Hush, Hush, Sweet Scarlett! Hollywood Dominatrix Tells All!

Bazarre Honeymoon, Gregor, c1950.

A sex dungeon in Los Angeles! The aphrodisiac effect of licking a broom! A client who begs his mistress to ride a bicycle. Into him! Before you naughty people jump to the conclusion that The Sultanette engages in such behavior, blame it on Miss Scarlett.

I plead guilty only for reviewing her memoir, The Scarlett Letters (St. Martin’s Press) as reported in the revered British weekly, New Statesman, which boasts “enlightened thinking in dark times” since 1913. In fact I should be canonized for struggling through the shocking read solely for your education, dear followers. So let the enlightenment begin:

Faun & Nymph, Franz Stuck c.1904.

Over tea at a King’s Cross café, New Statesman Arts Editor Kate Mossman spoke with author Jenny Nordbak’s (aka Mistress Scarlet) about her two-year stint as an elite professional dominatrix, servicing the biggest swinging dicks in Hollywood’s entertainment world.

Nordbak’s book on the adventure, says Amazon, “explores the spectacularly diverse array of human sexuality and the fascinating cast of characters that the author encountered along the way.”

Temptation of St Anthony, Hieronymus Bosch c1500.

Take the powerful entertainment lawyer who liked to wear stockings under his suit to the office. His frustrated wife (maybe because he was putting runs in all of her pantyhose) sent him to the dungeon for a romp in stilettos to get it out of his system. Welcome to the tangled underbrush of the sexual jungle. Kinky fantasy, anyone? Guilt-ridden longing? Hideous secret?

What inspired Nordbak, a USC graduate with a day job in healthcare construction, to get into the profession? She tells Mossman she had become “tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by.” She doesn’t exactly explain how mastering the head-scissors (chocking with thighs) solved that dilemma but don’t dismiss The Scarlett Letters as another sensational tell-all. Turns out, sex between humans in dungeons calls forth truisms that you thought you could only acquire on a therapist’s couch.

Vision of St. Jerome, Bernardino Mei, c1660.

Truism #1: “The more powerful [her clients] were in life,” reports Nordbak, “the more demeaning their fantasies.” Surprised? Consider our honorable lawmakers on the Hill. One squeaky clean congressman gets caught with his pants down and the rest form a chorus of shock and horror – until the loudest protestor is discovered with a DC Madame wearing diapers.

Truism #2: “Submission is misunderstood.” Nordbak posits that “It is powerful to be submissive” because a dominatrix is “submitting to a submissive’s desire.” (Sounds like most marriages.)

Marriage, Gari Melchers,1893.

Nordbak adds that Fifty Shades of Grey got it all wrong by portraying the “desire to dominate … as some kind of affliction, something you do if you’re broken somehow.” There is great trust and great communication built between a dungeon pair, she says.

Trust and communication, what a concept. How many relationships are doomed to loveless dungeons where built-up resentments have a choke-hold on emotional freedom and monogamy is a form of bondage not a matter of choice?

English Magic Poster, Library of Congress.

Nordbak felt it was time to hang up her whips and brooms when she found herself thinking about what to have for dinner while treating a client to a beating. Now twenty-nine with a husband and baby, she credits her experience as a pro-domme for teaching her how to be assertive. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life,” she says, “if you don’t tell them?”

Truism #3: “Another person is never going to read your mind.” Short of becoming mind-readers, perhaps we could all take some tips from the dominatrix: How to ask and acquiesce, take and let go, surrender and stay true.

Snow in Hyrynsalmi by Barasoaindarra.

Christopher Ryan, New York Times Bestselling author of Sex at Dawn: How We Mate Why We Stray and What It Means describes The Scarlett Letters as “the central story of a young woman in search of her own truth.”

Our sexuality is as individual as snowflakes. What other sensation so deeply stirs our most intimate responses to pleasure and shame, power and longing, humility and vulnerability? Even our ability to love gets caught up in its tentacles. We deny the urge at the risk of denying our ineffable selves.


Love And Marriage? Or … Lovers And Marriage?

Marriage Bared, José Reyes Guillén, 2007.

I almost abandoned The Lovers at the AMC Loews Cinema when I learned I had to choose a designated seat. I stared at the offerings on the screen the ticket-seller swiveled at me. How would I know, I asked him, if the seat I chose was not behind the woman with big hair, or next to the guy smacking down a tub of popcorn, or in front of the ladies offering continuous commentary on the action? He looked at me blankly.

