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On a cool summer evening in the desert between Taos and Santa Fe, two women lean on pillows, sip coffee, and discuss their past. One is a professor of history and gender studies and has been a feminist and an agnostic throughout most of her adult life. The other is a devout Muslim of the mystical Sufi Order. What brings two such different women together? Attending high school in 1950s suburban Los Angeles, Lois Banner and Fran Huneke had been best friends, with their minds on books and boys. But while Banner became an academic feminist, Fran converted to Islam and moved to Egypt. Forty years later, Banner sought out her lost friend, hoping to understand why they had taken such different paths in life.
Banner charts the trajectories of the friends' diverging lives. Her search for clues to the origins of their opposing choices takes her to Los Angeles, New York, New Mexico, and to Egypt with Fran, where each woman re-creates the key moments of her life. As Banner finished her Ph. D. in history at Columbia and became swept up in the beginnings of academic feminism, Fran embarked on her own journey, joining the Lama Foundation, a spiritual community in New Mexico, and eventually converted to Islam. Ultimately, however, it is in childhood that Banner finds the roots of their differences. She uncovers the importance of female role models, showing how the death of her own mother, and the tremendous strength and influence of Fran's, sowed the seeds of their disparate lives.
This is also the story of Banner's own spiritual journey. In the course of reconnecting with Fran, she goes to Lama and explores alternatives to the Protestantism of her own childhood. She undergoes a conversion of sorts and joins the Sufi Order in the West, a spiritual group in Los Angeles.
Exploring the intersections of biography and autobiography, East and West, faith and reason, Finding Fran is a unique portrait of two women's lives that accounts for the tremendous differences between people, even as it reveals the enduring ties of friendship.
Columbia University Press
Best Book on Women's Issues, 1999 Independent Publisher Book Awards
— Kathy Bullock
— Charlotte Innes
The House on Hillcrest
Today I went back, as I do occasionally, to look at the house in which I grew up. I drove from my home in Santa Monica, near the beach, south over the Baldwin Hills, where tracts of vacant land still stand amid Los Angeles urban sprawl. I continued to the city of Inglewood and the intersection where Hillcrest Boulevard begins. On a corner of the intersection still stands the Inglewood Woman's Club, where my grandmother played bridge and I soloed with my mother's children's chorus. My childhood home, large and imposing, is one block away.
In 1944, when I was five, my family moved into the house. We were an extended group, ten in number. There were my mother and father and my three siblings: my sister, four years older than me, my brother, two years my elder, and a second brother, born soon after we moved in. My maternal great-grandmother and grandparents lived with us, and their son, my uncle, moved in between each of his four marriages. With so many family members ranging so widely in age, we were nothing on the order of Freud's oedipal family of mother, father, and child. Indeed, all my relatives in that house influenced me, each contributing to what I became.
And so did that house. To me it was a place for fantasy, even while it was the site where my family fashioned a common and daily life. Moreover, the street and the city where it was located also were part of the physical and mental geography of my childhood world--as they were part of Fran's. Understanding the house, the street, and the city is important to knowing me--and that understanding is also important to knowing Fran.
I don't know why that street was named Hillcrest or called a "boulevard." I've looked through city records, but they don't provide an answer. It isn't on the crest of a hill. Although it's wide, with a tree-filled center divider, it's suburban, not urban.
In 1888 fourteen men, led by Daniel Freeman, a wealthy Canadian emigrant, drew up the plans for Inglewood. They located it on Freeman's land. A decade earlier he'd purchased two of the huge ranchos into which Mexican rulers had divided Southern California early in the nineteenth century. Freeman's property stretched from the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles to the ocean; it included nearly 25,000 acres. A sometime entrepreneur, in the mid-1880s Freeman persuaded the owners of the area's developing railroad system to build a station on his land. That made it ideal for urban settlement at a time when migrants were flocking to Southern California and speculators were founding cities throughout the region.
Shortly before the city's founding, Freeman built a Victorian mansion on a forested, gated, and multi-acre estate not far from what would be the center of the city, and he laid out a racetrack in front of the estate for his personal use. The land across from the track was perfect for the homes of the city's elites. When the track was later turned into a city street, the name Hillcrest Boulevard was probably chosen because it sounded upper class.
The founders of Inglewood wanted to create a noteworthy place, an elite cultural center in an Edenic setting. They adopted the sylvan name Inglewood, laid out parks, built a hotel, projected a "Freeman" college. But their plan never worked. The depression of the 1890s hit Los Angeles and precipitated a decline in migration and in land prices. The hotel, failing to draw a clientele, was torn down; the college was never built. The boom of the 1880s turned into a bust; for some years it was possible that, like other Los Angeles satellite cities launched during the boom, Inglewood might disappear--or become a stop on the train line between downtown Los Angeles and the cities along the beach. My home, among the first on the tract of land across from the Freeman estate, wasn't built until the 1920s.
Yet land was plentiful. In 1905 some enterprising residents established a large cooperative poultry farm and another group a cemetery; for a time chickens and burials sustained Inglewood. In the 1920s the city attracted small manufacturing plants, and the incorporation of other small cities such as Torrance and Hawthorne out of Freeman's land provided a supportive economy. In the 1930s a large commercial horseracing track was built not far from my house, while the city airport, originally a plowed-over beanfield for local flying buffs, was expanded to serve the metropolitan region. Today, as Los Angeles International (LAX), it's one of the largest airports in the nation.
