The Force of Things: A Marriage in War and Peaceby Alexander Stille
A MASTERPIECE OF LITERARY MEMORYA POWERFUL EXPLORATION OF THE INTERSECTIONS OF FAMILY, HISTORY, AND MEMORY.
"One evening in May 1948, my mother went to a party in New York with her first husband and left it with her second, my father." So begins the passionate and stormy union of Mikhail Kamenetzki, aka Ugo Stille, one of Italy's most celebrated journalists
A MASTERPIECE OF LITERARY MEMORYA POWERFUL EXPLORATION OF THE INTERSECTIONS OF FAMILY, HISTORY, AND MEMORY.
"One evening in May 1948, my mother went to a party in New York with her first husband and left it with her second, my father." So begins the passionate and stormy union of Mikhail Kamenetzki, aka Ugo Stille, one of Italy's most celebrated journalists, and Elizabeth Bogert, a beautiful and charming young woman from the Midwest.
Their immediate attraction and tumultuous marriage is part of a much larger story: the mass migration of Jews from fascist-dominated Europe in the 1930s and in the shadow of World War II. It is the story of a crucial, painful moment in history that reshaped much of American culture and societybut also that of two seemingly incongruous people who managed to find love. Theirs was an uneasy marriage between Europe and America, between Jew and Wasp; their differences were a key to their bond yet a source of constant strife.
Acclaimed author and frequent New Yorker contributor Alexander Stille's The Force of Things is a powerful, beautifully written work with the intimacy of a memoir, the pace and readability of a novel, and the historical sweep and documentary precision of nonfiction writing at its best. It is a portrait of people who are buffeted about by large historical events, who try to escape their origins but find themselves in the grip of the force of things.
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“[Stille] leaves us not just with extraordinarily powerful portraits of these terribly mismatched individuals but also with a deeply felt understanding of how they were shaped.” Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“Stille uses the domestic drama as a starting point for a sweeping narrative that blends memoir, history, and psychology, and spans generations and continents....Moving effortlessly between the intimate and the grand, Stille shows how our lives acquire meaning.” The New Yorker
“[A] richly detailed narrative...The Force of Things maps a complex family tree, tracing a lavish cultural history through each branch and twig.” Oprah.com
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Read an Excerpt
The Father and Mother of Lists
1. THE FATHER OF LISTS
On an October evening in 1911 in a rooming house in Ithaca, New York, a young man of twenty-seven set about writing carefully in a lined notebook with a black ink pen. He was at a crucial turning point—beginning his first semester of teaching at Cornell Law School—and starting a journal marked the start of his new life.
Oct. 10. Worked at office 8:30 to 11: class in property 11–12; loafing, walking about and at room and at lunch 12–1:45. at work at office 1:45–5: getting stamps, postcards, hair cut and collars 5–6: dinner and chat with Marsh and Andrews 6 to 8:45. That schedule means just about 8¾ hours work in class and preparation and I should say is as fair an average of my days so far. Laborers work 8 to 9 hours. Lawyers (as in Elmira) work 7 to 8. Probably my quota is made out by 8¾ hours. That leaves 15¼ hours in the day unaccounted for. An hour is taken each morning in shaving, bathing and dressing. Meals take about 1½ hours. That means 12¾ hours. Of this 8 goes to sleep. We thus have 4¾ hours unaccounted for. It is spent principally in three ways—miscellaneous reading and writing letters, and walking for exercise or pleasure. All in all, not much time is wasted, except that it would be well to read a newspaper after lunch for a half hour and to devise some certain way of spending the time from 12 to 1. I am in want of outdoor activity. It seems hard to do anything in the office except mechanical detail. The evenings after 9 can well be used for reading for pleasure and profit outside of law. One or two evenings a week ought to be given to social recreation. Matters of immediate attention are 1.) a newspaper—New York Sun. 2.) Occupation at hour from 12 to 1.
The young man was my grandfather, my mother’s father, George Gleason Bogert.
My mother’s lists, it turns out, had a pedigree.
* * *
I remember my grandfather, whom I knew only as a child, as a man of silence. He was remote and irascible. Noise got on his nerves and the noise of small children got on his nerves exceedingly. My grandparents gathered many of their grandchildren on their farm in Michigan for most of the summer—they even built a guesthouse so that we could stay for long periods of time, albeit out of earshot—but my grandfather often found us an intolerable nuisance. Suddenly, in the middle of dinner on the screened porch, he would begin tapping a knife on a glass or banging his fist on the dinner table—“Can we please have some adult conversation around here!” he would say with great irritation when we children had begun to make a ruckus. As the youngest of the grandchildren present, I was generally the worst offender—frequently guilty of, along with talking, humming at the table. I was banished to the laundry porch and forced to finish my meals out there contemplating the washer-dryer, the spare freezer, a large mound of black walnuts, walls of my grandmother’s canned fruits and vegetables, and the pencil markings on one wall on which my grandmother had measured each grandchild’s height and age at various stages of our lives.
My grandfather had the somewhat unusual habit of watching Chicago White Sox games on an old, grainy black-and-white television set with the sound completely off. We were supposed to stay clear of or tiptoe quietly past the room where he was watching. A game normally played at a loud stadium in the presence of tens of thousands of cheering and screaming fans, my grandfather enjoyed in solitude and cloistered silence.
Grammie and Grampie (as we called them) had separate bedrooms, not unusual for married couples of the day, but he also had his own little hideaway on the farm property, known as “the Doghouse,” a little two-room shack, with an office and an air conditioner (very rare for that day) and a second bedroom, giving him an even more remote place to sleep than his private bedroom in the main house. He spent long hours there—with the air conditioner serving more to block out noise than to ease the heat—working on legal publications of one kind or another. He went bald at a fairly young age, so that he looked like an old man, with just a few wisps of white hair, early in life and remained one for what seemed like forever. He generally wore a straw hat in the form of a baseball cap, with a white handkerchief hanging down from the back to keep the summer sun from burning his neck. The cap with the handkerchief made him look like photographs I had seen of soldiers in the French Foreign Legion whose funny hats with flaps in the back were meant to protect them against the desert sun of their colonial possessions.
Grampie, who kept on working into his eighties, was the highly respected author of a thirteen-volume textbook (that later grew to eighteen volumes) known as Bogert on Trusts—the ultimate product of the hard work and efficient use of time that began that fall in Ithaca. The very name—Bogert on Trusts—suggested unimpeachable authority, and indeed, it became the standard reference and textbook in the field of trusts and estates law for three generations of lawyers. (It remains in print today, with a new coauthor.) Occupying its own shelf, like a one-man Encyclopaedia Britannica, it was, I believe, the first textbook to compile and interpret virtually every case bearing on trusts (literally thousands of cases from courts around the country)—a colossal and impressive undertaking in the age before the computer. It spoke of a highly disciplined and orderly mind, as well as a dogged spirit of unusual determination and thoroughness. Trusts were not the most scintillating specialty, although my grandfather had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the sexier field of aviation law in his youth before making his reputation with Bogert on Trusts. On the strength of his solid scholarship, he went on to become the dean of Cornell Law School, was hired away by the very prestigious University of Chicago Law School, and was elected president of the Association of American Law Schools. The short-tempered old man with the funny cap with a handkerchief was a gray (or bald) eminence in his field.
