Issue 2 - A Prince In New York - Image 1

A Prince in New York

Serge Obolensky’s life reads like a work of fiction. There is a fairy-tale beginning: he was born a Russian prince and married a princess. There is adventure: for our prince was brave as well as handsome… a dashing young cavalry officer in the First World War, he escaped from the Bolsheviks with a price on his head, while in the Second World War he became an American commando who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe. There is Gatsby-era glamor: the second Princess Obolensky was a renowned American heiress. And a dash of cocktail lore: legend has it that he inspired the creation of the Bloody Mary in the King Cole Bar of The St. Regis New York. This heady concoction sounds too extraordinary to be true, but life can be stranger than fiction, as Obolensky well knew.
 
Let us begin, though, at the beginning, in 1890, when Serge Obolensky was born, the heir to one of Russia’s grandest aristocratic families. Decades later, in his memoirs, he recalled the vanished country of his youth: the winter sleigh-rides to his grandmother’s palace in St. Petersburg, the summers spent on his parents’ vast estates, the fun of Countess Tolstoy’s costume ball. And there were trips abroad, for like other wealthy Russians, the Obolenskys travelled widely – visiting Paris, or fashionable belle époque resorts such as San Sebastian and Biarritz.
 
Obolensky’s education was rounded off at Oxford, England, where he played polo and joined the exclusive Bullingdon Club, while out of term he was a hit with London’s leading hostesses. Many of the friendships that Obolensky formed at this time would be important in his later life.But in both London and St. Petersburg, he was experiencing two great imperial capitals on the eve of enormous change. In London he recalled “an air of massive elegance and leisure all but inconceivable in any later period. I believe I saw the end of it… the mellow grandeur of the Edwardian age.” In Russia, revolution was about to bring the Obolenskys’ world crashing around them.
 
Obolensky called his memoirs One Man in His Time, but what is remarkable is his knack of being in the right place, if not at the right time, then at a fascinating time. Even with the advent of war, when he joined the crack Chevalier Guards regiment, he enjoyed one final “cavalryman’s paradise”, as his regiment covered the Russian army’s slow retreat in “a form of warfare that will never come again”, as the age-old hegemony of mounted soldiery gave way to an era of trenches and tanks.
 
If Obolensky’s recollections make the war seem almost fun – more fun than the trenches, certainly – it is worth noting that he also won the St. Andrew’s Cross for valor three times. Meanwhile, like many of his class, he sensed the coming crisis as the vast Empire of all Russias began to fracture under the strain of war. In 1916 he married Princess Catherine Yurievskaya, the daughter of Tsar Alexander II and his aristocratic mistress (and later wife). Catherine had grown up in France and wasn’t close to the current Tsar, Nicholas II; nor was Serge. Yet their lives, like that of millions of Russians, would be turned upside down when Nicholas led the Romanov dynasty and the nation into the abyss.
 
With the onset of the Revolution, the big cities were plunged into chaos, and Serge and Catherine joined an aristocratic exodus south to the Crimea, that Riviera-like coastline of palaces and villas he’d known well as a child. There he joined the “White” forces fighting the Bolshevik “Reds”, but as the horrors of civil war unfolded, even a battle-hardened Obolensky found the mix of horror and beauty “sickening... the total destruction of a childhood memory”.
 
Around this time the society painter Savely Sorine drew a sketch of Obolensky, capturing something serious about the eyes as well as the elegance of the young officer. This portrait would eventually wind up in Obolensky’s apartment in Manhattan, where in 1970 he was photographed alongside it for a New York Times feature headlined: “Serge Obolensky: a Society Legend at 80”. All those years later, he is recognizably the same man. But just like its subject, the sketch had gone through some dramas along the way. It acquired a spray of bullet holes when the Reds shot up Catherine’s palace in Yalta. Then it was displayed with the inscription, “Serge Obolensky, Wanted, Dead or Alive”, until Sorine bribed a guard with three roubles to let him take down the sketch and then smuggled it out of Russia. More importantly, the artist also spirited Catherine out of her ransacked palace and into hiding. Husband and wife would be reunited in Moscow, both in disguise, having endured hardship and danger. They eventually escaped to London, via Vienna and then Bern, where Serge could access the $200,000 he had cunningly squirreled out of Russia into Swiss bank accounts.
 
A tiny fraction of the Obolensky fortune, this was still considerably more than many exiles managed to escape with. During the 1920s former Russian debutantes worked as cabaret dancers in Shanghai, while one Romanov prince eked out a living as a Paris taxi driver. Many White Russians never quite got their heads around these reversals of fortune, their grief at what had been left behind or the sorrow of exile. Presumably Serge Obolensky felt all of the above keenly. But just as impressive as his derring-do flight from Russia was his ability to shed any Russian might-have-beens and get on with his life. “He never looked back,” his son Ivan Obolensky agrees. “He had a resilience, an ability to hang on to happy memories, but always to look forward.”
 
Serge’s father had intended him to be a modern agriculturalist farming the vast family estates. Now the estates were gone. What remained, however, was Obolensky’s extraordinary charm, surely key to his remarkable ability to land on his feet. People liked Serge Obolensky. This had probably saved his life in Russia, where he had been aided by a former employee, an old shoemaker of his acquaintance, and a nurse he’d never met before, all at considerable risk to their own lives. This quality would serve him well throughout his life. “He had such ease,” his son recalls, while his secretary told the New York Times, “He could charm the birds from the trees.” And looking at the photographs of him whirling celebrated beauties around the dance-floor, it is clear that women adored Serge Obolensky. And he certainly married well – as princes in stories are meant to.


 

Sketch of Obolensky by Savely Sorine,
made around the time of the Russian Revolution;

 

the Obolensky coat of arms


Obolensky’s first wife, Princess Catherine and
her children, 1920;

On escaping Russia, Serge and Catherine lived increasingly separate lives and then divorced, amicably. Serge moved into the flat of his cousin, Prince Felix Yusapov (famous as one of the men who murdered Rasputin) in London’s Knightsbridge, and then after an ill-starred trip selling farming equipment in Australia, settled down to the prosperous, bowler-hatted life of the London stockbroker. Then one night he went to a costume ball and danced with Alice Astor. He was dressed as a Cossack. She was wearing a Chinese dress and a necklace from the tomb of Tutankhamun. They promptly fell in love.
 
Alice’s father, John Jacob Astor IV – one of the richest men in America – had built New York’s celebrated St. Regis Hotel. He went down with the Titanic, but Alice’s mother Ava, the formidable Lady Ribblesdale, was very much alive and strongly opposed to her daughter marrying “an impoverished Russian prince”. However, when Alice came of age, she got her way, and their marriage was the wedding of the London Season in 1924. Or rather weddings, for there were three: an Anglican one at the Savoy Chapel, a civil ceremony, and then an Orthodox one at the Russian Church. Alice’s British cousin, Viscount Astor, gave away the bride, while Serge’s old Oxford friend Prince Paul of Serbia was best man. They honeymooned in Deauville, France, and thus began their luxe, but peripatetic, married life spent on ocean liners and yachts, in grand hotels or at their spectacular homes in London and upstate New York.
 
“Nothing world-shaking happened – which was pleasant for a change,” Obolensky quipped of this time. Looking back, their decade together was “a haze of golden memories... I enjoyed it enormously.” But one senses a quickening of the pulse when, after Alice filed for divorce in 1932, Obolensky started working in earnest for her brother, Vincent Astor, who tasked him with restoring the luster of The St. Regis New York, which had just returned to family ownership. “Vincent suggested that I look things over and make my suggestions,” he explained, “as I had lived much of my life in the best hotels of Europe. He made me a sort of general consultant, promotion man, and trouble-shooter… This is how I started in the hotel business. I found it captivating and a challenge.”
 
Obolensky turned out to have a genius for hotel-keeping. When Obolensky took over The St. Regis, he says, “the old-fashioned lobbies were dark and uninviting. There were no wine cellars, and the food was conventional. Yet the building was an architectural masterpiece. When Colonel John Jacob Astor IV had built it, he’d wanted to make it the great luxury hotel of the New World.” Working with the decorator Anne “Nanny” Tiffany (and “various impoverished but brilliant Russians”, as Ivan Obolensky recalls) Serge and Vincent set about updating the public areas. The roof garden soon became a “Viennese fête champêtre”; a rink was installed for ice shows; and the hotel acquired a Russian-themed nightclub, the Maisonette Russe, complete with a gypsy orchestra and a chef who had cooked for the Tsar. (He was a friend of Vassily, the Obolensky family chef who’d escaped Russia with Serge.) Most notably, the Maxfield Parrish painting of Old King Cole (from another old Astor property, the Knickerbocker Hotel) became the centerpiece of the new bar. It was here, as legend has it, that Obolensky made his contribution to the creation of the Bloody Mary. The story goes that he asked barman Fernand Petiot to spice up his tomato and vodka cocktail – thus introducing the dash of Tabasco.
 
But Obolensky’s strategy went way beyond hotting up the cocktails and refreshing the décor. A great metropolitan hotel is part of the swim and flow of a city. Serge knew this instinctively, and he knew how to deliver it – by inviting his fancy friends around. Time and again the society pages of the era contain an item headlined “Prince Obolensky hosts” – usually describing a dinner for a Vanderbilt, a Whitney or visiting European royalty. Obolensky was clearly very social, but these meticulously placed stories also show a hotel man hard at work promoting his hotel. And if all this was a formula, then it was one that worked well for Obolensky, keeping our hero gainfully employed for decades.
 
