As a young boy, I had a huge crush on The British Royal Family. I thought of King George V and Queen Mary in personal terms. They were my very own Monarchs. Their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, my age and (lucky bonus) my size, became my favorite everyday fantasy playmates, with whom I shared my toy cars, my model streamliner. We sipped sherry in my choo-choo’s lounge car, tinted orange from the sunset, seated in armchairs that swiveled the better to stare out at a desert strewn with the skeletons and skulls of whales and dinosaurs. The Princesses weren’t allowed sherry yet in Buckingham Palace, and, jollied up, they began to unleash their extensive repertoire of sniff-sniff jokes about bicycle seats that waft the exotic odor of female girl private parts, a pungent parfum de sexe masked only slightly by panties gently scented with the merest whooshette de Royal Saxe-Coburg Holy Wa-Wa.
Panties! The most hilarious hysterics-producing single word in the English language! Panties! Panties! Helpless, uncontrollable seizure! Can’t stop my excruciating side-splitting volleys of laughter. My innards hurt. Gasp for breath. Collapse on ground, fetal position. Laughs keep a-comin’, gasp for breath, afraid I’ll black out, mental buzz spin before I conk out. Cool off. Harden.
They’ll think I’m a corpse, the idiots, dressed in my blue Sunday death suit, clean underwear monogrammed KGE. Mouth gag. Trussed into silk shroud. The funeral ceremony. Imprisoned. Silence enforced.
Mucho merriment, not that The Princesses didn’t always maintain a modicum of tiddly decorum.
Oh! Another time, Guy Fawkes Day, my new Princess Simulacra and I found ourselves wedged in a midget Ferris wheel, in midair, a threesome, gawking at Coney Island rides that lit up the sky. Dodgems! Roller coasters! Down a fuchsia waterfall, screaming victims plunged, in a Japanese skiff with a dragonhead prow, splat, into a lagoon full of papier mâché man-eating sharks.
The Princesses’ ermine wraps tickled my bare arms. I was skeered I was accident-prone, so I fretted something awful, oof, my unwary elbow might somehow jab and dislodge their bejewelled coronets, and tip our vehicle upside down, so we’d hurtle to our doom, uno, due, tre, Princess simulacra, splat on the concrete Boardwalk, dotted by pink bubblegum, far below.
As a token of my fealty, I kept pin-ups of King George V and Queen Mary on my bedroom walls, culled from The London Illustrated News, my favorite magazine, next to Punch, both of which my English father subscribed to. Every Illustrated issue provided me with a visual feast, linking me to my longed-for mythic homeland, its history enriched by the saga of two Queens I was obsessed by, idolized, identified with, and, guilty secret, enjoyed dressing up as, in sheets, bedspreads, and pillowcases—Elizabeth and Victoria, whom my father, as a lad, had actually seen, in an open carriage, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. A gismo tilted her, left, then right, as she managed a circular royal wave, inciting her loyal subjects to further huzzahs. Old tennis balls, in my makeshift bodice, gave me sizable, Betty Grable, pin-up quality, ooh-la-la breasts, worthy of wolf whistles by, hopefully, sex-hungry sailors on leave, after many months at sea.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, there were no other Elmslies listed in the phonebook, and, although my sense of isolation was mitigated by the presence of compatriots numerous enough to justify my hometown’s nickname, Little London, only in Great Britain could other Elmslies, flesh-and-blood relatives, be found—my father’s sister, Aunt Gladys, a childless widow, and his older brother, Uncle Gordon, whose son was also a Kenward, like me, named in memory of a third brother killed in the trenches in World War I.
I doted on the sometimes blurry black-and-white photos of Grenadier Guards with plumed helmets and festooned horses, on parade, posh tea parties, Buckingham Palace balls, royal fox hunts, charity bazaars. After George V’s death, a special issue was devoted to the coronation of George VI and his Queen Elizabeth. Her popularity gained from a wide-spread awareness and acceptance of an adroitly matched royal couple. Her natural and unforced smiling presence compensated for his wooden shyness, confronted by the ritual pomp involving a buxom Queen Mother, an epicene Prince of Wales, and a panoply of Dukes and Duchesses, Lords and Ladies, Emirs and Sultans, and, at the base of this imperial pyramid, Sirs honored for a personal accomplishment that brought added lustre to the British Empire. It bothered me their Sir-dom wasn’t hereditary, and would die with them.
