Adieu Denise!

Denise McCluggage arriving for the 2014 Mountain Tour in a BMW Twin-Turbo Z4.

My photo car and driver, arriving for the 2014 Santa Fe Concorso Mountain Tour.
Denise has her 'speed specs' in place.

‘Tis New Year’s Day. A time to put 2015 behind, to determinedly stride forward in one’s life and career, and brook no obstacles. However – a wise person does not venture forth without taking note of what has gone before. We lost one of the best last May, and I feel we cannot forge ahead without remarking on and contemplating the circumstance. I write this not to play the maudlin, to weep inconsolably over the fallen, but to mark the passing of a remarkable person: Denise McCluggage.

Denise was first and foremost my friend, a fellow human being, not a sports immortal, not some celebrity. She excelled in that function, friend, just as she excelled in everything else. That’s what I enjoy remembering most about her; she’d have been your friend too, if she’d met you. Give her a dime’s worth of your time; you’d get a hundredweight back. Denise was always a good investment.

I started working with Denise a little over five years ago, and yet as I look back on this period of time, it seems I’ve lived a lifetime with her. My wife Sandra and I began designing her website and logo, and that blossomed into many different projects over those few years. Producing books. Photographing Santa Fe Concorso. More. It became a routine to have semiweekly and bimonthly lunch meetings. Or rather, Denise would call about a vitally-important issue and we’d visit her favorite Oriental joint and talk over the particulars – usually involving a new great idea of hers.

I still get to the end of a week, wonder why she hasn’t called, and have to remind myself she’s left us. My life was forever changed after meeting dear Denise. It’s going to take a while to readjust. I find the vacuum unwelcome. So writing this has been a joyful process, appropriate to the spirit of the holiday season, to visit the great lady again and share some of those particulars with all of you.

Denise’s home was in a small, semiprivate subdivision in east Santa Fe. As you would expect, her garage was the largest feature of the front of the house. 99% of the visitations you made, you made through the garage. You walked by a quadriptych of her favorite portraits of herself. She called the quartet, “Car Swallows Girl.” Denise in a mechanic’s one-piece, shod in tennis sneaks, putting her head in the bonnet of what looked to be a Porsche. She had built a small pod, a clapboard room inside her garage, taking up one of the two parking sections. This pod had a clever pass-through to the roof, allowing a skylight to bring natural light into her little office. And this is where her writing would take place, where she’d meet with her compadres. It was long and narrow, with her computer at the far end (towards the garage doors), and lined with bookshelves and books, chockablock with car models and toys. She could reach out an arm and touch vintage racing books, thesauri, dictionaries. Whatever she needed, she could sit in one spot, swivel and command the reference materials she needed to write those surpassingly excellent articles.

And the knick-knacks! They deserve their own explanation, and a theory of mine. The knick-knacks dominated her house. I don’t think Denise ever walked by a toy or piece of merch without buying at least one. Yet I believe (and this is my pet theory) that she was exercising Cicero’s ‘palaces of memory’ technique. Every knick-knack had a story, and she’d actively use these bits and bobs to tie memories to. Ask about a poster, helmet, tin sign, or an animatronic toy … and you’d better be prepared for a history and at least a couple of stories involving multiple famous racing personalities doing extraordinary things. A store-room for the detritus of a life well-lived. Checkered flags and red details (her favorite color, she always wore something red) adorned every wall. Only in the last months did she get the “official” living room cleared of enough vintage ephemera for people to actually walk in. This became her favorite spot for entertaining visitors. Deep comfy chairs, coffee table, and a quirky lamp with all kinds of glass/plastic beads hanging off it. Took months before I realized the artful jumble of dark-stained wooden letters on the wall spelled “Denise McCluggage”. Subtle jokes were stitched throughout her decor. That last summer, she would meet and entertain on her patio, dubbed “Tuscany” for the large mural under the portale. She was an eclectic’s eclectic.

My all-time favorite photo of Denise.

My all-time favorite photo of Denise.

There would usually be a review car in the driveway when I went to meet her, and she loved to hit me for opinions on her latest steed. “Me?” I thought. “You’ve gotta be kidding”. Everyone who visited her, I think, got the opportunity to drive a review car – she adored getting as many opinions as possible, to see if hers stood up to scrutiny. She’d sit next to me, watch like a hawk, and laugh at every goof I made. One car had an automatic lift to the seat, with a detente that kept going right to the limit (slowly crushing my head into the sunroof). She shook with mirth as my neck turned into a pretzel while fighting the controls. My astonishment at the early Chevy Volt center console got snickers from the passenger seat: “Only GM could use two square feet of space for an AM/FM radio.” My spending a quarter-hour trying to figure out where to put the fob in a Mini Coupe in order to start the damned thing, every failed attempt making her collapse in more laughter. Sharing her joy in life made the mundane magnificent. My childish thrill in revving a Hyundai Sonata Hybrid between stoplights had her rubbing her hands together in enjoyment (“Light’s about to change. Get on it. Astonish this BMW over here.”). She had no patience for spongy brakes (“Let’s take your car instead.”). Outrage over laggy turbos (“Annoying – no, maddening. Like a broken promise.”). Then we’d move on to fit and finish. She had a particular disdain for badly textured cheap plastic interiors and overly deep dashboards (“This’ll be a horrid heatsink in summer, don’t you think? It will probably melt like one of those cheap gift-shop candles. Not a vehicle for Santa Fe, that’s for sure.”).

