Diner en Blanc 2019 – A Great Time & Hopeful Dose of Symbolism

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Richmond truly is the mid-sized city that could. While this global event takes place in major cities around the world; Paris, Bangkok, Monreal – Richmond got in the game years ago, and glides along like any major player.

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This year did not disappoint, as Diner en Blanc’s secret location, revealed the day of, felt very symbolic. It’s more than the fact that the event took place on the James River, offering a cool breeze and views of the water. It’s the fact that the event took place at the historic Tredgar Iron Works and American Civil War Museum. Diner en Blanc, while open to all people, has become a landmark event for the African-American community. Tredgar Iron Works created most of the artillery for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, hence the perfect site for the American Civil War Museum. One couldn’t help but reflect. Fast forward to 2019, and the black community, empowered, educated and dressed to the nines, was dancing all over this platform.  The symbolism was powerful.

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And the glamour of it all! Chloe wine was flowing, sparklers lit up the night sky, electric butterflies on stilts danced amongst partygoers, and music pumped through the air. Crowds of onlookers, mostly locals coming back from Belle Isle, stood on the outskirts, admiring the elegant, if not outlandish, white outfits the revelers wore. Guests were happy after a delicious meal, happy to see one another, happy it was summer, and happy to feel connected to a truly memorable Richmond event: Diner en Blanc.

For details, or to attend or volunteer next year, visit: https://richmond.dinerenblanc.com/

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How You Can Bring Paris to RVA

Last year, I was swept up in the magic that was Diner en Blanc. I wrote about it, but one must experience this Parisian tradition in person. While this elaborate picnic began in Paris, it’s now celebrated around the world. Considering the size of Richmond, you’d think it wouldn’t have caught on. But the event became a must-do summer tradition, and with around 1,200 attendees every year, Richmond’s become a major player on the world stage.

And 1,200 revelers are a lot to coordinate, so Diner en Blanc Richmond is looking for volunteers. By volunteering, you not only gain free entry, but you get to participate in one of the most memorable cultural experiences in Richmond. An elaborate night of creativity in all its forms; visual, musical, palatable. The big night is August 17th, and per tradition, the location is top secret until the day-of.

If interested in volunteering, email richmond@dinerenblanc.com – until then, au revoir!

Empathy for the poor little rich girl

Bearing resemblance to a young Adam Scott

Sometimes those who appear to be les bon vivants are anything but. Brenda Diana Duff Frazier was coined a “poor little rich girl” by the press, which is more of a judgement than a label. To be fair to the haters, she rose to prominence in the 1930s, when people were still reeling from the stock market crash of 1929. Her family was unaffected by the unfortunate event, and her debutante ball in 1938 had an attendance of 2,000. That party alone landed her on the cover of Life magazine.

Usually the cover of this magazine is graced by scientists, politicians, artists. She landed the cover just for being a “celebutante.” If this harkens back to criticism of the Kardashians, who were famous for nothing, Brenda Frazier was the O.G. But unlike the Kardashians, she wasn’t a social climber who calculated her moves with the intent of “being seen.” She was thrust in the spotlight by her parents, and partially by society, desperate for the escapism of glamour during their own hard times.

While studying in Munich with her grandmother, Frazier begged her parents to allow her to finish her studies. But her parents were two alcoholics embroiled in a self-serving custody battle. Though they’d already subjected her to an unstable childhood rife with neglect, they dragged her back to the U.S. and ended her formal education when she was just 15.

Though her debutante ball was covered by the press as a glamorous event, she was suffering from the flu at the time, had swollen feet and collapsed from exhaustion in the wee hours of the morning.

She was once booed off a Broadway stage, when being presented with other artists. But rather than offense, she conceded that her detractors were right to do so. She understood was famous for nothing.

Not surprisingly, she suffered from anorexia and bulimia in order to keep up with her “Glamour Girl” status in the press. Years of holding her neck a certain way (so not to mess up her hair) caused neck problems. Her love life wasn’t a fairy tale either, with multiple divorces. Later in life, she became reclusive and addicted to pills. Diane Arbus captured the below photo of her. Her faced powdered with the signature “white face” look (pale face, red lips, coiffed hair) she was famous for. She was emaciated in bed and smoking a cigarette.

Credit: Diane Arbus

It used to be that everyone wanted the American Dream. The focus was on upward mobility through hard work. When that wasn’t enough, everyone wanted to be rich. Not content with that, now it seems everyone is clawing for fame. Perhaps the story of Brenda Diana Duff Frazier is a sobering reminder of the darkness that can lurk behind a glittering celebrity.

Ladies Who Launch

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I know in the past “ladies who lunch” was positioned as the ideal for women. Imagine Jackie O. and her sister Lee lunching at La Cote Basque in Manhattan, or Babe Paley at The Colony.

