Archive for January, 2011

Monsieur Bobby’s Cold Nose

| January 31, 2011 | Comments (5)

Monsieur Bobby & Friends

Monsieur Bobby was a huge, beautiful Alsatian who belonged to Pierre and Rudy. They lived on an olive farm in Cortona, Italy.

At some point – it must have been the late 70s or early 80s – robberies became widespread in the area when lots of people with money began buying villas and farms around Cortona.  After Pierre and Rudy’s neighbors had been burgled, Monsieur Bobby was imported to keep the place safe.

Monsieur Bobby did his job too well, even suspecting visitors like myself who came up from Rome for the weekend. Poised outside the guest room, Monsieur Bobby would escort me everywhere I went. From the dining room to the terrace to the olive grove, he was there, inches away from my side, giving me a push with his huge, cold nose when he thought I had lingered too long in any one place, probably in his eyes, casing the joint for a good heist.

Inspite of my host’s warm hospitality, having Monsieur B tailing me all the time made me feel like an unwanted stranger. I needn’t have had that thought;  the boys told me that when Pierre’s mother visited the farm from France, Monsieur Bobby was so closely on her case that at one point, with an overly-assertive jab of his nose in her buttocks, he pushed her over the terrace onto the lawn below. Luckily the grass was overdue for a cutting so Maman landed on soft turf with no damage done.

I had met Pierre some years earlier  in what was then called Rangoon,  Burma where I was working for the United Nations.  Pierre was a big shot from the UN based in Rome and was on one of his field trips to “the bush” to check on projects and rally the troops in their war for development…or was it war against development ? One often got confused about what we were accomplishing  in those developing countries and who was benefitting more – we well-fed fat cats of the development set or the so-called recipients of our largesse.

In any case, when we met at a reception in Rangoon organized in his honor, Pierre and I clicked and he politely extended an invitation to look him up the next time I was in Rome. People should be warned not to extend polite invitations to me because I always take them up on their offers.

So several years later, there I was bathing in the gentle afternoon sun on Pierre and Rudy’s terrace, just having had the most perfect lunch of my life. I can tell you, if you have never had a simple but delicious collation composed of  local products – tomatoes, mozzarella,  basil, olive oil straight from the press , farmer’s bread and wine from down the road – you have never really lived.

I remember that afternoon as one of the rare, perfect moments in my life. Filled with the bounty of Cortona’s farms, drowsy and happy from too much wine,  the three of us dozed off as a bee buzzed in the honeysuckle climbing the terrace wall and a BBC broadcast droned almost inaudibly in the background, reminding us there was a world out there where things were happening.

I remember at one point Rudy getting up from his chair, walking over to the radio on the table and turning the volume up. The reader was announcing that a Korean Airlines plane had just been shot down over international waters by the Soviet military and all the passengers had perished.

We learned later that  Rudy’s sister was on that flight  on her way from the Philippines to the United States. Who could have imagined on such a perfect afternoon that such horrible things could be happening half-way around the world.

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Thais Oglesby, RIP

| January 31, 2011 | Comments (11)

Thais Oglesby, 1928

In this world, there are givers…and there are takers.  Of course, we know people who are both generous providers AND grateful recipients, those who willingly give their love and their material possessions and are grateful to receive the same in return. But I firmly believe that most of the human race are born to be one or the other.  Just as there are A-type personalities, on the one hand, and shrinking violets, on the other,  so there are the givers and the takers.

My Mother, Thais Oglesby, (nee Micas), was unequivocally and totally, a giver, 150%. She spent her life being good to people, but strangely and sadly, got little in return.  The old proverb: “no good deed goes unpunished” fit her to a T.

The child next to my Mother in this old photo is her younger brother. Without calling him by name, I can say he was a shit, an ungrateful, dis-loyal shit.  There is no way to gild the lily on this one. Left motherless when my grandmother died in the early 1940s, my Mother stepped in and raised my uncle, taking him into our home when we moved from our native  New Orleans, to Washington, DC in 1945.   Aged five, I still remember that day in April, 66 years ago  –  driving into DC from the South and hearing the radio announcement on the car radio as our Nash pulled into the nation’s capital – FDR had just passed away.

Never serious about anything, my uncle seemed destined to become a do-nothing failure, but my Mother was as stubborn as she was generous. I can still see  her bending over him, haranguing her brother to finish his homework and actually doing his assignments  herself when he threw up his hands in clueless defeat. My Mother’s sense of responsibility was like a  steel helmet that she wore with pride and determination.

