Darlings! Did I ever tell you about the Winter of 1888 when my family had the most enchanting row house in Gramercy Park? Ah, blinding days filled with bright, white, glinting light on the brittle drifts that, by the second day, were climbing to the sills of the second story windows in that memorable blizzard. As children we of course were innocently unaware of the concern all the adults around us were feeling! My mother (a very difficult though brilliant woman as many of you who know my story remember) tried her best to keep the entire household cheerful and engaged, even the servants and merchant men who struggled to make deliveries. She was notoriously intriguing to outsiders and always amusing, witty, and ready to chat with everyone who came into her presence, and most especially during emergencies, weather catastrophes, natural disasters, or events involving fire, explosions, gunfire, or kitchen mishaps. She thrived on tragedy and how lovely and even amusing she would present herself to "rescue" the unfortunate from their woes.... or life-threatening injuries. My sister and I (my identical twin-sister, Dagmar) were in thrall to her at that young age. We hadn’t discovered or perhaps surrendered to the grim and often frightening truth of her multi-sided presence in everyone’s life… I suppose that later she would be described as a classic narcissist, although later in the 1920s my bridge partner Sigmund Freud was convinced she was a true sociopath… but with very good table manners. Through the 1930s, Sigmund and I would accompany the gardener on his rounds in the flower beds digging around for her possible victims while pretending to plant bulbs, while she smiled placidly from the study windows sipping her Earl Grey tea… the tea we regularly medicated with opiates…or peyote.
Anyway, that wasn’t the point of this little memoir-ette. This photo fell out of one of my childhood books in the attic while I was rooting around… It was taken by a young man named Alfred Stieglitz who was just beginning to take up photography as his career as a circus contortionist fizzled. At that time, there were still way too many veterans from the Civil War only twenty-odd years earlier who had sustained appalling injuries, and the public’s taste had begun to wane for men folded into strange shapes and making odd faces…. Even scantily clad men with calliope music blaring and oompah-pah-ing in the background. Alfred was another one of those handsome young men-about-town who was enamoured with my mother, and he often dropped by for dinner parties, artistic “salon discussions”, and games of chance with celebrities and eccentrics of all stripes. My mother encouraged both his contortionism and his new interest in photography…. The contortionism again because she was secretly bemused by disaster, and the photography because she famously “could never take a bad picture”! In fact, she deliberately made the most hideous faces and even drooled which caused either great merriment or consternation among the photographers for which she posed. And then, the great mystery! Her image on the photo plates (or the tintypes when she was a young girl!) would always be sublime, almost dreamy. Her bone structure or….whatever… was unassailable. Even the back of her head was something to admire, envy, and perhaps fall in love with… Needless to say, it was infuriating to be the daughter of such a creature!
Ooops! Well there I go again… this memoir-ette was supposed to be about that particular blizzard of 1888, and I’ve been derailed into details about my mother… Sigmund (Freud) said that the power of narcissist/sociopaths was that all conversations eventually revolved around them, even when they weren’t in the room. Even when they were dead. And had been dead for decades… they are always pulling focus..or more accurately, gravity. Yes. Like black-holes in galaxies, they suck all the energy out of everything around them, and even when light can’t escape their pull, they somehow are “radiant”...or at least make it impossible for the rest of us to look away. Medusa was supposedly like that; so fascinatingly ugly that her victims couldn’t look away, and then they were destroyed. My mother was sort of the same, but a Medusa in reverse... so fascinatingly charming that her victims couldn’t look away… and then they were destroyed. …well, at least some of us…
Damn shit! I did it again. My mother! My mother! My mother!.... sadly, everything that I consider my best qualities is her legacy to me. She bequeathed me my curiosity, my eager intellect, my ability to make people laugh, my nimble wit, even my delight in thunderstorms…and yes, the more extreme places and experiences of life. She fed me caviar, beluga, osetra, and sevruga and taught me the difference between them. I was three. She introduced me to both black and white truffles, and we went hunting for them with a pair of lovely pigs on my 5th birthday! I adored Yugoslavian garlic, Chilean sea bass, Montenegran sea urchins, Monagasque saffron, Madagascar and Tahitian vanilla, Florentine osso buco with marrow, Japanese Matsutake mushrooms, and rare black watermelon from Hokkaido…I was even chosen as the little pixie mascot for the Veuve Clicqout Champagne Company on all their posters. The Gerber baby be damned!...speaking of which, my sister Dagmar was the original Gerber baby… well, not the actual Gerber baby! Long before Gerber ever strained their apple sauce or mashed their peas, the Honeycott Bouncy-Babe Corporation had made their sixty-four different delectable treats for newborns and toddlers starting fifty years earlier, but that’s another story for another time.
And don’t worry, I’m not going to bring up my mother again, well, not quite… You see, this old photo that Alfred (Uncle Alfie!) Stieglitz took was in Central Park during the blizzard of 1888, just below the Dakota Apartment building, that amusingly grim pile of Victorian and Gothic brick and stone. And there I am on the left on my sled and slightly behind Dagmar who is on hers looking down at the snow with a somewhat grim determination on her face. And THAT is the purpose of this little story. You see, my poor twin sister inherited a totally different perspective on our mother...and indeed, on our whole upbringing. Though only seven minutes younger than I, she was consumed with… well, I won’t say a vengeful spirit, but certainly a competitive edge that permeated everything that we did. I sat up first, but she crawled first. I walked first but she ran first. I tangoed, waltzed, cha-cha-d, paso doble-d, and merengue-d first…and she could do…um... bird-calls. Oh well. The photo shows us sledding down the hill, some of our family’s servants in the background. The little girl behind us all bundled up on her sled is three year old Trudy Fairbunkle who of course grew up to be the infamous “Trudy the Truncheon Murderer” of the 1920s. You remember, she was never caught… but may have been thrown into Mt. Agung, the huge volcano in Bali because the natives thought she was too beautiful not to be sacrificed to their fertility god Basah Bergoyang-Goyang. Apparently, she did put up a fight…before she ..um…”joined her husband”…
Back to the photo, on the right the three boys are, from back to front, Kip Pearny in the derby, cheering (or haranguing) poor Dagmar on. He had bet his week’s wages as an apprentice to a barrel-maker on her winning. Then standing to the right of him is Evelyn Prescott, who wandered back and forth from being a boy to a girl again and again, baffling his/her parents, and intriguing all of Fifth Avenue society for the next several decades…especially when she became an aviator (aviatrix?) and flew an emerald green Sopwith Camel to cocktail parties all over Europe. Oh, and the last boy in the front there on the right is, of course, Charles Foster Kane… with his “Rosebud”… and we all know how that turned out. He’s screaming something at me about Dagmar, and I believe it was, “Don’t let that little bitch beat you, Sybil!”… but I did. I did let her.
You see, it meant so much more to her. I picked and chose my battles as the years went by, and, as much as I could when fate didn’t intervene too aggressively, I chose my victories. I wasn’t always successful. Even when I tried my hardest, I didn’t always win. But this one winter day, with the snow and the cold, I looked at Dagmar, my identical twin, racing ahead and wondered if I was to bring her joy, and celebrate her triumphs, well, maybe she might NOT end up like Mother; compelled and compelling, infuriated and infuriating, maddened, maddening, and probably “mad” as the Victorians called it…. quite mad.
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