Big, Bold and Blandings: The Dreamiest House of 1948

Last week I went in search of Mr. Blandings. More specifically I went in search of Mr. Blandings’ dream house. A challenging feat on both fronts since Mr. Blandings is a fictional character and his real life dream house no longer exists. This adventure of the seemingly impossible was all sparked by a little snippet of information about a clever marketing campaign produced by Hollywood in 1948. The movie company was promoting this film…

a romantic comedy starring one of the most beloved actors of the twentieth century. But before we get into the story of searching for a nonexistent man in modern day,  we must first travel back in time to the 1940’s,  an era when creativity flourished, outside of the box thinking was encouraged and unusual situations were captivating the country. The first half of the decade was spent in World War II. On the home front that meant conservation, frugality, victory gardens, rations, fundraisers and bond drives. It was a test in patience, positivity, confidence and emotional endurance as people lived day to day waiting to hear the fates of their loved ones away at war.  In those first five years of the 40’s people got used to making do, going without and utilizing every last bit of everything. Thankfully, in 1945 the war ended and Americans adjusted once again to a new normal as they recovered from years of uncertainty. By 1948, two and half years after World War II ended, America was ready for some fresh air and some new perspectives. A glance at that year’s pop culture highlights tells all about the country’s enthusiastic push for progress and for ideas that were new and stimulating and fun.  Post war, post trauma, post sacrifice, 1948 embraced some big ideas that were remarkably different, refreshingly new  and spectacularly exciting. Let’s look…

It was the year that Land Rover debuted, bucking tradition with their new all-terrain vehicles complete with a steering wheel that was located in an unusual spot – the middle of the front console. Tailfins showed up on Cadillacs, a nod towards sleek aviation design and a feeling that your car could take you anywhere. Monkeys were welcomed into NASA’s elite as they became astronauts bravely rocketing into space in order to test conditions so that men could make it there themselves a few years later. America’s affable laughable cartoon bird, Woody Woodpecker had a top 40 hit song on the radio, sharing the same spotlight with singing legends Doris Day, Perry Como and Ella Fitzgerald. Brand new air ferries started shuttling around the sky, transporting people and their cars from one city to the next. And most exciting of all, on the kitchen front at least, was a man named Blandings who built his dream house.  And then he built seventy three more.

While all of these interesting pop-culture tidbits of 1948 are worthy of their own individual blog feature, it is Mr. Blandings who is the topic of our post and our road trip through history today. He created a sensation that took up the last four years of the 1940’s, filling people’s heads with dreams of possibility on the home front. It all starts in 1946, when he was the subject of the runaway bestseller called Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, a fictional account of a real-life adventure  experienced by the author Eric Hodgins. In the book, Mr. Blandings embarks on the ultimate quest  – the American dream of the 20th century – buying a house for his wife and family.

To Mr. Blandings of 1946, a dream home meant extra closets, a private bath in each bedroom,  a game room for him, a sewing room for her and plenty of outdoor space for the kids. It meant everything that his cramped Upper East Side New York City apartment lacked – peace, security, space and a good dose of nature.  One day, when he just can’t stand the close city quarters a minute longer, he adventures out to the country to have a look around. One thing leads to another and a new domestic life comes into sight. In the book, it looks something like this, thanks to illustrator William Steig…

The Blandings choose the Connecticut countryside as their ideal homestead, and a historic house that was loved for both its shabby, need-of-repair appearance and its supposed storied place in American history. What develops as the family starts planning a move from NYC to Connecticut (just a train ride away!) involves a series of new house woes that they never expected including demolition and reconstruction.

Throughout the story, mishaps and unexpected scenarios test the metal of all that makes up Mr. Blandings, the man and the mission. At every corner, he and his wife are met with a new challenge. Nothing goes quite according to plan. There are time delays, contractor issues, escalating costs, tricky neighbors and all sorts of digging, drilling and hammering surprises.  An everyman story, a timeless tale, an homage to hope, optimism and the struggle to succeed, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House resonated strongly with the heads and hearts of the American public of the mid-20th century, many of whom were experiencing their own construction trials and tribulations  as the building industry boomed during the post-war years. The book was such a hit that two years after its debut, Hollywood made a movie out of it starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.

Just as entertaining as Eric Hodgin’s story, the movie was also an incredible success. Practically all of America fell in love (again!) with the Blandings and the predicaments they encountered. In addition to dealing with the baffling world of home construction, Mr. Blandings also frets over a relationship between his wife and a long-time family friend while simultaneously juggling a deadline for an advertising campaign at work. The trailer doesn’t really do the film much justice, but it does give you a glimpse of the humor that peppers both the book and the movie…

We never really get a good sense of the house the Blandings wind up building until the very end of the movie when the finished product is revealed. It turns out to be a beautiful colonial-style farmhouse set on a few dozen acres of rolling countryside…

The  real-life house that Eric Hodgin’s book was based on was built in Connecticut in the late 1930’s. The real-life house featured in the movie was built on pastoral studio-owned property in Malibu, CA in 1947. That makes two real-life houses built for the telling of one story. But by 1948, an astounding 73 more houses are added to that real-life list.  These houses are built in 60 different cities across the country thanks to a very clever and very generous marketing campaign put together to promote the film.  RKO Pictures and SRO Distribution Company teamed up with contractors, construction crews, designers, utility conglomerates and furniture companies all over the U.S. to build not one… not two… not three… but seventy three (73!) Blandings Dream Houses that were then raffled off in local contests. Not only was it epic promotion for the movie and the time period, but it was also an exciting opportunity for advertisers to showcase new products and cutting edge technology for the modern home.

General Electric was a big national sponsor advertising all their latest products including  wiring, appliances, air conditioning and even electric blankets. Many of their innovations greatly affected the kitchen and laundry areas, turning those rooms into two of the most technologically-advanced places in the entire house.

Imagine how exciting and inspiring this campaign must have been back in post-WWII  days when everyone was trying to get back on their feet and recreate their own semblance of home and shelter. The average house price in 1940 was about $3,000.00  (equivalent to $32,000.00 today) and the median household income was $956.00 a year (equivalent to about $17,000.00 today), not totally unaffordable by modern comparisons (the national median income today is $59,000 and the average U.S. home price is $230,000) but the Blandings dream houses in 1948 all came equipped with the most modern features, stylish interiors and the latest innovations which greatly extended their value.

For people who loved to cook, the idea of winning such a modern home would have been fantastically exciting, as the Blandings Dream Kitchen was one of the most modern and efficient rooms in the house.

In the 1930’s and early 1940’s most American kitchens looked something like this…

… a collection of precariously placed appliances and furniture of all styles that mingled with exposed heating, cooling, electrical and plumbing fixtures.  While these 1930’s kitchens were perfectly functional they weren’t necessarily set up for ideal ease, comfort or organization.  By the time the Blandings declared their dreams in the 1940’s, kitchens were becoming much more aesthetically pleasing and helpful. Built-in cabinets, long counter tops, hidden utilities, ventilation hoods, picturesque windows, bright colors and designated dining nooks made cooking more efficient, enjoyable and aesthetically pleasing. You’ll notice that these 1940’s kitchens below also utilized corners, shelving and seating to maximize floor space.

When the movie first premiered in New York in March of 1948, ad campaigns began rolling out across the country announcing the Dream House Build-Up, so that by June when the Blandings were in theaters nationwide, the excitement and anticipation was at a fever pitch.

The Skokie. Illinois Dream House

Each of the cities that participated in the big build invited the local public in to view their custom version of a modern dream house.  What was especially intriguing about this promotional campaign is that not all of the houses built in each city were an exact replica of the Blandings dream house or its colonial style. Some cities chose to build houses that were more suited to their own local climate or aesthetic. The one built in Knoxville, TN was a one story rambler…

This one in Milwaukee was a smaller cape-style  cottage…

In Oregon, the dream house contained elements of brick and siding…

Read more about the Portland version of Mr. Blandings’ Dream House here.

