The Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

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Architectural woodwork and paneling in Arabella Worsham’s dressing room (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Two very different women, the socially striving Arabella Worsham and the retiring Laura Spelman Rockefeller, occupied the lavish Gilded Age dressing room that joined the period rooms in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning in late 2015.

In 1877, Arabella Worsham, the Virginia-born mistress of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, bought the thirteen-year-old brownstone at 4 West 54th Street from William P. Williams. She embarked on a “gut renovation,” renovating each room in a different historical revival style, thereby transforming a simple brownstone into an Aesthetic masterpiece adhering to the decorating principle of: if much is good, more is better. George A. Schastey was Arabella’s decorator.

The Worsham-Rockefeller house was torn down in 1938; the priceless ground it stood on became MoMA’s beloved Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Three rooms of the mansion survived: the Moorish Smoking Room, at the Brooklyn Museum, the bedroom, now at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, and the Dressing Room, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). All three rooms illustrate the exquisite craftsmanship of the Gilded Age.

The Met’s dressing room is small and functional; most of the furniture—closets, chests of drawers, vanity, washbasin, and mirrors—being built into or set against the walls. The furniture is made from satinwood, enhanced by purple-heart inlays or appliques. Wood dominates the diminutive space, but an intricately painted ceiling and trim, and ornate chandeliers, relieve its severity.

The inlays—some consisting of combs, hand mirrors and scissors—define the function of the room, as does the delicate dressing table topped by an equally elegant mirror. Putti, frolicking among strings of pearls, fill the frieze and illustrate Arabella’s passion for jewelry.

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Wall sconces by mirror in Arabella Worsham’s dressing room (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Arabella was always most secretive about how she had met Collis Huntington, the railroad mogul. During her tenancy at 4 West 54th Street Arabella was known as the “widowed Mrs. Worsham,” though most likely her marriage to Mr. Worsham was a pretense. Her so-called husband did not really die, but returned to Virginia, where he rejoined his legal wife.

In 1884, after Collis’s first wife died after a long struggle with cancer, he married Arabella. Henry Ward Beecher, whose fierce sermons stirred the North’s emancipatory fervor, officiated at the ceremony. The new Mrs. Huntington moved around the corner to Park Avenue to an even greater palace. Collis adopted Archer, Arabella’s young son. After Collis died, Arabella married Collis’s nephew Henry Huntington.

John D. Rockefeller Sr. bought 4 West 54th Street in 1884. His wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, had little use for Arabella’s ostentation. Service to her family, the Northern Baptist Church and education would define Laura’s life. In 1915, after his wife’s death, John Sr. closed his Manhattan home. By then his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. had built himself a much grander brownstone at 12 West 54th Street.

In 1938 both houses were razed. As noted, some of the rooms were donated to museums, and some of Schastey’s enormous fireguards constructed for 4 West 54th Street were moved to the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills. In an extremely sentimental gesture, the exterior bricks of 4 West 54th Street were reused to construct the Sleepy Hollow home now occupied by David Rockefeller Sr.

The disparate women who used the Met’s dressing room left their impact on America. Arabella collected great art and together with Henry Huntington founded the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanic Garden in San Marino, California. A few of Arabella’s great paintings ended up elsewhere. One of these, Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, ended up at the Met in New York in 1961.

The Rockefellers were more serious. To begin with they supported education. In 1882 they granted $250 to the nascent Atlanta Baptist Female Seminar, which educated African-American women. The basement school blossomed into Spelman College, dedicated to Laura Rockefeller and her abolitionist parents.

Both Laura and Arabella imbued their only male descendants with lofty principles. John D. Rockefeller Jr. spent his life developing modern philanthropy and judiciously distributing a large part of the immense wealth accumulated by his father. Archer M. Huntington founded numerous museums including the Hispanic Society of America and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Doing it all over again?

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According to Facebook, I have a birthday coming up, and it is high time for me to locate that the magic mill that I read about when I was an eight-year-old way back in Germany.

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THE MAGIC MILL

Adapted from Traumereien and Einem Französischen Kamin (Dreams at the Fireside of a French Fireplace) By Richard von Volkmann-Leander / Suzanne Loebl

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The magic mill was located in Apolda, a small village tucked away among the mountains of eastern Europe. It looked like a giant old-fashioned coffee grinder, except its crank was at the bottom. A large funnel crowned the building and a ramp, snaking around the outside of the entire building, connected the top to the bottom. Two strapping millhands stood in front of the mill ready to turn the handle.

