Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When a Pet Dies

I saw this poem two days ago on the blog of Nicole Tadgell who is a really excellent artist and illustrator of children's books who lives in the Worcester area. I don't know who wrote the poem and I apologize for taking it from her blog and posting it on mine, but I thought it was a good poem to share, because it might be comforting to those who have to cope with the very painfulexperience of losing a beloved pet.

I am also posting a photo of our cat, P.S. who had to be euthanized after 18 years of life on May 3, 2007. She now rests in our garden under an azalea bush and a metal figure of a cat just about her size.

"If it should be....

If it should be that I grow frail and weak,
and pain should keep me from my sleep,
then you must do what must be done,
for we know this last battle can't be won.
You will be sad, I understand,
but don't let grief then stay your hand,
for this day, more than the rest,
your love and friendship must stand the test.
We've had so many happy years,
what is to come can hold no fears.
Would you want me to suffer? So,
when the time comes, please let me go.
Take me where my needs they'll tend,
only stay with me until the end,
and hold me firm and speak to me,
until my eyes no longer see.
It is a kindness that you do to me,
although my tail its last has waved,
from pain and suffering I have been saved.
Do not grieve, it should be you,
who must decide this thing to do.
We've been so close, we two these years,
Don't let your heart hold any tears."

Monday, March 29, 2010

Worcester Icons as Art?

Last weekend was the annual Arts Festival in my hometown of Grafton MA. Usually I submit paintings, but this year I decided to submit three entries in the category of “embellished digital photos” -- three photos I’ve taken recently of iconic buildings in Worcester, MA.

The first one shows the condemned clock tower building on the grounds of the Worcester State Hospital complex. This spooky-looking Victorian gothic edifice is all that’s left of the buildings that were the Worcester State Lunatic Hospital built around 1877.

This building is the setting for the opening scenes of Ed Doctorow’s novel “The Book of Daniel” about the Rosenberg children. It was heavily damaged by a fire in 1992 and has been boarded up ever since. Martin Scorsese wanted to use this building when he was making the film “Shutter Island” but he was turned down for reasons I can’t remember right now. It would have brought several million dollars to the city of Worcester.

Preservation Worcester has been fighting for years to keep this building from being demolished, and so far it’s still standing. The clock in the tower is actually red but I heightened the intensity of the color to symbolize that time is running out for this historic buildlng.

People who worked there on the medical staff have told me there are dungeon- like rooms and grim bathing facilities in the basement. I’ve heard that the place is haunted—and if any building has ghosts, I would imagine this one does.

Union Station—shown in the second photo above – was built in 1911 and was the heart of the city during its industrial heyday when immigrants were arriving by the thousands in the city to work in its factories. Eventually it fell into disrepair, the two towers of the building were removed for fear they’d be blown over, and the building was abandoned in 1975.

The building was completely renovated by the Worcester Redevelopment Authority at a cost of $32 million and re-opened in 2000. Since then there have been problems with parking, not many trains (but there will be more soon) and restaurants opening in the building have struggled, but it’s still a great place to soak up the grandiose retro décor and to have big events. I took this photo when my sketching class from the Worcester Art Museum was there at night to sketch passers-by but we pretty much ended up drawing each other.

The third photo shows Worcester’s iconic Coney Island Hot Dogs. Everyone knows and loves the Coney Island sign which drips mustard (when it’s lighted and working right.) The place is art deco heaven and I’ve seen it photographed in national ad campaigns.

Last weekend, when I was in New York at the prestigious AIPAD photo show at the Park Avenue Armory, I saw photographs of Coney Island Hot Dogs selling for $2,500. They were taken by John Woolf , a photographer from Boston who, I was told, likes to stroll around various cities at night and take time-exposure shots on the deserted streets with his camera on a tripod. Naturally he picked Coney Island Hot Dogs for the same reason I did—it’s irresistible.

My “embellished photographs” of these three Worcester icons did not win any prizes at the Grafton Art Festival, but they did inspire an urge to photograph (and embellish) more of Worcester’s great architecture. (The city is a virtual time capsule of architectural styles – especially the famous three-deckers that were built to house the factory workers.)

My next project is going to be the diners, which were manufactured in Worcester and still survive throughout New England.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Is Plastic Surgery a Sin? (Re: My Vogue article)

The April issue of Vogue is out with my article on page 112 under the title “A Facelift Revisited”. There is a cover line that reads: “My Three Facelifts A 20-year Nip & Tuck Diary”.

That cover line really gave me a start when I saw it, because I have had two facelifts, not three – one when I was 51 years old —18 years ago -- another ten years later when I was 61. Last year, when I was 68, I had a third procedure that was NOT surgery but Fraxel - fractional laser re-surfacing-- using the new CO2-powered laser called Fraxel Re:pair.

If you want to find out how that worked, and how long the facelifts lasted, and if it hurt (which is the first question everyone asks) you’ll have to buy the magazine.

