Saturday, June 19, 2010

The chair

Through the combined efforts of Susan Holbrook, of the firm of Holbrook and Hawes in Bethany, Conn., and Benny Becker of Norton Upholstery in West Haven my chair may now be revealed in all its renovated splendor. I picked it up last Tuesday. Real horsehair has taken the place of clumps of coconut fiber (and a lot of other junk swept off the Melbourne upholsterer’s floor in the late summer of 1949). My excellent colleague Pat Kane should take credit for having recommended the most appropriate sort of fabric—indestructible mohair velvet—while, of course, the color was my bright idea, as was the inspired choice of gimp.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The finger

Lately I have been noticing fingers everywhere. For example, in his fascinating book about the methods of conducting business in the early ecumenical church councils, Ramsay MacMullen quotes from Gregory of Nazianzus. With de haut en bas exasperation, Gregory describes the limited capacities of the late fourth-century bishops who drifted into town to attend the first Council of Constantinople in 381:

Some, sprung from the change-tables and the icons you find there; some from the plow, blackened by the sun; some from the never-ending toil of the mattock and how; others, off the galleys or army list, still smelling of bilge-water or with scourge marks on their backs…; still others who have not yet cleaned off the soot of their fiery trade [as blacksmiths], fit only for a beating or the work-mill…now on their upward path, dung-beetles headed for the skies…babbling stupid phrases while not up to counting their own fingers or toes.

A mixed bag, certainly. Now, MacMullen goes on to describe the huge contrast between metropolitan intellectual heavyweights such as Gregory, Augustine, Ambrose, etc., in other words the tiny élite, and the vast majority of voting bishops, many of whom were illiterate—and the challenge, therefore, of reaching any sort of authoritative consensus. However, this passage rang a loud but rather different bell for me. It comes in Gregory’s autobiographical poem De seipso et de episcopis, the purpose of which was not merely to render a fairly devastating judgment on the poor quality of late fourth-century bishops in general, but also to deliver a finely tuned invective against certain individuals—individuals whose claim upon episcopal rank was dubious, for example the rather too recently and expediently baptized Nektarios. How, Gregory wonders aloud, did the flashy Nektarios manage to become so stupendously rich whilst working in the imperial taxation office? And weren’t his accounting methods there well known to be more akin to the throwing of dice?

In other words which is worse, a clever and charismatic but corrupt bishop, or a dung-beetle?

Anyhow, I wondered if the fingers, here, are meant to refer explicitly to the widespread methods of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that were universally practiced by merchants on the fingers of both hands for commercial transparency on those same change-tables, in markets, and on wharves right throughout the Mediterranean world. Obviously illiteracy was an ancient nuisance, but innumeracy was far, far worse.

Anyhow, time to check the original—and there it is, in volume 37 of J.-P. Migne’s vast Patrologia Graeca, now accessible online (a boon). The Greek is unequivocal: “podasarithmeincheiras” (col. 1179) feet and hands. The Latin translation is pretty watertight: “pedesnumeraremanusfeet and hand, singular. I’m afraid there is nothing at all in the text specifically about fingers and toes. The really fascinating part is that Gregory of Nazianzus’s original formulation was, if anything, the more devastating. A dung-beetle with no ability to carry out routine accounting on his fingers is pretty useless, let us say in relation to charitable donations or church property, but a dung-beetle who cannot even count up to two (hands and/or feet) is far worse than a liability. But then, in Gregory’s view, so was Nektarios—with his well-practiced, not to say subtly grasping fingers.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Drinking champagne from a lady's satin slipper IV

The practice of drinking champagne from a lady’s shoe enjoyed one final moment of resuscitation in the early to mid-1950s, thanks in part to a public-relations blitz surrounding the publication of the autobiography of Tallulah Bankhead, that most flamboyant personality of American show business. Here she is, celebrating the occasion at the Ritz in Piccadilly in 1951, using chocolate suède. I doubt if Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York or Yale University Press in London would object if something similar were staged for the benefit of the media, and my new book, The Finger: A Handbook. But in these times of economic bleakness would they pay? I must remember to ask them. In any case this early 1950s revival of the podiatric champagne-quaffing stunt was hardly exclusive to Miss Bankhead. According to the London correspondent of the Sydney Sun-Herald (Sunday, November 7, 1954, p. 57):

