Authors: Charles Rowan Beye
The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you for your personal use only. You may not make this e-book publicly available in any way.
Copyright infringement is against the law. If you believe the copy of this e-book you are reading infringes on the author’s copyright, please notify the publisher at:
2. Sex, Lies, and Humiliation
3. “Let’s Get Married”
4. Falling in Love with Love
5. “Be Nice to Each Other”
6. And Then I Was Gay
7. Someday My Prince Will Come
Also by Charles Rowan Beye
I am grateful to Richard Barsam and Jane Scovell for separately bringing this memoir to the attention of Jonathan Galassi, and to that gentleman for his acute and sympathetic editing. Several friends who read the manuscript gave me suggestions for the prose or reminded me when my memory had gone awry; I must thank Mort Berman, Lindley Boegehold, Casey Cameron, Henry Chalfant, Nick Dubrule, my cousins Jane and Jeremy Hamilton, Chris Holownia, Sally McElroy, Scott Perry, Bill and Judy Plott, Willard Spiegelman, Ann Rosener, and James Tatum. My friend Stephen Pascal and my daughter Helen Tomilson did close reading and provided commentary that was miraculous. My husband, Richard, who has heard during the past twenty-two years every anecdote of my life more often than he could possibly want, provided a very useful corrective.
This book is dedicated to the many people named or described in its pages who are no longer with us to tell their versions of what I describe herein. To them and to those who still walk this earth, I give my devoted thanks for making me the person I am.
In May 2005, the woman I had married on the sixteenth of June, 1956, lay dying in an assisted living facility about ten blocks from my home. We had been divorced since 1976, and after some years of embarrassed, frosty encounters, we were once again able to speak with honesty and affection to one another, at least when discussing our four children and their progeny. The children were in town, staying with me, going over to talk with their mother, who went in and out of consciousness as the pain, and the opiates, and her disinclination to eat or drink dictated. I should have written “with us,” since the household included Richard, my partner of fifteen years, whom I was to marry in a church ceremony three years later in 2008. He had long since become a kind of stepfather in the family. At the time he was coming home from teaching to do a lot of the housework so I could tend to whatever the children needed.
Whenever any one of them came home from visiting their mother to get some rest, the inevitable was, “Dad, you really should go to see Mom, to say goodbye, or something.”
And I would resist, arguing that she was lying helpless in bed with no control over those who came to her, that she and I had too many bad memories, that the deathbed setting would be a temptation to try to “make things right,” and that would be too lopsided, wrong, if not cruel. Better to stay away. But they persisted. On the night of May 8 they stood together in the doorway to her bedroom, where she lay between oblivion and consciousness, themselves going back and forth about the impending visit that some of them were determined to force me to make the following day. Finally it was agreed that they would argue me down when they returned home that evening.
Two hours later she died, and when they reported to me the scene of that evening, I knew in a flash that she had said to herself,
I want out of here. No visit from Charlie.
What would I have said to her? Or, she, poor thing, to me? The kaleidoscope of emotions that color any recollection—hurt, pride, joy, sorrow, embarrassment, shame, passion, one could go on and on—render any seemingly assured remark highly suspect. One wants to sort out the details of the past, but often it is like going through yesterday’s wardrobe, surprised by the irremediable damage and wastage of so much lying in those drawers next to undeniable treasures. It is not what one had suspected.
That scene comes to mind maybe because I am writing a memoir that is in one way or another addressed to her. It is the story of a male who grows up to be gay, complicated by the fact that at age twenty-one he got married—yes, to a woman, and yes, it was a highly pleasurable relationship and the sex was good. She was my wife for five years until her tragic, premature death. Almost immediately I went on to marry a second woman, with whom I had what I remember as a delirious sexual relationship and who bore me four wonderful children, two boys and two girls. Throughout all the years of this surprising turn in sexual affections I never stopped having the strongest possible desire for males of almost any age, a desire I tried to realize whenever I could. Now that the whole thing is nearly over—I’m more than eighty—I ask myself,
What was that all about?
