It began when I was a teenager — a strange magnetic force that propelled me into places and experiences that were the provenance of the rich and famous. During my life I found myself in close proximity to the privileged, the talented, the movers and shakers. I didn’t seek it, it just happened again and again — like being in the right place at the right time or, conversely, being at the right place at the wrong time. It was always exciting and unexpected.
In the ’40s I attended Walton High in the Bronx, a fine, well-respected, all-girls school. I was 14. The principal, Marion Hefferrnan, was a slim patrician who made sure we middle-class girls were exposed to a few of the finer things in life. Her husband, on the board of Carnegie Hall, supported his wife’s vision. One of the perks, distributed by Miss Shine, the strict teacher of the “Major Music” class that met five days a week, were tickets to Saturday matinees at Carnegie Hall.
Every Saturday I took the subway downtown and thrilled — from the third row center — to performances by Kirsten Flagstaff, Jascha Heifetz, and conductor Guido Cantelli. One day Miss Shine announced that if we wanted to go to the concert next weekend, we would have to bring a note from home allowing attendance at a rare Saturday night performance. We were told that Mrs. Boudreau, the French teacher, and her husband would be our chaperones.
When we arrived at the concert hall, we climbed carpeted stairs to the first tier of boxes. I was dazzled. Only rich people sat in boxes. When we entered our box, which hovered close to the stage, I chose a gilt velvet chair in the rear. Mrs. Boudreau encouraged me to move forward and pointed to a chair in the front of the box.
I sat. The lights dimmed. As to the manor born, I relished every moment, glancing below at the audience. I felt I was finally home. I melted into the music, elated.
Two years later I sang at Carnegie Hall — really. Of course I sang with 799 other graduating seniors because the auditorium at Walton couldn’t accommodate us all. We belted out “When You Walk Through a Storm,” which Miss Shine had rehearsed mercilessly.
Thus began my lifetime journey . . . falling into exalted places.
A young career woman, I had graduated Hunter College and the Fashion Institute, where I was an associate professor of fashion design. I had my own unpretentious boutique on Saint Mark’s Place — the mecca for flower children — and was attending writing courses at the New School taught by Hayes Jacobs, head of the creative writing program. I hadn’t found my niche but did produce short essays, magazine pieces, and short things that I didn’t call poems. Lacking confidence, I didn’t submit work for publication.
When I went on a two-week vacation to Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, I brought my portable Hèrmes typewriter — lightweight and efficient. The island was a fairytale of conservation — no cars, kerosene lanterns, one small grocery store. I stayed at the Island Inn, which did have electricity.
The inn overlooked the harbor, where the ferry and mail boats docked. During the day I walked the trails through Cathedral Woods to the wild cliffs towering over the Atlantic. The guests at the inn were dedicated environmentalists, with a sprinkle of Boston bluebloods. When I described a beautiful flower I had seen in the woods — “a blue fringed gentian,” they exclaimed with reverence — my entrée to their delightful company was assured.
In my room I tapped, tapped, tapped on my Hèrmes in the mornings or afternoons. After a few days, the manager approached me. It seems my neighbor in the next room had complained of the noise. Mr. Burton set me up at a card table near the inn’s reception area. As I tried to write, prospective guests approached to ask about room rates, availability, and the dining-room menu. Mr. Burton could see this solution wasn’t working. With a smile, he told me he’d have to “send me to the tower”!
The tower, four stories up, atop the massive inn, was enclosed by glass above wainscotting; it had a 360-degree view of the island, the harbor, and Hermit’s Island. A single chair and a table occupied the small space. The panoramic view was breathtaking.
Mr. Burton told me that no one was ever allowed there — with a notable exception. Years before, Jamie and Andrew Wyeth had both painted there. I had visions of their artistic legacy, including “Christina’s World.” My creativity was ignited . . . then blocked. I sat where famous American art had been made, tapping on my Hèrmes, blocked and bedazzled. Once again, that mysterious force had put me in a special place.
Years later, how could I ever have imagined I would sit in a stretch limousine, one of a cavalcade, waving to cheering, flag-waving crowds. But there I was, nodding, waving and smiling at the people lining the streets of Jerusalem, playing the part offered to me.
My friend Iris crouched next to me, trying to hide. “How can you do that? You’re nobody.”
“But people will be disappointed if I don’t wave,” I answered.
Here’s how it happened. I had joined Elhan, my Turkish sweetheart, in Emirgân, a small village on the Bosphorus, a few miles from Istanbul. We — his mother, father, sister, Guler, brother, Mete, and his grandparents — lived together in an old wooden building with gardens overlooking the water.
I had been there a few months when I received a letter from my friend Iris. We met when I taught briefly at an elementary school on Manhattan’s East Side. A socialist from the Coops (co-operative housing in the Bronx), Iris was funny and smart and had interesting friends.
