How an Author Grew to Love the Immutable Glory of Palm Springs
The travel journalist behind a lauded new biography of artist Peter Beard shares his personal vision of America's kitsch-laden, modernist mecca.
Style icon and philanthropist doesn’t begin to accurately describe this very special guest on the podcast. On this episode, Dan and Deeda speak at her home about everything from her years abroad with her ambassador husband and her extensive years in fundraising to her new book that gives an intimate glimpse into the ultimate well-lived life.
Deeda Blair: I enjoy interesting food. It’s not that difficult to have an existing recipe and change it or add to it. I would change the vegetables or I would change this, and then I decided to do it with lobster. So it’s sort of tweaking recipes.
Dan Rubinstein: Hi, I’m Dan Rubinstein, and this is The Grand Tourist. I’ve been a design journalist for nearly 20 years, and this is my personalized guided tour through the worlds of fashion, art, architecture, food, and travel, all the elements of a well-lived life. And my guest today knows that well-lived life more than most. She’s the very definition of an influencer, but you won’t find her on social media. It feels reductive to simply call her a style icon and philanthropist. But both of those titles are truly accurate. Using the term socialite seems terribly unfitting, but her ability to entertain, connect, and lead are second to none. And for those listeners who may not be familiar with American Society of the ’60s, ‘70s, and beyond, the charmed circles she hails from are the closest thing we have to royal family here in the States. She not only had a front-row seat to much of the history of style but had a real role in it. And through her efforts in medical research, she’s made a genuine impact on the lives of millions.
She’s also the only guest I’ve ever had who has elicited the response of an audible, high-pitched gasp when I would tell friends in the worlds of fashion and design that she would be on the program. Deeda Blair. It’s nearly impossible to encapsulate her life into an intro such as this, but I’ll give you the basics as best I can. Born Catherine Gerlach, Deeda is a nickname, she was raised in Chicago, the daughter of a prominent lawyer, and was later introduced to her future husband by Eunice Shriver, sister to President Kennedy. Her husband, William McCormick Blair Jr was a diplomat who served as the ambassador to Denmark and then the Philippines under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. It was that life with Blair who passed in 2015, where Deeda’s grace and ability to entertain made her a legend. As a style icon, she’s known for her legendary couture wardrobe and personal relationships with designers such as Givenchy and others. And her signature bouffant hasn’t changed in decades but always looks absolutely cutting edge.
After the couple’s diplomatic posts abroad, the pair moved to Washington and finally on to New York in the aughts, where Deeda lives today. But any talk of style pales in comparison to Deeda’s true accomplishment in life, the stunning impact she’s had on medical research as a fundraiser, board member, and advisor to various biotech companies and research foundations. She’s a rare figure who can speak equally on Cristobal Balenciaga as much as she can about gene sequencing. More on that later, including discussion about her very own Deeda Blair research initiative for disorders of the brain at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health. Her latest venture is her new book from Rizzoli, Deeda Blair: Food, Flowers, and Fantasy. It’s part biography, part cookbook, and part trip down memory lane published to raise funds for her foundation.
I accepted Deeda’s invitation to lunch at her home on New York’s East Side for a salad and dessert, an incredible green grape mold with custard sauce. After being too embarrassed to ask for seconds, we sat down to discuss her life, how she met Billy Baldwin, her love of James Bond films, and what it was like in the world of medicine when she was the only woman in the room.
I was wondering if you could maybe bring listeners a little bit through your early life in Chicago and tell me a little bit about how that started, how your life started in Chicago, and how…I heard that you weren’t allowed to study biology at school.
I went to a convent at the Sacred Heart, and they were not deeply interested in science. You had a choice of botany or physics, and you had quite a few history of religion and that kind of thing. And my mother had gone to a Sacred Heart convent, so this was ordained and I think it was a good education. They had a course in logic, which was not being done in many schools at the time.
It sounds like a Jesuit kind of thing.
…in a way.
Yeah. There was a boys’ school attached up until eighth grade, and then they instantly went off to the Jesuit school Loyola but you had to wear a uniform. I don’t mind the idea of uniforms because you don’t have to think about what you’re going to wear and plan it so well. But these were particularly hideous uniforms with brown oxfords and brown knee socks and really very ugly.
And would you consider those happy years, I mean school uniform aside?
