WHO WERE YOU, PART IV
You Were: The Secretary
In 1950, one of the richest men in New York kicked the bucket. A hermit for much of his life, he left no children and fewer friends. Still, a handful of distant relatives hurried to Manhattan to hear the reading of his will. Each hoped he or she would be leaving town the next day with suitcases stuffed with cash. But as it turned out, the gentleman had bequeathed every last cent of his fortune to an individual by the name of PT Scattergood—a person none of his relatives could recall meeting. A person who hadn’t bothered to attend the reading of the will. A person some suggested might not exist.
You were PT Scattergood.
A few months later, your name could be found on the door of a nondescript office on the top floor of the Chrysler Building. Every day, the most powerful and influential people in the city showed up to grovel for cash. They needed money for environmentally-sound business ventures or pet charities—to begin artistic endeavors or to fund political campaigns.
When your guests arrived, they would be asked to take a seat in the small waiting room outside your office. There, a young woman would hand them a form to sign. The form stated that they were not to disclose anything they saw, heard, or learned while inside your office. The penalty for doing so would be ten million dollars. Anyone who couldn’t agree to your conditions was asked to leave immediately.
Once their signatures were on the form, your guests were forced to wait. Sometimes for an hour. Sometimes for two. A few guests sat on the couch for an entire day. One slept there overnight. They never suspected that it was all just a test. Or that the young secretary typing away at her desk was the person they’d come to see.
Okay. Perhaps I should explain.
For two years before your benefactor’s death, you had been his private nurse. The morning he died, you’d discovered an envelope on his bedside table. Your name was on it. My fortune is yours, the note read. You’ll know what to do with it. And somehow you did. You set aside a bit for yourself. (A tiny percentage of the overall fortune, but enough to keep you in Dom Perignon for the rest of your life.) Then you set out to give the rest of the money away.
But you needed a test—a way to determine which people were worthy of your financial assistance. Sometimes it was obvious. You gave hundreds of millions to children’s charities. You single-handedly saved the whales. Your money was responsible for a non-toxic pesticide that put an end to New York’s bed bug plague. But all those good deeds barely put a dent in your fortune. So that’s when you decided to open your office.
There’s never been a better test of character than making people wait. Most barely made it an hour before they shouted at the poor secretary (you in disguise) or started taking their frustrations out on the waiting room magazines. Nearly every visitor cracked before they reached the five hour mark. But those who didn’t—those who showed patience, persistence, and humility—received a handsome reward.
It took five years, but eventually you reached the end of your fortune. You tossed the wig you’d worn to work everyday in the trash. Had your name removed from the office door. Traded your secretary glasses for sunglasses and caught a plane to Montego Bay where you lived in great comfort for the rest of your days.
You Were: The Decoy
Most of us take it for granted that our physical appearance is completely unique—that the face we see in the mirror could only belong to a single person on earth. This, I must report, is rarely the case. We all have a double (or two) walking the planet. (Quick side note: My own mother swears she once saw mine on a PBS show about Iceland.)
We rarely meet our doubles face to face. (Although we may glimpse them from time to time. When we do, they’re called doppelgangers.) But some people are born with famous faces. And that, of course, changes everything.
You were the daughter of an Egyptian fisherman, and you spent much of your childhood on a papyrus boat that your father had built with his own two hands. One afternoon shortly after your fourteenth birthday, you were hauling in a net filled with flailing moonfish when a royal barge appeared beside your boat. Two men dragged you punching and cursing into their vessel. Before your father had a chance to join the fight, you and your captors were already gone.
Growing up in a hut on the shores of the Nile, you had never imagined a city like Alexandria, with its ship-filled harbor, multi-colored temples, and countless sphinxes all waiting to pounce. And the palace you visited there was unlike any structure you’d ever seen. The ceilings were so high that they might have held the heavens. Secrets and stories were written on the walls. Stone pharaohs and granite gods watched each visitor’s every move.
You were guided to a sumptuous chamber where the furnishings glittered like gold. (Because, you later learned, they were gold.) The men pushed you inside and closed the doors as they left. It was then that you realized a girl was watching you. A girl your height and your age. When she came to inspect you, you realized you and she were completely identical.
Cleopatra wasn’t a great beauty, but she was smart, with a mischievous mind and a wicked sense of humor. She was also rich, possibly royal, but she seemed like an ordinary girl to you. You had no way of knowing that she would eventually become most important and powerful woman in the ancient world.
That evening, you were dressed in stunning robes. Your arms laden with golden jewelry and a magnificent crown on your head, you were paraded through the streets of Alexandria. Crowds gathered to see you. It was all great fun until a man standing by the side of the road pulled a knife from his belt and sent it flying in your direction. That was when you knew: You had become Cleopatra’s political decoy.