When my country, Great Britain, on September 1st, 1939, declared war on Germany, I began a scrapbook of daily newspaper headlines. Their size (such gigantic words!—MAGINOT LINE, DUNKIRK)—reflected the gravity of the situation: the Fall of France, the Battle of Britain, air raids, the city of Coventry set afire, the White Cliffs of Dover pummeled by enemy Big Berthas. Traveling Pullman in solitary grandeur, lunching in the diner, I posed as a British War Orphan, held forth how my entire family had been wiped out, our home demolished. Inspired by my spellbound audience of three table-mate strangers, improvising lurid details, my saga of lies unfolded: how I clambered out of smoking rubble, once my home, unscathed. My modified British accent, enhanced with the broad a’s and muted r’s my family customarily used, lent credence to my improvised fabrications. En route to my new American home, I, intrepid refugee tyke, engorged the warm waves of heartfelt sympathy my fiction aroused.
I read up on The British Royal Family, going way back to Queen Boadicea, whom I admired no end for leading her Anglo-Saxon troops into battle to repel foreign invaders. She drove her own chariot with curved scimitars attached to its wheels, leaving a trail of beheaded Danes on the beach. In bed, mornings, awake at dawn, I scrutinized her picture, bending over it to savor every detail: her grim, furious face, the rakish tilt of her iron helmet, surmounted by two rakishly curved mastodon horns.
Age six on, I was fascinated by decapitation. On a trip to Mexico City, my favorite site was an Aztec pyramid with, at the summit, a blood-stained stone altar, with a concave surface, where priests wearing cloaks made of bright parrot feathers, with live poisonous water moccasin snakes coiled around their wrists to foil their enemies, beheaded Spanish conquistadores.
First poem I ever wrote (school assignment) was about Lady Jane Grey being marched from a dank cell to a tower, thanks to King Henry VIII. Blue sky all around. Forced to put her neck on a cold stone. Executioner. Black mask. Axe. Thwack.
End of poem. Her head falls into a basket.
End of poem. Eyes still open.
End of poem, long since lost.
I was an avid stamp collector who specialized in “my” Empire. Every British colony, and they were numerous in the 1930s, as well as the dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The Union of South Africa, and Old Blighty, as my father called our Mother Country), always incorporated the current King and Queen on the upper right-hand corner of every stamp, to embellish local scenes of harbors, forts, government buildings, and exotic flora and fauna. Postage stamps were invented early in Queen Victoria’s reign, and while stamps dating back to the 1840s were rarities beyond my reach, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra were amply represented in my collection.
I thought of myself as an English boy, and therefore unique, superior to the ordinariness of being American, a country with a short history and no crowned queens, such as Elizabeth, whose red hair, surmounted by her crown, upright lace collar, and revealing bodice obsessed me. I’d seen her portrayed as a most temper tantrum-prone virago by Bette Davis. My favorite secret pastime involved draping myself in a bedsheet. I turned my bedroom into a Hollywood studio, with me starring as goggle-eyed Bette Davis, costumed as Queen Elizabeth. Sitting on my throne, or standing on my royal balcony, I’d acknowledge, with dips of my crowned head and small smiles, the huzzahs of my adoring people. I re-enacted her pleasure and amazement, eating her first potato, baked, Sir Walter Raleigh kneeling in attendance.
My father gave me a biography, Victoria Regina, written for adults. He promised me a present if I finished the book. The present, thud, was the book. Doggedly, I’d inched my way through it, its heaviness and slowness alleviated by such fascinating domestic details as the newlywed Queen watching Prince Albert, her husband, still unfamiliar to her, shave. I identified with her, a visceral bond, as I loved to watch my father shave. First, with a small brush, he whipped a special soap in a wooden bowl into a foamy white lather. Then he sharpened his razor blade with exactly timed, extremely graceful wrist movements. Stropping he called this deft accomplishment. Then he shaved his lathered jaws, resolutely cutting a path along the edge of the lather, rinsing away the residue. His every motion astounded me with the precision of his knowing exactitude.
When he was done, clean-shaven, he squirted a jet of astringent lotion on his jaws, from a bottle with several royal coats-of-arms on its label, which meant it had been used (By Appointment To) by King George V, King Edward VII, Prince Albert, who each had his own royal insignia replicated minutely on the edge of the label. My father rubbed the nasty lotion into his open face pores with his fingertips. Sometimes he’d aim the nozzle at me, and I’d run away, squealing like a stuck pig, down a corridor, to my room, close my door with its protective Royal Family pin-ups, and hide, rolled up in a comforter, under the bed, where I knew I was safe.
I liked being in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A resort eight thousand feet above sea level, also known as Little London, so I was told, it had started off as a spa for unfortunates who suffered the social disgrace and deadly danger of tuberculosis, many of whom happened to be English, in search of a dry climate, invigorating air, and the sophisticated amenities of a community generously populated by a prosperous upper strata that welcomed them fully.
