Friday, February 27, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 68 - SAFE PLACE

I am at the top of the stairs, a little too old for the banister, but remembering that long slide from the top, the turn halfway down as I would pass the telephone room, then down into the two-story high anteroom that led to the great formal room, one end dining room, the other a living room, each with formal, city-like fireplaces. That long room that followed the sweep of the mountains outside.

I am at the top of the stairs and Nana is there too, beside big colored storage cabinets, not far from her self-contained quarters with her big canopied bed, from which she sometimes received company, and across from Gaga’s airy suite, where he had a big tile bathroom and dressing room with a doctor’s scale, a rack for his unusual razor, which was like a straight razor but with a safely guard on the blade, and the hook where he hung his truss – and after the dressing room his modest bedroom, which had a trap door to an iron circular staircase that led to his study, and after the bedroom his sleeping porch, a familiar addition here in the city person’s end of the White Mountains.

Nana stands by the heavy painted cabinets and I am thinking how everything is so solid here, nothing changes.

And then that is what she is talking about. She is telling me how important it is for her children – my father and uncle and pretty aunt – that she and Gaga had set up this house, these houses, and that she maintains them (all except White Wings which was recently sold) now that Gaga is dead, for it means so much to her children that they have this place to return to.

And I am wondering why my father comes so rarely. His brother would come more, it is said, but his wife, Aunt Peggy, doesn’t like the place. Aunt Betsy comes, but, although she has a small flat in England for herself, her natural son and the first of her adopted children, she has no career and really no other place to go.

And I am thinking what a waste this on those people of that in-between generation!

And I am thinking how when something went wrong – when I felt betrayed and hurt and angry and sad – and knew no one would believe me or take me seriously – Nana had spoken the words I believed I might never hear.

“What’s wrong?”

And then she had listened.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 67 – OVERVIEW

When in adolescence I became so interested in so many things – politics and literature and dangerous adventures and European trains and wilderness camping and really appealing young women – I wanted to be on top of events like my grandfather had been as an early Socialist working on exposés in Chicago with Upton Sinclair, and living in the heart of New York’s lower East side slums when he was with the settlement house movement and organizing for the Socialists, and than was lost and feared dead in the Kerensky phase of the Russian revolution which was more moderate than the Lenin phase but nearly as dangerous. And I tried hard to put that together with the man who, though from such a background and so kind to me and my twin brother, was so often angry (so my mother said), and who would emerge from his study not with new chapters but with a stock tip sheet called the Kiplinger Letter which he thought would help him revive the fortune he had lost in the Crash of 1929, which happened five years before I was born and had continued ever since to keep him busy trying to be his own stockbroker.

For it took me a long time to see that nothing was exactly how it seemed in the world I came from – especially the White Mountains summer part of that world. It had seemed so solid to me that even when I knew better, and well after most of the family houses were gone, I could still act
as if I had been programmed to go against reality as if the family history might in the end might in the end not be a warning to me but instead might provide me with a margin of safety.

In books people who went to these stiff colleges and lived in these big formal places with such ease that they called them cottages, in books, in all the lore, they were sure-footed, privileged people. And sometimes it almost seemed that it really was that way. Once when down and out in Hong Kong, acting as editor for a fly-by-night publisher’s flimsy magazine, I put my writer grandfather and my publisher father into the first and only issue’s blurb about myself.

In the White mountains the summer people spoke with what seemed to be English accents even though they were not from England. Later it seemed to me that this was just like the English in Kong Kong who spoke with fake upper class accents. Like the Hong Kong English, the old family summer people in the White Mountains tended to avoid public places. They rarely went to restaurants. Could it be because their English accents would seem silly outside the private places, much as it was with the English in Hong Kong who stuck to their whites-only clubs where no one was likely to say the emperor had no clothes.

The only one who had lived in England for any time was my Aunt Betsy, who had married a young architect there who went into the RAF, and was killed early in the war, before America was in it, supposedly fighting in the Battle of Britain but actually killed in a drunk flying accident when he and a buddy had broken into an airfield late at night and gotten a trainer plane into the air. But Aunt Betsy had his new RAF wings made into costume jewelry and wore them everywhere. She had been pregnant at that time and she told her son, when he was old enough to understand, that he was the son of a war hero. And it seemed to me no one up there in New Hampshire said otherwise. My grandfather too, in a radio address urging America into the war, called his son-in-law a war hero.

