If I haven’t fled the computer and apartment and town every three or four months, I get restless!
So a quick and easy choice was the 3-4 hour drive northeast to Newport, RI, a town I hadn’t been to in decades, since a friend in a town near it loaned us her house while she was away for a week. She has long since moved away, but at a writing conference last year I met a fun young woman, a fellow writer, who spoke on a panel and with whom I later had coffee when she came to NY from Newport.
I found a very cheap and funky B and B right in town, and she and I hung out. Perfect weekend!
I was also very lucky to be there in the off season so I was able to park my car for three full days, at no cost, a block away on the street and enjoyed uncrowded tourism as the place is truly mobbed in the summer, especially with the jazz festival and folk festival.
Friday night we splurged on dinner at The White Horse, the oldest restaurant (1673) continuously operating in the U.S., and a building of tremendous history. The meal was great and the surroundings lovely.
This interactive game was amazing! It even uses a real wooden tiller to “steer.”
It can happen!
Saturday I went to the new sailing museum, which — as a sailor from childhood — I loved! It has fantastic interactive exhibits I completely enjoyed, a cut-open J24, a classic boat, examples of sail materials, great action videos, trophies, fab photos. I had a great pizza across the street and wandered Thames Street, (there pronounced to rhyme with James), lined with all sorts of shops. I bought two small lovely vases by a local potter and that evening sat at the bar at the Red Parrot, watching the busiest bartender ever manage his job with grace and calm.
Newport, as some of you know, has some extraordinary mansions — known as “cottages”, built by the country’s wealthiest. People love to tour them, but I was more intrigued, literally walking around the block from my lodgings, by row after row of elegant 18th c houses. I love history and architecture and the late 1700s is one of my favorite periods of design, so this was heaven!
I’m usually not easily moved emotionally by many official sights and monuments, but I was so struck by the humanity and intimacy of seeing the church where her new life began — and gave her barely a decade of joy and marriage and young children before being brutally widowed in 1963. Like everyone who has married in a church (as I have twice), there’s such a moment of excitement and nerves and anticipation as you stand at that front door and walk down the aisle to take your vows and begin a wholly new life. I could really feel it there.
That’s the spire of St. Mary’s in the background
Sunday morning I loved breakfast, again, around the corner, at Franklin Spa — opening hours 6 am to 1pm — and watched it filling up with locals and regulars. My friend picked me up and we drove to Tiverton Four Corners, to see a glamorous new cafe and two adjacent shops, Groundswell. So fun! On offer were glorious teas from French maker Mariage Freres and some of the yummiest pastries ever — including this astounding thing we had never seen before and LOVED. Basically a brioche full of whipped cream, called a maritozzi.
The spring sun was warm but the wind bitter; my friend very thoughtfully brought two thick blankets which we wrapped around our legs as we sat in Adirondack chairs around a propane firepit.
We looked at the gorgeous tableware and aprons and condiments for sale but I only bought some tea and a jar of ginger and jam.
We dined at The Clark Cooke House, which was wonderful — more oysters! My friends were very generous and used a gift certificate so it was free. I was so grateful to be so welcomed and hosted and shown around.
Monday morning was a visit to a place I’ve been buying from for many years, Fabric Connection, mostly to say hello to the staff. They have an amazing array of gorgeous fabrics and pillows.
I made a final quick stop at the beach — to sniff the ocean and grab a shell! — but the wind was sooooo bitterly cold.
It’s an amazing story — and now a new book that took 14 years to produce: The Angel Makers tells the incredible and unlikely story of a tiny, remote Hungarian village where, in the early 1920s, a lot of men (and some babies) kept dying, even if previously young and healthy.
It was the work of Aunt Suzy, the village midwife, and her potion — arsenic derived from soaking flypaper — delivered to local women who wanted freedom from their drunk, abusive, unfaithful husbands or from trying to sustain an infant with no money to do so.
Patti, a much admired and highly adventurous friend of many years, and a career journalist, re-discovered the story and has written a terrific book.
