06/7/16

Sex Talk 101. Will you pass or fail?

Miss Moneypenny negotiates.

Miss Moneypenny negotiates.

“This is important to me. How can we create a situation that is comfortable for both of us?”

Talking points for your annual employee review? No, this is pillow talk as reported in the May 31 Wall Street Journal piece, “The Question About Sex So Many Men Have Asked” by Elizabeth Bernstein.

S Wheeler Toilet paper, US patent illus,1891.

S Wheeler Toilet paper, US patent illus,1891.

Note the diplomatic use of “we” vs. “you.” (No more accusatory phrases like, “I want you, you dirty sexy beast.”) And no more delirious spontaneity. Jumping your partner on a random Sunday afternoon has been replaced by “sitting down to solve the problem together.” What was once a reckless escape from daily life is now a domestic chore like changing the toilet paper roll.

As for the sex question so many men want to know? A study by the Universities of Toronto and Western Ontario just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals the startling truth: “Women may want more sex than their husbands or partners think.”

Shopping at Agent Provocateur.

Shopping at Agent Provocateur.

Easy to say but how to drag Dagwood away from the football game for a bodice-ripping timeout? Forget parading in front of the tube in your latest confection from Agent Provocateur. The Wall Street Journal report quotes that couples should: “Communicate – not just about when they want to have sex or what they like but also about what signals they use to show their desire.” Does congress put that much effort into the national budget?

And speaking of getting screwed, the article also suggests that you “consider having sex if you’re not in the mood.” Formerly known as “faking an orgasm” research now dubs it “sexual communal strength.” It’s a proven fact that “people in long-term relationships who do this … are better able to maintain their sexual desire over time.” So the more you do it when you don’t want to do it, the more you’ll want to do it!

Punching the Clock, Philly,1942, Marjory Collins, Library of Congress.

Punching the Clock, Philly,1942, Marjory Collins, Library of Congress.

If you can’t fake it ’til you make, consider scheduling sex. Here’s how: “Explain that you find your partner attractive and want to be intimate just not at the moment. And promise to find another time.” (Your Google calendar might be helpful here.)

“It doesn’t sound romantic” the Journal observes. But Amy Muise, a University of Toronto postdoctoral fellow says, “It lets you plan and get psyched about it.” You might think Amy is talking about creating that warm tingling feeling that begins in the loins and fills the body with a sense of urgent anticipation. Not exactly. Dr. Muise prefers to think of the sensation as “pre-negotiating a good time.”

Rendezvous, Konstantin Somov (1869-1939), Oil on canvas, 1918.

Rendezvous, Konstantin Somov (1869-1939), Oil on canvas, 1918.

When did sex go from reckless surrender (the French call it la petite mort) to a dilemma that needs to be examined until all the lust is x-rayed out of it? Speaking of the French, one solution to weathering slumps in the marital mattress touted by those frisky philanderers (men and women alike) is the discrete affair. Like a vacation from a demanding job, when the affair packs up, the adulterer comes home recharged. (“Mon dieu! You are such the insatiable rascal tonight, cheri(e)!)

I know what you’re thinking. What does the Sultanette of a male harem know about keeping the flames fanned with a significant other? May I remind my voyeuristic followers that before curating this mentourage, I spent time in the trenches? Once the explosive passion cooled to a sizzle with One&Only, I settled down to fifteen diligently faithful years of pleasurable but predictable sex. Looking back, if I’d known it would go south, would it have hurt to take a few hot detours along the way?

Sex Experts?

Sex Experts?

I don’t knock going for marriage refresher sessions with a good therapist. But how did getting sexual pleasure evolve into a pass-fail course conferred by academia? For prepubescents, the subject of sex as a body-rocking turn-on is considered pornography. When we’re old enough to enjoy it, wired with guilt and shame, we’re treated to psychobabble from institutions of higher learning to fix it.

Love in the Afternoon, Cooper & Hepburn, 1957.

Love in the Afternoon, Cooper & Hepburn, 1957.

Might there be more effective ways to get a bang for your buck than a university sex study can recommend? How about telling the office you have a family emergency, turning off all electronic devices, and stealing a few hours at the No-Tell Motel with partner, lover, or gardener. If you’re looking for a better idea, get a subscription to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and dive between the spreadsheets.

05/11/16

Where Have All The Playboys Gone?

