Instead of the characteristically self-deprecating title she has given the account of her youth in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with idyllic summers spent on an island off the coast of Maine, Maisie Houghton might well have entitled her beautifully written autobiography What Maisie Knew. For her penetrating account of growing up in a dysfunctional upper-class family is inevitably bound to evoke for the reader Henry James’s keenly observant protagonist. Both Maisies are astonishingly perceptive; both Maisies are trying to figure out how they fit in and who they are.
Maisie Houghton’s father, Frankie Kinnicutt, great-grandson of the distinguished physician who attended Edith Wharton’s feckless husband and brother of a redoubtable dragon of interior decoration, Sister Parrish, was the handsome, charming, martini- loving scion of a distinguished Wall Street family. Her mother, Sybil Jay Kinnicutt, was a direct descendent of the first chief justice of the Supreme Court as well as of John Jacob Astor; as if that were not enough, she was also a royal descendant of six kings of France and England. Such dazzling ancestry was, of course, artfully downplayed, if tacitly taken for granted, by both parents in the plain-living, high-thinking world of Cambridge in the 1950s, all the more so as the large amounts of money implied had, by the time Maisie Kinnicutt was born in 1940, much diminished. Her father still had enough, however, that he wasn’t obliged to pursue the serious career in law that was intended for him; instead, following his years as a naval officer in World War II, he decided to indulge his nostalgia and prolong his youth by returning to Harvard to work in the admissions office, attend the Saturday football games, and hang out at the Porcellian Club.
Residing in a relatively modest house on leafy Larch Road off Brattle Street, Frankie and Sybil Kinnicutt raised three daughers, of whom Maisie was the second. (“I have always known how to play both sides of the street. I am not the middle child for nothing.”) From the outside, they might have seemed an enviable family—attractive, intelligent, well-off, sophisticated, cultured, friendly. The inner reality, however, was something else. Maisie, her older sister, Sybil, and her younger sister, Tizzy, anxiously struggled with the puzzle of “parents who lived together but were estranged”:
Nothing was easy in our gray- shuttered house. There was, in fact, a distinct dis-ease between my mother and my father. In typically muted, well-bred fashion, nothing dramatic or violent ever happened. Occasionally voices were raised and doors slammed, but it was more what was not said, and what was not done. My parents did not touch each other. They barely looked each other in the eye. My sisters and I watched and listened, though we never said anything, particularly to each other. Our parents seemed to meet only in their comings and goings: my mother returning from errands, her hair “done” in a stiff little helmet; my father leaving, his head down, pulling on his overcoat, in a hurry to get out without speaking. I would lie awake at night wondering why my mother who was so good, and so constant, was less interesting, less exciting than my father who was so unreliable, so upsetting.
That beguiling father, whom she describes as “quick-silver, brilliant, elusive,” seems to have been absent much of the time, and even when present, “never very mature, always appealing, he was a confused and confusing father.” Her dutiful mother, who “was the Cinderella in our house, not only physically doing all the work…but morally holding the fort against the dazzling prince, my father,” is the parent around whom the girls gathered in order, they hoped, to protect, defend, and sustain her. In this, the Kinnicutt girls and their mother replicated the essentially gynocentric world of their widowed Jay grandmother and her five daughters, whose husbands were divorced or away in the war. It was a world of women Maisie loved as a child. In adult retrospect, however, acutely aware of her mother’s marital unhappiness, she is disapproving of her mother’s and her aunts’ conventional thralldom (her word) to the uxorial obligations they were taught:
When I look back at family photographs, they all wear the same controlled smile. They are smiling because they have been told to. They have been so carefully taught to listen, to defer, to appear pleasant and gracious at whatever cost. They stand in the photographs, their heads down, their eyes veiled. They are trapped, not unhappily, but unknowingly, in their culture; their roles, their beauty itself, obediently ready to spring into service.
Maisie Houghton’s account of her family and her youth is, like her aunt Gusty, “fresh, frank and lively.” She has a sharp eye for the telling detail and the revelatory gesture, and a captivating ability to bring back the sensations and qualities of times past. Here she is, almost sixty years ago, returning from a morning at the beach with other children to have lunch with her adult “cousin,” the talented performer Ruth Draper, in Dark Harbor:
We trudged single-file past the bayberry hedge, avoiding the bees humming around the rosa rugosa, up the steep slope, dragging our towels behind us, limping in raggedy swimming shoes, our hair in flat wet coils, dripping down our backs.
Her evocations of the long, carefree summer days on Islesboro, her account of a summer spent when she was nine in a house her grandmother Jay rented outside Honfleur (where Maisie discovered French food and the Bayeux tapestry), and her portrayal of life as a student in Cambridge, first at Shady Hill School, then at Radcliffe—all of these places and experiences are conveyed with precise accuracy and sensual immediacy, so that for anyone who has known the pine-scented coast of Maine or experienced the serene academic atmosphere of Cambridge in the 1950s, her book is a Proustian madeleine.
