Category Archives: memories

Julius Caesar and me

JULIUS CAESAR AND ME

In my last blog post (“Marlon, Tony, and Cyd,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2022/10/26/marlon-tony-and-cyd/), I noted Marlon Brando’s performance in the 1954 film version of Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, a film that had a tremendous impact on a very young version of me.  As I recall, I saw it with classmates at my junior high school, which declared a special day at the movies for some reason.  I always wanted to see it performed live.

Years later, that finally happened.

In May 1972, my husband Marv and I took our long-delayed honeymoon. We’d married one year earlier in LA, but we weren’t able to take off more than a weekend (spent in beautiful Santa Barbara) until we arrived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1971.  We found life in AA somewhat restricting, and we began to ponder trips outside of Michigan and my hometown of Chicago. 

Our first foray took us to the tropical paradise of Nassau on a bargain charter trip from the U. of M. that we thoroughly relished.  But we hungered for more.  We soon aimed at the fabled cities of London, Paris, Florence, and Rome, and decided to visit them in our upcoming three-week vacation/honeymoon.

We landed in our first city, London, in early May.  We reveled in the British history and literature that leaped out at us:  Touring Charles Dickens’s home; making the essential trip to the Tower of London; viewing the paintings at the National Gallery…. 

We were also theater buffs, and we made sure to get tickets for plays on the London stage.  I remember our first night in London.  Even though we sat in the first row of the theater where Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing appeared, Marv had such vicious jet lag that he fell asleep and missed The Whole Thing. We loved the musical version of Canterbury Tales (which never seemed to be offered in any US city we ever lived in) and we roared at Robert Morley’s antics in his hilarious comedy in the West End. 

But one thing was missing.  We weren’t able to get tickets at any theater offering the plays of William Shakespeare. Whatever may have been playing was sold out or otherwise unavailable.

We racked our brains trying to solve this problem.  Suddenly an idea popped into mine.  We’d briefly shopped in the famed Harrod’s department store, mostly to see the place, and I thought I’d seen an advert for its travel service.  So we made our way back to Harrod’s and, sure enough, we discovered that its travel service offered a bus tour that encompassed an overnight stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and included two tickets to the Shakespeare play being performed on the date we’d arrive.  Voila! 

We immediately signed up for the tour, which also would make brief stops in a few other places:  Oxford, Blenheim Palace, and a town called Leamington Spa.  The only hitch was that we had to cancel the rest of our stay in our Sloane Square hotel and scramble to find another spot when we returned to London.  But Shakespeare was worth it.

Early the next morning we took off on our bus tour.  We discovered that our tour included theater tickets for a performance of Julius CaesarDestiny?

Soon we arrived at our first stop:  Oxford and its world-recognized university.  After viewing the university from our bus, we briefly walked around the campus.  I recall strolling around Christ Church College and noting its elegant architecture. 

Whenever I watch “Inspector Morse” on PBS, the crime drama starring John Thaw as Oxford police detective Morse, I’m always reminded of our brief stop at Oxford. The prizewinning series was produced from 1987 to 2000 and occasionally still pops up on PBS-TV channels.  The setting for each episode is invariably Oxford and nearby locations. 

Christ Church College has even more recently loomed into public view. Decades after our visit, Christ Church College has become famous because a number of campus locations were used as settings in the Harry Potter films.

Next we headed for our most desired stop:  Stratford-upon-Avon.  We found ourselves booked at the city’s White Swan Inn.  This historic inn, first used as an inn as far back as 1560, struck us immediately as a classic example of Tudor architecture, with a half-timbered exterior typical of that era.  When we checked in, we discovered that its framework of wooden beams extended into our bedroom, creating a memorable place to lay our heads during our stay in Stratford.

At the hotel’s restaurant, we shared dinner with our fellow tour-mates.  One other American couple shared our last name, and we chatted happily with them and others.  But we hardly noticed the food because we were eagerly anticipating our evening at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, an eight-minute walk away.

Excitedly, we arrived at the theater and took our seats, located not far behind the first row.  The other Alexanders were seated a couple of rows behind us.  The program listed the cast and included only one semi-familiar name.  Corin Redgrave, presumably the son of notable British actor Michael Redgrave (and notable British actress Rachel Kempson) and brother of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, would play the part of Octavius Caesar.

The play began!  Marv and I knew the plot well, having seen the 1954 film more than once.  We certainly had no problem watching the violent murder of Julius Caesar by Brutus and the others.  But during that scene, we could hear cries of anguish coming from the other Alexanders.  At intermission, they exited, loudly declaring how unhappy they were.

I was astonished by their reaction to a brilliant performance of one of Shakespeare’s classic plays.  What exactly did they expect?  Much of Shakespeare is loaded with acts of violence and death.  Were they expecting one of the comedies?  If so, I was torn between feeling sorry for them and laughing at their foolishness. They’d probably been excited about seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, and they’d shelled out some of their pricey tourist budget to be there.  But they were apparently not very knowledgeable about the Bard or they’d have had an inkling of what could be on the stage that night.

I lost further respect for our fellow theater-goers when I overheard a woman (with a pronounced British accent) mutter, “Corin Redgrave.  Isn’t she Vanessa’s sister?”  Marv and I were both aware of Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, two women who’d already played prominent film roles.  So even though we weren’t entirely sure who Corin Redgrave was, we could easily tell from the program that he played a male role, and he would therefore be Vanessa’s brother, not another sister.  We Americans seemed to know a lot more about the British theater than the locals did.

Although we didn’t recognize the names of any of the other actors at the time, I’ve been able to find (on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s website) the names of the members of the cast that night.  I discovered that we saw a number of outstanding British actors who later achieved great fame. They included Patrick Stewart (as Cassius), John Wood (as Brutus), Richard Johnson (as Mark Antony), Margaret Tyzack (as Portia), and Tim Pigott-Smith.  Further, the director that night was the much acclaimed Trevor Nunn.  No wonder we were thrilled to witness this extraordinary performance.

Marv and I stayed till the very end and reveled in the brilliant performances of these talented actors.  We’d happily achieved our goal of seeing Shakespeare in Stratford, performed by members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and we’d seen a spectacular new version of Julius Caesar to boot.  Back at the White Swan Inn, we celebrated our thanks-to-Harrod’s coup with a romp in our very feathery English bed, Marv first showing off his manly strength by hanging from one of the overhead wooden beams.

By the way, the White Swan Inn has been renovated and still exists as a hostelry in Stratford, now dubbed the White Swan Hotel.

En route back to London, we made two more stops.  First, we visited historic Bleinheim Palace, where we toured the glorious interior.  The palace has been in the Churchill family since the 1770s (its history is fascinating), and Winston Churchill, who was born and often lived there, is buried just outside the palace grounds.  His grave is accessible to anyone. (You don’t need to visit Blenheim Palace first.)  Five years earlier, I briefly witnessed some of Churchill’s state funeral (the last state funeral before Queen Elizabeth II’s in September 2022) on a small black-and-white TV in the basement of Wyeth Hall during my first year as a student at Harvard Law School.  I was doing my laundry in an adjacent room and, when I glanced at the TV, I was suitably impressed by the pageantry on display in London in January 1965.

