Slouching toward Bethlehem
While waiting for the next big book idea to come along I was doing pr for Jan Schlichtmann, the Boston lawyer. He was the subject of the bestseller, A Civil Action, which later became a movie starring John Travolta. The book documented his notorious ten-year legal battle on behalf of children who had sickened and died from toxins in the water in Woburn, Massachusetts.
When the decade-long lawsuit ended, Schlichtmann, bankrupt and dejected, had fled Boston. At the time, he was something of a laughing stock in the local legal community. Outgunned and out-financed by goliath corporations employing top Boston law firms, “Jan sacrificed himself on a mission from God,” according to Harley. In hiring me Schlichtmann was looking to rehabilitate his image in anticipation of the release of the book.
He wanted publicity for a difficult lawsuit he was handling involving a gruesome snow blower injury. The case was about to break wide open at a 9:00 am discovery hearing in Suffolk Superior Court. I alerted every media outlet in the area and they arrived in droves. One of the network morning TV shows sent a crew from New York. When the judge entered the courtroom he was visibly startled by the video cameras and rows of seats packed with reporters. “I had no idea this case had attracted so much interest,” he said bending into his microphone as he took the bench.
Schlichtmann stood at the attorneys’ table, his elegantly tailored back to the waiting press. His client had lost an arm because of a defect in a piece of equipment, he began. This product had been on the market for twelve years. He had been stymied in his efforts to learn whether there were other injuries that the company had known about while it continued to sell the machinery. He introduced into evidence the numerous discovery requests he had made over many months and described how the company had effectively blocked his efforts to obtain information about the product’s safety record. He set that pile of documents to one side of the table. Turning to a large brown carton in front of him he began slowly and deliberately, hypnotically, lifting out thick files, one by one, and setting them in a second pile. Every eye followed as a mountain of manila folders grew on the plaintiff’s table.
A whistle-blower had contacted him, Schlichtmann told the spellbound courtroom, and opened a crack in the wall of silence. Placing his hand on the towering stack of files he had been building in front of him, Schlichtmann stepped back and paused for effect. “These,” he said pointing to the huge pile, “are the injuries that the company swore under oath never happened. This one” — holding up a file — “a hand hacked off; this one” — another file — “a foot amputated; this one, an arm. All settled out of court, all with confidentiality agreements. And all while the company continued to sell this machine” — he held up a large photo of a piece of equipment painted blood red — “that it knew was causing these horrible, horrible injuries.” The entire courtroom had stopped breathing. It was a brilliant piece of lawyering.
During an idle conversation one day Jan asked if I could help his brother get a little press coverage to promote his small business making commemorative videos from family photos. When you undertake a new pr project you look for the hook that will make some publication want to do a story on your client. In this case the quickest way to get at the hook was to ask a question.
“What’s the most unusual video you ever made?” brought the answer, “A two-and-a-half hour memorial for this lady’s dead dog.”
Well, who knew? Perhaps dog lovers everywhere were clambering to make photo videos of their departed pets. Pet magazines might love the story. I got the dog lady’s name and made a phone call.
I met Misha Defonseca with her husband, Maurice, in a restaurant in Sherbourne, a suburb west of Boston. Misha was a short, plump woman, somewhere in her sixties, with pixie-cut platinum blond hair and icy blue eyes that glittered with extraordinary intensity. She wore a dress patterned with leopard spots and heavy Native American silver jewelry. Her eyes were rimmed with startling yellow-green liner. Long glue-on nails, white, tipped her fingers like claws.
She began speaking as soon as we were seated. Her English was heavily French-inflected but she talked rapidly and gave the impression of complete conviction. She made the video, she said, in memory of her dog, Jimmy, (pronounced GEE-mee) because of her love of animals (an-NEE-mahls) and to console herself. She loved Jimmy more than any human, she said, and she had nothing to live for when he died. I wondered how her husband felt hearing this.
