Some of the subject matter in this piece appeared in an earlier one. I have added new material throughout. I tried to break the original piece in two: Perugia and London, but the segments proved to be Siamese Twins. So I started in Perugia then moved on to London which is where the story ends.. Hence the title, Hans Road SW3 London 1956.
The Universita per Stranieri di Perugia was housed in the Baroque Palazzo Gallenga Stuart in Piazza Fortebraccio. The sunshine sharpened the sculpted detail around the windows with bold shadow. Within, the rooms were serene. The walls were faded to a watercolor wash, the wooden trim, painted gold, was patinated with age, and the ceilings were frescoed. The windows were deep and tall.
“Le bombe americane caddero pocchi metri dalla Cappella degli Scrovegni!”
His voice quavered and his jowls trembled as he looked upwards in fear and supplication, remembering how closely an American air raid in World War II came to destroying Giotto’s Chapel in Padua. Professore Cristofani taught art history in the large room set up with a projector and a screen on the wall behind his desk and to his right. He held a long slender, crooked wooden pointer in his right hand, a cane cut from the windbreak of a nearby field. He was old and frail, unsteady on his legs and unable to negotiate the stairs leading to the second floor classroom.
He would instead enter the room via a secret door, hidden behind a trompe l’oell panel which revealed an one-person elevator. Signor Neri, the school’s genial Neapolitan factotum, would have snugged Cristofani into the elevator on the first floor and then run up the stairs in time to extricate him and lead him to his desk. Then Neri would retreat to the rear of the room to man the slide projecter.
It was very cold for April. We sat in the unheated classrooms in our warmest clothes. Professore Amorini, our teacher of elementary Italian, wore a heavy winter overcoat. The cold was a small adversity that bonded those among us who were living out their dreams.
We were part of an entering class of about three hundred students, which was divided into sections according to native language: English, German. Spanish and French. The French sections included exotic nationals whose second language was French.
The advanced students, many of them teachers of Italian in their home countries, spoke only Italian amongst themselves. They met in smaller rooms, Rococo jewel boxes, where they studied sintassi, fonetica, etruscologia, arte, letteratura, corrispondenza commerciale, glottologia! We dilettantes fell back into our native languages once outside of the classroom.
The English speaking students included Americans, Canadians and native English; many of the South Africans, New Zealanders and Australians were transient, on their spawning run to the mother country. Some would linger in Italy, seduced by its pleasures.
After class, we more casual students would gather in the outdoor cafes. The back room of the shabby Bar Centrale was a late-night hangout until it closed at midnight; then we took our beers onto the Cathedral steps until the carabinieri chased us. We talked novels, poetry, films and politics. We sang folk songs. Me, folk songs? Temple University was in the middle of a ghetto! I was reinventing myself.
The English were identifiable by their accents. Gina Mallet’s was extravagantly refined. It attracted some of us, it put others off. Diana Beames, an attractive Australian, spoke more precisely in Gina’s presence. I began to shed my Philadelphia adenoidal twang.
Gina was five-feet two inches tall, compact, with short curly hair; she leaned forward when she walked, pumping her arms. She was awesomely articulate, combative, conservative, bigoted, enchanting unless you hated her. Winston Churchill was her hero.
Gina’s mother sent a proof copy of a portrait Gina had sat for just before she came to Perugia. The photograph was somehow necessary for her participation in that season’s coming out Ball, the last to be presided over by Queen Elizabeth. At the Ball the Queen would kiss the hands of the daughters of Peers; the other debutantes kissed the Queen’s hand.
She looked angelic in the photo: “Angeli, non Angli.” said Pope Gregory in the Sixth century when he saw the first blond, fair-skinned British children brought to Rome.
Gina, when facing off a group, was like D’Artagnan holding off a host of swordsmen, tossing off witticisms as she whirled. She was not angelic. She was merciless, but fortunately, with epee, we were unharmed. In later life, as the Toronto Star’s drama critic, and then as its restaurant critic, she drew blood. She was brilliant, she could be nasty.
