A few years back while lunching with a friend at Soho’s Aquagrill, my guest noticed the famed bohemian aristocrat/couturier sitting adjacent to us on the banquette. I looked up and indeed it was her — that immovable coif still slicked as severe as it has been for several decades, and her face, preternaturally tight and pale. My friend and I side-glanced and watched her meticulously eating her salad with the calculated caution of an archeologist shifting for relics. Like most New Yorkers, we would never bother an oft-hounded celebrity, but designers, artists, and authors are generally exceptions to the rule.
I leaned forward. “I’m sorry to bother you, Miss McFadden, but I just wanted to tell you how I’ve enjoyed your designs for many years.” With her shoulders still square to the table she slowly craned her face toward us and deadpanned, “Why is that? What is it about them that you care for?” Though the question itself actually required Kathy and me to praise her creations, we were careful not to gush as we mentioned the designer’s brilliant pleating and how we appreciated her historical sartorial references.
She turned away and reached for her wine. “Well, why don’t you own any if you love them so?” It was a fair, if not an aggressive, question so I explained that I, at one point, used to have a white, cold-shoulder, cord-wrapped Grecian-inspired evening gown and how it was one of the best pieces I’d ever owned.
“You said you had the dress, so where is it now?”
“A red wine stain below the knee that wouldn’t come out so I had it shortened, and…”
“Nonsense. You didn’t try hard enough to get it out and why would you cut it short?”
I tried dancing my way out of the conversation, and every time McFadden turned back for a bite of her salad, my fiend and I swapped looks of bewilderment. Without provocation she continued one-upping everything that was mentioned.
“What is it you’re drinking?” she asked.
“We’re having the Gavi di Gavi — it’s really deli..”
She rolled her eyes, “The white Bordeaux is much better.”
I mentioned that it’s sixteen dollars a glass, and she brushed me off and launched into stories about her ancestry, Boston, and her home in India. Our ignorance of her linage and her many properties appalled her, and she snapped with exasperated displeasure, “Of course, I have a home in India. I go all the time. Didn’t you know that?”
Her plate was cleared away and she ordered another glass of wine, signaling that she wasn’t quite done with us. “Since you like fashion so much you should go see my exhibit in Boston; I’m showing some of my collections of antique textiles and my splendid collection of caftans – pieces from Asia, the Middle East — India mostly.”
She’d successfully lured me back in. “I love India,” I told her. “I’ve been a few times, and I can’t get enough of it. And you really can’t beat their embroidery, can you? I mean—”
“And why can’t you beat it? Why not?”
She turned to her coffee and asked for her check just as we decided to turn the cat-and-mouse game into sport. I mentioned that I’d picked up “so many terrific vintage caftans when I was in Cairo last year that I had to buy an extra suitcase to fit them all in.” Then I got to the part I thought would upset her: “I bought them from the rag pickers down an alleyway in the medieval quarter of Islamic Cairo near the —”
She lifted her hand to halt me mid-sentence, and lowered her lids. “How old are they?”
She was actually interested in something I had to say, I thought. I exhaled and smiled, and hopped like a rabbit into a bear trap. “I think some are around thirty to fifty years old, but the heavy silk caftan coat I bought is probably closer to seventy-five years. After I had it repaired I —”
This was about all she could stand. She pushed her cup toward the center of the table, looped her arm through her handbag, and slowly rose while shaking her head. “Any caftan made after the 18th century is simply not worth having. Everything else is rubbish, really.” And with that, she turned toward the door and glided out into the mid-day sun.
My friend Kathy called me the other day laughing. “Did you hear Mary McFadden has a new book out? Maybe we should invite her to lunch to celebrate.”
“I think I’ll just buy the book — at least it won’t give me any hateful backtalk.”
And so I did. I bought the book in the Village today and cozied into it at my favorite table at Aquagrill. After a couple glasses of wine, and after devouring all the photos (Horst, Avedon, et al) of this adventurous, chic woman and her incredible life so well-lived (cocktailing with Vreeland, Halston, Warhol, and maharajas, etc.) — well, all my animosity washed away. Suddenly, a wave of Stockholm Syndrome came over me: Maybe I’m the odd bird. Maybe she’s right; maybe I really do suck.
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- Mary fadden | Merlinsquest | May 31, 2012