“From seed to fruit, this book took 14 years,” she told me. “Eight of those years were full-on research and writing. It was just me and the story—just the two of us —and that was a somewhat lonely relationship. To finally have it completed and have others be able to read it is a thrill beyond measure.”
Tell us a bit about you and why/where/how you first became a journalist? What about it appealed to you?
I started at 19 as an obit writer at the St Pete Times (now Tampa Bay Times).
I got the bug much earlier than that, though. My older brother was an illustrator at the Virginian Pilot, and for my 13th birthday he gave me a tour of the paper— the newsroom, the pressroom—we went all over that building and I was enthralled with every square inch of it. I can still hear the teletype, the typewriters, the ringing telephones. I can still see the enormous vats of ink. From then on, I was hooked. When I think back, it really was life changing, even at such a young age. It had a profound effect on me. Thanks, Steve!
After working in the States, how and why did you end up living in an Austrian village?
A few years before I moved to Europe, I had gotten a Knight International Press Fellowship, which sends reporters to struggling or so-called emerging democracies to help fellow reporters improve their skills, working conditions, etc. It was like a journalism Peace Corps. My assignment was for Central and Eastern Europe. I loved the work and ended up moving abroad to do it full time in January 2000. I first lived in Bratislava, Slovakia, then moved across the border into Austria.
For how long?
I came back to the USA in 2016.
What sort of work were you doing then?
It was a range of duties, and after the Fellowship it was mostly contracted assignments with non-profits. I worked inside newsrooms with journalists, I taught university courses, I lead workshops. I did a lot of visual journalism, which included a lot of newspaper and magazine redesigns. I worked on free press issues in places like Ukraine and Moldova, and on occasion, worked with ambassadors, as well (one such meeting was with the ambassador to Macedonia: “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how to repair the tv tower that has been shot out by Albanian rebels”).
When I wasn’t doing such media training work, I was freelancing.
Tell us how you stumbled across this amazing story in the first place.
I was bumbling down the backroads of the Internet one afternoon and bumped into a short piece about this strange village in Hungary…
Did you know right away this was a good book topic? Why? How?
I had no intention of writing a book about it. I thought it would just be an article and I’d move on to the next article. But something stayed with me. I kept bringing it up to friends, and in my spare time rooting around for ever more info. After a few years, I thought, hmmm, maybe there is a book here…
Tell us about finding your agent/selling the book
In my case, it all came down to kismet.
Out of the blue, I got an email from an old colleague from my Washingon, DC days. We hadn’t been in contact in at least a dozen years. I was delighted to hear from him. We chatted back and forth (email), catching up, and I told him about the book idea—at that point I was putting finishing touches on the proposal. He took a look at my website and came back to me to ask why, in God’s name, had I not included any info about the book! Seemed like a no brainer to him, and of course he was right. I went straight to the site and added it. Not four hours later, what popped into my Inbox? An email from an agent. It turns out, he had just read a piece I had written for the Smithsonian—my first for them—which had come out the day before. He had gone to my website to find out more about me and saw the info about the book. “I’d love to take a look at your proposal.”
He turned out to be absolutely the right agent for me.
That 24 hours—It was an inexplicable alignment of stars.
What was the first step in getting started on it?
There were many steps being taken at the same time, but the most critical was to find an assistant. I found a fantastic man—a historian specializing in the region who was fluent in English. There were a few fails before I found him.
What were the most difficult/challenging things about researching it?
This wasn’t challenging, per se, but it took some time and work to understand Hungary. To fully learn, for example, about Hungary’s part in WWI and the disastrous aftermath—the Communist takeover and the Romanian war. That’s not something that can be skimmed over. You have to dig deep. In the book, the war, et. al., are just a backdrop, but that doesn’t mean you can cheat and get by with the minimum. The story will suffer.
