Read an Excerpt
Sometimes we go on a search for something and do not know what we are looking for until we come again to our beginning.
Iwas rummaging around for a pen in my mother's apartment when I found a grainy black-and-white photo stuck to the back of a drawer in her desk. It was taken of me as a toddler at the beach near our home in Greenwich, Connecticut. Stamped on the white, decoratively scalloped border is the year, 1962. That year, riots broke out when African-American student Phillip Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, two members of the high-wire circus act the Flying Wallendas were killed when their seven-person pyramid collapsed during a performance in Detroit, and the United States and the Soviet Union came within a cat's whisker of incinerating each other when our military discovered that the Soviets had placed nuclear missiles ninety miles off the coast of Florida in Cuba. It was also the year in which an unsuspecting black bear named Yogi was volunteered by the air force to participate in an escape capsule test. He was ejected from a supersonic aircraft flying at 870 mph at an altitude of thirty-five thousand feet, landing safely on the earth seven minutes and forty-nine seconds later.
It was a stressful year for everybody.
The photo of me at the beach suggests that young children are more conscious of what's happening in their environment than developmental psychologists once believed. I knew that civilization was teetering on the precipice of annihilation, and I was ready.
I am sitting in a lifeboat.
The picture was taken with my mother's camera, a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye, a perfect cube of black plastic with a gray knob on the side that you wound to advance the film. To take a picture, you had to hunch over the camera, looking at your subject through a small square viewfinder. The owner's manual claimed the lens could take sharp pictures from "5 feet to infinity." That's a whole lot of camera for five dollars and fifty cents. Later, when my mother bought a new camera, the Brownie ended up in my toy chest. The knob made an awful grinding noise when I turned it because of the grit and sand lodged in the gears of the film spool. For a year it went with me everywhere.
My mother told me that if I removed the back of the camera and shook it hard enough, the countless memories hiding inside might tumble out. I gave it all I had, but not even one fell out. I would pay much more than five dollars and fifty cents to hold that Brownie in my hands again today.
So here I am in the photo, a towheaded two-year-old sitting in what I remember was a salmon-orange-stained lifeboat, waving and laughing at the photographer, whose identity is a mystery to me even now. Behind me, classic wood motorboats with elegant lines bob in the waves. I imagine men sauntering by offcamera in Ray-Bans and wearing short, skintight bathing suits only a Canadian could love.
When I first discovered the picture in my mother's desk, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that the boy in the boat was not waving and laughing at the person snapping the photo as much as he was frantically trying to get the attention of the man I am today. He was beckoning me to get into the boat.
"Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to." That's what John Edward Pearce said. But what if your childhood was a train wreck? What if your memories of home are more akin to The Shining than The Waltons? It doesn't matter. Home is not just a place; it's a knowing
in the soul, a vague premonition of a far-off country that we know exists but haven't seen yet. Home is where we start, and whether we like it or not, our life is a race against time to come to terms with what it was or wasn't. The boy was calling me to join him on a voyage through the harrowing straits of memory.
He was gambling that if we survived the passage, we might discover
an ocean where the past would become the wind at our
back rather than a driving gale to the nose of our boat. This
book is the record of that expedition.
By now, the attentive reader is wondering what I mean
when I say this book is "a memoir of sorts." I set out to write a
conventional memoir, but after weeks of writing I discovered a
vexing paradox: no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't tell the
whole truth about my childhood by rigidly sticking to the facts.
John Irving describes the problem in his memoir, Trying to
Save Piggy Sneed. "This is a memoir," he writes, "but please
understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all
memoirs are false . . . we can always imagine a better detail than
the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly,
what happened, or what should have."
This work dances on the hyphen between memoir and
autobiographical fiction. Many of the stories in this book are
more than forty years old. They are told as "through a glass,
darkly." They include approximations of conversations that
actually occurred or ones I believe could have reasonably taken
place, given my knowledge of the people and the events at the
In places I have conflated stories. I have compressed timelines.
I borrowed from the memories and experiences of my siblings.
I changed the names of people who did not sign up to be
in my book. (For example, my childhood dog's real name was
Tigger, but I changed it to Waldo. He was very private.)
