This is a hard story to tell. Maybe it’s more a series of impressions than it is a story, because there are elisions in the story. And there are elisions because it’s a story I’m not supposed to tell. It will be unwelcome to my intimates, I imagine. It is even somewhat unwelcome to myself.
There was this day, when I was nine, when my mother browbeat me about a pair of eyeglasses. This is noteworthy because my mother is incredibly mild, and kind of tiny. She’s about 5'2" and probably does not and did not weigh more than 110 or so. Sometimes less. She would have been thirty-three when I was nine, and we were newly removed to Stamford, CT, renting a house there, while she and my dad were in the midst of getting divorced. Acrimoniously. It was a Mexican divorce, and this I remember because my mom had gone down to Mexico all of a sudden (I don’t recall who looked after us while she was away, but it’s unlikely that it was my father), and brought back trinkets of local origin for each of us. I got a hand drum of some kind. The divorces in Mexico were advantageous for the disputants. The spouse did not have to appear, I suppose, and I suspect my dad was very unwilling to appear. Katherine Hepburn and Johnny Carson got Mexican divorces, too, which is illustrious company. Apparently the free and easy divorces ended in 1970, so maybe my mom snuck in under the wire there. I have never asked her what she did on her trip to Mexico, or what it was like there, because this subject, which is part of the larger subject of money, is not to be discussed, and when I have brought it up over the years, I have felt like I was breeching a familial taboo. I guess my mother had a lawyer with her. But she must have been lonely and afraid. I would have been.
Once she got back, the legal wrangling began in earnest, or that is my guess, and my father was, I think it’s fair to say, a difficult guy to wrangle with. He does not like to lose, and he often has a very firm point of view, and he is willing to tear the edifice down to the foundation if that is required to get what he wants. I admire him in this way, because I am more like my mom, and I sometimes feel like a pushover. In any event, my father got a very good divorce lawyer, and proceeded—in part because the origin of my parents’ divorce was marital infidelity along the distaff line (I cannot promise you that this was unmatched on the other side)—to make it incredibly hard for my mom. I mean, he made it incredibly hard for my mom monetarily. I am not going to get into the specifics, because I don’t want to stir up all the poisons, but my mother was embarked on single parenting, with little or no job experience of any kind (but parenting), with none of the resources she really needed to keep the family together, housed and fed.
Because we are talking about almost 45 years ago, I have long since forgiven my parents for all of this, to the extent that my forgiveness matters in any way. I don’t believe it does. And why should it? When younger, I wrote one novel to try to expiate the anger I felt about the mess my parents made of their marriage and its aftermath, which I believe is a historically freighted mess, a culturally and socially predictable mess, and when I was done with that novel, I felt less angry, and more sympathetic to their heartache. And now that I have a child (and am recently divorced myself), I feel even more so. People flail around trying to find wholeness and peace in the world, and in the flailing they crash into other people, and things get broken, and then they go off and flail around some more. We all regret it. Children are resilient, by and large, and my brother doesn’t think all of this had much effect on him. My sister is no longer living, so we can’t ask her, though she did go through a very painful divorce before her death in 1995.
I don’t think I was as resilient.
But our subject is money, so let me be plain. In the year after my parents separated, we were living in Stamford, CT, hand to mouth. Everybody was on edge. I remember my sister beating up on me, physically, that year. I remember my brother and me beating up on each other so regularly that it was part of our daily routine. I remember my mother washing my mouth out with soap once, actually doing it instead of just threatening it, because I said that a certain television show “sucked,” and this despite the fact that she only weighed 110 pounds. Size, evidently, is not a factor once you are mad enough to discipline your child physically.
