I have spent the last eleven years traveling, researching, writing and editing my book, SILKY: Searching For Lady Sylvia Ashley. During that time, I’ve had some amazing adventures, met some lovely people and had wonderful experiences. And learned a lot about Silky–even more about myself. It has also sometimes been frustrating, exhausting, seemingly futile and often just plain hard.
Besides traveling to London (her birthplace), New York and the Bahamas for research, I’ve lost family members and several friends; I’ve been laid off three jobs; started my own business; been through two California brushfires, a house flood, been in two car accidents, contracted the shingles and gone bankrupt. But somehow, I keep writing her story.
Why? I ask myself this on a daily basis. The simple answer is that no one has written a book on her fabulous life and it needs to be done. On a more complex level, I’m quite simply obsessed.
For one, I’m a would-be time traveler. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than go to Shanghai—in the 1930s. Or Paris in the twenties. Or New York during World War II. And Silky did all of these things. By following her path, I have been able to vicariously experience all these places in long gone, illusive decades like some kind of latent Jules Verne wannabe. I get to explore the dusty stalls of the Place D’jemaa el-Fna marketplace in 1920s Marrakesh; ride the Hindenberg after watching Jesse Owens prove Hitler wrong by taking 4 gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin; dance with Charlie Chaplin at El Mocambo as soldiers on leave clog the Manhattan streets outside; sip champagne with Truman Capote and Natalie Wood at a Black And White Ball in the Swinging Sixties.
Secondly, what would it feel like to be drop dead gorgeous? And rich? And celebrated? Silky was all these too. So, through her, I get to taste a sweeter, more glamorous life. I get to play Mah Jongg with Cole Porter in the Penthouse of the Waldorf-Astoria, sing duets with Harpo Marx in the South of France, attend the horse races with Marlene Dietrich; cruise to the Hawaiian Islands with Clark Gable at my side; thrill to photographs and write ups in glossy periodicals by Cecil Beaton.
I’ve been gathering photographs of Silky all these years–mostly on eBay–and have quite an extensive collection. I don’t know if they’ll end up in the book (what, with publication rights and all) but I thought it’d be fun to post them here and start to remind the world about a more elegant, more refined era when women wore hats and gloves in public, when celebrities had private lives and when a woman could be renown for her hostessing skills. Sure, there’s a flip side to all that affluence: sexism, racism, classism, cruelty to animals, etc. But if I’m going to romanticize the past, then I’d rather focus on the appealing aspects of the day: the style and the opulence, the charm, the etiquette and the innocence. When I Time Travel, I get to take the best parts of modernism, wisdom, evolution and humanity with me. That’s the beauty of the fantasy. Only it was Silky’s reality.
Growing up in Pacific Palisades, Silky was my illustrious neighbor. My uncle traveled with her in the nineteen-seventies and my grandmother was a true friend to her as she was dying of cancer. Silky shaped my sensibilities, my humor and taught me the allure of one of the most celebrated women of the twentieth century.
On her deathbed, just before I turned sixteen, she gave me my first strand of pearls and when she died the following summer, I attended her funeral in what is now known as the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She has haunted me ever since.