Edmund White

 

UNCLE ED AND MY LIFE WITH HIM ©

by
Keith A. Fleming, 1959-2009

Back in 1976 when I was sixteen, my uncle, the novelist Edmund White, rescued me from the messy aftermath of my parents’ divorce and brought me to live with him in New York. It was, and still is, the defining moment of my life, yet my experience as the teenage ward of a young bachelor uncle was even weirder than one might imagine. Uncle Ed continued to lead the life of a dandy equally at home with singles bars and Lincoln Center. Many a school night would find me doing my homework at the kitchen table at ten in the evening and my uncle, freshly showered and dressed in leather jacket and jeans, saying goodnight as he headed out the door for another night on the town.

Uncle Ed (Edmund Valentine White, III) is my mother’s younger brother, her only sibling, and when I first began hearing about him as a child my mother would speak of him as a slightly wacky, colorful character—someone who had moved to New York City fresh out of college in 1962 by flying there first-class despite having no job lined up and only a few hundred dollars to his name. But he quickly found a job, as a staff writer at Time-Life, and by the mid-1960s we relatives would sometimes travel to New York to visit "Uncle Eddie," as my mother called him, though we never saw his apartment then because Mother said it was "a real wreck" with a dining room table supported on top of boxes. Instead we would stay at a modest hotel and meet up with Uncle Eddie for dinners at Chinese restaurants, which struck me as appropriate since Mother had told me Eddie majored in Chinese, of all things, at the University of Michigan.

Mother and Uncle Eddie had been introduced to a quite different Manhattan when they were kids: the Manhattan that money can buy. Their father, E.V. White, Jr., would make periodic business trips to the city, which in those days before jet travel were made via Cadillac—a long drive that would begin with nocturnal E.V. nosing out of his Cincinnati garage at midnight, his dozing family waking up only when dawn was breaking over the mountains of Pennsylvania. By the dinner hour they would be pulling up in front of E.V.’s favorite midtown hotel, the Roosevelt, ready to freshen up and head out for an evening at Asti’s, a restaurant so musical that even the waiters would take turns singing arias.

As a little kid in the 1960s I thought of Eddie as a handsome, almost Italian-looking uncle with a dark mane of expensively cut hair, brown eyes that looked at you with merry compassion, and a knack for making my mother act much more alive whenever he was around. But in his own benevolent way Uncle Eddie could be quite at sea about how to act around children, and Mother loved to tell the story of the time Eddie was given an infant to hold and had acted as though he were handling something alien and very fragile, a radioactive moonrock that had to be held out from his body. "How do you do?" was the only thing he could think to say to it.

When I was a third grader I was accustomed to adults giving me only the briefest, most impersonal approval whenever I had scribbled some little piece of writing, and it was therefore very startling to hear what Uncle Eddie had to say when Mother suddenly put me on the phone with him. Mother had filled him in on my latest "story" (really just a paragraph, I think) about Count Dracula waking up in his coffin to a slowly opening, creaking lid. Now I was holding the phone to my ear and listening as Uncle Eddie advised me to do a complete rewrite: "Hitchcock’s films, you know, have shown us that what is really scary emerges from what seems to be normal, everyday life. And so instead of Dracula’s castle, I think maybe something like your own home out there in Evanston (Illinois) might be a better setting for the horrors to come." I was neither prepared nor pleased to be taken so seriously. Part of me was intrigued but mostly I was just overwhelmed by such drastic, sophisticated advice. I had no idea that it was not unprecedented for boys my age to write—that Uncle Eddie, for instance, had written a whole play in three acts, The Blue Bird, when he was a third grader.

No, Uncle Eddie was still a very small presence in my life, someone I would forget about for months and months at a time as I went about playing the sports that Mother said Eddie had been so horrible at as a boy that he had never been invited to join a single baseball, basketball, or football team. Still, by fifth grade the door in my mind had opened a bit wider to Uncle Eddie’s opinions. Mother let me read a letter Eddie had sent her after our most recent visit to New York, a letter in which he mentioned in passing that I had struck him as being "very sincere and reflective." It was the first time I had heard myself described. As I read the words they seemed invested with such authority that I felt just as though I had been x-rayed and here was the result.

