AT 407: MY GRANDFATHER’S HOUSE AND A LOST ERA
POSTED BY HENRY ALLEN
In the early nineteen-fifties, my grandfather sold the family house in Orange, New Jersey. It was the sensible thing to do. My grandmother was long dead, their three sons were gone. It was an old ark of a place, as my mother would say. Its time was over. Nevertheless, even as the country around us levitated into television modernity and Cold War paranoia, the house would linger as a sense of foreclosed possibility, of diaspora. It was like a planet that disappears, leaving behind only its gravity.
Not that losing it was a tragedy; more a case of the old truth that we have to change or pay more to stay the same. Still, there was something heroic about life there, heroically modest in the vanishing style that sought the respect of friends but not the envy of rivals.
We called it 407 after its address, 407 Highland Avenue—an early Victorian, a big house on a street of big houses. It had high ceilings, airy and claustrophobic at the same time, like a church. It had a cured smell, the comfortable pungence of a can of pipe tobacco or mink coats in closets. There were huge Oriental rugs, wingback chairs, and standup ashtrays. On tables were objects of crystal, bronze, and sterling silver with monograms—cigarette boxes, porringers, picture frames, and a tea set of architectural splendor. To me, at the age of ten or so, it all had the air of furnishings for a ritual, however outworn.
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My grandfather, Henry Southworth Allen, Jr., was called Harry. (My father is the third with that name, and I am the fourth.) He was a managing partner at Spencer Trask, a Wall Street investment bank. It was a station in life that gave him much satisfaction. He bought 407 after the First World War. An artist had owned it once, and had added a studio that went up two stories, enclosing an exterior wall whose bedroom windows overlooked what became the living room. After bedtime, we children could peer down on the mysteries of grownups, the men backhanding logs into the fireplace and lighting the women’s cigarettes.
When the three Allen sons, my father and his two younger brothers, got together there on holidays, they had wary smiles, as if life at 407 were an inside joke. They had grace, too, gliding around in pleated trousers that hung from high nineteen-forties waists. They lightly hitched them up by the creases before they sat down; they held cigarettes at the last knuckle of their fingers and smoked only half of them. They had spent their youths on the right lists, for coming-out parties at the Ritz-Carlton or the Plaza. That was before the war.
By my time, the old Anglo-Saxon stock was losing sway. Its presumptuousness was coming to look absurd, but lost at the same time was the grace that had given way to the raw energy of post-war America. Still, my father retained the best and easiest manners of any man I have known. They accompanied his belief that “everything comes back.”
The Allen sons’ wives wore wide-shouldered dresses with narrow waists and they braced their elbows against their ribs to hold cigarettes up, devil-may-care, like torches. They seemed resigned—they’d been married long enough to suspect that the Allen boys would disappoint them, sons of a father who’d raised them to have the off-handed demeanor of the rich whom he admired. It was the money that was the problem.
There had been money at 407, but, in 1931, one of my grandfather’s partners made a catastrophic deal on Canadian timber and soon my grandmother, Mildred, made a legendary vow: “The next time we’ve got money like that, we’re going to spend a little of it.” In photographs she has a bold, open face. I have one of her at the tiller of an electric car—she was said to have been the second licensed woman driver in Massachusetts. She came from New Bedford. Much of her family’s money, made in textiles, had been lost when “the mills went South,” as my father would mournfully intone.
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As a young woman, my mother had played cards with her in the front room. She thought the meander of veins on the backs of Mil’s hands was beautiful. Along with the grand piano, which had chipped keys and a heavy action, there was a radio. On Saturday afternoons in the thirties, my father and his mother used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera together. The Christmas tree went next to the piano. In my time, I had the feeling it had been decorated by the maids, Rose and Pauline, and nobody else looked at it.
Rose and Pauline had also taken on the job of preparing meals after the Depression foreclosed on certain possibilities: Packards, a water-view summer house in Southport, a cook. Their kitchen had an industrial feeling—only servants used it, after all. I remember a smell of hominy. An old cookie jar stood on a counter but there were never any cookies in it. There was a back staircase I liked, an invitation to rainy-day playfulness in a house that seemed to constrain that sort of thing. There was a big hole in the pantry door.
“Rats,” my father explained. I wonder now why it hadn’t been patched.
When Fanny came to do the laundry there was a thick sharp smell of soap and steam. All three women were black. Fanny had put her son through medical school; he then lost his medical license for performing abortions. “It broke her heart,” my father said. He cared most for people as individuals rather than social abstractions, though he voted for Roosevelt and the New Deal, perhaps in secret. His own father called him “Ruse-evelt” in the manner of Republicans who hated him.
The Allens of 407 were still rich by most reckonings, but they knew the vast distance between the rich and the very rich, the ones who, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, are different from you and me. One asset held firm: the proprietary air that lurks in families who arrived in New England in the first decades of the sixteen-hundreds. We were children of the Old Ones, the God-bitten Indian killers of New England whose descendants would have Presidents to dinner, and whose ghosts still haunted multi-poly-diversity America. This heritage was seldom mentioned, and then only with a tone of voice meant to dismiss it as irrelevant. Anything more would have seemed undemocratic.
My father was born in 1910. He grew up in a world of knickers, coal furnaces, servants, trolley cars, neckties worn on golf courses, and the Jazz Age of Fitzgerald, whom he disdained for flamboyance unbecoming of a fellow Princeton man. In photographs he has the presumptuous earnestness of a boarding-school boy he’d been (St. George’s, 1928) and a slight hardness to his stare—the sort of look that military officers cultivate. He was proud of his boyhood, and he wanted me to have a boyhood like it, busy with hobbies, experiments, and collections. I disappointed him.
He played the piano in the front room. He could play Chopin’s easier pieces, but his first love was musical comedy. He bought sheet music and learned the American songbook as it was being written. He taught himself to draw. He collected stamps that his father brought home from his office at Spencer Trask; stamps from now-vanished countries—Abyssinia, the Dutch East Indies. He listened to a crystal-set radio. He read St. Nicholas magazine for children, with its stories by authors with three names such as Albert Payson Terhune, who wrote about dogs.
Dad had a dog, a Boston bull terrier named Bobby. When I was a boy, after the Second World War, he took me into the back yard of 407 and showed me where he had buried Bobby.
“I put his collar on the fence post,” he said, his face going simple with grief.
“What happened to the collar?” I asked.
He startled me by snapping: “That rotted away years ago.”
I was born in 1941; my grandmother died soon after, of asthma and heart disease, at the age of fifty-six. She and her death seemed to occupy 407, at the edge of our peripheral vision. My grandfather took refuge in a small, dark, ground-floor bedroom. He would lead me and my younger sister, Julie, in there, lift us up, and let us put one hand in his penny jar. We could keep all the pennies we could hold—a lesson in the fundamentals of capitalism.
He had a little potbelly, quick eyes, and a busy precision about him. In middle age he had learned to figure skate in the old style, gliding backward to draw figure eights. He believed in homeopathy. He was superstitious. If he saw a man on crutches during his morning ferry ride to Wall Street and then the market went down, he’d come home grumbling about the “goddam cripple.” After very bad days, he would throw away the necktie he’d worn.
Into the nineteen-forties, he still went to New York on Saturdays to work a half day in the old style. He would not return until evening. My father asked him once what he did with the other half of the day.
He said: “I have lunch with Kerensky and then we go antique shopping.”
Kerensky! Alexander Kerensky, who lived in New York then, had been the Prime Minister of Russia, the last chance for democracy before the Bolsheviks overthrew him. I love the bravado of this lie. The truth was, my grandfather spent Saturdays with his secretary and their son: he had another family.
I wrote a poem about this:
Grandpa had a mistress.
The mistress had a son.
When Grandpa died the cancelled checks
Would show what he had done.
My grandfather was everything to my father. My mother despised him. “He was such a phony,” she would say.
She resented him for allowing one and only one martini to be served before dinner. He kept a close eye on the drinking, a family disease. I suspect she also didn’t like having to fight him for my father’s loyalty. He insisted that my father—though not his younger brother, David—follow him to Wall Street, as if it were a family legacy. My grandmother thought that he should be an Episcopal priest, but she was overruled. I think he would have found the clergy tedious, but he found working as a bond broker tedious, too—and he lacked the knack for making money. As for my father’s own youthful ambitions, he mooned over two impossible romances: Broadway songwriting and going to sea, as he had read about it in Joseph Conrad.
Through family connections, Dad worked as a merchant sailor during summers at Princeton, sailing to Brazil and China. At Princeton he tried out for the Triangle Club, whose celebrated musical show used to tour from city to city every year. My father’s year, Jimmy Stewart made it, but Dad and his songs were turned down. I think he was crushed. He kept writing songs, though. He thought his best was one called “Winter Coming On.”
So here am I
With nothing to do but sigh
in the long night, the lonely night
of winter coming on.
Near the end of his junior year, he quit Princeton to attempt a transatlantic sail in a thirty-six-foot Friendship sloop with two friends—a feat that was covered in at least one New York newspaper. The boat sprung a board five hundred miles out, and they had to pump their way back to Nova Scotia. While repairs were being made, my father got a job harpooning swordfish. He hated the cruelty of it.
He told me about his boyhood failures, perhaps to comfort me for mine. Once, at St. George’s, he was running down a football field with the winning pass arcing toward him, and dropped the ball. I was sorry he told me.
In Southport, before the Depression, my father crewed on a Star boat that tied for first in the Eastern championships. The skipper had already rented a flatcar to haul the boat to San Francisco for the Nationals. In the sail-off, the other Star went out looking for wind on a reach and found it, and that was that. So many almosts, so many not quites.
My grandfather’s proprieties wore down my grandmother. She also had to deal with Harry’s mother and his unmarried sister, Florrie, who also lived at 407 and took his side.
Mil got her revenge, though, when her youngest son, Peter, was born, in 1922. She “spoiled him rotten,” my mother would say with satisfaction. He was a wild child who saw the family’s decorum as a joke, not an obligation. At the age of three, the legend had it, he ran crying into the house: “Goddam bee stung me.”
He would go on to a series of school expulsions and car wrecks, gambling debts, a teen-age elopement, and lost jobs. He was also a war hero decorated for risking his life to put out a fire in his B-24 over Europe. He was the smartest son and the funniest. I named my first son after him.
I knew from family stories that there had been much fun at 407. At the dinner table on festive occasions, they would put napkins on their heads and say to each other in turn, “This is a very serious occasion,” until they were laughing too hard to continue. On holidays, the best part of dinner for me was the desserts that Rose and Pauline made with brandy—pies and hard sauce. The alcohol fumes were supposed to catch fire but, despite the lighting of many matches, flames were fugitive.
Rose and Pauline stayed on until 407 was sold. By that time, there was a new suburban way of life that excluded servants and the schedules that went with them. On Sundays, they had gone to early church, and then cooked Sunday dinner for the family to eat when they returned from the eleven o’clock service. In our little postwar house, one county over from 407, my mother cooked Sunday dinner while my sister and I had to wait in our church clothes, knowing our friends were outside playing.
Grandpa visited us but he looked uncomfortable in our house and complained of drafts.
In 1938, my father was on the floor of the Stock Exchange when the bell rang to stop trading, a rare and drastic event. There was an announcement. Richard Whitney, former president of the Exchange, treasurer of the New York Yacht Club, master of the Far Hills Hunt, and the model of everything admired at 407 had been arrested. The crime was the sleaziest of betrayals on Wall Street then: embezzlement from funds he oversaw.
“Richard Whitney!” my father said to me. “Richard Whitney! Impossible!” It was reported that people crowded in Grand Central Station to see him taken off to prison in handcuffs.
After commanding a landing ship through the carnage at Okinawa, and satisfying any craving he still had for the sea, my father defied my grandfather and quit Wall Street to sell wholesale silverware. He liked selling. He was good at it, though later he was not as good when he moved into management. Grandpa insisted that he describe himself not as a salesman but as a “district sales manager.” Along with his boyhood, the Navy was my father’s greatest success. Meanwhile, my uncles lived as if they were in exile, moving through futureless jobs in out-of-the-way cities. David ran an Eastern Airlines ticket office in Atlantic City, I remember, and Peter moved from rental to rental, one step ahead of the landlord.
Whiskey, the sovereign remedy for the pain of change, became a way of living that was also a way of dying. Drinking is a borrowing against a future that never comes. Instead, there are business disappointments, debts, and marrying down—a regression to the mean.
Its hat factories long gone, Orange was turning shabby. Before the tracks were torn up, my grandfather took me for a ride so I’d know what a trolley had been. Family legend had it that a distant cousin had travelled from New Jersey to Rhode Island on the interurban trolley that once linked towns on the East Coast.
With stunning crassness or encroaching dementia, my grandfather remarried in his late sixties in a grand church wedding with flower girls, the flinging of rose petals, and a celebrity minister—Norman Vincent Peale, the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking.” The new wife, named Molly, turned out to be a middle-aged drunk and a hanger-on of ministers who bilked her and us. My mother said that she gave 407’s Oriental rugs—and who knows what else—to someone she called “the Revender Cooper.”
In a last chance for 407, my grandfather offered to sell it to my father, but he or my mother or both of them said no. I liked the idea—my last chance at equalling my father’s boyhood—but I recall them saying that it would cost a fortune to heat.
Grandpa and Molly moved to a stuffy apartment in a building that my father called “Menopause Hall.” Grandpa died there during a nap, after church, on Easter Sunday. My sister and I were not allowed to go to the funeral. I don’t know why. I wonder now if the mistress was there with her son, our half-uncle.
The widow pestered my father with drunken late-night phone calls. She stepped in a paint pot and fell downstairs. We heard that she’d gone into a nursing home and then we lost track of her. I think my father felt she was the living corruption of everything that 407 and his mother had stood for. In a burst of cynicism, he said that his father had married her because he thought she had money.
Now I am the oldest member of the family. I have lived my life in the exile of bohemia and journalism. After claiming some casualties, the family disease is finally in remission—I haven’t had a drink for more than twenty years. There are great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren with newfound energy and delight in life—from a law partner, a school principal, and a ski champion to a four-year-old in a tutu on Halloween. This chronicle may mean little to them; history stops at your grandparents. And when my sister and I die, along with a few cousins, there will be no one to remember our 407, no one to honor its tutelary deities, which is to say that there will be no 407 at all by our lights, just an old house in an exhausted city in New Jersey.
Henry Allen wrote and edited for thirty-nine years at the Washington Post. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, in 2000.
Images, from top: The author’s grandmother Mildred Bowen Allen, with her sons, in a sailboat. The author’s grandfather Henry Southworth Allen, Jr., who was called Harry. A drawing by the author, done from a photograph of his father at St. George’s. The author’s grandmother in a car with her dog Fluffy Ruffles.