Monkey Fur Coats and the Tears of Old Men

My paternal grandfather’s sister, Mandy Foster, was a madam in Eureka, California during prohibition.

Family history says she worked out of The Vance Hotel, but this is highly unlikely and honesty requires me to confess that I come from a family of notorious liars and storytellers.  I’m not apologizing for this genetic trait. On the contrary, I’m thankful for the tendency, but I have learned to fact-check before I put something on paper and claim it as truth.

So, on a recent trip to Eureka, I spent a few hours at The Humboldt County Historical Society in the hopes of coming up with proof of family legend.  Linda DeLong, the gracious and helpful curator of the genealogy room, pulled collections and books on that era of Eureka history.  There was even a booklet specifically about prostitution in the county.  A thin collection of newspaper articles and personal accounts to be sure, but good information and, really, prostitution might be the oldest profession but it’s never been one written about or recognized by polite society.

Unfortunately, the only reference I found to Mandy Foster, was her obituary.  And, as you might suspect, the family did not see fit to supply the newspaper with information about how she earned her living.  She died, by the way, in a sanitarium in Petaluma.  The newspaper doesn’t report that she died of syphilis, but that’s what I’ve always been told.

So, while I did find entertaining articles about Mandy’s grandfather, Merritt Curtis Foster, the stage coach driver and early settler in Freshwater, California, I found no written evidence of my Aunt’s line of work.

It doesn’t matter.  I have proof.

You see, as a young woman, I resembled Mandy.  Looked enough like her that, four or five times in my twenties, rheumy-eyed men approached me with the same tired line.

“You look like someone I knew a long time ago.”

Now, even in my twenties I wasn’t THAT gullible and the first couple of times it happened I asked, “Ah huh.  And who might that be.”

The answer was always a variation of, “A beautiful, generous young woman name of Mandy.”

At that point I would share my maiden name with the old guy.  Three of the five times it happened, tears actually ran down the wrinkled cheeks of these old men. They always bought me a drink or two, three of them kissed my hand graciously before saying goodbye.

The second proof of Mandy’s profession is the monkey fur coat that was reportedly a gift from Tom Mix.  No, we don’t still have the coat in the family.  It was cut into squares and made into throw pillows. (Yes, that’s right, we’re the family on Antiques Roadshow that paints over the Rembrandt and reupholsters the priceless chair)  My mom had one of the pillows on our coach when I was a kid.  It smelled like pee and Dad’s dog, Tricksy, ate it.

So, while I did not find written confirmation of the family stories that my great-aunt Mandy was a madam on the Eureka waterfront during the wild and wooly days of prohibition, I do have tears of nostalgia in the eyes of old men and the clear and smelly memory of a monkey fur coat.

Really, what more proof could I want?

About Author and Speaker Pamela Foster

Pamela Foster is a speaker and author. Her first book, Redneck Goddess, is available at local bookstores and on Amazon. Her second book, Bigfoot Blues, will be available in August 2012.
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42 Responses to Monkey Fur Coats and the Tears of Old Men

  1. lindarigsbee says:

    Cute, Pam. I think you should dig a little further. lol!

  2. Oh my. I so hope that one of my nieces looks enough like me that they can be thanked by old men for my gifts. Hey, a girl can dream, right?

  3. Duke Pennell says:

    OK, I just have to ask . . . are you certain that fur was monkey? Are you sure it wasn’t bigfoot fur? Just because Tom Mix had it doesn’t mean it wasn’t from a slow resident of the north woods.

  4. pamelavmason says:

    After reading Paulo Coelho’s blog yesterday on 11Minutes of Sex, I understand why the rheumy eyed old men bought you drinks and kissed your hand.
    This was funny, thanks!

  5. Now that’s a great piece of genealogy, Pam! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  6. Such an interesting family history you have Pam :)

  7. Pam, that would surely be proof enough for me, too. I’ve always said better to have a horse thief in the closet than a politician. That holds true with a madam as well, doesn’t it? Love your stories, and had to laugh when you said the dog ate the pillow. Keep telling them.

  8. Absolutely delightful blog post. Makes me want to hear ALL your stories.

  9. susielindau says:

    Oh my you are hilarious! A monkey fur coat that smelled of cat pea, a genetic trait of lying and a madam in the family! What fun!
    Love your story. It makes me think of what I would find out if I started digging.
    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  10. Kelle Majken says:

    What a wonderful post. It made made me laugh out loud at work, and I had several heads turn and give me a suspicious eye. I love that these men thought of Mandy fondly and had good memories of her. I can’t remember what I did last week, so this is impressive to me!