The burden of parenting eventually killed the marriage. At least that’s how I think of it; she would have said it was because I was gay. Obviously I was, as they say, sexually conflicted. Heterosexuality did eventually lose its charm for me, true. My wife and I grew estranged. I tried sex with a third woman, in an odd little inn in Arles, of all places. We were traveling with my children, all in their early teens, which more or less killed the chance for the passion to grow into what might have made for a real affair. That brief episode stifled the impulse with women for me, except for those every-now-and-then grim attempts to “make our marriage work,” and at the end, as we moved to the final stages of divorce, some bizarre couplings, ferocious, really.
After twenty years we were divorced, and I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of eternal youth. Thereafter I had four young male lovers in succession, real affairs of the heart, the first real relationships with males I had ever known. All this practice in carnality and connubiality culminated in a long-term relationship and subsequent marriage to a male, a fellow student of the classics, almost my coeval, who I hope will be there to close my eyes in death.
It all seemed so easy when I first contemplated a memoir. Some of my young gay friends have urged me to write about my high school years, since I grew up in a world they can only imagine. Some older gays, however, are not so sympathetic. You had it too easy in high school, they declare. Where’s the pain? Have you repressed it? Or they ask: What were your real motives in marrying? Once for the lark of it, yes. But twice? The boys you had sex with in high school were straight? Weren’t you just a teeny bit predatory? Aren’t we almost talking a kind of rape, maybe? Or what kind of a sex life were you having, giving satisfaction and getting none in return? What does that say about your mentality? I have a woman friend who calls those high school blow jobs abuse. (“Those boys were abusing you. Did they care about your satisfaction? No. That’s clear sexual abuse.”) But she’s a professor and in the academy sex is all about power. And, of course, there is always the question: What about you and those students you were involved with, Professor? An old friend of mine, with whom I had a brief affair when he was just about to graduate from college, has always told me that he considered our relationship to be the foundation of his adult happiness, the key to understanding human intimacy and sustaining a good marriage. He was surprised recently to be told by a therapist that he must consider my overtures and his yielding as the sexual abuse of a youth by an older male. I was thirty-five to his twenty-three.
I could be writing another kind of memoir. The WASP story, for instance. There is a lot of talk about the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage in this memoir that my name does not suggest. I am named after my father’s mentor, Charles James Rowan, the chief of staff in the Department of Surgery at the State University of Iowa, a kindly old Roman Catholic of Irish descent who agreed to stand sponsor at my Episcopalian christening when he didn’t find anything in the language of
The Book of Common Prayer
that was theologically offensive. Beye was the surname of Wilhelm Friedrich Beye, who came to the United States from Halle an der Weser in the 1850s as a fifteen-year-old boy, enlisted in the Union Army from Illinois when he was nineteen, and several years later met and married a Bostonian, Nellie Christabel Lombard. She was descended from people who came on the first and second ships to Massachusetts, principally Thomas Lombard, who settled in Dorchester in 1630. The Beyes raised their family in Oak Park, Illinois. Their son, Howard Lombard Beye, my father, married Ruth Elizabeth Ketcham, also of Oak Park, a woman who could claim a genealogy also studded with dates and place-names that resonate with the earliest history of the English settlers in the New World. That was why, I suppose, my mother made such a thing about the WASP ethnicity; old Wilhelm, even if he changed his name to William and had a school in Oak Park named after him, the William Beye Elementary School, must have spoken with an accent. Sad that she never lived to meet my second wife. This was a woman who could trace her ancestry back to the ship that arrived just after the one bearing Thomas. Her parents lived in a farmhouse in New Hampshire that her forebears had occupied for seven generations. She herself couldn’t have cared less, nor could my children, for whom the business of “background” and “heritage” is meaningless.
Mine was a midwestern upbringing in the world of manners that Mother must have taken from Edith Wharton novels; perhaps she took her cue from fantasies she had about her Bostonian mother-in-law. There was a touch of Chekhov, too, the “Cherry Orchard” years when the money and servants went and we sold the big house, where we also led a kind of “Three Sisters” existence except that at least three of us escaped the boredom of Iowa for the excitements of Manhattan. My youngest sister, who lived all her seventy-five years in Iowa City, used to intone grimly, “You crossed the river.” I suppose she meant the Mississippi, but it felt more like a sinister threat. The River Styx, maybe?
