’31 Days’ (And Counting): A Memoir of Seduction and the Woman Who Lived It
Some stories just have to be told. They are so integral to us, so much a part of who we are that we have to give them breath. That’s certainly the case with Marcia Gloster’s book, 31 Days. The subhead is labeled A Memoir of Seduction, but it’s much more than that. It’s a tale of a young woman’s relentlessly passionate affair with an older man, and how one month in the summer of 1963 changed her heart forever.
It’s also a tale of obsession — what happens when a 20-year-old art student, arriving in Salzburg, Austria with the intent of immersing herself in the creative life of Oskar Kokoschka’s School of Vision, instead plunges headlong into a reckless entanglement with one of her instructors. Bill Thomson, 17 years her senior, is arrogant, self-centered, enigmatic, and sexually-driven. He’s above all, for a curious and stubborn woman balanced on the brink of life’s adventures, irresistible.
Gloster has built a successful career as an award-winning art director and book designer. She is also an active member of the prestigious National Association of Women Artists (N.A.W.A.). Founded in 1889, it is the first professional women’s art organization in the U.S. She has lived most of her life in New York City and is currently working on a novel about the madcap world of advertising and publishing in the Mad Men era of the 1960s.
Her memoir, 31 Days, gives the reader a close-up and detailed glimpse of the day-to-day pursuit of passion. It’s a cat and mouse, sometimes topsy-turvy escapade that forces the reader to ask who is the pursuer and who is the pursued?
Gloster has peopled her account with a mix of other students — largely male contemporaries who veer between their own serious efforts at painting and nightly bouts of drinking in the coffee houses and bars of Salzburg’s Old City. They too are fascinated by Thomson and his frequent female consorts but have little, if any, luck in convincing our protagonist of the dangers that await her. Their own attempts at flirtation fall largely on deaf ears. Even Kate, her travel companion and fellow student, can do little to persuade her from her headlong descent into the affair. One of the more interesting antagonists is the German instructor Rudolf Kortokraks, or Kraks for short, who has no patience for one more girl whose head is turned by his promiscuous friend.
There’s a risk in such a chronologically told tale in that the nightly consumption of white wine, the sexual consummations — the ceaseless coming together and falling apart — will grow repetitious at best. Such misadventures played out in today’s movie and TV fare can be as commonplace as the latest cure for body fat. An added complication is to convince the reader that Thomson was as magnetically charged a character as he became for her. It is to Gloster’s credit that the unfolding of her story over one month feels innately honest, and it is that ingenuousness that manages to hold its sway over us. In part two of her account, there’s enough description of the years following to see how she has ultimately coped and survived.
I was sufficiently intrigued by the author’s compulsion to tell her story, and the resonances it has had on her current life, to seek an interview. Meeting one chilly morning in early December at her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a slender, blonde-haired woman — casually dressed in slacks and shirt — met me at the door. Exuding elegance but nothing mannered in her approach, she was quick to put me at ease. She was clearly in possession of herself — humorous, opinionated, and above all, forthcoming. However the years have transformed her, she has kept the passion for discovery and life’s continual surprises that colored that long ago summer of 1963.
The walls of her airy living room are dotted with several of her recent paintings. Gloster points to some of the framed work surrounding us, and I focus briefly on a realistic, pensive portrait of a young woman on a beach, which she explains is her husband’s granddaughter. Our conversation covers our shared interests in painting, the process involved in writing the memoir as well as a current work of fiction in progress — and how one’s creative endeavors take on a life of their own.
Marcia Gloster: It’s so gratifying, going back to painting after all these years…
GALO: What I’ve discovered over the years is how you can get a creative impulse but it has to find its own medium, too… Once I started a painting — the heads of three women in the foreground, a shadowy figure in the back. I put the brushes down and I said to myself: this isn’t a painting, it’s a play.