Grampie’s irascibility and need for silence were not, apparently, products of old age. My mother claimed that when she was a small child living in Ithaca, my grandfather took a gun and shot a neighborhood cat that was yowling within earshot of the house and disturbing his peace and quiet. When they moved to their house on Greenwood Avenue in Chicago, near the University of Chicago, he had his bedroom up on the attic floor, away from the rest of the family, where it was most quiet. When he came home from work, he would often shut himself up in the living room, crank up the gramophone, close the glass doors behind him, put on a record of classical music, and lie down on the couch. It was understood that no one was supposed to enter the room and disturb him.
But along with his irascibility, he had a subtle, understated sense of humor that came out from time to time when he spoke to us mysteriously about Fred the Snake, who lived down in the ravine near their house, or a made-up word he used, “chumma,” which sounded like a cough and meant “excuse me.” Poking fun at the general level of conversation among his Michigan neighbors, he would frequently say: “Sure hope the rain don’t hurt the rhubarb.” He had a good ear for mimicry and would, according to my mother, often echo the accent of whomever he was speaking with, suddenly sounding like a Southerner when speaking with a Southerner and sounding like a Frenchman when talking with a Frenchman. It was hard to tell whether he was making fun of someone or doing it unconsciously.
I don’t recall him touching or playing with us, but there is a photograph of me as a child sitting on his knee.
I was just a teenager when he and my grandmother sold their farm and moved down to Florida full-time, where he lived and died in virtual solitude.
Since I’d known him only when I was a small boy and he was an old man, the discovery of a diary that he kept while still young promised the possibility of getting beyond the formal, public facade of a reserved old lawyer and discovering the real, private person my grandfather may have been. But what is most striking is that the private and public voices of my grandfather were virtually the same. Behind the facade was another facade, the same facade—or the possibility that it was not a facade at all. My grandfather’s notebook is generally dry and impersonal, the diary of a self-disciplined young man determined to make something of himself.
Oct. 3, 1911
Today has been a bright, pleasant day, with cool air. I think coffee has played too large a part in my diet lately, since I have had a peculiar feeling of heaviness in the head and of nervousness of the stomach. I resolved tonight to stop the drink beginning tomorrow. Teaching is still such a novel work that I can think of little else but the responsibility of it and am taking things too seriously to make it comfortable for my second self, who would like a little leisure recreation. I have felt the strain of classroom work—the nervous tension from keeping things going for fifty minutes in such fashion that no breaks occur. Dr. Andrews of the German department and I bowled two sad exhibitions at McCallister alleys tonight. He is, however, a peacefully cheerful and clear minded person who lends a restful feeling to one in conversation—not a bad companion. I must decide the question of a newspaper soon. Shall it be the New York Sun or only the Cornell Sun or both? I’m desirous of becoming more observing in my walks. What pleasure can be had from forming an interest in trifles and getting to know something of them? Franklin’s autobiography has stimulated me somewhat in that respect.
Keeping a diary, for my grandfather, was not a literary activity or an effort at developing his inner life. It was very practical in its aims: to lay out a program of self-improvement and record the extent to which he was able to stick to it. This was clearly very much part of the zeitgeist in this age of self-made men, Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories, and a frontier world of rugged individualism. It is a tradition, apparently, that goes back almost to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation—the writing of journals as a means of keeping a person on the straight and narrow path to salvation and of rooting out sin and evil. By my grandfather’s time, this old Protestant tradition had mingled with the popular genre of self-help and self-improvement.
At the end of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway arranges the funeral of his mysterious dead friend. One of the only people to show up is Gatsby’s father, whose actual name is Henry C. Gatz. The old man arrives clutching a notebook that shows how the young James Gatz planned his brilliant future by creating a schedule that would place him on the path to self-improvement.
The Great Gatsby was published in 1925 (although the fictional notebook of the young Gatz is dated 1906)—fourteen years after young George Gleason Bogert began to put pen to paper in his diary. They both, of course, owe a lot to the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (as my grandfather explicitly acknowledged), who may be credited with founding the genre of the self-help book in America. Franklin carefully listed what he regarded as the thirteen principal virtues: Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquillity, Chastity, and Humility.
Clearly my grandfather was following some of Franklin’s cherished principles—Silence (avoid trifling conversation); Order (let all things have their places); Industry (lose no time; be always employed in something useful).
Although the form was out of Ben Franklin, the tone of my grandfather’s diary reminds me of the novel The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, the narrative of an English butler who is so tightly buttoned, so conventional and under such tight control, that he seems entirely unaware of the emotional current that is stirring underneath the surface of the narrative—a story of loneliness and failed love. My grandfather’s diary is remarkably dull—full of entries such as:
Oct. 11. Rain, fog and clouds all day. Class … went finely this morning—all reciting and being attentive. Have done nothing but work and bowl a game with Andrews tonight. No mail except a notice of a faculty gym. Club meeting tomorrow night.
But it is dull in an interesting way. There are occasional mentions of young women he meets, something that clearly stirs an interest in him, but nothing ever seems to lead to anything and these brief items are subsumed in the details of his work as a young law professor. He makes an intriguing reference to his “second self who would like a little leisure recreation,” but decides that the duties of his new career allow very little room for it.
It would be easy to make fun of his earnest tone of self-improvement: “I’m desirous of becoming more observing in my walks. What pleasure can be had from forming an interest in trifles and getting to know something of them?”
But this rather rigid, scripted, programmatic, orderly approach to life is more understandable when placed against the background of the time. My grandfather had grown up in the late nineteenth century, born in 1884 in Dakota Territory (before North and South Dakota became states). The area had only recently been opened up by the Union Pacific Railroad and pacified by the war waged by people such as General George Custer against the Sioux Indians. During my grandfather’s youth, the frontier was still open, with all the promise and uncertainty of making or losing a fortune. In fact, his father ran a bank in Scotland, North Dakota, but then lost all his money (and that of several of his closest relatives) in a mining venture that failed, according to my grandfather, in part because of the unscrupulous conduct of his business associates. (There was, of course, at this time, no protection against this sort of thing, no federally insured bank deposits, no Federal Reserve, and no Securities and Exchange Commission.) After this business disgrace, my great-grandfather moved the family to Bolivar, Missouri, where, rather than running a bank, he worked as a cashier in one and tried to save money to pay back the relatives to whom he owed money. Although only forty-nine and of normally robust health, Taylor O. Bogert, my grandfather’s father, came down with the “grippe,” as the flu was known then, and, ten days later, was dead. His flu had turned into pneumonia—now easily treatable with antibiotics, but often fatal at that time, when influenza epidemics could kill millions or tens of millions worldwide in a single year.
