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Oncologists teach me to trust and actor Andre De Shields to keep climbing

Andre De Shields performing in Hadestown.

In 2004, Burton and I needed a break from my stage 4 cancer treeatment.  We flew to Florida for a doctor-approved getaway.  We happened to have season tickets to Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theater.  The regional theater was staging a production of  “Metamorphoses,” about the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.  Two years before, the play had won 3 Tony award nominations.

To recap: Orpheus, the mortal son of Apollo, adores and marries Eurydice.  She’s bitten by a snake and dies.   Orpheus, a musician, plays his lyre to express his grief.  He plays so beautifully the gods are moved to let him travel to the underworld to bring Eurydice back.  Hades, god of the underworld, agrees to let Eurydice follow Orpheus out.  One condition: Orpheus must trust that Eurydice is behind him.  If he  turns around, Eurydice will fall back and be lost to him forever.  Orpheus walks and walks, looking straight ahead.  At the last second—he’s out of the tunnel; she’s not—Orpheus turns around.  Eurydice tumbles back, gone forever.

In great art, we often see ourselves.  In recent months, I’d survived chemo and was still undergoing radiation.  I’d been trudging through a medical process with no certain outcome.  I related to the doubts that beset Orpheus.  As the lights turned on, I was drenched in tears.

Recalling that experience, I was thrilled when Anne and I got to see “Hadestown,” a musical version of the myth, on our sisters’ trip to NY in 2019.  I was blown away by the staging, the New Orleans jazz/blues-like music, and the talent of the Broadway cast.  Andre De Shields, in his 70s, killed it in the role of Hermes.  A showstopping actor, singer and dancer, De Shields previously starred in “The Wiz” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.”

I was as moved by the story that night as I’d been more than 15 years before at “Metamorphoses.”  I remembered  my response to the earlier show—how uncertain I’d been, how moved by the message.  I felt joy in recognizing how hard it had been to trust my doctors and believe in my chances.  Joy in knowing—despite the severity of my case—I’d made it out of that tunnel.  I’d been cancer free long enough to see our oldest son David teach his oldest son Hunter to fire a baseball, to witness the bris of our youngest grandchild, Beau.  Long enough to say a blessing at our youngest granddaughter Lindsay’s bat mitzvah.

Andre De Shields won the Tony award for Best Actor in a musical in 2019.  He was 73 at the time, just four years younger than I am now, which leaves both of us miles past the spring chicken freeway ramp.  De Shields had wowed me in “Hadestown,” and I’d rooted for him.  He  accepted the Antoinette Perry (Tony) medallion with remarks he’d had a lifetime to consider.  His thoughts are worth remembering.  I share them here with you in hopes you’ll appreciate his wisdom as much as I do:

“One, surround yourself with people whose eyes light up when they see you coming.  Two, slowly is the fastest way to get where you want to be.  And three, the top of one mountain is the bottom of the next.  So keep climbing.”

Elana Eda Rubinfeld and Trong Gia Nguyen spoofed the art world

Trong Gia Nguyen and Elana Eda Rubinfeld

One of the joys of being involved in the arts is the people I meet.  Elana Eda Rubinfeld’s a recent Sarasota art friend who told me a story so entertaining I included it in my upcoming book and share it here with you.

In 2002, Elana collaborated with Vietnamese artist Trong Gia Nguyen on a project that was as clever as it was outrageous.  Trained as a painter, Elana often included subversive elements in her paintings, such as a soldier in full military gear wearing pink lipstick.  (That would have seemed considerably more outrageous in 2002.)

Elana and Trong came up with a subversive gambit, their Art Hijack project.  They recreated paintings  stolen from museums, private collections and even Saudi yachts in the past 40 years, claiming the paintings belonged to fictitious Hungarian collector Rick Haatj.  (The name’s an anagram of Art Hijack.) They deemed Haatj “the world’s most passionate collector.”  Elana says, “The paintings weren’t that well done, but all together they made a pretty convincing performance art piece.”

