March 2009


Those most peculiar people

By Clare Press
Those most peculiar people

Salvador Dali, 1956. © Philippe Halsman - Magnum Photos.

In praise of eccentricity

To borrow Edith Sitwell’s phrasing: here come those who would entertain us. In their feathers and Lurex and headdresses worthy of Pharaohs, they swing their microphones and smash their guitars in the face of conformity. Here is Ozzy Osbourne, biting the head off his bat; here, David Bowie, in lightning-bolt mode, his hair dyed pickle red. And here – really here this time, in Sydney; not in some moonage daydream or tripping along the ghost road of eccentricity’s history – comes the shaven-headed, 60-year-old Grace Jones, prowling and snarling like anear-six-foot-tall lady jaguar.

In January, Jones was on stage at the Enmore Theatre as part of this year’s Sydney Festival, clad in a G-string, a corset and a series of glittering hoods and horns. The Jamaican daughter of a preacher man, she interspersed her songs with uproarious sex talk, sticking out that frightening tongue of hers, gyrating masterfully with a hula hoop and wiggling her glutes to the rhythm.

Her screwy, high-camp antics were those of a genuine oddball, a rarity in these hyper-commercialised times. Sure, we had paid to watch Jones be Jones, but the effect was strangely voyeuristic – that of accidentally walking in on a wonder. I bet Jones is always like this, whether she is doing the washing up, pole dancing or entering tequila-drinking competitions. To watch her perform is to watch her exist. And it is refreshing, when so much of what passes for nonconformity these days reeks of cliché and artifice, the cynical construct of a team of stylists and art directors, packaged as pop culture and posted on YouTube.

Granted, Jones herself is styled rather marvellously. Those sculptural hats are by the revered Irish milliner Philip Treacy, and she once stepped out to a posh Paris party wearing nought but a necklace of bones. But eccentricity runs deeper than mere costume, and I’m pretty sure Jones is the real deal: an Amazonian man-eater and uber-exhibitionist for whom convention and decorum mean not a jot. Unleashed on a journalist from the Guardian last year, she got plastered on sambuca and had to be helped down the stairs to the Notting Hill street, where she howled at the moon “arms outstretched, hands aflap, like a bat”.

It is tempting to sigh that they just don’t make ‘em like Jones anymore, that today’s so-called edgy performers only play at being wild and different in public, then go home to their McMansions, kick off their surrealist sandals and Google themselves to sleep. As Sitwell might have said: there go the clones, the relentless parade of identikit Hollywood blondes and Pop Idol robots.

In fact, eccentricity is not a discontinued line, though it has perhaps been a little harder to hear against the roar of images and options in the media age. It was 1933 when Sitwell first published The English Eccentrics, her vivid account of peculiar Brits, including “some travellers”, “quacks and alchemists”, “ancients and ornamental hermits” and “some amateurs of fashion”. Into the latter category strides George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell, the original male fashion plate, who liked the soles of his boots polished in champagne froth.

“Here comes an elegantly dressed, block-headed figure of whose coat Lord Byron once remarked, ‘You might almost say the body thought.’ It is Beau Brummell, the magnificent admired friend of the Prince Regent, the grandson of a Treasury porter, and, some say, the son of a pastry-cook.” Two pages later and “Brummell has passed on,” ending his years as a pauper in rags living off an income too modest to cover his laundry bills. I’d call Brummell silly and extravagant before I’d flatter him with ‘eccentric’, but others in Sitwell’s cast are indisputably fine examples of the type, from the tree-climbing Countess of Desmond (supposedly 140 years old) to the chicken-fancying Mrs Celestina Collins of Coventry. Sitwell describes Collins as in the habit of:

inviting thirty fowls to sleep in her bed, or, alternatively, amongst her kitchen furniture. Her favourite, amongst these bustling and relentless companions, was an immense cock, whose spurs, as a result of age, had grown to be a length of three inches. This cock shared her affections with a huge rat, and these two inseparable companions were present at all her meals, which were miserly in the extreme, and which were I’m afraid, tempered by the nature and habits of her two familiars.

A lunatic then, clearly.

Although the author insists that it is “not, as dull people would have us believe, a form of madness”, eccentricity is a byword for loopiness. Take Howard Hughes, who went bonkers in his reclusive old age, a man rarely mentioned without the tag ‘eccentric billionaire’. Others called eccentric are equally bizarre: from Rasputin, the sinister monk who inspired the Boney M song, to today’s “incredible egg man” Howard Helmer (the fastest omelette maker in the world).

Oh, and look! Here comes the surrealist kook Salvador Dali, he of the curled moustaches, who often referred to himself in the third person: “Dali is immortal and will not die.” Whatever you say, dear. And here, the Canadian punk inventor Kaden Harris, author of Eccentric Cubicle, who designs “antiques from a parallel universe”, including a “post-modern redesign of a guillotine” and a “bigger than normal desktop ballista”. Are you frightened yet? Certainly, the E-word comes with mixed messages.

