A Salute to the Women of My Life
by Eryk Hanut
The time has come again... Acquisition is here for
the next twenty-five days, the strongest religion;
Commercials keep kicking us in the wisdom teeth, and I am
trying, despite the avalanche of "buy one, get one
free," "act while it’s still time,"
offer," and the most Circe-like, "buy now, pay
later," to give a thought to the little
thirteen-years old girl Mary--Mariam, more likely--who
bore an extraordinary and terrible secret for many
months and--tradition has it--was refused the smallest
straw bed in Jerusalem and was forced to give birth in a
manger, two millennia ago, and probably not even in
In fact, I do not like Christmas. Never did. It
depresses me. The saying "you cannot miss what you’ve
never had" doesn’t work for me, here. My childhood
was deprived of gold ornaments, the smell of baking
pastries, cinnamon-scented pine cones, and Mel Torme’s
carols. I still do miss what might have been.
Another dislike of mine is men. The male species that
is. I know I am gay (that’s what you just thought,
didn’t you) but my great passions, friendships and
coups de foudre are for and with women. Always. I do not
trust men. Being one myself, I know how the male
The only man I trust is my husband Andrew Harvey; it’s
his face I‘d want to see when I die. Whether he is
already waiting for me across the mirror--or if he ‘s
accompanying me during the delicate process, it’s his
face I hope to see; I pray I’ll be granted that. I
also trust my two boys, Princey and Puli. They are cat
boys. Being cats softens their maleness.
My first love affair with a woman lasted 3 months and
happened when I was five years old. I fell madly in love
with a married woman who was known, in our house on
Schillerstrasse, Berlin, as the ‘nail lady’. Twice a
month, she would come and paint my mother’s hands and
toes. And twice a month, she would bring some strange
love into my life; and also a collection of small vials
filled with all the shades of ruby, poppy and amethyst
you can think of. And with them, the pungent, magnifique
smell of Acetone, just like brand new magic markers.
From that early time, comes a hunger that strikes me
every time I am in a drugstore and makes me want to
eat--eat, not use--all the lipsticks and nail polishes.
The nail lady was probably in her fifties (but then,
when you are five years old, everybody above 12 is
geriatric) and was a devout Catholic, judging by the
number of badges with saints faces and holy cards
directly pinned on the cement trench coat she always
wore. Her hair was white and her face was the shade of
pink meat that has been boiled a very long time. In the
sharp German daylight, her eyes became so blue that she
looked almost blind.
She once brought me a small statue of St Anthony of
Padua. His marzipan-like resin was too tempting and I
bit his head right off that afternoon. We watched soccer
matches on TV, screaming our joy when Munich’s Bayern
was winning. She asked me what I wanted to do when I
grew up and I replied that I wanted to be surrounded by
white mice--lots of white mice; to be a white mice
farmer in other words, but that I would need an extra
income, because I would never sell or kill any of my
mice. She told me I looked smart and should become a
scientist; From then on, I started rehearsing the speech
I would make when I got the Nobel prize. Several times,
she took me to the Hautbahnoff, the train station.
There, sitting on benches, surrounded by walls the color
of snuff-spit, we would watch trains going in and out of
Berlin Grand Central. My love for trains started there,
with my love for her. We would walk back slowly
("one more train, pleeeze, only one more
train") and, back home, when mercifully my parents
were out, she would take me on her shoulders--she was
short and strong-legged like a Shetland pony--and give
me a ride all over the bottom floor. Or sometimes we
would dance. Always to Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of
Flowers. She would hold me till I fell asleep. As I
write, I can still see my little body as if carved onto
her ample silhouette and reflected infinitely in the
3-mirror cabinets that housed my mother’s Art Deco
vases, and were placed all over the room, in such a way
that, no matter where you looked, you risked an
intoxication of Daum, Galle and Lalique. Death by pate-de-verre.
One day, she didn’t arrive, my deranged sunbeam.
She never came back. I never asked why. For years, busy
demonizing an already grim childhood, I’ve delighted
at the thought of Pyrrhic wars between my mother and
her, aroused by the idea of these two sacred monsters
fighting over me. But people are generally less
complicated than we want to think them. The "nail
lady" probably asked for one too many raises. Her
name was Maria.
When I met Marlene Dietrich, I was nineteen years old
and she was eighty-six . The relationship lasted till
she died. I think she liked more for who I really was
than the idealized version of myself I was trying to play. I
still adore her. I always will. She had an immense heart
and was a complicated bitch; she had a very clever brain
and was still a romantic young girl. In fact, she
brought youth into my nineteenth year--Was it Matisse or
Picasso who said that ‘it takes many years to become
I was then living in Neuilly sur Seine, with my great
aunt, in an apartment of the ‘beaux quartiers’ that
was less of a home than a tomb for my aunt’s legend. I
think that Dietrich’s arrival replaced the burned out
light bulbs in my life. At times, she seemed frozen in
her own mystique, like a mosquito trapped in amber and
yet, nurturing and attending to life was, to the end, her
Dietrich loved food, loved men; She hated mediocrity
and mediocrity returned the hatred with interest; Her
ego could be sharp like a stiletto heel, but the vastness
of her being healed whatever wounds she inflicted. She
was capable of talking about Stravinsky, the gowns of
Travis Benton, or evoking Jean Cocteau and Richter in a
single breath--and of mailing me menacing salamis that
looked like Mandragora roots. Any catastrophe, or war,
or rainstorm or subway strike--always turned Dietrich
into a squirrel. The beginning of the Gulf War broke all
records of sausage and Spam-sending in all of Neuilly mail’s
During the first winter of our five-year long
conversation, it snowed extravagantly--for Paris that
is--and the park of Bagatelle was closed to the public.
