When Judy Laddon first considered writing a book about her longtime friend Sally Pierone, her intent was to make it a memoir.
But the book that resulted, “Sally: The Older Woman’s Illustrated Guide to Self-Improvement,” is less memoir than love story. Which is to say that Laddon makes her affection for Pierone obvious on virtually every page.
“I’ve been coming to Sally’s house for 20, 21 years now for a weekly women’s discussion group,” Laddon says. “And I’ve loved her stories. I’ve really admired how she’s served other people with her stories and with her wisdom.”
Laddon and Pierone will discuss the book, and more, at Auntie’s Bookstore in downtown Spokane at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Part of what they no doubt will address is how the book came to be. And that can’t help but lead to either Laddon or Pierone – or maybe both – telling some of the stories that entail what Pierone calls the “Anita Loos” period of her life.
Pierone was 28 in 1950 when she headed for Italy, embarking on a journey that would see her and friend Mary Virginia Gordon sneaking onto their ship’s first-class deck to attend parties, painting on the streets of Rome, doing their laundry in Florence bathhouses, making up stories that Gordon would print in a column that she wrote in English for a local newspaper (accompanied by Pierone’s drawings).
“There was no limit to the depths of my shallowness,” Pierone would tell Laddon many years later.
By the time Laddon, 60, met Pierone, the older woman had changed. Now 87 (“three years away from the Big Nine-Oh!” she says), Pierone not only has survived the subsequent ups and downs of her life but she’s actually thrived.
Which is what Laddon hoped to convey in her book.
“My whole interest was Sally’s growth,” Laddon says. “What she was feeling, what her life was like, and what her challenges were.”
It was Laddon’s fascination with Pierone’s stories that first led to her tape-recording them. It was only when she had volunteered to do publicity for a 2005 Pierone art show that Laddon began thinking seriously about a book.
Once they decided to do the project, Pierone proved willing to talk openly. But she drew the line when it came to commenting about family and friends.
“I told her that she would have a chance to give feedback,” Laddon says. “I wasn’t going to do some kind of exposé. There were some areas that we go to that she said, ‘That’s got to be off the record.’ “
Still, Laddon says, “She was very generous to share intimate parts of her life, which I appreciated because it makes her human. And you can relate to her as a whole person instead of just showing the very best.”
As Pierone says, “This is not ‘Little House on the Prairie.’ “
That becomes obvious early on. Pierone’s relationship with her mother – whose father was Col. William R. Abercrombie, once commander of the infantry at old Fort Wright – had never been close. And her marriage to Bob Pierone, owner of Pierone’s Men’s Store, wasn’t particularly happy – though Pierone places as much blame on herself as on her late ex-husband.
“I got a visual of my marriage with my husband as a turtle … and me as a kind of hysterical octopus, trying to pull him out,” Pierone says. “We did do a lot for each other. We were best friends. The minute he moved out, we were totally best friends.”
And then there’s the role that the Lilac City played in her life.
“You see,” Pierone says, “when I got back from Europe, I had a nervous breakdown. Here I’d been just (snaps fingers), and now I’m in Spokane… . It’s turned out that I’m thrilled to be here, but it seemed horrifying to me at the time.”
She resorted to therapy, something that wasn’t nearly as accepted in the early 1950s as it is today. But it, over time, made all the difference.
“In therapy you’re telling more and more about what happened,” Pierone says, “and then you’re pointing out that people’s sicknesses are their secrets. So I don’t have any secrets. I mean, every good friend knows I would have told them anything. And I became devoted to becoming clear … and became devoted to telling other people, ‘Big secret, so what? Tell it! Get rid of it!’ “
That spirit is what appealed to Laddon, who’d had her own share of issues growing up.
“I grew up middle child in a big family,” she says. “I was afraid of conflict, and I didn’t want to admit that there was any problem. When I started coming to her house and saw how she reacted to people who said, ‘I have this big problem,’ it was liberating. Because she would say, ‘You’ve got this big problem. Perfect! Now we have something to work on.’ “
That work, and the sprit behind it, is exactly what Laddon wanted to capture.
“What I loved about her stories was they often were funny,” Laddon says. “And entertaining. And the other side was they were profound. They really were leading you to some kind of growth and shift and greater understanding of yourself. I just really liked that combination, and it’s what I hoped to do in the book, is have it be entertaining and nutritious.”
Pierone has far fewer expectations for the book.
“I just hope it doesn’t come across that I was darling and that the marriage thing was somebody else’s fault,” she says. “We were ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ That’s who we were. And I take full credit for being that woman.”
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