Novelist Glenda Ruby Conjures Up A “Death at Olana”
By Marilyn Bethany
The fictional character of Lindsey Brooks, an expert on antiques, fell into sleuthing early in her career at the behest of an acquaintance in law enforcement who understood what convenient containers antiques can be for smuggling contraband. In addition to running an international auction house, Miss Brooks has, over the years, occasionally partnered with the authorities, sharing her insider’s instinct for suspicious deals, as well as for spotting false bottoms, hidden drawers, and hollow legs. Now retired to a riverfront house in the Hudson Valley, she finds herself re-enlisted by the local sheriff to help solve a crime that was committed perilously close to home.
Thus begins Death at Olana, a novel by Glenda Ruby (below), a New York marketing executive. Ruby and her partner Ros Daly have lived part time for the past 30 years in a riverfront house that is a veritable stone’s throw from Olana, the c.1870 quasi-Persian pile built by Hudson River School painter Frederic Church.
RI: Death at Olana is your first published novel. What compelled you to start a new career writing fiction just when so many of your contemporaries are happily kicking back?
GR: I’ve always written fiction… short stories or casuals, mostly. Also poetry, back in the days when men were men and tables were round. But it’s the classic mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James, and Ruth Rendell that have captured my imagination since childhood. Not just the meticulously planned plots, the cleverly placed clues, but the wit and irony we find in Poirot, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, Tommy and Tuppence, Adam Dalgliesh, and Inspector Wexford. Even Kate Atkinson, who also writes brilliant, serious fiction, is unable to resist creating a hapless detective, Jackson Brodie. All of these characters exist in and grapple with the human condition. That is what I am writing about, really. I have always wanted to try my hand at mystery writing, and I find it is great fun.
RI: It shows in the work! Your book is filled with amusing insights into a familiar social dynamic hereabouts: the inevitable tensions that arise between administrators, staff, board members, and donors at not-for-profits. Have you personal experience sitting on such boards?
GR: Years ago, when we first moved here, I had no time to devote to boards, and I suspect the moment has passed. We have always, of course, supported fund-raising by attending galas, dinners, fetes, parties, etc. I have offered my marketing expertise on a pro bono basis several times but have no takers, as yet. I had a great idea to change the name of the Thomas Cole House to the Thomas Cool House, but that seemed not to fly…
RI: Every sleuth needs a Watson and yours is, to my mind, a paragon: Bennett, Lindsey’s post-modern butler, combines the usual duties of driving, mixology, etc. with stepping in as madam’s date for cocktail and dinner parties, as well her companion at table when she’s dining in alone. Not quite a husband (Bennett keeps his place), he’s no forelock-tugging Carson or Jeeves either. What a dreamboat! How did you come up with the divine Bennett?
GR: Who among us has not wanted a handsome butler even if he isn’t named Rhett?!??!
RI: Your novel is more Agatha Christie than John le Carré. Can you tell us a little about how these genres are faring in the fraught publishing industry right now?
GR: It’s complicated. Publishers seem to feel The Thriller is the genre of the moment. It is very important to have a high body count in the first few pages, blow ‘em up, slash ‘em, etc. Gore is good, dismemberment gets remembered, but keep the writing simple. Without naming names, most best-sellers today are written at a 6th-grade level. Christie and the others I mentioned are not interested in lurid writing. John le Carré, whose niche is espionage, sells well but not as well as, say, David Baldacci; that is because le Carré’s books are, in fact, literature, and fewer people are comfortable reading literature. Christie is the largest selling author after Shakespeare and still sells 5 million books each year. In 2002, her publisher did a relaunch and books first published 50 years ago went back on the best-seller lists. She, of course, has been criticized for not writing particularly well; she has a very straightforward style—this is offset, however, by the intricacy of her plots and the psychology of the characters.
RI: In addition to its mordant humor, your novel delights with its erudition, not just about Frederic Church and art history in general, but about the region. The travelogue you provide of the Amtrak route between Hudson and Penn Station—one of the best train rides of all time—is priceless. Is it incumbent on authors of this type of mystery to keep us engaged above and beyond the central question of who-done-it?
