Thursday, March 31, 2016

Wallace Sabine: A Tour of Symphony Hall, Part 1

We took a tour of Symphony Hall several weeks ago, on a blustery Saturday morning. I'm not sure why it took me so long to tell you about it. (Perhaps it's because I needed to stop steaming....)

I love music, but I don't go to many classical concerts, or concerts of any kind. For many years, I produced and house-managed a chamber-music concert series in Boston. Such a job requires hyper-alertness to potential issues and disasters on stage and in the hall. I'd listen with one ear to the violinist's shaky intonation while listening with the other ear to somebody snoring in the front rows, pondering how to intervene if no one sitting nearby did. I was always poised to race down the stairs with my flashlight to help people leaving in the darkness. (Even so, a few people fell, and I helped them back on their feet.) Such responsibility becomes ingrained, I found. When it's been your job to worry about everything and everyone before, during, and after performances, it's hard to stop thinking like a house manager and enjoy the music you've paid for with your ticket. I kept worrying, every noise distracted me, and I kept wanting to jump up to help people in concert halls for years afterward. Then I gave up.

I think I must be cured by now, but I still don't go to concerts, possibly because I'm lazy, cheap, or both. Music feeds the soul. I should do better.

But I went to Symphony Hall, and this is why:

How great is THAT? I knew it was hanging in the lobby and I'd been wanting to see it for months. I was thrilled. It's perfect. It was conceived and executed by his old friends and Harvard colleagues, and I'll bet anything that his widow Jane approved the text.

It is the only memorial Professor Sabine has around here, as far as I know, except for this modest one in Bigelow Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery:

I have some press clippings from when the plaque was unveiled, in late October, 1946:

His widow Jane, aged 83, in was his only survivor by then, except for a granddaughter born many years after he died. His oldest daughter Janet had died earlier in 1946. I wonder if their granddaughter was present for the ceremony; I hope so.

At the ceremony, Jane Sabine set the record straight as to whether the Classical statues lining the hall were purely decorative or had a purpose:

I was compelled to set the record straight myself after our tour guide old our group in no uncertain terms that Professor Sabine had taught at MIT. My husband and I had turned to each other in horror. The poor man knows more than he ever wanted to about the Sabine family and was well aware that young Wallace had arrived at Harvard as a student, became a professor after receiving his master's degree, and kept his post until he died. 

In Boston, you do not mistake Harvard for MIT or vice versa. So, after the tour, I quietly approached our guide, complimented her on her tour and then mentioned, as politely as I could, her error. 

The guide, who is an acquaintance, brushed me aside. "Oh, well!" she said, "There's certainly been controversy about that!" And before I could disagree, she turned her back on me.

In my hand was Wallace' Sabine's biography, opened to a relevant page. (I had to bring it; I couldn't have left it at home any more than I could have left my chin or my elbow at home. It wanted to go.)  

I was stunned into silence for a moment. Controversy? Really? Professor Sabine lived a mere century ago, not in the Middle Ages or the Pleistocene Epoch. His biographical facts are not lost in the sands of time like those of, say, Jesus. There's nothing even a tad murky about his past, his work, or his character; on the contrary, his life was filled with extraordinarily clear thoughts and actions. And there's a comprehensive biography, thanks to his wife. 

I couldn't believe what I was hearing from a BSO tour guide. Or that she refused to listen to me.

She quickly moved away. She had been letting her tour group have the run of backstage for a good 20 minutes at that point, but she suddenly decided it was time to herd everyone together to leave. 

To be continued

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Don't Try This at Home: "Barely Any Sunlight"

A company calling itself "Precise Real Estate" earns its name* by providing the following description of an 1,163 square-foot, four-bedroom condo listed in Brighton for $967,000:
Great value! Currently rented for $3600/month! Tons of space, 4 big bedrooms, 1 bathroom, no parking, nice swimming pool, first floor unit with barely any sunlight, great large kitchen fits a table, great closet space, amazing location!
In case the description wasn't honest enough, the realtor thoughtfully provided photos that do not show rooms staged to help buyers imagine themselves living in pristine, monochromatic, hotel-like comfort as is customary around here. You've seen it a thousand times: gray walls and gray, black, and/or white furniture, rugs, art, and accessories. Tiny pops of color are permitted in throw pillows and plants.