“Serge Obolensky abhors a vacuum,” teased one nightclub reviewer in 1959, as he’d transformed a hotel basement into “another of his imperial fashion bazaars. Colonel Obolensky has an eye for grandeur, réclame, décor and White Russian nights of gala. So he can be forgiven for not having an ear for dance music.” Harsh, perhaps, as Obolensky loved to dance, although maybe a man introduced to nightlife in pre-Revolutionary St. Petersburg might struggle slightly with the advent of rock’n’roll.


 

Obolensky with his second wife, Alice Astor, 1932;

 

In uniform, with actress and singer Grace Moor, for a wartime dinner
hosted by Elsa Maxwell in honor of a new Cole Porter show;

 

Obolensky with actress Phyllis Kirk at El Morocco nightclub in the 1950s;

 

Dancing with Jackie Onassis in 1975

In other ways, however, he was a modernizer, and as such the recipient of criticism from the kind of hotel guest who never likes change. The New Yorker magazine once ran a piece, a classic of its kind, interviewing a woman called Clara Bell Walsh who’d occupied the same hotel suite for 43 years. “They don’t have this sort of thing today,” she’d told the reporter, pointing to the original furnishings she’d retained in her room. “The Russians have kind of colored this place up too much to suit me,” she complained. “What, the Communists?” the bemused journalist asked her. “Serge Obolensky!” came her furious reply.

Only war seems to have got in the way of Obolensky’s extraordinary career as a hotelier – and even then, The St. Regis Hotel helped shape this, our hero’s next great adventure. Obolensky, who’d taken American citizenship (and dropped the use of his title) in 1931, was keen to fight for his adopted country. Too old to enlist in the regular army, he joined the State Guard. But the Guard seemed unlikely to see action in Europe, so he asked a friend in the military how he could transfer to the commandos. “That’s easy,” came the reply. “Why don’t you talk to Bill Donovan? He’s staying in your hotel.” Obolensky spoke to “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, who promptly took him on. And so after commando training which he said “nearly killed” him, Obolensky, by now 53, parachuted into occupied Europe, twice. In both cases, his mix of charm and courage won the day. In the first drop, he landed in Sardinia with just three other men and a letter from General Eisenhower to negotiate the surrender of the Italian forces on the island. Next, he jumped into France to prevent the retreating Germans from blowing up the power station serving Paris. He won over both the Resistance and the commander of the Vichy French. Then the main column of Germans finally surrendered to one Colonel Grell, “our plans officer, who had been my assistant manager at The St. Regis”.

In the 1960s Obolensky returned to the hotel where his career had begun, and in his memoirs discerned common ground between hotel-keeping and soldiering. “Hotels are a human enterprise,” he wrote. “You have to be known and liked by its rank and file, the waiters, the captains, the clerks, the manager – it all adds up to esprit de corps. Despite a good building and a good location, everything depends upon people – on goodwill, good service, and, in a sense, on personal friendships.” In a sense, human relationships lay at the root of the life Obolensky forged for himself in America. As that New York Times profile put it, “though cynics might attribute his success to the drawing power of his title, that would be to underestimate the magnetism of his personality and talent for friendship.” So did he ever feel slightly weary of another night of gala, of “Prince Serge Obolensky hosts”, of singing for his supper? If he did, he never showed it. “I just think that it would be the greatest mistake for an old bastard like me to quit,” he quipped when asked about retirement. At 80 he still did yoga every morning and went out most evenings, “leaving at midnight, without fail”, Ivan Obolensky recalls. “That was his rule.” Around this time, though, he gave up performing the celebrated Russian Dagger Dance. A highlight of New Year’s Eve balls for decades (with proceeds going to the victims of Communism), this involved Obolensky balancing on a rickety table while hurling flaming daggers at targets with a remarkable degree of accuracy.

He also abandoned his bachelor existence to marry for the third and final time to a woman four decades his junior, Marilyn Fraser Wall, from the wealthy suburb of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. And so it was there in 1978 that, some 88 years after it had begun at an Obolensky villa beside the Summer Palace of the Romanovs, this remarkable life drew to a close. Princely proof that life can be stranger than fiction.

 

Your address: The St. Regis New York
 

Images courtesy of the estate of Ivan Obolensky, Superstock, Illustrated London News Ltd, Mary Evans, Bettman/Corbis, Conde Nast Archives, Corbis, Getty Images, Wire Image, Bert Morgan Arhive/Alamy, Popperfoto/Getty Images


 

Obolensky arriving at the Southampton
Beach Club with actress Joan Fontaine in 1950;

 

With the Begum Aga Khan in 1960

 

With Alice Astor on their wedding day in London in 1924

Issue 2 - A Little Place I Know - Image 4

A Little Place I Know

The craft shop in Bangkok by David Yeo

35 Soi 40, Th Charoen Krung, Bangkok

Although most of the shops along this busy, narrow street cater to tourists, this unique store in a former monastery can be found among a cluster of interesting antique shops. Stepping inside Thai Home Industries is like being transported on to a dusty film set back in the days when Somerset Maugham stayed nearby. It’s family-owned –they’ve had it for four generations – and the staff, who all appear to be in their sixties, are laid-back and charming. I don’t think they even have an electronic till; all sales are handwritten on a simple ledger, and their only nod to modern times is a credit-card machine.

One of the things I particularly love is that there seems to have been no thought as to how products are displayed. They are stuffed randomly into whatever space is available, which makes for a very interesting visit because you are never quite sure what is in the next display cabinet, except that it will be whimsical and a delight. In one there might be finely woven rattan fruit baskets and highly polished mother-of-pearl shells; in another, embroidered napkins and hand-beaten wrought-iron platters.

The bronze bowls – or khan long hin – are my favorite. Used to offer gifts in Thai Buddhist rituals, they come from the tiny bronzesmith village of Baan Phu in Thonburi province and are incredibly time-consuming to make. First, raw copper, tin, and a special type of particularly malleable gold are melted together in a charcoal-fired cauldron to create the unique blend of liquified bronze. Once that is set, each piece will be worked and polished by a master craftsman. They are unique not only in Bangkok but in the whole of the country, as are many of the objects at Thai Home Industries.

In 2012 David Yeo was named Asia Pacific Restaurateur of the Year by the World Gourmet Series. 
Your address: The St. Regis Bangkok

A global market in Manhattan by Donna Karan

705 Greenwich Street, New York, urbanzen.com

It’s like a sophisticated global market, every piece selected according to who produces it. There is handmade furniture and pottery from Bali, handcut lace bedlinen from Vietnam, myriad artisanal jewelry made of bead and bone, papier-mâché shopping bags, tobacco-leaf vases…

I’m obsessed with preserving culture through artisanal crafts because they’ve been passed on from generation to generation. And with artisanal pieces you can feel the hand that created it – personal, one-of-a-kind, made just for you. Even when an artisan makes the same pieces, no two are ever identical, so you’re buying something special.

To me, any time you have an artisan make something, you are supporting the artist, their family and, by association, their community. Some projects were set up for specific reasons; for instance, the Urban Zen Haiti Artisan Project was established in conjunction with the Clinton Global Initiative to help create business opportunities for Haitians after the earthquake of 2010.

Another thing I enjoy is the pride with which everyone at Urban Zen works. They’re aware of being a part of something bigger than a typical retail store, that ten per cent of sales goes to support the Urban Zen Foundation – and that there’s a story behind what they’re selling.

I fall in love with the place every time I go in there. It’s so evocative of other cultures, with comfortable furniture to sit on, tribal music playing and the scents of essential oils in the air. It feels like someone’s exotic home. I’m constantly discovering new things, and I have never walked out without a bag in my hand.

Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation is at urbanzen.org
Your address: The St. Regis New York

The wine shop in Rome by Olivier Krug

Via dei Prefetti 15, 00186 Rome, enotecalparlamento.com

I discovered the Enoteca al Parlamento about nine years ago, walking with my son, whom I had taken to Rome on his own for his 10th birthday. Walking down a tiny street near the Palazzo Montecitorio, the Italian parliament, right in the heart of the city, we spotted three windows: not big, but filled with beautiful bottles. So we went in, and spent hours there. The owners, a charming man, Daniele Tagliaferri, and his wife, Cinzia Achilli, whose father Gianfranco founded the shop, have built it up to be the best wine shop in Rome. It has got more than 10,000 bottles from all over the world and all sorts of spirits, including cognacs and armagnacs from 1800, which they tell me they would never sell. What was wonderful was that, when we went in, they had dozens of empty bottles of Krug signed by my family, who unbeknownst to me had been there before us, as well as photographs on the wall of our old Krug Rolls-Royce delivery car.

Now whenever I’m in Rome I go back. It’s a great combination of a little restaurant, a delicatessen and a traditional wine shop.

One minute you’re walking in, and hours later you’re struggling out having bought almost everything. The food is incredible. I usually end up having four courses – mostly pasta – and then spend ages deciding what to take away: they have 80-year-old balsamic vinegars, pickled mushrooms, grilled onions, olive oils, honeys and jams. And incredible cheeses. I always leave with mozzarella and parmesan (although I’ve learnt that you can’t take mozzarella in your hand luggage, so now if I’m going to Rome I carry check-in luggage).

