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LAMENT OF AN EXPAT
How I Discovered America And Tried to Mend It.
By LEONORA BURTON
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Leonora Burton
All rights reserved.
My first close encounter with democracy American-style and, I suppose, to some extent American capitalism, came some weeks after I arrived in Manhattan from England. I found myself jumping up and down while shouting lustily at presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon. I should add that it was not in anger but in pursuit of the holy dollar.
At this point I had installed myself in an East Side apartment and, having nearly overcome a fear that every cab driver in town had been instructed to run me over whenever I appeared on the streets, I was beginning to feel a bit like a New Yorker, albeit a slightly disaffected one. A neighbor accosted me one day as I was opening my apartment door and asked if I would like to make a few dollars, in fact 25 of them, which in those days was worth my attention. What would I have to do?
I would have to put on a red, white and blue dress and a straw boater she supplied and report to a midtown hotel where Nixon had a campaign engagement. In England the candidate was hardly a household name but I had picked up enough to conclude he was a politician of the Republican persuasion. When I got there I discovered there was a group of young women similarly garbed. One of Nixon's henchmen instructed us that we were "volunteers", better not mention any payment. Now we were "Nixon Girls" and when he appeared we should wave our boaters, jump up and down and scream "Nixon's the one!"
We giggled and arranged ourselves as ordered, although I thought I heard one girl mutter that she was a goddamned Democrat and it went against her principles. Apparently her principles were undermined by a handful of dollars. Capitalism at work. In accents I was just getting used to they said Mr. Nixon had been nicknamed "Tricky Dicky". Joining in the spirit of it, I offered another one, "Wretched Richard," but they decided they preferred "Tricky Dicky". Shortly afterwards, the man himself appeared. He wore a dark suit, white shirt and subdued tie. His shoes were as glossy as a gigolo's. He looked as if he never wore anything but a suit and tie and went to bed in them. To imaginative me, he looked a tad constipated. As we went into our act, he gave an uneasy grin for the benefit of a gaggle of photographers who were lighting the corridor with their flashbulbs.
Members of the hovering press were invited to interview us. One reporter noted my accent and asked, "What are you doing at a Nixon rally?"
In a mischievous mood, I declared, "Oh, I'm so full of admiration for Mr. Nixon, I flew over from England especially to support him as he fights for the White House and the free world." The reporter looked skeptical—probably a Democrat—but scribbled it down in his notebook. Well, I doubt it was the first time political types had lied to the press, certainly not the last. And I was giving full value for my 25 dollars.
The next day our picture appeared on the front page of the Daily News. Of course. The scene was not for the benefit of bemused hotel guests but for the cameras. My goodness, look how popular Dick Nixon is in Democratic New York. On a succeeding night, in different dresses we did the same act at Madison Square Garden amid raucous hoopla. Nixon definitely was the one. We were allowed to keep the dresses. Much later I learned that the ineffable Roger Ailes, the Merlin who had conjured up Fox News from the deep, was orchestrating the Nixon campaign with his eerie genius for playing pinball in the skulls of his simple-minded targets. Maybe the Nixon Girls were the idea of the wily right wing ringmaster. With my energetic imagination, I could hear him instructing a flunky: "Get a bunch of bimbos and have them jumping up and down with excitement around Nixon. Gotta pretend he's a regular human being and not an automaton from outer space." Maybe shortly after arriving in New York I had become—horrors!—an Ailes Bimbo as well as a Nixon Girl. Years later I ran afoul of Ailes, by then the top earner for Rupert Murdoch, when he decided I was not an acolyte or even a supporter and therefore lurked in one of the many enemy camps surrounding him. Dear paranoid Roger, what a scamp, but we'll get to that.
Did I in my little way help Nixon win the 1968 election? Doubtful ... in spite of my green card I couldn't even vote. In the U.K., it seemed to me, just about anybody resident in the country and still breathing could register and vote, not that very many wanted to.
I was not entirely new to the bizarre, nonsensical political game. When I was a teenager, my father stood (not ran) for election to the town council in Newport, Wales, where I was born, and I did my little bit. To help him ascend to the political heights my three older sisters and I were cornered by my dad and instructed to go knock on doors in the neighborhood and order residents to vote for Mr. James Fairclough (actually Jim to voters) while thrusting his campaign literature at them. My sister Sally, a tough cookie, flat-out refused to take part on the grounds that she didn't agree with his right wing political philosophy. They didn't get on. Sally was a twin whose brother did not survive the rigors of birth and she always felt that our father resented her for being alive instead of her lost twin brother. Hell, fate should have given him a male to help protect him from the monstrous regiment of women surrounding him. It may be that as she grew up he softened his attitude towards her for when she got married he walked her down the aisle.
