There is no doubt that Frankie Peters’ mother hanged herself with a silken cord in her bedroom; or that she had dressed herself like Marie Antoinette, complete with powdered wig, put on Poulenc’s Requiem, and died at the age of 54.
No doubt if you accept the stories that went around New Brighton after her funeral. Henrietta Jacobs, who is a neighbor of the thrift shop in East Hartford that specialized in unusual garments, swears that Mrs. Peters had bought an outfit very close to the one Marie Antoinette wore to her beheading; although Margaret Potter swear equally that it couldn’t have been her since she was spotted playing bridge at the Club that fateful Saturday. At least Maggie Potter thought it was Estelle Peters.
The point is that Frankie Peters’ poor mother was a nut case, and the whole town knew it. Whether or not she did or did not kill herself; and whether or not she was dressed up like French royalty was beside the point. If her death was for some reason of ‘natural causes’, she was surely driven to it by her husband and by her thankless children. God knows, the woman was a saint for having put up with that lot for so long.
Gossipy rumors, like prejudice, have their basis in fact. Although the facts of Estelle Peters’ death remain unclear, there was no doubt in the community that she was either a strong candidate for suicide or a likely victim of her husband’s humiliating abuse.
Gossip has always been a social lubricant, a lot like the weather but more compelling. We all have our suspicions about people and want to share and corroborate them.
Take The Creep at the gym. He is there every day at 7:15, dressed like Ghost Dog, groaning on the machines, grimacing, cosseted in rubber tubing and flogging himself on the treadmill in some twisted, interior Passion play. If he showed up only occasionally, or changed his outfit; if he smiled, nodded in recognition, or showed even a hit of sociality or civility, the gossip would never have started. But started it did.
The Creep was an ex-con, the most current and popular gossip went. His sweatpants hung down just over his ass-crack, his tats were of avenging angels and Mongol raiders, and his attitude was pure ghetto. He was so intimidating – fearful in fact – that no one had the gumption to talk to him; so horror vacui, gym patrons had to make something up. They created a heady mix of prejudice, DC street stats, and pure fantasy, and made him into one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and avoided him.
The rumor at my boarding school was that the headmaster had a dog’s jaw. He had been horribly mutilated by a Nazi land mine, survived, and underwent emergency battlefield surgery during which the mandibular joint of a captured German shepherd was transplanted into William Farnsworth. None of us had any doubt of the veracity of the account. He himself referred to his war wounds, the trauma of battle, and the sacrifice he and others of his generation had made for the Republic. He was the spitting image of Helmut, the mascot of the football team, a German Shepherd with bad hips and the long, pointed, and poorly calibrated jaw of the Head of School.
Even today, many decades removed from those adolescent years at Lefferts, most of us still remember Mr. Farnsworth’s dog’s jaw. Poor bastard. He was not a bad headmaster. He led the movement to make the school coed, joining forces with the girls’ school across the Farmington River. He loosened lights-out rules, encouraged ecumenism, and was the first headmaster to invite a rabbi to give the invocation at graduation; but he will always and only be remembered for his dog’s jaw.
My mother had a story for every house along Madison Street. Despite outward appearances – well-heeled, J.Press, Vineyard, and Yale – the Ballards at 483 were drunkards, atheists, and modern day slavers. They had to be, for someone of their Old Line community had blackballed us from the Meadows Country Club, and my mother had to tar them with some thick, gooey slime. They were nothing of the sort, of course. The empty vodka bottles in the trash on Mondays were remnants of lively, gay parties of the West End. Divided by 100 the fifths of Smirnoff amounted to nothing, let alone the Satanic orgy imagined by my spurned mother.
Yet, the more she told the story of the ‘Monday Morning Bottles” to her friends and neighbors, all of whom had been denied entrance to the all-WASP country club, the more the rumor spread. Before you knew it, the whole of Madison Street was a devilish sinkhole of vice and moral corruption worse than Bourbon Street.
Betsy Bosworth was a bull-dyke because she flicked boys’ crotches as she passed them on the down staircase. We all conflated her severe looks, lean frame, and boyish hairdo into Lesbianism, although in 1956 we had no idea what a lesbian was, what they did, or why. Did they rub cunts together? Betsy got all A’s and was headed to Miss Porter’s. Her father was a captain of industry, the CEO of one of New Brighton’s premier industries, so how could she be a dyke?
We all decided that even the daughter of a scion of New Brighton and New England society could eat pussy, even though few of us knew what that was all about either.
