Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Exceptional Women, Part Trois

There have been tributes upon tributes so there is not much else to add to whatever has been said about the loss of one of our great musicians without what seems like piling on. True, Whitney Houston was a beautiful, thrilling and exceptional talent. Maybe the horror was magnified because her demise was so public and avoidable. Or maybe it was the addiction to drugs, booze, and that horrible husband she could never really leave. Whatever the reason, we all felt especially saddened by another senseless tragedy.

It’s Valentine’s day so I would like to continue my blob from yesterday. It’s kind of a Valentine. Ella Udall, who insisted that people call her Tiger, died in the same tragic way. At the time, her death was considered a suicide, and maybe it was. I have always believed that it was accidental. Ella would never have intentionally killed herself. She enjoyed being alive, and pissing people off. This much we know. She was drunk and told Mo she was going out to the car to kill herself. This was not unusual. She often made this kind of threat. My guess is that she turned the car (and probably the radio) on, with the garage door closed. Mo never expected that she would remain there. He probably thought she would stay for a little while and then come back in the house. Tiger expected Mo to try to stop her – that was what he always did. But they both fell asleep. He, on the couch, she (having been drinking a great deal), in the car. Tragically, by the time he realized she was missing, she was gone. He loved her so much he would never have let her die.

The first time I met the Udalls was the summer of 1975. It was at a chic (not fancy) fundraiser on Martha’s Vineyard. Since it was the Udall campaign, we were always short on staff and the people in charge (there were two I think), asked me to go and ‘advance’ the event. Simply, that meant I had to make all the logistical, press and VIP arrangements for the Candidate, and his animated spouse. Cut to the headline, she liked me, thought I was funny (didn’t care about competence) and asked me to travel with her as personal staff – as her entire staff.

After much campaign discussion, it was decided that Mo would be happier if she were with him, but, because she liked to spend time in the bar, never slept, and the press loved spending time with her (she was charming, smart, entertaining, -- she did wondrous imitations of the staff -- and she knew no parameters) but she could not be left on her own. The job was 24/7. It took me away from my baby and my safe and normal life. But I thought Mo would be a great President and that I wasn’t just babysitting, (I was doing something important for the country --- blah blah blah). It was exciting and fun and Tiger was a hoot. Our day started at 5am,when she would knock on wherever I was sleeping, and yell “What are you, on vacation?”. The day would end at the bar of wherever we were staying. Usually about midnight or 1 a.m. When we were in between, I was educated about working hard, humor, interpersonal relations, and how to deal with criticism. At some point she fired me because I asked her to be kinder to the female staff. I left the road but not the campaign.

Here’s why she made such an impact. She was always authentic. In a business where everything is smoke and mirrors, she did not know how to be false. Loud, Brash, Drunk but Sober, Opinionated, Smart, Loveable, Mean spirited, Devoted, Loyal, Dangerous, Loveable and Hilarious—often all at the same time. If that doesn’t make all who survived her a better, different, stronger person, then nothing could. She wasn’t Betty or Bella, but she had the same passion for “what was right” – not necessarily fair, but right. When you were in her company, she simply took your breath away. Resting in Peace was never something that would make her happy. We’re just sayin’…. Iris

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