Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Young Woman From Omaha, Nebraska: Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, 1911-1981

The black and white photos from her childhood show nothing out of the ordinary: the girl-baby born in 1911 on a bearskin rug, the feisty Boston Terrier sprawled beside her.
On Easter, holding up a basket, huge plaid bow atop her head with its thick straight bangs, high-button shoes on her dainty feet.
Swimming in a lake, head aloft, grinning, with her girlfriends looking on from the dock.
How did this young woman dare to make the journey from Omaha to New York City, to Horatio Street in Greenwich Village?
Was it the magnetic attraction of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poetry, read by the young woman on the high school radio program beamed from Omaha out into the cornfields? After she arrived, how many detours were there on the way to becoming the writer she knew she could be? After five children, too many men to count, an editorship of McCall's (it was rumored she invented their slogan, "The Magazine of Togetherness"- she, the eternal single mother!) her luck turned a bit.

An amazing team, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, took her in as a creative partner. She receiving writing credits on two films: "Lovers and Lollipops" (1956) and "Weddings and Babies" (1960). The latter shared the Critic's Award with Ingmar Bergman's "Wild Strawberries" at the Venice Film Festival. Both are in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art, and are now listed in various Internet movie sites devoted to classic movies...Unavailable to the public for years, they can now be viewed in DVD format. French filmmakers like Godard gave credit to Morris Engel for sparking the independent film movement with the pioneering shoulder-slung camera that the ex-GI Morris devised, enabling him to shoot on location in New York City. The results were poignant, luminous films that found meaningful drama in the lives of "ordinary" Americans. Ruth Orkin's brilliant photographs of New York streetlife live on in museum collections and notecard reproductions.

But nobody (except her widely-scattered children and grandchildren) has ever heard of Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, the young woman from Omaha: writer, mother, artist's model.
Ravishing subject of a 1940's painting titled "The White Fichu" by George Bellow's best friend, Eugene Speicher, who was once the most celebrated portrait-painter in mid-20th century America. (His portrait of fellow student Georgia O'Keefe hangs in the entryway of the Art Student's League in New York City.)

A young woman from the heartland, Mary-Madeleine was educated by nuns in a Catholic convent in Omaha from the age of 10, after her beloved mother's death; she never finished college, never shot a wolf, never judged another human being. She loved the color chartreuse, made her own hats, gave bright pink boiled starfish as Christmas presents, loved sex and foreign films, Colette and gypsy music and Medalia D'Oro coffee. She sometimes hinted at Native American ancestry (with French Canadian heritage in her family, Lakota Sioux genes are a distinct possibility). She was self-destructive, spontaneous, foolish and fierce, always. She charmed her friends and bewildered her children. When she died in 1981 after a year-long, intense battle with the most virulent form of lung cancer, her family decided against placing an obituary in The New York Times. They later came to regret this omission.

May I now present my mother?

Monday, September 8, 2008

E.B. White and I Feel Sad About Sarah Palin

This was never intended to be a forum where I would rant or proselytize about my political preferences. I had envisioned a kind of quiet, bloggy refuge where you might seek a bit of quirky mental refreshment. (My model is the supreme deity of all American essayists, E.B. White, especially as collected in "One Man's Meat"...)

The times call for some acknowledgment of what is happening. You don't care that I contributed to the Obama campaign, or that I wrote to The NY Times in horror after Palin's speech, or that I toss and turn at night at the idea of women losing the right to choose- but maybe you, too, are experiencing a little anxiety?

I wonder what E.B. would say about Sarah Palin. Would he feel as frightened as I am by a woman who can make fun of the idea that a captured prisoner (and suspected terrorist) deserves to be "read his rights"- said with a curled lip and a rolling of the eyes that one of our Presidential candidates actually believes in this little bit of arcane Americana? In spite of all the research that shows that data obtained via coercion is often false, and may lead to byways that actually allow more harm to be done as false leads are followed (all moral considerations aside)?
And what about the suffering of unwanted babies whose resentful parents make their lives a hell on earth until they too grow up, emotionally if not physically maimed, to repeat the same tragic mistakes?
Sarah Palin's own prospective son-in-law purportedly described himself (on a quickly obliterated MySpace page) as a f--king redneck who didn't want children....This is the man she urged her own daughter to marry as soon as possible- to save Mommy's career? It all makes me very sad. A world with teenagers stunted by lack of knowledge, whether of Darwin or birth control, a world without polar bears, a world growing warmer and warmer, as libraries grow smaller and smaller....

I don't want to live in an America where Sarah Palin holds an office even remotely related to the American Presidency.
I wouldn't want her as the HOUSEKEEPER in the White House.

