Harry Willson Watrous was known for his meticulous depictions of stylized — and stylish — women. Here, the “Grande Dame of American Cabaret,” Kit Sullivan, tells us why she loves Watrous’s painting, “Some Little Talk of Me and Thee There Was.”
By David Masello
Kit Sullivan describes her favorite work of art by singing. She is, after all, the woman many consider the “Grande Dame of American Cabaret,” as well as artistic director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, a nonprofit that honors and promotes the legacy of its namesake cabaret star. When Sullivan begins to assess a painting by Harry Willson Watrous that hangs opposite the bar at New York City’s National Arts Club, she intones the lyrics to a song, Old Friends, by Nancy Ford and Gretchen Cryer.
“I look at the two women in the painting and it reminds me of that song,” says Sullivan, whereupon she hits the notes perfectly, singing, “Every time I’ve lost another lover/I call up my old friend/And I say let’s get together/I’m under the weather/Another love has come to an end.”
While the conversation the two women in the painting are having, circa 1905–09, remains a mystery, Sullivan surmises that the topic is love. “I feel there are secrets being told,” she confides, echoing the painting’s title, “Some Little Talk of Me and Thee There Was.”
“The blond woman is a good listener, as if she’s heard her friend discuss this subject before. As the song goes about lost love, the blonde might be thinking of her friend, ‘the pain of getting through it/… You’ll do it again.’”
Watrous, an American painter who trained in France, was known for his meticulous depictions of stylized — and stylish — women. For Sullivan’s sold-out performances at glamorous venues in New York, on cruise ships, and elsewhere, fashion is a big part of the act — another reason she’s so attracted to this image.
She cites the rakish hats the women wear, their shoes, the pinched waistlines of their tailored frocks. “They represent that transition from Victorian to Modern times. There’s power in this work. There’s a sense of liberation: they’re both on the cusp of getting the vote. They’ll have to wait 15 years, but the Suffragist movement is well underway.”
So attuned to fashion and sartorial nuance is Sullivan that she is fascinated, too, by the snippets of paintings that hang on the wall behind the women. On the paneled wall of what might be a clubhouse, perhaps an equestrian one, three paintings show cropped images of people’s feet and legs. Sullivan suggests that the slightly raised heels of the woman at far left indicate she is kissing a tall man. “Her hem is above the ankles, too, which was kind of scandalous then.”
Sullivan adds that the woman in Dutch-style clogs must be moving or dancing since her skirt is flowing, while the figure with the jockey and horse is dressed in what appears to be fashionable stirrup pants or leggings.
To further prove her fascination with clothing, Sullivan opens the closets of her Manhattan apartment to reveal a variety of dressy shoes that might rival in number those of Imelda Marcos’s infamous collection — though Sullivan uses hers to greater effect. “I always wear high heels on stage, but I don’t feel the pain of them until I take them off.”
As a longtime honorary member of the National Arts Club, Sullivan often examines the Watrous painting near its bar, an appropriate spot given that the two women in the painting appear to be drinking lemonades. She continues to wonder about their conversation, and cannot resist singing a few more thoughts from Old Friends: “Yes, we sit in a bar and talk ‘till two/About life and love as old friends do.”
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