Peter Leroy

Herb 'n' Lorna Cover

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Cover image: Szinyei Merse, Lovers (detail, 1869)



Herb ’n’ Lorna

(a sample)

One never knows, do one?
     Fats Waller

FOR YEARS, I tried to avoid writing this book.  If the choice had been mine alone, I would never have written it.  Recently, however, events beyond my control forced me into writing it and forced me, in the writing of it, to confront a moment that ranks high among the unsettling moments of my life, the moment that, I think, marked the end of my overextended egocentric period and so, perhaps, the end of my youth: the moment when I learned that my maternal grandparents were involved in—virtually the creators of—the animated erotic jewelry industry.
    The discovery came—actually it was forced upon me by two informants—on the day of my grandmother’s funeral, three years after my grandfather had died.  That morning, May Castle, my grandparents’ friend of longest standing, gave me a box, inscribed to me in my grandmother’s hand.  Inside the box were twenty-two pieces of erotic jewelry and erotic sculpture.  With them was an account, just a few words, written by my grandmother, of my grandparents’ involvement with erotic arts and crafts. I read it quickly, breathlessly, but I had many things to attend to that morning, and I didn’t have much time to think about what it meant before I left for the Episcopal church, where the funeral service was to be held. 
    Sitting in a pew at the church, half attending to the service, I began to consider my new knowledge.  You can imagine how it affected me.  It shook me.  Not only had I never known anything about this interest of my grandparents’, but the whole notion was so far removed from my idea of them—their personalities, their interests, their talents as I supposed I understood them—that I couldn’t even imagine where it might fit.  Eroticism, I realized with some embarrassment, had never played an important part in my mind’s eye’s version of my grandparents’ lives. How I had misjudged them! I had belittled them, diminished their lives in a way that I wouldn’t have wanted mine diminished.  Eroticism certainly played an important part in my life; how could I have been so thick-headed and arrogant as to ignore the likelihood that it was as important—or, to judge from the evidence they had supplied me, even more important—in theirs?  I was ashamed of myself. I was also flabbergasted.  I was struck, with a suddenness and force that felt like a physical blow, by the realization that even now I was wrong in my understanding of them. I had, in the course of an hour or so, come to think that eroticism had “played an important part in my grandparents’ lives.”  That couldn’t be anywhere near the truth.  If what my grandmother had suggested in her note was true—and the carvings she had included testified that it was—my grandparents had played a leading role in the development of the erotic imagination of their times!  It was much too much to handle all at once, at such a time.  It was as if my grandmother had in her posthumous letter introduced me to two people I had never met before, people who had been hiding inside my grandparents, people with genitalia.  Who were these people?  Why did my grandmother want me to meet them?
    When I was a child, I called my grandparents “Gumma” and “Guppa.”  Originally, the names were just mispronunciations of “Grandma” and “Grandpa,” of course, but as time passed they became terms of endearment, and I continued to use them long after I was able to say “Grandma” and “Grandpa” clearly.  I shifted, uncomfortably, to something like “Gram” and “Gramp” for a brief time during adolescence, when childhood leftovers embarrassed me, but I soon returned to “Gumma” and “Guppa,” and once back never strayed again.  I think that underlying my persistent use of my childhood names for them was an assertion that my grandparents were, and would always remain, the Gumma and Guppa I had known when I was a child.  My Gumma was large and soft, generous, enduringly pretty, pleasant, devoted to the domestic arts, the provider of huge beige-and-white meals—biscuits, boiled onions, chicken, cream sauces, and potatoes prepared in a thousand ways, the best of them a German potato salad that filled the house with the pungency of vinegar and bacon—an amateur logician and mathematician, occasionally a repairer of jewelry, a reader of best-selling novels, mostly historical ones.  My Guppa was small and quick, apparently always either amused or puzzled, a talented and hard-working salesman, a tireless home handyman, an amateur inventor, a happy tinkerer.  Now, after so many years, and after it was too late, Gumma was, it seemed to me, asking me to get to know them as someone else entirely, as what other people called them: Herb and Lorna.
    Someone nudged me.  My mother.  I looked at her.  She nodded ever so slightly.  What did that mean?  Had she discovered, from my expression, what I had been thinking?  Did she know about the jewelry Gumma had left me?  Had she, perhaps—  She nodded again, in the direction of the pulpit, and gave me a little nudge.  The eulogy.  Of course.  The eulogy. 
    I got up.  I mounted the pulpit in a fog.  I looked around at the congregation of mourners.  Who among these friends, relatives, and acquaintances knew the truth?  Was I the only one?  Or was I the last to know?  I took my remarks from my pocket.  I read them.  I had written a little catalog of my grandmother’s kindnesses, as I knew them.  When I had written it, I had worried that it would be too much for me to read without breaking down.  Now I found that I couldn’t concentrate on it.  I read, but I wasn’t paying attention to what I was reading.  My eyes were on the paper, but my mind was on the animated copulations of tiny ivory men and women.
    Worse, I was getting excited—sexually.  I was standing in the pulpit at my grandmother’s funeral, reading her eulogy, and (out of sight of the mourners, thank God) clenching and relaxing my thighs, rotating my pelvis, twisting, and squirming, trying to shift my erection, which was thrust painfully up against the elastic band of my briefs, into a more comfortable position.  Still reading, I reached into the side pocket of my pants, reached through the leg hole of my briefs, and pushed the tip of my penis out from under the elastic.  That was better, but I was immediately seized by the fear that everyone had noticed, that they had been able to tell from some shift of my shoulders exactly what I had been doing.  I scanned the congregation.  They were sniffling and blubbering and dabbing their eyes and blowing their noses.  I wondered whether my grandmother had imagined this moment and presented me with the problem of her eroticism as she might have presented me with one of the logical puzzles she enjoyed so much.  She always wanted to make me think.  She always warned me against taking things for granted, against the blindness of assumptions.  Was she doing me another kindness, inviting me to solve her puzzle instead of mourning her?  I wasn’t sure whether to smile, or blush, or cry.
    In the afternoon, after my grandmother had been buried, there was a buffet dinner at my parents’ house.  The afternoon passed.  The crowd dwindled.  My grandparents’ closest friends and admirers remained through the afternoon, and on into the evening, drinking and telling stories.  As the evening wore on, no one became more sentimental than my old high-school friend Mark Dorset, who, after a while, as if he’d been quite deliberately working up to a level of intoxication that would allow him to say what he had to say, took me aside and said that he had something to give me, a memento of my grandparents that he had had in his possession since my grandfather had died, three years before.
    From his pocket he took what seemed to be a pocket watch.  He pressed the stem, and the lid popped open.  Inside were three tiny ivory figures, two women and a man, sexually entangled on a miniature bed.  “Just look at that workmanship!” said Mark. 
    I did.  Immediately, I could see that this was even better than any of the pieces my grandmother had given me.  (I know now that the little trio was the best work they ever did.)  In the carving of the figures, I was certain, I could recognize the work of my grandmother’s hand, her fine eye, her loving touch, her sense of detail.  In the smooth mechanical animation, I was certain I could recognize my grandfather’s ingenuity, his fascination for the complex and puzzling, his love of impractical gadgets.  I stared at the trio and their performance.  My throat was tight.  My eyes were wet.  I was dumbfounded.  I was grief-stricken.  I was proud.
   But I was also envious.  Mark’s initiation into my grandparents’ secret had preceded mine.  By three years.  Why?  Mark had a story, of course.  I listened to him tell it, and while I listened I tried to wear the amused look of one who knows it all already, who has heard it all before.  In truth, though, it was news to me, and it hurt to hear it from someone other than my grandparents.  Why had they never told me?  Why had they told Mark before me?  My fear of the answers to those questions was one of the things that for so long kept me from writing this book.

OVER THE YEARS, my grandparents’ story has come out little by little.  Some of their former neighbors in Punta Cachazuda, Florida, where Gumma and Guppa retired and taught clandestine classes in erotic sculpture, began exhibiting the work they had done under Gumma and Guppa’s tutelage.  Newspapers picked up the story, and soon people all over America began “discovering” pieces of erotic jewelry in their closets.  The work that Gumma and Guppa and others did in this line has been hailed as some of the most important American folk art of the twentieth century, but it has also been condemned as perverse and worse.  I tried, until recently, to ignore it.  I confess that my reason was selfish: I wanted to hold on to my child’s-eye-view of my grandparents.  I wanted to hang on to Gumma and Guppa.  I still clung to the comfortable and familiar notion of Gumma and Guppa that I had developed as a boy.  From time to time I received requests from collectors of erotic jewelry for information about those two strangers, Herb and Lorna Piper, pleas for any little anecdote about their work in “coarse goods”—that is, erotic jewelry.  I turned down all such requests with the explanation that I couldn’t say anything about their work because I never saw them at it, and I never knew that they had engaged in it until after they were dead.  I never bothered trying to explain that I felt I didn’t even know Herb and Lorna Piper.
    When, just a little more than a year ago, I received an invitation to attend the opening of the exhibit of American Erotic Jewelry at the Smithsonian Institution, I at first thought that I would decline that too.  However, when I read, in the New York Times, that the exhibit had become the target of angry protests before it had even opened, my feelings changed.  Accompanying the article in the Times was a photograph of a crowd picketing at the Smithsonian.  One man stood in an aggressive posture, with his fists clenched and his chest puffed out, glaring at the camera.  He wore a T-shirt with the fig-leaf emblem of the “Prude Pride” movement.  Printed across it was the slogan:


In the article, a spokeswoman for Mothers Against Sex was quoted as saying, toward the end of a disquisition on the pernicious effects of erotic jewelry, “A lot of people don’t realize that there’s an entire community in Florida where senior citizens turn out this perverted stuff.  Can you imagine that?  I ask you, America, is that how you want your grandmothers to end up—posing naked for some old perverts?  It’s sick.  I mean, just think of those wrinkled old people—I tell you it’s just sick.  You can’t tell me that this has anything to do with artistic expression or freedom of speech.  This has to do with only one thing, s-e-x.”
    That did it. “Oh, no,” I said to myself. “That isn’t all there is to it. There is much, much more to it than that.”
    I determined then that if my grandparents’ story was to be told, I wasn’t going to leave it to the tabloids.  I was going to tell it myself, and I was going to tell it as completely as I could.  In that attempt, I have drawn on my grandmother’s account, my memories of my grandparents, interviews with friends and relatives, historical documents, supposition, and imagination.  Most of what they thought, felt, and experienced went unrecorded.  Most of the documents they might have left were destroyed, burned in the Hapgood Brothers’ warehouse fire.  I have tried, therefore, to tell the story as it probably happened.  The facts may be wrong, but I think the spirit is right.


Listen to Eric Kraft reading the sample on this page (16 minutes).

The Peronal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy

The Peronal History, Adventures, Experiences & Observations of Peter Leroy






Copyright © 2008 by Eric Kraft. All rights reserved. Photograph by Eric Kraft.