Page Smith's Introduction and afterward to the book:
A Letter From My Father
The Strange Intimate Correspondence of W. Ward Smith to His Son Page Smith edited by Page Smith
A Letter From My Father Introduction
It was my father's strange conceit to write me a letter, the writing of which extended over a period of more than thirty years, and which, ultimately, reached ten thousand pages in length, a total of over two and a half million words. The length of the "letter" was only one of its oddities. Much of it was devoted to an account of his sexual adventures, related in very explicit detail. It contained, to be sure, a great deal of additional information dealing with his ill-fated business ventures and his lifelong fascination with politics, but anyone plunging into the nonstop narrative at almost any point could not avoid the predominantly sexual character of it.
The letter was never delivered to me during my father's lifetime but he made references to it on those rare occasions when I saw him and read brief portions during visits to Greenwich, New York, where he and his third wife had a weekend and vacation home. So I knew something of its general character long before it passed into my hands upon his death in 1968. His estate was a modest one: some hats, of which he was a diligent collector, a gold watch that had belonged to his father, a lengthy genealogy, the compilation of which took up much of the time not absorbed in writing the letter to me, a considerable number of autographed portraits of prominent politicians and theatrical figures, the letter, and a small trunk full of what might be called supporting documents.
These were delivered in several boxes and two small trunks. The "letter" was, from the moment of its arrival, something of a white elephant or, perhaps more aptly, an albatross. I poked into it more or less at random, reading the erotic, pornographic portions and feeling, while doing so, somewhat like a small boy reading a dirty book. It was a puzzle to me-as it had been from the time I first got a notion of the nature of the letter-that a father would wish to have his son read such accounts. Innumerable fathers have been womanizers. Most have attempted to conceal their philandering from their families, certainly from their children. Some have, I am sure, been the deliberate debauchers (or teachers in sexual matters) of their children, more particularly their male children. Very few, I suspect, have left such detailed and explicit accounts of their sexual liaisons. So, I asked myself repeatedly, without, I fear, producing any satisfactory answers, Why? Why the letter? Why the extraordinary emphasis on sexual encounters? And then, equally baffling, what was to be done with this white albatross? I confess my first impulse was to burn it. I have very different views on sexual matters from my father's. I am what Arthur Hoppe has called a "closet monogamist." Like Konrad Lorentz' greylag geese, I believe in "bonding," in "finding the right little woman" and cleaving to her until death us do part. I am appalled at the notion of a series of wives and mistresses, partly on aesthetic grounds-it seems so messy-and largely on emotional grounds: I could not bear all that meaningless excitation, violation of the spirit, misery, and recrimination. I believe in fidelity; in mastering one's passions rather than succumbing to them. I even adhere to the moral argument. Indeed, I am bound to because I believe that all matters are, in essence, moral, that is to say they have to do with diminishing or enhancing our humanness and thus they have to do with right and wrong. Morality, to me, is simply a kind of convenient code which prescribes most behavior so that we do not have to approach every problem de novo, as though it was entirely new and had to be figured out ad hominem, so to speak, a course which I believe to be exhausting and unnecessarily time-consuming. Virtually everything that my father did, especially though not exclusively in the realm of sex, seemed to me both wrong and personally and socially destructive, evil if you will.
So it was surpassing strange to me that I should be what I suppose many people would consider something of a prude and the son of a libertine. Such a succession is in no way exceptional, of course. Quite the contrary. It is the sons of drunkards who are most commonly teetotalers, or at least common wisdom has it so. And the sons of libertines who are often "closet monogamists," sexually repressed, homosexuals, or simply enemies of the married state. I am clearly the first of these. Certainly I am the second, to a degree, in that I have confined my sexual activities to the marital bed and, though powerfully attracted to a considerable number of women, have repressed my impulse to try to make love to them. Part of this may be simple cowardice-the fear of being rejected and thus wounded in my self-esteem. After all, if you have never tried you can, like the man who has never failed, believe that had you tried you would have been found universally irresistible. But I have persuaded myself that I have a more respectable motive -- to have sexual relations with another person without the sustaining structure of enduring love surrounding that act seems to me to be both a violation of oneself and of the "other." I go into these matters in some detail because, while this is a book about my father it is, of necessity, a book also about me. And part of whatever drama it may have clearly lies in the differentness of our respective temperaments.
Thus, while it is admittedly not uncommon for libertines to have moralistic offspring, it nonetheless struck me as a particular irony that my libertine father should have dropped on me this vast, imponderable, randomly obscene work in the form of a letter. So I considered, as I say, burning it. It was of no more than prurient interest to me. And the prurient is today so well attended to that I had no special need of it, granting some need for the prurient. It could hardly have any different kind of interest for my children. In fact I rebuffed their curiosity and forbade them, adults though they all are, to read it. Not on the grounds that their morals would be corrupted (their morals seem to me quite exemplary and if they were going to be corrupted they would, presumably, have been corrupted long ago) but on the grounds that I could see nothing to be gained by opening those strange, interminable, even morbid, pages to them. They could hardly live long enough to read the manuscript through from beginning to end. Therefore they, like me, would be confined of necessity to the pornographic portions. And to what good purpose?
Attractive as burning seemed, I was, I suppose, as an historian, conditioned against it. I knew of too many instances where protective widows or heirs had burned papers to protect the image of a husband or father (or, less often, mother) to be quite comfortable about burning my father's ostensible letter to me. There was some prospective historical-sociological-psychological significance to it. Beyond that it represented a substantial part of my father's odd life simply in the writing of it and, in its exhaustive and endless detail, it, in another way, contained his life, a life that seemed to me singularly futile and depressing, but a life, nonetheless, and my father's at that.
It was also possible, though it seemed unlikely then and still does as I begin this work, that it contained the answer to some riddle, some obscure mystery, having to do with my life and my relation to my father. No one can live in the middle of the twentieth century without being aware of Freud's Oedipus complex. I have never taken it as more than a kind of loose metaphor. In fact I believe that rather than wishing to murder his father and possess his mother and his father's domain, the son more typically wishes to receive from his father those gifts of mind and spirit that will enable him to find his way through the tangled forests of this strange world. But even if one rejects the Freudian system as I do, one cannot remain entirely unaffected by it. My father had never functioned for me as a real father (my maternal grandfather performed that role). I had no warm childhood memories of a loving, caring, protecting person, or even of a stern, severe, demanding person. On those occasions when my father did appear he was almost a supplicating figure, a person who showered me with moist kisses from his full sensual lips -- kisses that I found so different from the firm, warm, discreet kisses of my mother and other adult relatives, as to be rather offensive -- and bestowed presents in bewildering profusion. Even then I think I felt the presents were tainted by his prolonged absences, his inattentiveness, his easy emotionalism. I sensed that he was trying to buy something cheaply -- my love and admiration. With a child's shrewdness, I withheld them.
When I was three or four, I climbed on a little wooden horse with wheels to reach for some attractive object on a dresser. The horse slid from under me and I fell and cut my cheek rather severely on a wastepaper basket (I still bear the scar). I was sewed up and when my father heard of the accident he appeared in our New York apartment with a blizzard of toys, featuring a whole array of airplanes that were suspended above my bed. Much later I imagined he had come from one of his assignations full of remorse and shame, believing my accident a judgment upon him for his wicked behavior.
I will include further of our infrequent but strange meetings in the course of the "letter." Here I am describing my perplexity over what to do with the letter. I suspect that more than by an historian's scruples, I was constrained by this riddle I have spoken of; by the sense that someday I might need or wish to undertake the unriddling of it, so far as possible. Or might, seen in another way, perform some kind of expiation for him and for myself so that we might be united after his death in a way we had never been during his lifetime.
