11/7/16…To divert us from the electoral horror show, we’ve been mildly bingeing…

…Netflix’s new series The Crown, about the life and reign of good Queen Bess II. The early episode relating to her wedding to Prince Philip was poignant for me, because I still recall my late brother Jeffrey and me – I was 11 and Jeffrey would be 9 the following week – being awakened in the middle of the night by our Scottish governess, Miss Cameron, to listen to the BBC radio broadcast of the ceremony from Westminster Abbey. I especially remember how tiny the Princess’s voice sounded as she repeated the ancient words of the rite. Miss Cameron and Jeffrey are gone now, and I suppose I will be, too, soon enough, but the memory lingers.

11/5/16…watching Breeders’ Cup from Santa Anita…

brings back memories of the 1970s, when I was close to an LA businessman named Les Hoffman, a mortage-banker who had interests all over, including Hawaii. One of his pets was Hollywood Park. Through Les, I met Mervyn Leroy (father  of Warner) who was the big Kahuna at Hollywood Park, Santa Anita’s chief rival as a thoroughbred venue. Watching the racing from Santa Anita made me think of Les, Leroy and Hollywood Park, so I googled the latter, and whaddya  know? Here’s Wikipedia:

Hollywood Park, later sold and referred to as Betfair Hollywood Park, was a thoroughbred race course until it was shut down for racing and training in December 2013. The casino remains open, containing a poker card room located in Inglewood, California, about 3 miles (5 km) from Los Angeles International Airport and adjacent to the Forum indoor arena.

It will be the site of Los Angeles Entertainment Center, home of the Los Angeles Rams of the National Football League, when the stadium is completed in 2019. Until then, the Rams will temporarily play home games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the next three seasons starting in 2016.

Boy does that square the circle, because in the late ’60s-early ’70s I owned a tiny percentage of the Rams. That was the “Fearsome Foursome” team: Lundy, Olsen, Grier and Deacon Jones. We played at the old Coliseum. Then, after we sold the team, they went to St. Louis. Now they’re back in LA, it seems. At the site of Hollywood Park! Life really does work in a circle!

10/29/16…every new Clinton screw-up….

whether it’s Huma and her emails on her sext-crazed husband’s computer, or the political equivalent of insider-trading at the Clinton Foundation/Global Initiative, brings to mind the punch line of a joke I used to tell, in a really terrible Cajun accent, when in my cups. The joke is known as “Hebert the Bridgetender” and because it takes about as long to tell as it does to perform Gotterdammerung, I won’t do it here. But the punchline does seem to have a Clintonesque relevance:

“Any man who can’t tell the difference between a tugboat and a bull with a bugle up its ass is too stupid to go into politics!”  

10/28/16…I LOVE this World Series!

The electricity in Wrigley Field is fizzing right out of the gogglebox. These are teams that mean something to me personally.I became a baseball addict in 1945-6, age 9-10. Had a terrible glove, a Chet Laabs model, that I wheedled my parents into replacing with a Rawlings Marty Marion model that went with me everywhere, to school, to bed, to the park of course. My life was redolent of neat’s foot oil! Of course the whole point of baseball addiction was to know stuff. Two leagues, eight teams in each, twenty-five players a team. You knew every player on every team. First Baseball Guide  I owned was the 1946 number: Cubs’ pitcher Claude Passeau on the cover (he was the Chicago ace, but they got beat i the ’45 Series by the Tigers, who got Hank Greenberg back from the service). My mother and stepfather had moved back to the X-9 Ranch outside of Tucson after V-J Day (my brother and I were sent back to NYC to live at 941 Park Ave. with our father, who had spent 1942-45 on carriers in the Pacific.) But we went to Arizona for our 1946-47 school vacations (a long flight in an AA Dc4, then DC6: La Guardia-Phila-Washington-Nashville-Little Rock- Fort Worth – ElPaso – Tucson) and Bill Veeck, who had just bought the Indians, acquired the next-over ranch. So we got to watch spring training: Cleveland, White Sox (to be a kid able to watch Luke Appling enjoying  a chaw!), Giants. It was unreal. That fall, October ’46, there I was, flat out on the carpet at 941 Park, hugging my Marty Marion mitt, listening on the radio to the Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter legging it around from first to beat the Red Sox. I love baseball. I think hitting major-league pitching must be the hardest feat in sports. But as good as the players are today, and as passionate the fans, I feel sorry that my kids and their kids will never know what it felt to be a 10-year-old in Yankee Stadium with  Ted Williams coming to bat. Makes me shiver to this day.

Deborah (Duchess of Devonshire) universally known and loved as “Debo”

10/24/16  I’ve been reading with great pleasure In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley. The book was published in 2008 by John Murray. My copy, which I must have gotten from Heywood Hill in London, now owned by Debo’s son, Peregrine aka “Stoker,” 12th Duke of Devonshire, is signed by both principals along with its editor. Nice to have: Debo died just over a year ago and her great friend “Paddy” in 2011.

In a footnote to a letter from PLF dated 4/9/1980, Debo – youngest of the famous and fabulous Mitford sisters – notes: “I was in Fort Worth for the opening of the exhibition Treasures from Chatsworth at the Kimbell Art Museum in November 1979…”

And thereby hangs a tale.