Cinzia is also a chocolate specialist, and I usually leave licking my fingers, having been given one of her premier-cru chocolates as a treat. The family have become friends, and now often come to stay just before Christmas, bringing with them a little picnic of treats for us. When we walked into that shop the first time, we never dreamt that would happen.

Oliver Krug is a sixth-generation champagne producer
Your address: The St. Regis Rome

A cool hardware store in London by Bruce Pask

85 Redchurch Street, London, labourandwait.co.uk

Since I started exploring Shoreditch in East London a few years ago, it has undergone a transformation not unlike that of Williamsburg in New York, where an authentic, formerly “textured”, shall we say, neighborhood has become a bit of a scene. Labour and Wait is on the corner of a great street, which has changed almost out of recognition in recent years. The rounded facade is covered in beautiful green glazed tiles which make it look as though it’s been there for many years. The interior feels like a cross between an old hardware store and a design museum: full of utilitarian items and household gadgets carefully curated and beautifully presented.

The staff wear these great work aprons, which lends it the mood of a dry-goods shop from yesteryear. They also maintain a hushed, respectful air, allowing customers to quietly ponder their purchases. I find it all quite relaxing and so contrary to the craziness one finds in most stores these days. When I walk in, time slows down. It inspires a pensiveness, a quiet reverence for beautifully functional, everyday objects that have stood the test of time by being well made and utterly useful.

I often seek out hardware stores when I travel because each country has its own unique everyday objects. The products here are specifically English and although they may seem quite old-fashioned, they are very useful: handmade brushes, pendant lamps, enamel kitchenware and beautiful wooden toilet brushes paired with a slender galvanized bucket. They also carry the loveliest vintage Welsh blankets.

I love walking up Brick Lane on a Sunday, popping into Labour and Wait, followed by another great clothing store, Hostem, followed by the Owl and Pussycat for the most delicious fireside Sunday roast. It’s my favorite way to spend a Sunday in London. I never leave the city without paying a visit.

Bruce Pask is men’s fashion director of T: The New York Times Style Magazine 


A pottery paradise in San Francisco by Michael S. Smith

2900 18th Street, San Francisco. heathceramics.com

Right in the heart of Industrial San Francisco, this shop is near the Mission District and Franklin Square, and is painted a soft concrete grey with dramatic red awnings outside. The original Heath Ceramics was started in Sausalito, California, by an artisan potter, Edith Heath, in 1948. It is now run by the creative couple Catherine Bailey and Robin Petravic, who opened this San Francisco outpost in a converted laundry building a year or two ago. Whenever I take clients there, they love it because it has incredibly high ceilings and large windows, so it is airy and open, and has lots of space they can wander round for inspiration.

Everywhere you look, there are not only amazing hand-fired rustic ceramic dishes and cookware, but gifts, vases, glasses, maple boards and place settings in beautiful linen. The walls of tiles are useful because you can see what they look like en masse, or in combinations. For me, the go-to products are the coffee mugs – they fit my hand really comfortably and coffee and tea just seem to taste better from them. Sometimes fine porcelain just won’t do in a casual setting, whereas these always feel comfortable and relaxed.

I think their merchandising team has done wonders to highlight the soft yet brilliant colors they offer. And they always have seasonal highlights, so the products are never exactly the same – this summer they had pretty, soft greens and powder blues (although I would also recommend the Aqua and Redwood ranges).

All the staff are extremely helpful and attentive. I’ve used them to help send gifts, and they take care of everything, from suggesting place settings and style options to wrapping and delivery. It helps that they send it in wonderful packaging, because it makes every piece feel even more special.

Michael Smith has been decorator to the White House since 2009.

His book, Building Beauty: The Alchemy of Design, is published by Rizzoli
Your address: The St. Regis San Francisco

A speakeasy in Singapore by Wei Koh

583 Orchard Road, Singapore

Entering the Horse’s Mouth is like going into a speakeasy – you feel like you’ve discovered some kind of hidden gem. The entrance is actually inside a ramen restaurant, where you least expect to find it. What always amazes me, and what I especially love about this bar, is the fact that it is on Orchard Road, which is an absolutely teeming part of Singapore – a city reknowned for the density of its population – and yet for some reason not that many people seem to know about it. In reality it’s a cross between a classic cocktail bar and a Japanese izakaya – the kind of little place you find everywhere in Japan where they serve snacks as well as drink, and where people go after work. But at the Horse’s Mouth they serve seriously good food. In fact, everything they do, they do well, with care and an attention to detail and style – including really good cocktails. For me, the Horse’s Mouth makes the perfect transition from day to night, from business to pleasure, and from week to weekend. I always recommend it to anyone visiting Singapore, and I tell people to ask for the bartender, Louis, and his Bison Grass martini. You can’t go wrong with that.

Wei Koh is editorial director of The Rake and Revolutions

Your address: The St. Regis Singapore
Issue 2 - In Search Of Madame Butterfly - Image 1

In Search of Madame Butterfly

That snowy evening in March 1900, it seemed as if all of New York high society had crowded into the Berkeley Lyceum Theater on West 44th Street. The auditorium, glittering with ladies in pearls and fashionable off-the-shoulder dresses, flourishing lorgnettes and escorted by evening-suited gentlemen, buzzed with excitement. Before them lay an extraordinarily exotic scene: a set painted with blossom-laden cherry trees, wooden and bamboo houses of the legendary Yoshiwara pleasure quarters of Tokyo, a cluster of Japanese actors dressed in outlandish costumes, and in the center, a single, tiny, dainty figure, her head tilted coquettishly. With her stiff brocade kimonos, foot-high wooden clogs and knotted hair studded with tortoiseshell hairpins as long as knitting needles, she was utterly exquisite. As an enigmatic smile flickered across her face, a hush descended on the auditorium. Then, with a flutter of her fan, she began to dance.
 
Japan had been open to the West for less than 50 years after centuries of isolation, and almost immediately Westerners had gone mad about its wonderful arts. On both sides of the Atlantic, Japonisme was all the rage. Vases, swords, netsuke, woodblock prints and blue-and-white porcelain were treasured collectables, fashionable ladies wore kimonos as exotic evening dress and Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado had been a smash hit. But while society had heard about the mysterious geisha of Japan, no one had ever seen one. And now suddenly here was Sadayakko: “like a woodblock print come to life”, as one admirer said.
 
My own journey through 21st-century Japan in search of Sadayakko’s history could not have started farther away from the gilded world in which the geisha lived. Stepping out of the spectacular high-tech steel and glass halls of Kansai International Airport, which floats on an artificial island off the coast, I take the train to Osaka, where (as I always do when I arrive in Japan) I feel as if I’ve been transported into the future. Once a seaport, Osaka has long been the commercial heart of the country, home to merchants famous for their business acumen. Nowadays it’s a city of futuristic skyscrapers crammed side-by-side with ancient temples, quiet parks and tiny tile-roofed shrines guarded by carved stone lions. Neon lights the sky, buildings tower into the clouds, shops gleam with fashionable gadgets. On Midosuji Dori, the so-called Champs-Elysées of the Orient, home to The St. Regis Osaka and lined with sophisticated boutiques, there’s a rush of noise and bustle and crowds. A dozen lanes of traffic hurtle between the gingko trees that shade the sidewalks, hawkers sell roasted chestnuts and people in designer labels, business suits or the occasional kimono hurry to work or sip cappuccinos in the nearby Starbucks. Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Apple are here alongside shops selling gold, kimonos and silk-covered sandals.
 
It’s hard to imagine that just over 100 years ago, in Sadayakko’s time, the city was a maze of tiny streets, the widest just broad enough for very early motor cars, the back alleys so narrow that not even a rickshaw could squeeze through. It was in 1899 that she had set off with her husband, Otojiro, and a small group of actors, to America: the first professional Japanese theater troupe ever to tour the West. And it was then that her own journey to superstardom had begun: her transformation from a geisha to the most famous Japanese woman of her time, the woman who inspired Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly.
 
In her youth Sadayakko had been Japan’s most famous and desired geisha. From the age of four she was trained in dancing and singing, and she went on to become the mistress of the prime minister, Hirobumi Ito. Geisha were trendsetters and, as well as wearing multi-layered embroidered kimonos, Sadayakko experimented with western bustles, bonnets and high-heeled shoes, rode horses and played billiards.
 
In spite of being famous in Japan as a geisha, she wasn’t an instant hit when she arrived in America. At first the troupe had planned to perform as they had in Japan, using only male actors. But they realised that to appeal to American audiences they needed a female star. As a geisha, Sadayakko could dance and sing and perform kabuki plays, and she was beautiful. No sooner had she landed in San Francisco than word quickly spread across the country, and a tour was arranged. In Boston she drew record audiences and rave reviews. In Washington, she was asked to dance before President William McKinley. By the time she reached New York, she was a superstar.
 
It wasn’t just in America that the Japanese dancer’s reputation soared. In London she performed for Edward, Prince of Wales. In Paris, Picasso painted her four times. She went on to tour with the then-unknown dancer Isadora Duncan through Germany and Austria to Russia, where Tsar Nicholas II held a banquet in her honour. And finally she reached Italy, where Puccini was working on his Madame Butterfly, based on a short story by the American writer John Luther Long and the popular play by David Belasco. So spellbound was Puccini by her performances in Milan that he radically altered his new opera, modelling his Cho-Cho-San on her. She became not just the role model for Madame Butterfly, but an icon herself.
 
