Intimacy With Strangers

Beijing Chaoyang Park, 2008, drnan tu.

Open on woman alone in cozy living room. A sudden shattering of glass breaks the stillness as a man bursts through French doors behind her. He is hooded, all in black. He throws her to the ground. She thrashes back. Vases crash. He takes her violently and disappears.

I almost left Elle after Isabelle Huppert’s first rape scene, already skittish at the thought of returning to my New York apartment, alone with the image. Yes, I did say “first rape scene” and yes, I’m glad I stayed. Because after its brutal introduction the film, this year’s Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Film, takes an even more kinky but intriguing turn.

Crime of Passion, Yumi Kimura.

To tiptoe around full disclosure (if you have a low spoiler threshold, continue at own risk) the woman Michele, played with icy reserve by Isabelle Huppert (Golden Globe Best Actress in a Drama) has a compromised past which keeps her from reporting the incident. When the attacker returns, she rips off his hood. She knows him. Previous casual encounters have been sexually charged. And now the games begin. Rather than repulsion, violence fuels their attraction.

CAVEAT: The Sultanette does not endorse the above. Though I’m all for sampling the next course on the sexual tasting menu, violence is not my cup of tea. But the film suggests (without presenting solutions, as the French have mastered over centuries) a more nuanced story.

The Fisherman & the Siren, Frederic Leighton, c.1857.

Directed by Paul Verhoeven of Basic Instinct, Elle is a sly exploration of the implicit understanding between two beings. It toys with who we sense behind the masks (and if we need to rip them off). And shocks us into contemplating the psychological forces that trigger sexuality between two bodies.

As previously stated on this blog (to the disappointment of the horndogs among you) The Male Harem is not about sex. But intimacy? Call me an intimacy whore. An intimacy nympho. I can’t get enough of it. Not the tell-all brand of intimacy pushed by the couple’s counseling industry. In the harem, we are strangers of a sort. We don’t share to-do lists. We aren’t responsible for each other’s lives. We share precious time together but not vows to stay together for all time.

Nude Boy & Girl on Beach, c.1913, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

What fills our time is the present. It might include good food, adult beverages, a movie, music, or play. It will not include conversation concerning the price of condos, celebrity scandals, Facebook, or Monday Night Football. (A girl just gets tired of talking about balls.)

If sex happens to be a component it’s not fuck-buddy sex. As anyone in holy wedlock knows, good sex doesn’t happen on a schedule. It rises from desire that’s not required. And the good kind satisfies the libido which curbs the need to settle for the boring kind. It’s like having “I don’t need to fuck you money” in the bank.

Amor & Psyche, William-Adolphe Bouguereau,1890.

Before The Male Harem I paid my dues: two committed couplings steeped in monogamy that added up to one-third of my life. I have no complaint with mutual bonding. I believe in loyalty, trust, and having somebody’s back. What confounds me is how proficient we are at inhabiting the same four walls and ignoring each other’s essence.

We’re wired to negotiate relationships by the jobs we have, the stuff we accumulate, the offspring we perpetrate. And while these are worthy tasks necessary for survival of the species, they’re hardly conducive to exploring the rich, sometimes contradictory, endlessly surprising subtleties of another human being.

Enter Under Your Own Risk

Self-indulgent? Impractical? Fantastical? Easy, really. You don’t have to borrow on the credit card, give up gluten, or spend an hour on the elliptical everyday. All that’s required is that you mute the mobile, dismantle preconceptions, douse expectations, and get your mitts off of shaping someone into your Fred or Ginger or Tonto or Trigger.

Online matchmaking has its merits. But it’s doped us into paying more attention to algorithms than instincts. What if all those carefully curated facts distract from the untidy mystery lurking behind them? In that sense, Isabelle Huppert and her masked intruder might be onto something.


When The Going Gets Tough The French Get Dressed

Marie Antoinette dressed for the guillotine, William Hamilton, 1794.

With the end of democracy just on the other side of holiday parties, it’s time for wardrobe planning. Never mind Ivanka’s festive collection of Billionaire Shabby Chic. Or Melania trending FLOOZY FLOTUS. I share with you now, fashion tips from the French countess who knew how to dress for them all.

First stop, the Albertine Library at the French Consulate on Fifth Avenue where The Sultanette has recently become a member. What more ideal venue pour moi than one offering French literary punditry, posh surroundings, and free wine!

Comtesse Greffulhe, Philip Alexius de Laszlo, 1905.

The vin blanc was flowing the Tuesday before Thanksgiving to toast Proust’s Muse, the Countess Greffulhe. Inspired by an exhibit now at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Albertine had invited FIT director and curator, Valerie Steele, to discuss the countess’s haute persona with Proust expert, Anka Muhlstein.

From the moment Proust spotted the celebrated beauty at a garden party, according to Steele, it was le coup de foudre. Where hints of her can be found in several of his fictional characters, one conversation attributed to the countess is especially telling. Proust’s Duchesse de Guermantes sighs, “I shall know I have lost my beauty when people stop turning to stare at me.” To which her friend replies, “Never fear, my dear, as long as you dress the way you do, people will always turn and stare.”

Tsar Nicholas II had some threads. Coronation 1896, St. Petersburg, Baketti.

“Her fashions whether invented for her or by her,” the press reported, “must resemble no one else’s.” It was said that after a couturier presented his collection with fawning fanfare, she responded, “Make me anything you like as long as it’s not that.” When Tsar Nicholas II of Russia presented a court robe to her in 1896 she promptly recycled it into an evening coat.

But enough parlor talk! It was time to ditch the Consulate (not before quaffing un petit verre de vin)and head downtown for a look at the countess’s closet.

Marcel Proust in 1895, detail Otto Wegener(1849-1924).

The stunning exhibit at FIT reveals the unapologetic vanity of a complex woman. This Proust muse, patron of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, investor in Marie Curie’s research on radioactivity, and champion of political causes, had one overriding passion: to be adored.

“I don’t know that there is any pleasure comparable in the world to that of a woman who feels that she is being looked at by everybody,” she observed. “How can one live when one can no longer provoke this great anonymous caress, after having known and tasted it.”

Yet an anonymous caress was more than Elisabeth could expect from her wealthy rake of a husband. The Count Henry Greffulhe was said to have philandered on their honeymoon. (Judging from a photo of him at the show, sporting bushy beard and pointy mustache, the count would have never qualified for The Male Harem.)

NY Stock Exchange, TJ O’Halloran, Library Congress.

Where another woman might have retreated into the shadows, the countess stepped into the spotlight. Her allure was her currency and she negotiated it like a stockbroker’s portfolio. In a photograph circa 1887 she toys with the viewer – a woman in full possession of her powers, sweeping open the folds of a chinchilla evening coat to reveal her wasp waist framed in sumptuous lace. (While photography was verboten at the FIT an uninspired viewing can be found at http://bit.ly/proustsmuse.)

But the countess was not content to be a fashion icon frozen in time. A woman of true style, she embraced each new fashion twist, adapting it to her singular aesthetic.

Venetian woman with fan, Dominik Skutecky(1850-1921).

A black lace bodice circa 1885, in glass jet pearls and silk tulle, is battle-ready for the corseted Victorian times when according to the show’s description, “women were armed with fans as men with swords, and sometimes did more damage with them.”

When flappers liberated fashion in the twenties, her look went liquid. A 1925 chemise shimmers in a sea of pink and turquoise sequins under an ethereal layer of bronze netting. The minimalist chic of a black velvet gown – all sleek silhouette from tiny bodice to graceful floor-length folds – captures the elegant glamour of the Thirties.

“The Flapper” Life Cover 2/2/22, FX Leyendecker.

In 1945 when the shortage of heating during the Occupation obliged the countess to live in the servants’ quarters, she fashioned a hat from paper, cellophane, and straw, with an impish tail of woven satin ribbon – the chapeau as dragonfly.

Does style preclude substance? Can artifice tease out authenticity? What did the countess have to say for herself?

Dreyfuss Affair Cover, 10 July,1898, Henri Meyer, Bibliotheque Nat’l France.