To be candid I should say I also considered the possibility that the letter might someday be published in some form (and thus fill out my sparse inheritance). I knew that my father had made several attempts to interest publishers in the manuscript but its length and explicit language (the latter of which constituted the principal attraction for a publisher as well as the principal obstacle) prevented any serious consideration by publishers during my father's lifetime. (With the virtual disappearance of censorship, the problem of the language and the pornographic character of much of the narrative are no longer perceived as liabilities by publishers.)
In any event, for whatever combination of reasons, I forbore to burn the letter and instead locked it in a footlocker and stored it in an inaccessible corner of the barn. I mentioned it to my editor at Little, Brown. He, in turn, mentioned it several years later to my agent, John Brockman, who took an immediate interest and urged me to send him a portion of the manuscript to show to publishers. I complied, saying as I did so, that I, in a manner of speaking, washed my hands of the project in the sense that if a publisher's editor was interested he would have to do the editing. I would have nothing to do with the venture. I had meantime left the academic world and founded, with a colleague, a nonprofit corporation to do good-or what we considered good. To do good the corporation needed money. I was thus more susceptible on purely monetary grounds to the notion of publishing the letter than I had been before. I clutched at the straw of publishing the work but somehow disassociating myself from it at the same time. It turned out not to work. Several publishers were interested but shied away from the enormous editorial problems involved and, obviously, from the lack of context for the book itself. John Brockman reported this reaction to me and suggested gently that it would float only if I took responsibility for the work myself. It was, after all, a letter to me. Without, in any real sense, resolving my own ambiguities about my father's letter, I consented to try to do what I had from the beginning dimly perceived I must try to do sooner or later. I must try to exorcise the ghost of my father, that very material ghostly manuscript: the letter and the life.
I must confess that even at this stage of things I am not sure enough of my own motives to be able to say with confidence that I did not undertake what is in many ways a repugnant task in order simply to make money. I have taken some of the edge -- but by no means all -- off that anxiety by resolving to put the greater part of any royalties that may accrue into our nonprofit venture. But that is not enough to give me an entirely clear conscience (not that anyone should enjoy such a luxury anyhow). I still fret over whether, with all my high-sounding psychologizing, I am not simply exploiting a dirty book that my father wrote. So I fall back on what is a final argument to myself, the undoubted fact that my father would be enormously pleased. There will, after all, be a postlude to that strangely unfulfilled life. All of us search for something, a grail, a meaning, a journey through the middle earth, a Frobisher's passage of the mind and spirit, a pilgrim's progress. Perhaps my father's insatiable pursuit of sex (surely he was one of its classic prisoners) was no more than that (sex, power, money, and politics-all that is certainly thoroughly American and thoroughly human if not especially admirable), his particular grail.
* * *
My father was a striking looking man. That was my earliest impression of him -- that he did not look like other men. There was, in his appearance, something compelling and exotic. As a sophomore in a college writing course I wrote a brief sketch of my father, giving him the pseudonym of Charlie Johnson. I insert it here as a measure of how I perceived him then (and later).
"He was very tall with dark hair. He had pale blue eyes. Pale blue eyes and black hair. It was a very startling combination. His teeth were long and even and yellow and slightly decayed and he showed them when he grinned (it was not so much a grin as a lewd leer). He frequently laughed, throwing back his head and giving a bellowing, trumpeting roar that started deep in his throat and came gurgling and bubbling up. It was a slightly obscene laugh. You might call it a horselaugh.
"He had a thick moustache with the ends carefully waxed, and wide, sensual lips, always moist. His eyes, not only the color, but the bold, frankly lewd way he had of staring at you, and that wide, sensual hungry-looking mouth were what struck you most; that and his laugh and his deep voice, husky with unspoken sexual implications.
"It was funny to walk down the street with him. Women followed him with their eyes. Some looked discreetly, guardedly. Others stared openly. He was conscious of it alright. He walked with a long swinging stride and talked in a loud voice, punctuating his remarks with his great obscene laughs. Usually he talked about women and sex."
I have resisted the temptation to edit these opening paragraphs describing "Charlie Johnson" though I note that my English professor circled "unspoken" in the phrase, "husky with unspoken sexual implications." I might, however, make a comment or two. Though lacking in literary merit, it still seems to me a reasonably good physical description of my father-I feel I rather overdid the laugh but that may be because I haven't heard him laugh for some years now: it was perhaps his most engaging quality. Beyond that, as a late adolescent, very slow in maturing physically and uncertain of my own sexual nature, it was clear that it was the overt sexuality of my father that most fascinated me about him. I note further one important omission in his physical description. My father had the most graceful and, indeed, I am inclined to say, the most beautiful hands of any man I have known. They were slender but finely articulated with long expressive fingers, very slightly splayed at the ends. His grip or handshake combined strength with softness in a disconcerting way so that the grip of the hand was like a caress. The hands-they seemed in some way hardly to be a part of his coarseness and vulgarity-were hands that one might expect to find on a brilliant artist, a sculptor, a violinist (and, of course, seldom does). Certainly they were sensual, even insinuating hands, and to that degree in character. I remember seeing a photograph of the hands of Leslie Howard, the popular actor, that reminded me of my father's hands and made me, for the first time, conscious of their beauty. Did the hands provide a clue to the riddle of my father's strange personality? Might they be the hands of an artist manque, of a fallen angel? There may have been something angelic in his nature -- something that I missed but that women felt and that with his devilishness, his fallenness, made him irresistible to them. Perhaps it was they who were perpetually seducing him, to whom his aura of sexuality was as irresistible as their flesh to him; he created, wherever he went, this strange sexual tension, what was once called animal magnetism and constituted a respectable science and which we all know exists, which we experience daily in contacts with certain people.
That was my father in his middle forties. Age diminished but certainly did not extinguish his attractiveness to women. He and his third wife visited us in California when he was in his early seventies. In a fashionable San Francisco restaurant, while his wife and mine, my younger daughter Anne, and I looked on with some astonishment, an attractive, sexy woman in her middle or late thirties stopped at our table, put her arms around my father, kissed him and whispered something in his ear. Was she an old friend? What had she said? No, he had never seen her before. She had said, "You're beautiful." I was approximately the age my father had been when I wrote my undergraduate composition about him. That thought was not in my mind at the moment but I envied him, I think, for the first time. And I believed in the power of the aura. Most of the time I'm glad that I don't have it. I have enough trouble resisting whatever modest temptations may occasionally confront me. But it must be one of the profoundest ego-satisfactions known to man to experience the feminine world as almost totally and constantly accessible. That alone might be enough to make a man an addict. Moreover, my father failed by virtually every standard that the average American regards as important. He was an absent husband, a nothing father, an inadequate provider, a repeated business failure. In one area only was he an unqualified success -- in bed, in sexual exploits. While it is reasonably clear that he had persistent and insatiable sexual appetites from an early age the same might be said of many young men, or, indeed, most young men. But it is hard not to believe that as he found himself, in part at least because of his mercurial and unstable personality, unable to succeed in acquiring that quick and easy wealth that seemed to him to be necessary to sustain the extravagant and openhanded style of living that he felt was appropriate to his persona, to his physical magnificence, he turned increasingly to the by no means inconsiderable consolations of sex. In that field he was, or felt himself to be, unrivaled.
So perhaps his letter to me can be understood as a variation of the great American success story. My father never made it. I suspect that if the money he honestly earned was prorated, so to speak, over his lifetime, it would come to no more than a few hundred dollars a year. But while his contemporaries and friends and associates were making it, he was making it with their wives, mistresses, and daughters, as well as any other stray female who wandered into his ambience.
