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I kept telling my husband that I had Arm Cancer. All of a sudden, about seven weeks ago, my left arm began to hurt. I couldn’t pin point the pain but it was bad enough that I stopped using it to lift, pull, or push anything – which is very inconvenient seeing as how I’m left handed. I couldn’t even pick up a tea cup. Had to drink my favorite bevvie all unnaturally, from the recto side. The worst thing, though, was having to hold my toothbrush in my right hand. That, and the tea-cup-holding thing: I don’t know how you right-handed people do it. It just feels so, so very wrong.

But I kept painting and drawing through the pain (see above, the famous ancient Bridge of Orson over the Couesnon River in the little Normandy [France] town of Pontorson). In fact, it was after I did the (above) illustration (which is unfinished: I have to add the ghost of William the Conqueror in the clouds) that my arm began to really, really hurt. I finally called my doctor and got a same-say appointment to go get my Arm Cancer checked out.

(Top Cat is a typical husband, in that he is male and in denial when it comes to aches and pains. I told him that I was going to see my doctor and Top Cat asked me, “What’s she going to tell you that you don’t already know?” ha ha.)

Turns out that I’ve strained my wrist. Which I would never have guessed, in that that’s the one part of my left arm that doesn’t hurt. Seems there’s a tendon that runs from the wrist to the elbow that, when stressed, makes the whole arm throb. (Note to Top Cat: Anatomy. That’s what my doctor can tell me that I didn’t already know.)

So I have to rest my left wrist. Under doctor’s orders, I can’t paint for three weeks. So for the time being, I’m just a writer. Which felt awful until I remembered that there was a time (up until about five  years ago, when I started thinking about illustrating for the first time) when that’s what I was: a writer. So I’m going back to my roots!

So the story for this day is How I Became A Writer.

It was the Fall of 1991. I was at a lecture at the Hispanic Society of America, which is not a liberal political organization agitating for immigration reform although there is nothing wrong with that: it’s an old, stuffy, snotty museum and cultural center in a wonderful old Beaux Arts building in upper Manhattan the houses a grand library and art collection concerning the influence of Spain in America. The lecture I was listening to was about The Spanish Royal Jewels.

(P.S. There aren’t many left, since when the Habsburgs lost their American empire they had to hock a lot of stuff and what the Spanish royal family didn’t pawn the Bonapartes stole.)

Philip II of Spain gave his bride, the English Queen Mary Tudor, a wedding gift (in 1554) of a large, beautiful 58-carat (203.84 grain) pearl called The Peregrina.  She was often painted wearing the gem (as a pendant on a very big brooch) : 

Mary died in 1558 and the pearl was returned to Philip to give to his next wife, and then passed down for generations and worn in royal portraits painted by Velasquez and Goya.

(Isabel of Bourbon, Spanish Queen, by Velazquez; The Peregrina is at her waist.)

Yadda yadda yadda. All typical jewelry historian stuff. Which is why I was there, at the Hispanic Society: I was a brand new graduate gemologist and I was interested in antique jewelry.

But then the lecturer said, to sum up The Peregrina’sstory, something that electrified me: She said, “By the way, the Peregrina is now owned by Elizabeth Taylor.”

Whoa. Suddenly, I realized that this pearl had had a very, very interesting life that a listing of its Spanish owners didn’t even come close to telling. And I had to know what happened, in between the Habsburgs and the Taylor-Burtons, to this pearl.

It took me a year to research it — the pearl has been the victim of fraud and several cases of mistaken identity through the ages, mostly with a pearl called The Pelegrinathat came down through some Russian princesses (which itself was confused with another Pelegrina that was from India) and I was researching it back in the day when there wasn’t Google. I went to the New York Public Library and looked at lots of primary sources: old sales catalogues, antiquarian books, newspaper articles. I tracked down info in ancestral homes in England and images from the Prado in Spain and archival drawings from Cartier. I wrote to Dukes and curators and Elizabeth Taylor. I got the whole story, and I published it in 1993 in a magazine called Heritage (which called itself A Report On Antique and Period Jewelry and Watches).

And that’s how I became a writer. Because I learned about a story that was out there, loose in the world, that needed to be set down for safekeeping. It didn’t need for me to tell it but I was the only one who was willing to do the work: that’s the way I still feel about much of what I write.

I hadn’t looked at my story about The Peregrina for many many years, but I dug it up for this post and I re-read it. I’d forgotten just how complicated the story was — so much wrong info to wade through! The funniest bit happened when Richard Burton bought the pearl at Parke -Bernet in New York: its authenticity was disputed by the exiled Queen of Spain Victoria Eugenie, who said she still owned The Peregrina. But her pearl was not the right size as the historical Peregrina so Liz Taylor got the REAL one for her 37th birthday. It cost Mr. Burton $37,000.

Here’s what it looked like when he bought it:

(From the LIFE magazine story on Feb. 25, 1972: Liz Taylor is 40!  The Peregrina had been mounted on a simple chain by the English Marquess of Abercorn in the late 19th century. Long story.)

And here’s what it looked like when Cartier designed a $250,000 new necklace for it:

(photo by Fred Ward, 1993)

I just did a quick internet search on The Peregrina. Sigh. There is still lots of confusion about this pearl. No, The Peregrina does not mean The Pilgrim: that’s The Pelegrina. The Peregrina means “The Wanderer“.  Huge sigh.

I guess my work is not done. All that bad info out there, and I’m not even mentioned on the Wikipedia article about The Peregrina. So if you see a new page on this blog about The Fabulous True History of The Peregrina, it’s only because damn it: I have to set the record straight. AGAIN.

Huge, self-important, why-is-the-world-full-of-half-assed-information sigh. That’s just my job as a writer.

5 comments to Once upon a time.

  • Rachel

    I am so glad that you did indeed go to the doctor and now have a recovery plan. We do want you to be able to continue as a painter. But in the meanwhile, what a delightful story you have told us, and I do look forward to reading more of the *Wanderer’s* travels. As well as about our Wanderer at Home. Take care.

  • That was very, very interesting! Sorry about your pain.

  • Helen McHargue

    Fascinating story and the necklace is stunning. I’d love to read the whole article.

  • Deborah

    Loved the story of how you became a writer — yet another example of how persistence, sticking with it pays off (that’s one of the central themes of Malcolm Gladwell’s book about success, Outliers: you have to be willing to put in 10,000 hours practicing to be a success).

    I also loved seeing the pictures of the Peregrina. They made me realize that I tend to think of jewels as static — forever in one setting. Interesting to see it in different settings.

    I used to long to be a Verso — starting in about 3rd or 4th grade, I would pratice “for hours” (read: 10 minutes) trying to write left-handed because writing left-handed seemed somehow so exotic and wonderful. I’ve reconciled to being a Recto, but I’ve always had close friends who are lefties (I guess I became Verso via politics!:-)

    Sending healing thoughts your way…..

  • emily m

    what an interesting story and I would love to read the Heritage article. Sorry about your wrist and hope it heals soon. Pictures of interest too.

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