Letter from America – February 1957

I am really too busy to stop but since you are here, as they say in certain parts of Scotland, “come away in”.

Doing The Flowers

You find me in the cold room, which if you do not live in a spacious well appointed Glasgow home is located between the butler’s pantry and the lavatory for the gardener and other outside help. I am as they say “doing the flowers”. We are having a few people in this evening for drinks, which in case you are socially awkward is from 6 until 8 unless you have been asked on the QT to stay for “kitchen suppa”.

To be able to do the flowers is a very important female attribute, like being able to make bread and butter pudding or sew worn sheets sides to middle. Although I admit that some gentlemen like Jasper and dear Beverley Nichols handle blooms and secateurs with aplomb.

Jasper’s prize winning floral arrangement of Easter ’56

I normally work very closely with Constance Spry as you know; indeed she often refers to me as her muse in matters floral. This week, however, I have been a bit of a traitor for on a business trip to Inverness I purchased a book Flower Decoration for the Home by Violet Stevenson who like me appears to be a bit of an artiste when it comes to chicken wire and pussy willow.

A New Inspiration on the Floral Front

Violet  has been winning prizes for flower arrangement since the age of ten which is of course a little precocious like those children who insist on reciting the list of the monarchs of Britain or the periodic table, while handing out nibbles or sweet bites at their parents’ parties. Of course a genius has to begin somewhere and I imagine in my own way I must have been just as irritating coming home from finishing school to Glasgow with my recipes for Coquilles Saint-Jacques, Banquette de Veau and Crêpes Suzette, when dear Papa, who despite being very wealthy was a plain Scotsman in matters culinary and would have preferred, broth, steak pie and apple and bramble crumble.

Apple and bramble crumble

He did, however indulge moi and it was only many years later that Mama discovered he was happy to do this, as he was also getting his plain Scots fare at Busty Betty’s down by the canal, where he had an expense account. This he often shared with Peggy a French Polisher from Port Dundas who was well known for her novelty ways with gravy and had an impressive party trick with raspberries (in season of course) Chantilly cream and paper drinking straws. It is said her artistry was very much in demand during the annual meeting of The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, when the coaches for outings to Glasgow were often oversubscribed.

Overcoming the Last Unpleasantness

As I was saying, if you will forgive me while I snip these woody stems – don’t you just adore catkins? – I am working with Violet who appeals to moi because we have something in common a developing interest for things American. Admittedly, we diverge a little on her love of Japanese influences, which she says influence the American flower arranger greatly but, given the last Unpleasantness I have to steel myself a little when rendezvous-ing with a flat dish, three flowers and a glass of rice wine but for the sake of art I am prepared to overcome my own prejudice. However, when I think about it I am ahead of the game for did I not win the Coronation Cup in 1953 for my inspired Japanese presentation? Indeed I did!

The award winning floral art piece by Muriel in 1953

That has made me think – a Japanese flower arranging afternoon at my tasteful interiors shop “Chez Nous” might be a nice little income generator. There will of course be 10% off all merchandise for those booking the package which includes the tea ceremony. I am quite sure I can get Mrs Travers into a kimono from our old Women’s Guild production of The Mikado. I have always thought she could pass for the Katisha of Kelvinside.

What I like about Violet is that she does not resort to “stunts” she believes that the path of flower arranging is dictated by one’s own personality and that above all she loves flowers like children she explains as “they respond to love.”

This is very different from men who respond to food and simple commands like “wash car”, “dig pond”, “buy jam doughnuts”, and most notably “fetch gin and tonic”.

A Corset, Queen Mary’s Bosom and a Male Mannequin

Which reminds me Jasper has gone down to his shed. There has been an incident.

Jasper’s Fort better known as the shed

According to Jasper the West End has been hit by a hurricane and he has lost a strip of felt from his roof. Now it was quite windy and indeed Mrs Travers lost a corset which she had left out overnight to be touched by Jack Frost. Hilda “zee German vuman vat does zee heavy vork” rather unkindly said that was just as well as it was unlikely to be touched by anyone else.  Yesterday a student brought it back as it was found flying from the spire of the varsity and fortunately could be traced due to the Cashes’ name tape. I slept through it all – the sleep of the just I know, but Jasper often suffers from wind and he was up and down stairs all night frightened the windows were going to come in.