Oh, yes. Yes. I had interests. I played a great deal of tennis and also riding, and I had interesting friends, and they were very pleasant years. And Chicago was in a period of growing and wonderful buildings being designed. No, it was a very pleasant city. I think I always knew that I didn’t want to stay there forever.
And the book, of course, mixes this love of travel and food and entertaining, all intertwined. And I read that your parents took you on two separate trips around the world and that you always went to Paris first. Is that right?
That’s correct. No, they adored to travel. And also my mother did photographs and they really went all over the world. They also liked wonderful restaurants. The first trip was extraordinary. I did go to Paris for about 10 days before the trip began and had read so much about Paris, and I knew where things were, and I’ve never done so much walking in my life. I mean eight, 10 miles a day all over in every direction. And if I was lost, I’d just get in a taxi and come back to the hotel. That was a trip that included Egypt and Italy, of course, and also Greece. The next round, the world trip was more to Asia, and that fascinated me entirely. I adored India, had my fortune told practically every day.
Did you like what they had to say?
They always said quite pleasant things.
And then in Thailand, I was captivated by all the kite flying, and I had young friends in Chicago, the Shriver children. So, from that moment on, I was carrying about six big kites on the rest of the trip to bring them home.
Oh, I see.
And from Thailand, we went to Cambodia. In those days, Angkor Wat was really a very special thing in the middle of the jungle. Now, there are very grand hotels and it’s resorts. But I climbed over all of Angkor Wat and there were so many interesting things. Then, in Hong Kong, I was offered a job. I had some clothes copied, and the woman was intrigued. I remember a Balenciaga dress and as usual, she copied and I think she saw that her business would perhaps improve. My parents were horrified at the idea that I would think of remaining in Hong Kong and working there. So that did not happen.
How long were these trips, these long—
Oh, they would be four or five weeks.
And then in Japan, I’ve gone back many times since then, but the first trip I do remember, I galvanized the concierge to find an individual person to teach me flower arranging, not particularly Japanese flower arranging, but just how they treated flowers and was introduced to a charming woman who did teach me how to handle flowers and smash stems and strip leaves, et cetera. When I left, I started walking back to the hotel because I hadn’t asked to order a taxi and I was hit by a bicycle.
I can remember that. Luckily, no damage. And anyway, when you do huge trips like that with many kinds of experiences, it opens your mind to the differences in the world.
I’m wondering if you could tell me, fast forwarding a little bit to how you met your late husband William, and what that courtship was like, and what that early part of your life with him was like.
Well, it was a long courtship, nearly four years, but they were political years. And I lived next door to Eunice Shriver, and of course, I visited at the Cape and all of that, and I knew the whole family as did Bill. Bill was deeply involved. He really was what you might call the manager of the Stevenson campaigns. I met him at a dinner party at the Shrivers, and it turned out we both adored movies, and that came up and we began going to the movies and having dinner and Eunice with us a great deal of the time. Because of this experience, which was really global in nature because, between the Stevenson campaigns, they traveled the world, he was much more interesting than most men, and we had just so many interests in common. And he was a very, very thoughtful person, of course, with beautiful manners and all of that but he also had a very dry sense of humor. It was fun and it was happy, and it stayed that way. I can only remember three quarrels in our whole 53 years of marriage.
Wow, that’s amazing. And do you remember what it was like when you…At what point was he named Ambassador to Denmark? How many years after you guys had met that happened?
Oh, about four years. And first, Adlai was named to the UN and one of Bill’s partners, Bill Wirtz, was made Secretary of Labor and Newt Minow was made Head of Communications, and Bill was the last one to be appointed. They asked him to go to South Africa and some other country, and he wanted to go to Denmark. And he made that quite clear.
Why Denmark? What did he—
He’d been there several times before and had friends and he loved it.
And it was a charming, wonderful place to live.
And do you remember your first major dinner as the wife of an ambassador and what you had to plan and what that experience was like?
Well, I was dealing with a Danish chef that had been hired by my mother-in-law, thank God, before. For some reason, he thought that we’d like to serve Danish food, and that was not my idea at all. I thought we should be serving some American or French American or what have you. I can remember he was a charming man, his name was Prince Vigo, and he was seated next to me and we had Dover Sole with sauteed grapes over it. And that was something apparently he’d never seen or heard of in Denmark. I’d had it in France and at home. And he said, “What are these? Eggs?” And he just kept nodding his head puzzled. But he said, “In the end, I liked it,” he said.