As LAX grew, aircraft companies built plants near it, and they attracted as workers "Okie" migrants from the Dust Bowl, especially with the expansion of the industry during World War II. These newcomers swelled Inglewood's population, making the city mostly lower middle and working class. There were well-to-do lawyers and merchants and clubs such as Rotary and the Elks. In the late 1940s a tract of middle-class, split-level homes was built not far from my house. But the parents of my childhood friends were mostly working-class mail carriers and factory workers. By the 1950s small stucco houses built for them dominated Inglewood's residential architecture; my block on Hillcrest contained the largest houses in the city.
Since the 1960s Inglewood's population has become mainly African-American. But no Blacks lived there when I was a child, for municipal ordinances prohibited their presence in the city after sundown. When 1960s civil rights laws overturned those codes, Blacks moved in. Yet even after a half century of changes in the class and race composition of the city, traces of the founders' original design remain, as well as early buildings funded by Freeman and his family. Their Victorian mansion was torn down in the 1970s, but the Woman's Club still stands. So does a large Episcopal church, built in 1915 and located across an alley behind my Hillcrest house. Designed in light stucco and in English Gothic style by the same architect as the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., its straight lines point to the sky. One Inglewood historian calls it "the finest example of pure Gothic architecture west of the Mississippi."
In the church's courtyard still stands a large tree my sister and older brother and I climbed as children. Yet we never went inside the church. For we were Lutherans, not Anglicans, and our fundamentalist Missouri Synod prohibited us from entering any church but our own. I never experienced the rites of that Episcopal church nor encountered its congregation. Fran and her family attended that church, but I didn't know them then. They lived crosstown, in a large house near the airport in the midst of the aircraft workers' homes. Not until later would I meet Fran; not until recently would I learn how that church and its religion influenced her.
If I were to stand near that Episcopal church long enough, I might hear its bells chiming the hours, as I did in my childhood. But my visits there are brief, because I don't want to hear the bells. In my memory their tones are morbid, announcing death. For beginning in 1949, when I was ten, one by one the adults I loved the best in my family died, shattering my childhood world.
With its Gothic lines and light stucco exterior, my childhood home looks as though it should be the rectory for the Episcopal church. Yet a cupola over the enclosed entrance gives it the appearance of a castle. It's a fantasy structure, one of those architectural flights typical of Los Angeles, where flamboyant houses have long served as visual markers of material success in this city of tropical landscapes and Hollywood dreams. My elders first heard about the house in the 1930s from my mother's gynecologist, its owner and original builder. He told my mother it was a replica of a country house he'd seen on a vacation in England.
As when I lived there, several large stucco houses of nondescript design still flank my house. Down the block are some one-story "California" bungalows with wide porches and screened windows to catch breezes in the warm climate. There are a few houses in the Spanish Revival style common to Southern California, with terra cotta tiled roofs, Moorish arches, and walls resembling adobe. Several 1930s bungalow courts still remain, as do some small apartment buildings constructed when Inglewood grew in population during World War II.
Such types of houses on Hillcrest Boulevard indicate the failure of any expectations that my block might be an upper-class enclave. Indeed, when I lived there, the residents I knew were elderly widows of modest means and children I played with whose families seemed to just get by. In a modest frame house lived Bunola Kay, an unmarried, would-be actress in her late forties who gave singing lessons to children like my siblings and me and fashion counseling to adult women. Next to her, in one of the large stuccos, lived a banker and his family. In another was a divorcee making do on meager alimony and child support payments.
Across the street from my childhood house still stood Daniel Freeman's estate, with a chain link fence and forest of trees surrounding a dark, late-Victorian mansion, even larger than my house. But Freeman and most of his family had died years before. His main descendant and heir was his widowed daughter, Grace Freeman Howland, who lived as a recluse on the estate with her servants. Years before, the story went, her father and her husband had unexpectedly died. Emotionally crippled, she retreated to her house and rarely left it. My grandmother, liking to claim upper-class connections, proudly asserted that our two houses both stood at the center of Freeman's old rancho, as though this joint location gave our family special status. But Mrs. Howland, as we called her, wasn't an acquaintance of ours. She liberally dispensed charity, giving away so much of her inheritance that she was called "Inglewood's Lady Bountiful." But she rarely had visitors or left her home.
This was the late 1940s, but the Levittown model of identical tract homes for middle-class nuclear families, which historians identify as typical of postwar suburbia, doesn't resemble what I experienced. Just as my family was neither nuclear nor exactly middle-class, architectural styles as well as age, types of families, and social class mingled on that Hillcrest block.
Like the exterior, the interior of my Hillcrest house seemed fashioned for people of wealth. The living room was so large that my mother's baby grand piano seemed dwarfed in its expanse. A fireplace, constructed of what my elders called "the finest Italian marble" dominated one wall; large paned windows flooded the room with light. The wallpaper, intact when we moved in, was embossed velvet, off-white, with a fleur-de-lis design; my siblings and I loved to run our fingers over it to feel its luxury. Dark red velvet drapes hung at the windows; the floors were of hardwood, pegged and grooved oak. The moldings were rare cherrywood, and sliding cherrywood doors could close off the living room from the front hall and the hall from the dining room. That house could hold several meetings at the same time.
The house had been built with servants in mind. Above the garage on the back of the property was a large room to house a live-in couple, with a buzzer system in the main structure to summon them from the kitchen to the other rooms of the house. When we moved in, my elders quickly deactivated the system, since my siblings and I buzzed it incessantly, irritating them no end. But they would have removed it anyway, since they would never have hired servants. Although I regarded our house as a mansion, they seemed to think of themselves as poor.
