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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nine Nearly Forgotten Nights in Our Naton's Capital: The 4th Night (Lasagna)

A better dressed Lasagna from a much later date
The Ellipse, Washington, D.C.

Curator Jane Livingston

The Corcoran Museum of Art Atrium

One day, in 1976 I believe, I inexplicably donned a plastic mask we had been given by friends that resembled Groucho Marx—a mask most people have seen, consisting of heavy eyebrows set over a pair of glasses, underneath which lay an extravagantly large nose and an enormously black, plastic mustache. The mask was the perfect size for my face, and completely transformed me, changing me, despite its clearly male characteristics and my own moustache and beard underneath, into someone looking like an Commedia dell’arte figure. To that I added my long, white and green-striped cotton bathrobe and, out of a whim, topped it off upon my head with a pair of white jockey underpants. The combination, when I glanced into the mirror, immediately suggested to me a kind of maddened artiste or chef.

Although I seldom enjoy costumes, I immediately entered our living room, displaying my transformed self to Howard. As quickly I became this artiste-chef, putting on an exaggerated French-Italian accent and describing myself as “Lasagna!”
Howard broke into laughter, quite loving my new manifestation. Accordingly, when a few months later we were invited to a Halloween party given my some of his Hirshhorn Museum friends, he suggested I should come dressed as Lasgana.
By the time we reached the house near Dupont Circle where the event took place, its rooms were filled with quite extravagantly dressed celebrants, one of whom I remember, a flasher, wore a long black overcoat which, when opened for the flash revealed a fully dressed being except for his penis, framed in a kind of plastic-covered window. “Just look, don’t touch,” Howard jested.
My costume, by comparison with the others, seemed to me to be quite simple, and I presumed it would draw little attention. I was surprised, accordingly, when many of the more cleverly dressed individuals pointed me out to each other. Even more strangely, to my way of thinking, few of them seemed to recognize who I was underneath my “disguise.”
I spotted our friend Phyllis Rosenzweig, a museum curator who shared an office with Howard, across the room and quickly joined her, speaking to her in the voice of Lasagna. Phyllis is quite shy when it comes to overbearing individuals—and Lasagna was overtly large in his gestures and linguistic tropes—almost panicked. As I came toward her, she quickly backed away. “Ahhh, but my dear little one,” I responded in my obviously fake French-Italian accent, “we are so terrified of me, one I am sure with whom you must be so well acquainted.” As she backed further into the corner, I pulled a bit away, calling over to her: “You really don’t know who I am, do you?” She shook her head emphatically, “No, I don’t!”
I laughed as only the French can laugh, “Oulala, my dear. I shall have to leave you alone and come back later when you have thought about who I might possibly have been.”
In short, my simply conceived costume was a great success. I seemed to have become the mystery guest of the evening.

A year or two after that event, we were invited to attend an opening at the Corcoran Museum of Art, a museum for those acquainted with Washington, D.C., located across the street from the White House. The dress for this occasion, so the announcement proclaimed, was either Black tie or Halloween costume.
Howard is not the kind of person to wear anything that might hide his true identity. I believe at that previous costume party, he had come dressed as himself.
He has several times described how, when he was a child, his mother had designed and sewn a frog costume for him. As the night approached, she slipped him into the costume and zipped it up. “Come look in the mirror,” she implored, “You look great!”
Little Howard cautiously approached the extended mirror, peering out through the eye-slits of his green-colored frog suit, and burst into tears! “I thought that I was the frog,” he explains, “that I had become a frog, and I was horrified!”
It thoroughly surprised me, therefore, when he suggested that we both go in costume.
“You, in costume?” I queried.
“I thought I might go as Jane Livingston.”
Jane was a friend of ours, curator at that time at the Corcoran. Several years later, in 1989, she curated the legendary Robert Mapplethorpe show, which, because of its sexual and homoerotic images and, presumably, their fear that they might never again receive NEA support, her museum cancelled two weeks before its opening; at that time Associate Director of the Corcoran, Livingston promptly resigned.
I could not imagine that Howard was serious about his intent, until, a day before the opening, he came home with a fright wig and a pair of hot pants! I was astounded. Was he truly going through with it? I had, of course, decided on Lasagna as my persona.

Suddenly, there we were, parked on the ellipse, Howard looking absolutely ridiculous and not at all like Jane Livingston, and I, trying desperately to get into the character of Lasagna, about to cross Constitution Avenue. “How do I look?” Howard asked, for what must have been the tenth time.
I giggled. “Absolutely beautiful!”
I moved to open the car door. “I don’t think I can do it,” he suddenly announced. “You go first, look the place over and tell me if it’s okay.”
“What to you mean, me first!” I protested. “Either we both go or neither of us goes.”
“No, just check it out. I’m afraid to go in looking like I do.”
I knew there was no convincing him otherwise. And I knew, once I had opened the car door, there was no turning back. With all the self-inflated ego I could gather, I began my walk across one of the most noted avenues in the world. Cars came to a standstill, some tourists spilling from their vehicles just to wave. I waved back. People began to gather at the corners, their faces filled with wonderment, awe, and outright disbelief. Today, I am certain, I would have been immediately arrested!
But then, like an actor determined to play the role larger than even the character might bear, I determinedly walked up the several steps of the museum and into the large atrium which greets Corcoran visitors. Flanked by two great banquet tables serving food and wine, stood small groups of the numerous guests—all of them in costume, but of a different sort—gowns and tuxedos only.
Like H.C. Andersen’s emperor dressed in an invisible robe, Lasagna strutted around the entire perimeter of the large hall, nodding at the discreet pairings of well-dressed attendees and, on occasion, when he began to notice laughter springing to their faces, even waving. He was a great success!
Having swirled across the entire space, I exited and descended, as royally as I could, the Corcoran’s stairs, once more crossing Constitution Avenue while waving to my loyal admirers before escaping into our awaiting car.
“No, Howard,” I nearly exploded in laughter. “I think you should not go into the party. I think we should now go home.”
Howard, who had observed my out-of-doors sensation, broke into a hoot of laughter, and drove away. By this time we had become near lunatics in our recognition of our audacity and my public performances. But Howard had also now become somewhat nervous. He was, after all, still dressed in a woman’s blouse and hot pants, having pulled the fright wig off and thrown it into the back. I had removed my mask and even my white toque of underpants, but was still fully robed. And just as suddenly, we were caught at a stop light in the all-Black neighborhood through which he had necessarily to pass on our way home.
Fortunately, it was getting dark. Howard suggested that we quickly leave the well-lit street and pull into an alley, where, presumably, we could change into our everyday clothes. As soon as we turned into the alley, however, a car followed. We quickly swerved into another alley, the car still behind us, and into another and another—traveling through a virtual maze of back-street alleys until we finally lost our pursuers. As quickly as he could, Howard opened his door, pulling off his blouse, bra, and hot pants as he attempted to pull on his own slacks.
Suddenly, as we stood beside the auto, we realized our pursuers had rediscovered us. They pulled up behind us, as we jumped back into our car and drove off!
Our howls of laughter, tinged by our inner fears of terror, probably could be heard by all who passed us as we sped out of the city and into The Old Line State.

Los Angeles, September 6, 2008

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