When I arrived at Blaue Gans last August I spotted Jonathan Rabinowitz, owner/publisher of Turtle Point Press, at a table in the middle of the room. He rose and greeted me with great warmth and geniality.
“Sit, sit, please,” he said, “and thank you so much for coming!”
I pulled a chair and sat down, and took the conversational initiative by describing my visit, not more than twenty minutes earlier, to the alleged Ground Zero Mosque. About a young Muslim cleric on the sidewalk telling me, “No, you may not take my picture because my religion teaches me that if you do so, you steal my SOUL, so absolutely no, I will not give you my permission.”
“Oh, really? That’s so interesting!”
A handsome young gay waiter stood with his pencil hovering over his pad. Jonathan put his hand gently on my arm. “Would you like to order from the three-course chef’s menu?” he asked. “Would you like a glass of wine? Or maybe a good German beer? No? Just water? All right. Now, the salads here are terrific. I usually order the celery root and apple with endive, but the roasted baby beets, pine nuts, and arugula is excellent.”
His voice was soft, low, sometimes hard to hear. I hitched my chair a bit closer, so I wouldn’t have to ask him to repeat anything.
“I will have the BG burger with Vermont cheddar and apple wood bacon,” I said.
“Oh? Just a burger? Not one of the main courses, like mountain brook trout with creamed spinach and mushrooms, or Schinkenfleckerl, which is baked pasta with Bavarian ham and emmentaler cheese?”
He said he loved this place, Blaue Gans. Another favorite restaurant of his, he said, is the Blue Elm, on Orchard Street.
“You have a thing for the color blue,” I said. “Blue Elm there, and the blue goose here.”
Jonathan laughed. “Oh, yes, you’re absolutely right. I never thought of that.”
We talked about Leila Hadley Luce, our mutual friend. I said that over the years I’d get middle of the night telephone calls from her, and she’d hold forth at length.
Jonathan nodded. “Yes, oh yes, that was one of her favorite things. I’ll never forget one night I picked up the phone, and she said, ‘Oh, Darling, how are you? I haven’t heard from you in such a long time. Are you well?’”
Jonathan’s imitation of her low gravelly voice was chillingly accurate. He captured her free-flowing wordiness, her urgent cadences. Exactly.
He continued in her voice: “‘I was thinking about you today, and I remember you cheered me up once when I was horribly depressed by singing Red Roses Red Noses, you know how much I adore that song, I’ve loved it all my life, so would you sing it to me now, darling? Please?’
I thought of a few year earlier, standing in my villa in Italy, phone to my ear, listening to her rattle on, and her explosive bursts of laughter. And, again, I wondered how in the world I ended up being a part of that woman’s life.
We turned to Leila’s memorial service at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, on Fifth Avenue & 52nd Street, which we’d both attended on 10 March 2009.
Jonathan asked if I knew the identity of the obviously disturbed woman who walked rapidly up the center aisle, seized flowers from a large vase, and threw them into the air and then turned and walked out. I replied that I'd heard the woman was a complete stranger, not some relative or friend out to besmirch Leila’s memory. It was just an unfortunate, random event.
“Very strange,” he said.
The waiter brought our plates, refilled our water glasses. We ate in silence.
“Now, John, I will tell you something about Leila that you may not know.”
“She was adopted.”
I wasn’t at all prepared for that revelation. In the 40 years I knew Leila, she never mentioned it, and neither did her daughters Caroline and Victoria. On the contrary, Leila always went to great lengths describing her aristocratic lineage, going back generations to the great James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck, a lawyer, diarist, and author best known for his biography of Samuel Johnson.
“That’s not possible!” I said.
“But it is.”
“How do you know?”
“Gertrude Whitney Vanderbilt Conner told me,” he said. “Gerta adored Leila. I can’t remember why she suddenly decided to share this information. I do recall that she told me this one night when I visited her table at The Lotos Club where she and Mac would often have dinner.”
Thoughts raced through my mind. Adoption! Maria, subject of my roman a clef FELLINI'S ANGEL, was stunned when she learned that Giovanni and Restituta were not her parents, no, her real, biological parents were long-forgotten Italian movie stars more interested in their careers than a bothersome baby. Maria was deeply traumatized by the experience. And Leila likely would have been even more devastated, assuming someone had told her the truth.
I thought of a passage in Leila’s JOURNEY WITH ELSA CLOUD, where she hinted at being sexually molested by her father. Well, if she were indeed adopted, her father might have felt it wasn’t exactly incest, so he proceeded with little inhibition.
Other thoughts rushed through in rapid succession. Yes. Adoption explains so much about her. Doesn't it?
When I returned to The Hilton, brain still spinning, I realized I’d have to rewrite LOVE STORIES when I returned to Italy. Leila’s section now will require an entirely different ending.
A most startling and unexpected denouement: She was not who I—and most everyone else—thought she was.