Photography by JUCO
The aptly named Rancho Mirage is like a dreamscape, both profoundly natural and profoundly unnatural. It’s sometimes called the City of Presidents because so many of them have visited, golfed, and retired there. It’s in the desert near Palm Springs, a landscape stark and hypnotic, with violent contrasts of heat and color and light — chockablock with gorgeous ’60s houses, exquisite xeriscapes, and fabulous retirees.
Broadway and Hollywood legend Carol Channing lives here. At 92, she has grown a little frail — she has some trouble walking, and her eyesight is weak — but she is still a bewitching, arrestingly vivid personality. The very air around her seemed to sizzle as she and performance artist Justin Vivian Bond were photographed recently beside the pool of her friend Sylvia’s lovely ranch-style house. She cracked wise, hammed it up, and gracefully accepted compliments on her snappy blue trouser suit, which featured a bejeweled, embroidered snake winding up one leg. The shoot took place in honor of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: An Intimate Evening With Carol Channing and Justin Vivian Bond, a special event taking place on January 20 at the Town Hall in New York City.
Beautiful, tattooed kids ran around fussing over hair and clothes on an immaculate patio beside a turquoise pool of mid-century magnificence; Channing and Bond reclined on chaises lounges with contrasting bolsters upholstered in a rich brocade. There were palm trees everywhere. The scene was the embodiment of Baudelaire’s phrase: luxe, calme et volupté.
Channing very obviously loves Bond — partly because, as she claims, Bond downstaged her during their first performance together at the Ice Palace on Fire Island last summer. “I’ve never been downstaged by anybody!” she crows. “And you just were so unselfish!”
Bond — glowing, as Channing was, and beautiful in a pale slate-blue vintage Lanvin day dress with elegantly contrasting crimson court pumps — was indeed very solicitous and gentle with the older star.
The Fire Island show was put together by impresario Daniel Nardicio as part of his Icon series (an earlier installment had paired Alan Cumming with Liza Minnelli). The celebrity audience at the Ice Palace included Cumming, Tommy Tune, Ana Matronic, and Michael Kors. Bond opened with a set of love songs dedicated to Channing, among them a heart-searing rendition of “Love and Anger,” a Kate Bush song I never dreamed could contain such feeling. Bond’s patter between (and during) the songs was sublime, too: “For me, the ’60s ended in 1983, when Burt and Angie were divorced.”
Bond began talking playfully about Channing, by way of an introduction.
“...And then I found out that Carol drinks pinot grigio. And as an aspirational white woman of elegance myself, I too have been known to imbibe an occasional pinot grigio spritzer.” (Here, someone in the audience lifted a glass up to Bond.) “Parker Posey, ladies and gentlemen! Thanks, girl!”
The crowd went mad when Channing joined Bond onstage — beautifully dressed in a black blouse with sheer sleeves and black velvet trousers — and immediately turned on her deliciously raspy charm. Things only got fizzier from there. She sang: a Russian patter song she learned as a child, and later, a little bit of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Then Channing talked about the movie adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the show in which she starred for 740 performances on Broadway from 1949–51.
“Well, naturally,” she said impishly, “they had decided that they would get the queen of sex appeal...” Here she paused, looking expectantly around at the audience, before finally adding, “Well, I’m waiting for you to say, ‘Well, you have a little sex appeal!’ ” — and the crowd went mad some more.
“I have to admit,” Channing said of Marilyn Monroe, who starred in the film, “she was adorable. But” — this to Bond — “adorable isn’t our racket, is it?”
“No,” said Bond. “No, it is not.”
“She says we’re doing great!” Bond exclaims to Channing as the cameras began to click in the desert air. “Just shut up and look beautiful!” They laugh together conspiratorially.
“We both have our ta-da hands!” says Channing.
“Oh, I see. Ta-daaaaa!”
Channing throws her arms out wide to be photographed, and it’s as if she were embracing the whole world and everybody in it. Her familiar pose is downright Proustian in its tenderness, its evocativeness. Anyone over the age of 35 or so must have seen this gesture a thousand times. (I was reminded of my favorite line of Bond’s bio: “I simply want to inhabit my very clear vision of myself.” Already I could sense that the affinity between these two went far beyond my first impression.)
The photographer shouts, “Can we get, like, a big mouth, Carol?”
“What does she want?” Channing asks.
“Big mouth, Carol. She wants you to do, like, a big-mouthed, open smile,” says Bond.
“Well, I was.”
Soon Channing was whisked over to her own house in a shocking pink golf cart, accompanied by Coco Chanel (her friend’s cockapoo), and that, too, was a sight to behold.
SLIDESHOW: MORE EXCLUSIVE CAROL CHANNING PHOTOS