From Page to Screen: A Chateau for the Lives of Things

Chateau de DigoineOne of the most pleasurable aspects of writing my novel, The Lives of Things, was researching the chateau that figures prominently in the last third of the book. At the time I was writing that section, there were 270 chateaus for sale in the south of France alone, and I got to peruse them all. Many had photos and details to spark the imagination.

More recently, while I’ve been adapting the screenplay that producer Luc Campeau wants to use to make a film of the book, I have found various chateaus that seem to me to be perfect for the movie. This one, a Burgundy chateau featured in the December 2014 issue of Architectural Digest, is especially delightful, because its owner, Jean-Louis Remilleux, comments that he believes his things are all alive.

Chateau_sitting roomBesides the beautiful golden façade and lovely grounds, some of the rooms have the kind of gorgeously cluttered interiors that would have made my heroine, Rebecca Katz, sick to her stomach from the demands echoing from all the artists’ souls in the floor-to-ceiling paintings, the endless rugs, and sculptures. Maybe if Luc finds the right lead actress and the funding to get the film made, we can reach out to Mr. Remilleux, who is a filmmaker himself. Perhaps it is improbable that we could use the Chateau de Digoine to film the movie, but stranger things have happened.

What is your favorite house?

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Bling Things

P1000858I love jewelry. No, make that, I adore jewelry. Ever since I was three and pretended my aunt’s marquis cut diamond bracelet was a snake, I’ve loved the shiny and the glittery. I am hardly unique in being fascinated by gaudy embellishment. Since the oldest eras of human history, the walls of caves and the tombs of monarchs reveal the jewels our ancestors used to beautify them and create marks of their status.

In my book, The Lives of Things, Rebecca Katz owns a silver bracelet made by the historic Mexican silver designer Hector Aguilar.  The soul of Señor Aguilar, who lives in her bracelet, wants many things from Rebecca. He wants her to take him back to Taxco, where he was born, but more importantly, he wants her to recognize what an important artist he was, an ongoing theme with artists of all ages.

To me, what makes jewelry so delightful is the tiny, beautifully executed workmanship. I attended the Cartier exhibit that visited the Field Museum in Chicago in the 1990s and was almost in tears at the intricacy of so many pieces. Since I can no more purchase a Cartier necklace than I can sprout wings and fly, I’ve discovered the glories of costume jewelry, particularly vintage pieces made in the 1930s and 40s.

The golden age of costume jewelry coincided with the Great Depression. This is no accident. Because a quarter of the nation was unemployed, and the fortunes of many formerly rich people had evaporated, the demand for high-end jewelry fell precipitously. Many of the fine craftsmen who worked for Tiffany, Cartier, and a host of other jewelers had to adapt, and adapt they did.

Taking exquisite designs intended for execution in platinum with diamonds, they worked their magic setting rhinestones into silver and brass. It’s ironic that in a time of great poverty, people wanted to wear what looked like fabulously expensive jewels. Perhaps it was another of those fantasies that helped them get through their days.

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The most popular costume jewelry designers often signed their pieces. Whether or not a piece is signed, the marks of high craftsmanship in costume jewelry include prong set stones, open backs on set stones, and no obvious glued parts.

Famous names in costume jewelry include Hattie Carnegie, Nettie Rosenstein, Coro, Florenza, Hargo, Schiaparelli, Kramer, Krementz, Van Dell, Eisenberg, Weiss, and Trifari. These are companies all employed superior craftsmen to design their jewelry.

Trifari, for example, is best known for their Art Deco line, designed by Alfred Philippe, who previously worked for Van Cleef and Arpells. Although the company never used real gemstones, gold, or silver, the jewelry is of the very best quality.

Today, the vintage look in costume jewelry is once again VERY popular, and most of the ready to wear clothing manufacturers are showing ornate crystal necklaces to compliment everything from cocktail dresses to blue jeans. Naturally, I am in heaven about this. But I have a secret to impart. The next generation of fabulously fake jewels is being made … of course, in China.

Gifted in the creation of intricate and ornate designs (I saw a man painting the inside of a tiny bottle with a feather when I was in China in 2005), the Chinese are also master copiers; so many famous jewelry patterns are being turned out for a song. I recently bought two rhinestone necklaces on eBay for about $12 each – and that included shipping from Hong Kong!

P1000849I wonder how the Depression era designers would feel, those talented artists from France and Germany, who toiled away in New York and Chicago in the 1930s, knowing that their work is now being replicated a hundred thousand times and sold over the Internet to a worldwide audience? Would they be happy because so many people can wear a little bling, or sad that the pieces are so cheap they are practically disposable? I guess I don’t want to know.

Public Things

photo of cowYou can tell a lot about a city by the kind of public art it displays. Mexico City and Rome are known for their fountains, lovely lush centerpieces that attract the eye and cool the senses on a hot summer day. London and Paris have major monuments like Trafalgar Square or the Arc de Triumph.

Chicago, my city, has a cheerful and even irreverent attitude towards its public objects. Witness the cow sculptures that took the downtown by storm several summers ago. While each huge, life-size cow was the same shape, artists were invited to embellish, paint and decorate the different cows as they saw fit, and the result was a delight for Chicagoans and visitors, alike. These beautiful bovines could be found grazing all over downtown, often with a satirical message emblazoned on their ample flanks.

This year, the summer art piece features five-foot heads. Yes, huge, female heads painted different colors adorn the corners of Michigan Avenue and other streets along the Loop and the Magnificent Mile. But that’s not all.  Wildly colorful flowers cascade like the abundant locks of an urban goddess from the crowns of every head. It’s as if Ceres went wild and decided to embellish our all too short summer season with a fantastic display, to help us forget the long cold winters that are never far behind.

Some people feel that these no doubt expensive temporary additions to the cityscape are frivolous, or given the city’s bleak finances, even wasteful. I disagree. Aesthetics have a huge influence on how we perceive a city, and the more flowers we can shower on our streets, the more foreigners will want to visit, and the more residents will want to stay.

These gigantic serene faces with their crowns of geraniums, nasturtiums, and daisies call out our smiles, just like the cows or the face fountains in Millennium Park call out to children to come and play in the water. Without words, this art jokes that huge heads are just what you’d expect from the city of big shoulders (my apologies to Carl Sandburg), so come on down and have an ice cream while you admire the view.

Evil Things

Can an object embody the evil intent of its maker? Obviously, if the thing is a weapon, then violence is a natural outcome of the object’s creation, but does the particular personality of the person who made it actually affect the thing itself? In my book, The Lives of Things, there are definitely objects whose intent is to hurt or destroy.

This concept is certainly not limited to my work. Steven King, for example, in his best-selling horror novel, Christine, creates a malevolently jealous car that actually murders people, and there are countless fairy tales where an object has been cursed, so that those who seek to acquire it meet a dreadful fate.

In everyday life, things often become “bad” because we risk too much to acquire them and then those things control our futures. Think of the homes bought during the housing bubble that people were told they could afford. When the houses lost value and people could no longer afford to pay for them, they became sources of unhappiness for the families who bought them. A cherished acquisition became a horrible mistake, an evil if you will.

My husband, Gordon, thinks that objects turn bad when you put too many expectations on them. In his case, this refers to the various expensive golf clubs he regularly acquires because they are going to “revolutionize” his game. They don’t, of course, so then he thinks of them as evil —promising skills they can’t deliver.

I personally have a deep superstition about “bad luck” items, which usually refers to clothing.  Just as there are “good luck” outfits that somehow affect your confidence and therefore wonderful things ALWAYS happen when you wear them, so there are bad luck clothes that drag you down.  Usually you find this out the first time you wear the item in question. I have a peach-colored summer dress, for example, now hiding in the back of my closet, because the first time I wore it, I had a huge argument with my aunt, to whom I no longer speak. Is it really the dress’s fault? Maybe not, but I think of that horrible day every time I look at the dress, so really, I think I should throw it away. I could give it to Goodwill, but then it might just affect someone else adversely. On the other hand, maybe “bad” things behave better with different owners—they need a fresh start. I think I’ll get that dress out right now and donate it somewhere. Even things deserve a second chance.

Things That Seem Like Family: the Romeo Clock

The Romeo  Clock

The Romeo Clock

This 18th-century Second Empire clock has been with me my entire life. My earliest memories include listening to its delicate chime. When it’s working (and it’s been broken for twenty years now. I really should have it adjusted again) it rings every fifteen minutes. The sound is a very pleasing high-pitched ping, utterly unlike any other sound I’ve ever heard.  As a little girl, waking in the middle of the night, I could hear the clock chime in the dining room of our New York apartment, and it always reassured me that everything was all right.

The romantic fellow with the large hat and feather who is reclining on the hill that supports the face of the clock is Romeo, or at least, that is what my mother always told me. She said that there were originally two clocks—Romeo and Juliet—meant to sit  on the two ends of the mantel above your fireplace.  I think that Romeo must have sat on the left and Juliet on the right. Somewhere in the world there may still be a Juliet clock pining for her lover. I hope that she has survived the centuries,  but my family never owned the Juliet clock.

The feather on Romeo’s hat wiggles. This is probably a defect, but I loved moving it around as a child. Even as a little girl, the clock seemed alive to me. I imagined it coming to life at night once I went to bed, and even got up a few times to visit it, hoping that Romeo had descended from his hill and would be ready to tell me of his travels.

Since that didn’t happen, the clocks’ first 80 years will always be a mystery. Made in France around 1850,  Romeo was purchased by my grandfather, Maurice Rauchwerger, in the 1930s. He and my grandmother lived in Vienna, and he collected antiques as a hedge against the terrible inflation that afflicted Austria and Germany after World War I.

A  blond, blue-eyed Jewish man who pretended to be a Christian during his constant business trips to Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, Maurice watched the encroachment of the Nazi regime into his life with both disbelief and disdain.  As a citizen of Vienna, he did not believe anything would happen to him or the family, despite the increasingly harsh restrictions placed on Jews as the 1930s wore on.

Luckily for my mother’s survival, her sister, Stella, married Englishman Tobias Springer in 1937 and moved to London. Reading the British press, she could see that life was getting very perilous for Jews in Vienna. Stella and Toby arranged visas for my mother and her parents to leave for England, and the Rauchwergers escaped in 1938, immediately following Hitler’s annexation of Austria,.

The Romeo clock and a small number of other valuables left with them. The Rauchwergers took only a tiny fraction of what they owned. It must have been terrible to leave so many cherished valuables behind. But certainly better than dying to save them.

My mother brought Romeo with her when she married my father and moved to the United States. The clock sat on a shelf in the dining room for all of my childhood, and it later retained a place of honor in the living room of my parents’ various homes. When my mother died, twenty years ago, Romeo came back to live with me, along with a number of other wonderful objects, most of them wedding presents given to my grandmother in 1900.
The Romeo clock links me to grandparents that I never met (my grandmother died before I was born and my grandfather only saw me once as an infant) but even more importantly, it is a symbol of freedom and escape. That’s why I had to put the clock in The Lives of Things, where it offers the same comfort and support to my heroine, Rebecca Katz, as it does to me.