They furnished the house with what they'd acquired over the years from cheap furniture stores and the Salvation Army. In the living room an inherited antique table stood next to two overstuffed chairs in faded burgundy damask and a sagging couch in dark green brocade. Faded floral rugs covered the floors, doilies the tables, antimacassars the backs of the sofa and chairs. Still-lifes and landscapes painted by my grandmother and framed in imitation gilt hung on the walls, with a portrait of Jesus by an obscure artist over the mantle.
Our elders contended that, with four children in the house, to replace the furniture with up-to-date pieces would be a waste of money. More than thrift, however, determined their decorating scheme. When they finally indulged in some new chairs, what they bought looked exactly like the ones replaced, only newer. My family's church friends furnished their homes in the same style. Their living rooms also contained faded floral rugs, antimacassars and doilies, overstuffed sofas and chairs in dark green and burgundy, and a portrait of Jesus on a wall.
The thriftiness of that style was partly a holdover from the Depression when, like many Americans, my family and their friends lived on limited incomes and developed penny-pinching habits. But the sturdiness of that furniture, with its lower middle-class look, also connected them to their past. It invoked their roots in the folk, not the elites. It announced their ancestry among German peasants who came to farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the mid-nineteenth century and in the next generation to low-level semiprofessional jobs in the city of Spokane. In the early 1920s my parents--along with their parents--migrated to Los Angeles.
That decorating style also displayed my family's religious piety. As members of the most conservative Lutheran denomination, our lives were saturated with religion. We went to Sunday service every Sunday, and we children went to Sunday school after the service and to parochial school during the week. At home we prayed before meals and at bedtime, and we held family devotions every evening after dinner. My father was president of our congregation for many years as well as a leader in regional Missouri Synod groups. His obituary in the Synod newspaper in 1979 when he died at eighty-two called him "a Lutheran patriarch for Southern California." My mother was our church's organist, and my family celebrated her piety. My grandmother told the story of how, in a college biology class, my mother answered an exam question about the creation of the world not with the expected argument from Darwinian evolutionism but with the verse from Genesis: "God created the world in six days, and he rested on the seventh." The first family member to graduate from college, breaking new ground in family upward mobility, my mother risked flunking an exam to remain faithful to her religion.
Our Lutheranism was harsh and patriarchal. A capricious God the father constantly tested our belief in him because we couldn't be trusted to remain faithful. We were all born with "original sin," all evil by nature, because Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden had followed Satan and violated God's command against eating the forbidden apple. Heaven and hell were the carrot and stick held out to insure our belief. If we followed the commands of our Lutheran God, set down in the Bible and interpreted in our creeds, and if we believed in him as a triune God--Father, Son, and Holy Ghost--after we died he would reward us with eternal life in heaven. But if we gave in to Satan and didn't believe, we would burn forever in the fires of hell. It was standard fundamentalist dogma, softened by the hope that Jesus Christ, the son of God who died on the cross for our sins, might intervene to save us--but we could never be certain that he would.
Every evening we children memorized a passage from the Bible to recite the next morning in school. Although I no longer remember most of those verses, I can still recollect a few, mostly gloomy ones about the omnipotent harshness of our God. "Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth." Or: "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation." Then there were the passages about heaven being preferable to earth, this "vale of tears," and about the resemblance of human life to Christ's suffering on the Cross. "For me to live is Christ, to die is gain." Not the cheeriest pictures to paint for children.
But I also have positive memories of my childhood religion, memories relating to the security of belief and the appeal of piety. At the age of eight I announced to my family that I was giving up any thoughts of marriage to become a deaconess--the Lutheran version of a Catholic nun, according to my father. The impulse didn't last long, but for a few days I had visions of dedicating myself to God and of being absolutely certain of his grace. And later, when I was in high school and even though my faith was waning, I could watch a sunset over the Pacific Ocean, with red and orange streaks in a darkening sky, and imagine that I saw God and his angels coming down from heaven to lift me up to join them for eternity.
Despite their severe religion, my elders weren't fictive kin to the "American Gothic" painted by Grant Wood--the gaunt and scowling couple who with their pitchfork and barn have come to symbolize the stern folk who settled the Midwest. Without much evidence of guilt, my elders stretched their creed all the time to accommodate behavior such as gambling and card playing, which was anathema to stricter Lutherans. I can't imagine that they could have done otherwise and maintained any family peace, with all those people with their distinctive personalities and their versions of the American Dream living in that house that looked like a castle, with its velvet embossed wallpaper, cherrywood moldings, and a fireplace made of the finest Italian marble.
The Hollywood film business and the thriving music industry in Los Angeles brought both sides of my family to Southern California; religion had nothing to do with it. My father, Harry, a sometime journalist in Spokane who'd attended a year of college at the local state university branch, was twenty-two when he came to Los Angeles with his patents. Hoping for a career as a screenwriter, he instead wound up in advertising. My mother, Melba, a child piano prodigy, was eighteen when she came to Los Angeles from Spokane with her parents and her younger brother, Eddie, also a promising musician. Melba attended the University of Southern California on a scholarship. After a brief attempt on the concert stage, she became a high school music teacher and a part-time church organist.
