Some Were Short-Timers

My mother was a born hellion - this is her in 1920

My mother was a born hellion – this is her in 1920

 

By Cecil Hoge

Not so many years ago a Secretary of State blamed some attacks in Iraq on “pockets of dead-enders”. The Secretary of State was referring the fact that some of the attacks had been perpetrated by suicide bombers. This was after the then President Bush had declared the Iraq War as “mission accomplished”. I always thought that the reference to dead-enders was strange given the fact that, in the end, we all are dead-enders. Early or late, as an unknown poet once said, we stoop to fate. Sooner or later, the time comes for each of us to go.

Most of my family have lived reasonably long and full lives by this century’s standards. By that I mean most of our family members lived into their seventies or eighties and they got to do many things and enjoy their stay on earth. Only a few of us were what I will call short-timers.

If you were not aware, the lifespan of humans has greatly increased over the last 100 or so years. This is because of a number of factors…women and children are no longer dying in childbirth, the advent of penicillin and other antibiotics reduced or eliminated many infectious diseases, running water and clean lavatories prevented diseases, cleaner hospitals and newly developed treatments prevented death or prolonged life, the advent of central heating and cooling protected humans against hot and cold weather, the replacement of horses in cities by buses, trains and automobiles greatly reduced the amount of manure and urine on city streets. For these reasons and other reasons, we enjoy far longer lives than our earlier ancestors.

Despite the improvements in health and longevity in every family, some members die earlier than others and live far fewer years. I would like to mention a few members of my family who were not so lucky to live long, full and rewarding lives.

The first two short-timers that I will mention are two cousins, both the children of my aunt Diane. Diane Shewan was my mother’s sister and, for whatever reason, she did not marry well. Diane was a beautiful woman and grew up in luxury that was excessive even by today’s standards, so it may be hard to know why her marriage did not work out. As I understand it she liked to drink a lot and she married a man who liked to drink a lot. His name was Jack Munhall. He had been a soldier during World War II and he came back from World War II a shattered man with a great thirst. He was also a handsome shattered man and so it happened Diane fell in love with him and they became married and Diane became Diane Munhall.

From that marraige, came two children, Leslie and Jay. Jay was the younger of the two and in some ways his story is the sadder. While Diane had grown up in environment of great wealth, living 5 houses around the world, cruising around the U.S. and Europe in my grandfather’s three large yachts, her father, my grandfather, managed to spend almost all of his fortune in his own lifetime. And the man that Diane chose to marry turned out to be man unable to earn a living wage.

Within a relatively short period Diane went from great wealth to relative poverty. At first the newly married couple settled into a pretty comfortable apartment in the Seventies on the East Side of Manhattan. Leslie and Jay were born in that apartment and that is where they grew up. That apartment did not last long because it soon it became apparent that Jack Munhall had a real problem holding down jobs. I am not very familiar with the jobs he had, but as I remember it he started in public relations, had a good starting salary and then got canned after a couple of years. I gather Jack was noted for his inability to show up regularly during the week. Thereafter, jobs came and went with great regularity.

At one point, Jack, after losing several fairly good paying jobs, ended up working for my father in some capacity, but apparently that work was also too much for him. My father told me that one day Jack came into the office and said he was leaving. My father begged Jack, knowing his need of income, to stay on and give the job a chance. But Jack said no, he had leave that very moment and could not work a minute longer. My father told me later that Jack was having a “nervous breakdown”.

“Nervous breakdown” is not a term used very much these days, but in the fifties it was quite popular. Usually, it referred to someone reaching some kind of crisis point their life and then being unable to carry on and going literally insane for a short or long period. Today this condition happens often to people, but it often passes quite quickly and it is often not called a nervous breakdown. In Jack’s case, it resulted in Jack going off to an institution periodically to spend a few weeks or a few months there to get the courage to come back to the world and function.

As mentioned, nervous breakdowns still occur in this day and age, but usually they are called different names. Whatever the condition is called, most of the institutions that used to treat that type of condition are closed and have been replaced by psychiatrists who sit in local offices and prescribe various kinds of drugs to solve the condition.

