In and Out the Window

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

The rest is silence. 

– Hamlet, Act V

Last lines are a joy forever: perfect codas to lives of the great. The quintessential period at the end of the long sentence.  Gertrude Stein, lying on her bed, eyes closed, about to expire. She opens them, sits up and  asks, “What is the Answer?” and falls back on her pillow.  Silence. The camera waits.  Again she rises from the pillow and speaks: “Never mind that.  What is the question?”  Finis.

Or, going one better perhaps, Alfred North Whitehead, the philosopher: “Why are we always in the dark?”

And beyond him, the great German genius, majestic Goethe, whose last words, perhaps whispered gutturally in his bedchamber in Weimar have resounded through the ages: Mehr Licht! (more light!), leaving to posterity the question of whether he, than whom there was no one of  nobler mind or wider range of thought, was still, at the very end of consciousness, seeking further enlightenment; or if, as some cynics have suggested, he was simply asking the nurse to raise the shade.

Continue reading “In and Out the Window”

In My Beginning

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

They met at a masked ball in Prague. I never learned what their costumes were, but certainly her mane of auburn hair must have entranced him, and his tall dark handsomeness no doubt caught her eye. He came from Vienna but was working here in a business established by his grandfather, as he’d done since he was 16 and his father died. She was born in the town of Beroun, just outside Prague, and never went to school in her life. Her father, director of a textile mill and anglophile in his ways (orange marmalade and toast for breakfast, the London Times, English wool in winter), provided her with tutors. Her older sister and brother went to University but not Dolly. She was the pretty one, the pampered one, home-schooled, intuitive and wonderful at tennis, which she played with her coach on the family’s court.

When they met at the ball, I’m sure he filled her carnet de bal with waltzes Tino loved waltzing and as a Viennese took to it naturally, spinning round and round in the same direction without getting dizzy. She was a little stiff in his arms, she held herself very straight and proud and even then, I’m sure, they looked like the perfect couple.

Continue reading “In My Beginning”

Blondes: A Reprise

BY KATHY PERUTZ

Note:  The piece below is a revision of my post # 7 “Blondes” and was published on August 2, 2016 in The Huffington Post   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-perutz/blondes-do-have-more-fun_b_11200444.html.

 

One thing is certain, short of alien invasions and Armageddon, and that is that the next president of the United States will be blond. Or at least blond on top.  And so it is incumbent upon us as Americans to understand what “blond” – with or without the final “e” – is all about, “blond” being the shade as in champagne or key lime pie and also referring to men with fair hair, while “blonde” means a woman and a lot more.

There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays.

So begins the greatest soliloquy on the subject of the twentieth century. Perhaps of any century. It goes on for a very long paragraph, which would put most blondes to sleep, but it is a very good passage, written by that master of English prose Raymond Chandler whose books are full of twists and turns, cops, cigarettes and booze, wisecracks and blondes. Chandler wrote about crime and criminals with an innocence that turned his books into medieval romances, the knight in shining armor defending the lady fair, though many of these ladies were not the kind who appear in sitting rooms, at least not with their clothes on.

The passage is from The Long Good-bye, a wonderful meandering book full of digressions like Don Quixote, who really was a knight in armor, or Moby Dick, who wasn’t talking.  Philip Marlowe, the detective extraordinaire of Chandler’s books, is a man like his creator, strangely prim in his private life (Chandler was a virgin until his 30’s, very close to his mother, and eventually married a blonde named Cissy, 18 years his senior), romantic and cavalier, although inordinately fond of drinking.

All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice-blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very tired when you take her home.

That’s from a man’s point of view, of course; Clairol gives us the woman’s perspective with Blondes Have More Fun, a slogan that landed them in the Advertising Hall of Fame, later topped by  Clairol with If I’ve Only One Life to Live, Let me Live it as a Blonde!

I was a blonde when I was little – that is, I was a little blonde. The black hair covering my skull at birth soon fell out and was replaced by flaxen curls, light as the hair on Northern heads in Finland or Iceland where the sun is weak and women are strong. At three, I had fair ringlets and a chubby face, which in the hands of a Reubens or Renoir might turn a child into a cherub, but in my case it was a good thing ringlets covered up some of my cheeks because I was fat as a baby pig. There is a photo somewhere, probably mulched at the bottom of the Hudson along with other mislaid objects of New York childhoods, taken in the backyard of our house in Kew Gardens, Queens many decades ago, of me with my mother hanging out the clothes. My mother was a pretty redhead, though you couldn’t see that in the picture and I was cute as a lace doily. A Daily News photographer who happened by snapped us and I landed on the cover of the News as Monday’s Child (Monday, washday), my first public appearance as a blonde.

What did the blonde say when she found out she was pregnant?

I wonder if it’s mine.

By the time I was 12, my blondness had suffered serious alteration. The once-pale blonde had turned to gold, but not of the durable variety. It was the gold of a cheap ring in Vegas, lasting not much longer than the honeymoon. My summer streaks faded as the days grew shorter and when I was in Junior High I took matters in my own hands and dabbed on Light ‘n Bright to bring back the freshness of my preteen youth.  By the time I went to college some 4 or 5 years later, I was a mass of streaks resembling the samples a furniture upholsterer might give out to clients needing their sofa recovered.  Even my father noticed, he who had forbidden my use of makeup in seventh grade but never realized when he was face to face with it.

I admitted to having bleached for quite some time. (People bleached their hair in ancient Greece too, more than 2000 years before I did, but I didn’t mention that to him because I didn’t know it then, and in fact would still now be in ignorance were I not living in a time when you can Google anything that enters your head, bleached or not.) It didn’t look natural, he said, I should make it all one color, though he was vague on details as are many men, I find, who can’t understand the difference between dyeing and bleaching no matter how often you explain it to them.  Simply, dyeing means putting color in, bleaching means taking color out. That’s it, though show me a man who doesn’t use “dye” when he means “bleach” and I’ll call him professor.