On January 31, 1902, the Bolivar Herald published an obituary with the following headline:
HON. T. O. BOGERT
CASHIER OF BANK OF BOLIVAR PASSES AWAY
THE CITY IN GLOOM
… His death came as a shock to the community. His physique was remarked as one of singular strength and robustness. When the news flashed over the town that T. O. Bogert was dead, men stood aghast: exclamations of surprise were uttered and all had great difficulty in realizing that the death angel had made a visit in so unexpected a manner. Truly this ends a comparatively short earthly life, yet one of great usefulness. Our brother lived earnestly and accomplished his work very quickly and was summoned to “come up higher.”
When a young man, he gave his heart to Christ and never forgot his allegiance. Ardently did he throw himself into the service of his Master. In all the walks of life, he made his influence felt. While at Scotland he labored for the uplift of town and community and lent his instrumentality to the founding of an academy. He was ever ready with his purse to help a struggling young man or woman to get an education.
My grandfather was only sixteen at the time and his sister twelve. There was no Social Security and no safety net, and the loss of the family breadwinner frequently had the effect of reducing a family to instant poverty. My great-grandmother was forced to move back to her own father’s house in Gouverneur, New York, near Lake Ontario at the Canadian border. Her father had once been perhaps the leading citizen of the town but had, too, suffered some major reversals of fortune that had reduced him to precarious financial and physical health. Indeed, he died later that same year, leaving the family in deep trouble. They stayed in Gouverneur for one more year as my grandfather completed high school. Young George G. Bogert took New York State scholarships examinations in the summer of 1902, and won a scholarship and free admission to Cornell University. At Cornell, he took another set of examinations and won four hundred dollars a year of scholarship money to help with his education during the first two years of college. At the same time, his mother followed her son to Ithaca, rented a house, and sublet most of the rooms out to boarders to keep the family afloat. My grandfather, unlike most college boys, did not join a fraternity at Cornell. Instead, he worked at a student laundry (for which he earned an extra six dollars a week) and as the rent collector for the family boardinghouse. He studied typing, typed other students’ theses for money, and eventually got an office job as secretary to the president of Cornell. His money-making jobs did not prevent him from graduating Phi Beta Kappa, among the top students in his class, becoming as well the star of the university’s debating club, “winning,” as he later wrote, “an intercollegiate oratorical contest at the University of Virginia and being elected Class Orator for the commencement exercises in 1906.”
If young George Bogert’s diary seems excessively serious, earnest, and goal oriented—like the resolves of a hero of a Horatio Alger novel—it was also because he had encountered and overcome genuine hardship and had done so through a mix of extraordinary self-discipline, hard work, and intelligence. He had forgone many of the pleasures of a typical youth—social life, sports, dances, fraternity life—and pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Before he had finished Cornell, his mother also died, leaving him entirely an orphan, working his way through school but also taking care of and helping to support his sister, who was four years younger than himself and became one of the first women to obtain a PhD from Yale, in chemistry.
If my grandfather’s orderly approach to life was rigid, programmatic, and a bit dull, it was surely because in his experience life was so unpredictable, precarious, and dangerous. He exercised enormous self-control perhaps because so much else in his life—illness, death, financial disaster—was beyond his control. And to hold himself together under considerable adversity, to suffer the loss of first his father and then his mother, and not to waver in his sense of purpose, he may have needed to make himself somewhat hard and cold inside.
Later in life my grandfather wrote a lengthy genealogy of his family, meticulously tracing the two sides back to the seventeenth century, when they arrived in this country. Genealogy was an apt activity for my grandfather. It played to his strengths—great thoroughness and dogged determination in hunting down thousands of tiny pieces of information, as he had done in composing his masterwork on trust law. It was, in some ways, the ultimate family list in keeping with the lists contained in his early diary. Even the entry on himself was written in the neutral-seeming third person. It was a search for meaning and origins and identity that did not require introspection. And yet the careful compilation of external facts still added up to some form of indirect self-understanding and a reckoning with the past. Pursued doggedly over many years, the genealogy responded to some deep personal impulse. But underneath the dry accumulation of dates and names and facts, one detects a certain covert passion.
What comes through most strongly in his depiction of our ancestors is the extreme hardship of their lives and the perseverance they showed in the face of it. Both sides of his family were among the settlers of a remote part of northern New York State, close to the Canadian border, farther north than Toronto, a harsh, unaccommodating landscape dense with woods, with a short growing season and a bitter six-month winter, thin soil on rocky, wooded terrain that had to be cleared before it could be farmed. These Bogerts and Gleasons eked out a living on this inhospitable land, raising large families they could barely feed.
Life in Alexandria Township in 1831 when David Bogert and his family arrived there must have been difficult and full of hardships. The country was in large part covered with timber. Much of the land was rocky. Clearings had to be made and log houses constructed. During the long, hard winters, fireplaces were the only source of heat. The growing season was short. It was a struggle to fit the land for agriculture and to save enough to make the payments which were due on it, small as they were. These pioneers deserve great credit for overcoming such hardships, raising large families, and eventually accumulating a modest competence.
Some entries, giving only a list of names and dates, tell stories of infant mortality, with many of the children dying before the age of ten and many of the women dying in childbirth or dying suddenly in their twenties or thirties.
James Carnegie, Henry [Bogert]’s father-in-law, lived from 1782 to 1857, 75 years. He is buried in Plessis cemetery, with his four wives, Abigail who died in 1813 at the age of 29; Elizabeth who died in 1826 at the age of 44; Phoebe who died in 1828 at the age of 38; and Sally who died in 1848 at the age of 60.
Death, illness, and economic ruin hang over our ancestors’ lives like specters. Of one relative who fought in the Civil War but nearly died of typhoid fever, my grandfather wrote: “He went to the war a stalwart man and during the weeks of his illness, was reduced in weight to almost one hundred pounds.”
Like my grandfather himself, some of them left scraps of information about themselves in an effort to make sense of their difficult lives. Levi Wheeler Gleason (1797–1875), at his death, dictated a page-long statement about his life. Most of it is occupied with telling a notable episode from his early years: as a young man he and two friends set out from home to seek their fortune but lost their small stake after being drawn into a card game by a pair of gamblers.
“He made a vow that he never would play another game of cards as long as he lived, which vow he faithfully kept,” Levi wrote, also using the third person. The rest of his life he summarized in two sentences: “At the age of 25 he married Miss Eliza R. Dickinson by whom he had 9 children, 5 girls and 4 boys, the youngest of whom died at the age of one year. For more than 50 years he was a faithful servant of the Lord Jesus.”
These were my grandfather’s great-grandfather and grandmother.
“They were persons of very modest means living in poverty and raising a large family by farming poor, sandy soil in or near Pitcairn,” my grandfather wrote. “I have never heard any comment on the characteristics of Levi, but have been told that his wife, Eliza, was a person of great strength of character and fine personality. Levi W. and Eliza Gleason are buried in the Gleason lot in the cemetery at Gouverneur, New York. On Mrs. Gleason’s tombstone, the following words are inscribed: ‘Our Mother, she cared for us and she labored for us.’”
