President Trump and Liberace: interior decorators separated at birth? Liberace, born auspiciously in 1919, en caul, had a twin who, sadly, died at birth. Might our President be the latter’s reincarnation, the hetero twin bro’, the Platonic other half which would have completed Lee, and which he likely longed for all his life, as evidenced by his quest for partners who physically resembled him?
We tend to think of furniture and decoration as a superficial, inconsequential excrescence upon the body politic, yet leaders of every ideology and character, throughout history--Pharaohs, presidents, kings, emperors, dictators, and tyrants--have ably used interior style as visual imprint and propaganda for their political power. There is the seminal, admirable example of Napoleon’s Empire style, much of it derived from his campaign in Egypt, transmuted by his wife, Josephine Beauharnais, with the aid of architect-decorators Percier et Fontaine, into Malmaison, the imperial couple’s magnificent house outside Paris. We recall Jacqueline Kennedy’s famously refined redecoration of important rooms at the White House, for which she engaged America’s premier decorator, Sister Parish and France's finest, Stephane Boudin. Adolf Hitler, of all leaders, was obsessed with architecture and furniture, relying on his favorite architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, to create a new, “pure” German form of neoclassicism both for national monuments and his own grand private dwellings. When Troost committed suicide, Hitler seriously contemplated taking over his firm, but felt too insecure about his own command of aesthetics to take the reins. Hitler did not quail at reenacting Napoleon’s nemesis by sending 300,000 troops into Stalingrad; yet he dared not invade Troost’s aesthetic legacy.
I am relying, perhaps foolishly, on the fact that nobody reads this blog--actually, I hope all five of my readers avert their eyes--to insulate me from social media persecution as I write this essay. But then I am reminded, by my own long experience with far lesser despots than Trump, that such miscreants--counterfeit kings, outdated as carbon paper--derive their greatest delectation from tormenting those, like me, at the very bottom of the economic scale: a receptionist or volunteer; a typist or house-cleaner. “Let them eat shit,” they gloat. Nothing delights a miniature dictator more than marginalizing further the marginalized, especially if doing so consummates the damage already done to people of different race, gender, or sexual orientation. I publish this post with caution, knowing that, because its subject is President Donald Trump, I may attract a most undesirable, nay, deplorable, readership. To them I say, this post is not about Trump’s politics, but about his taste in interior decoration, a gilded world opulently cushioned against matters of state and justice. I approach Trump World, not with a sword, but a throw pillow, focusing on the elaborate confections which compose his style.
Donald Trump’s demolition, in 1980, of the beautiful Art Deco bas-relief friezes by Rene Chambellan, and iron doors which had adorned the 1929 limestone Bonwit-Teller building, and which he had promised to donate to the Metropolitan Museum, has been well-resuscitated and publicized in recent years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonwit_Teller; https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/realestate/fifth-avenue-bonwit-teller-opulence-lost.html; http://www.drivingfordeco.com/stewart-and-company/. Trump was recklessly making way for the building that would emblematize and vaunt his name: Trump Tower.
But I seem to remember a ghostly detail of the story that is barely reported, namely, that Ashton Hawkins, then Director of the Met had floated the idea of a “gift” to Trump as token recompense for Trump’s claim that salvaging the artworks would cost him $32,000 in labor, and delay construction by two weeks at a cost of $500,000. Instead of preserving the architectural ornaments, as the mogul had agreed to do, Trump grew impatient and had the friezes summarily smashed with jackhammers; the ornate iron doors--whose designer, Trygve Hammer, was still alive--mangled with acetylene torches.
Apparently, the pleasure of vandalizing beyond repair a thing of beauty surpassed the civic honors, praise, social cachet, and philanthropic status Trump coveted and would have reaped from New York City and the Met, along with Hawkins’ vague offer of a compensatory gift. Saving and donating the artworks would have smoothed Trump’s entree into the Manhattan social elite which shunned him, an exclusion he still bitterly resents. I recall, as a Barnard senior, the chill I felt reading the front page New York Times article about the event. I knew and admired the Bonwit’s building, which hearkened back to a vanishing understated strain of Manhattan wealth. Diana Vreeland had discovered future model Lauren Hutton on a back stairway there. The building was redolent with high society anecdote. I had lived in New York City just four years, and was only dimly aware of somebody jauntily referred to as “the Donald,” an endearment coined by Trump’s first wife, Ivana. That article engraved him early and permanently in my mind as a barbarian. If only he were only that.
