salon noir, part one

The other night I went to a salon at an artist’s house in Pasadena.

I love the idea of salons — always have — and how they gave certain European women a prominent and socially accepted role in public/intellectual life.

Germaine de Stael comes to mind, taking time out from her intense love life to help write the 1791 Constitution at the salon where she gathered and entertained the great thinkers of the age.

You don’t really find the American equivalent of that, at least back then.* American women — as Edith Wharton observed in books like Custom of the Country — were treated as fragile superficial creatures to be hidden from the fray and sprawl of public life. And then of course they were dismissed and derided as fragile superficial creatures who knew nothing about business, politics, or public life in general.

As late as the 1960s, female intellectuals like Simone de Beauvoir, even as they struggled against the conventions in their own country (and paid an emotional price for it), expressed shock when they crossed the pond and observed the lives of their American counterparts. You can maybe understand why when you watch a show like Mad Men — which I haven’t done (yet) but hear to be excellent and that it describes, thoroughly and unflinchingly, a whole different era.

I remember a certain dinner table conversation when my ex and I were at St Bart’s. St Bart’s was a fascinating trip all around, but I have never been treated so much like an arm ornament who couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say as when I first encountered the yachts-and-parties vacation culture of that island. It bemused me, and then annoyed me, and then culminated in the aforementioned dinner conversation when the host, an elderly and very wealthy American guy whose name I don’t remember, asked which America was more prepared to accept: a black President or female President. I spoke up, and didn’t even bother to point out that — as a successful well-educated charismatic and very poised individual — Obama hardly plays into anybody’s worst fears, whereas Hilary, with her overt ambition and ball-busting reputation, faced a different situation entirely.

Instead I started to talk about what I’ve been talking about in this post, when the old rich dude leaned over to my ex-husband and chuckled, “What have you been doing to her?”

E chuckled back, patted my hand the way you pat a child’s, and the conversation shifted in a different direction. I leaned back in my chair, realizing I had been more or less shut out, which only proved the point I hadn’t been able to make. I excused myself, took the kids down to the beach and brought the matter up with E when he came to collect us. I asked him to please tell people that I was a published novelist as well as wife/mother/tall blonde with fashionista tendencies. E’s way of doing this throughout the rest of the trip: “Justine wants me to tell you that she’s written novels,” which made people look at me like oh, that’s just so cute and didn’t really help my case.

I guess you could say he tried.

*Arianna Huffington is known for the political salon she hosts at her home in Brentwood; my film producer friend Octavian (who used to appear fairly regularly in this blog) is a regular.

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