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F. Scott Fitzgerald was right. The very rich really are different from you and me. They can afford more dogs. Geraldine R. Dodge, for example, had opulent kennel space for a hundred and fifty. Ten or twelve dogs always lived in the house with her. The house had thirty-five rooms.
Geraldine R. The R was for Rockefeller. She was me with money.
Or that's how I'd always thought of her. From her birth in 1882 until her death in 1973, she broke record after record for looniness on the subject of dogs, dogs, and more dogs, exceeding even the most maniacal excesses of yours truly, because she could afford to indulge this joyful madness, and I can't. Speaking of dogs, as Mrs. Dodge, I am sure, habitually did from woofy sunrise until late into the drooly, furry night, I was raised with, and to a large extent by, golden retrievers. I eventually emerged from a belated psychosocial identity crisis with an independent sense of self, by which I mean that I got a new dog of a new breed. He was and most vibrantly remains a male Alaskan malamute named Rowdy. He, together with my malamute bitch, Kimi, is overwhelmingly who I am. Should you lack fluency in the dialect of purebred dogdom, let me point out that in calling my lovely Kimi a bitch, I am not talking dirty about her. I myself, I might add, am a female dog person and a bitch only when the situation warrants it.
The daughter of William Rockefeller, John D.'s brother, Ethel Geraldine Rockefeller didn't exactly start out poor. In 1907, when she married Marcellus Hartley Dodge, the Remington Arms heir, the two were heralded as the richest couple in America. The groom, at the age of twenty-six, was worth about sixty million dollars. His fortune was rumored to be smaller than his bride's. Miss Rockefeller had no need to marry for money. Love? Or was it perhaps animal magnetism that drew her to a man with a nameM. Hartley Dodgecomposed of letters that could be rearranged to spell Tamely herd dog as well as They dream gold?
Geraldine R. Dodge: Indeed, larger dog.
Anagrams aside, Mr. and Mrs. M. Hartley Dodge are still semifamous not only for enjoying stupendous wealth but, weirdly enough, for sleeping apart. Wouldn't you think all that money could have bought privacy? But as I'll explain, the arrangement would have been difficult to keep secret, and in fact, it's public knowledge. I found it on the World Wide Web in an article about the health benefits of sleeping alone. Mr. and Mrs. M. Hartley Dodge were cited as an example, perhaps because they carried the practice to an extreme: They inhabited separate manor houses on adjacent properties in Madison, New Jersey. She lived at Giralda Farms, he at Hartley Farms. The marriage lasted until the death of M. Hartley Dodge at the age of eighty-two. He died on Christmas Day, 1963. His widow outlived him by almost ten years. She died on August 13, 1973. M. Hartley Dodge bequeathed most of his money to charities, including his alma mater, Columbia University, and to various cousins. His widow got personal effects, family portraits, assorted jewelry, an unspecified number of automobiles, and a house and some of his property in Madison, plus small change: a paltry hundred thousand dollars in cash. When she died, her estate was valued at eighty-five million dollars. I know these details, you see. I made it my business to research them.
My actual business, to which I have already alluded, is the unprofitable enterprise of writing for what my editor at Dog's Life magazine facetiously refers to as "money." Maybe you've seen my column? Holly Winter? The photo on the masthead is better of Rowdy and Kimi than it is of me. When knowledgeable readers write to me, they often remark on the dogs' beautiful heads. No one ever mentions my head. My kind of reader is too busy studying the fine points of my dogs to give me more than a glance that swiftly passes once it's clear that I am human. If you meet the dogs and me, you'll see that the photo hasn't set you up for the kind of rude surprise I had recently when I went to a book signing in Harvard Square and discovered that the author didn't look like a movie star at all. What I'd mistaken for the woman's literary cultivation of a stylishly evocative out-of-date hairdo turned out to have another and simpler explanation: The photo had obviously been taken fifty years ago. I wouldn't want to let my readers in for that kind of horrid shock. As shown in Dog's Life, I'm in my mid-thirties and perfectly ordinary-looking. Rowdy and Kimi really are gorgeous.
