If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man but deteriorate the cat.
I’ve had cats for a very long time. Like so many writers, from Colette to William Burroughs, I have found cats to be ideal companions: Esthetically pleasing. Contemplative. Humorous. Comforting. But they are tough editors. They have an uncanny knack for throwing up on a particularly awful draft, which was OK when I wrote by hand, but no so great when I have to replace the keyboard on my laptop—again. What’s curious how long it took me to get around to writing about them.
The fact of the matter is that I never considered cats to be a proper subject. One reason, I like to think, is how easily cats lend themselves to kitsch, through no fault of their own. Louise Bogan, that most austere of lyric poets, once counseled a young May Sarton: “Cats, yes; kittens, never.” Another reason, I suppose, is that while all writers are encouraged to “write what you know,” we too take for granted those who are most familiar to us. Mea culpa.
My awakening to cats as subject came by way of a wager. I was working as an editor at the late, lamented SohoNews. It was a terrific job. For one thing, the office was downtown and, better yet, the paper was in such desperate straits that you could try almost anything. Well, almost anything. When I suggested to the Editor that we put my cat on the cover, he thought I was nuts. It was one thing for me to bring Kizzie in on weekends to kill the mice; it was quite another to employ her to boost circulation. I told him that I would bet a week’s salary that a cat would sell at least as many papers as an average issue. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t have to pay me that week; if it did, he could just pay me as usual. Being a cheap bastard, he agreed.
First off, I sent my friend Arnie Klein, a poet and cat lover, off to cover the Empire Cat Show, to try and determine why such elegant creatures attracted such slovenly fans, who set them up in their cages with dollhouse-sized four poster beds and the like. Next, and based on a hunch I had that even people who “can’t draw” can draw their cat, I asked a bunch of local celebrities—the gossip columnist, Liz Smith, Manhattan DA, Robert Morganthau, and the late Laurie Colwin, a witty short story writer I particularly enjoyed—for drawings of their pets. Finally, I strong-armed the photographer, Tony Mendoza, who had published wonderful pictures of his cat Ernie to use my cat, Kizzie, who was an extremely beautiful Abyssinian (albeit not as photogenic as Ernie) on the cover instead. It was my one irrational moment.
When the paper came out, it sold better than any previous issue of the SohoNews, with the exception of the one with John Lennon on the cover the week he was assassinated. Paul Slansky, the studiously acerbic News Editor, suggested: “Next time we should put a dead cat on the cover.” And Tony Mendoza sent me a picture of Ernie chewing up the issue. As I said, cats are great editors.
Many years later I was working as a staff writer at Vogue (and pinning up pictures of Kizzie-the-cover-girl in hopes that someone would pay me to use her in a fashion shoot!) My boss Amy Gross, who was the Features Editor, was putting together a package on relationships: interviews with couples therapists; photos of famous couples; etc. etc. Only half joking, I told her I wanted to write about my relationships with my four cats. Half joking, she agreed, with the proviso that I “keep it short,” seeing as the subject was, well, idiosyncratic.
I finished the piece and for the next few weeks we went back and forth—her cutting, me surreptitiously reinserting—in that dance writers and editors do. I had become convinced that my cats had a lot to teach about the nature of love–lessons that were echoed by writers, philosophers, even couples therapists. The possibilities seemed endless, particularly to Amy, who would have killed the piece had not the then-Editorial Director of Conde Nast, Alexander Liberman, sent it back with a big scrawled “Brilliant!” on the galley. Compared to the bean counters who run magazines these days, Liberman was a Renaissance prince. No doubt he liked the carefully planted references to Stendhal.
Ever since then, I’ve looked at my cats differently. Subjects now, as well as companions, they’ve become, if you will, a kind of window through which to see aspects of almost anything worth thinking about. Love. Medicine. Sex. Ethics. Society. Money. Decorating. Death. Even the vagaries of publishing. In thinking about them, I’ve been drawn to web sites devoted to pet telepathy, and Buddhist vets who use acupuncture. I’ve been introduced to some heady science, from biological diversity (yes, there are gay animals!) to language theory. I’ve debated with myself about behavior modification and Prozac for pets. And while all of this research has been fascinating, with ethical as well as practical implications, none of it, alas, has explained the four-poster doll-bed syndrome any more cogently than the old Mickey and Sylvia song, “Love Is Strange.”
And then I remember they are cats. I need to really see them, and touch them, play with them—just flat out love them, without turning them into metaphor.
But occasionally I still wish they’d earn their keep.