For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir.
James and I were back in Chicago where I had found an agency that had agreed to take me on as the World’s Most Unlikely Model. I had stopped trying to style my hair after one disastrous experiment with hot rollers when I was reduced to having to use scissors to cut a curler out from a tangle of hair, I never understood what foundation was for, and I topped off at 5’3”. But according to Silver, the astrologer husband of Ann Geddes, who owned the eponymous modeling agency, my horoscope showed that I would be a great success.
The morning after Ann and Silver elevated me to Professional Model status, I left James holding his head in his hands and took the El to a lonely weird industrial area that lay in the shadow of the gigantic Merchandise Mart. Ann Geddes had sent me here in search of a photographer who would take photos of me for free — photos I could use to create a modeling composite that would land me actual work.
I found a dirty business card reading “Frank Wojtkiewicz, Photographer” stuck in a mailbox slot on one of the more crumbling buildings. There was no doorbell and no one around. I pushed open the rusty steel door and rode a creaky freight elevator up to the third floor. I banged on another steel door, which was thrown open by a big Polish bear of a guy, wearing a torn, grubby t-shirt and holding a can of beer.
Frank grunted, “A model, huh?” and led me into the first loft I had ever seen. In the front huddled a battered fridge (which held nothing but beer and film), a filthy sofa, and a rumpled mattress, glaringly lit by tall metal paned windows overlooking the Chicago River. In the back was Frank’s studio and darkroom.
No, I had no photos to show him, I was hoping that he could take some. Yes, I would like a beer (at 9:30 in the morning). Yes, I had modeling experience (well, I did have one modeling job, by accident). Would I do nude photos? I hesitated and answered truthfully that I didn’t know. I couldn’t think of a reason not to; after all a senior citizen from Des Plaines and a med student and his wife had all seen me naked.
Frank was gruff, unwashed on the outside, marshmallow heart on the inside, a wannabe Screbneski who lived on beer (I never saw him consume solid food), and who had no paying work at all. I don’t know how he stayed alive. But he had lots of time on his hands to shoot pretty girls who came knocking at his door.
Frank set me up under a huge white umbrella and then bustled about fiddling with a bunch of silver reflectors and a gigantic floor fan before shooting off a roll of film. He took a beer and the film into his darkroom and emerged with photos of me that were so flattering it was like looking at someone else.
Frank shot me like a sexy angel, my hair glowing behind me, my skin gleaming like a South Sea pearl, cheekbones I didn’t know I had sculpting my face.
“Wow,” I said, and Frank swaggered a little. It seemed churlish not to take off my shirt. Frank shot another role of film, and somehow these photos were even better. I used one of these photos, cropped below the collarbone that only Frank could find, as my head shot for years, arms crossed demurely over my chest, hair blowing back, wearing nothing but the dainty star necklace James had bought me in Acapulco.
I asked Frank if he could shoot the other photos I needed, to show off my range, my versatility: me holding a coffee cup or steno pad or tennis racket. “Bring beer,” he agreed. These photos were not as inspired, but they did demonstrate that I could stand in front of a camera and smile. I now had professional photos that had only cost me a few six packs. And I had made a new friend whose dirty loft provided a refuge from James’s days of fury.
Within a week, I had 1,000 black and white composites (which I paid for) imprinted with my name and “Represented by Ann Geddes Agency.” I was officially a model.
Which meant exactly nothing. Models from Ford and Wilhelmina were always cast for the most lucrative jobs, television commercials, and ads in national magazines. As the Number Two girl at the Number Three model agency, I was rarely sent off to auditions or go-sees. I sadly let go of my former belief that I would be starring in commercials once or twice a week. But I couldn’t sit and wait for the phone to ring. I needed money and I needed to get away from James and his foul desperation.
I wore out my shoes and my feet criss-crossing Chicago, dropping off my composite at every photographer on Ann’s list in the hopes that he (there was not a single female photographer) would be shooting something that required a small cute girl. I took the El north and south and tried to figure out Chicago’s arcane bus routes, but mostly I walked. I was not going to waste money on cabs.
