The Day I Dismissed Captain Fiction

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The setting: New York in the mid 1980s. Warm summer day in June. One of those delicious, sparkling, clear afternoons in midtown.

I was in my 20s and had just started my Madison Avenue copywriting trek. I had summered in the Hamptons and wintered in the Vermont with a treasure trove of ad creatives, the best and the brightest the business had to offer. Better still, I had learned that the preceding nouns – summer and winter – were verbs. Something that this Texas gal had never heard of.

That afternoon, I was strolling with my friend, Richard, down 54th street and laughing at one of his remarks about some celebrity he knew or had just seen or wanted to see. We were guffawing and being conspicuously loud.

I saw a man walking towards us. He just kept walking, not veering to our side as common sidewalk etiquette dictates.

Suddenly, there he was, this man, firmly planted right in front of us – in my face, actually.

He was older. Greying with some distinction and dressed in a smart expensive jacket, no tie.

“You are a good looking woman, you look like you would know if a man was gay or not…look at this,” he said, while he fumbled to retrieve a rolled up magazine clutched under his arm. In a split second, he unfurled it, and flipped through the pages with a fury until his hand karate-chopped a place in the center. The destination: a spread of four men in a checkerboard configuration of photos.

The headline of the page read “Dressed to Quill”.

“Which of these two guys do you think is better looking?” he said, jabbing his finger at the pages. My mind was scrambled.

Who was he? Why was he asking me this? Why me?

I looked at the man on the upper right. He had salt and pepper hair, and donned a tweedy jacket. Had sort of a sly smile. Behind him was a bookshelf.

Mr. Lish

The other man on the lower left had dark curly hair, was a bit balding, wore glasses, and sported a dark jacket. I chose this man.

Brodkey

“Aaaaah, ooooh, I KNEW it,” the man said. He snatched the magazine out of my hands, slapped it closed and left us just as quickly as he had appeared.

RIchard and I looked at each other.

“What just happened?” he said.

“I have no idea. New York is bizarre,” I said, and we walked back to my office.

After I returned to my office at Ogilvy & Mather, I couldn’t shake what had just happened.

That evening, I found the magazine – I think it was an Esquire – at a newsstand, thumbed through it and realized that this mysterious, forthright man who had stopped me was the person in the spread, Gordon Lish. His opposition: Harold Brodkey.

I had chosen Brodkey, and rejected Lish.

Oh dear God. What have I done?

I had dreams of becoming a writer beyond the ad agency world. After my discovery, I was stymied. Frozen. Paralyzed. Why had this magazine editor come upon me? And why did I make the wrong choice? Why had I thwarted Fate?

While I was in New York, I had sampled all the city had to offer in the literary arts. I dubbed it my Journey Through the Genres. I had taken a fiction writing class at the West Side YMCA from the daughter of James Jones. A poetry workshop in the East Village. An improv and acting class at H.B. Studios. Finally, two playwriting classes at Playwrights Horizons and Ensemble Studio Theatre, which jettisoned me into a decade of playwriting. Even though later I had a workshop production of a play in Los Angeles at the Tamarind Theater, I remained unproduced. I was nobody.

I did more research on Mr. Lish and was even more confounded, horrified, and tied in a knot. I discovered he was a famed editor at Alfred A. Knopf and at Esquire was known as Captain Fiction. He had launched the careers of Raymond Carver, Cynthia Ozick, Don DeLillo, Reynolds Price, and Barry Hannah. Also in his steed were Rick Bass and Richard FordAmy Hempel dedicated “Reasons to Live” to him.

He was big. Important. I was flattened.

After my ill-fated meeting with Mr. Lish, I was a whirligig of nervosa that I could not shake for months. At this time in my life, I was untreated for OCD. Anything could set me on a crash-and-burn course of spinning thoughts and sleepless nights. This did it.

My mind, a relentless bully, birthed a loop of passages, beginnings and endings, of a letter that was a story of our sidewalk meeting. I wrote this in fits and starts. Mulled over it. Wrote, wrote and rewrote it over and over, late into the night. The obsessions came and went in waves. I was manic. Even had unexplainable leg pains. I had so many juicy thoughts to share. “It was you I should have chosen in the spread, but my sight was obscured by your shining in person, dashing good looks.”

Despite my scribbling, I remained constitutionally unable to send my letter. I was shackled in fear. This obsession plagued my psyche on and off for a decade.

By the end of the 90s, after moving back to Dallas, getting meds for OCD and coming to terms with the stasis of my playwriting career, I discovered my letter with my ramblings to Mr. Lish. I finally cobbled together a short letter, one which was more clear, and cogent than my original composition, and sent it to him.

A few weeks later, I received a small square envelope. I opened it to see a note on “Gordon Lish” letterhead and typed on what looked like a real typewriter. He said that he remembered the event clearly and stated that I had not correctly identified his competition – I wrote that the other man was Harold Brodkey. He said that the man in question was Joseph Brodsky, a vastly more important writer who had won the Nobel Prize.

In my letter I had remarked that I was mediocre, that I was striving for excellence. He replied (and I’m paraphrasing) that at some time in our lives, we must all come to terms with our mediocrity. I was startled. Touched by what seemed to be genuine humility and sweetness. My heart kind of swells with happy sadness when I think back on this.

Mr. Lish also extended to me an invitation to his writing workshop in San Francisco. I should have gone. But at the time, I had no sense of self, and could not imagine presenting myself to this master. Besides, I was thick into a relationship of Wagnerian proportions that would send me into a downward spiral, a mire of warp speed quicksand that would take me yet another decade to recover from.

When I look back, in only a sliver of my life do I see a thread, a pattern, that makes any sense. Mostly, all the synchronicities of my life seems like a bunch of crossword puzzle pieces dumped on the floor.

But today as I write this, I see two potentially interlocking pieces: Gordon Lish and Barry Hannah (see him below.)

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I participated in a Writer’s Residency at the Vermont Studio Center in the mid 90s and who was my teacher? Barry Hannah – who was mentored by Gordon Lish. Mr. Hannah didn’t quite understand my story. I was crestfallen. It was about Wah Wah, my beautiful aunt Addie Willie Leopard, who was an invalid and spinster. I had even won a local Honorable Mention PEN Women award for it. He did, though, like my play. Part of it was given a reading during my stay at the Center. He was a kind, generous man. I learned a lot from him. I was sad when I read he had died.

I later took the story to a summer seminar at Bennington and my teacher, Elizabeth Cox, got it. I was heard. It felt good.

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Lish also launched the career of Reynolds Price, who was the college mentor of a young magazine writer I dated while in New York. Yet another connection, albeit weak.

There is an small overlap, but what it means, if it means anything at all, is like a big wad of Christmas lights that I am still trying to untangle.

Only now, at 54, can I look back at this odd happening with some sobriety, some hope. After 30 years of writing ads, I quit my job six months ago. I am freelancing. Writing this blog. A novella. A screenplay. And I am desperate for help. I need an editor in a bad way.

I have survived my father’s death, numerous job losses, financial failure, a colossal amount of heartbreaks and getting sober. I have been through the wringer, the storm, and any other cliché you can think of.

I am laying myself wide open for criticism, ruthless painful editing, barbs, ridicule. All the wonderful things that only a writer can appreciate and long for.

I am ready.

Now that I am out here strolling, my eyes are open. My head is up. Maybe I’ll meet a new Captain Fiction. All I can hope for is for Fate to smile on me one more time and help me find a kind pair of eyes to show me the way.

 

 

 

My Della Femina Debut

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 “From those wonderful folks who brought you Pearl Harbor.”

 – Tagline suggested for a prominent Japanese firm by Jerry Della Femina.

