Someone a hundred years from now browsing in Dominique Nabokov’s 1998 book of photographs, New York Living Rooms,1 will understand the sort of room stylish, affluent, influential people considered to be tasteful and comfortable at the end of the twentieth century. Though the owners of the photographed rooms no doubt all consider themselves unique and individualistic, and though there is a wide socioeconomic range, still there is considerable unanimity of taste among them. Nearly all the rooms have white walls; most floors are bare, with Oriental or other patterned rugs. The wall-to-wall carpet, having had its mid-twentieth-century reign, seems to have declined among those who have handsome parquet or hardwood or stone floors to reveal, though Prince and Princess Romanoff, perhaps with some vestigial memory of snowy steppes, or aristocratic indifference to fashion, still have theirs, and so does Al Sharpton. Curtains are gone. Furniture is usually a mixture of traditional and contemporary, the latter style preferred for the sofas, which must be heaped with pillows.
A good room must contain at least one original work of art, in one case Rothkos, and some allusion to a primitive or ethnic culture, like an African mask or Mexican bark painting, or may refer to the culture of childhood. Books must be in evidence. The overall feeling seems to be an equivocation between the dictates of high modernism, the neo-baroque revival, and nostalgia or a continuation of decorative traditions inherited from Europe. One senses some try at “statement,” and perhaps a certain pragmatism; but there is no escaping from what’s in the wind, as when you come to name your child, and no escaping from what has gone before.
People have always been preoccupied with decor, except for those who are resolutely not, people with the visual equivalent of tin ears, or who are convinced for ideological or religious reasons that it is wrong to think about beauty and comfort. Still, “the unconscious is housed,” said the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “…in the space of its happiness.” Everyone does what he can to live in a bearable and if possible delightful space, and most of us have always thought about this more than we care to admit. It is interesting to compare Nabokov’s rooms with the admired decor of a century ago, as painted in a series of charming oils and watercolors by the American painter Walter Gay, one of the large set of rich American expatriates who lived in Europe, especially France, before and during the First World War.
Gay’s life, with his sprightly wife Matilda, and his paintings mostly of rooms are the subject of William Rieder’s A Charmed Couple: The Art and Life of Walter and Matilda Gay, which presents the pictures and an account of the Gays’ indeed charmed lives, which involved social events in European society at a pace that people today would find unmanageable—the Gays, like their friend Mrs. Edith Wharton, might go to a lunch and then three tea parties in an afternoon. In such circles, Gay did not lack for clients who wanted their rooms immortalized, just like the New Yorkers who cooperated with Dominique Nabokov’s photos.
Probably most of us today could live comfortably in any of the charming rooms we see in Gay’s paintings. Though the taste of 2000 is different from that of 1900, it isn’t all that different. What is interesting is how many of the elements of admired decor have remained unchanged, also, perhaps, from 1800 or 1700 or even ancient Pompeii. In Gay’s day, white walls had not yet arrived—this taste would await the influence of Elsie de Wolfe2—but the floors were bare, with little rugs, then as now.
As befitted a society painter and his wife, Walter and Matilda had certain qualities that secured them a place in French, English, and American expatriate society. Besides Walter’s genius for depicting the rooms of other rich people, or his own, they had money and self-confidence and rather snobbish taste. Matilda was independent, funny, and judgmental, and, though they lamented that their French was not up to a long dinner party, to compensate for any lack of conversation they were hospitable, and Walter was “the best shot in France.” Even more important, they were artists, and France has always been democratic and welcoming to artists. It seems that they, like Henry James, moved with perfect ease between the US and Europe and felt more at home in Europe, in the company of people like themselves, for whom Europe seems to have been a more comfortable and agreeable natural habitat.
Their friends were English, French, and American members of “good” European society, many of them still familiar names—Elsie de Wolfe, Walter Berry, Teddy and Edith Wharton, Henry James and Henry Adams. Theodore Roosevelt or Bernard Berenson might turn up for dinner, or for one of the vast lunches Matilda would put on. While in no way thinking of themselves as expatriates, these people spent most of their time in what they thought of as the more congenial Paris, London, or the French or English countryside. Europeans, for their part, seem to have distinguished between these “nice” Americans who were acceptable socially, and the rough, caricaturable types, with broad accents and a lot of money, figures of fun whose daughters were marriageable if the fortune was large enough. Wharton herself made much of these Americans in her satirical novels, like The Custom of the Country where “Miss Wincher of Potash Springs” becomes the Marquise de Trézac.
