Was this what your copy looked like?
Until I got a nice comment from a reader, I forgot that others besides me must have bought this reissue in the early 1960s. My first copy (this is actually my second, just as dog-eared — you should excuse the expression — as the first) cost fifty cents. That was my entire allowance at the time. Living in an apartment, I wasn’t able to own a cat. Margaret Cooper Gay’s book was my surrogate for a real, live kitten.
The deft, funny prose was a bonus. The practical cat-care recommendations prepared me for a future time when I’d need to put them to good use. Some of the medical suggestions were a little suspect to me even then, and are nowadays no longer followed.
You do not, for instance, dose a sick cat with whiskey, mixed with raw egg or otherwise, for any known ailment. Margaret, however, came from a time when veterinarians were not as adept at handling cats as they were dogs. Before the advent of modern pet hospitals and antibiotic care, whiskey might save an injured or sick cat from despair. These days I think good chicken soup can do the same.
“How To Live With A Cat” was released in a revised edition in 1953. The tenth printing came out in January 1961 and the Berkeley Medallion edition in paperback was released in September 1963, the month I bought my copy. The book’s original copyright was 1946 and the second printing was released in 1947. A later edition, with the medical section almost completely revised, was out in the 1970s, omitting the final chapter “A Last Word to the Gentle Reader,” which took out a lot of the book’s bittersweet final poetry, I think.
The 1947 version reads a little differently in sections, not quite as smoothly. Margaret had definite negative ideas about canned food for cats, which she spent more time expounding upon in the earlier version than the later edition, when she appeared to have grudgingly given in a little. “The prepared foods that come in cans or jars or paper containers may be nourishing but cats don’t like them,” she declared unequivocally in 1947. Try suggesting that today!
The 1947 edition contained a biography of both the author and the illustrator (and included more of the Thurber-esque line drawings by New Yorker cartoonist Roberta Macdonald). We’ll focus on our author: “Margaret Cooper Gay has lived with cats most of her life, having brought home her first kitten when she was only two. ‘I also like dogs,’ she writes, ‘and have always had animals, from bears to honey bears, from toucans to titmice, from horses to marmosets.’ Miss Gay owned a pet shop for six years. Her stories and articles, on varied subjects, have been published in American and English magazines.”
By the 1953 edition the biography had vanished. Finding out anything about the author at that time or after proved vexing. She lived in Connecticut with her husband, she was a justice of the peace in her bucolic village…what else was there? Not much of anything.
With hindsight it’s possible to see that Margaret disguised some of the tales she tells in “How To Live With A Cat.” She never explicitly says who owned Spattie the cat, raised by a macaw and a monkey, but we know Mac from Peggy von der Goltz’ 1937 book “Macaw” — Mac was owned by a husband and wife who ran a pet store. Peggy and her first husband Vondy had a pet shop from 1926 to 1932, when the Great Depression put an end to the business.
This animal threesome is also mentioned in Peggy’s October 1933 article “The Adaptable Cat,” syndicated to a variety of newspapers that month. The blind canary figures into the story too, also mentioned by Margaret.
As for the three main cats of Margaret’s tome, Ma and her son Pickle, as well as Pickle’s brother Benny (Ben later on) make their first appearance on Peggy’s February 1939 article “Cat Tales,” published in the Los Angeles Times. Charlie, the Maltese-blue cat, had not yet been found and doesn’t appear in Peggy’s writings.
Reading through “How To Live With A Cat,” you’ll find precious few pointers to Margaret’s former life as Peggy von der Goltz, but it’s clear that the time span of her stories is a broad one. Her narrative vaults from the late nineteen-twenties to the mid-nineteen-forties. She bridged the “Peggy” era without an explicit nod to her former self, though it’s there if you care to dig for it.
Margaret makes a passing mention of her association with birds and fish, but doesn’t give away anything revealing. If we knew, for instance, that Peggy was once called the “bird lady of Manhattan” for her widely-known bird clinic in Greenwich Village in the 1920s, we might learn too much and start nosing around in the past.
She skips lightly over her story of the Aracas which Spattie the cat bedeviled during their breeding time, but Peggy’s most scholarly article was in an aquarium society publication in 1936 (“Guppies and the Facts of Life” in The Journal of Social Hygiene). Peggy and Vondy were active in the New York Aquarium Society all through the 1930s, though admitting to this might have caused her readership to wonder who that other husband might have been.
And that mustn’t ever happen!