I’m expecting that this article will lose me some friends and will also label me as the poster child for plastic surgery. As I’ve already remarked to some, I suspect that the words “three face lifts” will appear on my gravestone (although, like I said, I’ve only had TWO.) In my defense, I am not Heidi Montag, a 23-year-old actress who made the cover of People because she decided to have ten surgical procedures in one day to improve what was already an excellent face and body.

Above are the medical photos (sans makeup) taken by Dr. Dan Baker back in 1992, before and after my first face lift. I was 51 and, as I think you’ll agree, looked considerably older than my real age in the “before” picture. The “after” photo looks quite a bit better. My goal in having that face lift was to stave off the jowls which I was certain were my inheritance from my father (while my mother never drooped or sagged or looked less than stunning until she died at age 74.)

Dr. Baker said the face lift would last about ten years and he was right. So I had another one, with a Boston surgeon, a decade later when I was 61. I was less pleased with the results, as I explain in the article. There were scars left on my eyelids and pull marks on the side of my cheek and, as I passed age 65, brown patches appeared on my jaw line. So I was in the market for some solution – although I didn’t want another surgery — when I learned about the new kind of laser and decided to try it and write about it for Vogue – to help off-set the cost, because by age 68, I had a lot less discretionary cash to pay for it than I did at the age of 51.

My New York friends (I lived there for 14 years) are okay with the idea of plastic surgery —many have had some experience with it—but not so my friends in Massachusetts. I belong to a woman’s group that meets in the Worcester area about once a month, and as soon as the rumor came up that I would do this article, about a year and a half ago, my closest friend in the group told me I should not even consider it. “All your sisters are opposed to you doing this, Joan!” she scolded me.

“All of them?” I asked in surprise, because I knew one or two had already opted for plastic surgery.

“Every single one!” my friend whispered, in a voice heavy with warning.

Well, I never considered rejecting the opportunity. I’ve been a journalist for nearly 50 years and have done a lot of strange things in the name of “research”. Also, I had been trying for several years to figure out a way that I could afford a “fix” for my brown patches, fine lines and those deepening parentheses on either side of the mouth.

Furthermore, I feel it’s my face and body, and now that I’m nearly 70, I can do what I want with it.

But that conversation did give me flashbacks to my high school days when my concern for the majority opinion of the other girls would have carried a lot more weight.

In high school, I was not pretty, athletic, nor self-confident. I did get high grades and academic awards. All these factors consigned me to the table in the cafeteria with the oddballs and outsiders, far from the table where the “Gang” held forth.

I’m still not pretty, athletic, etc. but somewhere around the age of 60 I decided I’d earned the right to do what I wanted without listening to the opinions of the “mean girls”. (This is one of the many good things about cronehood. As one former high school classmate remarked at our 50th high school reunion “Just by staying alive you level the playing field.”) Even in college I began to realize that there were places where good grades and talent did not make you a pariah. And life improved a lot.

So I’m not going to justify or explain to my women’s group the Vogue article and the laser re-surfacing procedure. And I do not feel plastic surgery is a sin.

(Although I was convinced, 19 years ago when I went to the hospital in New York for my first face lift that God was going to strike me dead as punishment for my vanity. He didn’t. But in the same hospital, in the years after my surgery, two or three women did die while undergoing elective face lifts. And one of them was Olivia Goldsmith, who wrote “The First Wife’s Club.” I heard that these tragic cases were mostly due to reactions to the general anesthesia. I think that’s better controlled now—and with laser resurfacing, there is no general anesthesia, just topical.)

Anyway, if I wanted to explain my latest round of plastic surgery to the women in my group, (which I won’t -- everyone is too polite to mention it) I would repeat something that I wrote in the Vogue article.

I am not undergoing “maintenance” on my appearance every decade or so with the purpose of looking younger than my real age. I have never lied about my age and everyone who reads Vogue or looks up my profile on Facebook knows that I was born on Feb. 4, 1941. Next year I hit the big seven- oh.

I do it for the same reason I try to exercise on the stationary bike an hour a day and go to Pilates twice a week – although I hate exercise.

As I said at the end of my Vogue piece:

This is an ongoing process, not meant to hide or deny my age, but to let me wear the years gracefully.
“You look good,” [Dr.] Baker told me as we said goodbye. “Fifteen years younger than your age.”
So that means I look….53. Or maybe, to paraphrase Gloria Steinem: In the twenty-first century, this is what 68 looks like.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Mystery – Is this a Lost Portrait of Lord Byron?

(The story behind the photograph)

Last weekend I was lucky to attend a couple of fascinating photo shows in New York City including the AIPAD photography show in the Park Avenue Armory, featuring vintage and contemporary photos at amazingly high prices.

At another photo show nearby I did find some vintage photos I could afford, and one of them was a 1/4 plate ambrotype of an oil painting of Lord Byron in a half case. It even had tinted cheeks. (It’s at the top row above—both in and out of its protective case, metal mat, preserver and cover glass. Click on it to make it bigger.)