The community of Europeanized “nice” Americans had its own tensions and gossip. The Gays did not hesitate to judge Americans with taste they deemed vulgar, nor did they spare French and English vulgarians, even if the latter were aristocrats. It was an era of American self-confidence that would not last.
Meantime, Matilda Gay was a hard judge of men, but even harder on women, and on the subject of American women, she and Edith Wharton both had a lot to say: “We had a nice talk about the idleness, lack of purpose and utter disregard of home ties and responsibilities of American women,” Matilda notes. Even though it is quite unlikely that either Matilda or Edith had ever picked up an iron or beaten an egg, female indolence was Wharton’s great pet peeve too. As she wrote in her memoir A Backward Glance, “Now that I am old,…I mourn the extinction of the household arts. Cold storage, deplorable as it is, has done far less harm than Higher Education [for women].” Matilda constantly deplored women’s lack of conversation, compared to the better-informed men, something Wharton assailed too, though she thought that both sexes must take the blame for it. “Why haven’t we taught our women to take an interest in our work? Simply because we don’t take enough interest in them,” says one of the male characters in The Custom of the Country. In Europe, woman is not “a parenthesis, as she is here—she’s in the very middle of the picture.”
Although Matilda Gay loved Edith Wharton, her tone in her diary is sometimes severe and often dismissive of certain aspects of her friend’s accomplishments—her novels, but especially her taste in decorating. Yet decor had been the concern of Wharton’s first published work, The Decoration of Houses. In it she had urged aesthetic principles based on the heavily Italianate or ornate gold-and-boiserie Louis Quinze or Seize furniture beloved of American millionaires of the period. For these Americans, no question of a native American style; the decor of reference was European, and among Europeans, whether they were Italian, French, or English, there was a general agreement on the necessary elements of boiserie, bronze, marble, gilt, statuary, and garden vistas. Of course there were local variations, but these comprised the theme.
In light of this, the Gays thought Wharton’s rooms a little odd. In fact, her friend Ogden Codman, with whom she had written The Decoration of Houses, noted that the Gays did “not think [Wharton] has much taste, no eye for color. Alas I must quite agree to both. And she is not clever enough to get someone to help her.” Walter Gay, painting Wharton’s rooms at Pavillon Colombe, subtly improved the wall color and invented a sofa covered with a prettier fabric than what Codman called “quite the ugliest cretonne I ever saw.”
“Someone to help her” might have been Elsie de Wolfe, living nearby in Versailles, who with her partner Bessie Marbury and their friend Anne Morgan was one of a triumvirate of fashionable lesbians and a friend of the Gays, though not of Wharton, who apparently disapproved of her, whether of her lesbianism or her mode of entertaining is not clear. These women, Wharton wrote, “are really not fit to traffic with, and I always feel degraded when I go against my prejudice and treat them as if they were.” Though the Gays liked Elsie, they did not always approve of her raffish gatherings of “discontented Americans and rather off-colored French people—you know the kind.” Yet like countless others, they admired and emulated her undeniable good taste in decorating.
Wolfe, eventually Lady Mendl, is sometimes credited with being the first interior decorator, though certainly the British and French aristocrats whose splendid houses the Gays and their friends admired had put their decoration in the hands of their architects, who, like Adam or Nash, saw to the decoration along with the building. Stephen Calloway noted a few years ago, in his notes to a Victoria and Albert show of designs for interiors by contemporary decorators, that the
emergence of the decorator as Arbiter Elegantarium and purveyor of chic is one of the most intriguing of the social and artistic phenomena of the century. We have become ever more obsessed with interiors as expressions of individual taste, national characteristics and cultural and social aspiration and indeed today we see interior decoration as the very type of the decorative arts, embracing as it does, in all its multiplicity of styles, so much of the work of other artists, designers and craftsmen.