It was not until after my parents’ divorced, the year I was twelve, that I began to develop any real rapport with my uncle. But before I got to know Uncle Eddie better, I first became more acquainted with Eddie and Mother’s father, E.V., my Grandpa White. One of the many ramifications of the new divorce was that Mother and Dad now had to take turns attending my games in order to avoid seeing each other. Twice that spring when it was Mother’s turn to sit in the stands and cheer me on, she brought her father, my Grandpa White, along with her. Grandpa had been living in the Chicago area for the past two years but it was only following my parents’ divorce that we started to see much of him. He had bought a house in Lake Forest, a spacious suburb of mansions a dozen miles up the lake shore from us in Evanston, and for several months

Grandpa had been all on his own in his big new house, since his second wife, Kay, refused to leave Cincinnati and her lady friends in the Key Club, which she believed to be the pinnacle of high society there. But Kay had finally steeled herself to the idea of exile and joined Grandpa in Lake Forest, bringing with her her microwave oven and her many difficult cats.

With Grandpa White suddenly around, and my father suddenly absent, it was impossible not to think of Grandpa as a kind of replacement for Dad, since Grandpa was now the man at my mother’s side in the car and in the Little League bleachers. Strangely enough, two of the only three home runs I ever hit were struck with Grandpa looking on. Strange, because I had always found Grandpa White—so big and commanding—extremely intimidating to be around. He was definitely the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the family. When Mother was on the phone with him and called out to me, "Honey, Grandpa wants to say hi to you," I would approach the phone very slowly, like a doomed man, because I never knew what to say to him (it never occurred to me Grandpa preferred it that I stay quiet because he was happiest when doing all the talking). But somehow I had managed to do my best hitting with him on hand, and Mother said that each time that I would hit a home run Grandpa stood up and bellowed for all to hear, "That’s my grandson, goddammit!" She said Grandpa was "just bursting with pride" because he had always wanted a son to follow in his footsteps as a ballplayer (Uncle Eddie’s playing, apparently, was remembered only for the time he got hit in the head with a flyball). But though Mother claimed Grandpa was so proud of me that he had given me his ultimate seal of approval, saying of me, "You know, I think I like him," I could never quite believe it.

No, for me Grandpa White was always more a stranger than a grandfather, someone who would hold us captive in his cold, smoky Cadillac. With the windows sealed, the air conditioning on full blast even at night, and his cigar smoke slowly poisoning us, the interior of his Cadillac was very much a hostile climate—like being locked in a polluted meat freezer, really—that I could not wait to get out. And if that was not enough there was his relentless talking about the proper cultivation of the tobacco plant and the necessity of paying for everything, including cars and houses, in cash.

Grandpa White seemed to see life as one big competition, and watching me hit home runs must have gotten his competitive juices flowing, I guess, because back at home he surprised me by challenging me to a bicycle race. It seemed like a very weird idea because Grandpa was now an old-looking sixty-six with liver spots, a heart condition, and a very unathletic wardrobe consisting of business suits and wingtip shoes. As we mounted our bikes in the middle of the street and got set to race the one-block sprint he had laid out, I wondered just how humiliating this was going to be for him. I politely got off to a lazy start but when he shot out into the lead, I started racing for real and overtook him. What happened next is my defining memory of Grandpa White. Surging back into the corner of my vision, he incredibly drew himself even with me. He had risen off his seat by now and was leaning far out over the handlebars, like a jockey on a horse, and though my mother claims to have heard him bellowing "Hi Ho, Texas!" I just remember the sight of his legs furiously pumping in his gray flannel pants that were flapping high up around his bone-white shins. Neck and neck we roared down the stretch but in the last ten yards Grandpa somehow came up with a final burst that let him streak to victory. I was stunned—frightened, really. His face towards the end had been almost demonic in its flushed, maniacal grimacing. I had never witnessed such straining, vein-popping effort up close like that. I had never seen anyone want something so badly.

