Arrow-right Camera
News >  Features

‘Young at art’

As Sally Pierone turned 80, she could practically hear Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” playing as her soundtrack.

After a life of madcap travel, exuberant self-expression and New Age growth, Pierone began to grow weary. The much-indulged younger daughter of a prominent Spokane family, she had lived long and well. She continued her work as a spiritual coach, a career she embraced at the age of 60, but she began to feel old.

“I kept thinking, ‘I’m so tired,’ ” she told her friend Judy Laddon. “I wish I could die and go to heaven.”

But that’s never been Pierone’s style.

She was born in Spokane in 1921 to Clara Paine, a diva of the Spokane Junior League Follies, and Alan Paine, an attorney whose downtown firm, Paine Hamblen, still carries his name. In the 1920s Paine returned to his family’s two-story Craftsman-style home on Summit Boulevard in the evenings to spin tales of the bootleggers and gun-toting criminals who showed up in his office.

“I had very cheerful, giggly parents who would do anything,” Pierone said. “Everybody loved to have a good time.”

Alan Paine’s father was Waldo G. Paine, who helped manage the Spokane & Inland Railroad Co., which ran from Spokane to Coeur d’Alene and Hayden Lake. His wife’s grandfather was William Nettleton, who owned land in the West Central area. Nettleton’s Addition Historic District carries his name.

But it was Pierone’s maternal grandfather who looms largest in her memory. His name was Col. William R. Abercrombie, and in 1910 he commanded the infantry at Fort Wright. The family story goes that he tangled with the mayor of Spokane when he fed striking workers. When the Army told him to apologize to the people of Spokane, he said, “I’ll be goddamned if I will.”

Newspaper accounts called Abercrombie “Spokane’s first soldier” because he showed up here years earlier, in 1877, as a young second lieutenant. Nervous pioneers were relieved to see him and the troops following behind. They were worried about a Nez Perce tribe camped nearby.

He gazes confidently from the pages of a Spokane history book. And now his granddaughter, with the same white hair, steady eyes and resolute jaw, resembles him.

On a recent afternoon, Pierone perched on a leather recliner in the living room of her brick South Hill rancher. She wore a silky leopard-print blouse, big silver earrings and black flip-flops. Gleefully unconventional, she told her life story with gales of laughter.

She knew her grandfather, the colonel, as “Puppy,” and remembered best the last days of his life. One day when he was hallucinating from medication he took for his heart trouble, her grandfather mistook her for a traitor and ordered her mother to have her shot.

Pierone’s mother merrily saluted her father and said, “Yes, sir!”

Sally Pierone grew up an artist, a bon vivant — and a flirt.

She began drawing on her friends’ book covers at Holmes Elementary and by junior high, she had her own comic strip.

“I can’t ever remember not being an artist,” she said.

After Pierone graduated from a girls’ boarding school in Seattle, she headed to Madame Chouinard’s art school in Los Angeles and then the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. There she dated Harvard students and dashing young Navy ensigns in the years leading up to World War II.

“We all had a million adorable boyfriends that were all dressed up in navy blue outfits and covered with silver buttons and white hats,” she said. “It was just unbelievable.”

One evening when Pierone was back at home around age 19, she met Bing Crosby with friends at the Spokane Club. When he asked for her phone number, she was thrilled.

Not long afterward, Crosby called the Paine household. Her mother picked up the phone.

“May I speak with Sally?” he asked.

Clara Paine said, “Well, I’m her mother, and I like to know who’s calling her. Who is this?”

“This is Bing Crosby,” he said.

Clara Paine declared, “Well! This is Ethel Barrymore.”

And she slammed down the phone.

After art school, a chance came along to live in New York City with the daughter of wealthy friends of her parents. The two young women house-sat in lavish New York apartments, and Pierone worked as a commercial artist.

She often dined with an aunt and uncle at restaurants like 21 and Sherry’s and rode in a big black limousine to Broadway musicals and the racetrack.

After eight years in New York, another friend invited Pierone to sail to Europe with her. Pierone’s grandmother had died and left her $2,000, which was a lot of money then. She supplemented it with another $1,000 she made selling art.

“I just loved having the adventures,” she said. “It wasn’t as if I had a plan to have an interesting life. I didn’t have any plan.”

They sailed on the Saturnia for Italy in 1949. They slept in tourist class, a depressing realm where roaches circled the double bunks and aging Italian immigrants lay in the beds with their shoes on, headed home to die. So they quickly devised a scheme for sneaking into first class for cocktail parties and dancing.

The steward soon found them out. But he agreed to look the other way if they’d sign a statement. “The tourist accommodations on the Saturnia are excellent,” she recalled it saying.

Pierone signed with a flourish.

When they arrived, they found Europe covered with rubble. Yet they dove in and created excitement. In Florence, Pierone’s friend found a job writing a column in English for a local newspaper. The editor, who didn’t speak English, didn’t care what she wrote – just as long as it hit the right length.