Now, you are all aware of Denise’s “advanced age.” She was going through hip replacements, knee replacements, increasing health challenges over the years. But put the hearing aids, the canes, the walkers to one side. Once you put her in the driver’s seat, the eyes sharpened, the tendons popped, the grey matter settled into its old familiar groove, and she became an integrated piece of whatever car she was driving. Particular in my memory, the two vehicles she drove me in so I could shoot on-the-road photos during the ’13 and ’14 Santa Fe Concorso: the BMW twin-turbo i6 convertible Z4, and the “Great Expeditions” supercharged Range Rover. Shouting over the wind-noise, “Pass everyone, Denise! I want to shoot noses again!” was tantamount to hitting hyperdrive in a sci-fi flick. Try shooting a DSLR with a long zoom while hanging on for dear life, spread on the trunk of a Z4, while she swooped through 35 mph curves at 70.

Speaking of driving. Every guy likes to think he drives well – I always did. Part of the manhood that all young males believe they inherit (without an iota of training or experience) upon receiving a license. I can say it now, without a sliver of shame: I ain’t nuthin’. At one point, we stayed out at a lunch appointment way too late, she needed to meet someone and insisted on driving back. I helped her with her walker over to the car, Denise rolling from hip to hip like an old sailor … I barely got the passenger door shut when the rocket took off. You have to appreciate, up to this point I thought I’d experienced her performance driving. We’d been out many a day when she’d play with a review car. Not today. From De Vargas, across town along Paseo de Peralta, she was hanging it out. Passing cars like they were standing still, drifting the review car through the two-lane curve by the Peters Gallery, tourists standing with mouths agape. I wobbled out of the car back to my own vehicle and practically idled it all the way home, belief in my own car/manhood shredded. I eventually learned the warning sign of impending acceleration and g-forces – Denise had special driving sunglasses. Sport glasses, that split with magnets over the bridge of the nose, lanyard looped around her neck. When I heard those go “snick” on her nose, I knew I’d better get my seatbelt on and grab something triple-quick. You snooze, and you end up in a ball in the trunk. I firmly believe traffic existed solely for Denise’s entertainment.

Norman Dewis cracking up as Denise McCluggage lands another punch line.

Norman Dewis cracking up as Denise McCluggage lands another punch line.

About those lunches. Ah, those lunches! Whereas with an average person you’d be talking about family events, bits and bites of news, little happenings during the week – the pocket-change of conversation – Denise would find levers to exercise that amazing memory of hers, and spin stories about her past experiences in auto racing. Ferrari, Moss, Rodriguez, Hawthorn, Hill, Fangio … intricate and undocumented first-person experiences would keep you enthralled until you forgot about your lunch and it would sit there congealed and cold, not even worth the take-out box. My own attempts at storytelling were always met with great interest and good humor – she obviously felt they were sufficient payback for her own reminiscences – but what she offered paled my stories to virtual insignificance. A rich, fertile narrative, sure to give birth to many fruitful digressions. Denise was a fan of the English language, a veritable walking thesaurus; you could watch her think and taste unusual words on her tongue as she used them in phrases. Every sentence was an opportunity for her to find a piquant word that fit to perfection – and you’ll recognize that talent instantly in her written articles. She was even better in person, miraculous word-combinations rolling over you, leaving you in thrall. I began looking for photos, historical bits I was curious about. My favorite memory was when I found a shot of Fangio, front tire millimeters from the curve he was drifting around, roostertail of smoke behind. Denise’s comment? I paraphrase from memory: “You could take that exact same photo on every single lap. Fangio was that good. Stirling was more … improvisational. That’s why Fangio won.” The best part about it was, she offered her stories without a shred of ego. I was here. We did this. And this is what happened. She never bragged. I don’t believe she ever needed to. All accompanied with that irreplaceable Denise razor-sharp wit, that finely-tuned sense of self-deprecating humor. That smile, the glint in the eye.

She’d consistently order Moo Shu pork and take the remnants home for a later dinner or tomorrow’s lunch. She could hug economy, but no one had a bigger sweet tooth. She’d slather those leftovers in maple syrup, if there were no other sweet sauces to use. At one point she dished out enough Splenda into her drink that I had to comment, “Want a little liquid with that?” I got a grin and a swat on the hand for that. We had her over to our house for dinner on a particular occasion, and Sandra had prepared a generous green salad. One of the leaves had escaped being torn small enough for graceful eating. Once she discovered this oversight, Denise sat there and chewed the overlarge lettuce leaf like a rabbit, eventually working the entire broad leaf into her mouth, brows furrowed in mock concentration. My wife and I just about died laughing. She also had, we found out, a thing for guacamole. We kept bringing more out, and it kept disappearing. She was always mischievous, endearing in this way.

