Sunday, September 27, 2009


(This is the first of an occasional “Crone of the Week”-- women whose stories I want to tell. I’d appreciate your suggestions of women in history who accomplished something courageous, significant or even outrageous during their cronehood years and deserve to be featured on A Rolling Crone. You can e-mail me at

Born a slave in Virginia in 1818, Elizabeth Keckley (also spelled Keckly) became—not the first black woman to work in the White House—there were surely some employed as workers and servants before her- but she was the first black woman to have so much influence on and access to the President’s family that she became the first person ever to write a back-stairs book, revealing the inner workings of Abraham Lincoln’s domestic life. Keckley was the only person who could calm Mary Todd Lincoln when she would suffer a nervous crisis before an important event. After the inauguration, Mrs. Lincoln insisted all her gowns be made by Keckley. (One of them is pictured above.) She turned to the former slave for help and advice on domestic details and protocol for White House parties. Elizabeth traded jokes and compliments with the president, who teased his wife about her penchant for low necklines and said to Mary, when he saw the first Keckley-made gown, “I declare, you look charming in that dress. Mrs. Keckley has met with great success.” Elizabeth also served the Lincolns as a baby sitter when the boys were ill, and nursed the first lady when she was suffering one of her crippling headaches.

Elizabeth was born to a slave named Agnes, owned by Armistead and Mary Burwell in Dinwiddie, VA. “Aggy” had been taught to read (which was illegal) and she taught Elizabeth to read and to sew, and they both worked as house slaves to the Burwell children. On Aggy’s death bed she revealed to her daughter that their master, Armistead Burwell, was also Elizabeth’s father.

After Burwell died, Elizabeth was loaned to other owners who beat her, although she defied them and refused to cry out. She was eventually raped by a white man, and gave birth to her only child, George. Since Elizabeth was mixed race and her rapist was white, George was so light that he claimed he was white in order to serve in the Union Army. He was killed in action in 1861.

Through a combination of business acumen, sewing skills and intelligence, Elizabeth eventually managed to buy freedom for her son and herself, and moved to Washington D.C. where she became the most favored modiste to the likes of Mrs. Robert E. Lee. Another socialite introduced her to Mary Todd Lincoln, who had just arrived in Washington and was very insecure about the city’s fashion sophistication and social mores.

Elizabeth then became the exclusive dressmaker for the new first lady, as well as her best friend and confidant. She would dress and calm Mary before every event, fixing her hair, accessories and jewels. As she prepared the first lady, Elizabeth would chat with the president and received many compliments from him for her skills. When Lincoln was assassinated, the first person Mary Todd Lincoln called to be with her was Elizabeth Keckley.

When Mrs. Lincoln moved back to Illinois after the assassination, she insisted that Elizabeth travel with her. Keckley returned to her profitable dressmaking business in Washington, and the widow wrote her many letters. Finally, Mrs. Lincoln, convinced she was running out of money, told Keckley to meet her in New York City where, using assumed names, they tried to sell possessions and clothing of the Lincolns to raise funds. Word got out about what Mary Lincoln was doing, and she felt disgraced by the news reports. Elizabeth Keckley then wrote what was the first backstairs-at-the-White-House tell-all, called, “Behind the Scenes Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House”. In the back of the book was an appendix with 24 letters that Mrs. Lincoln had written to Elizabeth, including the statement that she considered her “my best living friend.” The book was denounced by everyone from Lincoln’s son Robert to the New York Times as “backstairs gossip” that desecrated the memory of President Lincoln, although Mrs. Keckley kept trying to explain that she only meant to defend Mrs. Lincoln.

Mary Lincoln felt betrayed and their friendship ended. Eventually, when the former first lady descended into total madness, her son had her institutionalized.