My father was born on September 26, 1893, and christened William Ward Smith. He was always called Ward and used the name W. Ward Smith the greater part of his life. (I was christened Charles Page Ward Smith and called Page. Since my father was in such bad odor through my early youth the Ward was soon discarded, the Charles was abbreviated to "C" to prevent those who presumed from calling me "Charlie" and eventually dropped as pretentious and useless.) His father was not a distinguished or important man, an apparently competent engineer for Consolidated Edison. His grandfather, Albert Mather Smith, had been a doctor in, as I recall, New Rochelle. The family was a substantial, reasonably prosperous middle-class professional family. My great-grandfather's baby cup was a rather splendid silver chalice like vessel; my grandfather's was less impressive but nonetheless ornate, my father's plain and modest, and mine has disappeared. I have not entirely unraveled the anthropology of the baby cups but it suggests a decline either in fortune or a decline in ostentation. There were, in any event, handsome china and silver and furniture in the family which passed into hands other than mine. Those things inherited by my father, most particularly a very fine set of Crown Derby china, were pawned in one or another of his unending financial crises.
In his later life, after he had retired from his job as an engineer, my grandfather started a business of selling wood shavings to New York state dairy men as bedding for their cows.
In my memory I see my paternal grandparents, gray and round and amiable and reserved, sitting in an oppressively dark and gloomy apartment full of velvet hangings of various kinds. They had a stuffed alligator and a steam engine in a glass case, both of which I coveted and embarrassed my mother by asking if I could have after they died, as it seemed to me they might do at any moment, they sat so still and spoke so quietly and seemed so old. I calculate now they were in their late fifties.
My father's genealogical researches which, as I have already noted, extended over a period almost as long as that occupied in writing his letter to me, turned up a host of distinguished ancestors. But distinguished ancestors are a dime a dozen, if one has the time and energy to unearth them, and this is especially true the further back one goes in history. Most of those in my father's line were seventeenth-and eighteenth-century characters, some substantial Puritans like Increase Mather (Mather remained a family name down to my father's generation), a smattering of Dutch patroons (a Polhemus, for example, after whom my younger brother was almost named), Jacob Leisler, the leader of a revolt against the ruling families of New York at the time of the Glorious Revolution in England; Blackwells of the island and the Leveriches and Elweses of Oyster Bay. A thousand distinguished ancestors, however, will not get you into the Cotillion or the Four Hundred (or however "society" is defined) unless you have money and social position. If you are a butcher your blood may be as blue as blue but you will not be included in the Social Register or invited to Mrs. Astor's ball. My impression is that my father's family, like many other similar families, clung to the very outer edge of New York society. My father went to a good private school and there he came in contact with boys whose families had the assured social status that he did not. I assume that like most ambitious young men of his generation and rather ambiguous or poorly defined social position, he desired to make a socially (and hence a financially) advantageous marriage.
Since he himself tells, in his letter, of his childhood and youth, I will confine my observations to his marriage to my mother. My mother's background was Southern, although in a manner never quite clear to me we claimed descent both from Elder Brewster, of the Mayflower, and the Indian princess Pocahontas (the latter was understandable because Pocahontas was, after all, from Virginia and she did marry John Rolfe, one of the early settlers, though the lustre of that descent was somewhat dimmed by the fact that an historian calculated that the dusky lady had, in 1940, 137,864 living descendants).
In many respects my mother's ancestry and immediate background were quite similar to my father's. Her maternal grandfather -- my great-grandfather -- had been editor of a Richmond newspaper, fought in the Civil War, was wounded and left for dead on the battlefield. He had, I gathered, been too addicted to the bottle (there were occasional dark hints of such a weakness in the blood and my grandmother was a teetotaler and member of the WCTU). My mother's grandfather on her father's side had been a schoolmaster in Frederick, Maryland.
Indeed when one got back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were distinguished ancestors galore. Carter Braxton, signer of the Declaration of Independence (and a pigheaded old reactionary), John Page, friend of Thomas Jefferson (indeed a whole swarm of Pages including Mann Page who built Rosewell, the greatest house in Virginia), and a wide assortment of Nelsons, Taliaferros, Randolphs, Carters, and Byrds. The closer one got to the present, however, the harder it was to turn up anyone more imposing than farmers, country doctors, schoolteachers or clerks in dry goods stores. The mythology of the South, however, took care of that modest status. Every Southerner who, at the end of the nineteenth or the beginning of the present century, was not notably prosperous could blame his condition on the Civil War and the damn yankees who had burned the old plantation, carried off the slaves, and stolen the family silver. Mother's family was no different in that respect from any other Southern family.
My grandfather was a poor boy in rural Maryland, determined to make his fortune. He went up to Baltimore to launch his career, but the times were bad and the only job he could get paid him five dollars a week, too little to live on. He came back to Frederick defeated. Apparently doomed to a small town existence, he devised a strategy for escape. The only member of the family with a respectable income was his adoring older sister --"Sister," as she was called. She worked in Richmond as a nurse. If she would stake her brother Willie for the time it took him to get established in business, he would provide for her the rest of her life. Before the days of social security and retirement systems the offer had a strong appeal to Sister. She agreed. My grandfather got a new start and, after a series of advances and setbacks that rivaled the adventures of Horatio Alger, he made it. He made it primarily through his sponsorship by one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the city, the Prestons. James Preston had served a term or two as mayor of Baltimore (and was always subsequently called Mayor Preston). He helped my grandfather start a bank and was his advocate in Baltimore society. Since the Pages were known as a fine old Virginia family and the Williamses (my maternal grandmother's family) were powers in Richmond, if rather nouveau riche, it was relatively simple to smuggle (or usher) the transplanted Pages into Baltimore society -- the Cotillion, the Monday German, the Elkridge Hunt Club, the University Club, the Mt. Vernon Club, the Colonial Dames (infinitely superior to the definitely middle-class Daughters of the American Revolution) -- all those associational activities by which the elite of the city defined themselves and marked out their superiority to the crowds of ordinary merchants and businessmen pushing their way up from below and constantly scheming how they might gain a toehold on that exalted plateau. Some did it simply by the overpowering weight of money. Thus old Emerson, the druggist, happened to invent an enormously successful remedy for the nervous stomach that afflicted so many Americans from the strain of trying to get ahead, and, as a consequence, got ahead himself, although not without a fierce and prolonged struggle and some sniffs that soon dentists and such people would be trying to buy their way into the Cotillion (as indeed they soon were).
This is not the place for an analysis of Baltimore society. My only intention is to indicate that my mother's family had by hard work, good fortune, and usable family connections gained access to the charmed circle.
My mother and her sisters thus "came out," attended the proper balls and had their comings and goings recorded in the society columns of the newspapers, were enrolled in the sacrosanct pages of the Baltimore Social Register, attended the Monday German and so on. One of my mother's sister's friends was a young woman named Wallis Warfield who was thought to look remarkably like my mother, though not, the family at least thought, half so pretty.
Thus for Ward Smith my mother represented a means of ascent on the social ladder. When Mother met him she was on the rebound from a transatlantic romance with a handsome young Englishman, Jack Goodwin, who, in the tradition of upper-class Englishman marrying American girls, apparently expected his prospective father-in-law to make him vice-president of his bank or otherwise endower him. My father, who looked like a somewhat larger and improved version of Goodwin, talked in the most expansive way about his various business enterprises and prospects, and dropped the names of New York financiers and politicians as though they were intimate friends. Grandfather, stern, quiet, reserved, austere, with a reputation for penetrating humbug, was unaccountably charmed by this handsome New Yorker with the dazzling connections who talked so confidently of money to be made in a variety of blue-chip ventures. I can only speculate that Grandfather was still at heart a small town boy who had made good by luck and unremitting labor. Ward Smith must have opened a door for him to a fabulous world; he must have seemed a prototype of the American success story, one who could simply reach out and pluck the fruit Success that my grandfather had labored so hard to achieve. Thus, to the surprise of the family, my grandfather became a warm advocate of the marriage. His wife was unabashedly reluctant. That shrewd and suspicious lady smelled out the truth. There is little question that she divined that Ward Smith's insolent blue eyes masked a rapacious sexuality. But her daughter, gentle and compliant in most matters, had on those points she cared about a will as strong as her mother's. She was determined to marry Ward Smith.
It is necessary, I believe, to say a word about my mother's upbringing. In the class and time in which she grew to womanhood, the world was defined very largely in terms of "things not done." These varied from the most inconsequential to the most momentous. They had to do with what utensil, out of an interminable array, one ate what with. There was an addendum: the socially ambitious person worried about which fork or spoon to use; the socially secure person knew it didn't matter. The catch was that of course it did matter. How one addressed servants or what one said or did not say in the presence of servants. How, for example, one requested service. I had the incurably lower-class habit of saying to one of the maids, "May I please have some more peas or potatoes or fried chicken?" My grandmother invariably corrected me. "You do not say, 'May I please have....' The servants are here to wait on you. You say, 'I'll have....'" It seemed to me too subtle a point. I never really mastered it. The "things one didn't do" belonged themselves to a hierarchy. There were "things one did not do"; there were "things that were never done! -- a more serious category -- and "things that were simply never done!" the most heinous of social crimes. One didn't associate with Jews or Catholics with the exception in the latter instances of a few rich old families like the Carrolls and the O'Donovans; you didn't speak to people unless properly introduced, especially of course if you were a nubile female, and if you were a nubile female you never went out unchaperoned -- and all of the negative injunctions that were imposed on young males were multiplied in spades for young females. The horror of any properly brought-up young woman was to be thought to be "loose" or "fast." There were such of course and they were whispered and gossiped about (and probably envied) and, worst of all, thought to be spoiled for any proper marriage to any decent young man. A decent young man was a young man of good family background, not notoriously loose or dissipated, who had graduated from Gilman School and Princeton (even sometimes from Harvard or Yale, seldom from Columbia and never from Dartmouth), belonged to a good club or clubs and above all, could support a wife in some degree as her dear poppa had supported her which meant, typically, a comfortable house and a cook or maid to begin with. The cook was essential, the maid optional.
There were in fact an almost infinite number of "things not done." One didn't laugh too much or too loudly, or go to church, if a woman, without a hat, or, if a man, in a sports jacket and bright tie; one spoke to one's inferiors always politely but with unmistakable condescension (lest, I suppose, they might be tempted to presume).
Just as there were utensils appropriate to every edible item, there were clothes appropriate to every social occasion. A woman who went about without a hat and gloves and, above all, a woman who smoked on the street was in great peril of being considered "loose" though she might in fact be chaste as Diana.
Above all, one did not use certain words or discuss certain unpleasant subjects. The words (and even the subjects) were coarse and vulgar and thus irredeemably lower-class: in a word, "common." "Common" was a code word that covered that hierarchy of things not, or never, or simply never, done. Those things were all "common." But "common" was even broader than that. It reached beyond the various categories of "things not done" into every nook and cranny of daily life. It was, for example, common to say "can't" through one's nose instead of "cawn't," or "ant" for "aunt." My mother tried to break me of saying "can't" by giving me a little slap whenever I erred. I had later to rather painfully unlearn it in the army where my mates thought it an absurd affectation (which, of course, it was). Similarly, one said "tomawtoes" instead of "tomaytoes." It was "common" to speak of curtains as drapes.
Leading the list of forbidden subjects was sex, or anything to do with the more personal parts of the body. A friend of mine insisted that her mother still thought babies were found under cabbage leaves when she was married. It was "common" to speak of legs; limbs were preferred. It was unacceptable or one of those dread things "simply never done" to speak directly of sexual intercourse. It was generally understood, even by delicately nurtured young women, that most men had unbridled sexual appetites. This was one of those unfortunate facts of life about which nothing could be done. It had to be endured and, like most unpleasant things, the less said about it the better.
This made for a very strange kind of world to be sure. Since sex is such a large part of life, indeed such a major preoccupation of the species, never to be able to acknowledge its existence in any direct and explicit way made for a veiled world of innuendos, hints, allusions. What was not said orally was often said with shrugs and looks and sometimes smirks. A child developed a certain expertise in interpreting these mysterious signals. If sexual matters were to be discussed in guarded monotones the children were sent from the room so that there should be no contamination of young minds.
Now I go into all of this because it was the world in which my mother grew up and the world in which I grew up as well, since I grew up in my grandparents' house after my mother and father were divorced. And if anything is clear about it, it is that it was very poor preparation for marrying a man like my father. It should also be said that it was undoubtedly the world, in large part, that my father grew up in-the late Victorian world. In fact my maternal and paternal grandparents were hardly to be distinguished one from the other even in appearance. This was much more notably the case with my grandfathers. My maternal grandmother was somewhat of a special case. But as my father's letter makes quite clear, young males had quite different resources open to them than did young females. There were, first of all, the maids, nurses, and serving girls. The number of upper-middle-class boys who had their first sexual experience with one of these often compliant lower-class females must have been legion.
So they early attained a degree of sophistication in sexual matters commonly denied their sisters. The fact that their normal sexual tendencies and appetites were perceived by the psychologically dominant female world as unnatural or beastly, or at best, unpleasant, doubtless helped to make them so and to stimulate business in the bawdy houses which flourished in every town and city.
The males of this class-age certainly did not escape, via their furtive encounters with serving girls and peripatetic strumpets, from deep feelings of guilt and anxiety about their own sexual behavior. For the most part, they unquestionably bought the notion that "nice," i.e. upper-class, marriageable girls had a very mild interest in sex and understood it to be an unpleasant exercise engaged in by them at least almost solely for the perpetuation of the species, ideally for the production of a male heir. Young males of my father's generation (and mine) thus divided the world into nice girls whom one married and bad (usually lower-class) girls with whom one had sexual relations. There were certainly loose girls in the "nice" category and men who were fortunate enough or bold enough to gain access to their favors enjoyed them but seldom considered marrying them. I suppose it can be said in my father's favor that he made no such invidious distinctions.
This is a lengthy but I suspect necessary preamble to the marriage of my mother and father. It was a marriage against which society had, in a manner of speaking, stacked the cards, or at least one particular deck. Beyond that, it was my mother's misfortune that she had chosen or accepted as husband a man whose sexual compulsions were abnormal, or at least whose ability to moderate his sexual drives was conspicuously lacking, a man, in fact, whose pathology was uninhibited sexuality. Whether a different man, thoughtful, patient, gentle and confident of his own sexuality, could have opened up that realm of experience for my mother I cannot of course say. What one can say is that my father was the last person in the world to undertake so complex and delicate a task. My mother was a typical feminine representative of a particular milieu, a kind of vestal virgin, guarding the fires of upper-middle-class respectability, an unquestioning acceptor of the "things not done," prisoner of a world as formal, hieratic, prescribed as that of the Brahmins or Mandarins. My father was a prancing Pan -- he was apparently attracted to that image of himself; he had several Pan drawings by the popular graphic artist Willy Pogany -- a Priapus.
The union of Pan and the Vestal Virgin was doomed from the beginning. It produced a great deal of anguish for my mother and intermittent outbursts of tearful contrition from my father. And it produced me and my brother, younger by five years. However much I may have escaped in simple geographical terms (and I trust in other terms as well) that odd world in which I grew up, it nonetheless shaped me in what are generally considered the formative years of my life. I was raised by my mother and I was deeply and profoundly devoted to her. I took her "side" so far as there was a "side" to take. I accepted her picture of my father as an evil, wicked man (and though she was never very specific about what that evil consisted of, I early understood it had a good deal to do with that most unmentionable subject, sex). The world that my mother (and I, later) grew up in will seem to most readers, I suspect, a rather repugnant one. In part it seems so to me. But it was a world with its own kind of meanings and coherencies, a world that has passed and will never come again, a world I am not sorry to see go, and do not mourn, but a world in which I was reasonably happy, a world that, with all its limits, afforded many pleasures, not the least of which was exploring its boundaries and finally breaking out of it. I now know that there are worse worlds for a boy to grow up in. So I am grateful for that world and even for that strange union of which I was a product.
