Schulenberg’s Page: The Secret Life of People and Plants

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Paul Bartel and Philippe Billard talking over lunch. November 11, 1972.

December, 1972: In November, President Nixon was re-elected in a landslide victory over Senator George McGovern.  Naturally, all of the illustrators who had participated in the art auction to raise money for the McGovern campaign were disappointed.  Even my mother in California who’d distrusted and disliked Nixon since his earliest days in politics said that although she was not one of his supporters she’d have to respect him as the President!

Four days after the election,  on November 11, there was a symbolic end to direct American military involvement in the Vietnam War.  I guess “symbolic” and direct military involvement were the tricky words!  The actual War was by no means over!

A friend of mine from when I lived in Paris, French photojournalist Philippe Billard, had just returned from an assignment in Peru where in 1968 the idealistic President Fernando Belaúnde Terry was deposed by a military coup.

Paul Bartel invited Philippe and me to lunch where Philippe told us fascinating stories of what life was like under military rule in Lima.

I had a friend from South America who was related to Belaúnde although I can’t recall if he ever told me the exact connection.  I knew him merely as Guillermo Ghersi, but his actual full name was more like a biographical history and the longest of anyone I’d ever known. It may be the longest name (with titles) that anyone has ever known! It was a fascinating afternoon.

After, Philippe and I took the crosstown bus to the East side where we parted company as Philippe had appointments before returning to Paris.

What we weren’t aware of at the time was that we were entering into what would later be called The Disco Decade with new clubs opening daily! One of these was the Limelight.

In Paris during the 1960s, I spent my late nights at the private club, Chez Castel, which had in its basement possibly the very first discothèque in the world.

The basement discotheque Chez Castel in a quiet moment.

Joe Warfield, an American expatriate, was La Disquaire — the one who played the records.  He was called La Disquaire because the French had no word for DJ.  He referred to himself as The Music Master.

Barbra Streisand had sent me copies of her first debut album for Columbia Records and I gave one to Joe.  So he was undoubtedly the first person in Europe to play her album!

Chez Castel was such a marvelous environment — with a nostalgic brasserie restaurant upstairs where a small women’s orchestra entertained diners with nostalgic pre-WWII and earlier songs and where guests would even volunteer and sing or play the piano (or do both) to the encouragement of this world-weary group.

Glamorous French movie star Danielle Darrieux and Bob Westhoff.

On occasion, Robin Douglas-Home would play jazz piano (sidenote: before Princess Margaret married Anthony Armstrong-Jones, Lord Snowdon, she was the “girlfriend” of Robin); and with very little encouragement I would play Debussy. It was that kind of place — like a big house party! I would usually be the only person I’d never heard of …

But I digress. I liked going to discotheques — not really to dance but to draw! It was always like an art class where the asssignment was to draw quick action studies! Two minute or less quickies!

And the costumes were usually outrageous!  I knew there had never been anything like it previously nor would it be likely there’d be anything like it in the future!  I didn’t want to miss it.

I wasn’t disappointed.

There were the most unlikely couplings.

A person named Emile had become a local disco celebrity merely by dint of wearing loads of jewelry! Buzzy King, who knew all about these things, said: “He wears so much jewelry that if he tipped over he wouldn’t be able to get up!” That’s all it took to become known to a community! Delusions of grandeur or delusions of gender and zip and you were granted entry beyond the guarded velvet rope!

On a very different evening I was invited to my friend Andrea (Mrs. J. Cheever) Cowden’s duplex apartment.  Andrea was Old New York and spoke with the authority and privilege of an earlier period.  In fact, she sounded exactly like the heroine of monologist Ruth Draper’s famous mono-drama, The Italian Lesson.

One evening I brought Mary Milton to one of Andrea’s At Homes.  Andrea’s maid had a particular talent: she could juggle anything, but usually chose to juggle fruit.  After serving refreshments, Andrea would frequently have her perform for the guests.

Meeting Mary that night and sitting with one of her Pekingese dogs on her lap, Andrea was making light conversation while Mary was somewhat uneasy trying to avoid the little dog’s drooling on her dress.  Andrea was saying that poor little Pong (the dog’s name) had just earlier had his eye again become dislodged from the socket {Mary looked at Pong!} “But then I just took Pong’s eye and popped it back in!”

Mary turned pale and I quickly changed the subject!

On this particular evening,  Andrea’s friend Christabel Berry had arranged for us to visit Cleve Backster at his place of business on West 46th Street.

Earlier in his life he had been affiliated with the CIA developing methods of interrogation.  He was an expert on the use of lie detectors and worked with the New York City police teaching them how to efficiently and properly use lie detectors.

We were curious about visiting him and when we got there he told us about his work.  In 1966 on a whim he hooked up a lie detector to a potted Dracaena plant his secretary had bought to make the office a bit more cheerful.  He thought it would be interesting to burn a leaf to see what would happen.

To his shock the moment he had the thought the lie detector registered an alarm!  The Dracaena appeared to be frightened!  It seemed to have read his thought!  He made this his life’s work and was the inspiration for the book, The Secret Life of Plants, a book that became a sort of bible for the Aquarian Age!

I was too fascinated to draw anything!

My mother had always talked to her houseplants.  The garden outside was one with nature and she didn’t feel that it needed her that intimately!  The ones inside were another matter — and now I realized she was right!

In a conversation with the writer/journalist Margot Adler I mentioned these things about my mother.  Margot, who was a Wiccan, and wrote Bringing Down the Moon on the subject, said that my mother was probably an unconscious natural Wiccan!

Margot was probably right about my mother! With thinking and feeling plants, nothing is impossible!

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