Yes, you read it right. This was what Jerry had suggested in a meeting full of top executives from Japan. Or so the legend goes. This shocking verbiage was also the name of Jerry’s best-selling, hilarious book. Equally provocative was the subhead, which read “Front Line Dispatches from the Advertising War.”

Book It was a war. And I was in the trenches. Even though it was 1983, Della Femina, Travisano and Partners, the hallowed, revered Madison Avenue ad agency that birthed the Creative Revolution in the 60s, was still in full, uproarious swing.

Mad Men, step aside. Back away from your egos. This was the real deal. And my very first job as an ad copywriter.

I was fresh out of The Bubble, SMU in the Park Cities in Dallas, Texas, where I had been sheltered and coddled by a society and ecosystem that was a breeding ground for a big nest of WASPS.

HPAnd here I was, smack dab in the middle of the New York ad world working for a witty provocateur who also famously said that “advertising was the most fun you could have with your clothes on.” Oh, and did we. In those days, we were allowed to smoke (#guilty) in our offices and cocktails were shaken and stirred for any reason, or no reason at all – I mean, who needed one?  It was a par-tay waiting to happen. At any given moment. Of any given day. It was a odd, endlessly exciting world, one unlike any other I had ever encountered. Actually, it was more like an adult playpen. Extended adolescence. But a place, nevertheless, where magic happened.

My colleagues sported exotic names like Frank DiGiacomo. Joe Della Femina. Phil Silvestri. Mark Yustein. And Karee Rubenstein.  Lots of Italians and Jews – everyone dark and swarthy all around me. Then there was pale-faced me, Lisa Johnson, or Junior Miss, Miss Texas, and any of the other nicknames du jour they lovingly called me. In any event, there I was, Sue Vanilla (#white bread) trying to stay afloat amidst this colorful crew, daily standing back in awe watching them create killer ads effortlessly. To top it off, I was one of two female writers at this famous boys club. Despite the fact that I tried to dress the part of a New York copywriter by doing the whole Antique Boutique vintage thing, Della Femina was still a lot for this little Dallas girl with frosted blonde hair to take in.

I was not good at what I did back then – no creative muscle to speak of. While I was good at puns, and was the ultimate punographer, ad concepts I just could not generate. I had gone to the School of Visual Arts and taken portfolio classes. I had cobbled together a “book” , a model’s portfolio full of my speculative – “spec” – ads drawn on typing paper with Marks-a-lots. I got the job, which to me, was a miracle. But at this point, I was painfully slow and needed remedial help – I had no Concepting Legs. I could have used a walker.

In addition to “ideating” and  “papering the walls with layouts” as we used to say, the offices were always abuzz with lots of hollering and laughing and yucking it up  – until 5 p.m., at which point on Fridays, it was time for a bit of liquid inspiration. The location: the bar in Frank’s office, where he had a little fridge full of wine and beer, as well as a small table with all kinds of other liquors and libations.

As the only Junior Copywriter in the bunch, I was chronically afraid to go into this gathering of seasoned pros – they had won every award you can name. (#Cannes, #One Show, #Clio) Though one afternoon, I had to venture in. After I had slaved away for hours coming up with just the right headline, I wanted to get my supervisor’s approval of it.

As I sucked up my courage to walk in, I approached Mark (#prince of a guy), and said, sheepishly, “Hi can I get you to look at this?” He smiled and said, “Lisa, this is cocktail hour. We’ll look at that tomorrow.” I need to add that Mark Yustein was an Ad God. As an art director, he was part of the team that came up with the famous line for Meow Mix, “Tastes so good, cats ask for by name”. He also partnered with several writers to pen the brilliant Blue Nun wine radio commercials featuring the inimitable banter between Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara.

As you can see, I was surrounded by Awesomeness. So it was only natural that during this time in my life, I was a bit more serious about the ad game – staying late nearly every night, honing my craft, puffing away on Marlboro Reds and having giant, heart-clogging pretzels with mustard for dinner.

One day I was rather upset and distraught that the client had changed one of my headlines for a newspaper ad. I marched into Ron Travisano’s office simply beside myself. How could this have happened? What was the client THINKING? Ron Ron tried to calm me down, but I just wouldn’t have it. Finally he said, “Lisa, get a hold of yourself. People use these to line the bottom of their bird cages. Relax. This is only an ad.” Boy did that hit me like a Mack truck. WHAT? You can’t be serious. I was in this for blood – and awards! And an award I got with the help of Senior Writer, Rita Senders. A Clio Finalist, complete with an invitation to the ceremony at the Waldorf. I still have the menu from that day and on it, a nice dime-sized stain of mustard vinaigrette.

Even though Jerry was the head guy, he was frequently out of the office, I’m sure, rustling up new business. I didn’t present work to him (thankfully), but one day, I had to. My bosses were out on a shoot. His assistant set up some time for me to see him. So in I went.

Nervous, fidgety, overly-apologetic – scared as a little church mouse – this was me as I sat across from Epic Greatness in the form of Jerry Della Femina. Clad in his sleek Italian finery with the top of his iconic hairless head gleaming in the neon lights above, he smiled, and looked at me over the top of his glasses. “Have a seat, my dear,” he kindly said to me. So I did as he said.

We were working on an ad for the New York Times for First Boston, an investment bank.

FBostonI was really struggling with what to say in the headline. I didn’t do math or numbers, much less banking. But I did come up with a nugget of an idea. So I presented it, we lobbed it back and forth a few times, then we birthed: “What every great banker needs is a great banker.”

Oh what a feeling! (cue the “Flashdance” anthem.)

I was titillated, energized, but also relieved that my meeting with him was over and I was no longer in his office. He was kind of just too much for me in my meager 23 years of life and my yet-to-be-fully-developed frontal lobe.

The only other time I really got a good chance to see Jerry, other than when I saw him in Frank’s office deep into storyboards, was when he walked down the hallway one day playing the ukulele. It was joyous site to behold.

Another fun event was when the office was getting redecorated. For some reason after the walls had been stripped bare of wallpaper, we created a contest involving toilet paper rolls. Whoever could stack them up next to their doors in the most creative way got a prize, which I think was a hotdog.

But it wasn’t always so magical.

I was working on a radio spot for Six Flags Great Adventure, a :30 spot. Problem was, it was coming in at :40, according to the account guy. I took another pass at shortening it and thought it was fine. In the days before email, I would just put the copy that I typed on a typewriter (#fossil) in the chair of the designated AE (account executive.) Then he/she would read it and walk it back over to my office.

On my way to lunch, I dropped the radio copy off with the AE, sure I had nailed it. I can’t remember his name, so let’s call him Fred.

When I got back, what appeared at my door was an irritated, red-faced, spectacled Fred fiddling with his police/porn moustache and puffing on a cigarette with an inch-long ash. “Um, Lisa. This is not working. You’ve got exactly thirty minutes to make this thirty seconds,” at which point he hurled a stopwatch at me, narrowly missing my nose, skittling and clanging across my glass-topped desk, and knocking over my pencil holder. He stood there, swaying to and fro like a buoy in the Connecticut Sound. I could smell him six feet away. Apparently, he had just returned from a 16 martini lunch.

After he staggered away, I burst into tears, then got up and went into Mark’s office sniffling and trying to speak, barely able to eek out what happened. After I explained the situation, Mark was not happy. Fred got in big trouble. I hate to say it, but I was so happy.

The other moments that stand out were the Christmas Party at the River Café in Brooklyn. The lights of Manhattan twinkled on the East River as we partied and danced the night away.

cafeI also had the distinct privilege of working for Luke Sullivan who penned “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” He was later inducted into the Copywriter Hall of Fame. I learned a tremendous amount about ad writing – and life – from him.