It wasn’t such a bad life. You loved your boss like a sister, and the two of you led almost identical lives. You ate all the best foods. You had your own servants and slaves. You were even taught by the very same tutors. By the time Cleopatra became queen, you could both speak seven languages and you later co-authored books on cosmetics and gynecology. As far as you were concerned, few knives thrown at your head was a fairly small price to pay to live like a queen.
Then everything went wrong. Cleopatra had gone to war with the Roman emperor. And she had lost. All hope was gone. She would be humiliated by the Emperor Augustus—presented to Rome as a human trophy. She was resigned to her fate, but you couldn’t allow that to happen.
You instructed Cleopatra’s handmaidens to prepare for a secret journey. You knew Cleopatra would never consent to being smuggled out of the city, so you drugged her and had her body hidden inside a trunk. Then you went to her chambers with a basket in one hand.
Once you were dressed in the Queen’s most magnificent finery, you opened the lid of the basket and let the snake inside slither out. When they found your regal corpse, no one ever imagined that it didn’t belong to Cleopatra herself.
You Were: The Comedienne
Your tale starts with tragedy and ends in triumph. If you were anyone else, I’d warn you to stick with the story until you reach the end. But I already know you’re the kind of lady who would.
When you were twenty years old, your beloved husband was killed in WWII. He left you with a tiny son, a one-room apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and a pile of bills. Your neighbors would have done anything to help you make ends meet. But those were hard times, and few had a dollar to spare. Still, everyone on Ludlow Street stopped by to offer their condolences. Much to their surprise, they all left laughing.
It’s not that you weren’t devastated. You mourned your first husband for the rest of your days. But you were also a girl who met heartbreak with humor. All you had to do was walk down Ludlow Street to see life was a battle. Some people fought it with their fists. Others depended on their wiles. You knew the best weapon was a good, naughty joke.
When the debt collectors began to call, you needed to find a way to support your son. So you turned to the one skill you’d had the chance to develop. You visited every talent agent in New York, hoping one could find work for a comedienne. Unfortunately, you met with a ridiculous prejudice that exists even today. Pretty girls can’t be funny, all the agents informed you, even as they laughed at your jokes.
You tried to disguise your good looks with wigs, glasses, and unflattering makeup. Nothing worked. Finally, you figured out a way to make the agents see you for who you really were. You wouldn’t let them see you at all. You stopped meeting agents in their offices and started sending greeting cards instead. They weren’t just any cards, of course. You designed them yourself, and each came with a handwritten joke inside.
One agent howled so long that he lost control of his bladder. Another opened your card on the street and was so blinded by tears of laughter that he was nearly hit by a bus. Still, no one would find you a job, and by the spring of 1945, even you couldn’t find much to joke about. Then the president died. You never figured out what inspired you to send a card to Eleanor Roosevelt. Or why she would choose your card to open. But she said it was the first thing in weeks that had made her laugh. Fortunately, she said it to a reporter from the New York Times.
A year later, you were running your own greeting card company. The debts were paid. You had a nice apartment and a nanny for your son. And the whole world seemed downright hilarious.
You Were: The Very Good Girl
You were born in 1718 to a wealthy merchant who lived near Milan. As a child, you were pretty, delicate, well-mannered, and docile. Your parents adored you. Your servants adored you. Heck, everyone in town adored you. Strangers who saw you riding around in your father’s carriage would gasp at the sight of your big, blue eyes and strawberry-blond ringlets. You’d acknowledge their stares with a sweet little wave, and their hearts would melt into big globs of goo.
When you disappeared, there wasn't a dry eye in town.
Fortunately, your kidnappers were as foolish as they were evil. They figured a pretty little girl like you would be worth a handsome ransom. And it would be much easier than kidnapping an adult. They assumed you were too small and sweet to fight back. They were very wrong.
I’m not suggesting that the sweetness was all just an act. You were a genuinely wonderful human being. But that didn’t make you a doormat. Until that time, you’d lived a sheltered life. You’d never had to fight any battles, and you’d been looking forward to your first for an awfully long time.
As your kidnappers raced away from the scene of your abduction, you calmly assessed the situation. There were two kidnappers, both hulking males. There was no chance of overpowering them, so you’d have to outwit them.
They hid you in a hovel in the middle of the woods. Just as they had expected, you sat on a chair and bawled for your mamma. They didn’t need to watch you that closely. Which was a good thing, since the kidnappers were busy battling a demon that had followed them home. First, the thatched roof caught on fire. Then their wine was replaced with turpentine. One’s dagger disappeared from the sheath on his belt. The other man sat on the dagger and received a rather embarrassing wound. While they scrambled to clean up the blood and dress the wound, the horses were set loose and the cat went crazy.