Every evening I mapped out a route of photo studios and businesses and ad agencies, seeing how many I could hit on the least amount of carfare. My Chicago had previously consisted of a four-block square, extending from our Oak Street apartment to Faces disco to the backgammon club, with occasional trips to Marshall Fields downtown for Clinique lipsticks and Frango mints, or back in the good old days of a year ago, north to Greektown for moussaka.
Now I had to venture forth all over that sprawling city, from suburban Evanston, where I looked longingly at the ivied and brick campus of Northwestern, to close enough to the stockyards to smell them, from the skyscrapers of Miracle Mile to the scarred and scary South Side, previously terra incognita to me.
There was actually a lot of modeling work in Chicago. Sears and Spiegel were there; their tombstone catalogs required scores of models, posing in everything from bikinis to tool sheds. Popeil, famous for the Pocket Fisherman, churned out new low-budget commercials for dubious inventions every week. There were conventions and fashion shows that needed models who could talk or walk. Chicago had major ad agencies, like Leo Burnett and J. Walter Thompson, who very occasionally had to shoot a commercial there instead of LA or New York. There were smaller shops who cast models in trade ads for surgical or restaurant or hair salon supplies (I posed in scrubs and white paper booties, wearing a hair net, and brandishing a blow dryer). And of course there was the gaping maw of Playboy, which chewed girls up by the dozen.
Ann told me, “The more you work the more you work,” and it was true. Before I had gotten to the end of Ann’s list, a photographer cast me in an ad for Diet 7-Up, a shot of the lower half of my face behind a bubbling glass of clear soda, because I knocked on his door the day before, wearing a slash of crimson lipstick. That ad helped me land my second commercial, for the local McDonald’s franchises: I took bite after bite of an endless supply of slightly chilled Filets O Fishes, until the director got the take where the sandwich looked really, really good.
As my portfolio and demo reel filled up, I got more and more bookings, although I never made as much money modeling as I had waitressing at Pracna. I even got to walk the runway once, modeling petite-size wedding dresses, which inoculated me against ever wanting such a thing. All the gowns ended in huge, flowing trains of slippery white or ivory or eggshell satin; it felt like I was towing a small car. At the end of the runway I had to stop and beam like a real bride into the blinding lights, then execute an elegant turn, somehow without stepping on my own train, falling off the runway or colliding into the model behind me.
There were some jobs I should not have taken: greedy for my day rate ($250!) I let my hair be cut in a goofy Dorothy Hamill wedge for a beauty school instructional film, which put me hors de combat till it grew out.
Tri-State Honda hired me to throw out the first ball at the White Sox’s Comiskey Park, after I lied twice: I claimed that I knew how to ride a motorcycle and that I owned a floor-length white dress. I bought the cheapest white polyester gown I could find; my plan was to wear the dress to the ball game, with the tags carefully tucked in, and then return it to the store the next day and get my $50 back.
The nice man who delivered the Honda motorcycle to Comiskey Park gave me a quick lesson, slapped me on the butt, yelled “You’ve got it girlie!” and sent me off across the field to the pitcher’s mound. I managed to not dump the motorcycle or run over any White Sox, and actually threw the ball in the direction of home plate. But my white dress didn’t fare as well: there were greasy black oil stains all over the skirt.
Not only was I out $50 on a dress I could never wear again, Tri-State Honda didn’t pay up. The Ann Geddes Agency was not very good at bill collecting.
“I sent them an invoice.”
“Ann, can you send them another?”
“I will, after 30 days.”
Thirty days later.
“Tri-State Honda still hasn’t paid? Ann, please call them!”
“I’ll call after 30 days.”
Seething, I took my anger and frustration and a six-pack of Budweiser to Frank’s loft.
“It’s not fair!’ I cried. “And Ann isn’t helping. Honda is this big company, with all these motorcycles, and they’re taking advantage of me!” I struck my best Little Nell pose. “It’s not about the money, it’s the principle!’
“Oh, it’s about the money,” said Frank. His jaundiced take was that Ann didn’t want to piss anybody off. They were the number three agency in Chicago, and didn’t want a reputation for hounding clients over what was $10 for them. If I wanted my money, I had to get it myself. Frank had an idea; we smoked a joint of very good weed and he told me what to do.