The duo convinced a once ritzy hotel in midtown Manhattan to loan them a penthouse suite decked out with draperies and a piano.  They sent invitations for the premiere of the Rick Haatj collection to friends, collectors and critics.  Having done P.R. for art galleries, Elana knew how to write a press release and where to send it.  The release claimed, “This is the world premiere of an important collection you need to know about.”

A new winery from Hungary donated wine; a pianist from Juilliard played the piano for free.  About 100 guests showed up, including stringers for the NYT and Artnews.  The event was “kinda cheesy but really funny,” Elana says.  “Everybody stayed for hours.  And said things like, ‘It’s cool that you’re showing a Picasso.’”

Elana and Trong met a man who was starting an art fair in LA in 2005.  He offered Art Hijack a booth for free to remount the Private Collection of Rick Haatj.  All the other booths at the fair had stark white walls.  Elana and Trong covered their walls with red velvet panels and hung them with fake works attributed to Picasso, Duchamp and Matisse.  They convinced an antiques dealer to loan them a desk and chairs.

“When people stopped by the booth, we’d say, ‘Of course you’ve heard of Rick Haatj.  It was a performance about what’s real, what’s hype, what’s passion, what’s connoisseurship.  All issues central to art collecting,” Elana, currently an art adviser, says.

A large man with a woman on each arm stopped by the booth.  “You’re telling me I’m buying an actual Picasso?” he demanded.

Elana tried to explain.

He yelled, “You’re a liar, and I think this is bull#!*t.”  He ended up buying two paintings.  Most of the others—fakes painted by real artists—sold as well for $5,000 apiece.

Elana and Trong tried some other projects, but none succeeded like the Rick Haatj Collection.  Eventually, Elana says, “I got a real job.”  She went to work at both P.S.1 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Creating spoofs on the art world continues.  Maurizio Cattelan is famous for challenging social norms and hierarchies.  “America,” 2017, was a solid gold toilet installed in a restroom at The Guggenheim.  It traveled to Cattelan’s solo show at The Blenheim Palace where it was—Surprise!—stolen.   Last December the contemporary Italian artist presented “Comedian” at the Art Basel art fair in Miami.  Two editions of a banana duct taped to a wall were sold for $120,000 each.  A third was eaten by the performance artist David Datuna as part of his performance “Hungry Artist.”

While I’m an art aficionado, I sometimes shake my head in wonderment.  My grandmother observed, “Money doesn’t care where it goes.”   A contemporary response from the urban dictionary: true dat.

Trong Gia Nguyen and Elana Eda Rubinfeld with one of their Picassos.

Tim Jaeger paints murals about Sarasota history and diversity with help from his friends

Tim Jaeger with friends at the Famous Lido Beach Casino mural. Tim painted the mural with the help of artist friends Paul Lee (left) and Julie Kanapaux (lower right)—both Ringling art school grads.

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Some 400 years ago Shakespeare opined “What’s past is prologue.”  That quote from “The Tempest” is engraved on a statue in front of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.

Tim stands with son Jett, wife Cassia Kite-Jaeger and daughter Nina.

Tim Jaeger buys into that sentiment.  Director and Chief Curator of Galleries and Exhibitions at the Ringling College of Art and Design, Tim works to involve the community in the visual arts.  Tim’s an artist, art historian and visual storyteller.  He reaches out to other artists and community members to assist him in creating historical murals.

In the 1950s, Overtown and Newtown, north of downtown Sarasota, FL, were almost exclusively black neighborhoods.  Many residents worked harvesting celery in the Celery Fields near Laurel Oak, the golf and tennis community where Burton and I spend much of winter.  In the 1920s, the Celery Fields were part of 300+ acre Fancee Farms.

In 1994, Sarasota County purchased the farmland to revert it to its original rainwater storage function.  Dirt was moved from one side of Palmer Road to the other side.  At the time, I considered the project an example of needless government spending.  Glad to admit I was wrong.  The dirt that was moved became a man-made hill—the highest point in Sarasota.  It’s now a popular spot for bird watching and hiking and the headquarters for The Sarasota Audubon Society.  And downstream flooding is no longer a problem.

