Saturday, October 31, 2009

Real Ghost Stories and One Ghost Photo

When I was writing a regular column for Country Living Magazine in the 1980’s, I asked, in November of 1983, “Tell us about the ghosts in your country house…Write us a letter describing any experiences with live-in ghosts, poltergeists and things that go bump in the night.”

I received 101 letters from all over the country and, to my delight, only one sounded like it was from a nut (she had also been kidnapped by aliens), but the rest all seemed very reasonable, from people who included a psychiatrist, a police officer and a librarian (with a haunted library.} I thought these letters were beyond price—a treasure trove that would help me learn a great deal about ghosts and haunting and what they really are.

But along with these letters came complaints to the editors saying that our question was opening us up to the work of Satan, that we were in grave danger, that ghosts were just Satan’s demons preying on vulnerable people who had lost loved ones, and that these readers wanted their subscription to the magazine canceled at once.

This naturally rattled the editors, and they asked me to keep the eventual article short and up-beat and as inoffensive as possible to the religious right who thought even a discussion of ghosts was inherently evil.

I made notes on each ghost story. While I couldn’t detail in the magazine the scarier stories I received, at least the summary I did of the letters allowed me to learn what people experience when they encounter a “ghost”. I was struck by how many described feeling a sudden patch of cold air, and many described an odor—perfume or pipe tobacco or flowers. The presence of ghosts in fourteen cases played havoc with electrical appliances –lights, toasters and washing machines that would go on and off even when they were unplugged from the wall. Then there were the flying objects.

After reading all these letters, I came to the conclusion that what people perceive as ghosts are probably several different kinds of phenomena which they grouped under that one word. But I’ll tell you in my next post about that. Right now I’m going to give you the highlights of the letters.

The article that I ultimately wrote in Country Living began:

Imagine what you’d do if this happened to you:

You see the image of a Civil War soldier hanging from the rafters in your barn.

You climb the stairs only to find the way blocked by a wall and to feel someone pushing you down.

Periodically at midnight you hear a horse gallop up to your kitchen door, the locked door flies open, and a woman’s voice screams, “Oh, no!”

The antique blanket chest in your living room erupts with such knocking that you have to grab the television set on top to keep it from falling off.

You go to bed leaving a crossword puzzle unfinished and awake to find it has been completed in the characteristic left-handed script of assassinated president James Garfield, who once lived in your home."

I did not go into detail about the few letters that described truly evil spirits that seemed determined to harm someone in the family—those I’ll tell about tomorrow—but for the most part, people felt comfortable with the supernatural beings in their house and 24 people believed they know the real former identity of “their” ghost. Some who didn’t gave their live-in ghosts names.

Among the more than one hundred spirits mentioned, there were ten child ghosts, three Native American ghosts and four animal ghosts (two cats and two dogs) as well as haunted objects: a wicker wheelchair, a family portrait, an antique blanket chest, and a baby carriage.

Forty-one people out of 101 claimed they had actually seen their ghost —anything from vaporous shapes that would pass through a door to what seemed to be a flesh-and-blood person until it suddenly vanished. One reader saw her ghost in a mirror, two described ghosts complete except for having no face, and one reported only the top half of a man repeatedly seen crossing the dining room of her mother-in-law’s restaurant in Indiana.

In 22 cases, pets and small children reacted to the ghost first (like Ronald Reagan’s dog Rex in the Lincoln Bedroom), and children were much more likely to actually see the spirits while their parents saw nothing.

Four readers described being repeatedly pushed down a flight of stairs and two others started to fall down stairs, then were suddenly caught by an unseen hand that left a red handprint on their body. A woman who rented a house in East Kentucky wrote “My first trip downstairs after moving in was on my backside…tearing the muscles in my shoulder. Every time I was on the stairway, I had to hang onto the wall or I’d slip or stumble.’ After three weeks, she and her husband had their pastor come and command the evil spirits to leave, and they did.

Five readers described ghosts who showed concern for their children, covering up babies with blankets, putting toys in the crib, sitting by a bedside and rubbing a feverish brow. Lucy Ensworth, a 12-year-old girl who died in 1863 in Kansas, haunts her Victorian home (she’s buried in the small cemetery on the property).

Lucy has been known to tuck in the baby and to close all the attic windows—propped open with sawed off broomsticks—during a sudden downpour, but she also has emptied a glass of water on a napping adult, smashed dishes all over the kitchen floor, pulled the pegs out of a gun rack before the eyes of its owner, kept the four-year-old granddaughter awake by walking around and rapping on the walls, “just the sort of things a bored, restless pre-teen would do,” according to the woman who wrote the letter.

Ten people said their ghosts make small objects disappear and then reappear in the strangest places—like a flyswatter stuffed into a radio. People described watching flying teapots, mugs, candle snuffers and crystal vases that leaped off a table, rocking chairs that rock by themselves, a wicker wheelchair and a baby carriage that move their position every day. One told about a fork that rose from the table and pricked the cheek of a visitor who scoffed at hearing the house was haunted.

Ten readers told about being repeatedly startled out of sleep by a deafening crash; sometimes to find a scene of chaos, but more often to find nothing broken. (One woman and her daughter would leap out of bed at hearing the din and meet in the hall every night, while her husband slept quietly, never hearing a thing.)

A California woman woke up and found her bed shaking from side to side, while she could see that the prisms on the chandelier weren’t moving. Three people described having their bed shaken, and not by an earthquake.

I have lots more ghost stories from the letters which I’ll tell you about tomorrow—including the scary ones that resemble the “Amityville Horror”, but I’ll stop now.

The photo above was sent in by a woman from New Jersey who wrote:
“While vacationing in sunny California this summer (1983) my husband and I came across an interesting small town in Northern California called Los Alamos. [She actually wrote "Los Alimos" but I couldn't find a town of that name.] …We came across this Victorian house...I snapped a photo. We certainly were surprised when we got our pictures developed. The image of a girl dressed in clothing not of this era was clearly visible…. I would really like to find out more about the history of the house.”

To her it looks like a girl in old-fashioned clothes—to me it looks more like the Grim Reaper. What do you think? And have you had any encounters with the other world?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Reagan's White House Ghost Story

President Reagan’s White House Ghost Story

(I’m planning a three-part Halloween series of investigative blogging this weekend on the question of Ghosts—Are they real? Are they dangerous? And what are they exactly? My answers are based on the fascinating stories from 101 letters I received many years ago from readers of Country Living Magazine who answered the question “Is your house haunted? Tell us about it.” Most of the contents of these letters have never been published, because the magazine toned down the piece after discovering how controversial the subject was, so you’ll hear it here first.. But I wanted to start off my Halloween ghost extravaganza with my favorite haunted house story because it was told to me by the President in the White House.)

Ever since the White House was first occupied in 1800, there have been rumors of hauntings, but I got this story direct from the President’s mouth. No, not President Obama. I first heard about the White House ghosts directly from the lips of Ronald Reagan.

It was March 18, 1986, and my husband Nick and I had been invited to a state dinner in honor of Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The State Dining room was filled with gold candlesticks, gold vermeil flatware and vermeil bowls filled with red and white tulips. I had the great privilege of being seated at the President’s table along with Chicago Bears’ running back Walter Payton; the Canadian Prime Minister’s wife Mila Mulroney; the president of the Mobil Corporation; Donna Marella Agnelli, wife of the chairman of Fiat; Burl Osborne, the editor of the Dallas Morning News, and Pat Buckley, wife of William Buckley.

The President, a brilliant storyteller, entertained the table throughout the meal and the story I remember best was about his encounters with the White House ghostly spirits. Here is how I wrote it later in an article about the dinner for the Ladies’ Home Journal: “According to the President, Rex, the King Charles Cavalier spaniel who had recently replaced Lucky as First Dog, had twice barked frantically in the Lincoln Bedroom and then backed out and refused to set foot over the threshold. And another evening, while the Reagans were watching TV in their room, Rex stood up on his hind legs, pointed his nose at the ceiling and began barking at something invisible overhead. To their amazement, the dog walked around the room, barking at the ceiling.

“I started thinking about it,” the President continued, “And I began to wonder if the dog was responding to an electric signal too high-pitched for human ears, perhaps beamed toward the White House by a foreign embassy. I asked my staff to look into it.”

The President laughed and said, “I might as well tell you the rest. A member of our family [he meant his daughter Maureen] and her husband always stay in the Lincoln Bedroom when they visit the White House. Some time ago the husband woke up and saw a transparent figure standing at the bedroom window looking out. Then it turned and disappeared. His wife teased him mercilessly about it for a month. Then, when they were here recently, she woke up one morning and saw the same figure standing at the window looking out. She could see the trees right through it. Again it turned and disappeared.”

After that White House dinner, I did some research and discovered that half a dozen presidents and as many first ladies have reported ghostly happenings in the White House. It’s not just the ghost of Lincoln that they see, although he tops the hit parade. He caused Winston Churchill, who was coming out of the bathroom naked but for a cigar when he encountered Lincoln, to refuse to sleep there again. And Abe so startled Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands that she fell into a dead faint when she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Lincoln standing there.

I also learned that the Lincoln bedroom was not a bedroom when Lincoln was President—it was his Cabinet Room where he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

It’s well known that Abraham Lincoln and his wife held séances in the White House, attempting to contact the spirit of their son Willie, who died there and who has been seen walking the halls.

The ghost of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, appeared often in the Rose Garden, which she planted. There is even reportedly a Demon Cat in the White House basement that is rarely seen. When it does appear, it is foretelling a national disaster. While the Demon Cat may at fist look like a harmless kitten, it grows in size and evil the closer one gets. A White House guard saw it a week before the stock market crash of 1929 and it was also reportedly seen before Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

Abigail Adams’ ghost has been seen hanging laundry in the East Room—she appeared frequently during the Taft administration and as late as 2002 and is often accompanied by the smell of laundry soap.

Lincoln himself told his wife he dreamt of his own assassination three days before it actually happened. Calvin Coolidge’s wife reported seeing Lincoln’s ghost standing at a window of the Oval Office, hands clasped behind his back gazing out the window (just as Reagan’s daughter saw a figure in a similar pose.) Franklin Roosevelt’s valet ran screaming from the White House after seeing Lincoln’s ghost . Eleanor Roosevelt, Ladybird Johnson and Gerald Ford’s daughter Susan all sensed Lincoln’s presence near the fireplace in the Lincoln Bedroom.

I’d love to find out if the Obamas have encountered any ghostly knockings, or if their dog Beau has suffered the same alarming anxiety attacks as Reagan’s dog Rex. This weekend, as the portals between this world and the other world swing open, I suspect the White House will be hosting a ghostly gala of the illustrious dead.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Royal Mistress at 16, A Cougar at 58

The Story Behind the Photo: “Patsy” Cornwallis West.

I can’t remember when or where I bought this photo (I must have paid a dollar for it) but I was intrigued by the coy beauty draped in fox tails (so un-PC today!) On the back of the photo, advertising “Photographers by Special Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen,” someone had scrawled “Mme. Cornwallis West, June 27th ’83.”

After a little research, I learned that this beautiful woman was not only one of the celebrities of her day—she was the daughter of a British king’s mistress and herself mistress to Edward, Prince of Wales, when she was just 16—but later her passionate affair with a wounded 23-year-old sergeant when she was 58 years old nearly brought down the British government!