Choose! I had to choose! Is nothing left to chance? To his relief, I chose Seat B3 and headed up the escalator. I told the friendly girl who looked like she would have preferred any option to ripping tickets on a sunny afternoon in New York City, that if I’d known this was a seat-assignment theatre I wouldn’t have come here and I was never coming back.

All Seats Reserved! FernandodeSousa
Melbourne, CreativeCommons.

With that I entered Theatre Number Four with my ticket marked Seat B3 and settled into Seat C7. The Sultanette has never been a fan of taking orders. Good news is the seat was a cushy leather affair with electronic adjustments. I buzzed into reclining position and settled in for the ride.

As it turned out, the AMC venue offered the perfect foreplay to The Lovers because it is all about choices – the ones we make, the ones we avoid making, and especially the ones we think we’re making.

Out of Tune, Allen Lai, CreativeCommons.

Mary and Michael, played with comedic precision by Debra Winger and Tracy Letts, are long-married. Long past the resentment stage, the disappointment stage, the passion stage – too indifferent even to be bored with each other – they are tethered to the baggage of a remote past. In a reference to the piano parked in the living room that he once played back in the day, Michael says, “It’s way too heavy or it would be long gone.”

Instead of playing the piano, Michael has cultivated a pot belly. Mary’s neck is showing crepey signs of withdrawal from youth. Their house in Anywhere, California is decorated with framed memories, neatly grouped on vast blank walls. Every morning they dash around each other, separately slurping coffee before rushing off to work in cubicles. Michael stares at graphs on a computer and Mary sorts out stats for meetings in a glass-walled conference room, dressed for success but bored to death.

The Stolen Kiss, Jean-Honoré Fragonard c.1780, Hermitage.

Sound like fun? Or even familiar? Don’t abandon The Lovers yet because Michael and Mary are both involved in juicy illicit affairs with legitimate hotties. Michael does pliés with a supple ballet instructor, Susan, (Melora Walters). Mary tumbles with Robert (Aidan Gillen) a writer of impish charm. Can anyone blame them? (Well the New York Times did but that was just another of the paper’s retrograde cultural rants dressed up to look politically correct.)

When Mary and Michael aren’t indulging their libidos, they are concocting the intricate lattice of lies required to keep from getting caught – excuses that seem unnecessary since they both prefer to avoid each other’s company at all costs. This is brilliantly portrayed in a scene when fate brings them together for an evening.

TV Stattic & No Signal, Liz Sullivan, Creative Commons.

To his surprise and horror, Michael arrives home early to find Mary on the couch, staring at the TV with a glass of wine. After an awkward exchange – both searching for excuses to cover up for the lies they had originally made to see their lovers that night – Mary half-heartedly invites Michael to join her for a glass of wine. Their awkward attempt at mingling resembles kids on a first date. Except these two have spent a lifetime together.

No spoilers here, I promise! To see the provocative resolution you’ll have to go to the movie which The Sultanette highly recommends. For now let’s just say that director/writer Azazel Jacobs doesn’t let you take sides. None of the four lovers are bad or callous. They’re just lonely people with big, needy hearts. The lines between passion and a shared past, love and loyalty, promise and predictability are not neatly drawn. The affairs are more than sex. The marriage is more than routine.

Three Lovers, Géricault c.1820.

“Let’s do something normal,” Michael tells Susan one night, and next scene they are cuddling at a movie. When Robert and Mary playfully seduce one another, the sexual frisson is delicious. When feelings between Michael and Mary begin to stir, it’s more than a desperate attempt to make things right again. The comfort of normalcy, the delight of sensuality, the pulse of consistency – don’t we crave it all?

The beauty of The Lovers is that as in life, the choices aren’t always clear-cut. Sometimes you just have to sign up for Seat B3 and settle into Seat C7. When I left the movie, the friendly ticket-ripper said, “Have a nice day.”

Photo: TheSultanette

PARIS UNPLUGGED: Liberty, Equality, Jewelry!

Photo: TheSultanette

B&W in bloom from “Flora”

As if we don’t owe the French enough for teaching us how to tie a scarf, now the culture connoisseurs offer us another life lesson. No, I’m not talking about how to elect a president with the smarts to marry a woman old enough to be his mistress. I’m talking about L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels. Liberty, Equality, Jewelry!