Everywhere she went, she was celebrated. When she eventually arrived back in Japan in 1902, at the port of Kobe, there were crowds waiting to see her as she came down the gangplank. Photographs show her wearing a huge white hat and fashionable flouncy Paris gown, riding in her carriage through streets lined with people. She was Japan’s first woman superstar.


 

The historic village of Magome

With the money they’d made traveling, she and Otojiro decided to make their base in Osaka where they built a brand new theater: the most advanced in Japan. In the West they had performed kabuki plays adjusted to Western taste. Here they would introduce Japanese audiences to Othello, Hamlet, Salome and La Dame aux Camélias.
 
Pictures of the grand opening of the Imperial Theater in February 1910 show an Edwardian-style music hall embellished with Japanese flourishes, and a kabuki-style walkway running through the audience. The area is now crisscrossed with boulevards lined with office blocks, and although it has long since disappeared, I wanted at least to get a feeling of the world in which they worked: the entertainment district where people flock to see bunraku theatre, with its realistic puppets enacting heart-rending tragedies, and traditional kabuki theatre.
 
The entertainment district today is nothing like the one in which Sadayakko would have worked. The heart of it, Dotonbori Street, is a pedestrian mall jammed with restaurants and bars, with a giant mechanical crab waving its claws above the city’s most famous crab restaurant, and lights so bright they hurt the eyes. There are restaurants selling every manner of food you can imagine; noodle stalls with three-dimensional golden dragons on the billboards overhead; restaurants serving blowfish that can poison you if not properly prepared; bars and cafés open 24 hours a day. Dotonbori canal runs alongside and on the bridge above the canal is a building walled with giant rectangles of pure light. It’s brash, noisy and exciting.
 
In Sadayakko’s day, things were simpler and quieter. Pleasure boats bobbed on the river, and low-rise buildings housed teahouses and restaurants hung with flags and lanterns, with people selling fireflies in cages outside. Just around the corner was the Shinmachi pleasure quarter and the geisha district, where Sadayakko would have felt completely at home.
 
Although in Osaka she and Otojiro lived extremely happily, building up a reputation for their theater, and their own performances, it was short-lived. In 1911, Otojiro fell ill and died shortly afterwards right on the stage, leaving Sadayakko a widow at the age of just 40. But Sadayakko was nothing if not a survivor. When she was a young geisha, a young man called Momosuke Fukuzawa had been the love of her life, and they had never forgotten each other. When he resurfaced, by now a business mogul, they rekindled their affections, and, leaving his wife behind in Tokyo, he set about building a mansion for Sadayakko in Nagoya, central Japan.
 
Thirsty for the next chapter in the actress’s life, I take the bullet train from Osaka, past the beautiful city of Kyoto, past paddy fields, plains and distant mountains. On arrival in the sprawling metropolis of Nagoya, bristling with buildings, I ask whether anyone knows of the house in which Sadayakko and her lover lived. The locals, I learn, called the house Futaba Palace, after the area in which it is situated, a suburb in the shadow of Nagoya Castle, with its impressive double keep and roof ends topped with giant bronze carp.
 
I take the subway to Futaba, a quiet residential district, where the house has been reconstructed. I round a couple of corners and there it is, with its precipitous red roofs, bigger and more ornate than I had imagined: like a grand country manor, with wood-panelled walls and heavy velvet drapes tied back with cords, and Art-Deco stained-glass windows depicting flowers and landscapes and languid ladies. There’s a tea ceremony room with sliding paper screens and an alcove with carefully arranged flowers. And there, in a case, are the courtesan’s embroidered kimonos and the 12-inch-high clogs which she wore when she thrilled the West with her dancing, as well as the gorgeous tea gowns, high-heeled shoes and feathered hats she brought back with her from Paris and New York. Beyond the great curved staircase down which Sada would sweep, in the couple’s private quarters, are photographs of Momosuke, handsome in his indigo kimono, with Sada in a simple checked kimono, her hair in an elegant chignon, kneeling at his feet.
 
Although this was clearly a house in which they spent a great deal of time, it wasn’t their only home, or their most impressive one. Momosuke’s business at that time was constructing hydroelectric dams along the river Kiso, nearby, and not wanting to be away from her, he built them a country villa halfway down the river.
 
As I discovered when I arrived in Japan 20 years ago, one of the great joys of traveling here is the train network: bullet trains supplemented by local services that go right into the heart of the countryside. The local train I take trundles off into the hills along the edge of the Kiso river, through spectacular mountain scenery. Forests plunge to the water’s edge, smoke-like clouds billow in the hollows and the mountain cherries are just coming into bloom. I get off at a village called Magome, stopping for the night to complete the journey, as the actress would have done herself, on foot.

 

Days of tranquility
Clockwise from top left: koi carp pond, a common sight across Japan;
Nagoya Castle; Sadayakko in Chingasaki, 1902,
with Otojiro on her left; detail from Nagoya Castle

Magome is little more than a stretch of inns and restaurants, a place where the present has yet to intrude, with no cars or electric cables visible. A huge waterwheel turns, creaking and splashing. I catch a whiff of wood smoke. The steep cobbled road is lined with wooden houses whose tiled roofs are weighted down with stones to keep them in place during the winter snows. There are balconies and sliding wooden doors, and strings of orange persimmons hanging out to dry. I look back from the top of the slope and see mountains looming blue in the distance.
 
Here, I spend the night in an old inn with an earth-floored entrance and watch the sun go down over the mountains from a bench. Lanterns glow, and I hear shouts and laughter from the inns along the street. I dine on grilled river fish, rice and lotus root, then climb the steep stairs to my room where my bedding is laid out on tatami mats.
 
Next morning, I set off early and walk to the top of the village from where the path plunges into thick bamboo glades and groves of cryptomeria trees. In Sadayakko’s time this was a major highway, known as the Inner Mountain Road, along which people used to walk or travel by palanquin on the long journey between Kyoto and Tokyo. Now it’s a woodland track, but still neatly paved with stones along its length, and shaded by a thick canopy of trees. In places, like the path up the Magome Pass, it’s so steep that it has been cut into steps. At the top there’s a teahouse, a weather-beaten wooden building with slatted doors. I peer inside, but it seems this place hasn’t been used for years.
 
Walking downhill to the Kiso Valley below, I glimpse a cluster of roofs. It is Tsumago, a working village that, like Magome, is determined to remain in the past. Even the postman wears 19th-century uniform. In the old days the larger villages along the road had an inn for VIP guests, and the one in Tsumago is particularly grand. In 1860 an imperial princess rested here on her way to marry the second-to-last shogun, and a few years later Emperor Meiji stopped to take refreshment. I tiptoe across the vast tatami-matted rooms and admire the decor. Inside, beautiful carved fretwork frames the paper doors and outside are two tiny gardens: one with a carp pond, the other planted with moss and decorated with two perfectly-placed stone lanterns.
 
I check into a more modest inn. Sitting outside in the evening, it is pitch black: there’s no moon and no street lighting. It seems to accentuate the rushing sounds of the river, the rustling of wild animals and the smell of fresh country air.
 
The next day I set out with a local historian called Takashi Toyama, who has lived here his whole life, in search of Sada’s country villa. The house which he takes me to couldn’t be prettier. Situated on a hill on the other side of the river, which we get to via a miniature Brooklyn Bridge, the three-storey 1919 house is handsomely constructed from rounded stones taken straight from the Kiso below. There is a balcony and a conservatory with tables and wicker chairs where the couple would sit and admire the river, a dining room for entertaining, and a lounge with chandeliers and huge windows that they would throw open. It’s a lovely, breezy country retreat.
 
Toyama then takes me to see Momosuke’s dams. He built seven in all, beautiful stone constructions decorated with Art-Deco designs, which continue to supply Kyoto and Osaka with electricity to this day. It’s amazing to realize that some of that extraordinary neon back in the city is powered by rainfall in these beautiful mountains. En route, to my delight, I meet a beaming, wizened old man who remembers seeing Sada on her red motorbike, bumping along the rough country roads in Western clothes, back in the early 1920s, when he was a very small boy. She used to smile at him and give him chocolate: a rare treat in this tiny out-of-the-way village, where no one knew who she was or cared what she did.
 
After the dams had been completed the couple spent most of their time in their palatial home in Nagoya, but they still found excuses to come back to their rural home here. It was a place to which Sada could return to the traditional old Japan of Madame Butterfly, with its white-faced geisha and the plangent melancholy notes of the shamisen, its tea ceremonies and flowers arranged with Japanese precision.
 
Strolling around the rooms, with their cabinets full of memories, Sadayakko’s fans and parasols and old photographs, I can almost see her here with her beloved Momosuke, dancing for him in her embroidered kimono, with her hair in a bouffant coil, or on her knees whisking up green tea in a priceless stoneware tea bowl. For a moment, if I close my eyes, I almost forget that I’m in a country whose landscape is traversed by bullet trains and whose skylines are dominated by soaring steel and glass buildings. In my quest for Madame Butterfly, I have discovered something equally beautiful: the real old Japan.

 

Photographs: Magnum Photos

 
Your address: The St. Regis Osaka

Peace and progress 
Clockwise from left: stone buddha at Teisho-ji Temple,
established by Sadayakko in 1933;
Momosuke Bridge over the Kiso river in Nagiso;
Sadayakko’s favorite silk pyjamas for winter,
on display at the Futaba museum in Nagoya.