The current popularity of physical or mental trauma in memoirs might have led me to concentrate on the four-year-old Charlie who fell off a balcony onto some stairs, damaging his lower back so thoroughly that he first wore a corset and then a brace until he was eighteen, by which time his posture had developed correctly. The pain, however, continued intermittently well into my thirties, when finally new advances in therapeutic techniques of exercise radically reduced it. This could have been balanced by a focus on the six-year-old Charlie whose father died in an automobile accident, and who then experienced what Russell Baker, whose fate was the same, has declared was having the rug permanently pulled out from under him. The loss of physical agility, the loss of father, compounded by the loss of material wealth, made me overreact to betrayal. Paradoxically, despite my refusal to trust, I want to believe.
No, the real story is being gay. I always remember that Arthur Ashe used to say that every day when he woke up his first thought was:
I am black
. When I was sixteen I discovered that I was the Other. Pretentious academic claptrap, of course, although there is an instructive truth to it. Cocksucker, fairy, queer, homosexual—what was it I discovered? These terms come loaded with perspectives; I can’t bring myself to use any one of them to describe this, my primal scene, as it were. I will try to be neutral and say that I discovered that I was a male who had a sexual interest in other males situated in a society, a world of people, who felt differently. I had to learn codes, identities, relationships, modes of behavior that had never been part of my instruction. I had to confront the world absolutely alone. I think of the black youngster who comes home sobbing to tell his mother that some other little children kicked him and called him “nigger,” and his mother puts her arms around the boy to comfort him and explain how monstrous white people so often are. I can see that same scenario played out in Germany in the 1930s when the race laws went into effect. But these youngsters had adults who helped them understand hatred and prejudice and condemnation. The gay child walks into his home, the only place where the human race can expect sanctuary, to find that the larger societal prejudices are just as vivid there. He is alone.
Who was I? The first time I heard “cocksucker” shouted at me, I was shocked. It was so dramatic and reckless a word, the idea of defining me somehow by the use I made of my mouth on someone else’s penis. It was something I did, not somebody I was. It lacked the distance, using the French sense of the word, that “queer” or “fairy,” for instance, possessed. Were we talking about the act, or a depraved person? It was never clear to me or to those who used the term. They tried to define me with the words, and I resisted. Then we graduated to “homosexual.” That made the matter much clearer; my sexual orientation (not that I understood the term in 1946) was a condition like my damaged back. There were two sets of name-callers, those who were heterosexual and defining me, and those who were homosexual and defining me. And then I became “gay”; this was in the seventies, as I remember. It was a relief not to have an affliction any longer and not to be described by acts that carried the speaker’s condemnation in the definition, but “gay” was not exactly right for me either. I didn’t think I could live up to it, nor was I sure that I wanted to. It was what they used to call a “lifestyle,” and made me feel just as much the country rube that coming from Iowa had branded me in Manhattan. It wasn’t quite clear what “gay” implied and what were my responsibilities to the title. I’d never been to Fire Island; Provincetown bored me; San Francisco’s Castro overwhelmed and alienated me. The bar scene for someone over twenty, well, it was not for me, at least. I loved opera off and on, but rarely noticed vocal technique. Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand—could not stand either one of them. True enough, once I had my own house, I took to decorating it nonstop, and if push comes to shove I can talk about hairstyling with at least a semblance of enthusiasm—lucky too, because one of my sons married a stylist at Vidal Sassoon.
When I used to find myself in a gay ghetto I always felt like one of those women in a Helen Hokinson cartoon—the heavyset body, bad hairdo, shapeless dress, bulky thick purse, sensible shoes with thick legs thrust into them; in short, a matron from the Midwest. Just not enough chic for a gay ghetto, that’s my problem. I don’t see myself in Lycra on Rollerblades flashing through South Beach; I have been there, seen the gorgeous young men wheeling down Collins Avenue, and I always say to myself,
I just can’t do gay.
I may not wake up every morning to the thought that I am gay, but I know that I am something else than the other guys on the block. Straight men I pass on the street, straight men with whom I talk at work or at the gym, every day, everywhere, seem to me to be different; I may not be able to define it, but I know it, always. Or is it that I have accepted the verdict leveled at me from my early teens, that I am different? On the other hand, because I have tried so hard to resist gayness, to refuse a category, I have alienated myself from a lot of the gay population. Well, where am I, then? If I were to talk like the academic I once was, I might say this is about negotiating difference.
