Tag Archives: Morgain McGovern

The Travelling Roadshow Of The Countess Maritsa


Erin, Sue (family friend), Katie, Morgain

On The Road- Mt.Shasta 1983

 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.

 Some of my earliest memories were stories of trashed movie trailers and tales of adventure with his wild actor friends: John Quade (Clint Eastwood films), Roscoe Lee Brown, Julius Harris, Jack Nicholson, Dennis Hopper and Warren Beatty.

 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

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

Dad The Wicked Die Slow Psycho Joker

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.

Dad, Mom, Lana Saunders, Mike Whitney

About the time Dad & Mike Whitney

cemented over Ali MacGraw‘s footprints at

Graumanns’ Chinese Theatre

                    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.

Some dogs we stole.

The magic box of pills that also doubled as a seat for me in the front of the van.

Halloween 1982. Kingwood, Texas.

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.

Morgain and Mom 1986
Cousin Judy, Morgain, Katie. Moved to Oregon, 1985

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.

Crocodile Mumdee

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.

Provence

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 Maritsa a 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.

The Countess

London To Paris-On The Run


March 1991

London to Paris
On the Run

March 1991-London

Most people seldom realized my mother was insane when talking to her, but I knew.

When I was young, standing around my mother’s knees, I loved listening to her voice and watching people fall under her spell. At the time, I thought everyone loved her as much as I did. She had a smooth throaty voice that was rich yet feminine and it could turn into velvet when she wanted something.  It wrapped around you like the warm blanket of an opiate high.

With all the adventures and carpetbaggery and pills in her life; she still could keep all the lies together in that racing, manic mind and spin tales so casually when dealing with her newest victim.

Mom told tales of woe that were simple for others to understand- but her specialty was finding people with money and getting it out of them.

My mother was a master illusionist. Most people who got swindled by her would agree later on; she had a way about her.

She was witty, educated and articulate-with a genuine protectiveness for the uneducated and downtrodden.

Her face would captivate you; she had bright blue eyes of a true Irishwoman and the smooth white alabaster skin of her Mother’s Polish roots that had bewitched many a lover during her days in Greenwich Village on Jane Street. Despite being heavy later on in life, she was always considered beautiful because she carried it well.

On the day she jumped bail after several months at Holloway Women’s Prison, she called me from a pay phone at her bail hostel in Oxford. If she stayed for her court date, she said, she’d be locked up for more than a year. She told me to start packing, because she’d be by to pick me up in an hour.

Looking back now, I realize I would have done serious time had I been caught helping her escape, but, I was seventeen and thought I could save her from herself.

Anyway, I knew it was time to get the fuck out of dodge; it was just a matter of time before I caught for performing the traveler’s check scam she taught me. The con had kept me fed while I was on the streets, but it was still considered theft in the eyes of her majesty’s courts and I didn’t want to end up sharing a cell with my mother.

It was around mid-afternoon when I heard her pull up to Amanda’s apartment in a black shiny London taxi. I was rushing around, packing up the last of my shit, when I looked out of the open window, down to the wet street and saw her getting out of the cab. I dropped my cigarette with a shaking hand and stared at her.

The few short months in prison had changed and hardened her, she’d lost weight and her face was ashen. For the first time, she’d been in prison for months, not just the few days that she was used to. I had told her over and over again that the computer age was upon us, but she kept running her old scams and ended up in all the systems. I began to believe her when she told me England was trying to kill us.

“We have to go,” Mom said as she walked in Amanda’s East end apartment in Stoke Newington. She looked around at the bare living room and her eyes settled on me, she was edgy and restless. “Now.” she looked at her watch. She didn’t bother to chat with Amanda; who was by the window, smoking a silk cut.

I looked at Amanda and she understood. She and I were the same age and became friends in a strange way. Our mothers were cellmates together at Holloway.

Mom had begged Amanda’s mother to let me live with her daughter, because it was winter in London and I was sleeping on the streets or at friend’s houses. Her mom showed great compassion and Amanda and I bonded immediately.

We had a lot in common-we liked to get as drunk as we could on Thunderbird, smoke hash and laugh at the absurdity of life.

Amanda had a thick Cockney accent and was of mixed race. She wore matching Addias hoodie tracksuits and always had her hair up in a ponytail. She was Sporty Spice.  She had creamy cafe latte skin, with a spattering of freckles across the bride of her nose and her eyes were hazelnut colored with flecks of copper. She should have been a Bennetton model, but she was stuck in the ghetto and didn’t know how to get out.

Amanda had talents and one of them was being a professional when it came to rolling spliffs. She taught me how to roll quick, small ones you could puff on and toss in the bushes if a cop was nearby. Pipes were too much evidence to carry and get busted with.  Joints, as we Americans call them. Spliffs in England.

The Brits also have a different way of smoking out. When you smoke weed in a circle of friends in the U.S, you take a hit and pass it. In England, one holds on the joint for a few puffs and smokes 3 or 4 hits while everyone chats. If you pulled that shit in California, you would get your ass kicked for Bogarting the joint. Puff, puff pass, bitch. Everyone needs to get high. Now.

