Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is Angelica Huston channeling Colette? Read Vol. 1 of her memoirs, A STORY LATELY TOLD. Can't wait for Vol 2, WATCH ME, in Nov.

As a girl, Angelica Huston's mom would encourage her to read Colette and, of her many influences, this one may have taken root. In her first memoir, A STORY LATELY TOLD: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York (Scribner, Simon & Schuster), there is similarity to Colette in her acute observations; less about what people said, than their experiences and the lives they created.

There's also an account of her modelling years that reminded me of Colette's backstage look at the Folies Bergere. Both think they're not really the "type." Colette says she's too self-conscious, a writer performing a pantomime in a music hall. Angelica believe's she not beautiful enough. She had Richard Avedon's word on this. When her parents inquired whether he thought the young Angelica was model material, he'd said her shoulders were too broad. Angelica added a nose that's too large, eyes too small, a look not for conventional beauty. Both Colette and Angelica wrote about shoddy reality behind the "glamour." The artistes of the music hall, like the "girls," who model, were always without money. Payment for both was at the mercy of management's arbitrary rules..

Angelica and Colette also had in common childhoods in the country with artistic mothers. Sido, Colette's mother, was a water colorist, a lover of nature, an incredible gardener and cook. Ricki, a former ballet dancer once on the cover of Vogue, transformed rooms with her singular aesthetic, combining beauty, function and humor. Huston's worldly family was grounded on their Irish country estate, as Colette's was in a provincial French village. Oddly, the Hustons were readily accepted by the neighboring gentry, joining in the hunting and drinking. 

Tony, Angelica's brother, and she lived with their mother and servants in the cozy Little House on the estate, except when their father landed home between films. Then they were allowed in the Big House, an ancient building of cold stone, warmed by extravagant floor heating and the imaginations of Angelica's parents. They filled themed rooms with artifacts from all over the world. John Huston was a cultural potentate, bringing to his kingdom rare and usually expensive trees, animals, fabric or furniture. Once desired, objects appeared, even if, like his Matisse, he gambled for it. Amid the outrageous expense were always rumors of her family's imminent poverty. 

While Angelica was full of wonder for flowers and animals, water and rocks, Tony, a few years older, explored gunpowder and fed chicks to his falcon collection. Both  ran wild around the countryside, reined in by servants and their mother for meals, baths and tutoring. Eventually, they were sent to local Irish schools and, though an indifferent student, Angelica liked pageants and concerts. Occasionally, her father was in town to attend one or celebrate her birthday with a jewel.

Angelica was consciousness of her mother's growing sense of abandonment. She describes one evening, when Ricki planned an elegant party. She wore a sophisticated dress and when weather derailed the event, was alone, all dressed up with no place to go. Angelica ponders the performing world her mother gave up to marry her father; her expectations of the marriage, and the life she settled for. Months would go by, until John Huston would swoop in with the cast and crew of The African Queen or some other production, and the Big House would come alive. Ricki's job was to keep the estate in readiness for his arrivals.

John Huston loved showing off his life as the master of an Irish country estate. He'd dress like an aristocrat in tweed cloaks and hats. But his fabulous artifacts, whether Medieval or Renaissance, Japanese or Mexican, were the glory of the world, the backdrop of his life. The dogs and horses, the grounds and plumbing, and the education of his children, were Ricki's world. Glamorous, beautiful, she was also his proud possession and expected to perform, as were the children. Angelica recalls him quizzing her about the "news". He always challenged them to tell him something interesting they learned. The pressure of disappointing her father could reduce her to tears; sometimes of  anger, at the demands of her imperious, egocentric and yet loving, often solicitous father.

This country idyl broke down, when her parents began to separate. Soon, when her father came with his parties of important friends, Ricki was away. And at the Big House were various lady friends, though John eventually installed Betty to run the household. Ricki's absence from Ireland began in an amorphous way, Angelica muses. She must have learned of John's affairs. Yet, Angelica only knew that her mother was gone and Betty was in charge. It would be a year, until she and Tony were told of the separation, and more time before they went to live with Ricki in London. Yet, ever the empathic child, Angelica was aware of her mother's feelings of abandonment, as her father pursued himself in the arms of other women.

Ricki was less of an authoritarian than her father, except during Angelica's adolescence in the late 60's in England, when she kept after her about school and curfews. But there were also times, when Ricky traveled, not alone. Though she was careful to keep her private life from her precocious teenager, Angelica knew her mother was trying to rebuild her life. Angelica was also finding herself. At 15 and 16, she looked older, wore miniskirts and lots of make-up and flirted with men.  .