Two ex-Gaiety Girls who reigned supreme among Edwardian sprigs of aristocracy came to verbal blows this week over whether the dandies of their day drank champagne out of their slippers. Said Ada Reeve, on her 80th birthday: “If it ever occurred, it was probably an isolated incident at some drunken party—the sort I preferred not to go to.” This aroused the ire of Ruby Miller, equally as celebrated and about as old. “Of course it is true!” snapped Ruby. “Why, grand dukes were always swilling champagne out of my slipper.” She added: “But Ada and I belonged to different eras. Ada was long before me.”

The “Gaiety Girls” of Edwardian musical theater came to prominence in the mid-1890s at George Edwardes’s Gaiety Theatre, Strand, and, through sheer force of personality, apparently gave rise to the curious phenomenon of “Stage Door Johnnies,” who were thought to be eagerly downward-leaning, class-wise. Ada Reeve (1874–1966) played Cleopatra in The Great Caesar in 1899, and in the same year created the role of Lady Holyrood in the hit musical comedy Florodora. She never looked back. Ruby Miller (1889–1976) was indeed fifteen years younger, but I suspect her remarks were in part driven by deeply encoded media savvy, a distant memory of allegations once leveled in Chicago at the Grand Duke Boris of Russia, and generalized sexagenarian over-excitementperhaps further stimulated by the demise of food rationing in Britain on July 4, 1954, and the joy of six months’ unfettered consumption of meat.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Counting to the power of eight

I have been fossicking through the mountains of paper that gradually accumulated while I was researching and writing The Finger: A Handbook, lately published in New York by the house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in other words sweeping the cutting-room floor. Sometimes the things you abandoned at first eventually found their way back into the book by another route—and indeed might have benefited from the ballast of additional evidence that was originally discarded for completely different reasons. For example, at the beginning of the chapter entitled “The Finger and the Economy” I explore the relationship between the fingers and counting to the power of ten: “There have been important exceptions, such as counting to the power of twenty (fingers and toes)...and more primitive counting systems developed around the concepts of two (hands), four (hands and feet), five (the fingers of one hand) and, intriguingly, eight, a rare anomaly once encountered among a certain group of First Nation Americans which, according to John D. Barrow, owes its existence not to the fingers themselves but the spaces separating them—four on each hand.”

Maybe counting to the power of eight is not such an anomaly. I have just retrieved a letter addressed from Kyrenia in Cyprus by one “H. Campbell” to the editor of that indispensable monument to fruitful curiosity and antiquarianism in England, Notes and Queries (February 15, 1930):

OCTAVAL NOTATION.—Has it ever been suggested that the European races (and perhaps others) originally omitted the thumbs and used only the eight fingers [sic] in counting? I can find nothing about it in the new [thirteenth 1926] edition of the “Encyclopædia Britannica.” Yet how else can we account for the fact that the words for “nine” and “new” are so alike in four out of the five main branches of the White Races? I cannot speak for the Slav tongues; but I daresay the rule holds true in them also. Thus, in Latin “nine” is novem and “new” is novum; Greek en-nea and nea; German neun and neu; Gaelic naodh and nuadh. English appears to be an exception; but this is due to the fact that we get “nine” from the German and “new” from the Scandinavian, the two words in the latter being “ni” and “ny,” this last word being pronounced very much like “new,” only much thinner. Gaelic shows the similarity more clearly when we remember that the root of “nuadh” is “nodh—.” As to Greek, one can hardly doubt that “en-nea” was originally “hen-nea” (one new”). All southern races tend to disuse the aspirate. Furthermore, in all these languages we have a trace of the root of “two” in the word for “ten.”