This is a personal memoir, but much of what I describe is commonplace experience for homosexual males. I have written for a general audience because everyone has gay people in their lives even if they do not know this. There are gay friends, relatives, students, employees, even spouses whom the straight world does not identify as such, though now, of course, less so than a half century ago. I would be gratified if the reader took from this book a better understanding of the obstacles and shoals the gay male must navigate just to grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood.
Readers must know that I mention the sex act frequently and perhaps with more detail than they would like. Sexual activity per se usually doesn’t amount to a hill of beans and is not worth talking about, but when it happens in a repressive, hostile, and dangerous environment, then it becomes worth mentioning, not for the act itself but for what it means, like two people exchanging eye contact, or maybe a crust of bread, maybe just a murmured phrase beneath the cruel gaze of their Nazi captors as one has seen so often in those decades-old gritty black-and-white films. The act, whatever it is, becomes worth noting. Sexual acts that I describe are here to show me coming to understand myself as a sexual person, but more than that they demonstrate the chance to exist for a moment, express oneself, know that life is worth living, that there is hope and freedom and dignity perhaps in some world where the Church, where evil homophobic do-gooders, where desperate cruel and empty people with no real life or dreams or hope for themselves find their pleasure in inflicting cruelties on defenseless victims, are momentarily silenced. That is why in this memoir when I often record encounters between myself and some other man, it is not to titillate my reader, nor for the erotics of the memory, but to remind myself of the many wonderful males, straight and gay, I met this way, and to keep alive the fact that even in the darkest hours of my youth and later in other repressed times, there were extraordinary moments of self-expression, joy, and happiness. I mention a sex act only because it reflects in some way on the psychology or life circumstances of one of the two people involved. When old King Nestor in the
calls out to the Achaean troops to “go to bed with the wife of a Trojan in revenge for Helen and to make them cry,” he is talking about violence, destruction of property, assault on manliness, he is not really talking about sex at all. If he cared the least bit about women he would know he was talking about rape as well.
I was not cruelly used as a teenager, and only once driven to contemplate suicide, and that was by something my mother said to me, not by a bullying classmate. I never stifled my desire for other males, I never deceived a woman about who I was, never used marriage as a cover. There were plenty of miseries that came my way, but where do they not? As it says in
, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” I would hate to be other than I am, that is, gay, even though it has caused me conflict and misery, because fundamentally I like being me. I value the perspective on life that gayness affords me, the interactions it creates for me with both men and women. Experts deride as simpleminded the slogan “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus,” and maybe it is nothing more than acculturation, but I do sense it in my relations with men and women from the peculiar perspective of my gender sensitivity. I am a male, of course, but though I sense the commonality of that line of guys at the urinals in the interstate rest stops, I sense that I am not one of them, no way.
It is distressing to hear talk of searching for the gene that determines homosexual behavior in the human male or female with the correlative idea that it would then be possible to eliminate this trait in human reproduction. The twentieth century’s history of “cleansing” populations comes to mind. Nowadays, when gays seem to be better accepted in the United States, they would do well to keep somewhere in the back of their minds the experience of the assimilated Jews of Germany, who thought they were safe until it was too late. One should never underestimate the power of the Abrahamic religions to fuel a hatred of gays.
Ruth Beye with her baby boy, Charles, July 1930
(Courtesy of the author)
I was born March 19, 1930, the fifth child, second boy, of six children carried to term. (There were six miscarriages.) An older sister often reminds me resentfully of hearing our father on the phone shouting in joy, “It’s a boy, thank God, it’s a boy, it’s a boy.” My father is more myth to me than flesh-and-blood reality. Since at the time of his death I was a small boy whose life was spent in the nursery, I had seen little of him. In fact, my memory of Daddy is little more than the sight of his body in the coffin that the servants took us to view. It reposed in the front hall of our home, since our father, being an atheist, was given a nonreligious funeral there. Although he died only a few days after his fiftieth birthday, he was already head of surgery at the State University of Iowa Hospital, and a distinguished thoracic surgeon. Whatever else I know of him comes largely from Mother, who loved nothing more than to reminisce over cocktails at the end of the day, even if, in the loneliness of her widowhood, her companion was just her teenage son.
