Sampling The Power Of Glamour On Pinterest

I've set up a Pinterest board for my forthcoming book The Power of Glamour, featuring photos with quotes from the book. Here are a few samples:

The book (pre-order your copy here) includes four photos by the great architectural photographer Julius Shulman, including this one of the Kaufmann House in Palm Springs.

One of the biggest misconceptions about glamour is that it is somehow feminine. Men are as susceptible to glamour as women, but it takes different forms for different audiences. One of the first uses of the word  glamour in the modern sense was in reference to "the glamour of battle," and martial glamour is one of glamour's most ancient forms.

One of the delightful discoveries during my research was the work of photographer Virginia Thoren, who specialized in glamorously portraying fur coats in mid-20th-century ads. I hope to feature an interview with her in a later DG post but, in the meantime, you can see more of her work at the June Bateman Fine Art site.


Mystery is an essential element of glamour and the subject of chapter five of The Power of Glamour.

The Power of Glamour will be published November 5. You can pre-order the book here.

[Julius Shulman's photo of the Kaufmann House © J. Paul Getty Trust. Used with Permission. Julius Shulman Photography Archive, Research Library at the Getty Research Institute (2004.R.10). Model in Silverblue Mink, 1956, copyright Virginia Thoren, courtesy of June Bateman Fine Art and The Virginia Thoren Collection at the Pratt Institute Libraries.]

The Leading Man: Hollywood And The Presidential Image, Featuring FDR As "a Virtuoso Of Deceptive Public Performance"

The Leading Man by Burton PerettiIn the third of our excerpts from  The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, historian Burton Peretti looks at FDR as the consummate public performer. You can read the first two excerpts here and here.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal qualities and story helped to invest the diverse relationship between Hollywood and the White House with a special resonance. This resonance in particular would enhance the figure of the president in certain cinematic terms—in other words, in terms that reflected the publicizing of heroic male figures in mass culture. As the theater provided Lincoln with emotional and philosophical guides to leadership, movies provided FDR with a mirror in which he could perceive and evaluate the deeper meanings of his life and his presidency. The fundamental reason for this deep bond lay in Roosevelt’s unprecedented employment of performance (as dramatic artists understood the word) in service to his presidency.

While Lincoln mined Shakespeare to enrich the music and the tragic weight of his prose and pondered melodramas (as well as Shakespearean tragedy) to elucidate his career-long fascination with tyranny and its consequences, Roosevelt, in keeping with his times, strove for a lighter touch. Through his effective use of radio in the Fireside Chats, he built on his cousin Theodore’s efforts to transform political speech from orotund Victorian practice to casual conversation suited to the age of mass media. He consciously confined the vocabulary of the Chats to about a thousand of the most common words, and always broadcast to a small group of guests in the Oval Office to create the feeling of an actual conversation.

To be sure, Roosevelt proved equally effective, especially during election campaigns, at booming and occasionally portentous oratory before huge crowds, but here too he showed his mastery of the microphone, adjusting his voice to the space and its echo and providing a novel new variety of temperaments, extending to effective uses of humor. Through his skilled introduction of light and humorous speaking qualities to presidential oratory, as well as the general buoyancy of many of his public appearances, Roosevelt conveyed his appreciation for comic acting and monology, in the style of Will Rogers and similar performers of the time.

The president’s most important performance by far was the deception with which he masked his physical disability. While every citizen knew about Roosevelt’s bout with polio, which afflicted him below the waist in 1921, almost none of them ever saw it literally paralyze him. In public the president walked, stood, smiled, and confidently led the nation. FDR was brazen enough in his first inaugural address to characterize fear as “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” apparently unworried that his passing reference to paralysis might diminish his own image at the very moment he was attaining power.

From the time he contracted polio FDR spent virtually waking hour of his life battling the image of the invalid, first to restart and to advance his political career and then, as president, to project the traditional image of the national leader—a Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt “running” for office and “marching” the people forward. In the age of movies, this expectation was heightened. As the art historian Sally Stein has observed, “today’s mass media intensifies the popular impulse to scrutinize the bodies of leaders and would-be leaders for signs of the[ir] abilities.” Even in the electronic age, while “absolute monarchs may sit . . . politicians dependent on popular mandate are expected to demonstrate quite literally their ‘good standing’ by rising to present themselves to their constituents.”

