The Barbra Streisand of the dog world at the moment is a pert, black Scottish terrier bitch named Mamie. Under her stage name, Ch. Carmichael's Fanfare, Mamie won her Oscar, her Emmy and her Critics Circle Award last week when she was chosen best-in-show at the 89th running of The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York's Madison Square Garden. But even though Mamie turned out to be the star and got most of the resulting publicity, it was the supporting cast of 2,572 less-heralded entries and their supporting army of harassed handlers and nervous owners that made the Westminster once again what it always has been—the greatest spectacle in the whole neurotic world of dog show biz.
"The Westminster is a prestige show, and you have to come to it," said one of the owners, Mrs. Hendrik Van Rensselaer of the Fezziwig Kennels in Basking Ridge, N.J. amid the howls, yowls and general confusions of the Garden basement. "Outdoor shows are much nicer, calmer and quieter. This place puts a terrible strain on the dogs. It is hard to keep long-haired dogs groomed. The rules are very strict—no dog admitted after 11:30 a.m.; no dog allowed to leave until 10 at night. No dog even allowed to leave its assigned slot on the bench except an hour before showing, when it can be groomed, or to relieve itself in the exercise pen. You spend two days and more in preparation just for a few moments in the ring. It is terrible, because you get stuck down in the Garden basement for two whole days."
Serena Van Rensselaer should know. She and her husband were there with two of the longest-haired dogs of all, one of them a 100-pound ball of seemingly shapeless fur named Ch. Fezziwig Raggedy Andy. It is one of the many injustices of the sport that Raggedy Andy's small triumph at Westminster did not even earn him a mention in The New York Times, but his contribution was as great as that of Mamie the Headliner, and his handlers and owners had to work and worry just as hard to provide it.
Net yet quite 5 years old, Raggedy Andy is already the winningest active Old English sheepdog in the land, the second-ranked in the working dog group and the fifth-ranked in Phillips ratings for all breeds. As heir apparent to his famed uncle, Ch. Fezziwig Ceiling Zero, a sheepdog who won more championships than any other in the world, Andy, between shows, lives a rich, full life with some 10 other sheepdogs on the red clay of his owners' six-acre estate.
Mrs. Van Rensselaer, a robust, good-looking young grandmother of five, had pulled Andy and his aunt, Ch. Fezziwig Phoebe, away from the clay a few days before she was to bring them both into the Garden. Phoebe was put in a clean-graveled shed, and Andy spent most of his time lolling happily in the family station wagon.
"It would be hopeless to try to keep these characters spotless all the time," Serena said. "They'll have their feet and their beards washed, their paws rounded with scissors and their tail plumes trimmed off. Then we'll scrape their teeth and brush them with baking soda, and give their coats a thorough cornstarching and brushing before they go into the ring on Tuesday morning." She paused for a moment, then added, "As a matter of fact, I'll try to make them look as good as possible for their long day at the Garden on Monday. The Westminster is rough because it is a show and we must be there to help draw the crowd and increase the gate."
On Sunday night Andy, Phoebe and the Van Rensselaers arrived, along with about 100 other exhibitors and their dogs, in the lobby of the Hotel Taft in midtown Manhattan. Phoebe stood on her hind legs at the desk and pawed the register while her owners signed a statement that they would pay the hotel for any damage that might be done.
Next morning all four of the hotel guests, together with Mr. and Mrs. Joseph McCabe and their two Fezziwig sheepdogs, drove through slushy streets to the Garden and its basement inferno. I went with them, and was immediately overcome by the searing smell of disinfectant and the noise—yelps, screams, barks, howls, whimpers and cries—that bombarded us from every side. "This is nothing," said Hendrik. "It's still early. Wait until people start coming after work."
The four dogs were placed in nonpartitioned slots numbered 16, 17, 18, 19—the same numbers that would identify them in the show ring. "We used to keep the dogs in wire cages," said Serena, "so people couldn't touch them, but they kept asking if the dogs were vicious, so now, for the reputation of the breed, we just let them sit out in the open and be mauled." Everybody, it seems, wants to touch a sheepdog.
