TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING

Gladys Deacon as a young woman

Gladys Deacon as a young woman

My friend Hebe is never shy when admitting she has “work” done: “Darling it takes more than good genes and water to look this good at my age.”

She is right. Hebe looks fantastic. At sixty, her skin looks plump with a youthful dewiness. Her body, voluptuous yet slim, is the envy of women half her age. Hebe is indeed fortunate in being a beautiful woman and she uses the discreet cosmetic procedures to maintain her beauty rather than try to create or alter her good looks in a dramatic way.

Many famous and beautiful women have approached cosmetic surgery with far less discretion than Hebe, often with disastrous results. Their sad stories are endlessly recounted in magazines and on television.

Cosmetic unguents and procedures have been with us throughout history. Some women ( and men ) have been foolhardy, to say the least, in the pursuit of preserving or enhancing their beauty, often destroying the very thing they sought to preserve: not only their looks but in many instances their health.

So, over a lunch of delicious crab salad and a bottle of dry white wine. I proceed to regale Hebe with stories of known exemplars of the art manicured excess……

Diane de Poitiers, a renaissance woman of great beauty and powerful intellect, who became mistress to Henri ll of France, a man twenty years her junior. To preserve her beauty she drank large quantities of liquid gold. This beauty elixir , she believed, would keep her youthful and therefore strengthen her hold on the much younger King. When her body was exhumed in 2009, it was discovered that high levels of gold were stored in her hair and body tissue. It’s now believed that Diane’s beauty elixir may have killed her.

“Darling, the woman was sixty six years old when she died and she outlived the King,” Hebe protests. “I’d say the elixir was a success when you consider the average life span in the fifteenth century was thirty five. Do you think she was the original cougar ?” I ignore her flippancy and continue my discourse.

Two centuries later, the beautiful Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth with their flawless beauty and the machinations of indefatigable Mama, managed to leave the peat bogs of Ireland and take London society by storm. The beautiful Misses Gunning parlayed their considerable beauty into advantageous marriages: Elizabeth to the Duke of Hamilton and Maria to the Earl of Coventry. It was Maria whose star shone the brightest.

Many considered Maria  the more beautiful of the two. She was mobbed whenever she appeared in Hyde Park, her manner of dress much emulated by high-born ladies as well as those of the lower classes,. The Paris Hilton of her day?

Hebe laughs, choking on her dry white: ” That’s hardly a recommendation. Did she come to a tragic end?” I nod. She took to applying a thick white powder over her pretty complexion and rouging her cheeks to a hectic vermilion.

We would consider it an absurd look today but it was thought to be unbelievably stylish by Maria and her contemporary’s. Unfortunately the make-up was lead base; it’s noxious effects causing skin eruptions and finally death from blood poisoning, Maria died at twenty seven, a victim of her cosmetics.

Hebe is silent. Not, I suspect from the lack of something to say but more from having her mouth crammed with crab salad. I continue.

Gladys Deacon, the exquisitely beautiful Bostonian heiress, unhappy with a slight dip near the bridge of her nose, decided to inject paraffin wax into the offending hollow. It’s the early 1900s. Not the most enlightened time for experimenting with injectables but Gladys is willful and she obsessed with the imperfection of her profile. The procedure is carried out with devastating results. Her beauty is destroyed. The paraffin wax is unstable. Obeying the laws of gravity, it leaves the dip where it was placed and travels to Gladys’ jaw, forming a large disfiguring lump.

Years later the diarist, Chips Channon tells the story of having visited Gladys at Blenheim Palace. Gladys, by then was the Duchess of Marlborough having, despite her disfigurement, married extremely well. It is winter and the vast opulent rooms of Blenheim are very cold. They sit close to an open fire and, while they chat, Chips observes Gladys holding her face very near the fire and with long fingers, slowly manipulates the softening wax beneath her skin into a more acceptable shape.

Hebe reflects on these snippets of history; “Darling. So sad and bleak. Those poor women. Is it a cautionary tale?”

“Yes I suppose it is, “I respond, somewhat pointedly. “Does it worry you that you inject your face with poison and hyaluronic acid?” I ask.

Hebe smiles: “Darling I’m sixty years old. It’s living that worries me more than dying and if a little Botox or restalyne makes it easier, then I’m all for it”.

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AUNT CIRCE STRIKES A DISCORDANT NOTE

g 1915b Giovanni Bondini (Italian-French artist, 1842-1931) Woman in Red at Piano

I’m rudely woken by the shrill ringing of my mobile phone. Fumbling to quiet its clamorous demands, I narrowly miss upending a glass of water standing on the bedside table. Not so fortunate the pile of books beside it – I knock them to the floor with a loud thud. What time is it? The room is dark but through the closed shutters I can see chinks of early morning light.

“Hello!”

“Darling it’s Hebe. Have I woken you?”

“No.” I say mendaciously, heaving myself upright and arranging pillows to support my back more comfortably.

“I’m still in bed but awake. Is there anything the matter?”

“I’ve had the most awful night Darling. Well it’s really been a succession of awful nights. It’s Aunt Circe’s bloody piano. You’re not going to believe this, but I think it’s haunted!”