Toothless, humpbacked, wrinkled women and flabby, hunched-over men journeyed to the mill from every corner of the land. Once they saw the mill they moaned and sighed. They slowly inched up the ramp, entered the chute and vanished.

The millhands turned the crank, once only. A heart-wrenching, deafening, blood-curdling, bone-chilling noise filled the air. Even before the sound had completely died down, rosy-cheeked, smiling young people sauntered out of the mill’s bottom.

When those waiting in line asked whether the procedure had hurt, they were invariably told that it was pain free.

One young girl said: “It feels like waking up, after a good night’s sleep, on a lovely spring morning. All at once you feel the warmth of the sun streaming into the room, the sound of the birds singing in the garden and the rustling of the wind in the trees. When you stretch your joints crackle a bit, and then you get up and feel fine.”

The fame of the Magic Mill had spread near and far, and reached Mother Klapproth, a very old woman. She decided to journey to Apolda and have herself re-ground.

She packed a small bag and started on her adventure. She climbed over mountains, waded through streams, braved dark forests, and endured thunder and hail. At night she slept under the star-studded sky. Her bones ached, she coughed, fretted, rested, and persevered. Finally she reached Apolda.

“My goodness, Apolda is a long way from home,” Mother Klapproth told one of the millhands who was sitting in front of the mill. The lad was obviously bored. His hands were buried deep in his pockets and his pipe was clenched between his teeth. “I want to be young again,” the old woman said.

At first the man did not respond. “I want you to re-grind me,” she repeated. Finally the millhand, stifling a big yawn, asked for her name.

“I am old Mother Klapproth,” she answered.

“Sit down,” he said, disappearing inside the mill to consult a large register. Eventually he came out again holding a long sheet of paper.

“Is that my bill, young man?” asked the old woman.

“No,” said the millhand. “The re-grinding is free, but you must sign a contract.”

“Sign a contract,” the old woman repeated. “I guess I have to sell my soul to the devil? No thanks. I won’t do that. I am a God-fearing woman and hope to go to heaven when I die.”

“No, it is not that bad,” laughed the lad. “The sheaf only lists all the dumb things you did during your entire life. Look, this is the exact record of what you did, and when. If you have yourself re-ground you must promise that you will do everything all over again, exactly as you did it the first time around, in precisely the same order, at the same time and place.”

The young man looked at the list and smiled. “I can see it is a bit much, my dear Mother Klapproth. From the age of sixteen until you were twenty-six you did one reckless thing a day, two stupidities on Sunday. Afterwards it got a bit better. But when you turned forty, you again overdid it. Towards the end your life was just ordinary, like everyone else’s.”

Poor Mother Klapproth looked at the list and sighed. “My dear child,” she said, “what is the point of having oneself reground, if you have to do the exact same thing over again?”

“You are quite right,” said the lad. “For most people it does not pay. That’s why our job has gotten to be so easy. We have seven free days a week. Last century business used to be brisk, but ever since our mill has been idle.”

The old woman stroked the cheek of the millhand. “My dear boy, let me cross out a few of the items on the list,” she said. “I only want to cross out three things. If I absolutely have to, I’ll repeat the rest.”

“Nothing doing,” said the lad. “Either you do the whole thing—or it is no-go.”

“Keep the list,” said the old woman, after she thought it over. “I lost my taste for your stupid old mill.” Then she turned on her heel and left.

She went up the mountains and down the other side, forded streams and slept in the woods. When she finally got back home her friends and neighbors looked at her with surprise.

“Mother Klapproth, you are just as old now as when you left. That mill does not work?”

The old woman coughed and answered: “Oh yes, the mill is working fine, but I was too scared. After all—being young is overrated.”

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Richard von Volkmann-Leander

Note: The Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870-1 was one of those useless, personal interest wars provoked by Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the kingdom of Prussia, the future Emperor Wilhelm I and Emperor Napoleon III of France. Much of northeastern France was laid to waste; it toppled the French emperor, resulted in the unification of Germany.

The author of the fairytale, Richard von Volkmann-Leander, was a German army physician and poet who was obviously horrified by the war. During the hostilities he was lodged in the houses abandoned by civilians. Volkmann dreamt of the poor displaced families whose spirits still lingered around the fireplaces of the erstwhile homes. His lovely tales are filled with moralistic thoughts about greed, love and accepting many of the unpleasant cards life deals us.

Simplistic as Volkmann’s tales were, they comforted me during the years I too hid to escape the horrors of World War II. I too fantasized and wrote to deal with reality. My heart goes out to the tens of the thousands of refugees that roam the earth today and hope that like me, they find a place they can once again call home.

