Copyright © 1998 Henrietta W. Hay
Cappuccino with Isabel Allende
May 8, 1998
There is cappuccino and then there is cappuccino. The last one I had
was so great I may never have another.
I have not had a chance to meet many of my favorite authors. But one
morning last week local poet Jim Tipton called and said he was having
coffee with Isabel Allende and would I like to come down and meet her.
That was a little like asking a bear whether he would like to clean up a
honey truck spill. I made record time, met my friend the philosopher
and we walked into the bagel shop to be met by a tiny woman who greeted
us as though she had known us all her life. When she asked me what I
would like I sort of stuttered cappuccino. She went to the counter
and ordered it, and I am convinced that she told them exactly how to
make it. She said, "Put a lot of froth in it because I like it lush."
That was a very lush cappuccino and so was the company.
She is just finishing a year long tour for her delightful book
"Aphrodite, a Memoir of the Senses," a book about food and aphrodisiacs
which she describes as a "bridge between gluttony and lust." A book
like this from a 55 year old grandmother whose first book was the
world-wide best seller, "House of Spirits," is a treat not unlike the
Daughter of a Chilean diplomat, Isabel Allende grew up in Santiago.
She is the niece of Salvador Allende who was murdered in the 1973
military coup that brought two decades of dictatorship to her
country. In 1975 she went into voluntary exile in Venezuela rather
than live under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinchot.
She has lived in many places. Now she and her second husband, Willie,
who was with her here, live in San Francisco. She commented to my
friend the philosopher, a Grand Junction native, that she is very lucky
to have stayed in one place long enough to have roots. But in spite of
her many homes, Isabel's roots are deep in Chile.
She spent most of 1992 in Madrid at the bedside of her daughter Paula,
who fell into a coma due to a rare blood disease and died at the age of
28. The book, "Paula," is the family story, written for Paula, who
never woke to read it.
It is impossible to separate Isabel Allende's books from her
persona. We all have tragedies and joys as we wander through life,
but she has had far more of both than most of us and she has told us of
them in her wonderful writing. It is those experiences, good and bad,
which make us the people we are in our maturity. The woman that
Isabel is shines so clearly through her eyes and in her voice that I
felt that I had known her all my life.
Now at 55 Isabel brings us "Aphrodite." After a long period of deep
depression, she is once again celebrating life with great enthusiasm.
She writes, "Appetite and sex are the great motivators of history. They
preserve and propagate the species."
Isabel Allende is an amazing woman. I think I have never met such a
combination of passion, intellect, human understanding and humor in one
small person. Her character shines in everything about her. She is
very much a woman of spirit. She said, "I don't believe in ghosts, but
I do believe in memory. When I say somebody's spirit helps me I mean
that when I need poetic inspiration, I think of my grandmother and the
crazy character she was. When I need something to be from the heart, I
think of Paula, who had such generosity. When I need courage, my
grandfather, this stubborn Basque, carries me through."
I will probably never be fortunate enough to meet her again, but that
half hour in the bagel shop right here in my home town has enriched my
There we sat, an 80-something, fairly conventional WASP woman -- and a
beautiful middle-aged Chilean who had been through adventure and tragedy
that I can only imagine and who writes of it so beautifully. And
somehow we could see each other and hear each other. Her autograph in
my book says, "To good living and bad habits." Darn. I wish she had
written that book 50 years earlier.