Tuesday, December 22, 1998

My Father's Life

Written for G.Q. magazine in 1998

It is impossible to write about my father without speaking of my mother. This is because I knew her so much better, for I grew up with her and not with him, and because (I did not learn this until I was fourteen) they never married. And when finally they told me, their only child, what appeared to be the whole story—that my father had a mentally ill wife, who was regularly institutionalized—it made their bond seem stronger and even more romantic, the enduring love affair more powerful than any verifying document. It was only gradually, in my late twenties and thirties, especially after my mother’s death, that I began to learn how complex the truth was.

My father is ninety-one. I was born when he was fifty. He lives on the Italian coast an hour south of Rome—his base as a roving foreign correspondent for decades. A publicity release from a half-century ago sums up the father I knew from afar: One of the truly great reporters of World War II, George Weller has been bombed, machine -gunned, eaten by ants . . . And because he was always a hero to my mother, as I grew up his life always seemed heroic to me.

Most of his adulthood was spent abroad. He was one of the few correspondents to extensively cover Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, the Soviet Union, and the Pacific. During the early 1930s, while writing a couple of novels, he became a journalist in the Balkans for the New York Times, then shifted to the now-defunct Chicago Daily News, a great newspaper in its day. He won a 1943 Pulitzer Prize for a story about an emergency appendectomy performed on a pharmacist’s mate in a submarine while under Japanese attack.

Besides all this his personal life, as for many foreign correspondents, was a mess. An early first marriage begun in the Thirties ended in divorce; I have a much older half-sister whom I never see. Then, just after the war, he married a fellow correspondent who soon became highly unstable—severe manic depression. From their home in Cyprus, then Rome, his work often took him away, yet he stayed married to her for forty years while she was in and out of mental clinics.

During that time he and my mother became involved, and had me. They were as in love as any couple I’ve ever seen. Growing up, I never suspected there was anything more to the story than that my father was always being sent from one war to the next. Which was, in fact, true. Their love survived until my mother’s slow death of a brain tumor in 1988—she was sixty-five, he was eighty—still dreaming of a shared life under the same roof, rather than days or weeks stolen here or there. In the end my father’s wife outlived her by two years.

Their personal lives (so purposeful to a child’s eyes) were a jumble of making do, with occasional happy moments when they stole time together and always the prospect of more, but no happy conclusion when all was done. They lived off hope like oxygen for three decades, but for the last few years even hope went stale, could even suffocate, at least for my mother.

This is all true, but it is only an edge of the story.

When I grew up, my father was never at home. As a veteran of innumerable foreign wars, George Weller was always elsewhere in the world. Still, he was a looming presence. Exotic postcards were always arriving for me from overseas—of African jungles and teeming veldts, or Arabian deserts with camels and bedouin; from Afghanistan, Laos, Paraguay, Siberia. He could write you from the tumult of a revolution and make it sound like he was on a picnic. His workplace was much of the planet, and those postcards became my vision of it. I took it for granted that I’d become a writer one day, and travel everywhere.

A big, gusty man with extraordinarily alive blue eyes and a powerful head suggesting steel-reinforced bone structure, he always seemed much larger than a mere six feet. Abetted by an actor’s talent for exact mimicry and a voice of nuance and flexibility, he could turn on, seemingly at will, a kind of light raconteur’s charm that brought an episode alive while downplaying his own part. Contrary to the popular image of his profession, he was never a drinker or smoker. “Unfitted for simplicity” by his early years in the Balkans, he felt most American political thought belonged in a kindergarten. It amazed him that attention and even respect was paid in this country to the opinions of pundits, politicians, and tank thinkers about places they’ve never actually spent time in.

His great reportorial gift was a mask of naiveté and ignorance that was totally misleading and trapped his subjects into unwitting revelations, followed by the daggered question that went for their inner organs. A devout and eclectic reader, he felt at home everywhere and went deep into what he called the secret history of each place. His memory of all he read was astounding, but this also meant a tendency to preface a funny anecdote about some mishap in Aleppo with the entire history of the Middle East.