In November 1979 I was living in Dallas, halfway through a two-year stint that would end with the publication of my novel Green Monday a month or so after the date of Debo’s letter. One evening I got a cry for help from my friend, the late Hon.David Bathurst, president of Christie’s New York. Here’s the situation, he explained: a big Chatsworth exhibition (Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, is the ancestral home of the Devonshires) was about to open thirty miles west of me, at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. The exhibition was being sponsored (in effect, paid for) by Christie’s New York. Debo, the Duchess of D., would be in Ft. Worth for the gala opening. The problem was, Rick Brown, the popular/beloved founding Director of the Kimbell, had suddenly died, and all the celebrations planned for the Duchess had been understandably cancelled out of respect for his memory. Could I somehow step into the breach?

What choice had I? So I went to work. First I called my great, close friend John Saumarez Smith, who ran the Heywood Hill bookshop in Curzon Street, then owned by Stoker’s father Andrew, the 11th Duke of D. I knew John to be a great friend of Debo’s, so I asked him what Her Grace liked. “She likes cows,” John told me. So that was a start. I got hold of my late pal Jim Sowell, explained the situation, and he graciously arranged for a flyover and visit to one of the larger cattle ranches in the region. I enlisted my friend Lynn O’Hara, a lady about about both Dallas and Ft. Worth, to arrange an event mandatory for any distinguished visitor to the Metroplex (as they style the area that embraces the two cities and what lies between): a visit to Neiman-Marcus, complete with personal appearance by Stanley Marcus. Finally, I gave a dinner in Debo’s honor at Caillaud’s restaurant, then the most posh eatery in the city. Along the way, I seem to remember a barbecue interlude as well, but my memory is vague on the matter.

At last, the big night arrived. Lynn and I picked up the Duchess at her hotel, drove her across to Fort Worth, and delivered her into the trembling arms of a delegation from Christie’s headed by David Bathurst. I then proceeded to get knee-walking drunk.

It would be 2004 before I would see Debo again. The connection again was Heywood Hill, in this instance the ceremony at Chatsworth in connection with the awarding of the Heywood Hill Literary Prize, the last time the prize would awarded. Then, a year and change later, September 6, 2005, I would see Debo for the last time. Her son Stoker, having succeeded his father (who had died the year before),  gave a party at Pratt’s, the private St, James’s club owned by the Dukes of D., to celebrate John Saumarez Smith’s 40 years at Heywood Hill. This was something that my love for John dictated that I attend, so I flew to London. It was the hottest I have ever been at a social affair. Afterward there was a small dinner in a private room at Wilton’s, the uppest-market seafood place on Jermyn St. then owned by the Hambros. These were the days when all the best places in London were owned by the sort of people who were worth knowing. Anyway, I was placed next to Debo and we had a fine time recalling the excitements of the Metroplex. She was very funny. And a truly remarkable person.

Speaking of my stepmother Poppi….

I wrote this in early 2001 for the NY Observer:

 

Midas Watch 03-02-01

 

The morning of Sunday, February 18, was as always bright, but for the first time since we had arrived in Jamaica, the wind was sufficiently down and the sea calm enough for decent snorkeling. Beloved Stepmother was in good spirits. The night before we had attended the annual party at Round Hill that benefits the associated charities of Hanover Parish, which had gone well, although Poppi did complain of having been sideswiped by a particularly aggressively-mixed Margarita.

Poppi, Peggy O’Shea and I donned flippers etc. and set out for our favorite spot, a small reef that lies approximately a hundred yards offshore from the site on which Poppi and my father built their vacation house back in 1959-60. It’s the place where, along with her native Engadine, she felt closest to Nature and thus happiest.

We swam about for a while, then headed in, Poppi leading the way. When she reached the tip of the rocky breakwater that guards our little beach, the first shock hit her. My eldest son Jeffrey, sitting on the beach, saw there was trouble; he and my daughter-in-law Laura ran to her aid, and helped her into the shallows, where Laura supported her while Jeffrey ran to phone for assistance. By now, I had seen that something was going on and rushed in, as did Ricky, the gardener. When I got to her side, it was clear she was leaving us. For no more than a couple of minutes, we were frozen there, like a pieta by Mantegna or Giovanni Bellini. She was calm; she wasn’t confused, and I don’t think she was in much pain. “I’m going,” she murmured, and then, seconds later, “Nigel will know what to do,” a reference to Nigel Pemberton, our oldest Jamaica chum, and then she was gone.

Thus ended the most extraordinary association of my life, and, I dare say, of the lives of a great many others. When Poppi came into my life, in 1949, I was a month away from entering 8th grade. When she left it, I was two months to the day short of cashing my first Social Security check. That kind of span deserves thinking about.

She was the sort of person you should only think about in terms whole and straightforward. Frequently, when the fog of death settles on the landscape of a life, all that remains to be seen are the shining peaks, and that’s what we talk about among ourselves or from the lectern at memorial services. This was a lady, however, whose fascination lay in her fullness. Especially for me, because the “step-“ relationship is never less than complicated, and needs to be worked at full-time from both ends. I think of our half-century together as being like a flight above her beloved Alps in a small plane: frequently bumpy, but never less than breathtaking.

