Category Archives: Profiles

Profiles of people who have impacted my life.

Elena Eleska and woolgathering in the Bolivian Altiplano

VillagesContinuing with my profiles of people who have impacted my life, I’m writing this time about a little dynamo of a woman who called herself “Eleska” – a name she created from the initials LSK, which stood for Lene Schneider-Kainer. More formally, she was “Elena Eleska.” Her German name had been relegated to a footnote in history. Eleska managed to lure me to the remote and barren highlands of Bolivia, where she took me to visit villages far above the timber line so isolated that only Quechua was spoken. If I had fulfilled her wish, I might be living there to this day.

My aunt brought her home for dinner one evening when I was still in high school. A tiny woman in her 60s, she wore her short grey hair brushed back from her face and spoke with a thick German accent. Her enthusiasm was boundless. She was an artist by profession, and she wanted to start a cottage industry in Bolivia that would make woolen goods using high-quality llama and alpaca fibers and traditional native designs – unlike the garish pieces she had seen in local markets – for a luxury market in the United States and Europe. The idea was to empower women and help them rise out of poverty. It may not seem very novel today, but 50-plus years ago she was a pioneer. She was looking for U.S. government money to get her concept off the ground and she had managed to get the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt referred her to my aunt, whose job in the Office of Education was to help people get grants for their projects.

Eleska self-portrait

Eleska self-portrait

Born in Vienna in 1885, Eleska studied art in Berlin, where she launched her career with a collection of erotic drawings and paintings that were the talk of the town. She married a fellow artist and they had a son, but the marriage didn’t last. She fell in love with author-poet Bernhard Kellermann, and the two of them set off to retrace the route of Marco Polo, traveling by caravan throughout Persia, India, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Tibet, China, and Russia, and returning on the Trans-Siberian railroad. Back home, her diary, paintings, and sketches from her travels became the fodder for numerous publications and exhibits. But Hitler was rising to power, and she knew she had to leave Germany. The only visa she could get was for Bolivia, and she and her son settled there in the Cochabamba countryside. Her son started a farm, and she had her own home nearby.

When I met her, I was studying Spanish and had developed a passion for all things Latin American. Llamas fascinated me, and the sweaters she showed us were beautiful. I was captivated. At 15, my career was a blank slate and I was open to even the most far-fetched options. She picked up on my enthusiasm, and we clicked. She started writing me letters about her dream in Bolivia. She wanted me to go to there and carry on her work. I seriously considered her proposal, and 10 years later I found myself flying to Bolivia on my first adventure outside the United States.

I will save the details of the trip for another day. Suffice it to say that after I arrived in La Paz, it took me five days to find Eleska’s home outside Cochabamba, which was in the open countryside miles from the nearest small town, Quillacollo. Her home was an oasis of beauty: a charming classic adobe hacienda with tastefully furnished rooms opening onto a lush central courtyard. Antiques, art objects, and paintings were everywhere. On the walls of the entrance hall she had painted maps of the world showing all her journeys. It was truly the home of an artist.

I was to spend the summer learning the business of collecting wool from the villagers in the mountains and training local people to make apparel, blankets, and rugs. Each day we would start out in the jeep with her driver/interpreter, Siles, and head for the hills. Some of the villages were as far as a day’s journey, high in the mountains. Along the way, we would pass herd after herd of llamas. Llama herd - goodMostly we saw women and children. The women were the breadwinners, planting sometimes steeply terraced fields, taking their produce to market, raising chickens and other farm animals, herding llamas, making chicha (a fermented corn drink), and of course collecting and spinning wool. Eleska explained that the women seldom married because having a husband would mean that much more work. Their homes were very simple: adobe walls with thatched roofs and packed-earth floors and, if the family was lucky, a table and chair for a visiting guest of honor. I noticed that many of them had white or red flags hanging over the front door. Eleska explained that the white flags were advertising chicha, while the red flags meant that love was for sale. I tried the chicha and concluded that it must be an acquired taste.

When we arrived in the villages, the women would come running up to us with armloads of freshly shorn wool or long skeins of yarn they had spun. Eleska had also hired some of the more talented women to knit sweaters for her business. She would inspect their offerings and Siles would weigh the wool on a hook, interpreting what the villagers were saying into Spanish so that we could understand. Then Eleska would pay them, and off we’d go. The next morning her maid would wash the yarn and hang it on lines in the courtyard.

