Memoirs, Draft of the Early Chapters
In 1987 I began compiling my memoirs while on vacation in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, reputedly the best surfing beach in North America, and then still not overdeveloped. Now the memoirs are virtually complete, although the second half is only in a first draft. Of the first half, which is about family background and my childhood and infancy, I feel able to publish most of the chapters, but omitting for now three that are too sexually explicit and might invite libel suits. I ask for comments and corrections from whomever disposed to give them. Thank you, Dear Reader.
Only once have I undergone psychotherapy, much to the dismay of many who have known me, and likely to the bemusement of those who may chance to read this book. My faculty advisor at Princeton ordered it when I was a sophomore because I was often drunk¬ and obnoxious. I stonewalled the therapist, whom I saw twice, for I knew that if I told him the truth about my then-brief life he would diagnose a severe illness, perhaps several of them, and prescribe heroic "cures." I also knew that the quack would alert various deans to my pathological state, and that this would lead to summary suspension, if not expulsion. My problem: I was gay, horny, and sexually active, a combination that Princeton did every¬thing it could to demonize as the embodiment of sickness, even of evil. The year was 1954, a time when homophobia, of course, gripped the en¬tire country, a fact that by itself made my situation unexceptional. What set me apart then, as it does now, derived from additional factors: I was extremely promiscuous, to the point that, by today's standards, I would have been classified a "sex addict." I also was a bottom, preferring above all, horrible dictu, to be on the receptive end of my encounters. Almost as bad, I was unsentimental, without even a trace propensity for the peculiar condition called love — the expression fuck-and-forget applied, although in my case get-fucked-and-forget was more accurate. Finally and most to the point, I felt no guilt about any of this, not the faintest of twinges. The only anxieties I ever experienced regarding my sex life concerned more serious is¬sues: dismay that I wasn't having even wilder sex than I already enjoyed, and fear of getting caught — which is to say, given the consequences then of getting caught, fear of ruin.
This constellation of traits surely does not make my history unique. But try though I have, I cannot find more than a handful of even vaguely comparable stories in the available literature. Guilt, shame, remorse, self-loathing, and regret of one form or another almost invariably surface in the memoirs that queers have left us, with a concomitant prevalence of psychiatric interventions and, more alien still from my perspective, divine interventions as well. Then there is the question of legal intervention, more frequent and grotesque in eras gone by, except, of course, for those attracted to the underaged. However, I didn't seek out experts to fix my mind, for I never thought it broken, didn't appeal to God for forgiveness, for I never thought gods existed, and, luckily, didn't face criminal charges, for I never forgot the importance of stealth and cunning. Medicine made me an invalid, religion made me a sinner, the law made me a criminal, equations I regarded as preposterous. I therefore from a very early age scorned the dog¬ma of all three institutions.
The irony of this is that even in these relatively enlightened times, much of the public, including many of my gay brethren, probably could find evidence here that a shrink or a god or even a warden would do me good. I remain to this day an ardent practitioner of all seven deadly sins, lust foremost among them. What accounts for my sluttishness, I cannot say, not having sought the services of those who "recover" memories; perhaps a ghastly molestation in early childhood, or even in the womb, made me the ravening creature I became. If so, I can only feel grateful, for nothing arouses my pity more than those poor souls who fail to appreciate the joys of a wanton life.
My disdain for romantic love also marks me as a deficient per¬son; to that charge I am supremely indifferent. A sage comtesse of the ancient régime once bragged that romance is a debilitating malady from which she herself had fortunately never suffered. I share that view, although I once did fall in love, with a fellow boarder at prep school. The experience, agonizingly unconsummated, taught me the futility of heartbreak, indeed of weepiness of any kind, conditions I never again indulged. Stouter minds than mine may regard such an episode as puppy love, too immature to consider a decisive turning point of one's life. But the matter is more complex than one might suppose, particularly in the case of two fifteen-year-olds in 1950; the relationship's long term consequences didn't stem merely from thwarted romance, as I later will ex¬plain. At any rate, those who dismiss adolescent affairs as trivial not only overlook the fact that the most celebrated lovers in history and literature often were very young (puppies named Romeo & Juliet, Dante & Beatrice, and Piramus & Thisbe come to mind), but also tend to support absurd and frequently destructive notions of what constitutes "age of consent," about which more anon.
Thus this book is undoubtedly unsuitable for children, religious people, those with tender emotions or heavy hearts. Like Psychopathia Sexualis and Sexual Inversion, it is intended for specialists, researchers with advanced degrees or unusual perspicacity who seek understanding of the grubbier byways of the human condition. If it should happen to fall into the hands of readers inclined to the prurient, regrettable inflammations may ensue; that is a price we pay for an unblinking examination of the truth. No Bildungsroman unfolds in the pages before you, because I detect little development of my character during this earthly pilgrimage of mine, except perhaps an evolving taste for debauchery. Rather, this is an account of the education of an erotomaniac who largely has lived his life in circumstances of the utmost compartmentalization, but whose only erotic anguish, aside from an occasional dearth of partners, stemmed from fear that authorities might come crashing in and end the fun.
What follows does not dwell exclusively on carnal topics, however. My various secret lives unfolded as I drifted from one circle to another of quite different types, within which I sought new in¬sights by befriending people more intelligent, experienced, and artful than I. It perhaps is noteworthy that many of these people have been low-lives, street-dwellers, and other outcasts. My father scathingly noted when I was still in my teens that I surrounded myself with what he termed "sick pigeons"; but I always have found such pigeons, and the lumpenproletariat in general, far more intriguing than the bourgeois, the successful, the pillars of society, types an exalted observer called the "bedint." I hope that some of these experiences will be of interest to the reader.
My guides have been Petronius, St. Augustine, Henry Adams, and my cousin, Will Percy, whom I think of as "Uncle." Each left an ac¬count — in Petronius's case, The Satyricon, a fable — of how he came to see the world. That is my aim here, though I cannot, of course, compare this libretto to the master¬pieces of the aforementioned.
Chapter 1 Big Mama
I remember almost nothing of my life before the age of three. Aside from four or five images of my handsome uncle, Roy, who ran away to join the merchant marines when fifteen, and the cacophony of a machine later identified as a wind-up Victrola devoted to opera, and impressions of a gnarled maid, Old Cook, sufficiently ancient that she had been born into slavery, I retain nothing at all -- except, perhaps, indirectly, in certain nightmares that plagued me through childhood and beyond, and which on occasion roil my sleep to this day. The first one I recall featured a tall phallus-like monster that bumped its head on the ceiling, cracked in half, and tumbled onto me, at which point I woke up screaming. In later dreams, variations of which still recur, a stranger was breaking into the house to murder me, or do even worse. These were not ordinary nightmares: their persistence and intensity disturbed anyone within earshot. At prep school, for example, I often frightened boys in rooms near mine with ear-splitting howls for help in the middle of the night, to such a degree that the thumbnail sketch of me in my senior class yearbook recorded that fact. I offer no interpretation other than to conclude that early on, I experienced something sufficiently scary that it sealed off most of my first memories, and itself has evaded retrospection ever since.
Uncle Roy, the Victrola, and Old Cook made their marks in Memphis, Tennessee sometime after my second birthday, at the Linden Circle apartment of my mother's mother, Grandmother Dent. Earlier we'd lived with my father's mother, whom I called Big Mama, in a big rented house on Carr. I can only speculate as to what prompted the move, but think it likely that a prime factor involved domestic strife. Mother resented the fact that on cold winter mornings she often had to rise at six to shovel coal into the furnace, partly because the maid arrived too late to do it, but more irritatingly because Daddy and his brother, Walker, both late sleepers, never deigned to rise to the occasion. Daddy often misbehaved, to say the least; his laziness, though notable, was far from his worst trait. Furthermore, Big Mama and my mother detested each other, as did Big Mama and Grandmother Dent, for reasons I will explain later on. Suffice it to say for the moment that if Mother thought that living with her mother, a woman of extraordinary imperturbability, would curb Daddy's wildness and banish Big Mama's influence, she was proven very wrong.
When I was three and a half we moved again, to a more spacious apartment on Peabody, over which Grandmother Dent also presided. It was there that the phallus monster invaded my sleep. We remained there until I was five, which made it the birthplace of my full memory. I remember Grandmother Dent's paper-white complexion and watchful eyes, pale blue like the eyes of most of her family. She never raised her voice, or in any other way demonstrated the least excitability -- quite a contrast with Big Mama, whose aura could incinerate gnats.
Daddy bought a bungalow on Vinton when I was five, two blocks from Peabody in a fashionable area of compact homes built in the twenties. For the first time I did not live under the direct scrutiny of one or the other of my grandmothers. I mention this because although Grandmother Dent was a far more pervasive presence in those years, Big Mama made much the greater impact.
I turned five in 1938, a time when Memphis, like the rest of the country, had yet to recover from the Great Depression. We were comfortable enough, but didn't have a car and were enormously less well off than we had been a decade before -- a fact that Big Mama viewed as a temporary state of affairs. She long had foreseen a comeback, and had devised a battle plan to execute it. My father and his brother, Walker, both of whose educations Big Mama had carefully, even obsessively overseen, were to lead the campaign. I, too, would do my part. Of course, going on six, I didn't understand the practical details of what the matriarch expected of us. But that made no difference. Big Mama's stratagem for motivating her brood involved something that even a five-year-old could grasp, quite vividly at that: stirring tales of family lore.
I was descended, she never tired of telling me, from Captain Charles Percy of the British Royal Navy, a gentleman who resigned his commission -- indeed, withdrew from the highest levels of English aristocratic life -- to pursue sterner pleasures. In 1777, mysteriously but potently armed with a land grant from the Spanish king, Charles sailed a boatful of slaves from the West Indies to Spanish West Florida, a portion of which later became Mississippi. There, twenty miles south of Natchez at Woodville, his slaves converted wilderness into a plantation on a grand scale, with such dispatch that local Spanish authorities appointed Charles an alcalde, a kind of magistrate-commander, earning him the sobriquet Don Carlos. Borderland aristocrat, ruler of rugged domains, repeller of bandits, cattle thieves, and rogue militias, his word was law. Justly so, Big Mama insisted: Charles hailed from the Northumberland Percys, a fact he'd made plain when he christened his manse Northumbria House. Descendants of signers of the Magna Carta, these Percys held one of England's most ancient earldoms. They themselves ruled vast borderland domains as Lords of the March, their authority royally enhanced to repel Scottish brigands -- fitting progenitors of the frontier alcalde. Clearly, the command of remote estates derived from genes. Perhaps there was something else in the genes as well. Shakespeare had immortalized a 14th-century member of the family, Henry "Hotspur" Percy, making the nickname synonymous with impetuousity in the pursuit of honor. Even better, another Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland, had been imprisoned for eighteen years in the Tower of London for alleged complicity with the failed regicide and papist, Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 hatched the wildly audacious Gunpowder Plot. Big Mama, a spirited horsewoman and superb pistol shot, savored wildness, fully approved of audacity, and nurtured those traits -- passed down, she assured us, from earls -- in her progeny.
Her account of the Percy saga extended well beyond Charles. His son, Thomas George Percy of Huntsville, Alabama, in 1829 purchased a huge tract of land on Deer Creek in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, which then constituted the last true wilderness east of the Mississippi River. Clearing it was no mean feat. An alluvial plain just under two hundred miles long and fifty miles across at its widest, the Delta for millennia had served as catch basin for the continent's drainage, acquiring through yearly cycles of flood the richest topsoil in America and the vegetation to prove it -- dense stands of water-oak, pecan, and cypress, of ash and elm, of walnut and maple and sweet-gum, mighty trees that rose to towering heights above a virtually impenetrable tangle of vines, cane, and brush, all of it rooted in swamp that could swallow a man to his knee or, if unlucky, to his hip or deeper. Water moccasins, rattlesnakes, bears, cougars, and deadliest of all, mosquitoes, bearers of yellow fever, infested the region. Choctaw Indians, unfriendly due to recent persecutions, glided noiselessly through it. Malarial heat and dankness ruled.
But Thomas George, a man of leisure who delegated the rough work of pioneering to others, was not deterred. Each summer for several years he dispatched his elder sons and a force of ninety slaves to render the wilderness he'd bought into cropland. In 1841, however, just as the property began producing cotton, he died. His dauntless widow, Maria Pope, and four sons -- including my great-grandfather, William Alexander Percy, then only four -- carried on without him. They transported themselves, their goods, and their remaining slaves by barge along the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers to the plantation, which lay near the future town of Greenville.
Years passed, Greenville became a busy port and commercial hub, and the Delta, as settlers cleared and planted more and more of it, began yielding up the most fabulous agricultural riches that North America had ever seen. Natchez, at its southern end, south of which Don Carlos had erected Northumbria House, briefly boasted a per capita wealth exceeding that of Newport, Rhode Island and even the toniest districts of Manhattan. Indeed, the grandiose architecture of the numerous Natchez mansions later became an inspiration for the Newport "cottages" of the Gilded Age.
Then came the war, The War, the conflict that wiped away the Old South, and even for the Yankees made all other wars fade in comparison. Big Mama often reminded us that the Percys were one of the few Southern families to survive it with dignity. My great-grandfather, Colonel William Alexander Percy, earlier the four-year-old Delta pioneer, served so heroically in the Shenandoah Valley that he earned the nom de guerre "Gray Eagle of the Valley" -- later amended by the family to "Gray Eagle of the Delta." But his wife, Nannie Armstrong Percy, played an equally valiant role. The doomed Indian fighter, and the daughter of William Armstrong, a friend of President Andrew Jackson who grew immensely rich exploiting natives as an "Indian agent," Nannie was young, in her mid-twenties, when the War erupted and her husband galloped off to join the fray. She was beautiful, too, but, at first sight, unimposing -- not a person who might be thought capable of governing an unruly estate on her own. Yet her connections to men of legendary nerve, Big Mama opined, served her well. In the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation the family's slaves made known their intention to abandon the plantation, threatening its all-important cotton crop. Nannie, unflappable, sat in a rocking chair on her mansion's front porch, a rifle over her knees, and issued an edict to the assembled deserters: "Meet me in the fields at dawn, and do right!" Ex-slaves though they were, free to leave, they met her at dawn. The cotton was harvested, and the family, though greatly reduced in fortune, managed to keep their land. This was not the norm. Most planters lost everything.
William Alexander thrived during Reconstruction, rising to ever higher prominence in Delta legal, political, and social affairs. His success derived in part from an ability to do business with Northern industrialists; for example, he negotiated track rights-of-way for Collis Potter Huntington, the railroad baron whose Illinois Central connected Chicago to New Orleans. But making deals with former mortal enemies didn't stop William Alexander from fighting injustices that came with Yankee domination. A fabled "redeemer," Big Mama delighted in telling us, he led the local Klan in its glory days, before riffraff peckerwoods made the organization synonymous with shame several decades later. Moreover, he chaired the committee of the Mississippi House of Representatives that drew up the articles of impeachment to remove the last carpetbag governor, Adelbert Ames.
