I’ve always been a fan of collections of literary letters, such as One Art, the Letters of Elizabeth Bishop, or Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters. Rereading my correspondence archive a few years ago, I assigned myself the task of editing my own letters and writing an introduction to them. The idea was to step back mentally and emotionally and tackle the task as if I were editing the letters of someone else.
To "protect the innocent" for this web edition I've left out highly personal details about my correspondents and excised instances of misunderstandings and drama. The "juicy parts" are not for publication now! Here and there I include a poem that was inspired by the subject at hand.
For this biographical intro, I adopted a deliberately flat, journalistic tone and wrote in the third person, referring to myself as "CS," the initials of my given name. I recommend the exercise! It’s freeing to interpret your own life objectively, from a distance.
Catherine Shaw was born in the Bronx, New York on September 24, 1950 to Catherine Tuckey Shaw and Edward L. Shaw, who were 40 and 41 years old at the time. She was their second child; their first, Janice, had been born in 1939.
Kitty and Ed were native Bronxites. Kitty grew up in a large family of Irish immigrants who had settled in City Island, a mecca to this day for fishing and boating. Her father, Phelim Tuckey, supervised a railroad bridge in what was to become Pelham Bay Park; her mother, Ellen Carr Tuckey, took care of the family in a small home provided by the railroad.
Ed, also of a large family, grew up in a neighborhood called Unionport. Ed’s father Joseph Shaw was a New York City police officer. His mother Mary Nedball Shaw had worked as a baker; Ed recalled her delicious strudels and crullers. Mary was the only grandparent surviving when CS was born. Kitty cared for her mother-in-law in the late stages of her final illness; Mary died in their home in 1959.
CS holds clear, early memories of living on East Tremont Avenue, on the top floor of a two-family house, a rental. A steep interior staircase was kept gated to protect her as a toddler, and the plain rooms seemed finer thanks to two sets of French doors. In 1955, when CS was five, her parents bought a small one-family house in Unionport on Quimby Avenue. It was primarily a Catholic neighborhood of second generation Irish and Italians; the homes were well kept, the doors unlocked.
In the Shaws’ charming yard grew an apple tree, a peach tree, a grape vine, a raspberry bush and a huge sugar maple. Ed set to landscaping the backyard and pouring concrete for a patio; Kitty planted crocuses, tulips, daffodils and tiger lilies. For their first Christmas, Janice, who was sixteen, painted the front door and windows with seasonal motifs. With projects underway and CS starting kindergarten, there was a sense of new beginnings in the Shaw household.
However, old problems continued to fester. Kitty and Ed had a contentious marriage; their quarreling was loud, constant and biting and had the character of mutual blame. Ed drank heavily, earning Kitty’s contempt, though she sometimes matched him shot for shot. Interspersed with episodes of mild intoxication were tears of all-out drunkenness triggered by holidays and family weddings. During the course of one cousin’s wedding, CS, who was about eleven, watched as her mother loudly and slurredly sang Irish songs and then passed out. Her father got into a brawl and was taken to the hospital where they stitched up a gash in his chin.
Ed managed a small construction company in Long Island City, Schiffler-Busch, in which he was an investing partner. When the company went bankrupt in 1965, Ed lost money and became despondent. His next and final job was as office manager for a hardware firm in the South Bronx. Ed never spoke at length about his responsibilities there, though he complained bitterly about his boss. CS, by then a teenager, surmised that he ate his bucket lunch alone in his car and that he washed it down with the whiskey cached in his glove compartment. He retired in 1971 at the age of 62. From that point on, Kitty and Ed’s only source of income would be social security.
Over the years, CS was made miserable by the arguments and the alcoholic scenes. Her parents waged war without regard to her tender feelings, and this instilled an idea that her feelings were insignificant, that her actual personhood was invisible or opaque. Strict Catholic schooling, with its emphasis on silence, sinfulness, and rote learning, added to her feelings of hopelessness and dread. At Holy Family School, CS earned her excellent grades in an atmosphere of shame and intimidation.
CS was happiest when she stayed home sick, when her mother attentively cared for her and no harsh words were spoken until her father got home. Perhaps it is no surprise that she was sick often, with flu’s, pneumonia, colds and the childhood diseases (measles, rubella, mumps) for which there were no inoculations in the 1950’s. CS was home from school for a month when she contracted appendicitis (1961) and again when she sustained a serious ankle injury (1959). Her right ankle was crushed in a neighbor’s backyard when a tall scrapped radiator fell on it.
Her “big sister” Janice, eleven years her senior, was an object of CS’s adulation in her early years. Janice was a pretty young woman who brought home fascinating girlfriends and boyfriends and who was always deeply interested in art and music. Janice won a scholarship to Cooper Union and began attending art and architecture classes there in 1957. The house was filled with her art paraphernalia, and with her assigned creations—a metal sculpture of a platypus, abstract paintings, a balsa wood model of a modern home.