Sally, mother of four, is now the mistress of a jewel of a country manor house overlooking the Bristol Channel and surrounded by hundreds of acres of land with the requisite his-and-her Mercedes saloons outside the barn and a couple of yellow Labradors. I suspect her politics have veered to the right.
Unlike Newport, Rhode Island, with its absurd shoulder-to-shoulder, look-at-me mansions, Newport, South Wales, was a working town, first as a port and then as a manufacturer of steel. Later, after the steel mills closed, it went high-tech and called itself the Welsh Seattle although nobody else did. It wasn't a pretty town and it was rained on a lot more than the American version.
At the time of the Newport election, I was on holiday from my boarding school in England where I was more interested in sports and boys (barred from the virginal precincts) than in politics or academics. Bothering neighbors seemed like a lot of fun so off I went.
The pleasure of interrupting lunch, dinner or who-knows-what quickly wore off. Indeed it became boring, especially when it rained, and soon I ditched the remaining literature in a bin and went to the pictures. On the streets afterwards we would encounter people who, depending on their political views, would say things like "Oh, there are the Fairclough girls, aren't they sweet?" or alternatively they would give us black scowls as if we carried the plague and stalk off.
When all four girls were at home on school vacations, father would insist that we go to Sunday services at the church around the corner, although he would not attend. We would sit at the very back row, ready to escape at the earliest opportunity. The vicar, known in the Welsh idiom as Charlie the Church, liked to enter from the rear. He would walk behind us, tickling us as he passed, so that we erupted in protests and giggles. Heading for the altar, he would declare to the congregation that the noise had nothing to do with him and that everybody should be appropriately quiet.
Charlie the Church forgave my father for his non-attendance because after giving his parishioners their weekly dose of religion he would drop round at our home, knowing that a dose of restorative gin awaited him.
From a certain angle my father, wiry and always busy, had slightly asymmetrical features because during the war he had tackled an unexploded incendiary bomb which suddenly went off making a mess of his face. Surgeons, used to the devastation of the blitz, skillfully repaired most of the damage by taking skin from his backside and using it to mask the wounds. The eventual result was that his features sported very smooth and soft skin for a middle aged man but it must have been uncomfortable for the patient to sit down for a while. That was the story told to me by my mother.
Another, this from my sisters, was that as a major in the Home Guard he was dismantling coastal defenses at the end of the war. These defenses included incendiary booby traps arranged to repel the brutish invaders. But in the course of his efforts one of these phosphorous bomblets blew up in his face. His men tried to take him to a hospital but he refused, said he just wanted to go home. He, of course, won the argument and appeared on my granny's doorstep, his face blackened and distorted like a creature from the black lagoon. This story has it that the horrified females of the family spent days, if not weeks, picking bits of metal out of his face until he regained something like normality. I don't know which story is more unlikely—often the case with my aberrant family—but my mother said that when as a toddler I first saw him, his head covered with bandages, I screamed and ran in terror, probably traumatized for life which would explain my peculiarities.
The more unfortunate result of his experience, whichever true, was that he developed diabetes and that meant he was strictly forbidden alcohol. At the age of about 9 or 10, I quite rightly took the alcohol ban extremely seriously and feared that the demon drink could do away with my strange father who, after all, was the only one I had. So it was that one evening I spotted him emerging from his study. Seeing me, he hid something behind his back. My suspicions were confirmed when I peeked behind him, and, yes, there it was, a glass of whiskey.
In a fine example of childish outrage, I darted around, lashed out and knocked the glass from his grip. The glass and alcohol went flying. I could see that he was not happy but I was old enough to recognize that attack was the best form of defense.
"What the hell d'you think you're ..."
"Father," I said sternly, "you know that you're not supposed to drink. I'm trying to save you because I love you so much."
He sighed, shook his head and wandered off, leaving the whiskey dripping down the paneled wall. Much later, in New York, his diabetes would have disastrous consequences.
Although the area usually voted Labor, my father, backed by the local Conservative Party, won a seat on the town council, the first Tory ever to represent the area. Typically, he then proceeded to ignore directives from his party and voted for what he called "the best interests of my constituents" Since this usually ran counter to the Conservative policy of freedom to stamp on the undeserving poor when they got uppity, the local Tory Pooh-Bahs were furious. My dad won two terms but lost his third campaign, perhaps because he surrendered to pressure from the right to dump on the poor. If he had won he would have been in line for mayor. One of his stories that I certainly didn't swallow was that at meetings he handed out chewy candy to fellow council members so that when it came time to debate and vote their teeth, caught up in thick toffee, didn't allow them to open their mouths. Still, he told a good, entertaining tale which he clearly enjoyed as much if not more than his audience.