When possible, afternoons were spent in the workshop where most of the goods were made. Construction of the building had been paid for with funds from the U.S. government under what was then called Punto Cuarto – Point Four, the predecessor of USAID. It was humming with activity, and Eleska would check carefully with each of the workers to make sure that everything was in order. I remember watching a young girl with no arms weave a shaggy mat with a llama design in the center using her toes.

We also traveled to the different weekly markets, Marketwhere the women dressed up in their hats and intricately woven shawls and carried their swaddled babies papoose-style on their backs. Eleska bolivian babywould buy wool at the markets, find out about new sources, and scout for talented weavers and knitters. I remember buying a simple grey wool shawl for the equivalent of 5 cents – I had been warned not to “spoil“ the vendors, but I felt ashamed to pay so little.

On weekends we would go on outings in the mountains with Eleska’s grandchildren. Their favorite place was a lake in the Tunari mountains where enormous fish were caught and brought back for Sunday dinner.

Tunari lakeIt turned out that I wasn’t as thrilled with the project as I had thought I’d be, and a leap into the wilderness that sounded easy when I was 15 had become more complicated by the time I was 25. And besides – I was in a relationship with a guy back in Washington. I couldn’t bring myself to take the plunge. As I was leaving, Eleska gave me a ring she had made with semiprecious stones from Tibet.

My other souvenirs included the mat made by the girl with her toes, bedspreads and shag rugs (shipped separately) and a cardigan sweater that withstood daily wear for more than 40 years.

My Bolivia adventure is a distant memory, but every year I still make a donation to Heifer International to buy a purebred llama for a Bolivian family.  



Filed under General, Profiles

Mr. Gifford and My Trip through the Panama Canal

When I was working on my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, my editor encouraged me to write about the people in my life without any thought of including the material in the final version. It was a great exercise that added depth to the book. Here is one of my unpublished portraits.


I was two months short of my fourth birthday when my mother left my father and moved to California to join my Aunt Muriel and start a new life. To save money, Mother had booked passage on a freighter, the SS West Notus, which

West Notus

carried cargo from New York to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. It was a 30-day voyage, and I remember much of it vividly. The passenger list was very short: in addition to Mother and me, there was Mrs. Bickers and her two children, who had accommodations on the bridge, and Mr. Gifford, whose cabin was across the mess hall from ours. Mrs. Bickers was seasick the entire time, and she and her children never came to meals. That left the three of us. The mess hall had only one large table and we ate with the ship’s officers.

Mother often told the story of her first encounter with Mr. Gifford. At dinner the first night out, she and I were the only passengers at the table. She therefore assumed that the cabin on the other side of the mess hall was empty. She was curious to check it out and see if it was any larger than ours. After the galley closed, she sneaked across the mess hall in the dark  (my mother was nothing if not adventurous) and went to try the door of the cabin to see if it was open. Just as she was about to turn the knob, a dark form filled the passageway, a firm hand clapped on top of hers, and a hearty voice boomed:

“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!!!”

An English major, she immediately recognized the quote from Shakespeare. She ran back to our cabin, laughing so hard she thought she’d never stop. The next day there were formal introductions and Mr. Gifford became part of our lives. He never let Mother forget about her attempt to break into his cabin.

At 6-foot-4 and over 300 pounds, James Noble Gifford was a presence that could not be ignored. His mother had been an opera singer, and he had been trained since childhood to follow her path, but stage fright had kept him from pursuing his intended career. He still had a powerful tenor voice, and he was comfortable keeping the two of us, the officers, and the cabin crew entertained with concerts in the evenings after dinner. When he wasn’t singing, he told wonderful stories, drawn from a rich cultural background. He was always jolly and knew how to make people laugh, including me.

He had booked passage on the freighter because it was cheaper than the cost of room and board for a month, but he had no particular destination in mind. During our days on the open sea, he spent a lot of time with me and gave me the kind of attention I had never had from my father. He taught me silly songs, limericks and other poems, and how to play Canfield solitaire. He treated me as an equal and made me feel that it was us against the world. We were in cahoots. I felt very special. I adored him.

