West Hartford, Connecticut, where I grew up, is such a typical New England suburb that movies requiring a typical New England suburb were either made there or at least set there... such as "Promises in the Dark" and "Far From Heaven." It was idyllic- leafy and gentle (genteel and gentile)- although very much a divided town, as towns were then and still sadly are. There was a large Jewish community, of which my family was a proud member, although we lived in a mixed neighborhood. Don't get me wrong- there were definite lines of demarcation; there was a grand, traditional enclave of stately colonial homes widely known to be "restricted," along with a neighborhood of lovely, more contemporary houses built into a mountainside. That was widely referred to as "The Jewish Alps." Why I am even talking about this escapes me, except that I have always been acutely aware of social, religious and racial ghettoization. My other half Rich and I live in Palm Beach, Florida, a town that sometimes feels like the epicenter of the old guard ways depicted in the 1947 movie "Gentleman's Agreement," which stars Gregory Peck and deals with anti-Semitism and bigotry. Yet, we both love Palm Beach (save for the occasional presence of a certain Presidential candidate) and gladly call it home, hoping that things will indeed change for the more enlightened with each passing generation.
Back to West Hartford, we had a wonderful 1950s era shopping center with all sorts of carriage trade stores... Peck & Peck, S.S. Pierce, Doubleday, Best & Co., and a great big Lord & Taylor with gracious awnings and a sunken garden.
Much of our "good clothes" came from there... I guess they must have carried "husky" sizes in the boys department. It also had a restaurant, "The Bird Cage," that served patrician dishes like assorted tea sandwiches (pink and green cream cheese!) and "Offerings from the Pastry Cart." I loved Lord & Taylor... the smell of perfume, the quiet whooshing noise of the escalators, the discreet ringing chimes that to this day I still have no idea what they meant... but for me, it was style-central.
I was more than a little tickled, therefore, to learn that the legendary socialite Babe Paley served as the inspiration for Lord & Taylor's mannequins. She died before I was really aware of her, but now that I think about it and have read about her, there was a certain soignee attitude about those mannequins that was most definitely Babe Paley-esque.
Now, do you know what a yard sale is? If you've ever lived in a suburb, you know what I am talking about- folks hauling their unwanted things out onto the driveway over a weekend, hoping that their trash might be somebody else's treasure. My old friend Robert Janjigian, the fashion editor, was an expert at combing through other people's castoffs and furnishing entire houses stylishly with his finds.
One winter many years ago, he convinced a few of his elegant Palm Beach lady friends to do a joint yard sale with him in one of their garages, something that I am sure isn't allowed by Palm Beach's strict town codes. But it was great fun... there was an evening "gala preview" with cocktails and hor d'oeuvre, and each lady had her own little setup. The next day, business was brisk; I bought straw place mats that I still use to this day- I think for a dollar apiece.
Finally, I stopped by a folding table laden with china and knickknacks. I picked up a cute little ceramic bear. "Do you like it?" said the petite, pretty blonde gal manning the table. "It was my mother-in-law's... she kept it on her desk. The ear is a little chipped, so I marked it $19." Her name was Siri Mortimer, and her husband, Tony, is Babe Paley's son.
Needless to say, Babe's bear now lives with me. It is one of my favorite things, and serves as a constant reminder of a certain graceful elegance; one that I wish we had a lot more of these recent complicated days.