Saturday, December 5, 2009

Is Cooking an Art or Obsolete?

The other day at an auction of Ephemera, I bought, for $10, a batch of vintage cookbooks which included such rarities as “The ‘Silent Hostess’ Treasure Book” (1930), the “Metropolitan Cook Book” (1922), “Dishes Men Like” (1952) the “Southern Cook Book” (1939), “A Book of Good Eating” from “the Woman’s (sic) Auxiliary of the New England Baptist Hospital” (1971), “New Brunswick Recipes” (1958), “Saint Paul’s Parish Album of Good Eating”…you get the idea.

I’m not a foodie or a gourmet cook who can read a cookbook like a novel searching for new culinary tricks. In fact my bible after I got married in 1970 was the “I Hate to Cook Book” by Peg Bracken—as far as you can get from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

But I did get quite a few chuckles perusing these vintage cookbooks and reading the culinary wisdom so earnestly laid out in them.It was like time-traveling into the past.

Turns out the “Silent Hostess Treasure Book” was produced by the General Electric Company in 1930 to introduce homemakers to that new invention, the Electric Refrigerator:

“First came the electric iron—the steps it saved from the stove to the ironing board and back again amounted to several miles a year. Next, the washing machine, to save backs from aching and knuckles from cracking—and again a saving of time. And then the vacuum cleaner—what a relief from the tiresome and dirty task of sweeping! Each new electric appliance contributes its share to the lightening of household tasks.

“And now the electric refrigerator. Not only can it save the housewife time and energy, but it can actually work for her. With a little planning on her part it can take an active part in the preparation and serving of her meals.”

The book then explains how foods should be placed according to the various temperatures of the various shelves (check out the photo above) and tells the housewife “You can save yourself many trips to market. You can prepare meals in advance.

“For the homemaker without a maid, one of the most informal and enjoyable occasions is to entertain at Sunday night supper (see Page 7) or the late supper ‘snack’ served after the movies or theatre (see menus, pages 28 and 29.)”

Here’s one of the suggested Sunday Night suppers: Russian Canapes, Stuffed Tomatoes in Aspic, Celery Hearts, Cheese Biscuit, Caramel Ice Cream and Tea.

Most of the menus and dishes suggested in this book would not go over very well with men (or women) today, because there is so much reliance on things in aspic and tiny sandwiches filled with pastes like: peanut butter and chopped dates, mixed with mayonnaise. There are also a lot of “surprise” dishes like a multi-layered “Surprise Sandwich Loaf” filled with chopped raw cabbage, pimiento, chopped, cheese relish and “1/2 lb. Yellow or snappy cheese”

The last part of the book, which details how to defrost the refrigerator, describes refrigerator accessories like white enamel containers, glass refrigerator dishes and rubber trays. I suddenly realized: they hadn’t invented plastic yet! I also realized that I probably haven’t defrosted a refrigerator in 30 years.

So what are the Dishes Men Like? That small cookbook, published in 1952, was produced by Lea & Perrins, Inc. makers of “The Original and Genuine Worcestershire Sauce” and it seems that nearly every dish preferred by men requires Worcestershire Sauce.

Evidently Lea and Perrins Worcestershire sauce is essential in the cocktail hour for dips and cheese spreads and “Mystery Cheese Ball Spread” (probably related to those “Surprise” dishes from General Electric.) It’s even essential in a pick-me-up on “the morning after” to cure your hangover and “immediately set you right for a good day’s work.” Here are two suggestions: “Add 2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins to a raw egg, stir and swallow. Or Add 2 teaspoons Lea & Perrins to an 8-ounce glass of tomato or sauerkraut juice and drink contents as quickly as possible.”

Both those recipes, which sound like something right off my beloved “Mad Men”, would drive me to drink.

The rest of the book demonstrates that Lea & Perrins is the magic ingredient in “Easy Beef Pie with Cheese’, various fondues and meat and chicken dishes, Oven Welsh Rabbit (Rarebit) with Beer and Rink Tum Diddy Rabbit (Rarebit). That last one is NOT the name of a Rap singer.

The “Metropolitan Cook Book” published by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1922, intends to inform the housewife how to provide healthy, nutritious and economical meals for her family. It warns her that meat “should be removed from the paper as soon as it is received from market and should be kept in a cool place. Always wipe meat with a damp cloth.” (No GE refrigerator back in 1922!)

