VINTAGE GOSSIP is alive and well in the elegant hands of Amy Phillips Penn, former society columnist for the New York Post. Every Thursday, Amy pens her posts with that same touch of class, making the legends and lore of a bygone era as relevant today as they were when Jackie O was queen of New York.
“Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency,
learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.” — William Shakespeare
Somewhere in our sophomore year of high school, my friend Nina decided that she wanted to take classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She asked me if I wanted to join her. I had no passionate urge to be an actress, no apparent talent, and positively no desire to wake up relatively early on a Saturday and take a bus downtown.
I said, “yes.”
Nina was fun; she and I had experimented with rum and coke together, a binding relationship if ever there was one. Who knew? Perhaps I had a shot of talent in me just waiting to go “Drama Queen with Benefits.” Lee Remick and Julie Harris shared our Alma Mater — perhaps Nina and I were the future Lee and Julie.
Drama school Saturdays were short and far from stimulating. I was the proud owner of my first suede coat. I took care of it as if it were a cherished roommate. Approaching the drama school’s soda machine cautiously, I paid my way into an orange soda. Instead of a cup curtsying politely into place, the orange soda defiantly escaped, and inked a Jackson Pollock-esque imprint on my suede b.f.f. that no dry cleaner could eradicate.
Then there were the classes.
I can’t remember if Nina and I even auditioned for the school, but I was intrigued with taking an acting class or two. There were exactly two times when I had the opportunity to utter a few bon mots with a fellow student.
The speech class was a form of quasi-torture, tick-tocking in an Edgar Allan Poe metronome-like beat. It condescendingly blared that I could be spending the time lying in bed perfecting the art of doing absolutely nothing, at which I excel.
Our speech teacher was overjoyed with the captive audience that he could do his Pygmalion bit for. His voice bordered on British, carefully defying any hint of Brooklyn to escape.
It escaped elsewhere.
There were barbecue accents galore, New Jersey gum chewers, and the quintessential New York accent that is any actor’s joy to mimic. Nina and I were no Eliza Doolittles; we sat in silence. The classes did not improve. I spent more and more Saturdays indulging myself in activities and “lack in thereof” that I relished.
When I returned from a spring break in Palm Beach, there was a letter from the drama school. It suggested that I had not taken their curriculum seriously, and was not expected to return. No tears, no fuss, no muss: so ended my career on the stage.
Tant pis. No more affected speech classes for little moi. Should you choose to throw in a French, English, or Locust Valley accent or lockjaw, do your homework.
Our neighbors in East Hampton arrived in their style Friday afternoons, in a chauffeur driven Rolls Royce, with smoked salmon and caviar from Fraser Morris stowed safely in the air-conditioned back. To add to their sophistication, the lady of the house chose to parler un peu de Francais, and rose to describing someone as tres distingue, which she pronounced as “tress distingy.”
The New York litmus test for pronunciation is best defined in one word: ”La Grenouille,” the name of the famous New York French restaurant. It has been pronounced from the unrecognizable to the “belle laide.” My friend’s mother solved it by saying that she was having lunch at “the frog.”
New York is rich in its unique variety of accents, pedigrees, and histories. When choosing to add a dollop of affectation to your persona, think wisely. New Yorkers can unravel affectations faster than you can say “Ciao, Bella.”
Morris Weissman [on the phone, discussing casting for his movie]:
“What about Claudette Colbert? She’s British, isn’t she?
She sounds British. Is she, like, affected or is she British?”
― Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park: The Shooting Script
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