Shortly before the French hit the polls last week, I headed to a presentation on Van Cleef’s School of Jewelry Arts hosted by the Albertine Library.

Photo: TheSultanette

The Albertine beckons

A project of the cultural services of the French embassy, Albertine is an intimate alternative to the Metropolitan Museum of Art holding court up the street. Its calendar of events features the latest in literature, dance, art, and of course philosophy (France’s Mick Jagger of punditry, Bernard-Henri Lévy, spoke there).

If you simply want to partake in the French art of dawdling, the book store is an oasis on Fifth Avenue. With its dreamy, star motif wallpaper, it could be a scene from Le Petit Prince. Comfy leather chairs, velvet settees and books in French and English ranging from graphic novels to fashion, food, architecture, literature, and politics beg you to browse.

Photo: TheSultanette

Bottoms up at “Flora”

Entering the foyer for the presentation, any doubt that I was now under French jurisdiction was dispelled when I was handed a glass (not plastic) of wine with a starched linen (not paper) serviette (not napkin). Vive la France!

I followed the chatter into the main gallery. Not a fashion victim in sight among the standing-room-only crowd of all ages – all there to learn about “Flora and the Art of Jewelry” from the jeweler who has decorated the Duchess of Windsor, Grace Kelly, and Elizabeth Taylor.

Photo: TheSultanette

Bouquet of bling at “Flora”

Two professors from L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels faculty, Inezita Gay-Eckel and Gislain Aurcremanne, briefly described the courses which attract jewelry lovers from all over the world to an 18th century Paris townhouse (details below). They then treated us to a bouquet of nature-inspired bijoux – stunning pieces designed from the fleur-de-lis, orchid, chrysanthemum, poppy and rose. (In the French romantic tradition, a red rose symbolizes love while the yellow rose allows for cheating.)

Beginning with the dawn of ornamentation – basically the fig leaf – we were transported through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Mughal Empire and Victorian times, Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods based on holdings from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. Along with descriptions of each piece’s provenance, the presentation was sprinkled with historical anecdotes.

Photo: TheSultanette

Jewels to drool for at “Flora”

If you had a few francs on you in 1887, a bargain might be yours at the Louvre fire sale – an auction celebrating the firing of the royals. With the last emperor, Napoleon III, replaced by presidents of the Third Republic, the crown Jewels went on the block. “No crown, no crown jewels” said Gay-Eckel, producing a collective gasp from the audience.

And if you think coordinating your Birkin Bag and Manolos is daunting, imagine the woman of Victorian times (the “matchy-matchy” period according to Gislain) when the lady of the house was required to coordinate her accessories with the colors and theme of her interior decor.

Photo: TheSultanette

“He loves me” … or whatever!

To the age-old dilemma, “He Loves Me” or “He Loves Me Not” the most useful French factoid concerned the humble daisy. No settling for “oui or non” here. In France, the daisy augurs six possibilities: Oui (Let’s have at it), Oui un peu (Try me), Beaucoup (What are we waiting for?), Passionnément (Why do we still have our clothes on?), A la folie (Where’s the whip?), and finally, Pas du tout (The park’s closed).

Photo: TheSultanette

Finger food at “Flora”

After consuming all that eye candy, the only possible fallback was patisserie and the reception after the lecture did not disappoint. While drooling over glass cases of exquisite baubles, The Sultanette probably grabbed a few too many yummy confections. But I’ve never regretted the extra nibble.

The Van Cleef & Arpels School of Jewelry Arts is located in the Place Vendome a stone’s throw from the Jardins des Tuilleries. Fourteen courses of four hours

are led by jewelers, art historians, gemologists, and watchmakers.

With each course limited to twelve students it’s assured that you’ll be “right up close to the Savoir-Faire.” If you’re aspiring to a summa cum laude in bling, apply now. As for lessons in savoir faire, we Americans might take a page from the playbook français as we contemplate la folie presidential.

Stay tuned for more posts in Paris Unplugged.


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100 Reasons To Love Jane

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Up Fifth Avenue from the Washington Square Park Arch

How have your last hundred days been? No doubt you’ve been engaged in peaceful reflection if not bored out of your mind from the lack of controversy, acrimony, and world turmoil.


Well just in case you’re looking for a story about little guys giving creeps their due, The Sultanette has a film for you.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is the story of a woman’s fight for urban preservation but its most stunning scene celebrates destruction. Spoiler: The bad guys get obliterated.

