His name was Al Landau. He, along with his wife Sheila, and his mother ran Trans-World Features Syndicate with offices in New York, London and Paris. He invited Andy and me to join him one Friday night at the posh restaurant, Top of the Sixes, 666 Fifth Avenue. We looked out over a sparkling New York City as we sipped ice cold martinis. Three sips and I, like the naughty heavy imbiber Dorothy Parker once quipped, was almost "under the host!" (She said, "One more drink and I’ll be under the host." ) More accurately, I was quite jolly. Andy could make it through two whole ones. And he was quite jollier. Al urged us to come to London for he had people interested in Andy’s work there. Could we come immediately? "But the baby . . . ?"
"Baby, too. We have a nanny and a baby almost the same age. They can fit in the same pram."
By the following Tuesday, new passports in hand, we were miraculously flying across the Atlantic on Pan Am – with Jen in tow. We had left Kinnelon, N.J. at 4 a.m. and arrived in London at midnight (our time) with this unsleeping, wildly excited toddler. "Oh see, oh see!" she exclaimed breathlessly in her baby lithspy-whisper as we banked over London’s yellow fog lights. Next day, Al, true to his word, took Jen to stay at his apartment in Hampstead Heath with his three children. I recall leaving Jen nervously with the Landaus’ nanny who was giving her a bath and leaning her backwards. I knew then, Jen had it in for me. She hated having her head tipped backwards for a shampoo!
Al had appointments lined up for Andy. We were deposited in a hotel from which Al picked Andy up each day that September. One morning, preparing to go out, my mechanically-challenged Andy got us locked in the bathroom as he was very seriously jiggling the high door handle and warning me: "Neet, there’s something wrong with this lock so don’t close the door." And he pulled it shut. Click!
It took about a half an hour before they had the room broken into via a second story window and a long ladder from the street. Andy was late for his appointment with a potential client and we learned something about the Brits’ aplomb and disinclination to interfere in others’ business – even when hearing our yells for HELP! then laughter – and then earnest pounding on the walls they passed right by.
There was the time we snuck into Peter Sellers apartment. He lived in the same building and somehow, Al got access to it. Sellers was a big star back then so we were like 3 bad kids on the snoop.
Some days when Andy was free, we would explore and he would take photographs. My favorite place was the Tower of London.
We explored Dickens’ house, Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street, and I had to see Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Wimpole Street one night in fog. And Scotland Yard, Regents Park Zoo, Whitehall and the horse guard, No. 10 Downing Street, and of course, since childhood, A. A. Milne’s "They’re changing guard at Buckingham Palace . . ." I took a wonderful shot of Andy leaning on the great fountain opposite the palace, the wind blowing the edge of his short Paul Stewart raincoat exposing its red lining.
One day we found a restaurant, Finnegan’s, I think it was called, with incredible interiors. Polished brass and etched glass windows and partitions, emerald green velvet seats. But it stunk of boiling fish dishes and we did not eat there. But take photos we did -- while breathing through our mouths. Of course, as all ladies do, I tried out their "loo."
Ah, the loo with its water tank high up and a long brass pull chain and a mahogany toilet seat. The loo where the toilet paper was like squares of waxed paper and bore the advertising pitch:
Jeyes, the first name in hygiene
I collected some in my purse to take to friends back home, adding
"and the last name in comfort!"
I never forgot that bathroom, and even today my guest bath sports a mahogany toilet seat – and above it, a portrait Jenny drew as a child of Queen Elizabeth I. Ruff and all. Aptly, we refer to that as The Throne Room, in earnest. And for remembrance.
One weekend we stayed south of London at Oatlands in Surrey. (We had gone to see the WW2 re-enactment of The Battle of Britain at Biggin Hill, Kent. ) It was formerly a castle owned by Henry VIII. It was also where Elizabeth’s courtier and advisor, Lord Coke, went to retrieve his errant wife. But in 1964 it was a home for the elderly with their nurses. Just like out of a British comedy, if you sat, unwittingly, (and we did) in Someone’s Preferred Chair in the empty telly room. How the resident perfected scowling as he entered and saw us and growled: "You, sir, are in my seat!"
I have a sample of Andy’s done from a photo he took of one of the residents of this lovely place. He looks much like a Rembrandt type portrait of an old man.
Andy and Al played snooker at Oatlands, too. I have photos of him hunkered over the vast oaken table with the bank of low-hanging lamps. We had a blast. Ate a lot of Indian curry. Ate as little English food as possible.
And then it was time to head for home. Andy and I walked and walked searching for a bank to get traveller’s checks cashed. "Straight on!" the cheery Brits told us -- and they never tell you how far!
Once at The Bank of England, I wandered off from Andy and found a wonderful old wooden calendar sitting on a counter. The rest of the bank was done in what passed for English "modern" and so I decided they really did not need this calendar I coveted. It didn’t "go" with their so-called décor. I went to the clerk’s [pronounced "clark"] window to inquire. I told her my opinion of this old thing and – could I buy it?
She disappeared into the back. Spoke to someone. Came back and said ever so politely that no, I could not have that one -- but they did have another in the basement I could have. Should she get it?
"Is it the same as this one?" I pressed.
"No, it is round," she said.
"Well . . . I’ll look at that one, " sez I.
At this point, a small crowd of "clarks" were gathered in the background, curious about this inquiring colonist. Andy came over to me at the window and said, "Let’s go, Neet." And I told him he’d have to wait a minute. I was buying a calendar.
But knowing me, he sat down and waited. Back came the nice lady with a gorgeous 12" walnut calendar, same mechanism of wooden knobs turning the linen days, date and months.
I was salivating. But I asked, "Are you certain I can’t have the other one?" Cool. I was being cool. She shook her head and then I asked her what I owed her. Again she vanished. Back to the huddle that was growing.
When she returned, she said: "The manager says you may have it but we cannot take any money for it. "
I protested that idea with a lady-like, "Oh I couldn’t possibly!"
"However, since our porter died recently and we are getting together a fund for his widow, if you would care to donate a pound ($2.40 USD) to it, we would be most grateful."
My parting shot as I pressed the 1 ₤ Note under the grill was, since I felt like I’d robbed the bank, " Ummm, could you kindly wrap it? I’d hate to have anyone think I stole it!"
Andy got up with that long-suffering the-wife-goes-shopping look on his face, but once outside the bank I told him what I’d done and showed him the calendar. He loved it too.
I clutched that calendar to my breast all the way across the Atlantic – nevermind the kid! And not a day has gone by in 42 years but what I have scrolled each new day on it. Years later I saw it an old British movie, a period piece of the 19th century called "Hatter’s Castle. "
Tomorrow: Pyrrhic Victory
Anita Virgil is an internationally anthologized haiku poet. She lives in Forest, Virginia.
Entire contents of these posts on Andy Virgil (both text and pictures) © 2007 Anita Virgil. Nothing may be reproduced without permission of the author.
* The selection of Andy Virgil's original art available from Graphic Collectibles has been expanded.