• The Disorienting World of New York’s Social Elite

    Kirkland Hamill on the Way Wealth Limits One's Worldviews

    My mother was beautiful. Most people are understandably dubious of this claim, probably assuming that as a son, I see her how I want to see her. But she was beautiful, indisputably. People compared her to Grace Kelly and Candice Bergen, but it was the comparisons to Jackie Kennedy Onassis that she liked the best.

    Even as her son, I was as in awe of her as the rest of the world seemed to be. I appreciated how the expression of her beauty changed with her moods, how her bright green eyes sparkled innocently when she was telling a funny story, or held somebody’s gaze as she listened to them. She had fair skin and naturally blond, shoulder-length hair that fell in wisps in front of her eyes or from behind her ears in endless variations.

    Her smile was lit from a source deep inside of her, candid and genuine, so it was easy for me to tell when she was faking one. Her high cheekbones didn’t lift, the smile looked more like a scowl, but it was the eyes that gave her away. I always knew how my mother felt by looking into her eyes.

    My father was not lit from the inside. He would have been considered cosmetically good-looking, with dark curly hair and dimpled cheeks. He had the kind of aristocratic frame that was both athletic and sexless, like many men of his ilk, a blank canvas onto which was painted Nantucket-red pants, Gucci loafers, and nondescript button-down, short-sleeve shirts.

    His side of the family was pure white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, Mayflower-descendant, white-butler rich. The butler’s name was Eugene, and in my memory he wore a tuxedo all day long, but it might have just been a suit. We had many portraits of bygone relatives hanging throughout our house—one of my great-grandfather looking like Teddy Roosevelt, reading studiously with pince-nez hanging off his nose, and a second great-grandfather in a suit standing upright with a cane, both men humorless, and commanding.

    Perhaps the painting of my grandfather, showing him looking relaxed behind the helm of one of his three yachts, is telling of the family fortune that would be lost under his watch. My parents and one of his many girlfriends were usually the only guests included on my grandfather’s yachting trips up the Maine coast every summer (he left my grandmother at home).

    We lived in Cedarhurst, a quiet Long Island suburb, on a dead-end street lined with enormous maple and oak trees that created a protective canopy over the neighborhood. Three homes made up our family compound. The three-story, four-thousand-square-foot house we lived in had been a wedding present from my father’s parents.

    On one side of us was my great-aunt Peg’s house, a 13-thousand-square-foot mansion called “Lauderdale,” that my great-grandfather Henry Hobart Porter had built in the late 1800s. On the other side lived Peg’s son, Seton (named after another ancestor, Mother Seton), and his family. I asked my aunt once if my grandmother’s middle name, Delano, indicated any relation to FDR. She scowled and said, “Grandfather never liked to talk about that cousin. He was a Democrat.”

    On the weekends, my grandfather would host us for dinner at the Long Island Rockaway Hunting Club that was just down the street from our house, where we would order steaks (“Pittsburgh rare”—meaning seared on both sides and raw in the middle) with insider names like Delmonico and Porterhouse.

    The adults would greet the club staff as if they were family. The club had a gaming room with multiple backgammon boards (you only played for money) surrounded by framed photos of the past club presidents, my grandfather and great-grandfather included. There were men’s-only bars that smelled of cigars and scotch. The club logo was a fox surrounded by guns and golf clubs assembled together to look like the crest of some English earl’s estate.

    My mother rarely talked about her life before my father, but when she did I was left with the impression that she was concealing an undisclosed wound.

    The fox hunting part of the club had ceased long before I was born, but the name remained, ensuring that people knew we were the type of people who would dress in red, mount thoroughbred horses, and follow screeching hounds chasing a fox to its death if we still could. Breakfast at the club had only two items, runny eggs and crisp bacon. Being rich back then meant that you could have anything you wanted, but you limited choices to ensure that the new rich people who wanted omelet stations and bottomless mimosas would never even try to join.

    Whenever we drove to the clubhouse, we passed the rows and rows of grass tennis courts. Occasionally there would be two women who looked to be the same age as my mother playing on the court closest to the clubhouse, in their short white skirts and frilly underwear.

    By the time my parents married, my father’s family had secured a seemingly permanent foothold in society’s upper echelons. They owned Park Avenue apartments and second homes right outside the city. They drank a lot. They often didn’t have jobs and the ones they did have they didn’t need. They cheated on their wives with the wives of their closest friends.

