Monday, January 31, 2011

The Irritants of Grandpa Joe , 1986-1989

My grandfather collected trivia, curios and exotica. He enjoyed the astounding, the bizarre, the offbeat and the occasionally bawdy. In his eighties, he wrote these tidbits down in two collections.

Time Magazine said of Hodgepodge, published in 1986, "the covers of this one are too close together".

So he followed it up in 1989 with Hodgepodge Two aka Gallimaufry To Go.

Among the curious data he offered ( The Dallas Zoo has two yaks, Yack and Yill), he added a chapter in each entitled Irritants.

The Duke of Richmond had little patience for the foolish and the petty. He preferred to live his life as it was meant to be lived. In the Victorian Era.

Among the irritants he listed:

- Clip-on coat hangers in hotel closets, silently implying that the guest is a thief.

- Waiters and waitresses who tell you their names.

- Clowns in the background of a TV news film who lean into the camera and make faces and wiggle their fingers in their ears.

-Idiots who call you early in the morning and ask in astonishment, "Oh did I wake you?"

-Vogue words and phrases such as gutsy, state of art, flight attendant for stewardess, and all other such pretentiousness, pilot error, ball park figure (meaning a rough estimate in round numbers, whereas real ball-park figures are exact: "Attendance today was 31, 449")

-Modern packaging, which requires an ax and a blowtorch to open the box or envelope--e.g., the salted nuts they give you on airplanes.

Even the grand-apple does not fall far from the tree so I feel I must add my own irritants:

-Snapping chewing gum within hearing distance of any other human being.

-Bank tellers, cashiers and airline ticket takers who insist on calling you by your first name ( which in my case is Joseph, or even worse, Joe).

-Duck boats and duck boat horns in the hands of anyone who has disembarked from a duck boat.
-Waiters who always point to the most expensive thing on the menu when you ask them what's good.

-Drivers who slam the brakes on an interstate to watch a paper cup drift by.


-And I don't care much for the goons who shout things and make faces during live TV reports either.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Filming The Great Dethriffe, 1974

In early 1972, these two men approached my dad about making a movie out of his second novel, The Great Dethriffe.

It's the story of two young men who cling to the long vanished life-style of the 1920's. The men , George Dethriffe and Alred Moulton, try to model themselves on the myth of a Scott Fitzgerald hero. But their pursuit of nostalgia alienates their other friends and Dethriffe's marriage literally goes up in smoke.
The book did not sell well so Dad has some surprising news for his friend Peter Neill:

There is a man who seems determined to make a movie out of The Great Dethriffe. Someone named James Ivory who did Shakespeare Wallah and the more recent "Savages" ...It got very strange reviews--rather like the Peter O'Toole "The Ruling Class" which I saw and loathed. I never saw "Savages" but the reviewers, too, either loved it or left it. Ivory wants to make a movie only about the Dethriffe part, leaving out Alfred, Rome, the model, Hawaii, the brother etc. which distresses me since that part is the part I liked least, or at least felt least interesting (Rome bored my ass off, but I liked Alfred and what was going on in parts of it)

The money would be 3% of the operating budget which seems to be set at around $500,000 meaning I would get $15,000, plus 5% of the producers' profits after the film...which will be nonexistent...He wants Sam Waterston to play Dethriffe which makes for interesting circles within circles.

(That's because Dad had known Waterston for years)

I know that Sam liked the book, mentioned wanting to play the part, but he's a very big star now particularly since the TV production of Much Ado About Nothing was such a smashing success and he may price himself out of it. If only I could get Candice Bergen to play "Alice"...if only I could get "Candice Bergen.. if only...if

So I went back to read Dethriffe yesterday and hated every minute of it. Why is it so difficult to reread something after it has been published.

Two weeks later, Dad received some incredible news:

For God's sake they do want, they really honest-to God no -kidding-scout's honor do want CANDICE BERGEN to play Alice...and (Ivory) told me that he wants his writers to spend considerable amount of time with actors and actresses to get speech patterns and pace as well as sentiment *sigh*

In May and June, Dad began writing the dialogue for The Great Dethriffe. James Ivory wrote the rest of the sceenplay. Ismail Merchant apparently already had backers at hand when news came that Waterston had signed on to play Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

Dad's reaction:

"Echoes within echoes within echoes. I cannot see how it can do anything but exactly what I had intended.

In fact Dad, his wife Sam and James Ivory went to Newport to see them filming The Great Gatsby. Sam Waterston showed them around the set. They were up all night filming the party sequences with extras taken from the cream of Newport society.
At one point a woman caught Dad's eye.