He was most of all a man of the world, in an old-fashioned definition of the term: a type of American gentleman who still existed mid-century and does not exist now, who was at ease in all situations, spoke six foreign languages fluently (albeit with a Boston accent), was exceedingly literate, charming, and stubbornly confident about his place in the order of things. At the same time he was not at all posh. He grew up poor —his Harvard tuition was paid by a man he caddied for every week—and has remained frugal all his life. A career under fire or trapped in difficult places, from the Hindu Kush to the wilds of New Guinea, stopped him from worrying about eating well or dressing stylishly.

Those postcards, bearing stamps that were a geography lesson in themselves, always let me know I was part of his life as he was part of mine—that no matter where he was, I was there with him—and that I was to look after my mother in his absence. I suppose not every small boy is relentlessly told this. It may have been an echo of losing his own father as a teenager. In later years I realized that the hidden import of this was that my mother was my responsibility, no matter how much he loved her. His own primary responsibility would always be his wife. (He often ruefully cited a schoolteacher who told him he would do well if only he learned to put first things first.)

A lot of his life seems a struggle to be a good son for a father who wasn’t there—a Harvard-educated lawyer who dropped out of the family on booze, but whom my father couldn’t blame entirely and remembered lovingly. From his teens my father saw himself as the head of the family for his mother and younger brother. The “dutiful son” in him hurt his fiction, for he was reluctant to write characters a reader might disapprove of. But he wasn’t scared to live his life that way—though he’d stop short of divorcing an ill wife.

My mother was a Londoner, a well-known ballet teacher and dance scholar fifteen years younger than he. (Her parents were Polish Jews who emigrated; her mother died young.) They met in Sicily when she was nearing thirty, had a prolonged affair, and split up, for he was already married. Being tired of Europe’s deprivations following the war, she moved to New York and, in a characteristically audacious and pioneering move, to Georgia, where she knew no one but realized there was no ballet company that mattered. By then my parents had hooked up again and decided to have me: it must’ve felt like a last chance for him, as well as for her. She was thirty-five when I was born, in 1957. She always spoke of how he wrote her every day during her pregnancy.

It doubtless struck them that with her renting a house in Georgia, it’d be easier to hide the facts, easier to pretend they were married. Only one family of Georgia friends knew what would’ve been in those days the very shocking truth, and acted as witness to the legal change of my mother’s last name. She told no one in her family. My father’s work was in any case sufficient excuse for the fact he was always overseas.

Due to his itinerary, and the situation I did not know about, we were lucky to see him one week a year—I never met him until I was eighteen months old, though my mother was proud that I immediately recognized him from a photo by her bedside. In those years we’d go every other summer to Europe, which my mother missed enormously, doing the ballet circuit of friends and relatives that involved London, Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, Brussels, Amsterdam. We’d see my father for a few days snatched in a hotel here or there, or sometimes in Nassau, where we spent much of each summer until I was ten. In those days the Bahamas were inexpensive and had enough British echoes to be a kind of homecoming for my mother. I can only imagine how complicated these rendezvous must’ve been to arrange.

His odd weeks in Georgia had the fanfare of a state visit. His constant companions were a portable Olivetti typewriter and an enormous leather “grip”—a bag like a giant animal belly that held a limitless amount. I’d hurry to his airport taxi, preceding my anxious mother, insisting with my father that I was able to carry his bag, dragging it down our walk. When he did come home he was always careful to make duties fun. Plagued by bad teeth—he was ever undergoing massive dentistry in parts of the world where you’d question a Band-aid—he tried to instill good habits in me through the Toothbrush Derby. This meant a mad rush and tussle after every meal to see who got his teeth-cleaning underway first.

He could pack more efficiently than anyone I ever met. He could set up house in a hotel room in minutes.

I doubtless wouldn’t have become a novelist and journalist myself were it not for him—though it’d have been a form of rebellion had I become, say, a banker. My sense of the world being available, and seeing it being the most important part of a man’s education, came from him. He was also quick to deplore the way that journalism was an elephant’s graveyard of talent, and urged me never to let it outweigh my novel-writing. His faith in me as an artist was unwavering—partly because he had not exactly set out to be a journalist himself.

His first career overseas after Harvard had been as the only English-speaking actor in Max Reinhardt’s theater company, in Vienna, where he partnered a very young Hedy Lamarr. Later, living in Athens and Dubrovnik on practically nothing and covering the Balkans, he wrote a couple of fine novels (Not to Eat, Not for Love and Clutch and Differential) that were well-reviewed and highly praised by figures like Conrad Aiken but made him little money during the Depression.

