The Bad, The Powerful, and The Beautiful

At lunch a few weeks ago, Paula Scher asked me if I had any criminals in my family history. The British considered most of them criminals and traitors during the revolutionary war. During the Civil War, some ended up in Union prisons. The most notorious family member was Lewis Thornton Powell, a distant cousin (we have common ancestors on the Lewis, Thornton, Powell, and Harrison lines). Powell was convicted and hanged with the other conspirators in President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Otherwise, the family scandals or rumors of unorthodox behavior were of a romantic nature.

William Christian Bullitt married the noted communist and ex-wife of John Reed, Louise Bryant (played by Diane Keaton in Reds). She slowly went mad, had an affair with Gwen Le Gallienne and died alone in Paris. Amelie Rives Chanler Troubetzkoy divorced her first husband; Astor heir Archie Armstrong Chanler, then married Prince Pierre Troubetzkoy. Troubetzkoy was described by the women of New York and Newport society as “a fine specimen of a man.” Lucy Page Mercer Rutherfurd was President Franklin D. Roosevelt's true love from 1915 until his death in 1945. She was with him the day he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Georgia.

The most controversial story is about the nature of cousin Joshua Fry Speed’s relationship with President Lincoln. If nobody ever discussed Lucy Mercer and FDR at dinner, you can imagine that the Lincoln and Speed issue was never mentioned. The facts are these: Lincoln moved to Springfield, Illinois as a young attorney. Upon his arrival, he went to Speed’s store to inquire about a room. Speed suggested Lincoln stay with him, as he had a large bed. Lincoln moved in and they lived together for seven years. Speed eventually returned to the family plantation, Farmington, in Kentucky to marry Fannie Henning. Lincoln had a nervous breakdown and went to Farmington to recover. He then returned to Springfield and married Mary Todd. Speed and Lincoln remained best friends, although a cooling occurred during the civil war. Speed was a southern Democrat and opposed the Emancipation Proclamation. He made many confidential trips to Washington to visit Lincoln, and saw him two weeks before the assassination (refer to Lewis Thornton Powell above—see how convoluted this all is). Speed’s brother, James served on as Attorney General in Lincoln’s administration.

Now whether this friendship was platonic or more isn’t particularly important to me. Who knows? Who cares? What matters to me is that this is now an interesting anecdote to be told at cocktail parties.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emotionally Repressed Party Chatter

I’ve often been called uptight. I would tend to agree. I understand uptight people in movies. Everyone else thinks they’re the villain, emotionally rigid, or deranged. They just seem sensible to me. This comes, no doubt from a long line of, as Noreen calls them, “Uptight white people.” There are times, however, when the uptight problem turns into a self-abuse spiral. When I go to a speaking engagement, party, or conference, I spend the following day pondering what I may have done that was offensive. I typically have two primary offenses (there are probably many more, but I can only manage two).

First, I meet people who I have met before, but don’t recall them. I’m always careful to introduce myself, even if I’ve just been onstage, and say something such as, “It’s nice to see you, I’m Sean,” or “I’m so glad you’re here tonight.” Most people go with the flow and manage a pleasant conversation. Of course, once in awhile somebody challenges me, “You don’t know who I am, do you?” I know I’ve offended them, but the problem isn’t that they aren’t important, it’s that I can’t remember my own family member’s names.

My other problem is turning my back on somebody. I’ll be carrying on a conversation, and in the middle be interrupted by someone else, usually by yanking on my collar. I’ll turn to acknowledge them, and then, the other party feels that I have simply become bored and turned away. Once again, it’s a brain problem. I have a true talent for deep focus on one subject, but I can’t juggle more than one conversation. So, if I have turned my back on you, it is a reflection of my growing senility, not your company.

I was taught a few simple rules by my grandmother who seemed to live only to practice correct manners.

1. No one ever wants to hear, “I know your face, but who are you?” If you can’t recall someone, the best approach is to say something harmless, “That is a really fantastic tie.” Hopefully, he or she will say something to trigger your memory.

2. Alternatively, no one wants to be accused, “You don’t remember me. Do you?” Instead, if you see someone out of context, or haven’t seen him or her for some time, provide some information, “Jane, it’s so good to see you. I’m Peter Meriwether. We met at Alice Thornton’s club.”

3. Never provide unsolicited advice. It is rarely if ever wanted, even by hyperactive attention seeking children.  It is one thing to lean in quietly and say, “Jack, you might want to check your trousers’ zipper.” This is helpful and a friend will always appreciate the heads up. It is quite another to say, “Thomas, your family may have been in politics for generations, but let me give you some tips on the correct way to campaign.” This type of advice only reads as bitter, condescending, and unpleasant, regardless of the intent.

4. When the conversation dips, these are three comments to move it along: “Tell me about your garden. I hear it’s incredible,” “Now, what brought you to Darien (or wherever you are),” and “Would you consider your taste to be traditional or contemporary?” These are all safe subjects and give a platform for conversation. “Did you know your hair is thinning?” is really wrong.

My Uptight White People