Over the years Margie and I would see Gina every five years or so: once in Manhattan, and once again in Toronto after she settled there. When we lived in Philadelphia and later in Moorestown, she stayed with us, enroute, whenever she visited her friend Hilary, who had married a rich farmer in western Pennsylvania.
At the restaurant in Philadelphia, Gina would pull me into the chair next to her. Margie and I would trade smiles. She’d knock off a bottle of wine by herself, becoming tipsy, becoming testy. How did she get away with it?: by the force of her personality and the unbroken flow of her speech. Margie and I just listened.
In Perugia, in 1955, my felt hat had caught her attention. No other student wore a fedora. I had creased and crushed the crown in Philadelphia, like a mobster’s, and, coincidently, like the hats of some British aristocrats.
We were an unlikely couple, not that it was ever much of a romance. Mostly we did things with the crowd, of which she was the leader. She organized a picnic to the countryside which proved a disaster for the lone Italian who joined us. “Un picnic? A fare che?” “A picnic? To what purpose?” He came in his best suit – light grey that season – and elegant shoes. We went to Spoleto with the class on a Saturday; on another occasion, Gina, Diana Beames, Warwick, the New Zealander and I went to Assisi on our own.
In Perugia we’d end up at the antique Bar Medio Evo for a hot chocolate. I walked her home one night, to her toney pensione, the Casa Carloni. The maid served meals at a nicely appointed table, and the students were fined if they spoke English. They’d drop their fines into the bowl on the table.
We smooched in the first floor entry, just inside the stately front door, on the broad, shallow steps, but we couldn’t close the deal. I wasn’t a masterful lover and she was not the sophisticate she appeared to be. She was seventeen. I was twenty-four.
I had to go to Sicily for three weeks. By the time I returned, Gina had only three weeks left in Perugia. “Where’s your hat?” I had given it to my cousin in Sant’Anna who had admired it. He wore it when he tended his sheep on the mountain, in his sleeveless home-made sheepskin vest, with his legs bound in rags to thwart the brambles.
The hat no longer suited me. I was never the dead-end kid Gina envisioned. She was annoyed, but we took up where we had left off, but no more smooching. “Come to see us in London.” she said before she returned to England.
I arrived in Hans Place on Christmas Eve, disheveled and dirty, fresh off the train, having sat up for thirty-six hours. The Mallets were about to go to a Chinese restaurant, a Christmas Eve family tradition. “Just in time,” said Arthur. “Wash up and join us.” Mr. Mallet was unflappable.
Next morning Mr Mallet, Gina and I walked to St Paul’s Church (Knightsbridge) for Christmas services; Afterwards Gina went home to assemble the Christmas dinner. Arthur and I visited friends who had restored a little house in a nearby mews. We had champagne. Before noon! I had never drunk champagne .
I settled into Lynn’s bedroom; Lynn, Gina’s older sister, had earlier sailed to the States, working her way across on a freighter. The Daily Express ran a front page story: “The Deckhand Debutante.”
“Aren’t you afraid to put your twenty year-old daughter on a ship with nineteen sailors?”
“Not at all,” said Arthur, who was a Royal Navy veteran of World War One and World War Two “With one man in a lifeboat, I’d worry, but not with nineteen men on a freighter. They will be very protective of her.”
The Mallet apartment was in the Harrods building, above the store on the fifth floor: seven rooms with a foyer that was a room unto itself. Lord Beveridge, architect of the British welfare state, lived below us, in the building’s one other apartment
I was treading for my life in deep water, all because Gina had taken a fancy to my artfully-crushed felt hat. I followed Gina’s lead in all things. I had already learned to eat in the Continental way, my fork never leaving my left hand, the knife always in my right. We Americans cut our meat holding the knife in the right hand. Then we drop the knife and switch the fork to the right hand in order to spear the morsel and lift it to our lips.