For Roosevelt, confronting such expectations was an unyielding physical and psychological challenge. His campaign led him to acquire a spa in Warm Springs, Georgia; experiment with quack medical remedies; devise steel leg braces and paint them black so that they would not be detected against his socks; and feign walking, falling forward while a strong man grasped his arm.

He even assumed the traditional leader’s pose by mounting a horse during his campaign in 1928 for the governorship of New York. Since his legs could not grip the horse’s flanks, this was a dangerous stunt; a slight movement by the animal likely would have thrown him to the ground. These efforts were only part of his ordeal, though. As one biographer, H. W. Brands, has put it, FDR

had determined, not long after contracting polio, that he would deny its effects on his life and dreams. The sheer physical effort of standing in his braces, of staggering forward, step by lurching step, of smiling through the sweat and the clenched hands gripping the lectern for dear life, would have exhausted anyone. But the emotional effort was at least as great. He couldn’t show his anger at his lost athleticism, his vanished virility, his physical dependence on others. He couldn’t be discouraged or despondent….The result of all this was that the actor never left the stage.
Even during times of relaxation such as his “children’s hours”—afternoon cocktails usually in the company of his adoring female secretaries and cousins —FDR projected an air of insouciance and buoyancy, mixing drinks while seated behind the liquor cart. In the dark first days of his administration, as the financial system hung in the balance, his adviser Raymond Moley found him to be almost unreal, “unmoved” by turmoil as if he “had no nerves at all.” Earlier, at the inaugural ceremony, the pioneering motion picture actress Lillian Gish—who was perhaps uniquely qualified to render evaluations of an individual’s “star quality”—marveled at Roosevelt, exclaiming that the new president seemed “to have been dipped in phosphorus.”

Coupled with this, as Brands perceptively notes, was the fact that Roosevelt was by nature a devious and misleading personality. “He had been emotionally isolated since boyhood. His close relationships had always been with persons not his equal. He had no close friends as a boy or young man, no one at Groton or Harvard in whom he genuinely confided.” Decades before he fell to polio, he enjoyed fooling people with verbal misdirection and his befogging brand of charm. Voters heard the young FDR boast about achievements that were entirely the work of others; election opponents, lulled into complacency by his genteel demeanor, learned only later of his ruthless campaign plotting and dealmaking; and he betrayed Eleanor by conducting an affair with Lucy Mercer, her own secretary. Eleanor’s uncle Theodore, as Booker T. Washington and many others noted, had seemed totally lacking in deviousness, possessing a “straightforward indiscretion, [a] frankness to the point of rudeness.” His cousin Franklin’s demeanor could not have been more different.

Part of the difference was due to changing times. In the decades after Theodore’s death, the advertising and public relations industries asserted that individuals (as well as corporations) must wear a carefully constructed public face in order to succeed, and the motivational speaker Dale Carnegie sold millions of books advising ambitious young men to mask their mundane, everyday selves in job interviews or in business transactions. In an era that celebrated public deception for the benefit of advancement, FDR was a truly representative man. His Herculean efforts to mask his paralysis and his despair made him a virtuoso of deceptive public performance.

As president, manipulating allies and foes alike, Roosevelt kept the goals of the New Deal multiple and often contradictory, so that he might preserve maximum political flexibility. He admiringly called himself “the juggler,” but some of his machinations also held a cruel edge. More than most presidents, as the biographer Conrad Black put it, “Roosevelt punished his enemies.” Stung by the opposition to the New Deal of Moses Annenberg, publisher of the Philadelphia Inquirer, FDR led a relentless effort to convict Annenberg for income tax evasion and sentence him to maximum time. Roosevelt ignored petitions on Annenberg’s behalf from Jack Warner, the movie comedian Eddie Cantor, and many others, and the publisher remained in federal prison until shortly before his death.