The tour’s final stop was a charming tea shop in a town called Leamington Spa. As our group gathered for tea, we learned the history of Leamington Spa, a beautiful but largely unknown town not far from our earlier stops.  (On a trip to countryside England with a friend in 2012, my friend and I met someone working in the Somerset area who confided that she was moving to take a new job in…Leamington Spa!  So, forty years after my visit to its tea shop, I surprisingly heard mention of it again.)

Marv and I returned to Stratford-upon-Avon with our daughters in 1995, in the middle of a jam-packed trip to the U.K. and France [please see “Down and Hot in Paris and London,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2014/11/%5D.  We stayed in nearby Cheltenham, visited other towns in the Cotswolds, and toured some sites in Stratford.  But we weren’t able to see a Shakespeare play together (I think the theatre was closed just then). 

So the time Marv and I were able to spend in Stratford in 1972, and our chance to see the Royal Shakespeare Company give a spectacular performance of Julius Caesar, gleam even more as a glittering memory, still burning brightly.

Marlon, Tony, and Cyd

Thanks to the cable TV channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM), I frequently watch a wide range of movies produced from the late ‘30s to those in the 21st century.

Some of my favorites are movies from the 1950s.  One highlight is the 1955 film Summertime, featuring Katharine Hepburn as a single woman who finds love while touring Venice on her own. Shot on location in Venice, it’s not your typical romantic movie, surpassing that genre with Hepburn’s brilliant performance and its glorious setting.

Among many other films from the ‘50s, I recently came across the 1955 Hollywood version of the 1950 Broadway blockbuster musical Guys and Dolls.  I’d seen it before but not for decades, and the TCM introduction by host Ben Mankiewicz was intriguing.  He noted that the film’s director, Joe Mankiewicz (Ben’s uncle), induced Marlon Brando to take the role of the leading man (Sky Masterson) despite Brando’s reluctance to assume a role in a musical. 

Joe reportedly told Marlon that he’d never directed a musical before, but, hey, they’d worked well together one year earlier when Joe directed the film version of Julius Caesar, and neither of them had ever done Shakespeare in a film before. As we know, Julius Caesar was a success, and Joe convinced Marlon that they’d also succeed together in a musical.

Although I enthusiastically agree that they both performed at the top of their game in Julius Caesar, their later collaboration in a musical was less than totally successful.

Filled with catchy tunes composed by the great Frank Loesser, the movie is exuberant, probably as far as a movie musical can go.  But one enormous weakness is Marlon’s lack of vocal ability.  His part requires that he sing a host of major songs, but his voice just isn’t up to them.

(By the way, Frank Sinatra was reportedly angling for this role and not happy about being given the secondary part of Nathan Detroit.)

One of the most obvious examples of Marlon’s poor vocal ability is his rendition of “Luck Be a Lady,” a show-stopping musical number on Broadway. 

When I watched Marlon’s pitiful attempt to master it, I was flooded with memories of first hearing this song performed—live—by singer Tony Martin at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

I was a kid when my family and I arrived in Las Vegas en route from Chicago to Los Angeles.  We’d left our life in Chicago behind, hoping to find a new life for all of us in LA.  Our move was prompted by my father’s serious illness, which we optimistically believed was cured, and his hope to establish a new life for our family in sunny LA.

I was delighted by our departure.  I knew I’d miss my friends in Chicago, who memorably gave me a surprise farewell party featuring a cake emblazoned with “California, Here Comes Sue” (my preferred nickname at the time).  But I was excited about forging a new life on the West Coast, where I fervently hoped that Daddy would be healthy and able to forge a new career.  Sadly, that wasn’t to be.  (I plan to write about that period in my life another time.)

Many of you may be wondering, “Who was Tony Martin?”

Although Tony Martin has faded into our cultural background today, he was a prominent American singer and film actor during most of the 20th century.  Born in San Francisco and raised in Oakland, Tony began his musical career with a local orchestra until he left for Hollywood in the mid-‘30s.  He appeared on radio programs like Burns & Allen, then moved on to films, where he starred in a number of musicals and received equal billing with the Marx Brothers in their final film, The Big Store.  After serving during WWII, he came back to the U.S., recorded memorable songs for Mercury and RCA records (including some million-sellers), and returned to Hollywood to star in film musicals in the ‘40s and ‘50s.  He also began performing in Las Vegas and other venues and continued to perform live till he was over 90.  (The NY Times reported that he performed at Feinstein’s on Park Avenue in NYC at the age of 95.)

Before dying at 98 in 2012, Tony was truly a fixture in Hollywood films, recorded music, TV appearances, and as a headliner in live concert performances for seven decades.  In the public mind, he’s been eclipsed by another Tony—Tony Bennett–who became successful during the ‘50s recording hits like “Because of You” and “Rags to Riches.”  His rendition of 1962’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” became his signature song and made him a hero in San Francisco (although it was Tony Martin who was actually born in SF).  Tony Bennett, perpetuating his role as a celebrated singer of pop standards, jazz, and show tunes, has become something of a cultural touchstone.  Despite his recent battle with Alzheimer’s, his popularity endures.  I can’t deny that his prominent place in the American musical landscape has lasted far longer than Tony Martin’s.

Back to my story…. 

Our family was staying at an inexpensive motel on the Las Vegas Strip, but Daddy had grand plans for us.  He succeeded in getting us front-row tickets for Tony Martin’s memorable performance at the Flamingo, a luxury hotel on the Strip.

The Flamingo Hotel itself is noteworthy.  As the 1991 film “Bugsy” (starring Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel) and, more recently, the 2021 film “Lansky” (featuring Harvey Keitel as Meyer Lansky) make clear, Ben “Bugsy” Siegel and Meyer Lansky were major figures in organized crime who funded the construction of the Flamingo Hotel in the late forties.  It was finally completed in 1947 around the time Bugsy was shot to death by his fellow mobsters, who believed him guilty of skimming money. 

I knew nothing of this history until many years later.  When I was a kid, all I knew was that I got to see and hear Tony Martin live at the Flamingo.  I absolutely reveled in being part of the audience that night, watching Tony perform.

When Tony sang “Luck Be a Lady,” he lighted up the stage, and the audience responded enthusiastically. I recall being completely enthralled. 

Marlon’s performance in Guys and Dolls wasn’t in the same league.

At the same time that Tony was executing this song far better than Marlon ever could, Tony’s wife, dancer Cyd Charisse, was making her own mark in Hollywood.  Tony and Cyd married in 1948, and their six-decade marriage ended only with Cyd’s death in 2008. 