I trolled the authors in the Mallet’s library: Evelyn Waugh, Trollope and Angela Thirkell; Mrs Mallet had reviewed many of Thirkell’s novels for the New York Herald Tribune. During the week, Gina and Mr Mallet went to bed early. Isabelle and I talked. She was an American who had lived in England since the 1930s. She had much to talk about. In the mornings Arthur went off to his office and Gina went to secretarial school. Isabelle worked in her study.
I’d wander through Harrods for an hour. I window shopped on Bond Street, vowing someday to own a Herbert Lock hat. I roamed the Burlington Arcade and I ranged Sloane Square. I’d go to the USIA Library to read back issues of Country Life or The Field.
I’d stop at a Lyons cafe for a cup of tea and a roll. I craved bread because it seldom appeared on the Mallet table. Gina and I would get a loaf when we went to Soho to buy the ingredients for an Italian meal. In the crowded, disordered Italian shop – a salumeria – Gina showed me her favorite Soho landmark, the fattest orange marmalade cat I have ever seen, strategically positioned near the cheeses.
Arthur Mallet 1898 – 1970
Windsor Castle. May 5th 1898 “I’m delighted at the good news and congratulate you and dear Marie warmly on the birth of a second son.” V.R.I Victoria Regina Imperatrix. (A telegram Queen Victoria sent to Bernard Mallet, Arthur’s father.)
A newspaper cutting: “The Baptism of the infant son of Mr.and Mrs. Bernard Mallet (Extra Bedchamber to the Queen) took place yesterday afternoon in the Chapel Royal, St. James’ Palace. Princess Henry of Battenberg (Princess Beatrice, youngest daughter of the Queen) … stood sponsor in person (godparent). The other sponsor was Mr A. Balfour, M.P.” (Member of Parliament , and future Prime Minister.)
“A pretty little ceremony, the picturesque choirboys in their red and gold gowns sang very well,,, Altogether a successful little function giving the little man a good ‘send-off.”
Arthur attended private schools before he entered the British Navy as a young cadet just before World War I. He was wounded at Gallipoli in 1915 when he was seventeen years-old. He returned to action and fought in the battle of Jutland in 1916. He served again in World War II, in Brooklyn, as liaison to the American Navy where he arranged the transatlantic crossing of Vanderbilt’s large yacht, which the Vanderbilts had donated to the English Navy.
The 1920s found him in New York City where he worked on Wall Street. He returned to London in the 1930s to begin his business career. When I met him in 1956 he was director of a group of hotels which included the Mayfair in London and the Metropole in Brussels. He was a gourmet; so were Isabelle, Lynn and Gina. In the 1930s, the Mallets lived in Provence during summers, close to the sea for fresh fish, close to the vine for good wine.
At Hans Place in the evenings, Mr Mallet would remove his suit jacket and his shoes to don a velvet dinner jacket and velvet slippers. His necktie remained at his collar. We’d have sherry in the living room while Gina, the family cook, prepared the meal.
“South African swill,” Mr Mallet called it. It was the sherry served in his hotels. Good stuff. The Mallets never failed to praise Gina’s meals. She was good. One Sunday she roasted a leg of lamb: “What an extraordinary joint,” said Mr Mallet.
Once a month Mr. Mallet flew to Brussels to attend a meeting at the Hotel Metropole. He said one ate better in Brussels than in Paris.
Arthur’s older brother, Sir Victor, was a former Ambassador to Italy and later to Sweden. Like Arthur, Victor had been baptized in the Royal Chapel, but by the Queen herself. Sir Victor and his wife came to dinner once but I never met him. He didn’t like young people at the table, so Mr. Mallet gave Gina and me money to eat out.
In the evenings, Arthur sometimes sat at his elegant little handloom on which he did Bargello. I told stories about the village in Sicily. Gina went to her room to practice typing. The phone rang – it was on the far side of the room – and Mr. Mallet rose to answer it. “Hello Harold.” Isabelle stood up and made a motion for me to follow her out of the room. It was Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister. He and Arthur had been schoolboys together.
I made a stupid joke once about King Edward V11. Arthur’s face darkened for a moment. I still remember his brief look of displeasure and I am ashamed of myself.