My favorite recipe in the book is “How to make toast: Cut stale bread into 1/4 inch slices, put slices in a wire toaster, lock toaster and hold over or under the heat, holding it some distance from the fire that it may dry gradually, and then brown as desired.“ The toaster oven was clearly far in the future, much less Pop Tarts and Eggo Waffles.

My favorite cookbook in the batch is “The Southern Cook Book –322 Old Dixie Recipes” (1939). As my daughter pointed out, it’s hopelessly racist with drawings of “darkies” --cooking and napping and eating watermelon, the illustrations embellished with jokes, songs and quotations in stereotypical southern black dialect.

Here’s the quotation that starts the book: “’Case Cookin’s lak religion is—/Some’s ‘lected an’ some ain’t,/ An rules don’ no mo’ mek a cook/ Den sermons mek a saint”.

Indeed the book is racist and clichéd and demeaning to southerners, but where else would you find “Creole Soup a la Madame Begue,” “North Carolina Syllabub (A Builder-Upper)”, “Burgoo For Small Parties”, exactly how to dress and cook an Opossum, and the recipe for “Tallahassee Hush Puppies” as well as a long story about their origins.

“Good Eating” from the “Woman’s Auxiliary of the New England Baptist Hospital" had a wealth of “Food Facts and Fables” including this one: “Pretzels were born about 610 A.D. when an Italian monk took strips of leftover dough and folded over the ends to represent arms crossed in prayer. When baked, the monk gave them to children who learned their prayers. He called them ‘pretiola”…loose interpretation, “little prayers.”

Each one of the vintage cookbooks had nuggets of information and recipes that I’d like to try, as well as recipes I wouldn’t eat on a bet. After paging through all of them, I realized that today, the housewives of America (and I mean ME above all) don’t really cook.

I know several women who are brilliant cooks of the Julia Child ilk—but they treat cooking as a fine art, not a dull daily necessity…because we have so many conveniences and so many kinds of already-prepared food, that no one has to cook every day, the way our grandmothers did. (When I was little my paternal grandmother, born in Norway but reared in Minnesota, would bake bread every morning before breakfast and then call up my mother—her daughter- in-law—to ask if she’d done HER baking already. She hadn’t. My mother was as lackluster a cook as I am, and we had the same weekly series of meals. I believe Thursday was tuna-fish-noodle casserole with crumbled potato chips on top.

Tomorrow I’m serving Pork Roast Florentine filled with ricotta & feta cheeses, roasted red bell peppers and spinach, rolled up in a spiral and finished with a garlic-rosemary sauce. I got it at Trader Joe's and just have to put it in the oven for 40 minutes. Trader Joe’s also has a Tarte de Champignon and Ye Olde Yule Log and Scallops on the Half Shell and Spice Nog Cake. It’s my new favorite store. I’m just sorry Peg Bracken didn’t live to see it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gate Crashers at the White House

How Did the Salahis Do It?

From the very beginning, I’ve been following with fascination the story of how Michaele and Tareq Salahi managed to crash the Obamas’ first state dinner last Tuesday night for the Prime Minister of India.

I’m intrigued by how they managed this coup, because I know how thorough is the vetting of guests for White Houses State dinners —at least during the Reagan era and the Clinton era, when my husband Nick and I were privileged to attend state dinners for prime minister Brian Mulroney of Canada in March 1986 and for the President of Greece, Constantine Stephanopoulos, in May 1996. (That's us with the Reagans, above.)

The invitation, topped with a gold-eagle presidential seal, arrived more than a month before the event. Out of the envelope, addressed in calligraphy, came the invitation itself and a small card with a yellow imprint of the White House and the words ”Please present this card with identification at the East Entrance, the White House. Not transferable.”

Another card advised: ”Please respond at your earliest convenience giving date of birth and Social Security number.” This, of course, was so they could do a background check to rule out any dangerous or undesirable guests.

On the day of the Reagan event, we, in formal dress, rode in a limousine to the East Gate. (We were almost late because neither one of us could tie Nick’s bow tie—The concierge at the Madison Hotel provided a pre-tied bow tied just in time.)

A long line of limousines waited at the East Gate. As we inched forward, security men and women checked our photo identification against their lists of guests who had been cleared.

An early article on the Salahis reported that their limousine was turned away at this point (after holding up the line for a long time) and that the couple then drove to another gate where they eventually managed to convince someone to let them walk in, trailed by a cameraman and a make-up person.

I can hardly believe this is true. Surely the cameraman and the make-up person were not allowed inside the White House gates! But clearly the Salahis were—presumably thanks to some clever fast -talking on their part. I've read that they are now marketing to the press their first interview about their scam and hoping to get “well into six figures” for it.