And I remember losing my glasses. The funny thing about the glasses is that I got them the very year my parents separated. I remember going to the cattle-call vision test at my public school in Stamford (I’d been there three weeks or so, and I tried never to speak at all, because I was so upset about having to change schools and leave behind all my friends in Darien), where some nurse or health-related functionary was charged with commanding me to “Please read the second line.” I couldn’t see the second line. Not at all. It was as if the hard part of my family being pulled down by the undertow of disorder had this physical effect. It was just a tiny prescription for reading the blackboard, and so I didn’t need the glasses to run around on the playground, nor to ride on the schoolbus, and because I hated having eyeglasses on my face, I was constantly putting them down somewhere and forgetting about them. So: one day in Stamford I had to go tell my mother that I had lost my glasses again. I was smart enough to dread this, even though I was not sure why I was dreading it, but I went to tell my mother when I got home from school. I think she was folding laundry at the time. I said, “Mom, I can’t find my glasses.” I believe her reply was one of the only times, if not the only time in my entire life my mother has raised her voice at me. All the other hard times she just got quieter still, as if volume for her was inversely related to crisis. This time, though, she said, “YOU ARE GOING TO FIND THOSE GLASSES! DO YOU HEAR ME?”
It was a money thing. There was no money for more eyeglasses, and the vast amount that had been spent on them already was supposed to go toward rent or it was supposed to go toward gas (for her very beat up green station wagon that she kept denting in parking lots) or it was supposed to go toward food. Of course I was shocked to be on the receiving end of the raised voice, because volume was inversely related, etc., and I went to my room to lick my wounds. If I were to try to give a sense of the hues of consciousness that I associate with this period, in these years after my family became two families, I would pick some ultraviolet color, something in the hematoma family of colors. Someone was always going upstairs in a huff, devastated over some slight, and it was because of the collective stress over the money and the separation, and the exigencies of parental visitation, all of that. My feelings were almost always hurt, every day, and I had no defense against all of this. To speak up about the suburban poverty, the shabby gentility, of those years was to fail to be part of the team, and we were meant to be a team, no matter what. And it was all made more complicated by the fact that my grandfather was wealthy beyond compare, or so it seemed to me.
If I am writing about money, I need to write about my grandfather, my mom’s dad, and about how he bears on this issue of money, and so today is the day (snow outside, nowhere to go). My earliest memory of any kind—a memory in which I can tell what’s going on in the memory—is actually of my grandfather. He had a lot of trouble with his heart and at some point in the early sixties he went through open heart surgery at the hands of early pioneer Michael DeBakey. I think they call it aortic resection, the DeBakey procedure. My grandfather was pretty young at the time of his surgery. He was in his early sixties when DeBakey worked on him. He couldn’t get up the stairs in his house in Pelham (in Westchester County) after the procedure, so he was convalescingon the first floor. They had a surgical cot for him in the sitting room, and I suppose this had a real impact on me, the strangeness of my grandfather living on a hospital cot in the sitting room of his enormous house. My first memory of him was of his fragility.
Which didn’t mean that the guy was not a motherfucker in almost every other way. He was the publisher of the New York Daily News, which at that time had the largest circulation of any daily paper in the United States, or so they liked to say. It was a reactionary and hard right paper, as befitted its core audience (the working class borough of Queens), and while my grandfather was not the editor, he was very much of a piece with the mission of the News. He wrote an editorial supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee, or so I have been told. I once asked the writer Pete Hamill if he had ever heard anything about my grandfather from old-timers at the News, when he, Hamill, was editing the paper, and he told me that it was lore among the old-timers that my grandfather’s initials, F.M. (for Francis Marian), stood for “Fuck Mankind.”
He was not exactly a family man either, at least not as I understand it. At the time of my grandfather’s operation, my grandmother was, if not dead already from her alcoholism, soon to be, and my uncle was soon to die in a plane crash in Cincinnati. In 1970, when my family was coping with my parents’ divorce, the only immediate Flynns left were my grandfather and my mom, and I think my mom was mostly at a loss about how to deal with her father.
