THE TROUBLE WITH BEING A PHOTOGRAPHER IS THAT GOOD PHOTOS OF YOU TEND TO BE HARD TO FIND
AT LAST A PRETTY GOOD PHOTOGRAPH OF MY SISTER LUCY—AN EXCEPTIONALLY TALENTED PHOTOGRAPHER—AND HER DAUGHTER, FAITH.
YES, THEY ARE A DECIDEDLY ATTRACTIVE PAIR—AND I AM APPROPRIATELY PROUD OF THEM (AND OF LUCY’S OTHER FOUR CHILDREN).
LUCY IS ON THE LEFT IN SUNGLASSES.
I am the eldest of 12—five fathers were involved—and have written often of my own rather traumatic upbringing. I was abused both physically and mentally, packed off to a boarding school at the age of five—where, being younger and smaller than everyone else, I was bullied for years—and typically sent off to stay with my grandmother (whom I loved dearly) or a pair of aunts during two out of the three annual vacations.
Though I had a home, I rarely saw it—and when I was there, I primarily interacted with the staff. We routinely had two maids and a full-time gardener in those days—at one stage topped up with a butler and house boy. None of them, sad to say, was overly bright, and I was so badly fed when I was a toddler that I got rickets. That is a condition that results from a severe nutritional deficiency—not something that should happen to a child coming from a wealthy, upper-class family.
Meanwhile, my mother lived an almost entirely separate life focused around her drawing room, dining-room, bedroom—social life and lovers. She never had a job. She wrote, but primarily she painted.
The lover I remember best was an Austrian count, Count Taaffe, whose father had twice been prime minister to Emperor Franz Joseph of the Austro-Hungarian empire. I didn’t really believe this until years later I went to see the movie, MAYERLING, where the villain of the piece was a Count Taaffe—acted by James Mason. Mother had a weakness for counts, eventually married a Polish count, and died a countess. My brother Rex’s father was an Austrian count.
That adds up to three that I can remember—but who’s counting!
Later, after we moved house to an even larger dwelling, she added a second drawing room and a studio to her private domain. We children were the responsibility of the servants, and rarely seen by her except for a few minutes before going to bed.
All in all, the first nine years of my life were—by any standards—appallingly difficult—and were characterized by a truly lousy relationship with my charismatic, but dangerously unpredictable, and emotionally unstable, mother. In sum, she was an only child, and entirely clueless about how to handle a boy—so resorted to violence at the slightest provocation (real or imagined). She also had a dominant personality and was highly articulate so she could wound with a sentence. There were no limits to what she would say to achieve such an objective. She could be a frighteningly cruel woman—and excelled at destroying one’s confidence. Few could stand up to her.
Having a thoroughly miserable childhood isn’t all bad because somehow it seems to set one up for a creative life in a way that emotional stability does not. Why is this? I don’t really know, but if you talk to enough creative people, you will soon find that many of us share that background. In my case, I am extremely empathetic and sensitive to atmosphere—and equally observant—characteristics that were undoubtedly fostered by my being in harms way so often. They are invaluable when it comes to writing. The more you sense, observe, and experience, the more you have to write about.
They say that if you are to remain emotionally sane, all you really need is for one person to love you. In my case, that was my grandmother, Vida Lentaigne, a remarkable woman by any standards, whom I miss every day. Granny kept me, more or less, sane.
I don’t want to overdo my claims to sanity because those early years certainly left their scars—and were, at times, pretty terrible.
But enough of such gloom. As we writers like to say, “It’s all material,” and the good news is that my mother mellowed over the decades to the point where the youngest member of the family, Lucy (pictured above) is not just sane, and remarkably well balanced, but has raised her five children to be of similar caliber.
Lucy, the youngest, is now the matriarch of the family—and we are lucky to have her.
Thanksgiving seems like a good day to acknowledge, yet again, that pleasing fact.
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