The Empress and Me (or, why I became Elizabeth Virdon)

I have spoken here and there about my favorite book, but tonight, with a well-worn copy of Anton Myrer’s THE LAST CONVERTIBLE lying beside me, I think it’s time to tell you more. It’s amazing even to me that I can say all these years later that this is my favorite book, because I have read hundreds of thousands of books by this point in my life, but still and always, this is the one. I don’t expect that will ever change.

I discovered Big Band music in high school, I was just 14, in jazz band. We met three mornings a week, before school–only the true music lovers are willing to get up early that many mornings all year long, to practice. And I was one of those. Music, and all it meant to me then, remains the very best part of school memories for me.

Well, our director was young and fun and oh-so-cool and decided we weren’t going to play the usual stuff that all the other bands were. He said we weren’t “American Bandstand,” and didn’t need to be, and he was right. He pulled, from the archives, all this marvelous music I had never heard; my parents were very, very young parents, you see, and so ‘their’ music was from the 50s, not the 40s. We tried the first piece, and I fell face first into love, forever, with “Mood Indigo.” 

A few years later when I was out of school, and working in a small-town drugstore, one rainy night the boss encouraged me to pull up the high stool behind the counter and sit down. There weren’t any customers then, and he knew I was only a few months back from a devastating car accident–on such a cold, rainy night, every break in my bones hurt anew. Earl mentioned that it was a good night for ‘his’ music but that I wouldn’t like it (he always allowed his staff to choose the music we played in the store.) I asked him what ‘his’ music was and he told me Big Band, and I said how much I loved it. He gave me that ‘uh-huh, suuuuuure’ look, maybe thinking I was kissing up to him, and I told him to put some on, and quiz me, and he did. “What’s this?” “String of Pearls,” I said. Few songs later…”Woody Herman’s ‘Woodchopper’s Ball.’ “

Earl realized I really did know this style, and he pulled two ice cream bars from the freezer, handed me one and we sat there eating ice cream and talking about music. What was my favorite, he wondered, and I said I had many, but that “Serenade in Blue” made me melt. Its arrangement just made you swoon into the arms of your love, when you were dancing. And I said how I loved Doris Day’s voice, and Rosemary Clooney, too (I know, I know, she came later. I digress.)

A good customer dropped in then, to buy his usual pipe tobacco and filters (Dr. Grabow, which he always called Dr. Garbow, and we never corrected him.) He wanted to know why Earl was ‘playing this old stuff with such a pretty young thing listening to it’, and Earl told him that I really and truly knew this music and that I loved it. Once again, “Who is this?” and I said “Tommy Dorsey.” “What is this one?” “Vaughn Monroe and ‘There! I’ve Said it Again.’ “

Well, Good Customer stepped over to our paperback rack, pulled a book from it and laid it on the counter in front of me. “You’ve GOT to read this, you’ll LOVE it,” he said, and I picked it up and looked at the cover. Green car. “I don’t want to read a book about a car!” I said. He tried to convince me but I was so stubborn (you can only be that stupid when you are young.) But I knew he wouldn’t give up on it.

And he didn’t…..a few weeks later I was in the hospital, too many of those cold winter rains, I guess, with pneumonia. My phone rang, and it was that nice customer, telling me that “Jeanne is putting together a package of books for you, and PLEAAAAAAAAAAASE may I put in “The Last Convertible“?) Jeanne, you see, was his wife, and the local librarian; this town was so small that the library was only two rooms and she knew me WELL by then, and was always saving things she thought I’d like because I’d read the place clean through so quickly.

I sighed, and said, “Bring me the damn book.”

That night, the nurses took it away from me, because I wouldn’t turn my light off and go to sleep.

That was 30 years ago, and it remains my favorite book of all time, and I’ve no doubt it will always be so. I carry it with me everywhere: a copy in my car, in my work bag, in my purse, in my beach bag, on my bedside stand. I buy every used copy I find, so I can give it away, and I have done just that, hundreds of times by now. (Good Customer did love me saying “you were right,” and him answering “I told you so.” And who can blame him?) Only two people I have given it to have said they just couldn’t get into it. I think that’s pretty good, all things considered. I am always looking for a signed edition, and someday I may find one. I wish I could have met the author, just once, to tell him what this book meant to me. He was a very, very good writer; this was his next to last book. I have read all of his work, own several other titles, but none ever moved me as completely as this one has. I found an interview he gave about THE LAST CONVERTIBLE, and as I’d suspected, there was a great deal of him in George Virdon…which just made me like both men all the more.

What’s so special about this ‘book about a car’? Well. For starters, of course, it’s about much, much more than a car. And what a car she is…a 1938 Packard convertible, of a particularly deep and beautiful green. It’s about five young men in the fall of 1940, freshman all, settling into life at Harvard, and it is narrated by the one who was the outsider–the one who WASN’T born into wealth and privilege, the one who enjoyed every moment, because it was more than he’d ever dared to hope for. The book spans time until the men are going to their 25th Harvard reunion, with, of course, WWII happening in the midst of it all, and the Empress (what they called that beautiful car) passes one by one through the hands of each man. 

And that was me. It was me, everywhere, in my life, especially then. Oh, I wanted to be Chris, the lovely Christabel that everyone loved, but I knew I wasn’t. I was George, asking for little and being happy with less. Me in a bad, bad marriage, fighting for my life. Me living with college girls, wanting so badly to be a student too, and never being able to. Me wanting children, and knowing I would never be able to create and carry life. I was always on the outside, looking in.

Despite that, I am still one of the happiest and most upbeat people I know, and most would never know the sorrows and sadness and losses of my past, unless I share. Because, as George said, I have raised a glass with my friends, I have touched this beautiful piece of history, I have called myself brother (okay, for me it would be sister) to these I love, and it is enough.

And…just so you know….three things: I will have an Empress of my own, someday. I will be buried with a copy of this marvelous book. And I have taken George’s last name–fictional though he is, he does not seem so to me–for my own, as my pen name.

If you had to say that ONE book is your all-time favorite….which one would it be? Why?

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