The Russian девять (nine) does not seem especially close to новый (new), and I doubt if, being rather preoccupied with race, H. Campbell would have attached much significance to octaval counting among the First Nations Americans so carefully observed by John D. Barrow. It does strike me, though, that counting to the power of eight makes better sense as an expression of the number of intervals between all ten fingers than as a tally of fingers excluding the thumbs, because, as far as I can tell, anxieties about whether or not the thumb is a bona fide finger simply did not exist before the nineteenth century. I wonder why that is so?

Drinking champagne from a lady's satin slipper III

What is beginning to emerge from my inquiries into the custom of drinking champagne from a lady’s white satin slipper is that this weird craze was most probably brought from the continent into the theater world and mess rooms of late Regency London. It lingered through the mid-nineteenth century, but underwent a whole-of life revival on both sides of the Atlantic in about the 1870s, and flourished until the First World War.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle (July 18, 1889, p. 3), the actress Sylvia Gerrish (1858–1906), “one of the most remarkable women on the stage,” was indirectly responsible for reintroducing it. Miss Gerrish, they stated, “isn’t pretty, she can’t sing, but she has the most wonderful legs and feet in the world. Nothing like them has ever been seen before, nothing ever will again. They have walked with her right into fame, popularity, and a big salary.”

...The owner of the Thistle so worshiped those beautiful feet that he filled one of her tiny satin slippers with champagne, drank to the success of his boat, and then nailed it to the cutter’s mast; and though it didn’t bring him luck, he did not cease to worship at the owner’s feet until his defeated racer bore him away from our shores.

The Scottish cutter Thistle (above) was designed by George Lennox Watson and built by D. & W. Henderson and Co. for a syndicate of mostly Presbyterian owner–members of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club led by one James Bell. The vessel was launched amid great secrecy on April 26, 1887, contested that year’s seventh America’s Cup in Newport, R.I., and lost twice. In theory any one of the members of the syndicate could have engineered that amusing publicity stunt using Miss Gerrish’s slipper (French heels, size 1), but it is not clear how they obtained it.

To be fair, there is no evidence to suggest that Miss Gerrish ever claimed credit for re-inventing the champagne-and-slipper habit, but Mrs. Bettina Ordway Gerard Padelford Raffael Wolff Schuyler most certainly did. A notable beauty, “Pretty Betty” was the daughter of Brigadier General Albert Ordway of Virginia, sometime chief of ordnance of the United States Army, and in retirement commander of the National Guard of the District of Columbia. Bettina Ordway was born in Washington; educated by nuns in Georgetown; made her début as a Reconstruction “southern belle” (to universal acclaim), but soon ran into trouble. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune (July 12, 1896, p. 38):

There was a banquet at White Sulphur Springs in [West] Virginia, whither the Ordways had gone for the summer, and Miss Bettina was the loveliest of the guests. In a dazzling evening dress, adorned with laces and jewels, she sat among gorgeously arrayed diplomats, army officers, and government officials. Everybody drank freely, and Miss Bettina’s face became flushed and her eyes sparkled with unusual brightness. A young man who was attached to the French Embassy and who had shown considerable attention to Miss Ordway during the season sat opposite her. Just as they were rising from the table a young cavalier who had sat beside her began to jest with her about the young Frenchman’s assiduous devotion. “Some day,” said the young man, “your admirer will probably be famous.” The incident that followed was over in a minute. Into the motives that prompted her action it would be idle to inquire. Suffice it that the curl of Miss Bettina’s rosy lips became intensely mischievous and that, with her hand under the table, fumbling among the draperies, she replied: “I’ll make him the most famous man at the Springs tomorrow.” And thereupon, with an enchanting smile, she held aloft a tiny white satin slipper, warm from her foot, and bade a waiter fill it with champagne. She then proferred this novel bumper to the Frenchman. A hush fell upon the room and every eye was turned to the young man’s face. He was painfully embarrassed. From his neck to the roots of his hair his skin was scarlet and he looked as if he were devoutly wishing that the floor would open and swallow him. The slipper was within his reach and a pair of roguish eyes were turned full upon him. He hesitated for one long moment, and then—true to his country and his calling—he took the slipper and quaffed deeply of the wine. His gallantry was greeted with a burst of applause, With a low bow he returned the slipper to its owner, who, perceiving that there was still some wine in it, raised it to her lips and with her eyes upon the young Frenchman’s face drained it to his health.

