On a late afternoon in the summer of 1989, after a full day of work, I was on the subway heading home to my apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan. The subway car was crowded and I was sitting near one of the doors, waiting for my stop, which was still about ten minutes away. I never made eye contact with anyone when riding the subway and, as usual, I was looking down at the floor, but for some reason, I did look up. A man sitting on the other side of the car was looking at me. Our eyes met, and something passed between us that was akin to electricity.
He was young, probably about my age, and was well-dressed in the style of an office worker who was on his way up the ladder. He had a good face, with finely etched features, and his eyes, which were dark in color, either brown or green, were securely fixed on me. He had no expression, but slowly his lips stretched into a soft smile. I felt uncomfortable and tried to look away, but my eyes always found him again. I could feel my heart starting to beat faster as I wondered who would speak first, and what we would say. Would we get off at the same stop and fall into step with each other? Would we talk casually at first and then seriously, our words chosen for their hidden meaning? Would we find reasons to brush against each other as we walked? Would we spend the night together?
My fantasy was interrupted by the squeaking of the brake as we pulled into a station and stopped. It wasn’t my station, and I thought I’d make a move as soon as the train started moving again. Several people were getting off and on, and I lost sight of him for a minute as people walked between us. When the commuters had taken their seats and the doors closed, he was gone!
Someone else was sitting where he had been and I searched frantically for him with my eyes, finally spotting him on the platform, standing still. He was looking at me through the window with an expression of longing. The train slowly pulled out of the station and he stood there until we were out of view.
For the next few days, I made sure that I was on the same train at the same time, hoping to see him again. But I never did. Hardly a day has gone by that I have not thought of him and wondered what would have happened had one of us made the effort to say hello.
Life is filled with those “what if” clauses. At the time my eyes were locked in a meaningful stare with that young man, I had only been out of the closet for about a year, and I was still finding my way as an openly gay man. I was shy and did not feel comfortable making the first move. Also, the AIDS crisis was nearing its peak, which made me fearful of being intimate with someone I did not know. That attitude was safe and responsible, but it also made me hesitant to pursue relationships, even though I badly wanted to be in love. I was also inexperienced in the ways of gay romance and didn’t know what was expected. That inexperience ended one relationship before it even began.
I had met Roger in the fall of 1986, when I was spending a couple days in New York City and staying at the Vanderbilt YMCA on East 47th Street. I had flown from Tennessee to Connecticut to stay with silent movie star Patsy Ruth Miller for a couple of weeks and work on her book, but her husband died suddenly while I was there. To get out of the way of family, who were arriving from distant places, Miss Miller sent me to New York to wait until things calmed down. And so I was staying at the YMCA.
I was still deeply closeted at the time, but I did enjoy seeing all the men who were also guests. One evening I started talking to man in the 7th floor hallway. We stood there for almost an hour, shifting our weight from one leg to another. And the conversation was delightful. He lived in Rhode Island, he said, but was looking for a small apartment to use as a pied a terre when he visited New York. “I’m staying here at the YMCA while I search,” he explained.
He was probably in his 30s and told me that he taught an American Lit class at a community college in Providence. He was fairly short, but well built, and had black hair and lovely brown eyes with long lashes. His skin was a little darker than mine and I was not surprised to learn that his parents were Greek.
Before we parted, he gave me his business card and told me to write to him at the college any time. I thought about him a lot over the next year and looked at that card so often that it started to fade. I didn’t know if he was gay, but I hoped he was.
When I “came out” in the fall of 1987, I decided to send him a letter. I did not mention my transformation, but reminded him of our conversation in New York and explained that I was living in Stamford, Connecticut for the winter while attending graduate school at NYU.
“It would be great to see you the next time you are down this way,” I added as a PS.
A letter from him arrived two weeks later and I ripped open the envelope like a child with a gift on Christmas morning. He remembered me well, he said, and suggested we have dinner together the following weekend. He even named a restaurant in Greenwich Village, included the address and a time, and ended the letter by saying he was looking forward to seeing me again “and gazing into your green eyes.”
The final line made me giddy. He was gay and he knew that I was, too!
I took the train to Manhattan and at 7 pm on Saturday night I walked into the restaurant. And there he was, sitting at the bar and watching for me. He looked so good in tight jeans and white shirt. His black hair was slicked back from his wide forehead and touched the top of his starched collar. When he saw me, his dark eyes twinkled and he smiled with excitement. He teeth were perfect and I couldn’t help thinking that he must be very popular with the girls in his college classroom.
We had a wonderful dinner (his treat) and talked for a couple of hours. It was easy to talk to him, as he was interesting and cultured and seemed to know a little bit about everything. And he listened to me, hanging on my every word. I was falling under his spell, and I didn’t mind.
He had driven into New York as he was spending the weekend there, having long ago found an apartment in the part of Manhattan known as Alphabet City, and offered to drive me to Grand Central where I could catch a north-bound train. He found a place to park on Lexington Avenue and we sat there in the dark.
“I want to ask you something,” I said, somewhat shyly. “You’re gay, right?”
“Well, yes, of course I am,” he said. “I thought that was obvious.”
“Uh… I guess… um… I mean… I thought you might be,” I managed to say. “I am, too.”
“Yes, I know,” he smiled, taking me hand. “I knew that the first time I saw you.”
“The thing is, I’m very new at this. I’ve never been on a gay date and don’t know what to do.”
“Are you still closeted?” he asked.
“No, not really. I have started talking to people about my feelings, but I’m not really comfortable yet,” I said. “I want to date someone, I want to get serious with someone, I want to love someone. But I feel uneasy. It’s like I’m a baby learning to walk. I fooled around with guys as a teenager, but it was innocent. I guess I’m still a virgin. I’ve never had that kind of sex and I’m very nervous about it. And I’m always thinking about AIDS. Does all this make sense?”
He sighed and released my hand. I detected an immediate change, as though the air inside the car had suddenly gone cold. He didn’t speak for what seemed like an eternity but was probably only a few seconds.
“I hope you will understand what I’m going to say,” he began, turning his head to look at me. “I am 38 years old. I’ve been out for a very long time and have had two long-term relationships already, one lasted ten years. I’ve been single for a couple of years and I am ready for another serious relationship. I like you. I mean, I really like you. You are very mature and smart, but in another way you are very innocent. I don’t feel comfortable being your teacher. I want to be with someone who’s already had a lot of experience, like me. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t think we can get involved. You need to meet more people and explore your new life. Have a little fun and find out what you like. But do it safely. I have friends who’ve become infected with HIV. Do you understand?”
It did make sense. As much as my body yearned for Roger, I knew that it was too soon for me to get serious about him, or anyone. I didn’t want a one-night stand, no matter how pleasurable that might be. I wanted something serious. Maybe I needed to find someone like me, someone who was just out of the closet.
I took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I understand, and I thank you for being so honest with me. And I know you will find a new boyfriend soon. You are just too gorgeous to be single very long.”
I did not see Roger again, although we did correspond for a few months. As I predicted, it did not take him long to fall in love with someone. He would be in his 70s now, and I hope he has enjoyed many years of happiness.
After a several months of looking at sexy men and fantasizing about them, but not approaching them, I decided to investigate the gay bar scene. I did not drink and had never been inside a bar, but I was very curious. One Friday night, after I had moved into the city, I decided to look for one.
I had heard people talking about a gay bar in Greenwich Village called The Monster. I don’t remember now what street it was on, but I found it easily and gathered my wits as I opened the door and walked inside. In front of me was a long and impressive bar with men sitting and standing, all holding drinks in their hands. Several of them turned toward me. I panicked and left.
A few weeks later, I tried again and managed to stay long enough to ask the bartender for a glass of cranberry juice, which caused a couple of men near me to giggle. I was just starting to feel slightly comfortable when a beautiful drag queen walked in, with big hair and big boobs and a very big personality. She walked right up to me, touched my cheek with be-jeweled fingers and said, “who’s the new boy?”
I froze. It felt like a spotlight had been focused on me and everyone was looking. I tried to smile but I’m sure it was a grimace, so I quickly put a five dollar bill on the bar and escaped. I never went back to The Monster, but I eventually found the courage to try another bar, and that was a much different experience, although it revealed that I had a serious character flaw.
The bar was called Uncle Charlie’s and it was on a quiet block of Christopher Street at the western edge of Greenwich Village. And it was big, with a bar area, a dance floor and a back room with sofas and wall-mounted televisions. I went there a few times, staying only a few minutes the first time, a little longer the second time, and on the third visit I was there long enough to finish two glasses of cranberry juice! I still felt uncomfortable, and usually stayed close to the bar, where I could anchor myself and look at the men all around me. Very few people spoke to me, which was fine, although I did envy the couples who had their arms around each other and kissed between sips of martinis. Everyone was young and beautiful.
A few months later, I went back to Uncle Charlie’s. It was a Saturday night in January of 1990 and I was feeling lonely. I ordered my usual cranberry juice and was standing near the bar when I noticed him. He was at the other end of the bar, but he had turned his head to look at me. As soon as he caught my eye, he smiled. It was always dim in Uncle Charlie’s and I couldn’t see him clearly, but I could tell that he was tall and had a nice smile. He motioned to me and I walked toward him, a little nervous but also excited.
As I got closer, I noticed that he was large, with a barrel chest and a double chin. But his face was handsome and his eyes were blue and kind. He looked young, probably no older than 25. We started chatting but it was very noisy and it was difficult to hear each other. All I learned was that his name was Paul and that he had come down from Greenwich, Connecticut. He suggested we leave so we could talk without shouting.
We walked along Christopher Street and then turned onto a side street and then another street and before long we found ourselves on 6th Avenue. We were talking so easily and comfortably with each other that we had covered several blocks without noticing. I was right about his age, and I found out that he was from a wealthy family and had been schooled in Europe. He was now preparing to settle into a career at his father’s law firm.
He was charming and very flirtatious and boldly suggested that I take him home with me for the night. I acquiesced and we found a subway that passed through my neighborhood in Brooklyn.
As soon my front door had closed behind us, he kissed me gently and sweetly. I knew what he was probably expecting and I, too, was thinking about sex. But when we went into the bedroom and he started undressing, I was turned off as though a bucket of cold water had fallen on my head. Despite his efforts to excite me, I could not get past his portliness. He was big and round and I did not find him sexually attractive. I’m told that women can fake it, but men can’t. If a man is not aroused, it’s obvious.
We did lay side by side, but we did nothing more than cuddle. I wanted to be attracted to him, but my body would not cooperate. He did not push me and seemed content to hold me and kiss the back my neck, but I could tell he was having a hard time sleeping. I felt guilty, which also made it difficult for me to sleep. I knew it was shallow to only care about the way someone looked, but I couldn’t seem to help it.
I sent him away the next morning with a hug and a kiss.
“I really like you,” he said. “And I want to see you again.”
I liked him too, but I didn’t feel a spark. I could not get past his weight, and when he called me later in the day, wanting to drive down for another date, I made an excuse. He called again two days later, at 7 a.m., and said he wanted to stop by my apartment and make breakfast for me before I went to work. He was being sweet and kind and attentive and thoughtful… but I said no.
He called me once more and asked me to spend the weekend with him. His parents were out of town and we’d have the family manse to ourselves. He envisioned a very romantic weekend, with candlelight dinners and champagne by the fireplace. He plied me with compliments and words of romance, but I had to tell him that I wasn’t interested. I had probably led him on, and now I was disappointing him. It was very unkind of me. So what if he was overweight. It was his heart and soul that should have mattered. I am ashamed of the way I behaved.
I never heard from him again. I have thought of him so many times over the years, wishing that I could go back in time and let him come over to prepare breakfast, that I could accept his invitation to go up to Greenwich for the weekend. I might have missed out on something very special. But we can’t fix past mistakes and our sins of omission stay with us as long as we live. He was a sweet guy and I hope he did find someone who appreciated his goodness.
I am sad now that I let him get away. There were a couple others that also got away, for various reasons, and some relationships that never developed. If anyone asks, I always say that of all the men that slipped out of my grasp, the one I regret the most is Christopher Reeve!
That is a fantasy, of course. I never had a date with hunky and handsome Superman. But our faces did come within a few feet of each other once.
I attended the awards ceremony for the National Board of Review at Lincoln Center in late February of 1989. The annual event is a scaled down version of the Oscars, with a small audience who attend by invitation only. It was very exciting to sit close to the stage and see such movie stars as Jodie Foster and River Phoenix accepting their awards. Kirk Douglas was there, too, receiving a lifetime achievement award. It was a few years before his debilitating stroke, and he was still tall and dashing.
One of the presenters was Christopher Reeve. When the ceremony was over and everyone was leaving, I lingered for a few minutes, watching the celebrities greeting and congratulating each other. When I finally left my seat and moved into the main aisle, I had to stop suddenly. Christopher Reeve was right in front of me and we were facing each other. He was close enough to touch and we just stood there for a few seconds, our eyes meeting. I had never seen such eyes. They were as blue as the Adriatic Sea and I was hypnotized. He finally grinned and said “excuse me.”
“No, excuse me,” I managed to say and moved aside to let him pass. It was a moment of bliss which I shall never forget.
Putting Mr. Reeve aside, I do wonder what would have happened if Roger had taken the time to introduce me to a gay relationship, or if I had not foolishly rejected Paul’s loving overtures. I also wish I had talked to that handsome young man on the subway. But those scenarios will never be written, as time moves on without offering second chances.
On a summer afternoon in the early 1990s, I knocked on the front door of a home in Mountain City, Tennessee. It was a house I had been to many times before. I knocked a second time and I heard some rustling inside.
“Hold your horses!” a familiar voice said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
The door was slowly opened but instead of being greeted with a squeal of delight and outstretched arms, a woman I knew well looked at me with an expression of confusion.
“Yes? What can I do for you?” she asked, which made me feel slightly uncomfortable.
“I haven’t seen you in such a long time,” I muttered. “I wanted to stop by and visit.” She looked at me carefully, finally nodded and motioned for me to come inside although she still regarded me with suspicion.
She led me to the living room, a room that was very familiar to me. I had always liked the dark antique furniture and lovely objets d’art that decorated the tables and walls. A tinted portrait of her taken when she was young still sat on the old secretary near the front door and the stately clock I had long admired stood tall on the mantel, marking the passage of time with steady ticking. It was a hot day, and the room felt stuffy. A window needed to be opened.
I sat opposite her and I could finally see her clearly. I had always known her to be immaculately dressed and groomed, never going out without her carefully-coiffed ash-blonde wig, but on this day she looked different. Her shoes did not match, her dress had a food stain on the front, and the wig sat lop-sided upon her head, as if she had quickly grabbed it before answering the door. Wisps of snow white hair escaped from under it, above her left eye, which she brushed away with aged fingers. Her big brown eyes, which had always gleamed with vitality, no longer sparkled. They looked empty, as though they had lost the connection to her soul. She had become a frail bird trapped in the cage of old age.
She stared at me for a full minute before she spoke. “You do look familiar,” she said, then tilted her head to one side and added “Did I know your mother?”
I felt a little catch in my throat. It made me sad to realize she had forgotten so much. She had indeed known my mother, as well as my father. My dad had relied on her for help and support during his ministry in Mountain City and she and my mother were like sisters, even though she was old enough to be my grandmother.
I first met Mary Whitton in August of 1971, when I was 8 years old. My father had just accepted the invitation to become pastor of the First Baptist Church and it was our first full day in the parsonage. We were unpacking boxes and putting things into place when the front door opened and a voice rang out “Yoo Hoo! I hope everyone is dressed because we’re coming in!”
She and two other ladies of about the same age swept in to give us a party, with Mary leading the way. The names won’t mean anything to anyone who isn’t of a certain age in that little town, but the other women were Inez Williams and Clara Boardwine. They had brought flowers and food and a great deal of good will. They made us feel loved and welcomed. Although I got to know Mrs. Williams and Mrs. Boardwine fairly well over the next few years, it was Mary Whitton who became a very special friend to me and my family.
She was one of the church’s most active members, teaching a Sunday School class, volunteering in the library, and devoting a great deal of her time to community outreach. If women had been allowed to have such roles in the Southern Baptist Church, I’m sure would have been a deacon or an associate pastor. She was a dynamo, with unflagging energy and enthusiasm, always running at full speed. If she had any faults, it was that she could be intimidating. She had no patience for laziness, gossip or stupidity. She had a strong personality, took control of situations, spoke frankly and wasn’t liked by everyone. If she didn’t like you, it was obvious. But if she did like you, it was like basking in warm, glorious sunlight.
She and my mother spent a lot of time together. I can remember coming home after school and finding them in the den, chatting and giggling like schoolgirls. My mother didn’t have many close friends, but became especially fond of three women – Josephine Meade, who lived next door, Nancy Eller Wills and Mary Whitton. They were all down-to-earth gals with whom my mom could be herself and not constantly be reminded that she was a preacher’s wife.
When my mother was diagnosed with leukemia in the fall of 1976, my dad confided in Mary more than anyone else. She was a rock for him and she spent more time at our house than she did at her own, helping with everything. And it was Mary who sat up with my father at my mother’s bedside in the hospital the night she died. I heard her say that when mom died, it was like losing a daughter.
It was during that difficult time that I got to know her especially well. My mother had to spend long periods of time at a hospital three hours away and I was often alone with Mary. My dad tried to shield me from the seriousness and the hopelessness of my mother’s illness, but Mary treated me like an adult. With surprising frankness, she told me that my mother was going to die.
“Your dad knows how to help other people to be strong when they lose someone,” she explained to me, “but he won’t know how to accept the death of your mother. He will need your love and support. You must be brave and be prepared for what’s coming.”
It was also during that time that I learned so much about her. She told me that she was born six weeks premature, and was so tiny that her little hand fit through her Aunt Retta’s wedding ring. She regaled me with stories of her life, which sounded like a movie or an adventure novel. She had been raised on a farm, but had spent her married life hobnobbing with the rich and privileged. She had married in 1931, after a brief career as a school teacher, and her husband was 25 years older than she was. George Whitton was divorced and had children who were very close to her own age. He was a decorated colonel and at the time of their marriage — and for several years afterward — he held a government position in Washington, D.C. They made their home in the suburb of Alexandria, where Mary became known as a gracious hostess, often entertaining government officials and dignitaries. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a guest more than once. Mary told me that she and Mr. Whitton were always seated near the main stage for Roosevelt’s four inaugurations.
“FDR was a good president, but Eleanor would have been an even better one,” Mary told me. “She had brains, and she could get things done. No one could intimidate her and she used her influence for good. She was a very impressive person, and it was an honor to know her.”
When George Whitton retired, they started spending time in Florida, where they owned a home near the beach in Jacksonville, and in the mountains near Asheville, NC, where they also owned a house. But they also spent time traveling, not only around the United States, but to foreign lands. Soon after the end of WWII, they went to England by ship and toured the areas of London that had been bombed by the Nazis. Mary said that seeing the terrible destruction those bombs had caused made her a champion for peace.
And she also went on an African safari. She kept me up past my bedtime one night, telling me about seeing the Serengeti and Mount Kilimanjaro and hearing the weird sounds of wild animals during the night as the group slept in their tents. And she thought the native African women “with their clothing of bright colors and their dark skin glistening in the sun” were the most beautiful people she had ever seen. When her husband died in the late 1950s, she sold their property and returned to live in Mountain City, where she had grown up.
When I’d visit her home, she would point to various items of furniture and explain how they had come to be in her possession. There was a fascinating story behind everything in her house. As many lovely things as there were to look at inside, there were just as many wonderful things to enjoy outside. She loved gardening, the perennial beds in her backyard always in full bloom during the spring and summer. She also had a fondness for roses and there were some beautiful varieties near the windows along the front of her house. I asked if she opened her windows to enjoy the fragrance, and she chuckled.
“I planted rose bushes there for a different reason,” she said with a grin. “If anyone tries to break into the house through a window, they’ll get an ass-full of thorns for their trouble!”
That was Mary! She was plain-spoken, with every conversation peppered with words that could be surprising and off-color. I adored that part of her personality. You never knew what she was going to say.
I didn’t see her as much after my mother died, although during the first few weeks after the funeral, she was a great comfort to my father and me. When my dad and I drove to Ohio to visit some of my mother’s family, he invited Mary to make the trip with us. I remember we were all sitting in my aunt’s living room talking about my mother, getting a little weepy, when Mary decided to lighten the mood. She grabbed a straw hat from a nearby table, perched it upon her head and said, “quick, Jeffrey, take my picture. I look gorgeous!”
She was right about my father. After mother’s death he tried to be strong but he fell apart inside. He was desperately lonely and started dating very soon after mother was buried. Mary didn’t like that, nor did she like the woman he was dating, which she made very clear. She took my father aside one day and said, “Ed, you need to think about what you are doing. My advice is to take a cold shower and wait three years.” He didn’t take the advice.
Bulah Vaught, another family friend, stayed with me while my father and stepmother were on their honeymoon, but Mary visited almost every day. She was up to her usual standard of zaniness and kept us thoroughly entertained. The house across the street burned to the ground one night during that week, which was frightening, and Mary decided to stay with Bulah and me for the next couple of days to keep us company. The first night after the fire, when everything was finally calm and quiet but we were still feeling uneasy, a car started creeping up our long and steep driveway. We were not expecting anyone and there was no reason for a car to be moving so slowly, getting closer and closer to the house, unless it was someone with nefarious intentions, or so Mary concluded.
“I’ll take care of this,” she said firmly as she darted out the back door and walked with authority to the top of the driveway, making sure that she could clearly be seen under the streetlight. There she stood, hands on hips, waiting for the car to get a bit closer. Then she let out a loud yell, ripped the wig from her head and waved it around in the air as she twisted her body in wild gyrations and kicked up her legs, as if she was performing a voodoo dance. The car stopped, switched into reverse and sped backwards down the hill! We all laughed so hard tears started rolling down our cheeks.
The next day one of my step-mother’s sisters stopped by to ask if we were OK after the fire, and when Mary opened the door and saw who it was, she said, “we are fine and don’t need any help from you” before firmly shutting the door in the woman’s face.
That was Mary… wild and wonderful!
She was not as close to my father after his second marriage and I don’t remember her being invited to the house again, not even for dinner, but I saw her as often as I could. We’d occasionally meet for lunch and sometimes I would drop by her house, where we would laugh and chat and discuss things both serious and silly. And we always talked about my mother. After I went to college and life took me to distance places, I saw her less and less, and finally, not at all.
When my dad passed away in 1991, she did not attend the funeral and I did not have the time to drive over to Mountain City to see her. But by the time of that warm summer afternoon, my father had been dead for almost two years and Mary had been on my mind.
My thoughts had wandered to the past, but Mary spoke suddenly and pulled me back to the present.
“Yes,” she said, her smile widening. “I did know your mother. Oh, that sweet and precious Louise. How much I miss her. Your father never stopped loving her.”
And then she leaned forward and looked directly at me.
