June 2006 -This writing began while listening to “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt. The book evoked so many memories of my 13 months living in Venice right after graduating from Princeton in 1982. It never ceases to amaze me how instantaneously an author can tap into your own experiences and start awakening memories of people and places long dormant and unexamined. His book, set in Venice, around the tragic fire at the Fenice Opera House in 1996, covered a time almost thirteen years after I had left Venice, and yet, his descriptions of the city and the politics and the society there unzippered my brain and unleashed my memories. Berendt discussed the curator of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Philip Rylands, and his wife, Jane Rylands extensively, whom I had met and worked with in Venice. Finishing the book, I was prompted to exhume the letters that my dear friend, Bob Stern had so kindly sent to me recently, saved and sent back almost 20 years later, and having digested those, I dug out my old Journal, “European Ventures!” begun Aug. 17th, 1982 as we left Princeton to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with 5 student-acted plays. We went with our drama teacher, Carol Elliot, and about 15-20 students. Bob Stern, my best friend, and I left for Edinburgh together. I have since gone to the ever-informative web to cut and paste images available to illustrate my adventures of acquiring my post-graduate degree in living. I’ve always been somewhat of an impulsive, pigheaded and fortunate girl – and, now at the age of fifty-three, I am reminded by world events which unfurl around us that indeed, life is only what you make of it, and how your perceive your success at making your life. It is, all too often and too predictably, being in the right place, opening the doors when opportunity knocks, all those clichés which have been drilled into our heads as children. That time, now thirty years ago, was as magical and unexpected as any moment in my daily life now. Looking back through the miasma of time, if I strain hard enough, I can see in that reckless, twenty-one year old the seeds of who I am now, somewhat manic, terribly critical of myself, willing to take risks – and above all, a people pleaser.
I grew up in the Midwest, in a small rural town outside of Pittsburgh. Well enough outside of Pittsburgh, that the daily commute to the city vexed my father to the point of complete disinterest in making the trip any more, so that he relocated himself closer to work. This happened when I was about thirteen, and was painful at the time, but the seismic shift in our family structure also provided me with the first of many opportunities to come.
Shortly after my parents separated, my best friend, Liz, went off to boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. Now neither this specific fact, nor the concurrent divorce that my parents were working us all through would normally be considered particularly lucky, but the stressful confluence of events led to my being allowed to follow her the following year, to St. Paul’s School. This was one of the luckiest and happiest doors to open to me in my life, but you will see that it was only the first, and not nearly the last such lucky portal.
St. Paul’s is one of the best-endowed, most beautiful boarding schools in the United States, and this girl from Greensburg, PA took it by storm. I loved the classes, the dorms, the extra-curricular theater events that I became part of. Never a big sports person, I nevertheless rowed intramural crew, and kept generally fit, and overall loved the school.
The most influential teacher I had at St. Paul’s was without a doubt, Robert V. Edgar, English teacher, head of the drama program. I began my stage management career working with Edgar on “Loot,” where my duties involved acquiring the manikin which appears as a prop in the play. I took this job very seriously, and went into Concord, went to a local haberdashery and somehow cajoled them into loaning the manikin to us, then carted it back to campus in a cab. Mr. Edgar believed in my skill as an actor, too. He supported my performance in Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett, my last year, as an Independent Study Project, buried up to my waist, then neck in a paper-Mache mound of dirt, spouting 60 some pages of monologue, with undoubtedly very little variety of tonal expression.
One morning, in my fifth form year, during breakfast in the large barn-like dining room at Upper Hall, I convinced my friend,Will Schwalbe, on a dare, to sneak upstairs with me into Middle Upper, the dorm where Edgar was a house master, and an all boy’s dorm, to knock on his door to wake him up. I’ll never forget coming in through the door way, and seeing the look of surprise on Artie Z’s face as he struggled wearing only his towel, to get back into his room from the shower. Without even reacting to the illegality of my being in a boy’s dorm, Edgar swung his door open, invited us in for coffee and the “Tutorial” began, a weekly opportunity to meet to discuss world events, or just SPS events, while we listened to classical music on Public Radio, or Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood on the turntable, if we were feeling silly, which we frequently were. The ranks of the Tutorial grew by only a few other students, since we considered the gathering to be elite. We were incorrigable intellectual snobs. After Tutorial, at 7:55AM, we donned our coats, and all walked to chapel together, either through 5 foot snowdrifts lining the path, or through the verdent spring foliage lining the walkway from Upper.