Word of this incident reached every corner of the United States, and amid much sensation straight away propelled Miss Ordway onto the stage, where, assuming the name of Bettina Gerard, she shone briefly in comic operas. There followed a string of disastrous marriages, beginning with the millionaire Arthur Padelford of Philadelphia, whom she divorced after three months. Next came the not very good operatic tenor Jack Raffael, then the character actor John Harrison Wolff, and in due course another actor, William Beach. In between Miss Gerard indulged in risqué dalliances, and was even involved in court proceedings relating to other people’s divorces. Eventually she descended into disgrace, a nervous breakdown, prolonged spells in a sanatorium, and ruin. General Ordway provided a modest allowance on the condition that Pretty Betty went abroad, and stayed there. After the General died, she made a partial comeback, this time on the Vaudeville circuit, and one last plucky effort at marriage—moderately successful—but died of pneumonia in a plain and crowded ward at the Roosevelt Hospital in New York on January 8, 1905. The life of Bettina Gerard was one of scandalous celebrity, all founded on a single, rash gesture of the shoe that was carefully noted in every one of her ferociously detailed obituaries. I have not yet identified the young French diplomat.

There is a chapter about gloves in The Finger: A Handbook, but nothing more on shoes, and, needless to say, no footnotes.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


There are relatively few scandalous subtopics in my new book, The Finger: A Handbook, except for some damaging rumors that circulated in London during the early 1820s about the distinguished bibliophile and member of Parliament Richard Heber and his exceedingly young protégé and intimate friend Charles Henry Hartshorne (for which see chapter 7 “The Finger of Play,” p. 190). On the whole, scandals do not interest me very much, except when they are old, comical, or relate to art fraud, as in the strange affair of Benjamin West and the Venetian Secret. Alas the recent discussion of how the British tabloid press lately entrapped Sarah, Duchess of York, and the remarks about herself and alcohol that she has this week confided to Oprah Winfrey, do not meet my stringent criteria. Indeed I feel these matters ought to be kept in strict perspective. It could be so much worse for the duchess. On April 7, 1908, for example, whilst covering in New York the messy divorce proceedings of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Gould, no less an organ than The Washington Post screamed the following headlines on its front page:


Before breakfast—cocktails (3 or 4).

With luncheon—a pint of wine.

After luncheon—brandy highballs.

Before dinner—more cocktails.

With dinner—champagne.

After dinner—liqueurs.

Nightcap—brandy highballs.

The accompanying article went into much detail, filling two dense columns:

Coming down to specifications in regard to his wife’s drinking capacity, Mr. Gould tells one occasion when she and a man friend—name unmentioned—drank a whole bottle of brandy, with only one bottle of seltzer, at Palm Beach, in January, 1905. A few weeks later, he says, while visiting some friends in West Eighty-seventh street, she became intoxicated and assaulted her hostess, scratching the latter’s arm and threatening the other guests. She was next found in the cellar of the Eighty-seventh street house, lying on the floor in a disordered condition. She had to be removed to the St. Regis, where a physician attended her…In the latter part of 1905 Gould seems to have taken particular notice of what his wife drank every day, for he is able to furnish the Supreme Court with a summary of her wants. Three or four cocktails before breakfast, or luncheon, as it might be, was the ordinary fare, he says, and at lunch she invariably tackled a pint of Moselle or Sauternes. After luncheon, brandy highballs, till dinner-time approached, when a few more cocktails would be in order. At dinner, champagne, he says, was her invariable drink, and she would partake liberally of the sparkling wine. Liqueurs always followed dinner, and brandy highballs gave Mrs Gould her nightcap. What else she drank, her husband cannot say for certain, but he knows, or says he knows, that she kept all kinds of whisky, brandy, and liqueurs in her boudoir, the bottles being frequently renewed.

