Monday, October 31, 2011

The Halloween I Was Kilroy

Not Robin, exactly,
but you get the idea
My twelfth Halloween started out like every other Halloween. My friends and I dressed up to go trick-and-treating. My friends were a Pirate, a Princess, and a Prize Fighter—all dolled up in homemade costumes put together from odds and ends from their attics, that nobody wanted to wear anymore. That year I opted to wear my father’s tuxedo and derby hat. (He was quite the swell in those days.) So we set out on our usual neighborhood rounds, full of anticipation.

Our bags were only half full when we decided to take a short cut down a back alley, behind a string of row houses. As we trotted along in high spirits, laughing and shouting, a man came out the back door of his house and yelled, “Any of you Kilroy?”

Being a wise guy in those days, I yelled back, “Yeah, I’m Kilroy!”

The man strode up to me and began pummeling me on the shoulders with his fists and bashed my derby down over my nose. “That’ll teach you to turn over my trash cans,” he said.

My fair-weather friends had long vanished, leaving me holding the bag, literally. I was still clutching my bag of treats. Dizzy and disoriented, I tried to piece together this amazing event. Suddenly it hit me. Some prankster had tipped over this bozo’s trashcans the night before—Mischief Night—and left the message: “Kilroy was here!” scrawled in chalk on his sidewalk. The chump didn’t know that slogan was invented during the war, to be left as a calling card by anyone who wanted to do some anonymous mischief.

Slowly, I trudged after my so-called friends, wondering how I was going to replace my father’s ruined derby. Would the haberdasher accept candy in place of coin? Fat chance. One lesson I learned that memorable Halloween-- to keep my mouth shut.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, October 30, 2011

If I Were a Rich Man...

I'd build a big tall house with rooms by the dozen
Right in the middle of the town...

The 1964 words by Sheldon Hamick and Jerry Bock, inspired by Sholem Aleichem's 1899 short story "Ven ich bin Rothschild", have spawned countless literary works. And memories for each of us.

Recently a stranger at a 92Y concert told me that if she won the lottery she'd hire a private car service and chauffeur. It ignited a volume of reflections in my criminal mind.

Actually, I've been lucky to have had some very lively encounters with the rich over time. One friend (and former colleague) in Manhattan actually has her own car and driver. We met for tea one afternoon at the Mark Hotel on East 77th St. When we were ready to leave, she called her driver on her cell phone and drove me home in style. Yes, I could get used to that myself!

When I was in the 5th Grade, in Burlington, NC, I had a friend whose family owned the biggest mill in town. Burlington was the hub of hosiery mills then, like in Burlington Industries. She had a doll house in the backyard that was as big as my whole home! And her mother had a private masseuse who came weekly for her and her daughter. I'd never heard the word - it was as exotic a concept to me at age ten as Arabian Nights!

Some rich people really do watch their pennies! I once visited the mother of a friend who had pots of dough, and she presided over every penny. Generous in other ways, she was a miser about her phone bills. She made me pay her 77 cents once for a call I'd made, not 75 or 80 but 77 exactly!

The same gentlewoman let me use her membership at the Park Avenue Colony Club to swim in their elegant indoor pool one summer. I'll never forget the first time I stepped out of the pool, dripping wet of course, and a maid in a starched grey uniform followed me back to the dressing area, wiping up the gleaming floor after me with a white cloth!

When I worked in Newport, RI, I belonged to the English Speaking Union, which was big in that town of swells, castles, real-life Upstairs-Downstairs and fancy balls with imported orchestras, just like Grace Kelly's movies.

I'll never forget one reception for some British Big Wig. I was so thrilled I drove up to Boston and bought a gorgeous gown at the original Filene's Basement. I knew the food would be out of this world, so I skipped lunch to save room.

At the most elegant castle I'd ever been to on these shores, out on a promontory high above the Atlantic Ocean, this was what they served: On trays like the kind in public school lunchrooms, the liveried servants passed out saltines topped with a dab of Velveeta Cheese Spread!

That was it!

Where was the paté, the gourmet cheese, the stuffed squab and whateverthehell they munch on at QE2's house in Scotland???

I recall going home, yanking off the wretched dress, and dashing to the nearest Newport Creamery where I ordered hot dogs and a hot fudge sundae!!!

Once I had an ultra rich student in my Latin class at a prep school on Lake Michigan. Her father owned most of Chicago and its ball teams, and sent his private plane to take her down to the Kentucky Derby.

When I first called on her to translate some Caesar, she replied, "I don't want to. You do it, Miss Straw. You do it so much better than I do!!" Little rich kid...

