4. Saloons To Wine Cellars
My paternal grandfather, Maurice Arthur Shea, known as M.A., was a sinewy, calculating Irishman with a consuming appetite for life's pleasures. His father, Patrick Francis Shea, arrived from County Kerry in 1857 with the wave of 19th century Irish immigrants fleeing famine in their homeland. Patrick settled in Holyoke, Massachusetts. He started as a common laborer, eventually set up as a saloon keeper, and wound up owning a farm and row house rental properties in town.
In 1864, Patrick married Mary Teresa Fenton, an 18 year old from County Kerry whose parents had arrived in America in 1849 when she was a child of five. A late photograph of Mary Teresa hangs on my wall of family pictures. A bell shaped old woman with a white apron over her skirt, her hair drawn back in a bun, she has the look of an American Indian with her large, straight nose, hawk eyes, and high cheekbones.
Mary bore Patrick fourteen children in eighteen years, including six who died in infancy. This would be enough to wear out most women, yet she lived to age 70, surviving her husband by seven years. She was clearly a tough old bird. I think it entirely possible that, after cleaning up the house and bar, feeding and caring for her brood, and collecting the rents on Patrick's row houses, she might have enjoyed her evenings drinking with her husband in the family saloon rather than sitting at home, like most Irish wives, wondering in which saloon her husband was drinking. There is some evidence to support this speculation; she died of cirrhosis of the liver.
My grandfather was born in 1880, the third youngest of the eight surviving children. He had his mother's piercing eyes and his own fierce determination. As you look at his picture on my wall, his eyes and his tight smile follow you relentlessly — you cannot escape them. He is, perhaps, 35 years old, dressed in a three-piece suit, a starched white high collared shirt, and a silk tie with a pearl stickpin. He is sitting in a rare William And Mary armchair. The wall clock behind him will appear on the cover of a 1962 Look Magazine behind President Jack Kennedy.
M.A. attended Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, then went to work for his older brother managing vaudeville theaters while still a teenager — that's where the 1900 census places him, and vaudeville was the people's entertainment at the time, an Irish growth industry. Ten years later, he owned a chain of movie theaters in New England, New York, and the Midwest that would eventually number more than 40, as well as several legitimate theaters and an amusement park. He named his business 'The Jamestown Amusement Company — M.A. Shea Theatrical Enterprises.'
Motion pictures were a hot new business, and M.A. was quick, smart, and tough as nails. He prospered, and by all accounts, enjoyed himself. In the summer of 1911, at age 31, he toured Europe with Will Rodgers, acting as his manager and agent. He was the first to challenge New Hampshire Blue Laws by showing movies on Sunday. By 1920, at age 40, he owned impressive homes, a 16 room Georgian mansion in Fieldston, N.Y., and a summer estate on 120 acres in Wolfeboro, N.H., as well as a black and yellow Rolls Royce and a splendid collection of early American furniture — William & Mary, Queen Ann, Chippendale, and Federal — with accompanying art of the period. He stabled horses near Central Park, where he stopped for his morning ride en route between Fieldston and his offices in Times Square. He summered in Wolfeboro, bringing with him his own expert craftsman to restore and refinish the antiques it was my grandfather's pleasure to ferret out of old barns and farm attics and country auctions, and buy at bargain prices. He wintered in Palm Beach, where he drank and pursued chorus girls with Joe Kennedy Sr. while my grandmother, Margaret Brooks Shea, played Bridge with Rose. And at Christmas each year, he would run the Rolls up to Holyoke, Massachusetts, the town of his hardscrabble childhood, where he would demonstrate his largess by driving about distributing turkeys and baskets of food to the needy.
M.A. appears to have had the classic Irish Madonna/Whore perspective about the women in his life, but without the full complement of Irish guilt. (In this respect, his Catholicism was more along Italian lines, where sins of the flesh are understood to be inevitable and are easily forgiven as long as you keep your overall accounts straight with God). He did what men of wealth have done since wealth could be tallied: he exercised his privileges, although he was, perhaps, a bit more brazen than some of his contemporaries.
My gentle grandmother, in a half swoon for most of her later life, would speak ill of no one, especially her husband, but at least one indicative tale survives from other sources. In the winter of 1936, M.A. took up with a statuesque young singer named Gwen Williams whom he met in Palm Beach. In 1937, he had her move into the Fieldston house, explaining to all concerned, including my grandmother, that she was his protégée and he intended to sponsor her artistic career. Gwen sang at my parent's wedding in 1938 — my mother remembers her as a pretty woman with a fresh bloom about her, not at all the femme fatal type. Shortly thereafter, she disappeared from the Fieldston house and my grandfather's life.
M.A. seems to have employed some sort of internal calculus that balanced things out to his (and presumably God's) satisfaction. If he enjoyed his 'whores,' he also indulged his Madonnas. Concurrent with Gwen's arrival at Fieldston, my grandmother received a ruby necklace with matching earrings from Cartier. M.A. was also most solicitous of his older sister, Catherine, a nun who ran Saint Mary's Home for the Aged in West Hartford. He gave generously to the Home, and one Christmas he brought a bottle of whiskey and persuaded Catherine to let him give it to the 40 occupants of the men's ward. Later, she told him never to bring whiskey again, and when he asked why, she replied that the men had drunk the entire bottle.