Bartley Jennings was a Senior Vice President of Forward International, a non-profit agency whose charter codified the company’s commitment to the world’s poor and underprivileged. Bartley was a harridan, a take-no-prisoners, scorched earth, victory-at-all-costs executive for whom the company’s charitable goals never stood in the way of Simon Legree management. Bartley managed by fear and intimidation. More young minions left under her watch than any SVP before her. She was the champion of Senior Management because of her numbers, but everyone who worked for her looked for The Great Escape.
Not surprisingly, all of her employees tried to imagine what her personal life could be like. Did she pussy-whip her husband of whom she always spoke fondly? Did she run her household like a Soviet gulag, consigning her children to the salt mines for minor infractions of her domestic code?
Male employees wanted to fuck her, despite her severe and uncompromising demeanor. They were convinced that her Amazon demeanor meant nothing at all; that she was a pussycat waiting for the right man and hard cock to release her feminine passions. They imagined her coming home after a hard day’s work, downing three martinis, dismissing her impotent husband, and pleasuring herself to multiple orgasms over imaginary but passionately desired lovers.
Sociologists estimate that at least eighty-five percent of human discourse is spent in gossip. Men and women gossip equally although differently. Women speculate on who was fucked; and men fantasize about who was doing the fucking; but in the end they both dream about sex.
Too much is made of the downside of gossip – catty, frustrated women attributing their own inadequacies and social ineptness to others; horny, frustrated men thinking the most prurient and licentious thoughts about the women they will never have. Gossip is the truest expression of a competitive, hierarchical society. Think the worst of your rivals, and it might come true. Spread vile rumors, vilify, suspect, and impugn the reputation of others and you might come out on top.
What is forgotten in all this psycho-speak is the pure, unadulterated fun of gossipy speculation. Estelle Peters is dead whether by her own hand or by an insidious psychological push by her husband; but the rumor of her going to her own personal gallows in a bungalow on Corbin Avenue dressed like Marie Antoinette is far better than any reality. Headmaster Farnsworth most certainly had no dog’s jaw, but the story of his battlefield rescue, the sacrifice of the loyal German Shepherd, the acumen and heroism of the field MASH unit who braved bombs and dismemberment to save the jaw of Corporal Farnsworth is and should be legend.
Let’s face it. Rumor, innuendo, fantasy, and melodrama are far more interesting than reality. Why are we held to such an unrealistic standard? Truth, veracity, and reality are very overrated.
Anyone who has the least bit of imagination has created an alternate world for everyone. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie fight in the bedroom - great vase-throwing, vituperative encounters by two driven, competitive people. Billy Graham must have buggered his valet. The rumors of LBJ pissing over the balustrade of the White House overlooking the South Lawn must have been true. JFK not only bedded Marilyn Monroe, but half the starlets of Hollywood. Nixon tortured rabbits at 3am on the lanes of the Presidential bowling lanes. The neighbor at 4923 holds Satanic rituals.
Rumor, innuendo, gossip, and tall tales are good for you. They satisfy natural urges to feel superior, to invent, to fantasize, and to disparage. They make us feel good.
My mother told me that my cousin’s son had divorced his wife of long standing, married a Gypsy prostitute, and was living like a pasha in Brooklyn Heights. He had turned a blind eye to her continuing sexual libertinage because he was enthralled that after fifteen years with a New England blueblood he had finally freed himself from bourgeois propriety.
A more objective source told me that Randall had indeed married a Romanian woman – Jewish, not Gypsy – and was living happily on the Main Line of Philadelphia. Rumor had it that his wife was more like Mary Magdalene before she repented, more insatiable Jewish whore than saint, but reports of her becoming a Catherine Deneuve Belle de Jour were most certainly exaggerated.
The brave new world of virtuality reality is upon us. The ‘what if’, ‘of course’, and ‘don’t be stupid’ will replace logical, disciplined disaggregation of the facts. When mind and machine are fully and seamlessly linked, we all will wander through worlds of imagined reality. Rumor will no longer be catty speculation but the truth.
My favorite rumor concerns David Halloran, history teacher at Lefferts. He walked with an exaggerated limp, affected bow ties and spoke with a British accent. We all were convinced that he was a true war hero, an RAF pilot shot down by the Germans over hostile territory, incarcerated in brutal POW camps, but who escaped thanks to ingenuity, courage, and good luck. His arrogance was fitting and appropriate. He was our hero.
An obituary in the Hartford Express many years later praised Mr. Halloran for being a dedicated teacher, devout Lutheran, and faithful family man. He had been born with a congenitally-deformed hip which had kept him out of the army, but he had volunteered at re-entry centers for wounded and damaged GIs where he performed selfless, Christian service.
Our adolescent gossipy fantasy was far more appealing, and most of us now still believe that he rained terror down on Germans from his Spitfire. Such is the power of rumor, gossip, and innuendo. Fantasy trumps reality every time.