Born in Los Angeles at the dawn of the 1960s to parents who quickly departed, Kathryn Harrison was received by her maternal grandparents as a late-life child. Harry Jacobs and Margaret Sassoon, true wandering Jews, had emigrated to L.A. after leading whirlwind lives in Shanghai, London, Alaska, Russia, and beyond. Harrison grew up in their fading Tudor mansion on Sunset Boulevard, a kingdom inhabited by gleaming memories from their extraordinary past. Their photos, letters, and souvenirs sparked endless family stories that spanned cultures, dynasties, and continents—until declining finances forced them to sell the house in 1971, and night fell fast. Vivid and poignant, filled with the wisdom of retrospect and the wonder of childhood, On Sunset seeks to recover a foundational time in her life, affirming the power of storytelling and the endurance of memory.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Kathryn Harrison has written the novels Thicker Than Water, Exposure, Poison, The Binding Chair, The Seal Wife, Envy, and Enchantments. Her autobiographical work includes The Kiss, Seeking Rapture, The Road to Santiago, The Mother Knot, and True Crimes. She has written two biographies, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux and Joan of Arc, and a book of true crime, While They Slept. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the novelist Colin Harrison.
Read an Excerpt
It’s hard to get me to fall asleep. It wouldn’t be, if I weren’t kept on a Victorian nursery schedule that delivers me to bed before the sun goes down. To object that no child goes to bed at seven o’clock, not in the fourth grade, would only bolster my grandmother’s resolve to do whatever possible to shield me from the pernicious influence of American children. Never mind that we live in Los Angeles and that I was born in 1961; my childhood belongs to my mother’s parents, who, in the way of old people, have returned themselves to their pasts, taking me along.
Because my grandfather’s widowed mother had been destitute, she couldn’t afford philosophies of child-rearing. Her attention was fixed on just feeding her four children, of whom my grandfather was the youngest. So it is my grandmother’s early years, insulated by vast wealth and managed by nursemaids and governesses, that determine the course of first my mother’s and then my own childhood.
There’s no money to employ a governess, not anymore, but my grandmother is tyrant enough. I curtsy when introduced to adults. I endure mustard plasters, cod liver oil, and other torments generally imagined to be reserved for children left behind in a previous century. I am not allowed chewing gum, carbonated beverages, nail varnish, or to go to bed with damp hair. Peanut butter does not exist. I don’t know what Love, American Style is, or why it in particular among television programs other children talk about has earned my grandmother’s opprobrium. I’d trade Christmas and a birthday for permission to watch The Brady Bunch, episodes of which I’ve seen at other children’s homes and recognized as a valuable resource, answering my curiosity about drive-in movies, blue jeans, and other contemporary American blunders, like Twinkies, that remain out of reach. In sunny Southern California, no day achieves a temperature that frees me from wearing a cotton vest under my school uniform blouse. If such things could be procured, I’d be forced to use a hook to button my shoes and a stick to chase my hula hoop.
As my grandmother is not one to negotiate, there is nothing to be done about bedtime, except to keep my grandfather beside me. If he tries to kiss me goodnight before I am asleep, I get up and follow him out of my room. It doesn’t matter that I can unspool his life in my head, tell myself every story. All that matters is keeping him by my side.
“Say your father’s name.”
“You know my father’s name.”
“But I like to hear you say it.”
Uh man you el. I make the word silently, feeling how the m draws my lips to meet and briefly touch.
“Emmanuel means angel,” I say.
“Emmanuel means ‘God is with us.’ He loved to run, my father did. Loved to try to outpace the coaches. Horse-drawn coaches, going from London to Brighton and places.”
“Why did he?”
“For the fun of it, that’s all.”
“You didn’t know your father.”
“No. He died when I was nine months old. A very handsome man, they told me. Uncommonly tall for a man born in 1861. So my mother—”
“Six feet, four inches.”
