Saturday, February 13, 2016

We'll Die For You

Dilys relishing fresh lobster. Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia.

Darling I Love You So.  That’s how Dilys taught me to remember how to spell her name. Of the hundreds of wonderful, brilliant and creative people we have known and adored during our many years in Key West I would rank Dilys Winn among the all-time greatest.  Dilys was a genius, a rebel, and a writer of mystery novels.  In New York City she founded the nation's first all-mystery bookstore and called it Murder Ink.  In Key West she staged a mystery theatre/bookstore, Miss Marple’s Parlor.  After Key West she moved to North Carolina, where her first address was “Mars Lane.”   In N.C. she was promptly discovered and hired by a country bed and breakfast inn as a hostess. Her job was to pour tea and entertain the guests, which she did with aplomb.  Imagine sitting down to tea with Dorothy Parker!  She even looked a bit like Dorothy Parker – not tall, plumpish, and with brown eyes, generally sparkling with amusement. She cut her own hair into a sort of pageboy and preferred drapey, linen clothes with big pockets and buttons.  I called Dilys my own private Dorothy Parker.  And in honor of that, Dilys presented to me a first edition of Dorothy Parker poems, a prize I will cherish forever. Sometimes I simply called her “Darling I Love You So.”

Dilys and June at the beloved lover's desk. Asheville, N. C.
Dilys lived in interesting places, and in none of them for long. Sometimes she lived in an abandoned building for sale and had to move when the sale happened.  Sometimes she lived in a garret in someone’s creaky attic. Sometimes she lived in the backrooms of her shops. Her final residence was in Asheville and it was lovely.   Dilys had a vast array of fascinating things that she gathered along the long and winding road of her life. Her favorite possession was a lover's desk, ancient, heavy and unique which she had brought home from England.  On the last evening we spent with her, some five years ago, I asked her to pose with me at that desk. And she did.

There is a prize named after Dilys Winn.  At the Mystery Book Writers of America annual Award Night gala the prize is given to the mystery novel that booksellers most enjoy recommending to their customers. It is called “The Dilys.” It honors Dilys Winn's elaborate conversational skills. Start at a mystery book and end up at Freud. Somehow Dilys was able to knit all the pieces together into something whole and brilliant. Her fascination with mysteries was her portal into the vast universe.

Nova Scotia morning. Shirley, Suzanne, Dilys, June and Babe.
In the last five years of our friendship Dilys was housebound, suffering with the kidney disease that finally took her on February 5.  We kept in touch with occasional marathon phone calls. An hour with me, and then, what she liked best, an hour with my husband, one of her favorite men. Had we recorded those wild conversations I’m sure we would have something Dilys would have deemed publishable by now. We didn’t, and so we will warm ourselves with memories of Dilys visiting us in Nova Scotia and chasing lobsters and puffins; Dilys treating us to dinner in a fabulous and remote restaurant in Asheville; and, of course, those many crazy days and nights hanging out at Miss Marple’s Parlor.

The attached column first appeared in the Miami Herald.  Pictures would have been a good idea.  But who thinks of that when you’re laughing so hard you can barely breathe?

We'll Die For You 

    After watching a couple friends perform in a campy, interactive whodunit parlor game at Miss Marple's Parlor and Mystery Book Shop, I suggested to shop owner Dilys Winn that if she ever needed a big blonde, I was available. Her bright eyes, aglow with a glimmer of lunacy, turned neon when I said my husband would act, too.
    Finally, our chance came. Last week Dilys called and asked us to appear in one of her zany dramas. I would play a whorish psychic. Michael would be a nerdy IRS agent. Were two roles ever so clearly ours? All we had to do, Dilys explained, was enter the parlor at 8 p.m., clutch our throats, stagger like poisoned people dying hideous deaths might do, and - die. Easy enough.
    "Sure," I told Dilys. 'We'll die for you."
    Dilys sent me to the Knot So New Consignment Shop where Ilene, the shop owner, who really is psychic, handed me dress after whorish dress to try, while a salesgirl named Lucy and I discussed the meaning of the word "whore." Does a whore get paid a lot for sex, or simply have a lot of sex? I say the second. Please don't ask me why.
    After I'd found my costume, a tight green and gold skirt with a giant flounce in a shimmery fabric, with a matching leopard-skin print jacket, I was to report to Dilys for costume approval.
    "Here are my corpses now," Dilys said to someone on the other end of the phone, when Michael and I walked into her shop.
    Dilys loved my costume, and was so encouraged by our enthusiasm for acting, she made an impulsive decision to expand our roles. After our death scenes, according to the new script, we were to quickly change into angels' wings and choir robes. Oblivious to anyone else but our ghostly selves, Michael and I were to wander around, discussing bright white lights at the end of a tunnel. We were also to drop occasional clues.
    Late Friday afternoon, while I teased my hair and applied a half-pound of makeup, Michael hunted for the gray flannel suit he'd stashed in the back of his closet 10 years ago. While he knotted his tie, I parted his hair down the middle and plastered it with gel. We found his old briefcase.
    At 7:30, we headed on foot for the mystery theater, with absolutely no clue of how our appearance on Duval Street would affect sunset pedestrians. Michael, the nerd in the suit and tie carrying a briefcase, and I, his whorish companion in the leopard skin suit, jangley jewelry and cheap perfume, created a bona fide scene.
    "Is this your first blind date?" I shrilled to Michael as we passed a group of pedestrians. Some polite types tried hard to not stare. Others glared at me disapprovingly. "How do you like Key West so far?" I shouted gaily, as Michael managed to stay in poker-faced character.
    A girl sitting on the sidewalk stared hard, and then when we were past, sighed loudly and gasped "My nerves," as if she'd hallucinated us.
    Soon, it was 8 o'clock. Showtime! As we waited in the wings, with the other, more seasoned cast members, Dilys appeared to give us some last minute directions.
    "When you do your death scenes, really camp them up," she said to us. "You should really overact, and don't worry about looking foolish."
    Then, as a sort of afterthought, Dilys murmured, "I could never do what you're about to do."
    But Michael and I had no qualms about looking foolish, and no fears of losing our dignity. Our impromptu dress rehearsal on Duval Street had cured us of all that.

Here's a video of Dilys' appearance on "To Tell The Truth" in 1972.