Rome

No Place Like Rome

Throughout the 1950s and early '60s, Rome was the coolest city on earth, synonymous with fashion, style, design, glamour, a vibrant if sometimes disreputable nightlife – and, of course, movies. The epicenter of all this excitement and frenetic activity was a hitherto-unremarkable 200-yard street named Via Veneto. It was here that international high society would gather: the rich, louche and beautiful. There were movie stars and international financiers; haute couture tycoons and minor noblemen; millionaire playboys and stunning models, dressed to kill. The stories that emerged from this small street made it one of the most famous places on earth.

 

The after-dark activities, and sometimes outlandish behavior, in bars, restaurants and nightclubs on and around Via Veneto were the stuff of worldwide gossip. It looked like one long, wild party to which only the gilded and glittering were invited. All this lasted a decade or more, and from the outside, at least, it looked like a sweet life. No surprise, then, that the greatest film documenting the era was called La Dolce Vita – even if its title was sardonic.

 

What a scene it was. On any day in this feverish period it was hard not to catch sight of people so famous they could be identified by their surnames alone: Bardot. Sinatra. Ekberg. Welles. Lollobrigida. Mastroianni. Loren. You might glimpse Prince Rainier, Aristotle Onassis, the Aga Khan, Jackie Kennedy, King Farouk. Not to mention Burton and Taylor, or Liz and Dick, as the papers called them when they visited Rome to shoot the epic Cleopatra, and carried on an illicit affair that made global headlines for weeks on end.

 

While the film was being shot in 1962, the couple stayed at what was then called the Grand – which has been known as The St. Regis Rome since the turn of the century – and it became one the film’s informal production offices, with ordinary Romans waiting in line to be auditioned for lavish crowd scenes. The gorgeous belle époque palace, founded in 1894 by the legendary hotelier César Ritz, had become a Roman home away from home for dozens of stars, ranging from Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner and her then husband Frank Sinatra (sometimes quarreling furiously) to Fiat’s playboy tycoon Gianni Agnelli, who maintained an apartment there all year round.

 

Jess Walter’s bestselling 2012 novel, Beautiful Ruins, gives a flavor of the place. One of his characters, an Italian man of modest means named Pasquale, enters the hotel to see hundreds of extras for Cleopatra being cast: “The mahogany door opened on to the most ornate lobby he’d ever seen: marble floors, floral frescoes on the ceilings, crystal chandeliers, stained-glass skylights depicting saints and birds and glum lions. It was hard to take it all in, and he had to force himself not to gape like a tourist...”

 

Via Veneto was heaven for the press, even in daylight, with all these famous people strolling and behaving impeccably. After all, they were rich, elegant, fashionably dressed by chic designers – and their images sold newspapers. Journalists and cameramen worked the Via Veneto beat in pairs, nosing out juicy titbits of gossip. Any celebrities behaving in an unseemly manner found their activities captured as they fled from gangs of ruthless cameramen, indifferent to their feelings and privacy. These men – some on Vespas, some simply sprinting – came to be known as paparazzi – after Paparazzo in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the photographer sidekick to Marcello Mastroianni’s gossip columnist.

 

The paparazzi made the lives of some celebrities sheer hell. One of their favorite targets was Anita Ekberg, famous from La Dolce Vita as the sex-goddess actress who provocatively waded into the Fontana di Trevi and beckoned Mastroianni to join her. She and her husband, English actor Anthony Steel, were often out late on Via Veneto, sometimes openly arguing, with Steel frequently quite tipsy. He would literally fight back at the paparazzi, throwing punches. On one occasion Ekberg felt so persecuted by paparazzi who had tailed her all the way home, she grabbed a bow in her house and fired off arrows at her pursuers.

 

The standoffs between celebrities and paparazzi, out for scandalous photos that hinted at adultery or inebriation, became an almost nightly melodrama. Scuffles, shouting, chases and recriminations were commonplace. It wasn’t always seemly, yet the whole world seemed to be watching.

 

The phenomenon of La Dolce Vita seemed to emerge from out of nowhere, and several unlikely elements contributed to bring it into being. The most remarkable thing about it was the speed with which it happened and its time-frame: only a few years previously, the Eternal City was a devastated place, having been occupied by invaders – first the Nazis, then the Allies – with large sections of it reduced to ruins. Plus, of course, Italy had been on the losing side in World War II; it was a Fascist nation ruled mercilessly by the tyrannical dictator Benito Mussolini. Yet only five years after hostilities ceased, it felt as if the western world had swiftly forgiven Italy, and Rome re-assumed its place as a friendly international playground.

