Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Valentines in the U.S.--It All Started Here!

Time to re-post my annual Valentine's Day essay. I see that in today's New York Times there is a long article about Valentines, including two photographs of Esther Howland valentines--but no mention that she was living, and began making, Valentines in Worcester, MA!

 (I recently bought these English and German-made valentines at an auction--sadly, they are not from Howland or Taft.)

Worcester, MA, the once-bustling industrial metropolis 45 minutes west of Boston where I live, is enormously proud of its rather peculiar list of “famous firsts”, including barbed wire, shredded wheat, the monkey wrench, the birth control pill, the first perfect game in major league baseball, the first liquid-fueled rocket and the ubiquitous yellow Smiley Face icon (starring in a soon-to-be-published tell-all book “The Saga of Smiley”, printed by the Worcester Historical Museum and written by me.)

And every year about this time, you hear about how Worcester produced the first commercial valentines in this country thanks to a foresighted young woman named Esther Howland, known as the “Mother of the Valentine.”

Esther Howland (1828-1904) attended Mount Holyoke at the same time as Emily Dickinson. She was the daughter of a successful Worcester stationer and, in 1847, she received a frilly English valentine that inspired her to ask her father to order materials from England so that she could assemble her own.  She then convinced her brother, a salesman for the company, to show a few of her valentines on his sales rounds.

The initial demand was overwhelming and Esther gathered some of her friends to help her assemble the valentines, seating them around a long table on the third floor of her home.  The company was eventually earning $100,000—a phenomenal success.

Esther is considered significant because, according to historians, she was among the first commercially successful women overseeing a female-run business, and she basically created the assembly-line system, paying the local women “liberally”.

She introduced layers of lace, three-dimensional accordion effects, and insisted that the verses be hidden inside--something you had to hunt for. She had her staff mark the back of each valentine with a red “H”.

In the Victorian era, Valentines were wildly popular, and the elaborate cards were scrutinized for clues—even the position of the stamp on the envelope meant something. Often the valentine was intended as a marriage proposal.

On Feb. 14, 1849, Emily Dickinson wrote to her cousin, “The last week has been a merry one in Amherst, & notes have flown around like snowflakes.  Ancient gentlemen & spinsters, forgetting time & multitude of years, have doffed their wrinkles – in exchange for smiles…”

In 1879—after 30 years in business—Esther Howland merged with Edward Taft, the son of Jotham Taft, a North Grafton valentine maker.  Together they formed the New England Valentine Co. (and their cards were marked “N.E.V.Co.”)

This is where Esther Howland’s title of “Mother of the Valentine” begins to get a little shaky.

It seems, upon much study, that Edward Taft’s father, Jotham Taft of North Grafton, a small village near Worcester, started the commercial valentine business in the U.S. even before Miss Howland did,  but he didn’t like to talk about it, because the Taft family were strict Quakers and Jotham Taft’s mother sternly disapproved of such frivolity as Valentines. (Full disclosure—I live in North Grafton, about a stone’s throw from where Taft worked.)

In 1836, Jotham Taft married Sarah E. Coe of Rhode Island and two years later, they welcomed twin sons.  But in 1840, one of the twins died suddenly, leaving Mrs. Taft prostrate with grief.  Jotham decided to take his wife and surviving son to Europe with him on a buying trip for the stationer who employed him, and while in Germany, he bought many valentines supplies—laces, lithographs, birds and cupids.

When he returned, Taft began making valentines with his wife’s help, and in 1844—3 years before Esther Howland graduated from college—he opened a valentine “factory” in North Grafton (then called New England Village.)  But because of his mother’s disapproval, Taft never put his own name on the valentines—only “Wood” (his middle name) or “N.E.V.” for “New England Village”.  Some believed that Taft trained Elizabeth Howland as one of his workers before she opened her own factory

Taft and Howland merged into the New England Valentine Co. in 1879, and a year later Esther’s father became ill and she left her business to care for him.  After he died, she moved in with one of her brothers and she passed away in 1904.

Unfortunately, despite all the couples who presumably found their true love thanks to Esther’s creations, the “Mother of the Valentine” never married.

In 1881, George C. Whitney bought the combined business of Taft and Howland and it became The Whitney Co,  which dominated valentine production for many years.  Instead of cards laboriously made by hand, Whitney turned to machine- printed valentines and eventually added postcards in the 1890’s.  The Whitney designs, featuring children who resembled the “Campbell Soup “ kids, were wildly popular, although more often exchanged by children than adult lovers, and in 1942 the Whitney factory closed, as a result of wartime paper shortages.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Royal Brides Part II—Diana’s Tiara and Victoria’s Secret


         Last week I posted about Queen Victoria’s revolutionary wedding dress, which broke with tradition in 1840 by being white and featuring, not a diamond crown, but simply a wreath of orange blossoms in her hair. I also included two photos and comments about the crowns worn by modern royal brides Princess Diana and Kate Middleton.  I posted a photo of Diana and wrote:  Princes Diana, at her wedding on July 29, 1981, wore a much more visible and dramatic crown—the Lover’s Knot tiara, which was made in 1914 using diamonds and pearls from the royal family’s collection.”