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Trump and the Bully Pulpit

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Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As of today, Donald Trump has won a virtually unobstructed path to the Republican nomination.

The grandstanding and uncouth utterances of the Republican campaign over the last few months remind me of the tirades that filled the Fascist airwaves in Germany during the 1930s. My four-year old sister Gabrielle and I were too young to understand Hitler’s twisted philosophy, but old enough to be scared and scarred by his shrieking, yelling and thundering.

Young as we were, we understood that as Jews we were no longer welcome in Germany, a country my family had lived in for centuries.

Whenever Hitler was about to harangue his minions, my parents, Hugo and Gretel Bamberger, discussed whether or not to listen to his speeches. Wanting to be up-to-date, my father listened; my mother opted out.

One Saturday afternoon, nobody noticed that Gabrielle vanished during one of Hitler’s lengthy Saturday radio rantings. She reappeared around dinnertime, wanting to know “how much Hitler had berated the Bambergers.”

Eight decades later, my daughter Judy is working with Carlos,* a precocious six-year old Mexican-American child at a Manhattan elementary school. Judy and Carlos have become close buddies. Recently he asked her where she was from. “I was born here,” she said, “but my mom was born in Europe. She had to leave because of a bad man.”

Carlos was not surprised. “A bad man like Trump, who wants to kill Mexicans?” he asked.   “My mom and dad are from Mexico,” Carlos continued, “but I was born here. That’s why I am Mexican and American. I wonder what Trump is going to do to my mom?”

Do we want to burden our children with fear, even if we think that Trump does not really mean the outrageous statements he makes? Or perhaps he might mean some of them. To begin with, Hitler only wanted the Jews to get out of Germany. Later he thought that that was not enough.

*Names and identifying details have been changed.

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Pergamon, and my Belgian History Teacher, Come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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‘Eros Sleeping’ at Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, on exhibit at the Met through July 17, 2016.

As soon as I entered the Met Museum’s magnificent survey of Hellenistic Art (Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, April 18-June 17, 2016) the voice of Miss Feytmans, who taught at my high school some 75 years ago, resounded in my head: “Alexander the Great, born in 353 BCE in Macedonia, died in Babylon…spread Greek culture…conquered the ancient world…gave rise to the Hellenistic culture…”

It was quite clear from Miss Feytmans’ tone that in her mind, great as Hellenistic art was (lasting from the death of Alexander in 323 BCE to the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BCE), with its realism, fluid lines, and emotionalism…it was not quite as magnificent as the art of the idealized art of Greece’s Golden Age (480- 323 BCE). But then everybody, even my idol, is entitled to their prejudices. Antiquity’s best-known statues, or sometimes their Roman copies, date from Hellenistic times. These include, for example: the Nike of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo, both at the Louvre, and Laocoön and his Sons, now at the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The Met Museum is justifiably proud of the 265 Hellenistic objects it has assembled for this magnificent show. They range in size from small jewelry to a 13-foot marble statue of Athena. Some of the art on view seems extremely familiar. Alexander Astride his Horse Bucephalus, created by Lysippos 24 centuries ago, could easily take its place among Central Park’s 19th century statuary, as could the pudgy Eros Sleeping (150-100 BC), with his folded wings, who has been charming Met Museum visitors since 1943. Other familiar statues include the Dying Gaul, a slain Amazon, a sleeping hermaphrodite, and Spinario, a sculpture of a young boy pulling a thorn from his foot that has inspired sculptors throughout the ages.

Objects related to Pergamon, however, are the center of the exhibit.

The Berlin Pergamon Museum, which has reconstructed the west façade of the Altar of Zeus, is under repair and lent the Met Museum a third of the objects in the exhibition. The large bas-reliefs depicting the battle between the gods and the giants were too large to travel, but images and smaller panels provide an idea of the majesty of the monuments that according to many are the most famous of all surviving Hellenistic sculptural ensembles.

The Met exhibition also presents wonderful small objects: inlaid glass bowls, engraved gems and coins, leafy gold diadems, a plate painted with elephants and much more. Make sure to go; it is easier to go to Manhattan than to Berlin or Asia Minor.

Coming back to my own story: Miss Feytmans was my favorite teacher ever. She was a bachelorette living in Brussels with her sister Elise, the school’s Latin teacher, and perhaps her parents. I admired her unshakable love of Greece, her ability to make history come alive, her attitude, her neatly coiffed hair and her elegant suits. I was her star student, an achievement that contrasted with my usual lackluster scholastic performances.

