8. The Center Cannot Hold
If today's treatments for diabetes had been available in 1940, my grandfather might have survived another decade. And given the ability to observe his sons and son-in-law for another 10 years, he probably would have protected them against their own folly through a series of irrevocable trusts or something of the kind. As it was, when he became terminally ill, he contracted with a smart, tough Irishman named Eddie Granger (a man quite like himself) to run his theater chain and other enterprises, trusting none of his own sons, by birth or marriage, with this responsibility.
Upon my grandfather's death, my father and uncles fired Eddie Granger, who sued for breach of contract and won, thereby obligating them to pay a large sum for services which they never received, but as it turned out, they sorely needed. Over the next 15 years, my father and uncles ran the business M.A. had built almost into the ground through a fatal combination of high personal salaries, alcoholic grandiosity, bad judgment, and simple neglect. The only one sober and diligent and interested enough to serve as President was Gerald, Dorothy's mild mannered, good natured second husband, who had been M.A.'s surrogate son. Gerald had married the boss's daughter four months after Preston's suicide, and wound up owning the business as well, or what little was left of it after the ravages of the three Shea brothers. Movies were losing share to TV in the 1950s, and Gerald was a caretaker, not an innovator. He missed the movement from large theaters in town centers to multi-screen theaters in malls. The business continued to slide, surviving largely by diminishing itself through the slow sale of poorly managed, unprofitable theater properties.
By 1953, my grandmother, faced with falling income and rising costs at 950 Fifth Avenue, could no longer afford Wolfeboro as a family indulgence, and the fortunes of my father's family were such that neither he nor his siblings, singly or collectively, could or would take on the house, though there were discussions and arguments between them on the subject. It was thus that Joe Kennedy Sr., himself the son of a saloon keeper, was able to purchase the core of my grandfather's collection of 17th and 18th century American furniture and art, housed at Wolfeboro, as a wedding present for his son, Jack, on the occasion of his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier. Gerald brokered the sale. He had often obliged the Kennedys over the years when they were looking for rare American pieces, and would later serve on Jacqueline Kennedy's commission to restore the White House to period perfection, which would include the gift of my grandfather's Sheridan Knife boxes, originally from the estate of Thomas Jefferson.
The Wolfeboro house itself, a rambling white Colonial my grandfather had restored and enlarged, was too big to sell easily as a private home, especially in a seasonal resort community known for cold winters. It included 6 master bedrooms (4 with fireplaces) five baths, a children's dormitory that slept six, a formal living room, a parlor, and a large informal room for entertaining called the Pine Room that featured a baronial six foot stone fireplace, radio, Victrola, and paneling circa 1680 by a noted Salem craftsman (purchased by M.A. at auction and installed when he built the addition). There was, as well, a formal dining room, a kitchen, a butler's pantry, and an attached barn, to which M.A. added three bedrooms and two baths for servants and overflow guests. Attempts were made to sell the property as a school or corporate retreat, but without success.
Enter my father's estranged second wife, Pinky, a difficult woman no one in the Shea family was close to. She felt particularly spurned by my grandmother, a Catholic gentlewoman who had difficulty with the notion of second wives and always showed a marked preference for my mother, who had borne her grand children. Pinky would not grant my father a divorce. She was living across the road from M.A.'s property in a large converted barn, split off from the main estate some years back and remodeled as a home by my father, now occupied by her and her son and daughter. When her mother-in-law's estate came on the market and did not sell, Pinky saw an opportunity for both profit and revenge, an almost irresistible combination. She bided her time, finally purchasing the property in 1956 for just over $40,000. She then had the house literally quartered. She moved the four sections to various locations on my grandfather's 120 acres, added kitchens and bathrooms as needed, and sold the resulting dwellings separately. She succeeded in reducing my grandfather's estate to a profitable suburban development with each house boasting "authentic Colonial features."
I have pictures of the house interior that look as if they were taken in the American wing of the Metropolitan museum. To my grandfather, the furnishing of the Wolfeboro and Fieldston houses was an esthetic passion, an engrossing hobby, and a smart investment. But it was also a very Irish affirmation of status from a man whose generation had suffered from strong social bias. His houses, art, and furniture legitimized my grandfather — he bought, restored, and assembled the art and furnishings of the aristocracy who reigned during the 200 years of American history when his immigrant family hadn't been around. Like the Kennedys, like many families on the rise, he bought a part of his past, but in his case he acquired it personally and knowledgeably and usually one item at a time.
However the Wolfeboro estate functioned in the world of adults, to a child it was pure fantasy, an amazingly rich sensory world that I wandered in delighted for the first ten summers of my life, then less frequently, then not at all. Whatever family mythology still binds my seven Shea cousins and me tends to focus on Wolfeboro — it is the one childhood experience, besides an abiding affection for Jarvis, which we all shared.