            Turns out I was wrong.  As my sharp-eyed daughter Eleni pointed out, that was not a photo of Diana in the Lovers Knot tiara at her wedding, although it did become her favorite crown and the Queen did loan it to her for the wedding.  But at the last minute Diana decided to get married in the Spencer Family crown, shown here.

         According to People Magazine, “Like all good royal pieces, the Spencer Tiara is actually made up of other pieces of jewelry... The current version – which is constructed with diamonds shaped into tulips and stars surrounded by attractive scrolls – was probably finalized sometime in the ’30s. It has become a popular wedding tiara for the Spencer family: Diana’s sisters – Lady Sarah and Jane, Baroness Fellowes – both wore the sparkler for their wedding days and Victoria Lockwood, who was the first wife of Diana’s brother Charles, the current Earl of Spencer, wore it when she married into the famed aristocratic family in 1989 (when little Prince Harry served as a pageboy). However, Diana’s mother, Frances, did not wear the tiara when she married into the Spencer family in 1954.”

        Back to Victoria and her famous wedding dress, which featured a flounce of Honiton lace.  As a mark of support for the Honiton industry, Victoria insisted her daughters also order Honiton lace for their wedding dresses. She also wore her wedding lace sewed on to the dresses she wore to the christenings of her nine children and to the weddings of two of her children, her eldest daughter, Victoria, in 1858, and her youngest son, Leopold in 1882.

         Victoria’s youngest and favorite daughter, Princess Beatrice, was the only bride allowed to wear Victoria’s own veil of Honiton lace, because her mother knew how much she loved it.  Beatrice wore it as part of her wedding gown when she married Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885. Her veil was crowned with a circlet of diamond stars, a marriage gift from her mother.  Here is Beatrice at her wedding.

         (I found out, while researching this post, that Beatrice was originally expected to marry Napoleon Eugene, the French Prince Imperial, whose murder during the Anglo-Zulu war in June of 1879 I have already written about in an earlier post called “The Prince Imperial—Murdered by Zulus”

         The telegram announcing the Prince Imperial’s death left Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice in tears.  According to Victoria's journal, "Dear Beatrice, crying very much as I did too, gave me the telegram ... It was dawning and little sleep did I get ... Beatrice is so distressed; everyone quite stunned."

         Later, when Beatrice fell in love with Prince Henry of Battenberg, she told her mother she had decided to marry him and the Queen stopped speaking to her for seven months, communicating only by written notes.  Victoria had always said that her youngest and favorite daughter should never marry, but stay by the Queen’s side as her companion.   Eventually Victoria was cajoled into accepting the engagement and consented to the marriage on the condition that Henry give up his German commitments and live permanently with Beatrice and the Queen.

 Twelve years earlier was the marriage of Victoria’s son and heir, Edward, Prince of Wales, to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in Saint George’s Chapel of Windsor Castle in March of 1863.  This wedding produced a deluge of photographs of the future King and Queen.  Because the court was still in mourning for Prince Albert, ladies attending the wedding were restricted to wearing gray, lilac or mauve. The notoriously libertine eldest son of Victoria did not do a very good job of hiding his affairs—more than 50 by some estimates—which occurred both before and after the wedding.   In fact Victoria blamed Edward’s loose ways for the death of her adored husband.

 In September 1861, Edward was sent to Germany, supposedly to watch military maneuvers but actually in order to introduce him to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.   Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had already decided that they should marry. They met on 24 September thanks to his elder sister, Victoria, who had married the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1858.   Edward and Alexandra were friendly from the start; and marriage plans got underway.

From this time, Edward started earning his reputation as a playboy. He attended maneuvers in Ireland, and spent three nights with an actress Nellie Clifden, who hid with him in the camp.  Prince Albert, though ill, heard about his son’s adventure and went to visit Edward at Cambridge, to read him the riot act.  Just two weeks after the visit, Albert died, in December 1861.  Queen Victoria was inconsolable.  She wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life and she blamed Edward for his father's death.  She considered her son frivolous, indiscreet and irresponsible and wrote to her eldest daughter, "I never can, or shall, look at him without a shudder."   

 (Edward’s many mistresses included actress Lillie Langtry; Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie Jerome, who became Lady Randolph Churchill; actress Sarah Bernhardt, and Alice Keppel, who was the great grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles—formerly mistress of Prince Charles and now his wife.)

Finally, here is Victoria’s secret, which I discovered while researching this post.  Today we like to think of Queen Victoria as being extremely prudish, but in fact, her marriage to Prince Albert was very passionate, and in 1843, she commissioned her favorite artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, to painting an intimate portrait of herself, “for Albert’s eyes only”.  The resulting painting, which Victoria wrote was “My darling Albert’s favourite picture” was kept in Albert’s private writing room, where only he could enjoy it.  After the death of the Queen, Buckingham Palace kept Victoria’s “secret picture” a secret, revealing it to the public for the first time in 1977.  

You may wonder why this painting was considered so intimate and erotic that no one was allowed to see it.  This is one more example of my oft-repeated statement that what we in the 21st century see when we look at an antique photograph or painting is far different from what contemporaries of the image saw.

