The Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 6
By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston
When Gerald Ford died I learned that his wife Betty was once a Martha Graham auxiliary and that she had her own dance company in Grand Rapids. When her husband became president, her new press secretary asked her what she could do for her, and Betty said, "I don't know, what am I supposed to do?" I clipped the color photo of her at the Washington Cathedral service being escorted to her seat by Mr. Bush, whose wife and parents look on around him. It's a great shot. You can count 24 people in three rows, eight of them the living presidential couples, all in identical photo-darkgray suits and dresses, and turning to look at the new widow, except for Hillary, who hasn't turned and is staring downward. She's wedged between Bill and Chelsea, only a piece of her head visible. Barbara Bush, in the forefront, tilts hers slightly and wears an expression of pained sympathy. Laura Bush looks a little stunned, like, "Is that what's going to happen to me?" Betty is really old and not her former self. I can see her dancing though. I suppose after she was done with Martha and Grand Rapids she did the Chubby Checker Twist like the rest of us. I was once an auxiliary of sorts myself, however to Martha's competitor Jose Limon. At a holiday season party someone told me they thought I had been a dancer. I said no no, I was an auxiliary. In that capacity all I did for Jose, besides taking his classes on West 57th Street for four years, was fill in for one of his three premier females at a single rehearsal. Betty Ford first studied with Graham at the Bennington Summer School of the Dance -- in 1936. A decade and a half later, when the Summer School had moved to Connecticut College in New London, I endured some classes with Graham myself, easily a terrifying experience. So when someone dies, you find things out. I scan the papers very selectively. In the case of Saddam Hussein, hanged by our government (to be elliptical about it) December 30, only four days after the death of Betty's husband Gerald, I plundered the write-ups on him for scraps describing his early life, and found a whole "narrative" of about a dozen unsurprising facts. He was raised by a class of landless peasants, and his father deserted his mother before birth. Are these reasons to kill people? Not the way we see it. But Hussein's first job in politics, when he was 22, was a commission to assassinate, along with nine other youths, the Iraqi general then ruling the country. "Bloodshed," the report I read went on, "became the major theme of his life." Rooted in a culture of tribal violence, Hussein reached the summit of his tradition upon becoming dictator -- an equivalent aspiration to the "presidency" for boys in democratic systems. A great hero of Hussein's was Stalin. We have an analogous blood-group in our lawless subculture of mafias where the gang-head is anointed "godfather." Dictators, unlike presidents or prime ministers, have been able to murder their enemies with impunity. Now things have changed. Presidents can kill dictators and behave just like them. In order to kill with impunity however, the president has to go abroad, or I should say send people abroad to do it for him, to the dictator's territory. He can't do it at home yet, i.e., that we know of. He can only imprison people without due process. If JFK had been able to assassinate Castro, as planned, wouldn't we simply have annexed Cuba? Why are we saying we want Iraqis to take over their own country after we condemned to death the man who had held them, more or less, together, and we continue to occupy them? Mr. Bush doesn't know. His mission was accomplished when Hussein was hanged December 30. The man on whose behalf he acted is standing right behind him in the Washington Cathedral photo -- his father Bush Senior. Has anyone forgotten the claim that Saddam wanted or tried to assassinate his father? Are we living in father/son dramas called governments or what? Imagine all the stories swirling around these photo-darkgray outfits. Did Betty give up dancing for the fatherless Gerald? Yes Gerald's father, like Hussein's, deserted his wife too. And Gerald, similarly to his stepfather after whom he was happily renamed, was asked to supplant a father called Nixon when Nixon betrayed his country. Wouldn't Betty just have been marking time until Mr. Right came along? Dancing was never very important. And girls as ambitious as Martha Graham were rare as lemons in an orange grove. Her original competitor was not Jose Limon of course but another rare fruit, Doris Humphrey, who became Jose's advisor when an arthritic hip stopped her from dancing. I would have been a Humphrey auxiliary had hip replacements been available then. I was solidly in the Humphrey camp, where we tribally despised the "Graham Crackers." It would never have occurred to me that nice people like Betty were over there -- across town on the East side -- hugging the floor tortuously in emotive contractions. In Jose's studio, with Doris looking on, and despite Jose's Mexican earthiness, we were celebrating the air. It was out of the air finally that I landed and broke a fifth foot metatarsal, leaving Jose's studio for the greater world -- a room in the 42nd Street Library called the Dance Collection, which was tucked into the Music Division. One day Martha Graham's longtime associate, advisor, musical director and publisher of the Dance Observer, Louis Horst, came into the library and asked me to write a review for him. The rest became my history, and I was no longer an auxiliary. When JFK was assassinated a few years later, the four living presidential couples and two widows in this memorial photo were leading auxiliary lives, i.e. in waiting for their futures. When Betty became first lady she lobbied successfully and proudly to have Martha Graham receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One