Anyone who spends time clicking around the literary neighborhoods of Twitter knows Duchess Goldblatt — a voice of kindness, encouragement, and slightly off-kilter humor. But what no one knows and everyone has been guessing at for the past few years now is: Who is she?
In the most fascinating case of concealed identity since Elena Ferrante (and we still don’t know who she is), Duchess Goldblatt has Twitter-befriended thousands of fans, including many of our favorite authors, who haven’t met her but interact with her online as if she’s a revered elder. Celeste Ng and Rebecca Makkai are friends of the Duchess, as is Laura Lippman. So’s Alexander Chee. Singer Lyle Lovett tweets back and forth with her like an old friend. Meanwhile, fans of Her Grace (as she chooses to be called) swap theories and parse clues as to her real identity. Is it a famous author we already know, tweeting as a pseudonymous alter ego? Someone who works in publishing? Who knows!
Now, the person behind the popular Duchess Goldblatt account has written a book. According to the publisher: “Part memoir and part joyful romp through the fields of imagination, the story behind a beloved pseudonymous Twitter account reveals how a writer deep in grief rebuilt a life worth living. Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is two stories: that of the reclusive real-life writer who created a fictional character out of loneliness and thin air, and that of the magical Duchess Goldblatt herself, a bright light in the darkness of social media.”
You may be wondering: What does a book tour look like for a writer who wishes to remain anonymous? It looks like literary friends hosting virtual parties to talk about all the things that make Duchess Goldbatt — and all the books we love — so charming: voice, character, mystery, and storytelling. To that end, Parnassus is delighted to host authors and friends-of-the-Duchess Elizabeth McCracken (Thunderstruck, Bowlaway), Benjamin Dreyer (Dreyer’s English), and Mary Laura Philpott (I Miss You When I Blink) for a lively literary conversation on Wednesday, July 8, at 7 pm Eastern, 6 pm Central.
Does it sound a little wacky? Oh, it will be.
For everyone who loves Duchess Goldblatt — plus all those who have never heard of her before now — here’s an excerpt from her new book, Becoming Duchess Goldblatt. As you’ll see, the anonymous author’s memoir is interspersed with the tweets and Twitter-exchanges that made the voice of Duchess Goldblatt famous. You can read more about the book in this New York Times profile, “Duchess Goldblatt Is a Mystery, Wrapped in a Riddle, Inside a Twitter Account.” Meanwhile, enjoy this preview, order your copy of the book today, then join us online on the 8th!
“Show me how to set up an account on social media,” I said to my work pal, Naomi, one day, in boredom. I was lying down on the desk in her office, staring at the ceiling. “I’ve never been on there. I feel like I’m missing out.”
“You’re not missing anything,” she said. “It’s all the people you haven’t seen since high school posting pictures of their kids.”
“I wouldn’t mind seeing what people are up to,” I said. “As long as they can’t see me.”
“If you’re out there, they can see you,” she said. “It’s reciprocal. That’s the whole point. It’s why they call it social media.”
“And yet somehow I’m feeling like this is not the time for me to establish a public presence out amongst the people,” I said, waving my hand in the direction of the hallway, by which I meant the street outside, our town, the world. She nodded.
Naomi knew enough of the salient details of my story that she supported my intuition not to start posting anything personal online at that very moment. She and I had both learned the hard way that family court judges and divorce attorneys are not typically the first to leap forth in an embrace of harmless good fun.
“Could you set up an account for me so I’m anonymous?” I asked.
“Anonymous?” she said. “You mean fake?”
“No. I can’t lie. I don’t want to trick anybody,” I said. “I’m thinking it could be obviously fictional.”
“You’d need a pen name,” she said.
I thought about it. “You know that classic parlor game that lets you figure out your drag queen name? You take the name of the first pet you ever had as your first name, and take your mother’s maiden name as your last name. I’ll tell you the funniest one I ever heard,” I said. “A dear old friend of mine: His first dog was a black lab named Duchess, and his mother’s maiden name was Goldblatt.”
“It’s so fun to say. And it sounds made up, so I think people would take the hint right away that this is not a real person.”
“All right, so then you’ll need a picture to go with the name.”
I liked the idea of a person who was real but not real, so I searched on the term ‘elderly lady.’
One of the first images to come up was an oil painting from the Dutch Golden Age.
