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.
In 1937 he married, not as well as might have been expected from his fantasies and pretensions. Rosemary was a blind date, the daughter of an impecunious commander (soon upgraded to rear-admiral by his son-in-law), an uneducated Irish immigrant who had worked his way up from cabin boy. He was mean (in the English sense of the word), brutal, and incestuously inclined towards his daughter, whose pathetic ambition it was to be discovered for the movies. Meanwhile she hung around with fast girls hoping for a husband to take her away from home. Duke ‘was okay, marginal’, so she married him. Soon after, Dr Wolff died, leaving nothing to his son and very little to his widow.
The penniless young Wolffs set off for Rosemary’s dreamland on the West Coast. Duke applied for a job with the Northrup Aircraft Company. His previously unspecified degree from Yale was now explicitly in Science, Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, and backed up by another science degree from the Sorbonne, ‘Paris, France’, an institution which has no science faculty. Still, he was hired. A week later a look at his drawing-board aroused suspicions in his supervisor’s breast. But before he could fire him, a strike broke out, and Duke was kept on ‘to flesh out the skeleton staff’. After that, he could only be promoted – to a non-drawing, managerial job – in order to hide the original gaffe.
From now on he was an aeronautical engineer. He moved from one respectable firm to another, often improving his position. He was never sacked for incompetence, and often worked hard and well. During the war he was sent to England with the honorary rank of major to co-operate with the RAF on designing the Mustang; in London he was able to collect a whole new repertoire of fetish institutions – Lobb’s, Purdey’s, the Connaught, and so on. It seems amazing that he was never rumbled, but his son explains that he was very good at organisation and liaison, and had a gift for lateral thinking: he hired midgets ‘to work the tight places inside wings and fuselages ... inaccessible to grosser persons’.
Everything should have been all right now, but it wasn’t. Wherever the family moved, they stayed in expensive hotels or took expensive houses, ate in expensive restaurants, and bought expensive things – not just custom-made suits but Jaguars and motor-boats. All this was on credit, sometimes Duke’s own, whenever possible the firm’s for which he worked. ‘I noticed him change when he raided shops. There was bluster in his voice, a forward, aggressive lean to him [like Groucho’s?] that disarmed the obsequious merchants ... Salesmen like to sell; Duke understood this, perfectly.’
Cheques bounced; creditors rang the doorbell; ‘my mother fended off druggists, grocers, snowplowers, heating oil dealers, phone and electric companies, everyone who sold something locally.’ Then employers would turn nasty, and the family moved on, often under cover of darkness, sometimes separately, the children with one or other parent, not allowed to say good-bye to their friends. They covered the country north, south, east and west, Los Angeles, Seattle, Birmingham, Sarasota, Connecticut, Manhattan, from country mansion to sleazy boarding-house, from luxury hotel to wooden shack.
Geoffrey Wolff had been born in 1937, and by the time he was old enough to hear his father’s history, it went, after the Sorbonne, like this: ‘My father went to England as a fighter pilot with Eagle Squadron ... Later he transferred to the OSS, and was in Yugoslavia with the partisans; just before the Invasion he was parachuted into Normandy, where he served as a sapper with the Resistance, which my father pronounced ray-zee-staunce ... A pretty history for a clubman.’ When Duke applied for new jobs on paper filched from the Racquet Club, these exploits were included in his curriculum vitae together with lists of responsible positions he had held (sometimes really held), and accompanied by bogus testimonials.
Duke showered his son with presents: ‘love’s shortcut through stuff ... yet I knew my father poured goods on me because he loved me ... There was nothing to him but lies and love.’ Because of their rackety life, Geoffrey himself did not get many chances to love outside the family, but there were agonising partings from possessions – a favourite boat, an adored dog. His father was often absent for months, but he was the parent the boy loved, and when the couple finally separated, Geoffrey chose Duke. He was working for Boeing in Seattle at the time, and both Geoffrey’s dreams came true: to be a boy alone with his father, and to have a motor-boat of his own. Duke taught him that ‘truth ... was our most powerful bond. I knew never, never to lie to him. The truth made everything between us possible, he told me. I believed what my father said, but I had to train myself in casuistry to distinguish the crucial truths he told me and the petty farragoes he sometimes used – necessarily? – to confound shopkeepers and clerks.’
This idyll lasted 18 months, only faintly ruffled on the surface by subconscious rivalries about girls. Then Alice appeared (to Geoffrey, that is – Duke had had relations with her for some time): a rich, pretty, white-haired widow, immensely genteel, and 51 to Duke’s 43. He married her and she decided that 15-year-old Geoffrey would be improved by going (on her money) to Choate, a school only marginally less posh than Groton. So ‘I tried to translate myself from a Lothario of the drive-ins to an ivy-draped lounge lizard.’