To end this trip down memory lane on a humorous note, once at a hoity-toity horse show in rural Connecticut, I was in the charity bazaar sale tent, buying some old pieces of initialed silver that would go nicely with my hodge-podge collection of old silver. As I handed over my money, I overheard the blue-haired matron say to her fellow volunteer, "Oh, my dear, what SOME people will do to buy an ancestor!"

You can't make up these things!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Friday, October 28, 2011

Ghost Story

It's Halloween again, and time for one of the spooky stories passed down in my mother's family, where many on the Moore side had "the sight." Today we will recount the tale of the Haunting of Fritwell.

My grandmother was one of four sisters. When World War I broke out, the three eldest found themselves married to officers in the Canadian army, all of whom were sent to France to fight the Hun. The officers got leave from time to time to go to England, and the sisters eventually hit upon a plan to go there and rent a large country house so that they and their husbands might be together. Fritwell Manor became available. The lord of the Manor was Sir John Simon, a widower and a highly-placed English politician.
Fritwell Manor

Ethel, Billie and Hylda settled in. Irene, my grandmother, was the last to arrive, bringing my six-year-old mother with her. Ethel put my grandmother (who had "the sight") all by herself in the tower room. She snuggled down and went to sleep.

She hadn't been asleep but an hour or two when the sound of footsteps issued from the hall outside. Approaching. Slowly. Then, the sound in the pitch-dark room of the door creaking open. More footsteps, closer and closer to the bed, until at last...

The sensation of a cold hand laid upon her forehead.

When my grandmother appeared at the breakfast table the following morning, pale and trembling, her sisters seemed very merry. "Well, Irene, how did you like the tower room?" said Ethel. Everyone knew it was haunted. They had put her there as a (rather mean, I think) prank.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bologna and Arezzo

Florence is incomparable. No doubt about that.


Taking nothing away from the greatest art treasury in the world, there are also great pleasures to be had in two small cities that are very nearby. My favorite thing about Bologna and Arezzo is that unlike the international tourist mecca that is Florence, these two seem one hundred percent Italian. Not that they are lacking in artistic wonders, to be sure, but their vibe is local, focused.

Bologna is red. From the brick and paint on its stately buildings, to the liberality of its democratic politics, to the mouthwatering tomato-y richness of its Tagliatelle alla Bolognese. Only half an hour by fast train from Florence one finds delights for the eye, the taste buds, the soul. In the heart of the city are two adjoining piazzas often thronged with students at its famous university—along with Paris, one of the two oldest in Europe. In the center of Piazza del Nettuno, is a fountain graced with a wonderful muscular Neptune by Giambologna.

On this recent visit, we were privileged to attend an opening at our friend Tiziana Sassoli’s Galleria Fondantico. Tiziana is a world-class expert in the paintings of her region of Italy from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. For the launch of her latest exhibition, she recreated a still life. Amazing.

Take a look at the full exhibition by visiting the gallery at Don’t miss the painting I wanted to take home (if only!), Donato Creti’s splendid Minerva. When you get to the website click on “Galleria” to see the show.

Arezzo is a totally different sort of town: as peaceful as Bologna is bustling, as Tuscan restrained as Bologna is voluptuous. In the church of San Francesco is one of the greatest masterpieces of the Renaissance: Piero della Francesca’s “Legend of the True Cross.” Here is a self-portrait he placed in one of the panels of the fresco. Read the legend in Piero’s pictures at

Arezzo has a long and glorious artistic and literary history that includes Guido of Arezzo who invented the system of musical notation, Petrarch (who was born there in 1304), and the painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari. The modern-day genius Roberto Benigni the writer/director of “Life is Beautiful” is also an Aretine and you may recognize his native city’s Piazza Grande from the scenes of the movie shot there.

On the train back to Florence from Arezzo, I got to thinking about going home to New York this coming Saturday. As we sped through the Tuscan countryside of acres of vineyards and olive groves, villas surrounded by midnight green cypresses, and hills topped by castles and monasteries, I wondered how I could leave all this beauty. Nor can I stay here and do without my dear ones in New York any longer. I have long said that when I am in Italy, the people here consider me American. When I am in the States, people think of me as Italian. Whether I am here or there, a part of me is far away from home.

Monday, October 24, 2011

An Ode to the Cliché*

Once upon a time I was up the creek and it never rained but it poured. I was dressed to kill and therefore down in the mouth. Not one to cry over spilt milk, I became busy as a bee and rode out the storm. Knowing there is more than one way to skin a cat, I paddled my own canoe, minded my P’s and Q’s, and let sleeping dogs lie.

Until some wise guy said, “Here’s mud in your eye!” and suggested I take off my wet clothes. Naked as a jay bird, I got drunk as a skunk, sang my swan song, and took a powder.

