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Bliss Side of Paradise 

Returning for a few careless hours to the elegant '20s of Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
Passing under the sun-dappled trellis gate of the Dunsmuir Estate, my roommate is reminded of the 1980 Christopher Reeve vehicle Somewhere in Time, in which the actor pushes himself back through the temporal gauze of years to search out a woman from the distant past. The trellis is like a wormhole. In one moment, we are standing on a paved avenue surrounded by featureless automobiles with fiberglass bumpers, the sounds of I-580 East rumbling in the distance. Three paces later, we are plunged into the pastoral elegance of another era: Sunlight cascades through the tops of tall old trees onto a circular drive, swans take flight from a small private pond to settle on well-tended lawns, women in low-waisted dresses and cloche hats titter over the broad shoulders of men in straw derbies and knickers. The 16th annual Gatsby Summer Afternoon is a grandly cinematic and completely immersive affair.

Danine Cozzens, publicity director of the Art Deco Society of California, descends upon us in a flutter of summer finery, bustling us into a nearby carriage house, where two long racks of time-appropriate apparel await vulgarians like me. Carla Pollard, a costumer by trade, smiles warmly and offers a sun hat with a voluminous chiffon scarf and my choice of two outfits yielding to a 1920s sensibility.

"I've dressed about six people today," says Pollard, as Cozzens rushes off to intercept a slipshod cameraman. "It's a fine line between insulting people and helping them. One couple flatly refused, and they had to leave. Proper attire is important on a day like this."

Apart from my unredeemable high-heeled shoes, I am made presentable (Daisy Buchanan would not entirely approve, but Jay Gatsby would never find fault) and sent on my way. Wandering down the gently sloping drive -- past a group of squealing, bow-lipped girls with spit curls, long bathing suits, and knee socks, collectively known as the Deco Belles -- I notice my mannerisms shifting to suit my new apparel. A woman in a wide picture-frame hat and a long, embroidered silk day coat smiles and waves elegantly, as if our summer homes were on the same small stretch of private beach. I smile and wave back. The time shift is complete.

A 1937 Buick taxicab pulls up in front of the trellis and Paul Ferrera, a driver in Gatsby's "employ" for nearly seven years, opens the door with a flourish of his yellow taxi driver's cap.

"The grounds seem large when you have to walk 'em," says Ferrera, tooling slowly down the tree-lined lane, "but they're not so big after you've been driving awhile." A sophisticated couple -- she in a slender, beaded dress, smoking from a six-inch, pearl-tipped cigarette holder; he in a soft felt bowler and bow tie, puffing on a pipe -- smile and nod casually as we pass. A little farther down the lane, a trio of fresh-faced young women in Navy-inspired sports attire laughs and shouts, "Hullo, old chum," in the loud, carefree manner of the overprivileged.

"I sure have met an awful lot of nice people today," says Ferrera. "You'll have a good time, all right."

Under the glistening white columns of the Dunsmuir mansion, hundreds of guests lounge on the perfectly manicured green surrounding the stage where Don Neely's Royal Society Jazz Orchestra supplies airy strains for frivolous partygoers doing the Charleston. Japanese lanterns swing in the breeze above a special wooden dance floor brought in for the occasion. Antique cars, including a small yellow Model T Ford race car from 1915, line the circular driveway like shiny trophies of opulence. The guests seated on wicker lawn furniture nibble on salmon croquettes and brie and brioche, while others sprawl at their feet on Oriental rugs, smoking cigarettes or sipping mint juleps. "Captain" Jim McKenzie and "Lieutenant Commander" Tony Inson, wearing sparkling dress white uniforms, entertain their guests with tales of mythic battle at a banquet table spread with rose-colored linen and gold-rimmed china. Crystal glasses, champagne buckets, homemade pies, and roast chickens adorn most of the highly sought-after tables surrounding the dance floor, but the picnics set up on the grass are no less grand. They include layers of Persian rugs, parasols, throw pillows, giant wicker baskets overflowing with fresh bread, imported cheese, and fruit, Victrolas, crystal decanters, silver tableware, glass bottles with ceramic stoppers filled with celery and phosphate, canning jars filled with spiced figs, cut-glass platters laden with prawns and caviar, silver cigarette cases, absinthe, stylized statuettes of nymphs cast in smoked glass, Red Flyer wagons, mah-jongg boards, cricket sets, crystal salt-and-pepper shakers in the shape of strawberries hanging from golden vines, star-shaped finger sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, multitiered candy dishes engraved with angels, and enormous flower arrangements.

