Curiously enough, Gary and I had another relatively recent connection to Louisville. A friend of ours now has an interest in a booth at Antiques at Distillery Commons, an antique mart housed in what was formerly one of the largest whiskey warehouses in the world. Antiques at Distillery Commons houses over 30 independent dealers offering antiques to the design trade and the general public. It came as no surprise that Mary knows the owner Alan Thompson and she was happy to add this stop to our agenda. Alan also owns A. P. Thompson Antiques and Restoration, another business in the Distillery Commons complex. His personal philosophy on collecting antiques is: “If a young person is interested in antiques, invest in a single quality piece per year instead of several mediocre pieces just to fill a space.” Gary and I spent an hour or so perusing the stalls and left with a small collection of antique wooden boxes- some for clients and, of course, a few for our own collection- and a Staffordshire figure of a sailor which now graces the bar in our New York apartment.
For our first evening in Louisville, Mary planned a wonderful dinner party with a guest list that included democratic Congressman John Yarmuth and his wife Cathy, new Director of the Speed Museum Ghislain d’Humières and his partner designer Nicolas Raubertas, President of Louisville Public Media Donovan Reynolds, and historian, biographer and journalist Sam Tanenhaus and his wife Kathy Bonomi. Recent events, including the latest local election, the national debates and the re-opening of the Speed Museum, made for lively and engaging conversation. Also, Sam had been chosen to interview John Irving the following night so I was eager to gain some insight into his perspective.
The next morning, Mary delighted us with a lovely breakfast and details of our morning adventure which was to be a Segway tour of the re-vitalized Louisville waterfront. After meeting with our instructor and donning our helmuts, we watched a mandatory video detailing how easy it would be to severely injure oneself on a Segway. Despite our initial trepidation, the Segway proved very easy to master. With my unshaven face, black jacket and matching black helmut, I have to admit that I looked like some kind of an enforcer in a futuristic movie. Our guide gave us tour of the local Lincoln Memorial, the Great Lawn, and then we rode over the Big Four Bridge crossing the Ohio River from Kentucky to Indiana where we learned about the devastation caused by a major flood in the 1930's.
That afternoon, Mary was eager to show us two of Louisville's best interior design shops. Lee W. Robinson offered many wonderful accessories and Lee himself- very charming and friendly- stepped out of a meeting to greet us. It was a nice surprise to see our book "Living Color: A Designer Works Magic With Traditional Interiors" displayed prominently on shelves and tabletops. Gary happily autographed the unwrapped copies. Bitters, a much larger operation, was founded in 1854 by Gustav Bittner, a German immigrant, as a cabinet shop. His high quality craftsmanship became well known and the business developed into a full-blown showroom offering residential and commercial design services. Gary and I were very impressed by the overall community interest level in arts and design.
As evening approached, it was time for the main event- the Author Forum with John Irving at The Kentucky Center in downtown Louisville. Irving achieved major success in 1978 with his novel "The World According to Garp". Further success followed with "The Cider House Rules" in 1985, "A Prayer for Owen Meany" in 1989 and "A Widow for One Year" in 1998. Five of his novels have been adapted to film and he won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1999 for "The Cider House Rules". Irving's latest novel, "Avenue of Mysteries", had been released just one week prior to the Author Forum event.
Sam Tanenhaus opened the interview and there was a discussion about the conception of "Avenue of Mysteries"- which started out as a screenplay- as well as the plot. I won't spoil your read but I found several of Irving's comments very interesting:
Irving says he always thinks about a novel for a long time before he starts to write and he never begins writing until he knows the ending. From that point he develops a plot and any subplots but all lead to the pre-determined finale. Our design practice operates in a similar manner. We present our client with a finished concept and, once work commences, our efforts are driven to that end.
It was also intriguing to learn that the upheaval and other traumatic events in his novels are driven by Irving's own fears. In another recent interview he was quoted, " In general, I’m very attracted to writing about children and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15. It’s a formative age. If something cataclysmic happens to you, it will mark you as the adult you become.” He continued, “Being a father not only was but still is the most terrifying event in my life. The anxiety, the fear of something happening to one of my children or grandchildren - that’s where my novels comes from.” Irving, now 73, said that earlier in his career he had the time and energy to write not only about those fears but also to write stories to satisfy his interest in how and why people change - or don’t - over time. These days he is content with a shorter novel.
At the conclusion of the interview, we were invited to join Mary at a private dinner at the nearby Michael Graves-designed Humana Tower where we were introduced to John Irving. We also had another opportunity to chat with Sam Tanenhaus about his thoughts on the interview. It was a fabulous end to a wonderful evening.
As Gary and I waited for our Uber car to drive us to the airport the next morning, we discussed how sometimes the best things that happen in life are the result of the little detours we make. We enjoyed our time in Louisville and all of the new people we met and the things that we learned. We are also very grateful to Mary and her husband John for their generous hospitality. As a side note to Mary, we may be free for that little horse race in May.