“Long Live Pygmiequeen



Bibliographic Information (best version for telling):  We’ll see.  My written story is so new to me, but I like it a lot.  Who knows how ‘good’ an unwritten one will be. (Trust, right?)


Ethnic Origin:  Whatever I am—Southern Virginia ‘white’ girl


Running Time:  approximately 30 minutes


Power Centers (progression of emotions):


Fear of morgue/death/lying unclaimed

Joy in Lash LaRue

Sympathy for child without father

Aversion to stepfather—contrast of his and Mary Lou’s outlooks on life

Sympathy/empathy for child who is targeted by other kids’ parents

AHHHH!  Freedom in the woods (+ sweet connection to real father)

Solemnity of Baptist church

Yearning for “kindred minds”

Bit of ‘comradery’ with girls

‘Freedom’ and flirtation with boys—boldness, daring + yearning to get to city

Conservatism of old Richmond versus ‘free-thinking’ of RPI

AHHHH! Freedom and whimsy of the artists, Tom Robbins, PYGMIEQUEEN, etc.

Sympathy/empathy/heartbreak for the man in shabby work clothes and his family

Resignation of moving back home + risk of (and respect for) going to St. Pauls

Aversion to KKK

Yearning to go North

AHHHH! Freedom of Greenwich Village in the ‘60’s

Sympathy/empathy for her increased drinking + decreased financial state

UH OH! Credit card forgery + jail

AHA! Critique of the ‘system’

AHHH! Freedom leaving jail

oh—Sympathy/empathy for losses, heartbreaks, sickness

AHHH! Freedom and sweetness of wonder, comfort of Mary Lou + Morgan (Mo’)

Sympathy/empathy/heartbreak for aging woman losing housing, belongings

AH! Sweetness/helpfulness/‘comradery’ of homeless community

Yearning for Mary Lou’s stability—(Dominion House)

AH! Freedom of a real bed and bubble bath

oh—frustration/grief in her dying

AHHH! Celebration of her ‘gifts’ + Freedom of spirit of Pygmiequeen

Connection to her now



Mary Lou

Her mother

Lash LaRue

Her real father

Her stepfather

Other kids’ parents


Nancy and Mawdy

The Boys

The Philosopher

Other student nurses

Bill Kendrick

Tom Robbins


The man in shabby work clothes and his family



Girl Scouts

Peter LaFarge

Dr. York Wong

William Smith, downstairs neighbor


Little League coach

Other incarcerated folks

The ‘System’

Morgan aka Mo’

Edward Haskins

My town’s ‘townfolk

The “Bohemian Band of Hope”




The morgue

Carolina Inn

‘world’ of Mr. Morgan –South Hill in the ‘50’s


First Baptist Church

‘hanging out’ with the girls—slumber parties, etc.

‘hanging out’ with the boys:  Dicky’s house, THE WOODS

Peep show—bedroom window peep show

‘world’ of Richmond in the late ‘50’s/early ‘60’s

the hospital

the Village Café

Trailways Station

Back to Mr. Morgan’s house


Greenwich Village in the ‘60’s

Back to Richmond—Mary Lou’s/Mr. Washington’s apartment building



Back in ‘world’ outside prison—doctors’ office, etc.

‘world’ of Morgan (Mo’) + Mary Lou—their apartment, readings, writings, picnics


Streets of Richmond


(Monroe Park)

Belmont Motel—bed/bathtub

Memorial Service—at Monroe Park

The morgue

The newspaper

Florida—where Morgan (Mo’) is now

South Hill, my hometown

Oakwood Cemetery

(roads from Arizona to D.C.)