The dealer who sold me the image said he thought it was “some actor” but I knew that it was the famous English poet George Gordon Lord Byron. In fact I thought it was a photograph of some famous Byron portrait that I had possibly studied in college when I was minoring in art history. (Naturally I didn’t mention this to the dealer, and managed to negotiate a reasonable price for the ambrotype.)

So when I got home with the cased photograph, I started googling portraits of Lord Byron to see which painter had painted “my” image…I quickly learned that the most famous portrait of Byron, painted in 1814, was by Thomas Phillips. It’s the one in the second row above. He also painted the portrait of Byron in Albanian dress, in the third row.

Other images of Byron are in the row below. Most of them were done during Byron’s lifetime (1788 – 1824) --- or shortly after.

Lord Byron was, of course, sort of a rock star in his day. He created the idea of the troubled and troublesome Byronic hero. Lady Caroline Lamb famously called him “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. Mothers of young ladies of London wouldn’t even let their daughters look at him because he was so notorious for seducing every woman who crossed his path – including his half sister — and then dumping them, causing heartache and madness. He liked young boys too.

Lord Byron clinched his fame by dying tragically in Missolonghi, Greece in 1824 as he was fighting (and donating his large fortune) to help the Greek people achieve independence from the Turkish occupation. (Today, March 25, is Greece's Independence Day. They finally succeeded in tossing out the Turks after 400 years. Zito Hellas!)

As the most famous Philhellene, Lord Byron is beloved in Greece. Streets and baby boys are named after him, and whenever I’m in the center of Athens I pass a large statue of the dying Byron, clasped in the arms of a woman representing Hellas -- Greece. When Byron died of the flu (and the lousy medical treatment by his doctors—especially the bloodletting) he was only 36 years old.

But the more I searched, the more surprised I was to see that --while the face of Byron in paintings and drawings was almost identical to that in my ambrotype, none of the portraits I found was identical. The flowing lacy collar of his open shirt and the hairline -- the way his curls fell on his forehead --were always different from the version I have. (But the way his hair is receding at the temples remains consistent in all.)

This led me to wonder if by any chance my ambrotype was a record of a “lost” oil portrait of Byron by some famous nineteenth century artist?? The ambrotype photographic process (the second kind of photography after daguerreotypes) was introduced in 1854, peaked in 1857-59 and waned in 1861 when the more convenient and inexpensive tintype became popular.

So my ambrotype of a Byron portrait was probably made around 1857. The painting really resembles the Phillips portrait and could even possibly be another portrait of Byron by the same hand??

If it really is a lost portrait, of course, it makes the ambrotype I bought more valuable.

You can see in my scan that there is a frame around the painting that was photographed. If this is a frame to the oil painting, it could help identify the original. On the other hand, it could be the metal preserver on another ambrotype or daguerreotype — which would make my image a “copy image” and therefore less valuable.

An ambrotype is a negative image on glass that becomes a positive image when you put a dark background behind it. Every daguerreotype and ambrotype is one-of-a-kind…and reversed — a mirror image of the sitter. The only way to make a copy of a dag or an ambro was just to photograph the image all over again—and that comes out less sharp.

I hope to solve the mystery of my “lost Portrait of Byron” by sending these scans to both the Byron Society of America and to the newsletter of the Daguerreian Society, of which I am a member.

In the end, I may find out that my “lost” Byron portrait is in fact a well-known image that everyone else can identify. And that’s okay, because I’m still delighted to have the striking image of a beautiful painting of one of our most famous poets.

If anyone has any info on this subject – please let me know at

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Passover, Plagues & Spring in Manhattan & Massachusetts

Every March, on the first warm, spring-like day, I walk out the porch door in Grafton, MA and spy some purple crocuses in the otherwise barren garden. Then I know it’s finally spring. That didn’t happen this year for some reason, but on St. Patrick’s Day, I saw a clump of tiny purple irises (above) and knew that spring had finally come despite the record rains we’ve had lately.

This past weekend, in Manhattan, spring was much farther along. A walk through Central Park revealed flowering forsythia and almost-flowering magnolias and flocks of New Yorkers – lovers by the boat lake and kids climbing trees near Bethesda Fountain. On the way to the Park, tulips bloomed on the sidewalks and, in the lobby of the Metropolitan Museum, the huge vases were filled with flowering cherry branches.

It all served to remind me that Manhattan is the greatest city in the world, bar none, especially in Spring.

In Eli’s super-stocked, high-end market, where I go just to gape at the seasonal decorations and sky-high prices, I found the kid-friendly finger puppets shown above, which I had to have for my own, even though I don’t do Passover and, sadly, don’t know any small children to amuse or educate with these puppets.

The puppets are clearly mean to dramatize, at the Passover seder, the ten plagues which Yahweh visited on the Egyptians to convince the Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free, as recounted in Exodus.

