On September 27th, I was handed an envelope addressed to me, it looked like an invitation. I receive lots of invites to openings, symposiums, press conferences, etc and this looked similar to the others. Until I read the first line, which said ‘HRH Prince of Wales…..invites you to Buckingham Palace.’
We had been working on a special edition of The Florentine commemorating the 90th anniversary of the British Institute in Florence, and I’d been told that there would be a reception in London. I just had no idea, that the reception would be in the Queen’s Gallery of Buckingham Palace, or that the host would be none other than Prince Charles.
My first thought, after I read, and re-read the invitation, response card, and envelope (there was no stamp on the envelope, only a small engraved crown, and the words..Royal Mail), was that my mother was not alive to tell her that her daughter was going to Buckingham Palace. I don’t think there is anyone else in my life that would be prouder and get more joy out of the mere invitation than her.
The next thought of course, was, what to wear? I put out the call and got the following advice.
First from via my girlfriend, Patty Detroit who had worked with Julian Fellowes (Oscar winner writer), who is married to Emma Fellowes, lady in waiting to Princess Michael of Kent:
Emma is in Bruges, but I have been to these things, and I know that she has to wear what used to be called a "smart cocktail" dress. Not long. But not informal. The gallery is very beautiful and was rebuilt not all that long ago. It is part of the Palace, and in fact is on the site of the chapel that was bombed in the Blitz ("Now we can look the East End in the face.") She will enjoy herself. If she does get presented to the Prince, she should remember that the grander the lady, the lower the curtsey. Servants bob. Ladies curtsey.
And my friend William Fford, sent this:
I would guess that it would be cocktail dress, or some would be coming from work so would be wearing something slightly more business. The men would be in lounge suits. I.e. smart informal, not black tie or anything like that (unless of course one is going on to such an event afterwards…).
You can practise your curtsy next time you see me!
William, aka Lorde of Seaforde in the County of Down, Ulster (but also peasant from Ennis, County Clare, Munster), all in ye islande of Irelande
I started the search in my closet, where I found a beautiful Armani evening suit that I purchased 20 years ago. It fit, it was beautiful, and I realized that if I were to go shopping today, I would end up with the same thing. I also had a gorgeous pair of Prada heels, bought 5 years ago, and never worn, and a vintage Balenciaga purse. Fortunately, I didn’t have to buy a thing, unfortunately, I didn’t have to buy a thing!
My friend, Ellyn Toscano, who is director of Villa La Pietra (NYU), the villa had been a gift from Harold Acton, was also invited, so we planned a 3 day trip to London together.
Arrived Monday: Ellyn had hosted some English actors at the villa a few months before. They had done a ‘reading’ of the play that would be opening in London in November. While they were in Florence, we got to know them fairly well, and so they invited us to come to the play while we were in London. The play is called, ‘The Giant’, and it is about the making of the ‘David’, with the cast playing, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Machiavelli, and the boy who modeled as the David for Michelangelo.
Although the play got horrible reviews, and definitely in need of editing, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my ‘friends’ perform, and the 3 I had met in Florence all are amazing actors. Then ‘Leonardo’, Roger Allam (he was in the movie, The Queen, as her private secretary) and his friend, another actor who came to see the play, took Ellyn and me out to dinner at an ‘in’ place, The Woolsey.
You know of course that I was in heaven. Dining with movie stars, in a cool place. And it actually was even better, because our dinner partners are both very, very intelligent, so we spent two hours in stimulating, very funny, brilliant conversation.
Next morning, we passed the day looking for an evening bag for Ellyn, running around London but found either cheap shlock or frighteningly expensive beauties. Finally at 4, we gave up, and went to get our nails and hair handled for the evening. 25 pounds ($70) to get my hair washed and blown dry, 20 pounds for a manicure!!! But how often do I get invited to Buckingham Palace?
We arrived on time for the reception from 6-8pm. I had brought my camera, but of course I didn’t know how to use the flash to get a picture from the outside. Once inside I asked one of the ‘governors of the British Institute’ if I would be allowed to get a photo with the prince. He told me that this was considered a private engagement and so no press or photos were allowed. In fact, he noted that I was the only journalist there.
About the night:
The occasion was in honor of the 90th anniversary of the British Institute in Florence. Prince Charles and Wanda Ferragamo (wife of the founder of Ferragamo) are the two patrons of the Institute. So the monarchy, which has probably the greatest private art collection in the world, put on display in the Queen’s Gallery, their ‘Italians’.
Seeing the collection was worth it in itself. Not only did it consist solely of masterpieces, but every single painting had been impeccably restored and were in exquisite condition. There were paintings by Titian, Artemisia, Caneletto, and two extraordinary canvases by Caravaggio.
I was surprised at how many people I knew who were there. Several members from different noble families of Florence had been invited, Corsini, Frescobaldi, della Gheradesca, as well as government officials, the president of the region and assistant mayor, all of whom I had interviewed and become friends with over my 3 years with the paper. Of course, I ‘worked’ the room and met as many new people as I could. There were probably 100 people there.