Finally, the men came to the conclusion that the demon had something to do with you. They were too frightened to kill you, so they set you loose in the woods and hoped hunger or wild animals would do the job for them. But you’d paid close attention on your ride to the hovel. It took you two days to retrace the route, but on the third morning you arrived at your parents’ door with the world’s sweetest smile on your face.
You Were: The Schoolgirl
You were born in a small town in Southern Italy. World War II had ravaged your part of the country. You were poor. Your neighbors were poorer. Everyone wore rags, and some went hungry. But there was one bright spot in your life. Believe it or not, it was school.
It wasn’t a large school (there were only thirty children in town). But even small schools need money to function. And the three wonderful teachers who taught you and your friends were among the town’s poorest citizens. Before the war, the local people had paid the teachers’ salaries by charging tourists a small fee to visit the village church, which was said to be haunted. After the war, no one seemed to recall your town or its ghost. Your beloved school was on the verge of closing.
You had big plans for your life, and dropping out of school at age nine wasn’t part of them. Even at nine, you weren’t afraid to take matters into your own hands. (I have a feeling this is a trait that you might still possess.) The next time you heard that a traveler was passing through town, you rushed over to the church, hoping to give him the scare of a lifetime. When word got out that your ghost was back, more tourists would journey to see it.
You were hiding under a squeaky pew when you heard someone approaching the altar. You let loose a blood-curdling moan and shook the pew, but you didn’t get a response. When you peeked out, you saw a small girl in a beautiful dress. She wasn’t one of your schoolmates, but she seemed to know the church well. She gestured for you to follow her.
She opened a door to the left of the altar and guided you down a set of stairs. At the bottom, a dark tunnel snaked underneath the earth until it ended at a pile of rubble. The way was blocked, but for a small opening between two fallen rocks. The little girl crawled into the opening. You refused to follow, and waited for her to emerge. (You’ve always known the difference between bravery and stupidity.) The girl never came out.
You ran to get your father. He and a few of the village’s strongest men spent the night pulling rubble from the pile. When the opening was finally large enough for a man to pass through it, your father crawled inside. You’d never heard a man scream the way he did when he reached the other side.
Beyond the rubble, he’d found a coffin. Inside lay a small girl in a beautiful white dress. She’d been dead for centuries and yet her body looked perfectly fresh. Three hundred people had been laid to rest in the catacomb. Each and every one of them looked as good (or grotesque) as the day they’d been buried. You had discovered the best-preserved mummies the world has ever known.
Of course the mummies became a major tourist attraction. Your town and school flourished. And though everyone in town encouraged you to become an archaeologist, you went to beauty school instead. (A wise choice, as it turned out. But I’ll leave that story for later.)
You Were: The Mouse
When you were sixteen years old, your father was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Your beautiful house was burned to the ground, and your family’s belongings were seized by the government (I’m not sure which government) and distributed among the powerful men who ran your small country. Your mother had passed away while you and your brothers were still very young. With no parents left, the three of you were packed away to an orphanage.
Few noticed when you arrived at the orphanage, and no one cared when you disappeared two days later. You traveled over fifty miles on foot to the former site of your family’s home, and spent an entire night digging in what had once been the garden. There, you uncovered the secret emergency fund your father had buried years earlier. It wasn’t a fortune, but it was enough to rent a small apartment in the city and purchase a few humble furnishings. As soon as the rooms were in order, you helped your beloved brothers escape from the orphanage. The three of you would never live more than a block away from each other for the rest of your lives.
Shortly after you and your siblings were reunited, the papers began to follow the exploits of a daring burglar known only as The Mouse. “He” (they always assume it’s a “he” don’t they?) earned his nickname by invading homes while the wealthy owners lay asleep in their beds. None of the victims reported hearing a thing. In fact, it was weeks before some even realized they’d been robbed. The burglar was always as quiet as a mouse.
Had the local police chief been a true professional (rather than a well-connected phony), he might have spotted a pattern to the burglaries. The items that were taken didn’t truly belong to the people who’d reported them stolen. They belonged to you and your brothers. And they’d been reunited with their rightful owners.
Your career as a burglar didn’t last very long. In later years, you barely remembered it. But your brothers’ memories were much better than your own. Even after you gained worldwide fame for reforming your country’s corrupt government, your brothers still loved to tell tales of your days as The Mouse.