In decoration, Elsie de Wolfe preached “the best standards.” She explains in her widely popular The House in Good Taste (1911), “What do we mean by the best standards? Certainly not those of the useless, overcharged house of the average American millionaire, who builds and furnishes his home with a hopeless disregard of tradition.” Her remedies—besides sincerity, common sense, suitability, light, air, and simplicity—were “optimism and white paint.” Like those of Wharton and the Gays, her attacks on the hapless “average American millionaire” implicitly endorsed European aesthetic standards, which they saw as maintaining a tradition once possessed by Americans. The simple houses of the American forefathers had been beautiful, but the mercantile newly rich had done much to debase the American tradition. In any case, Elsie de Wolfe’s dictum about “optimism and white paint” can still be seen today to weigh on New York Living Rooms.
Matilda Gay, critical of Wharton’s decor, might also have disapproved of her morals. Wharton, long the doyenne of upper-class American women writers, was discovered after her death to have had a lover during a short period. His identity was at first a mystery, but he turned out to be William Morton Fullerton, a now relatively forgotten figure who seems to have been in his day very prominent in the landscape of the interesting period which slowly emerges from books that focus on Americans in Europe before World War I. Fullerton has been rescued from oblivion by the researches of Marion Mainwaring in her biography The Mysteries of Paris, a book partly about him, partly about all the trouble she had uncovering his tracks, which proved to be peculiarly elusive even though he was well known and figures in the correspondence or memoirs of countless people from that time, or rather, more strangely, seems to have been excised from them. She describes, for instance, how George Santayana, who was at Harvard with Fullerton and a longtime correspondent with him, carefully omitted him from descriptions of occasions when Fullerton was almost certainly present, and ignores his membership in clubs Fullerton belonged to, the reason by implication being a sort of homosexual anxiety that made Santayana refrain from mentioning him for fear of revealing his feelings. Mrs. Wharton, with her own skeletons to hide, does not mention him in her memoir either, though her diary entries record her rapturous sexual experiences with him.
Fullerton is an intriguing figure, today as to his contemporaries: an exasperating cad, certainly a heartbreaker, beloved by a range of people from French opera dancers to Oscar Wilde, Henry James, and George Meredith. He was something of the quintessential expatriate American, like Wharton and James themselves, all people who either could not feel comfortable with what they thought of as the Puritanism and ugliness of American manners and morals or had to lie low outside the US, or just found that their true lives lay in Europe, though poor Fullerton can seldom have been comfortable living in a series of shabby hotels or lodgings, blackmailed by his landlady, with whom he was sleeping too, always short of money and angling for loans from his friends. That they obliged and didn’t hold it against him is a tribute to the charm he must have had. His checkered career is tracked by Mainwaring with admirable diligence and a somewhat confusing chronology, as she presents the facts of his life in the order she discovered them, rather than in the order they happened. She leaves it to the reader to piece together the dramatic pattern and even the actual circumstances of those whom he was married to, his possible children, stepchildren, sexual preferences, and literary accomplishments, in a nearly unreadable profusion of inspired insights, diligent detective work, and biographical conjectures which often go too far. For instance, here she explicates a poem written by Wharton to Fullerton:
A reader ignorant of the biographical setting might not sense, in the ripe, relaxed “beauty” thus created, passion so deep on Edith’s part that Morton’s known record dissolved in a rarified superlove, exacting veneration from both alike, in which normal human resentment could not thrive.
Embedded in these animated pages is a little drama of Mainwaring’s own life that illustrates the perils of writing and reading biographies. Asked to look into Morton Fullerton for the “official” biographer of Edith Wharton, presumably R.W.B. Lewis, Mainwaring is shocked to find when she reads in the eventually published biography (1975) that he has totally confused the material she sent him: he has Fullerton living at 2 Rue de Chausée [sic] d’Antin (the Times office) with Henrietta Mirecourt. Lewis calls her “an intelligent, even a cultivated, person, and perhaps part English,” statements that bear no relation to what Mainwaring had told him. The baffled researcher can only explain these completely inaccurate statements in the official biography as Lewis’s misreading of her information that she had come upon a “Daffis de Mirecourt,” about whom she had added “maybe Mme. Mirecourt was a kind of French Henrietta Stackpole,” a character in a James novel. Mainwaring writes, “This was only one surprise among many, for me, in the official biography of Edith Wharton.”