And E.B. White- Maine farmer, father, humanist and naturalist- might agree that Sarah Palin should stay up North. Way up North.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Did Mia Farrow (or Diane Keaton) Write Woody Allen's Films?

Is it possible that Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow are the true creative geniuses behind Woody Allen's best films?

Watch "Annie Hall" and "Crimes and Misdemeanors".

Then watch "Melinda and Melinda" and "Match Point".

I'm just sayin'.....

Friday, September 5, 2008

How We Commune

Walking the humid streets of St. Petersburg, Florida this past August, I discovered that my Proustian madeleine is not a fragrant tea-soaked morsel, but the acrid smell of weeds pushing through cracked cement, the porches of 1920's rooming houses clogged with pots of gangly geraniums, and snails gliding across rain-moistened tiles, with all the time in the world to make it to their next destination... I am remembering visits to my father in Pasadena in the summers of the late 1950's, after he had given up on life in Manhattan and moved to a place where he could live in a modest stucco apartment-complex with a pool right outside his front door.
I was furious that he had abandoned Greenwich Village for such a provincial backwater and I hated that bland, cookie-cutter apartment. Like any normal 15-year-old, I rebelled and stayed inside in the semi-darkness, hair uncombed, reading my W. Somerset Maugham stories and inhaling ginger ale and potato chips. Every once in a while my dad would tap on the screen door & timidly invite me out for a swim, and almost always I refused. How much more exciting to read about Sadie Thompson on her South Pacific island! I had progressed from On Human Bondage (still a formative influence on me) and was riveted by Maugham's tales of decadent post-colonial life.

You are what you read, and I was sure I was becoming more worldly by the hour.

Fast-forward to the present, as I discover the faded 1920's architecture and the restored grand hotels of this gracious old resort town in Florida that I have recently made my second home. It gradually occurs to me that I am connecting with something my father treasured before I did: the ocean, open skies, the feel of clean cotton on skin baptized in chlorine. There is also a vivid sense of unknown possibilities, of civilized danger, lurking somehow. It feels like life has once again become open-ended & infinite, the way it seems in childhood.
(If you are very lucky, and if good books are among your treasured companions.)

How all this can be embodied in an overgrown hibiscus bush and a proudly unshaven senior citizen holding up his beer can to salute me in the evenings as I walk past the weatherworn communal porch of his "residential hotel'- I don't know, but I am filled with emotion and I feel like I understand my father as I never did before.

Another bonus: there's a funky cafe on the St. Petersburg harbor called "Moon Under Water," that features British beers, Anglo-Indian cuisine and a wall of photographs of Singapore in the 1920's....I wouldn't be at all surprised to see W. Somerset himself walk in and sit at his favorite outside table on the little terrace looking towards the yachts bobbing up and down in the marina. Oh, wait- that's MY favorite table.
If you go, be sure to bring a copy of The Razor's Edge as a conversation-starter.

And here's to you, dad.

For fascinating details of Maugham's views on sexually transgressive women, his own bisexuality and a stunning list of the films based on his work, go to

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Evetta The Only Lady Clown

Here's what my new fridge magnet says: "Evetta the Only Lady Clown with the Barnum & Bailey Greatest Show on Earth." She is in white harlequin-style pantaloons and dark stockings, with tasselled ballet slippers jauntily pointing upwards, her gesticulating arms completely encased in long black gloves. She sports a tall white beehive wig (hello, Marge Simpson?) while the circus Ringmaster leers over her shoulder down into her cleavage. He holds a whip suggestively over her, in his right hand.
I snapped up this beauty at the Ringling Brothers Circus Museum complex in Sarasota this past Labor Day weekend, immediately recognizing a kindred soul. (I was voted Best Sense of Humor in the 7th grade at PS 3 in Greenwich Village, circa 1957- what's a girl gotta do when she doesn't have boobs yet? Be funny.....naturally. It's still my proudest moment.)
Evetta and I had to become better acquainted. At moments like this I drift in a trance over to my computer and am blissful for hours... It did not take more than a few moments, however, before I hit paydirt. Apparently, the women of the circus knew that they could achieve a rare kind of freedom and financial independence as clowns, lion tamers and acrobats....In a fascinating piece based on her extensive research (thank you, Mr. Google, all is forgiven), Professor Janet Davis of the University of Texas at Austin enlightened me about Evetta:
"Acrobat Josephine Matthews invaded the all-male world of clowning in 1895....She thoroughly enjoyed her life with the circus:
'I believe that a woman can do anything for a living that a man can do, and I do it just as well as a man. All of my people laughed at me when I told them I was going into the ring as a clown; but they do not laugh now when they see that I can keep an engagment all the time and earn as much money and more than they can in their branches of business. I like the work and try to put ideas into it. Every day I thnk out something new and the management usually gives me pretty wide latitude. My chief difficulty is in making myself heard, but then nobody ever listens to what a clown says; everything depends on the antics.'

from the text of "Bearded Ladies, Dainty Amazons, Hindoo Fakirs and Lady Savages: Circus Representations of Gender and Race in Victorian America," a brilliant talk by Janet M. Davis in October 2005 at the University of Virginia. Quoted here with permission from the author.
Books by Professor Davis: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top (2002) and Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline (2008).

