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By Amy Phillips Penn

Drunken Blonde (Maria Vargas): “She hasn’t even got what I’ve got.”
Jerry: “What she’s got, you couldn’t spell — and what you’ve got, you used to have.”
— The Barefoot Contessa


I watched The Barefoot Contessa the other day. It was my first time that I saw this Ava Gardner/Humphrey Bogart classic.  I found it on my cable guide, and mistook it for Ina Garten sharing basil, thyme, and recipes in her perfect East Hampton home.

The Barefoot Contessa (Ava Gardner) was sexy, made for Hollywood, and conflicted. She needed to feel the earth under her feet, and no matter how many spectacular haute couture creations she swept in on, her soul cried “peasant.”

When I was a child, I loved to roll down hills in the park. I’m not sure why, but it was more fun than going to F.A.O. Schwartz for toys.

Years later, when I was immersed in the love of horses, I rode a horse from Claremont through chaotic streets to get to Central Park.

Claremont Riding Academy (once on West 89th Street) is no more.

When the bridle path was first being threatened, I wrote an article for the New York Post on its dip into the diminished: the bridle path needed more dirt, which somehow was estimated to cost millions.

The counter offer was to add more concrete by taking away more bridle paths; as if New York needs more concrete.

Ultimately, Claremont is gone, and so are horses in the park.

It had seemed so simple: Just add more dirt.

We could have organized a get-your-hands-dirty benefit where celebrities mingled with riders and horses, an all star committee shoveled away.

Instead, we have lost a landscape and history of the park that is highlighted by memories of when horses were served carrots on silver platters at Tavern on the Green.

Was this really such an overwhelming challenge to solve?

There is something about getting your fingernails dirty — whether it’s in your garden, letting your dogs jump up on you, or simply not losing sleep over a stain on your favorite dress.

I don’t know if a smudge here and there keeps you honest, but it definitely keeps you in touch, especially when you are doing city living 24/7.

I lived in Wellington, Florida for many years. I played polo, learned to tack up my horses, shampoo them, and even hoist a shovel into a manure pile.

I kept my horses with a woman named Lucille for the last season I spent there.

In her tack room, there was a photo of Lucille when she was young. She was bikini clad and riding bareback. She had let her hair go grey and her body was no longer flawless.

Lucille had grown up in Texas, where she was ‘discovered’ as a model who promoted cheerleading accessories. She became ‘Texas famous.’

The Ford Agency signed her and she kept one foot in New York. While her career soared on in New York, she flew back to home as often as she could, because “she needed to get her hands dirty.”

Ultimately, she was offered a major contract, with the stipulation that she take better care of her hands. They showed age, country earthiness, and who she really was.

Lucille turned down the contract.

Later, she married a Texas gazillionaire, helicoptered to dinners, owned race horses, shopped until she shopped again, and spent time and money with her sister-in-law, whose closet had been on Lifestyle’s of the Rich and Famous for it’s mega measurements.

She shifted gears in her own Mercedes, an embarrassment to her husband and family who only knew from Cadillacs.

When she and her husband parted ways, she left with the Mercedes, a good chunk of Neiman Marcus and Charles Jourdan, and her great looks.

She moved on to the polo world, where she trained green horses and didn’t worry about manicures.

There is a confidant sexiness in a woman who cleans up nicely, but doesn’t always bother.

Or as Ben Stein opines: “Jump into the middle of things, get your hands dirty, fall flat on your face, and then reach for the stars.”

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