May 09, 2009

We had a preview of sultry August here last week, with temperatures going as far up as 93° Fahrenheit in Central Park, filled to the brim by girls in their summer dresses, and others less modest in their tiny bikinis. For some strange reason, one doesn’t notice men in their summer best, not that men dress nowadays for a walk among the magnolias and cherry blossom. Summer is etched in my psyche as the time for girls. The acrid tang of heat emanating from the sidewalks, the breezes of late afternoon, the whiff of perfume of a passing beauty all help. Summertime was a dress rehearsal of coming manhood, the realisation that sooner or later one would fall desperately in love and lie drugged with pleasure on the grass with the girl of one’s dreams.

Well, believe it or not that’s how it turned out. One falls in love quicker during summertime. One’s senses are more acute, especially down south. On the beautiful University of Virginia campus, laid out by Thomas Jefferson himself, along the serpentine wall, I used to follow a southern belle around like a dog, quoting from Fitzgerald to no avail.

Then came May, the magnolias went into bloom, and Mary Blair finally came round. Ceiling fans went into overtime, pitchers of lemonade spiked with gin were produced, Mary Blair put on her white crinoline dress, and after tennis we lay out on the grass whispering sweet you-know-whats to each other. I was 19 and she had never been kissed, at least the French way, as it was called back then. She had a fan with an ivory handle, and her skin was the whitest I had come across. A tiny black cross on her chest accentuated her luminosity, as did her Scotch-Irish, blue-black hair and eyes.

That long-ago romance lies fixed in summertime, the sounds and scents of those endless days as vivid as yesterday. The sultriness of the south, Mary Blair’s sunny disposition, the pure poignancy of youthful love, all accentuated by prodigious amounts of gin — that’s what I call living. No wonder I never hit the books, and I don’t regret it for a second. Heat has young men thirsting for young women, and southern heat is known to drive men crazy. For one brief moment last week I felt young and southern again, but when the heat wave broke reality caught up with me. Mary Blair is now 71 and has four grandchildren. She still lives in Virginia but we haven’t spoken in years. Mind you, I’d rather keep the memories intact.

Edward Hopper, the greatest of American painters, the master of loneliness and nostalgia, captured the beauty of summer in his ‘Summertime’, a picture of a girl standing on the steps of a classic pillared entrance of a house, her pretty white legs half covered in shade, a straw hat with a black ribbon covering her flowing reddish hair. Hopper loved to depict people taking the sun. Very few of his countless paintings show wintertime. In ‘Hotel Room’, a woman sits partly naked on a bed, but the light is natural, pouring through a white curtain. In ‘Hotel by a Railroad’, an elderly couple sit and stand by an open window, she reading, he contemplating the sun beating against the ochre walls outside. In ‘Chair Car’, a woman reads sitting in a railcar, using natural light. ‘Sunlight in a Cafeteria’, a 1958 oil, and one of his best, is self-explanatory. As are ‘Summer in the City’, and ‘Seawatchers’. ‘Sunlight on Brownstone’, ‘Excursion into Philosophy’, ‘Early Sunday Morning’, ‘Eleven A.M.’, ‘Cape Cod Morning’, ‘High Noon’, ‘Morning Sun’ all show light, space, solitude, dignity and the loveliness of summer. Ironically, his most famous painting, ‘Nighthawks’, takes place at dark, in an old-fashioned corner drugstore.

My other favourite American painter, Norman Rockwell, illustrated flags, mom and apple pie America, mostly a summertime America, with boys playing baseball, running to the swimming hole, grazing their knees, with dogs chasing them while mom peeled potatoes in the kitchen. No Hogarthian misery in Rockwell’s work, no puerile, fraudulent portraits by Picasso, just old-fashioned charm and self-effacing dignity, as art should be.

Irwin Shaw’s wonderful short story Girls in their Summer Dresses perfectly captured the magic of summer and what it does to young men and women. All of us associate summer with heat, heat being good, cold the opposite. Youth associates summer with freedom from the slavery of school, especially boarding school. Summers lasted longer back then, when all men seemed to wear panama hats and white suits, and the ladies acted like, well, ladies. It’s all so far away now, but for two brief sweltering days it all came back. Then it was back to reality. A New York magazine described Philip Green and his wife Tina as English nobility due to that handle Tony Blair handed to them so I knew I was back in the real world.


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