Isabelle McDonough Mallet 1900(?) – 1976
Isabelle was an American born in Brooklyn. She had been a book reviewer for the New York Herald Tribune before she married, specializing in English novels. She continued to review British writers for the Tribune even after she moved permanently to London.
She first married Seaton, the father of her son who was later killed in a training accident while In the RAF. She divorced Seaton to marry Arthur Mallet with whom she had two daughters, Lynn and Gina.
I shall here quote portions of a long letter Isabelle wrote from Stonington, Connecticut months before she died. It is a good example of her disjointed conversational style:
“Oh dear, dear Carlo, how many times I dreamed of getting this letter started. Of course your contributions to my happiness in hospital was deeply appreciated. Inside and out – I always love the Sicilian lore, like your way with words and the whole story of the Perrones as translated by Lynn (Lynn had lived with my parents in Philadelphia for three weeks when she was between apartments) is an especially glowing chapter in Mallet lives —but what happened first that the painkillers they gave me nearly polished me off, sent me up around the wall of any of the customary locations you can fill in. So I came out with a long lasting case of nerves which affected my literary style and mood. I kept telling Gina I wanted to write Carlo when I was in snappy mood, but the mood didn’t come, and when it finally arrived, Gina lost your address, she does things like that —in between being an angel which she would hate to be called, and making bookcases to enclose our ever-expanding library, and getting ready for the advent of the Twins, their mother and their beautiful sister, Gina loses vital statistics. ,,,, I wish I could see all of your family in the village (Moorestown, NJ) you live in. Wish you and Margie had known us when we were down in Shillingford (England) too. Then you would understand a bit what Badger has done to our lives, Arthur’s first ship he served on in World War 1was the H.M.S. Badger. Before World War II we had a very large boathouse and lots of very not grand boats. We had a very small Badger and canoes (which didn’t count) and an enormous fat noisy river boat called the Sour Puss after me, it was christened one Sunday afternoon when we were all hung over and not very polite to each other. Before Dunquirque, our fleet started disappearing. Down the river they went at night. Sour Puss was sighted at Dunquirque time being very useful indeed, fussy and chugging about and bossy. On the English side, not the French. If she hadn’t had that name, she would not have stood out in our memory. Anyway, after the war, there weren’t any more boats on sale in Harrods fun-boat department, so we got just one Badger, a splendid wooden boat which was all things to all men. The family pet. Now we have H.M.S. Badger III, it is a pretty little sail boat, the boys and Gina found it. When the Blessing of the Fleet takes place and the tall garlanded ships go out to sea, you can see if you have good eyesight the H.M.S. Badger III racing right along with them darting in and out of the picture, always just on the verge of being swamped. We were all water rats, my family and us and my son-in-law Robin isn’t. I think it’s kind of him to let his children come all this way to be taught how to race in small frail craft in a rough sea. He really is a very good egg, much nicer when he was in America though, he learned the language and got over his initial surprise and shock. But no more so that my father—this is a very disconnected letter, you just have to fish for clues— but my father brought us up to believe that England was the home of high excellence and a special breed of charm and dignity, etc. and then he got to England and found out that the English entirely agreed with him on every point—but whereas he believed they were superior to other mortals, they knew it which enraged him. …Dear me, I have so much more to talk to you about but since the boys arrive Wednesday I felt I had to get started somewhere, and will write again when there is space to sit down, the boys have learned to cook at their coeducational boarding school, that is an item in their lives which Arthur would have approved of hugely, too. They are funny, tell me more about your family, forgive long drugged silence, love to you and yours, Isabelle.”
A letter from Gina Mallet, 11 April 2009:
Thank you so much for sending Ma’s letter to you from Stonington. I heard her voice again….I glad to know she was so cheerful after the original operation. ..the hospital did indeed send her round the bend with far too many pain killers and I had to call a shrink etc…and threatened a law suit on Time letterhead! And the lawyer totally agreed with me and I wound up having him tear up the total bill….
