Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lucious Lucius

As I started to read the news via the internet this morning, my wandering eye first caught the story of a bartender at the Playboy Club in London who had created a cocktail costing $8,824.00. My first thought was that it must have a 150 year old absinthe in it. As it turns out, I had guessed partly right - it is made of a 1778 Clos de Griffier vieux cognac, a 1770 Kummel liqueur, a circa 1860 Dubb orange Curacao and two dashes of Angostura bitters dating from around 1900. Now personally, I think wealth is great (although the wealthy should damn well pay an equitable share of taxes). Even at my age, I still have aspirations, although no expectations - if you know what I mean. But a cocktail whose cost is more than half a year of my current income? Before taxes? Even when I wasn't working poverty level jobs, that one drink would have cost close to a third of my yearly salary. This is truly disgusting and outrageous ostentatiousness. It is the kind of thing which would have been appreciated - and roundly skewered - by once noted and now sadly forgotten, bon vivant and writer Lucius Beebe. It was Beebe who, when confronted by a table of rare wines which had been festooned with orchids, cried out, ""Throw wide the windows! Air the rooms! Is the bouquet of my wines to have to conflict with these stinking flowers?"

Somewhere, if I haven't sold it to make ends meet, I may still have my copy Beebe's wonderful tome, "The Big Spenders - The Epic Story of the Rich Rich, the Grandees of America and the Magnificoes, and How They Spent Their Fortunes". It tells the story of a time before income tax, when the rich freely spent their wealth - occasionally in grand gestures of public good. A copy of it on Amazon will run you $125.00. I got it through the Book of the Month Club, to which I belonged when I was 15.

Charles Clegg

Much of Beebe's affectionate skewering of the wealthy was co-authored and illustrated with photographs taken by Beebe's long time partner Charles Clegg. Beebe was open about his relationship with Clegg in a time before it was acceptable. They were both from wealthy New England families. The rich, after all, have always enjoyed a morality not permitted to the poor, the middle classes, or to those who are merely well-off.

Beebe's first photographer/partner (during the 1930's) was Jerome Zerbe (also wealthy), one of the inventors of what became the genre of celebrity and society photography (now relegated to the paparazzi - although Zerbe would have been horrified at the ambush tactics so popular today). Zerbe is also credited with the invention of the vodka martini. It was Zerbe who, being a friendly insider, was was allowed to take photographs of Cary Grant and Randolph Scott during their years together.

above, and on the right,
"Cary and Randy" at home
from a series of photographs taken for
"Modern Screen" magazine in 1933.

Beebe and his two partners chronicled "cafe society" (a term invented by Beebe) for New York City newspapers from the early 1930's through the 1940's. Of those days, Beebe remarked, "I considered my function that of a connoisseur of the preposterous... I did have a fabulous time. I did drink more champagne and get to more dinner parties and general jollification than I would have in almost any other profession."It was Beebe who wrote one of my favorite descriptions of New York City as "Babylon-on-the-Hudson, sinful, extravagant, full of the nervous hilarity of the doomed".

Walter Winchell, a rival society columnist, often snippily called him "Luscious Lucius". During their time together Beebe made so many flattering remarks about Zerbe in his column that Winchell wrote that Zerbe should change his name to "Jerome Never Looked Lovelier."

When it was  noted that the possible election to the presidency of Republican Thomas Dewey would set the country back 50 years, Beebe immediately replied, "And what was wrong with 1898?"

In 1950, Beebe and Clegg set out for the once grand mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, where they renovated an old mansion, resurrected a once famous newspaper that had given early employment to Mark Twain, and began restoring old railroad cars. For one, the "Virginia City", Beebe brought in a friend who was a Hollywood set decorator to redesign the car in what he called "Venetian Renaissance Baroque". They used it for their travels.

Clegg and Beebe in their private railroad car, the "Virginia City".
Beebe and Clegg eventually retired to the San Francisco area. As he aged, Beebe wrote, "High blood pressure, cheeriness at breakfast, a mellowing political philosophy, and an inability to drink more than half a bottle of proof spirits at cocktail time without falling over the fire irons all suggest dark wings hovering overhead and the impending midnight croak of the raven." Beebe passed away in 1966 at the age of 63. Clegg committed suicide in 1979, on the day he reached the age at which Beebe had died.

Beebe once wrote, "If anything is worth doing it is worth doing in style, and on your own terms, and nobody's Goddamned else's!". He and his era are gone, and I often think that we are the poorer for it. There are still a few people around with style - but almost none of them seem to be rich folk. The rich of our day are of a different coarser breed. $8,824.00 for a cocktail is practically an obscenity. Lucius Beebe would have had a good comment about it.

"All I want is the best of everything and there's very little of that left"
                                                                              -attributed to Lucius Beebe


Austan said...

I miss the old-fashioned queens. They don't make em like that anymore.

sdt (a.k.a. stevil) said...

"Make it another old fashioned, please"...

Austan said...

*rimshot* LOL!