Melba and Harry hadn't known each other in Spokane; they met in the mid-1920s at a Lutheran event. Married in 1929, they moved to Inglewood because the local high school hired Melba as a teacher. Once she had children and continued to work, her patents, Charlie and Lillian, moved in to help with the housework and childcare, and Eddie joined them between his marriages. During Melba's childhood in Spokane her family had lived in the home of my widowed great-grandmother, Magdalena, and they replicated that arrangement in Inglewood. In 1944 Lena, now eighty-five, joined them from Spokane. With Eddie's presence and the expected birth of my younger brother, the bungalow we lived in was too small. Thus they bought the house on Hillcrest.
Why did they buy a mansion when they could have made do with something less elegant? Behind their backs their friends wondered how they afforded what an Inglewood historian calls one of the "grandest" houses in the city. On the contrary, they claimed that it hadn't been expensive because during the war no one wanted to take on such a large house. Besides, my father was doing well at work; they had extra money from Charlie's and Lillian's jobs on a wartime night shift at one of the aircraft factories; and my mother's gynecologist, who owned the house, offered it to her at a good price.
Over the years my mother and this doctor had become close, for he played a major role in her life. After she suffered a series of miscarriages and couldn't seem to carry a baby to term, he suggested that she adopt a child. Following his advice, my elders adopted my sister Lila and, to everyone's surprise, that solved the problem. Melba soon became pregnant with my older brother Paul, then with me, and finally with my brother John. Melba often talked about the Hillcrest house with her doctor, and she fantasized owning it. When he offered it to her, she jumped at the chance to buy it.
Yet my elders didn't attempt to fashion an upper-class lifestyle appropriate to our mansion. Content with their shabby decor and with friendships formed through the church and the high school, absorbed in their varied activities and the complexities of dealing with each other, they didn't choose to meet and entertain community leaders, put on teas and cocktail parties, or host charity events. Simply owning that house was enough for them.
With my mother working, my grandmother Lillian was our household manager. But aside from childrearing, she didn't seem to like domestic tasks. She did the chores quickly so that she could go to church, play bridge, or paint pictures--which she actually sold in local art shows and to friends, even though her paintings were mainly scenes she copied from greeting cards. For the most part, she didn't require us children to help with the housework, although Charlie and Lena weren't excused. Fearful of her wrath, they obeyed her commands, but they grumbled behind her back and, like her, they also hurried through their chores. As a result, our house was often untidy, until Lillian suddenly noticed the messiness (usually because company was coming) and demanded that we all pitch in to clean up.
Lillian served us a meal every evening, but she didn't seem to like cooking any more than cleaning. Her cuisine was simple, fast, and tasteless: an overdone toast with boiled potatoes and canned vegetables; hamburger meat, canned mushrooms, and cooked rice fried together and called goulash. We ate lots of canned sauerkraut, cole slaw, potato salad, hot dogs, and boiled cabbage; we smothered almost everything with catsup or gravy. We never ate fish, any meat but chicken or beef, nor such vegetables as broccoli or eggplant. These foods were for Italians and Catholics, Lillian told us, not Germans like us.
The hygiene of my family, like its cuisine, often seemed to come from some distant, honored past. We each took a bath only once a week, on Sunday evening, resorting the rest of the time to what my grandmother called a "sponge bath," with soap and a washcloth. In the bedroom that Lena and Lillian shared stood a chamber pot. Despite my occasional protests that the pot was disgusting, they used it during the night and emptied it each morning. Lena raised chickens in our backyard. When Lillian wanted to serve one for dinner, Lena killed it by wringing its neck with her bare hands. Lillian and Lena weren't squeamish. When serious illness later struck, they changed bandages and emptied vomit buckets and bedpans without a murmur. They would put a hospital bed for the invalid in the dining room near the kitchen, so that they could cook and clean while doing nursing tasks.
Photos of the aging Lena and Lillian (and even of my mother) show them with shapeless, overweight bodies, molded by years of doing no regular physical exercise and of eating heavy meals and sugary desserts. They coated fruit with sugar; they ate a lot of candy and ice cream. Their favorite salad was flavored jello with canned fruit. They added marshmallows, coconut, and whipped cream for guests and called it ambrosia.
Lillian and Lena rinsed their hair with bluing to rid it of the yellow of aging, to make it stark white. They had it cut close to their heads and permed in tiny curls: they looked like Shirley Temples with wrinkled faces. They were always ladylike. They wore gloves and hats to church and downtown, and they never flopped on floors or slouched in chairs. Lillian often chided me on my posture. Stand straight and tall, she would say to me; look like you are upper-class. The message was ambiguous, as was my family's lifestyle, rooted in hopes for the future and affection for the past, in an identification with their lower-middle-class Lutheran peers and in an imagined association with the upper-class Mrs. Howland.
Her Freeman mansion was always across the street, with its somber exterior hidden by the forest of trees that surrounded it beyond a chain link fence. The house and its mysterious recluse fascinated my sister and older brother and me. We rode our bicycles on the sidewalk outside it; we peered through the fence to see what was inside. One day we decided to climb the fence. As we lowered ourselves to the ground on the other side, a white-haired woman suddenly appeared. She frightened and embarrassed us when she identified herself as Mrs. Howland. To our surprise, she didn't chide us. Rather, she seemed to find our trespassing amusing, although she made us promise never to do it again. She invited us into the house and gave us a tour.
