Roy Cohn, Rosamund Bernier, the Princess of the Jury and other Profiles and Vignettes 

(names and certain identifying characteristics have been changed)

Jenna Orkin

NICOLE

At fifteen she went to art school. Two years later she graduated and was hired by a store on the Faubourg St. Honore where she decorated the windows. Within six months, she was managing the decor of several stores on the Faubourg as well as the Champs Elysees. A customer asked her to design a line of clothing for his wife. She did. The customer revealed that he had been testing her and invited her to come work for him as top designer for his company in Washington.
She was only eighteen and the other employees, jealous that she was their superior, made her job difficult. She got married, left the company and had a daughter. Because the couple was still young they went away often, leaving the baby with grandparents. When the child was three, her grandfather who was watching her went inside for "just a minute;" the child ran in front of a car and was killed.  Nicole blamed herself for so freely leaving the child. The marriage ended.
Five years later Nicole got married again. She had three boys which relieved her because she was afraid of having another girl. Her fourth child was a girl whom everyone adored.
Nicole had the genius of Martha Stewart and Laura Ashley. She taught me how to dry flowers (hang them upside down in the shade) and how to cut my son's hair (along the length of his head rather than across.) She once boasted how she had bargained with a customer and gotten more than her work deserved. I didn't think she would do that with me but when she left Brooklyn she sold me a jacket which I later found out was for the price one would pay for it new.

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STEPHANIE

My stepdaughter Stephanie was sophisticated in all respects except one. At nine, she still believed in the Easter Bunny. So incongruous was this with her general behavior I almost referred to him by the more dignified name, Easter Rabbit. But she was convinced of his existence and what's more, determined to convince us. For, illogical though it may seem, (and this was uncharacteristic too, for she was also stubbornly logical) she knew she was alone in her belief. Having been told the truth about Santa, she had accepted it with her usual aplomb. But about the Easter Bunny she had a faith the Pope would admire. As with all true believers the arguments of others only strengthened her convictions. But how did she think non-believers got their Easter baskets? It would have been churlish to ask.
One Easter vacation my husband received an invitation to a conference in France. Using frequent flyer miles the rest of us went, too. Stephanie's mother smuggled to us the particular treats Stephanie asked the Easter Bunny for every year. These had a suitcase all to themselves which we never unpacked and which Stephanie never asked about.
The night before Easter we waited for Stephanie to fall asleep and filled her basket. Finding it in the morning she grinned smugly, having proved to us the existence of the Easter Bunny. For how else could she have gotten the candies she wanted in this foreign country?

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SCHNEIDER

The Contract Law professor was bear-sized. He had a Jewish name but as far as he knew was, with the exception of the Russian ancestor who contributed the name, entirely Swedish. He had lived in Japan, now lived in Greece and had earned his Oxford degree at the same time as he was earning a doctorate from the University of Bonn. Both he completed with highest honors. The Oxford degree was financed by a sporting goods manufacturer whose name I recognized from my baseball playing days in fourth grade. The professor spoke the languages of all the above-named countries.

He felt that he was missing something. Students had written on teacher evaluations that he seemed indifferent; that during lectures, he didn't look at them. These criticisms bothered him as did his own lack of a stronger reaction but he still didn't look at them. I complained that his lectures were marred by "er's" which were like knots in the otherwise golden thread of his speech. I suggested that he listen to a tape of himself.
In the two talks he and I had, one after class, the other, in the cafeteria, he did not stutter. He considered my questions on privity as separate from me, the asker.
He thought that the impression he gave in lectures of automatism stemmed from the torture he had endured in Korea. He spoke about this in the same compulsive stream of consciousness as he spoke of Contract Law but with no greater emotion. He seemed to be talking to himself, which was the quality his students had complained of.
He also spoke of other tragedies; of a comedian - R. L., he thought - whose 10 year old son had had leukaemia. The boy did not realize the seriousness of his condition until a reporter asked him, "How does it feel to know you're dying?" When the professor told me this story, we both laughed with the same astonishment. It was either that or cry.
The professor was leaving the school which had protested that his grades did not follow a curve. He had argued back that the students' work had not followed a curve. His final gesture was to give everyone in the class some kind of B or A, thus proving himself more human than the students had given him credit for.

