“Note: The story of ‘The Vanishing Lady’ is a fair specimen of folklore in the making. For such a story to travel round the world by word of mouth, it is necessary that each teller of it must believe it true, and it is a common practice for the artless teller to seek to impart that belief to his listeners by affecting kinship. . .with the protagonist of the adventure related.”
Alexander Woollcott, “The Vanishing Lady”
“Bravo, Paris Exposition!” Long-running and recurrent Fair,
Centennial gift of freedom to the world--Eiffel Tower après le Bastille!
Gamelan music! Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley! Galerie des machines!
Bravo! wrote Walt Whitman in one of his late squibs, a valedictory blessing:
“America’s applause, love, memories, and good-will.”
He published that poem in Harper’s Weekly, 28 September 1889, cheek by jowl
With chapters of A Hazard of New Fortunes and a two-page engraving of
Mounted cavalry closing the frontier against premodern tribes.
Paris en fête. All ice cream and sunshine. Teeming crowds. Imagine
An Impressionist palette of emerald and azure, a landscape of joy, and
Stepping off the gauge railway, two young women: my mother’s mother
En route from Odessa to New York (Anna too is Lady Liberty, seeking the golden
And a frightened daughter seeking a pharmacist for her feverish mother
Languishing at the Crillon. Hers is the more compelling need, the superior story.
It haunted the world after Alexander Woollcott retold it in While Rome Burns:
Girl and mother travel home to England from India and stop in Paris; the mother is ill;
A nervous doctor tells Mam’zelle to cross Paris and get a vital drug; it takes all day.
When she returns—O this is the nightmare of all humankind!—
Mother has vanished, the room has different wallpaper, furniture, a different bed.
Now she is Life-in-Death, no less a phantom than la mère, an abomination.
How is she to know mother carried the plague, and fearing the city would empty
in a day
Doctor had contrived to suborn hotel staff, even the police, in one treacherous lie?
Would Grandmother Anna have lingered at the fair? Carrying her kosher pastries
And her single-minded sense of destiny, would she have tendered help to the
No, nothing would halt her progress to the waiting ship.
I was born in Los Angeles as Europe underwent the unimaginable loss of women
Who stopped too far short on their out-migration from Vichy zones. Anna did not
(In some versions the abductee reappears: The Lady Vanishes.)
Anna did not lose her reason, as any mama or daughter might, and suffer
Decades in a madhouse, because the world always is a madhouse.
Nor was she bundled into a bag by authorities, dumped in a crypt with no memorial.
I am the fortunate grandson of the healthier girl, whose daughter raised me,
Mother who did not vanish until 2005. I have filled my house with books,
A disorder of moral discourse to fill the vacant space with value and warmth.
Sometimes, on the trail of the tingling spine, I curl up with some strange text,
While Rome Burns for example, to entertain and harrow the heart.
Or Walt Whitman, who reminds me that “a mystic cipher waits infolded,” not only in
the poet’s lines
But in mysteries that make the passing years intelligible, or nearly so.
Laurence Goldstein's most recent book is Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City (University of Michigan Press, 2014). His other books include The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History (1994), four books of poems, including A Room in California (2005) and seven edited or co-edited volumes of cultural commentary.