A family drama

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Looking west across the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. 8:15 PM. Photo: JH.

Monday, June 6, 2022.  Beautiful late Spring weather  here in New York over the weekend. Bluest of blue skies sometimes, but clouds turning dark grey; some rain but mainly sunshine and mid-70s on the average.

Elizabethan Tales. The Platinum Jubilee is over. The Daily Mail had the best sum-up article of it all right down to the end when the family was often gathered together by the event.

Except for Harry and Meghan who were evidently not evident. It’s easy to assume they were not invited because in all the official photographs Harry’s (and therefore Meghan’s) exclusion was presented for all to see. It was ironic that the only member of the family to not be wearing the uniform was Harry was the only  one of the last two generations who had a very active and impressive military activity in which he earned admiration and positive impressions as a representative of and for the UK.

The Jubille occasion was also the First birthday of Harry and Meghan’s daughter Lillibet whom they wanted to show to the Queen … who looked quite happy to see the child who is her namesake. Another great-grandchild, son of Kate and William almost stole the balcony show on the Queen who seemed to be affectionately delighted by his presence and his freedom of expression.

I don’t know Harry or Meghan although in a way I know more about them, having just finished Tina Brown’s amazing biography of this family’s members. Harry, until about the time he and Meghan met and were getting to know each other, was the most popular British royal in the world. Like his mother. A Prince of the people.

We saw some of it over here. I know a couple of people who bumped into him on the street and accidentally had spoken to him. He was real. This obviously was known because he was made a kind of ambassador that presented the Spirit of his very Grandmother, the Queen.

Being Harry, a man who is his own man, he had a strange role for a young man. He was Number 2 in his world. Not unusual in life but in the Royal Family, as Prince Andrew was number 2 was evidence of the challenge for an individual. After number one, William married, and his wife Kate had their first son, Harry was already a no-go in his own world. He probably never expected it to be otherwise but he had to find a place for himself as more than somebody else’s brother.

Widely criticized by talking about family relationships and feelings on camera with Oprah, many held that against him as if his own private existence didn’t belong to him but only to the censors and the editors.

What many of us don’t realize when judging another character’s life, is that the public persona is only an aspect of the private persona. Our family relationships are private. Everybody’s. Their roots are in the behavior we’ve experienced with each other, and how we are treated, as well.

Harpo Productions/ Photographer: Joe Pugliese

We only know Harry as a public persona. Now living in Montecito and a stone’s throw from Hollywood life, he’s in a new life, and possibly one that will be rewarding to the boy who lost his mother when he was a month from his 13th birthday.

How that affected him is unknown to me, but it is easy to see that the boy who’d grown up before our eyes, and was out in the world as one of the Most Famous Men in the World, also had his own set of problems on what to do with his life.

From the outside looking in, it looked as though meeting and marrying Meghan was his Godsend. He became his own man who wanted to live his life differently than the life that late he’d led. This is not unusual behavior for a man of his age and generation. The wife made the difference.

Meghan …

When their troubles began, the public — people I know anyway — were down on her. She was not approved of by women I know who don’t even know her. And then after their interview with Oprah where they talked about their difficulties in their family, it was finito for the couple with them.

The same thing happened two generations ago to the Duke of Windsor when he gave up his throne and married his Duchess. He was made to regret it although it’s even possible the rest of the family did not. The Duke was never really accepted by the Royal Establishment for marrying that divorcee-harridan who made the man happy. Although they were buried together in his plot at Frogmore, the Royal Burial Ground which is near Windsor  — which is where his great-grandmother Queen Victoria is buried.

Family separations are old tale we hear about in stories of the rich and powerful especially. Back around the end of the 19th/the beginning of the 20th century in New York, the Vanderbilt Family was an American New World version of Royal.

They also made famous marriages including royal ones. But there was one particular Vanderbilt — Cornelius III, son of Cornelius II, who fell in love with a pretty young debutante, Grace Wilson whom his mother and father disapproved of socially. Probably because of her father’s background.

… and Grace.

Grace Wilson’s father Richard Wilson was a newly connected tycoon in New York who made his fortune doing business with the Confederacy and probably the North during the Civil War. It made him rich.

An imposing and ambitious character in the world of his day, he established himself with family after the War when the country was booming from the developing results of the Industrial Revolution. It has been said that the character of Rhett Butler that Clark Gable made famous in the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War saga Gone With the Wind was based on Richard Wilson.

However, Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his wife were so disapproving of the marriage of Neily and Grace, that when he died at age 55, Cornelius II cut off his namesake, leaving him only $1 million of his enormous fortune. His younger brother Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt gave his older brother another $5 million from his own inheritance. But other members of Cornelius II’s family never accepted the marriage. Neily’s sister Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney never allowed Neily and Grace to winter at the family estate in Aiken, South Carolina. Gertrude didn’t like her sister-in-law.

The marriage lasted for the groom’s lifetime although it was said that he was not happily married not long after he tied the knot. No doubt his father’s rejection played a deeply troubling role.

Cornelius Vanderbilt III, Grace Vanderbilt, and their daughter on Fifth Avenue on Palm Sunday, 28 March 1915.

Although he was considered the “poorer” Vanderbilt, Neily lived like royalty with summer homes, a yacht that traveled across the world and in his grandfather’s enormous mansion at Fifth Avenue and 61st Street where Grace Vanderbilt entertained literally thousands of people every year at her enormous black tie dinners at home.

After Neily died in 1944, the property which belonged to another Vanderbilt, was sold to the Rockefeller Center group and torn down. Grace Vanderbilt cut her losses accepting reality, and moved to a smaller lodging farther up the avenue at 86th Street, There she continued her social lifestyle looking ahead. Her house today is the home of Ronald Lauder’s beautiful museum, the Neue Galerie New York.

I’ve known stories where the separation within the family over a marriage partner healed itself fairly quickly. It’s a noble objective and also sensible. The Harry-Meghan story is just the current public version of something that has always gone on in many families. And frequently. And for superficial, imagined reasons. When the marriage topic appears with evidence, the moral judgments are automatically in attendance in families.

This is especially true in families with wealth and power, although it is also just plain true when a parent disapproves of a “child’s” choice of partner. Then it becomes a family drama. Sometimes it creates a permanent separation from family, and by other family members … and even their friends.

Let’s hope for Harry and Meghan et al, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces, get to experience the goodness and advantage of family in our lives. These times of ours are testing us more than ever.

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