My grandfather is tall too. Black-and-white photographs of him as a young man don’t show his blue eyes. But he was handsome, his countenance untroubled by the hardships he’d endured, the thousands of penniless miles he’d traveled.
“Isn’t an angel of God talking to you?” I ask. He sits by my bed with a hand cupped behind his better ear, as if to catch and funnel words into its dark canal.
“Is that what the Sunday school teacher says?”
“No.” Christian Science doesn’t have angels, only Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures and a chalky blue pencil for underlining the important parts.
“So my mother’s parents loaned her what she needed to rent a house,” my grandfather continues before I can interrupt again, “and she took in what were called paying guests.”
“Like a boardinghouse,” I say.
“Like a boardinghouse,” he agrees, as unashamed of having grown up poor as my grandmother is of having been raised in conspicuous luxury, safe inside the walls of privilege while outside a cart and horse moved through Shanghai’s International Settlement collecting night soil from the coolies whose responsibility it was to empty their employers’ chamber pots. As the Chinese used human waste to fertilize their crops, farmers prized the excrement of the rich and well-fed.
“You never knew your father.” It seems to be a property of fathers in my family to misplace themselves. I have never known mine, and my fatherless grandfather is fully father to me.
“He died of consumption when I was nine months old.”
“Galloping consumption,” I say of the thing that overtook the great runner. I don’t have to close my eyes to see everything disappear in the wake of a blood-drenched coach pulled by a blood-red Pegasus. No mortal can outpace it. Anyone on whom a drop falls sickens and dies.
“Tell me again who has wings on his sandals.”
“Mercury. So my poor mother was penniless,” he goes on, “with four little children, and in London that was tough skidding in those days.”
London, 1891, without cars or electricity, without medicine that might have saved his father’s life, when food was kept in an icebox, which is what I call our refrigerator, its thick black cord plugged into the wall. I call the stove a cooker, and because we have one of each, I allude to washboards and mangles. Flashlights are torches, margarine is oleo, and our cupboards are filled with names other children don’t recognize: Peek Freans, Wilkin & Sons, McVitie’s, Crosse & Blackwell, Huntley & Palmers, Marmite, Tate & Lyle, Colman’s, Fortnum & Mason. As it says on lids and labels, all of them work for Her Majesty the Queen, by appointment. Apparently it was Queen Elizabeth who told Early’s of Witney to make prickly wool blankets and Liberty of London to sell itchy wool scarves.
My speech is accessorized with words that never traveled as far west as the New World, like swiz, for swindle, and elevenses, a midmorning break for tea and biscuits. Whatever we have for dessert, even if it’s pie à la mode, we call pudding. Away from home I know not to refer to checkers as draughts, pullovers as jumpers, French fries as chips, car trunks as boots, washcloths as flannels, or—especially—Dalmatian dogs as spotted dicks. I don’t suffer the conceit that Hawaii remains the Sandwich Islands, refer to galoshes as rubbers, or call apartments flats. I don’t end the alphabet with zed. But I make the occasional misstep. I ask a classmate to be a brick when I want to borrow her colored pencils, and call my allowance pin money. I never remember if it’s honor or honour, apologize or apologise. When the time comes, I’ll call feminine hygiene products S.T.’s, for sanitary towels—a girl’s circumlocution, but of the wrong era. Language, like everything else, serves my grandmother’s intent, pinning me to a time and place other than my own.
It’s always twilight in my London, because I don’t like leaving out the man who lights the gas lamps, making his way through a pea-soup fog that spills over the cobbles and puddles around his shoes. He lifts his long wand to the top of each post and leaves a little flame behind. A bright string, like Christmas lights, follows him down the block. There are chimney pots and chimney sweeps. Hokey-pokey men scoop ice cream from their carts and serve it on squares of the previous day’s newspaper.
“What flavor?” I want to know.
“Vanilla, it must have been.”
“There was only the one.”
My grandfather’s grandfather, Samuel Jacobs, is there. He’s a fishmonger who sells poultry too. “Executives used to come into his store to buy poultry or fish and take it home to their wives,” my grandfather says.