Whatever the solution, then or now, the condition either goes away after one or two short episodes or persists and returns periodically. In Jack’s case, the condition tended to persist. He would come back as a new man, all confident in his abilities to deal with the world. Shortly thereafter, he would start drinking again, have more problems keeping a job and become ineffective in taking care of his family. Jack Munhall was a wonderful, caring, sensitive person and if you met him in a good period, it would never occur to you that he had problems. He was a handsome man with a sweet and tender smile. You tell sometimes that something was wrong because sometimes the sweet and tender smile would fade and curl downward as if some doubt had snuck into the corner of his mouth.

Within a relatively short time of coming out of one institution, Jack Munhall would have another breakdown and then return to some institution to try and solve it. In his case, the problem was never solved and he spent the rest of his life in and out of institutions.

That left Diane, who also enjoyed her drinks, as the wage-earner for the family. Diane was considerably more stable, if not more sober, and she was able to hold various jobs and bring in some income to her family. By this time, her once very rich father had passed on, leaving no inheritance, no yachts, no houses, no nothing, having spent it all in innumerable ways. This meant that Diane had to support her family on her relatively low paid job income and on Jack’s sometime income, if he happened to be functioning.

It was not many years before Jack stopped working altogether and ceased to provide any income for his family. Eventually, he dropped out of the picture and Diane was left to fend for herself and her family on a meager secretary’s salary. Because of the realities of their financial condition they moved to the West Side in the upper Eighties into a shabby apartment in a shabby neighborhood plagued with crime and poverty. This is where Jay and Leslie attended schools and grew up in their teens.

Jay was the first to start having difficulties. One day in their original East Side apartment Jay decided it would be a good idea to threaten his parents with suicide.     At that time, his parent were still operating as a relatively normal married couple. Jay decided that the best way to get attention was to threaten suicide and so he hung his body out of one their 7th floor apartment windows. Luckily, there was a iron grate installed on the window and it was difficult to simply jump off. Jay did get most of his body over the iron grate just before his mother grabbed him by his legs and pulled him back in. I do not think anybody ever found out why Jay wanted to commit suicide. He was obviously upset about something, but I never learned the reason. I was present in the apartment when this happened and I remember the episode fairly clearly.

Years later, I started hearing stories about him being unruly in school and sniffing glue. He was in 8th or 9th grade at the time. First Jay was temporarily kicked out of school for his unruly behavior. Pretty soon Jay was in and out of Juvenile Court. His grades were terrible. He was hanging out with a bad crowd and he was taking various kinds of drugs, the most popular of which seemed to be glue, primarily because it was so easy to obtain and so cheap.

To make a long story short, Jay was in and out of Juvenile Court, in and out of jails. Occasionally, he would be sent to a psychiatrist for evaluation. Invariably, they prescribed short stays in various institutions and various drugs to calm him down or stimulate him, depending on what they diagnosed the problem to be that week. As time went on and his life preceded, the treatment options changed, other drugs were proscribed to make him better. But after being in and out of jails and institutions and taking different kinds of drugs, some to make him better, some to make him worse, it all arrived at the same place. It seemed Jay was unable to get along with people and thereafter, he was sent to a correction facility in upstate, never to emerge.

Now Jay was a short-timer only in the sense that his workable life ended by the time he was 20. Today, he may actually still be alive. I do not know. In any case, his opportunities in life closed out before they began and before he had the opportunity to experience life, he was put away and kind of discarded.

His sister, Leslie, my other cousin, soon had problems herself, but these problems were different. She very pretty, very sexy and very confused. A striking and attracting feature of Leslie was that fact that she had a full growth of red hair offset with strawberry freckles. I gather she inherited these features from her Irish father, Jack Munhall.

