By Buffy Calvert
She comes through the door brightening the room with her radiance. She is exuberant, spirited, scintillating. You can’t help feeling enlivened yourself and eager to know her better. Who is she?
She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, only daughter of Reginald and Edith Mason Infield, both of English parentage. Her father’s father, a Londoner, scion of landed gentry, emigrated to the United States via Canada where he became a sign painter and violinist. Her maternal grandfather, an English architect, spotted a lovely young shop girl in a milliner’s window, stepped in on the pretext of selecting a hat for his mother, chose the shop girl instead and brought her to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. The couple drove to the United States side for Edith’s birth and soon emigrated to Cleveland where they thought the prospects for an architect were brighter.
Edith married Reginald. They bought a little lakeside cottage and Reginald took a job in an airplane factory. Edith, alone with baby Leigh, felt lonely, so they moved into Cleveland, on Nanford Street near Lakewood. Leigh and her father sang together all his life long. And from the age of 4 she pictured herself a Broadway star. Her mother, providentially, thought typing skills might stand her in good stead. While her mother worked as school secretary at Lakewood High, Leigh climbed up to the attic and typed out the chronicles of her neighborhood in a newssheet called Nanford Neighbors Her mother also made all of Leigh’s clothes. The child longed for frills. Her mother saw her as a more tailored type and dressed her accordingly.
When Leigh was 12, the family moved to Pompano Beach, Florida. In contrast to the present day “continual strip-mall” along the coast, Leigh reports, “In the mid-fifties, there was nothing there.” In their tiny town, hitching posts still awaited horses; from her bedroom window she watched the long beam of the lighthouse sweep the empty dunes. She felt like a pioneer. And a misfit. She was the tallest person in her class at school, dressed for a Midwestern winter. The “Southern belles” in pastel sundresses snickered.
Still pursuing her dream of musical stardom she enrolled at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Surprise! She had to take classical music theory, a strange mathematical language she barely mastered. Also an instrument. She chose the trumpet and managed to blow a note of sufficient length to pass. Pocketing her B.A. in music, she set off for New York City, wearing a blue gabardine suit and hat, carrying matching American Tourister luggage, and feeling very adventurous.
Through a friend she got a room in a women’s residence hall in mid-Manhattan. In the job hunt, her typing skills secured her a post at CBS in the ad sales department. A 2-hour lunch break gave her time to sprint across town for a voice lesson or to show up for an audition. Hundreds of auditions. She was picked from 264 contestants for a callback for the 3-girl singing group that opened the Arthur Godfrey Show. After an exciting all-day audition with the group, she discovered that an insider had been tapped for the part all along.
She quit CBS to be a management consultant to an ad agency, famous for the slogan: “M&Ms! They melt in your mouth, not in your hands!” In 1968 she found herself down to her last pair of (indispensable) fishnet hose when they sprang a hole. A friend urged, “Leigh! The political campaigns are hiring!” Despite her enthusiasm for Bobby Kennedy, she signed on with the Nixon press office. She found the production of press releases fascinating. She loved the work and did well. After the victory, the campaign flew her to D.C. and offered her a job.
Instead, she took a job as executive secretary to the president at Safire Public Relations. A wonderful job. She had time to begin writing news releases for friends, artists and artisans whose work needed vigorous promotion.
She formed her own company, Public Relations by Leigh. A friend steered her first client to her and it just snowballed. She worked from her own apartment in the West Village with a tiny staff.
Never able to resist an adventure, she traveled for Frommer’s South America on $25 a Day, checking on previous recommendations and ferreting out new delights; 3 weeks a year away from her firm, but fun!
“In 1985, I got the nesting instinct,” as she puts it. She made a bold move. She fell in love with Andes and bought a big house set well back on Main Street. How to decorate it? Always creative, Leigh contacted a wallpaper company. “Here’s the deal. You supply the wallpaper. I write the press releases and furnish the photo shoots for the wallpaper books.”
She hired Dot Ruff to sew curtains, the Paper Dolls (June Ruff and Linda Van Keuren) to paint and hang paper, Jim Bauer to do carpentry. She and a staffer learned to shoot the photos. A new business was born! Now expanded to set up and photograph complete magazine page layouts. Of course, her house is in continual flux, with startling changes of décor on every wall. When her father came to live with her after her mother’s death, he found it confusing to wake in a newly decorated room every week. She bought the building next door to give him an apartment of his own.
When she had a contract to publicize those new lacy Christmas lights, she hired Bill Drew to drape Rick and Lee’s house and then Nori Jackson’s. She inveigled Gordon and Diane Krick to pose by the fake-snow-crowned hedge out front. In December, they found themselves looking out from packages of lights at Walmart.
Leigh’s motto in her early days in Andes was: “Go to local events and speak to the person with the friendliest smile.” At a wedding, Dick Hughes, a widower recently retired as pastor of the Cabin Hill church, gave her a big friendly smile and offered to escort her to the reception. Their friendship blossomed into an engagement to be married, cut tragically short when Dick died of a brain tumor.
She met John Parrette at a concert at West Point. He had retired from the Kansas City Symphony and was looking for a place to live. Of course, he bought a house in Andes. Together they sponsored Andes Musical Moments, an annual series of concerts from classical to folk, set in venues all over town.
Leigh still keeps her apartment in the West Village. She cherishes a host of friends from all phases of her life and a loyal, long-time staff. She enjoys gatherings that interest her: a writing group, the book group at the library, many other community events. And everywhere she goes, she has the brightest eyes and the friendliest smile in the room. ~