Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Sylvia Sidney's Needlepoint (1968)

Ohhhh, if isn't just the spitting image of my future self immersed in my future sixty year old life. A bit smaller, but the likeness isn't bad. In the photo to the left, I demonstratre how would like to wind down the evening... ankle-deep in craft projects, clad in a chic mustard and chartreuse combo, a sturdy Don-Draper-brown couch and suitably MCM lamp at my side. Did I mention, embroidery-wise, I work primarily in capuchin monkeys and psychedelia? I do. Is my hair a kind of casual perfect? It is. Does the carefree, whismy of my lifestyle strike me all at once, so I just have to give a merry laugh in mid-Bargello-stitch? Yes.

The lovely lady leading the life I would like to lead in the photo above is Sylvia Sidney. Neverheardofher? Miss Sidney was the star of such silver screen successes as Fury (with Spencer Tracy, directed by Fritz Lang), Sabotage (Hitchcock, anyone?), and Street Scene (under the helmsmanship of the great King Vidor). She wrote a book about her lifelong love affair with needlework called, succinctly enough, Sylvia Sidney Needlepoint Book.

You might remember her as the brash-voiced underworld secretary at the beginning of Beetlejuice, or as Grandma Norris in Mars the eighties and nineties, she usually plays a tiny woman in pearls shrieking at someone through the benefit of sixty some odd years of unfiltered Marlboros. I first saw her in Used People, in the midst of a Marcello Mastroianni fit which ended at an abrupt halt when I sadly went from seeing him in his Fellini incarnation just before seeing this movie, in which he's...well, less than jet set, let's say... less than his former jet set heartthrob self. Miss Sidney, in the movie, was somebody's wise-aleck grandmother, I think, part of a duo of trash talking old ladies that were more or less the highlight of an otherwise mopey movie. Who knew she was also a gifted needleworker?

And pug owner? Looka them cuties.

I would obviously memorialize my pug in neat needlepoint, were it my strength. I would obviously have three pugs, had I the room for them. The names of the dogs in the author and subjects photo above are Ch [sic], Pug Pens, and Captain Midnight. ((beat)) Your guess is as good as mine.

The enthusiastic spirit in which she tackles each of these projects, and her fluid, conversational writing style, make the book a lot better "read" than many craft books or even Hollywood books I've managed to sleuth down. Example: she and first husband Luther Adler buy an old, upstate farmhouse in 1938 (back when "old farmhouse" begged the question "pre or post Revolutionary?"... hers dated from 1780). Disappointed with the poor selection and exhorbitant cost of available hooked rugs to furnish the house in period decor, Sylvia sets out to learn how to make her own. Thereafter, unimpressed by the techniques in the instructional books she's found, she begins to search through museums and art galleries for examples of the types of rugs on which she has her heart set. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she makes the acquaintance of a woman whose sole job is to curate and repair the rugs in the MMA's collection, and from this lady, picks up invaluable tips on how to authentically get "the look" of colonial rug hooking! What kind of a movie star does this much footwork to decorate their home themselves? I love the intrepid-quality of her search and eventual success....reminds me a lot of we vintage-hoarders, who occasionally get lost in the dogged pursuit of something that went out of style fifty years earlier. :)

Above, some less figural, more abstract designs by Miss Sidney, and then...this bearded monkey. She reveals in her book that the key to making your own designs is using graph paper-- at a particularly sticky moment in trying to adapt someone else's design, her son came in with the bright idea, "Well, graphing paper has a grid...muslin is essentially a grid...what do you think about that?" One of my favorite parts of cross stitch, for example, at which I used to be halfway decent, has always been its relation to 8 bit graphics... you can make anything look so handmade and 80's at the same time by simply plotting it out in x's. Obviously, SS's designs are very complex... how pretty they turn out! And weird. Can you see this kooky older lady flipping through books on frogs and monkeys to find just the right one? Still, if I saw this at a thrift store or a estate sale, it would definitely be one of those knuckle biting, man-oh-man, I-have-to-buy-this moments. Behold:

Now, before she went on to be said kooky older lady, remember how I said she was in pictures with the likes of Henry Fonda (You Only Live Once, 1937)? Reasons why, exhibit one:

Look! At! Those! Eyes! Couldn't they just swallow you up whole?