Ambassador Joseph Kennedy had done FDR no favors by blatantly claiming that Great Britain—the country in which he was stationed—was doomed to fall to Hitler, but Roosevelt’s bizarre and utterly insincere audiences with Kennedy during his visit home in November 1940, in which he lavished praise and sympathy on the diplomat, seemed designed only to make his imminent firing all the more brutal. As in Annenberg’s case, the movie industry played a supporting role in Kennedy’s fall. Speaking at a luncheon in Hollywood given in his honor by studio chiefs, the ambassador made his most strident isolationist comments to date, praising Hitler’s regime in front of dozens of Jewish producers and directors. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. reported Kennedy’s comments to the White House, and the president summoned Kennedy to his home in Hyde Park. Moments after he greeted the ambassador, FDR seethed to Eleanor, “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live!” brusquely ordering her to take him to the train station.

Such deviousness and cruelty, of course, are not uncommon in the annals of politics and leadership, and more than most leaders, Franklin Roosevelt might be excused for utilizing such means to achieve noble ends. Nevertheless, if we observe his tactics in tandem with his campaign to hide his paralysis and with his sensitivity to the power of mass media, such as radio and motion pictures, we sense that FDR was building new connections among the presidential image, political tactics, and the growing cultural appetite for celebrity.

It is particularly notable that while Roosevelt and his inner circle worked to hide his paralysis, they also relied upon his audiences—the press and the electorate—to willingly suspend their disbelief, to play along with the ruse that FDR really could walk and “stand for office” like any other strong leader. As Sally Stein notes, the public conspired with FDR to cover up his actual physical condition, engaging in “a collaborative process of dealing with the president’s lack of conventional signs of mastery.” In late 1932, when an article in Time magazine made a passing reference to the president-elect’s “shriveled legs,” hundreds of readers wrote indignant letters, and the magazine refrained from using such language again. It is difficult to quantify the impact of the public’s desire to protect Roosevelt’s image and to help him maintain the illusion of conventional physical strength. Although he faced some of the most adverse political and social challenges in American history, across an unprecedented three full terms and four election campaigns, the illusion persisted.

Text from The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image, by Burton W. Peretti, Rutgers University Press 2012 and used with permission. This is the third in a series. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

[First clip is from the 1933 Universal film The Fighting President, which is available in full on C-Span's site here.]

Encountering The Sublime

Kevin-daggWhen I e-mailed Scottish sculptor Kevin Dagg that my wife and I were thinking of visiting Scotland, he sent this recent photograph of himself hiking to encourage us to come. It worked, although we booked our visit for warmer weather in May and June.

This extraordinary location is the Munro (a mountain in Scotland over 3,000 feet high) Stob Ghahbar in Glen Orchy. Many Scottish peaks are connected by long ridges, and in this photo such a ridge disappears into the clouds.

When we encounter vast, wild beauty in nature, we are often struck by a sense of the sublime. In his History of Beauty Umberto Eco has a chapter on the sublime, and in it he quotes first century AD writer Psuedo-Longinus describing sublime beauty as:

something that enriches the thoughts, something that is hard, if not impossible to gainsay, something that leaves an enduring indelible memory.

According to Eco, Psuedo-Longinus is first writer to discuss the sublime, and in relationship to art he spoke of the sublime as the expression of grand and noble passions that brings “into play the emotional involvement of both the creator and the perceiver of the work of art.” Similarly, it is an ongoing theme of DeepGlamour that the responses of the perceiver are crucial to the perception of glamour, just as they are to the perception of the sublime.

Looking at this image I am also reminded that Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote that “You can never step into the same river twice.”  This ridge has probably existed longer than humans, yet Kevin will never be able to experience it in exactly the same way again. He can hike here again, but the snow, the clouds, the weather, and Kevin himself will inevitably be slightly different. Sublime beauty in nature can sometimes evoke both a sense of nature as long-lasting, and an awareness that our experiences are brief glimpses of a transitory, ever-changing world.

[Photograph by Gareth Overton. Used by permission.]