(It’s stories like this that make collecting old photos so much fun.)

Born into an upper-class Irish family, Mary Cornwallis-West (always known as “Patsy”) became a mistress to the Prince of Wales at the age of sixteen in 1872. She was quickly married to the accommodating Colonel Cornwallis-West, approximately twice her age. They had three children.

Patsy moved in society and was good friends with other famous beauties who became royal mistresses, like Lillie Langtry, the actress.

Patrick Barrett was a young sergeant with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers during the First World War when he was wounded and shell-shocked. He was convalescing in the home of employees of Cornwallis-West when Patsy, in her late fifties by now, fell in love with him.

Here is a summary of the scandal that followed:

“When the noble-born Mary Cornwallis West, known as Patsy, started a secret affair with a wounded soldier billeted at her family's estate, neither of them dreamed that their relationship would throw the reputation of the entire British Parliament into question. But as Patsy's attempts to get her lover promoted to an officership were uncovered, the case came to symbolize all the ways in which the aristocracy toyed with the lives and deaths of British commoners. Patsy's own life of luxury and often reckless disregard for manners and morals were called into question, and she and her War Office consorts were shamed in front of Parliament and the press. And finally a dramatic Act of Parliament, especially introduced by David Lloyd George because of the affair, resulted in Patsy herself being questioned by a secret military tribunal.”

When she was questioned, she replied defiantly: “Why are you asking me this? Do you want me to explain to you about feelings? Do you not know about caring for someone?”

If you want to know more of her story, read “Patsy: the Story of Mary Cornwallis-West” by Tim Coates.

Mary Cornwallis-West died in 1920 at the age of 64. For defying the British government and defiantly declaring her love for the lower-class soldier who was less than half her age, I think she deserves to be the “Crone of the Week” as well as the “Story behind the Photo.”

Monday, October 26, 2009

Scary Skinny Airbrushed Models & Bratz Dolls

You’ve probably seen the bizarre airbrushed photo of model Filippa Hamilton (above left) used in a Ralph Lauren ad that makes her look like some sort of Giacometti stick figure. It appeared in Japan, then was picked up on blogs like Boing Boing. (It was a blog called “Photoshop Disasters” that posted it first. Then the Ralph Lauren company tried to make them take it down, citing copyright infringement.) A blogger commenting on the image wrote “Dude, her head is bigger than her pelvis!’

After a while the company pulled the ad and declared: "It was mistakenly released and used in a department store in Japan and was not the approved image which ran in the U.S. We take full responsibility. This error has absolutely no connection to our relationship with Filippa Hamilton."

They didn’t mention that in April, Filippa was fired by Ralph Lauren because, according to the model herself, they said that, at 5’10” tall and 120 pounds, she was too fat to fit in Ralph Lauren’s clothes!

In the end, the Lauren company ended up with egg on their collective face and women everywhere are complaining about the grotesque body shape that the company seems to be demanding in their models.

Then somebody found another airbrushed model in a Ralph Lauren ad. It’s the woman in the silver outfit above.

You would think that, after all the brouhaha, ad agencies would backpedal on airbrushing their models into stick figures. But just the other day I received an ad in the mail from Ann Taylor (I have an account there) and it seems to me that the women in that ad (wearing the black outfits above) have been airbrushed into impossibility.

I’ve taken countless life drawing classes during which I’ve drawn naked bodies, male and female, of all ages and sizes. When I see images like the women above, it makes me wince—clearly there’s no room for the requisite vital organs inside them. The bodies in the ads remind you of concentration camp victims, but the over-large heads, with big wide-apart eyes and little pointy chins, resemble children. (In a baby, the head is about one third the body length. In an adult, it’s about one-sixth. And big wide eyes and plump cheeks add to the baby look.)

Then, the other day, I read that Steve Madden, who created a fantasy cartoon woman for the ads that sell his shoes, is suing Mattel, the maker of the hugely popular Bratz dolls, for copyright infringement.

As you can see from the Steve Madden ads above, both he and the Bratz Dolls feature baby-faced pouting women with huge heads and grotesque stick-figure bodies.

I’m beginning to think that a dangerous and bizarre standard of beauty is creeping into the public consciousness.

Remember the era of Twiggy in the late sixties? She also had a very babyish face on a long skinny body, but today, with the new standards of beauty, we’re being sold an even more immature and impossible role model.

And little girls playing happily with their sullen Bratz dolls are going to absorb this standard of beauty, without realizing that no one but a cartoon can look like this and survive.

Remember when all feminists decried the effects of Barbie with her huge breasts and teeny tiny waist? At least she looked as if she ate once in a while.

Meanwhile, I keep reading that America’s children are suffering an epidemic of obesity because they don’t go outside and play anymore, they just sit in front of the TV set.

Today’s New York Times (Oct. 26) cited an article soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research that “explores the self-esteem among women looking at pictures of models.” One of the results of the research, not surprisingly, was that “women with normal body-mass indexes had low self-esteem when looking at very thin or at moderately heavy models.”

I don’t know why they have to pay researchers to come up with results like these! It stands to reason that women (and even more so, little girls) when exposed to impossibly thin images of models like those above (and the Bratz dolls) will have low self esteem and will aspire to look like anorexic skeletal victims with large heads and baby faces set in a perpetual sullen, vacant stare, caused, no doubt, by being on the verge of starvation.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Living to 104—A New Kind of Old Age

The most respected medical journal in the world, The Lancet, published a paper earlier this month that predicted that at least half of all babies born in America in 2007 will live to the age of 104. Researchers at the Danish Aging Research Center said that most babies born since 2000 in rich countries like the US, the UK, Japan, etc., will celebrate their 100th birthdays—and that there is no limit on human longevity!

