Mad Kings and Fairy Tales



Once upon a time (in the latter part of the 19th century), there lived a king who rode out in the night, his horses cantering by the light of the moon until the first hint of dawn, when his coachman turned the horses’ heads towards home. He was a fairy king living in a fairy palace and also a very real king who ruled over the land known as Bavaria.  This was Ludwig the Second, otherwise known as Mad King Ludwig or the Moon King, Swan King, Märchenkönig (Fairy Tale King) and other names earned through his pursuit of beauty, as he saw it, and his neglect of public affairs and duties, as court intrigue and some of his citizens claimed. His life style was certainly extraordinary.  He ate so many cream pastries that his teeth rotted away.  Often, his sole dinner companion was his mare, Miss Grey who joined him at a table lavishly set with fine china, silver and crystal, the table and its provisions having been sent up via a pulley system from the kitchen below. They ate companionably as a rule, but from time to time Miss Grey (an English name with English spelling), who, despite being an equine was not always of an equable disposition, would kick her legs and send the table with its contents flying.  Then His Majesty would pull on a golden rope, the ruined table and smashed dishes would descend to the kitchen and a new, freshly-laid table would rise up in its place.

One of the Grimm’s fairy tales of a father with three sons, is called “Tischlein Deck Dich” in German (“Little table, deck thyself”) and might have entered Ludwig’s imagination as a child.  A great Romanticist in the German tradition (which included the brothers Grimm and their massive project of collecting the folk and fairy tales of the country). Ludwig became an intense admirer of Richard Wagner, the man and his work. Wagner’s operas, comprising the Ring of the Niebelungen and others, were based on Norse epics and Germanic sagas, the source of Wagnerian mythology.  At Ludwig’s main castle of Neuschwanstein, where still now thousands of tourists flock daily and which Disney took as his model for the palace of Sleeping Beauty, Ludwig built a grotto of Venus (nearly half a century before the publication of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams), a cave containing a lake where swans glide across the surface and the painted scenery makes a perfect backdrop for a young Lohengrin or Siegfried to step forth before a small audience of royal visitors as colored lights play over the water and the grotto fills with music.

Neuschwanstein was only one of his castles. The others were also massive building projects, constructed with rich materials (thousands of tons of marble) and in styles that never ventured far from “Castle Romanticism,” an obvious precursor of Hollywood Extravaganza, fabulous and fantastic, built to accommodate the longings of a lonely monarch who had never committed himself to adulthood and chose instead to live in fairyland.

Perhaps some readers are now thinking of our current pre-adolescent Ruler and his many “palaces,” but this would be unjust to Ludwig, whose passion was for art, for a higher calling, a yearning for the glory of former times, but hardly what Trump envisions with his lost America. Ludwig’s had nothing to do with jobs or deregulation. His world was peopled by Rhine maidens and speaking swords, and “greatness” did not lie in amassing huge amounts of money, avoiding taxes, stiffing employees, selling one’s country’s birthright for a mess of rubles and considering the arts, sciences, rights of man and the continued existence of the planet as basically a waste of time. As for pussy-grabbing, Ludwig decidedly had no interest.  A homosexual at a time when this inclination simply did not exist or at best was considered depraved, he had no intimates except for his cousin Elisabeth, known as Sissi.  The Empress of Austria-Hungary, she was a great beauty with a 16-inch waist, one of Europe’s top horsewomen and something of an intellectual as well.  She spoke and read many languages, built herself a small pink palace on the island of Corfu in Greece and secluded herself there, away from Emperor Franz-Josef and his stodginess, devotion to duty, mistresses and lack of fantasy.  In Greece, she translated Shakespeare, wrote her own poetry, and insisted on conversing with the Queen of Greece in Greek, a language the imported majesty could speak not a word of, being of an aristocratic German family and lacking the wit or will to learn even so much as the language of her subjects.

Elisabeth and Ludwig were childhood playmates, companions on their flights of imagination. “My Eagle!” she called him; and she was his Swan. They were Wittelsbachs of Bavaria, a family that married into the royalty of almost all European powers, though these two did not have the temperament for governance.  Both of them tried (Ludwig II ascended the throne at the age of 18, the same age as Sissi’s Franz Josef when he became emperor), and were successful to some degree, but they lived for art and beauty, they courted speed and needed solitude, monarchs larger than life but at the same time skittish and shy, like wild creatures caught in their respective cages.  Both of them ended badly, Sissi shot to death by an anarchist just outside Geneva; Ludwig mysteriously drowned in a few inches of water in Lake Starnberg.