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LAURA

Twelve years ago I was wandering the hall at Juilliard late one afternoon when I bumped into F., one of the opera coaches.
"I'm going to Italian class," she announced proudly. "Want to come?"
I had nothing better to do so I went. That's how I met Laura.
Laughter echoed down the hall from her classroom as F. and I approached. It was the last class period of the day, ending at seven, so no one felt like working. It didn't matter; we fooled around in Italian.
Laura was a natural teacher. To illustrate the Italian word for "hide," she crouched in the corner; to demonstrate "argue," she carried on a one-way argument with an imaginary driver. Afterwards the class went out to dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant where we ordered wine and laughed about our impossible lives.
I attended that class for two years until I got married and had Alex but I stayed in touch with Laura. Usually we met at the Metropolitan Museum for like many Italians she loves art and is, herself, a painter. I talked about Alex. She talked about her two sons, one a lawyer, the other, in government.
She rarely spoke of her own past for she doesn't like to be the protagonist of conversation. But recently she told me this story:
In 1945, when she was seventeen, Laura joined an anti-Fascist group in Italy. She was imprisoned for three months and released only because the Allies were near.
"Were you angry at the people who kept you in jail?" I asked.
"No... I was too scared."
"What did they do to you?"
"Nothing. They left us alone. I was with a group of prostitutes. I learned such things!
'But you see, the body takes over. I shook for fourteen days from fever. By the end I was delirious. I forgot who I was."
After the war, Laura and her husband, a German resistor who had been imprisoned both by the Nazis and the Russians, moved to America and had their first child.
One day about ten years later, Laura's brother knocked on the door and as a joke, announced he was the Gestapo. She began to shake again.
She has just seen Schindler's List.
"I have a strong sense of right and wrong," I said, "but if I'd been German or Italian in the early forties and against the war, I'm not sure I'd have had the courage to speak up."
"Yes, me too, now," she said. "When I hear something in the street like an argument, I leave quickly, eh? You have to, to survive in my neighborhood." She lives on 122nd Street. "But it's different with a group."
"If it happened again," I asked, "Would you join the Resistance again?"
And she, vibrant painter, mother, teacher, lover of life, food, art... said, "I'd kill myself."

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FRANCESCA

She was a beautiful woman. We used to joke about her hair which changed color the way she changed locales: Every six months and to extremes. Black, red, platinum; London, New York, L.A. With the red hair, she looked Hungarian.
About two weeks before she died of AIDS she called and said, "I remember the time you
visited me in the hospital. You looked at me as though I was some sort of ghoul." The way she stretched out the word 'ghoul' made her sound like one now.
I remembered the visit. She had just had a Whipple operation performed on her gut. This was a serious operation but was considered to have been a success in her case, although it had involved many blood transfusions. No one knew yet that one of these transfusions had infected her with the HIV virus which would kill her.
She had asked me what I was doing in the neighborhood and I answered, truthfully, that I had come to see her. "That's nice," she had said.
That night she had looked like a beautiful woman who was sick. But this was very far from ghoul.
I asked her if she wanted to hang up.
"Yes," she said and did.
I thought, hoped, that her paranoia about what I had been thinking when I visited her in the hospital was AIDS dementia. But it seemed, rather, as though by alienating people she was trying to make it easier to leave them.
When she died there was no obituary, no memorial service nor any survivors.

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GEORGE

My mother's brother was a retired fireman, eighteen years older than my mother. As a young man he had educated himself but when he joined the fire department the other men made fun of his speech and he adopted theirs. He lived in the Bronx, took subways everywhere and, to my mother's frustration, kept all his savings in the bank. My mother's attitude to her brother was one of irritation at his lack of humor, lack of taste, lackadaisical manner and lack of mobility from the condition of their youth. When in his seventies he became ill, my mother gave him a subscription to the New York Times. He was moved by the thoughtfulness and extravagance of the gift.
When he died he left half a million dollars to his wife and daughter and several thousand to my mother. My mother missed him for all the financial advice she had never asked and which he could now never give. My mother looked for clues in his past as to how he had amassed this fortune - never mind why - but didn't find them. She did however, revise her opinion of his lacks, particularly of humor.