I remember a time when Diane and Leslie came to visit my parents at our little summer house in Bellport, Long Island. I was 14 and very shy and immature, she was 12 and about ten years more mature and experienced than me. Even at the age of 12 she had a full and voluptuous figure. Somehow we found ourselves up in my bedroom hugging and kissing each other. It did not go any further than that, but I felt forever attracted to her by that experience.

Leslie was soon out dating boys of all kinds and I gathered she matured fast, like many young girls brought up in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods. I did not see her much but thereafter she was going steady with a string of different boys. One time I was in the city and went to visit her and her girlfriend. She brought her latest boyfriend and soon they went off to a nearby bedroom. That left me with the girlfriend who soon kind of enveloped me. I was still very young and very inexperienced and I found myself amazed by how forward my cousin’s girlfriend was.

I did not hear much or see much of either Leslie or her girlfriend. I did hear from my aunt Diane that Leslie was having stomach problems and boyfriend problems. I did not hear any real details, but I gather that her relationship problems somehow affected her digestive tract and her stomach had literally tied itself up in knots.

By this time I was 18 and headed for college.

Over the next 6 years, I did not hear much from Leslie. Every once and while I would meet her at her mother’s. By this time, Diane had divorced Jack Munhall and had struck up a relationship with a guy named Bill Riley, another Irishman. Bill was a cameraman and a kind one man production studio. Diane started working with him, helping him with getting clients, completing scripts, making films, which mostly were documentaries and commercials. Bill and Diane drank a lot and it was wise thing to visit them in the early afternoon, not in the later part of the day.

Occasionally, Leslie would stop in and about all I would see of her was a quick hello and quick goodbye. She was still beautiful and she did not look like she suffered from either boyfriend or health problems. By this time, she was a young married lady. I don’t think she shared her mother’s enthusiasm for alcohol, but she always seemed nervous and unsure of herself and very beautiful in spite of it. She may have been taking some kinds of drugs by this time, amphetamines or barbiturates. I do not really know, but something seemed wrong. She was nervous, high-strung and always seemed to be biting her lip.

Over the next years, I graduated from college, tried a stint at being a writer on a local paper in the Hamptons and then went into my father’s business in St. James, Long Island. Occasionally, I would go over to Diane and Bill’s. It was kind of exciting for me because they led a kind of Bohemian life, producing documentaries or commercials for anyone they could convince to accept their services. Working at odd hours and drinking at odd hours. In spite of their somewhat bohemian habits, both Bill and Diane were very likable people.

They had a “production office” on the West Side, somewhere in the 50s, near what used to be called “Hell’s Kitchen”. I used to go over there and visit in the afternoons, if I happened to have some earlier meetings that day in the city. At the time, I was going into the city pretty regularly from Setauket, Long Island to meet a layout artist to complete various ads we were doing. So I would come into the city, meet with the layout artist, have lunch and then, if there was time, I would stop by Bill and Diane’s. Inevitably, if it was afternoon, they would start their drinking. It was exciting for me and probably not the best influence, but it was what it was.

This was also my way of keeping in touch with what was going on with Leslie. Mostly, I never saw Leslie. She was off in another part of the city, living her married life, with her new husband. Occasionally, she would show up and drop off stuff or pick up stuff. She did some errands for the production studio, which mostly consisted of running film back and forth to various places. Either editing studios or TV stations.

By this time I had entered the real working world and had become more or less entwined in my father’s business. I had not intended to work for my father, but like many others before me, I found myself drawn in. Then a strange thing happened. I started to like my father’s business and soon I was working hook, line and sinker.

I kept in touch with Bill and Diane and I came to learn after a couple of years that Leslie’s marriage had not worked out and they had separated. Then I heard she remarried. I was not very impressed with the man she chose to remarry. When I went to meet them in their new apartment, I could see that he was a good provider. The apartment was clean and full of modern conveniences…new kitchen, new furniture, a new stereo, a huge new TV. From a distance it looked like Leslie had finally found a man to make her happy and provide her with a stable living condition.