Most of the Blandings promotional houses were built in suburbs  – the big city shadows where land, space and freedom offered opportunity for the American dream to grow and spread. From Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington; from the Eastern Shore of Maryland to the Pacific Coast of California; from the top of Minnesota to the bottom of Texas fictional dreams were determining real-life destinies. Which brings us back to the modern day road trip that I embarked on last week.

This is the complete list of all the cities that participated. Is there one in your town?

Excited to see that Nashville was listed as one of the “Dream” cities, I went in search of Blandings in my own neck of the woods. This is what the Nashville dream house looked like in 1948…

Unlike the one built in Knoxville, the Nashville house was built in the exact same style as the one in the movie. Located in a very pretty section of town, noted for its gorgeous old growth landscaping and stately historic homes, I was excited to see what the Blandings dream house would look like now. Here is what I found…

Pretty! But not exactly the same house as the one pictured in the newspaper advertisement…

As it turns out the original Blandings house was torn down in the 1970’s. This new house occupying the spot now was built in 2016 and sold for $1.6 million. A little more expensive then 1940’s home prices:)  Although it’s not a historical design, it is fun to see that the roof line, dormer window and landscaping are quite similar and complimentary to the original Blandings style. Perhaps this house designer was a 1940’s fan himself!

As I was about to drive away, an old man came out from a garage across the street.  A much more modest house in size and scope, this old gentleman was shuffling down his driveway with the help of his cane, wearing a wool sweater, pajamas, bedroom slippers and a determined look.  I suspected that he was headed towards his mailbox. Immediately I thought of Blandings himself and I waved to him. But he didn’t wave back.  Obviously he wasn’t our hero of book and screen, but in that moment I imagined that this stooped over grey-haired guy, trembly and slow was once was a young man with a wife and two kids. I imagined that he used to live in a small apartment in a big city and that one day, he too got fed up and set out to build his own dream house – the sprawling brick ranch that he still lives in now.  Obviously he wasn’t Mr. Blandings. But then again… maybe he was.

Cheers to dreamers and to real-life houses that inspire books that then inspire movies that then inspire more dreamers and more houses! And cheers to Mr. Blandings, who is not real, but feels very much so.

If you are interested in reading the book that sparked this nationwide love affair seventy years ago, find it in the shop here. If you live in one of the dream cities that built a Blandings house please comment below and tell us all about your famous local icon. We’d love to hear more about it!

The Recommendeds: Six Different Versions of Home Built Around Six Dreamy Settings

The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. – Maya Angelou

Home. It’s a wonderful word isn’t it? Hard to define, but wonderful to say, it means so many different things to so many different people. Even the dictionary doesn’t quite know how to accurately and clearly define it. Depending on the context, home can mean anything from a shelter to a territory, an instinct to a direction, a feeling to a destination.  Such powerful concepts wrapped up in one short little word.

Recently, I’ve encountered a slew of interesting books and movies centered around the symbolic meaning of home. How the need for it is universal, like Maya Angelou said, but also how the journey to find it is completely personal and unique. The selections listed here, focus not only on the literal kind of house made of actual walls and roof-lines and windows, but also the figurative kind.  The place or the space where you feel most comfortable. For some in this list,  that home is their workspace- a place to dwell daily with a like-minded tribe of people. For others, it is a grass-is-greener dream of a city far away. For one woman in particular,  home is not a house at all, but a garden yet to be built.  For another, home is not only an actual house but also a palpable feeling – a place to connect and collect all that soothes and comforts. And for two others, home is a placeholder, a time keeper, a catalog of memories waiting to be recalled.

From the city of Paris to the beaches of the Bahamas; from the inner workings of America’s best loved museum to an artistic collection of everyday items discovered in a humble house; from a Riviera retreat to an English garden…  these are the six shining examples of people and places that tie together a universal and compelling need to identify our own environments.

Let’s look…

1. Museum – Danny Danziger (2007)

 

If you ever wanted to know all the nitty-gritty details of what’s it like to run a major museum than this is the book for you. On average, New York City’s  Metropolitan Museum of Art welcomes about 19,000 people a day through its front doors and houses over 26,000 pieces in its collection. Told in interview style,  Museum is a behind the scenes look at what it takes to keep one of the world’s most iconic landmarks up and running, day by day, from the perspective of 50 of its employees.  Covering all aspects of the building, and a wide range of jobs from maintenance to security, cafe operations to curatorships, the executive board to the gift shop sales team, it doesn’t take long to understand what a massive undertaking is required to keep America’s most favorite museum running smoothly.

Like most enterprises, the heart, soul and success of a business lies in the employees that represent it. And the Met is no different. Some people in this book lucked into their museum job having little experience, while others spent many years studying to become experts in their field. Others worked their way up from volunteer positions to eventually become part of upper level management and some were still just as happy fulfilling the same position they started decades ago. One thing they all have in common though, is their awe and appreciation of their workplace. To them, the Met serves as a refuge. A place that requires  protection and support and endless amounts of attention. But not in that needy way that eventually grinds you down. To all these workers, the museum is majestic  – an irreplaceable gift of history.

Very aware of their own pivotal role inside the bustling metropolis that is the Met, what I loved most about this book was everyone’s sense of pride in their appointed tasks. The floor buffers hold just as much respect for their workplace as the director of the Museum. The information desk clerks are just as excited to chat about art as the tour guides. The cafe waitstaff is just as devoted to their kitchen counters as the collection curators are to their galleries.  Everyone loves the Museum and wants to see it shine.  Of course there are days when not everything goes right or runs in tip-top fashion and that gets discussed too.  The highs and lows that come with real-life don’t stop at the museum doors, but for the people who work there, trivialities and minutia don’t hold a candle to the sheer magnificence of the place. Tucked in-between all these fresh voices, with their fresh perspectives are a plethora of fun facts and interesting details about how a museum really operates from the ground up.  Sure, the Met is home to priceless pieces of art, but it is also home to thousands of workers who feel like they belong there too, just as much as the art.

2. Villa America – Liza Klaussmann (2016)

villa-america-liza-klaussmann

If there is one enviable couple that gets referenced most in the circle of friends that included Hadley and Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald,  John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Dorothy Parker and many other icons of Paris’ golden age in the 1920’s and 30’s, it is Sara and Gerald Murphy.

Sara and Gerald Murphy

Mostly known for their stability within this eccentric group of writers and artists, Sara and Gerald were the enigmatic muses that inspired much of their friends work, including F. Scott’s main characters in Tender Is the Night.  Fun loving, family focused and inventive, Sara and Gerald’s relationship within their marriage was stuff of legend – so loyal, so strong, so well-connected it seemed as if nothing could or would tear them apart.

Villa America

Escaping the U.S. for Paris in the early 1920’s led them eventually to the French Riviera and a house they called Villa America.  There, the Murphy’s set out to create a carefree, whimsical paradise for their friends and family to enjoy year after year.  Villa America (the book) is a fictional account of the real-life circumstances wrapped around the Murphy’s idyllic, dream-like lifestyle. Weaving together stories of illuminating dinner parties, interesting friendships, and fanciful family outings,  a darker side to the Murphy’s and their circle of friends is also revealed. One that it is fraught with tragedy and misunderstandings, muddled moods and illicit intentions. Through it all, the house sits center stage, a witness to the people and events who come and go.