He had quite a war. As one of the few reporters who stayed behind in Greece during the German invasion, he smuggled stories out for weeks and was “quarantined” by the Nazis. He was one of the last men to get out of Singapore and then Java, fleeing the Japanese on a leaky boat to Australia (resulting in a classic book of war reportage, Singapore Is Silent, followed by Bases Overseas). He was also the first outsider into an atom-bombed area, bucking army orders to sneak into Nagasaki a few days after the explosion. Macarthur’s censors killed all 50,000 words of that saga.

Though he wrote another novel later in life, as a Nieman Fellow, it was difficult for him to go back to literature after seeing first-hand “the world at war.” This saddened him deeply. That 1949 novel, The Crack in the Column, about the war in Greece, was dedicated to his friend George Polk, the CBS journalist murdered in Salonika in 1944. The dedication has much of my father in it:

for George Polk

At one point he confessed to me that for a time he hadn’t cared whether he lived or died, and took risks he’d never have taken otherwise. When I asked what had struck him most about war, he replied that it was how lightly young men would volunteer for missions from which they could never return.

Early in the war he tramped into Central Africa and found some of Stanley’s old adversaries—in many of his photographs the 19th century seems to have lasted until the end of WWII. In 1946 he was captured by the Red Chinese in Manchuria with several other reporters, his wife-to-be among them. He covered the Viet Nam conflict during the French era and went back to see the fall of American forces at the end. In Istanbul once for Sports Illustrated he swam the Bosphorus with an Olympic champion. His last working decades were spent as Mediterranean and Middle East correspondent for his paper, based in Cyprus and Italy.

I have said that I became a writer because of him. This is not quite true, because my literary education largely came from my mother. But from childhood I took it for granted that I could write and that to be a writer like my father was a noble calling, there was no higher profession for a man to follow, and that I could do so as naturally and easily as he. There was nothing “easy” about any of it, but this sense of self-belief, in many ways the hardest thing about becoming a writer, was one of his greatest gifts to me and kept me going for a long time.

At no point in my upbringing did I not feel deeply loved, and I certainly felt close to him. Yet because all my childhood was spent with a woman who loved deeply, faithfully, and passionately, but virtually never got to see the love of her life, I never held any desire to be a journalist. I could appreciate and envy my father’s sense of the world, his sense of duty to expose the truth before history and memory heaped dirt on it, but I vowed from an early age that I’d never become a foreign correspondent like him. I would never leave a woman stranded with a child, waiting, alone.

My own desire, which he heartily encouraged, was to be a novelist and poet first, and despite a good deal of magazine journalism—and a long travel memoir of India and Pakistan—I have held on to that proportion. Even now, due to these implanted boyhood judgments, I feel an unjustifiable prick of annoyance when someone introduces me as a journalist.

This isn’t to say I blamed him during my childhood for his absence, just as my mother didn’t. I told myself that even if we all lived together he’d have been away most of the time anyway. This is a child’s view of his work, yet it wasn’t far wrong— as many children of foreign correspondents from those years would attest, though our case was particularly extreme. My mother and I were always waiting: for a letter, for the absurd rarity of a phone call, for the more remarkable event of his actually arriving. One call a week would’ve changed my mother’s life, yet he would not make it. Much of the time she never knew where he was until after he’d left, since mail from him could take a month. The easiest way to keep track of his movements was by subscribing to his paper. I copied my mother’s anxiety and did my best as a little boy, and later as a less convinced teenager and young man, to allay it and reassure her.

The problem for us was, of course, that his wife survived. No one (I was told) believed that she would, not for all those decades. Even now it’s impossible for me to parse how much of his choice was a profound sense of Catholic guilt, how much the remnants of love for his wife, how much a self-centeredness reinforced by his endless travel, how much his own instinct for fucking things up, and how much a basic sense that she came first as a responsibility simply because she’d come along first. Something drove him to set himself up with not one but two women, both of whom he avoided to some degree. Though it sounds unlikely, it was clear when my parents were actually together that they were deeply happy; their letters back and forth remained full of devotion and even delight.

I used to imagine that on some level he blamed himself for the continuation of his wife’s illness, but then again he rarely blamed himself for much that went wrong. (His business choices were disasters.) He was full of speeches about what a noble suffering he underwent by sticking by her, by choosing her over my mother, and spoke as if his life might, long after he died, survive a kind of moral scrutiny because he hadn’t abandoned his wife. I’m not sure it occurred to him that the scrutiny of those closest to him might mean more.

Once he retired to the Italian coast he refused to get a phone, keeping his wife cut off from her own family, keeping himself out of reach of everybody, and wondering aloud why friends passing through Rome never drove down to visit him. His arrogant frugality with phones now seems unforgivable to me. There was more to it than penny-pinching, for he could be sweepingly generous too. I think he simply did not like giving up control of the lines of communication—or control of anything, for that matter.

As the years went by, my mother grew more despondent that this stretch of time together would never come. It never did, apart from a dozen New England summers they shared after his retirement. By 1980, when I moved to New York after Yale, he was in his mid-seventies and finding it harder to get away from the situation in Italy. My parents were back to a weird system of seeing each other only for a week snatched when my mother would go to Rome and my father join her for a couple of days at a time. His wife, with her bad heart that had survived several bypass operations, was as unstable as ever.

I found myself increasingly bitter at being made the lightning rod for all my mother’s pain and for my father’s need to pretend nothing could be done and hence everything was fine. They’d chosen this situation themselves: I had not been given a choice. To maintain compassion for them meant trying to keep a distance. In those years, living in New York, traveling as a freelance journalist, I saw my father more often than my mother did—many air routes still led through Rome.

There was other, unexpected fallout: in my own personal life I often found myself trying to go out with women who were already involved with other men. In retrospect I think I may have been vicariously attempting to put myself in my mother’s role—as the outsider stealing a partner from an established couple—but end up winning, as if on her behalf.

What I’d been dreading all along eventually happened—at his instigation, of course. I had left New York and was living in Paris with a Frenchwoman who became my first wife. We used to visit my father in Italy a few days at a time, staying in a hotel in the town near where he lived. He always picked up the bill; and without warning on one of those long weekends he insisted we stay with him, and with his wife—who had known about my mother’s and my existence almost from the beginning. She was, of course, far worse than I could have imagined, but also better than I would’ve liked. I could glimpse how difficult his life had been, and why he had gotten nothing done after his retirement. But it was now hard to resent her in quite the same way.

From now on this was the pattern of visits with him. They left me exhausted and sick, and somehow he failed to notice that his wife, who had always wanted a child of her own, would end up back in the clinic for several weeks afterward. They were rough on my mother also, and she spoke of having lost her belief in a future with him; she was enormously depressed and under great stress. At least when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, he left his wife in Italy with a nurse-companion and came to stay with my mother for what amounted to about ten months before she slipped into a coma. After her death he surprised everyone by staying on for over a year in my mother’s now utterly empty rented house in Georgia. It was doubtless a kind of penance, but also an excuse for avoiding Italy.

Soon after he retired I began to press him to write his memoirs. He began them, but soon turned away—he had seen, he told me, what he needed to see.

I said earlier that my father was a man of the world. He was also a man in a box. That he put himself there does not make it any different. He was always trying to get out, trying to swim out to sea and bask on his back; he once told me he had dreamed of having a version of one of those large Polynesian families, of many children and relatives all around, with my mother at the center of it but—knowing him—maybe he imagined a house with several wives all in good health and getting along. This has part of his fault of seeing himself at the center of all things but also his deep wish for the family he was denied as a boy. He never really learned when to be selfish, and when to be unselfish.

It is pointless to try to tally what those who matter most in a life have given you alongside what was withheld. In the end the two are inseparable, and what you carry away is how you were able to respond, given your own limitations. Life is too costly, and there is too little of it, to withhold forgiveness. By my age my father had seen as much death as the world has to offer, yet he never lost his sense of beauty, or the grandeur of human achievement, or his unflagging humor. I try to keep that strength in mind.

I like to recall one time in Rome when I was on my way to the Middle East, to the Arabian Gulf, for the first time as a journalist. I had no idea what I was doing. He brushed aside my fears as if they were flies; the important thing in that part of the world, he advised, was not to lose my sense of mischief.

“Just prepare yourself for a new luxury of sentiment,” he told me at the airport. “You have to learn to enjoy things going really, really wrong. And do what I do: always try to leave the situation there just a little more confused than how you found it.”

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