She makes reference in interviews to being called "the ugly kid" around the Paramount lot... her unconventional, petulant prettiness seems to me very contemporary. But then, Bette Davis always thought herself ugly, so what can you say. B.P. Schulberg was a) big time head of Paramount Pictures in the early to mid 30's and b) her live-in love interest at that time, despite the fact of a wife and two kids... one of the latter of which grew up to be screenwriter Bud Schulberg (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd... oh, you know, just this and that). Schulberg the senior kept Miss Sidney in maiden-waifs-in-distress roles for most of the decade, but with his professional decline, so went the career of Sylvia Sidney. She was also briefly married to Bennett Cerf, known wit, co-founder of Random House, and panelist on one of my favorite game shows, What's My Line...The dissolution of said marriage prompted the immortal quote from Cerf: ""One should never legalize a hot romance." Preach it, Cerf. But still! How could you not fall in love with that winsome face?

I love the outfit on the right....suede black gloves, 40's print rayon dress, and a headpiece/hatpiece only a girl like I (or a girl like she) could love. Gimme gimme gimme.
Looking at me; looking at you.

One of her more successful roles in Madame Butterfly, with CARY GRANT of all people (before Cary Grant was quite Cary Grant). See film clips at the link above.

An update on the New Deal dolly from earlier... here, she reminds me of a more bluntly modeled Gene Tierney. I love the hair. I am not being sarcastic.

So, if you're into needlepoint, or if you're into old Hollywood, or, happily, both, you should definitely take a gander at this book. As well as her movies. The difficult to come by Street Scene is actually up on YouTube, grace à some wonderful TCM viewer. You should really catch the whole movie, but Miss Sidney shows up around the eleven minute mark, here. Happy stitchin!


  1. WOW needle point could be so creepy sometimes !!! o-0 !!!

  2. Sylvia Sidney + needlepoint = Lauren in heaven

    Thanks for posting! I had no idea about this book.

  3. OMG THIS IS AMAZING. i dont know which i like better - those GORGEOUS glamour photos of her as a young women or the AMAZING crazy needlepoint lady photos ... w her pugs! and her pug needlework! I NEED TO DO A NEEDLEPOINT OF MY DOG NOW
    great post!

  4. This is so awesome! I love needlepoint...must, must, must check out this book!
    Kristina J.

  5. @Big Mama: I know, right? The bearded monkey one is a kind horrifying/fascinating that makes you wonder about the development process.

    @Lauren: ME NEITHER, I KNOW. I picked it up and was like...this can't be the same Sylvia Sidney. And then I looked at the author photos and said..this MUST be the same Sylvia Sidney!

    @Janine: I need to get a dog so I can do a needlepoint of it. How cute are hers? She has a whole chapter about the drafting of their portraits and needlepoint design, as well as how she came to have each pug. Really sweet.

    @Kristina: I found out my library has a copy of it shortly after I bought it (they have everything!). Check ya bibliotheque first!

  6. Wow, I had no idea that Sylvia Sidney was so into needlpoint that she even wrote a book about it! I'm curious now if my library has a copy to check out.

  7. Great post, as usual! You posts are so much fun to read, I eat up every word! I'm kind of in love with the bearded monkey one, haha. I can definitely picture you being in that first picture someday!
    I've awarded you the Stylish and/or Versatile Blogger Award! Check it out:

    M xo

  8. oh wow is she gorgeous! and that pug picture! pug pens! i'm in love!

  9. I have this book and bought it in the early 70s when I was learning needlepoint. I love the way she writes and the stories and projects are interesting and inspiring. The are also quite difficult to master. I was never successful at inserting canvases or even working with the penelope meshes.

    I do believe your notation about the dogs is incorrect. Ch. is probably an abbreviation for Champion. And all those names belong to the black pug, Champion Pug Pens Captain Midnight. The dog in the round frame is Mistah, and his name is sewn in at the bottom. He is the offspring of Mister and Madam who I believe are the fawn colored dogs in the photo above with Sylvia.

    That said, I very much enjoyed your blog about Sylvia's book and the photos of her. Thank you very much.

  10. Fascinating, colourful story, thanks.



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