Tuesday, March 29, 2016

My Grandmother’s Quilt

The Dresden-plate-pattern quilt that my maternal grandmother, Anna Truan Dobson, made for my mother, Martha, as a gift for her wedding in 1932 was the family treasure that I coveted most of all, especially after my husband and I and our three children moved from New York City to an antique colonial house in Massachusetts in the 1970’s.  But my mother wasn’t about to part with it, even though she kept it hidden away in a closet.

I poured my longing into buying other antique quilts and learning about quilt patterns. I hung a tumbling-blocks quilt and a barn-raising quilt on the walls above the staircase and put framed squares from a very old tree-of-life quilt in the upstairs hall.

Part of the magic of my mother’s quilt was its story (or “provenance”, as they say in the antique world.).  My beautiful grandmother Anna, born in Tennessee to a French-speaking Swiss-immigrant family in 1872, finished collage with two degrees before the turn of the century—a rarity for a Southern girl. The first time my grandfather, Reverend Frederick Fee Dobson, proposed to her, she turned him down, probably because she knew that accepting would mean she’d have to travel with him to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma and help him convert the natives to Christianity and establish churches and schools there.

 But some time later, Frederick came back to Tennessee and proposed again, and this time Anna accepted.  She was 24 when they were married on January 16, 1896 at Tahlequah Institute, Indian Territory, Oklahoma. In the photograph above she stands on the right in the back row on the “porch of the dormitory” with the other faculty members. The women were her bridesmaids and the man with the mustache was Reverend Hamilton, the minister who married them.

 Between the age of 24 and 49, Anna gave birth to nine children—two boys and then seven girls.  My mother Martha was number six.  She remembers hearing her mother weeping when she realized that she was pregnant with the last one.  In the photo above, Anna is holding that daughter, Betty, and you can see that her hair has turned white.  My mother is at right in the second row.

 In Oklahoma, Anna taught Native American children at the Tahlequah Presbyterian school and instructed their mothers in tatting, crocheting and quilting. Later she taught Sunday School and augmented the budget by giving piano and French lessons. Every Saturday night she would supervise bathing the children in a tin tub in the kitchen and would prepare the Sunday meal so that the whole family could attend all three Sunday services. (My mother told me that they were not allowed to play cards or even read the newspaper on Sunday.)  The photo above shows the family after church, at a time when there were only seven children.  My mother is the moppet in front next to her father.

For the weddings of each of her nine children Anna made a quilt in the pattern and colors they chose.  My mother told me that her father, the minister, also made one square of her quilt so he could participate in the gift.

I always admired my grandmother for her beauty and her intellectual curiosity. After her children were grown and her husband died in 1948, she traveled and lectured about birds, wild flowers and biblical subjects. She also found time to keep on researching and learning until she suffered a stroke in her eighties.  She died in 1964, aged 92.

My own mother died of heart failure in 1985 and the wedding quilt became mine at last.  From my research into vintage quilts I’ve learned that at least some of the fabrics in it came from patterned cotton flour sacks, and that the Dresden plate pattern was very popular in the 1930’s.
Along with the wedding quilt, I also inherited a brooch from my grandmother--shown above in front of another photograph of Anna.  The lady with the scarf was an immensely popular beauty in Victorian times, and her likeness could be found on plates, dolls, brooches and even cigarette tins.  Long before the day of the internet search, I learned from a hobby magazine that she was Queen Louise of Prussia, born in 1776 in Hanover. She married King Frederich Willhelm III and was much beloved for her goodness to the poor.

I’ve even started collecting Queen Louise embellished objects, using on-line auction marketplaces like Invaluable.com. They have a great collectibles section. 

 Neither my grandmother’s quilt nor her brooch are as valuable as other pieces I own, but so often, when a collector is asked which of his pieces he treasures the most, the collector will name the one that has the most personal meaning because of the story that comes with it. Naturally my Dresden plate quilt is my favorite, because my grandmother (and grandfather) made every stitch with their own hands.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Manhattan Reflections

Last Monday I walked from 53rd and Sixth (where the Limoliner from Boston lets passengers off) across town to 53rd and Third Avenue.  It was a beautiful day and after I passed the Museum of Modern Art I became fascinated with the reflections in the glass-sided skyscrapers.

 It was like a hall of mirrors in a carnival.  You couldn’t tell where the reflections left off and the real buildings began.

 I’ve said it before—when you’re in Manhattan, you have to keep looking up, or you’ll miss a lot…  stone gargoyles, trompe l’oeil walls leading nowhere, kamikaze pigeons.

 When I got to Park and 53rd, I encountered this skinny fellow in the middle of the avenue, where public art is often on display.

Here’s what he was looking up at.

Here’s a view of him from the other side of Park.  Behind him is Lever House, one of the first famous glass-sided skyscrapers. That’s where, fresh out of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, I had my first real job (in public relations) fifty-two years ago. I had to be at my desk at 8:00 a.m., carrying five New York newspapers that I would read and summarize for the Lever executives—anything that related to the company. Then I would type the news-sheet, mimeograph it, and circulate it within the building. I was on the 21st floor.  When the subway went through underground, you could feel the building sway. I quit after six months.
Now Lever House has details of masterpiece paintings on its façade.  One of those things you’d miss if you didn’t look up.

When I got back to the apartment, I googled and learned that the statue at 53rd and Park is a 33.3-feet-tall stainless-steel sculpture by American artist Tom Friedman.  It will be there until mid-July.  The name of it is “Looking Up.”


Thursday, March 24, 2016

Are the Smiley Face Killers Back?

On March 15, an article appeared in the Boston Globe that began: “State Police on Tuesday pulled the body of a 22-year-old Central Massachusetts man from the Charles River, ending a desperate search by family members and officials after he went missing last month while celebrating his birthday at a bar in Boston.”

The name of the young man was Zachary Marr. He was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College.  As soon as I saw this, I wondered if perhaps his death signaled a return of the fabled Smiley Face Killers gang.  I described the conflicting theories about the group in my not-yet-published book “The Saga of Smiley” in a chapter called “The Smiley Face Murders, the Happy Face Killer and O. J. Simpson.”  (Last month I posted about O. J.’s “suicide letter’ which he signed with a Smiley Face symbol.)

Here’s the section I wrote about the Smiley Face Killers:

As much as he may embody the phrase “don’t worry, be happy,” Smiley has sometimes been used as a symbol of the dark underside of society, appearing as an anti-hero in music, movies, even comics. And when it comes to Smiley, life has imitated art, as the happy face has been co-opted by some evil criminals who are all too real.

Smiley’s most famous link with crime is his role as an identifying mark left near the spots where the corpses of more than 40 college-aged men were fished out of freezing rivers or lakes during the decade of 1997-2007.  Inevitably, the unknown instigators of these deaths were referred to in the press and by investigators as the Smiley Face Killers (SFK for short).

In 1997, when 21-year-old Fordham University student Patrick McNeill wandered off from a night of bar-hopping in New York City and was found floating in the Hudson River three weeks later, his death was ruled a suicide, but his parents refused to believe it. 

Five years after that, in a similar tragedy, University of Minnesota student Chris Jenkins, also 21, was found dead, encased in the ice of the Mississippi River four months after he vanished from a Halloween Party. His death, too, was ruled an accidental drowning; yet another college student who had too much to drink and then fell into a body of water. 

But two retired New York police detectives, who had been investigating a large number of drowned college-age men for years, considered Jenkins’ body the missing piece in a puzzle that connected at least 40 victims, who, they believed, were victims of a gang.  The young men were all found dead in winter in a body of water after a night of drinking.

Retired detectives Anthony Duarte and Kevin Gannon were on the track of what could be the biggest serial killing in U.S. history, which they attributed to a gang they called the Smiley Face Killers. In many of these cases, Smiley graffiti was found painted on a wall, tree or sidewalk near the point where each man was believed to have entered the water.