At one point, EST was The Big Thing. EST stood for Erhard Seminar Training. Everyone in the office was doing it. But I ended up declining. It was rumored that they locked you in an auditorium full of strangers for an entire couple of weekends and wouldn’t let you out to go to the bathroom or wear a watch, all the while pummeling you with data, shouting at you with depressing facts about humanity (so I heard) that wore you down to a nub. Then on the last day, you were supposedly rid of all your painful childhood memories, limiting beliefs and were built back up. Made all new and pretty – rarin’ and ready to change the course of your life.

The last phenomenon around the office I remember was The Hunger Project. Sounds good, right? Like you’d be helping the world, right? Well, I went to a meeting after work one night along with some other folks from the agency. Jerry even went.  During the evening, we were presented with staggering, heartbreaking facts about hunger along with sad faces of precious children. I was weeping through much of it.

I had asked a good friend of mine to go with me that night, but the whole presentation was REALLY dragging on and on. Way too much information. About halfway through, we saw Jerry get up and leave. I leaned over and whispered to my friend, “He’s probably like, ‘Let’s get outta here. All this talk about hunger is making me hungry. I am diein’ for a big plate of spaghetti.’ ” We could hardly contain ourselves after that.

The sad truth about The Hunger Project was that while the overall purpose of the movement was admirable, they were criticized for using most of the money for educating the public about worldwide hunger rather than actually feeding people.

But after all of these kooky happenings, the most fun, most insane, most deliriously ZANY event at the agency was…

The Sex Contest.

No, it wasn’t a live sex show. But the vibe of the whole thing was deliciously wild and racy. Women voted for the man they’d most like to have sex with, and men voted for the women they’d most like to boink. The winning couple would be announced at a luncheon called The Secretaries Luncheon. The prize: a weekend at the Plaza. Beyond Fabulous, right? But here’s the thing: each winner would not be getting their own room. The prize was one room…that the two lucky winner swould share…to ostensibly get lucky. Second prize was one night at The Plaza. The third prize was a night on Ron Travisano’s office couch.

The day arrived for the luncheon and the big announcement of the winning couple. We shut down at noon on Friday and all headed over to a Mexican restaurant on the Upper East Side – one that we had rented out for this soon-to-be-raucous party.

The afternoon was somewhat of a blur. All I remember is that after the winners were announced – they were both way too sexy for their shirts – the margaritas and funny cigarettes (#mary jane) started flowing. Secretaries were sitting on top of the laps of the wasted account guys as well as some handsy creative directors. I crawled out of there at some point, blotto and bleary-eyed, and went to bed for what may have been the entire weekend. Oh yeah. It was some party, the memory of which is both vague and achingly specific in my mind. Some things that happened there…I’ll never share.

Lots of stuff happened during my stint at Della Femina. But it was one of the best years of my professional life. I can honestly say it was a balls-to-the-wall year of true Mad Men revelry that glows and sings and Snap Crackle Pops in my memory.

My Afternoon with Norman

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” Give me the freedom of a tightly defined strategy.”

– Norman Berry, Creative Genius and Ad Legend, Ogilvy & Mather.

I quote him often.

He was my big boss from 1986-89 in New York when I was a copywriter at Ogilvy.

I frequently saw him dashing by atwitter, burgeoning with disruptive, brilliant ideas, clad in Omar Sharif collared shirts inspired by Dr. Zhivago and made by Turnbull & Asser.

collared shirt

He would be hunched over with laser-focused attention on the print ad or TV spot at hand, chain smoking, and moving his head about in bird-like sharp movements with lovely, deep, caring eyes. His laugh filled the atmosphere in any room with hope and endless possibilities.

norman

My assignment was for New Freedom Maxi Pads, a product from Kimberly Clark. First, I worked on Pull-ups, those in-between baby diapers that kids wear when they are potty training. Now it was time to move on to more mature bodily emissions. The dreaded period.

pads

How might my partner, fabulous Senior writer, Alice Henry Whitmore, and I make this interesting or most importantly, tasteful? How could we hook people in and prevent them from being instantly turned off by the decidely intimate subject matter, and change the channel the second they heard the words “maxi pad”?

Well, we had an idea.

For historical context, let’s remember that this was in the late 80s. It was before the end of the Cold War. The world was a different place.

People in communist countries had little to no freedom, especially the women.

So for our New Freedom project, Alice and I posited this intriguing question at the top of our TV spot:

“What if the women of Moscow discovered New Freedom?”

But here’s the kicker: the entire spot would be spoken in Russian – with English subtitles.

While the startlingly beautiful model we’d cast was moving freely about Red Square (oh yes, LOVE the irony) you would hear her extolling the virtues of these awesome maxi pads that were the best thing since sliced bread (visual intended) while the translation populated the bottom of the screen:

“I can wear it everywhere I’m allowed to go…I can even wear it with my Official Party Dress. I can carry them in modern pouches of plastic…even in Red Square.”

And so on.

Red Square

The campaign would also extend to the oppressed Chinese women and have the same opening line:

“What if the women of China discovered New Freedom?”

Our lovely Chinese model would be elated about her newfangled maxis while English subtitles played on the screen.

Chinese

We were tickled. We loved our idea. We thought for sure we had a BIG win. A smash hit, one that would march us right into the Copywriters Hall of Fame.

We couldn’t wait to present this to Norman.

The day arrived for us to see him. I was terrified. Sweating. Obsessing about what to say – writing my notes for the set up for our brainchild, then scratching them out in a furry, and starting over again and again and again. I was a mess.

I finally calmed myself down before we went in.

When Alice and I arrived at his office, we were surprised to see Norman sitting on the floor in front of his coffee table puffing away on a cigarette wearing his signature Omar shirt. We sat down and joined him. I was wearing a skirt, so sitting cross-legged was not an option. Didn’t want to flash anyone. I was no Sharon Stone.

I was already a bit jittery to begin with. As I positioned myself on the floor in what felt like the most awkward of poses, my leg and hip started to cramp. I thought my elbow upon which I was leaning was going to give way. But that all went away once we launched into our idea.

I got off to a sputtering start, “So we thought that, well, I mean, we were thinking that, um, women in Communist countries who had few liberties would be a good juxtapose, sorry, juxtaposition to the name, New Freedom,” I said.

Luckily, Alice jumped in and saved me while she pulled out the key frames for the TV spot.

Norman inhaled on his cigarette with such force, I knew we were in trouble. His brows furrowed, his eyes half shut.

With an exhale like God breathing life into the universe, he said, “This is brilliant, simply brilliant. I love it. Great work, darlings.”

We couldn’t contain our elation. Alice and I both tried to disguise our smiles, giggled a bit, but were still focused on the work.

“However, ” Norman said, “this would never fly in the States.”

We were heartbroken.

“It would play smashingly, swimmingly in the UK,” he said. “There, you don’t have the strict social mores like we have here. It would be a brilliant there….but not here,” he said.

He went on.

“I applaud your bold creativity, loves,” he said to me. “Can you all come up with something else as brilliant?”

Alice and I both nodded eagerly like little cocker spaniel puppies indicating, “yes.”

We thanked him for his time and left.

After that day, I saw him at department meetings where he’d give a rousing, encouraging speech to all and then show some stellar, recently finished spots – Seagram’s Wine Cooler spots featuring Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd who were the stars of “Moonlighting”.

Bruce

I had worked on the radio and it was presented to Edgar Bronfman, CEO of Seagrams, with my voice recording of the spot I had written (thrilling!), but it was never bought. (See the dashing fellow below.)

edgar

Back in those days, we had an Ogilvy bar, replete with a bowtie-wearing bar tender who would serve up terribly strong drinks and bowls of peanuts to the wayward, haggard account execs who needed to recover after being beaten up by the client or weary creatives who needed to birth a new idea after theirs was savagely killed.