No, this broker had a revolutionary idea: he decided to show how your new, almost-million-dollar pad will look like after you are all settled in. It's a brilliant idea, and I think it would help sell houses if it's executed correctly. Staging is intended to help people easily imagine themselves living in the property but I think it often fails by making condos and houses too minimalist and magazine-perfect and devoid of domestic comfort and charm. I never feel comfortable in bland, perfect rooms, at least.

But I wonder if Mr. Lopez went too far in the other direction.

I could be wrong. My friends (and you know who you are, both of you) tend not to invite let me into their homes, so I don't really know how people live who are not me (and are not selling their properties). Perhaps you all live like Mr. Lopez imagines you do. He seems to have a pretty clear picture of his Ideal Home Buyer for this condo, anyhow.

For example, he's assuming you are in the habit of never making your bed and leaving your clothes on the floor and tangled in your sheets. This is the lead photograph for the listing, which appeared yesterday; I hope it makes you feel either covetous or like you've finally found your next home, since that what lead listing photos are supposed to do:

All photos: Precise Realty 

Please look closely (soft-focus room photography is another startling innovation by Mr. Lopez) and tell me if you agree that there could be a sleeping or unconscious person in that bed.

Or a corpse: I just finished reading The Waters of Eternal Youth, Donna Leon's the 25th novel in her Venetian police detective series, featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. So I'm still spotting bodies everywhere, particularly in messy apartments, where Guido found one quite by accident, on page 182. I can't believe I've read every one of these lightweight novels; sometimes Guido doesn't solve the crime, often the perps go free. The Italian criminal justice system is a joke. But I keep reading them for their descriptions of Venice in all weather, the meals his Henry James–obsessed wife Paola serves up (Venetians often go home for a multi-course lunch during the workday), and the creative outfits worn by his boss's secretary, Signorina Elettra.

But I digress. Let's get back to your stunning property, shall we?

The eat-in kitchen:

How nice that you recycle. That's always good to see, yet it's rarely in real-estate listings. Stagers should provide brimming recycling bins in kitchens along with the requisite bowls of fresh fruit and tasteful clusters of Pellegrino bottles that always adorn otherwise-bare granite counters.

Here's another bedroom:

Here Mr. Lopez forgot and did the usual staging trick of draping a coordinating throw alluringly across the bed. Seen it a million times. Cliché! Piling stuff on top of it helps somewhat. I hope those black boxes littering the bed and floor are not the ubiquitous plastic rat traps we see in yards and alleys around town. But they look very much like them....

If you were going to accuse me of mistaking a student apartment for your own, be informed that the ancient television refutes your claim. No one in their 20s would have a clue about what that thing is, so this can only be an adult apartment.

Is that a bloodstain high up in the corner, or a misplaced sock? Let me know.

The living room:

I see you made some attempt at neatening things up in here. Why? At first glance, I thought that was a black cat sleeping on the tablecloth you threw over that chair. Alas, I think it is a sweater. Your cats must be hiding from the photographer. 

I commend you on your taste in vintage television sets, however. (What is that thorny thing on top of it, though?) 

I also like your taste in Pepperidge Farm cookies. I hope those are Milanos, my favorite.  But you should try the Crispy Cookies with Belgian chocolate from Trader Joe's. They made me a convert.

Thank you for sharing your home with me. I hope you make a quick cash sale from a foreign investor who plans to send all eight of his children to Boston universities a decade or so from now. I'll look forward to meeting him at the open house and having them drag race their Bentleys down Beacon Street in 2026.

* Precise Realty agent Dennis Lopez agent should earn Boston's 2016 RE Truth-in-Advertising Award, but I think the real-estate business stopped bestowing this once-coveted award somewhere around 1787, having found no qualified candidates for several decades. Of course there haven't been more than one or two since then.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Happy Easter!

We don't usually do much to celebrate Easter, aside from picking up half-price Dove chocolate eggs on Easter Monday, but this year we decided to be festive, so we dyed eggs yesterday. We used Paas dye tablets instead of food coloring; there was a big display at CVS, and the box advertised "shimmer paint" so we couldn't resist.