When I was in college my roommate and I had dinner at my grandmother’s place in the city. Her younger sister, my Aunt Katherine, was there. This light-hearted great aunt had been married to an alcoholic playwright who had had some Broadway successes, then chased a bevy of girls to Hollywood and was never heard from again. At dinner she talked about World War I when she entertained the boys, as she put it, gave them cheery times, performed French songs. I was a little surprised when my roommate, who was very aware of social niceties, turned out to be so enthusiastic about her – for in the family she was dismissed. As was her current husband, who in retrospect gave me more than I realized. Uncle Jehan, Prince Jehan Sesodia, son of a maharaja, was an expansive man who attrached admirers. (In circles where black then, and still when I was in college at mid-century, were fine if they were from far away cultures, had titles and walked around with tennis rackets, or at least came from places where their fathers were brutal dictators.) Aunt Katherine was Princess Sesodia. The prince and the princess.

So there was charm. I tried to think of them all as less than they seemed to be, but that finally seemed to ally me with what was worst in this family, which said most people on the outside, and certain figures on the inside too, were something less. More and more I wondered about the summer people of the White Mountains, living in little communities that were as far away from Kerensky or the Lower East side or real war heroes as you could get.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 66 – THIS MY WORLD

I was face down but leaning up on the floor at the living room end of the main room at White Pines. I was surrounded by file cards I was filling. I was copying quotes from an annual mimeographed book put out and sold to boarding school and high school debaters throughout the Northeast by a Mr. Walsh, who coached the Portland, Maine team. In the winter I, though only 15 and a fourth former, and my debate colleague Ken Kaplan, a fifth former, the two of us the home team at the Holderness School down in Plymouth, New Hampshire, had beaten Mr. Walsh’s usually victorious team (and I had been elected “best speaker” even though I was not in the anchor position).

Now it was summer but I was preparing for more debating. I was copying down, for future use, quotes Mr. Walsh had collected concerning our next national debate subject which, as ordained by the National Forensic League, had to do with the welfare state, which I privately favored, though in keeping with the institution of debating I was willing to argue either side. And I was aware that way back in the Boy’s Wing of White pines I had a batch of love letters from a girl from our sister school and a Brownie snapshot of her in a fairly revealing sun dress leaning against a tree, she a winter girl now seen in a summer picture she had sent me looking prettier than I remembered her in person, and making me wonder now about my attraction to a more appealing summer girl here in the mountains. All this – girls, debating – had given me definition. This was my world. Now, here on the floor, I was in the family world, but what was right in front of me was from the world I had created.

Above and behind me on the Steinway were photographs of my mother, of Aunt Betsy, who was my father’s sister, and of Aunt Peggy, my father’s extrovert brother‘s wife, all in their wedding dresses. And also a picture of my recently departed grandfather, a small worried but smiling man in a tweed cap, leaning with pretty Aunt Betsy, his daughter, at the railing of an ocean linter when they were sailing for England beneath war clouds so that Aunt Betsy could get married to a young architect who had joined the RAF. The past could be the main part of anything in the present, but the past was not my present right now. The past did not seem to weigh heavy any more.

To my left was a big old stand-up wooden radio, where five years back we had listened to the news of Hiroshima and also the news of Atlee’s unexpected defeat of Churchill, but the important thing about the radio was that occasionally my recently departed grandfather Gaga had been on it, as in the speech he had given trying to get America into World War II. Just past the radio were French doors, opening beneath a striped awning onto the familiar lawn, with white bird baths and stone benches, the lawn ending at iron-streaked boulders that fell off to a tangled blueberry field, and from there the view stretching to deep woods, owned by my grandmother still, but maybe about to be sold – and eventually the to mountains of the Franconia Range.

In front of me was Nana herself, reading a new book with a shiny new book jacket, mysteriously maintaining perfect posture while lying back on a silk covered chaise longue. She was dressed in white, as white as her hair, and with a cardigan sweater – but in the evening she would dress in silk Chinese-style formal pajamas, one of the many accouterments that since early in the century I knew, had pointed to her as an advanced person.

Two days earlier Kitty had gotten her aunt, Mrs. Grout, to drive her over from Sugar Hill to visit me – me, not the family. She had brought a record of Charleston music. The Charleston was in vogue. All the girls at Greenwich Country Day knew how to do it. Her visit had come in the afternoon when people napped and we could be alone here. I brought out from the Boys’ Wing my blue, fake leather portable LP player, and she taught me the Charleston in this place that, I knew, would always afterwards feel her presence.