On the way to my home sweet home, I told myself, “You can’t win ‘em all,” but, “The show must go on!”

Robin Hathaway

*Inspired by The Dictionary of Clichés by James Rogers

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Daddy's Goofy Gas

As you've no doubt guessed by now, I simply love getting news from reading the daily papers!

Recently I saw a headline I'd normally have ignored: A Way to Make Motor Fuel Out of Wood.

B-o-r-i-n-g??? Yup. Ordinary folks might think so, in this super-advanced world of hi-tech and instant UFOs and unheard of quakes-explosions-germs-out of mind earth antics.

But not to me. . .

If plain folks can spin car gas from wood, then I might have become a next-door sugar-borrowing neighbor of Warren Buffett, the Rockefellers or our guy Mike Bloomberg. Had history come out differently.

I peered at the small print to find out who-in-hell had finally cracked the secret. . .

It seems a Georgia company, Renmatix, has a process that puts plain ole wood chips, they call cellulosic biomass, into a small pressurized chamber. The material that remains is pumped into a second pressurized vessel. This company uses only pressurized water. Their plant in Kennesaw, GA, has a pilot-scale plant that processes three tons of mixed wood chips a day.

A bigwig in energy and the environment boasted that they would succeed in producing tons of gallons of what could be motor fuels!

Aw, shucks!

Mercy me!

My father, who fancied himself an amateur inventor, was way ahead of these little ole Georgia boys.

I was too young to know the particulars, but I know that Daddy invented his own gas – or motor fuel – during the war when we lived in Norfolk, VA. Not out of wood chips, but a whole garage filled to the ceiling with mountains of sawdust!

Whatever he added to the piles of sawdust, that he bought somewhere on the VA-NC border, he was able to run the family Ford for a couple of years on his invention of gas.

Granted, when we started out on the weekly family outing, the whole car would LURCH forward in one VIOLENT motion. Scary now, but then I found it thrilling, like a roller-coaster ride! I was too young to wonder what it all was made of, or even to be scared. All I knew was there was a real big gas shortage and my Daddy had invented a way so we could go out for a drive!

I never knew what he added to the sawdust or what made the stuff run the car engine. All I recall was that after a couple of years I heard him say that the car engine had turned to mush!

We never knew what made it work.

All we knew was it was Daddy's Goofy Gas.

And, by golly, it worked!!!

Thelma Straw

Friday, October 21, 2011

Never Mind the Cat

I have been forced once again to rethink my writing technique. Outlining the Work in Progress using the techniques described in Save the Cat doesn't work for me.

You will recall my boasting a couple of months ago of how I put up a board divided into three acts, as recommended by Blake Snyder, and how slickly all the events of my thriller fell into place once I started sticking 3x5 cards up on the board. You will recall how smoothly I thought everything was going.

That was before I hit fifty thousand words of the first draft and saw how everything I thought about this book was wrong, how it needed a complete overhaul. Actually that's okay. That's what second and third drafts are for. But the thing is, a novel is not a screenplay. I am not a natural plotter. The intricate wacky plots of the books I've written in the past resulted not from forethought but from getting my characters into situations that required Rube Goldberg methods to get them out. Not a plotter. What I am is a pantser.

So for all you other pantsers out there, here's the method that works best for me: Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, and then stop.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Adoring David in Florence

Caveat: Some of you may know that I am married to a man named David. “City of Silver” is dedicated to him. But this is not about my love for my husband.

Michelangelo’s David is one of the most iconic works of art on the planet: so pervasive an image that a person could be forgiven for thinking it trite at this point. Forgiven, but VERY wrong. True, tourists here can buy pictures of it on postcards and reproduced in statuettes of thirty different sizes. There are Davids on jewelry boxes, aprons, pens, key chains, refrigerator magnets, tissues, change purses, and boxer shorts. (I leave it to your imagination to work out which part of his anatomy appears on men’s underclothing.) Want a David umbrella or tote bag? No problem.

Yes, there is all that.

But then in the Accademia stands the original whose presence inspires awe and worship. Its perfection defies description. The ideal of human being at a moment in an archetypal story. The sling over his left shoulder, the rock in his right hand, he contemplates facing the monster Goliath. He is Everyman (and every woman) who must battle an insurmountable foe.

Michelangelo wrote the whole story in marble. The position of David’s limbs, the tension in his hands and neck, and especially his face. Fear. Determination. Strategizing. You can read his mind in those eyes, the furrows in his forehead, the set of his jaw.

I looked in the museum bookstore for a postcard of that face and discovered another reason to be amazed. There were several. Depending on the camera angle, David’s expression emphasizes one emotion or another. In some pictures, he looks more afraid, some more determined, the profile is almost serene. These are photos of a stone man. His expression does not change, but he shows you different aspects of himself as you move around him. How did Michelangelo do that?

