Presumed Dead: A Tale of the Americas # 3

Continued from Presumed Dead: A Tale of the Americas # 2

My father, who vaguely resembled Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his long patrician face and, some said, the British actor Stewart Granger with his somewhat raffish hairline, spoke with an accent that was located in some invisible time zone midway between Greenwich (England) and New York. Shortly after entering Harvard Law School, war broke out. He took part in the Allied landings on Utah beach and, like many Westingleys before him, was decorated for bravery. He was a member of the Newport Polo Club and even played briefly for the United States before incurring a riding accident, which left him partially disabled and brought to an abrupt end what had promised to be a brilliant career in the sport. It was probably this early disappointment that engendered what those who saw beyond the surface charm perceived to be a streak of bitterness in his psychological make-up, while the pain and discomfort caused by the injury could, at times, make life difficult for those close to him and render him prone to sudden outbursts of rage.

My mother was Brazilian, with mixed German, Portuguese, and an incy-wincy, teeny-weeny bit of Jewish and, Father fancied, African blood. When Father met her, he was a thirty-year-old diplomat serving in the US Embassy in Rio (Brazilia then was not even an electioneering twinkle in Juscelino Kubitschek’s eye), and she was a seventeen-year old debutante and a wealthy heiress in her own right. Her father, Eduardo Pereira da Silva, was a paper magnate; her mother was a Bruchner, owners of the highly successful publishing empire. My father’s family, who, hitherto, had always married within the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant pale,[1] expressed surprise when he informed them of his choice, but were relieved to hear that she was not a gold-digger from the favelas. From a wealthy background herself, it was evident that she was not marrying him just for his money.

How easily I understood one of the final paragraphs of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, when its eponymous hero writes:  

Mein Vater, wissen Sie, war ein nordisches Temperament: betrachtsam, gründlich, korrekt aus Puritanismus und zur Wehmut geneigt; meine Mutter von unbestimmt exotischem Blut, schön, sinnlich, naiv, zugleich fahrlässig und leidenschaftlich und von einer impulsiven Leiderlichkeit.[2]  

Their eldest child, Phœbe, was born within a year of their marriage. She had the same dark hair as her mother, though it was not as curly, and brilliant, dark eyes. She completed her education in a finishing school in Montreux, Switzerland, where she added fluency in French and German to her many accomplishments. Stylishly, rather than modishly, dressed, she regularly made it thereafter onto Eleanor Lambert’s Best Dressed List. Though not academically inclined, she was widely read and extremely well-informed and was regarded as one of the most brilliant conversationalists of her generation.

She was followed, two years later, by Eduardo, who inherited his mother’s looks, including her dark hair and the ineffably sweet curve of the upper lip that melted so many girls’ hearts. In all other respects he was his father’s son, intending to follow in his father and grandfather’s footsteps to Yale and to join the ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) with the intention of serving in the military for a few years before settling down to a career in what was then called “public service”. Father entertained high hopes for him, believing that, with his wealth, he could go all the way to the White House, and wishing, through Eduardo, to pursue vicariously the political career that, he felt, had been denied him.

Zanthe, who was born two years later, was generally regarded as the most beautiful of the Westingley girls, with her wavy, dark blond hair and blue eyes. An assiduously cultivated vapidity masked a lively and mercurial intellect; she had a pronounced sense of humour; was always seeing something funny in everything and everyone, above all herself; enjoyed gossip; and was by far and away the most garrulous of my siblings.

I was the fourth child and, like Zanthe, had the dark blond hair and hazel eyes of our maternal grandmother’s German ancestors. In all other respects, I took after my maternal grandfather’s forbears. I was the despair of my Father, forever seeking out mischief, mayhem, and merriment, and showing, in my early years, little inclination for schoolwork. Fascinated from an early age by ships, I learnt, much to the astonishment of Father, the names of all the liners that docked in New York harbor, together with the name of the line to which they belonged, their length, speed and tonnage, and other facts, such as that the SS United States was narrower than other liners and that it could navigate through the Panama Canal.“I am undecided as to whether I have brought an idiot or a genius into the world,” he would say to fellow members of his Fifth Avenue club.” When I was five, the settled order of my life was to be shattered once and for all by the birth of the first of my younger sisters. Zoë, my parents’ sixth child, took after Mommy with her dark and very curly black hair that bespoke her (and our) Sephardic ancestry. She was undoubtedly the liveliest of my siblings and the one to whom I was the closest in temperament. Observing her antics with a mixture of pride and amazement, my father, the first Westingley to marry outside the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant pale, but whose choice of language would undoubtedly today be described as, at best, “inappropriate” or “politically incorrect”, and, at worst, “racist”, would shake his head in mock disbelief, and exclaim: “There’s a nigger in the woodpile somewhere!”[3]  When I was seven years old, Mommy took Phœbe, Eduardo, Zanthe, and myself, who were respectively, thirteen, eleven, nine, and seven years of age, to see a man of about Father’s age and his beautiful young wife standing in an open-top convertible, flanked by grim-faced security men in suits of various shades of grey, making its way at a walking pace from Bowling Green to the City Hall along lower Broadway, in a ticker-tape parade, though, on this occasion, there didn’t seem to be much ticker tape in evidence. Some of the people in the crowd carried placards with a picture of the man in the car and the words, “KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT” underneath. As the convertible passed, we waved; Mrs Kennedy saw us and pointed us out to her husband; he turned towards us, smiled and waved back. I do not know whether it was a trick of the light, a child’s over-fertile imagination, the influence of later events on my memory, or whether it was a genuine premonitory vision, but it seemed as if, for a brief instant, Senator Kennedy’s face took on the aspect of a death’s head. Two weeks later, it was President Eisenhower’s turn to parade down New York’s “Canyon of Heroes”. Accompanied by his Vice-Presidential sidekick and Republican Party Presidential hopeful, Richard M. Nixon, the greater quantity of ticker-tape on this occasion gave Father and other Republicans cause to believe that their man would win the forthcoming Presidential elections.All it shows,” Mommy said in her slightly accented English as we watched the parade on television, “is that Eisenhower is a popular President. And of that there has never been any doubt.”“One thing’s for sure,” Father said. “Kennedy’s right when he says that whoever wins New York State wins the election.” One day, Phœbe, who was then thirteen years of age, and some of her friends, brought home a 45” record, on which there was a recording, sung by Frank Sinatra, of a rewritten version of the song High Hopes, a cheerful and catchy little ditty, whose first verse went like this: 