There are glimpses of the great uncertainty that haunted my grandfather’s early life. In the entry on his own grandfather, George M. Gleason (after whom he was named), his mother’s father, he suddenly and surprisingly breaks into the first person, allowing a surprising degree of emotion to creep into the text.
He suffered a great deal mentally and in a financial way from the wayward life led by his only son, George Harris Gleason, who got into many scrapes, wasted money, and failed to support himself. The great disappointment felt over the very unsuccessful life led by his son undoubtedly caused both him and his wife great worry and anxiety. Another unfortunate feature of Mr. Gleason’s later life was that some of his investments proved unsuccessful and his financial condition became weaker as his health began to fail … Not withstanding his distressed financial condition and failing health, in the year 1901 when my father died he immediately offered to take my mother, sister and myself into his home in Gouverneur, where we were furnished a very welcome haven during the year needed to complete my preparation for college.
My grandfather omitted that among George M. Gleason’s misfortunes was a conviction for bribery while acting as a member of the New York State Assembly—perhaps from a sense of personal loyalty and affection toward his own grandfather.
Despite his travails, George M. Gleason “had a dry sense of humor and loved to joke,” my grandfather wrote, a description that would apply equally well to himself, as he probably realized.
2. THE MOTHER OF LISTS
Padlocks for garage $1.50
Poison ivy weed killer $3.00
Oil stain and alcohol, floors $1.49
One gallon ivory paint $3.01
Black paint, signs $0.41
Putty knife $0.23
Glass candlestick $0.10
Set 25 pitchers and glasses $1.00
My grandmother wrote diligently in a red-leather-bound account book, noting every penny spent and earned at their Michigan farm for years. Although my grandparents lived very comfortably on a law professor’s salary and the farm was not a money-making proposition, the meticulous day-by-day accounting was an act of virtue and responsibility that was important in and of itself. She, too, was a child of Benjamin Franklin and a careful keeper and compiler of lists.
And yet, my grandmother was, in important ways, quite different from her husband. She shared his Franklinian virtues of frugality and industry—reflected in the red leather notebook and in countless entreaties to my mother to live within her means—but she was more of a dreamer, with a powerfully idealistic, romantic, and utopian streak. The very enterprise she was keeping such close practical accounts of—their farm in Michigan—was in and of itself wildly unpractical. She treated it as a going concern, rising early in the morning to plow and staying out late on the tractor to reap, carting baskets of peaches to market and noting every item of profit and loss in her account book, but it made no financial sense. She had pushed to buy the place in the country because she wanted to farm. She had notions about returning to the land, about having a relationship with nature, about organic farming and diet, which would, she felt, greatly lessen the tensions and anxieties of modern life and lead to a healthier, better world—perhaps even world peace.
My own memories—and those of my cousins—are childhood memories of a stout, energetic old woman who wore frilly, old-fashioned dresses and ungainly black orthopedic shoes, who bustled around her kitchen, baking biscuits and blackberry pies, and drove a tractor around her Michigan farm. Although comfortably well off, she wasted nothing, canning all her excess fruit and vegetables and making her own soap out of tar and lard, derived mainly from leftover bacon fat from our morning breakfasts. It seemed impossible to imagine that black tar soap could get you clean, but it did.
She was an extremely high-minded person and, like many high-minded people, somewhat lacking in irony and humor. I remember her getting up from the dinner table a few times in high dudgeon after my grandfather had made some sarcastic remark, and storming off in a huff, saying something like “Why, I’ve never been so insulted in my entire life!” But my grandmother was good-natured and affectionate with us grandchildren. She hummed as she worked around the house with a kind of operatic tremolo in her voice and, unlike her husband, took pleasure in her grandchildren’s antics.
Unfortunately, by the time I was about ten or twelve years old, my grandmother began to suffer from the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and within a relatively short time, she was reduced to a shadow of her former self. We knew something was drastically wrong when she thriftily packed up the butter from her fridge in Michigan in a suitcase of clothes bound for Florida, wherein it melted everywhere and ruined everything. Eventually, she was an external shell without a mind, incapable of speech, a body in a bed being turned a few times a day to avoid bedsores. These images of an old woman with a beautiful face and a vacant stare crowded out even the childish images of the woman in the frumpy dresses on the tractor or the black soap she made from lard. There was virtually no evidence for us that she had once been a formidable and remarkable woman, something of a pioneer of her time, active in politics, a kind of proto-feminist who became president of the Illinois League of Women Voters, something of a force in Chicago politics, and a person intensely interested in organic farming, food, and returning to the land back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, when this movement was just beginning and long before these became staples of American counterculture.
My grandmother’s deterioration was extraordinarily painful for my mother, who adored and idolized her own mother and tried to explain to Lucy and me that her mother was not the Alzheimer’s patient with the glassy-eyed gaze.
If my grandfather’s early journal entries are indicative of methodical cast of mind, my grandmother’s very different spirit is reflected in a curious document I found among her papers, in which she earnestly lays out her own approach to life.
LOLITA BOGERT PHILOSOPHY
We are all endowed at birth with a varying degree of creative power. The most primitive manifestation as we mature is in procreation, but it permeates every other phase of living as well. When it is applied constructively, for good use it is religion. This can take many forms, humble or exalted: creating beauty where there was ugliness, order where there was disorder, understanding where there was bewilderment, health where there was disease.
All that is good is God, and the religious life is the one that seeks in its own way to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
The measure of greatness of any individual is in the vastness and quality of his creative power, and the effectiveness with which he applies it.
Love is divine in so far as it lifts one up to a higher plane of existence than he has known before …
My grandfather was high-minded, too, but in a much more practical way. Rather than trying to save the entire world, he worked on trying to harmonize the patchwork of conflicting statutes across the vast, fragmented United States. As he put it in his family history, in which he refers to himself in the third person,
Bogert has had a long and pleasant connection with the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, an organization founded by the American Bar Association in 1892 for the purpose of drafting and securing the adoption of statutes which would improve and make uniform the law of the several states.