William Alexander's three sons, educated at Sewanee and the University of Virginia's Law School, became prominent as well. LeRoy, a future U.S. senator, either owned or managed plantations totaling 30,000 acres near Greenville, and like his father before him expanded the levee system that in good years kept the Mississippi at bay. John Walker relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, where he married the daughter of an iron and shipping magnate whose legal affairs he proceeded to manage. My grandfather, William Armstrong, Sr., Big Mama's beloved, moved north of Greenville to Memphis to pursue a law career that eventually secured him a retainer of $100,000 a year after he switched from representing railroads to suing them on behalf of lumber barons. In an era prior to the advent of income tax, the retainer was worth about three million a year in today's dollars.
Big Mama thus presented a dazzling, almost blinding panorama of the family past. Generally it was truthful, too, though she had a shaky command of the facts surrounding Don Carlos's early exploits in North America. She also embellished here and there, particularly with her certainty that Don Carlos sprang from those English aristocrats. He may well have -- he wrote and comported himself like a gentleman, and certainly was accustomed to commanding deference -- but there was and is no solid proof of a blood link to the Percy earls.
More significantly, Big Mama downplayed scandalous items in the historical record that she must have known about, because my grandfather, the preeminent genealogist of his generation, was intimately familiar with them. I don't remember her mentioning, in detail at any rate, the Percy propensity to madness and suicide at an early age. The "crouching beast," as some family members termed the malady, first felled Don Carlos himself. At age fifty-four he roped a heavy molasses kettle to his chest, walked off a wharf, and drowned himself in what became known as Percy's Creek, allegedly because a previous wife had tracked him down from England with his firstborn son, creating a dispute over which of his families was legitimate, and which not. In fact, a firstborn son, Robert Percy, a Royal Navy lieutenant, did track him down, but only a minor fracas ensued, settled amicably when Robert received a child's share of his father's estate. More troubling to Don Carlos were repercussions of his involvement in the Revolutionary War, during which he alternately sided with the British, the Spanish, and the breakaway colonists; he thought his multiple loyalties made him the target of spies and factions. There may have been some truth to that, but Don Carlos's symptoms toward the end of his life -- withdrawal, paranoia, delusions -- suggest he was losing his mind.
The crouching beast claimed many of his descendants as well, including my grandfather's brother, Walker, and Walker's son, LeRoy. This LeRoy, not to be confused with his uncle the senator, fathered the dour existential pathologist, Walker Percy, better known as the novelist who wrote The Moviegoer and a succession of bestsellers -- all of them, in one way or another, meditations on melancholia, madness, and suicide.
But the dark side of the family history didn't serve Big Mama's inspirational purposes. She wanted us to believe, as she believed to the core of her being, that the Percys were a breed to be reckoned with: bloodlines made it so. One day, she assured us, my father, my uncle, and even little I would remind the world of our legacy. It was nothing less than manifest destiny.
A number of ironies attended Big Mama's role as keeper of the Percy flame. Her marriage to my grandfather, whom she taught me to venerate as Fafar, had been tumultuous, to put it mildly, and from the outset created scandal. One of seven children of a prolific Scottish tobacco-growing clan named Yarborough that had crossed the Appalachians from Virginia, she first came to Fafar's attention at the age of sixteen while working in Memphis as a secretary in a land title guarantee company -- a position her ambitious but penurious and widowed mother had secured for her with hopes that she would attract rich suitors. Well, she did. A woman of formidable good looks and bearing throughout her life, Caroline Yarborough was a knockout in her youth -- very blonde, blue-eyed, tall at five feet nine inches, quite busty, but with an eighteen-inch waist almost impossibly svelte. Fafar, the most eligible Memphis bachelor of the time, took one look, the story goes, and swooned. They embarked on an affair that soon set scandalized tongues in motion.
Betrothal, of course, presented problems. Apart from the question of her age, a trifle young even by the standards of the raw river town that Memphis then was, Caroline had little education, fewer connections, and, more damning still, had worked for a living in a downtown office -- a circumstance that local grandees viewed with suspicion, even horror. Caroline quite simply was not of our class. Moreover, her status as Fafar's mistress ensured her disrepute. But Fafar couldn't contain himself. His first wife, a thoroughly proper lady near his age, had died childless; he was getting on in years at thirty-five; Caroline had bewitched him; in true Percy fashion, he would not be deterred. If he couldn't make Caroline socially acceptable, he at least could refine her social graces, and to that end sent her to an elite finishing school in Tarrytown, New York. They married soon after she graduated at age nineteen, elopement-style in a small whistle-stop hamlet during a train trip from the Chicago World's Fair back to Memphis. Discretion proved fruitless, alas. The Memphis Commercial Appeal ran a banner headline, the story made the pages of the distant New York Times. Caroline Percy was stamped a scarlet social climber. With the exception of Fafar's closest friends and neighbors, she never gained acceptance in Memphis society. Her beauty and youth, now enhanced by an extravagant wardrobe, no doubt exacerbated the ostracism. When she and Fafar honeymooned in Europe, she frequently was mistaken for his daughter -- a perception that could not have endeared her to the Memphis scolds.
The marriage proved rocky. Both Big Mama and Fafar had domineering personalities; to their children they seemed hugely larger than life, especially when they clashed. It must have been something to behold: a girlish but statuesque blonde bellowing at a stocky and bewhiskered legal titan, the titan, his face empurpling, roaring back. Big Mama occasionally threatened to leave Fafar, to which he always replied, so her stories went, with a threat to murder her. At one point, pregnant with Uncle Walker, Big Mama grew so defiant that she galloped the countryside for miles on her favorite stallion, John Darling, hoping to induce a miscarriage. The fetal Walker survived, but was born a "blue baby." Things were going downhill.
Then the unexpected intervened. In 1912, while trying a case in Nashville before the state supreme court, Fafar suddenly fell ill, seriously enough that he was rushed to a hospital. Big Mama kept a bedside vigil. One day she entered his room and found a black cat astride Fafar's chest, staring fixedly into his eyes; he stared back with paralytic fright. Not a good omen, but neither was his diagnosis, a gruesome blood disorder. It killed him in a few weeks. Fafar was forty-seven, my father only six. Big Mama, still in her twenties, suddenly found herself a rich widow with three small children to look after -- who included, in addition to Daddy and Uncle Walker, my aunt, Lady.
Staying in Memphis wasn't really an option. In fact, Fafar had advised Big Mama that in the event of his death, she should flee with the children to California and start anew. After sojourns in New York City on Riverside Drive near Grant's Tomb, Virginia Beach, Virginia, and St. Augustine, Florida, she settled into a large Spanish-style bungalow on Coahinga Boulevard, with tiled roofs and a cool courtyard, that faced a greensward of the Los Angeles Country Club's golf course. Two years later she also acquired an exquisite oceanfront house two hundred miles south in Pacific Beach, set on a high bluff and surrounded by austerely attractive scrub as far as the eye could see. In time, movie stars would rent the place when Big Mama took her brood to Europe for the summer.
She quickly broke into top society, such as it was in Los Angeles of the time. The city's population had exploded from 11,000 in 1880 to 102,000 in 1900, of which fully one-fifth was foreign-born, and to 320,000 by 1910. Thus it was a place of fluid hierarchies and rapidly mutating fortunes. Big Mama took on the tumult with ideal assets. The sister-in-law of a senator, she was young, rich, beautiful, and, not least, mistress of a dozen arts that the locals found entrancing -- on horseback, for example, very few equaled her, she shot guns like a pro, swam like a fish, and drove big cars with recklessly masculine abandon, all the while clad in exquisite couture; even her bathing suits came from Paris. Her new life must have exhilarated her. She had escaped the confines of Memphis, its provincial and envious arbiters of status, and finally had found her own milieu.
Naturally, suitors flocked, including naval officers from San Diego, with whom she often danced the night away at the XXX Hotel in Coronado. But Big Mama never remarried. She claimed that her devotion to her children precluded a new husband. However, I'm not sure she really liked men, sexually at least. In fact, I believe that a big problem between her and Fafar, perhaps the biggest, was her dislike of sleeping with him. Noteworthy, perhaps, is the fact that her closest Los Angeles friends were women, among them a descendent of the Spanish founders, another a society journalist without provenance but brilliantly self-assured. In Big Mama's crowd, men were peripheral, escorts and providers at best. The ladies ruled. One might draw various conclusions; I suspect that these ladies found their truest passions in each others' arms.
And so it happened that my father and his siblings grew up Californian, not Memphian. Only one of them remained so -- Lady, an unabashed lesbian with no need for male escorts, lived out the rest of her life in the zanier districts of L.A. But the California days of Big Mama, Daddy, and Walker came to an end, first with the bankruptcy in 1927 of a land company that Fafar had founded, then with the economic catastrophe that began on Black Friday in 1929.
Those setbacks virtually wiped out Big Mama's fortune. She lost the beach house, barely could keep the L.A. house. Lady and she held frequent pot luck dinners to which guests brought most of the food and liquor -- fatalistically insouciant affairs that cheered others in their circle, most of whom also were feeling pinched, but which served the more primal purpose of keeping food on the table. The situation steadily became less tenable. At one point, after the utility companies cut her off, Big Mama was reduced to cooking steaks in her fireplace. At least the Japanese houseboy stayed to the end. But Big Mama confronted a disagreeable necessity -- she would have to move back to Memphis, where a remnant of her fortune, a 600-acre tract of farmland on the outskirts of town that Fafar had tried and failed to develop into a streetcar suburb, constituted her best shot at recouping a legacy for her children.
The return entailed facing up to the Memphis snobs. I doubt that the prospect daunted Big Mama. By this time she had experienced much of the great world, indeed had taken choice sectors of it by storm; the crabbed strictures of Memphis gentry scarcely could have intimidated her. In any case, she by nature deflected intimidation. Furthermore, she had her young lions: my father and Uncle Walker, strapping men now, the former with a Stanford law degree, the latter about to get one of his own as well, and both, primed by Big Mama's tutelage since birth, spoiling for a fight. Her boys, she predicted with confidence, would show Memphis what was what. They were Percys -- fiery, good-looking, wellborn -- by blood and training not only the equal of anyone else in town, but clearly better.
Thus it was a proud return, with heads held high, a glint in the eyes, gracious smiles on the handsome faces, and mental fists clenched. They were eager to settle scores. I didn't witness this, since I came into the world three years later, and, as I mentioned, I remember little of the next three years as well. Nonetheless, the family's homecoming set the scene for all I would come to know as a child. We were staging a comeback -- in which I, eventually, was expected to play a role.
Chapter 2 Memhis
A burgeoning port on the Mississippi River, full of saloons and roustabouts, sailors and con artists, Memphis attracted people on the make from the surrounding tri-state region. During the 1930s it remained close enough in time to its founding, only a hundred years earlier, that it still possessed something of a frontier tang. Andrew Jackson and his business associates had created it from scratch on a bluff that formed the Delta's northern border, a strategic choice because it occupied the last high ground until Vicksburg, XXX miles downriver, and thus, unlike the basin it overlooked, immune to flood. The location made Memphis not so much a hub of Tennessee, in the far southwest corner of which it nestled, as a commercial focal point for the Mississippi planter society to the south. By the time the War approached the city had become the Delta's primary market for cotton, mules, and slaves. Younger sons of planters, lacking opportunities in their hometowns -- due to the economic necessity of passing on plantations intact, rather than to formalized primogeniture -- saw Memphis as a logical place to seek their fortunes. That motivated my grandfather's relocation there from the family seat in Greenville, where his older brother LeRoy was firmly ensconced. Indeed, until Estes Kefauver threw them out in 19XX, Memphis and much of western Tennessee was ruled by politicians of Delta origin.
The city's rise paralleled that of the rest of the trans-Appalachian South, an entity distinct from the eastern seaboard South not merely because of the mountains that divided the regions, but also because of the early preeminence of the Spanish and the French, the closer proximity to the Wild West, and, of course, the relative recency of its settlement. Settlers of the Virginia Tidewater and the Shenandoah Valley had chopped down their primeval trunks in the 17th century; we didn't get around to chopping down ours until the mid-19th. However, we made up for lost time. Delta cash, generated from cotton, the world's biggest demand crop, quickly dispelled any feeling of inferiority to our Eastern cousins, and reinforced our sense of being a realm apart. We were wilder, many of us were cruder, but our oligarchs were much richer, especially after the War's evisceration of the seaboard states. Indeed, many Virginians and Carolinians of stature migrated west in the War's aftermath because their property -- or, at least, their willingness to hang on to it -- had been destroyed, a reality that eventually put my mother, daughter of a distinguished Charlottesville lineage, within my father's marital reach. The construction of the Illinois Central and the Southern Line railroads enhanced Memphis's mercantile importance. Post-War, it became the world's largest inland market for both hardwood lumber and cotton. New Orleans, of course, was far more old, and much bigger. Due to its French and Spanish origins, it also was the most Continental-European city in the country. Memphis had strictly Anglo roots -- which, with its geographical location, helped make it a clearing house for commercial ties to the north and east.
Prospects no doubt seemed promising to my father as he set about looking for work after the family's return. He may have grown up in California, but his hot temper, along with his fondness for drink, women, gambling, and brawling, made Memphis his kind of town. A strikingly attractive six-footer with black hair and blue eyes, he tipped the scales at only 135 pounds and loved to swim and play tennis, according him a sinewy physique. Years later he confided to me that while women frequently propositioned him, men did so almost as often. I wonder to this day how many times, if any, he said yes to the latter. Whatever the truth of that might be, it would not surprise me. Daddy was sex on wheels.
He called first on Mr. Crump, the longtime boss of Memphis's political machine whose flowing white locks lent him a suitably Jacksonian persona(?), and who maintained a tight grip on every aspect of Memphis civic affairs. He had associated with Percys over the years; one of Mr. Crump's cousins had run Uncle LeRoy's senate campaign, and when Mr. Crump served as Memphis's Reform mayor, Fafar had been his lawyer.
Mr. Crump looked Daddy in the eye, liked what he saw, and bragged that he could open the door to whichever firm Daddy preferred. Perhaps perversely, Daddy named the firm of old General Wright, great-grandfather of my future good friend, Michael Neill. It happened to be the only one in Memphis over which Mr. Crump held no sway.
Daddy opted for the Armstrong law firm, headed by a supercilious second cousin who later was elected president of the American Bar Association. One afternoon Daddy's stint there ended abruptly when Mr. Armstrong instructed him to go across the street to Gerber's Department Store to pick up some stockings for Mrs. Armstrong. Daddy demurred; a Percy did not run such errands. He cofounded a newer and rowdier firm with five other handsome young turks, including his brother Walker, gamblers and womanizers all. This proved much more to his liking. He could do damn well as he pleased.