One night, Dietrich told me "Hang up and go across
the road, walk onto the polo field and fall on your
back; Make angel prints in the snow; you’ve never done
that; go and make angel prints."
I crossed the street and made angel prints for a long
time. I always obeyed her--whether it was to take a
stomach remedy" that looked and tasted like tar, or to
keep and freeze the body of a kitten I had found in a
flowerbed "until we find its owners," or make
angel prints in the snow on command.
I hope she knew something of what she left me when
she went. She left me a much greater knowledge of
everything--and a deeper sense of loss; The sort of loss
that years never sweeten and that keeps on aching--the way it should be with great loves.
Purrball, our, cat is another of my ‘dames de coeur’;
we found her in an animal shelter, but I know that she
picked us, the same way that some Buddhists believe that
the soon-to-be-born soul chooses its parents. Purrball
did everything with extreme refinement. Eating, licking
her ash and olive paws, and playing with her friend the
cricket--a cricket that came to visit her for a whole
summer. She never hurt him. She would watch him and jump
all over the room, totally in harmony with him. We
nicknamed him ‘the pet cricket’ and tried to console
her when, that September, he did not come back. She
looked for him for a long time; other crickets came,
but you know, after the first cricket, it’s never the
She loved me, but treated me like another Tabby; I was
the one she woke up if we dared--again--to feed
her diet cat food. I loved to bury my nose in her warm
belly, always fragrant like a fresh dinner roll.
She adored Andrew. Absolutely. She looked at him as
if he was some Rudolph Valentino of cats. Light came into
her eyes and sadness left the world, when he entered a
room. She loved him so much that, when the time came, she
decided to die in my arms and not in his. She knew it
would be too sad for the two of them.
When I met Leila Hadley, I loved her instantly.
She came down the spiral staircase of her coral-walled duplex in New York. Talk about Dea ex Machina.
She was wearing a gold brocade dress that could have
flown a Ravenna’s mosaics. And she was holding a
matching cane; She made an exercise in elegance out of a
badly injured knee. She didn’t look as she was moving
at all; the staircase seemed to be revolving around her.
Thank God, she quit using the cane soon after, but
the halogen smile and the wisdom remained; Her
smoky-quartz voice has been guiding our lives for many
years now.. Words are scarce when it comes to talk about
her.. Mother Courage, Mother Wisdom, Mother Discovery,
Mother Astonishment…When I miss her, when I remain too
long without seeing her, I go to Macy’s and breath in
a bottle of her perfume, St Laurent "Paris."
You walk into Leila Hadley’s office to borrow an
envelope, and you leave richer by an extraordinary word
or two, by the evocation of a plant that blooms only
every two years and only in Fiji, by a postcard of the
magical work of Joseph Cornell, or by the exact name
of Easter’ Island ‘s giant heads.
In December 1993, while in Germany, Andrew's then-guru,
Meera, told him to leave me. Regardless of the time
difference or etiquette, I called Leila in New York.
It must have been 2 in the morning for her. She did not
offer empty words of consolation like very good friends
do when they are awakened by teary phone calls in the
middle of the night. She didn’t present me with any
insight on what the future might hold; She did what
Pietas do; She listened to me and cried with me holding
me over the miles.` When we returned to Paris a week
later, two cashmeres sweaters were waiting, like two
warm embraces; It was the perfect gesture.
Leila always knows the perfect gesture. And she
always does it. She is the closest to a mother I will
ever have. I always learn from her. A conversation with
her is like flying over Hawaii's active volcano, in a
helicopter, on a day of lucky activity; Sparkles, big
ones, small ones, but endless sparkles, and light,
light, light everywhere. This amazing timing and her
genius of raconteuse is recorded in one of her books
"A Journey with Elsa Cloud." This is probably
one of the best travel books in the world--and no doubt,
the most impressionistic book of the English language.
In "A Journey with Elsa Cloud," Leila Hadley
does to English what Colette did to French. She turns
words into tubes of paint, incense burners and Proustian
Madeleines that, when read out loud, make you think,
"I’ve had that thought all my life, but never
expected anyone could put it into words."
Recently, a friend described Leila as a "lioness." I loved the image. I associate it with
her golden-ness--In my mind, Leila is golden. She is
obsessed with the truth, and the well being of her loved
ones. And she is obsessed with beauty and savage with
those who dare to try ruining it. Sometimes she has
opinions that could peel paint off the walls, but she is
untouched by cruelty or meanness. She makes this valley
a much better place to be. And a much more civilized
Like all golden beings, she won’t die. In a long
time, she will probably go like a kite, whose string
broke; she will become smaller in the blue, but will
always fly ahead of fear and sadness.
Women, women, of all ages, color, social status,
species, weight or height…Talking, writing about you
always brings me wonderful nurturing feelings, feelings of being
at peace with myself. Feelings of daffodils in March, in
Belgian woods, and of lazy Saturday mornings, of good
books on rainy days, of daytime that never shortens, of
rolling on the carpet with kittens, of growing hyacinths
in jelly jars, of fresh cakes of soap, of fighting for
one’s truth, of starting charity work, of taking the
Orient Express from Paris to Venice…
Well, don’t get me started, I am almost beginning
to like Christmas…
© Copyright 2002 Eryk Hanut.
All Rights Reserved.
Eryk Hanut is a
writer and photographer. His latest books are "The
Road to Guadalupe" (Tarcher-Putnam 2001) and the very
recently published "The Blessings of Guadalupe"
( Council Oak books- 2002). He is currently working on a
memoir. He lives in Nevada with his husband Andrew Harvey
and his two cats Puli and Princey. You can visit him at www.erykhanut.com
and contact him through firstname.lastname@example.org.
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