Here’s another nugget from the Lancet article: Since the 20th century, people in developed countries are living about three decades longer than in the past. Surprisingly, the trend shows little sign of slowing down.

This is very good news for our grandchildren, but what does it mean for those of us who have already entered cronehood?

Well, the same report predicted that in 1950, the likelihood of survival from age 80 to 90 was 15 percent to 16 percent for women and 12 percent for men, compared with 37 per cent for women and 25 per cent for men in 2002.

That means that today, chances are very good that we over-sixty women will live to celebrate our 90th birthday.

(Two weeks ago, as I reported in this blog, I traveled back to Minnesota for my high school class’s 50th reunion. During the weekend, I was absolutely astonished to find out how many of my 68-year-old classmates still had living parents in their late nineties! My own mother died at 75 and my father at 80.)

Reacting to the article in The Lancet, The New York Times devoted most of its op-ed page on Oct. 19 to discussing previous ideas about the stages of a man’s life and a woman’s life.

Reporter Ben Schott wrote: “Researchers at the Danish Aging Research Center at the University of Southern Demark suggested that those born in developed countries could now be considered to have four stages of life – CHILD, ADULT, YOUNG OLD AGE and OLD OLD AGE.”

There followed charts and lists recording “some of the many other divisions of mankind’s lifespan, proposed by a variety of writers.”

They cited Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage….one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages….” etc.

And Hippocrates: “Infant (0-7), Child (8-14) Boy (15-21) Youth (22-28), Man (29-49), Elderly (50-56), and Old (57+)“

And the Times cited the traditional division of a woman’s life into “Maiden, Mother and Crone” which I discussed in a previous post titled “What is a Crone, anyway?”

I love learning that the Danes decided there were two stages of old age. Since 50 is clearly now “middle-aged”, I suspect they consider 60-80 as “Young old age” and 81-100 to be “Old old age”. Maybe after we turn 81 we can refer to ourselves as “Uber Crones” or “Supercrones”!

You’ll notice that Hippocrates, four centuries B. C., considered anything over 57 to be living on borrowed time.

You’ll also notice that every study of longevity gives women a longer life span than men. Why, I don’t know, but I suspect one reason that women live longer is that women are able to share their ailments and concerns and problems with each other and to derive comfort from their women friends and relatives, and men are not so good at this—they tend to be “manly” and bottle it all up inside.

The Lancet study suggested that shortening the work week and extending people’s working lives would further increase life expectancy and health. Another thing I learned from my classmates and their bios in the Reunion Book is that many men and a few women wrote that they “tried and failed” at retirement around the age of sixty-five and have now at 68, gone back to work—often in a different field or as a volunteer.

Nowadays it’s ridiculous to think of stopping work at 65 and preparing to die. If we believe in the four-stage system suggested by the Danes, we’re still in “young old age” and have nearly another twenty good years ahead of us when we can be useful and creative and donate our skills and energy to the common good.

It’s exciting to be a crone (over sixty) in this new age of increased life expectancy.

I belong to a woman’s group called “Salon” that meets about once a month to discuss various topics of interest, and tomorrow we are addressing the question “What are your plans for living a full life as our bodies and minds age?”

It’s a very timely topic, especially with our increased life expectancy, and I promise to pass along any pearls of wisdom I learn.

What do YOU do to live a full life as our bodies and minds age? Comments would be appreciated below or at

(By the way, I wanted to discuss the new life expectancies in this weekend’s essay. Next weekend it will be “Do You Believe in Ghosts? Do I?”, drawing from the 100 letters I received from people who believed their houses were haunted. During the week there will be a Crone Complaint on Tuesday and some posts about art and the “Story behind the Photograph” on Thursday and Friday.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

Story behind the Photo: Elizabeth Keckley— First Black Woman in the White House

On Sept. 27, I posted the story of Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a mixed-race slave in 1818 in a Virginia. (Her father was the owner of herself and her mother). She went on to be raped by a white man and have a son who was 3/4 white, buy her own and her son’s freedom through her sewing skills, move to Washington D.C. to become the leading society dressmaker, and she made the inauguration gown and every subsequent dress of the new First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

She became the only one who could calm Mrs. Lincoln before a party, dressed her,and chose her accessories. Ultimately Elizabeth became her close friend and companion. After the president’s assassination, Keckley was the first person Mrs. Lincoln asked for. When the widow moved back to Chicago, they had a long correspondence and ultimately Elizabeth Keckley, who had founded several philanthropies to helped former slaves, wrote a book called “Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.”

This caused such a scandal that Elizabeth Keckley was abandoned by her white customers, and, despite working as a professor of “Sewing and Domestic Science Arts” at Wilberforce University into her 80’s, she died at the age of 89 in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children, which she had helped establish. Her son, who passed as white in order to serve in the Union Army, was killed in action in 1861.

I had never heard of this remarkable woman when I bought a 1/6 plate ruby glass ambrotype in a gold-embellished thermoplastic case from a seller on E-Bay in 2007. He evidently had never heard of her either, because he added later in the auction: “I have had several e-mails with the observation that a person with the name “Elizabeth Keckley” was a 19th century American author and could have had some connection with the Federal government and White House during the American Civil War.”

As he said in the original description, a paper note is pinned to the velvet lining of the cover with the words “Elizabeth Keckley, formerly a Slave”.

I collect antique photographs having to do with slavery and black Americana, so I bought this one, winning the auction with a price of $227.50. If the seller had mentioned a Lincoln connection the ambrotype, it would have gone for much more. I’ve seen a carte de visite photograph of Lincoln’s dog, Fido, go for several thousand dollars.