Meanwhile Elizabeth Keckley continued to earn money by sewing—although most of her white clients had abandoned her. In 1892, when she was 74, she moved to Ohio to become head of the Department of Sewing and Domestic Science Arts at Wilberforce University, which her son had attended. She organized a dress exhibit at the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and, in her 80’s, she returned to Washington to live in the National Home for Destitute Colored Women and Children—which had been established in part by the Contraband Relief Association that Keckley founded during the war to help freed slaves. Until her death, Elizabeth had a photograph of Mrs. Lincoln on her wall. She died in 1907 at the age of 89 and was buried in Harmony Cemetery in Washington. She had been careful to pay far in advance for a plot and a stone, but when the graves were moved to a new cemetery, her unclaimed remains were placed in an unmarked grave.

I learned about Elizabeth Keckley when I bought, on E-Bay, a cased ambrotype portrait of a mixed-race woman. Pinned to the velvet lining was a scrap of paper with the words “Elizabeth Keckley, Formerly a Slave”. Many of my favorite crones were introduced to me through antique photographs that I’ve bought and then researched, to find out their “back story.” In my next post I’m going to show you some portraits of Keckley and ask you to be a detective and help me find out if my E-Bay image of Elizabeth is authentic.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


Almost a year ago, in October ‘08, I launched this blog, saying: “I will try to address issues and events that are of interest to crones over sixty, who are definitely under-served in the media. Yet we are, as a friend remarked, the pig in the python—the huge population of women who are still tuned in and creating despite (or because of) our age.”

It was daughter Eleni who came up with the inspired name “A Rolling Crone” for the blog after I had discovered that “Crone Chronicles” was already taken.

I e-mailed my friends and colleagues announcing the blog, and was surprised when I heard from several friends that they found the word “Crone” offensive and insulting to women. (Some of them added that they also were offended by being referred to as “Ladies”, when they were, in fact, women, not ladies.)

I noticed that most of the objections to the word “Crone” came from the Midwestern states—where I grew up—while friends on both coasts, in Europe and in Israel generally loved the blog’s title.

One reason I used the word “crone” was that, when I lived in Manhattan, about five of us, er, women friends, started calling ourselves the Crones back when we were in our early fifties. (Our husbands, naturally, were the Geezers.) The Crones did fun things --some athletic, like hiking or kayaking, but most of which involved sitting in a restaurant laughing so loudly that we were sometimes asked to leave.

The most fun thing we did, in my opinion was a Crone Walk from the top of Manhattan (Fort Tryon Park) to the bottom (Battery Park). Husbands were allowed to meet us for dinner on the last day. The walk took three days and involved staying in hotels (where martinis were consumed) eating in restaurants, and visiting stores, art exhibits and historic spots. Our first lunch—in Spanish Harlem—was in a restaurant where no one spoke English, only Spanish. Our last lunch was in a dim sum restaurant in Chinatown, where no one spoke English, only Chinese. (Just one of the reasons why Manhattan is my favorite city ever.)

After hearing complaints from my friends about the word Crone, I decided to research it. I was vaguely aware that some indigenous peoples considered Cronehood to be the honorable third stage of a woman’s life (Maiden, Mother, Crone) and that entry into cronehood—and menopause—was celebrated with rituals, because the crones were revered as wise women who could impart their knowledge to the tribe.

When I started researching “Crone” and “What is a crone?” on Google, I quickly realized that this is a topic for a Phd. thesis, not a single blog posting.

If you would like academic insights into the various historic personifications of the wise crone, check out a site by Kathleen Jenks, PhD, called “”, especially an essay called “Common Themes, East & West: Crones & Sages”.
She refers to Eve, the Mother of All, (holding in her hands an opened pomegranate, whose Hebrew name, rimmon, comes from the word rim, to bear a child.) She also mentions Hecate, Baba Yaga, native American rituals , tales from India’s Crone shamans—it’s a treasure chest of crone facts including a bibliography.

That led me to a lyrical and eloquent essay by a woman called “Z Budapest”-- “Crone Genesis” --that begins, “I am in my first year of Cronehood. In my sixtieth year.” Near the end of her essay she writes “We are one block of herstory, one savvy chain of generations, one strong and active generation that is going to continue to change the world. When we are done, being old will be fashionable, stories and movies about old people will be normal, and we will live a long time.”

