By Cecil Hoge
None of us knows how long we shall live. I wish to take this moment to make a small summing up of what I have come across in writing this collective story of my family, myself and the times we live and lived in. I began this blog in 2011. It now 10 years since I have been posting stories about my family, myself and the times we are passing through. Perhaps in another 10 years I will write another summing up. Perhaps, in another 10 years I will be long gone.
I think of the changes in my own life and I find many of them strange. For example, when I was 16, I took a jet air airplane (a Boeing 707) across the Atlantic to Europe. It was only a few weeks after jet travel had been introduced to transatlantic flights. That flight from New York to Berlin was to meet my new family. My father had remarried and in doing so I gained a step-mother.
My mother was still alive at the time, but her life was already over.
When I flew across the Atlantic I thought about what might be the future of airplanes. At 16, I had a number of convictions: Airplanes would become far faster. Airplanes would become far more comfortable. Airplanes would become accessible to all. Of those three things only the last became true. Of course, in this time of continuing Covid, not everyone is ready to take advantage of air travel. The most surprising thing about the flight in 1958 and air travel today, such as it is, was that airplanes did not become faster. That was supremely strange to me. Then the fact that they became far less comfortable was also amazing to me. How could that be?
I will say jet airplanes have become somewhat quieter. I do remember the noise flying to Europe being quite loud, but then again, jet airplanes are still loud.
Most surprising to me was the fact that airplane seats today are far closer together than they were in 1958. And then there was the service. In 1958, stewardesses could bring things to you fast – drinks, blankets, plates, knives, forks, napkins, food…even in “coach” the service was great by comparison to today. Today stewardesses cannot bring you anything, period. And so the uneven course of progress proceeds.
I think about the different members of my family…what they did during their life…what I did during my life…what they might think of today.
Of all my family members, I would love to have conversation with my father about what he might think of today. He predicted to me and my brother in 1993 that the internet would change everything. And surely he was right, but surely he would surprised by the changes the internet has brought.
“When are you going to get on that goddamn internet?”, he would say once the first few people got on it.
“It is the new Western Union, it is the new telephone, it is the new TV”, even in the middle 90s, my father knew the internet would change all.
And so it did, but change came in many ways. I think my father would have surprised by its different mutations…perhaps, in the same way we are surprised about the many mutations of the Coronavirus.
I doubt that my father would foreseen the entire social media scene that has evolved …Facebook… Twitter… InstaGram… Left and Right Wing Websites …misinformation …disinformation … gay pride … transgender rights … new age cures … pandemic statistics … Capital riots … instant answers to new and bizarre questions … a hodge-pudge of commercial claims, goods for all, hopes for sale, fury for the furious, promises of tranquility and peace of mind for those on the elusive search for tranquility.
Indeed, he would have been surprised in many ways the internet has evolved and in the many ways governments and financial institutions and media outlets and pornography and truth and myth and everything between has spun out onto the digital universe. How much is essential to modern life, how much is worthless, how much is useful? Truly there are many sides to the internet and many questions it poses.
Thinking of what other family members might make of these new times. My uncle, Hamilton Hoge, started a company called U.S Television and I think he would also be surprised by the present times. He is in the family picture at the top of this blog story just to right of my father and mother. He was a marine who almost was sent off to storm Japan. A million men was the estimate of how many would be lost in the effort to invade Japan, but it never happened. Truman dropped the big one on Hiroshima and another big one Nagasaki and hundreds of thousand died in each city in minutes. And then the Japanese surrendered and the war was ended. My uncle got to keep his uniform, but he never had to wear it in combat.
After the war he came back and started a television company and like Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”, he could have been a contender. But that was not be. My uncle Hamilton nevertheless had some interesting views on the future of newspapers. He thought everyone would have printer on the top of their TV and they would print out their personal newspaper whenever the desire to do so struck them. That kinda happened or at least some parts of that are in place today.
