My Three Pugs

A New York Story

On December 27, 1981, when she was eight weeks old, Mame adopted me.

Having thought about it for a very long while, I went out to Long Island to look at a litter of Pugs.

She was a tiny little thing, a ball of fluff slightly darker than her siblings. They all seemed content to stay in their enclosure, but when I picked her up, she looked at me carefully, sniffed deeply once or twice, and curled up to take a snooze in my lap. I was hooked.

“That’s Mame,” I said, having decided on the name well in advance of the meeting.

I knew almost nothing about dogs then; my last one, a black cocker spaniel puppy named Rebel, was killed by a hit-and-run driver when I was little more than four years old. As a result, my parents decided to opt for a stay-at-home cat and I was left to fantasize about Rebel’s proper successor. Oh yes, I got to walk one neighbor’s Collie (thus inspiring a lifelong love for the stories of Albert Payson Terhune) and another’s Miniature Poodle. But the fantasy of having my own dog persisted until I was in my mid-thirties and discovered it was permissible for me to bring a dog to the office. That green light prompted extensive research on the many aspects of dog ownership in a big city and the pros, cons, traits, and personalities of various breeds. The more I researched, the more I became convinced that a Pug was just the ticket.

So on that December afternoon I found myself in somebody’s Long Island kitchen totally infatuated with a creature about which I really knew next to nothing but who was going to have a major impact on my life.

In those days, before Men in Black, Milo and Otis, and the Doritos’ Superbowl ad, the breed was not as popular as it would become and it had already lost some of the cachet it had enjoyed in Victorian times and later, during the social reign of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. That lack of popularity appealed to me, but so did the undeniable style of these creatures who’d been immortalized by Velazquez, Hogarth, and the best of the eighteenth-century German porcelain masters. Kay Thompson’s Eloise, the little girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel, had Weenie, “a dog that looks like a cat.” He was a Pug.

I also liked what I read about the breed’s character, particularly in an essay found in the 1979 edition of The Complete Pug. James W. Trullinger, a celebrated breeder and judge whose own dog, Diamond Jim, won the breed at Westminster in 1940, wrote:

“The peer of all pets, the Pug is to those persons who are truly familiar with the breed the most satisfactory of all house dogs and canine companions. The reason is not far to seek.

“It lies, first of all, in Pug temperament. No breed is more anxious to please, more willing to accommodate itself to its master’s desires and whims, more ready to understand and to obey human wishes. A flighty, shy, vicious, stubborn Pug has perhaps never been whelped.

“But the Pug is no mere goose-stepping obedience machine. His good nature is not a matter of discipline; it is innate. Under that big-eyed serious mien lurks an amazing sense of humor. The Pug sees a joke in whatever is going on, but he cloaks his risibles in a dignity not to be found in most other breeds of dogs. His is a kindly, benevolent evaluation of whatever may occur in the human environment about him. He has our number.

“Always ready for a romp, if somebody else will initiate it, the Pug is not a rowdy. His play keeps itself within the bounds of decorum and good behavior. He accepts, especially from children, indignities and abuses that other breeds might resent with some retaliation. But where Pug loves, he endures, endures all things. He is incapable of anger for the object of his affection….

“Maybe we should merely say that the Pug is by nature a gentleman. That is to say, the male Pug. The bitches are ladies.”

What more could I want?

And I really lucked out with Mame. Although I’d found her through an ad in the Sunday New York Times and not by learning about various breeders or visiting dog shows, she was indeed a perfect Pug. When I read that ad I didn’t really know what to look for, but it turned out that her mother had come from champion English stock and her father, Ivanwold Pistol Pete of Rontu, was one of the most celebrated dogs in America. Breeding shows and Mame developed into a beauty. Excellent apricot fawn color with a hint of the ideal dark trace down her back, full, cobby body, and a perfect corkscrew tail. She exemplified the breed standard multum in parvo,  a lot of dog in a small package.

Her personality also mostly exemplified Trullinger’s description (she and her successors have been known — occasionally — to exhibit an alarming stubbornness), being anxious to please, smart, and amusing. Early on I hired a trainer who taught her at home and she was quick to learn all the basic commands.

For more than twelve years, our life together was special.

We went to work together almost every day where she was pampered and overfed by some elderly ladies in the office. We explored Central Park in all seasons, traveled together, slept together, ate most of our meals together, and dealt with any number of emotional crises (mine) and physical issues (hers) together. We even moved from one apartment to another, which was bewildering for both of us.

She could be

…sneaky. Consider the time I was dressing for a cocktail party at home and I discovered her sprawled under the coffee table devouring an entire wheel of Brie.