I also discovered that women who celebrate their cronehood, especially with rituals, are often Wiccans—followers of paganism as a religion. This is not true of me and the Manhattan crones—who each probably have our own brand of religion or spirituality, although we’ve never discussed it. What joins us, I think is laughter, not a particular political or religious agenda.

But there is, I quickly learned, a growing Crone movement in this country —probably multiplying in strength as more and more women reach cronehood.

If you look up, you will see that the upcoming Fall 2009 Gathering, Crones Counsel XVII is happening Oct. 21-25 in Atlanta, GA.

That site says that the mythological Crone comes from the mists of ancient times, in the Middle East, Greece and the Balkans (30,000-10,000 BCE)… “The goddess was revered as one all-encompassing mother goddess who controlled birth, death and rebirth. This concept began to change as women themselves became increasingly under the dominion of men…Crone, hag and witch once were positive words for old women. Crone comes from Crown, indicating wisdom emanating from the head; hag comes from hagio meaning holy; and witch comes from wit meaning wise. The Crone began re-emerging into our consciousness in the early 1980’s and today many older women are embracing this connection. We are tapping into the ancient crone’s attributes of wisdom, compassion, transformation, healing laughter and bawdiness.”

So I submit that calling myself a crone and my blog “A Rolling Crone” is not insulting to my age group.

I’ve noticed, among my friends, that when a woman turns sixty, she often throws a birthday that basically is a celebration of herself, although previous birthdays and most of her party-giving efforts might have been devoted to celebrating her husband or children or parents.

I think at sixty a woman tends to step back and think “I’ve done pretty well so far, so I’m going to give myself something I’ve always wanted—a trip to Europe-- or enroll in a class to learn tap dancing or piano—or just throw a party that’s all about me and invite all my friends. (One of the New York crones rented a chateau in Tuscany and invited her friends.)

Here are some thoughts I came across from Linda Lowen who writes a blog about women’s issues. In an essay called “The Crone Movement -- Empowering Older Women”, she quotes a past member of the Crones Counsel Board who said “A Crone is a woman who has moved past mid-life and who acknowledges her survivorship, embraces her age, learns from the examined experience of her life, and, most likely, appreciates the wrinkles on her face…A Crone is a woman who is comfortable with her spiritual self, her intuition, and her creative power.”

Linda Lowen comments: “Wonderful qualities for a woman to possess at any age, but especially significant for a demographic that often feels bypassed by a society that has little use for women once they reach menopause. This Halloween, if you’re a woman 45 or older, instead of feeling tricked by the process of aging, consider the treat of making peace with yourself as you appreciate this phase of your life. Embrace your inner Crone.”

(That’s easy—Every Halloween as I wait on the porch for the influx of trick-or-treaters, I’m always dressed as a witch!)

I would like to hear from you how you feel about the word “Crone”.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Michelle Obama's Arms--Can a Crone Get Them?

Remember about thirty years ago when everyone wanted Farrah Fawcett’s hair? (R.I.P. Farrah.) Then about 15 years ago, it was Jennifer Anniston’s hair that everyone wanted. Around the millennium it was Angelina Jolie’s full lips, leading to a lot of ill-conceived lip-plumping inoculations. Now everyone wants Michelle Obama’s sculpted arms. (While some hyper-critical folks say she should hide those muscular arms—they aren’t lady-like. That’s ridiculous! It’s not as if she’s so ripped that the veins are popping our of her arms, the way they do on Madonna.)

Yesterday’s big news story was that Mrs. Obama’s personal trainer, Cornell McClellan, has revealed how she gets those arms. It seems that Michelle, like her husband, tends to get up about 5:30 in the morning for a grueling workout that ends with her “arm-shaping superset” of tricep pushdowns (that means pulling a straight metal bar down against the resistance of a pulley—on a machine) followed without resting by a set of hammer curls using dumbbells. Fifteen of each make a set, then do it all over again two more times.