Music As Magic

Fig3.8.3Dmitri Tymoczko, a composer and theorist who teaches at Princeton, recently published a book titled A Geometry of Music. The book includes some remarkable geometric models (such as the one shown at right) which he uses to argue that despite various stylistic differences, there are enough commonalities in Western tonal music from the late Middle Ages to the present to consider it an “extended common practice.” 

Tymoczko himself assumes that anyone who reads his book will already be able to read music and have studied music theory. And without that background his book would be impossible to follow. Interestingly, he recognizes that there is gap between our widespread ability to enjoy music, and the arcane intricacies of music notation and theory. Early in his book he writes:

I find it useful here to consider the analogy with magic. A stage magician uses various tricks to cause the audience to have extraordinary experiences—bunnies seem to disappear, beautiful assistants seem to be sawed in half, and so on. Enjoying a magic trick does not require you to understand how the tricks are done; in fact, understanding may actually diminish your astonishment. Nor is the magician’s “ideal audience” composed of professional magicians: the point is to perform the trick for people who will genuinely be fooled. In much the same way, I understand composition to be a process of using technical musical tools to ensure that audiences have certain kinds of extraordinary experiences. When composing, I make various choices about chords, scales, rhythm, and instrumentation to create feelings of tension, relaxation, terror, and ecstasy, to recall earlier moments in the piece or anticipate later events. But I do not expect listeners to be consciously tracking these choices.

Tymoczko goes on to suggest that consciously trying to track these choices may interfere with falling under the spell of the illusion, just as knowing too much about how a glamorous illusion has been achieved might weaken the illusion. Tymoczko writes that listeners who do try to track the specific means by which the illusions are achieved “are like professional magicians watching each others’ routines—at best, engaged in a different sort of appreciation, and at worst too intellectually engaged to enjoy the music as deeply as they might.”

Another mathematically gifted composer named Milton Babbitt taught at Princeton before Tymoczko, but his attitude was almost the opposite. In contrast to Tymoczko’s interest in listeners who are not “professionals,” Babbitt famously wrote that he didn’t expect laypeople to enjoy his complex music, saying that it was written for a specialist musical community analogous to the specialist community of professional mathematicians. 

Tymoczko notes that it was not until the 20th century that some composers (such as Babbitt) began using musical materials in ways that they realized that most listeners find “off-putting.” Geoffrey Miller, in his book The Mating Mind, points out that such a strategy can be an effective way of generating an “elite aesthetic.” Miller writes that elites “often try to distinguish themselves from the common run of humanity by replacing natural human tastes with artfully contrived preferences.” Thus if the vast majority of people around the world prefer consonant sound combinations, then working primarily with dissonant combination is one possible way to separate your work from “common” tastes. 

In contrast, Tymoczko asserts that the “traditional strategy—writing immediately attractive music that also contains deeper levels of structure—is as potent as it ever was.” Not surprisingly, composers following the traditional strategy have often been relatively close-mouthed about their techniques. After all, if one of your intents is create works that might cause non-professional audiences to have extraordinary, spell-binding experiences, why would you risk diluting that experience with cold-blooded discussions of esoteric techniques? In contrast, composers keen on impressing other specialists have often taken an active part in pointing out the intricacies of their technical innovations. 

Like Tymoczko, I prefer that creative artists, like magicians, use their technical tools to help audiences have extraordinary experiences, and then maintain some measure of mystery about how they managed to fashion their magic spells. Let some sense of magic remain. If I want to know more about their techniques, I can always buy and study the score. But when I attend a performance, I am hoping to be beguiled.

[Other examples from Tumoczko’s book can be found at]

Iconic Glamour Images From Blade Runner And Basic Instinct

[This post is by new DG contributor Cosmo Wenman.--vp]

Virginia recently tweeted and posted on Facebook asking, "What photos should absolutely be in a book on glamour?"

While putting together this collection of recommendations from pop-culture, I sought out the two photos below, of Sean Young in Blade Runner and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. But it wasn't until I saw them side by side that I realized how similar they are. Not only do both women know how to hold the hell out of a cigarette, but the images' contexts are nearly identical.