We marvel at David because as we view him he comes alive.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, October 17, 2011

3 Tips to Put the Joy into Research

Research can be a drag or a joy. It becomes a drag, an exercise in drudgery, if you do all your research sitting down — on the Internet or in libraries. You have to come up for air and get off your duff now and then, which brings me to my first tip.

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask . . .

When I first started writing I never dared bother an expert with my dumb little questions. How wrong I was. Experts love to talk about their work. Don’t you like to talk about mysteries, writing, and how you got published? If a fledgling writer comes up to you—all starry-eyed and asks, “How did you become a writer?” do you snap, “None of your business. Leave me alone.” Of course not. You wax eloquently about how you became a writer and bathe happily in her admiration and awe. Policemen, geologists, chemists, FBI agents, doctors, and fire-fighters are no different. As long as you are polite, listen intently, and ask intelligent questions, you will often find you are the one who has to end the interview.

2. Head for the Children’s Library

Have you ever been faced with the need to know how a rifle works? Or which mushrooms are poisonous? Or the intricacies of a pacemaker? Don’t reach for those heavy tomes with the small print and few illustrations. You won’t understand them and you’ll waste a lot of time trying to. Children’s non-fiction authors are experts
at explaining things clearly, briefly, and accurately with lots of pictures and simple diagrams – that even a child can understand. Give them a try.

3. Don’t just look and listen; touch, smell and taste, too.

We have five senses, but when we write we tend to rely on only two – sight and hearing. The other three are equally important, but often get neglected. The feel of the nape of a baby’s neck, rough bark, or a silk stocking (with a leg in it?) The smell of a school lunchroom – who can forget it? The odor of a badly run nursing home. Or the scent of a crushed mint leaf. The taste of that first cup of coffee. Ice cream on a hot day. Or milk that’s turned sour overnight. Such details can reveal character, enhance settings, even further a plot.

Research can be a drag or a joy. Maybe these tips will help it be the latter.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Why Do You Write Crime Novels?

After " Where do you get your ideas?" this is probably the next question readers, audiences, fans, kinfolk, acquaintances, book-store-on-line-shoppers ask you.

The next one, usually with a wink or a knowing nod or smirk, is " How can a nice guy/girl like you write about such weird/scary/awful stuff?"

Just between us friends, I finally pulled out of my checkered past an answer that is more true than some erudite sound bite I'd give to a reporter from the Times, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair or GQ.

I used to travel a lot to bring home the bacon. Back in the day when travel was really fun. You got all dolled up, ate real food, checked your bags free, and revelled in the royal attention from the gorgeous guys and dolls who worked as stewardesses/stewards. Leand back in comfort to watch Cary or Sean or Clark or Ingrid or Marilyn in sexy low-lighting and listened eagerly to every announcement from the pilot's lair.

Once I even went by Greyhound from Chicago to Suffolk, VA., dressed in a pristine white silk suit and heels and silk stockings! Then, when I worked for a Fortune 500 HQ, I flew more than I stayed at home! My digs on the road ranged from Hilton, Starwood, Marriott to Super 8 to Ma and Pa Hick's Cozy Cabins.

Then there were other sides to the equation. More introvert than pushy broad by nature, I learned to operate as an in-your-face-dame, who could dish with the best of them. Stomping in heels to the check-in desk to demand a room closer to the lobby than at the end of a five-mile hike. Plus little perks like working light bulbs, two clean towels, an extra blanket or pillow. AC that breathed air not dust. Coffee machines that boiled the water. You know the drill...

So many of those nights on the road, or super-highway, or urban center, whether on a high-end Hilton bed or a Cozee Motel cot, often with no working TV, I was pressed to get to sleep. Usually I was stuck, alone, exhausted and drained from a hard day's work, running some kind of program or workshop, talking out of both ears and eyes, and the outside world was either a den of iniquity, not fit for a nice female, or the deathly silence of the sticks, where everything closed down with the sunset, and all the locals were in bed or snuggled in their own private compounds. Even the bars closed at dusk.

So, I learned to entertain myself, often falling asleep with the latest mystery book I'd bought at the airport in Chicago, St. Louis, Wilmington, L.A., Dallas, Nashville, Phoenix, Miami – you name it, I probably slept there.

So many nights!

So many books!

Names like John le Carre, Peter Lovesey, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Dorothy Sayers, Arthur Haley, David Hagberg, Nelson DeMille, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Phyllis Whitney, Thomas Chastain, the MacDonalds, John Creasey, Georges Simenon – to name a few – my thousand and one nights. My sleeping aids of choice...