To mix things up, we hardboiled a few brown eggs to see what color effects we would get. Using yellow, purple, and pink dyes, they looked like they'd turn out horribly. We got nicer results with red, and we dipped one in both blue and green, and that one came out the best. The pink and purple tablets yielded sad, uneven colors results with white eggs, too.

We also did several with my patented rainbow-dipping technique, where the whole egg is colored yellow and then partially dipped in other colors to get spectrum effects. Paas is runny and it bleeds; I've gotten much better results with food coloring.

The shimmer paint made up for the poor dyes, however, as you can see in the photos. There were four packets of color, a tray to hold paints and eggs, and two brushes. The trick with shimmer paint — for me, at least — is similar to the one I use for decorating wreaths: just keep adding more and more until you think you're finished. Then take a short break and add more. And then a little more. Then you're done. Unless it needs just a touch more.

We layered on shimmer paint so thickly (covering up ugly dye jobs, mostly) that they eggs were still sticky 12 hours later after sitting in the fridge. They looked better and better as they dried, though. Then they stuck to the carton; I cracked one trying to remove it. Still, the shimmery effects were quite nice, although they look better in photos than they do in person.

I look forward to getting Paas again, tossing most of the dye tablets (and using food coloring instead) and using shimmer paint on every egg. And maybe buying some Dove chocolate eggs before Easter.

Harris examined our results and approved them:

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Long-Leggedy Beastie

That's our Lion. When I saw this photo on my laptop, I was surprised — it looked like someone had played a trick with Photoshop. He really does have very long legs.

And he doesn't welcome impolite comments about it, thank you very much:

And lest you think that one leg is a fluke, he has three more to show off:

I was not pleased to find Lion curled up on the cooktop and he was responding to my yelling pointed criticism when I took this shot. We have had many animated, emphatic discussion with him and Possum about staying off the kitchen counteres and cooktop, but they aren't persuaded. I wish Toffee would tell them about New Year's Eve 2012, when he was a kitten and jumped on the hot burners, and had to go for emergency care at Angell Animal Medical Center (mercifully open 24/7/365). We had been worrying about a cat doing that, and my husband was there, but he was busy stopping Harris from jumping and didn't see Toffee. We try to be vigilant about the burners but I know we're never going to be perfect. And the cats go where they please after we go to bed so it's a continual problem.

Go ahead, make my day.

We have similar safety concerns about Harris, who wants to eat all forms of plastic, especially dry cleaning and grocery bags and stray bits of fishing line. When I'm in bed in the morning and my husband is getting dressed for work, I often hear him saying to Harris, "Hey, we talked about that!" as Harris goes for the edges of the plastic bags I use to keep moths from eating my woolen clothes. Harris also found a dollop of shoe-polish my husband left on the kitchen floor the other day. Fortunately it was water-based and he just needed a foot bath. (Husband was mortified and received a yelling lecture on top of it.) 

It is never dull around here, we are continually on edge, wondering Who is going to do What next.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Janet Sabine on Park Avenue

Janet Sabine (Mrs. Frederick A. Ley), circa 1930.

Researchers are never satisfied. After finding The Brick Church in Manhattan, where Janet Sabine got married in 1945, I became curious to know more about where she'd lived as a newly transplanted New Yorker. So, soon after we got home from Manhattan, I did some online, late-night digging. 

I don't know why I often get the urge to go on a Google quest when I should be asleep, but my long nights of digging have often been profitable, and there's nothing like finally going off to bed tuckered-out but triumphant. (My first-thing-in-the-morning searches often turn up results, too.)

I already had some of Janet's New York addresses, and I knew it would probably be easy to find photos of those exteriors (and often floor plans, oddly enough), but I was much more interested in finding interior photos of her homes, of course, although I knew that finding anything online would be highly unlikely. (More than anything, I'd love to find old photos taken in my apartment or anywhere in my building, but I doubt I ever will.)

I Googled "Frederick A. Ley," and "Frederick S. Ley," which were the names of her first husband and her father-in-law. Janet married Frederick in Boston in September, 1929, and I'd already found detailed descriptions of her husband's lavish childhood birthday parties in the social pages of various newspapers. His parents were wealthy and socially prominent Manhattanites. Janet was in a similar social circle in Boston and was wealthy enough to travel and not work.