It also took time, and patience, and study, and feet on Magyar ground to really understand—as best I could—and appreciate—as best I could—the soul of the Hungarian people. At least to the extent that I could as a non-Hungarian, and as someone who does not speak the language. My historian assistant helped me tremendously. And I also moved to Szolnok, the town where the trials took place, for several months. Having lived for so long in a small Austrian village (not far from the Hungarian border), and having spent so much time in other East European villages, also helped, I think.
About writing it?
Independent journalists —particularly those who report from abroad–are paid very poorly, and we get a lot of deadbeat clients who try not to pay at all. That’s hard on a person. I’m single. There is no secondary income to rely on. So I’d say the hardest thing about writing it was to always be scrambling. Always counting pennies. It’s difficult to work under those conditions. And hard on your health.
That final Canadian angle is a hoot! How did you find it?
After the original article came out, the victim contacted me!
Was there any resistance among Hungarians or locals to your dredging up a story that is pretty horrific?
There was, understandably, some resistance. Many are descended from either a victim or a perpetrator—in many cases both—and they would prefer to leave the past in the past, as you might imagine. They are also very protective of the women, compassionate about the circumstances that drove them to do what they did.
How were you able to recreate such specific details — Aunt Suzy’s love of brandy or her pipe or hobnail boots?
The archive was a trove of information. And the events were widely covered, not just by the press at the time, but also by well-known Hungarian writers, who went into more detail than the average reporter. There were sociologists who had gone before me, village monographs, village elders. And of course my historian assistant was amazing.
What is Szolnok like these days? Is there anything anywhere that’s still reminiscent of the period you wrote about? Or the town where it happened?
Szolnok is a bustling town, and still quite pretty. Sadly, the Communists destroyed a lot of the fabulous architecture, but much still remains. The artist colony is still there, and there are a lot of delightful cafes and eateries. It has a nice vibe.
Nagyrev did pretty well under Communism, and has struggled ever since its collapse. It is a tight-knit community. They host things like yoga classes, and the like. In a certain sense, it is not unlike other villages in that region of the country–or even hamlets in neighboring countries–in that there is not a lot of opportunity for folks. The difference is its utter remoteness. It still takes nearly as long to get there from Szolnok—a distance of 25 miles—as it did a hundred years ago.
Are there any local memorials, plaques, public formal recognition of this event?
A couple of years ago, the Szolnok newspaper ran a feature/commemoration of Kronberg on the 90th anniversary of “The Arsenic Trials.” But to my knowledge, there is no formal recognition.
Tell us/me anything you want to….
Finally, I’ll add that although this is a true crime story, there’s much more to it than that. That the Angel Makers happened at all has everything to do with women’s place in society. These were not deranged, bloodthirsty women out for the kill. In most cases, they were desperate to escape tortorous situations. They did what they had to do, not what they wanted to do.
In the hundred years since these crimes occurred, not a lot has changed for women. Sorry to say, but it’s true.
This little bear used to sit deep in my uniform shirt pocket during my years at boarding school. Invisible comfort and companionship.
By Caitlin Kelly
I read very few newsletters — already inundated by Twitter, two daily newspapers, a dozen monthly magazines and, when I have an ounce of attention left, books.
But I really enjoyed the latest one from an American journalist, Anne Helen Peterson, on the boxes her mother kept for her from her teens — a time, she writes, so much more memorable to her than her 20s and 30s.
She writes beautifully about what it felt like to go through those boxes and reconnect with her much younger self; I’d guess she’s in her mid to late 30s.
That big plastic storage bin was allowed to sit undisturbed because my mom lives in a small town in Idaho with a basement approximately the size of my current house — as is the Idaho way. But now she is moving to a place with NO BASEMENT, and some tough decisions have to be made. By me.
I spent the day after Christmas pouring out the contents of these envelopes, taking pictures with my camera and, as an old friend of mine used to say, with my heart, and allowing that heart to be towed in so many unanticipated directions. Because turns out: I was an excellent archivist of my teen self.