I put on that oil-besmirched dress and went back to Tri-State Honda’s offices armed with several cans of Reddi-Whip. I told the befuddled receptionist that I was the Tri-State Honda White Sox girl and they owed me $100. If I did not get paid immediately, I was going to enjoy some Reddi-Whip, and in the process would most likely get whipped cream on the reception area’s couch and carpet. I assured her that it was very hard to get the smell of soured milk out of fabric. I sat on the couch, removed the red cap, and tilted the nozzle towards my mouth.
Frank was certain this would work, as he had once convinced a would-be model to be photographed wearing nothing but whipped cream and ended up having to toss out his sofa; I guess the stink of old dairy overwhelmed the ever-presence aroma of spilled beer in his loft.
“Can’t they arrest me?” I worried. “Probably not for Reddi-Whip,” said Frank.
The receptionist picked up the phone and the man who had hired me rushed out. I adjusted the nozzle so it pointed away from my mouth and towards the couch. “I’ll get your check,” he yelled.
Unfortunately, that $100 check was made out to the Ann Geddes Agency, leaving me $90 minus the dress and my El fare to and from Comiskey Park.
Frank was right. It was about the money. James’s good days were getting farther and farther apart. Even in those rare times when he was feeling flush again, it was hollow, as if he were acting the part of the old, confident James, the man of the world, successful investor and drug smuggler, the gambler who beat all the odds. I needed money: I had to bulk up my escape fund.
Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.
Recently my husband and I attended the funeral of Frank, a former community band mate of ours who died from brain cancer earlier this year. Frank’s wife also plays in the band and the four of us would often chat as we walked to our cars after our weekly rehearsals. We weren’t close friends and never saw each other socially outside of band, but after I saw Frank struggle to walk into rehearsal one evening I reached out to Betty and offered to come over to sit with Frank while she ran errands or just took a break from her 24/7 caregiving. Frank dozed the entire time my husband, Jim, and I sat with him but woke up to say goodbye just as we were leaving. Frank passed away the following week. He was 64.
Frank retired after 20 years in the navy and wanted to be inurned in Arlington National Cemetery, the hallowed and hauntingly beautiful burial ground a few miles from where we live. Because of his rank, Frank was sent off with full military honors that included an escort platoon, a colors team, a military band, and a horse-drawn caisson that carried Frank to his final resting place. Jim and I were honored to be there and surprised by what we learned about Frank’s life and legacy from his eulogists.
We knew Frank was a submariner, but we did not know that he retired as a commander. After he retired, he worked with a defense agency to create training and tools currently used by soldiers fighting today’s wars. We also knew that that he and Betty liked to tell stories, but we did not know that they once won the National Storytelling Network’s Oracle Award. And we did not know that Frank was in the process of writing several stories of his own before cancer robbed him of his words, and that Tom Clancy had dedicated one of his blockbuster books to him.
Jim and I were silent as our motorcade slowly traveled from the chapel to Frank’s final resting place. The air was unseasonably warm; the sky threatened to rain, but never did. I watched the clouds race by as though they were reminding us how quickly time goes. Then Jim voiced what I had been thinking.
“I wish I talked to Frank more than I did at band rehearsal.”
“Me too,” I said.
“I don’t know why I didn’t,” my husband said. “I would have loved to talk to him about his military career.”
“And I wish I had gone to hear him perform with his storytelling troupe,” I said.
“Why didn’t we?” my husband asked.
As Jim’s question hung in the air between, us I thought about the time–soon after I became a hospice volunteer–that I read an obituary of a long-term patient. A nurse had clipped it out of the paper and tacked it to the bulletin board in our conference room. The patient lived in our hospice for several months, but I never knew that she was once a college professor, or that she played the piano and was a gourmet cook. Of course the nurse already knew that about the patient because they talked on a daily basis and, more importantly, the nurse cared enough to ask.
Back then I preferred to keep my distance from the patients I met because I was still coping with the pain of losing my dear friend Leslie and did not want to get close to anyone I knew I would have to mourn before long. Also, since most patients stayed in our hospice unit for only a few days before they went home or passed away, I had rationalized that there was not enough time to forge any kind of meaningful relationship. Sometimes my fear of grief still causes me to think and act like that.
