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Of Cats and Characters



photograph by Bob Capazzo

Halloween has just passed, but I don’t need it to be reminded of black cats.  We have two of them. Cats have never gotten enough credit, except from the ancient Egyptians. I love cats. Dogs, too. All animals, really—especially the kind you can hug. That rules out snakes and snapping turtles, but they also have their fans. Remember Mr. Arden at Country Day? He had a huge frog he sometimes hid under an inverted flowerpot on his desk. On one memorable Parents’ Night, he lifted the pot, the thing raised itself up on its hind legs and a mother ran screaming from the room.

Growing up, we were told that cats weren’t allowed in our apartment in Cleveland. In truth, my father hated them (I never understood why). My mother gave up that fight after one of us kids brought home a stray who proceeded to have a litter in the living room and Mother had to call the ASPCA to come in a hurry. All I ever asked Santa to bring me for Christmas was a kitten. In fact, the story goes that when I was little, a woman asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I told her I wanted to run a cathouse. I never did live that one down.

So when Jack proposed to me, I told him there were three things I wanted in life besides him: a piano, a fireplace and a kitten. And he came through. My first cat was named Sybil. She was marmalade color, exceptionally bright and had something very Greek prophetess about her. She would sit on my shoulder as I drove down Shaker Boulevard, look both ways at stop signs, walk up the front path into my mother’s building, get into the elevator, ride up to the second floor, walk into the apartment and stretch out on the lavender velvet Louis Seize couch with the gold fleur de lis. She knew she was beautiful. 

Sybil’s life with us was short. She got hit by a car and didn’t make it. But the wise old father of a friend had forewarned me: “Once you start getting pets, you’re going to cry a lot of tears over a lot of little graves. But they’re worth it.” He was right.

Next came Tina Marie, a longhaired gray that was unbelievably patient with children. One morning I found wee Jonathan in his Dr. Denton’s sitting on the silver lid of a big crystal punch bowl in a corner of the dining room. Inside, eyeing me wistfully, was Tina Marie. When she would deign to sit beside our two-year-old daughter, Audrey was ecstatic. “Look, Mommy,” she’d say. “Tina’s purring on me!” From Nancy and Bob Lane we got a kitten we called Toughie, then “Toofee” after we discovered it was a female. There was Titty, Rutabaga and, oh yes, Brute, a little black one that our golden retriever Charlie, feeling paternal, liked to carry around in his mouth. We’ve always had dogs and cats together, which works just fine. No question, the cats are in charge. Even with their bowls of Alpo on the floor, our goldens refused to step into the kitchen until the cats finished dinner.

One of our cats became famous—Vincent, the seven-pound black and white Tuxedo cat Jonathan brought home from college. “Skinny Vinny” lived to be twenty-three, the oldest cat our vet Steve Zeide had ever cared for. He even survived our house fire. We saw him run out the front door and thought he was safe, but after making the final sweep of the house, a fireman emerged carrying Vinny, his nose covered with a tiny oxygen mask. He had been spooked by the commotion outside and had run back in to hide under his favorite chair upstairs in our bedroom. This, we were told, is unfortunately pretty common among pets, even children. How did Vinny manage to live so long? “Because he was so thin and adaptable,” said Dr. Zeide. Being neither, I guess I’ll die young.

Now we have Amos and his sister Annie named after the old radio show Amos ’n’ Andy. One of its stars and creators was Freeman Gosden whose daughter, Dottie Neely, sang with me in the Grace Notes. Amos and Annie are always together and always with us, helping us read, sleep, type and greet guests. They are totally affectionate felines. Amos is also courageous. Last summer we saw him chase an enormous red fox out of our backyard to protect his sister, who was hiding under a bush. That’s almost up there with the cats we saw at the Moscow circus trained to jump through hoops of fire.

Cats deserve to be celebrated. In London, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats ran for twenty-one years; in New York, it became the second longest-running show on Broadway. Agile actors costumed as cats stunned the audience by pussyfooting their way along balcony rails. During intermission everyone was invited on stage to meet Old Deuteronomy (the wise old cat that “lived many lives in succession”) and have him autograph their programs.

We were seated with friends in the mezzanine, so it took quite a while to get downstairs and across the orchestra to the stage. But what the … ? Jack was already there! He had slid down a chute the actors used to get to the stage from a side balcony and had almost landed in Old Deut’s lap.

I say, here’s to cats. They deserve some ink—as well as gratitude for the pleasure so many of them have given to so many of us.

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