December 1, 2015

Book Review: ELSA MAXWELL – Gilded Gatekeeper – Pianist, gossip columnist, TV star, and above all a giver of great parties, Elsa Maxwell was famous for being herself.

Maxwell and host Garry Moore enjoy stuffed pheasant under glass, whereas the panel have been served food appropriated from each other’s refrigerators.

ELSA MAXWELL – Gilded Gatekeeper – Pianist, gossip columnist, TV star, and above all a giver of great parties, Elsa Maxwell was famous for being herself.

Elsa Maxwell, Tyrone Power and the Duke of Windsor at a 1948 party at Maxwell’s house on the French Riviera.

Review of Inventing Elsa Maxwell by Sam Staggs – St. Martin’s, 340 pages, $29.99

By ETHAN MORDDEN from the Wall Street Journal

Mention a celebrity, and she would reply, “My most intimate friend!” If it was anyone below the level of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, she would add, “I discovered him, you know!” Occasionally, for the spice of variation, she would draw the line at, say, Vladimir Horowitz: “I’ve turned on pianists!”

Elsa Maxwell sails for Europe…  The party giver made dozens of crossing on great liners as the France, Normandie, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, America and United States. 

Elsa Maxwell helped invent Cafe Society… 

Elsa Maxwell knew everyone, specializing in royalty and achievers—Cole Porter, Duff and Diana Cooper, Elsie de Wolfe, Jacqueline Kennedy, Gary Cooper, Mussolini, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Maria Callas. Elsa (1881-1963) was everywhere, from Venice to Hollywood. And she did everything: She played the piano, published (“Elsa Maxwell’s Etiquette Book”), took on public relations assignments, ran a gossip column for the Hearst press, appeared in films, introduced wealthy unknowns to society, served as a television talk-show guest and was Seen in the right Places.

Above all, she threw parties: come-as-you-are parties, come-as-your-opposite parties (Fanny Brice showed up as Tosca), gambling parties, cooking parties, scavenger-hunt parties. For the last 30 years of her life, Elsa was one of the best known women in the world, yet, among the millions who recognized her name, very few could have told you what it was that she did. She wasn’t famous for being famous, however. She was famous for being Elsa Maxwell.

In Sam Staggs’s lively biography, Elsa emerges as someone who rose above dreary beginnings with a vague determination to . . . well, rise above dreary beginnings. Born in Iowa to a middle-class family and originally named Elsie, she was raised in San Francisco. She moved to New York in 1907, but in truth she never really “moved,” because for most of her life she scarcely put down roots. Her life was like an old adventure play, the kind Broadway produced before movies came along, with a pile of episodes incoherently bonded.

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Review: DOWNTON ABBEY, premiering 2013 on PBS, is disappointing.

New DOWNTON ABBEY is disappointing.  Shirley MacLaine wore jazz shoes and a frozen expression – Yankee ham acting at its worst.  Has Botox come to Downton?  American aging star flops in comparison to first class British performances.

(Left: Dame Maggie Smith looks at Shirley MacLaine and wonders if she is a survivor off last year’s dreadful Titanic – Jullian Fellowes sinking ocean soap opera.)


We’ve reached spring 1920 and the will-they-won’t-they story that’s been going on between Matthew and Mary for two whole series looks like it may finally reach a conclusion. Remember, he proposed in the snow in the last one?

Now that they’re in the church practicing for the big day, it seems they really will. But there is still this whole extended episode that’s bound to throw up obstacles. I’m hoping that Turkish fellow may show up again and re-seduce Lady Mary with his eastern promise … He’s dead? Oh yes. Well, it is a soap opera – stranger things have happened.

This could be a problem: Lord Grantham carelessly loses the money, almost his entire fortune; Cora’s really, but she needn’t worry her pretty little head about it. Eggs, one basket, didn’t he know that one? The Canadian railway he put everything into is going down and it’s taking Downton with it.

(Left: Shirley MacLaine, left, and Dame Maggie Smith, in a scene from Downton Abbey.) Hold up, though, because Matthew fortuitously appears to be inheriting an equally vast fortune at the same time (that’s the second time he’s done that, isn’t it?). But he’s not sure he wants to give it to the Granthams, which Mary finds disappointing, and may yet prove a stumbling block to their nuptials.