The thing that hits me hardest is how she was still making future plans, right up until the last days of her life. Never say die, never accept a limitation. Go down fighting. Granted, age had slowed down the synapses a bit early in the mornings. I liked to think of it as needing a bit of priming. Like mechanics who used kerosene to get a cold engine fired up, Denise needed another lively mind to crank the pistons. Caffeine was not her stimulant. Creative, driven minds were. Once her brain caught, well … hold onto your seat. Her cerebral landscape was broad and deep. She could keep a 20-something running at full speed to keep up. An example comes to mind: when I finally purchased an original iPad, it was Denise who taught me all the tricks. She’d flip and fly over that thing like a scud-running SR-71 going for a sonic boom over the salt flats. So many times, no matter what the latest tech was, she’d find a way to get her hands on it.

My point? Denise was not an aged person. The Denise I knew was an amazingly youthful person in a body that was beginning to betray wear and tear after a long and adventurous career. A powerful engine proving too much for a well-used frame and suspension. A person who said “yes” to just about any adventure or idea you put before her. If anyone ever deserved another go at life, Denise did. She had enough ambition to live two, three, four, ten adventurous lives. That mind. That personality. Ever young. Ever playful. None of us ever really believed she’d leave us. That’s why it hit us so hard, why it’s so damned hard to let go.

Denise always snagged the best golf cart jockeys.

For Denise, only the finest golf cart jockeys.

One of Denise’s favorite quotes, by L.P. Hartley, was “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” Anyone who’s spent time with her these last years heard that quote frequently. She felt it was vital to see the past through a contextual lens; when you used that lens, you could understand and appreciate the period better. For instance, the fact that the world had a significantly smaller population in the ’50s, and one could simply walk up and talk to drivers, no matter how famous, made me pine for the past. Very much as Eli Wallach discussed with Kate Winslet in the movie, The Holiday, I’d ask Denise if it was as much fun as it seemed. She’d sit back, glint those eyes, give me that knowing smile and say “It was the best.” And then she would tell me the story of dislocating Carroll Shelby’s shoulder in a touch football game, or how Stirling Moss would argue with her over whether women could ever win serious races, letting an unknown named Dave Brubeck borrow her piano for practice, helping Miles Davis pick a Ferrari by sound, and more.

For all of her accomplishments, I never heard her once mention feminism. Denise was pragmatic to a fault. Watch that rather often viewed To Tell The Truth video on YouTube to see how Denise answers questions. Brow furrowed, prioritizing best strategies. She never changed. If a roadblock appeared, she’d brainstorm a way around it. She never took sexist setbacks personally, as far as I could tell, except to enjoy routing around the blockage and thumbing her nose at those who doubted. And no one thumbed her nose at the men in her wake better than Denise. I recall a photo of her receiving a trophy for winning a particular race – a cake stand. You can see her confusion in the photo. I can hear her thoughts: “A cake stand, are you kidding?” Young women today urgently need to be introduced to her life and career. Enough with Kardashian-mania; they should be packing McCluggage. Observing her from my short distance, I can say that involving herself with younger folk, vital and energetic people, kept her firing on all cylinders. “Ever heard of Fetty Wap?” someone asked. She didn’t miss a beat: “Mm-hmm. The sound of a bum differential.” The smile.

I have been chuckling over Star Wars: The Force Awakens encomiums online. Denise’s last gift to me was a pair of glowing lightsaber chopsticks. Always ahead of the game, our Denise. She may not be here, but she knew. Just as she always knew.

Garret P Vreeland and Denise McCluggage, at her 85th birthday bash.

The author and the grand lady herself,
at her 85th birthday bash.

Denise herself is a part of our past now, and we do things differently already. And I know in my heart she’s okay with that. But she had another great idea I thought I’d share. Perhaps someone reading this will make it bear fruit. She dreamed of convincing a group of Ferrari owners to coordinate a late summer/fall get-together at a farm in Monticello, New Mexico. Not just any farm. A farm that produces balsamic vinegar the old Modena way. You see the connection, of course. She had hoped to tell stories of Enzo, working with Ferrari and her adventures around Italy. You won’t have that, sadly, but her spirit will smile upon your endeavors if a group of you do bring this to fruition.

Auld Lang Syne, Denise. My last gift to you: unquenchable remembrance.

Garret Vreeland was Denise McCluggage's webmaster, partner in her book publishing imprint 'Fulcorte Press', and her chosen automobile photographer for Santa Fe Concorso. He has maintained a weblog for over sixteen years, is an avid reader of and technical support consultant for MMR.