He had a sort of mansion-ish house in Pelham (it was across the street from a bona fide castle, so—as is always the case—there was someone nearby who was even more wealthy), with four or five acres in a town zoned for one and a half or two acres, and he had a goldfish pond, and fancy landscaping, and velvet wallpaper, and a kind of a disability contraption on the staircase, a sort of side car, that enabled my grandmother to get up and down the stairs when she was very impaired. He had a maid/cook and a gardener/chauffeur. Of course, I had a stereotypical interaction with the staff: they were African-American, and they were very nice to us. As they probably had to be, in fear for their jobs. I couldn’t understand, in my early life, when the civil rights movement was raging elsewhere in the country, that there should be any problem between “white” people and “black” people, because, on the basis of my experience with Pearl and Clayton, people of African descent were the nicest people in the world. I honestly thought they genuinely liked us, and maybe they did. Maybe they had kindness in their hearts, despite the very difficult circumstances in which they found themselves. But I wouldn’t blame them if they had felt otherwise about the grandchildren.
It didn’t really occur to me to think about the fact that my grandfather had a lot of money. It was just who he was, legendary, immense, intimidating. I should note that my dad’s parents, who lived nearby in Norwalk, CT (the working class suburb in Fairfield County at that time), were indisputably not wealthy and had “bad taste,” in a way that even my dad was a little embarrassed about. My grandmother Moody decorated entirely in pink and had toy pianos and figurines everywhere. She had plastic slip covers on at least one of the couches. We, the kids, sensed a difference between these grandparental factions, but I’m not sure I would have thought that it had mainly to do with money. Children, based on my experience, interact with people, not with abstract ideas—this is part of what is admirable and decent about children—and so these were just my grandparents, and there was not much else to say about it. My grandfather Flynn had taxidermied animals on the wall, and he drank Chateaux Lafitte Rothschild from his wine cellar (the first taste of wine I ever had was some bottle of this stuff from the thirties), and he had amazing Japanese art from his time in Japan, in the twenties, when he had been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper.
After my parents got divorced, we saw a lot more of my grandfather, not only because I think he was mostly paying for our rent in Stamford (and then New Canaan), but also because he was getting increasingly frail. The newspaper was bought by the Tribune Company of Chicago at some point, and I think my grandfather got some board position like CFO. Of the Tribune Company. I couldn’t really explain to you the organizational chart. But he got kicked upstairs, right as the Daily News started to fail. My dad says my grandfather once told him that newspapers were on their way out.
For my grandfather, Watergate was the beginning of the end. My mother says that he was devastated by Watergate, because he couldn’t believe Nixon would have done such a thing. Or: he knew Nixon personally, and so maybe there was some sense of personal betrayal. Anyway, F. M. Flynn’s heart gave out for good somewhere in 1974 or 1975. He was in a coma for a while. I remember several long weeks when he was unresponsive, but this could be just the way kids stretch out the bad patches in recollection. Then he died.
The last time I really remember spending time with my grandfather was when we went to the Bahamas, a year or so before he died. He belonged to this upscale club called the Lyford Cay Club, pretty fancy indeed. We went down there with him, my mother and the three kids, and we got a little cottage to ourselves, and had a lot of room service, and swam in the pool every day, and got horrible sunburns which will probably be responsible for my late-life melanoma, when it comes. The contrast here was immense, because of the hand-to-mouth life in Stamford and New Canaan, in which we drank out of jelly jars and used the family silver because we couldn’t afford stainless steel. We were the leading edge of suburban divorce poverty. The contrast between our shabby gentility with my mom, and the room service and lobster-for-breakfast life at Lyford Cay, was immense.
Two moments from that trip strike me now. First, I remember a lunch with my grandfather in the Bahamas during which we were all sitting poolside. My grandfather, in the middle of the meal, put down his lunch and his paper, and fixed my mother with the most mournful look and said, “Margaret, I am in a rut.” I don’t know what he expected my mother to do, or how he expected us to react. I am sure some of this is colored by time, but I don’t know which part of it is colored. To me it means what it seems to mean, that he was a guy who was hemmed in by privilege, and grief, and workaholism, and who couldn’t find an emotional way out of it. He died before he found a way to be happy.