One night they went to a working man’s restaurant, rather like the Park Inn on Spokane’s South Hill. There they met the teenage owners, a brother and sister who were mourning the loss of their mother and glum about their prospects of keeping the restaurant alive.

Pierone and her friend offered to help. The owners cleaned and painted the interior, and Pierone designed murals for the walls. She painted caricatures of American tourists loaded down with cameras and suitcases.

When she asked the owners the name of the restaurant, they said, “Ristorante Bing Crosby.”

Her columnist friend began fabricating stories of famous American movie stars and their adventures at Ristorante Bing Crosby for the newspaper. And soon customers began pouring in the doors.

A year later, when Pierone had moved on to Paris, she crossed paths with her pal from Spokane, Bing Crosby himself. When she asked him if he’d been to the Ristorante Bing Crosby in Florence, he said, “Of course.”

Life changed dramatically when Pierone returned to Spokane. She left behind a job with the U.S. government as an artist promoting American-style productivity to Europeans during the Marshall Plan. She also left behind influential artistic friends in Paris.

She fell apart. She didn’t want to live in Spokane. She didn’t want to leave the house. She didn’t know where she fit.

“I’ve always been very connected to my inner child,” she said. “Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t get in touch with my inner grown-up.”

She consulted her first psychiatrist. She married Bob Pierone, who ran a men’s clothing store in downtown Spokane, and they raised three sons. After 23 years, the marriage ended.

“It was really the best of divorces,” she said. “I made up my mind this is going to be the divorce from central casting.”

She delved deep into the self-improvement movement.

“It was just when the whole New Age thing was opening up,” she said. Pierone’s childlike playfulness made the New Age world a natural fit. She explored it all – manifestation, shamanic journeys, meditation. She searched out mystics and healers.

“You tell me to eat pine needles,” she said, “I’ll go right out and get some.”

But it was the six weeks she spent with California family therapist Virginia Satir right before her divorce that influenced her most.

“She totally changed my life,” Pierone said.

By the time Pierone turned 60, she began working as a spiritual coach, incorporating Satir’s ideas in her playful, yet fearless, techniques. She didn’t try to tackle problems she hadn’t experienced.

“I do know about being a 50-year-old woman who got dumped for a younger woman and came back and was happy,” she said. “I do know that.”

A fellow therapist, Sonya Rose, describes Pierone’s approach as warm, nonjudgmental and lighthearted.

“She has a beautiful, enthusiastic way of interacting with people who are sharing their sufferings,” says Laddon, who has attended her women’s group for years. “It’s really almost hilarious. She’ll say, ‘Perfect! That’s something to work on. Let’s work with that!’ “

By 80, Sally Pierone’s sense of passion seemed to be winding down. She’d already experienced one major life transition and rebirth – maybe two. It seemed too late for another.

“I was feeling ‘been there, done that,’ ” she said.

But one day she discovered a video by a French art teacher, Michele Cassou, and rediscovered her first love. Soon she traveled to Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., for a workshop with the French teacher.

Cassou wrote with Stewart Cubley a book called “Life, Paint and Passion” (Tarcher, 1996). She teaches a method of approaching painting again as a child. She calls it “Spontaneous Expression.”

“I just flourished there,” Pierone said. “I loved that, and I loved her.”

Soon images burst forth. She took Cassou’s advice and hung white paper on a wall in her kitchen, where she painted endlessly.

A socialite in a big red feathered hat appeared in one painting with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in another. A slit ran down the front of her black cocktail dress, and a wailing baby jumped out.

The paintings stacked up – around 150.

“There are only so many ideas,” she said, “but if you’re painting from your unconscious, you’ll never run out.”

Last September Pierone’s friends mounted an exhibit of about 40 of her paintings at the Unitarian Church. She expected about 50 people, but 350 showed up. She sold 27 paintings that night, and the evening turned into a celebration of her life.

Now Laddon handles her Web site, www.sallypierone.com, which sells prints and originals, as well as coffee mugs, coasters and mouse pads of her art.

These days Pierone holds court in her Rockwood-area living room, alternately healing and entertaining a steady stream of art therapy seekers, New Age pals and members of her women’s meditation group.

“She’s just a remarkably generous person, which is why people love her,” Laddon says. “She is just beloved in this community.”

Now 85, Pierone describes herself as completely reinvigorated. At the same time, she’s not frightened by death.

Sometimes when she meditates, she has a vision of people she’s loved, particularly her mother and her father, greeting her from another dimension. They’re always excited to see her. It’s almost as if they’re inviting her home to play.

“They say, ‘You will love it here!’ You will love it!”

 

Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter

Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter

There was a problem subscribing you to the newsletter. Double check your email and try again, or email webteam@spokesman.com

You have been successfully subscribed!