5. Tom And Jeanne
My father soaked up knowledge like a sponge — for him, learning was a form of escape. A prodigious and eclectic reader, he would amaze friends with almost total recall: page numbers and whole passages verbatim. He remains the only person I know who actually read the entire Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire.
After law school, he trained as a medical corpsman during the Second World War, and some years later, did graduate study in anthropology at Columbia. He was, as well, a gourmet, a golfer, a redoubtable bridge and backgammon player, and a raconteur who had his family's gift for story telling. My father could spin a tale out till he had wrung a twist of Celtic whimsy from the simplest experience. When he set out to charm you, the cadences of his stories echoed the elegant timing and dry wit of the best Irish theater.
The Depression hardly touched his family. My grandfather had an Irish distrust of abstractions like the Stock Market. He liked to know, personally, the people he was in business with, and preferred to invest his wealth in tangibles he could see and understand and enjoy, houses, theater properties, art and antiques, horses and luxury automobiles. And the movie business remained strong throughout the Depression, as Americans sought illusion and escape in the theaters.
This meant that as a young-man-about-New York in the 1930s, my father was affluent. He was also often outrageous, and certainly given to the grand gesture — a gold cigarette case to settle a late night gambling debt, a hansom cab ride home at dawn, 3 dozen red roses with an apology for some high spirited act or misadventure. Prohibition was over, and he was out to make the most of it with all the reckless misguided exuberance of a Fitzgerald hero. Women said he looked like John Barrymore.
He and his younger brother Maury were profligate playboys as young men, hard drinking charmers with money to burn. Growing up, they each had their favorite places in the Wolfeboro house to hide their bottles from their mother. Maury kept his in the Grandfather clock that stood on the first landing of the ship's stairway off the front hall. My father knew this, which reportedly led to some memorable confrontations when Maury's bottle turned up missing. Their other passion was women. In the 1930s, sex outside of marriage was rebellious, illicit, risky and exciting, especially to renegade Catholic youths like my father and uncle, and they pursued the ladies with sleek speedboats cruising the sprawling summer "camps" that dotted the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, at parties among moneyed Catholic circles, and in the better nightclubs of New York.
I don't know if my father ever intended or tried to be faithful to my mother, but except for brief periods, he never was. They met in Wolfeboro, where my mother's family had a summerhouse on Lake Winnipesaukee a few miles from the Shea compound. My mother, Jeanne Renaud, was a luminous pale skinned brown-eyed brunette, voted best looking and best figure in her Horace Mann prep school class. She was even more beautiful at 21, the summer she met my father. It was 1937, and she had just graduated from Pratt with an art degree. He was 25, and fresh out of Harvard Law. To my mother, he seemed far older, a handsome sophisticate, a challenge. Her father, Ralph Renaud, was a highly ethical journalist and writer who met his bride, Helen Lamson, at Stanford University, and my mother's family, though intellectual and artistic, was basically conservative. Drinking, for example, was limited to wine with holiday dinners, or dinners with invited guests. By contrast, my father's family seemed irreverent, affluent, and worldly — they offered the potential for a delicious rebellion against the strictures of her own family. At the Sheas, an elaborate silver cocktail tray appeared before dinner each evening, with cut glass decanters of whiskey, gin, sherry, and vermouth, soda and tonic siphons, a silver ice bucket and tongs, bitters, lemon peel, and sugar. My mother remembers the maid almost staggering under the weight of that tray. And she was impressed by my father's sister, Dorothy, who was stylish and witty and able to match drinks with the men. A decade later, she would write:
The atmosphere at Shea family gatherings was one of
determined gaiety, which seemed a refusal to admit that anything
might be wrong with their lives, sort of "Look at us, we're
happy." They were great story tellers, and had the ability
to make ridiculous and funny stories out of little everyday
My father squired my mother about that summer in a maroon Ford convertible roadster, nipping from a silver hip flask while he drove. They danced to the Victrola — "Fly Me To The Moon" — and to live bands at Saturday night dances at the Kingswood Country Club, where he played golf by day.
He was extravagant and romantic. She was dazzled.
At the end of the summer of 1937, he insisted on driving her back to New York. My grandfather Renaud owned a handsome house in Forest Hills, one of the first planned communities in America, and also a row house rental property near the Long Island Railroad tracks. The year before, in 1936, he had quit his job as managing editor of The Washington Post and returned to New York to try his hand at freelance writing. He had given himself two years to make a go of it, and as an economy, he had rented out his comfortable home and moved his family temporarily to his row house property.