I would NOT want to be the person who let them in. According to yesterday’s New York Post, “The red-faced agency had its internal office of professional responsibility launch a probe into how the Salahis got in. The office has been reviewing video-surveillance footage and interviewing every agent on duty at the White House state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, sources said.

“The startlingly botched security has the potential to force out Sullivan as chief of the Secret Service, said a law-enforcement source with connections to Washington.”

When Nick and I went to the Reagan and Clinton dinners, they took place in the State Dining Room. The Reagans invited only 116 guests, compared to the 400 invited to the Obama state dinner. The Obama dinner last week was held in a tent on the South Lawn. But first the guests and the Salahis had to go into the White House, be announced, and –as the front-page photos showed on Saturday —they pressed the flesh with the President in the receiving line in the Blue Room.

At the Reagan and Clinton state dinners, we had to go through several check points before actually sitting down to dinner.

A military aide welcomed us at the door of the White House. We then walked through the ground floor corridor past the portraits of former First Ladies and another aide announced each person’s name (and title) to the press corps waiting the next room behind ropes. (Back in 1986, unaccompanied women were provided with an escort-- a military officer wearing his dress uniform.) After walking past the crowd of reporters, television crews and cameras, we climbed a staircase and were greeted by social aides who gave us our table-assignment cards.

Then we walked beneath the crystal chandeliers of the great Entrance Hall while the U.S. Marine Orchestra serenaded us. We entered the East Room where we were once again announced by name and title. There we drank and chatted until the President and First Lady and the guests of honor arrived and formed a reception line.

Social aides herded us in their direction, husbands first. The ambassador in charge of protocol stood at the head of the line, whispering each person’s name into the President’s ear. At the moment you are greeted by the president, a White House photographer takes your photograph, which is mailed to you sometime after the event —with the President’s good wishes scrawled on it. The White House photograph of the Salahis being greeted by Obama was quietly released to the press on Saturday, along with a statement from the director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, saying that his agency was “deeply concerned and embarrassed” by the events.

In the photo Michaele, wearing a long red and gold sari, clutches Obama’s hand in both of hers while her husband beams.

At the Reagan and Clinton dinners, after passing through the reception line, the crowd filed into the State Dining Room, where round tables awaited with gold candlesticks, gold vermeil flatware and vermeil bowls filled with flowers. At the Obama dinner, the guests were directed out to tables under the tent on the South Lawn.

At this point, the Salahis reportedly slipped away. They knew there were no place cards with their names on the tables. (How they managed to get out without making themselves conspicuous is a good question.)

(The dinner which the Salahis did not taste was vegetarian except for an optional shrimp dish, because the Indian Prime Minister is a Sikh – meaning he doesn’t eat meat or drink alcohol. Was alcohol served at all at this state dinner? And how was that arranged without upsetting the observant Hindus and Muslims there?)

At the state dinners we attended, after toasts by the president and guest of honor, everyone moved to the another room for demitasse and after-dinner liqueurs, and then to the East Room where musical entertainment takes place. Then there was dancing, led off by the President and First Lady.

Eventually we’ll learn how the Salahis pulled off this trick that left the Secret Service in shambles and embarrassed the Obamas and their staff at their first State Dinner. Ronald Kessler, author of “In the President’s Secret Service” said that threats against the president have increased 400 per cent since he took office.

Luckily for everyone but the Secret Service, the Salahis did not intend to harm the president —they just wanted to get Mrs. Salahi on “The Real Housewives of Washington D.C.” And I’ll bet she does get on that show… if she manages to stay out of jail.

But for now I suggest that the lesson we’ve learned is that a good-looking blonde in a gorgeous red dress (or sari) can talk her way in just about anywhere.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sneaky Shortcuts for Thanksgiving

For 39 years I’ve been doing Thanksgiving for an ever-growing group and as the years passed, I’ve streamlined the process so much that it’s embarrassing. I’m sort of a nut about holidays—especially the decorating part—and while I’m pretty good at baking (Scandinavian background) I’m not a serious Martha Stewart-type cook, as all my friends know. I did work for several years for Ladies’ Home Journal’s food department back in the sixties, but that definitely did not turn me into a master chef.

Nowadays magazines and ads on TV make much of the young wife and mother terrified by the complexities of roasting a turkey and serving Thanksgiving dinner to a crowd. I think the whole thing has been vastly over-complicated by the media.

So I’m going to share with you my sneaky shortcuts for a super-easy Thanksgiving, including how to keep children amused (although my children are all grown up now—but still coming home for the holiday.)

But you have to promise not to tell anyone how lazy I am –especially my Greek relatives who spend a whole day making a stuffing out of pine nuts, chestnuts, sausage, and everything but the kitchen sink. My corn bread stuffing takes about five minutes and every year they marvel at it. (Evidently no one has ever told them about packaged stuffing.)

The Turkey—don’t stuff it!
A turkey roasted with the stuffing inside takes much longer and then you have all those risks of food poisoning if you leave the turkey & stuffing un-refrigerated long after taking it out of the oven. Stuffing baked in the turkey comes out soggy. I prepare my stuffing on top of the stove and serve it in a covered casserole. And if you have vegetarian guests, as I often do, you can serve them vegetarian stuffing.

The directions are on the back of the Pepperidge Farm Corn Bread Stuffing package—Melt 6 TBSP butter in a saucepan, add a cup of chopped celery and a cup of chopped onions, cook for 3 minutes. (Then I throw in sliced mushrooms and maybe this year chopped apples and cook some more. You could also add chopped chestnuts or pecans and crumbled bacon or sausage.)

When everything is softened, you throw in 2 1/2 cups water or broth (if you’re not going for vegetarian) and stir and you’re all done.

As for the turkey—I always get a fresh turkey, even though it costs more, so as not to have to defrost it for days and then find it still frozen in the middle on Turkey Day. I generally cut an onion in half and a couple oranges in half and put them in the cavity before putting the turkey in the oven. Put a tent of aluminum foil over it as soon as it gets brown. Every half hour you should baste it with pan juices (You poured broth into the roasting pan at the beginning.) . For the last 15 minutes I baste it with Maple Bourbon Glaze which also gives a nice color.

Green Bean Casserole and Candied Sweet Potatoes with Marshmallows: I don’t make them. I came to realize that nobody eats them. What I do make is: Parmesan Potato Casserole which is mashed potatoes in a casserole dish with a lot of butter and cheese, cream and eggs stirred in and then you bake it with some cheese and parsley on top. I cook Wild Rice mix straight out of the Uncle Ben box. Artichoke hearts alla Polita with peas and dill. Corn and red pepper casserole. Brown and serve rolls –cook them in the oven after the turkey comes out. (Don’t forget, the turkey needs to sit for a half hour to soak up the juices.) Stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer.

Gravy—open a can.
I’ve tried about a million “No fail turkey gravy” recipes over the years and I manage to fail every time. Gravy is a big nuisance right at the end of the cooking while everyone’s waiting to eat. What I do is open a couple cans of store-bought turkey gravy, chop up some of the neck and liver of the turkey (which have cooked in the roasting pan alongside the turkey), add a nice splash of some liquor—like sherry—or you can throw in some of the pan juices. Who’s going to know that it came out of a can?

Orange-cranberry relish—you can make this up to a month ahead and keep it in the refrigerator. Everybody loves it and it makes even the driest turkey taste better. Pick over and grind in the blender a one pound bag of cranberries. Grind up a couple oranges—pulp and rind. Mix together with two cups sugar or more. Chill in the refrigerator. I always make a double recipe.

When the kids were little I would have them cut with scissors a jagged edge for hollowed-out orange halves to make little baskets to hold the cranberry relish—I’d put the baskets surrounding the turkey. Or nowadays I surround the turkey on its platter with green and purple bunches of grapes.

Desserts: Everything made ahead.
Always some kind of apple pie (I keep trying to find the perfect recipe.) A pumpkin ricotta roll—it looks like a jellyroll and you can make it and freeze it way ahead, then slice it and sprinkle powdered sugar on top when it’s time to serve. Somehow a fabulous Chocolate-Kahlua pie has become a staple of our Thanksgiving. It, too, can be made way ahead. Last year I made a blackberry swirl cheesecake pie as the fourth dessert, but when I make a pumpkin pie—which is really fast and easy…(just take the recipe off the pumpkin can)—I decorate the top with a circle of candy corn left from Halloween. Or Cinnamon Praline Pecans.

Pie dough—Pillsbury refrigerated. I don’t have the magic touch for “from scratch” pie crust that grandmas always brag about, and I’ve never had any complaints. When I do some clever crimping around the edge, the pie crust looks completely homemade and tastes fine.

Placecards and menus—Making the placecards or favors is a great way to keep children busy and out of your hair. I used to have them make favors/place cards that were turkeys fashioned out of (store bought) popcorn balls with a ladyfinger for the head and neck, three toothpick legs to stand, red or orange cellophane tied around the popcorn ball and gathered for a tail.—The three-legged turkey was then stuck in a large flat cookie, where the name would be written using those cake-decorating tubes. The kids really got into making these “resemble’ the person it was for.

