Tuesday, September 8th, 2009
Lies My Mother Never Told Me
I used alcohol as the magical conduit to fantasy and euphoria,
and to the enhancement of the imagination. There is no need to
either rue or apologize for my use of this soothing, often sublime
agent, which had contributed greatly to my writing. . . . I did use
it—often in conjunction with music—as a means to let my mind
conceive visions that the unaltered, sober brain has no access to.
—William Styron, Darkness Visible
My mother was a renowned storyteller. She was hilarious, irreverent, capable of Chaplinesque self-deprecation as well as boastful self-aggrandizement, depending on her audience. She was known for shocking the gathered company into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, or horrified silence. Here is a story my mother loved to tell, which ended up, in a slightly different form, in my novel A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries.
One night when I was perhaps two, I stood up in my crib when my parents came in to say good night and announced, “I’m all alone.”
“No, no,” my father explained, “you’re not alone. You have us.”
“No. You have each other,” I told him, “but I’m all alone.”
Apparently my father sat down in a chair and burst into tears.
My mother used to say that these words of mine convinced them to adopt my brother.
Why had my statement made my father cry? Perhaps this is only wishful thinking on my part, but I hope that on some unconscious level, he knew my words were true.
When I was little my mother often told me, “If I had to pick between having your father or having you, I would pick your father.” This seemed to me a perfectly reasonable and honest statement because, given the choice, I also would have picked my father.
City of Lights
In 1958, following in the footsteps of his writer heroes, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, et al., James Jones decided he wanted to live in Paris for a few years, and so my parents, newlyweds still, moved there, neither one of them speaking a word of French.
This was seven years after the publication of From Here to Eternity, a novel based entirely on my father’s own experiences in the peacetime, pre–World War II army. The book, which won the National Book Award in 1952, sold more than three million copies in the United States alone and was published worldwide, including in Eastern Europe and Asia. The film, starring Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Ernest Borgnine, and Burt Lancaster, won eight Academy Awards in 1954.
By the time they moved to Paris in 1958, he’d written two other novels, Some Came Running and The Pistol. While all three were bestsellers, and Some Came Running was made into a Vincente Minnelli film starring Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, and Dean Martin, the novel had been savaged by critics. The Pistol fared much better with reviewers. Neither book reached the level of success of From Here to Eternity.
They moved into a little one-bedroom apartment on the quai aux Fleurs, a block from Notre-Dame cathedral. My mother was an excellent reader and offered insightful comments, though of a general nature. My father gave her the first 150 pages of The Thin Red Line, his Guadalcanal combat novel, and she thought they were terrible. She didn’t know what to say and finally she blurted, “It’s too technical, there’s no heart in it.” And he burned the entire 150 pages in the fireplace. He started again, approaching C-for-Charlie Company as one collective, emotional consciousness, and he was off.
Over the course of their first year in Paris, my mother suffered several miscarriages, but eventually she became pregnant with me. Five months into the pregnancy, she had some complications, and total bed rest was recommended. My mother, for the next four months, had to give up the nightlife she loved so much.
My father was making progress on The Thin Red Line, so my mother, lying flat on her back, listened to him clacking away on the typewriter in the next room. One day, the laundryman arrived just as my father was writing one of the saddest scenes in the book. During an attack, Sergeant Keck, a die-hard, solemn, no-bullshit veteran, foolishly pulls a hand grenade out of his back pants pocket by the pin. Realizing this terrible mistake, he rolls away, onto his back, not wanting to upset, or hurt, his men.
My father got up and opened the door, and there stood the old laundryman, carrying their clothes. My father was shaking, his face twisted up, tears flowing; the laundryman could see my mother through the door, lying hugely pregnant in the bed. As my father reached for his wallet, the laundryman threw up his hands and said, “Ne vous inquiétez pas, monsieur! Pas de problème!” Don’t worry, sir, no problem! And he refused to take my father’s money. “You pay me next time!” My father, with his very limited French, couldn’t convince the kind man to take his money.
In early August 1960, a few days after I was born, we moved into an apartment my father had bought and renovated on the Île Saint-Louis, which overlooked the quai d’Orléans, above the Seine. My father had furnished it himself—with mostly Louis Treize, dark, shiny wood with red velvet and beige-toned upholstery. It was a strangely shaped apartment, since it spread out over two second floors in different buildings, and the buildings were not level. The living room/dining room was in one building, overlooking the quai and the Seine, while the bedrooms were in the back building, down a narrow hallway and shallow flight of stairs.
The Thin Red Line was published in 1962, and it was a critical and commercial success. The book was sold to the movies, and with that money, my father bought the ground-floor apartment in the front building, which became my parents’ elegant bedroom. A curving, carpeted stairway was built, which led from the downstairs entryway to the high-ceilinged living room. He also bought the third-floor apartment in the old, musty back building, which became his office.
Like a king and queen holding court, my parents were soon surrounded by admirers, revelers, court jesters, and even the occasional spy. They had a cook, a housekeeper/nurse, and a chauffeur. They were wild and irreverent and defiant, and so hospitable to anyone passing through that you never knew who might show up. As a little girl, I met famous writers, actors, movie stars, film directors, socialites, diplomats, and even an emperor—Haile Selassie—who stood by my bedside while I was awakened from sleep, and blessed me in some incomprehensible language. Ambassador Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy were frequent visitors, as well as the French writer Romain Gary and his then wife, Jean Seberg. My parents counted among their friends the writers Richard Wright, Irwin Shaw, James Baldwin, William Styron, William Saroyan, Carlos Fuentes, Françoise Sagan, and Mary
Excerpted from LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME, by Kaylie Jones, published in August 2009 by William Morrow. Copyright © 2009 by Kaylie Jones. All rights reserved.
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