As they approached New York, my mother's anxiety increased. She was convinced that once my father saw that row house, their romance would be over.
But it was not. Invited in, he tested the stiff Sheraton sofa, and remarked that if he had three daughters like her father, he would probably have a similarly forbidding piece of furniture. And when he left, he smiled and told her that she need not be concerned about his intentions, that one really had to be serious to court a girl in Queens. His wish was to reassure her, and he did, for the moment.
My grandfather Renaud didn't like him. He told my mother that my father drank too much and was too smart and too glib and too good looking by half. But she was his favorite daughter and she was very much in love.
My parents' 10-year union was an alcohol drenched roller coaster ride. By the time I was seven, he had left her three times for other women, and she had thrown him out, divorced him, remarried him, and divorced him again. At age 30, not long after their second and final divorce, she wrote a history of their marriage at the request of a child psychologist who was treating my brother, Den. Written more than 50 years ago, it is a remarkable document, 50 single spaced typed pages, remarkably revealing and painful to read, the story of their passionate attraction and my father's accelerating disintegration, but just as much the story of my mother's transformation from a starry eyed, insecure, emotionally abused bride into a strong, independent, battle scarred young woman.
My father was in flight almost from the moment my mother agreed to marry him, an occasion that was a harbinger of things to come.
The day Tom gave me my engagement ring (which was big and
beautiful and bought by his father) we parted after lunch
in a mist of sentiment. He was going to the wedding of a
friend I didn't know, a son of General Pershing. He ended
the day by taking out one of the bridesmaids who had been
his first big affair several years before. He wound up at
El Morocco at four in the morning without funds. When the
waiter refused his check, he told him it was obvious why he
was a waiter and why he would always be a waiter. He wound
up in jail and Steven Walter, one of his Cambridge house-
mates at Harvard Law, bailed him out in the morning. Steve
said he looked terrible, and Tom had to appear that morning
before the Character Committee of the New York Bar Examiners.
Yet when Tom told the story, he made it very funny.
Her description of the first meeting between the families
provides succinct insight into her own motives and inner conflict
regarding the Sheas.
My parents were invited to Fieldston for dinner and all went
well in a stilted sort of way. Tom's mother told mine that I
was a lovely girl and she was happy to have me in the family.
I felt that my parents had much more background and a more
solid grip on basic values but weren't nearly as colorful,
fun, or amusing. Tom's father reminded me of a sly fox who
was inwardly laughing at everything. He was also somewhat
forbidding. I was afraid of saying something foolish in his presence.
One does not tend to dwell on the good times in documents of this kind, but she mentions them. She wrote of her early hopes, and I found myself hoping with her, although I knew how the story turned out. She wrote of their mutual ongoing passion, which seemed almost independent of the circumstances of their marriage. She mentioned his family's generosity with money and gifts — exquisite Queen Ann furniture for their New York apartment, oriental rugs, bolts of blue silk damask for curtains, a mink coat and a Persian lamb. In their first year, they were regulars at the Stork Club to the point where Sherman Billingsly would send small gifts to the table for my mother, and occasionally pick up their check. There were dinners and theater parties with friends, house parties in Wolfeboro and Cape Cod, moments of reconciliation and joy. Half way through her 50 page odyssey, she wrote, "It should be understood that the unpleasant things happened in and around an atmosphere of Irish wit and levity, good friends, and family festivities."
For my mother, my father's appeal was more than physical and material. She believed in his potential, and deeply admired his quick intelligence.
I always thought Tom acute about people and their motives.
When he was on the beam, he was mentally stimulating to a
degree that made you want to follow along. He had a clarity
of expression that made a complex chain of ideas seem
simple. He thought through to the core of a problem in a
quarter of the time it would take the average person.
I would like to remember my father using his intelligence like that. I would rather not focus on the balance of the document where he puts his gifted mind to work in the service of his addiction, berating and belittling my mother, ducking his responsibilities, looking to other women as the solution to his burgeoning problems. He had no idea — nor did she — what he was in the grip of. He just knew that his life wasn't working.
Try, for a moment, to live in his consciousness, and to imagine his confusion. He was young, brilliant, handsome, arrogant, a graduate of Yale and Harvard Law. He was well connected, the son and heir of a wealthy family. He had a young wife who was beautiful, talented, devoted, and passionate. He had two healthy, attractive infant sons. He drank, but so did everyone in his family, everyone he knew. And everyone drank a little too much now and then.