But back to Overtown.  At the time, African-American residents longed to cool off on weekends at area beaches.  Due to Jim Crow laws, those so-called public county beaches were segregated.  Black children cooled off in neighborhood water holes after rainstorms.

In September, 1955, Sarasota NAACP President Neil Humphrey Sr. led a “wade-in.”  Dozens of Newtown residents piled into cars and drove to Lido Beach just off tony St. Armand’s Circle.  They jumped into the water or strolled the shores.  About 100 protesters showed up again the next month.  Sunday wade-ins and car caravans continued for several years.  Humphrey and his NAACP successor John Rivers and Overtown/Newtown residents continued demanding their rights to enjoy public beaches through wade-ins or drive-bys.  While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination, the beaches still weren’t integrated for several more years.

Last year artist Tim Jaeger decided to honor that struggle.  Commissioned by the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota, he created two 7’x8’ murals at the pavilion on Lido Key.  From on-line photographs of the events, Tim designed five panels illustrating the wade-ins and car caravans.  Images feature residents of Sarasota’s African-American community, many unable to be identified.  To help conceive and paint images, Tim enlisted community groups including the Preservation of Overtown Committee and a diverse team of artists.

“I believe in the collective spirit and the power of art to preserve history and encourage conversation,” Tim says.  “The more ideas and dialogue that go into a project, the greater the appreciation that results.

“With the rapid development of Sarasota, a lot of history is being lost.  We need to know where we came from to know where we want to go.  I hope my work brings greater awareness and that greater awareness leads to better understanding.”

The Lido pavilion was part of the Lido Beach Casino, opened in 1940 as a Works Progress Administration project. Designed by Sarasota School architect Ralph Twitchell, it housed a ballroom, restaurants, shops and a pool with a high diving board.  Its modern white walls and glass block represented a break from the Mediterranean Revival style that dominated much of Sarasota’s earlier construction.  The casino was popular with locals and tourists alike.  On weekends, the USS Sarasota battleship dropped off troops for R&R.

My Ringling friend Anne Garlington introduced me to Tim at a quilt exhibition he mounted at Ringling in January.  “Ringgold + Robinson: Storytellers,” featuring African-American female artists Faith Ringgold and Aminah Robinson, was delightful.  It was prescient in referencing social issues that have lately overtaken the national dialogue.

Tim’s grandfather, G.M. Jaeger, was a draftsman.  Tim credits him for his artistic talent.  The Depression prevented G.M. from pursuing a career as an artist, but Tim’s proud to own his work.  Tim was one of five children.  His dad was an Episcopal priest.  “Our family didn’t have much money,” Tim says.  “My mother figured ways to keep us occupied.  Pencils and paper were cheap.”  One of Tim’s siblings became a graphic designer; another, a poet.

“I feel fortunate to have been fourth of five,” Tim says.  “I had to develop sharp elbows just to eat at our table.  It helped to make me competitive.  I also feel lucky to label myself as a pre-internet artist.  That propelled me further into using my hands.”

Tim’s wife, Cassia Kite-Jaeger, hails from Auburn, Nebraska, where her father’s a fifth-generation cattle farmer.  Cassia’s a fiber artist who teaches at IMG Academy.   The Jaegers have a son, Jett, 12, and a daughter, Nina, 7.  Both are artistic.

Tim first heard of Ringling from a trustee friend of his grandfather who brought a catalogue to church.  “I dissected it,” Tim says.  He entered a month-long, pre-college program at RCAD, loved it, received an award and then a full four-year scholarship.

“I was a goofy kid raised in Western Kentucky,” Tim says.  “I moved to south Florida for art school—one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Fellow Sarasota lovers are happy you made that decision as well, Tim.  Thanks for sharing your talents, and our history, with us.

