Writing through the Belly of the Beast
We moved back to Westchester in October of 1979, to the rolling hills of North Salem, New York where horses out numbered people. I felt like I was able to provide for my children a safe, rural, wholesome place to live. Our house sat on two acres of land and abutted a hundred acres of fields, streams and horse trails. The kids were free to romp around, explore the outdoors by themselves and hang out with the neighbor’s horses that lived in a corner of our property. I loved being able to provide this lifestyle for my children. It felt like I had dodged the bullet of California and had returned to normalcy in out lives, in a place that we could call home and settle in.
Len and I seem to be doing well even though we had just gone through the toughest year of our marriage. We picked up where we left off before our move. We had our Sunday ritual of reading the New York Times together, eating bagels with the kids and taking long walks. Len kept a peripheral connection to the kids by going to some school meetings and events, but he mostly was consumed by his work.
In the spring of 1980, Len told me we had been invited to our first black tie event at PepsiCo. He told me he needed to rent a tux, I had to wear a cocktail dress and that a limo would drive us to and from the event. This was a whole new experience for me. Len was now a corporate vice president and company officer and as his spouse I was expected to fill a social role. Up to that point the only role I knew how to fulfill was that of a wife and a mother. This was new territory. Because of what happened in California, I knew I was now on the radar of PepsiCo because they saw me as an uncooperative spouse, not doing well with the transfer. So I wanted to look my best and at least try to fit in, but I couldn’t stop a nagging feeling that I was being asked to become a Stepford Wife.
About a week before the dinner party, Len told me that the event we were going to was in honor of Richard Nixon. Len told me this casually at dinner one night looking down at his peas and mashed potatoes pretending he was going to take a bite.
“What?” I exclaimed. “Hell no, I won’t go!” I said knowing full well that I had to go. Neither of us wanted to air our dirty laundry again in front of the company; and they viewed a wife not coming to an important social event as an act of treason back then, unless you had a very, very good reason not to go.
Len and I were reshaping our relationship at this point. He needed me to be a cooperative and happy team player so he could be seen as a stable family man at work. I was focused on the advantages that being married to Len had for our children. I wanted my children to have what I felt my childhood lacked, opportunity and love. I wanted my kids to be able to go to schools that helped them thrive and succeed. I wanted to be able to give them the experience of learning about the world through travel and going to museums; to expand their education with activities like tennis, music lessons, dancing, horseback riding and skiing. I also wanted them to know that Len and I loved them. That no matter what, we were on their side, that we were a family who loved each other. Staying married to Len and learning how to manage the ups and downs of our new lifestyle meant I could give my kids these advantages. So going to the dinner party at PepsiCo was just one of those things that I had to do in order to keep the balance in my life and the marriage going. But I couldn’t shake a nagging question. What was Richard Nixon doing at PepsiCo?
As it turned out, Nixon was a close friend of the CEO of PepsiCo, Don Kendall. Their relationship went all the back to 1959 when Kendall, who was then a VP at Pepsi, wanted to bring soft drinks to the post war Soviet Union. He wrangled a coveted position at The American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959 as the only soft drink company allowed to display their products from the US. There is a prominent photo of Kendal pouring Khrushchev a Pepsi at this exhibit with Nixon looking on.
Kendall and Nixon became closer after that. Kendall financially helped Nixon during his two political campaigns in 1960 against JFK and in 1962 against Gov. Pat Brown in California. Nixon lost both races and was nearly broke afterwards when Kendall saved the day. After his political defeats, Nixon wanted to join a New York law firm as a partner but was not welcomed in New York where his peers had little respect for him.
Don Kendall jumped in and said that he would throw Pepsi’s legal business to the law firm that hired Nixon as a partner.
Mudge, Stern, Baldwin and Todd stepped up and hired Nixon as a partner at $250,000 a year. Between 1960 and 1972, Nixon and Kendall were in close contact. Kendall helped Nixon financially and Nixon helped Kendall politically.
In 1972, after Nixon’s landslide second presidential election, big favors were re-paid to Kendall. Nixon paved the way for PepsiCo to open the first American bottling plant in Moscow and also to be the sole distributor of Stolichnaya vodka in the US. This was a coup for PepsiCo. Russia gave PepsiCo an exclusive contract to sell soda products in the Soviet Union. The second big favor was paid back in 1970.
Upon researching this story to make sure my memories were correct, I found out this tidbit. Here is a quote from the Guardian Newspaper from 1998 "...the October 1970 plot against Chile's President-elect Salvador Allende ... was the direct result of a plea for action a month earlier by Donald Kendall, chairman of PepsiCo, in two telephone calls to the company's former lawyer, President Richard Nixon. Kendall arranged for the owner of the company's Chilean bottling operation to meet National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger on September 15. Hours later, Nixon called in his CIA chief, Richard Helms, and, according to Helms's handwritten notes, ordered the CIA to prevent Allende's inauguration."