Oh, and they don’t have weed, grass, chronic or any of the green stuff over there. They smoke hash. And if you smoke too much or try to smoke it like grass, you will puke in a few hours.

Reality was something we didn’t like to deal with while our mothers were in prison together, so we got high. And drunk. But high during the day. We knew that if you drank during the day, you were an alcoholic. So we smoked hash.

Amanda would pull out a brown sticky square of hash and flick her lighter over the end corner of it. She would carefully sprinkle the crumbly brown hash over tobacco, which had been ripped out of a Silk Cut cigarette. She rolled it up in a Zig Zag paper and  light it. She squinted as the cloud of smoke wafted in her face.

She took a long drag of a joint and held it in as she spoke,  “Morgain, I’m just a half caste girl living in the ghetto. ” She blew it out and her eyes watered. “What kind of job can I get? I ain’t got nuffink, mate. No fucking education, no fucking money, not even me Mum.” She shook her head ruefully. She looked up at me, like maybe I had the answer.

I replied,  “At least your mum left you a house to live in when she went down in flames, my Mom left me holding a bag of shit. Pass that spliff.”

We’d dissolve into the giggles and insulate ourselves against the harsh world with laughter. The highs from the hash would take us to an innocent place where we could be like children again. She was the only girlfriend I’ve ever had that also had a mom in prison and we could tell each other the truth.

I’d smoke and smoke, taking deep long hits into my lungs, so it would fill up the aching in my chest. The fuzzy, creeping feeling that spread through my body made me feel safe.

I felt bad that Amanda didn’t have any sisters to share the misery of having a parent in Prison. At least I had my three sisters when Mom got arrested in the States. I thought about them and knew they were worried about me, but there wasn’t anything they could do. They didn’t have money to send me and were trying to stay alive themselves. And, I was too ashamed to tell them that she’d tricked me, again.

Now, Mom was back. I wasn’t sure why I felt so uneasy around her, but I could tell that she was in the dark places of her mind where not even I could reach her. My mother was gone, replaced by a strange, sinister woman with a wild, leaping look in her eyes.

Usually when it was time to run, Mom would laugh and say to us, “Let’s get this show on the road, kid!” or “You go where I go amigo!” but not this time.

I was packing my stuff in the bathroom and I caught my reflection in the mirror as I looked up from the sink. I was very pale and my eyes had a strange glimmer to them as well. They weren’t my eyes, they were like a street cat’s, skittish and not sure who to trust. Mom’s long stay in prison must have changed me too.

I said goodbye to my friend, thanking her for saving my life and from the bitterly cold London streets where I had been wandering, humiliated after I had to leave my posh school and friends in Kensington. I lugged my suitcase down the stairs and we got into the waiting taxi.

As the taxi puttered along to train station, I took a long last look out the window. When we fled from the detectives in the States, Mom told me she was going to turn her life into something good here and get a job as a writer. I had loved this city and all the hope it held for us in the beginning. Then everything had turned dark, like it always did before we had to leave in a hurry.

Waterloo station was coming up and I thought of the long trip before us. Getting out of England was going to be hard. Mom was supposed to be back at the bail hostel by now and it was getting dark. They would start looking for her soon.

Mom and I got out of the cab and headed towards the train station. She was slow and creaky from age and I turned around to wait for her. The wind whipped her grey hair up in tufts, in a comical way, like a picture of fun times from the rollercoaster rides at an amusement park. She smiled at me and I knew I couldn’t leave her. Another round in prison would kill her.

We could start over. Mom would never be able to get a job with all the police and detectives looking for her, but somehow, starting over sounded right.

Going to France would buy us some time to come up with a solution. Maybe the detectives would realize she was mentally ill and needed help, not prison.

She was supposed to be back at the bail hostel in Oxford by dusk, and it was definitely dark now. We still needed another hour on the train south to the ocean.  Then we had to get on the ferry in Portsmouth.  Somehow, we had to get on the boat without Mom getting caught through their checkpoint and sent back to Holloway Women’s Prison.

When we got to the Waterloo train station, I realized sporting events were finally good for something. The British were invading France for the weekend so see their soccer team.  A massive crowd of  rose-cheeked men from Liverpool in soccer jerseys were flooding the station, trying to get on the last trains to the ferry. The were jumpy and excited, looking for a fight and a fuck.

These Celtic men were on fire and they were determined to stay as functionally drunk as possible. They carried cases of beer under their arms and most had backpacks filled with more supplies in case they ran out on the nighttime ferry ride over.

For once, the ancient rivalry between these two countries helped women. Well, they helped two Irish American gypsy women evade the law. Thanks, soccer.

As we went into Waterloo Station, I hugged her. Then we went over to the ticket window to buy our tickets to Portsmouth, where the ferry would be waiting.


Sepulveda


Sepulveda

Late on Sepulveda

gleaming brown bodies sway, 

women of the night

reflect the light

of helicopters hunting its prey. 

Circling and circling,

deep dives and swims

sea creatures of the air

hunt the pilgrim.

Blue night

killer whales of the sky

take deep breaths 

and plunge from up high

illuminating the lawn

and junkie eye

Flickers of hope

Rhythmic beating

thundering

heart full of dope

They came to save her

But I know better. 

~Morgain McGovern

May 2012