I vowed then to those faceless but oh-so-valuable friends that some day I'd pay back my debt to them. And try to give other travelers what they had given me.

So, here's to you – countless men and women writers – on both sides of the pond, writers of that world of make-believe that is actually more truthful than what we call the real world!

Wherever you are, still on this planet or on the next level...

Bless you all, my dears!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Friday, October 14, 2011

Unacceptable Sacrifice

I tell you what, I'm almost cranky enough to give you a recipe today instead of a post. If it isn't one thing it's another. First I discovered that the secret desire of my agent was that I write like two famous best-selling guys who are known for their gritty urban fiction. I ask you, does that sound like me?

Then, as I endeavored to insert a little urban grit into my Work in Progress (after expunging all references to the cat), The AARP bulletin came in my mailbox and insisted that saving the country from the coming fiscal disaster was my personal responsibility, and that I could accomplish this task only by forswearing cookies. The rationale for this is that cookies will make me fatter and give me diabetes, which will cause me to get sick and demand payments from Medicare for my doctors, which will sink the economy.

I didn't get us into this mess, George #$%&* Bush got us into this mess, and you can bet he isn't giving up his #$%&* cookies. I have few enough pleasures in life at my age without giving up cookies. Like my cookies are causing a multi-trillion-dollar national deficit. Get real, AARP, before I go all gritty and urban on you. #$%&.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Talking Murder in Florence

Leighton Gage and Annamaria 
This past weekend, we got a wonderful visit from the gifted mystery novelist and generous crime-writing colleague, Leighton Gage. Leighton is literally an international man of mystery. (Yes, I know, I should find a more original way to say so, but I cannot resist my only opportunity to write this sentence and mean it.) Having lived in several countries and visited many more, Leighton now lives in and writes about Brazil. You can read about him and his fascinating books at

We talked murder at the dinner table, walking in the piazza, and sitting on the terrace. We also covered a lot of South American history and territory of which he has an encyclopedic knowledge.

On Saturday, we witnessed a parade that seemed to be the investiture of a new group of rookies for the Polizia Municipale di Firenze. It included a Renaissance Band in costume, lots of flags, and handsome modern day citizens portraying Dante and Beatrice and Savonarola (presumably at some point in his life between the Bonfire of the Vanities and point where he himself was burned at the stake in the Piazza Della Signoria).

The newly-minted cops looked great in their full dress uniforms. I dare any other municipality to show us a chicer police force.

This got me to thinking about effect all this pomp and circumstance might have on the success of law enforcement. In New York, after all, our young police officers, as far as I know, get what amounts to a High School graduation ceremony with uniforms. If they are lucky, they hear a speech by the mayor and have an opportunity to get their picture taken with their mother. To my knowledge, a guy wearing red and white stockings and carrying sword has never attended.

So what of the crime rate in these parts? A brief Google search produced the following paragraphs from Wikipedia:

“At 0.013 per 1,000 people, Italy has the 47th highest murder rate in the world. This makes the murder rate in Italy less than 1/3 that of the United States. Italy is also safer than Finland, France, Iceland, Australia, Canada and the U.K. and only marginally less safe than Spain, Germany and Holland.

Italy is also a country with lower rates of rape than most other nations of the Western world. It has the 46th highest per-capita rate of rape in the world meaning that Italian women are 7 times safer than American women. Similarly, Italy has a lower per capita rate of rape than most of the advanced Western countries in the European Union.”

Do you think this gift of safety for the Italian people has anything to do with the ghost of Savonarola showing up when the municipal police recruits receive their badges?

Annamaria Alfieri

PS: I scanned the crowd at the parade and saw no trace of Hannibal Lecter. Perhaps he was off somewhere having lunch.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Owls in the Attic

Reading about Kate’s attic made me think of my own — and its contents.

Ten boxes of owls. It all began with my grandmother. When she was a young girl.

Her parents took a trip to New York City and brought back gifts for their three daughters – beautiful dresses for my grandmother’s two sisters, and for my grandmother — a plaster owl.

It was good-sized owl, over a foot high, and bore a remarkable resemblance to the real thing. It had been designed to decorate a mantel, a piano, or a bookshelf, in the typical Victorian manner.

For some reason my grandmother hung on to the gift, probably to remind her of the injustices of life, and when my grandfather died and she moved in with us, she brought the owl with her. But she refused to have it in her room, and my mother didn’t want it in our living room, and so eventually it ended up in my father’s studio, where he sometimes used it in a still-life, surrounded by fruit or flowers. But most of the time it collected dust.