“Jeffrey, you stinker, where the hell have you been all these years? Why haven’t you come by to see me! I’m old. How much longer do you think I’ll be around?”
It was the Mary I loved and remembered. The sparkle had returned to her eyes and for a few minutes we laughed about so many things, just as we used to. I hugged and kissed her as I left, promising to keep in touch.
I sent her a couple of letters after I returned to New York, where I was living at the time, but there was no reply. And she didn’t answer the phone when I called. I learned a few months later that she was no longer able to live alone due to the onset of dementia and had been moved to a nursing home. She remained there for the rest of her life, dying in 2004 at the ripe old age of 97. She could not remember the details of her life, but as long as I am alive, she will not be forgotten.
My life so far can be separated into two sections, and the dividing line is August 1, 1987. That was the day I flew from Tennessee, my home state, to New York. I never lived in Tennessee again, and it began a period of education, professional achievements, embracing sexuality and close and abiding friendships.
I was on my way to start graduate school at New York University, where I had been accepted as a student in the Cinema Studies program. I was 24 years old and the future looked bright and promising. Choosing NYU was easy. It was the only graduate school I considered, ever since learning that William K. Everson was a member of the faculty.
When I became interested in old movies in the late 1970s, the first book I bought was called Classics of the Horror film, by Everson. I devoured that book in one sitting and craved more. The second book I purchased was by Jerry Vermilye. It was called Films of the Thirties. For the next couple of years, I used my allowance to purchase as many books on film history as I could find, and by the time I graduated from high school in 1981, my collection of movie books filled an entire bookcase, most of them by Everson and Vermilye.
When my father, a Baptist minister, saw me reading Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By one day, he said he wished I’d spend as much time reading the Bible. Brownlow’s book is a masterful examination of silent film, which greatly expanded my knowledge of film history. It is probably regarded almost as highly as the Holy Book. Another book I purchased and enjoyed was A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen, which included several photos of an actress named Patsy Ruth Miller, whom I eventually got to meet. She even asked me to assist in the writing of her memoirs, a project which started in 1984 and ended with the book’s publication in 1988.
As a college student, I signed up for every film course that was offered, and when I read an article by William K. Everson in a 1984 issue of Films in Review, a monthly magazine aimed at old movie fans, in which he encouraged young people with a passion for film history to consider attending his classes at New York University, I was determined to be one of his students.
I graduated from college in 1985, but I was not ready to enter graduate school right away. I was still working with Patsy Ruth Miller on her memoirs, a project which filled up the next two years. We were still working on the book during the summer of 1987, she pounding away on a typewriter in Connecticut and me making corrections and doing some re-typing in Tennessee. It was also during that summer that I finally applied to NYU.
Classes were not scheduled to start until after Labor Day, but Miss Miller suggested I come up a month early and stay with her, helping to put the last touches on the book. And so, late in the afternoon on August 1, I arrived at her house in Stamford, just north of New York City, and moved into a small room on the third floor of her big, beach-front house.
The following week, taking a break from typing, I went down to the NYU campus, at the edge of Greenwich Village, and knocked nervously on Everson’s office door. I had already registered for classes, which included two taught by him. When he invited me in and motioned to a chair opposite his desk, he put me at ease immediately and seemed pleased when I told him I had been reading his books since I was 16.
He appeared to be in his late 50s, was slightly rounded and spoke with a British accent that had been softened by living in New York for more than 30 years. We talked for almost an hour and when he learned that I was fond of silent movies and was working with Patsy Ruth Miller on her memoirs, he seemed impressed and invited me to join a small group of students at his apartment the next afternoon.
“We’ll be screening some silent movies which I think you’ll enjoy,” he said and gave me the address of his apartment on West 79th Street, near the Museum of Natural History.
He lived in a big pre-war building with two large lanterns on either side of the wide front door. A man was on duty to operate the elevator and when I told him I was visiting William K. Everson, he took me to the third floor and pointed to a door. I rang the bell with excitement and waited. Mr. Everson greeted me with a smile and invited me inside.
Anyone who’s ever visited that apartment will agree with me that it was an unusual place. It was like a warehouse, or perhaps a better word is museum. It didn’t seem to be lived in. Everywhere you looked were stacks of books, metal film cans and papers, lots of papers. The walls were crowded with framed movie posters and autographed portraits of film stars and directors. I was led to a front room, which was very dim, and as my eyes adjusted to the low light I could see bookcases along both sides, stacked upon each other, some leaning against each other, and all of them weighted with books. Several of the shelves were sagging from the weight. Two rows of theater seats with worn upholstery were in the middle of the room and a large white movie screen obscured the front window. At the back was a stool, a very old sofa and a table on which sat a film projector. As I looked around, I became aware of two other young people sitting on one side of the room.
“Just introduce yourselves,” Mr. Everson called out from somewhere nearby as he sorted through more stacks of film cans, making a clatter as some of them fell to the floor. Two cats strolled into the room to inspect the visitors. Their names were D.W. and Nosferatu.
I sat in that darkened room for three hours and was captivated by the magic of those images projected on the screen. We saw three films, all of them very difficult, if not impossible, to see anywhere else. The first was The Idol Dancer, from 1920, directed by the famed D. W. Griffith, often called “the father of film,” followed by an impressive early film in John Ford’s oeuvre called Four Sons and ending with another D.W. Griffith film, a “talkie” from 1930 called Abraham Lincoln, starring Walter Huston, the grandfather of Anjelica. They were films I had read about but never dreamed I’d be able to see.
Between films, Mr. Everson brought us diet soda and cookies, and by the time the evening ended, I considered Karen Latham and Rick DeCroix my best friends. There was no better bonding atmosphere than watching movies in William K. Everson’s screening room. Both Karen and Rick were also in the graduate program at NYU, working toward a degree in cinema studies like me. Rick had come from Detroit and Karen from Dallas.
Classes began as scheduled and I expected to be deliriously happy, but instead I was disappointed. Apart from the classes taught by Everson, which were entertaining as well as informative, I discovered that the other professors regarded film history as a science. It was like looking at a beautiful painting and using a microscope to examine each brush stroke. I knew that film theory was an important part of the curriculum, but it was certainly not the part that interested me.
I did make it to the end of the first year, but the only classes for which I received a grade were those taught by Everson. I was given an incomplete in the others. I did not return for the second year and my quest for a graduate degree ended prematurely.
My time at NYU may have ended, but my association with Mr. Everson certainly did not. And Karen and Rick remained very close friends as well. I saw them all often.
Before the first semester ended, I started attending the Saturday night screenings at the apartment on West 79th Street. Karen and Rick were always there, as were a few other people, all of us passionate about old movies. And the films we saw there spanned all genres… silent films, programmers, westerns, B-films, foreign films, movies about crime and romance and even expensive productions from major studios. Some were good, others were forgettable, but seeing them in that screening room was always an exciting event. And I became very fond of the other regulars, including Romano Tozzi and Richard Barrios. We were certainly an interesting group of people.
After a couple of months, Rick and I began to notice that Karen would often sit next to our host. They seemed to be developing a very tight friendship, or was it more than a friendship? It seemed unlikely, as there must have been a 30-year difference in their ages, but Rick and I were sure that a romance was blossoming. One Saturday night in November, just after we had all taken our seats in the screening room, they announced their engagement! The guests were surprised, but Rick and I winked at each other in satisfaction.
Their wedding in early January was a private affair and I was one of the few very lucky people invited. However, when I woke up on that day and saw snow falling, I decided to stay put. Miss Miller had left for her winter home in California and was kindly allowing me to live in her Connecticut house while she was away. Traveling to Manhattan in a snowstorm was not fun and so Bill and Karen got married minus one well-wisher. I’ve often wished that I had braved the storm and made the journey.
In early November, a couple of weeks before Miss Miller left Connecticut for warmer climes, her phone rang on a Saturday morning.
“We’ll have a visitor this evening,” she said a few minutes later. “That was Kevin Brownlow on the phone. He’ll be on the 5:35 train from Manhattan and wants to take me out for dinner. You can be our driver.”
Kevin Brownlow? I could hardly believe it! I had read his book, The Parade’s Gone By, at least three times. He had traveled to America from his home in England as a very young man and spent a lot of time interviewing hundreds of people connected to 1920s Hollywood, including stars, directors, screenwriters, cameramen and other technicians, and then used the information to write the definitive book on the silent film industry. Patsy Ruth Miller was one of the hundreds of people he had interviewed and although she did not rate a chapter of her own, she was mentioned several times. And they had kept in touch since the book was published in the late 1960s.
I was behind the wheel of Miss Miller’s big, heavy, dark blue Cadillac Fleetwood when we arrived at the station just as the train was arriving. I didn’t know what Mr. Brownlow looked like, but she recognized him and waved when he came into view. She had made a reservation at the Stamford Yacht Club and I pulled under the building’s porte-cochere to let them out before finally finding a parking spot big enough to accommodate that enormous car. They were already seated and chuckling merrily when I joined them in the elegant dining room.
She had requested a table near the big windows that overlooked Stamford harbor, and the setting sun was turning the sky pink as a waitress handed us menus. The color was reflected off the rippling surface of the harbor and bathed the room in a magical glow that erased the years from Miss Miller’s face. She looked at Mr. Brownlow adoringly and was even a bit flirtatious. She had a weakness for a British accent.
He had brought along a tape recorder and asked her a series of questions between bites of Chicken Kiev. He was particularly interested in learning about the comedies she had made with an actor named Glenn Tryon, and then asked about the five films she made with Edward Everett Horton.
“Oh, Eddie was a doll,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “We didn’t use the word gay then, but let’s just say that he was a mama’s boy. And apropos of love teams, I wonder if any of my blue films have survived.”
Mr. Brownlow and I looked at each other, eyes wide and mouths agape. “Blue” was a term used in the 1920s for pornographic movies.
“Uh… your blue movies?” Mr. Brownlow asked, and then Miss Miller laughed, realizing what we were thinking.
“No, darling… not that kind of a blue movie. I mean the movies I made with Monte Blue. We were a love team for a while in the mid 1920s. We made several films for Warner Bros.”
We all laughed heartily. We did so much laughing and talking, lingering over coffee and dessert, that Mr. Brownlow missed the 8:50 train back to New York. When he consulted the schedule and realized that the next train didn’t leave until 10:59, he said sheepishly, “Patsy, I’m afraid I’m your captive for another two hours!”
Miss Miller did not mind at all. We left the restaurant and drove to her house, where we spent those two hours in her den, doing more talking and laughing. She told us that she used to flirt with Harold Lloyd when his wife wasn’t watching, had been introduced to serial queen Pearl White while visiting Paris in the early 1930s and that she believed the stories about Joan Crawford abusing her adopted children.
“The woman who took care of my son when he was little also worked for Joan, and she used to tell me the most shocking things,” she said.
As it got closer to 10:59, I couldn’t let Mr. Brownlow get away without signing my copy of his book, and he had just enough time to inscribe the flyleaf before I drove him to the station. As he was getting out of the car he turned to me and said, “I hope you know how lucky you are to be working with Patsy Ruth Miller on her book. Not many silent movie stars are still alive, and most of those that are, are either in poor health or don’t want to be bothered by fans and reporters. I can tell that she likes you, so keep the relationship going as long as you can. It’s all grist for your mill.”
It was true that Miss Miller and I had a close friendship. Working with her was not always a pleasant experience, but we enjoyed a mutual respect, and there was very little we couldn’t share with each other. One thing, however, I did not feel comfortable discussing with her was my sexuality. She thought I was straight, and I did not contradict her. Besides, I knew how she felt about homosexuality. She thought it was unnatural and told me once that all gay people should be rounded up and taken to an island where they could die off.
She enjoyed flirting, and I decided it was to my advantage if I pretended to enjoy it, too. I often complimented her legs and her face, and tried to make her feel attractive. One day, on a warm September afternoon as we were getting out of her saltwater pool overlooking the harbor, she tried to take the flirtation to a different level. She changed out of her bathing suit right in front of me, making sure that I got a good look. My lack of interest was probably a disappointment, and she never tried that again.
She did not know it, but during that fall of 1987, I was slowly emerging from the proverbial closet. Several of my classmates at NYU were gay and were obviously very comfortable within their own skin. One young man, John Champagne, who was cuter than anyone has a right to be, had just written a gay-themed novel called Blue Lady’s Hands that had been picked up by Lyle Stuart. I wanted to feel as comfortable being gay as he did.
One day while waiting for a class to begin, I picked up a copy of The Village Voice in the lobby and read a review for a new film called Maurice. Based on the novel by E.M. Forster, it was a story of gay love set in the restrictive and repressed culture of Edwardian England. I had grown up in the restrictive and repressed culture of the Southern Baptist Church, forced to hide my gay nature, and so I decided to skip class that evening and see the movie.
I took a seat in the Paris Theater, across the street from the famous Plaza Hotel, and by the time the end credits were rolling, I had been transformed. I had gone into the theater closeted but left feeling totally free. I embraced being gay and wanted to celebrate my rebirth, my emergence from a dark cocoon, and spread my colorful wings with pride. I felt as though my feet weren’t even touching the sidewalk as I skipped along the pavement toward Grand Central Station. The feeling was exhilarating!
The next day when I took the train from Connecticut to Manhattan, the first person I wanted to see was my dear friend, Karen Latham. We went to a small restaurant near NYU and I told her that I was gay. I just blurted it out. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but she was so supportive and sweet and accepting that I almost burst into tears. It was just the kind of response that I needed. My emancipation from the binding cords of repression was complete.
I spent the rest of the winter and the following spring in Miss Miller’s lovely old house by the sea, commuting back and forth to New York. It was an ideal situation, and in the early months of 1988, the book was finally finished. She had continued to send pages to me from California, and I had sent the revised pages back to her. By April, the final page had been written and she began looking for a publisher.
Miss Miller wanted her friend, actress Teresa Wright, to write the introduction, and she sent us a very nice piece. However, when we secured a publisher, the editor wanted a more academic introduction so I asked Bill Everson if he could put something together. And he did. He submitted an excellent essay in which he discussed Miss Miller’s most important films as they fit within the arc of her career. The editor changed a few words and rearranged a couple of sentences, which is a very unprofessional thing to do. Everson withdrew his introduction which surprised the publisher, but I agreed with his decision. I felt embarrassed and angry. Left without an introduction, Miss Miller finally contacted Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who had been her leading man in a lightweight 1926 film called Broken Hearts of Hollywood. His writing was also lightweight, but it served well enough.
With the book completed and my professional relationship with Patsy Ruth Miller at an end, I moved into Manhattan in May, just as the semester at NYU was ending. I received only one grade for that semester, an A in a class taught by Everson. I did not complete the work in the other classes. Even though I did not finish the master’s program, my dream of being one of William K. Everson’s students had come true. And he considered me a friend, which had more value to me than a degree.
I lived in New York City for another seven years, and Bill and Karen remained very close friends. I attended the screenings on Saturday nights as often as I could and occasionally met them for meals in Manhattan restaurants. When I signed a contract with Greenwood Publishing to write a book on Jennifer Jones, he gave me access to his library and showed me a magazine article he had written in 1943, as a 14-year-old, reviewing her performance in The Song of Bernadette. He became more than a friend. He became a mentor.
In the summer of 1989, as I was completing the book on Jones, I realized that I needed to find a few photos to use as illustrations. I asked Bill for advice and he recommended a couple of stores that specialized in film memorabilia. One of them was called The Memory Shop, which was squeezed between two large buildings on a side street in Greenwich Village. They had very few photos that I could use, however, but the man behind the counter had a sudden idea.
“I know someone who has a large private collection of movie star photos, and I think he would let you use a few,” he said. “I’ll give you his work number. His name is Jerry Vermilye.”
Jerry Vermilye! Had I heard the name correctly? Another of my favorite authors of movie books, he was well represented on my shelves and I had recently picked up his latest, More Films of the Thirties. I loved his style, which was academic as well as entertaining.
The number was for TV Guide and when my call was transferred to Mr. Vermilye, I sounded like a star-struck kid, stuttering and sputtering and having a hard time articulating the reason for my call. He was a very patient man, however, and when he finally understood that I wanted to see photos of Jennifer Jones, he told me to come to his office the following evening.
Mr. Vermilye had an office on an upper floor of a tall building at the corner of 50th Street and 6th Avenue, where TV Guide had their headquarters. He met me at the elevator and took me to a conference room with a wall of windows overlooking the avenue far below. It was a damp evening and little rivulets of rain streaked the glass.
“Now tell me more about the book you are writing,” he said after we had taken seats at one end of a long table. “I never missed a Jennifer Jones movie when I was growing up and I’m impressed that someone so young has taken on such a big project.”
I was immediately charmed by Jerry Vermilye. He was tall and lanky, with wavy auburn hair that was graying at the temples, and he was wearing jeans and white tennis shoes. He was very articulate and spoke with a well-modulated voice. His conversation was peppered with unusual words that indicated an impressive vocabulary. He was also very witty and self-effacing. When I asked what his next book was going to be, he chuckled and said, “Oh… I don’t know. Maybe it will be The Major Films of Minor Watson!”
It was the beginning of a close friendship that has continued for 30 years. I got to know him as a writer, but quickly learned that there is a lot more to Gerard Lathrop Vermilye, Jr..
He did not write his first book until he was 40 years old, in 1971, after spending most of the 1950s and 60s as an actor and stage manager, working for various summer stock theaters in New England, supporting such stars as Sylvia Sidney, Ruth Chatterton, Richard Arlen and Margaret Hamilton. Instead of going to college after high school, he enrolled at the famed Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York, where his classmates included Joanne Woodward and Susan Oliver.
He shared several anecdotes with me about Miss Woodward, about how they would do improvisational skits together, shared meals at a local drug store and even went to see the newest Mario Lanza film. “We were becoming close friends,” he said, “but she never gave me another thought after she met Paul Newman!”
He had also tried out for roles on Broadway. Soon after completing his course at the Neighborhood Playhouse, he read for a new play called See the Jaguar, but lost the part to a young untried actor named James Dean. The play was a flop, closing within a week, but Dean was noticed by someone who suggested he try his luck in Hollywood. The rest, as they say, is history.
Acting was Jerry’s first love and even after he joined TV Guide in the late 60s as a staff writer, he continued to perform in minor stage productions. He was still acting as late as 2017, when, in his upper 80s, he had one of the leads in a production of The Sunshine Boys for New York City’s Comedy Club. I went to see him on stage in 1993, playing Lord Marchmain in a production of Brideshead Revisited, and I was totally captivated.
He was also a collector of film memorabilia, particularly photos from what we film buffs call the “golden age of Hollywood.” More than half of the illustrations in the Jennifer Jones book were from his collection, and he also supplied most of the photos for my follow-up book on Tallulah Bankhead, published in 1991. And Jerry came to my rescue in 2001, when I found myself laid off without the prospect of finding another job any time soon. Learning about my predicament in one of our frequent phone conversations, he sent me a heavy box packed with photos. “Sell these on line,” he wrote in a note. “And if they do well, I can send more.”
His thoughtfulness allowed me to keep body and soul together while I searched for a job. I never did find another job. I put the photos on eBay and they attracted a great deal of attention, with collectors trying to out-bid each other for portraits of Jean Harlow, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. When I told Jerry about the surprising success of the auction, he had a delightful idea.
“I don’t need to hold onto this photo collection,” he said. “It has taken over my small apartment. I’ll send the entire collection to you and we can go into business together.” 158 photo-laden boxes arrived a few weeks later.
He and I have been business associates for more than 20 years! I will never be able to thank him enough for allowing me to do the kind of work I love best. Without a doubt, he has had a greater impact on my life than anyone I’ve ever known.
Jerry Vermilye and William K. Everson were contemporaries, as well as friendly rivals. Their books covered similar topics, were marketed by the same publisher and they shared the same editor. They were very well aware of each other but were not close friends, although they knew many of the same people, me included. I thanked them both for their support and friendship in my books on Jones and Bankhead.
Jerry may have opened up a career door for me, but Bill Everson recommended me for an exciting research project that involved meeting a famous, Oscar-winning movie star!
“Kathleen Tynan is working on a screenplay about Louise Brooks,” he explained to me on the phone one evening in the fall of 1988. “She has asked me if I can recommend someone to help her with research. I thought of you and if you’d like the job, come over to the apartment tomorrow evening. She’ll be here to watch a Louise Brooks film, and you can talk to her. She’s somewhat aristocratic, but seems nice enough.”
Kathleen Tynan was the widow of Kenneth Tynan, the well-known British theater critic who had famously interviewed the reclusive silent film star for a career-defining profile in The New Yorker. Louise Brooks had become a cult figure. Her very modern performance in a handful of silent films, especially two made in Germany in 1929, were being re-discovered and re-evaluated. I was intrigued and rang the bell of Bill and Karen’s apartment the next day at five. I was the first to arrive.
Karen and I were sitting in the screening room, chatting and catching up, when the bell rang. “That must be Kathleen,” she said as she hurried to the door. I stood nearby and waited.
“Hello, I’m Bella Abzug!” said the woman standing in the hallway.
“Hello, I’m Karen Everson,” my friend said in response. “What can I do for you?”
“Kathleen Tynan asked me to be here,” the woman explained. “She said we’re going to watch a movie.”
Ms. Abzug, who was well-known in political circles, was offered a seat in the screening room just as the bell rang again. It was a film curator from The Museum of Modern Art, a friend of Karen and Bill’s whom they had invited.
We guests were talking politely to each other when the bell rang a third time. “Ah, that must be Kathleen,” I heard Ms. Abzug mutter under her breath.
Karen opened the door and there, standing before her, was Shirley MacLaine! “I’m here!” she exclaimed. “Has the movie started? I hope I’m not late.”
“Uh… no,” Karen said. “We’re still waiting for Kathleen Tynan. Did she invite you, too?”
Miss MacLaine sauntered into the front room and kissed Bella Abzug on the cheek and they laughed as some private joke passed between them. I sat there in total awe, Bill rolled his eyes and the man from MoMA seemed at a loss for words. We wondered who was going to show up next.
Finally, Mrs. Tynan arrived, sweeping into the apartment with an aura of elegance and class. She was lovely and apologized for being late. She was introduced to me and the film curator and greeted Bella and Shirley with hugs and little kisses. No one had eaten, and it was suggested that I be sent out for Chinese food, which I was glad to do.
Between bites of Crab Rangoon with extra duck sauce, Mrs. Tynan told us that Shirley MacLaine would play the older Louise Brooks in the movie, but she hadn’t decided who would be cast as her husband, Kenneth Tynan. And she wasn’t sure who could possibly play the young Louise.
“It won’t be easy to find an actress who not only has that distinctive look,” she told us, “but also has talent and star quality.”
