Bill and Editta

editta-sherman-on-the-train-to-the-brooklyn-botanic-garden-new-york-historical-society-gift-of-bill-cunningham-all-1968-1976
“The lady has taste”

Shelf Awareness gave me Bill Cunningham’s memoir to review. I requested it because I’d seen the documentary on his later life as a cycling street fashion photographer for the Times. His book makes it clear that what drove everything he did, was the art. Taste, joy and creative expression were his guiding lights, and he railed against those who cultivate fashion only for status. “For me, the true creative road of design is one of continual struggle, both financially and morally…. Artists have tried desperately to blend creative life with modern comfortable living. I don’t think they go together.”

He wrote that in the early to mid 1960s. I think he’s still right.  The book world, the arts world, the fashion and music worlds all seem to be loaded heavily on the younger end. People hope to make middle class livings doing those things, and when they realize that’s not likely, they drop out.

I grew up around dedicated artists and musicians who were still at it over 40, all of them scraping by. I loved their self-created lives, aspired to be like them. Some had tried bigger cities for a while, then retreated to cheaper homes in smaller cities, towns or rural areas because their work mattered most. My oldest friend is another one. Organized, reliable, resourceful, charming, and winner of many grants, she has hustled for decades, and still sits on the poverty line, patching together a living from teaching, landladying, and the support of a community of friends who step up for each other, as needed.

My own arty mother qualified for food stamps when I was in high school and she was in grad school. As I headed off to get an expensive drama degree from NYU, my goals were to always know where my food and housing money were coming from each month, and if necessary, to own a reliable used car.

Part of that degree was an Introduction to the Profession course, featuring guest speakers who were all theater professionals in one way or another. I still have the notebook. Liz Swados, Ruth Malaczech, Philip Glass, Hal Prince, Spalding Gray.  But one of my most distinct memories from that class, was the internationally acclaimed experimental theater artist who said she had no idea when she started out that she would end up raising her kids on welfare.

I used to think that most people who went for careers in the arts grew up solidly middle class, at minimum, and had the comfort of a safety net behind them. Of course that isn’t always true. Bill Cunningham had a net. His friend and favorite model Editta Sherman absolutely did not. She was so poor, she had to send her five children to live in an orphanage for a while (they came home on weekends) so she could handle her photography business and dying husband. In time she photographed Henry Fonda and Leonard Bernstein, and hung out with Andy Warhol. And made this absolutely wonderful and not at all lucrative book with Bill Cunningham.

It’s a crazy arty project of Sherman modeling Cunningham’s antique clothing collection in front of appropriate old buildings in Manhattan, covering the colonial period to the 1970s. It’s called Facades, just the kind of title he would pick. I got my copy pretty recently online, and it seemed as if Sherman’s descendants have a stack they’re selling off.

The whole thing looks like so much fun, a crazy historic fashion nerd project by two friends who adored each other and made each other laugh.  A joint instagram account from the 1970s. The captions are so serious, in a voice that would suit 1950s Vogue, identifying the date, the address, and the garments, including invisible details. The photos themselves are sometimes dignified, but often not. Editta strikes pinup poses, takes a dance step, is caught mid-laugh, or flips her hoop skirt at the camera to show the bloomers underneath.

Here they are, still at it, decades later. When you get old, they say, you become a more extreme version of who you’ve been all along. Aren’t they lovely.

 

Keats, hanging out.

I read Keats’ letters every once in a while.

Here he is, writing to his brothers. I was startled because I didn’t think this slang was used before the 20th C.

I am… getting initiated into a little band. They call drinking deep dyin’ scarlet. They call good wine a pretty tipple, and call getting a child knocking out an apple; stopping at a tavern they call hanging out. Where do you sup? Where do you hang out?

I have a book coming out. But it’s not my book.

Jirousek_Ottoman Dress and Design in the West_cvr

My late mother, Charlotte Jirousek, professor of textiles and apparel at Cornell University, wrote it. Took her about 15 years, including research.

Her premise is that dress historians in Europe and the USA often write as if a cultural wall separated the Ottoman Empire and Europe, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

Those cultures influenced each other for centuries, and the history of how the balance between them shifted along with political, military, and economic power is one of the most interesting parts of this story.

Plus all the cool tidbits like–guess where buttons came from.

Mom went to Turkey for the first time on a college trip in 1959, and fell in love with that part of the world for life. In the 1960s, she and my father served with Peace Corps Turkey and helped a village get a rug cooperative off the ground. At age 49, after various other adventures, she got her PhD. Tough age to start an academic career, but she did it. Cornell was her second job after graduation. As soon as she got it, she began almost annual trips to do primary research in Turkey on vanishing textile technologies at the end of what was once the Silk Road, aided by her fluency in Turkish, her experience with Anatolian village culture, and her background as a weaver and weaving teacher. She traveled to places that few other researchers had been to. And over time, she became interested in the influence of the Ottoman Empire on European dress and design.

Right after she retired in 2014, she died. Her coffee table was stacked with books and maps to plan another three month research trip.

We were flooded with condolences, and also many notes from her collaborators and peers saying, “but what about the book?!”

The manuscript was complete enough to pitch. Once I had cleared out the estate, and placed her collections, papers, and personal library at Cornell, I picked it up.

I took a “how to pitch a scholarly book” class with Audra J. Wolfe via Thinking Writer,  sent out queries, and it was acquired by Jennika Baines of Indiana University Press.

With her guidance, and using skills I learned as an academic librarian, proofreader, and indexer, I completed a massive developmental edit, and cut the images from over 300 down to 196. When I couldn’t find copyright holders or even sources for some of those images, I found new ones that illustrated the same points. That part took almost a year! Try looking for a specific 15th century sleeve detail in scanned manuscript databases held by national libraries and little monasteries, using google translate to navigate their sites.

I also corresponded with many curators and librarians, often across language barriers (though I did improve my French). Many were lovely, and went extra miles to help me.

To pay thousands of dollars in subvention, permissions and international wiring fees, I held a GoFundMe, and my mom’s network stepped up and covered it all.

There is no way I could have done this project 20 years ago.

So it’s done now. It is  brilliant, topical, beautiful, accessible to a general audience, and out March 1, 2019. This is how the preface begins:

“In 1959 I made my first visit to the Middle East. It was a revelation.”

Charlotte Jirousek in Iğdır 1959
Charlotte Jirousek in Iğdır 1959

Thus the Birch Canoe was builded

I’m on a John McPhee kick, which is starting to tie into my childhood “abandon me in the wilderness” fantasies. I’m reading the library’s copy of The Survival of the Bark Canoe. Someone copied part of Longfellow’s noble savage fantasy, Song of Hiawatha, into the back.

Hiawatha stanzas

I never thought it was a good poem, even as a child growing up in Minneapolis, with this statue a semi-annual school field trip, and real Natives, some AIM activists, talking history at school and elsewhere.

Hiawatha statue

But I can still sympathize slightly with the defacer of library property because it is a hard poem to remove from memory, once in. And it always makes me think of Katherine Hepburn as a reference librarian.