Cyd was an astounding dancer in a raft of Hollywood films, paired with both Gene Kelly (in Brigadoon, for one) and Fred Astaire.  Her dance number with Astaire in The Band Wagon (to the song “Dancing in the Dark”) has been immortalized in 1994’s That’s Entertainment III.  And if you watch 1957’s Silk Stockings (a musical version of Garbo’s Ninotchka), your eyes are riveted on her fantastic dancing, which outdoes Astaire’s in every way.  (By the way, Cyd’s comments in her autobiography on dancing with Kelly and Astaire are fascinating.)

Was Cyd in the audience that night, sharing her husband’s fabulous performance with the rest of us?  I’ll never know.  But it’s exciting to imagine that she was there, applauding with gusto, just as we did, to pay tribute to Tony’s outstanding rendition of “Luck Be a Lady.”

It goes without saying that Marlon Brando was a brilliant actor, one of the most remarkable actors of his generation.  His performances in films like On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, and, for that matter, Julius Caesar, will remain in our cultural memory as long as films endure. 

But notably, after playing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, Marlon never attempted another singing role.  

Happy Valentine’s Day? Maybe

 Much of the world celebrates today, February 14th, as Valentine’s Day.

Are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?  I’m wondering just who among us is.

If you’re one of the lucky ones who have a loving spouse or an ardent beau, you’re probably celebrating this year.

I was a member of that fortunate group during my loving marriage to my darling husband.  Our blissful marriage came to a halt only because a terrible disease ended my husband’s life.  I like to think that we’d still be celebrating our love today if he’d survived.

Since he died, I’ve had one or two romantic liaisons with others, but at this moment I’m in a different place.  Today my kids and grandkids are my primary givers and recipients of valentine cards and gifts, red and pink hearts splashed all over them.

Of course, today is a bonanza for some commercial enterprises.  Americans spent about $21 billion on Valentine’s Day in 2021, and experts predict that nearly $24 billion will be spent this year, making today the fifth largest spending event of the year (after the winter holidays and Mother’s Day).  Will inflation and supply-chain issues affect these totals?  Valentine’s Day is probably inflation-proof, and delightful gifts can always be tracked down.

Benefiting the most are florists (about $2.3 billion), purveyors of chocolates ($2.2 billion), jewelers ($6.2 billion), and sellers of other heart-emblazoned cards and gifts. 

Which raises another question.  Aside from elementary-school kids, required to bring a valentine for every other kid in class to avoid any Charlie-Brown-style left-out feelings, is anyone still buying valentine cards this year

I hope so.  I’d hate to see an end to the decades-long practice of sending sweet wishes to loved ones and friends on February 14th

While we’re still stuck in the middle of a pandemic, confronting scary international events, and facing ongoing political divisiveness, I find it heartening to recall happier, simpler times.

Today I’m thinking about an old friend and the valentines he gave me many years ago.

My friend (I’ll call him Alan R.) grew up with me on the Far North Side of Chicago.  We were in a pack of friends who attended the nearby elementary school.  This was back when all of us walked to school, walked home for lunch, and walked back to school again for the afternoon.

In 5th grade, I acquired a handsome “boyfriend.”  (Although we thought of each other as “boyfriend” and “girlfriend,” those terms simply meant that we had some sort of pre-teen crush on each other.)  My best friend Helene had a major crush on my boyfriend, but I was the lucky girl for whom he made a misshapen plastic pin when he went away to camp that summer.

By the fall, Alan R. had replaced him.

Alan was never one of the best-looking boys in our class.  He was tall for his age and somewhat awkward, and he tended to be rather hefty.  But he had a pleasant face and a pleasant way about him, and he became my 6th grade “boyfriend.”

In October that year, he invited a whole bunch of us to a Halloween party at his house.  Helene and I decided to don similar outfits—black t-shirts and skinny black skirts.  For some reason, we were trying to look like French “apache dancers.”  I wasn’t really sure what that term even meant, but I suspect that Helene’s savvy mother inspired us to choose that costume.  However it came about, we knew we looked terrific in our very cool garb.  We may have even added a beret to top it off.

Alan played the gracious host, and when the party wound down, he led us outside, and all of us paraded through the neighborhood, knocking on doors and yelling “trick or treat.”  It was a truly memorable Halloween, probably the most memorable Halloween of my childhood.

I don’t have a clear recollection of the next few months.  The days must have been filled with other parties, school events, and happy family outings.  But I definitely have a vivid memory of Valentine’s Day the following February.

When my classmates and I exchanged valentines, I discovered that Alan had given me two.  Not one.  Two.  And they weren’t the ordinary valentines you gave your friends.  These were store-bought pricier versions.  One was sentimental, flowery, and very sweet.  The other one was funny and made me laugh.

What exactly inspired Alan to show his affection for me that way?  We were fond of each other, but I don’t remember giving him a special valentine.

Looking back, I wonder about his decision to give me those two valentines.  Did he choose them by himself?  Did he have enough money saved from his 6th-grade-level allowance to pay for them?

As a mother, I can’t help wondering about the role his mother may have played.  Did she accompany him to the card store on Devon Avenue, the one where we all bought our valentines?  (A long-gone kind of neighborhood store most of us patronized back then.)  Was his mother standing next to him when he bought his valentines, offering her advice?  If she was, what did she think of this extravagance on his part?

I like to think that Alan came up with the idea and executed it all by himself.  He saved his money and brought it to the store with the firm intention to buy a valentine for me.  Then, when he saw the colorful display of cards in front of him, he couldn’t decide whether to show his affection with a flowery card or to try to make me laugh with a funny one.

So he bought one of each, and, head held high, he gave both of them to me. 

I hope I exhibited a response that pleased him.  I can’t remember exactly what I did.  But I know that his delightful gesture has stayed with me ever since.

Sadly, those valentines disappeared when my mother scoured our home one day and tossed everything she considered inconsequential.  But they weren’t inconsequential to me.  I still remember the thrill of receiving not one but two valentines from my caring beau.

Everything changed in 7th grade.  A new school, new boyfriends, and new issues at home when my father’s health grew worrisome.  As always, life moved on.

Alan R. died a few years ago, and I wrote this story about him then.  He and I had drifted apart long before he died, but his fondness for me during 6th grade never faded from my memory.

Did Alan’s flattering attention give me the confidence to deal with some of the rocky times that lay ahead?  Teenage years can be tough.  Mine often were.  But his two-valentine tribute stayed with me forever.

Thanks, dear Alan, for being a warm and caring young person, even at the age of 12.  Although our lives went on to have their rough patches, the valentines you gave me back in 6th grade have never been forgotten.