He met my mother in 1929 at the funeral train cortege of his uncle LeRoy, an occasion of some pomp because LeRoy, in addition to having served as senator from Mississippi during a critical juncture of the state's politics, also had controlled the Levee Board, a supremely influential Delta institution due to the yearly threat of flood. Moreover, LeRoy had achieved fame as the nation's boldest denouncer of the Ku Klux Klan, which had revived in far more odious form than the original Klan of Reconstruction times. An extemporaneous and particularly scathing anti-Klan speech LeRoy delivered to a Greenville mob had all but eradicated the organization from that part of the Delta; the speech was disseminated throughout the state, reprinted in revised form in the Atlantic Monthly, and appeared in foreign journals.
Among the mourners at the train Daddy encountered Dent Minor, a leading lawyer, whom he knew not well, but well enough to escort Dent back to his car. In the car sat Anne Minor Dent, age nineteen, Dent's niece and ward since the death of her father. Petite, cultivated, and utterly ravishing, she exemplified the Southern belle, a fact that Daddy, attuned to breeding and bearing, apprehended instantly. Legend has it that he and Anne fell in love the moment they set eyes on each other.
Poor Mother had not the faintest idea of what she was getting into. But Uncle Dent had an inkling. He opposed the romance, ostensibly because he had arranged for Mother to travel to Paris for advanced voice lessons, but primarily because he saw young Will Percy as a reckless blade -- a bit too cocky, a bit too expectant that things would go his way, and meantime, for all his braggadocio, rather poor. Uncle Dent told him he wouldn't be able to "afford Anne's stockings," which must have stung. Daddy, who then earned only $75 a month, hardly was in a position to order someone to run down to Gerber's for spousal undergarments.
Uncle Dent had raised Mother protectively, perhaps overly so. He enforced a staid dress code of long skirts and unrevealing blouses, and once had paid officials at Kingsmith's, her boarding school in Washington, to keep the place open solely to warehouse the girl while her carefully chaperoned fellow students vacationed in Bermuda, an excursion that Uncle Dent, for some reason, deemed louche. He later terminated Mother's first romance, with a genteel New York City boy who probably would have been perfectly suitable. Uncle Dent thought he could do it again.
Of course, he failed, for which I suppose I should be grateful. Mother had resented Uncle Dent's controlling ways and tightfistednesss. She saw in Daddy, who as usual was spending more than he made, a man who could stand up to him, free her from a stultifying dependency. They eloped to Arkansas, which required no waiting period, for a quick marriage. Uncle Dent voiced vigorous disapproval until the very eve of the formal wedding, when Mother, coached by sage Big Mama, persuaded him to give her away. That amounted to a tacit blessing, at least, which must have relieved both of my parents. They stood to lose a large inheritance unless they gained Uncle Dent's favor.
As it turned out, Mother was exchanging one tyrant for another when she left Uncle Dent to marry Daddy. A gifted raconteur who enlivened any social gathering, Daddy could charm a skunk, but he had a mean streak a mile wide, and when drunk wasn't averse to using his fists on all sorts of people, including Mother -- who, less imperturbable than her mother, reacted with shrieks and tears. But she endured the abuse for decades with quiet stoicism. Unlike Big Mama, who would not tolerate physical abuse of any kind and talked back to Daddy even during his worst rages, Mother thought it her duty to accommodate her husband, to bend to his will, and above all, to regain her composure after a fight.
When I was two or so she spent a few days in the hospital before giving birth to my brother, Dent Minor. At the time we were living with Grandmother Dent. Daddy didn't take Mother's absence well. Perhaps he was feeling sexually deprived; perhaps something else about the pregnancy had agitated him. In any case, he beat me severely with an old-fashioned square yardstick, appalling Grandmother Dent and frightening Old Cook out of her wits. Apparently the attack was quite ferocious. I remember nothing of it, the incident having occurred in my pre-age-three no-memory zone. Mother learned of it from her mother and Old Cook; later she commented that the beating and Daddy's other misconduct, including his flaunting of mistresses, revealed his "true colors."
There were other family dissensions as well. Mother and Big Mama distrusted each other from the outset, and quickly came to despise each other. It was a case of demure Southern belle vs. cosmopolite with a wild frontierswoman core. In Fafar's salad days Big Mama had accumulated a large collection of Art Nouveau furniture, Tiffany lamps, oriental rugs, heavy velvet drapes with gold braid, cobalt Wedgewood, and the most ornate sterling tableware I've ever seen -– Gorham Mythologique. The piece de resistance was a table of ebony and ormolu. The top, a bit more than a yard across, featured in its center an enameled copy of Rigaud's portrait of Louis XV bedecked in ermine robes, surround by thirty six-inch oval miniatures of the ladies of his court. When Big Mama acquired the table in Paris she was assured that it was the mate of one she had seen in Versailles, on which a portrait of the queen reigned in the middle, surrounded by miniatures of male courtiers.
Mother, to my eternal dismay, considered such treasures gaudy, tasteless, nouveau riche. Her brother, Lucian Minor Dent, an architect of some renown, had worked on the restoration of Williamsburg, the spare elegance of which, in Mother's view, epitomized refined taste. She believed that understatement trumped frills and ornamentation. But with decor as with life in general, understatement had no place in Big Mama's repertoire. For her part, she considered Mother dumb, uneducated, naive, and weak.
Their relations further chilled when my little brother, Dent Minor, choked to death on a piece of bacon at age one. The tragedy, which also occurred during my no-memory zone, confirmed Big Mama's opinion that Mother was incompetent at raising children. I never learned who gave Dent the bacon. My sister, Anne, still considers the story of the bacon an invention to cover up some other explanation for the death. We both regret to this day that the matter was never discussed with us by anyone who knew the truth.
Grandmother Dent and Big Mama took a dim view of each other as well. The quintessence of propriety, Grandmother Dent couldn't respect a woman like Big Mama, who soon after the family's return to Memphis plunged herself into managing the six hundred acres of farmland outside the city. Fourteen or so sharecropper and tenant families lived on and worked that land, which otherwise held only a few decaying houses, residues of Fafar's attempt to create a streetcar suburb. Big Mama proved adept at overseeing the Place, as we called it; from her I learned some of the rudiments of cotton, corn, and soybean cultivation. I particularly liked watching the mules drive the sugar cane mill, endlessly circling it in harness to grind out the juice, which flowed from a sluice into a large iron pot like the one Don Carlos used to sink himself in Percy's Creek. After tenants boiled the juice down to molasses, Big Mama split the yield with them; I remember enormous jugs of the stuff crowding her kitchen. The Place delivered up all kinds of other delicacies as well. Big Mama made superb wild crabapple jelly from the small bitter fruit that tenants picked from a sizable stand of the trees. Persimmons, even more bitter, dropped to the ground on frosty mornings in a wondrously edible state -- the chill somehow sweetened them. We joined the tenants in picking blackberries from two large thickets on humid summer days, thorns drawing blood from our arms and hands, mosquitoes aswarm about us, snakes aslither underfoot. I best remember walnuts falling from sixteen trees lining what we called Walnut Lane, and guinea hens that a tenant couple named Elizabeth and Cicero reliably supplied, expert as they were at raising the semi-domesticated fowl, which lived in nests ten to a hundred yards from the house Cicero rented from us.
Big Mama and I would drive out together in her Ford "flivver" virtually every weekend, and more often during the summer, to go horseback riding on Prince, Lady, Luvee, and Warboy, whom I broke. I never rode the mules, of which Big Blue was our favorite. His collapse one sultry afternoon traumatized me. Under Big Mama's direction, the hands pulled him up to a standing position. We hoped he would revive, but he didn't. Big Mama always brought with her a pearl-handled pistol "to take care of poachers and bootleggers," should the need arise; we often saw abandoned stills when patrolling Number Ten Woods, our biggest stand of timber. The need didn't arise, but Big Mama's ability to plug targets from great distances impressed the hell out of me. No wonder Mother and Grandmother Dent found her impossible. The woman ran her life as she pleased, brooked no dissent, and in a thoroughly businesslike fashion got things done. Contrary to all Southern convention, in short, she lived like a man.
When Daddy bought the bungalow on Vinton Street, the move placed me six blocks from Michael Neill, who lived with his mother and grandmother closer to downtown in a pre-World War One area formerly grand, but by then somewhat declining. Their house, larger than its neighbors with an extra lot, became the locus of some of my most vivid childhood experiences.
Michael's great-grandfather, General Luke Eldredge Wright, had maintained the grandest house in the area. During his long career he served as ambassador to Japan, governor-general of the Philippines, and secretary of war under Teddy Roosevelt. Taft fired him when Roosevelt was hunting big game in Africa, which so angered Roosevelt, according to legend, that he formed the Bull Moose party. The general's foreign postings enabled Kathrina Wright, Michael's grandmother, to acquire lovely Chinese antiques -- red lacquered chairs and tables, a giant red lacquered screen, a bronze screen, ornate bronze vases, and a delicate porcelain Buddha. The official hostess of the Tokyo embassy at the tender age of sixteen following the mental breakdown of her mother, Kathrina had an eye for exotic decor, a trait she also exhibited much later in London, where she kept a flashing-eyed Italian gigolo. Michael's family, it must be said, specialized in eccentricity -- though perhaps not quite to the degree that mine did.
General Wright's fortune derived from his virtually single-handed rescue of Memphis from the yellow fever epidemic of 1898. Then the city's attorney general, he persuaded panicked townsfolk to not flee the plague, and in the process snapped up valuable properties at bargain prices -- the Commercial Appeal, then a fine paper, real estate, the streetcar rail system. Following his death in 1927, his wife, by then batty for many years, received lifetime rights to the trust's income. Kathrina, accustomed since Tokyo days to making the best of her mother's debilities, shrewdly gained control of the income by having her mother declared non compos. She then whisked the old lady off to Europe, a move that virtually amounted to a kidnapping, and which put the money out of the reach of Kathrina's sizable crowd of flabbergasted siblings. Kathrina, young Michael, and Michael's mother, Diane, proceeded to live in high style in London and the South of France, mingling with such people as the mother of Lady Antonia Frazer.
During those years Diane married Michael's father, an improvident polo-playing half-Irish socialite who had graduated from Sandhurst. He seemed a good match at first -- among other things, he was heir to a Newport "cottage" -- but quickly revealed a brutal side. Among other things, he beat Diane and enjoyed ravishing prostitutes in her presence. She divorced him and returned to her mother's well-financed household.
But trouble loomed. Kathrina and Diane together received only about one-sixth of the fortune following the death, in 1936, of Kathrina's mother. Thus, like Big Mama but for different reasons, Kathrina was obliged to return to Memphis with her dependents -- including the gigolo -- and confront straitened circumstances. Also like Big Mama, in this case for reasons somewhat more similar, Kathrina faced ostracism. The gigolo didn't fly in Memphis society. To Kathrina's astonishment she was denied membership in the Memphis Country Club, an institution less exalted by many orders of magnitude than the clubs and salons in which she had disported herself since girlhood. With nothing to keep her alive but dreams of Washington, Tokyo, Europe, and her lost beauty, she took to the bottle. Within a couple of years she herself was declared non compos.
Big Mama introduced me to Michael shortly after his family's return from London, when I was three and he five. Like his mother and grandmother he had a willowy physique, high cheekbones, and arched eyebrows that gave him an aristocratic mien. We enjoyed playing war games and such with each other, but I never was sexually attracted to him; Michael was a bit too willowy, a bit too aristocratic, qualities that didn't appeal to me even at ages five and six. Perhaps that's why he never introduced me to a secret pastime of his, dressing up in the discarded finery of his mother and grandmother. But we shared other passions, including, a few years later, book collecting.
Michael's mother Diane, a nocturnal creature who plucked her eyebrows and rouged her cheeks almost to the point of burlesque, never descended from her rooms until at least five in the evening, which perhaps accounted for the household's disarray. The servants liked to tipple, as did Diane. She held nightly soirees for whoever happened to be amusing and available in her cavernous entry hall, its fireplace blazing in wintertime, its table fans sending gusts across ice-filled bowls in the summers, the gleaming Chinese antiques inflecting the affairs with outlandish luxe. Sliding double doors opened to the truly splendid library, the biggest room in the house and an inspiration, along with my own family's library, for my and Michael's bibliophilia. Diane's fetes in time became notorious for both the quantity of liquor consumed and the raffishness of the guests. All sorts showed up: AWOL soldiers, one of whom stayed for weeks; the offspring of bishops and state supreme court justices; the son of the Commercial Appeal's brilliant editor, C. P. J. Mooney, Uncle Dent's good friend. Uncle Dent himself never set foot in Diane's place. He considered her parties beyond the pale, as did most of respectable Memphis. On one occasion police arrived to quell a riot, were offered drinks, stayed late, and for the offense were suspended for a week. My father and his brother Walker, both regulars who considered respectability an issue quite beneath their station in life, thoroughly enjoyed themselves at Diane's. Sometimes even my mother attended, though as a rule Diane favored male guests, most of whom, moreover, wouldn't have dreamed of taking their wives; an air of philandery prevailed. After a couple of drinks, Mother could be persuaded to sing, for which she had real talent. Diane, also musically skilled, accompanied her on the piano, and otherwise played opera scores, scherzos, hit songs of London musicals -- Noel Coward was a favorite -- and even, to the delight of Michael and me, dirty ditties.
We saw ourselves as the principal beneficiaries of the gatherings. Sneak sippers of misplaced drinks, we were charged with the duty of chipping buckets of ice from a massive block stored in the old-fashioned kitchen's vault. We loved observing the flamboyant ways of the adults, hearing their stories of foreign lands and family, which we demanded be related to general history -- a welcome request, since the elders relished the historical significance of their ancestors and greatly enjoyed talking about it.
At times, the discussions took on a competitive note. What really mattered in our crowd was the rank your ancestors held in the War. Michael's great-grandfather, Luke Eldredge, entered as a private at the age of fifteen. Later he married the daughter of Admiral Simms, the Confederacy's greatest naval hero due to his command of the privateer Alabama, which inflicted damage on Yankee shipping that protracted post-War court cases settled for something like nineteen million dollars, an enormous sum in those times. However, Luke Eldredge Wright assumed the title "general" following his election to the position of attorney general in Memphis -- a presumption, in my father's eyes, since the honorific in no way derived from military distinction. On the other hand, old Wright did go on to become secretary of war. With regard to military heroes, my family could point to my great-grandfather, the Gray Eagle, Princeton '53, who entered and left the War a colonel, having fought at both Shiloh and Gettysburg, the Confederacy's two greatest disasters. Mother's family included General James Longstreet, the second in command of the Army of North Virginia.