She was a Holocaust survivor who had found kindness among animals, she continued. Man was capable of terrible cruelty but animals had been her truest friends. She made a habit of looking you right in the eye with a fierce concentration as she spoke.
Her husband listened to all of this with keen interest. He seemed shy, rarely making eye contact. He was quiet except for times when his wife’s English was insufficient to convey her thoughts. Then he would softly ask her to explain to him in French what she wanted to say and would translate. The story that followed was amazing.
At the age of seven she was living with her parents in Brussels. It was the time of the Holocaust. Her father was in the Resistance and her family was hiding out under a false name. She was never told her true name because it was Jewish, but being blond and blue-eyed she could “pass.” She was picked up at school one afternoon by a stranger who told her that parents had been arrested by the Nazis. She was placed in a foster home but she escaped and set out to search for them. She walked for five years across the European theatre of war, often hiding in the forest. Most astonishing, she said she had been befriended by dogs, and sometimes by wolves, along her journey.
What an incredible tale! That’s a book! I thought. I told her that I had a small publishing company. I asked if she’d ever considered writing about her wartime experiences. She said she had not spoken of her past until recently, that it was too painful, but she had started speaking to bear witness to the horrors committed by the Nazis. We left the subject of a book open for further discussion and said goodbye.
With the media flurry over Gigolos, Mt Ivy had signed on with Palmer & Dodge for the representation of that one title and translation rights had been sold in Iceland, of all places. One of the inducements offered for us to sign was that P&D’s agents were also lawyers, “two for the price of one,” Ike boasted. (The chic literary boutique known as the Palmer & Dodge Agency was part of the Palmer & Dodge law firm and was headed by Ike Williams, whom you will recall I briefly introduced to you earlier.)
After my meeting with Misha I called Elaine Rogers, an agent at Palmer & Dodge, and described what we had discussed. “Do you believe she really was befriended by wolves?” she asked, incredulously. “I have no idea, but anything’s possible, I guess,” I replied.
Elaine was blondish, attractive and WASPy. She might have shopped at Talbots. She was married to a doctor and living in the posh horse country north of Boston. (There are actually polo grounds in her area.) She seemed always to be darting off to Los Angeles and Frankfurt on Palmer & Dodge business. An animal lover, she was excited by the wolf aspect of the story.
I continued to meet with Misha to discuss the possibility of a book. On several occasions she invited me for lunch at her home in Millis. Her house was like nothing I’d ever seen. She had depictions of animals in every form displayed on every surface in every room. Stuffed animal toys of every species sat on shelves and chairs and in corners and a stuffed real cobra, its head reared to strike, held a place of honor in the middle of the living room floor. There were paintings of animals, photos of animals, figurines of animals, throw pillows of fake animal fur. There were bears, lions, tigers, dogs, cats, birds, reptiles - if it was a species on this planet, it was probably there in some form.
She also had a live dog and numerous cats that all were treated like spoiled children. Her fenced back yard was cluttered with animal statuary, bird baths and bird feeders, squirrel feeders with dried corn and hummingbird feeders with sugar water. She grew towering sunflowers for the birds and squirrels and put out purchased dried corn for the deer. A band of huge raccoons ate cat food and leftovers from her table from a bowl outside her kitchen window.
She frequently contrasted the purity of animals with the wickedness of humans. One of her favorite expressions was: “If I was in a sinking boat with a dog and a human I would save the dog and throw the human overboard.”
As we contemplated how the book would come together, I was concerned about Misha’s English, although Maurice was always at hand to translate. At one point I asked if she would feel more comfortable with a French-speaking ghostwriter and she said she would. For a time I thought we had someone who would help her but problems over terms in a collaboration agreement proved insurmountable. I continued to report back to Palmer & Dodge on the progress of plans for a book.
My best friend, Vera Lee, was also my next-door neighbor of twenty years. We saw each other or spoke on the phone almost every day. She had listened patiently for hours as I wailed and obsessed endlessly as my marriage collapsed. Her advice: never love anyone more than they love you.
