Monday, May 30, 2011

Hanging Out With The Aga Khan

The Aga Khan, a descendent of Ali--the first Imam, and leader of millions of Ismali Muslims

My grandfather, a former associate editor of the Saturday Evening Post, had written profiles of the Duke of Edinburgh, of Kate Hepburn and of Princess Margaret when he moved to France for three months in the early 1950's to work with the Aga Khan on his memoirs.

Inside the Aga Khan's villa in Le Cannet on the French Riviera

Charles Murphy, who co-wrote The Windsor Story with Grandpa Joe, continues the story:

The Aga, who had been President of the League of Nations, fancied himself a world statesman; and his autobiography, as he visualized it, would commemorate his accomplishments as an adroit international negotiator and astute political prophet--this despite his confident reiteration of the late 1930's of the same unfortunate prediction which he had voiced in 1914:the great powers would not fight each other. The Aga's activities in diplomacy proving insufficient to fill out a book, Bryan ventured to suggest that he would command a far wider audience if he were to discourse on his vast acquaintance with fine horses and beautiful women (topics where his authority is beyond dispute), and on the divinity that periodically moved his adoring subjects to match his not inconsiderable weight ( 220 pounds on a 5ft 5 in frame) with its equivalent in jewels and precious metals.

Sir Sultan being weighed in front of a stadium full of onlookers in Mumbai in 1946. The packets making up his weight are full of diamonds, donations which he converted to cash in order to fund charitable endeavors across Asia and Africa.

The Aga said this would be undignified ,and the collaboration dissolved amicably. Bryan explained, "The publishers and I wanted a portrait; the Aga wanted a statue".

The Aga Khan driven by his wife Begum Om Habibeh Aga Khan

The Aga Khan's "statue", World Enough & Time - The Memoirs of Sir Sultan Mohammed Shah, Aga Khan III, was published in 1954 without Grandpa Joe's input. Both he and Charles Murphy ( who had written The Duke's autobiography A King's Story and The Duchess's memoir The Heart Has Its Reasons)would be enlisted by The Duke of Windsor for two books, including a frank account of his miserable childhood. They were never to be written. The Windsor Story, was published in 1979.

Charles Murphy and J Bryan III

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Stepfather: John O'Hara

"Better than anyone else, he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well."

That is the epitaph, enscribed on a tombstone in a Princeton cemetery, that John O'Hara wrote for himself.

The best selling author of dozens of novels and short story collections, including Appointment in Samarra, BUtterfield 8, Pal Joey and Ten North Frederick, O'Hara was as gifted a writer as any of his generation.

Ernest Hemingway, Sherman Billingsley and John O'Hara at Billingsley's Stork Club

Ernest Hemingway said "If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in Samarra."

But O'Hara, who grew up not in the posh country clubs of his characters but in Pennsylvania coal mining country, always had a chip on his shoulder. He developed a reputation as a terrible tempered "Champion of the Imagined Slight".

When The New Yorker's Brendan Gill offered to buy O'Hara a drink shortly after giving O'Hara's novel A Rage To Live a bad review, O'Hara said "I wouldn't sit down with a son of a bitch like you for anything in the world." There's a story of O'Hara getting into an argument with a midget sitting next to him and was about to punch him when a second midget showed up and the two together knocked O'Hara off his feet and began beating on him until the bartender broke it up.
O'Hara and Oma

But there is another O'Hara: My father's step-father. In a July 1985 article for Esquire, Dad remembered O'Hara as an "intensely shy, warm gentle man, a devoted father to his daughter, Wylie, patient, hospitable and affectionate with his visiting stepchildren and our spouses and children despite the obvious disruption we caused in his routine, and --especially in the case of my own fledgling writing career--generous with his asked-for advice."

Dad, Unknown, Me, O'Hara

The O'Hara routine meant we didn't see a lot of him when visiting Oma in Princeton. O'Hara wrote at night, usually from midnight until dawn. I remember visiting his study one morning and burning my fingers on lamps that had been on all night. I'd play with the mechanical banks and toy cars he'd lay down on the floor for me and stare at his collection of antique horns. (It's stunning to think that the entire study--with the toys, horns and those very same lamps can be visited at Penn State University.)