A Remarkable Friend

This is a brief tribute to a remarkable friend, Karen Ferguson, who died last month.  You can read more about her life in the following obits:

New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/30/business/retirement/karen-ferguson-dead.html
Washington Post  https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2021/12/29/pension-rights-karen-ferguson-dies/

Why was Karen remarkable? As the Times noted, she was “a Nader Raider, one of a legion of young public-interest lawyers who flocked to Washington” in the 1970s to work for Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate who was at that time a heroic figure on the American political scene.  She chose to devote herself to working on pension law, an “unglamorous-sounding subject” that was actually full of human drama, where she was able to champion workers’ rights and effect enormous changes to benefit their future.

I met Karen and became her lifelong friend when we were both students at Harvard Law School in the 1960s.  I had just moved into Wyeth Hall, the women’s dorm, during my first year, and the delightful Karen Willner was in her third year.  Karen’s warmth immediately enveloped me, a lowly 1L. Happily for me, we stayed in touch after she graduated.

While I was finishing my three years at HLS, Karen married John Ferguson, who decided to attend the University of Chicago Law School, and together they headed for Chicago.  Karen wrote to tell me that she’d begun working at a downtown Chicago law firm, where she was the first and only woman lawyer. 

During my third year of law school, I actually interviewed with that firm.  Disillusioned with the D.C. of Richard Nixon (my original destination), I was thinking about returning to Chicago, my home town.  Although I hoped to get a clerkship with a federal judge, I also interviewed with several Chicago law firms.  After chatting for a while, the recruiter for Karen’s firm told me outright, “We just hired our first woman, and we’re waiting to see how she works out before we hire another one.”  (This interview took place after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the recruiter was violating federal law when he said that.)  I’ve told this story many times, to the amazement of most listeners, and I like to add that I knew who that “first woman” was:  Karen.

When I returned to Chicago, I began working for U.S. District Judge Julius J. Hoffman [please see “Hangin’ with Judge Hoffman,” a ten-post series beginning at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/].  With both of us living and working in Chicago, Karen and I enthusiastically resumed our friendship.  Because John was busy with his law school studies, Karen and I saw each other many times in downtown Chicago.  And one memorable evening, Karen, John, and I went together to see “The Yellow Submarine” at a downtown movie theater. 

I was sad when Karen and John departed for D.C. after he finished law school (and began his career as an NLRB attorney).  But their departure led to Karen’s groundbreaking new chapter in her life as a lawyer:  her launch into helping people by reforming pension law, with fairness as her first priority. 

We managed to stay in close touch during the many years that followed.  My memory-bank is filled with happy memories of our long friendship, including wonderful times spent together in both D.C. and Chicago.

I loved following Karen’s career, deeply enmeshed in working on pension-reform legislation, including the Retirement Equity Act of 1984, signed into law by President Reagan, and the Butch Lewis Act, signed into law last year by President Biden.  I reviewed her excellent book, Pensions in Crisis (original title: The Pension Book).  My glowing reviews appeared in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin on January 25, 1996, and the Chicago Tribune on May 13, 1996 (“Pension Problems Come Alive, Along with Practical Guidance”).

Karen’s never-failing efforts to establish a secure and adequate retirement system, on top of expanded Social Security, are still under discussion on Capitol Hill. 

I also loved learning about the wonderful family she and John created, including her son, Andrew Ferguson, a lawyer, writer, and law professor at American University, and his wife and children.  My review and discussion of Andrew’s important book, Why Jury Duty Matters, appeared on this blog in April 2013. [Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2013/04/03/does-jury-duty-matter/%5D

One more thing:  When I wrote my first novel, A Quicker Blood (published in 2009), I named my protagonist, a young woman lawyer, “Karen.”  I later brought her back as the protagonist in my third novel, Red Diana (published in 2018).  Was I thinking of my friend Karen when I chose that name?  I was. And all of the current nonsense focused on the name “Karen” infuriates me.  Although there may be a few women with that name who have acted inappropriately toward others, it’s totally unwarranted to pigeonhole all Karens that way.  Just think of Karen Ferguson and all that she’s done to make the lives of hard-working Americans more secure.  That’s in addition to her being a delightful human being, beloved by everyone who knew her.

In short, I was supremely lucky to know Karen Ferguson and to call her my friend for over five decades.  I’ve lost—indeed, we’ve all lost–one of the very best people on Planet Earth.

A Christmas story? Not really

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

Is this about the supply-chain issues hindering the search for Christmas presents this year?

No.  It’s not.

What is it about?  Well, some of you may recognize the “Christmas presents” quote as the famous first sentence in a famous book.  “Christmas won’t be Christmas…” is the memorable first sentence in the enduring classic, Little Women by Louisa May Alcott.

The sentence is spoken by Jo, the most prominent of the book’s “little women” and Alcott’s alter ego, a strong young woman who’s determined to create a meaningful life for herself.  Jo, her three sisters, and their mother make up a New England family confronting the Civil War and its impact on their lives, while the girls’ father is a doctor treating Union soldiers somewhere far from home.  Short of funds, the family faces a Christmas with no presents.

This extraordinary book has long been the favorite of generations of readers.  In my case, it was one of only two books that, as a young girl, I read more than once.  I was a voracious reader and usually moved on quickly from one book to another.  Little Women was an exception.  (The other was Black Beauty.)  I reread Little Women because it was so beautifully written and so relatable to me as a young girl who, like Jo, wanted to create a meaningful life for myself.

Little Women has influenced a number of filmmakers, most recently Greta Gerwig, whose 2019 version offered a new take on it.  The “Christmas presents” line is buried nearly halfway through Gerwig’s film.  In every other film and dramatization I’ve seen, Jo speaks that line at the very beginning of the story, just as Alcott wrote it. 

Now I’ll explain how the “Christmas presents” line in Little Women relates to my own life.  Not as a reader or filmgoer, but as a preteen taking classes at the long-gone and now legendary Harand Studios in downtown Chicago.

I’m not sure how I first learned about the Harand Studios (officially called the Harand Studios of the Theatre Arts), but once I did, I promptly asked my parents to let me enroll there. 

I was eleven that fall, turning twelve the following spring, and my father had undergone surgery for colon cancer during the summer.  Happily, he’d recovered and returned to work as a pharmacist at a drug store at Sheridan Road and Lawrence Avenue, about three miles from our apartment on the Far North Side.  He didn’t love this job, but it was a source of needed income for our family of four.  My mother helped, working part-time elsewhere, and her earnings added to our coffers.

I knew it would be something of an extravagance for me to enroll at the Harand Studios (hereafter “Harand”).  Although my mother loved and cared for me, I don’t think she was terribly eager to pay for my lessons at Harand.  But Daddy was a softie, enamored with his two red-haired daughters, and he often indulged me when Mom didn’t.

And so I turned up at Harand one Saturday morning, excited to begin this new chapter in my young life.  Daddy drove me the twelve miles from our apartment to the studio, located on the second floor of a corner building on North Michigan Avenue, not far from the Allerton Hotel.  Michigan Avenue was still a quiet boulevard filled with low-rise, often charming and unique buildings, like the Michigan Square Building encompassing the exquisite Diana Court with its sculpture by the noted Swedish sculptor Carl Milles. 