I lost track of Denise Feytmans after I came to America in 1946, but 35 or so years later I attended a rheumatology congress in Canada where I met a Belgian physician. When he found out where in Brussels I had gone to school, he asked whether his great aunts Elise and/or Denise had taught me. He told me that Elise was still living in Brussels, but that Denise had married the director of National Museum in Athens. She was in the process of writing a book on Greek vases. Every so often she was about to finish it, but then she discovered another “must include” new vase. Who says that you can’t have paradise on earth?

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The Only Common Sense Solution to America’s Gun Problem

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The New Yorker, December 14 (art by Eric Drooker)

“Une vie ne vaut rien, mais rien ne vaut une vie.”
“A life has no value, but nothing is as valuable as a life.”

Thus wrote Andre Malraux, the great novelist, in 1933. In the United States, Malraux is best remembered as the French minister of culture who fell in love with Jacqueline Kennedy and loaned her France’s Mona Lisa in December 1962.

Lately some members of our human family have ignored both the sixth commandment and other ethical considerations, going on senseless, murderous rampages that have become all too common to read about in the news.

Some Americans’ response to this senseless slaughter is to support the ready availability of guns. Indeed, as the cover art of the December 14 issue of the The New Yorker of illustrates, buying a gun is becoming as easy as buying a dozen eggs. Personally I was shocked to see the display of guns at Willey’s Sports Center in Ellsworth, Maine where I buy some of my clothing. 

You will not find me buying a gun, even though I, like anyone else, am moderately afraid of being attacked by robbers, terrorists, drug users, or psychotics. Guns are meant to kill, and I, like most normal people, am horrified by the thought of killing one of my fellow humans.

I also know that being armed would be of little use for me. I would be unable to pull the trigger. If provoked, my assailant would strike first, disarm me, and he or she might harm me with my own weapon. This personal assessment is corroborated by science: many studies indicate that few people use guns for self-defense, and that it is ineffective when they do.

The United States has more guns per capita than any other country. As a matter of fact, at 310 million firearms and counting, this country has more guns than people. Expressed differently, 32 percent of all households, and 22.4 percent of all individuals, own guns. (Statistics from NORC at the University of Chicago.)

And firearms cause upward of 30,000 deaths annually.

The gun lobby stresses that the Constitution of the U.S. guarantees citizens the right to bear arms—though expert say that our founding fathers intended to grant that right to the states’ militias. I doubt that the patriarchs wanted to equip thirty percent of the population with small arsenals. According to Gallup, 29% of gun owners possess five or more guns—entirely too many for the rest of us to feel safe!

Let us imagine that the Constitution had granted citizens the right to drink and drive, regardless of the consequences. In 1980, a mother grieving over the needless death of her 13-year-old daughter founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). By 2014 the organization had been able to reduce the highway slaughter caused by drunk drivers from 25,000 annually to 10,000. The measures it took to achieve this 60% drop in no way impaired the nation’s ability to enjoy wine, whiskey, beer or other alcoholic beverages.

Like the majority of the American people I am in favor of reducing this domestic arsenal, but for the time being I would settle for more modest measures. Increasing background checks associated with the sale of firearms, eliminating unlicensed gun dealers, or not providing people on terrorism watch lists with licenses would not interfere with the joy of hunting or clay-pigeon shooting. (Nor, sadly, would it realistically have much of an impact on gun-related deaths in situations like suicide or domestic violence.)

But background checks may keep some guns out of the hands of child-murderers, religious fanatics or people who are obviously unwell. It has nothing to do with freedom; it is simply common sense. It boggles my mind why the National Rifle Association (NRA) or anyone else would object.

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Farewell to Frank Hatch

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My son David (left) and Frank Hatch (right)

On Sunday, January 10th, my computer screen flashed. Caring Bridges, a site that provides health news to family and friends, let me know that Frank had died. I had spoken to Frank a few weeks earlier on his birthday. He had told me that it would be his last. I did not want to believe him, since we had expected his death during the entire 27 years of our friendship—but unfortunately he was right.

Frank and I bonded over pumpkin soup during the first decade AIDS was with us. I was spending time with David, my son, and my home-cooked meals were a welcome event for him and his hungry friends, or “The Seven Sisters,” as they liked to call themselves. Of these, three were infected with HIV, and four were not. Together we faced a very uncertain future.

Frank was very special. Whenever I think of him I hear his laughter. A seductive mix of charm, love, anger, black humor, happiness, sharp wit, daring, and bitterness animated him.

Frank was particularly pleased with my home-cooked meals. He had lost his own beautiful mom when he was seventeen and in time he half-jokingly became my adopted son. We rarely forgot each other’s birthdays and marked these with gifts. For years my drawers were perfumed with potpourri he sent from California to Brooklyn.

