Command Performance: Remembering how a dressage champion helped honor Linda McCartney

Dressage champion honors Linda McCartney. Paul McCartney invited guests to the Riverside Church for a program to honor his late wife, Linda.

On a summer evening a quarter century ago, a small group gathered at an historic church in New York City to celebrate a life well lived.

Rock ‘n’ Roll legend Paul McCartney had invited 400 guests to the Riverside Church in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights neighborhood for a special program of speeches and song to honor the memory of his wife, Linda, who had died of breast cancer two months earlier.

“Paul, Children and a Horse Gather at Memorial to Linda McCartney” was the headline for The New York Times story that was published the next day, June 23, 1998. That horse was an Appaloosa dressage champion called Pay N Go. And what led him and his owner Pam Fowler Grace on a 1,400 journey from Texas to the famous Gothic church was McCartney’s determination to honor his wife’s love of horses.

Pam Fowler Grace and Pay N Go

For Pam, the story began earlier that month in Texas, where she was hard at work training dressage horses. Suddenly she began fielding unusual phone calls from strangers asking unusual questions. All the questions concerned Pay N Go. “Is he in show shape?” “Would he be OK in a big city?”

“Can he do the Spanish walk?”

Pam was happy to talk about Pay N Go, a horse she later described as “the love and ride of my life.” She and her gelding had won dozens of blue ribbons and championships on the Appaloosa circuit in hunter under saddle, saddle seat pleasure, snaffle bit reining, western riding, and working hunter competition, plus 28 United States Dressage Federation All-Breed Championships and seven United States Dressage Federation Southwest Dressage Championships.

Of course, he’d be fine, she told the callers. The mystery deepened. Who wanted this information about her horse?  She would soon learn that the calls were part of a nationwide talent search of sorts, one initiated by Paul McCartney.

The month before, McCartney had held a memorial for his wife of 29 years in England. Now the former Beatle was planning a tribute in her native country. Born in Scarsdale, New York, Linda had met her future husband while photographing the “music scene” in London during the 1960s. Later known for her vegetarianism and support for animal welfare, Linda was also an accomplished equestrian with a particular fondness for Appaloosas.

To honor his wife’s love of spotted horses, McCartney wanted a special Appaloosa to perform a short dressage routine in the stateside memorial service he was planning. McCartney’s secretary provided Pam with the details of the event, but she said that McCartney wanted to invite her himself. Pam rushed home to take his call in private.

When McCartney called, “he was kind and unassuming,” she recalls. McCartney shared his thoughts of what he imagined for her performance. Short and dramatic. A Spanish walk, a pirouette, and a final salute. No room for errors. And it was only a week away.

Pam knew this project would require a lot of Pay N Go. The gelding would ride in an airplane for the first time in his life, and his destination was to be the nation’s most populated city. Finally, he would be asked to perform in a venue unlike any he had ever encountered before: a cavernous church.

“Do you think you can do that?” McCartney asked.

Of course, Pam answered.

Soon after, Pam and Pay N Go boarded a FedEx jet in Houston and off they flew to New York. Initially, the gelding was rested at a farm on Long Island as final preparations were made for the big event in the city. While there, Pam received a gift from McCartney: a new top hat and tall boots.

When the big day arrived, Pay N Go was trailered to the Morningside Heights neighborhood where the Riverside Church stands. New York City police and McCartney’s security detail cordoned off a street behind the church for Pam and Pay N Go. Bathed, groomed and braided to perfection, the gelding was unloaded from the trailer.

Meanwhile a crowd began to gather, sensing something big was up. Before long, fans, reporters and photographers firing off bright camera flashes were pressing against the barricades. “It was chaos back there,” says Pam, who wore full formal attire—a shadbelly tuxedo jacket and her new top hat and boots. She adds that the scene did not bother her horse. “He acted like he was born to do this.”

Pam Fowler Grace and Pay N Go in the nave at Riverside Church in New York City.

The service began with a bagpiper performing McCartney’s composition “Mull of Kintyre.” Then came the strains of a string quartet playing songs that McCartney had written for his wife, including “Maybe I’m Amazed,” “The Lovely Linda” and “My Love.”

When singer Neil Young rose to speak, Pam knew it was time to get ready. Young was followed by the Harlem Boys Choir, which sang a hymn and the Beatles song “Blackbird.” Then came her cue. McCartney announced: “This would be Linda’s favorite part of the ceremony.”

Pam rode Pay N Go up a ramp at the church’s side entrance, then up the second one, and finally walked into the sanctuary, ducking under a chandelier. “He wasn’t afraid. Neither was I. The scariest part was walking up those ramps,” she says.

Gasps, “oohs” and “aahs” welcomed Pam and Pay N Go as they walked into the church. Their audience, no strangers to the art of performance themselves, appreciated the moment. In addition to McCartney and his four children, the group included fashion designer Ralph Lauren; former British model Twiggy; and broadcaster Diane Sawyer and her movie-director husband Mike Nichols.

The spotlight was on Pam and Pay N Go. At the doorway, they executed a few elevated steps of the piaffe. Then a Spanish walk across the transept, followed by a pirouette. They halted in front of McCartney, who stood at the podium, and turned to face the audience. Pam saluted and paused for a silent prayer.

McCartney—“with a twinkle in his eyes,” recalls Pam—winked and smiled. The audience erupted into a standing ovation, and Pam and her Appaloosa turned to leave. Pay N Go seemed to rise to the occasion, launching into a huge Spanish walk. “His front feet nearly reached his nose,” Pam remembers. The ovation continued many minutes after their departure out the side door, back down those ramps.

Back at the trailer, Pam says, Pay N Go “stood there, with his head held high, as if saying to everyone: ‘I have blessed you with my presence.’” The next day, McCartney called Pam at her hotel to thank her again…and again…telling her their magnificent performance was exactly what he had envisioned.

Later, back home in Texas, she received from McCartney a framed photo of their performance, with him in the background standing at the podium, and a signed card that read: “With love and thanks, Paul McCartney.”

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