This is, I suspect, enough family background for the present. I will interject at those points in the letter where I feel impelled to. The story is, after all, my father's.
Finally, something must be said about the process by which a manuscript of ten thousand pages is reduced to some six hundred. In a certain sense that is manifestly impossible. If publishing costs did not prohibit it, I would have preferred to see the letter published in its entirety. That was, of course, impossible from the point of cost and would have produced a work no one could have read. It was never considered as a remote possibility by me or my publisher. Nonetheless, in what might be called existential terms, it would have much to recommend it since anyone tenacious enough to read it would experience the tedium of daily life, the strange alternations between excitement and boredom, hope and despair, the wearisome accumulation of trivia, the complex interactions of people with each other that are a part of life (but not of art) and that made up this life and, I assume, a good many others. Reading it would then have constituted immersion in an archetypal autobiography that by its very interminableness must create a new dimension of experience that would be in a sense, transliterary and transhistorical.
It would have constituted a literary "happening" corresponding perhaps to the artist Christo's stunt of hanging a curtain across the Colorado River canyon. Accepting, as I have, the practical limitations of this work, the most taxing aspect of reducing it from its vast dimensions has been to preserve some kind of proportion. The sexual episodes that figure so prominently in the book are, in the original letter, "balanced" by very lengthy sections on the minutiae of New York politics and on the ramifications of the business ventures that occupied so much of my father's time in his early years. No one can read these with pleasure or even, in many instances, comprehension but they nonetheless serve the function of making clear that, preoccupied with sex as my father was, and often in the context of business and politics (which he never really allowed to interfere with his relentless pursuit of women), it was, if a constant, not an exclusive preoccupation. In other words, as I wrote my editor at the initial stages of this venture, the challenge, in large part, was to "avoid simply producing a dirty book." I am not sure I have done so; indeed, to have done so would be, in a sense, to have triumphed over my father and over the material itself, for it is clear enough that, for reasons best known to himself, he intended to write a "dirty letter." But I hope it is more than that: a portrait of a strange man, my father, and, in part at least, of the age he lived in.
The letter did not end; it stopped. It stopped, perhaps only coincidentally, with the reconciliation of Eloise and me to my father and Eve-at whose initiative I cannot now recall, certainly without those apologies my father had insisted must precede any healing of the breach. It was ratified, typically, by a great effusion of Christmas gifts for the children and handsome presents for ourselves.
There was visiting back and forth; my father and Eve to our old tenement-building apartment in the Cambridge semislums. Eloise and I and the two children, Ellen and Carter, and then a little later, Anne, went to Sagaponac or Bridgehampton, orce for the road races (which went past the front door) and once, as I recall, for Christmas, during the years I was in graduate school. Then later, after the Bridge-hampton house had been sold for a large profit and my father and Eve had bought a farm in Stowe, Vermont, to Stowe and, in the last decade of his life, to Greenwich, New York, a small town near Saratoga.
My father's fortunes in this period were entirely dominated by Eve's professional life as a dress designer. In the middle fifties she left or was fired by Leonard and Levine. Her violent anti-Semitism may have gotten too much for them to tolerate or she may simply have gotten tired of the nerve-wracking demands of the "rag business" and decided to extricate herself. In any event, she developed a line of knit twine handbags, place mats, and shoes which were farmed out for fabrication to the wives of, for the most part, French-Canadian farmers. My father undertook to sell the bags to fashionable women's stores and gift shops. He also ran a small dairying operation with a dozen or so cows and, typically, feuded with the natives, protesting the quality of workmanship done on the original improvements to the farmhouse he and Eve had bought and fixed up, much as they had restored the Sagaponac house, leaving bills unpaid and swearing vengeance on anyone who provoked his wrath. Vermont and upper New York State farmers are a tough and resourceful breed. On one occasion a disgruntled creditor got a lien placed on my father's Buick. It was locked in his garage pending payment of a bill for plumbing and for several months he and Eve commuted from Stowe to New York by train and bus.
He had a measure of revenge during a dry time for cows. When his and his neighbors' animals went dry, my father loaded his dry cows on a truck in the dark of night and carried them across the border to Canada where he got freshened cows that were giving milk. Thus surreptitiously he replaced dry cows with fresh ones and was delighted when word reached him that his fellow dairy men were thoroughly baffled by the milk tanker's report that Smith's cows were giving three hundred pounds of milk a day.
As he had earlier at Melvale, my father entered energetically into the not wholly unfamiliar role of farmer, albeit part-time. My impression was that the woven twine venture-Stowecraft it was called-was not an especially flourishing one. Certainly it did not permit my father and Eve to live in the style to which they had been accustomed when she was a topflight dress designer. After three or four years of knitted twine, Eve found another designing job in New York. They took an apartment in the city and bought the weekend and vacation house in Greenwich.
After I left graduate school and we moved to Santa Monica, where I took a position at the University of California at Los Angeles as an assistant professor of history, our contacts with my father and Eve became infrequent. My father called on the phone three or four times a year for long, rambling conversations, usually about politics, and when we moved to Santa Cruz with the opening of the new campus of the University of California in that community he and Eve visited us. There were presents at Christmas, though on a far more modest scale than formerly and on those rare occasions when we saw each other, there was much reminiscing and many references to the letter. He professed pride in my career and my modest accomplishments but he never really gave the impression of being interested in me as a particular person although he abounded in sentimental references to me as his son. The same was true with Eloise and his grandchildren. He tried to impress them with him but he showed little capacity to enter into their own rather interesting personalities. One felt that they, like my wife and I, had little reality for him. He could not engage any of us, son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren as people distinct from himself; we were all like extras in a play in which he (and to a lesser extent, Eve) were the stars. Or perhaps we were more like the scenery, the stage set itself, sounding boards, more or less inanimate auditors of his monologues.
Eve was delighted with him. In her eyes he was a person of infinite charm. She never tired of hearing the endless self-glorifying stories that so bored others-what he had said or written to Mrs. Roosevelt; how he had put La Guardia in his place, and told off that slob Hoover. She thought him a great wit, a brilliant intellect, and an enthralling conversationalist. She reveled in his power over headwaiters, in his imperious manners, and even in his violent and abusive temper. She thought him the handsomest man alive and never ceased to marvel how she-an ugly old maid-had managed to capture such a paragon.
My father, for his part, knew which side his bread was buttered on. He had been down too many times not to know up when he saw it. He attended faithfully to her needs. He squired her about with his great air of importance, demanding special courtesies and attentions for her, flagging down taxis while less imposing figures waited, getting the best tables, the best accommodations, the best service, and, not infrequently, paying for it all with a rubber check, because, despite the fact that Eve had what was, for the times, a very substantial salary, they always lived beyond it. The check-kiting, the false bank accounts, the pseudonyms, the subpoena servers did not cease with his marriage to Eve.
He shared the cooking (he had always had a penchant for cooking), got up every morning and prepared a simple breakfast for her and served it to her in bed, paid the bills and, for the most part, spent the money.
Although, as he himself observed, Eve had no interest in kinky sex, she resigned herself to his obsession so long as it was not flaunted in front of her or her friends. She and age eventually tamed him. The fires were banked, the ravenous sexual appetites diminished.
I remember being startled when, some six or seven years after his marriage to Eve he said to me, very casually, matter-of-factly, "I've gotten very fond of Evie." Indeed, he came, I would say, so far as he was capable of that uncertain emotion, to love her. Or perhaps he only became accustomed to her, which in itself is not to be taken lightly, men and women being what they are.
Eve I always liked. There was a directness about her that was appealing. I suspect that almost anyone who does a crafts manlike or crafts womanlike job is in a measure redeemed by it, made more human or more real by it. Thus Eve always seemed more real to me than my father. She was tough and capable with an energy y as vast as my father's, but one that was clearly focused. Her political ideas were simplistic. She accepted unquestioningly whatever my father said about politics and enthusiastically shared his anti-Semitism, but she had a sense of humor and a body-wracking, hiccuping laugh that was infectious. She smoked incessantly and drank too much but she pre-served my father from such grim fortunes as can only be imagined.