M.A.'s prima Madonna, by all accounts, was his oldest child and only daughter, Dorothy, who escaped the hard, calculating judgment he reserved for his sons. He gave her a raccoon coat at 13 (the only girl in the eighth grade to have one), a two-carat diamond ring at 16 (how will any suitor compete? my grandmother asked), and a Rolls Royce for college graduation (she preferred her lime green Chrysler convertible — the Rolls was too heavy and hard to drive). When Dorothy entertained friends from Smith College, M.A. was a model of decorum, yet when my father brought home friends from Yale and Harvard law, M.A. would on occasion lean back and put his feet up on the table after dinner simply to remind my father of his origins, should he be inclined to put on airs or flaunt his knowledge.
M.A. was autocratic, dynastic, ironic, and emotionally remote. He was financially generous with his sons, yet he bullied them and tried to control their lives. He offered to build a wing on his Fieldston house for any of his children who wished to bring their families there to live. He told my father, "You like to argue. Go to law school." My father's rebellion took the form of erudition, sophistication, and alcohol-laced leisure, a repudiation of M.A.'s limited formal education, business smarts, and hard work ethic. Displeased with my father's attitude, he told his second son, Maury, "Tom went to college and law school. You come into the business." This strategy failed as Maury would pursue his own rebellion, very much like my father's but without benefit of Ivy League credentials. When Dorothy's first husband, Preston Tuckerman, announced that he had a good job offer in Albany, M.A. told him that Dorothy wasn't "well" enough to relocate upstate, then persuaded/coerced Preston to accept a job with his theater chain. A third son, William (Bill), was born mildly retarded with a cleft palate. Raised at home in a protected environment, he became surprisingly adept at horseback riding, ice-skating, and photography.
M.A. finally found the protégée he sought in Gerald Shea (no relation), a young man he helped through Fordham, who came from a large family M.A. had befriended and assisted financially after the death of their Police Captain father. Gerald worshiped M.A. to the point where he copied his mannerisms and speech patterns. M.A. taught him the esthetics and connoisseur level buying and selling of Seventeenth and Eighteenth century American furniture, pieces hand crafted for the American aristocracy from English patterns but rendered in native woods, and therefore far more valuable than their English equivalents because there were far fewer of them. Gerald was also brought into the family business, and although M.A. would not live to see it, this affable, diffident, fastidious man would become Dorothy's second husband, sire to three of her five children, and eventually the sole owner of Jamestown Amusement Company — Shea Theatrical Enterprises.
Prohibition was a provocative annoyance to my grandfather. He found it hard to believe that a country as rich in opportunity and freedom as America could pass a law as stupid as Prohibition, but if they insisted on doing so, he did not intend to be denied his wines and liquors, a gentleman's indulgence he enjoyed. In 1920, three months before the effective date of the law, he attended an auction at what was then the Hotel Knickerbocker at Broadway and 42nd Street, a block from his office. Smiling, cajoling, diamond stickpin gleaming in his gray silk tie, he outbid all others for the purchase of the Hotel's entire wine cellar, to be installed in the cellar he was even then blasting out of solid rock beneath his house in Fieldston. He was as untouched by Prohibition as he was by the Depression.
There appears to have been much to admire in my grandfather's character, and much to dislike. He was a successful self made man in an era that celebrated strong, successful men and quiescent women, and he came with many of the limitations of the breed. By contemporary standards, he would undoubtedly be judged a sexist who cheated on his wife, bullied his sons, and was out of touch with his "feelings." Yet had he been a different, more sympathetic man, one could argue that he might not have had the defiant will to claw his way out of the saloons and row houses of his youth and over the wall of prejudice that faced his generation of Irish.
One story concerning his manservant, Arthur Jarvis, seems to capture both his remarkable business acumen and his almost alien human remove. Jarvis worked for the Shea family from 1919 to 1971 as a live-in servant (cook, butler, babysitter, cleaning man) in Fieldston, Wolfeboro, and New York, and continued to work for various family members until his death in 1986. As a young man, he had a family in Yonkers he saw on his day off and an active back stairs dalliance or two at almost all times. One morning in 1923, he approached M.A. after serving him breakfast in the Fieldston house. He asked for a salary advance, not an uncommon request. M.A. inquired as to why he needed it. Jarvis responded that his baby boy had died, and the undertaker refused to bury him unless he got fifty dollars, a story that may or may not have been true — Jarvis was not totally dependable when asking for advances, and M.A. knew this.
M.A. asked where the baby was at the moment.
"Undertaker's got 'em," Jarvis said.
"Well," M.A. responded, "who's in the driver's seat here?"
When I was born, M.A. visited my mother at the Flower Fifth Avenue hospital in Manhattan. She described him as a taciturn man, not given to emotional displays. As he was leaving, he tossed a small package on her bed, and was out the door before she could open it and thank him for what turned out to be an exquisite sapphire and diamond brooch.
The date was August 10th, 1940. Within a few weeks, M.A. would check into The Harkness Pavilion of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. By late October he would be dead of diabetes at age 60.
His wake at the Fieldston house was one hell of a party by all reports. It lasted two days and nights. I'm sure he would have enjoyed it if he had been able to attend it alive.