You Were: The Model
Students of mid-19th century French sculpture have often remarked that quite a few artists seemed to have been inspired by the very same woman. While their creations generally bear different faces, the bodies of their statues appear remarkably similar. Most experts have dismissed this as coincidence. Most experts are fools.
You were the only living member of an aristocratic Parisian family that had fallen on hard times. (Hard times that began when your grandfather was overheard saying that the Empress Josephine smelled a bit ripe and could use more perfume.) The money was gone, the jewels had been sold, and the furniture chopped up for firewood. The only thing left was your grand house on the Ile St. Louis. There were plenty of nouveau-riche arrivistes who were begging to purchase it. You could barely imagine such shame.
You needed to earn a living, but as a woman with a well-known surname, there were few job options available to you. Then one day, you noticed a sign pinned to the door of a building just across the river on the Left Bank. Artist's Model Wanted, Inquire Within. You knocked, and a toothless old lady opened the door. She took one look at your Olympian form, nodded and dragged you inside.
A handsome fee was negotiated, and you were led to a studio, which was empty but for a chaise lounge and a dressing screen. There, you were instructed to change. You expected to find a costume behind the screen, but the only thing waiting for you was a black piece of cloth barely large enough to cover a single butt cheek. At first you assumed there had been a mistake. But the kind old woman explained that the fabric was meant to hide your face--and nothing else.
You sat behind that dressing screen for an hour, agonizing over your decision. But modesty is rarely a match for hunger pangs. You changed out of your street clothes and decided to get to work.
One perfectly pleasant nap later, the old lady returned to tell you that the session was over. She filled your palm with coins, and once you were home in your empty mansion, you celebrated your new employment with champagne and cheese. The next day you were back. And the next and the next.
When friends of your sculptor visited his studio, most were struck speechless by the form taking shape in pristine white marble. Members of the French art community began to whisper that a goddess was walking the streets of Paris. But no one knew your name, and your face remained a well-guarded mystery. Soon, one cheeky young artist figured out how to find you. He bribed the old lady who worked for the sculptor. For one hundred francs and a suckling pig, she was thrilled to arrange a meeting.
With your face carefully hidden behind a veil, you arrived at the new artist's studio one night and prepared for your first session. You had already spent the afternoon napping at his colleague's house, and you and the sculptor were both in the mood for a chat. He was charming, you discovered, well-read, and amusing. You began to look forward to his company, and it was no reflection on his conversational skills when, on a particularly hot summer night, you fell fast asleep.
The sculptor couldn't resist. He tiptoed over to your side, and lifted the black cloth tied around your head. He had fallen madly in love with you weeks before, but the sight of your sleeping face shook him to his core. He was so overcome, that he fled the studio and wandered out into the night. You woke when you heard the front door slam, and sensing that the artist was gone, decided to see how his work was progressing.
You found it impossible to believe that the statue still struggling to emerge from the rock could be the work of human hands. You gazed at it for hours, barely aware of time passing. When the sun began to rise, you finally dressed and prepared to go home. You found your sculptor standing outside, staring up at the windows of his own studio.
You modeled for years to come, with the old lady acting as your agent. Your identity was never revealed, and nothing delighted your husband more than visiting Paris's many salons and seeing his wife in bronze, marble, and clay.
You Were: The Wig Maker
During the golden age of Hollywood, tourists in town to see the stars’ homes would often stop and stare at the most magnificent house in Beverley Hills.
“Whose mansion is THAT?” they’d ask their tour guides.
“That,” they were told, “belongs to the wig maker.”
Of course everyone wanted to know how a humble wig maker became one of the wealthiest people on the west coast. The answer was simple. You sold more than wigs. You traded in secrets as well.
When you were a little girl in the south of France, your breathtakingly beautiful mother woke up one morning without a hair on her head. While the doctors examined her and your father cried, you carefully gathered the locks she’d left behind on her pillow. It took more than a week, but you fashioned a stunning wig. By the time your mother was well enough to leave the house, no one would have guessed that her lovely hair wasn’t actually attached to her head.
It wasn’t long before you were the most successful wig maker in all of Europe. You knew every royal family on the continent. (Female baldness is endemic among Europe’s royals.) You were proclaimed a visionary. A genius An artist of the highest caliber.
Then you moved to Hollywood. You’d been a film fan for as long as there had been films. You had nothing but respect for the actors, directors, and cinematographers who created movie magic. You expected them to show the same respect for you. They didn’t. You were treated like poo. (Forgive the French.)
After a humiliating encounter with Joan Crawford (who needed your services after she’d left a hunk of hair in Bette Davis’s fist), you made up your mind. If Hollywood wouldn’t respect your artistry, you’d just have to teach them a lesson. As a wig maker to the stars, you knew which celebrities had hair—and which were bald as babies. You knew who had gone prematurely gray—and whose hair stayed greasy no matter how many times it was washed.
