UNCLE ED AND MY LIFE WITH HIM ©
A. Fleming, 1959-2009
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.
Ed (Edmund Valentine White, III) is my mothers 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
charactersomeone 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.
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 Cadillaca
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 Astis, a restaurant so musical
that even the waiters would take turns singing arias.
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.
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: "Hitchcocks films, you
know, have shown us that what is really scary emerges from
what seems to be normal, everyday life. And so instead
of Draculas 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
writethat Uncle Eddie, for instance, had written a whole
play in three acts, The Blue Bird, when he was a third
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 Eddies 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.
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 Mothers 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 Mothers
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
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.
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 mothers 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 Whiteso
big and commandingextremely 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, "Thats 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 Eddies 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
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 climatelike being
locked in a polluted meat freezer, reallythat 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,
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 stunnedfrightened, 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
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 itwhere Grandpa could recuperate in semi-retirement
and Kay rejoin her Key Club ladies.
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 uncles 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 thats 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 storyand all this while elegant jets of
smoke are regularly coming out of his nostrils.
it would still be a few more years before he became my hero. First,
Eddie became Mothers 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. Mothers 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
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.
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 Eddies 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.
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 Mothers release order,
I was on a plane bound for New York.
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 Eds 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
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, Eds 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
mea real-life teenager fresh from the bughouseas 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.
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 developeda
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.
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 maids
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
mens store, Barneys Basement. And I soon came to appreciate
the unfussy, entirely practical emphasis Uncle Ed placed on the
importance of appearance.
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.
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 uncles feelings and less on my own.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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 uncles
rule of thumb that one charmed beautiful people by treating them
as though they were smart, and brilliant people as though they
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 Chesterfields Letters to His Son, and I instantly
recognized my uncle in Chesterfields 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,
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.
there was glamour to the regularly ringing phone, there was magic
in the music continuously playing on Uncle Eds disheveled
record player. One after another the beat- up discs of Handels
Concerto Grosso would plop down from where they hung stacked
above the turntablea 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.
Eds 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.
I got to know him better, I learned that concealed behind my uncles
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 worldas 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
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 Eds 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."
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 worsea
fate I do not even want to begin to contemplate.
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 Generals 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 uncles kindness, I felt I knew exactly
what he meant.