…brilliant. Returning from a walk in the park one blisteringly hot summer day, she went over to an air conditioner and barked.

…funny. A Jack Russell Terrier once repeatedly tried to attack her and Mame, big for a Pug and solid like the best of her breed, rolled him over with her paw, planted it in the middle of his chest, and looked up at me smiling.

…sulky. If she’d see me dressing in black tie, which invariably meant she would not be included in the excursion, she would go off to a remote corner of the apartment and hide and no amount of coaxing could get her out.

…devoted. When I broke my ankle and was on crutches for many weeks, she put up quite a battle when anyone came by to walk her.

…and vulnerable. Suffering a serious allergic reaction after being set on in the park by a swarm of bees early one Sunday morning, her expression defined pathos.

However she behaved, she was the center of my universe.

In those days I was really active socially and Mame was a perfect partner in my adventures. We flew to the coast of Maine with Thomas Watson, Jr. on his jet, romped with some Pug pals at their owner’s penthouse atop the Westbury Hotel, celebrated with S. I. Newhouse and his wife at  their Pug Nero’s birthday party, and entertained Gloria Vanderbilt and her two Cooper sons, Carter and Anderson. She captivated Princess Chantal of France and legions of blue-haired Park Avenue dowagers when ladies of that type still could be seen on the East Side of Manhattan. We swam in private pools in the New Jersey hunt country and, as guests of the Forbes family, watched as Elizabeth Taylor and Malcolm descended from a small plane onto the Forbes’ lawn. We relaxed at Anthony Perkins’s perfect little eighteenth-century hideaway on Cape Cod, and had scores of weekends all over the Northeast. At one point I rented a house in Bedford, New York, and we spent lots of time together at a property which was later bought by Martha Stewart in Katonah.

But it wasn’t only in lofty social circles that Mame shined. A homeless man who spent a lot of time near the reflecting pond in Central Park became a great friend and many of the doormen in the neighborhood would stop what they were doing to say “hello.” When I travelled, she often went and stayed with my parents in suburbia where she was the star of the neighborhood despite some initial difficulties (when she realized I had left her, she crawled under a twin bed and wouldn’t come out for more than an hour despite my elderly mother, on her hands and knees, begging and pleading). Everywhere she went Mame generally behaved like a perfect lady and we were always welcomed back.

Dr. Fred Tierney, the wonderful Manhattan vet who has kept all my pugs in excellent shape, recalls that Mame was “one of a kind. She had a swagger, an I-don’t-care-what-you-think attitude. And because she was large for a Pug, she looked somewhat unconventional.”

Interestingly enough, Dandy’s Favorite Woodchuck, the only Pug to ever win Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show at Madison Square Garden was big for a Pug–far bigger than Mame.

Mame was photographed in a surrealist style by Chip Simons, and in an appropriately glamorous way by the photographer from Women’s Wear Daily. She was painted by at least half a dozen artists and there is even a wonderful oil portrait of the two of us looking as good as we possibly could.

Similarly, Mame awakened my collecting instinct and our spiritual and physical closeness was what I wanted to celebrate when I bought my first Pug objet–a Beswick figure. It was followed soon after by a colorful nineteenth-century Christmas card and a parade of things from the ridiculous to the sublime that continues expanding to this day.

Alas, in the spring of 1993 I noticed that Mame’s health had started to seriously deteriorate. Throughout her life she had suffered many health issues but she’d always bounced back and this was mostly thanks to Fred Tierney’s expert guidance. He saw us through any number of urinary tract problems as well as knee surgery.

This time, however, there seemed to be no immediate answer to her problems. She was getting older and she was failing and it was painful to watch. Walks that would have once been anticipated with joy had now become tiresome obligations.

We went through a year of this and all I could do was try to hold her more and tell her that I loved her. Then, on the morning of Good Friday, April 1, 1994, Mame, seated under the dining table, let out a piercing scream and died.

The emotional pain for me was awful, probably the worst I’d ever experienced. I remember feeling as if I were being stabbed repeatedly. Never before or since have I felt such physical manifestations of grief.

Kind friends sent flowers. Carrie Marvin, an artist in London, sent a beautiful small portrait and Victoria Newhouse, wife of one of the most feared figures in American business, invited me to lunch so that I could talk about my loss. The Newhouses were not then nor are they now friends of mine, but I will never forget the empathetic kindness that invitation showed.

The days were long and lonely without Mame. Repeated entries in my appointment book of that time say simply, “I miss Mame.”

