|Publisher:||University of Oklahoma Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.16(w) x 9.12(h) x 0.83(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The little red lighthouse
During the early 1920s, my brother, Warren, and I would sometimes be taken to play with friends around a little red lighthouse that stood (and at the present writing, still stands) on the Hudson River shore of upper Manhattan Island. It was a magical spot of sand, rocks, trees, and weeds, all bathed by the gently lapping tidal swells of the river's edge and smelling pungently of the sea and of spilled oil. The small size of the lighthouse, around whose base we raced, playing hide-and-seek and other games, gave it the scale of belonging to us as a part of our child's world, luring to our playground the gulls that wheeled and screeched above our heads and seeming to watch, with the glare of its guardian light, the occasional tankers and cargo ships that glided silently by on their way up or down the river.
At the time, we lived above the Hudson and the lighthouse in northern Manhattan's Washington Heights, having moved there into the third floor of a relatively new apartment building in the winter of 1918-19. Before that, we had lived in our own private homes in suburbs of New York City, first in Woodmere, on Long Island's southern shore, where I had been born in mid-May 1915, and then for a little more than a year completely on the other side of New York, in Westfield, New Jersey. Our new apartment home in Manhattan was on the fringe of undeveloped, rural-like parkland that descended all the way to the lighthouse and the river's edge and embraced both the site of the Revolutionary War's Fort Washington and an area in which a well-known American sculptor, George Grey Barnard, was busy helping to build a resplendent uptown museum of medievalart known as the Cloisters.
The river was the mystical border of my world, and I loved to be taken there by my mother or by a maid or a daughter of one of our neighbors whom my mother paid to look after Warren and me. From the little lighthouse, I could gaze westward across the water to the basalt walls of the Palisades. Like fluted ramparts protecting mysterious heights, they became compelling objects of my wonder, and I imagined that beyond the cliffs the wooded highland was inhabited by Rain-in-the-Face and other war-whooping Indians in paint and feathers, and by wolves and grizzly bears that chased people up trees, by little men in big hats who made thunder by rolling balls with Rip Van Winkle, and by all sorts of other wild and adventurous peoples and goings-on of the kind that my father made come alive in suspenseful stories that he told to my brother and me. Even my viewing site at the little lighthouse on my safe side of the Hudson River became a place of enchantment, and at night, as I lay in the darkness of our bedroom in the apartment building, waiting to fall asleep, I imagined myself miraculously crossing the river from the lighthouse to the New Jersey shore and encountering exciting perils and adventures in a wilderness of forests and mountains on top of the cliffs.
Meanwhile, my real world was one of middle-class security on Manhattan Island. The fount of the security was my mother's father, an imperious-looking man of erudition and authority named Samuel Knopf, who, despite my father's ability to provide for us, gave my mother a large monthly allowance that permitted a lot of major and minor extravagances and let us live not only comfortably but well in a seven-room apartment with tall ceilings, a playroom for Warren and me, a living room with a working fireplace, and one or two full-time servants who had their own bedroom and bath off the kitchen and slept in.
S.K., as my grandfather was known to friends, had his hands in a number of different businesses, including banking, real estate, financial consulting, and advertising. He was also the chief source of start-up and occasional cash-flow funds for the book publishing firm of his son, my mother's older brother, Alfred A. Knopf, and served as business manager of the celebrated green-covered magazine of the 1920s the American Mercury, which Alfred published and H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan edited.
I loved my grandfather very deeply and was proud of him and proud to be linked with him in front of the important people whom he knew. In the 1920s, he was in his sixties, a conservative, meticulously groomed and dressed man who carried a silver-headed cane, wore spats and a high silk hat on Sundays, and owned a top-heavy-looking Rolls-Royce sedan driven by a uniformed French chauffeur named Paul, who could scarcely speak a word of understandable English but dressed colorfully in leather puttees and a visored cap which he set at a rakish angle that made him look like a surviving aviation ace from the Great War.
My grandfather, in turn, looked like a squarely built, no-nonsense Prussian, although he had been born in a kicked-around part of Eastern Europe that sometimes belonged to Poland and sometimes to Russia. He had gotten out of there early, however, and as a little boy in the 1860s, he had accompanied his family first to England and then to the United States, where he was raised in New York and Texas. Somehow, he received a good education, became well read and widely traveled in the South and Midwest as a drummer, or salesman, and by the 1890s was a cultured and successful businessman in Cincinnati, where my mother was born. Soon afterward, the family moved to a house on a wooded hill above the Hudson River near 181st Street in New York City, just about where the George Washington Bridge was built in later years. My mother told me that Alfred had had a pet monkey there when she was a little girl, but she didn't know what had happened to it and didn't care to know. When I was ten, the house with a long white porch overlooking the river was still there, but it was demolished during the building of the bridge.
