“Joie de vivre”
What a fabulously appropriate French phrase. Means joy of life!
That’s how Arthur Lichtenstein co-owner of the Old Barn in San Juan Capistrano describes the two flittering hummingbirds known in the antique business as the “Gynomint Twins.” For several decades their “joie de vivre” graced the local flea markets, specialty shows and antique malls. Wherever they went, heads turned. Lots of them.
On my youtube account, they are the number one hit. One day in February they got 15,000 views. There’s a sad reason for that spike.
The real names of the 58 year-old identical twins were: Valerie Christine Blackler and Diane Carol Blackler. Some knew Valerie as “Christine.”
A decade ago I dubbed them “The Gynomint Twins.” It was an irreverent parody of the 1956 Wrigley’s gum ad campaign of the “Doublemint Twins,” combined with their profession as gynecologists. Unlike most of the silly monikers I created, this one stuck.
In an industry which has few, the Twins were superstars. Their stage was the antique business. Sometimes when they would materialize, it was “Gynomania.”
People were drawn to them like sparkling magnets. Collectors were excited to spot them. Anxious to be photographed with them. If they weren’t at the Long Beach Flea Market by noon, people would come up to me and ask “Are the Gynotwins coming?”
Now there’s definitive answer to that often asked question: no.
They will never attend another antique show, go to another mall or dodge the giant boulder at the Indiana Jones Adventure ride at Disneyland—again.
Like a pair of blazing comets who tore a path of joy and exuberance through the local industry, suddenly they burned out. Without warning. Only the tragic mystery is left.
The few known details of their deaths, are as a shocking as they are mysterious.
Until the coroner releases the toxicology report, all that is really known are these few facts: Valerie was found hung in their garage. Diane was found dead in bed in her bedroom in the swank Long Beach neighborhood called Naples. Before their corpses were discovered, they had probably been deceased for several weeks.
Foul play can’t be completely dismissed, but the investigation has yielded no solid evidence to support that possibility. It appears Valerie deliberately hung herself.
What killed Diane? Why and when did Valerie commit suicide, if she really did. Were they both suicides.
The absence of answers to these vexing questions is causing anxiety and tears. Not just to those who knew them, but to those who only caught a glimpse of them or just saw their photos in Collector.
Hard facts are few, but theories are plentiful.
Most of the people with whom I’ve consulted agree on this: Diane had a terminal illness, possibly cancer. She died of the disease or death was induced through drugs, by her or with the help of her sister. In the wake of this, distraught Valerie hung herself.
Sounds plausible? A good guess, but it has a hole in it.
Both of them were conscientious about their health. Their fit appearance and vitality was a testament to that. None of the people with whom I had interviewed had any reason to suspect either was seriously ill.
Cancer rarely kills immediately.
If Diane had a disease while working in a professional medical environment wouldn’t her colleagues, or employer have noticed something was wrong.
When interviewed by Miriam Hernandez of ABC7 Eyewitness News, their boss Dr. Nejet Rostami, gave no indication he thought that either was ill.
“They were very caring, always smiling, always caring for the patient, advocate of the patient,” said Rostami.
At this point, a strange story suddenly gets stranger— much stranger.
During the holidays, a phantom “uncle” materializes; he has an undefined illness. Over the phone, the Twins announce the two of them have to leave their jobs for a full month to take care of the “uncle.”
Communications between the clinic and the Twins break down. They don’t answer the phone and even the machine stops working. No one sees them anywhere.
According to Hernandez, in my phone interview with her, Rostami, concerned and frustrated finally sent them a registered letter.
When the news of their deaths broke, his interview was the most insightful.
The ABC report quoted Rostami as saying he would not be surprised if one had died the other would kill herself. He said, they were his right hand. He thought of them as one.
There’s another theory; and this last one is the hardest to accept.
For no good reason, one fine day, two gorgeous, affluent women, just decided to end it all.
Who can believe it? Who can accept it? Sounds ludicrous!
But at this stage, there’s no evidence to contradict it!
Nothing makes sense.
The manner in which the Twins’ bodies were found, tells something significant about their lifestyle. Their reclusivity contrasts their superstar life in the antique business.
Their secretive home life reflected a side to their character best understood by people in the antique business.
Antiquers are an eccentric lot; they understand strange lifestyles. They get it.
Those privileged enough to ever visit the Twins home probably saw a Disneyfied version of the Smithsonian Institute, so it is rumored. Jim Maley asked them to see their collection. He was politely rebuffed.
I can’t find anyone who has been in their house. I’ve only seen the outside using Google maps.
What can be seen is fascinating.
Camouflaged by a thick veil of branches and leaves, like a pair protective dragons, their home was cradled by two overgrown shrubs which obscured most of the white picket fence. Only its tiny gate, with it’s sharp points was completely visible.
When a tragedy like this happens, the question is aways asked: Didn’t anyone see it coming? There must have been some clues. I never saw any, but maybe those who passed by their house did.
The most iconoclastic feature of their bark shingled, green canopied house, is an imposing six-foot tall carved totem, looming high over head in their shallow white framed terrace.
Relentlessly it stares, never blinking. It’s like the all seeing eye in the pyramid on the dollar bill or like Dr. Eckleburg’s peering glasses from the Great Gatsby. Its head is shielded with an open face Darth Vader style helmet. His sturdy Viking nose and full beard suggest timeless vigilance.
He’s not alone.
At the feet of this wooden warrior is a menagerie of a man and ladies in waiting, folk art creatures, and beaten up metal primitives. The most prominent of this odd royal court are the three disembodied heads. The elder at the far right is a placid faced pewter flapper, strewn with a half dozen necklaces, her hair made from hard roses, lips painted bright scarlet, and disengaged eyes, absently floating in a pond of eggshell white. The young couple have elements from the Statue of Liberty. The patina of the female’s complexion is faded green bronze and her enigmatic escort wears a spiked turban.
There’s also a tarnished milk can from the Depression, a dented blue railroad lantern to ward off catastrophes, a rusty tin fish nailed to the wall, and a distressed wooden sea serpent. Hanging over a gashed life preserver is a tattered rag doll. Behind its oversized black horn-rimed glasses, her Minnie Mouse eyes are eternally fixed—wide open.
If there was anything there to be concerned about, it got by me.
This house on Syracuse Walk would comfortably fit into Hansel and Gretel’s forest, or any number of the Grims’ Fairy Tales. One could easily imagine one of the Twins’ favorite Disney villains stirring up some brew in a black iron caldron.
As intriguing as their house was, and how curious some may have been, few ever entered their palace of toy charms.
It wasn’t concerned friends or family. The discovery of their deaths was made with icy professional detachment.
To even the most casual of observers, evidence that something was wrong was becoming unmistakeable
The first sign was both bright and yet not extrinsically alarming. You’d have to know a little something about them to be concerned.
Their houselights, and even the garage lights were on. Twenty-four hours a day.
This blazing billboard of light would never happen while the Twins were alive.
The neighbors described them as polite, smiling, but in the 30 years they lived on that street, there was hardly a single moment that went beyond cordiality. The Twins took brisk walks, waved but declined party invites. They protected their privacy and enjoyed their sensational toy collection without the intrusion or judgment of neighbors. One can just imagine what 30 years of delirious collecting would look like. It had been suggested that they could be called “hoarders”. They were not. With no more evidence than gut instinct, I think their collection looked like them. Meticulous and beautiful, nothing like the horrific scenes we see on those exploitation shows.
The other sign that something was wrong was the mail. Heaps of it were piling up. It got so bad the postman stopped delivering it.
Although those were valuable clues, it’s conceivable the Twins were on a vacation.
It was the last sign that forced official intervention.
The foul odor of death was wafting from their garage.
Something was wrong. Something had to be done. The police entered the home to do a “welfare check.”
That was on Saturday, February 1st.
At 10:36 a.m. on the following Wednesday, I got this email from Peggy Arbenz, co-owner of Down Home Antiques in Orange:
“Frank!, Have you heard the awful news story that the twins, Valerie and Diana were found dead in their homes. I figure you know, but wanted to tell you what I just heard in case you didn’t. I feel sick. Horrible, horrible news!!!”
That’s I how I heard about it.
Immediately I called Peggy. One of her dealers told her and then wrote me.