But it is her empathetic astuteness about the various members of her family and their relationships, or nonrelationships, that is even more impressive. Her account of her parents is compassionate but unflinching in its candor, and her analysis of their characters is sharp with insight, sometimes sorrowful, sometimes impatient, sometimes accepting. They come alive on the page, as she attempts to understand the world into which she was born, so as not to be imprisoned by its customs and its cultural assumptions but to understand who she is. That knowledge is the hard-won triumph of her book.
The wary, self-effacing, deferential, conforming girl who grew up on Larch Road bit by bit acquires enough of a sense of self to become slightly, but only slightly, rebellious as an undergraduate. She doesn’t always go home from her Radcliffe dormitory when she is expected to; she refuses to take her studies seriously, preferring to be “attractive, desirable and popular” rather than “smart or brainy”; she discovers “boyfriends, late-night parties, Pete Seeger concerts, Bach oratorios, avant-garde theater” and determinedly becomes a party girl; and, most importantly, “I began to do as I pleased.” She was beginning to escape.
The most moving part of Maisie Houghton’s journey of self-discovery comes in the very last pages of her account, where she finally comes to accept the father “I never really knew—nor did he know me.” Her discovery of some letters her mother had kept, which enables her to comprehend better her Kinnicutt grandparents, prompts her to reread a cache of postcards her father had sent to her when she was at school—postcards that she had saved, seldom rereading them, for fifty years. Astonished to discover how “loving and parental” these postcards are, she realizes just how much she “had been growing hard on my father and his errant ways.”
She also realizes, for the first time, that her father cared immensely about art and had a great desire to be an artist himself. When she was a schoolgirl, he would take stationery cards from the Porcellian Club and paint pictures on them in “bright, fearless color.” Later, when he acquired a houseboat on the North Shore where he spent increasing amounts of time, it became his studio, and the logbook he kept there, in which he “let his imagination, his wit, and his sense of style play freely without constraint,” also revealed to his daughter, long after his death, aspects of him that she had not suspected.
Just as she was beginning to distance herself from her family while in college, her father died, quite unexpectedly. She was told by her uncles that he’d had a heart attack just after reaching his office at the Boston Juvenile Court where, having left Harvard, he worked part-time as a pro bono probation officer, another side of his life that seems to have been little known. She soon escaped into the arms of a handsome, wealthy young man at the Harvard Business School named Jamie Houghton, whom she married a few weeks after graduating from Radcliffe in 1962.
Her marriage to a man who became not only the head of Corning Glass but a leading philanthropist seemed at first only to frustrate further her attempts to be herself: “I felt I had only hitched my wagon to a star, that is, to my husband and his career, and that there was no ‘me’ there.” An appalling automobile accident suffered years later by her husband caused her, as she explains, to realize that she needed to be more than simply his wife, that it was important for her to have an identity independent of his, and that perhaps she could achieve that by becoming a writer. Her first book, never published, was a biography of Ruth Draper, which she now rejects as being “another good-girl approach,” but which, she also realizes, helped her to find her own voice. That is the voice we hear in this lambent book.
In contrast to Maisie Houghton’s vivid, affecting remembrances, Louis Auchincloss’s posthumous “memoir of my youth” seems tired and sadly inconsequential. But then, the distinguished doyen of New York letters was ninety-two or ninety-three when he wrote it; it was his sixty-fifth book; and he had already told essentially the same story thirty-six years earlier in A Writer’s Capital. That first attempt at autobiography is fuller, better written, and more like Auchincloss at his best. Among other things, this last book lacks the elegance of form that is characteristic of his better work; its final chapters, especially the unexpected and frustratingly uninformative one on the art critic Stuart Preston, seem like cobbled-together addenda. One can’t help but wonder just how finished a manuscript he left for his publisher and what the problems of producing this book may have been. Grammatical infelicities (“those who I have passed my time with”) have not been corrected, and the book has been poorly proofread: although the text surprisingly mentions “all eight of my grandparents,” the author is of course referring to his great-grandparents; and the elusive “Sarge” (Stuart Preston) was never “an expatriate president of Paris,” merely a resident.
The “voice from old New York” is the voice one might hear if one were having martinis with some genteel, benevolent, companionable Ancient Mariner at Auchincloss’s beloved Century Association, reminiscence after reminiscence flowing forth under the watchful eye of John La Farge’s portrait of nineteen-year-old Henry James, one of Auchincloss’s literary idols. One is lulled into reposeful complacency by the patrician prose—calm, decorous, seamless, never agitated, never indiscreet, seductively soothing.
Gentlemanly decorum dominates not only the tone but the matter. When he comes to the death of Marshall Field IV (“my richest friend and contemporary”), instead of discussing the marital unhappiness and drug addiction that preceded it, Auchincloss fastidiously elects silence: “I draw the curtain.” Similarly, the suicide of his homosexual Yale roommate is airily dismissed: “Kill oneself over a sexual infatuation?… Well, people do.” His allusions to the recurrent, incapacitating depressions of his father and his sister Priscilla, his passing reference to his older brother’s abandonment of a promising diplomatic career for “a life of pleasure and leisure with a rich and devoted wife,” his cryptic but explicit reticence about his younger brother Howland (“I honor him with silence”), his final chapter on his family’s Irish maid, Maggie Kane, who was “a genuine and lasting comfort” to him but whose class made her “not a subject for a writer of my ilk” and who simply disappeared without a trace—these matters all raise more questions than he deigns to answer, or even to entertain. His own crippling sexual neuroses and castration fears, which finally had to be treated by a psychiatrist, he discusses with a decorous, matter-of-fact placidity that is quite blood-chilling: emotion is recollected in imperturbable tranquility.
As he recounts the social milieu he grew up in, his unhappy schooling at Groton, his summer holidays in Bar Harbor (in those days a “bastion of rich people,” like Maisie Houghton’s Dark Harbor), his service in the Navy, and his beginnings as a lawyer and a writer, it’s clear that the punctum dolens of the story is his formidable mother; and one recalls how ominously prominent mother figures are in some of his novels. But even though he talks about her repeatedly and at length, in neither this book nor the earlier autobiography do we get a very informative picture of just who his mother was: if she were unexpectedly to appear, we wouldn’t recognize her the way we instantly would Maisie Houghton’s mother should she walk into the room. We know that Louis adored her and was intimidated by her. We know that, like Maisie Houghton’s mother, she dominated the household and picked up the pieces, especially when her husband fell prey to his repeated depressions. We know that she deplored Louis’s lifelong obsession with wealth and class. Above all, we know that, fearing her son’s first novel was second-rate and “that my efforts showed a worldly streak that if published would make me look vulgar,” she insisted that he publish it under a nom de plume—something he never got over. But for all that, we never come close to the intimate understanding of who she really was that Maisie Houghton gives us of her mother.
Auchincloss confined his artistry, like Jane Austen, to a small piece of ivory: the moneyed world of New York’s upper-class society, their brownstones in the city and their “cottages” in Newport and Bar Harbor, their schools and clubs, their law offices and boardrooms. Future generations will no doubt turn to him to learn what that rarefied world was like in the twentieth century, in the same way that they will turn to John Updike to understand “the American Protestant small town middle class” (as he described his own, far more encompassing canvas). Yet somehow the world depicted in Updike is more convincing than Auchincloss’s; one is more persuaded of the candor and detailed accuracy with which it is portrayed. This is not because one suspects any intentional evasion on Auchincloss’s part, but simply because one is aware that what he describes is seen through a rose-tinted lens of envious desire.
I see a schoolboy when I think of him,
With face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window…
I’ve never quite understood what Yeats meant to say about Keats with these lines, but they have meaning for me if applied to Louis Auchincloss. For despite his birth into an affluent, upper-class New York family, his obsession with lineage and class, money and privilege, repeatedly reveals a longing for even greater wealth and an even more elevated social status than he actually possessed—“the desire,” as he puts it in A Voice from Old New York, “for what one doesn’t have.” Amusingly, that desire was expressed in his boyhood by an unquenchable envy for a red Rolls-Royce limousine that belonged to a classmate’s father, an envy so great that he actually urged his mother to get a job so that the Auchinclosses too could have one.
Even though Auchincloss was not in fact a small man, either physically or literarily, Brian Aspinwall’s description of David Griscam in The Rector of Justin could almost serve as a self-description of its author:
Everything about him, however, suggests to me the small man who would like to seem larger, the guest who is trying to look like one of the portraits in the club.
Auchincloss clearly would have preferred to be a Millinder, a member of the plutocratic, top-rung family at the center of his The House of Five Talents. And indeed, in his earlier autobiography with its telling monetary title, A Writer’s Capital, when describing his mother’s attitudes toward well-bred society, he reverts to precisely that same Yeatsian image:
I was kept with my nose pressed to the pane through which I observed with her the same [fashionable, upper-class] environment.
We read memoirs to gain a sense of other epochs and other milieux, to discover what experiences life has given the author, but above all to learn who the author is. The best memoirs provide us with a depiction of what Germans call Bildung—what the author has learned in the course of his or her journey, how those things have been learned, and what their spiritually formative significance is. Although Louis Auchincloss recounts the various experiences he has had and the important people he has known, one feels that the essence of his personality was fixed almost from boyhood—his account of being bullied at Groton is among the best things in his book—and that what he has learned from subsequent experiences or acquaintances was mostly negligible in shaping his self, or merely confirmatory.
The drama of Maisie Houghton’s memoir is the drama of a highly intelligent young woman trying to come to terms with her extended family, trying to find a role as a woman that was not the subservient one imposed on her mother and her aunts in their “fortress of domesticity,” trying to establish an identity apart from her family and her beloved husband, trying to speak with a voice of her own. Both authors speak to us with a distinctive voice, as the titles of their books imply, but one voice has been the same almost from the beginning, while the other was achieved only with courage and struggle over time.
March 24, 2011