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I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My new novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Ben Kingsley, is in post-production. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

At Home With a Ghost - 50

Carrie in her teens, not yet heartbroken

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

It nagged at me, that missing piece. My grandmother Carrie had a secret: one that prevented her from marrying my grandfather Marshall, or anyone for that matter. On the face of it, Carrie had steadfastly avoided marriage out of principle, reluctant to give up her independence to any man. That was her public position, at any rate. This would have been an unusual stance in those pre-feminist days, and if an unmarried woman of 32 trumpeted about her freedom, people could assume she was just masking her humiliation at being a spinster.

Grandpa wasn’t deterred, promising, “I won’t pluck one feather out of that cherished independence of yours.” Still she eluded him. She returned to New York, writing him that she needed to go home to find out “how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind.” What things?

And then, suddenly and unaccountably, she accepted his proposal. What made her change her tune? According to the medium I’d first visited, she knew or suspected that Marshall covertly preferred men. 

There was no one left alive to ask. The memoir about his parents that Dad left when he died furnished no clue. Like me, my father remained perplexed about the nature of their marriage because, even though they seemed quite fond of each other, they spent so much time apart. Dad never figured it out, and he wasn’t the type to consult a clairvoyant medium. The idea of contacting his mother’s spirit, so that she could fill in the blanks, was laughable – and frightening as well, since it implied an afterlife that he was dead certain didn’t exist.

He must have done a double take after he died. I imagine it’s particularly hard for atheists to adapt to eternity when they wake up in its echoing expanse. Imagine, too, their fearful confusion: what am I here for? A picnic, or perdition? On the other hand, they must feel pretty happy that they’d been dead wrong about that death-is-the-end thing. I know Dad was grateful for his new and refreshed life as a spirit; he enjoyed getting on with the business of evolving. He told me so, through another medium.

After that first encounter with a clairvoyant, I’d sampled three others, curious to see if there was any discrepancy in the spirit messages they transmitted. The results were astounding in two out of three séances, which took place over the telephone. To contact my grandmother Carrie, I decided to go back to the very first medium I’d seen in Massachusetts, but this time we’d be conducting our session by phone.

My belief that Carrie carried a secret wasn’t based on much, mainly a few passing lines I’d come across in a letter she wrote to her sister from war-torn France in 1917: “No more married lovers for me. At least that’s what I say now. You never know.” Grandpa was a confirmed bachelor, who had avoided marriage for even longer than she. And while he declared his love ardently, nowhere in her wartime letters did she tell him, or anyone else she wrote to, that she loved Marshall in return. So who were the “married lovers”?

My phone session with Medium #1 went well at first. Carrie showed up front and center. The medium correctly described her and identified the cause of her death (Carrie underwent a double mastectomy but in the end succumbed to lung cancer). More details followed that I knew to be true. The time came to pose my question: “Why did you avoid marriage for so long?”

The medium transmitted the question, listened to the response, and relayed my grandmother’s answer. Carrie had had her heart broken in her twenties, and consequently lost her appetite for love. The man had been married – or perhaps he had to leave Carrie to marry someone else? There was a child. Perhaps he’d gotten the other woman pregnant. Or perhaps Carrie had been pregnant, and had to give the child up because her lover was married. Perhaps…perhaps?

I realized, with discomfort, that the medium had strayed into conjecture, was vamping instead of reporting what my grandmother’s spirit said. I had every reason to expect unequivocal answers from the dead: of course Carrie knew what she did and why – it was her life, after all. Disappointed, I concluded the séance early.

I put the mystery aside for a year; my film work  had increased, and I had a new album to release. 

Then, last month, I happened to hear of a French-Canadian medium, Guy Isabel,  who conveyed messages from the departed through automatic writing. I was already familiar with this form of channeling, since my maternal grandfather had practiced it for a time (I’ve written about his experiences in Part 4 and Part 47 of this memoir). I thought “ghost-writing” would be an interesting approach, another way to have that conversation with my elusive grandmother. 

Monsieur Isabel and I exchanged emails and arranged a date for a Skype session. A day before our appointment, he sent me the following note:

“While I was doing an automatic writing session yesterday, a spirit name Marshall came to me and gave that message:  

“Marshall says, ‘I learn to evolve doing lots of activities based on love and the impact of developing love in the relationship between minds. This prepares us to choose our next incarnations. From these teachings, the mind learns the importance of raising his consciousness through the practice of love with his neighbor. The human experience is an experience that marks the soul deeply and allows it to grow significantly in higher levels of vibration. Tell her she is a beautiful soul and we love her work.’”

I always welcome compliments on my work. I totally preen – on the inside of course. And I don’t much care where they come from. (Except once, when I cared very much. A magazine asked former presidential candidate and Southern Baptist anti-Semite Reverend Pat Robertson what his favorite movies were. My film Impromptu was on his list. This was ironic, considering my documentary Marjoe was an exposé of evangelical preachers.) Nevertheless, the email made me suspicious of Isabel. The text was boilerplate New Age cant, even if I agreed with every word. And the name Marshall is easily obtained by reading this very blog.

My suspicions eased as our session commenced. Monsieur Isabel seemed a very sweet, openhearted man, and my charlatan alarm (cf. Marjoe, above) didn’t go off. Each time I posed a question to a spirit, I was able to watch Isabel onscreen as he paused to write the answer in lovely looping script, his hand never leaving the page but rather connecting words as if they came in a continuous undifferentiated stream. I asked him to send me the actual pages. The script was difficult to read: 
(Hint: the first word is Marshall and the rest is in French)
Answers were relayed through Isabel’s various spirit guides, whose names sounded like medications. What they said was sometimes awkwardly phrased, as if translated from another language by a less than proficient translator. At one point I asked Isabel if the messages came to his hand in French or English, in case he was the one translating what he’d written. Both, he said; he had no control over the choice. Since my French is fairly good, I asked him to read me answers in whatever language appeared on the page. Even after he complied, the spirits’ diction remained that of a foreigner (they do, in a sense, come from afar).