Thank heaven I came upon a best seller from the 1930s, The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe. In this beguiling autobiography, Munthe, a Swedish doctor who lived in Capri for many years, speaks lovingly of man’s relationship with dogs and one section made great sense to me then and continues to do so today:

“ …the life of a dog is so short and there are none of us who have not been in mourning for a lost friend. Your first impulse and your first words after you have laid him to rest….are that you never, never wish to have another dog; no other dog could ever replace him, no other dog could ever be to you what he has been. You are mistaken. It is not a dog we love, it is the dog. They are all more or less the same, they are all ready to love you and to be loved by you.They are all representatives of the most lovable and, morally speaking, the most perfect creation of God. If you loved your dear friend in the right way, you cannot do without another.”

I read Munthe’s words and they seemed right to me. They made sense. Yes, I had to go through a period of mourning, but there would be a time when I would have to find a successor. Moreover, I had a strong feeling that Mame herself was trying to communicate with me from some Elysian fields someplace.

“Listen,” I could almost hear her say, “if you don’t get another Pug people will think I failed in my duties!”

So it was that by the autumn of that year, 1994, I began to read more about Pugs, went to dog shows, and started talking to people I knew who were knowledgable about them. I visited Margery Shriver and Helen Pittinger, ladies long associated with excellence in the breed, and at a show in Westchester I befriended Nancy McCorkle, a lovely Pennsylvanian whose Wisselwood Kennel specializes in black Pugs. I went to the national meeting of the Pug Dog Club of America which was held that year in Louisville, and looked at scores of perfect specimens. None, of course, were as perfect as Mame to my eyes, but all reminded me that I couldn’t stand being without one in my heart and home for much longer.

Yes, I was ready, but since I was more educated about the breed than I had been when I found Mame, I wanted to be sure that her successor was as exemplary. Understandably show quality puppies are not always available when you want them, so I had to research and get in line. Through word of mouth, I heard that a dog belonging to Francis Rover, a man from New Jersey who had the Magic Equinox kennel, had just had several litters of puppies. This was good news, but when I telephoned the number in New Jersey, I discovered that Francis Rover and his puppies were living in Paris!

Now I wanted a Pug, and I liked the Magic Equinox lineage, but at that time the dollar was quite weak vis-à-vis the franc and when that cost was added to the cost of spending at least a week in Paris, well, I thought, perhaps it would be more sensible to wait for a litter closer to home.

The phone rang. It was a French friend calling to say he was coming to New York on business and asking if he could pick up anything in Paris for me.

This particular friend had been a great admirer of Mame’s and was happy to accept the assignment of picking up Mame’s successor in Paris. He met Francis Rover in the Charles de Gaulle airport and was given the tiny puppy who was to be known as Jicky.

(In France, purebred dogs must be given names beginning with a particular letter depending on the year in which they were born. Jicky was born in the year of the “J,” and I decided to name her after the classic Guerlain perfume which I had often brought back for friends who found it difficult to obtain in New York. She, like the scent, had to be imported. Alas, there was already a Jicky Magic Equinox registered, so officially my new puppy was Jicka,  a name which I reserved for moments of strong reprimand but seldom used otherwise.)

Jicky and Francois flew business class on Air France and I am told she captivated the attendants and everybody else on the plane. And when, on October 15, 1994, they entered the arrivals terminal at Kennedy, Francois holding the tiny puppy with a scarlet satin ribbon around her neck, the throng of people waiting for passengers broke into applause.

Not a bad beginning for a tiny immigrant.

I’d ordered a limousine to transport us back to Manhattan and she immediately fell asleep on my chest as the car headed for home. Once again, I had a Pug to love.

Almost immediately I noticed differences between Mame and Jicky. Of course it is always foolish to compare an older dog who has gone to heaven with a puppy recently arrived, but there were some obvious dissimilarities. To begin with, it looked like Jicky would end up being smaller than her predecessor, closer to the breed standard in that regard. She was also far more difficult to train. I brought her to obedience classes at the ASPCA and the instructor there just about threw her hands up in defeat. It’s not that she wasn’t pleased to be at the class–she clearly was–but as far as learning to sit, sit stay or come on command, well, that didn’t seem to be in the cards. Perhaps, I thought, she’d respond better if I spoke to her in French!

Little by little, however, we grew accustomed to each other and if she never became a model of obedience, well, at least she seemed to know what I wanted her to do and to do it in a more or less timely fashion. She, too, started to go to the office with me, carried part of the way in a canvas bag with her name embroidered on it. She was also spoiled by the ladies who worked there. Once, when still quite a puppy, she gleefully leapt from her perch on one woman’s lap to grab (and swallow) a pearl earring. Fortunately, the woman is a great dog lover herself and was only relieved, not particularly upset, when the earring showed up in Jicky’s poop. I was grateful that no internal damage had been caused and the woman was happy to have her earring back.

