I can’t remember the first time a beautiful woman captured my attention. Wait, yes I can! The first was my mother of course, whose dark curly hair and dark hazel eyes (See my article Mona Lisa’s Eyes, which was originally published in The Diplomatic Pouch Fall 1995 Movement issue, in a letter to Manus Hand and which, with 671,000 hits on Google remains by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written.) reminded me of the Mona Lisa. The second was my grandmother whose tall stature, perfect posture, perfectly coiffured silver hair, piercing dark eyes, and lovely husky mezzo voice were the embodiment of Le Grande Dame, at least to me at fifteen. My grandmother was the matriarch of the family and she reigned as well as ruled over it. Her wishes were our commands and her rule tolerated no question. So when she called my mother and said, “Get Larry packed. We’re going to Washington,” my mother asked only one question, “For how long?” “A week,” came the answer. Wow, I thought, she must be doing a concert or recital. A three day trip by train in each direction only allowed one day in the nation’s capital (It never occurred to me that she might have meant the State of Washington.) When the taxi pulled up to the traffic light at Kettener Blvd. and Broadway and didn’t turn into the Santa Fe Station I suspected something was wrong. I turned to my grandmother and asked her, “Where are we going?” “She looked down at me, smiled enigmatically at me (My grandmother was a master of the enigmatic smile, but she never mastered the inscrutable smile. Perhaps that’s why she never took up opera but stayed with oratorio as her chosen art form.) and said, “You’ll see.” We circled around onto Pacific Highway and pulled up in front of the original Lindberg Field air terminal. Wow, I thought, my first airplane ride!! Things were different in those days. Grandmother was treated like the diva she was. I was alternately treated like a crown prince or dirt, depending on whether grandmother was nearby. A porter took our luggage and disappeared. We walked to a counter and all she said was, “Mrs. Henry G. Parker,” to the clerk. No ID, no ticket, no cash, no check, no credit card, no nothing, and we were on our way to our United DC-6 (Some of which are still flying today as aerial tankers and freight carriers). I was totally into this new experience of flying and had totally forgotten where we were going. Finally, just as were served dinner (On real china with real silver, etc., but I don’t remember what the food was.), grandmother leaned over and asked me, “Aren’t you curious about where we are going and why?” “Yes, “I said (It never would do to say “Yeah,” to my grandmother.) as I grabbed another fresh, hot roll with real butter! “You have a date with the most beautiful woman in the world, so please be on your good behavior.” For a moment I thought she meant we were going to see Eleanor Roosevelt, but since my grandparents were loyal Eisenhower Republicans that didn’t seem likely, and I turned my attention to playing with the hostess call button, much to the annoyance of the stewardess I’m sure.
The next morning I woke up in the biggest bed I had ever slept in up to that time in the Willard Hotel. Grandmother was already up wearing a breakfast robe, her hair wrapped in a towel, and with some kind of white guck all over her face. She told me breakfast was waiting in the sitting room and then I had an hour to amuse myself while she got ready. She told me long pants, jacket, white shirt and tie were required wear and to be ready at 1000. Promptly at 1000 I walked into the sitting room and there she was, classic conservative blue suit, blue shoes and blue hat to match — all designed to accent her stunning silver hair. We exited the elevator and I, for the first time I can recall, offered her my arm, and, amazingly, she took it as the doorman led us to an old Cadillac taxicab. We were only in the cab for a few minutes when I saw the line of people standing alongside the street. Block after block of them. Wow, I thought, what’s going on? She actually gave the driver directions on how to use Pennsylvania Ave., 4th St., and Madison Dr. to approach the National Gallery of Art from the rear to avoid the crowds. We entered the gallery through a side door and once again the name, “Mrs. Henry G. Parker” was all it took and we were in. A flunky led us through some halls, and half-dozen doors, mostly guarded, into a small room with no apparent doors but four big burly security guards.
It was January, 1962, and the night before 2,000 of the nation’s political powerhouses and glitterati had journeyed to that same building to pay homage to “the most beautiful woman in the world.” The next day the Republican controlled press and gossip columnists suggested that President Kennedy had been referring to his wife, Jackie, in his remarks, but for once all eyes were on the other beautiful woman in the room, Lisa del Gioconda Gherardini, commonly known as Mona Lisa. Now it was the turn of the other 500,000 people that would pay homage to her over the next three weeks.
We stood off to one side of the painting just a bit in a roped off area with perhaps a dozen other VIPs while the masses were herded like so many cattle past the picture and out the door. District police are very good at that kind of control and can keep the lines moving no matter how strong the temptation to linger. We stood there for perhaps ten minutes admiring the painting although to be honest I found it rather drab and definitely smaller than I expected. Still, the smile did captivate; and it was something that stayed with me and remains with me to this day. My grandmother said nothing but we both noticed that more than one person on the other side of that red rope paused to stare at this stunning woman in blue looking at the Mona Lisa.