And in that time, how long were you in Denmark for?
We were there a little over three years.
And how many different assignments did he have before coming back to…was it only Denmark before you guys came back to the States?
No, Denmark was first, and then we were offered a choice of Pakistan, Indonesia, or the Philippines. And despite these round-the-world trips, none of those countries had been included. So, I had no opinion whatsoever. I’ll leave it up to Bill. And in retrospect, I kept thinking, “Oh, well, I wish I’d chosen Pakistan. It’s much closer to Paris.” But he chose the Philippines and it was a very, very interesting, very…It was a complicated time because it was the height of the war in Vietnam, and the assignment was to encourage Filipino government to send more support. They sent people who would not be bearing rifles, they would be driving ambulances or things like that. And also there was an air base and a sea base and all large and important. It was a different atmosphere entirely than Denmark. And we were there for the last year of President Macapagal. So that was quite interesting.
I traveled quite a lot in those years, both in Asia and two or three times a year to Paris. And it was a very good experience to have and very, very different. We lived in a terrible, terrible shack. The next ambassador rented a house in a much nicer section. We were right on the water. Food for dinners was cooked at home, but we had a dining room that only held eight people, so things were done at the embassy rather than the residence. And so food would steam down the highway in Jeeps and what have you. But we had a movie screening every year for my birthday. Bill managed to get James Bond movies.
Was that for you specifically?
Oh, because you were a James Bond fan, or maybe you were a—
Huge James Bond.
Or a Sean Connery fan, or both?
I kept volunteering to do missions for them. I knew the CIA person in the embassy hoping to go someplace interesting. Anyway.
Did anybody ever take you up on the offer?
They didn’t think I had the good cover I thought I had.
Deeda’s understated sense of style is legendary. She was close friends with Hubert Givenchy. She spent summers with him for decades, especially in Venice, and she cared for her interiors with the same passion as her closets. Through her collection of massive scrapbooks that she still has today, she absorbs inspiration from her life and travels and knows as much about every element of her own home as any designer. I wanted to ask Deeda about meeting Givenchy, working with Billy Baldwin, and her massive detailed scrapbooks that are the stuff of legend.
And I read that you had sought out your friend Hubert Givenchy after seeing Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face in the film. And I was just wondering if you could share a little bit about what he was like as a person and what it was like to be with him in the atelier and work with him in that way.
Hubert Givenchy was a remarkable person. He had huge talent, I think as a designer, at least I thought they were the kind of clothes I loved to wear. And he was a very distinguished person. I think in reality he would’ve preferred being an interior designer because he loved to do up houses and did magical ones. I saw four different apartments in Paris. One was the first apartment, which was much smaller, and then a house on Rue de San Pere and another on the Rue de l’Université. And he didn’t cling to anything. He was always upgrading, and yet you never felt that it was too grand or too lavish even though they were the most important pieces of furniture.
And we also were always in Venice at the same time, and I adored both Hubert and Philippe, and we saw a lot of them there. And I remember one day he was thinking of making a major change at Jonchet, his country house, and it was based on the gardens at the Cini Foundation, which had giant intertwined circles. And we went over and we sat looking and looking and looking, and he considered everything very carefully before doing it. If he was going to change something, it was always an improvement. And I don’t think you can say that about everybody.
That’s true. That’s true. Was he always amenable to changes that you may have wanted to make or in anything clothes related?
Oh, yes. I don’t think he let too many people make changes, but I would just simply explain away my life and how I needed it and this and that. And I could say, “I want the sleeve of this one and I want the collar of that one and fabric of that one.” And some of my favorite evening dresses were…I remember one was a white peau de soie dress and it had like an apron of peau de cygne in the back. And I said, “I want the whole dress of peau de cygne over the peau de soie.” He said, “What a great idea.” And then he added a black velvet thing here. It was a dress I wore for about eight years. It was done, the changes were made together. Like he would say to me, “Dear, you have so many suits because you were going to luncheons all the time in the embassy.” He said, “What about just a skirt and a coat and a sweater?” We didn’t talk about clothes a lot except when we were there in the studio. And outside of that, we didn’t.
