The Travelling Roadshow Of The Countess Maritsa is a memoir written by Morgain McGovern, who grew up in a gypsy-like family of four rebellious sisters headed by their mother, Maureen, a brilliant con-woman on the run.
The book starts when I was seventeen, hiding out in a Parisian hotel room with my fugitive mother, who was wanted by the French authorities, British authorities, Interpol and the FBI.
As I lay in bed watching old “Kojack” reruns in a pill induced haze in our hotel room, I saw my Father’s episode dubbed over in French. The story then melts into our family’s history in “The Bionic Woman” and against the backdrop of his acting career in 1970’s Los Angeles.
But after one too many affairs on movie sets and theatre tours, Mom left her womanizing husband & took her four little girls (and a furry menagerie of our animals) on the road in a Winnebago.
Mom had a Samsonite case full of pills and borderline personality disorder, but her gift was a sharp knack for crime.
Mom and Paul Zindel 1959?
Her story is in some of his books.
In the “Mad Men” era of the mid-nineteen sixties, New York Herald Tribune journalist Maureen Smith met Don McGovern, a Broadway actor and stage manager (1963-66) of Lincoln Center in the East Village-who also moonlighted as a Mafia henchman.
He taught her everything he learned about crime, and while running a nightclub for a famous mob family in the meat market district, Dad got knifed in an argument with a “made” man- his boss- and the couple knew it was time to hit the road and drive to a new life in California.
At first, it was an ideal family life, having four little girls and living on our ranch in trendy Agoura. Mom’s sisters lived nearby in Los Angeles and provided some stability and guidance. We visited our father’s movie sets and went to studio parties with the glitterati, but the sepia toned memories and happiness were soon fleeting.
My father’s roles (Easy Rider, The Wicked Die Slow, The Bionic Woman, Killer Bees, the Last Detail, Sleeper, Kojack and others) gave him the acclaim he needed, but alcoholism and the lure of other women soon engulfed him.
The Wicked Die Slow 1968
One of his favorite stories was when he and his best friend Mike Whitney (Twiggy’s ex-husband) got drunk at our house in Laurel Canyon and then decided to cement over Ali McGraw’s footprints at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, because they didn’t think she deserved the honor.
Caravanning across America, we lived in gorgeous houses in affluent areas then when luck ran out, we crashed in run-down motels across the country & abroad. Rarely staying in one town for more than six months, Mom raised us with artistic ideals, to seek truth and beauty, kindness and compassion.
Mom’s regular form of income was fraud, of all kinds, but she really came alive when she got on the phone- wheeling and dealing, putting deals together with rich people. Some of them were spectacular. She was gifted at real estate and quit claims-because she had the knack of knowing what land was about to be valuable, get the rights to buy it somehow and sell it to whoever really wanted it at a much higher price. She did this with no actual money of her own and it was dazzling. When it was working in her favor, her mind was her greatest asset.
Mom loved big, rambling farmhouses out in the country and my sisters and I would pick wildflowers and plant gardens at whatever new house we lived in, putting down roots in the ground, as if it were some sort of magic spell to make us stay in one place. As I planted, I knew we wouldn’t be there the next spring to see hollyhocks come up-but I left my mark on the earth, I had been there.
Wherever we moved, Mom would invite strange people to live with us.
She’d find them at the DMV or pick up people spare-changing for food outside of the local grocery store. We were a family like Robin Hood, doing the right thing and helping these strange drifters that Mom had found. She told us that it was the kind thing to do, people should help each other. But as I got older, I realized they were her henchmen.
They would live in our guesthouse, attic or basement and fixed things around the property. As time went by, Mom’s choice of house guests would get scruffier and lower on the moral ladder. Drug addicts, dealers, low-lifes, crackers, swamp trash, anti-socials, squatters, whores, trailer trash, junkies, whatever she could find-the dumber, the better. The more affluent ones had their van or trailer they’d been living in towed to our newest property.
They would lights cars on fire, burn things down, return stolen items back to a pricey store (for cash or store credit), stage a robbery or whatever else she could think of to collect the insurance money.