In normal circumstances a leak in a shed roof is nothing to worry about, there are worse things happening in the world, but as you know Jasper has his Museum in the Shed and the current exhibition is on the First World War. In case you want to visit, he is open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 2-5, entry is 6d with a cup of Bovril and a trench piece,(a corned beef sandwich) if Mrs Travers is not otherwise engaged. There is also a sales table. All proceeds to the War Widows. I would, however, leave it a couple of days as “water ingress”, to quote the roofer, which sounds to me like a more expensive repair than “a leak” has given a very realistic look to Jasper’s papier mache model of the western front. There has also been some slight damage to the illustrative material and while King George V looks only slightly foxed Queen Mary’s bosom has almost completely dissolved and that, if I might say so, was no mean task.

He is however, particularly upset over the condition of the exhibit “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”, which is in fact a well padded male mannequin discarded by the  gentlemen’s outfitters, Henry Burton, in Buchanan Street, wearing one of Lady Pentland-Firth’s old cabaret costumes. I must say the moustache is something of a clue to why she has “never been kissed in 20 years”.

In Conversation

Now I could do with some more golden privet, but I will need to put my gum boots on first and my gardening fur. If I might pass on a little tip , never discard your old beaver, threadbare and shabby though it might be; it’s ideal when gathering the first flowers and foliage of the year. “Oh Mrs T, I was just about to go outside. Have you finished polishing the cocktail cabinet ready for this evening?”

Mrs T polishing the cocktail cabinet

“Yes your Imperial Highness, I mean Mam, I mean yes and I’ve made a  treacle tart for this evening for Mr Travers to take his mind of the war, the leaks and his wind problem.”

“Very thoughtful of you Mrs T.”

“And I thought you might like to have this which came in the second post; it’s a letter from America, from Master Sebastian I imagine. It’s certainly got some very theatrical writing on it.”

“Oh that’s nice Mrs T; thank you that will cheer up Mr Wylie. He is missing his nephew. Did you bring my letter opener?”

“Of course – on the silver salver under the letter. I’m away back to the kitchen, going to do a nice shepherds’ pie for the kitchen suppa and ma Billy bought me a couple of new records to play on that old Dansette, Master Sebastian left me, along with some of his very theatrical things.”

“Oh very good; what are the records?”

“Frankie Vaughn’s The Garden of Eden and Tab Hunter’s Young Love , I like that Frankie , he’s a snappy dresser.”

The Letter

My Dear Aunt Muriel and Uncle Jasper,

Well here I am in New York. I can hardly believe it. It is just like in the films, everything is so tall, I have a permanent crick in my neck from looking upwards.

It was good of you to see me off at Renfrew Airport. The Viscount is a lovely aircraft. The steward was that friend of yours Aunt, the one who has just had the little boy. He sends his regards and says there is always a glass of champagne ready for you in his pantry.

shipped from the States by Cousin Lulubelle

Cousin Lulubelle met me in her cadillac at London Airport and we drove into the city and stayed the night at The Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch. We had dinner with some of Cousin Lulubelle’s friends who are in property such as Peter Rachman  who owns more than a hundred mansion blocks and several night clubs, and helps people from the West Indies to find homes in the city.

Cunard’s Queen Mary

Next day we took the boat train from Waterloo to Southampton and boarded the Queen Mary. What a wonderful ship! Cousin Lulubelle seems to know a lot of people including The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Duchess is most elegant almost as marvellous as you Aunt, but not quite. Just like you, the Duchess never wears diamonds before 6 in the evening.

The food and service were excellent and the crossing not too rough. I was lucky to be invited below deck to some of the crew parties, even although it is not strictly speaking allowed. Down there we had a wonderful Fancy Dress Film Night, where one had to go as a film star. I represented Dark Victory, you remember Aunt, no not the Ronald Reagan role but Bette Davis as Judith Traherne, “she’s everything a woman can be; dare to be!” I came 2nd to the tourist class’s pastry chef who won first prize for his portrayal of Marlene Dietrich as Lola Lola in The Blue Angel.  Had to leave pretty sharpish when I suggested I had seen it done better by Lady Pentland-Firth.

Lady P-F does her cabaret routine a la Marlene

On arrival at New York, the customs and passport people were a little tricky, but let me in after I did the “give me your huddled masses routine in the style of John Gielgud or was it Hermione Gingold? I forget. Anyway whatever it was, most successful. We are currently putting up at The Albert Hotel in Greenwich Village. You might like to know Uncle that Robert Louis Stevenson stayed here as did Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Cousin Lulubelle says she will help me look for an apartment in “the village”, which she says is very suited to the very theatrical. It’s in Midtown West and is quite close to the Hudson River. It is less ordered than other parts of Manhattan which stick to the grid pattern of the early 19th century. I suppose this is because it really was a village once. The streets have names and not numbers,which makes me feel more at home. The buildings are not quite as tall as some other parts and we are looking at “mid-rise apartments”.