Duarte and Gannon claimed that the Smiley Face Gang had struck in at least 25 cities in 11 states in the U.S. since about 1997.  Virtually all of the 40 victims were athletic white college males; all were last seen leaving a party or bar with alcohol in their systems, then found dead in rivers or streams. Many attended colleges along the Interstate 94 corridor in the Midwest—in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa–and in 22 cases, a Smiley graffiti was scrawled nearby.  Each death had been ruled accidental by police.

Jenkins’ corpse convinced the detectives that his death was not accidental, because, when his frozen body was dredged from the Mississippi, his hands were folded across his chest in an odd pose that they said was inconsistent with an accidental drowning.

The parents of each of the 40 victims were convinced their sons had not died accidentally.  The press played up the story and detectives Gannon and Duarte appeared on television to discuss their theory.  “We believe they [the killers] were specifically leaving a clue for us or anyone who was paying attention to these drownings,” Detective Gannon told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” He added that these were almost perfect crimes because the water washed away physical evidence.

In life, as on Law and Order, serial killers often like to leave a calling card, and criminologists told ABCNEWS.com that the sadistic Smiley is an example of the kind of signature typically left by psychopathic killers who derive sexual arousal from their killings and are so proud of their murders that they’ll do anything they can to get credit for them.

But Smiley aside, not everyone was convinced there was a pattern here. Police forces investigating the deaths disputed the “Smiley Face Gang” theory that the deaths were linked.  Criminal profiler Pat Brown scoffed that the Smiley faces found near the water were nothing more than coincidences.  “It’s not an unusual symbol,” she said to a reporter for a Minneapolis paper.  “If you look in an area five miles square, I bet you could find a smiley face.”

 On April 29, 2008, the F.B.I. issued a statement “regarding Midwest river deaths” which said in part: The FBI has reviewed the information about the victims provided by two retired police detectives, who have dubbed these incidents the “Smiley Face Murders,” … we have not developed any evidence to support links between these tragic deaths or any evidence substantiating the theory that these deaths are the work of a serial killer or killers. The vast majority of these instances appear to be alcohol-related drownings.

Their word may be law, but in this case, the FBI’s statement was not the final pronouncement on the Smiley Murders. On June 21, 2008, ABC News reported that Bill Szostak, whose son was found in the Hudson River, had written a petition aimed at getting elected leaders to call on the FBI to investigate not only his son's death, but also 43 similar cases in nine states; college men whose deaths had been ruled accidental drownings. He got 900 signatures on his petition the first day.

The FBI has not reopened their investigation, but parents of possible “Smiley Face” victims still maintain a number of web sites that post information about the nearly 100 young men who have died in similar circumstances.  These sites include a Facebook page called “the Smiley Face Killers,” which on April 24, 2013, posted an article from the Daily Mail saying that, “Police found the body of Brown student Sunil Tripathi, falsely accused of being the Boston Marathon bomber, in the Providence River in Boston.”

And just last week, a statement posted on the Smiley Face Killers Facebook page read:
March 15th, 2016, the body of Zach Marr, age 22, was pulled from the Charles River in Boston Massachusetts. Zach went missing on February 13th, 2016, and the circumstances are all too familiar. Zach was "Last Seen leaving the Bell in Hand Tavern, where he was hanging out with friends and family" only to disappear into the night without warning. One month later, his lifeless body is pulled from the river. We see the pattern time and time again, young male, out with friends, dead in water. Marr was a student at Mount Wachusett Community College, and Zach deserved a lot more out of a life that was cut short by the Smiley Face Killers. RIP Zach Marr.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Dining with Nancy Reagan

 The Reagans with Nick and me, actress Kate Nelligan and football great Walter Payton at the White House

My mother always pointed to Nancy Reagan as the ultimate Lady, one who knew exactly how a lady should behave and never raised her voice or appeared inappropriately dressed.  Sadly, my mother passed away in January of 1985 (of  congestive heart failure, the same thing that took the former First Lady Nancy last Sunday) so she never got to hear about our first meeting with President Reagan and Nancy in October of 1985 and our second one—at a White House state dinner—the following March.