Some accounts are based on stories I've heard family members tell, even though none of us can agree on the details. These
differences in opinion about what happened to whom nearly
lead to bloodshed when family stories are recounted at holiday
Memoirists work with bones. Like paleontologists, we dig
up enough of them to make intelligent guesses about what a
creature looked like a million years ago. But here and there a
femur or rib is missing, so by faith, with imagination, we fill in
those gaps with details we believe are consistent with the
nature and character of our upbringing.
So what's really true in this account of my life, you ask? If
while reading you become uncertain about where the line
between fact and fiction lies in my history, then welcome to my
childhood. I felt that same uncertainty as a kid growing up, and
even now as I try to relay it to you.
If you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, and these earnest
attempts at transparency make you wonder if I'm to be trusted,
then know that this book is true, either in fact or in essence, and
most of the time—both.
This is a record of my life as I remember it—but more
importantly, as I felt it.
It doesn't matter who my father was; it matters who I
remember he was.
Afriend of Wild Bill Donovan's recruited me to work for the
Company after the war," my father whispered.
I pulled my chair closer to the side of the grand four-poster
bed where my father lay. As a boy, I'd hidden a hundred times
under that imposing mahogany antique during games of hideand-
seek. Six weeks of intense radiation therapy on my father's
face and throat had seared his vocal cords. The voice that during
my childhood could make me cringe in fear was now thin and
reedy. Tabs of white, pasty spittle gathered at the corners of his
mouth, and he winced when he swallowed. A cup of ice chips
sat on his bedside table, surrounded by a forest of amber-colored
prescription bottles in a variety of sizes.
My fiancée, Anne, sat frozen in a Queen Anne armchair at
the end of the bed, listening, her eyes darting back and forth
between my father and me. She knew he never spoke with his
children—or even with his wife, for that matter—about his
work with the CIA. I had known since I was a teenager that he'd
worked on and off in the clandestine intelligence services, but
we were forbidden to talk about it. The Cron clan lived by the
don't ask, don't tell rule long before the government employed
the phrase to describe its policy toward gays and lesbians in the
military. Our version was simple: don't ask dad about his work,
past or present, and whatever you do, don't tell anyone about
"My work at a motion-picture company gave your mother
and me access to all the big society events in London," my father
continued. "We were invited to parties at embassies where we
rubbed elbows with foreign leaders, military brass, and ambassadors.
We became good friends with people close to the royal
family as well. I would listen to conversations and report back
to the London station."
"Did Mom know?" I asked.
"Not until much later."
"How is that possible?"
"Wives in the fifties didn't ask questions," he said, smiling
I imagined my mother sitting in the living room of our home
in London, addressing invitations to a garden party while my
father plotted coups in the study. Not exactly Ozzie and Harriet.
"So all you did was listen in on important people's conversations
and report back?" I asked.
My father arched one eyebrow and studied me as though
he were performing an X-ray on my motive for asking the question.
This was his trademark facial expression. When it was soft
and accompanied by an impish grin, it was his way of expressing
incredulity. If it was dark and seemed to be drilling a hole in
your forehead, it meant he was trying to decide if you were toying
with him. I think in this case, he wanted to know if my question
was sardonic or just naive. It was definitely the latter.
"It was the Cold War. We were fighting to keep our country
safe," he said.
"What does that mean exactly?"
He shrugged. "In the fifties and sixties, the Agency wasn't
the monolithic bureaucracy it is today. We didn't have the kinds
of constraints people in the field have now. In the early days we
were more . . ." He paused and smiled. "More independent."
As crazy as the story sounded, I knew my father was telling
the truth, or at least his version of it. My father was describing
our family's Camelot years. My two older brothers and older sister
remembered those halcyon days much better than I did. They
spoke with wistful reverence of the days when my father was
managing director of Screen Gems, the television subsidiary of
Columbia Pictures in the 1950s, in the United Kingdom and
Europe, when they attended the finest private schools in London,
when our home was filled with cooks, maids, and nannies, when
the sky was blue and cloudless as far as the eye could see.