The corsages, sure, but that’s classic memory book stuff. I’m talking about movie stubs and campaign pins, about 9th grade English notebooks and printed-out (and pencil-edited) drafts of college admissions essays.…
All archives are, to some extent, narratives: edited stories of the self or others. What I kept then was a story of myself that felt precious and still, at that point, untold. I wasn’t saving in the hopes of someone else discovering who I was. I think it was much more a case of ensuring my future self’s attention. The artifacts were the grammar that made the story readable.
I envy her terribly!
I lived with my father and his girlfriend (later wife) ages 14 to 19. I have very few artifacts of those years: my high school graduation yearbook, some photos. I struggle to think of much else.
My family of origin was never one to keep stuff for others…my father sold the house we lived in and went to live on a boat in the Mediterranean when I was 19 and in my second year of university. I took my wooden trundle bed and wooden desk to the studio apartment I moved it with me. And my stereo!
I really treasure the photo below.
I was maybe six or seven and sitting in the backyard of the last house I shared with my parents before they divorced. It was a big house on a beautiful, quiet street — Castlefrank — in one of Toronto’s nicest neighborhoods, Rosedale. I never lived anywhere like that again.
Luckily, my husband Jose (a photo archivist for the USGA) was able to take this one precious very faded color photo and bring it back for me.
My mother left behind several thick photo albums, but, typical of our relationship, I know very few of the people in them. She never spoke much about her life to me. I do have images of her — slim, gorgeous — modeling for the Vancouver Sun, and a spectacular photo of her that I love.
Cynthia being glamorous.
My stuff? Not much. I moved a few times and only years later found a set of excellent encyclopedias that had been in storage while I was boarding school and camp.
I still fondly remember some items from my teenage-dom — a thick caribou skin rug my father brought back from the Arctic which shed horribly, a poster and a fantastic embroidered sheepskin coat, wildly bohemian and wholly out of place in my white, suburban-ish high school. But I own none of these.
Oddly, a little embarrassedly, I still own and treasure a few stuffed animals from my childhood — like the elephant I found in my London hospital bed after my tonsils were removed. Faded but much beloved, she sits in our bedroom still.
Because I moved around a fair bit and neither parent even had a basement — let alone the willingness to store any of my stuff in it — I’ve definitely lost some very precious teenage things, like a green and white Marimekko notebook in which I wrote my prize-winning poetry and some songs. That one really hurts. I had a storage locker here in New York, but I lost track of the payments for it — and they sold everything in it.
Do you still own treasured items from your early years?
Who, if anyone, will want or value them later do you think?
I may have raved previously about this series — the most expensive German TV production ever made (2016) — “with a budget of €40 million that increased to €55 million due to reshoots” says Wikipedia — but am now re-watching it for the fourth time, both savoring the smallest details I missed or misunderstood before and the comfort of favorite scenes and moments.
It’s a neo-noir detective series that starts in Berlin in 1929, during the Weimar Republic, a period of incredible tumult and change.
And Season Four starts next week in Germany — not sure when we’ll have it here.
The many characters are indelible, including:
Charlotte Ritter, young, broke, working her way into becoming the city’s first homicide detective but working at night as a prostitute because she’s supporting an older sister and her deadbeat husband and their two infants, a younger sister, a mother and grandfather — all sharing the same squalid flat.
Gereon Rath, a cop who comes to Berlin from Cologne, both innocent and hardened by his WWI PTSD. He’s a “trembler”, much mocked by a colleague for his ongoing post-war trauma.
Helga Rath, his sister-in-law, with whom he’s been having an affair for a decade, with his soldier brother MIA.
Detective Chief Inspector Bruno Walter, whose heart harbors both compassion and terrible, deadly ambition.
If you’ve never seen it (on Netflix), 10 reasons why it’s worth your time:
To understand the many currents of Weimar Germany — intense nostalgia for The Fatherland, humiliated and broke after WWI, terrible poverty, unemployment, major new cultural changes like cinema and women joining the workforce.
2) To watch Gereon’s face as he takes his first airplane flight, moving from terror and disbelief to wonder. Magic!
3) To appreciate Charlotte’s blend of innocence and optimism in the face of relentless poverty and odds against her, and her toughness and determination.