Especially now as I lay on the floor preparing for the debate season in this most familiar of all places. It was always the same here, even with Kitty in the air. Scattered around the room were end tables with drawers containing Chinese checkers and Parcheesi. On one of the tables the most recent important new books, in crisp shiny book jackets. They were forever coming to Nana in the mail. And there was a formal fireplace – definitely not a country-style rough stone fireplace. And after that the bookcase, quite large but much smaller than the bookcase in Gaga’s study, which was still looking just as it did when he was alive. It was among Gaga’s books that I had just discovered Turgenev. Turgenev was now part of my world – not their world. This was me, here on the floor, preparing for triumph, thinking of girls. And here in the same room this afternoon was Nana, who not only never made fun of me but seemed, I dared think, to know who I was.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 65 - BEFORE THE FIRES

I didn’t learn to read until I was seven, and this was long before that, but I already had a sense of the difference between the them and the us. The them, to me, operated in a bigger sphere, as opposed us, who were self contained in the formal summer houses. Also, as opposed to other thems made up of local people, or of aliens who might be dangerous.

We rode over to Peckett's, a White Mountains inn on the scale of a hotel. It turned out we were there to see Nana, who was rolling bandages for the Red Cross. Our Nana, so confident, her white hair perfectly in place close to her aristocratic head. In retrospect that time to me seemed something out of movies or novels about World War I, not World War II, which the English were in now and Gaga and Nana wanted Americans to be in too. Rolling bandages.

To my amazement, Nana was in charge of this end of the war effort. She had on a white Red Cross uniform. Women were coming to her with questions, and she was able to answer their questions and greet family at the same time. I would never again think of her as just our grandmother. She was an important leader.

That was the only time we went to Peckett’s, though it often came up in conversation about other times. At some point when I was a child it burned down, as so many of the old hotels in the mountains would. The older people spoke of it with sadness, the way they spoke of good times in the 19th century. It seemed that it was as old as or older than, as established as or more established than, the big rambling Sunset Hill House, which did not burn down until the 1970s, and where our Southern grandmother was often in residence, sitting all day on the long porch that circled it, gossiping with other mostly old ladies, many of them Southern like herself, who had been coming since long ago it had become the thing to do to go to the White Mountains in the hay fever season. The Sunset had the same view, the absolutely essential view, of the Franconia Range that we had from all the family houses. And it had a certain excitement for me, as public places always did – something a little risqué about a billiards room, a putting course that felt like the miniature golf attractions which we would pass on long drives but for which we would never stop. And there was also a smaller than usual nine-hole golf course with a caddy shack club house. And in the hotel itself certain nights were for gambling on Keno (a rarified word for Bingo). The old ladies on the porch talked of how the manager, Mr. Haslam, was not a real gentleman. They suspected he was plotting to turn the billiards room into, horrors, a cocktail lounge.

Peckett’s had been more safely sedate, it seemed. Aunt Betsy was friends with Sig Buchmayr, who had been brought over to Peckett’s from Austria to introduce Alpine skiing to America. Sig was still around when I was a teenager, by now married with triplets, and almost as respectable as the summer people. He was not associated with an outré, for this place, new ski resort called Mittersill’s at the foot of Cannon Mountain, which was owned by an Austrian émigré named Baron Hubert Von Pantz, whom summer people liked to say was probably not a real baron and who chased after celebrities. They said it in the same tone they used for any outsiders who thought well of themselves. Mittersill’s was for outsiders and Sig was mostly an insider.

The Sunset was on a borderline, though much closer to the smaller Peckett’s than to the flashy and common Mittersill’s – as, for example, because the Sunset ladies donned white gloves on Sundays and walked downhill about a third of a mile to the place where Davis Road, a properly picturesque dirt road, our road, began. This was the place where the small Episcopalian summer church, St. Matthew’s, was situated. Mother and Dad had been married there. By the time we were in boarding school, Peter and I, dressed in our school blazers, were taking up the Sunday collection there. We stood facing front as everyone sang, a few of them with good voices, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise Him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holly Ghost.”

Nana was in charge of everything St. Mathew’s, just as she was always the leader. I never doubted her in the years that followed, not even in the few times I – though apparently nobody else – saw her doubting herself.