  11. The best Ancestry.Com/Who do you think you are? stories are the ones that don’t involve being distantly related to the inventor of shoe buckles…..or a President. Boring! I love this post!

  12. segmation says:

    Eureka is so beautiful. Thanks for sharing your story!

  13. torikar says:

    We overnighted in Eureka a couple of years ago when on a driving holiday in the US ( we’re Australians) . Wish I’d seen this blog then to liven up what was already a great trip.

  14. I also come from a long line of notorious liars and storytellers: the Vances. From Ontario, though –they didn’t own any hotels in California. :) I always thought my forebears were of Irish descent just for all all the blarney, but I’ve found out in recent years that they came from Scotland.

  15. marymtf says:

    Well that’s a variation on ‘the dog ate my homework, miss’. Good ;post.

  16. Excellent post. Fascinating!

  17. So glad I found you.. If I’m not careful, I will be doing more reading than blogging!

  18. Wonderful post!! Thanks for sharing and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  19. GP says:

    Reblogged this on misentopop.

  20. sheriji says:

    Monkey fur. Smelled like pee. The dog ate it.
    That right there is enough for a novel, don’t you think?

  21. Ms. Mandy sure had something going on! Only a really good storyteller can romanticize the life of a madame :)

  22. gallivance says:

    Hi Pamela. Love the story. I’ll never look at a monkey fur coat the same way again. Many congrats on the FP. Well deserved.
    All the Best, Terri Vance (of no relation to the Hotel … well, I think!)

  23. Beth Carter says:

    I loved this post. I wish I had a madame in the family to write about. What colorful, rich info for storytelling. Great post. Loved the Antique Roadshow reference. lol. And a monkey fur coat? Priceless.

  24. washingmyface says:

    Reblogged this on washingmyface and commented:
    Love your sense of humor!

  25. craft fear says:

    Congrats on being freshly pressed! Neat piece of history from which you’re descended. Steinbeck was able to write romantically of madams, I believe, and it looks as if you very well could, too. There’s definitely some sentimentality lying very close to the surface.

  26. Love it. My Grandmother lived in San Fransisco during the 20s as a graphic artist doing fashion drawings for magazines and my Grandfather was a gold miner who spent his life in search of Bigfoot.

  27. Jess says:

    That was an awesome read. I love honest family histories over the glorified tales of Revolutionary War heroes and such. In my own research into the details of my own West Virginia/Pittsburgh hillbilly bloodline, I was at one time convinced I had found someone in my family from back in the 1800s who murdered his wife to marry her sister. The 1st wife supposedly died of “lightning strike” ::raises eyebrow:: and the sister was married to him within the month. I have no proof, just suspicion. Honestly, I would have much preferred a prostitute or two.

  28. Debra Kristi says:

    What a fun story to have about your family history. I think many of us have families that have destroyed future treasures. My sister used to live in Eureka and I visit it from time to time. It’s a neat little place.

  29. Pingback: Sullivan Maxx Literary Agency » Blog Archive » Pam Foster and the monkey fur coat….and other notorious bits of info!

  30. Dianna Graveman says:

    Reblogged this on Write in the Midwest and commented:
    Bigfoot Blues is on its way soon … follow Pamela Foster’s blog for updates!

  31. Laure Waytek says:

    No doubt Ms Mandy could have been acquainted with others of our colorful extended family folk, such as Aunt Dorris of Dorris’ club in Old Town Eureka and Aunt Bea who owned Bea’s Club on nearby Humboldt Hill. Small town, big family. Great story, Pam. I just subscribed, so as not to miss jot nor tittle of your delightful yarn-spinning. Surely the next generation will find you and I yarn-worthy. There are numerous adventures in my personal history (to date) that would qualify. Former sis-in-law, Laure (Are we now outlaws?)

  32. Dana Owens says:

    That’s a great story. In my family we wouldn’t even have had the coat turned into pillows– it would have been tossed and replaced with new Fur Coats For Men (not sure that is a bad thing either given the smell you described). I just bought a new fur coat at Burlington Coat Factory as a gift. Great prices (we saved about $60 on it) and I’m sure with how often it will be worn it will be the source of some great memories in years to come.

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