My father said to stop using Light ‘n Bright. When I explained that it would take years for all my hair to grow out, he told me to have it done by a hairdresser.

I came out of Lily Daché on Fifth Avenue a platinum blonde. I walked up the avenue and could feel people turn to look at me. I was bathed in light, each step took me higher off the ground, I floated into the hotel lobby and when my father saw me and realized I was me, he let out a loud gasp and clutched his heart with both hands. (He’d had yearnings to be an actor in his youth.) I was very sorry to hurt him but also elated. I, who had been kept in pigtails for far too long, who wore my mother’s hand-me-downs and could never fit in with the popular girls at school or talk to a boy without turning an unhealthy shade of purple, was now metamorphosed or perhaps alchemized into the most desirable thing a person could be: a blonde bombshell.

A blonde in a BMW was speeding in a residential zone when a police car pulled her over. The female police officer who got out was also a blonde.

She walked up to the side of the BMW and asked for the driver’s license. The driver searched frantically in her handbag and finally asked the policewoman, “What does the driver’s license look like?”

The blonde cop was having none of it. “Don’t be a smartass. It’s got your picture on it!”      

The driver emptied her bag and found a small rectangular mirror at the bottom.  She held it up to her face. “Here it is.” She handed it to the policewoman, who started walking towards the police car.            

In a moment the cop was back and returned the mirror to the driver with a smile. “You’re free to go,” she said. “And if I had known you were a police officer too, we could have avoided all this.”

When I became a blonde, I discarded my shyness and despised anyone who was attracted by me.  This gave my adolescent self-hatred a firm basis. Groucho’s law: anyone who accepts me as I am is not worth my time.

I was a blonde because I needed to be. I suffered for it, the bleach burning into my scalp and opening it up and later forming welts. The color was slightly green when it was freshly done, and then would “oxidize,” as my colorist explained, so that by the third week it was a perfect light ash. After that it began to veer towards orange, turning brassier, and at the end of 5 or 6 weeks I’d have to go back and have my roots done again.

Getting my hair bleached was the most expensive thing I ever did in my life, including cars, travel, children and medical expenses. When I became allergic to the bleach in my fifties (I’d faint, run a fever, and come close to death, as in opera when the heroine takes poison), I had to abandon the two-step process that took 5 or 6 hours from start to finish and accept being a single process blonde, which meant not platinum, just as light as possible.

There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn’t care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non- fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and . . . speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provençal.

Less than 2% of adult white Americans are blond naturally. 75% of American women color their hair according to a Clairol study, and they should know, having 70 shades of blond on the market.  Seventy Shades of Blond. Talk about blondage! It excites us – the hair, the walk, the pictures in our mind, Marilyn, Brigitte, Beyoncé; ask not what nature can do for you, ask what you can do to nature. A blonde is the perfection of self-invention, and anyone at all can become blond – poor or rich, black or white, Arab, Jew, old or young, gay, straight, trans and not-saying.

And lastly there is the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap Antibes, an Alfa-Romeo town car complete with pilot and co- pilot, and a stable of shopworn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absent-mindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.

It’s true, blondes do have more fun. We who are not naturally blond but choose to become so are a gorgeous part of the American Dream where everyone can be young and sexy, rich and powerful. And if our Presidential candidates are blond by choice, that’s to be expected, since blond is optimistic and they are vying for the biggest job in the world, blond-in-chief: Trump – who spent most of his life with dark hair and more recently wore something resembling an orange dishrag before turning to a more professional colorist – or Clinton, who has been blonde time and again and knows what she’s doing. .

 

Dark at the Roots

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

When the time came, she often said, when she was older, she would let her hair go gray. But the time never came, and her hair colorist continued to dye her graying roots to match the rich auburn of her younger self.

My mother kept many secrets, and though some of them wounded me and made me hate her at times, on the whole she kept them beautifully. Some had to do with her personal habits, others concerned her actions and interactions, those I witnessed and those that came at me from out of the past.  Still other secrets had been thrust on her beyond her control: names she had to keep hidden to safeguard lives and also her own name, given her before her parents or ancestors or anyone in the world knew that the man’s name hers was derived from would become synonymous with evil on perhaps as great a scale as the devil’s own, because though she was always known as Dolly, they named her Adolfina.

I didn’t know her birth name or her actual age for many years. I learned how old she was on a  day my father’s mother came to visit, a rare occurrence because my mother never cared to entertain her.  My grandmother mentioned that Dolly had me at 31, though I’d thought she was currently 29.  When I later confronted my mother, she explained that she couldn’t tell me the truth because I would have told my schoolmates and then everyone would know.  I nodded sagely, thrilled to be given such an adult (and mysterious) explanation, and never afterwards told anyone her age or – when I learned it – her birth name.

In other ways too, I went on lying for her, because she demanded it. When she was dying of multiple myeloma, cancer in the marrow of her bones, she insisted I tell her friends that she had a “bellyache.” She believed cancer was “psychological” and was ashamed to be caught with it.  But she was also dying quickly, in the hospital and at home with round the clock nurses.  I hated having to lie to people on the phone; I was embarrassed for them, for myself, ashamed of that childish word  “bellyache,” ashamed of the knowledge I had, the dead certainty of what was going on.  I couldn’t tell anyone, and I couldn’t stop what I knew.

Everyone has secrets. I don’t believe, as my mother did, that cancer is a sign of repressed rage or repressed anything else. My cat Corduroy, who was also my best friend, died young of cancer and his rage was never repressed, nor his love either, shown in the way he tried to feed the family, bringing in headless squirrels or birds he’d killed and placing them beneath my seat at the dinner table.  But there are other secrets, so big that people spend their lives and countries go to war protecting them.