I just couldn’t resist these little puppets embroidered with the names “Blood”, “Frogs”, “Lice”, “Animals”, “Cattle Plague” (he’s my favorite—the sick cow with the thermometer and the hot water bottle, ) “Boils”, “Hail”, “Locusts”, “Darkness” and “First Born.”

Only in New York!

Now back in Grafton, MA it’s raining like crazy and there are flood warnings, but I just saw the first robin outside the porch door, looking for ingredients to build a nest. It’s time to cut some forsythia and bring it inside to force it, first soaking it in the bathtub.

Happy Spring and Pesach Same’ach!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Crone of the Week – Resistance Heroine, 105

I love reading the obituaries in The New York Times because I keep learning about fascinating lives of people I’ve never heard of – like the man who invented the Frisbee.

Last week I read the obituary of Andrée Peel, who died on March 5, age 105, a French-born woman who, during WWII, saved the lives of 102 Allied airmen, was imprisoned and tortured by the Nazis in two concentration camps and published a memoir of her life when she was 94.

She definitely deserves the Crone of the Week award!

Here are the highlights of The New York Times obituary:

A native of Brittany, Andrée Virot was running a beauty salon in the Breton port of Brest when France fell to Germany in the spring of 1940. She joined the resistance movement and began circulating an underground newspaper.

Code named Agent Rose, she fed information to the Allies about German troop movements and bombings. She guided British planes to night time landings at secret airstrips marked by torchlight,.

She helped save 102 Allied airmen trapped behind German lines by setting up safe houses and taking the men to isolated parts of the Brest beaches where they were picked up by boats that took them to England.,

Andrée fled to Paris but was arrested by the Gestapo after the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. She was imprisoned at the Ravensbruck and then Buchenwald concentration camps and was about to be executed by a firing squad when Buchenwald was liberated in April 1945.

After the war she fulfilled a vow to give thanks at the Sacre Coeur in Montmartre for her survival,.

Managing a restaurant in Paris, she met and married an English student, John Peel. They settled in Bristol and had no children. He died in 2003.

Andrée Peel was decorated by the French government and received the Medal of Freedom from the United States. During the war she received a letter of appreciation from Sir Winston Churchill. In 1999 she published her memoir “Miracles Do Happen.”

On Feb. 3, 2010 Andrée celebrated her 105th birthday at the nursing home where she lived near Bristol. Wearing her WWII decorations, she sang the French National Anthem.

I just wish I had been there to celebrate with her.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kotex Goes Rogue: Madmen's Bad Idea?

I read in the business section of yesterday’s New York Times that J. Walter Thompson has come up with a revolutionary, controversial new advertising campaign for a new line of products by Kotex called “U by Kotex.”

The campaign ads make fun of previous ads for menstrual products which use euphemisms, and it encourages girls and women to sign up at the web site, to join a “Declaration of Real Talk” vowing to defy society’s pressure and be out and proud about their menstrual periods. For every signer, Kotex will donate $1 to Girls for a Change—a non-profit in California that puts urban school girls together with professional women mentors.

The ads, (sample above) prepared by the JWT madmen for TV, advocate the use of words like “Vagina” and “tampon". All the ads have tag lines like “Why are tampon ads so ridiculous? Break the cycle!” and end by showing the new line of tampons, pads and liners. They are packed in black boxes with windows that reveal that the tampons inside are not white, but in a rainbow of colors.

When I read about this campaign, even thought I’m as pro-woman’s lib as anyone, I got an uneasy feeling.

Kotex and J. Walter Thompson are trying to convince young women and girls that, by buying their new rainbow-colored tampons and tossing around words like vagina, they are striking a blow for women around the world. But let’s face it, this is just a ploy to sell a product.

(I’m not the only one uneasy with the ads —according to the NYT, J Walter Thompson was informed that it could not use the word “vagina” by three broadcast networks, so it re-shot the ad with the actress saying “down there” instead. That version was rejected by two of the three networks.)

On the web site, however, there are no such problems and the videos on the site demonstrate how to use the products, including inserting a tampon in “an anatomically correct puppet.”

When I went on the web site, I was both amused and uncomfortable watching a very well-acted video showing a young man in a drug store who was completely confused by the chore of buying his girlfriend some sanitary protection. He was asking all sorts of questions of equally embarrassed strangers. Among other things, the young man said, “She said she’d kill me if I bought cardboard.”

Hello? How many women are out there who would send their clueless boyfriend out to choose a sanitary product for them?

Maybe I’m wrong about this ad campaign and women will embrace the suggestion to be out and proud about their menstrual cycle, but to me —a 69-year-old crone— it just seems like an extension of the current trend encouraging rudeness and confrontation in daily life -- most egregiously personified by the reality shows.

But thinking back, I have lived through a dramatic progression in attitudes toward women’s menstrual cycles. Before Kotex started advertising disposable sanitary pads in 1921, women pretty much had to make do with folding and laundering rags on their own.