Taken the wrong way, it implies that one’s bus is merely a couple of stops from the isolated hamlet of Raging Insanity. I once described a dear friend as eccentric when writing about her for a style magazine; she has never quite forgiven me. But there is a compliment in there somewhere – turn left at the crossroads, away from Bedlam, and you’re headed for Creativity, Inspiration and even the fabled city of Genius.

The idea that the British are predisposed to eccentricity was popularised by Sitwell. The author and her tribe were themselves fine examples. A six-footer of exquisite angles, she resembled a royal, bejewelled hawk, with her hooded eyes, more cocktail rings than Benjamin Disraeli (arguably Britain’s most eccentric prime minister; certainly its most dandified) and tendency for turbans. As an adult, Edith flatted with her governess and then holed up in the country with her brother, fellow poet Osbert Sitwell, and his boyfriend.

Sitwell’s father, Sir George Sitwell, was quite a type, too. According to the trustees of his seat, Renishaw Hall in Derbyshire, he was a talented gardener but a less successful chef, having tried and failed to sell his invention, the Sitwell Egg – a dish formed from a yolk of smoked meat, a white of rice and a shell of lime – to the department store Selfridges. He didn’t take kindly to rejection, made many impossible demands and loved excess; at Renishaw he maintained not one but seven studies.

Today, Sir George seems an aristocratic antecedent to celebrity brat culture. Had he been possessed of a Hollywood trailer, no doubt he’d have demanded some lackey sift the M&M’s to remove all the brown ones. This was the man who famously decreed that no visitor to his home ever contradict him in any way, “as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night”. Good one, that; might try it out.

In her introduction to The English Eccentrics, Edith Sitwell writes: “eccentricity exists particularly in the English, and partly, I think, because of that peculiar and satisfactory knowledge of infallibility that is the hallmark and birthright of the British nation.” Try writing that now and getting away with it. And yet the idea of England as a haven for oddity persists.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell began his essay ‘Eccentrics Preferred’, published in a 1943 issue of Vogue, thus: “It is said that the English are more prone to eccentricity than any other nation, and I suppose this must be true; certainly, I seem to have come across eccentrics more frequently in England than elsewhere, and they are more readily tolerated than they are in most countries.” I’m guessing he had never holidayed in Coober Pedy. He continues: “People even have a certain pride in the oddity of their relations, and will remark in a tone of affection, ‘Oh my father’s completely mad, you know.’”

Russell reckoned there was an eccentric in every family, and recalled a favourite childhood game of “queer uncles”, for which players had to nominate their freakiest family members. The winner was “the one who, by popular vote is acclaimed as having reached the highest state of avuncular oddity”. I’d have been in the running: my stepfather’s Irish relation shared his cottage with several four-legged lodgers. Pity his cows couldn’t cut his hair: when the man was in need of a barber, he set his coiffeur alight, then dunked his head in a bucket of water. He really was completely mad, you know.

Not all eccentrics are Brits, of course, just as they aren’t all a sandwich short of a picnic. Luisa Casati was an Italian socialite who haunted the streets of Venice and Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s naked but for a fur coat, and in the company of two pet cheetahs on diamond leashes. Grace Jones would have adored her. Casati, who favoured kabuki-white makeup and was photographed by Man Ray and dressed by Erté, once arrived at a shindig wearing a battery-powered suit of electric arrows that short-circuited and nearly fried her alive. No one died when she wore her famed necklace of live snakes, but a chicken gave up its ghost to accessorise her get-up for a night at the opera – she brightened her peacock feather headdress with vermilion daubs of its blood.

“She wanted to incite. This shrewd lady had a knowing scorn of the world and presented those who adored her with an image of something they could never hope to be – a being somehow beyond criticism and convention,” writes Quentin Crisp in the foreword to Scot D Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino’s biography, Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati. Crisp met Casati only once: in London, when she was old, stooped and impoverished (it seems to be a trend, no? Weirdness in youth, woe in old age). Regardless, Crisp was left with the impression of a sharp and calculated party legend – a woman on a mission to amuse and be a muse.

The Marchesa Casati was part of a world that was as fragile as it was beautiful, one that has disappeared altogether from the face of the earth. It was a time of fabulous parties at which people wore the most extraordinary costumes designed for just a single evening. Never a day went by without these antics being mentioned in the press – they fascinated everybody.

So Casati got what she wanted; she was the talk of the town. Indeed, more than 50 years after her death, penniless and alone, she still is. Fashion’s elite regularly cite her as an inspiration, and the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s wife, Georgina Chapman, who makes red-carpet frocks for Hollywood starlets, went so far as to name her label after Casati.

Another uncommon creature to have been rehabilitated recently is the interior decorator Rose Cumming, the lilac-coiffed lace lover and Australian expat who thrilled Manhattan social circles in the 1920s and ‘30s, working for Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich while dressing her own windows with cellophane curtains. Period photographs of Cumming’s extravagant decor for her brownstone home featured in a recent issue of the World of Interiors magazine. They show her violently violet boudoir, the bed canopied in a riot of purple frills that would send Dame Edna screaming for cover, and what Cumming christened her Ugly Room, bedecked with the weirder furnishings rejected by her celebrity clients: an Indonesian umbrella upturned to form a lamp, flocks of stuffed birds of prey and a leather pig, prints of trapped animals and a fireplace festooned with snakes. And should you doubt that l’esprit de Cumming is coming back soon, you’re in for a shock (and reptiles in relief – yikes!). Minimalism is over, and the Cumming archives are being mined by an upmarket American soft-furnishings firm.