Then I met him. He was a little above average height, thin, handsome in a dark Italian kind of way, and very hyper. He explained to me he needed the big TV to watch football games up close and be sure not to miss any detail. Monday night Football, Saturday football games were big events for him and he had the big TV to watch it all. While I could sense that he was a good provider, that he had a good job, that he was a stable kind of guy, somehow I could not see it working out with him and Leslie. He just seemed too intense and demanding for Leslie. He also seemed to have a sharp temper that would show up occasionally in his conversations with his new wife. I had the feeling that sooner or later Leslie would get fed up or lose interest in her husband.

It was only a few years later that I heard Leslie had separated from her husband and she had moved down to Miami. Diane said she was worried about her daughter and that if I ever got the chance, I should drop in on her and see how she was doing. It happened that I was exhibiting at the Miami Boat Show that year and so I called Leslie up and told her I would like to take her out to dinner.

I took some time off from the show and cruised over to her house. It turned to be a small bungalow in North Miami Beach. You almost had to drive an hour from where the Boat Show was being held, but I got there on a warm Miami evening. We went out to dinner and everything was going fine. We were chatting each other up, talking about childhood memories, about family, about how our lives were going. Leslie seemed to have a lot of hopes and dreams for the future.

Then somewhere after dinner, just as I was bringing her back to her bungalow, she kind of snapped and literally became a different person. The strange thing about this is that it happened mid sentence. One second were chatting and laughing, the next she was accusing me of trying to take her back to New York to her mother. Since I had no intention of taking her back to New York, Leslie’s accusation came as a complete surprise. Not only did she change her entire mood and frame of mind during our conversation, she seemed to change her whole personality.

I do not know if you have even met a truly schizophrenic person, but Leslie turned out to be truly schizophrenic. I found myself literally unable to continue the conversation. It had gone from fond reminiscences and laughing cheerful talk to deeply troubled and troubling accusations. Somehow, within the space of a few seconds, Leslie had become convinced that I was plotting to take her back to New York and deliver her to her mother.

I tried to talk my way out of this and convince her that I had no such intention. I tried to explain that I was just out to buy her dinner and chat up old times. But Leslie simply did not buy it. In her mind I had become this alien trying to take her back to her mother. There was no way to convince her otherwise. I did the only thing I could, I said I was going to head back to my hotel in downtown Miami and I would call her the next morning. I kept insisting that I had no intentions to take her back to New York, but Leslie was convinced that one way or another I was against her.

I headed back to my hotel kind of dazed and confused by my cousins strange accusations. The next day I did call her up and almost immediately it became apparent that she was the old Leslie, the cousin I remembered, laughing, joking, saying she had a great time. She said absolutely nothing about her accusations and about my efforts to persuade her that I was not trying to take her back to New York. All of that had passed away, forgotten and forgiven, as if it had never taken place.

I did not see Leslie until many years later. By this time, she was back in New York. Once again, I took her out to dinner. Leslie had seemed to have stabilized, but her health seemed to be terrible and I did not know just what was the problem was. I could see that she was thin and unhealthy looking. Her once rosy, freckled cheeks now looked sallow. Her once beautiful figure was now thin in some places and overweight in other places. So her arms were now puffy and heavy, her stomach paunchy. She was still thin, but overweight in places, as if her body was getting out of shape in some places, but remaining thin in other places.

The place she was living was kind of horrible in itself. It was a kind of run on kitchen living room bedroom, really a one room studio that was not wide enough that started out as a kitchenette and then became a living space with a bed at the end of it. It was the kind of Manhattan apartment that people only rented if they could not afford anything else. It was somewhere in the 30s on the East Side in an a neighborhood where all the apartments were next to each other and you could hear different neighbors, making conversation, sometimes fighting and arguing, sometimes watching TV, sometimes playing loud music. There was no real privacy, no sense of space. I was glad to have the opportunity to take her to dinner and get her out of there.