Giove seduces Olimpiade, fresco, Giulio Romano.

Giove seduces Olimpiade, fresco, Giulio Romano.

I remember the Playboy Mansion like it was yesterday. Gotcha, salacious followers! Okay, The Sultanette never wore Bunny ears and cottontail though I’ve been known to don the random, ribboned corset. And I did press my face against the wrought iron gate of Hugh Hefner’s Chicago chateau at 1340 North State Parkway in hopes of spotting a louche Leporidae.

Freshly graduated from Dairy State U, I was living up the street in a mansion that had been converted into apartments. On weekends, my roommates and I joined the throngs along Chicago’s Gold Coast single’s bars searching for Sex-in-the-Second-City.

Rush Street, ink, Scott Nazelrod.

Rush Street, ink, Scott Nazelrod.

When I found it on occasion, in a haze of marijuana-inspired gropings (The Sultanette never inhaled) it seemed hardly a match for the sybaritic antics at the mansion. Not that I had aspirations to serve cocktails in bunny drag to ogling James Bond wannabes. But Hefner’s televised series, Playboy After Dark, featuring girls with torpedo tits and perfect flips draped over Barcelona sofas enjoying laid-back flirtations with cool celebrities, seemed more compelling than suffering boilerplate come-on’s in the din of Rush Street’s beer palaces.

May ‘58 Playboy Playmate of the Month, Lari Laine & Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie & Harriet.

May ‘58 Playboy Playmate of the Month, Lari Laine & Ozzie Nelson on Ozzie & Harriet.

I was reminded of the Playboy heyday upon reading Christopher Turner’s review of the phenomenon’s recent interpretations, “If you don’t swing, don’t ring” in the London Review of Books. If the same publication that holds forth on Sartre, Freud and Descartes can spill ink on Hefner’s “Playboy Philosophy” it’s worth a shout-out from The Sultanette.

Full frontal disclosure, I do have insider’s info on the Playboy days from the first Bunny costume design meeting to eggs with Lenny Bruce in the mansion’s breakfast nook. Nothing you can’t find in a memoir I collaborated on (unless you count the unpublished bits I’ll never reveal) with the artist LeRoy Neiman, “Hef’s” lifelong friend and Playboy Magazine contributor.

Memories of rich conversation while working on All Told with LeRoy are as potent as the aroma of the Cuban he puffed on everyday after lunch, its precarious ash accumulating as each story unfolded. But that’s another story. If you want to know how a Depression kid went from WWII GI to partying with Salvador Dali, cavorting with Sinatra, and sketching Muhammad Ali, Amazon awaits your order. For now, it’s Playboy’s art of sex for seduction sake I invite you to consider.

At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo, oil on canvas, 1892, Edvard Munch.

At the Roulette Table in Monte Carlo, oil on canvas, 1892, Edvard Munch.

When Hef conjured up the idea that LeRoy would set up studios in Paris and London and record his experiences in Man at his Leisure, the magazine’s column became his Playboy Philosophy writ large. From nude beaches to Ascot, Paris discos to the casino in Monte Carlo, the life of a jet-setting bon vivant embodied “The Man Who Reads Playboy.”

While LeRoy was gallivanting, Hef was playing lord of the bachelor pad in his pipe and silk pj’s. Turner writes that his third floor bedroom with its “circular rotating (and vibrating) bed” served as Playboy HQ. If he didn’t invent the man cave, he furnished it. Playboy’s first editorial declared, “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”

Is there a sapiosexual in the house? Bookish Playboy.

Is there a sapiosexual in the house? Bookish Playboy.

Stop! When did the seduction playbook change? While The Sultanette may not require beluga or a discourse on Karl Marx to surrender her accouterments, how about a subject, a verb, and some savoir faire? And when did we become so authentic we lost our sense of irony? I would still prefer a tongue-in-cheek quip like, “I know a spot with some decent Bordeaux, good music, and rare filet mignon. My place?” to a “What’s up?” on WhatsApp, i.e., “Want to grab a drink and my dick?” Note to prospective Male Harem members: A text is not foreplay.

In Danger of Being Seduced, litho, 1855, Berlin.

In Danger of Being Seduced, litho, 1855, Berlin.