In her letter, she invited me to join her for a holiday in Israel. Elhan agreed that it was a wonderful opportunity. He drove me to the port in Istanbul, where I boarded a ship sailing to Haifa, to join Iris.
On the ship I met a handsome young Dane. He introduced himself quite formally, handing me his engraved calling card — Knud Von Franquemont. Of course, I laughed at the card (you can take the girl out of the Bronx, but you can’t take the Bronx out of the girl). This delighted Knud, and we settled into a comfortable friendship. He told me he was a journalist.
In Haifa, Iris was happy with our company. She mentioned that she had a letter of introduction to Ari, an Israeli journalist. So we became a foursome, convivially enjoying Jerusalem together.
Ari mentioned one day that there was going to be an important state celebration with political leaders and a band for a formal ceremony acknowledging graduating police officers from the Ivory Coast who had just finished a special training in Israel. The press was invited and both Knud and Ari, who possessed press cards, intended to cover the event.
So the four of us arrived at the plaza amid throngs of dignitaries — the men from the Ivory Coast in uniform, their blue-black skin remarkable; crowds of important people, and a press area for the journalists. At the end of the ceremony, the elite crowd in the plaza was escorted to waiting limousines to form a long motorcade. Huge crowds of Israelis were waiting to greet them in the streets of Jerusalem.
Ari, Iris, Knud, and I were urged, then ushered, into one of the last limos. Off we went, following the long line of cars ahead of us. Realizing what was happening, Iris slid down in her seat, her socialist ideals scrambling in her head. I, on the other hand, recognized that fate had, once again, placed me in an improbable position. So I smiled and waved at the enthusiastic crowds, not wanting to disappoint them — me, a nobody, an unintentional celebrity.
But Knud, a member of the Danish upper class, wouldn’t be my only association with royalty. Years later, with that magnetic force still thrumming, I journeyed to the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas for a winter getaway. At the last moment, my husband was unable to join me. I stayed at a funky Caribbean hotel peopled with few guests.
One evening, the dining room at the Buccaneer Hotel was filled with young men speaking French, German, English. The informal arrangement of tables made chatting easy, and I got into a conversation with two burly Englishmen. Then another Londoner joined in.
“What are you all doing here?” I asked.
“Princess Diana is arriving tomorrow for a winter vacation. We’re all journalists, here for the story and photos.” The three Englishmen talked about getting stories — the bribes and tricks the two older men had used to get to “the head of the line.” The younger newsman invited us to his room to show us his secret weapon. It turned out to be the forerunner of the fax machine that could send photos and stories to Paris, London, or New York in minutes.
But there were no stories and no photos. All the journalists at the Buccaneer grumbled. There were to be no public appearances. Princess Diana, five months pregnant with William, was staying at a private compound inaccessible to the press. There was gloom and impatience in the air in the dining room. Journalists were bitterly complaining.
The two older Englishmen were the exception. They excused themselves, saying they were getting up early the next morning. There was no story . . . or so it seemed.
The next night at dinner, my three English friends didn’t appear. But the morning after, I found the young journalist in the lobby, very upset. He was being deported. The two older campaigners had left Eleuthera on a very early flight to Nassau, leaving him holding the bag.
The day before, the two had found a fisherman who knew the waterways. They had hidden across the compound and waited for hours in the boat with their cameras and telephoto lenses. They had faxed a photo of Princess Diana in a bikini looking very enceinte. The full-page photo appeared on the front page of a London tabloid the next morning.
Calls were made to Eleuthera and all three journalists were to be deported immediately. The older two skipped out of town before the police arrived at the Buccaneer. The young Londoner was told not to return any time soon.
The photo was picked up globally and appeared endlessly in the world press — a moment of journalistic infamy that would forever hound the Princess. She hadn’t been aware that her image was stolen until the picture was published in London.
Once again, I was peripherally involved in a global event. I had eaten dinner with the men responsible, I had marveled at the prototype fax machine. I had no inkling of their intentions, but somehow I was involved and felt the tiniest bit guilty.
What was it about my propensity to be in the wrong place at the wrong time . . . the wrong place at the right time . . . or the right place at the right time? Even at my age, it makes me wonder, what next?
I’ve never understood it. Like the time I was in Havana when Castro marched into the city and seized power.
But that is another story.
Carol Sherman, an East Hampton resident, is a poet whose eighth book of poetry, and second book of Mexican poems, called “Adios San Miguel,” was recently released. She is the author of two yet-to-be-published memoirs, “Bronx Ballads” and “Journey Through Grief.” Excerpts, as well as essays and book reviews, have appeared previously in The Star.