The gravestone with glitter and chalk

My car
Chapel Hill

Here—our classroom, now—this telling


Synopsis:  Mary Lou is my hometown hero. She was an unclaimed body in the Morgue.  She was an imaginative little girl, who yearned for ‘kindred minds’ within the confines of her stepfather’s conservative small town.  She found retreat in the woods.  She had a couple of girlfriends, blossomed physically and flirted (and then some) with the boys.  She got out of town, moved to Richmond to study nursing, ran away from nursing school, finally found ‘kindred minds’ and became renewed and rejuvenated as PYGMIEQUEEN.  She got pregnant, returned to South Hill, was the first white person to attend St. Paul’s College.  She escaped South Hill again—this time to Greenwich Village.  She had many artist-lovers there, but soon returned to Richmond, where she fell on hard financial times, committed credit card forgery, went to jail, and served her time.  She fell on harder times—loss of mother, her own cancer, her daughter’s overdose and death.  She finally had cozy and empowering moments as a grandmother with Morgan.  Mo’ chases her dream to meet her father.  Mary Lou falls on even harder financial times, is evicted and becomes homeless.  She finds friends and advocates in the homeless community.  She starts to try to seek a ‘stable’ life at Dominion House—thanks to homeless advocate Edward Haskins.  She gets her monthly check, and she checks into the Belmont Motel, but never checks out.  Haskins et al. have a memorial service, and a newspaper man is inspired by it.  He writes “The Storied Life of Mary Lou”; people in my hometown are touched by it and make phone calls, hoping to influence bringing Mary Lou back to South Hill for burial.  Mary Lou’s body is brought back to town for burial/funeral.  I imagine her as a spirit and whimsical influence on my life.


Rhymes/ Special Phrases/“Flavor”


Sanitized, compartmentalized, waiting to be memorialized


Human wrecking ball—wide as she was tall—just five feet in all


“King of the Bullwhip”


“Lash LaRue! Oh my god when I saw HIM … I sashayed …autographed photograph”


“a leader in the Baptist Church and Satan at home”


songs and dances Mary Lou and her mother used to do


“We must remember that the greatest freedom we have is the freedom to discipline ourselves … to meet with … enthusiasm the new challenges and perplexing problems that lie ahead.”




Revolution and wonder and freedom of expression


Mary Lou was ahead of her time.  Mary Lou was different.  Mary Lou was PR problem for her stepfather


“How can he discipline an entire school if he can’t keep that child in line!”  Lawd, I declare—that wild child Mary Lou ….”  “Don’t you talk to that rambunctious ragamuffin!”


OH, but in those few hours of freedom, when she was alone, in charge of herself …


“What kind of slippers do the angels wear”


“Bless Be the Tie that Binds”


the fellowship of kindred minds


pitter pat--“oooh” “oh” “ah”


Gay Paree, City of Lights, Capital of the Confederacy


Statues--Mary Lou was glad always got their share of pigeon droppings


“Jesus had a beard!”


“I’m not afraid!”


“for the wise and otherwise”


turned her on by painting pictures of plums


Yes, that Tom Robbins …


“spiritual big brother”


“Tom changed my life, he taught me that it is never to late to have a happy childhood; he showed me a strength I never dreamed I had.  He taught me to lighten up, to kick up my heels, to love life.”


“Queen of the White Pygmies”—aka “Pygmiequeen


“Sometimes we’d go in there and just read newspapers like it was the most normal thing in the world.  Other times we’d try to talk people into joining the circus and running away with us.  Until one time a man in shabby work clothes accepted our offer, ran outside to get his bags, and returned with two undernourished children and a wife in a faded cotton dress.  It was heartbreaking.  We went home and cleaned off the makeup.  I went in the bathroom and wept.  We never played bus-station clown again.”


Went from clown … and muse to mother


It was time to head north, time to cross the Mason Dixon line; it was time for New York City.  It was time for Greenwich Village in the 1960’s—artists and anarchy—communes and counterculture


Civil disobedience badge … bartending badge


A drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other


Her smokes, her drinks, and her men, too.


“Call him drunken Ira Hayes”


opened his heart and his mansion to her … ‘til her eye roamed and she roamed …


She went through a few more husbands and a few more bottles of Jack Daniels in a shorter and shorter period of time


And that’s when her financial problems really began.  The ex-husbands weren’t so good for alimony.


She filled it out and signed her name, “M.L. Smith”—part truth, part embellishment


“Meanwhile the same judge just slapped the wrist … community service was all he got.”


“Just doing my duty to show how the system is flawed”


… in pure Mary Lou fashion, she made sure that a limousine awaited her outside the prison, and she made sure it was stocked with some champagne.


She was ready to celebrate, but there wasn’t much to celebrate.


She had chemo, her hair fell out ---“This is what cancer looks like”


Along with this brutal honesty, she coped with the horrors of the world through humor.”




She saw that looking at the goofiness, the absurdity of life can save you from misery.


Cuddled up together reading


They read.  They wrote.


“Lee-Jackson-King” day


“a couple of traitors”


“How can a civilization without art, music, literature—without culture—survive?”


