Like many good things, from wine to leather, the salon is an Italian import. Salone means room, usually referring to the place where a person of taste or prince(cess) of the blood would hold court. We can thank the lovely Isabelle d’Este of Mantua for that. Called “First Lady of the World” by one of her ambassador admirers in the early 1500s, she sparked the trend that soon spread to France. France takes the prize for influential salons, in no small thanks to Paris. In the decadent Second Empire and the wild morals of the Belle Époque, we find the magical moments of gay and lesbian couples navigating high culture and societal expectations with the help of salons.
When Proust strolled into a salon on May 22, 1894, his eyes fell on the nineteen-year-old Reynaldo Hahn, a composer of promise. Proust wrote Hahn first. Soon notes like “my place or yours?” began to pass. Hahn called Proust “my little pony” as the French call their dear ones. The lives of the pair, thanks to salons, were filled with princes, counts, and the likes of French actress Sarah Bernhardt. The nights were heady with drink, beauty and song.
“For a few hours,” writes Proust in an article for the French daily, Le Gaulois, “we believed we were living in the days of Louis XIV.” He signed his article “the Man about Town” and filled it with details salon habitués devoured over their morning coffee. (It also gave Proust some cash to spend on wine and lovely long lunches with Hahn.)
Hostess Geniève Straus is the one to thank for starting Proust on the path to writing his epic novel, “Remembrance of Things Past.” In 1908, she gave Proust five small notebooks in which he began documenting salonistas under fiction’s thin guises.
Not all salons warm the heart. In fact, salons were divisive circles. Princesses competed with courtesans for the best talent and the writers with the best gossip. Politics surfaced rudely and abruptly, severing decade-long friendships (as Proust portrayed in his epic work straddling wars and much snobbery). Music too, split the crowd. You were either a devout Wagnerite, or you’d been lambasting him ever since his opera Lohegrin’s disastrous 1887 premiere. Proust loved Wagner. Hahn preferred Mozart.
Sham Marriages Further Salon Tradition
But another princess, La Princesse de Polignac (born Winaretta Singer), would bring salons into the 20th century. Born in Yonkers, Singer took her share of her father’s sewing machine fortune and lived la vie Parisienne with her second husband. (Of the first, little is known; biographer Sylvia Kahan claims Singer climbed atop an armoire on her wedding night and wouldn’t come down, telling the unfortunate groom that she was ready, willing, and able to kill him.)
Yet, this formidable lesbian managed to marry well. Husband No. 2, the penniless Prince Edmond do Polignac preferred his own sex and knew exactly how she felt. Proust’s favorite male salon host, poet Comte Montesquiou, fixed them up. Their lavender marriage proved a match for music. Edmond composed. By day, Singer painted; by night the couple hosted up to 100 people there to hear the music of Polignac, Fauré, Stravinsky, de Falla, Ravel, and others. Proust came there on Hahn’s arm, crediting the Polignacs for his musical education.
According to writer Kennedy Fraser, Singer was “stout, middle-aged and far too grand for scandal to stick to.” Or as sometime attendee Virginia Woolf put it: “to look at her, you’d never know she’s ravished half the virgins in Paris.”
But if you play the six degrees of separation game, you can unite the private, poised Princesse de Polignac and the flamboyant salonista, Natalie Barney, with a single link: lesbian Painter Romaine Brooks was loved by both women.
Romaine got together with Singer, ten years her senior, in 1908. She met Natalie Barney at Lady Anglesey’s salon after WWI. Barney’s salon culture brought Brooks the ladies that inspired the brightest paint strokes in her career. Poet Montesquiou called Brooks a “thief of souls” because her paintings could reveal truth beyond outer appearances. Many of her subjects were lesbians (of various degrees of out) some like Romaine, who’d experienced sham marriages.
