After years as one of the perpetrators, I recently became a victim of the press. Or, more accurately, my mother and her dog Skippy did. It happened a few weeks ago in Venice, when two newspapers, Corriere della Sera and Il Gazzettino , printed front-page stories-filled with inaccuracies-about Skippy’s upcoming fifth birthday party.
I know what you’re thinking: It must have been a really slow news day if they couldn’t find anything better to write about than a dog’s birthday party. Either that, or Italian journalistic standards are even lower than ours. Both assumptions are probably true.
However, Skippy’s isn’t the average dog’s birthday party. It takes place on the terrace of the Hotel des Bains on the Lido, the grand Art Nouveau hotel that serves as the backdrop for Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and also for the Visconti movie based on the book.
Furthermore, anywhere from 50 to 100 people will attend, and the party has been going on for almost 40 years. We’re currently on Skippy No. 4. My mother gives all her dogs the same name to ensure continuity, and she even insists that they be born in August because she feels that Leos are more sociable.
In any case, the first story appeared in Corriere della Sera a few days before the party. Unfortunately, the reporter neglected to interview my mother, Skippy or any other family member. We believe the mole may have been the photographer my mom hires to take souvenir pictures of Skippy and his guests. He’d approached her with an interview request from a reporter, and she’d passed along the query to me. I didn’t pursue it because, frankly, the party is just an excuse for old friends to get together, not a public spectacle.
The resulting story stated that Skippy’s birthday would be celebrated on Aug. 14. The correct date was Aug. 17, as it always is. They also misstated Skippy’s breed, calling him a pug when he’s a Boston terrier. Adding insult to injury, they referred to my mother as an “old lady”-twice.
The next piece, which came out a couple of days later in Il Gazzettino , the local Venetian paper, was even worse. It repeated the mistakes from the previous story (they didn’t bother to interview anybody, either) and described my mother as an eccentric American billionaire.
That would be nice if it were true. But it wouldn’t be true even if the Italian currency was still the lira. But now that we were suddenly linked to the likes of Warren Buffett and Silvio Berlusconi, we started to worry that someone, perhaps the Italian Mafia, might kidnap our kids-or, worse, Skippy.
Maybe we were overreacting. But sure enough, barely a day after the first story appeared, Skippy came down with a bizarre illness. He started to suffer from paralyzing attacks that turned his body into agonizing knots and made breathing almost impossible. It crossed our minds that someone, perhaps a member of the hotel staff-perhaps the waiter who delivered Skippy’s dinner every night and seemed a little off-might be trying to poison him.
What made the situation unbearable, especially for my mother, is that Skippy is normally the most peppy of pets. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe him as hyperactive. I remember when I drove my mother down to Maryland five years ago to pick Skippy up from his breeder. Skippy’s mother, aunt, brothers and sisters were also there, and they were out of their minds, too.
Somehow, Skippy managed to appear normal-even placid by comparison to the rest of his family-resting peacefully in my mother’s lap until she signed the check. He hasn’t taken a break since.
For example, like most dogs, he likes to play fetch. Except Skippy will keep returning his tennis ball or squeaky toy and proceed to whine-whether you toss the object five times or a thousand times-until you literally have to threaten to beat him with a stick; at which point he slinks off, looking back over his shoulder, with a sinned-against expression.
Then there’s his panting. It’s so relentless that my mother has stopped wearing her hearing aid because the noise drives her crazy-not that she loves him any less.
Finally, there’s Skippy’s jumping. When you least expect it, he’ll leap at you (he can jump almost to the height of a fully grown man), scoring a direct hit to your balls on the way up.
A veterinarian was summoned to the hotel after Skippy’s first attack, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Once the attack passed, Skippy seemed to recover completely. The doctor left behind a prescription for a muscle relaxant, best wishes for a speedy recovery and a substantial bill with the concierge.
Unfortunately, Skippy hadn’t completely recovered. Less than an hour before his birthday party, he was struck by his most severe attack. The hors d’oeuvres had already been set out on silver platters in the hotel’s Thomas Mann room, peach juice and champagne to make bellinis were at the ready, and a sign that directed well-wishers to “Skippy’s Birthday Party” in both English and Italian had been posted in the lobby.
Upstairs, we waited and prayed for Skippy’s recovery. The animal couldn’t move, and my mother-whose passion for her dog is complete-wasn’t much better. She somehow managed to get dressed and go downstairs to greet her guests, even though it appeared increasingly likely that Skippy’s birthday party would have to go on without Skippy.
The way the party works is that my kids and my brother’s kids (six in all) make a triumphal entrance with Skippy once all the guests are assembled. These days, we communicate via walkie-talkie: I give them the word when the moment has arrived and Skippy bursts in-panting like a maniac, of course-to greet his guests and eat his cake.
However, this year it seemed more like a death watch as I radioed up to the room, only to be told that Skippy’s condition wasn’t improving. Just as hope was running out, Benito, the hotel masseur, got word of Skippy’s plight and rushed to the rescue. I wasn’t there, but I’ve been told that Benito gave the pet a massage, kneading his hind quarters, while explaining something about unblocking his energy.
Sure enough, Skippy began to recover. It’s possible it was just the muscle relaxant kicking in. Nonetheless, Benito achieved something like rock-star status with the family: Five minutes later, Skippy was making his entrance at his party. His cake, the size of a Fiat Uno and bearing his likeness, was wheeled out and, as in years past, Skippy posed for photographs with his guests. The party even attracted a couple of gate crashers-drawn either by the press coverage or the sign in the lobby-who loaded up on free canapés.
Skippy seems to have recovered completely, though he’s still undergoing tests. And from that day on, every time Benito arrives to give my mother a massage, Skippy rolls over to have his own butt rubbed. And when it comes to the press, we’ve learned our lesson: The only way to control them is to cooperate and spin them. In the end, it was my fault for not calling that reporter back; next year, I’m thinking of hiring a publicist.