Tim stands in front of a beach scene he painted in oil and acrylic on canvas: “Human Nature #3”

Meditation in motion: Reaching out despite the pandemic through art, family and spiritual practice

Our granddaughter Camryn looks out over Jerusalem on the morning of her bat mitzvah.

Sarasota’s a town where many smart people choose to retire.  One of them is David Houle.  He bills himself as a “futurist, speaker, thinker” and writes a monthly column in the Herald Tribune.  I usually skim columns and try to absorb the gist.  Not so Houle’s latest.  I read it word for word, then sat back, took a deep breath and decided to share his insights.

Houle introduced a term we’ve experienced on a gut level this past year: cognitive dissonance.  Houle defines it as “the conflict between what one thinks reality is and what it actually is.”

Whew.  If that doesn’t describe what the world’s been going through.

Houle explains, “…The reality you expected for 2020 was not what actually happened.  Instead, you were in familiar surroundings at home with familiar people, but there was danger outside, your workplace was now at home.  Your vocabulary expanded to include ‘social distancing,’ ‘double-masking,’ ‘vaccines,’ ‘COVID-19,’ ‘quarantines’ and ‘shutdown.’  And, of course, you went out at odd hours to find toilet paper, paper towels and, if you were lucky, antibacterial wipes.  What is this reality?”

Collectively we’ve suffered staggering losses.  The loss of friends and family to an invisible enemy.  The loss of freedom to casually move about, to gather in a restaurant or go on date night to a movie.  The loss of the ability to simply board a plane and alight in L.A. or Paris or Rome.

In last week’s WSJ, Candace Taylor writes poignantly of losing the everyday companionship of a best friend and neighbor.  Due to the pandemic, her friend left Brooklyn for the safety of a summer cottage.  She decided to stay.  Taylor concludes, “The virus took all our plans and assumptions about the world and tossed them into the air like confetti.  It turned leavers into stayers and stayers into leavers.  But mostly, in ways life-shattering or simply just sad, Covid robbed us of our people.”

Burton’s and my personal losses predated the pandemic.  With my husband’s brain surgery in 2018 and resulting stroke and partial paralysis, our reality had already shifted.  Our big and social life of travel, fashion, restaurants and parties shrank overnight.  Talk about cognitive dissonance.  When quarantine became the norm, we’d already faced (“adjusted” would be too generous a word) our new reality.

One of the hardest moments for me predated the pandemic.  Granddaughter Camryn celebrated her bat mitzvah in Israel in 2019.  The rest of Andy and Amy’s family traveled there for the occasion. Burton and I witnessed the celebration on Zoom from our house in Franklin. MI.   Better than nothing.  Still, no comparison to being there in person with hugs and joyful tears, surrounded by the ancient limestone walls and worn pavers of Jerusalem.

But Covid has taught us new ways of coping.  We appreciate each other more than ever.  We treasure what get-togethers we can.  We find new ways to spend our time.

For me, two things have made our looooong quarantine more bearable.

At the start of the pandemic, I began work on a coffee table book about collecting art from Detroit’s first avant-garde art movement.  Recalling experiences I’d had and art friendships I’d made, especially with dealers Jackie Feigenson and Mary Preston, allowed me to travel back in my memory.  Detroit’s Cass Corridor & Beyond; Adventures of an Art Collector will be published this year by Read the Spirit, publishers of my second book, Godsigns, and of this column.  I hope you’ll enjoy it.

I also initiated a practice of meditation.  For 15 minutes each morning, I focus on my breathing.  Messy, uninvited thoughts bounce around my brain like kids in a puddle.  But I keep trying.  A meditation instructor said that when distracted, “Simply begin again.”  And so I do.  Over and over.  I’m convinced it’s helped to smooth the rough edges.

Psychologist Emma Seppala, Ph.D, recommends breathing as “the little known secret to peace of mind.”  She recommends a simple exercise she claims slows your heart rate and lowers blood pressure.  Inhale as normal then exhale through mostly closed lips twice as long.

