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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 Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, just premiered at the Toronto Film Festival Sept 9, 2014. 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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

At Home With a Ghost - 52

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

Spielberg had a one-line idea for a movie: a mother, who’s struggling with loneliness after her kids’ departure for college, suspects there is a ghost in her house. To flesh out his story, Steven brainstormed with production heads Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald for several days. Nina faxed me a transcript of the meetings, so I could get a sense of what they wanted.

It was a fun read. There was clearly a lot of excitement in the room as these three movie machers spitballed ideas. (I’d love to quote some of the dialogue, but this was 1995, when fax machines used that quaint roller paper where the printed text vanishes like disappearing ink after a few years.) Notably, they wanted to defy horror movie convention by designing a ghost that was not threatening or murderous or tragic. Instead, this ghost used to be an ordinary housewife in life, who continued to go about her chores after her death. Her manifestations would take the form of, for example, the house filling up with the smell of cinnamon cookies baking, even though there was nothing in the oven. Bathwater taps turning on by themselves. Rugs rolling up. (Trash taken out?)

Further, no one believes the mother character when she insists there’s a ghost haunting the place; even her husband thinks she’s merely suffering from empty-nest syndrome. Nevertheless her relationship with the ghost deepens, as the dead housewife reveals herself to the living mother more and more openly. The two women touch across the dimensional divide, and help each other to let go and move on.

Steven was intent on making the ghost glimpses as realistic as possible. This would not be Poltergeist but rather Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to convey the awe and wonder of contact with the other side. He believed in ghosts himself but had never had any personal experiences with them, though he’d always wanted to. It was time to bring in a writer to convey that right balance of sweet and spooky onto the page.

I told Nina it wasn’t a stretch for me, because I’d had plenty of experience with ghosts. “Fantastic,” she said. “I’m going to run down the hall right now and tell Steven! He’ll be so jealous.” I was hired immediately and flew out to LA to meet everybody. In the single confab I had with Steven and the DreamWorks, they kept saying what they loved most about the story was it was so unexpectedly small and intimate.

This was October. Steven wondered if I could turn out a script in two months, because if it was good he’d like to shoot the film in February. I’d been warned by an A-list screenwriter friend that Spielberg always had a gazillion projects in development and ended by filming only one or two (and he typically didn’t release the other scripts to any buyers because if he wasn’t going to direct those films he didn’t want anyone else to, either). Still, even though eight weeks was going to be a marathon, I wanted to come through for him.

Only one thing mitigated my enthusiasm. I worried that if I began writing about ghosts I would attract them back into my life, which I’d established as a no-fly zone since my marriage.  Then I’d be back in the supernatural soup, which was a lot to manage when you have responsibilities like a husband and a child and a deadline. So I sent a silent request via the ether: any spirits intending to trespass were not welcome, unless they had ideas to contribute for plot and dialogue.

For two months I was a nervous wreck, holed up in my office, deaf to my family; my daughter left claw marks on the locked door. I chain-devoured family-size bags of Werthers butterscotch, courting both cavities and gas. And though I stuck to the story concept as explained by Steven, Laurie and Walter, a thought kept nagging at me: This doesn’t feel like a Steven Spielberg movie. This was no theme park ride. It was gently spooky, a lovely lyrical entente unfolding between a needy human and a housebound ghost. Would he really abandon his usual MO to make a very small film, a miniature instead of a mega-epic?

I turned the script in on time. Initially it was greeted with congratulations and a complimentary fax from Steven (which I would also love to quote, but that paper too turned blank in a year). Then we all got on the phone together for his notes. His big problem was that the film felt kind of…small. He missed the climbing graph of fear and tension. The ghost should be more frightening. (Like, a scary housewife.)

I got to work on revisions, throwing in some gaspy moments, like an unseen hand suddenly roiling the bathwater as the mother lies soaking in the tub, a fire spontaneously erupting, a door opening onto thin air, and the reveal of a horrific trauma in the ghost’s past.  But it still didn’t feel like a Spielberg movie.