Imagine, if you can, the vast Wolfeboro house on a warm summer day through the eyes and touch of an infant, then a toddler, a curious restless boy child left to roam by Jarvis, who is preparing lunch for twelve in the kitchen and is less concerned about the possible destruction of my grandmother's priceless antiques than my mother, and therefore doesn't watch me very closely. Imagine a world one foot high, then two, then three, where everything you encounter, everything you see and touch, is buttery soft and glowing wood, where every polished surface shines back at you in sensuous tones of cherry, walnut, mahogany and maple, carved and shaped, rich grained, warm and smooth to the touch. Imagine how the intricately rendered ball and claw foot of a Chippendale chair might delight a crawling infant. Or the graceful curve of a Cabriole leg. Or how a table top cut from a single plank of first growth white pine, with its surface whirls, gouges and stains buffed to a smooth complexity over 200 years of use, might suggest lush dream landscapes and twisting storm scenes to a bright toddler.
Imagine bathroom windowpanes of colored glass etched with figures of local birds and animals that glowed in the sunlight. And parlor walls carefully stripped to expose murals depicting historic New Hampshire buildings — Dartmouth College, Exeter Academy, the State House at Concord — murals hand painted in tempera by Avery in 1812 in exchange for room and board. Picture an ice box with mahogany and brass fitted doors, an ice box the size of a wall with a 60 pound chunk of ice behind the middle door, ice cut from massive blocks resting on six feet of sawdust in the cool, dark icehouse attached to the big barn across the road, blocks originally cut from Lake Winnipesaukee in the dead of winter, now sweating their summer life away slow as glaciers.
Imagine, finally, a box of toys in the attached barn so vast you have to climb into it to make a selection, hand made wooden toys, hand painted lead soldiers, a tin magic lantern with slides, bats, balls, and gloves, toys that were not disposable and didn't break on schedule, toys that contained not a whisper of plastic or a screaming neon color you couldn't name.
The sale of the furniture and dismemberment of that house and land destroyed the physical locus of many of my best childhood memories, and it added to my growing anger toward my father — he was given so much, how could he have let Wolfeboro go? I still have remnants, a silver luster pitcher, a flame maple chest, a Whistler etching from the Venice series, one given to each grandchild.
The Wolfeboro estate had been the family's physical and emotional center for three generations; its loss was a sad milestone in the overall retreat from M.A.'s glory days. Yet even family declines can have grace notes and redemptions. After the family business could no longer employ him, uncle Bill, in spite of his handicaps, went on to become one of the most decorated volunteers in the history of St. Vincent's Hospital. And uncle Maury was a surprise, perhaps even to himself.
Maury was, like my father, a hard drinking habitué of 21, The Stork Club, and El Morocco, and a thoroughly indifferent businessman who treated the Shea theater chain as little more than a source of funds. In his early years in New York, he shared an apartment with Jack Lemmon, a childhood friend from Wolfeboro, who was at that time pursuing a career as a lounge pianist and singer. I have always wondered if Maury provided any inspiration for the character he would later play in The Days Of Wine And Roses.
Maury's first wife, Joanie, divorced him because of his drinking. His second wife, Betty, was a lovely ex model and also a sensible, down-to-earth woman. Maury moved with her and his new daughter to Great Neck, New York, where his sister Dorothy and her family lived, but, like my father in his Connecticut period, he spent most of his time in New York City drinking, playing cards, and partying. When Betty had to contact him, she used to leave messages at a club in the East 50s called Tony's Trouville.
Betty put up with it for seven years. Then one night Maury returned from the city to an empty house. Literally. Betty had taken their daughter and backed up a moving van and left, lock, stock and barrel. It turned out to be an effective negotiating tactic, one my mother, perhaps, should have employed with my father. Betty told Maury she wouldn't even discuss reconciliation till he had been sober six months.
Maury stopped drinking and joined AA. He was 42. He and Betty were reconciled one year later, in 1958.
Maury had been a football star at Choate, and also a member of the Muckers, Jack Kennedy's gang of ruffian prepsters. Kennedy was too fragile for varsity football, and he was also envious in a friendly way of the attention lavished on my uncle by a woman named Queenie, the pretty young wife of a Choate Master, who invited Maury to a number of afternoon teas.* After the Shea family business dissolved, Maury went to see Kennedy, then a Senator, who gave him a job with the Maryland presidential campaign staff. To everyone's surprise, Kennedy carried Maryland in 1960, and after the election he got Maury a job at the Commerce Department, arranging trade fairs. Maury stayed sober and kept his second marriage together through the whole transformation. He had mastered his alcoholism, but in the process he seemed to have lost a good deal of the wit and joie de vivre that characterized him as a young man. He met his responsibilities and took real pleasure in his daughters, but he was not a happy ex-drunk. As Betty described his depression to me, I was reminded of my mother's reaction to my father on the few occasions when she saw him sober. Both he and Maury were at their best after a few drinks, but a few drinks were never enough. In sobriety, it was Maury's diabetes that would slowly wear him down and finally kill him at age 59, as it had his father at 60.
My father sobered up occasionally because he was forced to for health reasons, but he never stayed sober after his drying-out periods were over. Too patrician for AA, he would, from time to time, consult with authorities on alcoholism like Dr. Gitlow and Dr. Ruth Fox, looking for some answer to his problems that did not involve giving up the elixir that meant life itself to him. By the time the dust cleared from the collapse of the family business, he was in his mid-forties, close to broke, separated from his second wife, undeniably alcoholic, and badly in need of a job.
*Maury's relationship with Kennedy at Choate is described in the 1992 book "JFK: Reckless Youth" by Nigel Hamilton