My boyhood was filled with the retelling of legendary stories
from that era—like the night Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner
spontaneously performed their famous sketch "The Two-
Thousand-Year-Old Man" at a party in the living room of our
home on Eaton Place, or the time Art Buchwald entertained a
Thanksgiving party by standing on a chair and taking off his
clothes to the song "The Stripper." There were tales of our nextdoor
neighbor, the author James Jones, meandering over to our
house in his dressing gown to sit in our kitchen and have coffee
with my mother after he had finished writing for the day. On
the title page of his masterpiece From Here to Eternity, he
scrawled a personal note to my father beginning with the
words, "To Jack, last of the great big spenders."
If you delved headfirst into the fifty-five-gallon cardboard
moving barrel that stood next to the half-round eyebrow window
vent in our attic, or if you were strong enough to heave open
the big hidden drawer in the bottom of the lift-top blanket chest
in the downstairs hall, you would find a treasure trove of pictures
of my parents posing with celebrities—as well as glossy blackand-
whites of my father with men my mother swears she never
met. But it was the big green steamer trunk with brass rivets
along its seams that contained the really cool stuff. It bore a
Cunard Lines first-class sticker on its side, a reminder of a journey
made between New York and London on the Queen Mary. Many
of the photos were yellow, their corners crimped, leaving craggy,
white fault lines that couldn't be repaired. The photos were filled
with dashing men in black tie and women in shimmering satin
evening gowns, sitting at round tables at Sardi's or 21 in New
York or Maxim's in Paris. The tables were covered with white
tablecloths with sharp pleats, strewn with champagne flutes and
Scotch tumblers, packs of Chesterfields, and small, beaded cocktail
purses with gold chains.
There were shots of my parents mugging gaily for the camera
with stars like William Holden, Judy Garland, Donna Reed,
Roger Moore, and Terry-Thomas. They all looked so sophisticated
and elegant, but they were still willing to scrunch up like
giddy kids on prom night so no one would be left out of the picture.
There were photos of our home on Cadogan Square in Knightsbridge, snapshots taken of my parents on business
trips to out-of-the-way European cities—business trips that my
mother said she knew at the time had nothing to do with my
father's job at Screen Gems—or of my sister being pushed by a
uniformed nanny in a fancy pram with a blue canvas sun
canopy and oversized white rubber wheels with wire spokes.
None of these photographs ever made it into well-organized
photo albums, the tobacco-colored leather ones with the year the
pictures were taken embossed on the bindings. Nor were they
placed into sterling-silver frames and displayed on coffee tables
or mantels, as happy reminiscences to be shared with guests.
Shortly after I was born, our boom years went bust. My father's
descent into the madness of alcoholism made riding a yo-yo look
easy. One minute we were wealthy, the next we were broke, and
years later we were reasonably comfortable again. When people
ask about my childhood, I say it's shaped like a J. There were the
really high years, the really low years, and finally, in the words
of the prophet Joel, the years when God restored to us what the
locusts had eaten—or at least some of what they'd eaten.
But for all of my years growing up, I was haunted by this
vague feeling that we must have committed some terrible
offense against the gods to have such a charmed life taken away
from us. The pictures from those glamour years were orphaned
souvenirs from a previous life, proof that once upon a time the
Fates really did smile on us.
My father was handsome and always impeccably dressed. I still
have a picture of him taken by the famous Bruno of Hollywood,
the photo grapher who took the headshots of A-list actors in those
days. My father looked like a movie star himself. He was a
man's man, hard as Errol Flynn and charming as Cary Grant.
Today, we'd say he was a cross between Daniel Craig and George Clooney. He wasn't tall, maybe 5'7", but he was barrel-chested, with jet-black hair, curly at the edges, and swarthy skin. My father was a force of nature. When he made an entrance into a crowded room, the balance of power shifted. Men would feel it first and look fleetingly in his direction, then feign disinterest before returning to conversation with women who couldn't take their eyes off him. My father couldn't walk through a door without colonizing the space.
The sad thing about the Bruno of Hollywood picture is that my father looks so happy, so hopeful, unaware that he was speeding into an ice storm with no chains on his tires. Every time I see that photo I'm reminded that we're all one decision away from disaster.