I had never seen a Louise Brooks film, but as we sat in that dark room and watched a 1926 silent movie called Love ‘em and Leave ‘em, I understood Mrs. Tynan’s problem. The young Louise Brooks was luminous, and her face shone with an inner light. She was not the star of the film, but it was impossible to look at anyone else in the scene. She stole the picture. And her acting was fresh and vibrant, unlike the usual style of silent film performers. We were all enraptured. Well, not all of us. I noticed that Bella Abzug had fallen asleep.
We all left at the same time and I was able to hail a taxi for the trio of women. Mrs. Tynan shook my hand and invited me to meet with her on Monday of the following week. She gave me an address in the high 50s on the Upper East Side and told me to be there at 11 am. “I’ll tell the doorman to expect you,” she said, sliding into the back seat next to Ms. Abzug.
Shirley MacLaine got in last and as I opened the door for her, I spontaneously leaned in and kissed her cheek. “It has been a pleasure meeting you,” I said, trying to sound suave, and she smiled sweetly as she gently patted my own cheek with her hand. She looked beautiful in the soft glow of a streetlamp.
I managed to get a few hours off from work the following Monday and arrived at the address Mrs. Tynan had given me one minute before 11. The uniformed doorman told me to take the elevator to the 7th floor and look for number 7B.
I stood in front of the door for a few seconds, adjusted my slacks and shirt, took a deep breath and rang the bell. The door was swung open by a woman wearing pajama bottoms and a black tee-shirt. Her light red hair was uncombed and she was holding a piece of dark toast in one hand. It took a few seconds for me to realize it was Shirley MacLaine!
Hi, Jeffrey!” she said. “Come in. I’m just having some breakfast, although I’ve burnt the toast. Have you eaten?”
I nodded, still a little bit in shock and unable to speak.
“Come this way. Kathleen is waiting for you. She’s staying with me for a few days and has been up for hours. That woman has more energy than anyone I know.”
Mrs. Tynan was sitting behind a glass-topped desk in what looked like a small home office, surrounded by books and papers. She greeted me in a friendly manner, and for the next hour or so she told me about her husband’s obsession with Louise Brooks and his tireless efforts to secure an interview. She hinted that there had been an affair, there had been arguing, there had been talk of a divorce, there had been reconciliation, and finally there had been the article, the accolades and the reclame.
“It’s one hell of a story,” she said. “I have most of what I need to write it, but there are gaps. I’ll give you a list of what I need and then turn you loose. I’ll pay you fifteen dollars an hour plus expenses.”
We shook hands and I agreed to start right away. I let myself out, but I did not see Miss MacLaine again, although the sound of clattering dishes echoed from the kitchen.
For the next year or so, I spent a few hours doing research every weekend, which mainly consisted of examining every Louise Brooks reference at the New York Public Library and the performing arts library at Lincoln Center. She also sent me to Rochester, New York, where Miss Brooks had lived during the last decades of her life, and I spent an entire day at the office of her lawyer, reading stacks of letters and even looking at a diary the film star had kept in the 1920s. It was thrilling to turn the fragile pages and read the daily notations. I wasn’t allowed to make any xeroxes, so I had to copy everything by hand, filling up two thick notebooks.
The information was turned over to Mrs. Tynan and I was sorry when my work was done. She sent me occasional letters during the next few years, giving me updates on her efforts to secure financing for the film, the last one arriving in the fall of 1994. She sounded hopeful, and I was shocked to see her obituary in The New York Times a couple of months later. She was only 57 and had succumbed to cancer. As far as I know, her screenplay remains un-produced.
Kathleen Tynan died in January of 1995, the same year I moved from New York City to Portland, Oregon. It was also the year that Jerry Vermilye’s most popular book was published. The Complete Films of Audrey Hepburn was scheduled to be released in September and Brian, my partner at the time, suggested that we host a book-signing party for him at our brownstone apartment in Brooklyn. We had already started to put plans into place, which would include clips from Miss Hepburn’s films being shown on a television in every room, but Brian’s employment situation changed and he accepted a job in Oregon. We left New York in August, which meant cancelling the party for Jerry. It was a disappointment for all of us.
A few days before locking the door of our apartment and catching a westbound plane, Brian and I met Bill and Karen for dinner at a very nice restaurant near their apartment. Bill was using a cane, and when I asked him about it, he joked that, after all, his legs were 66 years old! I laughed, but not long after I started hearing rumors that he was not well.
I spoke to him fairly often on the phone but did not ask about his health. I flew back to New York for a business meeting in November and stopped by the apartment on West 79th Street for a visit. Karen answered the door and although I was there for more than an hour, Bill never got off the sofa. He looked tired and didn’t talk very much. I began to worry but still did not ask any questions. The rumors persisted and I finally called Karen in January and asked if Bill was OK. Her response shocked and saddened me. He was terminally ill with cancer and probably had only a few months left to live.
He died on April 14, 1996, a week after his 67th birthday. A legend was gone and I had lost a dear and special friend. Karen asked me to write a brief essay for a memorial booklet, which was a great honor for me. When I received a copy, I was delighted to see that Rick DeCroix, my pal from NYU, and Kevin Brownlow had also penned tributes. Karen and I have never lost touch and reach out to each other often by phone and through e-mail.
Jerry Vermilye still lives and recently celebrated his 91st birthday. He gave up his New York City apartment in 2016 and now resides in a glamorous senior living facility near the Jersey Shore, where he performs in an amateur theater group. He is also still writing. A biography of classic movie star Jean Arthur was published in 2012 and he hopes to live long enough to finish a similar book on Carole Lombard. I know he won’t live forever, but I will certainly miss him when he’s gone.
It has been a long time since I flew from Tennessee to New York on that August afternoon in 1987, but I am so glad I made that journey, which lead to the most thrilling years of my life.
The morning was sunny and the sweet scent of spring hung heavy in the air. I hurried out into the back yard and walked around the garage to a flower bed. I had planted some bulbs a few months earlier and was eager to see if they were blooming. As soon as I rounded the corner a broad smile filled my face. There in front of me were a dozen bright yellow tulips in full bloom.
It was early May of 2018, my first spring in Columbus, Ohio. I’ve planted yellow tulips everywhere I’ve lived in the last 20 years, and as I watched those flowers slowly opening their petals in the warm morning sun, I was reminded of another spring day many years earlier, in 1990.
I had walked to a darling café near my apartment in Brooklyn for an evening meal. It had been a lovely day in early May, and it was my first spring in Brooklyn, after moving from the bustling borough of Manhattan a few months earlier. I had never been to the café before, but I had often noticed it as I walked to and from the subway station. It had an Italian name.
As I waited to be seated, I noticed that a single yellow tulip decorated each table and as I admired them, I caught sight of a slim, bird-like woman sitting by herself in a far corner. Her name was Catherine Marie Craco, and although I didn’t know it then, she would become one of my dearest friends. When I think of her, I can see her face and hear her voice so clearly, even though she has been dead for more than a decade. And on the day she died, it had been almost ten years since we had seen each other.
There were always arrangements of lovely flowers on the tables of that café. First tulips, then hyacinths and violets and then, later in the summer, roses and lilies. They were always so fresh, as if they had just been plucked from a garden, and one day I asked the owner where they came from.
“Cathy brings them in every week” was the reply, and a finger pointed to the woman sitting at a corner table by herself. I had seen her several times before, always eating alone, and always looking around at the other diners, as though she was committing their faces to memory.
A few minutes later as I was leaving, I stopped at her table and told her how much I enjoyed the flowers.
“I was just told that they come from your garden,” I smiled. “The yellow tulips I saw here last week were especially beautiful, and I love the clusters of grape hyacinths on the tables tonight.”
She smiled warmly and invited me to sit down. We only spoke for a few minutes but I liked her immediately. She was middle-aged – probably in her mid 50s – and although she wasn’t beautiful, she had a distinctive look, with short cropped bright red hair that was arranged in a pixie style. She had large brown eyes that looked at me with curiosity and friendliness and she was wearing a pant suit of periwinkle blue that was simple but stylish. All I learned about her during that first encounter was that she lived close-by, the café was her favorite restaurant, and she had so many flowers blooming in her garden that she wanted to share them.
A week later I saw her again at the café, and she motioned for me to join her. That was the beginning of almost two years of dining there together once or twice a month, and what fun we had. We talked about things silly and serious, important and trivial. We solved the world’s problems and discussed the details of our lives. I went to her home only once and she never visited my apartment. Our friendship was limited to shared meals at the café, but we became exceptionally close.
We had some interesting things in common. I was working as a secretary at the advertising firm of Ogilvy & Mather; she was also in advertising and had gotten her start at O & M. She was initially hired as a secretary, but quickly rose in the ranks to become an executive in the legal department. she had the responsibility of making sure that copyrights were cleared before commercials were aired on television. If a piece of music or a clip of film was used without permission, it could mean an expensive lawsuit. In the 1960s, when she was at Ogilvy, it was uncommon for a woman to have a position of authority and she often found it very difficult and frustrating.
“It was a man’s world, and although I was smarter than a lot of guys who worked with me, I had to fight for any recognition,” she said, “and so many of the men who had jobs less important than mine were making twice as much. It was not fair, but that’s the way it was back then.”
Realizing there was nowhere else to go within the Ogilvy organization, she quit after a few years and moved to Pittsburgh where she worked for a smaller agency. Without so much competition, she found it easier to move into a lofty position.
Her office was on the top floor of the tallest building in that city, “and from my window I could look out and see where the Allegheny and the Monongahela come together to form the mighty Ohio,” she said with a hint of wonder in her voice. “I still miss that office, and that view.”
It was obvious that the years she spent in Pittsburgh had been very happy, but the advertising world is unpredictable and the most important client at that agency pulled out, forcing some job cuts.
“I was one of the cuts and not being able to find another position in Pittsburgh, I came back to New York to look for a job,” she told me.
With her impressive resume, she easily found employment with another agency on Madison Avenue. When I first met her, she had been there more than a dozen years. Their biggest client was Mercedes-Benz. She quit that job soon after we became friends, however, and started freelancing, working for advertising agencies all over the city. She even worked at Ogilvy for a couple of weeks and we’d sometimes meet for lunch in the cafeteria.
One thing she had enjoyed in Pittsburgh which she could not leave behind was a romance with a man named Clay. Their relationship did not lead to marriage, but they continued to see each other as often as their schedules would allow. Cathy said they would meet in the middle, half way between Pittsburgh and New York, rent a cheap motel room and spend weekends together.
“Those were great weekends,” she winked, “and once that door closed behind us on Friday night, we didn’t open it again until we checked out on Monday morning! He wasn’t married and I wasn’t married and we were free to do whatever we wanted. The sex was incredible!”
I knew Cathy for almost twenty years, and during most of those years she was still occasionally renting a car on weekends and driving to that cheap motel in Pennsylvania.
What I liked best about Cathy was her humor. She could say the most outrageous things and cause my sides to hurt from laughing. Around that time there was an effort underway to clean up the Gowanus Canal which ran through sections of Brooklyn. Cathy was an environmentalist before it was fashionable and she supported the efforts wholeheartedly. We were talking about it one evening as we ate our antipasto salad with shredded lettuce and bocconcini. “I walked over to that canal the other day,” she said, quite seriously, “and as I was looking down at that polluted water, I saw a school of gefilte fish swim by!” She paused and waited for me to laugh, but I didn’t know what gefilte fish was until she enlightened me. And then I laughed!
If Cathy had any faults, it’s that she was too soft-hearted when it came to unwanted animals. She could not turn away a stray, and had adopted several cats. She would regale me with stories of their antics, especially a large male whom she had named L.T. after Lawrence Taylor, her favorite football player, a calico known as Calamity who had a habit of knocking over lamps and a plump orange cat called The Big Eunuch. I could not resist asking why she had given the cat that peculiar name and she just laughed and said she enjoyed the expression of surprise when she introduced him to friends.
I also learned that Cathy and I had writing in common. I had just finished a minor biography of Tallulah Bankhead and she had written a novel that had just appeared in bookstores. As exciting as it was to see her name on the cover of a book, it was not the literary success she had hoped for. The publisher went out of business soon after her book was released, and it got very little publicity. It is called By Invitation Only and although I’ve never read it, I’m sure it is literate and entertaining. When I asked her if she wanted to write another book, she nodded with enthusiasm.
“I’m already working on it,” she said, “and every time I come to this restaurant, I am doing research.”
Carroll Gardens was an Italian neighborhood. I lived in a basement apartment on Carroll Street and she owned a small brownstone at the corner of Smith and Union. The café was just a block away from her home, between Union and Sackett.
“This restaurant is my artistic inspiration,” she said. “Haven’t you listened to any of the conversations?” I had to admit that I hadn’t, but then I remembered the first time I had seen her, noticing how she was paying close attention to the people at other tables.
“Members of the Italian mafia live in this neighborhood,” she said, sotto voce, leaning across the table toward me. “Many of those people come here to eat. This is their hang-out. In fact, some of them are here right now.”
From then on, I did start looking around, straining to hear conversations, and what I heard was sometimes shocking. Men named Angelo and Giovani and Antonio and Lorenzo were discussing things that made my blood run cold. Once I could swear I heard two people discussing their plan to bump off someone. And on another evening, two men were bragging about a recent robbery. A few weeks later Cathy and I had just finished our dessert when she motioned to a group of people at one of the bigger tables along one side.
“Do you see the woman with the bad dye job? She is going to prison tomorrow and those people are giving her a send-off.”
As I gazed at the group of jovial people, I could imagine them plotting the assassination of the person who had ratted on the woman. Cathy was even convinced that a body was buried in the basement of the restaurant.
“Don’t be fooled by the cheerful atmosphere of this place,” she said, barely above a whisper. “Despite the lacy curtains and the waxed floor and the brightly painted walls, a lot of crimes are planned at these tables between courses of bruschetta and risotto.”
Cathy was incorporating bits and pieces of the conversations she overheard into a crime novel set in that very neighborhood. I asked her if she could give me the details, but she said she was afraid to discuss it in public.
“If these people hear me talking about their lives,” she said. “I might end up in the East River with a pair of lead boots.”
Cathy never did finish the novel, so perhaps she became a bit too fearful that the denizens of the neighborhood would recognize themselves and cause her some trouble. Instead, she wrote a delightful children’s book inspired by the antics of Calamity, her playful calico, and she drew the colorful illustrations herself. She was still trying to find a publisher when she died.
She never said as much, but I suspect that she was brought up in the lap of luxury. I know she grew up in one of the small towns in Westchester County, just north of the city. There is a lot of money in that area, and I think her family had a healthy bank account. She finished college in 1960, and her parents gave her a summer vacation in Europe as a graduation present. She traveled by ship, and I loved hearing the stories of that exciting adventure.
A trio of young princesses were also on board, returning to Europe after touring the United States. They were from Scandinavian countries and were about Cathy’s age.
“Whenever they were glimpsed on deck they were always surrounded by a coterie of secretaries and maids,” Cathy recalled. “They did not mingle with the hoi polloi.”
But late one evening, Cathy spotted one of them sitting alone in the lounge sipping a crème de menthe frappe.
“She looked so pretty sitting there by herself, so I walked over and said hello,” Cathy admitted. “Surprisingly, she smiled and gestured for me to sit down.”
The young royal explained to Cathy that she liked to get away from the others once in a while and relax. “My life has been pre-ordained,” the princess said. “I will be the leader of my people one day, their Queen, but right now I want to sit here in the lounge on this ship and feel like an ordinary person. I don’t often get the chance to really be myself”
Cathy was a writer with a great imagination and I wondered if she embroidered the story a little, but maybe not. I read an article not long ago about Princess Margrethe of Denmark, Princess Margaretha of Sweden and Princess Astrid of Norway who were touring the U.S. together in 1960 and even got to meet Elvis Presley in Hollywood. Were these the same three that Cathy saw aboard ship?
She also liked to talk about visiting Venice during that summer. The Italian city had certainly worked its magic on her and she dreamed of returning one day. Alas, it never happened, but her memories of that visit never faded. She enjoyed telling the story about following a man for several blocks as he strolled along Canal Grande, the main street.
“I was struck by the cut of his trousers,” she said. “They were tailored and fit him so well, and the hair at the back of his neck was very neatly trimmed. The way he walked was like poetry. He had a magnetism that was irresistible and I just followed along behind him.”
The man finally came to one of the city’s higher-priced hotels and turned to enter the lobby.
“It was then that I could finally see his face and I gasped!” Cathy said with a grin. “It was Cary Grant!”
She and I had no secrets from each other. Just as she shared some intimate details of her trysts with Clay, I talked to her about my dating adventures. In that era before the internet and social media connections, I had joined a gay dating service and Cathy enjoyed hearing about the men I was meeting for dinners and lunches. “What fascinating young man have you met this week?” she would often ask, causing the faces at the next table to turn toward us.
When I got serious about one of them, a young man named Scott, I brought him to the café one evening to meet her. They seemed to get along just fine, which pleased me. They were both Catholic and spent quite a lot of time discussing the intricacies of the Church. She had a gay nephew whom she adored and also talked about a gay couple she knew who lived on the upper east side of Manhattan. She loved socializing with them and said they were happier than most straight couples she knew.
She had a pretty good idea what a happy gay relationship looked like, and she didn’t think that Scott and I could have one. When I saw her a week or so later, she spoke frankly.
“I don’t think you should get seriously involved with him,” she said, taking hold of my hand. “He may be smart and interesting and he’s certainly good looking, but he is in love with himself and I think he is still too close to the Church. He will not be able to feel comfortable in a relationship with you or any other man. I didn’t get a good vibe from him and I don’t think he will make you happy. I think you can do better.”
As is the case with most young people, I felt that I knew what was best for my life, and I did not take her advice. It was a mistake. Scott moved in with me, but he could not devote himself to me or to our relationship. He ended up having an affair with a priest and we broke up. When he moved in with me, some of my furniture was discarded (without my permission) to make room for his, and when he left, his furniture went with him, including a kitchen table.
Cathy, dear sweet soul that she was, came to the rescue and gave me a table that was being stored in her basement. It was a lovely piece, made of heavy dark wood. It was in three pieces – a rectangular top and two wide legs that fit into grooves on the bottom side. When I started to carry it home, I noticed that the surface was marked with cigarette burns and dozens of moisture rings.
“Those are battle scars,” she chuckled. “I spent hundreds of hours sitting at that table writing my novel, smoking and drinking martinis!”
That table stayed with me for the next two decades as I moved from New York to Oregon and then to Michigan. It served as a dining room table and, later, as a desk for my home office. Every time I saw those “battle scars,” I had to smile as memories of Cathy filled my mind. One afternoon it splintered when I stood on it to adjust a window blind. It could not be repaired and, sadly, I had to toss it onto a garbage pile.
A year after the fiasco with Scott, I started dating a young man named Brian, and when I introduced him to Cathy, she had a totally different reaction. She took to him and him to her. In fact, I think Brian got closer to Cathy than I did. They were both sophisticated and urbane and could relate on a certain level that was beyond me. I can still hear them laughing at some clever joke or bon mot.
Brian and I gave up our individual apartments – mine in Carroll Gardens and his on the upper west side of Manhattan – and we found our own place in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, on Clinton Street, just two subway stops from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Brian was an accomplished cook and loved to entertain so we started having elegant dinner parties, to which Cathy was always invited. She was a raconteur without equal, and she never failed to delight the other guests with her unique blend of humor and intelligence. Sometimes we’d invite just her and the three of us would have a relaxed meal and spend a couple of hours playing Scrabble. She was almost impossible to beat, and when Brian and I would moan and whine every time she’d win, she’d just look at us, shake her head and say “quel dommage, quel dommage.” Those evenings were so much fun, and I remember them with fondness.
But then something started happening to her. The changes were slow in coming and the signs were subtle at first, but she started finding excuses to turn down invitations to dinner and we saw her less and less.
In the spring of 1994, Brian and I hosted a formal open house to show off our apartment to friends. It was a wonderful place. We occupied the two lower floors of a historic brownstone. It had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, dining room, kitchen and a lovely secluded garden in the back. The dining room and living room had ornate fireplaces with white marble mantels. It had been occupied by a group of college students, and they had caused so much damage that Brian I were offered a substantial discount in the rent if we would make some of the repairs ourselves. Brian was just as skilled with spackle and a paint brush as he was with an oven and a book of recipes, and it only took us a few months to bring the apartment back to its original elegance. Brian’s lovely furniture and elaborate wall-hangings created an atmosphere of sophistication.
Cathy was invited to the open house and she gave us a stunning silver bowl as a gift. It had been crafted in Italy and sparkled in the light of the gorgeous chandelier that hung gracefully above the dining room table.
She was her usual self – jovial and delightful – but she didn’t stay long, and when she quietly announced to me that she was leaving, I walked her to the front door. A steady rain had started falling, and I offered to lend her an umbrella.
“Would you mind walking with me?” she asked, and I held the umbrella over our heads as we strolled along, the big drops of water falling from the leaves of the sycamore trees that lined the street. I wanted to walk with some speed, but Cathy walked very slowly, and her breathing was heavy. She wheezed and coughed. We occasionally had to stop as she held onto a tree or a wrought iron railing to rest and catch her breath. I tried to keep a conversation going, but she was too winded to say more than a few words. I was concerned, but she assured me that she was fine.
“I’m getting over a cold,” she offered as an excuse when we reached her brownstone. “I’ll be back to my old self after a good rest.”
I didn’t see her for a couple of weeks, but one day she called and asked if we could meet for dinner at the café. We sat at our usual table in the corner and she told me that she had spent a week in the hospital being treated for pneumonia. She had also been diagnosed with COPD.
“I guess 30 years of smoking has caught up with me,” she said, a melancholy sound in her voice that I had never heard before. Her lungs were in bad shape, and although the doctors said there was no way to reverse the effects, they hoped to slow down its progression. And for a while, they did. She used a nebulizer for an hour every night before she went to sleep and her lungs started to clear. She regained some of her strength and once more started accepting invitations to our dinner parties and occasionally joined us for a game of Scrabble.
Later in the summer of 1994, I was hired as a researcher by Anne Edwards, who was finishing up her long-anticipated biography of Barbra Streisand. The list of tasks she gave me was long and I wasn’t sure if I could get the work done before the deadline. One thing she needed to know was where Emanuel Streisand, Barbra’s father, had received his undergraduate and graduate degrees. I asked Cathy if she would be willing to do some legwork for me and try to find the information. She accepted the challenge gladly and said she would contact every college and university in New York City if she had to. After a day or two of making calls, she hit pay dirt.
Emanuel Streisand had graduated in 1928 from the City College of New York with a degree in English. And he had earned his master’s in education from the same school two years later. Cathy was allowed to pour through stacks of old files and she found his application, a transcript of his grades and a copy of his thesis! The information was invaluable to Ms. Edwards, and when the book was published a couple of years later, I was delighted to see that Catherine Craco was given “special thanks” for her contribution.
When Brian and I gave up that magnificent apartment in the summer of 1995 and moved to Portland, Oregon, Cathy visited us there a few times. It was always a joyous occasion when we’d arrive at the airport and see her in the baggage claim area waving at us.