O'Hara's study at Penn State

O'Hara had at least two great loves in his life. The first was Belle, who gave birth to O'Hara's only daughter, Wylie, and died nine years later in 1954. The second, O'Hara often said, was the first person he saw when he entered Princeton's Trinity Church for the funeral: Belle's friend, my father's mother, Katharine Barnes Bryan. Friends called her "Sister", a childhood nickname.

After Oma's death, my dad and aunt came across a large brown bag filled with love letters O'Hara had written to our grandmother. They reveal a side of O'Hara no biographer or critic ever knew existed:

You are a lovely, splendid, dear, sensitive, knowing girl, and you are my wife and my life and I will be good to you and try to be good for you...Oh, my darling, you don't know the surpassing peace that your letters have given me. I wonder if it is so bad to be so dependent on another person as I am on you, you the symbol and cause, and , possibly, the real source of our love.

Do you know what? Not to make you self-conscious, but I think I can see how you look when you read this. Smile for John, Sister; these words are a kiss.

Oma and O'Hara

Although Appointment in Samarra did make The Modern Library's list of the best 100 English language novels of the Twentieth Century, I think the place to start is with "Do You Like It Here?" a short story about a new boy at a prep school who's accused by his corridor master of having stolen a watch.
Then you'll begin to understand why Brendan Gill ( yes, the very same Brendan Gill) ranks O'Hara "among the greatest short-story writers in English, or in any other language" and credits him with helping "to invent what the world came to call the New Yorker short story."

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Birthday/Mother's Day Mom!

1963 This is the first year I haven't sent Mom a birthday/mother's day card. Mother's Day always falls on or around her May 9th birthday.

I would be calling today to tell her the whippet Gryffor is doing much better with the medication we're giving him. The kids are both playing in a baseball league. I'm heading off to France this week and my wife's decorating business seems poised for lift off.

1971 And I'd say how much I miss her and love her. And I promise to visit this Summer and bring her grandchildren. And yes, they eat too much junk food. Love you Mom.

Friday, May 6, 2011

John Randolph Bryan: The Confederate Aeronaut, 1862

As a child my grandfather was given a book called Brave Deeds of Confederate Soldiers. It fell open to the name "Bryan" so naturally he read on:

A certain Captain Bryan, a young aide-de-camp of General Magruder's, was borrowed by Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in the spring of '62 and sent up in in a balloon made up of hundreds of Sunday-go-to-meeting silk dresses. His mission: to map McClellan's dispositions around Yorktown. Bryan had never seen a balloon before. This one was blinding in its blaze of colors. It was controlled by a cable from a drum and windlass.

Well, the balloon bounced and whirled and rocked, and the Yankees shot at it with everything they had, but Bryan managed to do his job and get down again. He gave the maps to General Johnston and asked, in the stilted language of that time, "Will you not now, sir, reassign me to General Magruder?"

"Sir," Johnston said--and his smile was lined with sharp teeth--"you forget that you are my only experienced aeronaut. Pray hold yourself in readiness for another ascension at any moment!"

Next day he went up again. This time, as he was being wound down, a sky-gazing soldier got his sleeve caught between the cable and the drum and his arm was being drawn in and crushed when someone snatched up an ax and cut the cable. The balloon rocketed skyward until its hot air cooled. Then it fell like an anvil--fortunately, splashing down into the York River, and Bryan swam safely ashore.

My grandfather was impressed by the story and turned back to the beginning:
"John Randolph Bryan...born in Gloucester County...": Why, that sounded like his Great-uncle Ran! He read on:"Youthful and sturdy...brave as a lion..." The John Randolph Bryan he knew had a huge grey beard, and his knuckles were swollen and calloused from his trick of gnawing them when he brooded. Could they possibly be the same person?

Suddenly he knew that they had to be and right then a war that hitherto has been impossibly remote now drew so close that it seemed to have ended just the other day.

The drawings are by Salvatore Murdoca from the Burke Davis book Runaway Baloon: The Last Flight of Confederate Air Force One. Most of the words are from my grandfather, J Bryan III from his book The Sword Over The Mantel.