Once in the door, according to Playboy’s “25 Steps to the Perfect Seduction” a mandatory piece of furniture is the bar trolley which “permits the canny bachelor to remain in the room while mixing a cool one for his intended quarry … “. In that vein, while Canny Bachelor is fumbling to undo Intended Quarry’s bra strap after a libido-lubricating conversation about Kierkegaard, his couch flips to horizontal at the touch of a button. Brilliant solution to the hazards of martini spillage on the commute to the boudoir.

The last official Playboy Club (Manila) closed in 1991. The sixty-year-old Playboy centerfold was inevitably eclipsed by online porn. But where have all the playboys … and playgirls gone? In a world of multi-tasking is there no place for an intermezzo with a chéri(e) amour? A stylish caper with a sig other in the midst of life’s daily barbarism? The thrill of complicity between consenting adults seeking mutual plunder?

Allegorical Scene, oil on canvas, Konstantin Makovsky.

Allegorical Scene, oil on canvas, Konstantin Makovsky.

Curiously, non-American men, seem to more readily embrace the concept that sex is an event that occurs before penetration, and that seduction involves gamesmanship. (Due credit to The Impresario.) American men, like good capitalists, just want to get the job done so they can concentrate on boosting the GNP and watching baseball. In their befuddled efforts to treat women as equals like they’ve been told, they’ve gone from behaving like gentleman to jocks.

In 1967, Hef fitted out a black DC-9 jumbo jet with the Bunny logo on its tail and christened it the Big Bunny. “It was a penthouse on wings,” Turner writes, “with dance floor, screening room, wet bar, sleeping quarters for sixteen and an elliptical bed for Hefner covered in Tasmanian opossum skins.” The last time we saw anything close were the bar stools on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis, upholstered with the foreskin of the minke whale.

“The Flying Nun” Sister Aquinas,1943, DC.

“The Flying Nun” Sister Aquinas,1943, DC.

The plane, alias “Hare Force One” was sold in 1976. Its latest clone was the private jet of “King of Good Times” Vijay Mallya, who stamped his initials in gold on the wingtip. It was verified to me in droll conversation with a former passenger (don’t ask) that babes were frequent flyers. But recent news that the roué’s misspent lifestyle has landed the plane on the auction block by Indian tax authorities could mean the demise of flying the horny skies.

Is it the end of getting high on seduction? Turner writes that Hugh Hefner founded Playboy with a loan from his mother who had hoped he’d become a missionary. If instead, he became minister to the Church of The Glorious Chase, get me to the nunnery.

03/2/16
PHOTO: TheSultanette

Redress For Success

Photo: TheSultanetteI didn’t want to like Jacqueline de Ribes. Just another hotel-particulier-born French woman with fabulous clothes. She even knew how to do an honest day’s work, not that you can compare running a fashion house to flipping burgers. But it was time The Sultanette raised your bar with another installment of CULTURE SNATCH, so I headed uptown to take a look at Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style at the Costume Institute of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The introduction to the exhibition only fueled my animosity. It drooled of her “relaxed confidence and precocious sophistication” at once “noble and mysterious.” Avedon adored her nose. She was on Capote’s A-list of “swans.” Her profile was more photographed than the Taj Mahal.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

The red and the black.

But as each spotlighted mannequin emerged in the darkened gallery, revealing another side of de Ribes, I succumbed. “The fact is there are at least fifteen Jacqueline’s,” Carolina Herrera said of her, “all of them fascinating.” She knew who she was. Every one of her.

Jacqueline de Ribes was born on 14 July, 1929, anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Her parents favored yachts over children. Her grandfather who doted over her died when she was nine. “He was the only one who loved me,” she tells Amy Fine Collins in her Vanity Fair profile, “The Last Queen of Paris.” With the outbreak of World War II, she and her siblings were shuttled with nanny and governess to safe havens outside Paris shared with occupying German troops.

PHOTO: The Sultanette

Backless but not tactless.

When she was eighteen she met Vicomte Edouard de Ribes whose ancestors had financed La Nuit de Varennes, the ill-fated attempt (depending on whose side you are on) at Marie Antoinette’s escape from the guillotine. Two years later she became Vicomtesse de Ribes and set about escaping the strictures of a bourgeois marriage and her reactionary father-in-law. She skied in Saint-Tropez, hosted black-tie dinner parties in the wing of her in-laws 19th-century Parisian residence, and dazzled the beau monde with her singular style.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Dressed up goose down.