This information has only recently been released through the Freedom of Information Act, the release of the complete White House tapes from Nixon’s Administration and from an interview from the then Ambassador to Chile, Edward Korry. Korry also noted that Kendall was the eyes and ears for the CIA in the Caribbean, and that Pepsi bottlers in South America and elsewhere were used to assist covert CIA activities.
I know I was very naive when I began my duties as a corporate wife back in 1979 but learning about these facts now gives me some new understanding and closure about what I saw.
The dinner with Nixon was just one of many times I had to dine with and honor powerful political figures. It seemed weird to me that people like Casper Weinberger, Secretary of State for Reagan, was given a gala party at PepsiCo and that top-level executives were summoned to attend.
During that evening an arsenal of secret service stood throughout the dining room, hallways and lobby. I remember thinking as I sat at the dinner table and watched these robotic looking guys with coiled wires dangling from the side of there ears and guns bulging under their jackets, “How dangerous is it to be here?” I couldn’t wait for the evening to be over and the nagging feeling of intimidation to end.
Then where the trips to the Bahamas with Al Haig, a high ranking army general and Supreme Allied Commander in charge of NATO and American forces in Europe; and Deke DeLoach who was the third highest ranked FBI official under Hoover, now in charge of PepsiCo security accompanying us on trips. There were others too, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Gorbachev. Wasn’t the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1921 about big business and government not mixing because of corruption? I guess no one cares about that anymore.
Len always enjoyed himself, while I was the rain on his parade. I pointed out how inappropriate it seemed to mix politicos with business. I wanted to know why this happened, but Len would just go stone cold on me, acting like he didn’t hear a word I said. I could rant and rave and he never responded to anything I said. It was psychological warfare and it took me years to figure it out.
I realize now that he must have known about this underside. It may have been a conflict for him too, but he stayed loyal to PepsiCo. This was the golden handcuffs in action. Len’s job gave us a lot of lifestyle perks and paid the bills. Len liked his successful career and I liked being able to give my kids things I thought would help them to become successful. We made our partnership work even though the compromises were a heavy price to pay.
Okay, chalk it up to me being more interested in caring for my children and being naive because I had no idea that Don Kendall and PepsiCo were involved in covert CIA activities. Had I known then what I know now, I am not sure what I would have done. All I know is that it rattles my cage to think that Don Kendall had the power and ability to snuff out another person so his business would prosper. It sickens me to think of all the times I had to see him socially and how he would throw me a compliment in some covert way to make me know he liked my boobs! Thank god for sexual harassment laws but they came into being too late to benefit me.
It’s pretty disturbing that multi-national companies have been used by the CIA to help stage coups, assassinations and other nefarious actions in the name of economic and “homeland” security. PepsiCo is like so many other companies that play this dirty game all the time. I am now reading the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. It is enlightening and helping me piece this puzzle together.
When Nixon came to PepsiCo in 1980, I remember being pissed that I would have to be in a receiving line to shake his hand! Len begged me to be a good spouse and cooperate. Back then corporations frowned on spouses that weren’t team players. My role was to accompany him to these events, look pretty and play the role of a supportive wife. The company needed the cooperation of the wives to make things go smoothly and stressed that we were all “family.” Sure, family until they fire your ass or give your job away because you had health issues, or pit you against your peers to see who is strongest. Working there was cutthroat.
At the time Nixon came I was writing a lot of poetry and vented my anger at having to meet Nixon with a poem called Trail of Blood. In the poem, I wrote about how when he walked in his shiny black wingtips, his footsteps tracking blood everywhere. I visualized him leaving a trail of blood on the polished white marble floor at the PepsiCo Headquarters where they held the party and on the executive level where the carpeting was white alpaca entombing the offices . I kept this image in my mind when I walked down the receiving line and saw Nixon just a few feet away. Out of peer pressure and social decorum, I shook his hand, which felt limp and puny like a handful of dead worms.
I immediately left the line and went to the bathroom to scrub my hands clean. I didn’t say much to anyone that night at our dinner table. I felt too upset.
As far as I was concerned it was all a conspiracy, especially the part where the stockholders money got spent on these outlandishly lavish parties, outings, helicopters rides and private jets.
One time Len and I went on a five-day junket for executives at Whislters Notch just north of Vancouver. It was a breath taking location on a glacier. We flew by helicopter from Vancouver to get there.
The spouses went skiing or shopping during the day and the executives went to meetings. Dinners were elaborate, with French champagne, wild boar, baby vegetables, poached pear with sugar sculptures on each plate and Dionne Warwick singing for us outside under the stars with the back drop of a glacier lake.