The erotic element in Victoria’s secret painting is the hair (as well as the expanse of royal bosom shown.)  In Victorian days, a girl became a woman at 18 and began to wear her hair up, piled on top of her head, often in braids as Victoria did.  No one but her husband would be allowed to see her with her hair down and disheveled, draped over her shoulders. 

A woman’s long hair was one of the most erotic parts of her body in those days; witness the advertisements for hair products showing naked women with their floor-length hair protecting their modesty å la Lady Godiva. ( If you want to know more about  the history of “Older Women and Long Hair in the Olden Days”, check out my December 2010 blog post on the subject:  .  

By the way, the heart shaped pendant on a gold chain held a lock of Albert’s hair which Victoria wore “night and day” before their wedding. (Many times I’ve acquired a daguerreotype from the 1840’s and removed the image from the case or pendant ,to find a lock of the sitter’s hair inside.)


Saturday, February 3, 2018

Thoughts on Turning 70--Seven Years Later

(The photo shows my mother and myself in 1943)

The wonderful thing about having a bad memory--as I do--is that I had completely forgotten that I wrote and posted this  seven years ago, on the eve of turning 70.  Now I'm about to turn 77 and I re-read this with wonder as I realized that all my hopes for my crone-hood-- especially becoming a grandmother--have come true!  What a great birthday present!

When you turn 70, (as I do on Friday, Feb. 4) you can’t consider yourself middle-aged any more.  Let’s face it, you’re wicked old.

In 1985 my mother died at 74 of cardiomyopathy and my father died at 80 not long after, but he spent his last years lost in dementia, which may or may not have been connected to his Parkinson’s disease. I think we all keep our parents’ ages at death in the back of our minds like a bad omen.  A male friend of mine was convinced that he’d die of heart disease at 62, like his father, and didn’t relax about this until he passed that milestone year.

I used to think the best time of life was when your children are young and all sorts of accomplishments are still possible in your future.  But now I think that, for women, crone-hood – life after sixty—is the best time of one’s life.

If that is, you are lucky enough to have good health.  Two years ago I was collecting classmates’ bios for the book distributed at our 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota. I realized how many classmates had died (39 out of 331) and that many were struggling with serious illness.  Also a number of my friends have had their mobility compromised by hip or knee problems and other ailments.

I’ve been very lucky this far, which is something that I think about every day.

When I sit down in the morning with coffee and the newspapers, I’m profoundly glad that I don’t have to show up an office at 8 a.m. with five newspapers in my hand, then read them and mimeograph a news summary for my company’s management before ten a.m.  That was my first job in Manhattan, working for Lever Brothers.  Now all executives get their daily business news instantaneously on their I-phones or Blackberries or laptops.

I admit, I’ve become addicted to the computer, which I think is the most important innovation in my lifetime.

When my mother died in 1985, she had never touched a computer (although my father actually sold huge, hulking Univac computers to companies before he retired.) When she was pregnant with me—in 1940-41-- my mother spent the time compiling a book-sized family history of our ancestors, typing it up laboriously with lots of carbon copies, and distributing it to her eight siblings and eventually to her children.  Think how much easier that job would be today!

Another computer phenomenon is the social networks, especially Facebook, which many people consider invasive and dangerous.  But it has created a worldwide community which can share news and ideas and opinion instantly.

Consider this—on the first day of February, two young women who are among my “Facebook friends” each gave birth to a daughter—one in Omaha and one in Connecticut-- and they both announced it to the world on Facebook before they were wheeled out of the delivery room.  One even posted an album of photos of the baby, before and after the umbilical cord was cut.

Also, I’ve heard from friends with relatives who are soldiers in, say, Afghanistan, that an expectant dad in the military can watch his wife’s entire labor and delivery live on the computer (I guess through Skype.) This is, as Martha Stewart would say, a good thing. Of course if the dad didn’t have to go to war, that would be an even better thing.

Sometimes I imagine explaining things like this to my mother, who would have loved the internet.

The goal that motivates me to exercise on the stationary bike most days and go to Pilates lessons is the hope that I’ll stay alive and mobile long enough to be a grandmother. My friends become inarticulate when trying to explain how grandchildren can transform your life.

It seems to me that when women turn fifty, they’re likely to give their husbands a big cast-of-thousands celebration and ignore their own birthday, but when they turn 60, many of my friends celebrated themselves with the party or trip they’d always wanted.

And when women enter crone-hood, they often channel the creative energy they used to spend on home, children and jobs into some long-hidden passion-- designing jewelry, writing a book, gardening, volunteering their talents to a philanthropy. They allow themselves to do what they always wanted, but never had time for. A friend of mine, a couple of years older than I am, went from wife, mother and chef to law student, then lawyer, then judge, then a state chief justice. A run-in with cancer slowed her down and she retired.  Now she’s enrolled at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary School so that, aged 70-plus, she can fulfill her childhood dream and become a veterinarian. (And she relaxes with horseback riding and tap dancing!)

I, too, went the “discover-your-passion-at-60” route and turned away from journalism (although I still do it) to re-discovering art, which was my major in college until I realized I could never earn a living at it.  So I started taking lessons at the Worcester Art Museum, exhibited in some local shows and sold some paintings.