It was a successful arrangement. After sixty-two years of marriage, she tells Fine Collins, “To catch my husband is not easy. He thinks that he can’t catch me either. This is the secret of the couple. We love each other – but we agree we need independence. Sixty-two years with the same man is not so easy! It’s marvelous when you can manage to make it work. There are so many different ways of loving. How can you know someone is the best if you cannot compare? The French attitude of marriage, couples, love is complex.”

One distraction was the “Ball of the Century” – the masked Bal Oriental orchestrated in 1951 by flamboyant and filthy rich Charles de Beistegui. On the way to the event at Beistegui’s Palazzo Labia in Venice, hoards of invading Rolls Royce’s caused bumper-to-bumper traffic on Switzerland’s Passo del Sempione.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Haute Oriental.

Among the thousand guests photographed by Cecil Beaton were the Aga Khan III, Barbara Hutton, Orson Welles, the Duchess of Devonshire and the Princess de Polignac. Dior and Dali designed each other’s costumes. Lady Diana Cooper showed up as Cleopatra. For those who appreciate men with hoses, a brigade of Venetian firemen formed a human pyramid in the grande salle.

Anyone care to sign up? But the glitterati wasn’t enough for de Ribes. Nor was Capote’s anointing her one of society’s swans. “The swans of the times of Truman Capote did nothing,” she tells Robert Murphy in a Bazaar interview. “They did not work. They didn’t fight for life.” At the Met show, she is quoted as saying, “I am not a lady who lunches.”

PHOTO of photo: TheSultanetteShe had dipped a toe in the fashion world “apprenticing” for Cassini and Pucci. Diana Vreeland had arranged a photo shoot with Richard Avedon. Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent were confidantes. In 1956 she was voted into the International Best-Dressed List and in 1961 to the Hall of Fame. In 1982 on her fifty-third birthday, she informed the family that she was going into business as a fashion designer.

“Whatever I did in life it was against,” she tells Fine Collins, “Nobody ever approved.” The Sultanette can always get behind a contrarian vicomtesse. But as I took in the show, I grew to admire more than a spunky aristocrat’s metal. This babe knew how to put herself together. I liked … mea culpa! … the way she looked.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Demure meets décolletage.

Today admiring a professional woman’s appearance is met with a flurry of reprisals: It’s politically incorrect, demeaning, objectifying! A man is never described by the clothes he wears! The fashion and beauty industries are in cahoots with craven media moguls to keep women enslaved to unattainable standards! A woman who wafts around the workplace like a female won’t earn the respect of male peers!

Who says? Maybe that works until a woman steps up, stops listening to chauvinists of both sexes, and reveals all – balls, brains, and bling. If she is subliminally judged by the men’s club, so what? Following the rules like good girls never got us anywhere. I’m not suggesting that a professional woman undermine her dignity. Only that she takes control of the definition.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Polka dot disruption.

De Ribes’s haute sexuality was born of self-assertion. She exudes the enigmatic, intangible power of a female who follows her own rules. In all their back-slapping, gonad-bonding bravado men still find that confounding, perplexing, and baffling. They have been brought up as rational beings, poor left-brainers, perhaps that’s why they have so much trouble controlling their penises.

PHOTO: TheSultanette

Bows take a bow.

Yes, de Ribes existed in a milieu when a woman’s power was equated with her presence. Yes, women were shut out of male-dominated professions. Indeed, that right of entry has been, and is justifiably fought today. But if there is a war between the sexes does that mean we dismantle our nuclear allure?

I arrived at the final gallery of the exhibition, an homage to the glitterati’s glam orgy at the Bal Oriental. It may have been the romp of the century for some but for de Ribes such affairs were to be taken seriously. “Balls were not for one’s amusement,” the show quotes her as saying, “They were for being ravishing.” If you’re going to shatter the glass ceiling why not dress for it?

Jacqueline de Ribes: The Art of Style closed on February 21. Vigée Le Brun: Woman Artist in Revolutionary France is hot on her heels at the Met until May 15. Look for The Sultanette’s CULTURE SNATCH to come.

01/26/16

Do You Want Sex Or Düsseldorf?

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

Prostitutka, Boris Grigoriev, 1917.

The World Happiness Report is out! In its third survey since 2012, the United Nations reveals the happiest places on earth. Or so they say, reports John Kay in, “Why ‘happy’ is boring.”

