Ventura column: “Miss Beaufort”

May 8, 2011

Michael Ventura’s “Letters at 3 a.m.” column

Miss Beaufort

Austin Chronicle – May 6, 2011

She had a past because everybody does, but she never spoke of it. Not one reminiscence in the three years I worked beside her. No hint of friends or children or anything. Not even a first name. She was “Miss Beaufort.”

In return, I was “Mr. Ventura” – to my ears, a heady title for a just-turned-19 youth, but there was no condescension or even much distance in Miss Beaufort’s usage. It was simply the proper way to speak to someone not in one’s personal life. Everyone was “Mister,” “Miss” or “Mrs.,” except the boss, who was “Dave,” and Izzy, who was Izzy, a flabby and very angry 40-year-old child who lived in the Bronx with his mother and snapped viciously at everyone except Miss Beaufort. Izzy was a salesman, and very good at it, and he had the damnedest mojo: somehow his intolerable behavior was tolerated by everyone, and nobody much minded.

How old was Miss Beaufort? I supposed she was anywhere from her early 70s to early 80s. Her hair was long and very white. Not that she wore it long, but you could guess its length from how she bunched it. Her skin, too, was utterly white, smooth and translucent, the veins clear and blue – though, of course, one saw only her hands, wrists, neck, and face. Her eyes were colorless, which made a great impression upon me; I’d not seen that before. Intense eyes that gave a birdlike impression of swiftness, though I couldn’t say how. Her eyes saw everything they looked at. Not many eyes do that.

Quite thin, perhaps five feet in height, she wore long wide skirts that reached to her shoe tops and flowed naturally and a little wonderfully as she moved. I had the impression she made them herself, since I’d not seen anything like them, either, nor anything like her billowy blouses. She moved slowly and gracefully, and it wasn’t in her to display or admit the inevitable pains of age.

In the warm months her preferred colors were pastels of various shades that complemented her complexion. Delicately thin scarves adorned her neck. And wide hats! Hats of thin, flexible materials that moved like her clothing, subtle in effect, more so than I can describe. In the cold months her colors were deeper, her hats firmer, and her New York winter coat was long, old, not at all shabby, and seemed to me thin. Her gloves and handkerchiefs were as fine as my young experience had seen, as though they were from some other, perhaps glamorous era of her life.

Her small face bespoke a natural air of authority: the long fine nose, the expressive mouth, high cheekbones, firm chin – with the slightest flicker of expression she could beam approval, disapproval, interest, disinterest, or kindness — all with a no-nonsense self-possession sometimes delighted, occasionally fierce, but never sentimental. She had a lovely repertoire of smiles, but I can’t remember Miss Beaufort laughing, not even once.

Her voice, vocal rhythms and word choice reminded me of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, so I always assumed Miss Beaufort was from New England. Sometime or other I was told – or I made up – the story that she’d been the longtime mistress of an archeologist whom she’d accompanied on expeditions all over the world. Whether or not that was true, it seemed to fit, though given the way she moved, she might also once have been a dancer.

If what I describe seems apparitional, that was an impression Miss Beaufort worked at. She was nothing if not theatrical, but her act was so seamless it had long ceased to be an act. She lived the part she’d created.

I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, but in retrospect, it’s clear that I loved her. Not romantically, but not unromantically either. I liked very much being near her, I respected her without qualification, and something about her filled my heart.

After some months working beside her, I was privileged to be among those who called her “Beau.”

To put Miss Beaufort and me in context, picture us in a windowless office in a 40-odd story building near Grand Central Station. On one wall of our room were shelves of televisions, radios, and reel-to-reel tape recorders that recorded every broadcast in New York City, which, at the time, was the largest city in the world and had more TV channels than anywhere: seven.

Miss Beaufort, myself, and others sat at desks facing the wall of TVs, one of the few places in the world where several screens could be watched at once. On our desks: a typewriter and a tape recorder. We scanned the tapes and typed synopses of news programs: The Today Show, The Tonight Show, any show on which might appear a mention of our clients. We were a “clipping service of the broadcast media,” and the news and comment of the world cascaded into that windowless room. Beside every typewriter was an ashtray. The cramped room was toxic.

My pay was $70 per week. No overtime, no benefits, no sick days.

Our direct supervisor was African-American; that was more than rare in 1964. Amongst the sales desks outside our room and the transcribers’ desks down the hall were all sorts: men who would now be called “openly gay” (black and white), blacklisted Hollywood writers, failed Broadway actors, and young me, whose salary was necessary to my mother and siblings — all of us somehow drawn to this office where the world was at our fingertips and everyone was his or her own kind of strange.

I always had a book. Lunch hours I would sit at my desk, eat my paper-bag lunch, and read. I meant to read my way through all American literature and history, and I pretty much did.

I wanted to be a writer. Every now and again, I wrote intensely for a few days. Weeks might pass between attempts.

Miss Beaufort had worked at this office apparently forever. I’d been there a month. I was startled the first time she spoke to me.

She fixed those searching eyes on mine and said with quiet force, “Mr. Ventura – what are you about?”

I mumbled something like, “Uh, uh, uh, I, uh, want to be a writer.”

“Do you write every day? If you’re to be a writer, you must write every day.”

The sensation was that she’d shot an arrow through my forehead.

I knew what she said was true and that my very life depended on it.

From that time on, in the wee hours, while my family slept in our one- and then two-bedroom Bronx apartment, I disciplined myself to write every day. I still do. From the moment of Miss Beaufort’s instruction, I set myself to earn the right to say, “I am a writer.”

Intentions don’t cut it.

“If you’re to be a writer, you must write every day.”

One spring morning, walking to our office from her furnished room off Times Square, she simply fell, like a leaf, and died.

She had no one but us. Dave, the boss, paid for her funeral. They brought her effects to the office and I was asked to choose what I wanted. I chose her colored-pencil sketches – mostly of flowers – and her little brochure, “The Pierpont Morgan Library Christmas Cards,” which included a 1310 illumination, The First Kiss of Lancelot and Guinevere. I have it all still.

I fancy that one of her sketches was a self-portrait of Miss Beaufort when young: a profile of her strong nose, expressive mouth, firm chin, a cascade of yellow hair, a face that sees into all that it looks at and saw into me.

Michael Ventura’s ninth book, If I Was a Highway, has recently been published by Texas Tech University Press.

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