My father was Scottish. The Elmslies left Aberdeen, made their fortune in Jamaica (rum and slaves), and, with the proceeds, set up a reputable insurance firm in London, which, in case of shipwreck, mediated between the shipowner’s rotting hull and the value of its cargo foundered in the ocean depths.
A graduate of Cambridge University, William Gray Elmslie found employment as a tutor to Herbert Pulitzer, youngest son of Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate.
WGE was a rebel, read GBS and Wilde, and found class rigidities and exclusions irksome. To be upper middle class was stifling. Affluance bought the Elmslies their own coat-of-arms-with-motto, Age Quod Agis—translation, Do What You Do—which was emblazoned on my father’s signet ring. Purpose: drip molten red wax on sealed side of envelope with letter inside. Press ring into warm wax. Post. Ta-da. Tabu: Elmslie carriage horses couldn’t wear an Age Quod Agis cockade on their bridle. Only legal if elevated to the Peerage.
My father, transplanted as tutor to Bar Harbor, Maine, where the Pulitzers summered, fell in love with Constance Helen Pulitzer, tubercular daughter of JP, millionaire newspaper publisher, and Kate Davis, a well-born relative of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy. Mrs. JP was a stylish dresser and social gadabout, a devotee of fashionable spas with elegant casinos where, through the decades, she gambled away chunks of her considerable dowry at high-stakes roulette, chunks replenished by tapping into the Pulitzer fortune. Her children were raised by Ma’am Wa Zel, a French governess Constance was devoted to.
Our entire family (my mother, born in France, and my two older sisters and I) all had British passports. Technically, us kids were “dual nationality”—we could choose to become U.S. citizens when we were older. I loved being English. We spoke with a broad a (cahnt not cannt). We were taught how important it was to have a good accent, so people would respect us for speaking correctly—i.e., they’d know we were born and bred “upper class,” not nouveau riche imposters putting on airs. It made me feel superior to the locals, and I made fun of how Westerners rolled their r’s, which was common as dirt.
I had a crush on one other postage-stamp monarch, Queen Astrid of Belgium. Pastel colors, black borders—she was killed in a car crash.
Another crush. My mother’s jewels—pearls, a sapphire necklace.
Diana Thurber. Blonde, perfect sausage curls. I was positive I’d marry her when I grew up. In our stable, she let me wet my fingers as she squatted and peed.
Magazine ads of beautiful women—perfume ads, I cut them out—I wanted to be them.
Teenage crushes. Boarding school boys—older, brawnier, showering after athletics. Raillery, towel-snapping, so unaware of enflamed desire they’d find ridiculous, repugnant. Photos of past football teams on the dorm walls. I’d watch for my favorites, stunned, recurrently, by their physical perfection, bulked up with protective pads—a taunting contrast to my skinny clumsy body.
Movie star idols. Tyrone Power, pirate, asleep, bare-chested. He crawls in bed with me. We hug. Vivien Leigh. I imitate her, feel what it’s like to sashay into a party, full of extras, in a huge Hollywood studio, like an aircraft hangar—preferably MGM. Twentieth Century Fox, RKO—OK. Republic, Monogram—dinky. Only for cowboys and monsters, Grade B movies, the inferior half of double features that take so long, you can head into the theatre darkness, still half-blind from brilliant mid-afternoon sunshine, and come out into a street transformed by night: red neon, lights, the theatre marquee lit up.
Cameras catch my every move. At breakfast, eating my grapefruit. Swimming alone, in the pool, hoisting myself out, out of breath, sunning, panting, cameras whirring. Hurl myself off Waterloo Bridge. College age, technically Mature Adult. Turn 21. A Man. Don’t feel it. Cling to Boy Me. Stay same age, increasingly younger than I look: deep pride at this secret capability. Favorite pastime, along with counting telephone poles from a car window—Transform boy me into stylish woman via my mother’s fashionable duds. Soft tickly fur around my bare shoulders: white ermine wrap. Red fox with glassy eyes, its tail, wrapped around my neck. Scarves turned into hat veils. Bedsheets my evening dress. Time travel. My favorite period—Elizabethan England. I see the white cliffs of Dover from my sailing ship, sometimes the captain, sometimes a sailor, climbing up through a trapdoor into the sunlight on deck. I shinny up to the crow’s nest, the first to spot land. Mexico. A small isle with palm trees, surf breaking. Elizabethan England. I become a magician hero. I’ve brought back, through time, modern inventions from America. Potatoes to bake. Automobiles to drive through the narrow cobblestoned streets, into the Palace. Silvery hoods (snoods) the Ladies of Queen Elizabeth’s Court, following my instructions, put their heads into. My very own beauty parlor! Veils! In her double dressing room mirrors, two me’s, front and back.