When I received the ambrotype and researched it, I was thrilled—mainly to learn about this extraordinary woman who achieved so much during the Civil War era. But I’m not at all sure that the mixed-race black woman in the ambrotype is really Elizabeth Keckley. (The seller may have refrained from mentioning Lincoln so he couldn’t be accused of misrepresenting the image, or he could just have been ill-informed.)

I am posting the only three published images of Elizabeth Keckley that I could find in the collage at the bottom--from youngest to oldest. “My” image, at the top, would be an even younger version of her, or it could be someone else entirely. There are similarities, certainly, including the earrings. The nice thermoplastic Union Case housing the image would have cost the sitter more than the common embossed leather cases. The woman in the ambrotype is richly and fashionably dressed and clearly mixed race. Is it Elizabeth Keckley?

What do you think? Let me know at

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Those shoes at the very top are not a joke. I ran across the photo while browsing through “News Photos of the Week” on the internet recently and the caption read: “A model presents an outfit by British designer Alexander McQueen during ready-to-wear Spring and Summer 2010 fashion shows in Paris.”

I immediately knew that my first weekly Crone Complaint would be about shoes.

I like shoes as well as anyone, and I never want to be the crone in a sweat suit shuffling around the supermarket in battered sneakers. (Well, come to think of it, when I’m on my way to the gym that’s exactly what I am!) I think it was “Sex and the City” that turned shoe-shopping almost into a religion.

I’m 5’4” and have always longed to be taller, so since high school I’ve always wanted some height—at least an inch and a half heel—on my shoes, even walking shoes. Daughter Eleni is only 5 feet tall and she claims that, like Barbie, her feet are frozen in a tippy-toe position from permanently wearing heels. I’ve seen her climb a mountain in three-inch high espadrilles.

That said, I think all the shoe designs now coming into fashion are ugly, inconvenient and hazardous to our health. They should come with warning labels.

I’m not a fashionista, although I have written for Vogue. I page through fashion magazines at the hairdresser and was sort of aware a year ago that the shoes in the magazines were looking a lot like what was previously worn only by a dominatrix for S&M sessions. I think they’re called bondage shoes. Eleni questions the term. She says I’m referring to gladiator shoes.

(Late breaking bulletin—this is what I found on “Bondage shoes are for all intents and purposes, a more serious or hard core version of the gladiator sandal. Gwyneth Paltrow has been seen running around town in them as well as Carrie Bradshaw in the “Sex and the City” movie. Over the past year, they have been popping up in stores everywhere, but many girls who love the edginess are still afraid to wear them.”)

Whatever they’re called, my first thought was “Ugly!” and my second was—“Imagine trying to take those off in the airport security line while everyone behind you fumes.”

A third thought: all shoes with lots of straps and buckles make your legs look shorter—even if you’re a six-foot-tall model—and don’t we all want longer-looking legs?

Now, with the current crop of ridiculously high and teetering stiletto heels being shown on the fashion runways for 2010, I can only imagine that orthopedic surgeons around the world will be buying new summer homes, thanks to all the broken bones they’ll be treating.

Broken hips and falls can be deadly, especially to older people, so no wonder my mother used to wear what she called her “ground gripper” shoes during the day. But she still would put on heels to go out. ( She also told me that no decent woman would ever wear red shoes. I have several pairs of red shoes in my closet but always feel my mother’s celestial disapproval when I wear them.)

Just looking at the shoes above makes my feet hurt and I can only feel sorry for the models who have to wear them on the fashion runway. These are serious, very pricey shoes from the following brands: Nina Ricci, Rodarte, John Galliano, Manolo Blahnik, Dior, Alexander Wang, John Galliano, Bogetta Veneta. Why am I not surprised that most of them have been designed by men… who won’t have to wear them?

Of course we crones don’t have to wear them and I’m sure we won’t—nor would I, personally, ever pay $500 to $1,000 for any shoes, no matter what they look like. But seeing shoes like this in the fashion magazines and on the runway is insidious. Subconsciously we will get used to shoes looking like this, and modified versions of these leg-breakers will drift down to the lower-priced lines that we shop in our neighborhood malls. And pretty soon, we’ll find ourselves thinking it’s possible to walk or drive a car in four-inch-high platforms. And it will be a big mistake. Remember the 1970’s and the mini-skirt!

(Is there something that annoys you, makes you feel patronized or insulted… or just a complaint you’d like to share with fellow crones? Tell me about it below or by writing to so I can feature it on Crone Complaint Tuesdays.)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Madeleine Albright and My Life in Junk Jewelry

(Okay, so I’ve missed my first self-imposed deadline! This was supposed to appear on the weekend. And instead of the “Crone Complaint” appearing on Monday, it will appear on Tuesdays. Hopefully by next week I’ll get the categories on the right weekdays!)

I recently learned about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s new book “Read My Pins—Stories From a Diplomat’s Jewel Box”.

The description said: “Read My Pins is a story and celebration of how one woman’s jewelry collection was used to make diplomatic history. Exploring the use of the pin or brooch as a means of personal and diplomatic expression …(it] offers a whole new side of Secretary Albright.”

The New Yorker mentioned that, when diplomatic negotiations stalled, Albright might wear a jeweled turtle, or a contentious encounter would inspire a rhinestone bee or a crab pin. In Iraq she was called a serpent in the press, so she thought it was amusing to wear a snake pin “when we did Iraq things”.

I love that our distinguished Secretary of State did this, because I suspect that high-level male officials seldom signal their feelings, hopes and goals with their fashion choices, as women almost always do. (But I read that Bill Clinton would wear a special tie to signal Monica Lewinsky.)

So, inspired by Madeleine Albright, I pulled out a bureau drawer that has been collecting all sorts of costume jewelry over the past four decades. Even my brownie pin was in there, as well as some TWA plastic “junior crewmember” pins from the days when children would be taken into the cockpit to meet the pilots. (Nowadays you can’t even congregate near the cockpit door!)

I found my sorority and Phi Beta Kappa pins and the charm bracelet my parents gave me with charms for various high school accomplishments. The day after graduation I left on a student trip to Europe where I collected a silver charm in each city—silver beer stein, Arc de Triomphe, Tyrolean bell, etc.

I felt like an archaeologist digging through that drawer. I’ve never been much of a jewelry person, even though my husband has bought me beautiful pieces over the years, including a gold necklace with a Greek coin of Alexander the Great from 300 B.C. But wearing expensive pieces makes me nervous—I think I’m going to lose them—so the good jewelry usually lives in a bank safe deposit box.

My mother only wore silver—to go with her trademark silver hair. I have a number of deco-style pins of hers as well as a miniature silver spoon. In the 1930’s, when a bride chose a sterling flatware pattern, she would be given a matching pin. I opened a small jewel box of hers, lined with velvet, and found her gold thimble and a small ornate silver cigarette holder. The box still smelled like her—Arpege perfume and cigarette smoke—although she’s been gone for 25 years. And I found her hat pins-- long, lethal-looking, each topped with a pearl or semi-precious stone.

She and I both had birthdays in early February so we often gave each other our birth stone, amethyst. In one tiny box I found an ornate amethyst lavaliere with a note: “This was given to me by Joanie in August 1980—it is to be returned to her. Martha Paulson”.

I think you can tell that neither my mother nor I ever threw anything away—but unlike me, she had everything organized and labeled.

The most valuable jewelry my mother left me was a brooch of giant rhinestones made by Eisenberg. She wore it when she had her portrait painted, and I wear it whenever I need some serious 1940’s style glamour and bling.

I found a large sunburst necklace made of beads and seeds bought for a dollar through a bus window in Morocco in 1968 when I was still in my semi-hippie phase. There was a gold brooch of a sailing ship bought in Switzerland when my husband and I completed a book about Greek ship owners in 1975.

I found a little gold Aztec -looking figure of a man with a tiny emerald in his chest which my husband brought back from Colombia while researching the narcotics trade for The New York Times. He said that emeralds improve the changes of becoming pregnant. It worked. And during a long-ago memorial service for Nick’s mother Eleni in his mountainous village, he looked on the ground and found a small, perfectly heart- shaped stone. He had it set in gold with “My love always” engraved on the back. I think that’s my favorite piece.

Eighteen years ago a friend who has a birthday close to mine gave me a silver and turquoise pin of a wide-eyed man holding his arms up (“thinking ‘Oh My God, I’m fifty!’” she said.)

Because I collect hands, my children often give me hand jewelry-- from Greece, Israel, India, and places I can’t even remember.

I discovered a flamboyant beaded collar or ruff that I bought in Mexico and never had the nerve to wear. (I can’t carry off dramatic jewelry very well.) On a piece of string I discovered a smiling Toltec god’s head made of clay that was put around my neck by Indian children while we celebrated the spring solstice and the vanilla harvest among the pyramids of El Tajin, Veracruz, Mexico. As the pyramids came to life at night with colored lights, and the indigenous people sang and danced, it was like time-traveling back to an era long before the Spanish came.

I’m very big on good luck charms, figuring a little protection can’t hurt—so I’ve been known to wear my little orange figure of the Hindu god Ganesh and the Om symbol on the same chain as a Greek “evil eye” charm. And in my trip to India this year, I went crazy buying “tribal jewelry”—hammered silver cuffs and necklaces picturing the Hindu gods. Now I need the courage to wear those dramatic pieces out in public, as Madeleine Albright did every day when she was representing the American people.

My archeological dig into my costume jewelry has left me with two resolutions: I’m going to try to wear these souvenirs of my life more often. And when my daughters come home for Thanksgiving, I’m going to let the them choose which ones they want, while I can still remember the stories that go with each piece.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

"A Rolling Crone" Will Post Daily (Sort Of)

I started this blog a year ago because I was taking a class at the Worcester Art Museum from computer guru and famous artist Andy Fish. It was called something like “Selling Your Art on Line,” and he insisted that every artist or author should have a blog to put their work out there and build public recognition. He also emphasized that the blog should be updated every day.

Daughter Eleni came up with the title “A Rolling Crone” which I loved. I felt that women my age were not adequately represented on blogs and I thought “A Rolling Crone” could provide a forum for intelligent women post-sixty who are interested in art, travel, photography, literature and issues pertinent to cronehood, rather than, say, the misadventures of Britney Spears and Jon & Kate plus Eight.

(Some of my friends strongly objected to the term "Crone”. So I wrote an essay, “What is a Crone, Anyway?”, on Sept. 17, which you can check in the archives to the right.)

I really liked having a way to publish my thoughts and photographs (and sometimes paintings) on the internet, but after 40-plus years as a journalist, I tend to write essays with a beginning, middle and end, between 750 and 1,000 words. So it’s very hard for me to write more than one essay a week, unless I stop doing everything else. Yet Andy said again, when I took a course this year, that I don’t need to post a polished essay every day—just something: a photo, a quotation, anything. (“Joanie’s used to getting paid by the word,” he quipped to the class. “Ask her what time it is and she’ll tell you how to build a clock.”)

He and several students in the class have organized their blogs into categories for each day of the week. This struck me as a good idea, because then people will know, if they’re particularly interested in art, for example, to check on Thursdays.

So I’m going to break the week into categories on “A Rolling Crone”—but, as my friend Susan suggested, I’m not going to start with seven posts a week. Let’s say five and see how it goes. And I can’t possibly do this unless I get input from you. If you don’t want to post an opinion below, e-mail me at with complaints, favorites things, opinions, suggestions: anything in these categories:

Monday: Crone Complaints. I don’t want to sound like those people who turn into curmudgeons as they age, but there are some things that I find annoying or maddening or out-of-control lately. I think that as old, wise women, we have a right to complain now and then. My first Crone Complaint on Monday will have the title “SHOES”.