Bristling under the household reign of discord, and wanting more privacy than the small bedroom she shared with CS allowed, Janice moved to her own place in Greenwich Village in 1959. She spent the summer of 1960 in Provincetown, Cape Cod with other art students and fell in love with one named Daniel Lobel, son of Paul Lobel, the noted modernist silversmith. They married and Janice gave birth to their son Damon in 1961. Dan’s Jewishness became another source of upset in the household. The things that scandalized her parents—Dan’s alien religion and bearded beatnik grooming—delighted the romantic CS, and nothing enchanted her more than her beautiful, bright-eyed baby nephew.
Janice and Dan’s marriage was short-lived. After their divorce, Janice took a full-time job designing jewelry at an exclusive Greenwich Village shop. She needed baby-sitting help and their mother provided it for a time. CS thought of Damon as more a baby brother than a nephew.
CS went to Cardinal Spellman High School, a highly regarded diocesan school, from 1964-1968. Gawky and dreamy, she did not excel academically. In her sophomore year, she screwed up her courage and auditioned for that year’s play, Inherit the Wind, and was given the female lead. The Cardinal’s Players, Spellman’s drama troupe, would be the focus of her high school years. She had large roles in subsequent productions and hoped to become a professional actress after high school. She sent for the brochure of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but did not take steps to apply.
In the spring of 1968, Janice met a former merchant marine and married him six weeks later. The newlyweds moved to mid-coast Maine and renovated an old house. They had two children, JaneA and Michael, in 1969 and 1972. Though their house burned to the ground one night in 1971, they stayed in Maine, adapting their barn into a new home. Janice divorced herself from the family during these years. CS found her sister’s desertion, which also kept Damon from her, unbearable.
CS entered Bronx Community College in the fall of 1968, where she got straight A’s, made the Dean’s List, and discovered her knack for the written word. She transferred to City College of New York in the fall of 1969, thinking she might major in psychology. But it was English literature that interested her, and poetry that bewitched her. She began to read poetry obsessively, and made her first halting efforts to write it.
Her home situation became increasingly intolerable. As much as CS liked college, she wanted freedom more. She dropped out in the second semester of her sophomore year and found a job as a personnel receptionist at Grolier, the encyclopedia publisher. Several months later, she moved to Crowell, Collier and Macmillan (now Macmillan, Inc.) to work as an editorial secretary. She was smitten by publishing, and by the possibility of emancipation from Quimby Avenue. At Macmillan she found a roommate and they took an apartment together on West End Avenue in Manhattan, a third-floor walk-up. Though her father objected to the move, he rented a U-Haul truck and helped CS move into her new apartment—something she would appreciate forever.
During these years, CS took night courses at The New School as a non-matriculant and continued reading and writing poetry. At times, she felt pulled apart by the warring impulses of independence and dependence, Manhattan and Bronx. She spent many weekends with her parents on Quimby Avenue, watching TV or playing cards with her mother. For a time, she dated a musician who lived in her building, a Juilliard student who later became a successful conductor. Overall, she dated very little. Love was unknown to her.
A trip to Europe with her roommate in the summer of 1971 was a personal fiasco for CS, who found herself unable to join her friend in her adventurous mood. They parted company and CS flew to Ireland alone, where she stayed at a YWCA in Dublin, exploring the city and taking day trips on tour buses. She then flew to Paris, where the language barrier and the loneliness threw her into despair. In foreign surroundings, she did not know who she was; it was her first inkling that she might be lacking a core identity. Long before her vacation was scheduled to end, she flew back to New York, first stocking up on comforting marzipan chocolates at the Orly airport.
After a year at Macmillan, where she was paid $105 a week, she took a job at Random House, where she was given a dark corner to work in and only a few more dollars in her paycheck. Around this time, she answered an ad placed by a soap opera writer who was looking for a personal secretary to type his scripts in his home in an East 60’s brownstone. James Lipton hired her at a salary of $150 per week, which seemed like a fortune at the time. Expecting glamour, CS found drudgery. These were the days before computers and sophisticated copiers. It was a daily grind of Dictaphone typing in a closet-size office, followed by handwriting Lipton’s revisions on five carbon copies of the daily script. She quit after three months. (Lipton went on to a successful career as a TV producer and as host of TV’s Inside the Actors’ Studio.)
In dire need of a new job, CS answered an ad placed by the United Presbyterian Church USA, which had pleasant offices at Riverside Drive and 120th Street. As a consequence, CS embarked on an enjoyable year as secretary to a minister who produced a radio program called Ecumedia News. Recognizing her writing ability and her eagerness to learn, he gave CS opportunities to do reporting for the program. She conducted interviews, wrote copy, and attended media briefings, audiotaping the proceedings. Her voice was featured on news feeds.
