of Québec, Québec. NYC has culture too, but more in a polyglot way (and not so much French, although that is changing today as the economy in France continues to suck eggs)
That fateful night at The Stork Club, Dad was introduced to the retiring antiques sales clerk at Wally Findlay Gallery, my Mom Michele Rousseau. She came from a long line of Quebecers stretching back to the 17th century (which is very common north of the border). Like my Dad, she was the younger of two children born to her parents Margo Alain and Paul Rousseau.
As for Margo, she was also the youngest of seven and quite possibly the most ambitious. Together with her older brother Gaston, they were the only children that worked with their Father, my Great-Grandfather P.A. Alain (everyone called him P.A. which you have to say as “Pay Ah” in French). Margo had a private office in her Father’s salon de fourrures where, as my Mom tells it, she would “do nothing but just chat on the phone with her friends all day long.”
As the dear reader can infer, my Mom and her Mom had a complicated relationship.