Frederick and Janet met abroad, while she and her mother Jane were taking a trip around the world following Janet's graduation from Radcliffe in 1928. The wedding announcement in The Boston Herald indicates that their wedding was a small, quiet affair. After I found the announcement, I woke up one morning wondering who had been ill. So I got up, went on Google, and quickly found the answer to my question. Jane sent a newsy letter to her Smith College class nearly every year from her graduation in 1888 to her death in 1950. Some of these annual printed booklets are available online, including the one from 1929, where Jane reported that she was on a ship heading to Europe one week after Janet's wedding, to convalesce from a bad fall she'd had in the spring. I am continually amazed at what I can find online, using public sources or sites like

To get back to my quest for interior photographs: using Google, I was astonished to find a few photos of Janet's in-laws' apartment at 280 Park Avenue, taken on January 19, 1927. Mr. Fred Ley was in the business of building elegant, multistory apartment houses in Manhattan, and his son was an engineer in the family business. Here is where he and his family lived, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, which has a collection of work by photographer Samuel H. Gottscho:

The living room.

A corner of the living room.

The dining room.

Another view of the dining room.

The hall.

It's possible that Janet and Frederick A. lived here as newlyweds. By the time of the 1930 Census, they had their own "charming" (according to mother Jane) apartment (with butler and maid) at 75 Central Park West (where the penthouse recently sold for $19 million), but they are also listed in the New York Social Register (or Blue Book) as living with his parents at this address.

There is now a 43-story office tower at 280 Park Avenue now, but it was a 17-story apartment building in the 1920s, and I believe the Leys owned it.

I'm pretty clueless about 1920's decor, so I can only describe this decorative style as Renaissance-inspired and vaguely... I don't know... Spanish?  It's "Old World" and "Romantic," and I wouldn't be surprised to see a Hollywood house from the 1920s decorated like this. Someone worked very hard to give the impression that the family had a fine old European pedigree; and, for all I know, they did have one. Whatever this look is supposed to be, it strongly suggests that the family pilfered their ancestral castle back in the Old Country to furnish their New World digs.

I'm pretty certain that the Ley family's lavish apartment was a far cry from the Back Bay townhouse where Janet grew up and where I live now. While I'll probably never know for sure, I imagine that this house was filled with classic 18th- and 19th-century New England family heirlooms, perhaps from Rhode Island and Connecticut, where Jane's ancestors lived for six or seven generations after they debarked from the Mayflower. I also imagine that the Sabines liked their decor to be fresh and up-to-date (unlike me) so they probably filled in the gaps with new furniture befitting a nice Back Bay family. That might be Colonial Revival, perhaps. I'm imagining Persian rugs, wing chairs, a high boy, and maybe a Chippendale or Queen Anne dining room suite. I know a man who visited Dr. Sabine, in what is now my living room, in the 1940s, but he couldn't give me a single concrete detail. (Men! He was 100 years old when we spoke but I don't consider that an excuse.) All he could tell me was that the house looked well-kept and reasonably up-to-date, although Dr. Sabine "showed her age."

I wonder if I'll ever find out what this place looked like when the Sabine family lived here....

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Recent Adorableness

Toffee decided to hang out on Lion's pillow to see what all the fuss was about. Unlike Lion, who has been curling up on it since her arrived, Toffee doesn't have the knack of balancing on it. So it didn't go so well.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

House of Possum

We recently watched Season 4 of House of Cards, which was so good that we decided not to binge-watch it but to lengthen the experience by rationing ourselves to two or three episodes per night. The show always gives us plenty to think about, dissect, and discuss in between viewings.

In previous seasons, and as late as last spring, we tsk-tsked at Frank Underwood for being so evil, ruthless, and power-hungry and believed the politicians who assured us that Washington was nothing like that. But the current political climate has made us realize that fact could soon be worse than fiction. Horrible as he is, Frank still seems less appalling than the current real crop of Republican candidates. In  comparison he now looks like a civilized, intelligent, seasoned, even reasonable choice compared to Trump or Cruz. It was strange and scary to watch Frank's diabolical schemings as a pleasant distraction from the real political horror show that's unfolding in our country.