And speaking of love of design and decoration, you had met Billy Baldwin who I believe worked with you on one of your homes. Is that right?
How did you meet Billy?
I met him at a luncheon in Lake Forest. He did quite a lot of work in Lake Forest. And when we bought the house in Washington, it was quite large, which it needed to be because Bill was the first General Director of the Kennedy Center and we had to do quite a lot of entertaining. And I knew that I couldn’t just do it myself and if I was going to have help, I wanted what I thought was the best person in the world. And we became friends, immediate and adored all the same things. And we had a lot of lunches in New York and dinners and what have you. Billy was a wonderful conversationalist. He had a sense of comfort as well as a distinct style, but it was very subtle.
When it comes to travel and everything that travel brings to life, I heard that you have 22 scrapbooks with images from nine decades of travels. Is that true? And do you have—
They are right there.
They’re quite large.
They are large and they cover so many things. Some of them are divided by country, some are gardens, some are rooms, some are called Infinite Variety. And those are just amazing photographs. They range from nude photographs, the ballet dancer Nureyev.
Nureyev, of course.
To balls in Venice to fantastic pictures in China. And those are perhaps the most fun to read. People love to come and look at the scrapbooks.
Do you look through them yourself every once in a while?
Yes. Yeah, and they were very much used for the book. Bill kept scrapbooks, and I think he had 57 scrapbooks that began at birth practically, and he loved the scrapbooks. And those went to the Chicago History Museum and mine are going to Daniel Romualdez, and he will give them then to the Beinecke Library at Yale. They’re very special. And there was a paper shop that I went to very frequently in Venice, and I saw some books bound in vellum parchment that were done for the Vatican. I found a wonderful bookbinder, Paul Vogel on Long Island, and he said he could do vellum-bound books. And then I have Italian paper in the linings. I’ll show you one of them. And—
With a lot of your travels, did you have pictures that you had taken yourself or—
There are quite a few pictures that I’ve taken, but you usually find…And for years and years, I kept them in folders. And then, when we moved to New York, Bill was working on his and I found a young man that could come and do the pasting for him. And so I then used the same thing. I would lay them out because they’re laid out almost the precision of a magazine. There’s nothing about us in these scrapbooks. That was all in Bill’s scrapbooks.
Oh, I see. Okay. So these are all more inspiration or—
Yes, inspiration and surprise and pictures that are remarkable.
And what do you think that you gained from keeping these scrapbooks all these years? Did you refer to them for inspiration when you would entertain?
Yeah, if I wanted to show someone how I wanted curtains made or things in the garden and I had to convince. For 10 years I was chairman of the garden committee here and I was always having to show things. No, it was a pastime that was interesting.
Deeda Blair’s impact on American medicine and public health is mammoth. She learned a lot about the world of philanthropy early on from her friend Mary Lasker, which we’ll speak about. She’s been heavily involved with everything research related from the American Cancer Society and the Breast Cancer Task Force to the board of trustees at the Scripps Research Institute and the Harvard School of Public Health and for a time worked as an advisor in the medical industry, forging collaborations between academia and biotech firms. Simply put, she knows her stuff and it’s not just for show. I wanted to ask Deeda about these many accomplishments, most notably her research initiative for disorders of the brain dedicated to her son, who passed after a long battle with depression.
I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your career in medical research and how that began. Because I read that you had met Mary Lasker, who she was a pioneer in the American Cancer Society and an association that was a precursor to Planned Parenthood, I believe, way back in the day. What was she like and how did she give you that medical research and medical fundraising bug as it were?
Well, you only missed one thing of great importance which she did, was she really was responsible for growing the budget of the National Institutes of Health. It was tiny. She had a black book like a Filofax and there was a page that went out like this for all of the years. And her husband said, “No private funds or foundations will ever really solve the health problems that exist, and there has to be federal money.” And so she went and called on Senators and Congressmen and enlisted other people to do the same thing. And she really is responsible for the enormous growth of the NIH budget. We met, Bill took me, Bill was a great friend and Mary had been a great friend of Stevenson. He took me for dinner one night and she had a staggering art collection, I mean something like seven or nine fantastic quality Matisse, Picasso, Fantin-Latour, Braque.