A Life in Seven Journeys

P. J. O’Rourke

1. Across America in a ’56 Buick, 1977
 
I hadn’t traveled much until I was 30 and drove a very used car from Florida to California. It couldn’t go fast enough for Interstates so there was lots of scenery. I got stranded in most of it. The car broke every day: fuel-pump failure between a New Mexico cattle roundup and the only liquor store for miles; Mid-Mojave, a radiator leak. The transmission locked itself in reverse on Santa Monica Boulevard. I had to drive the last two miles backwards. There’s something to be said for staying home.

 

2. Into the Beqa’a Valley, 1984
 
During Lebanon’s Civil War I went with journalist Charlie Glass to Ba’albek to interview the ferocious leader of an extremist Shiite militia. I was terrified. After a day spent largely being held at gunpoint we went to the magnificent, if bedraggled, Palmyra Hotel, where we were the only guests. Charlie bribed a waiter to bring us a bottle of arak, which we hid under 
the table. Over surreptitious swigs we managed to piece together from memory the whole of Yeats’ The Second Coming. Poetry is great solace, if you’ve got something to drink.

 

3. The Baja Peninsula, 1984
 
Later that year a pal and I took our girlfriends on a Jeep ride down Mexico’s Baja peninsula, off-road, sleeping in tents. The only flat place in the Baja is where you land after rolling off something steep. Every living thing has a prickle, a thorn, a fang or a stinger. The temperature was 110F. The food was… “Sea turtle is like beef,” said the poacher/cook, “except for the smell.” By La Paz the women insisted on a hotel. The Jeep’s undercarriage collapsed at the door. The women flew home. Some journeys are for couples. Neither couple is together today.

 

4. Driving Around in South Africa, 1986
 
Apartheid was still in ugly force. I visited English suburbs, Soweto, Boer settlements and various “homelands”. An American seemed welcome any-where; I don’t know why. I especially enjoyed the KwaZulu capital, Ulundi: world’s smallest Holiday Inn with maybe five rooms. No television reception but a VCR at front desk, wired to bar-room TV. Just two tapes: Zulu and Zulu Dawn. Many patrons had been extras in the latter. I brought an illustrated history of the Zulu War to the bar. All were fascinated. Let us not discount journeys taken on barstools.

 

5. Through the Gulf War into Kuwait, 1991
 
When the ground war began I was in Saudi Arabia with a convoy of reporters. Our plan was to stay behind the front line as troops advanced. But in modern warfare there is no front line. It was midnight. The oil wells were aflame. Iraqi tanks littered the road. Explosions could be heard. The only map we had was in a Fodor’s guide for businessmen. Buildings began to loom. Was there another city between the Saudi border and Kuwait City? There wasn’t. At dawn we were in liberated Kuwait, greeting the troops liberating it. Nothing wrong with getting ahead of yourself.

 

6. The Trans-Siberian Railroad, 1996
 
My wife asked, “Will the trip be fun?” The lady behind the counter said, with Russian poker face, “It will be long remembered.” The train was filthy, stuffy, slow. No hot water in the bathroom. Dining-car fare inedible. But amazing sightseeing. Mountains to awe Sir Edmund Hillary. Forests to daunt Paul Bunyan. We stopped at Lake Baikal. Gorgeous. Empty. I stuck a toe in the July water: 32F. Because a place is beautiful doesn’t mean you have to go there.

 

7. From Islamabad to Calcutta, 1998
 
Land Rover sent two vehicles around the world promoting its Discovery II. I joined the leg across the Indian subcontinent. The Grand Trunk Road was a combination of highway, front parlor, playground, factory floor, barnyard and emergency room for one billion Indians. India’s trucks seemed to lack brakes, lights, speed limits or anyone awake at the wheel. We bet on how many fatal accidents we’d see each day. The top score was more than 25. It’s wrong to say, of certain places, that life there is cheap. But it can be brief.
 
P. J. O’Rourke’s latest book, The Baby Boom, is published by Grove Atlantic

High Society - Dining

High Society

There are plenty of places you might expect to see a roaring fireplace: a cozy bar in Aspen, a Renaissance palace in Florence, even a welcoming living room in Lhasa. The last place you’d think to discover one is at 39,000 feet. But times, and flying, are changing.
 
It’s 9AM on a soggy November Thursday in London and Elisabeth Harvey, a designer of interiors for private jets, is showing me sketches of the fireplace she will soon be installing in a Falcon 7X. A fireplace? Surely that’s against aircraft safety regulations? Not so, she says. “The technology to install a fireplace is available today, and we have customers.”
 
Orders for sky-high fireplaces can only mean one thing: the world’s high-fliers are flying private again. The turnaround from the slump of 2008, when many private jet firms went bust, is remarkable.
 
Bombardier, one of the world’s major private aviation companies, has just received the largest order in its history: more than 245 business jets worth up to $7.5 billion. The firm says that one of the fastest growing segments of the market is the one for large aircraft. These can cover more than 5,000 nautical miles non-stop, have up to 3,000 cubic feet of cabin space and cost around $50-70 million.
 
These most technologically advanced aircraft are being snapped up by a new breed of plutocrat, as well as by firms that offer fractional ownership or a jet card that allows prepaid, fixed hours of airtime. As demand rises, so have levels of comfort, speed and technology. In particular, some buyers want their jets to look, feel and even smell like their homes – and their yachts, too, while they’re at it.
 
“For the fireplace, we took inspiration from the domestic environment. Clients want a habitat similar to those they already own and feel comfortable in,” says Harvey, who is head of the design studio at Jet Aviation, a Swiss-based private aircraft specialist with around 4,500 employees across the globe.
 
A fireplace isn’t the only new must-have for the private jet set. Take a look above your head at the latest accessory offered in larger Boeing private jets that cost from $200m. No, your eyes are not deceiving you. That really is an Italian chandelier. But don’t worry about it swaying wildly at takeoff. It retracts into the ceiling, before dangling down again when the plane reaches its cruising altitude.
 
Furnishing expensive private jets with fancy lights, bedroom suites and stylish showers has always been an obsession among celebrities, sports stars and old-money billionaires. But thanks to globalization, new private-jet customers are emerging, and they have new ideas and new tastes.
 
A study by Citi Private Bank shows that 64 percent of Indian millionaires plan to increase their spending on private jets. Spending in Africa, whose economy is growing at the fastest rate in its history, is also at record levels. Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, has two private jets, one for short-haul trips and the other for long-haul journeys.
 
Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, a member of the Saudi royal family, owns the grandest private jet of all – a $400m double-decker Airbus A380. The “flying palace” has a garage for the Prince’s Rolls-Royce, a concert hall, a Turkish bath, and even a revolving prayer room that always faces Mecca.

Mexican billionaire Jorge Vergara owns an Embraer Lineage 1000: a jet that comes with a bedroom with a queen-sized bed, en-suite bathroom and a walk-in shower, a mini spa, meeting rooms for work and even a private bathroom for the crew.
 
India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, presented his wife with a $40m Airbus 319 Corporate Jet for her 44th birthday. It is furnished with entertainment cabins fitted with games consoles and music systems, a master bedroom and a bathroom with a range of showers. Ambani also owns a Boeing Business Jet 2 akin to a flying business hotel, equipped with an executive lounge, conference rooms, private offices and bedrooms.
 
Personalization of a jet’s interior is key, says Harvey. “We have fitted gold and other precious metals, rare woods, marquetry, marble, mother-of-pearl. We install buffet areas rather than galleys, use real glass mirrors and custom-designed lamps – whatever the clients find beautiful and luxurious. I recently designed a bespoke horsehair mattress for a client because they were used to sleeping on one at home.”
 
Prices for customized private jets are as stratospheric as their cruising altitudes. One of the most popular is the Falcon 7X made by Dassault, which costs about $50m and has a range of almost 6,000 nautical miles. Its innovative soundproofing and insulation make it one of the quietest jets in the sky – noise levels are believed to be one of the most tiring aspects of jet travel – and the ride of choice for former U.S. president Bill Clinton and movie mogul Steven Spielberg.
 
Other new technological innovations include computerized fly-by-wire systems that save weight and thus reduce fuel bills. And there are new radar systems by Honeywell that allow pilots to detect hazardous weather at distances of up to 300 miles, so that they can comfortably reroute to avoid turbulence.
 
These days, of course, luxury in the air does not begin and end with plush interiors and high-tech tricks. Those who can fly in style also want to wine and dine in style. Private aviation companies now offer personalized meals to their high-end clients, whether it’s authentic pizza from Italy or a special lunch flown in from an exclusive restaurant in the United States for around $700. Private-jet owners and operators have even started hiring special catering companies who employ the services 
of chefs based all over the world. Renowned cake artist Duff Goldman and sushi master Nobu Matsuhisa offer global menus with ingredients specially chosen to retain their flavor in the dry atmosphere of a jet cabin.
 
Antony Rivolta has been in the private jet aviation business for the past 30 years and knows all the tricks of the trade. His company, JetPartner, specialises in bespoke catering. “We build up a portfolio of what a client likes, so we can produce whatever they wish,” he says. Eastern European clients, says Rivolta, are the fussiest eaters. Western clients are “quite happy with what is available on our usual menus.”
 
