July 09, 2015
(+++) AS THE CELEBRITIES TURN
Grace of Monaco: The True Story. By Jeffrey Robinson. Da Capo. $15.99.
Vegan with a Vengeance. By Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Da Capo. $22.99.
In the long-ago days when celebrities were remote and untouchable, existing apart from mere mortals and only occasionally glimpsed by those so far below and beneath them, Grace Kelly personified the sort of icy beauty and regal bearing that made her seem a perfect fit for Prince Rainier of Monaco. Even her name was just right for her role: grace was what she had, and Grace was who she was.
Nowadays celebrities are supposed to be far more accessible, easy to reach, hear from, react to, imitate, and follow throughout lives in which their fans believe they participate – although in reality the gulf between the famous and their hangers-on is as wide as ever.
The difference in what celebrity was and what it has become is neatly, if unintentionally, encapsulated in Grace of Monaco and Vegan with a Vengeance. Jeffrey Robinson’s biography of Grace (1929-1982) originally dates to 1989, when it was called Rainier and Grace: An Intimate Portrait, and has been revised several times. Its latest incarnation retains the emphasis on first-person accounts of events in Grace’s life and the veneer of hagiography that is inevitable in a book created “with the full and unprecedented cooperation” of Monaco’s royal family. Quite obviously, what is expected in return for such access is a book that, if it does not completely whitewash any awkward moments, at the very least minimizes and marginalizes them. Robinson is good at this. There is a fair amount of information here about Monaco, much of it interesting history (including an attempted lawsuit against the state of Mississippi). But there is little in the book about Grace’s early life – this work, from its current as well as its original title onwards, is about Grace as princess of Monaco. There is, however, a good deal on the proprieties and expectations of both Hollywood and European royalty in the 1950s. Catholicism, for example: this was before the election of John F. Kennedy as U.S. president, and religion was a major factor on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, Father Tucker, an Irish friend of Rainier and matchmaker between Grace and the prince, “best of all…liked the idea that she was a good Catholic girl with a good reputation,” and wrote to Grace, “I want to thank you for showing the Prince what an American Catholic girl can be.” Grace herself was as focused on what role she wanted in life as she was on her film roles, and it was something filled with the clear expectations of the time: “I didn’t want a future Mr. Kelly, if you see what I mean. I didn’t want to take a husband. I wanted to become somebody’s wife.” By all accounts – and certainly by Robinson’s – Grace did well at this. “She and I were a pretty good team,” Robinson quotes Rainier as saying, and it is apparent from the book that this is an understatement: the two clearly respected as well as cared deeply for each other, and they certainly seem attached and highly comfortable in their interactions in the book’s two photo sections.
Grace and Rainier were very much a public couple, and the book’s discussion of how their public-relations work was handled by Nadia Lacoste certainly offers insight into celebrity management and marketing – at least in the 1950s. The intrusiveness of the paparazzi, though, is one thing that has not changed over the decades, and Rainier’s remark could as well have been spoken in the 21st century as in the 20th: “You have to let a lot of things go. You just have to write some of it off as part of the apprenticeship of life.” But of course, Rainier and Grace were not professional celebrities – he was the ruler of a principality, with definite responsibilities for the population, and she was his consort and no longer dependent on media hype for film work or attention. Robinson’s book shows clearly how Grace and Rainier fit the “untouchable” model of celebrity, with people wanting to know everything they could about them, see as much of them as possible, but never for a moment believing that the glamorous lives of Grace and Rainier were anything like their own mundane ones. True, there was plenty of mundanity even in Monaco – the discussion of the principality as a business, sometimes called “Grimaldi Inc.,” is an interesting one: “Rainier was the first full-time sovereign, and also the first to approach the running of the country like the running of a business.” By and large, though, Grace of Monaco is a story of what celebrity used to be and how it changed over time: Princess Stephanie’s remarks on how she felt in California when, four years after her mother’s death, she herself was seeking the limelight, are clearly those of a different generation of the famous, not just a different generation of the Grimaldi family. Grace of Monaco: The True Story may not be entirely true in its rather starry-eyed portraits of the principal characters, but it certainly has some truths to offer about the world in which they lived and the kind of scrutiny they sometimes invited, sometimes tolerated, sometimes endured.
Isa Chandra Moskowitz is a much more modern, down-to-earth, accessible, 21st-century type of celebrity. In her 40s, punked out and tattooed, a cookbook author for the past decade who writes about “a literary agent who had seen my interview in the (now defunct) zine Punk Planet,” Moskowitz is all Brooklyn brashness, the polar opposite of Grace Kelly’s aristocratic Philadelphia glamor. The 10th anniversary edition of Moskowitz’ Vegan with a Vengeance is a cookbook, of course, but also an assertion that she and her punk style are not sadly dated, not unimportant, not irrelevant – that all of this still means something. This is a celebrity asserting, within an admittedly limited venue, her celebrity-hood – an unheard-of circumstance for old-fashioned high-and-mighty celebrities but de rigueur for those in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of instantaneous communication and gratification. In this new edition of Vegan with a Vengeance, Moskowitz continues to include “Fizzle says” comments “from” her now-11-year-old cat, such as, “If you are too punk for a coffee grinder, place the seeds in a plastic bag and cover with a thin towel or even a few pieces of newspaper, and proceed to hammer with a mallet or a regular hammer until the neighbors complain.” The book also includes “I am still cool” elements such as talking about “sammiches” rather than sandwiches, providing a recipe for “Fauxstess Cupcakes,” and offering “some pizza tips from a Brooklyn girl who knows from pizza.” To a great extent, Vegan with a Vengeance comes across as a book whose author is pleading for continued attention and continued relevance – unthinkable for old-style celebrities but a kind of “new normal” for 21st-century ones competing with so many other 15-minutes-of-fame people for today’s extremely limited attention span. The positive news in all this is that the actual recipes in Vegan with a Vengeance are generally good ones, and usually simpler than comparable ones in the first edition of the book: Moskowitz admits at the start that she initially “wanted to use more ingredients” than other cookbook authors, but has since come to realize that it is better to “do a lot with very little.” Committed vegans will actually find the ideas here simpler than those in many other vegan cookbooks. Muffins, scones, finger foods, pastas, main courses, cookies, cakes and pies – all these and more are here, mostly in reasonably easy to follow recipes. Sweet potato hash with five-spice and watercress; beet, barley, and black soybean soup with pumpernickel croutons; potato samosas with coconut-milk chutney; orecchiette with cherry tomatoes and kalamata tapenade; lemongrass noodle bowl with mock duck; Moroccan tagine with spring vegetables; seitan-portobello stroganoff; no-bake black bottom-peanut butter silk pie – the variety here is extensive and impressive, and even committed vegan cooks are likely to find a few recipes here that they have not tried before. Vegan cooking is, of course, not for everyone, and celebrity vegan authors are a rarefied breed, even at a time when so many people can be celebrities in so many ways for so many different interest groups. If you find Moskowitz and/or her approach to vegan cooking and baking attractive, Vegan with a Vengeance will certainly give you plenty to enjoy.