GR: I think the mise en scene is important in any genre. Christie and Sayers write about an England that probably never existed but that one nonetheless likes to remember fondly. The rich history of our Valley is fascinating. And there is always more to know. We who live here are thrilled to learn about the area because we love it so. And you must admit the inhabitants—past and present—are colorful, to say the very least.
RI: (At left, the porch where plots thicken for both the author and her protagonist.) I understand you are working on a second novel. Please say it’s about another historic house in the region. Murder at Hyde Park, perhaps? The private life of the Roosevelts (that mother! that marriage!) is such a rich vein.
GR: A Murderous Summer at Bard. So far, three people have died but I’m only half-way through. Things may get worse. The third novel, busily gestating, involves pirates and buried treasure, always a crowd-pleaser.
Death at Olana, by Glenda Ruby, published by Greendale Books, is available at Olana; Thomas Cole National Historic Site; The Hudson Train station; Spotty Dog, Hudson; Oblong Books, Rhinebeck and Millerton; Rural Residence, Hudson, and online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Paperback, $20; Kindle edition, $9.95(1) Comments
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Books: “Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley” A Vicarious Pleasure
By Dan Shaw
The imaginary line that divides Connecticut’s Litchfield County from New York’s Columbia, Dutchess and Putnam Counties became very real to Jane Garmey as she researched and wrote her beautiful new coffee table book, Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley. “When I began work on the book, I did not know how intensely rural this part of New York still was,” says Garmey, who published the stunning Private Gardens of Connecticut three years ago. “I was also unprepared for the grandeur of the landscape. The sweeping valleys and large open tracts of land are remarkably different from the gentler, more protected countryside of Connecticut. Inevitably, terrain plays a role in making a garden, and dealing with the transitions between a cultivated garden and its natural surroundings is a problem that had to be confronted and solved in nearly every one of the gardens profiled here.”
If you are looking to this book for inspiration and feel daunted by the gardens’ scope and ambition, Garmey wants you to know that these are the creations of enlightened amateurs. “Few of these garden makers were in any way knowledgeable when they started out,” says Garmey, who was a novice gardener herself thirty years ago when she started spending weekends in northwestern Connecticut. “Most admit that at first they were entirely focused on their houses and gave little or no thought to the surrounding land and its suitability, or lack thereof, as a gardening habitat.”
The twenty-six gardens photographed by Garmey’s collaborator, John Hall, are the creations of passionate, if not obsessive, gardeners. There are great estates like Edgewater, which is owned by the renowned American furniture collector Richard Jenrette, who purchased the property that juts into the Hudson River from the writer Gore Vidal in 1969; he has created a refined, majestic landscape suitable for his Federal house built in the 1820s by the Livingston family. Amy Goldman‘s estate is more of a well-groomed laboratory where the Ph.D in pyschology cultivates melons and tomatoes, winning 38 blue ribbons in a single year at the Dutchess County Fair. Her books on the subject have become classics (and Martha Stewart asks her for advice.)
Garmey even found an urban garden in the city of Hudson. Richard Eagan’s backyard was originally a “big long dreary space,” but now it is an enchanted jungle full of thistles, verbascum and milkweed. There is a pond surrounded by gravel and a narrow entry path so visitors must walk through single file. “Different in every season, this garden is all about looking through, looking over, looking under, and all the other ways of looking,” says Garmey, whose book is truly an eye-opener.
While most of the gardens were photographed in spring and summer, there are gorgeous autumn shots of Frederic Rich’s riverfront property in Philipstown, where he boldly sited a Zen garden in the woods. Inspired by the rock gardens of Japan, Rich designed the Zen garden as a calculated abstraction. “The placement of the rocks and gravel in this garden appear completely natural but, in fact, nothing is left to chance,” says Garmey. “Each rock in the tableau sits on part of a grid and even the direction the rocks are leaning has been carefully worked out.”