Was it Oscar Wilde who said “Never wave good-bye after forty.”? He was right. There comes a time in nearly every woman’s life when she realizes that sleeveless dresses are no longer appropriate for her wardrobe because sleeves are necessary to hide whatever that is hanging down from her upper arms. (Evidently it’s called “Bat wings.” As in “Old Bat”, I presume.)

When I was in my 30’s, I wrote an article for Ladies Home Journal that involved interviewing the “Dancing Grannies.” These were a group of women--all over 55 years old and living in a retirement community in Arizona—who had formed a dance troupe similar to the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, and traveled around performing high kicks and other dance routines not usually considered appropriate for grandmothers. They looked great. One of the grannies, I remember, told me that her upper arms had started to look crepey, but she countered that by doing arm curls with weights as she sat watching television.

At 68, I’m 13 years past the minimum age to join the Dancing Grannies. (I wonder if they’re still around?) A year ago, when I started taking pilates classes, I was flat on the floor struggling through the push-ups that always end the session (as a novice I get to do them while braced on my knees, not on my toes) and I looked at my upper arms and sure enough—major creping. Crepe paper was smoother than the flesh of my upper arms. When did that happen, I wondered?

(And whatever happened to crepe paper, I also wondered. When I was small, my mother would sew Halloween costumes for me out of crepe paper every year.)

Today, I’m exactly one month away from going back to Minnesota for the 50th reunion of my high school graduating class of 1959 from Edina Morningside High School. This will probably require a cocktail dress for one of the nights. And a cocktail dress might reveal some things I’d rather keep hidden about my upper arms.

(Speaking of 50th high school reunions, yesterday at the supermarket I was paging through the latest National Enquirer, as is my wont, and there was a photo of actor Nick Nolte being pushed in a wheelchair through an airport and the caption said that he was headed for HIS 50th high school reunion. He looked gaunt and old. At least I can walk through the airport to get to mine, I thought, feeling thankful for that.)

So starting yesterday, because I do have five-pound hand weights—I’ve instituted an “arm sculpting” routine inspired by Michelle Obama. Of course I don’t have that handy machine with the metal bar that you push down, but I know a maneuver with the weights that’s supposed to exercise the right muscles. (Hold your arms straight over your head clutching the weights, hands facing. Then bend your elbows so that the weights drop behind your head, somewhere at the back of your neck. Then straighten up the arms again, weights reaching toward the ceiling. Repeat 15 times.) Then do 15 arm curls with the weights extended out to the sides.

We’ll see, if I do three sets of 15 each in the morning and again in the evening, perhaps the firmness and flopping of my upper arms will be improved by the time I go to the reunion on Oct. 9. I’ll let you know. Or maybe I can just find a cocktail dress with nice long sleeves.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Dukakis At Eleni's Memorial, Lia Greece

Michael Dukakis, who ran for the presidency of the United States in 1988 and was the longest-serving governor in Massachusetts history, arrived in the small northern Greek village of Lia last week on Aug. 24, causing great excitement throughout the country, and especially in Lia, where the village had been spruced up, pot holes filled, foliage pruned, and a heliport repaved to receive Dukakis' entourage, (although the man himself chose to drive up the vertiginous mountain roads so he could see the countryside on the way.)

Dukakis' maternal grandparents came from Vrisohori, another small and, until recently, isolated village not far from Lia. Although Mike and Kitty have visited Greece many times, they had never visited Northern Greece and his grandparents' village. The couple, along with Kitty's sister Ginnie and Ginnie's husband, Al, used the Grand Serai Hotel in Ioannnina as a base. After a lavish dinner hosted by the Mayor of Ioannina, they left the next day to see Vrisohori where Sen. Dukakis, with tears in his eyes, lauded the village which had produced his mother Euterpe, who became one of the the first Greek-American women to earn a college degree. (The small village also produced the father of film director John Cassavetes.)