From this point the author moves from his position as spectator and recorder to share the centre of the stage with his father. Geoffrey was neither popular, successful, nor happy at Choate, and mulishly opposed to its boy-scout ideals. The masters wondered, as well they might, about his ‘completely false set of values’. Still, his schoolmates were impressed by Duke’s personal style when he visited, and by the style in which the Wolffs lived when they came to stay in the holidays. Duke’s last attempt at an earned income was to set up as a management consultant with a brochure that exceeded even his curriculae vitae in absurdity. There were no takers, so he settled down to live off Alice’s bank credit and charge accounts. Naturally their relationship deteriorated, and so did Duke’s with his son: ‘By now I knew my father was a phoney,’ and some of Geoffrey’s more sophisticated friends humiliated him by showing that they knew it too. ‘As I liked him less and less, I became more and more like him.’
This last sentence refers to stammering, but Geoffrey had become a phoney too. He lived as a member of the jeunesse dorée, smashing up his first Porsche shortly after his 16th birthday, and accepted, thanks to Alice, as a suitable escort for New York debutantes. But the girls he fancied recoiled from something spurious about him, and the boasting and name-dropping with which he tried to retrieve lost situations only made them worse. Meanwhile his Choate ‘brief’ was illustrated with a cartoon of him ‘studying a book entitled Being One of the Boys’. He never mastered its contents, was nearly expelled, but clung on rather bravely to the end.
For his university he chose Princeton – because of Scott Fitzgerald. But first he spent a year at Eastbourne College in Sussex. He was happy and successful at last, probably because he did not have to cope with his father’s fictions. At this point Alice left Duke. Duke telephoned Geoffrey and instructed him to borrow his fare either from the College or else from Lord Van Sittart (sic) – who could hardly remember his father from the war – and to come home at once.
Geoffrey’s Princeton career was tinged with desperation. He drank, gambled, and ran up debts. Eastbourne was dunning his father. At the end of his second year it did not look as though he would be elected to any decent club. He contemplated suicide, then decided to leave instead. ‘The deans were kindness itself. I’d be welcome back any time after twelve months had passed on condition I settle my outstanding accounts. Counting my debt to Eastbourne, I owed twenty-five hundred.’
He went home to Duke, got a job as mail boy in an engineering firm, and for a year he kept them both in conditions of mounting squalor. Duke was beginning to go crazy. Geoffrey longed to return to Princeton. Duke promised him he should and sold all Alice’s silver to pay off his debts. So Geoffrey went back, and though his life-style was eccentric, he did well. He had also written a novel. ‘The reason I lied as a young man, I think, was the same reason my fiction was so awful: I didn’t know that anything had happened to me; I forced my history, just as my father forced his.’ Blackmur, his teacher at Princeton, ‘made me scruple to form it, to make it count’. This refers, I think, to the fiction.
During his second spell at Princeton, Geoffrey Wolff ‘orphaned’ himself. He lost touch with both his parents and his brother, and felt exhilarated with freedom. Duke went west – to the Coast and in the other sense. He got drunker, madder, and more and more deeply into debt, although after an interval of years Geoffrey answered a cry for help and began sending him cheques. He landed once in a psychiatric clinic and several times in gaol, and ended up two weeks dead in a rooming-house before anyone found him. By this time Geoffrey had spent years teaching in Turkey and as a Fulbright scholar in Cambridge, and had become a book critic with a wife and two children.
Blackmur straightened out his writing. The deus ex machina who descended from the flies and straightened out his life would have been quite hard to guess. It was George Steiner, his teacher at Cambridge. Geoffrey told him that he was going to marry a girl called Priscilla.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘don’t underestimate the difficulties.’
‘Of a Jew marrying a gentile.’ Steiner was not legendary for his patience with slow thinkers, and he was losing patience with me.
‘I’m not a Jew,’ I said.
‘Of course you are.’
‘No,’ I said. My father says ‘I’m not.’
Steiner laughed. ‘I don’t care what he says. I’m a Jew and so are you. Anyone can see it. Don’t be silly. Of course you’re a Jew.’
Throughout the book the fiction of his father’s that bothers Geoffrey most is the one about not being Jewish. He asks about it repeatedly, yet always accepts Duke’s denials, or anyway lets the reader assume that he did. ‘My father was a bullshit artist.’ Yes, but so, in a way, is the son, and so is everyone. We make up an identity and force it on ourselves and other people. The effort of either being a Jew or trying, as here, to pass, blows up the universal problem of who one is to a size where it is easy to see and worry about. It is difficult not to think of this book as a novel, and if it were, Duke’s bizarre career would be just the picaresque trappings, the amusing bait, to make us swallow a big truth.
But also to swallow another fiction. Felix Krull, Thomas Mann’s bullshit artist hero, begins his memoirs with a promise of perfect candour from which the fear of being labelled either shameless or vain shall not deter him. Geoffrey Wolff might have made the same promise: his self-portrait as a show-off, know-all, flippant brat is courageous, but no more so than his presentation of himself, at the beginning of the book and the end, not just as a survivor – which under the circumstances would have been quite an achievement in itself – but as a modern American hero, the triumphant master of his fate, i.e. of his origins and hang-ups. There he stands, a serious, published writer, subtle and intelligent husband, loved and loving father of two adorable little boys, a man with real friends. He is all these things, yes, but they are still fiction in the sense that he made them, has to believe them, and wants us to.