I got my period at the age of 11 when I was in fifth grade. This involved wearing an uncomfortable belt of stretch elastic which had even more uncomfortable metal gadgets with teeth in front and back to grab the “tails” of the bulky sanitary pads. Having any part of this contraption show through one’s clothing was unthinkably embarrassing, and we would pile multiple petticoats under our voluminous circle skirts to hide any “accidents.

My mother was so leery of anyone hearing her mention the word “Kotex” that when she made a shopping list, she would write that word in the Gregg’s shorthand she had learned in secretarial school. She gave me elaborate instructions for wrapping, double wrapping and then getting rid of the used napkins outside the house—God forbid any male person in our household should suspect what was going on!

When they invented tampons, of course there was much discussion among my age group about how to insert, and whether you would lose your virginity — so I guess the anatomically correct puppet on the web site does serve as beneficial educational tool.

At some point, young women became somehow very knowledgeable about how to deal with the whole menstrual cycle and its accompanying problems. When I tried to broach the subject with my own daughters, I learned they had all the questions answered and under control long before, and didn’t want to hear anything about it from me.

Now that I’m long past having to think about “the curse” or “my friend” as it was euphemistically called, I’m vaguely aware that women today can control the frequency of their periods and even elect not to have them at all. This also makes me feel a little uneasy (like the “revolutionary” Kotex ad campaign) because it seems to me more “natural” and perhaps healthier to allow your body to ovulate every month, the way women have been doing since Adam and Eve.

But after re-reading the above — perhaps the new Kotex campaign actually is a public service to women rather than just a cynical way to get girls and women to buy a new product line.

What do you think?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Circus Freaks and Tom Thumb – The Rock Star of the 19th Century

(The story behind the photos)

Circus Freaks are having a moment.

Recently my friends Andy and Veronica mentioned that they’re preparing art for an upcoming show "paying homage to circus freaks, carnies, and sideshow misfits" that will be held at Space 242 on East Berkeley Street in Boston from April 30 to May 21, 2010., called “Get Your Freak On!”

Then I read about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sequel to “The Phantom of the Opera” called “Love Never Dies” which will open on Broadway in November. It takes the Phantom to Coney Island, where he runs a freak show.

All this talk of Circus Freaks, who basically fell off the radar back in the 1970’s, when we all realized it wasn’t polite to stare at people who are different, reminded me of a category of antique photos that I had nearly forgotten about—the rabid collecting of cartes de visite and tintypes and cabinet cards of circus freaks back in the 1800’s, especially during the Civil War era . These freaks were mainly working for P. T. Barnum. The most famous of all was “General Tom Thumb”, who never grew more than three feet tall.

I never have collected antique photos of freaks like Barnum’s “Fee-jee Mermaid”, which was a mummified monkey sewn to a fish tail and covered in papier maché-- for the same reason I don’t collect those post mortems of dead babies—they give me the creeps. But I do have several photos of Tom Thumb in my collection (above). Most of these were originally taken by Matthew Brady. (The signatures on the backs, by the way, are printed, not originals.)

During the Civil War era, Tom Thumb was more famous than, say, modern stars like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Angelina Jolie all put together. His wedding stopped traffic in New York City and on his honeymoon Tom Thumb was invited to visit President Lincoln at the White House and then Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. I think the midget was the most photographed man of his time—even more so than Lincoln.

If you add up all the business-card-sized CDVs that were purchased and put into Victorian photo albums, maybe Gen. Tom Thumb was the most photographed man who ever lived.

His real name was Charles Sherwood Stratton and he was born on Jan. 4, 1838 in Bridgeport, Connecticut. His parents were first cousins. When he was born, he was a large baby—9 pounds 8 ounces-- and he developed normally for the first six months, but then he stopped growing at 25 inches high and 15 pounds.

By the time he was nearly five, he was still the same height and weight.

P.T. Barnum was a distant relative of the little boy and he contacted the child’s parents and said he would teach him to sing, dance, mime and impersonate famous people and would pay him $3.00 a week to appear in New York at “Barnum’s American Museum” on Broadway where several “giants” were already part of the show.

The boy was a quick learner and his tours, as he impersonated characters like Cupid and Napoleon Bonaparte, made him a huge success. (Barnum named him Tom Thumb after a character in English folklore. He claimed he had found him in Europe and brought him to the U.S. “at great expense.” He also said the five-year- old boy was actually 11. “Tom Thumb “ found himself drinking wine and smoking cigars before he was six.)

When the boy was six, Barnum took him on a tour of Europe and Tom appeared twice before Queen Victoria. She was enchanted. According to Barnum, the Queen took him by the hand and led him about the gallery of paintings and asked him many questions, “the answers to which kept the party of nobles in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.”

As they were leaving, the Queen’s poodle suddenly attacked the little man and Tom Thumb used his formal walking stick to fight off the dog, to everyone’s amusement.