16 years ago, in treatment for stage 4 cancer, I was freaking out over what I perceived as my imminent demise.  At the time, a wise psychologist asked how I was feeling that very minute.  “Okay,” I said.  “Try to stay in the moment,” she advised.  Meditation helps me do so.

On another happy note: in a few days, youngest granddaughter Lindsay will be bat mitzvahed in Glencoe, IL.  A lot closer than Jerusalem. The good Lord and United Airlines willing, I’ll be there.

The theory of cognitive dissonance is credited to social psychologist Leon Festinger.  In 1957 he proposed that inconsistency among beliefs or behaviors creates psychological tension.  Tension causes us to change inconsistent behaviors, reducing dissonance, or add behaviors to restore consonance.  Meditation helps improve consonance– a fancy word for peace of mind.

According to Houle, even before Nasty Nineteen reared its unwanted head, we were in for rough going.  In his new book, The 2020s: A Decade of Cognitive Dissonance, Houle cites the climate crisis, the future of artificial intelligence and global wealth inequality as other issues likely to create disruption.  That’s not counting humanitarian problems at our border, the political divide in this country, astronomical national debt and other unforseen issues.

Namaste, earthlings.  We’re still in for a bumpy ride.

Keep breathing.

Keep reaching out.

Barbara Loren-Snyder, Part 2: Shaping the style in millions of American homes

“MARTHA STEWART NOW IS CATERING TO 10 MILLION KMART CUSTOMERS!” That was the sales pitch in 1997 when the rising star first signed with Kmart to create signature lines of home products. Among the first were sheets and linens. Kmart used this photograph (above) in full-page magazine advertisements.

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(NOTE: This is the second and final part of Barbara Loren-Snyder’s remarkable life story. If you missed Part 1, you can read that right here.)

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When her first marriage ended, Barbara insisted she’d never marry again.  I laughed at her claim. She was young, beautiful and vivacious.

Barbara and Murray.

She discouraged a series of men.  Murray Snyder, a CPA, persisted.  “I hated dating but knew on our first date that Murray was a keeper.” On that date, in 1975, Barbara had laryngitis.  Murray thought her “sweet, demure and quiet.” They married five months later. Murray enjoyed telling friends that after Barbara recovered he “never got a word in edgewise.”

Barbara calls Murray “the love of my life.”

In 1975, Barbara received a call. The president of Detroit-based J.L. Hudson’s, one of the nation’s oldest and largest department store chains, suggested she start her own agency, offered their account.  Barbara figured such a step would require a million-dollar line of credit.  “Timing is everything,” she writes.  “…the best idea or best plan at the wrong time just doesn’t make it, and a woman asking for a $1 million line of credit meant she was nuts!”

Murray stepped in.  Loan granted. The Loren-Snyder agency was born.  “While the agency won many professional awards, it was Peggy and Nick, my teammates, who worked the magic…”  (Personal pat on  the back: I introduced her to my good friend Peggy Daitch.) The small agency created 350 radio and TV commercials a year. The effort was draining.  Barbara decided to sell or merge.  She reviewed offers from four major agencies, merged with Detroit-based D’arcy McManus.

Next Barbara accepted an offer from ABC-TV to start a retail marketing division.  “In those days,” she writes, “the media industry was profitable, young and dynamic.”  As for her colleagues at ABC, “I loved all of them and still do!”

Deciding to cut back on her work for ABC and become a consultant, she was hired by the president of Kmart to be on the President’s Kitchen Cabinet.  She recommended Kmart develop a private-label home department starring someone who’d be “Ralph Lauren for the masses.”

She heard about an east coast caterer who’d come out with a book, Entertaining.  Barbara called ten newspaper columnists around the country who covered food, fashion and style.  If none of them had heard of Martha, she’d scrap the idea.  The first eight hadn’t heard of her.  Nine and ten had.

I was #10.  I said, “Great idea.”  I never imagined just how great it would turn out to be.

Accustomed to a tonier crowd than Kmart, Matha refused to meet.  When Barbara said she was “going to make you a multi-millionaire,”  Martha changed her mind.  Barbara offered $50,000 plus royalties.  “Martha yelled, ‘What?  That’s nothing!’ and “began turning red from anger.”  Barbara asked what she expected.  At least $200,000 a year, she said.  Authorized to go to $250,000, Barbara replied, “I think we can work this out.”

“Martha wasn’t a very pleasant person to work with,” Barbara writes.  “She was very demanding, but she was brilliant when it came to developing a product.  The success of the Martha Stewart line at Kmart was breathtaking.”

Barbara’s idea in 1988 was such a hit that the book’s cover also was featured on a “collectible” plate—and the slogan was even printed on the plastic bags used in the checkout lines.

Barbara’s  breakthroughs continued.  She came up with popular Christmas promotions including a gift guide for Hudson’s, one year starring actress Jennifer O’Neill, the next starring former Miss America and CBS journalist Phyllis George.

For Christmas 1988, Barbra developed a book, Kmart Celebrates Christmas in America.  It became the fifth highest selling Christmas book on the NYT bestseller list that year.  In 1989 she recruited Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton to help create an NBC -TV special.  “Most exciting for me was that the United States Armed Forces chose it for showing on Christmas Day on every base worldwide.”

In 1994, this creative whirlwind and the husband she called “the wind beneath my wings” bought a condo in Boca Raton, FL. Two years later, they moved there permanently.  Barbara’s first grandchild, Amanda, was born.  “I never had a grandmother,” Barbara says, “so being one was the greatest joy I could have.”  Barbara applied her talents and energy to non-profits including Hugs for Kids and JCC Family Services.  She joined the executive board of The Pap Corps for Cancer Research, named for Dr. Papanicolaou who invented the pap smear test.

Barbara ends her book at this point.  But we’ve stayed in touch.  I remain blown away by her spunk and determination. Her book doesn’t touch upon some of the personal challenges she’s faced, including a lump in one breast that led to a mastectomy in her 50s.

In recent years, Murray developed Alzheimers but remained brave, sociable and loving.  He died in 2019.  The couple was married for 44 years.

“We’ve all survived so much and are lucky to still be here.” Barbara says.  (Testify, sister!)

“Life is fascinating.  There’s such joy in being able to make lemonade out of lemons.”   I hear that, girlfriend.

Thanks for being a booster, friend and lemonade maker-in-chief.

The great ballet impressario  Sergei Diaghilev once said to poet and set designer Jean Cocteau, “Etonne moi!”  Dazzle me.  Thanks for sharing you story, Barbara Loren-Snyder.  You continue to dazzle me.

Despite a lonely childhood, Barbara Loren-Snyder succeeded by understanding what Americans want—next!

How many of you remember the Wendy Ward charm schools in the 1960s? Thousands of girls attended these programs in the “proper poise and etiquette” of that era.

“Chance favors only the prepared mind.”
Louis Pasteur

“It took a lot of preparation to be so lucky.”
Barbara Loren-Snyder

 

By the early 1990s, a magazine profile of Barbara was headlined “The Marketing Maven.” The profile said, “From her first job at age 14, she has developed an almost uncanny ability to interpret and predict the buying public’s moods and needs.”

Barbara Loren-Snyder has amazed me for 50+ years as an etiquette coach, businesswoman and survivor. In an era when most women were homemakers, schoolteachers or nurses, Barbara starred in a retail and advertising career. During the pandemic, now in her mid-80s, my good friend assembled a book, Lucky Me!

Learning about her upbringing, I’m even more amazed.

Her Russian grandparents came to the US in the late 1800s. At the time, poverty and persecution caused hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews to migrate. In 1919, after Barbara’s grandmother died, her grandfather dropped their children off at the Hebrew Orphanage Asylum of NYC.  Barbara writes, “none left the home unscarred.”

At the home, Barbara’s mother Shirley Levitsky, from Minsk, Russia, met NY-born Maxwell Lewis. They later married. Barbara was born In Brooklyn, in April, 1935. Shirley had to be rushed to the hospital. Barbara writes, “Nothing would stop me then, or as life has shown, nothing would stop me from navigating through life, largely on my own.”  

Trained as a draftsman, in the middle of the Great Depression, her father worked for the WPA in Washington, DC, on specifications for machinery and buildings. As housing was scarce, the Lewises dropped off their children, Barbara, 4, and Michael, 2, at a Virginia farm that fostered children of working parents. Barbara’s mother admonished her to “be good” and take care of her brother. Shirley promised to return in days. Days stretched into a year.

The family was reunited in 1940. Soon after, Maxwell was sent to Detroit to work on the B29 bomber. The family joined him. After the war, Maxwell became an architect. He worked for Detroit firm Charles Agree before establishing his own company, King and Lewis. The firm designed Detroit’s Pontchartrain Hotel and Dexter Chevrolet but eventually went bankrupt.

Barbara married at 20, gave birth to Robert at 22 and Randy at 24. She relished being a mom. Welcoming her sons’ friends into their home, “I was able to transform my lonely childhood.”

She wondered why her childhood was so different, but finding answers about her origins proved to be a challenge. The Hebrew Orphanage Asylum where Barbara’s parents met shuttered in 1986. Records went to Brandeis University. In the late 1980s, to learn about her history, Barbara gained approval to review her parents’ records. After three days at Brandeis studying and copying records, she returned home laden with documents. Those documents sat on her shelves for decades waiting until she found time “to review the obstacles my parents overcame so they could survive a difficult childhood.”

The pandemic provided that time. Barbara came to recognize the long-term effect abandonment had on her parents, who were orphaned in childhood. She gained “greater understanding of how my parents’ lack of ability to show affection and love, and putting up walls around their emotions, affected me. As a child I built my own walls for protection without understanding why.” She also realized the benefit of her spartan upbringing. “Having grown up with less gave greater value to everything I did or had.”

From age 14, Barbara worked as a salesperson. Attending Detroit’s Wayne State U., she worked full time at a fashion boutique. Reading every book she could on self-help and contemporary women achievers, she developed an idea.

In 1963, she phoned a manager of a local suburban Montgomery Ward with an idea she said  would increase his business and create a unique image for his store.

“I was scared to make the call, but by taking that step I was beginning a journey into uncharted waters. My self-confidence, which was always lacking, was getting a boost. ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ became my motto.”

Barbara recruited a neighbor; together they started a charm school. The program blossomed into Wendy Ward and was soon adopted by nine Montgomery Ward stores nationwide. In 1962 Barbara  appeared on TV’s To Tell the Truth.

Four years later, Barbara joined Detroit-based Federal’s Inc. She developed a junior department for 57 regional department stores. Among her creative promotions: a Teen Bash DJ’d by singer and teen idol Frankie Avalon, attended by 3,000.

At Federal’s, Barbara won recognition. She was invited to speak at events and earned enough money to take her sons on vacation. Grey Advertising hired her to run accounts for ABC-TV, Hudson’s and the Taubman company. Professional awards ensued. “Developing self-confidence and self-awareness… can’t be taught. You have to believe in yourself. …We all have gifts we didn’t know we had. Believing in yourself helps you find them.”

Next she took over the Detroit Shopping News. She changed the format and got friends to write columns. The president of GM presented her with the Detroit’s Ad Woman of the Year award.  “I knew then and I know now that nobody does anything alone.  I may be the orchestra leader but the musicians make the music.”

Here is the second and final part of this series.

Bob Zielsdorf’s appreciation for industrial designer Brooks Stevens leads to a new car

Bob Zielsdorf with his Excalibur.

My recent column about classic race car driver David Porter prompted our friend Bob Zielsdorf to send a photo of his newest 4-wheeled acquisition, an Excalibur.  As a native Detroiter, I know something about boys and their enthusiasm for toys.  But why an Excalibur?

Bob’s answer opened up a new vein of knowledge for yours truly.  I’m nuts about design, from architecture to furnishings to home goods and fashion.  But I have little knowledge of industrial design.  Thanks to Bob, I now have a bit more.

Since childhood, Bob’s been a fan of industrial designer Brooks Stevens.  Bob’s father ran a company that made portable air compressors and jackhammers for breaking up cement.  He hired Stevens to redesign and modernize the products of his Milwaukee-based company.  In the late 1950s, then in high school, Bob was assigned to write a paper on a profession and to interview someone in that profession.

“I was stuck,” Bob says.  “I couldn’t come up with an idea.”

His dad suggested he talk to Brooks Stevens about industrial design.  Bob called.  “He was happy to meet with me,” Bob says.  “I rode my bike to his office in a beautiful setting with glass walls overlooking the woods.  I remember what a gentleman he was, and full of information.”

In 1963, Stevens went on to design a prototype of the Excalibur.  Styled after the 1928 Mercedes-Benz SSK, Stevens’ design was fitted on a Studebaker Gran Turismo Hawk chassis.  When Studebaker stopped producing engines, Stevens procured them through his friends, GM execs Ed Cole and Bunkie Knudsen.

(I got a kick out of the later sourcing.  In the late ‘60s, I was a correspondent for Women’s Wear Daily.  I became friendly with Dollie Cole and Florence Knudsen, wives of Ed and Bunkie and both lovely gals.  Burton was just starting out in real estate; we were broke but needed a car.   Dollie hooked us up with a Chevy and an executive discount.)

Brooks Stevens and his sons started a company in Milwaukee, WI, hand-building Excaliburs.  They made over 3500 cars.  Comedian Phyllis Diller owned four of them.  Production continued until 1990.  Stevens also designed the Jeep Wagoneer, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Skytop Lounge observation train cars, outboard motors, kitchen appliances and much more.

Fast forward to 2020.  Compliments of Covid, Bob Zielsdorf had time on his hands.  Time to look back.  He reminisced about his youth and his admiration for Brooks Stevens.

“When I met Brooks Stevens, the Excalibur didn’t exist,” Bob says.  “But now it did.  The idea of owning one got stuck in my brain.  The Excalibur is a dream car for kids who like the look of antique cars.  Plus I felt nostalgia for the creator.”

Bob spent the summer in South Bend, IN, researching Excaliburs.  When he got back to Vero Beach, FL, where he and wife Fran spend winters, Bob discovered a candy apple red Excalibur was up for auction in Kissimmee, FL.  A friend drove Bob there; he checked out the car and offered a winning bid.  Unable to properly install the side curtains, with temps in the 60s, by the end of the two-hour drive home Bob was chilled but still thrilled.

Back in Vero Beach, Bob tried to remove the canvas top and heavy folding steel frame.  The operation required some neighborly help.  Bob and wife Fran drove their new wheels  to nearby Publix.  “Strangers honked and leaned out of their windows to comment,” Bob says.  They’ve since driven their new convertible conquest often.  They plan to exhibit it at an antique car and boat show in April.

Bob and Fran will celebrate their 56th anniversary in June.   We became friends through an international couples forum, part of a business group to which we belonged.  Now retired, Bob ran a company that made industrial bakery machines.  He and Fran were high school and college pen pals.  In 2014, Bob published their correspondence in a charming, historically informative book Sealed with a Kiss; An American Love Story in Letters.   Interested in genealogy, Bob hired a researcher to trace his family history and discovered roots reaching back to the mid-1700s.  That family story was published as Finding Our Roots: the Zuhlsdorff Family History.

Fran has suffered health setbacks in recent years, including a serious spinal cord injury, but their challenges have not kept this irrepressible couple down.  Bob sums up their philosophy: “Enjoy the life you have and share the gifts you’re given.”

Thanks, Bob and Fran, for sharing your latest love story, the love of a candy apple red Excalibur.  In the legend of Camelot, only young Arthur was able to pull the Excalibur sword out of a rock and thus become king.  Enjoy your new wheels.  And may you be kings of the road.