Somewhere in the misty recesses where the Berkshire foothills converge with a storyteller’s imagination, we find a highly exclusive social club born during the previous Gilded Age, and which now services the social climbing aspirations of an entirely new generation of robber barons.
The Club is also world renowned for its very special art collection, housed in a windowless room adjacent to the library: a collection of sculptures known colloquially as the Hopkins Feet. As special interlocutor for Desperado Philosophy, I recently spoke with the Club’s very own resident docent, Hilary Dillamore:
GW What exactly are the Hopkins Feet?
HD Well, they are seven alabaster feet, each missing its little toe, and they were created in 1915 by the famous local sculptress Frieda Hopkins to commemorate one of the Club’s most compelling traditions. To me they represent, in their beauty and in their perfection, even though they are missing pinky toes, something of a higher order, symbols of just such a different time and a different mindset, when women were willing to sacrifice what they sacrificed for their men, and that they gave up a part of their body to create the special moment that for all time – for all time they will exist for us to gaze upon.
GW What do you mean by “sacrifice”?
HD At that time, the women of the Club were eligible for a special honor, the honor of being selected for the Fest of the Winter Equinox, and whomever was selected would donate her left pinky toe to the ceremony.
GW So now can you tell me what you mean by “donate” and “ceremony”?
HD The evening began with a feast of local mushrooms – we have fantastic mushrooms here in the Berkshires – and champagne, plenty of the very finest French champagne, and then a surgeon, Dr. Franklin Pearce-Diddle, would perform the little operation, I mean it was little more than a quick hand gesture, and then the honoree would be taken to the special bedroom upstairs to rest and recuperate, and then the men would sort of collectively and individually pay tribute to the toe, and this meant at that time, by — I mean I know it sounds impolite, but remember all of this was done with the most pronounced solemnity and respect – and so the fact is, well, each male member of the Club would have a little suck on the toe, and it would pass through the ranks like this, with the more established and senior members getting the early nibbles, and then the morsel would pass on down on to the initiates, les nouveaux, as they were called, so you see it was also a sort of celebration and acknowledgement of all those complex social relationships.
GW More than impolite, this sounds positively barbaric…
HD No, I mean you have to understand and imagine what it was like, they would enter a sort of, I won’t say drunken, but let’s say medicated, there was a medicated trance that people seemed to go into, and it was a tremendous honor for the woman who was selected, and all the ladies would compete for this privilege, compete to make the sacrifice. The one sad bit, I mean once each man had their taste, they then fed whatever was left to that awful dog. There was a club Doberman called Siegfried, and they actually just threw the bones over the side of the porch railing to that beast, and it just breaks my heart because wouldn’t it have been wonderful to have them now? I mean I do have this anthropology side to me that wanted to line those little toe bones up right next to these alabaster feet, it would have been a real coup, from a curatorial perspective. On the other hand, Siggy would always do, you know, his “business”, he would always takes care of his business on the croquet court, and it would fertilize the grass, and there was something really nice about that, because sometimes ladies would play croquet in their bare feet on grass that was nourished by themselves.
GW I understand you have devoted a good deal of your life to the study and stewardship of the Hopkins Feet.
HD It’s something that has just been very personal and moving in my life, to gaze upon these icons really, and people come from all over the world, you have to understand how big this really is, that these feet are just so perfect, they are perfect in their incompleteness. And Frieda Hopkins captures the spirit of the times so perfectly in these seven wounded white feet. I mean each one is missing its little piggy, the one that went wee, wee, wee, all the way home but, they’ve meanwhile become symbols of a time when, I don’t know, they are radical in the truest sense I guess, I mean in so many societies the Mayan and Aztec, I mean that was all part of it, the sacrifice and then, you know, they were eaten. To consume it, to take it internally is all part of a religious experience, isn’t it? I mean it makes perfect sense to me, I can’t even, I mean I don’t even know why all this was outlawed, I guess because it got out of hand.
GW Out of hand?
HD That’s probably what happened. Somebody had to say, you know, this isn’t right, this isn’t what we do. There were a few newspaper editorials and so forth. What a shame, because it is so basic and original and instinctive, probably, is a good word, as instinctive as anything. I don’t mean just to eat flesh but you know, it’s part of one of those wonderful religious experiences that so many societies experienced and ritualized and celebrated – before we stopped it. I mean the simplest things like sitting down to dinner with our families is almost lost now, but back then there were so many traditions and so many rituals, and so many special things that society had, ways to connect with each other, so to come back and gaze upon something that does represent such sacrifice and meaning, and (…) I don’t know – courage.
GW You mentioned that people come from all over the world to see the Hopkins Feet…
HD They have to come in person, because you see we strictly prohibit any photography, you know, to protect the privacy, I mean as a gesture of respect. And so they come, and they sign a guestbook, just in the very first page I have… people have come from France and Rome and – Odio! Magnifico! says Betsy August 11 2004. Aahh… moved, I’m so moved by this, says this young man from Brooklyn, New York. What an extraordinary moment. Thank you for doing this. Yes, just little messages they leave… Diana from New Zealand writes, thank you for taking me, thank you for this journey to a different sensibility, to a different time. That was a visitor from July, 2011.
GW To a different time? Yet I have heard there are some members who have tried to revive the tradition.
HD Really? I don’t know, women today, the younger women I know, I’m not sure there is that same spirit of sacrifice. Even the men, I don’t know many who would have the stomach for it. And of course the Doberman, Siegfried, he’s long gone, and now everyone seems to have bichons or toy poodles, and I don’t know how that would work, it wouldn’t be the same, I mean Siggy did have his role to play, in the fête.
GW I notice you have donated a few other items to the collection, obtained in the course of your own journeys. For example, this cage?
HD I’ve always loved it, with its sad little bird inside. I’ll just wind it up and let you hear it, if I may (winds up). Because part of the magic is seeing the little bird move its head and sing its little song. And it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just so charming. I guess this is just my own personal foible. And this simply represents to me an earlier time, a time when Frieda Hopkins and all of her feet were created and it just brings warmth and happiness to me because I just love the fact that the little bird can’t fly free, he’s in his little cage, and following the rules, and he sings when I tell him to sing.
GW And what about these little shoes?
HD My husband and I were in Peking, I mean, yes I know, Beijing, and we found these little tiny lotus shoes and I adore them because they are so elegant and perfect as objets and I just love the fact that for women at that point in time, it was fashionable to simply break your foot, remold it and really take control, you know, take control of your body, and come up with something better, which is I guess what I’m saying about all of these things. I mean something better comes from it, when you take control and you say “let’s do it!”