 

Three great neo-realist Italian films, all shot so cheaply and convincingly they looked like documentaries, helped to sway opinion, especially in America. Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) convinced the world that Rome’s citizens were mostly poor, decent and struggling to get by in their beautiful but war-ravaged city.

 

It also helped that Italy underwent an economic resurgence in the post-war years: “il boom”, as it became known. This was partly due to generous American aid under the Marshall Plan, but was also thanks to the country’s production of well-designed products for mass consumption: domestic appliances, Fiats and Vespa motor scooters, all of which introduced us to items that were both chic and iconic.

 

After the war, the population around Via Veneto changed. Although once a hangout for artists, writers and intellectuals, after the US Embassy opened for business in 1946 in the old Palazzo Margherita, the street became the heart of an unofficial American colony, which the Yanks nicknamed “the Beach”.

 

Brigitte Bardot is snapped by the paparazzi in Rome, 1970

(AGT/REX/Shutterstock)

 

By the end of the 1950s, it boasted a Harry’s Bar and a Café de Paris, establishments already existing in cities favored by jet-setters, and the airline TWA began operating direct flights between New York and Rome. The city’s status as a glamorous destination was sealed; and Via Veneto was the hub of a neighborhood where visiting Americans, especially wealthy ones staying in luxury hotels, might feel at home.

 

As for movies, the genesis of La Dolce Vita was rooted in a pragmatic business decision. The Italian government, like others in Europe, was alarmed by the overwhelming post-war success of Hollywood films and passed legislation to defend its film industry in a number of ways. These included a strategy known as “blocking” funds earned in Italy by American films, insisting they could only be spent in the country where they were earned.

 

Hollywood studios circumvented this by making films abroad, using blocked funds as their budgets. Italy was a beneficiary of this gambit: it boasted a reliable climate for uninterrupted shooting, and great locations including beaches, coastlines and the glories of Rome. Above all, it had Cinecittà (Cinema City), a world-class film studio conveniently situated on the outskirts of Rome. Opened in 1937, the dream factory was Mussolini’s brainchild (something Italians are still a little sheepish about). Il Duce grasped how potent moving images could be for propaganda, and resolved to make Cinecittà the equal of Hollywood studios. This was a dictator who genuinely loved movies (he founded the Venice Film Festival); with Cinecittà, he effectively created a viable film industry for Italy.

 

So it was that 20th Century Fox shot Prince of Foxes, a medieval adventure story starring Tyrone Power and Orson Welles, wholly in Italy. On its release in 1949, it grossed enough money to make shooting Hollywood movies in Italy seem a shrewd idea. In its wake, MGM upped the ante, announcing an epic production of Quo Vadis, set in ancient Rome and starring Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr. A huge production, even by Hollywood standards, it boasted a then remarkable budget of $7.6 million. Statistics about the film’s scale were bandied about by publicists. Some scenes used 30,000 extras, all of them job-hungry Romans. A record 32,000 costumes were designed for the movie. The production took over Cinecittà for a whole year.

 

Quo Vadis was such a big deal that, in June 1950, Time magazine ran a leading piece about it, and the significance of making American movies abroad (now known as “runaway production”). The piece was titled Hollywood on the Tiber, and the phrase quickly stuck.

 

If it seemed a risky proposition, it paid off. Quo Vadis went on to gross three times its budget in North America, and became the highest-grossing film of 1951. As a place for making Hollywood movies, Rome was suddenly hot.

 

And Hollywood kept on coming. The next big film was wildly different, but also advanced Rome’s credentials as a destination for Hollywood film-makers. Roman Holiday (1953) was a charming romantic comedy starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn. She played a princess, in the city on an official visit; she abandons her duties when she falls for Peck, playing a reporter who takes her sightseeing on the back of his Vespa (of course), taking in the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum and the Trevi fountain. Director William Wyler chose to shoot largely out in the streets, aware that the real city looked better than any backdrop the movies could devise. Thus, the film had three stars, Hepburn, Peck – and Rome, at its most ravishing.

 

No-one would argue that Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) was much of a movie. Its premise was paper-thin: three young American women, in town and looking for love, toss their loose change into the Trevi Fountain and make a wish. But it was a huge hit and its title song, crooned by Sinatra, topped the charts and won an Oscar. Rome? It looked as lustrous as ever.