But as more women attended college and career opportunities were forged, some women now refrain from careers out of choice, rather than obligation. Even Jackie O. became a passionate book editor. Tom Ford famously quoted “A gentleman today has to work. People who do not work are so boring and are usually bored. You have to be passionate, you have to be engaged and you have to be contributing to the world.”  Though it resonates, I should mention that some women who don’t join the workforce work even harder as stay-at-home mothers.

Now the ideal encompasses both, where “ladies who lunch” are easily juxtaposed with “ladies who launch.” From studio CEOs to jewelry designers, they’re lunching too. They just need to be back in an hour.

I’m excited to be surrounded by ladies who launch, at the FabWomen conference Come Find Your Fab. Friday, September 28th from 8:30a-4p. “It’s not a networking event but a community,” says founder Shanna Kabatznick. You can expect a variety of speakers and workshops, a cross-generational panel, lunch, and even a one woman show, called Generational Confusion. If you noticed a theme this year, it’s because there is, and it’s an important one.

Ever written off millennial as entitled and lazy? It’s a platitude, and platitudes are the worst. You’ve heard them. “The French are snobs,” say those who have never been to France. “LA is so shallow,” says someone who hasn’t lived there to meet the creatives, the dreamers, the survivors. Millennials fall prey to some of the worst platitudes, with many not acknowledging their major contributions, both technologically (social media, smartphones) and cultural. They’ve greatly contributed to the movement for equal pay, women’s rights, the LGBTQ community and more. To be clear, I’m not a Millennial. That’s just how much I hate platitudes.

The conference will explore these topics, and reinforce the fact that women should be embracing their differences and learning from one another. Not judging and bashing, based on the size of their pores. I hope to see you there!

 

Socialite Obsession: Susan Strasberg

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True socialites believe in discretion. They believe in being written up only twice; their birth, death, and if they make the cut, their wedding announcement. It was easy to live by his maxim before the Internet. Blogs and social media provide freeways of information that didn’t exist in the days of the Vanderbuilts.

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Thankfully, socialites get written up for career accolades these days. University isn’t used for sharpening cocktail banter and finding husbands, but to practice law and run fashion houses. Actresses however, aren’t allowed into the fold. Susan Strasberg was an exception. Perhaps she was accepted into the upper echelons for being the youngest theatre actress to score a Tony award, for The Diary of Anne Frank. It also helped that her father was the famous acting coach Lee Strasberg, noted for his “method” acting style. Al Pacino, Daniel Day Lewis and Jack Nicholson are noted method actors, following her father’s lead and moving on to win Academy Awards.

Ironically, Susan’s father never trained her, which was well-known among his devotees. Her critical achievements were a thorny subject for their already-complicated relationship.

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Strasberg and Monroe

Marilyn Monroe was  a devotee of Strasberg’s, and became part of the family. So much so, that she and Susan had a sibling rivalry of sorts, as described in Susan’s book,  Marilyn and Me: Sisters, Rivals, Friends. It was a bestseller, as was her second book, Bittersweet. 

Former suitors include Richard Burton, Warren Beatty and Cary Grant. Her natural talent ushered her from theatre to the film world in the blink of an eye.  The camera loved her incredibly delicate bone structure, which was an amalgamation of Lee Bouvier and Natalie Wood.

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With her much-older beau, Richard Burton

Like many socialites who needn’t follow the rules in order to be accepted, she indulged eccentric passions that social climbers would be afraid to touch. One of which, was new age spiritualism. She meditated, practiced yoga, worked with spiritual healers and sought alternative treatment for her breast cancer. Unfortunately, the cancer consumed her before she could complete her last book, Confessions of a New Age Heretic. 

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Strasberg in the 1950s

The Countess Who Flew From Her Gilded Cage

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The famous photo of her, taken by Avedon

Countess Jacqueline de Ribes didn’t wear outfits. She wore costumes. She made these fantasies by hand and drew audible gasps when entering a room. It wasn’t because she was classically beautiful, but because she was creative. She made parties famous simply by attending them, even if only for a few minutes.

Her fashions are currently being showcased at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 21st at the Anna Wintour Costume Center.

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Wintour isn’t the only Vogue editor that had fallen under her spell. Diana Vreeland spotted the countess at a party and scrambled to have her photographed the very next day by Avedon. Thinking that she needed to dress up, de Ribes went to a salon for false eyelashes and to have her hair curled, only to have Vreeland (then editor of Harper’s Bazaar) insist  she change back to the more natural creature she saw the day before. The eyelashes came off, her hair was put into a braid and the photo became famous.