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SENSEI CHARLIE

One afternoon while waiting for Alex' karate class, I talked to a young man who was known around the dojo as Sensei Charlie. He taught remedial reading in a high school in a rough neighborhood, he told me. The kids "respected" him. They knew he was a blackbelt in karate. With this under his metaphorical belt he was free to be friendly with them.
I knew from watching him in action that he was also a natural Olympic athlete.
"Where did you learn all those backflips and all that stuff?" I asked him.
"No place. I never took lessons or nothing. I watch the pro's on T.V."
At the dojo Christmas party, the kids stretched a rope across the room four feet above the ground. Then they cleared out of the way to watch Charlie perform. He soared over the rope. The kids raised it six inches. He cleared it again. They raised it still more. This time he failed to clear the rope because his head hit the ceiling.

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CHRIS

When Alex was a baby, each morning as I fed him, I made myself a cup of tea and turned on Sally Jessy Raphael. Raising a baby, particularly during the winter, can be an isolating experience; Sally was my conduit to the grown-up world. I looked forward to her show as I'd looked forward to Tuesday afternoons at Juilliard when all the faculty were in attendance and ten of us gathered with our bag lunches around a table for four.

One morning Sally had on as her guest a hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodite had an androgynous name, which I will say was Chris, and androgynous clothing. I will call Chris "he" since he seemed to me a little more he-ish than she-ish. Although twenty-seven, he had the voice and skin of a fourteen year old boy. But he would be offended at the pronoun as throughout the show he steadfastly maintained that he was no more one sex than the other.

I found Chris oddly intriguing even apart from his unusual condition. He had a quirky philosophical attitude to his status in the world and was earning a Master's degree in Psychology. I wondered what his thesis was on.

The audience seemed bent on pushing him towards a decision.

"But what do you fill out on bureaucratic forms?" one man wanted to know.

"Neuter," said Chris with the ease that was his disconcerting stock-in-trade.

"Have you had a chromosome test?" someone else asked suspiciously.

They seemed to feel that Chris was claiming to be two people in one body and that that would lead to a stalemate, like a senate that voted 50/50.

"Yes," Chris answered. But he would not divulge the results of the test because, he said, what would it mean if a test said you had the genes for blue eyes when you had no eyes at all? From this I deduced that the chromosome test had come out in favor of male.

As the show went to commercial Sally asked him, "Does God make mistakes?"

"I don't think He made a mistake with me," said Chris.

"I won't forget you," said Sally and I knew she meant it.

After the show I wrote to Chris. I told him of Quentin Crisp, a transvestite in the days before there were any, officially, anyway. In his youth he had been beaten and persecuted but later he had become an icon to gays and straights alike, as he was a witty writer and speaker. He claimed that by going on television all one's sins are washed away. It is as though one has regained one's virginity. This is the advice referred to in the title of his book How to Become a Virgin.

Chris wrote back, "I was a virgin before I went on television."

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THE PRINCESS OF THE JURY.