Downstairs, there’s a new chap, who’s very tall, and someone’s on strike, and they’re fussing about the difference between a butler and a valet, boringly. Less dull is that Bates the murderer (I’m just going with how the court found him) is still rotting away in his cell. He has a new cellmate, who appears to dislike Bates almost as much as I do, and will hopefully soon take him for a little trip down the shower block, or whatever the 1920 equivalent was.

More good news: Sybil’s back for the wedding, with her revolutionary husband, Martin McGuinness. Or Tom, as he’s actually called. The chauffeur, remember? Tom’s good value for a while, rants about Irish politics at dinner, especially after one of the nobs drugs his drink with a special pill that makes a man more radical in his views. But then, literally overnight, Tom conforms, becomes Matthew’s best mate, and best man, even dons the uniform of oppression (posh clothes). Very disappointing. There’s a theme of disappointment – Tom told Sybil earlier not to disappoint him.

Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson (2nd left) in the new series of the award-winning Downton Abbey to hit American TV screen for New Year.

There are the usual squabbles, with the upstairs-downstairs stuff bubbling away, though the whole class structure is showing signs of wear and tear. It’s seductive, because it’s so well done, but you never really get the sense that it’s going anywhere, or telling you anything. Really what you’re doing most of the time is waiting for the Dowager Countess’s – Dame Maggie’s – comedy: withering put-downs from the Dame Maggie’s Dowager Countess, which she’s very good at, and that fortunately come thick and fast.

Will she have to fight for the spotlight, though, with the arrival of Cora’s mother, Martha, from the US? Martha is, after all, played by a real movie star: Shirley MacLaine. And her entrance is a grand one. The two circle each other, like a pair of warring old cats, backs arched, looking to pounce and scratch and claw. Martha shows initial promise, goes for the soft underbelly: Britain’s – and the Dowager Countess’s – stuffiness and refusal to embrace change. That’s pretty much all she has to say, though; she’s like a stuck record. Or one of those dolls you pull a string out of, and it says: “You’re all so stuffy here, and never change,” or a variation.
To church then, and Mary is wearing … a white wedding dress (sorry, I’m not much good at that). She does look lovely, and Lord Grantham appears to forget his woes. “I’m so happy, so very happy I feel my chest will explode,” he says. Maybe Tom’s sudden conformity is a front, and he is going to blow them all up, from the inside. There is still time, isn’t there, and that wouldn’t be at all disappointing.

Sorry to say that I must also chime in with a spot of bother: After such breathless anticipation, the third season of “Downton Abbey,” which begins in January 2013, fails in a few important ways to match its original charm. It instead becomes a cautionary example of what happens when we get precisely what we ask for.



Is HBO’s THE NEWSROOM just a second rate cable version of the hit movie BROADCAST NEWS or a boring homage to the cinematic masterpiece NETWORK?

Sam Waterston and Jeff Daniels in THE NEWSROOM.

THE “WEST WING” CREATOR tells an alluring new story with a large all-star cast, spearheaded by Jeff Daniels and Emily Mortimer, for his latest project for HBO about a cable news network.

This weekend HBO released the first trailer for its upcoming series The Newsroom, an Aaron Sorkin drama about the behind-the-scenes controversies and shenanigans at a cable news network. And it struck us as immediately familiar. Isn’t this just a tweak of the setup for NetworkPaddy Chayefsky’s eerily prophetic television satire from 1976?


REVIEW – The CELEBRITY ECLIPSE is a four star Las Vegas resort at sea headlined by a putting green…



The ship is a Las Vegas resort at sea with a putting green…  Should you want an ocean-liner experience, look to Cunard, Holland-America Line or a smaller Celebrity ship.  But if you want an endless list of things to do… then this is your ship.

Celebrity Eclipse in the Virgin Islands.

If you want a high end Las Vegas resort afloat this four star “ship” is the answer…  The ship reflects mass market cruise travel.