He earned his living writing pulp romance novels under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms—Emily Noble, Warren Howard, John Saxon, Ross Sloane, Gerald Foster, Gay Rutherford, Griffith James, Carol Holliston, Eliot Brewster, Roy Booth, and possibly others. James GiffordHe also ghost-wrote books for other authors of the genre, including Peggy Gaddis. Each “author” had a specialty: Warren Howard, for example, wrote romances set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that featured the local area and its people, while John Saxon’s books were what they now call “vintage sleaze.”

His publisher expected him to produce a book a month, for which he was paid just a couple of hundred dollars, and he was always behind, living off advances against books he hadn’t written yet. I remember watching him as he wrote page after page in longhand. I learned later that he was required to introduce racy passages at designated intervals, but the job of writing them went to a “specialist” in steamy prose. He would leave a blank space where they were supposed to be inserted. His role was to set the scene, create the characters, and spin the tale. Over the years, he dedicated several books to my mother and two to me—the tamer ones. My research on the Internet brings up more than 140 titles that I’m fairly certain were written by him over a period of 28 years. Many have become collector’s items, selling for as much as $125 a copy. I doubt  my mother knew about the “hotter” ones—he made sure we didn’t know all the hats he wore.

Other memories from the trip include our passage through the Panama Canal. We reached the first lock early in the morning, and I recall the eerie feeling as I watched its gray concrete walls rise through the portholes, turning everything dark inside as the ship “sank.”

My favorite memory by far was Easter morning. We were in port at the other end of the Canal, near Panama City, and I woke up to find white “footprints”—made with three fingers dipped in flour—leading all over the ship to nests of shredded green stuff that the cabin boys and crew had hidden. The fellows had gone ashore to buy the materials, and they also brought back a gigantic a carnival-sized stuffed bunny. They cooked and dyed the eggs in the ship’s galley. The big bunny was waiting for me in the center of the table at breakfast. Mr. Gifford had gotten me a smaller bunny and felt outdone.

Golden GateI also recall the excitement when we arrived in San Francisco Bay at sunset and sailed under the newly completed Golden Gate Bridge. Looking up at it from underneath, it was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.

We settled into our new life in Berkeley and I quickly fell in love with California.  Mr. Gifford came to visit us more than once. One of my favorite places was John Hinkel Park, with its woodsy glens, views of the bay through the trees, and the amphitheater carved out of the landscape. Once Mr. Gifford climbed up on the stage of the amphitheater and sang arias to Mother and me as we sat on the stone steps. His visits distracted me from thoughts about my father’s absence.

He became a fixture in our lives. He would show up wherever we were. He claimed that when he was around my mother he felt inspired to write. When space allowed, he stayed with us. He joined us on all our vacations. When there was distance between us, he wrote long letters to both Mother and me. And poems. When I got older, I called him “Uncle Jimmy.”

Mother appreciated his quirkiness, the fun that he brought into our lives, and all that he did for me. Though he never told us his age (and Mother wasn’t about to tell hers), it turns out that he was only a year older than her. I don’t know if they loved one another in a romantic way, but turning their friendship into a committed relationship would have been difficult. Both were strait-laced and preferred jokes and teasing over talk of personal feelings. Mother remained married to my father for many years, as divorce would have been a disgrace to the family. Neither had enough money to make a home. Also, Mr. Gifford was restless. I don’t think he wanted to settle down. Aunt Muriel resented him a bit, though she tried not to show it. I think she saw him as a threat to the family unit she had created. She thought he was too “bohemian.” Mother, however, had the wisdom to accept him the way he was and welcome him into our lives. At the very least, as far as I was concerned, he filled the shoes of my absent father and made me feel happy, loved, and important. For that, my mother was deeply grateful.

When I was in my teens, he was diagnosed with diabetes and lost a lot of weight. In 1959 he was found dead in a rented room at Sloane House in New York City, having slipped into a diabetic coma.

The SS West Notus had predeceased him: she was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1942.

The gateI still have the following books by Mr. Gifford, all of them autographed: Emily Noble, The Game of Hearts, New York: Gramercy, 1940 (dedicated to my mother); Warren Howard, The Gate, New York: Arcadia House, 1942 (dedicated to me); Warren Howard, Tidewater, New York: Arcadia House, 1945 (dedicated to my mother).