She had wonderful paintings and I could barely talk to the dinner guest. I was just looking at the pictures. She said, “Why don’t you come back for tea and we’ll talk about the pictures?” Which I did the next day. And we became friends immediately. And she came to Denmark for our wedding and was godmother of our son. Every summer, we went and stayed with her. She rented the most beautiful house I think in the world, the Villa La Fiorentina in Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat. The Laker Awards are acclaimed as the most prestigious American Science Awards. And I would always attend jury meetings and listen to the discussions and have the books and read it. And then I went on the board of the American Cancer Society, and that again was reading research grant applications. And I found the whole subject just totally fascinating.
Two summers later, when I came home from the Philippines, she set me off to Memorial and I would spend the day with a wonderful doctor there that did both research as well as patient care. And he made me realize there could be a role for people who would become advocates of medical research. And we had lots of projects, some probably inspired or derived from the awards. We gave an award for the discovery of the importance of cholesterol. At that time, people were developing drugs, the statins. We went to the Secretary of Health and said, “This must be publicized.” Probably of all global public health efforts, the cholesterol and treatment of high blood pressure is one of the most successful. We also were interested in biological response modifiers, interferon. We also looked at young biotech companies. We went out to Genentech when there were eight fermenters, and we went back the next year and there were 20, three times the size. We lived at a moment of profoundly important discovery in research, and we both followed it very closely.
And your own philanthropy, the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain, which is where the proceeds of your book are going. And I’m curious, in your years of working with all of these advances, is there anything from back in the day where you thought, “Oh gosh, this is going to change the world,” and maybe it didn’t pan out that way, or something that you thought would never come to light actually did? Because you had sort of a front-row seat to a lot of advances that people may not have realized until years later or not.
I’m not aware or not thinking about what didn’t pan out. My earliest interest was in cancer because that had the largest budget at NIH and fantastically talented people. And I was attending cancer meetings. I could tell you how to prescribe Adriamycin, for example, can’t be more than five grams or there were heart problems, that kind of thing. I really, really got into it. And then the next thing really went into deeply was AIDS, and I was on the visiting committee at the Harvard School of Public Health and also an advisor to what was then called the Department of Cancer Biology. But it changed into the Department of Immunology and Infectious Disease and became the Harvard AIDS Institute. And that was my first fundraising. People were doing wonderful and remarkable things for AIDS patients, the care, the feeding. I tend to support basic research, discovery research. And that’s what was happening at the Harvard AIDS Institute. And we also worked in Africa.
And I did 20 years of that. And it’s interesting, it was the first time I ever read the word pandemic in the Boston Globe. And now to have it come back so many years later where the word is used every day, and this was one column using the word pandemic. There were horrible flu epidemics going back to the 18th Century and smallpox. And we have been able to discover vaccines and treatments for so many, but we still don’t have an AIDS vaccine. But with exciting technology ripping apart the whole genetics, these messenger RNA vaccines are a wonderful advance. I was very active in the field. And then two friends, one was Swiss, and he was head of Sandos in America. And I did a few things with him and then he asked me if I would become an advisor to him and their head of research looking at biotech companies and also academic institutions with whom they would form alliances and do progress. And those were unbelievably interesting years.
And then I had known a very brilliant man at Johnson and Johnson and he started a venture capital firm and he asked me if I would become an advisor. And I said, “But I know nothing about venture capital and I’m not a financial person.” He said, “But you are a science person.” And I did that simultaneously. That was fascinating because science depends on collaboration. It doesn’t happen all in one lab. And getting collaborations sponsored was one of the great things done by the biotech venture people. I have been so lucky, I mean very lucky in things that come into my life to do.
And I read that you were on the Breast Cancer Task Force Treatment Committee. Can you tell me what year about that would be?
That would’ve been in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, I think.
And I think you were the only woman on the board, somewhat ironically.
Somewhat ironically. And also with no letters I have, there was no MD or PhD. And I knew quite a few of the scientists on it, so I was comfortable enough with them. But then they started sending me with two or three others on field trips to look at mammogram instruments and things like that. And the first one, I had a very large suitcase and I learned, no, there can’t be a suitcase. And the chairman was very exacting and I think he hadn’t wanted to have the presence of a woman or non-scientist, but at the end, he said, perhaps the nicest sentence I ever heard, “You never skewed the curve, Deeda.”