$736 a month—“unexpected bill for gym clothes”  “a crisis”


about things money can’t buy—about nature, about feelings, about dreams


Mary Lou and Morgan, Morgan and Mary Lou


Along with Morgan went Morgan’s money


Late with rent again and again; evicted again and again


Precious things, sentimental things, … valuable things … ruined in the rain


2 bag limit for the shelter program CARITAS—Congregations Around Richmond Involved to Assure Shelter


Yes, you must stuff your life into two bags


Housing moves from shelter to shelter, church to church


“Save a cot for Mary Lou; Pygmiequeen’s slow going today, but she IS on her way.”


But what about her old friends—like Tom Robbins—did they try to help her?  Did she ask for their help?


“My, aren’t you a beautiful black man!”


Buttered Pecan Ice cream


“It’s okay, Edward, go ahead, call it an old folks’ home.”


“I need to get away for a few days.  Sleep in a real bed.  Maybe even take a bubble bath—you wanna join me?!”


She checked in ….  But never checked out.


Conspiracy theories … some people talk of foul play


“more a friend than a client”


every conversation with her an education


her love of art and literature, her intolerance of racism, her ability to inspire


“The Storied Life of Mary Lou”


Zoo—poem simply called “Mary Lou”—“beautiful / fugitive from a wino’s dream”


Story reached eyes and hearts


“Her ghost will haunt those well meaning provincials and drive them crazy.”


And that’s how Mary Lou returned to town.


A local … minister, trying to look a little less conservative than usual, wore a ‘have a nice day’ smiley face necktie and spoke of Mary Lou’s ‘passing.’


“What do they pass, gas?”  “Across the River Styx?”


I like to image Mary Lou’s spirit asking questions like that.


Sometimes I like to imagine her spirit skipping out …


The “Bohemian Band of Hope”


… I imagine her … applauding and whistling … red dirt ….


It is a plot in the back corner of the cemetery.  It is right at the edge of the woods.  I like to imagine her spirit, …, dancing about … like she did as a girl, free in the dabbled light and shadows.


I especially like to imagine her peeking out from the trees as another girl who never really felt she fit in, finds her way to the grave and sprinkles it with glitter and writes upon it in sidewalk chalk the words, “LONG LIVE PYGMIEQUEEN!”


And I like to imagine her catching a ride back to Chapel Hill with me and smiling down on me now, on us now, glad to see that we are celebrating her!





Audience (why is this story appropriate for the audience/developmental characteristics?):


This story involves all of Maslow’s needs:


            Physiological Needs—cleaning and comfort (Mary Lou’s desire for a bath and a real bed)


            Safety—security in presence of others, physical and emotional stability (Retreat of the woods, financial insecurity, cancer, living on the streets, Mary Lou’s death—and the suspicion that it was foul play)


            Love and Affection—touch, caring, time spent with child (Mary Lou’s yearning for her real father, her mother’s absence due to long hours at work, her aversion to Mr. Morgan, her chasing boys and flirting and ‘then some’, her many lovers and husbands, her comforting Mo’)


            Esteem—sense of self worth, validity (Mary Lou’s longing for ‘kindred minds’, longing for someone to ‘get her’)


            Self-actualization—consideration of who I am and who I want to become (Mary Lou’s imagining herself as a burlesque star, her yearning to get out of town—to get to the city, her yearning for ‘freedom,’ her bohemian lifestyle, her role as ‘muse’, her intolerance of racism, her working for justice)


            Need to Know—why things are as they are (her belief in the power of learning, her interest in all sorts of people, her researching injustices)


            Aesthetic Needs—religion, spirituality, beauty, honor, art, etc.—(the Baptist Church, the ‘spirituality’ of the woods, her celebrating solstices, her love of art and literature and culture, envisioning her spirit after death)