Even at the most modest spreads, the accouterments are as stylish, beautiful, and deco as the people themselves. Nothing is out of place or in modern time, and, in these wavering moments of summer heat, one can easily imagine Jay Gatsby staring down from his second-floor window with straight-backed confidence and tragic resolve.

Richard Fishman, or Mr. Rick as he is better known when playing with his band, the Martini Brothers, winds through the luxurious fete, scribbling notes for the judgment of Daisy Buchanan's Picnic Award.

"I'm looking for authenticity," he says through a pencil-thin mustache. "Visual perfection. Era-specific food. Careful presentation. I like the wicker furniture. (I don't like to sit on the ground all day.) I enjoy the picnics that have themes. There's one aligned with the Orientalism of the era, with several well-dressed generations of a family in attendance. Very nice."

Earling Minnis stands under a large bamboo parasol, surrounded by delicately tinkling chimes, ornate rugs and pillows, antique Chinese checkers, Chinese dolls, tiny Coca-Cola bottles, and Chinese takeout cartons. Her family, three generations of women and several cousins, mingles about, making light conversation and munching absent-mindedly on imported chocolates. Charlie Chaplin toddles by, covered in lipstick kisses. The women wave and Chaplin smiles and hops energetically, without ever uttering a word. These '20s girls like the short silent type, I am told.

"I dress everyone," says Minnis, who is, herself, wearing a stunning embroidered silk coat and dramatic picture-frame hat, "and plan all year long. I've already started collecting things for next year. The birdcage took me several years to complete." The bamboo cage is covered in small jade ornaments and accented by tiny inlaid porcelain water dishes. It's no great surprise that Minnis wins this year's Daisy Buchanan prize, her second in 16 years of attendance.

Other awards, in the form of ribbons and homemade pies, go to Paula Forselles, a first-time winner for "Best Dressed Woman," and Michael Cawelti, a tony chap who is named "Best Dressed Man" as much for his bearing as his clothing. The Jay Gatsby Award goes to a 1915 seven-passenger touring Packard with 80 horsepower, owned by John and Alda Bertolotti. Twenty-nine-year-old Miss Anna Marie Firley is named this year's Miss Art Deco, a position elected from among the Deco Belles dance troupe.

"Miss Art Deco is not just a bathing beauty," says Laurie Gordon, founder of the Gatsby picnic. "She has to have a talent in the deco field -- singing, dancing, costume-making -- and be active in the Preservation Society. Anna Marie recently gave an impassioned speech in favor of saving the Jewish Community Center building, which was designed by Arthur Brown Jr., the man who created the Opera House, City Hall, and Coit Tower."

"San Francisco is filled with beautiful art deco architecture," says Michael Crowe, the architectural historian who founded the Art Deco Society and wrote Deco by the Bay. According to Crowe, the Redwood Room, which adorns the cover of his book, is currently under threat of "redesign" or demolition. "It's the last remaining lounge from the post-prohibition '30s. But the city isn't very interested in protecting its history. I used to be on the landmark board, but Willie Brown kicked me off because I was too pro-preservation. What's happening is awful."

In the sunlight filled with fox-trotting gals and careless cheerios, Crowe's talk seems grave and out of place. Just like Reeves, who is dragged back into reality by the sight of a modern-day coin, I am suddenly reminded of my time, and aware of the illusions of the day.

"My outfit's held together by rubber bands and masking tape," laughs 24-year-old Christopher Lincoln, a slender, square-jawed boy who looks perfectly at home in faked tan knickers, a sweater vest, and tweed cap. His girlfriend, Sarah Rogers, a 19-year-old history major, smiles prettily from beneath her cloche hat.

"It's lovely, isn't it?"

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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