Just today on Facebook I saw the Oreo Cookie Turkey above which was created by a clever artist named Shane Donnelly. It’s probably too complicated for any but older children, but would make a nice alternative to the popcorn-ball turkey.

The centerpiece is always the same—I have a basket shaped like a cornucopia, filled with various fruits, nuts and some fall flowers that have survived in the garden. Couldn’t be easier. Candles in candleholders.

I always print out on the computer a small decorative menu for each plate so people know what they’re eating. What they won’t know is how easy it was, unless you tell them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nicolas Cage & the LaLaurie House Curse

I was not going to write another word about true haunted house stories, but then my good friend Kay who lives in NOLA gave me a heads up that one of the two mansions that Nicolas Cage has lost to foreclosure in New Orleans was the notorious LaLaurie House in the French Quarter. I did a little research and wrote up this fascinating story and sent it on to the New York Post's Page Six and today the info is cited in Page Six's lead item:"I Warned Nic Cage to cool it".

I had known for years the stomach-turning details of the terrible events in the LaLaurie House back in the 1800's and I thought it was interesting that the media--which wrote about Cage's financial and legal disasters last week -- did not mention the evil karma that has dogged the owners of this "most haunted" house since the horribly mutilated victims were discovered in 1834.

Nic Cage himself was well aware of the story and has mentioned it often, including on the Letterman show. He has said that no one in his family has ever had the nerve to spend the night in the house but that he planned to. He also has rejected the requests of a number of "ghost hunters" to check out the house because he feels it would be "exploiting" the ghosts.

Anyway--here's my write up on the story. Tomorrow I'll turn to happier subjects--namely my sneaky shortcuts developed over the years to make Thanksgiving chores as whole lot easier.

Nicolas Cage’s Foreclosed Mansion is New Orleans’ Most Haunted House

On Friday, Nov. 13th it was announced that actor Nicolas Cage had lost his two historically significant New Orleans mansions to foreclosure.

In April 2007 Cage paid $3,450,000 for the notorious LaLaurie house at 1140 Royal Street in the French Quarter. It was built in 1832 for Dr. Louis LaLaurie and his sadistic wife Delphine who , it turned out, was horribly torturing slaves in gruesome ways and keeping their broken and dismembered bodies chained and caged in the attic. The outbreak of fire in 1834 led to the discovery of her torture chamber. The family fled and were never charged. Since then, the ghost stories about the building have multiplied, making it a highly popular tourist stop. The mansion has served as a high school, a music conservatory, a bar, a furniture store, and empty tenement and an apartment building. Almost every inhabitant moved out within months or suffered tragedy and death. At one point it was “The Haunted Saloon”. It’s not clear if Cage ever lived in the building.

Last week the spooky French Empire mansion was acquired by the Birmingham, Ala.-based Regions Bank for $2.3 million.

The bank also acquired Cage’s mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans at 2523 Prytania Street . Cage had purchased it for $3,450,000 in June of 2005. The bank got it for 2.2 million. It was previously owned by novelist Anne Rice and originally was a Catholic Chapel.

Presumably the Garden District chapel, if haunted, houses benevolent ghosts, while the infamous LaLaurie house in the French Quarter would more likely produce hellish demons—like the ones described by pre-Cage inhabitants.

Hopefully no evil spirits haunt the 1830’s French Quarter mansion of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie at 521 Governor Nicholls street, less than two blocks away.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Final Word on Ghosts (I Hope)

What are ghost exactly and how do you know if you’ve got one?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Things I Love About San Francisco

Right now I'm in the City of Angels, about to fly back to Beantown, but last weekend in San Francisco--the first time back in 46 years--I encountered angels everywhere--in the architecture, outside the Asian Arts Center, even chalked onto the street.

(Please click on the photos to make them bigger)

Cable cars, too, make San Francisco unique, and climbing the hills makes me realize I'm not as young and fit as I was when attending Berkeley across the Bay. The gears are still turning in the Cable Car Museum and a pet store nearby has a wall mural of an animal-filled cable car.

Chinatown, too, is an eternal delight--full of exotic foods and gifts and toys. In Chinatown, in addition to angels in the architecture, there are dragons everywhere, including on the streetlamps. And red lanterns for luck.