 

Looking back, it feels as if Cleopatra (1963), a film that was a spectacle but failed to justify its absurdly expensive budget, was the high-water mark of the La Dolce Vita era. No bubble suddenly burst, but as the 1960s progressed, it seemed other cities (notably London) had seized Rome’s mantle. The Café de Paris moved out, as did Harry’s Bar.

 

They have since returned, and although Via Veneto is a less frantic street than in its heyday, it still has a real allure. It’s not hard to conjure up images from its illustrious past: a young Sophia Loren striding down the street, heading for the stardom that awaited her; Mastroianni, avoiding the gawping gaze of passers-by, and looking rueful; Ava Gardner, flashing her brilliant smile as she leaves a restaurant. And, of course, the ever-present paparazzi, jostling, shouting and waving, their flash guns popping. Times may change, but good stories never die.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Rome

 

 

Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, 1962

(AP/Topfoto.co.uk)

 

 

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 Scooting through Via Veneto

(Getty Images)

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A River Runs Through It

Early evening on the Nile in Cairo, and the sail of our felucca, the traditional Egyptian sailing boat, was swollen with pink light. Mohamed – guide, boatman, sage – was standing in the stern, balanced against a stay, guiding the tiller with his bare foot. Caught up in the arms of the river, we were talking pyramids.

 

“You are mistaken,” he said. “There are no secrets on the Nile.”

 

From vantages all over Cairo, from the windows of the new St. Regis Cairo to the ramparts of the Citadel, the great pyramids of Giza are visible beyond the rooftops, icons of the city standing on the edge of the western desert. Their scale is staggering; Napoleon calculated that the stone from the three pyramids could build a wall 9ft high around the whole of France. Their antiquity is scarcely creditable; they were already 2,000 years old when ancient Rome was still a collection of thatched hovels. But as much as anything, it is their silence that intrigues.

 

The pyramids tell us almost nothing about their occupants, about the lives they lived, about the world they came from. Only diligent archaeological detective work has discovered the names of the pharaohs buried within them. There are no inscriptions, no reliefs, no wall paintings. By the time the ancient Greeks turned up to swoon at the feet of the pyramids, even the contents were missing; the tombs had been looted centuries before. As a window on ancient Egypt, they are closed, shuttered and secretive.

 

Mohamed pushed the tiller starboard and we tacked towards the eastern bank, the direction of medieval Cairo. The old city, now a World Heritage Site, is the antithesis of the pyramids. In the warren of narrow lanes and alleys, vociferous life swirled around traditional Cairene houses, past some of the greatest buildings of medieval Islam. There seemed to be so few secrets here among crowds surging towards the clamor of Khan el-Khalili bazaar in search of everything from a cradle to a camel saddle, from perfume to chamber pots, from junk to jewels.

 

“But there are no secrets in ancient Egypt either,” Mohamed insisted. ‘Everything you want to know about the pyramids, about the men once buried in their chambers, about the world of ancient Egypt – everything, you will find along the banks of this river. The Nile is an open book.” Laughing, he scooped a handful of river water and splashed me. “Follow it,” he said. “It will answer all your questions.”

 

So follow it I did, though the idea of traveling the length of the Nile had occurred to me long before I had met Mohamed. A giant among rivers, the world’s longest and mightiest (though some claim this title for the Amazon), it runs almost 4,000 miles from its headwaters in the Mountains of the Moon in Central Africa to its twin mouths on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. To anyone who loves travel, and the challenge of a grand journey, an expedition up the Nile is irresistible.

 

Beyond Egypt, it curves through Sudan and Uganda. But that perhaps is another river, and another story. In Egypt itself, a country that Herodotus described as the gift of the Nile, the monuments along the banks, and indeed the river itself, tell the story of the lost world of ancient Egypt in detail so graphic that we come to feel a part of it.

 

I followed the Nile from its mouth at Rashid on the Mediterranean to its source at Lake Victoria in Central Africa. For nine months I traveled in antiquated buses, in freight trains, in the backs of lorries, and wherever I could, on the river itself. I drifted to the tombs of Beni Hasan in a leaky boat piloted by an ancient fellow with the creased and leathery features of a pharaonic mummy. I traveled from Asyut to Luxor in a barge carrying cement, sleeping on a mat on the decks with the three-man crew. I sailed upriver in a felucca from Luxor to Aswan, stopping at the great temples of Edfu and Esna and Kom Ombo, picturesque on its bluff above the river.

