Gotham Diary:
While Barred Clouds Bloom
8 September 2011

Among other things, I baked a loaf of date-nut bread yesterday. Thomas’s, the only company that knows how to make English muffins, used to offer a date-nut loaf; that’s how I came to like it. At some point, I learned to make it myself, from a recipe in one of James Beard’s books I believe. You begin by soaking a clutch of pitted, chopped dates in a mixture of baking soda and boiling water — not very appetizing. Brown sugar gives the loaf an agreeably burned flavor; if you could grill a piece of cake, this is how what it would taste like. Date-nut bread is hardly more complicated to make than banana bread, but of course nobody has a pile of overripe dates cluttering up the fruit bowl asking to be made better use of. I put walnuts and dried apricots in my banana bread, but even with this “cockaigne” treatment, it still tastes to me like homework. I can still enjoy date-nut bread, either by itself or sandwiching a thick slater of cream cheese.

While I was making the bread and prepping dinner and generally reacquainting myself with my kitchen, I watched My Geisha, the 1962 feature that gives Shirley MacLaine an opportunity to purr on all cylinders. She plays two roles. First, she’s Lucy Dell, a big American movie star, a popular comedienne something like what MacLaine herself was but bigger and more sophisticated — more French, somehow — than Hollywood had room for in those days. Married to Paul Robaix, a Frenchman who has become eminent largely by directing her films (Yves Montand), she is piqued when he decides to make a film version of Madame Butterfly, shot on location in Japan and using real Japanese actors. She thinks that she’d be great in the part, but Paul tells her that Cio-Cio San is “out of her range.” Unless you’ve been living under a rock all your life, you know right away how Lucy is going to respond to this challenge. She’s going to make herself up as “Yoko Mori” and snag that part, with lots of giggling from the geisha who train her to tame her American sprawl. Paul discovers the deception at the last minute, and is deeply wounded — this movie was to be his declaration of artistic independence, but Lucy has stolen it from him — and he retaliates by pretending to make love to Yoko, which of course breaks Lucy’s heart. The final scene of the movie is a tremendously effective reconciliation. While Paul sulks in the wings after the film’s premiere, Lucy comes onto the stage as herself. She was supposed to appear in full geisha fig, and then surprise everyone by pulling off her wig. But Lucy has lost the taste for this kind of stunt. When she tells the audience that Yoko has entered a convent, and that “We will see her no more,” Paul instantly forgives her, and then, while the couple take their bows, he reveals that he made love to her knowing perfectly well who she was. She bows a few more times and then plants her head ecstatically on his chest. It’s terrific.

My Geisha was one of eight-odd titles that came to me while I was out on Fire Island. Black Widow and Brief Encounter were also on the list, along with Compromising Positions, which seems never to have come out on DVD. I didn’t want to see any of these movies while I was on vacation, but rather I enjoyed looking forward to seeing tham, something that doesn’t happen at home. If I conceive a desire to watch a film at home, I want to see it right away. But then that’s what vacation is all about — not doing the thousand and one things that fill up everyday life.

Was that a ray of sunlight just now? It was. But then it vanished. The air is cool and damp and altogether autumnal. The tables on the balcony are splattered with blobs of rainwater that seem in no hurry to evaporate. We’re told to expect a “seasonably warm” weekend, which I think means a high of about eighty; it’s also going to be humid. I do miss the sea breeze that blew through Robbins Rest almost uninterruptedly, just as I miss walking up and down the beach every afternoon for about an hour — both incomparable tonics. But for the most part I”m glad to be back in town with my fall projects. I had a great break in August: I understood better than ever how lucky I am to have the regular life that I do.