Riding downtown with Daddy was a special treat.  During that ride, I had him all to myself, and I didn’t have to share him with my older sister.  After he dropped me off, he drove back north about nine miles to the drugstore where he worked, dispensing medicine and advice to customers for the rest of the day.

That first morning, I climbed a flight of stairs to the second floor, arriving at the studio not sure what to expect.  It turned out to be a magical place, filled with rooms that focused on three areas:  drama, music, and dance. 

The studio was the brainchild of two sisters, Sulie and Pearl Harand, who came up with the idea of a children’s arts studio in Chicago.  Sulie had studied opera, at one point coached by Kurt Herbert Adler, who later became the artistic director of the San Francisco Opera.  She won contests in Chicago and played clubs across the Midwest, performing tributes to Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and others.  Turning to musical theatre, she created one-woman shows, traveling throughout the country to perform in them.  And while she continued performing, she and her sister Pearl opened the Harand Studios.  

Pearl, a former member of the Chicago Repertory Theatre, primarily taught drama while Sulie primarily taught voice.

For me, the drama lessons at Harand were the most memorable.  Maybe because my love for drama had begun early.  As a small child, I took the part of Jerry, the animated mouse who’d appeared in a 1945 MGM musical, “Anchors Aweigh,” starring Gene Kelly.  Kelly danced and sang with the animated mouse in “The King Who Wouldn’t Sing or Dance,” inserted in the film as a charming story Kelly tells a group of kids. 

I must have been the very young student of a drama and music teacher who enlisted me to perform Jerry’s role in a recital.  I have only dim memories of this event, but I distinctly remember my own musical number and reveling in the applause as my older partner (playing Kelly’s role) and I took a bow.

My next dramatic role came along when I graduated from kindergarten.  My teacher chose me to play the starring role in our class’s performance of “Sleeping Beauty.”  (Prince Charming was played by my classmate Richard Just.  I wonder where he is now.)  Once again, I loved the audience reaction to my Sleeping Beauty, garbed in a wedding-party dress my cousin Anna hand-sewed for me. (Anna, my mother, and I had chosen the pale blue organza fabric at the long-departed fabric department at Marshall Field’s on State Street.)  But I had to pretend to fall asleep on the hard wooden floor of the auditorium stage, and I recall being mad that I couldn’t lie on a soft sofa instead.  A prima donna at age 6!

I later appeared on that same stage in other productions (we called them “assemblies”).  The most unforgettable took place one February around the time of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I remember reading a poignant poem about Lincoln as well as portraying someone in his southern Illinois town.

Now, here I was, at age 11, immersed in dramatic pursuits at Harand.  And here was where the “Christmas presents” quote became a lifelong memory.   An abiding memory because Pearl Harand chose me to play Jo in the opening scene from Little Women, and I recited that line in many, many repetitions of that scene. 

At Harand, I also participated with enthusiasm in our music and dancing classes.  Music was usually supervised by Sulie Harand, along with Elaine F, a young and immensely talented pianist and singer.  Elaine was only 15 when she was hired to play at Harand on Saturday mornings and after school.  I vividly remember her piano artistry and how she taught our class some of the original songs she’d written.  (I can still sing much of “My First Big Dance.”)  I was lucky to forge lifelong friendships with both Elaine and her younger sister Natalie, another student at Harand.  To this day, Natalie, a steadfast friend, remembers that she “loved our Saturday mornings there!”

I enjoyed dance lessons as well.  Although my dance memories are pretty foggy, I do remember that we danced in a room with a mirrored wall and a ballet barre.

My best friend, Helene, who lived next door (and remains a friend), got wind of Harand and wanted to get in on the action.  She also recalls attending classes, taking buses to get there, but dropped out after a short time because she was “not talented!”  She and another friend, Renee, were “probably the worst ones” there.

But I was ecstatic about my Saturday mornings at Harand and kept going as long as I could.  When classes ended each week, I would emerge onto Michigan Avenue, sometimes stopping for a warm cookie at the small bakery on the first floor.  I’d catch a bus that would take me to my father’s drugstore, and my Saturday afternoons thus became memorable, too.

The drugstore had an old-fashioned marble-topped lunch counter, where Daddy would make sure I ate a good lunch, sometimes accompanied by a sugary beverage like a cherry “phosphate.”  I’d eat my lunch seated on a stool I could spin to my heart’s content.  Some of you may remember lunch counters like that one. 

They became famous a few years later when civil rights activists in the South protested segregationist policies, beginning in 1960 with a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.  The sit-in movement spread throughout the South, and places like Woolworth’s were ultimately forced to change their policies.

While I waited to go home with Daddy, I would carefully look over the drugstore’s merchandise.  I especially relished spinning the racks of paperback books and deciding which ones to show to Daddy.  Together we chose plays by Shakespeare and other classics, usually priced at the exorbitant sum of 25 cents.  I treasured our choices and saved them for years, until their cheap construction finally led to their literally falling apart.

At the end of Daddy’s workday, we’d climb back into our car, a 1948 Chevy, formerly a boring postwar gray and now a bright emerald green. (Daddy had hired someone to do the paint job.)  Together we’d drive home for dinner with my mother and sister. 

I never went much further with my dramatic pursuits.  That’s a story for another day.  But the “Christmas presents” line from Little Women has stayed with me, decade after decade.

Daddy died about a year after I began those classes at Harand.  The enormity of his loss changed my life and left a huge hole that remains today.

Those glorious Saturdays we spent together during the year before he died? They are enduring and powerful memories in my memory-bank, and they will remain there forever.

Dancing With Abandon on Chicago TV

He was a good-looking bespectacled teenager with a full head of shiny brown hair.  I’ll call him Lowell M.  He helped out after school at Atlas Drugs, the corner drugstore near the small apartment where I lived with my widowed mother and older sister during my high school years.

I grew to hate that cramped apartment and would often plead with my mother to move somewhere else, but she never would.  I eventually escaped when I went off to live on the campus of the great university 300 miles away that enabled me to make my escape by giving me what’s now called a “free ride.”

Back to Lowell M.:  When I exited from the crowded Peterson Avenue bus I took home from high school every day, Lowell was usually working at the front counter of Atlas Drugs, just across Washtenaw Avenue from the bus stop’s drop-off corner.  While the drugstore’s owner-pharmacist was busy dispensing meds in the back of the store, Lowell would dispense the kind of clever pleasantries expected of us, two of the best and brightest our high school had to offer.  He was in the class ahead of mine, and we happily chatted about school and a whole host of other topics while I would select a package of Wrigley chewing gum or some blonde bobby pins (which didn’t really match my bright red hair) or whatever else had brought me into Atlas Drugs that day.