The other memory of Lyford Cay is this: there were these girls we played with every day in the pool, and they were called the Fahnestocks. It’s not overstatement, I don’t think, to say that those were hard years for me, socially, years in which I just did not fit in at school, and didn’t have an ally, or even a close friend, someone who would take my side if I were getting bullied, or felt low, which I almost always did. How much bullying was there in the New Canaan public schools? Probably not as much as Jonathan Lethem was enduring in Brooklyn at the same time, but enough for me to feel unexcited about going to school many mornings. The Fahnestock girls knew none of this, none of my social difficulties, and, in the context of the pool at the Lyford Cay Club, they treated me with politeness and respect. I remembered it for years afterward, their kindness, whenever it was otherwise in short supply.
But: the interesting thing about these Fahnestock girls is that I believe their mother was Mimi Alford, nee Marion Beardsley, the inappropriate teen romantic interest of President John F. Kennedy, circa 1962-1963. Indeed, it was on a trip to the Bahamas, when Kennedy was meeting with (I think) Harold Macmillan of Britain, that Mimi Alford was once spotted in a limo by the press. Here we were in the Bahamas, and her mom was there, and we were there with our mom, and if you had been able to dig deep into what families with money were like (assuming we were kids from a family with money, and not just grandchildren of someone with money), you would have found, as I have always felt, that there were a lot of complications, a lot of paradoxes, a lot of sadness, a lot of concealment, a lot of heartache.
After my grandfather died, I guess my mother inherited some small fortune, though a portion of his family trust had already gone to my two cousins in Virginia when my uncle died in the aforementioned plane crash. But Mom got the house in Pelham, and she got some money. I had a completely naive feeling, as you perhaps would when you are thirteen or so, that we all would just move into my grandfather’s mansion in Pelham. And for a couple of months, we did live there, like interlopers on a scene of privilege. But then my mother gave me the bad news: she couldn’t even afford to pay a single year of the property taxes on my grandfather’s house, not to mention the upkeep. And anyway, it was way too big for us. A year or so later, my mother married a British guy she’d met in Connecticut. I don’t know what he was doing in Connecticut. The two of them bought a smaller house, not more than a mile from my grandfather’s place, in Pelham, where she had grown up. We used to drive by the big house, from time to time. I still do, when I’m out that way. In terms of mileage, we weren’t far away from that house, but in other ways we were far distant.
The four years or so of bad times, of not having the money for eyeglasses or flatware or cups, coincided, probably predictably, with depression on my mother’s part. Before meeting the British guy, she had a job, she did some telemarketing, and so I used to come home from school by myself, latchkey style, and do my homework unobserved. Usually what I did was watch television. My mom arrived later, often exhausted, often quiet, not terribly revealing, asking us a few questions about school, questions I always experienced as some kind of unreasonable inquisition. She was depressed, her post-marital relationships weren’t working out so well, and we were struggling to pay the bills. Marriage and inheritance alleviated some of this. She and her husband paid cash for their house in Pelham, banked some of the difference, and stayed there for many years, ten or eleven, sold that house, made a killing, bought a farm in Charlottesville, sat on that for ten or twelve years, made a killing, and bought a condo in Bucks County. They did well at real estate until late-life poverty set in.
But my grandfather’s shadow was a long shadow. That Susan Minot story about the family hiding in a closet waiting for Dad to come and look for them, only to find that he couldn’t really be bothered? My mom lived that life. She was raised by the help. My mother was always getting lost as an adult, because, as she said, she had been driven everywhere by the chauffeur, and she just really didn’t know how to find her way. Normal stuff that other people sort of knew how to do intuitively, laundry and diapering and cooking, she had to learn. Because her parents were in their forties when they had her, and because her own mother was mentally ill. My mom had all the advantages of wealth, and all the disadvantages of family, and, I think, she passed a good portion of both ofthese along to me.
Meanwhile, my dad was working on Wall Street.