Today, we do not remember much about World War II or The Great Depression or World I or the Pandemic that came at the end of WWI. My uncles and father were born either before World War I or during World War I and they grew up in The Roaring Twenties and lived through The Great Depression and World War II. They got see and live through periods of war, peace, depression and prosperity that were interlaced with booms and busts and smaller regional wars.
My uncle Hamilton felt the Vietnam War was a war we should have finished. We should have won…it was a lack of will, he said, that we lost. My father did not agree, he felt it was a sad interlude of history. I felt it was a mistake and stain on our history.
We are presently in the process of disengaging ourselves from another regional war. The Present President has ordered the departure of all American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. The military experts, the politicians, the pundits, the conservatives, the liberal and the biased…all are offering their instant analysis of that. Most say it is a mistake, some say it is a great deed and many offer a kaleidoscope of opinions in between.
I think of my great, great, great uncle, Andrew Shewan, who sailed in clipper ships from Scotland and England in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s across the Atlantic, around South America, across the Pacific Ocean to Australia, India, Hong Kong, Shanghai and many other Asian ports while trading goods for tea. What were his thoughts of his world and what would his thoughts be of this world…that is a mystery that time cannot undo.
You can only imagine what thoughts might be going his head as he left Scotland at the age of 23 as 1st Mate of one the world’s greatest and fastest clipper ships in the world, the “Norman Court”. He must have been a young and vibrant man. Andrew Shewan sailed repeatedly around the world from 1840s to the 1860s. What did he think of the new worlds he saw…South America, Pacific Islands, Australia, Indonesia, India and, of course, China? And what might he think of those same worlds in this digital age?
And on those trips around the world what did he bring and what did he take away? That is a complicated question and I cannot know the answer. I do know what he brought back tea, but what did he bring? I do know he went to India often before going to China. Yes, what did he bring and what did he take away?
Andrew Shewan was moral man, a long married man, a family man. He wrote a book called “The Great Days of Sail” published in 1923, just before his death. He lived a long life. He was, I believe, happily married, for over 60 years. He had great pride about sailing clipper ships around the world and I imagine it must been one of the most exciting, most demanding jobs on the planet. Imagine sailing at 20 knots per hour across the Pacific Ocean through seas and weather conditions experienced by few humans in what was then one of the fastest ships on the planet. It must not have been too different from being an astronaut today.
But what he bring and and what did he take away? Iron nails and knives from Scotland and England, Molasses and rum from the Caribbean, and, of course, supplies of food, fruits and drink for months at a time. And why did he go to India? I have seen the logs of some of the journeys he took and yes he did go to India, but why? Could it be he traded the iron nails and knives for rum and molasses and the rum and molasses for opium? Could it be he brought the opium to China and traded the opium for silver and then traded the silver for tea? I do not know, but that was how many clipper ships conducted their trade.
Imagine my great, great, great uncle setting out as the first mate at age 23 from England with his father, the Captain of one the great clipper ships of its time, The Norman Court. Imagine his father takes ill after two days at sea and father and son realize the father is dying. Imagine father and son, talking about what to do…abandon the journey, return to port and quit the trip? Father and son talked it over. Yes, they did return to port. The father disembarked, the son remained on board. They said their goodbyes and the son sailed to China, the first mate now a captain, responsible all goods and all souls on board, 22 other men now under his command at the age of 23.
Yes, it must have been with heavy mixed emotions when father and son parted company and no doubt the crew of 22 men also had doubts and emotions about the journey that were undertaking. My great, great, great uncle completed the journey at the helm of his 192’ long by 22’ wide clipper ship. He described coming through the gales of wind, 50 to 60 miles an hour, crashing through waves 30 to 60 feet, with each wave surging across the deck and forecastle, swiping it clean of any loose belongings…sailing at 20 to 22 knots for days at a time…dark and gray gale winds howling during the day, pitch black and boiling seas and ever roaring winds during the night.
He said that each time his ship hit a wave in those conditions, the entire ship would vibrate and make a humming sound like a tuning fork.
I suppose his thoughts at such times were a strange mixture of terror, exhilaration and ecstasy. Few on the planet could relate to his experiences…then or today.