I loved hearing Norman give the State of the Agency address at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall, where we had our holiday meetings, after which, the Ogilvy Choir would sing. Yes, a choir filled these famous halls with lively Christmas cheer that somehow made me think of fruitcakes – the food, not the people. Also offered while I was there was a bevy of swag in Ogilvy red: watches, umbrellas, and finally, a flannel unisex nightshirt. I still have mine.

ogilvy

With Norman at the helm, it felt like a club. Not a company. Not a job. But a place, a home, where you could make memories, history and lifelong friends. I think there was even an Ogilvy alum newsletter – way, way before social media hit. This was a place that just got things right.

In those pre-Cold War days, we could have never foretold something like Facebook. The world is radically, immeasurably different today – especially in the ad business. Web is King, the Grand Poobah of all. Mobile is Queen. Google is a verb.

The nerve-wracking days of meeting our air date or print deadline are mostly over. Ideas are distributed through a dizzying array of channels and are evaluated through a new lens: your Followers, SEO, and all those other things that makes my head spin. It’s a whirling dervish, a technological cauldron of activity which, if I let it, can become a time-sucking life invader.

These days, if I am in a meeting with ad folks, I will invariably quote him. Sadly, few people know this classic maxim. It’s too bad. It has helped me many times when explaining to a client why the TV spot filled with 50 competing ideas just won’t work.

Here’s to you, Norman. My time with you was brief, but meaningful – indelibly etched on my heart.

Because after all the hoopla of new media is said and done, and we’ve moved on to The Next Big Thing, you and your timeless, tightly defined words still reign.

 

 

 

Malkovich Mash Up

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The year was 1987. I was on a flight to New York’s JFK from Chicago.

chicagoSkyline

I don’t remember why I was in Chicago, but I suspect it was for work. It was probably a Focus Group for potty training baby diapers, Pull-Ups. I believe I had connected in Chicago to go to Neenah, Wisconsin, to meet with the client, where we’d go to the groups together.

51WXC2X4CEL

I had worked on this product for an entire year at Ogilvy & Mather, and during it, had the distinct pleasure of rewriting the jingle that went, “I’m a big kid look what I can do. I can wear big kid pants too… and I can take them up and down…”

Jaunty musical interlude: Ba da da da dah.

“I’m a big kid NOW.”

End of :30 award-winning commercial.

There was much concern from the client if, when we were saying “up and down”, we were encouraging children to take their training pants OFF… to become little exhibitionists, rip off their Pull-Ups and run around the freezer section of Piggly Wiggly nude. (See creepy demonstrative doll below.)

pull_up_baby_diaper_machine_training_pants_machine

So we tested “up and ON” and “up and OFF” to assuage the unhappy mommies that had written in…and the winner was the former – “up and ON.” Whew, what a relief. Now perhaps the nastygrams the client was receiving would cease.

Dizzying amounts of money was spent researching this nugget, this insight.

Nevertheless, I was returning from this trip, sitting in Coach (of course) when I learned somehow from some flight attendant murmurings that we had a celebrity on board in First Class…Mr.John Malkovich.

Immediately, I was titillated. I loved John Malkovich.

I fantasized that he was returning from a play rehearsal at the famed Steppenwolf Theater. Was he Hamlet? Romeo? Just who WAS he? What was he doing there?

To calm my racing thoughts, I summoned the flight attendant and ordered a little mini bottle of chardonnay. How fitting, I thought, in light of the film, “Being John Malkovich”, during which there was one (or many, can’t remember) of ceilings being low and therefore, everything small, miniature. Perhaps that would be my entre when I met him – I’d offer some remark about the irony of this. Better yet, I would send him a note that summarized my observation attached to my mini bottle of chardonnay in First Class.

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Nah. Strike that. Too corny. I’ll just continue to think of my plan of approach.

I sipped my mini chardy all the way back to JFK. I could not come up with anything that I felt comfortable saying to him. Plus, I was kind of scared. I didn’t want to ask for his autograph. Too normal.

I had seen him in “Burn This” on Broadway. As we know, he’s bald, or near bald with a little top fuzz.

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But in the show he wore a wig, kind of a page boy that was brunette but didn’t have bangs. He whooshed his locks around with great abandon – like a wild stallion galloping around the stage. Plus, he had a sexy ciggie in hand.

I was spellbound by his performance. He was seductive. Handsome. And oh-so-witty, thanks to the brilliant playwright, Lanford Wilson. Thus, my faraway crush.

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After we landed and we were de-planeing, I figured I would just see him at the baggage claim and admire him from afar.

As I stood at the baggage claim carousel, there was no sight of him. Perhaps the John Malkovich Squad had grabbed him, put a brown paper bag over his head to quell/avert the excitement and tucked him into a limo.

I was kind of sad that I didn’t have a celebrity sighting. But figured, hey, no biggie. Life goes on.

I saw my standard over-packed giant suitcase on the carousel creeping towards me. It was a massive black heap with strange bulges all over it. I could have been smuggling in a small Pull-UPS wearing child.

I was on the front row so I could grab it, heave it up and then head towards the cab stand.

So there it was, my big-lug-of-a-bag. I grabbed it, and gave a heave-ho. But in fear of not being able to lift it combined with a sudden adrenaline rush, it came flying off in warp speed, and as I whirled it around, there he was.

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John Malkovich.

You see, I just didn’t whirl it around. My bag (the size of a cruise trunk) came whipping around violently, with a purpose and…within an inch of clipping him at the knees.

I could imagine him being hit, breaking his knee caps, the EMT people rushing in, the sirens, the flashing lights… it wasn’t pretty.

He then looked at me and smiled.

“Can I help you with your bag?” he said to me. His hand reached out and neared mine on the handle – I had a death grip on it. Then…his hand graced the top of my hand. It softly tickled the top of my knuckles.

Faint. Swoon. Chills. Tingles. An explosion of sensations like fireworks on the fourth of July.

(I think I even peed my pants a wee bit. Where were MY Pull-Ups?)

“Oh,” I said,”No thanks. I’ve got it.” (What was I thinking?)

“I am okay, just a crazy Texas girl who overpacked.”

(Again, what WAS I saying?)

Then I went into a torrent, a verbal vomit – BIG diarrhea of the mouth.

“I saw you read at St. Bart’s the day that the Challenger went down. You read from ‘Franny and Zooey’, by Salinger. I use a quote from his book in the play I am writing, and I quote – from the book, not my play, I want to be clear – so here’s the quote, ‘I wish I had the courage to be a nobody.” Franny says this to Zooey when she is struggling with being rejected from her auditions, she wants to be an actress, you know, have you read the book in it’s entirety? I just love it… she’s so existential, wild and SO ME….oh and then you read from ‘Endless Love’, by Scott Spencer, and it was so wonderful, much MUCH better than the film, did you see the film, ‘Endless Love’?”

After this stream of my nervosa descended upon him, there was a pause, the kind that is seconds but feels like hours. 

Darn it if he didn’t smile again. His sleepy, sexy eyes kind of smiled, too.

“That is so nice of you to remember. That was quite a day with the Challenger going down.”

John Malkovich said Going Down. To me. He said these actual words. Hallelujah – what a vision sprang to mind!

My mind raced with his face planted amidst and among my Lady Parts. I could not look at his face, as all I saw were my legs wrapped around his near-bald head.

The entire time we spoke, I just kept moving and hauling my suitcase. He didn’t offer again to carry it, as I did my best to look un-needy, un-weak, you know, girly.

He then said, “Would you…” at which point I was so nervous, I just interrupted him and said, “Okay, so nice meeting you… buh bye!!”

And off I limped towards the lonely cab stand… to my lonely life in Manhattan.

*.                                     *.                                         *

In retrospect, I imagined that he was going to ask me to share a cab into the city, which would of course lead to an affair (wasn’t sure if he was married or in between liaisons or he, himself having an illicit affair with some other star.)

The thought was intoxicating. I love me some Naughty.