The boy was an immense success in London and Barnum had a miniature carriage made to take him around.

On Feb. 10, 1863, when he was 25, Tom Thumb married Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump, called Lavinia Warren. Matthew Brady photographed the wedding party, which included an even smaller best man, known as Commodore Nutt, and the bride’s tiny younger sister, Minnie Warren.

The wedding was front-page news. The streets between Grace Episcopal Church and the Metropolitan Hotel on Broadway were completely jammed with onlookers. The couple stood on a grand piano to greet their 2,000 guests. After the wedding, they were received by President Lincoln at the White House.

In the late 1860’s the couple embarked on a three-year world tour that included Australia. Later they were photographed holding “their baby” which was one of several they borrowed for photos. They never had children and that was wise: in 1878 Lavinia’s tiny sister Minnie died in childbirth.

Stratton became a wealthy man with a house in New York another in Connecticut and his own yacht. When Barnum got into financial distress, the petite former employee bailed him out and they became business partners.

On January 10, 1883, Stratton and his wife were staying at the Newhall House in Milwaukee when one of the worst hotel fires in history broke out, killing more than 71 people, but Tom and Lavinia were saved by their manager. Six months later, Stratton died suddenly of a stroke. He was 45 years old and 3.3 feet tall. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral.

Two years later, Lavinia married a younger man, an Italian midget named Count Primo Magri. He and his brother and Lavinia formed the Lilliputian Opera company which toured and even appeared in some early motion pictures. Lavinia died in 1919 when she was 78.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Who is the Crone of the Week?

And the award goes to…no NOT Betty White (who IS experiencing a dramatic revival at the moment) but to Florence Critelli, who works in a Long Island pharmacy and battled with a robber last week, then insisted on finishing her shift and driving herself home. Florence is 91.

Around 11 a.m. the robber entered the Rite Aid Pharmacy in East Northport and handed Florence a dollar for a candy bar. When she opened the register, he reached over and grabbed a handful of cash. The great grandmother of 13 “grabbed his hand to stop him from taking the money and I just screamed,” she told the New York Post yesterday. Then the bandit punched her in the chest, knocking her to the floor and ran out with the cash.

Florence refused medical attention when police arrived and then turned down the suggestion that she go home to recover. “I didn’t want to come home. What was I going to do but sit there and be bored?”

She finished her shift at 5:30 and insisted on driving herself home. She’s been working at the pharmacy for 17 years. She told the Post her hobbies include playing the slots at casinos and knitting and crocheting mittens that are given to the needy. She’s been married twice and has two children and seven grandchildren as well as the 13 great-grandchildren.

I think I’m going to design an award to send to the occasional Crone of the Week who personifies crone power. I think it should be a statue of an owl, since the owl was the symbol of the Greek goddess Athena and also represents wisdom.

Not that it was too smart for Florence to fight back against the robber, but it does show gumption.

I love her attitude at the age of 91 and also the afghan she has on her couch in the photo above. I bet she knitted it herself.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Making Art Out of Junk?

Today I submitted my latest creation (above) for the ArtsWorcester Members Exhibition called “New Again – Exploring Found Objects”. (The exhibit opens on March 19 at Arts Worcester’s Aurora Gallery at 660 Main Street and, because of the excitement and volume of participation, it will continue longer than originally planned — to May 7.)

They didn’t exactly say to make art out of junk. What the call to submit said was “For New Again, ARTSWorcester members are invited to present intriguing and unconventional works of art created from, or inspired by, found objects. Found Object Art explores concepts of identity re-designation by dignifying commonplace objects as works of fine art through the choice of the artist. New Again is an opportunity to re-appropriate natural, recycled and found materials into new works of art.”

Shortly after getting this message, I walked into the local antique store where I have a booth and saw an antique blowtorch that looked to me much like a dragon. If it was still working, I thought, it would even look like a fire-breathing dragon.

Then, when I was in Mexico recently for an art course, I found the carved statue of a warrior angel — carved by an anonymous artist in Puebla -- and it was just the right size.

So I put it all together with a saw blade and a paint pan, paint brushes and some orange feathers and came up with the assemblage (I guess that what’s you call it) that you see above. I call it “Saint George and the D. I. Y. Dragon.” I think the dragon is meant to represent the hassle and headaches we often get into when we undertake a Do It Yourself project around the house. Those tools and paints can get pretty obstreperous and start to fight back.

I hurried down to ArtsWorcester today as artists started dropping off their creations. I glimpsed one that uses fortune cookies and another that incorporates parts of a Barbie doll, as well as reels of movie film. That one moves.