I wasn’t sure I’d really bonded with Jicky when it came time for her to be spayed. I’d asked Fred Tierney if she would have to spend the night at his office and he responded, somewhat elusively, “let’s wait and see.” Well, the day came and I telephoned as instructed in the afternoon to see if I should pick her up or wait until the following morning.

“I think you’d better come up here and pick her up,” said the good doctor.

“Is something the matter?” I nervously asked.

“No,” he answered. “Just come up here and see.”

When I got to his office, he directed me into the kennel area. There on the floor was Jicky’s canvas bag. And on top of it was Jicky, fast asleep.

“We let her out to pee,” said Fred, “she saw her bag and went right to it. She wants to go home. I think you’d better take her. And by the way, in case you’re still in doubt, she’s bonded with you.”

I liked that just fine.

Jicky and I took the same routes in Central Park that Mame and I had. (Perhaps because she’d been attacked by an off-the-leach Basenji when very young, however, Jicky could be more unexpectedly confrontational than Mame.) We visited different friends for trips out of town. She was a great one for playing fetch and we would play that for happy periods of time until it disintegrated into tug of war. One weekend visiting in New Jersey I had moments of real panic when I thought I’d lost her. The house where we were guests was in the middle of a state park where there were notices of bear sightings and for about an hour, Jicky was no place to be found. The cause for celebration was that, in typical Pug fashion, she had followed the cook and a platter of steaks destined for the barbecue. In the process, she ended up being unintentionally shut up in the garage and scaring me half to death. Nothing like that ever happened again.

The most memorable experience I shared with Jicky was on September 11, 2001.

It was a beautiful day and we’d walked through the park to 72nd Street and Fifth Avenue, where we picked up a cab and headed to my office at 26th Street and Park Avenue South. New York seemed tranquil, a perfectly ordinary day, and we arrived at the office about 8:30 in the morning. Shortly after 9 a friend whom I’d taken to dinner the evening before telephoned with his bread-and-butter thank you call, and while he was calling me he had the television on.

“Tom,” he asked, “have you heard about what’s happening at the World Trade Center?”

I hadn’t, but he explained that a plane had just flown into one of the towers. We assumed that it was a private plane that has messed up and continued our conversation.

Then the second plane hit.

After a few hours of trying to get news and speculating about exactly what had happened and wondering what else to expect, I closed the office. Jicky and I had to make our way home.

There were no taxis, buses, or subways.

We started to walk, but the day had warmed up considerably and by the time we reached 41st Street and Madison Avenue, my Pug was dramatically hyperventilating.

I picked her up, and with my briefcase in one hand, put her in her canvas bag and started to walk the forty-five blocks home. All around us were people who clearly had escaped more immediate exposure to the attack for they were often covered in what appeared to be plaster dust.

Just after reaching Grand Central Terminal some police came running, yelling at those of us walking north to cross the street. It seems there may have been a bomb in the station and our lives could be in danger.

Here I was, surrounded by debris-covered refugees from an attack, too bewildered to be afraid, carrying my Pug and hoping I could just make it to 59th Street. It was like some early Japanese horror film. We kept walking. To 72nd. To 79th. And, finally, home.

I collapsed on a chair and Jicky headed directly to her water bowl.

Although my life certainly changed in big ways after that day, the day-to-day routine for Jicky remained pretty much the same:  two meals a day, two “proper” walks, visits with friends, and occasional games of fetch in the long hall at home.

The following summer a friend and I discussed going to Europe together but decided against it, thinking it would be more fun to go someplace where we could bring both his dog and Jicky. Quebec City had been spoken of highly by many people I knew, so that is where we headed in early August with a few stops on the way.

Looking out of the window at the Chateau Frontenac I had my own “This is the place” moment. This pretty, special city was reminiscent of some of the places I’d visited in Normandy but had the advantage of being on my own side of the Atlantic. Also, in case of another 9/11, it would be useful to have a charming place to which I could escape.

Jicky and I revisited Quebec City several times, loved it more each visit, and began to develop a small network of friends there. We stayed in hotels and then, a few times, I rented an apartment and got to know the feeling of really living there. That feeling was very comfortable and I started, casually at first, looking for a place to buy.

That is how, on September 2, 2005, Jicky and I ended up having a second home, a charming duplex apartment right in the middle of Quebec’s Old City. And we made good use of that apartment — enjoying all the seasons, expanding our social lives, and exploring. We waded in the Montmorency River in summers and trudged through snow drifts in winter. Jicky frolicked in the autumn leaves as we explored little villages and sniffed all the spring wild flowers growing along the Saint Lawrence.