The mansion was grand, filled with dark wood wainscotting, oriental rugs, and mahogany antiques. An interior courtyard contained a pond filled with gold carp. We sat down on chairs in the courtyard, and a servant brought us tea in an ornate silver tea service. Mrs. Howland served the tea; I can still hear her cultured voice asking us if we wanted one lump of sugar or two. She answered our questions and asked about our lives. Mrs. Howland wasn't withdrawn, as we expected a recluse to be. Instead, she was warm, with an air of wealth and position and the ability to put one instantly at ease. I'd never met anyone like her. It seemed to me that for a moment I'd entered an elegant space, one of ornate silver tea services and deferential servants far removed from my chaotic family. I never saw her again, but I never forgot the experience. Perhaps my grandmother was right about the appeal of the upper class.
My great-grandmother Lena missed her life in Spokane, and she had difficulty with us children, with our sassy, modern attitude. She had raised Lillian and Melba strictly, but Melba insisted on more leniency with us and Lena didn't approve. When the other adults were away, she would insult us in stentorian tones with German words which I distinctly remember as "shloplese" and "drechhommel." Those words sounded to me like "sloppy" and "dreadful," and I didn't like them at all. But I didn't understand Lena's German. Although my elders had learned German before English and spoke it among themselves, they never taught it to us children.
Lena could be stern, but she could collapse into depression. I remember her sitting in her rocking chair on the back porch, rocking back and forth, with tears streaming down her cheeks and her German Bible in her hands, praying to her God in German to let her die. Yet she also happily made afghans and gossipped with the elderly widows on our block. She chopped cabbage for coleslaw, and she claimed to have lived so long because she had eaten it every day of her life. Exhibiting flashes of determination, she boasted that her father had fought in the Civil War and had spoken with Abraham Lincoln. She claimed that as a child she hid in the cellar of her home in Minnesota to escape Indians on the warpath. Lena was a large woman, nearly six feet tall. She lived to be ninety-five, outliving most of the other adults in my family.
Like Lena, Lillian was often harsh and unyielding. In these traits she was the opposite of Charlie, who was playful and gentle. As a married couple, Lillian and Charlie didn't seem well suited. Although they tried to restrain themselves in our crowded house, they bickered a lot; and Lillian slept in a room with Lena and not one with Charlie. Even then I realized that Lillian tried to control Charlie and that he didn't like her overbearing manner. He might give in to her for a time, but she could never completely dominate him. Unlike the rest of my elders with German backgrounds and surnames such as Krause and Wendland, Charlie was a Parkes from Wales. He didn't speak German and he wasn't especially religious, although he put up a front for Lillian. Most of all, he liked going to Hollywood musicals, a staple of the 1950s screen, so that he could, as Lillian scornfully put it, "look at the women's bare legs." He also liked sports: he watched boxing matches on TV and jabbed his arms along with the fighters. He had a passion for horseracing--and so did my uncle and even my mother. Together the three of them often went to the racetrack near our house.
Lutheran devotional tracts were always scattered on tables in our living room, but so were race track sheets, containing betting odds and information about horses and jockies. Bookies demanding payment for gambling debts sometimes telephoned for Charlie and Eddie. Those calls were never for my mother, for she drew the line at gambling, although she read the racing sheets and placed fantasy bets. (One season her winnings on paper totaled nearly two thousand dollars--a sum so large that she couldn't help boasting about it.)
The adults in my family formed shifting coalitions. With regard to the horseracing, Melba sided with Charlie and Eddie, although she scolded them when the bookies called. My grandmother and my father--both especially pious--disliked the horseracing expeditions, although they hesitated to challenge Melba, whose paycheck was crucial to the family income. In return, Melba was a partner with my father at church, while she gave Lillian free rein in the household. But she also honored her gentle father and her magnetic brother, and she shared their infatuation with horseracing.
Like her, Eddie was a musician: in the 1940s he played trumpet in the MGM studio orchestra. Handsome and debonaire, with an air of Hollywood insouciance, he breezed in and out of our house, and I heard my elders whisper about the liquor on his breath. He loved the fast Hollywood nightlife--drinking and gambling, going to clubs, romancing beautiful women, perhaps taking drugs. He was always in scrapes, always running up debts. He had difficulty remaining married, and he never went to our church. In hushed tones my elders called him an "alcoholic," but they gave him the room above the garage and tried to reform him. When reproving church members scolded Lillian about Eddie's many wives, she always retorted: "At least he marries them."
Melba's identification with Charlie and Eddie had limits. Early in her life, she decided to marry a devout Lutheran, someone without their moral flaws. My father, a church leader who constantly quoted from the Bible, fit the bill. Harry was intensely polite and without much sense of humor, while Charlie and Eddie told jokes all the time. But their carefree personalities could be dangerous, leading to drinking and carousing. "High living and careless living are an abomination to me." Harry expressed those sentiments in a letter to my mother shortly after they met. The only other man she considered marrying, my grandmother told me, was a Lutheran minister.
Melba also respected my father's ambition to succeed in advertising, a profession they both considered key to American prosperity as well as infused with spiritual dynamism. Bruce Barton's 1924 best seller, The Man That Nobody Knows, persuaded them of that: they accepted Barton's notion that Jesus Christ was not only a religious prophet but also the world's first supersalesman. In Barton's view, Christ forged a major religion through personal persuasion, providing a model for businessmen for centuries to come. "He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world." That's what Barton--and my father--believed.