I think Aunt you would love it here, it is very colourful and artistic and has been home to so many people like Isadora Duncan, William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neil. Do you remember that film you liked with Grace Kelly and James Stewart, Rear Window? That was set in a Greenwich Village apartment. It is all very handy for “The Actors Studio” where I have enrolled. This is situated in “Hell’s Kitchen” which is home to a lot of Irish American poor, a bit like The Gorbals in Glasgow, I imagine Uncle Jasper.

Cousin Lulubelle is going to introduce me to some people at the Cherry Lane Theatre. This is one of the city’s oldest and is where they do what is called “off Broadway” which is where plays get a chance to try out before finally going to Broadway. It was originally a warehouse and a factory and it is now a popular venue for the Theatre of The Absurd.  You might remember that Samuel Beckett play I took you too – which Uncle you called “Waiting for The Goddam Interval”. Well that’s the Theatre of the Absurd. It’s about life with no meaning and purpose and the breakdown of communication, a bit like a New Year’s Day that lasts forever.

I really should get some shut eye as they say out here. Tomorrow we are going to the Whitney Museum, then having lunch with a young writer called Gore Vidal whose book The City and The Pillar has been banned despite being about tennis and he has to write under an assumed name. Cousin Lulubelle says just loves anything that’s banned. Then we are going in search of beatniks and beat poets. Please tell Mrs Travers they have the most enormous breakfasts here and eat bacon with marmalade, but the tea is awful and there is no dumpling.

Hope you are both well.

Love to Gayle, Mrs T, Hilda, Hairy Mary from Inverrary, and Lady Pentland-Firth

Your ever loving nephew

Sebastian xx

Emergency Snorter

Much needed

“Hello precious have you finished doing your Mrs Dalloway stuff”

“Hello Jasper yes I have almost finished doing the flowers

“Is that a tear Muriel”.

“Just a little one, I have a letter from America.”

“An emergency snorter?”

“I think so Dahling.”

à bientôt

Muriel Wylie

February 1957

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2 Responses to Letter from America – February 1957

  1. Louise Lewis (Lady from the right side of Carlisle) says:

    Chérie Muriel,

    Ooh la la! Le pauvre Sebastian – far away across the pond en Amérique! I must confess that I too was in need of an emergency snorter after reading his ‘very theatrical’ letter from America. Still, his being such a theatrical young man, I believe he will fit right in in Greenwich Village – slot in marvellous he will, sans doute! Sounds like he is being exposed to all the latest cultural melange, thanks to Cousin Lulubelle: The Actors Studio, The Cherry Lane Theatre, The Theatre of the Absurd (God save us!), Gore Vidal et al. I do RAWTHER like the sound of beatniks and beat poets myself……perhaps when he is settled one could pop over the pond oneself for a bona sojourn dans le village?! Je suis certaine that in no time at all Sebastian will be a regular ‘home from homie’ in New York and just think what it’ll do for his Art!

    Maintenant, speaking of cultural visits, the darling daughter is currently in Berlin on a History trip with her school. I was RAWTHER taken aback this morning on the telephone when she informed moi that they’re being taken up the Reichstag this evening! Should I be alarmed? After all we are barely recovered from the last Unpleasantness! Please ask Lady P-F to advise – as we all know, she had vast experience during her Weimar years…….

    Oh my – one is urgent need of another emergency snorter, “Jeeves!” I really must lie down on the chaise, but before I do, let me just say how taken I was with the notion of a gardening fur. How novel and so you, Mu my dwaaling! I say one should never discard their old beaver…….simply marvellous!!

    Yours feeling the beats of the beatniks,
    Lulu xxxx

  2. Moira Taylor says:

    How apt to start our conversation in your cold room Muriel as all of our rooms are cold in what I like to call ‘My little grey home in the West’. And of course Sebastian has, literally, gone West.
    I feel so sorry for dear Jasper who has suffered such damage to his collection – I must confess it took me a while to reach the bit about the shed as I was, like Jasper, totally distracted by the fruit crumble. With custard.
    I shall certainly take a peep inside the Museum in The Shed once repairs have been carried out – one cannot be too careful – but only on days when the delightful Jasper is in residence ……
    What a whizz you are with the flowers Muriel. Is there anything you are unable to do once you put your mind to it??
    I found the letter from Sebastian quite charming and enjoyed his child-like enthusiasm about pastures new. I could quite understand your need for an emergency snorter my dear. Bottoms up!

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