Hebe and I have been friends for more years than I care to remember and I’ve known her to be funny, irreverent, politically incorrect, outrageous but never deluded. At least not until now.

“Aunt Circe’s piano haunted? Hebe, have you been drinking absinthe again? You know what a deleterious effect it has on you.”

A throaty laugh emanates from my mobile, ‘No Darling. I’ve been abstemious for the past few days, in fact, ever since the piano started playing by itself.”

The piano in question, Hebe had inherited from her Aunt Circe. It was an antique boudoir grand, lavishly decorated with ormolu and gilt. On its lid and along its sides were handpainted bucolic scenes of beautiful shepherdesses strolling arm in arm with their lovers. Altogether, a pretty thing but a little too rich in execution for my more austere sense of the aesthetic.

“Hebe you can’t be serious !”

“But I am Darling. It keeps me awake with awful discordant notes. If it was a pretty tune it may serve as a lullaby but this is just dreadful plink plonking; something you might expect from  someone with a tin ear. Not Aunt Circe’s usual style at all!”

Hebe’s Aunt Circe had been a woman of incredible beauty and charm. In the 1960’s she fled the stultifying social constraints of country Queensland and quickly established herself as a La Grande Horizontale in the raffish Cafe Society of swinging London. Her indolent and sensual nature eminently suited the life of a successful courtesan.

The piano had been a gift from one of her many admirers – a homage not only to her beauty but also to her talent as a gifted pianist.

I doubted very much it was spirit of Aunt Circe tickling the ivories. There had to be a logical explanation. There just had to be!

“Darling! Are you there?, demands Hebe, impatient with my silence.

“Yes, I’m here.”

I hear Hebe stifling a yawn, “I’m so tired Darling. I can’t put up with the infernal racquet  another night. I’m at my wits end. You don’t think you could come over at six-thirty for a drink and see for yourself?

“Yes of course I’ll come.” And without further ado we say goodbye and  I’m left to cogitate about Hebe’s extraordinary revelations.

That evening, I arrive promptly at six-thirty. Hebe is waiting on the verandah for me. She looks amazing in a black linen sheath and six inch Louboutin heels.

“Darling so good of you to come.” Kissing the air either side my cheeks she takes my hand and leads me to the sitting room. It’s a lovely room furnished with comfortable, chintz covered sofas, Louis XV chairs and side tables. The piano sits left of a large open fireplace. On its closed lid are photographs in gilded frames – pictures of Hebe in her hey day as a much sought after model in the 70’s.

“What time does the concert begin?” I say smiling. Hebe laughs and hands me a vodka soda. “Usually just after sundown.” We sit in companionable silence for some moments. The only sound is the heavy gold bangles on Hebe’s arm coming together as she rakes her fingers through her hair; a gesture I recognize as a sure indication of her agitation.

“Hebe you don’t really think the piano is haunted by Circe’s ghost?” She looks at me from over the brim of her glass and says quietly, “I don’t know what to think Darling. It’s been happening for three nights now. The rational part of me says it’s nonsense but when you’re sitting here and you hear it – well.” She stops speaking, and suddenly turns toward the piano.

I too turn to the piano, the lamplight plays across it’s gilded surface, sending refracted light in all directions around the room. And just as I’m about to speak Hebe urgently silences me with a warning finger to her lips.  “Shush Darling. I think the concert is about to begin.”

With her warning the fine hairs on the back of my neck begin to rise. For some moments all I can hear is the blood coursing through my veins. But then I hear something, a note, so soft, then another and another, until the room is filled with the sound of the piano.

There is no discernible melody, perhaps it is best described as a staccato. Hebe in sotto voce says triumphantly, “I told you!“ Her eyes are sparkling, is it in vindication or fear? – impossible to tell.

I stand and walk towards the piano. Hebe is close at my side. We watch in awful fascination. The ivory keys, is it possible they are moving ?

“Hebe, help me move the pictures off the piano.” We work expeditiously, all the time the piano is playing. Finally the piano top is free. Opening the lid I quickly secure it with the prop.

Hebe and I peer into the shadowy inside of the piano. What is it? Oh My God! Hebe suddenly lurches away in a  paroxysm of  uncontrollable laughter. “I can’t believe it Darling! I feel so relieved but also so very, very  ridiculous.”

There, resting on the piano strings, sits an enormous Queensland wood moth, it’s mammoth wing span larger than the width of a man’s hand. Not the ghost of Aunt Circe but a trapped lepidopteran!

It was the moth’s nocturnal movements that caused the piano to come to life. The giant wings slamming against the the piano’s strings were responsible for the ghostly staccato. And only at dawn when the moth quietened did the piano again fall silent .

After setting the moth free I return from the verandah to the sitting room. Hebe has set to rights the photographs and is looking relaxed on the sofa with a drink in hand.

“Darling you don’t think that the spirit of Aunt Circe may have come back as a wood moth do you?”

“No I do not.” I say firmly.

“You’re quite right Darling. Aunt Circe would never countenance being a witchetty grub under any circumstances.”