As our session began, right away Grandpa barrelled in, always first to arrive at a party. I decided to direct my question to him instead of Carrie. I asked, “Did you know her secret?”

Yes, he knew her secrets. They concerned a person whom Carrie had met, an affair that continued over the course of their marriage. Marshall was speaking in French now (he was fluent in his lifetime).  Cette liaison s'est déroulée avec un médecin.”

A doctor!?

Suddenly I knew exactly who that was.

I remember nothing of my grandmother, who died when I was five. But I have a distinct memory of visiting her Martha’s Vineyard cottage. Not the big summer house in Edgartown, which she shared with husband, son, guests and servants. Marshall bought the little cottage for her as a refuge where she could be alone to paint and muse. It was perched on a bluff in Katama, overlooking the Atlantic, and everything about it was fascinatingly tiny. Grandma Carrie was a wee woman. The rooms were close and cozy, and, because I was child, I loved the diminutive slipcovered furniture: Goldilocks-size, the chairs were just right for a child’s bottom.

But now I thought, she wasn’t always alone. And I wondered how the estimable Dr. Taylor squeezed his ass into one of those armchairs.

(To be continued.)

Saturday, June 22, 2013

At Home With a Ghost - 49

Grandpa in the kiddie kavalry, 1889

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

The clairvoyant medium seemed a little disconcerted by my blunt question.

In truth, I was a little ashamed to ask. It was merely reductive stereotyping that made me wonder if Grandpa had been gay. I added up what I knew: he’d lived contentedly with his mother until he was 38, and only married when she pressured him to. He loved opera, concerts, theater, photography. He loved clothes. He wrote songs. And then there were all those private men’s clubs….

It had taken Grandpa a scant nine months to woo and wed Carrie. Most of those months they were only in contact through letters. (Both had gone to France to serve in the war effort, but were separated by their jobs or by her persistent ill health.) In total, they saw each other face-to-face for a few weeks before Carrie accepted him. How well did she really know this wealthy bachelor?

Once the newlyweds returned to the U.S., leaving the heady excitement of their wartime adventures behind, my grandfather led his bride over the threshold of his manse in Tuxedo Park. In fact he delivered her into boredom. She soon found herself alone, except for an army of servants. Every day he would leave for some men-only powwow – golf, tennis, poker; booze and badinage – at one of the several clubs to which he belonged; or at highly secretive meetings with the Freemasons, where he was already a lodge master.

Carrie was expected to fill her time socializing with the other wives, but she didn’t care so much for female company. (In her youth she’d enrolled in Bryn Mawr College and left after one day, complaining, “There were too many women.”) After giving excruciating birth to my father, Carrie demanded that their future winters be spent in New York City, where she could consort with “lively minds” to make up for her husband’s constant clubbing.

The son grew up wondering about his father’s thing for male cliques. Dad wrote in his memoir, “It seemed as though he urgently needed constant reassurance of his own masculinity provided by the company of men and their ongoing acceptance of him as one of them.”

Why did he doubt his masculinity? Unless he knew that, secretly, he came up short. I arrived once again at my suspicion, which had seemed unanswerable – until here, now, when I had his spirit in the room and a medium paid to translate.

So I asked him: “Were you gay?” And held my breath.

“Yes,” came the answer.

The medium paused, apparently listening to him. “But he didn’t act on it. There were flirtations, but he kept it way underground. There was no possibility of going further, except maybe when he went abroad. France, Italy, Germany…” Yes, those were all the countries where I knew he traveled. Paris, Rome, Berlin, libertine-friendly places where he would have felt freer to leave the closet.

The medium added, “His wife came to know about it. She decided to keep quiet.”

So Carrie knew.

Another puzzle piece plopped into place. This one would have answered one of my father’s most pressing questions.

All his life Dad pondered why, growing up in his parents’ house, there was such an obsessive concern to “make a man of me, as they put it. This theme, harped on for years, often dictated their attitude toward me in childhood.” Carrie seemed especially paranoid that their son would become a mama’s boy. After all, her husband had grown up inseparable from his own mother, and look at the result. His feminine side became overnourished, producing the girlie man she’d gone and married.

And so Carrie guarded my father from a like fate. “To be sure I would not be ‘coddled’ or tied to my mother’s apron strings or dominated by her, my mother purposely absented herself when I came home from school. She was always on guard to avoid being demonstrative. Hugging, kissing, or other expressions of warmth were rare.” Even his father joined the project to butch up the son. “In those days I was called ‘Jackie,’ but if I wept or whined my father would call me ‘Jacqueline.’”  

To drive the point further, his parents enrolled Jackie-Jacqueline in the Knickerbocker Greys, a paramilitary cadre of boy soldiers that drilled and paraded up and down Park Avenue to their parents’ satisfaction.  (Grandpa himself had belonged to the Greys when he was a lad. Always fond of dress-up, he must have loved the uniform, though Dad always thought he looked more like a bellhop with a musket.)

Next came the boys’ boarding school (St. Mark’s), where Jackie’s lessons in manhood entered realms of boy-on-boy cruelty whose memory embittered and disgusted him for the rest of his days.

Still, in the end, Carrie got what she wanted: a man’s man for a son, and her husband’s wretched gay gene stomped into dust.

Meanwhile Grandpa kept to his ways, pursuing fraternal camaraderie anywhere he could find it. In the masonic lodges were men he could call Brother. (A fervent follower, he eventually became Most Wise Master, Grand Marshall, Sovereign of the Red Cross of Constantine Chapter and New York Court of Jesters.) (Really.)

Grandpa in full Masonic gear

The last males-only club he was headed to, when he died, was the dockside Edgartown Reading Room in Martha’s Vineyard. A club he helped found and bankroll, this was no literary gathering. The only book in the building was the telephone directory. But the bartender could reach down any bottle you wanted from the shelf. It wasn’t easy to become a member. You had to be wealthy, and you had to get with the program: booze and badinage and secrets. Their climactic annual rite was a nude clambake.

