Thursday, November 7, 2013

Aimée + I Meet Again

Thanksgiving weekend, 2009. A whirlwind visit to Davis. My mother gave me an article she clipped from the newspaper about a new Aimée Crocker book. Aimée's memoir was long out-of-print and ridiculously expensive. To my dismay, the new book wasn't available at The Avid Reader or any of my friendly Davis bookstores. Riki, who has been humoring me since high school, kindly agreed to drive me to The Crocker Art Museum Book Store (kinda) on the way to the airport to catch my flight back to LA.
I remember the moment I first saw the book.
Aimée Crocker's Refined Vaudeville, by K.M. Taylor & Aimée Crocker. It was hardback & gorgeous, I was terrified to turn it over to see the price. After flipping through and sizing it up, I mentally prepared to pay $60 for the book. I'm not on an heiress' budget but I could tell this was a book I'd keep forever, totally worth whatever the sticker said. I was delighted when I looked at the price, I think it was $26.95. One recently laid-off school teacher did a happy dance! I looked closer to make sure there wasn't a "1" in front of the 26. True story! I carried the book as delicately as if Aimée herself had hand-written it. Precious ephemera.
Back Cover
The short flight to LA was spent trying not to read ACRV. My plan was to read it in a few days, on a midday flight to New York. That was before I realized it was practically a coffee table book, completely wrong for jet setting. I also realized what Aimée's name in the writer's credits meant--portions of And I'd Do It Again were reproduced within the text. Someone had written my dream book! I had to take it to New York! Onto the plane we went . . . 
I'm a sucker for a great intro
Poor bastard passenger to my right. So slick and cool, reading on his kindle, my coffee table elbows bobbing up and down as I talked to my book, gently turned its pages, gasped, laughed, and I may have clapped. A few times. 

Okay, there's no point in playing it cool about how much I loved this book. The sun had just set when I landed at JFK. I read by the light of my phone in the cab. For the record, I'm not usually a car reader, I'm a window gazer AND this was only my second trip to New York. I finished the last few pages in the hotel before drifting to sleep in LA boyfriend's hotel room. Boyfriend was working late at the office, the new company he worked for was days from launching. The employees were basically working around the clock, sometimes getting as much as 3 hours of sleep at night. It was hectic, but it left me with a lot of free time to wander Central Park, shop at sample sales in Soho, and ponder the wonderful book I had just read. New York's charm exploded once I knew which streets and neighborhoods Aimée lit up a century ago.
My first glimpse of news clippings about Aimée
I was so impressed with ACRV that I emailed the publisher and asked them to forward my congratulations to the author. I don't normally write to writers but I couldn't contain my excitement. The book lit up my soul. Aimée's familiar words and mysterious stories were illuminated, presenting a much grander view into the heiress' life. The author's thorough research, photos, newspaper articles, and clever wit dazzled me. 
Taylor wrote back right away. Kevin Taylor, author. The book was self-published! We struck up an email conversation and quickly discovered we both lived in LA. All of my friends from the Old City Cemetery in Sacramento knew about Aimée Crocker, and all of them were cute little retired people. I looked forward to meeting the little old man who wrote the book about Aimée.


Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Tangling Paths

Aimée Crocker and I sort of cooled off after I returned And I'd Do It Again to the library and graduated from college. I focused on big changes I had going on. I had a new(ish) boyfriend in Los Angeles, I decided to head south and pursue teaching...and my "MRS" degree. My BFF also lived in LA, and I was crazy about the weather, so there were a few things drawing me south. I later learned Aimée also left Sacramento & San Francisco to move to LA. Great minds think alike! Though our reasons were quite different.
When I think of Aimée and Los Angeles, two stories come to mind, though I only knew of one when I moved. The first, the one she told about in her memoir, was her honeymoon with her first husband, R. Porter Ashe. They took a train from the Bay Area, which wrecked at the Tehachapi Pass. It was a devastating wreck, perhaps an omen of what her other LA journey had in store? 
Chapter 3: A Train Wreck of a Marriage
Aimée Crocker's Refined Vaudeville
Kevin Taylor & Aimée Crocker, 2009
The other journey was another sort of train wreck altogether. After five years of marriage, The Ashe couple dissolved. I'm sure dividing up wealth was a messy issue, but it was trumped by the custody battle over their daughter, Gladys (then known as Alma). Porter Ashe kidnapped the girl from Margaret's fancy LA mansion and a nasty legal battle ensued. 
Read Aimée Crocker's Refined Vaudeville for details of the
kidnapping/custody/divorce saga...
it's a divorce with a (fairly) happy ending!
Despite not being a tattooed, bohemian heiress, my life in LA runs circles around a train wreck and a divorce. I landed a fantastic job teaching 2nd grade in a darling public school. I have great friends. I live a short drive from world-class beaches, hiking trails, shopping, yoga studios, museums, and great restaurants. Life is good.
Hanging with Alice at Disneyland
I'm a hopeless hopeful romantic, plagued with wanderlust. I used to envy people taking "the red eye" because it meant their tomorrow would be someplace far away. My first red eye was spring break of 2009, LA boyfriend and I went to DC. Later that summer was my first visit to New York, to meet up with LA boyfriend during his business trip. Other than road trips and a few visits to Hawaii, these were my first real tastes of traveling far from home.

I quickly fell in love with the east coast, especially New York. I wandered through Central Park, enchanted. I gazed at shop windows. I treated myself here & there. I loved walking the grid, block after block. 
Cyndi Lauper, 1983
I wondered about past residents who have influenced me...Jack Kerouac, Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Cyndi Lauper...Aimée Crocker. There are so many! I imagined what the cityscape looked like in each of their days, how people dressed, traveled and spoke. 
Madison Avenue of long ago
Most of Aimée's memoir was about her exotic world travels. She briefly named some of her New York friends toward the end, and told about the birthday party she threw for a 12-foot boa constrictor named Kaa. Other than my vague recollections of her vague recollections, I knew nothing about Aimée's life in New York. But it didn't stop me from daydreaming about her exciting days (and nights) in Edwardian New York as I wandered through the glittering city.

Soundtrack: Cub "New York City"

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Muse Grew Up In A Museum (Sort Of)

Yes, I was born in Sacramento. 
No, I didn't grow up knowing about Aimée Crocker.

I knew about the Crocker Art Museum, which was attached to her childhood home. I went there on a field trip. I'm sure I briefly heard about her father, E.B. Crocker, but I really don't remember. I loved visiting The Crocker Museum, but that wasn't where I first heard of Aimée. Or even Amy Isabella Crocker, as she was originally called. I first heard of Aimée on a history tour of the
Old City Cemetery. Then I tracked down her memoir, And I'd Do It Again, and read it several times before surrendering it to the UC Davis library.
I told friends about the book, but since it was out of print and nearly impossible to find, I had a hard time getting anyone interested in her amazing story. "Hey, you should read this great book . . . only you can't." My little old lady friends at the cemetery told me the stories they knew about Aimée. Other than my golden homegirls, I had no one to share Aimée with. One of my best friends, Katie, expressed interest in reading the book and tried to get a copy. No luck. I got the idea to type it out, chapter by chapter, so she could read it. That's right, I made a myspace profile for Aimee so I could share the chapters with Katie.
I don't have the password to my own myspace account anymore, let alone the one I made in tribute to Aimée. I recently found this video about the beginning of the Crocker Museum. One fourth of the video is about Aimée Crocker, and most of the footage is of that myspace page. I can't help but giggle.
The Crocker family lived in the mansion on the corner of 3rd and O Street, in what is now called the Mansion Wing. E.B. Crocker purchased the property and existing buildings in 1868, when wee Amy was about 4 years old. It was the Victorian era and they had a fancy home & museum to fill. Naturally, the family went on a grand tour of Europe and collected a vast amount of art. E.B. seemed to favor Italian art, but they also picked up some solid central European pieces.