One of Garmey’s criteria for choosing gardens was that the owners had a hands-on involvement in designing and maintaining their properties (which doesn’t mean they don’t have hired help to assist with weeding and mowing.) Since the book has only a couple of photographs of snow-covered landscapes, one wonders what these gardeners do from November to March when the ground is frozen. “I’d love to know!” says Garmey. “Some move into their greenhouses and others, like Richard Eagan, shut down their garden and take off for warmer climates.” And for those of us who are wintering in the Hudson Valley, the Berkshires or Litchfield Hills, Garmey’s book allows us to dream lavishly about the spring and summer to come.
Private Gardens of the Hudson Valley
New York City Book Party hosted by Bunny Williams
Tuesday, October 22 from 6-8 p.m.
418 East 75th Street
Columbia County Book Party
Hudson Opera House
Saturday, November 23 from 5 - 7 p.m.
327 Warren St.
Hudson, NY 12534
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“Love Where You Live” - Hammertown’s Mantra Is Now A Book, Too
By Dan Shaw
If grown-up life is really high school all over again and again, then the Rural Intelligence region finally has a yearbook thanks to Joan Osofsky of Hammertown: Love Where You Live: At Home in the Country, a coffee-table design tome published by Rizzoli that features 18 country houses in Berkshire, Columbia, Dutchess and Litchfield counties. You won’t find any manicured estates or McMansions in Love Where You Live, but you will probably see the houses of at least a few people you know from our neck of the woods including Bobby Houston & Eric Shamie of Alford, MA; Diane Love & Bob Frye of Millerton, NY; Rob Bristow & Pillar Proffitt of Lakeville, CT; Susan Orlean & John Gillespie of Gallatin, NY; Miles & Lillian Cahn, who founded Coach Leatherware and created Coach Farm in Pine Plains, NY, which is renowned for its exquisite goat cheese.
While many of the featured homes are furnished with upholstery, rugs, and lighting from one of the three Hammertown stores—in Great Barrington, Pine Plains and Rhinebeck—they are also full of items from beloved local resources with national reputations such as Michael Trapp Antiques and Ian Ingersoll Cabinetmakers in West Cornwall, CT; Copake Auction in Copake, NY; Hunter Bee in Millerton, NY; Pergola Home and Privet House of New Preston, CT; Rural Residence and Stair Galleries in Hudson, NY.
Osofsky and her collaborators—writer Abby Adans of Ancram, NY, and John Gruen of Lakeville, CT—understand and appreciate the nuances of rural living and they’ve assembled a book that celebrates and deconstructs modern country style. “What all of these homes have in common is their respect for the landscape,” observes Osofsky, a former school teacher and farmer’s wife, who’s been a retailer in our region for nearly 30 years. “Everybody decorates with an eye to the outdoors.”
Unlike standard contemporary design books that are chockablock with houses decorated soup-to-nuts by brand-name interior designers, the aptly titled Love Where You Live features houses that are clearly reflections of their owners sensibilities, and most are filled with with books, crafts and paintings by local artists. “They have a collected look,” says Osofsky. “They have been put together over time. When people come to Hammertown to shop, we never try to sell them everything they need because their homes will end up looking like a store! We encourage them to explore all of the other wonderful retailers and dealers in our area, too.”
Every savvy real-estate agent in our area should give this book to their potential clients so they will understand our region’s soul. The houses are not “aspirational” in the Architectural Digest or Elle Decor sense. You would never mistake them for houses in Greenwich or the Hamptons. But they are exactly what thoughtful, sensitive people aspire to: homes where dogs jump on the furniture, wood fires burn in the hearth, and guests are not required to remove their shoes before entering the living room.
