Diana Joy Hirshon Parkinson Briggs Ingham is very wealthy, scatters curse-words freely into her conversation, smokes ‘too many’ cigarettes and is on her third husband. It all sounds very racy, a product of a certain era in American history and a family background that includes the legendary banker and art collector Jules Bache (her maternal great-grandfather whose collection hangs in the Met) and her stockbroker father, Walter Hirshon. Her own mother died in Paris when Joy was very young and the glamorous stepmother that took over was Dorothy Hart Hearst (Hirshon), who had previously been married to William Paley. But, as a shrink once told Joy: ‘With you it’s all smoke and mirrors.’ Still somewhat insecure about her inherited wealth, she endearingly and gamely projects the tough broad that she is not. It is a kind of game that you are invited to play along with, knowing full well that in fact she is sensitive, frightened of hurting people or being hurt herself. She wants to be liked, and she is – deservedly so. We imagine that she is an intensely loyal friend who would have the courage to tell the truth – provided you are not the sort of person who minds being called an ‘asshole’ every now and then.
You come from a very wealthy background, associated with names that carry a lot of ‘baggage’, if you like, and so we were wondering what you made of the notion of ‘class’ in American society.
I think it’s very important.
So you definitely think it exists.
I think it exists in every culture in the world. You can go to the Bahamas, they hate the Haitians because they work harder or whatever …I think there’s a certain class structure … whether it is defined in some places than in others … is a different thing. I think it’s there. We’re all human.
How would you define your own class?
Oh … I would define my own class …well how would you define it? The upper class …who knows? Um…I’m one of the lucky ones. There’s a whole class of people that have history and no money left. I’m one of the lucky ones, who, for whatever reason has the history and the money. Then you’ve got the ones who have just made an exorbitant amount of money.
New money? Where do they belong?
Well, it depends how you look at it. Financially they would belong right at the top. History-wise … they have to buy their history. It’s very important to them. They don’t really understand …
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in many places. First we lived in Riverdale, then we went to Locust Valley and then I went to boarding school and then I went to college.
How did you get on at boarding school?
Oh, I loved it. I loved the camaraderie. I was living with my father and stepmother. She was a terrific woman but she wasn’t the warmest person on the outside. So therefore every weekend I wanted to be with my friends and it was the stage where you can’t drive. So the thought of going to boarding school where you didn’t need any driving and you were with all these people all the time was fabulous. I loved it!
Your real mother died when you were seven years old. Do you remember her at all?
Very vaguely. Because I was really of the generation where you brought up by the nurse. I know that I kissed her good morning and I kissed her good night but I only have a couple of memories. And sometimes you don’t even know if you were told or you remember. One thing I do remember … there was a woman who used to come over to our house and she used to wax my mother’s legs and I remember the horror of pulling this cloth off! Can you imagine? It’s the scariest thing you’ve ever seen in your life!
How was the transition from being with your mother to being with your stepmother?
Well, my father was already really separated from my mother when she died. We don’t give him credit for her death. When she died they were supposedly trying to get back together but … I was very close to my governess and if somebody had said ‘your governess died’, I would have been much more upset. I remember my mother died in June and we had rented a house in France. And he [her father] felt, obviously, that it was better not to tell me. So I would go to church every day with whatever staff was in the house and it wasn’t until August that he sat me down on a bench and said ‘Your mother died.’ And I said ‘Can I go and play my friends now?’
What do you think of that way of bringing up kids?
Well, it was what they did in that generation. And for my children, who I brought up, with a nurse, they adored the nanny. You had to get over the fact that no matter what happened, you were always going to be their mother and they were going to love you. Because I think people get scared that they’re going to love the nanny more. I got hysterical when I was married to my ex-husband and we were in the Bahamas. We were in a little speed boat and we were coming back from a picnic … and the swells came up. All the kids were on board and suddenly you couldn’t see and my little daughter screams out ‘Mary! Mary! I love you!’ And I said ‘Oh, what the fuck? I’m your mother!’ [laughs] I mean I didn’t take it …[to heart]
You have explained to us quite a complicated family history. What sort of a little girl were you with all the divorces, older half-sisters and stepsisters and stepbrothers coming and going?
Well, you just sort of get used to it. I mean you make the best of it. And then my father’s brother was ‘King’ of Tahiti …
He lived in Tahiti, he was almost the first white man there, supposedly. And he got married twice over there and then he died very suddenly. And one set of the children came and lived with us. They ended up going back to Tahiti. I’ve never been there … I was at this dinner party in Detroit and there was this British landscape architect [who was there] and he was going on this trip to Tahiti. So I said that Charlie [the cousin] loves to show people around … so here’s his phone number. So, he comes back about six months later and says ‘You know, I thought you were full of shit. I fly in to Papeete, I go to the hotel. I decide, okay, I’m going to take a walk. I walk out of the hotel and I turn left and there is this cemetery. And there is this biggest goddamn mausoleum I have ever seen in my entire life and on it, it says ‘Charles Hirshon’’ …. so, there were a lot of us. We all went to Europe in a station wagon, all over Europe, with the dog. My father and the two boys put all the shit on the top. They were all in the front. I was in the back with the dog, a sheep dog. Dorothy [Hirshon] and the two girls were in the middle.