By noon that day, in the local antique industry, all hell broke loose.
My computer was burning up with Facebook messages, emails. It got to the point that when anyone called me, I started off saying “I assume, this is about the Gyno-Twins.”
It always was.
Then something happened that suggested this was a bigger event than I had first thought.
Julie Sone an assignment editor from ABC News contacted me. She wanted permission to use several youtube videos I had shot of the Gyno Twins at the Long Beach Flea Market. I gave her permission to use anything I had on them— with one condition. They have to be used respectfully, “don’t get me in trouble.” I told her.
A few hours later I saw their story on the news. They did such a good job that I felt embarrassed that I asked them to do it respectfully. They did. Penny Arevalo, of Patch.com made a similar request, and also did a commendable job.
As the day went on, the flavor of the calls changed. They weren’t asking what happened or if I knew what happened. The brutal facts were out there.
They simply wanted to talk about it.
Although there has never been a story quite like this; there was something vaguely familiar with the experience.
It reminded me of a day more than a dozen years ago. A day when something so shocking, so incredible that people called just to talk. To make sense of it.
That was September 11, 2001: 9-11.
The parallels are eery. Twins towers. Their demise within minutes of each other. The theme of suicide runs all the way through it; from the sducidal terrorist who forced it to happen, to those who jumped a hundred stories to the deaths to avoid the even worse death of being consumed by the flames.
Worst of all: no one saw it coming. No one was prepared.
There was another day that no one saw coming. A day which also changed the world. For Arthur Lichtenstein, the news of the of the Gyno-Twins’ death made him think of the day he stepped out of a Detroit barber shop fifty years ago. The scene was nightmarish. Cars were dangerously swerving to a stop. Grown men in white shirts and pressed suits were choking on their tears. Sobbing against storefront windows, they were loosening their ties to breathe. Word had just come over the radio. This was November 22, 1963. JFK was dead.
Just a few weeks earlier the industry had an another blast of shocking news. One of the biggest show promoters in the state cancelled the January edition of his tri-annaul show. Mike Grimes needed emergency heart surgery. Dealers scrambled to make up for the lost opportunity to pay their bills. It made sense that I got a flood of calls and emails. Grimes has a critical role in the industry and a cancelled show is a big deal.
But why was the death of two collectors the biggest thing to hit this industry since I’ve been in business?
It’s primitive. It’s part of our survival instinct to have interest in and to emulate the behavior of the tribal leaders.
In tests, monkeys will sacrifice food in favor of observing the dominate member of their tribe.
Celebrity magazines are exploiting our ancient tendencies to crave an association with the powerful. They create a parasocial relationship. The celebrities can feel as real as their next door neighbor.
The “Gyno-mint Twins” were textbook examples of this celebrity principle in action. They seemed to have had it all. Meaningful work, they were good at, with a public service dimension; they were saving lives during the week.
Come the weekend, they lived a shopping fantasy, capped off with a ritualistic trip to the “Happiest Place on Earth.” They had spectacular style, great figures and they were admired and fawned over like a pair of identical middle-aged Lady Gagas.
The women were always impeccably dressed with full make-up, like curly-haired versions of Barbara Eden from “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Over the years the twins’ stomping grounds had included:
Tom Baker’s California Country Show in Costa Mesa, the All-American Collector’s Show, the Doll & Teddy Bear Show in San Diego that used to be owned by Linda Mullins, the Calendar Del Mar Show, the Long Beach Flea Market, The Groves, Torrance Street Faire, and the Rose Bowl Flea Market.
“There is a photo of them on the lead page of the Long Beach Flea Market web page,” said Lynn Moger, who recalled first seeing them at the show around 30 years ago.
“I didn’t realize they were 58 years old,” she said. “They certainly brightened up the show with their demeanor and the way they dressed was really eye catching.”
“They wore lots of jewelry and dressed almost bigger than life with cowboy boots, knee socks, short skirts, visors, lots of necklaces and four armloads of bangles,” she said.
“What was great is that they wore what they bought. They came to our show and they would put on what they bought that day,” said Moger.
Their strange absence from the scene was noted by co-owner of the All-American Show, Jim Maley. He was concerned. They didn’t show up at the January Show and he was even more alarmed when he didn’t see them at Long Beach Flea Market the next day.