MG: It’s a message. I had a whole section I wrote [referring to a second book in progress] where I didn’t think my character was going to get a job, but in the end, he talked himself into it. They take you where they take you. It was a natural progression. When I started that book [pointing to the copy of 31 Days on the table in front of us], I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew I was writing…
GALO: But you say in the book that you started with your notes, your journal…
MG: No, when I started, I didn’t start with the notes. I’ll give you the back story. I was still working as an art director; I had just finished a photo shoot. I was working freelance and I was having trouble painting — I was totally blocked.
GALO: [At this point, my eye is drawn to a roughly expressionistic painting on the back wall, with a roguish-looking man in the foreground.] Is that Bill Thomson?
MG: That’s Bill! And it’s painted by Kortokraks. [Kortokraks was a German instructor at Kokoschka’s School of Vision the summer that Gloster attended there.]
GALO: It’s funny. It definitely has that Kokoschka feel to it. It’s the way I picture Thomson after reading the book.
MG: It doesn’t totally look like him, but it has his energy.
GALO: And Kortokraks gave it to you.
MG: When I saw the painting, I flipped out. Later, I went back to Austria to see him, and I was terrified. [In spite of her misgivings, over 40 years later, she returned to Salzburg.]
GALO: In the book, he was so resistant to you.
MG: A very ornery old man but fascinating. He said he knew why I was calling, that I wanted the painting. I told him that I was in school there in 1963 and I’d been close to Bill. And he said, “A lot of girls were very close to Bill Thomson” [laughter]. And I said, “Yes, I know.” I asked him why he was always so mean to me…“I can’t believe I was trying to protect Bill Thomson,” he said.
GALO: You didn’t go back to Salzburg until then?
MG: Not until a year after I started writing the book. I needed more information. In the first weeks I was writing, I saw a couple of editors I’d designed books for years before. I had actual parts of conversation but I said I didn’t know how to write dialogue, and they said to just keep going. And all of a sudden, I was running and running with it — and it would take me where I wanted to go.
GALO: But the dialogue was inside you. Even when it’s on a subconscious level, you knew your characters, what they would say. Can you say anything about that in the fiction book you’re writing now?
MG: It’s written in the Mad Men TV style of the 1960s, from a woman’s point of view. My male character is very arrogant. A lot like Bill, he goes into advertising and succeeds on a high level, but he has a tremendous hubris and he falls off… It’s really about a woman finding her way through the 1960s in the world of publishing and advertising.
GALO: Getting back to 31 Days, when you mention Bob toward the end of the memoir [Gloster has a later affair with an advertising man that’s impassioned but destructive], you thought you would have learned the dangers after the intense relationship with Bill Thomson.
MG: I know. It’s only from the vantage point of time that I can understand it. Would I have changed things? Probably not… Certainly not with Bill — I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
GALO: Obviously, in writing the book about a young woman and an older man — a blinding, unremitting passion — you felt the need for some distancing. Has writing the book been some kind of catharsis for you?
MG: Let me tell you the back story now, which is very unique. I ran my own advertising agency for over 20 years, writing marketing plans, proposals, but not stories. I had done a shoot for the client as I mentioned earlier. It was a freezing cold February day in 2011 and I had been working on screening men’s suits, and I figured I’d take a walk — a 10 block walk to this little boutique, around 77th and Third. As I walked in the store, a song was playing and I didn’t recognize it, but it stopped me cold. And as I listened, I envisioned a dark figure in a backlit doorway behind a curtain that was Bill and a shadowy figure in the front that was me at 20. The song triggered that. It was a flash, a memory manifested.
GALO: Do you remember what the song was?
MG: It was called “Summer Wine” by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood. It came out in 1967 [the song actually first came out in 1966 and was originally sung by Suzi Jane Hokom, but it was made famous by Sinatra in 1967. This single would mark the beginning of Sinatra’s and Hazlewood’s popular duets]. I don’t know if I’d heard it before but something in it resonated. I was in a total panic. I had this vision. I knew I had to go home and as I walked out of the store, I had the name of the book and the first page. Now the psychics went crazy with this: “He’s given it to you…he’s with you, you have to write it. This is about past lives.” I saw a couple of psychics and told them I wasn’t going to tell them anything. And they said, “You’re writing something about the past.” The hair was standing up on my arm. So I went home, threw off my coat and…