future I awaited myself would involve trying to understand who these people were, or what they would become, like was president or a president's wife a calling, a directive, an accident or what? When JFK was elected -- the first and nearly the last president I ever voted for -- all I thought was that he and his wife looked like a beautiful couple. How could we go wrong? The Cuba mess? Heard of it; never tried to find out what it was really about. Vietnam? Very distant. The assassination? Got extremely interested, but the news behind the news was not available, and the details were soon exhausting. Quite by chance, I commemorated the event the day of the funeral with a "dance." Curiously, in the 1960s I became a dancer, just by saying so if I wanted to -- in the Dada tradition then undergoing a renasissance. I mean you could walk down the street, or do much less than that, and advertise it as a dance. Just living was dancing. I was out at Billy Kluver's house in New Jersey for some reason, and since Andy Warhol was there also along with his camera, he shot me running around in circles in the November mud of Billy's backyard wearing tall black boots, cutoff denims, a red jacket and a beret. A rifle, presumably Billy's, was slung over my shoulder. At the same time, the funeral was appearing on TV in Billy's living room. That may have been a good place to stop, but life does move us along. We know about Betty's traumas when she was first lady and in the aftermath. Right behind Jimmy Carter in the Cathedral photo is his wife Rosalynn, her face half hidden, a sturdier woman than Betty but not nearly so fun-loving. Is that Mrs. Reagan standing behind her -- in shades, at the end of the first row? I'm sorry but I've crossed her off, have tended to think she's dead. I loved the California funeral on TV for her husband, though I was surely one of those who thought it was pretty dopey to elect an actor president. By now I have figured out that it's not their fault, becoming president, but their father's. And keep going back to the fathers' fathers. The written JFK history is rich with them, especially his immediate one. If Hillary becomes president, and I had hoped not to mention it here, who would we blame? Her husband I guess. A number of wives around the world have pursued their husbands into the graves of presidencies. We think men die in the Senate, but look what happens to them as top gun. I voted for Bill, then regretted it the moment he followed his military into the "don't ask don't tell" crime against truth and thousands of our fellow citizens. Still, I favored him for having never known his father, who died in a car accident before his birth. Like Saddam and Gerald, he had special credentials for any leadership sweepstakes. I had hopes for him. But I was fooling myself because behind the unknown father stands their fathers' fathers anyway, and if not them the whole idea of them from 4,000 years or more back. Is Hillary going to save us from this? Is it supposed to matter that she voted for the "war"? Of course it does. It means she wasn't thinking. And if nothing else, we need someone who thinks. Which brings me to Obama, another fatherless boy, but so exotically it gives you a tremor. I cast my preemptive vote for him in a book I wrote titled "At Sea on Land," published in 2005, having read his first memoir, "Dreams from my Father." After a peanut grower, an actor, a lawyer (a couple of whom had also been governors), a navy pilot and a businessman, why not a writer? I know I know, Obama didn't vote for the "war" because he wasn't there to vote, but I'm dead certain he would not have. Now people are saying he doesn't have enough experience to be president, but time is running out for us; and a born leader, if you recognize one, walks right into experience knowing at least that he is having one. Never mind the charisma, or admit it if you like: he's warm, he cares about people, and he thinks internationally. If he wins, I'll dance in complete surrender -- on my new titanium hip. Lately I've resembled the great choreographer Doris Humphrey in her hip dotage, leaning painfully on a cane, a woman with no chance of ever dancing again. I say "complete surrender" advisedly. I found the phrase in an article about the discovery of a long-lost brother by the English novelist Ian McEwan. The story rests in my favorite realm of permanently lost fathers. A wartime mother from Reading, England, in 1942 put a want ad in a local newspaper offering her one-month-old son for adoption. Soon she was handing her newborn baby over to strangers on the Reading railroad station platform. The mother, Rose, had been having an affair with Ian McEwan's father David, an army officer, while her husband Ernest was away at the front fighting. Two years later during the 1944 Normandy landings, Ernest died. And Rose married McEwan, with whom in 1948 she had Ian, the future novelist. The baby handed over at Reading railway station had his father's name, David. The name of the couple adopting him was Sharp, so he became David Sharp. His new mother was another Rose. Eight years later this Rose would die. When David was 14 he discovered he was adopted, and was told only that the family "got him out of a newspaper." Later he found the clipping, a priceless (looked at in a certain way) kind of "certificate" of origins. Squeezed between ads for musical instruments and secondhand furniture, it reads: "Wanted, Home for Baby Boy, age one month; complete surrender. -- Write Box 173, Mercury, Reading." (My italics). In later adulthood David contacted a tracing service, and located his lost family. A photo in the article shows Ian and David happily together. This may seem unrelated to my color photo of the solemn living presidents and their wives and two widows at the Cathedral ceremony for Gerald Ford. But it does explain my title, a sentiment to which I believe I should aspire.
©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click