Maybe it is the jetlag, or the steam heat, or the rush of events, but I close my eyes, and am surprised to find myself transported back to a brisk walk through Oak Point on a winter day. I inhale the scent of balsam needles, the salty breeze off the sound. It could not have lasted more than a few seconds – time is impossible to measure when under the influence of evocative sensations, when I realize that it was indeed a smell that had conjured them all. A new aroma envelopes the room. A scent as pleasant and pine-laced as a bonfire on a fall afternoon, reminiscent of sachets in colonial-era corner cabinets. My memory and present consciousness swirl about in the mystery of this subtle fragrance and it transports me into the past. The Countess enters her domain.
“Bon jour and good morning to you,” says an unsteady but cheerful voice. “You are the boy whose parents were always suing me, aren’t you?” she says. I turn to my right and see the now delicate Countess walk into the room in a dark brown morning suit, the color of a moldering leaf pile, interwoven with russet, grays and black. True to form, she was outlined in matching jewelry, a parure of blood ruby necklace, bracelet, and ring. No need to add that they were a bit on the large side and not paste.
My hostess is frail, but still has the erect bearing and pronounced carriage of the rich. And a bouquet that is spellbinding. She tells me that her perfume was concocted by Mainbocher’s parfumeur to conjure her memories of Oak Point. The smell was to stay with me throughout my visit, and came to define the experience for me. Oak Point has its own, distinct smell, one that can be captured in a small bottle at a dear price for one person on earth. The Countess. Mona.
So it is her rustic yet refined aroma, and her physical posture that greet me after many years, and I am reminded of the artful bearing of Martha Graham shopping in the Fifth Avenue bookstore where I once toiled, always a signal event of the day. Whenever I encounter women who carry themselves this way, exemplars of their sex, I wonder why so few of their peers can emulate them.
“Yes Ma’am. Hello. Bon jour.” I hoped that the subject of the lawsuits would not come up so soon, or at all. I try not to rise too quickly, more aware than usual of my clumsiness. I clear my throat and smile.
The Countess extends her hand. I am not sure whether to kiss it, shake it, or back out from the room and the house. Part of me wants to bolt and run for the door, to return to the real world. I steel myself to the task, and decide to sort of brush my lips in its general direction and give her as hearty a handshake as circumstances will allow. What I receive in return is the shadow of a handshake from a shadow of a woman. I hold her hand in both of mine and hone in on her cat-like virescent eyes. Eyes that no man or women she desired could escape. Eyes that bewitched the high, the mighty, the hoi polloi ~ the whole world for decades. I have known young ladies such as that, but this was the first woman her age that transfixes me.
“It is marvelous to see you again after so many years, and you are most kind to have me,” I say. I cannot help but notice that, unlike so many older women, Mona’s clothing fits as though it had been tailored yesterday – which it might have been. I imagine that her stockings had never, for one second, bunched around her ankles. That is not what couturier made, finely sewn and fitted hosiery does. No, her seamless silk hose is as a second, softer and more refined skin. She is one of those people who dress for dinner when they eat alone. The word “housedress” is not in her vocabulary, let alone her wardrobe. She can be, and often is, informal. Casual, never.
She is a countess, but the title she shares with no one is, “Best-dressed woman ever.” Her pearl white hair is not lifeless considering the machinations it has survived; having been prematurely gray, she is the first to lightly tint her hair amethyst, an fashionable look before being hijacked by women who overdo. It is one of her many style affectations that are copied by the multitudes, her innovation of the charm bracelet being another. I always wonder about the whole blue hair thing. Class, or mass? Grandmother? Not a chance.
In the early days of her ascent, the mid-twenties, couturiers pleaded for her patronage, but she favors a few, the best. Vionnet. Balmain. Mainbocher, who was American. Schiaparelli. Chanel.
The Duchess of Windsor, Mrs. Guinness y fille, Mrs. Astor, Rose and Jacqueline Kennedy, the denizens of the atelier, all pay court to her. The Harrison Williamses – her third married name – don’t live like royalty, because royalty can’t afford to live like the Harrison Williamses, they said. Mona’s friend, Cole Porter, pays homage to her in the song, “Ridin’ High.”
“What do I care if I can’t dress like Mrs. Harrison Williams?” sings Ethel Merman. What indeed. Who could afford to?
Although she is in her last days, the bearing of this former equestrienne is unmistakable. She has the poise and posture of a classical dancer. She is a Greek statue come to life. Mona is the epitome of the jazz age, which to the modern sensibility has a certain je ne sais quoi. A jazz lover myself, that is what I want to discover. What makes her tick? Who does she dig? Who is the real woman behind the stories?
It is an indirect route from Kentucky to Paris, with detours in Milwaukee, Palm Beach, Fifth Avenue, the North Shore of Long Island, and Capri and, despite the at times petty humiliations of a long and rich life, and several treacherous husbands, she savors every minute allotted her.
I hold out my arm and she guides me into what I take to be her living room, a salon thirty-feet wide and forty five-feet long, with an eighteen-foot high trompe l’oeil ceiling with elaborate wedding cake carved molding, set off by six windows facing the Avenue de New York, and, beyond that, the Seine and the Eiffel Tower. It is hard to remember that I am in Paris, and not some Potemkin movie set, with stock footage projected behind the windows. Pierre, the refined factotum, leans over her as she asks him to bring us some espresso.
“And why are you here again?” she asks, interrupting my daydream.