The Edgartown Reading Room annual moonfest

Even now, on the summer nights when I walk by the Reading Room, I will hear the good old rich guys within, eruptions of laughter booming over the water: masculinity certified and embalmed.

He had long ago given up composing songs. This was the music he’d wanted to hear, the night he died.

“Do you have any regrets?” I asked Grandpa’s ghost.

The medium reported, “He says he didn’t put into his marriage what he could have. He was ambivalent about it. He harmed her emotionally by his lack of attention.”

Suddenly I wanted to hear Carrie’s side. But our session was up, and I had a train to catch.

My grandmother’s mysteries would come clear another time – and through another medium.

(To be continued.)

Note to followers and fans: I’m sorry my chapters have been so infrequently posted these past months. My day job in screenwriting has intervened, with several projects with deadlines needing my attention. But stick with me: I have lots more to tell! If you subscribe by email (above, right) you’ll get the new posts automatically in your Inbox rather than having to visit the site.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

At Home With a Ghost - 48

Mom before polio

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I opened the door and, as I braved the champaca fumes and tinkling wind chimes, I thought: fire the art director for crimes of cliché. It was way too obvious to have a medium operating out of the back room of a New Age tchotchke shop. Lurking around the crystals, rune stones, wands and massage rollers were the customers, mainly women who wore a lot of velour and displayed snaggly toenails, probably from all the running with wolves. I am not one of them, I told myself. Then again, I had a closetful of velvet back in New York, and I had taken the train all the way to Andover to consult a medium, carrying a notepad full of questions for dead people. So, like it or not, I was part of this crackpot Aquarian tribe.

The back room was carpeted and mostly bare. I took my seat opposite a 40-ish woman (in velour) who sat six feet away. I’d made the appointment in the spirit of an escapade, something madcap and probably idiotic. I didn’t really expect this woman to succeed in convoking my grandparents, both of whom died in the 1950’s. She herself assured me that she had no control over which spirits would come forward. Some of them might have no relation to me, she said, but they were hanging about in case some conduit opened up whereby they could get a message through. I shrugged inwardly and opened my notebook: let the shams begin.

Staring slightly to the side of me, she announced that someone from the afterlife was present. “A younger person in his 20’s. Sandy blond hair, tall, close to six feet, tan pants with a nice shirt. I have a sense of someone who took his own life. I can’t breathe, I’m having a hard time swallowing. Like, I choked to death. Does this mean anything to you?”

“I can’t think of anyone.”

“He wants to say that his suicide was impulsive, not thought out. Never mind.” She paused as if to shift gears. “Someone with a motherly energy just walked in. Has your mother passed?”


“She had a degenerative illness. She’s pointing to the brain. Parts of her memory were lost. You were the decision maker at that time.”

I was instantly disconcerted. Yes, my mother had dementia the last years of her life. Yes, I held the medical proxy.

Without waiting for my confirmation, the medium went on, “Now she’s holding onto the doorway, and she says, ‘I needed help to stand up.’”

And with that, suddenly, Mom was there in the room. For as long as I’d known her, she had needed crutches to stand and walk, owing to the polio that crippled her at age 25.

This was the part of the session called “proving,” which I learned from my great-great-aunt’s book on séances (see Part 47). The medium transmits a spirit’s identifying details until the client, who may at first resist believing in the ghost’s presence, is worn down by the preponderance of evidence, the intimate details that even the most cunning medium couldn’t invent. The proofs piled up as I sat there listening in amazement.

“Your mother says, ‘Dorothy.’ Now she’s showing me some Oz books.”

We had inherited a complete set of Oz books, which Mom read aloud to me. I was obsessed with them.

“She says, ‘Ping-Pong.’ Does this make any sense to you?”

Ping-Pong was the one game that all seven members of my family came together to play, round-robin style. Even Mom played from her wheelchair.

“She’s showing a set of china, white and gold, that she was proud of.” I still possess her lovely wedding service, white and gold.

And on it went. At the point I was completely convinced that my mother was present, her messages began. Among them were her thanks to me for helping her to die.

I burst into tears. Bed-ridden, incapable, and lost in the backroads of dementia, Mom had summoned the will to stubbornly refuse food and liquid. I had administered morphine, read her children’s books, played Fred Astaire and The Messiah that she adored, and sat vigil for the eight days it took her to wane and die. I’d felt her gratitude at the time; but to hear it now, expressed through a stranger, in this nondescript room off a crystal-and-candles shop, filled up my heart to the seams.

The medium asked if it was indeed my mother I’d come here to speak with. Actually, I hadn’t thought of Mom at all beforehand. There was no mystery there I wanted to solve, no unfinished business, no unbearable grief or inability to let go. We had closed the book, she and I.

My sole interest had been in contacting my father’s parents, which I’d assumed to be an improbable venture – like shooting an arrow into the air and expecting it to land in the bull’s eye of a target hidden in deep woods. Yet now, after my mother’s appearance, it seemed possible. “I came for someone else,” I told the medium.

“Give me the first name of the departed, and I’ll see what I can do.”

I said, “Marshall.”

It didn’t take long before Grandpa arrived.

The medium started by laughing. “Oh, he’s so funny. This man – I assume this is a man’s name – has such humor. A twinkle in his eye. He was handsome, mischievous – a teaser – but sweet.”  

My grandfather certainly was a known wit, the life of the party. Could this be he? I waited for more “proving.”

“I’m seeing the Masonic symbol.” I was fully alert now. My grandfather was a staunch Freemason.

The medium continued, “He was independently wealthy…but…” She paused to listen. “He’s protesting – he wants you to know, ‘I wasn’t lazy!’”

I laughed: busted. I had written in Part 5 of this very blog that my grandparents, at least according to my father, were “indolent.” Apparently he was annoyed by that, in an afterlife sort of way.

“He left this world quickly. There were no warning signs. The problem was the heart. He was getting set to go to a party – the way he wanted to go, the perfect death. He liked cocktails and the finer whiskies and other alcohol, so he might have had a snifter in his hand before going.”

