Category Archives: Understanding The Olden Days

Understanding The Olden Days: Cafe Society

If you’ve heard the term “cafe society” you may not know that it references a society and a time period, mostly in Europe, from about 1920 to 1960 and not just hanging out at coffee houses.

You may then  assume that cafe society was made up of writers and artists who hung out in Paris during this time period (you know, the ones we always hear about) and you would be somewhat correct – many of them moved in this circle, or at least on the periphery of it – but mostly this society was closed to people like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and more open to writers like Truman Capote and Noel Coward. Why?

Because Capote and Coward devoted a fair amount of their time to being charming, going to the right parties and befriending the very wealthy in order to better their stations, which is a big part of what cafe society was all about.

But let’s start at the beginning.

“Cafe society” was first a term given to the “bright young things” who gathered in cafes and restaurants beginning in the late 19th century in places like Paris, New York and London. So that’s the “cafe” angle. They were not always part of the Establishment but rather people with money and therefore no need to work or artists who had attracted the attention of society for being brilliant, witty, charming or all of the above.

Cafe society was made up of sets of people – circles within circles, if you will. The main group was the noblesse oblige, also known as the “Windsor Set” after the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (aka Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson). These were people of means who went to each others’ dinners and balls, went yachting and traveling together and basically tried to keep from being bored by throwing parties, gossiping and having weekend stays at each others’ country houses.

A second group was comprised of socialites and society figures who served to set the tone. They weren’t necessarily the “big guns” in terms of birth or wealth but they had money and definitely went to the right places, hung out with the right people and sometimes made good marriages that bettered their station.

A third set was comprised of artists, writers, photographers, magazine editors, etc. who were very talented and so had caught the eye of the movers and shakers in the scene who often became their patrons, providing them with money, commissions and places to stay. These were people like Cecil Beaton, for a time Truman Capote (before he lost his footing), Jean Cocteau, Noel Coward, etc.

The fourth circle was made up of escorts, seducers, Don Juans and gigolos. It was not a bad thing, necessarily, to be an escort on the cafe scene. What this meant was that you were either the long-term lover of a married man or woman and therefore had your own station in life or that you were a favored, platonic friend who received benefits like an apartment or invitations to the right parties. Escorts sometimes started out as someone’s gigolo and then became a trusted adviser and friend. The origins and pedigrees of many of these people were often unknown – they simply came onto the scene and gave it everything they had.

It was maybe better to be an escort than to be in the fifth circle – fashion icon. These were people with no background or standing whose sole purpose in life seemed to be to be seen in the magazines and at society events. Think reality TV stars, if you want a comparison within today’s world. Kim Kardashian, Lauren Conrad, Paris Hilton and Heidi Montag would all fill this role.

Cafe society was the point in history when social classes did start to mix and one was more likely to find an eclectic mix of people at the parties but it was also marked by snobbery not often based on wealth. It was a time period and group of people often described as chic, romantic, tragic, snobby, cosmopolitan, superficial, louche (which is a word that doesn’t get used often enough in general) and depraved.

To understand cafe society, one has to understand the worldview of the very rich during this time period. Many of the top members of this society were people who inherited money and had never worked a single day of their lives. This group included Europeans, American and South Americans. Some of the people in cafe society were aristocrats with titles but many were what was called the nouveaux riches – people with new money and lots of it.

The nouveaux riches served a great purpose for the aristocracy – they pumped in much-needed cash from enterprises like pewter mines and sewing machine empires,  in exchange for noble names. Many American heiresses married princes and dukes for this express reason. Some socialites “worked their way up through successive nuptials until they managed to cast off all financial cares.”

How did one spend one’s time in cafe society? A lot of hours went into planning and attending balls. These balls were themed and often required elaborate costumes. Here is a listing of some of the balls from throughout the era:

The White Ball
The Sea Ball
Colonial Ball
Famous Paintings Ball
Tricentenary of Racine Ball
Kings & Queens Ball
Moon Over Water Ball
Proust Ball
Second Empire Ball
Oriental Ball
Goya Ball
Beistegui Ball (thrown by Charles de Beistegui in 1951 and considered to be the “ball of the century”)

Also taking up one’s time in cafe society: speed boating, car racing, hunting to hounds in England, skiing in Gstaad, partying on yachts and at country homes, partying in Paris, partying in North Africa, Italy and on the French Riviera. And don’t forget “hunting antiques” – interior decorating was a major past time and often something people got competitive over. Ball-of-the-century-thrower Charles de Beistegui, who sounds like a prick (he never “paid court” to any woman below the rank of duchess) devoted his time and money to putting himself in the spotlight and decorating. He was described as “the Don Juan of interior decorators.”