 

I fell in love with the Nile, and the timeless life along its banks. In the early mornings, the surface of the river was glassy as egrets flew upstream, their yellow legs skimming their own reflections. Small boys shepherded dusty buffalo down to the water’s edge. Men appeared among the reeds, climbing into fishing skiffs. Caryatid women followed paths through the fields with water pots on their heads, moving like belly dancers – their bodies undulating, their heads perfectly still.

 

As the morning sun polished the river, voices drifted from the banks, elongating across the surface of the water. Blue-domed shrines rose from fields of sugar cane. An old man passed on a donkey. In the palm groves, between the aisles of tall trunks, flocks of sheep wandered through latticed shade, trailed by robed shepherds. On the Nile, past and present intersect; the fascination of these river banks, and of the fellahin or farmers who mine its waters, is how little has changed since the days of pharaohs.

 

Without the Nile, Egypt would not exist. The country is a desert, the eastern reaches of the Sahara, and its inhabited territory merely a long thin oasis, a line of irrigated cultivation, framed by dry wastelands. The border between the two is so distinct that you can straddle it, one foot in lush grasses, the other in sand. I wondered if ancient Egyptian anxieties about death might owe something to this tenuous geography, to the proximity of the enveloping desert, traditionally the land of the dead.

 

At Abydos in middle Egypt, I went ashore to see the great Temple of Seti. This was the journey every ancient Egyptian longed to make, just as Muslims today all wish to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. If they didn’t manage to come to Abydos in life, they believed their soul would travel here in death. Up and down the Nile on the painted walls of tombs, on the carved reliefs of temples, under the lids of sarcophagi, is this theme of river journeys, of boats, their sails hoisted to the north wind, all traveling to Abydos, the center of the Osirian cult of resurrection. The painted river scenes are eerily familiar to the modern traveler.

 

 

 Above: a felucca in Aswan, on the banks of the Nile

(©Tuul & Bruno Morandi/4Corners)

 

Largely intact, the temple is like the set for an Indiana Jones film, the remnant of a lost civilization. The disembodied voices of other visitors echoed between the stone walls. Figures flickered like ghosts in the shafts of light between the massive columns. The gloom deepened as I passed from one hall to another towards the inner sanctuaries where the gods lived.

 

Here, on the wall reliefs, some of the most beautiful in Egypt, all the secrets of the sacred rituals are displayed, rituals that would have been known only to the high priests and the pharaohs. We see the royal figure washing and dressing the statue that represents the God’s soul. We see the rituals of purification and the presentation of offerings. Finally, we see the pharaoh withdrawing, scattering sand on the floor, and sweeping away his own footsteps as he backs out of the sanctuary. These are works of art, masterpieces of the ancient world, and they appear on these walls like faded and cracked film footage from a world that flourished four millennia ago.

 

At Luxor in Upper Egypt, any lingering notions about the silence of ancient Egypt were soon overturned. Known as Thebes in ancient times, Luxor is a treasure trove of antiquities, and they come with a language, a history, a pantheon of identifiable gods, a list of kings, not to mention the endless tales of warring dynasties, of hopes and despairs, of political intrigues, and family conflicts, culled from inscriptions. On Luxor’s east bank stands Karnak, the colossus of ancient Egyptian temples, that has dazzled visitors for centuries. On the west bank, the funerary side of the river, I explored the Colossi of Memnon, the Ramesseum, which inspired Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Temple of Hatshepsut, a magnificent elegy for Egypt’s first female pharaoh, and Medinet Habu with its ithyphallic gods.

 

But it is in the Valley of the Kings that you come face to face with the fears and hopes of the ancient Egyptians. Sixty-three tombs and burial chambers are tunneled into the soft earth of this remote valley, their corridors lined with paintings that depict the rituals of death, and the images of paradise.

 

In the tomb of the Pharaoh Merneptah I made my way down the long tunnel towards the burial chamber. Along the walls were reliefs of elegant gods and their attendants with images of the dead pharaoh preparing for his journey to the next world. The carvings seemed as clean and precise as the day they were made. Their colors, after more than 3,000 years, glowed in the dim light.

 

I paused to examine the lithe figure of the Western Goddess. She was wearing a rather fetching topless frock. In the sloping tombshaft I passed the Hour Goddess, the different forms of Ra, the jackal Anubis, alert and watchful, past the sun disks and the scarab beetles, past the exquisite registers of hieroglyphics that unlocked the secrets of eternity.