In the wake of Trump’s election, I have done a bit of reading on the ancient Barbarians. In fact, the pre-410 invasions of Rome by Germanic warriors such as the Vandals and Sueves spared the city’s buildings; the Northern tribes evinced a touching wish to emulate the arts, manners, and refinements of the Romans they conquered, humbly recognizing in them a culture, if not a military, superior to their own. Even those naive and hearty beer-swilling lugs had discernment. Instead of breaking the splendid toys of the people they subjugated, like wise infants they appropriated and imitated them.
I reread, too, C.P. Cavafy’s poem, “Waiting For The Barbarians,” in which the Romans anticipate, in vain and with a secret thrill, the arrival of the manly Northern hordes: “Those people were a kind of solution,” the poem concludes. Having ransacked mind, heart, and and what Donald Trump would call pussy, I cannot detect the faintest frisson for this President. (My only dream about Obama was that he invited me to a garden party followed by the theatre, then announced we were going Dutch.) I will concede that in 1980 I thought Trump a good-looking man, yet I was always put off by his mouth; that cruel, curling Cupid’s bow, now relimned by time into a sort of mean postal slot; a square maw that opens to bawl invective then clamps shut as if worked by wires. Where is Francis Bacon when we need him?
Scratch tyranny. Trump’s sense of style, especially in furnishings, is more fascinating, specifically his near-total subscription to the aesthetic--crowned by similar hair-color, combing, and spray--of the late, ineptly closeted gay icon, Liberace, whose vast, flaming reserves are unveiled in a 2000 BBC documentary entitled Reputations. Unlike the late Las Vegas showman, straight man Donald Trump has the sense not to don white fur or pink maribou boas at his rallies, but his interiors, published on the web, ape and vye with all the excess of Liberace’s homes; dripping with gold fixtures, right down to the toilets; suffocated with neo-Rococo plasterwork in a saccharine palette of pastels. The respective and multiple domiciles of the two men are very nearly indistinguishable from one another, as even a cursory comparison of their interiors published online reveals..
Liberace, like Trump-- indeed, like Narcissus in the Greek myth--was lost in hypnotic adoration of his own image. I have no idea whether Trump has had “work” done; but Liberace resorted frequently to plastic surgery, not only for himself, but upon Scott Thorson, his ill-fated lover who was seventeen when they met, and whom the showman would ditch in 1982. Showing his plastic surgeon a youthful oil painting of himself, Liberace demanded the doctor remake Thorson’s face as a replica of his own, replete with cheekbone and chin implants and a nose job. Thorson, now resident at Northern Nevada Correctional Center, wrote the 1988 memoir, Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace, made into a 2013 movie by Steven Soderbergh, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon.
Wikipedia recounts that Liberace, like Donald Trump, “was a conservative in his politics and faith, eschewing dissidents and rebels. He believed fervently in capitalism and was also fascinated with royalty, ceremony, and luxury. He loved to hobnob with the rich and famous, acting as starstruck with presidents and kings as his fans behaved with him.” As Liberace is no longer with us, we can only speculate whether he would have fawned over and basked in the company of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un as Trump, his decorator bro’, has done. Liberace would have been enthralled with Putin’s famous, priceless collection of Faberge eggs; less so, perhaps, with Kim’s spartan rows of lockers and benches. Given the twinship of Trump’s and Liberace’s decor and political convictions, we can be almost certain Liberace would have been entranced by Trump’s interiors.
But behind many a glittering palace lurks a gulag, the shadow side of imperial power; or, at the very least, the dismantling, not only of architectural treasures, but of the bodies and institutions--now revealed as fragile entities reliant on human decency-- which protect the rule of law: in America’s case, our Constitution. The Constitution is enshrined, not in an impregnable tabernacle, but in the less solid hearts, minds, and will of citizens, Congressional leaders, the Judiciary and finally, the Executive, all human beings subject, whatever the oaths they have taken, to the sway of self-interest and partisan zeal. It will be interesting to see who among these elements of democracy crumbles like so much shattered limestone, and who withstands the jackhammers and torches of political reaction.