A beautiful tiny blond with porcelain complexion came down the stairs with two tiny children...and she kept looking at me as though she wanted to ask me something ( Did I have any pacifiers? Could I cure diarrhea? What do you do when a child vomits on your beaded purse?) but then she went away I and asked Sam who it was. He said "Daisy Buchanan."

(Mia Farrow to those who don't remember.)
Though shooting was scheduled to begin in the fall, Ivory had not found a leading lady and the movie just vanished. Nothing came of it.

 As Dad wrote in 1976:

The timing was bad. The Fitzgerald resurgence occurred about two years after the book

But the postscript is interesting. Merchant and Ivory went on produce and direct two Oscar nominated films, A Room With a View and Howard's End.
And Sam Waterston would play his friend, my dad, in the ABC TV movie "Friendly Fire" .
Finally Dad would use his screenplay experience when he wrote Beautiful Woman, Ugly Scenes.

Echoes Within Echoes ...Within Echoes... Within Echoes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"The Best of Friends at Farmington" 1966

In 1966, my dad, newly divorced and 30 years old, moved into a small apartment a block from Union Square.
His date book suggests he didn't spend every night sitting alone mourning his failed marriage. I'm guessing he went out on dates with young single women not unlike Linda Bates and Bitsey Turner, two characters in a short story published that year in Mademoiselle.

Though they were roomates at Farmington (Miss Porter's School), Linda and Bitsey attended different colleges and have drifted apart. Both work as secretaries but while Bitsey has a busy social life, Linda lives alone with a cat named Kafka and a TV set. After promising to get together for months, Bitsey finally visits Linda for drinks. Bitsey brings two young men with her. When she steps out of the room Linda overhears a conversation:

"Let's get out of here," Austin said.
"Soon," she heard Bitsey answer. "We have to stay a little longer. I promised her we'd stay for a while."
"But it's been almost thirty minutes."Austin protested.
"I thought you'd like her," Bitsey said.
"She's probably very nice, but..."Austin said. "Look, Bitsey, we have little secretaries like her all over the bank. I just don't want to see them after hours too. I thought she would be different. She went to Farmington with you. I thought, since she's been your roomate, she'd be different, that's all."
"Well, she's changed since then," Bitsey said. "She used to be a lot more fun."

The story strikes me as owing an awful lot to the New Yorker stories of his step-father, John O'Hara. O'Hara was the master of finding moments that revealed the fragile egos of his characters.

Dad in 1966

"The Best of Friends at Farmington" is also depressing as hell. Linda is sentenced to solitary confinement, to loneliness, by her so-called friend. I'm guessing, even when Dad had evening plans with the Lindas he met, he wasn't very happy.

Until today, I had never heard of this short story. I'm guessing Dad never felt it was one of his best. I think there were some other short stories in that box as well. One of the sixty-seven in my attic.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Elkridge (1938-1961) and Mom's Sugar Donuts

Inducted in 1966, Elkridge had the longest career of any horse in The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. In a career that included 123 races, he cleared hundreds of fences and fell only once. He was the nation's champion at 4 and then again, when he was owned and trained by my grandfather, at age 8.

He caught the attention of New Yorker "Race Track" Columnist Audax Minor, probably around 1946:

I'd like to pin a few stars and ribbons on Elkridge, who won the Meadow Brook Steeplechase, at Belmont, the other afternoon. It always gives me a warm glow to watch this veteran run. He's eleven years old, you know, but he has such a vigorous way of going that horsemen find him either entertaining or wonderful, depending on the boiling point of their enthusiasm. Whether or not he's the best jumper since Jolly Roger, he certainly is as hard-working a one as we have ever had, and he's by far the biggest money winner in the annals of steeplechasing. He has started 96 times, finishing first 26 times, second 15 times and third 11. What is even more remarkable, I think, is the fact that he has fallen only once.

Elkridge, a rangy, medium-sized bay gelding by Mate, was developed by the late Thomas Hitchcock, who turned out so many famous jumpers. (Incidentally, Elkridge is the last Hitchcock jumper still in steeplechasing.) He was bought by Kent Miller for $7000, at the dispersal of the Hitchcock stable, in the autumn of 1942. Since then, he has won nearly every jumping race of importance and earned $178,055. Elkridge, who is something of a family pet, has a hankering for sugar-covered doughnuts, a habit he acquired from being fed bits of them by Miller's little daughter, Phyllis (sic--he means my mom Phoebe, seen below).

Come to think of it, some racers have the most extraordinary tastes. There was once an animal-I can't recall his name at the moment-who was crazy about beef stew. Goldie F., a fast runner of other days, doted on Bermuda onions. Alsab liked grapefruit. Anyway, lots of sugared doughnuts to Elkridge. He has earned them.

Elkridge was indeed the great family provider in his day.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Phoebe Miller Bryan 1938-2010

In her final days, my mother was surrounded by three generations of family who filled her small house with love, laughter and many, many tears.
Her adult life wasn't easy, which must have seemed incredibly unfair to the little girl inside. That girl had a mostly idyllic childhood in Camden, South Carolina.
Her father owned and trained Elkridge, one of the greatest steeple chasers in racing history.

My mom could do anything she wanted in Camden.
She won ribbons riding horses
She won trophies playing tennis.
She danced with beaus at cotillions
She lived in a huge house called Cool Springs.
She attended private schools with the town's richest children.
There was just one problem.
One day the money was gone.

What happened to the money isn't so clear but soon, it became obvious that the Millers would have to pull all their children out of their private schools. Mom would no longer go to school with the friends she met at horse shows, the dances and the tennis courts.
Perhaps not a big deal in a northern city, but in a small Southern town, it made all the difference.
On the public school bus, this little blond girl must have been steaming. It wasn't her fault the family had run out of money so why should she suffer?
When the bus stopped in front of her new school, Mom stepped down and began running. She ran past her brother and sister and raced down the street. She ran past the shops and past the library. She ran right up to the door of the private school, took a breath and swung the door open. There was nobody in the hallways so she walked straight back into her old classroom. She sat down at her old desk. She stared hard at the teacher just daring her to say something.
Nobody did.
Mom got to finish that school year at the private school

For Mom, money would always be an issue. Even after a divorce settlement considered generous by her own lawyer, she lived , in the best of times, paycheck to paycheck.
Lansing and I would live with our Dad in a New England saltbox with a swimming pool in a big backyard.
Then we'd live with Mom in small rental home with an old dodge dart in the driveway. There, in Sparks, Nevada, we qualified for a program that let us buy school lunches for 35 cents.

In our teens, we went to boarding schools with children whose families were among the richest in the nation.
Then we'd spend summers eating peanut butter sandwiches and working minimum wage jobs at casinos or restaurants.
(We had it easy compared to the miracle of our family, my sister Alyssa.)
Throughout it all, even in the worst of times, Mom had pluck.
After her memorial service, I visited her musty basement. In the corner I found an old Wilson tennis racket. On the handle she had stenciled two words.

The little girl inside ,who could do anything she tried, would speak to her now and then.
After decades breathing in second hand smoke while dealing cards at Circus Circus,
Mom quit that miserable job and went back to school.
She graduated from the University of Nevada.
She bought a house across the street from campus.
That steel magnolia quality saw her through several bouts with cancer.
She fought even after her body gave out.
My God, she was so angry at her legs when they wouldn't let her get out of bed.
And I believe that spirit lives on.
Not just in the little house where tenants swear they hear someone playing a piano.
But in my own daughter, a competitive ball of fire named for the town my mom always thought of as home.
The night mom died, Camden says someone was in her room.
I'd like to think it was mom delivering two words of advice:
I love you Mom and miss you more than I ever would have dreamed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Sword Over the Mantel, 1960

My grandfather was born in Richmond and brought up in the former capital of the Confederate States. The city's atmosphere was still that capital's in the early 1900's of his childhood.
As a child he would be lifted to the deep window sill beneath the library wall. There, beneath a sword that once belonged to General Robert E. Lee he'd perform the following poem:

Forth from its scabbard pure and bright,
Flashed the sword of Lee!
Far in the front of the deadly fight
High o'er the brave in the cause of Right
Its stainless sheen like a beacon of light
Led us to victory

He grew up in a huge home, Laburnum, with his grandfather and grandmother, his father and mother; three of his four uncles who were not yet married and assorted relatives, friends, servants and dogs. He is seen to the left, standing with his seated cousin, Thomas Pinckney, in a photgraph dated 1917.

His grandfather, Joseph Bryan, fought as a private with Colonel Mosby's Rangers. He was injured twice.
Mosby told his men "I will tolerate no blasphemy or profanity in my command under any circumstances but one: I permit you to call, 'Surrender, you Yankee son of a bitch!'"

His Great-uncle Ran was a ballonist. General Joe Johnston sent him a hundred feet above the treetops to spy on Yankee positions. His adventures are worthy of a future post. Historian Burke Davis wrote a book about them called Runaway Balloon.

My grandfather's most colorful uncle was St George Tucker Coalter Bryan, nicknamed Teasey ( or "T.C" for his middle initials). After the war in which he served as an artilleryman with 2nd Company, Richmond Howitzers, Teasey went west and lived among the Zuni indians, sharing a hut with a gold-miner and a wrestling bear. Thirty years of this cooled him down, and he came back to Virginia. He is the first man on the left of this photograph. Joseph Bryan is standing on the far right.

And finally there is one more great-uncle, Capt. Thomas Pinckney. He had starved as a Yankee prisoner at Morris Island outside Charleston, SC. He once told my grandfather offhandedly, "You get used to them after a while, son. Rats don't taste all that bad".
All of these stories, and many more, are told in my grandfather's 1960 memoir, The Sword Over the Mantel: The Civil War and I

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Summer at Squam Lake, 1951

In the summer of 1951, the summer after Dad has been accidentally shot, his family rented a house on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. Today it is best known as the setting of the 1981 film On Golden Pond. But for a fifteen year old with a few empty pages in his scrapbook, it became a place of happy memories that would now be sixty years old.

On the day they left Squam Lake to head back home to Washington DC, Dad took some photographs. He handed the camera to his sister Joan for the first shot here. Dad sitting in front of "The Swamp."
Away from the family house, Dad could stay here alone with Rudolf the cat . What 15 year old wouldn't enjoy a place to himself?
"It had one bedroom, a closet, and a bathroom. It was a great looking place really" he writes in the margins.
There's a shot below of Aunt Joan. 18 years old. A College student at one of the Seven Sisters. Barnard College? I'll have to ask.

Above is a shot of a friend who, at the age of 11, was already smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. He's wearing a ribbon for swimming or canoeing.

"Here is Daddy squinting into the bright sun".

"Here is a nicely blurred picture of Saint and the Oldsmobile in the driveway in front of the house."

"This one here is a group picture consisting of Mom, Dad, Hulda, Al and Rudolf(the white cat in Oma's arms). Notice the poses assumed by the dogs".

As the summer drew to a close Dad returned to Episcopal High School in Virginia for what would unexpectedly turn out to be his final year.

Squam Lake today.
The Number One Song That Summer:
"Too Young" by Nat King Cole

Monday, January 3, 2011


For Christmas my sister Lansing gave me scanned copies of two treasured photographs featuring our grandmother, Katharine Lansing Barnes. To many she was known as "Sister". To us she was Oma.

In this photograph, she and our grandfather are walking outside Central Park on a brisk wintry day. They married October 4, 1930, both in their mid-twenties. After working as a reporter and editor at various newspapers and magazines ( Parade, Town and Country, The Saturday Evening Post) Grandpa Joe joined the Navy during World War 2. After the war he worked for the CIA.

In a half hearted attempt to join the CIA the author John O'Hara ( Appointment in Samarra, Pal Joey) filled out an application and attended a dinner party arranged by his friend, our grandfather, in 1949. He got so drunk he pretty much disqualified himself from service. The next morning Oma congratulated him. She said getting drunk was the most sensible thing he could have done.

Five years later, O'Hara's wife, Belle, died and he eventually began seeing newly seperated Oma, described by Frank MacShane in The Life of John O'Hara as " a witty, stylish and outgoing person who got on with literary people such as Dorothy Parker as well as with the social world in which she was brought up". They married in 1955. Our grandfather sent a telegram of congratulations signed "Frying Pan".

They lived a comfortable life with a house in Princeton and another in Quogue. O'Hara became disenchanted with New York City (" all glass and parking lots , with no building, residential or otherwise, safe from the wrecker's big iron ball") but he and Oma were among the exclusive 540 people who attended Truman Capote's famous black and white ball at The Plaza in 1966. Sinatra was there. Mailer. Warhol. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Garbo.

The New York Times described arriving guests as rolling "off the assembly line like dolls, newly painted and freshly coiffed, packaged in silk, satin and jewels".

<--Truman Capote gets masked up for his ball

The ball was a great publicity stunt: the most lavish book release party of all time. The book: In Cold Blood.

Candace Bergin dancing. Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra arriving. ( The men got rid of their masks as soon as they could).
A recent book about the "party of the century".

Inside the Plaza ballroom.