Over the years I was to learn that my father was an admirer of Theodore Roosevelt, that he too spent his summer holidays hunting and fishing. I well remember my mother showing me the box in which he kept the trout flies he had made; it was like viewing the crown jewels. He was an acolyte at the altar of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony in the United States, fearful and disgusted, if my mother is to be believed, at the invasion of these shores by the Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, and determined to match their prodigious birth rate with his own efforts, however my mother might have felt about it. (That she did not like children all that much she managed to convey to us in her magisterial indirection.) Needless to say, he was equally affronted by Jews, not because they were superstitious and feckless, as he imagined the Catholics to be, but because he considered them so extremely sharp and grasping. When a parent dies young, there are so many questions a son has not had answered. What, I often wonder, had my father, who was a doctor in the U.S. Army in the First World War, thought about shooting at German soldiers, who must have included his blood relatives, or at least the descendants of fellow townsmen of his father, Wilhelm? How could it be, as Mother often told me, that he was planning a year’s sabbatical in Germany for the academic year 1937–38, so as to get to know the Germans better, when as a reader of newspapers he must have noticed the dire turn of events since Hitler’s accession to power in 1933? How was it that he admired so very much the Viennese Jew who headed the Orthopedic Surgery Department while always pleased that he and my mother found accommodations in hotels that stated “Gentiles Only”? Again, if I can go by Mother’s testimony, this orthopedic surgeon was to be valued because he was a repository of European tradition and learning, but, more than that, because he was a Jew, one of a people who, in my father’s opinion, had a more profound sense of high culture, were more refined, than the rest of mankind.
I have always thought that I would not have liked my father very much, but then I remember a favorite family anecdote about Daddy. It happened that when his first four children were very young, he entertained the Roman Catholic priest who had been the chaplain in his unit at the front. This very jolly young man and my father enjoyed sitting about, drinking wine and reminiscing. During his stay, the family dog, Jiggs, died, and, of course, the children were inconsolable. My father hired a carpenter to make the dog a wooden coffin; then my father and his friend contrived that the latter would don his robes of priestly office to lead a procession down to the back of the garden where a grave had been dug. In the presence of the children and the household staff something appropriate was said, and Daddy took the shovel to fling in the first load of earth, and signaled to the grieving little tykes waiting with their toy shovels to take their turn. Mother loved to tell this story, laughing all the while at the kitchen staff, all of them first-generation Irish or German Catholics, who marveled that someone so atheistic and impious as Dr. Beye could yet manage to hold a kind of Catholic burial, including even a priest, for his dog.
My small hometown was distinctive in being both the commercial center for the surrounding farms and the site of the State University of Iowa, which even in the thirties was renowned for its departments of art, theater, creative writing, and music. On Saturday nights there were pickup trucks parked in rows outside J. C. Penney on College Street, where farmers in clean overalls with their wives, dressed in homemade cotton dresses, were shopping. Over at the university another, different crowd was gathering for a performance of the symphony orchestra or on their way to the university theater to see a play. The streets, which were paved in brick, were shaded over in summertime by giant American elms that gave the effect of so many naves of Gothic cathedrals. Where the town ended began open fields as far as the eye could see. This was not the Iowa City of today; large-scale construction after the war turned a village into a city, brought housing developments to the surrounding farmlands, and the tragic invasion of Dutch Elm disease took out the shade. But I don’t really see those changes. Maybe I have just looked at too many Grant Wood paintings. He was, after all, a resident of the town.
