Goodnight to The Duchess

Very sad to learn of the passing of The Duchess of Alba.


If you know my work, you know I’ve done quite a bit of peerage research over the years. She was the most titled aristocrat alive, and at the time had “the most expensive wedding in the world”. In fact, here are all her official titles, I think….

Doña Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James Stuart y Silva
…XVIII Duchess of Alba de Tormes
XI Duchess of Berwick
XVIII Duchess of Hijar
XI Duchess of Liria and Jerica
III Duchess of Arjona
XVIII Countess of Lerin
XVIII Constable of Navarre and Eibar
XIV Countess-Duchess of Olivares
XVI Marchioness of El Carpio
XVII Countess of Aranda
XXII Countess of Lemos
XIX Countess of Miranda del Castañar
XVII Countess of Monterrey
XX Countess of Osorno
XVIII Countess of Palma del Rio
XX Marchioness of Moya
XVII Marchioness of Orani
XI Marchioness of Osera
XVII Marchioness of San Leonardo
XIX Marchioness of Sarria
XI Marchioness of Tarazona
XVII Marchioness of Valdunquillo
XVI Marchioness of Villanueva del Rio
XX Marchioness of Villanueva del Fresno
IX Marchioness of Almenara
XVI Marchioness of La Algaba
XIV Marchioness of Barcarrota
XVIII Marchioness of Castaneda
XIX Marchioness of Coria
XIV Marchioness of Eliche
XVIII Marchioness of Mirallo
XX Marchioness of la Mota
XIX Countess of Andrade
XVI Countess of Ayala
XX Countess of Villalba
XIV Countess of Casarrubios del Monte
XIV Countess of Fuentes de Valdepero
XI Countess of Fuentidueña
XVII Countess of Galve
XVIII Countess of Gelves
XXIV Countess of Ribadeo
XI Countess of Santa Cruz de la Sierra
XXIII Countess of San Esteban de Gormaz
XI Viscountess of la Calzada
29th Lady of Moguer
Constable of Aragon
Marshal of Castilla
Can you imagine all of that being announced by a herald as she entered the room of a ball or royal function?
Goodnight La Duquesa.

One Of My Favorite Places

I’d like to mention a fun gift for any doctors, history nerds, or the plain morbidly curious people on your gift list. A membership to the Dittrick Museum


At the Friend level you get this sweet book. Even my husband was like ‘woa this book is nice!’ and he’s not even into that kind of thing. But seriously, if you are a fan of even places like Trundle Manor, Loved to Death, Morbid Anatomy, the Natural History Museum, or anything of that sort — I think you will dig it.

As many people know, I have a great affinity for this museum and their lecture series. I began going after my whole cancer to-so and was doing research for my Ephemeral Antidotes series (the second part opens in April 2014) and it grew from there. There’s still a lot to see in the archives and in the book collection; I’ll get around to one of these days. I had no idea this museum even existed, let alone that it was right there in University Circle across from Severance Hall!

Recently, I was asked to be part of a small community outreach committee for the museum, which I’m honored and very excited about! Let’s just say we’ve got some really fun and interesting events and ideas coming to fruition. As I have preached to many people, it’s a fabulous night out for the lectures, but taking a day to go throughout the collections is a history buff’s paradise.

Forceps, Stethoscopes, and Ivory Babies

What are some of the things I do on weekdays? Well, go to the Dittrick Medical History Center, of course. I’m gearing up for my next solo show, and although I know what I’m going to do as far as the medical history inspiration, one can never have done enough research. For the show my area of focus will be the 1400s to maybe the late 1600s, I find it all so fascinating, and it makes me feel better about the annoying scans and procedures I continue to go through at Cleveland Clinic.

I might have  missed her talk (which is available here) but I got a nice little private tour of the new exhibit having to do with birth from Dr. Brandy Schillace. Did you know that midwives will lose their license if they even touch a pair of forceps? Today? Because I sure didn’t.