What is particularly fascinating about this book is Liza Klaussmann’s interpretation of characters and conversations surrounding  Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lots of known cliches and generalizations float around these two men – that F. Scott was dashing and amusing, a drinker and a romantic, and that Ernest was gregarious, rowdy and an ultra-masculine rough and tumbler. But in Liza’s book, you experience other sides of these two as well.  F. Scott, for all his charming ways is also difficult, overly dramatic, and high-maintenance. Ernest shows up as a ball of opposites –  egotistical but also compassionate, needy but reckless, dominating yet keenly aware of other people’s fragile vulnerabilities.

The environment is lush with details. F. Scott is trying to write his way through novels, gathering source material for his characters from the real friends around him. Like all the other men, he finds himself captivated by Sara, irrepressibly drawn to her emotional maturity and warmth – both appealing characteristics that seem lacking in his own wife.  Zelda, meanwhile,  spends her days romping around the Riviera trying to sort through her own desires. Signs of unusual behavior start to manifest. But no one yet realizes that this troubling behavior has much less to do with Zelda’s natural personality and much more with the start of her slow slide into mental collapse. Likewise, Gerald also escapes into the recesses of his mind, where he begins to question and explore feelings about his own sexuality that extend far beyond his loving marriage to Sara. On the verge of break-up themselves – Ernest, with his wandering eyes and Hadley with her general sense of unease in the glittering Riviera world – are awkwardly together trying to navigate the terrain of a not very well matched marriage.  Sara, sensing the unease of all of these situations silently swirling around her, tries to protect her friends and her family in the sheltered, safe space that she is determined to create at Villa America. But for all of Sara’s best efforts in trying to keep cruelty out of the compound, emotionally difficult situations sneak their way in raising questions about the true meaning of home, family and friendship.

3. Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down – Rosecrans Baldwin (2013)

paris-i-love-you-but-youre-bringing-me-down-rosecrans-baldwin

Staying on the topic of Paris but moving ahead a century, Paris I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down is the memoir of a burnt-out New York City ad man who moves to France for a new job while simultaneously working on a new novel. Tired of the New York City grind, Rosecrans Baldwin is ready to find his paradise in Paris. He has a mood board already mandated for his life before he arrives… the wine, the food, the beautiful architecture, the beatnik lifestyle, the art, the cafes… all those lovely picturesque elements ready for the taking. But what he didn’t count on was what life would be like in reality as an American, not only living, but also working in France.

From day one, Rosecrans is a fish out of water. He finds that daily life in Paris is very different compared to daily life in New York City. When he takes a job at a French advertising agency, he discovers that the same could be said for office culture as well. The language is a problem (too fast), social interactions with his new co-workers are a problem (do you shake hands during first meetings or kiss on both cheeks?), lunch is a problem (never at your desk), even the fundamental pattern and processes of handling ad business is vastly different.  In New York, Rosecrans was used to working long pressure-filled hours, at a fast pace, developing ideas that had to consistently ring true and be brilliant. But when Rosecrans gets to Paris and his new workplace, he discovers many unusual circumstances.  People leave the office at 5:00pm whether their work is finished or not. Many of the office staff grab a glass of wine together after work before heading home.  Gift cards to local restaurants in the neighborhood are given to each employee to ensure that they take time for lunch. They work on one campaign at a time, for one client at a time. No one ever gets fired. No one is ever expected to come in early, skip lunch or stay late. It wasn’t like New York at all. No one lived at the office and just visited their home spaces. Rosecrans found himself navigating a strange, foreign land, both literally and figuratively.

The result of all these oddities and differences yields a hilarious look at real-life in Paris.  Most books written about Americans moving to France focus around their love affair with the city and a charming newly discovered lifestyle which they are eager to adapt quickly. Rosecrans’ book is the opposite. He voluntarily chose to move to Paris. But then, once he gets there, he constantly questions that choice as he moves through his daily “French dream.” He discovers that Paris is not quite the paradise he imagined. Fundamentally uncomfortable in a lifestyle he thought he would naturally love, Rosecrans paints a funny, bizarre and gritty picture of the everyday side of the city that often gets overlooked.  In his world, it was definitely not all views of the Eiffel Tower and beret clad artists. It was not all joie de vivre and buckets of baguettes and walks along the Seine. No, this was a different side of Paris altogether.

How does it all shake out for Rosecrans in the end? Does he stay in Paris, eventually embracing all the differences? Or, does he return back home to the New York, to the city he knows and learns to love again? You’ll have to read it to find out:)

4. Island Style – India Hicks (2015)

india-hicks-island-style

Being the daughter of famous 20th century British designer David Hicks and the goddaughter of Prince Charles might yield an intimidating presence. Especially when her natural born talent of interior decorating has made her a style expert in her own right. But nothing feels more down to earth when it comes to India Hicks and her beautifully bohemian decorating book simply titled Island Style. Here, she shares stories about how, over time,  she decorated her comfortable, casual Bahamian home, with a cacophony of elements meant to inspire more than impress.

Decades ago, a whim led her to the Bahamas, a place she never imagined that she would eventually call home. One thing led to another, years passed years, and India found herself still there. In these pages, she shares the journey that led ultimately to her island house, a sanctuary of memories she shares with her long-time partner, their five children and a menagerie of animals. India intimately discusses at length the art of decorating with sentiment versus cents and the importance of letting your interiors evolve in style as you evolve in life.  If something catches your eye or calls to your heart, take it home, she advises, there will be a place for it somewhere, always.

Thoughtful decorating, India illustrates, comes from storytelling. From gathering and displaying items that are important to you. This leads to personality-filled rooms and fresh perspectives. They become meaningful, nuanced, comfortable, appealing because  the backstory was brought in, in the form of a tale you naturally wanted to tell.  That’s when the magic happens… easily… effortlessly… style and colors and shapes and patterns combine in interesting ways that begin to inspire, remind, emote and invoke a feeling of home.

Mixed in between interior images of her house and collections, she writes beautifully about what it is like to live on an island in the Bahamas, well beyond the honeymoon phase. A period that in her experience lasted about two weeks, before  practicality and reality set-in as far as setting up a real life with real kids, and real pets in a real house.

Island life isn’t for everyone. The point of this book wasn’t to seduce readers with a show-off lifestyle and a get-here-as-fast-as-you-can attitude. The point was to simply demonstrate the impact of personal touch and taste upon a space.  The world is noisy but our interiors don’t have to be. Home is no place for a set of trends established by other people, living other lives in other places. Home is you not them. It speaks for us and of us when we don’t want to speak ourselves. India’s book reminds us of that.

5. 306 Hollywood (2018)

For over 60 years, Annette Ontell lived in this cute, white house at 306 Hollywood Avenue. There, she amassed all the ordinary tidbits that was required of daily life in New Jersey throughout six decades. When she passed away, her grandchildren, brother and sister filmmakers Elan and Jonathon Bogarin felt the weight of her spirit still very much present in all the stuff she left behind. So they set out to tell her story.

Color-coded collections of Annette’s things.

Through a style of art known as knolling, they organize and catalog her collection of ordinary household objects into groupings, to better understand what these objects meant to her life and ultimately what her life meant to them. Combining home movie footage, audio interviews and dynamic cinematography, Annette comes to life before our eyes.

Annette

We get genuine insight into Annette’s passions, pursuits, and philosophies. We fall in love with her affable personality.  We understand how the story of one seemingly ordinary woman actually turns out to be quite extraordinary.  We understand how a home becomes a heart, beating with life and necessity.  A true treasure trove for any vintage lover, this documentary is a colorful, nostalgic and sentimental look at the value of everyday objects, and their purpose over time. Get a glimpse of the magic that is 306 Hollywood by watching the trailer here…

6. Dare to Be Wild (2015)

Based on the true story of Mary Reynolds, the youngest woman ever to compete in the esteemed Chelsea Flower Show, Dare to Be Wild is the cinematic story of the journey that led her from dreamer to doer. From the start of her budding career (no pun intended!) Mary’s clients and employers want her to design gardenscapes within an acceptable box of sameness. But Mary has other ideas, wild ones, that don’t confine nature or ideas into typical proven displays that can be replicated over and over again.  Mary is keen on harnessing a feeling of home and harmony in her garden designs –  a certain sense of wonder and enchantment that she has felt her whole life whenever she steps out into the natural world.