4) To enjoy the long slow simmer of love between Gereon and Charlotte.
6) If you’ve never been to Berlin, to get to know it a bit through location shooting.
7) To feel as though you’re living their life with them, in all its complexity and fear and small joys — like a sunny afternoon swimming in a local lake (Berlin has more than 50! I spent an idyllic afternoon at Schlactensee.)
8) To travel to Berlin vicariously — without a mask or jet lag!
9) To keep unraveling so many layers of deceit and betrayal — and surprising loyalty and generosity.
At a certain point in your life — after a few decades on earth, and especially if you know a specific location really well — you still see, and fondly remember, so many things that “used to” be there, hence usetaville.
In our Hudson Valley town, this includes long-gone antique stores, including the just-closed E-bike shop that used to be an antique store, the art gallery that used to be Alma Snape flowers and the photo studio that was once Mrs. Reali’s dry cleaners.
There’s a growing tree across our street I’ll never like as much as the towering weeping willow that once stood there, also long gone.
Of course, change is inevitable!
Businesses come and go — so many killed by the loss of customers in this pandemic — and in cities where every inch of real estate has commercial value, almost everything is up for grabs…the former three-chair hair salon I loved for many years is now part of the growing empire of two very successful local restaurateurs and the lovely cafe across Grove Street, formerly Cafe Angelique, has been a Scotch & Soda (a Dutch owned clothing chain) for a long time now. Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village of New York City, once a treasure trove of cool indie shops, is legendary for its rapid store turnover.
A childhood home — if we lived in one house or apartment long enough and especially if our family has since moved out — may enclose a nearly undimmed set of early memories, as if its walls formed a time capsule we sealed behind us as we left. And if the possibility of retracing my flight from this Pittsfield house has both troubled and fascinated me for many years — if it’s what recently compelled me to write “Imagine a City,” a memoir and travelogue, and if even now I can’t decide whether to climb this darned staircase — well, my favorite stories remind me that I’m not alone as I grapple with the meaning of return.
I recall a scene from Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Home,” a modern rendition of the parable of the prodigal son, in which Jack — like me, the son of a clergyman — writes a letter: “Dear Father, I will be coming to Gilead in a week or two. I will stay for a while if that is not inconvenient.” After Jack walks into the kitchen for the first time in 20 years, his sister tells him, “The cups are where they always were, and the spoons.” I think, too, of Henry James’s Spencer Brydon in “The Jolly Corner,” who after 33 years abroad returns to his childhood home in New York and an encounter with a ghostly self who never left.
I haven’t been back to my earliest childhood home — on Castlefrank Road in Toronto — in many, many years. It was very big house with a long deep backyard and I still remember well my playmates who lived on either side of us. But I left it when my parents split up when I was six or seven and we moved into an apartment downtown. As a teenager I lived with my father for four years in a white house on a corner, easily visible when driving in Toronto, but have never asked to see it again inside.
I suspect these sorts of memories are very powerful if you spent a decade or more in the same home and if you liked living there. When we visit Montreal, our hotel windows overlook Peel and Sherbrooke — my home for a year at 3432 Peel Street in a brownstone — gone! My visits to Ben’s delicatessen a few blocks south — gone! But — hah! — the glorious Ritz Carlton is still there; we used to have Friday night dinners there when my mother hosted a TV talk show.
I lived for all off four months in an apartment in Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother — and decades later went back to see how much it had changed, including the empty field next to it.
Not at all!
I had some difficult moments living there, but it was very good to revisit the place and see it again.
I’ve been back to my high school and university campus, both in my hometown of Toronto, and even once revisited my former summer camp, the one I attended every year ages 12-16 and loved.
I admit — we were in the middle of a restaurant lunch yesterday when we learned that Queen Elizabeth had died.
I burst into tears.
I know for many people the monarchy is something hated and archaic. I get it.
For a Canadian who grew up, initially, with photos of Her Majesty on our classroom walls, then later on our stamps and currency, the Queen was a daily part of our lives, even if only her image.