Lowell must have taken a liking to me because one afternoon, out of the blue, he asked me to accompany him to Chicago TV’s “Bandstand.”  This was shockingly, astoundingly, incredibly fantastic, and I could barely believe it.  Somehow Lowell had secured two tickets to Chicago’s version of “American Bandstand,” an after-school TV show broadcast on WGN-TV.  I haven’t been able to track down anything about that show on the internet, so I don’t think it stayed on the air for very long.  But I’ve stored some vivid memories of it in my nearly overflowing memory-bank.

It was the late-’50s, and my mother had switched from reading the Chicago Tribune to the Chicago Sun-Times after my father died and we left our temporary home in LA to return to Chicago.  (I’ll save the story of that move for another day.)  But my father had been a faithful reader of the Tribune before he died, and I can still see the Tribune’s front page, proclaiming that it was the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.”  Its far-right-wing publisher, tycoon Col. Robert R. McCormick, came up with that phrase, and its initials—WGN—became the call letters of the Tribune’s radio station and later its TV channel.

During the semester I’d spent in LA, I watched its local TV’s version of “American Bandstand” when I’d get home from school.  Hosting high school kids from all over LA to dance on TV, it featured the exciting new pop music that was emerging all over the country. 

Now I was about to attend a TV program just like that one.

Why did Lowell ask me to join him?  I was never really sure.  Maybe, just seeing me at the drug store that day, he asked me on a whim.  But no matter.  I accepted Lowell’s invitation with alacrity and rushed home to tell my sister and mother about my upcoming appearance on local TV.  Dancing to the latest pop music, no less.

My sister kindly (and somewhat uncharacteristically) offered to lend me her smashing new top, a black-and-cream-colored number with tiny horizontal stripes (much more flattering than wide ones).  She was always more interested in fashion trends than I was, and for once I was grateful that she was.

Somehow Lowell and I met up at the appropriate time and made our way downtown to the Tribune buildings located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.  We probably took the Peterson bus and transferred to the bus that ran along Michigan Avenue, but to be truthful, my memory’s a bit foggy on that score.  Eventually we entered the radio-TV broadcasting building, built ten years after the Tribune Tower itself, and we entered one of the 14 new studios added in 1950, probably one of the four designated for TV.

Ushered into the large studio, filled with other teenagers from all over “Chicagoland” (a term invented by the Tribune), we soon were dancing to the musical hits of the day.  My still-enduring favorites include “Earth Angel” by the Penguins, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley, “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes, and “Sh-boom” by the Crew Cuts.

TV cameras whirled around the studio, capturing Lowell and me in our own version of “Saturday Night Fever,” two decades before that film appeared.

I recall having a fabulous time, dancing with abandon to my musical favorites, and I thought that Lowell did, too.  But I was disappointed when Lowell never asked me to do anything else with him, like go to a movie (a favored pastime of my friends and me).  So it’s possible that he may not have had the truly memorable time I had. 

Did I continue to see Lowell behind the counter of Atlas Drugs?  Maybe.  At least for a while.  But my guess is that he eventually moved on to other after-school jobs that were more in keeping with his burgeoning interest in the business world.

As he approached graduation a year before I did, Lowell began dating a friend of mine who was in his graduating class, and the two of them later married.  Lowell went on to college, earned an MBA, and built a successful business career. 

I went in a different direction.  Fascinated by the world of politics, I pursued two degrees in political science and landed finally in law school, aiming for the kind of career I wanted to follow as a lawyer and a writer.

But the memories of my exhilarating afternoon at Chicago’s version of “American Bandstand” have stayed firmly lodged in my memory-bank.  I will be forever grateful to Lowell M, who—perhaps on a whim—opened the door to those dazzling memories so many years ago.

Another love story

Part II

Watching “Love Story” again, 50 years later, I found it terribly disappointing.

The film was an enormous hit at the box office, earning $130 million—the equivalent of $1 billion today.

It was a box-office phenomenon, a tearjerker that offered its audience a classic love story filled with amorous scenes and, ultimately, tragedy.

But….

Fifty years later, I found the two leads far less appealing than I remembered.  Ryan O’Neal, who plays highly-privileged Oliver Barrett IV, and Ali MacGraw, who plays Jenny, a super-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks, encounter each other on the Harvard campus as undergrads.  After some sparring, they quickly fall into each other’s arms.  But I didn’t find either them or their relationship overwhelmingly endearing.

Ali MacGraw’s character, Jenny, strikes me now as borderline obnoxious.  She’s constantly smirking, overly impressed with her brain-power and witty repartee. 

Even Oliver, who falls madly in love with her, calls her “the supreme Radcliffe smart-ass” and a “conceited Radcliffe bitch.”  (As you probably know, Radcliffe was the women’s college affiliated with Harvard before Harvard College itself admitted women.)

Jenny would repeatedly retaliate, ridiculing Oliver by calling him “preppie,” a term used at the time by non-privileged students in an attempt to diminish the puffed-up opinion that privileged prep-school graduates had of themselves.

Jenny may have been Hollywood’s version of a sharp young college woman of her time, but 50 years later, I view her character as unrelatable and hard to take.

I received my own degrees at a rigorous college, a demanding grad school, and a world-renowned law school.  My classmates included some of the smartest women I’ve ever known.  But I don’t recall ever encountering any bright young women who exemplified the kind of “smart-ass” behavior Jenny displays.  If they existed, they clearly stayed out of my world.

The film has other flaws.  In one scene, filmed near a doorway to Langdell Hall (the still-imposing law school building that houses its vast law library), Jenny bicycles to where Oliver is perched and proceeds to make him a peanut butter sandwich while he is so engrossed in his recognizably red Little Brown casebook that he barely notices her presence. This scene is ludicrous.  Law students are traditionally super-focused on their studies.  Well, at least some of them are.  But Oliver’s ignoring a beloved spouse who’s gone out of her way to please him in this way is offensive and totally contrary to the “loving” tone in the rest of the film.  In short, ludicrous.

The movie also became famous for its often quoted line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”  The absurdity of that line struck me back in 1970 and has stayed with me ever since.  I’ve never understood why it garnered so much attention.  Don’t we all say “I’m sorry” when we’ve done something hurtful?  Especially to someone we love?

Interviewed by Ben Mankiewicz in March 2021 (on CBS Sunday Morning), both Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal (still vibrant and still in touch with each other) confessed that they never understood the line either.  “What does it mean?” Mankiewicz asked.  MacGraw’s response:  “I don’t know.” 

One more thing about that famous line:  If you watch the hilarious 1972 screwball comedy “What’s Up, Doc?” you’ll probably get a kick out of a scene at the very end.  Barbra Streisand cleverly mocks the “Love means never…” line while traveling on a plane with her co-star (and “Love Story” lead) Ryan O’Neal.

Another line in the film, this one spoken by Oliver’s father, struck me as remarkable as I listened to it 50 years after the film first appeared.  When his father, played by veteran actor Ray Milland, learns that Oliver has been admitted to Harvard Law School, he tells Oliver that he’ll probably be “the first Barrett on the Supreme Court.”  Just think about this line.  Who could have predicted in 1970 that someone named Barrett would actually be appointed to the Supreme Court in 2020? (My opinion of that appointment?  No comment.)