We lived in a large house, large enough to be renovated into apartments in later years. The property stretched from the street back as much as the length of an average city block, with a steep terraced hill in the front, climbing beyond the house to a level where there was a formal lawn surrounded by flower beds. Then the property sloped gently down to the back boundary, beyond which were open hilly fields and one could see miles into the distance. As a small child my existence was confined to the nursery on the top floor, where I was given meals, and my bedroom on the second floor, and the back, or “servants’,” staircase down to the side door, which we children were meant to use. Apart from a swing that stood on the crest of the land, a sandbox underneath a shady tree on the gentle slope rising to it, and the flat lawn for croquet by the kitchen door, we children were sent to play way out in back of the house beyond the formal lawn, and beyond the formal garden, where there was a miniature house built for us. Beyond that, past a cherry orchard, there was a two-story small barn, the upstairs loft of which had been converted into a “clubhouse,” and to the side of it was a chicken coop. We were seriously discouraged from entering the kitchen or pantry except by invitation. There were four or five women who worked for my parents doing all the household chores and we were not to get in their way. The living room, front hall, and vestibule that led to the front door were also out of bounds. There was one man who did the gardening, the heavy lifting, and drove my father to work (since, if Mother is to be believed, my father did not think a surgeon should strain his hands before morning surgery by handling the wheel of a car). The gardener would sometimes help us with our little garden, but we were reminded that he was also busy, and not to be bothered. Only the upstairs maids, who had also functioned as our nursemaids when we were smaller, were part of our world.
Once when friends asked my second wife and me why we did not let our children come down the front stairs or enter the living room in our baronial house in Brookline, we discovered to our amusement that we both had instinctively and tacitly (one of those ça va sans dire things) thought that this was the way of the world between parents and children; even in our modern glass box of a house in California, where many of the dividing walls did not go to the ceiling, where there was what they used to call “flow,” we just did not encourage the little tots to go into the living room. I notice that to this day my instinct upon entering our living room is to make sure that the pillows are all plumped up and in their proper place, that the books and magazines are properly arranged, as well as the photographs in their framed stands on any coffee table or end table. In my childhood home, while the adults were eating in the dining room, someone was in the living room rearranging the pillows and emptying the ashtrays so that the room was more or less pristine when anyone entered it. Because I was crippled I was allowed to sit reading in the living room during the day; my reading chair was next to a large mahogany library table, upon the highly polished surface of which all the current magazines were neatly arranged. Always neatly arranged; I don’t remember seeing them scattered.
When my father died, Mother decided to eat meals with the children, and thus I left the easy comfort of the nursery and descended into the formal dining room. Breakfast especially was meant to be a family occasion. We had always to be punctual. (“Be considerate of the servants, Charles.”) About six-thirty in the morning a maid went through the corridors awakening us with chimes, so there was no excuse for tardiness. At breakfast time we stood behind our chairs until Mother entered, then my brother held her chair for her, and when she was seated the rest of us sat down, she unfolded her napkin, and she rang a small silver bell to indicate to the kitchen help that they could bring out the meal. We were required to make conversation, and if we brought up unsuitable subjects—the tedious retelling of something we had read or a joke we had heard, the whiny account of an argument with a sibling—Mother remonstrated with us and insisted upon stimulating or genuinely amusing talk. Wit and rapid delivery were key. It is a marvel that we children did not all end up stuttering, but, instead, all six of us were wonderful conversationalists in adulthood, witty, informative, and fun to talk with. My second wife, an unusually taciturn lady, whose family gatherings were a torture of stammering, silences, and meandering lines of thought, used to marvel at my siblings on display. Her family hid behind silence and impassivity. Mother taught us to hide behind brilliance. It was a godsend to me in the ordeal that was to begin in my sixteenth year.
What I have just described is life lived as theater: the living rooms continually returned to the state in which they must be when the curtain goes up, the gathering at the table required to “make conversation” rather than simply speak. There was a kind of audience, the help who glided silently in and out of the rooms, before whom we were enjoined never to say anything embarrassing or revealing. Mother also taught us that creating whatever reality we wanted meant ignoring what didn’t fit. The most dramatic demonstration of this came in a horrible and unforgettable incident at breakfast when our aged serving woman was suddenly struck with a seizure of some sort while passing toast on a silver salver. She shuddered slightly and staggered, emitting a kind of groaning noise, as the toast fell from the tipped platter. I was terrified, but such was my mother’s insistent pleasant conversation, holding us all in her gaze, that I did not turn around to face the woman. None of us rose to assist her and she finally made her exit. For the briefest moment Mother’s voice slowed, then she resumed what she had to say as though there had been nothing unusual to witness in the room.
Born in 1892, Mother was an Edwardian belle, who came out in Chicago in 1910. She had an exaggerated notion of what it meant to be a doctor, even so distinguished a surgeon as my father, as one could tell when she would remind us children that the husbands of our Oak Park aunts were “in business.” The tone of her voice made you know that this was a terrible taint, although in fact they were all heirs to family fortunes, and what was odder still, her own father had been, as I have been told, a businessman. One has to imagine that she was moving up, which might account for her extraordinary acuity when it came to categorizing people socially and culturally, as well as the wit with which she laced her anecdotes. I was surprised to be told at one of my high school reunions by at least three members of my class that they had the strongest memories from the time they were small children of my mother as the funniest person they had ever known.
Equally surprising was the observation by several classmates that one of the truly outstanding events of the years they spent in the lower grades was “the annual picnic at Charlie’s house.” This was my mother’s doing. Once a year she had me invite the entire class of twenty-five children, and various teachers as chaperones, to walk through the streets of Iowa City from the school to our house up into the backyards to the formal lawn, where servants had laid out tables of all kinds of food, drink, and sweets. There were always a clown, jugglers, a magician, pony rides, balloons. In small-town Iowa in the economic depression of the thirties this was an extraordinary event, and I can see why it stayed in the memories of so many youngsters. It was my day; I was required to play host, it was my responsibility to see that everyone had a good time, that events and the dispersing of food went smoothly. Mother was “good with people,” even if her manner could sometimes be frosty, and I have to believe that she wanted her children early on to learn that form of social command.
The society of Iowa City in the thirties and forties had the businessmen, bankers, and lawyers as the pinnacle of the “town” and the professors and university administrators as the pinnacle of the “gown.” Doctors bridged whatever social gap existed because they were sometimes part of the faculty of the State University of Iowa Medical School but also served the townspeople. In the late thirties my mother had been approached by some of the town worthies, who asked her to run for the school board—from on high, one might say; that is to say, as the widow of the great surgeon, with an independent income, the big house on the hill, and no connection to the town’s business interests, she was free of the suspicions that had attached to recent candidates or members of the board. Although she was very short and always reminded me of Elsa Maxwell, she had an air of invincible rectitude not unlike that of Queen Mary. I imagine that she campaigned standing still, upright, a wax figure, a small smile and nothing more indicating that she was in communication. When her opponents were quick to point out that not all of her six children went to public school, one would think that her campaign was doomed. But never underestimate the Queen Mary factor. She did win, and her older daughters were soon to be joined in the public schools by my little sister and myself, while my brother stayed in the local private school to realize his dream of being a football star.
Mother was elected president of the board and remained in that position for many years until, again at the request of various factions, she stepped down to run for mayor of Iowa City, a doomed proposition for a Republican in so liberal a university town. In all those years she was a font of amusing anecdotes about the workings of the school system. She took the matter very seriously, worked closely with the superintendent, and was constantly well informed, but she could be funny about it all. Her descriptions of board meetings delivered at our dining table the next day were often cruel, but there was no question that she knew her subject. Her conversation displayed all the ugly tribal prejudices of her era, as everyone in her stories was identified as “Irish,” or “Italian,” or “a Jew,” or “Catholic” or “lower class,” with the frequent use of “you know” (as in, “He’s Irish, you know”), which presumed a commonplace understanding of this category of person. Only the upper-middle-class WASPs were left unidentified; they were the norm, the standard by which everyone else was implicitly judged, from which all others had fallen short. She was never angry, never sneering, she was only concerned that I understood that there was a vast chasm of behavior and understanding between the Americans who could claim English descent and Anglican religion and the other groups, who were dubious in one way or another. Their probity, their drinking habits, or their religious beliefs were often the object of her notice. Germans in the United States were, like the English, “the backbone of the nation,” my father’s favorite phrase as quoted by Mother, whereas those in Europe who were fighting us in the war were inherently evil for being German. In the same way, when our Jewish orthopedic surgeon friend secured the safe exit of his entire family from Vienna after the Anschluss, my mother immediately offered to house some of them until they got themselves established in this country. Mother was breathless in her admiration of their upper-class, elegant manners, although dismayed and annoyed by what she sensed was their condescension to her overly relaxed manner in dealing with the help.
I have gone on at some length here because I was deeply influenced by her. As I became sexually aware it became increasingly obvious that I was deviating from a standard, failing to fit into any category or type I had heard my mother enumerate, and thus fell prey to a growing concern with my own identity. In the dilemma of my life as a sixteen-year-old in danger of becoming a complete social pariah, I was saved by her idea of staged living, by her high standard for conversation and her great wit, by her insistent artificiality in social situations, by her constant dissecting of the social scene and her acute distinctions between people.
Mother’s breakfast-time practice of polite conversation was augmented by a daily review of the latest developments of the major campaigns of World War II. To this day I remember most of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa on November 8, 1942. After the invasion of Italy, the prosaic analysis that she took from nighttime radio broadcasts was often punctuated by emotional eruptions of anguish over the treasures of art and architecture that were being threatened in the fight up the Italian peninsula. In June 1944 she awakened us all from our beds to shout out exuberantly the news of the Normandy invasion.
In the fall of 1942 when I was twelve I enrolled in the public junior high school, a giant brick Victorian pile that had formerly held the high school, now relocated in a dazzling new building, thanks to the WPA, on the very eastern edge of town. At first junior high seemed exotic. Instead of walking silently on beige cork floors, our feet drummed on the old wood darkened by fifty years of varnish that creaked as we walked. Instead of sitting at round tables with movable chairs, we sat at desks mounted on ornate wrought-iron stands bolted to the floor; the wooden writing surfaces, also darkened with varnish like the floorboards, were carved with the initials of generations of students. In my naïveté I assumed this represented the last word in educational chic.
My previous school was a research lab, so to speak, for the State University of Iowa School of Education where young people engaged in research and development were the teachers, but here I encountered older, more maternal or paternal figures, whose years at their calling had carved them into distinctive personalities. Their individuality made them unpredictable and more interesting. Needless to say, they were overwhelmingly welcoming to me, the son of the president of the school board.
Equally welcoming was a small band of boys with whom I proceeded to walk to school each day. Remarkably enough, there was none of the new-boy negotiation one reads about as an almost universal experience. I have to think that this was due to the fact that I was so unlikely a figure in their daily lives that they did not have to consider assimilating me as one of them. To begin with, I was physically handicapped and did not play sports, and in fact had only the dimmest idea of any of the games that engage the hearts and souls of boys. Then I had a kind of glamour. I was the son of the great doctor, we had lots more money than most people, I lived in a large house up on a hill, and because I had spent most of my life sitting in a chair reading, I spoke with a vocabulary and manner that was entirely unlike their own. If I believe what everybody used to tell me at school reunions, I was even at this age flamboyant and witty; luckily this amused rather than repelled the young fellows with whom I walked; luckily too the daily walking and bonding more or less neutered us all, at least as far as I was concerned.
One boy, Bob, became my particular friend. He was a lean, quiet boy, tall and muscular, too thin, really, who struggled hard to be a first-rate athlete—indeed, he became a high school baseball coach. We spent hours together talking, me doing most of it, while he listened. I remember him scratching behind his ear just before he would begin to speak, I remember his soft and low chuckling at some of my crazier pronouncements. I never watched him play; we never talked of sports. He accepted that. It never occurred to me that it should have been otherwise. He was the first real friend I made away from the set of youngsters who were my classmates from the private school.
My first experience of dinner at Bob’s house was so exotic that I was atingle for hours. We ate in the kitchen, out-of-bounds for me at home. Bob’s father sat at the table in his undershirt. I was relatively unfamiliar with the behavior of adult males, but I was quite sure that underclothing of any kind was not the garment of choice in most places, certainly not in my mother’s house. Bob’s mother stood at the stove cooking and serving the food, never really sitting down at the table with us, more or less taking bites and tastes from the plates she passed on. Everything set on the table, such as milk, remained in the bottle or carton in which it had entered the house instead of being transferred to pitchers or salvers for the presentation. There was an overhead light instead of candles. These were the Depression years and several of Bob’s relatives lived in the small house with them and sat at their table. I remember the silent men, somewhat beaten, their drab women, Bob eating quietly while his mother and I made the conversation, cracked the jokes, laughing loudly, inspiring a wan smile in some of the others from time to time. Occasionally Bob and his sister got into a fight. Their shouts and shrieks filled the room; no one stopped them and so they continued until they grew tired.