And there he was, as incontrovertibly present in the room as my mother. It was all accurate: Grandpa had died of a massive stroke, suddenly, in Martha’s Vineyard as he was getting dressed for an evening with his pals at the Reading Room, a men’s club on the waterfront pier. I could picture the snifter shattering on the floor when he fell, the expensive cognac pooling. How many of those bottles had I opened and swilled, from the racks and racks of his liquor, stored in my parents’ garage after his death?

“Yes,” I said. “This is my grandfather.”

Grandpa (left) with his Reading Room cronies

She said, “You only had a limited time together when you were both alive, but he noticed you at an early age. He connected with you, saw your potential.”

He died when I was eight. Up until now I’d had next to no memory of him, but all at once I remembered playing him a piece I’d made up on the piano, perched on a stool at his mahogany Steinway grand, in his Sutton Place townhouse. I was about six. My composition was called “The Ocean” and consisted of my rolling my knuckles on all the black keys. In my fragment of memory, he listened quite respectfully from the couch, hands propped on his cane. Maybe he saw my songwriting potential then, assuming I would master the white keys.

I snapped back to the present, scribbling notes to catch up with the medium who was saying, “He seems more like a father than a grandfather to you. He protects you. You are his co-worker – he sees you doing what he prepared you for, though what he gave you was changed by what you brought to it. He has great respect for you. A sense of you two being equals. He says to you, ‘I admire and trust you.’…He was a muse to you. Does that make sense?”

I merely nodded, overcome by all this validation. It all came back, the music he fed me from across the cosmic divide when I lay in a kind of waking sleep, and the pressure to finish these pieces on my own. I glanced at the list of questions I’d prepared before arriving. “Please ask him, ‘Why did you stop composing?’”

After a second she chuckled, “Oh, he’s getting haughty now. He says, ‘I didn’t have to!’”

Thinking that this sounded pretty lazy, I pressed him, “Was it because of the war? Or getting married?” (Grandpa’s output of music had dwindled to nothing in the years after he returned from his World War I service in France, where he’d married my grandmother Carrie.)

“It wasn’t the war, but he had a depression – he got blocked artistically. And the marriage was a challenge. She was a decent woman but he didn’t have a true connection there. It wasn’t a marriage of desire but because he was expected to marry.”

We were getting to the heart of it now. Everything so far had been borne out by the letters Grandpa had left behind, and by the recollections of my father in his 1990’s memoir. But there was one big question that had gone unanswered. If I had posed it to my father while he was alive, he wouldn’t have known the answer, and might have been offended as well. So here was my chance, with Grandpa floating in the room…

I asked, “Were you gay?”

(To be continued.)

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

At Home With a Ghost - 47

BEAUTIFUL SPIRIT: Rose Chatfield-Taylor

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

Why not a medium? It should have been an obvious step long ago, when I was in my twenties and running around to all those psychics. I suppose I didn’t know many dead people I was interested in. I only wanted to know about boyfriends. And I was already in communication with my ghostly Grandpa Kernochan on my own. But now, preparing this memoir, I found I had some burning questions about his marriage to Carrie.

Another ancestor of mine had consulted a clairvoyant medium, and quite publicly.

Anna De Koven was my great-great aunt on my mother’s side. In 1920, when she was already a well-known journalist and biographer, Anna published A Cloud of Witnesses, the chronicle of her conversations with her dead sister through a medium.

Anna and her sister Rose were daughters of US Senator Charles Farwell from Illinois. By 19th century standards the girls were educated beyond expectation, and made for scintillating company at dinners and balls. Rose was also famously beautiful. A Chicago millionaire snapped her up and she became Rose Chatfield-Taylor. (Anna credited Rose’s husband with bringing golf to the Midwest in 1892, when he sank tomato cans in their lawn and turned it into a golf link.) Meanwhile Anna married the composer Reginald De Koven, who penned operettas as well as that warhorse wedding song “O Promise Me.”

From all reports Rose was warm and wise and adored by everyone, most especially by Anna. Thus it came as a terrible shock when Rose died suddenly, at the age of 48, in the course of a minor surgery gone wrong. Anna couldn’t adjust to her loss and so, only a few months after the funeral, she leapt at the chance of making contact with Rose’s spirit.

As a journalist, Anna dealt in facts and fastidious research, which seemed at odds with her adventure into the unknowable ether. But hope overwhelmed her: it might just be possible to conjure Rose from the dead! Still, she could not entirely abandon her scientific scruples. She drew encouragement from the fact that it was a noted physicist, who had become interested in psychic phenomena, who referred her to a medium he knew. He had consulted this Mrs. Vernon after his son died in the war in Europe, and felt solaced by the experience of talking to his boy.
Grieving Anna at the time of the séances

Anna arrived at Mrs. Vernon’s house in New York prepared to take notes; to transcribe everything that occurred and was said. At first the medium had difficulty bringing the sister’s spirit into the foreground. Words and images came through in confusing fragments, like a cellphone connection breaking up. Apparently Rose was “still in perplexity” following her death – as who wouldn’t be? Seen from the other side, to find yourself both dead and taking a call from your sister might be difficult to handle. Rose was pretty green at this.

However, the medium rallied to the task. She appealed to her helpers: four gentlemen who were themselves eager to make this interview succeed.

The men were members of the American Society for Psychical Research. They had made some studies of Mrs. Vernon and her extraordinary abilities, and were in a state of great excitement to present their reports to the London branch of the Society when, in 1915, they boarded a transatlantic ship headed for England. The boat was called the RMS Lusitania.

After they drowned, the scientists got back in touch with Mrs. Vernon. They wanted her to find someone living to present their material to the public. Enter Anna De Koven, a writer.

The gentlemen’s deal was implicit: Write about our work, and we will enable your sister to come forward. We’ll give her a speed course in immortal-to-mortal interface.