My pretty mother had a kind heart. When we girls were naughty, she would give us some pennies and order us to go to a nearby shop and buy a cane so that she could wallop us. When we came back with the cane, she couldn't bring herself to administer the punishment. Instead, we would get a scolding. What a softie. Later, I opened a closet and found more than twenty canes lying there, unused.
She had an interesting if slightly scandalous history. Her story was that her mother, our grandmother, once had a brief affair with one of the American acting Barrymore's, perhaps the flamboyantly ego-driven John, and as a result produced my mother.
Google tells us that the name of the Barrymore patriarch born in 1849 was Herbert Arthur Chamberlayne Blythe, (what a mouthful). He came from an upper class English family, went to Harrow and Oxford then was destined to become a barrister. However, he fell in love with the stage and, to save his relatives from the shame of having a family member becoming an actor, he changed his name to Maurice Barrymore. He made his way to America and first appeared on Broadway in December 1875. Thus began the legendary, if erratic, careers of the Barrymores.
Apart from the embarrassment of an illegitimate arrival, my mother's birth was a problem because granny already had two other children out of wedlock. Bit of a swinger, granny. The family decided enough was enough and collected sufficient money to buy her a ticket for an Atlantic crossing so that she and her children could move in with relatives living in America, well away from the scene of her anti-social behavior. The chosen British ocean liner was the Lusitania
My mother never boarded the Lusitania because on the ship's voyage early in the second year of World War 1 from New York to the U.K. the vessel was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk with the loss of more than a thousand lives. The Germans excused themselves by insisting the liner was carrying not just innocent passengers but munitions and other supplies for the British troops on the Western Front which was probably true. Grandmother and mom stayed in the U.K.
It seems now that this story of the Barrymore connection may well be factual for when my mother died her birth certificate was found and it gave her maiden name, not as we thought Johnson, but as Blythe, the original family name of the Barrymore's. In a small tribute to her, when I later published some books I used the pen name, "Leonora Blythe."
Then there was my Uncle Bob who claimed to be psychic. For instance, he said that during the war he was assigned to General Eisenhower's staff as a camouflage expert. In France one night he dreamed that if their convoy of vehicles (not including Eisenhower's) took a certain route the next day it would be ambushed by the Wehrmacht.
"Oh, get off it," scoffed his colleagues.
"No, mon, I'm telling you, I dreamed the whole scene." After an argument, he was allowed, with a couple of men inclined to believe him, to use a Jeep and take a different route. Of course, the scoffers were ambushed and he was not. Well, it might be true.
David Petreus, the general and CIA chief who fell from grace in a sex scandal, described his father's attitude towards him as "gruff love" which fitted my father pretty well with a bit of bullying tossed in. Our family included our long-suffering but cheery mum, who had hidden literary ambitions, we four girls, a grandmother and aunt, living a few blocks away, our housekeeper/cook, Mrs. Beachy and the cleaner, Mrs. Brown. Father would declare, "I'm hemmed in by females and the dog's a bitch too."
It couldn't have been easy for him. We girls were noisy, competitive, argumentative, inclined to dramatic exits from the turbulence of the dinner table, known as storming off, always out to dominate the others, verbally or physically. As the youngest of the sisters I felt I was victimized but they all probably felt the same. Because in our early years I was the smallest, I was called—and still am—"Titch", a Briticism for small. But nicknames can cut. At school, there was a very bright, engaging and popular girl who was nicknamed "Ant" as in "Antique" because we thought she was a bit old fashioned.... But she was cool so we all loved her and used the nickname casually without thought as a sign of our affection for her. In my last years at school she confided to us that every time she heard the word, she mentally flinched. She hated it. We had no idea. We abandoned the horrid word.
At home on the positive side, we occupied a large house, maybe 20 rooms, so there was always somewhere to hide and escape the racket. Father's gruff side was illustrated by his habit of insisting that his darling daughters must be home, say, by l0 p.m. If one of us arrived even a few minutes late, she would find him standing on the doorstep ostentatiously tapping the face of his watch. Get home even later and look out.
He had an odd sense of humor, together with false teeth. While dining out with the family he liked to take out his teeth, put them on the table and, pointing to them, tell the waiter to bring the teeth a glass of water. He thought it was highly amusing. Sensitive us, we squirmed with embarrassment, pretended we'd never seen him before, just happened to be sitting at the same table. But often the waiter would nod and bring the water.
Excerpted from LAMENT OF AN EXPAT by LEONORA BURTON. Copyright © 2013 by Leonora Burton. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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