Sometimes, they would get high, drunk or just completely misunderstand Mom’s directions and fuck things up so badly that we’d have to move sooner than anticipated. Most of her vagabond victims would only be around for a few months and the smart ones moved on to roam after they collected their share.
She’d order one of them to roll a dying car with a shot transmission off of a cliff or flood the basement of whatever house we were renting. We would gather up all of our clothes we were sick of, broken electronics (and anything else we didn’t want or feel like packing) and throw it into the dark, smelly lake that used to be our playroom. She told us that the basement had flooded overnight and while it was an unfortunate accident, we could get new stuff this way.
When my oldest sister Meagan was about ten, she got electrocuted when she flipped on the basement light before Mom could warn her. She looked down and realized she was standing in deep, electrified water on the top step but her puffy rubber-soled moon boots saved her from death.
Before we’d leave town and move on to our next new life, our basements morphed into something that looked like the end scene of the movie Titanic, with a shaved head Barbie doll floating face down in the black water, dismembered and abandoned to a watery death.
But when Mom was really upset or nervous, she would set things on fire. Torching rental houses was her signature way of letting the world know that she was angry, horrifying hysterical landlords who wanted their three-month’s of back rent.
My sisters and I would wave goodbye from the back of the station wagon with our cats and dogs to the bad town that wasn’t right for us. We knew other people led normal lives but Mom told us the new town was going to be better. This town was bad luck.
In some classrooms we’d be popular and never want to leave, in others, we’d be pariahs and didn’t bother with doing our homework. We knew it was only a matter of time before we were on the road again.
After our eighth or ninth school, my sisters and I began to create cover stories to tell our newfound friends. Growing up in chaos created a defiant kind of camaraderie for us. The secrets of our sisterhood banded us together to kept us sane.We began to realize what our Mom was, but we didn’t have the word for it. I told friends that my mom was freelance writer with a gypsy streak. We knew that soon she’d find a real job as a writer, eventually.
The magic box of pills that also doubled as a seat for me in the front of the van.
With warrants and detectives trailing us, the bills were paid with insurance fraud, clever scams and bad checks.We wanted to believe our mother- that the next move was permanent and we would settle down, but we all knew better.
Our father called occasionally, and told us he never wanted to be a parent, just an artist in a garret.
Mom’s brilliant mind would come through and save us every once in awhile.
When I was in the 3rd grade, she auditioned and became a contestant on a trivia game show called “Sale Of The Century”. She gave the other contestants a beating, and after a long week of tapings, she won $75,000 in cash, plus a bunch of prizes and a trip up to Monterrey, California.
Her winnings on the show changed our nomadic lives. For the first time, we went to a school for two years in a row and even though we still took road trips in our custom van up to Oregon, Washington and Idaho; we had a home to go back to in Los Angeles. We had food in the refrigerator and the cops didn’t come by to arrest Mom every few months. It was peaceful.
Things got bad again once the money ran out. We ended up living in a motel on Sepulveda Boulevard for three months until Mom could think of something. I’ve driven by that motel recently and families are still living there.
Three years later, we were living in a motel in Upstate New York when Mom found out that the game show was hosting a “Return Of The Champions” and wanted her to be a contestant on the show to defend her game show queen title-in Australia.
The show was a huge hit in Australia and the producers were willing to fly her and one other person to Melbourne and put her up in a hotel for at least a week or so. She convinced them to pay for Me and Erin to go, since we were both under fifteen. Mom had warrants out and detectives looking for her in New York-so a trip to Australia to escape certain jail time in New York was an opportunity that Mom couldn’t refuse.
When we got to Melbourne, There were about thirty other “champions” from various “Sale Of The Century” shows around the world, mostly Britons, Americans and Australians. I’ve never seen people who loved to drink so much (and for free) in a hotel bar.
All the contestants were shuttled to the studio every day, and the producers would randomly pick the contestants who would be on the show for the day. Everyone would come back by five or six for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the lounge. Mom finally had a 9 to 5 job.
Erin and I would take the trolley all around Melbourne and explore. It was brilliant.