Why wasn't he happy at home?
Why wasn't he getting ahead, like his friends?
Why did he feel so bad physically so much of the time?
I believe I know the source of his confusion and anger. He was moving with great reluctance from the position that his drinking was no problem at all to the position that he drank too much as a consequence of his various problems, the classic alcoholic reversal of cause and effect. He began to flail about, looking for reasons outside himself and his drinking to explain his restless dissatisfaction and lack of success, and my mother was an easy and available target, at least at first.
She described events in 1941. Shortly after M.A.'s death, my grandmother choked on a cracker and took to her bed for several years with a 'delicate heart condition,' after finally finding a doctor who would agree with her own diagnosis. She decided that running the Fieldston house — a brick Georgian mansion with 16 rooms of museum quality antiques — was beyond her, even with Jarvis and the servants, and my parents, with Den and me in tow, moved up from Manhattan to help her. More accurately, my father offered my mother's services as live-in house manager and companion. My mother was not happy isolated in Fieldston running her mother-in-law's house — my grandmother was a hypochondriac who complained constantly about everything in her sweet, forgiving, Catholic manner. Still, my mother did her best to do everything perfectly as the Sheas would wish and expect, and this included the planning of menus.
One evening Tom and I were dining alone and he asked me why
I had ordered shrimp. He had a cold, hard look on his face.
From his tone, I was sure I'd done wrong. I started to
enumerate reasons that would make the choice logical when
he said "Don't sit there and lie to me like that. You've
turned into a good-for-nothing bitch, and now you can't
even tell the truth anymore. You sit there and baldly lie
and think I'm going to believe you. You are a fool." I
remember thinking, there is no 'why' to the shrimp. This is
insane...Sometimes Tom would needle and hack at me and run
me down till I was in tears, and then he would sneer at my
weeping till I developed hysterics, at which point he would
leave in disgust to sleep in another room.
My father was becoming unpredictable when he drank, subject to personality changes. Alcohol was acting as a brain irritant, and the dissatisfaction with his life was surfacing as generalized anger. Though he was never physically abusive, charming and gregarious could quickly turn arrogant, nasty and cutting.
In 1943, his sister Dorothy's husband, Preston Tuckerman, put a shotgun barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger in a chicken coop on the Wolfeboro estate. My mother described Preston as "a handsome man, who dressed like a page from Esquire with a touch of Broadway." Smart and competent, he worked for M.A.'s theater chain as head of purchasing, although he disliked M.A. and deeply resented his dependence on the Shea family. Preston had been commissioned as an army officer because of his purchasing expertise and then discharged a year later with a diagnosis of manic depression. He left a graceful suicide note saying that his lucid periods were becoming fewer and shorter and he knew he would have to be institutionalized eventually and did not wish to be a future burden to Dorothy.
On hearing the news, my mother went shopping for black mourning dresses for Dorothy in New York, and then took a train to New Hampshire.
...I made the trip with Maury's wife, Joanie, and on the
train she unburdened herself and told me she was having a
pretty bad time with Maury and his drinking, which as she
described it, could have been Tom and myself. I had a sudden
thought that the Shea money was evil, and had brought only
disaster to us all...
Shortly after Preston's suicide, my grandmother decided to sell the Fieldston house. She eventually purchased the second floor at 950 Fifth Avenue and we moved to a large apartment on East 57th Street, taking Jarvis with us on loan. My father continued to drink and party till late hours every night, mostly, at this point, without my mother. He slept late in the mornings, and spent less and less time at his law firm, where they were obliged to carry him because of their business with M.A.'s theater chain. Confused, neglected, and increasingly isolated, my mother spent her evenings with Den and me, and took a day job as an artist's rep, leaving us in the competent care of Jarvis and various nannies. She had realized by now it was my father's drinking that was wrecking their lives. She spoke to him about it and had his friends speak to him about it, to no real effect. He was scared sober once for two weeks by what might have been a heart attack, but that period, and the other very brief periods when he made an effort not to drink (usually following some alcohol precipitated crisis) presented their own paradox.
...I wanted him desperately to be sober with the knowledge
that we would sink deeper and deeper if he weren't, yet I
didn't know him or particularly like him when he was...With
a few drinks, before he had too much, he would be witty and
charming. Sober, he was a forbidding mystery...