A retired French professor, Vera was eighteen years my senior. She was a bright and flirty conversationalist, a gracious hostess, intelligent, and fun. Friends of mine who met her always commented that she was “charming.” I admired her tremendously. She was my “Auntie Mame.” Whenever I wrote her a note I always signed it, Love, Jane.
I think she considered me an asset, too. She liked to show me off to her friends. We were the glamorous young couple — handsome, rock musician husband, vivacious, bright wife — in the mansion next door. She lived by herself on the other side of a common driveway in a cozy brick cottage that had been the gatekeeper’s quarters.
At the time we bought the big house, we were impecunious hippies who had acquired a bit of extra capital through a fluke business opportunity. When we moved in, all our worldly possessions fit in half the living room. Our friends thought we were crazy. In that era those looming, grand Victorians were called white elephants; nobody wanted them – too much upkeep. Within a few short years they would regain their original status as trophy houses.
My life and Vera’s were densely intertwined. I knew her whole family and circle of friends and she knew mine. She was a necessary fixture at my family’s celebrations. She was always with us on Christmas Eve (she, being Jewish, didn’t celebrate with her family) when we opened presents. She often made her entrance waving a flaming red feather boa and toting a bag of gifts for everyone, my kids included. I would never consider having a party without Vera.
Her lively patter was the Vaseline (her word) that kept any affair running smoothly. To encourage the flow of conversation Vera enjoyed conducting parlor games. She would ask people to pick a single word to describe themselves. It could be one word only. She was surprised that I chose “sensible.” Why didn’t you pick something more flattering? she asked. I don’t remember the word she chose for herself.
Or she’d say: You can be rich or famous. One or the other, not both. Which do you choose? She chose famous. I chose rich. She was surprised. I don’t care to impress strangers, I said, I have two kids to send to college.
Another favorite party question was, “If you could push a magic button and someone, somewhere, would die and a million dollars would materialize in your bank account, and nobody would know what you did — would you do it?” She often played this one with new acquaintances. She was smiling brightly as she asked this rather macabre question and listened intently to the answer. In retrospect I now see this game as an ominous augur.
For all her social skills Vera would sometimes tell me she felt “invisible” to other people. Given her engaging personality I couldn’t understand why. She worried because she was not beautiful. She would say, “The only thing that matters is the face, the face, the face.” I would not understand, she said, because I was born with a beautiful face. Another time she told me I was smarter than any student she’d had in her teaching career. I was flattered by such high praise from someone I so admired.
Over a period of twenty years Vera and I developed the shared comforts that characterize a long friendship. We both enjoyed cooking. My recipe box was stuffed with her recipes and hers with mine. I always contributed the most dramatic hors d’oeuvres I could muster for her annual spring party. Many of my recipes are in the Boston College Cookbook she compiled while she was teaching there. I still have that slim yellow volume on my kitchen shelf.
After my marriage ended, if either of us was dateless on New Year’s Eve we went out for Chinese together. We were frequent practitioners of shop therapy. On my birthday every year we went to Allen Haskell’s nursery in New Bedford for me to pick out plants and then we’d have lunch at a favorite cafÈ and visit the factory outlets. Her birthday card to me always contained a clever poem.
Her garden and mine were on either side of the common driveway. She had glorious roses that I tried, unsuccessfully, to emulate. We would laugh and chat as we worked in our flowerbeds. When the sun was “over the armpit,” as she used to say, we went to my kitchen or hers for bourbon juleps made with fresh mint from her garden or mine.
Whenever we needed advice we turned first to each other. When it seemed my life had fallen apart after the Budish suit, it was Vera who encouraged me to get up and try again, even helping me choose the name for the new publishing company, Mt Ivy Press.
In a deposition taken shortly after she filed the lawsuit against me, Vera was asked, “Why did Jane choose you to write the book?” She answered, without a trace of irony, “Because she trusted me.”