Married couples were united mainly by the convenience of mixing titles and fortunes and by their love of art and the social whirl. Often, that’s as deep as their relationships went – they both got excited about decorating the Paris mansion but when it came time for deep conversation or sex they turned to escorts and lovers, often of the same sex. A lot of people in marriages in this society were gay. And this wasn’t a shameful thing. Other people knew and didn’t really care except that they got to gossip about it. In a way, homosexual relationships alleviated boredom for those in the relationship and those who got to hear about it.

For example, Count Blunt was “bowled over by a footman named Cecil Everley and from then on divided his time between his wife and Everley, for whom he bought a New York apartment and a villa on the Cap d’Ail.” And the Duke of Kent was known for his love of cocaine, morphine and lovers of both sexes, including Noel Coward. Jean Cocteau, well-known as a homosexual, had an affair with Natalie Paley. Parisian grande dame Marie-Laure de Noilles had an steady stream of relationships with gay men after she caught her husband with his gymnastics trainer and decided to “live independently.”

One of the best examples of a truly Parisian menage a trois in which everyone – wife, husband, lover – was accommodated was Arturo Lopez-Willshaw, his wife (and cousin) Patricia Lopez-Huici and Alexis de Rede. Arturo had married Patricia because he wanted children but they failed to have any. He fell in love with Alexis in New York during World War II and installed him in the Hotel Lambert in Paris after the war. He then divided his time between Alexis and Patricia, who lived in a mansion in Neuilly.

When Arturo bought a yacht, he made sure that both Alexis and Patricia had cabins on board. When he died, the estate was divided between his lover and his wife, who had become friends, and Alexis worked to ensure the growth of the fortune by going into banking and setting up Artemis, an investment fund specializing in the purchase, exhibition and sale of fine art.

This doesn’t sound too bad.

However, not everyone was as determined as Alexis de Rede to leave something, a business, inheritance or art, behind. In fact, cafe society was marked by many people who simply wanted to spend all their money on a lavish lifestyle – the prime example being the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who led empty lives of snobbery, perfection and boredom surrounded by friends and hangers-on but who left no legacy, who did not contribute to anything or launch the careers of any fashion designers, artists, etc. For many people in this circle, their lives were their art and they treated their days and nights as performance, which was probably a lot of fun while it lasted.

C’est la vie!

Some interesting characters from cafe society:
Alexis de Rede
Barbara Hutton (dubbed “Poor Little Rich Girl”)
Mona Bismarck
Daisy Fellowes
Cristobal Balenciaga (Spanish couturier who dressed the finest ladies in the world)
Diana Vreeland (eventually editor in chief of Vogue)
Cecil Beaton
Emerald Cunard (and her daughter, Nancy)
Noel Coward (who didn’t this guy sleep with?)

Some hot cafe society reads (if you can get your hands on some of them):

The Glass of  Fashion by Cecil Beaton (and anything by Cecil Beaton, including his diaries)
Chips: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (known as Chips because his room mate at school was nicknamed “Fish”)
Poor Little Rich Girl: The Life and Legend of Barbara Hutton
Snob Spotter’s Guide – Philippe Jullian
Opium by Jean Cocteau
Cafe Society: Socialites, Patrons and Artists by Thierry Coudert (which helped a lot in this post!)
Riviera Cocktail by Edward Quinn

The Poor Rich One - Barbara Hutton





Understanding The Olden Days: TB

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books about the past and, in such books, tuberculosis (TB) often comes up. If you don’t understand what TB is, your enjoyment of books about the olden days might be diminished. I’ve decided to do my part to improve your chances of enjoying reading about the past by demystifying one of the most common old-timey diseases.

TB is a contagious bacterial infection that mainly involves the lungs, but may spread to other organs. You can get it by breathing in air droplets from a cough or sneeze from an infected person. So this is one of several reasons you don’t want someone to cough on you or sneeze into your face when, for example, you’re riding the bus.