            This story also touches on several of Erik Erikson’s developmental stages—after all, it is a life story and spans many years.  For example, there’s Mary Lou’s desire to do things on her own; this involves competence, involves industry.  Certainly there’s her desire to establish her strong identity, to express herself.  Particularly recurring throughout the story is the crisis of intimacy versus isolation, as evidenced by her longing for “kindred minds” and the joy she felt in finding them.  Middle adulthood’s concern for generativity versus stagnation also is found in Mary Lou’s struggles.  Her inability to take care of Jennifer is rectified by her comforting Mo’.  She empowers her granddaughter; she is supportive of her, there for her.  This story also hints at issues of integrity versus despair.  Mary Lou seems to be self-aware, aware of her flaws and gifts.  Audience members, reflecting on her story, might wonder how much of her life was wasted potential and how much was a consistent edginess that she was ‘unashamed of.’  This story asks listeners to reflect on Mary Lou’s life, its meaning and worth.  This story tries to celebrate this life—a complex one of highs and lows, which Mary Lou dealt with through drinking, brutal honesty, and looking for and appreciating life’s absurdities and art.  This story also attempts to get listeners to reflect on the integrity of other individuals’ life stories—it asks them to look for hometown heroes, fairy godmothers/fathers, and patron saints. 


            This story also mentions several complex issues that resonate with many adults:  divorce, friendships, lovers, marriages, sex, pregnancy, abuse, addiction, racism, crime, incarceration, justice, the ‘system,’ parenting, finances, shelter, homelessness, creativity, iconoclasts, revolutionaries, changing times.


            The recurring image of the forest is also appealing for many people.  I hope that when adult listeners first hear of a young Mary Lou’s retreat to the forest, many feel a sense of freedom; I hope that many feel a return to the wonder and carefree nature of childhood. 


            In addition, this story’s connection to Tom Robbins is likely to be of special interest for his fans—and perhaps for people, who are interested in famous authors in general.  It is also likely to interest people who ‘came of age’ when Mary Lou did and attract those who are particularly intrigued by the spirit and changes of the late Fifties and early Sixties.  It seems to also appeal to those interested in countercultural actions and figures.


Risks and challenges:


One of the major challenges was just trying to figure out how I felt about Mary Lou.  I wanted to make her a sympathetic character (but not a caricature).  I didn’t want to sugar coat her life.  I didn’t want to label or judge her, I wanted to honor her.  I tried to look for 'universals' in her very particular, 'personal' life.  It was a challenge to figure out the 'message' of her life for me and the 'essence' of what I feel for her.  It was a challenge to try to figure out how to try to inspire audience members to hurt for her and laugh with her.  
It is a challenge and a risk to just decide to try to create an ‘original’ story almost ‘from scratch.’  It was a risk and a challenge to choose an enigma of a woman, to choose such a complex person that I never knew in person.  Researching her involved a ‘good bit’ of work.  I talked to her homeless counselor, friends/classmates from elementary school through high school, a neighboring woman, who was like her ‘godmother,’ the man who wrote the articles in the paper about her, the man at VCU who works in special collections where the Tom Robbins materials are held, and I’ve even exchanged emails with folks who did just that with Mary Lou back in the late ‘90s, people she ‘met’ on a Tom Robbins discussion list.  That’s where I found tons of her own writings—her own words—found them on Tom Robbins discussion lists.  I also researched her and her stepfather, the principal, in high school year books, found in my hometown library.  It was also a challenge to try to draw the line between research and ‘snooping’ and invading privacy.  For example, at one point, I even considered trying to contact Morgan.  (I understand that in order to tell this in public, I will need to get permission from next-of-kin, etc. or disguise people’s identities more.)  It was also a challenge to try to figure what facts to use, what to embellish, alter, etc.  It was a challenge to figure out how to ‘frame’ her life.  Certainly a huge risk was attempting a type of writing that is new to me.  

We only briefly touched on ‘original’ or ‘personal’ storytelling in class, hence another risk, stepping into some uncharted territory of sorts.  But you gave me some good tips and guidance.  I also found helpful materials.  I read quite a few original stories by Donald Davis (and listened to an abridged version of Listening for the Crack of Dawn), one by Kathryn Windham (I saw her at the National Storytelling Festival), another by Anndrena Belcher (listened to one of her CDs and saw her in Jonesborough), and one by Kendal Haven in the recent issue of Storytelling World on risk—among others, obtained through the “Stories Families Tell” group.  And I’ve read quite a bit of nonfiction on the subject—the best two works being Jack Maguire’s The Power of Personal Storytelling and Loren Niemi’s and Elizabeth  Ellis’  Inviting the Wolf In.  I also watched videos by Jay O’Callahan and by Doug Lipman.  In addition, I contacted the STORYTELL listserv with my initial concerns.  I also saw Sarah Vowell in person at NC State in an attempt to learn more about stories for adults.  Similarly, I listened to several stories on the This American Life Web site. 