I suppose people who for whatever reason now find themselves immured in scandal should thank their lucky stars that at least they do not have to contend with broadsheet journalism as it was practiced 100 years ago. And besides, in 100 years’ time who will remember that grainy video footage, the mad eyes, the unfortunate gimme gimme gestures, or even remotely care?

Drinking champagne from a lady's satin slipper II

Alas there was obviously no convenient berth in my new book, The Finger: A Handbook, for an exhaustive or even cursory account of the bizarre custom of drinking champagne from a lady’s white satin slipper, but lately I have made some progress in that department. On Saturday, March 17, 1855, readers of the Supplement to the Courant (Vol. 20, No. 6) in Hartford, Conn., found the following report lurking at the bottom right hand corner of page 47:

A BOMBE BOUCHE.—A Mr. Tumerelli [actually Édouard Petrovich Turnerelli], a gentleman who is said to have traveled in Russia, has been lecturing in London on the “social and moral characteristics of the Russian people.” He related the following anecdote: “When Madame [Marie] Taglioni [the great ballerina] quitted St. Petersburgh, she left a pair of slippers at the hotel. The landlord soon made his good fortune known, and 50, 100, and even 200 roubles (£20) were freely offered for the forgotten slippers. The landlord, however, finding the public enthusiasm increase as his raised his demands, peremptorily refused to part with the slippers under 1,000 roubles (£100). This sum being rather more than any individual appeared willing to give, thirty-five persons clubbed together and purchased the slippers. They then wanted to know what to do with them. After many suggestions, none of which gave general satisfaction, it was proposed by one of the speculators, more enthusiastic and original than his fellows, that they should eat them! The landlord of the hotel pronounced the idea to be excellent, and proposed to make a fricassée of them, which was accordingly done, and the thirty-six enthusiasts, with the lecturer as their guest, did actually eat Taglioni’s slippers, and washed them down in bumpers of champagne, in which they drank to the health of the charming danseuse.”

I presume this is what John Cooper was talking about when this all started. Already by the 1850s the concept of drinking champagne from a lady’s slipper was well and truly established, and viewed as sensational. But eating a pair of slippers took the process one step further. One senses the typical hallmarks of a craze. “Beau Nash His Ghost,” a pseudonymous contributor to the London Lady’s Companion, remarked: “Out of Mademoiselle [Henriette] Sontag’s shoe was champagne outrageously drunk in chorus in the days of Sontag-olatry when [P. T.] Barnum was a baby” (“High Heads and High Heels: A Fragment,” The North American Miscellany, Vol. 2, No. 23, Saturday, July 5, 1851, p. 436).

Henriette Sontag was born in 1806, and made her operatic debut at the age of 15. Three years later she was the soprano soloist at the première of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Opus 125), and was thereafter a great, great star until 1854 when she died of cholera in Mexico.

If the outrageous podiatric choral champagne-quaffing associated with “Sontag-olatry” took place at the height of her fame in the 1830s—not quite when Barnum was a baby; he was born in 1810—then this surely squares with what the critic of the Argus remembered about “exquisites” and “mashers” in “Fops’ Alley” during the reign of King William IV, and also implies a continental provenance.

Even in the midst of so traumatic a crisis as the Crimean War, one foreign correspondent (“The Crimean Year—From Alma to the Malakhoff,” Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. 22, October 1855, p. 62) made room for an explicit allusion to this strange practice when describing near Sebastopol the humiliating capture and confiscation by Captain Peel of a traveling carriage belonging to the Russian Commander-in-Chief, Prince Aleksander Sergeyevich Menschikoff. The “curious and heterogenous” contents of Prince Menschikoff’s luggage included Hussars’ uniforms, furs, tortoise-shell looking glasses, “military memoranda, stars and orders, a case of champagne, and a lady’s satin slipper.”