It was a 1633 painting by Frans Hals, titled “Portrait of an Elderly Lady,” and was included in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington.
The subject is shown in formal 17th-century dress: a black gown, a stiff wire-backed ruff at her neck, a modest white cap covering wispy hair, and her hand clutching a book, suggesting she had some education. She’s smiling gently. You can see there’s a twinkle in her eye, a slight sauciness in her gaze, that shows she had a sly wit.
“She’s perfect. That’s her,” I said. “Look at her cute little face, the twinkle in her eyes. She looks like she has a sense of humor. That’s Duchess Goldblatt.”
“She’s great,” Naomi said. “But once you start making connections, people will see who you’re friends with and figure out it’s you in five minutes. Is it critical that you stay anonymous?”
I considered this. I’d recently borrowed thousands of dollars for a divorce attorney. She liked to cup her hands into a pretend megaphone to help her scream at me louder. (“Wake up and smell the coffee!” she’d shout at me. “Stop being an idiot!”) I’d sold my jewelry. I’d taken in a boarder.
Strangers were scrutinizing and questioning my bank account statements, credit card statements, tax returns, receipts, decisions, choices, motives, integrity, and heart. I’d lost my family, my dear ones, my livelihood, and was about to lose my home.
Naomi saw my face. She nodded.
“I feel you,” she said. “Say no more. You don’t want any pain-in-the-ass spineless sack of shit seeing what you’re putting on social media and getting pissy about it.”
She was a good egg, that one. You can see why I had taken to lying down on her desk.
“OK. So we’ll keep you anonymous,” she said. “We just have to think of how.”
Now that the lightweights and barflies have cleared out and I have the place to myself, I’d like to sing a few numbers from my first album.
The Duchess Goldblatt Dog Show started on my birthday one year when I had nothing to do and nowhere else to go. And then the Duchess Goldblatt Cat Show, and its popular spinoff, the Duchess Goldblatt Cat Show: Belly Division started — when? I can’t remember. Whatever day it was, I was both waving and drowning, desperately trying to keep afloat. An online dog beauty pageant struck me funny. Duchess invited everyone to attend, and reminded them that admission was free; they ought not purchase tickets from scalpers.
“How are you hosting a dog show?” asked my friend Jackie, when I told her about it.
“How am I not?”
“Where are you getting the pictures of all those dogs?”
“I’m not getting the pictures. People are posting pictures of their dogs to show me.”
“And what do you do when they show you their dogs?”
“Nothing, really. I say nice things. I tell them their dogs are the glory of God incarnate and a joy to behold and so on, and then other people chime in and comment, too.”
“And why are they doing this?”
I shrugged. “Why not? It’s fun. Everybody likes sharing pictures of their pets. Besides, Duchess Goldblatt tells them to.”
“You tell them to do stuff and they do it?”
“What else do you tell them to do?”
“Oh, you know, I tell them to do their best creative work, extend forgiveness to others, practice patience. It’s the sort of thing my Dad used to tell me to do, come to think of it. Most of the time when she tells them to do something, it’s just me talking to myself. She uses her powers for good. Duchess gave them mindfulness assignments last year for springtime sacrifice during Lent.”
“No, sir. You did not. You’re making that up.”
“Not at all. They took it very seriously.”
“What did you make them give up?”
“I didn’t make anybody do anything. Only the people who requested an assignment got one. Each person got something different. She suggested little sacrifices each person could consider making to help them practice mindfulness. You know, as a way to calm down and center your thinking.”
“What kinds of sacrifices?”
“Don’t look so frightened. It’s not like I told anybody to go off their insulin. It was all tiny things that they wouldn’t really suffer without, but they’d have to think about every day, like giving up wearing the color blue, maybe, or using ice cubes. I think I told someone that every time she used a pencil, she should pause for a moment and extend her heart in gratitude for the gifts she’d been given.”
“You told someone to give up ice cubes?”
“Did he do it?” “Of course. No one would subvert Duchess’s will. And a lot of people told me the things she chose for them to give up happened to be exactly the things they cared about. So somehow she picked the one little thing that would be meaningful.”
Someone has just reminded me that last year at this time, I gave out assignments for mindful sacrifice. Let me know if you need to re-up.
Whatcha got for me this year, your grace? —CT
Whenever you see the color purple, I’d like you to take a deep breath and hold it for a count of seven.