Filed under General, My book, Profiles

Tony – my mechanic

TonyTony Sawaya can fix anything that runs on wheels. He has been taking care of my 1996 Mercedes C-220 since 2007, when the dealership refused to maintain it any longer and tried to persuade me to buy a new car. Owning a Mercedes-Benz is normally way out of my reach, but this car (a bare-bones model) came into my life 13 years ago through a series of fortunate events. I would have to win the lottery to buy another one. The factory stopped making parts for it long ago, and Tony has kept me going with great care and concern for the last six years.

I’m not the only one who has benefited from Tony’s wonderful service – by far. The bulletin board in his office is plastered with dozens of thank-you cards from his fans, and if you look on, you will see 156 reviews averaging 4½ stars, with comments like:

“Tony is the man. If you are looking for someone who does good work for a fair price… just go here and talk to Tony.”

“Wow!!! What can I say?!  We just found Tony and boy are we glad we did.”

“Tony Sawaya is the best mechanic you will ever meet and the only one you’ll ever go to again.”

Econo Lube and TuneIn fact, Tony’s Econo Lube N’ Tune franchise won a national prize a few years ago. The picture shown here is misleading: the lot is always jam-packed with cars.

One of Tony’s customers organized a surprise party on his birthday a couple of years ago, and everyone had an amazing story about how he had helped them in a bind.

At the party, Tony told us about his childhood in Lebanon. He has always been fascinated by cars. At the age of  5,  he asked his parents for a set of tools for his birthday. When he opened the package and saw that the “tools” were only toys, he wailed:

“I can’t work with these!”

As he grew up, his father taught him that diamonds are created under pressure: the harder the challenge, the stronger a person’becomes. When he was old enough, he traveled to the United Arab Emirates, where he worked as a mechanic for the rich and famous. After a series of adventures too complicated to go into here, he eventually landed in San Diego.

Fast forward to the end of last month. Tony had warned me that my car was at the point where repairs were going to be increasingly expensive and challenging. He had started to help me find a replacement. He knew I was worried about my car situation, and I had also told him I was anxious about passing the tests for my driver’s license, due to expire on my upcoming birthday (which is today, and luckily I passed). On top of everything else, my car, nearly as old as I am in car-years, was up for a “star” smog inspection, which means that they check for “functionality” as well as emissions. It flunked.

Tony and his mechanic fixed the problem, but when I took it back, the inspectors found yet another do-hicky that wasn’t working. A tiny hose was loose, and I needed a small connecting part that’s no longer being made (and if it had been available, it would have cost $195). Tony figured out a way to take care of it. He also changed the oil and topped the fluids.  One of his boys took the car back for re-inspection, and finally it passed. I reimbursed Tony for the smog inspection, but when I went to pay the rest of his bill, he said:

“Can’t you read English?”

At the bottom of the invoice he had written: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY DISCOUNT.” He had canceled out all his other charges. I was so touched that I had to turn my head so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

So I’m set for a while at least, and Tony has promised to keep my car running even if he has to make the parts. I am immensely grateful that Tony Sawaya is in my life.


Filed under General, Profiles

Roberto Burle Marx

Roberto croppedIn my introductory post on landscape design, I mentioned that Roberto Burle Marx was my inspiration for studying the subject. In the following piece I tell about the day I spent with Roberto in 1980, along with some of his personal  history and a bit of background about his country place, or sitio as they call it in Brazil, outside Rio de Janeiro.

My friends Erica Valladares and her husband Clarival had graciously invited me to stay with them in Rio, and they were considering various sights to show me. “Let’s go see Roberto!” Erica said, suggesting that we visit the eminent artist, architect, landscape designer, and botanist Roberto Burle Marx at his place in the country. Clarival had been intending for some time to photograph the colonial chapel on the property for a book he was writing. It was a sunny Sunday morning in early fall, and the adventure sounded exciting, but I had no idea what an amazing and unforgettable experience was in store for me. We went by car, riding along the shore for almost an hour, the ocean on one side and hills lush with tropical vegetation on the other.

I was told that Roberto had purchased his small colonial estate in the hills at the edge of a mangrove ecosystem near Guaratiba, west of Rio, some 30 years earlier. It was located just off a road first traveled by Portuguese settlers. One of the  early owners in the 1600s had named it “Santo Antonio da Bica,” and this saint was commemorated in a small Benedictine chapel that was still standing when Roberto bought the place. The main house, however, had been largely destroyed. He took on the challenge of building his home and restoring the chapel with great reverence, doing much of the work with his own hands. For the next 24 years, the sitio was to be his weekend occupation while he continued to reside and maintain his offices in Rio. In 1973 he moved there and made it his home.