These were the sort of secrets that fetched top dollar back in the day. Still, you only squealed on those who deserved it. Soon, the message made it all around town. Treat the wig maker with respect, and pay her well, or cross your fingers and hope nothing ever happens to your hair.
You Were: The Traveler
(Today’s victim/volunteer is the girl peering over the edge.)
In the 1970s, you were the star of a Soviet acrobatic troupe. Your specialty was the trapeze, and you could hurl through the air like perfectly aimed bullet. Everyone assumed you were fearless. The truth was, you had always been terrified of heights. But you were the sort of girl who refused to be ruled by her fears. (And you’ve always been a extremely hard-headed.)
Every year, your troupe toured the Soviet Bloc. Your death-defying act grew so famous that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev himself caught your show when you passed through Moscow. It’s a little known fact that Brezhnev had once fallen in love with a trapeze artist, and you reminded him a great deal of the girl from his youth. So when he greeted you backstage after the show, he decided to grant you a wish. You told the Chairman of the Communist Party that you’d like to visit the United States.
A statement like that could have gotten your butt shipped to Siberia. But to your great surprise, Brezhnev thought it was a splendid idea. How better to showcase the athletic superiority of Soviet youth than to send your fabulous troupe on a tour of America?
Of course, just because he thought you were cute didn’t mean you got to skip the mandatory KGB background check. For weeks, agents eavesdropped on your phone conversations, read your letters, and interviewed your friends and family. The one thing they never uncovered? The black market copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road that you kept hidden inside your pillow.
It wasn’t your favorite book. You didn’t even think it was particularly good—certainly nothing compared to the works of Russia’s great writers. But On the Road had scared you in ways you had never expected.
As a star performer, you had always enjoyed a cushy life. You were given good food and an apartment with all the modern amenities. But your days were planned to the minute. You always knew exactly where you’d be in a week, a month, or a year. And the truth is, you’d grown comfortable in your routine. Too comfortable. And when you’d first cracked open On the Road, the idea of setting out on an endless journey with no destination scared you to death. So you decided that was exactly what you needed to do.
When your troupe reached Chicago, you checked into a hotel downtown. Your room was eight stories above the street and a guard was stationed outside the performers’ rooms. Neither of these proved much of a challenge. As soon as night fell, you dressed in black, stepped out on the room’s balcony and climbed over the rail. A swing, a flip, and a couple of leaps later, you were on another balcony four floors below. You borrowed a few items of clothing from the businesswoman asleep in her bed (leaving the last of your rubles behind on her nightstand) and hit the road.
Chicago winters are notoriously harsh, but to you, the frigid weather felt almost balmy. You had no money. No friends in America. No idea where you were going or how you would survive. You were scared senseless. And that was just the way you liked it.
I’d tell you all about your travels, but I have a feeling you’d rather set off on new adventures than read about old ones. But I hope you haven’t lost the desire to scare yourself silly. It’s the secret to leading a well-lived life.
You Were/Are: The Birthday Girl
Does this day feel particularly special to you? Yes, I know it’s your birthday. What you might not realize is that it’s been your birthday five lives in a row. You’ve lived in feudal Japan, fourteenth century Finland, Timbuktu during the Songhay Empire, and early twentieth century Las Vegas. But you’ve always arrived on earth on October twenty-second.
It all goes back to Japan. In the twelfth century, you were the wife of a legendary samurai. Though your name has been lost to history, in your time you were almost as well known as your husband. While he was away (and he was often away), you used your wit and your wiles to grow the family fortune. And you never hesitated to defend that fortune with a deadly naginata. Though you were young, people traveled for miles to seek your council on issues that ranged from animal husbandry to the proper treatment of carbuncles. There seemed no limit to your wisdom.
Over time, however, you became unhappy. You were anxious to settle down properly (perhaps even start a family), but your husband was never at home. (The wives of other samurai often took such matters into their own hands. But you adored your husband and never dreamed of betraying him.) The letters you sent to the battlefields of Japan would have made the Emperor himself shed a tear. At last, your husband promised to return.
No matter what happened, his last letter read, he would meet you on your birthday. October 22.
I think you know where this is going. He didn’t get there. And you died of a broken heart. But this isn’t a story with a tragic ending. You both remembered what day you were meant to meet. So you've both returned to earth on October 22. (And the universe has made sure that the years match up.) You’ve found each other in three lives so far. I hope you’ve found each other in this one. (If not, just wait.)