There's a sort of anonymous intimacy on jury duty. Like that of people in a railway carriage who during the night may find themselves asking, "Sorry, did I kick your ear?" On jury duty people think they'll never see you again so they don't put on airs.
When I was on jury duty I met an older woman whom I shall call Helena K. (The case we got on, which settled before it started, concerned a man on whom a waitress had spilled hot coffee. The man's wife was suing for, among other things, two weeks "loss of conjugal services." This loss was valued at a million dollars. We never found out how much the settlement was.)
Over lunch the first day, Mrs. K. told me she worked for a non-profit cultural organization. The second day, she told me the purpose of the organization - to promote Russian artists in the US and help people of Russian descent here learn about their heritage. She was also involved in a project that had something to do with Italy.
As the days passed I learned that Mrs. K. was in fact an Italian princess. Her husband had been an impoverished Russian aristocrat. He had also been a difficult man. To escape her difficulties Mrs. K. had become a Theosophist. Theosophy is the religion that believes the earth was founded by aliens who landed in Egypt and built the pyramids. Theosophists are also keen on Atlantis. Perhaps it was a Theosophist whom I once overheard in the Egyptian section of the Metropolitan Museum say, "You know, the Egyptians were very advanced. I understand they even had color television."
But religion was not as dear to Mrs. K's heart as Italy. When jury duty was over she invited me to her house to look at pictures of her castle in Tuscany.
She lived on Fifth Avenue in the same building as Jackie O. The buildings in this neighborhood are discreet like men in suits whose appearance does not betray their billions. Inside, however, the apartments have the dimensions and baroque craftsmanship of Versailles.
Mrs. K. led me into the library, a room with ornate molding around the ceiling. She was wearing a black silk skirt and blue silk blouse. When she sat down and crossed her legs, I could imagine her sitting in this room to have her portrait done. The house-painter had been in that morning to give an estimate for the one room. The estimate was $11,000. I imagined the painter taking one look at the place and naming the biggest number he could come up with.
I had given Mrs. K. a story I had written. She said I was a good writer because I had a large vocabulary. Inwardly cringing, I made a mental note to use simpler words. Then she opened the family photograph album and started turning pages. I made polite comments. Eventually she reached a photograph of a large Hearstian castle.
"It's beautiful!" I exclaimed.
"That? That's our house in Connecticut. This is the castle." And she turned another page.
There it was, or at least, some of its three hundred rooms. It did indeed make the first house look like a grownup's mudpie.
"I used to think I was a poor little girl," Mrs. K. sighed. "All the other little girls had six hundred rooms in their castles."
She explained that the castle had hit hard times. Now, during the winter it was overrun by peasants seeking shelter. But no one could take advantage of her. She had had them removed.
"Where did they go?" I asked.
"All over," she replied indignantly. "The halls, the bedrooms... "
"I mean, after you evicted them."
"Oh, I don't know," she shrugged. "Anyway, they're all descended from criminals."
But, she continued, she had managed to hang onto the castle's art treasures. Her favorite was a sculpture in the garden of the goddess Diana. A neighbor who had a statue of Venus had said that Venus was the most important goddess.
"Nonsense," Mrs. K. sniffed now. "Diana was a much more important goddess than Venus."
She ended the afternoon by giving me a history lesson: It was tragic, she said, that history did not pay adequate homage to Marie Antoinette. She was a substantail intellect, not some flibbertygibbet as historians insisted - a feminist theory I'd have found plausible coming from anyone else's mouth.