She enjoyed seeing the sights of Oregon. We took her to the coast to watch the sun sink below the ocean, creating a green flash as it vanished beneath the watery horizon. We took her to Timberline Lodge, half way to the top of majestic Mount Hood. We took her to the high desert on the east side of the Cascade Mountains and spent a night at Black Butte Ranch. We took her to nice restaurants and local museums. And we’d play a competitive game of Scrabble every evening. The summer of 1997 was the last time she visited. The COPD was becoming more serious and she was no longer able to fly, her fragile lungs not able to endure the changes in air pressure inside the airplane.
Brian and I split up in the fall of 1997, and I don’t think he ever saw her again. I went to New York every year for business meetings and twice she and I dined together at our favorite restaurant in Brooklyn. Our reunions were always happy occasions, but when I flew to New York in 2000, she was not able to see me. She was on oxygen 24 hours a day, she explained, and had to use a motorized wheelchair to get around. Despite her failing health, her sense of humor was still intact.
“Some women never leave home without their pearls,” she joked. “I never go out without an oxygen tank! But seriously, dear, it’s just too exhausting to go out for dinner.”
She could only speak a few words before having to stop to take a breath, and she had a deep troubling cough.
In the years that followed, we exchanged Christmas cards and sent e-mails back and forth, but rarely spoke on the phone. Every spring I’d send her a picture of the yellow tulips in my garden and tell her that she was the inspiration. I left Oregon for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 2005, a move that surprised her.
“It must be love that caused you to go to such an out-of-the way place,” she mused in an e-mail, and I responded that it was indeed love, but not romantic love for another person, but rather a love for an area and its people. Taking care of her cats became too difficult and she gave them to friends. She even sent one of them to me by plane, a sweet, elderly cat named Bitsy who lived three more years, dying at the age of 17.
I hadn’t heard from her in several months and was thinking that I should send an e-mail when her brother called me one day in September of 2010. Cathy had died in her sleep the night before, just two weeks after her 73rd birthday.
He said she had felt surprisingly good on her birthday and insisted on going out to celebrate, so she revved up her motorized chair, filled the oxygen tank and cruised along the sidewalk until she came to the café where we had spent so many happy hours. She went in for dinner and apparently had a lovely time talking to friends. I’m sure she was still listening to the colorful conversations around her,
“It was the last time she went out,” her brother told me. “I think she knew the end was near and she wouldn’t have another chance.”
It has been more than ten years since she took her last breath, and as I was admiring those lovely yellow tulips behind my garage, I blew a kiss to the sky. And then I cut a few of the blooms and brought them inside to fill a vase.
I ran my finger over the names in the Bristol, Tennessee telephone directory until I found the one I wanted. With one finger marking the name on the page, I used another finger to dial the number.
“Hello?” a woman’s voice asked.
“Is this Janet Perry who taught first grade at Avoca Elementary?”
“I am Janet Perry,” she said. “And I still teach first grade at Avoca.”
It was the end of September in 1991. I was in Bristol for my father’s funeral and was in a sentimental mood, remembering the happy years of my childhood.
“My name is Jeffrey Carrier and I don’t expect you to remember me, but I was one of your students way back in 1969,” I explained. “I just wanted to call you and let you know that I have never forgotten being in your class.”
She laughed a little and thanked me.
“I love hearing from my former students,” she said. “I’ve been teaching first grade since 1952, that’s almost 40 years. I’ve taught a lot of students, and I can’t remember them all. I can’t say that I remember you, but I’m very pleased that you remember me.”
Indeed, I did remember her. Life changes for children when they start school, and it’s hard to forget. I was an only child and was used to spending time by myself, and I remember how odd it was to suddenly be part of a group, getting used to the noise and learning to how to share.
My education began in Miss Perry’s classroom, an education that didn’t end until graduate school almost 20 years later. I don’t recall much about what I learned during those months in first grade, but I do remember my little desk being near the center of the room in the second row and that we put our heads down every afternoon for a nap. Janet Perry was the first of many teachers, and I remember all of them, some more vividly than others. All of them had a hand in making me the person I grew up to be.
I was a solid B student in first grade, with a couple C’s in “writing” and an occasional A in “language” and “art,” and I was promoted to the second grade, also at Avoca Elementary. Of all the teachers I’ve had, Melba Bolling is the one I remember the least. I can’t even bring an image of her face to my mind. In fact, I remember practically nothing about the second grade. I do have the report card, which indicates I remained a B student, with a few C’s in “writing” and several A’s in “spelling” and “reading.”
We moved from Bristol to Mountain City during the summer of 1971 and I was assigned to Mae Howard’s third grade class at Mountain City Elementary School. Mrs. Howard was close to retirement and kept her hair black as midnight. She was also missing a hand and kept that particular arm behind her back or concealed in the folds of her dress. Perhaps because she was so close to retiring, I think she had lost interest in her profession and let all of us in that class coast without trying to inspire us to do our best. As I look at the report card, it’s filled with A’s, from top to bottom and from side to side, without a single B or C. I had not suddenly become a genius. I was still an average student; it was the teacher’s standard that had changed.
That class was memorable because I formed friendships that have lasted a lifetime. It was in that classroom that I first met Sonya Pleasant and Sharon Walsh and Kelly Reynolds. I also became friendly with a boy named Robert, a quiet and sensitive child who would look at me with adoring eyes. He used to hand me little notes on which he had written in block letters, “I like you.” I understood his feelings because I shared them and I enjoyed being near him on the playground during recess. It was the beginning of a crush, but it was never able to flourish. Robert’s family moved to the west coast when the school year ended and I never saw him again. Several years later I was shocked to see his obituary in the local paper. He had died of AIDS in a California hospital. He was only 22.
Very few of my third grade classmates followed me into Ruby Taylor’s 4th grade classroom and I was introduced to several new people, including Bill Greer who, even at that young age, was distinguishing himself as a scholar. Of all the kids who accompanied me from grade to grade and on into high school, Bill has reached the highest pinnacle of success and is now the president of a prestigious university. But in the 4th grade, he was a slightly pudgy boy with a distinctive giggle and a mind for math and science. He also had a talent for art and Mrs. Taylor often put him in the back of the class with a blank piece of paper, letting him draw while the rest of us studied geography. When I created a tree during art period, with roots at the bottom of the page and big limbs stretching to the top, she set up a desk for me in the back as well, next to Bill. The other students called us “teacher’s pets” but it was the first time I had ever felt that I had a talent for something. My grades that year were back to normal, equally divided between A’s and B’s.
The teachers during my years in elementary school were disciplinarians and did not hesitate to spank a misbehaving student. Mrs. Taylor took care of minor infractions herself, swinging a wooden paddle against a behind, but if a student did something more serious, such as fighting or disrespecting a teacher, she would grab the kid by the nape of the neck and march them to the principal’s office. The only time I ever felt the sting of a paddle was in Ruby Taylor’s class.
I was flinging spitballs across the room when she happened to catch me in the act. I’ll never forget her walking to my desk, grabbing me by the arm and leading me to the front of the room. I bent over the side of her big desk and waited for the whack. Those few seconds of horrible dread must be similar to what it feels like to be standing in front of a firing squad, eyes blindfolded, waiting for the report of a gun. Word travels fast in a small town and by the time I got home after school, my parents already knew that I had been spanked, and my father slapped my backside with the flat side of his hand.
Up to that point, school had not been particularly exciting. I did my homework and tried to pay attention to the teacher, but it was not something I looked forward to every day. I always felt slightly depressed on Sunday evenings and would often hope that the second coming of Christ would happen during the night and I wouldn’t have to go to school on Monday morning.
But on the first day of school in late August of 1973, when I started 5th grade, my attitude changed. Our teacher was young and full of energy and excitement. Nancy Wills was a new college graduate and it was her first year of teaching. She inspired me and challenged me and encouraged me. She made learning fun and I looked forward to each new day in her classroom.
She was also the very first teacher to recognize that I had a certain way with words. On the first warm day of spring, she took us out onto the expansive front lawn of the school and asked us to write down what we saw and heard. Most of the students commented on the blue sky and the sound of birds, but I saw something different. I wrote about the dandelions mixing with the grass, creating a polk-a-dot pattern of green and yellow. The teacher read that passage to the class, which embarrassed me, but also made me puff with pride.
She also wanted us to learn about the world and devoted part of each day to current events. The Watergate scandal was constantly in the news at that time and she gave us a basic overview of what the fuss was about, which got her into a bit of hot water. One day she asked us to write down our thoughts about the Watergate crisis and she pinned our essays to the bulletin board. The principal visited the classroom the next afternoon and saw one of the papers, which declared in bright red letters “NIXON IS A FOOL.” The principal took the teacher aside and pointed to the bulletin board as he talked to her, gesticulating with his hands. The next day the essays were gone.
When we broke for the Christmas holiday, we said good-bye to Miss Wills, and when we returned in early January, we said hello to Mrs. Shoun. Nancy Wills had married Tommy Jack Shoun. The ceremony was performed at the First Baptist Church, with my father officiating. It was a private ceremony… but it was not as private as the bride and groom thought. Knowing how fond I was of my teacher, dad let me sit in a small room next to baptistry, out of view of the newlyweds but within earshot of the ceremony.
For the first time, I was not filled with joy when the school year ended; 5th grade had been so much fun that I didn’t want it to be over. But I was promoted to the 6th grade and was introduced to Emeline Reece when the school building opened again the following August.
Mrs. Reece was in her late 50s and had a reputation of being the meanest teacher at the school. She was called “hatchet face” behind her back, and students either feared her or hated her. I had heard about her and was stricken with fear and dread when I learned that I had been assigned to her class. But I was surprised when she smiled at us on the first day and spoke to us with friendliness and kindness. She obviously loved children and enjoyed teaching them, and I couldn’t understand how she had acquired such a bad reputation.
She did expect students to pay attention, however. She could not abide laziness and if she saw a student napping or day-dreaming, she’d sneak up behind them and give them a hard slap on the back. I also saw her rap a girl on the knuckles with a ruler. But if you were an attentive student, you were rewarded with a smile and a kind word. She also taught us to play the recorder. Twice a week for one hour, we’d concentrate on playing the plastic instruments, making all sorts of crazy sounds which would often send her into gales of raspy laughter. She told us that if we learned the music well enough, she’d let us play for the entire school in the spring. The concert never happened, and our lessons came to a sudden end.
As autumn moved into our mountains with frosty mornings and the shortening of days, she developed a cough. It got worse instead of better and she’d often have to stop talking until the coughing fit subsided. She kept a box of Luden’s Cough Drops on her desk as well as a glass of water, but the coughing would get so bad that she’d sometimes have to excuse herself and leave the room for a few minutes.
She didn’t come back after Christmas break and we had a series of substitute teachers. We were told that she was being treated for a bad cold, and then the flu and then an allergic reaction to medicine, but we were assured that she would soon return. She didn’t, and one morning near the end of April, the principal came to our classroom and announced that she had died. Lung cancer had killed her and we were devastated.
The substitute teachers had tried their best, but we had gotten behind in several subjects, and when a woman was brought in to take over for the last six weeks of the term, she laid down the law and said that “nursery school is over. From now on, you are going to work, and work hard.”
Kathleen Mount was an excellent teacher, and we did work hard. She wasn’t easy to please and expected a lot, sometimes more than we were able to deliver, but we did catch up. It couldn’t have been easy for her, and she probably had to resist the temptation to coddle us. I’m sure she was relieved when the school year ended and we were all properly prepared for the next grade.
I entered the 7th grade in 1975 and it marked a couple of firsts. It was the first time I was taught by a man and the first time there was more than one teacher. Most of the day was spent in Carter Baker’s classroom, but we spent an hour with Gerald Buckles who taught science and ended the day in another classroom for English. On the first day of school, I was thrilled to take my seat in English class and see Nancy Shoun behind the desk. So many of us had been in her 5th grade class and we were all glad to see her.
That was also the year I became friends with such people as Billy Torba, Jeff Pleasant and Randy Lewis. Young Mr. Torba moved to a distant state the next summer, but Jeff and Randy have remained good friends. My gay nature was getting stronger every year and I had lustful thoughts about a student teacher who took over the science class for a couple of months in the spring. He was tall and blonde and wore clothes that clung to his toned body. He inspired daydreams and night dreams.
I was in the 7th grade when the calendar changed to 1976 and a year-long bicentennial celebration began. Josephine Kerley was the music teacher at the elementary school and she began preparing us for a choral pageant that highlighted important events in our nation’s history through song.
I had known her since the third grade. She didn’t have a room of her own, but she had a magical cart which she wheeled from room to room. I call it magical because, although it was small, it held enough little instruments for every student in the class, a large auto harp, stacks of music books and sheet music as well as a record player. Mrs. Kerley brought joy into every classroom and made music a wondrous experience. She became one of my favorite teachers early on and still holds a very special place in my heart.
We practiced the choral music for about half an hour each day and by April we were ready to perform the concert for friends and parents, who filled the small gymnasium on a Wednesday night. One of the songs we sang was called Goin’ West and Mrs. Kerley tapped me to sing one of the brief solos. A microphone was placed out in front and when my little solo was coming up, I nervously stepped out of the chorus and approached the mike. I focused on my mother’s face as I sang, and her expression of love and happiness kept me from panicking. I was starting to feel proud of myself but when I finished and took a step backward to make room for Anne Atkinson, the next soloist, my left foot got caught in the microphone cord. I had to balance precariously on the right foot until I could free myself. Ripples of laughter spread through the crowd as I rushed back to the choir, red-faced, vowing never to sing in front of an audience again.
I was looking forward to the 8th grade, which is the highest level of elementary school, the top of the food chain. And a new school building was opening for the 7th and 8th grades. It had been under construction for a couple of years, and was attached to the high school at the north end of town. It all sounded very exciting.
But it turned out to be a very traumatic year for me. It was fun to be in a new building, but just about the time we arrived for the first day of classes, my mother was diagnosed with leukemia. And she was dead and buried before the last day of the school year. I walked through that year like a zombie, numbed by the crisis at home. But somehow I managed to make A’s in every subject, except physical education. I made B’s in that class because I hated having to change into gym clothes. I was very shy and did not want to undress in front of my classmates.
My favorite subjects that year were Mrs. Kerley’s music class and studying art with Linda Cullity. I rediscovered my love of drawing trees in Mrs. Cullity’s class and I usually drew leafless trees and old trees leaning into the wind, branches being torn off and tossed into the air by a strong gust. I’m sure I was expressing the chaos and confusion my mother’s terminal illness was causing within my young mind. Teachers often asked me how my mother was doing, but I don’t think they knew how to console a child whose parent was dying.
I spent the summer trying to cope with my mother’s death and my father, who was lost in a dark fog of grief, wasn’t sure how to comfort me. His method of recovery was to find a new romance. Six weeks after mom died, he started dating and withdrew from me even further. Two weeks after I started high school, he married. It had been five months almost to the day since my mother’s casket was lowered into the ground. And the woman he married was as different from my mother as winter is from summer. She treated me with indifference, as though I was not even there.
My mood darkened, I withdrew into a shell and I was not able to concentrate on my classes. Freshmen often have a difficult time adjusting to high school, going from the top of a mountain to the bottom of a deep valley, and the transition was even more difficult for me. I was slipping into a state of depression.
The first report card was a definite indication of my mental state. After eight years of A’s and B’s, I was given three C’s, two D’s and an F. I looked at the grades but felt nothing. I didn’t even care, although I knew better than to show the grades to my father. He would have been very disappointed, and I did not want to be a disappointment to him.
The second and third grading periods showed no improvement. The teachers said nothing to me. No one asked if I was having a problem, or if I needed to talk to someone. One teacher, who taught algebra, assumed that I was just plain dumb. I heard her telling someone that I might have a learning disability. She made me feel stupid, and I wondered if she might be right. I felt totally alone. I needed help, but didn’t know how to ask for it.
One teacher, however, did reach out to me. I was not one of her students, but she must have been aware of the steep decline in my grades. After school one afternoon, she walked beside me into the parking lot and offered to drive me home. I lived within walking distance of the school, but I responded to her kindness and slid into the passenger seat of her big blue car.
I was not acquainted with her, but she told me she remembered when I was a baby and that she had adored my mother.
“I know you must be having a hard time at home,” she said with a gentle tone of voice. “Your father has gotten himself into a difficult situation, and you might think that he has forgotten about you. There are people who love you and you can talk to them any time. I want you to know that you can talk to me. But remember, your father does still love you. He just doesn’t know how to show it right now. He is distracted.”
I could not keep tears from forming in my eyes, and as I felt one sliding down my cheek, I turned my face toward the window so she could not see.
“My father died when I was about your age and my mother married again right away,” she continued in that same gentle tone. “I felt like my mother didn’t care about me anymore and I was very unhappy, but things got better with time, and they will with you, too. I had to find strength within myself and not worry about what my step-father thought of me. It worked for me, and it will work for you, too.”
We had reached my house by that time, and I hugged her before I got out the car. I saw her fairly often after that, and sometimes she would take me to her elderly mother’s cute little house near the center of town where I’d mow the lawn or rake the leaves. Those two women talked to me with care and kindness and made me feel that I had value.
Later, when I was a junior, I did become one of her students. She taught American History and I made straight A’s in her class.
“You’re not the same shy and lonely boy I used to know,” she said one day. “You have found yourself and I’m not worried about you any more!”
I grew to love Mary Ward. I was living far away in New York City when she died, and I grieved. I love her still and will always be grateful to her for giving me some attention when I needed it so badly.
Because of Mary Ward’s encouragement and also being able to talk openly about my life at home with a dear friend named Bulah Vaught, the depression began to subside and by the end that first year of high school, my grades had improved significantly. I received A’s in English, Science and World History. But the D’s and F’s early in the term ruined my GPA and kept me from ever being considered for the honor society.
My grades for the next three years were very good, mostly A’s with a few B’s mixed in for good measure. I would have made all A’s my sophomore year except for the librarian. I signed up to be a library aide during the noon hour and all I had to do was stamp books when they were checked out, stamp books when they were returned and put books back on the shelf. It was easy and I never made any mistakes. I also tried to always be pleasant and polite, but I was given a B for each grading period. I never understood why, and can only surmise that the librarian did not like me. She was my step-mother’s sister and shared some of the same personality traits.
My favorite classes in high school inspired creativity and fired my imagination. I loved being in Wanda Payne’s English class my sophomore year. We studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that had a profound effect on me. It saddens me to see that title on lists of books that have recently been banned from school libraries. Wanda Payne taught with humor, and I’m sure our squeals of laughter disturbed Claudine Silver’s Latin class next door.
She also taught speech and drama, another class that I enjoyed. I discovered that I liked acting and when I wrote and performed an after-dinner speech in which I demonstrated, with slight changes in voice and speech patterns, various methods of preaching, I was encouraged to participate in regional competition. I didn’t place, but some of the judges wrote complimentary comments on the cards. I felt tremendously encouraged, and signed up for the advanced drama class my junior year, taught by the wonderful Barbara Bakelaar. I was also cast in several of the high school plays, in supporting roles. I didn’t have the talent required for the lead roles, but I enjoyed playing Ol’ Man Warner in The Lottery, Schroeder in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and the cab driver in Harvey.
I also loved Earth Science taught by Vernon Dyer, who was droll and brilliant. Learning about weather was so exciting that I decided that it was my destiny to be a meteorologist, until I discovered that advanced math was required. Arithmetic and I have never been on good terms, and so that dream ended almost as soon as it began.
There were many highlights during my junior year, which included discovering that Nancy Shoun was teaching College-Bound English and being selected as literary editor for the school newspaper. I wrote a short story for each issue, which was a great challenge. However, one month my creative juices ran dry and I copied a story from an old issue of Reader’s Digest. I didn’t think anyone would notice, but our teacher subscribed to that magazine and recognized the story. Without mentioning me by name, she devoted one entire class period to plagiarism. I felt ashamed and learned my lesson. That was a hallmark of Evelyn Cook, the newspaper advisor. Without embarrassing you in front of the class, she could make it very clear where you had gone wrong and inspire you to do better next time.
I had seen Mrs. Cook when I was a freshman, as she monitored one of the study halls. I did not get to know her then, but I listened with rapt attention as she talked to other teachers. There was something about her that set her apart from her peers… a sensitivity, a certain sophistication and worldliness and a keen intelligence. I sensed that being in her class would be a rewarding experience. How right I was.
The high point of the year, and the most exciting experience of my young life, was being part of a school trip to England, which was organized by Barbara Bakelaar and Evelyn Cook. It was open to juniors and seniors and 22 of us signed up. We spent a week in that beautiful country during the middle of March, 1980. And that week was crammed with as much sight-seeing as possible, beginning within a few hours of our arrival, after a day and night of traveling.
We were so jet lagged that we could barely keep our eyes open, but we walked from our hotel near Piccadilly Circus to the London Palladium, where we climbed up a series of narrow, well-worn stone steps and took our seats on one of the highest balconies. The stage seemed to be a mile away, far down below, but for the next two hours we were treated to a rousing performance of The King and I, with Yul Brynner starring as the haughty King of Siam. It was a struggle to stay awake, and I’m sure I missed long sections of the show, but I do vividly remember the Shall We Dance number and seeing Yul Brynner waltzing energetically around the stage with Virginia McKenna.
I had been assigned to a room with a senior, a guy I knew well as a fellow student in drama class. He was tall and good-looking and a very talented actor. He always won the plum roles and wowed audiences with his performances, particularly in Our Town and Blithe Spirit. He had also caught my attention, but for a different reason. I was enormously attracted to him and fantasized about him sexually. When we ended up in the same room, far away from our small town where everyone knows everyone’s business, we relaxed and discovered that we had a lot in common. He was attracted to me as well, and when the lights were off and the hour was late, we gave in to our desires. The nights in that dark room were just as exciting as the days in the London sunlight.
Although he and I did share a few moments of intimacy after we returned to Tennessee, he soon graduated and moved on with his life. I’ve carried a small torch for him ever since. It has burned down over the years and is barely glowing now, but it is still there. I think of him often.
Returning to the school as a senior later that year was thrilling. To be at the peak of the mountain after a 12-year-climb is an exciting sensation. I was once more in Barbara Bakelaar’s drama class and I was voted “most talented” by the student body, although I had voted for fellow thespian Bill Greer, who had charmed everyone as “Charlie Brown.”
I was determined to get into Evelyn Cook’s class of Advanced English and loved every minute. She could enthrall us by reading stanzas of poetry, passages of great literature and scenes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, bringing the characters to life.
I don’t think there are many teachers who can change the lives of their students, but Evelyn Cook is one of them. I feel so lucky to have been one of her students, and when I learned several years ago that she had left the classroom to take an administrative position, I felt sorry for the students who would never know the thrill of her teaching. I have sent her a card every Christmas since I sat in her classroom forty years ago, and each year I thank her for the difference she made in my life, and in the lives of so many young people.