The book’s inclusive spirit is a reflection of Osofsky’s commitment to giving back to the community. Its launch party at the Pine Plains store on Saturday, Sepetember 21, coincides with an annual fundraiser for the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation. The Rhinebeck store will have a book signing on Friday, September 20, and the Berkshires book signing on Sunday, September 29, will be at Chesterwood, the historic home Daniel Chester French, where Hammertown decorated the guest cottage last year. As much as the book has its roots in our region, the philosophy behind it has a universal message. “Everybody,” says Osofsky, “should love where they live.”(0) Comments
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All’s Welles That Ends Welles: A New Book From Chatham Film Festival’s Peter Biskind
By Sam Pratt
One afternoon in Los Angeles in 1983, Richard Burton cautiously approached Orson Welles’ usual table at Ma Maison, to ask if he could bring Liz Taylor over to meet him. Welles rudely shooed both away. Now, with the publication of Vanity Fair critic and Chatham Film Festival honcho Peter Biskind‘s newest book “My Lunches with Orson,” anyone can have a chance once denied even to Hollywood royalty: to sit on Welles’ left at Wolfgang Puck’s exclusive restaurant, where actor-director Henry Jaglom discreetly taped their weekly luncheons. Following swiftly on the heels of his January book, Down and Dirty Pictures, Biskind — a renowned film critic and Hollywood historian — has selected the choicest cuts from those meals during the last three years of Welles’ life. Rural Intelligence attended a recent book party held for Biskind in Spencertown at the home of his neighbors Ruth Reichl and Michael Singer, and later chatted with him about the genius behind Citizen Kane, and many other achievements, gifts, and letdowns.
SP: Orson Welles comes across here as the ultimate dinner party guest — full of juicy anecdotes, piercing insights, and score-settling jabs at his famous friends, from Kenneth Tynan to Greta Garbo. Are these stories he had told countless times before, or is he opening up to Jaglom?
PB: Welles felt quite relaxed with Jaglom, so his stories about people like Chaplin and Bogart arise naturally from the conversation. But that doesn’t preclude the fact that he probably told these stories a millon times. For Welles it wasn’t possible to be totally spontaneous. But here he’s much looser than in his ‘official’ interviews. For example, he feels relaxed enough to tell plenty of politically incorrect jokes — sexist, racist, homophobic jokes which are in pretty poor taste. Yet he does it in sort of a lovely way, so in spite of it all I wasn’t offended. Maybe if he had been telling anti-Semitic jokes I would have felt differently.
So a lot of the material in this book he may have said many times in private, but had never appeared before in print. I think that’s what he had in mind with Jaglom: Having the last words on himself.
SP: These conversations serve almost as a substitute autobiography for Welles, at a time in the ’80s when various competing biographies were buffeting or burnishing his reputation. To what extent can readers assume he is a reliable narrator? Or does it matter?
PB: Welles always made a point of mythologizing himself. But he is also very self-deprecating, and it is charming. If you were Orson Welles, it would be hard not to realize that you peaked with your first movie, and it’s been downhill ever since. That was especially hard for someone as smart as Welles. He always felt that he was the smartest guy in the room, and usually he was. But he hadn’t made a film in years.
He still had the breadth of experience and intelligence and story-telling skills, but he was deteriorating. He imagined a point when he wouldn’t even be able to physically make a film, even if he found the money. There also was a whole anti-Welles faction he wanted to combat, such as [New Yorker film critic] Pauline Kael, whose [since debunked] argument that [Herman] Mankiewicz co-wrote Citizen Kane really galled him.
SP: Welles is revealed here as remarkably erudite. He reads Montaigne, cites Heidegger, discuses Sartre, explains Austro-Hungarian cultural history, renders verdicts on Napoleon and LBJ. He seems omniverous in his interests and opinions, passing judgment on everyone from James Joyce to Joan Rivers.
PB: Welles’ conversation is like a cultural roller-coaster; he could speak intelligently on such a huge spectrum of subjects. It’s sort of breathtaking, even if you don’t agree with him. Jaglom would challenge him on something that seemed nutty, and he would always come back with a brilliant explanation. His opinions were so original, and he would never back down.
SP: Jaglom has his moments, but comes across as mostly a sounding board—like Wallace Shawn humoring André Gregory. Was he mainly trying to draw his friend out for posterity, or was it just that Welles dominated every conversation?
PB: That was just the nature of their relationship. Welles was a very dynamic figure, and a lot times he was talking about things Jaglom didn’t know anything about, such as his relationships with much older actors. At one point he gives an amazing explanation of the history of clowns, and how Chaplin’s genius was to meld two different traditions of clowning.
Welles was not just a sponge, regurgitating stories. He was a very reflective, thoughtful, original guy. Imagine if he had taken a different path — he could have had the career of Elia Kazan or John Huston, of whom he was jealous. There were so many roads he didn’t take. He talks about how he turned down directing Tennessee Williams. He even talks about running for Senator in California. Imagine him instead of Alan Cranston! In a way it was a shame he ever went to Hollywood .