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ROSAMUND BERNIER

During my twenties I had a series of low-level jobs: waitress, salesperson, etc. They were all demeaning - people don't often bother to be civil to those they consider beneath them and any thought of sustained conversation or real friendliness with the clientele was naive.
But there was a heirarchy among these jobs, in terms, usually, of whether they were what my grandmother called "sit-down jobs" or whether they offered perks like use of the phone. And one of the jobs was fun: ushering lectures at the Metropolitan Museum. It was exciting to be in the Museum after all the visitors left; once, I gate-crashed the opening of an Egyptian exhibit. In black and white usher's get-up I fit right in.
The lecturers themselves ranged from unmemorable to boring. Except for one: Rosamund Bernier. She was reknowned in circles that pay attention to art historians.
The first night of her lecture series there was a sense of emergency in the air. Princess Margaret was attending and security was tight. Doris, the head usher, usually a relaxed woman who liked being one of the boys and came out with us to dinner, gave instructions with a military authority we'd never seen before. I was assigned the job of collecting ticket stubs at the bottom of the escalator.
At a quarter to eight, the audience arrived in Armani suits or long dresses and furs, presented their tickets to be torn and floated up the escalator. It was going smoothly until a woman wafted in wearing a sky-blue dress that made her look like someone's fairy godmother. She was escorted by a man in a tuxedo. When I asked for her ticket she gestured vaguely around her neck. I thought, "Poor thing; she's mute." But I didn't press the matter of the ticket. These were not people with whom I was prepared to put up a fight.
When everyone was in we locked the entrance and went upstairs.
The lights went out. In the dark, diamonds glittered like the eyes of animals in the woods.
Bernier swept on.
She was, of course, wearing a sky-blue dress.
With lyrical eloquence, she rhapsodized about painters and kings in whose company she seemed to belong for in her dazzling dress, one could imagine her, say, court interiror designer to Francois I. The audience was enraptured.
After the lecture, I went up to her.
"When you gestured around your throat, I thought you were mute," I explained. "I am very pleased to see that you're not."
She laughed.
All her lectures were as transcendent as the first. But equally dramatic, though less commented on, was the pageant of her dresses. They all had the same cut as the first. The drama lay in the succession of colors: The second week the dress was purple. The week after that it was white; the fourth week, black.
I wondered what she could possibly do for the last lecture to top this escalation of colors.
It was gold.

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SYLVIA

Sylvia's mother is manic-depressive, her father, a psychiatrist. When Sylvia was a child her mother abused her and her father passively participated by not stopping her mother. When Sylvia was twelve her mother broke a bottle of wine over Sylvia's head. It was a christening of sorts. Sylvia ran away from home, to an aunt's house on her father's side. No one bothered to try to get her back.
Her father's side of the family had been missionaries and the uncle with whom she was now living was a priest. It makes sense, then, that Sylvia became religious. When I knew her, for about ten years starting when we were in our mid-twenties, she had the doleful air of a nun or a woman out of a painting by Vermeer. She also still looked like a teenager, the kind you would want to have babysit for your children, perhaps because she was deteremined to cling to her innocence.
She spoke of her adopted family a great deal, especially of a favorite aunt who made plum pancakes and had a Persian cat. When I finally met Sylvia's family I was astonished to see that this aunt was a midget. In all her descriptions, Sylvia had never mentioned this. Her aunt also had a childlike voice (Sylvia later explained that her aunt had no ovaries) and liked children's books. I thought at first she was retarded but it later became clear she was unusually intelligent although her interests were those of a precocious ten-year-old. Sylvia herself worked with retarded people and adopted some of their mannerisms.
Sylvia's best friends were a blind girl and a woman who had had Hodgkin's disease and who was currently a lesbian with the beginnings of a beard.
In an earlier age Sylvia would have been a nun but six years ago she married a social worker twenty years older than she and she now has three children.

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A well-known art historian was befriended by a rich old man. The old man had a daughter who was ill and would die young. The old man told the art historian, "If you will marry my daughter and take care of her til she dies, I will make you my heir." Both sides kept to the agreement. It was not known how much the daughter knew or suspected of the arrangement.

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"I'm gonna ki' ya, mother fucker,... I'm gonna ki' ya..."
The voice outside in the street sounded injured rather than threatening. It confirmed my belief that violence is the result of a failure of articulation.

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When my husband was in the army his battalion had a pet tiger. (They gave it away when it got to be 250 lbs.) My husband either was assigned or, more probably, assigned himself the job of walking the tiger each morning. One day they met a German shepherd who was also out for a walk. The German shepherd growled. No doubt he recognized that this was no ordinary cat. The tiger responded not with a meow but a roar. The German shepherd ran away making little whimpering noises.

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N. is a sweet, soft-spoken girl. It's hard to imagine the scene she described: When the Pope came to Madison Square Garden, she played the guitar for 80,000 people. She was not nervous, she said, because it was for the Pope.

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Rhonda had a son of six. One day at school her son fell out the window and died. The headmaster of the school told Rhonda. A year later, the two married.
The way one interprets this story reveals something about one's nature or experience. A simple reaction is to see the silver lining to the cloud of tragedy. Someone thinking in this vein might wonder whether Rhonda felt her new blessing compensated at all for her loss. A second possibility is to read the Headmaster's proposal as an impulse stemming from guilt; the marriage his pennance. Or one could see it as a desperate move to head off a law-suit.