Paper woman…


Ivory anatomy ladies and their tiny babies. Such beauties…




A week later I attended the opening of the mezzanine exhibit, the M. Donald Blaufox Hall of Diagnostic Instruments, which was donated by Dr. Blaufox after years of extensive collecting.  The opening was paired with a lecture by Joel D. Howell, M.D. which primarily focused on stethoscopes, and how one tool changed the practice of medicine.



(go to the actual exhibit if you can, I took these rather quickly)



You can listen the entire lecture recording here. It’s very interesting to hear from doctors, nurses, and med students about how talking to a patient has been trumped in many ways by just reading test results. As for the question of what things we are doing now that people in the future will look back on and say is silly? I think chemotherapy will be the top practice that future generations will go, “what there they thinking?! That’s terrible!”

By the way, go and visit the Dittrick Blog!

Shoes*Socialites*Patrons*Gluttony: My Book List

Here are a list of some books I’ve enjoyed over the past year (there were plenty I didn’t care for) and thought they’d make good gifts for anyone interested in culture, art, vapid socialites, decor, history, and so forth.

The Louboutin monograph. Jesus! It’s huge, and covers all of his collections. It has a photo spread done by David Lynch, and is a piece of work itself. It weighs a ton!

If you can get a used copy of his full diaries, do it, but if you are a foodie and like history, this slim little book will do just fine. Mr. Pepys has a habit of over eating and being hungover quite often, it’s amazing he was able to do the amount of work he did!

Debra Shriver does what I wish I could do: lives part-time in New Orleans. This is a charming travel guide as much as it is a photographic journey through the restoration and decoration of her French Quarter home. There are some recipes in there, too!

A bit of a biography on Vreeland and all of her cohorts, and full layouts of Harper’s Bazaar they were scanned directly from the books.

A monster of a book with a brief bio of just about everyone! It is divided into categories like the old money, new money, patrons, artists, fashion designers, models, and so on. Famous photos, places they lived, and even scrap books.

Detailing the lives and rivalry between Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent (although it goes into YSL a lot more), includes afterword and reaction from Kaaarl.

I bought this thinking it was a catalog for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This massive tome is a history of the wealthy collecting art and antiquities; but mostly those who built their own museums in America, and the process of acquiring: Huntington, Frick, Barnes, and so on.

Told by the current heir and holder of Knole, the largest great house in England. It goes into the history and geneology of this family and their circles; Samuel Pepys and Virginia Woolf make appearances among other famous scribes. Really it illustrates the decline of the British aristocracy, the problems primogeneture causes, and how holding on to a birthright is not a sustainable business.

Beware the Female Imagination

The other night, I learned the origin of this image that has appeared and changed over centuries in Aristotle’s Masterpiece. The hairy woman, and the black baby. Although originally having nothing to do with each other aside from illustrating the dangers of maternal imagination, they were together on a single woodcut on accident, and thus, have always stayed together until later editions when a black baby meant something very different in America than in Europe. The lady loses the hair eventually, too.

Maternal impression or imagination was the theory that a baby would, or could, look like something the mother imagines or sees. So, if the mother saw something traumatic or awful while pregnant, it would manifest itself onto the baby. This is why pregnant women were told not to go to executions and avoid unpleasant sights as a rule. The book actually tells you how to trick your husband if you are with a lover; just imagine your husband while you are having sex, and then, the baby will still look like your husband. Easy! Here are some babies where the mother had nightmares or saw something terrible….

Any inherited diseases or mutations always got blamed on the mother, of course. Or it was an act of God to punish the mother for some misdeed. Whatever the case, a woman’s imagination is a powerful and dangerous thing that has to be kept in check, otherwise, bad things happen. This book was still in publication until the 1930s and mostly unaltered. In fact, there is some evidence it was still being published into the late 1940s. This is what your grandmothers and every woman before her had to read in order to learn about reproduction and child care. I wonder how people will laugh at our current medical literature in the next few centuries?