A cheerful stocky white-haired man, Roberto greeted us effusively when we arrived. He was enthusiastic about everything. First he wanted toRoberto chapel show us what he was cooking. The meal smelled delicious. It was simmering in enormous pots. No servants were in sight. He appeared to be doing everything himself, with boundless energy. Next, he took us to see his greenhouses and showed us his latest botanical projects. His words tumbled out one on top of the next. While Clarival and Erica set up their gear  to photograph the chapel, Roberto took me around to see more of his amazing paradise, as if he had nothing else to do. I believe he was especially kind to me because he had known my husband Sylvio, who had died the year before.

While the sitio didn’t give a hint of the grand public spaces Roberto has designed throughout the world, it was a perfect showcase of his more intimate accomplishments. At the time he purchased the property, he was just beginning to get into landscape design. He became interested in plants as a young man studying in Germany, where his family had roots. (His father was from Trier and was a distant relative of Karl Marx, whose shared DNA could be seen in Roberto’s face.) When the young Roberto visited a botanical museum in Germany, he was struck by an exotic collection of Brazilian plants. His first thought was that these plants should be being valued and used in gardens in their native setting. At the time, gardens in Brazil were formal and tended to invoke styles dating back to the Empire; the plants were mainly species imported from Europe. On returning to Brazil, Roberto continued to study art under the famous Brazilian painter Cândido Portinari, and his mentor in architecture was his childhood friend Lúcio Costa (my husband’s mentor as well). But botany increasingly became a passion.

His main reason for acquiring the 100-acre sitio was to have room to collect and organize native Brazilian plants, especially from the area around Rio: bromeliads, palms, giant ferns, and other tropicals. He arranged them in groups not only according to their cultivation needs but also to create designs. His collection eventually grew to over 3,500 species, including examples from Asia and Africa as well as Brazil. As time passed, he became the first to identify several Brazilian species himself. About 30 plants have been named for him. On the day of my visit, he showed us folios of original gouache illustrations by the British botanical artist Margaret Mee, many of them  plants that bore his name.

Roberto veranda 4It was a warm day with a gentle breeze coming up the hill from the ocean. Guests began to arrive, and the house, with doors opening onto the wide veranda, began to come alive with excited conversations. We filled our plates from the buffet and settled down. It was like a turn-of-the-century European salon, with people chatting in small groups, discussing deep topics in several different languages. Roberto himself was a polyglot and transitioned smoothly from group to group, joining them in Portuguese, German, English, or French.

After lunch, he invited me to explore the rest of the house. I saw family photographs and works by prominent artists. There were also indigenous artifacts, and of course his own paintings and sculptures, as well as fascinating pieces of jewelry that he had designed. I felt caught up in his swirls and waves and sinuous repeating lines, which were everywhere – in his watercolors, oils, and pen-and-ink drawings, in his jewelry and sculptures, and, finally, echoed in the walkways around the house and its surrounding gardens. I told Erica how excited I was about his work, and she whispered confidentially: “You might be able to buy something to take home with you.”

The next thing I knew, Roberto was beckoning me to join him in his studio at the back, where he had a number of paintings on display. I told him I couldn’t afford to buy a painting, but I wondered if he had any drawings to sell. He pulled out a sheaf of large pen-and-ink abstracts on rough handmade paper and showed them to me one by one, telling me a little about each. One of them held a special attraction, Burle Marx drawing enhanced dark and I asked if I could buy it. We closed the deal. He signed it and went to look for materials to pack it so I could take it home on the plane.Signature closeup enhanced lighterI felt very proud to be carrying home a souvenir of this wonderful experience – to own a piece of it for the rest of my life.

By that time people were calling for him to come and play the piano. For the rest of the afternoon this many-talented genius entertained us with a classical concert.

I think what impressed me most was that he was constantly on the move, talking at the same time, and he appeared to do everything himself. He was good at everything he did and never stopped “doing.” He was affable and kind, and he was enthusiastic about everything he could take in with his senses.

Roberto died in 1994 at the age of 85. The sitio is now a national monument, supported by a foundation and donations from visiting tourists. The website (in Portuguese) is at There is a very short BBC video at and  a photomontage at A search for [“Burle Marx” + sitio] will reveal many more photos and information in English on visiting the property.

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