For VistaJet, one of the fastest-growing companies in private aviation, food is supplied by London department store Harvey Nichols. As well as made-to-order confectionary, chocolate and savoury snacks, its 30 brand-new aircraft have rich wood furnishings, lavish carpeting, designer glassware and silverware and red-striped livery and soft furnishings.
 
When the sky’s the limit, what’s next for the future of private aviation? “Business aviation tends to be ahead of the airlines in terms of technology,” says Rivolta. “The customers demand more than your average airline passenger. So we provide the most up-to-date hi-fi systems and Wi-fi as standard, and we’re on the verge of being able to use mobile phones freely.”
 
Rivolta predicts that the greatest advances will be in speed and fuel efficiency. “We will see supersonic private jets in the next five years. That means New York to London in three hours, faster than the old Concorde. New technology means we can reduce the sonic boom [which until now has prevented supersonic aircraft from travelling over land]. The whole concept of business aviation is to save time, so supersonic is the final frontier. Supersonic jets will become the ultimate travel status symbol.”
 
High-end couture designers are also keen to exert their influence on jet interiors. Every year, hundreds make their way to the Business Jet Interiors World Expo at London Farnborough airport in the hope of bagging a deal to develop concepts ranging from showers to dining tables. Donatella Versace has already created custom private jet interiors: seats come in white leather with the fashion house’s distinctive logo.
 
And just when you thought you had heard it all, there is a new frontier. No, not for you and me. Not for the crew. Not even for the engineers struggling to contain the sonic boom. Pet cabins and catering for pets at 39,000 feet are the latest perk on buyers’ wishlists. Because after all, no fireplace is complete without a cat or dog curled lazily in front of it.

 

Amenities on today’s high-tech private jets
range from cocktail bars, above, to classic living rooms, below

 

Gary Rhodes: British Classic - Portrait

British Classic

Gary Rhodes, OBE, made a name for himself in the early Nineties, bringing traditional British classics such as braised oxtail, fish cakes and bread and butter pudding into the realm of fine dining. He earned his first Michelin star as head chef at the Greenhouse restaurant in London’s Mayfair in 1996, and opened his own restaurants, City Rhodes and Rhodes in the Square, a year later. He has since launched an array of restaurants around the world, and traveled far and wide to present such TV shows as Masterchef USA and Rhodes Across China. His newest venture is Rhodes 44 at The St. Regis Abu Dhabi.
 
What’s your earliest food memory?
 
I’ll always remember the first dessert I made when I was about 13. It was a steamed lemon sponge with lemon sauce, and I’ll never forget turning it out in front of everyone at Sunday lunch. I just sat there admiring the faces around the table as this lovely thick lemon sauce dribbled down the sponge. I thought to myself then, “I want to be a cook.”
 
Who taught you to cook?
 
My mother was really accomplished in the kitchen, and I was one of those children who wanted to help out a lot. Even today I still don’t believe I can match her lasagne. Peter Barratt, one of my tutors at catering college, was a genius, though – anyone who was taught by that man would say he was an amazing chef.
 
What’s the best thing you’ve ever eaten?
 
Guy Savoy in Paris makes an incredibly creamy globe artichoke soup, with shavings of black truffle and Parmesan cheese, served with truffle brioche buns that are lightly toasted and spread with melted truffle butter. It makes me go weak at the knees. I’ve been to his restaurant six times to eat it.
 
What do you like to cook at home?
 
When I’m working in a restaurant I taste all the time, so by the time I get home I’m sick of the sight of the stove. People come over to our house expecting a big Michelin-star meal, but I’m not that kind of guy. I’ll just do a bit of fish, a bit of risotto and a big platter of cheese. Fish is the only thing I insist on cooking at home because I am fussy. Otherwise my wife, who I met at catering college, does most of the cooking. Try as I might I cannot match her roast. She manages to do the meat and all the trimmings such as cauliflower cheese, runner beans, carrots, gravy and lovely Yorkshire puddings all by herself – I’d need four other cooks with me.

What do you find most rewarding about being a chef?
 
You never stop learning. If people give me advice on our Arabic dishes, for example, for which there will be any number of recipes from all over the Middle East, and I think that those comments will improve things, I will definitely make that change. I never, ever want to stop cooking – it’s a continuing education and it keeps your mind alive.
 
What’s your favourite food?
 
I’ve always loved cheese, especially gorgonzola or a really runny brie de Meaux with truffles running through it. Years ago my wife Jennie wouldn’t touch cheese, and now we’ll both sit there together, munching into cheeses and tucking into a good bottle of wine. I find that quite romantic sometimes, just sitting, eating and chatting, without any pressure.
 
What style of food are you serving at Rhodes 44?
 
I wanted to do great British classics – my braised oxtail with mashed potato has been unbelievably well received – but at the same time venture into some local Arabic dishes, too. For afternoon tea we’re doing little pecan pies, Victoria sponges, scones with clotted cream and jam, and tiny quail’s-egg sandwiches. I’ve also done my own interpretation of a mezze platter, which has been very popular. We’ve made our own baba ghanoush, our own falafel with a tiny bit of melting feta cheese in the middle… Just as my scallops with a devilled sauce were on the menu in London for ten years, I’d like to think that our mezze platter would last a lifetime with us here.
 
Is there anything you would never put on the menu?
 
Tripe. I cannot abide it.
 
How do you find inspiration for your new dishes?
 
Sometimes I just wake up in the middle of the night and there’s a new creation in my mind. I’ll tell my wife, and she usually says, “Give it a go.” But she’ll also tell me if it sounds awful.
 
Who would be at your last supper?
 
Marilyn Monroe – she was stunning. Bill Clinton is a man I’ve always wanted to meet, too, and Martin Luther King would have to be there. Also Stevie Wonder. Oh, and I’m a massive Manchester United fan, so Sir Alex Ferguson [the legendary former manager] should definitely be invited.
 
Your address: The St. Regis Abu Dhabi

A corner of England in the Middle East 
The tea lounge at The St. Regis Abu Dhabi,
where guests can indulge in anything from quail’s-egg
sandwiches to Rhodes’s interpretation of a mezze platter

 

Walls Of Fame - Old King Cole 2

Walls of Fame

On a chilly November night last year, about 120 people squeezed into the King Cole Bar and Salon at The St. Regis New York. The co-host of the evening, fashion designer Jason Wu, wore a dark suit and a slim black tie and stood in the center of the wood-paneled room, welcoming friends and colleagues to a party to celebrate the reopening of the bar after a months-long refurbishment. A DJ played jazz, and models in Wu dresses and celebrities including Emily Mortimer and Uma Thurman dotted the crowd. But the star of the night was a brilliantly-colored painting, just back from a $100,000 restoration and rehung in its place of honor above the bar where it has presided over similarly chic events for almost eight decades.
 
One hundred and ten years ago, John Jacob Astor IV asked a young artist named Maxfield Parrish if he would like to paint a mural to hang in the bar-room of The Knickerbocker Hotel, Astor’s glamorous new flagship on 42nd Street and Broadway in New York City. The fee was $5,000, extremely generous for the time, but it came with caveats.
 
First, the subject of the painting had to be Old King Cole, and second, while Parrish would have complete artistic freedom in how he depicted the nursery-rhyme character, he had to use Astor as the model for King Cole’s face.
 
“At first, Parrish wasn’t sure he wanted the job,” explains Laurence Cutler, chairman of the National Museum of American Illustration and an expert on the artist. “He didn’t like being told he had to do anything.” Parrish had other concerns as well: he came from a conservative Quaker family that frowned on alcohol and wasn’t thrilled that his work would hang in a bar. Plus, he had already painted a version of King Cole for the Mask and Wig Club, a private theater club in Philadelphia.
 
But Parrish’s father, an established artist with connections in Philadelphia and New York society, encouraged him to reconsider. “Basically, he explained how unadvisable it would be for somebody just starting their career to say no to somebody like Astor.”
 
Parrish had recently moved from Philadelphia to Plainfield, New Hampshire, where he and his wife, Lydia, were expanding a small estate they had built called The Oaks, which they would live in for the rest of their lives. He realized that the fee, the equivalent of $130,000 today, would set them up well and accepted the commission. He began work on Old King Cole in a studio that was too small to hold the whole mural, so he painted the three 8 feet x 10 feet panels one at a time. He placed the king in the center, flanked by jesters and guards. It was a more dramatic, less cartoon-like depiction than his first version of Cole for the Mask and Wig Club and, when it was installed at the hotel in 1906, it instantly became part of the fabric of a city and a culture hurtling toward the excitement and excesses of the Roaring Twenties. “The Knickerbocker Bar, beamed upon by Maxfield Parrish’s jovial, colorful Old King Cole was well crowded,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in This Side of Paradise.
 
Parrish picked a good time to accept a mural commission. At the turn of the century, wealthy industrialists like Astor were building mansions as quickly as they could and hiring artists to adorn the walls. “It was the golden age of American mural painting,” says Glenn Palmer-Smith, a painter and author of Murals of New York City. “There was competition to see who you got.”


 

Master of the golden age
The Lantern Bearers, an illustration painted by Maxfield Parrish
in 1908 for Collier’s magazine

Established artists were able to command huge fees, but the appeal was more than just financial. The country had recently glimpsed the nuance and complexity of mural painting at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, which featured frescos and murals by some of the US and Europe’s most prominent painters. American architects and artists were eager to embrace the medium.
 