Once I started working on the book about the Morris and Essex dog shows, however, I became so overidentified with Mrs. Dodge that I longed to replace the accurate photo with a new one that would make me look rich or, failing that, one that showed me wearing a hat. This topic is not the non sequitur it may seem. Mrs. M. Hartley Dodge was the president of the Morris and Essex Kennel Club, and the benefactor of the famous Morris and Essex dog shows, which, except for a hiatus during World War II, took place each May from 1927 through 1957 on the polo fields of Giralda. Polo: She raised horses, too. Also, pheasants.
My coauthor, Elizabeth Kublansky, who, I might as well emphasize right now, is a photographer, not a writer, was restoring and arranging photographs for a book about the Morris and Essex shows. The project was Elizabeth's idea. She invited me in on it when she discovered that to get a publisher for the book, she'd need to submit a proposal. In writing, of all things. Worse, the book itself would need words, sentences, maybe entire paragraphs. Horrors! Elizabeth wanted to do the book; she just didn't want to write it. I did, and not only because I was already slightly obsessed with Geraldine R. Dodge. I saw the book as a belated opportunity to fit in with my fellow residents here in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I had previously distinguished myself by being the only postpubescent person who neither was writing a book nor had already written one. I'd have been less embarrassed if my breasts had never developed and my periods hadn't started yet.
So I wrote the proposal, and Elizabeth got us a contract with a publishing house that specializes in lavishly illustrated and wildly expensive books about dogs, horses, and gardening, earthy subjects all, but groomed, trained, curried, weeded, or mulched, as the topic dictates, for coffee-table ostentation. Elizabeth and I were thrilled. We shot e-mail congratulations and self-congratulations back and forthshe lives in Seattleand we posted our news on Dogwriters-L, the e-mail list of our profession, and I posted an announcement on Malamute-L and wandered around public places in Cambridge and dog shows all over New England creating occasions to refer to "my book." We were worse than new parents. I hadn't made myself so obnoxious since Rowdy finished his championship, but I didn't have e-mail then, so there were limits to the number of people I could inflict myself on. Now I took advantage of boundless possibilities.
Elizabeth and I decided to concentrate on the prewar Morris and Essex shows, especially the shows of the late thirties. After the war, the shows were limited to a comparatively small number of breeds. Before the war, they were all-breed shows that grew more lavish each year. The first show, in 1927, drew about 600 entries. By 1934, there were 2,827 dogs "benched," as it's said, meaning present and on exhibition. Since some competed in more than one class, the total entry was 3,590. In 1939, there were 4,456 dogs on the benches, with a total entry of 5,002 from forty states and Canada. The show drew people, too, of course, and in great numbers. On Saturday, May 27, 1939, a crowd of more than 50,000 watched the judging in sixty rings. All in a single day! And a beautiful day it was. The night before, rain threatened, and McClure Halley, who managed the show for Mrs. Dodge, had to scurry around getting the rings set up under the grooming tents. But in the morning, the sun rose on tents and pennants in the Morris and Essex colors, purple and orange, and on the huge orange beach umbrellas Mrs. Dodge thoughtfully provided to offer shade to stewards and judges. Or was the color not orange after all, but gold? Maybe even real gold? The trophies, in any case, contributed by Mrs. Dodge, of course, were sterling silver. And the cash prizes! More than $20,000 in all. These days, you're lucky to get a ribbon and a piece of silver plate. Mrs. Dodge herself always presented the Best in Show trophy. In 1939, it went to a black cocker spaniel, Ch. My Own Brucie. A picture in the New York Times showed Mrs. Dodge as she handed it to the famous cocker's owner-handler, Herman E. Mellenthin.
She wore a hat. I wanted a new picture for my column in which I, too, wore a hat and smiled her gracious smile. Mrs. Dodge met Rin Tin Tin. She bred 150 AKC champions. With a coauthor, she wrote two books, one on the English cocker, one on the German shepherd dog. She used her four-story mansion at 800 Fifth Avenue mainly as a convenient place to stay with her dogs when she showed at Westminster. By the 1950s, the mansion had fallen into such a state of neglect that the neighbors complained. If one of Mrs. Dodge's dogs bit an employee, it wasn't the dog she fired. Most of the world saw her as eccentric. I had always thought she was wonderful.