Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016: Reading The Great Dethriffe 40 Years Later

    Dad was a journalist first and foremost, even when writing his three books of fiction. P.S Wilkinson, The Great Dethriffe and Beautiful Women, Ugly Scenes were all thinly veiled accounts of his life, his relationships, his thoughts and feelings about the times in which he lived. Friends, family members and neighbors would pick up these books and read them the way I imagine celebrities thumb through People Magazine, half in hope and half in dread of finding themselves within the pages.

   My sister and I appear in The Great Dethriffe as Syd and Ashbel. In the book George Dethriffe and Alice live in Winander, CT ( a name Dad probably dug out of a book of William Wordsworth poetry to double for the gated village of Tuxedo Park, NY) . To take a break from an argument with Alice (Mom) , George (Dad) visits his children's bedroom in to look in on them and what follows is straight out of family lore :

   Ashbel lay curled up tightly, his mouth open, one delicate hand beneath his cheek. Syd, in her bed, lay arms and legs outstretched like a free-fall parachutist.
   What do they dream about I wonder? Once, when Ashbel was a little over two, I heard him speak just one word in his sleep. He said, "Truck!" and, oh God, I hoped he was dreaming of the most glorious truck there ever was. Ten huge wheels with chromium rims on either side, a high crimson cab with air horns sprouting like rococo angels' trumpets from its peak, a trailer of silver with bright lights for its trim, lights along that trailer like a midnight passing train.
   "Truck!" said my son and the wind rushed out of his throat like tumbleweed across a darkened interstate.
   I have never heard Sydney speak in her dreams. She, like her mother, holds it in.

I've been told "truck" is the first word I ever said. That description of my sister --holding it in --may be the only true fiction here. I don't believe my sister has any issues with communicating her feelings.

  Published in 1972, The Great Dethriffe can be read as a fictionalized account of the events that led to my mother and father's marriage and divorce, a subject neither ever wanted to discuss much with me. George Dethriffe and his wife Alice fell madly in love --"Marriage at first sight"--but five years later, the passion is gone. They are both cell mates in a marriage. Alfred Moulton, his best friend, is a writer who, early in the book, tries to convince Dethriffe he shouldn't marry Alice.

  "Does she love you, really?"
  "Yes," he said. "Yes."
  "More than she loves herself? Don't forget, Alice Townsend looks out for herself. And you have every right to be just as selfish as she is."
  "Well, I'm not sure how true that is," George said. "But, like I keep trying to tell you, you just don't know Alice!"
  "I'm just worried you're going to marry her for all the wrong reasons. I'm worried that you're getting married because you think it's time to get married." I turned back from the bar and sat down in my leather chair again. "You feel you're old enough, and you haven't got anything better to do, and so you're going to marry Alice Townsend. All I'm trying to suggest is that you still have time to get out of it if you want to."
  "But I don't want to," George insisted.
  "Alright., here's another idea. Why don't you, instead of getting married next month, why don't you take Alice with you and go off somewhere and live together. Hell, go someplace where no one knows you're not married. Try it out before you make it legal. I just have the feeling that you're getting married out of some misguided sense of responsibility."

Author photo and description which always bothered my sister and me. The "child" is our half-sister Amanda.

  And it was somewhere here, about 107 pages into The Great Dethriffe, that I realized Alfred Moulton and George Dethriffe were the same person. Quite the revelation for me! Alfred speaks in the voice of my father after his divorce, trying to look out for his younger version. I'm sure, in real life, both his friends and his brother, Saint, tried to talk Dad out of getting married five year after graduating from college. Here, the case for and against the marriage is made over the course of pages and pages of text, from the Kennedy administration through the start of Nixon's first term.
  My parents's marriage lasted fewer than four years. One day Dad left the three of us in the house in Tuxedo Park and moved into a small New York City apartment.

    It took me a moment to start the cold engine, and then I backed the car up and turned it around. Just before I left, I looked back in the rear-view mirror at the kitchen. Alice  had come to the door and was watching me. And I'm not entirely sure this is true because it seems so patently absurd, but I think...I think, that as I left, I saw her wave.

 Dad apparently led the life of a bachelor before his Mexican divorce went through, while my mom moved with us to Aiken, South Carolina.
  Dad died in 2009. I'll never be able to talk to him again and ask the thousands of questions that have come up as I've written this blog. But I can open his books and spend hours in his presence, making these very personal connections with him.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

1954: Uncle Saint reporting from Fire Island?