As long I can get around and handle my own luggage, I intend to travel to places I’ve never been and take lots of photographs (mostly of people) and then turn the photos into paintings.  Last month I wrote about a night spent watching sea turtles hatching on a beach in Nicaragua and heading into the sea.  I called it a “bucket list” experience.

Next week I’m off on another one.  My husband is giving me the birthday gift of a
culinary tour in Mexico with chef Susana Trilling, traveling around the state of Michoacan to witness the migration of the Monarch butterflies.   Susana has a cooking school in Oaxaca (called Seasons of My Heart) and I’ve been on unforgettable tours with her, far, far off the beaten path to many parts of the country, but this is Susana’s first Butterfly tour and I know it’s going to be amazing

There are a lot more trips on my bucket list and I don’t know how much time I’ve got left to make them, but, free of the drama, responsibility, worry and insecurity of youth, I’m entering my seventh decade with anticipation (and hope) that this will be the best one yet.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Royal Brides Part 1--Victoria (and Diana and Kate)


With Prince Harry’s engagement to American actress Meghan Markle set to climax in a wedding in St. George’s chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19th and then Fergie’s daughter Princess Eugenie’s recent engagement to marry Jack Brooksbank in the same place in the Fall, royal brides seem to be much in the news lately.

Over my years of collecting antique photographs—dating from the beginning of photography in 1839 through 1918—I’ve accumulated close to 200 wedding photographs.  In the 19th century, going to a photographer’s studio in your wedding clothes for a formal photograph after the wedding day was traditional-- almost a legal statement that “We are married.”  (And until Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840, the bride was usually not wearing a white wedding dress, but usually the best dress from her wardrobe.)   Often this was the only photograph the bride and groom had taken of themselves in their lifetimes.
Some of my antique wedding photos are of royal brides. One of them is this small carte de visite  (above) of Queen Victoria when she was a 19-year-old girl and ruler of Great Britain, marrying her first cousin, 20-year-old Prince Albert of Saxe Colburg and Gotha in Germany.

The carte-de-visite photograph is a process that was introduced in 1854 and became vastly popular until after the turn of the century.  Unlike the earlier kinds of photographs--  daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, (which were housed in hard book-like cases for their protection) and then the tintype (sometimes in a case, sometimes not)-- the “CDV”s as they are called, were simply paper photographs mounted on a small piece of cardboard about the size of a calling card.  They were produced by the thousands and were very inexpensive and easy to make in multiples—unlike the previous processes. 

By the time of the Civil War in the U.S., just about everyone was collecting in albums the CDVs of their favorite actors, politicians, heroes, royals, entertainers, freaks (including Tom Thumb as well as Barnum’s other stars) and family and friends—both living and dead. If you called on someone who was not at home, you could leave a CDV of yourself, and you could fill albums with signed CDVs of your family and friends. Let’s face it, CDVs were our first selfies!

Queen Victoria and her family were among the most popular subjects for CDVs.  In 1860 John Maryall, an American working in England, published 60,000 sets of his Royal Family album of CDVs.   Victoria herself avidly collected the small photos and put them in albums. 

         Today, among photo collectors, CDVs of ordinary folk are so numerous that they are practically worthless, unless the subject is something rare. But I once saw a CDV of Abraham Lincoln’s dog, Fido, sell on E-Bay for several thousand dollars.  (And if you come across a CDV of Jesse James or Billy the Kid, drop me a line at

            Back to the CDV of Victoria and Albert as bride and groom.   I originally bought it because I was amused that someone acquired the CDV in the 1860’s and valued it so much that she cut a bit off the bottom and placed the photo in the kind of ornate frame and matte that was earlier used for cased images like daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

            I took the photo apart from the frame and matte (which is something I always do, because you can find all sorts of things behind the image if it’s in a case:  locks of hair, written identifications, dates, love letters, poems).  I could see that the image had been carefully labeled as “Victoria and Albert of England” by someone named Elizabeth “Alleen” or “Allesen”, and that, judging from the pinholes, she had it pinned up several times before putting it in the fancy gold frame.

            By now you have realized, as I did when I took the thing apart—this is not a photograph!   It’s taken from an engraving of the royal pair. And the artist, whoever he is, made them look a teensy bit better than they did in real life.  And there’s one more thing wrong with the image—Victoria did not wear a real crown on her wedding day, but instead chose a simple crown of orange blossoms.  She also had bunches of orange blossoms attached to her gown.

         FYI, because I know you’re going to ask, Kate Middleton did wear a sort of crown at her wedding in April of 2011; a diamond halo-style coronet, which someone said was  “as understated as a headband of diamonds can be.”  It was an heirloom made by Cartier in 1936 and originally bought by King George VI for his wife—the Queen Mother.  It was loaned to Kate by Queen Elizabeth and includes 739 brilliant diamonds and 149 batons.

        Princes Diana, at her wedding on July 29, 1981, wore a much more visible and dramatic crown—the Lover’s Knot tiara, which was made in 1914 using diamonds and pearls from the royal family’s collection.  It was given to Diana by Queen Elizabeth II as a wedding present. Kate has inherited it and has worn it on several occasions.