But the affair would end with my getting ditched, crushed in his palm like a used coffee cup, and thrown in the trash with all the others who dared to canoodle with Mr. Malkovich.

What’s a girl to do?

Well, this girl had a follow up plan.

A few weeks later, he opened in a new play on Broadway. I wrote him a letter (phone number included) reminding him of what happened, when and where, and… could I buy him a drink?

I took it to the stage door and handed it to some unknown stage worker.

For days, and weeks, I jumped every time my phone rang. Every time I got home and my message machine light was blinking, I knew it was him.

Remember, this was back in the olden days before anything cell phone, laptop, social media. No Facebook or Skype. No Instagram. Nada. My only source of contact was my home phone and answering machine.

He never called.

But of course he wouldn’t.

I had run away from him.

Or…. this is what I like to think, humoring myself.

Now when I see him in films, I remember that day, his smile and his hand gracing mine.

For a moment… there was magic, the kind of stuff that some days, makes me feel all warm and mushy inside… bittersweet and when I am sad or depressed, somehow, electrically alive.

And then I think of peeing in my Pull-Ups…and I am complete.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stark Reality

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It was Christmas in the mid 80s in chilly New York City. I had been invited to an invitation-only party at a club in midtown with my friend, Henry. He had been invited by a (now) wildly successful Hollywood movie producer, Scott, and his wife. I don’t recall who exactly was sponsoring the party. But it was packed and suitably festive for the holidays. I think we breezed past the doorman, which in those days, was a task and an event in and of itself – it required a pre-arrival strategy, i.e. what to wear, how to position one’s body, how to make or not make eye contact, and so on. However, we were on the list, which meant we’d sail right in. No need to rehearse what would happen, whose name we’d drop, if we didn’t get in immediately.

Inside the music seemed to have a 60s theme, as did the entire place.

I sauntered up the bar, elbowed my way to the front, albeit with lots of smiles and words of apology (“Oh, ‘scuuse me) and grabbed a few drinks for me and my friend. Nothing fancy. Two chardonnays, house brand, thank you very much. Then made my way back to chat with my group.

Seems that the movie producer and my friend had known each other for a while so I was an outsider to all their shared pleasantries; however, the focus of their conversation was about a certain guest, a friend, who they had met during a Caribbean vacation and was the son of a famous Beatle. He was standing nearby, alone, and soon all eyes in our group turned towards him. His hair, dark and straight, hung perfectly down his back – all the way to his waist. He had a distinct profile, a Roman nose, whose DNA was unmistakable. He was clothed in black, head to toe, as was de rigeur in the 80s, and for all times, I might add.

Being in my 20s and in those days, generally fearless after a few drinks, my liquid courage, I decided upon an approach.

I took a deep breath and walked up. I was a bit taller, but not too much so.

He smiled. I smiled. We began our conversation with short bursts of elevated voice pitch. The place was ridiculously noisy so we decided to move to a quieter venue.

“My name is Jason Starkey.”

“Oh it is not.”

“Oh, yes it is.”

“No, your last name is Starr.”

“My father’s name is Richard Starkey.”

“No, it isn’t. It’s Ringo Starr.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is.”

This became somewhat of a game, enhanced with lots of giggles, and it continued for a good while until I realized I was dead wrong – my face turning a thousand shades of red, but who knows what color it was, really, amid the flicker of the disco balls and club lights.

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As if queued by the gods, the song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” came on, at which point I grabbed his hand and attempted to dance with him.

“I can’t dance…I can’t dance,” he said repeatedly in his cute, clipped English accent, so I figured I should stop the campaign, which I did.

We stood there, me toggling between acute awkwardness and total elation. He was the picture of perfect cool and calm.

Seems we were growing tired of the scene – the cigarette smoke, the noise, the elbows of crowd folk in our backs – and he asked if I wanted to go to the Hard Rock. In those days, there were lines that were leagues long and it was all the rage.

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We grabbed a cab to 57th street, and when we arrived and zipped past the hideously long line and went upstairs to meet his mother, Maureen, who had been married to Richard, Ringo, and now was married to Isaac, a railroad baron’s son from Tennessee, and owner of the Hard Rock Cafes and a devoted follower of a guru in India. (See Maureen and Jason below.)

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Maureen was stunning. Her beautiful dark eyes were made up with thick, dark eyeliner to accent her mystique, and she was dressed in all black of course. Like mother like son. She was holding a cigarette in a long, slender black holder and on her pointing finger sat a silver skull ring.

We sat down, ordered drinks and spoke a few words. I introduced myself. Jason began to engage her in conversation. Then up walked Yul Brenner’s son (un-bald with a nice rug) who was the manager. He made sure we were all taken care of. Had our drinks and weren’t wanting for anything. And we weren’t.

We were set.

We stayed there for a bit, then the moment happened:  Jason found out I had MTV at my apartment. “I want to watch the telly,” he said. I am not sure if he could see it in London, as my memory escapes me, but the net net, as they say, was that we HAD to go to see it. At my apartment. Right then.

We arrived at my illegal sublet on the cusp of the East Village and tip-toed in, past the room of my Parisian roommate with OCD (another story) and proceeded to stay up all night watching MTV.

There we were, positioned on the floor, propped up against my bed, watching all the videos. We heard from the celebrities of those days on the channel: Kurt Loder. Martha Quinn, and a few more people whose names escape me.

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We talked all night.

Daylight broke and we were still up. I began feel a bit scared, like some official Beatles Police was going to show up, banging on my door, demanding his release. So I shooed him out and put him in a cab to go back to the hotel, apartment, or wherever they were staying.

After he left, I believe he called me a few times from Martha’s Vineyard, where he and his mum and family were going up to stay at Dan Ackroyd’s place. After this trip, they all went back to London.

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Cut to a day or two before my birthday in August, 1985.

Jason called and said he was going to be in town. I told him it was my birthday. So out we went to dinner. It was my treat, I told him, and this was not negotiable. Upon reflection, what was I thinking? Low self-esteem much?

First we went to Petrosian for champagne and caviar.

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Then we went to a place that had light blue, pink and yellow lights that illuminated the walls. We ended the night by going to a record store – yes, dinosaur that it was – and looked through the records.

Somehow, the guy who worked there figured out who he was and next thing we knew he was chasing us out – he was right on our heels – waving a cassette of his band’s  latest song in the air. As we got into the cab, Jason politely said he’d share it with his dad. And off we went.

After that, he went back to London.

For a year or so, he would call me – late at night, as it was after he had been out and about, so he was coming in, around 5 or 6 a.m. We’d talk for hours. We’d talk about music, film stars, and more, His favorite singer at the time was Paul Rogers. He then told me about going to Michael Caine’s house.

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“I sat in his chair. I sat in Michael Caine’s chair,” he said. We laughed about that, and a lot, actually. But who can say why? It’s not particularly funny. I know I served up a few courtesy laughs just to get us off the subject.

He told me once that he had been out with Julian Lennon. I then took the opportunity to ask him about John Lennon on the anniversary of his assassination. It wasn’t good. The walls came down. The conversation stopped. He could barely choke the words out. I felt awful. I never brought it up again.

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I never asked him about Ringo either. I think I just knew that since his father was so famous, most of his existence was that of living in the shadows of his limelight. And that probably didn’t feel very good.

However, Jason could stand his ground in any social circle on any world stage. He was excessively witty and terribly bright. Best of all, he was sweet and kind. I enjoyed our phone calls. We talked about our lives, our histories, our woes. I knew it wouldn’t last forever.

Cut to my birthday in 1986.

In those days, without cell phones and internet, it was a miracle if anyone ever got together, or so it seems now.  Jason and I had exchanged a few phone calls prior and he said they might be travelling to Dallas for the opening of the Hard Rock in Dallas. How fortuitous, as I was planning to go home to Dallas for my birthday about the same time.