And that’s where I think the trouble started. At one of my parents’ studio parties someone got a little tipsy and misheard my father say, “That owl collects dust,” and thought he said, ”I collect owls.” Because shortly thereafter, people began showing up with owls in their pockets, their purses, tucked under their arms, some even arrived by mail at Christmas and on his birthday. They were all sizes and shapes, made of wood, pottery, metal, straw, cotton and plastic. There were drawings and photographs, collages and needlepoints of owls. The question was, where to put them?

We had a recreation room when I was growing up, but it had gradually become the room-where-we-put-anything-we-didn’t-know-what-to-do-with-but-couldn’t-quite-bring-ourselves-to-throw-out. The ping-pong table was still there, and that’s where the owls ended up. It soon came to be known as, “The Owl Room.”

Time passed, And so did my grandmother, and my parents. The house was sold and its contents divided between my brother and me. I got the owls. So there they are, neatly wrapped in newspaper, packed in boxes, waiting — for what? To be rescued and returned to the light of day? Or to be carted off to the Salvation Army? Or – the nearest land-fill? Maybe the next time I have house guests and am forced to clean the attic, I will decide their fate. But not now. Not today. Tomorrow – as Scarlet would say.

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Out of the Mouth of the Gray Lady. . .

I opened the Times for my daily fix and was perplexed by the items on A2. First, the box by Chanel. Not the usual picture of a ladies' purse for $4,500, a tad more than I pay at K-Mart, a price that could get me to and fro to Shanghai, including tips and drinks. But what looked like one of those rings they throw at you when you're falling off the yacht. "Cruise 2011/12 Collection Preview." Was this another name for a handbag? It was above my paygrade to translate.

Then "Inside the Times." It seems that Russian President Mister Dmitri A. Medvedev had fired Russia's longtime finance minister, Mister Aleksei L. Kudris, who'd had the nerve to question said D.A.M's skill in economic affairs. Told the top guy he'd rather quit than work for him. I happened to know already that A.L.K. KNEW D.A.M. was slotted to swap with Mister V.V. Putin at the next election. Was Mister K. just itching to get a transfer to Outer Siberia? Or worse? Like that little dungeon we happen to know about? (Wink. Wink!)

If that wasn't enough to give me a headache, the Turkish P.M., Mister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had the GALL to try to enter the wrong way at the U.N. and was PUSHED by a guard!!!

This started the kerfuffle shuffle and a fracas that could be heard FOUR floors below!!! So awful it sent the lord high commish, Mister Ban Ki-Moon, scurrying (their word, not mine) (I thought only mice scurried) over to the Turkish Mission to make nice with an apology. Well, thank goodness someone has manners in that place!

As if that wasn't enough to curdle my coffee, some kids at Berkeley/CAL had a bake sale where they made students pay different prices for their pastries, according to their sex and race. You can't make up this stuff. It was called "Increase Diversity Bake Sale."

Price List:
- Whites- $2
- Asians - $1.50
- Latinos - $1
- African-Americans - 75 cents
- Native Americans - 25 cents
- All Women - a 25 cent discount
( Enough to start WW3 ! )

I turned to A 16 and learned about Rat Island, a small vacant parcel of land off City Island in Long Island Sound, a property on the market if I wanted to leave Carnegie Hill. Rat Island has no electricity or sewer lines. It is under water at high tide. ( Oh, wow!) But it has birds...

I could buy it for a mere $426,000. No traffic, no garbage trucks at 5 A.M. No yelling neighbors, no ringing phones at 3 A.M.

Rat Island was originally part of Thomas Pell's land bought from the Siwannoy Indians - like in Westchester Country Club, School, or Bronx Trail. It got its name from prisoners on nearby Hart Island, who escaped by swimming with cardboard boxes over their heads to look like bobbng trash. The place has served as a fisherman's landing, campground, kayak launching site and a viewing place for fireworks. Any takers???

The owner pitches the sale as a conversation piece at cocktail parties at the Yale Club , the Colony Club or even the New York Athletic Club – "I own an island!" (Hey, that works for moi!)

By the way, what's with these New Yorky islands up for grabs??? The Gray Lady also reported that the Feds hope to sell Plum Island, off the end of Long Island, that verrry weird, dangerous federal Animal Disease Center, where our own MWA Nelson DeMille revealed the real deal in his enthralling novel PLUM ISLAND with hero John Corey. "Sandy shoreline, beautiful views and a harbor!" says the NYT.


John Corey, help!!!

All the News That's Fit to Print??? I ponder on that . . .

Thelma J. Straw

P.S. Update on the sale of Rat Island: Buyer Alex Schibli bought the island recently at auction for a mere $160,000, which sounds like a real bargain. So, there goes the dream. Of course, there's always Plum Island - but I question if we could ever get rid of all those germs and worse. Now that place gives me the creeps...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Letting Go of the Stuff

(Not my pile of clothes. I found it on the internet.)
This is my second day of cleaning the attic. The occasion is to turn it back into a guest room, since we're having company this weekend. It's really quite a nice room, finished, air conditioned when necessary (unlike the rest of the house), furnished with a big soft comfy bed. The problem is that it's full of my dead projects.

You may or may not know that I knit. I like to do this in the summertime, when the weather is unbearably hot, as an expression of the hope that the autumn will eventually come.

You may or may not know that I like to sew sometimes, that I used to be good at it, that when I was broke I used to make my own clothes. I have a 1963 Kenmore cabinet sewing machine in pickled blond wood, sort of bogus Swedish-loooking, that I bought second-hand from another state worker back when I was a clerk for the Department of Youth and Family Services. Shortly after she sold me the sewing machine her life fell apart completely and she went on the street. I would run into her on State Street sometimes. She would beg cigarette money from me and advise me to oil the sewing machine frequently. She became the prototype for Ruth Ann, the bag lady in Unbalanced Accounts, my first published book.

For a long time now I have had the notion that I could still sew, that I could rock those home-made clothes the way I used to when I was young and svelte. I pore over the fashion magazines avidly, seeking the latest styles. But there's less and less to the clothes, and more and more showing of the little models wearing them. I could sew those dresses, no problem. But I couldn't look like that in them. Most of the work would have to be done on my person.

It's time to pack it in as a Project Runway contestant. Five bags of half-finished crappy projects, knitting, sewing, embroidery, you name it, went out on the curb yesterday. Two bags of old clothes went to the thrift shop. I'm thinking maybe I'll put the sewing machine out too. These days my favorite household appliances are the refrigerator, the stove, the ice cream maker, the red Kitchenaid stand mixer, and the brand new food processor. Food processor! How cool is that! I never had one before.

Farewell to the old projects, hello to the new. I'm going down to the kitchen now and just go ahead and finish getting fat.

Kate Gallison

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Watching The Clock at the Biennale in Venice

This year’s was Venice’s 54th International Exhibition. Artists from all of the world are chosen by their countries or by curators to show their contemporary works. As you would imagine, some of the paintings, sculptures, installations, video art, etc. etc. etc., you name it, moves some visitors, but not everyone. Some grabbed me; some went right over my head. Over the course of four days, we took in most of it. This year David and I had the privilege of attending with our friends Jean-Claude and Francoise, French collectors who study the international art scene in-depth and with a passion for finding young artists who have something to say. With those discerning and informed guides, we found fascination and insight into the human condition, and lots of enjoyment.

Some of the works were amusing. Here’s a mural. How many of these people do you recognize?

One, at the US Pavilion is profound, but not at first glance. Here is Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s piece outside the American exhibit in the Giardini. The upside down tank symbolizes the obsolete nature of traditional war; the woman running on the treadmill shows us that once you take your tanks into a place like Iraq or Afghanistan, you are stuck, moving and moving and moving but getting nowhere.

Sometimes the full of effect of the exhibition spaces, especially in the Arsenale, was more enjoyable than seeing the works themselves.

But by far, my absolute favorite of any I saw was “The Clock,” by Christian Marclay — a twenty-four hour long video project that splices together snippets of film all of which contain clocks. The montage is timed so that the clocks and watches on the screen tell the actual time in the place where the video is being shown. We only got to see about 45 minutes of it, but I could have stayed all day—literally. I want MOMA to show it so I can see the whole thing. PLEASE take a few minutes to see this British TV report and the three-minute clip of the work, and watch (pun intended) how mesmerizing it can be.

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, October 3, 2011

Don’t Throw Away Your First Draft!

Botticelli – Study for "The Allegory of Abundance"
My writing methods are old-fashioned. I write my first draft by hand on yellow legal pads. It is illegible to anyone but myself and sometimes, even to me. However, I never throw it away, at least not until the book is in print. Why?

Because, with all its misspellings, grammatical errors, clichés and structural problems, it also has the energy, the spark, the originality that belongs to the first telling of every story.

My father was an artist — a painter, a print-maker, and a teacher. He taught History of Art and Studio Art at a college in Pennsylvania. Whenever there was an exhibit of preliminary drawings and sketches by great painters, in Manhattan, Philadelphia, or Washington, DC, he urged his students to go see it. “These early drawings will have a vibrancy, an energy, and a freshness that is sometimes lost in the finished masterpiece — after all the refining and polishing takes place,” he said.

The same applies to writing, I think. So hang onto that first draft, turn to it once in awhile when you are revising and polishing your manuscript. Make sure you haven’t polished away something important such as that electric charge that compelled you to tell the story in the first place!