When one contracts TB, there aren’t necessarily any symptoms. In fact, there may never be any. According to Wikipedia, “Most infections in humans result in an asymptomatic, latent infection, and about one in ten latent infections eventually progresses to active disease…”

If you’re one of the unlucky ones whose TB progresses, this is how it works – you’re living your life, worrying about what to make for dinner or if you’re going to ever get that raise at work when you develop a cough. Eventually, your cough will produce mucus or blood. Coughing up blood should get your attention, tipping you off to the fact that something is very wrong. You’ll also be tired, sweaty and lose weight effortlessly. Further along, it will be hard to breathe and there may be chest pain, wheezing, fluid around the lungs and crackling sounds when you breathe.

But what’s happening in your lungs? Well, the bacteria sets up shop in the lungs ( these are called tubercles) and your body sends out cells that form granulomas (kind of like lesions) around them to prevent them from spreading further. So if you get an x-ray, they will see these little masses in your lungs. What can happen is that these granulomas  can cause cell death in the tubercles and this stuff, called necrotic material, “has the texture of soft white cheese.” I believe this is the mucus-y stuff you’d be coughing up, and which earned TB the nickname of the White Plague. If the TB bacteria gets into your bloodstream, it can set up shop and form tubercles in other tissues. This seems like a major bummer.

Also, tissue that is ravaged by TB is replaced by scarring and cavities filled with that necrotic stuff – thus greatly reducing lung capacity. In the book I was just reading about the 1920s, a boy with TB had one of his lungs purposely collapsed by getting injections of gas (a thick needle was inserted under his arm and between his ribs!)  that surrounded and collapsed it in the hopes that immobilization of the lung would stop the spread of the disease.

It would be best, at this stage, if you enclosed yourself in your house or went off to live in a tent, so as to avoid infecting other people. Today, treatment involves being on a series of drugs to fight the bacteria. This is why TB was such a huge bummer before antibiotics – there were no drugs to take.

This is a great example of why it’s not such a great idea to romanticize the past. If you got TB in, say,  the 1920s, it was Welcome to Doomsville. “In 1815, one in four deaths in England was of consumption; by 1918 one in six deaths in France were still caused by TB. In the 20th century, tuberculosis killed an estimated 100 million people.” This is why it’s so prevalent in books about, or written in, the past. And it really was a death sentence. You’d go off to the sanitarium in some mountainous setting (they believed cool, thin air was best to slow the disease and “rest, sun and fresh air” were often the only treatments offered), sometimes for years, and lie in your “cure chair” and try to breathe. Even if one managed to recover, the bacteria would still be in one’s lungs, lurking, ready for a recurrence at the most inopportune time, like when one just met the love of one’s life and was going to get married and have a huge family and live on an estate.

Old-timey tip: When reading books about the past, you will often see reference to people dying of “consumption.” This is TB. For years, this confused me when I was reading. They often called TB “consumption” because sufferers wasted away, their bodies seemingly “consumed” by the disease. They also talked believed people became euphoric or experienced a burst of energy just before they died of consumption but this is likely one of those disease myths – women became more beautiful and men more creative. Ha!

So antibiotics have saved us, right? Well, yes and no. Antibiotics were great at first but, as so often happens, the TB bacteria are increasingly resistant to our drugs and have always required a cocktail of drugs. Wiki says, “The proportion of people who become sick with tuberculosis each year is stable or falling worldwide but, because of population growth, the absolute number of new cases is still increasing.” Granted, TB in the U.S. is pretty rare and there is a vaccine, although we don’t use it that much here due to this low rate of incidence.

One thing people can do to keep TB (and other communicable diseases) down is stop coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths – especially at home and work. It’s actually not that common to get TB from a stranger but more common to get it from someone you’re exposed to often. Anyway, one sneeze contains 40,000 droplets of spit… 40,000 little spit daggers loaded with bacteria! Is it really so hard to raise your hand or arm to your mouth to cover it while coughing or sneezing?

Also – stop spitting, people! I was in the park yesterday and some guy spit on the walking path as I walked by. Really? It’s so hard to swallow your spit? Does it hurt your throat? I’ve never understood this compulsion. The other afternoon, while I was enjoying the June weather on my front porch, my neighbor across the street came outside, sat down on his front steps and proceeded to hack and spit about 18 times, spraying his front lawn with mucus-y wads. This is what he needed to do on a gorgeous spring afternoon?

Want to do your part to stop TB? Stop being gross.