A strip of blue carpet was rolled out for the dogs, and soon they slumped down, blandly ignoring their surroundings. Not so their owners. Serena began to have a fit because a sheepdog in a cage nearby had not been watered. "Someone probably shipped it to the show and it has been here all night with only some handler to look in on it," she said. "But we are forbidden to touch it, feed it or water it. One exhibitor might harm another's dog that way, you see. I suppose it's been known to happen, though I can't imagine it."
Other sheepdogs were arriving, with their face hair tied up in rubber bands. One had four black lisle stockings taped to his legs. "We tried all that. It doesn't help," shouted Serena over the barking bedlam. "Once I made oilcloth boots for all the dogs and they wore them two seconds before removing them."
A man swept down the narrow aisle between the dogs and cold-shouldered the Van Rensselaers. He was another member of the Old English Sheepdog Club, which had been rent by a fierce feud some time back, although the feud was now all patched up. "But he still won't speak to us," said Serena, smiling. "Isn't that silly?" I told her I thought that kind of thing only happened among Pomeranian or poodle people. Serena laughed. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "All sheepdog owners are crazy."
The basement was filling up now, and somebody stopped to ask, "What kind of dog is that? How does it see?" "How do you tell the front from the rear?" asked another, and Serena smiled with amiable fortitude. A young couple asked if sheepdogs were a lot of trouble. "It depends on what you call trouble," said Mrs. Van R. Ignoring the signs saying DO NOT HANDLE DOGS, a lady in tight green slacks waddled up and pawed at Andy. "I just had to see him again," she explained. A man stopped to complain, "You win everything. I guess there are just too many Fezziwigs."
The confusion around the Fezziwig bench was fierce. Across the aisle a black Newfoundland wearing a towel marked BOOM around its neck silently ate its dinner. An Irish wolfhound from a neighboring stall did not make it to the exercise pen and quietly relieved itself on the floor.
"We're liable to end up croppers tomorrow," said Serena. "The dogs are never going to look their best at 9:30 in the morning."
I began to wonder why in the world she and her husband put up with all this. Serena explained, "Thirty-three years ago we were given a sheepdog as a wedding gift, and we fell in love with the breed. In 1956 we bought our basic stud, Ch. Farleydene Bartholomew, in England, because we wanted to keep the breed alive. Then we started showing to illustrate and keep up the standard. There's just no way of maintaining quality without comparison. And if you show you have to go to Westminster."
She admitted that she hoped if Andy won best-of-breed the next day he would go on to win best-in-group (working) and then go on to best-in-show. "But I haven't much faith it will ever happen. Most judges only know a few breeds well, and sheepdogs are simply not popular. I'm not even sure I'd like to see them become popular. Anytime a dog wins best-in-show everybody rushes to cash in, and often inferior dogs result."
Back at the Taft, two hours after midnight, the Van Rensselaers washed the sooty paws of Andy and Phoebe in the hotel tub. "Next year I'm sure the Taft will ask us politely to go to the Midtown Motor Inn instead," Serena said later. At a nerve-shattering 6 they were up, and at 7 back in the Garden basement. Donning a tan smock, Serena began to give Andy the works. Like some great, docile Abominable Snowman, Andy submitted to the clouds of cornstarch applied by handfuls after his coat had been dampened with a sponge. Then his owner brushed him for an hour and a half, in layers, all the way down to the skin, "He has to have this dry cornstarch shampoo," she said between strokes. "Washing sheepdogs makes their coat too soft." She coughed. "It's a wonder we don't all have cornstarch pneumonia."
