Invited for tea to a wondrous New York mansion, where every piece of furniture had been conceived of by a famous artist or architect, every floorboard and marble slab shipped from a defunct 18th-century European palace or pleasuredome or removed discreetly from the mysterious lair of a reclusive film star, my daughter and I sat nervously in the south parlour trying to look relaxed against the sable sofa. (My daughter is allergic to horsehair so perched precariously to stave off any possible rash, while remaining polite.) A striped and starched housekeeper offered us refreshments that moments later were brought in by another immaculate attendant. Their uniforms looked like something from the world of Colette or at least the set of Gigi. (So interesting to learn from a recent perusal of the poet’s scrapbooks that Mr and Mrs TS Eliot were at the London premiere of Gigi – but I digress.)
Our hostess appeared and was everything that lovely means. We told her we had seen a very narrow woman, wearing more jewels than she ought to have been able to support, take her seat in the dining room of the Carlyle Hotel that morning and order from one of the world’s most spectacular breakfast menus, “just a tall glass of ice.” A meal with zero calories that could take almost an hour to chew! Our hostess sweetly smiled. I’m not sure this diet was exactly news.
She showed us round the house, which was almost faultless to a fault, but not quite – for just when you thought things were over-verging on perfection there would be something so seemingly humble or playful (an insane fireplace that made you smile or a work of art so sincere that it almost broke your heart; an unexpected splash of violet where least expected) that you had to redraw your own boundaries of taste. “Damn, you’re good,” I thought.
I sometimes think even a beautiful room looks better with one or two howlers: some hideous gift from Aunt Edna you haven’t the heart to give away, a pile of unopened red bills, a dead mouse at the skirting in a beautiful shade of fawn, a forgotten half-sandwich on a blue and white plate, white bread, cheese, possibly British Rail, the edges beginning to snarl. But maybe that’s just nonsense. What I’m saying is perfection is mighty hard to come by, yet here it was.
“I do, I do, I do prefer my own house,” I mumbled under my breath.
My favourite book at the moment is The Great Lady Decorators. These women certainly lived the job. I love the way Dorothy Draper expressed outrage that people in America seem to view their ceilings with the same kind of disregard that they show their stepchildren. In this house all the very high ceilings had a strong glazed paint finish that made them look even taller. In the library, reflected in the ceiling, the books seemed to go about 80ft high. It was so romantic. I thought of my own neglected ceilings at home with shame. I wish they were all a creamy pink.
The walls of the downstairs powder room were papered in – can’t you guess? – python. One hundred snakes all-in. “Wow, you would really, really, need to go,” my daughter mused out loud.
Life lived in such exquisite surroundings might be a terrible bind, I tried telling myself. Rooms so distinguished and fresh and original your guests can’t help but feel wanting themselves. Food your chef wants to knock out rather than what you fancy, not to mention the tantrums he throws when you dine away from home. Phobia-inducing lavatories. I’m not sure I could crack a successful joke in one of these rooms either, for there was already so much well-judged 1930s subtlety and wit, adding in more would be de trop.
Every mansion-dwelling person I have met has had a little cosy, even claustrophobic, bolthole in which to exhale and make bad puns. A preferred place, which is not the primary residence, where they can truly feel “at home”. Even the Queen, on holiday, is rather thrilled to do the washing up, one hears. Palace residents watch sitcoms set in tiny flats where the kettle lives on top of the television and they feel a little pang for a simpler life. I have stayed in castles where the owners have decamped to stable buildings or little ruined huts for their birthdays for a great treat, feeling thoroughly spoiled.
If you have a vast dining room and a staffed kitchen, where do you cosy up in your dressing gown in the mornings? You can’t. Where do you sit at moments in your life when you wish to slump or slob or feel a bit tragic and sorry for yourself? If you are in the mood to shell peas because it cheers you, must you do it in inverted commas with a dust sheet in the drawing room? How do you sneak a piece of toast with impunity?
“You know, you give up a great deal when you live a perfect life,” I told my daughter as we walked away, our eyes ablaze with the beauty of it, our toes and fingertips a delicate shade of green.
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