I sailed aboard the Celebrity Century five years ago from San Juan to Italy, and any remnant of Chandris (founders of Celebrity) have vanished.  This ship and Celebrity have become nothing but a brand of Royal Caribbean Lines.

The third of Celebrity’s Solstice-class ships to arrive on the scene, the Eclipse had a number of features we found quite appealing. A top-deck, half-acre lawn—yes, real grass—and a working glass-blowing studio were two neat aspects. Solid musical entertainment, a Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatic show, and an expansive spa and fitness center were other assets. The Celebrity Eclipse is a beautifully designed vessel, and we discovered classy art and handsome hand-blown glass pieces throughout the ship’s public areas. One experience we looked forward to was the dining, and with relatively high surcharges at the specialty restaurants, we wanted to be wowed.

Dining hall aboard the Las Vegas liner…

The ship is beautifully designed, with a relatively sophisticated ambiance. But it’s not ostentatious or cold, as some modern design can become, allowing the environment to cater to a wide spectrum of cruise aficionados. That said, the ship is not for the tracksuit and T-shirt crowd, and couples who want to dress up a little will enjoy themselves.  But it is still just a big Las Vegas resort afloat.

Bring your own movies… there is no DVD library… Holland-America Line has the best.

Dining was a mixed bag. When the dishes were good, they were very good—but too often they were followed by something middling. Other than a solid experience at Murano, no venue was consistently great, and with surcharges running $30-$40 for specialty venues we can’t recommend the dining packages Celebrity pitched us at the start of the cruise.  It was just a way for Celebrity to make more bucks.  Not at our expense thank you very much.

Solstice’s menu of restaurants, overseen by Celebrity’s Vice President of Food & Beverage Jacques Van Staden, runs the mouth-watering gamut, led by a two-level main venue, three alternative restaurants — priced at $20 to $30 per person — and a 24-hour bistro for casual meals, including some creatives twists on crepes. Altogether, there are ten dining venues on Solstice, more than on any other Celebrity ship.

One of the restaurants, Blu, is reserved for AquaClass stateroom guests. These 192-square-foot staterooms, with balconies, are aimed at passengers who want a spa-oriented cruise. Guests in these Penthouse Deck cabins get unlimited access to the AquaSpa relaxation room, the aforementioned Blu and other facilities.

Entertainment offerings were a highlight, both in terms of quality and variety. Every evening there were two or three live musical acts going, sometimes even four at once in various locations around the ship, and during sea days there was music in the afternoon by the main pool. The Hot Glass Show is a great offering, and while shows in Eclipse Theater were not all top-quality, the acrobatic show called Eclipse was pretty awesome.
Celebrity Solstice breaks the mold in every conceivable way. Measuring 122,000 gross tons (remember, ships measure, not weigh — a gross ton is a unit of interior space), Solstice is Celebrity’s largest ship by far.

Carrying 2,850 cruise vacationers when fully occupied, she’s a big hunk of hull for a cruise company whose ships have hovered right around the 2,000-passenger capacity.
Despite its size, the Celebrity Eclipse was easy to navigate, with location maps at all major intersections. The ship’s daily newsletter, Celebrity Today, was nicely detailed about the many activities on offer. We appreciated that smoking areas were kept to a minimum, though on a couple days decks 4 and 5 at mid-ship were plagued by a lingering stale cigarette smell (the adjacent casino is the only indoor area where smoking is allowed). And we liked that hand sanitizers were encouraged, especially when entering the two main restaurants, Moonlight Sonata and Ocean-view Café.

Real Grass on a ship! The most ballyhooed feature on Celebrity Solstice, of course, was the Lawn Club, with real grass. I thought it was a joke when Celebrity first announced the half-acre grassy area on the top deck of the ship, but it simply works. The Lawn Club is a great place to relax, play croquet, putt, picnic, practice bocce or wiggle your toes in the cool blades of real grass. This unique area, shaded by canvas sails, is a natural touch that’s somehow more impressive than some of the whiz-bang technologies that cruise lines add so often.

