On a recent evening in a dimly lit room at the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’ and Airmen’s Club, located in a shabbily genteel townhouse overlooking Lexington Avenue, a meeting of the Peter Minuit Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution was in full swing. Sweater sets and pearls dominated, cheese and crackers circulated on paper plates, and well-groomed women clasped paper napkins bearing the American flag as dark oil paintings gazed down at them from the walls.
It was Lisa Wood Shapiro’s first time at a Daughters of the American Revolution meeting, which is not surprising, considering that the 34-year-old was reared on Hebrew school, Jewish sleep-away camps and Young Judea.
“I had wrongly assumed that because I was Jewish, I couldn’t join,” said the 5-foot-9 blonde.
In order to join the D.A.R., a woman needs to prove lineal bloodline descent from a patriot of the American Revolution. Notable members have included Clara Barton, Grandma Moses, Susan B. Anthony and almost all the First Ladies of the land, including, in recent times, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush and Laura Bush (but not Hillary Clinton).
After doing some genealogical research, Ms. Shapiro, author of the upcoming memoir How My Breasts Saved the World: Misadventures of a Nursing Mother , learned that she qualified for D.A.R. membership on both sides of her family tree.
The chapter’s temporary regent, Lisa Brown, a very pregnant woman in her 30’s wearing a headband and smock dress, called the meeting to order. The group rose to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and then a D.A.R. oath, “The American’s Creed,” which was written in 1919 by William Tyler Page, a clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. It goes like this:
“I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed; a democracy in a republic; a sovereign Nation of many sovereign States; a perfect Union, one and inseparable; established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice, and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes. I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it; to support its Constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag; and to defend it against all enemies.”
While a few ladies of a certain age were in attendance, the meeting’s most vocal members were women in their early 30’s who worked in new media, publishing and film.
“I think the biggest misconception is that the D.A.R. is composed entirely of wealthy Episcopalian, Republican women, and that it’s some sort of faux aristocracy,” said Molly Ker Hawn, 32, a past chapter regent who works in children’s publishing. “In fact, the majority of the members aren’t very wealthy. Goodness knows that I’m Catholic and half-Italian, and we didn’t have much money when I was growing up.” In addition to the 30 D.A.R. pins displayed on the lapel of her black suit jacket, Ms. Hawn wore a diamond cross around her neck.
Thanks in large part to Ms. Hawn’s determination to revamp the D.A.R.’s stodgy image, the Peter Minuit Chapter has attracted a younger, more diverse generation of women. The chapter now has more than 100 members, nearly a 400 percent increase since January 2000. Thirty-five percent are under 40; Meredith Roscoe, an investment banker who is taking over as chapter regent from Ms. Brown, is 27. The dues for the chapter are negligible: $37 a year.
“Membership is shrinking since the majority of our members are quite old,” said Ms. Hawn, who heads the membership committee. “To keep the organization going, we’ve got to bring in younger women. The only way to remain viable is for people to understand that we welcome people of all races and religions.”
It’s a radical notion for the D.A.R., which for many years was etched into the American consciousness as a right-wing organization comprised of blue-blood dowagers who opposed the United Nations, the Peace Corps, UNICEF Christmas cards, rock ‘n’ roll,
“People assume that when you say you can trace your heritage back to the 18th century, you mean you can trace yourself back to someone very important,” said Ms. Hawn. “I come from a long line of Pennsylvania peasants who kept good records, but not one of them did anything important. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having pride in your particular heritage. It’s the same reason I’m a member of the National Organization of Italian American Women.”
The group’s objectives have remained consistent since it was founded in 1890: to promote historic preservation, education and patriotism. In addition to raising money for D.A.R.-sponsored schools and scholarship funds, they publish the D.A.R. Manual for Citizenship and a pamphlet about the flag code.
“Suddenly, after 9/11, patriotism was cool again, when the D.A.R. was patriotic from the get-go. People were suddenly wondering, ‘Where do you get flags, and how do you hang them properly?'” said Ms. Hawn, who is also a member of the Junior League of Brooklyn.
Although 9/11 made it more acceptable for liberal downtowners to express patriotism, the D.A.R. is still far from cool.