         Wearing not a diamond crown but a headpiece of orange blossoms was a revolutionary step for Victoria to make at her wedding, as was wearing all white. At first I was disappointed that I couldn’t find an actual photograph of Victoria’s wedding, but then I realized—silly me!--that photography had only been announced to the world in August of 1839 by Daguerre in France, and in January of 1840, when Victoria got married, even if the daguerreotype process was available in England, it required going to a photographer’s studio on a day when there was ample sunlight and then sitting there with your head in a brace for a long time without moving or smiling—not the sort of thing that could be done at a wedding.

        But Victoria herself was quick to embrace the revolutionary new technology of photography.  She even specified which photographs of her loved ones would be buried with her in her casket.   In order to preserve her memories of her wedding day, she had a series of photographs taken by photographer Robert Fenton on May 1,1854—14 years after the real wedding. They were a re-enactment of the original ceremony, with both Victoria and Albert wearing their wedding outfits.  Above and below are two of the Fenton photos. You can see that the couple have aged a bit. I think what Albert has in his hand is a plumed hat.

          Victoria was in love with her wedding dress and wore it on numerous occasions, including for a portrait that she commissioned on her first anniversary from  the artist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, showing her as she looked on her wedding day.  

          The most notable part of the dress was a flounce made from a piece of Honiton lace worked in an antique style by ladies in Devon, England. Here’s how Victoria described her wedding dress in her journal:   I wore a white satin gown, with a very deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old. I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings, and my Angel’s beautiful sapphire broach.”   The sapphire broach was a wedding gift from Albert and you can see it in the portrait she commissioned on her first anniversary, above. 

          Victoria also wore her wedding veil on many other occasions in her life, including for her Diamond Jubilee portrait when she was 78 years old—and when she died in Jan. 1901, she was buried with her wedding veil over her face.     

Coming Next:  Royal Brides Part II- After Victoria

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Colette—The Most Scandalous Woman in Paris

When I first bought this set of five French postcards dating from fin de siècle Paris, I didn’t realize that one of the actors in this melodrama, named Colette Willys, was in fact the Colette--who wrote such books as “Gigi”, “Chéri”, and the saucy series of “Claudine” novels.   She was the single-named author (full name Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette), who was called the most important woman writer in France and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
These postcards are advertising an over-the-top melodrama called “La Chair” (“The Flesh”), which was the hit of Paris in 1907, and was presented throughout France for four years and 250 performances.   As is stated on the cards, the actors were Christine Kerf (dressed as a man), Georges Wague and Colette Willy.  The photographs were taken by a photographer named Walery, and the performance was a pantomime, with no dialogue, but music by A. Chantrier.
 The reason the play was such a huge hit in Paris, selling out every night, was due to a “wardrobe malfunction” more famous than Janet Jackson’s at the Super Bowl.  In every performance, the actor playing Colette’s lover, as he tried to stab her, would tear her blouse so that one breast (the left), would be exposed.  (Surely this must be the origin of the term “bodice ripper”?)  Throughout France, Colette’ breast was celebrated in newspaper cartoons, poems, post cards that became pin-ups, and gossip.  Eighteen-year-old Maurice Chevalier, an unknown actor at the time, said that Colette’s breasts were “cups of alabaster.”
Here’s the plot of the play:  Hokartz, a smuggler (Georges Wague) discovers his beautiful wife Yulka (Colette) has been unfaithful to him with a handsome officer  (Christine Kerf).  He lunges at his wife with a dagger and tears open her dress.  Overwhelmed by her beauty, he then kills himself instead.  
I’m sorry my five postcards don’t include the one showing Colette’s breast, but I’ll add that photo –taken from the internet—at the end of this post.
 Having Colette’s lover played by an actress in drag was as critical to the success of “La Chair” as the bare breast.  Just months before the opening of this pantomime, Colette appeared in another musical drama at the Moulin Rouge, in which she passionately kissed the aristocratic Mathilde de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf, known as “Missy”, who was her lesbian lover in real life, and was wearing mannish clothes.  (The premise of that performance was that an ancient Egyptian mummy comes to life, sheds her bandages, dances for and then kisses the archeologist who found her.) That kiss caused a riot among the audience and the police shut the production down immediately.
 Lesbianism among upper-class Parisian ladies was much discussed and decried in the newspapers of the day, and Colette’s own erotic interest in women was well known.  The success of “La Chair” was a personal triumph for Colette because, for the first time, she became self-supporting.  Her first husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known as “Willy”, was a 14-years-older author and publisher in Paris, and a notorious libertine.  He encouraged his young wife to write a novel about her schoolgirl days and eventually published it with his own name as the author--“Claudine at School.”   That book and three more naughty “Claudine” novels became instant best sellers, but the real author never profited from them.
Willy would lock Colette into her study for four hours and not let her out until she had written enough pages toward the next Claudine book. (Like Colette, Claudine began as a 15-year-old girl from a small town in Burgundy who got in trouble at school and indulged in lesbian affairs.)  When Willy and Colette separated, they continued to see each other, but Colette constantly had problems with money and poor health, until the success of “La Chair”.
Despite her interest in women, Colette never lacked for male lovers throughout her long life. By June 1910, Colette’s divorce from Willy was final, and she was acting in another melodrama featuring nudity-- “Sisters of Salome”. In 1912 she married the editor of the prestigious newspaper Le Matin, Henry de Jouvenal.  She had a daughter with him in 1913.  The marriage allowed her to concentrate on her writing career and she produced two well-received novels Chéri in 1920 and Le  Blé en Herbe in 1923.  Both dealt with the subject of an older woman falling in love with a much younger man.
Like most of her novels, these books were drawn from Colette’s own experience. The marriage to Jouvenal fell apart when he discovered that his wife was having an affair with her 16-year-old stepson Bertrand, child of his first marriage. They divorced in 1924. Colette was 51. The following year she married her final husband, Maurice Goudeket, who was 16 years her junior. By then she was considered France’s greatest woman writer. 
Colette’s husband Maurice was a Jew, and he was arrested by the Gestapo in December of 1941. Thanks to the efforts of Colette and the French wife of the German ambassador, he was released a few months later, but the couple lived in Paris in fear of his being re-arrested throughout the war.  In 1944 Colette published her most famous book, “Gigi”, about a 16-year-old Parisian girl who is being trained as a courtesan but decides to get married instead.
 Colette died on Aug. 3, 1954, at the age of 81.  She was refused a religious funeral by the Catholic Church, but was given a State Funeral—the first French woman to be so honored. She was enrolled in the Legion d’honneur and buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery.  