In the end, it wasn’t. I waited for notes so I could complete the polish on the script. The word came back that they didn’t know what they wanted. I had done exactly what they thought they wanted. It turned out they wanted the wrong thing. Laurie and Walter wondered if the basic story could be sexier. But sexy wasn’t Steven’s thing, and he moved on to Jurassic Park. I had to move on as well. I was juggling two other script jobs, and a film I’d written and would direct (The Hairy Bird aka All I Wanna Do) had gotten its financing. I asked DreamWorks for, and received, an honorable discharge.

(Years later, I ran into Steven at the sixth grade graduation of our kids from the Ethical Culture School. “By the way,” he grinned, “we’re making your movie.” I phoned my agent: was this true? – “Oh, he’s just saying that. I haven’t heard anything.” Three years after that, What Lies Beneath was released, with Robert Zemeckis directing; it had been rewritten as a sexy ghost story with a scary husband.)

Back to 1996: my breakneck writing marathon was over. As I re-entered the atmosphere and splashed down in my life, my nerves were a tangled mess. For one thing, I badly needed to withdraw from Werthers. And I had no idea how to create calm for myself, in the moments when I wasn’t working or mothering. Unless…

Suddenly I remembered that I had a mantra. My family and I had lived in Paris back in 1990 while making the film Impromptu, when I decided to take up meditation. I received private lessons at the local Transcendental Meditation center. I loathed my teacher, who delivered his instruction robotically (in French of course) with a sneer and eyes half-closed; they flew open whenever I interrupted with a question, as if he had received an unpleasant jolt. I felt he was much better suited to be a waiter than a spiritual teacher. But I was committed to six lessons before he would give me my mantra.

Finally the day came, and I arrived at his office for the induction ceremony, bearing the symbolic offerings of some oranges and a white silk cloth. We were seated on the rug together half-lotus style (an excruciating position for my knees), when he leaned over and whispered two syllables in my ear. I am pledged never to tell anyone my mantra, but I will say that it has a guttural French r in it.

He announced we would end the ceremony by meditating together. I closed my eyes, feeling impatient to leave and be rid of him, and started silently chanting my new and personalized mantra. And then, suddenly, my thoughts fell away and I found myself seated on the wide wooden floor of an open-air temple. Hanging from the columns, gossamer yellow drapes wavered in the breeze. A cobra came toward me, sliding over the floorboards in silken undulations and pausing in front of me. Though I was terrified of snakes, this one’s presence seemed perfectly natural and in the order of things. As the cobra lifted its head, a man’s face appeared inches away from mine, blotting out the snake: a long-haired, bearded Indian man; he smiled, opened his mouth, and blew lightly between my eyes.

And with that, the temple disappeared. I was back on the rug with my waiter-teacher, who was looking at me inquiringly. “Alors,” he said, “was that agreeable for you?” I told him what had happened, describing the Indian man and how he huffed on my “third eye.” My teacher’s expression changed to something human like surprise. He got up, fetched a framed photo from a desk drawer, and wordlessly showed it to me. “That’s the man,” I said in amazement. The longhaired gentle-faced Indian man in the photo was my teacher’s guru.

At home, twenty minutes twice a day, I began my meditation practice with great optimism. I felt singled out for specialness by a guru I’d never met, and consequently I expected mucho magical mystery tours whenever I went into trance. Nothing much happened, however. My two daily sessions dwindled to one after a while, and then I stopped altogether, for the same reason so many do: after a while, calm is boring.

But then came Spielberg and the “Untitled Ghost Story” saga: now, in my crazed state, I needed nothingness like nothing else. I dusted off my French mantra, cranked my knees into half a lotus, closed my eyes…. And so began the greatest spiritual adventure of my life.

Unless you count my first acid trip.

(To be continued.)


Monday, September 1, 2014

At Home With a Ghost - 51

Dad with his parents: hoisting Carrie as Marshall looks on. Note the cigarette in her hand: small wonder she had a "graveyard cough."

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

My long-departed grandfather wasn’t done spilling the beans through this Montreal medium. Across the dimensional divide, Monsieur Guy Isabel’s spirit guide continued to compel his hand as he covered another page with automatic writing, in a script that appeared both elegant and awkward.

I waited, still recovering from the news that my grandmother Carrie, through all thirty-five years of her marriage, conducted an affair with her doctor, and with Grandpa’s full knowledge.

I knew all about Dr. Taylor from my father’s memoir, and from the letters Carrie wrote to her family from France during World War I.