A Gold Digger with Style

Peggy Hopkins Joyce

Ziegfeld girl, minor actress, the original gold digger, once owner of the Portuguese Diamond, and famous for quotes such as, ”true love was a heavy diamond bracelet, preferably one that arrived with its price tag intact.” She was one of the original ‘famous for being famous’ women who married often and had affairs and divorces the media couldn’t get enough of.

And boy did she work fast at the gold digging, too. Here is an account given by Lady Thelma Furness from the autobiography Double Exposure she penned with her twin sister, Gloria Vanderbilt.

A few month’s after my son Tony’s birth Duke, Gav and I were dining at the Embassy Club when Peggy Hopkins Joyce walked in. I turned to Duke and said, “Oh there’s Peggy Hopkins”. Duke looked at her appraisingly, then asked, “who the bloody hell is Peggy Hopkins?” I laughed and told him that she was supposed to be one of the most glamorous women in America, and that she had three or four husbands and many admirers — including my first husband. I also told him that I had gone to California for my divorce because of her. (She was the unnamed woman in whose apartent, so the detectives informed me, Junior [Converse] had whiled away so many nights.) Duke did not seem impressed with her beauty, and took pains to make this point clear. I don’t know what insane impulse took possession of me at that moment, but I turned to him and said, “I’ll bet you ten pounds you can’t get her to dance with you.”

“Don’t be silly,” Duke said. “Why should I want to dance with her?”

“Oh, come on, old boy,” Gav put in, “are you afraid she’ll turn you down?”

That did it. “All right,” Duke said to me., “you’ve got yourself a bet”

Duke caught her eye and smiled. Peggy Hopkins looked surprised and a little uneasy. She, of course, knew who I was, but was not sure of Duke. I noticed her beckon to the head waiter and obviously ask who Duke was. I turned to Gav and said, “Now that she knows who he is, watch me lose me bet.” And sure enough, the next time Duke smiled at her, she smiled right back. Duke got up and walked over to her table; in a few minutes they were together on the dance floor.

Duke began to be away more and more. Rumours started to get about that all was not well in the Furness household. I, of course, was the last to hear the gossip, and even if I had heard it, I would not have believed it. A month or so after this dinner Duke came to me and said he was going to Monte Carlo. He had been working very hard and needed a rest. I, of course, thought he meant for me to go as well, but then he informed me that he had planned to go on his own. I was surprised, but I did not think too much about it. A few days later, as I was walking down Bond Street, an acquaintance of mine stopped me and said, “I’m so sorry to hear about you and Duke.” It seemed that everyone knew Duke was staying at Peggy Hopkins’ villa in Monte Carlo, and not at the Hotel de Paris, as he had given me to understand. I was stunned when I walked back home. It couldn’t be! I was just malicious gossip I thought. His daily telephone calls, I was sure, were from the hotel. But were they? I had blissfully believed him when he told me business had kept him away from England so much. But was it business? I had to find out. I placed a personal call to the Hotel de Paris. My heart sank as I heard the operator say, “Viscount Furness is not registered here.”

Twelve Years of Portraits

The National Portrait Gallery of Kessa: The Art of Arabella Proffer will be coming out this December. It won’t include all the portraits I have done over the last twelve years or so, but well over 40 of them including some family trees. The family trees actually started as a way for me to keep track of all the portraits even though not every character appears in it, but putting it all together did make me go a bit crossed-eyed, in fact, there are many portraits yet to be painted that appear in the family trees. I’ll get around to them eventually.

I think this series started with the idea of ancestor worship — as cultivated by the European aristocracy — because I was really making portraits on fake ancestors for myself in the beginning. I did a lot of peerage research and even tried to read up on the Almanache de Gotha, but it got so out of control that I decided to combine the “rules” of different countries since not all adhered to the same standards. Titles, who could marry whom, and things like the tradition of primogeniture — which gave way everywhere except for England.