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Obama Visits Greece and Nick Quotes Him the Bible

  Was it only last year that I posted this?   Why does it seem like it happened so many years ago?  Wonder if the current POTUS is as familiar with the Bible as Obama was?

Last Sunday, Nick and I were in New York when he got word that he was invited to attend the state dinner in President Obama’s honor to be given by the Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos in the Presidential Palace in Athens on Tuesday night.

So we drove back to Massachusetts while Nick scrambled on the phone to find a flight out of Boston that would get him to Greece in time for Tuesday.  (There are no direct flights to Athens at this time of year.) He eventually flew on Monday afternoon on Lufthansa to Frankfurt and then to Athens, arriving midday on Tuesday. I really wanted to go too, but the Embassy told him no spouses were coming, not even Michelle Obama.

Nick has sent me photos of the event, which he thoroughly enjoyed.  Young women in native costume welcomed the 120 guests entering the grand dining room.  They were seated at long tables arranged like three sides of a rectangle, or the Greek letter pi. Obama sat in the center of the head table, at the right of Greek President Pavlopoulos and on Obama’s right was Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

 I was amused to see that Tsipras, who as a Marxist and leader of the leftist Syriza party made a point throughout his campaign of never wearing a tie, appeared throughout the state dinner and other events honoring Obama, always tie-less in an open-necked white shirt.  I was also amused that the Prime Minister, an avowed atheist, was seated next to the Archbishop of Athens. I wonder what they talked about.

While Prime Minister Tsipras speaks halting English, Greek President Pavlopoulos knows it well, but both made their public remarks in Greek and then paused for an English translation.  Watching the event on Greek TV, I heard Obama whisper to President Pavlopoulos, “Is this your house?  Do you live here?” and Pavlopoulos answered, “No, I have a home over by the Hilton.”

The menu, printed in two languages, featured “Shrimps with citrus fruits”, “rice with vegetables and herbs”, “baked grouper with greens, garnished with potatoes and cherry tomatoes”, “chestnut dessert”, ”seasonal fruit, two kinds of wines and coffee.

President Obama began his remarks with “kalispera” (good evening) and lauded Greece for the country’s hospitality, humanity and its contributions to the world as the source of democracy.  After the Greek president and prime minister spoke,  the children’s choir of the Greek National Opera sang four songs, both John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Simon and Garfunkel’s  “Sounds of Silence” and two popular Greek songs by Theodorakis and Hadjidakis.  Afterward, Obama enthusiastically mixed with the children and thanked them for their performance.

Sadly I have no photo of Nick talking to Obama.  At U.S. State dinners, there is usually a photographer who takes your photo as you are introduced to the President in a reception line, but at the Greek state dinner, Obama shook hands with the guests as they filed out of the dining room.

Nick had a brief conversation with Obama which delighted them both—Nick said, paraphrasing a famous statement made by Saint Paul right before his martyrdom: “Mr. President, you have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith.  History will not slight you.”  Obama replied, “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”  Then he took a few steps, turned back smiling and said, “Letter to Timothy right?” (He was right, it’s from 2nd Timothy 4:7.  Proof that our President knows his Bible and was not dozing during Sunday school.)

The next day, Wednesday, Obama visited the Acropolis Museum and saw the Parthenon for the first time.  Then he spoke to a large group of invitees at the new Stavros Niarchos Cultural Center.  Nick was there.

I asked Nick, when it was all over, if he felt Obama’s visit to Greece had been a success. (It was covered live for three days on Greek TV, which I watched sporadically.) The New York Times said last Tuesday that Trump’s victory had rattled Greece because “Obama had been supportive of Greece’s efforts to get its finances in order, and of Europe’s bid to keep Greece stable.  Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras hoped that Mr. Obama, who travels to Berlin on Thursday, might even persuade the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to offer Greece some debt relief by the end of the year.”

In answer to my question Nick said, “I think it was important to both the visitor and the visited. Obama, as he finishes his presidency, wanted to go to the fountainhead of the values he pursued as President. And that of course is Greece, where democracy and individual rights and equal justice under law were developed.  And the Greeks needed somebody to show compassion for their plight in view of the hard stand their fellow Europeans, especially the Germans, are taking. I think both of those goals were fulfilled very successfully. Obama was really in top form.”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

True Ghost Stories III --Kids, Animals & Monsters

In honor of Day of the Dead, I'm re-posting a summary of the scariest true ghost stories I received from over 100 readers' letters when I was working for Country Living Magazine many years ago..  If you have any stories of your own to add, write me at: .  This is the conclusion of my three-part summary of what I learned from the letters.

What are ghosts exactly and how do you know if you’ve got one?
As I mentioned on Halloween—I have a collection of 101 letters from people describing ghosts they have encountered in their homes. These letters came to me 25 years ago when I was working for Country Living Magazine and we asked for reports on hauntings. But because the subject proved so controversial with readers of the magazine—especially Christian fundamentalists—the editors told me to write a brief and up-beat article and not go into any frightening detail.

But I’ve saved the letters all these years because I thought they were an invaluable source of information about: What is a ghost? And except for one letter, they all seemed to come from responsible and sane people, who included a police officer, a librarian, a minister, a psychiatrist and a host of other evidently reliable correspondents.

Last year-- on Halloween day-- my local paper (Worcester’s Telegram & Gazette) reported on a nearby haunted house, where the owners invited a team of “paranormal investigators” to study their home while the family was away. They set up cameras connected to DVD recorders and digital audio recordings to capture “electronic voice phenomena”. Aside from some mysterious voices and the unexplained turning off of the recorder, and film showing two paper lanterns that revolved in opposite directions, these ghost hunters found nothing much, but I was interested that they later said, there are two types of hauntings — “intelligent hauntings” in which purposeful actions are observed—like rearranging the china cabinet—and “residual hauntings,” which pick up and relay random events, such as a radio broadcast from the 1930’s.

I had already worked out for myself, from reading my 101 letters, that “hauntings”, “ghosts” or “paranormal activity” (as in the blockbuster film) can represent many different kinds of phenomena.

Instant Replay Traumas--I believe that one kind of “haunting” is the re-enactment of some traumatic event that happened in that place long ago. It’s periodically re-projected—like an instant replay in a football game. One example of this was the reader from Fogelsville, PA who reported that every now and then in the middle of the night, they hear a horse trotting up, the locked kitchen door flies open and woman screams “Oh no!” (This reader has seen five separate ghosts in her house including a Civil War soldier “hanging” in their barn.”) I believe that these ghosts all qualify as “residual hauntings” and that they represent no danger to the living. The woman from Pennsylvania ended her letter: “Holidays are the most active seasons. Whether the ghosts like it or not, we’re staying.”

Lost earthbound spirits-- On TV programs like Medium, the ghosts encountered are usually people who don’t realize that they’re dead and they have to be coached to go on to the next world, or move toward the light or whatever is the next stage. Among the ghosts described in my letters, most of these lost souls were children and a few were elderly people who remained in the room where they had spent their last years of life. These old people, who don’t know they should move on, tend to get very angry at newcomers who have invaded their space. They get most irritated when renovations, restoration or re-decorating happens. One woman in Virginia used to encounter the voice and tricks of an elderly lady who once lived in the attic—where the reader would hang her laundry on rainy days. The “ghost” could often be heard rocking in her rocking chair . She opened doors and took a door off its hinges and leaned it against the wall , One day, in exasperation, she cried “Oh, just get out of here!” In many cases, according to the letters, angry lost spirits were helped to move on by a helpful priest, minister, exorcist or psychic.

More pitiful were the ten child ghosts who truly seemed lost and confused and often interacted with the living children of a household. (I learned that animals and small children are almost always more likely to see and interact with ghosts than adults. Often the small children don’t realize the spirits are ghosts and ask “Why won’t the little girl come back and play with me?” and “Why is that little boy playing with my trains?”) One reader from Wilbraham MA, called on ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren who contacted a “9-year-old earthbound boy who apparently died in the farmhouse in 1898, named Alfie. He told them he was concerned over his dog Dodo, and when he died his father was away from home in the army. Every year on July 16—the day he died—there would be a flurry of ghostly activity.” Visitors have reported seeing the little boy looking out the window of a front bedroom and waving good-bye.

From the letters I’ve read, I believe these earthbound child ghosts are unlikely to cause any harm to the inhabitants of a house, although they sometimes smash china and play havoc with electrical appliances—they have also been known to cover sleeping children with blankets and to close windows in a sudden rainstorm. Lucy Ensworth of Louisburg, Kansas who died in 1863 at the age of 12, has done both the pranks and the helpful gestures, stealing things and putting them back, and causing a visiting granddaughter to say, “It’s hard to sleep with that lady walking around—she’s sort of a big girl.”