My grandparents met in 1918, just as the United States was preparing to enter World War I. My grandfather had continued toiling away in Ithaca, publishing his book on “sales law” and earning tenure. The “second self” he referred to in his journal—the Dionysian part of himself that “would like a little leisure recreation,” as he put it—remained largely buried until he met my grandmother. My grandfather had volunteered for and become an officer in the judicial branch of the army known as the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Based in Fort Dix, New Jersey, waiting to be shipped off to France, he took leave to visit the Jersey Shore. There, at an officers’ dance, he met my grandmother, whose family, the Metzgers (second-generation German immigrants), had a house in Atlantic City, where they spent their vacations away from their principal residence in Brooklyn. If my grandfather was a highly practical man, my grandmother and her family were a bit less so. Her mother, Nina Elizabeth Metzger, had rather romantic ideas about life. She clothed her two daughters in elaborate, flowing, and diaphanous dresses and insisted that they take singing lessons, with hope that they might become opera singers—something neither had a great aptitude for. She gave my grandmother the unusual and romantic name of Lolita. My great-grandfather—my grandmother’s father—although a business executive, was a man of artistic temperament who spent all his free time making architectural drawings of buildings he would never build. My great-grandparents sent both of their daughters to college. My grandmother was a student at Adelphi College in Brooklyn when she met my grandfather at the Jersey Shore. My grandmother was the far prettier (and brighter) of the two daughters and had an assiduous young suitor when she met my grandfather in 1918. She was twenty at the time, and her suitor appears to have been about her age. My grandfather, although inexperienced in matters of love, was in a different category: he was thirty-four, a respected law school professor, a captain in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps—a man who already cut something of a figure in the world. He evidently was able to trump the bid of Grammie’s young suitor with relative ease. We have a photograph of the three of them sitting on the sand of the Jersey Shore, my grandfather in a funny-looking early-twentieth-century men’s bathing suit, with tank top and shorts; my grandmother, in one of her diaphanous dresses; and the young rival suitor, fully clothed with white trousers, buck shoes, and a bowler hat. My grandfather has clearly already won the contest for my grandmother’s hand: he wears a “cat that just ate the canary” grin and is sitting nestled close to Lolita, with a proprietary hand on her shoulder, while the younger suitor—a diminutive boy with big ears—sits a respectful distance away but looks at the camera with a good-natured smile, seemingly resigned to his position as odd man out.
My grandparents married after just a few weeks’ engagement—haste dictated by the war and my grandfather’s imminent departure. (It was not that unusual to marry a person you had known such a short time back then.) In a world of uncertainty, it was often prudent to act quickly rather than put things off. They took a brief honeymoon in North Carolina and had just enough time, before my grandfather sailed for France, to conceive my mother, who was born on January 6, 1919, almost nine months after the day of their marriage in April 1918. With her husband overseas, my grandmother moved back in with her parents in Brooklyn, where her father was a high-level manager with the United Shoe Machinery Company, where he earned an annual salary of five thousand dollars. This was clearly a good sum at the time, enough to permit a man to own two houses and maintain a wife who did not work and wore fur coats, as well as two daughters in college with diaphanous dresses and no career plans.
“So I was born into their household, with Gramma, Granpa, and Aunt Louise, in Brooklyn Heights and they thought I was just the cat’s pajamas,” my mother said. “They took pictures of me like crazy. I was quite old—maybe six months old—by the time my father got back from France and saw me.”
Because my grandfather had been away throughout his wife’s pregnancy, at the time of my mother’s birth, and for the first six months or so of her life, there was tension in their relationship that never entirely went away. “Mother always had the theory that he never really accepted me as his child because he hadn’t been there when I was born and he was very jealous. And he just thought I was something that happened when his back was turned. It was my mother’s theory.”
After all, my grandfather, despite being a mature, grown man of thirty-six at this point, had extremely little experience of this side of life; he had never had a serious relationship with a woman, had spent all his time assiduously building his legal career, and was, like his wife (according to my mother, who learned this from her mother), a virgin at the time of his marriage. My grandfather’s almost nonexistent personal life before marriage meant that he had little or nothing to fall back on to help him deal with his feelings of jealousy and anger.
He and my grandmother had two more children in relatively short order, my uncle George and my aunt Virginia, known as Ginny. My grandfather always picked on her. “If he heard us making trouble, he would assume it was my fault and hit me,” my mother said. But my grandfather was not a bad father to his other two children. His favorite was the youngest, Ginny; and his son, also named George, admired his father enough to follow him into trusts and estate law and eventually become the coauthor of Bogert on Trusts. Ginny has a very different recollection of her father than my mother did. She remembers him being quite paternal and even affectionate, taking her hand and walking her and a classmate to school every day.
At one point, during their early years in Ithaca, someone—a soap company in some promotional scheme—designated the Bogerts “the most attractive family in New York State.”
In 1928, my grandfather was hired away from Cornell by the University of Chicago Law School, which was busy transforming itself into one of the great intellectual centers in the United States. In Chicago, they led a comfortable and privileged life and moved in social circles that included Nobel Prize winners and prominent scholars. My grandfather was president of the Quadrangle Club, a University of Chicago faculty club.
“It was a distinguished community of people, but they were just Tom, Dick, and Harry to me,” my mother said. “Some of these people were brilliant and very good at what they did, but not so brilliant in other ways.” There was a fairly high level of discussion at the family dinner table “interspersed with nonsense,” my mother said.
My mother knew her father mainly as a grouchy, ill-tempered man who wanted to be left alone to do his work and who seemed particularly annoyed at her. But, once, she got to glimpse another side of him when, as a child, she sat in on one of his lectures. “I was supposed to meet him after class, but I arrived early and slipped into the back of the lecture hall. He was like an entirely different person. It was a lecture with about fifty or sixty people and he put on a real performance. He lectured very well. He knew how to project his voice, was very clear, very aggressive. I was impressed even as a child. I never got to see that side of him. When he came home, he became a grump. So I only caught glimpses of what a potent person he was.”
My grandfather’s annual salary when he began teaching at Chicago in the 1920s was ten thousand dollars. The family had a large, handsome three-story house in Chicago, the country’s second-largest city, owned a second home in the country, and had a staff of three or four people to help run them. They had a live-in maid named Marie, who was black. Marie’s sister came to do the laundry twice a week, and a third person, Marie’s sister’s husband, did the heavy cleaning. Coal, of course, was the principal fuel in Chicago at the time: the air was sooty and gritty and gray with coal dust, which collected on the windowsills and in the folds of curtains and in between the cushions on the couch. And when the wind blew the wrong way, the air was also filled with the stench of decaying meat from the slaughterhouses, which had earned Chicago the title “hog butcher for the world.”
“My parents had a rather rich social life,” my mother said. They went out a lot and gave what seemed to their children like rather grand parties. “When they would give a big dinner they hired a cook—two cooks—who started cooking two or three days beforehand,” my mother said. “We were not allowed anywhere within striking distance of it. We had to eat in the kitchen. And the guests arrived in what we thought were very glamorous clothes, which were put up on Mother’s bed, and we would sit on the stairs and watch them. And they had a butler serving drinks. It was Prohibition at the time—Daddy didn’t believe in Prohibition. And he would always serve one drink. They lived high, wide, and handsome in a funny kind of way.” The children’s social lives were also rather formal, composed of dancing classes and cotillions. Their lives, too, had a high-minded component. They were sent to the University of Chicago Lab School, which was meant to be an educational laboratory in which the theories of John Dewey were put into practice at the elementary school level. “It was a progressive school,” my mother said. “They didn’t believe in the standard curriculum. They had things like shop and cooking. Boys learned to cook. We used to raise white mice and see if their teeth fell out if you didn’t give them milk—things like that. We also had good basic training in things like Latin and music.”