At the height of the war, Dr. Kenneth Taylor, a New York pathologist, volunteered his services to an American military hospital in Paris. While there, he developed a successful treatment for gas gangrene, for which he later received the Légion d’Honneur. In 1915 he returned to New York. The following year he was summoned back to Paris to take over as hospital chief. He boarded an ocean liner with his wife Ann and a volunteer nurse named Caroline Hatch.

The three had become friendly in New York. I surmise that Ken Taylor encouraged Carrie Hatch to come along and serve in the war effort. Maybe their attraction had already begun. He put her to work in the wards, where she found her calling as angel to the wounded. He found her placements at other hospitals; he made house visits when she was ill, which was often. (It wouldn’t have aroused any suspicion when she had a man in her room at her pension, if that man was her doctor.)

“What I should do without him I cannot imagine,” she wrote her sister.

She didn’t have to do without Dr. Taylor, as it turned out. Along came Lieutenant Marshall Kernochan with a marriage proposal, along with his assurance that, if she said yes, he wouldn’t “pluck one feather out of that cherished independence” of hers. She would be free to do whatever she wanted.

Even adultery?

Carrie put off accepting Grandpa’s proposal. She sailed back to New York without giving him an answer; she needed more time, “to try to put certain things out of my mind.” Likely she believed her affair with Ken Taylor was hopeless. Continuing as the backdoor woman of a married man was an unthinkable demotion; she was too proud for that. But what if she too was married? Marshall’s wealth and social position guaranteed her respectability and, if he kept his promise, the freedom to pursue her heart.

So she said yes to all that. Her return passage and visa were arranged by Ken Taylor. The Taylors were witnesses at Carrie and Marshall’s wedding. At the end of the war, the four reassembled their weird ménage in New York. Marshall and Carrie Kernochan had a son named Jack (my dad). Ken and Ann Taylor had a daughter. Carrie instated Ken as the family physician; if little Jackie Kernochan had a sniffle, Dr. Taylor would instantly appear. Marshall bought a studio for Carrie where she could enjoy some privacy; the apartment was practically next door to the Taylors. The four got together sometimes for evening musicales or theater outings, but more often Marshall was off at the Freemasons or his mens’ clubs, and Carrie and Ken were off doing…something or other together.

When he got older Dad became aware that something in this picture wasn’t right. He started teasing his mother about it. Whenever she announced she was going to sunny Florida (for her lungs), with the good doctor in attendance (for her lungs), Dad would start rotating his pelvis and singing a current pop song, “Hear that savage serenade/ Down there in the Everglade/ Goes boom-a-diddy booma-diddy booma-diddy-boom.” Later he took to referring to Dr. Taylor simply as “Booma-Diddy.”

“She would be embarrassed,” he wrote, “blushing and giggling uncomfortably, but in no way daunted.” Finally Dad asked his father “point-blank, how he felt about my mother’s absences and her obvious inclinations toward the doctor. His response was: ‘When I look around and see some of the women my friends have married, I consider myself a lucky man.’”

Grandpa was probably referring to Mrs. Booma-Diddy.

When Marshall first met the Taylors in Paris, he wrote Carrie that “Mrs. T seemed a bit difficult. Dr. T scarcely opened his head.”  Their act never changed. My dad observed that whenever the T’s came a-calling on the K’s, Ann Taylor invariably showered contempt on her husband, and she didn’t seem to care who was witnessing. While she loudly berated him, the doctor shrank a few sizes and said nothing. She was also rumored to be having an affair with a Columbia professor. Carrie’s studio increasingly became Dr. Taylor’s home away from home as he escaped his ballbusting wife’s company.

And what better companion for Carrie than a doctor? “She was both morbidly obsessed with illness and prone to it,” my father wrote. From his earliest years Dad found that a surefire way to get his mother to pay any attention to him at all was to fake alarming symptoms, for she loved nothing better than to play nurse. The woman herself was a dartboard for afflictions. A partial list of her chronic ailments would include: hay fever, bronchitis, pneumonia, brucellosis, back pain and agonizing periods. Even the World War I courtship letters between Carrie and Marshall often jokingly referred to her “g.y.c.,” which stood for “graveyard cough.”

