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.