The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression made a great impression on the family immediately. “When there was the run on the banks, my mother came home and asked us kids how much money we had in our piggy banks. Of course we had about thirty-six cents, so that was ridiculous but it was the feeling of the time.” They were relatively cushioned from the effects of the Depression. They had a steady professor’s salary to fall back on. The University of Chicago faculty was asked to accept a 10 percent pay cut. Because of the income generated by Bogert on Trusts, my grandparents lived a cut above most faculty members. At one point, my grandfather’s colleagues put on a little skit at the Quadrangle Club showing a couple of down-and-out unemployed professors sitting on a park bench as a smartly dressed George Bogert strolls by twirling a cane. “Well, Bogert, how come you’re looking so chipper?” they asked. “You forget. I have my royalties!” And this became a standing joke in the house for years. “Whenever anybody showed any evidence of spending money, we would say, ‘You forget! I have my royalties,’” Aunt Ginny explained. I imagine my mother, who had the biggest reputation for fine dressing and personal extravagance, would have used that line a lot.
The crowds of unemployed men gathered downtown, far from the Hyde Park area where the University of Chicago was and where my mother and her family lived. From time to time, someone would knock on the door asking if they could wash windows or shovel snow for a little money.
My grandfather appears to have been affected by the armies of unemployed, 25 percent of the workforce at the time, and wrote a plea for a program in Chicago designed to create jobs for the jobless. His proposal was a mix of compassion and old-fashioned Protestant work ethic, worrying about destroying “the morale and self-respect” of the unemployed by giving them money for nothing.
September 14, 1931
Tasks for the Unemployed
I write to urge that you use your influence to see to it that as many of the unemployed are put to work this fall and winter on work for community benefit.
The citizens who have jobs will gladly contribute the $8,000,000 to provide food, shelter and clothing for the unemployed but this money should not be given to the able-bodied jobless as charity or the dole if it can be helped.
In order to keep up the morale and self-respect of those who have to accept this help as many as possible should be put to work on tasks that benefit Chicago and Cook County …
Let’s not condemn the jobless to a winter of demoralizing idleness if any work of a public nature can be found for them.
George G. Bogert
Professor of Law, University of Chicago.
“They were very liberal for the circles they moved in,” my mother said. “Mother and Daddy were considered radical because they were for Roosevelt while most everybody else they knew was for Hoover. And I was always very much that way. All the kids in the family were.”
In the midst of the Depression, in 1933, my grandparents bought a sixty-three-acre farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, about a two-hour train ride from Chicago. It cost a mere $3,350, only about a third of a law professor’s annual salary, and it cost even less to build a house there. My grandmother, although a mother, housewife, and professor’s spouse, threw herself into turning the property into a working farm, combining it with her utopian ideas of organic farming and healthy eating as the road to a sound, good life. They soon bought another forty acres. My mother referred to the farm—acres and acres of flat cornfields and peach orchards in the middle of hundreds and hundreds of miles of flat midwestern farmland—as “the dump.” As a teenager who longed to be charging around Chicago with her friends in convertible cars or being courted by various beaux, my mother regarded it as a form of servitude to be dragged each weekend—and all summer—out to Three Oaks to lend a hand while my grandmother drove her tractor and mulched and weeded until it got dark at night.
In some ways, my grandmother was a strict and conventional woman with a rather old-fashioned, Victorian worldview. She never had a career or even a job. She wore frumpy clothes and sensible shoes and was relatively strict. She insisted that children must eat everything on their plates and would have them sit at table for hours until they did. (My uncle George and my mother were known for stuffing food he didn’t like into a teapot in the dining room, and once my mother threw a fried egg she didn’t want out the window into a snowbank. With Chicago’s cold climate, the egg remained there frozen until spring, when it suddenly appeared in the grass.) My grandmother believed that children needed plenty of cold air, and so the children often slept out on a porch—even in winter, with lots of blankets. When my mother became a teenager, my grandmother believed in strict curfews and no lipstick—restrictions my mother rebelled against constantly.
But she also had a highly unconventional and broad-minded side. As the president of the Illinois League of Women Voters, she became something of a power in local politics, making frequent trips to Springfield and Washington. Women had only just gained the right to vote in 1919, and so she was an early activist for women’s issues long before there was an official feminist movement. “Her name was in the paper all the time, to the point where my father used to joke that he had become the husband of Lolita Bogert,” my mother said. My mother inherited her mother’s political passion—all her children did to some degree—and admired her idealism enormously.
“With her it was never a question of accepting conventional wisdom in matters large and small—of doing or thinking as others did because that’s the way the world goes—but of searching afresh for the just and honorable solution. Once she had found it, there was no budging her,” my mother said of my grandmother at the time of her death in 1983.
She championed organic agriculture, women’s rights, and civil rights long before those became popular causes. She moved against the grain of most people in her social circle by becoming an ardent New Dealer and Roosevelt supporter in the 1930s. But when she felt that Roosevelt had disappointed her—by being too cautious, too much of a politician on rights for black Americans—she actually deserted him in the 1940 election. Alone even in her own family, she supported Wendell Willkie, a liberal Republican who was more outspoken on certain issues, such as racial discrimination: “The Constitution does not provide for first and second class citizens,” Willkie said. “Freedom is an indivisible word. If we want to enjoy it, and fight for it, we must be prepared to extend it to everyone, whether they are rich or poor, whether they agree with us or not, no matter what their race or the color of their skin.”
In this period, my grandmother actually wrote a short story about an interracial marriage called “Sometimes Yvonne Grows Tired of Waiting.” The main character was a French-American dressmaker named Yvonne who worked in a fancy apparel shop.
There she had met the uniformed colored doorman, a man considerably her senior, and had come to regard him as a “quiet fine Christian gentleman.” Being fresh from France where color lines are drawn not so sharply as here, she had not hesitated to marry him. The marital relationship proved a happy one. One child was born of the union, a brown-skinned boy with delicately chiseled features.
The couple live in relative peace for a number of years in a mixed neighborhood until they suddenly find themselves the object of various persecutions large and small.
When finally her electric lines were cut so that she might no longer use the sewing machine that was her sole source of livelihood, she concluded at last that they would have to move.
Yvonne and her family wind up in a filthy rooming house that is crawling with cockroaches and unsavory characters. Then Yvonne finds a house that someone is prepared to rent to them, but on the day she and her family show up with all their furniture, they are turned away. “I had a conference with the owner of the building last night,” the rental agent tells her. “There was some question whether the building should go white or colored, and the owner has decided it should go white. Here is your deposit back.”
At the end of the story—it is only five pages—Yvonne has reached a condition of near despair: “People have forgotten God … Some day they will turn to Him again. But meantime … some of us get very tired waiting.”
My grandmother had a brief secret life writing fiction—she wrote only a couple of stories. But I was enormously impressed that my grandmother would write a short story about racial prejudice and miscegenation in the 1940s, well before civil rights became a major national issue.
