Mr. Walter Prude, from the famous Foy family of entertainers, was in concert management, working for a world-famous impresario. His wife was the dancer and choreographer, Agnes de Mille, daughter of playwright, director, producer, and screenwriter, William C. de Mille, older brother of director, Cecil B.
Miss de Mille, herself a talented dancer, was responsible for choreographing many landmark productions with what would be called modern dance. Her dancing and choreography in Aaron Copeland's Rodeo, in 1942 put her on the map in dancing circles. She, along with her friend, Martha Graham, and George Balanchine are the giants upon whose shoulders modern dance stands.
Miss de Mille inherited her father's summer home in the exclusive country club, founded by her father to escape the New York City heat and the disdain which the waspish New York society still held for America's theater royalty. My father, a journeyman carpenter and electrician, took a job at Merriewold as the club superintendent. In addition to the marvelous house with its French doors, knotty-pine interiors, fieldstone fireplaces, and wood stove in the enormous country kitchen, we had a stable for members' horses, a small pond replete with waterfall and waterwheel, and a nine hole golf course to occupy the fancies of a six year old girl. The place was magical. I met my first fawn there one misty morning. My baby brother was two and rarely ventured out on his own, except for the day he went on a stroll in the middle of winter in his bare feet and diaper.
The house had a small post office tacked onto the mud-room, where my mother served as the postmistress of the park. People came to pick up their mail and chat a bit before crossing the arched stone bridge to the woods wherein their summer cabins and homes were hidden away.
Though I was a few years younger, I was often invited to play with Jonathan Prude in his special playhouse, where their French maid, Anna, would bring milk and her incredibly buttery cookies and speak to us in thick French. The playhouse, a stand-alone cottage, had belonged to Jonathan's grandfather, and I played there for years, blissfully unaware that within those walls legendary films and plays had been penned. To my mind it was merely the place where I learned the joys of Silly Putty, Lincoln Logs, and Erector Sets.
One day stands out in my memory. Jonathan and I got into a shouting match as kids often do, and his mother was there in an instant, book in hand and looking very annoyed. She quickly deduced what the spat was about—I haven't the slightest idea—and quietly, slowly corrected us both. After Jonathan had been sent into the big house she knelt down and said to me in the kind of voice an adult saves for another adult, "My dear, you must always stick up for yourself when your heart tells you that you are right. If not, who else will do so?" Even at the tender age of six I was quite astonished that a mother would take the time to counsel the little girl she was sending home early for fighting with her son. Her words have stood me in good stead all these years.
I remember her stopping to pick up her mail, then staying to drink Mom's coffee and eat her famous cinnamon rolls filled with almond paste, a family recipe, learned from my Grandma Ruth, who was a pastry chef. The two women sat at the kitchen table and chatted about children, teachers, television shows, and the celebrities of the day—just two women in the Catskills having a kaffee klatsch.
For my seventh birthday, Miss de Mille dropped off an elegantly-wrapped gift, sending a toy with Jonathan to my birthday party. Her gift was very special. Commissioned from an elderly German doll-maker in New York City, it was a donkey ballerina. She knew I was mad for all things ballet. This wonderful velveteen donkey stood in golden pointe shoes on her little hind hoofies, in a pink tulle tutu spangled with gems and sequins. In her right hoof she held a golden lorgnette, opera glasses to the uninitiated, and in her mane were velvet and bakelite flowers. In her right donkey's ear, a marquis-cut rhinestone. She stood on a round pink velvet cushion, trimmed in gilt middy braid. I was in ecstasy! My mother wisely put her away in the china cabinet where I could look at her in all her glory, and I was occasionally rewarded for good behavior by being allowed to hold her under supervision. I know all the details, because she stands today in my own china cabinet, one of my treasures.
At Christmas the Prudes came up to Merriewold for at least one weekend, laden with gifts for all of us. We got Colorforms and books, but Mom got wonderful things like silk scarves from Hermes and Dior, Italian leather handbags, and copies of de Mille's many books, personally inscribed, "To my very dear friend, LaVerne…" They exchanged Christmas cards for decades.
I wanted to be a ballerina like Miss de Mille. Years later, when I was taking ballet in South Jersey, my mom told me that she had asked Agnes once if she could give me some lessons when she was at Merriewold. "I don't teach children, my dear," she replied, "I'm a terrible taskmaster and don't have the patience for it. I've been known to pull hair and would never subject a child to my demands. I'm sorry."
So I studied with a hulking six foot construction worker who was also a ballet master, and while I didn't have the talent to go further, it gave me an innate sense of self-confidence, a knowledge of my center of gravity, and a graceful collected walk.
But it was that little bit of guidance I received from Agnes de Mille that set the mark for my self-awareness, and why she has always been one of my personal heroes.