With the dear doctor, she had someone who took her every ache seriously, and was only too willing to talk symptoms and treatments. (Though she might have lived longer if he had made her stop smoking.) He was hopeless company when it came to her other interests, like music and painting; Dr. Taylor was “unmusical to his fingertips, and as a painter he would have flunked a Rorschach test.” They did have bird watching in common; they embarked on their hikes alone and often in Martha’s Vineyard, where the Taylors were frequent guests. When not hunting herons, Carrie and her medicine man could always repair to her little house on the bluff, far from the madding wife and the unfazed husband.

Dad wondered, “Was there a sexual relation between my mother and the doctor? I will never know. Perhaps at this point in life she was entitled to yield to inclinations that made her one and only life happy and bearable.”

If I believed the ghostwritten messages conveyed by this clairvoyant medium by Skype, my Dad’s question was now answered. And there was more to come. I watched Monsieur Isabel onscreen as he put down his pencil. He then read aloud what the spirits had just written through his hand: “Marshall says he tolerated her affair because he wasn’t always there, and he felt guilty about the life he led and he wanted Carrie to be happy…”

“He says ‘I myself saw other people. I too had sexual affairs, though not with women.’”

Guy Isabel was the third medium to mention my grandfather was gay, which I had suspected for some time. As my Skype session wore on, I learned that Marshall had loved a fellow Freemason, someone from Europe whom he must have met in his travels. The Masonic temple, a brotherhood shrouded in secrecy, provided the perfect camouflage for their affair. Sixty years after his death, Marshall wrote his confession on the medium’s page: “I discovered my soul could join with another soul in love, even if that soul was in the body of a man.”

This, then, was the essence of my grandparents’ marriage. Carrie put up with his homosexuality, and he looked away from her adultery.

When I consider this bizarre minuet between the T’s and K’s, I think of a photo I found among Marshall’s effects. The occasion shown is the annual Tuxedo Park costume ball. We inherited a trunk full of disguises from this fabled affair, which Grandpa adored dressing for, ordering custom-made outfits for himself and Carrie every year. We kids used to try on the stuff, swimming in silks and velvet brocade: there was a Revolutionary War soldier getup, a toreador, a sheik, a harem girl, Queen of the Night. There was also an oversize white satin smock with huge buttons of real mink. No one knew what that was about until I found this photo. The men are clad as lovelorn Pierrots in fools’ hats and satin nightshirts. On bended knee, they court their wives dressed as alluring Columbines. 

Tuxedo Park costume ball, or, go figure the rich

Once we get done laughing our asses off at this spectacle, we can open our ears and hear the chamber orchestra playing; we can see the dancers change partners. We can ponder, how many aristos in that ballroom were conducting secret affairs, like Marshall and Carrie? Meanwhile they keep step with high society’s twirl; keep up appearances in custom disguises.
I had no more questions for Monsieur Isabel or any medium after that. The last pieces of the puzzle, thought to be lost, had been retrieved and pressed into place.

You may well wonder how any sane person could accept as truth the ad-libs of clairvoyants and mediums (I consulted five in all). But I am not sane. I’m something worse: a fiction writer. I’d inherited an unfinished history, with massive plot holes and cloudy characters. I needed to understand my grandfather, who I believe has been with me in spirit form since his death. Frustrated, I wanted to fix the story and restore its flow, and I really didn’t care where the missing answers came from, so long as loose ends got tied and one could put the book down with a sigh of satisfaction.

And so my tale is done.

My attachment to spirits, and Grandpa’s ghost in particular, was not continuous throughout my life. When I got married in 1985, I gave up ghosts. It was time to dial it down the wack and get back to my day job: to be a presentable wife and mother, a person of sound reasoning – though if someone prodded me I might tell a ghost story or two. For ten years I concentrated on putting hot meals on the table and achieving success as a screenwriter.

One day I got a call from Nina Jacobson, who had just gone to work at a brand new studio called DreamWorks. I’d done a script for her before, when she was a development executive at Universal; the script had been about a satanic college fraternity, so she knew I was fluent in paranormal. Would I, she asked, be interested in writing a script for Steven Spielberg, one of DreamWorks’ three partners? The project was then being referred to as “Untitled Ghost Story.”

(To be continued.)

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 a 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!