Back in 1779, my collateral ancestor Hannah Ogden, all of 18-years-old, wrote a wry and witty letter to a female relation full of gossip and news of home. It is the sort of letter my great Uncle Archie would have loved reading, and had he been alive during the American Revolution instead of the mid-20th century, he very possibly would have written something very much like it.
"The Girls here Look upon the Command increse (sic) and multiply as very asential (sic) to happiness as they are all increasing; Mrs. Pollock is return'd has Left behind her Daughter The Poor little wretch is as yet Fatherless, through the Delicacy of her mother who Declines mentioning the amorous Youth who intic'd (sic) her to betray her Virtue. Mrs. Ireland is increasing to Countenance the Mistress Hugh, Sure this is Scandal but I must tell all I know, Aunt S waited on her and informs me She is Very Penitent and much to be Pitied, I have defer'd my Visit till Your return when if you Please I will attend you there - Our neighbors the British are rather troublesome but do us no material damage."
Archie Ogden was larger than life, and though I never met him I feel as if I know him from the stories the family tells and the faithful correspondence he kept with his siblings (my grandmother most especially) during his expatriate years in London when there was scarcely enough money to buy coal for the stove and his shoes were worn from frequent trips to the pub and from games of Sunday boules. He and his wife Betty stayed afloat only with timely infusions of cash from his sisters, bequests from the estates of maiden aunts, and the business that Betty brought in from Keys to London, a real estate referral service she provided to American businessmen and diplomats posted to that city.
I am perhaps inadequate to the task of blogging his biography, for how can one distill - and I choose that word deliberately - the essence of a man of such heart and such flaws from faded letters and fading memory? In one respect I may be well suited, as my history is not so deeply entwined with his as the elder members of our family, and his correspondence reveals sides of his lovable and maddening personality that suggest there was more behind the man than a brilliant wit, excessive drink, a good but impish nature and an evident delight in scandalizing his sisters.
Uncle Archie stories were in a class by themselves and my grandmother took as much delight in telling them as her brother must have done in his celebrated notoriety. Here, for instance, is a letter that is vintage Archie, written to his sister during the Summer of Love about the visit of his young niece to London:
"Happily, she is a most self-sufficient little lady and whistles around town as if she had been here all her life. She went to Westminster Abbey on Sunday, having stayed up until dawn the night before with two bar-tenders from the Westminster Arms (plus the very attractive fiancee of one of them). They assured me that they would take the best care of her. I pointed out that she was free, white and twenty-one and could do what she pleased. My only request was that the person who drove home should be sober. Apparently he was, and she reported having had a very good time indeed. I'm sure she was the belle of the ball, not to say the cynosure of neighboring eyes...I must say the American girls look very decorous with their almost knee-length skirts. The native birds are all wearing theirs so short that they have to shave. As a normal dirty old man I rather like the mini's and the micro's and hope they're here to stay...that's about all I can tell you about her, except that we love her very much indeed, and if the whole bloody world does not blow up, she should have a very happy life - she is so much in control of it. In this respect she and Penny [his daughter, ed.] are very much alike. I'm sure they share the same values. They don't put a premium on virginity, per say, but they ain't going to waste it on anyone they don't respect. They both seem to have a very rational approach to life and feel confident in their ability to cope with it."
I can imagine my Grandmother's response to this letter - about equal parts shock and delight - for she had a taste for the mildly risque despite her conservative sensibilities and teasing banter had been served up at the family table since her youth. She was very careful of her brother's feelings, however, devoted to him as he was to her but unlikely to make light of his vulnerabilities and shortcomings. It may be that just now I am under the influence of Blue Hill Troupe's cracking good production of Gilbert & Sullivan's Yeoman of the Guard that we saw yesterday in New York, but Uncle Archie reminds me of Jack Point the jester, the character who must make others laugh and be funny when he himself is sad. That may, in part, explain why he removed himself to London, away from the family he loved, lest they weary of his failings and turn away. As his wife Betty wrote to my grandmother after his death from throat cancer:
"I know he lived the way he wanted to. I cry for him because I know he was disappointed in himself...a point of view he would never have allowed to be expressed."
Once, in a letter to his daughter in 1971, he did allude briefly, though obliquely, to the sadness at his center.
"As the adults in your family probably know, depression is not just a state of mind - it's an illness, and should be treated as such. It can strike people whom one would not think could have a care in the world, and some real down-and-outers show no signs of it. We tend to make a differentiation between the mind and the body. Actually they are indivisible, as Horace was aware when he wrote 'Integer Vitae' - probably his most famous poem. Unfortunately, I gave the volume of Horace I won at Williams 42 years ago (!) to Bill Fort - so cannot quote the rest of it. I also gave him my Catullus and Propertius, but he gave me the Oxford Book of Christian Religion to get even with me. This is something I can use to settle arguments, few of which arise regarding Horace, etc. One cannot be an honest atheist without a fairly thorough knowledge of religion. That's why Catholics are not supposed to read the Bible!"
This, too, is vintage Archie: self-deprecating and making light of difficulty, but with moments of searing and unadorned honesty that rise through his habitual persona. The same letter that contains the above passage also includes rueful references to "dead soldiers", his term for empty bottles scattered about the floor, and the observation that
"If I should live so long, I think the King's Road in summer will be populated almost exclusively by nudes - wearing sandals to protect themselves from dog manure. 'Hot Pants' are momentarily the thing; but mini skirts are more sexy and I think the former fad is a passing one - though occasionally eye-catching. It looks (and that is the operative word) that bras have gone for good. According to a Parisian dressmaker, anyone who can hold a pencil under one breast should wear a support of some sort. Pencils are selling like crazy!"
