When people ask what I do for a living they’re always surprised at my answer. I tell them I’m an author, speaker and the director of equestrian theatrical productions. It’s that last one that gets them.
“Author,” they understand that; it’s mainstream. Their next question is usually, “Oh, what did you write about?” To which I reply, “My mother’s experiences during World War II, when she ran social clubs for enlisted men in North Africa and Italy.” Quizzical looks prompt me to say that it’s a book based on her letters from 1943 – 1945, in which she told of incredible experiences overseas. Including having cut a deal with Pope Pius XI. Eulogizing my mother, the Episcopal priest said that he had loved getting to know her at the nursing home where she ended her days. He said, “Before I met LeOna, I had never met anyone, even those dressed as I am, who ever cut a deal with a Pope.
People also understand the word, “speaker.” Mainstream again: It makes sense to them that I speak about the courage it took for my mother to leave her secure teaching position and march into war. They also warm to the colorful, entertaining stories of this most exotic adventure.
But, “Director of equestrian theatrical productions?” No one gets that. At least no one who isn’t someone I already know. So I explain by saying, “I create entertainment shows with people who call themselves wonderful names such as Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, Escaramuza Charra and Pistol-Packin’ Paula.”
“Where do you do these things,” is usually the next question. Most assume the shows are “out west” (which one is) but they’re never prepared to hear Madison Square Garden, Belmont Park, Rockefeller Center, and the Today show plaza. “Actually,” I tell them, “the production at Belmont Park for the New York Racing Association was written up in the New York Times, you can read about it.” I do that just to get their goats when I sense a dismissive attitude toward work, and people, who are waaaay beyond the norm. Naughty me, but it is fun.
But, here’s the catch. When I start telling about girls hanging over the rear ends of galloping horses, dragging their fingers on the ground; a man who puts buffalo on top of a stock trailer and dogs that, on que, get the requested cold drink (cola or ginger ale) out of a cooler and deliver it to a guy on horseback, I see a different look on most faces. Is it curiosity? Or is it disbelief? Your guess is as good as mine.
Desperation Makes a Person Pretty Creative
I admit this is an unlikely combination of careers and I understand why it’s curious to many. But there’s a story. With an outdated degree in political science, work experience as a Pan Am stewardess in the ‘60’s, subsequent years as a wife and mother, it’s a challenge to reinvent yourself when you’re suddenly alone with two little kids and too little money. You know that saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention?” Well, I’m here to tell you desperation makes a person pretty creative too! Along with feeding and caring for two children there were three horses, five cats, two dogs and a billy goat named “Daddy.”
My ever-inventive mother suggested that I write something and sell it. “You were always a good writer,” she said, “don’t you remember winning the creative writing contest in the fourth grade?” Without any other good options I did as told and wrote something. It was a story about trying to break into the elite world of Arabian horse breeding when all the odds were stacked against you. Evidenced by the name of my “farm,” Frog Hollow Arabians; apropos for a farm longer in frogs than Arabians.
At the time Classic was the most prestigious of all horse publications. Why not write something and send it to Classic? The admonition in Writer’s Market made it clear that freelancers need not submit but what was the worst that could happen? The editor would throw my manuscript into the trash can. How bad could that be?
If you don’t venture out of the comfort zone and try to do things you’d like to do, one thing is for certain: you’ll never do them. Why do we let ourselves believe that other people know more than we do? Or that other people might just think what we did, said, asked for, was okay.
No one believed Pope Pius would even hear of my mother’s request to share his electricity with her. And if he did, certainly he wouldn’t even entertain the thought; but that’s not what happened. The last thing I expected from Classic was a job offer but that’s what I got. The offer was for me to become a “stringer.” What did that mean? The editor explained that I could write anything I wanted about the horse industry and send it to him. In the unlikely event Classic published what I wrote I would be paid. If not, perhaps bits and pieces could be given to one of their “real” writers for use in something they were doing. No payment for that, already paying one writer.
What I did get were press credentials from a magazine that had no limit of people who wanted a mention, or have their picture in it. For me this was a gigantic door opener into a world I was desperately trying to court. With Classic credentials hanging from my neck I could meet and talk to everyone and anyone I wanted to meet.
Now that I had become someone worth acknowledging in the Arabian industry I thought perhaps Classic should have a special advertising section just for Arabian horse breeders; and that I should write it. When I proposed my idea to the editor he said no, it had been tried before and didn’t work. The cost of advertising in Classic was so much more expensive than any other equine publication that “normal” people wouldn’t go for it. “I think I can do it,” I said, actually believing what I was saying. “Okay,” he countered, “but I’m not paying you to try.” We finished by agreeing that if I sold 17 full-page, four-color ads, I could have page 18 for Frog Hollow. That was fine with me!
(Photo of Frog Hollow sign)
The first person I approached was a famous movie producer/director whom I had met because his Connecticut farm was close enough from my New York home for me to become a frequent, and probably pesky, visitor. When I told him about the special advertising section I was planning for Classic I threw in a bonus: “If you buy a page, I’ll write your ad for free,” said I who had never written a word of advertising in my life. I had my first sale; could it have been the “freebie?”
With that famous name already engaged I went straight for the biggest star in Las Vegas, gave him the same pitch and made the same offer to write his ad. “Okay,” said Mr. Las Vegas. This was getting to be easy…and it was. With those fellows having taken page one and two it was pretty easy to sell the remaining 15 pages. Everyone thought a free copywriter was fine too. Especially if the two Mr. Biggs were having me write their ads.
In the 1978, October/November issue of Classic magazine, beginning on page 123, 17 pages of beautiful, four-color photographs showcased some of the most important Arabian breeders in the United States. On page 18, there I was, a very small-time, backyard breeder with two beautiful Frog Hollow Arabians.
So taking that chance, sending something I had written to someone everyone expected to reject it, launched not only my writing career but transformed me into a publicist! For many years I had the privilege of launching new farms and new Arabian breeders, campaigning national champion horses and riders, staging exciting events, writing about the breed and business I loved, and, I even produced a film at the famed Russian Stud Farm in Tersk, U.S.S.R., deep within the Caucasus Mountains. That last one can be another blog. As you might imagine, it’s a good story! (lots of Vodka!)
Remember I told you about a guy who puts buffalo on top of his stock trailer? That’s John Payne, The One-Armed Bandit.
If John can do what he does with just one arm, what’s holding you back?