Wednesday: The Story behind the Photograph.
On Oct 2 I told the story behind the civil-war-era photo of a slave with a scarred back—an image that was widely circulated by abolitionists. I also wrote a letter about it that was published in the New York Times Book Review on Oct. 4.

Because I collect antique photographs, I’ve learned many fascinating (to me) bits of history from researching the images in my collection. Like every collector, I dearly love some of the prize pieces in my collection and want to share them.

Thursday: The Artful Crone.
I will try to feature a work of art every Thursday with as few words as possible. It may be a work by me, or a favorite artist, or a friend, or a folk artist (or it may just be a mural or graffiti on the street that I saw and liked.)

Friday: Crones’ Picks—citing a book, film or TV show that I like or you like and think other crones would enjoy. This category really needs input from you because lately the only time I have for recreational reading is on a plane. (I try to watch an hour of TV every night while on my stationary bike, but there are very few TV shows I’d recommend right now.) Films… I haven’t seen one I really liked since “Slumdog Millionaire”, although I thought “The Informant!” with Matt Damon was really well acted by the whole cast.

Weekend Essay. Don’t know what to call this yet—I was thinking Sunday Sermon but then no one would read it, thinking it’s about religion. Every weekend, I’m going to try to post an essay about whatever I feel like discussing. Tomorrow it’s “My Life in Junk Jewelry” inspired by the book Madeleine Albright just published: “Read My Pins” telling how, during her time as Secretary of State, she used the pins she collected and wore every day to signal her feelings and goals in her diplomatic interactions.

The following weekend, October 25, I’m going to write a post called “Do You Believe in Ghosts? Do I?” Many years ago, while writing a monthly column for “Country Living” Magazine, I asked for and received 100 letters from readers describing their experiences with hauntings. It turned into a controversial article which the editors told me to soft-pedal , but I’ve saved the letters because they’re full of fascinating detail.

So I hope you’ll help me with feedback and suggestions as I try to make “A Rolling Crone” turn up with a new post [almost] daily.

(If you’d like a free “crone power" bookmark, shown above, send me your address and I’ll mail you one-- or several.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What I Learned at My Reunion

I’m back from three days at my 50th high school reunion in Edina, Minnesota and it was amazingly fun and moving and left me very proud of my class—especially those who defied illness or injury to show up. Friday night was cocktails and catching up at the Westin Edina hotel, where, during a trivia game, we all showed an uncanny ability to remember the dumb lyrics to those silly rock 'n' roll records of the late fifties.

At first I walked into a room full of tall strangers silhouetted against the windows and recognized no one. (All the guys had white hair and almost none of the women did.) Then I was met with hugs and shouts, and people started to turn into their remembered selves. Someone quoted a friend who had just come from her fortieth reunion: “For the first fifteen minutes, I was depressed at seeing all these old people, and then for the next three days, I was 18 years old again.”

Saturday morning was a bus tour of Edina, which looks nothing at all like the village I remember, where we would play kick-the-can until after dark down by Minnehaha Creek while our parents, busy barbecuing in the backyard, had no idea where we were and what we were doing. Now it’s all very high-end malls and high-rise buildings. The bus took us into Minneapolis proper and we toured the amazing architecture of the Guthrie Theater. I realized that Minneapolis is a very culturally happening place.

At Saturday lunch I gathered with classmates who had also gone to Wooddale Grade School. As we chatted, I began to realize that the men in the group had somehow, over the years, become charming, witty, entertaining, introspective, intuitive, chivalrous and thoughtful. All weekend, to my astonishment, chairs were pulled out and doors were opened for the “weaker sex” and someone always offered to help me struggle into my winter coat. (We had snow and the weather was bitter. On Sunday I left before a storm dropped three more inches. This is Minnesota, folks. No wimpy winters!)

Later I remarked to my daughter that, on the whole, my male classmates were amazingly improved over the last fifty years, and she replied, “Of course they are! What’s worse than an 18-year-old boy?”

Saturday night was the big dinner and dance at the Interlachen Country Club. I got a chance to catch up with some friends who had stayed in touch, but found the noise level and crowding to be intimidating. I’m always a bit claustrophobic and it was such a big and animated group that the hubbub made it hard to carry on a conversation. But the next day at breakfast in the hotel, there was time for some good post-party gossip before heading for the airport.

I believe there were 330 in our original senior class. Now 39 are deceased (the photos above show the memorial photo exhibit from Saturday night.) How young we were in 1959!

When you’re 18 years old, anything seems possible. Maybe you’ll cure cancer or write a bestseller or become a star or make a million—if only you can get into the right college.

When you’re 68, you know how your life will turn out, and for so many, that fifty years after graduation brought loss and heartbreak, illness and disabilities, but almost every one of the 187 classmates who wrote their biographical page for our Reunion Book ended with the words “I have been truly blessed” or a similar sentiment.

When you’re 68 years old, you’ve gained a certain amount of wisdom just by traveling over the bumps in the road. Many of my classmates shared some in their reunion book pages. I wish I could compile “The Collected Wisdom of the Class of 1959” but instead, I’ll just quote three classmates—as it happens all three are women (and now crones, since we’re all over 60.)

One wrote: “A rich life is one made up of family, friends, faith and fun – the four F’s.”

Another quoted Addison’s definition of happiness: “Something to do…something to love…Something to hope for.”

And a third concluded her page saying, “It amazes me how level the playing field is now. The very fact that we have survived 50 years post-high school makes us equals.”