As with the people who reside in his mother’s boardinghouse, the men who take fish to their wives are, my grandfather makes sure I understand, respectable businessmen. He doesn’t tell me that gangs of ruffians, like the one his brother would join, plague the neighborhood where they live. But one day when he’s hanging my coat in the hall closet, he dislodges a walking stick, and it falls to the floor at my feet.
“My father’s,” he says as he picks it up. He shows me how the bottom unscrews from the top, revealing a gleaming long knife.
“Did he use it?” I watch my grandfather’s hands screw the halves back into a single stick and tuck it behind the coats so that it disappears into the shadow it fell out of.
“I imagine he carried it as a precaution,” he says, but he doesn’t say against what, or whom.
My grandfather never speaks of squalor or want, so I never think to include them when I tell myself the stories he tells me. It will be decades before I am putting my own children to bed and am given occasion to consider tales I was told and what I might have failed to understand at the time. An oral history recorded toward the end of my grandfather’s life offers enough clues to pass along to an archivist in London, who drills down into census reports from 1891, 1901, and 1911 and confirms my grandfather’s report that his mother’s paying guests were decent working people. The 1911 census lists her “visitors” as an antiques dealer, a seamstress, a bookstall manager and his son.
The family’s own living quarters were cramped and poorly insulated. There was never enough heat, no more than there was food or rest. In 1891, the year Emmanuel Jacobs died, at twenty-nine, consumption galloped off with 134,000 Londoners. Measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, typhoid, cholera: each took its share as well. Women labored at home, with or without a midwife, and some died in childbirth, or their babies died, or both of them did. My grandfather’s brother, Sigmund, called “Sid,” had a twin who died in infancy, but he doesn’t speak of this ghost, any more than my grandmother does her dead brother. When he explains what chilblains are, he never says he knows because he’s had them.
“Is a fishmonger’s wife a person who screams about fish?” I ask, having heard the expression that suggests she is.
“She calls out to people in the market that she has fish for sale.”
“So she does scream about fish.”
“My grandfather had a store,” he says, “not an outdoor market stall, so my grandmother would not have needed to scream like a fishwife if she worked in the shop, which she did not.”
There’s a station for the stagecoaches, and a blacksmith to shoe the horses that try to outrun my great-grandfather. Icemen sell ice, tinkers mend pots and pans, gentlemen wear top hats for no better reason than taking a walk outside. Smokestacks belch soot into the sky, staining everything, people too. Their faces get dirty just walking down the street and their clothes do too. Women’s dresses drag along the streets and the heels of their shoes get caught between cobblestones. There’s an asylum for my grandfather’s sisters, Belle and Violet, meagerly schooled and fed by the Crown—day pupils among orphans, midday dinner included—while their mother pinched and squirreled and sacrificed all she could for my grandfather’s and his brother’s education. It wasn’t an uncommon choice in London in the 1890s, nor held to be an unkind one; it doesn’t strike me as any more peculiar than the rest of my grandfather’s life, which took him so far north that half the year it’s daytime and the other half it’s night, a land so frozen that he traveled by dogsled, so cold that if you ran ten steps your lungs froze. I am not so concerned about his sisters as I am about his travails in boarding school, where his ears were boxed even more routinely than his backside was caned. Boxed until they rang inside.
I want to know what it means, ears that ring. Is it a church bell or is it a doorbell? Maybe it’s the phone. I’ve stood in my room, fists aimed at either side of my head, and struck my own ears, but not very hard. Not hard enough to break my eardrums, or even hurt very much. Ten years after my grandfather left boarding school, when he was a young man working on the railroad—part of a team of surveyors for the Alaskan Engineering Commission, laying track all the way north to Fairbanks—the clamor amplified the ringing in his ears. Sometimes it’s distant, others he can’t help hearing the past, as its shrill cry drowns out the present.
“What if a bear was chasing you?”
“Then you were out of luck,” he says.