Both are from interrogation scenes in which the women are suspected of concealing their true natures. Both characters are extremely poised and confident, and both become romantically involved with their interrogators. There are several other parallels as well. I put together a comparison:

These twin scenes are following the same formula and mix of glamorous elements: smoking (even the question of permission to smoke), composure and confidence, deception, emotional distance, and danger. Is there an older film noir scene both these movies are paying homage to?

BTW, Virginia told me she thinks the Sean Young photo "is a little too calculatedly retro for my purposes. It lacks sprezzatura. It's more like an imitation of glamorous photos from the '40s." I think it evokes glamour, but I know what Virginia means - Sean Young's character does look almost artificial...

What Makes The IPad "Magical"?

When Apple introduced the iPad last year, it added a new buzzword to technology marketing. The device, it declared, was not just "revolutionary," a tech-hype cliché, but "magical." Skeptics rolled their eyes, and one Apple fan even started an online petition against such superstitious language.

But the company stuck with the term. When Steve Jobs appeared on stage last week to unveil the iPad 2, which hit stores Friday, he said, "People laughed at us for using the word 'magical,' but, you know what, it's turned out to be magical."

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company's design chief, explains it this way: "When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that's exactly what the iPad is." Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven't the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can't see the circuitry or read the software code. You can't even change the battery.

Apple has long had an aura of trend-setting cool, but magic is a bolder—and more provocative— claim. In a promotional video, Jonathan Ive, the company's design chief, explains it this way: "When something exceeds your ability to understand how it works, it sort of becomes magical, and that's exactly what the iPad is." Mr. Ive is paraphrasing the famous pronouncement by Arthur C. Clarke, the science-fiction author and futurist, that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

So in celebrating the iPad as magical, Apple is bragging that its customers haven't the foggiest idea how the machine works. The iPad is completely opaque. It is a sealed box. You can't see the circuitry or read the software code. You can't even change the battery.

Read the rest here.

Hearing Jackie (and Where To See Her Smoking)

After being dumped by the History Channel and scorned by other skittish networks, The Kennedys miniseries has found a home after all, on the little-known ReelzChannel. The WaPo's Lisa de Moraes has an amusing report.

Buried in The Hollywood Reporter's original article on History's decision to scuttle the show was the news that, in exchange for its discretion, one of the network's parent companies might get access to rare recordings of Jackie Kennedy's voice.

Caroline Kennedy has a book deal with Disney's Hyperion publishing division, which announced in April 2010 that it will publish a collection of previously unreleased interviews with the late Jackie Kennedy timed to the 50th anniversary of the first year of JFK's presidency this fall.

Caroline has agreed to edit the untitled book, write an introduction and to help promote it, including making an appearance on Disney/ABC's Good Morning America, among other outlets. As part of the promotion for the book, Caroline is expected to reveal some of the 6.5 hours of previously unheard audiotapes of the former First Lady that form the basis of the book.

MSNBC's snarkier BLTWY fills in some background:

Had the History Channel not bowed to her influence, their mother company would have likely lost out on an another Kennedy venture; a volume containing six and a half hours of hitherto-secret interviews that her mother, Jacqueline, did with worshipful historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1964. The audio book, due out in September, will let you hear Jackie speak in her breathy, Vassar voice about her husband's early campaigns, the Cuban Missile Crisis and “married life in the White House,” according to Hyperion Books.

Considering that Jackie once forbade hagiographer William Manchester from even revealing that she smoked, you have to wonder how much she'll spill. “I seriously doubt that she would open her heart,” says Kennedy biographer Edward Klein. “And, if there's anything remotely embarrassing, I think Caroline would expunge it.”

The Kennedys' glamour is an important income-generating asset, so I, too, doubt we'll be hearing anything revealing. But we will hear something, which in itself is unusual.

One of the world's most photographed women, Jackie mostly let her carefully crafted image speak for her. (Here's a rare photo of Jackie smoking.) Only a few public traces of her voice remain, most of them from the 1960 campaign or White House years. And unlike the graceful photos, they seem dated, calculated, and a little strange.