Did you ever find it back then ever challenging to be the woman in the room when you’re having to call on a senator to try to get them to put more money into the NIH or something like that?
Well, it was challenging to do in the beginning because I was so enthusiastic about what I was doing on the Breast Cancer Task Force because these were the early days of identifying the hormone role and also the pattern of therapy. And you’d go into someone like Tip O’Neill’s office and there’d be two women who had had breast cancer and he’d mention it and I’d say, “Well, this is happening, this is happening,” and I would be much too technical. So finally, Mary had to whisper, “Too technical,” for not being.
Now might be…I heard that you have something printed out that I think you wanted to read possibly. Would you like to read that now?
I’d like to tell you about my Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain. I happen to be preparing this paper for someone and I thought it’s as concise as it can be and it would be better to read it. Some years ago I attended a neuroscience conference at which Thomas Insel, MD, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health for 13 years made an observation that had a strong impact on me. He said, “We have made great advances at the molecular, cellular, and systems level in our understanding of the brain and its workings. We’ve got fantastic basic science. What we haven’t yet done is translate this into new diagnostics or treatments for psychiatric diseases.” As a result of my many years in medical advocacy, I came to recognize that a gap does persist between our understanding of the biology of psychiatric diseases and the practice of psychiatry. I felt these comments were important and needed further exploration. My reasons were far from dispassionate.
For me, the subject was one of deep personal interest. In May of 2004, after a long tough struggle with bipolar disorder, our son William, ended his own life. He was 41. After William’s death, I began to concentrate on ways to advance research in the study of mental illness. “What is needed,” I ask scientists across the country, “What is missing?” These discussions caused me to reflect on ways I could help by funding bold and even risk-taking research by the next generation of scientists committed to addressing the causes and treatment of mental illness. What makes this research initiative unlike others, is that it will provide unrestricted, flexible seed money to the most creative young scientists so that they will have the freedom to explore new observations and ideas that may be too early or too scientifically ahead of their time to be covered by traditional research grounds.
Fortunately, having served on the board of the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, FNIH for a quarter of a century, I knew where to look for a partner. Thus, it was within the framework of the FNIH and their strong infrastructure that the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain was established. In 2021, in collaboration with FNIH and the National Institute of Mental Health and guided by the research initiative’s own super scientific award selection committee, the first research awards were given to three young leaders whose work shows exceptional thoughtfulness, innovation, and knowledge. These are young people who have not yet received grants from foundations or NIH. My fervent hope is that the foundation’s work will contribute to the forging of new paths and understanding of the brand.
Deeda’s new book, edited by Deborah Needleman, former editor-in-chief at T Magazine, is a true accomplishment. It shares many of her recipes from her years of entertaining beautifully captured at her apartment here in New York. It also details the highlights of her life that give context to the foods and ideas found within. Best of all, the food she presents in the book are centered around fantasy menus that take place at some of her favorite locations she’s been to throughout her life. And yes, her famous Polaroid portraits taken by Andy Warhol are included in the book even though she initially resisted the idea. Deeda isn’t one to brag and she’s the least likely to write something like a tell-all. It all just makes this particular tone so fascinating. I wanted to ask Deeda about it all and get the real stories that inspired the fantasy menus.
A book, anything with recipes in it is a huge undertaking as anybody knows huge and way more than someone would think. Not to mention the fact that much of it is shot here in this apartment that I’m in, and also it delves much into your life and travels and even travels of the mind and fantasy meals and things like that. Why did you decide to put yourself through the trauma of doing a book like this?
During many times in my life, people said to me, “You should write a book.” And most often they said, “You should write a cookbook.” And someone said, “You should write a story of your biotech life.” Well, that just seemed rather absurd to me and I had other more interesting and more important things to do. I had friends who were quite persuasive. And when COVID hit, and the quarantine came, I was alone except for a housekeeper and realized if I had a project to dig into…And also if you remember, it was the time of the election. And so most nights I was endlessly watching MSNBC or CNN, and I would have books and papers in my lap and always doing, you can call it multitasking. I thought, “Well, why not give it a try?” And I have a wonderful friend, I think the most profound and interesting writer on mental illness and other conditions, Andrew Solomon, and he wrote an introduction. It was so beautifully written, I had an even greater challenge to live up to it.