There is also the letter—a stirring call to arms—with which she begins her tenure as the president of the Illinois League of Women Voters:
September 3, 1937
Dear League Colleague:
You and I are embarked on high adventure, adventure that will tax our abilities to the utmost, that will weary us often, that will discourage us sometimes; but one that will more than square the balance by an occasional thrill of quick and brilliant achievement and by the unspectacular but enduring satisfaction of slow accomplishment.
Ours is the task of holding people up to their birthright of democratic government, and even when they would be lulled into false security by “bread and circuses.” Ours is the task of quietly leading women into fulfillment of their full stature, even though the old idea dies hard, in practice if not in words, that women are chattel, forever condemned to mediocrity. Ours is the administrative task of bringing out the best in every individual we deal with even though understanding of human minds and emotions is still scientifically in its infancy.
I count it a privilege to be embarked on this high adventure with you. Let us learn together.
(Mrs. George G. Bogert)
As a reform-minded Democrat in a city dominated by the corrupt political machine of Mayor Edward Joseph Kelly, my grandmother was always fighting City Hall and conducting (usually) losing battles for extremely worthy causes. She succeeded in helping elect to the city council the former University of Chicago economist Paul Douglas, who went on to have a long, distinguished career in the United States Senate. On the city council, Douglas generally found himself outvoted and outmaneuvered in political struggle by the tough but uneducated machine politicians. “I have three degrees,” Douglas once said. “I have been associated with intelligent and intellectual people for many years. Some of these aldermen haven’t gone through the fifth grade. But they’re the smartest bunch of bastards I ever saw grouped together.” My grandmother evidently played a role in getting him to run for the U.S. Senate in 1942, a race in which he was defeated by the Kelly machine but did well enough to lay the ground for a successful bid in 1948.
On Senate stationery, he wrote to my grandmother insisting that without her support he might not have made it there. “I shall never forget the way you stood behind me and rallied the forces in our 1942 primary campaign. Without that, 1948 would have never been possible.”
She married when she was only twenty; it wasn’t until she was in her thirties that she really came into her own and began to develop a strong, independent identity and a highly developed political consciousness. As she began to assert herself in various ways, she entered increasingly into conflict with her husband.
“I became a bone of contention between them,” my mother told me. “My father beat up on me all the time. He would come into a room full of junk that we were playing in and he would automatically hit me, assume that I had made the mess. I got very sad and discouraged and I became anemic … He spanked all of us. Physical punishment was no disgrace in those days. We all had to lower our pants and he put us on his knee and whacked us with a hairbrush, something that really hurt. What he did with me was hit out. The first thing when he walked in the room he would hit me.” My mother developed anemia in this period and, after having skipped a year in school because she was a precocious early reader, had to be held back a year. My grandmother was convinced that my mother’s anemia was the result of being picked on by her father.
At a certain point, however, my grandfather’s aggression toward my mother threw his marriage into crisis. “She told him, ‘If you ever strike that child again, I am going to leave you,’” my mother said. My grandmother appears to have compensated for her husband’s hostility toward my mother by drawing particularly close to her. They formed a curious alliance against my grandfather. “She made me her confidante,” my mother said. My grandmother told my mother about her battles with her husband. In the early to mid-1930s, my grandparents’ marriage went through something of a crisis. “He was not very pleasant to her. He was very insecure despite his professional success. He was very dependent on her but he treated her very badly. She would get up from the dining table in tears all the time when he would say something mean.”
Moreover, there was a lot of tension over the fact that my grandfather paid too much attention to other women. My grandmother, although fourteen years younger than my grandfather, had become rather overweight by her thirties. “Grammie broke her ankle, it had been set very badly and she had trouble with her legs and feet after that. She had been quite slim and beautiful before that, but after the ankle she didn’t move around so much, and in those days women were supposed to eat all the whipped cream and fattening stuff they could. So, although she remained very pretty, she was definitely overweight.”
Sometimes my grandmother would get extremely angry (my mother and both her siblings recalled) over the way my grandfather behaved at parties. “My father had always been a flirt. He was always latching on to other women and pinching them and dancing too close. Mother would get furious and tell me that Grampie had misbehaved himself with Mrs. So-and-so. One in particular was Mrs. Sears, the wife of another professor, a much older and more serious man. She was a very snappy-looking dame and very flirtatious—Grammie was really furious about that.”
My uncle George recalls his mother coming home one evening from a party at the Quadrangle Club in tears. When he asked what the matter was, she replied, “Men are capable of such great heights, but when they sink they sink lower than any woman!” Apparently, Grampie had ignored Grammie at the party and flirted outrageously with Mrs. Sears.
Then, at a certain point, my grandparents entered into a complex, platonic ménage à quatre with another professor at the law school, Harold Shepherd, and his wife, who were younger than my grandparents but had no children and became fixtures in my grandparents’ house for a period of time. “He was rather good-looking and she was cute and vivacious,” my mother said. “Grampie liked the wife and Grammie fell in love with the husband. We didn’t know it then. They had no children. He would dance with us—Ginny and me. They became great pals of the family. Mother was secretly in love with him. He pretended to be in love with her. I think he did this with a number of women. She was naive enough to believe—because of a little pressure of the hand or a look—that he was madly in love with her, too. This went on for quite a long time. Once, when Grampie was especially nasty to me, she told me about this great love she had for Mr. Shepherd. I was about fourteen then. He would write her a letter and she would interpret it the way she wanted. So she used to show me his letters. They were friendly letters. You could read them as simply friendly letters, but she read all kinds of things into them. He would ask her to dance and she read that as a love declaration.”
At least according to my mother, there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of infidelity in my grandparents’ circle, but rather a lot of wandering libido, barely suppressed passion, sexual tension, and unfulfilled longing.
Among my grandmother’s papers, I found a series of letters from a man named Lee, who was clearly in love with my grandmother but never actually came out and said so. The man in question, Lee Rainey, was a neighbor of theirs who was a librarian at the University of Chicago, a friend of the Chicago poet Carl Sandburg, and a (bad) would-be poet himself. His letters are incredibly flowery, with a kind of excessive, sugary romanticism in which he expresses his passion through metaphor—torrential streams rushing through dark glades, glistening dewdrops illuminated by beautiful dawns and sunsets, and so forth.
In 1933, in a letter full of talk of “earth and poesy,” of Peter Pan and the land of the Faeries, there is a wild metaphor in which he writes:
I must have perished long ago … and become Lolita in the twilight of his eyes, has sometime seemed to be dreaming of that some island, I am tonight overtaking her at the little wicket of the New Year, to share a secret. I tried a sign, but it was too cryptic to carry clearly.
The letter seems to say everything and nothing. It appears to be a declaration of love, but read another way it’s just a lot of highfalutin literary nonsense.
Two years later, he is still at the same game, saying and not saying.
And then again
it may have been a footfall in the wood that brought you to your blessed hour. Long ago, one who shared a heavenly evening with you when June was four days short of zenith and had banned the drabness of the wake of dawn. Indeed, when your toes first touched the earth … he was beneath a cherry tree in a Kentucky garden reading Homer there, both Iliad and Odyssey, in the brush. Little did he dream between hexameters how that tiny bundle of a maid would one day at her end of a Ridge hear his call from the far-away Vermont end, or with basket and trowel he gathered greenery for a wave at his wistful window. But she did, and how dear was her reply.
This is Rainey’s way of thanking her for a letter he had received from her at his vacation home in Vermont, where he spent the summer—and by all accounts, at this point in her life, my grandmother was not a “tiny bundle of a maid.” My grandmother had absolutely no romantic interest in her neighbor, and it is quite likely that he did not have a real interest in her. He was what my aunt and uncle described as an extremely effeminate man. Although one did not use the word then, everyone suspected that he was homosexual, whether he acted on it or not. If this is true, he may have pretended to be or imagined himself to be in love with my grandmother—an unavailable married woman—knowing she was an entirely safe object of his passion, which was entirely verbal. Rainey was also married, and my grandmother would sometimes go over to his house in the evenings and listen to him read poetry. For a married woman to visit, unaccompanied, another man might have raised a few eyebrows in the Chicago of that time, but my grandmother, confident of her innocent and high-minded intent, paid no mind to convention.
And so my grandparents’ world would seem to have been something of a turmoil of misplaced passions and urges: Lee Rainey writing his flowery sentences to my grandmother; my grandmother reading and rereading the ambiguous letters of Professor Shepherd for secret signs of passion; Shepherd leading various women on but loving (perhaps) none of them; my grandfather chasing after various Mrs. Searses and Mrs. Shepherds—enough to infuriate my grandmother but not enough to satisfy himself.
In the midst of all this, my mother came of age. She was born in 1919 and hit adolescence as these various romantic scenarios were playing out. My mother was precocious and very pretty, and as she developed into an extremely striking young woman, she began to attract a lot of sexual attention—not least of all from her own father.
“As I got older, I became quite pretty. And he would ask me to dance,” my mother said. “I had become very frivolous and very popular with the boys at University High, riding around in cars and staying out too late. I always thought I was in love with somebody. I was a giddy girl. There was no drinking or drugs in those days. It was very innocent stuff. The occasional mash note and kisses in the dark, but that was about it. But you were able to drive a car when you were about fourteen years old. We were out with the Herschel gang. The gang would drive up and down Lakeshore Drive. The Herschels were a very neighborly family that lived on the way home. They had a big backyard and quite a lot of money. And they had a basketball court in their backyard. It was where everyone congregated after school.”
In the midst of this, her father began to show an unhealthy interest in his pretty elder daughter. “He tried to dance with me after dinner and held me tight. I didn’t know much about sex, but I could tell that there was something going on. I knew that if he had an erection, instinctively there was something wrong with that. My mother saw what was going on and took me into my room and said, ‘If your father ever tries to get in bed with you, you kill him!’ He never did but … I think that’s when my mother decided to send me to boarding school.”
It was also at some point during this time (although it might have been a bit earlier) that my grandfather—the master of self-control who had budgeted and used his time so well for so long—suffered something of a nervous breakdown. Doctors recommended that he take a leave of absence, and he spent a period of months taking the sun out in Arizona. “He was away for quite a while,” my mother said. “Grammie stayed with the kids and they tried to keep us in the dark about the whole thing. When he came back he had a sun lamp installed in his room, and he used to go up and take sunbaths all the time.”
Although the exact chronology of events—and the possible causal relations between them—was fuzzy in my mother’s head when we talked about it nearly sixty years later, it was clear that there was a cluster of episodes in a period of a few years that seemed to characterize a phase of crisis in the family’s life: my grandfather’s hitting my mother; my grandmother’s threatening to leave him; my grandfather’s flirtations with other women; my grandmother’s falling in love with someone else or imagining that she had fallen in love with someone else; my mother’s adolescence; my grandfather’s inappropriate interest in my mother; my grandfather’s nervous breakdown; and my grandmother’s decision to send my mother away to boarding school.
“I think it may have been connected to her ‘love affair’ and she threatened to leave him and that may have sent him into a state of depression,” my mother said.
My mother was clearly very preoccupied with this episode with her father as she lay on her deathbed high on cortisone. She had talked about it with both Lucy and me in the past as well as with some of her closest friends, but it seemed to be something she wanted to clear up before dying. On the one hand, her returning to it repeatedly was a sign of its importance, and she called it “a serious factor in my life”; on the other, she kept insisting that her mother had made more of the incident than was warranted. She seemed to blame her mother for creating an excessively negative picture of her father and traumatizing my mother in the process. “I want to clear up this business about Grampie because he’s been unfairly marred by my mother,” she said, returning again to the subject. “It’s not true that my father ever tried to seduce me. And what happened between us, although a little unfortunate, was certainly not incest. He tried to dance with me after dinner. I was a teenager, starting to be pretty, and he was in his late forties perhaps and still lusty. He liked to dance with me and hold me too tight and I could tell, although I didn’t really know what an erection was, that there was something funny going on. But he didn’t keep it up. He didn’t fondle my bosoms, he didn’t peep on me, he didn’t do anything. That was it. And my mother took me into my room and she said, ‘If your father tries to get in bed with you, you kill him.’ And this is what led me to believe all my life that I was the victim of—if not incest—incestuous feelings. My father was also very ashamed of this.”
And yet a certain amount of bad blood remained between them. My grandfather, even in his extreme old age, talked to my uncle about cutting my mother out of his will. And my mother (although she knew nothing of that) refused to attend his burial service after he died. Grampie died in Florida but wanted his ashes buried in the Gleason family plot in Gouverneur, New York. Although my mother had the shortest distance to travel, she, alone among his three kids, chose not to go. The reason she gave my aunt Ginny—who heard about it for the first time after my grandfather’s death in 1977—was that she had not forgiven her father for his unwanted sexual attention.
To protect her daughter—whether from her own wildness or from anything further happening between father and daughter—my grandmother sent my mother to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania called Westtown.
This appears to have strengthened my grandmother’s feeling that my mother was her child and her child alone. “She made it plain that she was in charge of any decisions regarding me. My father had no control over me whatsoever. She decided that life in Chicago was too wild for me.” My mother fought going away but gave in. “I adored my mother as a child—I mean I thought everything she did was perfect and believed everything she said. I argued with and disagreed with her a lot, but underneath it all, I thought she was right about everything—everything. And I was her ally, her confidante, her best friend, I guess. She adored me, too. I was her favorite child by far. She liked the others, but I was adored. She thought I was beautiful, talented—you name it. No matter how wicked and how silly I was.”
Copyright © 2013 by Alexander Stille
Meet the Author
Alexander Stille is the author of Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, Benevolence and Betrayal, and The Future of the Past. He is a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times.
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