In private, Daddy made it plain that Michael's forebears did not impress him, genealogically or otherwise. The Irish-Catholic family wasn't Delta-derived, it lacked the legendary founder we had in Don Carlos, and its links to English nobility, compared to ours, seemed far less solid. There was another reason, too, for Daddy's sense of superiority. A son of General Wright, Eldredge Wright, had practiced law in Memphis. He and my grandfather Fafar at one point represented opposing sides of a lawsuit, in the course of which Eldredge -- unimaginably! foolishly! suicidally! -- insulted Fafar. Fafar's junior law partner, Captain Stanton, recounted the drama that followed. Fafar challenged Eldredge, on pain of his eternal future disgrace, to show up in downtown Memphis just after sundown. As dusk fell Fafar and Stanton went to the major saloons, staging dramatic entries at each one: Stanton, crouching, would fling open the swinging double doors while Fafar stood right behind him, brandishing a pair of pearl-handled pistols, his eyes homicidally agleam. But the saloons, and, for that matter, the rest of downtown, held no trace of Eldredge Wright -- a coward, he. Daddy often bragged about this episode. I never told the story to anyone in Michael's family.
Daddy also bragged, to me and others when I was five or six, about how at age three I had beat up the grandson of General Bullington, Jimmy Walker, who, though younger than I, was bigger. He also was husky, blond, and adorable. I presumed that Daddy liked to tell the story because he worried about my masculinity; I was small for my age and exceedingly unathletic. I remembered not the fight with Jimmy but my strong sexual attraction to him, which I spent much time wondering how to express. Ultimately I decided that expressing it would not be socially acceptable. When Jimmy moved away with his family to the suburbs I felt tragically deprived.
Jimmy's grandfather always led the annual parade of the Confederate veterans, which we rarely missed, despite the fact that by then most of the vets, age having shriveled them, couldn't march or even ride horses, and had to be driven, wearing antique uniforms several sizes too large for sunken frames, in cars. On Sunday afternoons my father and I often strolled over to General Bullington's house to chat. Even then, at age five, I knew that my crush on the general's grandson was not a topic I would be well advised to bring up. The leader of our town's cherished parade would not have saluted that particular passion.
Chapter 3 Early Playmates
Omitted for now.
Freud proved beyond doubt infant sexuality. I was no exception and my earliest recollections were of events when I was four, five, and six, and even perhaps just before I turned four. I remember them vividly for those years (not earlier), but for now, I’m not publishing this chapter. I omit it not because it might titillate pedophiles, which might not be a bad thing if they were masturbated reading about me rather than getting it on with a living infant, if masturbation indeed substitutes for action. But because my playmates are now grandfathers, they might be embarrassed.
Chapter 4 The Crouching Beast
The Crouching Beast
I mentioned that during the time between Big Mama's departure from Memphis and her eventual settlement in Los Angeles, Daddy attended a different school every year. The family's frequent moves contributed to this, but so did Big Mama's determination to secure first-rate educations for her children; even after they'd established themselves in L.A., she sent Daddy to a new school yearly. Her fussiness resulted in some odd choices, the most peculiar of which probably was a school in New York City that Daddy attended at age eight. It held rooftop classes on the theory that chilliness invigorates mind and body. I don't know if Daddy benefited from that regime, but I do recall him telling me that as a serial new boy in various neighborhoods, he for years was obliged to fight his way to and from schools. He also held responsibilities as man of the house. Big Mama, who always kept herself busy with various projects, entrusted to him the protection and supervision of his siblings.
Unconventional though Daddy's upbringing was, I doubt that it played a greater role in creating his volatile nature than did his genes. His father's early death, and his mother's headstrong, peripatetic way of life, no doubt left a mark. But the well-documented family history of depression, alcoholism, suicide, and violent temper surely informed deeper strata of his personality. A demonic quality possessed him; like so many of his ancestors and relatives, he fought a losing battle with the "crouching beast."
Don Carlos's suicidal leap from a bayou wharf marked the beast's North American Percy debut. But the Old World Percy earls much earlier had manifested a variety of mental disorders, chiefly melancholia, the archaic term for what today is called depression and recognized as a hereditary disease. The American Percys may or may not have acquired the propensity from the earls. However, it originated somewhere, and thus stands as an intriguing -- if exceedingly far from conclusive -- indication of a blood link.
Thomas George Percy, the son of Don Carlos who propagated my branch of the family, by all accounts led a serene life. The most striking thing about him may have been his intense -- one could even say passionate -- friendship with a fellow planter, John Walker, who became one of the first two U.S. senators from Alabama. Surviving correspondence reveals an extraordinary and lifelong mutual devotion. For example, John once wrote of his feelings for Thomas George: "My heart knows him not as a common man, [but as] an every day friend it loves as a brother, & is proud of its love." In a letter written during a separation from Thomas George and another intimate, Samuel Brown, John proclaimed: "The heart-sick exile" -- John is referring to himself -- "will never cease to cherish next to his heart the remembrance of those who so unreservedly noticed & caressed him."
None of the family biographers, who are numerous, speculates that such sentiments point to a sexual relationship, but I think it likely that Thomas George and John Walker were lovers. They first met as undergraduates at Princeton, both class of '06, and proceeded to arrange their lives to ensure ongoing physical proximity, among other things marrying sisters, daughters of a powerful Huntsville resident, LeRoy Pope. They also named their children after each other and their mutual father-in-law -- the origin, in the Percy line, of the frequent appearance of the names Walker and LeRoy.
But if Thomas George escaped the fate of his father, his sister, Sarah, did not. In her middle age she was hospitalized for melancholia. Another sister, Susan, never married, and at age twenty-nine disappeared from all surviving records, either due to death or a malady that the family apparently chose to conceal. Furthermore, one of Thomas George's sons, LeRoy Pope Percy, a non-practicing physician, lived his entire life in the household of his brother, William Alexander, my great-grandfather the Gray Eagle. Known as "Uncle Lee," LeRoy Pope was said to have "sad eyes." He never married, may have been sexually inclined to males, and committed suicide at Hot Springs in 1882 with an overdose of laudanum.
Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey, a grandaughter and namesake of Thomas George's sister Sarah, was a celebrated novelist and biographer who, after the death in 1875 of her husband, a rich planter, cultivated a scandalous bond with the Confederacy's ex-president, Jefferson Davis. Although they may never have had a carnal relationship, Davis's wife, Varina, for a time believed otherwise, and had ample grounds -- her husband had moved into Sarah's plantation, Beauvoir. Varina eventually overcame her suspicions and visited them, but chose to spend little time at Beauvoir because she "preferred city life." In any case, when Sarah Dorsey died in 1879, she bequeathed Beauvoir and her fortune to Davis. Her kinfolk, resentful of the notoriety attending her relationship with the former president, filed a lawsuit disputing the will. One relative, General Charles Dahlgren, had clashed with Davis over military strategy while serving in the Confederate Army, and continued to hold a particular grudge. He tried to introduce into the legal proceedings the history of insanity in Sarah's family, to demonstrate that her will must have been the product of a diseased mind. His attorney, however, realized that the move could backfire, since it would disparage the genes of some of the plaintiffs as well; tales of madness never surfaced in court. The incensed Dahlgren, whose genes were not implicated, took his theory to the press. According to Bertram Wyatt-Brown, a Percy family biographer, Dahlgren told a newspaper reporter: "There is something unbalanced about the family, and there have been seven cases of mental derangement in their history in this country." Indeed, Sarah's hero-worship of Davis did include a stubborn, reality-denying refusal to acknowledge Davis's shortcomings as a human being. But General Dahlgren himself may have not have enjoyed perfect mental balance. One of his Napoleonic strategies for saving the Confederacy, which Davis sensibly had rejected, would have abandoned the defense of Virginia. In any case, his lawsuit went nowhere. Davis, an irritable, depressive, and semi-delusional old man, lived out his days at Beauvoir.
The tradition continued. In 1911, Fafar and his brothers LeRoy and Walker visited the Mayo Clinic because one of them suffered from intractable depression. They asked a team of doctors to demonstrate their skill by identifying which of the brothers was disturbed. The doctors examined them; all three appeared hale, vigorous, effortlessly confident. But something about the senator must have caught the doctors' attention, for they picked him. They were wrong. It was Walker who couldn't shake periodic fits of depression.
He stayed at the clinic for a month, which provided rest and tranquility but little real treatment, because suitable medications didn't then exist, and returned to his rather forbidding mansion in Birmingham, Alabama. He felt much better. But the recovery did not endure. Some in the family believed that my grandfather's death in 1912 had traumatized him; he and Fafar had enjoyed misbehaving together, and always had been much closer to each other than had either to their older brother the senator, who liked to pretend he was proper.
On a Thursday afternoon in 1917 Walker made plans to go hunting with his son, LeRoy Pratt Percy, at Trail Lake, the senator's Delta plantation, a choice hunting spot where Theodore Roosevelt once had bagged a bear(?) -- an episode that eventually led to the coinage of the term "teddy bear." LeRoy Pratt, a brilliant young lawyer who had made the Law Review at Harvard Law School, recalled that Walker seemed to relish the prospect of the expedition, a favorite pastime. He retired to clean his guns in a trunk room where he stored hunting equipment. LeRoy Pratt descended to the ground-floor library to catch up on some reading. Less than an hour later, a muffled report echoed down the staircase and through the mansion's ornately furnished, thickly draped rooms. LeRoy Pratt rushed upstairs. His father lay sprawled on the trunk room floor, a gaping wound in his chest, smoke eddying from the muzzle of a gore-spattered twelve-bore shotgun. It couldn't have been an accident. Walker clearly had committed suicide.
The death stunned Birmingham, where Walker had distinguished himself in numerous ways. One of the city's most successful lawyers, he was an enthusiastic early champion of golf as a venue for deal-making, held seats on the boards of banks, country clubs, and newspapers, and supported diverse philanthropic causes. In 1888, moreover, he had married the daughter of Alabama's richest industrialist, Henry Fairchild DeBardeleben, a connection that garnered him the position of chief counsel for the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company, or TCI, a DeBardeleben enterprise and the South's dominant iron producer. In time, Walker would play a crucial role in negotiating the merger of TCI with United States Steel. His marriage to Mary Pratt DeBardeleben held firm, despite, according to family gossip, her frequent indulgence in extramarital sex, lapses that may have contributed to Walker's black moods. But Mary Pratt's infidelity didn't create Walker's wild streak, something he shared with his brothers. On one occasion, for example, a local politician bragged that in the course of a public speech on a certain evening, he intended to denounce Walker for cheating at cards. Well, that would not do. Walker showed up, of course -- flanked by his brothers, my grandfather and LeRoy. The grim-faced trio advanced through the crowded hall to the front row and took seats directly before the podium. It is said that the politician paled. As well he should have. When he began to speak, the Percy brothers pulled back their jackets, each revealing a holstered pistol. Needless to say, the speaker omitted any reference to Walker.
For reasons that remain unclear, but in hindsight appear significant, Walker's son LeRoy Pratt moved his family into the gloomy old mausoleum in which Walker had killed himself. It must have required nerve, for the memory of the body in the blood-drenched trunk room surely haunted him. However, like his father and uncles, LeRoy Pratt was fabled for his nerve. A ferocious outdoorsman, he shared his father's passion for golf, and frequently hunted with his uncle LeRoy in Wyoming, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Canada. He was an avid amateur aviator as well, of sufficient prowess that during World War I he trained military pilots -- to his eventual dismay, for he yearned to serve in battle, an opportunity vetoed by superiors who considered him too valuable an instructor to expose to combat.
In 1915, LeRoy Pratt married Mattie Sue Phinizy, the third and prettiest of five daughters of an exceedingly prosperous Georgia magnate, at one time the richest in the state. Smart, gracious, adept at tennis, Mattie Sue seemed a good match; she charmed everyone she met, something at which LeRoy also excelled. They produced three children: Walker, the future novelist, and two other boys, LeRoy and Phinizy. To most observers the family appeared enviably fortunate. LeRoy Pratt had inherited his father's position of chief counsel at TCI, and was poised to equal Walker's success in other ways as well. For example, Walker had served as president of Birmingham's country club, the local center of the new golf culture that was transforming elite social and business relations throughout the South -- in the process contributing to the rise of another glamorous new phenomenon, suburbia. LeRoy Pratt followed his father's lead, and did him one better. In the mid-20's he pioneered Birmingham's first upscale suburb, a leafy refuge shielded from the city by a mountain ridge. There he built a magnificent house, designed by a famous local architect, which resembled not at all the brooding Victorian hulk in which his father had died. The new place featured bright, open rooms with picture windows offering vistas of lawn and garden, beyond which stretched a meadow destined to become the fairway of a new golf course. This was no accident. LeRoy Pratt personally had negotiated the relocation of the Birmingham Country Club to drive shot-range of his new front yard.
Perhaps LeRoy Pratt hoped the move would exorcise family demons. For some years he himself had experienced severe mood swings in which his characteristic joviality would give way to furious, inexplicable explosions of temper. Although consumption of liquor frequently set him off, he sometimes erupted even when sober. This unnerved him, his wife, and his children. Dinners became strained affairs; Mattie Sue, who previously had deployed non-confrontational charm to pacify her husband, acquired an air of remoteness, even disconnection. Like my mother a proper Southern belle, she found herself unable to challenge LeRoy Pratt, and thus, in effect, also like my mother, acquiesced to her husband's deterioration.
One afternoon in 1929 LeRoy Pratt climbed to the attic of the new house with a twenty-bore shotgun. He put the muzzle to his chin and pulled the trigger, obliterating his jaw and driving his brains through the top of his head. A maid heard the report, investigated, and found the body. LeRoy Pratt had disrobed to his underwear before pulling the trigger. Perhaps he'd wanted to spare others the task of undressing him.
At the reception following LeRoy Pratt's funeral, Mattie Sue created a stir when she entered wearing a red dress. Possibly she didn't yet fully grasp the enormity of what had happened; as noted, she for some time had exhibited an air of distraction. At any rate, she sensibly did not wish to remain in the new house. She took the children to her hometown, Athens, Georgia, where her mother presided over a grand Victorian house, the thirty-three well-furnished rooms of which easily absorbed her family.
Life in Athens thus was comfortable, although the crash of '29 and earlier setbacks had greatly diminished the Phinizy fortune. Another factor may have seemed oppressive: Mattie Sue's devoutly Presbyterian mother, a strict enforcer of rules. After a year had passed, Mattie Sue accepted the invitation of her deceased husband's first cousin, Uncle Will, to move with the children into his Delta house in Greenville. To Mattie Sue's three boys the move must have seemed like a voyage backward in time to another era. Uncle Will's plantations included land that Thomas George had bought in 1829.