They were mad perhaps; certainly they were passionate; Sissi helped cement the twin nations of Hungary and Austria into one empire, but then she absconded. The terrible death of her son Crown Prince Rudolph at the imperial hunting lodge at Mayerling in a double suicide pact with his young mistress Mary Vetsera was more than she could bear.  Like her, Rudolph was a liberal, a multi-nationalist, a writer.  He was continually hounded and spied upon by both the German Kaiser and his own father’s ministers.  His death changed the possible future of Europe and drove his mother into her self-enforced exile in her pink Greek villa.

Ludwig’s death had come earlier. In June of 1886 Ludwig was deposed and taken prisoner at Berg, a gloomy castle by the shores of Lake Starnberg. His grandfather Ludwig I had also been deposed.  The first Ludwig was a worshipper of the arts too, and architecture, particularly of the Middle Ages.  Both grandfather and grandson lived as if in an opera, their castles the stages on which they strutted their hours of greatness, though for Ludwig I the greatest passion of all was women, and in particular Lola Montez.  An Irish singer and actress who had tried unsuccessfully to make a career as a Spanish dancer in Paris and London, Lola came to Munich in 1846 and very soon thereafter met the king, who asked (in public) if her admirable bosom was real.  She replied by throwing off her blouse and showing him.  He was hooked.  She became his mistress and obsession, given full rein (or reign) to do as she liked.  Lola, with her sharp tongue and short fuse, had so much power over palace officials (and such fondness for money) that Ludwig’s government became known as the Lolaministerium.

The first Ludwig was not popular among his people and was deposed after many protest demonstrations by students and workers. It was not that way with  Ludwig II, who was benevolent and generally tolerated by his people, though they did not rally to his support when he was accused of mismanagement of funds and madness.

Ludwig knew of the forthcoming arrest before it happened. Though his household urged him to escape, he insisted that a king does not flee, and remained in Neuschwanstein when shortly after midnight guards rushed in to take him prisoner.  Doctor von Gudden, the psychiatrist, read the charges.  As his valet wept, Ludwig turned to the doctor. “How did you manage to declare me insane?  You haven’t even examined me.”

At four in the morning King Ludwig, accompanied by a few members of his personal staff, made his last journey through the night.  Next day, on June 13, (Whitsunday) at 6 in the evening, the King suggested a stroll.  Von Gudden, pleased by His Majesty’s reasonableness, agreed.  They walked together towards the lake, wearing overcoats against the unseasonable cold and carrying umbrellas against oncoming rain.

By seven they had not returned. At eight there was still no sight of them, but because of the heavy downpour it was assumed that they had  taken shelter somewhere. At nine every man at Berg was scouring the area.  On the water, not far from shore, floated a black object.  It was the King’s overcoat.

Both bodies were recovered near the bank, in shallow water. The King’s watch had stopped at 6:54; von Gudden’s neck and shoulders revealed bruises, though the King’s body was unmarked.

“All men,” said Mrs. Malaprop, “are Bavarians.”

Eccentricity in kings is not unusual, though it may be dangerous, as we know from Hamlet (“Madness in great ones must not watched go” – Claudius.)  Madness, eccentrics, fairy tales: it’s a question of degree.  High office can lead to high offense.  The eccentricity of  aristocrats has often amused us: Wittelbachs or Habsburgs, British lords in their wigs or Duchesses in their salons confirmed that the privileged classes were able to use their rank and fortune to do whatever they damn pleased (“so long as it doesn’t upset the horses,” as Lady Wortley Montagu observed in the 18th century.)

Mad King Trump is of the family Drumpf (his grandfather, Friedrich, came to the U.S. in 1885 to avoid military service) of Kallstadt, a small town in what was then Bavaria (now Rhineland-Palatinate.) If Mrs. Malaprop spoke the unwitting truth, then indeed he is Bavarian, though whether or not, Barbarian will serve.  It was first used referring to the foreigners trying to get into Rome at the time of the Roman Empire – people we today call immigrants.  Barbarian also means savage or uncouth – you might go so far as “feral.”  He is everything that civilization is not, that civility is not, that citizens are not.  And even looking back at the famous Mad Kings of his own ancestral country, Trump is not only mad, he is filled to the gills with anger in a world that consists only of himself.  Small wonder he rages.  But his world is no more real than his words are true. If this is an opera we’re in, it’s the very worst ever written, full of histrionic babbling, rants instead of arias, devoid of music and beauty and sense. He is an emperor with no clothes, “a tattered coat upon a stick” (Yeats.)   The greatest danger lies in our compliance.

In My Beginning



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


Note:  The piece below is a revision of my post # 7 “Blondes” and was published on August 2, 2016 in The Huffington Post


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



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]