I’m looking forward to the opening reception on March 19 to learn what other lowly objects have been adapted and re-appropriated into new works of art. It should be a very surprising show, especially here in Worcester, a city which blossomed during the Industrial Revolution and then ebbed, leaving a wealth of empty factories and orphaned tools and machinery behind.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Famous Oscar Flubs & Moments

I hope to watch the Oscar Ceremonies tonight—along with half the world’s population – but let’s face it, we’re not watching to see which films will win the little gold men, nor to see who cashes in on the office pool. We’re all watching to see which of our favorite actors, appearing under stress and without a script, will make a fabulous flub or world class blunder.

I’ve been watching the Oscars since just about forever, and I remember them all. Well, I wasn’t old enough, (nor did we have a TV) back in 1945 when Joan Crawford, with her usual diva-ish behavior, feigned illness and graciously accepted her Oscar for “Mildred Pierce” at home in her “sick bed” while the cameras rolled.

Here are some of my favorite ill-planned and poorly executed Oscar Moments – in chronological order. If I’ve forgotten some of your favorites—let me know by leaving a comment below or writing me at And if I have the wrong year, please forgive, because the 1990 Oscars happened in 1991, for example, which is confusing, and I haven’t taken the time to double check my dates. (Don’t tell my old professors at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. I’m writing against deadline and sometimes, as they often told us, you just have to “Go with what you’ve got.”)

1969—Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand tied for an Oscar but everyone remembers Streisand’s gauzy bell-bottomed pants suit which became transparent under the lights.

1973 – Marlon Brando won the Oscar for “Godfather 1” but in his place he sent a Mexican actress whom he called Sacheen Littlefeather, dressed as an American Indian, to accept for him, while she issued a diatribe against the portrayal of the Native Americans on film. (I vaguely remembered her name as Princess SummerFallWinterSpring, but of course that was the Indian princess on Howdy Doody, which was my very first TV show after we got a television set back in the early fifties.)

1974—Everyone’s favorite Oscar moment was when the trendy, mustached streaker sped behind David Niven—stark naked on camera. Niven never blinked as he remarked that the only laugh the fellow would ever get is for showing off his shortcomings.

1985 – Everyone knows about Sally Fields “You like me, you really like me!” acceptance speech—which is often misquoted and parodied. I wonder how much she’d pay to erase that exuberant speech from history.

1989 – The career of Rob Lowe hit its nadir as he sang and danced with Snow White in the opening number. Think how far back he’s come since then!

1992 – When Jack Palance leaped on stage to accept an Oscar and celebrated by demonstrating his skill at one-arm push-ups, Billy Crystal kept spinning jokes off of his performance all night. (Referring to a choir of children he cracked, “And all them were fathered by Jack Palance.” The ability to think on his feet is what makes Billy Crystal my favorite Oscar M. C.)

1995 – David Letterman’s opening monologue fell nearly as flat as Rob Lowe’s when his “Uma – Oprah – Uma – Oprah” chant left everyone staring, not laughing.

2000 – Angelina Jolie, was so delighted at receiving an Oscar that she enveloped her brother, James, in a passionate, long, sloppy kiss that left everyone else slack-jawed in shock and wonder.

2003--And Adrian Brodie did the same as he attacked presenter Halley Berry in a big sloppy kiss to celebrate being the youngest actor to win an Oscar.

I actually got to attend the Oscar Ceremony in 1991 – (It was the 1990 Oscars.) The reason I got to go is that my husband Nick was executive producer for Godfather III, which was nominated for (but never got) best picture. I’m glad I got to go that once, but I wouldn’t want to do it again, because it’s really boring.

The people who are nominated for something get to sit on the first floor down front, while the rest of us sit in the balcony. The amazing thing is how bizarre are the outfits worn by the folks in the balcony who seem to be mostly would-be actors trying to get attention because they haven’t made it yet. There are long pauses for commercials and people are hired to drift about and sit in the seats of the famous folks below when they nip out to go to the bathroom. The only thing I actually remember about that Oscar ceremony is that Michael Jackson and Madonna, both in white, appeared together as “dates” and sat right in front of my husband.

Tonight I expect to have more fun than when I was there in person, because I can talk back to the screen and get up to get snacks and drinks and even take a bathroom break.

Recent Oscar ceremonies have become sort of boring because they’re so carefully organized, but I’m still hoping for a world-class flub or blunder tonight to add to my Oscar Memories.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Angels in the Architecture – Puebla & Cholula, Mexico

(Please click on the photos to enlarge, or you'll never be able to see them.)

The reason I write this blog, especially when traveling, is to share unexpected moments of beauty that I stumble upon. I’m driven to share these experiences and sights because so often they’re lucky accidents, not even hinted at in the guidebooks.

Often the objects that draw my eye are created by anonymous folk artists – in the name of religion, love (like the carved Greek hope chests for brides) – or just out of the creative urge that wells up in us. I think it’s wonderful that so many Greeks carved their wooden tools and vessels into fantastic shapes, and that the indigenous tribes of India hammered the gods and goddesses into their silver tribal jewelry.

It seems I’ve been collecting angels forever and am particularly attracted to naïve, primitive angels with personality and attitude—not the cookie-cutter kind you see on Valentines. (Haitian art boasts a lot of angels with attitude.)