As though to make up for this slightly disloyal remark, Serena hastily began to extol the merits of the Old English sheepdog as a breed, brushing with every word. These animals—she said, in effect—are the boy scouts of the dog world, having all the virtues, except, perhaps, reverence. They don't fight, they don't run away from home, they are protective of all creatures smaller than themselves, they make wonderful watchdogs and nursemaids, they are intelligent, friendly, affectionate, have a sense of humor and never hold a grudge. "Why, they don't even have a doggy smell or fleas," said Serena, smoking incessantly as she brushed and ignoring the fact that Andy was growing fluffier and more incendiary by the moment.
She turned him as if he were a sack of meal, washed and dried his beard, exclaiming, "That was revolting." After an hour and a half the cornstarch, which really puts the oomph into the Old English, had stopped flying. "It has to be all out, every speck. Can't have it rising up like a powder puff in the judge's face."
Andy and his aunt were due to be shown in the ring by two professional handlers, Bob Forsyth and Jane Kamp, who were busy at the moment, one with an Afghan, one with a giant Schnauzer. "If the judges are slow on those dogs," said Serena, "Bob and Jane may not get through in time to handle Phoebe and Andy."
Was she nervous? "Always," she said, "but it is exciting, and the more gruesome it is the more tempting it is, somehow. Look, I've got the shakes. But my hands are so tired from grooming I think maybe I'm just musclebound. Look at this cornstarch all over—I should own stock. I don't even buy it wholesale, I go to the A & P and pick up dozens of these little boxes. They think I'm insane."
The loudspeaker screamed last call for Old English. One of the red-aproned handlers rushed up and seized Andy as Serena was washing off his nose so it would show up "large, black and capacious." The handler ran up the dark, dirty ramp, with the dog dangling like a bundle of fluff-dried laundry in his arms. We rushed after them.
Mr. Van R. was already there, his shoes white with cornstarch—he had groomed Phoebe. People crowded up to the ring. While Andy, Phoebe and five other sheepdogs waited to go in, Andy's white lead was picked up in the nick of time by a breathless Forsyth. Jane Kamp was trapped in another ring, so Phoebe had a substitute handler. Serena kept brushing at Andy, refusing to let him sit down for fear he would flatten his "petticoat" and get his heels dirty. She even took a brush swipe at Phoebe but the handler snapped, "Stop picking at her—I've got to show her." Andy yawned, then the dogs went shuffling into the ring.
The next moments were a lifetime for everyone involved with Fezziwig Kennels. The judge, like all judges, was taciturn, noncommittal, seemingly almost irritated by his great responsibility. When his time to gait came, Andy really stepped out, and Forsyth handled him beautifully, encouraging him at the turns. "You see," whispered Serena, "Bob is so good with him."
Hendrik Van Rensselaer said slowly, "In my opinion, the judge is looking mainly at movement. He seems interested in gait and likes medium-sized dogs."
In the ring Andy stood still, poised to display the excellent traits of his breed—the perfect stance, with shoulders lower than hindquarters, the contrasting pigeon-blue and snowy-white colors, the square head and broad nose, bearlike behind and general cobby look. His fringe covered his eyes, but Serena said he has heavy, long eyelashes that can lift the hair up, allowing him to see by a sort of Venetian blind effect. Phoebe went gaiting across the ring. "Foolish Phoebe," said Serena fondly. "It's time for her to puddle on the judge's shoes like she did last year. Well, not bad for Phoebe."
The judge stopped for what seemed minutes, hand on chin. He made an almost imperceptible motion toward Andy. The crowd shrieked and applauded. Serena, still in her dusty smock, gave a long, indeterminate sighing sound and showed me her sopping wet palms. People crowded around to congratulate her, as Forsyth, Andy and the judge, standing by the blue-and-white disk marked No. 1, were photographed with the Old English Sheepdog Challenge Cup, a silver punch bowl. We went downstairs and back onto the benches. The trophy was placed alongside Andy for the duration of the show.
After midnight, when it was all over, the Van Rensselaers, who had spent a small fortune in vet, entry and handling fees, in hotel bills, garaging, traveling and care of their kennels in absentia, in equipment, preparation and—as a matter of pride—an expensive program ad, drove back to New Jersey bearing $2.90 worth of purple ribbon.