This is the fourth and final installment of my blogbiography of my Great Uncle Archie, drawing on his many letters to my Grandmother to explore this complex and larger-than-life figure who died before I ever had the chance to meet him. I mentioned today to a family member that reading someone's letters, even those written long ago, is a bit like taking a tour through that person's life by way of the medicine cabinet and sock drawer. These letters are especially revealing, though not always candid, and one is almost inclined to change names to protect the innocent. The archivist in me wants to treat them honestly, and with respect. Stirring old memories that are not one's own is a sober responsibility.
Which is all the more challenging when the subject of this character study was such an audacious, colorful, curmudgeonly figure with a gift for language, outrageous habits and personal demons both privately held and on public view. I'm sure he was the life of the party, but that as the years went on and the drinking and disappointment took their toll, his banter lost some of its allure and his routine got old. We get fixed in our personae as well as our habits, and hope that those we care most deeply about will love us in spite of ourselves and our shortcomings. The thought that they might not keeps many performers in the ring long after they should have stepped aside for faster feet and sharper wits.
Uncle Archie lived the life he wanted in London, and at its best it was full of gaiety and theater and interesting people and visitors coming and going, as excerpts from his letters illustrate:
"We had a joyous Christmas. Ella and Archie and Peggy O'Sheel spent Christmas Eve night with us, and we arose relatively early for a hearty breakfast - shades of Aunt Het - and a busy time in opening innumerable presents, during which I made the milk punch (Bourbon courtesy of Archie, Jr. - also Rum). It went down a treat, as they say over here. We were joined later by neighbors and some more who stayed on for dinner - 9 in all for the latter. The traditional turkey to which I didn't particularly look forward was the best I've ever tasted...Pat Leathem provided a flaming pudding with the right sauce and we all had fun. The most joyous part of our present life over here is having Ella and Archie within short driving reach - about three miles - close enough for closeness, but removed enough for privacy. We do love them both so much, and we always have fun together. Archie comes over for Boules every Sunday and occasionally,, just drops in - today to arrange a stereo for the record player he and Ella gave us for Christmas (what I would call a Victrola!). I can't tell you the admiration I have for them both...They don't want to be rich - they want to have fun - together - and I think they will...They are coming over on Sunday for a welsh rarebit with a friend of Penny's who just popped into town." (Jan 5th, 1973)
"It's particularly pleasant at the moment with the outside temperatures in the low 70's (actually a bit cooler inside than out - but that, alas, is true in winter, too.) Mr & Mrs Finch come once a week and do a bit of polishing and also work in the "garden". They seem to get a great kick out of it (plus a pound), and we are rapidly becoming a minor version of Kew Gardens. I shouldn't be surprised if next year they hold the Chelsea Flower Show in our front lawn. That's the next traffic-blocker, followed shortly thereafter by the Trooping the Colours, then the Garden Parties, after the Derby, of course, then Ascot, then Henley - the summer has practically disappeared. I notice that time seems to pass a bit more rapidly when one is over 60 than it did when one was 10. See Einstein's theory of Relativity." (May 15th, 1971)
This Bohemian rhapsody was the bright face he put on a life that was usually hand to mouth and which involved less and less formal work for him as a writer and publisher (and therefore less value to himself as a professional).
"My routine of taking a two-weeks' vacation every fortnight is just fine, except that it doesn't help all that much toward paying the rent, or even leaving me drinking money. However, with the Royal Ascot starting today and the odd bridge game, I am sure I shall stagger through..." (June 20, 1967)
He was an avid reader in love with language. Sometimes he looked back at his publishing days and presented them in a rather dualistic way, noting interesting people he once knew and opportunities lost in the same passage:
"About once in 3 months I wake up early and cannot get back to sleep; so I get up and read for an hour in our nice warm kitchen. I selected the latest issue of the NEW YORK REVIEW, which, I'm glad to report is arriving quite regularly. By the time I've finished almost every word of one issue, the new one arrives. The current one has a marvelous piece on Melville's New York by Alfred Kazin, a friend of mine since the early '30's, as well as a readable review by Jean Stafford, who once lived with us in Cambridge after her car accident with Cal Lowell. I had her under option at the time, but Ted Weeks wouldn't let me renew it on the grounds that she would never write a saleable novel - so, BOSTON ADVENTURE went to Houghton-Mifflin. Ho-hum. I doubt if that episode creeps into Ted's autobiography." (March 26th, 1973)
Making light of precarious finances to his close relatives is a trademark refrain in his letters. Birthday greetings to his sister Athalia always apologized for the absence of "the usual £100 cheque". There were numerous times when he swallowed his pride and asked for financial help from his siblings (or their husbands), always promising to repay their generosity and quite often eventually managing to do so.
"Thank you for the speed and thoroughness with which you answered my plea for help. I don't have to add that you made our Christmas, and only hope I didn't spoil yours...I hope to be able to re-pay you in the not too distant future and will be able to do so if even one of my present ventures (none of them involving winning on the horses or playing roulette) comes to fruition." (December 27, 1967)
"Dear Dr. Bob - Herewith belatedly, and thanks to dear, dear Aunt Kate, is £100 in a valid dollar check. I cannot thank you adequately for the help you gave me a few years ago, when I desperately needed it, and I'm only sorry that Mr. Wilson prevented my paying it back long ere this. Margaret advanced us money for a new car two years ago,, which we were happy to repay during her summer visit to England; but she had to come over hear to collect it! Wish you had thought to do this, and now that you have nothing to do but sit around and wait for Liz and Kate so that you can deliver their offspring ( you should be about 80 at that time), we hope that you and Athales will pay us a visit anyway. As I am what the tax people over here laughingly describe as "self-employed", I would have a chance to see quite a bit of you both. I assure you, nothing would delight me more." (November 15th, 1969)
Even when his mouth was ravaged by cancer and his teeth were falling one by one from the effects of Radium, he wrote in gratitude to his sisters who sent money for dental surgery, saying:
"I'm not sure it's moral, anyway, for the improvident to depend on the provident - too much like the Communist, "From each according to his ability to each according to his need" - a sentiment that I have always abhorred - that the able have an obligation to take care of the inept. I think it's kindly to do so, if one so desires, but one does not have a moral responsibility to take care of anyone outside of one's immediate family - wife (husband) and children - and then only if they can't take care of themselves." (Nov 13, 1980)
Here we are getting close to the bone, I think. He knew he was very sick, perhaps terminally, and he did not want to be a burden (or thought of as a failure). He loved his family with a fierce devotion, and he wrote his wonderfully entertaining letters to each of them with noticeably different tones and degrees of levity, as if gaging how much latitude and tolerance he had in their relationships. His letters to my Aunt Margie are witty but not risque, similar to those to my Grandfather when thanking him for money. My grandmother, and Archie's children, got the full, over-the-top treatment. Who among us does not adjust how we present ourselves to suit our audience? It's just that few of us have personalities that fill the largest halls (admittedly, mine can adequately accommodate the interior of an off-the-lot double-wide: perhaps another reason why I attempt this biography).
When his sister Margaret was approaching her 75th birthday and the clans were gathering in New Jersey to celebrate, Uncle Archie and Betty planned a rare trip to America to be part of it. "For us it would be a sort of "ave atque vale" party, even though we should like to hope that many of those present might make it once more to London later on." (October 23, 1979) It would be a substantial hardship financially, and he considered selling several family heirlooms to pay for it.
"(W)e are saving up for next September. In this connection would it upset you if we sold the gold Gracie serving plate. Sotheby's say it should fetch $500.00. If anyone in the family wants it, he or she can have it for $400. I'd rather see all my family again before I die. We can probably get $200+ for those horrible Cantonese lay plates, which I'm sure no one in the family wants - and possibly $350 for a silver serving dish with a top on it. If we sell these baubles, at least they cannot be stolen from us, and we will be able to get to America once more - if the plane stays aloft - something about which I often have doubts." (November 5th, 1979).
This idea apparently touched nerves, and he quickly withdrew the suggestion:
"Don't worry about the Gracie plate. After hearing from Esther and Margaret we decided not to sell it. Margaret offered to buy it, but only in order to leave it to Penny. We can do that ourselves! At the moment we don't need money as badly as we usually do. Having been told by the Embassy here that because I was earning a little money in Britain I wouldn't be eligible for U.S. Social Security until I was 72...suddenly out of the blue a check for $3,500 arrived along with word that because I had waited to apply until I was 70 I would now receive $260.00 per month. I feel as though I had won the Pools." December 7th, 1979)
The trip to America was not to be. Archie wrote in June with considerable understatement that all was not well, dwelling on his enforced sobriety rather than the reason for his medication:
"I am undergoing an interesting experiment, though I would not go so far as Herbert Hoover in his description of Prohibition as calling it a 'noble' one. For a persistent mild irritation in my throat I have been put on something that looks like 'Actifed' on the difficult-to-read label. Anyway, the doctor at St. Thomas's warned me that whilst on this blockbuster pill I wasn't to touch one drop of alcohol; so I have been 100% on the wagon for 8 days - with 6 days to go, unless the treatment is continued beyond next Thursday. My throat ain't perfect yet, but I'm counting on the next 6 days to clear it up. The lack of alcohol hasn't yet seemed to do me any irreparable harm, though I did have to take a mild laxative last night for the first time in as long as I can remember. I have a slight fear that I may lose all taste for the stuff, but i can't really believe that a Bitter lemon or a tomato juice will ever taste quite as good as a pink gin." (June 12, 1980)
It was cancer, and terminal. He endured the loss of his voice and teeth to Radium, and a tracheotomy, still managing to avoid the hypochondria he so disliked in others and keeping his humor up, even if sometimes of the gallows variety.
"Radium has removed my voice again, as I gather it may continue to do off and on for some time to come. It doesn't bother me - except when Penny calls and I have to whisper to her huskily over 3,000 miles. I can make myself understood at the pub, though I don't frequent it as much as I used to. My drinking routine consists of 2 strong drinks before lunch, ditto before supper and one (occasionally 2) during the evening." (Nov 13, 1980)
His life was not easy, nor was it easy for those close to him. He was a seemingly irrepressible spirit, a spectacular ruin, a brilliant mind and an alcoholic who battled depression. He was a man of contradictions, but as Whitman reminds us: "Do I contract myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."
"I must say I couldn't have more respect than I do for the girl I live with. Where she finds the energy I wouldn't know. I try to help her, but she'd be a great deal less lost without me than I should be without her. She has little or no sense about time and burns two pieces of toast for every one piece that is edible; but otherwise she's a white female Cassius Clay - she's the greatest." (June 20th, 1967)
Oz tells the Tin Man that the measure of a heart is not how much you love, but how much you are loved by others. By that measure, Archibald Gracie Ogden was rich indeed.