Archive for November, 2023

The Kindness of Strangers….

Saturday, November 18th, 2023


You must do doodley do, doodley do..

What you must, muddley must muddley must…

Muddley do muddley do muddley do…

Until you bust, bodily bust, bodily bust.   – Kurt Vonnegut

This –
From the Forward in “Breakfast of Champions” – On the occasion of his 50th Birthday. The only poem he ever published, he felt brave enough to share it with the world only if buried in the part of a book many people never read.

But I always do.
I was 31 when my former husband, the sculptor John Chamberlain and I were invited to a dinner party in The Hamptons at the home of Syd & Annie Solomon. Syd was an artist who achieved wealth with his “Famous Artists” art school ads in the back of magazines. “Can you draw this?” Was the challenge. Copy a face, send it in, and a Famous Artist would determine if you had Artistic Talent, for a modest fee. Once admitted into this Art School-by-mail, you received more challenging images to copy & mail back with further payments. It made him a millionaire. A successful Artist himself, this odd enterprise was rarely mentioned

When I learned that Kurt Vonnegut & his wife, photographer Jill Krementz were also dinner guests, I was thrilled, having read every one of his books. Chamberlain hadn’t read even one, but I talked about him so excitedly, John actually showered & worried about what to wear. I loaned him my oversized black cashmere sweater & a dress shirt I’d bought in Paris in a Thrift Store on the Left Bank, just down a little street from the Cafe Deux Maggots, I’d cut the torso off. The collar & cuffs peaking from the neck & wrists looked great on him. And they were CLEAN. Weeks before, we’d gone to a barbecue at the Solomon’s. Their teenage son’s band played, guests danced in the sunny yard, and John lifted up an adorable 5year old girl & twirled her around in his arms. She squealed, arching her back, arms flailing –

“ YOU SMELL LIKE A SQUIRREL’S NEST!” she screamed – JUST as the music stopped! John put her down, blushing. Twenty years older than me, disheveled & always in old clothes, I used to invite him to shower with me just to get him clean….not because the shower accommodated two people, and certainly not because I wanted to share the water!

We bought a bottle of Old Lady’s Gin as a gift, and drove a mile towards the beach, to the Solomon’s. Annie had two round tables with white tablecloths & fresh flower centerpieces in the dining area. She seated us at one with Kurt & Jill…while six art collectors sat at the other table with Syd & Annie. Our conversation was easy and jovial. I told Kurt how much I loved his writing, and surprised him by reciting his poem to him from memory. I hadn’t memorized it, and hadn’t planned to recite it. Once started, the room went quiet til I finished, and to my surprise everyone applauded.

”No one has even mentioned my poem, much less recited it to me.” He said. He was deeply touched. At one point, Kurt appraised John for a minute, then said,”That’s a beautiful shirt. Do you mind telling me the brand?”

He leaned back in his chair and lifted the sweater to his chin, revealing his bare, hairy acreage with bird tattoos on his chest, facing each other in flight! The illusion ruined! “Oh I don’t know,” he said. “Lorraine dressed me in her clothes.” I was mortified, but Kurt laughed. “I hate wearing layers. It’s always too hot!” That was the very reason I’d “ruined” that gorgeous shirt. I thought at the time how kind it was of Kurt to have put me at ease. Over the years, we’d run into each other out in back of an Art Opening or some party, like juvenile delinquents. We often both had flasks with vodka – both hated the white wine served at such events – and were both the only smokers left in civilized society. Once, I asked him about the layers. “Oh yes…It was a good idea. Nobody wears Dickies! I was just surprised by John exposing himself with those other SNOBS watching.” I said “That’s probably why he did it. Plus, he was so nervous in the company of strangers he drank up most of that bottle of Old Lady’s Gin.” He chuckled. “Well you never seemed drunk. But you must have been sick, from that juniper berry smell.”

True. We didn’t feel drunk til we got in the car. The streets were empty – I still didn’t know how to drive – John swerved slowly all the way home, saying “Oh god oh god oh god”as we went close to a tree…down in a ditch..up on the road…over the curb. He parked in the grass, inches from the cottage, and turned off the motor. “Now I know what it’s like to drive like old people fuck,” he mumbled. We stumbled in the house & spent the night so dizzy we each had one foot on the floor…steadying ourselves as the ceiling spun around.

He was right about those berries. I never drank Gin again.(And stopped drinking altogether about 19 years ago). Kurt Vonnegut is the only famous person I was ever that excited to meet. I’m not blasé or cool…and they’re just PEOPLE, after all. But something about his brilliant mind, sense of humor and sad, seemingly depressed demeanor made me nervous. Upon meeting him my assumptions were correct, but he was friendly and kind to me, as well. We could just lean against a wall, comfortably smoking in silence together, and speak only when we had something to say.

His wife, Jill was fabulous. She sent me a poster once, of her black & white photos of nine famous writers, from a museum exhibition of her photos in Philadelphia. She included a lovely note I’ve lost along the way, in this long life.

When you meet thoughtful people, treat them with kindness. I’m beginning to think they’re becoming an endangered species in this messy world!  I’m more grateful every day for the extraordinary people I still have in my life. Too many of them have passed. All mentioned in this little saga are now gone.

Those I’ve been communicating with for years – but have yet to meet in person -are in my thoughts tonight, too, as I write this. Time is speeding by….

Love, Lorraine xox