With Frank, however, there were plenty of opportunities, and I regret that I decided long ago that other than band, he and I had nothing in common, so I kept my distance. I use that rationalization too often to mitigate loss, grief, and pain–the inevitable payoffs that come from investing emotionally in personal relationships.
As a hospice volunteer, I am reminded every week how fleeting this life is–something I thought I knew and knew better than many others. But as I rode in Frank’s funeral procession, grateful for what I learned about him that day, I wished I hadn’t taken this long to realize that getting to know someone like Frank, or any of my hospice patients, would only enrich my life no matter how little we might have in common or how much time we might have together.
Regret never fades, but in the long run, the memories of shared experiences and stories outlive any grief. I know that now. Frank knew that because he believed in the value of a good story. I learned at his funeral that he also believed there is an appropriate Gilbert & Sullivan quote for every occasion–something else I wish I had known about him. Betty chose this perfectly apt one from The Yeoman of the Guard to end Frank’s memorial service:
Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That Death, whene’er he call,
Must call too soon.
Rest in peace, my friend.
Devra Lee Fishman’s dear friend and college roommate, Leslie, died from breast cancer one month shy of her 46th birthday after a four-year battle with the disease. Being with Leslie and her family at the end of her life inspired Devra to help care for others who are terminally ill. Each week, she documents her experiences volunteering at her local hospice in her blog, Hospice Girl Friday.
I’ve been playing clarinet in a community band for 20 years. We rehearse Wednesday evenings for two hours in a local high school and perform in retirement homes and parks every other month. There are no auditions required and no age limits, so we have members who are just out of college and people who recently retired and started playing their instruments after a 50-year career hiatus.
When I first joined the band I was working full-time and I rushed to get to rehearsal every week. Other than the rest of the clarinet section and a flute-playing friend I had recruited, I didn’t know anyone else’s name. There wasn’t time to socialize during rehearsal, and I didn’t stick around afterward because I needed to get up early for work the following day.
That all changed when I stopped working and could linger after rehearsal to chat with some of the other musicians. I learned that a clarinet player who sat next to me for more than 10 years was a former nuclear physicist, and one of the trombonists—Frank—once commanded a submarine and was married for more than 40 years to Betty, a French horn player also in the band.
When I got married I encouraged my husband Jim to dust off his trumpet and join the band, which he did in the fall of 2011. Jim introduced himself at his first rehearsal (a band ritual) and announced that he was married to me. This seemed to delight Frank so much that he made his way over to Jim that evening to share stories about being happily married to another musician. Often Frank, Betty, Jim, and I would walk out to our cars together after rehearsal chatting about superficial stuff like the weather, a recent concert we played, or our new conductor’s sense of humor.
Last summer Frank was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. He underwent chemotherapy and for several months and it seemed to keep the cancer at bay, but earlier this year we watched Frank get weaker and thinner. He still came to band, but talking was difficult for him, and then impossible as the cancer affected his ability to speak. At rehearsal about a month ago, I looked over and saw Frank slumped in his chair with his trombone across his lap while the rest of his section stood and played the final ‘big brass’ strain of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” When Jim and I were leaving that evening we noticed Frank shuffling behind a walker with one band member carrying Frank’s trombone and Betty guiding him to their car.
I know from my hospice volunteering and from spending time with my friend Leslie at the end of her life that being a caregiver can be physically and emotionally draining, so when I got home that night I sent an email to Betty saying just that. I offered to come over and stay with Frank while she ran errands or took a walk. I told her I knew we weren’t close friends, but we were part of the same band family and I hoped she would take me up on my offer. To make it easier for her to accept, I suggested a few specific dates and was delighted when she replied to my email to lock in a time. In her note she told me she was grateful for the chance to go to the mall in order to have Frank’s cell phone transferred over to her, a seemingly mundane task that she hadn’t been able to do because Frank was no longer able to walk on his own.
Jim wanted to come with me. I told him that, according to Betty, Frank would likely be sleeping when we got there since we would arrive just after a visit from his hospice nurse. When we arrived, Frank was sitting on their sofa with the day’s newspaper draped in his lap. He gave us a weak smile when we greeted him, and then a gauze curtain dropped behind his eyes as he tried and failed to stay focused on us. As soon as Betty left, he nodded off and slept until she returned two hours later. I gave her a hug when we said goodbye, and she fought back tears as she thanked us for coming over.
