Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Window, Part I

In art school in the late 80's I had two primary hangout buddies; transplanted Southern Belles named Tim and Kirk, but generally referred to as Connie and Trish. They dressed like the evil Omega frat boys in National Lampoon's Animal House, but carried within them an innate University-of-Virginia-circa-1965-Tri-Delt kind of fabulousness. I, in my small town Yankee stoicism, black jeans, black boots and black fireman's coat, did not manifest fabulousness of any kind. Behind my back they called me barbarian. Still, they seemed to enjoy my company - and the convenience of my car - so I accompanied the two quite a bit. One of the many, many parties they brought me to was held before Christmas in one of the wide brick town house on Pine Street. Pine Street had once been haute bourgeois (and is now again home to the oppressor class) but at that time the houses were mostly broken up into shabby apartments filled with students, shop clerks, and homosexuals. We entered the second floor front room (historically the main entertaining room in Fine Philadelphia Homes, and again so on that night) lit by candles everywhere and the flickering embers in the fireplace on the short end furthest from the door. There stood a tall man in ravaged khakis cinched with an embroidered belt, a pressed pink button down shirt and a broad sweep of golden hair. The man was in the midst of an animated conversation, half arguing, with the fox fur wrapped around his shoulders, his hand inside it's mouth like a puppet's. Both were speaking in French. When they laughed, the fox's paws flailed wildly. Connie and Trish squealed in recognition; they'd hoped he'd be there! They set upon the man and introduced themselves, and after awhile introduced me, too. I would later be informed the man was something of a celebrity in the Philadelphia homo demimonde (years later, when he reflected on meeting us all, the man confided that he first thought that I was their bodyguard). The preppy Oscar Wilde turned out to be named Mark Squire, who resided someplace called Lemon Hall.

A short time later, I found myself regularly driving Connie and Trish out to Lemon Hall in my ancient Buick- windows rolled down so as not to asphyxiate us all with the leaky exhaust - to spend afternoons with Squire at the grand and disintegrating house overlooking the Art Museum and Center City beyond: Lemon Hall. We'd call first of course. Squire would answer the phone trilling "L-lllemon in a soft breathy voice some times, or brusquely stating "lemon hole" other times if the cranky dilapidated house was giving him trouble. At that time the house was filled with an eclectic and undisciplined collage of objects collected by a young man with a great eye but often limited funds: plaster nymphs bearing sprays of light bulb blossoms; original advertising artwork from between the wars; paisley and nail head upholstered tables; A dozen various sized punch bowls all mysteriously glazed with "Tom and Jerry" in gilt script; plaster sconces; stream lined art deco and Japanese looking aesthetic movement chairs, gramophone cylinders; a large autographed photo of Gilded Age opera diva Louisa Tetrazzini, after whom the turkey casserole is named. There was a 17th century Italian gilded leather enclosed sedan chair in the garage under the western porch. Squire knew everything about all of it. We'd read architecture, history and design books from the massive library which was stacked up the treads and almost completely covered the sweeping curve of the disused main staircase; discovering cut paper quilt pattern shapes, tiny tracing paper sketches of costumes and furniture and window treatments, leaves, and translucent flowers pressed in the pages. The three of us clustered around him in the red room as he sat on the velvet Hepplewhite sofa, plucking Benson and Hedges cigarettes from a sterling urn on the pie crust edge Chinese Chippendale table and smoking them from an ivory holder, like F.D.R. We listened breathlessly as he related his adventures in the dining rooms, drawing rooms and back rooms of New York, Palm Beach, Vail and Paris; the tales swirling around his head in the wreath of cigarette smoke. Connie and Trish came and went, but I began to spend more and more time there. I started to think of Squire's as my home in Philadelphia, at a time when the relationship with my parents back at the home I'd left behind was becoming increasingly strained. Over four years I spent many days and evenings there, often sleeping on one of a pair of tufted red leather chesterfield sofas in the center of the ground floor oval room, which had been the formal dining room almost two centuries before but went through numerous other incarnations during Squire's tenure.

Squire and his brother Marvin (he looked like a Ralph Lauren model and actually did play polo in college, but was as pinched and prissy as Squire was expansive and gregarious. His beauty was all surface), ran a draping business from that twenty by thirty foot elliptical room where I sometimes slept, the workspace separated into the two hemispheres on either side of the sofas. Squire made curtains and bed coverings for high end decorators in the area, Marvin did the books and helped with installations. In addition to their trade and of much more interest to me, Squire produced elaborate creations using the businesses' space and equipment. Marvin didn't like that much. I watched Squire and worked along side him on his, and later my own, projects. He quickly saw capability in my own hands and eye, which made me feel very proud. Often he'd caution me, "Make sure Martian doesn't see that. " and I'd squirrel away a length of horsehair or satin or fringe where sour puss wouldn't find it. Squire recreated textile treatments for museum and historic house room settings. He made spot on copies of movie costumes for himself and others: Tippi Hedron's grey suit from "The Birds" with gilded cage and killer fowl attatched; Holly Hunter's Brown silk gown from "The Piano", along with a tiny scale model spinet that the wearer strapped to his ankle before diving into the pool during the Halloween costume competition at a party in East Hampton (he won), and a series of Scarlet O'Harra numbers tailored for a wealthy building materials heir to wear at elaborate balls held in his Civil War era Delancy Place mansion. He made corsets from any and all periods, molding the wearer's shape into the flattened cones of the 17th century or the voluptuous curves of the belle epoch as required. He stitched together reproduction band boxes and wrapped them with fragments of 18th century wallpaper. He threw pottery on the wheel which he decorated in imitation of two hundred year old Bucks County originals, but featuring portraits of his dogs: Peabody (who was usually called peanut); Vassar (who was usually called Cow Head or The Monkey); and Olympia (who was addressed as such, but invariably referred to as Mrs. Blowlou).

There were parties for hundreds on the sloping crab grass infested south lawn; sit down dinners and cocktails for as many inside. We sat in folding chairs on the narrow balcony which wrapped the curved exterior wall of the second floor drawing room, watching fireworks over the art museum filling every visible bit of sky - bursting so close to us that it felt like they were exploding inside my heart. A parade of people from all over the world came through the house (through his guests my six degrees of separation was knocked down to two or three away from Princess Margaret, Katherine Hepburn, and the King of Thailand). It was like visiting Auntie Mame.

It was astonishing to me how much was accomplished in that house, what with all the activity, especially with Squires own rigorous schedule of amorous persuits. I asked him once how he did it. He considered for a moment, then said, "Well, I chose someone I like, engage him in conversation, buy him a drink, and then go home with him! It's simple. When you finally get around to deciding who it is you wan't to sleep with, it will work for you, too." He'd done this several night a week since about 1980, he said, and offered that he'd likely "...seen the inside of every bachelor's apartment within walking distance of Woody's. Every one."

I dropped out of school, and worked briefly for a year for an insane Jewish decorator out on the Main Line. I then left Philadelphia and wandered through Boston, Baltimore and The Outer Banks of North Carolina. After six years of that, I decided to finish school, and so returned to Philadelphia to Lemon Hall and to Squire.
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