Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sharon McCarthy in Four Minutes

My friend Sharon McCarthy died this winter after living with ovarian cancer for umpteen years. Sharon asked me to speak at her funeral well before she died. She said I'd make people laugh. I didn't really think she was serious; surely she had better speakers in mind. After she died, John, her widower, asked me again to be one of the speakers at Sharon's party.

I know what you're thinking--why doesn't he just call it a memorial service? Well, it really didn't feel like a memorial service. People--perhaps 250 of us!--were happy, though there were lots and lots of tears. There was great food and drink, there were interesting new people to meet, and the setting--in John and Sharon's garden--was rural Centre County at its best.

John even thought of croquet (very Sharon) and the world's nicest port-a-john. It had AC, running water, everything but an attendant to hand you a towel so that you could dry your hands while you worried about what sort of tip you were supposed to give the guy.

Anyway, here, thanks to the magic of cut and paste, are the notes for my remarks. John McCarthy was quite adamant about us sticking to a four minute speech, which of course no one did. Well, perhaps the guy who wrote the bit of doggerel, but he would have been the only one. The twenty-three eulogies ranged from quite serious to amusing, and the speakers came from all eras of Sharon's life.

Of course, in person, you get the ad-libbed Rick-isms that you don't get here. So you have to imagine me tripping up the step to the podium, or, of course, laughing at my own jokes.

I think it might be easier to bring lasting peace to the Middle East than to sum up Sharon in four minutes. 

I met Sharon in 1999 shortly after I joined the staff of the Arts Festival —Sharon was the committee chair for our gallery exhibition, Images and we met to hang the show. Sharon provided the brains and aesthetic judgment and while I did the toting, hammering, and lifting, as well as being in charge of causing any industrial accident we were going to have.  

It didn’t take Sharon and me long to figure out that we really enjoyed each other's company. 

As our friendship blossomed, Sharon told me about her life, from her Lancaster county roots to living in California, to her time in Washington, DC, and then back to here to Pennsylvania. 

If something interesting was happening, Sharon was there, like Zelig, the Woody Allen character:

Wearing a bikini to register voters on Santa Monica beach?   Check.

At the Ambassador Hotel when Bobby Kennedy was shot?   Check

Successful retailer in Washington DC?   Check.

Democrat with a capital D and serial wife?    Check and check again.

Oh, and the most unlikely and therefore coolest thing of all. High school majorette.

Sharon wasn’t just some Pennsylvania Dutch version of Dame Edna Everage, dishing about all the important people she knew. Sharon was interested in me too, hearing about my life, listening to my opinions—political and otherwise, laughing at my jokes. That’s why Sharon was a great friend--not because she had an interesting life, but because she was interested in all of our lives.

Somewhere along the line, Sharon told me about her former friend Rita Jenrette. Yes, the Rita Jenrette who told the world that she DID IT on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with her congressman husband. Sharon told me that when Rita Jenrette bared all (and I do mean all) in a spread (so to speak) in Playboy, she and John drove around Lancaster County looking for the issue when it was hot off the press.  

So in order to prepare this eulogy, I went to Penn State’s Pattee Library and trying to look scholarly, said to the woman at the help desk, “I'm speaking at a funeral on Saturday, and so I'm looking for the April 1981 issue of Playboy magazine. The deceased is in there. In the editorial, I mean."   

To which the librarian replied, "You know, we don't get that question very often."

She very professionally looked up the call number for me and told me how to find the microfilms room. 

So yes, there in the April 1981 issue of Playboy was Famous Congressional Ex-Wife Rita Jenrette showing all and telling all, including getting a little snarky—without naming names—about Sharon and her hot tub. As veteran of Sharon and John’s hospitality, I know that if Rita Jenrette didn’t have fun in Sharon’s tub it was because she didn’t know how to have fun. Even if she did boink the old ball and chain on the Capitol steps. 

And as a former heterosexual, I checked out the other parts of that April issue. In case you were wondering, Miss April’s turn offs included taking down the Christmas tree. Apparently she was good to go the other 364 days of the year.  And, in 1981, a Brazilian was still someone who lived in that really big country in South America. 

Some years after we met, Sharon joined the Arts Festival’s Board of Directors and she and John sponsored a prize for an artist showing wearable fiber.  She was a key figure in the success of our Silent Auction, an important fundraising event. Sharon’s retailing genius and her ability to throw a backyard storage barn, a bunch of low end art and craft items, fabric, and staples together and make it look like Nordstrom was to me proof that deep down inside of her, there was a drag queen trying to get out. 

Did I mention that she was a majorette? 

I could go on and on about Sharon—she was absolutely one of my favorite people, but as any of my friends will tell you, I don’t do feelings. In the interest of brevity, I’ll just say she was thoughtful and caring and bright and funny, and a helluva lot of fun, hot tub or no hot tub. 

In summing up Sharon’s life, I’m reminded of another artist, Sir Christopher Wren, one of England’s most celebrated architects. Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly who you were thinking of right about now. Among other things Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, where his tomb bears this epitaph:  


"Reader if you seek his monument, look around."