In other ways the move to Greenville represented a leap into a strange kind of modernity. Uncle Will's salon drew a steady stream of exotic guests -- poets, artists, writers, staff from National Geographic to photograph the fabulous garden, even Northern sociologists seeking to uncover gruesome details of sharecropper life on Uncle Will's plantations (to their shock they learned that his relations with his work force were unusually benign). But the newcomers found the household's sexual undercurrents more electrifying still. Uncle Will was having an affair with Ford Atkins, the cute teenage son of his three-hundred-pound black cook, Louise. The relationship had started when Ford was fifteen or sixteen; his official job description had progressed from golf caddy to houseboy to chauffeur, but everybody on the premises knew that he and Uncle Will not only were sex partners, but emotionally entangled as well. Like all lovers they sometimes quarreled. Uncle Will himself recorded in Lanterns that he was showering one evening when "Ford strolled in, leaned against the door of the bathroom, in the relaxed pose of the Marble Faun, and observed dreamily, 'You ain't nothing but a little old fat man.'" The remark led to Ford's dismissal, which proved temporary; their mutual bonds went deep. However, Uncle Will not long thereafter hired a replacement chauffeur named Senator Canada, whose nickname, Honey, derived from his winsomeness, not his very black skin. Honey had style: his favorite tie was made of mink. Uncle Will accorded him no mention in Lanterns, possibly because Honey displayed even more flamboyant insolence than did Ford. On one occasion, according to a story that circulated among Greenville blacks, Honey was driving Uncle Will home in a huge Packard limousine that the boss recently had acquired, and suddenly felt an urge to shoot some pool. Honey probably wanted to show off the car to buddies at his favorite poolroom on Nelson Street. Uncle Will assented, but preferred not to be seen; when Honey parked, so the story goes, he hid himself from view on the floor of the back seat. That didn't protect him from Honey's caustic tongue. After shooting a few rounds, Honey brandished his pool cue and announced with a laugh, "I got to take my who' home!"
A strange kind of modernity, indeed. But Mattie Sue seemed to adjust to life in Greenville, although it was hard to tell how well. At times as vivacious as ever, she often reverted to her air of bleak preoccupation. Her boys certainly enjoyed the household's free atmosphere, the cerebral tumult of the guests. But another tragedy soon would shatter their world.
In April, 1932 Mattie Sue decided to take her son Phinizy, then ten, for a car ride. She didn't explain her reason, but her mother recently had visited, and it's possible that she wanted a respite from the commotion of the house. That is the view much of the family held at the time and continue to espouse. But like my father and mother, I always found it hard to believe.
Mattie Sue, according to Phinizy, drove aimlessly, her mood one of repressed anxiety or, perhaps, desperation. She seemed quite wound-up. From the highway she turned onto a dirt road that led to the house of family friends, which wasn't unreasonable, except that she'd made no mention of a desire to pay a visit. An unrailed wooden bridge approached, which spanned a bayou-like creek. Mattie Sue drove onto it; toward the middle, she suddenly veered the car to the left. The wheels dropped over the edge, the car's underside thudded to the planks, and momentum took over: the car slid off completely, plunged twenty feet into the bayou, and quickly began to sink. Phinizy screamed as water gushed in. His mother, however, seemed to have gone into a state of paralysis. She uttered not a word, and didn't move. Phinizy grabbed her hand. Mattie Sue responded by clutching his hand tightly -- she wasn't paralyzed after all. Phinizy tugged on her hand, imploring her to follow him through the rear right window, which happened to be open, but she made no reply, didn't even look at him; though her hand continued to grip his, with such force that he couldn't have freed himself had he wanted to, she seemed in another world. Instants later, water totally engulfed them. Phinizy tried to yell, but merely succeeded in expelling his last remaining breath. Still his mother would not move. But she did release Phinizy's hand. The boy didn't want to abandon her; but what could he do? Through the rear window he swam, fighting terror and nausea. He made it to the surface and then to shore, from which he ran to the road, bellowing as best he could, frantically in search of a passing truck or car. A motorist did stop. But it was too late.
As with Don Carlos 138 years before, another Percy life ended in a Mississippi bayou. Of course, Mattie Sue was a Percy by marriage, not blood. Nonetheless, I think she was haunted. Her husband and father-in-law had succumbed to a curse with which everyone in the family was familiar, but which she more than any other living Percy had directly confronted: the blood of suicides, Walker's heart shot out in the trunk room, LeRoy's brains spewed to the rafters of her attic. Did she think of Don Carlos's legacy as the bayou closed in on her? Had she thought of it before she made the decision to turn down a dirt road that led to a bridge, the sides of which offered no protection from slippage?
There is no way to know, of course. But the means that Don Carlos used to end his life had been stamped indelibly into the consciousness of all Percys, including hers. If her death was, in fact, a suicide -- as I believe it was -- she may well have realized that she was recapitulating the suicide of the American founder.
The real mystery is why she took Phinizy with her on the car ride, and why, when water flooded into the car, she not only refused to save herself, but for a crucial minute or two also hindered her son's escape. One must keep in mind that Mattie Sue was an athletic woman. Had she so wished, she could have made her way through that open rear window. But she didn't. She could have urged Phinizy to save himself. She didn't.
To me it seems clear that she planned from the beginning -- perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not -- to kill both herself and Phinizy. What could have motivated such a monstrous decision? I would suggest two possibilities. First, she may have felt unbearable guilt about the death of her husband, an anguish in some way related to Phinizy's paternity: Mattie Sue could have thought that LeRoy Pratt's depression and death stemmed, at least in part, from knowledge that he wasn't the boy's father. Second, Mattie Sue may have thought that she detected in Phinizy signs that he, too, would fall victim to the family curse -- that he was destined to repeat the misery of his father, grandfather, great-great-great-grandfather, and numerous other relatives -- and that it was her duty to protect him from that fate.
These speculations may strike the reader as far-fetched. Interestingly enough, however, Walker Percy explored both theories in his fiction. The plot of Lancelot turns on a father's accidental discovery, when signing a camp application form for his daughter, that she could not biologically be his issue because her blood type made it impossible. And in XXX, the depressed protagonist takes his son on a hunting trip that turns quite spooky: he considers killing the son to save him from future unhappiness.
Chapter 5 Virtues of the Minors and the Dents
Virtues of the Minors and the Dents
Maindort Doodes(?), a wandering Dutchman, arrived in Virginia in 1650(?), no Cavalier he. The Cavaliers, of course, were upper-class supporters of England's Charles I in his war with the Parliamentarian Roundheads. When Charles lost that conflict, large numbers of Cavaliers fled to Virginia, laying the basis there for many a subsequent claim, at least a few legitimate, to noble blood. Maindort's decidedly un-English name and lack of fortune precluded any such pretense. He gave his son the same name; to distinguish the two, the son became known as Doodes the Minor. This pattern repeated in the next generation, providing the family, now acquiring gentry status from moderately successful farms in the Shenandoah Valley, with a means to Anglicize themselves: they dispensed with Doodes, and adopted Minor. And why not? Minor, after all, abbreviated the ancestral Maindort with the excision of just three letters. Thus was launched a surname that not a few would-be Cavaliers would come to envy -- or, in some cases, decry.
As stern as the Shenandoah's bluish cliffs, as frugal as the crops eking out nourishment from the valley's sandy soil, as moralistic and judgmental as Justice Marshall(?), as unflappable as Stonewall Jackson, Minors observed twin precepts -- the Classical call for moderation in all things, and the Calvinist injunction to suppress the evil instincts of the human heart. They assiduously monitored themselves, their neighbors, and everyone else for the least sign of lapse from those ideals. Such scrupulousness no doubt drew the ire of more than a few people with whom they dealt. But it occasionally required courage. In the late 18th century, for example, a Minor elected to the House of Burgesses introduced a bill to abolish slavery.
A few decades later, when Mr. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville in 1820, Minors began a tradition, which endures to this day, of having at least one member of every generation of the family on the faculty of that preeminent Southern institution. By the end of the 19th century(?) they had established genealogical ties through the Merriwethers to Washington himself, and to the early Princeton president, Witherspoon, who endeared that college to sons of the South, and, as well, to General James Longstreet, the unjustly besmirched and scorned second-in-command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Thus fortified with connections and a history of service, Minors surveyed the world from their Charlottesville perch with censorious eyes. Like their ancestors before them, they found much cause for dismay.
Of the various outrages that disfigured their horizon the hedonistic culture of the trans-Appalachian planters ranked as one of the most egregious. Nouveau riche in every sense of the term, totally lacking in moderation or modesty, steeped with both the romance of riverboat gambling and the region's torrid humidity, the Delta barons provoked in the Shenandoans a contemptuous awe -- the awe that people confident of their cultural and moral superiority always have felt when confronted with the spectacle of unfathomably rich barbarians. The mansions of Natchez and Vicksburg eclipsed in scale, and sheer vulgarity, the stately creations of Jefferson and Madison, and even those of General Lee's mother at Shirley and other Tidewater plantation houses. To Minor eyes, their gaudiness defiled the architectural tradition whence they came.
Minors disapproved less of cities like Charleston and Savannah, decorous Atlantic ports carefully laid out with squares, parks, and restrained town houses -- a stark contrast to the ostentation of trans-Appalachia's chief port, New Orleans. In Uptown, perhaps that city's showiest district, Anglo magnates built huge plantation houses on small lots, cheek by jowl. While not as excessive as those of Natchez, these mansions crowded so closely together that they projected an even greater impression of luxury and voluptuousness. New Orleans featured excess in other ways as well. The degenerate French Quarter, and the four-block-wide, eleven-block-long red light district, Storeyville, clearly made it the most wicked city in North America. It attracted not only adventurers of every sort -- criminals, swindlers, deal-makers, gamblers -- but also outcasts, artists, and rebellious writers. Such ferment horrified the temperate Minor scholars. So did the city's unbearably humid heat, a curse that extended up-Delta to Memphis. Accustomed to the cool summers and blue hazes of their high-ridged valley, Shenandoans suspected that the Delta climate's uncanny effects on cotton also influenced the inhabitants; surely the heat had something to do with the prevalence of nervous disorders, the rank licentiousness, the generally aberrant behavior. Furthermore, they found New Orleans merchants greedy and vulgar, regardless of how many world capitals those often highly sophisticated importers may have visited. They liked still less the Creole sugar planters of southern Louisiana, whose racial and ethnic provenance alarmed them. Pre-War, even the slaves of New Orleans lent notoriety to the city. Sugar cane production entailed much more arduous and deadly labor than did that of cotton. In consequence, upriver planters often punished unrulable slaves by "selling them down the river" -- a practice that created that figure of speech, and further imbued New Orleans, the river's terminus, with an air of treachery.
Big Mama, on the other hand, absolutely adored New Orleans, as did Fafar and most other Deltans of his class. To Fafar's crowd the French Quarter and Storeyville stood out not as abominations, but as places to have a roaring good time; the city's architectural exuberance signified not degeneracy, but the happy reign of King Cotton. This attitude reflected an essential difference between the Minors and the Percys. The former based their claim to status on learnedness, relatively modest wealth, ties to great names accumulated through professional achievement, and, over time, tenuous links to the land. The Percys, however, saw themselves as rulers of fiefs. They, too, valued learning and professionalism, much more so than most others of their class. But the touchstone of the family identity derived from a sense of entitlement. They had held sway over Delta affairs since the area's conquest because of a repeatedly demonstrated ability to lead -- a trait which, in their eyes, granted them the prerogatives of land, fortune, honor, and deference traditionally associated with nobility. In short, the Percys considered the Minors gentry, but saw themselves as aristocrats.
Fafar frequently took Big Mama to New Orleans to shop and savor lavish entertainments of various kinds. His favorite watering hole was the Boston Club, a gambling place that male Percys practically inhabited; dissolute and rowdy, it made Memphis's Tennessee Club, itself occasionally tumultuous, seem almost monastic in comparison. Big Mama preferred the overpriced antique shops, the fancy stores where one could purchase the finest wines and clothes from Paris. One of her proudest New Orleans moments, recounted to me on numerous occasions, occurred when she was twenty-four or so. She was ascending to her suite in the elevator of the Monteleone Hotel. A statuesque and stylish woman, darkly veiled, had boarded the elevator with her. Big Mama, ever observant of matters pertaining to elegance, naturally studied the woman from the corner of an eye. She realized that a mutual inspection was underway: the veiled woman was admiring the beauty and sartorial splendor of Big Mama herself. Indeed, so intrigued was the woman that she raised her veil to get a better look. Big Mama recognized the imposing features of none other than Mae West -- and, of course, was thrilled.
Grandmother Dent wouldn't have fainted in such circumstances; I already have mentioned her utter imperturbability. As a good Minor, however, she surely would have repressed a shudder. At the least she would have tightened her grip on her umbrella, lest the Jezebel somehow strike. But then, Grandmother Dent may never have visited New Orleans. I don't recall her ever mentioning the city, let alone reminiscing about exploits there, or, for that matter, exploits of any kind, other than a train trip she took in her late sixties to Canada and California. In the course of leading a life that revolved around raising children and attending her Methodist church, she infrequently left the South and never went to Europe; she dressed ungaudily in floral print dresses, the trademark attire of proper church-going Southern ladies; stylish antiques did not interest her, modern luxuries such as owning a car left her cold; to be blunt, she rarely entered chic hotels, let alone their elevators. It is difficult to imagine that she ever might have crossed paths with the likes of Mae West.
Minors had intermarried with Dents on at least three occasions over the centuries, engendering that Southern phenomenon, the transposal of surnames and given names among descendant cousins -- a series of Minor Dents and Dent Minors. The most recent such marriage united my grandmother, Anna Minor, with Alfred Tatum Dent -- hence her appellation, Grandmother Dent. This explains the confusing fact that her brother, Dent Minor, was known to us as Uncle Dent. It was his given name, not, as with his sister, a spousally acquired surname.
Their father, Dr. XXX Minor, was raised in Charlottesville, where his uncle, John B. Minor, taught at and served as dean of the University's law school in an academic career that spanned more than fifty years. John B. experienced a moment of grandeur during the War when, still a young professor, he galloped a horse through Yankee lines to admonish the enemy general to spare Mr. Jefferson's buildings at the University. The legend solidified that he single-handedly saved the University from destruction -- evoking, among Charlottesville's myth-minded residents, comparisons to Pope Leo the Great, who was said to have saved Rome during the fifth century from a marauding force almost as bestial as the Union army, the hordes of Attila the Hun. But John B.'s celebrity was not confined to the South. When he died, James Russell Lowell, the president of Harvard, wrote an encomium in which he noted that John B. had signed the diplomas of more judges than any other law school dean in the country. After his retirement at a very old age, his nephew, Minor Lyle, succeeded him as dean. Thus the Percys, the Wrights, and many other Southern lawyers of note received degrees signed either by John B., or, afterward, by his distinguished nephew.
My great-grandfather the doctor served as a physician in the Confederate Army. He was said to have pioneered the use of anaesthesia on the battlefield, a godsend, of course, for amputees. After Sheridan laid waste to the Shenandoah Valley, he, like so many other Virginians, moved west to Mississippi, where he established a country medical practice in Macon, a market town in the eastern part of the state. He managed to send his three sons -- Uncles Dent, Henry, and Lancelot -- back to Charlottesville for their university educations. They became, respectively, the big lawyer I already have described, a drunken newspaperman, and a country doctor. My grandmother received no such schooling, because at the time it simply wasn't done; marriage and childrearing constituted a woman's vocation. Grandfather Dent, a lawyer and state senator, certainly kept her busy. They lived in Dr. Minor's house, the finest in Macon, and there raised ten children, of whom my mother was the pampered, spoiled youngest.
Dr. Minor lived with them until he died at age eighty-five, shortly after fracturing a hip while playing with a grandchild. A tranquil man, inured since the War's horrors to adversity of any kind, he practiced medicine until the eve of his death, making rounds and dispensing medicine to his rustic clientele, which included many blacks.
Of Dr. Minor's three sons, Uncle Dent became much the richest and most learned. In many ways he was a remarkable man. He made Phi Beta Kappa at the University, and while in law school roomed with his famous uncle the dean, laying the foundation for a lifelong fascination with things intellectual. I still own a set of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that he gave my family after acquiring a new edition; it came to us exceedingly well-thumbed. His social life revolved around Memphis's Tennessee Club, of which he, like my grandfather Fafar, served as president. Unlike Fafar, however, his activities there were highly cerebral. He and his best friend, C.P.J. Mooney, the stellar editor of the Commercial Appeal, formed the nucleus of a group of learned gentlemen who met every week at the club for lunch and discussions.
Uncle Dent's law firm, Burch, Minor, & McKay, represented Standard Oil and the Illinois Central Railroad, for which Dent was chief litigator. This assured a substantial income. Mother, however, often told me that Uncle Dent's thriftiness -- one could even say miserliness -- embarrassed her. He had a habit of stooping over to pick up tin foil and twine, which he would roll into balls to stow for future use. No doubt he well remembered the poverty of his childhood in the aftermath of the War, the Shenandoah reduced to a shattered ruin. The virtues of frugality emphasized in Latin and Greek classics, which he had mastered thoroughly as an undergraduate, no doubt guided him as well. But Minors long had demonstrated a congenital aversion to spending money. Mother somehow dodged that trait; I'm sure that one of the reasons she married Daddy stemmed from a belief, eventually proven wishful, that he was destined to become enormously rich. I, however, am living proof that the Minor cheapness gene is not extinct. Many people I know consider my deep attachment to thrift stores, and my inability to resist supermarket items on sale, whether edible or not, compulsions bordering on the pathological. Ah, well. How does one defy his chromosomes?
As might be expected, Uncle Dent dressed soberly, without the least trace of flash, although not quite to the degree of Grandmother Dent. In courtroom proceedings he relied on cold intellect, not stylishness sartorial or otherwise, to sway judges and juries, and did so to great effect; he was a feared adversary. But when walking down the street or entering a restaurant he emanated no charisma whatsoever, quite deliberately, for he considered self-effacement a point of honor. In this he could not have contrasted more strongly with my grandfather Fafar, an unabashed dandy, social lion, and courtroom preener. Big Mama made a point of telling me that Fafar bought his clothes at Sulka's, an elegant New York City haberdashery. She frequently described his wardrobe, almost as breathlessly as she described her own. For some reason she raved in particular about a pearl-gray vest, maybe because it edified his huge paunch. Or maybe of all his vests it best showcased the heavy gold chain of his stunning Patek Philippe pocket watch, idiosyncratically fobbed with a pendulous gold rectangle -- Fafar probably thought it had a mesmeric effect on courtroom audiences. He certainly saw himself as a spellbinder. Big Mama enjoyed telling me about an episode that unfolded at a trial in northern Mississippi. Fafar was in the midst of delivering a passionate and persuasive opening argument when one of his junior partners whispered to him bad news: he was presenting not his client's case, but that of his opponent. Without blinking an eye Fafar swung to the jury, an arm boldly upraised, and declared, "Now that I have made the strongest possible case for the other side, I will proceed to demolish it!" So he did; he won the case. The story is paradigmatically Percy: just as ill-preparedness, arrogance, and overconfidence threaten to bring on ruin, last-minute legerdemain saves the day.
Uncle Dent never would have found himself in such a situation. But lest I create too unalloyed a picture of Minor probity, I will point out in due course that certain members of that clan were capable of deviant, outrageous, and even lunatic behavior -- including, at the end of his life, Uncle Dent himself.
When Mother was twelve, her father Tatum Dent collapsed and died at age sixty-nine while delivering a political speech -- for a Southerner, the best way to go out short of expiring in battle. However, the death left Grandmother Dent with four teen-age children to care for, Mother and three of her brothers, Roy, Lancelot, and Lucian. Roy promptly ran away to join the merchant marine, possibly because he wanted to ease his mother's burden. But Roy was her favorite child, and, along with my mother, the best-looking of the ten siblings; his departure no doubt brought further anguish. In any case, other than the big old house, Grandmother Dent possessed few resources. She faced sudden poverty.
Uncle Dent came to the rescue, as he did quite often when anyone in the extended family faced duress. He had lost his beloved wife and two daughters more than twenty years before to the yellow fever epidemic, never had remarried, and, apart from stays at the Tennessee Club, lived alone, albeit with servants, on a plantation some miles south of the city, called Briarfield after Jefferson Davis's estate. Uncle Dent solved Grandmother Dent's crisis with dispatch. He sent her boys Lucian and Lancelot to boarding school in Memphis, the better to prep them for the University in Charlottesville. Tatum Dent had sent his elder sons to Ole Miss, the perfectly good state university; but Uncle Dent, now in charge, would settle for nothing less than the traditional best. Education always was his principal priority. Indeed, years later, after Lucian and Lancelot graduated from the University, he sent them both to Europe for advanced studies, Lucian to pursue architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Lancelot to pursue philosophy under Henri Bergson. As mentioned earlier, he sent Mother to Kingsmith's in Washington, and would have sent her to Paris for advanced voice lessons but for the unwelcome, to him, intervention of my father.
At age twelve, however, Mother wasn't yet ready for finishing school. Uncle Dent moved her into Briarfield, making her the young lady of the house. Thus did he become Mother's surrogate, and, it developed, overprotective father. Grandmother Dent remained in Macon; Uncle Dent sent her a modest monthly allowance, a practice he continued until her death. In fact, he sent modest allowances to all sorts of relatives, just enough to maintain them in a state of shabby gentility. Though he insisted on the absolutely first-rate when it came to schooling, Uncle Dent refused to subsidize extravagance in any other form.
A few years later he brought Grandmother Dent up to Memphis and installed her in the first of her apartments there so she could be closer to her youngest children. Mother always said that the move was a mistake. Memphis could not replace the bonds with church, friends, and relatives that Grandmother Dent had formed throughout a lifetime of residing in Macon. She retained her small-town outlook until the day she died. Probably she would have been happier during her late years had she remained in the place of her birth.
Chapter 6 Foibles of the Minors and the Dents
Foibles of the Minors and the Dents
Shunners of misbehavior of any kind, Minors and Dents were particularly wary of scandal. The least hint of one triggered forceful efforts to hush it up. This wasn't merely because they feared losing their reputation for probity and temperance. Like most Americans of standing until recent times, Northern and Southern alike, they feared something more primal: genetic taint.
With the Human Genome Project threatening to expose our tiniest genetic defects, and to unveil ones heretofore unimagined, this issue perhaps will soon seem spookier than it ever did. However, it's worth keeping in mind that the "nurture/nature" debate -- the question of how it is that people become who they are -- didn't emerge until late in the 19th century. Previously, only nature was taken seriously. Ancestry predicted fate, not the quality of childhood experiences, which made the question of coming "from good stock" quite important. Thus the sensitivity of Minors and Dents to topics genetic was rooted in practical considerations. Tainted genes diminished the marriageability of offspring, which threatened dynasty.
The Percy scandals had been so well known since the 18th century that the family didn't lose much sleep, or at least pretended not to, whenever hit with fresh taint. It happened so often, they simply got used to it; generally they took an attitude of amused indifference. In Lanterns on the Levee, Uncle Will shrugged off the issue: "It's hazardous business playing Tarzan in the family tree; there are too many rotten branches." As for the Yarboroughs, scandal practically was their middle name, for reasons already discussed and others coming up. They didn't much mind; hardheaded types, they simply went on with their lives as cheerfully as possible. But to the Minors and the Dents, rotten branches evoked true horror. For centuries they had seen themselves as conscientious arborists, custodians of lineages so suited to reciprocal graftings that whenever one came across the name Minor, Dent often appeared in close proximity. Indeed, the trees practically had merged, to the extent that a tainted branch suggested general infirmity, or even the perils of interbreeding. Hence the need for vigilant scandal management. Nothing less than the greatness of future generations was at stake.
Uncle Dent's brother, Henry Longstreet Minor, posed a particular problem. He drank too much most of his life, and didn't study law or get any other advanced degree from the University. But he became a rather successful newspaperman in Washington, where he lived extremely well thanks to the wealth of his wife, Frances, whose father's investments in West Virginia coal mines had soared after the War. Her family took themselves seriously. They had participated in the XXXX founding of Wytheville, a couple of stops up the Shenandoah from Charlottesville on the Southern Line. With barely restrained disdain, they referred to families that had settled in Wytheville after the War as "the new people." It didn't matter if such people had arrived in 1870.
I believe that Henry, a columnist of some sort and the author of a book entitled The History of the Democratic Party, wielded a degree of influence. He and Frances certainly thought that they ran with a puissant, brainy, pathbreaking crowd -- though the existence of such crowds in Washington of the time is open to question. At any rate, their life there ended in 1929 when the crash erased whatever portion of Frances's fortune that Henry, a gambler and thrower of expensive parties, hadn't already spent. He moved back to Macon, taking with him the distraught Frances and her fine collection of family portraits and Virginia antiques, which looked a bit odd in their new home, a rambling but rustic log cabin-like structure that enjoyed neither electricity nor running water. Frances consoled herself with showing off the antiques, founding a small Episcopal church, and cultivating spectacular irises, the best I ever saw other than ones tended by seven full-time gardeners on the estate of a prep school classmate. Henry sought solace in a project he had labored over for some time, a vindication of his great-uncle, General Longstreet, the second-in-command of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, whom Virginians unjustly blamed for the defeat at Gettysburg. He also assumed the editorship of the Macon Beacon, a lesser challenge than the capital's journalistic whirl; compared to Washington, itself a cultural backwater in those days, Macon was mud-primitive. For a Wytheville heiress conscious of "the new people," a woman who prided herself on reading through the entire oeuvres of Smollett and Trollope every year, the comedown could not have seemed more complete. But unfortunately, she and Henry hadn't yet reached rock bottom.
My parents and I visited them when I was four or so. I remember nothing of that particular trip, possibly because I eluded a little black girl who had been charged with watching me while I played outdoors. Somehow I scampered off into a swamp infested with moccasins, the most venomous and feared of the region's water snakes. Great hue and cry ensued. Mother was still mourning the death of Little Brother; the thought of losing me as well undid her completely. I think even Daddy became alarmed. A ten-year-old black boy finally rescued me from the watery gully down which I'd tumbled, a spot known to be especially thick with serpents. I'm sure I either was bawling or rigid with fright; perhaps I'd glimpsed beady eyes, the flicking of forked tongues. Daddy rewarded the rescuer with the princely sum of one dollar.
Uncle Henry's situation did not help him moderate his drinking, a vice he compounded with excessive smoking. He also suffered from a grotesque condition that disfigured his nose -- Mother attributed it to the drinking, but I think it must have been some kind of disease. Whatever the cause, it greatly enlarged his nose to a bulbous, reddish mass, with roseate bumps and irregular swellings. The poor man looked like a mutant clown, which made him, of course, a laughing stock, the butt of unkind jokes.
One night not long after my adventure in the swamp, Henry must have had a few too many drinks. He accidentally set his house on fire, either with a misplaced pipe or an overturned kerosene lamp. The whole place went up in smoke, destroying all of Aunt Frances's cherished antiques and all but one of her even more cherished family portraits, the sole item she managed to haul from the inferno. They lost absolutely everything except for that painting, including, to Henry's unspeakable anguish, the manuscript of his Longstreet vindication. Perhaps one must be a Southerner to imagine how excruciating -- really, how damning -- that particular loss must have felt.
He never recovered. His humiliation intensified when he was obliged to join the ranks of family members dependent on a modest monthly allowance from Uncle Dent to maintain rudiments of shabby gentility. He and Frances found a new place, as rustic as the burned log cabin or more so, and lived there for several years. Finally, however, Henry couldn't tolerate the multiple disgraces. He took a shotgun to his front porch and blew out his brains.
Henry wasn't the only suicide on this side of my family. William Dent, one of Mother's six brothers, practiced law in Memphis. He never married, drank heavily, probably was gay, and ended up killing himself under circumstances I never was able pin down. Taint control saw to that.
Roy Dent, the runaway to the merchant marine and the best-looking of Mother's brothers, was Grandmother Dent's sixth child and the first to have brown eyes, quite dark ones. Lancelot, the seventh child, had dark eyes as well, as did Mother, the tenth. All the seven other siblings had pale blue eyes, as did, I think, both parents -- although Mother, leery of taint and aware of what I was getting at whenever I queried her on this subject, insisted that her father had "hazel" eyes. I'm not so sure about that. Grandmother Dent may have strayed from her marriage -- a surprising possibility given her devoutness. On the other hand, who could have known what really was going on beneath all that imperturbability? If she did stray it was thoroughly covered up.
Frances Dent, the younger of Mother's two sisters, required the most excuses of the siblings, for she was fairly crazy. Her husband, son of a rich redneck farmer, often got drunk and beat her. Frances snapped one night; when the husband passed out following a beating, she tried to kill him by pouring lye down his throat. It didn't work. However, she did get a divorce, without alimony due to the murder attempt, but with some child support for their daughter. From that time on she remained single.
When I was nine Frances visited us in Memphis with the daughter, whose physical and mental state horrified me. Grandmother Dent said she had suffered from polio, but I'm sure that euphemized the situation. The girl, about twelve, wore braces on both legs, couldn't stand up straight, and looked deranged, an impression that her incapacity for coherent speech confirmed. Worse, I later learned, she had started coming on sexually to boys and adult men. That put her beyond the pale; Minors and Dents did not tolerate such freakishness. Frances institutionalized her with Uncle Dent's reluctant consent, in the kind of place from which few patients ever returned because of the zeal with which its doctors performed lobotomies.