I also had Mary Ward again for a history class, specifically learning about democracy, and was a member of the yearbook staff. John Mast was the yearbook advisor. He taught the advanced math courses and was beloved by his students, but I avoided his classes because of my aversion to figures. It was a busy year, and as the date of graduation drew near, I felt sorry that it was ending. When the 1981 senior annual was printed, the first person I handed my copy to for signing was Nancy Shoun, who had first taught me in the 5th grade.
“It seems as though I’ve known you for years,” she wrote. “Wait… I have! We’ve moved right up the school ladder together. I’ll always remember you as a fine person — sensitive, aesthetic and creative. I look forward to hearing someday that you have found your place in the sun, which will undoubtedly be a position in the arts.”
Graduation was a happy occasion, but I felt a pang of sadness because I knew I was saying goodbye to people for the last time. None of the teachers I knew are still working, and many have passed away. Some of my classmates still live in Mountain City and others have moved to far away towns and cities, but we are all connected in our memories of those classrooms and those wonderful teachers.
“Hello? Are you still there?”
The voice startled me. It was Janet Perry. I realized I had been lost in a reverie, thinking about the long-ago days when I was a student.
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“Did you say your name was Carrier?”
“Yes, Jeffrey Carrier.”
“I think I do remember you,” she said. “Was your father a preacher?”
“Yes, at Valley Hills Baptist Church.”
“Ah hah! I remember you very clearly now, because I kept one of your drawings,” she said. “It was a tree, with a dark trunk and tall arching branches covered in green leaves and little pink flower buds. I looked at that crayon drawing and thought you would surely grow up to be an artist.”
I couldn’t help thinking that life doesn’t always turn out the way we think it will. Certain talents are forgotten while others emerge and steer us in a different direction.
When I got back to my New York apartment a few days later, I found a piece of white paper, sharpened a pencil and drew a tree.
“I’ve gotten you a job for the summer,” he told me. “The Elizabethton Star has been looking for a summer intern to work in their news department. I called an old friend who works there and gave them your name. They agreed to hire you.”
I was talking to my father on the payphone in the dorm at Carson-Newman College. My freshman year was ending, and I would be coming home for the summer in a couple of weeks. It was the end of April, 1982 and I was 19 years old.
“But dad,” I interrupted. “I don’t have any newspaper experience. What will I do there, answer the phone and vacuum the floor?”
“You wrote stories for your high school paper, remember?” he said. “I thought you liked to write. I thought I was doing something good for your future by getting you the job. But if you’d rather work for your stepmother at the florist shop all summer, that’s your choice.”
He knew how much I disliked working for my stepmother and I caught on to his clever use of psychology. “OK, OK,” I finally answered. “I’ll go to work for the newspaper.”
My first day was scheduled to be Monday, May 3rd and a couple days earlier, dad took me to a clothing store to purchase some dress slacks and nice shirts. “You have to be well-dressed in that office,” he said. “You need to look professional.” He seemed so pleased and proud to be preparing me for a job.
It is 30 miles from Mountain City, my home town in Tennessee, to Elizabethton, and it’s a lovely drive, past farmlands and streams, mountains and forests. And the narrow highway meanders around the edge of Watauga Lake before widening into four lanes as it enters the small city of Elizabethton. My father had grown up there and I used to spend occasional weekends as a child at my grandmother’s house on the edge of town. She had been dead for several years but two uncles and their families still lived nearby.
I was supposed to show up at 9, but I walked through the front door of the Star office at 8:45, and asked to see Rozella Hardin, as I had been advised. I was nervous and fidgety and wasn’t sure what to expect.
Rozella Hardin, the city editor, had a cherubic face and wavy red hair. She was probably in her mid 30s and had the unique combination of business acumen and kindness. From the moment I met her, she was helpful and supportive and encouraging. She became my champion and was responsible for hiring me the following summer, and the summer after that. For three consecutive summers I worked in that office, and I learned so much about the newspaper business. At first, I addressed her “Ms. Hardin,” but she told me to call her “Rozie.” Everyone called her Rozie. She ran a very relaxed newsroom and everyone loved and respected her.
But on that first day I had no idea what to do, or what was expected of me. It was my first full-time job and I felt like a child who had been pushed into a strange world of adults.
The first item of business was introducing me to the other employees and giving me a tour of the office. I was fascinated. The newsroom was bustling with activity, with reporters and sports writers sitting at desks and cranking out their stories on big manual typewriters. The sound of a dozen typewriters going at full speed is a sound that hasn’t been heard in a long time. A newspaper office in that era before computers had a unique sound, a rhythm of typewriter keys hitting paper and little bells ringing as carriages were pushed back to the left, ready for the next line of text.
The stories were typed on long strips of gray copy paper that were torn from large rolls. The stories were then handed to Rozie, who read through them, making marks in red ink and sometimes sending them back for corrections.
Once a story was approved, Rozie put a big check at the top and sent it to the typesetters, two women who did nothing but type type type all day long. Carpal tunnel syndrome was probably an occupational hazard. The stories were then printed on long narrow strips of glossy white paper that were cut and proofed and then run through a wax machine that made them sticky on the back side. The wax made it possible for the stories to be pasted onto big layout sheets, each one representing a page of the newspaper. The stories were given headlines, blocks of black paper were used to indicate where photos would appear, and the pages were then photographed. The negatives were fed into the press at one end, the images were put into place, the machine was turned on and a newspaper appeared at the other end, ready to be delivered to a customer. The press was big and bulky. It filled an entire room, and several men were required for its operation. It may sound like a simple process, but I have probably left out a couple of steps. It was actually very complicated and required expert precision. A breakdown at any point along the way would cause delays.
Thanks to the sharp eyes of Rozie and the proofreader, it was very rare for a mistake to make it through to the printed page, but once in a great while, one did. And one of them was mine. I had written a short article about a new piece of equipment purchased by the rescue squad and I quoted one of the paramedics as saying “we hope this will increase the mortality rate.” Of course he had said “decrease” and I had to write a correction for the next issue. But as embarrassing as that error was, it was not as bad as a typo that appeared in a sports story. A young sports writer had reported on a recent basketball game and praised one of the players “who clinched victory for the local team when he jumped off the bench and sh*t two baskets!” The word was supposed to be “shot” but I’m sure you can figure out which letter replaced the “o.” That young writer was mortified and was the butt of jokes for days.
The Elizabethton Star was an afternoon daily, and we had to have our stories written and ready for publication by noon. Each afternoon at 1:30 the press would start running, and we could all relax, knowing another issue had been successfully produced. Hearing that mighty press start humming was always a comforting sound, the thrump-thrump-thrump sounding like a big heart beating.
When I returned to the Star the following summer, all the manual typewriters were gone, replaced by video display terminals. And the rolls of gray copy paper had been replaced by floppy disks. The newsroom was strangely quiet and it was never the same again. I missed the noise.
As Rozie took me to each area of the building that first morning, introducing me to people, I met so many who would become friends… Judy Gwinn in circulation, Kathy Hicks in the mailroom, Nina Gouge in composing and Leona Peterson, affectionately known as “Miss Pete,” in payroll. There was also Lucy Barry Ward, a woman in her 50s who wrote a weekly column, usually about politics. She was feisty and smart and was always holding a cigarette, the smoke curling around her head like a halo.
I also got to know a man who worked in the advertising group whose name, alas, has fallen between the cracks of my memory. When my father stopped by one day about noon, they greeted each other like long lost friends. They had gone to high school together, and as I was chatting with them, the man said to me, “has your dad ever told you about our senior class trip to DC?” I said no, and noticed that dad looked slightly embarrassed.
“Well, your father won’t want to admit this,” the man began, “but we broke away from the group one day and sneaked into a burlesque show. Your dad got so excited that his nose started bleeding.”
“The Bible says not to judge a man by his past,” dad chuckled awkwardly and quickly suggested that he and I go out for lunch.
My father had worked for the same newspaper when he was a boy, first delivering papers on his bicycle, and then working in the circulation department when he got into high school. One of the sports writers, an older man whose last name was Bowling, remembered dad from those years but didn’t have any risqué stories to tell, which disappointed me. I also learned that my father’s two brothers had also been Star employees, one in accounting and the other as a pressman. Working for The Elizabethton Star was obviously a Carrier family tradition, and I understood why my father had wanted me to join the staff.
I was especially impressed with Pat Cole, a man not much older than me, who covered the news beat and was given all the big breaking stories. I accompanied him around town one afternoon, stopping by the police station and the court house where he used his newshound instincts to find good leads. He had a very friendly personality and could get even the most hard-nosed officials to submit to interviews.
Rozie gave me an empty desk in front of Sandra Keller, who was editor of the women’s section and next to Steve Nelson, one of the reporters. Around 40 or so, Steve was talented and could do everything well. He wrote features, interviewed important members of local government, could re-write stories pulled off the wire, giving them a local slant, and was able to design the front page. He often had the responsibility of running the newsroom on Saturdays, preparing the big Sunday edition.
But there was something odd about him which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Despite his many skills, he didn’t seem to have the respect of his peers and I sometimes noticed people rolling their eyes behind his back. When he started paying me an unusual amount of attention, finding excuses to talk to me and inviting me out for meals, I began to catch on.
“Is Steve married?” I casually asked Sandra one day. She looked at me with a knowing expression and shook her head.
“No, Steve definitely does not have a wife,” she said, trying to suppress a giggle. “Just don’t pay any attention to him.”
I never heard anyone use the word “gay,” but it was pretty clear that’s what they were saying. Steve was a nice guy, however. I liked him. No one at the office knew that I was also gay, and had Steve been younger, I might have accepted his dinner invitations. Instead, I found reasons to watch one of the muscular maintenance guys whenever he’d use a step-ladder to change light bulbs. And I never tired of discreetly staring at a young sportswriter named Janeway who had a habit of wearing tight jeans and tight shirts.
“Let’s see what you can do,” Rozie said after the tour was complete and I had settled into the desk. “Here is a name and a phone number. A group is being organized to clean up one of the county’s oldest cemeteries. See what you can find out and write it up as a story.”
I dialed the number and spoke to a member of the local historical society, who told me about the project. Several inmates from a local prison were getting rid of the weeds and briars in a very old and neglected cemetery where Revolutionary War soldiers were buried. I looked at my notes, tore off a piece of that gray copy paper and started typing. I had never been taught how to type and used two fingers, but I managed. Half an hour later, I handed the story to Rozie and waited for her response with bated breath.
She only made one correction then handed it to Sandra. “Read this,” she said. “I think we have a good writer here!”
I was thrilled beyond description to see the story in the paper the next day. And it was on the front page, even if it was at the bottom, below the fold. And it was credited to “Jeff Carrier Student Writer.” I read the article over and over.
It was the kind of story I liked, combining history and human interest. Occasionally, Rozie would assign a news story to me, but I was not well-suited for serious reporting. I did not enjoy covering school board meetings or reporting on changes to zoning regulations. I wanted to write stories about interesting people, stories that would allow me to be creative and not confine me to quoting the mayor or police chief.
During my three summers working for the Star, I had the great pleasure of writing several feature stories and human interest articles, and each summer one or two stories stood out as my favorites.
In early June of 1982, Lamarr Alexander was campaigning for a second term as Governor of Tennessee. Elizabethton was one of his campaign stops, and while in town, he spent a few hours helping to paint the walls of a home for battered children. Pat Cole was given the assignment to cover the governor’s visit, but I persuaded Rozie to let me talk to him while he was at the children’s home. “Ok,” she said. “but bring us back a good story.”
I had met Lamarr Alexander in 1978 when he was campaigning for his first term. He spent the night in our home and became friends with my father. I was only 15 at the time, but I hoped he might remember me.
He had just dipped his brush into a can of white paint when I approached him. “Excuse me, sir,” I said rather timidly. “I’m Jeffrey Carrier. Rev Ed Carrier of Mountain City is my father.”
He stopped mid-stroke and let the brush fall into the can. “Ed Carrier’s son?” He turned around and stared at me. “Look at you. You’re all grown up!”
“Yes, I guess I am,” I smiled. “I’m working for the local paper and I’m hoping I can get some quotes from you.”
“Anything for Ed’s son,” he said with a grin, and we talked for about fifteen minutes. I tried to write about Governor Alexander as a man who cared about the community, not merely as a politician who was after votes. The story made the front page the next day and Pat kidded me, hinting that I was after his job as senior news reporter. He had nothing to worry about! Mr. Alexander easily won another term and remains one of the most popular governors in the history of the state.
A couple weeks later, on a slow Saturday afternoon in the newsroom, I gave in to a nagging desire and obtained the number of a long-retired silent movie star by calling an operator in Connecticut and asking if Effingham Deans was listed in the Stamford telephone directory. It was Mrs. Deans that I was actually trying to find. Silent movie fans knew her as Patsy Ruth Miller and I had read somewhere that she had married Mr. Deans and retired to Stamford. The operator gave me the number and I nervously dialed, almost hoping that no one would answer. But when a woman picked up and admitted that yes, she was Mrs. Deans and yes, she had once been known professionally as Patsy Ruth Miller, we had a long and lively chat. I told her that I had been a fan ever since seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame in a film class at college.
“You were so good as Esmeralda,” I said. “I thoroughly enjoyed your performance. And you held your own in the scenes with Lon Chaney.”
“I made that film 60 years ago,” she chuckled. “I can’t believe that it’s still being shown.”
As our conversation was ending, I asked her permission to write about her for the newspaper. She didn’t seem pleased at first. “I didn’t know this was an interview,” she said, and my spirits sank. “Oh, what the hell. Go ahead. But please send me a copy.” I agreed enthusiastically, and then she spoke again.
“If you want to talk to another old dame from silent movies, I’ll give you the number of Laura La Plante.”
Laura La Plante! I couldn’t believe it! We had watched one of her movies in the same class, a 1927 silent film called The Cat and the Canary, in which her marcelled blonde hair stood on end as she was menaced by a ghostly figure in a creepy old house.
I called Miss La Plante and found her to be just as delightful as Patsy Ruth Miller. I quickly typed up the story while the conversations were still reverberating in my head and had it ready for Rozie’s desk by Monday morning. I did not talk to Laura La Plante again, but that Saturday afternoon conversation with Patsy Ruth Miller was the beginning of a long friendship that culminated in our working together on her memoirs a few years later. Not only was the article a highlight of that summer, but it had a profound effect on my life and career.
Not every story was easy to write. Sometimes I struggled to find the right words or the right angle. Sometimes I couldn’t come up with a good opening. Those challenges were especially difficult when I was working against a deadline, and often I’d have to get up and walk around the office to clear my mind, usually ending up in the break room, where I’d feed quarters into the PacMan arcade game. I must have spent half my salary on that silly game, but it always worked. After a while I could go back to my desk and finish the story, sometimes with only a few minutes to spare.
But other stories wrote themselves. I especially enjoyed meeting older people and learning about their lives. Each summer I chose a different nursing home and would hang out there for a few hours in the afternoon, talking to the residents. The elderly have a lot to say, if only someone will take the time to listen. I picked up some very good stories on those afternoons. One woman who was almost 100 had run for public office in 1919, a year before women were able to vote. She lost, but she was very proud of her trailblazing.
“So many of my friends, women friends, wanted to vote for me, but they couldn’t,” she said. “At that time, a woman would be arrested if she tried to vote. But I did come in second, so a lot of men must have liked me.”
And another woman had seen Orville and Wilbur Wright fly their historic plane at a state fair, ushering in the era of air travel.
“A big crowd of us were watching,” she explained. “No one believed they would ever get that contraption in the air, but it started rolling through a long field, got faster and faster and then it just lifted off the ground and soared into the sky. We were amazed, and we cheered and shouted! Planes fly through the air every day now, but that was the first time anyone had ever seen one.”
Other memorable stories including talking to a woman who had been conscripted into the Nazi Army as a teenager in Austria during World War Two and hearing the exciting adventures of a woman who had flown bombers during the same war. I marveled at their stories and tried to get across to the reader how important it was to document the memories of these people while they were still alive.
I not only talked to the very old, but also had great fun talking to the very young. In the summer of 1984, Rozie gave me my own weekly feature called “An Ordinary Special Kid” in which I went out into the community and talked to kids, learning what was important to them. I’d ask questions like “What do want to be when you grow up?” “If you were granted three wishes, what would you wish for?” and “If you were President of the United States, what is the first thing you would do?” Their answers were cute and funny and sometimes very surprising. I often think about those kids and wonder how their lives turned out.
One of the stories that got a lot of attention was about a special birthday party held for a goose named Lucy! It was her 43rd birthday and the story was even picked up by GRIT, a national tabloid. Lucy, it turned out, was the oldest goose alive at that time in the U.S. A couple who read the story in GRIT flew to Tennessee the next summer from their home in Iowa to help the goose celebrate birthday number 44! Lucy lived one more year, dying a few months after turning 45.
Of all the stories I wrote for the Star during my three summers with them, the experience that affected me the most and touched a place deep in my soul was when I interviewed three gold star mothers for a Memorial Day feature article.
During wartime it is every mother’s fear that a gold star will be tacked to her door. It means that she has lost a child in battle. For the story, I located three gold star mothers. One had lost a son in World War II, one woman’s boy had died in Korea and another lost her only child in Vietnam. It was heartbreaking to listen to them talk about their sons with pain and pride, showing me letters and photos as well as medals and commendations from the military. Eugene Walker, Tommy Johnson and Thomas Treadway had all died heroically.
“It’s so hard for a mother to see her son go off to war, knowing he may never come home,” said Lillie Walker, whose 19-year-old son was killed in November of 1944. “Why is it that we are always fighting? We are all made by the same God. Why can’t we get along?”
It’s a question that can never be answered.
As the final summer was ending, Rozie organized a farewell party in the break room, complete with a frosted cake and some gifts. When I walked out of the Star office at closing time on Friday, August 10, 1984, ready to begin my senior year in college, it was the end of the best job I’ve ever had.
I only knew my father for 28 years, and I have a treasure of memories from those years, but the memory that is most precious to me is a warm afternoon I spent with him in early August of 1991. And when I recently uncovered a small stack of letters from 1959, I was reminded of that warm afternoon so many years ago.
Tied up in a bright green ribbon, the letters had been saved by my mother and told the story of my parents’ romance, starting with a couple of very polite but reserved notes in February, romantic letters sent back and forth in the spring and summer, and a few letters in the fall in which they were making plans for their wedding. They fell in love very quickly.
I was living in New York City in 1991, but I had returned to East Tennessee for a 10-year high school reunion. Dad had been suffering from heart failure for a few months and was waiting for a heart transplant, but medication seemed to be controlling his condition. He was thin and did not look well, but he had energy and was managing to keep up his busy schedule as the pastor of Oak Grove Baptist Church, near Johnson City.
The last full day before my flight back to New York, my father surprised me at the breakfast table by suggesting that he and I drive up to Knott County, Kentucky. I had an uncle and aunt living there and a couple of cousins, so I said that would be fun. My mother had been dead for 14 years, and my stepmother objected. She had made other plans that day for my father and she tried to talk him out of the idea, reminding him that such a trip might be stressful.
“Jeff can do the driving and I’ll be fine,” dad insisted, and his wife just shook her head. “Go ahead and do what you want,” she said. “But don’t blame me if it tires you out.”
Obviously, dad wanted the two of us to make that journey, and I am so glad that we did. We drove to Mousie, a tiny coal-mining town in the mountains between Pikeville and Hazard. My mother had grown up there and I had spent many happy days there as a child with my grandmother.
Beginning early in 1959, while attending a Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, he was one of several students who were sent to small churches in the mountains where they could practice their craft on Sunday mornings. My father was assigned to the Mousie Missionary Baptist Church in early February, where a young woman named Anna Louise Huff was a member. She was 23 years old and although she did have occasional dates with local young men, she didn’t take any of them seriously.
As we drove into Mousie and passed by the church, dad asked me to slow the car as he looked wistfully at the small building with wide concrete steps leading up to the front doors. He told me that he noticed my mother the first Sunday he was there.
“I had trouble concentrating on my sermon because I kept looking at that face in the third row,” he reminisced. “I thought she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.”
I learned that on the second Sunday he was there he made a point of talking to her but it took him more than a month before he got up enough nerve to talk to her again and a couple more weeks before he timidly suggested they spend some time together.
“I was determined to get to know her,” he chuckled. “She was all I could think about.”
We had lunch with Uncle Mike and Aunt Ramona and their two sons, Michael and Mark, and then dad took the wheel and drove out into the country, on a twisting road squeezed between the steep coal-laden hills. We came to a small lake and dad parked the car in a spot where we could look out over the tranquil water. We got out and leaned against the car, and my father put his arm around my shoulder
“This is where your mother and I had our first date,” he said, his voice softening. He explained that a friend of his at the time used to lend his small row-boat to people for paddling on the lake, and he had made arrangements ahead of time for the craft to be there, waiting.
“We had a picnic lunch packed in a big basket, and we rowed out and ate and talked and laughed. We spent a couple of hours out there, just drifting in the water. I knew that day that she was the girl for me,” he said, as he squeezed my shoulder. “It was warm for early May. The sky was blue and the sun was bright and I thought it was the most perfect day that God had ever created.”
A few hours after their date at the lake, my mother wrote to my father.
Dear Ed –
It’s late but I am still in high spirits. I keep waiting for the let-down that my senior English teacher was always talking about. She said that always when she was in high spirits there would be a drop or let-down when she would almost hit rock bottom. My let-down hasn’t come yet and I hope it never does.
Really, Ed, you don’t need to try and flatter me any more. No kidding. Today on the lake you gave me so many compliments that you actually had me running straight to the mirror when I got home, thinking I might really be pretty.
Until next weekend…
Dad and I left the lake and made our way to the little town of Hindman, about ten miles away, where dad drove around for several minutes trying to find a particular street. He found it, finally, and pulled up in front of a modest white house. An old rose was clinging desperately to a leaning fence in the front yard and the small lawn needed mowing. A geranium was blooming in a clay pot next to the front porch.
Dad knocked on the screen door, which was opened by a white-haired woman. She regarded us with a quizzical expression, her eyes buried in a mass of little wrinkles. There was kindness in her eyes.
“Mrs. Bell?” dad asked. “I’m Ed Carrier.”
“Ed Carrier!” she exclaimed and opened the door wide for us to enter. “Oh, my goodness. Come in! Come in!”
She held open her arms and gave my father a big hug, then she looked at me. “This is my son, Jeffrey,” he said. And then she hugged me.
She called out to someone, and an old man appeared from another room. “It’s Ed Carrier and his son,” she explained. “I think he looks like his mother. Do you remember Louise Huff?”
He greeted my father with a big smile and shook my hand with a strong grip that belied his age. I was introduced to Dr. J. S. Bell and his wife, Beulah. Mr. Bell looked at me closely, then nodded to his wife. “You do look like your mother,” he said, “especially around the eyes. I knew your parents before they knew each other.”