When he died quickly and easily of a heart attack in his seventy-
fifth year, life was over for her. She did not wish to live. He remained for her the most wonderful, the most gifted, handsome man she had ever known. She began to drink incessantly. She visited us in Santa Cruz, two years after my father's death, still hopelessly bereaved, skimping along on some hidden savings and social security, but stubbornly refusing financial help. The night before she was to return to the house in Greenwich, which had become her permanent home, she broke her hip; the rumor was, dancing on a piano in a local bar. Her hip was set; she went from the hospital to a convalescent home where she could be near the doctor and get proper therapy and she turned the home upside down, smoking like a chimney, smuggling booze in, refusing to be quiet and tractable, steadfastly unwilling to behave like an old lady with a broken hip. One home virtually ousted her and in the one to which she was transferred I was constantly being appealed to speak to my stepmother about her raucous and undisciplined ways.
Her drinking imperiled the mending of her hip. In fact she didn't care whether the hip ever mended or not or, indeed, whether she lived or not. Finally, still rebellious, she insisted on flying back to Green-
wich. My daughter, Anne, accompanied her and got her settled. Kind neighbors attended her and a practical nurse cooked and kept house. Three months later she called a cousin of my father's in New York and told him that she had decided to blow her brains out (her brother and sister had both been suicides). While he was still remonstrating with her, she got a shotgun, went out on the porch, placed the gun against her head and pulled the trigger. She died some seven or eight hours later.
The principal riddle of my father's life was his obsession with sex. I always saw it as, in part, a consequence of his life in New York City. To me the city simply was (doubtless because of my association of my father with sex and with the life of the city) a sex-saturated environment. One was surrounded by women out of context, so to speak. They were not perceived, as one brushed past them in the streets, in crowded places, saw them on buses and above all, of course, on subways, as wives or mothers or people imbedded in some particular, defined social situation, but as mysterious, alluring sexual creatures, each seeming to promise a blissful assignation. That my father should have been so eloquent on the subject of what might be called "subway sex" seems significant to me, because of all the places one encountered women in New York, the subway was the most sexually suggestive if only because of the press of bodies stimulated by the motion of the train. It was one of those odd encounters of extraordinary if transient intimacy, in which the modem city abounds; eyeball to-eyeball contact, body contact, olfactory contact that was at the same time outside of any normal context of social relationship. It was probably safe to say that people have never encountered each other in this fashion before in history. At the same time the experience of the subway was novel enough for my father's generation so that all these sensations, the potency of which was dulled for later generations of subway riders by custom and habit and by the deterioration of the stations themselves into noisome hehholes and the trains into foul vehicles of unpredictable velocity, were fresh and powerful. I believe that the fact that the subway was "underground" contributed to its sexuality; it was underground that dark and desperate acts had always been performed. The word itself suggested illicit affairs.
The city streets also, particularly of course in the Broadway area, reeked of sex, and it is clear that this atmosphere both excited and disgusted my father-one of the most vivid parts of the letter is his description of the area in the midforties off Broadway where the hotels St. Margaret and Coolidge were located; and what an irony that those seedy fleabags, those multistoried dens of iniquity, should have had those particular names!
In the mythology of small-town America, to which for perhaps unfathomable reasons I feel so close, the city has always been a symbol of sin, evil, and wickedness. It was where the country boy went and lost his money and his virtue, returning shamefaced to the town, possessed by guilty secrets. Thus my father's sexuality was, for me, and I am sure for him as well, intimately connected with the city. I have always been aware, as a consequence, that I could not live in a city. It would produce and, in those brief times when I am in cities, has produced in me an unbearable sexual tension.
Conversely, when my father lived, however briefly or intermittently, in rural communities and small towns, his obsession moderated, grew less feverish and intense, more general-and for very good reason: the opportunities were infinitely less, and those women encountered belonged, for the most part, to some kind of social context that lowered the sexual temperature.
The problem also remains for me of my father's preoccupation with what were once called sexual perversions (and are today referred to as "kinky sex"), oral and anal sex, voyeurism, et cetera. The portions of the letter recounting these,episodes were, frankly, most troubling to me both because I found them offensive and because they will offend many readers, among them people whose good opinion I value. I would have preferred to omit them on a variety of grounds. They could have been omitted without in any way diminishing the predominantly sexual character of the letter and of my father's life. We are told by many self-proclaimed experts on sexual matters that there are no such things as sexual perversions, that everything we enjoy doing we should feel free to do. The perversions are, as this argument goes, only in our minds. I did not retain such accounts in the letter because I accept this argument. Rather, I left them in because I felt that they had a conclusive psychological importance in the story of my father.
Some years ago Norman 0. Brown praised "polymorphous perversity," the indulgence in every form of perversity, the tasting of all forbidden pleasures, descending into the depths in order to come out on the other side purged of the sexual anxieties and han -ups accumulated over centuries of repression. My father ran that course and although I saw no signs that it freed him from anything, it seems to me it is part of the record, so to speak.
And what of the women who gave themselves to him with such abandon? What of them? What did they see in him? Certainly the aura of sexuality. And what else? The pure, simple, unadulterated, uninhibited power of sex, sex so much obscured, repressed, even maligned by the proper world. Did it need-did sex need-its pioneers, its explorers, its radical advocates? Was my father really an innovator, a precursor of the sexual revolution, a type which, appearing well in advance of its time, must suffer obloquy and chastisement by a society whose mores have been so flagrantly defied? Was he, like the Marquis de Sade, forced by the prudishness and hypocrisy of society to extremes of degeneracy? Or was he simply in the vanguard of the coming sensate culture, a forerunner of a general decline in moral standards?
I can only see him as a victim rather than a precursor. But yet, the story is clearly more complex than that. My father became pure act; from his violent disembodied rages to his reckless spending of money and semen, he tested the limits of man as a creature of self-gratification.
Sexual encounters were, for my father, I believe, an effort to overcome fear of death, to assert his own masculinity, which he confessed often to doubt, and, finally, I suppose to exercise a particular skill-an expertise-on which he prided himself.
I see my father as a victim, in part, of the transition from a prudential to a sensate culture (to put the matter in a rather fancy way), that is to say, nineteenth-century America had believed above all in control, in control of one's emotions, appetites, money, semen. Controlled, calculated, prudential behavior-what has been summed up as the Protestant Ethic of thrift, piety, and hard work-was the ideal and even, perhaps, the norm. George Washington was the hero of that consciousness because he was for his admirers a man of iron self-control. Tears or any excessive display of emotion were considered to be weak, effeminate qualities. The emotionalism of women was in sharp contrast to the "control" of men. My father grew up in the time when America generally, and the great metropolitan centers in particular, were on the verge of what has been called a sensate culture, a culture in which the immediate gratification of one's appetites and desires was replacing the old prudential behavior. The new ethic was the ethic of cheerful consumption rather than of saving, reserving, suppressing, storing away, retaining. To spend money, even money one didn't have and had to borrow, was to be a good American, to stimulate the economy, to keep cash circulating. Increasingly, money and semen were to be spent, not retained. There were already prophets of the new ethic that were eagerly read by those in the know-Freud himself, in a way; Havelock Ellis, Edmund Carpenter, the Englishman who advocated orgies and bisexual experience for sexual release; and, nearer home, Margaret Sanger, only part of whose message was birth control, the other being uninhibited sexuality and open marriage. My father read these authors and numerous others and became an enthusiastic advocate and practitioner of the new sexual freedom. He demonstrated, in his own life, what happens when control breaks down. He was, like a figure on the crest of a breaking wave, never really in control. One thus searches in vain for some clear point at which it was possible to say, "If only here . . . If he had only done this instead of that. He was like a skier skiing out of control, a surfer riding an impossible wave to an inevitable wipeout, a racing driver headed into a suicidal corner too fast. A curious combination of themes and forces converged in him-exploitive capitalism, the American success ethic, social ambition, the trend toward what the late C. Wright Mills called fictitious personalities, figures created by the media, the rise (or appearance) of national names and personalities, famous people, and the tireless promoting of them by newspapers, magazines, and radio. Promotion. Selling. Quick fortunes. Promotion, for instance, implied advancing something not particularly worthy on grounds other than the intrinsic merit of the thing itself. Besides promoting things an ambitious young man was expected to promote himself. In my father Horatio Alger joined forces with Casanova.
His violent rages provided another clue. I could not understand how these rages could be so transient, one moment furious shouting, the next smiling amiability. Rages that would have left me shaken for a day had they possessed me, passed from him as readily as the reflections of clouds on water. But the rages were like the sexual explosions. They never, or rarely, touched anything central in him. Perhaps that was why he so often doubted the reality of his own experience.
In a document as lengthy as my father's letter, what he has omitted may be as important as what is included (or, in some cases, more important). For instance, in the account of his brief period as Secretary to Governor Miller, the pages telling of the events that led to Miller's firing him are missing. There is only one specific reference to his feelings in that part of the letter. Much later, writing in a suicidal mood, my father recalls his temptation to kill himself when Miller told him that he must leave his administration and he speaks of the time as one when he reached the nadir of despair. I believe that, remarkably candid as the letter is, my father could not bear to allow his original account of that event to pass into my hands. That surely is a measure of the horror of the experience for him. There were some things that even he could not bear to tell, or, if he told them, could not bear to leave as part of the record of his life.
My father seldom speaks of his father in the letter and what he does say is in the nature of conventional filial piety. He describes him as handsome, honest, hardworking. It is clear enough that my father's mother-Honey-and aunts were much more important to him than his father or uncle, although Uncle Gov, with his yacht, seems to have made a strong impression. My guess would be that my grandfather held my father to a very strict standard, made a great deal of his weaknesses and was furious over his frequent lapses. I suspect that my grandmother and her sisters, on the other hand, spoiled him outrageously and that he came to feel a certain contempt for his mother as a consequence. Certainly, my father's letters to his mother, written after his father's death, are not pleasant reading. They are condescending and admonitory, asking for money in many instances and rebuking her for being selfish and complaining too much.
Then there are the frequent references in the letter to being a coward. In referring to his failure to enlist in the army at the beginning of World War I (and to his efforts to avoid being drafted), he speaks in an almost offhand way of his cowardice. He had flat feet and was thus ineligible on physical grounds. But he mentions that just the thought of being shot at made him sweat with fear. His conviction that he was a coward seems to me to be related to his sense of the unreality of his own life. The philosopher, J. Glenn Gray, in his book about men at war, The Warriors, speaks of the cowards that he encountered in the army during World War II as men with little ability to relate to others. "The coward," he writes, "does not know the sense of a common effort and a common fate," [and] "has, unfortunately, not gained in its place any strong individuality or any full awareness of self. . . . The coward's fear of death stems in large part from his own incapacity to love anything but his own body with passion. . . . The inability to participate in others' lives stands in the way of his developing any inner resources to overcome the terror of death. . . . The coward, unrelated to his fellows, has an insufficient hold on life and is not in charge of himself or his fate."
I quote the passage at some length because it seems to me to provide an important clue to that sense of unreality that seems to have obsessed my father at many periods of his life.
If cowardice and the inability to love are, as Gray suggests, closely connected, they are often associated with the need to suffer and inflict pain. My father, I fear, enjoyed inflicting pain and suffering on others but he also needed to experience it himself. For instance, his virulent anti-Semitism did not prevent him from having a number of affairs with Jewish women whom he professed to love passionately while at the same time disparaging them in the letter.
I believe that it was because he could not love that he continually degraded what is called too loosely "the act of love." Each violent and perverted sexual encounter was, in its own way, a plea for love. Although my father wrote constantly of loving, I could never find in meetings with him, in his treatment of others, or even in the letter itself, any evidence that he was truly capable of that emotion. Did he have some haunted, unarticulated sense that if, like the monster in a fairy tale, he could find someone to love him, he would become a splendid prince and was I, above all, the one from whom he hoped for release from that grim prison of unlovingness? Who, long before I was an actor in his life, refused him love? Or said or did something that made it impossible for him to love?
Another indication of my father's determination to punish himself and others can be found in his lifelong propensity to break off highly valued friendships on some startlingly trivial pretext. The case of Hendrik Van Loon is typical. His friendship with Van Loon was, among all his friendships, the one most treasured and featured. There are dozens of affectionate letters back and forth between the two men. My father bought literally hundreds of copies of his books to give to friends and relatives and Van Loon dutifully autographed all of them. My father applauded Van Loon as genius, gave him in his "rich year" a handsome gold stopwatch from Cartier, and bombarded him with advice as to how to advance his career. Then because Van Loon did not instantly produce a Christmas card to be sent out from Melvale (my father wanted it done in three days) he wrote him a bitter, vitriolic letter declaring the friendship at an end.
While his relation with La Guardia was not a particularly close one, it was obviously one that my father prized. Again on some utterly inconsequential issue my father wrote him one of his "kiss-off" letters. He wrote many angry, vituperative letters, of course, to people that he did not know or knew only casually. He did know Hoover and he had been one of his earliest and most enthusiastic boosters; in time he became one of his bitterest detractors and wrote a long, denunciatory letter to him. Judge Robert McCurdy Marsh, who he had declared to be like a second father to him, who stood by him through a number of legal scrapes and embarrassments, and who managed his divorce from my mother, was written off by letter and physically assaulted. Poor Walter Piel, Harry Millar, Tommy Brodix, his drinking and whoring companions, all eventually got the kiss-off though in some instances there were eventual reconciliations. And me, the designated recipient of the fabled letter, his son and heir, because of some ridiculous contretemps with my wife, he wrote me an insulting letter, to which, by his own admission, I could only have properly reacted by anger and indignation, by a breach in our relatively recent and rather shaky relationship. So to punish and be punished was clearly a deep-seated need. It stemmed, I believe, from the same basic feeling of unreality that lay at the heart of so much of his behavior and, indeed, of the letter itself. The past was always more real to my father than the present. The past could be arranged and rearranged, recounted and reviewed, in a measure controlled, while the present had to be experienced, often in very excruciating ways, and the future, full of terrors and anxieties had, in some manner, to be neutralized. A classic way of neutralizing the future is, obviously, to be obsessed with the past. He tried to overcome the terror of the dream, of nullity, by striking out, by seeking to evoke the reassuring response, by what I can only understand to be strange cries of anguish, even in the midst of the most furious sexual debauches. Only in these moments when he was gripped by sexual ecstasies did he feel himself to be in touch with the fringes of reality. The physical violence, the verbal violence, the sexual violence, the suicidal moods, never really suicidal, always playing at suicide, too cowardly by his own account to really confront so final and desperate an act, all these come to one point: "Tell me that this is not a dream," or, conversely, "Waken me from this nightmare, and tell me it is a dream."
For me, the most appealing episode in my father's life was the Melvale venture. The mad energy with which he plunged into the undertaking, his impatience, his determination to reshape the whole environment in less than two weeks in order that he and Melba might celebrate Christmas in their new quarters was completely in character. He fantasized a country Christmas and, like a sorcerer, made it come true. He waved a magic wand and, presto, there was a farmhouse rebuilt even to the chimneys. One can be sure it set rural tongues clacking all over the county. No wonder he was called the Baron. Moreover, he was no gentleman farmer; he got dirt under his fingernails, he planted cabbages, pitched hay, picked apples, plowed fields, took his produce to market, immersed himself in the arcane lore of rural life, made the farm a kind of universe from the center of which he, now Farmer Smith (as opposed to Politician Smith, Businessman Smith, and all the other half-formed and discarded Smiths), dispensed homely rural wisdom to anyone willing to listen. On one level he must have known it was only a charade, a play that would soon be over. But on another level he played the part with a furious gusto which I find irresistible. Was that really his problem? Was he, in fact, a kind of earth figure, a creature so elemental that only when he touched earth could he touch reality and like Antaeus, gain fresh strength? Was he at heart a son of the soil whose powers were perverted by the alien atmosphere of a city that drew him back time and again like a magnet?