I think Frances may have been a lesbian. At any rate, she hated all males, including me. She joined the WACS and served at various military bases during the second World War. When she got out she lived in YMCAs in a number of Northern cities for a while, then took on housekeeping for Uncle Dent. They didn't get along, of course, so that came to an end. Frances wound up living in the charming guest house of our neighbors on Yates Road, where my parents bought a place when I was seventeen. She and Daddy avoided each other, as did she and I whenever I was there. But she doted on my sister Anne, and on Ellen, the youngest of my siblings.
Of all the unfortunate fates among Minors and Dents, however, perhaps the saddest belonged to Uncle Dent. His law firm required partners to retire at age sixty-five; Mother predicted long before he reached that milestone that it would be his undoing. She was right. Uncle Dent, the kind of man who upon arriving home from work poured himself not a cocktail, but a cup of coffee, felt compelled to keep his mind in high gear throughout the day. Idleness dismayed him. It magnified the effects of his frequent migraine headaches, which had bothered him for many years; it created a void that no amount of reading, visits with relatives, or travel could fill. Not that he didn't try. He took XXX and XXX around the world aboard the Hindenburg, on what proved to be the majestic zeppelin's last tour before its explosion whitened the night sky over Lakehurst, New Jersey(?).
Well, Uncle Dent gradually found old age less and less tolerable. He made three suicide attempts, spaced about a year apart, and finally managed to finish himself off at age seventy-eight. The first attempt involved dynamite, a common plantation commodity used to remove tree stumps, the bane since the dawn of time of anyone wresting arable land from forest. Somehow he failed to blow himself up -- perhaps the sticks also were elderly, for he suffered only singes. In the second attempt he employed a triple effort that he considered foolproof. He downed a bottle of sleeping pills, slit his wrists, and walked into the pond his cattle drank from. But faithful Buss, long his Briarfield factotum, a gangly man ten years younger than he, pulled him from the pond, bound up his wrists, and got him to a hospital before the pills induced permanent sleep. In the third try, Uncle Dent took no chances. Like his brother Henry, he said goodbye to the world on his front porch with a shotgun blast through his brains.
Mother didn't inherit Briarfield, a major disappointment. The plantation went to Sally Starr Minor, daughter of Uncle Dent's brother Lancelot, the country doctor, who unlike Uncles Henry and Dent was blessed with a happy old age. He splendidly had married Aunt Louise, the daughter of General Braxton Bragg, but led a modest, quite rural life just south of Memphis not far from Briarfield. Aunt Louise wielded great influence in the Southern Presbyterian church, specializing in missionary work, which always struck me as improbably exotic. But Sally Starr grew up countrified, without much of a sense of style, and married a man even more a hayseed than she. My parents almost thought them an embarrassment when they showed up at social occasions. That Sally got Briarfield thus came as a stinging irony. Moreover, it was the second time my parents confronted the fact that they had bungled a major inheritance, the debacle of Uncle Will's will having been the first.
But Sally had doted on Uncle Dent during his old age, a time when Mother, terrified by and preoccupied with Daddy, neglected him. Mother didn't much like or appreciate Uncle Dent anyway, despite all he had done for her, and whom he called daughter until died. I suppose that she never really got over the sense of oppression she had felt in his household as a girl and young woman.
Uncle Dent did leave Mother an $18,000 trust that eventually grew to something over $300,000, luckily for her in her own old age, because Daddy ended up leaving almost nothing. However, Sally sold Briarfield for two million after five years of owning it. That galled my parents no end. They had only themselves to blame.
If anything exemplified the gulf between the two sides of my family, it was the respective places they preferred to shop, socialize, and entertain themselves. The Minors preferred Washington, D.C. Of all Southern cities, the sleepy, staid, smallish capital then represented the urban polar opposite of New Orleans.
To sum up, the Minors went to Europe to study, the Percys to tour and party.
No wonder both families opposed my parents' marriage. However much Mother's deceased father had supported LeRoy's bids for the Senate, and however much Uncle Dent admired LeRoy, or the few "good" Percys, devoted to principle and service as he was.
Chapter 7 Yarboroughs, the Wildest of Them All
Yarboroughs, the Wildest of Them All
At age ten I did not fully grasp my background's stigmata. I therefore spent little time worrying about risk factors for lunacy in me. When brooding about who I was, six things stood out: the distinction of the forebears, which entitled me to snobbery; the knowledge that I was sexually deviant, which didn't alarm me except when pondering the consequences of getting caught; the danger posed by bullies, which I was clever enough to evade most of the time; the vital importance of old ladies, which began with Big Mama, included Grandmother Dent to a lesser degree, and extended to teachers and to neighbors like Mrs. Mason; the vulnerability and unreliability of my mother, which frequently appalled me; and finally, the demented abusiveness of my father, which at times provoked in me a hatred so intense that I fantasized about killing him, and failing that, killing myself. He rarely attacked me, I'm not sure why, perhaps because he felt guilt for having thrashed me when I was two with the square yardstick. But he routinely went after Mother, sometimes leaving bruises that required much make up to conceal, which, of course, she felt obliged to do. Poor Mommy, I often would think following one of Daddy's violent tantrums; pitiful Mommy, I would think almost as often, particularly after it became clear that she never would summon the courage to leave the monster -- the crouching beast incarnate, though I hadn't yet become aware of that term or its historical resonance. Uncle Dent years before had urged Mother to get a divorce, with the alarming proviso that the Percys be given custody of me to appease Daddy and Big Mama's dynastic obsession. Mother once said that she rejected this advice because she couldn't bear to part with her sole surviving son. A nice sentiment, I remember thinking. But I didn't entirely believe it. To this day, years after Mother's death, I cannot forgive her for failing to pack us all up -- myself, and when they came along, Anne, Ellen, and Azalea, too, for she had become Mother's indispensable emotional ally -- and get the hell out. Well, she did make a few tries. We once fled to Grandmother Dent's on Claybrook after an especially lively episode during which Daddy threatened to blow us to bits with his shotgun. Earlier, I remember some escapes. But Mother always returned to Daddy with me in tow, which seemed a terrible betrayal.
I sometimes expressed that opinion to Mother, if not directly, then with general surliness or bumptiousness. She reacted in ordinary ways, such as administering a switch, and in ways somewhat less ordinary. Mother had a thing about giving me enemas, for example, a practice I found utterly humiliating, especially the time it prompted a hard-on -- a mysterious phenomenon to a ten-year-old, not one that should be subject to the inspection of one's mother and her maid. Azalea participated in the ghastly procedure, avidly I think. Her eyes would light up when Mother made the usual opening gambit: "Did you go to the bathroom?" From time to time they also enjoyed forcing castor oil down my throat, often with an orange juice chaser. How depraved, I would think, how mean, how sick, to take such invasive interest in dislodging my shit.
Another factor contributed to my misery. My little sister Anne somehow had secured the right not only to taunt me, but also to be immune from retaliation of any kind, even mild verbal rebukes. Mother's favorite, Azalea's favorite too, and the apple of Aunt Frances the man-hater's eye, Anne got away with whatever she pleased, often successfully blaming me for outrages she herself had committed.
For all these reasons, and others such as the Hayes brothers, I was a fairly discontent ten-year-old. Thus I reacted with delight when Big Mama started talking about taking me on a road trip to California to visit her sisters and Aunt Lady. Big Mama knew I needed a respite from life on Vinton. So did Mother, who assented to the idea, no doubt in part because she needed a respite from me.
Furthermore, I suspect that Big Mama had come to doubt Daddy's ability to restore the family fortune to its former grandeur. As usual he was spending money faster than he made it, despite the fact that his legal career had reached its zenith. This derived not from diligence or brilliance but from the Second World War, then massively underway -- all of Daddy's law partners, off waging battle in distant arenas, had dumped their business into his lap, along with, as it turned out, their wives and sweethearts. A double bonus, from Daddy's point of view. His clientele had greatly enlarged for reasons that also fomented adultery, a situation all the sweeter because the saps who had made it possible might never return: what could be better than that? Daddy himself had shirked any role in the war, first with a XXX deferment to wrap up a case, then with the birth, just in time, of my sister Anne; fathers with two children were exempt from the draft. At any rate, Daddy's distaste for military service provided Big Mama with further evidence that he stood little chance of adding luster to the Percy name, so associated with martial valor since the time of Don Carlos -- indeed, since Henry Hotspur back in the bloody mists of the 1400s. Daddy bragged effusively about that tradition, and sneered at those who fell short of its standards, but he couldn't have cared less about contributing to it himself, or for that matter to any Percy tradition that didn't involve capricious rage. Improbable though this may seem, Big Mama accordingly had begun to consider another candidate to engineer the family comeback: me.
The road trip west thus amounted to more than a temporary rescue. Big Mama wanted time alone with me to see if she could instill finer mettle than had my parents. She also wanted to accelerate my physical development. For some time she had been convinced that my short stature derived from a failure on Mother's part to feed me correctly, and thought she could rectify that lapse by stuffing me whenever possible with the richest possible dishes, "Memphis chicken" for example, a delicacy stewed in a bubbling pond of blue cheese, a kind of slow-motion deep-fry that infused maximum fat. Since I spent three out of four weekends at her apartment, from which we would drive on Saturday mornings to the Place, she had ample opportunity. It only occurs to me now while writing this that Mother's enema and castor oil fixations may have been motivated by resentment of Big Mama's dietary remedies: whatever Big Mama made me gulp, Mother would promptly extract. If so, Mother didn't purge me fast enough, and in any case peristalsis came naturally once I hit the road with Big Mama, wringing out every last calorie. During two summers under her supervision I gained forty pounds -- but to her consternation did not grow an inch in height. I shot out, not up.
Whether or not Big Mama succeeded in improving my mettle is open to question, but aside from becoming a fatso, I did benefit from both of the summertime trips we ended up making to California. I learned that the wide world operated by rules refreshingly more diverse than those that governed my minute orbit in Memphis. This became apparent simply from watching mind-boggling landscape roll past the windows of our car. It hit home more electrifyingly still when I got to know Aunt Lady, Big Mama's only daughter, and three of Big Mama's sisters, Daisy, Jesse, and Wilma -- members of the clan Yarborough who had migrated to Los Angeles under circumstances of varying drama.
On our first trip out Big Mama drove her Ford "flivver," a little light-gray two-seat coupe that had proven its indestructibility from long service at the Place, where Big Mama had used the thing to blaze dirt trails over rough terrain, astonishing me and even the tenants, who had never seen anyone, much less a woman, put a passenger car to such use. Big Mama loved to drive and did it fearlessly, perhaps even more so in her stout old age than her youth. As we headed out of Memphis bound for the Pacific, to me unimaginably distant with great stretches of intervening blankness that might as well have appeared on maps with legends like "Here there be Dragons," or "Here there be Queers," the trip seemed heroic, a mythic quest. There were no superhighways; they came over a decade later with Eisenhower. Big Mama charged me with navigating the spider's web of two-lane roads, which I took seriously, and with deciding where we should spend nights, at this motel or that, a weighty responsibility. Her indulgence, coupled with the fact that our mission was taking us far beyond Daddy's drunken reach, filled my sails.
The high point of that leg of the trip was walking across the border from El Paso to Juarez, the first time I'd entered a foreign country. Mexico I found deeply fascinating. The gaudy currency, the outlandish food, the alien sights and rhythms of street life, all came as a revelation -- I felt transformed into a sophisticated roamer of the world. Crossing the Rockies heightened that impression. The roads through the winding mountain passes, devoid of guard rails between my side of the car and cliffs that plunged to crazy depths, scared me no end -- this was travel. But I had confidence in Big Mama. She even knew how to change and repair the flivver's tires. She had to, for in wartime new tires were exceedingly scarce.
Los Angeles proved to be an eye-opener as well. We stayed with Aunt Lady and her Mexican lover, Nancy, in Lady's chic studio apartment. Right across the street from the Hollywood Bowl on Highland Avenue, a four-block walk to Hollywood Boulevard, ten blocks down which lay the famous intersection with Vine, the studio occupied the XX floor of a great big fake French chateau sort of thing, with windows you could crank out to a tilt to snag the breeze; I remember finding that feature very foreign. Lady and Nancy slept in a double bed by the windows. Big Mama and I slept on the other side, she in a single bed, I on a mattress on the floor. There was a fine working fireplace, and a small kitchen area with a counter and stools. Very cozy, but stylish in its bohemian way -- and, needless to say, intriguing beyond belief to a closeted little queer.
Big Mama had said nothing about Lady's lesbianism even on the way out. Neither did she offer any explanations while we were there. I gathered that she thought it a reality so quotidian that it didn't require discussion, which suited me fine. Handsome women in their mid-thirties, Lady and Nancy ran with a hip crowd, mostly lesbian though their circle included some gay men. Lady had a job with Technicolor; she liked the fact that a woman owned the company. Nancy worked as a clerk in a store. Straight men played almost no role in their lives, something I considered noteworthy because they didn't seem to mind me. It made me wonder if they'd branded me a queer. I thought a lot about that because I was left to my own devices in the studio for stretches of time, and wasn't having any sex. To compensate I developed an autoerotic relationship with my reflection in the mirror of Lady's wardrobe. When bored with that, I loitered among the apricot trees of the courtyard garden, hoping boys or young men would give me come-hither glances. None did, of course. I looked even more juvenile than my scant ten years.
Everyone in Lady's world drank a lot, and Lady herself was a serious alcoholic. She also, even more than Big Mama, loved cars, the faster the better, a taste she acquired early in life. Big Mama had bought her a sleek Pierce-Arrow when she turned sixteen, as sporty a machine as an adolescent could hope for. Unfortunately, Lady's fondness of drink didn't mix well with her automotive passion; she wrecked at least seven cars over the years and had the scars to show for it.
But Lady wasn't the only wild one among my West Coast relatives. Big Mama's sisters Daisy, Jesse, and Wilma also had come to L.A. at different times for different reasons, and all happened to be living there when we visited. To put these ladies in context I must digress to their parentage.
Big Mama's mother, whom we called Grandmunnie, married under highly unusual circumstances. She had been engaged to XXX Yarborough, a twice-widowed man thirty-odd years her elder and the father already of numerous children. Their family had moved to Kentucky from Virginia not long after the U.S. secured the region from England with the Treaty of Ghent at the end of the War of 1812. They were frontiersmen, given to drink, violence, freedom, and eccentricity. In terms of temperament they thus had more in common with the Percys than with the Minors and the Dents. They scarcely could be characterized as gentry, however, for they were hardscrabble tobacco farmers, although the family had been around long enough that Big Mama, seeking a modicum of respectability after her marriage to Fafar, gained membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution.
On the eve of her marriage to XXX Yarborough, Grandmunnie had second thoughts. Instead of showing up for the ceremony she ran away with and married one of XXX's sons, Clinton Yarborough. I don't know how much of a rift this decampment, technically not cuckoldry but close enough, opened between the newlyweds and XXX, who must have been irked in the extreme. At any rate, he gamely married someone else and went on to father a total of nineteen children. As for Grandmunnie and Clinton, they produced seven, five girls and two boys.