Not long after the fair, ten of the country’s best-known illustrators and painters, including Henry Siddons Mowbray and Robert Lewis Reid, collaborated on a mural depicting the history of law for the lobby of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division building on Madison Avenue, which opened in 1900. “Can you imagine ten top artists collaborating on anything today?” says Palmer-Smith.
 
Dozens of similar projects began around the country. In the beginning, many of these works were commissioned and paid for by some of America’s wealthiest families. Along with his contribution to the Supreme Court Building, Mowbray painted a mural on the ceiling of the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park, New York and one at John Pierpont Morgan’s library in New York City, which is now a museum. Another popular turn-of-the-century artist, William de Leftwich Dodge, spent most of his career painting murals for private homes and public buildings, including four for the lobby of the Astor Hotel in Times Square around 1900, titled Ancient and Modern New York. In the 1930s, William Randolph Hearst commissioned Dean Cornwell to paint a mural in the Raleigh Room restaurant at the Warwick Hotel. (After a disagreement over the fee, Cornwell added less-than-heroic scenes, including a man urinating on Sir Walter Raleigh.)
 
Towards the middle of the 20th century more and more murals were commissioned by businesses, local governments and, starting in 1939, by the Works Progress Administration as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The largest of these latter was James Brooks’s 235ft circular mural, Flight, at the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia Airport, which depicts man’s dream of conquering the skies, from ancient mythology through to modern-day reality.
 
Parrish went on to paint eight additional murals over the course of his long and influential career, including The Pied Piper in 1909 for the bar at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. But Old King Cole is arguably his most famous. It has all the hallmarks of his later illustrations and prints, including bold, luminous colors, classical architectural forms, and an impish sense of humor. “It launched his career,” says Laurence Cutler. “Immediately afterwards he received a commission to illustrate a cover for Harper’s Magazine, and from then on he worked non-stop for the next 40 years.”
 
When the Knickerbocker closed in 1920, Old King Cole went into storage, then briefly hung in a museum in Chicago, and was finally installed at The St. Regis, an Astor-owned hotel, in 1932. There, at the heart of Millionaires’ Alley, as 55th Street was called at the time, it made the transition from artwork to icon.
 
Longevity alone might explain the King Cole Bar’s popularity – New York City has been torn down and rebuilt so many times that its residents develop emotional attachments to places and things that survive the constant reinvention. But it is Parrish’s painting that patrons love and return to see over and over again.

James Brooks’s 235ft circular mural, Flight, completed in 1942,
at the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia Airport

Murals have adorned some of the city’s most famous eating and drinking establishments, and Old King Cole is just one of a long list of favorites. In the early 1930s, the restaurant Café des Artistes on West 67th Street fell on hard times as the city struggled with the effects of the Great Depression. Located on the ground floor of Hotel des Artistes, an artists’ cooperative apartment building, the café served the tenants who lived upstairs, as well as the general public. Howard Chandler Christy, a prominent painter and illustrator who resided at the hotel, offered to paint a mural that would, according to Palmer-Smith, bring in “crowds of new customers”. For a fee of $2,000, he composed a series of nudes in bucolic settings – frolicking in water, playing on swings, posing with parrots.
 
The work has a dreamy, salacious quality that shocked and, as Christy anticipated, enticed the public. Café des Artistes became a crossroads for the art and business communities. Generations of New York’s top editors and gallery owners, bankers and stockbrokers met there for quiet lunches and dinners, or a drink at the bar, which The New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton describes as having been, “one of Manhattan’s great dark-and-quiet cuckolding spots”. In 2009, after more than 90 years in business, the café went bankrupt and closed. When a new management team moved into the space in 2011, they changed everything about the room, but kept the murals in place. Now called The Leopard at des Artistes, the restaurant and its nudes have garnered excellent reviews and host a new generation of New York power brokers.
 
New York’s tradition of murals enjoys constant reinvention. In the late Nineties Sol Lewitt was commissioned by Christie’s to create a mural three-storeys high for the entrance to 20 Rockefeller Plaza. The artist submitted four designs, and the auction house plumped for Wall Drawing No 896, Colors/Curves, a voluptuous collage of bold undulations in red, blue, yellow, green, lavender, orange and black.
 
In 2006, Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and three partners purchased Ye Waverly Inn, an historic Greenwich Village pub that had for years offered an old-world New York dining experience. Carter and his partners dropped the “Ye” and transformed the inn into one of the most popular and celebrity-filled restaurants in the city. During the redesign, they kept many original fixtures but commissioned illustrator Edward Sorel to create a mural that celebrated notable residents of Greenwich Village. He painted an outdoor scene filled with 43 caricatures in illuminating, sometimes hilarious poses. Norman Mailer lies naked and staring, Narcissus-like, at his reflection in a pond. Dylan Thomas sits on a rock looking unremarkable with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, except that his lower half is drawn with a satyr’s legs.
 
Back at The St. Regis New York, an early evening crowd is enjoying cocktail hour. A wide and shallow room adjacent to a more formal white marble lounge and dining area, the King Cole Bar has a polished wood ceiling and walls and is furnished with low cocktail tables and chairs. Twin mirrors flanking the black granite-topped bar scatter glimmers of Parrish’s brilliant palette around the room. The bar is far enough removed from the rest of the hotel to feel like its own entity, but close enough to serve as easy landing spot for newly arrived travelers seeking respite from Midtown New York’s hustle. The range of famous people who have enjoyed drinks in the bar over the decades (Salvador Dalí, Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway, to name just a few) is well documented, but it also hosts neighborhood regulars, out-of-town shoppers, and a chic slice of New York nightlife.
 
Old King Cole has a secret that any Parrish expert, St. Regis bartender, or knowledgeable 14-year-old boy will happily share. “He is called the Flatulent Monarch,” says Cutler. “If you look carefully you can see that the king is raised off his seat and that the jesters and guards are reacting to him passing gas.” Although Parrish publicly denied it, the story of his revenge on Astor for having insisted on being included in the painting became part of the mythology surrounding the artist. “Parrish had a bet with his friends that he could paint absolutely anything,” said Palmer-Smith. “Old King Cole proved it.”
 
Your address: The St. Regis New York

The 1999 three-storey mural created for Christie’s
at the Rockefeller Plaza by Sol Lewitt

The kids are allright

The Kids Are All Right

Walking into the New York office of social media company Mediabend, the first things one notices are its energy and its interiors. Beyond its buzzing staff, creating such luxury shopping sites as Lifestyle Mirror and Elizabeth Street, are an American flag owned by John F. Kennedy and a massive photograph by the late Dennis Hopper, and after them a series of four enormous expressionist paintings – forged not by some famous abstract painter, but by the owner’s young daughter.
 
Family bonds, clearly, are key to the success of Emanuele Della Valle – if not financially, then emotionally. “My family was equally happy when we had very little,” he says, noting that his family’s wealth, stemming from the Tod’s empire of which his father is CEO, only became a vast fortune in the past couple of decades. “I got the lesson of humility and hard work from an early age from my grandfather. At one point, he lived in immense poverty, surviving on a piece of bread a day. From him, we learned it’s about what you do, not about your last name.”

 

Sam Branson, son of Virgin founder Richard, with his
actress wife Isabella Calthorpe (left) and sister Holly.
Sam is the chairman of film production company Sundog Pictures

 

Della Valle isn’t the only modern-day heir to abandon a facile trust-fund life and strike out on his own. Although many of the young rich may have brand surnames so powerful that they’re virtually synonymous with their homelands (take the royal David Linley in London, or the American newspaper heiress Amanda Hearst), these days it simply isn’t chic – in fact, it’s frowned upon – to live the life solely of a socialite or playboy.
 
While this younger generation is clearly aware of how they appear in the media, it is not just social approval that appears to drive them. A streak of entrepreneurial endeavor seems to have evolved, a goal to get their hands dirty, and to have their company or cause become a self-earning business entity.
 
This is true all over the globe. At the age of just 28, for instance, Carnival Cruiselines heiress Sarah Arison is becoming one of the most important arts philanthropists in the United States. Charlotte Dellal, granddaughter of the notorious gambler “Black Jack” Dellal, spearheads the accessories brand Charlotte Olympia. Sam Branson, son of Virgin founder Richard, runs a film company specializing in ethical content. Camilla Al Fayed, whose father once owned Harrods, is attempting to overhaul the fashion label Issa.

Tamara Mellon, who grew up in Beverly Hills
next door to Nancy Sinatra, co-founded
the Jimmy Choo shoe company

“There is no such thing as ‘society’ today,” observes the social arbiter David Patrick Columbia, editor and co-founder of newyorksocialdiary.com. “Society is driven by money and the ability to make it.”
 
Columbia rightly notes that the jetset days documented by photographer Slim Aarons, culminating in the heady excesses of the 1980s, are long past. The vanishing of café society has pervaded the consciousness of a new generation. It is no longer just about buying a $10,000 ticket to some charity function, but turning their cause into a self-financing business entity that earns them both legitimacy in the outside world and the satisfaction of having done it themselves.

