Monday, September 29, 2008

Remembering Our Own

A reflection of the Empire State Buliding from 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue. 2:15 PM. Photo: JH.
A rainy weekend in New York; sometimes torrents, sometimes drizzle, sometimes fog. I happen to love rainy day weekends; excellent for curling up with a good book.

Life. Family. The Man in the House. The book that has me these days is called “Madresfield; the Real Brideshead – One House, One Family, One Thousand Years” about a British family, the Lygons, the Earls Beauchamp who’ve lived in this 190 room pile since it was first a-building a millennium ago. For those who loved “Brideshead,” be it the book, the series or the movie, the Lygons were the family that author Evelyn Waugh befriended through his Oxford association with one of its sons, the ill-fated romantic figure, Hugh Lygon.

As fascinating as Brideshead was, the story of this house and this family (no other family has ever owned the house), the Lygons of Madresfield Court, is satisfying on many levels, for their history covers that of England, its monarchy, its politics, its culture, and its development and progress down through the ages. Because the family’s poltical, literary or social achievements never reached the pitch of popularity or folklore like, for example, the Churchills, the Spencers, the Cavendishes, the family’s characters all have a “real” ring about them.

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine from early childhood who now lives in San Francisco, went back to our hometown in Massachusetts for a school reunion. She took pictures of the neighborhood where we grew up and which I haven’t visited in 30 years. She took care to photograph the houses where all of our next door neighbors and our playmates lived, including my family’s house.

I was fascinated to see remnants of my past as they look today. It remains a conventional middle-class New England neighborhood of houses that were built mainly in the first quarter of the 20th century, with quite a bit of Victorian influence to several houses. Ours was the oldest, in the area, built as a farmhouse in the first half of the 19th century; plain and simple. When my mother and father found it in the mid-1940s it had been unoccupied for decades and was looking sorrowful and lonely, as well as in need of a good paint job (and electricity!).

Nowadays it would be a teardown since there was nothing remarkable about it except its age. The present owners, whoever they are, have kept it looking pretty much the way it did when I was growing up, although they made a small but sensible addition to the back of the house, and a spiffiness to its exterior, which looks like house pride, that was missing when my mother and father lived there.

Seeing the house and recalling the rooms and the feelings behind the windows, as well as the yard and the trees that were young when I was a child (two of which I noticed have been chopped down), I was filled with nostalgia about those formative years in my life when it centered around that house. Thinking back and considering families’ stays in house (like Madresfield, for example), however, I realized that I’d spent little more than a dozen years in my childhood home which provided a lifetime in memory and sense impressions.
Madresfield Court from the air.
Reading “Madresfield” and considering the individuals who grew up in its ancient hallowed galleries and salons, I realized that my deep impressions of a house in childhood have nothing on the Lygons whose genes have shaped a monument to a family for a thousand years, and yet those impressions continue to define much of my memories of youth.
Madresfield Court up close.
A Thoroughly Good Man. Paul Newman died over the weekend, as the world knows. On today’s NYSD, our Washington Social Diarist Carol Joynt has written a brief but effecting memory of her relationship to him, first as a fan, secondly in a professional connection and lastly and most importantly, as a fan.

I saw him only once in my life. It was many years ago at a movie premiere in New York. I can’t remember the picture but no doubt it was one of his. I was standing by the door of the old Loew’s State at 1540 Broadway, which was awash in lights from klieg spots to photographers’ flashes as well as with crowds of passersby and movie fans were cordoned off to make room for the arriving stars. A black limousine pulled up and out came Mr Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward bathed and shining in the bright white light. He was in his late thirties at the time and both he and his wife were very famous faces in the world. However, on that night, I can still recall the sight of him and her standing arm and arm at the curbside as the photographers were snapping. They wore bright warm smiles but he looked spit-shined, almost gleaming. And it was the eyes, the blue blue eyes which were so stunning and sharp to be almost unreal. And friendly too; nice.
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward at the Autism Speaks theatre gala in Westport, 2006.
The Newmans had been married for several years at that time. Once their careers began to take off, they did something that I’ve always thought (having lived in Hollywood) all actors should do after attaining stardom – leave Hollywood. As the world knows, the Newmans moved to Connecticut where they lived in the same house for the rest of their lvies. It might be one of the explanations for their long marriage and it definitely gave them access to a lifelong relationship to community and the respect that goes with that.

Paul Newman was famous for many things but to those of us who weren’t around at the time may not know that in the early 1970s, his association with, his fondness for, Coors beer accidentally (at least on his part I’m presuming) made it a national brand. His beer-drinking ways were well known to his fans. It somehow was publicized that his favorite beer was Coors, then mainly distributed in the West, but not the East. When it finally arrived on our shelves, a lot of us were eager to have the “cool” beer that Paul Newman, the connoisseur preferred.

There was always something celestial and heady about his presence in our world. Not only on the screen, but in terms of the mood he put us in with his persona. He was famous yet low key. We were elevated by him. We had the impression that this guy up on the screen was real and was basically good. He had talent. He had looks. He had great success; great fame, and yet you still had the feeling he was just a good guy with principles.
Paul Newman and Rosemarie Stack. Photo by Ellen Graham from 'The Bad & The Beautiful.'
His creation of the Newman’s Own brand and foundation is witness to all that. For all of his achievements professionally, Newman’s Own articulates the soul. The business has made hundreds of millions, almost all of which has been funneled into the Foundations that look after the children in need, to assist and ease the pain and maybe even heal.

My friend Joe Armstrong has been volunteering for a week for several summers now as a Counselor at one of the Newman’s Own Hole in the Wall camps. Paul Newman and he shared many several mutual friends. I asked Joe last night if he’d share some memories of the man:

Last year at the camp, Newman walked over to me and said "Armstrong, don't forget that a lot of these kids are a lot sicker than they look and act. But it's hard to see sometimes because they are having the time of their lives. My admiration and respect for these kids is enormous."

He told me in his always modest way, "Last summer I was sitting at a table of small guys --- hell, they probably hadn't seen any of my pictures and didn't know who I was."

But this one really bright inner-city kid kept looking at me then looking back on the side of the lemonade carton where my picture was, and then he'd look back and study my face, and then back to the lemonade cartoon. He did it over and over, until he was totally baffled and confused. And then I could see he got a bright idea. He looked right up at me and said "are you lost?"
Monica Lamontagne, Happy Rockefeller, Raymond Lamontagne, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, Joanne Woodward, and Paul Newman at Historic Hudson Valley's gala dinner dance, 2007.
Talking about my tenure there, he said to me "Joe you are one of our oldest volunteers who lives night and day in the cabin with the kids and watches over them for one long, solid week. I did what you are doing," he said, "until I was about 75."

He kept a cabin on the camp lake because he was often bringing up new donors to see what they were accomplishing (they are completely self-sustaining), as well as those who were visiting from other countries and thinking of opening an affiliate camp.

He loved it at camp. He said this was the only place where these seriously ill kids would not be afraid. They were comforted by others around them, attended by a superior staff, and watched over by great doctors. Newman got the head of Yale Medical to set up all the medical support facilities. He was shy and low-key but you could always tell the peace and satisfaction that came over him when he visited.

“P.S., we just started the 14th Hole In the Wall camp this very month on the sea of Galilee.”

What more could one ask of a man? Furthermore he even showed us what “business” and “entrepreneurs” can really accomplish too. He may have pointed us toward the future. A really good guy, his spirit will remain with us.

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