 

At the bottom I emerged in the tomb chamber. All that remained was the granite lid of one of the four sarcophagi that had enclosed the mummy. Across the top was an effigy of the pharaoh, his arms folded across his chest. He was ageless. Beneath the lid was the beautiful Nut, goddess of the sky, stretched above the wrapped mummy like a lover. In one of these Valley tombs, some 19th-century graffiti captures the Egyptian anxieties as simply and eloquently as a dozen ancient reliefs. Scrawled on the hull of a royal barque is a single line: “You must not forget me.”

 

For ancient Egyptians, the next world was not a cloud-strewn heaven of angels and harps. Their paradise was simply the Nile. Their images of the next world were images of their beloved river. In the tombs we find feluccas with sails set, fishermen casting nets, boatman waiting for fares. If they were to live forever, what could be more divine than the banks of the Nile?

 

Over two millennia later, the third Aga Khan agreed. One of the world’s wealthiest men, he spent his winters in Aswan, and asked to be buried here on the banks of the Nile when he died in 1957. Every evening his mausoleum, standing on the west bank, darkens to a silhouette against a colored sky.

 

Now emphatically the end of Egypt, Aswan was for millennia the limit of the known world. Even in the early years of the 20th century, European visitors, enjoying cocktails on the terraces of the Old Cataract Hotel, could still thrill to the idea that beyond lay a barbarian darkness, little known and largely unexplored. Yet Aswan has none of the melancholy transience of a frontier town. It is a delightful and sophisticated place. If Luxor is a town of archaeological sights, an intense immersion in ancient Egypt, Aswan is a place for aimless meandering, where people come and go on boats.

 

One day I took a boat across to Elephantine Island, and strolled through villages where women sat on their doorsteps sifting rice and gossip. Another day I went upriver to the ruins of Philae, a temple that seemed to have sprung from the Nile itself. Through the empty windows of the Hall of Nectanebo were views of boats and water birds. Yet another day I explored the sprawling ruins of San Simeon Monastery, on a bluff, half a mile into the desert. Founded in the seventh century, it was originally dedicated to Saint Hadra, a cheery fellow who encountered a funeral procession on the day of his wedding. Seized suddenly with the tragedy of life, he went straight to a hermit’s cave without ever consummating his marriage.

 

In the evenings the feluccas spread swallow wings to the north winds that have carried boats up the Nile, against the currents, since before they built the Great Pyramid. Nowhere in Egypt is the river in such picturesque form, threading through islands between banks of desert sands and smooth granite. It looks, as the ancient Egyptians believed it to be, a kind of paradise.

 

Your address: The St. Regis Cairo

 

Above: fishermen on the banks of the Nile, between Luxor and Aswan
(©Günther Grafenhain/4Corners)

Below: the 3,000-year-old Great Temple of Abu Simbel, on the west bank 
(©Tuul & Bruno Morandi/4Corners)

 

Splashing

Splashing Out

Scroll through your social media feed and you’re bound to see it: an envy-inducing photo of a friend soaking up the sun on a giant swan-shaped pool lilo, cocktail in hand. Or a heart-pounding video of a daredevil with feet strapped to a hover board, performing tricks over the water. From extravagant to the futuristic, water toys are not what they used to be, with innovations ranging from motorcycles that morph into jet skis to electric wakeboards that don’t even require a boat for you to catch air.

 

John Courtney of FunAir, which has inflatable slides, floating islands with climbing walls and James Bond-worthy jet-packs among its offerings, says the water-toy industry is a fast-expanding one. “People are always looking for a new experience,” he says, “whether it’s at a resort, yacht or their home.”

 

One of the first serious jetsetter toys was the JetLev personal flying machine: a contraption that straps on your back, siphoning a jet ski’s power through a hose to send you 50ft into the air at 47mph. Another was Zapata’s Racing’s Flyboard, which uses similar technology, but with a board strapped to your feet, allowing you to soar 40ft into the air and do flips.

 

Today, almost as cool are electric-powered surfboards and wakeboards, which negate the need for a boat, or even waves: the Onean electric surfboard, for instance, which cuts through the water using jet-propulsion at speeds of up to 32mph, and the Radinn Wakejet Cruise, which gives boarders the freedom more commonly found in surfing – except controlled by a wireless remote.