So, I began developing the thought that I want this book to be as different as possible. I don’t want it to look like a cookbook. I don’t want it to look like anything seen before. It’s filled with photographs and works of art. Yes, there’s 71 of my best recipes and they’re beautifully illustrated, but there’s a lot more. The book is different and there were parts of it that were particularly interesting and fun to do. There’s a section called Fantasy Menus and I chose places that I loved or people that I loved, and one of the first ones you see is a wonderful small palace outside of Stockholm called Haga, and it has the most beautiful neoclassical room you’ve ever seen, and the whole property is on water. And it was Gustav III who arranged this and he had very sophisticated taste. All the furniture is French and gardens wonderful. And so I did a menu imagining something that would be fun to have. I think it’s a luncheon menu.
Then another one, for example, there was an extraordinary exhibition on Egypt and the Lost Islands off of Alexandria, and I saw it in Paris for an hour at the Grand Palais, the most extraordinary setting arranged where the walls were dark like the sea and lights on the optics, and I was catching a plane and I had to go. Suddenly, I read that it was in St. Louis and very charming friends who have a private plane and they were saying, “You haven’t been anywhere in so long because of back, where would you like to go?” And I said, “I’d love to go to Canada to see the Cabot Gardens.” He said, “Oh, we were just there last year.” I said, “And the other place I long to go is St. Louis.” I said, “There’s a fantastic exhibition.” I did the picnic for the plane trip out and that was fun. And I did a lunch at Jonchet, Hubert’s house in the country.
I did a place I adore. I’ve made five trips to St. Petersburg and I find there are so many extraordinary places and collections and the treasures in the Hermitage and some of the palaces are remarkable. I suggested dinner at Pavlovsk and I also did Petit Trianon in one and then this was just different fun and people called me up and said, “Can’t we have some more of your menus?” It was interesting to do the book and great fun, in the beginning, choosing the pictures. But when you got to doing the recipes and it really was a great deal of work, I hoped that it would be successful because the proceeds will go to this Research Initiative Fund for Disorders of the Brain.
I think you had mentioned to me the particular recipe in the book that had been really successful with your friends, and you’ve gotten a lot of feedback about it. Can you tell us which one that was?
That’s a recipe. It’s called Caviar Souffle, and it is not difficult. It’s not a complex souffle, there’s no flour in it, in individual souffle cups. And on top of the souffle is creme fraiche with scallions in it, chopped scallions, and then a fist full of watercress. And then we use paddlefish caviar on top and people seem to like it quite a lot.
And I read in an article that you do things like you serve lobster for Thanksgiving and that—
I don’t care for turkey.
You don’t care for turkey. And that you didn’t ever allow a Christmas tree in the home.
Well, no, that’s not true.
That’s not true. Okay.
We had Christmas trees when our son William was young and we had them in the embassies, but when we lived in Washington, we always left Christmas Day either to go to Bill’s family in Chicago or to go to Antigua the next day. And I hated to think of people putting on lights and taking off lights and wrapping up decorations, the whole thing. I hate wasted time and it just didn’t seem necessary. But then my son and I had a pact, one year he could choose the tree and another year I could choose it. I always chose holly trees and wrapped the roots and root ball in moss, and then they were planted out of doors afterwards and he would choose very traditional trees.
There’s a fantasy meal in the book that I mentioned earlier is a Sunday lunch at La Fiorentina. And can you explain a little bit about, it’s a house in the south of France, if I’m correct, and a very real place that you went to visit and what was that like? Where is it, first of all, and—
Well, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat is about 40 minutes from Nice, and it’s a portion of land that goes out into the sea that comes back and is part of the coastline and there are nothing but really lovely houses on it. And this one was all but destroyed in the war. And Rory Cameron, who’s a legend in England and France and here even had wonderful taste. He was a writer. He wrote books on Australia, Captain Cook, India, traveled a great deal, collected, and had wonderful taste. And his mother was Lady Kenmare and she was quite an exotic woman, and they bought this destroyed ruin and he created a very beautiful Palladian house and enormous rooms, about seven guest rooms, and just it was flawless in terms of the decoration. It was just interesting, attractive, and different, and very special.