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A friend of ours, a mother, died leaving three children, ages six, nine and thirteen. When I saw the father, I urged him to take them to a psychologist. After his local clinic advised the same thing, he asked them if they wanted to go. Two did. The nine-year-old said she didn't because she saw her mother in her dreams.

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Alex and I saw a French movie about the childhood of a movie director. As a child, the movie-director had loved art. To underscore this the voice-over of the movie was accompanied by a shot of a hand from a painting such as the Sistine Chapel, reaching out to the left side of the screen. Alex asked me why the hand kept appearing. I said, "Maybe to point out the direction the little boy's life later took."
He exclaimed, "Backwards?!"

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From a conversation with an ex-army brat who grew up in Third World countries:
"I learned to suck the butts off of honey ants."
And this: "For Christmas one year I got a piece of coal."
"How horrible."
"No, I deserved it - I drove our car through the living-room. For my 18th birthday I got a box of ears."
"He boxed your ears?"
"No, we lived in Laos. My father gave me a box of ears."

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I was having lunch with Justin, a film-writing teacher whom I sometimes consult about script ideas. He had just finished critiquing a script I'd written about a woman I'd known in college who had recently died, leaving two children. The subject had gotten us talking about our childhoods.
"I was adopted," he said.
"Have you looked for your biological parents?"
"No, my adoptive father was enough of a parent."
I thought perhaps he meant adequate but it became clear he was giving the word "enough" an ironic tinge so that it meant overbearing.
"I didn't want anything to do with parents after I got away from him. My adoptive mother died when I was nine."
The woman in my script had died when her children were about that age.
"What made you write it?" he asked.
"Meeting the children. They're wonderful... They're very small. I think they've decided not to grow until their mother comes back."
Justin, too, is unusually small for a man. There is something about his neat, compact figure that makes me wonder if he is gay, a wrestler, perhaps, though none of this comes through in his gravelly voice on the phone.


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ROY COHN

I went through law school in a fog of boredom, insecurity and resentment. But law school did leave a few trenchant memories.
One night after Criminal Law class, Roy Cohn spoke.
There was a sparse turn-out in the audience. It was nine-thirty; most people had been working all day and opted to go home.
I'd heard about Cohn of course. He looked like the man who had been described. He was, as the saying goes, as ugly as sin. I was surprised; Hitler wasn't ugly. But Cohn looked like the portrait of Dorian Gray that had been kept in the attic. I thought of Camus' warning that by fifty, one is responsible for one's own face.
In his introduction, the criminal law professor said that, with due reservations, he considered himself one of Cohn's friends. And he admonished us not to ask Cohn about the Rosenbergs, as Cohn had made that a condition of doing the lecture.
The talk focussed on Cohn's career as a criminal defense lawyer and was unilluminating except that it revealed Cohn's slimy philosophy: Everyone is out for himself so just learn to play the game. Cohn seemed to have no misgivings about this. He seemed not so much hypocritical as unabashedly corrupt.
In the question period, I asked him if, in his criminal defense work, he ever considered anything besides winning. He thought a moment. Then, with a nonchalant, even insolent shrug, he said, "No."

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A lawyer's job is to expound everything from the drearily arcane to the painfully obvious.

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A conversation wtih my brother:

"Dubboo yubboo spubbeak Ubbubby Dubbubby?"
"What?"
"Do you speak Ubby Dubby?"
"No."
"Oh."
"What is it?"
"You just take the syllable 'ub' and put it after the first consonant or group of consonants in each syllable."
"Is that what they speak in Abu Dhabi?"
"I don't know. Tracy Kendall taught it to me. She knows all those phoney languages."
"And now she teaches sign language."
"Right. She can to that in Ubby Dubby as well."

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Wit is the result of flawless logic leading to absurdity.