When my father was spending weekends in Kentucky perfecting the art of preaching, he stayed with the Bells. Dr. Bell was also a pastor, long retired, and was still beloved by the people of Hindman. And Dr. Bell had been one of the clergymen who performed the marriage ceremony when my father and mother became man and wife at the Mousie Baptist Church on March 26, 1960.
I loved meeting the Bells. They were salt-of-the-earth people, and they made a great impression on me. Seeing them again obviously meant a lot to my father. As they talked and reminisced, the years fell away and I could see dad as a young man with so much life ahead of him. It made me a little sad to know that some of those hopes for a bright and happy future had not come true. His wife was sickened with leukemia and died after 17 years of marriage, and now he was facing his own mortality.
In an undated letter to my father, my mother mentions the Bells.
Dearest Ed –
I’ve missed you today. Just knowing you are on your way back to Louisville makes me feel lonely. I’ll try calling you later tonight.
I saw Mrs. Bell this evening and she wants you to preach for Brother Bell Sunday night. She will contact you directly but wanted to know if you had any other plans for that night. I guess the cat is out of the bag that we are sweet on each other. She told me how much she and Bro. Bell like you and feel that you are going to be a great preacher one day. I think so, too.
Ed, you were so sweet and kind all weekend. I love you so much.
Missing you… Louise
It was getting to be late afternoon by the time we said our good-byes with hugs and promises to keep in touch, but I never did see those wonderful people again. I slid into the driver’s seat and pointed the car toward Tennessee, but dad said there was one more place he wanted to visit.
“That was a wonderful summer,” he said, his voice colored with nostalgia. “I could hardly wait to drive from Louisville to Mousie every Saturday morning, and the first place I’d stop was the house where your mother lived. We’d sit in the front room, hold hands and talk. Her three younger brothers were always there, watching us and giggling.”
By the middle of August during the summer of 1959, my father had already decided that he wanted to marry my mother and although I don’t know the details of his proposal, I’m sure he was overjoyed when she said yes.
In a letter dated August 15, he writes:
Dearest Louise –
I enjoy being with you so much. Every time I see you it makes me happy. You are such a fine person, and if I may say so, a pretty one, too. After we were together at the church service last Sunday, a young man came up to me and told me that I sure was dating a very pretty girl. I told him you were going to be my wife, and he looked so jealous.
The reason I want to be sure of your ring size is so I can have an engagement ring made for you. My mother gave me her engagement ring. She has not worn it for years. She broke the mounting when we were kids. I am having the diamond set in an artcarved (yellow gold) mounting. I hope you will like it.
Maybe we can give it to our oldest son when he gets engaged.
Louise, I love you very much. Words seem inadequate to express my feelings.
With all my love,
As we drove out of Hindman, dad directed me to take a serpentine road that went up and over a mountain, with several tight curves, and ended up in the small town of McDowell. As we drove into the town, he pointed out a small brick church and said that was where he preached during the final semester at the seminary. He also motioned to a little white house behind the church.
“That is the first place your mother and I lived after we were married,” he said. “We were so happy there. Each morning she drove over the mountain to Hindman where she worked in the ASC office. I was so worried about her driving that mountain road every day, but she always got there and back. The happiest moment of every day was hearing her come in the door.”
On September 14, my father wrote:
My dearest Louise –
I made it back to Louisville about 10:30 pm. It is after 11 now, but I didn’t want to go to bed without writing to you first.
I sure had a wonderful time this weekend and was so glad for the chance to see you again.
A friend of mine here in the dorm saw your picture and his comment was, “boy, she is a lot better looking than you are!” I knew that people would start wondering why a good-looking girl like you would put up with an ugly man like me.
You looked so pretty today before I left to return to Louisville. It would not have taken much to get me to go AWOL from classes for a day or two.
Brother Bell told me that a church in McDowell is interested in having me preach for them, so he thinks I should move over there in January. They will pay me fifty dollars a week. It will be my last semester at the seminary and some of the guys are having trouble finding churches, so I’m lucky that the one in McDowell asked for me. God’s hand must be in it.
I am glad that you are already thinking about dinner-ware. I will try to get over to Sears this week and see what they have. And you should come up here soon and look at the patterns and find one that you like. I will buy whatever you want.
As I write this letter I feel a pain of loneliness that only your presence can heal. I pray that soon we can always be together. I shall never be able to express in words what you mean to me.
Louise, my thoughts of you are more than the stars in the sky.
All my love,
And my mother wrote back a few days later.
Dear Ed –
I sure am glad to know you made it back to Louisville without any problems. You didn’t leave until after dark and I was worried about you driving that long distance so late.
Sherman Casebolt was kidding me the other night. He said he told you that he knows a girl who can make good cornbread. I had to laugh to think that you would think that was the most important thing when looking for a wife.
I am sorry I was in a bad mood the day you left. I feel ashamed for the way I was talking. I just feel sad whenever you have to leave. Remember, you promised to spank me whenever I get in a mood like that. Why didn’t you? Ha.
Ed, I love you very much. That was such a cute saying you added at the end of your letter. You are full of things like that, aren’t you.
I’ll be missing you until I see you this weekend.
We left McDowell as the sun was starting to sink in the sky, the tall mountains casting long shadows across the town. It was a three hour drive back to Tennessee and dad said very little. He seemed lost in thought. I’m sure he was missing my mother and perhaps he was looking forward to seeing her again in Heaven.
On the afternoon that my father introduced me to the people and places that connected him to when he was young, in love, and beginning his life-long career as a preacher, I felt closer to him than I ever had before. I loved that he was sharing those special memories with me, and when I was standing by his casket six weeks later, I understood why he had wanted us to spend those hours together. He knew his life was ending, and he wanted me to be with him as he re-lived the memories of his courtship. He wanted me to appreciate the happiness he and my mother had known when they were young and starting their life together.
It was a wonderful gift for a father to give a son.
There is a portrait in one of my photo albums that was taken in September of 1988. I appear to be very pleased as I look at the camera with a grin. I remember the day, and I had good reason to look so satisfied. It was my first day as a full-time employee of Ogilvy & Mather, the advertising behemoth responsible for so many ads seen on television, heard on radio and displayed on billboards.
It wasn’t a very glamorous job, however. I was hired as a secretary with a yearly salary of $19,000, but that was more money than I had ever earned and I felt sinfully rich!
I had worked at Ogilvy & Mather since May as a temporary employee, first in the accounting department where my job was taking large stacks of cancelled checks and putting them in order by number. The task was tedious and boring and I was delighted to be transferred a couple weeks later to the Public Relations Department to fill in for vacationing secretary Anne Bingman and answer the phone for Toni Maloney. That was a very busy office and I learned a lot about the agency, as press releases were written there and the company newsletter was put together every week. I must have handled the responsibilities well enough because when Miss Bingman returned from vacation, I was kept on to be her assistant for another month.
Anne and I became very good friends. She is perhaps the funniest person I have ever known and we spent more time laughing than we did working. That was a good thing because I had no secretarial skills and keeping me away from the typewriter was advisable. My hunt-and-peck method of typing made Anne giggle.
Toni Maloney was moonlighting as a promoter of some low-budget stage productions, and one of her plays was about to open at a tiny theater on 44th Street, a few blocks west of Broadway. It was called Snow White Falling, and she asked Anne and me to help with publicity. All we had to do, she said, was visit an upscale nightclub and hand out flyers for the play. That sounded fun… until she added that we’d be wearing enormous paper mache heads of “Alice in Wonderland” characters. Ugh. But, being good sports, we squeezed the heads into the back of a taxi and gave the driver directions to the club. I might not be remembering correctly, but I think it was called The Hot Rob Club. I do know that it was on the edge of Midtown, near the west side highway.
For two hours, we wandered around the club feeling like fools, trying to maintain our balance as the big heads tilted to one side and the other. Mine was the cheshire cat and Anne’s was the rabbit. We did hand out several flyers, but we generated more laughter than interest in the play. Anne finally gave up, took off her big rabbit head, sat at the bar, ordered a martini and lit a cigarette.
I enjoyed working at O&M so much that I went to the personnel office and asked to be considered for a full-time position. They promised to keep me in mind, but in the meantime, I was assigned to a couple more short-term secretarial positions. However, in early September I was offered a full-time position as assistant secretary in the Gordon Bowen Creative Group. Mr. Bowen had an executive assistant named Susan Martin, but there was so much work being generated by that group that they needed a second secretary. They handled American Express, which was probably the agency’s most prestigious account. They also created advertising for Nationwide Insurance and the Christian Children’s Fund. A very friendly member of the Human Resources office named Sonnie Van Loo walked me over to the group to introduce me. Everyone was so young. No one was over 40. The creative director, Gordon Bowen, had just celebrated his 38th birthday.
I think there were about a dozen people in that group. Some were copywriters and some were artists, and there was also a producer who was in charge of finding talent for the American Express television commercials. Her name was Michelle Avantario and she was very pretty, with a raspy voice and a very sensual Italian personality. Others in the group included Marc Klein, Parry Merkley, Ellen Little, Denise Gigante and Michael Vines, who was probably the most handsome man I had ever seen. He was also a screenwriter and one of his scripts had recently been made into a low-budget horror movie called American Gothic, starring Yvonne DeCarlo and Rod Steiger.
My first day as a full-time employee was a Friday, and it was the beginning of the Labor Day weekend. I spent the morning filling out forms and having my company portrait taken. The photographer was a wonderful woman named Sara who was a wizard with the camera and made everyone look gorgeous!
After lunch I was finally ready to settle into the small desk next to Susan. Our desks were in a large open area, with the offices surrounding us in all directions. Mr. Bowen had the largest office, with its big windows overlooking 5th Avenue.
Susan was very nice and helpful and welcomed me with enthusiasm. She was from England and spoke in a refined way, her perfect diction and accent giving away her upper class origins. But she suffered from depression and I learned that she had recently been released from a sanitarium following a nervous breakdown. She was still a little unsteady and obviously I had been hired to take some pressure off of her. I liked her very much. She was a skilled raconteur and I loved hearing amusing stories of her eccentric family in London. But on that first afternoon, I knew nothing about her. In fact, we only spent about five minutes together because she was preparing to leave. Only a graphic artist named Tom Wambach was still there. Everyone else was gone.
As it was the last holiday weekend of summer, many people at the agency were leaving early to get a head start on their activities. By mid-afternoon the halls and offices were mostly deserted.
So there I was, in a new suit, sitting at my little desk, ready to go to work… and there was nothing to do. But a ringing phone soon pierced the stillness. There were several lights on the console, each labeled according to whose office phone was ringing, and I saw right away that it was Gordon Bowen’s, the boss. Susan was his personal secretary and handled all of his calls, but she was gone, so I picked up the phone with fingers that trembled slightly. It was a woman talking very fast about needing a plane ticket to Europe. She said she had been hired to be in an American Express commercial that was being shot in Greece but no one had contacted her about a ticket and could she please talk to Mr. Bowen. She was very annoyed when I explained that he was not in, it was my first day on the job and that I didn’t know anything about the commercial.
“Okay… I’ll explain it to you,” she said slowly, trying to control her temper. “I have been hired to be in an Amex commercial. It is being shot next week in Greece and I have been waiting for someone to contact me about the travel arrangements. I am not buying my own ticket. I was assured that the agency would take care of everything. I want to be on the same plane as Roy Thinnes, who is playing my husband in the commercial, so please take care of it right away. Roy and I are both in Los Angeles so being on the same flight should not be difficult to arrange.”
She gave me her name and number and told me to call her back within the hour. “I have a meeting with my agent later and you won’t be able to reach me.”
The first thing I did was try to seek the advice of Tom Wombach, whose office was a little further down the hall, but his office door was locked. He had left while I was on the phone. Realizing that I had to find out when Mr. Thinnes was flying to Greece, I finally managed to gather my thoughts and my wits and look through the company directory. I found the name of Daisy Sinclair, listed as Director of Talent, and dialed her extension. She was out of the office (naturally) but her secretary was in, and as I sputtered and stuttered and tried to explain my situation, she calmed me down and said she could give me the number of the agent who represented Roy Thinnes.
I called the William Morris Agency and asked for that particular agent. It took me a while to articulate what I needed, but I finally convinced the woman that I really was calling from Ogilvy & Mather and I really did need to know the flight that Mr. Thinnes was taking to Greece. She gave me the information and I thought the problem was solved, but then I realized that I had to somehow get the actress on the same flight. I couldn’t pay for the ticket myself, as I didn’t even have a credit card.
Back to the company directory I went, where I found a listing for the travel department. I put a call through and after several rings, it was answered by Mavora Barcheski. She was one of the agency’s travel agents and was trying to get out of the office early. She was not very friendly at first, but when I explained that it was my first day, there was no one else who could help me, and I was desperate to get the problem solved, she took pity on me and asked me to slowly explain what I needed. I gave her the flight information, the name of the actress and asked that she be booked on the flight. By some miracle, Mavora accomplished the task very quickly and I was able to call the woman back before an hour had passed, although I only had about a minute to spare.
I learned later that she and Mr. Thinnes had a very good flight and were able to discuss the commercial while flying over the ocean, helping them to be prepared when they arrived on location.
As I look at that official Ogilvy & Mather portrait, I am so glad that it was taken in the morning and not later in the afternoon because I would have looked frantic and exhausted. I worked at Ogilvy for six years, and although I did have many other challenges, none were quite as daunting as the one on that first day.
Having no secretarial skills, it is surprising that I lasted for six years, and I can only guess that it’s because I tried to be pleasant and helpful and smiled a lot. During my brief career as a secretary, I worked for two men and four women. I think the women enjoyed having a male assistant and tried to cut me some slack, but after a few mistakes I’d be transferred to a different position.
My longest-lasting job at O&M was working for the Bowen Creative Group and in some ways, it was my happiest experience there. American Express generated a lot of work and brought a lot of glory to the agency. And Gordon Bowen was responsible for that glory. His advertising instincts were spot on and the agency produced one award-winning campaign after another.
Gordon was a brilliant man, certainly, but he also seemed to be tormented by personal demons. He would often sit in his office, alone in semi-darkness, jotting down his thoughts on a yellow notepad. Sometimes I would see the cryptic scriblings when I’d put mail on his desk, things like “it is not good for man to be alone,” “take advantage of New York opportunities,” “repair relationship with dad,” “I’ve never been attached to anyone” and “I have sinned greatly against God.”
He also seemed to have difficulty managing his finances. He must have been making an enormous amount of money, but bills were never paid on time and creditors would call often, demanding payment and threatening litigation. One day he gave me an envelope bulging with cash and sent me by taxi to a bank to make a credit card payment which was overdue. I was flattered that he trusted me with the money, but couldn’t help being concerned. I decided that people who were brilliant were sometimes incapable of managing their own personal lives.
Soon after I started working for the Bowen group, the agency launched an American Express print campaign called “Portraits,” in which famous people were photographed by the celebrated Annie Liebowitz and shown with their Amex cards. Some of the celebrities who were signed for the campaign included Catherine Deneuve, Sammy Davis Jr., Ella Fitzgerald, Hume Cronyn & Jessica Tandy. It was tremendously successful and was named Print Campaign of the Decade.
The supremely talented Ella Fitzgerald was also hired to sing a few bars of the old classic Isn’t it Romantic for an American Express television commercial. A recording studio in Los Angeles was rented for the day and Miss Fitzgerald arrived, ready to record. But after a few hours it was obvious that her voice just wasn’t up to it, so the rights to one of her old recordings were secured instead. But while Gordon and a few members of the creative team were at the studio, Miss Fitzgerald autographed a dozen copies of the print ad used in the “Portraits” campaign. Those signed ads were given to the senior members of the group only, which disappointed me as I was a great fan of Ella Fitzgerald’s recordings. A few years later, near the end of my employment with Ogilvy, I was in the office on a Saturday and as I walked down a hallway at the other end of the floor, I spotted one of those signed ads pinned to a wall above a secretary’s desk. It wasn’t being treated with much respect, as it had tack-holes, was torn in one corner and was hanging at an angle. I looked at that ad with covetous eyes. No one was there and I was tempted to unpin it from the wall, slip it under my shirt and walk away… but I resisted, although it wasn’t easy.
Susan Martin tendered her resignation in February of 1989 and I was invited to move into her position as Gordon’s secretary. It meant a lot more work but, alas, no increase in salary. The call went out for an assistant secretary to fill my position, and I was delighted when my dear friend Anne Bingman was given the job. Our roles should have been reversed as she was a far more efficient secretary. Before long she was doing most of the typing while I merely had to answer the phones and maintain Gordon’s calendar. Once more, Anne and I did more laughing than working, just as we had when we were working together in public relations. A small bundle of energy and fun, she was in her early 30s, had twinkling blue eyes that were always full of mischief and her wavy brown hair fell softly around her petite shoulders.
During the first few months that I worked at Ogilvy, I was slowly coming out of the closet and learning to embrace my sexuality. Anne was one of the first people I felt comfortable talking to about being gay. She responded with sensitivity and kindness and total acceptance. I’ve lost touch with her over the years, so wherever you are dear Anne, thanks for the friendship and for making it a pleasure to come to work every day.
My two best friends at the agency were Anne and Mavora, the woman from the travel department who had been so helpful on my first day, but I also got to know a few of the other creative department secretaries, including Barbara Riches, a no-nonsense woman from Brooklyn whose ribald sense of humor could make the sphinx chuckle. Very few men were employed as secretaries at Ogilvy, but once in a while in the company cafeteria I’d see a young man who worked for one of the executives. His name was Alexander and he was tall and slender and had impeccable taste in clothes. He usually wore Italian slacks, starched white shirts and colorful ties. His hair was dark and curly and was always perfectly styled. We never had long conversations, but we often exchanged pleasantries and flirted with our eyes. I wanted to know him better, but before that could happen, he was hospitalized with pneumonia, and a week later he was dead, a victim of AIDS. I felt very sad when I saw the notice of his death in the newsletter. So many lives were cut short because of that terrible disease.
Soon after Anne joined the Bowen group, Gordon decided to invite Barbra Streisand to participate in the Amex “Portraits” campaign. On that particular day, it was I who typed the letter and sent it to Miss Streisand’s production office in Manhattan. She regretfully declined, and a few days later Gordon asked to see a copy of the letter. He was writing to Paul Newman and wanted to use the Streisand letter as a template.
We were not yet using computers and all correspondence was typed, with carbon copies put into the files. But the letter was not in Gordon’s correspondence file, nor was it in the American Express file. I had failed to make a copy and I panicked!
“Jeffrey, I’m waiting for that letter!” Gordon called out from his office. I looked at Anne with an expression of terror and, being a kind and sweet person, she told Gordon the letter had been misfiled and he’d have it shortly. Then she called Miss Streisand’s office and explained that because someone, probably a stupid temporary employee, had not copied the letter, would they mind making a copy and sending it over to us right away? Anne was so convincing that she and Miss Streisand’s assistant were soon laughing and chatting, and an hour later a copy of the letter was delivered by special messenger. Before handing it to Gordon, I made a dozen copies and put one in every file so it would never be lost again.
In the spring of 1989, Ogilvy & Mather moved from East 47th Street to West 49th Street. We occupied several floors of the brand new Worldwide Plaza, a 50-floor office tower that filled an entire block between 49th and 50th Streets and from 8th to 9th Avenues. It was a magnificent building, with a shiny copper roof that narrowed until it came to point. When we first moved in, a crew of carpenters was still installing the beautiful stair-rails and banisters. They were Irish craftsmen who took great pride in their work and I enjoyed hearing them talk to each other in their lilting Irish accents. There is something exciting about moving into a new building, with everything being untouched by previous tenants. We shared the skyscraper with two other companies, a Japanese investment firm and the law offices of Cravath, Swain and Moore.
Occasionally as I was taking the elevator to the floor where the Gordon Bowen Creative Group had their offices, it would make an unscheduled stop on a very strange floor that did not correspond to any number on the panel. The door would open to reveal plastic sheeting hanging from the ceiling, waving back and forth in a phantom breeze, with ladders and drop cloths and small buckets smeared with various colors of paint scattered all around. It was a mysterious tableau, as though it had been staged. There were never any people there, and it had a very odd and eerie look, as though the workers had suddenly vanished while they were in the middle of a task. I sometimes heard people whispering about the strange “ghost floor” and warning each other not to step off the elevator if it should stop there. “If you get off on that floor, you’ll never be seen again,” I heard one woman say to another at the water fountain.
Gordon and his team had their offices in the southwest corner of the 10th floor. There were no tall buildings to the west and from Gordon’s window it was easy to see the Hudson River and the Palisades of New Jersey on the other side. It was a lovely view, especially at sunset when oranges and reds and pinks would blend in the sky above the far horizon.
My desk was outside Gordon’s office, but Anne’s desk was around the corner, out of view. She was no longer able to double-check my work and correct errors. And, later that summer, I made a colossal mistake that almost got me booted out the door.
Gordon was still in charge of all American Express advertising, and the executives at Amex regarded him as a Midas who turned everything to gold. Applications for their various credit cards had doubled, as had their profits. One afternoon a woman from the office of that company’s Chairman called and told me to put a luncheon the following week on Gordon’s calendar. For some reason, which can only be described as ineptitude, I put it on my calendar but not Gordon’s. The luncheon was scheduled to begin at 1 pm, and an hour later, the same woman, whose name was Rose, called to ask why Gordon was not there. I saw the notation on my calendar but realized with a sinking heart that I had not told Gordon about the luncheon. He was at his desk, in one of his reflective moods, and I kept my eyes focused on the floor when I told him he was an hour late for an important lunch at Amex. He rushed out of the building and managed to flag down a taxi at the corner of 8th Avenue. He did not return that afternoon.
The next day he was in the office before me, and I saw an envelope on my desk marked “personal.” Inside the envelope was a letter written in his florid style, in bold black ink.
“This is the first time I can ever remember being furious,” it began. “I spoke with Rose in Aldo’s office and she said she had personally confirmed my invitation to the luncheon with you. Do you know how embarrassing it is to walk in 1 ½ hours late to a luncheon and find out you were a guest of honor and seated right next to Aldo at table #1? The seat was empty the whole time. A slap in the face to the Chairman of Amex. I felt like a moron.”
I have kept that letter for more than 30 years, as a reminder to always take the responsibilities of a job seriously. Gordon didn’t fire me, but I was on shaky ground and much of the joy of the job disappeared.
New people joined the Bowen group that spring and summer, people who were ambitious, talented and very young. The first new additions were Lona and Augusten, an artist and copywriter team who were assigned to a piece of the American Express account. They were wunderkinds who had distinguished themselves with a brilliant advertising campaign on the west coast before O&M lured them to the east coast. Anne looked after their needs, but they had to go through me to see Gordon, so I got to know them fairly well. I admired their talent.