Bathroom mirrors: costumes, dances, sing to my mirror self. Lady lipstick. Mirror, kiss myself, imprint left. Ideal movie star beauties: Hedy Lamarr. I-as-Hedy, in Czechoslovakia, escape from Nazis through the woods in our Colorado garden. Snow. Their dogs will smell me. They’ll sniff at my tracks, visible in the snow.
Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth. Me-as-Bette Davis.
Thirties. Nineteen Thirties. Forties. Nineteen Forties. Fifties. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Sixtiesseventieseightiesninetiestimespeedup. Widening. Deepening Glut of Clutter on Mount Memoriam to ransack, despite oldster mix-ups, dim-outs, and mental energy back burner flare-ins, a few formular-repeats to chortle at, saving the spicy parts for therapy, later.
Crushes on boys, girls, movie stars, movie stars on magazine covers, their homebody playmates. Double beds freshly made up, swimming pool outside the open doorway, post-prandial nude canasta party.
Proximity adults—beautiful strangers glimpsed fleetingly lighting a cigarette, face bent to escape the wind in the backseat of a pre-war convertible. Political heroes and demons. Paintings. Vistas. Skyscrapers. Nowheresvilles at midnight. Torn-down neighborhoods. Billboards for: Legit Hits, long gone. Movie spectaculars. Faded chariots. Weather-beaten Victor Mature, Greer Garson ladyhoodedness. Sodden Cleavage—Jane Russell, The Outlaw from another era.
Crushes on ghostly genres in decline: burlesque shows, vaudeville. Crushes of varying intensity on genres that persist: soap operas, TV sitcoms, nightly news. Stars of stage and screen and radio. Has-beens. Start-outers with instant pizazz. Old Timers who hit the Comeback Trail. Comic strip characters: Barnaby, Goofy, Robin (pant-pant), L’il Abner, Superman (I stare at their crotches), Daisy-Mae.
Crushes on Trick Objects: I walk past sideshow mirrors that distort my human figure. I’m a freak, ballooned, elongated. Irresistible.
Joke stores with “Jewish” hooked noses attached to black spec rims with thick ear hooks. Brown dog doo-doo. Place it on rug where it’ll get stepped on: lady screeches, loses her balance, looking to see if her high heels are besmeared.
Deceased mags: Flair, Women’s Household, Pic. Early gay phys culture. Tomorrow’s Man, a field day for pederasts: super-cute boys, feigning muscle-man normalcy, who just might be queer as Dick’s hatband, flesh market pros. They pose so unabashedly, using their looks.
Crushes on forgotten social customs: Walk on the street side of a lady to protect her from muddy water splashes due to horse hoofs or speeding tires that veer, after a rainstorm, too close to the sidewalk.
Radio songs. Saturday nights, I listened to the Hit Parade religiously. The Andrews Sisters. “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” “Skylark”. “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”. “Foodly-aki-saki. Want some seafood, Mama?”
Crushes on trendy cocktails. Mai-Tai. Martinis with just a splash of vermouth. The frothy redness of Sloe Gin Fizzes. Saving the maraschino cherry. Spearing it with precision.
Thievery memory. Cleveland Heights, delivering groceries to bolster my measly allowance, every Saturday. My sister, Cynthia, who was raising me, thought a job would be Good Training, build up my Character, and teach me the Value of Money. In the store basement, every Saturday, I secretly opened a jar of maraschino cherries, devoured one after another, found a dark recess to hide the mostly emptied, incriminating glass bottle.
Clothing apparel. Hunting for, and scaring up a leather jacket, so I could pretend I looked like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, which I saw umpty-umpth times.
Finding an evening gown to sing in, in a sleazy store for drag queens on 42nd Street. The shame of having to have it altered, being measured: fatso belly. Putting my foot down with the impresario. She wanted me as poet (class), along with Anne Waldman. We were to sing a ditty of mine, “The Woolworth Song,” as an encore, costumed as Eskimoes. Valid documentation. The song was the opening number in a one-act play of mine, The Charlestons, set in a solitary home, surrounded by a frozen glacier, in Alaska.
Slang sayings—“So’s your old man.”
“I’ll be a monkey’s uncle!”
“If it was a snake, it would’ve bit me.”
Hepcat Dance Steps.
Ego Trip Fantasies.
Memories of Memories.