North Country Girl: Chapter 63 — Chocolate, Bars, and Bears

For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.

My tenure as secretary to Kathy Keeton, publisher of Viva and associate publisher of Penthouse, had been a wild mouse of a ride. The man who hired me tried to coerce me into sex, I had been an ignominious failure as a fake Penthouse Pet, and now I had attained almost human status in Miss Keeton’s eyes by finding and returning a $50,000 bauble her jeweler had dropped in her office’s white shag carpet.

There were few beings Miss Keeton deigned to speak to civilly: Bob Guccione, Pets, Viva ́s art director Rowan, her jeweler, the Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and advertisers, existing and prospective. For everyone else, Miss Keeton had perfected a look and attitude that relegated them to the status of bad waiters, or even bad busboys. If you were a mere editor, she had the ability to speak to the air in front of you while simultaneously staring through you.

But for the first time Kathy looked in my direction when she tossed off her demands and occasionally said please and thank you as if she might mean it. A few days following the affair of the missing tennis bracelet, she popped her head into my cubicle.

“Gay. I recall that you had some writing in your background. Would you be interested in doing an article for Viva?”

This reward for the return of the bracelet was almost as good as the diamond stud earrings I had been hoping for.

“Oh yes, Miss Keeton! I’d love to!” I gushed, praying that the assignment would not be something like “How to Find Your Own G-Spot” or “Are You Bi-Curious?” or any other supposedly erotic claptrap that would lower me even further in the eyes of Viva’s editorial staff.

The article I was to write was not about sex. It was about the next best thing: chocolate.

Viva’s advertising department was desperate to have something in the magazine they could tote around to media buyers at ad agencies that said “Look! No more penises! We’re not hardcore porn, just a regular woman’s magazine!” The delusional saleswomen wanted Viva to run an article on chocolate, in the hope that they could lure Nestlé or Hershey’s into the magazine. They convinced Kathy, who dropped into the next editorial meeting to strongly suggest that a story on “The Joy of Chocolate” be published ASAP. The editors, equally delusional in their belief that they were independent, balked at such froufrou subject matter appearing in their magazine. My sole ally, managing editor Debby Dichter, hinted to Miss Keeton that I would probably love to write the piece.

But the idea for an article for chocolate had banged around Kathy’s head too long, and had morphed into something else entirely, something consistent with Kathy’s belief that the Viva readers were all versions of her.

“Gay, don’t include any rubbish, no Godiva, ghastly stuff. I want only the top end, the most exclusive purveyors of chocolate.” I had my title: “Haut Chocolate.”

This writing assignment made me happy, but it did not make me any new friends. Viva’s editors, who tended to be politically to the left of Castro and who were never quite on my side to begin with, hated having the ad staff dictate what articles should run in the magazine. The fact that I was writing this puff piece — Miss Keeton’s secretary! — made it even worse.

What made up for my pariah status was the discovery that when you work for a magazine, you get free stuff.

All it took was a few phone calls and I had boxes and boxes of beautifully crafted and utterly delicious truffles and pralines from Teuscher and Neuchatel and other European chocolatiers messengered to me. I made a small uptick in my reputation by personally delivering each box to a different Viva editor. Then I called and requested more gift-wrapped boxes of chocolates to photograph for the article.

A page from a magazine with a box of chocolates
Gay’s article in Viva.

I did not fare as well with the ad saleswomen. Beverly Wardale, the alpha female of that wolf pack, showed up at an editorial meeting shaking the layouts of my article.

“What the bloody hell is this?” she demanded. “These companies don’t advertise! You can’t even buy these bloomin’ chocs anywhere except Fifth Avenue and Switzerland!” The editors all cut their eyes at Kathy, and Beverly, realizing that the article had Kathy’s chocolaty fingerprints all over it, departed in a huff, tossing the pages behind her.


I had been at Viva long enough to accumulate a week’s paid vacation, but I had not accumulated the money to pay for a trip anywhere, unless it was via subway. My artist boyfriend, Michael and I were pretty much living on my $12,500 secretarial salary. The monthly check he received for his illustrations in Esquire magazine went right back out the door in the form of child support for his two kids back in Chicago.

Michael was starting to get illustration assignments from astute art directors who recognized his uncanny ability to capture personality in his portraits. He did not draw caricatures; he drew character. Michael’s genius was his ability to express in a few black lines and a charcoal wash the inner person. Michael could see, wanted to see, below the skin, past the face one presents to the world, and he looked with equal parts of empathy and curiosity.

Michael approached everyone with a wide open heart and whip-smart intelligence. He wanted to know what made them tick, what they liked, what motivated them. He was able to find common ground with anyone: he could talk sports, art, music, books, and movies, and was always more interested in your opinion than his own. I never introduced him to a single person who did not want to be his friend.