The next day, Monday, Aug. 24, the Dukakis group arrived in Lia to attend a memorial service for Eleni Gatzoyiannis, my mother-in-law and the mother of my husband Nicholas Gage

Eleni Gatzoyiannis was executed by a firing squad of Communist guerrillas in Aug. 1948-- her body left in a ravine along with 12 other murdered civilians. Before that day, she was imprisoned, crowded along with 31 other prisoners into the tiny basement of her own house--which had been taken over as guerrilla headquarters.

When the guerrillas, who occupied the village in the last months of the Greek Civil War, started collecting children to take them behind the Iron Curtain, Eleni began to plan a nighttime escape for her own children. (In the end 28,000 children were kidnapped in the pedomasoma.) The escape succeeded after two abortive tries--but on the third try, she was forced to stay behind, to provide two women from her household to harvest wheat for the guerrillas. She chose herself and her 15-year-old daughter Glykeria, and said goodbye to her nine-year-old son, Nicholas and three older daughters. After her children disappeared, Eleni was questioned, tortured,imprisoned and ultimately executed on Aug. 28, 1948.

Nick's book about his mother, «Eleni», has told her story around the world in 34 languages. It was followed by the film Eleni. Her sacrifice to gain freedom for her children was cited on national television by President Ronald Reagan.

Last week, 61 years after Eleni’s execution, Michael and Kitty Dukakis attended a memorial service in her honor in Aghios Demetrios Church, where she worshipped, and where her remains were placed in the ossuary after her body was recovered from the ravine where she fell.

Also at the church last week were survivors and descendents of the 12 other civilians who died that day. After the service, mourners were given the traditional kollyva to eat--a sweet combination of boiled wheat, pomegranate seeds, almonds, sugar and raisins-- to symbolize the resurrection and immortality of the soul.

From the church, Mike and Kitty Dukakis came up the mountain to see Eleni's house as it is now--rebuilt from ruins in 2002 by our daughter and Eleni's granddaughter, author Eleni Gage. (She spent a year in the village restoring the house and writing a travel memoir "North of Ithaka" about the experience.) The house has been decorated to look just as it did before the Civil War. On the mantle is a photograph of Eleni Gatzoyiannis and her husband Christos--who was working as a produce seller in Worcester when war broke out in 1939, preventing him from returniing to Greece for the next decade.

Nick then showed the Dukakises his grandfather's house, lower on the mountain, and the path that the children took when they escaped down through the minefields at night, until they reached the Nationalist soldiers on the other side. They were sent to a refugee camp where they lived until their father was able to bring them to the United States a year later.

Finally, the villagers of Lia gathered with Mike and Kitty Dukakis in the village Inn for a celebratory meal, including the traditional local pita pies. There were tears as well as smiles as Mike and Kitty greeted and hugged the villagers, old and young, who had lost loved ones and grandparents on that day in 1948.

Nick welcomed the visitors, saying in part «I’m very moved that Mike and Kitty Dukakis have come here to remember the fate of Eleni and to recall how she suffered and from whom.»

In turn Gov. Dukakis, also speaking in Greek, said «Having read several times the powerful work of Nicholas Gage about his mother, we are are very moved to come to Lia and see the places of her martyrdom.»

This celebration of her legacy--the legacy of a simple Greek peasant woman who died to save her children--was something that Eleni Gatzoyiannis, murdered at 41, could never have imagined happening 61 years after her death. Hundreds gathered in her village as she was honored by the only Greek-American to run for the presidency of the United States--the country she longed to see, but never did. (After Nick's father Christos died in 1985, Nick brought his mother's bones to Worcester, MA to be buried next to her husband, in Hope Cemetery)

It was an honor that Eleni Gatzoyiannis could not have imagined when she was alive --but the spirit of Eleni has often been felt in the village over the years since her death, as people from around the world have made the pilgrimage to see where she lived and died.

I think she knew.