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Catharsis a la Chihuahua

Truman saved his widowed mistress from despair. Now Mary Beth Crain and her canine pal


It's not easy to shop for a Chihuahua. Just check out the looks you get from department are promoting--with doggie fashion shows--the new book that chronicles her recovery. But shop you must, because, as author Mary Beth Crain will tell you, a Chihuahua is a lot like a Barbie. You simply have to dress it.

Which is why on a recent weekday Crain struggled against the squirms of Truman, her faithful 7-pound companion, to get him into a snappy tropical-themed swimsuit, which he eventually wore along with a look that seemed to say, "I rescue you from grief, teach you how store clerks when you ask if the bomber jacket comes in size eensy-weensy.

is the thanks I get?"

Crain, a 49-year-old South Pasadena resident, isn't the first person to climb from a pit of despair via the love of a good pet; she isn't even the first one to write about it. But she just might be the first to promote her book by dressing her four-legged loved one in Chihuahua couture and pointing him down a runway.

The Chihuahua fashion shows Crain has planned for Borders stores in Torrance on Friday and in Pasadena on Sunday will feature Truman and his friends, as well as an open invitation to any Chihuahua that wants to come in costume.

Participants will compete for prizes in categories such as bridal wear, seasonal fashions and most bizarre outfit. Crain will provide the piano accompaniment, and there may even be a chance for small-dog adoptions through the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. All this to spread the word about Crain's new book, "A Widow, a Chihuahua, and Harry Truman" (HarperSanFrancisco;$22).

to laugh and love again. not to mention provide enough material for a 202-page book, and this The work chronicles Crain's life after her husband, Adam Shields, died of lung cancer in 1996, sending her into what she calls "my period of zombiedom," a depression so deep she thought it would devour her. Crain, an 18-year staffer at L.A. Weekly, desperately needed a reason to go on, and she found it in a tiny black-and-tan bundle she named after her hero, Harry Truman.

"Slowly, I found myself forced to view the world through Truman's eyes," Crain writes of the dog, not the president. "And what an enchanted world it was, where a simple piece of wadded-up Kleenex held the secret to endless joy, a world in which sadness was unknown unless I created it."

That world unfolds in chapters that begin with pithy quotes by and about Truman (the president, not the dog) and bear sometimes poignant but often whimsical titles such as "The Obedience School Fiasco," "How Dumb Is Your Dog?" "Truman Comes Out" and "Chihuahua Fashion."

Which brings us back to the day Crain turned to her chihuahua-dressing friends and said, "Let's put on a show." A handful of those friends gathered recently at Borders in Pasadena to test the concept . . . sort of a dry run. At least they hoped it would be dry. (That's one thing about Barbie. You never have to worry about "excitable urination.")

Designer Susan Swann unveiled her latest creations tailored for Rootie and Tootie, the Chihuahuas she shares with Ken Seay, her significant other. Rootie reluctantly played a groom, modeling a tiny top hat and formal black coat to complement Tootie's lacy bridal headpiece. Later, Rootie wore a sombrero, serape and guitar. But he was never more dashing than when he donned Swann's showstopping homage to the antebellum South.

Here came Rootie as--now hang on to your chalupa--Rhett Butler in "Gone With the Wind," complete with flowing cape and a gold stickpin in his navy ascot. By his side was Tootie as Scarlett O'Hara, her straw hat tied with a mint-green bow, her dress resplendent with glittering shamrocks.

Somewhere, a miniature window is missing its drapes.

"For Halloween," Seay said, "somehow we're going to have to get Tootie to wear the dress with a little curtain rod through it."

Clearly Crain and Co. retain a sense of humor about their Chihuahua fixation. Whether they retain any measure of restraint is another matter entirely.

Crain is already considering a follow-up work titled "Travels With Truman," the story of a road trip retracing the whistle-stop tour Harry Truman took en route to victory in the 1948 presidential election. Then there's her Web site, at, where you can learn Truman's vital statistics (he's a Libra, with a lot of Virgo, and his turnoffs are baths, rainy days and cats that won't play tag).

"I'm the first to admit that I'm the victim of 'mad dog disease,' " Crain said. "Before I got Truman, I would have said someone dressing up dogs should be committed."

And now?

"Well," she said, "let's just say these days I'm much more forgiving of dog owners' surreal peculiarities."

"Dressed to the Canines," chihuahua fashion shows to promote Mary Beth Crain's book, "A Widow, a Chihuahua and Harry Truman," are scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday at Borders in Torrance, 3700 Torrance Blvd., and noon Sunday at Borders in Pasadena, 475 S. Lake Ave.

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