I hesitate to conclude that this rationalization for a profession that might be seen as crass turned my father into a hypocrite. Mostly he wrote copy for farm and garden products familiar to him from his childhood in a farming suburb of Spokane. Still, even as a child I was puzzled by the loud, pounding advertisements on radio and TV he composed for his client "Wild Man Pritchard." A used car dealer with many Los Angeles franchises, Pritchard promised cars at outrageously low prices. Such hucksterism didn't seem exactly Christian to me.
Advertising was a volatile business, and my father, not always employed, probably did what was necessary to survive in it. Such job insecurity, combined with his ambition, turned him into what we today call a "workaholic." Always at his job, he came home to retreat to his study or to go to church meetings. He often seemed to me a stranger who had wandered into our family. In fact, because he was too busy at work he hadn't gone with Melba and Lillian in 1935 to the Lutheran orphanage in Iowa where they chose my sister. But my mother didn't seem to mind his absences. For there were tradeoffs: he left most family decisions to her; he didn't complain when she moved her family in; he didn't try to stop the racetrack attendance and the gambling; he was proud of her career and her musical ability. When some conservative church members tried to censor her for holding a square dance in our backyard for my sister's sixteenth birthday, my father, as church president, stopped them.
I never liked my father; I never had much of a relationship with him. With his formality and his Bible quoting, he seemed to me to deliver sermons when he spoke, and I had to listen to enough of those in church. I preferred my sensuous uncle and my sweet grandfather, with their jokes and their playfulness, and my conscious identification was with them, not with Harry. They easily gave kisses and hugs; my father was stiff and polite. Anyway, he was often out. He left the childrearing to the women in the house, while he largely abdicated the paternal role to my mother's male relatives.
For a time Harry's workaholism seemed to pay off, when his "Wild Man Pritchard" campaigns generated large advertising revenues. With success seemingly in hand, my father opened his own advertising agency and the family bought the house on Hillcrest. My mother wrote proudly in her diary that "if ever there was a self-made man in America, it's my husband, Harry" and "in my husband and my children I'm the luckiest woman alive." Two years later my father went bankrupt when Pritchard's business failed and the car dealer couldn't pay his advertising bills.
Harry's ambition was characteristic of my family. A success drive propelled them--a drive that went beyond the desire for achievement into a preoccupation with fame. There was my mother's brief career as a concert pianist, in addition to Eddie's attempt in his early twenties to become a trumpet player-band leader on the order of Tommy Dorsey or Eddie James. When Lillian sold her paintings, my elders called her the next "Grandma Moses," and they weren't simply flattering her. Why else would they buy that grand house on Hillcrest when something large, without its elegance, would have sufficed? That house was more than a financial bargain or a whim of my mother's. It symbolized their dreams of success and announced that they had arrived.
Why was my family so ambitious? In the case of my father, I found the answer in family memories and several autobiographical stories he wrote when a young journalist in Spokane. His parents' unhappy marriage was the main reason. His father, John, a low-level engineer, bounced from job to job, and he invested his savings in stocks that proved worthless. In response, my grandmother Alvina spent her time reading her Bible and complaining about her health. John had extramarital affairs; Alvina doted on my father, their only child. In return, Harry resolved to make up for his father's failings by achieving major success.
What about Eddie and Melba? Did their parents' unhappy marriage shape them, too? Family memories in this case are meager, and I had only newspaper clippings and family photos and momentos in the scrapbooks my grandmother kept from which to reconstruct her family's past. In addition, she told me stories about that past. Most of her stories were about Charlie, and mostly they celebrated him. She described how he went on the 1898 Gold Rush to Alaska, and she told me she eloped with him there in 1905. Above all, she praised him for having returned to Alaska in 1908 as secretary to a federal judge who closed down the gambling halls and houses of prostitution that to her were a terrible moral blot in frontier Alaska.
In these stories she gave me the impression that Charlie's Alaska adventures were major feats. In summing up his life, Lillian always used the same phrase: "He packed supplies over the Chilkoot Pass." As a child I didn't understand that phrase. In my mind I conjured up frozen wastelands and precipitous cliffs. I visualized my grandfather, alone with a pack, striving to reach the faraway gold fields where a fortune lay. He was an adventurer braving fierce nature to reach the Yukon, the land of his dreams. "Packing supplies over the Chilkoot Pass" to me meant triumph and the height of human endurance. The glamour of climbing the pass and of crossing unknown distances remained fixed in my mind. It was a master memory toward achievement.
Yet when I was in high school and beginning to date, Lillian told me a different story about Charlie. In this tale she never loved him, and she married him impulsively. She was eighteen, finished with school, and bored in Spokane. He was passing through on his way to Alaska. She met him in a cafe where she was a waitress and he was her customer. He wooed her with stories of his exploits in Alaska and offered her the excitement of going there with him. She accepted at once. However, a few years after they married, she continued, she fell in love with another man. But she didn't have the nerve to run off with him. Instead, she confessed to Charlie. Asserting marital privilege, he demanded sex, and she gave in. As a result, as she put it, he "made me pregnant with Eddie." Expecting Charlie's child, she stayed with him.
Lillian's story surprised me, but I didn't pay attention to it then. I couldn't imagine my grandmother, with her aging body and stern demeanor, involved in such volatile emotions. I was an adolescent, preoccupied with my own problems. I didn't want to hear about my elders' past.