I spotted Kay’s piece in the Financial Times Weekend last September, just as I was escaping New York City for three months in England. According to the UN, I had the wrong country. The winner was Switzerland. (We’re getting to Düsseldorf, intrepid globetrotters, restrain yourselves!)

As Kay assesses the findings, “Switzerland is rich, temperate and has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. … You feel completely safe in the streets. And yes, the trains run on time.”

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

“You can have that, I have plenty.” Heidi, Jessie Wilcox Smith illus.

Security, consistency, and the goodness of nature. That would be enough to seduce any sentient being, right? Isn’t this why so many retirees flock to golf courses? Or babysit grandchildren? But Kay has another take on the Alpine paradise: “Boring.”

Kay’s recent book, Other People’s Money was named 2015 Book of the Year by the Economist, Bloomberg and the FT. In 2014, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) “for services to economics.” But what does a numbs and figs guy know about happiness? Everybody knows money can’t buy it, even though, like sex, we’d still prefer to have as much of it as possible.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

Dusseldorf-Benrath, M Stephan.

This brings us to Düsseldorf. It comes up sixth in a study compiled by benefits consultants Mercer, and here Kay shows he can look beyond a spreadsheet. “There may be a surer way to end a promising relationship than to propose a romantic weekend in Düsseldorf,” he offers, “but it is hard to imagine one.”

Now we’re getting somewhere, Mr. Kay, or may I call you Johnnie? Do we want Düsseldorf or romance? Rational or sensational? Security or ecstasy? Are we after a livable life or a lived one?

Welcome to Peggy's place.

Welcome to Peggy’s place.

Casting aside polls for people, I invite you to Peggy Guggenheim’s eighteenth century Palazzo Venier in Venice, where her louche, eccentric spirit still lurks among one of the world’s most audacious art collections.

Was she a quirky socialite who slummed with creative types? A serious art connoisseur? A bag lady with a trust fund? A flighty romantic who chased from one lover’s bed to the next?

Peggy’s indomitable originality has always intrigued me, so I recently headed for the Film Society of Lincoln Center to see Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s documentary, Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

I Know, Godromil, Venezia Biennale d’art 2007.

If you are tempted to assign Peggy the role of Venetian vixen who flaunted her family fortune to play patron and pussy cat with the art crowd, prepare for disappointment.

The film, centered around a taped interview unearthed from a basement cache of books, brings the private Peggy out of her public persona with sympathetic detachment. The woman we see and hear suffered the death of her adored father when she fourteen (on the Titanic). Her certifiably narcissistic mother was no consolation. One of the “poor” Guggenheim’s, she endured the condescension of her posh and supercilious relatives, who disdained her taste in art.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

Louise Nevelson and Neith.

She had an eye and she would follow her instincts. A young Lucien Freud made his first appearance in a children’s exhibition at her London gallery. In 1943, she organized the first show devoted exclusively to women that included Louise Nevelson and Frida Kahlo.

She was instrumental in the careers of Kandinsky and Motherwell. Not only did she take a chance on the work of undiscovered artists, she provided a stipend for the struggling Jackson Pollock so he could pursue his muse unfettered by the natty demands of survival.

During the war, she staged a brilliant scrimmage to prevent the German’s from appropriating her collection. She later helped put the Venice Biennale on the map. All of this while dealing with love, loss, and a botched nose job.

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra. Fondation Peggy Guggenheim "Torre: a Cor-Ten steel tower, with ogival windows, tracery and turrets in the International Gothic style, on the terrace of Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, overlooking the Grand Canal " http://www.guggenheim-venice.it/

Peggy’s Palazzo, Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

But then the film asks the ultimate question: Did it make her happy?

Alas, Peggy never found lasting love. (To the question, how many husbands had she had, she was said to reply, “mine or other people’s?”) It’s been suggested that she was looking for too much love on all the wrong mattresses. That her serial romps were a desperate attempt to fill the vacuum left by childhood abandonment.

When the film’s director was asked in a Vanity Fair interview whether Peggy had pursued art as a safe harbor from the personal tragedy in her life, Vreeland responded, “[Peggy] identified with the art and the artists and found solace in all of it.”

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

Bill at the London Parliament,1995.

