Here’s what I saw, heard, read, and did during my week off from “About Last Night”:
• I added a new piece to the Teachout Museum, a 1936 print by Louis Lozowick, a precisionist who specialized in lithography. A sharp-eyed art collector who shares my passion for prewar American modernism had suggested that I look into Lozowick, and I liked his style so much that I decided to bid on a copy of Storm Over Manhattan when it came up for auction last week. (Click on the link to see what it looks like.) Now it hangs in my living room, directly beneath Alex Katz’s Late July II. They look beautiful together.
• I decided to check out the ambient music of Aphex Twin, about which I’ve been hearing interesting things. Two of the cuts I downloaded from iTunes, “Alberto Balsalm” and “Windowlicker,” are now in heavy rotation on my iPod. (When I told my trainer that I was listening to Aphex Twin, he looked at me as if I’d suddenly grown a horn and said, “You’re listening to techno?”)
• I read Gordon Forbes’ Goodbye to Some, a World War II novel suggested to me by a reader, and the galleys of Howard Pollack’s nine-hundred-page George Gershwin biography, which comes out next month. I also reread Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, one of Our Girl’s favorite novels.
• I knocked off two Wall Street Journal columns, revised the first five chapters of Hotter than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong, and wrote the outline of an opera libretto. (Yes, that’s a teaser–I’ll tell you more later if it pans out.)
• On Tuesday I took the train to Washington, D.C., where I spent three days in conference with the National Council on the Arts.
• The NCA plays a part in the selection process for National Medal of Arts nominees, so on Wednesday I dined with this year’s medalists, among them William Bolcom, Cyd Charisse, the members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Ralph Stanley. In addition, I met Mrs. William Bolcom, better known as Joan Morris, whose singing of American popular songs I’ve admired extravagantly for at least a quarter-century. Most of the two dozen albums she’s recorded with her husband at the piano are now out of print, but you can still get this one without difficulty.
• I sat next to Cyd Charisse at dinner. She was wearing pants, so I can’t say whether her legs are as perfect now as they were a half-century ago, but I can assure you that she’s as nice as can be and that she remembers Fred Astaire with great fondness. She wanted to know if I’d seen any good musicals lately, so I told her about the Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, and had the pleasure of reminding her that one of the characters in the show mentions her by name:
From seeing all those movie musicals, I used to dance around on the street, and I’d get caught all the time. God, it was embarrassing. I was always being Cyd Charisse. Always.
• On Thursday I had breakfast with a friend about whose wedding I blogged two years ago, then went to the White House to attend a reception for the recipients of the 2006 National Medals of Arts and Humanities, who met with President Bush in the Oval Office. The rest of us made do with the First Lady, who looked cool and composed in a simple greenish-beige suit. A sextet of military musicians played Debussy and Mozart (very prettily, too) as the crowd of gogglers jostled for position.
The whole first floor of the White House was open, so I skipped the buffet and gave myself a fat-free art tour instead. The reception rooms are elegant, serene, and immaculately kept, and the windows are so thick that you can’t hear any sounds from outside. The walls are covered with paintings, most of them presidential portraits of widely varying distinction. Two are first-class, Rembrandt Peale’s Thomas Jefferson and a museum-quality 1903 portrait of Theodore Roosevelt by John Singer Sargent that hangs in a corner of the East Room. Another Sargent, The Mosquito Net, is in the Green Room. (Alas, Childe Hassam’s Avenue in the Rain, the best painting in the White House’s permanent collection, is not hung in a public area.)
I was much taken with Aaron Shikler’s glamorously introspective paintings of John and Jackie Kennedy, by far the best of the postwar portraits. The booby prize, by contrast, goes to this cartoonish study of Lyndon Johnson by Elizabeth Shoumatoff, who is best known for the fact that she was painting Franklin Roosevelt at Warm Springs one spring morning in 1945 when a cerebral hemorrhage struck him dead. Also in the room was Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd, FDR’s mistress. I bet the White House guards don’t tell that to visitors!
A year ago I was dying. I like this better.