I mention the above because I feel they are related to the here and now. When my great, great, great uncle sailed to China that Empire had already faded and fallen victim to the greater powers of Europeans and Americans. Today, the wheel of history has rolled on and China has regained its Empire, but it has not forgotten what the Western World did to it. And so the tables have changed. England is no longer an Empire. Germany and France are no longer empires. America has already had its century of Manifest Destiny, Empire and world dominance. The colonies around the world that once made Western countries rich and powerful are no longer, but the memory of what happened remains.
We cannot step into the future without treading through the past. Those who are stepping ahead often forget where those before them have trod, but the past is inseparable from future. In one way or another, it is all connected.
This leads me to think of my great grandfather, Joseph Milton Cunningham, attorney general of Louisiana. He wrote the brief for the State of Louisiana defending the decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. My great grandfather’s legal brief was reviewed by the Supreme Court in 1898 and the Supreme upheld my Great Grandfather’s arguments and the earlier decision rendered by courts in Louisiana. And the result of that case and the Supreme Court Decision, was school segregation and a reversal of some of the results of the Civil War.
I am not proud of that although I am quite sure that my great grandfather felt that he did the right thing. And on his behalf, it must be said that he was considered to be a highly respected attorney who did many good things for the State of Louisiana. That is part of this country’s history and the Supreme Court ruling that agreed with my Great Grandfather’s legal brief, affected the next 90 or so years of American history. Yes, we cannot disengage ourselves from our history. We are all part of our own family’s history and every family’s past is interconnected with our country’s past, present and future.
My Grandmother, Sidney Cecile Cunningham Hoge, was daughter to Joseph Milton Cunningham. She is in the picture at the top of this blog story, in the bottom row, sitting on the right of my grandfather. She grew up on a 5,000 acre plantation that was still tilled and tended by the descendants of former slaves of my great grandfather and his father. Sidney Cecile was a very prejudiced woman, but also a very strict and strong and strangely moral person. Of course, morality is often in the eye of the beholder. Still, she had large family and many friends and she was highly respected.
And of course, Sidney Cecile was the reason that my father and I inherited our first and second names…Cecil Cunningham. She was very upset that her sons were never able to make sufficient money to support her in the way she expected to be supported in her old age.
“Life,” she said, “is so unfair.
“They found oil on the plantation next door and few years later they found oil on the plantation on the other side of our plantation, but they never, never found oil on our plantation. And we had the largest plantation. Life is just so unfair.”
Years later she told me she was disappointed in the fact that her sons never made enough money to support her in the style she expected.
“Life is so unfair,” she would say again in her slow New Orleans lilting drawl, “Why my husband, Huber, had such good prospects. And for many years we had a fine life with nice apartments in the city and fine houses to go to in the summer, but then that damned depression came and my poor husband lost everything. But I thought my boys were growing, surely they would have good prospects, surely they will find a way to support me in the manner I have always expected, but that never happened.”
It would seem unfairness is also in eye of the beholder.
Personally, I thought her sons did a pretty good job of taking care of my grandmother. Admittedly, they had to work through the damned depression and truly times were tough, but my uncle went on found a TV company, which was a contender for a while, and my father went on to restart my grandfather’s old advertising company and he passed through prosperous and not so prosperous times and still was able to send me to various boarding schools and college and help support my grandmother and various other members of our family.
And as I have written, our four families, 3 brothers and a sister, were able to collectively hold the greater family together, have apartments in city and pool funds for a collective summers in some pretty nice houses in Southampton. And my grandmother Sidney Cecile was able to reap the rewards of that lifestyle still associating with society folks and keeping up appearances, even if their wealth was not so deep and long.
I never met my mother’s mother and so I don’t know what she thought of the times she was in or would think of the times we are in. She married my other grandfather who was a very rich guy at the time. That marriage did not work out and my grandmother went off to the Riviera in search of happier life. It was not to be…she died in her thirties, a victim of dwindling funds and too many parties.