When we got back to our suite for the evening, every night a new gift would appear and be placed on my side of the bed. How did they know this? While the other wives loved the gifts, I seemed to be the lone hold out, feeling like I was being paid off for something. On our last night a $400 Hermes scarf arrived wrapped in a beautiful red velvet box. I was incensed! I wanted to throw it back at someone, but at whom? Better yet, I fantasized that I would show up at the shareholders meeting in May and tell all those people what was really going on. I would disclose all the dirty political business I suspected the company of, and how it was spending shareholder profits on frivolous gifts and trips.
Needless to say, I didn’t do that. Instead I returned the scarf to the Hermes store, got the money and spent it on my kids.
Since I didn’t fit in well with Len’s world I minded my own business, trying hard to be a good mom and a supportive wife. But as the kids grew up I was also looking for things to do that interested me, things that I dreamed about doing as a kid.
In 1980 at age 29, I started to write again. I always loved writing. I use to write short stories when I was ten and inherited my brother’s small scale roll top desk. My mom put it in a corner of our finished basement and it was my secret refuge away from the grownups. Joyce, my sister-in-law was dating my brother back then. I had made my confirmation that year and Joyce was my sponsor. She gave me a gift of a chemistry set with a microscope, a starfish packed in formaldehyde to dissect and a Dr. Ben Casey doctor’s shirt because I was in love with him and Dr. Kildare.
I would wash and curl my hair, put on my prettiest “Mumu” dress, like the geek I was, to watch the show on Wednesday nights. Once I even kissed Kildare’s screen face when he saved Yvette Mimieux from a grand mal seizure she had while surfing. My father happened to be walking past the TV and yelled “Dale Ann! What the hell are you doing! Are you crazy? Turn that shit off!” Then he went bowling. After he left I turned the show back on.
I learned how to take notes scientifically about my experiments and I turned that into writing stories. I used black and white composition notebooks with string binding. I would write for hours and hide my notebooks in my desk. Once I wrote a novella about a character named Cassie who wanted to become a research scientist, a lawyer and a judge! When I wrote, I could let my imagination run wild. It felt amazing, freeing and rich. Characters could be anything I wanted to them to be, and they could invent all kinds of things. Writing was magical and exciting. No one could take that away from me.
When we moved to North Salem in 1979, I read an ad in the local paper looking for women writers to join a newly formed group. Since I had already written a few poems my confidence was high and I decided to go to a meeting. At this point I had not taken any writing classes and had only 35 college credits towards my BA. I considered myself self taught, reading writers like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Audrey Lord, Louise Bogan, women with a certain edge.
The first meeting was at Lila’s house in South Salem. Lila was British, very kind and welcoming, but I slowly began to feel wary as other women showed up because they all seemed to know each other and were very chummy. My self-confidence ticked down a few notches. They were all talking about work, writing deadlines, nannies and things I had very little connection to, things that made me feel I may be in the wrong place. “Oh boy,” I thought, “just keep quiet Dale just listen, don’t talk and you will be all right.” I was feeling out classed in everyway by these confident, educated and sophisticated women. It turned out that none of these women wrote poetry. They wrote magazine articles, coffee table books, anything to make money as a writer, and they didn’t know what to make of me. Did I read the ad wrong? Were poets not welcomed?
Then another person arrived, Rebecca, or Becky for short. She was also new and ended up sitting next to me. She was also an experienced writer with a Masters Degree but when she found out I wrote poetry she lauded me with support and interest in my work. She could care less that I was not writing with deadlines or for money. She honored the calling I had to write from my heart. I fell in love with her!
The good news was that in this writers’ group you didn’t have to read anything, but most people did. The criticism was direct and scary. I struggled for years going to these gatherings, determined to fit in, but each time I came home in tears, torn up inside that I was a writer that didn’t fit into a writers group. I couldn’t do what these other women could do: write prose, keep deadlines, have a thick enough skin for critiques.
One time I read a poem I had worked months on. I got my courage up because I thought I had to start and read something after months of not contributing anything. People were curious about me, the “quiet one,” so I read my work.
Afterwards no one said anything but Becky. She liked my imagery. The poem was about being unhappily married and ended with the line “dry as a cracked desert floor.” I of course thought the line was brilliant! It was a little heavy handed and okay for a novice, but Becky encouraged me to keep going, keep writing, that I had a talent. But the others just looked confused and speechless not knowing what to say.
Becky and I became friends. We had the same birthday just two years apart, June 13th.
She loved coming to my house and being in the chaos of three kids darting about in between sipping tea and chatting. I loved visiting in her home with her husband Len Feldstein because it felt like a sanctuary of books, classical music and art.
Becky and Len had a beautiful and magical marriage. They adored each other and enjoyed exploring the world together. Len, who was 31 years older than Becky, was a wiry, energetic genius. He looked and spoke like a mad scientist. He had a BS in physics, an MD, and a PHD in philosophy. He was a psychiatrist and a professor at Fordham University, also teaching at Columbia and Einstein College of Medicine.