But the Chelsea Flower Show is no easy quest. Paperwork, rules, formalities and finances tie her down at every turn. Her competitors are an intimidating array of past award winners, esteemed gardeners and British royalty. For every step forward, she winds up taking two steps back. Her journey is not easy on so many fronts, you begin to wonder if her plot of ground at the Flower Show is ever going to grow into the vision inside her head. But through all the uncertainty Mary stays true to the sounds that call her home… the wind rustling in the trees, the birds bright with song, the soothing noise of tall grass sweeping against stone.

Beautifully filmed and truly inspiring from the first five minutes, Dare to be Wild is a wonderful example of how the notion of home doesn’t have to be defined by typical, sedentary structures. Home is a feeling as much as it is a place.

Hope these selections have you thinking about your definitions of home and how’d you best describe it. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. And if you wind up reading or watching any of these books or movies, let us know. We’d love to keep these discussion going throughout the year.

Cheers to the word home and to all the places we call our own!

Breakfast with Bette Davis and the Famous Three Minute Egg

You could assume a lot of things about Bette Davis. Perhaps you’ve watched her movies (all 100+ of them) and you know her characters… smart, complicated, dramatic… and you think, personally, she must have been like that too. Or maybe you’ve read her books and know that her life hasn’t always been charming or easy, and you might think she bravely dealt with a lot of disappointment. Or perhaps you’ve seen her past interviews on television or youtube and witnessed how funny and polished and magnetic she was even in the off hours of her professional life.

All those instances might lead you to assume things about Bette, making you define her as one thing more than another – brassy, smart, privileged, funny, vulnerable, demanding, narcissistic, intense, wise, melodramatic, sincere, even terrifying.  Thanks to Kathryn Sermak’s new book, Miss D & Me, we can put our assumptions aside and know first-hand that Bette was a little bit of all those things. And so much more.

It is always fascinating to me to read about the behind-the-scenes lives of people in the public eye. Especially those stories shared by people who worked closely with a celebrity on a daily, detailed basis. Mostly because it breaks down the perception barrier of thinking that famous lives are so much more different than our own. That somehow fame and notoriety have morphed them into other-worldly figures washed clean from weakness and frailties. We generally only get to see one side of a famous person’s life depending on which part the media chooses to focus on, but with behind-the-scenes stories, you are offered a glimpse into a much more diverse landscape than any two-minute news clip or ten-minute interview could provide.

Ordinary people that work alongside extraordinary people are witness to the three-dimensional side of stardom  – all the good and all the bad wrapped up in one experience.  Like the relationship between Katharine Hepburn and her cook Norah, or Frank Sinatra and his valet George Jacobs or Madonna and her brother Christopher we are offered the chance to understand that the lives of these seemingly mythical creatures are really just fellow human beings, both flawed and fabulous.

When Kathryn Sermak first came to work as Bette’s assistant in 1979, Kathryn was a young, carefree Californian who spelled her name the classic way – Catherine – and had just newly spelled out a dream of one day living in France. Bette was in her 70’s, still working and very much set in her ways. Kathryn thought she was taking a simple summer job that would enable her to fund her way to France – not even really aware of who Bette Davis actually was. In turn, Bette thought she was getting a competent, sophisticated assistant in Kathryn whom would be both professional and perfunctory. Both were in for a very big surprise.

In the early, uncertain days, Kathryn didn’t expect to eventually count Bette as one of her best friends and Bette absolutely never entertained the idea that Kathryn would become like a daughter to her. At first, everything was wrong for both women. On Bette’s side, Kathryn was not enough – she wasn’t cultured, she wasn’t able to anticipate needs, she wasn’t sophisticated, nor groomed for the level of lifestyle that Bette had grown into. On Kathryn’s side Bette was too much… too demanding, too overbearing and too controlling. Both thought they would never last the first week together.

The turn in their relationship from bad to better came down to one simple little thing – an egg. Bette’s breakfast most always consisted of a three-minute egg. The proper cooking of it was her litmus test as to the value of any good assistant’s worth. There’s not much to cooking a three-minute egg. It involves a pan of boiling water, an egg still in its shell and three minutes of simmering.   But Bette added a twist to this simple test. How do you cook a three-minute egg in a hotel room with no stove, no pots and pans and no kitchen? Perplexed, Kathryn had no idea until Bette motioned to the in-room coffee pot. Then hot water was brewed. The egg was placed in the glass coffee carafe and the time was monitored on a wristwatch for 3 minutes exactly. In this small test of skill, it wasn’t that Kathryn failed to quickly and cleverly assess the options of impromptu cooking in a kitchenless room, but instead, it was the trainability of her actions that caught Bette’s attention.

That was the beauty of their relationship and the bud that ultimately bonded them together. The fact that Kathryn was young, fresh and naive while Bette was experienced, opinionated and worldly proved a combination of character traits that formed a tight friendship that lasted the rest of Bette’s life. It wasn’t always easy for these two women learning about life and each other day by day, but by the end the experience was invaluable.

There were outlandish moments, like when Bette insisted Kathryn change the spelling of her name from Catherine to Kathryn so that she would be more memorable (which she did!). There were all the lessons Kathryn had to endure… etiquette, elocution, table manners,  how to walk properly, how to dress effectively, how to eat with decorum and how to hold court at a table full of strangers.

There were awkward moments, when Bette’s insistence on how to appropriately handle certain social situations was so outdated, that Kathryn would bear the brunt of the embarrassment.   This was especially apparent when Bette insisted on dressing Kathryn for a formal dance in Washington DC complete with fur coat, gloves, a designer dress, expensive jewelry and dance lessons only for Kathryn to encounter a room full of denim-clad twenty-somethings casually hanging out in a dance hall.

There were the vulnerable moments when Bette crumpled up in the face of public humiliation as her daughter wrote an unflattering tell-all book, or when Bette threw off her wig in the car one day and embarked on a temper tantrum that was heartbreakingly child-like.  There was oodles of advice about men and relationships and sticking up for oneself in the face of adversity. And there were the laughs and the conversations and the sweet letters that Bette would write to Kathryn expressing all the appreciation she felt for her darling assistant and her close friend. There were silent treatments and long work days, elegant cocktail hours and thoughtful gifts, tears and tenacity, laughter and luxury. There was life, with all its good and all its bad.

And there were eggs – lots of eggs. Bette and Kathryn traveled the world together and ate at many fine restaurants, but the food Bette would choose to make for herself or her family on days off was simple fare that harkened back to her New England roots. Homemade burgers, cucumber salad, cornish game hen, wine spritzers, clam bakes, fresh berries with cold cream… those are the foods that she liked to make. For this post, our breakfast menu inspired by Bette Davis includes the following:

A Bette Davis inspired breakfast!

It’s a simple menu symbolizing all that was Bette Davis – sweet, salty, fresh, traditional, colorful, warm, cool and classic. It takes just a few minutes to make and is so easy it doesn’t even require detailed instruction. Simply boil an egg for 3 minutes.  Slice some homemade bread and slather it with jam.  Bake a potato in the oven for an hour and then finely chop it up with some scallions and salt and pepper and add the mix to a pan with some olive oil and let it cook until it turns brown and crusty. Adorn the plate with fresh fruit. Tah-dah! Breakfast, Bette Davis style, is ready!