Hours after graduating from high school, my uncle  married at the age of nineteen and my Mother, not worrying that she had her own  family to look after, managed on her school teacher’s salary to scrape together enough money to make a down payment on a house for him. Later, as Fortuna would have it, this brother somehow became quite  rich.

In 1982, after refusing to donate blood to my Mother when she became ill,   he capped his disloyalty to her by not showing up for her funeral in California, saying it wasn’t possible for him to travel there  because “I don’t fly.” My response was: “I don’t fly either, I take planes.”

My Mother truly deserved better than she got. I remember coming home from school one day and finding her in the kitchen, silently weeping over the stove as she cooked dinner for us, tears dripping into the pork chops. When I asked her what was wrong, she said between choking sobs, “It’s my birthday and nobody remembered me.”

I think my Mother’s problem was that she loved too much. She smothered everyone she encountered with affection. Life for her was one huge group hug. Her almost desperate quest for  acceptance and appreciation somehow turned people off, frightening them into shunning her. Was she was  born into the wrong culture at the wrong time ? Where would she have been happier and more accepted ? As a matriarch in  Queen Liliokaolani’s pre-colonial Kingdom of Hawaii ? We’ll never know.

Maybe she is happier in the world of spirits that I hope she is inhabiting now.  In the final weeks of her life when she was hospitalized, she became the toast of her nursing home, traveling from floor to floor calling out to everybody in her inimitable Southern  way, “How are ya, darlin’ ?”, “What’s new, dream boat? ”

She became especially friendly with a man who was stricken with a terminal illness; Willy was his name. Everyday she would travel, assisted by her cane, or in a wheel-chair as she got weaker, from the 2d floor to the 9th floor to visit Willy. They would chat for hours and she would tell his fortune by reading the leaves in his tea-cup. That was one of her specialties, reading tea leaves. I always made fun of her when she read mine and told me that I would be taking a long trip to an exotic place or that I would overcome  looming, grave challenges only if I did my homework.

I was told on the day my Mother died that Willy looked up at the nurse who was attending him and suddenly said to her in the middle of a procedure, “Thais just died.” That was  8 o’clock in the morning, the moment she passed away. Seven floors separated them , but he knew Thais had left this world.

RIP, Thais Oglesby, blithe spirit.  I know you are still giving.

Thais Oglesby, Last Picture, 1982

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Let’s Hear It For….International White Trash

| January 27, 2011 | Comments (4)

 

Desperately seeking an antidote for my mounting cabin fever,the result of being homebound for several days due  to mountains of snow that fell on us in New York City, I ventured out  from my Bronx redoubt to the Isle of Manhattan today.

I probably should have stayed home. With temperatures rising and snow melting,  I unwittingly became a moving target. Twice,  yes  TWICE, during my urban foray, I just missed by inches being hit on the head by large amounts of melting ice and snow that were falling from the eves of buildings on Third Avenue. I commiserated with  a Bangladeshi fruit vendor on the corner of 47th and Third. We both agreed: when your time comes, it comes.

47th and Third Avenue  has special meaning for me;  I call it Kurt Vonnegut Corner. For years, as I passed that location, I would see the famous author sitting on a bench in the pergola hard by the corner, puffing on a cigarette watching the world go by, especially the pretty, young female world. We never spoke, but as time passed,  we started acknowledging each other with a raised V sign or a thumbs-up.

Then one day, shortly after I had published my first book to underwhelming public response, I passed the pergola and spotted Kurt.  In an impetuous rush, I found myself speaking to him. Waving my book in his face, I said, “Kurt, I’ve got a problem. Here’s my new book. I think it’s a great read, but nobody’s  interested. What can I do? ”

Without a second’s hestitation, Vonnegut looked me in the eye, took a drag on his weed and replied, “Hit me in the jaw.”  Speechless, I stared at him and it dawned on me: he was dead serious. Silence ensued and then he repeated, “Go ahead, do it. Slug me in the jaw. That’ll get you all the publicity you need ! ” And he was right, but even though I probably should have, I didn’t take his advice and punch him.  We ended up having an extended laugh and he wished me good luck on my  book. Another New York moment. Kurt died not long  after our encounter.

