Friday, September 12, 2014

Privileged to Know

by Jean Roberta

I’m fascinated by celebrity culture: the general perception, fuelled by the media, that we, the mass audience, have relationships with people we only “know” because we’ve seen their images so often.

Once in awhile, I discover that I’m actually less than six degrees away from someone famous. Years ago, I discovered a handwritten sonnet by Robert Frost in a hardcover book that belonged to my mother. She told me that her friend Harry had given it to her some time in the 1930s. Harry’s aunt, editor of The Saturday Review, had printed the poem and then offered it to her nephew: no big deal. I suspect there might still be some hand-written sonnets by William Shakespeare and Percy Shelley in someone’s family archives.

This week, I learned that my old friend, a brilliant hairdresser and drag queen (the only one in town who can impersonate Her Majesty in a way that doesn’t look satirical), is grieving for Joan Rivers because they had a personal connection. Apparently he struck up a friendship with her in 2009 when he did her hair and makeup before she performed at the local casino show lounge. According to him, she was blunt and so was he. She chased an incompetent (unionized) dresser out of her dressing-room, so my friend took over. They understood each other.

He learned that she had a cottage in the Hamptons; he told her that he has a cottage in the Saskatchewan version of the Hamptons (ha – a lakefront property on the prairie). Ever since then, he told me, they had exchanged a “Hamptons-to-Hamptons” phone call in the first week of August. During this year’s chat, he had no idea that it would be their last.

My friend told me that he was notified as soon as Joan passed away, before the media was on it. When the news became public, he posted a 2009 backstage photo of Joan standing between him and his husband on Facebook.

Seeing myself in the mirror in my friend’s hair salon, I thought I looked a bit like Joan Rivers in her latest photos. (Actually, he gave me my usual bob, but I hadn’t noticed the resemblance before. Mine is an undyed silver-grey.)

I’m probably the opposite of those people who think they have personal relationships with celebrities. I always get a certain frisson from hearing that they live in the same world with me.

I am also fascinated by secrets. It intrigues me that for many people in the past, sex was below the radar of what could be acknowledged, even within marriage. Yet sex has happened in every generation, and sometimes it rises to the level of general public awareness.

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, the only person I knew of named Richard Burton was a movie actor who had a scandalous affair with Elizabeth Taylor – while both were married to other people. When I looked through my parents’ library for something to read, I was attracted by the name “Sir Richard Burton” on the cover. I hoped the book was juicy, and I was not disappointed.

The Perfumed Garden, originally written in Arabic by Sheikh Nefzawi during the Islamic Golden Age (some time in the late 1300s or early 1400s by Christian reckoning) probably would have remained unknown to an English-speaking audience if an eccentric English scholar and world traveller, Richard Burton, hadn’t translated it in the Victorian Age (1886). This translation of a sex manual was as scandalous in its time as the later Richard Burton’s sexual behaviour, and the translator’s books (including the Kama Sutra of India) were privately printed. It seems unlikely that any mainstream publisher of the time would have taken them on.

Although this book includes chapters explaining which men and women are to be “held in contempt” (because they are “ugly” or “ill-formed”), and a chapter about the “deceits and treacheries of women,” I was able to overlook various blatant prejudices because the descriptions of sex were like nothing I had ever read before. Here is a seduction scene in which a married woman is tempted by a charming trickster:

Hamdonna threw herself upon Bahloul, took his member between her hands and began to look at it. She was astonished at its size, strength and firmness, and cried: “Here we have the ruin of all women and the cause of many troubles. O Bahloul! I never saw a more beautiful dart than yours!” Still she continued keeping hold of it, and rubbed its head against the lips of her vulva till the latter part seemed to say: “O member, come into me.”

Even though the illicit act that follows seems likely to be “the cause of many troubles,” the woman is clearly expressing her own will; at Bahloul’s urging, she even sits astride him. In the end, both of them get away with it, and the woman’s husband never finds out.

Since then, I’ve wondered if the original Arabic version or Sir Richard’s translation featured the first talking vulva in literature, even if it only seems to proposition a cock.

This book was the first sex manual I remember reading, and now it holds a cherished place in my erotic library. In 2009, when my friend was grooming and dressing Joan Rivers, my parents were leaving this world. (My mother went first, in March, and my father followed six months later.) Later, my sisters and I divided up their stored belongings, including their books. I claimed The Perfumed Garden, and I was glad that no one objected. I couldn’t help wondering what effect this book might have had on our parents.

Some secrets seem destined to stay with the people who kept them.



  1. Perhaps the moral of this tale is that famous people are not really any different from anyone else. I've often thought that fame must be terribly inconvenient.

    A few years ago I read the first volume of Burton's tale about traveling incognito to Mecca to participate in the Haj. His mixture of courage and arrogance made him simultaneously fascinating and irritating.

  2. Jean:
    My they could pour out the purple prose. And talk about IBP (independent body parts) a talking vulva-that nearly had me spraying coffee all over the keyboard.

    1. If you put your ear real close, you can hear the ocean in there.

    2. More coffee on the keyboard. But there is also something deeply symbolic for those of us enchanted with life long allure of women.

  3. What a delightful post, Jean. You've covered bases from an ancient sex manual to the Richard Burtons to Joan Rivers. Nicely tied together. Kudos!

  4. Jeez Louise. I wrote a reply, thanking all of you for commenting, then I clicked on "Google" in the box next to "Comment as." I didn't see what else to do. I then clicked on "Publish," and my reply disappeared. Now my name (Jean Roberta) appears in the box, so when I click on "Publish," my reply will probably appear. But meanwhile, my first reply has vanished into the ether. I bet Lisabet is tech-savvy enough to explain this.

    1. I'm always commenting way after you, but I've consistently had this problem for a while now. It seems like Google insists on eating my first comment attempt on every page. My solution is to write my comment in a text file so it's not lost when it's inevitably eaten. This is a stupid workaround to have to use, but it does help.

  5. Jean:
    You've obviously angered the silicone gods who demand human sacrifice.

  6. I'll put in another plug for Burton. One of the first sexy things I came across was an expurgated edition of his translation of Arabian Nights. Though it was expurgated, it was still racy. I should see if there's a biography of him out there somewhere--he certainly seems like an interesting man.