It was in the lounge where Mom picked off her prey. Mom liked pills more than the drink, so she would wait it out while the other contestants got drunk and mingled. In 1989, there was no Internet. It was hard to tell if a credit card was stolen and they were run by hand machines and carbon copies. The stores would only phone in a suspiciously large purchase, so it would be weeks before English banks would know anything was up.
Mom’s day to finally be a contestant on the show came-and she didn’t do well at all. She was very sick on the day of the taping and only made about $1700. It was time to go back home to the states.
We tried to look on the bright side, even though she didn’t bring in the kind of money we needed, at least we had gotten a free trip to Australia. We tried to reassure her, the cops from New York were probably looking for somebody else by now.
For a last hurrah, Mom rented a car and drove us to see the fairy penguins march up the beach at dusk, back to burrow in their sand cave homes, all nestled in and warm with their furry families in the cliffs overlooking the Tasmanian sea.
We started to drive the car north, through the Snowy River Forest and then up to ninety mile beach where massive waves and a blue wall of water could come up slowly or quickly, and if you weren’t paying attention, you’d get soaked sitting 100 feet from the faded water lines. We were on our way to Sydney-we were going to fly back to the States from there.
After we got back to New York, we crashed at Katie and Meagan’s apartment. My sisters and I couldn’t joke about this anymore, we all started to unravel. We needed a Mom and she was wanted by the police all over New York for various thefts and fraud.
Mom checked herself into fancy mental hospital because she said that the cops can’t arrest you if you’re a patient. The four of us were on our own until she could figure something out. She was there for a few weeks when the cops found her and it was a matter of time before they figured out a loophole in the mental patient protection law. Mom checked herself out and announced that we were moving to Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina. Tomorrow.
Rich people from Ohio, New York and Connecticut usually go to the Carolinas for a vacation and expect to find golf, warm weather and Margaritaville. They’d have someone safe watch their kids at the hotel so they could go out and party.
Mom was waiting for them like a grandma spider nanny in a beautiful hotel. After the kids came back from swimming, tennis or golf lessons, Mom would put them to bed and help herself to whatever cash or jewelry she didn’t think the parents would miss. Most of the time, they hadn’t realized they’d been robbed until they got back to their northern homeland and sobered up.
Mom had a way of making sure she only robbed super rich people who on their last day of vacation and were leaving early for the next flight back home.
“I was a boutique thief, I never robbed anyone who’d be left with nothing”, she told me recently. “Morgain, there is no honor among thieves, I’ve never seen it. But I never stole from someone who’d be left with nothing. I stole from the rich.”
Detectives were searching the house on a regular basis and Mom got arrested for grand theft, robbery and insurance fraud. Meanwhile, New York State had several warrants out for her and was trying to extradite her back.
My sisters were done. They decided to move back to upstate New York and break free from Mom, but I couldn’t. For years, we had been raised on a roller coaster ride of torched houses, cross country road trips, international hotel rooms, run down motels, a gunfight, foreign authorities, Australian game shows, addiction and madness.
After Mom posted bail on Hilton Head, my sisters had already left and I was alone with her. Mom presented me with a new plan. We were going to start a new life in England. I knew how sick she was, but I couldn’t leave her. She had already programmed me to protect her.
In England, I started going to a posh school in Kensington and started hanging out with my friends. I tried to stay away from home as much as possible. While I was at school, Mom had started doing some very bad things and ended up in Holloway Women’s Prison, in London. The detectives confiscated my passport and I was trapped in London, homeless for the rest of the winter.
After Mom escaped from her bail hostel in Oxford, we left England in the night. From there, our journey took us to Spain, France and back to the United States-which escalated into a FBI manhunt and America’s Most Wanted.
For years, we were raised on a roller coaster ride of torched houses, cross country road trips, international hotel rooms, run down motels, a gunfight, foreign authorities, Australian game shows, drug and alcohol abuse, a Parisian dungeon, French nuns, a house chicken and madness.
The Travelling Roadshow of the Countess Maritsaa story about the American dream unraveling.
As the Internet age came upon her, Mom was caught just before her segment on “America’s Most Wanted” aired, and she was sent to Federal prison for several years. One detective in Fort Bend, Texas thought she was affiliated with the notorious “Irish Travelers” band of gypsies, but nothing has ever been proven.
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