But it was bad thereafter because within far too short of time, the cancer returned, to her spine this time….She was so gallant but it was a losing fight as it had been since Dad died….She was cut adrift ….and it was good that she had a last summer with the boys but even so, they were almost too much for her….Patrick was amazingly intuitive and wonderful while Mowbray was bewildered….Obviously I think of her often and still puzzle over her life because if she had been able to escape the female role as it were, she would have found something fulfilling to do, Dad could live in his skin happily but she couldn’t, she was always striving toward something but the world in which she lived wasn’t the one where she spread her wings….Many American women’s stories of that era are stories of frustration….I’ve come to think….because they were encouraged to expect more that society was willing to allow….I’m always sorry she never wrote a novel about being an American in England but she was inhibited by circumstance….Not a rebel at heart. And not too very confident in her self. Her tendency to overanalyze often tripped her up. Lynn is very like her in that regard.
England was terrible for her….she had inherited Harry’s, her father’s ambivalence about England. From NYC it seemed perfect. Once he ran into the real thing, he had many, many reservations….and she as you know did too….Harry liked Seaton her first husband a great deal more than he liked Dad because Seaton was not so unapologetically English, Seaton was more self conscious and aware of of other’s reactions to him. Seaton died young, sixty! I recall, devastated first by world war I and then by Ian’s death,,,,he was enchanting….
I’ve been invited to speak at a slow food event near Hilary this June. Maybe we can meet once again for lunch in Philadelphia…that would be great.”
Lynn Mallet Jackson 1935 – 2012
In his eulogy, Patrick Jackson quoted something I wrote about his mother who had been a guest at my wedding in 1960.
“We received this remembrance from Carlo Perrone, Lara’s Godfather and who was one of Mum’s oldest friends”:
“We were married in a small Episcopal country church in 1960, The bride’s family sat on one side of the church, the groom’s on the other; the Protestants sat on one side, the Catholics on the other; the Republicans sat on one side, the Democrats on the other; the Anglos sat on one side, the Italians on the other. Lynn sat among the Italians, a beacon shining above a sea of dark heads. By then Lynn had entered my family’s folklore as ‘La bella Inglese.’ She was at home in the meanest settings; her home was a haven to all that washed ashore.”
Gina Mallet 1938 – 2013
Susan Ferrier Mackay.. Special to The Globe and Mail:
“Gina Mallet, influential theatre critic, food writer and restaurant reviewer, was a force majeure in both her chosen areas of writing. Talented, highly opinionated and known for her outspoken reviews, she was never concerned over ruffling the feathers of an on-stage ego or a renowned chef.
A positive review could ensure a full houses for a theatre production. A negative review could damage box office takings and reputations. Actor Peter Hutt recalls a review of George Bernard Shaw’s Misalliance in which Ms. Mallet referred to him as a ‘useful prop’.
Ms. Mallet’s writing garnered her a 2005 James Beard Award for her book, Last Chance to Eat. A perfectly seared goose foie-gras she deemed the holy wafer of haute cuisine .”
A few of Gina’s friends gathered at her apartment in Toronto to commemorate her death, to savor the piquancy of her life. I sent them my description of the youthful Gina as D’Artagnon.
The Mallets enriched my life. I gave little in return: my Sicilian stories; my sympathetic ear to Isabelle’s discontents; and a well-worn panel from an old Sicilian farm cart.
The fragments of paint left on the panel are bright and – unusual for these cart relics – the scene depicted is also deeply incised: Saint George, England’s patron saint, on horseback, is slaying the dragon with his lance. The dragon symbolizes the Devil. Saint George, who symbolizes Christianity, is saving England from the Devil.
Isabelle had hung the panel on the wall behind the grand piano. Gina appropriated it when her parents relinquished the Hans Place apartment. The panel followed her to New York City, to Los Angeles and finally to Toronto. Her niece Lara, my godchild, inherited the panel after Gina died. It decorates her home in Palm Springs, California. The panel is my lasting legacy to the Mallets. The rest is words.