Although thousands of people pass through that show every month, the Gynomint Twins create such a spectacle that when they did not make an appearance, people started talking.
Although they were known of, probably by thousands of collectors and dealers, no one seemed to know them well.
With one exception.
Country Roads dealer Lori Gutierrez was the Gynomint Twins’ exclusive jewelry designer. In 2010, Gutierrez was a dealer at the Long Beach Flea Market in the red zone when she was approached by the Blacklers and their brightly-colored outfits and radiant personalities were contagious. They were looking to buy jewelry and Gutierrez let them know that she was an artist and could paint any character they desired onto any piece.
A photo of Gutierrez with the “Disney Twins” is at LoriGutie.blogspot.com. Her blog is “Decorating with Art” and features her most recent creations including crowns, handpainted brooches and bangles, wooden mermaid signs and even a figurehead from the front of a ship.
Too much shouldn’t be made of the Twins’ taste in Disney characters, but their choice is worth noting.
“They loved all the Disney villains: Ursula, The Evil Queen and Cruella De Vil. There was something about the evil ones that fascinated them,” said Gutierrez.
“They were really my best customers and I don’t mean because they bought from me,” she said, adding that they would give her a large box of wood and plastic bangles, mostly vintage, every year and she would chip away decorating them with all of their favorite Disney characters throughout the year. “I mean they were so excited about Disney and they had an amazing eye for detail.”
They would say to me, “People have no idea what goes into this jewelry,” said Gutierrez.
The last thing she designed for them was a set of 3″ wide vintage bracelets at the end of 2013. They got a lot of their vintage bracelets from Erin, who was caddy corner to Gutierrez, at the Long Beach Flea Market. The last bracelets that the designer painted for them featured Cruella De Vil and were ready to be picked up.
Gutierrez added that when they went to Disneyland, they would go to Cinderella’s Castle and they would look at every detail in awe and with the utmost appreciation.
Gutierrez learned something important about their upbringing.
“I guess they were army brats,” she said. They moved around a lot which would explain their outgoing nature; they had to make friends everywhere they went and that carried on into their adult lives.
Gutierrez feels that their nomadic youths may have led to their desire to relive the childhood they never had by collecting vintage toys as adults. Their tan SUV license plate said: Toyhunter.
She also painted on the wheel covers of their vehicle an image of Mickey Mouse giving the “thumbs up” sign.
Everyone interviewed could not, or at least did not articulate distinctions between the two physically or their personalities. Gutierrez did. Maybe it is her artistic temperament that allowed her to discern the fine details of their characters.
“Valerie was much more vivacious and animated than Diane,” she said. “Valerie wore her hair up all the time. Diane wore her hair in a ponytail.”
Scott Mc Teira is a famous Disney dealer whose been kicking around the Orange County for over a decade. He’s the new manager at Chapman Antique Mall, and had been a star dealer there for three years. Before that he was up the street a couple miles at the Antique Emporium and long before that he was at the Lincoln Antique Mall.
The Anaheim mall was owned by former textile dealer Antronic Osbag and managed by Rick, who is currently a calculus professor. That’s where Scott first met the “Gyno-Twins.” The first thing he remembers selling them was Judith Jack marcasite pin brooch. Since Scott is as big of a Disneyfile as the Twins he’d see them in their native habitat, often at the Plaza Inn at the end of Main Street or at the Cafe Orleans, in Orleans Square. Scott had recently thought about them, when he was thumbing through the February Collector. The Twins were not featured.
The last time the Twins were featured in Collector was in December. The article was about the celebrities who just happened to be in the Antique Warehouse at the moment I was there. Along with Denise Khalil from the Pasadena Antique Center and Keith Kinkade, veteran dealer and former producer of the Glendale Monthly Antique Show.
However, the superstars were the Gynotwins. They had just left the Old Barn. Among several things they bought their favorite was a black rag doll. They named it Valentin, after the sales clerk who sold it to them.
After a couple more stops on Cedros, they drove their Toyhunter SUV to the Del Mar Show for the last time.
There are no answers to what caused the deaths of the Twins; but one thing is for sure. It wasn’t the antique business.