The slow motion collapse of failed housing projects reflects the filmic elegance of director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor). But in this latest documentary, to watch these massive structures crumple in nuclear clouds of dust and grime is to celebrate the fall of the Titans. Goliath unhinged. Money, arrogance, power … poof!

After reading Joe Morgenstern’s Wall Street Journal review last Friday, “In ‘Jane,’ a Real Urban Legend Comes to Life” I escaped to the IFC (International Film Center) to catch it on opening day. Nothing like taking in a Greenwich Village flick in the middle of a Friday afternoon to staunch the internal bleeding of a week spent manacled to the computer.

For Jane Jacobs, the city was a living breathing organism and its streets were the veins where people gathered, gossiped, watched, kissed, cried, sighed, prevailed. Morgenstern describes her as “the apostle of street life” whose work “remains a guiding light for city planners.”

In the film’s riveting narrative she confronts her dark arch rival, the “master builder, redeveloper and implacable scourge of New York neighborhoods” Robert Moses and his “wrecking-ball alliance.”

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Around the fountain at Washington Square Park

The freelance journalist, wife and mother, with no college degree or training in urban planning should have been a pushover for Yalie Moses and his power elites. Jacobs liked to pen polite articles for the Sunday Herald, Vogue and Architectural Forum, and hang out in her Greenwich Village neighborhood. But when Moses proposed to cut Fifth Avenue through Washington Square Park, an iconic Village gathering place, it was her tipping point.

Though his brutal re-shaping of the fabric and geography of the city is legendary, Moses did not succeed in that project thanks to the opposition lead by Jacobs. The Greenwich Village housewife, as portrayed by the press, was also arrested for standing up to Moses’s Lower Manhattan Expressway proposal which also failed.

Morgenstern suggests that after this victory, the film’s climax is reached and the narrative flags – shifting its focus from Jacobs to America’s urban renewal disasters that conclude with the montage of public housing projects brought down by dynamite.

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Springtime in the City at Washington Square Park

But to watch the fall of these monuments to arrogance – such failures that the only solution was demolition – is to understand that abstract models on a table aren’t always a solution for problems on the street. After hearing the cocky rhetoric of Moses and his urban henchmen, the sight of these buildings going down is proof in plain sight that occasionally the certainty of power can be just plain wrong.

The movie concludes that it was skepticism not certainty that served Jane Jacobs. Where she saw urban life as an “organized complexity” Moses looked on it as numbers on a balance sheet. “Just give them cash,” he responds when asked how he plans to gut a neighborhood to build an expressway, “They don’t own anything, so they’ll take it.” Today, her treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, is considered a bible in the field of urban planning.

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Reserved for People. No cars allowed.

When I walked out of the IFC, the Village was revving up for the weekend. Freshly released from offices and classrooms, the citizens of New York were filling up bars, bodegas, and smoke shops. Why not swing by Washington Square Park a few blocks away?

As I approached the square, I heard strains of live jazz. Students clustered on benches and around the edge of the fountain. A couple of guys huddled over a chess board while a third refereed. A row of trees burst pink blossoms along a makeshift fence. A trio of Japanese guys played Mac the Knife and a young mom balanced her teetering baby as it bounced to the music. No cell phone rants. Just jazz, laughter, and conversation. Somewhere somebody clapped.

Was it for Jane Jacobs? Without her, this turf would be ruled by traffic lights.

Don’t wait a hundred days to see Citizen Jane.


A Venice Valentine

Reflections on Venice, Dream of Venice Architecture

Roses ordered? Champaign chilling? Massage oil heating up to caress your favorite kumquat? Valentine’s Day is around the corner, intrepid paramours! If you can’t get hashtag-laid on this day of hashtag-romance you’d better reread the Kama Sutra. Or better yet, Dream of Venice Architecture, the latest dreamy installment from Venice cognoscente, JoAnn Locktov.

This bouquet of meditations on the world’s most seductive city might be all the company you need this Valentine’s Day. (And a bargain compared to the jacked-up prices you’d pay for the Lover’s Menu at your local boite.) Add to that, The Sultanette’s exclusive report on last week’s Metropolitan Museum of Art lecture, “The Brothel House of Europe: Venice on the Grand Tour” and your adult entertainment is complete.

Meandering Venice, Dream of Venice Architecture

But before we get to the brothels, some tantalizing foreplay. “What can we learn from a city that is over 1,500 years old?” poses Locktov in the opening of Dream of Venice. Her answer is an invitation to meander among its piazzas and secluded squares, passageways and bridges, accompanied by award-winning architects and designers.