Years later, as a teenager in Wolfeboro, I would experience the same conflicted feeling. Those days, my father rose around 10:00 AM, sweating and shaking, and waited till noon before starting to drink, and we all knew he was unapproachable till he had downed a few and loosened up and become himself again. I now know that he was in terrible withdrawal every morning till he could feed his addiction and temporarily sooth his very real physical pain.
My father left my mother in 1942 for a woman named Kate. My mother was devastated. A week later, he sent his brother, Maury, to open negotiations for his remorseful return. She took him back. In 1943, he found Gay, yet another woman who truly understood him and shared his interests and would provide his life with meaning, purpose, direction and love, not to mention better cooking. Gay was tall and willowy, dressed expensively, gave wonderful parties, and conveniently lived in the same apartment building. My mother recalls a horrible moment when the elevator man, in her presence, asked my father, "Which floor, Mr. Shea?"
Gay's husband was overseas in the war — another convenience. My father finally told my mother she had been a wonderful wife and he had no complaints about her but knew now that he didn't love her. He asked for a divorce. My mother numbly agreed, and he packed and left. She described the following day:
In the morning I went to work and was grateful for it. No
one knew and I could pretend to be myself...When I got home,
Jarvis had put a bouquet of yellow roses on my bedside
table. The kindness of his gesture finally brought tears...
In the morning I threw open the windows and let in the fresh
air. I took refuge in thinking of things to which Gay was
more than welcome, the horrid way the whole bedroom smelled
when he had been drinking, the way he drooled on his pillow,
the glassy red fish eyes he opened in the morning, his
shoddy pretense at being a glamour boy. I would no longer
have to answer queries from his office as to his whereabouts
and cover up for him while he was two feet from the phone,
asleep in a smelly haze...
She told her family what had happened. Her father's response was unusually harsh; it reflected his love, his anger, and the prevailing view of alcoholism at that time as a character weakness: "Daddy said Tom was a moral delinquent and would never be anything else, and that he thought Preston had showed a great deal more courage."
After their divorce in 1944, my mother rented us a house in Wilton, Connecticut, and began to rebuild her life, establishing her own tranquil household in the country, with new friends of her own. Within six months, my father's romance with Gay was predictably on the decline, and he was back in our lives.
Tom came to visit the children early in the spring and
seemed diffident and embarrassed at invading my domain. He
commented on how attractive the house was and how well the
furniture he had given me looked in it...the old pull was
there, he was wonderful company, charming and ingratiating,
and brought the kind of color my life lacked... It wasn't
long before spring and the country and the attractive home
I'd made and his feeling for the children and lust for me
looked pretty superior to his dark apartment and Gay's
He asked her to marry him again. He was humble, contrite, committed to changing his ways and moderating his drinking. He assured her she was the only woman he had ever loved.
It took him some time and a sustained burst of good behavior to convince her. He drank less, he was considerate, he was reasonable. "I was attracted to him more that anyone I knew," she wrote, "maybe because I'd never actually had him. He could melt me to the point where reason played no part in my thoughts and actions."
She said yes.
Her father gently refused to attend the second wedding. He said it would be hypocritical.
After the wedding, there was hardly a pause in my father's erratic, drunken behavior. He would disappear into New York City for days, then reappear in Wilton, thoroughly debauched and expecting all the wifely attentions he believed he was entitled to. My mother remembered a 2:00 AM call from a pay phone in Norwalk. It was winter. He was at the railroad station, drunk, and ready to be picked up. She told him to take a cab. He said there were none. She asked what she was supposed to do with Den and me. He said, bring them. She said we were asleep and it was freezing out. He said if she didn't pick him up, he would take the next train back to New York.
She got us up and dressed and we all drove to Norwalk to get him.
In 1947, my father hit and killed a man on the Merritt Parkway who was changing a tire at night with no lights on. This was decades before drunk driving laws and Breathalyzer tests, and he appeared reasonable, if upset, to the local police. At the hearing in Bridgeport, he was well dressed, chastened, apologetic — a member of the local gentry in a spot of trouble. The facts seemed to vindicate him, but who knows? My mother says this incident depressed him for months, but it did not curb his drinking. She also says he was not a reckless driver, yet I remember a childhood trip to New York when he touched 100 MPH several times on the Merritt to thrill Den and me after making us promise not to tell her.
I will not detail further the sad litany of my father's continuing grandiosity and neglect — his "vast carelessness" as Fitzgerald termed it. Suffice it to say that after a year and a half, in a very bad state, my mother was the one who would ask for the divorce. She described the precipitating event.
The Hannons stayed with us for a weekend in February — Ted
was a college friend of Tom's and a pretty heavy drinker too.
Saturday night, I was dead tired and Claire and I went upstairs
to dress for bed, leaving them drinking and talking. Then I
remembered that the coal furnace had to be stoked for the night,
or it would go out. I went downstairs and asked Tom if he would
take care of the furnace before he went to bed, and he said "no."
The furnace was his only job, and then only when he was home.
I couldn't quite believe it, but I thought, I'll start to do it and then
he will. I said, "Somebody's got to do it," and started down to
the cellar in my night things. Nobody followed. It was cold,
and I found the ashes hadn't been emptied in a long time.
They were all backed up and overflowing. I was ready to cry.
I got the shovel and started digging, thinking at least Ted
would appear, but nobody did. After a good half hour, I
came upstairs gray with ash dust and found Tom and Ted,
each with a highball, talking and laughing, very merry. I
had a slipper in each hand, having emptied them of coal,
and I threw one at each of them and said with great
feeling, "You bastards."...I couldn't do everything, and the
furnace seemed to symbolize the complete deterioration of
any semblance of joint effort...It was not just one more thing,
it was one too many...The next morning, Tom reached for me.
I pulled away and got out of bed to avoid him. I was suddenly
revolted at his assumption that sex was a cure all for everything
...I told him I was through...
There is curiously little mention of Den and me in this document, yet the atmosphere in our earliest years must have been toxic for small children, full of insecurity and chaos and emotional neglect‹four homes in as many years, a narcissistic, unreliable, absent father and a preoccupied mother who was so focused on trying to cope with and somehow fix her marriage that we were shunted to the side in the care of various nannies. One was Swiss and described as strict. A second was English and seriously abusive. We were under her care for 10 months before she was caught out and fired.
I recently gave my mother Frank McCourt's book, Angela's Ashes, to read.
"How did you like it?" I asked her.
"Very much," she said, "But I kept thinking: how can this man's wife and children keep hoping, week after week, that he'll come home sober, or send the check, or do what he's supposed to, when he never does? And then it occurred to me, that's exactly what I did with your father."
Please accept my assurances that my mother is a very bright woman of remarkable will and competence. Why did she put up with my father for the first six years? Why did she then remarry him? I am certainly willing to cut her some slack as a young, hopeful, inexperienced bride with two infant sons, unsure of herself and deeply in love for the first time. And certainly they had an unusually strong, mutual, and ongoing physical attraction. And when he asked her to marry him the second time, she concedes she felt vindicated. His latest flame, Gay, was supposed to make him happy, to give him what she couldn't, and now he wanted to come back to her and the home she had created on her own. "It was a great boon to my pride," she wrote.
But these hardly seem reasons enough to endure what she did and then sign up for more. Masochism is too facile an answer and doesn't fit with her character. On a conscious level, I think, perhaps, my mother was a victim of the same flawed hopes and expectations that drove my father — that the right combination of family support and external circumstances would somehow quell his dissatisfactions and make him happy and allow his brilliant potential to flourish, and this in turn would permit him to moderate his drinking. She wrote of a discussion with her first divorce lawyer:
When I enumerated a few incidents in my life with Tom for my
lawyer (which was legally necessary), he couldn't understand
how I'd lasted as long as I had. I wanted to explain that
there had always been the hope of something quite wonderful,
like candy dangled in front of a persistent baby. I always
felt that with the next reach, with the next effort, I would
But there is a thread running through the document that hints at a real struggle for ascendancy in their marriage. She will fix this impossible man, and make him stop drinking and assume the adult responsibilities of husband and father. She will prove stronger than him. Whatever the cost to herself and her children, she will prevail. Toward the end of their second marriage, my mother started an antique shop, primarily to give my drunken father something to do. In a remarkably self-aware paragraph, she describes the shift in power.
I no longer basked in his nicer moments, I just accepted them, and I
developed a habit of automatic objection to his suggestions
about anything, because so many of them were cockeyed. He
appeared more and more shoddy to me all the time, and living
in close contact those things can't be concealed, which tended to
push him down and down and add to his general frustration. I
was rising and rising, which maybe in the end destroyed the
whole thing (while in a sense giving me a victory) and maybe
that's really what I wanted, although if asked today I would say not.