THE MOST SALIENT PART of “The Richard Burton Diaries” (now out in paperback from Yale University Press and a far superior “beach read” to any Revenge Wears Prada folderol) is not the great Welsh actor’s fabled love of language, his stage fright or his splurges on private airplanes and pedigreed jewels for the love of his life, Elizabeth Taylor.
No, the main thing is the food, lavish descriptions of which makes the Blueprint cleansers, gluten-free Goopies and Fit Bit twits of today seem like total neurotic ingrates.
Page 138: “Lunch today was splendid. Zuppa di Vongole (clam soup with the clams in their shells) and a delicious little pasta called crepes al formaggio. Light pancakes with molten cheese and prosciutto. Cake to follow. Rivera to drink.”
Page 229: “High Tea was a feast. Chicken in the pot with all kinds of vegetables followed by endless cheeses and desserts. Roasted chestnuts. Raisins, fresh figs, mandarins, oranges, apples and obviously and deliciously home made preserves.”
Page 415: “We all decided to go off our various diets and to hell with it. We had mussels to start, dipping into hearts of artichoke, button-mushrooms, salami and other sausages the while, followed by a sort of thick clam and tomato soup followed by spaghetti …”
One begins to see why the late Taylor amassed such a collection of caftans, auctioned with great success by Christie’s in 2011. Along with Cleopatra-era glamour, these surely ensured comfort as she and Burton, whose many affectionate nicknames for her included Lumpy, gorged and boozed throughout exotic ports of call on their yacht, the Kalizma, named for their assorted offspring from previous marriages.
It was just such a garment (caftan, tunic, kurta, pareo or oversize beach towel) that I was seeking on a pre-vacation visit to Everything But Water, a friendly little tugboat of a store that recently chugged over from the mall to dock on Madison Avenue. I have somehow never cottoned (no pun intended) to the crinkly, translucent stock at the city’s reigning source for cover-ups, Calypso St. Barth. But being ghastly pale, I am always on the lookout for something that will protect me from the sun’s carcinogenic rays without looking like a nun’s habit.
At Everything But Water, this niggling wardrobe conundrum was addressed within about five seconds by a nice saleswoman named Amanda, who began throwing over her arm an assortment of forgiving creations by Shoshanna, Letarte and Heidi Klein.
“Not Heidi Klum,” I was reassured, having nervously remembered aloud the supermodel Elle Macpherson’s foray into what is known in the trade, not without some ickiness, as “intimates.”
Each swimsuit, accessory or piece of driftwood I stopped to coo over was also duly ferried into the room. “Why not?” Amanda said.
“You could fit a child in there,” she added proudly of an enormous velour Roberto Cavalli tote bag that, if not exactly a bargain at $475, was at least in theory amortizable thanks to its reversibility from tomato red to leopard.
“And no one does leopard like Cavalli,” said another saleswoman. “No one!”
I approved heartily of the store’s undressing area, a “safe space” in the back cordoned off from the street’s flâneurs by an enormous curtain. Behind this, a reedy, bespectacled sexagenarian and buxom 20-something were venturing from individual chambers in brightly patterned bikinis, to general huzzahs from the staff and the supportive thrum of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” over the sound system.
“Why would you put more stuff around your hips?” wondered the older woman rhetorically, adjusting a pair of garish bottoms. “Not that I have hips.”
Feeling empowered by this sisterly environment, I shoved aside the cover-ups and tried on a cream-colored maillot, $228, with clanking gold hardware at the neck that obviated that always-risky temptation to wear jewelry to the beach. Within its blouson top one could easily conceal the consumption of several crepes al formaggio, and possibly a six-month pregnancy, from the long lens of a paparazzo (or these days, a battery of iPhones).
“It’s the year of the one-piece!” Amanda declared.
A companion one-piece to the Cavalli bag was less J.Lo, more Jane (as in “Tarzan and His Mate”): a $370 deep-plunging, age-inappropriate number that Amanda almost managed to sell to me by cannily uttering five of the sweetest words in the English language: “You need a smaller size.”
The clouds parted. Angels sang, or maybe that was just Sade intoning “Smooth Operator.” Frantic mental calculations occurred. Reason prevailed, just barely.
By casting its customers not as dissolute middle-aged stars but eternal Bond girls — Aphrodites emerging from clam shells rather than digging at them greedily with fish forks — Everything But Water seems to be on permanent retail terra firma