This month’s book recommendation is Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, by Anonymous. Duchess Goldblatt—Her Grace or DG to her thousands of Twitter followers, myself included—has been an indelible, wholly invented presence on Twitter for some eight years. Her avatar is a 1633 portrait by Frans Hals, and her distinctive voice—firm yet loving, barmy yet authoritative, warm yet tinged with acid—has inspired endless speculation about her “real” identity. You won’t learn that secret from this memoir, but you will learn how the anonymous author (now a woman of perhaps middle age) came to create her, during a terrible period in her life during which she lost her marriage, her house, her job, and most of her friends. The Duchess became her 81-year-old alter ego: an escape from loneliness and an outlet for her considerable writing talent. The book combines memoir with selected DG tweets, and if you choose the audiobook—try your local library system—you’ll enjoy not just the primary narration by Gabra Zackman but also the wonderful actress J. Smith Cameron reading the tweets and singer/songwriter/actor Lyle Lovett reading the Lyle Lovett parts. (Lovett and Her Grace have a mutual admiration society, and if only DG would deign to follow me back on Twitter we could make it a threesome.)
Writers can be a lot of fun at parties, but word to the wise: Keep an eye on your good memories. They’ll strip them down for parts.
That’s the subject of my new Visual Thesaurus column, which ranges from Rhode Island to Florida to Texas and from dog food to rum to window shutters. Full access is restricted to subscribers; here’s a preview:
In the 1950s, among African Americans in particular, plantation began to take on the metaphorical sense of “any institution regarded as exploitative or paternalistic.” In his Autobiography, published in 1989, the musician Miles Davis wrote: “All the record companies were interested in at the time was making a lot of money and keeping their so-called black stars on the music plantation so that their white stars could just rip us off.” Commenting on the National Football League’s 2018 decision to fine players who didn’t stand for the National Anthem, the African American sociologist Harry Edwards told an interviewer: “This land is not free. My people are not free. It’s a carryover from 400 years of slavery and oppression. [NFL team] owners are acting like plantation owners, insisting that any act of ‘rebellion’ must be squelched.”
Blog bonus! As I note in the column, plantation can have a neutral meaning: “the act of planting.” It’s also pretty innocent in the song “Dalmatian Plantation,” by Mel Leven, sung at the end of the 1961 Disney animated movie One Hundred and One Dalmatians. This “plantation” is a haven, not a bastion of Cruella-ty. And, of course, it rhyme with “dalmation.”
I wrote last month about Schulz’s excellent pieces for the New Yorker, and I’m here to tell you that Being Wrong is every bit as well researched, witty, and graceful. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that I’m fascinated by failure, but hey—everyone has a story to tell about wrongness petty or vast. Schulz’s catalog of errors includes explorers undone by mirages, buyers beset by remorse, the famous gorilla-on-the-basketball-court experiment, the impossibility of saying “I am wrong” (as opposed to “I was wrong”), and the ’Cuz It’s True Constraint (a name I love). She dips into cognitive psychology, history, philosophy, aesthetics, and religion; Newsweek called the book “intellectualism made fun!” and it is.
I listened to the audiobook, and immediately discovered that I’d been wrong for ages about the pronunciation of the author’s last name. It rhymes with pools, not cults.
Fourth in a series of posts about US brands that are thriving during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around the end of March, a couple of weeks into California’s shelter-in-place directive, I used up the last of my flour on a batch of Marion Cunningham’s raw apple muffins—a recipe I’d first tasted, years earlier, at Cunningham’s house in Walnut Creek, where I’d gone to interview her. (I’ve forgotten what story I was writing, but I’ll never forget the warm muffins and strong coffee she served me. As I was leaving, she gave me her well-worn and annotated copy ofThe Breakfast Book, which I still use.)
When I ventured out to buy more flour, all of the shelves were bare. I’d had the bad luck to run out of provisions during a pandemic baking boom; flour mills had been caught short. I was late to this realization: In early March, King Arthur Flour—the oldest flour company in America and the country’s fourteenth-oldest manufacturer—had noticed a 600 percent jump in grocery-store sales of their products virtually overnight. “It was as if half of America had decided all at once that they needed to bake. A lot,” writes David H. Freedman in an engrossing story for Medium about the King Arthur company.
Finally found some!
The problem wasn’t supply—there was plenty of wheat available—but logistics. Until the pandemic, home baking had been in decline for years; flour mills like King Arthur stayed in business by supplying restaurants and commercial bakeries, which bought in huge quantities and which were now shut down.
Freedman’s story reveals how King Arthur quickly adapted to meet the new market demands. It’s also full of other interesting tidbits. For one, the company has been employee owned since 1996. For another, employees call the Vermont headquarters “Carbohydrate Camelot.”
But the story doesn’t delve into the history and significance of the company name. So I did my own investigation.
A study of 597 logos found that “descriptive logos more favorably impact consumers’ brand perceptions than nondescriptive ones, and are more likely to improve brand performance.” (Harvard Business Review)
Old descriptive logos (left) vs. new nondescriptive logos (right).
When I’m asked to rename a brand, it’s usually for one of two reasons: a legal challenge (someone has a prior claim to the name) or a major shift in the organization’s direction (we used to sell housewares; now we sell jewelry).
Neither of those scenarios applied to Resourceful HR, a 10-year-old Seattle human-resources consultancy that approached me last autumn about a name change. The company was thriving. It had successfully registered RESOURCEFUL as a trademark. And its business plan involved a refinement, not a revolution.
Still, company founder and CEO Jennifer Olsen told me with a sigh, it was probably time to change the name. For starters, her graphic designer had “taken the brand imagery as far as it could go.” And the brand strategist she’d hired, Catherine Carr of Vitamin C Creative, had done some interviews and concluded that “what she was hearing from us was more exciting than what she was seeing in our materials.”
Mailchimp has changed a lot since it was founded in 2001. In the beginning, it was a side project of a small web-design firm; the company name followed the popular compound-word trend of the era. (Compare PayPal, founded in 1998; Typepad, 2003; Grooveshark, 2006.)
The company survived, thrived, and diversified. And the name – never the company’s strongest feature, to be honest – began to look dated. Time for a rebrand?