My grandfather doted on and spoiled my mother, his only daughter, whom he had named Sophia for some long-forgotten actress he had admired. During my mother's youth, he gave her everything she wanted, and she kind of expected it to go on forever. In her school days, she had been full of fun and had relished unabashedly her teenage reputation as a flirt. My father was eight years older than she, and on their first meeting, when they had been playing tennis on adjoining courts and she had continued to disrupt his game by running onto his court to retrieve a ball, he had raised her dander by calling her a brat. A little while later, they had a chance meeting in a restaurant, where she decided she would make him change his mind about her. She succeeded, and in April 1914 they were married in a large formal wedding at the St. Regis Hotel in New York City and went off on a honeymoon at Hot Springs, Arkansas, and then into the suburban house in Woodmere.
In the 1920s, my mother was still young, dark-eyed, and pretty, given to wearing sporty clothes, playing tennis, and dancing, giving and going to Jazz Age parties, and enjoying life as if she were without a care. A lot of it was deceptive, for she ran our home (and later a business) efficiently and effectively, was emotional and capable of explosions of temper, and enfolded Warren and me with motherly love and attention that, along with a wonderful comradeship with our father, reinforced our sense of security and built up our self-confidence.
As his first grandchild, I became, like my mother, adored by my grandfather. We were pals, and it came to me as a shock years later to learn that his stern and demanding looks and manner had put off a lot of people and even frightened them. Not me. He parted his hair in the middle, wore pince-nez glasses and a rich mustache with somewhat tapered ends, and it was true that at times he could look awfully fierce, especially when he clenched a long cigar between his front teeth and glowered at you. But all I saw and felt was a deep, protective love and kindness in him that stemmed from some sort of an identification with me, as if he wanted me to grow up to be like him, to adopt his enthusiasms and interests, and, in truth, be his heir, carry on, as it were, his own life after he was gone. It was his intention, he and my mother conveyed to me on numerous occasions, that when I finished college, I would join Alfred's firm and become a publisher. For as long as I could remember, I took that as a given and assumed, like a fairy-tale prince betrothed by his parents at the age of six months to some remote princess, that my career had been settled for me and that there would be nothing ever that I could do about it.
In preparation for that destiny, perhaps, my grandfather spoke to me seriously again and again, as if I were an adult and he a teacher, counseling me with bits of wisdom and advice that he hoped I would never forget -- on such matters, for instance, as the value of a person's character ("one's most important possession -- never stain it"), integrity, generosity, money ("Money should be used defensively, not offensively"), courage, the importance of the best education possible, and the ability to give leadership and make wise decisions and judgments. In later years, I would hear American Indian elders and holy people discuss some of these same values and virtues as those of their own most respected civil and spiritual leaders, and at such moments I could hear my grandfather's voice in theirs.
At the same time, though, my grandfather would occasionally come to with a start, as if realizing that I was still in knickerbockers in elementary school, more interested in major-league batting averages and in trading picture cards than in molding my character for a far-distant future, and he would take off his pince-nez glasses from the bridge of his nose and sing to me one of his favorite moralistic songs in a loud, rollicking voice, trusting that I would prefer to get the message in an entertaining way:
"Oh, there was an old man and he had a wooden leg;
He had no tobaccy, no tobaccy could he beg;
He blew in his nickels and he blew in his rocks,
And he never had tobaccy in his old tobaccy box.
There was another old man as sly as a fox.
He saved up his nickels and he piled up his rocks,
And he always had tobaccy in his old tobaccy box.
Said man number one, 'Will you give me a chew?'
Says man number two, 'I'll be hanged if I do.
Go save up your money and go save up your rocks,
And you'll always have tobaccy in your old tobaccy box.' "
My grandmother took some of my grandfather's advice in her own way and did such things as maintaining a closet in her bedroom stocked "for a rainy day" with hundreds of dollars' worth of potted meats, jams, and other luxury foods from all over the world. It didn't seem to me that she needed much food, because she was a heavily built woman with tiny feet and an enormous bust that protruded so far out ahead of her that she looked as if the weight would topple her over onto her face at any moment. My grandfather spoiled her, as he did my mother, and she usually appeared in public in expensive Cartier, Tiffany, and Dreicer jewelry and fashionable lacy clothes that were wrapped so tightly around her throat and upper body that I wondered how she could breathe. She was a very sweet and kindly grandmother, who pinched my cheeks, showered me with love and little presents, and generally meant well, but she also tended at times to be a little addlepated. In fact, my father said she was the stupidest woman he had ever known, and in hindsight he wasn't far off the mark. She could get off some real doozies. During World War II, when somebody told her that my brother, Warren, had landed as an officer with the First Army at Normandy, she said, "Oh, how nice. It's so lovely in France this time of the year." In addition, she had been born and raised in Brooklyn in a family of genuine Brooklyn characters (her father, known as Harris the Hatter, had almost been killed trying to be the first man to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge by doing it on a construction catwalk long before the bridge was finished), and she had an authentic Brooklyn accent that had her pronouncing words like oil as "earl" and earl as "oil."
