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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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But it was a mark of her grandfather’s selfishness that he did not share his brilliant invention with his wife, Florence (née Partridge), who, as Burden recalls, “bravely and consistently wore the black and blue (and green and yellow) badge of Dubonnet and withstood all four of her slippery, sharp-angled bathrooms like the Christian she was.” That their Fifth Avenue apartment was designed by Philip Johnson in the modern minimalist style only added to the hazardous angularity of the place. Indeed, for Burden, for all the falls her poor grandmother sustained, “she might as well have just kept herself packed in ice”​​—​​an observation which leads to an architectural aside that would have amused John Betjeman, whose own family, it is said, owed their modest wealth to the patenting of a lockable drinks cabinet: “Modernism is such an inhospitable décor scheme for drinkers; there’s a reason the classic English drawing room has remained soft and downy throughout the ages.”

Clotheshorses will savor the author’s attention to sartorial details, not only the Best & Co. dresses that she wears as a child but the Charvet shirts and ties that her Francophile grandfather favors. Speaking of her grandfather’s manservant, Adolphe, Burden observes:

Impeccably turned out as he was​​—​​daytime black jacket, gray waistcoat, and pinstripe trousers; evening tailcoat with white gloves and wing collar​​—​​Adolphe ensured his master was too, whether in white tie with decorations for a dinner at the White House, a navy Huntsman business suit for the office, or spotless flannel tennis whites for the weekend court. Not a molecule of lint could be found on either man, and this was before the most important invention of the twentieth century: the rolling pet hair remover.

Food is another topic paid sumptuous attention. Burden’s grandfather was an A. J. Liebling/Elizabeth David fan and enjoyed entertaining on the grand scale. The author’s recollections of the chef Arturo, the undisputed king of the servants, are some of the most vivid: “For my grandmother, a Kon-Tiki enthusiast,” she recalls, “he fashioned Tahitian cucumber outriggers with little oars carved out of carrots, filling them with composed salads of lobster or crab or tiny diced vegetables, bound with copious amounts of mayonnaise,” which the author nicely calls “French luncheon glue.” Burden’s mother, on the other hand, who is obsessed with her weight and suntan, only turns to cooking when she has no alternative, and then with calamitous results. After describing the inedible messes her mother prepares, Burden styles the maternal cookery “Early New England Regional Cuisine as Interpreted by an Alcoholic with an Eating Disorder.”

Together with the sadness, there is something brave about Dead End Gene Pool. To understand this bravery, we have to appreciate why people write memoirs in the first place. In an essay entitled “On Suicide,” H. L. Mencken once ventured the hypothesis that “men work simply in order to escape the depressing agony of contemplating life. .  .  . Their work, like their play, is a mumbo-jumbo that serves them by permitting them to escape from reality.” No one familiar with the solitary toil that writing requires can altogether discount this; and yet, if there is one genre of writing about which none of the above applies, it is the memoir. Someone writing about the Hundred Years’ War can lose himself in the labyrinths of military, legal, economic, and social history. But to write a memoir is necessarily to embrace “the agony of contemplating life”​​—​​and not just any life but one’s own.

A pivotal passage occurs when Burden receives a handwritten note from her crapulous grandmother apologizing for her misbehavior the night before when she had downed too much Dubonnet. “My grandmother had been raised a Christian Scientist,” she recalls. “It was ingrained in her to disregard in life whatever she found too distressing to handle. .  .  . Her note to me was a bombshell. I knew she had a problem, and I knew she knew I knew, but to admit it was so bleakly out of character, I wanted to vaporize.”

But she did not vaporize. Instead, she summoned the old WASP sense of duty, and wrote this glorious memoir which, in its way, is her own handwritten note​​—​​not only to her mother and father, but to her grandparents and their servants, her uncles, brothers, and even to the old Commodore himself. And its central message is the same as the one she finds on a New Age website that her dotty brother visits: “Heal Your Life NOW by Healing Your Past Lives!”

Edward Short is the author of the forthcoming Newman and His Contemporaries.

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