“Why don’t the bear’s lungs freeze?”
“Because he’s a polar bear.”
“Say about the trees.”
“Say what about the trees?”
“You know, that they exploded.”
“Well, that’s what they did. They went off like pistols. In Talkeetna—it was sixty-two below, sixty-two—we heard them explode, burst open in the dark.”
“Because of the sap,” I say.
“Because of the sap,” he agrees. He’s explained how it expands when it freezes, how it’s mostly water. “So cold, take off your glove, touch metal, and you can’t get it off. Can’t get your hand off unless you leave the skin behind.”
I consider this. “Do fingerprints grow back?” I ask, trying not to see the skinned flesh pour handfuls of its own blood onto the white snow.
“No,” he says.
“Say the rivers.” Three great rivers converge in the town of Talkeetna. My grandfather recites their names in the same order every time.
“The Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna.”
Tal keet naa, Su seet naa, Chu leet naa. Sometimes when I’m jumping rope or playing hopscotch, the syllables come skipping into my head and I can’t get them out.
Our financial collapse is schizophrenic. We are desperately poor, and I lack for nothing. I have a new bicycle, and when I outgrow it, I have another. The dresses I wear to Sunday school, with their satin sashes and hand-smocked bodices, come from a store on Rodeo Drive, where my grandmother perches on the arm of a gold-legged chair to supervise as I am professionally zipped, buttoned, and tied up in bows. Trim in her pink Chanel suit, either that or a red one, she’s wearing, as she does every day, the string of pearls her father gave her when she turned seventeen.
The saleslady turns me around by my shoulders so my grandmother can examine the dress from every angle. She smells of Chanel Nº 5, and Chanel has made her red lipstick as well. Every week, Robert at Robinson’s salon rinses her hair black to cover the gray, curls and sets it into the shape it has assumed all my life. A toenail, varnished pink, peeps out from each open-toed black suede sling-back pump. She swings one leg back and forth; restless, always restless. Even when sitting and silent, my grandmother conveys the pent‑up energy of a cat waiting to pounce. She has petite pretty legs and wears stockings that come one at a time, not like my pairs of tights.
“Ridiculous to attach them,” she says when I ask if the garter belt doesn’t annoy her. “If you get a ladder in one leg, you have to throw away both.”
Her hands are hot and smooth and softer than any I know, and her complexion olive, not as dark as her father’s nor as white as the poet Siegfried Sassoon’s or Sir Philip Sassoon’s, both of whose fathers’ brown Baghdadi skin was successfully whitewashed by milky Ashkenazi mothers selected from among the marriageable Rothschilds.
Because that’s what my grandmother is: a Sassoon. It is one of the first things I know about her, as if being a Sassoon were like being a pianist or barrister: a vocation. Unlike my grandfather, photographs of whom show him at work, my grandmother does nothing before the camera. Doing nothing, she exists for the lens, and the lens for her. It’s the same with words. All her life the name precedes and introduces her. In 1939, when she moves from Old World to New, her purchase of a home occasions an article in the Los Angeles Times.
She keeps the cutting among her expired passports, her parents’ death certificates, and her immigration papers, as though such a thing could establish her identity as well as any of the official documents in the black enameled lockbox bearing her mother’s initials. D.S.B. Dollie Sassoon Benjamin, the letters gilded. It did present my grandmother as a relative of Sir Philip, the kind of vulgar announcement she’d never make about herself but must have enjoyed seeing in the paper—the equivalent of a coming-out party, without the bother of the party itself. At forty, my grandmother was too old to be an ingénue, if she had ever been such a thing.
With respect to romance, the name Sassoon had caused her nothing but trouble, and at forty-two she married a man to whom it meant little, if it meant anything at all. Had my grandfather not happened to have married a Sassoon, he’d be unlikely ever to have heard of them. He never says what I hear other people say, that the Sassoons are the Rothschilds of the East. Instead he calls my grandmother’s family a “very wealthy clan from Persia,” managing to exalt and dismiss them at once.