You could talk to Len about anything, nothing was too mundane or trivial. Len could always see the broader implications of every topic and was never an academic snob. Visiting Becky and Len made me feel like I was at Oxford University in a tutorial designed just for me! Len and Becky would pepper me with questions about my writing, life and personal thoughts. It felt like they adopted me as their project. Len would call me “Our Dale” and be supportive about my self-education. He also fully understood the conflicts and challenges I faced as a corporate wife. They saw my potential and lovingly pushed me to new heights. Because of them I enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College, which was another dream come true.
Sarah Lawrence is one of the top colleges in the US specializing in rigorous academics and writing. They accepted me as an adult student and I took writing classes for eight years from 1982-1990. My first year there I was inspired to apply as a new writer to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. I was accepted which was a big deal because it was a very prestigious conference and competitive to get into. I worked with writers Linda Pastan, John Gardener, Caroline Forche and Mark Strand. It changed my life. Len was supportive of my writing too, and while I was in Vermont stepped up, and with a babysitter I had hired, helped care for the children while I was away.
The writers’ conference was nestled in a notch in the Green Mountains. If you sat out on the velvet lawns, in throne like Adirondack chairs, you could meditate while watching the clouds morp in the sky and in the distance cast shadow puppets on the hills.
During the first weekend Len came up with Joel, Rachel and Adam. It was idyllic. We went on hikes, ate pancakes in the mess hall and walked the trail around the Robert Frost house just down the road. The trail was dotted with rest areas along a stream with Frost’s poetry under glass.
On one stop along the way, as Len and I were reading the poetry out loud to the kids in the woods, Adam, then 3, decided when no one was looking, to take his shoes and socks off and throw them down the fast moving creek! We ran like mad trying to retrieve his stuff laughing like crazy when a sock and a shoe got stuck on a broken tree branch dangling low over the water like impaled fish. Len had to roll up his jeans and wade in to get it. Adam clapped and giggled in delight.
Len and Becky also started socializing with my Len, my brother Gary and Joyce.
A couple of times we went to New York City for special events. Around 1982 we celebrated Joyce’s graduation from Manhattanville College by renting a limo to attend her student art show in Soho. Len Feldstein was on fire that night. He loved to tweak Len and Gary about their Wall Street mentality. Len F. was a radical liberal. The fact that he liked Len and Gary, given their corporate careers, amazed me. He liked to say things to jokingly ridicule them.
When we went to New York Len F. would often talk to the street people. On this trip he actually got out of the limo at a corner with the light red and offered them rides. Gary and Len were speechless. When we arrived outside the elite Rainbow Room for dinner, Len F. wanted to bring a homeless person with us to eat. The whole night was like that. The three guys also had a friendly, but heated discussion in the limo about the intrinsic value of a product like Pepsi. Len F. said “ Len your nothing but a soda jerk!” We all laughed at Len’s cleverness. He nailed it politically with one catchy phrase. No one could ever get angry at Len F. because he was so likable with that lightening wit.
When I went to Bread Loaf in the summer of 1982, I met an eccentric poet who took me under her wing. Ruth Lisa Schechter randomly called me to carpool to the writers’ conference.
What a character. I picked her up at her home in Croton On Hudson. She was in her sixties, unkempt, chain smoking and even though it was 90 degrees out she wore a purple long sleeve dress, red stockings and shoes with a floppy huge hat. She reminded me of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, “I am ready for my close up Mr Demille.”
Ruth smelled a little musty and her fingers had a greyish tinge to them like she wrote with a quill or stick of graphite. She talked and ate at the same time, dropping crumbs out of her mouth like a goldfish. She went on and on about her writing prowess, name dropping all of her literary connections. She laughed easily and loudly like a cackling crow. Her energy and vitality was big. She told me she was going to Bread Loaf as a fellow, kind of like an honored guest. She held court in her bedroom, on the lawns and in the cafeteria with a small bevy of young male followers who evidently loved the spell she cast, and rumor had it they made her very happy in bed, and while I admired her chutzpah, it was kind of unpleasant to think about.
She read the poems I brought and nicely tore them to pieces. She talked me into working with her privately because she said she “saw a spark and wanted to ignite it”. While working with her my writing improved a lot. She got me published in the literary review she edited and in another periodical. She was a good teacher for a while, until I got fed up with her continuous need for me to drive her to a liquor store each time we met to buy a fifth of vodka that she discretely stuffed in her purse and her propensity to insist I write only about sad things. We mutually parted ways because I had my fill of the dark stuff while she thrived on it.
Writing for me became my solace, my sanity and a vehicle to explore life through. It saved my marriage over and over again and gave me the courage to see light at the end of the tunnel during the hardest times.