I’ve gotten way off the subject of  today’s posting which was supposed to be about international white trash. The reason I wanted to write about this important topic was to amuse you and to divert my own mind from some sadness on my block. As I passed him shoveling snow on my way to the subway, my 80 year-old neighbor who is a good friend, told me that his roof was collapsing under the snow and that his wife just went to hospital for the fourth time in three weeks and probably would never come home.

Margie is a dear lady who usually hangs out on her stoop with her small black and white  Chihuahua dog, Oreo. We’ve spend lots of good times  talking together, her telling me stories about the neighborhood and how it was 50 years ago. She always tells it like it is. Latino neighbors said about her :” No tiene pelo en la lengua” (She doesn’t have any hair on her tongue).  Life is a veil of tears.

So let’s be amusing  and laugh through our sadness for a few paragraphs.

Some years ago my friend, Louis in California came up with a term to describe me and my ilk who work at the United Nations or engage in other “worldly” undertakings. He came up with a term that surpasses  old labels like “globe-trotter” or jet-setter”; he calls us International White Trash.

Over time Louis refined the definition and criteria which qualify one for this august membership and even came up with a ranking of individuals,  a sort of  Mr. and Ms. International White Trash.

The current  holders of the title are: Rupert and Rosemary.

Rupert, his full name is Rupert Rumpsford-Caballero, hails from Brazil. But he also has two other passports, Swiss and British. And speaks five languages with native fluency. He lives in various cities where he has pied-a-terres and his movements are determined by  the seasons. Summer in Brazil will find him on a first-class flight to Rio which he leaves for New York or London when autumn leaves start to fall. Although we have known him for many years, we are not really sure what he does for a living. It just isn’t discussed. One doesn’t talk about vulgar things like work with International White  Trash.

Oh, I forgot to mention, IWT (we go into abbreviation mode now) must do other things to qualify for membership. One of the most important requirements is to start making international phone calls as soon as they arrive at somebody’s house; and the conversations they have should usually be conducted in at least two or preferably three or four languages.

Rupert usually arrives chez-moi and, after perfunctory pleasantries about the weather and Maman, invariably asks, with an impeccable, polite Sloan Ranger accent, if he couldn’t just pop into my office for a bit to make some calls.  For the next half-hour, I hear a medley of Schweitzer Deutsch, Portuguese, French and English.  Rupert finally emerges with an exasperated exhale and raised eyebrows,  muttering  “The Four Seasons Hotels are impossible.” IWT are always on the move; they are always between engagements.

Rosemary is the more subtle title-holder, but right up there as far as her  IWT credentials. Rosemary is Italian, but lives mostly in Manhattan. She comes from the  ancient town of Cremona, Italy where Stradavarius violins are made. She speaks perfect English , but with a strong French accent. Puzzling ? It’s simple to explain – Rosemary grew up in Paris and had a French governess.

Aren’t  they AB FAB, International White Trash !

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Aaah ! Those Ba..ba..bad Ole Days, Would That We Lived in Them Today!

| January 25, 2011 | Comments (2)

Halfway through the superbly acted and brilliantly crafted film,  The  King’s Speech, I found my mind wandering as I asked myself: how long can I focus  on a plot-line about somebody stuttering, even if it is the future King of England?

Not being a speech therapist or a rabid fan of the Royals – in fact, I rather detest them for the over-privileged, free-loading twits they are since they hounded  Princess Diana to her death – I was prepared to forego seeing the movie.  But  then opinion, that  all-powerful  dictator of human behavior, moved me to catch it in matinee today.   The film had received rave reviews and everybody I knew  loved it. If  I didn’t see it, how else could I counter the glowing reports of my friends, especially R from Vermont, who waxed rhapsodic over the charms and dramatic skills of Helen Bonham-Carter ?

But back to the tongue-tied Duke of York, later to become George VI. He came across to me as a rather pathetic mediocrity  whose best friends were his nannies who brought  him in for the  “daily viewing ” by his parents,  George V and Queen Mary. The opinion of historians and Royal Watchers is that his ill-fated brother,  Edward VIII, would have made a  more empathetic and progressive-minded monarch.  In his early adulthood, the Prince of Wales  had displayed a radically sympathetic view towards the working-classes and was wildly popular when he ascended the throne for his all-too-brief reign. Had it not been for that lady from Baltimore who had learned some “techniques” at an “an institution in Shanghai” (the mind boggles at  just what Wallis  picked up in that naughty city!), there would have been no George VI.