I also did a lot of costume research (necklines, sleeves and such) to lend mild authenticity when I combine it with my own punk and goth designs. Really to me, Elizabethan fashion is super goth. I don’t know why goths today insist on Victorian garb, because Elizabethan is just as painful to wear, but embellished and designed more beautifully. And thus, from the Renaissance to the Rococo period, I think the punk and goth styling would have worked out very well for the upper-classes. Let’s face it, tattoos, piercings, hair dye, all cost a lot of money. I think it means something different today than it did in the late 70s and early 80s. The early punks and goths certainly didn’t have mohawks or do these things, but for a while these were symbols that you wanted to be seen as an outcast or a criminal. Now, everyone does it, and it has become almost normal rather than rebellious. So I think nobility and people of importance would have used these as status symbols — the fact they could afford it at all. I think the more tattoos, and the bigger your mohawk, the more influential you or your family are. It would have made sense, and when I started to combine the two in my paintings, I thought it looked right. I didn’t want to over-do it with the piercings and stuff, but I liked little hints here and there (a safety-pin, the ultimate punk accessory, an eyebrow ring, part of a tattoo being visible).

The duties to hold on to a place, a title, or any seat in office, and to responsibility to both the dead and future family members to hold tight and improve upon it.
The whole concept of nobility is something Americans tried desperately to get away from, and today it is sneered at in Europe for what it is: a system that is no longer relevant. It was all tied to agriculture, military, and serving the crown. It is a system that has mutated from the middle ages — being the most opulent and ridiculous in the 1700s — and was on a decline until it took the most heavy blow after the 1st world war. But as an American, I can’t help find it fascinating — as do most Americans. Nobility are hard to come by, almost extinct. Funny enough, through the ages they have something in common with any wealthy, political, or important person: they all are in debt.

When you read about these people there were common themes. They tended to be eccentric, or too serious; they were always unhappy; very rarely did anything end well; and no matter how lavish their lives were, something was always amiss. But in general their expectations and the course of their lives was rather predictable. I think this is why my writings are very often mistaken to be real — they sound like something that could have, or did happen. And that’s the point. I think I tend to make my females more independent and strong, however. I’m more interested in them because back through the centuries women were seen as idiots, gossips, clotheshorses and meant for nothing more than breeding — they had the same rights as mentally challenged people, pretty much. They weren’t even allowed to look after their own children if the father died, the oldest son could have his wardship sold since he would inherited the estate and the title. This was especially true in England.

Portraits instead of family photos are something I wish more people would turn to as something to pass down. Going to Europe and looking through old books, they were what I thought was normal — or should be normal. I asked my mom after my father passed away when we were getting a portrait done of him (in all seriousness) and she laughed telling me what bad taste that would be. I was 9, and didn’t think it was bad taste at all. I guess these portraits started as a way of me having my own little gallery of ancestors past. To me it would be no different from having photos out, and at least it can be considered an heirloom. Then again, having to put up with a huge portrait of a mother-in-law you hate in your home — I could see that being annoying. Again, it all goes back to ancestor worship, which I don’t think many Americans are interested in unless you come from well-to-do east coast stock or are of the old Southern aristocracy, and even then.

It’s a subject I’ll always explore and research for fun, and I don’t see this series ending anytime soon. We’ll see what the next twelve years brings.

Short Trip to the Museum of Medical History

My friend Dott and I went to the Museum of Medical History on the Case Western Reserve campus. It has hours that are weird, and the rare books section was by appointment (bah) but we are both very fast when it comes to museums so an hour was all we needed. We do plan on going to this talk, however. Just in time for Halloween!

The building and libraries remind me of places around the Harvard University campus.The museum it self is very small, but the research and archives look to be quite vast. The main exhibit was on contraception and all things related to baby-making. The other exhibits looked like they were in flux, half finished or being moved, but we still saw some cool things and learned interesting facts. Did you know that to drink tea made from a Beaver’s gall bladder (among other parts) was supposed to be a baby blocker? Yep, it’s true.

