By Matt Hanson
Dorothy Boudreau believed in the necessity of culture, and she was as erudite as she was unpretentious.
A long time ago, I was working at my dead-end job at a call center in Cambridge and for some reason I was in a playful mood. Maybe I had just scored a big donation, I don’t know, but I was bouncing around when all of a sudden the cranky old lady sitting next to me finished her call and snapped, “Are you perky? I hate perky!” Not knowing what to say, I figured I’d volley by picking up on the reference. “Who are you, Lou Grant?,” I replied, citing the scowling boss from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She seemed surprised, and I figured that was the end of it. You met all kinds at that job, and sometimes it was best to keep your distance. Then she noticed the book I had with me. Evidently it was impressive enough to pass muster, we got to talking, and didn’t stop for years.
Dorothy Boudreau who passed away on January 31, is the reason why I write for the Arts Fuse in the first place, or pretty much anywhere else for that matter. She told me about The End of the Point, a novel by her friend Elizabeth Graver, which I had read and loved. Graver ran into Fuse editor Bill Marx at a party — I didn’t find out until later that they hadn’t previously met — and suggested I might do an interview. That was the first piece I’ve ever done for the Fuse, now seven years ago. I owe a lot to Dorothy, which she never believed, but I always told her anyway. Giving herself credit was never her style.
We started hanging out pretty regularly, with another co-worker, and we made quite an odd little trio wherever we went. We hit the Brattle, the MFA, the theater, or got long lunches at The Neighborhood or the Thai place in Porter Square across from the glass-walled building where we worked. There was me, a grungy bookish blabbermouth, and a verbose Indian-American slob with an Ivy League degree, flanking a beret-clad old lady (who never did tell me her actual age) with a Southern accent who would indomitably push her walker down the sidewalk. It had impaled tennis balls at the bottom of each pole, which seemed to work pretty well despite the notoriously schizophrenic Boston weather. Nothing beat Dorothy Boudreau, who always refused any assistance.
One time, after watching her climb into The Ride that inevitably took forever to show up, the two of us watched as she drifted away, shaking our heads in awe, saying something stupid and banal about what a tough old gal she was. For once, words failed us in light of what we both knew.
I was just a small part of her life, but the more you listened to Dorothy it wasn’t hard to see how expansive it was. She had grown up in Arkansas, and eventually split from her small town. I heard she had hitchhiked across California all the way to Alaska as a black-clad Beat chick and that she was an extra in a Frank Sinatra/Spencer Tracy movie called The Devil at 4 O’clock. Her devoted son, a talented actor and stage director, told me about her memories of listening to a pirate rock and roll station out of Memphis and how much it meant to hear it at that place and time. Her cousin once spent an entire summer stalking Elvis — going to ice cream parlors he’d been known to visit, that sort of thing — and Conway Twitty had once given her and her friend a lift.
Here’s another one of my favorite Dorothy stories. Norman Mailer hit on her at a party (in P-town I think) while sneaking a joint with his friend in the shower. I’m a Mailer fan, but I was totally grossed out by his come-on line. I wanted to zoom back in time and inform him that you don’t talk like that to my Dorothy, pal! She got the last laugh: briskly shutting horny Norm down, she turned on the faucet, promptly soaking them both on her way out.
One thing you can say about Boston is that it’s a place where people migrate when their hometowns get them down. Temperamentally Dorothy wasn’t an easy sell, but she could be surprisingly sentimental about living in the fabled city on a hill. She waitressed in the North End for years, worked as a paralegal, raised a family (she told me once that children are her heroes), settled in Somerville, and got her degree in Chinese and Japanese studies from Wellesley while she was at it. Boston had all the cultural access she craved and the leftist tradition she felt in her bones. I remember we were watching news footage of the Arab Spring over dinner at Wok and Roll and as we toasted the uprising I saw an excitement in her I hadn’t seen before. She made her globe-trotting son buy her a T shirt from a radical group in South America and mused about getting one in support of Pussy Riot.
When you hung out with Dorothy, she wasn’t much for clichés or conventional wisdom and resolutely took no bullshit as a woman, yet simultaneously had little use for most PC culture. I always respected how she had come by her radicalism on her own, from activism and relentless self-education. She could tack easily from discussing whatever movie we’d just seen (I’ve never forgotten the night that, at her suggestion, we all went to see F.W. Murnau’s beautiful Sunrise at the Brattle and it worked its silent magic over the whole crowd) or whether the latest hotshot novel was any good, or what John Ford films to watch, or whether or not Hillary was going to be the nominee, or what kind of punishment Donald Trump deserved for his numberless idiocies.
Dorothy believed in the necessity of culture, and she was as erudite as she was unpretentious. As far as opinions go, she always gave as good as she got. In fact, she did not give a damn if someone saw her pulling cookies from out of her purse during a mediocre production of Hamlet. Dorothy was one of those rare people who are truly funny. I was told that by someone who had just returned from seeing her during her increasingly frequent visits to the ER. Even then, she was throwing hundred-mile-an-hour fastballs of humor.
She joked about being accompanied by a pair of hapless gigolos whenever she ended up picking up the check, which was pretty often. Once, when we were in the middle of our impromptu Algonquin table at a late-night pizza shop, I jokingly apologized for checking out other girls. She shrugged and said with that sarcastic Arkansas drawl (which she never managed to lose) that was just fine. But she warned me not to act all hurt when she started checking out other guys. That was Dorothy.
Over the past few years, we met less in person, but we did keep up our epic phone conversations. I can’t imagine what she was dealing with at the time — her health problems were legion and unrelenting — but she was sharp and amusing and insightful and interested every second, without fail, even when I could hear her quietly moaning with pain. It was subtly taken for granted that each conversation could be our last, which she was always bravely cavalier about. In what ended up being one of our last talks, she offhandedly stated that she had lived her life fully and was totally at peace with it ending. Plenty of philosophers would call that wisdom, if not enlightenment.
The day her son called to tell me that she died, my first thought was that I was supposed to call her that afternoon. Now I never will. So farewell, my lovely. And do say hi for me to whoever you’re bantering with now, wherever it is that the great ones go.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.