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Kaiser Karl Converses; Clurman, Nilsson, and Faye Recalled

Just back from Jamaica Style Week where, with representatives of Parsons School of Design, I participated in a seminar in Kingston with fashion designers, who ranged from established lights like Carlton Brown, Nieh-Lis and SIIM to a 15-year-old girl who said she learned how to sew from her grandmother, making patterns from newspaper. I admit to some trepidation going, as one hears a lot about the homophobia that exists there. But I figured with planeloads of fashionistas arriving daily, it was going to be as gay as it gets.

I asked everyone I could about queer life there and basically got the answer that things are kept on the down low, but definitely exist. Instead of bars, private parties are the way to go, consequently making the scene a pretty small, enclosed one. Yes, there were horror stories, as when Norma Shirley of Norma’s on the Terrace, the island’s top chef, confided that her best friend was murdered years ago.

What was inspiring were the stories of the male fashion designers at the seminar, like Kevin Reid, Zam Barrett, Dexter Pottinger, Les Campbell, and talented jewelry designer Duane Bennett, who all told me that they’d had to deal with a lot of macho bullshit for their career/life choices, but nothing would stop them from pursuing their dreams.

Dwight Peterson, CEO of Saints International model/ designer agency, produces Style Week every year, and it was a dazzling succession of shows, clothes, and models. Jamaica seems ready to take over from Brazil and Russia as the new mannequin breeding ground and it was a joy to see the catwalks adorned with such gorgeous racial diversity, after Seventh Avenue’s ubiquitous vanilla flavoring.

Back in New York, Style Kaiser Karl Lagerfeld appeared at the New York Times “Sunday with the Magazine” on June 4, interviewed by Cathy Horyn and Stefano Tonchi. Lagerfeld’s alter kocker rock star look is admittedly less scary in person than in photos, and his fingerlessly gloved hands waved about as he breathlessly described his non-stop busy life. He was blessed from the start with parents who completely loved and supported him in anything he wanted to do.

“I was told I was very spoiled as a child. I always thought I could have been much more spoiled!” Work is his life, precluding family and personal attachments, and he admitted: “I consider myself very lucky to be successful at something which I love doing.”

Being modern, he said, was the key to his success.

“If you really look at the old dresses of Chanel and Vionnet—turn them inside out—the workmanship is not that great, really. Once you start getting nostalgic for the old days, you are finished! That’s why I changed my look—I got rid of the big suits I was wearing.”

On May 5, I saw Ron Rand in his one-man show, “Let It Be Art! Harold Clurman’s Life of Passion!” as part of the inaugural Harold Clurman Festival of the Arts at the Stella Adler Studio. In an utterly transformative turn, Rand was electrifying as this peerless theatrical titan, with his eye-popping, frenetic, essential rants about the need for art in a medium awash in commercialism. Rand publishes the idealistic journal “The Soul of the American Actor,” a quarterly that blessedly forgoes the sound-byte journalism rampant today in favor of in-depth thespian accounts.

Two days later, Marian Seldes demonstrated her invincible range in Ellen M. Violett’s short play, “Dorothy Parker Gets the Last Word,” playing the writer with fierce elegance and an uncanny, barely bottled anger. The entire festival was aglow with the heart, humor and talent so organic to the most seriously committed theatrical family. Holland Taylor, who directed Seldes, confided that, although she’s found great success on the Left Coast in “Two and Half Men” on TV, she positively aches to be back in New York, doing the live stuff she really loves.

On May 23, the Metropolitan Opera Guild honored soprano Birgit Nilsson, who died last Christmas at age 87. It was opera queen ground zero, as Alice Tully Hall filled with fans and cohorts come to remember the woman Cecil Beaton once called “The Hippo,” but whose piercing laser beam of a voice rode right over any Wagner/Strauss orchestral tempest to hit the listener smack between the eyes. Known for the direst roles of Elektra, Salome, Brunnhilde, and Isolde, offstage Nilsson was perhaps the greatest jokester of them all. A radiant Dame Gwyneth Jones recalled her placing a “Do Not Disturb” sign under her shield when Tenor Wolfgang Windgassen came to awaken her sleeping Brunnhilde. Baritone Thomas Stewart said that, after falling to his feet at the climax of “Elektra,” she would tickle his toes. There were the oft-repeated tales of her wearing a coal miner’s helmet in protest over a murkily lit, Herbert von Karajan-conducted “Die Walküre.”

Joking aside, the evening was made memorable by rare, visceral film footage of Nilsson performing live, including a 1960s Japanese performance of “Isolde” in which, wearing a slinky gown and huge flip hairdo, she bore an improbable resemblance to her fellow Swede, Ann-Margret.

A more raffish, but no less revolutionary, diva, Frances Faye, was celebrated by Terese Genecco in “Drunk with Love,” at the Metropolitan Room on May 22. Faye, an out lesbian in the 1940s, was a wholly original jazz stylist whose sets were marked as much by her bawdy humor as well as her musical savvy, beloved by such as Judy Garland and Sinatra, who would catch her early morning shows after doing their own. Backed by a superlative band, Genecco was a dervish of a performer—with a thrilling voice that evoked no less than the great Keely Smith—and comic timing that made her a fit heir to the oh-so gay Faye tradition. Genecco blasted into Fayes’ self-penned “Frances and her Friends,” with lyrics, “I know a guy named Joey/Joey goes with Moey/Moey goes with Jamie/And Jamie goes with Sadie/And Sadie goes with Abie/And Abie goes with Davy.” She told me, “My father was in the audience tonight. I’ve never officially come out to him, myself, but I guess now he knows!” Genecco lives in San Francisco where she works six months of the year as an insurance account executive, “making money to pay my band so I can do this show. I just broke up with a girlfriend who was in the closet, very successful, but couldn’t take my doing this show. I had to make a life decision which I’m so happy about, and let your readers know I’m free and looking!”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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