It was the Reagans’ U.S. Ambassador in Charge of Protocol, Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, who introduced us to the Reagans after Nick’s book “Eleni”  was published in 1984--about the life and death of his mother during the Greek civil war.  Eleni was tried and executed by Communist guerrillas because she had organized the escape of her children from their mountain village. In 1985 “Eleni” became a film starring Kate Nelligan as Nick’s mother and John Malkovich as the adult version of Nick, who, while a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, researched the details of her death.

Lucky Roosevelt gave a signed copy of “Eleni” to the Reagans, who both said in interviews that it was the best book they read that year. They also enjoyed the film. In October of 1985, Lucky invited us to a glamorous dinner party given by her and her husband, Archie Roosevelt, a grandson of Theodore.   The guest list included actress Glenn Close, author Jerzy Kosinski, and Abe Rosenthal, the editor of The New York Times.  I could not tell you what we ate, but here are some things I remember from that party: Lucky had to install $10,000 worth of new draperies in her house to satisfy the security people.  On the night of the dinner, her street in Georgetown was closed, and behind every heavily draped window stood an armed guard.  Nick and I both sat at the President’s table where he regaled everyone with anecdotes and funny stories filled with details—facts and figures rolled effortlessly off his tongue.

One thing I remember is that, between the main course and dessert, the First Lady took out a compact to re-apply her lipstick.  This was something that my late mother had insisted was not proper behavior, so I sent a silent mental telegram to heaven, telling her, “If Nancy Reagan can do it, then I can do it.”

As the dinner ended, both tables of guests moved toward the living room. I found myself walking beside the First Lady and I exclaimed to her “He’s such a marvelous story teller!”

I quickly forgot my comment, but Nancy remembered it, because she noticed and remembered every detail and everything that anyone said.

A few months later, early in 1986, Nick and I received an invitation to a state dinner at the White House to be given by the Reagans on March 18 “on the occasion of the visit of the Prime Minister of Canada (Brian) Mulroney and Mrs Mulroney.”  I began an arduous search for a dress and, with Nick’s help, I settled on one with a long black skirt and a pleated white bodice, folded like a fan.

On the day in Washington, we inched forward to the White House door in a rented limousine and finally were welcomed by military aides who checked our passports. We were led down a long hall and into a room where the roped-off press waited and our names were announced.  The aide with the microphone whispered to me “I like your dress”. I was in heaven. At the top of a staircase,  aides handed us our table assignments. Nick was at table nine, I was at 11.  Little did I know what a significant number it was.

The U. S. Marine Orchestra serenaded us to the East Room, decorated with white tulips and flowering cherry trees strung with tiny white lights.  We began to recognize celebrities, including ballerina Cynthia Gregory, Fiat chairman Gianni Agnelli, columnist William F. Buckley and Prince Karim Aga Khan with Princess Salimah Aga Khan, who was wearing a double row of diamonds interspersed with emeralds as big as marbles.

The orchestra broke into “Ruffles and Flourishes” as a voice announced the Reagans and the Mulroneys. The first lady was wearing a floor-length Galanos gown in wide horizontal stripes of sparkling gold and silver.

They formed a receiving line which we were directed through, husbands first.  (Unaccompanied ladies, like Kate Nelligan was that night, were provided with a military escort for the evening.) Then we headed toward the State Dining Room with tables decked with gold candlesticks, gold flatware and gold bowls of red and white tulips.  And of course Nancy’s famous Reagan china service that cost $200,000 (but from private, not taxpayers’ funds.)

I was led to a table in front of the fireplace and when I saw Mila Mulroney led to a seat across from me, I began to realize—yes there he was!  I was at the President’s table—an incredible favor to a non-famous person like myself.

In retrospect I think it was the remark I made to Nancy about the President’s storytelling that won me that place, because I later learned that the First Lady herself handled every detail of the seating for every event.

