Issue 2 - Warhol Wizard - Image 1

Warhol Wizard

“Picasso was the greatest artist in the first half of the 20th century, Andy Warhol in the second.” That’s the typically blunt opinion of Peter Brant, billionaire industrialist, entrepreneur and art collector, and his money has followed his mouth. Brant, 66, won’t specify how many Warhols he owns, but it’s in the hundreds, and he has thousands of other contemporary American artworks, by Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Prince… In a land of art collectors, he’s one of the best connected and grandest.
Brant, whose fortune derives from newsprint, lives in Greenwich, Connecticut, with his second wife, the former supermodel Stephanie Seymour. In 2009 he started The Brant Foundation to share his inventory, and this year he showed 130 Warhols – the result of a collecting career that began in 1967. “I was about 19 when I first bought a Warhol Soup Can drawing,” he says impassively, pointing out that he was following in parental footsteps. “My father [Murray Brant] collected classical paintings and Old Masters.” Another life-changing moment came on the slopes of St. Moritz. “As a teenager I met the art dealer Bruno Bischofberger while skiing,” Brant says. “He introduced me to [Warhol’s dealer] Leo Castelli.” Hooked, Brant then met Warhol in 1968, “just after he’d been shot”, and became a friend of the artist. “Although Andy was avant-garde, he was never interested in drugs or the self-destructive. He was a voyeur, interested in people.” Brant even produced a couple of Warhol films in the Seventies, L’Amour and Bad, and was surprised to find out how famous the artist was in Europe. So he kept buying Warhols, with the odd hiatus when he attended to horseracing and polo, and has remained true to his friend. While some reckon that his celebrity paintings squandered talent, Brant refutes this.
“I like all Andy’s work, particularly his pictures from the early Sixties,” he says. He’s proud of Licorice Marilyn (1962) and Shot Blue Marilyn (1964), both on show at the Foundation. Brant, who now owns Interview, the magazine Warhol founded, also learnt the art of acquisition from Warhol. “Andy was the quintessential collector,” he says. “We shared a taste in antique furniture and went on buying trips to Paris.” Warhol snapped up everything, from Art-Deco chairs to cookie jars. Contemporary art has enjoyed a bull market recently. Is it over? “On the contrary, I think it’s a better time than ever,” Brant says. “People say ‘You were lucky to live through those times.’ But art has never been more 
appreciated than now.” So look around, he exhorts. Find the new Andy.

The Brant Foundation Art Study Center, 941 North Street, Greenwich, Connecticut; By appointment

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

Issue 2 - A Little Place I Know - Image 1

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,

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
Your address: The St. Regis New York
Issue 2 - A Little Place I Know - Image 2
Issue 2 - A Little Place I Know - Image 3

The wine shop in Rome by Olivier Krug

Via dei Prefetti 15, 00186 Rome,

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,

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 

Issue 2 - A Little Place I Know - Image 4
Issue 2 - A Little Place I Know - Image 5

A pottery paradise in San Francisco by Michael S. Smith

2900 18th Street, San Francisco.

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 - A Little Place I Know - Image 6
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.