The bargain might as well have come from Mrs. Vernon herself, who stood to get a lot of attention from anything Anna De Koven wrote – attention she was thwarted from receiving when those misfortunate scientists hit the ocean floor. That would be the cynical interpretation. But skepticism is the clairvoyant’s daily portion. The medium’s answer to critics comes in the “proving.”

“Proving” is the early part of a session, when spirits are first summoned. Using the medium as translator, they try to convince the client of their identity. They prove who they are to the point that all disbelief vanishes, everyone is on board, and the séance can proceed without misgiving.

Rose, coming through more clearly now, started talking about a table cover she was making when she died. It was still in pieces, but she wanted Anna to have it. Anna was flabbergasted. It was true: Rose had left behind a half-completed tablecloth of lace and linen strips. Then Rose talked about a sly trick she and Anna had pulled once, in order to win a golf match. Then she described the hats she’d had made for the coming fashion season, which were still at the milliner’s. Rose was also worried about Anna’s husband’s health, citing “a limited amount of endurance.” (Indeed he was ill, and not long after would die.) 

The evidence piled up, of private matters between the two sisters, information Mrs. Vernon could not possibly have acquired. Anna was not only on board, she was hooked. Over six months she returned to Mrs. Vernon again and again. The verbatim transcripts make up most of the book.

A Cloud of Witnesses made quite a sensation, coming as it did from a respected writer and member of high society. I’d never heard of the book until my brother mentioned it last year. I had no trouble finding an old copy online. (It’s also a free download on Google Books.) The opening chapter is tough going – a scientific treatise on "the survival of the personality after death.” Anna wanted readers to have all the evidence supporting psychic phenomena before reading the session transcripts, or they might dismiss her report as delusional. Once the Rose conversations start, the book becomes fascinating and at times lovely and lyrical.

In short, Rose took Anna on a tour of the afterlife. She described how, after she died, she revived in the ethereal world where she was met by “a man with a gray beard in a white garment. He chose to assume this venerable appearance because it was more comforting.” Still she resisted him, horrified to find herself in the discarnate state, until her mother and twin brother (who was killed by a falling branch when he was two) arrived to console her. “They had assumed their earthly appearances or I would not have recognized them.” She also noticed they didn’t pronounce words but rather implanted thoughts in her head.

Rose then entered the soul system, where the dead go through “probation to initiation to fulfillment.” Basically Rose was in school, learning to detach from her previous lifetime and reach a higher spirituality. (For a time she studied how to create symbols to appear as messages in human dreams.)  She and the other souls in her class hung around “congenial” landscapes they created mutually through telepathic vibration. “We create things here as we want them, and we frequently look back on the things we have once desired [on earth] as children look back upon their dolls.”

Their mother made a few cameo appearances. A puritanical devout in her lifetime, she now said, “I have learned that religion is not of serious necessity. The only real uplift is charity towards mankind. If charity and mentality go not hand and hand, it profits the soul nothing.”

Sometimes the Lusitania victims chimed in with passages like “The universe holds. But the appurtenances vanish like foam in the wake of the ship.”

Rose contributed her own metaphor, asking Anna to “picture a man walking down a sunlit road. The ethereal world is a shadow of the material. They are inseparable as shadow and figure.” (I would add that humans typically pay no attention to their shadows.)

Trained by the scientists, Rose turned into quite the chatty ghost. Those who have read Chapter 4 of this memoir remember that as a young man my maternal grandfather communicated with his dead mother through automatic writing. His mother (and my great-grandmother) was Rose.

Reading A Cloud of Witnesses encouraged me to seek out my own Mrs. Vernon. I wanted to talk to my longtime ghost Marshall and his wife Carrie, both of whom died in the 1950’s. And while I was at it, I wanted to say hey to Anna De Koven.

(To be continued.)

I leave you with the gooey lyrics to O Promise Me, by Anna’s husband:

Oh promise me that you will take my hand,
The most unworthy in this lonely land,
And let me sit beside you, in your eyes
Seeing the vision of our paradise,
Hearing God’s message while the organ rolls,
Its mighty music to our very souls,
No love less perfect than a life with thee;
Oh promise me, oh promise me!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

At Home With a Ghost - 46

The adventurers in Paris

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

He met her at a friend’s get-together in 1913. They fell into conversation next to the icebox in the kitchen. Carrie was as petite as a child; almost cute and almost plain; witty, anxious, and intense. Although they had interests in common – music, art, and literature – there were impediments you might call Hide and Prejudice: for my grandfather hid from binding relationships with women, and Carrie was prejudiced against wealthy men.

There was a certain resentment in her attitude. Carrie’s family occupied the same upper reaches of society, but her father periodically and ignominiously suffered business reverses. With her parents and sisters Carrie danced the riches-to-rags-back-to-riches rag. Because she often had to do without, she decided that those who had more than enough, like Grandpa, were selfish, spoiled and oblivious to the hardship of others. Being down on one’s luck made one more enlightened than, and thus superior to, the pampered rich. At any rate, this was how Carrie preserved her pride.

Preserving her independence was her other obsession. Women didn’t have the vote yet, but Carrie proclaimed her freedom anyway by smoking like a chimney and avoiding the manacles of marriage. At age 29, she was an old maid and fine with it. On the other hand, insecurity plagued her. She felt she never followed through with anything, was of no use in the world.

But opportunity was on its way.

By 1914 Carrie’s family was headed for rags once again. That was the same year my grandfather got in the news for suing his demented aunt’s estate, going after her money when he was already quite rich. Carrie and her kin shared the prevailing opinion that he was a layabout and a parasite.

It was high time for Grandpa to heed his beloved mother’s pleas and to buckle down publicly. He was the sole descendant of his father’s line. He needed a male heir to carry the name forward. A wife was in order.

But women made him nervous; he tended to be overpolite and formal around them. So he looked around for a “gal” with whom he could relax, who shared his interests, and who wouldn’t change his life overmuch. Carrie was single, with a lively mind, into the arts…and she went her own way. That left him free for fraternizing in men’s clubs, where he spent a great deal of his time.