Robin Hathaway

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Den Mother's Finale

The well-heeled crowd might have been a lively congregation at an Upper East Side church or synagogue.

Except for the green paddles with the big white numbers.

Valuable and sentimental belongings of Elaine's eponymous restaurant and the legendary restaurateur's penthouse apartment (her "fortune of solitude ") were on the auction block. The cherished treasures of the restaurant sometimes called "the living room for New York's 'cop and writer set' " were up for sale at Doyle's elegant auction house on Manhattan's East 87th Street at 2 P.M. September 20, 2011.

I watched the crowd fill the room at Doyle's until there was barely room to stand, much less breathe. A mix of glamour and plain folks. The only celebrity I recognized was Dr. Ruth, or her lookalike! Lots of air-kissing, glitter mixed with tieless shirts and jeans, mostly middle-aged, middle-class, well-educated, sophisticated, lots of grey/white hair. (On the men, mostly!) Chic and fashionably shabby. I looked for my MWA colleague, Stuart Woods, who often writes a wonderful scene at Elaine's in his books! Maybe he phoned in his bids!

Yes, it was a party atmosphere, not funereal.

The Queen would have loved it!

An iconic landmark had closed after 47 years, only months after the death of the owner, Elaine Edna Kaufman, the irascible, beloved den mother, also the tough businesswoman, who ruled over her domain with an iron fist and a surprisingly tender, generous heart.

Elaine's was a writer's room. One writer wrote after her death from emphysema and hypertension, December 3, 2010, at Lenox Hill Hospital, "That kingdom has lost its queen!"

People often came to Elaine's with their suitcases, before checking into a hotel. If you were rich and famous, you might get a chair at Table # 1. People wanted her affection. She had a gift not only at putting people together, but in putting movie deals together.

She never let you sit alone, if she knew you. The place was a home for her extended family. She might join you at the table and eat half your food, often picking up youir tab, if you were down on your luck.

She might yell at you, throw you out - but few women in the Big Apple got so many flowers and morning-after phone calls!

She had "the touch" in creating relationships between gifted people - writers, editors, producers.

She liked people "who did things", whether in government, Hollywood, Broadway, the newsroom. Even nurses, circus performers, police - the people who were the best of what they did!

Everyone wanted to please Elaine, wanted to prove themselves to her. The eatery was a haven for show business and literary notables.

And Elaine Kaufman was larger than life, an earth mother queen, who ruled her kingdom perched on a stool at the end of her 25-foot mahogany bar, behind her oversize glasses, schmoozing with her celebrity clientele.

Born February 10, 1929, Elaine grew up in Queens and the Bronx. She started her career in the restaurant business in 1959, with boyfriend Alfredo Viazzi, at Portofino in Greenwich Village. In 1963 she went on her own and bought an Austrian-Hungarian on the upper east side, on 2nd Avenue and 88th Street, which became a world-reknowned haven for glittery literati, in the longest run of a sole proprietor, made more famous by A. E. Hotchner's book EVERYONE COMES TO ELAINE'S.

Blunt and fearless with celebrities, Elaine was the master of sound bites.

An avid collector of art and books, she was a purveyor of style. In her possession were works of prominent artists - Helen Frankenthaler, Reginald Marsh, George Segal, Andy Warhol, David Hackey, Alberto Giacometti- books inscribed by Katherine Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, Truman Capote, a variety of memorabilia, furniture, decorations, fashion and accessories, that Elaine collected or received as gifts.

Some were on display in the New York landmark restaurant; others were seen by selected guests at her elegant penthouse on East 86th Street, her personal sanctuary, with its wraparound terrace, wood-burning fireplace and a view of the East River.

Her "own space", where she relaxed by watching cowboy movies. "It's all me. And mine," she said of her home, where she kept a 100-year-old slot machine, a Jamie Wyeth drawing, a signed baseball from George Steinbrenner, a Russian coffee set, a single off-white orchid, and photos of herself with Norman Mailer and Michael Caine.

After the auction a friend asked me what I bought. I was just there to observe and pay my own silent tribute to a rara avis . . .

But if I'd had a paddle, I'd have bid for these items:

  • A set of Elaine's monogrammed hand towels.
  • Table # 1 with set of 4 cafe chairs, the first table in "the line", and the most desirable in the house. People sat there to see and be seen.
  • An iconic vintage black painted cash register that occupied the place of honor behind the bar.
  • A painted papier mache figure of a Christmas carousel horse that hung in Elaine's front window for years.

Ave atque vale, Elaine Kaufman. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest . . .

Thelma Jacqueline Straw