Though she was photographed for this fall’s Barneys campaign, Machado says she stopped paying attention to fashion the day she retired, in 1991, to run a (now closed) store and gallery in the Hamptons and live off the earnings of her very wise investments in real estate out there; the first house of nine that she bought sold for twenty times what she’d paid for it. But from her limited vantage, she questions the idea that models of color have come very far. “Even now it’s not so much,” she says. “Trends go and come back. Now it’s all blondes and baby-faces. Black models are more accepted, but if you look in a magazine today, there aren’t that many black models.”
She’d much rather talk about the women of reality television. “What is this ... Snooki? I’m just, like, appalled! Where do these people come from?” she says. She “half-likes” the Kardashians. “At least Kim is beautiful, and I’m amused by them. I mean, they photograph themselves in the bath with men. And then Kim had her ass X-rayed to prove that it was her ass, that it wasn’t an implant. I don’t know what is going on. I can’t believe it! They say anything, and they’re just out there, and for this I was kind of, ‘Wow! Okay! Terrific!’ ”
The last time Machado saw Avedon was at a party she threw in Sag Harbor just before her wedding to Rosa after 25 years of co-habitation. She’d caved to pressure from her two grandsons, Malcolm and Monty, who were tired of not being able to call Rosa “Grandpa” because he was still technically Machado’s boyfriend. But in a way, Avedon is there when you enter her house. On the day he died, she painted her living room with a sweeping, detailed tableau of the Yangtze River life of her childhood memories, set against a vivid pale-blue background. “I had to do something,” she says. “I couldn’t think about it. I would have felt too sad.” She’s since painted nearly every room in her house with the people and scenery of a different exotic locale she’s visited. The enclosed patio is Sicily; another room, Morocco.
In the first draft of her book, tentatively titled I Was Always Running After the Laughter, Machado followed her agent’s advice and opened with Avedon. But after long consideration, she’s realized that Avedon was not her beginning. “I think my childhood in China formed me, and Europe, and everything else before I came [to New York],” she says. “I think it started when I got very sick.” At age 6½, Machado came down with typhoid, paratyphoid, and meningitis all at once. “I was dying,” she says. She was kept in quarantine, and recalls delirious images of relatives weeping, her hair falling out, and a priest administering last rites. While she lay there, barely breathing, the Japanese bombed the hospital. Her father rushed over, but the quarantine ward was empty. When he found her, she says, “I was wrapped in a gray woolen blanket, thrown on a lorry with the dead people.”
She spent three more months in a wheelchair, then emerged to a new life in a new home in a changed city. She was no longer the doted-upon little girl but a sort of live-in cook and maid for the men of her family, which her stepmother considered to be a girl’s proper place. “It was at that time,” she says, “that the kind of survivor in me came out.”
This past April, Machado went back to Shanghai for the first time since 1946, accompanied by her husband, her daughters, and her grandsons. She’d avoided the visit for five decades, thinking it would be “too painful,” that she’d be reminded of the war or, worse, of how all her close family members had either passed on or been scattered around the world without her ever seeing them again. “Tears were running down my face,” she says, when she visited her old apartment in a beautiful Art Deco building fallen to ruin. The Catholic church she’d attended was just a façade; the nave had been gutted and turned into offices for the Communist Party. Still, she loved the life and spirit of the new Shanghai and returned home to Long Island inspired enough to paint a guest room in the theme of what she’d seen and to redo one of her gardens in the Chinese style, complete with manicured dwarf maples and custom-made moon doors. And the pain, well, it didn’t feel like pain, exactly. “In Portuguese you call it saudade,” she says. “It means a kind of longing and a love that still remains, that every once in a while when you think about it, it is with nice memories. It’s a missing. The other word in Portuguese that is similar is lembranças. Memories. They’re both beautiful words.”