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Though already a countess at birth and accustomed to some formalities, Jacqueline felt caged in my her titled but conservative husband and in-laws. Living with this extended family on a lavish estate, the stern and emotionally distant extended family were oppressive figures for Jacqueline, who longed for a creative outlet. She lived her adult life going against the tide, carefully choosing where and when to steal small freedoms. She refused to be a well-dressed wife and mother in a gilded cage. These always made the most boring of socialites.

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Once when trying to hold her husband’s hand as they were strolling Champs-Elyssses, he shook her off and told her to stop acting so “common.” Since divorce was out of the question, she weathered the cold in her marriage. Perhaps her difficult childhood helped to manage her expectations for future happiness. Jacqueline had a harrowing childhood. Her mother kissed her but once and often admonished her for her large nose and giraffe-like physique. He grandfather raised her, but died of cancer when she was but a small girl. Desperate to keep her grandfather alive, she even dressed as a nurse, a child pretending to work alongside the team of medical professionals who tended to him.

After he passed away, WWII broke out. She grew up parentless with a nanny on a remote property in France. They holed up in the cramped concierge’s quarters when the Gestapo took over the main house. They bricked in Jacqueline’s bedroom window to construct a torture chamber, and the young girl spent years hearing prisoners’ screams of agony. Not to mention seeing truck beds filled with prostitutes arrive every weekend for the Nazi soldiers.

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One of her most famous handmade costumes, from Le Bal Oriental

She was married soon after, fulfilling the role of loyal wife and loving mother. And not without providing disappointments to her in-laws with small acts of independence. Her dramatic creations for costume balls got her invited to all les grand bals, pulling her into the stratosphere of the European jet set. But perhaps the most upsetting news to her in-laws was the fact that she liked to work.

She collaborated with Pucci, was a ghost designer for Oleg Cassini and even hired a very young and penniless Italian to sketch her designs. That Italian was Valentino. She produced TV segments and created UNICEF variety shows that featured the likes of Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. She even took over the International Ballet of the Marquis de Cuevas – fulfilling her life-long love for the ballet (something her mother wanted her to take no part of).

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We can tell which one is the Countess by her air of regality

Once Jacqueline’s father-in-law passed away, she took advantage of it. There was a lift in the old-fashioned and oppressive atmosphere at the de Ribes estate. The Countess sat her family down and told them she was going to do something that was long overdue. At 53 years old, she was striking out on her own as a fashion designer, and no one would talk her out of it. Her debut fashion show was a resounding success, Women’s Wear Daily adored her. Saks Fifth Avenue immediately signed up for her collections. Dignitaries, celebrities and then-First Lady Nancy Reagan wore her designs. Joan Collins of Dynasty fame was instructed to fashion her persona after the Countess de Ribes.

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Wearing one of her own designs, in the 1980s

Vanity Fair has described her as the Last Queen of Paris. But her reign is still current. If it weren’t for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Countess de Ribes would have made the opening at the Met. This show is not to be missed, and will be gone in less than a month.

Before I die: The Grand Bal

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Marlene Deitrich at the Waldorf-Astoria’s annual “April in Paris” ball in 1951 – Paris’ 2000-year birthday

Much ado has been made of the world’s response to our dear City of Light being terrorized. Support has poured in worldwide, but some question why our response to Paris being attacked is so emotional, when things like that happen in other parts of the world all the time. These critics are right, but one must acknowledge that the world has always had a love affair with Paris.

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The Imperial Grand Bal in St. Petersburg, 1903

The French brought us lingerie, croissants, Coco Chanel, the ballet and much more. Even in Paris’ darkest hour since World War II, nothing can vanquish the City of Light. I’d like to bring attention to one of the many things that makes Paris so brilliant – Le Grand Bal.

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An Asian-inspired theme – the food and costumes must have been to die for

What is a Grand Bal?

It’s the party of a lifetime. It’s an event you tell your grandchildren about. While it’s always black tie, the best ones are costumed or masquerade balls. It started centuries ago when Louis XIV held a Grand Bal at Versailles to demonstrate his power. Noblemen and dignitaries far and wide gathered to pass messages and spread influence.

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Louis XIV’s Grand Bal costume

Czars in Russia did it, and during the gilded age in New York, Caroline Astor hosted them. The tradition may have jumped from royalty to socialites hosting charities, but the goal is the same: establishing social and political power. Truman Capote held a black and white ball and these were so influential, that uninvited couples left New York for the weekend, so to appear unavailable for the invite. Famous hostess Elsa Maxwell (who lived in the Waldof-Astoria for free) hosted the annual April in Paris Grand Bal on-site. It was the place to see and be seen.

One day I’ll throw one as well. Costumes, Champagne fountain and other Gatsby-esque frivolities. My theme will be the roaring 20s.

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Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball