The Secrets of Grown-Ups: An Autobiography237
The Secrets of Grown-Ups: An Autobiography237
With a career that spanned from the 1920s through 1970s, one that produced over twenty novels, in addition to her many credits for film and theater, Caspary centered her life around a passion for writing. From her early experiences at an advertisement agency—where she developed a correspondence school and invented its “famed” instructor—to the struggles of being gray-listed in the McCarthy Era, Caspary constantly found a way to turn her creative needs into viable work.
Caspary recalls the rest of a full life, too, including her flirtation with communism, travels across Europe, and a marriage. Caspary’s skillful writing makes her incredible depictions of people, and the times in which they lived, jump off the page.
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The Secrets of Grown-Ups
By Vera Caspary
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Vera Caspary estate
All rights reserved.
The Secrets of Grown-Ups
A specter haunts my ego. For most of my life I have tried to escape this ghoul, bury her in a respectable family plot, lock her in a closet smelling of old women's dresses. Tenacious and spiteful, she rises out of memory, laughing, mocking me with memories of failed dreams. Like everyone else in this contradictory world, I have two definite and well-developed sides, one that I show off and one I am afraid to see plain. So much of my life has been given to the exploitation of the exhibited side that the hidden self, the specter, has to be hunted down, smoked out of secret cells, stripped of disguise.
I see her now, a caricature of my showcase image, a skinny girl shivering as the Chicago wind sweeps across the Wells Street station of the South Side El. She is eighteen or nineteen and convinced that her life is a failure. She is cousin to my ugly old-maid cousins, who have devoted all their days (and, of necessity, their nights) to their dear mother and have never had husbands, lovers or fun; she is sister to my sister, a snob who talked loftily of culture, disdaining those who cared more for clothes and jewelry than for art and poetry, but who wanted more than anything else to be seen in the glittering garments of the rich; she is neighbor to my dull neighbors who played bridge and talked about clothes and the high cost of living; she is a stenographer among stenographers eternally trapped among the filing cases with men dedicated to percentages of profit. Saddest of all, she is a writer among those secretly writing in locked bedrooms the poem, the short story, the novel that will never be published.
As she rides on the South Side express, shoved, pushed, swaying, member of an ill-smelling crowd, she forces herself to look at scenes that, on brighter days, her eyes avoid. Open to the gaze of El passengers are the windows and lives of the poor of Chicago's Black Belt. She sees squalor as evidence of futility. "Nothing really matters," she whispers again and again as in prayer. The nihilism brings perverse consolation. The South Side El will not travel through eternity, the loathed office job cannot last forever, and in the end she, along with the other passengers and the blacks in the squalid rooms, will die as unimportantly as flies squashed against a screen.
She was wrong, of course. To the passionate mind everything matters. In a full life no incident is without meaning, no element so important as change. Our century has seen so much of revolution and on so many levels that for women, especially, the historic role has been turned upside down. To have known the changes of this dynamic century is to have lived in drama such as no genius has conceived.
I was born by accident in the nineteenth century. No one expected me on that November day, certainly not my mother, who had kept her shameful secret concealed under loose house robes. When she had learned that she was pregnant at an age then considered next door to senility (she was well over forty), she was facing a major operation and believed herself entitled to an abortion. Our Dr. Frankenstein, young and scrupulous, refused to hear her pleas. Lacking courage to consult a more cooperative doctor, Mama played the role of invalid and took to tea gowns which concealed her scandalous condition. When I made my untimely escape from the womb, Mama's friends, sisters-in-law and grown children were honestly shocked. When she first laid eyes on the unfinished product my mother hoped the little monster would not last until the twentieth century. In November it was impossible to move a fragile infant to a hospital, so they rigged up a do-it-yourself incubator out of a wash basket which nurses kept filled with hot-water bottles in a room kept at an even temperature. After I had shown that I could survive the clothes basket, hot-water bottles, wet nurse and special formulas, Mama not only adjusted to what had seemed the horror of having a baby at her age but regarded me as something of a miracle. The rest of the family — my father, two grown brothers and a sister — loved, spoiled and bossed me outrageously. Aunts, uncles, cousins and family friends never dared enter our house without bringing tribute to the baby.
No child ever received more presents or thoughtless of them. Nothing material had value for me except in the receiving. I broke or lost dolls, mittens, lockets, crayons, balls, bracelets, pennies and pencils; left toys wherever I dropped them and looked for more when the doorbell rang. In the same way I received the petting and adulation, but along with it was forced to accept their various ideas of discipline. Not unnaturally I became a self-centered little girl, loving but rebellious, since the things I learned in my early years were confusing and untidy.
I cannot remember the naughtiness for which Papa gave me the only spanking I recall, but I can still see the frightened little girl being carried up the stairs, laid across dark blue knees, unbuttoned and smacked. It probably did not hurt much because Papa could not have been cruel to Baby, but the humiliation left a permanent scar. Papa unbuttoning my pants! Papa seeing my behind! He was my first idol, a strong and ardent man, gifted at love and passionate in honesty. "Do you know what your name means?" he'd ask. "Truth. A girl named Vera can never tell a lie."
This made me a clumsy and uncomfortable liar. Even the trifling falsehoods of social life, excuses for tardiness, broken dates, forgotten promises, have caused acute discomfort. Not that I can claim a life entirely free of deceit. During high school years my chum and I spent fifty-one cents at Walgreen's penny sale for two boxes of Dorine cake rouge. Every school-day, after saying goodbye to my mother and sister, I'd hurry into the bathroom, rub pink circles into my cheeks, tuck the rouge into the toe of a shoe at the back of the closet and race out before Mama or Sister caught sight of a painted countenance that would have disgraced the Caspary name.
A formidable lie caused by an act of rashness in my late thirties laid upon me a burden of deceit that for a time made me bitter, hostile and at war with myself. I have tried again and again to exorcise the horror, have written a book that half-revealed the deception and shall try again in this confession to relieve myself by writing the whole truth.
My grown-up sister knew everything in the world. There were fifteen years between us so that when I began to pry into the secrets of grown-ups, Irma was a young lady who used rice powder on her face and kept her underclothes fragrant with sachet. Small of breast, she wore bust ruffles of graduated layers of Swiss embroidery, had an opera cloak of oyster-colored broadcloth in which she would descend the stairs carrying the long-stemmed roses sent by the young man who was to escort her to the ball.
To her small sister, Irma's social life was dazzling. When she was not wearing a plaid wool skirt for golf or starched linen for tennis, or going to theatre with a beau, she saw The Girls, who entertained each other at bridge parties and "afternoons" where they embroidered, gossiped and ate chicken salad and icebox cake. Irma could play the piano, paint and draw pictures. In her theatre book, beside the stubs of tickets and names of her escorts, she pasted pictures cut from The Blue Book and The Green Book: photographs of Maude Adams, Richard Mansfield, Mrs. Fiske, John Drew, the Barrymores, Leo Dietrichstein and many others.
One afternoon when I was playing in the yard two princesses came out of our front door. I see them now, Mama with a toque of violets tilted over her shining white hair while there was balanced on Irma's ratted pompadour a large black hat from which willow plumes drooped. Mama wore a suit of gray wool with a fichu of white lace; Irma's pale-blue broadcloth was trimmed with soutache. Mama wore white kid gloves, Irma black, both gathered in rich folds on their forearms. With regal scorn they looked upon my bare legs and gingham dress. "What a dirty little girl. Go inside and tell Annie to give you a bath." That the clarity of the picture remains after all these years is significant; perhaps it was on this day the shivering, skinny girl of the Wells Street El station was born.
The fear that I would never grow up to become a beautiful princess was compounded by my mother's frequent "The baby isn't pretty but she's awfully cute." Even in this I could not compete with Sister. In addition to having naturally curly hair, playing the piano, keeping a theatre book and studying at the Art Institute, she was cute. In her early twenties a popular girl, she often remarked that one attracted fellows by being kittenish.