Bob Edgar made us feel like adults, by valuing what we had to say, by laughing at our inane jokes, and by generally offering a droll, witty, smart role model for who we could be when we were finished with our educations. I really cherish those days, and credit them in no small way to my development into a life-long learner.
Cut to December of my 6th Form year at SPS. I had visited only three colleges in preparation for the application process- Stanford, Princeton, and Santa Cruz. When I sat down to it, I applied to Princeton early admission, with UC Santa Cruz as my back up school. In my typically irrational, impulsive manner, I eschewed Stanford because it was hot the day we visited there, and I didn’t like the architecture of the campus. Ridiculous youth.
My mother’s father had gone to Princeton, and had graduated with a degree in architecture in 1933. I had been successfully indoctrinated to the Princeton family over years of attending the Princeton vs. Yale football game with my Granddad, first taking lunch at Cottage Inn, on the “tailgate” of Grandad’s car, then sitting on the Princeton side of the stadium, cheering our team onto victory. Also, having been at St. Paul’s School’s similarly ivied halls for four years, I felt more comfortable on the campus of Princeton then just about anywhere else. It didn’t hurt that about 30 of my friends from St. Paul’s would be calling Princeton home for the next four years.
I plowed through the next four years pretty uneventfully, starting in the Woodrow Wilson School as a poli-sci major, and after one year, maybe even one semester, switching to the Art History department where I discovered a Friday morning slideshow/lecture on the History of Gardens was a successful antidote for a rowdy Thursday night at the pub. I liked the small scale of the Art History department, loved thinking about aesthetics and brush strokes, and enjoyed reading about the early contemporary artists and the choices they made forging new styles of painting. When senior year rolled around, I had become enamored with early twentieth century painters in the New York circle of Alfred Steiglitz, and was inspired to write my thesis on Georgia O’Keefe and John Marin and Arthur Dove, and their particularly American qualities. What intrigued me most then, and still does to this day, was the idea of a single person’s ability to be a catalyst for creativity, by providing a safe haven for creative thoughts and actions. Patrons of the arts fascinated me.
I also worked actively in the theatre at Princeton, not with the Triangle club, who produced musicals and musical revues, but in the small octagonally shaped bunker theatre in the center of the campus, right next door to the Art and Archeology department, Theatre Intime. There I worked on a number of shows, and the last two years, spent both summers on campus as a co-producer for the summer seasons we produced. It was a natural extension of Edgar’s Tutorial – producing and mounting our own fully realized shows for the paying public. The confidence we had in ourselves was staggering.
To support my academics and extra-curricular events, I had a financial aid package including moneys from my parents and grandparents, a scholarship (arranged through the generosity of my grandfather, from his classmates), student loans acquired through the bank in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where my Princeton grandfather lived, and a work-study job at the University. I had chosen to work in the food services division of the University, and spent my share of time peeling and chopping eggs in the Student Center, and making omelets and sandwiches for students over the course of my four years. However, I discovered that I could cashier, make more money, deal directly with people and occasionally have time to read a book during quiet stretches at the Student Center. So I spent most of my senior year in that capacity.
It was on one spring afternoon just prior to my graduation when I had finished my lunch shift as cashier, and, on the way out of the Student Center, stopped at the vending machine to buy a TAB. I was plunking quarters into the machine when someone tapped me on the right shoulder, and I turned to see Louisa J, a graduate student from the Art and Archeology Department standing behind me.
“Hi, Louisa,” I said as I retrieved my can of soda from the machine.
“Els, hi. I have a question for you.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I was wondering, do you know of anyone who would be interested in going to Venice, Italy for six months to au pair for my daughter, Anna, while I write my dissertation?”
Without missing a beat, I opened that door upon which opportunity had knocked.
“That would be me,” I said. We made arrangements for me to spend a Saturday afternoon getting to know Anna, at the graduate student housing, near the campus, and Louisa walked away. I stood there, stunned, opened my can of TAB, took a swallow, and considered my new trajectory.
Later that week, I met the infamous Anna on the “swim-date” Louisa had arranged for the two of us to get to know each other. We sat on our beach towels on the hot concrete pavement surrounding the small pool at the graduate student housing, I in my one-piece, and Anna, age 6, in her two-piece suit. She sat eyeing me warily, sizing me up, and after some consideration, voiced her question; “Why do you have a moustache?” I didn’t really have an answer. It probably was no coincidence that while in Venice, I began what was to become a life-long waxing regime. Occasionally as the technician wands the scalding wax onto my upper lip, I will see Anna’s innocent and curious face looking up at me, and as the wax zips off my lip, I can see the sparkle in her eye.