Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.”
Today, please welcome writer HEATH HARDAGE LEE
The alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. UGH, I think, as I roll out of bed to get ready to catch the 6:20 a.m. train out of my home in Roanoke, Virginia, for Washington, D.C. My French bulldog Dolly Parton looks at me reproachfully for waking her up and for leaving her yet again to fulfill my ambition to write The Best First Lady Book Ever. She prefers not to arise before 8 a.m., which I completely understand.
I shower, make coffee, and get the dreaded text from Amtrak—the train is now two hours delayed! Cursing silently to myself, I decide since I am already wide awake, I will use the time to organize my archival documents from a recent research trip. It is strangely quiet and peaceful at 5:45 a.m. Dolly remains in bed snoring next to my sleeping husband Chris. My seventeen-year-old son James, headed to the gym, is shocked to see his mother awake and dressed at such an ungodly hour.
At 8:20 a.m., I finally board the train and head to the Quiet Car, which I prefer because you aren’t allowed to talk to anyone. Due to my Southern upbringing, I feel it is rude not to talk to people sitting next to me unless I am not ALLOWED to talk. The Quiet Car absolves me of social duties and allows me to blissfully type away in silence.
They really ought to restyle the Quiet Car as a Writer’s Retreat because that is what it has become for me. It’s one of the few places where there is no laundry to do, no phone call to make, no teenagers screaming “Mom” or demanding a grilled cheese sandwich. Here, there is free Wi-Fi! And coffee! And even (cheap) but palatable chardonnay for the long night-time rides home. Except for the inevitable delays, it’s just about the perfect place to get some serious writing done. Last time I went from Roanoke to DC and back again in December, we had a SIX-hour delay. I got home at 2:30 a.m., but I also got almost a full chapter written for my new biography of Pat Nixon.
Speaking of Mrs. Nixon, she is the reason I am headed to Washington this morning. I have an interview set up with Judith Martin “Miss Manners” in the late afternoon. I have dressed carefully in a long toile skirt with a sharp black blazer that flares out like a bustle in back. Mrs. Martin was a reporter for the Washington Post during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and I hope she can shed some light on the era and perhaps also on the enigmatic Mrs. Nixon.
We finally arrive at Union station at 2 p.m. From there I go directly to the Phillips Collection in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. There is a new exhibit I have been dying to see there, “Picasso: Painting the Blue Period.” I am a curator of historical exhibits in addition to being a writer. I love to see objects and artifacts that are well placed, beautiful and evocative of their era. The Picasso exhibit does not disappoint. The show includes photos of Picasso and his gang in Montmartre in the early 1900’s. Clearly, he and his fellow artists are having a grand Moulin Rouge-bohemian-fabulous kind of existence. I am jealous.
Being a historian focused on women’s history, though, I can’t help but get mad at Picasso. His self-portrait shows him dressed to the nines in a top hat surrounded by bare-breasted female admirers. Another gorgeous Blue Period painting of two women (probably prostitutes) sitting at a bar, their backs to the viewer, renders them anonymous and faceless ciphers. One does not need to wonder what Picasso thinks of women after strolling through the exhibit.
I then make my obligatory run through the gift shop: I cannot leave any museum shop without buying a book. This time it’s art historian Sue Roe’s book In Montparnasse: The Emergence of Surrealism in Paris from Duchamp to Dali. On the way out, a docent tells me that I look like a fashion plate from the 1940s. This totally makes my day since I have worn nothing but sweatpants for the past two years.
I exit the museum and walk not even half a mile down a street lined with blossoming cherry trees to the Cosmos Club where I am to meet Miss Manners. The website description of this storied establishment reads:
The Cosmos Club, founded in 1878, is a private social club for men and women distinguished in science, literature and the arts, a learned profession or public service…Among its members have been three Presidents, two Vice Presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, 36 Nobel Prize winners, 61 Pulitzer Prize winners and 55 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
So no pressure…
I have dressed up more than usual due to the Cosmos Club dress code. It would be MORTIFYING to be dressed improperly to see Miss Manners. I have visions of being thrown out for wearing dress pants, so I deliberately wear a skirt, just to be safe.
Mrs. Martin is tiny with beautiful skin and snow-white hair. She is just as gracious as one would expect but also bitingly funny. She schools me about First Lady Jackie Kennedy who, I assumed, everyone always adored. “No,” she insists, “Mrs. Kennedy endured an enormous amount of hostility” until she was widowed. Lady Bird Johnson was “casual and chatty” compared with Pat Nixon who was “very formal and did not bare her soul” to the press.
Mrs. Martin sheds much-needed light for me on 1960s and 1970s Washington and what it was like to be a female reporter at that time. She remembers, with understandable chagrin, how male politicians, ambassadors, and White House staff “could not process the idea that a woman was actually a reporter.” The upside? They told her things they wouldn’t tell male reporters that of course ended up in her stories.
Interview successfully completed, I walk back to the nearby hotel, past the gorgeous old mansions, most of which are now embassies. Since I am still in a Montmartre-Montparnasse kind of mood, I decide to stop at an outdoor café and have a glass of wine and early dinner. It is chilly in the early April breeze, but the setting sun casts a gorgeous light on the city streets.
I think about Pat Nixon—how she lived in this town without privacy and always on display. She never could have gone to the Phillips Collection to see an exhibit without any press; it would have been impossible for her to have dinner at an outdoor cafe alone. First Ladies don’t enjoy the luxury of anonymity like their biographers do. She was the center of constant attention, much of it unwanted.
Post-White House, Mrs. Nixon talked about working in her beloved rose garden at her home La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente and the “blessed aloneness” she finally found there. I am thinking about her now with my glass of wine in hand, enjoying some blessed aloneness of my own, processing the day, the art, and the interview and letting it all sink in. I think this part of the writing process is perhaps the most important. Sitting with new information, insights from interviews, and environments important to your subject and letting it all marinate together in your writing brain. This is not a part to rush through; it is the part we should all try to savor. A very French approach, n’est ce pas?
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. What one word best describes your writing life?
2. When and where do you do most of your reading?
- In bed late at night when everyone is finally asleep and during the day at my dining room table which doubles as my work desk.
3. What is your strangest obsession or habit?
- Singing a medley of songs including “You Are So Beautiful” to my French Bulldog Dolly Parton in the mornings when we both get up!