Thursday, October 8, 2009


(The design above, for the reunion invitation, was created by classmate Cary Carson.)

Tomorrow (Friday, Oct. 9) I get on a plane to fly from Boston to Minneapolis to attend the 50-year reunion of my class of 1959 at Edina Morningside High School. This is scary and exciting, nerve-wracking and exhilarating. It’s an event that many of us have been planning for more than a year. I was privileged to be one of the editors collecting bios and photos from 187 of our nearly 300 classmates for the Reunion Book. (Forty classmates are deceased and 22 of them have memorial pages in the book.)

High school was definitely NOT the happiest time of my life. I longed to get away from Edina, Minnesota, where we all seemed so homogeneous and competitive. Immediately after graduation, I traveled with a group of students to Europe for most of the summer and fell in love with travel—even though it was the ultra-budget variety. (The first hotel in Germany was a barely converted stable that still smelled like horses.)

At the reunion, I hope I’ll recognize my fellow classmates. The super-conscientious organizers of the event have created name tags for us—presumably with our high school yearbook photos—for ease of identification, but of course I’m too vain to wear my glasses so I probably won’t be able to read them! And I’m notoriously bad with names—can hardly remember those of my own children.

But I know from collecting the photos and bios that many of us have not changed that much in looks, despite the half century that’s gone by. What surprised and delighted me was how we’ve all traveled in different directions and survived a stunning variety of challenges.

As teenagers we all seemed pretty much alike. As 68-year-olds, there are plenty of classmates who describe lives filled with grandchildren, of course, and golf, tennis and going south for the winter. But who knew there would be so many senior citizens riding motorcycles, flying their own planes, women racing ATVs and jumping horses, painting portraits and writing books and deep-sea diving?

Some classmates described living on a boat or isolated in a lighthouse, raising their own grandchildren, writing movie scripts or poetry, serving in the CIA, surviving cancer, leading congregations, missions, Bible study groups and pilgrimages. One man who lost a leg as a youth founded a company making prosthetic limbs. A woman has spent years working with rescue dog rehabilitation in the treatment of veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another woman lived on a sailboat for 30 years, performs as a cabaret singer and has written books about a French poet and an Indian tribe in Panama.

Many of our classmates have suffered loss of a spouse through death or divorce and then found love late in life. And some are currently struggling with disability or disease, but still fighting to appear at this reunion.

In our adult lives, my generation has lived through the most momentous changes in history—the sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, political assassinations, Viet Nam, equal rights for women and the technological revolution. We basically invented teenagers and rock ‘n’ roll. Now we’re working out new ways to cope with old age.

I expect to learn a lot of fascinating and illuminating stories over this coming weekend, and when I get back from Minnesota, I’ll share what I’ve learned. This isn’t going to be our grandparents’ Fiftieth Reunion!

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Scarred Back of a Slave Named Gordon

On page 14 of Sept. 20’s Book Review, The New York Times published a shocking photograph of a slave with a horribly scarred back to illustrate a review of “Deliver Us from Evil”.

Because I collect antique photos and have many dealing with slavery and the life of black people in the 1800's, I wrote to the Times the back story behind this photo, and the letter, somewhat abbreviated, is in the book review section this Sunday--Oct. 4.

I wrote: This famous photograph, usually titled “The Scourged Back”, was widely circulated by abolitionists and is one of the earliest examples of photography used as propaganda. A contemporary newspaper, The New York Independent, commented: “This Card Photograph should be multiplied by the 100,000 and scattered over the states. It tells the story in a way that even Mrs. (Harriet Beecher) Stowe cannot approach, because it tells the story to the eye.”

As photo historian Kathleen Collins explained in The History of Photography Vol. 9 Number 1, January, 1985—it shows a slave named Gordon who escaped his master in Mississippi by rubbing himself with onions to throw off the bloodhounds. He took refuge with the Union Army at Baton Rouge and, in 1863, three engraved portraits of him were printed in Harper’s Weekly, showing the man “as he underwent the surgical examination previous to being mustered into the service—his back furrowed and scarred with the traces of a whipping administered on Christmas Day last.”

The actual photographs of the escaped slave, taken by McPherson and Oliver of New Orleans, were widely circulated as carte-de-visite photos. On the verso of the mount were the comments of S. K. Towle, Surgeon, 30th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers: “…Few sensation writers ever depicted worse punishments than this man must have received, though nothing in his appearance indicates any unusual viciousness—but on the contrary, he seems intelligent and well-behaved.”

I have a colored glass slide of the same photograph (above) in my collection, undoubtedly used in anti-slavery lectures. Abolitionists exploited the new medium of photography, circulating, in addition to "the Scourged Back", CDV’s of a slave named Wilson who was branded on the forehead, and selling thousands of the series of emancipated “white”-appearing slave children from New Orleans, posed patriotically, including wrapped in the American flag. On the back was printed: “The nett [sic] proceeds from the sale of these Photographs will be devoted to the education of colored people in the department of the Gulf now under the command of Maj. Gen. Banks.”

April 24, 2013--Because of questions I've received about this famous image, I am now adding below one of the original CDVs of Gordon's back showing him with his head tilted farther back to show his beard.  I do not own this image, but I've always been aware of it. I always assumed that both these poses of Gordon were taken at the same time, but when I study them together I don't know.  Another question--I always assumed that "my" image up at the top was  reversed--something that could easily happen with a glass negative.  (All daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are reversed mirror images of the actual subject, so if the subject is holding a newspaper, for example, the headlines will be reversed mirror-image writing.)  Now, looking at these two photos of Gordon together, I can't tell if the images show him turned to face opposite sides, or is one of them reversed and he's looking over his left shoulder in both of them?  Or do you think they were taken at two different photo sessions, separated by time?  Opinions?