And then- I drifted into my memories of my sweet female clients in San Francisco who ran a cafe called The Bearded Lady ....because they were. Bearded ladies, lesbians and rock musicians. More anon. Stay tuned. Everything connects.

Why I'll Never Be Rich: AdSense, Poodles & Moi

I just have to share this with you. It's too funny. In the course of looking up this blog on Google (yes, I confess)I found the following entry. It was like a personal rebuke from the Googlegods. They must be looking right over my shoulder as I blog! (And yet- they are so wrong... Let's take it as a resounding vote for being counterintuitive! Or something.)
And here I quote:
"What is AdSense- How does it make you money Online?....What Do Leaky Roofs and French Poodles have in Common? Absolutely nothing. What makes this program so revolutionary is that Google actually targets ads to your website based on your website content. This ensures that only ads that are relevant and enhance, rather than detract, from your site are delivered. Visitors come to your site, not because they want to learn about French poodles, but because they have a leaky roof or related question. They're not interested in French poodles, and Google AdSense won't deliver ads on French poodles to your site. AdSense will only deliver ads related to roof leaks to your site, similar or identical to the ones you saw when you did the search! This may seem pretty logical but Google was the first to think of it and it makes sense, which is why I guess they call the program "AdSense"." (End quote)

Which is exactly why computer search algorithms will NEVER replace THE HUMAN BRAIN. Thanks anyway, Mr. Google.

Love always,
Poodles on the Roof (Don't forget to write!)

(Your 24/7 site for illogical right-brain connections that delight and amuse.)

P.S. Let me know if you want to hear the story about the poodle in 19th century Italy that roused a whole family in time to save it from an earthquake...Don't get me started on poodles. They are the smartest, funniest....well, now you went and got me started.

Tales of 3 Cloudy Titles: Tale # 2 (and new Moral!)

Even with eternally vigilant title officers, strange things can happen. The following story is true.

It was the early 1990's and my San Francisco clients, a young professional couple with a baby, had given notice on their rental apartment when they were the successful bidders on the Noe Valley fixer-upper of their dreams. It was sunny, on a great block, with a large yard and lots of space inside. The Victorian charm was just waiting to be recaptured after years of ownership by a man who had become a widower in this house, and then married his wife's nurse. The house showed poorly, stuffed to the gills with old brown metal filing cabinets and lumpy old armchairs, and most buyers had turned up their noses. The sellers were anxious to relocate "to the country," they said. Once in a while I thought I detected a note of hesitation on the part of the man, who loved his house and his old neighborhood. The wife seemed nervous and was often abrupt with anyone who came by, although she became gleeful when describing how she planned to sue McDonald's over being scalded with hot coffee. (Yes, I know, I thought that had already been done, too...) Well, on the day that my excited buyers were supposed to move in (picture a moving van full of their furniture waiting outside the house and their baby sleeping in the back of their car as they approach the van), I got a call.

The title company had not allowed the sale to go through that morning, because the husband's son had suddenly appeared in their office from Canada, claiming that the whole deal was invalid. He had disappeared up North to avoid being drafted during the war in Vietnam and had not been heard of since, but now he claimed not only an interest in the property, but that his new stepmother had been responsible for his real mother's premature demise, and that his stepmother was planning to lure his father into a remote rural location -and kill him, too!
A real showstopper, if ever there was one.

Hmmmm. What to do? (Don't you just hate it when this happens?) This was a Friday. Apparently, the title company was able to pull some strings and get a judge to hear the case on VERY short notice (because of the hardship situation of the family with a baby and nowhere to go) and she allowed the transaction to proceed, the transfer of title to go through, and my clients to move in. A happy ending to a problem nobody could possibly have foreseen....maybe.

Let's not even dwell on my first mind-boggling reaction: some part of me actually believed the son had it right! Now it all made a weird kind of sense: the father had never shown any enthusiasm for the move to the country, and I had always gotten unsettling vibes from the "nurse". But it was all out of my hands from the point when the judge made her decision. I had done my "job".

MORAL: You tell me, please. I am open to all suggestions. (I still dream about this one.)
Aha! On 9/04/08 it finally came to me:

When the son's away, a nurse may prey.