Please allow me to introduce you to Bernard Olcott, 1918-2006, a man who led a legendary and iconoclastic American life.
Welcome to my blog. My goal is to provide you with stories from times past by which you might catch glimpses of yourself, or of someone you know intimately. Bernard Olcott touched the world, from Japan to England to Egypt to Kansas to New Jersey. Maybe you know some of these places, too.
Every Thursday afternoon, I’ll present you with a new story, some new adventure or insight, dusted with more than just a little modern context and quirky cultural references. Dad loved screwball humor; although he took himself seriously as an attorney, he wouldn’t stop laughing if you called him an ‘ambulance chaser.’ You see, this is the point: we can’t pick our parents, but we sure as hell can cherry pick their best qualities. And that, my friends, is what will set you free.
I continue from last week’s post FLIGHTS OF FANCY, PART 1 with Bill’s very unexpected description of my Grandmother, Margaux Alain, at work in her salon. Notice the use of the Prussian Frau Landlady as a foil:
The French dressmaker was a constant revelation to Frau Landlady. In the coldest days of winter, the dressmaker would be bitching up a storm about the lack of heat when the landlady would come tramping down the stairs lit by a fifteen-watt bulb, her body covered with heavy wooly underwear and layers of sweaters, bearing a huge thermometer in her fist to prove to the French madame that there was ample heat. When the landlady would tap at the door, she always got the shock of her life to find the French madame running around on ten-degree-cold days with just a bra and panties. She couldn’t design fully clothed; she found inspiration only flowed to her fingers when she was almost naked. Of course, the landlady would hit the ceiling, wildly screaming, scaring my customers out of their wits.
I remember my Grandmother at her sewing machine, cigarette in mouth, wearing a bathrobe with, I guess, nothing else on but just a bra and panties. Now I know that she didn’t bother to wear that bathrobe when I wasn’t around.
Just because I was a schmo working at Polo Ralph Lauren who sold twenty fugly ties to Elton John (and pants to Carl Sagan) didn’t make me a fashion genius. Sure, I could match neckties to shirts, but look at what I was working with – Mr. Lauren made it easy!
No one in my family had any significant interactions with Ralph (my inconsequential meeting aside). But we did enjoy a relationship with someone at Ralph’s level. And by this I am referring to my maternal Grandmother Marguerite Alain and her lifetime friend, Bill Cunningham.
An iconic New Yorker through and through, Bill was a soft-spoken milliner who shared a commercial studio adjacent to my Grandmother’s Design Studio in the 1950s. They both loved flamboyant styles and clothing that made a statement. When hats went flat in 1960, Bill emerged as a fashion reporter for Women’s Wear Daily and then for the New York Times, where he was often seen riding his girl’s bike around midtown, stopping to take pictures of well-dressed women on the street. Up through 2016!
A reader sent this to me today and I think it’s worthy of your consideration. Do you think this would work? Why or why not?
This is Ginger, a peppy, lively 1966 Ford Mustang.
Ginger was a present I bought myself in April 1992 for less than $7,000. A corn farmer in Minnesota had bought the car disassembled and completed a loving restoration, using the original color, navy blue metallic. He trailered the car from the Midwest to Weehawken and unloaded it in front of the office one Saturday morning.
She had a grippy 3 speed manual transmission and I drove her up and down Hackensack Plank Road with care. My Dad, who had a particular fondness for old cars himself (in his case, Mercedes Benzes), asked me if he could test drive it. Without hesitation, I jumped out of the car and watched him drive down the hill and back. He stepped out afterwards, and with a minimum of words, gave me his determination that Ginger was a solid car. That was his way of giving me an enthusiastic double thumbs’ up.
I actually used Ginger to drive to work for a week or two. She drew a lot of attention. Dave Murphy, my Dad’s handyman (and a loyal reader of this blog), loved Ginger and his brother ended up doing some work on her later that year. Dan or Yoshi, I forget who, hatched up a “For Sale” sign and placed it on Ginger’s windshield just to razz me. Truly, I worked with a bunch of comedians. Maybe some of my readers do, too.
As it turned out, she was a bit too fragile to use as a daily driver, so Ginger retired to the South Fork of eastern Long Island and became my beach car to sail along country roads.
will be my next post as I attempt to wrap up this phase of The Bernard Olcott Story.
I am grateful to the handful of my Father’s friends who have shown up from time to time to contribute a comment or two on these electronic pages. Whether I agree with their point of view is irrelevant — my Dad touched many people during his life here.
Remember: I wouldn’t be here without him. And you would be reading something much less interesting right now.
Check back next week for AFTERMATH.
Today, I present you with another guest post from my friend Ned McDonnell who sends this missive to me from his current residence in Tunis, Tunisia. Obviously, I am somewhat embarrassed by his praise of my writing. I mean, I am just a schnook on the internet with a blog.
But I did try to weave a number of connections into my stories of times past so that I was not just writing about my own family — hopefully, at times, I was leaning into yours as well.
I will post a brief update tomorrow about my upcoming post AFTERMATH.
People often ask me why I read the essays in James Olcott’s cultural blog, The Bernard Olcott Story, almost ‘talmudically’; examining each word, savoring each thought as if it were handed down to me from on high. Is it because I have known James – for better or for worse – for more than forty years? Yes, I have known him since 1975. But that is not it.
Beyond being classmates, is my avid reading due to James’s wit rivaling that of his distant cousin, James Thurber? Yes, I like to laugh. But that is not it, either. Perhaps, it is James’s nuanced analyses of human pitfalls and downfalls that cause me to stop and think about contemporary life’s latest version of the human condition. My own meditations are noteworthy in this regard that does not quite explain my continuing interest.
Dementia is a dreary affair or topic in life, much less a blog.
My readers will appreciate that I have tried to dress it up by adding all kind of stories about nostalgic New York, travelogues on Kansas, Japan, the Bahamas, and Lithuania, multiple marriages, the America’s Cup, and business school write-ups of niche industries.
Kudzu-eating goats even pitched in to help me out on my last entry, THE FINEST ESCAPE, PART 2.
But dementia remains the overriding issue that I have tried to address in my writings; and I have sought to do so as humanely as possible. It afflicted my Father, after all. I make a point out of capitalizing the words “Father” and “Dad” out of respect for him personally, for the role he played in my life, and for the enormous personal success he achieved in life, surmounting so many challenges.
Few, very few people ever scale the heights my Father did.
Yet my Dad succumbed to a crippling illness over the course of many years. At the outset, I reiterate that I had neither special expertise nor basic knowledge of this affliction or of elder-care issues in general. Truthfully, I learned the hard way by surviving a family business, albeit with my insanity intact.
My ‘normal’ was my Dad’s successful international company, the standard by which I judged the world and work environments around me.