Kathryn would be the first person to tell you that life with Bette was extraordinary for her last ten years. That the talented movie star was never far from the actual woman. That there was a glamorous side to her, a practical side, a petulant side and a vulnerable side that made her interesting and unique and ultimately endearing. That she was far from perfect but perfectly real.

“That’s me: an old kazoo with some sparklers, ” Bette once said.

The many faces of Bette Davis throughout her 55-year career.

Cheers to Bette for tackling life head-on,  with grace and style and fortitude and being 100% unique about the whole affair until the very end. Cheers to Kathryn to giving us a very real look into the life of real woman and cheers to three-minute eggs – a new breakfast favorite here in the Vintage Kitchen!

This post is part of a blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood featuring the life and film Career of Bette Davis. Read more about this incredible woman and her work in a variety of posts contributed by a dozen different film bloggers here. 

Find the vintage cookbooks that contributed recipes to this post in the shop here.

Find the recipe for homemade brown bread from a previous post here.

Find out more about Kathryn Sermack and her book, Miss D & Me here.

Cocktails and A Movie: Discussing Censorship, Bar Nuts and Breen on the Set of Casablanca

 

This week’s post has us traveling all the way back to a cosmopolitan city in exotic 1940’s North Africa thanks to a lovely invitation from the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. This weekend, October 13th – 15th marks the date of the Great Breening Blogathon featuring Joseph Breen, an influential, but seldom remembered figure in filmmaking during the glamorous days of old Hollywood.

Joseph Breen (1888-1965)

Joseph was the enforcer behind the Production Code Administration, set up during the 1930’s, which acted as a morality censor for all film scripts, scenes, and storylines in the motion picture industry. Bolstered by his own Catholic beliefs and the bishops who originally wrote the code, Joseph was not interested in seeing sexy, sensual imagery on the big screen and the PCA wasn’t interested in exposing such immorality to the American movie-going public.  The thought of being subjected to plotlines involving extra-marital affairs, obscene language, excessive violence or varying degrees of nudity were offensive. Family friendly, American made films were not the place for such suggestive behavior according to Joseph and the PCA.

With line by line lists of cant-do’s and won’t-permits attached to each script that the PCA reviewed, screenwriters and directors were challenged with creative ways to express character’s motives and actions while also keeping their plots plausible and compelling. How do you portray magnetic chemistry without showing a steamy, passionate kiss? How do you elude to compromising situations without showing corrupt scandals? How do you make your central location not look or sound like the most unethical, debaucherous place in the world yet still convey to watchers that shady dealings are happening right and left? And ultimately, how do you tell one of the most romantic and dramatic love stories of all time without showing anyone caught up in the physical throes of passion?

The answer is Casablanca.

Many noteworthy movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood were questioned by Joseph and the PCA. The Outlaw (Howard’s Hughes 1943 western) showed too much of Jane Russell’s cleavage; the “damn” in Rhett Butler’s famous “Frankly  my dear, I don’t give a damn” line in Gone With the Wind was flagged for unnecessary profanity; and the fact that Casablanca’s Ilsa was married at the time she first met Rick was altogether too salacious for the PCA to greenlight.  All three movies managed to overcome these sticky spots eventually, but not without some major behind-the-scenes defense tactics for creative license.

The PCA and Joseph’s staunch deployment of it was frustrating but important to movie studios because it balanced political correctness with the expectations of what movie audiences wanted to see.  What was considered entertaining and appropriate to movie-goers in mainstream America in the 1930’s and 1940’s was laughter, light-hearted romance, and noble sentiment.  So if movie studios wanted to sell tickets, they had to comply with what watchers wanted to see. And the PCA was there to make sure that decorum and good manners reigned supreme as far as what was being showcased on the big screen.

On the morality level, Casablanca in particular, seemed like it was doomed from the beginning. It was set primarily in a bar, Rick’s Cafe Americain, where alcohol continuously flowed. It was fueled by desperation with characters willing to do anything and everything to garner exit visas to leave the country. It contained a smoldering, forbidden romance, murder and contempt for government officials.  All major issues when it came to the Production Code Administration.

The legendary ending of Casablanca

By the time the script came back from the PCA review office, it contained several red flags and numerous notations from Joseph Breen. No bed was ever to be shown in Rick’s apartment, (such an object would have signaled an intimate encounter with Ilsa).  The dubious character of Captain Renault (who was in charge of granting exit visas from Casablanca) was not allowed to verbally suggest or show that he was granting visas to women only in exchange for sex. And Rick and Ilsa’s fated love affair? Joseph found it highly immoral that Ilsa met and fell in love with Rick years before in Paris while she was  married to her husband Victor Lazlo. This long-simmering love business between Ilsa and Rick had to be cleaned up in order for the movie to go on. Even though sex does sell, in conservative 1940’s America these scandelous situations were considered way too over-the-top for the eyes and minds of mainstream movie-going audiences.

The smoldering attraction between Rick and Ilsa.

So how did Casablanca’s production team manage to get around such roadblocks and ultimately propel the film towards three Academy Award wins and iconic movie status? Through good writing and good direction and good acting. So much of the storyline that seemed PCA in-appropriate – the excessive drinking, seduction, womanizing and volatile emotions were so expertly staged and nuanced that the script eventually passed approval with Joseph Breen. Once Humphrey Bogart (Rick), Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa)  and Claude Rains (Captain Renault) delivered their performances there was no mistaking the precarious situations that the scriptwriters originally intended. Movie audiences still got the idea loud and clear even if wasn’t visually or audibly spelled out.

In today’s depict-anything-you-want movie plot experience, it seems so foreign to have such a morality cloud like Joseph Breen hovering over a film production. But I wonder if the beauty and ultimate success of Casablanca came in the act of being challenged to subtly hint at each impropriety. Perhaps that is what makes it timeless and still translatable in today’s cinematic scope. It leaves room for our own imaginations to sort out and further dissect the specifics of the relationships between characters.

I’m not a big fan of censoring art in any way. I think you lose the point of it then. I once lived in a town where plays were censored for language or risque content and it felt very limiting. Art is intended to provoke reaction and expand horizons so I’m not sure if Joseph Breen and I would have been on the same page in the philosophy department, but his impact on Casablanca was influential, so maybe his enforcement of the Production Code Administration ultimately helped the movie in the long-run.

For all the spicy current passing between Ilsa and Rick throughout the movie, there is not a lot of spicy food being passed around Rick’s cafe.  Originally I thought it would be fun to write a dinner and a movie post and feature some aromatic Moroccan food of the likes that would have been served at Rick’s. But apparently, the main thing on the menu at Cafe Americain, the bestseller of all bestsellers, was a cocktail or two or three or half a bottle. Champagne, bourbon, scotch, gin, whiskey are present in almost every scene. Alcohol swishes and swirls and sits in glasses while Rick broods, Captain Renault schemes and Ilsa seeks courage.  So in lieu of a traditional North African dinner, here in the Vintage Kitchen, we are staying true to the spirit of Casablanca by serving up a food accompaniment with this post that pairs best with your favorite cocktail…Sweet Spiced Nuts circa 1967.

This recipe comes from the vintage cookbook, A World of Nut Recipes by Morton Gil Clark and features three ingredients essential to Moroccan cooking: cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg. This is a super easy recipe to make for cocktail hour, parties or late night snacking. The flavors are subtle, accommodating and interesting and with nut season now in full swing, you have a variety of options to choose from. For this recipe, I used a variety of mixed nuts which included peanuts, walnuts, almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts but pecans, pistachios, macademias, etc all would make delicious alternatives as well.

Find this cookbook available in the Vintage Kitchen shop here.

