If you are reading this, it means you too managed to be born. How we come into this world affects our experience of the world, and I hasten to add that none of us asked for the adventure. However, once here on earth, it is often delightful and occasionally destructive.
My entrance occurred on November 28, 1944, and the cats, hounds and horses of the world rejoiced. The humans didn’t give a damn. What do they know?
Born almost on the Mason-Dixon Line, three miles north in Hanover, Pennsylvania, I have had to live down this three-mile error all my life. Nonetheless, Hanover is home to Hanover Shoe Farm, what I think is 4,000 acres and 1,000 Standardbreds. If not, it should be. I arrived at the right place even if it is Yankee territory. Technically, therefore, I am a Yankee. I’ve been called worse.
Mother, Julia Ellen Buckingham, possessed the best eye for a horse I have ever witnessed. By now, I have had the good fortune to rub shoulders with some of the leaders in the Thoroughbred, Saddlebred and Quarter Horse world, but Mother still leads all for her ability to really see a horse. She haunted the tracks and there were many in Maryland in those days, plus children were allowed on the premises. Now, the sight of gambling is considered too risky for tender darlings. They, however, see bodies blown to bits in film and on TV, and no one bats an eye. I learned a lot on the black stretch of those country tracks as well as Laurel and Pimlico. I owe to Mother. Fortunately, I did not inherit the gambling gene unless you consider a career in the arts, probably a bigger gamble than Mother ever took in her life.
Gambling operates under the premise that greed can be satisfied by luck. In Mother’s case it wasn’t greed by money. We needed it. Her uncanny ability to read horses meant that she usually came home with pin money, as she called it.
Dad worked from sun-up until after sundown, so he missed out on these forays. His voice was so deep it could roll back the tide. What a handsome man with his blond hair, which darkened with age, his gray eyes and his massive forty-two-inch chest and huge arms, all muscle. He had birdy legs, though, so I teased him unmercifully. He gave as good as he got, but what he gave me more than anything was a tempered view of life: don’t ask too much of people but ask a lot of yourself. He died on July 13, 1961, barely fifty-six years old. I miss him to this day.
I went on as we all do. I earned scholarships to the University of Florida but got kicked out over integration. Naturally, that’s not what the administration said. It sure wasn’t my grades. Those were bitter, duplicitous days, and whenever people wax nostalgic I remember (because I can flip through the turnstiles of nostalgia, too) institutionalism, racism, sexism and other encoded behaviors that served to hurt people.
You can hurt me. You can hate me, but do it because you know me, not because I’m a member of a group. Anyways, people aren’t grapes --- you can’t weigh them in a bunch, but I guess it’s easier than dealing with people as individuals. There, I’ve solved the riddle of prejudice: it saves time.
I hitchhiked to New York, got a scholarship to New York University, Washington Square College, thanks to Dean Henry Noss, who overlooked my thick Southern accent and went by my test scores and my interview with him. I did have to take remedial speech to remedy the accent --- cultural imperialism but effective for advancement.
Got my first library card at five, so reading for college didn’t faze me. Reading in Greek did. Latin was okay. I wallowed in the Classics department as well as English. I had the supreme luck to be taught Greek by the late professor Larissa Bonfonte Warren and Shakespeare by Professor Richard Harrier. I also attended Professor Iris Love’s lectures whenever possible. My Restoration Drama professor, whose name eludes me, also set my feet on the path of righteousness --- well, maybe not righteousness but on the trail of understanding. It’s one thing to adore a novel or play. It’s quite another to understand structure and evolving metaphor, if that applies. I learned.
On and on, I studied until the letters piled up behind my name, Piled Higher and Deeper, Ph.D. I was not cut out to be an academic, which was glaringly apparent to all who taught me. Creative people do not belong in the university because the process is antithetical to the analytical process so necessary for proper scholarship. Even now there lies an uneasy truce between English department scholars and the Writing department.
I flung myself into the world, and though bloodied and bruised, I never crawled back to the university. That doesn’t mean from time to time I haven’t filled in for someone, and as recently as spring of 2006 I finished up a two-year stint as Visiting Faculty at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. But I’m formed now. I can be in the university without being sapped creatively, and truth to tell, I like teaching.
The Vietnam War raged. My classmates came home in body bags if they found the body. My friends, including some women who had been in field hospital units under fire, changed irrevocably. Some for better, some for worse. That war changed us all. Anyone of my generation who trusts government probably has an I.Q. that would make a good golf score.
Almost against my will, I was drawn into politics. Mother, very political and very effective, showed me that, exciting though it was, I wasn’t Mother and preferred personal life to political.
Anyway, there I was now hailed as the Mother of the Feminist Movement, the Gay Movement. Meanwhile, I worked full time and then worked at night on political issues. They bored me if for no other reason that they were about cities and I belong in the country. Doesn’t mean racism, sexism and all those -isms don’t exist out in the country, but somehow getting the hay in before the rain takes precedence over dumping all over someone else. Or so it seemed to me and still does.