One of the strengths in this memoir is Angelica's ability to be both the child puzzling out her world and the adult making shrewd conjectures with an instinct for emotional truth. She shows both her self-involved teen behavior; the lies, skipping school, petty theft, and her wrenching attempts to become her own adult person. She has sex and feels used. She decides to become an actress and has a chance to audition for Zefferelli's Juliet. But then her mother lets her know that her father wants to manage her debut. He has her fly to Rome to work on his film. Angelica dislikes the script and feels no affinity with the part. Worse yet, the process of working with her father is devastating. When she's savaged by reviewers, she decides to pursue a modelling career.

Angelica's adolescence in London was shadowed by Ricki's bouts of depression, culminating with the news she was pregnant by a lover. Angelica, already resentful after meeting her father's love child in Rome, views the baby as another interloper. But her resentment disappears in real joy at the wonder of her baby sister, Allegra. Those feelings were soon dwarfed by the tragedy of her mother's death, abruptly killed in a car accident.

If  there's a "ghost" writing this memoir, it's the absence of Ricki and Angelica's attempt to make sense of that void. When John Huston takes Allegra and her nurse to Ireland, Angelica is relieved that her sister will be taken care of. Left on her own at 17, with feelings beyond the comfort of family friends, Angelica went to New York. While pursuing her modelling career, she did visit her grandparents at their restaurant in New York. And, though they never openly criticized Ricki's husband, they took extra care of her daughter.

Through old family connections, like Avedon, Angelica was introduced to Eileen Ford, and she soon worked with not only Avedon, but legendary photographers like Bailey, Penn, Helmut Newton, for shows by Valentino, Zandra Rhodes, and other great designers, crisscrossing Europe. Eventually, she became involved with photographer Bob Richardson, as muse and lover. His was a talent so attuned to her own, and yet so mentally unbalanced, that she began to come undone.

In this most painful part of the memoir, Angelica is unflinching about the reality she experienced. She describes the highs of their life together, both aesthetic and chemical, and the intense emotional connection that made her suffer through increasingly destructive lows. Apartments and belongings were destroyed but that was little compared to her battered spirit and increasing emotional fragility. In one of John Huston's most amazing roles, this father intervened to give his daughter a way out.

This memoir recreates the life of a exceptional and imperfect family,  How this artist became herself seems a triumph of what was best in these people--originality and stalwart affection.



Monday, June 9, 2014

Amazon vs. Hachette, David vs. Golaith or the reverse?


David Versus Goliath: Amazon Versus Hachette, Or The Reverse?