"I was trained to drink milk and then swish whiskey around my mouth before we went out for the night," my father continued.
"They said the milk would make the smell of the Scotch stick to my breath."
"What was the point?" I asked.
"The Agency wanted people to think of me as the harmless, shallow American who drank too much. That way people wouldn't be as careful about what they said around me." He looked away. "One day I became the person I was pretending to be." My heart was pounding. There was something I'd waited my entire life to hear him say, words that I was convinced could change everything, past, present, and future.
I could tell he knew what I was hoping for when his faced darkened. He fixed me with a gelid gaze. "That's what happened," he said, folding his arms across his chest.
I took a deep breath and forced a steady stream of air through pursed lips. It made the sensation of drowning go away. "Okay," I said.
My father picked up the copy of the National Review that had been lying facedown on his chest and resumed reading. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but of the more intellectual school of thought. He would have considered Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity shrill and uncultured, nothing more than bad theater. He was a Richard John Neuhaus or Bill Buckley man. Even in the years when his alcoholism and depression were at their worst, stacks of history books, biographies, newspapers, and magazines would surround his chair. We could always tell when he was reading the New York Times. We'd hear him throw the paper to the floor and yell, "Communist sympathizers!"
I once asked him why he insisted on reading something that made him so angry. He winked and said, "Always know what your enemy is doing."
When he picked up his magazine and resumed reading, I knew that my audience with the grand patriarch was over. He had made his deathbed mea culpa. Even frail and dying, he was imperious.
Anne and I left the room and paused on the other side of the door.
"Wow," she mouthed.
I shook my head. "That was an explanation. I was hoping for an apology."
Anne took my hand. "It was as close to an apology as he could get," she replied.
We walked into the living room. Nat King Cole's perfect voice warbled on the stereo. He was singing his classic song "Unforgettable," only the stereo made it sound like he had recorded it underwater. My parents had bought their eighttrack stereo system in 1975, and despite my pleas, they refused to upgrade to a CD player. People from Greenwich, Connecticut, are frugal in an odd sort of way. My mother wouldn't dream of throwing away old string, used Christmas wrapping paper, or rubber bands, but when I was in high school, she and my father would spend a small fortune staying at the Breakers in Palm Beach or shooting sporting clays at Casa del Campo in the Dominican Republic for a few weeks every January. They were members of a tribe who thought the word winter was a verb.
"Ian," my father called, beckoning me back to his room.
I turned to Anne. "Go be with Mom. I'll be right there," I said.
I opened the door and stuck my head into the room. My father was still sitting up, leaning back against a mound of down pillows.
"Yes?" I asked.
"Nothing's perfect, son," he said, fanning the pages of his magazine, pretending to look for an article he had started but never finished.
I squinted at him. Maybe I thought narrowing my visual field might provide the clarity I needed to decode this cryptic aside. It didn't. That's all you have to say? Couldn't you admit you were a drunk who wrecked my childhood? Couldn't you ask my forgiveness?
I closed the door and leaned against it. This was a man who made fortunes and squandered them, a man who possessed the insouciant charm of Peter O'Toole and the menacing aura of Humphrey Bogart. He could slice you into ribbons with a lacerating vocabulary or make you laugh so hard you had to leave the room so you wouldn't pass out from oxygen deprivation. He kept his life compartmentalized and in the shadows, no one knowing who he really was or what he actually did. There were so many lies, half-truths, and missing pieces of information about him that didn't add up. But just when you thought everything he ever said about himself might be symptomatic of psychosis,
some amazing claim he'd made would be verified by a reputable source, making you wonder if it was you who was
completely crazy. Trying to crack the code of my father's history was enough to give you vertigo.
Then there were the other memories. A nine-year-old waiting in a car to leave for a fishing trip until he was told that it was called off because of his father's coming down with "the flu," a condition suspiciously similar to a paralyzing hangover. The nights restaurant owners would call and ask me to collect him because he was too drunk to drive. The serrating silences that cried out to be filled with words only fathers can give their boys.
"‘Nothing's perfect'? What on earth is that supposed to
mean?" I muttered to no one in particular.
Six weeks later my father was dead.