Hope to come back to San Francisco before another 46 years pass!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Magazine Divas Part 2--The Party's Over

(Looking for an illustration for this post, I googled for images from the great 1959 film --and novel by Rona Jaffe-- “The Best of Everything” about young women who work in a NYC publishing firm—The diva editor is played by Joan Crawford. They suffer terrible fates until they realize that they will be happier in quiet domesticity as housewives instead of living a miserable life as career women.

I was thrilled to find the image above—our heroine Hope Lange standing on Park Avenue in front of Lever House, because that was where I worked at my very first job. For six months after grad school I worked in PR for Lever Bros. I quit six months later after my (male) boss in P. R. kept taking credit for my work, including the coup of getting a news article positive to our company in the NY press.)

After the month as a MLLE. guest editor, having developed a taste for caviar, I revised my plans for the future. I’d return to the Midwest, finish college, and then head straight back to New York City and a magazine job. Maybe they’d even hire me at MLLE! I wanted more Lester Lanin dances, Central Park photo shoots, strolling at night in the Village with Peter S., the young man who introduced me to my first Communist (in the White Horse Bar) and taught me how to eat an artichoke.

I had not yet realized that the women on the staffs of Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle-- all the Conde Nasties-- had to have trust funds in order to pay for food, rent and expensive clothes. No one was making a living wage. (And no one, let’s be honest, is ever allowed to dress in the clothes from the Fashion Closet despite what you see on “Sex and the City” and "The Devil Wears Prada". You can borrow a dress for a working night out, but you have to return it.)

Three years later, in 1964, I was back in Manhattan looking for a job, armed with my Master’s in journalism. I tried out for a post as fiction-reader at the Saturday Evening Post and my written tryout was labeled “brilliant”, but when the legendary fiction editor Rust Hills met me and learned that I had neglected to read "Henderson the Rain King", I was out the door in minutes. So I settled for a post as editorial assistant in the Ladies Home Journal food department and considered myself lucky.

I was paid $80 a week and worked with two other young women in a windowless room next to the LHJ Test Kitchen. Shortly after the Beatles invaded New York in 1964, our kitchen became a popular gathering spot because word got around that you could scrape the insides of banana peels, toast the result and get high smoking it. Mellow yellow! We tested, but it didn’t work.

My boss was a celebrity food editor—Poppy Cannon. She was known for many things including "The Can-Opener Cookbook" and her multiple husbands, among them Walter White, the founder of the NAACP and Chef Phillipe of the Waldorf. Her sister was the designer, Anne Fogarty. (Since we’re talking the Pleistocene era here, I don’t expect you to recognize any of those names.)

Poppy was, as she often told us, the first woman elected to the Chevaliers de Tastevin. She would occasionally organize wine-tastings in the LHJ food kitchens, and I would assist. She would take a mouthful of wine, roll it around in her mouth like the connoisseur she was, then spit it out into a silver cup before cleansing the palate with a little bread and going on to the next wine. My job, which did not really require a master’s degree or a Phi Beta Kappa key, was to hold the cup into which Poppy spit.

Poppy was a glamorous and, yes, Amazonian woman who liked to wear long, sweeping dresses and matching turbans which increased her height to well over six feet. She often displayed various medals on her ample chest, pinned to sashes like royalty. She was, in fact, very sweet and not intimidating like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, but Poppy was rather needy and helpless.

She often didn’t feel like coming into the office, so I would have to go to her Park Avenue home. While she reclined on a chaise longue, wearing one of a dazzling wardrobe of peignoirs and muumuus, she would dictate her column for the magazine while I took notes. During the whole time I knew Poppy, the stove and oven in her kitchen did not work, so she would send me out to get lunch for both of us. And usually she had no cash on hand, so she’d tell me to expense it.

In the end, I wrote many of her articles myself, because, after a while, I got the hang of her uniquely florid style. Poppy also once invited me and a colleague out for a weekend at her house in Danbury. We were driven by a car and chauffeur, but it turned out that we were there to clean the house and serve at the table.

In those days, I was at an editorial luncheon when some of the women began reminiscing about the "Delineator". What, I asked, was the Delineator? That was like Amanda in The Devil Wears Prada saying “Can you spell Gabbana for me?” The journalists fell about laughing and sneering (“She’s never heard of the Delineator!”) and informed me it was one of the finest magazines ever published for women. When I looked it up later, I learned that it was published between1873 and 1937 and went out of business four years before I was born.
In my early years on MLLE and LHJ, I met a number of glamorous, larger-than-life women from the post-Pleistocene generation whom I call the Best of Everything editors-- because they are the ones Rona Jaffe was writing about in her book. Their names belong on the roll of visionary, intelligent, glamorous and sometimes impossible women who carried the torch in an era when Ladies Home Journal staff members were given aprons with the slogan “Never underestimate the power of a woman.”

