Copyright Kathy Biehl 1992. Please do not share without the copyright notice intact. Excerpted from The Ladies’ Fetish & Taboo Society Compendium of Urban Anthropology, Vol. V, No. 2, Sum-sum-summertime ’92
One of Lady Kathy’s new year’s resolutions was linking up with a New York literary agent. It happened in 21 days, when one actually phoned with the request that she organize a speech in March for a client on a book tour — Marianne Williamson, who’d written an extended essay on A Course in Miracles called A Return To Love. The event was pitched as extremely low-key; it was slated for a Sunday evening at the 250-seat sanctuary of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, where she has been singing for eight years, and would require only a couple of people to work the door. She repeated back the list of duties (a policy of hers, since people have a way of expanding them once she agrees to an involvement) and was assured it was all. Her name and phone number would be omitted from all publicity, all of which would be directed to the bookstore handling the speech. They agreed to her fee.
Ominous music swell up and out.
The first little wrinkle came with the announcement that Marianne was going on the Oprah Winfrey Show, whose host considered this the most important book since Scott Peck’s The Road Not Taken and had allegedly bought 1000 copies. Would there be another, larger hall where the speech might take place? Could Kathy see her way to making a few calls? She sought out a number of places and zeroed in on the sanctuaries of Emerson Unitarian Church and Unity, the pyramid-shaped structure that people are always confusing with her denomination. Even though Marianne Williamson is a Unity author, the Houston church staff was doubtful that its xenophobic doors would be opened even for her. After submitting the matter to the special projects committee, the secretary called back to pass on a few questions from the committee, then stopped herself. “What am I doing?” she said. “We have services on Sunday night.” This precluded using Unity and Lady K made arrangements, not without some finagling and relying heavily on her connection with First Unitarian, to rent the Emerson sanctuary. (By the by, Emerson is the “family” congregation, which has been known to refer women in pantsuits to the “downtown” congregation, 1st U., which enploys a gay Zen Buddhist minister, and, as its director of religious education, a practicing witch.)
The next week, the Oprah segment aired and the first printing sold out.
The Houston organizer started getting phone messages from the Unity minister himself. Turned out that, what do you know, the church doesn’t have services on Sunday nights; he had no idea why the secretary might have told her that, and he’d love to work with her to get the speech at Unity. She set out the only way the switch could be made: the church would have to let her bring in an outside bookstore to sell Marianne’s books. The rest of the week was interrupted by a barrage of phone calls from various Unity personnel posing the same question and hearing — but not listening to — the same response. The most frequent was the Unity bookstore manager, who kept saying, “What can you do for us?” and finally, on the day before the publisher’s publicity was going to the printer, acted on the suggestion to discuss the matter directly with the owner of Body, Mind & Soul Books, which had already ordered several hundred copies in anticipation of the vent. Somewhere in the conversation, the Unity store manager finally understood that this speech was part of a book tour, which she reported as if it were news to Lady Kathy in the final phone call retracting Unity’s offer to shelter the event.
The organizer mentioned to the agent that her services were going considerably beyond what they had agreed and maybe they should adjust the percentage. Coincidentally or not, her put her on hold.
Several Sundays later an advance piece appeared in a paper. The next day, a bedraggled staffer phoned to whine — as best as a person can who’s losing her voice — that Body, Mind & Soul had fielded several hundred callas that Sunday and could they please sell advance tickets. The word from New York was immovable: Marianne has “an issue” with advance sales. Calls begging for reservations deluged the bookstore, the church, the supposedly anonymous organizer’s law office and even her home answering machine. The most unnerving was an out-of-state caller who said she’d gotten Kathy’s name and phone number in a holy encounter. The prospect of Messianic New Agers channeling information about her was not out of the realm of possibility. When another caller cited the same source a few days later, she was relived to learnt that “A Holy Encounter” is a Course In Miracles newsletter from California.
The actual event spun out of control, despite all efforts to rein it in. She’s weathered 11th-hour near-litigation brawls involving sound system problems and performers’ sexual preferences, dealt with a cratering piano and juggled the codependent needs of 200+ radical feminists, but never in her event production experience had Lady Kathy ever encountered the problem that downed her 30 minutes before speech time, when her eyesight, hearing and, eventually, sense of balance dimmed. After a brief knee-clutching (and body-cursing) break, she returned to the helm of what was growing into self-replicating protoplasm. Due to a misperception of the number of tickets in a roll — 1000 instead of 500 — a planned method of keeping tabs on seat count fell apart completely, which Kathy was stunned to learn when the president of the congregation ran out of the sanctuary yelling that she had to shut down the door and she walked into a room overflowing with people in the aisles, along the walls, in the window sills, in the choir loft, oon the floor along the altar and the podium. Despite such dangerous overcrowding, late-comers still fought being turned away with a disturbing pattern of anguished moaning about how far they’d driven and how desperately they had to see Marianne. The restrooms ran out of toilet paper before the speech even started.
The actual speech was lost on the organizer, who, when not crouching on a floor battling an adding machine to reconcile the take (which yielded a percentage that left her more than happy), spent the time cowering over exactly what horrid fate Authority was going to impose on her for the overcrowding. Under the watchful eye of the congregation’s president, whose very presence was making her feel more and more in trouble, her dwindling crew broke down the set-up with 10 minutes to spare before the end of the rental.
When she returned the key to the office the next morning, she saw the congregation president walking on the grounds and tried to will herself into invisibility. She failed. He called her over to introduce her to his companion, who turned out to be Emerson’s minister. She braced for the worst, and both men surprised her — the president by praising her organizational abilities, and the minister by laughing that the next time she should use the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Postscript 27 years later: I did briefly meet Marianne before the event, at a 5-star hotel near the Galleria. She was holding an infant and barely inclined to acknowledge my presence, an attitude presaging a lack of any acknowledgement of or thanks for my effort the evening of the event.
The bookstore owner, on the other hand, thanked me repeatedly for not screwing her over by going with Unity and sticking her with hundreds of books. Never occurred to me to do that.
The agent asked me to pitch a story about the then current state of popular music. He declined to pass it on because he thought my musical references were obscure. For example: Tom Petty’s Refugee.