I could use your spiritual guidance, your grace. — D
I would like you to give up black pepper and in so doing, pause for a moment’s contemplation of the nature of suffering.
I’m on board. Let’s do this. —E
I’d like you to give up basil, dearest, and in the moment you do, pause to forgive yourself.
Ready and willing over here, too. —W
Whenever you see the color orange, you will find a kindness in your heart for your mother-in-law
Tough one for me. —W
I know it is.
I’m ready for my sacrifice, your grace. Last year, it was silver jewelry, and if it were confession Tuesday, I’d admit it was hard. –P
I’d like you to stop using the word “very,” and in so doing, pause in contemplation of the gifts you’ve been given.
I need one, your grace. –AD
I’d like you to pick up and write with blue pens, not black pens or pencils. In so doing, contemplate what loving kindness means.
If you would, please, your grace. –BCD
Whenever you hear the word “trump,” I’d like you to extend yourself in loving kindness to all who may not deserve it.
Now that is a challenge to rise to. Thank you, your grace. –BCD
I knew something was wrong as soon as Jackie called and I heard how sweet and cheerful her voice was. I’ll tell you right now that Jackie calling me on purpose, wanting to talk to me in the middle of a weekday, is never a good sign.
“How’s everything going?” she asked, her voice bright. “Having a nice day?”
Uh oh. “What’s wrong?
“Nothing. Why would anything be wrong? No, I’m just curious if you’d like to explain why a giant box of pies has been FedExed to my home from a diner in Kansas,” she said.
“Oh, that,” I said, relieved. “That’s for Duchess.”
“No shit it’s for Duchess,” she said. “Who the hell else gets packages delivered to my house? I don’t have room in my refrigerator for this.”
“Seriously? You don’t have room? How many pies did they send?”
She lowered her voice to the hiss she normally reserves for teenagers and dogs. “Get your ass over here and pick up these goddamned pies.”
“Coming!” I said. (See, this is how I burn through the Man on the Outside couriers every six months. A lot of people don’t have the patience for good, clean fun.)
It turns out she did have room in her refrigerator for them (which I could have told you already; who can’t make room for a couple of pies in an emergency?)
“Blackberry’s my favorite,” I told her. “How in the world did they know?”
“Magic,” she said, taking one of the pies out. She sliced it up and we took our plates to the back porch, where we sat in reverent silence. Jackie was quiet for a long moment, her eyes closed, savoring each bite. “This is the best pie I’ve ever had.”
She opened her eyes a crack. “Now who the hell is sending you pies from Kansas?”
“It’s a restaurant, the Ladybird Diner, in a city called Lawrence,” I said. “I’ve seen pictures. It looks like a really special place. They love Duchess. They created a new pie recipe and named it specially after her.”
“Why would a diner in Kansas name a pie after Duchess Goldblatt?”
“I should think it would be obvious, Jackie. They love me. Let’s go on a road trip. Let’s visit!”
“A road trip to Kansas?” she said. “Do you have any idea how far Kansas is?”
“Yes.” (No.) “Maybe next summer you’ll take me? I’ve never been to Kansas.”
“Of course you’ve never been to Kansas! It’s a thousand miles away!”
“So this is the perfect opportunity,” I said. “We’ll take a road trip, have a little pie.”
“I am not driving you to Kansas,” she said. “Put the thought out of your mind.”
“You know what’s really strange about all this with Duchess?” I asked her.
“Uh, yeah, I do, actually. Everything is strange about it,” she said.
“No. Duchess remembers things, little details. My memory is gone, you know that. I don’t remember anything.”
“Duchess remembers people’s pets’ names, their kids’ names, their spouses, what they do for a living, what they do for fun. I don’t know how she’s doing it.”
“Are you trying to remember this stuff?”
“No. You know I don’t remember anything. She remembers it without trying.”
“Are you writing it down somewhere?”
“Come on. You know I don’t care that much.”
“That is very true,” she said. “Remember that time you forgot my dog’s name?”
“You’ve had so many dogs. I can’t remember them all.”
“I had one dog. One,” she said. “You knew Sparkles her whole life! She considered you part of her family!”
“My point,” I said, “is that Duchess is somehow tapping into other parts of my brain to remember everything. Look through her list of people she’s following.” I handed over my phone. “Ask me about them.”
She started scrolling through the list, reading names out loud.
“I see here you’ve got a Shirley in California.”