And Mary Lasker would rent it every summer for the month of August. The first summer we went for I think a week or 10 days. And then after that, Mary and I had become such good friends, I’d stay the whole month, and the last three days we’d have no guests and we’d begin to plant and plot our work. But at that moment of time, people came for lunches and dinners and you went out a lot, black tie. It was another era.
And another meal, the last meal I wanted to bring up, which you had mentioned earlier, which is Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg, and there’s one of the fantasy meals is set there. And it mentions in the book that you had once eaten there in the rose pavilion. And do you remember what that was like, especially in a social occasion in Russia at the time?
Oh, a great friend of mine, Helene de Ludinghausen who lives in Paris, is the last of the Stroganoff family, and there is a Stroganoff Palace in St. Petersburg. And many of the palaces were damaged or destroyed and certainly, time took its toll. And she started a foundation that would help not only the Stroganoff Palace but Pavlovsk and Gatchina and some of the museums and organized these trips. She had a huge number of very interesting, very attractive friends. I think she did either five or seven trips where you got yourself to Paris and then it was a private plane to St. Petersburg and the Grand Hotel. And then every minute was planned. The first year she even had that very good caterer from Paris come because she wasn’t sure the food would be good enough. And then she found out that she didn’t have to do that, but she organized the sightseeing like you could go to the Hermitage on the day it was closed and Pavlovsk on the day it was closed. It was very privileged sightseeing.
And the most extraordinary restoration of any building I’ve ever seen was Pavlovsk. And they started a school in St. Petersburg for all of the decorative artisans so that people who did plaster work, people who did sculpting, cabinetry were all super well-trained. Quite a few of them are over in New Jersey now. And all of the furniture, the director of Pavlovsk managed to get out before the Germans came. And you can imagine bubble paper did not exist in those days and wrapping it all up and sending it by train into Siberia. And that came back. And then the same director followed the Germans when they were leaving because they were taking remaining things, door handles, and he would manage to capture those. It was very much restored with the original things that’d been in it.
I’m just looking up the menu I did for that, which was Tomato a la Russe, which is a bed of watercress and it has to be done in summer really when you have really good tomatoes. And then again, creme fraiche and scallion and the caviar. And then we had Poulet Aux Groseilles, which I just described to you, and there’s a really good recipe in the book Frozen Lemon Souffle. And it’s nice because you can make it a day or two ahead.
One question I think we had chatted about before is something people call the takeaway. When someone reads the book and perhaps goes through a few recipes, maybe tries a few and puts the book down, what would you like them to understand, something to take away in their mind or in their heart about you and your philosophy on everything?
Frankly, as it turned out, there’s much too much about me in the book. I do too many pictures, just too much. I was working with two editors and they’d gang up on me. And I thought that having as many wonderful photographs…We had a photographer, Ngoc, who is spectacular, and every picture she took was just a dream. And then I had a great friend, Kathy Graham did flowers for me and she is a major talent. And there was a lot because the cook who came to do the cooking for the pictures had retired. She came back and there was a lot going on. And I didn’t write the book thinking, “What do I want people to take away?” The book just evolved. It’s filled with my beloved Italian paper dividers and it’s very much like my vellum scrapbooks.
I would like them to take away that the book was written really with the proceeds going to the Research Initiative Fund. That was always in my mind because I spent my life writing letters and I did an enormous amount of fundraising for AIDS at Harvard and I’ve done considerable fundraising for mine. Most likely my estate will go largely to it, but I thought perhaps people might contribute. Two people, three people have, and two of them were strangers, which I liked very much. That was really the purpose of the book as well as a division for me during COVID. It was not unlike doing the scrapbooks.
And if you had to describe a planned menu that leaves a really wonderful memory in three words, what words would you say encapsulates a meal or an evening, let’s say.
The caviar souffle.
That’s three words.
Yeah. Because people are just astonished when it’s on the table when they come in and they’re just astonished.
Thank you to Deeda Blair, Pam Summers, and everyone at Rizzoli for making this episode happen. For more information about the Deeda Blair Research Initiative for Disorders of the Brain or to donate, visit the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health at fnih.org/donatetoBlairInitiative. The editor of The Grand Tourist is Stan Hall. To keep this going, please follow me on Instagram @danrubinstein to learn more, and sign up with your email for updates at thegrandtourist.net. And don’t forget to follow The Grand Tourist on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen, and leave us a rating or comment. Every little bit helps. Until next time.
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