Another risk:  I decided to create what some would term a ‘difficult’ story—that is, a story about homelessness, and drunkenness, and drugs, and irresponsibility, and divorce, and promiscuity.  These are ‘uncomfortable’ issues—most of which have not really affected me or my family and friends very closely.  These issues also involve emotions that I don’t ‘like’ to consider—such as pity, disappointment, abandonment.  I tried to mix a variety of emotions—to have ‘ups’ and ‘downs’—light and dark—just like Mary Lou’s life.  This seems to be a risk and a challenge too—finding out how to one mix comedy and tragedy effectively.  I gravitate toward the whimsical and wacky and hope that my attraction to and delight in such didn’t undercut the more solemn, poignant parts.  Other ‘uncomfortable’ risks came in the form of using profanity and referring to sex. 


In addition, I’ve tried to encompass a person’s entire life in a story—I know most ‘difficult’/original/personal stories are about one or two specific incidents in a life.  However, there must be precedents of ‘life-story’ stories, stories of strange, enigmatic folks’ lives.  And I just started to feel very committed to Mary Lou’s whole life.  I became committed to trying to paint ‘portraits’ of her as a girl, stepdaughter, young adult, young mother, lover, inmate, alcoholic, grandmother, homeless woman, corpse, and spirit!  I couldn’t narrow it down to just one or two scenes and try to get into the minutiae of them.  However, some periods of her life are more vivid to me than others, as I’ve discovered more about them; some periods of her life are ‘hazy’—I’ve got fewer facts about them.   


Another risk was writing the story before telling it (though prior to writing I had ‘told’ parts of it to myself as I walked to class, drove around town, that sort of thing).  I eventually became so into the writing and the words that I considered what I wrote to be a ‘literary story’—with very specific wordchoice.  And while I don’t think it’s in the league with E. A. Poe or Rudyard Kipling, I did start to feel that I couldn’t stray far from many of its words.  I feel that, not unlike other literary tales, it has a pretty specific style, and it has very specific phrases and ‘flavor’ parts and word choice that I wanted to remain ‘true to.’  So … I was tempted to do quite a bit of memorization.  But I couldn’t memorize a story of this length—not in the length of time I had between writing it and our December class.  So … I proposed to you the idea of abridging and reading it.  Just asking to read the story was a risk, as was asking you for more time—twice the recommended 15 minutes.  Likewise, it was a risk to complete the written version on the day of the telling, and then to negotiate with you about reading it, only to have about three hours before class for getting comfy with the idea of not reading it and, in turn, trying to practice telling it.  It was also a risk of sorts to choose to sit down for the telling.  I’d stood for the other two, so I decided it was time to sit.  Also, since this is a story as long as a typical sitcom episode (commercials included), I decided that I better sit; standing could be physically uncomfortable.  This also helped me focus more on telling—or hopefully, showing and not just telling—with words and my face and voice.  Also, it put me on a more ‘even’ level with the audience.


Bibliographic information on other versions/variants (at least two):


Here are citations for two of the articles that brought Mary Lou to my attention:



McKelway, Bill.  “One final journey—home.”  Richmond Times-Dispatch 1 Sept. 2003, A1+.


McKelway, Bill.  “The storied life of Mary Lou Davis.”  Richmond Times-Dispatch 2 Jul. 2003, A1+.


Also of interest:  Elizabeth Stone, in her book, Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins:  How Our Family Stories Shape Us, includes a chapter, called, “Fairy Godmothers and Patron Saints.”  This chapter is primarily about stories of inspiring ‘outcasts,’ whom the tellers never met in person, but admire from ‘afar’.  I consider my story on Mary Lou to be a variation on this theme.   In addition, B.A. Botkin’s book Sidewalks of America contains a chapter, entitled “Characters Make a Town.”  One of the first lines of this chapter reads, “Like cities, characters insist on being ‘different,’ on the right to be themselves.”  Mary Lou was on of these “characters.” 


Brief comparison of all versions/variants in terms of language, rhythm, “tellability,” “flavor,” content, etc.  Stress the differences in style rather than those of content.


McKelway’s versions are more ‘newsy’—they are certainly more factual than my story.  They also tend to attach ‘labels’ on Mary Lou, asking, for example:  “Socialite or social climber?”  “Vamp or vampire?”  My story expresses more of an alliance with Mary Lou—I’m ‘on her side.’