A man’s happiness is seldom offered as a criterion of his accomplishments. His sexuality rarely shows up on the scorecard of a fulfilled life. While some may debate the merits of the Clinton presidency, few feel it necessary to analyze whether the skirt-chasing Bill was a happy guy. It is his long-suffering wife that we tsk at for putting up with his antics. It will probably dog her reputation even if she saves the free world.

“I’m a lone wolf,” Peggy says in the film. No apologies. You could say she was lousy at love and a shameless hussy. But must a lack of romantic closure deem her life unfulfilled? Or her sexual proclivity cast a shadow on her accomplishments?

To the growing minority who believe that art is important for life’s sake, perhaps Peggy Guggenheim’s singular passion for championing genius, supporting the unanointed, and risking a fortune on a new way of looking at things, might be enough to celebrate. That’s not about getting trains to run on time but a world that too easily rationalizes the banal might be unlivable without it.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Byron in Venice, Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky.

Which brings us back to the United Nations Happiness Report. “Why do so many young people,” writes Kay, “go to London or New York in search of the excitement and creativity rather than the livable?” To answer, he takes us to the Floating City.

“Venice is crowded, hard to navigate, inadequately served by public transport, its public administration is hopeless and its commercial activities are corrupt,” he concludes, “but however often you have visited, the magic remains.”

No coincidence that Peggy Guggenheim made this uncooperative, impious, ineluctable city home. Düsseldorf anyone?

11/17/15
Photo: The Sultanette

London Undone

Photo: The Sultanette

Haute table at The Wallace Collection.

CULTURE SNATCH returns! The Sultanette unravels London’s offerings, high and low.

“A new dress doesn’t get you anywhere,” Diana Vreeland famously quipped. “It’s the life you’re living in the dress, and the sort of life you had lived before, and what you will do in it later.”

The Sultanette might add that it’s what you will do not in it later but that’s another post. I couldn’t help but wonder how the imperiously passionate fashionista might have redressed the exhibit Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 31 January.

Photo: The Sultanette

Hello Dali at the Chelsea Arts Club.

I’d escaped Oxford’s sacred spires for a weekend of profane amusements in London. This was guaranteed by a stay at the Chelsea Arts Club where Salvador Dali greets you at the door. Membership at an affiliate arts club in New York City was my entree, and though the corridors could have used a coat of paint, I’d heard the clientele made up for the dog-eared interior.

At breakfast, I met a man with gout and a passion for fly fishing who everybody called “doctor,” a sculptress from Malta, a cable TV personality, and a guy, profession unknown, who favored billiards and booze. I got an inkling of the club’s activities my first morning when, admiring the trellised back garden, a guy puffing on a fag responded, “Plenty of places to hide.”

The Thirst rocks!

The Thirst rocks!

On Saturday night the bar’s billiard table was put out of service for the main event, an English indie rock band from Brixton called The Thirst, playing at appropriate decibels. I was adopted by two club members on a man-date, whose wives were off with the kids for the weekend. They invited me up to their table in the loft-balcony where we could shout at each other in conversation. But when I pulled out my cell phone to snap a picture of the scene below, one of the guys shot me an alarmed, “No photos here!”

Turns out on any given night, this multifarious crowd sprinkled with fashion victims, fringe artists and ne’er-do-well dilettantes might harbor the discreet debutante or posh parliamentarian. Never mind those stories about the overly-rouged regulars who occasionally slid off the bar stool and were politely stepped over in that passive avoidance English kind of way. The calling card here was its reputation as a spot to see and be unseen.

Photo: The Sultanette

Mani at the Wallace Collection.

I’d come to London for the high life so at the crack of Sunday I hailed a pricy London cab, destination the Wallace Collection at Hertford House, Manchester Square. It had been recommended to me by a student in my history class – a cultivated gentleman with a rogue twinkle in his eye. But neither he nor its website billing as a “national museum containing unsurpassed displays of French 18th-century painting, furniture and porcelain with superb Old Master paintings” had prepared me for the breasts.

Photo: The Sultanette

Nothing evasive at the Wallace Collection.

Breasts adorned porcelain vases. Breasts were meticulously brushed on gold-framed miniature portraits and stroked on commanding oils. When breasts weren’t on call, the audio guide informed that In this chamber, the lady of the house had entertained her lover, the future George IV, or that portrait of a lady with her lapdog was a famous courtesan.

Photo: The Sultanette

If you have to ask how much, you can’t afford the clothes to put in it. The Wallace Collection.

With the gilded marquetry, brocade walls, sumptuous furnishings and revered courtesans, The Sultanette could have gotten comfy in the 18th century. But 19th London was calling and I headed next for the Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, Kensington. I’d seen Frederic, Lord Leighton’s, Flaming Jane, all the buzz at The Frick Collection, before leaving New York so I was anxious to explore the home and studio of the Royal Academy president whose circle included artists, writers, politicians and the royals.

I caught up with a tour at Leighton’s studio – a soaring chapel to the art of making art when it needed more space than a computer. In the anteroom, a curtained lounge invited indulgence.

Detail Arab Hall. Leighton House.

Detail Arab Hall. Leighton House.

And then we were lead to the Arab Hall. The house is described as a place “Where East meets West” but in this room with its golden mosaic dome, Persian rugs, Islamic tiled walls, and sunken pool with fountain, East seduces West. Had Victoria dipped a toe in that pool of glass? It all spoke of the eclectic grandeur you might expect of a prominent Victorian artist’s residence.

So it was a culture shock when our tour guide brought us to Leighton’s bedroom – a monk’s cell with bare walls, a single bed, and unadorned furniture. Was it a form of penance to relieve the Victorian guilt of having too much fun in his sparkling milieu? Or an escape from it? It was rumored that Leighton was gay. It was whispered he’d fathered an illegitimate child. Was the enigmatic Leighton most artful at straddling separate worlds?

Photo: The Sultanette

Past roustabouts at the club? Chelsea Arts Club.

Now stimulated by two centuries of sensuality, The Sultanette was primed for two-hundred shoes, glorious shoes, at the V&A. But I needed to rest my feet! After dinner at the Chelsea Club served by the darling Italian bartender (who became a Male Harem fan) I climbed the creaking stairs to my London garret and turned the space heater on high.

While admission to the V&A is free, the pleasure of Shoes comes with the pain of a £20 tariff, slightly more than the suggested entry price for the entire Metropolitan Museum. But when it comes to shoes who’s counting quid? At the show’s entrance, barely able to restrain myself from the glass cases, aglow in the darkened interior where moody shoe music played, I stopped to read the introduction.

Photo: The Sultanette

Do shoes make a life? V&A Museum.

“Shoes allow the wearer to become who they want to be.” They do? “Fairy tales teach us the power of shoes.” Cinderella again? I joined the crowd inside. “Manolo owners take pleasure in knowing that they are in the most desirable shoes on the market.” Was this the V&A or Rue La La? There was a queue at the Seduction case one of five categories among Status, Transformation, Creation, and Obsession. The label read, “Wearing shoes while naked makes nudity all the more audacious” while “military boots bring masculine connotation.” Finally some clarity on that!

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One pair for Imelda but who’s counting? V&A.

On the second level, shoe gurus Manolo, Louboutin and Choo held forth in a looped film. I passed a Cinderella slipper labeled “One shoe can change your life” and made my way to a tall glass case displaying a single pair of black-and-white slingbacks. Lady Di’s perhaps? Or some inspiring arbiter of originality, style and taste? Not exactly. The shoes had been owned by Imelda Marcos who once said, “Win or lose, we go shopping after the election.” Never mind that this was one material girl. We are told that the “Steel Butterfly” will be remembered for “her capacity to survive upheaval.” Nothing beats retail therapy when you’re exiled from the palace.

Photo: The Sultanette

Life without shoes. The Wallace Collection.

It wasn’t the homage to Imelda, the brand-name-dropping, or even the patronizing aphorisms that did me in. It was the utter lack of play. We love our shoes like a courtesan loves her lapdog but they are accessories not necessities. Why this urgency to analyze, validate, substantiate? Do shoes really give a girl permission to be herself? Do we learn about power through fairy tales? Is it stilettos that make a woman sexy or the life she lives in them?

“A new pair of shoes doesn’t get you anywhere,” the canny DV might have added, “It’s the feet that take you there.” I left the V&A and made tracks for the Chelsea Arts Club in all its rag-tag glory.

CULTURE SNATCH is a series on The Sultanette’s ramble among the arts. Watch for BETWEEN THE COVERS book reviews and DICK OF THE WEEK commentaries on notably notorious males in the news.