Dead End Gene Pool
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.
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.