SP: Welles talks wistfully about wanting “a Verdi ending,” a burst of productivity and genius late in life. But at other times he appears to work against himself, as in one disastrous pitch to an HBO producer which was recorded at Ma Maison. Did he fear actually securing funding for another project, due to the wildly high expectations any new Welles production would face?
PB: [Easy Rider producer] Bert Schneider said that Welles was just ‘frozen.’ He didn’t think Welles could make another movie. Schneider claims he offered to back Welles in the late ’60s or early ’70s, but Welles wouldn’t commit.
I got the feeling that he overthought everything. He always had an excuse for not going ahead. When a producer came to him with The Cradle Will Rock [about Welles’ theater company resisting pressure from the House Committee on Un-American Activities], he suddenly had reservations about “cannibalizing” himself in his first return to directing. Right off the bat, he hesitates, and reasons against himself.
The later years were a perfect storm of Welles being both his own worst enemy, and also really being in difficult circumstances. It wasn’t solely that he defeated himself.
SP: Welles keeps demanding perfection, at the same time that he’s very willing to experiment. At one point he spends a lot of time strategizing about how to trick some French backers into thinking he’d shoot in 35mm, when he really wanted to use a crude 16mm camera for some aesthetic reason.
PB: That’s part of what makes Welles seem so contemporary now. He was struggling to make another movie, so he would choose techniques and fundraising strategies that we now associate with today’s independent filmmakers. He would have liked to make more “essay films” like F For Fake. But it was too clever for his audience, too far ahead of his time.
SP: Welles’ conversation sometimes has this sublime-yet-ridiculous quality… He’s hyper-conscious of his accomplishments, and eager to demonstrate his continued command of all his artistic powers, at the same time that he’s totally besieged by banal problems: Tax collectors hound him; flaky directors dangle offers at him, then reneg; waiters bring the wrong dishes; his arm falls asleep under his ex-wife; toward the end, even his knee brace betrays him. Yet he’s still the great Orson Welles. Should readers read the book as pathos, or vindication, or both?
PB (pictured at right): All of the above. If I had to reach for an overarching metaphor, Welles reminds me of Gulliver’s Travels in Lilliputia. He’s a giant talent tied down by pettiness — incapacitated by tiny little people. It’s not a very flattering image, but to some degree it rings true.
SP: As a film critic, editor, and Hollywood historian, probably you were less surprised by his stories than most. But were there any parts that really floored you — took you by surprise?
PB: I didn’t quite realize the breadth of Welles’ political involvement. The book includes his comments about France during World War II, and his changed attitude toward Nazi collaborators. He decided that people like Maurice Chevalier weren’t as culpable as he had once felt. He came to see that sitting next to a Hollywood swimming pool was not the place for criticizing people’s choices of being killed or not killed. Then in other cases he can’t put politics aside, for example with On the Waterfront. [ED.’S NOTE: Director Elia Kazan provided names of alleged Communists during the McCarthy hearings in the ’50s, and Welles felt that Kazan used the film to justify that betrayal.]
SP: There’s a mixed current of pride, humor, and frustration running through the conversations. Welles sends up his own vanity one moment, then the next brags that “I do not have on my record a single clear-cut artistic failure.” Do you agree with his self-assessment?
PB: Outside of his one unalloyed work of genius [Kane], it’s kind of a mixed bag. I recently re-watched Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, and both have problems. There’s brilliant stuff in them — Welles’ own performance in Touch of Evil is one of the greats, especially when he’s onscreen with Marlene Dietrich. But then there are the ridiculous performances by Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh. You start rooting for the leather-jacketed druggie delinquents to toss her in the river.
SP: Are you planning to show anything at the Chatham Film Festival this fall which you’d characterize as Wellesian? Will you do anything related to the book?
PB: I haven’t even begun choosing the films yet! I don’t start until the New York Film Festival makes its selections… Last year I had hopes for Cloud Atlas, but I didn’t think it worked very well.