You wouldn’t be surprised that Carrie initially found him a bit of a bore. He sent her flowers, loaned her books. Her thank-you notes were warm but brief, without encouragement.

The New York papers were filled with horror stories and the appalling body count coming from Europe, where war raged. America had not yet entered the conflict. Carrie suddenly announced she was going to France to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse, to any hospital that would have her, as near as possible to the Western front.

It was a testament to her determination that her family couldn’t stop her. In February of 1916, she sailed alone for Europe. She had never been to France before, her health was forever fragile, and she had neither certification nor experience at nursing. She declared, “I feel that I have never in my life stuck at anything so I am going to see this through.”

She found work immediately in a hospital in Paris. The doctors discovered the American volunteer to be intelligent, cheerful, quick to learn, difficult to horrify, and industrious to the point of collapse. They gave her more to do. Soon she had her own ward. The wounded poured in from the front; she threw herself into the care of soldiers and aviators, whom she called her “blessées.” She wrote her sister, “You would die to see me pumping dope into drains in open wounds & tying up heads with the brains sticking out in the back.” 

Carrie with one of her “blessées”
My grandfather was so impressed by Carrie’s bold and selfless act that he enlisted in the army. As he departed for field artillery training in upstate New York, he wrote to her: “Dear Carrie, the die is cast now. I am well aware what the consequences must be to us all in blood & misery, but one would far rather bring one’s earthly career to a premature close than feel that one comes from a country which failed to make good when faced by the choice between the honorable thing and the yellow thing. I’m quitting my own work now & starting to study for the army, in whatever capacity I can serve. Wish me luck. If you do, I know it’ll bring me some. I need it.” He would show Carrie and the world that he was good for something.

The news took Carrie by surprise. “I had a long letter from Marshall Kernochan,” she reported to her mother, “just as he was leaving for Plattsburg! I wonder what it will do for him? Kill or cure?” 

From the time he reported for duty their correspondence began in earnest: letters flew across the ocean between them. Though they were 3000 miles apart, they felt they were comrades in action – two sheltered bluebloods plunging into a great cause and experiencing their own bravery for the first time. Soon Carrie was writing to her folks, “It certainly does show people up, a time like this, & you may call him a freak – but how many of the boys we know are making good that way?”

She had promised her family she’d return after six months. The Paris damp, the grueling stress and the unhealthy conditions at the hospital brought back her chronic bronchitis. She fell into a pattern of working her heart out, getting ill, and becoming a patient herself. Still, fourteen months later she was still there. It was unthinkable to leave: she was needed.

Grandpa shipped out to France in the fall of 1917. A second lieutenant, he was transferred to the intelligence corps. His letters couldn’t reveal his whereabouts or his activities, but they were full of frustration and eagerness to see her. He demanded that she take him on a tour of Paris (though he already knew the city very well) “or I shall order up my platoon & put you under arrest.”

Finally at Christmas he got two days’ leave. And that’s all it took: a day and a night. Whatever happened to put the match to his ardor, he came away crazy to marry her.  

Carrie, on the other hand, held back. She called him “short-sighted,” which stung. He wrote: “Dear, you know you must ‘take a shot at it’! I care more than I ever could tell you. That I can take care of you I am sure, and I won’t pluck one feather out of that cherished independence of yours. If I had my pick of every woman who ever lived and you were an invalid in a wheelchair, I’d far rather spend my life with you. We’re not little kids, and if we want to live there’s but one way – jump! You said last night that I’m short sighted. I doubt it. And I know the Big Need is with me, and only you can take it away.”

She didn’t reply. He waited one agonizing week, firing off more letters. The New Year came and went.

Finally a letter from Carrie arrived.

She: “You ask if I think of you. Of course I do – lots – much too much for my peace of mind. But tho’ I cannot yet ‘say the good word’ you want me to, if it’s any help for you to feel there is something more than an ordinary friendship between us – why please do. Whether or not it will grow is something only the future can decide.”

He: “What else can I say, except that I love you? If, as you say, you like to be told that, why, I like to tell it, still more…You say, ‘if you only dared let yourself go’! Well – who’s holding you back?...Don’t think that I’m such a crazy optimist as to say that married life would be all a bed of roses! Of course there are concessions and little sacrifices, but it seems to me that making those is the best part of all. I know I’d like to give up anything to get you.” Meanwhile, he wrote his mother about Carrie, to assure her that his mission was almost accomplished: “She is such a sweet little girl. I think she would suit me splendidly.”

Carrie rejoined: “Yes, I did tell you, in a rash moment, that I like to be made love to – but please next time we meet don’t do anything of the kind, because we’ve got to talk & talk & talk, and nothing kills conversation so.” (“Making love” in those days could mean nothing more than snogging.)

They got together one more time in Paris, a single day of walking around the city and talking and talking and talking, capped off by an air raid that both found quite “thrilling.” But he returned to camp believing she didn’t return his feelings enough to marry him.

Doctors advised Carrie not to spend another winter in Paris. She sailed home for three months. Before leaving, she sent Grandpa an ambiguous note: “I want so much to be fair & square & honest & aboveboard with you! I’ve decided I can’t be that until I’ve been home & found out if & how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind…”

She must have gotten quite an earful from her parents. Hello? You’re 32 and alone, not rich or beautiful, you’re living off your hard-up parents, and now one of the wealthiest bachelors in New York is begging to marry you, and you’re hesitating? Are you insane?!

Whether she bowed to pressure or something else happened, she changed her mind. Her next letter to Grandpa showed her backtracking almost frantically: “You have no idea how much I miss you. I hate it. How perfectly horrid I was to you most of the time. What must you think of me?...If you don’t really want to marry me, you had better not ask me again!”

Upon her return to Paris they were married. He wrote his mother, “Thank God I have a wife who is not helpless, and who has enough initiative to be able and not to be afraid to do things. I tell you, Ma, this life here changes one’s point of view in everything and shows up people’s character as nothing else could. This war, even if it is horrible and cruel, has certainly separated the wheat from the chaff.” (He added, “Be sure & get all the wine you can, for very soon it will no longer be possible, when we have prohibition. What a nuisance it will be!”)

