Posted on September 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm
Once upon a time, there was a princess. She was the delight of her father, an amateur actress, a student of palmistry, a reader of Baudelaire, a ceaseless needlepointer, and the grandmother of a knitter.
My paternal grandmother Portia died when I was almost 9, so what I remember of her is limited to our luncheons in nice restaurants, her pristinely coiled hair, and her beautiful brooches, always perfectly placed on the lapel of her navy suit.
What I know about Portia comes from what I have of her belongings: her books, her needlepoint, her hats, and her photo albums which she kept for most of her life. The one from her 20's is my favorite, especially for the clothes.
Here she is in the Roman Forum with her mother, Dollie Bartlett.
I so wish I had a picture of Portia's coat in color, because this one looks splendid. Is it embroidered or a woven jacquard? In many colors or just a few? I can only imagine. Note the line of buttons down the side of the skirt, and the festoon on her cloche. Her two necklaces. The gloves. I love how matronly Dollie looks next to her daughter, how frumpy she was by this point in her life in her shapeless dress and obscuring hat. I also smile to think that Dollie was about my age when this photo was taken, perhaps even younger than I am now.
Details: Gingham! I have always admired this dress. I love the low slung waist of the time. If you look carefully, you can see a lace collar and three tiers of scallops on her sleeves. Her hair is coiled on either side of her head, a style she wore for most of her life. She always had very long hair; by her 70's, she wore it wrapped over the top of her head.
All of her friends seem to have long hair in this decade. I am surprised to notice that since movies and the like always depict such ladies with bobbed hair. All of Portia's crowd have elaborate braids pinned over their ears and sometimes they wrap scarves over top of it all. It's quite arty and bohemian looking. But no bobs.
This picture is from the Grand Tour section of the album, where Portia and a whole gang of chums set off in 1923 like something in a Henry James novel to strike swell poses in front of such sites as King Tut's tomb, which in 1923 would have only have been known for a few years. I love that the clothing is straight out of central casting for a Mummy's revenge movie.
Portia on the right with her best friend Gerry in a rare photo of them in pants — or rather, plus fours — scarves wrapped about the neck and over the top of their hats to protect them from sun and dust, long pocketed cardigans, low waisted midi blouses, practical shoes.
Here she is on Spider Lake in Wisconsin. What she has in her lap is a wind-up film camera, the nifty iphone of her time. It's her fair isle patterned jersey that intrigues me the most here, because it's likely machine made, but of very high quality. You will be disppointed to know that the back is plain. There are several pages of her wearing this outfit so I know this from other shots. It seems to have been a good day for cameras in general. I also love the way she looks in a beret. The coat must have been loaned to cover the chill of the lake, since it doesn't fit her at all, and looks to me like it was from one of her male friends.
Just in case you suspect she was at all restrained, there's plenty of evidence in this collection to suggest she was every bit as silly and impulsive as a 20 something should be: here she is soaking wet, stockings and all, but not a hair out of place. I don't know if she jumped or was pushed, but clearly it was a blast after all. I wonder if the dress was ruined since it looks a bit delicate: silk perhaps? And of several layers with embroidery on the surface, pin tucks, and a silhouette so very much like what I think of when I think of the mid-20's. Again, I wish I knew what color there was in this dress, since it must have been beautiful.
Here are two of my favorite pictures, favorites because they are both of Portia at her needlepoint, which she was renowned for.
Portia's on the right. I love her friend's blouse. There are a few dresses and blouses on the women in the album that have this little Romanian flavor. It intrigues me that they are doing needlework, and her friend is wearing a blouse also made by hand, but probably by someone from far far away who was not sitting on a porch in white linen and pearls when she made it.
Portia on the left. Again, more needlepoint, and note the headscarves.
As a knitter, I cherish Portia's needle work. I have a small chair she made for me with Winnie the Pooh characters stitched all over it. I own her applique'd cocktail napkins and a few pillows that she stitched. There's an elaborate canvas of birds and fruit she had framed that hangs in my office among the family photos. The work is so fine in scale, so small, like she had all the time in the world to make every stitch.
My mother always talked of Portia's devotion to needlework, so that even though it was my mother who first taught me to knit, I feel like my hands came from my grandmother.
We all remember Portia most of all for the way she surrounded herself with beautiful things. Her life was more complicated than all that, and ugly too at times. But she never failed to dress the part of a princess at play. It's best I think to remember her for that.