She was born to command: a joke in our family is that in all the years we knew and loved her, there is one phrase that none of us ever heard pass her lips: “Now, what would everyone like to do today?” Some years ago, in St. Moritz, when I had done something that didn’t fit her book, I received the following interesting phone call: “Herr Thomas, here is Ernst at the Palace Hotel. Frau Poppi says I should tell you to go jump in the lake!” The day after she died, the flags flew at half-mast above the Corviglia Club, as they did at Tryall. She was about the last of the Old Guard at what was once the most glamorous, stylish, fun resort in the world – and the most beautiful – and with her passing disappears all but the final vestige of something that I doubt can ever be recaptured. Once again, I think of the words written on the retirement of Ty Cobb, which I paraphrase: “We will not see her like again, for the game has changed – and not for the better.”

She was probably the best friend anyone who could fairly claim her friendship ever had. I have known a lot of people in my life, but never one who went to bat for her friends with the unflagging, even ferocious zeal of my Beloved Stepmother. A doctor’s daughter, she had a special feeling for those whose lives weren’t going well, who had less: less money, less health, less to fight with. It was old fashioned noblesse oblige, if you will, the duty that goes with privilege or comparative advantage, an obligation to look out for those at whom fortune either scowled or smiled too thinly for her liking. She was an American citizen, naturalized as soon as she could be after her marriage to Joe Thomas, and I think she understood – as well as anyone I can think of – the injunction James Fenimore Cooper lays on his countrymen in The American Democrat, which I have “re-gendered” to fit: “Liberality is particularly the quality of a gentlewoman…She asks no more for herself than she is willing to concede to others. She feels that her superiority is in her attainments, practices and principles, which if they are not always moral, are above meanness, and she has usually no pride in the mere vulgar consequence of wealth.”

Of course, Poppi famously included these principles to include animals, whose cause she championed unremittingly, personally and institutionally. She liked to tell me that animals were every bit as interesting as humans, but she was also willing to admit doubt; five years ago, after a Wildlife Conservation Society trip to Africa where we were privileged to be tutored by George Schaller, the great zoologist, she confessed that the behavior of New York society women at close quarters on safari was every bit as bloody-toothed terrifying as anything we had seen in the savannas of Ngorongoro.

In the last few months, if it is any consolation, Poppi’s outlook darkened. Not that she let on in public; her friends counted on her to be there for them, after all, not to tell them her troubles. But there were medical issues whose long-term effects promised to be dire. Old friends were dying at an unacceptable rate. Life was getting to be too much. Several times she spoke to me of a wish to pass on.

And so she did. In the whole sense of things, I cannot honestly say I wish it had been otherwise – and I, thank God, was there with her at the end. I will go to my own grave convinced that she realized what was happening, that she saw in a flash that this was how easily and swiftly it might end, and that she added a bit of afterburner of her own to speed herself on her way.

I’m happy for Poppi. She got pretty much the life she wanted, and she definitely got the death she wanted: quick, in a place she loved, surrounded by people who cared deeply for and about her. Still, no matter how grateful I am to the powers who so considerately arranged for her to take her leave in this way, I have to say this. Three years ago, as many of the family as could be rounded up gathered in Jamaica. Four generations were represented. This coming August, when Poppi would have been 86, there will be three. The diminution seems insuperable, insupportable, unacceptable.

A Social Anecdote

In his New York Social Diary of 10/12/16, there’s the following from David Patrick Columbia, writing of the late Edie Goetz, daughter of Louis B. Mayer (the second “M” in MGM), one of the real leaders of Hollywood society when there was such a thing:

“Edie was a lady. Several NYSD readers expressed their interest in Mrs. Goetz’ butler who had come from the Royal Household staff in London, comparing her to the Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. “She’s very much like the Queen,” he said when I asked how he liked working for her, “not the Queen, but the Queen Mum.” And how so, I inquired: “Her staff comes first, before everything and everyone else,” he explained.

To someone like myself, who has never had “staff” in any household of mine, I required some further clarification. “The Queen Mum was most concerned that everyone working for her was happy in their job and well taken care of. Not everyone in the Royal Family treated the staff as thoughtfully as the the Queen Mother.”

It reminds of a brief, one-sided conversation (in the “Shut up he explained” mode made famous by Ring Lardner) with our father, Joe Thomas told my late brother Jeffrey and me: “You boys don’t seem to understand. I can always get sons, but do you know how hard it is to find a good butler?” I’ve always wondered whether my old man was more than half-kidding. He did find a good butler: the late John Hare, an incomparable Scotsman who with his wife Alice, who cooked, ran the Thomas household for years and ran it wonderfully.  John’s moment arrived when he refused to bring the Duke of Windsor (on this occasion, guest of a guest) a drink. “I’ll not serve the wee man,” he told my father. “He did not do his duty.” Jeffrey or I – I forget which – was promptly commandeered to bring the miserable little shit his Scotch – which, in JAT’s household, was always Black & White.