That evening I told Jim I was glad he came with me. I liked having him there and I believe Frank did too. Jim said, “I know you’re around people like Frank every week at the hospice, but I was kind of scared. I’m not used to being with people who are sick like that, and I don’t know what to do or say.”
“I’ll tell you a secret,” I said. “I’m scared too. Every time I go into a patient’s room I get nervous. And today, for a split second as we walked into Frank and Betty’s house, I felt that old familiar flutter of fear that I am not qualified to be around someone who is terminally ill. But I’ve learned that simply showing up and saying ‘I am here with you’ is all that a patient or their loved one needs to know they are not going through this horrible thing alone. You did that today for Frank and Betty.”
“Wow,” he said, “I never thought about it that way.”
Frank passed away two weeks after our visit, and Betty came to band rehearsal the following Wednesday. During our break I went over and sat quietly next to her as people stopped to chat and pass along their condolences. I wanted Betty to know that she was not alone in that moment, even though she was surrounded by our bandmates. As I left to go back to my seat, I offered my help again and this time she said, “Maybe in a couple of weeks we could just get together and talk.”
I’ll be here for her whenever she’s ready.
Note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.
Editor’s note: Sally Shivnan’s original story, from which “Ireland’s Follies” in the Sep/Oct 2012 issue was excerpted, is presented here in its entirety for your reading pleasure.
[See Irish Folly Photo Gallery on page 3.]
Walls To Nowhere
Frank and I are staring up at a bunch of immense stone arches stacked artfully together. The same way gymnasts climb onto each other’s shoulders and make a human pyramid of themselves is how these arches are arranged. Out of the top of them rises a single, tall stone spire (like a flagpole the gymnasts might hold up). The arches are a lot bigger than gymnasts unless those gymnasts are giants—together the whole structure is 140 feet high and 100 feet wide. Frank asks me, with absolute puzzlement in his voice, “What is it built for?”
“Nothing,” I reply.
Frank is a trim, middle-aged guy in a nice grey suit, with shiny black shoes. Powder blue shirt and dark blue tie. I’m in pants slopped with stains from two weeks of traveling, and beat-up hiking shoes. Frank and I have only just met, an hour before. “Built for no purpose!” he exclaims. He gets it. I smile at him.
I don’t know much about Frank, except that he is a married father of four, a former investment broker who, since Ireland’s economy tanked, now supports himself driving foreign businessmen to and from the Dublin airport in his small black Mercedes sedan. Traipsing about the countryside in my employ, in search of purposeless buildings, the more purposeless the better for my purposes, is a significant departure from his routine.
I’d already explained about them, when he picked me up at my hotel and asked me what exactly these things were. I gave him a basic definition—odd, sort of pointless structures erected for fun by people who could afford them, often as famine-relief projects to provide work for their tenant farmers. I offered a list—towers, temples, sham castles, obelisks, fake caves; the fake caves were sometimes staffed by fake hermits whose job was to jump out and frighten the party-goers. But a folly in the flesh is worth a thousand words, and standing now before the one called Conolly’s Folly—the massive arrangement of arches and its single, soaring obelisk—Frank is enchanted. He’s hooked.
We are folly hunters. We take off in hot pursuit, Frank refusing to use the SatNav, determined to sniff them out without any help. I explain further, about how they were all the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries among the Irish grand-country-house set, and how I am interested in not just those folks, but in the people who physically built the follies, especially during famine times. I say to Frank, think how they must have felt, building these crazy absurd structures for their uber-wealthy landlords while trying to ignore the hollow gnawing in their stomachs—they would have been grateful for the work, I suppose, but at the same time…
Your ancestors and mine, I want to say to Frank but don’t. Not sure why I don’t—a little self-conscious about playing the Irish heritage card, I suppose. We chat about sports, the economy—Frank resents that he’s lost his business despite never doing anything stupid or irresponsible, unlike the high-rolling greedy people who brought Ireland, and the world, to the state it’s in. He talks about his kids, the eldest just out of college with a degree in marketing, about to emigrate in search of work. These are hungry times again, in their way. We float along in the car, through the green interior of Ireland, past pastures and golf courses, cottages, villages. I notice that the cream-colored leather upholstery of the armrest below my window is scuffed, grubby.
