The Portrait of a Lady (NOT!)

The Portrait of a Lady (NOT!)

If you came here hoping for some high class lady-in-disgrace story, this ain’t gonna be it.

If you are familiar with Henry James’s most popular novel, “The Portrait of a Lady” then you will appreciate, hopefully, the purposefully slip of classical literature. If you’re unaware of this brilliant author, then let me regale you.

Henry James is a very cool guy. No matter how hard the British are trying to claim him among their classic authors, he was born in New York. He was also related to some other famous people, but he beat all of them when he started writing about Americans, Europeans, and British (for whatever messed-up reason the United Kingdom isn’t considered European! Brexit anyone?!)

He did all of his magnificent work long before we were born. He was so good at writing perfect English language phrases and capturing the satirical society of his lifetime.

Fast-forward about 100 years.  Romanian born, American naturalized wannabe D.C. socialite and professional nobody, aka trophy wife, and self-proclaimed charmer — Ioana Lee — starts thinking…

You know what? I can write about 21st Century people now…they only dress differently. Otherwise NOTHNG HAS CHANGED, except, people make fools of themselves much faster and publicly because of technological advances and the ubiquitous nature of social media.

So, here I am….writer of memoirs, keen observer of social behavior, hanging out in my favorite battlefield: the beautiful, historic city of Washington, D.C.

I am at another event with a lot of interesting people. They have a wide variety of fields of expertise, are from different countries, have various idiosyncratic behaviors, but are pretty much all Washingtonians. Definitely Americanized…some proudly so and some in complete denial.

I take a moment.

I often take a moment to reflect how truly grateful and blessed I am to live the life I do and to meet some of the most fascinating people on the planet.  Many are friends. Some I only see once. A few I run into every now and then. But we all seem to love the diversity of America. I enjoy talking with my friends. Those are the ones I truly share something with…other than just the air we breathe.

So, I move toward Mister D. — a superhero, very humble, extremely witty and probably the most amazing person I’ve ever met.

Here’s the problem. EVERYBODY WANTS TO TALK TO MR. D., which means there’s always a line of people waiting to say something to him. A few of us have the honor of spending more time with him because of longer-standing friendships, but I respect that others want to say “hello” to him too.

Well, tough luck for this in-disguise Trophy Wife. Mr. D is engaged in a never ending conversation with an older woman. I say older because her face is much wrinkled and that’s rare among D.C.’s botoxed-fashionistas.  She looks almost exotic.

She is wearing a strange outfit (baggy pants, shabby 20-year-old soldier boots, a cheap-fitting blouse and an oversized silver and turquoise neckless on her sagging turkey neck.)  There’s not even a smudge of make-up.  Her short, naturally greying thick hair unfortunately amplifies unkempt teeth.

The quick conclusion, she is French!

I actually love the French…their language, literature, behaviors, croissants and conceitedness. But (and you Francophiles will likely agree) the French have a very different cultural bias than Americans on the issue of fashion and cosmetology.

Excited as a hunting dog in a fox hunt, I enthusiastically say hello to both Mr. D and La Madame, ambushing them in my less-than-perfect French. Mr. D is happy to see and talk with me, as usual. La Madame is obviously not. I ignore all the signals, as by now aging Lolita aka Ioana Lee is already inoculated against random woman cattiness and jealousies.

I feel sorry for Madame, as her obviously envious nature starts showing from the first ‘hello,’ at which she doesn’t respond or even look at me.

I was raised with good manners and I intend to die with them.

And so does Mr. D, who attempts to introduce me to his obviously very good, old friend.

She says…in perfectly stunning French that she doesn’t need to be introduced to me. (I was actually green with envy over her beautiful accent.)

WOW! Social faux pas!

I elegantly ignore the comment and still say ‘hello’ and introduce myself to her, keeping in mind my primary purpose. Talking with Mr. D.

While talking with him in French (though he speaks many languages), La Madame is correcting my grammar about every 2 seconds. While appreciating the free language lessons, I am blown away by the fact that she cannot follow an otherwise fluent conversation as she desperately needs to attack my pronunciation.

Alas. I stop and thank her, genuinely, for helping me better myself. I say to her honestly, “you speak the most beautiful, elegant French I’ve heard in a long time. And as you are obviously a native French speaker, I apologize for acoustically inconveniencing you with my faulty accent and grammar mishaps. I am truly grateful,” I add enthusiastically and linguistically aroused.

“I am NOT French!” La Madame looks at me with obvious disgust. “I AM RUSSIAN!”


“I apologize. I didn’t know that. Where did you learn your French?”

La Madame turns her heavy necklace and wrinkles toward Mr. D and rolls her eyes.

I love that! I’m ready for the game.

Mr. D. suggests I hang out with them and tell him about my latest book.

La Madame sarcastically responds, “Does she think she is a Tolstoy”?

Mr. D laughs and so do I because her question is actually funny. Little does she know it is terribly ego soothing to a wannabe Anna Karenina.

“Thank you,” I respond with Japanese humility and Romanian pride, keeping in mind she insists she is RUSSIAN.

“I could never be a Tolstoy. He is one of the greatest. I’m thinking more along the lines of Dostoevsky though…”

“But, you know,” I continue ruthlessly yet innocently so, “I once had a relative of THE TOLSTOY who wrote to me ‘To Ioana Lee for being the embodiment Anna Karenina wishes she had been’. My full blown European pride is on display.

Mr. D laughs. And when Mr. D laughs we all do…including La Madame.

“Why don’t you get a drink and hang out here with us,” he says to me.

“I don’t drink alcohol, as you well know. I’m quite boring you once told me,”… And I smile as he smiles remembering. “Yes,” he said, “you don’t drink and don’t eat pork or veal.”

La Madame interjects. “Well, she does look the type after all,” and throws a non-sexy wink at Mr. D.  She continues, obviously thinking she is being too cute.  “She is so porcelain-ish,” she says of me.  “Doesn’t drink, doesn’t eat, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t use bad words, and obviously doesn’t f*** either. I wonder what she does do?”

This is The Portrait of a Lady (NOT!).

Mr. D responds before I have time to catch my breath: “She writes books and speaks seven languages.”

I respond, “I understand how hard it must be for you to meet an impeccable woman! I shall excuse myself now with your kind permission.”

I stand up proudly, showing off fashionable clothes, disturbingly high heels, and sassy old butt. I think to myself, “She is just another unhappy American imigrant.  Her famous Russian ancestors would be shocked at her lack of class.

Bitter, old women are the same regardless of their heritage and nationalities. A far cry from James’ The Portrait of a Lady. I pray every day that I won’t succumb to that type of behavior.  But, I think it’s a choice.  Don’t you?

À La Prochaine!  Ioana