It wasn’t customary for group members to give Christmas presents to the secretaries, but Lona and Augusten were very thoughtful people and presented Anne and me with wrapped packages a few days before the holiday. Anne had just moved into a high-rise apartment building near the World Trade Center and they gave her one hundred dollars in quarters. “It’s for the laundry machines,” they told her. The package for me contained one hundred dollars’ worth of subway tokens! I had recently moved to Brooklyn and commuting to work by subway wasn’t cheap. Anne and I were so very thankful and had to admit that no gifts could have been more practical. I have never forgotten their kindness.
When I left Ogilvy in 1994, I lost touch with them and had no idea how their careers had progressed. Several years later when I was living in Michigan, I was attending a Christmas party and overheard a conversation about a great book called Running with Scissors. And I heard them say that the author was Augusten Burroughs!
I learned that Augusten left advertising and wrote a brilliant memoir about his growing-up years. And the best-seller was turned into a movie starring Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. I was glad to find out what had happened to him, and took delight in telling the other party guests that I had once been his secretary. For a while I felt like a celebrity myself.
I had the same feeling of glee when I started seeing the name Jim Gaffigan in the cast lists of movies and television shows. I got to know him as well during the summer of 1989 when he was hired by the agency as an account coordinator on the Hardee’s account. I knew him only slightly and he would not remember me, but I used to see him when he’d stop by to talk to a couple of the copywriters. And then he became a copywriter himself. I knew that he occasionally appeared at a stand-up comedy club, but I had no idea how good he was. Obviously, he was very good and parlayed that experience into a successful show business career that is still flourishing.
I made it through the winter as Gordon’s assistant, but the pressure to never make a mistake was taking its toll and I started looking around for another position. And when Anne was transferred to a creative group on the other side of the building on another floor, I felt increasingly discontented. I read in the company newsletter that Julie Newton had been promoted to creative director and I contacted her. She had not yet chosen a secretary and our conversation went so smoothly that she offered me the job on the spot.
A week later, after a replacement could be found for the desk outside Gordon’s door, I settled into my new role as Julie’s assistant. She was young, about 35, and was a rising star at the agency. Pert and spunky and very self-sufficient, she relied on me to answer phones but took care of almost everything else herself.
She had recently married and the most difficult task I had was ordering stationery to reflect her new name of Julie Newton Cucchi. A few months later, as the birth of her daughter was approaching, the group decided to give her a baby shower and they asked me to create the announcement. I’m certainly not an artist, but I drew a simple illustration of a nude pregnant woman in profile taking a shower, with the headline “We’re Giving Julie a Shower.” Everyone seemed to like it and copies were made for distribution.
Because the workload for Julie was light, I began spending part of my time working on a book about Tallulah Bankhead. I had signed a contract with Greenwood Press to produce the book in 12 months, and the clock was ticking! Julie was very supportive of my writing endeavors and was probably the best boss I’ve ever had. Secretaries at O&M were evaluated every year and her evaluation of me was the best one I ever received, and was responsible for getting me a substantial raise. But things are always changing at advertising agencies, and after about a year, Julie’s creative team merged with a bigger creative group headed by the formidable Vel Richey Rankin.
Vel’s secretary was a lovely woman named Carol who left the agency for another job just as Julie and her team arrived. The position was open and with Julie as my advocate, I moved into the space outside Vel’s office.
Vel Richey Rankin was one of the most respected creative directors in the advertising industry, and Ogilvy was lucky to have her. It was uncommon at that time for a woman to be in a position of power, and I’m sure she had to fight hard for every inch as she climbed the career ladder. She was responsible for such accounts as Pepperidge Farm, Country Time Lemonade and the Dove Soap products. And she was worthy of every ounce of respect that she was given.
In her mid 50s, she was a tall woman with short-cropped blonde hair and a trim body, and she was always in motion, like a whirling dervish. She wore beautifully tailored pantsuits and had dark-rimmed glasses that were always perched at the end of her nose.
Such was her importance that when the agency moved into the new space at Worldwide Plaza, she refused to come to work until her office was doubled in size. She needed a space that was big enough to accommodate her long, black onyx bar, which was famous all though the agency. Management gave in, a wall was knocked down and the bar was put into place. Every piece of furniture in her office was black, with the bar as a centerpiece. She often wore white, which contrasted wonderfully with the dark décor. Each day she would bring in a fresh arrangement of stargazer lilies to sit on that bar, which filled her office with a glorious fragrance. It was an elegant office, worthy of a magazine layout.
She had started her career writing copy and still took an active hand in creating scripts for television commercials, and those scripts were produced on a petite manual typewriter on her small desk in one corner of the office. She was a most unusual person, and I admired her tremendously.
She was very well liked by David Ogilvy, the agency’s founder, who had retired to a chateau in France. He was close to 80 but was still very interested in the business and would make annual trips to New York. One afternoon he showed up at Vel’s office asking to see her. I had never seen the distinguished gentleman before and did not know who he was, and as I was explaining that Vel wasn’t free until later in the afternoon, she came around the corner at full speed.
“Jeff, it’s David Ogilvy,” she said to me rather sternly. “I always have time to see him. Don’t ever forget that.”
She ushered him into her office and closed the door. A few minutes later, Mr. Ogilvy re-appeared and instructed me to pick up a sandwich for him at a deli. When I asked what he wanted, he talked for five minutes, describing the variety of meat he preferred, the texture of lettuce he liked and the type of condiments he could tolerate. And it had to be on a particular kind of bread. I wasn’t able to get everything he wanted, but he ate the sandwich without complaining.
Vel was a difficult taskmaster and expected unwavering devotion and attention from her secretary, as she should. One day she saw me shuffling a stack of names written on little cards as I was compiling the index to the Tallulah Bankhead book. She gave me such a withering look with her eyes peering over her glasses that I never did any personal work again while on duty.
But she did seem to like me and always treated me fairly and with respect. She asked about my background and when she learned that I had grown up as a country boy in Tennessee, she said she had grown up as a country girl in Oklahoma.
“My name is Velva Jean,” she chuckled, using a country accent she had probably worked very hard to lose.
Sometimes, at the end of the day, she’d invite me to sit at her bar and have a glass of wine. We enjoyed a rapport, but I was unable to fully satisfy her demands, and in the fall of 1991, she suggested that I should look for a position elsewhere in the agency. She was very kind in the way she told me, but her message was clear.
A man named Mark Silveira had just joined Ogilvy as a creative director after a successful career in the northwest. He was assembling a team to handle the expanding Hardee’s account and needed a secretary. The details were worked out and I started working for him in early October, just after my father’s death. He was kind-hearted and sensitive, and when I asked to take a few days off to gather my thoughts, he not only approved my request but gave me a very nice letter, which I still have.
Denise Menard was brought in to look after the rest of the creative team, which included Rhonda Geraci, Antonio Navas, Clay Davies and a few other talented young people. Denise and I worked together very well. She was tall and willowy and was never in a bad mood, probably because she was in love and got engaged soon after she joined the group.
I enjoyed working for Mark Silveira, who was always very thoughtful and apologized whenever he’d give me a challenging task. Perhaps he was just too nice for the high-pressure environment and sometimes cut-throat nature of the advertising business. He tendered his resignation before he had celebrated his first anniversary, and I was set adrift. The personnel office told me that they would use me as a floater for a couple of weeks, but unless I could find a permanent position, I’d be let go. That scared me, and I started talking to everyone I knew, hoping to find a place to land.
The timing couldn’t have been better as the secretary who looked after the art buyers left and I applied for that position. I met with Norma Jean Smyley, the department head, and to my delight and relief, she asked me to join her group. My first day in the new position was in November of 1992.
Art Buying is a simple term to describe a complicated process. There are two kinds of advertising — commercials made for television, and advertising designed for print media. The art buyers were responsible for the photography used in print ads, whether it required hiring a photographer or using an existing photograph. Every time a client signed off on a print campaign, the call would go out to photographers, who would send over their portfolios. And when a photographer was hired, various fees had to be negotiated. It was a very busy department, with the phone ringing every few minutes, faxes coming in and going out, portfolios arriving every hour and art directors making appointments to discuss their current and upcoming projects.
Up to that point I had only worked for one person at a time, and it had spoiled me. As the Art Buying secretary, I not only answered Norma Jean’s phone, but also worked for Norma Krieger and Cindy Rivet, the two senior art buyers, as well as my friend Barbara Riches, who had moved up from secretarial and was now responsible for negotiating usage fees for existing photography. She was the stock buyer, and it was her job that I found the most fascinating. When a stock photo was needed, it was her responsibility to contact the various photography agencies and find the ideal photograph for the job. I was intrigued and decided that I wanted to be a stock buyer.
Norma Jean ran the art buying department with a sure hand and was very well liked by the agency’s art directors. She was much more relaxed than Cindy and Norma who were more serious types. And she always wore jeans and funky shirts. Sometimes she would treat us to a nice lunch at a fancy restaurant, including hiring a town car one afternoon to take us to the Tribeca Grill. I could not afford to dine in upscale restaurants and it was great fun to visit that trendy place owned by Robert De Niro. When we walked in, my eyes were drawn to a young man sitting at the bar whom I recognized immediately. It was Jaye Davidson, who had just been Oscar-nominated as best supporting actor for The Crying Game. He was sitting alone, occasionally looking around at the guests and perhaps feeling annoyed that no one was paying him any attention.
I got along very well with Norma Jean. She changed my title to administrative assistant and got me another raise, but Cindy never did warm up to me. When Norma Jean left in early 1994 to work directly with photographers as their agent, Cindy moved into the big office to sit in the big chair. No matter what I did, I never could seem to please her and the friction between us became very uncomfortable.
When Barbara Riches left the agency due to a health problem and moved to Arizona, I campaigned for her job as stock buyer, but was passed over. Realizing that I had no future in the art buying department and that I was probably destined to always be a secretary at Ogilvy, I began looking for a job elsewhere.
Still interested in stock photography, I reached out to some of the agencies who were on Barbara’s list of contacts. One of them (with the clever name of The Stock Market) offered me a job as account executive. I was thrilled! My last day at O&M was on a Friday and I started working at TSM on Monday. It was July of 1994. I had been at Ogilvy for six years and I walked along the halls on my last day, saying goodbye to people I knew and remembering so many good times. It was like saying farewell to an old and dear friend.
My experience in the art buying department served me well and I was given the Ogilvy & Mather account. Cindy found herself having to work with me to negotiate usage fees, which gave me a lovely feeling of satisfaction.
Working at The Stock Market was a thrill from morning to evening. I loved talking to the clients and helping them find the perfect images for their brochures, billboards, magazine covers and print ads. And when the agency started opening up branch offices in other areas of the country, I was appointed manager of The Stock Market Northwest, located in Portland, Oregon. That office opened in the summer of 1995, and I stayed there until 2001, when the office was closed after the company was purchased by Bill Gates and merged with Corbis.
My love of photography helped me segue into another career as an on-line retailer, selling vintage entertainment photos to collectors all over the world. It’s a job I’ve been doing for more than 20 years and hopefully, for many more.
But as I look back at the years I worked at Ogilvy, I remember the excitement of working in New York City, the thrill of being part of a company with a worldwide reputation and the pleasure of meeting so many delightful people. And when I think of Gordon and Julie and Vel and Mark and Norma Jean and Cindy, I wish I could have been a more reliable assistant, but I thank them for the experience. I learned something valuable from all of them, but I never did learn how to type properly.
A few days after the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I walked inside with an armful of groceries and heard the phone ringing. I was living in Portland, Oregon at the time, and had bought my very first home a few months earlier. I picked it up and said hello.
“Are you the Jeffrey Carrier who is from Tennessee and used to live in New York?” a pleasant male voice asked.
I acknowledged that I was, and suddenly my heart turned within my chest. The medical profession might scoff, but I felt it turn. The voice was familiar to me, and before he even identified himself, I knew who it was. A feeling of crippling despair returned from the past.
As if watching a home movie, I saw myself sitting under an umbrella on the patio of a bistro in the New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village. It was a warm Thursday evening near the middle of August in 1991 and I was waiting nervously for a stranger to join me for dinner. It was a blind date, arranged by a gay dating service called Man-Mate.
It was obviously a restaurant that catered to the gay community, as young men were seated at tables all around me. Some were on first dates, looking at each other with desire and longing, some were breaking up, barely concealing their sadness, and others were just enjoying an evening out.
I had been a member of the dating service for a couple of months, and although I had been on a few of these arranged dates, there had been no chemistry, no desire to see each other again. A man named Grant owned the business and when I went to his office to sign up, he took my picture, gave me a long list of questions to answer and promised me that he would match me with other men who were compatible, with whom I shared interests and goals and passions. So far, I had been disappointed, but Grant had assured me that there was something special and irresistible about Scott. And so there I was, waiting for this irresistible man to show up.
As I sat there under the shade of the umbrella, sipping an iced tea, I noticed young men wander onto the patio and sit under other umbrellas, but they were obviously not looking for me. And then I saw him, a man about my age, wearing a green shirt, khaki pants and deck shoes with no socks. His eyes swept over the faces of the restaurant customers and settled on me. A broad smile lit up his face. I stood with my hand out-stretched as he approached. Grant was right. There was something very special about him. He had presence, that hard-to-define quality that makes everyone look when he entered a room. His handshake was firm and he looked at me with a warm and friendly expression, his eyes never losing contact with mine. They were blue, a rich blue like a summer sky. His hair was flaxen. It looked soft and silky and it caressed his forehead, moving from side to side in the warm shifting breeze. He was about my height, a tad under six feet, and although he was not masculine, he was not feminine either. He had a very attractive epicene quality. And when he spoke, his voice was gentle and well-modulated, with a hint of southern charm. As we exchanged pleasantries, I told him that his face reminded me of an actor named Doug McClure. I expected a blank stare and a “who?” but he responded with a chuckle and a thank you. “Do you really think so?” he said. “I saw him in a movie called The Land that Time Forgot.”
We ordered food and ate slowly, chatting between bites, and the conversation was delightful and stimulating. There was instant simpatico. We were only two months apart in age, me being older, and we were both from small towns in Tennessee. And we had each lost a parent as a teenager – a father in his case and a mother in mine. And neither of us had any brothers or sisters. We also had a shared love of old movies and as the sunlight faded and the patio lights twinkled, we talked about our favorite movies and stars. He became rhapsodic at the mention of Constance Bennett and when I said that I had recently purchased a VHS tape of Topper, he reacted as though I possessed the Hope Diamond. Our meal was finished, so I boldly suggested that we go back to my apartment in Brooklyn and watch it. I was thrilled when he agreed.
When the bill was paid, I started to lead him to the nearest subway station, but he said he had his own car. It was fun to ride with him as he navigated through the traffic of lower Manhattan, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge and easily found my street in the neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. I felt so civilized as I filled two small glasses with dry sherry as a digestif while he looked around my little two-room garden apartment. He commented on the photos of Jennifer Jones hanging in the kitchen and some framed movie posters and old movie magazine covers decorating other walls.
Topper is a delightful 1937 comedy in which Constance Bennett and Cary Grant are fun-loving ghosts who take pleasure in haunting the hapless Roland Young. We took our places at each end of the sofa as the film began but started moving closer to each other, until there was no space between us. We found excuses to touch, and glances turned into long stares. With unspoken desires, we turned off the movie about halfway through. A few hours later, at ten after four, while the world was still sleeping, I took him to the front door and kissed him as he walked out into the darkness. I’ve still never seen the last half of that film!
We promised to keep in touch and hopefully see each other again soon, but we didn’t make a definite plan. I wasn’t sure if that wonderfully exciting evening would lead to something more, but I couldn’t help wishing. When I got off work the next evening, which was Friday, and headed home to Brooklyn, my mind was filled with thoughts of Scott. I was not really paying attention as I turned onto my street and came to my front gate. It was then that I looked up and there he was, standing at my front door, a big grin on his face! It was the first of a month of weekends we spent together, each one better than the last. I had never felt so giddy, so happy, so much in love. I had no way of knowing that the happiness would turn to bitterness. If there were red flags, I did not see them. Or perhaps I did not want to see them. As it turned out, he was fair of face but not of soul.
I’ve heard that animals can tell if a person is good or bad, and as I look back from a distance of thirty years, I can clearly understand that my beloved pet, a fluffy orange cat named Cooper, tried to send me a message. Cooper was a friendly cat who purred and rubbed his nose against everyone he met. But he did not like Scott. He would arch his back and hiss whenever he saw him, and I’d end up having to put him on the enclosed back porch whenever Scott would visit. I’m ashamed to admit that I even had thoughts of surrendering Cooper to a local shelter. I did not give into that temptation, thankfully.
I learned so much about Scott during that first month, and I decided that he needed to be loved, needed to be cherished and that I was the only one who could fulfill those needs.
He had not had a very easy life. Like me, he had struggled with gay feelings since childhood. And also like me, he had come from a very religious family and had been taught that homosexuality is the blackest of sins. I had drifted away from the church of my youth, seeking to find closeness with God in other ways, but he had embraced religion even tighter. He was Catholic and had made the decision to subdue his sexuality by becoming a priest and devoting his life to the service of God. He enrolled at a seminary just north of New York City, but left school after the first year. He said it had been a very disappointing and disillusioning experience. Soon after he arrived on campus, he was seduced by a priest who introduced him to another priest, who became his lover. And those two priests used him to seek out other students who were closeted homosexuals. The guilt of having sex with a priest and helping other priests to find lovers was too much to bear. “I decided that I might as well live my life as gay man outside of the church,” he told me. “I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.”
I told him that we could be happy together and still remain close to God. He told me that he loved me and I believed him. I certainly loved him and it was the first time I had loved and been loved in return. It was intoxicating, and I became so wrapped up in the feeling that I lost my grounding. Thoughts of Scott filled my mind and I had trouble concentrating on anything else.
Living together seemed to be the next step, but he said that would be complicated. He was living and working at a rectory in Queens, and he had to be very careful not to jeopardize his position there. The people at the rectory believed he was living a chaste life.
As our relationship was becoming more serious and we were spending weekends together, I discovered that Scott had a troubling habit of disappearing for a couple of days at a time. He would just go missing, without telling me where he was going or what he was doing. The first time it happened was on a Tuesday. We had plans to meet in midtown Manhattan for dinner that evening and he didn’t show up. And I didn’t hear from him the next day. I called the rectory in Queens and left messages, but no one could tell me where he was. I became worried and, remembering that some of my friends at work had raved about a particular psychic, I made an appointment for a reading. I showed up at the woman’s apartment after work on Thursday and took a seat opposite her at a small table. She asked me to cut the cards while focusing on a question. I kept thinking “Is Scott OK” over and over as I shuffled the cards and then handed them to her. Slowly she spread them them out and turned them over, making little “hmm” and “ah” sounds. The cards were decorated with symbols and illustrations which meant nothing to me.
“You are worried about someone,” she finally said after all the cards had been flipped. “Don’t worry. He is fine, but he has secrets.”
I realized that she knew it was a “he” even though I had not given her any clues. I was relieved to know that Scott was OK, but I did wonder about the secrets she mentioned. What could that mean?
“You are also concerned about your father,” she added, which startled me. My father was being treated for heart failure, and indeed I thought about him a lot. “He is good now, but there is something about water that worries me. It’s an ocean or maybe a large lake. I don’t know what it is, but keep that in mind.”
Before I left, she took my hand. “You are a happy person,” she said, “but love will never come easy for you.” As I approach 60, with four failed relationships behind me, I think she was on to something.
Scott did contact me the next day and said he had spent time at a religious retreat. I accepted his story but told him to please tell me the next time he was going to be out of town.
It was on a Sunday night, a month or so after we met, that I received some distressing news. Scott was preparing to leave and go back to the rectory when my step-mother called to report that my father had suffered a relapse of congestive heart failure and had been flown by medical plane to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. I was overcome with worry, and Scott did hold me for a few minutes as I tried not to cry, but he wasn’t as comforting as I expected, and he seemed to be in a hurry to leave.
I kept in touch with my father every day that week and although he seemed to be stabilizing, I made a plan to fly from New York to Cleveland on Friday evening. It was the same day that Scott finally made the decision to move in with me. I wasn’t there when he moved in, as I was already on a plane headed to Ohio, but I left a spare key to the front door with my upstairs neighbor.
I didn’t get to see my father until the next day, on Saturday. I spent most of that morning with him, and he seemed to be doing well. He was sitting up in bed, ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast and was making plans for his discharge in a week or so. His room in the ICU was on one of the upper floors and just before my step-mother and I left to go to the cafeteria for some lunch, I glanced out the window and saw Lake Erie in the distance, spreading out like an inland ocean. I suddenly remembered the words of the psychic and felt uneasy. While my step-mother and I were in the cafeteria, my father’s blood pressure dropped, his heart stopped beating… and he died. The bottom dropped out of my world and I fell into a pit of depression. My last parent was gone, and I was alone.
My step-mother and I had never been close and I desperately needed to feel loved by someone. I tried calling Scott several times. No answer. Finally, close to midnight, he picked up. I could barely speak, but managed to tell him that my father was gone, and then I sobbed until I had no more tears. He didn’t say much, but just hearing his voice calmed and soothed me, and made me feel that everything was going to be all right. I told him that I would be flying back to New York after the funeral. “I’ll be here waiting for you,” he said. The words warmed my soul and I slept peacefully. Knowing that Scott was waiting for me in New York made it easier to get through those dark days after my father’s death.
On Thursday afternoon, a taxi dropped me off at 295 Carroll Street. I opened the front door and rushed inside, eager to feel the embrace of the man I loved. But what I saw left me dazed and astonished. I didn’t recognize my own apartment. My bed, a dresser and a chest of drawers were still there, but everything else was strange and unfamiliar. I saw a small writing desk, a brass pole lamp, a loveseat, two wing-back chairs, and what looked like a walnut kitchen table and matching chairs. It was all very nice, but it wasn’t mine. What had become of my sofa, a chair that had belonged to my mother, a coffee table that had been hand-made by my father, the brand new television stand, two bookcases and my little kitchen table? And as my eyes looked around, taking in the scene, I realized that the apartment had been turned into a religious shrine. There was an ornate pedestal on which was perched the bust of a saint, a portrait of the Pope hung over the bed, and there were several crucifixes and other religious images hanging from nails that had once supported movie posters and framed movie photos. Cooper was on the back porch, with his food bowls and litter box. He had been evicted from the apartment. All of my books had also been put on the back porch.
I didn’t have the emotional energy to be angry. I just felt numb.
Scott arrived after dark and I could tell that he was watching me carefully, wondering what I was thinking. But I didn’t know what to say. I just gave in and said very little, making some excuse that I was exhausted and needed to have a long rest. Before we fell asleep, I tried to cuddle with him, but he moved to the edge of the bed. He told me the next day that he had intended to keep my furniture, but when he put it outside while his own items were being moved in, someone came by and stole it. I accepted his explanation, but never fully believed it. I learned much later from my upstairs neighbor that a moving van had arrived on that Friday evening and that Scott and another man moved his furniture out of the truck, put my furniture in and then drove away. It was probably taken to a dump.
