Anna Trench - Helena Drysdale on Alison Lurie, Real People

All for Art

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11 November

Waiting for the bus to Saratoga Springs, a Black mama squashed down her suitcase with her big butt, thighs splayed.

‘Where d’yall get them boots?’ she demanded. ‘Ah’d like a pair a boots like that.’

‘I got them in England,’ I replied, prissily.

‘Y’all from England then?’

‘Yes.’

‘Well! You speak real good English for someone from England.’

Her man explained about France and French, Germany and German, but she was having none of it.

My journey got weirder. From the bus station I took a rattly old cab with a rattly old lady driver, greasy hair, pasty skin, who announced: ‘I’ll be having a bucket on that passenger seat for the next seven months.’

‘Why d’you need a bucket?’ I asked.

‘To catch the vomit. Driving this car all winter long’ll make me nauseous. That’s because I’m pregnant.’

‘Congratulations!’ I couldn’t hide my surprise. She looked about 60.

‘Yeah, my youngest son, he’s 24, and I haven’t told him yet. I lost the last baby in March, had a real messy miscarriage. My boyfriend, he’s real happy ’bout it, but I’m not so sure.’

I didn’t need to hear more but couldn’t resist asking why.

‘Hell, I got eight grandkids! Youngest’s just a year old. Know what though, when I had the gastric band put in they said it’d play havoc with my hormones, I wouldn’t need contraception. Now look what happened.’

I was digesting this, as it were, when we entered a different world. Through imposing stone gates, up a private forested drive, over a lake, glimpsing a once-famous rose garden. A break in the autumn foliage revealed neo-Tudor turrets and a hefty portico, supposedly modelled on Derbyshire’s Haddon Hall. In this mansion and in cabins and cottages dotted throughout the grounds an LA playwright completed a scene, husband-and-wife installation artists prepared for their show in Paris, a painter dabbed at a canvas then wiped it off, a novelist emailed his husband in Berlin, and a composer rose from her Steinway to perform some yogic stretches.

I had arrived at Yaddo and was relishing the prospect of a month with nothing to do but write. My benefactors were the poetess Katrina Trask and her wealthy industrialist husband Spencer who, following the tragic deaths of their children in the 1880s, had decided to leave their mansion not to some distant cousin who didn’t give a damn, but as a haven for artists and intellectuals in need of a retreat. My lovely rooms were once Sylvia Plath’s, with a bathroom big enough to host a party in ‒ I wouldn’t be the first, the Director assured me. Other guests had included Truman Capote, Philip Guston, Aaron Copland, Ted Hughes and Leonard Bernstein; John Cheever virtually lived here, and was behind the building of the swimming pool. Good company, I hoped, alive and dead.

Later

Slightly nervous about dinner, not knowing the protocol or what to wear. The dining-room is panelled in black wood and the chairs resemble medieval thrones, so deep they shrink you to child size. This childlike state is reinforced by the way we don’t have to do anything for ourselves. No DIY, no bills, meals provided, including a packed lunch. Even our social lives are organized: every evening is an entertaining dinner party, but for which we haven’t had to invite guests, plan menus, shop, cook or clear up afterwards. I’m told the mansion is haunted, and th

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About the contributor

Helena Drysdale, author of six strictly non-fiction books, is hoping she will be invited back to Yaddo.

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