In 1894, when an artillery officer of Alsatian and Jewish descent was convicted of treason, the Dreyfus Affair exposed anti-Semitism and ignited a freewheeling press. Emile Zola’s famous “J’accuse …” a 4500-word open letter on the front page of L’Aurore went viral, increasing the paper’s circulation from 30,000 to 300,000, the day it was published.

The Countess Greffulhe declared herself a dreyfusard. “We should have the courage of our convictions,” she said. “It is a luxury, the most important one of all.” If you’re wondering what to wear for the end of democracy, that fashion tip from the countess might be her smartest.


Proust’s Muse at New York’s FIT until January 7, is based on La Mode retrouvée: Les robes trésors de la comtesse Greffulhe, an exhibition organized in Paris by Olivier Saillard, director of the Palais Galliera, Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, repository of the countess’s wardrobe.

Photo: TheSultanette

Walking Paris

Photo: TheSultanette

Shoes on Rue de Rivoli

In Paris, everything is perfectly clear below the surface. A recording on the Metro cautions you to watch the gap in French, English, and German. Meticulously numbered and color-coded subway lines assure you’ll never end up at the Front Populaire when your destination is Chateau de Vincennes.

Station names are literary triumphs. Where New York subway stops are prosaically titled 33rd, 59th, or 86th streets, the Paris Metro gives you La Motte-Picquet-Grenelle. Emile-Zola on the khaki colored line is just two connections from Victor Hugo in royal blue. It’s all to give the illusion that you can find your way around.

Photo: TheSultanette

Concorde, where a few lost their heads getting around.

But once you ascend to Paris plein-air, your Paris Classique par Arrondissement street guide might have been written by Jacques Derrida. A sudden minefield of intersecting rues is designed to keep you forever one turn away from the Brasserie Extraordinaire. Even the grand boulevards change names every three bistros.

Paris is so elusive it even keeps the French guessing. A woman I met who lives in a toney quartier, told me she once complained to her neighbor that the neighbor’s male housekeeper was making a show of his masturbation technique at a facing window. Next day, the neighbor reported, Mais non! He was merely polishing the candelabra!

Photo: TheSultanette

A hidden cours near The Sultanette’s Paris cache

Marie Antoinette lost her head trying to get around town. When her attempt to flee the guillotine failed because her entourage missed a turn in one of the city’s medieval warrens, it fatally slowing her escape resulting in her arrest at Varenne. So determined to keep The Sultanette’s head on one crisp October morning, I left the lux garret I’m renting in the Bastille area with directions in hand.

I was scheduled to meet with the directrice générale of a prominent publisher at 11:30am (it is bourgeois to schedule a morning meeting before 11:00am) to ply her with questions about the book research I’m doing here, on one of France’s sexiest tales of illusion. (If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy the book or see the movie that Hollywood will beg the rights for.)

Photo: TheSultanette

Petit dejeuner in grand style

After breezing through my Metro connections, I had time for a serving of butter-laden carbohydrates before arriving at exactly 11:25am at the address in my email instructions. I pushed my way through the door at the street, a heavy chunk of timber fitted with wrought-iron loops and hinges that could have kept a herd of peasants at bay. It opened into a dark, cobblestone passage where I again checked my instructions: Once inside, first door to the left, sixth floor. Easy enough.

Except that the first door on the left, a formidable leaded glass affair, refused to budge. Did she mean the first door at the circle of buildings after the passageway? I advanced to the sunny courtyard and tried that first door on the left. Success! I found the publisher’s name listed in the foyer, bagged the lift and began to wind my way up the grand staircase.

Photo: TheSultanette

Ascension at the Hotel Bristol if you are so blessed.

At the summit, breathless but victorious, I rang the door bearing the publishers name. A housekeeper answered. From what I could make out of the gloomy interior, the place hardly looked like an office but maybe the French preferred a lounge atmosphere to the cubicle design. In Franglais, I announced to her who I was meeting. She looked clueless.