Leslie did not live many years longer. I heard from her mother that she had passed away and that there had been a funeral. My wife and I were living out on Long Island and I had been on a business trip to the West Coast when I heard that she had died. She must have been in her middle 30s. I never did learn what she died of. All I heard was that she had stomach problems and they got worse. She went into the hospital with some stomach pains. There were complications and within a week she died. And so her life ended just when she should have been enjoying married life with kids. Considering that her mother Diane came from great wealth and Leslie died in great poverty, her death is all the more tragic.

My uncle John was another person in our family who did not get to live a very long life. I do not remember that much about him. I remember a picture of him standing in front of the Southampton Bathing Corporation just before going into the beach club for a swim and lunch. He was a relatively short man for his family, really a man of average. He had a slight paunch which he stuck out, almost as if he was proud of his stomach.

All three of his brothers were considerably taller. My father was the tallest at 6′ 3 & 3/4″, a tall, lanky and impressive man. Hamilton Hoge was the second tallest at 6′ 2″, a man with a healthy ruddy face and a good athletic physic. Francis Hoge was almost a tall, even more handsome and even more well-built. Even John’s sister, Barbara Hoge, was as tall.

All of that said, John was a handsome man and, according to my father, “all the girls loved John.” Apparently, he liked to go out to nightclubs, was very popular and was well liked by both male and female friends.

I do not remember him that well, but I remember him driving me from New York City to Southampton a couple of times. He had what I believe was a Dodge Convertible. I remember it was a big deal when he put down the top. I loved the open air feeling of that car, but putting down the top was a kind of elaborate procedure that did not always go well. Sometimes he had to fuss with the handles to release the top. Sometimes the handles did not want to close when the top was put up.

He was my favorite uncle, but he died at a relatively young age. He was always full of jokes, always telling stories, always talking as if he really enjoyed his life. I could see why he was so popular with the ladies. Apparently, he had some kind of heart disease. Today, of course, very few people die of heart disease, at least immediately. The doctors have figured out ways to keep people going for quite some time with the help of heart medications, stints, pig valves and various operations. But this was before those medical innovations.

I remember a family gathering when the whole family sat around my grandmother’s living room at 1165 Fifth Avenue and discussed his health. John had just learned that he had a serious heart condition from his doctor and that he would have to amend his lifestyle. I am not sure he had a bad life style. I do not think he drank a lot, even if he liked to go out to nightclubs. I do think he liked to dance and stay up late. He did not smoke, something his brother Hamilton did with great enthusiasm.

“You are going to have to make a change,” I remember my father saying. By this time in life my father was a very serious young businessman. My father was excellent at following advice he gave to others. He rarely drank, he did not smoke, and he ate simple healthy food. In the end, he lived just about as long as his brother Hamilton who ate lots of red meat, drank lots of scotch and smoked lots of cigarettes.

If John had a vice, it was eating red meat. Apparently, my grandmother raised all her kids on red meat. “They needed red meat,” she told me, “we never ate much red meat in Louisiana, but when I moved up North and had my sons, I fed them all on red meat.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I remember John saying to his brothers, “I am going to outlive you all.”

Whatever the reason, John proved to be wrong. He died one or two years later. I remembered him as this wonderful cheerful man, who was always joking and who was normally accompanied by a beautiful lady of the time. I noticed that the faces of the ladies changed. What did not seem to change was that all the ladies who accompanied him were beautiful and all seemed in love with John. It would seem that my father was right, “the ladies did love John.”

Mom liked hats

Mom liked hats!

The last short-timer I would like to discuss was my mother. Her maiden name was Anne Barbara Shewan and she, like her sister, grew up in great wealth. I have written about some of the antics of my grandfather on my mother’s side. He had, as I have mentioned in other places, the largest repair shipyard in the United States and during World War I, his shipyard, Shewan Shipyards, prepared most of the navy’s ships for entering that war.

Shewan Shipyards gave my grandfather great wealth. The business was established by his father, a Scotsman, James Shewan. James had come to this country in 1869, as a ship’s carpenter and he built the business up from literally nothing to be the largest shipyard in the United States, the only one capable of lifting an entire battleship out of the water and repairing it from the bottom up. According to my father, James Shewan was the dynamic founder. My grandfather, Edwin Shewan and his brother, James Shewan, were more the dynamic squanderers of this great business.