    My cousin Katharine and I have every reason to believe the young barefoot reporter seen in this 1954 NBC news footage is our Uncle Saint. The footage is for a story about New Yorker theatre critic Wolcott Gibbs and his weekly summer newspaper The Fire Islander. Gibbs was a friend of Saint's step-father John O'Hara back then ( thus the name "Gibbsville" in so many of O'Hara's stories) and must have known J Bryan III as well. Gibbs even recruited O'Hara and other friends to write for The Fire Islander.

  With literary lions providing much of the copy, it was up to the Gibbs's reporting team to handle the day to day news and Uncle Saint, the former managing editor of The Virginia Spectator at U.VA, appears to be up to challenges like covering trustees meetings.

   In the first issue of The Fire Islander Gibbs promised his readers:

    Our reporters will be instructed to get around. There are usually twenty little communities in any community. It will be their job every week to get in touch with a representative member of each of them and come back with the facts, upon which the editors will them superimpose grammar.

  Why would Gibbs devote so much time to a little read broadsheet?

"I'm in love with the goddamn beach!"


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Witty Dotty

  These are photographs of Dorothy Parker and her canine companions that my Grandpa Joe took a year before she died at the age of 73. I found them inside the cover of Sunset Gun, a collection of verses she wrote in 1928.

   No Dorothy Parker biography is complete without the story of how my grandfather first met Parker, the Algonquin wit who wrote "Men seldom make passes At girls who wear glasses". By the mid 1930's she was drinking a lot and even suffering from blackouts. 
     The year was 1933. Joseph Bryan III was a childhood friend of Parker's future husband Alan Campbell. The two ran into each other at a dance in New York.

Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker

   "Come along at once," Alan said. "Dottie Parker is here and she's dying to meet you."
   Grandpa Joe, then a 29 writer,  followed him to the edge of the dance floor, where Dorothy was holding court. To his amazement, she seemed thrilled to see him. It seemed she couldn't believe her luck in meeting the author of a recent New Yorker profile. She insisted he take a seat next to her. She flooded him with complements and eventually worked up to a proposition: would he be interested in collaborating on a play with her. He said of course he would and they agreed to meet the next morning.  

     The following day, at the stroke of eleven, Grandpa Joe appeared at her hotel and asked the doorman to ring her.

  The following excerpt is from Grandpa Joe's 1985 book Merry Gentlemen (And One Lady):

    She was a long time answering, but finally he said, "Mr. Bryan, madam...Mr Bryan...." He turned to me: "Will you spell it, sir?" I spelled it, and he repeated, " B, R, Y, A, N, madam...Yes, madam." He turned to me again: "Mrs. Parker asks what you wish to see her about." I don't know how I made myself heard over the noise of my heart crackling, but I succeeded, because presently I found myself in the elevator, even though I was already achingly aware that she'd have no recollection of our glittering plans from the evening before. It proved to be worse than that: she had no recollection of it, it never happened.
  I saw Dottie many, many times afterwards...but never once was that first evening ever mentioned. For all that she retained of it, it had never happened.

  When Dorothy Parker died, she willed her ashes and her entire estate to the Dr Martin Luther King Jr. His assassination complicated matters. For 20 years her ashes were kept in a can in the office of a New York lawyer. When columnist Liz Smith made this public in the late 1980s, Grandpa Joe wrote the lawyer, offering to help have the ashes spread over her late husband's grave in a Virginia cemetery:

   God knows I have no desire --none!--to push myself forward in this sad affair, but I can't stand by and let the ashes of a friend and so distinguished a writer be tossed into the street.

 That's not at all what happened. Dorothy Parker's ashes have been placed in a memorial garden at The NAACP headquarters in Baltimore. Her estate has earned the NAACP a great deal of money.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams

I had the pleasure of interviewing Robin Williams several times on movie junkets and shared one of those rare couple of minutes when cameras aren't ready to roll. We talked about my son's imminent birth. Robin leaned in, that famous face widening in a grin you've seen a hundred times, saying "Aw, there's nothing greater in the world!"

     I told him we were having trouble coming up with a name. It was really between Cooper, a name that would work whether he was an actor, writer or baseball player. Or Tucker, a family name. I said my fear with the name Cooper is the other kids will wind up calling him Cooper the Pooper. Robin shook his head. "No, no they won't. They'll call him "Cooper the Super Duper Pooper". And there was hardly a beat before he added. " But that's a lot better than Tucker."