As a young reporter for the national daily Globe and Mail, she became a part of my daily life in person when I was chosen to cover a Royal Tour of the Queen and Prince Philip.
It was the oddest sort of high profile assignment as it meant my stories would run on the front page most days — yet there would be little to say beyond what she wore, what she might say and who she met. It was both thrilling to be chosen and terrifying, especially as this was long before cellphones or the Internet or light, quick laptops. I would have to file for up to five daily editions, racing to meet each deadline with no easy access to a telephone or even a place from which to send my story or even to sit down and write it.
This made for some seriously weird moments — like the big old house in small-town New Brunswick where I begged to use their kitchen table to write, and, when an older gentlemen entered his own kitchen, muttered “Globe and Mail, on deadline!” Then I had to kick the lady of the house off her own telephone to commandeer the line, unscrew the handset, attach alligator clips, and transmit my story in time. The gentleman was a judge who would be attending a formal dinner with her that evening.
Or the hotel lobby gift shop whose pay phone I needed to use.
Or the small-town rural home whose front door I banged on in desperation…scaring the hell out of its poor owners as I begged yet more strangers for their help and to use their phone.
Each day was long and tiring, often with multiple events, and I think we were working 12-15 hour days, whipped.
We must have eaten, but I don’t remember when or how or what.
We traveled in a huge press pack, with Time and Newsweek and BBC and CBC all jammed into press planes or buses. Sometimes we flew in a Lear jet (a first!) and observed the “purple corridor” — the elapsed time between when Her Majesty’s plane took off and ours was allowed to.
We were all technically competing with one another for…no real news!
It was very odd to watch her turn her charm on and off like a spigot on walkabouts — we’re so used to politicians and celebrities who crave our attention, admiration, votes and money that to observe someone with multiple castles, the wealthiest woman (at least then) in the world up close — becoming cool/distant when she felt like it, was quite disorienting.
A dapper Glaswegian security man in a tweed jacket followed behind the Royal entourage, holding out his hands to keep us at bay like wild animals.
“You need a whip and a chair!” I joked.
“I could use the whip,” he replied, with a flirtatious twinkle in his eye. (I later bought one and gave it to him as a joke at our final party.)
I broke a few controversial stories and ended up being the brunt of some serious bullshit from competitors who had not matched my reporting. At a crowded mess hall somewhere in Manitoba, the legendary BBC TV reporter, Kate Adie, saw my distress and whispered in my ear: “The higher your profile, the better target you make.” She later mentioned me and that event in one of her memoirs.
A few specific memories:
— The stunning jewels of a tiara she wore to a dinner
— a brooch with an emerald the size of a baby’s fist
— a small suitcase in the back of a car, with a large red cardboard tag: The Queen
— being given a small piece of paper each morning with the official language we were to use to describe her clothing; eau-de-nil, not “light green.”
At the end of it all, we were invited aboard the royal yacht Britannia for drinks. That was amazing enough, and then we were each presented to Her Majesty.
My maternal great grandmother, Blanche Gresham, 1924
By Caitlin Kelly
For years, my late mother and I were estranged. When we were in touch, even as her only child, she almost never discussed her childhood or adolescence before, at 17, she met my Canadian father in the south of France, then left her native New York City to move to his hometown, Vancouver, where I was born six years later.
Both parents grew up wealthy — in large houses with servants, attending prep school (my mother), owning a horse and a sailboat (father). But neither childhood was necessarily calm and happy.
So their histories have remained mostly a mystery to me.
My mother died April 15, 2020 and a very large, heavy packing crate arrived a year later from her final home, a nursing home in Victoria, B.C.
For a variety of reasons — partly fear the works inside would be very damaged (they weren’t), ambivalence about owning the final items of hers and knowing we have no one in our family to leave these things to — I didn’t open it for nine months.
It took a lot of hard work to get it open — thank you Jose!!
This week, finally, we did, and my husband Jose attacked it with a hammer and crowbar and a lot of determination!
Amazingly, the four things inside were in excellent shape; only a few bits of one frame had chipped off and the glass was wholly intact on everything (having been taped.)
There were two family portraits and a gorgeous Inuit print of a polar bear from 1961 I had long admired. And a sampler, from 1845.
So now my maternal great-grandmother — Blanche Gresham — later the Countess Casagrande of Park Avenue — has come almost full circle, some 3,011 miles.
I only met her once, as a very old, very infirm lady in that apartment. My mother adored her. I adored my grandmother — while we both had very difficult times with our own mothers. Go figure!
These women led quite extraordinary lives, cocooned by enormous wealth, but with marital mayhem — my grandmother married six times, four in a decade. I never met any of them, long gone by the time I met her.
Developers Stumer, Rosenthal and Eckstein hired one of Chicago’s busiest, and best, tall building architectural firms Holabird & Roche for the project. William Holabird and Martin Roche, along with a team of talented designers and engineers, had developed a commercial building system that was not only pleasing to the eye, but more importantly for an investor could be built quickly, efficiently, and ready for rent-paying tenants on schedule. They were instrumental in helping make what came to be known as the Chicago School world famous.
One reason I chose to move to the U.S. was my fascination with this family and their lives. One relative became an ambassador, one an archeologist, one (!) a bullfighter. My cousins had lives that included piloting their own Cessna and running a rug business from Morocco. They were all intimidatingly confident — and so much larger than life than most of the quiet, polite Canadians I grew up around.
It’s quite comforting to finally have these women in our home now.
There are very few book of more than 500 pages anyone wants to tackle!
Let alone one that focuses on an international source of death…
No, not COVID, but AIDS.
I found this book on the shelf at my father’s house on our visit to Ontario in September and had been wanting to read it for many years but hadn’t sought it out.
Then, there, I had time to sit in the fall sunshine and read for hours.
Despite the grim topic and the fact it all happened more than 30 years ago it is a tremendous read — powerful real characters, from death-denying politicians, AIDS activists, researchers in Washington and Paris competing for prestige and power as they sought a vaccine, the individual men and women affected and their families and friends…
It is an astonishing piece of reporting, of history — and so sadly, powerfully prescient of what we’re all enduring with COVID. Of course its author, Randy Shilts, also later died of the disease.
I remember a lot of this because it was also my time.
I was a young and ambitious daily newspaper reporter in the mid 1980s, and so AIDS became part of the work I did for The Globe and Mail and the Montreal Gazette. I lost two dear friends — both gay men — to this disease because, then, it just killed everyone, and they died terrible deaths.
I still remember the names of some of those incredibly dedicated and frustrated doctors doing their best against, then, an implacable enemy.
Dr. Anthony Fauci was one of them.
For millions of closeted gay men, it also meant suddenly coming out to their families — some of whom rejected them, leaving them to die alone in ever-more-crowded hospital wards.
It affected women and children through shared needles, through blood tranfusions, through unprotected sex with men who were infected, whether they knew it or not.
We were horrified by it, scared of it, despairing when someone we loved called to tell us it was now their turn.
I know most of you won’t even consider reading it, and I get it!
But it is an important and powerful testament to all the issues we’re fighting today….still!
Vicious battles between those who recognize(d) the science and those who refused.
Demonization of victims.
Demonization of the health-care workers caring for them.
Fear that caring for AIDS patients could kill someone.
Insufficient funding to help victims.
Insufficient government action — sooner — to mitigate the disease’s spread.
I’m no celebrity, obviously, but have been urged for a while to write a memoir.
I’ve always resisted because…really?
How would my life be of interest to strangers?
I’ve enjoyed it, for sure, and had some wild adventures — visiting 41 countries, a two-year marriage, winning some nice writing awards — but is that of larger appeal?
I’ve had a great career: three major newspaper jobs with some fantastic assignments (going to the Arctic, covering Queen Elizabeth), a European fellowship, two books, etc. — so maybe some of that would be interesting to other journalists.