Anyway, I don’t want to use the Festival to promote my own work. Maybe I’ll show Citizen Kane just for the hell of it, so people can see it on a big screen. The intelligence behind his films, and the technical things he accomplishes, are one of a kind. It’s a tour de force, technically, and acting-wise, and script-wise. There aren’t many people with his kind of boldness.
SP: I gather you’re working on another book already.
PB: I’ve finished the first chapter, a bit of cultural criticism called Adventures in Extreme Culture. I’m arguing that various movies and TV shows that once would have been marginalized are now mainstream. For example, Avatar. American soldiers are the villains, and the aliens are victims or heros. It turns the whole War of the Worlds paradigm inside out. That was the biggest grossing film of all time, which shows how far we are from 1954.
My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles
Edited by Peter Biskind (Metropolitan Books, 320 pages, 2013)
Read an excerpt of My Lunches With Orson here.
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Back In The Saddle: Laura Chester Rides Out the Storm of Transition
All photos courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books
By Nichole Dupont
Laura Chester does not like to dwell in the past, especially her own. That’s why the veteran author and horsewoman decided to write a book about it; to get some of that stuff out. But make no mistake, Riding Barranca, Chester’s latest memoir (Trafalgar Square Books, May 2013), is not a melancholy, regrettable foray into a crappy childhood seen through the bitter eyes of a jaded author. It is a journey — both geographical and metaphorical — surveyed through the high-up lens of a wise woman on horseback; one whose greatest solace and joy stem from her daily jaunts through known and unknown territory. Whether it is negotiating the rugged terrain of the Canelo Hills or repairing a broken relationship with her dying mother, Chester chronicles the hurt and healing balm of a whirlwind year all with the help of her larger-than-life equines.
“It’s important not to live your life as a mistreated child,” Chester says in a phone interview from her Patagonia, Arizona, ranch where she rides out the winter months until returning to the family home in Alford, Massachusetts. “You need to retrain yourself from childhood to a certain degree. You work it out. Just like you work out the kinks with a horse. You move on bit by bit.”
Chester will be sharing some of her story on Saturday, June 1, at the Geoffrey Young Gallery at 40 Railroad Street in Great Barrington in conjunction with an exhibit aptly entitled The Goddess. Of course, this story wasn’t the easiest to write.
“I had a totally different manuscript that I gave to my brothers to look at,” she says. “They were pretty angry about it and had a strong, negative reaction. After my dad died he left 83 scrapbooks behind and they were pretty revealing. I decided not to use that information in the final manuscript. It’s not a tell all. That’s not what I wanted to do.”
What Chester did do was intertwine her various riding expeditions, particularly on the back of her favorite Missouri Fox Trotter horse, Barranca, with snippets of memory from her childhood growing up in Wisconsin and her dealings with her late mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. The result is a memoir that spans years and continents, all revealed with a calm rhythm, just as if you were on a trail ride, lost in thought.
“I felt that combining the two was a natural way to integrate the whole story,” she says. “There is this underlying anger that I had to work through. And usually, I work through a lot when I’m riding and away from everything else. I figured it was about time that I came to some peace with my mom.”
That tenuous peace is outlined in the italicized sections of the book, in which Chester dips into past recollections about her father’s careless behavior and her mother’s snake-strike anger. But the author doesn’t reside in these moments for too long. Everything comes back to center when she is with Barranca, whether tackling the Guajolote Flats (in Arizona) where drug smugglers (and rattlesnakes) are known to hide or enjoying the silence of a snow-covered Berkshire forest. There is also a delightful bit of unpretentious name-dropping: Vogue it-girl Arizona Muse; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Phil Caputo; Legends of the Fall author Jim Harrison — all neighbors and longtime riding companions. And travel, too, as she globe trots (literally) to visit her son and grandchildren in Australia, take a family vacation to India, and a ladies’ sojourn to Mexico. At each place, Chester jumps on an equine, testing out cultures by the view from the saddle.
“I’m not pretending to be this magnificent horsewoman,” she says, laughing a little at herself. “There’s always so much to learn. All of my horses have gotten better in time – more settled. Not that different from us. If we’re treated right.”