Perhaps it is also time for renewed interest in yet another odd fish, the French fashion illustrator Christian ‘Bébé’ Berard, a man of enormous talent but with slim regard for convention. In her autobiography, Edna Woolman Chase, an editor of American Vogue, describes him as “one of the spectacular figures of Paris”. Berard was an alcoholic and drug addict who could only work at night, when he would balance a Reboux hat on his dog and sketch it, “sweating profusely” all the while.

Wolman Chase recalls: “Drops of sweat fell on the paper and he instantaneously converted them into windows and butterflies, charming imaginative bits of decoration, which gave individuality to his pictures and were vastly admired.” When “forced to the tub and the barber” he scrubbed up OK and was even a bit of a twinkle toes, but “ungoaded, his normal appearance was nerve-shaking.” As the fashion editor Bettina Wilson remarked, “his black beard was full of spaghetti and little active pets who lodged there, and he never dreamt of wiping his brushes any-place but in it.”

The art and fashion worlds remain havens for those whom Lytton Strachey politely called characters. Not long after Berard expired, another artist with hardly more sartorial discipline was knocking on the fashion world’s door. Andy Warhol’s first Manhattan gig was drawing shoes for Glamour magazine. In Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, Steven Watson describes the early appearance and manner of the shambles then known as ‘Andy Paperbag’:

He never learned to tie his ties evenly, so he’d snip off the protruding ends and keep a collection of them in a box. He carried his drawings in a brown paper bag and when he opened it for an advertising presentation, a roach would occasionally crawl out ... He encouraged his cats to pee on his shoes to achieve the right patina before going into the world.

If Warhol was creepy in person, he was terrifying on the phone. “A roommate of the early 1950s recalls him on the telephone, cold-calling potential employers. ‘I planted some bird seed in the park yesterday,’ he would say in a whispery voice. ‘And would you like to order a bird? And do you have any work for me?’”

And yet such oddness hardly ruined the artist’s career. Wacko works for other creatives, too. The designer Jenny Kee, who with Linda Jackson blew the cobwebs off Australian fashion in the 1970s, had a meeting with Karl Lagerfeld in the Chanel Paris atelier in 1981. She dressed as a giant woollen wattle for the occasion. “Our whole creative life was about looking at this country, about going bush,” she told me in an interview for Australian Vogue. “We didn’t know we were doing something no one else had done; we just did it. We didn’t have a business plan.” That didn’t stop Lagerfeld buying their Opal Oz print and splashing it all over the Chanel runways.

Indeed, some of the most influential style arbiters of our times – Lagerfeld, Isabella Blow, Vivienne Westwood, Zandra Rhodes, John Galliano – are both eccentrics and serious business players. Galliano is the chief designer at Christian Dior; his passions include Joan Crawford and dressing like a pirate; he wears more kohl than Mata Hari, and often pops flowers in the brim of his hat in the manner of Worzel Gummidge. Blow, the outré-aristocrat who was Tatler magazine’s fashion director and the most celebrated wearer of Philip Treacy’s most daring hats, bowed out in 2007 by drinking weedkiller. Not a success in the end, then, at least not in the happiness stakes; but her contribution to the fashion industry was enormous. She was a talent scout extraordinaire, buying up Alexander McQueen’s entire student collection before anybody had heard of that now-infamous design genius.

Fond as he was of a trannie, I imagine Warhol would have appreciated Grayson Perry. The cross-dressing potter, father of one and author of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl gets about dressed as his alter ego, Claire, a smock-frocked child, complete with corn-coloured wig and shiny patent Mary Janes. His explanation? “My idea of manhood was based on bad examples.” Perry was awarded Britain’s Turner Prize in 2003.

Not that I am suggesting you try this at home. I wouldn’t dare – I’d probably have Edward de Bono on my case. That celebrated thinker rejects the notion of the eccentric as alluring and inspiring, preferring the term ‘weirdo’, a type he discourages employers from hiring. “The weirdo idiom implies that creativity can only be applied by a special ‘breed’ of person. This absolves everyone else from needing to be creative. If only the ‘weirdo breed’ can be creative then there is no point, and no need, for anyone else to try,” he snarks. “This is a very considerable danger. Creativity is made inaccessible to everyone else. The worship of weirdos implies the impossibility of creative skills for everyone else.”

With my white hat on, I imagine de Bono as the straight guy in a sea of screwball scientists, grumpy and harrumph-y and genuinely puzzled by why people can’t just behave themselves, think laterally and wear matching socks; but he makes me cross just the same. We were herd animals long before the science guys figured out how to create a partly human sheep. Those who can’t, don’t and won’t bleat have their work cut out for them already, without Rhodes Scholar psychologists becoming management consultants and adding their two penneth. As John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859, in On Liberty:

In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.


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