CS got back in touch with her sister during these years and made two trips to Maine to visit her. She was happy to be a part of her sister’s life again, but frightened by what she observed of her family dynamic, the details of which will not be expounded on here out of respect for Janice's privacy. The second visit was something of a nightmare for all concerned. The sisters would not see each other again until Janice was divorced in 1976.
Back in New York, CS began to acknowledge that a B.A. degree would be essential to her future success. She reapplied to CCNY, returning full-time in the fall of 1972. She remained in her West End Avenue apartment, paying the rent by working part time at the Presbyterians, this time in the missions area.
Her roommate moved back home to Brooklyn in early 1973. CS, who could not find another, was so reluctant to return to the Bronx that she took a room in the apartment of an elderly Dutch woman near Columbia University. CS felt claustrophobic in her overheated postage stamp of a room, and decided to move back into her parents’ house until she got her degree. The money-saving maneuver gave her the opportunity to earn a few joyful credits by studying Irish drama in Dublin that summer.
The summer of 1973 was to be the most light-hearted period of CS’s life. She studied plays from the point of view of both literature and performance, playing the role of Gretta in an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead. She joined her classmates at Dublin plays and pub crawls, and on weekend trips to Galway, the Aran Islands, and Killarney. And she met her future husband. John Leahy, an English major at Lehman College in the Bronx, lived within walking distance of Quimby Avenue. He shared CS’s love for poetry and literature, and was as hungry for a soul mate as she was. At summer’s end, they spent a weekend together in Sligo—Yeats country—and then flew home to the Bronx together. They were a couple from that point forward.
What many people experience in their late teens—”going steady,” movie dates, after school sundaes, Saturday night beers—CS enjoyed with JL in her early 20’s. She was on good terms with her parents, who acknowledged her adulthood by allowing JL to spend the night sometimes. She applied herself to her college work, and played the role of Nora in a CCNY production of J. M. Synge’s In The Shadow of the Glen. Books and incidentals were covered by a small regents scholarship and by paychecks from a part-time job as a typist at the New York Bar Association. In January of 1975, CS earned her B.A. in English literature, graduating summa cum laude.
John had graduated the previous year and was working as a cashier at the United Nations bookstore (willful “underemployment” was to be an ongoing factor in both their lives). CS was eager to take an apartment with him in Manhattan, and set out to find a job quickly.
Too quickly, as it turned out. She accepted her first job offer, as an editorial assistant at a publisher of Who’s Who books. She took an immediate dislike to what seemed to her a shady business—profit was made by selling books to the people listed in them—and she was oppressed by the mindless tasks assigned to her and by the general grubbiness of the office. In this situation, CS became derailed by a despair akin to what she had experienced in Paris. When the boss criticized the way she stuffed envelopes, she wound up sobbing in the ladies room—had her long years of college led only to this?
Had she been emotionally stronger, CS would have cut her losses and begun seeking a better job in publishing. Instead, she opted for the tried and true, a place where she could avoid the turmoil of an identity crisis and go forward with her life with JL. She returned to the United Presbyterian Church USA and went to work as an editorial secretary, reporting to " Reverend Jack," the director of church education. The organization was embarking on a complex ecumenical publishing program called “Christian Education: Shared Approaches” or “CE:SA.”
Though later she referred to “bouncing on the CE:SA see-saw,” on the whole CS liked her third job at the Presbyterian Church. Though her job entailed mostly typing memos and manuscripts, and answering phones, she was sometimes challenged. She chaired the staff association one year and wrote a few pieces for church publications; she also co-edited the staff newsletter and did editorial layouts for a small monthly magazine subscribed to by local churches. And she made two lifelong friends: Jack himself, and "MLB," a struggling character actress who would later pursue a successful career in New York, Hollywood, and regional theater. In 2004-2005, MLB's Procrit commercial would be a fixture on nationwide television.
CS became been ill in November and December of 1976, suffering fatigue and low fevers, and spent a week in New York’s Doctor’s Hospital for tests. Lupus and endocarditis were ruled out; her doctor decided it was a systemic strep infection with autoimmune complications. Feeling physically run down, and exasperated by the boredom of secretarial work, CS quit her job impulsively in early 1977, without so much as a day’s notice. Jack actually wept a bit but tolerated her recklessness.
At this point, in the spring of 1977, CS and Jack began corresponding. What follows is mostly a selection of her letters to him, as well as some addressed to family members and to MLB. Collected under the title "Impossible Epistles" are the frenetic letters CS wrote to her psychoanalyst in the aftermath of treatment.