    My father was the youngest of four (the next oldest was ten years his senior) and the only boy. His parents didn’t think child care had anything to do with them, so the nannies and kitchen staff looked after him until he went to boarding school when he was seven. He saw his parents on school vacations, if they happened to be in the country, and was expected to dress for breakfast in jacket and tie when they were in town.

    My grandfather went to Yale, served on the boards of Pan American Airways and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and was the president of my great-grandfather’s engineering company. My father wasn’t a strong student, which is what one says about spoiled offspring who don’t feel like they have to work at anything. He would not have been accepted to Yale even in the days when the progeny of graduates were almost guaranteed admission.

    So he was encouraged by his father to bypass higher education altogether. “Not to worry,” my grandfather told him. “The only reason people go to college is to get a job, to make money. And you will never have to worry about money.” Knowing my father as I do now, I imagine he was relieved to find that there was no expectation that he should live up to his father’s success, and that he could instead skip straight to living the life that had already been earned for him. But first, he had to find the right partner.

    My mother was from a working-class family in Bermuda, born to a stay-at-home English mother and a Scottish father who worked as a traveling hardware salesman. My mother rarely talked about her life before my father, but when she did I was left with the impression that she was concealing an undisclosed wound, deep enough to want to escape into my father’s far more complicated world.

    I have a vague memory of once seeing my grandfather standing near his company van, the open double doors revealing an assortment of hanging tools, containers full of nails and screws, and various prepackaged boxes. I remember feeling loneliness on his behalf, thinking of him driving to new neighborhoods in his van, knocking on strangers’ doors, trying to sell them products for which they hadn’t asked.

    I equated what he did with some character in an old movie who was turned away time and again, each scene ending with a door shut in his face and a slow, dejected walk back to the van. Like a lot of the impressions I formed when I was younger, this one resembled nothing of his actual experience. I’ve since learned he knew his customers well. They requested not only the items he brought to them but his expertise in using them.

    My mother had one sister, Gail, who was four years older. According to my mother, Gail was jealous of my mother’s beauty, her popularity, and her relationship with their father—and their mother took Gail’s side in disputes, at the expense of fairness, to balance out the deficit. My mother told us that her father was the only one who ever stood up for her, although I can’t imagine she received more than the occasional stoic grunt that she interpreted as support.

    My mother’s younger brother, Derek, was absent from the early versions of my mother’s narrative. My grandparents adopted him as a baby, but at 17 years old he was kicked out of their house for unknown crimes and sent to England. When I first heard about Derek, I remember thinking his adopted status explained the seeming ease with which they erased him from their lives. When I was older, I began to question my mother more about him, needing to understand what he could have done that would justify total banishment.

    She refused to talk about it, saying only that she had loved him and felt protective of him when they were growing up, but she never wanted to see him again. Derek died in England in his forties, possibly of a drug overdose—my mother wasn’t sure. My mother met my father in the spring of 1963, when she was 19 and he was 23.

    He had brought five of his closest friends to stay at his parents’ vacation home in Bermuda for a last hurrah before they all enlisted to fight in Vietnam. (Apparently my father had suggested to his friends that enlisting early would ensure that they would get in and out of the war before the worst of the fighting began; he wasn’t the type of person to be moved by patriotism.)

    My father asked a girl he knew to round up five of her friends, one of whom was my mother, and the group spent the entire week together—most likely at various social occasions held at the exclusive Mid Ocean Club in Tucker’s Town, to which my father’s family belonged. The club was right across from their house, “Happy Days,” which overlooked Tucker’s Town Bay.

    In the early 1960s, the only way to access Tucker’s Town was through a gate manned 24 hours a day, even though most of the development was on public land. When I was young, we would drive up and the gatekeeper would open the gate without knowing who we were or why we were there, presumably because we looked like we belonged. 
My father told us that he and his friends were all captivated with my mother.

    Only he was able to return to the island to claim her after being rejected from the army for at feet and a bad back. They were engaged within six months and married soon thereafter, a union welcomed by both sets of parents. My mother’s beauty and exotic heritage and my father’s pedigree checked everyone’s boxes. A year after that, when my mother was 21 years old and my father 25, my mother gave birth to my older brother, Robin. I was born two and a half years later.

    The first six years of my life followed the path predestined by the social stratum that I was born into. In my father’s family, children were to be seen and not heard, and should any of us exhibit a malfunction, servants whisked us away to sort it out. My father was not interested in the intricacies of our emotional lives, in the same way that his parents had not been interested in his.

    I didn’t know that not everyone had nannies or went to private clubs where grown men in uniforms treated you the way you were supposed to treat adults.

    My mother was more conflicted. Not having come from my father’s world, and having been so young when she entered it, she was simultaneously unfamiliar with the ways of the New York social elite and easily influenced by them. She integrated seamlessly with my father’s friends, charming the women and captivating the men.

    My mother had a way of seeming vulnerable and impenetrable at the same time, a quality that made people feel protective of her. “There was something so innocent about your mother,” a friend of my parents said later, “and yet you always had the feeling that there was so much more going on beneath the surface. It was a very appealing combination.”

    For the most part, the ease with which she acclimated to her new life, guided by the grounding that her old life provided, allowed her to be open and very much herself in a context where many others were trying to be something more. And yet there were times, most often around older women she admired or feared, when she changed in a way that she never did with men, no matter how powerful or intimidating.

    I was four years old when I met this formal version of my mother. She was sitting up straight on one of the oral armchairs in the living room we never used. When my older brother and I arrived at the door, escorted by our nanny, my mother opened her left arm theatrically and summoned us forward with a big fake smile and an exaggerated “Come here, darlings.”

    My mother never called us “darling” when we were young, and her summons made me wary of the woman in the room. To my mother, I was always “Cuzzy wuzzy” or “Cuzzy iz” because I craved her affection and snuggled up next to her at every opportunity. Robin was “Robinski”—an ethnic version of his name meant to highlight how proudly ethnic we weren’t.

    “Kirkland, say hello to Mrs. Sippi,” my mother commanded. (I would learn later that this was the real name of one of my father’s parents’ friends, and not one of the cutesy names that old-money matriarchs assume to conceal how terrifying they are.) Robin and I held out our hands to Mrs. Sippi, who looked us up and down and smiled, at which point my formal and strangely angry mommy issued a stern directive meant to ensure our hasty and orderly exit. I complied, not wanting to embarrass her in front of a woman who apparently had the power to change who my mother was.

    Although he had held various odd jobs in his late teens and early twenties, and sold high-end yachts now and then, accompanying my grandfather on his many yachting trips up the Maine coast and to the family home in Bermuda was my father’s primary job. (Though they were not close when he was young, in my family your value increased the closer you approached drinking age, peaking when you could imbibe freely and appreciate off-color humor.) My mother joined many of their outings, leaving us at home with nannies.

    I didn’t know the home we lived in was part of a family compound. I didn’t know that not everyone had nannies or went to private clubs where grown men in uniforms treated you the way you were supposed to treat adults. I didn’t know that my family split people into tiers, those who were catered to, those who did the catering, and the “no come-froms” who sat somewhere in the gray, vast middle. There were no black people, or people of any other color, in our world besides our nanny, Cathy, and the staff of the hunting club.

    The thing about growing up wealthy and white is that nobody puts it into context for you. Nobody tells you that the Jews your father keeps talking about have the same thoughts and feelings as other people; nobody mentions that there are black people who don’t wear tuxedo jackets and fix you dinner. You’re dropped into a reality that you need to make sense of on your own, among people whose love for you serves as a shroud over their distaste for people who are not like you, so that it’s hard to see their distaste as wrong.

    If the rest of my life had turned out like the lives of many of my peers, I might never have strayed too far from this path. But it didn’t. Eventually my evolving understanding of the world came into direct conflict with many of the values that I had been taught, spurring an internal awakening, a lifeboat launched from a ship that didn’t know it was already sinking.


    From Filthy Beasts by Kirkland Hamill. Reprinted by permission of Avid Reader Press, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

    Kirkland Hamill
    Kirkland Hamill
    Kirkland Hamill has written for Salon and The Advocate, and was formerly the chief development and marketing officer at the National Center for Family Philanthropy. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his husband, Dave, and a dog named Blue.

    More Story
    How to Write a Timely Novel in a World That Won't Stop Changing From 2011 to 2019, I operated under the delusion that it’s possible to write a timely novel: a book so relevant, so of-the-moment,...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.