She had been a rich socialite in Chicago and left Chicago with Gaga because, she said, they had become too liberal or radical for the place – though they now were based in a tight Republican. Anti- Semitic summer community. It was after Gage died that Nana told me about why they left Chicago, and also why they had come to the White Mountains. They came here, she said, because Gaga felt it was not healthy for a writer to associate only with fellow artistic people.

Gaga liked to take his old brown Dodge touring car up to the Sunset, turn it around, put it in neutral, and coast all the way down, turning off on Davis road, coasting through the birch woods and the entrance to the estate of Otto Mallory from Philadelphia, who had been his Princeton roommate, coasting along as our family houses came into view, and then, still coasting, turn down the long winding driveway to one that was not in view, the biggest, White Pines. He would make it almost to the door.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Malachy McCourt calls them "the eunuchs in the harem.”


They are there still waiting to go into writing, so clearly there because they are in Brownie snapshots remembered from the time. Elyssa is smiling beside me on a sofa. Tina it leaning against a tree.

It was in time that I was suffering. It was because I had become that worst of all figures in life or books ­ a betrayer. Me the betrayer, although earlier in the summer in North Adams, where her doctor father drove us because we were too young to drive, Tina had seemed the betrayer. This time in North Adams that was supposed to be a high point, if not the culminating point, in our romance, which most of the time till now has been conducted at a distance. She was up at St. Mary's, sending me scented envelopes that said SWAK on the back, Sealed With a Kiss, letters containing protestations of undying love right out of the movies if not stories in our English anthologies. And I was sending daily letters with the literary Victorian touch that the stamp was upside down because due to my love for you I am too distracted to get it right side up.

Mostly at a distance, but the empty space around us was the negative space around our infrequent necking times - intense necking that we knew was very far from fucking but which at 15 seemed close when it was happening. Hands on bodies there in the shadows at rare joint events between our schools.

And how I longed for Tina one night when she was up on a stage in bright light. I was alone in shadows at the back of the Plymouth Teachers College auditorium, where I watched a joint glee club concert between her school, St. Mary's-in-the-Mountains, and mine, Holderness, watching from the shadows because I had been turned down and told I would never sing - but watching my love up there, this pleasingly chubby girl I had necked with now forming an "O" with her lips as she sang a glee club song about a place called an ash grove.

This was part of the build-up to my long-planned visit to her home in North Adams at the end of the school year, But the visit turned out to be no culmination of anything. She ignored me, flirted with another boy from our school who lived there - cast me out, it felt, withdrew all that had been given me - like something I vaguely remembered from deep childhood about a naked woman who went away.

Tina and I kept on with our daily letters, as if nothing had gone wrong. But later in the summer, up in the White Mountains, I met my sweet gorgeous love
Elyssa, and now I felt really guilty. A
big part of the guilt had to do with how Tina was not that gorgeous.

I already had pictures of Ellysa, so cute and contained, so loving. Then Tina sent a picture. She was in a skimpy sun dress leaning against a tree. The Brownie had caught beauty, if conditional beauty, that I had overlooked. A come-hither smile, and her skin in the snapshot apparently smooth and shiny now. So maybe it was okay. Maybe she was okay and so it was okay that I was betraying her.

I kept a Brownie snapshot of Ellysa on a sofa,
smiling together as if at a secret we shared. I might have wondered at the time if either of us could look that content and contained again.

The tree picture survives only in my mind. Tina had come to a fall weekend, and in our dorm, which we vacated for the St. Mary's girls, she had found my letters from Elyssa. And later I placed all my pictures of Tina and all her letters in a shoe box filled with rocks and wrapped it in twisted coat hanger wire, and I took the heavy packet to a muddy pond where I sometimes fished for vicious-looking, sharp-toothed pickerel, and I hurled it out into that muddy place.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I was really onto something. In the summer of 1951, not long after entering adolescence, I was sitting with a pad and a pen at a fold-out table in a compartment on a steam-driven train to London from Liverpool, where that morning the small Cunard liner Parthia had docked. It was my first time abroad and I was entranced with the countryside we traversed – the almost unbelievably intense green hills and the big pastel skies and actual English sheep. Something out of dreams that made me feel anything was possible. What I was seeing seemed a match for pictures I has found in Life of a recently rediscovered American painter named Ryder. And even more it connected up with for the Romanic poets that I had been reading at boarding school as if my actual life depended on them. This landscape and my attempt to recreate it in words on paper was outside my direct experience and was something I wanted badly.