It had been a crazy expense of energy and a day or two later Grandpa suffered a serious heart attack. He spent weeks recovering in the hospital, and my mother said it was a good thing he did not die right there on the bike. Upon his discharge, he and Kay decided to move back to Cincinnati—"Cincinnaduh," as they called it—where Grandpa could recuperate in semi-retirement and Kay rejoin her Key Club ladies.

Shortly after they left town we began to see more of Uncle Eddie; and, now that I was fourteen or so, I began to appreciate, began to notice, my uncle’s sophisticated personal style, which seemed so exotic and theatrical in comparison with all the other adults in my life. The way he lit up the room, for instance, as unendingly as he lit up his Kent cigarettes. (My mother occasionally bought a pack of Virginia Slims, but it was a shock to accompany Uncle Eddie to the local drugstore and watch him purchase not a pack but two cartons of Kents.) I can still see him sitting on our modest living room couch, one leg draped over his knee in the fashionably tattered jeans he had bought "pre-ripped" from a MacDougal Street in shop in New York city. He is telling a story that’s making my mother bark with laughter (about a "nutty man" who announced to Eddie at a party that he spoke eight languages but then added that "Henglish" was his best). But what most holds my attention is the easy, almost musical rising and falling of his voice, the way the silvery-quick flow of words sometimes slows to a kind of purring emphasis at key points in the story—and all this while elegant jets of smoke are regularly coming out of his nostrils.

But it would still be a few more years before he became my hero. First, Eddie became Mother’s hero. Following her divorce, Mother needed to build some kind of career for herself, and Eddie lent her several thousand dollars so she could go to graduate school. Mother’s opinion of her brother had undergone a steady evolution since they were kids. For though she never disputed that her little brother was clearly some kind of genius, as a teenager she saw

little good in it. If anything, she resented how often Eddie had embarrassed her over the years in front of her friends, holing himself up in his room with opera records that were audible throughout the house, emerging now and then in his hornrimmed glasses to tell everyone about his harp and tap dancing lessons, or about how he could no longer eat meat because he had become a Buddhist.

But as a young adult Mother began taking Eddie more and more seriously. She had stopped seeing him as being an embarrassment one rainy night in 1963 when she happened to witness dozens of people lining up in the rain to see Eddie’s play, The Blue Boy in Black, which was being produced off-Broadway with the young Billy Dee Williams and Cicely Tyson as co-stars. Then too, Eddie looked so much better now that he had moved to New York. As a boy, he had been very nerdy-looking with his close-cropped hair, glasses, and big ears sticking out from his large head. But after he had moved to New York he had gotten contact lenses, wore his hair longer, and had filled out with age so that his ears rode closer to his skull.

It was because Mother now revered her brother so much that, two years later, she turned to him as the one person who might be able to save me. My father and his second wife had assumed custody of me when I was 15 and in a matter of months had incarcerated me in a frightening mental hospital for teenagers because I had been talking back at them, cutting classes, and leaving my room a mess. One night when she could no longer stand to see me rotting away like a prisoner in the gulag, Mother called Uncle Ed and asked him if he would be willing to adopt me if she could manage to spring me from the mental hospital via a release order her lawyer had suggested she try. On the spot Uncle Ed agreed to the plan, and in early January of 1976, freed by Mother’s release order, I was on a plane bound for New York.

In my earliest days of living with Uncle Ed, nearly everyone we met seemed charmed by the idea of such a young, unlikely uncle having adopted his nephew. Some people went so far as to compare us to the winningly off-beat uncle-nephew duo in the Jason Robards’ movie, A Thousand Clowns. Uncle Ed’s willingness to take me in was all the more extraordinary, given how poor he was. When I arrived in New York he had just turned thirty-six and was the author of a single published book, Forgetting Elena, a novel that had sold only a few hundred copies but had miraculously managed to be singled out for praise by Vladimir Nabokov.