Prince Charles magically appeared in the middle of the gallery, with no apparent ‘entrance’. I went up to him and waited my turn to meet him. He was casually chatting with everyone he met, and I found that I was not nervous at all to talk to him, and that when I finally did, and even afterwards, when I am usually upset that I hadn’t said the right things, I was totally at ease and not at all concerned about what I had said or had forgotten to say. This was his ‘doing’, not mine.
Nita: I am the editor in chief of The Florentine, the newspaper in Florence and we did the special issue for this 90th anniversary.
PC: Thank you so much for doing that, it is beautifully done.
Nita: Thank you for this great honor to meet you and this exhibit is amazing. The paintings are in such beautiful shape, so beautifully restored.
PC: I know, and did you see the Caravaggio’s over there? One of them was in such awful shape, and so dark that we didn’t even know it was a Caravaggio until a few years ago.
Nita: and how did you discover that it was authentic?
PC: It was a man named Maurizio…?(he turned to his assistant)…
Nita: Oh, Maurizio Seracini. Yes, I know him well, in fact we are about to publish a book about the search for the missing Leonardo in the Palazzo Vecchio, which Maurizio is a key player in developing the technology.
PC: That’s such a fascinating project.
End of The Conversation.
I was blown away that I was talking art authentication with Prince Charles!! What I realized afterwards was that he engaged me in conversation, not the other way around. And that he was that way with everyone. ‘Charming’ isn’t the right word to describe him, more like gracious in a very effortless and intimate way. When I said to Montana how easy it was to be with him, and how incredible he was with people, her reply was, “Mom, he’s been trained to be that way his whole life!!” Well, she’s right, and it worked.
As I was retrieving my coat from the coat check, I noticed in front of me, a very attractive blond woman in the most stunning dress. I looked at her face, and then asked, ‘Are you Trudie?
And yes, it was Sting’s wife!! She was lovely, friendly and fun. I didn’t tell her about my obsession, but we did talk about the paper and that Sting was our first subscriber and I’ve been dying to get an interview with him. She was a doll, and said she was sure he would love to do it after the tour with the Police.
So I got one step closer to my life’s ambition of meeting Sting.
Every person when they left the reception was given a small gift bag which had the catalogue from the exhibit and a copy of our special edition of The Florentine!!!
Princess Giorgina Corsina saw us as we were leaving and invited me and Ellyn to dinner at her friend’s house in Belgravia (a very chi chi part of London). So the night ended in the fairy tale way that it had begun at a lovely table with a Princess, 2 Marchesa’s and a Countess, Ellyn from Brooklyn and the Jewish American princess from Detroit.
Where do you go from there? We had been invited to breakfast by Sir Julian Fellowes and his wife Emma (see above). My dear friend, Patty Detroit (also from Detroit), had kindly introduced us via email, and I was so excited to meet them both.
What a couple!! Julian is ‘everly so dignified’, and Emma is a 6 foot, stunning, dramatic, over-the-top, much younger and more beautiful version of Auntie Mame. Everything was, ‘Darling, you simply must meet my most dear friend..’, ‘I was in the Rolls last night, and off to a private dinner with the Queen tonight’, ‘yes, I have 100’s of gowns and hats designed especially for me.’ But although it may sound like she was full of herself or pretentious, she was absolutely sweet, kind and thoughtful. I was totally entertained and fell ‘simply in love with the darling.’
I had planned to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum after breakfast to see the couture exhibit, and they were off to do the same thing, so we went together. Julian is writing a musical play about Christian Dior and he was going back to see the exhibit for the 3rd time for his research.
Walking through that exhibit with the two of them, who were both forthcoming with history, anecdotes, and Emma pointing out which dress she modeled her Oscar gown after, or what kind of hats she has……’they must be simply huge,,,because I am so tall’, was another experience of a lifetime.
I went back to my hotel, retrieved my rolling suitcase, walked to the tube, took the cheapest way to the airport, and boarded the cheapest flight back to Florence. I should have felt like Cinderella finding a pumpkin in the place of her carriage. Instead I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and thanks.
Most of all, I was thankful for the incredible and generous friendships I have. To Ellyn, for including me every time someone wonderful comes to Florence, which led to meeting the actors. To Patty, for sharing her ‘famous’ connections. Julian and Emma couldn’t have been more gracious and fun, and they only made the time because of their love for Patty.
And the privilege I have as editor in chief of The Florentine, to meet the most interesting people, to be able to constantly learn new things, see the great wonders and treasures of the magical city of Florence, be invited into the lives and homes of the noble, the powerful, the rich, famous, cultured and gifted.
When I was a child in Detroit, I always knew that I could do anything or be whatever I wanted to be. I came from an upper middle class family, so I have no rags to riches story. However, never in my realm of possibilities did I ever think I would be invited by a prince to Buckingham Palace.
May I never get over the wonders that life offers.