Sweet Spiced Nuts – Makes 1 Cup

1 cup nuts

1/4 cup fine granulated sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/8th teaspoon ground allspice

1/8th teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 egg (egg white part only)

Place the nuts in a small bowl and pour over them the slightly beaten whites of 1 egg. Mix so that all the nuts are evenly coated. In a separate bowl combine the sugar and spices and then toss with the nuts, mixing well again so that all the nuts are evenly coated. Spread seasoned nuts out into a single layer on a baking sheet and bake at 300 degrees for 25 minutes. If you prefer ultra-crunchy nuts bake them about 10-15 minutes longer, but keep your eye on them so they don’t burn. Once done, let them cool on the baking sheet until ready to serve. Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation.

Pair with your favorite cocktail and some lively conversation. And while you’re at it, raise a toast to Joseph Breen, who made his mark, for better or worse, on one of the world’s most beloved movies of all times. Here’s look’n at you, Joe!

To learn more about Joe Breen and his influence on old Hollywood, catch up with other blogathon related posts here. 

For more dinner and a movie posts from the Vintage Kitchen, pull up a chair here.

And last but not least, find 200 more pages of interesting nut-related recipes in the World of Nut Recipes cookbook available in the shop here.

Bright B(old) Things: 9 Book and Movie Suggestions for an Inspired Year Ahead

 

best of vintage 2016 list

“The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears and new eyes.” So said British author G. K. Chesterton.

Even though he spoke these words of wisdom in the first part of the 20th century, don’t you think they are still absolutely appropriate reminders for today? This new year is bursting at the seams with potential and possibility. And it is up to us to make the most of it – to get our dreams and aspirations from the inside to the outside.   In the land of Ms. Jeannie we are starting the year off with a list of fascinating books and movies that will give you those new ears and new eyes, that new backbone and new soul that Chesterton so smartly referred to. Today we are looking at the magical rewards of life from different perspectives as told by people who muddled their way through the long, wayward process of dream-building and came out the other side with wisdom and wonder to share.

Offering equal amounts of inspiration and entertainment, these books and movies were discovered in 2016 but cover a wide time period. On the older side there is a new documentary about a still-living fashion icon born in the 1920’s and an incredibly romantic 2015  movie based on a classic novel written in 1847. On the newer side, we tackle old thoughts on homekeeping in our modern 21st century environment with a book about interior decorating and we spend a year in the life of modern day archaeologist/historians as they recreate authentic farm life in rural Edwardian England.

It’s a fun, eclectic collection but you’ll notice a common thread running between them all – commitment, dedication, confidence. By drawing inspiration from this cast of characters, we can draw parallels to our own lives that will help motivate the dreams that swirl around our heads and hearts and hopefully get us thinking about what steps we can take today that will affect our desires tomorrow.  Let’s look…

In the reading department…

1.No Place Like Home – Brooke Berman (2010)

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Budding playwright Brooke Berman had a simple goal. To find a home that she could call her own. Not one that she purchased. A rental was just fine. Not a house. An apartment would suit. And not even necessarily one that excluded roommates. She just wanted to find a place where she could store her stuff and her self for a permanent amount of time. Longer than thirty days. In 1990’s New York City.

You’d think this would be an easy feat, but for Brooke it took 39 apartments and many years to finally figure out where and how she belonged. For anyone who has ever moved more than a few times in their lives you’ll understand the importance of Brooke’s desire to feel settled. But as much as this memoir is about finding a place of one’s own it is also a step-by-step account of one woman’s journey towards self-realization. Like Janice and her Paris Letters, Brooke tells the real story of what it is like to pursue lofty creative work while fighting through the muck-ridden minutiae of basic daily life. Friendships bloom and wither, romances come and go, jobs begin and end, family members die and tragedy strikes. Despite it all Brooke keeps moving (literally!) towards her dream of a permanent address and a professional career.

Her level of determination is inspiring. Her stay-the-course focus impressive. And if you ever wanted to know what it’s really like to live in New York City, on an artist’s salary, then this is the no-holes barred book for you:)

2. Rethink – Amanda Talbot (2015)

rethink

This book had Ms. Jeannie thinking for weeks and weeks about home design after she finished it. Part history book, part design journal, part holistic living primer, Rethink tackles a lot of issues between it’s pretty covers.  Illustrating how we have become a society of store-ers (owners of so much stuff that storage units are called into action to house the overflow) and accept-ers (of cheaply made, cheaply massed produced short-term furniture), Australian decorator and home style maven Amanda Talbot challenges us to rethink how we use our homes in today’s 21st century world.

Drawing on the nostalgic ideas of home from centuries past when big family, large-scale houses dominated  our landscape, Amanda explains how the history of interior design has affected our mental and physical state for hundreds of years.  Needless to say, times have changed significantly. Big houses are being traded in for micro ones. Traditional function rooms designed for single purposes (dining room, kitchen, bedroom, etc) have now morphed into convertible spaces where we eat, sleep, work and entertain all in the same area. But strangely our thought processes in how we approach these new room layouts has been slow to catch-up.

We require more out of our personal space than ever before in history, yet we fail more often than not to make our rooms fit our lifestyle. Amanda encourages us to break free of the nostalgic past. Beds are now workspaces, mediation zones and offices.   Kitchens are now shipping centers and compost bins and charging stations. Balconies are now vegetable patches, reading rooms and communication hubs. You get the idea!

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In touch with both the practical and spiritual sense of home, Amanda illustrates how certain textures, light sources, and furniture arrangement appeal to our modern minds and moods. She hails the use of soft warm wood and vintage furniture for its steadfast constitution and inherent ability to withstand time – something that is assuring to our psyche in the constantly changing and emotionally abrasive world of the 2010 years.  She proposes new more efficient and intuitive ways to decorate now that we are a world of citizens constantly on the go. She tackles harmony and peacefulness, blended family relationships and plugged in environments, lighting, trash disposal and greenspace with a thoughtfulness that is provoking. By the time you finish the last page, you’ll look at your home environment and understand more about it and yourself. Rethink will make you want to question and refine your style to the infinite degree so that you are paired down and using only what is necessary, what is essential and what is meaningful in order to balance your being.

3. The Year of Reading Dangerously – Andy Miller (2014)

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In The Year of Reading Dangerously, Andy Miller had one goal: to read the books on his bookshelf that he thought were important. The ones that he eluded to loving at cocktail parties (Jane Austen? Yes of course! I love all her books!)  or at dinner tables (Tolstoy”s work is amazing!) but secretly had never actually read before.

Andy’s book collection was quite diverse and spanned a multitude of genres and time periods.  Some were classic literature, some popular fiction, some the mark of an intellectual mind and some just complete whimsies of a fun-time book lover. He narrowed his list down to 50 books to be read in 365 days. And he stuck to it, whether he liked or not.

Throughout his year, he juggles his reading list and his job, alongside his enthusiasm, his family, his friends and his small son. He battles his pre-conceived notions, and his fortitude, his sanity and his propensity to weasel out of the ones he doesn’t like (which are a few!). He evens battles the point of the whole project. Who would care what a middle-aged British man read or not read? The truth is, you will. You’ll fall in love with Andy and his funny, honest, highly relate-able book-loving life. As Andy steamrolls his way through the shelf, you’ll begin to think about your own bookshelf, your own sheepish list of good reads you claim to love but have never cracked open. And he’ll inspire you to get started.

4. Love In The Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1988)

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Like Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast which was set in 1930’s Paris, Love in the Time of Cholera transports you to another era. This time, you are in exotic 19th century Columbia – a landscape filled with colorful birds, fragrant flowers and one of the biggest romantics in all of literature.  The goal of the novel’s flawed hero,  Florentino Ariza is to win the heart of  Fermina Daza, a girl he is instantly drawn to in an unexpected moment.