According to a book I have on Scotsmen in America, James Shewan had 40 acres of prime waterfront on 25th, 26th and 27th Streets in Brooklyn, just as you were coming into New York Harbor. James Shewan and his two sons had over 2,000 men working in their repair shipyard, so it was really quite an operation.

All of this was before my time and I do not remember my grandfather, although I am told I liked to crawl under his desk. I still have the desk, one of the last remnants of my grandfather’s great fortune.

Of course, I do remember my mother and to my mind, she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She liked to wear very stylish hats and dress in beautiful clothes. She was a great horse lady and a great swimmer. She tried to interest me in horse riding, but after what seemed like a really long fall from a really tall horse, I decided horse riding was not for me. In later life, I came to regret that decision and to wish I had learned to ride horses, but by that time, it was too late.

I do remember my mother taking me to what was then known as the Squadron A, which was then on 94th and Madison. It looked like a giant red brick castle that had been plopped down on 94th and Madison Avenue. You could ride a horse in the Squadron A itself or you could walk outside with your horse across Madison Avenue, over to Fifth Avenue and into Central Park. As mentioned I never truly got the hang of horse riding, but I do remember walking horses in Central Park with my mother as a young boy, feeling very uncomfortable way up high on this impossibly big horse, bouncing up and down, as we walked the horses down the pathways that were there for horse riding in the Park.

I think the tragedy of my mother is that she came from great wealth and was unimpressed by it and yet she married a man, my father, who aspired to great wealth and who worked very hard to get what absolutely bored my mother. It was not that my mother disliked wealth. She obviously liked some of the accoutrements of wealth. She loved jewelry (Cartier was her favorite store), she loved big glamorous high fashion hats, she loved beautiful, well-tailored dresses, but having been born with all of that she never understood my father’s great desire to earn money and be a financial success. Nor did she ever understand the need for money and necessity of earning an income. It had always been there and it was a surprise to my mother when money was not always available.

My father, who was an optimistic and intelligent and hard-working man, came through the  Depression and took it on himself to try bring wealth and security back to my grandmother’s family. In truth, they had never enjoyed great wealth, but they came from an upper class, wealthy background and were brought up to believe that people from good families should have and enjoy reasonable wealth.

I say reasonable wealth because my father’s side of the family were not used to excessive wealth. My mother and my grandfather were used to great wealth and that was quite simply their upbringing. So my grandfather had a house on Fifth Avenue about two blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In addition, he had a house in Palm Beach, a house in Arizona, a house in Greenwich and, last, but not least, a house in Paris. He had three large yachts, the smallest one coming in at 72 feet, and the largest one coming in at 98′ feet. And of course he had crews to captain his boats.

By today’s standards of billionaires and of hedge fund managers earning 50 million dollars in a year as a bonus and of giant yachts and absurdly expensive, absurdly large houses, this may all seem pretty small potatoes, but for his time, it was pretty high living and that was the world my mother was born into. In the winter my grandfather would cruise with his family down to Florida or to the Bahamas, in the summer they would cruise over to France, to Deauville or to the Riviera or just park the boat in a nearby port and head for Paris. It must have been an interesting experience and an interesting life. My mother Barbara and my aunt Diane grew up with a French Mademoiselle whose job was to keep the two exuberant daughters from getting in trouble and to teach them French. I am not sure Mademoiselle succeeded at keeping them out of trouble, but she did teach my mother and aunt some really good French.

The main result of this upbringing is that my mother and father would take me to the Carlyle for turtle soup and the Stork Club for Coca Cola while they had more adult beverages. Now, as mentioned, my father was no longer a party guy. So, if he had a drink, he would sip it forever. Apparently, before the depression, he was the life of the party, full of fun and jokes, but when the depression came, as my uncle Francis phrased it, “he put the hair shirt on” and became very serious and intent on making a great fortune for his new wife and for his extended family.

My father never succeeded in making a great fortune, but he worked very hard and he often had periods of great success, sometimes followed by periods of great failure. Overall, my father was revered by many men in his field as a genius before his time. Basically, my father was an advertising guy and he thought advertising was the great American gift to the world. He saw it as the great equalizer. My father thought that a man with an understanding of marketing could make his way in world and grow great businesses from just his ideas and his efforts. Of course, my father was right in that assumption, but he was never able to transpose his own marketing genius into his own great wealth. That said, he often had over a hundred people working for him and he generated an incredible amount of sales for an incredible variety of different merchandise.

Thinking back on it, if my father had succeeded in his efforts, I suspect it would not have been good for me or my mother. Every truly wealthy person I ever knew, was screwed up in some way, especially those who did not actually earn the great wealth. I know this was a problem for my mother and I know this was problem for some of the very wealthy youngsters I grew up in Southampton. Americans, it seems to me, do not handle great wealth very well. Europeans, those who I have who I met and who came from great wealth, seemed better prepared for the temptations and the challenges and the responsibilities of great wealth.

Of course, there are some families that seem to deal with it better than others. I have read a book on the young Teddy Roosevelt and it would seem that his family had a better sense of wealth and of the responsibility of it.

In the case of my mother and my aunt, I think you could say they were kind of destroyed by great wealth. My mother in particular had a hard time adjusting to the fact that she was no longer living grand houses around world, no longer eating artichokes, rich exotic French foods, no longer sipping Champagne, no longer munching on caviar, no longer sailing on grand yachts.

Again, I think part of the problem was that my father aspired to be something that he could not achieve, something that my mother grew up with and just expected to have. Whatever, I grew up in a relatively small apartment at 520 East 92nd Street. It was around the corner from Doctor’s Hospital (now closed) where I was born and just a block away from Gracie Mansion. At the time, it was quite a nice place. There were tennis courts stationed in the center of about 4 small apartment buildings, one of which we were in. Not many years after moving in, the tennis courts were replaced by two more apartment buildings in order to maximize the original real estate investment.

Our life in the city was very nice, my mother still had many of her wealthy friends, but it was by no means, the glamorous and wealthy life she had grown up in. We did kind of move up in the world when moved into a 9 room apartment at 1215 Fifth Avenue, during a high period of my father’s advertising business. There we had more stylish meals and went out to the Stork Club more often. Still, it was well short of the big time wealth my mother grown up in.

Now my mother suffered from several problems. Like her sister she liked alcohol a great deal. This was kind of natural since grandfather had been a one or two bottle a day scotch drinker. My mother also liked, like many people of the period, smoking. She liked mentholated cigarettes, generally Cool Cigarettes or Belair. She often used an elegant cigarette holder which she supposed would protect her from the tobacco.

About ten years into her marriage and eight into my childhood, my mother decided that marriage to my father was not working out. As an eight year old only child this was very hard for me to understand since I loved both my parents and yet, for some reason, they just did not seem to be able to stay together. I am pretty sure my father did not want the divorce, but he seemed powerless to prevent it and so it went forward.

My mother ended up living with me in our small Bellport summer house where she literally drank and smoked herself to death. It did not happen exactly that way and the process ended up taking almost ten years. It seems that when things take a turn for the worse, often they stay worse and that it is kind of what happened to mother.

My father could see, of course, what was happening to my mother and he stepped in and got me sent off to boarding school. There are a lot bad things you could say about going to boarding school and a lot of good things. For one thing, in a boarding school you are in a true way completely on your own. I, of course, missed my parents, but away at boarding school I found new ways to deal with life. I was not good at studies, but I proved to be pretty proficient at sports and games. In particular, I played hours upon hours of ping pong and pool and finger hockey. Finger hockey was a game where you twirled tiny hockey figures on a small, mechanical hockey field (it was about 18″ x 36″) and the tiny hockey figures shot marbles into goals. I turned out to be truly excellent a finger hockey player and I would play it for hours on end.

While I did not think of it at the time, I suppose many of my schoolmates came from similar families where the parents were going through divorce or other problems, so without knowing it, I suppose I shared unknown bonds with my schoolmates. While I was always happy to come home from boarding school, I can say I found an alternative life and was able to find things that I excelled at, even if they were not the most important things to excel at. In short, I survived quite well.

The same was not true of mother, who kind of fell apart living in the country. She took to drinking a bottle of scotch every one or two days, to smoking two or three packs of cigarettes a day. People can do a lot of damage to their bodies for a long time, but sooner or later it takes a toll. I am pretty sure my mother was not made of the strongest stuff to begin with. It had been years since she had been an Olympic class swimmer and active horse lady and while having been that no doubt helped her survive for a while, soon the drinking and the smoking did its damage.

Now often people do not always die of what is killing them and that was true and not true of my mother. What happened is a couple of years later, while I was boarding school, she got into a car accident, broke her hip and some ribs and went into the hospital. There it was discovered that she could no longer walk and she also had cancer. In essence, she never left the hospital environment, although she was moved to another hospital as her cancer advanced.

It took about eight years for my mother to die and I found it unbearably sad and difficult to visit her. I would come with my father and find her kind wired up with tubes. She could still smile occasionally and in the first few years she could talk. Later on she was in an out of consciousness and one did not really know what to say or what to do. About all you could do was come in, usually with my father, and sit at her bedside and try to talk to her even though about all she could do was nod and occasionally smile.

My mother died when I was 20 and I have to say that I was truly relieved when it happened. She was 46 ears old, which is an awful young age for someone die when you had been a truly beautiful woman. I felt very sad and her death hung over me for several years, but after that no death had the same kind of impact, no death created the same kind of sadness and grief. You could say I was all griefed out.

So that is the story of my mother, one of the short-timers in my family. I am happy to say that aunt Diane proved to be considerably more durable than my mother. She had many of the same problems, being both a drinker and a smoker. Her smoking resulting in her having her throat removed and speaking with a vibrating microphone pressed against her open throat. Even after her throat removal, she still craved tobacco and in the early days after her operation you would see her actually put a smoking cigarette through the hole in her throat. Such was the strength of her addiction.

Diane proved to be made of sterner stuff than her sister. She never quite managed to give up alcohol, but in her later years she switched from Vodka to white wine and that she drank quite sparingly. Bill Riley, her partner, eventually died from his continued consumption of alcohol, but as he got older, he too slowed down and did not drink the quantities of alcohol he did when he was first in the film business. Diane continued to live in the city by herself after her partner died, but she often came and visited us.

By that time, Diane had outlived her partner by a good ten years and had lived with her hole where her throat for more than ten years. Eventually, she gave up trying to poison herself with smoke and realized there was no pleasure in it. Thereafter, she lived a very dignified, if slightly tipsy life for another ten years or so. She lived to be 68, which I think was kind of remarkable for someone who lived the way she did.

 

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About Cecil Hoge

Paddler/Scribbler
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One Response to Some Were Short-Timers

  1. Deborah Reilly Andreas says:

    The story of Diane and Leslie and Jay is in part a story of my family too. I knew Diane for what seems like my entire life. I am the third child of Bill Reilly.I spent many days in their office on East 49th Street when I was killing time between modeling interviews.It was quite something.My family also spent weekends at various vacation rentals with Leslie and Jay,and later on Leslie’s son David.
    After my father died at age 52,Diane and I continued a friendship that lasted until she died.We would talk on the phone for hours,go to movies,or simply sit in her apartment on East 63rd Street and mostly talk about my father.We both missed him terrribly. She told me that Leslie died of aids.She also told me that Leslie’s son David died from a policeman’s bullet, another short-timer,in his early twenties.Of course I remember you and your wife from early days in New York,probably at the office or at boat shows but haven’t seen you since the 70’s.
    I loved Diane and miss her still,she was a wonderful person.

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