Friday Book Whimsy: The Gown

Sometimes I just want to set aside all of my serious mystery books or sad stories about unhappy people going through difficult times and read a book that will just make me smile. Maybe it’s not great literature, maybe it won’t be reviewed by the New York Times. But it will be like eating a dish of ice cream for dinner — not particularly nourishing, but oh-so-enjoyable.

That’s why I was drawn to The Gown, an historical novel by Jennifer Robson. The title is perfectly apt. The book is about making the wedding gown of then-Princess Elizabeth following the announcement of her engagement to the dishy Greek fellow who later became Prince Philip.

It’s 1947, and while the war is over, England is still experiencing very difficult times. There is rationing and some foods are unavailable altogether. People are trying to put their lives — and their cities — back together after the Americans have gone home.

So the announcement of a royal wedding brings light and joy into the downtrodden people of Great Britain. And the question of the day is what will her dress look like.

Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassan work for the queen’s dressmaker, real life Norman Hartell, as embroiderers. They, along with their coworkers, are the ones who use great care and immense talent to embroider the luscious gowns worn by wealthy women around the world. And Norman Hartell’s shop has been tapped to make THE gown.

Both Ann and Miriam, the best of friends and extremely talented embroiderers, have their own stories to tell.

Jump forward to contemporary times. Heather’s beloved grandmother Ann has just died in Toronto, Canada. She left Heather a mysterious box that includes embroidery samples and photos of her grandmother with a woman Heather doesn’t recognize. And why the embroidery samples when her grandmother didn’t embroider? Heather is determined to find out and travels from Toronto to London to do some digging.

The plot is predictable, in part because everyone already knows that the dress was a huge success. But the story is interesting and Robson’s writing kept me intrigued nonetheless. The details of the dress and what went into making it was fascinating. I’ve dabbled at embroidery in my life, but the artful mastery involved in the making of the dress was ice cream for dinner.

Here is a link to the book.

Surrey With the Fringe on the Top

Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry
When I take you out in my surrey
When I take you out in my surrey with the fringe on top. – Rodgers and Hammerstein

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Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae (didn’t he star in every Rodgers and Hammerstein movie ever made?)

I recently finished reading a book that had to do with my secret addiction – anything having to do with the British royal family. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I can’t get enough of the Dysfunctional- Family-To-End-All-Dysfunctional-Families. We all have our dirty little secrets and being a Windsorphile is one of mine.

One of the more useless pieces of information that I learned from the book was that the Queen’s favorite song is People Will Say We’re in Love. She loves it so much, in fact, that she has it played every morning for her, by a piper outside her bedroom window. I think it’s a pretty song, but after about 5 minutes’ worth of Rodgers and Hammerstein on a bagpipe, I would ask them to stop. Please, please stop. Never come back. Off with his head.

Anyhoo, if you’re an avid musical fan, you will recognize, as did I, that People Will Say We’re in Love is from one of the many Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. I couldn’t, however, recall which one. Carousel? South Pacific? State Fair? Something where the main female character wears a dirndl skirt and looks longingly into her soon-to-be boyfriend’s eyes as she sings to her. That much I knew. So, like any intelligent person in the 21st century, I Googled it.

It’s from Oklahoma. Shirley Jones sings it wearing gingham. I’ll bet Queen Elizabeth II has never owned a single item in her life made of gingham. Nevertheless, it was the first song that she and her prince danced to, so it’s “their song” and her favorite. She has a right.

Princess Elizabeth and Lt Philip Mountbatten after their wedding November 1947. Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection (MPWA574514)

Princess Elizabeth and Lt Philip Mountbatten after their wedding November 1947. Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection (MPWA574514)

But it got me to looking at what other songs of note came from that particular musical. I can’t say I knew a whole lot of them. There is, of course, Oh, What a Beautiful Morning. But I don’t think Pore Jud is Daid, or The Farmer and the Cowman ever made it to the Top 40. But then I saw it: The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top.

And I thought of my dad.

He never owned a surrey with or without fringe, at least as far as I know. But I have a VIVID recollection of him singing that particular song as part of a men’s musical choir originating in Columbus, Nebraska, when they performed on a local Omaha television station. Chicks and ducks and geese better scurry…..

My dad had a beautiful tenor voice. He was, as I have mentioned before, a gifted musician. He was part of the Navy band during World War II. More importantly, at least as it relates to me, he played clarinet and saxophone as part of a dance band directed by one of my mother’s brothers. It was as part of that band that my mom and dad met. She collected money at the door and he sat and stared at her with his tongue hanging out (those would have been my mom’s words). The rest, as they say, is history.

I actually never heard my dad play either one of those instruments. He had long ceased playing in the band by time I was born. I have long suspected that music was how my father WISHED he could have earned his living; baking, however, was more realistic for a family man.

I did, however, hear my father sing on many, many occasions. He sang in the choir at St. Bonaventure Catholic Church in Columbus for many years. And he would still sing loud and clear with the congregation long after leaving the choir.

And then, of course, he sang as part of the Apollo Club, a choir started in Columbus in 1946, headed up by the local musical guru Forest L. Corn. Mr. Corn owned Columbus Music, and also taught band at the public high school where my dad was a student. In fact, it was Mr. Corn who persuaded my father to join the band, thereby changing the course of my dad’s life. My dad always felt a bit guilty because he admitted to me one time that he only joined the band to get out of working in the bakery after school.

But back to my father’s singing voice. It was beautiful, as anyone who heard it would attest to. It was the clearest tenor voice I had ever heard. Well, there was Andy Williams, but hey! I was 6 or 7, and it was my dad! Seriously, however, he really did sing beautifully, and kept the clear tone until he was pretty darn old. God bless him. He’s undoubtedly singing now with the angels.

I think the Apollo Club dissolved sometime in the 70s. But I can still picture the group of men in their matching tuxedoes singing that song on our little black and white television. I think of that every time I hear it. Every. Single. Time.

Watch that fringe and see how it flutters
When I drive them high steppin’ strutters
Nosey pokes’ll peek thru their shutters
And their eyes will pop….

For that tiny little surrey with the fringe on the top!