Both Viva and Penthouse were too slick, too air-brushed to have any use for Michael’s intellectual style of drawing. I dragged him and his portfolio up there anyway, and had him meet as many of the staff as I could buttonhole in a loop about the office. Michael’s charm turned out to be more effective in redeeming my reputation than a $100 box of truffles.

Even Viva’s editor, Gini, regarded me with a less jaundiced eye after she met Michael. Her own boyfriend, Bill Plympton, was also a cartoonist and illustrator, although a considerably more successful one than Michael.

My first friend at Viva, Debby Dichter, had long been a fan; she may have had a small crush on Michael. One night at dinner, Michael confessed to her, “I feel terrible” (he did, Michael was really really good at guilt) “that I can’t afford to take Gay on a vacation. She deserves it,” and he looked at me as if I were the moon and the stars.

Although I had mentioned our lack of funds to Debby on the few occasions it was my turn to complain about something, to please Michael Debby now sprang into action.

“My family has a house on Cape Cod, in Wellfleet. You could use it. It wouldn’t cost you anything.”

Michael and I set off in a borrowed car to a borrowed house, which turned out to be the perfect Cape Codder: an elegant two-story modern home, all glass and wood, set on a thickly treed lot, no neighbors in sight. I was thrilled, as was Michael, until it started to get dark.

Michael peered into the crepuscular forest and shuddered.

“There’s nobody around. What do you think is out there?”

“Owls, sleeping chipmunks…”

“Bears?” asked Michael. Up till now, to Michael a bear meant a burly man wearing a football helmet (or his young baseball playing relative, a Chicago Cub). I had grown up in a town that was a regular commute for bears; the classy Hotel Duluth had The Black Bear Lounge, as one had once wandered through the lobby, a bear in search of a beer in a bar.

Stuffed bear
The bear at the Hotel Duluth. (Zenith City Press)

“Michael, the closest bear is probably in the Boston zoo.”

“There are other big animals though,” worried Michael, as dusk erased the space between the trees, leaving only a few birches glowing like skinny ghosts. “Like ah, moose…moose and…”

“And squirrel?” I said in my best Boris Badenov voice. It didn’t help. Michael turned on every light in the house, including the garage and the back door. The master bedroom, with its big windows and woodsy view, was on the ground floor, too close to marauding squirrels; we slept in the attic, sharing a twin bed under the gleam of a Tinkerbell nightlight.

Michael was much happier in Provincetown, with its paved streets, stores, restaurants we couldn’t afford, art galleries that were not yet open for the season, and bars. He especially liked one bar that offered a 10:00 a.m. happy hour to accommodate the fishing crews. We ended up spending most of the day in that bar, a day I had planned on visiting the famous Cape Cod dunes, my goal a pilgrimage to the primitive (no electricity, no running water) shacks where Norman Mailer, Jackson Pollock, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams had created masterpieces. Michael had agreed to this plan, but it was now almost three o’clock and I had reached my tolerance for day drinking.

Sand dunes
Cape Cod sand dunes. (The Mayflower Sales Co., Provincetown, Mass., Boston Public Library, The Tichnor Brothers Collection)

We arrived at the dunes at the exact moment when the western light casts a weird spell over the lunar landscape, flinging deep violet shadows across that treeless spit of land, flattening everything out, and warping perspective; it was like being in a real-live Mystery Spot. We could see one shack on top of a nearby dune; after a half-hour trudge through the sand, the shack actually seemed farther away.

Michael turned around. The only sign of which direction we had come from were our footprints, slowly filling in with sand.

“We’re lost!” Michael freaked out. Outside of that gray, dilapidated cabin, which was either a block or a mile away, there were no man-made objects in sight.

I could not take this seriously. “At least there’s no bears,” I ribbed him. Michael looked at me as if I were a heartless monster who had lured him to this death trap.

“C’mon Michael, you have got to be kidding.” He wasn’t. “Cape Cod is like a mile wide here. It’s impossible to get lost, we walk one way and we hit the sea, the other and we hit Highway 6.”

“Or we could just walk in circles till we die.” I gave up, took Michael’s hand and, turning our backs to the setting sun, we returned to the parking lot and then on Michael’s insistence, back to the Fisherman’s Arms. He desperately needed a drink.

A shack
Dune shack on Cape Cod. (National Park Service)

By the end of the week, Michael had spent so much time in that bar that he was practically an honorary fisherman, having charmed even the crabby old lobstermen. He justified his bar tab by the fact that when I came to pick him up after my solo visit to the Pilgrim Spring or retracing Thoreau’s Cape Cod walks or bird-watching at the kettle ponds, he was not allowed to leave without a flounder or haddock or pair of lobsters for our dinner. I gave a silent thanks to the gay waiters at Arnie’s back in Chicago for teaching the lowly coat check girl how to bone a Dover Sole and crack open a lobster.