Today, if we seek Sharon’s monument, look around. Sharon’s love and affection for John, her family: the countless thoughtful things she did for an army of friends both present and absent, in good times and bad, this lovely home, garden; and even this party, her monument is right here for all of us to see. We are her monument. Bricks and mortar will eventually crumble, but our love for Sharon, and her impact on us, will remain forever.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Van-ity Fair

Sometimes you run into a ride that's just so nice you have to take a photo. I'm not much on camping--unless you count Courtyard by Marriott as camping. But a Volkswagen Microbus camper of a certain age--say from 1968-ish, that would be kinda fun. Instead of actually camping in it (egad to the third power), I'd save it to drive to events that have valet parking. Anyone--well, anyone with a deep enough pocket--can drive up and hand the guy a Lexus or Mercedes-Benz. It takes a certain style to drive up to the main entrance of the country, yacht, or hunt 'n' polo club and entrust the valet with a cherry air-cooled Swiss Army knife on wheels.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Another Kind of Hit in Vegas

A must do in Las Vegas, right after winning a zillion dollars at the blackjack table, is The Mob Museum, formally known at The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement.  For you old folks in the reading audience, doesn't this photo remind you of the closing credits of the old soap opera, The Edge of Night?)

The museum is in downtown Vegas, not out on The Strip, and is housed in a former Post Office/Federal Building. The Museum has done a super job restoring the exterior of the Beaux Arts building which is a world away from the glitter and glitz that's modern touristy Las Vegas. The building's interior spaces, where employees of the Post Office, a branch of the Federal Government, used to sort letters addressed to Santa Claus (at least according to Miracle on 34th Street), have been largely refashioned into exhibit spaces, but the main courtroom has been preserved and is incorporated into the museum experience.

The admission fee is $20, which was the “suggested donation” was at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York the last time I went there. Bargain hunters should know that you get a lot more objects per admission dollar in New York than you do in Las Vegas. But hey, you can't stand in a mock lineup at The Met, can you? The admission at The Mob Museum is somewhat less if you’re a local, and yes, they want to see your ID. Apparently they aren’t about to let the crime pay when it comes to lying about your residency.

The museum covers four floors. The exhibits are mostly text panels and videos along with the occasional cheesy interactive station. These include shooting a fake Tommy gun and mixing up some cement for overshoes. OK, I was kidding about the cement. But not about the Tommy gun. The museum is a quart low on artifacts since no one has seen fit to donate stuff like some .357 shell casings and the bullet riddled dry cleaning receipt that was somehow missed by the CSI people after Clemente "The Rototiller" Pelliccia was rubbed out on leaving the One Hour Martinizing Shoppe in Bayonne, New Jersey in 1969.

Of the few actual artifacts, the niftiest slash most macabre is the actual barber chair in which Albert Anastasia, of Murder, Inc., was sitting when he was whacked in the Park Sheraton Hotel in New York City on October 25, 1957. That crime remains unsolved. The label stated that the chair was formerly owned by Henny Youngman. Take my mobster, please. 

The most engrossing thing at the museum was a film that connected Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of President Kennedy to The Mob. I am not a big conspiracy theory guy, but the film laid out compelling evidence that connected Oswald to the Mafia. This was via his Maytag repairman, a strawberry blond girl named Lurleen who rode Oswald’s school bus and her next door neighbor's 1957 Desoto, maintained by a mechanic who wore the same size trousers as Sam Giancana. Hence....The Death of the President. Yes, I knew you’d believe it right away too. 

I loved the gallery filled with crime scene photos of mobsters who had been rubbed out. There was a sign that said that this gallery was not for the squeamish, which, of course, reminded me of those signs at movie theaters in the 1950s that warned of patrons being literally scared to death at some Grade B horror film. Naturally, I made a bee line into that gallery. There they were, black and white glossies of various mobsters you'd never heard of in the front seat of a car, gaping bullet hole in their head; or on the sidewalk in a pool of blood. When it came to retirement, mobsters seemed to prefer a slug from a .38 to a 401k.

There was also a representation of the electric chair. It was sort of a hokey. I mean, does anyone except possibly one of the stars of Bravo's Million Dollar Decorators believe that in any prison, anywhere, there ever was a melon colored electric chair? I mean, really. I would die of embarrassment before they hooked up any electrodes if I had to sit in that thing. It would, however, have been a cool interactive feature if you could have thrown the switch for the chair--to the right in the photo--and have the lights in the building dim for a moment, just like in old movies when No Good Frankie finally gets fried in the Big House. Oh the career I've missed as an exhibition designer!

After learning to shoot the fake Tommy gun, enjoying the JFK conspiracy film, taking in the mob hit photos, and the JFK conspiracy film, and even learning how to spell Estes Kefauver, I spent some time in the gift shop waiting for Tracy and The Other Rick.  Yes, they sell John Dillinger bobblehead figures.  When I was a kid I heard that Dillinger's personal weapon (so to speak) was in a shoe box at the FBI in Washington, DC. I think I believed it too, though I never did work through the issue of whether it would have been been wrapped up in tissue paper like a new pair of shoes.

Tracy was the last to come out, she’d been particularly engrossed the Hall of Animatronic Mob Wives sponsored by Fingerhut Plastic Sofa Covers. Later we discovered it they weren't Animatronic Mob Wives at all, instead they were just clips from The Real Housewives of New Jersey on a big screen TV.

OK, The Mob Museum is not The Met. Or the Hall of Drag, I mean the First Ladies Gallery at the Smithsonian. But for the average organized crime aficionado The Mob Museum is worth the $20....especially if you pay with a crisp $20 bill signed by Secretary of the Treasury Meyer Lansky.