My father, though nothing like my grandfather, was a great guy too, a real dad and an understanding companion to Warren and me, but as I realized more fully when I was much older, life hadn't been altogether a happy journey for him, although he never showed it. He had been born on West 70th Street in New York City in 1887 and, after graduating from Cornell University in 1908, had achieved a long-held ambition and become a mechanical engineer. But that career, which he loved and which promised him the excitement of a life of travel and challenges working on skyscrapers, public buildings, and other construction projects in different parts of the world, had been suddenly aborted in 1918, a few years after I was born, when his father, a commission merchant, or broker, in the dressed-poultry business in New York, was killed by a streetcar.
At the request of my father's mother, a strong-willed, matriarchal type from Bridgeport, Connecticut, who, with her husband, had drilled a martial-like obedience into their children, my father joined his older brother in taking over and running their father's poultry business, which was conducted from about 3 a.m. to 3 p.m., five days a week, on the noisy cobblestone streets of New York's wholesale meat and poultry market district on West 14th Street, near the New York Central's freight yards and the steamship piers on the Hudson River. It was a grueling and, to my father, a humdrum and unrewarding life of receiving daily incoming refrigerated railroad boxcars full of barrels and crates of frozen dressed turkeys, chickens, geese, and ducks from Iowan and other western shippers and transshipping them in trucks to East Coast ocean liners, hotels, fancy meat markets, and other large buyers. Although my father disliked the business, it meant income for his mother and our family, and once saddled with it, he stuck to it dutifully for the rest of his working life, only giving it up and retiring after his mother died in 1946, when he was too old to start life over again.
As a young man, he had been handsome and thin, but in his thirties he was already becoming heavyset. He still chain-smoked a collection of pipes throughout the day, a habit he had begun at Cornell, played a good game of golf with mashies, niblicks, and other clubs he had used as a member of the Cornell golf team, strummed "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and other old tunes on a mandolin, and, along with my mother, played championship bridge with Oswald Jacoby, the Culbertsons, and other celebrated players of the day. In addition, despite his work's demanding hours and its rough physical calls on his stamina, as well as the frustrations he must have felt at not having been able to return to his profession, he possessed a tremendous reservoir of good humor and wit and was extraordinarily warm and kind to his family and friends.
To Warren and me, he was also a powerful storyteller. He would lie soaking among suds in the bathtub on weekend mornings, or at four or five o'clock on weekday afternoons after he had come home from work, and tell us wonderful stories of pirates and Indians and American heroes, of glory and valor and exploration and travel. He loved history and adventure, and he had a great gift for bringing alive in our youthful imaginations vivid and exciting scenes of patriotic deeds done by heroic men and women. We learned about Nathan Hale, the colonists' brave stand at Bunker Hill, and the taking of Fort Ticonderoga in the Revolution, about the Alamo, the Pony Express, Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, and Lewis and Clark far, far out west, way beyond the Hudson River, in a strange and wonderful place called Oregon. There, my father told us, his father had once owned a piece of property that probably was a ranch with cowboys and cattle and rustlers, but that, as far as he knew, no one in the family had ever visited it. The place, he said disappointingly, had been sold after his father died.
That little piece of information intrigued me, and I kept thinking about it for several days. A ranch with cowboys and cattle rustlers. Probably Indians too. Why had they let it go, that place that could have been incredibly exciting for our own family to go to? My father told us other stories about Oregon, about the pioneer people on the Oregon Trail, and about the dramatic sixty-six-day race of the battleship Oregon from the West Coast around Cape Horn to help defeat the Spanish fleet in 1898. The name "Oregon," evoking images of sacrifice and romantic adventure, became planted in my head as that of some fantastic section of our country, still part of the old Wild West and offering to bold and daring people who went there plenty of thrills and excitement.
Table of Contents
|Part I||The Cocoon|
|1.||The Little Red Lighthouse||3|
|2.||A Zest for Living||19|
|3.||H. L. Mencken||31|
|Part II||Breaking Out|
|4.||Innocent at Harvard||45|
|5.||Innocent in Politics Versus Huey P. Long||58|
|6.||Innocent in Hollywood||75|
|7.||Into the Real World||93|
|Part III||Expanding Horizons|
|9.||Of Mexico and Leon Trotsky||124|
|10.||Rendezvous with Destiny||144|
|11.||"God Bless the Boys of Ninth Avenue"||164|
|Part IV||New Beginnings|
|13.||The Price of Freedom||202|
|14.||A Ruptured Duck||219|
|Part V||Winds of Change|
|17.||A New Generation||284|