Elizabeth VanPatten is living proof that we are never too old to launch challenging new endeavors. At 88 years of age VanPatten is having her first play produced and is compiling her short stories for a book.
Her play, “Dream Girl,” as well as short plays from eight other writers will be performed at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa this weekend. The nine plays were chosen from the Redwood Writers Contest. “Dream Girl” is based upon an award-winning story VanPatten wrote that was published in the 2009 Jessamyn West Creative Writing Anthology.
“This is the first play I’ve ever written,” VanPatten said. “The story won awards from two organizations. The whole thing has been very interesting.
“We got to see all of the plays and they’re good. I really like my director, Denise.”
Despite her joy in having her play transformed from words on paper to dialog between onstage actors, VanPatten will say little about her play other than it has three characters. “If I say anything about the play, it would spoil it,” she said. “You’ll see what I mean when you see it.”
This may be VanPatten’s first play but she is not new to writing. Over the past two decades, she has self-published seven books, and her short stories have run in three anthologies. The stories in the anthologies, Jessamyn West, Redwood Writers and The California Writers Club Literary Review were all submitted in competitions.
Like Grandma Moses, the renowned American folk artist who started painting in her 70s, VanPatten’s emergence as a writer also came late in life. Yet, even as a child, she enjoyed her “scribblings” with diaries.
“I think I probably always wanted to write but didn’t think I had the talent or training,” she said. “I did write a ‘gossip’ column in high school and was associate editor of the yearbook.”
VanPatten wrote children’s stories, did cartoons while her children were growing up and did most of the scripts for Reader’s Theatre, a group she was involved in.
Some of her short stories are serious, but her golf cartoon books certainly are not. In “Waging Golf” and “Golf Shots of the Girls,” her humorous writing and illustrations, inspire laughter even in those who have never played the game. A golfer for 25 years, VanPatten affectionately pokes gentle fun of herself as well as her golfing buddies in these two books that were carried, at one time, at the Silverado Country Club. She has had two reprintings of both books.
VanPatten also created a line of humorous golf cards about 12 years ago that are still selling at Jessel Galleries. She said she has other cards at Jessel’s as well but the most popular are the golf cards.
Humor is a staple in VanPatten’s cartoon books, like “Boys in the Attic” “It seemed like a good idea to give an outlet to a lot of miscellaneous cartoons, stories and light verse that were kicking around in my head like energetic boys who needed to go play outside,” VanPatten said about her inspiration for the book.
Many of VanPatten’s short stories, such as “The Milkman of Human Kindness” and “Rosemary for Remembrance – Violets for Revenge,” reveal a tender sensitivity and deep insight into people.
Born in Alaska, VanPatten moved to California at an early age. Later, she went to Oregon State College. “It wasn’t a university yet in the 1940s,” she explained. After college, she lived in a flat near the panhandle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco with three school friends.
Fate stepped in when one of her flat-mates, who was dating a dental student, arranged a date for her with Carl VanPatten, a dental student from Idaho.
“It was really blind because it was for a costume party at the fraternity house and Carl dressed as a hillbilly with a long, scruffy fake beard, so when he called the next day for a date, I didn’t really know what he looked like,” VanPatten said. “Took a chance, fortunately!”
VanPatten and her husband moved to Napa as newlyweds in 1951, just after Carl finished dental school. Throughout the next few decades, the couple became a solid part of the community. Her husband’s dental practice flourished and they had three children attending local schools.
VanPatten still lives in the house she had her late husband built in 1955 — a home filled with years of laughter and warm memories.
“I was undeservedly blessed with an indulgent husband and three wonderful kids plus two marvelous grandsons. I guess it was my husband’s sense of humor that kept him from drowning me early on,” VanPatten said, with a twinkle in her eye. “My husband, Carl, was an extremely caring person — all his patients would agree — and all three kids inherited the ‘Carl gene.’ I’m sure the grandkids can’t help having it too.”
The VanPattens had a happy marriage. “We both liked to go out after he (Carl) got home from work and play golf until it got dark.” said VanPatten. “During the child-raising years, we went on ‘Save the Marriage’ weekends with three other couples, playing golf on the Monterrey peninsula and at Little River in Mendocino County.”
They were also “passionately involved” with Readers’ Theatre. A hat rack in her home holding the wigs and hats used as props for Readers’ Theatre is a reminder of the joy of their “theater days.”
Nancy Garden launched ‘Theatre by the Book’ in the 80s, and for five years the small company, including the VanPattens, performed at the White Barn, and later at Jessel Gallery. “We had a ball! It was a wonderful experience that eventually withered because of a lack of willing male actors,” VanPatten recalled.
The walls of VanPatten’s home are adorned with watercolors she painted after her neighbor, Ken Wilkens, a well-known watercolorist, invited her to go painting with his group. Later, she painted with Dave Huddleston’s art group. “Dave took us on several painting trips, including France, Hawaii and Sedona. I have great memories of the watercolor years,” she said.
It was another, lesser known art form — lint — that got her media attention. A September 1987 San Francisco Focus magazine featured a dark-haired VanPatten holding her lint art next to a story under the headline “Warhol Successor Discovered in Laundry Room.”
“When some red Christmas towels were laundered, they produced gorgeous pink lint suggesting pink pigs,” VanPatten said, explaining her entrance into dryer lint art. “Pork Tenderlint” was the beginning of VanPatten’s life as “the lint lady” who took her lint creatures to Mendocino Art Center for a show called “LintLife from Dryer Droppings.” Someone alerted columnist Herb Caen, and that led to an article in Focus Magazine and ultimately to a television appearance in San Francisco.
“The lint phase is a book waiting to be written, with illustrations of all those lint creatures. People continue to tell me that every time they clean out the lint trap, they think of me,”VanPatten said, laughing.
“Nook & Granny and the Gazelle in the Gazebo,”a children’s book VanPatten published last year, was carried at Copperfield’s Books and will be again when the store gets settled in its new location, VanPatten said.
VanPatten is now concentrating on finishing her short stories. Most are based loosely on personal experiences. These “short shorts, (500 word) stories will be titled “The Milkman of Human Kindness Plus Eleven Other Short-Short Stories For Time Challenged Readers.” VanPatten said she finds that meeting weekly with a writing critique group is helpful. This group includes Marilyn Campbell, Lenore Hirsch, Karen Stern and Pam Jackson.
Perhaps writing is part of VanPatten’s genetic heritage. Her brother, Neil MacGregor, was a poet with a following in Berkeley before he died, she said.
A cousin, Robert MacGregor Shaw, published “Bachelor in the Kitchen” last year. “It won first place in the humor category of Midwest Book Publishers Awards. This month was his 90th birthday, and he timed the party to coincide with the publishing of “Confessions of a Jackpine Savage.”
“This week I received his latest printing: an invitation to his 100th birthday party and book signing,” VanPatten said. “He lives in Minnesota where my father’s relatives are, and Bob and I talk on the phone frequently. He doesn’t like emails. Abhors TV. He shot his TV — yes, with bullets. Had a party — he loves parties — and shot the miserable thing.
“His mother, who died at 96, wrote a wonderful autobiography about her early life in Minnesota,” VanPatten continued. “Actually, I think she was an inspiration for me to leave something in writing to tell my kids what made me tick.”
Will VanPatten write another play? “Oh, yes, it is already written,”she says, smiling, “but I won’t say anything about it.”