 

According to Jessica Engelmann of Northrop & Johnson charter broker, having an ample toy chest is the key to a successful boating holiday. “A good toy chest has at least two waverunners, a tender, towable rafts, paddleboards and wakeboards,” she says, “and a really great toy chest might have something like a drone, and a waterslide and flyboard.” The company’s 39m Revelry, for instance, comes with an inflatable blob launcher, a hoverboard and a waterslide.

 

A key trend, says Sam Powell, director of Superyacht Toy Shop, is toys that are easy to transport and easy to use, like the latest Live Paddle Board, which is hard to fall off, and the new Hobie Mirage Eclipse Stand Up Pedalboard, which combines a paddleboard and bicycle.

 

Dual-purpose tenders have also become popular in recent years. Although they’re not a new concept (in 1961 the first German-built Amphicar made a splash at the New York Auto Show, and one even crossed the English Channel in 1968), today’s land-to-water vehicles are substantially faster. Today’s Gibbs Biski motorcycle can travel at a speedy 80mph on the highway and continue into the water at a respectable 37mph.

 

The shape of boats has also transformed substantially. The futuristic-looking Kormaran, for instance, can morph from a monohull tender to a catamaran or a trimaran, and by unleashing hydrofoils can fly more than 3ft above the sea. The 13m Wider 42 can be transformed from a high-performance, narrow carbon hull to a vessel 18ft wider in anchorage, at the flick of a button, “so you can not just get there before your friends,” says Jeremy Roche of Wider Yachts, “but be relaxing on a spacious deck, with your champagne open, as they arrive.”

 

And while it’s pleasurable to have a yacht, it’s not essential in order to enjoy water toys. There are plenty to have fun on for landlubbers, says Engelmann, ranging from “fun floats in your pool, like the swan lilos and Seabobs that are easily transported, to GoPros and drones, which keep getting more sophisticated.”

 

Not all the drones she recommends are airborne. The Orak Hydrofoil Drone from by Parrot, for instance, works much like a vamped-up boat, controlled by your smartphone, which can do stunts and take photos as it glides at 6mph: all ideal fuel for Instagram. And once people have seen something on social media, Courtney adds, and imagined themselves taking part, “it’s a small step to wanting a water toy themselves.”

 

Your address: The St. Regis Mauritius

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Esther Freud

1. Morocco, 1967

 

My first big journey was when I was four, to Morocco, where I lived until I was six, and wrote about [in Hideous Kinky]. For the rest of my childhood I felt I had a secret, exotic, colorful Moroccan life inside me that nobody else in gray, rainy England understood. It affected me in another way: I spoke a muddle of English, French and Arabic, but couldn’t write until I was 10. I thought that stories and tales I’d heard in Morocco were more magical than putting letters in a certain order. I think they politely called me “vague”.

 

2. New York, 1979

 

When I was 16 I went to visit an American friend who lived in New York for Christmas. I couldn’t believe there was a city like it. They were a wonderful arty Jewish family on the Upper East Side; for Christmas morning we went to a diner for pancakes. It seemed so exotic. I took my sister Susie once, when our plane made an emergency landing; we ended up at a place called The Happy Donut. We still talk about it.

 

3. Italy, 1980

I’d just spent a year in London, at 17, getting to know my dad [the painter Lucian Freud], as I’d never lived in the same city before, and he invited me to go to Italy by train. We spent two weeks together, which was so precious. In Florence, he was wonderfully playful and badly behaved. Then there was the unbelievable beauty of Italy. And I fell in love. So it was a blissful adventure
 

4. India, 1984

 
In my early twenties, with tips I’d made from waitressing in a pizza restaurant, I went to India for three months with a friend and her father. We were naive and ill-prepared, so it was terrifying. My friend’s father was appalled by the rats and beggars; to him we’d entered a Bruegel painting of hell. It got better when we went south to Kerala and Kochi beach, which was paradise, and Jaipur and Rajasthan, where we had a magical time. I’ve been back often; it’s become an important part of my life.
 

5. Suffolk, England, 1985

 

Because I missed the English countryside, my father suggested I rented an old family cottage by the sea. Often seaside towns are barren, and the countryside overly cute, but Walberswick is so gentle that I immediately felt I belonged. The house was cold and bare, with terribly uncomfortable beds. But my architect grandfather lived there after they left Germany, and he renovated many of the houses in the village, so even now it feels like part of who I am.