My first book of poetry, THE HAND THAT CRADLES THE ROCK, came out in 1971, published by New York University Press. Another book followed in about two years time, SONGS TO A HANDSOME WOMAN. Then the novels started. RUBYFRUIT JUNGLE came out in 1973, published by Daughters Press. No book reviews. No anything except it sold like the proverbial hotcakes, and this without ads. Word of mouth. In truth, word of mouth still sells novels and films. Advertising can bump up the opening night, as it were, but after that it’s one person telling another, the person behind the counter at the bookstore saying, “I read this great book. Try it.”
Off and running, although still poor since I was paid $1,000 for RUBYFRUIT. Later, when Daughters sold RUBYFRUIT to Bantam Books (I’m still there and also at Ballantine, both are under the aegis of Random House), they gave me half the money, and when June Arnold died, her business partner at Daughters gave me the rights to the books that I own and ever will until the ninety-nine year copyright expires. I may expire with it.
The list of my novels will be at the end of this bio, which is expanding at an alarming rate.
Well, on I wrote as will be obvious. I was accused of affairs, of a variety of misdeeds. I can only say I wish I had slept with everyone I am accused of. And as for other exciting to-do’s, why deny them? All that stuff makes me seem so much more exciting then I really am.
If you read the list of books, you will quickly figure out that I couldn’t possibly have done any of that stuff or I wouldn’t be productive. If you read STARTING FROM SCRATCH, you will also realize that addictive or self-destructive behavior isn’t in my make-up; the ability to withstand drudgery is.
I worked in Hollywood. I received Emmy nominations. I came home as soon as I could and bought what I always wanted --- a farm in Virginia. My natural father’s family came to Virginia when the earth was cooling. I’m still here. They couldn’t get rid of me. Why bother? When a state in current times manages to encompass Lyndon LaRouche, the Bobbits (since gone), Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Arthur Ashe (since departed this world), former Gov. Doug Wilder, now mayor of Richmond, Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine (also left) and God knows how many others, I’m small beer. Besides, I’m fun.
Well, anyway, I could go on but will spare you. I’m the master of the Oak Ridge Foxhunt Club and I also carry the horn, which means I am a huntsman. We don’t kill foxes, so don’t get your knickers in a twist. They are too smart even if I did want to dispatch them to The Great Fox in the Sky, and I don’t. I don’t want to kill anything really, which isn’t to say I haven’t had moments when wiping out someone hasn’t crossed my mind. Keeps going though so I get over it.
I used to play polo, sandlot polo, and I started the Blue Ridge Polo Club, the first women-only polo club in America. It’s still going strong. I miss it so much that sometimes I am close to tears, but I can’t afford the horses given that I am feeding my hunters and the hounds. Again, image differs from reality. You can play polo for what it costs to play golf, but it’s a hell of a lot more dangerous and therefore more exciting.
If I was really good as a little girl, I could play with my grandfather’s, PopPop Harmon’s foxhounds. If really, really good I could sleep with them. Now I go to the kennels and play with them everyday, and on a few occasions I have slept down there. The smell of them intoxicates me, and I love to hear them sing.
I have also slept with sick horses, usually on a cot outside the stall. Always happens on the coldest night of the year. Doesn’t happen often, thank you Jesus.
I suppose if you want a list of all that I’ve done, you can read my curriculum vitae, which has to be posted somewhere on the site. They don’t impress me. You work hard. Keep your nose clean and you’re bound to get ahead.
What I have done that I care about is I have cherished life. I’ve rescued by now hundreds of cats, dogs, foxes and hounds, and found homes for them. Too many stay here, so I am wearing the same dress and shoes I wore twenty years ago. So what? I was never going to make the cover of Vogue anyway. I have also rescued some horses, which is harder, and I have one wonderful guy from the Thoroughbred Retirement Fund, an organization that should be supported by all who love horses.
Life matters more than any painting, novel, film, or great big diamond. Don’t get me wrong, I love Turgenev and I could re-read his HUNTING STORIES once a month. But to actually enable a creature to survive, thrive and do what it is bred to do, for me, is my greatest glory.
Sneaky Pie was a rescue, and look what has become of her, the egotistical twit.
Oh, my age. I suppose I should say something about being older than dirt. Well, I’m working on it. I love it. As long as you’re healthy and have a job, life is really good. Yes, I look like my grandmother. My body hasn’t aged yet, the face has gone, but like I said, I was never going to make the cover of Vogue. And in those moments when a flicker of vanity hits me and I think, “Damn, I need a facelift,” I remind myself that there’s a starving hound someone has abandoned and I must catch it, feed it and restore its confidence in the hound-human bond. So what if I look like hell? My heart is full, and I wish the same for you.
As a footnote, I add that I have been with my literary agent, Wendy Weil, for over thirty years, and I credit much of my success to her warmth and wisdom.