There was Bruce Clerke, my personal editor at MLLE, who suffered my Midwestern naiveté with great good humor and tact, as when I tried to drink the shrimp cocktail at La Fonda del Sol during our first lunch. Bruce was a beautiful southern belle, (a college Azalea Queen, if I remember correctly). Perhaps her trademark silver hair inspired Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Miranda Priestly.

The fiction editor at LHJ was Phyllis Levy, a slender and vivacious woman who entranced a series of men but, to my knowledge, never married. (Her good friend Rona Jaffe wrote about Phyllis’s chameleon personality in the story “Rima the Bird Girl.”) One morning, as I was answering reader mail in my closet off the test kitchens, Phyllis dashed in clutching a bottle of champagne and a tin of caviar. “Put this in the refrigerator,” she commanded. “I met the most fabulous man and he’s flying me to Paris tonight.”

And the late Lois Benjamin Gould was the first editor to stride into the office wearing a pants suit. She looked thin, tragic and beautiful. Our jaws dropped. Anything that Lois did, we knew, must be the Next Big Thing. I believe this was after Lois’s husband had died and she dropped out of sight for about a year while she wrote Such Good Friends about discovering her husband’s adultery, another “fiction” book, like The Bell Jar and The Devil Wears Prada that was really faction.

At this time I was sharing an apartment on 14th Street with three young women, all in some form of journalism. Two were researchers on news magazines and, it’s true, the female researchers were expected to travel with the reporter, to help, research, support and socialize with him, but never to write. In those days, believe it or not, nobody got by-lines on the articles in Time, except for columnists. Nowadays, everybody who has anything to do with a piece gets his/her name at the end. Which is only fair.

We had fun, living in that sordid apartment with cardboard furniture and orange-crate shelves. We each chipped in a dollar a day for food. When Time closed on Friday nights, there was always a big buffet on the top floor and our Time/Life researcher roommate would often bring home leftovers. There was no swag for magazine assistants-–certainly not the way there is today--but I remember one Christmas when Restaurant Associates sent me a box made of chocolate with my named spelled out on the lid. Once in a while the Fashion Department would sell off clothes at a bargain-basement price and I snagged a dress that was originally worn by Twiggy in a fashion spread. When there was a subway strike, we’d compete to see who could walk to mid-town on time without stopping for a Chock Full O’Nuts doughnut on the way.

No doubt we were abused, underpaid, overworked and discriminated against because we were women, but that was before we’d ever heard terms like “glass ceiling” , “women’s liberation” and “car service” or read manifestos like TDWP. We didn’t even realize that we were storing up fodder for future exposés.

Footnote about Anna Wintour: I’ve never met her, but when I first had an article published in Vogue, she sent me a handwritten note saying that she liked it. I thought that was a very gracious thing to do.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Those Fabulous Magazine Divas –A Memoir

(A trip to Manhattan last weekend and a week on the West Coast starting tomorrow have played havoc with my plan to post the third part of my Ghost Extravaganza —but it is coming soon—a summary, based on 100 letters from people who live in haunted houses, of what a ghost really is and how you know there’s one around. Meanwhile, I’m going to post –in three parts--something I wrote as an homage to the legendary magazine editors I worked for long before Meryl Streep took on the role of Anna Wintour avatar Miranda Priestly)

I’ve read the book The Devil Wears Prada and seen the film—two rather different stories, but both about abused and self-pitying young female editorial assistants—and I want to tell any fledgling fashionistas struggling on the mastheads of glossy magazines: it used to be worse. In my day, we editorial assistants found ourselves serving cocktails, ironing our bosses’ linens and even collecting their spit. And in those days, it didn’t occur to us to complain, much less write a get-rich-quick tell-all.

When I set out to find a magazine job in New York, armed with a B.A., a Phi Beta Kappa key and a Master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, I, like Andrea Sachs in TDWP, considered myself a Serious Journalist. So naturally I applied at the Time/Life empire. A nice, not-at-all haughty woman in Human Resources told me in confidence, “If you really want to write—to be a reporter—then you shouldn’t apply for a job at Time/Life because women here cannot get higher on the masthead than researcher.”

I did not protest in outrage nor hunt for a lawyer, because this was 1964. I gathered up my resumé and my portfolio and thanked her for her honesty and went to look elsewhere. Eventually I ended up in the Food Department of Ladies’ Home Journal although, also like Andrea, I always thought The New Yorker was more my speed.

My first glimpse of the heady world of women’s magazines was in June of 1961 when I won Mademoiselle magazine’s Guest Editor Contest and was transported, along with 19 other coeds from around the country, to the Barbizon Hotel (no men allowed above the ground floor), where we found a red rose on the bed in our tiny rooms with a month-long schedule of events that bore no relation to a real job.

The editor of MLLE was the legendary Betsy Talbot Blackwell, the mother of the makeover. She was one of the last of what I call the Pleistocene Era of magazine editors--a group of eminent women who, early in the 20th century, ruled their kingdoms with the proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove. (I suspect that very few of these early triple-named lady editors would fit into a size six, much less size zero dress.) They dictated to the women of America what to wear and cook and how to behave, and the women of America took their word as gospel. (I have a very early issue of Ladies Home Journal magazine that warns its readers sternly: if they dye their hair they will go insane.)

After our arrival at MLLE, each guest editor was given a personal welcome by BTB in her cavernous office. We were warned, before we entered for our few moments of personal face time, that if BTB should suddenly be seized by a fit of apparently terminal coughing, we should simply keep on talking as if nothing was happening. I did as I was told, but it was BTB who keep asking me if I was all right. Evidently the strain of having to take my final exams a week early, cramming all night while living on cigarettes, coffee, Mars bars and Dexedrine (a kind of speed, children, but it was legal) had saved my straight-A average but taken its toll on my gray complexion and stick-thin body.

Every year BTB threw a cocktail party for the guest editors in her magnificent apartment. All I remember is that she had champagne and caviar (I had grown to hate the sight of it), a strolling accordion player, a view of Central Park, a side chair once owned by Lincoln that no one was allowed to sit on and a cork floor that was badly scarred by the spike heels we wore. In her bedroom, free books sent for BTB’s perusal were in three-foot high stacks on the floor. That really impressed me—all those free books!

We stood in a receiving line at the cocktail party and my jaw dropped as the guest ed next to me suddenly decided to introduce herself with a French name. This same fiercely ambitious young woman also set her cap for BTB’s divorced son—something that evidently was as much a guest editor tradition as the strolling accordion player (who the following year, I’m told, accidentally sat on the Lincoln chair, reducing it to kindling.)

The great and, I would soon learn, totally anomalous thing about the Guest Editor contest was that you were chosen for your talent in various fields (writing, photography, art, cartooning, poetry, etc.) rather than for your physical beauty and fashion sense. This was the opposite of Glamour’s “Best Dressed College Girls” contest, which Martha Stewart won. Some now-famous women who were guest editors at the beginning of their career include: Betsey Johnson, Ali McGraw, Joan Didion, Gael Greene, Carol Brightman and of course Sylvia Plath in 1955. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the protagonist’s month as a guest editor drives her to throw all her stylish clothes off the roof of the Barbizon (Sylvia called it “the Amazon”). Then she goes home and tries to commit suicide.

Like Andrea in The Devil Wears Prada, most guest editors were dramatically changed by their exposure to a glamorized, surreal world. It can spoil you forever. Or it can traumatize you to learn that there are people smarter and more sophisticated than yourself, who speak three languages and went to finishing school. “Every time someone would start talking French, I’d dig my heel a little harder into her cork floor,” one guest ed confided.

Every morning some company threw a fancy breakfast for us, often featuring caviar. which I had never seen before. During the day we each were assigned to an editor at MLLE, but we never had to do any real work. Instead, we lived as if life was a movie montage. We got makeovers and were dressed alike to be photographed in locations around Manhattan. There were dinners and theater, a movie premiere, a bird’s-eye-view flight over Manhattan at dusk, and the chance to interview VIPs in our field of special interest (I got to interview artist Larry Rivers – who said I reminded him of his sister! Others met with Edward Albee, Oleg Cassini, Edward D. Stone, Philip Roth and Walter Kerr).

There was a formal dinner dance. The Lester Lanin orchestra played, and we were each provided with an escort scrounged for us by the staff of the magazine. Mine was very nice—stockbroker, lived in the Village. He asked me to the country on a weekend to visit his parents. I put on khakis, but the fashion Nazi in the lobby of the Barbizon would not let me cross from the elevator, seven yards to the front entrance, while wearing pants. She made me turn around and go upstairs and put on a skirt.

Next: From Mlle Guest Editor to Real Life Magazine Jobs—the party’s over!

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.)