That charming combination brewpub/café/bookshop/reading room located on the most historic four corners in Uptown Kingston’s Stockade Historic District, Rough Draft Bar and Books, has revived its tradition of hosting a Local Author Showcase, mostly monthly. On the designated evening, three Hudson Valley-based writers are each invited to bring stacks of their newest opus to be signed and sold to the public. Since multiple authors are holding forth at one time, the event is not a typical bookstore live reading or book talk, but more of a meet-and-greet where the Rough Draft crowd can gather to meet best-selling authors of the future – or at least folks with interesting stories to tell and what it takes to tell them well.
Next Monday, January 9 from 5 to 7 p.m., Rough Draft will present Dan Guilfoyle, author of From Shrink to Think; Sally Bermanzohn, author of Indian Annie: A Grandmother’s Story; and Mary Lois Timbes Adshead, author of Travelin’ Light. While I’m not familiar with the other two, I can vouch for Timbes Adshead as a woman who has led a most interesting life – including founding two stage companies – and has a lot to say about it. She’s a gifted raconteur who brims with sharp insights about the world in which she grew up and the one into which that has evolved. At 82, she’s making an audacious leap from careers in theater, journalism and public relations to channeling her experiences into short fiction.
I was introduced to Mary Lois by mutual friends who volunteer for the Rosendale Theatre, where she has served on the Programming Committee since soon after moving to Ulster County ten years ago. An early adopter of social media who has been blogging for decades, she has written many a movie and theater review over those years. Observing that film criticism in popular media wasn’t serving the female half of the audience base very well, she got a brainwave to create an alternative platform to Rotten Tomatoes for critics writing from a feminist point of view (and not exclusively catering to the young sci-fi/fantasy fandom who form the core readership of The Mary Sue). She was going to call her startup Ripe Tomatoes. As she started looking for reviewers to contribute, someone gave her my name as Almanac Weekly’s movie critic, and we arranged a meeting.
Though Ripe Tomatoes was (and still is) a terrific idea, without financial backing, it didn’t get off the ground. Maybe one day it will. Meanwhile, Mary Lois and I kept in touch – mainly through Facebook, where she’s a prolific poster of daily artworks that she has discovered, photos of famous people born on that day and astute observations on politics, culture and modern life. She still blogs as well, at https://newlifenewarts.blogspot.com, although not as heavily as she did in the years when she lived in Hoboken, New Jersey (2007 to 2012) and before that from Fairhope, Alabama, where she had spent her girlhood and returned upon her third husband’s retirement in 1988.
Fairhope was an unusual launching pad for a white girl born in the Deep South: Although it has now morphed into an upscale suburb of Mobile, in Mary Lois Timbes’ girlhood it was a community unrecognizable within the framework through which Northerners typically view the Jim Crow era. This small town on the shore of Mobile Bay had been founded as a utopian social experiment in the 1890s by reformers from Des Moines, Iowa known as Georgists or Single-Taxers. They had embraced the theory of economist Henry George, author of Progress and Poverty, arguing that land and its resources should be owned collectively, with residents renting the property on which they lived and paying only a Land Value Tax. The group founded several settlements intended to serve as model communities; the two that still survive today are Arden, Delaware and Fairhope, Alabama.
Fairhope quickly became an artists’ colony, something like Woodstock in the Byrdcliffe days. It attracted the likes of muckraking author Upton Sinclair, and was a haven for freethinkers of all sorts, including nudists and whole-foods adherents. Women played an equal role in running the town before they got the right to vote, and many of Fairhope’s colorful citizens were women seeking a place to lead lives unconstrained by conventional gender roles – a veteran Isadora Duncan dancer who wanted to be an entomologist, for example. Adshead Timbes has written extensively about these larger-than-life characters in two nostalgic history books, The Fair Hope of Heaven and Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree.