The Aqua Mustang 64 – THE MIDDLE DISTANCE

In the city as well as up in New Hampshire, I had been looking into places of the past in this year of exploration, 1986. It was as if my life depended upon finding out what had happened in the deep past in the summer houses that had led by now to so much violent death and molestation in involving my cousins.

I walked along the block on East 66th Street where my grande dame grandmother, who had white hair and perfect posture, had had her last apartment. Her city place had been a miniature version of their grandiose old summer houses in the White Mountains. In the apartment, a smaller but equally shiny table for formal dinners. Behind glass in the pantry, the omnipresent finger bowls that gave this family definition. Under the rug at the head of the table something she could press with her foot that set off a buzzer summoning service from the kitchen. In the kitchen the same tall smoky glasses as in the summer places, the same jars, strangely never touched, of macadamia nuts, the same special soup crackers that came only from St. Johnsbury, the same S.S. Pierce canned goods that came from Boston.

In college in the fifties, when my grandmother was alive, I would sometimes spend a night in that apartment when I was in town for Broadway shows or debutante parties. I used a day bed in the study she had set up after my grandfather died, a city version of his New Hampshire summer writing places. In this new study a frame held the certificate for his Pulitzer Prize for fiction, which had never been shown in the mountains where everyone knew. Almost everything intact here from the summer places, familiar chairs and desk and some chinoiserie wall hangings. But also there was something new, something disconcerting. In another frame, a close-up black and white photo portrait of Robert Frost looking as sensual as he looked craggy.

Before my time Frost had been a neighbor up in Franconia and went on walks with my grandfather. But I knew this only from books about Frost, for in our houses he was never mentioned. And yet here he was in this place of honor. What was he to us? Surely he and my grandmother could not have been lovers. But maybe nothing was too far fetched. In this year 1986 I had just found my family’s old housekeeper, Mrs. Miner, still alive in the mountains. And someone else still there, a woman who had been a very pretty summer girl in teenage days and had come back to stay. Now the former summer girl videotaped old but alert Mrs. Miner telling, in local language, about convoluted sexual activities, which Mrs. Miner called buzzing. That it was called buzzing, not fucking, made it instantly believable, though no one in my family except me would ever imagine my regal grandmother doing either.

In the early sixties in a summer when she was in the mountains and I had just come back again from aboard and again had no home, I had used her apartment for the steamy month of August. Steamy, and air conditioning was not an Anglophile thing. Across from the study there was a guest room, which was used in winter by Nana’s best friend, Frances Perkins, the same one who had been the first woman in the cabinet. While I was there that summer I had brought in the object of my long-time sexual obsession, a syrupy, married Kentucky girl named Laurie. And now here we were in my grandmother’s bed, then the Mrs. Perkins bed, then my grandmother’s, fucking and all the rest in every way we each knew and in ways we had only heard about and had to try out, going from room to room with our latest of many bottles of Scotch. Sweat giving a shine to Laurie’s smooth body. She telling me, who had not been always been sure of his physical self, that she just loved his body’s line. Now together in a bathtub, now, still too hot for clothes, up against the Steinway. No clothes in this place that cried out for formal wear. Rolling on the living room carpet in this place that, till now, has seemed to exist in an ordered past. Me up, she down, she up, me down. Moving from room to room, hot and dripping. Not so much buzzing as fucking. Also making love, it seemed. Fucking and making love while getting drunk. My first experience with all three taking place at the same time. And I guess we left traces, for my grandmother turned cold in the fall, and her maid would not speak to me.

Across 66th street was a big Catholic church, used by the Upper East Side cooks and maids as a shelter from Waspdom. I walked on that street, between her building and that church, in this time of exploration, 1986, 20 years since her death, 30 years since my college time, 25 years since the romp in her apartment, the romp still seeming so out of context as to have no meaning there. As I walked on that street in 1986, I thought I should have warm feelings from memories of nights spent there after coming into the city for those debutante parties and Broadway shows, which seemed more real than that out-of-context romp with Laurie.

But 66th Street felt awful now. Stifling. Suffocating – as if I was not then just walking outdoors in an area of warm memories but rather was being smothered now by old heavily powdered women who had fox furs around their necks.