“It may be hip in the way rodeo is hip or a cotillion is hip, by virtue of its antiquity and retro-wow, but you’re never going to change the essential tradition of it,” said writer and former stripper Lily Burana, author of Strip City: A Stripper’s Farewell Journey Across America. Although her mother’s family has been in the country since the 1600’s, Ms. Burana said she never considered joining the D.A.R. until recently.
“I always thought, ‘Why on God’s green earth would we need an organization like that nowadays?'” said Ms. Burana, who’s working on her application. “It’s sort of a rebellion for a former punk-rock kid like me to join the D.A.R., but at some point in your life you reach this milestone of maturity where you think maybe the next level of development is about looking back at who the hell you are.”
Ms. Hawn said her friends occasionally make fun of her for being in the D.A.R. “My husband teases me for owning white gloves, which we wear for receiving lines at formal events. But I make fun of him for going to Burning Man,” she said.
The meeting closed with the induction of three new junior members, who were solemnly instructed, “As you wear the Insignia, may you be reminded that it is the emblem not only of the sacred heritage of your forefathers, but of the patriotic citizenship which you undertake as a member of the Society.”
“Amen,” the group declared in unison.
“The meeting gave me a great sense of naches, or joy. The inner patriot woke up in me. I don’t think I’ve done the Pledge of Allegiance in 25 years,” said Ms. Shapiro. “There were aspects of the meeting that were part Saturday Night Live send-up and part Brownies meeting gone awry, but nobody took themselves too seriously.” (A few days after the meeting, Ms. Shapiro put the finishing touches on her application-it can take quite a while, since applicants have to document their ancestors-just prior to heading out to a klezmer concert.)
Among the last of the women to stream out of the meeting was Jane Fulton, a district director for the D.A.R. in New York City. Ms. Fulton, who looks uncannily like the late Ruth Gordon, displayed a wicker handbag with an etching of the Boston Tea Party on top.
“I’m glad to see all these young people joining the D.A.R. We want our society to perpetuate,” said Ms. Fulton. She added that there are many more professional women in the organization than when she joined in 1970.
“Times have changed,” she said. “We used to meet on Thursdays, because it was maids’ day off.”
It’s Not an Act
“We must look upon it as putting a sick animal to sleep. Kerry Max Cook has forfeited the right to walk among us …. We must put this man on the scrap heap of humanity where he belongs. So let’s let all the freaks and perverts and murderous homosexuals of the world know what we do with them in a court of justice. That we take their lives!”
The first time Kerry Max Cook heard these words, he was 21 years old and sitting in the defendant’s chair in a Tyler, Texas, courtroom, accused of murdering a beautiful 21-year-old secretary. Those words almost cost him his life-they helped send him to death row for some two decades-and so you would think he’d never want to hear them again. But on Sunday, Oct. 19, Mr. Cook played the part of himself in The Exonerated , the Off Broadway play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about six wrongly convicted death-row inmates. Previously, the role based on Mr. Cook had been played by Richard Dreyfuss, Gabriel Byrne, Aidan Quinn, Peter Gallagher and Chad Lowe. This time, he was doing it himself.
“They said the crime was done by a homosexual, maniacal murderer who hated women,” he told the audience in his shy Texas twang. “The prosecution accused me of bein’ a homosexual.”
Thanks in part to newly discovered DNA evidence, Mr. Cook, 46, was freed in 1999. He moved to upstate New York last year with his wife and son and has made something of a name for himself as a crusader against the death penalty. He has broad shoulders and a strong, wide face.
But onstage at the 45 Bleecker Theater, he shrank noticeably as the prosecutor, played by actor Larry Block, lashed into him. “The killer sits right before you in this courtroom!” shouted Mr. Block. As the prosecutor finished his speech, Mr. Cook’s head bowed and a woman sitting somewhere in Row F let out a long ” Jeeeesus …. ”
After the show, Mr. Cook told The Observer that the scene was “really tough” for him. “It’s an eerie feeling, being condemned like that all over again,” he said. “It’s like I’m back in that courtroom, watching that prosecutor stand there before that jury and the media, and everyone wants me cut in a million pieces. It was intense, man.”
“You just can’t escape his words,” said actor and Exonerated director Bob Balaban. “He manages to sound exactly like himself, while speaking precisely the words he spoke when [the playwrights] went around tape-recording him, and that’s a very difficult thing to accomplish. The audience finds his presence very, very moving.” If Mr. Cook decides that he’s up for it, he will continue to perform as himself from time to time during the weekends.