The largest folly in Ireland is the Jealous Wall, and the story behind it is as marvelous and creepy as its name. It starts in 1740 with Robert Rochfort building a big house on a lake. He suspects his wife of cheating on him with his brother, so he confines her to his other house where she has no contact with the outside world for 31 years. She has to walk around with a servant ringing a bell when her husband visits so he can avoid running into her. But these visits are rare, as he spends most of his time at his estate on the lake, where another of his brothers—by all accounts an instigator of the adultery rumors and by this time not someone Robert is fond of—starts building an even bigger house of his own just half a mile from Robert’s property line. It’s situated to block Robert’s best view, and, as a final snub, it is turned away from Robert’s house, its rear end, so to speak, in Robert’s face.
So Robert builds a wall. A freestanding, three-story, 180-foot-long pseudo-crumbling Gothic wall-to-nowhere incorporating curves, corners, a half-turret at one end, and numerous arched, rounded, and square window openings and doorways. Now when he looks out from his house, he sees this wall, rather than his brother’s place. It’s a compromise. It has its parallel in the way he imprisons his wife since he cannot go back in time with her to the way things were before.
Whether she had the affair she was accused of has been debated and will never be known. When Robert died, age 66, they came to let her go. The first words of the poor half-mad woman, who at this point couldn’t speak above a shrill whisper, were “Is the tyrant dead?”
The Jealous Wall was not built for famine-relief but for rage relief. Many follies were built during periods of famine, though, including that huge pile of arches, Conolly’s Folly. In some places you can find follies built during the Great Famine of the 1840s standing alongside others built during the less well known but equally devastating famine of the 1740s, which killed nearly 40 percent of the Irish population. At these sites you might find no follies from the intervening hundred years, however, as if the folly-building urge hit only once a century, triggered by tragedy. The whimsical nature of follies, under the circumstances, seems more than a little bizarre, and this incongruity is, I know, a big part of what drives my curiosity.
One such place, with follies separated by the century between the two famines, is Killiney, half an hour south of Dublin. I took the train there, much of the way running right along the strand around Dublin Bay, the fishing boats and pleasure boats like toys bobbing on the glittery blue water. When I stepped from the train and looked up to the hilltop above the village, I saw the funny, pointy cone of the oldest of the Killiney follies—a white-cement dunce-cap sticking out of a blocky little building, crowning the steep, wooded hill. I started walking up, along lanes that snaked between high stone walls concealing the country homes of the new gentry—Irish celebrities of the sort who go by one name, Bono, Enya—and after a half-hour climb I stepped from the shade of oaks and beeches into sunlight and a wide expanse of grass, and I beheld the folly’s weird white cone poking up into a blue-and-cloudy sky. A marble plaque embedded in the wall beneath the cone reads:
LAST year being
hard with the POOR
the Walls about these
HILLS and THIS
Esq. June 1742
Mr. Mapas seems not to have known what to call the thing he’d built and the best he could come up with was “THIS.” His THIS commands a view to the east of the Irish Sea, and to the south the picture-postcard sweep of Killiney Bay and beyond it the Wicklow mountains, friendly and pastoral-looking. Other follies share the hilltop: a second, smaller cone-topped structure called the Witch’s Hat, a miniature stepped pyramid about 15 feet tall that kids can clamber up, and a couple of spooky stone-slab structures that look like ancient sarcophagi, these all built a hundred years later, during the next terrible famine. Even though I should have known better, I acted just like Frank when I saw those pseudo-sarcophagi—I couldn’t help myself, I had to ask what they were for. Seriously—a pair of austere, somber, fake stone tombs sitting in the middle of the grass all by themselves? I stopped a guy who looked like he’d know; he was riding around in a golf-cart spearing rubbish on a stick. A cigarette dangled from his lip as he worked, and he looked gruff and Irish.
“They’re follies,” he said.
I knew that. “What were these for?”
“Place to ‘ave their tea on!” he called out, spearing a Fanta bottle. “They’re all follies! Buildings built for no purpose!” And he hopped in his buggy and putt-putted away.