The most famous, featured at the top of this post, is her White House tour, broadcast on CBS. There she speaks in ingratiatingly tones, masking the fact that she's didactically instructing both her interviewer and the general public, who don't share her high-end taste or her knowledge of decorative arts. By contrast, when interrogating Dr. Benjamin Spock in a 1960 campaign ad, she plays a subtly flirtatious, slightly dim student. In another campaign video, introduced by Myrna Loy, she acts the normal American wife and mother, just like the women watching. "Now I think politics is one of the most rewarding lives a woman can have--to be married to a politician," she affirms.

New recorded interviews promise to undercut Jackie's mystery. Because the recordings date from 1964, when she was still playing the perfect husband's perfect widow, they also threaten the new post-feminist image crafted for her in the recent booksfocusing on her publishing career.

Processions, Night, And Fire

Fire-acrobatsI have experienced two deeply impressive nighttime events that combined a procession, fire, and a sense of mystery. One was the Christmas Eve Procession of the Virgin at the Taos Pueblo. In preparation for the procession, conical towers of wood up to two stories high were built throughout the plaza, and after sunset these were set on fire. The heat they produced was incredibly intense, melting the snow and  frozen ground and sending fantastic spirals of smoke and steam swirling into the night air. The plaza was filled with fire, smoke, and hundreds of people. Then the church doors opened, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was carried out of the church and around the plaza, with guards firing their guns into the air (using blanks) to frighten off evil spirits. The combinations of cold and heat, night and fire, and Catholic and Native American traditions made a magical impression. (Visitors to this procession are forbidden to take photographs, but you can see an evocative photo of it here.)

The photo shown at left here is from another magical event: the Tucson All Souls Procession, which blends elements of Catholicism and carnival with the spirit and imagery of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. In 1990 a local artist organized a small procession to honor an artist friend who had died. Since then the procession has grown to an annual event that attracts 20,000 people.

Much of the charm of the small original event remains. Local artists participate and create interesting visual objects, which contrast greatly with the cliché-ridden kitsch that typifies so many American parades. Many of this procession’s “floats” have a dark edginess. Examples include an ominous pterodactyl whose wings span much of the street (a clever sculpture on a rolling steel frame), and vehicles that appear to have been pieced together after an apocalypse.

Carly-makeup Many of the people who come to watch the procession wear costumes and makeup, making the crowd an essential part of the experience. The photo at left shows my teenage granddaughter Carly in the makeup she wore to attend this year’s procession. You don’t have to wear costumes to attend, but being in the presence of thousands of people whose costumes and makeup evoke the dead is a remarkable experience, and it’s fun to join in.

Fire-potsThe procession changes each year, and some years the presence of fire pushes the experience into something otherworldly. The onlookers join the procession, which moves along a street that goes under a WPA railroad bridge. One year women dressed in Grecian costumes stood on the pedestals of that bridge, each of them holding aloft a flaming torch. Along the bridge dancers were swinging flaming pots on chains, making circles of fire. Looking at these strange apparitions above us as the street dipped down, with a little imagination it felt as if we were descending into the underworld.

The procession ends in an open space, where there is some sort of entertainment. Shown here from the 2009 procession are costumed acrobats on stilts, and a fire-pot twirler in the foreground.

I suspect that we have a visceral reaction to nighttime rituals that include fire and strange costumes: a reaction that links back to prehistoric rites that took place by firelight. If I, as an adult, can find my imagination inflamed by strange-looking creatures emerging from dark, smoke-filled shadows into the unsteady light of bonfires and burning torches, imagine what a lasting impression such a scene could make on a child. If stagings such as these were involved, no wonder so many of our ancestors believed that magical powers were real.

[Photos of the All Souls Procession by complicity. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

The Secret Lives Of Servers

Servers At a recent dinner in the harbor town of Newport, Oregon, the appearance of our youthful waitress sent confusing messages. She appeared to be about 20, had a slender figure, and wore no makeup on her innocent-looking face. She had heightened the aura of innocence by gathering her hair into pony tails on either side of her face, in a style popular with Japanese schoolgirls.

