Shanghai, China. There is vitality in that exciting city unlike anywhere else I know. It is totally forward thinking, but also much of the great Art Deco of the 1920's and 1930's that fascinates me can still be found throughout the city.
You are a traveler, jet-setter, aesthete, art and fashion collector, columnist, researcher, writer... How do you coordinate all that?
At home with Rudolf Nureyev and Jean LouisI'm still trying to figure that out myself! What are some of your favourite travel memories?
Getting a car in New England in the autumn when the trees are all golden and red driving in no special direction and stopping at will. Sailing out of Istanbul at midnight under a full moon. Getting locked in the Alhambra in Granada on night of the full moon with the fragrance of roses, jasmine, honeysuckle filling the air while we watched Antonio and the Ballet España rehearse the entire night. A wonderful trip to remote areas of China with the late Dr. Bill Wu and four friends -- one day we were attending a very special festival of ancestral worship of the Long Skirt Miao People. These women wear the most elaborate dress of any of China's 55 Minority Peoples. And their elaborate silver headdresses and gigantic necklaces are unequaled. I was fighting sunstroke and when we arrived at the foot of the mountain I saw that I would have to walk in the hot sun up a narrow path about half a mile straight up to the village where the celebration would be held.
It was impossible. Sadly I took refuge in a little hut with a kind woman bringing cold rags from the chilling waters of a nearby stream to put on my forehead as the others headed up the mountain. Suddenly a delegation from the village arrived, picked me up and sat me in a battered woven arm chair and two strong young men picked up the poles stuck thru the chair, set them on their shoulders and up the mountain we went. It turned out the village chief had heard of my problem and found his own solution. They trotted so fast and near the edge I was swinging out over the edge, looking straight down about 5,000 feet below. But they were so sure-footed I felt quite safe. Our arrival in the village brought rousing applause and the chief had me seated next to him for the entire afternoon. And he fanned me continuously with a fan made of eagle feathers. An exciting adventure indeed.
Tell me about your professional occupations.
with Prince Philip
Well I fell into my writing career in a most unusual way. My training was in painting and art history, and my work had been charity activities. Once I moved to Santa Barbara, following my divorce, I threw myself into the charity work. I was on 27 boards. One morning I was due to deliver two reports, one to the Franciscan fathers of the Santa Barbara Mission where I was heading fundraising to build an archival library addition. The other was to Planned Parenthood members on new methods of contraception. That morning everything went wrong! My daughter forgot her lunch so I had to tear home from her school and get it for her. Our German shepherd threw up in my station wagon, another delay. I finally dashed into first meeting quite late, grabbed my speech and was ten minutes into how one inserts a diaphragm when I looked out at my audience -- horrified men in brown habits clutching their rosaries. Wrong place, definitely wrong speech! That evening I dined with a beau who was editor-in-chief of the Santa Barbara News-Press. He thought it was funniest thing he'd ever heard. Then he said, "I fired my society columnist today. I think you should take her place. You go to everything, know everyone, are chairman of half the benefits. I've always had someone on the outside looking in. You are on the inside looking out." Well he had lovely blue eyes and was most persuasive and a career was born. I wrote the column for 24 years. During those years I became sought after as a lecturer so eventually I put together a lecture on the world in 19th century China where my beautiful Chinese robes were worn. But the only questions I ever got during question and answer period were about footbinding. I then researched that so thoroughly the lecture grew into the first really complete book on Chinese footbinding and lotus shoes, my award winning book Splendid Slippers. And so the books began.
How did your chinese costume collection start?
Wearing one of her fine padded winter Chinese robe
Again a major part of my life started by accident. Ten of us got into China during the Cultural Revolution in February 1975. This is the topic of my soon to be published book A Front Row Seat at the Cultural Revolution. We had one month visas, unheard of for Americans at that time. Towards the end of the trip when the others had gone home three of us went to Shanghai. There was nothing to do evenings since there was no TV, we were forbidden to take any reading material into China, we were sick of acrobats by then. So after the 6:00 dinners which ended at 6:30 we played ping pong. One night my two friends had food poisoning and I had nothing to do. Wandering the halls of the former Cathay Hotel I studied the hotel's Art Deco -- the elevator doors, sconces, radiator covers, paintings, etc. Suddenly the little elderly waiter who took care of us three meals a day found me in a remote area. No one was around so he whispered quickly, "Go shopping! A Polish ship sails tomorrow and they have opened the Friendship Store (only place for foreigners to shop) for the sailors tonight." So I took my flashlight, walked the five blocks in pitch darkness -- no cars on roads and if there were there would be no bright headlights -- and ended up buying a lovely turquoise Chinese robe beautifully embroidered with pastel peonies. That started the whole thing...
What are your favourite books?
In my younger days I would have answered Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain or probably War and Peace. At this stage of my life I devour biography and books of letters. My current favorite is the new edition of Duff Cooper's Letters edited by his son Viscount Norwich.
What are your favorite songs on your Ipod?
I guess the favorites all have a romantic interlude attached: Strangers in the Night; You've Got a Friend; Julio Iglesias's version of La Vie en Rose; I Left My Heart in San Francisco (because I did!).
Who most marked you in your life?
Refer to San Francisco above...
A Favorite Movie?
With friend Sean Connery
How about doing it in twos? Two Venice: Summertime and Death in Venice. Two affairs: An Affair to Remember and September Affair. But I will limit myself to one Chinese/Hong Kong film; Wong Ka-wai's In the Mood for Love. I consider Tony Leung, who stars, one of the great actors on film today. And of course I adored Maggie Cheung's performance and her parade of fabulous cheongsam dresses. My book, Shanghai Girl Gets All Dress Up, is about the transition from traditional Chinese dress to the cheongsam.
Who was Rudolf Kunnett?
The way Pauline and Philippe de Rothschild still traveled in the 1970's as they moved annually between Paris, London, Chateau Mouton in Pauillac, two months at the Cipriani in Venice where Philippe liked the swimming pool, two months at Pauline's favorite little Holnes Hotel in Geilo, Norway where Philippe was always bored and felt isolated, a 16th century castle in Hesselager, Denmark another isolated spot Pauline adored. With them went fitted Vuitton cases for all their books. Pauline was an insatiable reader. Philippe was still a publishing poet and his desk supplies had their own case. Wherever in the world he might be his desk was set up the same. And there were cases just for Pauline's supply of Kleenex and special cotton bought in the Netherlands for use of face lotions, makeup removers etc. The cotton, which came in large rolls, was hand cut by Mouton staff into four inch by four inch squares and packed in stacks two inches high then wrapped in tissue paper. Her Kleenex was removed from the box, folded in half and packed in same way as the cotton...
What is not?
The way I travel in the 21st century! Unless it is one of those times I'm able to hitch a ride on friends' jets. Then I disembark in Tetersboro Airport like Jackie Kennedy carrying only one small handbag.
Partying with the Maharaja of Jaipur
What do you find upsetting in yourself?
I have a terrible time being punctual! And I have absolutely no patience whatsoever with rudeness or disloyalty.
What importance do you attribute to fashion?
60's. The Age of Dior and Cassini
I suppose looking interesting is more important to me than following latest fashion dictates. For instance, I love wearing Shanghai Tang's men's brightly colored silk shirts as backgrounds for intriguing jewelry. Also you don't ever have to hold your stomach in wearing those! And I love wearing my beautiful Qing dynasty robes in the evening.
What is your motto?
I guess it is Thomas Wolfe's book title You Can't Go Home Again. I've always believed you must keep moving forward. And at 80 I still am!