Some of My Lives
My English mother, Rosamond Rawlins, left her native shores to marry my father, Samuel R. Rosenbaum, the eldest son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, at the beginning of World War I. He was brilliant, the president of his class at the University of Pennsylvania, president of his year at law school, editor of the law review, Phi Beta Kappa. And what did he do but marry my mother, an Episcopalian. His family said the Kaddish over him and never met my mother. I hardly ever saw them.
I was born in 1916, two years into World War I, in Philadelphia. My mother was quintessentially English and patriotic. Her brother Hugh had been killed fighting in the trenches. His photograph in uniform, a handsome sensitive face, hung over our staircase.
I was brought up like a little English girl: riding lessons began at age four. I went for my lessons to Foley's Riding Academy, where Miss Eleanor Foley in admirably fitted jodhpurs guided my efforts from a leading rein. I won my first medal at six. A photograph records me on my pony Teddy happily holding my silver cup. It was only second placebut there was a cup to go with it! Two years later there was a blue medal for jumping, first place!
Naturally, I had to have a governess; a French governess would be best. Both parents were excellent linguists. Because my mother missed her family and her country, we went to England several times a year, sailing on one of the ships of the Royal Mail Lines. We stayed at Aunt Queenie's in London. I was very impressed because the toilet in her flat was at the end of a corridor, not part of the bathroom. I had never seen this before. Her daughter was called Aunt Olive. She was always described as the picture of rectitude.
Many years later, in 1949, I opened a copy of Time, and there was an article about Aunt Olive: she had been murdered by someone who came to be called Haigh the Vampiredissolved in a vat of acid. I gained considerable credit with my ten-year-old stepson when I took him to Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London and could point out my family connection to one of the exhibits.
On one of our visits to London, my mother was interviewing candidates for a French governess. I was six at the time and extremely shy. I was called in to meet the favored candidate, and, wordlessly, I stood on my head. This is a skill I had acquired on my own, and I thought it best to show myself to my advantage.
A disgraceful episode dates from two years earlier. At that time English children, boys and girls, were dressed in what were called sailor suits, navy blue of course, and part of the outfit was a metal whistle on a white cord. It was Empire Day, when there was a great procession of various elements of the British army and navy with their bands. I marched along with my mother, following the parade, carried away by the marching music and the sight of a drummer with a big tiger skin bravely making resounding whacks on a huge drum.
The parade ended in a church, where there was a Thanksgiving service for the troops. As I have said, I was a shy child, so it was completely out of character when, intoxicated by the music, I lifted my whistle to my lips and let out a shrill blast. I was hurried out of church in disgrace and never allowed to wear my whistle again.
A few years later, I am ten years old and enrolled, to my dismay, in an English boarding school, Sherborne School for Girls. My mother had died two years before, and this had been her wish. I would come back to Philadelphia for the Christmas and summer holidays. Before these departures, the entire school, at chapel, sang the encouraging words "Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee, for those in peril on the sea." I was the only transatlantic student; foreign students were still a great novelty.
It was time to return for the autumn term. I was booked with my governess, Mademoiselle, to sail on the family's favorite line, the Royal Mail, on the Orduna.
At the last moment Mademoiselle fell gravely ill, no question of traveling. But my father saw no reason to postpone my return to school. He took me to New York for a farewell dinner, at the old Waldorf. I had black-currant ice and was totally miserable. I kept my misery to myself.
My father knew the purser of the Orduna because of my mother's frequent transatlantic trips. I was taken to the boat, introduced to him, and, I felt, abandoned.
I discovered that my cabin had three bunks, which encouraged me. I slept in a different bunk each night. I had my place in the dining room at the purser's table. Each night I would put on my one party dress (silk), my white silk socks, and my patent-leather slippers and go down to the dining room. The others at the table were quite jolly, and soon I was enjoying my favorite dish at the time: cold smoked tongue. Since there was no one to curb me, I had tongue at every meal and felt this indeed was high living. After dinner, I would go up to the smoking room and gamble. The gambling consisted of choosing a wooden horse; a throw of the dice would indicate whether the horse could advance along a stretch of canvas marked with divisions or stay in place. I had spectacular luck. People came to see which horse I had chosen. I won my term's pocket money many times over.
It was something of a letdown when my grandmother met me at Plymouth and hurried me away to Sherborne.
A welcome illness ended my English boarding school days and brought me back to Philadelphia and my bed.
This was before the days of streptomycin and antibiotics. For TB patients it was bed rest and practically force-feeding.
When finally I was fully vertical again, it was Sarah Lawrence for three happy years. I had the great good fortune of having Professor Jacques Barzun for my don. Many years later we were both speakers on a program for Glimmerglass Opera, in Cooperstown, New York. As I said to Jacques (by then, he was Jacques to me): I had never expected to share any platform with him, not even a subway platform.
Even later, I was lecturing at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, on Diaghilev. And who was sitting in the front row but Jacques Barzun? His first wife had died, he had remarried, and his second wife came from that part of the country.
After the lecture he and his wife took me out for some memorable margaritas.
Copyright © 2011 by Rosamond Bernier