Written by: 
Having spent my working life in the publishing industry, I have seen the roles of David and Goliath reverse quite a few times. Everyone likes to root for the underdog. The iconography is gratifyingly familiar. The smart boy with the slingshot aims his pebble at the forehead of the evil giant. His aim is true, the giant crashes to the ground.
In the late 70’s, when I entered publishing, the giant was the old “boys’ club” of New York publishers. It was an aristocracy of literary men, who dedicated themselves to making culture through publishing books, and legendary editors, like Max Perkins, were aspirational icons. John Updike, Philip Roth, Salinger (you know the names) were anointed by The New Yorker.
Editors at big publishing houses were revered and what they sought wasn’t based on numbers. Their's was an erudite nose for excellence in content and form, originality, even social relevance. Whether hailing from the Ivies or City College, writers of vision were exciting, treasures building on Nabokov or later Tom Wolfe. Editors were shamans, who found the rough metal and made the prose shine. The role of marketing and sales people was simply to sell and find creative ways to do it.
Publicity departments translated books into clever hyperbole to seduce media, who actually covered books as news. Yes, books were a product to be sold but did we have to talk about that? To broaden minds and perhaps change society, was the purpose that kept many on the phones. Truth is that young people may start in publishing with such ideals, though few leave with it. When poverty stretches into decades, there’s a limit. And something similar happened to the industry.
In the late 80’s, the tacky business of making money became ascendant and clout shifted to marketing/sales teams. In thundering meetings at big houses, the new Goliaths vetoed books. Editors couldn’t get the go ahead for great “finds” that were unlike successful books previously published. Magical numbers showed why such a book wouldn’t sell. Comparables replaced originality and the “iffy” book was left to smaller independents and university presses.
Imperiously, this Goliath demanded more formulaic commercial novels, along with the mix of cook books, business how-to and genre. Editorial was restricted to a narrowed category of “saleable” books to stay employed. But many were purged, along with staff copy editors and proofreaders. The Davids became literary editors with sufficient backing to form their own imprints within houses. These survivors hunkered down with tiny lists.
In this environment in 1995, Jeff Bezos and Amazon went on line. Wikipedia on Amazon: “an American international electronic commerce company. The world’s largest online retailer, which started as an online bookstore but soon diversified selling DVD’s, VHS’s, CD’s, video and MP3 downloads streaming software, video games, electronics, furniture, food, toys, and jewelry. The company also produces consumer electronics, Kindle ebook readers and is the major provider of cloud computing services." Amazon is a marketing and sales powerhouse of gigantic scope and huge clout. And yet, when it started, Bezos declared it David.
The Goliath he was slinging pebbles at was the traditional publishing industry, who didn’t know how to sell books and deserved to be losing money. Like many booksellers, Bezos seemed to really love books and the challenge of making them profitable. Online selling was nimble and less expensive. Down with the publishing snobs and their high prices! Go, Amazon. Power to the people!
Amazon was ingenious American capitalism, the little guy making publishing profitable again. It was reinventing the way books were sold and, at first people didn’t see Amazon as closing stores. What threat? It wasn’t as if you could go on line and thumb through a book. Amazon brought prices down by giving the big publishers competition. For once the little guy had won.
This narrative, only controversial among publishing people, was so embraced by the general public that Amazon grew into–a giant. Some years ago there was even the odd spectacle of this Goliath declaring itself an idealistic David. It sued a few traditional publishers, who decided to combat Amazon’s price slashing by setting a price for their product. Was this legal?
Back to Wikipedia. "The Sherman Antitrust Act is a landmark federal statute in the history of United States antitrust law or competition law passed by Congress in 1890. It has been used to oppose the combination of entities that could potentially harm competition, such as monopolies or cartels. The law attempts to prevent the artificial raising of prices by restriction of trade or supply. In other words, innocent monopoly, or monopoly achieved solely by merit, is perfectly legal but acts by a monopolist to artificially preserve his status, or nefarious dealings to create a monopoly, are not. Put another way, it has sometimes been said that the purpose of the Sherman Act is not to protect competitors, but rather to protect competition and the competitive landscape."
Amazon was able to legally smash the publishers, who received stiff penalties for “collusion.” Amazon wasn’t yet a publisher, though it was a seller, and its slash and burn policies were not seen as a violation of the “competitive landscape.” Unlike Amazon at this time, traditional publishers had the expense of producing books; with editors and copy editors, freelance proofreaders, printing and paper costs, cover designers, marketing, sales and publicity staff, warehouse, physical stores and the authors’ shares of the profits.
But Amazon retains its popular underdog status. Even now, in 2014, there is no anti-trust suit, though they are punitively restricting the trade of all Hachette books, penalizing the income of authors, and even the convenience of customers. Their purpose is to force publishers to agree to further reduce what they make on their product. According to Sherman, you can’t do such restrictions, that alter the competitive environment without being in violation of antitrust laws.
Amazon is no friend to the consumers. who want to buy these books or the writers. Worse yet, it has swung the sales/marketing pendulum so far in the direction of quantity over quality, that it threatens our very notions of what is of value to publish. In 2014, we are in the gold rush of what used to be called vanity publishing, but is now “self-published.”
These self-publishers, and the often expensive marketing/sales programs they charge authors, are a lucrative new area for the publishing industry. Since anybody with cash can be an author, Amazon makes even more money, if they topple the traditional gatekeeper of quality—mainstream publishers. And there’s a new vested interest, since Create-space is their own self-publishing entity.
The Amazon vs. Hachette stand-off has taken on emotional overtones, not unike the cries to open the Bastille and guillotine all aristocrats. Online there’s a self-righteous glee about a brave new publishing world of no standards by those who feel excluded by the snobs, the tastemakers of the establishment. And this attitude of being the little guy against the traditional Goliath of the diminished publishing houses is fanned by the snake oil merchants of the new self-publishers.
Yet Amazon, the crafty Goliath, has, besides its well-advertised self-publishing operation, a little known traditional publishing company, which only buys books from agents. And with their mastery of print on demand technology, they are well poised to dismantle the competition of traditional publishing companies. While Amazon has stated that gatekeepers are not necessary, it’s obvious they just want to be the only giant in town.
So we exchange an old cultural elite for a single dictator. Egalitarian shouldn’t mean reduction of quality to the lowest common denominator. More is not necessarily better. We have only to see the wasteland of a plentitude of TV channels with only a few worth watching to see what publishing might devolve into. While Americans may sneer, “elitest,” at traditional tastemakers, we envy European culture for the same considerations of quality over quantity.
If Amazon eliminates traditional publishing as gatekeepers now, when there are many quality books from imprints within houses, their vision—often idiosyncratic and not quite profitable—will disappear. Some small press books will fill the gap but literacy and intellectual freedom will suffer. Cheap books, like cheap music, are popular. But when writers and musicians cannot make a living, because their products are devalued, everyone is impoverished.
I think its Amazon’s turn to be slapped with an anti-trust suit for trying to destroy the competitive environment. Stun the giant and give the lillliputans, perhaps purposeful small presses with wholesale antenna and retail vision, a chance. Maybe their electronic eyes will envision a more useful target than a large yellow button that says, “Buy.”