I did ask her to help Misha write the book. She was reluctant. She recently had taken up ballroom dancing and didn’t want to take time away from an activity that gave her so much pleasure. I arranged for Vera and Misha to meet at my house. They chatted away for a while in French. But after Misha left, Vera’s reaction was disinterest. Misha had talked of virtually nothing else but animals and their superiority to humans. Vera didn’t care in the least for animals, had no pets of her own, and had to restrain herself from cringing in front of Misha when my dog greeted her.
After the meeting, Misha asked Vera for a writing sample that described her reaction to their meeting. Vera was annoyed. She told me she didn’t have time but she would scribble something and give it to me to clean up — which she did. Vera had penned something very typical of Vera. It was very flattering, but much different from what she had expressed to me. I passed it on to Misha. The flattery worked and Misha was impressed enough that she was willing to work with Vera.
I sensed Vera was just going through the motions. I knew she was concerned about taking time away from the new passion that was consuming increasingly more of her energy and interest. The book project just didn’t appeal to her, she said. I assured her I just needed her to help Misha get the basics of the story down in English. I would take over from there and work the material into a book.
I had a clear vision of the kind of book I wanted. The wolf angle was unique. I had done some research and learned that accounts of wolves adopting children were more than the stuff of legend; there were some relatively recent, though undocumented, accounts. It was fascinating material, whether true or not. Although the protagonist was a child I thought the story would appeal to adults. No doubt to humor me, Vera agreed to continue to meet with Misha, but she was making no commitments. That would soon change.
Vera went out several nights a week to nightspots that catered to a middle-aged ballroom dancing crowd. The day after a dance evening, sitting at her kitchen counter sipping wine, I would hear all about it. She would describe how many dances she’d danced, how other women had been wallflowers while she danced all night, how much she loved the attention. She was invited to compete in a tango contest and would need a tight, spangled dress with a high slit up one leg. Would I go shopping with her to find one? Of course I would — and I did.
She seemed positively high, as if on a self-induced narcotic, after her nights out. She said she’d finally found what she’d wanted all her life: popularity, and showed me an essay she’d written entitled “Look, Ma, I’m Popular!” I met only a couple of people from this new circle of friends. Mostly she saw them in the places where they danced. I worried that my friend would be hurt competing for attention with much younger women. At the time she was seventy-three.
One afternoon I got a call from Elaine. She had been out in California for a meeting about a film project with the folks at Disney Studios. In passing she’d mentioned the Misha story and they had been very interested. She needed a ten-page treatment within a week. What’s a treatment? I asked. It’s a brief synopsis of the story, Elaine replied.
Now Vera was interested. She quickly met with Misha to get the basics of the story and wrote the treatment within the tight deadline. Elaine sent it off to Hollywood.
Meanwhile Vera was dating men she met through her dancing. One, in particular, was much younger than she. She referred to him as “the Kid.” She confided that she felt she was in love, and that the feeling was reciprocated.
Although she had had long-term relationships, I had never heard Vera speak of loving any man. I just listened quietly, though I was concerned. One night she had stood in the middle of her bedroom floor, she told me, and let out a gut-wrenching cry of agony. She didn’t know why. She seemed surprised at herself.
Though I tried to keep an open mind, I was troubled. The Kid’s lime green car was frequently parked outside her door at all hours of the day and night. “I care about you,” I said at another time. “What you’ve been telling me lately makes me worry that you could be hurt.”
“A true friend offers support, not criticism,” she huffed, offended.
“A true friend tells the truth as she sees it,” I answered. “We’ve always done that with each other. You deflated my illusions about reconciling with my husband and you were right.”
“You’ve been involved with younger men,” she countered.
“Not that much younger,” I answered, “and it was a lark — for my ego. I never imagined it was love.”
This discussion was going nowhere. I didn’t recognize my dear friend. I felt a tiny stab of fear.