Frank lent support when David was fighting for his life at Mount Zion Medical Center in San Francisco. I’ll never forget a respite walk we took near the Cliff House. Frank and I imagined that we had fallen into the churning sea and were trying to save ourselves. For a short while we were so engaged in our game that we forgot our worries. After David’s death I packed up my pots, which had been in his apartment, but symbolically stored the best and biggest with Frank.

I kept up with the boys and helped Frank deal with his ups and down. The ups included his friends and family, his swimming, his involvement with Buddhism, his rafting and the new community he discovered through the sport, and the teaching he did about AIDS. His downs included dealing with real and imagined slights, fearing death, and increasingly managing AIDS and cancer.

His home in Sausalito provided him with shelter. Some ten years ago, after he had passed through a severe medical crisis, I visited him there. Frank told me the following story:

The man was confined to his room; he was battling AIDS. His only distraction, during the weeks that his life hovered between life and death, was his flower-filled balcony, bathed in California sunshine.

His window boxes were overflowing with petunias, blue lobelia and red impatiens. One plant had died. He had pulled it out and was about to replace it. As he approached, shovel in hand, he noticed a morning dove. When he started digging up the black dirt, the bird dive-bombed his head. He retreated, wondering. He tried again. A second dove attacked him. He withdrew once more and watched.

Soon the two doves, ignoring him, filled the small depression with sticks. By the next morning the birds had built a nest. The morning after that there was one egg, then another, finally there were three eggs.

The female sat on her nest, unperturbed by the man who continued to water his plants. The eggs hatched. Three featherless chicks craned their necks, accepting food proffered by the older doves. Soon the fledglings flapped their immature wings. Finally one day they hopped to the edge of the nest, and flew off.

The man recovered. Was it the new drugs that keep the deadly AIDS virus at bay, or had the morning doves renewed his life?

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Christmas Windows in New York Never Disappoint

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To momentarily forget the massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, the insane arsenals amassed by my fellow citizens, the irresponsible rhetoric of those who spend billions in their bid to become the president of the U.S.A…. I took myself to midtown Manhattan to view the Christmas windows.

As always the stores’ extravaganzas were magical.

What flight of fancy and craftsmanship we poor benighted humans are capable of! I started my exploration of the windows with Lord and Taylor. Their theme, “Favorite Things,” stressed carbs and I vicariously indulged in the displays illustrating a patisserie, stacked with cream-filled cakes, and a sweet shop filled with French macarons and overgrown cupcakes. I was tempted to nibble on the fence of the store’s giant gingerbread house.

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At L&T, as in other stores’ windows, animals played a major role. Spectacular Canada geese wandered amidst mannequins festively clad in red gowns or displaying gorgeous jewels.

Saks Fifth Avenue was my next stop. All their windows were done in white, featuring snow-covered renditions of China’s Great Wall, India’s Taj Mahal, France’s Eiffel Tower and more. The actual New York weather belied these winter wonderlands. Though a delight, the balmy temperatures underline the urgency, or should one say hopelessness, of the Paris climate talks that were happening at the very moment of my expedition. Saks, too, featured layered cakes and pyramids of French macarons, though a delightfully trussed suckling pig aroused my own lust.

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I crossed the street to visit Rockefeller Center’s annual Christmas tree, a tradition started in 1932 by workers who built the Center during the Great Depression. On my way down the famous promenade or Channel Gardens, meant to symbolize the arm of the Atlantic that separates England and France, I came across a giant Lego store. I was overwhelmed by the accurate reproduction of the entire Rockefeller Center out of tiny Lego bricks. The model included the famous skating rink, the Prometheus Statue and a helicopter landing on a roof.

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I successfully avoided the temptations of real chocolate stores—Lindt, Godiva, and Teuscher—and made my way to Bergdorf Goodman. It was my favorite as far as both creativity and over-the-top extravagance were concerned. The store had pooled its efforts with Swarovski’s “millions of crystals.” I was most taken with the macho Greek/Latin god Poseidon/Neptune, entirely fashioned out of delicate pearls, beard and trident included. A sequin-covered sea turtle, an equally funny sea monster sporting a lobster claw, and an elegantly clad model accompanied Neptune. I also loved the dog—or was it wolf?—faced fortuneteller, advising a woman in a gypsy-like outfit. And yes, in case you wondered, somewhere amidst all the wild fantasy of the Bergdorf Goodman windows, there were one or more layered cakes.

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Christmas windows are planned a year in advance. The 2016 windows are already in production. Let us hope that the world has improved by then.

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