And finally there was the Lawn Club, a somewhat heady name for a seemingly simple concept: a real half-acre of turf blanketing much of the top deck. We doubt this element is simple to maintain with all the spilled drinks and sea air, but we think it’s a terrific asset. We look forward to enjoying the grass again onboard the Eclipse or another of the ships in Celebrity Cruises’ Solstice Class.


Entertainment Reviews: NEW ABC-TV “TITANIC” MINISERIES SINKS APRIL 14TH. It will make you seasick before you abandon ship and the TV series.

Entertainment Reviews: NEW ABC-TV “TITANIC” MINISERIES SINKS APRIL 14TH.  It will make you seasick before you abandon ship and the TV series.

ABC is debuting a four-part dramatic miniseries on April 15th about the sinking of the RMS Titanic written by Downton Abbey creator-writer Julian Fellowes. The series might be historically more accurate than James Cameron’s blockbuster movie, but it’s also an awful lot drearier. It’s extraordinary how dull television has made such a momentous event.

We all know the Titanic went down but the new 4-part series sinks with enough “pitching and rolling” in this soap opera disaster before the TV show sinks with the ill-fated liner.

Sinking feeling with ABC TITANIC. This is from the ITV-ABC trailer on youtube. The ship and sets look like something out of the virtual world website Second Life.

Finding a way to tell a story to which everyone knows the ending is always tricky, and so for the four-part drama Fellowes opted to look at the disaster through the prism of the British class system at the time.

Maria Doyle Kennedy and Toby Jones traveling second class.

The problem with this adaptation is that there seem to be too many individual stories being told for any of them to be really fleshed out properly.

And the leaps backwards and forwards in time become a little wearing after a while, especially when you realize that it makes the last part of each episode seem oddly similar to the previous one. Ultimately, despite its stellar cast and attempt to put a new spin on this oft-told tale, the whole thing still feels as frantic and chaotic as a deck-load of passengers scrambling for lifeboats.

It worked well for him in Downton Abbey, so why not in Drownton Abbey or Downton-on-Sea or any of the other smart-alecky nicknames the $20 million series has already picked up?

“Abandon ship!”  And you might abandon the series! 

Except the tragic event 100 years ago wasn’t all about class: that’s not the drama in the story of Titanic, and by making it all about the divisions between the toffs in first class, the middle class in the cheap seats (an Irish couple, played by Toby Jones and Maria Doyle Kennedy) and the great unwashed in steerage (a large Irish family, the Maloneys – Peter McDonald and Ruth Bradley), he has sucked the breathtaking, hubris-fueled drama out of the real story.

Even hitting the iceberg seemed almost incidental to the real business of whether snooty Lady Whatsit was going to make another cutting remark about people “in trade” or showing how the servants were as class ridden as the rest. As always in a Fellowes drama, there’s a faint a echo of something else, so when two attractive young characters meet and fall in love (and them only a couple of hours out of Southampton – everything in this Titanic feels rushed), most of their courting is out on deck, clutching the railing. All they were short of was a gust of wind to lift her chiffon scarf and a few bars of My Heart Will Go On.

In Downton, Maria Doyle Kennedy played the shrewish, bitter Mrs Bates; here she’s the shrewish, bitter Mrs Batley – what is it with Fellowes and Irish women? – and even in the crush for the lifeboats she takes the opportunity to launch a crazed attack on the earl of Manton (a bland Linus Roache) about inequality (as her character in Downton famously said: “As if”).

By the time the ship starts sinking you’d be hard pressed to care about any of the far-too-many characters, and that’s crucial, as the clunky structure of the drama means that events in the first episode will be revisited from different characters’ points of view. Historical references are thrown in with all the subtlety of an iceberg. Mrs Batley quizzes Lady Manton about her views on Irish home rule – more not-quite-credible dialogue.

The ladies’ enormous hats are fabulous – large enough to make impromptu lifeboats – but it won’t keep this lavish but dull drama from giving you a sinking feeling.

Shopping Review

Shopping Reviews coming soon.

Airline Review

Airline Reviews coming soon.

Book Review

Book Reviews coming soon.

Cruise Review

Cruise Reviews coming soon.

Hotel Review

Hotel Reviews coming soon.