"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 19, 2015

When Truth Doesn’t Matter–A Tale Of A Theatrical Woman

Christina Rennet had an unexceptional childhood – loving parents, a nice home, good schools, friends, and birthday parties.  She like all little girls liked to dress up, especially as a princess; and although her mother, an early feminist of the Seventies, winced as she skipped and danced around the room in her crinoline dress, sequined tiara and pink, silvery wand, she smiled at her daughter’s creativity. Christina was not happy just looking the part and pirouetting to music, she had to create whole worlds of magic kingdoms. In her fantasy nothing was as it seemed. The living room was the grand emperor’s hall, and Christina arranged two of her mother’s best Victorian chairs so that the Shah (her little brother) and she could sit side-by-side and receive members of the royal court.

Shah of Persia


The kitchen was a kitchen – but her mother and older sister were scullery maids, preparing banquets for the High Prince of Vienna.  The garden was not just a garden, but the formal garden of Versailles where courtly lovers walked among roses, lilies, and quince. The garage held two magnificent imperial carriages, as fine as those of any queen in Europe. When she sat in the plush leather seats of the most elegant (her mother’s Sedan de Ville) and waited for the royal coachman to arrive, she was no longer in her pillared Georgian house on Jefferson Street in New Brighton, but at Buckingham Palace on her way to meet her subjects.

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Her mother later regretted not stepping in sooner and adjusting the imbalance between Christina’s sense of reality and fantasy, for the girl’s feet never got firmly planted on the ground. As she got older, she told stories that had nothing to do with the way things were. She created an entire family genealogy which dated back to the earliest kings of Medieval England.  As she read history, she picked and chose from the most celebrated aristocratic families and populated her lineage with them, regardless of their actual relationships.  She had Marlboroughs at the same court as Mortimers, Nevilles, and Percys. She chose only the finest, strongest, and most interesting women and the most dashing, daring, and courageous men.

In her lineage phase, Christina always managed to introduce her family line into the conversation. “My ancient relative, the Duke of Hapworth, fought with Henry V in the French wars; and a more recent earl was adjutant to the Duke of Wellington and fought at his side at the Battle of Waterloo.”

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As she got older, Christina spoke less of her family history and more of her notable American relatives. Here she wove much more plausible stories. Her mother’s family was indeed from Philadelphia, and so it is quite possible that her Great-Great Grandmother entertained Benjamin Franklin at tea.  Her father’s ancestors were among the First Families of Virginia, landing and settling on the Northern Neck during King Carter’s day.  Her father in fact, had framed a birth certificate of the the first Rennet to be born in America and baptized in the Anglican Church of Irvington. It was not difficult, therefore, to imagine her own family living a privileged colonial life on a tobacco plantation by the Chesapeake, having 1000 slaves, a baronial manor on the Rappahannock, and being the center of Southeastern Virginia society.

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All of her stories were possible and few of her friends had any reason to doubt them.  Christina was not a girl to put on airs, and so her fantasies were kept within the bounds of reason. All her less-privileged friends were impressed enough with the names of Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison to question or investigate.

As an adolescent just as concerned as any girl her age with looks, allure, and sexual savvy, Christina began to make up more personal adventures.  She ventured out of the more secure world of family and lineage and into that of pure personal fantasy. To her friends at Miss Abbot’s boarding school she told of her winter skiing trips to Gstaad where she had met Bertrand de Laboulaye the grandson of Edouard de Laboulaye, a well-known French historian from one of France’s most storied families, scholar of the American Constitution, and ‘Father of the Statue of Liberty’ 

Christina told of her trysts with the young de Laboulaye in shelters far up the mountainside, off the piste, and in the high glades, romantic escapes from his family who, had they known of their son’s dalliances with an American commoner despite her pedigree, would have split the young couple up immediately.

She told of summers in Italy with the family of the Prince of Venice, Emanuele Filiberto, long stays at their hotel de ville and home in Rimini overlooking the Mediterranean.

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It was in Italy, she said, that she learned how to drive a Ferrari – one of the family’s three, gifted to them by Enzo Ferrari himself.  She said that it was difficult to manage such a powerful car, but soon she was driving through the hill towns above the Riviera with the ease of Nino Farina.

I have a very literal mind – too literal for my own good my mother always used to say. Childlike questions like “Why is the sky blue, Mommy?”, quickly became challenges to family tradition and routine. Everything needed a logical explanation, and unless I saw a thing’s roots in a discernable and rational past, I dismissed it out of hand.  I believe I have become more flexible and forgiving over the years, but still do not do well with arguments or people who are fuzzy around the edges.  Which is why my love affair with Christina Rennet was surprising. 

Much of what she said was invented, although in most cases there were enough legitimate historical trails to throw me off the track.  She could have spent time with Carly Simon on the Vineyard because the singer has a home there.  She could very well have been invited to Kings College, Cambridge to study theology with James Radford Henley; and she might have fished the Yellowstone. There was always something not quite right in her chronology, reconstruction of family history, or the surprising coincidences that happened to her far more than most. 

At first I wanted no part of her.  How could I possible live with a woman who lied? How would I ever come to know a woman whose past, episodes, character, and intellect were all cast between reality and fantasy?

Yet Christina was an attractive, alluring, and brilliant woman.  In fact I had never met anyone like her. While she might have chosen to live within her own highly-articulated unreal world, she was as canny as anyone I had ever met.  She had an almost preternatural ability to understand others’ motives, insecurities, and ambitions.  Nothing escaped her.  The same genetic pathways she used to create an impossibly seductive past, she used to see into the most secretive personalities.  Intellectual acuity has more than a cognitive dimension. I have known theatrical women and highly academic ones; but before Christina Rennet I had never met anyone who was as perceptive and insightful and totally untethered from any sense of what is.  Once I came to appreciate that about her, I thought I could never leave her.

It is hard to keep invented stories straight.  It is hard enough to remember the most basic events and personages of English history; but to recall the complicated weave of an imagined past impossible.  For most people, perhaps, but not for Christina Rennet. She was able to remember who she had been with, where she had skied or summered; and which family earl was related to what duke and baronet of 17th century England because for her they were more real than her own pedestrian past. 

Christina exaggerated.  Stories of her actual life (the pedestrian one) were very elastic.  She indeed was an event planner in Williamsburg, but was probably not the impresario she claimed.  Creating the seating plan for a formal dinner held by the Governor of Virginia for French dignitaries in a celebration of France’s support to American revolutionaries in the War of Independence was not the same as sitting next to the aristocratic descendants of Lafayette, L’Enfant, and Choiseul.  It was possible, but not likely.

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In her mind, what difference did it make? She knew the history of France and America in the days of the Revolutionary War as if it were her own. Had she been able to dine with the sons and daughters of Lafayette, she could have chatted with them as easily as if she had been with their progenitors 250 years before.

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In the end Christina and I were simply too different to make a go of it.  I couldn’t help myself when I heard one of her stories, and although I saw as she told it that she was there and not here, and therefore as authentic as they come, I resisted.

It was just as well, for every love affair has to have some common foundation other than process.  As smart, insightful, and creative as Christina was, we had no common reference points. Whom did I love? Whom did she love?