Painting and Prose by Janet Whittle Freedman

Divine Intervention Excerpt 2

My friend Singy & I moved into apartment 8J in the Marlborough in the summer of 1965: Built in 1907, this ten-story Beaux-Arts building was designed for Baltimore’s wealthiest citizens.  The builder’s introductory brochure states that “the exterior will be of Indiana Limestone, granite, brick and terra cotta with numerous balconies, enriched with wrought iron railings”.  The interior would contain a “handsomely decorated cafe” and a “lobby finished in marble and relief work”, hallways of marble and mosaic, and elevators that were “the highest type of electric machine”. A garden occupied the roof and contained a space where servants could hang laundry to dry.  Each suite consisted of a “foyer, parlor, dining room, kitchen, two to four bed chambers and one to two baths”.  The rooms were high ceilinged, and each unit included a fireplace, beautiful woodwork, and a wall safe.

Though faded and a bit down-on-her-heels, most of the Marlborough’s original construction and layout remained. The lobby and hallways retained their marble and mosaic tile, wide open stairwells at the north and south side of the building were graced with ornate bronze newel posts and railings, the elevator doors were covered in heavy bronze grilles and most apartments retained the original woodwork and fireplace mantels. Our bathroom had a deep porcelain tub in which one could soak up to one’s chin. There was a large pedestal sink and the floor, wall and wainscots were of white tile. Some of the largest apartments had been reconfigured to smaller units.  A wall safe in my bedroom, long plastered shut, set my fanciful nature to wonder about the previous occupants of our unit and what riches might lay forgotten in the Marlborough’s thick stone walls. 

Original residents included many from Baltimore’s mercantile elite, most notably the art collecting sisters Claribel and Etta Cone who occupied apartments numbered 8B and 8D.  The sister’s wealth came from family businesses founded by their father and expanded by their brothers, from which they received generous yearly stipends.

Claribel and Etta travelled to Europe often where they spent time with friends Gertrude and Leo Stein.  Leo, an art critic and collector, introduced the sisters to several artists including Matisse and Picasso.   Their collection, compiled over many trips, included works by both of those artists as well as pieces by Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Courbet and Monet. They also assembled collections of furniture, jewelry, textiles and lace as well as many pieces of African, Asian and Near Eastern Art.  Over the years, the sisters formed a particularly strong relationship with Matisse and continued to purchase his work. The eventual Cone gift bequest to Baltimore Museum of Art included over one thousand works by Matisse, the largest collection of his art in the world.[1]   On December 17, 1930, a year after Claribel’s untimely death, Matisse visited Etta, his friend and patron, at her Marlborough apartment. 

 Thirty-six years later, I stood at my apartment door looking down the marble hallway to the old Cone apartments.  Matisse in this building! He had ridden in the elevator just outside my door, walked down this very hall!  I longed to conger up that past event, a shadow memory perhaps still present in these walls, a tesseract connection that would bypass distance as though Matisse was a mere moment from now.

Current occupants of the Marlborough spanned a wide range of ages and lifestyles. There was a klatch of older women with blue-rinsed permanent waved hair who sat each afternoon in the lobby as they might have for decades. There were numerous students, a smattering of families, retirees, and singles like me who went off to work each day.

Singy and I spent our first day in the Marlborough happily arranging our new space. While visiting the drugstore on the lower level we ran into Van Smith, a guy I knew from class. Van invited us to a party that evening, and his apartment (8C) turned out to be just around the corner.

 “A bunch of us usually get together here most evenings” said Van in his charming Southern drawl.  “You know, we just hang out, work on school projects and listen to music.  Y’all are welcome to join us any time.” Singy and I did join them several times, but she was not always around.  As a result, I found myself spending most evenings with Van and a growing number of new friends at apartment 8C.  It was essentially everyone’s living room, a gathering spot, the door never locked.

One evening a plump man I’d not met before entered the foyer.  He wore dark slacks and a white open-collared shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and he shuffled across the foyer in worn loafers that seemed a size too big. He carried a raincoat over his right forearm in a stance reminiscent of a mink-draped vintage Hollywood actress posing on the red carpet.  

“Honey, I’m home” he bellowed loudly.  “A horrible day! My feet are killing me!”

He stopped in the doorway and lounged against the frame before launching into a monologue mocking the conversations and complaints of the suburban housewives who had been his salon clients that day. He altered his voice and pose to delineate each new speaker and the topics covered neighborhood gossip, diets and weight gain, husbands, children, mothers-in-laws and how “you can’t get good help anymore”.  He followed up with client comments made directly to him:

“Glenn honey, I’m not sure about the color.  Maybe make it a bit more blond? “

I want lots of teasing, Glenn. Some height does me wonders; don’t you agree?”

“Glenn let’s add more frosting. And more spray, definitely more spray!  Be a darling.”

“Agggghhhhhh!  Bitches!” he exclaimed as he concluded his performance.

Van laughed. “Oh, stop it. Such drama. Did you bring the grass?”

“See! See?  More evidence! Everybody wants something from me!”

He pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket and handed it to Van, as he peered down at me as I sat on the floor with my sketch pad.

“And who are you?”

“That’s Janet” said Van before I could answer. “She’s our new neighbor.”

“Pretty little thing” he replied distractedly, and then addressed me directly “But honey, we have to do something with your hair.”

Van opened the bag which I’d assumed was marijuana. He pulled a pack of cigarette papers from his pocket, rolled a joint, took a drag and passed it to Glenn. Glenn took a drag and nodded questioningly to me.  I’d never smoked more than a Winston cigarette. I shook my head. 

“What a serious little thing you are” Glenn said as he exhaled. “Life is for enjoying! You shouldn’t say no too quickly, because you might miss out on something great.  It’s prime grass. You’d love it.”

Who was this man?  I soon learned that his name was Glenn Milstead, a hairstylist from Towson; a funny sharp-witted standup comedian, who could make you laugh so hard you’d wet your pants. He could be exasperating, dramatic, unreasonable and light-fingered but also funny, good-hearted and generous, and he often gave me excellent advice. 

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