Charlotte Dellal’s father was property
tycoon “Black Jack” Dellal. She steers
accessories brand Charlotte Olympia

Many parents spurred their offspring on towards independence. “I didn’t have the choice of doing nothing,” says the young Chinese jeweler Bao Bao Wan, the granddaughter of Wan Li, former Chairman of the National People’s Congress, who grew up within China’s presidential compound. The former Paris debutante has since seen her luxe jewelry represented around the world – no mean achievement with “Made in China” stamped on it. “But then, one of my missions is to solve that misunderstanding and to open that knot,” she says.
 
Jaisal Singh, descendent of one of India’s most illustrious families, says he was always expected to forge his own identity. “My parents were very, very tough on me to do something,” he says. Today he and his wife own Suján, the preservation-minded luxury hospitality brand responsible for Jawai, the country’s latest luxury leopard camp. “It wasn’t like I had an open checkbook from my family, either. I had access to the family legacy, but it was sink or swim. We had nothing in the bank.”

Bao Bao Wan called China’s presidential compound
home and is now a sought-after designer of jewelry

Many others who were never expected to own a business have excelled. Tamara Mellon, the brains behind Jimmy Choo, recalls her English headmistress telling her and her fellow female students, “Don’t worry about the education. You’re all going to get married, and it’s going to be absolutely fine.”
 
Often, when the scions of successful families do get there, they don’t always get the credit they deserve, Mellon says. People tend to forget all the nameless jobs, such as working at fashion boutique Browns, that she undertook prior to her great shoe success. Instead they dwell on the fact that she is now one of the wealthiest women in England. “They forget what it took to get where I am,” she says, adding that the gender discrimination she encountered along the way “rots the ground underneath you. I fought for what I earned. Even after all that, you still get derided and questioned as to whether you really have ability.”

Emanuele Della Valle, whose family owns
the luxury shoe brand Tod’s, helms online style magazines

No matter their disparate backgrounds, successes such as Mellon or Singh stress that motivation stems from their families. How that is communicated, though, varies. “If a parent is looking for their child to fulfill the parent’s dream, then of course that’s unhealthy,” says the rock ’n’ roll jewelry designer Ann Dexter-Jones (anndexterjones.com). “You’ve got to nurture them to feel good about their own strengths.”
 
Dexter-Jones’s five offspring, from her marriages to Laurence Ronson of Heron International and the rocker Mick Jones, are a case study in pursuing their private passions. Mark Ronson, Samantha Ronson and Alexander Dexter-Jones are flourishing musicians, songwriters and composers; Charlotte Ronson is an accomplished fashion designer; and Annabelle Dexter-Jones is a rising actress.
 
Their mother’s rule, she says, was to not treat her children like hand-puppets. “I impressed upon them that success is not about fame, money, or status. It just may happen to be a result.” And although they mingled with the likes of Mick Jagger, Michael Douglas, John McEnroe and Joan Didion, being surrounded by fame was never allowed to go to their heads. “None of my kids believe in any sort of nepotism,” says Dexter-Jones. “They do it their way with pride.”

Charlotte and Samantha Ronson, with links
to the Heron property empire,
are stars of fashion and music

Although connections do, of course, help. And why not? Plum Le-Tan’s introduction of her daughter Olympia to Gilles Dufour, for instance, helped her to get an internship and subsequently become his muse at Chanel. “I’m quite happy to assist in any way I can to help young kids get a foot on the ladder,” says Le-Tan. “Connections help.”

 

Amanda Hearst, the 30-year-old great-granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, admits that her background does carry weight. “If my last name helps get me access to something I care about, then I say, ‘Let’s go for it’,” she says, with particular reference to Friends of Finn, the charity she founded to raise money to eradicate inhumane puppy mills. Alongside friends such as Georgina Bloomberg, Kick Kennedy and Kimberly Ovitz, the young socialite has helped to ensure the closure of several deplorable puppy farms. “Whatever you do, it’s got to feel visceral,” she says.

 

Her passion is much admired by John Kluge, whose late father was once the richest man in America. Kluge co-founded Toilet Hackers to try to provide better sanitation facilities around the world (one child, he says, dies every 17 seconds due to a lack of clean water and poor hygiene).

Amanda Hearst, scion of the Hearst newspaper dynasty,
is a crusader against inhumane puppy farming

His father, also John Kluge, donated the vast majority of his multibillion-dollar estate to philanthropic causes – something his son doesn’t begrudge. “It’s a blessing,” he says. “I don’t have the luxury of not being able to work for a living, and I get to go out and create my own personhood and achievements.”
 
Although having the same name as his father can have its disadvantages, too. “Often people assume that if you come from a family with means, then you have the same resources, and that can be a hurdle when raising money.”
Hard work, and bits of luck perhaps, will determine whether this new generation achieves its destiny. Not everyone can be Tory Burch, the laser-focused former socialite turned fashion mogul. They readily concede their good fortune, but point to their parents for their inspiration.
 
“If you come from a family of clear personalities, no matter if it is a tycoon or someone who runs a café in a small town, it is perhaps not as easy to do what you want to do,” says Della Valle. “But they have lived a life, so why not try to learn the treasures of their experiences? I always listen to my father’s advice. I may do something different afterwards, but he’s a no-nonsense guy and he respects me for it.”
 
“No matter what your background,” he adds, “the integrity of a human being comes from the family and the work you do.”

Camilla Al Fayed’s father
used to own Harrods in London.
She runs the fashion label Issa, a royal favorite

California Dreamer - Andy Linsky

California Dreamer

During the week, Andy Linsky can invariably be found behind the wheel of a conventional, modern car as he drives between some of the most prestigious properties in and around Palm Springs, going about his business as one of the region's leading real estate agents. But in his spare time, Linsky is more likely to be spotted wafting along Palm Canyon Drive in a time-warp classic from the large and impressive collection which he keeps fully maintained and ready-to-roll in an 8,000 sq. ft. warehouse near his home.

 

“I’ve been interested in cars since the age of 4,” says 63-year-old Linsky, “but I didn’t get around to owning a classic automobile until the early 1990s when I bought a 1971 Lincoln Continental. It proved to be a false start. I found I wasn’t ready to deal with the foibles of an old car, so I sold it on.”
 
Linsky, who is also a passionate collector of contemporary art and wristwatches, revisited classic car ownership in 2000 with the purchase of a 1966 Rolls-Royce with drophead coupé coachwork by Mulliner Park Ward. “I sold that, too, and have regretted it ever since, but then I began buying more cars and, at one point, owned 25. That is now down to 18, two thirds of which are British or European, with the other third being American. I tend to buy those that were around when I first had a driving licence but couldn’t afford to own – although I have managed to buy an almost exact duplicate of my first new car, a 1972 BMW 2002tii in Inca orange.
 
Linsky purchases mainly from specialist auction houses and, more occasionally, from dealers or private sellers. “I try to buy the very best cars I can find, usually ones which have been restored to exceptionally high standards,” says Linsky, who counts among his stable a 1967 
Rolls-Royce and a 1963 Cadillac that were previously part of the renowned, multi-award-winning Nethercutt Collection in California.
 
“I think that’s a better way of doing it than buying a car in poor condition and having it rebuilt,” he continues. “It’s also very important not to simply park them up and forget about them. They need to be used. For that reason I employ someone to manage the collection, servicing and maintaining the cars, as well as driving them on a regular basis.”
 
Like most collectors, however, there are still one or two cars that Linsky longs to own. “I would very much like a Bentley Continental Flying Spur with Mulliner coachwork, and an Aston Martin DB6,” he says. “But these two particular cars have become very expensive. So now, I’m on the lookout for a 1968 Ford Torino GT Fastback in Lime Gold. That was the first car I ever owned, and I’d like to have another, but it’s proving very difficult to find one in that exact same color.”

 

Spoken like a true perfectionist.

Issue 3 - Carnival Of Colours - Image 5

Carnival of Color

Once seen, a Beatriz Milhazes canvas is never forgotten. The 54-year-old Brazilian’s palette races through tangy citrus, raspberry, blueberry, coral, mint, scarlet and sky-blue. Sharpened here and there by linear shapes, the leitmotif is the sphere, often figured as a tropical flower. But she explodes the curves into fragmented arabesques that swirl and spiral across the canvas.
 
Rather than working directly on canvas, Milhazes paints on sheets of plastic which she then lays on to her surface and peels away. From a distance, her paintings possess flawless, graphic sheen; close up, subtle shifts of tone and texture inject a vigorous, carnal vitality.
 
Today, her oeuvre has garnered worldwide recognition, with works residing in New York’s Guggenheim Museum and MoMA. In 2012, her painting My Lemon sold at Sotheby’s for $2.1 million, making her Brazil’s most expensive living artist at the time.
 
Last year the Paço Imperial cultural center hosted her first retrospective for ten years in Rio de Janeiro, her native city. For Milhazes, the experience was thrilling. “The pulse of this city is incredible right now,” she tells me at her studio in Rio. But it was nerve-racking, too. “People say, ‘I love your work’, but many have only ever seen it in books.
 
”This year, her sights are set on her first major U.S. retrospective, at the Pérez Art Museum Miami. Milhazes is keen to make her mark on a city she views as “a bridge between North and South America.” She is also enthused by the museum’s spectacular new building, whose glass walls are framed by a pergola of hanging gardens.
 
“I love the way that nature is integrated with the space,” she says, adding that the rapport with flora mirrors the tension in her own work, which thrives on the clash of landscapes. “I love to be surrounded by the city and yet also by nature. That’s why I love Rio and Miami.”
 
Your address: The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort