Cover image: Szinyei Merse, Lovers (detail, 1869)
Herb ’n’ Lorna
One never knows, do one?
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
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.
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:
I’M PROUD TO SAY
I’M ASHAMED OF MY BODY
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