The most profoundly influential immigrant to Fairhope was educational reformer Marietta Johnson, whose theories about letting children learn at their own pace, without grading or testing, bear many similarities to Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf education model. A Georgist from Minnesota, Johnson founded a progressive school called the School of Organic Education in Fairhope in 1907. Its students learned woodworking and pottery along with standard academic skills, acted out Shakespeare plays while rambling in the woods, got their Phys Ed classes in the form of folkdancing. John Dewey, favorably impressed after a visit to the School of Organic Education, devoted an entire chapter to it in his 1915 book Schools of Tomorrow. This was the private school that young Mary Lois Timbes attended, and it shaped her approach to life profoundly.
She began writing short fiction at an early age, but like the protagonist of “The Opening Curtain,” one of the stories in Travelin Light, was diverted by her love of theater. She spent a year at Alabama College for Women, where she found a faculty mentor who encouraged her writing. Conventional higher education didn’t suit her after her highly unconventional elementary and secondary school experiences, however. She jumped ship for an experimental summer stock program run by Mississippi Southern University, working on six plays and acting in four of them.
Then, at age 20, she “got sidetracked,” she says, marrying her first husband, who “wanted to be an opera impresario.” They moved to New York City, then to Atlanta and back to New York again, and had a daughter, Alison Woods. The marriage only lasted about five years. While secretly longing to write fiction, Mary Lois took up journalism, working for a number of years for the trade newspaper Menswear Daily.
Her second husband was an actor, and while married to him in the early 1970s, she began taking private acting classes with Lee Strasberg and his protégé Peggy Feury. “I did a few scenes with Lee. It was an awesome experience,” she recalls.
By the late ‘70s, she was working in public relations and divorced for a second time. Her third marriage was to a “PR guy” who soon became a DuPont executive and got assigned to run the company’s European public affairs office. “We lived in Geneva for seven years,” she recalls. “I had sort of given up theater. But I got active in the American Women’s Club there, and started a club to read plays. We decided to put on a show.” That initiative soon developed into the Little Theater of Geneva, dedicated to mounting productions of works by American playwrights. “We built a real following. We mostly did comedies,” she says. “I ran that for about five years, and it was still going when I left.”
The Adsheads returned to New York in 1984, and then lived in Wilmington briefly before her husband – 17 years older than herself – decided to retire. She talked him into resettling in her childhood home of Fairhope, by the late ‘80s a resort town and retirees’ haven. There she plunged into documenting local history and founded the Jubilee Fish Theatre Company, a modern Equity company that she ran until 1996. In 2007, following her husband’s death, she moved to Hoboken, spent a lot of time seeing Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, immersed herself in Hoboken’s colorful history and took up blogging about it.
The floodwaters of Hurricane Sandy lapping at her doorstep in 2012 were the nudge she needed to move to New Paltz, where her daughter and two grandsons lived. Two years later, she bought a lovely Queen Anne house in Uptown Kingston – within walking distance of Rough Draft, though “not in winter,” she says. A recent online course with Joyce Carol Oates bolstered her confidence enough to pull reams of memoirs out of her file drawers and begin reworking them into short stories. “You put together different facets of this incomplete person and you get more of a voice,” she says.
Travelin’ Light is the first collection of what Timbes Adshead is calling “revised memories,” shaped with assistance from noted local author Will Nixon. They’re mostly about young women in the mid-20th century who are taking risks and seizing agency over their lives, all grounded in her own experience. “This book is a woman finding herself. This is one person. She changes,” says Mary Lois, who uses Timbes as her nom de plume and self-publishes under the imprint of Sibley Oak Press. “I’m trying to normalize my personal history by writing these stories.”
The voice that Adshead Timbes has rediscovered is fresh, a little wry and acerbic but with a subtle Southern lilt. These stories are deeply evocative of distinct phases of the times and places in which she has lived over eight eventful decades, as options for women opened wider and allowed them to blossom. Come and meet her in person at Rough Draft Bar and Books at 82 John Street in Kingston on January 9 from 5 to 7 p.m. If you can’t make it that evening, you can find Travelin’ Light through the usual online book retailers; the ISBN number is 978-0-9857733-5-9.