 

6. South Africa, 1995

 

Three months after our son was born, my husband [actor David Morrissey] got a job in a tiny town called Upington, several hours from Johannesburg, in the desert, and persuaded me to come with Albie. It was dismal; really lonely and dreadful. But the director’s wife had a small child too, and she and her friends, and now their children, have become my most important of friends.

 

7. Germany, 2000

 

I knew, for my book The Sea House, that I needed to go back to a house in Hiddensee, off the Baltic coast, where my grandparents had taken my father and his brothers for their summer holidays. It was lovely: a sandy flat island with a lovely cold sea, beautiful old houses and bicycles, but no cars. A fishing family who remembered my grandfather invited me in, and cooked me eels: oily and pretty disgusting.

Esther Freud's latest novel, Mr Mac and Me, set in Walberswick, is published by Bloomsbury

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‘We want to encourage a woman to dream. We’re playful, fun and unexpected’

The typical super-busy, fashion-savvy woman from New York, what does she do when it comes to buying clothes?” asks Lauren Santo Domingo. “Is she going to walk around Bergdorf Goodman and throw things over her arm, then drag them to a fitting room? This woman doesn’t go to the supermarket, so why would she be expected to do the same thing at a department store?” Why indeed? If anyone knows about shopping, it’s Santo Domingo. The perfectly polished brains behind the luxury shopping e-tailer Moda Operandi is very good at it, too. So good, in fact, she has perfected the experience to a fine art. Her latest boutique opened on Madison Avenue and 64th Street in 2016, an appointment-only, luxury-shopping experience that is entirely tailored around each individual woman who shops there. And trust her, there will be no carrying clothes over your arm as you peruse the rails. Your every wish will be taken care of, before you’ve even made the wish.

 

Santo Domingo calls it “hi-tech, high touch”. Before a client even walks through the door, her personal shopping advisor will know her shopping habits: what she likes, what she’s returned, her size, her wish list, what she’s put in her shopping cart and taken out. “We cater the experience around her,” says Santo Domingo. “So when she comes in and says, ‘I’m looking for an evening gown for my son’s bar mitzvah,’ we say OK. Then we put in a pair of earrings or a jacket in the changing room when she arrives, so although she’s there for the dress, the coat she’s been looking at for two weeks is there too.”

 

Although around 80 per cent of Moda Operandi’s business is done online (the average transaction is $1,200, with customers ordering an average of seven to eight times a year), the experience of actually touching the clothes, trying them on, and interacting with a salesperson is still important. Santo Domingo set up her new model of shopping in 2010 to allow members of the public to shop the runways as soon as the fashion show was over (a privilege open only to the elite fashion insiders who were allowed to pre-order items at showroom appointments the day after the show). “When we shop online, clothes are laid out as still life images; you are seeing it from the front, and when you’re in a shop, all you are seeing is the arm. Shops haven’t evolved or changed the way women buy.” The experience at Moda Operandi is much more intimate. The clothes all hang face-out like they do when you view them online. “If we can figure out a way to get all the most perfect things you can get online – and you can touch and feel it – that’s the perfect shopping experience. That’s our goal.”

 

The first MO boutique opened in London, tucked away in a mews at the back of Hyde Park Corner. But in New York, Santo Domingo says, there is a lot more snobbery about location. “We opened in London first because it just felt right, but in New York it can’t just feel right, it has to be right. You can’t expect a woman who lives in the perfect building on 5th avenue to come to 73rd between 2nd and 3rd. It’s just not going to work. So we are East 64th right off Madison, between Madison and 5th. It took us a little longer to find the perfect spot.”

 

And while the London mews attracts a lot of foreigners, VIPs and Middle Eastern royalty, New York is much more local. As well as the women who live and shop the city, Santo Domingo is keen to attract women traveling through – other Americans, as well as foreign visitors. “When a woman comes to New York, what’s she doing? She’s shopping, looking in museums, and going out to dinners.” What the private Madison Avenue salon can offer is hand-picked eveningwear, a real insider’s edit of high-end fashion (and not just the usual suspects; Santo Domingo has a keen eye for the up-and-coming designers), exquisite jewelry, together with an entrée into the often impenetrable world of fashion that she so loves.

 

Clients are invited to meet the designers at trunk shows (Santo Domingo’s star trunk-show host is Giambattista Valli, who she says can read a woman immediately and knows exactly what she wants out of life and her clothes – and, she adds, he’s always right). “There are a lot of women who are creative and want a creative outlet and are drawn to fashion.” With Moda Operandi it’s possible for them to gain access to that world, to sit front row at a show, to be immersed as well as to shop.