Uncle Ed was making ends meet by ghostwriting a U.S. history textbook and living on the Upper West Side with a roommate, an actor also named Keith (faced with the dilemma of two Keiths now living with her son, Ed’s mother, Delilah, my grandmother, solved the problem by designating Keith McDermott "Keith number one" and me "Keith number two"). A month after I moved into their large apartment at 86th and Columbus, Keith number one landed the role of the disturbed teenage boy in the Broadway production of Equus in which he would star opposite Richard Burton. As he prepared for his role, Keith could not resist regarding me–a real-life teenager fresh from the bughouse–as a sort of model, and his portrayal of the boy in Equus ended up incorporating two odd mannerisms I had in my earliest days in New York: a robotic way of walking without swinging my arms and a tendency to peer at people with a furtive, sidelong glance.

My uncle blamed these mannerisms on my confinement in the psycho ward. There, I had been deprived of fresh air and exercise and been tormented by my psychiatrist, Dr. Schwarz, who was always threatening to send me off to a "long-term treatment facility" in the Maine woods where the inmates were made to scream at one another and clear paths of snow using teaspoons. But what most haunted me was the severe, pustular acne I had developed—a condition that had gone untreated and apparently unconsidered by Dr. Schwarz and his staff as a possible cause for all my miserable, defiant behavior. This horrible acne, which my parents had also never thought to do anything about, was the first thing my uncle noticed when I arrived. The next day an appointment was made for me with a dermatologist, and soon the stinky sulfur potion prescribed was working wonders on my face.

Over the next few weeks I was also sent off to the barber and the dentist. One morning I discovered that the pair of plaid pants I had brought to New York had disappeared from my dresser in the tiny maid’s room off the kitchen that I had been given as a bedroom; eventually I realized my uncle must have thrown them discreetly in the trash. But good taste is as easily acquired as bad by a teenager, and I was soon very attached to the old jean jacket and blue Italian shirt my uncle had given me (we were the same size) as well as the tweed jacket and other clothes he bought me at the discount men’s store, Barney’s Basement. And I soon came to appreciate the unfussy, entirely practical emphasis Uncle Ed placed on the importance of appearance.

I had assumed I would be attending the local public school, but my uncle surprised me by saying he wanted me to go to an expensive private one. My mother agreed to help out with a monthly check, but my father not only refused to contribute towards any of my expenses but even balked at sending us my school transcript, which we needed to get me admitted into any new school. Only after Uncle Ed had called up my father and stepmother in a cold fury was the transcript finally sent.

Over the next few months, whenever the burden of meeting all my expenses seemed overwhelming, my uncle began suggesting that I sue my father. Children suing their parents had just come in vogue and Ed said he had been inspired by a magazine article about a Maryland teen who had won damages and a divorce from his parents. But after thinking it over I told Ed that I just did not think I was up to suing my father, that I would rather go to a public high school if prep school was something we could not afford. In retrospect, I see that I probably should have tried to get a court to order my father to contribute to my welfare. At the time, however, my still considerable self-hatred (am I really worthy of a prep school?) mingled with feelings of timidity and shyness (Do I really have a case? Am I really ready for the "spotlight" of playing, in a courtroom, the role of avenging son?) I should have focused more on my poor uncle’s feelings and less on my own.

When spring break rolled around, Uncle Ed decided that he and I needed to escape slushy March Manhattan for a few days and fly down to Puerto Rico. He insisted we take this trip despite having told me that he had five hundred dollars to his name and that the plane tickets we were using were not quite kosher: "Not to worry, though. We shall just make sure we are very casual as we go through boarding." We arrived without a hitch in San Juan late in the afternoon, and by sunset, which my uncle pointed out occurred with sinful speed in the tropics, we were sauntering barefoot on the beach, each sampling a rum punch from a plastic cup. After dinner, Ed guided us into a four-star hotel, through its lobby, and out the other side, saying that all his life he had taken pride in trespassing through expensive places and being taken for someone who belonged there.

It was on this little vacation, the only days that I have ever had my busy, sociable uncle more or less to myself, that I realized there would always be limits to our communion. The next night we happened to be walking around Old San Juan together when he pointed out a circular stone bench that was invitingly shadowy under dreamy, overhanging trees: "When I was your age I was always wanting to sit in places like that and talk all night about life and love and what it all means. Now of course I could not be less interested."

I had heard him say similar things before. When a dinner guest would make the mistake of staying on too deep into the evening and unburdening himself too extensively, the guest was sure to be criticized as "juvenile" afterwards by my uncle and Keith McDermott as they washed and dried the dinner plates. Ed and Keith would agree that they no longer had any patience for heart-to-heart talks, which were pointless as well as exhausting; they would then go on to declare, in the spirit of Oscar Wilde, that everything of interest could be found on the surface of things and that deeper probing almost guaranteed a tedious conversation.

It could be hard to know what Uncle Ed genuinely believed since he was capable of declaring contrary opinions over the course of a single dinner party. He would go into a pet topic such as the "provincialism" of midwesterners, for instance, the way they had of dithering over everything, including saying good-bye, which irritated him no end when he was visiting out there because he did not want another hug, did not want to say "Well, you take care now," and longed instead to get away with a simple, crisp good-bye the way New Yorkers do. But an hour later he would be praising midwesterners and attacking New Yorkers. Now he would be describing himself as "a good, public-library midwestern intellectual" who was sick of meeting Princeton-educated New Yorkers who had "majored in Cocktail 101 and have opinions about everything but never really read anything."

If the opinions that Uncle Ed was inspired to declare could be unpredictable and, as he admitted to me once, "so wrapped up in irony that I sometimes do not know what I really think," what remained constant was his sensibility, particularly his notions of social etiquette. He disliked party games; he disliked jokes, especially long ones; he disliked wit for its own sake, particularly wit that left the witty feeling self-satisfied and the listener mute. What he liked was warm, table-wide chattering that never splintered off into five separate tête-à-têtes and which left everyone free to chip in because no one went on too long or got too pompous. Helping everything along was my uncle’s rule of thumb that one charmed beautiful people by treating them as though they were smart, and brilliant people as though they were sexy.

Uncle Ed may have indulged himself with his big social life, but the code he lived by put more emphasis on self-discipline than hedonism. More than anything he seemed to have styled himself after an 18th-century man of the world. The first book he had suggested I read had been Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son, and I instantly recognized my uncle in Chesterfield’s dictum that a gentleman never rises later than ten in the morning, no matter when he might have gone to bed, and that his day should be divided evenly between study and pleasure, which mutually refresh each other. From time to time my uncle would feel obliged to tell me that it was probably difficult for a young person such as myself to grasp the hard work going on beneath what must look like a life devoted to fun, but I knew how hard he worked. After school, as I lay reading on the living room sofa, I would hear him hammering out his U.S. history textbook on his typewriter in the den dominated by a framed picture of a dead-serious Nabokov staring out with formidable, piercing eyes.

My uncle had also started writing his novel Nocturnes for the King of Naples, but this was something he preferred to "compose," the word he always used, by hand on thick sheets of paper using a beautiful fountain pen. As he wrote, his telephone would keep ringing with yet another call from yet another friend checking in or making plans for the evening, and I came to know the glamour of such a busy, popular telephone (and consequently, the shame of the quieter phones I had known in the midwest). Yet my uncle imposed discipline on his love of conversation, limiting each phone chat, however amusing and punctuated by his deep, wonderfully wicked laughter, to a brisk five minutes. The real secret to his being able to have so much fun and get so much done, I realized, resided in his energy. As I lay on the sofa staring into space with Letters to His Son on my chest, I would find myself thinking that were a movie to be made of his life, the cameras would hardly ever need to stop rolling, so much did he seem to be perpetually "on," socializing and writing and throwing himself into every minute of the day.

If there was glamour to the regularly ringing phone, there was magic in the music continuously playing on Uncle Ed’s disheveled record player. One after another the beat- up discs of Handel’s Concerto Grosso would plop down from where they hung stacked above the turntable—a mechanism that my uncle reminded me actually fell within the robot category. It was easy to see why he used the word compose to refer to his novel writing because music was palpably his favorite art. Soon I too had learned to love "serious music" and to discover how a perpetual Brahms and Bruckner background gave an ordinary afternoon a much-needed boost, supplying it with soaring heroism and sadness and making me feel that my own emotions were being deepened and improved. When Ed had been a teenager reading novels while his father worked at his desk, the Brahms and Mahler records his father continually played had been the only thing they had in common, something my uncle had even hoped might constitute a "shared rapture" between him and his cold, impassive father. I myself saw the music we listened to while my uncle worked at his desk not so much as our shared rapture (he gave of himself enough that I did not need to grasp at such a lonely consolation) but rather as the outward presence of the magic contained in the writing he was doing.

Uncle Ed’s taste in literature was also rubbing off on me. Along with liking some of the usual giants (Nabokov for his eye, Proust for his mind, Tolstoy for his worlds), Ed was also crazy about the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun who, as he put it, "might be dumb but he is always so sensual and inspired." Fran Lebowitz and her New York cynicism was another favorite, and her remark that children are a bore because they have no fashion sense and are incapable of offering one a truly interesting loan was something he loved to repeat.

As I got to know him better, I learned that concealed behind my uncle’s warm, all-purpose sympathy was an extremely opinionated, even astringent mind. Thus while I had learned from his example to hear out even the most crashing bore at a party with nodding encouragement, I also learned to ridicule self-indulgent 1970s pop therapy for devoting so much energy to making people feel better that it was being forgotten that such a thing existed as "actual guilt." I learned from him to scorn the notion of the artist as too beautiful for this world—as too exquisite to keep practical affairs in order or remain emotionally stable. More than once I was advised never to become a writer, to become a businessman instead, because writers were so poorly paid. If I must be a writer, he suggested I satirize flaky creative types instead of the usual bourgeois targets.

Uncle Ed believed in an old-fashioned education. When I had had to choose between a progressive school in the East Village and the stodgy one with the British faculty on the Upper West Side that I did end up attending, what most influenced me was Ed’s stinging characterization of the East Village school as being "the kind of place where if you show up late for class they say you are being creative." But while it might seem that my uncle was simply pouring his opinions into my impressionable midwestern mind, this would leave out my own feeling that dormant within me was something now answering, awakening, to his sensibility. For I was not simply a passive audience but someone who constantly egged him on, quizzing him so much that once he grew exasperated enough to tell me, "You think I have all the answers."

As the years rolled on and I became an adult I learned, of course, that he was right: that no one has all the answers, particularly the answers for the personal path that each of us must take through life. But though my life has assumed a shape all its own, quite distinct from his, I nonetheless have my uncle to thank for the chance to lead any kind of reasonable adult life. For were it not for him I would have continued to rot away in the "units" or "facilities" my father had been so determined I stay in till I was eighteen, my horrible acne getting only worse—a fate I do not even want to begin to contemplate.

Recently I read with interest the narrative written by General Woodward and was struck by its uncle/nephew story. Across more than a century and half I could see a very familiar theme: a nephew who has been deserted by the adult world (in the General’s case, his parents had both died), and an uncle who unexpectedly steps in and treats the boy like his own son. Toward the end, when the General writes that even in old age tears could still come to his eyes at the thought of his old uncle’s kindness, I felt I knew exactly what he meant.

 

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Date Created: Saturday, 13-Jan-2001, 12:01 AM
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