Here are some photos…

I thought we should start bringing newspapers and brandy, and transform it into our own little club like the men’s clubs of London and New York in the “olden days”….except surrounded by microscopes. We also saw a slide show of old watercolor illustrations from France telling you exactly what will happen if you young men beat your meat too much! Coughing up blood, losing use of your legs, and rotting teeth are just a few of the symptoms, FYI. Also, syphilis is bad…

I need to go back again, the library alone is worth it. Totally geeked out there’s a picture of Babe Paley’s dad, Dr. Cushing, hanging up there, too.

Living Beyond Your Means Never Goes Out of Style

An excerpt from Universal Courtier’s Grammar by Denis Fonvizin, published in 1783.

Question: What Verb is conjugated most frequently of all at Court, and in what Tense? Answer: Even as at Court, so in the Captial, no one lives out of debt; therefore, the Verb conjugated most frequently of all is: to be in debt. (The appended Exemplary Conjugation is in the Present, since that is the Tense most frequently used of all.)

I am in debt.

Thou art in debt.

He, She or It is in debt.

We are in debt.

You, Ye are in debt.

They are in debt.

Question: Is the Verb ever conjugated in the Past Tense? Answer: Ever so rarely — inasmuch as no he or she pays his or her debts. Q: And in the Future Tense? A: The conjugation of this Verb in the Future Tense is in good usage, for it goes without saying that if one be not in debt yet, he or she inevitably will be.

Books About Hot Bitches!

Some things I’m trying to read, or am about to read depending when I get my attention span back to normal.

La Belle Otero: The Last Great Courtesan

The out-of-print English version is short and sweet and gets to the point — although I am curious about the Spanish volume that is thicker and with better pictures. This is a combination of what she said in memoirs but it also has many diary entries from her personal maid which are a fun. She was the Dita von Teese of her time, unfortunately she had a major gambling problem which was her undoing.

Enchantress: Marthe Bibesco and Her World

I knew nothing of Princess Marthe Bibesco beyond the Boldini portrait. Then I saw a reference Cecil Beaton made in his diaries about how she was a writer and friend of Proust; of course Cecil being Cecil, he did nothing but talk of how old and ugly she had gotten — but, she still had good taste in decor — which made up for the fact she was old in his eyes. Never mind her accomplishments or that she was a big ole smarty-pants.

Mae West: She Always Knew How

Most people don’t know that she was a playwright, and that every good line in any movie she made she wrote. There’s a photo of her with Alice Cooper and Keith Moon in one part of the book, so I have a feeling this will be a good one.

Court Lady and Country Wife

If the name Northumberland means anything to you, then meet the Percy sisters. Their daddy got locked up in The Tower for conspiracy in the Guy Fawkes gunpowder plot, but it seems he had no part from what we can tell. No matter, for daddy got treated better in prison than at home by the monster wife it seems and was given all the modern luxuries of the day by the king. So far from what I gather in the first 1/4, Court Lady has all the fun in Jacobean England, while Country Wife is busy being depressed and constantly preggo while her husband can’t seem to land a decent job.

The Duchess of Windsor: The Uncommon Life of Wallis Simpson

Alright, she isn’t hot, but if you like women who are well-dressed and look like an ostrich….I had read The Secret Life of Wallis Simpson and was a little “meh” about it since all it really did was go into what an annoying weirdo the duke was. It digressed way too much, and only liked to highlight the fact Wallis was a mega whore in China, a mega whore in the dressing rooms of Schiaparelli, as well as her and the duke being Hitler lovers and listing other dubious friends. This book seems to be a more even portrait of her. I know the subject is light in calories and she is kind of boring, but I like reading about weird ticks and such. Did you know she always had her money ironed and coins washed before going out for the day?

Diane: A Signature Life

Things have changed and developed since the publication of this book (like the divorce of Alex and Alex), but I wanted to know more about the lady behind my fabulous wrap dress that I got when she re-launched her line in the 90s.  Everyone commented that it showed off my tits a little too much, which being I’m a B cup, I don’t see why that’s a problem! Anyways, she seems like a swell gal. My mom says Barry Diller is gay and isn’t really her man, though. Is that true?