THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By SARA RUFFIN COSTELLO
The spirit of the Bloomsbury Group is alive in a downtown Manhattan loft, where two modern families share one floor, thriving in a creative community of their own making
McCluskey, in her kitchen, treats everything in her apartment as a canvas, even the refrigerator. ‘My thing is painting tables,’ she says. 'I can’t bear a simple surface.' Photograph by Emma Hardy
On a late-January evening, having already had three cocktails at two events, I was feeling jolly, before blowing into the night’s most promising: a Robert Burns—poet hero to all Scotsmen—party at the home of classical composer Paul Cantelon and his wife, singer Angela McCluskey. For the past seven years, the two have had a fairly open-door policy with their neighbors, performance artist Sarah Sophie Flicker and Jesse Peretz, director of “Our Idiot Brother.”
The two families live on the same floor, in separate apartments, moving easily back and forth through each other’s spaces and lives. It is not the several dozen animated artists, performers and musicians, however, that make this party seem remarkable. Here, in a present-day downtown Manhattan loft, the Bloomsbury Group—the tight-knit cultural collective of early-20th-century British iconoclasts—feels alive and well.
Photos: Spaces and Lives
Angela McCluskey and Paul Cantelon, in their New York City apartment Photograph by Emma Hardy
The echoes of Bloomsbury, both aesthetic and cultural, are unmistakable. From the 1900s to the 1930s, this small group of intellectuals, painters, philosophers and writers—most famously Virginia Woolf; her sister, artist Vanessa Bell, who painted canvases and walls; and economist John Maynard Keynes—collaborated on work and on life, upending hard-wired Victorian notions of love, family and creativity. A hallmark of the Bloomsbury Group was their unconventional lifestyle; Virginia Woolf, for instance, immortalized her two-decade relationship with writer Vita Sackville-West in the novel “Orlando.” (Both were married.)
In this current-day collective, McCluskey is the Vanessa Bell character. At Charleston, the Sussex farmhouse where Bell lived with her family, she and her lover Duncan Grant painted everything from fireplaces, tables and decorative screens to wall panels, cupboards and doors. Here at McCluskey’s apartment, everywhere you look there are similarly painted surfaces, old family photographs or charcoal studies of heads taped to the refrigerator. The apartment is a highly personalized Miss Havisham mix of comfortable velvet and silk sofas, with loads of pillows in checks, chintz, stripes and tapestry, tonight all aglow with candlelight.
Midparty, McCluskey is stomping her heels. In her distinctive “Trainspotting” accent, she says, “Everyone shut the f— up.” Cantelon, with amethyst rings, a foulard and a dandified British suit, lifts the violin to his chin and plays the first haunting note of the Irish song “My Lagan Love.” This salon full of big personalities goes dead as McCluskey begins to sing—all measured passion and complex melody.
“McCluskey is the Vanessa Bell character. The apartment is a Miss Havisham mix of comfortable velvet and silk sofas, and nearly every available surface is painted”
If you turned off the sound, you’d be mesmerized by how McCluskey and Cantelon look—complementary opposites. McCluskey is dark and stormy, like a messy Scottish geisha, red lips, pale skin, and insane coif against Cantelon’s airy lightness. But with the volume way up, you fall into this couple’s world. Distilled through violin and voice, there are notes of hilarity and heartbreak.
It was in fact this voice that drew Cantelon and McCluskey together 22 years ago. She spotted him playing piano at an Indian restaurant in London. She mistook him for “a cute French guy” and went to chat him up with some choice Gallic phrases. “He turned to me in this perfectly not-French accent,” she remembers, “and his first words were, 'You’ve got the most desperately unique voice.’” They’ve been a couple ever since.
Cantelon’s own improbable story starts in Glendale, California. The son of a magnetic faith healer, he was raised in evangelical revival tents across the U.S. and Europe. “Traveling like gypsies, we had to set up camp wherever we went. There was no time for real school,” Cantelon says. “I was taught on the road by a cousin, only the rudimentary basics. Later, when I went to attend Juilliard, I needed to pass the New York state equivalency to get a GED. I had never really been around people my own age and I wore this incredible 'Brideshead Revisited’ costume to take the exam in Queens. The other kids were like, 'Who is this creature?’ I failed the test three times. I couldn’t get past the simple arithmetic.”
