Len and I seemed to be doing well even though we had just gone through the toughest year of our marriage. We picked up where we had 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.
About a week before the dinner party, Len told me that the event we were going to was in honor of Richard Nixon. He 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 protested 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.
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 opportunity and love, which I felt my childhood lacked. I wanted them 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 museums and help them 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 postwar Soviet Union. At the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, he wrangled a coveted position for Pepsi as the only American soft drink company allowed to display its products. There is a prominent photo of Kendall pouring Khrushchev a Pepsi at this exhibit with Nixon looking on.
Kendall and Nixon became closer after that. Kendall financially helped Nixon during two political campaigns: in 1960 against JFK and in 1962 against California Governor Pat Brown. 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 repaid to Kendall. Nixon paved the way for PepsiCo to negotiate an exclusive contract to sell its soda products in the Soviet Union and also be the sole distributor of Stolichnaya vodka in the United States. PepsiCo opened the first American bottling plant in Moscow in 1974 and went on to produce Pepsi-Cola in over twenty state-owned Soviet factories. This was a coup for PepsiCo.
Upon researching this story to make sure my memories were correct, I learned Kendall received his second big payback in 1973. I found this tidbit in an article by Gregory Palast in the November 8, 1998 issue of the Guardian:
...the October 1973 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.
Allende mysteriously died two days after this call.
This information, included in the complete White House tapes from Nixon’s Administration and in an interview with then-Ambassador to Chile Edward Korry, has only recently been released through the Freedom of Information Act. Korry also noted that Kendall was the eyes and ears of the CIA in the Caribbean, and that Pepsi bottlers in South America and else.where 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 Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of Defense for Reagan, were given gala parties at PepsiCo and that top-level executives were summoned to attend.
During the Weinberger evening, an arsenal of Secret Service agents stood throughout the dining room, hallways and lobby. As I sat at the dinner table and watched these robotic-looking guys with coiled wires dangling from the side of their ears and guns bulging under their jackets, I remember thinking: “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 there were the trips to the Bahamas with Al Haig, a high-ranking army general and commander of NATO and American forces in Europe, and Deke DeLoach, the third-highest-ranked FBI official under Hoover and now in charge of PepsiCo security, accompanying us on trips. There were others, too: Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Len always enjoyed himself, while I was the rain on his parade. I pointed out how inappropriate it seemed to mix politics 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 all 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 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 saw him socially and I treated him with respect.
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. Just read the book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins to get a clearer picture of it all.
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 participate. 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 the supportive wife. The company needed the cooperation of the wives to make things go smoothly and stressed that we were all “family.” Sure, you were family until they fired your ass or gave your job away because you had health issues. Working there was cutthroat: they pitted you against your peers to see who was strongest.
At the time Nixon came, I was writing a lot of poetry and vented my anger at having to meet him with a poem called “Trail of Blood.” In the poem, I wrote that when he walked in his shiny black wingtips his footsteps tracked 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. 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 at our dinner table that night. 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, helicopter rides, and private jets.
One time Len and I went on a five-day junket for executives to a resort in Whistler, just north of Vancouver. It was a breathtaking location on a glacier.
During the day, the spouses went skiing and the executives went to meetings. Dinners were elaborate: with French champagne; wild boar, baby vegetables, and poached pear with sugar sculptures on each plate; and Dionne Warwick singing for us outside under the stars.
Every night when we got back to our suite for the evening, a new gift would appear on my side of the bed. How did they know this? While the other wives loved the gifts, I seemed to be the lone holdout, feeling like I was being paid off for something. On our last night, a $400 Hermès scarf arrived wrapped in a beautiful red velvet box. I was incensed! I wanted to throw it back at someone, but who? Better yet, I fantasized that I would show up at the shareholders meeting and tell all those people what was really going on and would disclose all the dirty political business I suspected the company of, not to mention its spending of shareholder profits on frivolous gifts and trips.
Needless to say, I didn’t do that. Instead I returned the scarf to the Hermès 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. 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 twenty-nine, I started to write again. I had always loved writing. I used to write short stories when I was ten. I 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 Ben Casey doctor’s shirt be.cause I was in love with him (and even more with Dr. Kildare on TV Wednesday nights at 9pm).
I would wash and curl my hair, put on my prettiest “muumuu” and be all set, like the geek I was, to watch Dr. Kildare. 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 continued to watch it.
I learned how to take scientific notes about my chemistry experiments, and I turned them into 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 them to be, and they could invent all kinds of things. Writing was magical and exciting. No one could take that away from me.
After we moved to North Salem in 1999, 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 thirty-five credits towards my BA. I considered myself self-taught, reading writers like Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, and 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 and nannies, things I had very little connection to, things that made me feel I might 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 outclassed in every way 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, and said that I had a talent. The others just looked confused and speechless.
Becky and I became friends. We had the same June 13th birthday just two years apart.
She loved coming to my house and being in the chaos of three kids darting between our tea and chatting. I loved visiting her 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 thity-one 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 practicing psychiatrist with patients 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 had 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 encountered 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 Unit.ed States and specializes in rigorous academics and writing. They accepted me as an adult student and I took writing classes for eight years from 1982 to 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 and worked with writers Linda Pastan, John Gardner, Caroline Forché and Mark Strand. It changed my life. Len was supportive of my writing too, and while I was in Vermont stepped up: with a babysitter I had hired, he 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’ shadows dance on the hills in the distance like shadow puppets.
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 along a stream was dotted with rest areas 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 three, decided when no one was looking to take his new shoes and socks off and throw them down the fast moving creek! We ran like mad trying to retrieve his four items, laughing like crazy when a sock and a shoe got stuck on a broken tree branch and dangled low over the water like distressed birds. Len had to roll up his jeans and wade in to get them. Adam clapped and giggled in delight.
Len and Becky also started socializing with my Len and me and 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 and company like PepsiCo. Len F. called my Len a soda jerk! We all laughed at Len’s cleverness. He nailed it politically with one catchy phrase. No one could ever get angry with 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. Her name was Ruth Lisa Schechter and she had randomly called me for a ride to the writers’ conference.
What a character. I picked her up at her home in Croton on the Hudson. She was in her sixties, unkempt, and even though it was ninety degrees out she wore a purple long-sleeved dress, red stockings and shoes, and a huge hat. Ruth smelled a little musty. She talked and ate at the same time, dropping crumbs out of her mouth like a goldfish. Then she went on about her writing prowess, name-dropping all of her literary connections. At Bread Loaf she held court in her room, on the lawns, and in the cafeteria with a small bevy of young male followers who evidently loved the spell she cast and made her very happy in bed, which was kind of nightmarish to think about.
She talked me into working with her privately and my writing improved. She was a good teacher for a while, until I got fed up with her continuous need to have me drive her to the liquor store and her propensity to insist I write only about sad things.
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