John Mapas’s estate, where he built the cone he called THIS in 1742, belonged to a different owner just thirteen years later, and it changed hands three more times before the Great Famine of the 1840s spurred the second round of folly-building there. Today, the mansion that Mapas built, and which later owners expanded, is a four-star hotel that showed a modest operating profit in 2010 but had a loss of €340,000, mostly in bank loan payments. Its total loss on paper for the year, however, was €8 million, the result of writing down the value of the property by €7.9 million. Irish real estate is not doing well. The word folly has many shades of meaning.
It was typical for these houses to change hands a lot, as the Killiney estate did. And Ireland is littered with the ruins of abandoned grand country homes—roofless shells overrun with ivy, gardens gone to grass and thistle. These greatly outnumber the ones that survived as hotels, golf courses, and public parks. Their owners went bankrupt, or simply fled, many impoverished by famine along with their tenants. Famine meant the collapse of the rural economy, on which the landlords depended; they lost the rents from their tenants, the basis of their wealth. There’s a certain ironic karma in the ruin of these landowners by famine, though, since famine was largely the result of poverty, and poverty was caused by injustice and inequality, and injustice and inequality were the products of the feudal system that put Irish land in the hands of the privileged few. In 1849, during the Great Famine, the Encumbered Estates Court was established to deal with all the bankruptcies, and in the decade that followed, 8000 of these properties changed hands. Other landlords moved on when land reform broke up the large estates around the end of the 19th century, or a few years later during the Irish War of Independence. In some cases, the formerly landless farmers were content to stand back and watch the huge, empty houses rot, while in other cases, they burned the places down.
We think of the conflict as between the Irish Protestant ruling class and the Catholic majority, but this oversimplifies it, because there were “dissenter” Protestants in sects that were discriminated against just as Catholics were, and there were Catholic landowners who acquired Protestant holdings during certain periods, and there were Catholics who had once been Protestants but who changed religious affiliation hundreds of years back. There were, as well, Irish Protestant aristocrats who were as passionate about the cause of Irish independence as any Catholic. The lines get blurred, even if you leave out the occasional, inevitable unsanctioned encounter between wealthy landlord and peasant serving girl. Anywhere you go in the Republic of Ireland you find both Gaelic and Anglo surnames, though all these folks are Irish, and mostly Catholic. Irish people’s ancestry is a complicated mix, as is true for all humans, and the Irish are walking around with the DNA of the colonizers, as well as the colonized, inside them.
In 1958, William Peter Blatty, a publicist and aspiring author (“The Exorcist”), wanted to see how hard it would be to fake nobility among Americans. It proved to be too easy. But then, he had chosen the one city that is most ready to reward pretense: Hollywood.
I’ve always been curious about how Americans really feel about royalty, and, like Alice in Wonderland, I got “curiouser and curiouser” when King Saud of Saudi Arabia came to the United States recently and got a classic concrete-and-steel cold shoulder from New York’s sky line and New York’s mayor. Was New York speaking for America?
I was in a convertible, coasting along Hollywood Boulevard. Beside me in the driver’s seat was Frank Hanrahan, an old Georgetown chum and an ex-FBI agent. Frank looks stern. Frank looks distinguished. Frank has never been known to play a practical joke since coming to Los Angeles. This is important, as you’ll soon see.
Bright-eyed and unaware, we were on our way to an afternoon gathering of Frank’s friends in the Hollywood hills, when “Great screaming Teddy bears!” (or something like that) exclaimed Frank. “With those sunglasses on, you look just like an Arab sheik!” This was not surprising, as both my parents are Lebanese, but right then I knew my moment had come.
“Do I look like an Arab prince, maybe?” I prodded Frank.
“Whaddya mean? Whaddya mean?”
“Do you think I could pass for an Arab prince with your friends?”
Frank gently braked the bathtub and pulled up to the curb. He squinted at me in the glaring California sunshine. “Say something in ‘prince,'” he said finally.
“Ycsss—sank—you—very—mush,” I hissed haltingly.
Frank’s unblinking stare brushed over my face with light, inscrutable finger tips. “We’re in,” he said, and roared into gear.