“She’s a favorite. She dressed up as Duchess one time. Hang on. I saved the picture.”
“What did she use for the hat and the ruff?”
“I don’t know. I think she maybe made the ruff out of fabric or coffee filters,” I said. “Here. Look.” I took the phone and found the picture of California Shirley I’d saved.
“Jesus Christ,” Jackie said. “She’s wearing coffee filters.”
“Isn’t she adorable?”
“She’s beautiful,” Jackie said. “All right, let’s see who else is in here. Benjamin Dreyer?”
“Love him. He’s in New York. He’s become a real friend.”
“What do you mean, real? You’ve met him?”
“No, of course not. I mean we’ve shared the deepest truths of our hearts with one another. Although he has been writing a book for a few years now, maybe four or five years, and Duchess has told him when the book comes out, if he has a party, she’ll come to life for him.”
“How is she going to come to life and go to his party?”
“Me. I mean me. I would go to his party.”
“You’re going to leave the house, leave town, go to New York City, and go to a publishing party? How are you going to introduce yourself?”
I paused. It was possible I hadn’t thought all this through.
“OK, next. ‘Good Maggie.’ ”
“Good Maggie! Duchess calls her Goodness. When she got married, she and her husband held up a giant portrait of Duchess between them at the wedding.”
“Oh yes. Her mother had it printed up and framed. Took it with her for the wedding. Duchess was invited to the wedding, as a matter of fact.”
“What? These people invited you to their wedding?”
“No, not me. They invited Duchess. She said she would have gone, too, but only if they’d let her officiate.”
“I can’t believe the mother of the bride brought a portrait of Duchess to her daughter’s wedding.”
“She handmade Duchess Goldblatt Christmas ornaments one year, too.”
“We’ll come back to that. Cedar Waxwing.”
“Duchess told him to use that name for some reason. I forget why. His real name is Nate. He has a cat named Ted and he sends Ted’s pictures in to the Duchess Goldblatt Cat Show. He made me a video on New Year’s Eve saying ‘Happy New Year, Duchess,’ with Ted.”
“You have a cat show? Don’t answer that. Let’s keep going. Howard Mittelmark.”
“Howard’s a wonderful writer and editor. He reads Duchess very carefully. He, more than anybody, can tell when I’m struggling and the sadness comes through in Duchess’s voice, and he’ll send me a private message to check in on me and make sure I’m okay. No pets, as far as I know.”
“Oh, yes. The columnist. Journalist. She’s married to Sherrod Brown.”
“I don’t know who that is,” she said.
“Senator from Ohio. They have a long-haired dachshund named Franklin.”
“Are you telling me there’s a senator who knows about Duchess Goldblatt?”
“I should certainly hope so. If anybody needs to benefit from the bright shining light and wisdom of the universe that Duchess embodies, it’s the US government.”
“Right. Let me ask you this,” she said, putting the phone down. “What’s my job?”
I paused for a minute. “You’re kind of like a social worker,” I said.
“A social worker?” she repeated.
“No? A manager of social workers. You’re a manager.”
She glared at me. “You are unbelievable.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t help it. I’m not doing it on purpose.”
“It makes no sense,” she said. “How are you remembering all these details about people you don’t even know?”
“I have no idea,” I told her. “Although it does kind of feel like I know them.”
“They don’t know you. They’re not your real friends. They don’t even know your name.”
“They know my heart,” I said. “They know my voice. Those are the best parts of me. I never really liked my name anyway, to be honest with you. You know what’s funny, come to think of it? I used to have an incredible memory. It was freakish. I’ve lost so much ground, but it’s almost like Duchess has found a path back to my memory. She’s turned the lights back on.”
“If Duchess is able to form new memories, then your memory is still there. Why do you think you’re forgetting so much?”
“I don’t know, but I’ll tell you what: it’s a relief. If I run into someone I used to know, and I can’t recall their name or their parents’ names or every way they ever let me down, all I think is: thank God. I thank God for taking my memory away. Losing my memories can only be good for me.”
All lost manuscripts have since been found, numbered, bathed in rose water, and shredded for confetti. It’s what they would have wanted.
* * *
Join Benjamin Dreyer, Elizabeth McCracken, and Mary Laura Philpott
in a celebration of Duchess Goldblatt!
Wednesday, July 8, 2020
at 6pm Central/7pm Eastern on The Internet