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When I arrived home, I decided that I wanted to go to the Hard Rock to see if he was there. Again, it was risky since as we all know now that without instant access to someone via text or phone, it was miracle if a connection would be made.

But I took my chances, and showed up. He was there.

We enjoyed a few drinks at the bar, had some dinner, and then I had the bright idea to give him a tour of Dallas, which included a Lisa Retrospective.

Now, my dad had a penchant for buying old, foreign cars. They were in a variety of stages of disrepair and the one I had for the night (as I didn’t have a car anymore living in New York) was a brown 1975 Peugot. It had a few dints but at night, they were negligible, thankfully.

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So off we went, cranking up the radio. I think even a few Beatles songs came on as we sped down the winding streets of my youth.

It was about 2 a.m., as per our preferred time of hanging out, via long distance phone and now, as we were together in the flesh.

As we approached my high school hangout, Woodrow Hill, which was positioned atop a raised hill area by a city lake, White Rock Lake, the car began to make some weird noises and yes, wait for it… it died. But I wasn’t worried. I knew how to start it up and it took one particular act: you had to get out and push it while someone turned the key. An act I had honed to a fine art.

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Next thing, I knew, Jason had jumped out and was pushing the car and I was turning the key.  I thought of the ridiculousness of this event: the son of Ringo Starr pushing my car in Dallas, Texas. How was it that I got this point in time? I had no explanation.

Soon the car started, and we got in with much laughter and went on our way.

Cut to the next few years.

Jason and I continued to talk on the phone in the wee hours of morning. But the calls waned. I don’t remember exactly why. I missed him, the calls, the fun.

In the early 90s, mom and I went to Scotland. I had won a trip (for two) after T. Boone Pickens picked my name out of a barrel or hat, can’t remember, at the Women’s Service League luncheon (that’s another story). During our trip, we went to London. I had Jason’s number and gave him a call just to say “hello,” and to per chance, meet.

A stern voice came on the recording and said something to the affect that if you didn’t have any real business calling, you better hang up. I think it was Ringo. Or at least, this is what my mom recalls.

When I was a child, my first record was a 45 of the Beatles songs: on the A side, “Come Together.” On B side, “The Long and Winding Road.” Though I liked the A side, as an 8-years-old, I certainly didn’t understand the meaning of the song. However, it was the B side that I really liked, the slow, sad, melancholy of the minor keys and the first line, “The long and winding road…that leads to your door.” Even as an 8-year-old, it evoked a sense of memory and a past that I didn’t have yet, but knew that someday I would.

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When I think back on meeting and knowing Jason, this song makes sense of me, and my life – and that night.

As a child, I seemed to sail down winding roads with laughter and abandon. A sharp contrast to my 20s and beyond that, which included the death of my father, countless failures and health problems. The stuff of aging. But despite, the bumps, bruises, and break downs, I found ways within the recesses of my soul to summon courage, give myself a push and go on my way. To live in my reality, stark, though it may be at times.

My end thought about this magical, absurd night, and relationship with Jason is rather simple, and yes, clichéd, but clichés exist because they are true:  get in. Buckle up. Enjoy the ride. Heaven knows, it won’t last long.

 

 

 

 

A Royal Mistake

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It was 1982 in New York City. I was working as a secretary at Wells Rich Greene in the sales promotion department. Mary Wells Lawrence was the chairman of this agency. Mary was married to Harding Lawrence CEO of Braniff. It was her idea to paint the planes and dub them the “Flying colors”.

Braniff The Pucci “Airstrip” was her idea, too. Stewardesses started off in long pant suits and ended up in sassy, bootiliscious hot pants, mini skirts and go-go boots upon landing. AIr Strip   Air Strip 1 She also coined the classic Alka Seltzer jingle, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz” …

Plop Plop

…along with the Benson & Hedges “Cigarette Break,” a campaign that demonstrated the extra long length of the ciggies by having them burn holes through newspapers as businessmen held them up in front of themselves as they read or have them break as a result of a hippie’s necklace.

Benson and HedgesShe was an ad legend. Creative guru. The first Mad Woman and could beat the pants off of any Mad Man alive.

imagesI met her because her daughter was in my sorority in college, and who is still a very dear friend –  stunningly beautiful,  inside and out. When her mom, Mary, came for initiation I bossed her around the Theta house.

“No smoking in the house please and please put it out. You can’t come into the chapter room with a cigarette.”

I had no idea who she was.

I later found out from her assistant that she loved my moxie. Every one in her steed kissed her behind, daily. I am guessing my naïve, forthright manner amused her, as she was used to people kowtowing to her. Me? Not a kowtowing cell in my body.

After an internship in Dallas that Mary offered me and an SMU interterm in NYC at her agency during which I had made connections, I packed a bag and jetted off to find my fortune in the Big Apple. So here I was working for her, Mary Wells Lawrence, on the 28th floor of the GM building, right across from The Plaza and Central Park.

GM building One day she called me down to her office. I was scared I was getting fired. One too many days showing late. Or maybe I had insulted one of her staff from her South of France villa, Fiorentina, that she brought over to work at the agency.

Fiorentina Fiorentina 1 One in particular named Gumersindo seemed to be perpetually perturbed by me as I would every Monday like clockwork forget to turn on my boss’s lunch order that was wheeled in on a lunch trolley for him every day.

But here’s the rub: he (my boss) would always go out to Madison Ave to eat at a French cafe so he gave his catered lunch to me. I would sit at his desk and gaze out across Central Park from my bosses corner office on the 28th floor of the GM building. So in effect he was upset at ME for forgetting to turn in what would be MY lunch order.

During the Fall, the leaves would turn colors in Central Park and I could see a breathtaking view from my boss’s office, a corner office…the scene was brilliant and simply unforgettable, the Park awash with a tapestry of burnt orange, red and gold.

Fall in NY I took all of this utter fabulousness in as I ate with anxiety for fear of being discovered by Gumersindo, should he come back to fetch my boss’s lunch tray and scold me like a naughty child.

But back to my being called down to Mary’s office. I was not being fired. Au contraire. I was being extended an invitation to a Valentine’s Day party that would be honoring Prince Albert of Monaco.

AlbertHer assistant told us it would be casual. Great no problem. Back in those days, casual meant a little silk dress and pearls. A vestige left over from my sorority days.

So the night before, I just couldn’t sleep. I was so excited about meeting Prince Albert of Monaco. I had seen him around the agency, as Mary employed all of her client’s kids as interns as summer interns and now, her neighbors in the South of France. The Prince was about to be a Senior at Amherst.

Amherst-CollegeI had seen him flash down the stairs and past my secretarial station a few times. I was shaking in my cowgirl boots! I was told that we’d get limos to pick up us.

As fate would have it, it snowed the night before. February in Manhattan can be treacherous. So at 6:30 sharp up pulls a limo. We didn’t have cell phones in that day so I think I clomped down the eight flights of stairs in my black patent leather Ferragamo flats (especially slippery on the cold, marble stairs) to the front door and waited, shivering behind the glass-paned door. I was wearing a hot pink Talbots dress with a high neckline and a sash at the waist. A string of pearls (of course) and thin white hose, as was the fashion back then. FlatsSo up pulls the limo. I gingerly make my way in my size 10 Italian boats across the sheet of ice that had formed and over the huge snow banks and into the limo. Next to me sat State Lawrence, Harding’s son.

“Next stop, Park avenue. Albert Grimaldi, ” State said.

Hmm, now why does that name sound familiar? I just couldn’t place it but I was certain I knew it. We pull up to a tan Park avenue brownstone.

Then it clicked: PRINCE Albert Grimaldi…the Prince! Prince Albert!

Of course! He got in and was quietly pleasant, but not your typical over-friendly (sometimes annoying) Texas kind of guy. No smile how are you, my name is…nice to meet you. He just sort of nodded to State, with whom I had quite a spirited convo with on the way to Park Avenue. Albert, the Prince, was wearing a light blue jacket and was very distinguished. I then played the Texas Do-You-Know-Game, i.e. where do you work, where did you go to school, etc.? For some reason Goldman Sachs came up and I asked him if he knew some guy, the name of whom I can’t remember. He didn’t know him.

Silence….and more silence,  so much so that it hurt.

We inched along like we were in a funeral procession as we approached our final destination, Mary’s penthouse on East End Avenue. Inside there would be no caskets – only those who were shining and electrically alive.

When we arrived, there was a long line of limos in front of the building. When we got into the elevator, we stood appropriate distances apart, observing only the most conservative of personal space boundaries.

As the doors opened, I was puzzled. There was no front door. It just opened up, right up into, the penthouse. Mary was standing at the door, greeting and hugging everyone. The first thing I see is an amazing painting or etching by Picasso or some famous artist. Pan left and there she is, Mary Wells Lawrence dressed in a shimmering gold short dress, a shiff.

Mary 1She greets me with a glowing smile and a hug. She welcomes me inside and after a few pleasantries, I hear, “Lisa, will you please introduce Cecelia around the party.” Who? Cecila, Peck, as in Gregory, as in Gregory Peck.

CeciliaUh. Oh. Okay. Sure, let me not throw up as I am doing it, I thought. I knew no one there. Please come with me, Cecelia, I’ll show you a good time! And off we went, me in my shock of pink and Ms. Peck in her proper Chanel attire, and descended into a sea of black. Everyone was wearing sexy black. Everyone. And then there was me, this in a blinding hot pink Talbots dress with a Puritanical high neckline.

I would clear my throat with an “ahem” or get in direct eyesight with the ring leader of the group and then say something, a spirited hello, or a sweet ‘Scuse me, so as to break into the conversations at hand. I might have touched an elbow or two to garner attention. But it felt like everything I did was stunningly AWKWARD.

I finally manage to get her, Cecelia, talking to some folks and then just shrink away to find Pam, Mary’s daughter. My only friend there. Soon it was time for dinner, the casual dinner. We were guided into a grand room with floor to ceiling windows with a breathtaking view of Manhattan, the kind you see in movies by Scorcese or Woody Allen.

ManhattanIn the room there were two round tables with white, perfectly pressed table cloths. The total number in attendance, perhaps around 20. I was seated next to William Doyle. Of the famous art house a la Sotheby’s and Christi’s on Madison Ave.

Doyle According to the Wiki, “William Doyle gallery – one of the world’s most foremost auctioneers and appraisers of fine art, jewelry, furniture, decorations, coins, Asian wroks of art and a variety of specialty categories,” from their web site. They have auctioned off possessions by the rich and famous: James Cagney, Gloria Swanson, Bette Davis, Rock Hudson, Rex Harrison and Ruth Gordon.” Oh and Beverly Sills, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. You get the picture.

At each place setting were a dizzying number of utensils and at the square center top above my plate was a little box. A party favor. Each of us had one. We all oohed and aaahed and commenced opening them….to our delight and amazement they were baubles from Tiffany’s. Men got a money clip – I can’t remember whether it was gold or not. The women, a classic Tiffany floating heart necklace-definitely in gold.

TiffanyI glanced over at the other tables. The guests were tickled and enjoying their gifts. I was told later that at this table sat a guy who was the son of Zeppo Marx and Barbara Sinatra (see below.) Name: Robert aka “Bob” Marx, pictured below with his mother. Barbara and Zeppo Bob Marx

So next the food came around that was dished out so perfectly with nary a spill by the attendants from Fiorentina. Now, the dish that was being dolloped onto my plate was supposedly some French chicken soufle. To me, it looked like Mamaw’s chicken pot pie.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and afterwards they all swooped in like clockwork and scooped up the plates and were gone.

The next thing that happened was most interesting.

I was served a bowl of clear broth soup, but no one acknowledged this course, and the conversations continued.

I thought, well, I’ll just dip my spoon in and take a small taste. No big deal. Just casually enjoy it. So I dip my spoon in and stir it around casually. I then take a sip.

Hmmm. Interesting. Kind of lemony…but also, there’s another taste I couldn’t immediately put my finger on. I wanted to gag and it took all the strength I could muscle to stifle a throaty “UGH.”

Just as I was about to take a another sip of this odd concoction, my spoon in the bowl, the next thing I saw was most odd: people were putting their fingers INTO THE SOUP.

Now I can assure you that I was most embarrassed of my thinking that this was a food item. It was not. It was, as you’ve already guessed, the finger bowl.

FInger bowl

“Will you please retire to the butler’s pantry for the duration of the meal? Clearly you do not know how to conduct yourself among the civilized.”

This is the voice I heard in my heard.

Instead, what I heard was a distinct, loud clearing of the throat, a Man Throat. I turned to my upper body to the left ever so slightly to see the source of this grunt, and it was Gumersindo, my arch enemy, standing sentinel. His eyes narrowed and he mouthed, “Put the spoon down.”

“What?” I said.

Gumersindo reached towards me, grabbed the spoon out of my hand, slipped it into his pocket, and returned to his post as Table Guardian. We locked eyes for a second, and he gave me a smug smile.

I quickly looked away from him, and glanced around the table. From what I could tell, I was home free with Mary and the Prince, as they were in deeply engaged in an eye-locked conversation.

But then I saw her, the lone, stern faced, Margaret Hamilton society matron at the table who had spied me taking a sip. Her lip was upturned like she had just smelled a bad fart.

I broke into a full fake smile, then averted my eyes up to the white rose centerpiece, and looked at it as if I was looking into a crystal ball searching for meaning.

I wanted to instantly combust and disappear.

Needless to say I quickly dipped my finger tips into this bowl, this lemon soup, and wiped them on my stiff white napkin. It the bowls were removed and we were served coffee and dessert. The perfect ending to a sumptuous feast. Along with my pre-dessert lemon soup.

It was nightfall and in the picture window were the iconic lights of the Manhattan skyline, a constellation of stars that relentlessly twinkled and seemed to flutter in tempo with my quickening heart.

Night sky We were then lead to another floor via elevators where a famous guy – might have been Michael Feinstein, the then-famous Broadway entertainer – was playing show tunes on the piano. He was in a tux.

Feinstein We marveled at the gorgeous room, rich in silk upholstery in deep moody hues of gold, brown and green. On the walls, more paintings by Modern geniuses, art masters. I think Leger, Mondrian. Picasso.

Then in came my good friend, Gumersindo, with a tray bearing various after dinner drinks, cognac, brandy, and more which was followed by chocolates on one tray and cigarettes on the next. He was sick of me by then, I’m sure. I may have caught a turned up lip, a snarl, but as he was walking away from me, I grabbed his sleeve and whispered, “Thank you,” to which he softened and returned with, “But of course.” I think I had finally made a friend.

The piano player broke into a rousing rendition of “One” from Chorus Line and everyone swarmed the piano. I started singing with the group and all of a sudden, I felt an arm intertwine mine and there she was: the spectacularly glamorous and beautiful Mary Wells Lawrence.

MaryWe were locking arms in square-dance style, kicking our legs, singing our guts out. We sang and laughed and then, just as quickly as Mary slipped in, she vanished. And was gone. Like a puff of smoke.

It got to be around midnight and most of the guests were leaving. It was time for my shuttle limo to leave. I said my goodbyes, offered my most sincere air hugs and air kisses, got my modest winter coat I got on sale at Neimans Last Call and off I went.

I don’t think I slept that night. I kept thinking how did I get here? And for that matter, get there, where I was for a brief moment in time? However or whoever put me there to absorb such finery was an evening by which I sort of pine for and subconsciously judge all other occasions and parties…it was, for me, my shining moment among the stars. One that when I open up my heart, I smile, giggle and fawn over. One that is in a room in my soul…where memories live, like this one, untouched, magical, and yes, eternal.

Class Act

Standard

So I was working in NYC at Ogilvy & Mather. I was 26 and it was 1986. I was right in the smack dab middle of the Madonna-rising, Andy Warhol-at-Studio-54-Swan-Song, dirty urine-soaked subways, heyday of Pyramid, Area, Limelight nightclubs – the glorious cluster of insanity that would be Manhattan in the 1980s.

It was, in a word, perfect.

My group at Ogilvy & Mather was the United Nations of the agency, the Rainbow Coalition, the United Colors of Bennetton. Hispanic, white, British, young, old, Asian, gay, black. To top it off my boss was from Kuala Lumpur (so exotic) and the now famous ad legend Tracy Wong (of Wong Doody in San Francisco) was in my group briefly.

In our midtown office, I sat in this weird, dingy interior hallway sandwiched between the producer, Paul Dewey (as in “Dewey Defeats Truman”) and Reggie Hudlin of the famous filmmaking Hudlin Brothers who wrote “House Party.” He was on a summer internship from Harvard. He also had a cameo in Spike Lee’s seminal film, “She’s Got to Have It”. He had invited me to the premier at the Black Filmmakers Foundation (one of maybe two white faces there), and it was there I saw him perform, and beautifully, his line, “Baby, it’s got to be you and me.”

One day Paul asked me to join a group of his friends for drinks. In the select group was the most handsome and literary Peter from New Canaan, Connecticut. A blue-blooded Duke grad who had studied English and was working at the rag Manhattan, Inc. 

We hit it off and dated we did. We ran with a crowd straight out of Whit Stillman’s movie “Metropolitan.” Everyone suitably boarding school pedigreed, coiffed and destined for a life among the top 2%. And then there was me with my too-big size 10 Texas feet kind of trailing along after, trying to keep up, with my public school education.

I had a particularly wonderful 26th birthday with Peter up at his grandmother’s compound in Nantucket on Miacommet Pond. By day, we ran around in the buff, splashed in the cold waves and by night, savored cool sunsets with champagne and raspberries on the deck followed by quiet nights in knobby sweaters by the fire.

We also enjoyed evenings at Lincoln Center, specifically, John Guare’s, “House of Blue Leaves.” He was bright, spirited, sexy and well-bred.

Nevertheless, there is one evening in particular that stands somewhat head and shoulders above rest.

One summer night, Peter and I joined his frat brothers (Betas, I think) at a TriBeCa café. I think it was the latest spot. Indian in theme and menu. 

We all sat down and said our “hellos” and had our introductions.

A stunning blonde sat down next to me. She was Nicholas’ date. She was a thoroughbred and had that kind of hair that was naturally straight and naturally beautiful, unlike my dark unevenly wavy hair, which was ash brown, a color “perfect for coloring,” according to my dad, because it was so unremarkable. She smiled and was cordial not too revealing. I am sure I was vomiting my whole life all over her after a Chardonnay or five. She was still in college. Brown University. And was in for the weekend to see her boyfriend.

She and I exchanged benign pleasantries. We smiled. Laughed a bit. Nothing out of the ordinary. We talked of where we’d summered (“summer” was a verb in this world, as was “winter.”)

I asked for a cigarette and she went into her purse and withdrew a gold monogrammed (from what I remember, or maybe I just want it be) cigarette case. She opened it and happily offered me a smoke. I was not a smoker. I TRIED to start smoking for 20 years. But I just never quit got it.

I was always burning myself or others and on one occasion at Café Luxembourg, in a fit of laughter and great gesticulation, my cigarette went flying out of my hand, over the partition and into the bar. Luckily, no one was harmed. For tonight’s event, I was going to keep my laughter and hands bound to my person, so as not to have a firey, dangerous eruption.

Next thing I knew the waiter appeared with a telephone. This was in the days before cell phones. The phone bore an extension cord that stretched for days and the waiter brought it right to the table.

Next thing I heard was “Miss Von Bulow, phone call.”

As in Cosima, the daughter of the billionaire, Claus, from Newport who was accused of trying to murder his wife, and her (Cosima’s) mother. The newspapers said she had sided with the father as her mom lay in a coma.

Here’s what the Wiki said about her dad: 

Claus von Bülow (born Claus Cecil Borberg on 11 August 1926), is a Britishsocialite of German and Danish ancestry.[1] He was accused of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny von Bülow (born Martha Sharp Crawford, 1931–2008) by administering an insulin overdose in 1980 which left her in a persistent vegetative state for the rest of her life, but his conviction in the first trial was reversed and he was found not guilty in both his retrials. 

A movie was made about it with Jeremy Irons, “A Reversal of Fortune”, years after it happened.

Here’s more:

Von Bülow graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and worked as personal assistant to J. Paul Getty after having practiced law in London in the 1950s. Though he had a variety of duties for Getty, von Bülow had acquired a familiarity with oilfield economics. Getty wrote that von Bülow showed “remarkable forbearance and good nature” as Getty’s occasional whipping boy.

Von Bülow remained with Getty until 1968. On June 6, 1966, von Bülow married Sunny, the American ex-wife of Prince Alfred of Auersperg. Von Bülow worked on and off as a consultant to oil companies. Sunny had a son and a daughter from her first marriage; together, she and von Bülow had a daughter, Cosima von Bülow, born 15 April 1967 in New York City.[3] She married the Italian Count Riccardo Pavoncelli in 1996.[4]

In 1982, von Bülow was tried for the attempted murder of Sunny. The main evidence was that Sunny had low blood sugar, common in many conditions, but a blood test showed a high insulin level. The test was not repeated.[5] A needle was used against von Bülow in court, with the prosecution alleging that he used it and a vial of insulin to try to kill his wife. The discovery of these items became the focal point of von Bülow’s appeal. 

Anyway, here I was Sue Vanilla aka Lisa from Dallas, once again, turning up like Forest Gump in the midst of high society, but not just in the top tier, but sitting next to a paparazzi darling, or so she was during the height of the trial.

As I remember, the trial dragged on for years. Claus appealed and was acquitted, like the Wiki said. I can’t imagine how she must have felt. So alone, I bet. Her loyalty and love for her father was touching. I could relate. My dad wasn’t a Count, but he was my hero.

But back to the evening and the irony of it all:

There was this club in town called the Junior International Club. They fancied themselves very elite. They would have their glittery affairs at a restaurant or a club and there was always a line to get in.  My friend and I were finally admitted, albeit suspiciously and begrudgingly by the doormen – we didn’t have an accent. Inside, most of the people were, yes, International. European.  And every time we’d try to engage in conversation, it was be met with stares and turned up noses. They’d turn on their heels and disappear. We weren’t up to snuff.

But my friend and I concluded that these so called “IT” people were those who couldn’t make it in Europe. That the real European importantes were still in Europe. This group was using their broken English as a prestigious Calling Card to create an air of superiority when, in fact, they were merely the hoi polloi. We speculated that their folks/kin were bakers, dry cleaners or street sweepers. But since they had an accent, they were automatically elevated ABOVE us lowly Americans. 

This feeling and experience was in sharp contrast to this evening, when here I sat with a true high society icon. She was humble, kind and charming… even shy.

She was, as they say, a real class act.

My take: people are people. We are more alike than we are different. This is comforting. It creates unseen connections.  Even if they exist on a String Theory level, if you dig, you can find them. In a world that seems at times to be so foreign, and distant, the truth remains: we are human. We laugh. Cry. Die. No matter how society – or class –  divides us, we are the same.