America’s secret is racism. It is the darkness at America’s heart.  Though it can be set aside (look at our President!), it continues, since it’s easier to blame whatever’s wrong (in your life, in the country) on others than on yourself.  (This may be one reason to get married, though not a good one.)  If other people don’t look like you, it becomes even easier.  Hitler had to tag the Jews with big yellow stars because they looked (and thought and felt) like other Germans. The star provided a target for German rage, which in truth had little to do with Jews and was mainly caused by devaluation of the currency and loss of jobs.  But an enemy is a handy tool for an aspiring megalomaniac dictator.  Especially for the newly-blond Donald Trump (who is dark-haired in photos of him in youth and middle age, and whose hair resembled an orange dishrag earlier this year), with his family tradition of racial intolerance, a father and grandfather who didn’t like dark people, didn’t rent to them, and who were drawn to the ideology of white supremacists.

Trump picks up on the American secret and adds the terror of the unknown. All murders are now the fault of foreign darkies, whether or not they had anything to do with it, all part of a world-wide conspiracy against blond white (straight) Christian men.  In Trump’s hatred of M folk – Mexicans, Muslims, menstruators, minorities –  he rounds up a lot of dark people.  Women make it into the core of his publically-proclaimed nemeses by being biologically different from other people, in that they ovulate and menstruate, two cycles that Donald Trump would never in his life engage in, and therefore finds disgusting.  Different is the bugaboo, and to Trump there is no reality outside of Trump.

He presents us with a caricature of the two greatest dictators of the twentieth century, Adolf Hitler (né Schicklgruber) and Josef Stalin (born Jughashvili), with an added dose of pure American hucksterism. Like Hitler and Stalin, Trump is his own creation, in his case a blown-up cartoon of The Big Male with scowling face, broad chest, lots of sawbucks, lots of broads and a grunter’s vocabulary.  He’s the entertainer, like Hitler in Brecht’s play Arturo Ui and also like P.T. Barnum, prankster galore, who toured America with his freak show, entered politics in Connecticut, made millions, lost them and then made them back again in the firm belief that, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public” (though the quote varies and is sometimes  attributed to H.L. Mencken).  Barnum said of himself: “I am a showman by profession . . . and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me,” which shows a great deal more insight into his own nature than Trump has ever demonstrated.  His personal aim, said Barnum, was “to put money in my own coffers.”

The huckster, snake oil salesmen, slimy politicos and purveyors of hype that dotted our frontier probably were natural outgrowths of America’s wild Dream: to invent yourself, to become anyone you wanted to be because the old rules no longer applied. It didn’t matter who your parents were, where you went to school (or didn’t) or any of the values that cosseted Europe in its old ways.  Being American was a god-given passport to fun and freedom, to children who refused to eat their spinach because “America’s a free country,” and, on a more deadly note, to the necessity (for keeping the myth alive) of making sure some of the people are not included as people. The secret remained.  Be white, be powerful, and the Dream is yours.

Adolf Hitler said: If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.

Trump also resembles Stalin, particularly in the penchant for putting his name on everything (remember Stalingrad? if things go rotten in November, New York could become Trump City.) To every proposed building during his years as Chairman, he added steeples that transformed them into secular churches erected to the greater glory of himself. Stalin, like his latter day successor Vladimir Putin – a man much admired by Trump – did not believe in negotiating with perceived enemies.  He had a quicker solution. “Death,” he wrote, “is the solution to all problems. No man – no problem.”   Putin seems to agree.

What is great in America is that this country took in my parents when it did; that it welcomed immigrants throughout its history because it is, on a grand scale, a nation made up of immigrants, a tree with many roots that finds its genius in difference. Americans are optimistic and flexible.  We’ll try anything, which is why we’re such rich fodder for entrepreneurs.  (P.T. Barnum: There’s a sucker born every minute.)  But if we screw up in November, we might lose far into the future, with a Trump Supreme Court meting out its justice.

Hitler: The victor will never be asked if he told the truth.

Truth is a moveable concept to Trump, who controls it as he controls everything around him. The Don sees himself as Czar of this country, Czar of czars, which is as czar-y or crazy as it gets.

N.Y. subway: If you see something, say something.

Donald Trump.

[Note: this blog was also published by the Huffington Post]

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-perutz/dark-at-the-roots_b_11173174.html

 

Saturday in Sleepy Hollow

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

Last weekend our son picked us up to drive out to our potential graves. It was a cool day, overcast, the kind of day Michael is most comfortable with, being a Brit, and one I welcome in the New York summertime because it clears the air of the usual snot soup and makes walking along the streets possible.  It was early for us, 10 in the morning, a time when we’re usually still lounging about the bedroom, maybe doing our laughable exercises or chatting about something we never got around to the previous day, or we’re still sleeping or feigning it (one of us anyway), or listening to Brian Lehrer on NPR and doing the deep breathing.

He and I are on a kind of seesaw, if mortality is a playground. Not a slide, neither of us is going downhill that fast, and not a swing either because neither of us has those highs anymore.  He is on oxygen day and night with COPD, and though he has an elegant little carrier with battery attachment that he can take anywhere, it needs to be replaced quite often, and walking tires him out.  So generally we stay home.  I’ve been in the lead in the mortality competition until this year, even though Michael is seriously older than me, already past his 89th birthday and ordinarily that would give him the edge. But I have the Big C, as we used to call it when John Wayne roamed the screens, 23 years of breast cancer, which turned metastatic a while ago, and also lymphoma as an alternate.  When I have chemo I am worn out and liable to onslaughts out of left field, backaches and migraines, “spontaneous” fractures, fainting – a whole panoply, with more assortment than a shady salesman’s wares.

We are lucky, in some ways. Lucky that after nearly 50 years of marriage, of all our fights and rediscoveries of each other, of political crosshairs and cultural misunderstandings, missed cues and betrayals of various kinds, we are still tied to each other, we have each helped the other define her/himself, we have come to a place where our very different lives meet, and for the first time in our long accommodation we share what life we have in the wake of finality.

Last Saturday we rode out to Sleepy Hollow, home of Washington Irving, where a large cemetery holds the remains of many eminent New Yorkers, particularly the rich ones, Rockefeller and Chrysler and Carnegie – oh my!, and Washington Irving too, whose prose I could never properly digest and which, like the driest cakes of Austrian pastry makers, requires a hefty dollop of schlag, of pure whipped cream, to make it go down easier.

We were here, with our son and daughter-in-law, because at a certain point (when we got serious about our Wills), it occurred to me that if I survived Michael I would not know what to do about the funerary arrangements. Nor could I give or leave instructions on what to do with me when I died.  My parents were totally secular; his were part of the church, his father a well-known Anglican priest who died when Michael was 2, leaving behind a legacy that caused Michael later to flee England and choose Mao over the Anglican god.  My parents had come to America when Hitler annexed Austria, but I didn’t discover that I was Jewish until the first grade teacher told us that if we were Jewish we only had to bring in 6¢, but if we weren’t we had to bring in a dime. I had no idea what this meant, and when I asked my mother if we were, her face took on a look of alarm.  But her good friend who’d accompanied her to pick me up after school, a kindly German philosopher, was able to extract the pertinent matter and I was told yes, I was indeed Jewish.  The money referred to milk, 2¢ a day.  Since there were to be Jewish holidays the following week, Jewish children did not have to pay for the days when they would be absent.  To me it was a wonderful turn of events – not only would I be able to drink less milk (which I detested), I could also stay home (though in the event, I didn’t, since the tallest boy in class was a Polish catholic and I adored him.)

Michael and I had no religious affiliations, no family traditions, no particular place where it might be natural for us to end up, either in the form of ashes or in toto corpore.  Whenever M and I brought up the topic of our disposal after life, we ended up saying it didn’t matter.  But I realized it did, or would, to the survivor of us two, and to our son and to Michael’s other children.  Our lawyer for the Wills said it would be a good move to make our wishes known, particularly in Michael’s case, where different offspring (of different mothers) might have differing ideas.

I looked up funeral homes in the neighborhood.  Either they were run by people called O’Connor and Murphy, or by Goldstein and Rosenberg, the first with crosses, the second with stars.  But a third place, in Greenwich Village, had both, the O’Connors and the Rosenbergs, and I figured that was safe.  I searched their site and came upon the term “natural cemetery.”  I followed that – and found a new style of burial, greener pastures you might say.  In a natural cemetery the body is placed in the earth in a shroud made of linen or cotton or silk, only natural materials.  The grass grows over, the wildflowers bloom – and the photographs were gorgeous.  I showed Michael, who became enthusiastic to the point of saying, “I can’t wait to be there.”

Wildflowers, Sleepy Hollow
Wildflowers, Sleepy Hollow

“I can,” I told him drily, and kissed him. The thought of his dying brings a horde of winged things into my stomach, each one with a barb.

However, we’d stumbled on a possible solution. The most beautiful of these cemeteries are upstate, with acres of woodland and streams and rocks.  But that made no sense for us, who live in Manhattan, our son and his family close by, our friends here.

Saturday we toured the grounds with a pretty and capable guide named Christina. She knew her dead, and also the names of trees and other plants.  M & I, former birdwatchers, asked about the birds in spring, the little warblers in their bright colors and funny masks flitting through the branches where perhaps a woodpecker is thrumming and below, a Thrasher may be cleaning away the leaves.  We passed the slim Pocantico, which runs to the Hudson and we saw the big river at a distance.  When we came to the natural part, we got out.  Black-eyed Susans, my mother’s favorite, blooming in profusion with the cone flowers flecking the little meadow in touches of orange and deep pink.  A small, American meadow, perhaps too wild for Monet’s brush, but nevertheless contained, with a wooden fence and a roughly-hewn bench made of logs.

We chose our plots, one for each, at midpoint between the spreading tree and the fence and the road. We agreed that our heads should face out, beyond the fence to the trees and stream below.  And yes, we did want stones (optional).  They would be stones found around the area, not quarried.  We could have our names on them if we wanted (we did) and perhaps a saying or phrase.

present lively, future grave?
present lively, future grave?

 

Our son is listening to us ask our questions and make our choices, and he is smiling in a way that makes my love for him almost unbearable. I know he is thinking ahead, of a time or times when he, alone or with his wife, or with his whole family, will come here and talk or maybe just think of us, of each of us, and I know also that he will then think back on this day, when he and his wife were here with us and we were alive and he was taking pictures of us, me clowning around with arms akimbo, M smiling, wearing the tubes that strangely don’t disturb the beautifully sculpted bone structure of his face.  He is ruddy, in full health except for his breathing and walking.  He is happy.  Our son is happy and so is our daughter-in-law.  I am happy and M and I lean in for a kiss that will be captured on the silly smart phone and one day be the way our grandchildren and their children will remember us, as we were.

 

Note to my readers: This blog was published on July 15, 2016 in the Huffington Post,  without pictures.

 http://www.huffingtonpost.com/kathy-perutz/saturday-in-sleepy-hollow_b_10998908.html

 

England Swings

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

England swings like a pendulum do,

Bobbies on bicycles, two by two.

Westminster Abbey, the Tower of Big Ben,

The rosy red cheeks of the little children.

– Roger Miller, 1965

 

“Those rosy red cheeks,” said my friend Sally at the time, “are broken capillaries – from the cold.”  Sally was an American girl (born in Hollywood), living in London at the time.  Her British father had been expelled from the U.S. during the McCarthy era for his questionable politics (he published The National Guardian, a radical newspaper) and the family returned to London.  Sally was my best friend in the way you are best friends with someone when adulthood is very new on you and doesn’t yet fit properly.  We talked on the phone many times a day. We were both blondes, both American girls, both writers.  To the men we sometimes found in our beds, we were hardly distinguishable; they’d call me by her name or her by mine, and neither of us minded.  That’s the kind of girlfriends we were, our link forged by the slightly foreign world around us, whose people had never bitten into a pastrami sandwich or felt the thrill of a BLT whiskey down, heavy on the mayo.   The rosy cheeks, she said, were an illusion, a piece of everyday British hypocrisy (or a simple miscarriage of metaphor) in which a symptom of less than blooming health is taken for its opposite.  Those poor kids were freezing, in a country that hadn’t yet discovered or consented to central heating.

We were freezing too.  Americans in London at the time bravely wore sweater upon sweater, woolies underneath; went to the theatre and sat wrapped in suit-plus-overcoat from beginning to end, with a shot of whiskey at intermission to warm the plumbing; spent the winter months with hacking coughs, sucking on lozenges especially recommended by apothecaries for “bronchitis – the English disease.”  We watched the Thames freeze over, we drank coffee not much better than ink-stained water, we dreamed of radiators.  And yet we remained.  London in the early 60’s was where it was all happening, or so it seemed.  The Beatles, formed in Liverpool in 1960 had become the Fab Four and set loose the British Invasion.  Laura Ashley was dressing us in floral patterns and styles of the 19th century, a paradoxical comment on the Teddy boys of England, mainly young working class men in the industrial centers of the country who wore Edwardian clothes.  Vidal Sassoon, the Cockney lad with a salon in Mayfair, invented a way of cutting hair to make it sleek as seal’s fur, capping the head of  It-girls with geometric precision.  The BBC was opening up in the face of competition from Granada, a private tv company, allowing regional accents to creep into the voices of their announcers.  The Angry Young Men of literature brought John Osborne’s play, Look Back in Anger, Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (and the film made from it) and many new works by the kind of people who hadn’t been published before, on themes of class and social privilege (or lack of it) that hadn’t been raised earlier.

England was changing.  William Burroughs, author of The Naked Lunch, a book considered scurrilous by most people and praised by Mary McCarthy, along with Nabokov’s Pale Fire as one of the two most important international novels of the time, moved to London from Paris where the American-born author had been living.  A big fuss was made by the literati, though when Burroughs was asked by interviewers why he’d moved, his answer was a laconic, “for the food.”

The food, atrocious by most standards, had actually begun to improve.  Though “British cuisine” was still recognized as an oxymoron, it was occasionally possible to find something edible in London.  The new espresso bars had something like coffee, and eventually even croissants were seen in Soho.  English cheeses were excavated from buried memory and Victoria Station actually had a little eatery where British cheeses abounded.  The senses and what they could offer were reviving again, after long hibernation through the reign of Queen Victoria (“close your eyes and think of England”) and her followers, and the sex scandal of 1963 was a real peach, involving Cabinet ministers, Russian spies and some London call girls.  This was the Profumo Affair, starring John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, Stephen Ward, a socialite osteopath (the facilitator), Yevgeny Ivanov, Soviet naval attaché, and the girls – Christine Keeler,

Oh what have you done, said Christine,

You have wrecked the whole party machine.

To lie in the nude

Is not at all rude,

But to lie in the House is obscene.

– Time Magazine, unattributed, reporting on the affair, summer 1963

and Mandy Rice-Davies, who happened to live opposite me when I was staying in the mews house of a friend in Knightsbridge, off the Brompton Road.  Her clients would arrive in Rolls and Bentleys, their owners let off on the other side, away from my window so that I could never see more of them than their bespoke trousers, and then the sleek cars would purr off over the cobblestones until it was time to retrieve the newly-satisfied (one hoped!) politician or other celebrity and whisk him off to dinner.

These doings led to the collapse of Prime Minister MacMillan’s Conservative government in the fall of 1963, at a time when America was recovering from its very different summer, of civil unrest and racial violence before the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington at the end of August, where Martin Luther King gave his “I have A Dream” speech.

Sally and I were back in America for that, but we overstayed and then Kennedy was assassinated in November, and we returned to England in late ’63. My friend Mike was there too, one of my three Michaels and my oldest inhabited pal, as I call him, since I have known him for all these consecutive years.  Mike and I ended up sharing a flat in Fitzrovia, a part of London that was then more mongrel than most, with Belgravia on one side and the Tottenham Court Road and lots of foreigners all around.  We congratulated ourselves that we were in the right place at the right time.  It had been Paris in the 40’s, and earlier; New York in the 50’s (he is a painter) and now it was London.  The older generation still reminisced about the time when  the map was red – when England ruled the waves and held her colonies, or at least some of them – but the younger people were moving forward, recognizing the rest of the world.  I dined at the Café Royal, haunt of Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, Shaw and other lights, including royalty, with His Lordship H, father of the man then in my life.  His Lordship was jovial, cordial, but when he asked me what I did all day and I replied that I was a writer, he then asked where I rode.  At the end of the meal, confections were brought out, including peanut brittle, a favorite of mine.  Milord was entranced by the way I mispronounced it, briddle to his ears.  “You Americans,” he said in his jovial way, “you think you’re speaking English.  We ARE English!”  And then he laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it.

But his son had lived in Paris for a time, where I’d met him. Nick had gone to Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, the high road to advancement, but he’d finally balked when he was chosen for the Queen’s Guards (he was 6’3″ or 4″), saying, “I’d rather go to Korea.”  There he was sent, a young officer in the war whose arm was blown off when the grenade he picked up in No Man’s Land exploded in his hand.  Nick was politically left and part of the new culturally diverse England, though he couldn’t shed the markers (accent, bearing, assumptions) that had shaped him.

***

Ultimately the Teddy boys with their long hair and tailored jackets gave way to the Skinheads, neoNazis roving the urban streets of England. As in America, the strains of liberty, libertarianism, xenophobia and racism combined.  The working class Brits, once the salt of the earth and the best of Britain, along with the little shopkeepers and the rest of the struggling middle class became more globalized.  Some bought cheap vacation cottages in places like Céret, where Picasso once lived on the French side of the Costa Brava or condos around Malaga on Spain’s Costa del Sol, where Spanish is rarely heard, and certainly not attempted by the beer-drinking flock that migrates south in summer.

I married an Englishman, Michael, who had fled England more than a decade earlier and was living in New York.  He’d been brought up in the pattern I had learned from my earlier companion.  My Michael didn’t go to war, though he was in the British army for a time (in Intelligence), and he wasn’t the son of a lord.  But he, too, went to a private “public school”, Marlborough, and then, on scholarship to one of the Cambridge colleges named for the Christian savior – either Christ or Jesus.  He left home at 8, and was away at school until he left England for good.  He and I are not Anglophiles, though you can get the boy out of England, as they say,  but you can’t get England out. . .

And for me – my time in England was probably the happiest and most exciting of my life. There I headed after college, and there I stayed for several years, writing books and being well-published and well-reviewed, meeting the kind of people I’d never imagined as anything but stars, going to the theater with Kenneth Tynan on one side of me and Noël Coward on the other, having friends of many nationalities, with a sizable proportion coming from Africa and the Caribbean; and, when I turned 25, on the quayside of the Thames, close by Westminster Abbey with Big Ben tolling the hour and light spangling the river below, I was in my white sharkskin dress, the white Jaguar parked not far away, and as the last of the chimes receded with midnight, I was in the arms of and being kissed by James Bond.  The first James Bond.

England was my Cinderella time, and to some extent England made me. Here I was on my own, finding out who I was and what the world was about through the fine seine of English life and manners, English values and history, as well as being in the ferment of London, of people from all races and cultures coming together to do their work, to make art or love or politics in an atmosphere of extreme tolerance.  With Sally to confide in and change places with, and my aunt and uncle to visit up in Highgate, being able to move up and down the social scale because I was a foreigner and belonged to no particular pigeonhole, except the glamorous world of Upper Bohemia, artists and journalists, painters, film makers, poets, a sprinkling of royalty, a few dabs of working class, gays and straights, black brown and pink.  My world was one of freedom and youth at a time when youth led to love and freedom to compassion.

***

Last week England swung beyond the pendulum’s reach, voting to leave the European Common Market in the ignominious Brexit. It was a tremendous shock, not only to Michael and to me, but to most of the people I know in England, none of whom have casitas in Spain or maisons de campagne in Provence, all of which may eventually crumble from the weightlessness of the pound.  But my friends are in great distress, either climbing the walls or taking to their beds. They are ashamed of what their country has done.  And we are all united in an even greater fear: that xenophobia and racism will prevail over Europe, that elections in France, Germany and other countries (Austria immediately) may turn these nations inward on themselves in petty nationalism and much worse.  And the greatest fear of all is harbored here in the daughter-nation, of this great country of ours with its persistent dream of individual liberty, falling to the hysteria of crowds and the ranting of a charlatan.

Inside

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

For four days the headlines roared. Animals slitting the throats of guards in the upstate prison. The Daily News screamed, The Post shrieked, even The New York Times went nuts.  And then it was over, the shouting and the shooting done.

* * *

It was hot for September, still seething as I walked down Sixth Avenue in my polished cotton shorts suit, cloudy blue with matching jacket. Shorts were not common on city streets in those days and mine were short shorts, but the outfit was classy enough I thought and I was leggy enough, though no one noticed, or if they did they had other things on their minds. The city was in a mood of contained explosion that afternoon, heat still coming off the buildings at quitting time, people pooling around doorways, having their cigarettes, their iced coffees, maybe a beer before heading home in the steaming subways.  On the walls and sidewalks you could see  graffiti of anger and frustration – Fuck this, Fuck that, get the hell out of Vietnam – rising in intensity as I walked south, out of the Garment District headed to the Village, and at Greenwich Avenue, scrawled on the side of the Women’s Prison, the most obscene expletive of all: ATTICA.

Just that. The Vietnam War had come home, guards versus inmates, white versus black.

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The Temple

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

Moishe Schneider emigrated from Poland to New York in the 19th century. He was a tailor by trade, a sign of God’s amusement, who had given him a name that served equally as profession.  “Schneider” in German means tailor, and Moishe came from the part of Poland that belonged to the Austrian Empire.

Settled with an uncle in Brooklyn, Moishe soon found his heart’s delight in Trudi, whose breasts were generous and her bottom large. Almost immediately they had children and knew they were blessed.  Moishe’s tailoring shop was doing well, and when the little boys were 3 and 1 1/2 Moishe decided to expand.  He prayed to the Almighty for assistance and the Lord answered him, saying: “Go, my son, open a clothing store.  Call it Gott and Schneider and I shall protect you.”

Moishe did as the Lord told him, and was successful.

Soon he became adventurous and thought of opening another shop, in Queens. Again the Lord blessed him.  The second Gott and Schneider became as successful as the first, perhaps more.

Then the little tailor turned his eyes to the Bronx, and again the Almighty said it was good, and he opened another Gott and Schneider, and was rewarded.

At last Moishe dared to dream of Manhattan. God heard his prayers and said, “Again I bless you, my son, for you have been successful and carried my name through the boroughs.  You will open your store in Manhattan, but this time you will call it Lord & Taylor.”

***

Continue reading “The Temple”

The Neighborhood

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

The most famous person never to get out of Kew Gardens alive was Kitty Genovese, whose murder made the front page of the New York Times, was later discussed in college classrooms around the country and even the world, spawned articles and books over the years, gave rise to the creation of emergency number 911 and the expression “Bystander effect.”

KittyGenovese

On March 13, 1964, Kitty came home late, after 3 in the morning as she always did from her bar-tending job in a nearby town, and parked her car in the parking lot of the Long Island Railroad.  The man who stalked her, Winston Moseley, was the father of two, a quiet man from South Ozone Park who had a habit of choosing female victims at random and killing and raping them, though all she knew was that someone was following her.  She ran, he caught up with her in the vestibule of her apartment house and stabbed her twice.  She screamed.  “Oh God, I’ve been stabbed!” and he ran away.  Nothing happened.  He returned and stabbed her several times, and again she screamed.  A few lights in bedroom windows may have gone on then.  He fled.  When he returned the third time, her stabbed her again (an estimated 17 times in all) and raped her as she was dying.  Then he stole her wallet.

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens, wrote the New York Times. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead. . . I didn’t want to get involved,” a witness said, using a phrase that was thought to encapsulate the age.

I was living in London at the time, but Kew Gardens remained home, the place where I’d lived up to the age of 15, where my memory always returns at the cue of “childhood.”  Reading about the murder in The Guardian, I could picture exactly where Kitty had been at each point of the assault, her bloody trek up Austin Street towards the pay telephone on the corner at Lefferts Boulevard, past the bar that was already closed, a bar I passed every day, though on the opposite side of the street because it was too rowdy and frightening.  I remembered the day I was walking there with Oma, my father’s mother who never wore anything but black, a small gray ruffled dickey at her neck, her face long and lined, a hat on her gray hair, her blue eyes faded as she walked to the right of me, speaking German because her English, once tenuously captured, was fast escaping.  We didn’t hold hands because we never touched or kissed or hugged.  She had had t.b. earlier and didn’t want to infect me, or at least that’s how the story went.

As we passed on the opposite side of the street, headed for Lefferts Boulevard, a drunk was kicked out of the bar and landed in the gutter where he lay absolutely still.  I was sure he was dead, my heart was beating in my ears and my first thought was that I had to protect Oma.  I engaged her in some talk of which I have no memory, but she was forced to turn towards me, turn to her left and away from the bar, and I went on talking whatever it was until we were well out of view.  I never mentioned it afterwards to her or my parents.  I carried a strange sense of responsibility in my girlhood, the sense that nasty things, “American” things that might include violence or bad manners were somehow my fault, and that I had to shield people like my mother and grandmother from them.  (My father, who had gone to Horace Mann school in New York, alternating with his school in Vienna, was made of sterner stuff.)  Had the bar not been closed unusually early that night – or morning – of March 13th by a substitute barkeep eager to get home, Kitty might have found help.

After Kitty’s murder the city installed a system whereby New Yorkers could call the police without first going through an operator or identifying themselves – by dialing 911. The “Bystander effect” stated that the more people involved in an emergency, the less likely any one person is to help.  So, the Kew Gardeners roused from their sleep that night rationalized that it was probably nothing, drunks at the bar, a lover’s quarrel – or that somebody else was probably doing something about it.  As it turned out many years later, some parts of the original story had to be revised, and A.M. Rosenthal, the New York Times reporter who first wrote the full front page article on Kitty two weeks after her murder later wrote a book (Thirty-Eight Witnesses) in which he said that a few people did make an effort, though in essence the account still stands.  Over the years, many new details about the whole affair and about Kitty herself have come to light; it’s a story that never lets go of me.

Or of Kew Gardens.  Kitty’s fame, in death, is greater than the town’s, a place filled with German-speaking immigrants at the time we lived there.  Mimi’s Bakery had my favorite chocolate cake slices, layered with chocolate butter cream and a rosette on top, in the center of which rested half a maraschino cherry, that detestable cherry which I would have to remove every day.  The slice itself was called a “favor” by Mimi, because of me, and because the word “favorite” was too long and difficult to pronounce.  At Bauer’s butcher shop I would get a few slices of bologna which I loved, whenever we shopped there, and one time we got a kitten from them with six toes which I named Freaky.  Mr. Bauer stood with sides of beef and pork hanging behind him as he worked on the butcher’s block wearing his bloody apron, and Mrs. Bauer remained forever inside her cashier’s cage like a huge plump bird with protruding light-colored, almost yellow eyes.  The town, built as a “garden community” by Englishmen who named it after the royal gardens at Kew outside London, retained old-world charm in its Tudor style houses lining the street that at one point would become the railroad bridge, our miniature Rialto.  A few doors beyond Bauer’s and next to the steps leading down to the station platform stood the candy and newspaper store, which sold penny candy and Wonder Woman, Katy Keene and of course the Archie comics, and later, Photoplay the movie magazine and Modern Romance, that taught me about lesbianism.  The candy store had a smell so Proustian that I can still conjure it up a lifetime later, though I can give no name to it.  Possibly it was a combination of fresh ink and boiled candies and licorice and such; it is a smell that inhabited many stores of its kind but then disappeared, though for a while I would occasionally find it again in some out-of-the-way place (until the last decade or two) and be instantly transported back to my pigtailed self, holding out the dime I was ready to spend on that week’s extravagance.

Up by the subway, on the far side of Queens Boulevard next to the Kew Gardens Courthouse stood a statue we all feared, of a naked man holding a sword on his shoulder and standing, so it seemed, on a couple of female figures beneath him.  It was said that boys were hiding behind it and if you ever went up to the statue they would come out and rape you.  None of us ever tested the truth of this legend, but then, we were very young and not allowed to cross the Boulevard.

CivicVirtueStatueKewGardens[1]
We called it “The Rape” (Civic Virtue Statue)
Not far from the statue, at the dividing line between Kew Gardens and its neighbor Forest Hills (known for the tennis in those days) stood the Kew-Forest school, a private school that my parents at one point suggested sending me to.  I screamed and carried on as if they’d suggested branding me with a hot iron.  In my still-forming and muddled mind, “private school,” “boarding school,” and “reform school” were all synonyms and to go there was a punishment from hell.  They dropped the idea, I continued at P.S. 99 (which never had a principal in all the years I went there but only Mrs. Oliver, our “acting” principal, the flesh of whose arms hung down below her elbows and whose face was puckered into a continually disapproving expression.)

Kew-Forest is the school Donald Trump went to before he was released for disciplinary reasons, even though his father was on the board of Kew-Forest, and sent to military school from then on.

The Trump family lived not far from us, in Jamaica Estates, a subway stop away. Grandfather Trump, Friedrich, had emigrated from Germany at a time when the family name was still Drumpf, settled in Seattle and opened up a casino-cum brothel in the red light district.  It was wildly successful and Friedrich moved on to open a string of brothels in the Yukon.  (Bedrooms had scales in them, so customers could pay in gold dust.) In trouble with authorities, Grandpa moved back to Germany in 1901, but was deported for having evaded military service there.  He returned to NY and later died of Spanish flu.

His son Fred showed early entrepreneurial talent, and after World War II took advantage of federal housing grants to build rental apartment buildings in Queens and Brooklyn.  Since many tenants were Jewish, he claimed to be of Swedish descent.  His buildings did not rent to “coloreds.”  Moreover, Fred seemed to have a close connection to the KKK and showed a history of racial bigotry.

His son Donald continued the Swedish claim, and after graduating from Fordham got a military exemption – because of a “heel spur” – from the draft.  Instead of going to Vietnam he went to Manhattan with over one hundred million dollars’ worth of bank loans secured by his father and thus proceeded towards his present eminence, leaving many bankruptcies behind him – his airline, his “university,” his beauty pageants, football team and of course his casinos, at which Grandpa had been far more successful.  He is now running for US president without a platform or an understanding of most anything, the most poorly prepared candidate in the history of this country who has never for one minute lived with less than multi-millions to support him, and who is intent on defrauding his fellows, his workers, his country and the world.  He uses a capital HE when speaking about himself.

While Donald was still at Kew-Forest, another eminent American was then living in Kew Gardens.  Ralph Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, “the first Negro to win the award,” as the New York Times headline of Sept 23 announced, for his work in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict through the 1949 Armistice Agreement.  A diplomat and scholar, Bunche had received a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, the first African-American doctorate in political science in America. Later he worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to create and adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  He believed in equality for all and “the essential goodness of all people.”

Bunche’s father was also named Fred.  He was a barber in Detroit. His mother, Olive Agnes, was an amateur musician.  Their earliest ancestor in the United States was an African indentured servant, presumed to be the first slave in Virginia.

In Kew Gardens the American Dream was still very much alive in the years after the Second World War.  It was mainly a town of immigrants, refugees from Hitler Europe who would otherwise have been murdered for no greater sin than having been born.  It was a tiny melting pot inside the cauldron of the country and it melted away our differences, making us all American and all worthy of respect.  Of course there were exceptions to this, including a fuss made by some residents when Dr. Bunche first moved in, the fear that having a “Negro” in the neighborhood would lower property values.  We ourselves had minor scandals: Monique, my favorite doll was kidnapped from her doll carriage by B., whose mother changed husbands (and surnames) nearly every year and who was also known as the mistress of New York City’s mayor.  But on the whole, Kew Gardens was decent, in the old-fashioned meaning of the word.

Then came Kitty.  Her brutal murder by Winston Moseley (who died in April, 2016 at the age of 81 at Dannemora prison after being incarcerated for 52 years) and the inaction of thirty eight silent observers gave rise to new questions about human indifference to others.

And now we have Trump.  As they say in the subways: If you see something, say something.  Or as the King of Denmark explained when he wore a yellow star during Hitler’s invasion of Europe, “We are all Jews.” Now we are Mexicans and Muslims; Migrants, Menstruators and Minorities.  Surely enough to topple a clown.

Unpleasant Women

BY KATHY PERUTZ

 

London, 1963: I am having dinner in Notting Hill with Val, a Viennese-born economist, smart and nice but not my type.  Suddenly there is a shriek, followed by a crash as a whiskey bottle is hurled across the room. “That’s the woman,” a voice screams, “who’s fucking my husband!”

I turn to Val, my face a question. “Henrietta,” he says.

I know who that is. The English wife of a slim, beautifully-featured Indian poet who drinks like a school of fish and who has conceived a crush on me that keeps him humming beneath my window on Tottenham Street all night, and he’s still there on the bench in the morning when I wake.  His crush has been driving me crazy.  One day a carton of champagne arrived and later the Poet came over to tell me he had tickets for us to go to Paris that afternoon.  I was not interested.  Henrietta is still shouting.  Val has taken care of the bill and we get up to go.

When we pass Henrietta’s table, I say, “I have not been fucking your husband.”

“Why not?” she screams as we head for the door, “Afraid of having black babies?”

Continue reading “Unpleasant Women”