Now a woman arrived at the door wearing pajamas, her coiffure more boudoir than bureau. Again I explained my mission. The woman seemed to know who I was referring to and either indifferent or unmindful of her appearance, began to grill me about the purpose of the meeting.

Photo: TheSultanette

A door … to where? Paris, the 5th.

Next a man’s voice interrupted from the apartment’s dark recesses. To reach the office, the voice said, somewhat irritated, I must go back downstairs to the door at the entrance. Either that, or he told me I was a foolish, dim-witted American and should take the first avion home.

With the stunning realization that I’d rung the prominent publisher’s flat, possibly disturbing his morning coucher avec la femme, I thanked the voice for his direction, and spouting apologies to the pajama lady that would have appeared fawning in Louis the Fourteenth’s court, I retraced my steps to the original doorway.

I gained entrance with the help of a guy smoking outside (the French still shamelessly smoke and kiss in public), loped to the sixth floor, and was greeted by the directrice générale.

She was tall and slim with perfectly strayed wisps of hair framing a face that bore not a stitch of makeup as far as I could detect. Dressed in black tights and high-tops, a scarf twisted and draped around her neck with careless aplomb, she hardly met the New York Times female CEO image. But this was Paris after all, where nothing dares to appear as it seems.

Photo: TheSultanette

Tout droit in the Palais Royal.

Over the next two hours, we talked about love and sex, coupling, complicity, feminism, politics, writing, literature, and well-crafted lies. She never checked her emails, rang her assistant or responded to a text. When I confessed my earlier detour, she was amused.

Beyond the insights gained in those two hours, I experienced a near-extinct commodity. Undivided time. Maybe that’s what this city, in its frustratingly unaccountable whimsy, was able to hold close.

I thanked the directrice and made my way back to the Metro. But as I was going down the steps, I stopped. Where did I need to get to in such a hurry? I headed back up to the inscrutable streets of Paris and started walking.


Introducing the State-of-the-Art Orgasm

Vesper, Photo: Michael Topolovac/Crave

Vesper, Photo: Michael Topolovac/Crave.

You say your Apple Watch can give you an orgasm? Okay never mind then, you won’t need Objects of Desire, a tantalizing compendium of sex toys, brilliant widgets, and couture erotica you didn’t know existed, designed to inspire an orgasm you didn’t know you could have.

I had the pleasure of interviewing the book’s writer, Rita Catinella Orrell and designer, Jason Scuderi by email. What struck me was their smart and thoughtful approach to a subject that so often gets tossed in the taboo file. No, I’m not talking about sex. I’m talking about pleasure. It’s now possible to get sex at the click of a mouse or swipe of an app but pleasure isn’t so easy to manufacture.

Hello Touch, Photo Jimmyjane.

Hello Touch, Photo Jimmyjane.

I know, I know, who has the time? Pleasure requires finesse. A slowing down and savoring. A connection with the sensorial coaxed by a willingness to be present. But if there is a single theme to the book’s array of elegant paraphernalia, it can be found in the introductory quote by American designer & architect, Charles Eames. “Take your pleasure seriously.”

A look at the table of contents reveals the stunning choices. Beyond dildos so brilliantly devised they could get off a rocket scientist, the collection includes vibrators, strokers, harnesses, couture, jewelry, light BDSM, toys for every orifice, and a chapter dedicated to “A category of their own.” (If you want to know about those cheeky items, including a Swedish oral sex stimulator that beat out Samsung for a Cannes Lions in product design, you’ll have to buy the book!)

Tailbud, Photo Rosebuds SARL.

Tailbud, Photo Rosebuds SARL.

Truth told, I’ve never been one to collect an arsenal of sex toys, generally preferring human beings to batteries. But these products aren’t just clever new mouse traps. “I don’t think replacing the middle man is the goal exactly,” says Orrell. “It’s that you now have more options to customize your experience.”

Example? If your lover isn’t the brightest bulb on the marquee, try the artificial intelligence of Hum by Dimensional Industries, Inc. “This technology can respond to the female orgasm and draw out the experience,” says Orrell. The smarts? “A 3D-printed internal structure, motion sensors, and thousands of lines of code, respond intelligently to movement and touch, delivering varying frequencies of vibrations in response to how much pressure is exerted, and in return, creating an organic experience for the user.” In short, fasten your safety belt.