I could not help but think, at the film’s  climax, as  the newly crowned George VI, aided by his speech therapist, plodded through his address to  his subjects announcing the outbreak of World War II, how  much simpler times were then and how much more daunting are the challenges faced by our superbly articulate leader,  President Barack Obama, as he readies himself for his speech to the nation in a few hours.

As the Chinese say, we do live in more  “interesting times” today, even though Helen Bonham-Carter made it seem otherwise!

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Celebrities I Have Known…. Well, Sort Of!

| January 23, 2011 | Comments (3)

 

I remember distinctly the day I joined the world. The moment I knew I had really arrived on earth and had figured out  what it was all about.

I was twelve years-old, still hidden in baby fat and possessed of a high, squeaky pre-pubescent voice. Enveloped in the darkness of a movie matinee I was making serious inroads into a gigantic bag of popcorn.

The feature film was “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the scene was Mediterranean. Gregory Peck is lounging on the deck of a yacht clad in a bathing suit, his leonine limbs absorbing  the sun’s rays as he radiates a perfect tan.  He stretches and looks out across the  limpid,  blue water at a figure moving towards him, cutting through the sea  with deft, graceful strokes.  It is Hildegarde Neff.

As she nears the hull of his sleek craft, Gregory leans over the side and says to her in what seems almost like a whisper,  “Natasha, how charming you are today, my dear!”  The camera pans to her face for a close-up  and, with only the slightest hesitation,  Neff pauses by the boat (she must be treading water at this point), looks up at Gregory and smiles with slightly parted lips saying, “‘ But, darling,  how could I help but be when swimming to you is my objective.”

That was  60 years ago and   I am still totally in that moment as though it happened just this minute; I remember emitting a low moan as my bag of  popcorn  fell to the floor, my jaw dropped and I became weak with the realization that there was a world out there filled with …things, things heretofore unknown to me. Glamor, sophistication, beauty, clever dialogue, wealthy people having forbidden fun (as I recall Gregory and Hildegarde were both married to other people at the time of this boatside exchange.)

Maybe my life would have taken another path and I would have ended up a different person had that film been “The Good Earth” or “Spartacus” or  “The Life of Christ.”  But as it is, although I appear outwardly to be a rather boring, humdrum person, I have a secret, inner life that I share only with Hildegarde and Gregory … and now you, dear readers. 

 I consider Gregory and Hildegarde to be  my good  friends because they have given me  the gift of  fantasy. Since that  moment in the dark when I waddled into the theater,  took my seat, drooling into my popcorn, I have lived in a magic world of make-believe. Thank you, dear friends, Gregory and Hildegarde.   

Gregory and Hildegarde are only two of many celebrity friends I have. Ofcourse, you see, I have never actually met the famous people I know, but that doesn’t matter. If you have the gift that I have,  given to me by my dear friends, you can know anybody you want to know.

So here’s another story about another friend, Mae West. It was told to me by my friend, Tom, but I feel I was there too when it happened.

One day quite a few years ago, Tom, who is a well-known Hollywood photographer, got a call to come to Mae West’s apartment  on Wiltshire Boulevard to shoot the publicity stills for her new film, “Myra Breckinridge.” Tom had not seen Mae in long time and was eager to make the connection after so many years.

When he arrived at Mae’s door,  he was greeted by Edith Head, the famous Hollywood costume designer. Edith said that they were running a bit late, but that Mae would be ready soon. Over the next couple of hours Tom watched as they readied Mae for her still close-ups. Normally talkative and full of fun, Mae was totally quiet and seemed old and a bit dis-oriented.  As she sat in her terry cloth bathrobe  looking out blankly into space while she was being made up, Tom thought she was a different person.

Finally with her wig on and corsetted up into her gown, Mae at least was starting to look her old self. Tom readied his cameras and turned on the flood  lights. As he moved in for the shoot, he stooped and pulled a small jar out of his  camera bag. Suddenly Mae became alert and asked,  “Wazzat?” Tom replied, “Mae, it’s Vaseline. I’m going to put a dab on the lens to soften the picture.”  With that, Mae came fully to life, drew herself up and, with perfect timing, uttered her trademark growl,  “Oh…they use it for that too…!”  

Aren’t my celebrity friends fabulous?

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