Were Lillian's stories of Charlie's achievements true? How could I reconcile them with her rejection of him? Did they help to explain the family ambition? I decided to use my skills as an historian to find out what had really happened in Alaska. So I went there, following a trail that eventually led me to a large Justice Department file in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. In that file I found documents that told me the truth. Charlie did pack supplies over the Chilkoot Pass. He and Lillian did elope to Alaska in 1905. He did serve as secretary to a federal judge who went to Alaska in 1908 to close down the gambling halls and houses of prostitution. Those parts of Lillian's stories did happen. But the truth is that much more happened to them there that she didn't tell me. What she concealed from me were a series of failures and, finally, Charlie's involvement in illegal activities that cost him his job and almost landed him in jail.
Charlie's adventures began in 1898 when extravagant newspaper reports of gold strikes in the Klondike lured him, along with tens of thousands of other young men, to Alaska and to the Chilkoot Pass. The pass, one of the few openings through the mountains that fringe Alaska's southern coast, leads to Canada and the Yukon. But the Chilkoot is no easy crossing. It culminates in a fifteen-hundred-foot trail over a nearly perpendicular cliff. The cliff is so steep that in 1898 climbers couldn't use pack animals on it; they had to carry their own supplies. In photographs of their climbing the pass, they look like a chain of ants on a field of white. Charlie Chaplin recreated that chain in the opening frames of his 1925 movie, the Gold Rush. By then the Chilkoot climb had long been a symbol of the 1898 Gold Rush.
Climbers with money hired human packers, and the packers were mostly Eskimos. Anglos scorned these natives. By extension, the few Anglo men who hired out for the work also met with contempt, and they probably packed for others because they were out of money. Charlie later never earned much money, and he wasn't above gambling his salary away. For him, climbing the Chilkoot Pass wasn't a glorious feat. He was a natural athlete who later won bicycle races in Seattle; he probably packed supplies because, lithe and strong, he was up to the task--and he was broke. Nor did he find any gold in the Klondike, since almost no one who went there in 1898 did. Long before then prospectors and trading companies had staked claims to all the mining land. Most of the newcomers went back home. Within a year the Chilkoot Trail was deserted.
Once he returned from the Yukon, Charlie wisely settled down and learned typing and accounting. Many secretaries were then still male, and management was open to them. His training completed, Charlie found employment in Valdez, Alaska, as secretary to the president of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. The railway, a conglomerate owned by the New York Guggenheim Syndicate, was involved not only in transportation but also in mining the region's rich copper deposits. When Charlie met Lillian in Spokane, he was no longer with the railroad, but he had an equally promising job as secretary to the president of the Valdez bank. Charlie and Lillian eloped to Seattle and took the steamer to Valdez.
In 1905 Valdez was the commercial center of southern Alaska, but it was still a frontier town. Lillian must have soon encountered Valdez's large red light district, the largest of any town in Alaska. It must have shocked her, offending her Lutheran morality. So would her discovery of Charlie's employment problems, which were common knowledge in Valdez. He hadn't voluntarily left the railroad; he was fired for "divulging confidential information." She may have guessed what I suspect: he was involved in the doubledealing endemic to the exploitation of Valdez's copper, as everyone from individual miners to the Guggenheim syndicate tried to seize a share of the region's wealth.
Such a scenario explains why not only the railroad president but also subsequent employers fired Charlie for spying and why he always found new positions. An engaging man, he could draw confidences out of others. But he was weak-willed and easily led. If problems arose, he could be fingered as the "fall guy." Even if this wasn't the case, he was stupid and talked too much.
In the summer of 1906 Charlie was fired from his bank position, again for "divulging confidential information." In the midst of this disgrace, Lillian gave birth to my mother, and she projected a fantasy of achievement on her baby. She named my mother Melba after the famed Australian soprano, Nellie Melba, whose meteoric rise from obscurity to stardom in opera was a staple of the day's tabloids. A soloist with her church's choir in Spokane, Lillian must have felt a bond with Nellie Melba, who had fled the Australian bush country, leaving behind a husband and a baby, to carve out a glamorous life in Europe. My grandmother also was living in the provinces with a husband who had disappointed her and a baby she probably hadn't anticipated when she impulsively married a stranger. But unlike Nellie Melba, Lillian didn't have the courage to leave--then or later.
Returning to Spokane, she, Charlie, and the baby moved in with Lena. I doubt Charlie wanted to live with his stern mother-in-law. But Lillian insisted and, given his disgrace, he could hardly refuse. Yet their Alaska saga had only begun.
Charlie was granted a third chance in Alaska. In the fall of 1907 Silas Reid, the new federal judge for Alaska's Third Circuit, covering Valdez and Fairbanks in the far North, hired Charlie as his personal secretary and court stenographer. Reid, from Oklahoma, gained his appointment through political connections. As his court assistants he hired cronies from Oklahoma who knew nothing about Alaska, while Charlie knew a great deal. Contacts in Valdez warned Reid about my grandfather, but he discounted the warnings as motivated by political factionalism. Given what later happened, I think Reid sensed even on first meeting Charlie that he could easily be manipulated.
Lillian was ecstatic over Charlie's new position. In Alaska, still a territory with minimal government, circuit court judges were powerful. The local people called them "czars." And Reid intended to clean up Alaska's Third Circuit by getting rid of the prostitutes and the saloons. Charlie's part in this crusade would surely refurbish his reputation. But Lillian overlooked the graft common in the Alaska courts, for which judges and court officials were frequently indicted.