My family, as readers here know, is not a Hallmark card. My late mother and I were estranged for the last decade of her life. I have three half-siblings, one of whom I’m estranged from, one of whom is a self-made millionaire and one I’ve never met and don’t want to.
So, does a any of this add up to a book an agent will rep and a publisher will buy?
To be determined.
Most books are 80,000 words.
So far, I’ve easily and quickly written 20,000 and, to my surprise, am really enjoying it. It’s a mix of personal and professional stories, ranging from my time in Toronto to that in Paris to moving to New York knowing no one and without a job.
I have diaries from my 20s I haven’t even looked at, and a journal from 1998 of my trip to Australia and New Zealand, so I have some material there to work from.
Thanks to Google, I’m constantly fact-checking — like the distance from Montreal to the Arctic, or where the tree line ends in Quebec (the 56th parallel.) I also found a glaring error in my aunt’s Wikipedia entry, so am fortunate my father is still alive and lucid at 93 to do some corrections there; my aunt and uncle, both Canadian but British residents, were very well known in Britain in the 1960s and 70s for their work in TV and radio.
Several people who follow me on social media are most intrigued by my estrangements — how and when they happened and how it has affected me; my recent New York Times story on this topic elicited a stunning 700 comments, so it clearly struck a nerve.
We’ll see if this ends up being commercially useful.
Memoir starts with “me” — but it has to make sense to thousands of strangers.
In the meantime, I’m banging out 1,000 to 1,500 words a day.
What, if anything, would you want to know about me?
Loved this Guardian story about people who choose to live in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s — estehtically, anyway.
And I recently did a lot of global reporting — speaking to people in Seattle, DC, Ontario, Genoa, L.A., Stockholm, London, Finland and Philadelphia — about a hobby they all share, historical costuming. (The man in Philly does it for a living!)
It means making and wearing clothing of much earlier eras and centuries, finding patterns and appropriate fabric, and wearing the correct undergarments to create the correct silhouette. (No sports bras allowed!)
It’s an amazing obsession, and demands a lot of patience and skill and meticulous attention to detail. It’s mostly enjoyed women, and mostly white women — something they’re well aware of! I did include an Iranian-American.
One of the women I spoke to is a mechanic in Finland. One is an Army wife in Ontario. One is a jewelry appraiser in Stockholm.
All were a joy to speak with! I could have spent hours geeking out with Jenny Tiramani, a legendary costume designer who worked for years at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre — and who founded and runs London’s School of Historical Dress.
Here’s the piece, my first sale to the Styles section of The New York Times, for whom I write fairly often:
Here’s the start:
It’s a world of corsets, stays and chemises. Of weskits, bum rolls, breeches and hoop panniers. For actors, wearing period costume has long meant literally stepping into the past: lacing soft modern flesh into antique shapes and learning how to use the toilet without peeling off multiple layers.
“Bridgerton,” Shonda Rhimes’s racially diverse Netflix series set in 1813 England, has suddenly ignited new interest in Regency fashions. But a global community of hobbyists has been designing, making and wearing clothing from the 19th century and earlier for many years. Long a private obsession fueled by films like “The Leopard” and “Pride and Prejudice,” social media has widened the conversation, with fans of all ages and backgrounds worldwide now trading notes on how best to trim a sleeve or adjust a straw bonnet.
Pre-pandemic, they gathered in Los Angeles at Costume College, an annual conference, at Venice’s Carnival and the Fêtes Galantes at Versailles. Some lucky Europeans, like Filippa Trozelli, find themselves invited to wear their historical clothing to private parties at ancient local estates.
As someone who loves vintage/historical textiles — and who wore an Edwardian day dress for her first wedding — I totally get the appeal of this obsession. I love the notion of time travel, of swishing through a garden in yards of silk or meeting up in Venice with equally obsessed pals from around the world.
I had long wanted to write about this subculture, as I follow several of the women on Instagram, but never had a “peg” or “hook” — i.e. what relevance would it have now? Thanks to Bridgerton, it does!