Both boys died in early manhood, suicides or victims of drink-related accident, it's not clear which. Clem fell from a train, I believe between cars. XXX suffered ZZZ. What a waste, I always thought. They likely were prime specimens, for Big Mama wasn't the only beauty of the brood. Wilma and Jesse, respectively red- and platinum-haired, were equally gorgeous. Adeline had adequate looks, and Daisy, though far from unattractive, was dubbed the ugly duckling. To explain her lack of intelligence, charm, verve, and beauty, the other girls claimed, ungently but memorably, that a horse had stepped on her. I suppose this amounted to a form of taint control. "What's wrong with your sister?" "Oh, the poor thing. She was a perfectly lovely seven-year-old, vivacious and brimming with fun. But then a horse stepped on her."
Big Mama was the eldest of the girls but disputed that fact only semi-jokingly; she would insist that Wilma, her chief rival among the siblings, had preceded her into the world, to which Wilma would reply with a pitying roll of her limpid blue eyes. However, the fact that Big Mama was indeed the eldest, coupled with the coup of having reeled in Fafar at age sixteen, made her a role model for the younger sisters, a capacity that Grandmunnie encouraged and Big Mama embraced. Through contacts or friends of Fafar she married off Wilma and Jesse to millionaire lawyers, like Fafar considerably older than their brides. Adeline also married a man semi-associated with the Percys, a mid-level manager of U. S. Steel, the merger of which with Tennessee Coal and Iron LeRoy Pratt Percy had negotiated. Alas, nothing could be done for the unfortunate Daisy, statuesque but clumsy, her hair a muddy red. In the presence of company she did not light up a room; she actually dimmed it, or so I was told. The misplaced hoof had seen to that.
But Big Mama tried. She invited Daisy to the Pacific Beach house to try to snag her a suitable man, perhaps an officer from the Navy base. Daisy, who preferred small, dark, wiry men, took up instead with the local greengrocer, a diminutive Italian, and proceeded to mortify Big Mama by helping him hawk his wares to Big Mama's elegant lady friends. Daisy later married a highway construction crew foreman named Sam, another swarthy Italian, three inches shorter than she.
They were living in a former motel cabin on the rather seedy Venice Boulevard when Big Mama and I visited, a two-room affair with a kitchen, not spacious but quite homey. We often shared meals there, wonderful Italian food with delicious sweet wines, fattening fare that Big Mama encouraged me to wolf. Daisy really surprised me. I'd not expected much of her, having known that her sisters regarded her as hopeless, but she and Sam won me over; they so evidently were happy, and undemanding to boot. Neither seemed to resent the fact that Daisy's sisters didn't regard her as an equal. I grew fonder of Daisy than any of my other great-aunts, and eagerly looked forward to stopping by at their place on the way back from the beach.
Aunt Jesse lived in similar but less cheerful circumstances. Her husband, the millionaire to whom Big Mama had steered her, had proved unacceptable; a brutal drunk, he treated her little better than a live-in prostitute. After some years passed with no sign of children, Jesse's girlhood sweetheart, a strapping fellow named Elmer, started visiting more and more often. In a curious twist of kinfolkery, Elmer, though younger than Jesse by a couple of years, happened also to be her half-uncle, for he was the youngest of grandfather XXX Yarborough's nineteen children, the last to be born to his third wife, the woman he married after Grandmunnie bolted from the altar and married his son Clinton. If this seems confusing, it is, sometimes even to me. Anyhow, Elmer was tall, dark, slim, hairy, and extremely sexy; I'll bet he had eleven inches. Jesse's aged husband got the message and assented to a divorce, which luckily provided Jesse with substantial alimony, for Elmer never displayed much talent for finding lucrative work. He and Jesse lived in contented incestuous sin on the beach of Gulfport, Mississippi, making frequent visits to see Aunt Wilma, then living in England, and Big Mama in L.A. None of the sisters minded the scandal of Jesse pairing off with a blood relative. She and Elmer were far too fun a couple, superb dancers, particularly Jesse; they turned heads whenever they took to the floor.
At some point they moved to L.A., possibly because Big Mama had enticed them there before the crash. About a year prior to our trip west in the flivver, Jesse came home after a night of dancing with Elmer and collapsed; doctors determined that she had suffered permanent paralysis of her right side. That devastated her, of course, especially because she would never dance again. She saw it as punishment from God for her near-lifelong affair with Uncle Elmer. I believe they must have started at fourteen or fifteen back in Kentucky and never long quit. They lived very modestly, the alimony having expired with the ex-husband's death. Poor Jesse: she couldn't get out of bed without help, and needed a nurse when Elmer worked swing shifts at a military contractor.
Aunt Wilma lived in a very different setting. Her first husband, the other millionaire Big Mama had snared, had proved to be an even worse match than Jesse's; he beat Wilma severely, inflicting injuries that prevented her from ever having children. Hugo Black, the future Supreme Court justice but then still a member of the Klan and willing to take on scandalous cases, handled her divorce in Birmingham. Shortly after it Aunt Wilma married her own girlhood sweetheart, a charming adventurer who went by the name G. Hampton Lewis, but who had been born George Lowe.
Scion of an old Savannah family, one of whom had founded the Girl Scouts, Uncle Hampton as a young man had served time in the Atlant federal pen for stock fraud. When he got out he changed his name to shed notoriety, and proceeded to travel the world trying to sell typewriters, a technology that foreign businessmen surely would recognize as visionary, even indispensable. He launched the campaign in Hong Kong, where it flopped because the British merchants saw no reason to reduce the labor of their scribes, who produced immaculate calligraphy practically free. Hampton persisted, but finally abandoned his quest in South Africa for similar reasons. There, however, he tarried awhile, learning a lot about diamonds, which later paid off at a crucial time. He ended up in Hamburg importing California produce, without much success because the German market favored, for example, white Greek raisins, with which locals were familiar.
Aunt Wilma married Uncle Hampton just before World War I. When Germany was blockaded they moved to England, where he made a vast fortune importing foodstuffs. He could find buyers for a cargo as soon as it left port, no matter how distantly; the price would steadily rise as the ship approached England and ran less risk of taking a German torpedo. Uncle Hampton once told me that in the price-gouging environment of the time he could have earned far more than he did, but chose to honor deals he'd struck with business associates. Aunt Wilma enjoyed describing how he cornered the Cuban honey market in 1917 or 1918 and then persuaded Mr. Tobin, head of the English equivalent of Nabisco, to sweeten his biscuits with honey instead of rationed sugar.
Uncle Hampton was big time, but he had a sort of nervous breakdown in 1920. Aunt Wilma stepped in to save his business; he semi-retired at age forty one. During the '20s they led a fabulous life that included a townhouse in London, a country place to which they traveled by motor launch up the Thames, and three cars -- a Bentley, a sport car, and an enormous touring car. At Uncle Hampton's peak he also kept an apartment in Paris and one at the Plaza in New York City. Not bad for an ex-stock swindler who'd changed his name. He had his Gatsby points.
Both Lady and Daddy visited them during this period. Uncle Hampton sent Lady to a convent in Paris for two years; she probably enjoyed immersion in a same-sex setting. Daddy arrived in 1929 after finishing Stanford Law School, in the nick of time because the stock market crash, months away, would have denied him such travel. He and a law school friend toured Europe with Aunt Wilma and Uncle Hampton in a limousine, the rear of which was roomy enough that they could play bridge foursquare. Apparently Daddy got along with his aunt and uncle. Hampton, sympathetic to the fact that Daddy had lost his father at age six, offered to adopt him -- an invitation to move to London, start a career under Hampton's wing, and eventually inherit his fortune. Daddy declined, probably because he thought Big Mama's money would more than suffice.
Then the crash hit. It set Uncle Hampton back considerably, but in the mid-thirties he managed to restore his fortune somewhat with wild speculations in Rumanian oil and Spanish cork. During the Spanish Civil War, however, the cork went down the drain, and when the Nazis took over Romania, so did the oil. By this time Uncle Hampton and Aunt Wilma had become a British subjects. He once stood for Parliament, as a Conservative in a Labor district, and didn't win. As early as World War I he and Aunt Wilma had joined the Royal Lifesaving Society to teach Tommies the Australian crawl, at which she especially excelled. He was a charter member of the American Club on Grosvenor Square.
But with Hitler making his intentions more and more clear, they decided they were too old and tired to endure another war in England, a belated realization, for they boarded one of the last commercial liners bound for America. Mid-ocean one sunny afternoon, panic swept the decks: a German U-boat had surfaced off the ship's prow. It signaled an order to cut the engines. The captain complied, needless to say; the liner drifted to a stop. Aunt Wilma and Uncle Hampton watched anxiously as black-clad sailors swarmed like ants from the U-boat's conning tower and launched a tender. Presently the submarine's commander, coldly azure of eye and flaxon of hair, bedecked from cap to boots in Nazi regalia, was winched aboard with a gang of rifle-wielding men. He announced quite menacingly that he intended to search the liner for contraband. The canny captain led him to a kitchen vault that contained luxury comestibles. "Gut!" cried the commander, the search for contraband suddenly over. His men hauled away enough caviar and Champagne to provision the Crillon for New Year's Eve. Back went the laden tender to the U-boat. Mission accomplished, it slipped beneath the waves.
Because they had been prohibited from taking assets with them, Uncle Hampton and Aunt Wilma arrived in New York penniless except for a little bag of diamonds that Wilma smuggled past customs in her ample bosom. As we all learned over time, Uncle Hampton had chosen them well, the expertise he'd garnered in South Africa put to good use: the bag contained a not-so-small fortune. When he and Aunt Wilma came through Memphis, Wilma dumped the stones onto our kitchen table for Mother's inspection. Mother's eyebrows rose; later she maintained that she considered the display shockingly gauche. A typical Yarborough/Minor-Dent moment. To me, the glittering pile made Wilma a woman of lionhearted savoir-faire: she'd smuggled it in between her tits! Not even the Nazi would have found it there! Mother also disapproved of Aunt Wilma's full-length Russian sable. I wanted one just like it.
Aunt Wilma and Uncle Hampton lived quite well on proceeds from the diamonds for a number of years. They bought a small but charming house in Pacific Palisades just outside of L.A., and motored about in an immense dark-blue Buick Roadmaster. During our stay with Lady, Big Mama and I often visited them to go swimming, either at a pool or the ocean. This time around I found Aunt Wilma a bit too formidable; in her bathing suit she seemed a galleon, not the lissome sloop she described when recalling her youth. That subject often came up, because Big Mama and she, in addition to their dispute about which was the younger, also debated which had been the prettier, the thinnest, the richer, the better-traveled. In fact, Aunt Wilma easily trumped Big Mama on the latter two counts, having lived in London for twenty years in very high style; furthermore, Uncle Hampton still owned substantial, albeit frozen, British holdings. That didn't prevent the two sisters from having it out in all sorts of ways, usually with good humor but sometimes with an edge. For example, Aunt Wilma spoke of "little men" in terms that put me off; she correctly predicted that I never would grow tall. How that must have chafed Big Mama.
At some point not long later, Aunt Wilma and Uncle Hampton tried to park Grandmunnie with Big Mama in Memphis while they made a trip to Cuba. Daddy, gracious as always, told them that Big Mama was far too busy running the Place to care for an old lady. Aunt Wilma insisted that she shouldn't be the only daughter responsible for their mother, that she deserved a break, to which Daddy responded -- what a scoundrel! -- by knocking her down a flight of stairs. Uncle Hampton immediately wrote Daddy out of his will; neither he nor Aunt Wilma spoke to him for many years. Thus did Daddy bungle yet another inheritance. Once again he had only himself to blame.
The summer I was twelve the phone rang one night with bad news: Big Mama had collapsed in a seafood restaurant eight blocks away. Daddy and I drove over there and rushed her to the hospital in an ambulance. The doctors misdiagnosed her with a cerebral hemorrhage, and gave her insulin. It was too late anyway; she'd died. I'm quite sure she choked on a piece of steak, as I myself have done near-fatally a couple of times.
Daddy for once reacted in a human fashion -- he was truly frantic. I, however, remained cool, although I felt pangs of guilt because Big Mama and I hadn't seen each other for nearly two months, on account of the longest tiff we'd ever had. This was the first time I had confronted the death of a person so very close to me, perhaps the closest in the world. Yet I felt no serious grief.
But then, I never have felt any serious grief. The only funerals I ever attended were Big Mama's, Aunt Wilma's, and Daddy's. I avoid them as rigorously as I avoid weddings, only two of which I've attended. I don't understand why I don't grieve when people die. I suppose I never thought that death is a tragedy. Even now, as mine draws nearer, I still do not.
However, I knew then, and later realized afresh as my life took various turns, that I owed Big Mama a great deal, much more than I owed anyone else in the family, more than I ever could repay. She taught me the value of resourcefulness and confidence, showed me that those attributes flow not from abstract compartments of human nature but from sustained states of mind -- from, in short, force of will, or even a kind of defiance. I picture her in the flivver shifting from third to fourth, her grip on the wheel embracing the road, her gaze into the distance unfurling the horizon, and I hear her say, "They can knock you down. But they can't stop you from getting back up."
Chapter 8 More Playmates
Omitted for now.
Between infancy and adolescence, that is, what we call childhood from age six to twelve, Freudians maintain that children repress their sexuality, meaning that they quit doing it. This was not the case with me nor indeed with most of the boys in my neighborhood. Some participated more frequently and enthusiastically than others. One boy declined, and he was the most undersized. We all wondered why he didn’t. I lusted and instigated more than most and unlike some of them never regretted that Little Nellie didn’t join in our games. For the same reasons as for Chapter Three, I’m omitting this chapter for now.
Chapter 9 Middlesex
Omitted for now.
This is not a pun. Some do indeed quip that if you can’t get a girl, get a Middlesex boy – types that in gay slang are called “twinkies”. It’s the name of Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, then still a Brahman bastion which admitted one boy each year from the South for diversity . That was me in 1948. There I boarded from ages fourteen to seventeen, during my early adolescence. Although I only had sex with one boy there once on the night before graduation, it was during these years that I first began having furtive casual sex, one-night stands with adults, preferring soldiers, sailors, and marines, although I often sought out non-uniformed lower-class males in sites where I thought that I would not be observed. For obvious reasons, I’m also omitting this chapter. It would not excite pedophiles, strictly speaking, because they prefer children not yet pubic, but it might well excite pederasts, properly defined as those who prefer youths between 13 and 19. I must add that while at Middlesex I found those over 30 physically repulsive and could not understand how they could still stand to have sex with each other. At that time of my life, I decided to quit having sex when I myself reached 30, a resolution I’ve repeatedly revised over the years as I’ve aged myself.