Blue Leather Tassel Strap & Ceramic Dildo, Photo Shiri Zinn,shirizinn.com.

Blue Leather Tassel Strap & Ceramic Dildo, Photo Shiri Zinn,shirizinn.com.

But does the spontaneity get lost in the coding? Scuderi hit my cerebral G-spot when he explained it this way: “I like to think of myself as an adult but in all reality, I also like not to grow up.” These gizmos may be highly rational but their brilliance is in their ability to provoke highly irrational results.

Scuderi was drawn to the project when his work on conventional consumer products lead him to see the “addictive, almost sensual relationship” between products and consumers. He views the entrepreneurs featured in Objects as intensifying that connection through a kind of sensorial production quality. “These are real artisans with real emotion creating seriously designed pieces,” says Scuderi. “With a dash of sex aficionado thrown in for good measure,” adds Orrell.

Minna Limon, Photo Brian Krieger/Minna Life.

Minna Limon, Photo Brian Krieger/Minna Life.

Beyond possessing state-of-the-art brains, this new age of digital widgetry is as irresistible as it is ingenious. These are sleek objects you want to hold, exciting fabrications you want to feel next to your body, and elegant accessories that dangle around your neck like the discreetly vibrating pendant on the book’s cover. Which brings me to one more quality these products embody – a sense of complicity. And Ohmibod’s Bluemotion wins in that category hands down.

Imagine your standard office cocktail party. Your date appears to be fiddling with an app on his smart phone but in fact he’s remotely manipulating a massager tucked in your Ohmibod-designed lacey thong. Depending on which functions he chooses, you are experiencing various levels of vibration as you nibble on a shrimp canapé while talking office politics with your boss. When I commented on the delicious complicity of such a concept, Orrell concurred that Ohmibod is taking “the erotic experience out of the bedroom while keeping it discreetly between the participants.”

Might complicity be life’s ultimate aphrodisiac? Is there anything more intoxicating than the stolen kiss? The clandestine interlude between lovers? And now, the Bluetooth-enabled foreplay across a crowded room? Yet as we persist upon posting, sharing, and tweeting every digital detail of our existence, are we denying ourselves the joy of secrecy?

Seduce Me Collection, Photo Jimmyjane.

Seduce Me Collection, Photo Jimmyjane.

To further research this modern conundrum, The Sultanette is about to spend a month in Paris. There, in the city that invented the cinq à sept (the witching hours reserved for rendezvous between five and seven p.m.) I will contemplate keeping secrets. (Okay, I’m writing a book about a spectacularly surreptitious French affair, but why would I tell you that!)

If a tangle offers itself at cinq o’clock, I may not refuse. But there will be oysters on the half-shell and aperitifs at the Ritz, shopping in Le Marais and book stalls along the Seine to keep The Sultanette entertained. And a state-of-the-art toy or two in the privacy of my pied-à-terre? Maybe so, but I’ll never tell. “I love products that hide secrets” says Orrell, “they are magical in a way.”


The Care And Handling Of Pussy

Dali, Photo Philippe Halsman, 1948.

Dali, Photo Philippe Halsman, 1948.

The Sultanette refers here to those beguiling furry creatures that rub against you when they’re petted and go wild when toys are dangled in front of them. Did you have something else in mind?

Back to pussies that purr, when I read last weekend’s Wall Street Journal piece, “Wild Thing,” on training your cat to get along with people, my fur went up.

Satyr Mason, Agostino Carracci, 16th C.

Satyr Mason,Agostino Carracci,16thC.

I’ve treasured two main kitty squeezes in my life. The Abyssinian Turkey, who graciously agreed to relocate to Paris with me and the Good Ex. And Oscar Wilde the Persian who obligingly put up with One&Only for seventy-two cat years. (When his sweet life ended, a friend suggested it was a shame that the vet couldn’t have sacrificed One&Only instead.)

