My father was not lit from the inside. He would have been considered cosmetically good-looking, with dark curly hair and dimpled cheeks. He had the kind of aristocratic frame that was both athletic and sexless, like many men of his ilk, a blank canvas onto which was painted Nantucket-red pants, Gucci loafers, and nondescript button-down, short-sleeve shirts.
His side of the family was pure white-Anglo-Saxon-protestant, Mayflower-descendant, white-butler rich. The butler’s name was Eugene, and in my memory he wore a tuxedo all day long, but it might have just been a suit. We had many portraits of bygone relatives hanging throughout our house— one of my great-grandfather looking like Teddy Roosevelt, reading studiously with pince nez hanging off his nose, and a second great-grandfather in a suit standing upright with a cane, both men humorless, and commanding. Perhaps the painting of my grandfather, showing him looking relaxed behind the helm of one of his three yachts, is telling of the family fortune that would be lost under his watch. My parents and one of his many girlfriends were usually the only guests included on my grandfather’s yachting trips up the Maine coast every summer (he left my grandmother at home).
We lived in Cedarhurst, a quiet Long Island suburb, on a dead-end street lined with enormous maple and oak trees that created a protective canopy over the neighborhood. Three homes made up our family compound. The three-story, four-thousand-square-foot house we lived in had been a wedding present from my father’s parents. On one side of us was my great-aunt Peg’s house, a thirteen-thousand-square-foot mansion called “Lauderdale,” that my great-grandfather Henry Hobart Porter had built in the late 1800s. On the other side lived Peg’s son, Seton (named after another ancestor, Mother Seton), and his family. I asked my aunt once if my grandmother’s middle name, Delano, indicated any relation to FDR. She scowled and said, “Grandfather never liked to talk about that cousin. He was a Democrat.”
On the weekends, my grandfather would host us for dinner at the Long Island Rockaway Hunting Club that was just down the street from our house, where we would order steaks (“Pittsburgh rare”—meaning seared on both sides and raw in the middle) with insider names like Delmonico and Porterhouse. The adults would greet the club staff as if they were family. The club had a gaming room with multiple backgammon boards (you only played for money) surrounded by framed photos of the past club presidents, my grandfather and great-grandfather included. There were men’s-only bars that smelled of cigars and scotch. The club logo was a fox surrounded by guns and golf clubs assembled together to look like the crest of some English earl’s estate. The fox hunting part of the club had ceased long before I was born, but the name remained, ensuring that people knew we were the type of people who would dress in red, mount thoroughbred horses, and follow screeching hounds chasing a fox to its death if we still could. Breakfast at the club had only two items, runny eggs and crisp bacon. Being rich back then meant that you could have anything you wanted, but you limited choices to ensure that the new rich people who wanted omelet stations and bottomless mimosas would never even try to join. Whenever we drove to the clubhouse, we passed the rows and rows of grass tennis courts. Occasionally there would be two women who looked to be the same age as my mother playing on the court closest to the clubhouse, in their short white skirts and frilly underwear.
By the time my parents married, my father’s family had secured a seemingly permanent foothold in society’s upper echelons. They owned Park Avenue apartments and second homes right outside the city. They drank a lot. They often didn’t have jobs and the ones they did have they didn’t need. They cheated on their wives with the wives of their closest friends. My father was the youngest of four (the next oldest was ten years his senior) and the only boy. His parents didn’t think child care had anything to do with them, so the nannies and kitchen staff looked after him until he went to boarding school when he was seven. He saw his parents on school vacations, if they happened to be in the country, and was expected to dress for breakfast in jacket and tie when they were in town.
My grandfather went to Yale, served on the boards of Pan American Airways and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and was the president of my great-grandfather’s engineering company. My father wasn’t a strong student, which is what one says about spoiled offspring who don’t feel like they have to work at anything. He would not have been accepted to Yale even in the days when the progeny of graduates were almost guaranteed admission. So he was encouraged by his father to bypass higher education altogether. “Not to worry,” my grandfather told him. “The only reason people go to college is to get a job, to make money. And you will never have to worry about money.” Knowing my father as I do now, I imagine he was relieved to find that there was no expectation that he should live up to his father’s success, and that he could instead skip straight to living the life that had already been earned for him. But first, he had to find the right partner.
[ Return to the review of “Filthy Beasts.” ]
My mother was from a working-class family in Bermuda, born to a stay-at-home English mother and a Scottish father who worked as a traveling hardware salesman. My mother rarely talked about her life before my father, but when she did I was left with the impression that she was concealing an undisclosed wound, deep enough to want to escape into my father’s far more complicated world. I have a vague memory of once seeing my grandfather standing near his company van, the open double doors revealing an assortment of hanging tools, containers full of nails and screws, and various prepackaged boxes. I remember feeling loneliness on his behalf, thinking of him driving to new neighborhoods in his van, knocking on strangers’ doors, trying to sell them products for which they hadn’t asked. I equated what he did with some character in an old movie who was turned away time and again, each scene ending with a door shut in his face and a slow, dejected walk back to the van. Like a lot of the impressions I formed when I was younger, this one resembled nothing of his actual experience. I’ve since learned he knew his customers well. They requested not only the items he brought to them but his expertise in using them.