On the four days in Puebla, Mexico that were the finale of our off-site art class (led by photographer Mari Seder and sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum), I quickly realized that Puebla has angels everywhere, just as skulls and skeletons seemed to be everywhere in Oaxaca. The first row of photos above show the angels we encountered on the edge of the Zocalo guarding the famous baroque Cathedral—part of the historic center that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Another day we boarded a van driven by Jorge Luis, who for 43 years has been leading tours to Cholula, just outside Puebla, famed for the view of its two snow-covered volcanoes (see the photo of the lovers in the second row above.) The first church we visited there was Nuestra Senora de los Remedios—the imposing orange building perched atop the Great Pyramid of Cholula—the largest pyramid (I’m told) in Mexico, (but not excavated). Angels in Redmedios were typical of the Spanish baroque style of so many churches.

Then Jorge Luis drove us to two other churches that he said had been decorated by the Indians—incorporating their own symbols and faces. In both cases, the outside of the churches is covered with the famous talavera tiles of the region. Once I walked inside the first one -- Santa Maria Tonantzintla—I was stunned into silence, as is everyone who enters. Every square inch of the interior was covered with carved images of Indian angels and saints. You weren’t supposed to take photos, but I took some anyway (in the third row above). At the door an Indian mother with a baby on her back was selling photos of the carvings, including angels wearing the traditional feathered headdress and also cobs of corn.

In the third church—San Martin Texmelucan -- also decorated by the Indians and , according to Jorge, restored since an earthquake some years ago—native workmen were cleaning the stunningly tiled exterior (see the fourth row above). And except for one man, they had no safety belts or ropes to protect them from a fall.

Inside we were allowed to take photos and I took dozens. (See rows four and five above.) If you compare the dome of this church—surrounded by a row of angels – to the dome of the previous church, you will see that there is more organization and less chaos in the décor, but in both churches, I don’t think anyone could count all the angels in a lifetime. No photos can indicate how there really do seem to be flocks of angels swirling overhead in complete confusion and the flutter of wings is almost audible.

The final row above shows two angels who came home from Mexico with me to add to my angel walls. The little red-faced angel with one wing, about six inches tall, was priced at less than two dollars in a Oaxacan antique store (because he only has one wing!) The wooden statue of the Archangel Michael, holding a cross and a sword, was carved by an anonymous artisan in Puebla.

Everywhere I go, even in non-Christian countries, I seem to find angels. I hope that these two will feel at home surrounded by their multi-cultural brethren and bring protection to our house.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Carnival and Christ in Puebla, Mexico

( please click on the photos to enlarge)

I recently wrote about the “Fat Tuesday” celebrations in the village of San Martin Tilcajete outside of Oaxaca, featuring a “faux” wedding, devils, noise, dancing, gossip, ribald behavior and lots of pre-Lenten craziness.

After eight days in Oaxaca, we (students and teacher of our art course sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum) went on to Puebla, a larger city 80 miles southeast of Mexico City which boasts ornate colonial architecture featuring tiles and beaux-arts rococo plasterwork and the famous Talavera pottery.

Here in Puebla, carnival celebrations were in full swing and on Sunday Feb. 2 , as we prowled the large flea market and antique area, we ran into a parade featuring local beauties in white dresses dancing with men dressed as devils, Indians and Spaniards. Their costumes trumpeted the names of their neighborhoods on their cloaks. The costumes were less gruesome than in Oaxaca and the devils far less threatening, but the bystanders were having just as much fun.

That night, as we went to the Zocalo of Puebla, which has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the large plaza was chock full of costumed dancers and music, fountains spurting and children delighted with the carnival activities, balloons and ice cream treats. Clearly families had dressed up the children and driven in from outlying areas, and as we enjoyed margaritas at a sidewalk restaurant, we felt privileged to be included in the Lenten hilarity. Among the mask for sale was a spooky Michael Jackson face.

I’m also including a photo I took from our balcony at the Hotel Colonial of a grandmother and her granddaughter on a bench below. At first I thought she had a baby beside her, but then I saw that it was the family’s Christ Child doll, that she had brought out for a stroll—or to be blessed in church. I’ve learned that the Christ Child doll lies down on the family altar at Christmas but is then put in a sitting position on Candlemas (Feb. 2) and he needs a new set of clothes at that time. The Christ Child in his new clothes needs to be taken to church to be blessed before the beginning of Lent, but this grandmother seems to have overlooked the deadline—or perhaps there’s a dispensation on Sundays?

In Mexico, the symbols of the Catholic religion are everywhere, and while leaving the Zocalo that day I snapped a photo of a woman sitting in a store that sells religious objects. She was almost hidden behind a life-size statue of a bleeding crucified Christ lying on the counter.

(My next post will be: Angels in the Architecture in Puebla, and under the volcano in Cholula.)