“Everyone’s voting for Jack,

‘Cause he’s got what all the rest lack,

Everyone wants to back Jack,

Jack is on the right track,

‘Cause he’s got high hopes,

He’s got high hopes,

He’s got high hopes

1960’s the year for his High Hopes!

Come on and vote for Kennedy.

Vote for Kennedy,

and we’ll come out on top!

Oops! There goes the opposition

Ker

Oops! There goes the opposition

Ker

Oops! There goes the opposition

Kerplock! 

As, no doubt, it had been my sister’s intention, I soon learnt it by heart and would sing it frequently at home, much to Father’s annoyance, and Mommy, Phœbe and her friends’ amusement. I sang it so frequently and loudly that, eventually, even my mother and sister began to find my constant infantile crooning irritating and, making common cause with Father, forbade me to sing it again on pain of early bed.

One Thursday night, a few weeks later, we attended a party at my grandparents’ duplex on Fifth Avenue. During the day, crates of champagne had been brought into the kitchen and stacked in fridges that had been especially hired for the occasion. The drawing room had been festooned with blue, red and white streamers and rosettes and a buffet supper had been laid out beneath Sargent’s portrait of four sisters (the daughters of my great, great grandfather) and de Glehn’s portraits of flappers (my great aunts as adults). In the evening, about fifty people arrived and, while they drank, ate and chatted, their attention, unusually, seemed to be focussed on the television screen.

“I don’t care if he is a son of a bitch,” I heard one guest say to the others in his group, “so long as he’s our son of a bitch!”

This was greeted with appreciative laughter, and a few consternated looks cast in my direction.

We slept over that night and, during that evening and for the rest of the night, my slumber was punctuated by occasional cheers or, more frequently, cries of general dismay, the sound of hushed voices in the corridor, some voicing despair, others counselling optimism, and the door to the apartment being opened and closed, as visitors came or left.

Waking early the following morning, I ventured into the living room and encountered a scene such as that which, I imagined, had prevailed in the first class saloon of the Titanic on the night that it had had its fateful encounter with an iceberg. Some of the guests stood in small groups, speaking in hushed voices. Others sat silent and alone, staring despondently into space, with half empty glasses of bourbon in their hands, some even with their heads in their hands. Bottles of Champagne stood in their buckets uncorked, the ice having long since melted, and much of the food had been left untouched. Deeming it imprudent to intrude upon their desolation, I went back to bed, innocently singing, “Oops! There goes the opposition”, quietly to myself, and slept soundly until I was awoken shortly before midday.

When we had got dressed and had had breakfast, Mommy, who was high-spirited by nature, but who seemed to be unusually so that day, took Phœbe, Eduardo, Zanthe, and myself to see a show on Broadway. Despite one or two long faces, most people on the streets seemed to be unusually cheerful and the cast of the Fantasticks played to an unusually appreciative audience.


[1] This is not to say that the families we married into had always married within the White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant Pale. Thus, I am able to count some of the original Dutch inhabitants of New Amsterdam (the “knickerbockers”), French Huguenots and Hessian mercenaries amongst my ancestors.

[2] “My father, you know, had the temperament of the north: solid, reflective, puritanically correct, with a tendency to melancholia. My mother, of indeterminate foreign blood, was beautiful, sensuous, naïve, passionate and careless at once, and, I think, irregular by instinct.” Translation: H. T. Lowe-Porter.

[3] He had an interesting “take’ on immigration. He once said that he didn’t care how many people we let into the country or where they came from as long as we ran the show, though it was not clear whether, by “we”, he meant the family, or some wider group of whom the family were members.

Text copyright © Anthony T. Hopkins 2008. All rights reserved by the author.


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