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Pick Yourself Up

Among the vestiges of WASPdom.

Feb 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 20 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Dead End Gene Pool

Pick Yourself Up

Chris Callis

A Memoir

by Wendy Burden

Gotham, 288 pp., $26

Dead End Gene Pool is many books rolled into one. It is a fascinating autobiography about what it was like growing up the great-great-great granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the railroad tycoon whose fortune left the Burden family one of the richest in New York. It is also a family memoir that merits a place beside the equally brilliant memoirs of Alexander Waugh and Lorna Sage. Then again, it is an unforgettable portrait of a daughter and mother that, in its lacerating comedy, resembles Mary Karr’s reminiscential effusions. It is also a social history that revisits Fifth Avenue in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, as well as Mount Desert Island in Maine and the Jupiter Island Club in Florida. And last, it is something of a detective story, with a dénouement that is as sad as it is insoluble.

Sadness suffuses the book, which makes the author’s wonderful jokes all the more welcome. Her father committed suicide when she was six and she spent most of her childhood shuttling back and forth between her mother’s houses​​—​​first in Georgetown and then in London​​—​​and her grandparents’ opulent homes in Manhattan and Maine. Burden’s descriptions of her grandparents and their 20-odd servants are priceless, as are those of her uncles. But it is her lubricious stepfather who brings out her most acid wit.

Then there is her inimitable mother. After the loss of her husband, Leslie (née Hamilton) took to the role of merry widow with unseemly celerity and became persona non grata with the Burden clan. Consequently, Wendy and her brothers were brought up by their grandparents​​—​​or, more accurately, by their grandparents’ servants, for whose kindness, loyalty, and indefatigable energy the author has great affectionate respect. For her mother, after years of being passed over for boyfriends and booze, Burden can only feel exasperation and a sort of pitying love. 

Indeed, the stride in which she takes her life’s heartbreaks is admirable: There are no recriminations here, or exhibitionistic self-pity. Readers expecting to encounter a poor little rich girl will come away disappointed. Even when her family is at its lowest ebb​​—​​and the ebbs here can be very low indeed​​—​​Burden is always ready to confound sorrow with laughter. In one passage, for example, she recalls paying a visit to her grandfather, William A. M. Burden II, the erstwhile president of the Museum of Modern Art, in his palatial apartment on Fifth Avenue, when he had begun to sink into his dotage:

As my grandfather’s drinking worsened, his brain rewarded him by undergoing a series of strokes that deprived him of his two favorite diversions: speech and taste.

He continued to consume food and wine as if his senses were unaltered, but dining with him was a different experience. One could now voice an opinion​​—​​on anything: thermonuclear war, the amount of coke being done in the Studio 54 bathroom, genital mutilation, mixed marriages, civil libertarianism, Super Tampax versus Regular. The only word he could get out was a relatively harmless “phooey.” Except one time, when we were discussing my cousin Connie’s upcoming nuptials to a man named Rosengarten, and he began to splutter and thrash around in his wheelchair, and finally managed to choke out, “J.  .  . J.  .  . J.  .  . JEW! JEW! JEW-WWWW!!!”  He continued to call the word out throughout the rest of the meal, and was put to bed still repeating it. Luckily, by the next morning he was back to good old “phooey.”

English and American literature battens on bad drinking. Yet in all the annals of literary dipsomania there are few passages funnier than this: “It’s amazing how resourceful an addict can be. In the midst of this self-medicated madness, my grandfather invented and patented the Tippler’s Bathroom. Fed up with broken bones and telltale bruises, he designed a john that was entirely padded. .  .  . You could bounce around dead drunk in the shower and never hurt yourself.” Reading this, no one will be surprised that the author spent a fair amount of her literary apprenticeship working with P. J. O’Rourke, another social critic alive to the contributions drink has made to the nation’s cultural ethos.

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