Uncle Archie was a man of letters back when that was a legitimate literary vocation. Like Emerson, he wrote essays and articles and kept up many correspondences but did not produce a body of published work that included novels or lengthy books. He did, in fact, write one book - London for Everyone (1966) -a guide to his adopted city that featured a number of walks that were notable for the number of classic pubs visited and which was for many years the standard reference, for family members at least, exploring London.
He was for many years a publisher, and his one great brush with immortality came in 1941 when he was a young editor with Bobbs-Merrill and reviewed the manuscript for Ayn Rand's The Foundainhead, which twelve previous publishers had rejected. He loved it and defended it with the editorial board saying; "If this is not the book for you, then I am not the editor for you." His argument was persuasive, and the book was a commercial success. He also was its editor, and on the 25th anniversary of its publication, was asked to contribute a forward. The result tested what had become a lifelong, if sometimes tempestuous friendship between the fiery author and the editor who championed her work. The story goes that:
"In his draft he made the mistake of relating the funny things that happened during the editing of the book, and was promptly hit by a Scud missive: 'You are entitled to your own views about humor. But you know mine, and you chose to ignore them — and there is no meeting ground.' She cast him out and wrote the introduction herself."
He must have been crushed and hurt by her rejection. But in letters to his family, he gave the episode a different spin. In June, 1967, he wrote:
" Bobbs-Merrill are bringing out a 25th Anniversary Edition of Ayn Rand's THE FOUNTAINHEAD (could it have really been that long?) and have offered me $500.00 to write an introduction for it. I might add that the Introduction was in the mail within 48 hours, and I am now patiently awaiting the difference between temporary affluence and absolute penury."
"Ayn Rand didn't care for my Introduction one bit; but happily, thanks to her training, I managed to get $200.00 in advance. I have re-written it, removing all levity, and believe I shall eventually receive the other $300.00. Betty says that I treat her as though she were an author, forgetting that she has become a religion. It's as though, sez Betty, I was writing about Jesus and mentioned only that he was a damned good carpenter!"
Irrepressible Archie. Even when he was depressed he made light of his situation to others. He and Betty were married in 1938 and stuck by each other through thick and thin. No doubt is wasn't easy for them. As Archie noted to his sister when one of their nephews was divorced "- first time in X generations, but we never have been told of our forebears who have lived out their marital lives in abject misery. We do know that Mr. Florence didn't spend much time at home!"
Archie was the Executive Director of The Council on Books in Wartime, which was
"a non-profit organization founded by booksellers, publishers, librarians, authors, and others, in the spring of 1942 to channel the use of books as “weapons in the war of ideas,” the Council's motto. Its primary aim was the promotion of books to influence the thinking of the American people regarding the war, to build and maintain the will to win, to expose the true nature of the enemy, to disseminate technical information, to provide relaxation and inspiration, and to clarify war aims and problems of peace...From its beginning in the fall of 1943 to its post-war end in the fall of 1947 ASE printed 1,324 titles and delivered 122,951,031 books to the U. S. Government."
He later worked for several motion picture studios acquiring the rights to books published in Europe, and it was this change in career that lead them to London in 1958 where Archie Ogden lived for the rest of his days. The work was sporadic and there was never enough money to make ends meet. He once wrote to the family asking if anyone minded if he sold some of the Gracie silver and old china, but then withdrew the suggestion that he part with them after his sister Margaret offered to buy them to give to his daughter as part of her inheritance. There are suggestions in some of Betty's letters to her sister-in-law that Archie "improved" when he had something useful to do. He was a regular at a number of Battersea pubs and seems to have cultivated the image of the lovable old sot. Most especially, he loved writing letters, and they are such remarkable ones that I am tempted to edit them for wider readership.
His social commentary was not limited to the finer points of women's fashion. At times he couldn't help but be outrageous. In a letter to my grandmother on her 56th birthday, he enclosed several photographs and observed "Incidentally, the fourth gentleman in the snap of the two Ogdens and old Thirty (Keese) is your old pal, Wally Stearns, who was fired from Lawrenceville for leaping into bed with one of his charges." At others, he was quite astute and self aware about the nature of his own prejudices. Having famously - and with some pride - remarked that his daughter had married a non-Israeli Jew and his son a non-Jewish Israeli, he confided in a letter to his sister before his daughter's wedding:
"Penny, at the moment, is so strongly anti-anti-Semitic that I have to think twice before telling any Yiddish jokes in front of her (not that it would bother Phil); but I'm sure the rough edges will smooth themselves out. I really think she has achieved something that I never shall - to her, people are people and not to be categorized. I don't think I'll ever be anti-Semitic, but I'm always quite conscious if someone I'm with is Jewish. Neither Betty nor Penny are; and though I don't consider my awareness as a fault, I somehow admire their naive lack of it. As Penny says, 'Because of your upbringing, you can't help being a little anti-semitic, but at least you make an attempt not to be!" - high praise indeed. In any case, I'm very fond of Phil and think he's a wonderful guy and, since she cannot bring herself (and hasn't been able for three years) ever to glance elsewhere, he's just right for her."
I can't help but think that this gentle admission of bias was offered to my grandmother as a window on her own, and indeed for all her endearing qualities she had a prejudicial streak that ran deep in matters of class and race. Archie adopted more of a live and let live outlook in these matters, though he was quite willing to condemn stupidity in politicians and pigheaded strikers and those who failed to pick up after their dogs. He had a big, soft heart, and even when that annoying tickle at the back of his throat turned out to be cancerous and robbed him of his voice and teeth and all too soon would take his life, he kept putting the best face on things he could. He had hoped to come to America to celebrate his sister Margaret's 75th birthday, but his illness prevented that reunion. He died in 1981.
I found a paperback copy of Archibald Gracie Ogden's out of print London for Everyone on-line today and look forward to curling up with it, folowing in his footsteps as we stroll back through the years together.