by Tavo Amador
Shopping for holiday gifts is often challenging. Books, however, offer a wide range of options in all price ranges.
Sixty years after her untimely death, Marilyn Monroe (1926-62) continues to fascinate the public. In some ways, she's a bigger star now than when she was while alive. Amid the plethora of volumes about her recently released, one stands out: Marilyn in Fashion: The Enduring Influence of Marilyn Monroe by Christopher Nickens and George Zeno (Running Press, $30). Monroe lacked the youthful Elizabeth Taylor's American Princess aura or Audrey Hepburn's European elegance, and thus, in the 1950s, they eclipsed her as style icons. But as this superbly illustrated book shows, she often was able to combine glamour and sensuousness, and at times, as on the jacket photograph, looked ready for the cover of Vogue. Oleg Cassini, Charles LeMaire, Jean Louis, Dorothy Jeakins, and the underrated Don Loper are among those who created the splendid outfits pictured here. Truman Capote insisted that Monroe was his only choice to play Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and some of the images in this volume make his contention plausible.
Monroe's early death assured her immortality. Her younger contemporary Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), the box-office queen and reigning beauty of the 1950s and early 60s, grew old. Will she, 60 years after her death, continue to fascinate? If Cindy De La Hoz has anything to say about it, the answer is an emphatic "Yes!" In Elizabeth Taylor: A Shining Legacy on Film (Running Press, $30), she chronicles Taylor's extraordinary life with dazzling photographs and astute commentary. The pictures range from the captivating little girl who, at 12, became a star in National Velvet (1945) to the breathtaking teenager seducing Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951), wearing a white gown by Edith Head that created a fashion frenzy; to the sexually aggressive Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tim Roof (1958); as Cleopatra (1963); submerging her radiance to play the harridan Martha (and winning a second Best Actress Oscar) in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966); to the voluptuous Renaissance tigress Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew (1968); and as the matronly agent in her last film, These Old Broads (2000). She's pictured with her seven husbands, attending the era's greatest parties and events, dressed by top designers, wearing her fabulous jewelry, and for the last 30 years of her life, tirelessly fighting to eradicate AIDS.
Taylor erased the distinction between celebrity and notoriety, something Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) failed to do, and it cost him his life. In 1895, at the height of his fame, with The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband playing to packed audiences in London's West End, he brought a libel suit against his lover Alfred Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry, who had written that Wilde was a "posing somdomite [sic] ." His suit failed but resulted in Wilde being charged with "gross indecency," a term for homosexual acts. The first case ended in a hung jury, but an unrelenting British government succeeded in convicting him after a second trial, sentencing him to hard labor for two years in Reading Gaol. Evidence against Wilde included sections from his "immoral" novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), which, even though heavily censored by his editor, had strong homoerotic overtones. Belknap Harvard Press has just published a paperback edition of The Uncensored Picture of Dorian Gray ($12.95), edited by Nicholas Frankel, who also provides a superb introduction to the novel and the period. He discusses the impact of the Cleveland Street Scandal involving English aristocrats and working-class young men, and its effect on Wilde's trials. A reader can only admire Wilde's artistry and daring to have written this story in such a puritanical era. Frankel's assessment of the novel and its many coded messages is compelling. His summary of the tragic fate that awaited Wilde – he died in penury in Paris – brings fresh, startling insights into a familiar story.
Paris' Marais district was once home to royalty and aristocrats. In the 17th century, Queen Anne of Austria, the Spanish Hapsburg mother of Louis XIV, had a house facing the Place de Voges. Later, it become more working-class – Maximilian Robespierre, the bloodthirsty French Revolutionary, lived there in the 1780s and 90s. By the beginning of the 20th century, it was the center of Jewish life. Today, it's the heart of the City of Light's gay community. In Claude Izner's The Assassin in the Marais (Minotaur, $14.99), readers get a compelling mystery set in the area during the 1890s. The amateur sleuth is bookseller/photographer Victor Legris. He finds himself tracking down a religious fanatic and killer. The story opens with the murder of a titled Scottish lady in her home there, then shifts to Paris. Izner knows the period and the city, which he recreates beautifully.
One of the many pleasures of Donna Leon's Venetian mystery novels featuring Inspector Guido Brunetti is his equally appealing, intelligent, and outspoken wife, Paola. Daughter of a wealthy Count from one of Venice's oldest families, she's a radical socialist and college professor, teaching Henry James. She's also a terrific home cook, and every novel has at least one scene in which the meal she prepares is temptingly described. A new edition of Brunetti's Cookbook (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.95) by Roberta Pianaro and Leon is available just in time for holiday celebrations. Recipes covering antipasti , first courses, vegetables, fish and seafood, chicken and meat, and dolce are interwoven with evocative prose about La Serenissima , a city Leon knows very well. Buon appetito!