 

Santo Domingo, 40, grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the 1980s. Her father, Ronald V Davis, was CEO of Perrier in America, so he traveled to France a lot. “As I got older, my father started to take me and I’d see glimpses of what life could be. Then we’d go back to Greenwich. It was such a small, conservative, don’t-raise-any-eyebrows place. Everything had to be perfect. I’d do all my back-to-school shopping in Paris with my father. You’d get the little French notebooks and pens and that would be as crazy as you could be.” Her mother, Judy Davis, is a mosaic artist and visually very creative. Her father was, she says, the complete opposite: “Very business oriented. I got a bit of both of them, which is quite lucky.”

 

While she says she wasn’t interested in clothes as a child, Santo Domingo started her career as a fashion assistant at Vogue in New York. “I learned to have this confidence. You have all these importantly connected women in the office and we were expected to come up with ideas and pitch things and I was shy and embarrassed to speak up. Someone told me once, ‘Don’t overthink things so much. You’re out and about; if you’re interested in it and think it’s cool, then maybe everyone else will too.’ ” Now she doesn’t question her instincts. New finds like the Colombian designer Johanna Ortiz (a family friend of her Colombian husband, Andrés Santo Domingo) have been a runaway success. “It’s about confidence to go, ‘This is how women want to shop. If they don’t today, they will tomorrow.’ ”

 

Moda Operandi has ambitious plans. While building the exclusivity and choice of the online experience, the salons will continue to open around the world. As well as San Francisco, LA and Miami, there will be openings in the Middle East and Asia. “If you stay in one place, your mindset and business will stay local. The more you move, the more you spread it,” she says. Her belief that fashion and the right accessory can change your outlook is infectious. “Sometimes I’ll go to a party and see someone buttoned up in the perfect dress and barely holding it together. You just want to go up to them and mess up their hair and trade bags and say, ‘I know if you were carrying this crazy Inés Figaredo clutch, you’d have so much more fun tonight.’ We’d have a dance. Come on! It can be life-changing if you just let it.’ ”

 

Fashion should be fun, she says. “We want to encourage a woman to dream. We try to take a conservative approach to the most far-fetched fashion and that strikes the right balance. Our point of view is playful and fun and unexpected. But it’s considered.”

 

Santo Domingo understands well the life of her wealthy clients. She lives with her husband and their children, Nicholas, 5, and Beatrice, 4, in Gramercy Park, her favorite New York neighborhood. She has great teams supporting her both at work and at home, where she loves to entertain – usually with an informal buffet. But she also loves being out and about in her city. She and her husband are regulars on Citi Bikes. If it’s a day out with the kids, she’ll go to the High Line, the Whitney, the park in Tribeca, and for lunch at Balthazar or Shake Shack in Madison Square Park. “The Children’s Museum of New York on the Upper West Side is probably the greatest place for children in the world – more of a playhouse.”

 

If she had a day without kids, she says, it would begin with coffee at Via Quadronno on the Upper East Side. Then the bookshop at the Met. She would then go to Moda to look at the jewelry. Lunch would be at Sant Ambroeus in SoHo, followed by a visit to the new Whitney. Then a beauty treatment (“I have a whole list of facials; it depends on my mood, but maybe a Georgia Louise facial”). Then a snack of grilled corn at Café Habana and a browse around De Vera gallery and Opening Ceremony. Cocktails would be on the back terrace of the Bowery Hotel, with dinner at Momofuku Ko. A late night with friends would involve the new Socialista at Cipriani. “I’d go home at 4am and sleep until 3!” she says, with a mischievous laugh.

 

It really does sound perfect (and perhaps not so far from her own life). “I always wanted my own business, to travel, to make my place in the world,” she says. “I wanted a family, so this is the life I always dreamed of. It would be ridiculous to complain for a second, for even a moment.”

 

 

Lauren Santo Domingo is co-founder and creative director of Moda Operandi: modaoperandi.com.
Your address: The St. Regis New York

 

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Your wish list is her command

Lauren Santo Domingo: “I learned to have this confidence. Someone once told me, ‘If you’re interested in something, and think it’s cool, then maybe everyone else will too."

 

 

 

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Heeling power

A display at Lauren’s new Madison Avenue boutique –
where an appointment-only luxury-shopping experience awaits 

(photo: Matthew Williams)