      So that's my Robin Williams story. The lightening fast wit and, above all, the generous humanity. What a sad day for me. And my son Cooper.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Bryan Boys

Upon the death of J. St. George Bryan, 66, in June, 1945 the Bryan-owned Richmond New Leader ran this editorial:

Sharply etched as was ST GEORGE BRYAN in personality, he seldom thought of himself, so far as we observed, otherwise than as a member of a family, the son of JOSEPH BRYAN and the grandson of JOHN STEWART, of Brook Hill. If he had ever analyzed the psychology of a name, he would have put the emphasis on BRYAN and not on ST. GEORGE.
    This was true, in varying degrees, of all five of the sons of JOSEPH and ISOBEL LAMONT STEWART BRYAN. They were brothers in spirit to a degree more marked even than that of their diversified individuality.

John Stewart Bryan surrounded by his newspapermen

 JOHN STEWART BRYAN was the senior in spirit as in birth, versatile, humane, captivating in manner and of eager intellectuality. 

DR. ROBERT C. BRYAN was unique in charm, skillful as a surgeon, profoundly interested in all his patients, and of a broad sympathy that made him the cherished counsellor of hundreds.
 JONATHAN BRYAN, the third son, much resembled his grandfather, JOHN STEWART, in person and in financial acumen. Singularly successful in business, he was far more than a businessman. He was socially irresistible, an intellect at once restless and philosophical, interested but always balanced, a MAECENAS whose full encouragement of promising men and noble enterprises will never be known.

 THOMAS PINCKNEY BRYAN, the youngest and the first to die, was regarded by his admiring brothers as socially the most captivating of them all. Wherever he went, he won hearts impulsively. Never did he enter a company that he did not seek to do kindness to every member of it. His brilliant law career was climbing to its shining crest when he succumbed to typhoid and pneumonia. No man of his day was more lamented.

   ST GEORGE BRYAN,  the fourth of the sons, and the survivor, had his special share of the family endowment.  His amazing wit, which had become a tradition in his lifetime, was one aspect only of a mind curiously intuitive. Those who worked with him in the newspaper business were accustomed to say of him that if he were asked for an instant answer to a question of business policy, he was almost inerrant. He might mistake if he pondered; he seldom did if he followed his intuitions. It was a remarkable quality and it helped to explain a fact in Richmond journalism that should not be overlooked: The years of his most active participation in the management of The Times Dispatch --roughly, 1909-13--were those in which its new foundations were made secure.

   It is a grievous duty to bid farewell to the last of the "BRYAN boys," as they affectionately were styled through a long generation. Seldom is a city blessed with so many sons of a single family who gave so much and in so many ways to the enrichment and enlivenment of life. In saying Ave et salve, there is comfort in the reflection that of the next generation , seven sons and four daughters carry on the fine tradition. Six of the sons of the "BRYAN boys"  are in the armed services. One had given his life. So widely have these grandsons of JOSEPH BRYAN scattered that few of them will walk tomorrow the gravel path to GOD's acre at Emmanuel Church; but many friends will follow--to remember the five, to thank GOD for them, and to sing reverently and gratefully, "The strife is o'er, the battle won...Allelujah!"

J St George Bryan in 1890

Another editorial, this was most likely from the Times-Dispatch:

No Richmonder of his generation was more sought after as a friend and companion than J. ST. GEORGE BRYAN, whose death occurred yesterday after a long period of failing health. His warm-heartedness and geniality, his capacity for friendship, inspired the same qualities in others. Tall and handsome, with a fine presence, he was a striking figure , and his gift for bon mots and repartee, his seemingly inexhaustible fund of anecdotes, made him the center of many gatherings.

    His quick wit was always in evidence, and as a mimic he was incomparable. Few dared to cross swords with him in a good-natured duel of words, for the intrepid one who did so was apt to be verbally skewered, albeit deftly and without the infliction of a wound. Among the few who were able to swap repartee with MR BRYAN on anything like evn terms were the late EGBERT G LEIGH and the late CHARLES COTEWSORTH PICKNEY . It was an unforgettable experience to sit in the old Westmoreland Club and listen to the scintillating, crackling conversation of those remarkable men.

   They are gone, and so are the four brothers of ST GEORGE BRYAN--JOHN STEWART, DR ROBERT C., JONATHAN and THOMAS P. BRYAN, who passed on before. Five such notable brothers would be hard to find in Richmond's more than two centuries of history. Of the charming gentleman who outlived all the others, and whose death occurred yesterday, it can truly be said that he was a man of unusual gifts and high integrity, worthy of his great heritage.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Stashed Between The Pages

    I am still finding letters and photos sealed between pages of books in the attic. From Ancestors, a 1971 novel written by the legendary New Yorker editor William Maxwell, quite a few things had been stashed for years. The most interesting are a pair of letters written to dad's step-father John O'Hara. The first is an undated letter ( probably between 1965-1969) from Pulitizer Prize winning novelist James Michener:

Dear John, 

I had the pleasure last week of hearing your step-son handle himself rather well at the forum for critics and writers. He had a tart tongue, defended his work modestly yet with vigor, and showed a sense of humor to boot. You should be proud of him, because he gave every impression of being a long-time worker. It's good to see such fellows coming along. 
Sincerely, Jim Michener

Then from Maxwell to O'Hara in another undated letter but clearly before The New Yorker's 1962 publication of "So Much Unfairness In Things":

   Court seemed to me, both in what he showed me and in what he said, so close to the edge of becoming a writer that I am going to try and see if I can beat him into it. He is the first youngster I have talked to in I don't know how many years who seemed unafraid to commit himself and unafraid of the labor of writing. He has studied you, to considerable advantage- that is, he has learned how not to be boring. If I can find his rightful material he ought to turn out all right. He strikes me as the kind of person who would be happier as a writer than something else.

   There are also three more letters from Maxwell from 1969, 1974 and 1975. The first was sent to Rural Route #5 outside Iowa City where Dad was teaching at the Writer's Workshop, happily married to Sam, and slogging his way through novel number 2: The Great Dethriffe:

    The manuscript hasn't turned up yet, but it probably will this week, and I will write you as soon as I have read it. Meanwhile, you might write in pencil on the wall above your desk the motto of our family : " Leg over leg and the dog got to Dover." It applies to everything, but to novels most of all.

   That may be the most quoted motto in our family as well. We're using it today as we try to sell a house. The letter ends on an affectionate note.

   Not having sons, I find I can't begin to tell you how gratifying that you should choose me as the old block you are a chip off.
  Yours affectionately also, B.M.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Suburban View of the 1968 Washington Riots


   When my mom typed this letter on the evening after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, Washington DC was embroiled in a second night of rioting. Downtown buildings were on fire and 15 thousand extra troops had been sent into the city to control the crowds. Twelve people would be killed and  more than a thousand injured. More than six thousand people would be arrested.

    Seven miles to the south in Alexandria, VA, my mom watched the televised news bulletins while having "quite a few drinks"( as she would write the next morning).

 Dear Mary

   What a God-damned mess this country is. I am writing to you from war torn Washington DC, USA. Some pimply faced red neck decided to take a shot at Rev. Martin Luther King in Memphis and, like the assassination  of our late president, it was another shot heard around the world.

    Two days ago everyone had some--not much but some-- hope of PEACE. What in the hell was that SOB thinking? Now violence has broken out in our Nation's capital and for the first 4 or 5 hours there wasn't a cop in sight. Now, of course, there is a curfew. The National Guard has been activated but from the last Special Report, the rioting and looting is still going on.


    Mary, there are children--some not more than six years old-- out there breaking into stores, stealing radios and clothes. You wonder what their mothers are doing or even if they know what their children are doing.

   Alexandria is quiet at the moment and we have no violence.  We can't even see the horrendous clouds of smoke from the District. Saint and Lansing are asleep, but my neighbors are alert and ready to take them across the back fences if we should have any trouble. There is an ammunition depot ( sounds like the last world war) right down the block from us. If the youths or even the adults of the negro population of Alexandria decided to invade this establishment we would all be in a very vulnerable position.

 I am not really worried now, there has been no indication that we will have any trouble, but I do have an old shotgun that Courty left with us in case. I don't have any ammunition but I do have gall when it comes to defending the children.

  The riots and the destruction stayed within the boundaries of the inner city, utterly devastating the community. Businesses were closed. Jobs were lost by the thousands. On some blocks, rubble would last for decades.