My grandfather also did not fair well. He sold Shewan Shipyards, at one time the largest shipyard in America, to Bethlehem Steel for $15,000,000. That was a lot of money in those days before taxes, but my grandfather gave away some of it to his sisters and spent the rest of it on himself, gradually selling off works of art that in earlier years he had purchased. So what comes sometimes goes.
I still have a magnificent 100 + year old desk, a marble top table from the time of Louis XIV and a quite beautiful portrait of my mother done in 1920…so all was not lost and the connection with past and present is always there.
I wonder what my great, great, great uncle, Moses Drury Hoge would have thought of these times and the recent discovery by many Americans that were people in America’s past who owned slaves and some of those people actually had statues erected to them.
Moses Hoge was the official minister to the Confederate Army. He had a church in Richmond Virginia and he preached to Jefferson Davis himself. So Moses was somewhat conflicted. He did not believe in slavery although in fact he owned 3 slaves. They came to him from his wife, so he did not actually buy the slaves. Nevertheless, Moses thought slavery was regrettable and before the war he was not for slavery, even if he was not against slavery.
But the carnage of the war, the many friends and family members that he lost, hardened his opinion and in the end, he definitely felt that the cause of the South was right and true and the principle of States Rights should be upheld. Of course, history moved in a way contrary to that and after the war he accepted the fact that the South had lost and slavery was wrong. But he could not bear not to pay tribute to some of the former leaders of the Civil War.
After the Civil War was completed and the South was vanquished, he gave a speech to 10,000 Richmond residents on behalf of Stonewall Jackson citing Stonewall’s bravery when he served the South and faced his death. In doing so, Moses was personally responsible in having a statue set up in Richmond commemorating the faithful service and bravery of Stonewall Jackson. I believe that statue has been recently torn down and so world moves on and looks at things differently.
It would be my guess that my great, great, great uncle would not be happy about that, but that is only a guess. Moses Hoge went on to live another 34 years after the Civil War. He became a quite prominent Presbyterian minister, touring Europe, talking and meeting with other high church officials. In truth, he was a prominent church minister before the Civil War, but that event temporarily diminished his career. Moses then went on to reinstate himself among church officials and become quite a prominent force in the Presbyterian Church. His life ended strangely in New York City when he crossed the path of a trolley car.
I am thinking of another relative, my great aunt Princess Olga Obolensky. In truth, she is only a relative by marriage. My true aunt, Barbara Hoge, married Ivan Obolensky, Olga’s son. Olga was a princess and she grew up in the court of Czar Nicholas, but at the age of 23 the Russian Revolution came along and her life took a drastic turn. She was able to smuggle her two sons out of Russia shortly after the beginning of the Revolution, but after that things got really tough. Her life went from luxury and privilege to poverty and prison and then to more poverty and near death.
In the end, she made her way out of Russia and then she found her way to Berlin. That was like going from the frying pan to the fire because Berlin at that time was being bombed everyday by allied forces. Strangely, she stayed 3 blocks from where my future mother in law was living. They never met in Berlin, but many years later, my mother in law met my great aunt in America. Such is the strange motions of time and history and happenstance.
It was Olga Obolensky who first suggested I should write a book about my family. Well, this is not a book, this is a blog, but it does cover some of the bases.
I met Olga Obolensky in New York City when I got to meet my new uncle, Ivan. She had a elegant and stentorian voice, loud, authoritative and lilting. She would always remind me of my mother’s elegance.
“Your mother does not enter a room,” Olga would say, “She makes an entrance and when she comes in, all heads turn.”
I think that is pretty nice thing to say about anybody. Olga was very obsessed with appearances and it was always true that she never lost the sense that she was still a princess. Surely, her view of this world could be useful at this time. I am not sure she would be impressed by our present progress or our present sense of elegance.
I am pretty sure she would think of the Pandemic as a sad time when sense of dress and decorum have been lost. But she would know about that, having spent time in prison, time trying to escape Soviet officials, time in a Communist hospital system in a brain-numbing job as a hospital director in a squalid Soviet city being bombed and invaded by Germans.
Olga Obolensky saw it all from the court and time of the Czar to the Russian Revolution to war plagued Europe to a kind of rebirth in America.
New York City had a formidable collection of Russian aristocrats, some impoverished and in-prisoned by their fate, some who cruised through this world seemingly untouched by bad luck.
One such person was Olga’s uncle, Serge Obolensky. He married in 1916 Catherine Alexandrovna Yurievskaya, the youngest daughter of Czar Alexander II. So, you can say he started out pretty high in life. He left Russia just in time to miss the Russian Revolution. In 1924, he married Alice Astor, daughter of John Jacob Astor. So, you can say he landed safely on his feet. Eventually, he came to U.S. with whole bunch of other Russians and they all settled in New York City.
Because I had a new Russian uncle, I came meet of these Russian ex aristocrats. I was very young at the time and I did not fully understand who they all were or their many varied histories. What I could understand was that some them faired far better than others. And I suppose all them would have different and conflicting views of what is happening in this time or what happened in their time. Certainly, the Russian Revolution changed their lives, just as The Depression changed my father’s and his generation’s life and, perhaps, just as The Pandemic is presently changing our lives. Of course, we know what transpired during their lives. We are yet to fully understand what will transpire during our lives.
I think of my mother often. I really do not remember all the things she told me. I remember riding around in taxi cabs with her, charging all over Manhattan. I remember her dragging me into Cartier’s to see some silverware and jewelry, into Zsa Zsa and Magda Gabor’s jewelry store to see more jewelry. I remember tagging along when she went with friends to the bar at the Carlyle, I remember going to The Stork Club with my father and mother. I always got to take away one of the miniature wooden storks with miniature glass stem vases that always held a rose.
My mother liked “creme de menthe” – a drink she first acquired a taste for in France. Her life must have been strange, coming from a background of great wealth, growing up on yachts and in 5 houses around the world. How she came to marry my father is a mystery. He was a man who was interested in making a mark in the world and he hoped to make a lot of money. I don’t think my mother was impressed. She just wanted live her life in comfort and style…ride horses, live a simple, but elegant life. Money meant nothing to her.
She was born in 1919. She married my father in 1941 and she died in 1963. Just 44 years old, a victim in the end of alcohol, cigarettes, car collisions and cancer. What she could have been no one knows. I do know she was both an Olympic Class horse woman and an Olympic class swimmer. I do remember her taking me to the Squadron A Armory on 94th and 95th between Madison and Park Avenues. There we watched horse jumping exhibitions and polo games. My mother loved horses. I never could get enthusiastic about that. It seemed dangerous to me and that was confirmed when I fell off of horses a couple of times. I guess I was a disappointment to my mother…at least in regard to horses.
What she might think of the last 15 years we have just gone through, with the Great Recession, the great recovery, the Great Pandemic and the Great Recession again and the many unknown unknowables, all that is a mystery. Surely, her time was also topsy turvy, born at the end of World War I, with her childhood in the Roaring Twenties and her twenties starting with Prohibition and the Great Depression, only to be ended by World War II. And after the war, the Cold War, the great scare about Nuclear War, Joe McCarthy and the dread Communists. Yes, there had to be a lot of confusion in the 44 years of her life.
My mother thought rock and roll was an abomination. I remember her playing old 78 records of her favorite big bands and singers from the 30s and 40s. She was convinced, like Bing Crosby, that there would return to that kind of music. Both Bing Crosby and my mother were disappointed in that hope. A new kind of music welled up out the youth of my generation and big comeback did not come back. All things pass away as Mr. Harrison says. And so it was for her.
I think there is more to tell about my strange and quirky family. Some of us have faired badly and some of us have done pretty well. It is hard to say what is a true success. If I had to name something…it would be to live happily within yourself and within your family, to love your wife, to like what you do and do what you like. I do not know whether it was Wilbur Wright or Orville Wright, but one of those two said, if you can support yourself and not be burden to your family, then you are success. I suppose that also is a good definition.
I will continue on with this blog. For those who might want more details about my family, please refer to the many stories on this blog site.