Certainly, his relationship to his city was a central fact of his life. He lived in the city, certainly in the thirties, by his wits and instincts, like an animal in the forest. He was aware enough of the ambiguity of his own feelings to see his constant travels as efforts to escape from the place where he was so essentially rooted, the place, most acutely, of his triumphs and defeats. I believe each of us has a destiny, dimly perceived though it may be, unrealized though it may be. It is a fate appropriate to our capacities-healing us and reconciling us to the world. The lucky ones discover it; the others pursue it. Perhaps it is just the current romanticism of "loving the earth" but I would like to think that my father's protean energies were meant to be rooted in the soil, in the common, consoling earth, and that, for a moment, he perceived this and entered into that realm with the instinct that he was coming home. Although he never again took up conventional farming, he never gave up a rural pied-a-terre.
One point that cannot perhaps be sufficiently emphasized was the ability that my father displayed in the various political and financial ventures that he undertook. Literally thousands of pages of the letter deal with these undertakings and one cannot, I believe, fail to be impressed by his remarkable organizational abilities. He was unsparing of himself and others in his efforts to achieve a particular goal: aid to the Jews, funds for the Actors' Memorial, War Stamps, Hoover's or Lowden's or Landon's presidential campaigns, Florida real estate, tung oil, the Queen Wilhemina Fund, the Mexican Tourist Bureau, the Anderson Air-Conditioner, the National Trailer Show, on and on. Certainly energy and intelligence, those usual guarantors of success, were not missing. But his extravagance, not simply in a specific financial sense, but in a total sense, his inability to contain or master his vision or his appetites brought everything eventually to nought.
One thing I wish to make as clear as I can. I have no illusion that in these efforts to account for my father's strange temperament I am in any real sense "explaining" him. I would be untrue to my own perception of human life and historical process if I left the impression that my father's life could, in any clear and final way, be explained in terms of some combination of psychological traits. I am not a psychoanalyst; I do not even believe in the efficacy of the science. I believe that it is far too often used as a form of reductionism-that is to say, the reduction of the infinite and ultimate mystery of human life and experience to a set of superficial formulas. Yet some degree of understanding (on the notion, perhaps, that to understand all is to forgive all) is necessary, or at least it is necessary to struggle to achieve it, and this particularly, in the case of someone as closely connected as one's own father. Thus one moves from the specific acts and events to some general principle that wilt make clear a pattern, a connectedness, between the specific acts and events, so that they do not appear to be merely discrete, unconnected. Thus one gropes, inevitably, I suspect, for a theme, a principle, a perspective which will enable one to break free of the tyranny of the particular and gain a broader understanding. Having at least tentatively identified such themes one comes back to the particulars at least partially freed from them. I believe that the only substantial use of what might be called, loosely, psychological insights is that they increase and extend the range of our sensibilities; they make us aware of elements of character that we might otherwise scant or overlook entirely.
What I am trying to say is that if I were to rest on an amateur's (or even a professional's) psychological profile of my father I would have in the process evaded my real responsibility, which I understand to be reconciliation. Thus, whatever might be said about the particular persons and the historical forces-the milieu-that helped to shape his character, my father remains what he was very conscious of being-a sinner. And that is, in simple fact, what we all are, in the view at least of Christian orthodoxy. I am certainly very conscious that is what I am. It is not, therefore, up to me to "forgive" my father-that is God's business. It is as a fellow sinner, on a somewhat less imaginative scale, that I can perhaps encounter him most sympathetically. Indeed, I suppose it is only so that I can escape a note of self-righteousness in regard to my father, a note which I am conscious of having had to struggle against throughout this, undertaking, a note which I am sure affected, or infected, our relationships during his lifetime and of which he can hardly have failed to be aware.
To his dying day, my father remained obsessed by sex. In conversation he was as tiresomely repetitious about sex as about politics. But he did not need, after his marriage to Eve, to find verification or to seek reality exclusively in sex. Or, apparently, to search any longer for his son. And so the letter ended; from the record of a continuing journey, it became a legacy. One wonders if, in the twenty years between its abrupt ending and my father's death, he ever thought of destroying it. Such an impulse would, I suppose, have been suicidal. All then that would have remained of Ward Smith would have been the rapidly fading memory of a rather garrulous old man preoccupied with sex. There are plenty of those around.
The last thirty years of my father's life belonged, in a sense, to Eve. She was the reality principle in my father's life. His relationship with my mother was doomed from the beginning. Melba was a co-conspirator in his fantasy trip. Eve was the first person to attach him, at least to a modest degree, to the real world. He had reached out for her like a drowning man, reached out to this gawky, homely old maid and she had saved his life. She had loved him so much that she could not bear to live without him. So that unlikely match had turned out, after all, to be a classic romance. The sordid affairs and desperate expedients were finally absorbed in the last act of a drama of romantic love.
After my father's death when I returned to Greenwich for the funeral, I was relieved, as much for Eve's sake as my own, to find that I could weep for him. But I listened, with a kind of embarrassment, to her describing a man I did not know, the paragon, the "greatest."
I felt, aside from the perhaps too easy tears, the same detachment that I had always felt in regard to my father. I could not really mourn. I felt no sense of loss; indeed, none of the emotions a son might be expected to feel upon the death of his father. I did not even feel the fearful sense of my own mortality that seized me at my mother's deathbed three years later. Only a kind of nullity, an emptiness, a slightly apologetic sense of being unable to summon up emotions appropriate to the occasion.
My father's account of the night he searched me out at my division's encampment on the A. P. Hill Military Reservation in the piney woods of Virginia where I was on my way back from army maneuvers in North Carolina is, for me, the most poignant passage in the letter. Pearl Harbor had just been attacked. It was one of those strange moments in which world history and one's own personal history converge. I had met, on maneuvers, a young artist who I was determined should be my wife. In the light of that miraculous, staggering fact and the peace and certitude that the knowledge of it as ordained and irrevocable brought with it, I had little concern for anything else. The bombing of Pearl Harbor was of significance only as it might affect my prospective marriage. I do not even remember the encounter that was so important to my father.
Reading about our meeting in the letter, it seemed to me that the key to that document lay there on the page, so obvious that it was hard to see how I could have missed it. Perhaps I was so accustomed to the myth of the son's search for the father that I was insensitive to the equally powerful theme of the father's search for the son. The letter was the agent or instrument of my father's search, his effort to attach himself to an archetypal human role and thus introduce a principle of reality into his world of fantasy.
Small wonder I could not comprehend all this during my father's lifetime. He pursued me and I fled the emotional attachment that he at least thought might have saved him. The playing of the traditional roles of father and son which he sought so tirelessly I resisted with every instinct of self-preservation as long as he lived.
And then, after his death, his final stratagem came into play. He called once more to me beyond life in that vast, interminable, problematical letter, so repugnant and so compelling-a kind of plea or curse, a last petition for acceptance and understanding, for reconciliation.
So I am disposed to say: "Father, I read your letter and I have tried, after my fashion, to answer it. I accept your life, sadly misspent as it has always seemed to me to be. I have discovered a principle of reconciliation in Eve's love for you, her own Adam, fallen and redeemed. I am willing to be your son and acknowledge you at last as my father. I find I can weep again for you, better tears than those brief, bewildered ones I wept at your death. And weep, as well, for myself. I hope that is enough."