Originally, the home and the museum were separate. The museum was a charming add-on in the early 1870s. Margaret Crocker donated everything to the city in 1885, eventually the home became part of the museum as well. Much later, the "New Crockers" (the modern day museum) expanded further with a 125,000-square-foot addition called the Teel Family Pavillion.
Photo: Brian Suhr
The Crocker Art Museum is the longest continuously-operating art museum in the West. The juxtaposition of Victorian and modern architecture is a bit much for some patrons, but I think the Crockers would be proud their legacy still houses world-renowned art. They'd also love "Pay What You Wish" days every third Sunday. And air conditioning. Art lovers can also enjoy free admission on Presidents Day, Memorial Day and Labor Day.

One can easily spend an entire day soaking up culture at the Crocker Museum. But you've been forewarned, there's a lot of spirit to glean! Getting close to Aimée's lingering presence may lead to wanderlust, romance + mystical encounters. You're next Facebook status might say something like "Leaving the Crocker, gotta pack! SMF -> JFK -> CGK -> BOM -> CDG -> ?"

And that's a good thing. I mean, when's the last time you were in Java anyway? If Aimée senses you are a kindred spirit, you might also smell her lang lang perfume, have the sudden urge sit atop a grand piano and play it with your feet, shimmy an exotic snake dance in the moonlight, marry a couple of princes, get matching snake tattoos with your boyfriend (especially if you're presently married) or dye your hair purple. Again, when's the last time you ________ . . . ?
Young Amy Isabella, the face of Victorian moxie
Taylor and Crocker, 2009
Unlock the door to Aimée's bohemian world by reading this book!

Soundtrack: Only Son "My Museum"

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Few Words About Cemeteries

Graveyards are full of history, and history is cool. I don't want to be buried when I expire, I prefer cremation, but I appreciate the sentimentality found amongst the markers. My interest in history was vastly misunderstood a few years ago by some of my first grade students' parents. Essentially, I was accused of being some sort of witch monster. Word got out that I traveled to Sacramento for the weekend to help with Lantern Tours. Unbeknownst to me, that was when my character (and my personal life) went under a magnifying glass. Teachers need to "keep their noses clean" so to speak, we have an obligation to set a good example for others, especially children. I don't engage in anything illegal or immoral, I use good judgement, I don't take bathroom selfies or risqué photos of my smokin' hot rack (ha). I'm quirky and silly, I'm not perfect, but I'm a good role model, on and off The Internet.

Winter break 2010, I had top security settings on my Facebook profile, or so I thought. A student's mother typed my name into google and began to connect dots that shouldn't be connected. Here are some things she found alarming about me:
Pic From a History Tour.
Saint Louis #1, New Orleans.
Dec 2010. 
Another Pic From the Tour.
Mystery Crockers!
Saint Louis #1, New Orleans
She freaked over cemetery photos from a recent trip to New Orleans. And a compliment I left on an offbeat history site. And my name and photos on the Sacramento Old City Cemetery website. Suddenly even my dark purple nail polish seemed ghoulish. She attempted to paint an awful picture of me to my principal, a woman who has known me for years and supported me since the beginning of my teaching career. 
This is what a history buff in a graveyard looks like.
This was printed out + presented to my principal,
 as evidence of my twisted character.
Greenwood Cemetery, New Orleans
This is what a goth in a graveyard looks like.
Maybe she's a history buff as well. No idea.
This was the tamest goth sitting in a cemetery I could find online.
Another goth, tame makeup.
Let's pretend for a moment this is a picture of me. Nothing illegal is taking place.  Out of context, we are left to our imagination to fill-in the blanks to understand wtf is going on. In my opinion, she's guilty of wearing a cape + sitting on a grave. It's not my style, but I don't have a moral problem with it. The upset mother didn't care what I looked like in the picture. In her opinion, only a weirdo would visit a cemetery. Period.
This mother made me out to be a death-obsessed goth, masquerading as a cheery, well-dressed teacher. If I'm obsessed with anything, I'm obsessed with LIFE. Really though, obsession is a scary concept, I'm not obsessed with anything.

I'm passionate.

Curious. Interested. Seeking. Inspired. 

My principal stood by me through the nightmare, thank heavens, but I haven't been the same since the accusations. It was crippling at the time. I could hardly talk about it without breaking down. I not only wanted to quit teaching, I wanted to change my name and run away. I felt violated, heart broken and confused. I slid down a shame spiral. Though eventually it was a great lesson in knowing who I am to the core. I'm not a monster who scares children, I'm a well-dressed historian. I'm interested in some outré stuff + I love to dress up, I'm not faking anything about who I am. But she had me doubting myself! 
Those who are closest to me know I'm sadder in some ways as a result of this, but happier in others. Do I have a macabre streak? Yes. Do I have a dark sense of humor? Yes. Do I bring that into my classroom? No. I'm much more aware of how I'm perceived, which is a blessing and a curse. There are those who don't give a frog what others think, and those who care too much about other people's opinions. Having confidence doesn't exclude me from caring what people think of me. It means I know who I am, I like who I am, I appreciate approval of others, but I don't rely on it.

All that being said, until fairly recently I was carrying this sad burden around and it was preventing me from enjoying so many things I love. It was as though the bellowing voice of self-doubt had a microphone and was trashing me, internally. I felt like a phony, I was overly concerned with super dumb stuff, like what comes up when my name is googled. I have nothing to hide, what was I so worried about?
Soundtrack: Ladytron "Ghosts"
There's a ghost in me who wants to say I'm sorry...
In the spirit of clearing the air about all of this and sharing my authentic self, here are some pictures from that mysterious night in 2010 when I helped a volunteer-run pioneer cemetery raise some much-needed funding. The tours are rain or shine, no refunds. It rained that weekend. I stood in the dark, soggy, cold cemetery in my poofy dress (that length is *perfect* for concealing rain boots) and told stories with my lovely sister. Pretty goth, huh?
My little sister + me

Both of these dresses are from
They have men's and women's clothing, they specialize in Renaissance, Old West, Victorian, Edwardian, Steampunk, and 1950s styles.
Tell 'em Courtney sent you!

BBC's Horrible Histories: Victorian Fashion
Thankfully, the reproduction dresses that
Dianne at Blanche's Place sells
are comfortable + fun to wear!

Soundtrack: The Smiths "Cemetery Gates"
I found this slideshow of Highgate Cemetery, London. I went there the summer of 2012, as well as Père Lachaise in Paris, where Aimée Crocker's good friend Oscar Wilde is actually buried. 
History is cool, kids.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How I ended up standing in a graveyard in a poofy dress . . . repeatedly

I took a California pioneer history tour at the Sacramento Old City Cemetery in early 2005. The tour was a fun way to learn about the past. Graveyards creep a lot of people out, but this place is so full of life that even the squeamish can find something to enjoy. The gardens are stunning, with the same cheery little birds and squirrels you'd see in other parks happily frolicking.
Victorian-era cemeteries were designed with the living in mind. Open spaces, lush vegetation, an abundance of colorful blossoms, and lots of comfortable places to stop awhile. Benches & seats that invite you to linger. Friendly volunteers gardening, walking, giving impromptu tours, all of these things contribute to the atmosphere. I've always enjoyed cemeteries for their history and tranquility, but this is the first cemetery where I truly felt the space was celebrating life, not just reflecting on the past.
I met with the cemetery's volunteer coordinator to figure out how I could help. I thought maybe I would learn how to repair some of the brick walls or something along those lines. Turns out they didn't see me as a mason. They wanted me to wear poofy dresses and tell stories at the cemetery's fundraising events. They also wanted me to help lead Travel Teen tours. That meant teaching California history to third and fourth graders, which was a perfect compliment to the volunteer work I was doing in a Woodland elementary school. 

In time, I met with the sweet ladies who made up the cemetery planning committee. They were organized, sassy & an absolute blast to work with. The first project we worked on was a Victorian garden party, inspired by the 1885 Floral Festival. That May 6th, Sacramento businesses shut down and everyone celebrated Margaret Crocker and her generous deeds for the city. Our party on June 17th, 2006 was more of a high tea, but our spirit of gratitude stemmed from the original flower fête. 

I look nothing like Aimée, but I loved dressing up and being called Mrs. Ashe (she was still married to husband #1 in 1885, R. Porter Ashe). Fran, the lady who played Margaret, helped pick my dress. I ordered my dress + petticoat from Blanche's Place, which was also a wonderful experience. Dianne was friendly & helpful, and she was excited I was going to wear her dress at a cemetery benefit.

Sharon Patrician + the Crockers
The Victorian Era. The height of prim ladies & proper etiquette. The days when it was considered vulgar to refer to say "legs" when discussing a table's limbs. Flirting was done with a fan. Suffrage was a sweet and defiant dream. 
(Hilarious run down of Victorian manners and the meaning of different flowers . . . 
orange lily? Bwahahahahaha!)

Lady Bountiful, as Margaret was called by the press, was one of Sacramento's most charitable souls. Rather than make a laundry list of her generosity, I'll mention two benefactions that touch my heart deeply.
 Aimée + Margaret
(me and dear Fran)
The first is the donation of a greenhouse across the street from the cemetery, the Bell Conservatory, with a chunk of land to expand the cemetery's boundaries. The greenhouse is long gone, but 130 years ago there stood a Tiffany-style glass structure filled with exotic blossoms. Margaret wanted flowers available to all who visited the cemetery, with the idea those who could pay did, and those who couldn't would be provided for. Everyone could take beautiful blooms to their loved ones.
Flowers for all. 
My heart melts.
Paying my respects, taking flowers to my beloved Crockers
The second benefaction was The Marguerite Home. It was a furnished rest home for "aged gentlewomen" with limited means. I heard she also funded housing for single mothers. Again, we're talking about a time when being a single mother was basically a sin, regardless of how it came to be. 
I melt. 

Travel Teen tours. No poofy dress required. These kids were fun! We were the last stop of their tour, so they had been at the Capitol, Sutter's Fort, Old Sac. . . the kids enjoyed our approach to learning history. We spent a few minutes at the Crocker plot and girls cheered when I told them about Aimée.


Lantern Tours
Judy at the Crocker plot
October 2006
(Weird lighting, my camera wasn't cooperating)
Preaching temperance.
Freezing in a poofy dress, but having lots of fun!
Oct 2006
Charlotte, wearing my poofy dress & sharing a spooky story
Oct 2006
My first Lantern Tour! Sharing the story of The Tildens, famed/doomed Mayflower family.
Impressive amount of Red Hat Society ladies in attendance.
Oct. 2005
The cemetery is normally closed after dark, I wanted to capture the beauty of the stone and the flowers in the moonlight. I didn't know who Gladys was when I took this picture. Gladys was Aimée's daughter, from her marriage to R. Porter Ashe.

Soundtrack: Modern English "I Melt With You"

Saturday, November 2, 2013

And I'd Do It Again

And I'd Do It Again
Aimée Crocker Gouraud
Interlibrary Loan, UC Davis

I was working on my undergrad in human development. John Dewey didn't leave me much time for pleasure reading. Still, I looked forward to those quiet moments when I could escape into the jungle with my soul sister, Aimée. The library had a very generous renewal policy, I kept the book until UC Davis decided I could graduate. They wanted their book back, I had to return it so I could walk. I gently used my little printer/scanner to archive some of the delights, and wished for my own copy. I was pathetically sad to part ways with this book. I know how weird it sounds, but that book was one of my best friends. This chunk of ephemera and I had spent some of the best nights of my college career together, in bed.
Every time I hear "Reading in Bed" by Emily Haines (Metric, Broken Social Scene) I'm struck by the part about all of the lives unled reading in bed. It's a hauntingly beautiful song, but it's the opposite of how I feel about the nights I spent reading And I'd Do It Again in bed. Aimée shared her stories with me and her spark ignited my spirit. She awakened a spectrum of feelings, thoughts, desires . . . page by page, it all felt so right. Life is better lived under the influence of Aimée.