We think Baltimore earns the nickname Smalltimore, but Brooks and Proust’s crowd knew the feeling. Montesquiou, ever the poet matchmaker, also introduced Brooks to dancer Ida Rubenstein. She adored Ida even after the affair’s end. Her last painting of Ida, “Le Trajet,” haunts the National Museum of American Art in icy serenity to this day. Another portrait, of the Marchesa Casati (known for walking a leopard on diamond leashes around Venice) was a semi-nude so revealing that Brooks kept it rolled under her bed. The Marchesa didn’t like it so much: “You did not make me beautiful.” Brooks replied: “No, but I made you noble.” (This nobility made its public appearance only in 2000 at a long-overdue retrospective of Romaine Brooks work.)
Meanwhile, her partner Natalie Barney’s “Fridays” lasted for 60 years. She mixed with Edith Sitwell, Colette, and Gertrude Stein. Male writers like Proust were welcome too. She loved Oscar Wilde’s wild niece, Dolly. She inspired a character in the century’s best known lesbian novel, Radclyffe Hall’s “Well of Loneliness,” which like Oscar Wilde’s work, endured its own obscenity trial. Not bad for an expat girl from small town Ohio.
Salons in Baltimore
So as you see, salon hosts (and their guests) are likely to be larger than life characters. Or as Greenspring Ave. salon host Paul Cassedy put it in a recent interview: “None of us is particularly shy.”
Some are bolder than others. In an invitation to his last salon in Baltimore, former Guilford Ave. host, David Ponder wrote: “Bring friends, but remember my parties usually get an ‘R’ rating after the concert ends.” This may have something to do with the shirtless young man he sometimes hires to handle the drinks. The party always grows more intimate as friends gather round his 1930 Steinway grand after the main performance to sing jazzy standards.
Baltimore’s salons could well beat Paris of the Belle Époque. Performers range from folk musicians like Celtic guitar god Robin Bullock, Ugandan instrumentalist Kinobe, or songs from a coal miner’s daughter to the more classical.
Just like the old Parisian salons, visual art enjoys intimate display. Cassedy curates shows from his stunning collection of prints. Framed wonders grace the two main rooms in his house and run all the way up the stairwell with hardly an inch of space to spare between prints and books. Charles Villiage host John McLucas, also a collector, has even been known to dedicate his parties to celebrate the purchase of a new painting.
Whatever your tastes, chances are you have plenty of friends who’d love to share them with you in your own home. Catonsville salon hostess Barbara Svoboda puts her house concert goal simply: “to bring great music to the area at a good price.” The success of such endeavors is the tight-knit musical circles Baltimore thrives on.
Hosting Your Own Salon
If you’d like to be part of the action, there are plenty of ways to get involved. One is to make friends with some of the hosts above. You are likely to find several of them at two upcoming An Die Musik events (see sidebar). The other way is to take the plunge and put on a salon yourself. It’s easier than you think. Folk hostess Wendy Shuford’s advice should put you at ease: “The event actually takes care of itself, once you get things started.” She also suggests ensuring adequate chairs are on hand.
Performers love salons and they’re eager to take part. It’s their chance to really connect with their listeners. For them, it’s an honor. After a performance at Cassedy’s or McLucas’ St. Paul St. house, you can see a cluster around the musicians with one phrase on their lips: “tell me the next time you’re performing.”
Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen loves the format so much that she’s started her own series. The Federal Hill Parlor series idea came to Ihnen while she was walking her dog and passed by so many windows revealing lovely—potentially unused—pianos. But you can expect adventurous programming from Fed Hill Parlor series, like classical voice paired with turntable. Many events take place at Jordon Faye Contemporary, where you can explore local artists’ work during the musician’s breaks. Or, if you’re feeling bold, contact Ihnen, and she’ll fix you up with your own house concert. Kelly and Jason Trumpbour are hooked after working with Ihnen. As Kelly put it, Ihnen really “takes the load of the hostess.” Jason called it “a revelation.” The next Fed Hill Parlor Series concert will take place on Oct. 28. Halloween costumes are a must!
Just as Reynaldo Hahn was a fixture of many a Paris salon, so soprano Ah Hong is a performer who connects many Baltimore hosts. You can hear her at An Die Musik’s upcoming musical festival, the 2nd Annual Lieder Weekend. Pick from one of three evening performances and enjoy your first taste of the cream of Baltimore’s salon culture.