A year later their only child, my father, was born.

The World War I letters, tied up in bundles with frayed kitchen string, were discovered 75 years later in a trunk in Grandpa’s house in Martha’s Vineyard. As I read them, handling with caution the brittle ink-blotched pages, I was haunted by several questions. What held Carrie back? What did she mean, that she had to find out “if & how completely I’ve been able to put certain things out of my mind”? Were those “certain things” someone else? Someone she loved? Why really was she still unwed at 32?

The letters were out of sequence, so the last ones I read were from Carrie to her sister, written soon after Carrie first arrived in Paris. Her voice changed on these pages; became whispered girl-talk. Suddenly two passages leapt out at me. 

“No more married lovers for me,” Carrie wrote. “At least that’s what I say now. You never know.” And: “Do let me know if the darling goes to see you – I bet his wife doesn’t miss me so she suffers - !”

I was sure now: there was a secret here. But I had come to the bottom of the family papers, with no more clues or answers. No one – parents or grandparents, aunts or uncles – was alive for me to question.

But the dead were another matter. Only one thing remained for me to do: make an appointment with a medium.

(To be continued.)

Friday, February 1, 2013

At Home With a Ghost - 45

Grandpa as un-serious fop
 (Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

I married for love at age 37, bailing on my most cherished principles since the time, as a 14-year-old would-be writer, I’d vowed to remain solo, childless, and unlicensed in love. If I wed, I stood to lose my independence, starting with the TV remote. Nevertheless, by my mid-thirties I changed my mind and wanted a child – badly.

The offer was on the table: I could have a baby if I stood under a hoopah, mouthed a few platitudes, and signed some papers, thus conferring legitimacy on the child. Suddenly independence seemed like an easy trade. I’d had my fill of freedom anyway. In the dark, you could sometimes mistake it for loneliness.

My grandfather’s ghost must have nodded in recognition. When he was alive, he got married at exactly the same age, and the need for a baby had everything to do with it.

When he was 6, his father died unexpectedly. An only child, he could look forward, after the death of his mother, to a small fortune amassed from iron importation, investments, and a sugar plantation in New Orleans. In the meantime, he drew close to his mother, who encouraged him in his love of the arts and his wish to become a composer.

Thus when he embarked on a career that was unlikely to pay much, his mother contributed a hefty allowance. It wasn’t quite enough, though, for a young man about town. He had wardrobe expenses. If he didn’t find another source of income, he would have to sell his automobile and resign his memberships at the Brook Club, the Union Club, the Knickerbocker Club, the Racquet Club, the Tuxedo Club, the Lenox Club, the Century Club, the Automobile Club of America, and the Grolier and West Side Tennis Clubs. He also wanted to get married eventually. Or so he told the court.

In 1914 he presented a petition to a New York State Supreme Court justice, asking for an additional stipend from his aunt’s estate. He might have applied to her directly, except that she was insane and confined to a sanitarium. She was worth $3 million, which just sat in an account earning interest. So why shouldn’t he have it? It might further his career as a composer.

This had to be the single most humiliating event in my grandfather’s life. The case hit all the papers, even as far as Texas. It makes for amusing reading now. In short, the judge ripped him a new one. I quote from the New York Times article:

“Mr. Kernochan said he had written some songs, but that he had only earned $30 a year in this way, and that to advertise the songs cost him six times what they brought in…The Justice said, ‘the application is unusual and extraordinary…It shows a young man, 33 years of age, who has lived an idle and luxurious life, now attempting, on the plea that he desired a further taste for music, to increase his income by obtaining an allowance out of his aunt’s estate at the rate of $12,000 a year…He resides with his mother, contributes nothing to the household expenses, and derives from his own property an income of about $3,750 a year.

“‘He has followed no other occupation other than his diversion for music.’” You can practically hear the judge’s sneering contempt for songwriting. “I do not value the increase of musical renown as being the substantial reason for this application. It is a mere pretext, that this young man may have additional means to maintain or accentuate his luxurious living…It matters not that his aunt is incurable, 65 years of age, without issue, never having been married, and has been insane since 1872, that her surplus income annually amounts to $100,000. The mere fact that an incompetent has an ample fortune, that her income is large, and greatly exceeds her requirements, affords per se, no ground to give away her property.”

Grandpa’s attorneys did an end run around the justice and he got his crazy aunt’s money. But his mother must have been embarrassed by the shaming publicity, which revealed her son as, well, not serious. At the very least he should get married. As his father’s sole progeny, he had an obligation to carry on the family name, by producing a male child.

He had been engaged once, to a violinist. Then he found out that he was supposed to use his money to further her career. Exit violinist. No matter: he preferred to hang with his homeys at clubs, or with fellow artists like Stieglitz and company; he was happy to have his mother be the only woman in his life. Bachelorhood suited him, and anyway, according to my dad’s memoir, Grandpa was noticeably ill at ease with other women.

But the pressure was on. He had to start looking for a spouse. Meanwhile, as if to proclaim the age of seriousness, war broke out in Europe.

(To be continued.)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

At Home With a Ghost - 44

(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)

Tom Hulce received the go-ahead to direct a workshop of my musical Sleeparound Town. Artistic director Andre Bishop gave his blessing, in his distinctive echoing-in-the-crypt bass voice. Playwrights Horizon was a hothouse of talents who would go on to rule the New York theater for decades to come.  I should have been ecstatic.

Instead, I felt queasy. Following the New York Public Theater debacle, I had amputated my songwriting arm and buried the limb in deep soil, along with the show I’d secretly written with the help of a dead composer. There was the chance, in re-attaching the appendage, it might never work properly, and it would always carry the faint odor of past failure. If the show hadn’t worked back then, why would it work now?

While we auditioned prepubescent kids for the five roles, I had to write new material. I moved a rented spinet into my tiny apartment, poised my hands on the keys, and…
I couldn’t remember how to do it.

I’d always prided myself on venturing outside the pop norm to come up with unexpected harmonic changes. I used to let my fingers do the wandering.  Now they didn’t want to go anywhere.
What to do? I thought of John Lennon, whom I’d known when he was at his creative nadir. He admitted that his process had sunk to copying chords from someone else’s song he liked, playing them over and over while groping for a new melody. (He even pilfered lyrics from a song I was working on: pretty low, if you ask me.)

I thought of another time, when I was at singer-songwriter J.D. Souther’s house in LA; I noticed his piano stand was empty save for a hymnal. “Cribbing chord changes?” I teased him – which I could see, from his expression, was true.

Now I sat at my spinet, swallowed my pride, opened a hymnal, and started stealing. I even stole from myself, putting new lyrics to songs I’d already recorded, back when I was afire with ideas.

Thankfully, nobody noticed I was running on empty. The workshop played well to an invited audience. Andre gave us a small budget to mount a workshop production in their little black-box theater, which was the next step before a full production in the big theater with critics invited. While Tom Hulce struggled with set problems, playwright Peter Parnell was brought in as dramaturge, to help me create a story through-line to connect the songs. We never found one.

Cast of Sleeparound Town
With persistent flaws intact, Sleeparound Town ran for a month to subscriber audiences. (the theater had no elevator: it broke my mother’s heart that she couldn’t see the show, unable to get up and down four steep flights with her crutches). Still, the response was good enough that Andre decided the show merited a full production if a new director could be found, since Tom was off to shoot Amadeus. And he had just the guy, a Playwrights Horizons favorite son, who had just co-written and directed a hit musical for them. This paragon had seen my show and was interested. He loved working with kids. As a writer, he could help me shape a book for the piece. Cute, too. Probably gay. Oh, he wasn’t gay? Even more fun.

However, he had commitments that might take a year or two. Andre was convinced that no one else could make Sleeparound Town shine at last. We would wait.

I rolled my eyes. This was exactly the situation I’d landed in at the New York Public Theater with Joe Papp. Joe wanted one director only, who was enthusiastic but constantly waylaid by other projects. I’d waited three years, but he never got around to my musical.

By my calculation, it has been almost thirty years that I’ve waited for Andre’s golden boy to direct my show. But the guy keeps being too busy.

In the meantime, I married him.

I never worked in the theater again. Indeed I’d never have gone near the theater at all if my grandfather had not disturbed my sleep with urgent music from the afterlife, prompting me to create the series of songs that became Sleeparound Town. Before then, I wasn’t even a theatergoer.

“What was it for?” I asked Grandpa, pestering him with this question whenever I thought back to all the madness and labor that went into the show – a waste of time, since it never got before the public. I didn’t actually expect an answer; everyone’s life has its portion of failures. But the answer did come.
In 2005 I went on a grueling four-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Each night my friend Barb and I would confide deepest secrets in our tent (it was pitched on a slope, so we woke up huddled at the bottom every morning from sliding down in our sleep). I told her the story of Grandpa’s insistent presence in my life, guiding me where I didn’t always want to go. “I never could figure out what, in the end, he wanted – why I had to go there,” I said when I finished. Then it came to me.

That trip through the Andes was full of eerie epiphanies and magical manifestations. There, on giddy high ground, I suddenly realized that my grandfather had not just been feeding me music; he also made a big poltergeist to-do whenever I took up with the wrong man. The music was meant for getting me to the theater on time, where the right man trod the boards. The show Grandpa prodded me to compose was the only way I’d ever meet my husband.

“Pretty neat trick,” I whispered to the ether as I continued up the trail. Then I uttered the two little words my grandfather had waited twenty years to hear: “Thank you.”

(To be continued.)

For anyone interested, here are two songs from Sleeparound Town.
This demo of “Bonnie Boudreau” was a home recording circa 1982. The first few bars came from the hymnal. In the show, Jason Underwood performed it along with a piteous clarinet solo.
Bonnie Boudreau demo 1982 -->
Bonnie Boudreau
Bonnie Boudreau
She’s so…so…
I don’t know
She’s just Bonnie Boudreau
Pointing her toe
Floating away like a scrap of snow
If she ever thinks about me
Wonders who I really am
Of course she will ask her friend
Natalie Nan
Who will say, he’s a pain
A stupid jerk
A little rat
And that will be
The end of that
No hope, no hope no hope for
Bonnie Boudreau
Walking under my window
I watch her below
Like Quasimodo
Bonnie Boudreau
She says hello
And my eyes overflow
Through my tears she seems to glow
Bonnie Boudreau

 “Wonderful Dog” is from the original five song suite. I recently re-recorded it. My dad always liked the music because it sounded like he wrote it.  
Good dog
Dumb dog
Wonderful dog

Always waiting here after school
Never late or breaking the rule
Since you were a twinkle in your mom’s eye
You were my
Good dog
You can also be lazy and dull
Don’t have to live up to your potential
When I was a little thorn in my mom’s side
She said she cried
I don’t know
Why you love me so

Good dog
Dumb dog
Wonderful dog

My teachers think I’m stupid
From banging my head against the wall
They’d be overwhelmed if they knew what I know
From what I saw
Grandpa was took away in a zipper bag
Tuesdays they pick up the dirties
Fridays they deliver the cleans
Benedict Arnold was a traitor
He was buried in a garbage can
Don’t cross your eyes or
They will stay that way forever

You see now how I am cunning
I pretend I am a dummy
I think that is smart, don’t you?
Sure you do
You dumb dog

Once you learn to count you learn to beg
Go fetch a stick, go fetch somebody’s leg
I can light your ears and smoke your tail
And inhale
You dumb dog
Soon you will be old and biting babies
You’ll have bad breath and a limp and rabies
And when you get the electric chair
I will be there
You must say to God that you just did
What you were told
I don’t know
Why you love me so

Good dog
Dumb dog
Wonderful dog