One more thing about Jenny:  Yes, women used to give up great opportunities in order to marry Mr. Right, and many probably still do. But I was heartily disappointed that Jenny so casually gave up a scholarship to study music in Paris with Nadia Boulanger so she could stay in Cambridge while Oliver finished his law degree.

What’s worse, instead of insisting that she seize that opportunity, Oliver selfishly thought of himself first, begging her not to leave him.  Jenny winds up teaching at a children’s school instead of pursuing her undeniable musical talent.

I like to think that today (at least before the pandemic changed things) a smart young Jenny would tell Oliver, “I’m sorry, darling, but I really don’t want to give up this fabulous opportunity.  Why don’t you meet me in Paris?  Or wait for me here in Cambridge for a year or two?  We can then pick up where we left off.” 

But I’m probably being unfair to most of the young women of that era.  I’m certainly aware that the prevailing culture in 1970 did not encourage that sort of decision.

When I decided to marry Marv in 1971 and leave my job at UCLA to move with him to Ann Arbor, Michigan, I wasn’t giving up anything like Paris and Nadia Boulanger.  For one thing, I had had a perilous experience in LA with a major earthquake and its aftershocks.  [Please see my post, “I Felt the Earth Move under My Feet,” July 17, 2019.]  I was also aware of other negative features of life in LA.

And shortly after Marv asked me to marry him, we set off on an eight-day road trip from LA to San Francisco, via Route 1, along the spectacular California coast.  Spending every minute of those eight days together convinced me that Marv and I were truly meant to be together. (On one memorable occasion, while dining at The French Poodle restaurant in Carmel, Marv insisted that the server let me, not him, taste our wine before accepting it for our dinner. In 1971, this was absolutely stunning.) 

So I decided, on balance, that moving with Marv to Ann Arbor would mean moving to a tranquil, leafy-green, and non-shaky place where I could live with the man I adored.  The man who clearly adored me, too.

I was certain that I would find interesting and meaningful work to do, and I did.  

Both of us hoped to return to California after a few years in Ann Arbor, where Marv was a tenured member of the University of Michigan math faculty.  (He’d been at UCLA in a special one-year program and had to return to Ann Arbor in 1971.) 

But when that didn’t work out, and we jointly decided to leave Ann Arbor, we settled elsewhere—happily–because it meant that we could stay together.

I’ve made many unwise choices during my life.  The list is a long one.  But choosing to marry Marv, leave LA, and live with him for the rest of our gloriously happy married life was not one of them. 

The unwise choices were my own, and loving Marv was never the reason why I made any of them. 

On the contrary, life with Marv was in many ways the magical life I envisioned when we shared dinner for the first time at Le Cellier in Santa Monica in October 1970.

It was, in the end, and forever, another love story.

Postscript:  If Marv were still here, we’d be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary this month.

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

Waiting for a Vaccine

 

While the world, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, turns to science and medicine to find a vaccine that would make us all safe, I can’t help remembering a long-ago time in my life when the world faced another deadly disease.

And I vividly remember how a vaccine, the result of years of dedicated research, led to the triumphant defeat of that disease.

Covid-19 poses a special threat.  The U.S. has just surpassed one million cases, according to The Washington Post.  It’s a new and unknown virus that has baffled medical researchers, and those of us who wake up every day feeling OK are left wondering whether we’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus or just damned lucky.  So far.

Testing of the entire population is essential, as is the development of effective therapies for treating those who are diagnosed as positive.  But our ultimate salvation will come with the development of a vaccine.

Overwhelming everything else right now is an oppressive feeling of fear.  Fear that the slightest contact with the virus can cause a horrible assault on one’s body, possibly leading to a gruesome hospitalization and, finally, death.

I recognize that feeling of fear.  Anyone growing up in America in the late 1940s and the early 1950s will recognize it.

Those of us who were conscious at that time remember the scourge of polio.  Some may have memories of that time that are as vivid as mine.  Others may have suppressed the ugly memories associated with the fear of polio.  And although the fear caused by Covid-19 today is infinitely worse, the fear of polio was in many ways the same.

People were aware of the disease called polio—the common name for poliomyelitis (originally and mistakenly called infantile paralysis; it didn’t affect only the young) — for a long time.  It was noted as early as the 19th century, and in 1908 two scientists identified a virus as its cause.

Before polio vaccines were available,  outbreaks in the U.S. caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis every year.  In the late 1940s, these outbreaks increased in frequency and size, resulting in an average of 35,000 victims of paralysis each year.  Parents feared letting their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak, and some public health official imposed quarantines.

Polio appeared in several different forms.  About 95% of the cases were asymptomatic.  Others were mild, causing ordinary virus-like symptoms, and most people recovered quickly.  But some victims contracted a more serious form of the disease.  They suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.  Many survivors were disabled for life, and they became a visible reminder of the enormous toll polio took on children’s lives.

The polio virus is highly infectious, spreading through contact between people, generally entering the body through the mouth.  A cure for it has never been found, so the ultimate goal has always been prevention via a vaccine.  Thanks to the vaccine first developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk, polio was eventually eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994.  It continues to circulate in a few countries elsewhere in the world, where vaccination programs aim to eliminate these last pockets because there is always a risk that it can spread within non-vaccinated populations.

[When HIV-AIDS first appeared, it created the same sort of fear.  It was a new disease with an unknown cause, and this led to widespread fear.  There is still no vaccine, although research efforts continue.  Notably, Jonas Salk spent the last years of his life searching for a vaccine against AIDS.  Until there is a vaccine, the development of life-saving drugs has lessened fear of the disease.]

When I was growing up, polio was an omnipresent and very scary disease.  Every year, children and their parents received warnings from public health officials, especially in the summer.  We were warned against going to communal swimming pools and large gatherings where the virus might spread.

We saw images on TV of polio’s unlucky victims.  Even though TV images back then were in black and white, they were clear enough to show kids my age who were suddenly trapped inside a huge piece of machinery called an iron lung, watched over by nurses who attended to their basic needs while they struggled to breathe.  Then there were the images of young people valiantly trying to walk on crutches, as well as those confined to wheelchairs.  They were the lucky ones.  Because we knew that the disease also killed a lot of people.

So every summer, I worried about catching polio, and when colder weather returned each fall, I was grateful that I had survived one more summer without catching it.

I was too young to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I later learned that he had contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  He had a serious case, causing paralysis, and although he was open about having had polio, he has been criticized for concealing how extensive his disability really was.

Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and it soon became a charity called the March of Dimes.  The catch phrase “march of dimes” was coined by popular actor/comedian/singer Eddie Cantor, who worked vigorously on the campaign to raise funds for research.  Using a name like that of the well-known newsreel The March of Time, Cantor announced on a 1938 radio program that the March of Dimes would begin collecting dimes to support research into polio, as well as to help victims who survived the disease. (Because polio ultimately succumbed to a vaccine, the March of Dimes has evolved into an ongoing charity focused on the health of mothers and babies, specifically on preventing birth defects.)

Yes, polio was defeated by a vaccine.  For years, the March of Dimes funded medical research aimed at a vaccine, and one of the recipients of its funds was a young physician at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine named Jonas Salk.

Salk became a superhero when he announced on April 12, 1955, that his research had led to the creation of a vaccine that was “safe, effective, and potent.”

Salk had worked toward the goal of a vaccine for years, especially after 1947, when he was recruited to be the director of the school’s Virus Research Laboratory.  There he created a vaccine composed of “killed” polio virus.  He first administered it to volunteers who included himself, his wife, and their children.  All of them developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine. Then, in 1954, a massive field trial tested the vaccine on over one million children between six and nine, allowing Salk to make his astonishing announcement in 1955.

I remember the day I first learned about the Salk vaccine. It was earthshaking.  It changed everything.  It represented a tremendous scientific breakthrough that, over time, relieved the anxiety of millions of American children and their parents.

But it wasn’t immediately available.  It took about two years before enough of the vaccine was produced to make it available to everyone, and the number of polio cases during those two years averaged 45,000.

Because we couldn’t get injections of the vaccine for some time, the fear of polio lingered.  Before I could get my own injection, I recall sitting in my school gym one day, looking around at the other students, and wondering whether I might still catch it from one of them.

My reaction was eerily like John Kerry’s demand when he testified before a Senate committee in 1971:  “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”  I remember thinking how terrible it would be to be one of the last kids to catch polio when the vaccine already existed but I hadn’t been able to get it yet.

I eventually got my injection, and life changed irreversibly.  Never again would I live in fear of contracting polio.

In 1962, the Salk vaccine was replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, an orally-administered vaccine that was both easier to give and less expensive, and I soon received that as well.

(By the way, neither Salk nor Sabin patented their discoveries or earned any profits from them, preferring that their vaccines be made widely available at a low price rather than exploited by commercial entities like pharmaceutical companies.)

Today, confronting the Covid-19 virus, no thinking person can avoid the fear of becoming one of its victims.  But as scientists and medical doctors continue to search for a vaccine, I’m reminded of how long those of us who were children in the 1950s waited for that to happen.

Because the whole world is confronting this new and terrible virus, valiant efforts, much like those of Jonas Salk, are aimed at creating a “safe, effective and potent” vaccine.  And there are encouraging signs coming from different directions.  Scientists at Oxford University in the UK were already working on a vaccine to defeat another form of the coronavirus when Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and they have pivoted toward developing a possible vaccine to defeat the new threat.  Clinical trials may take place within the next few months.

Similarly, some Harvard researchers haven’t taken a day off since early January, working hard to develop a vaccine.  Along with the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, this group plans to launch clinical trials in the fall.

While the world waits, let’s hope that a life-saving vaccine will appear much more quickly than the polio vaccine did.  With today’s improved technology, and a by-now long and successful history of creating vaccines to kill deadly viruses, maybe we can reach that goal very soon.  Only then, when we are all able to receive the benefits of an effective vaccine, will our lives truly begin to return to anything resembling “normal.”

Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers

I’ve been wearing scarves all my life.  In a dusty photo album filled with black-and-white snapshots, there I am at age 8, all dressed up in my winter best, going somewhere on a cold Thanksgiving Day wearing a silk scarf that wasn’t nearly warm enough.  (Please see “Coal: A Personal History,” published in this blog on January 24, 2020.)

My mother probably set the tone for my sister and me.  We adopted what we viewed as the fashionable wearing of head scarves followed by such notables as Queen Elizabeth II (who wears her Liberty silk scarves to this day, especially during her jaunts in chilly Scotland) and the very stylish Audrey Hepburn. (Please see “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published in this blog on August 14, 2013.)

The result:  A vast collection of scarves of every description, from humble cotton squares that look like a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant (note: these were made in France!), to lovely hand-painted silk in charming pastel colors, to Hermès lookalikes purchased from vendors in New York City’s Chinatown before the authorities cracked down on illicit counterfeit-selling.

And I wear them.  Especially since I moved to breezy San Francisco, where I never leave my home without a light jacket (or cardigan sweater), a scarf in a handy pocket (and women’s clothes should all have pockets; please see “Pockets!”, published in this blog on January 25, 2018), and a sunhat to protect my skin from the California sun (even when it’s hiding behind a cloud or two).  The only exceptions:  When there’s a torrential downpour or when we’re having unusually hot weather and only the sunhat is a must.

Now I learn that my huge array of scarves may, if used properly, protect me and others from the current scourge of COVID-19.  The State of California Department of Public Health has issued guidelines stating that wearing face coverings, including scarves, may help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.  The CDC and Bay Area public health officials have given similar advice.

Following this guidance, I began wearing scarves as face coverings several days ago, and I can now pick and choose among those I like best, so long as they are substantial enough to do the job.

Of course, I don’t want to scare anyone. After all, a black scarf worn on one’s face can be intimidating.  I certainly don’t want to enter a corner grocery store looking like a miscreant about to pull a hold-up.  So I’m opting for bright colors and cheerful designs.

We’re instructed to wash one’s scarf in hot water after each wearing.  So silk is pretty much out.  Instead I’m inclined to wear cotton or cotton blends, large enough and foldable enough to cover my nose and mouth.

So before I take off for my daily stroll, my search for just the right scarf has propelled me to select one among a wide range of choices.  Shall I choose the black-and-white cotton checkered number?  How about the Vera design featuring bright green peas emerging from their pods on a bright white background?  Or shall I select one of the scarves I bought at the Museo del Prado in Madrid in 1993, eschewing the tempting jewelry reproductions offered in the gift shop in favor of the less expensive and far more practical scarves with an admittedly unique design? (I bought two, each in a different color-combination.)

I’ve worn all of these already,  and tomorrow I’ll begin dipping into my collection to find still others.

I have to confess that I’m not particularly adept at tying my scarves as tightly as I probably should.  But whenever I encounter another pedestrian on my route (and there aren’t many), we steer clear of each other, and I use my (gloved) hand to press the scarf very close to my face.  That should do it, protection-wise.

One more thing I must remember before I wrap myself in one of my scarves:  Forget about lipstick.  Absolutely no one is going to see my lips, and any lip color would probably rub off on my scarf.  Forgeddaboutit.

Please note:  By writing about my scarf-wearing, I do not mean to trivialize the seriousness of the current crisis.  I’m simply hopeful that wearing these bright scarves–and telling you about them–will help to soften the blow the virus has already dealt so many of us.

Please join me as a scarf-wearer and, with luck, we’ll all stay safe and well   Fingers crossed!