Father’ Things

Gabriele Annan

  • The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father by Geoffrey Wolff
    Hodder, 275 pp, £8.25, June 1980, ISBN 0 340 25469 6

Like J.R. Ackerley’s My Father and Myself, this is a biography-cum-autobiography in which the father is more reprehensible by conventional standards – and in the eyes of the law as well – than mere monsters like old Gosse or Butler/Pontifex. Wolff père was a professional conman, if ‘professional’ is the right word. In some ways it isn’t, because his operations were too slapdash, too reckless, and too much part of his dream about himself, to merit that adjective: on the other hand, they were the means by which he kept himself and his wife and two sons in various states of grandeur or misery.

Arthur Samuels Wolff was born in 1907, the only child of a well-to-do, respected middle-class Jewish doctor in Hartford, Connecticut. He was expelled from a series of first and second-rank private schools, refused by Yale and Princeton, and ended up at the University of Miami, ‘the classic catchall of sun-struck, rich dumbbells’. The courses he was meant to, but did not, attend were all in arts subjects, and at the end of his first semester he was sent down for entertaining ‘young women’ in his rooms. He tried the University of Pennsylvania, but again one semester was enough. The next five years were spent rollicking around Hartford and New York while building up his personality as a dandy. Its underlying principles were more or less those of Baudelaire’s dandy filtered through Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, and naturally with American trimmings – fast, rare, expensive cars being top of the list. According to a female cousin, he had ‘gorgeous taste’. ‘He took things, things seriously,’ writes his son: ‘I recollect things, a gentleman’s accessories, deceptively simple fabrications of silver and burnished nickel, of brushed Swedish stainless, of silk and soft wool and brown leather. I remember his shoes, so meticulously selected and cared for and used, thin-soled, with cracked uppers, older than I was or ever could be ... He despised black leather, said black shoes reminded him of attaché cases, of bankers, lawyers, look-before-you-leapers anxious not to offend their clients. He owned nothing black except his dinner jacket and his umbrella.’

Here the aesthetic code modulates into the moral:

My father ... taught me skills and manners; he taught me to shoot and to drive fast and to read respectfully and to box and to handle a boat and to distinguish between good jazz music and bad jazz music ... His codes were not novel, but they were rigid, the rules of decorum that Hemingway prescribed. A gentleman kept his word, and favoured simplicity of sentiment; a gentleman chose his words with care, as he chose his friends. A gentleman accepted responsibility for his acts, and welcomed the liberty to act unambiguously. A gentleman was a stickler for precision and punctilio; life was no more than an inventory of small choices that together formed a man’s character, entire.

With this went an Edwardian English accent and vocabulary not quite phoney enough to be easily spotted.

No wonder Arthur was nicknamed Duke by the rich young Wasps who were his playfellows. Quite soon he turned into a Wasp himself, educated at Groton and Yale, a member of exclusive clubs, and named Arthur Saunders Wolff III. He was often drunk. His father was fed up with him and kept him short of money, but as he was oldish, inheritance did not seem too far off. Duke borrowed from friends, charged to his mother’s account, and lived reluctantly though luxuriously at home while he earned two bits an hour cleaning engine parts in a local aviation firm. ‘He’d then take his lunch from a fitted wicker picnic basket that held sandwiches with their crusts removed by the Norwegian cook, a linen napkin, and a fruit knife.’ He tried to escape by applying first to join the Navy and then the Army, but neither would have him.

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