Wednesday, March 3, 2010
By his own admission, my maternal grandfather procrastinated the inevitable for over a century, living to be 104, robustly healthy and intellectually curious about the present as well as his past until his final 6 months. Interesting guy for a "farmer:" he was told by his small-town Southern high school that he wasn't college material so he made it a point immediately to get into Harvard where he drew cartoons for the Harvard Lampoon, cavorted with Kermit Roosevelt plus Joe Kennedy Sr. and defended The Gakwar of Boroda (a princeling from India) from racist students there with fisticuffs. Not at all wealthy, he traveled the world by working for passage on cattle boats (the pre-refrigeration export era,) was thrown out of England by Scotland Yard, joined a German dueling club with the pre-WW I student princes, made his way over to China in the 1900's, tried opium (recalling to have danced the ballet on top of the clouds, later marveling when he could see those cloud tops once again after commercial air travel was invented and became widespread,) got a tattoo there, and saw "the death of 1,000 cuts" in person in India. His descriptions of the starving masses clambering aboard trains in the Far East conjured the frenzied opening scenes of classic film "Lost Horizons."
Harvard architecture graduate, he then worked for Stanford White's firm in Manhattan and knew John Reed ("10 Days that Shook the World") so I took him to see the "Ragtime" and "Reds" movies about his cronies one summer. He designed part of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. He watched Charlie Chaplin film his short comedies on Santa Monica pier while in California. He married the most daring socialite girl in Memphis Tenn., the first to bob her hair and go barnstorming in biplanes. He then settled down to farm on land that was a small inheritance, expanded same and became very successful with such innovations as importing soybeans to the South when he remembered this crop from the Egypt of the 1920's. He imported the first VW Beetle and Russian Wolfhound (Borzoi) to the South. He and my grandmother were generous, nonjudgmental people. All his family and employees rightfully thought the world of them.
My immediate family chose to present such toxicity to yours truly throughout childhood that I really gravitated to the few allies in it like him even if he lived 2,000 miles away. I think I received my art talent, my (somewhat closeted) adventurousness and love of animals from him. (I certainly became interested in owning sighthounds from his old photos like the one above: that's a Borzoi he imported from Czarist Russia by way of Chicago.) I also "inherited" his open-mindedness --I can be good friends with folks with whom I disagree as long as they are likewise tolerant of me, because it's all about seeing what's out there and codifying the info. Example of same: he was as old-fashioned religious as one would expect a Southerner born in the 1880's to have been, yet fervently believed in science and evolution joking "The bible said God created the earth in seven days, but it doesn't really say how long those days were!"
It's sort of a tightrope walk to keep his memory as dignified as it deserves to be while recounting such tales of his adventurous youth. I retain the same professional qualms in writing about some of my contemporary musician clients, yet remain fascinated with how people such as them attain the balance they desire in their lives. I tape recorded many of his tales as he remained an excellent raconteur. He outlived my grandmother by 25 years, and died on my birthday.
Top right photo (C) 1971 Heather Harris. All Rights Reserved.