No tired travel guide clichés here. Reflecting on how Venice has “inspired their work and lives, these aficionados of form and function explore the essence of a city “built where no land ever existed.” Their intimate musings tease out its timeless allure persuading us that, above all, Venice beckons.

Venice beckons, Dream of Venice Architecture

As New York-based architect, Louise Braverman describes it “at any moment, something mysteriously intriguing may happen.” Her contemplation is paired with a graceful colonnade that exists midbreath, both exposed and enclosed. Its arched ceiling offers elegant shelter from the grey mist that threatens to encroach on either side while globes of light entice the visitor to a distant encounter … with what? Whom? Be tempted at your own risk.

Venice is “tricky” offers New York architect Annabelle Selldorf next to an image of a secluded canal. Nothing is “innocent or forthright” in this city where the only thing forbidden is your inhibitions. “Deception is everywhere, perhaps with the intention of protecting a precarious paradise.” Here, as throughout the book, the stunning photography of Riccardo De Cal, an award-winning documentarian for his films on Italy’s grand artistes, evokes a delicate, ethereal power.

Knock, Knock … Dream of Venice Architecture

Constantin Boym, Chair of Industrial Design at New York’s Pratt Institute, brilliantly describes the city’s mercurial allure through its doorways, held together “only by a miracle” – each portal with “its own unique face and expression.” The accompanying image is a peacock blue door that calls to us at the end of a timeworn stone walkway like a proud, aging courtesan.

Did I say courtesan? Time for the promised report (as if you forgot) on “The Brothel House of Europe: Venice on the Grand Tour” at the Metropolitan Museum. “Don’t say the Met never offers something scandalous,” Kevin Salatino, director of Art Collections at The Huntington Library and expert on Venice licentia began this fascinating lecture. And after he warned the audience of upper eastside ladies-who-lunch that it contained licentious language, The Sultanette was all ears.

In the eighteenth century, British aristocrats-in-training were sent on a pilgrimage to the continent, a “Grand Tour” designed to transform the future Earl of Beef Wellington from provincial twit to worldly twit. And while Rome was the main event, Venice was the requisite detour.

Venice adorned, Dream of Venice Architecture

It boasted more theaters than any city in Europe and its fading republic was an inspired example to aspiring custodians of the empire. But most likely its popularity was based on the famous description of parliamentarian George Selwyn: “Venice is an exquisite courtesan.” Or reports like the gentleman visitor who warned that “the wickedness of that place is beyond all imagination.” Most alarming was the unsettling habit of Venetian society to wear masks, not just during the depraved month of Carnival but a full five months preceding it!

No wonder it was a favorite hangout of Casanova and de Sade. And a refuge for woman like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who escaped her husband to live with a lover half her age. Venice is the place to be, she advised a friend, “if a woman has any mind to be wicked.” Lady Wortley even promoted the mask as an anti-aging device – the perfect camouflage for a ripening coquette’s wrinkles.

Venice socialites, Dream of Venice Architecture

Venice was the place to let your hair down and everybody got into the act. Along with its fabled courtesans and prostitutes, nuns were known to entertain in the cloister. There was a rare tolerance of homosexuality, cross-dressing was a sport, a unisex mask costume made gender-bending de rigueur, and the castrati, according to Salatino, were the rock stars of the day. Simply breathing the air of Venice was a threat to your moral turpitude.

But more than its lusty charms – beyond its escape from suffocating propriety and society’s expectations – what Venice really offered was an invitation to follow the distant globe of light, open the unfamiliar doorway, pursue the precarious paradise. The invitation lives on, perfectly expressed in its network of hidden passages, the sotoporteghi.

Precarious Paradise, Dream of Venice Architecture

Dream of Venice Architecture contributor, and publisher of Renaissance Rules.com Randy Bosch takes us down these “narrow, twisting, dark and mysterious tunnels bored through ancient existing buildings.” Like a subterranean force field, “they conspire with crooked bridges and offset streets to link islands never intended to join.” To follow them is to risk the unknown, says Bosch, but the reward is “wonders reached only through them.”

Let those in need of predictable romance have their wilting roses. If you’re looking for a romance with life this Valentine’s Day, The Sultanette recommends taking a dive between the covers of this voluptuous guide to the heart of Venice.