What was it like?
It was hysterical. My father had gout in his foot, so driving around made him even more pissed off.
What did you want to be? What did you want to do with your life as a young woman?
Er … I went to college and I wanted to get married. I had absolutely no … er …
Do you find that strange now to think that’s all you thought for yourself?
No, because in our time that was what we all wanted to do. [Gets up and returns with a pack of cigarettes]
I love people who smoke.
There are a lot of them around. You take a pack of cigarettes to a dinner party and you go home with no cigarettes.
Are they all closet smokers?
Definitely. People aren’t really wild about smoking in their home so you go outside and they come and say ‘can I bum a cigarette?’ It’s a riot. I used to put ashtrays on the dining room table because that’s how we used to set the table, right? My brother-in-law was here one night and he’s very big into the anti-smoking. So I said to him ‘Don’t you open your fucking mouth.’ The entire table starts smoking and I started to laugh. I thought this is very interesting … put an ashtray down and it’s ‘Oh I haven’t had one in so long …’ But now you can’t do that. Now, they’re really doing it. Basically it isn’t good for you and basically it makes sense. And it does smell.
Can we take a picture of you smoking?
No, you don’t need a picture of me with a cigarette. [lights the cigarette]
Do you think that there is a petty morality attached to the notion of smoking?
I think it’s a little ridiculous if you’re outside and they’re going to ban it on the street. If you want to kill yourself … well, it’s your choice. But I used to feel years ago that it somebody invited me for dinner and knew I smoked ‘tough shit’. But now, it’s different. You really do understand. You are in their home. But there are all these people smoking Cuban cigars … they’ve all got humidor rooms!
We talked earlier about class and I was wondering about how your own Jewish heritage played into that. Is there still a marked social distinction between Jewish people and WASPs?
Yes, more than ever. I think Florida is great example of that. I mean, Florida if you’re Jewish you cannot join the Everglades Club, nor can you bring a Jewish person to a meal there. My aunt was a member. I know my great-grandfather was a member. My mother was a member and when she married my father, they kicked her out.
And what of your own Jewish heritage?
Well, I’ve always been very open about it. I mean my father used to say that my mother was dipped and so was I because I was baptized at St. Thomas and married at St. John’s and nobody really knows …they say it comes from your mother’s side. Well, you don’t know what my great-grandfather’s wife was. But basically it’s on both sides. I’m 95 per cent Jewish. Now I had aunts of mine who arranged the flowers at St. James and they were about as Jewish …as … you know I was. But in their eyes they weren’t Jewish. My father always said he was German. He never said he was Jewish. It was very late in life when he got religion. You see the German Jews were very much like the WASPs … you didn’t do big displays of money.
Do you feel yourself to be Jewish? I don’t feel one way or another. I’m not a religious person. When I moved to Detroit [after marrying her second husband], … it was interesting because when I lived on Long Island, no one thought about it one way or another. The minute I moved to Detroit and they read the bio on the wedding announcement, and there was some Jewish holiday. I’d never even set foot in a temple. And I remember saying ‘What do you do on this one?’ and they’d go ‘What are you talking about? You’re Jewish!’
What did you feel when they said that to you?
Um … I sort of hated it. Which isn’t the nicest thing in the world. It sort of bothered me enough to remember it.
It is said that inheriting money can be a burdensome thing – has that been your experience?
Well, of course. Obviously it’s got its positives and its negatives but it’s also a whole matter of how you have been brought up. I really do believe that you reproduce what you see in the nest. Inherited wealth puts you in a situation where you think people only like you for your money.
Have you ever felt that?
Um … I think everybody does at some point. First of all, as my first ex-husband used to say, which I thought was a great line: ‘It doesn’t make you un-American to like money’ So anybody who says ‘I don’t really give a shit if you have money’ is crazy. One of the things on Jonathan’s [Ingham, her husband] ‘list’ was that he wasn’t going to remarry somebody who he had to take care of monetarily. It makes a big difference. Maybe you overcompensate … but you know … everybody likes money. It makes it more attractive. Jon and I have very different views about many things but at least, and especially a lot of times how to spend money, but seeing that we keep everything separate, he can’t really get hysterical.
How would you characterize your own personal attitude towards money?
Well I used to be embarrassed by it and then this very bad person I went out with … but actually he did say to me ‘Why are you so embarrassed about your money? You like to spend it don’t you?’ And I said yes. He said ‘Well you’d better learn about it and stop pretending it’s over there. Grow up!’ And so you sort of do.
How would you define glamour? When you look at old pictures of your mother, does she look glamorous?
They all say glamour is dead. I don’t know how I would define it. But pictures … my mother loved keeping albums. And so I love keeping albums. I have albums from the day I got married, all in order. I’m a Virgo … I’m anal.
Does that mean that you a worrier or a perfectionist?
Oh sure … I’m a born pessimist but I’m not so sure that’s a Virgo trait or it’s because … well, then you won’t be hurt. You see if you think the worst is going to happen and because of my mother dying when I was little, there is a side that you never go, beyond it … you know.