In the four years since he was freed-and, in particular, in the 12 months since The Exonerated debuted-Mr. Cook has found himself in the odd, not altogether unpleasant situation of going from inmate to celebrity. He’s close friends with Mr. Lowe and his wife, Hilary Swank; he has a new four-month-old Jack Russell terrier given to him by Bruce Springsteen (he named her Rosalita); he’s signed a book deal with HarperCollins; he’s appeared on The Today Show , C-Span and Fox. It’s a long way from death row.
“I didn’t think I’d survive-I really didn’t,” he said. “Now, all these exciting things are being dangled in my face, and I’m like a little kid in a candy store. I’m going for all those things that are fun to me.”
“A lot of famous people are interested in him, which happens in stuff like this,” said Mr. Balaban. “I think there’s a bit of a danger to it, but I have to say that I’m not really that worried, because he’s smart, he’s positive and he’s very, very interested in leading a productive life. And what I really think when I think about this is that any single shred of happiness he can experience after what he’s been through-any positive reinforcement he gets from anywhere-has got to be a good thing.”
As much as Mr. Cook savors the good things that have been happening to him, it would be far too easy to say that his current good fortune has erased the past. As he says in the play, “The state of Texas executed me over a thousand times, and they still do.”
“The way I feel it in my head, I keep my life on a rigid, fast pace because that’s the only way I can avoid being bogged down in all the trauma, man,” said Mr. Cook. “I’m never happy when it slows down, because then I have time to ruminate on all this stuff that happened to me. And as long as I’m going 95 miles an hour, I don’t have time to analyze those things. And that’s the heart of it.”
The trauma is rooted in 1977, in the fundamentalist backwaters of Texas. Mr. Cook was working in a gay bar and staying with a gay friend in a singles-scene housing complex called the Embarcadero. Mr. Cook wasn’t popular with the local cops-he raised hell and pinched cars, including the deputy sheriff’s-and so when a neighbor was brutally murdered, the police came for him. They ignored other potential suspects and instead concocted a story about Kerry as a “murderous homosexual.”
“I was tried for leading a ‘homosexual lifestyle,'” Mr. Cook told The Observer . “They argued that because I was ‘homosexual,’ I was misogynistic-and what would a homosexual want with a woman but to murder her? And that prejudice and bias cost me the next 22 years of my life.”
On death row in a maximum-security prison outside of Huntsville, Texas, Mr. Cook was brutalized by inmates who, he said, targeted him as a “sick pervert” who “hated women.” His only friend was his brother, who was subsequently murdered outside a pool hall in 1987. His father died and his mother gave up on him. He tried several times to kill himself, but each time the death-row doctors saved him. At several points, higher courts overturned his conviction on grounds of police and prosecutorial misconduct, but in two subsequent retrials he was still found guilty (a third ended in a hung jury). In 1999, just days before another retrial, the prosecution discovered new DNA evidence.
“The prosecution said that this will be the final nail in Kerry Max Cook’s coffin,” Mr. Cook told the audience on Oct. 19. “And it did just the opposite. It finally took the nail out of my coffin.”
Mr. Cook is now married-to Sandra Pressey, a maternal blonde with cheerful eyes. Wherever Mr. Cook goes, their 3-year-old son, Kerry Justice (or K.J.), goes with him. “He’s a daddy’s boy,” Mr. Cook likes to say.
After the play, Mr. Cook walked down Lafayette Street, the wind whipping at his blue T-shirt while K.J. rode on his shoulders and friends from Ulster County walked and joked beside him. He was in a giddy mood. They were headed to Il Buco, an upscale Italian restaurant.
“It’s a real mental high doing that play,” he said. “Because I’m hoping that by performing those words myself, perhaps I can educate the public about what really is going on. I need to feel like I went through all of this for a reason. But I’m really relieved when it’s over. It exacted a great deal of energy from me, because I’m acting on so many different levels. I’m acting to corral my emotions, I’m acting to corral my shyness with the audience, I’m acting so they won’t see that I’m embarrassed, and I’m acting just to be acting.”
And then there’s what happens later, he said, when “you’ve got to go back to the darkness of your thoughts and sort it all out in your mind.”