My dad came from a lower-middle-class family in Maine, and he was fervently ambitious to leave that family behind—in the economic way and in all other ways. That’s how it looks to me now. My grandfather had had some mid-level managerial success in the corporate part of General Motors. Regional sales manager, or something, and then he decided what he really wanted was to own a car dealership. He left the corporate world behind, and the family moved to suburban Massachusetts, and my grandfather ran the car dealership. For much of my dad’s childhood that was the family business, Moody Motors, Inc. My dad banged out dents in the auto body shop during summer vacation.
My Moody grandparents were upwardly mobile enough that they wanted the best for their only child, whom they had brought into the world (in the midst of a not terribly happy marriage) rather late in life (their late thirties), and among their ideas about this was that my father should go to the very best schools, private schools, even if paying for such schools amounted to real financial hardship for them.
So my dad was shipped off to the Phillips Exeter Academy in the fifties, when boarding school was a rarified affair among the extended families and friends of my grandparents. His accounts of Exeter are frequently miserable, marked by hazing and class torture. He seems to have had very few close friends, though those he did have are people he still holds dear. Otherwise, Exeter was the process by which the traces of class difference were all shorn away from my father, and by the time he got to Brown University in the late fifties (Brown being the last-chance Ivy League destination in those days), he’d remade himself into a sort of urbane and misanthropic fraternity president. He played classical music on the radio station and took a degree in American literature.
But it was the fifties, and that meant, after graduation, family and life as an organization man, and because my father bore the burden of his parents’ dream of class mobility, he got into the training program at a big, infamous New York City bank. This didn’t mean that we had lots of money, when my parents had three kids to look after, and a house in Fairfield County to pay for. It meant we had exactly enough money. For a while, we looked exactly like an affluent upper middle class family in Connecticut. But after my parents separated my dad paid child support, and, increasingly (because of my sister’s school problems, which were not insignificant), private school tuition. When my brother went off to boarding school (this was after I started at St. Paul’s School in 1975), my dad was paying three boarding school tuitions at once. As he says, he couldn’t even afford to buy the newspaper in the morning.
I don’t mean to imply that we weren’t, in some fashion, decisively among the affluent. In 1977, after his lean years, my dad managed to buy a summer house (on Fishers Island, which rightly deserves its reputation as an über-WASP summer destination of choice), joined the country club there, and then later, in the eighties, bought some property nearby and had a house designed and built for himself.
He came a long way in the world, therefore. He made the journey his parents wanted for him. (I can still remember, as I have recounted elsewhere, that one of the last conversations I had with my grandfather before his death was the one in which he derisively said: All you kids are just living off your father’s money.) There was a fair amount of blood loss in my father’s ascent—bare-knuckled street fighting at the bank in question—and while he had been lucky for a while, my father got fired in the eighties, and then had less felicitous positions elsewhere—at an insurance company, for example—and then dropped out of corporate life and started a successful consulting business.
Despite my father’s hard work, accomplishments, and Horatio Alger-ish class transit, or perhaps because of it, we never quite fit in the rarified world of Old Money WASP culture. This would be obvious to anyone from that world: our money was not old. My mother’s family was Irish, primarily, which was a lower class thing to be, and Midwestern, and my father’s father was a car dealer, and his father was a stone mason with eight kids, one of them reputedly born out of wedlock.
When I got to boarding school, in fall of 1975, this all became manifest. St. Paul’s School had a reputation for being if not the most exclusive and demanding boarding school in the Northeast at least one of two or three. It had graduated a lot of leaders of industry and politics (John Kerry went there, and Robert Mueller, the former director of the FBI), but it was also, as a lot of northeastern boarding schools are, given to educating its legacy applicants. As a result, there were a lot of kids there from families in which a parent or even grandparent attended SPS, not to mention siblings and cousins. There were significant contingents in my class (which included only 110 students) from Greenwich Country Day School, New Canaan Country Day School, Horace Mann, Dalton, and so on. Most of these kids knew a great number of their peers before setting foot on campus.
I wasn’t one of those kids. I’d gone to public school right up until I went to St. Paul’s, and I was the product of divorce, which was still relatively unusual among my friends, and, in that I lived with my mother, I came from a much more modest financial background than did a lot of my acquaintances there. I can remember, in the first semester, when I couldn’t afford any of the books and supplies and SPS-themed sportswear that everyone else was wearing, writing to my mom and begging for more money (I didn’t ask my dad, because no matter what the circumstance it was always hard to ask him for money), and her sending me, in the mail, a single twenty dollar bill, cash, saying I’d like to say I could do this again, but I cannot.
I don’t think adolescents understand money and the cultural and class-related issues surrounding it very well—or at least I didn’t. I understood that it was a struggle for me personally, and I knew that all the private school kids seemed to stroll around with an ease and grace that I for one did not have. It would be easy to say that my oversensitivity and my lack of confidence had to do only with not having the resources and opportunities enjoyed by a lot of my fellow students, but in truth I had any number of problems.
I fell in with a crowd of leftovers and misfits by the end of ninth grade, and I stayed there for the rest of my boarding school years. Some of these misfits were at SPS because they were exceedingly gifted (one of my best friends there very nearly got twin 800s on his SATs), and some because they were really creative. And there were even a couple of my friends who came from wealthy though uniformly dysfunctional families, I think, the kinds with lots of alcoholism and little parental oversight. The destined-for-affluence members of my class at St. Paul’s hung out with other destined-for-affluence kids, or those who were middle class but great at sports. Such is the oligarchy.
What I mostly did at boarding school was take drugs and read and write. It was the mid-seventies, so there were the distant emanations of a counterculture that had not happened so long before, and even in that regimented environment we were learning about that counterculture, and drinking in some of it, and in this way education took place. I never took Latin, I never got past trigonometry. But I read Manfred by Lord Byron, and most of C. S. Lewis, and La Nausée by Sartre, and learned to play the piano a bit, and, in some very distant hard-to-describe way I was, just as my father had done at Exeter, going through the process of being admitted into the ruling class.
By the time I left, I had a girlfriend who had a Cézanne in her dining room, and I travelled back and forth from her family’s place on Park Avenue to my father’s place on Madison Avenue during summer vacations, and I went to Europe for my graduation, and then to Fishers Island, where I was learning to play tennis, and I too in the fall, like my father, would be going off to Brown University, which was, in 1979, no longer the catch-basin of the Ivy League, but, on the contrary, one of the best universities in the country.
I’m skipping ahead, because college deserves its own memoir someday. And my monetary situation during four undergraduate years did not change substantially. I never seemed to have any money, though there was money at the periphery of my life, and so I was constantly hustling. I had a food service job, alone among my boarding school acquaintances at Brown, from which I got fired. Occasionally I charged candy on my bookstore credit account, when I had no money for anything. I had a band, but we had no equipment, because we couldn’t afford any. I bought most of my books used. After four years of this, I graduated from the Ivy League (with a degree in English) into the minimum wage class. My first two jobs in 1983, the year of my graduation, were selling recorded tours at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco for $3.35 an hour (which I believe was California minimum wage) and building stage sets for a theater company in Sausalito. Same wage, if I recollect. Excepting when I moved back East in March of 1984, and needed a plane ticket, I took no money from my parents. As a result, I had a bed, which was a bedroom door on milk crates, atop of which was a single-size futon. (If I wanted to have sex with someone, which didn’t happen very often, I had to move the bed onto the floor, so that no participant would fall off. If I left the bed on the floor, then my roommate’s dog, who had fleas, would go lie down on it, with predictable results.) Besides the bed, and a typewriter, I had some clothes, and that was it. No furniture, a few cassette tapes, and a cheap boom box. When I got home to the Northeast, I went to graduate school, where I was further impoverished. I was expected to earn living expenses for myself, but instead I failed to pay rent for a year at Columbia, and just used the rent money to live on (I spent money on two things: one dollar hamburgers at Burger King, and alcohol). This lasted until Columbia noticed the absence of rent payments, and ejected me from my dorm room. I moved in with a friend in Hoboken, and lived with her for a while. My jobs at Columbia included bibliography fact-checking for the History of Religions encyclopedia, and clerking at Shakespeare and Company on the Upper West Side, from which I got fired for ineffective cash register operation.
Part of this—graduate student poverty—was owing to my alcoholism, and part of it was life in the arts. Whatever it was, it was hard. A lot of my high school acquaintances were going off to law school or business school, from which they would graduate to reasonably good jobs, but I was trying to write, and I had nothing, and didn’t want to ask for anything, because that was not my way, and when I wanted a good time I would go to gallery openings downtown for the free wine, or spend what little I had on bourbon at the Marlin Café on Broadway and 110th Street. My girlfriend in Hoboken had some money, and inherited a little more while we were together, but she was no better off than I in the addiction department, and we spent a lot of her money on the cocaine dealer who made the house calls.
This state of affairs was not much improved by my getting a job in book publishing in 1986, because the entry level salary at Simon and Schuster was $15,000, and it didn’t seem to bother anyone that this was not a salary on which one could live. One good thing came of Simon and Schuster, though. They paid for my rehab/psych ward stint in 1987. They had to. It was the golden age of health insurance. And that was probably the best thing that ever happened to my money problems, too, because I started to wise up.
When I got out of the hospital, after having been asked to leave by my girlfriend, I took an apartment in Hoboken, which was, in some ways, the bottom of the bottom for me. Rent was $50 a month, but it was a converted filling station with several kinds of faux-wood paneling, and when you opened the tap, you could smell the gas, and there was only one window, and there were feral dogs of the neighborhood living on the front step. My dad and my stepmother came to see me there, because (after all) I had just gotten out of the psychiatric hospital, took one look at my circumstances and decided to buy me an apartment. In this way, my excellent breeding lofted me out of the minimum wage class, and it is true that people who do not have my advantages do not get one-bedroom condominiums (purchased one week before the stock market crash for $90K) in Hoboken. It was not a palace, my apartment, and it was two blocks from the projects (and only five blocks from my gas station apartment), and I had constant problems with it, but it was mine, and in no way could I afford it. I was meant to give my father a monthly payment, in lieu of rent, but I couldn’t afford much of a monthly payment on the $15,000 which blossomed to a massive $19,000 when I moved to Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1988 (adjusted for inflation, this would be $36K now). I paid the taxes on the apartment for several years, until my sister died, in 1995, after which my father wanted some of the money he’d put into the apartment. And then I sold it, for half the price I’d paid for it. That stock market crash in 1987 had vanquished the Hoboken real estate market. My father split the loss with me, so I was only out twenty thousand, which left me, in terms of savings, somewhat below zero.
Moreover, my kind of writing did not exactly command the big advances initially, and so when I got fired from book publishing in 1991, in part for having uncommercial taste, I really lived on air for a while. I did a little freelance editing, I got some unemployment. When I wrote The Ice Storm, which I finished in the fall of 1992, I was trying really hard to make a book that might sell a couple of copies, because I was desperate. At that time I owed my father for the apartment, I had credit card debt, I had very few possessions that I had not inherited from various family members. The advance for The Ice Storm was $25K, which meant that I needed teaching work, so out I went on the MLA/AWP job track, at which I was not successful. I was a finalist for a job in Alabama, but didn’t close the deal. I secured a bunch of adjunct teaching jobs, and I bounced around, and that is what I still do.
Somewhere in here, in 1994/1995, I started going to a program for people with debt problems. This paragraph is not meant as an endorsement for such programs, and anyway I always thought my problems were less about debt (I have a horror of credit card debt now, and never really use credit cards for anything substantial) than, as they say in the world of recovery programs, underearning. Maybe my problem with underearning was that I wanted for the esteem that would make me feel great about myself, and my job potential. Maybe my problem with underearning was a refusal to compromise more in my work, such that, if I could just write a book about vampires or about the camaraderie between men in combat, I could sell a few more copies. Maybe my problem with underearning was that I wanted to still be in some way attached to the affluence of my family, or that I knew if something desperate happened to me, I could count on them. Whatever it was, I was always a step or two away from total insolvency, and if I had had cancer or heart disease in those days (when I had no health insurance) I would have been another destitute American who never really got a leg up. I will say that for me the debtors program was a big help. I began “doing my numbers,” keeping track of where every penny went, and, in this way, demystifying the accounts.
My problems didn’t abate all at once, but there was a big improvement in 1997, beginning on the day of the principal shooting for The Ice Storm movie, directed by Ang Lee. This was a small movie, with a small budget, and it didn’t do huge box office, and I never got a red cent of my net points, but for someone who had never owned a car, and who had fallen out of home ownership and back into renting, and who had never had a vacation, if by vacation you mean a trip that you pay for yourself, and who couldn’t go to a concert (too expensive), or even a good restaurant, the lump sum from Twentieth Century Fox was a life-changer. I think I probably made more in 1997 than I had made in the prior ten years combined, and I rolled most of it into a little house on Fishers Island (where my dad lived too), and managed, astoundingly, to pay a mortgage on that house for twelve years, and to own a car besides.
In some ways, the story ends here, in that I have never wanted for much since 1997, and, though no year has ever again been as good, I have always been able to make my way as a writer and educator. This is a miracle for someone with no real self-promotional inclinations, no commercial instincts, some serious personal problems, and who never liked mathematics very much. As with all successes, mine is a team effort, and has a lot to do not with my parents giving me much (because I always have tried to steer clear of gifts to the best of my ability), but with my parents giving me advice on how not to be reckless with what little I have managed to save over the years. I have done well in a line of work that lays waste to most who ply their trade there.
As I write these lines, meanwhile, I have just completed a divorce, and I am cleaned out. In my fifties, now, I feel some of the hand-to-mouth instincts I had in my twenties, as I try to shepherd the cash so that there’s enough to pay child support. If anything, I have gotten less acquisitive over the years, less prone to buy anything much but books and music. I do feel a bit of desperation over the money issue again. And while my grandfather’s fortune is all but gone now (spent down by the various parties who have access to it), and there’s not much hope of any of it ever coming my way, it is probably true that if I can survive into my dotage, I will not be completely destitute. I am fortunate on that basis.
I am back to feeling like I should definitely take advantage of the buffet, when I’m at the buffet. That in my guise as music critic I get a fair amount of free music these days is one of the great pleasures of life, and this means, probably, that a life of intermittent fiscal embarrassment (as my dad’s dad used to call it) creates a set of habits that are hard to shed. There is still, out there, because of my education, and my background, and The Ice Storm, a sense that I am one of the mansion-dwelling outsized successes of American letters, and sometimes that perception is painful to me, because of how different it is from how I live my daily life now (three teaching jobs this semester, a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, single parenting, etc.). For several years, in the later nineties, there was a guy whose sole mission was to root out people in the book world who he thought didn’t deserve awards because they were RICH, and he was malevolent about me in public at great length. He liked to point out that I have a III after my given name. He managed to get items into the New York Post about how rich I was, and how my father had worked in banking, and how I went to St. Paul’s School, and so on. Of such calumnies is humility made. I hope, on the basis of the foregoing, that the story is self-evidently more complex than this. It is part of the legacy of affluence, I expect, that people seethe at you a bit, even if you don’t at all imagine that you are as affluent as these people seem to think. The more reasonable name for what I have, as I have said, is not affluence but shabby gentility. Always a bit threadbare, always a bit provisionally outfitted, always hit-or-miss. It is not such a bad way to live, in truth; it is better than poverty. It is mine, and I don’t regret it, even if it is hard and there is sometimes an ache about this way of doing things. Still, my daughter has never once wanted for a full lunchbox.
—For Elizabeth Benedict