Frank drove to a house where his friends — none of whom had ever before seen the author — were watching a football game. Frank entered first and prepared his friends.
“Look folks, I’m in a little bit of a spot. I met a Saudi Arabian prince—”
“King Saud’s son. I met him at a party some Egyptian friends of mine threw in Beverly Hills the other night. He wants to see how Americans really live and he asked me to show him around town. I’ve got him out in the car and—”
“Now. So look. I’m gonna bring him in. Now don’t panic! He’s a regular guy and he doesn’t want any fuss made over him. Just remember to address him as ‘your highness.’ But one thing — be casual!”
Blatty entered the room like a slumming prince.
I hastily spotted the most imposing chair in the room, marched over to it like Yul Brynner imitating Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and sat down, curling my fingers around the arm rest as though the chair were a throne, and, so help me, I felt majestic, even though I was wearing desert boots, Bermuda shorts and a loud, peppermint-striped shirt.
“Do you like football, your highness?” asked Denny Owen, a rugged college footballer.
“Ah—don’t they play football in your country?”
“Well…” and he good-heartedly launched into an explanation of the game. This seemed to ease the tension considerably, and someone else asked me if I would like a beer. I gave him the royal “oui” and Denny and Frank went into the kitchen.
I overheard their conversation:
Denny: “Cripes. I can’t hardly stand it! A prince! Here! And watchin’ the Rams on TV!”
Frank: “Take it easy, will ya, Denny? He’ll hear you.”
Denny: “What’s the deal on the candy stripe shirt, huh, Frank?”
Frank: “Oh, he’s just trying lo be one of the boys. Here, give him his beer.”
Denny: “A can, Frank—a can? We gotta give it to ‘im in a glass!”
Frank: “Nah, he’s a regular guy, I tell ya.”
Denny: “Well. O.K.”
And at this point I turned on my thro— er– chair, and saw rugged Denny carefully wiping and rubbing the top of the beer can with the tail of his clean white shirt.
Meanwhile, the Rams won the game, the TV was turned off and everyone became convivial. I learned later that some of the people in the room rather sided with the Israelis in the Arab-Israel dispute, but they were warm and friendly, and never gave a sign of their feelings. They were even suggesting nightclubs that they thought I should visit, places like the world-famous Mocambo.
Blatty was the toast of Hollywood that week. He appeared on talk shows and variety shows. He was invited to private dinners with movie stars. He succeeded beyond his most cynical dreams. The charade climaxed when Blatty got a chance to match his imposture against one of the country’s best fake princes.
One night a noted Hollywood publicist invited me along to an evening at ‘Prince’ Mike Romanoff’s. And thus it was that in the cool of the evening, ‘prince’ met ‘prince,’ ingenious imposter met up-and-coming challenger.
Entering Romanoff’s restaurant, accompanied by a studio publicity agent, Blatty seated himself with noble aplomb at a table. Within minutes, ‘Prince’ Romanoff hovered into view.
“Well, hello there,” he smiled genially, coming up to us.
“Hi, Mike. . . . Uh— your highness. Prince Kheer, may I present his highness, ‘Prince’ Romanoff?”
“How are you?” I murmured.
“A pleasure,” said Romanoff.
“His highness,” said the publicist, “is from Saudi Arabia. You know. King Saud’s son.”
“Oh. Of course, of course.” For one memorable, tremendous moment, Romanoff’s gaze locked with mine. It was toe-to-toe and there was silence in the arena.
The moment passed.
“Uh—by the way, your highness,” said the publicist, “there’s something I think you ought to know. I mean, I think I ought to tell you.”
“Well. “Prince’ Romanoff— he isn’t really a prince.”
Our shrimp cocktail had arrived.
“Iss what?” I demanded.
“They say he’s not a prince. Everyone knows it. But we like him so much we go along with the gag. No harm done.”
I put down my shrimp fork. “But iss not prince! ”
“Sorry. I am insult.” And rising majestically, I strode out of the dining room, out of Romanoff’s and out of my life as a prince, because, brother, I believe in quitting while you’re ahead!
With that snub, that out-royaling Hollywood’s most famous ‘royal,’ Blatty returned to life as a commoner.