The others at the President’s table were: Walter Payton, the famous running back for the Chicago Bears, Allen Murray the chairman of Mobil, Donna Marella Agnelli, Burl Osborne, president and editor of the Dallas Morning News, and Pat Buckley, who sat next to the President, smoking throughout the meal.

Once again President Reagan kept us entertained with non-stop stories.  I was so rapt that, when a waiter stood behind me holding a bowl, the President gestured to me, saying, “You’d better take some salad.” He was telling a series of stories about ghosts his family had encountered in the White House—stories that I like to re-post at Halloween.

I remember every detail of that evening—both the embarrassing ones and the glorious ones   Embarrassing: after dinner ended and everyone headed to the next room for demitasse and after-dinner liqueurs, I sidled around our table to see if I could snitch the President’s hand-lettered place card.  As I closed in, the majordomo, a genial white-haired gentleman, handed me the place card.  “Somebody always comes to get it for a souvenir”, he said, smiling.

Glorious moment: after a concert in the East Room, the Reagans danced to tunes from Broadway musicals, played by the Marine Dance Band. Before the clock struck midnight, they started to head off toward their private quarters and as they passed, the First Lady suddenly stopped and seized my hand and Nick’s saying, “We must have a photograph with the Gages before we go.”  I lost the ability to speak.  Nancy pulled Kate Nelligan and Walter Payton into the picture. Flashbulbs popped and then the Reagans were gone. I wouldn’t have been surprised if, at the stroke of midnight, I turned into a pumpkin.

Here’s what I know about Nancy Reagan, who is now reunited with the love of her life:  she noticed every detail, she was the power behind the throne, and my mother was right, she was a great lady.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

My Stay in the Charles Street Jail

 During the week in February when my husband Nick was in Mass General Hospital in Boston for cardiac tests and procedures, he booked me a brief stay at the Liberty Hotel on Charles Street, which is only steps away from the MGH.  It turned out to be one of the most unusual hotels I’ve stayed in, because it was built in 1851 to be the Charles Street Jail.  The design, by architect Gridley James Fox Bryant, is considered one of the best examples of “Boston granite style” with an octagonal central building topped by a cupola and four radiating wings .

According to the history available at the reception desk, in 1973, after 120 years of housing some of Boston‘s most notorious criminals, the prisoners revolted because of bad living conditions and the jail was declared unfit.  But not until 1990 were the last prisoners moved to the new Suffolk Country Jail.

When the place re-opened as a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel in September of 2007, the designers, working with the Massachusetts Historical Commission, retained much of the original prison architecture, and also  incorporated the jail theme into just about everything, including the door keys and the “solitary” tag (to use instead of “Do not disturb”).  Keys and Boston ephemera were featured in the framed art on the wall and keys were also in the design of the room carpet.

Here’s the view of Boston from my window—notice the pillow on the chair incorporating the scratch marks that prisoners used to keep track of the passage of days.
The hotel is in fact luxurious, and it boasts six bars and restaurants, all with names playing on prison jargon. In the basement is the Alibi bar—a Boston hot spot.   Other restaurants are called Clink, Scampo (Italian for “escape”) and the Catwalk, where I had a late supper on one of the three catwalks lining the huge central atrium, which were used by patrolling guards to keep an eye on prisoners in their cells.  
 There was live music from the 90-foot-wide rotunda below, and, in front of me, models were being photographed.  In good weather there is also a secret garden in the enclosed courtyard outside, called “The Yard.”

I spent most of my time in Nick’s hospital room, so couldn’t take advantage of the hotel’s many amenities including complimentary yoga, bicycles and shoeshines.  But I didn’t reject the complimentary glass of sparkling wine when I checked in.
The next day, as I was getting used to being incarcerated, Nick’s doctors released him from the hospital, saying the long procedure done the day before had been successful in opening up his blocked artery without having to resort to a bypass.  He was free to go. So before they could change their mind, we flew the coop.