In January, 1908 Charlie went to Fairbanks with Reid. Lillian didn't go along, which was just as well. Fairbanks, a new town, had so many dance halls that a woman couldn't walk down the streets without being accosted as a prostitute. As Reid's secretary, Charlie joined the elite Tanana Men's Club, and he hobnobbed with lawyers and bankers. I have no doubt he also frequented Fairbank's saloons and dance halls. Gambling, drinking, being with dance hall women--such behavior was too much a part of his nature for him to stay away, as long as Lillian wasn't there.
Alaska statesman James Wickersham lived in Fairbanks at the time. In his diary he commented on the Reid judgeship. Soon after Reid's arrival, Wickersham noted with amazement that Reid issued a bench order dosing the dance halls and summoned a grand jury to issue indictments against the prostitutes and the "tough element." "What a hoot!" he exclaimed. But six months later, Wickersham suspected that Reid's officials were extorting bribes from defendants. He now called them the "Oklahoma gang."
In September Lillian and Melba joined Charlie in Fairbanks. By December the situation blew up. The newspapers charged that Reid had improperly appointed his brother-in-law a court official, violating nepotism rules. A federal investigator was sent, and this official uncovered other irregularities. Reid had had Charlie forge inflated bills for meals for government repayment; Charlie and other court officials had extorted kickbacks from defendants. Desperate, my grandfather confessed to the charges, contending that he had gone along with the Oklahomans because they threatened to kill him. Placing all the blame on Charlie, Reid fired him.
Lillian must have been devastated. Her worst fears had materialized. The Justice Department file, containing documents and depositions collected by the federal investigator, includes affidavits from prominent Valdez citizens denouncing Charlie: "He has a terrible reputation"; "he is a dangerous man." On the outside of the envelope containing the affidavits someone wrote: "Parkes is a crook." In November 1909 a grand jury investigation was held, with my grandfather the main witness, but the jury issued no indictments. The case must have been political dynamite, involving influential men. Charlie was lucky, for he could have wound up in jail. As for Reid and his entourage, they were dismissed.
During the scandal Lillian must have met the man with whom she fell in love. Given the small numbers of women in frontier Alaska and the large numbers of young, unmarried men (including those on Reid's staff), it would have been easy. I don't doubt that Charlie forced himself on her and that he didn't use birth control, hoping that pregnancy would keep her with him. His life was in shambles; he needed her strength. It's possible that Eddie was the son of the man she loved, although I doubt it. Both in looks and personality, Eddie bore a striking resemblance to Charlie.
My grandmother's scrapbooks contain snapshots of friends in Fairbanks, including Reid and his court officials. But she kept no record of the scandal, even though the local newspapers covered it for months. Leaving Alaska, Charlie and Lillian returned to Spokane, back to Lena's home. He found low-level clerical employment, and Lillian took over the family leadership, formulating the official family line that celebrated Charlie and overlooked his misdeeds. Sometimes I speculate that by living in obscurity in his mother-in-law's home, Charlie was hiding from the "Oklahoma gang," feaful that they might seek revenge.
Lillian's Lutheranism, with its harsh creed that suffering was a sign of God's favor, solaced her. But it couldn't erase the emotional upheaval Charlie had caused in her life. Nor was the power she gained over him because of his immorality enough compensation, for he often eluded her. She turned toward ambition: through public renown her children could restore her pride and counter her husband's unwanted fame as a crook.
Thus Lillian nurtured her children's musical talent. Melba played the piano, Eddie the trumpet. Lillian found teachers for them; they soloed at church benefits and with school orchestras. Eventually she moved her family to Los Angeles, a national music center, so that her children might have more opportunity to achieve the fame she sought through them. But she could never stamp out her husband's enthusiasm for masculine pursuits nor prevent him from passing his taste for horseracing and gambling on to their children. He captivated her into marrying him, and he captivated them, too.
Yet she came to love the son her husband had forced on her, for Eddie inherited her husband's good looks and his winning ways, as well as a musical talent equal to his sister's. In her scrapbooks Lillian kept the mash notes girls sent him in high school and the later newspaper reports of his car crashes and his divorces. His troubled life caused her pain, but on some level she admired his independence. He had the nerve to leave failed relationships, but she never had that nerve, and her life had been seriously compromised as a result. She wound up disliking Charlie, suspicious of men, and deeply ambivalent about sex.
To her daughter, my mother, Lillian passed on the notion of family leadership by women, with the chain of powerful women in my family passing from Lena to Lillian to Melba. In the house on Hillcrest Melba reconstituted that grouping, based on mother-daughter bonding, even as she drew strength from the community of women in her church, her school, and her city. In her own way Melba dealt with the family ambition. She persuaded my elders to buy the house on Hillcrest, and then she neither decorated nor used it in the elegant manner for which it had been intended. And as Lillian's daughter, she contemplated her own children's talents and decided what she should do.
|A NOTE ON WORD USAGE||xiii|
|Prologue: Abiquiu, New Mexico (August 1994)||1|
|Part I: My Story (1944-1952)||9|
|1. The House on Hillcrest||11|
|Part II: Fran and Me (1952-1956)||51|
|3. High School||53|
|Part III: Passages (1956-1982)||105|
|6. Alma Mater (1956-1960)||107|
|7. Going East (1960-1966)||127|
|8. Feminism (1966-1982)||147|
|Part IV: Noura (1967--1990)||167|
|9. Lama (1967-1971)||169|
|10. Dar-al-Islam (1971-1990)||189|
|Epilogue: Abiquiu Revisited||211|
|NOTES ON SOURCES||227|