But only a few years later, in the apartment in Quebec, I noticed, suddenly, how old and frail this best friend had become. Jicky had succumbed to deafness a few years before, but apart from that, she seemed very much the same. Even her deafness became a bit of a joke because she compensated very cleverly. If in earlier days she would see me go to the intercom when it rang to announce a visitor; when deaf she learned to expect company simply by seeing me go to the intercom. She was not to be deterred by a little infirmity!

As with all of us, age happens. The infirmities eventually caught up with her and by Christmas 2007, she started also to suffer with a rasping and horrific cough. Medicine was prescribed and the symptoms would cease for a while, but when the effect of the pill ran out, the ghastly coughing would start all over again. It grew worse and worse and eventually Jicky, the most food-centered creature on God’s earth, even started to refuse meals. It was at this time that the daughter of one of my closest friends was to be married in Salzburg. I’d been looking forward to the wedding, the trip, and all the festivities for a long time, but as the date approached and I saw how rapidly Jicky’s health was deteriorating, I decided not to go.  I just couldn’t leave her.

I started to frequent the fanciest gourmet grocers in the area and order the smelliest cheese they offered in order to tempt her and thereby manage to get her to swallow whatever pill was in order. One evening a dear friend and I even feigned having a cocktail hour with hors d’oeuvres so that Jicky might be inspired to act as she always had in the past and beg to share our goodies. For a few days that ploy worked.

Around this time, Fred Tierney and I began to discuss the advisability of ending Jicky’s anguish. He suggested waiting a little bit, that I’d know when the time would be right. That day, after leaving his office with a friend who’d come along to give me emotional support, we stopped for a coffee. Suddenly Jicky noticed a Rottweiler passing and, despite her disintegrating health, had one of her confrontational moments and  barked at that enormous dog as if she were a Mastiff in the full bloom of health. 

Unfortunately that burst of vigor did not last and a few weeks later, on Wednesday, January 9 2008, at 3 p.m., I had to bring her back to Fred Tierney and send her off to play with Mame. Having been through the loss of my first Pug, I was a little more prepared for this experience of sorrow. I ached, but it was a more subtle and general sensation. Still, I started crying at unexpected moments.

At that point I was definite about it. I was not going to have another dog. I was too old. I couldn’t go through the loss again. I didn’t want the responsibility, the expense, or the emotional involvement.

A little more than a year after saying goodbye to Jicky, however, I began to think that maybe . . .perhaps . . .

And then Nancy McCorkle, the woman whom I’d met and befriended at a dog show about fifteen years earlier, announced that she had a five-month-old bitch she could offer me.

“We’ll be coming in for the dog shows around Westminster,” she said,”and could drop by so you could take a look.”

By the time I’d taken a look, I’d already named the new puppy Jane Marple in my mind and was ready for love.

Jane came home with me that night, Friday, February 6, 2009, and apart from the evening she spent at the vet’s after spaying (Fred Tiernay no longer performs surgery), she has been with me every day and night since.

Mame and Jicky were fawn Pugs and Jane is black, but she, too, is a Pug in the grand tradition. No skinny, leggy, hyper-active example of the overbred type often seen around now, but solid, beautifully formed and charmingly stoical. Although she is, if possible, a tad more stubborn than her predecessors, she is also more affectionate. She does not have Mame’s commanding presence, being content to approach life in a more leisurely fashion. And she is never confrontational in the way Jicky could be (except with horses and dogs on the TV, which mysteriously upset her greatly). Until she turned two, she was a jolly, silly puppy, but almost like magic she has calmed down since that birthday. She is now very much a grown-up, the most relaxed, easy, and cuddly of creatures.

Considering my three Pugs, I wonder if I somehow influenced their personalities in naming them.

As Fred Tierney pointed out, “Mame embodied all the traits from the character in the book and movie.  She was unconventional, unpredictable, and inherently stylish.” And when I think about her in her custom-made Goyard collars and halters, her fancy bijoux from admirers, and her stylish milieu, I suspect he is right.

Jicky, on the other hand, with her gourmet taste in food, her opinionated manner, and the dewclaws that had been left intact, was very French. She wasn’t particularly interested in “Society” per se, but nonetheless, she was formidable and eventually very much la grande dame.

And now Jane Marple. She’s reflective, self-contained, and quiet. She prefers resting and observing to getting out and investigating. She is very smart but doesn’t flaunt her intelligence unless provoked. She is small but wise, and there is no doubt Agatha Christie would have used her as an inspiration.

The truth is, I love her as I have loved all my Pugs.

Issue Twenty Two