The story winds through 53 years of these two characters lives despite other lovers, other passions and other pursuits, while also dealing with conflicting temperaments and grim possibilities.  Readers fly high on a captivating whirlwind of passion as Florentino boldly and consistently declares his love for Fermina with no assured possibility that it will ever be equally reciprocated. He can’t help himself. Once he sets eyes on the love of his life (literally!) there is no going back. So he marches forward day after day, year after year, on a road that wraps in circles around Fermina’s landscape. It’s a delirious concept. Delicious in its intensity and honorable in its day after day dedication.  “There is no greater glory than to die for love,” pronounces Florentino early on. With that mindset firmly established, nothing can stop Florentino from fighting for his heart’s desire.

5. Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Rob Lowe (2011)

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If you ever wanted to learn the inside story on how an actor makes it in Hollywood, this is the book. From his childhood in Ohio to his first movie (The Outsiders, 1983) to the established and extensive career he enjoys now in California, Rob Lowe like Brook Berman is the ultimate soldier in the battle field of staying true to your chosen calling. Sure he’s handsome, and he’s talented, and he’s a major A-List actor but it wasn’t always that way and Rob had to learn about his strengths and weaknesses, one micro-experience at a time, just like everybody else.

In Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob candidly talks about the long-road to fulfillment: how he struggled to find friends, find self-worth and find balance in an industry that doesn’t authentically nurture any of these. He talks about his 20+ year marriage, the raising of his two sons and the hopes and dreams he still aspires to in this middle section of his life. And he talks about Hollywood. The interesting stories of celebrity friends, behind-the-scenes movie making and project collaborations on super successful pop-culture productions like The West Wing, Parks and Rec and St. Elmo’s Fire. Alongside all that achievement are stories about embarrassing missteps, awkward associations and risky gambles.  There are setbacks and uncertainties, self-doubt and insecurity, but through it all there is Rob.  For over 40 years holding tight to his acting profession and  thoughtfully digesting all the successes and failures that a creative life consumes. He never gives up on acting. He never gives up on himself.

In the watching department…

6. Edwardian Farm (2010)

Edwardian Farm was a BBC television series which first aired in 2010 in the U.K. It is a fascinating look at the modern viability of living a handmade, handspun life void of 21st century technology as experienced by three history loving professionals – one historian and two archaeologists. For one complete calendar year, this trio set up farm in England’s beautiful Devon countryside and experienced what rural life would have been like in the early 1900’s. Their mission was to answer questions about the efficiencies and possibilities and practicalities of our modern mindsets. Knowing what we know now in 2017, could we successfully return to 1900 and survive?

The trio was tasked with not only daily living activities but also business ventures as well. So moneymaking crops had to be planted, chickens had to be raised and cows had to be milked in order to keep the farm and themselves afloat physically and financially through four seasons.  What was really interesting about this reality experience is that it was thankfully short on relationship drama and heavy on information. You don’t watch people complaining, bickering or tearing each other down. You watch instead about people utilizing their strengths and their ideas to propel the farm and each other forward.

In the 365 days of the project a lot of interesting endeavors were tackled including making their own cheese, chicken houses and lime ash. They plow fields with horses and attempt to spawn fish in a nearby creek. They smoke meat, make their own ice cream and bake traditional food all without the use of electricity. They wash and mend and reuse and recycle and re-purpose so much so that you’ll be inspired by how little equipment one really needs in order to get a good job done. And you’ll be inspired to try out some of their projects like smoking your own meat or planting your own market flower garden. It is fun entertainment that also happens to be highly informative. And like Amanda Talbot’s book, it will make you rethink the purpose of all that stuff in your life. Is it necessary? Is it needed? Is it functional?

7. Iris (2015)

Color, confidence and a little dose of charisma (okay a big dose) are what make 96 year old design maven and style icon, Iris Apfel one of the most shining examples of how to live life on your own terms.  By courageously and unapologetically letting her natural instincts and interests guide her throughout nine decades of her artistic life Iris has followed her heart all around the creative industry.  From fashion publishing to textile design, antique collecting, to clothing scout, interior designer to museum exhibit stylist Iris circumnavigated the globe while exploring everything and anything that appealed to her.

Inspiration came calling in all forms from tiny details like the quality of a certain type of thread, or the line of an unusual sculpture or the buoyancy of a puffed sleeve. Wherever she went, Iris found the unusual, and then packed it up, and shipped it home only for it to trigger a new opportunity later down the road.  An antique turns into an accessories line, a satin fabric spawns a textile company, a thrift store outfit propels a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is how Iris’s life has gone. By sticking to her gut instincts on everything and always saying yes to opportunities that presented themselves Iris was able to enjoy a diverse and fulfilling life that consistently kept her engaged and excited. It is hard to argue with reason when it comes to things you inherently love. Iris never argued in that department. She just listened. And if this documentary teaches you anything, if Iris teaches you anything,  it is just to travel through life as yourself. Just be yourself. Listen to your gut. And above all else, cherish your individuality.

8. Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

Thomas Hardy wrote this book in 1847 which seems incredible now because his main heroine Bathsheba Everdene is as thoroughly modern as any woman today. In the 1960’s Hardy’s book was made into a movie starring Julie Christie but this recent version starring Carey Mulligan is by far better.  If you are unfamiliar with the story-line, Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba –  a headstrong, independent woman who inherits a farm of her own in rural England. Determined to run the farm and her life, in her own way, Bathsheba struggles with the balance between independence and vulnerability.  She doesn’t want to be governed by anyone yet she doesn’t want to be alone either. Love in Bathsheba’s eyes is balanced yet also wild, mutual yet individualistic, and supportive without being smothering.  Three very different  men converge on her life and a relationship with each unfolds. Without giving away the ending if you have not yet seen it, Ms. Jeannie will just say that Bathsheba’s choices throughout her life are as bohemian as any 1920’s flapper or any 1980’s career woman or any 2017 independent spirit. Which makes this 150 year old character quite remarkable. She’ll inspire you to forge your own way, to mold a life dependent on personal viewpoint and to reject the notions of other people’s ideas for your happiness.

9. The Age of Adaline (2015)

Ms.Jeannie was so in love with this movie she watched it twice back to back. Stunning in its cinematography, wardrobe and set design it is also posses interesting questions about mortality, relationships and familiar connections. Adaline has a secret and because of her elusiveness few people know how to understand her which leads to a loneliness that seems inescapable. Again, without giving away too much of the story for those of you who have not yet seen it, you follow Adaline’s life through decades of history and important milestones. Like Iris and Bathsheba she forges her own life, and in doing so discovers later on the impact she had on other people.  It is an interesting viewpoint on how one person can affect many without ever knowing it.

On a technical side, this movie is flawless. The acting is marvelous and the attention to detail incredible.  The camera follows Adaline through all the changing style trends of 20th century America which makes the visual appearance of this film fascinating in a time capsule sort of way. Years of pre-production added an authenticity to the layers of storytelling that added multiple layers of depth to every scene and set.  An added bonus not to be missed is a fascinating step-by-step behind the scenes documentary on how the cast and crew accomplished such visually impactful storytelling.  So this selection is two fold when it comes to inspiration. The script is one magical piece of writing and the mesmerizing production value is another. No bit of scene or set was thrown together, no character half-realized, no string of dialogue awkwardly phrased. All aspects of this movie-making process were thoughtfully executed making the end result seamless in regards to complete storytelling.