Perhaps a psychiatrist can explain why I didn’t throw him out. I know that I should have, but I didn’t. I was grieving the loss of my father and perhaps I didn’t have the emotional strength to take on a break-up. I allowed him to stay and I tried to recapture the love I had felt for him before he moved in. I saw him as I wanted to see him, not as he really was. But things were never the same. He was distant, and although we slept side by side in my double bed, there was no affection or intimacy. I only saw him at night on weekdays. He was gone every weekend, visiting friends in New Jersey, in upstate New York or going on religious retreats. I never met any of his friends, and I don’t think they were aware of me. The situation was not a happy one, but I kept it to myself and did not discuss the problems with my friends. The one who did know became increasingly frustrated with me. One day she said, “if you aren’t going to end that relationship and stop the emotional abuse, we can’t be friends any longer.”
After Scott returned from a religious outing in late October, he started getting phone calls from a Father Thorne. The calls became more frequent and although I tied to give him his privacy, the apartment was very small and I could not help overhearing bits and pieces of the conversations. Once I heard him say, “when I close my eyes, all I can see is your face” and another time he whispered into the phone “I need you to kiss me.”
After one such phone call, I strengthened my backbone and confronted him. “Are you having an affair with Father Thorne?”
He lowered his head. “Yes,” he said. “We have fallen in love. He is leaving the Church for me and we are taking the train to Philadelphia on Friday night.”
“And when were you going to tell me?” I demanded. “Would I come home from work and find you gone?”
On the day he and the priest were scheduled to catch the train to Philly, I did not want to see him. I told him I wanted him out by the time I got home. And he was. I spent that evening feeling, by turns, sad, angry and enormously relieved. I brought Cooper inside and loved it when he climbed onto my lap and started purring. I was barely awake at midnight when I heard the front gate squeak on its hinges, and then the doorbell sounded. It was Scott, a suitcase in his hand, and a dejected expression on his face.
“Father Thorne dumped me!” he cried. “He met me at the station and said he could not go through with our plan. He went back to the Church. How could he do that to me?”
I couldn’t help thinking that he had gotten what he deserved, but I also felt a little sorry for him. Although I knew better, I gave him a long embrace and welcomed him back. And for a while, things were slightly better, although I never felt content and could never trust him. We went to Washington DC to spend Thanksgiving with my aunt and we made plans to return to DC for Christmas. But as the holiday approached, he decided to go to Tennessee instead and visit his mother, who lived near Nashville. When he returned a few days into the new year, I noticed a change. He was distracted and moody, and then the phone calls started again. They were from a man named Donny who spoke with a thick southern accent. One evening, when Scott was still at work, Donny called and I asked if he knew who I was.
“Oh yes,” he said. “You are Jeff, Scott’s roommate. He told me that you were sleeping on his sofa until you could find your own place.”
“I see,” was my reply. “And how well do you know Scott?”
“We met a gay bar in Nashville on Christmas Eve,” Donny explained. “We spent the night together. Something very special happened and I think we love each other. Does Scott talk about me?”
“Uh…” was the only sound I could make. “I’ll tell Scott to call you. Goodbye.”
I sat down and did some thinking, and then I made two calls. The second was to the rectory in Queens. When Scott came on the line, I spoke slowly and carefully.
“Donny just called,” I said.
“Oh, you know… Donny… your boyfriend.” There was silence on the other end. “He told me all about the night you met and said you love each other.”
“What… but… wait…”
“Just be quiet and listen,” I continued. “I have called a locksmith to change the lock on the front door. You are no longer welcome here, and when you get your plans settled, you can call me to make an appointment to come over and get your things. I’m sorry to do this so abruptly, but that’s the way it is.”
My body was trembling and it took all of my effort to keep from bursting into tears, but I did not regret my decision. I did not hear from him for a couple of weeks, and then he did call to let me know that he had rented a moving van. The date he had chosen was February 14, which was probably done to make me as uncomfortable as possible.
I took that day off and was waiting for him when the van pulled up. I helped him load the furniture and stood by as he put his clothes into a couple of suitcases and large plastic bags. He said he was leaving New York and returning to Tennessee to live with his mother for a while. I wished him well.
“Why is it that everything you want… everything you think will make you happy… it all turns to crap” he mused as he climbed into the driver’s seat and shut the door.
“It’s just life, I guess,” was all I could say.
Before he pulled away, I looked at him closely… at his bright blue eyes, at the shimmering blonde hair which swept so gracefully across his smooth brow, at his sensitive, full lips and his perfect complexion. I knew then that I would never forget that face. I heard myself humming as I turned toward the door and saw Cooper watching me from the window.
In the years since that Valentine’s Day of 1992, I had only heard from him once, when a postcard arrived in early November of 1992. I rarely thought about him, and was certainly not expecting to hear from him again. But then the phone rang on that September day in 2001.
“This is Scott,” he said. “I hope you have not forgotten me.”
“No, I have not forgotten you. How could I?”
“I wanted to call you, so I looked for your name on the internet,” he explained. “The terrorist attack has hit me pretty hard. It made me sad to think back to the years I lived in New York, and you are part of those memories. I felt that I needed to reach out to you. I did not treat you very well, and I want to say that I am sorry.”
The words sounded rehearsed, but sincere. He said he had spent several years working in Nashville, but he had not found the peace and contentment he had searched for.
“I am going back to the seminary to complete my training for the priesthood,” he added. “I’m now in St. Louis, about to start at Aquinas Institute of Theology. But I can’t feel good about my future until I try to correct the mistakes I made in the past. Please, Jeffrey, forgive me for being so thoughtless and unkind.”
“I forgave you a long time ago, Scott,” I said. “I have moved on from those unhappy days and I hope that your career in the priesthood will be fulfilling. I appreciate your call.”
I did not feel like chatting, so I said good-bye and hung up. I sat and allowed my mind to wander backward for a few minutes, but then I put away the groceries and went out to meet my new boyfriend for dinner.
After 18 months in Manhattan, with its skyscrapers and traffic and crowds and noise, I was relieved to escape across the East River into Brooklyn. After reviewing my budget, I realized that I could just barely afford $800 a month for rent and I was delighted to find a charming ground-floor apartment in an old brownstone on Carroll Street. I moved in the first weekend of December, 1989.
The apartment only had two rooms plus a bathroom, but it was all that I needed, and I could live there by myself. The back door opened into a lovely garden space surrounded by a tall wooden fence. It was choked with weeds, but I knew I could transform it into a haven with roses and foxglove and phlox and iris.
My father drove up from Tennessee the following week with a truck-load of furniture, but I still needed a small bedside table. The basement was available to the tenants, and when I took my suitcases down there, I could see in the dim glow of the dust-covered light bulb a lot of old furniture scattered around the large space. Tucked in one corner, where two stone walls met, I saw just what I needed, a small wooden table with one drawer. It was covered with a layer of dust and had obviously been in that corner for many years.
I dragged it up the stairs and put it into place. It fit perfectly between the bed and the wall and after giving it a good rub-down with some Old English polish, it shined with pride. I tried to open the drawer, but it would not budge. No matter how I pulled and struggled, it refused to open. Finally, I was able to move it a couple of inches and with my fingers, I could feel a wad of paper on the inside along one edge. After a few more tugs the drawer moved another inch, and then another, until I could finally wrap my fingers around the paper. Ever so slowly and carefully, I jiggled the paper until it came loose. I pulled it out and saw that it was a small stack of yellowed letters tied with string.
I untied the string and spread out the letters on my kitchen table. It didn’t take me long to notice that they were gay love letters, written by Louis to Johnny. There were no envelopes with postmarks, but Louis had dated each letter, so I put them in order. They covered a few months, from June to November of 1976.
I sat down and held the first letter in my hands. I started reading and after about half an hour I finished the last one. There were a total of 17 letters. Here are some highlights.
~ ~ ~
Wednesday, June 16, 1976.
Dear Johnny –
I’m 19 stories above 7th Avenue, looking out my window and seeing New York. The World Trade Towers are incredible. The hour goes so quickly when I spend it with you. Your laugh echoes in my ears in the quiet of my office. It’s such a nice laugh, so full of excitement, so representative of whatever you are enjoying.
It will be lonely without you here in the Big Apple, but I really hope that you will have a fabulous time in Italy. Just think, you’ll soon be sitting in St. Marks Square, sipping cappuccino and watching the pigeons conversing with each other in Italian and dancing to the chime of the clock. Que bellisimo. I wish I were going with you. How nice it would be.
I really liked seeing you for lunch today. You make everything seem so worthwhile and I enjoy taking time to write this letter to you, telling you how I feel. And I never want it to be any other way. I would always want you to know how I feel, what I think, where I am emotionally. I guess it’s my mechanism. I’m the kind of person who knows immediately – yes or no, right or wrong, black or white. Life is too short to spend precious hours, days, playing crazy silly games.
It doesn’t embarrass me. Rather, it makes me feel so good, good to care about someone, to want to see them smile, hear them laugh and if they cry, to wipe away their tears with my hands. You’ve given me these desires.
I saw you, I liked your face, and I’ve come to know you and I love what I’ve seen. My feelings are wrapped up in a natural high because of you. Funny, here I am just 2 weeks after that crazy party where we met and I’m already expressing my thoughts and feelings. I’m very happy and very pleased with everything.
I enjoy being with you and since your schedule is more restrictive than mine, whenever you think we could be together, even for a few minutes, just call. If there is the smallest possibility, let me know.
It seems that when I start to write to you, the words and emotions just come, and come and come. But, alas, I should earn some of my pay so I’ll try to concentrate on something other than you and be productive.
Thanks for being you. Awaiting our next meeting, I remain…
xo Louis ox
~ ~ ~
Dear Johnny —
Well, another lunch has gone by too quickly. I’ve decided not to have any calls put through this afternoon because I really don’t feel like speaking to anyone when I’m thinking about you.
For some reason, I feel good but mellow, the kind of feeling that makes someone want to curl up in bed with their head on someone’s shoulder – e.g, me and you!
I want you to know that you are well worth the title of “inspirational.” All these letters are for you, about you, and because of you. You also make me really think that I could write professionally. I think I never really thought I could be successful at it, but now I may try. I can’t lose anything except maybe my privacy when I become famous. Don’t worry, I’ll still love you!
Fantasy – you and me – cold, snowy winter’s dusk… cabin nestled among evergreen trees… perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the vast, dark, mysterious ocean. Logs crackling with orange and gold flames. The scent of wood burning fills the room. We’re cuddled on a couch facing a large picture window overlooking the fierce red sun setting on the horizon, turning the water silvery blue. Our arms tenderly wrapped, yet firmly embracing each other. We’re discussing my new book. The phone rings. It’s your mother – as usual. I am annoyed by the untimely interruption. I storm out into the cold evening. An hour later you hang up the phone, pick up my coat and search for me. There I am, sitting on the shoreline, blue in color. You run, you fall, you get up – so clumsy you are. I see you. I’ve forgiven all. I run toward you. As the water crashes on the sand and the sandpipers chirp their sweet refrain, we embrace passionately. You left the music on in the house and we can hear Chopin’s Sonata. Our lips meet, our tongues touch softly, then savagely. Now down on the sand, naked bodies entwined, warmed by each other’s flesh. If we listen, we can hear each other’s hearts pounding. We make love for an eternity filled with all the beautiful emotions that heaven will allow. We are now at rest. I love you. Oh god, how much!
Well, sweets… adios mi amore.
Siempre con amore.
xo Louis ox
~ ~ ~
My dearest Johnny –
I’m sitting here on the terrace, high above the city. The weather is beautiful – cool, clean, clear – and I am thinking of you. I really miss you, even though I saw you just a few hours ago.
Johnny, when we’re together I’m really happy and it does carry over, but I think of you constantly. When I sit across from you at lunch in the crowded restaurant, I want to put my arms around you, to hold you, to feel your lips against mine. Sometimes when you brush against me or you touch my hand or arm, I can feel it all the way through me. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, it’s comforting. When we spend that short hour together, I look at a face that makes me feel warm inside. I hear a voice that makes me feel happy all over.
You are so fresh, so natural. I appreciate those qualities. I really want to know you even better than I do now. I want to spend even more time with you. I want to look at stars and run and play, but at lunch we can’t do any of those things. I don’t want to give up the lunches, just add to them. I sound demanding. I guess it’s because I love you.
Well, my cutie pie, I’m about to go to bed. So I’ll see you tomorrow, and by the time you read this, tomorrow’s lunch will be yesterday’s memory.
Always with love.
xo Louis xo
~ ~ ~
Dear Johnny —
Hello kid! I’m sitting here on the deck at Fire Island. The weather is mysterious and inspiring. I’m thinking of you and how much I wish you were here with me. The elements are fabulous – windy, misty, the tide raging. I long for the feeling of you in my arms.
Do I sound insane? Do I cause questions in your mind? I really don’t know what you think, how you feel. I really do love you. I know what I feel.
I guess I’m a romanticist. I want you to miss me, to need me, to long for me. I want you to love me. I hope that you realize the full extent of my feelings. I’m not one to talk of them lightly and I don’t give them away freely. If you don’t care now but can see the possibility of caring in the future, I can wait. I’m very patient. I’m a good Italian boy and they’re hard to come by nowadays.
John, I love you. No matter how you feel, I love you. I sincerely hope you can begin to feel something similar. Hopefully I can crack that shell and win your heart.
As I sit here, I see lovers embraced on the sand with the symphonic sounds of the waves, a rhapsody of the heart. I think of you and wonder where you may be at this moment. I sigh to think that we are spending this day apart. I love you. I long to be with you. I miss you. Do I inspire any of these feelings within you for me?
The lovers on the sand are kissing and in my mind I can see your face pressed against mine. How wonderful the thought, how beautiful the picture. I curse the sky because the sun is shining on them instead of us, and yet I do smile to see them sharing happiness. I know that if happiness is to be ours, it must come in its own way and we will know her face in the crowd.
We will be together again very soon and nurturing the beauty of our reuniting, and thinking about the passion of our embrace is sufficient to pass the seemingly endless hours. But how sweet it will be to travel home to your arms.
When we are separated, it is then that I most realize how much I love you. Imagining how the liquid in your eyes is casting its glow on the warmth of your smile is brightening the day, easing the pain. I love how a quiet thought sculptures your face and refines your features.
Right now… music, water and thoughts of you.
Yours, with love,
xo Louis ox
~ ~ ~
Johnny – a few words you’ve inspired.
When I found you, that very special one, I wondered, how would I speak of my hearts delight?
Do I smile too constantly, do I laugh too heartily, do I cry too dramatically?
For with love, all life’s actions have taken on a new intensity, a meaning, a reason.
I realize that every look, every word, every second of every day should be made your every joy.
Look to me my love – my eyes should tell the story. The feeling that they mirror is all for you.
The tears that form are founded in joy but laced with doubt.
I speak so freely and say so much, yet you ponder my every word.
I long for time spent together, heading for a goal.
Do I hold within me a heart whose epitaph reads – another time, another place?
I wish we had the freedom to marry in the fall and start a life filled with love. When greens turn to golds. When the sun lights the trees all aglow.
We can breathe in the clean air and walk with our faces to the wind.
We can hold each other as night turns to day, as day turns to month and now turns to eternity.
As you can see, I’m trying to put my love for you into a literary form. You’ve given me something that warms me, comforts me, inspires me. I love you – deeply, totally, lastingly.
Thank you for being you.
Always with a smile.
xo Louis ox
~ ~ ~
Dearest Johnny –
I have often found that I am mightier with the pen and this is one time I need to try and communicate exactly what I’m feeling.
I love you, in its purest form. Every day I realize even more of my devotion to you. I see the foolishness of many of my actions. I never would hurt you, never. I care so much about what you do, how you are treated, what you like, what makes you laugh, what makes you cry.
Presumptuous, I am not. If you haven’t told me of your feelings, I don’t assume that you have feelings for me. I’m not one to put words in your mouth or think you’ve said something you haven’t. I deal in facts. I want tangible truth. I want you… forever. I want to marry you. Yes, marry you. I know what that means. I know what that asks of someone and what is expected.
I found out that you are still soliciting someone you care deeply for. It hurts, but who’s to say you shouldn’t have. I know your feelings aren’t as strong as mine. And, most importantly, you told me about it. You opened up to me about it. Thank you.
Johnny… whatever you are to the world, what you are to me is kind, warm, communicative, sensitive, gentle, conceited, beautiful, sexy, strong willed, demanding… everything that is good and necessary and lovable.
I want to share with you, I want to build with you. I want to be with you so I can love you, learn from you, teach you, grow with you.
Johnny… we have something. We blend. We fit together. We have all the ingredients of the perfect marriage. If only that were possible for people like us.
xo Louis ox
~ ~ ~
Dear Johnny –
This is not a letter. It’s only my intent to bridge certain very important differences, sparing us an argument. You are so touchy about your freedom and I don’t like you to raise your voice against me.
Even after your frequent denials, I cannot interpret our actions during the last few months as anything else but building a relationship. After all, we’ve seen each other every day except for two, and that week when you were in Italy. And that’s a lot of time invested in mutual exploration and becoming closer. And when two people meet and try to adjust their different lifestyles, there is bound to be some friction. It is left to our personal good will to prevent major collisions, to smooth the period of hesitant approach.
As a born loner, I see my fulfillment in being with THE ONE. I thought you were that man for me.
I’m conscious of having tried very hard to overcome this dream and accept many of your suggestions, to be nice to your family and friends, even to live with your special attachment to an old boyfriend, not to insist too much that we listen to music together (an immense pleasure, when shared) and to help you wherever I can. But you have never offered to adjust to my life. I realize now that you have been getting 100% of me while I get only about 70% of you, if I’m that lucky, because of the strings to your family and friends. I promise to continue working on me, becoming a better companion and not to bore you.
But there is one thing I can no longer live with. I cannot accept you dating others while I’m in your life. I know you will dislike me telling you this, but I simply have to take the risk. I cannot bury my feelings.
The sleepless nights with my stomach burning and my mind revolving, trying to figure out what can be so wrong between us that you want to go out with someone else has showed me where my limits are. Just because another man called you day and night, at work and at home for a few days is no reason for you to date him. You should have told him that you were not available.
It’s the first time ever that someone close to me (in the way that we are close to each other) has suggested the idea of going out with someone else. I’ve known other gay couples and they would never have done so. Yes, we did go out with another couple, just the four of us, and that was fun, but going out with someone else alone? No, not in my experience.
I’m somehow annoyed to have to ask you something so basic and natural since everyone else does it when they find a promising partner. But I need you to promise me that there will be no single dates with other guys, at least not as long as we share a reasonable hope to be a happy couple. I’m deadly serious about this topic and I truly wish you could, for once, see it my way.
Now please don’t be upset. Re-read this, try to understand me, and trust me.
xo Louis ox
~ ~ ~
There were no more letters, and I felt cheated, as though a book had stopped before the end. Did Johnny and Louis work out their problems? Louis obviously loved Johnny with devotion and loyalty, but Johnny seemed to always be trying to wiggle out of the relationship. Of course, I only had one half of the conversation. What was Johnny writing to Louis? I could only guess.
Louis and Johnny stayed on my mind for several days. Where were they now? Did they know that letters had been left behind in the basement of a Brooklyn brownstone? I wanted to find them but without any last names where would I begin?
A few weeks later, near the middle of January, my landlord called and asked if he and his wife could stop by the following Saturday. His name was Castanza and I guessed his age to be about 75, maybe a little older. He explained that the tenant on the third floor was complaining that there wasn’t enough heat and he needed to adjust the thermostat, which was located in my apartment.
“There is a lock on it, and only I can adjust it,” he said. “I’ll be there about noon.”
Just before noon on Saturday, the Castanzas arrived. John and Rosa were very polite and while Mr. Castanza adjusted the temperature control, I asked Mrs. Castanza if a young man named Johnny had lived in the building in the mid 1970s.
“Johnny,” she mused. “I wonder. John, when did Johnny live here? Was it in the 70s?”
“Did he live here?”
“Of course he did. Don’t you remember?”
“Are you talking about the old man who lived on the top floor?”
“No, no, no!” Mrs. Castanza said, some annoyance creeping into her voice. “I’m talking about Johnny, our son. John Castanza, Jr. When did he live here?”
“How the hell would I know,” Mr. Castanza said, grumpily. “I don’t keep track of dates.”
After some more back and forth, they finally agreed that their son had probably lived there about 15 years ago, which would fit with the date on the letters.
“He wasn’t here long,” Mrs. Castanza added. “Maybe a year or so. He was just staying here until he saved up some money. Why do you want to know?”
“I found some letters in the basement that were written to someone named Johnny. They are from 1976,” I explained. “If they belong to your son, he might want them back.”
“Well, you can call him and ask,” Mr. Castanza said as he re-locked the thermostat. “Rosa, give him John’s number.”
“I don’t carry his number around with me,” Mrs. Castanza said. “It’s at home in my little book. I’ll have to call you later with it,” she added, looking at me. I nodded in agreement.
Mrs. Castanza gave me her son’s work number, explaining that it was easier to reach him at his office than at his apartment. “He works for a clothing buyer,” she said.
On Monday morning I called the number and was put through to John Castanza, Jr.
I wasn’t sure how to begin, but after introducing myself as a tenant in the brownstone his parents owned, I told him that I had found some letters in the basement that might be his. He was curious. When I said they were from Louis to Johnny and were from the summer of 1976, I heard a little gasp.
“Oh my God!” he said. “Louis! I haven’t thought of him in a long time. Yes, those are my letters. I didn’t know I had left them there.”
I thought he would be eager to get them back, but he surprised me by expressing no interest in them.
“Those letters are from a chapter of my life that was closed a long time ago,” he said. “I was young and stupid and let a good thing slip away. I really don’t want to be reminded of it.”
“I understand,” I assured him, and then asked if Louis might want them.
“I don’t know how to reach him, but knowing how sentimental he was, he probably would like to see them,” the young Mr. Castanza said and he gave me Louis’s last name.
“Good luck,” he said as our conversation ended. “Louis de Luca was a good man, a sweet man. I’m sure he still is.”
I tried for a long time to find Louis de Luca but in that era before the internet, all I could do was check the various New York City area phone directories. I did find two or three Louis de Lucas, but not the one I wanted.
I moved out of that apartment in January of 1994 and before I left, I made copies of the letters, put the originals back into the drawer and returned the little table to the dark corner in the basement where I had found it. As far as I know, it sits there still, gathering dust and waiting for someone else to open the drawer and discover those letters, the only reminders of a long-forgotten love affair.
John Castanza is now about 70 and the owner of several interior decorating stores in New York that bear his name. And Louis de Luca? Wherever he is, I hope that he found someone who could return his passion and his love and that they have lived happily ever after.