Have you heard of Howard Pyle? In 1901, he published an illustrated book for children called “Pepper and Salt.”

When I was a kid, we often read stories out of “Pepper and Salt.” Ours was a used copy that had probably been passed along to me by two little girls about my age named Mimi and Maita who summered in Camden.

Do you have childhood friends you haven’t seen for 70 years? Do you ever wonder what became of them? Yesterday, I looked for Mimi and Maita on the Internet.

During World War II, my grandmother was a $15-a-week live-in cook for their father, Prince Niscemi. I think he lived in Pyle’s neighborhood, but escaped summers to Camden, where drizzle and fog were easier to take than Philadelphia’s 87 degrees and high humidity.

One day my mother packed me up and shipped me by bus to Camden, where I roomed with my grandmother for a few days. Because it was a new and exciting adventure, I can still make myself believe that I remember much of it well.

Please don’t tell me that the iron railing on the sidewalk high above the road in Rockport wasn’t there in 1943, because it’s the only thing I remember seeing during the bus trip.


In the 1930s and ’40s, everyone in my neighborhood canned or pickled or preserved everything from shore greens and dandelion greens to carrots and beans to get them through the winter. It was a matter of necessity.

But during the war, raising your own food became an act of patriotism, and we were introduced to Victory Gardens, an obvious effort to bring city people on board.

Perhaps my only contribution to WWII was showing Mimi and Maita how to plant a Victory Garden on the corner of Cedar and Chestnut streets. As I recall, it was shaded, planted in midsummer and lacked the necessary cow nutrients. But it was the thought that counted.

The first time I rode a bicycle was with one of the girls – probably Maita, who was closer to me in age. You must remember the first time you drove a car – or rode a bike. Nowadays, when you can find good cast-off bicycles at your local dump, and when kids get pink throw-away bikes as soon as they can walk, it is hard to imagine that bicycles were not all that easy to come by during WWII.

I practiced on Niscemi’s crushed-rock back driveway on Cedar Street, making many false starts. At one point, there was a pause and some discussion because of the prince’s concern for my scratched knees. When I finally got the hang of it, Maita and I rode out Chestnut Street past the “Oreo cookie cow” farm to Rockport. Because of wartime gasoline rationing, there weren’t all that many cars on the road in 1943, so bike riding was safer then.

Even though bicycles were difficult to get during the war years, as I recall, Mrs. Niscemi had a friend or relative who refurbished them. My grandmother got me a blue bike with curled racing handlebars, which cost her over a week’s pay.


Prince Niscemi would kiss me on the forehead when I’d trot in to say goodnight at bedtime. My father, who lost his mother at the age of 6, was not one to overtly express affection, so this memory is one that has stayed with me.

They had a dog – I think it was a cocker spaniel. I was on the living room floor, probably pulling on the dog’s ears, and was bitten in the face. Although I was not an ideal house guest, the Niscemis had seen worse.

I remember Mother saying that Prince Niscemi’s palace housed American troops who occupied Sicily and southern Italy on their drive up through the peninsula. The soldiers stood some of the antique inlaid tables up on end and used them for dartboards. This was part of the price Prince Niscemi paid to help sweep fascism out of Italy.

My mother might have heard that bit of gossip from Josephine, the nanny, who became friends with my parents. I recall seeing her in our kitchen sporting an exotic fur coat that few women would dare wear today.

My brother, who was 4 years old at the time, says that he vividly remembers a visit to the Niscemi house on Chestnut Street; it was the first time he had seen a flush toilet.

Prince Niscemi was a very well-educated man, but the only thing I remember hearing my grandmother say about him was that he was too lazy to butter his own toast.


So where are they now?

After a bit of Googling, I read that Mimi was designing high-end jewelry. Two of her better-known customers were Jackie Kennedy and the Duchess of Windsor.

And this, from a 2000 New York Times article: “I went to her house once with two sisters, Princess Maita di Niscemi and Princess Mimi Romanov … . It was a spooky evening because the two sisters sang.”

Who would be surprised to hear that they performed? In 1943 they were writing plays and putting them on in the garage that faced Cedar Street. We, the audience, sat on chairs in the crushed-rock driveway where I had learned to ride a bicycle.

This also turned up online: Mimi was “the wife of (His Serene Highness) Prince Alexander, the great-grandson of Czar Alexander III.” By the age of 14, he was fluent in five languages.

I wondered what they’d been up to lately.

The humble Farmer can be seen on Community Television in and near Portland and visited at his website:


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: