House of Happy Endings

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Overview

Howard Garis, creator of the famed Uncle Wiggily series, along with his wife, Lilian, were phenomenally productive writers of popular children's series—including The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift—from the turn of the century to the 1950s. In a large, romantic house in Amherst, Massachusetts, Leslie Garis, her two brothers, and their parents and grandparents aimed to live a life that mirrored the idyllic world the elder Garises created nonstop. But inside The Dell—where Robert Frost often sat in conversation over ...

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House of Happy Endings: A Memoir

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Overview

Howard Garis, creator of the famed Uncle Wiggily series, along with his wife, Lilian, were phenomenally productive writers of popular children's series—including The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift—from the turn of the century to the 1950s. In a large, romantic house in Amherst, Massachusetts, Leslie Garis, her two brothers, and their parents and grandparents aimed to live a life that mirrored the idyllic world the elder Garises created nonstop. But inside The Dell—where Robert Frost often sat in conversation over sherry, and stories appeared to spring from the very air—all was not right.

Roger Garis's inability to match his parents' success in his own work as playwright, novelist, and magazine writer led to his conviction that he was a failure as father, husband, and son, and eventually deepened into mental illness characterized by raging mood swings, drug abuse, and bouts of debilitating and destructive depression. House of Happy Endings is Leslie Garis's mesmerizing, tender, and harrowing account of coming of age in a wildly imaginative, loving, but fatally wounded family.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Growing up in a family that equated happiness with goodness, Leslie Garis was mightily confused by the intergenerational conflict that defined her childhood in idyllic Amherst, Massachusetts. Leslie's father, Roger, was an aspiring dramatist who never achieved the literary success of his own parents, prolific authors who penned hundreds of juvenile classics, including early Bobbsey Twins stories and the popular Uncle Wiggily tales. Overshadowed by his father's talents, unmercifully hectored by his domineering mother, and made to feel a failure in every area of life, Roger soon descended into an abyss of depression, drug addiction, and festering self-doubt. In this bittersweet memoir, Leslie describes how this unhappy family dynamic affected all three generations and cast a pall over the home they shared -- a charming old house known as "The Dell" that never quite delivered on its promise of "happily ever after."
From the Publisher
“[Garis] deftly works through the evidence, constructing moving and memorable portraits of her family members . . . There is no happy ending to this strange tale, which weaves its spell in the telling.” —William Grimes, The New York Times

“Anybody who read Uncle Wiggily and The Bobbsey Twins thinking, ‘Why isn't my family like that?’ will count their ancestral blessings when they pick up this riveting tale, which unmasks the agonized reality behind the idyll. The prose is lucid, unornamented, but full of feeling. To enter this book is to assume the watchful air of a child who feels that it is up to her to hold together a family that is spinning apart with terrific centripetal force.” —Mary Karr, author of The Liars’ Club and Cherry

“House of Happy Endings conveys an exquisite restraint, a measured thoughtfulness that is simply eloquent. At the same time it renders the terrible pain of its people in the most urgent way. A sense of the helplessness of love in the face of an ongoing personal disintegration, the panic of articulate educated people enduring a progressive disaster, give the story a fearsome suspense that is absolutely riveting. Its balance of judicious, insightful reflection and the evocation of heartbreak is truly rare; it’s what distinguishes the best memoirs from the rest. Some exist beyond their subject as works of literature and I truly believe that this is one.” —Robert Stone

“Leslie Garis’ grandfather wrote Uncle Wiggily, her grandmother The Bobbsey Twins—between them Tom Swift and hundreds of other children’s stories. These benign characters of America’s childhood float over the Garis family like a Macy’s Thanksgiving day Parade in hell, exacting a fearful penalty on three generations. Leslie Garis has written a searing and chillingly objective memoir, House of Happy Endings, that so transcends the ‘problem family’ genre it becomes a dissection of the American family itself, its values, its mores, its dreams.” —John Guare, author of The House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation

Joyce Johnson
Dramatically dysfunctional families have become a staple subject for memoirists. Fortunately Garis, an accomplished magazine writer in her own right, has not written a book that attempts to settle old scores. It has taken her decades to bravely piece together a coherent narrative that makes sense to her and accounts for a great deal of suffering. At times she gives in to melodramatic writing, but the story she tells of her family's disintegration and the genetic inheritance of mental illness, which she herself has grappled with, is one of those dark melodramas provided by real life. Her own role in the story, as her father's willing child confidante and to some extent his knowing but silent victim, adds a fascinating layer of psychological complexity to this unusual memoir.
—The New York Times Book Review
William Grimes
Ms. Garis, a journalist best known for her profiles of literary subjects, deftly works through the evidence, constructing moving and memorable portraits of her family members, especially her doomed father, a sadly attractive figure, and her bewildered but courageous mother…There is no happy ending to this strange tale, which weaves its spell in the telling. Its claims to attention are entirely internal. Once inside the Dell and among the characters Ms. Garis summons from the past, the reader comes to share her belief that "all I needed to learn about the universe was contained in my own home."
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Artfully stitched like a well-made quilt, the patches of Garis's memoir encompass three generations. When she was eight years old, her grandmother Lilian, who wrote the early Bobbsey Twins, and grandfather Howard Garis, who created and virtually became Uncle Wiggily, moved into her family's home in Amherst, Mass. In this spellbinding memoir of green moments and gray ones, Garis chronicles how, in this book-reading, music-playing and, most importantly, loving family of writers, her grandmother "went from being a vibrant woman to a recumbent recluse" and how the years damaged her father, who "seemed perfect"; her "beautiful" mother; and her "adorable" brothers. "You can't turn away from the truth because it's lurid and jarring," her playwright father advises. In lesser hands, the quarrels, litigation and violence that surface might control the narrative, but even as the family copes with disappointment, financial stress, nervous breakdowns, physical illness and death, Garis's capacity for conveying the family's vibrancy and vigor trumps. Garis's remarkable accomplishment in this memoir is to convey the normal, the enviable and the gothic with unsentimentalized affection, grace and painful honesty. (July)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

The granddaughter of the creators of the "Uncle Wiggily" series, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, and other formulaic children's books of the early 20th century writes a memoir focusing on her father. Roger Garis was also a writer, though not nearly as successful as his parents. To help alleviate his financial difficulties, Howard and Lilian Garis set up house with their son, his wife, and their three children in a large, seemingly magical home in Amherst, MA. While young Leslie Garis initially thought that this would be as wonderful an existence as those portrayed in the children's stories, the reality was quite another matter. Continuing financial difficulties, the onset of mental illness, the value placed on success and admirers over family, and the need to put on a good front for outsiders all took their toll on the household members, especially Leslie's father. Leslie recounts these events as a young girl, as an adult, and then once more filtered through newly discovered notes and letters from the past. We feel her torment and appreciate the difficulties of living, much less thriving, under such circumstances, but after awhile, her recounting of each relapse grows tiring. An optional purchase.
—Gina Kaiser

Kirkus Reviews
Memoirs of a muted girlhood. To those born into a family of artists, the hand of fate can sometimes be as cruel as it is kind, at once bestowing gifts of brilliance, access and community alongside the substantial psychological and aesthetic burdens that often accompany creative genius. Few know this better than Garis. The eldest of three children of playwright, magazine editor and aspiring novelist Roger Garis, she is also the granddaughter of Lilian and Howard Garis, authors of the wildly successful early 20th-century children's series The Bobbsey Twins and Tom Swift. As such-and particularly after her grandparents moved into her family's lavish Amherst home when the author was eight-she witnessed firsthand a jarring juxtaposition between reality and the "happily ever after" domestic bliss enshrined in her grandparents' tales. At first, Garis writes, "I was inside the boundless optimism . . . when I looked around my own life, I saw something so similar in its physical outlines to that mythic ideal that fictional boundaries tended to fade away in my unformed, overactive mind." But she soon found that while her grandfather, "the robust fabulist who spread delight among us," proved to be as benevolent as his most famous character, Uncle Wiggily, her grandmother was a demanding, asocial shrew with a damaging tendency to belittle her son. Coupled with his father's immense creative productivity, Roger's lifelong feelings of inadequacy eventually devolved into a relationship-shattering combination of paranoia and an addiction to Sodium Amytal, which Garis devotes much of this memoir to analyzing. An artful, sad account of growing up in a family of troubled writers. Agent: Kathy Robbins/TheRobbins Office
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374531584
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/2/2008
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 968,449
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Leslie Garis has written on literary subjects for many national magazines and newspapers. She is best known for New York Times Magazine profiles of such writers as Georges Simenon, Rebecca West, John Fowles, Harold Pinter, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

1953: Amherst, Massachusetts

In those years I spent a lot of time in the dumbwaiter, moving up and down behind the walls, listening to voices. I sat with my knees up: sometimes I clasped my arms around my legs, sometimes I kept my hands on the rope that extended in a loop from the top of the house to the bottom. Two lengths, thick and prickly, were suspended side by side. One for up, one for down. It was dark inside the box, but never entirely black. Faint light seeped in from the square doors that opened on each floor.

No one knew I was there. I was invisible. I could eavesdrop to my heart’s content. I was like blood flowing through a vein, silent and purposeful. There were certain confusing incidents I was trying to interpret, and I hoped I was on the trail of truth. The problem was, I had too much information.

A good person is happy; a happy person is good. I knew this without a doubt because we were wrapped in a dream of perfection, a dream created and refined in vivid detail by the collective imagination of my family.

How warm and cozy it was in Snow Lodge! How bright were the lights, and how the big fire blazed and crackled and roared up the chimney! And what a delightful smell came from the kitchen!

I could jump right into that world. The Bobbsey Twins at Snow Lodge. Granny or Grampy—I wasn’t sure which—wrote it. I was inside the boundless optimism and could hardly wait for time to unfold its treasures. The fact was that when I looked around my own life, I saw something so similar in its physical outlines to that mythic ideal that fictional boundaries tended to fade in my unformed, overactive mind.

Our family was suffused with stories. Dad’s often-told tales of traveling through the desert with an Egyptian prince, Mom’s romantic memory of falling in love with the most debonair, handsome, sophisticated man she had ever met: my father. The stirring story of my grandmother’s life: suffragette, pioneer newspaper woman, author of books . . . But the stories that held us most in thrall were fashioned by my grandfather, and their most distilled form was also the most improbable. After writing hundreds of books in numerous popular children’s series, he became rich and famous by creating a rabbit who wore a top hat and tails and lived in the most idyllic small town America ever produced. His name was Uncle Wiggily, and he inhabited Woodland with Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy and their animal friends. A rabbit! Yes. The Uncle Wiggily Stories were the bestselling children’s books in America for decades before I was born and my grandfather was still a celebrity on their account. I was known at school as the granddaughter of Uncle Wiggily.

My mother expected my brothers and me to be as kind and well-mannered as Uncle Wiggily, and also as energetic, successful, and well-groomed. I was being brought up on the morality of a make-believe rabbit.

Was she right? Perhaps Woodland was the best place to look for an ethical model. But if that were so, where would I find reality? If, as I was beginning to believe, life wasn’t like my grandparents’ books, was happiness merely a fantasy? I didn’t accept that, but my self-appointed mission was to discover the unvarnished truth. My survival, I sensed, depended on it. I was sure the answers were here in this house, this enormous, magical house—the first great love of my life.

In 1948 Dad left his job at The New York Times Magazine to be a full-time writer, and in celebration of his release from formal employment he bought a “nicer” house in a sleepy New England college town: Amherst, Massachusetts. The house had its own name. It was called The Dell.

That was all I knew—except that I gathered my mother was unsure The Dell was right for us. At age five, I had no idea why. When we drove into Amherst, I was spellbound by the town’s aura of settled calm. Its generous village green was bordered on one side by the princely buildings of Amherst College and on the other by a craggy town hall, a brooding, ivy-covered church, and a group of small stores. The leaves of the old maples on the Common were beginning to turn gold.

At the bottom of the Common, where the white brick Lord Jeffery Inn sprawled in calm splendor, we turned down a narrow road called Spring Street. My three-year-old brother Brooks and I were looking out of the car with the windows cranked down. We came to a shaded crossroads, the air moist and fragrant. Down on the right was a long building with a white porch, which formed a T with the end of the street. It defined the view like a stage set, its windows sparkling in the afternoon sun. Dad said it was called Valentine Hall—such a romantic name!—and it was where the Amherst College students took their meals. Looking to the left from the crossroads, we could see a large stone church with a hefty spire. I can’t recall any people at all on the sidewalks that afternoon; in fact there was an eerie sense of isolation from the real world, almost of a lost village under an enchantment.

Mom held five-month-old Buddy in her arms. Was she apprehensive? I cannot recall. As we entered the driveway of 97 Spring Street, our car tires crunching on gravel, I found myself repeating silently, “The Dell, The Dell,” as if the name could explain the kingdom that opened before us. Dad stepped out of our Packard and looked at a house wrapped in shingles, its rooflines and corners as softly contoured as the land. He smiled like a man who has taken possession of his magic castle, within which his life will be blessed.

It looked to me like a giant playhouse. I couldn’t see the whole shape of the place at first. The sheer size of it prevented me from taking it all in from my low perspective.

Knowing my father’s innate modesty, his shy, deferential, soft-spoken manner, I was surprised that he had bought this imposing place. It’s true that in private he was unusually elegant. He carried a vermeil-engraved cigarette case and kept his many pairs of gold cuff links in a silver box that said asprey on it. He wore silk bathrobes (from Sulka, I would later learn), ascots in cool weather, and finely cut clothes even for gardening. Now his public image would match his private preferences.

I ran around the side to a wide terrace of rose-colored stone overhung by a white arbor encircled by thick arms of wisteria.

Tall doors, their leaded glass panes divided into beautifully balanced curves and angles, completely shaded from the bright afternoon light, looked black under the arbor. I peered through them at a diorama of dark wood.

I ran around another corner of the house past a giant beech tree. The terrace opened up to an even larger expanse bordered by a low stone wall. Looming at one end, and looking alive with power, was a massive stone table in the shape of a mill wheel set on a pedestal. Dotted along the lawns, with tranquil distances between them, were many kinds of trees, one laden with apples. I was tempted to run down there and pick one, but I could hear my mother calling me.

She and my father simultaneously came out of the house from two different doors that opened onto the terrace. They were laughing. Brooks stepped carefully, his blue eyes wide with discovery. My father lifted me up into his arms.

“What do you think of your new house, Les?” he asked.

“I love it, I love it, I love it . . .”

“We’re going to be happy here,” he said.

“Oh, yes!” I answered, hugging him hard, my arms entwined around his neck.

Inside, standing in the hall, I felt dwarfed by the scale of the rooms. The house was designed so that windows were always in view. No matter where you were, light shone in—prismatic and softened by the extraordinary windowpanes. The outdoors was so present that even though the walls were dark, I had the impression that the slightest change of sky, like a cloud passing by, would be reflected inside.

I could see that Dad was in another world. It seemed, even to my five-year-old eyes, that there was something about the feeling he had inside the house—perhaps the dimensions of the rooms, or something as simple as the color of the woodwork, or a particular smell, or maybe a sliver of light on a floorboard—something that made his heart beat faster, a flutter of joy that invaded his chest, a sudden tearing of his eyes. My mother watched him with love.

Everything about The Dell amazed me. The carved crystal doorknobs felt smooth and sharp in my hand, on the walls were lights that looked like old-fashioned oil lamps, doors slipped into wall pockets, and the walls were as thick as my forearms were long. Each door had a large brass plate with a medieval-sized keyhole.

A peach marble fireplace adorned the dining room, and I recognized the Dutch door from which my mother had emerged when I was standing on the terrace. To the left of the fireplace was a swinging door that led to the butler’s pantry and a peculiar kitchen. Stretching along one whole wall, beneath mullioned windows, were a black sink and counter. I’d never seen a black sink before. Red birds congregated in the arborvitae hedge that walled one side of the back driveway.

I ran from the kitchen into a narrow corridor from which you could walk up a back stairway or down gray steps into the cellar. Several feet up from the floor, at the level of my shoulders, was a small, square door with a round brass pull. Why would a door be up there? I called Mom: “What’s this?”

“Look and see,” she said, opening the door and lifting me up. “It’s a dumbwaiter, and it goes all the way up to the top of the house and all the way down to the cellar.”

A dumbwaiter! Plans began forming. Ahhhhh . . . What possibilities.

“Here’s something else, Les. Wait till you see this!” Mom opened the door at the end of the corridor. It led to the front hallway, past paneled woodwork under the main staircase. It was made of what Mom called buttonwood—a buttery light brown. Her fingers searched and found a tiny wooden knob. The panel came away to reveal a dark space with a long coiled hose.

“Mrs. Churchill, who built this house, was afraid of fires. That’s why the walls are so thick, and that’s why this hose is here. It reaches to every single corner of the house. Isn’t it wonderful?”

It surely was. A dumbwaiter, a secret panel . . . I was awestruck.

Back in the hall and through another door, I found the best room of all—a big library with yet another marble fireplace, bowed windows, a very large desk, and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Boxes of books were strewn on the floor. I figured we could put them all away and still have space for more. We would fill up the whole room with books. What bounty.

Later, in a state of restless ecstasy, I was taking a bath in a tub that was so long, my mother had to hold me so I didn’t slip under the warm, soapy water. When she helped me out over the side and wrapped me in a towel, our voices echoed. The floor was covered with thousands of tiny diamond-shaped white tiles in gray grouting. I couldn’t get over all those minuscule tiles; there was something so precise and exorbitant about them. They gave me a strange joy.

A white radiator sat fat and placid under a big window through which the day moved into its last pale moments. The porcelain sink was almost above my head. But that was because I was so small. I stood on a chair and looked into an old, dark-streaked mirror. My eyes looked back at me. Behind me was my strikingly vivid mother, darkly beautiful. She leaned down to pick up Brooks and was gone from the mirror. I studied my face for signs of something. I appeared more knowing than I had yesterday in our utterly familiar Rye home. Today was the beginning of the adventure that would be my life.

Filled with the manic energy of a freshly scrubbed child, I ran downstairs to find my father, who, I believed, was the one person in the world who truly understood my feelings. He stood in the kitchen, playing with an odd-looking contraption attached to the wall.

“Look at this, Les!” He was excited. “This microphone connects to tubes in the walls that go to all the rooms. We can call someone upstairs from here.”

Indeed, a small metal megaphone protruded from the wall. Next to it hung a black disk with tiny holes in it. My father put it to his ear.

“Let’s call Mom and Brooks!” I said.

“Mabs! Mabs!” he yelled into the opening. Everyone called my mother Mabs. Her name was Mabel. “Mabs!”

After waiting some minutes and yelling some more, his face lit up.

“She’s there, Les! Listen.”

I put the receiver to my ear and heard a muffled noise. It was my mother’s voice sounding as far away as a star. I yelled hello to her.

“I think mice have gotten in there,” my father said, not at all concerned. “Anyway, isn’t it marvelous?”

Oh, it was marvelous. Everything was marvelous.

My mother showed me the bedroom she had chosen for me off a spacious rectangular hallway. I loved its central position, so close to the grand staircase and not far from another set of wide stairs that climbed to the third floor. I had my own fireplace, with a deep mantel, and cabinets behind the woodwork, which I imagined I would fill with secret papers.

The walls were a muddy color, which didn’t bother me in these heady circumstances, but Mom promised that soon I could pick out my own wallpaper. There was a door between my room and Brooks’s, which I intended to lock.

Excerpted from House of Happy Endings by Leslie Garis. Copyright © 2007 by Leslie Garis. Published in July 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2007

    A reviewer

    The subject matter of this memoir--depression, failure, hope and perseverence--is not for ametures. This could have been a gothic and gooey mess in less talented hands. But in Ms Garis' hands a concise and compelling story emerges, one impossible from which to remain detached, one that compels the reader to continue to the last page. Relating the story of three generations of the writing Garis' of Uncle Wiggily, Tom Swift, the Bobbesy Twins fame, and of plays by Roger Garis, their son, during the 1950's and 1960's, the reader explors the inner archetecture of artists with their egos, their weaknesses, their prayers and hopes, and most of all their limitless and often patethic perseverence. One is reminded how difficult it is to succeed as an artist in market-driven America, and little has changed since the characters in this book struggled through life. An essential read, with life-long memories within.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 25, 2013

    Well written true story

    I found the story to be an interesting story intersecting family dynamics, mental illness, success and substance abuse without making the reader cringe. The writer does a great job of showing what it was like to live with a mentally ill person prior to the time effective drugs were available and during a time denial was the norm.

    Of course, the story can be read simply as the story of a famous author and his family. Either way, you will find this book to be a good read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2007

    Profoundly moving

    I picked up this book because I thought it would be interesting to know more about the people behind some of my favorite childhood stories. This book was so much more than that. The author is to be commended for her courageous, honest and intelligent telling of what it was like to live in a family affected by mental illness without the possibility of real medical help.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2008

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    Posted January 30, 2010

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