In two cases ghosts have seemed to known and react to a sickness in the family: A reader in Sandston, VA wrote they have a woman ghost “seen only twice, both times in the fall when someone in the family had been hospitalized.” A man in New Berlin, Wisconsin wrote “As a pastor I’m not supposed to believe in ghosts, but I do.” He described the experiences of friends who live in a country barn house with a poltergeist. Ferns would spin and chairs would rearrange and a cousin who scoffed at reports of a ghost had a fork fly off the table and prick his cheek. “When Jennie’s mother fell down the stairs, her arm was held so that she didn’t plunge headlong, but slid down. On her arm were bruise marks of four fingers and a thumb.” They had a three-year-old daughter who had an allergic reaction to the anesthesia during an emergency appendix operation. The night Jenny died, her bedroom pictures on the wall—mattress, etc—were hurled all over her room. After that, there were no more messages from the ghost.

Animal ghosts—I believe that spirits often return to the place where they lived before moving on—this makes more sense than ghosts in a graveyard hanging around their remains. Many readers described animal ghosts, especially cats, walking on the bed—sometimes their own deceased pets or an unknown pet. I know when my own dog died at the age of 11 years (I was away at college), my mother, who had never liked the dog that well anyway, kept seeing it out of the corner of her eye in the kitchen. A reader in Willoughy, Ohio, described her terrier named Bonnie who would run up the stairs, her nails clicking. One night, several weeks after Bonnie was put to sleep, she was awakened by the familiar sound. “Bonnie just dropped in to let me know that, wherever she was, she hadn’t forgotten about me and our many cozy nights together.”

Evil and dangerous ghosts—Most of the writers said that they view their ghost as a kindly, rather than malevolent presence. Eleven of the 101 correspondents specifically said they consider the spirit a friend. But eight people said they felt their ghost was an evil presence, and a few described the kind of dangerous evil spirit of the type made famous in The Amityville Horror (a true story) —the kind of ghost that would make you immediately put the house on the market at any price.

In each case the spirit was specifically attacking a child in the family. A couple in Surprise, New York described a ghost named Sarah who started out being helpful—caught the woman when she fell down stairs, covered the babies with blankets, put old hand-stitched baby clothes in an empty trunk. But “She hates our oldest son Eric. She threw his bed around the room one night with my husband and myself on it. We have now moved him to a bedroom downstairs. One night she choked him as he was walking in the hallway. He had red handprints around his neck…whenever she comes, our room gets ice cold and a terrible wind comes up. There is a tin-lined closet in the hall where she lives. One night we locked her in with a chair propped up against the door and taped the entire door shut with masking tape. About three a.m. a crash woke us up. The chair was flung downstairs, and the tape wadded up in a ball.”

Instead of moving out the next day, “We were at our wits end and so finally we put a bottle of holy water in our bedroom. She has been back twice since then in the last two years, but both times comes and goes very quickly. We love the house and have now finished restoring it.”

Two more writers described some sort of “monster ghost” that would terrify and torment a child in the family, sometimes trying to bite him—and both used crucifixes and holy water to protect the child and keep the ghost out of the room (in one case it was still looking in through the window.)

I’m very tempted—now that these letters are 25 years old—to write back to the addresses of a few of the most interesting haunted houses to see if the ghosts still are active there. But that might be asking for trouble.

To sum it up—I think most of the paranormal activity described in the letters was NOT dangerous to the homeowners, nor was it directed at them. And in most cases I don’t think there was an actual ghost interacting with the living, but in some cases (of “intelligent response”) there was, sometimes from children or old people still haunting the place they lived. And these spirits (which are sometimes poltergeists) are particularly agitated by re-decorating, construction, moving furniture or illness in the family.

I was amazed at how many readers mentioned: odors and aromas (pipe tobacco, a horrible stench, perfume) and a pocket of freezing air when the ghost was near. And electrical appliances acting up! Clearly, whatever ghosts are, they embody some sort of electrical energy. Fourteen readers reported spirits that played havoc with electric lights and appliances, monkeying with water faucets and setting off doorbells, phones, stoves, radios, TVs—even after they were disconnected.

Here’s a reader from Brevard, North Carolina: “Constantly bizarre happenings: we would find all the lights ablaze, an empty dishwasher swishing away, doors opened or closed. The old turkey platter hanging on the wall was smashed in the center of the room, although the nail and wire hanger were intact. Shower water goes on and off, a vaporous form comes through the bathroom door. Smoke detectors go off constantly. As I write this the lights in the office have gone off and on twice.”

(And that was before computers—wonder if ghosts can type?)

So that’s my last word on what I learned in the Country Living letters--, although I’d love to hear anyone else’s theories on “What is a ghost?” I live in a house that dates back to (at least the oldest section) 1722. Daniel Rand, the first white child baptized in Shrewsbury, MA (in 1722) lived to be 80 years old and is buried nearby. We have his tombstone on our porch.

I’m happy to say that I personally have not encountered any paranormal happenings in this house—although others have—and I’d like to keep it that way. Hopefully the spirits of all the families who have lived here for the past three centuries (and I know all their names and stories) can continue to coexist peacefully, without any paranormal activity or things that go bump in the night.