Math skills took a backseat to music. Cantelon was seven when he first picked up a violin and was playing professionally at UCLA’s Royce Hall by the time he was 13. At a faith-healing event, he met the legendary pianist Donalee Reubenet, Rachmaninoff’s protégé. She played a different Chopin étude on each hand while singing the old hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” “Liszt couldn’t have carried it off any better,” Cantelon remembers. “I marched up to this ethereal thing and said, 'I must study with you.’ ”
“Cantelon, a piano-playing prodigy, and his evangelical father were a big hit. From Europe to America, the faithful stood for hours, waiting to be healed.”
While the family lived pillar to post, Mrs. Cantelon managed to take her 14-year-old son to his piano lessons every day. Practicing 30 to 40 hours a week, to the point of exhaustion, he was fixated on Chopin: “I related to his life and his temperament,” Cantelon says. “Our hands are even the same size.”
Despite serious study, a teenage Cantelon was still glued to his evangelical father’s desultory life. “Daddy played the banjo and the sax. It was all pretty garish, so we decided I’d improvise these lilting nocturnes on the piano while he filled in the words with a stream-of-consciousness prayer.” The piano-playing prodigy and his mercurial father were a hit. From Europe to America, the faithful stood for hours, waiting to be healed.
Then the music stopped. At 17, while riding his bicycle through the outskirts of Brussels, Cantelon was hit dead-on by an elderly motorist. Weeks later, he finally awoke from a coma in a dirty Flemish hospital. He remembered nothing. Not even how to find middle C.
Appropriately and bizarrely, Cantelon recovered when his brother urged him, two years later, to attend a healing meeting in L.A. The preacher called out that someone in that very audience would play music again. Cantelon stood up, walked over to the piano and slowly started anew. Since then, his output has been unstoppable: performances with everyone from Joe Cocker to George Clinton, solo classical recordings, two albums with the Wild Colonials and a pile of film scores, including “Everything Is Illuminated” and “The Other Boleyn Girl.” In Julian Schnabel’s 2007 film, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” Cantelon’s melancholy solo piano functions like a supporting actor, not just background swell. That’s because Cantelon understood the hero’s paralytic state of suffering from the inside. “I remember incredibly well the feeling like when you’re in a dream, trying to run but can’t,” he says. “The feeling of being in the diving bell. To this day, I still push against it.”
Back at the party, Peretz and Flicker’s four-year-old daughter, Arrow, dances through the crowd, stopping to explain to Carrie Fisher how if you breathe on her necklace, it makes wishes come true. Jesse Peretz remembers a steady flow of eccentric people in and out of his own house while growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He says, “I want my kids to have that experience too—the fun part of my childhood where the guest room was never empty. We made Paul and Angela godparents because that’s who I would’ve wanted.” (Others have felt the same way, as Angela is also godmother to the singer Lily Allen and Lisa Marie Presley’s daughter, Riley Keough.) When Peretz threw his grandmother’s 100th birthday party, Cantelon played a recital for her with Yo-Yo Ma. And over drinks one night, Cantelon and McCluskey encouraged Flicker to pursue her plans for Citizens Band, a political cabaret troupe with a rotating cast.
“At the party, Sarah Sophie Flicker’s daughter explains to Carrie Fisher that if you breathe on her necklace, wishes come true.”
As much as their lives are a tapestry of characters, the group is respectful of the solitude required for creative output. People show up often, but McCluskey and Cantelon are loners. “Paul spends his days at the studio, and I’m here working on a record or painting. There’s nothing better than watching an AMC movie and having Paul make some exquisite thing for us to eat,” McCluskey says, “but I also love entertaining.” At her “empty-chair parties,” five friends each bring one extraordinary person as their guest. An empty chair facilitates conversation hopping.
“I can’t stand formality; I’m strictly unstrict,” McCluskey says. But that’s not the same as casual—she’s earned the nickname Bossy Pants for her strong, and strongly expressed, opinions, particularly about overhead lighting. Friends tell stories of having their apartments “Angela-fied"—reentering a room to find she’s miraculously redecorated it. "If Angela’s alone in your house for 45 minutes, you’ll come back to something much improved,” says a close friend, publicist Oberon Sinclair. “Furniture rearranged, a new lamp scheme, rugs swapped out. If you give her two hours, she might paint your living room.”
Twenty-two years in, Cantelon says his partnership with McCluskey works because of mutual support. “We champion each other. As diametrically oppositional as we are, we very much believe in our lives together. To hell, or heaven, in a handbasket.”
Right now, McCluskey is finishing up recording for her new album, and Cantelon is polishing a collection of arias based on 19th-century poetry. It all brings to mind a description of the Bloomsbury Group from turn-of-the-century philosopher George Edward Moore: “One’s prime objects in life were love, the creation and enjoyment of aesthetic experience and the pursuit of knowledge.”