I then noticed that the edge of her left eyebrow was pierced by a delicate gold ring, and that each ear had multiple piercings. When she walked away, I could see that a dark-blue geometric tattoo covered most of her left calf. The piercings and tattoo suggested considerably less innocence than the rest of her appearance. Yet when I was paying the bill she mentioned that a customer had just spilled beer on her, which upset her because she didn’t drink.

Many people work part time as servers while going to school or pursuing careers where income is unpredictable. I would have loved to ask our waitress some questions about herself, but I was there with some of my wife’s relatives, and somehow it didn’t seem appropriate. On occasions when I have asked, I have discovered that I was being served by pre-med students, actors, artists, published novelists whose sales were modest, graduate students, and a variety of other aspiring individuals. For them, working in a restaurant was seldom the role that they most identified with, and from their appearance you would often have had a hard time guessing their larger aspirations.

I found this waitress intriguing. Was her innocent look a guise imposed upon her by this family-friendly restaurant? When she was not working as a waitress, did she wear makeup, and did it go with the tattoos and piercings? Was her abstinence from alcohol part of a healthy diet lifestyle that helped her stay slim? Did she have unsuspected aspirations? Was her “normal” appearance so different that I would scarcely recognize her? Did she turn into some glamorous creature of the night when she went on dates? Or was she simply an innocent young woman whose piercings and tattoo were nothing more than her idea of fashion?

["A Smile with Every Meal" is from Andrew Stawarz's Flickr photostream, and is used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]

The Glamour Of Mystery And Surprise

Monica-Bellucci-2008The capacity of human beauty to move us has long been a source of mystery. In Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 play, Tamburlaine the Great, Tamburlaine’s rage for conquest causes him to destroy cities, kingdoms, and whole races. He kidnaps Zenocrate, the daughter of the Egyptian king, rapes or seduces her, then falls in love and marries her. They have three sons together, and when she dies he is inconsolable.

At one point, unable to understand why her beauty moves him so, Tamburlaine decides that if all the poets in the world, with all their wit, were to fashion the perfect tribute to beauty, then

“Yet should there hover in their restless heads
One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
Which into words no virtue can digest.”

I chose this photograph of Monica Bellucci to illustrate our inability to fully express our sense of wonderment when we perceive beauty because it conceals her astonishingly sexy figure. The beauty of her face and figure are so impossible to ignore that many of her film roles have focused on the obsessive desire that her appearance fosters in men. In 2004 voted her the most beautiful woman in world.

This black-and-white portrait of Bellucci in her mid-40s allows us to see that part of her allure is her remarkable poise. She started modeling when she was sixteen, and for awhile she used her earnings to pay for law school before she eventually choose to pursue modeling and acting full time. She speaks Italian, French, English, and Spanish, and as an actress she has had speaking roles in each language. I suspect that her intelligence has helped her keep all the fuss about her appearance in perspective.

Surprise-roses Looking at Bellucci’s dark Italian eyes, I also suspect that it would be impossible to ever fully “know” this woman. But I think the same is often true of the people that each of us loves and are closest to. We may get used to the patterns of living with someone after a number of years, but “getting used to” someone doesn’t mean that we fully “know them.” And I suspect that thinking we do can easily become an unfortunate mistake. There is something important to be said for retaining some sense of mystery, and periodically surprising your significant other with an unexpected action designed to please them can suggest that you never intend to take your relationship with them for granted.

As someone who enjoys surprising my wife with unexpected gifts, I once mentioned to a colleague that I thought I would pick up a dozen roses on the way home. He asked what the occasion was, and I said that there was no occasion, and that’s what would make it a nice surprise. He said that he had never done anything like that, and maybe he should buy roses too. Then after a moment’s thought, he said, “No, if I did that my wife would start the third degree on me, wanting to know what I had done wrong, and she would never let up.”

[The photo of Monica Bellucci is by Studio Harcourt Paris, and is used under the WikiMedia Commons license.  The “A Wonderful Surprise” photograph is by Flickr user audreyjm529, and is used under the Flickr Creative Commons license.]