“As Befits A Caprice of Love and Magistracy”

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, with his wife, Silda, announces his resignation at his Manhattan office. [Source: NYT]

I admit, I’m as guilty as the next guy when it comes to prurient interest and schadenfreude. I came of age in the reign of Richard Nixon, so I expect sleaze and delusional behavior from politicians, even do-gooders like Eliot Spitzer. Political wives, however, should be spared the grotesque humiliation ritual of standing by their men.

What surprised me about Spitzer’s peccadilloes was how tawdry tawdry has become. As described in Slate, the Emperors’ Club (a “prostitution ring” or “call-girl service”) operated like any other e-commerce site. It even had customer ratings. The “product” description could have come out of the L.L. Bean catalog: “Emmy…. A fine country and folk musician. Her gifted voice and melodious harmony convey nature’s beautiful appreciation at once. She is comforting … rustic. From the warm-toned autumn leaves to the rising flowers of spring, Emmy casually reminds you to savor every second of our surrounding, abundant beauty. Emmy… be revitalized to triumph.”

That’s a $5000 hooker?

Eliot Spitzer should have consulted Victor Hugo, who knew something about hiding one mistress from another. Consider his elaborate description of the “house with a secret” in Les Misérables (IV.3.1):

About the middle of the last century [i.e., the 18th century], a chief justice in the Parliament of Paris having a mistress and concealing the fact, for at that period the grand seignors displayed their mistresses, and the bourgeois concealed them, had “a little house” built in the Faubourg Saint-Germain, in the deserted Rue Blomet, which is now called Rue Plumet,not far from the spot which was then designated as Combat des Animaux.

This house was composed of a single-storied pavilion; two rooms on the ground floor, two chambers on the first floor, a kitchen down stairs, a boudoir up stairs, an attic under the roof, the whole preceded by a garden with a large gate opening on the street. This garden was about an acre and a half in extent. This was all that could be seen by passers-by; but behind the pavilion there was a narrow courtyard, and at the end of the courtyard a low building consisting of two rooms and a cellar, a sort of preparation destined to conceal a child and nurse in case of need. This building communicated in the rear by a masked door which opened by a secret spring, with a long, narrow, paved winding corridor, open to the sky, hemmed in with two lofty walls, which, hidden with wonderful art, and lost as it were between garden enclosures and cultivated land, all of whose angles and detours it followed, ended in another door, also with a secret lock which opened a quarter of a league away, almost in another quarter, at the solitary extremity of the Rue du Babylone.

Through this the chief justice entered, so that even those who were spying on him and following him would merely have observed that the justice betook himself every day in a mysterious way somewhere, and would never have suspected that to go to the Rue de Babylone was to go to the Rue Blomet. Thanks to clever purchasers of land, the magistrate had been able to make a secret, sewer-like passage on his own property, and consequently, without interference. Later on, he had sold in little parcels, for gardens and market gardens, the lots of ground adjoining the corridor, and the proprietors of these lots on both sides thought they had a party wall before their eyes, and did not even suspect the long, paved ribbon winding between two walls amid their flower-beds and their orchards. Only the birds beheld this curiosity. It is probable that the linnets and tomtits of the last century gossiped a great deal about the chief justice.

The pavilion, built of stone in the taste of Mansard, wainscoted and furnished in the Watteau style, rocaille on the inside, old-fashioned on the outside, walled in with a triple hedge of flowers, had something discreet, coquettish, and solemn about it, as befits a caprice of love and magistracy.

Walk around Faubourg Saint-Germain today, and it’s hard to imagine that such a place ever existed. But stroll all the way to the back of the gardens at the Musée Rodin, duck through the gap in the semi-circular hedge above the reflecting pool, and lo! There could be such a secret passage through the heart of Paris.

A Note on Sources: The text comes from the Project Gutenberg etext of Les Misérables, a sturdy 19th-century translation by Isabel F. Hapgood which is now in the public domain.

Fashionista Street: Valentino at Musée Rodin

Valentino's finale at the Rodin Museum was bathed in red, his favorite color. (Jean-Luce Huré for The New York Times)
Valentino’s finale at the Rodin Museum was bathed in red. [Photo by Jean-Luce Huré for NYT]

To the storied history of the Hôtel Biron- Rodin’s studio, Sister of Icarus, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet — add this: Valentino Garavani’s haute couture finale. After a 45-year run, Valentino sold the shop last year for 2.6 billion Euros. “Ive proven everything I have to prove,” he said on France 24.

Valentino’s career closed before it could be fully absorbed, according to NYT’s Cathy Horyn:

On Wednesday night, at the Rodin Museum, he closed the spring 2008 haute couture collections and at the same time ended 45 years in fashion. The models wore identical red dresses for the finale, so that the room seemed bathed in his favorite color. The audience stood, the applause started, and Valentino walked briskly to the end of the runway, dry-eyed and tanned from a ski holiday in Gstaad.

One of the locomotives of Valentino’s career, and that as well of his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, was that he allowed the media — and, by extension, the public — to see how lavishly he lived, whether in Rome, London or Gstaad. Although he regarded himself as a serious-minded designer, trained in Paris, few of his contemporaries seemed to derive as much pleasure from their lives. It showed in the clothes he made.

As the milliner Philip Treacy, who did the hats for the final show, said, “He’s the only designer who lived the life that people think designers should live.”

That was Horyn’s story for the paper. In her blog post for On the Runway, she revealed the less than glamorous fashionista life backstage:

I saw Uma [Thurmond] ahead of me. I caught up with Uma in the backstage and asked her what she thought of the show, half embarrassed that I bothered. “I have no comment to make at this time,” she said, as if she had said it a million times before. Okay. Wouldn’t “beautiful” have worked just as well? I turned away, toward the mob of photographers and models, all of them in identical red dresses, gathering with intensity around Valentino. Natalia V. had tears welling in her eyes. I saw Carlos Souza, who has done the press for Valentino for years, and I asked him if the girls were going to keep their red dresses. They’d all came out in red for the finale. “For sure!” he said, watching Valentino and the mob. Later, I asked one of the models about it and the look she gave me said, “Are you kidding?”

Paris Fashion Week: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Imaging Paris: Rilke at Hôtel Biron

Rainier Maria Rilke works at his writing desk in the Hôtel Biron, Paris
Rainier Maria Rilke works at his writing desk in the Hôtel Biron, Paris [Source: Requiem for a Friend]

I found this photo yesterday as I jumped from Rainier Maria Rilke to Paula Modersohn-Becker and back again. It comes from a web site supporting a 2005 independent film (The Greater Circulation) about the writing of Requiem for a Friend. I’m not absolutely certain wheter the image here is historic or comes from the film. Something about the setting of this photo felt familiar. Hôtel Biron. Where was that? My map-making mind wanted to know. Have I been there? Which arrondissement?

This morning I came across a photo by métrogirl that made it all clear. The Hôtel Biron is the site today of the Musée Rodin in the VIIe. I have been there. Mmétrogirl has published a fine Musée Rodin photo set.

Rodin’s “Fall of Illusion: Sister of Icarus”

Auguste Rodin. L’Illusion soeur d’Icare. 1895. Musée Rodin, Paris. [Photo by Dave Rytell]

This sculpture beguiled me when I saw it at the Musée Rodin. I so much wanted to touch her wing. It was marble but it looked like a living thing. It had the delicacy of feathers, the muscularity of pulsing blood, the soaring lift and resistance of a sail in the wind. It wasn’t the invention of D aedalus or Leonardo. It must have come from an angel, a condor, a clipper ship’s flying jib. And her body emerging from marble, plunging in free fall, legs akimbo, at once defying gravity while surrendering to it. And her breasts. This was not the mythical Icarus, but his sister apprehended in a dream.

I mentioned this sculpture in A Gavroche Retrospective, where I wrote about the surreal scene inside the Elephant in Place de la Bastille in Les Misérables IV.6.1-2. Victor Hugo and Rodin were proto- Surrealists long before Surrealism was a manifesto or a movement. The poets and artists we call Surrealists were descendants, not originals.

As often as not, the sculpture is identified as Icarus, not his sister. The full title is “Fall of Illusion - Sister of Icarus” (in French, L’Illusion soeur d’Icare). As the Rodin’s Works website explains, the sculptor created multiple variations on the theme. I haven’t found a definitive catalog reference or photograph of it, but there are several good Flickr images such as that linked here.