Turkey, Oscar, and I understood the key to compatibility. We agreed that there was one thing on earth we didn’t want to be told: What to do. So when writers John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis explained that “training can help our feline companions adapt to the demands we put on them” I wondered if they’d overdosed on catnip.

Little Jam Thief, McLoughlin Bros Pub, Pearl Series, 1880.

Little Jam Thief, McLoughlin Bros Pub, Pearl Series, 1880.

Cats are aloof, the article condemns. While man’s best friend, the obsequious canine, has been nuzzling up to humans for 15,000 years, it took cats another 5,000 to show a little love. And that was only when they realized it was easier to raid the farmer’s cupboard than the steppes.

The first evidence of cats becoming companionable was 4,000 years ago in Egypt, where archeologists have found them ceremonially buried with their owners, though that might have been a final effort to get them to stay off the kitchen table.

Regardless of their attempts at becoming warm and fuzzy Bradshaw and Ellis report, “owning a cat was taken as evidence of collusion with the devil.” Even into the 17th century, they were still making mischief, resulting in an association with paganism and witchcraft that lead them to be highly suspect during the Salem witch trials.

Cleophea Holzhalb,Hans Asper,1538.

Cleophea Holzhalb,Hans Asper,1538.

But this is now. Cats are clever enough to get with the program, right? Just like the male human is in relationship lockstep? Not so fast. “Cats aren’t programmed to interact with all humans,” the Journal reports. While felines may become “genuinely fond of their owners” unlike the tail-wagging pooch, “they don’t feel the need to ingratiate themselves with every human on Earth.” Don’t we spend millions on therapy to wean ourselves off of that behavior?

Off you go! Book cover, Anonymous,1922.

Off you go! Book cover, Anonymous,1922.

Themost shocking pussy report: “Cats like to be alone.” They don’t even much like to spend time with their own breed, says “Wild Thing.” Apparently before they joined civilization “cats’contact with one another was usually limited to a few days each year during the mating season and the few weeks in which mother cats raised their kittens.” No helicopter parents here. A little sex, a little time with the kids, and it’s off to the races!

The article does allow that “the independence of cats can be part of their charm.” Unless you ask them to leave home. “Cats’ solitary, territorial nature means they are more strongly bonded to the place where they live than with any of the people with whom they share it.” Really? When Good Ex and I moved to Paris, Turkey took to the pigeons toying with her like courtesans on our wrought-iron balcony much more readily than I embraced the dominatrix behind the counter at our neighborhood patisserie. Besides, everybody know these conniving creatures pour their greatest affection on those who feed them.

Cat in a Cage,Gottfried Mind, c1800.

Cat in a Cage,Gottfried Mind, c1800.

But never mind, these failings can be trained away! If this sounds daunting, Bradshaw and Ellis reassure us that “the goal shouldn’t be to bring cats under our control” but to teach them “how to control their own behavior in a way that forges a better fit between feline nature and 21st-century human life.”

Case in point, “cats are hunters.” Yet by keeping them cooped up at home, eating gourmet cat food and sleeping in their designer cat beds while we clean the litter box, we deny them the need to capture prey. Solution? To “reduce a cat’s stress levels” play hunting games with them. Research has proven it! We may think that Snowball is playing, but “the cat seems to think that she is catching prey.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1869.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1869.

As for those anti-social tendencies, “you can also train your cat to be more accepting of its fellow felines.” If a new cat moves in next door, for instance, organize a series of play dates. This is not as easy as Tinder and we are advised “to make the introductions very slowly.” First give them a scent sample like you might sniff an insert of Obsession in Vanity Fair. Then let them check each other out from afar. When you start seeing “signs of relaxation” reward them with a “tasty treat.” Only then can you allow the experts to chase tail.

Congratulations, you have now taught your cat to conform to the 21st century. Simple enough. But by the looks of how we’ve managed love, companionship, and the pursuit of sex and happiness in the 21st-century, might we be better aspiring to the ancient, worldly feline? Single-minded. Discerning. Detached. Playful. Never ingratiating. Valuing its solitude. With a little witchcraft thrown in. That even sounds worth a few hair balls.