Lewis’s confusion was no doubt partly Mainwaring’s fault for overestimating the biographer’s ability to sort out her allusions; and it is safe to predict that any future biographies of Morton Fullerton, and Edith Wharton, will incorporate errors arising from her own obsessive inventiveness. For instance, having pointed out that he didn’t appear in Who’s Who, she writes, a half page later, “Had the public, publishing man figured in Who’s Who, an entry based on the data given me at the start of work would have read…” and proceeds to give a fictitious Who’s Who entry, adding that “several items would have been incorrect.” Will the hurried graduate student of the future notice that the Who’s Who entry in her book wasn’t real or succeed in figuring out which are the false items?
Fullerton seems to have had a successful, if low-paying, career writing for the The Times, the TLS, and other periodicals in English, and for the Figaro and elsewhere in French, which he wrote well enough to figure on a list, Les Quarante Cinq, whose membership was just less prestigious than the French Academy itself. He also was made a chevalier in the Legion d’Honneur, for his service to France, hinting at covert diplomatic activities, as well as for advice on an important public exposition. It is impressive today to read his most serious book, Problems of Power, published in 1913,3 a commentary on European politics predicting the war that lay on the horizon. His analysis of the world political situation can serve to describe globalization today:
The whole series of economic conditions so exceptionally characteristic of our industrial and financial period…are altering the whole conception of the State, and they are making breaches in frontiers; but these frontiers are boundaries fixed by treaty, and maintained superficially intact by military force, or by the still powerful prestige of international convention.
His view is that assaults on these breaches have the temporary effect of increasing nationalism, like the “pathetic convulsions” of organisms trying to keep alive, but are really the death throes of nationalism under the impress of economic over patriotic forces.
He sees French history as embodying an “age-long struggle…between two opposite theories of human development, the Protestant and the Catholic, between Individualism and Solidarity, between Free Thought and Authority.” If his own New England Protestant perspective is allowed for, his contention that “the Dreyfus Affair is the revenge of the Edict of Nantes” is rather convincingly argued (and also his analysis of French bureaucracy). And he turned out to be right about the extent to which the history of Europe would turn on the internal struggle of the Catholic Church with the Republican French government for dominance and influence (an account as dramatic as a historical novel), in that it led to the misperception on the part of other European powers that France was fundamentally unstable. “The French domestic crises …have been the necessary condition of Germany’s agitation—of her peculiar aggressive policy….” His clear explication of the process of secularization in France may have certain analogies in some Middle Eastern societies of today, and certainly prefigures the basic tensions in French society that recently surfaced in the surprisingly large vote for the Catholic, anti-republican Le Pen.
With a gift for lively generalization, Fullerton illumines such abstractions as the French character in a way that remains amusing and recognizable, a society of “organized politeness” where “thought must, at all costs, be rendered intelligible; and if possible its expression must be rendered average.” Poor Fullerton had little recognition for his broadly synthetic gifts; even his prose style, in fact lucid and animated, was criticized by his friends. Henry James, who seems to have been more than a little in love with him, wanted him to have written a travel book about Paris, which might have put to better use his “treasure of experience and intelligence, of accomplishment, talent, ambition, charm, everything….” These qualities were in the main noticed by reviewers, especially Theodore Roosevelt in the Outlook, who felt that Fullerton knew international politics as few Americans did, and should be read by all; Roosevelt was operating under the assumption, today apparently so controversial, that world politics and American politics are connected.
What did Wharton, James, Fullerton, and countless other Americans find in Europe that caused them to leave a country that had, between 1890 and 1910, undergone immense changes they all deplored? Wharton, speaking for James, says it is America itself they sought, a society whose qualities they now found only in Europe: “The truth is that he belonged irrevocably to the old America out of which I also came, and of which—almost—it might paradoxically be said that to follow up its last traces one had to come to Europe….” That was her own view too, and apparently the view of the whole class of permanently settled Americans in France and England. Europe and America had a family relationship that was finally ruptured by the Second World War. Matilda Gay died in her château with the Nazis tromping around downstairs; Morton Fullerton lived until 1952, lasting quietly through the war in a cold Parisian apartment with barely enough to eat or keep warm by.
Edith Wharton’s contention was that America can learn three lessons from France: reverence for the past, taste, and intellectual honesty. And this attitude seems not to have appreciably differed from those of earlier generations, like Thomas Jefferson or James Fenimore Cooper, or later ones, like James Jones or James Baldwin, as if America, being constantly measured by the privileged against the European ideals on which it was founded, will constantly be found wanting.
September 26, 2002