We left the room the same way we had entered and when we left the Gallery my grandmother did something totally unexpected. She turned to me and said, “Let’s walk.” We walked down Madison to 15th, and turned onto the Ellipse grounds. At the center of the Ellipse she stopped and stared off to the west across the lawns looking at a large, copper-roofed building on 17th St. I had no idea what it was or why she was looking at it so intensely. Finally she turned to me and asked, “What did you think of her? “I assumed she was speaking of the Mona Lisa, and without thinking I replied, “She sort of reminds me of my mother. Dark hair, dark eyes, olive skin, but mom’s hair is curly, and mom’s smile is bright — nothing mysterious about it.” “Yes,” she said. “Your mother definitely got the looks among my children.” She turned, and started walking across the lawn toward 17th St and the mysterious building across the street. When we got to the street she ignored traffic signals, crossing signs, etc. and assumed, rightly so, that traffic would stop for her. And so it did. With me in tow she crossed the street until we stood in front of a large imposing entrance. It was the front door of the Daughters of the American Revolution National Headquarters. At first I thought she was going to enter the building through the front door but she paused, seemed to reflect a moment, and then turned south toward C St. and we walked around the side of the building to the 18th St. side. Little did I know then that eight years later I would return to that same spot with my first true love on a visit to the Organization of American States headquarters across the street. As grandmother and I turned north on 18th we approached the entrance to Constitution Hall, the nation’s largest with 3,700 seats concert hall originally built in 1929. All I knew about Constitution Hall was that the DAR, the builders and owner, had turned away Marian Andersen when she was supposed to perform a concert there in 1939; and Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins had arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 250,000 people. It took many years for the Hall and the DAR to live down that incident although many black performers including: Muhammed Ali, Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington Mercer Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Leontyne Price,Richard Pryor, and Marian Anderson who performed a number of benefit concerts there during WWII,began her 1964 Farewell Concert Tour with a performance there, and in 1992 she received the DAR’s Centennial Medallion for her accomplishments, had performed in that historical hall.
Still, as the DAR said, “Our organization truly wishes that history could be re-written, but knowing that it cannot, we are proud to note that DAR has learned from the past.
So, apparently, had my grandmother. Again, she paused, as if to go into the Hall, but we continued up 18th St., over to 17th St. and then we paused in front of the White House. In one of the few moments of physical affection I can remember from her, she put her arm around me and whispered in my ear, “Don’t ever tell The Colonel (e.g. Colonel Henry G. Parker, USA Ret., her husband and WWI vet and staunch Republican even though he served with Harry S. Truman in The Great War.) that I voted for John Kennedy. That’s our little secret,” and she gave me another enigmatic smile as we headed back to the Willard. It was years later, at her funeral, that I learned that my grandmother had sung in the choir that appeared in concert at Constitution Hall when the original Marian Anderson concert was cancelled. She never sang there again.
The next morning when we got in the taxicab for the ride to National Airport grandmother told the driver to drive down Pennsylvania Ave.to 6th St. and onto Constitution Ave. so we could again see the crowds lined up waiting to see the Mona Lisa, and so he did. As we headed toward the airport my head was filled with a vision of a beautiful woman with an inscrutable smile surrounded by flocks of DC-6s hovering around her like so many pigeons.
The story of my second encounter with the Mona Lisa in Paris in 1989 is told in the aforementioned “Mona Lisa’s Eyes,” which you can find here.
My second encounter with an inscrutable smile on a Florentine face was when I came face to face with Niccolo Machiavelli on my first visit to Florence in 1989. His face is everywhere: on a statue in a niche on the façade of the Uffizi Palace gallery, in paintings inside, near his tomb in the Basilica of Santa Croce where he is buried with other local greats, on book covers, posters, and tee shirts in tourist shops all over Florence. If you do a Google search on “Paintings of Machiavelli” you’ll find numerous paintings of the Florentine writer, as well as a few of the Mona Lisa.
Look closely at some of each and you’ll see for yourself how both have that same inscrutable smile. A closer examination of the Santi di Tito portrait of Machiavelli or the one by Cristafano dell’ Altissimo or any of the statues, death masks, etc. reveal one fact clearly — Machiavelli was no beauty like the Mona Lisa, shared common smile or not. Still, they both managed to capture the eye of the Borgias, she with her looks and he with his brains. But more on Machiavelli shortly.
My third example of a face to face encounter with an inscrutable smile on an Italian (Roman, not Florentine this time, I believe) face is one Filippo Lonardo, who I met in Paris this past fall at WDC. You can find a photo of him on Facebook. He’s the one with his Roman nose buried in a wine glass. And yes, he’s a diplomatico for the Italian Foreign Ministry, a writer of sweet bon mots, and one of hosts of the 2015 WDC to be held in Italy. Oh, and with luck you might get to meet him at WDC in Chapel Hill in this coming May. You’ll recognize him immediately, just look for the handsome, thirtyish Italian gentleman with the inscrutable smile.
And with that rather inscrutable and enigmatic look, let’s return to Niccolo Machiavelli and his Prince and their 500th anniversary.
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