Saturday, February 7, 2015

Still Life With Robin: Improving the Story

Photo by Steve Depolo
via Wikimedia Commons
by Peggy Robin

The flap over NBC anchor Brian Williams’ inflated story telling has reminded me of a favorite story I used to hear from my aunt, who had a summer house in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. This one, unlike the Williams’ story, was not an especially newsworthy one, or even a significant one; but it was a story much improved in the telling by placing the narratorr at the center of the action.

Here’s how my aunt would tell it:

I was in line at the local ice cream parlor in Old Saybrook when who should come in but Katharine Hepburn! I knew she had a house nearby but I had never seen her in person before. Well, I didn’t want to seem star-struck, so I went ahead and ordered my ice-cream cone, trying to seem as cool and casual as I could – though I was really in awe of her. I paid for my cone while she ordered hers. Here my aunt affects a very creditable Katharine Hepburn voice, both classy and imperious: “I will have the rocky road  -- make it a double scoop.”  As she was waiting for the counter boy to make her ice cream I went to take a bite of mine, and suddenly realized I didn’t have it. I knew they had handed it to me, but what had I done with it? Katharine Hepburn turns to me, giving me this little grin, and says – pointing to my pocketbook, “You put it in theyah.” I opened my bag, and there was my ice cream cone, melting all over everything….”  I had to laugh – everyone in the shop was laughing, including Katharine Hepburn, but  of course I felt like a complete idiot!

I used to retell the story, myself, though, not as well as my aunt, and without the good Hepburn imitation. If anyone brought up Katharine Hepburn in conversation, I would say, You know, my aunt once ran into her in an ice cream parlor in Old Saybrook….” and I’d repeat the story. Until one day someone said to me, “You do realize that this story has been around the internet for years, and your aunt just appropriated it for herself.”

At first, I could not believe it. My serious-minded aunt, a professor of English, a trained classical pianist, on the boards of so many community organizations – spreading a false story! The whole encounter was so plausible, too. Katharine Hepburn did indeed have a house in Connecticut not far from my aunt's house in Old Saybrook. Yet a quick visit to showed me the whole apocryphal tale, in all its specifics, down to the flavor of the ice cream. Except for the celebrity at the heart of it. The movie star who caused the flustered woman to drop her ice-cream cone into her bag was not Katharine Hepburn. It was Robert Redford. Or Paul Newman. Or in some versions, Jack Nicholson. See:

This revelation came to me several years after my aunt had passed away – and has made me wonder what other great stories my aunt told in her life need to be questioned. Were they all embellished?

I’m not quite sure what the moral of this story is. Looking back on it, it seems to me there was little downside to my aunt’s fondness for this particular fabrication; I am sure she got a lot of pleasure from retelling the story with herself at the heart of it, and she certainly got a lot of laughs from others from the way she told it. Of course, it would all be very different had she been in the business of news reporting!


Still Life With Robin is published on the Cleveland ParkListserv and on All Life Is Local on Saturdays.

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