As you can see from this list a little inspiration goes a long, long way. In the land of Ms. Jeannie we are challenging ourselves  to find a moment of new inspiration in each and every day. Some days this a tricky feat. Looking for small pockets of wonder requires an open mindset and eyes that are constantly aware of the environment around us.  The fun is in the search for the small details like a falling leaf or a patch of graffiti or an almond crusted cookie.  And it’s in the big obvious things too like fireworks or flower beds or snow fields.  It’s in music we hear, food we eat and conversation we start. Sometimes it is in an interesting article, or a pesky problem and sometimes it is even in the frustrations that fog up up our brains. The trick in this tricky project is to be able to take the time to notice and then process what it is that we are seeing, hearing and thinking.  Life moves fast. In an instant a moment of magic is upon us. Our imaginations quickly carry us away. If it captures our attention long enough a dream or a desire begins to form. Then we have to make choices. Do we sit on that dream or do we we do something with that dream? Ms. Jeannie hopes this batch of books and movies will help you get going, get noticing and ultimately get started down that road to realization.

Cheers and good luck to a new year and to new eyes.  And to new ears and to new feet and to new souls and backbones and all those wonderful new (old) words by G.K. Chesterton!

For more book and movie suggestions see 2015’s best of list here.

 

 

 

20 Vintage Books That Became Contemporary Movies

Photo via pintrest.
Photo via pintrest.

Boring. Irrelevant. Out of touch. Those are three of the most common misconceptions Ms. Jeannie encounters when discussing vintage books. How could something written 50, 100 or even 200 years ago still be compelling in today’s modern world? Thanks to the lovely marriage between film and books Ms. Jeannie is going to show you how with these 20 examples of old books that made fabulous modern films. Movie trailers are linked to each picture, so click on any and all to get a feel for story lines. Chances are if you like the movie (or in this case, the trailer) than you’ll love the book even more!

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a short story written by James Thurber in 1942 in this collection of his work. The movie starring Ben Stiller was released in 2013.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was a short story written by James Thurber in 1942 and published in a collection of his short works, My World and Welcome To It that same year. The movie, starring Ben Stiller was released in 2013.

 

There Will Be Blood was based on the book, Oil by Upton Sinclair which was published in 1927. The Academy Award-winning movie, starring Daniel Day Lewis was released in 2007.
There Will Be Blood was based on the book, Oil by Upton Sinclair which was published in 1927. The Academy Award-winning movie, starring Daniel Day-Lewis was released in 2007.

 

The Nutcracker ballet was based on a novella written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. The movie version of the ballet starring Macaulay Culkin was released in 1993.
The Nutcracker ballet was based on a novella written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. The movie version of the ballet starring Macaulay Culkin was released in 1993.
Miss Julie was a play written by Swedish author August Strindberg in 1888. It was made into a beautifully filmed movie starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell in 2014.
Miss Julie was a play written by Swedish author August Strindberg in 1888. It was made into a beautifully filmed movie starring Jessica Chastain and Colin Farrell in 2014.
The Last of the Mohicans was a book written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1826. Daniel Day Lewis starred in the film version in 1992.
The Last of the Mohicans was a book written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1826. Daniel Day-Lewis starred in the film version in 1992.

 

Jerzy Kosinski published Being There in 1971. Peter Sellers starred in the film adaptation in 1979.
Jerzy Kosinski published Being There in 1971. Peter Sellers starred in the film adaptation in 1979.
In 1782 French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos wrote Les Liaisons Danger. Just under 200 years later, the movie Dangerous Liasiasons premiered starring Glenn Close
In 1782 French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos wrote Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Two hundred years later, in 1988, Glenn, John and Michelle starred in the film version.
Truman Capote created flawed heroine Holly Golightly in 1958. Audrey Hepburn made her iconic in the film adaptation in 1961.
Truman Capote created flawed heroine Holly Golightly in 1958. Audrey Hepburn made her famous in the film adaptation in 1961.
In 1899, Joseph Conrad wrote the book Heart of Darkness which became the inspiration for the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now.
Joseph Conrad wrote the book Heart of Darkness which was first serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899. The story became the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s legendary film Apocalypse Now in 1979.
Karen Blixen published her memoirs of life on an African coffee plantation under the name Isak Dinensen in 1937. Meryl Streep brought her to life on the big screen in 1985.
Karen Blixen published her memoirs, Out of Africa, about life on an African coffee plantation under the name Isak Dinesen in 1937. Meryl Streep brought her to life on the big screen in 1985.
The king of science fiction writing, Philip K. Dick wrote the magically titled novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1968. The story was adapted for film in 1982 titled Blade Runner.
The king of science fiction writing, Philip K. Dick wrote the magically titled novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1968. The story was adapted for film in 1982 and re-titled Blade Runner.
Vanity Fair was written in 1848 by William Makepeace Thackeray. Mira Nair adapted it beautifully to film in 2004 starring Reese Witherspoon.
in the late 1940's Thor Hyerdahl defied logic by following the path of KonTiki across the ocean on a primative sailing vessal. He published his account of the experience in 1953. In 2012 a group of Scandinavian filmmakers brought the nail-biting, edge of your seat experience and infectious spirit of adventure to the big screen.
In the late 1940’s Thor Heyerdahl defied all logic by following the path of KonTiki across the ocean on a primitive sailing vessel. He published his account of the experience in 1953. In 2012 a group of Scandinavian filmmakers brought the nail-biting, edge of your seat adventure to the big screen.
Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in 1930. It became a popular film-noir in 1941 thanks to Humphrey Bogart.
Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon in 1930. It became a popular film-noir in 1941 thanks to Humphrey Bogart.
Before Gene Wilder (1971) and Johnny Depp (2005) entertained us as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, author Roald Dahl created a candy-coated world for kids in his 1964 confectionary.
Before Gene Wilder (1971) and Johnny Depp (2005) entertained us as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, author Roald Dahl created a candy-coated world for kids in his 1964 confectionary.
Evelyn Waugh wowed the world with his literary wonder Brideshead Revisited in 1945. In 2008 Matthew Goode turned out a handsome performance in the beautifully captured film adaptation.
Evelyn Waugh wowed the world with his literary wonder Brideshead Revisited in 1945. In 2008 Matthew Goode turned out a handsome performance in the beautifully captured film adaptation.
Doctor Zhivago swept the histrical romance world thanks to writer Boris Pasternak in 1958. Seven years later it became a Hollywood giant starring Omar Sherif and Julie Christie.
Doctor Zhivago swept the histrical romance world thanks to writer Boris Pasternak in 1958. Seven years later it became a Hollywood giant starring Omar Sherif and Julie Christie.
In 1969, English author John Fowles published The French Lieutenant's Woman. Twelve years later, in 1981 Meryl Streep portrayed her on film.
In 1969, English author John Fowles published The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Twelve years later, in 1981 Meryl Streep portrayed her on film.
Henry Fielding created the adventures of Tom Jones in 1749, two centuries later Albert Finney charmed the world with his charismatic portrayal of the title character when the film premiered in 1963.
Henry Fielding created the adventures of Tom Jones in 1749, two centuries later Albert Finney charmed the world with his charismatic portrayal of the title character when the film premiered in 1963.
Before My Fair Lady was the darling of stag and screen it was a play called Pygmalion written by George Bernard Shaw in 1913.
Before My Fair Lady was the darling of stage and screen it was a play called Pygmalion written by George Bernard Shaw in 1913.

These are of course just a few examples of the themes timeless books lend to our lives. More examples will come in a future blog post, but for now Ms. Jeannie will leave you in the good hands of these good characters. Go right ahead and fall in love with Tom Jones, even though he’s 200 years old.  Feel the confident energy of Thor Heyerdahl even though his adventure occurred six decades ago. Relate to Holly’s vulnerability and Karen’s isolation. Get revved up by Chance’s take-life-as-it-comes attitude and Walter’s grab-life-by-the-horns manifesto. Fun things never age and fun books are no exception!

Need help finding a good book? Ms. Jeannie’s your gal. Post a message in the comments section and she’ll be in touch!