Was she, I wonder, kittenish with the young businessmen (doing well in real estate, a millinery man, in insurance, his family owns those drugstores) who took her to theatre and restaurants? She was skinny in a day when buxom girls were admired; had Caspary bones, a big nose, sallow complexion. Her eyes were blue and lively, and there was then a dashing quality about her, an extraordinary sense of fun, a promising vitality. Later her humor dried to bitterness, her cheeks became thinner, her dates less frequent. After the family catastrophe she ceased being a popular girl and had few dates. She was thirty-one, an old maid, when in desperation she married a man she despised.
Arthur, eighteen years my senior, was a businessman with a steady job in a wholesale millinery firm. Danny, who came between me and Sister, took after my mother's handsome family. He was fair, cheerful and thoroughly bad; ran away again and again, broke Mama's heart and became roller-skating champion of America. Whenever he came home after a long, mysterious absence there were scenes behind closed doors. Mama cried, Papa lectured, Danny promised to get a steady job, was soon off again with dubious companions who rode in automobiles and were seen with painted women.
In spite of the petting, treats and gifts, I felt sorry for myself because I was not allowed the privileges enjoyed by my sister and brothers. While they went out at night, saw shows, danced, listened to music or entertained themselves at home with the piano, the mandolin and popular songs, I was sent to bed at eight o'clock. Alone on the second floor I consoled myself with imagined companions, twin sisters who wore accordion-pleated dresses of pink and blue silk with matching hair ribbons and slippers and accompanied me on adventures more wonderful than anything my grown-up siblings even dreamed about. I believed in them and other made-up companions as I believed in princesses, fairies, witches and the adventures of girls and boys in storybooks. One day a friend of my sister's brought to me a book called Spark, A Dog. The story began: "Bow-wow-wow. My name is Spark. I am a dog." Tame stuff after Hans Brinker and Zauberlinda,the Wise Witch, but distinguished because it said on the cover "By Rosalie G. Mendel," the name of the lady who had brought it to me. The magic words taught me that stories did not just grow in books but were written by someone I knew. At once I began printing miniature books, pinning together tiny folded sheets and lettering unevenly on the cover A Story by Vera Louise Caspary.
Sister gave only second-best candy to little girls whose grandparents had Russian or Polish accents. She preferred having me play with children with the surnames of German-Jewish families who had been in Chicago for at least two generations. Her snobbery was precise. Class lines in the Almanach de Gotha were drawn no finer.
Grown people used a nasty word: kike. Papa disapproved yet occasionally was heard to murmur "Hinterberliner." He was no snob, but there remained in him certain notions acquired from his mother. She came of a caste as rigid as Prussian nobility, Prussian Jews. Her maiden name was Mendel and apparently some Mendel, distantly related, had married into German aristocracy, a Prince Salm-Salm. That the family could seriously claim blue blood seems incredible, but all through childhood I heard about the abnormal hue of Caspary blood, even from Papa — who believed himself a Socialist (although I'm sure he never read Marx or Engels) and misquoted ideas he had gotten from his own father, who had fled Germany during the 1848 Revolution. Daniel Caspary, my grandfather, claimed that he was descended from the real Jewish aristocrats, the Sephardim of Spain and Portugal. He had no proof and no idea of where his forefathers had got their name. Nor were they ever sure of themselves as Jews. Grandpa Caspary, the Socialist, called himself a freethinker and brought up his children without religion. Papa told me Bible stories incorrectly so that later, in Sunday School, I argued with teachers; it never occurred to me that my father could be wrong about Noah in the lion's den or Moses in the stomach of a whale.
Papa, having had no religious education, believed in God. Mama sometimes challenged fate with the statement "I don't believe in Gawd." We never took this seriously because we disliked the way she pronounced His name. She was the real aristocrat, with family records that went back to the flight from Portugal in 1497. Her father had been a learned man, graduate of a rabbinical school in Amsterdam, a teacher in a theological seminary. Before coming to America he had worked in England as an interpreter in a court of law. The English had found his Portuguese name difficult and when he arrived in New York, he took the noblest of Jewish names, Cohen. Mama forgot the original name but told me I'd find it in the old Hebrew Bible that contained records of all births, marriages and deaths since her father's family left Portugal. Her sister Hannah had the Bible in Paris.
Indifferent though we were to religion, we were contemptuous of Jews who denied being Jewish or changed their names and contradicted ourselves with scorn for those whose names ended in -witz or -ski. Papa's sister, my beloved Aunt Olga, the most merciful of women, would often tell me in a hushed voice, "They're not the finest kind of Jewish people, dear."
Brought up as a freethinker, craving religion, Aunt Olga turned passionately to Christian Science, became a practitioner, a member of the board of her local church and finally of the Mother Church in Boston. Her success in soothing the sick and anxious came from her profound humanity, although it was believed by the family as well as her co-religionists that her remarkable personality stemmed from her love of Christ and the example of Mary Baker Eddy. In times of distress, sickness and death, when burglars broke into the house and when Papa lost his money we were comforted by Aunt Olga's lovely voice and shining optimism. No one thought of her vocation as an escape from Judaism, but as I came to know her in her franker years, I suspected from careless remarks that part of her conversion — certainly not all — was the anti-Semitism inherited from her Prussian mother.
Mama, a refugee from orthodoxy, a challenger of God, would often declare "I'm Jewish and proud of it," in defiance no doubt of the imbalance of decision in her husband's family. So long as we did not deny our Jewish heritage she had no objection to our observance of Christian customs. Christmas was celebrated with gusto in our house; at Easter there were colored eggs. They let me go to the Sunday School of St. James Episcopal Church because it was just around the corner with no dangerous streets to cross so that the grown-ups need not lose sleep on Sunday mornings. As a child in New York, Mama had been taught to close her eyes when she passed a crucifix, but she never said a word against my treasuring pretty Sunday-School cards with pictures of Jesus and Mary.
But my Christian education was brief; we moved out of the neighborhood of St. James when I was six, soon after I started collecting holy pictures. Our furniture was packed in crates, taken away in a moving van. The house was empty. We spent the night in a hotel. The next morning we drove in a hansom cab to the Illinois Central station. We were going to live in Memphis, Tennessee. There was a church directly across the street from our new home, but it was Methodist or Presbyterian and gave away no pretty pictures. My playmates in Memphis were the daughters of my father's business associates, Jewish and not Sunday-School-goers. On Yom Kippur Mama went with their mothers to the synagogue but considered the service too orthodox.
Few congregations were actually so reformed as the temple whose Sunday School I attended after we moved back to Chicago when I was nine. Reform congregations in Chicago never used such an alien and outmoded word as synagogue: temple sounded more refined. Like the Christians, they held their services on Sunday. Sinai was not the only reformed congregation in Chicago but was certainly the farthest from ritual. Instead of a cantor there was a choir. The great organ played Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Mendelssohn. Dr. Emil G. Hirsch (always Doctor, never Rabbi) devoted his sermons to social questions, politics, philosophy and book reviews. He loathed cant, deplored complacency, railed against hypocrisy and never hesitated to use a culprit's name. In a congregation supported by the rich he castigated landlords, industrialists and merchants who exploited the poor.
Excerpted from The Secrets of Grown-Ups by Vera Caspary. Copyright © 2013 Vera Caspary estate. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Secrets of Grown-Ups,
2. The Poor Working Girl,
3. "I Can Teach You to Dance Like This",
5. True Story,
6. Greenwich Village,
7. Dream into Nightmare,
8. The Years of the Ravens,
9. The Red Badge of Guilt,
10. Love Begins at Forty,
11. Two Worried People,
12. Domestic Situation,
13. Return of the Specter,