The show's many plotlines are complex and packed with telling details and nuances, so we plan to watch it again to take even more from it. As Claire Underwood, Robin Wright dominates every one of her scenes, giving; even the brilliant Kevin Spacey had to work hard to keep up with her. But in spite of great performances and a riveting story, we were frequently distracted from the screen by the side-show going on in a nearby armchair.

Not many people can steal the spotlight from Frank and Claire Underwood but there's a cat who can:

Sometimes Lion got into the act:

To make room for two on the sofa, where we watched the show on a laptop, we often had to evict someone:

Or several someones:

Friday, March 18, 2016

Janet Sabine in Manhattan

My husband and I visited Manhattan in January. He was there for business and we were staying overnight with new friends of his, who told us they lived pretty close to the Met. As we walked to their place from the subway, I thought about Janet Sabine. Since it was a short visit and we already had a full schedule, I hadn't gotten around to looking up the addresses where she lived after she married and left Boston, so I could check out those buildings. I remembered that her second wedding, to a fellow Bostonian transplant (with a long pedigree and Harvard connections), had taken place in The Brick Church, which I had never seen nor heard of. I assumed it was in some Knickerbocker enclave of lower Manhattan, suitable for an old-guard society wedding. (I've read a lot of Edith Wharton.) We were uptown, so I doubted we'd have time to look it up and visit. It would have to wait for another trip.

Radcliffe College Archives, 
Arthur & ElizabethSchlesinger Library, Harvard University

We continued our walk along Park Avenue, which was taking forever because it was freezing and windy; we were suffering. I noticed a brick church across the street. I wondered which one it was. Surely there are hundreds of brick churches in Manhattan, I thought... but I made a mental note to ask our friends since they lived so close by.

It turned out that our friends have their own limestone-and-brick townhouse on a corner of Park Avenue. We hadn't known what to expect aside from their saying they had "lots of room for guests."  Indeed, we had a floor mostly to ourselves, and a balcony. A pair of flaming gas lamps flanked their glossy double front doors in fine 19th-century style. We rang the bell and a maid opened the door. It felt like stepping into an Edith Wharton novel; then our hosts appeared, welcomed us warmly, and guided us to their elevator and our room. 

All of this took some getting used to, so thoughts of the Sabines fled from my mind as we settled into the guest room and made our way down a few flights of stairs to find our friends and have tea (and pastries from the NYC branch of Kayser, maker of my favorite Paris eclairs). Their house is wonderful: modern but elegant and comfortable, and full of color, personality, and interesting art. (And there were little bowls of candy everywhere; what a good idea.) 

But as we were walking to dinner that night we passed the church, at Park and 91st again, so I asked about it. And they told me it was called The Brick Church. While I was high-fiving my husband, exclaiming, and jumping up and down, they were insisting on hearing the whole story over dinner. (We all had so much to say that we closed the restaurant.)

Photo: The Brick Presbyterian Church.

The next day, my husband and I went into the church offices and a volunteer gave us a short tour.

We learned that this was The Brick Church's third location in Manhattan, so I promptly asked for dates and figured out that Janet was married in this one, on February 3, 1945, when the building was five years old.

The church was set up for a concert, with the pipe organ in the center of the sanctuary.

Then we were taken to see the chapel and I had to wonder if their wedding took place in that more modern, intimate space instead. The guide didn't know exactly when it had been completed, but I read online that it was in 1952, so that settled that.

The chapel; I think there are usually chairs on those blue carpets.

We really enjoyed seeing the church and talking to the staff there. There serendipity of finding Janet's wedding location, along with making nice new friends, made it a memorable trip. 

On the ride home, I wondered where Janet had lived in New York, and if I might ever, possibly, by some strange twist of fate or stroke of luck, find any photos.

What do you think?

I was pleased that Janet had probably had a full-blown church wedding the second time around. Jane Sabine, her mother, had been ill in the summer of 1929, when Janet married for the first time, so her wedding, in Leslie Lindsey Chapel of Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, had been for just the immediate families.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Making a Scene

When I was in acting school, I discovered that simply seating two silent people on-stage, in front of an audience, can create instant theater. Let's see if it works for cats: