Sean’s blond-bombshell mother regularly entertains Black Panthers and movie stars in the family’s marble and glass penthouse. His enigmatic father uses a jet helicopter to drop Sean off at the video arcade. The three live happily together “eight-hundred feet in the air above San Francisco; in an apartment at the top of a building at the top of a hill: full of light, full of voices, full of windows, full of water and bridges and hills.” But when his father divorces his mother and marries her best friend, Sean’s life blows apart. His memoir shows us how he survived, spinning out a “deliriously searing and convincing” portrait of a wicked stepmother (The New York Times Book Review), a meeting with the pope, sexual awakening, and a tour of “the planet’s most interesting reform schools” (Details). BACKCOVER: “A memoir that announces the debut of a remarkably gifted, daring and, yes, very funny, writer.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The cliché ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ may well have been coined to describe Sean Wilsey’s wild, wise, and whip-smart memoir.”
“[An] irreverent and remarkably candid memoir about growing up in wealthy eighties San Francisco . . . rollicking, ruthless . . . ultimately generous-hearted.”
“A vivid mix of brio, self-awareness and sophistication . . . writing well is indeed the best revenge.”
—The New York Times Book Review
IN THE BEGINNING we were happy. And we were always excessive. So in the beginning we were happy to excess.
WE WERE MOM and Dad and I—three palindromes!—and we lived eight hundred feet in the air above San Francisco; an apartment at the top of a building at the top of a hill: full of light, full of voices, full of windows full of water and bridges and hills.
Mom was the center. Mom was irresistible. Whatever she was saying or wearing or smelling of was captivating—all our senses were attuned to her. As soon as I was old enough to walk I tried on her shoes and evening gowns and perfume, admired and wanted to be like her, so much that they had me seeing a shrink by the time I was three. The shrink said I needed to spend more time with my dad. But how? Mom was irresistible.
Mom had published two books—one about throwing parties, one about battling malevolent ghosts—and was working on a third, about her childhood in Texas and Oklahoma.
As far as I could tell Dad's job was to please Mom. He was solicitous and full of care. He gave Mom everything she wanted. He helped her want things she did not know to want.
Early every morning, Mom, Dad, and I took walks around Russian Hill in matching blue jumpsuits with white piping, Royal Tenenbaums–style.
ONE SUNDAY, on a shrink-mandated father-and-son outing, Dad took me across the bay on the ferry, re-creating the commute he made as a boy, before the Golden Gate Bridge was completed, from Catholic school in San Francisco to his home in Marin. Halfway there it started to rain, and we didn't have any umbrellas, so when we arrived we stood in a doorway near the water.
Dad hadn't shaved since Friday morning before work, and he looked rough. Even I could see it. Our matching jumpsuits were sad without Mom. Dad lit a cigarette. We looked out at the water.
A man with a box and an umbrella strode past, glanced at us, stopped fifty feet on, turned, walked back, and handed the box to Dad.
"I can't give you anything else," he said. "But take this."
Dad said, "Thank you," and took the box.
The man looked at me, looked at the ground, walked away.
Dad smoked till the man was out of sight, then he threw his cigarette in the gutter and opened the box.
"He gave us donuts!" I shouted.
Dad looked at me and started chuckling. "That guy thinks we don't have any money." He took a donut, laughed again, and blew powdered sugar out of his mouth.
I ate a glazed, and then a chocolate with sprinkles. Dad ate all the rest, steadily, devouring them with great relish and no preference for jelly over oldfashioned over chocolate or bear claw—only pleasure, and great amusement.
AT HOME I was either left alone, or overwhelmed with attention. Mom and Dad were either oblivious or hyperaware. They disappeared on a trip for seventeen days and left me with the maid. On Mom's return I ignored her when she called my name. She had my ears examined. They were infected. I needed surgery; tubes installed to drain them. I was four. Mom set herself the task of increasing my medical vocabulary, to make the hospital less frightening. (When an orderly rolled me into the operating room I asked him, "Are you the anesthesiologist?") I received books to read during my recovery, and became the kind of kid who spends all his time alone, reading, till Mom noticed my left eye didn't turn all the way to the left; then it was back to the doctor.
I HAD a friend down the hill, in the long shadow of our building, whose mother cooked us meatloaf. When I discovered meatloaf, and that other mothers regularly cooked it for their children, I went home and said, "Other mothers cook.
Why don't you cook?"
Without hesitation Mom said, "Other mothers don't write books."
It was the end of that question for me. And thenceforth, as if to compensate for not cooking the food we were eating, she began reading from her books at the dinner table.
Mom was a captivating reader. She'd won the all-state elocution award in Oklahoma, in the forties, and when she told a story, especially a story about her childhood, Mom made me love words.
BUT MOM had lots of other people to captivate. The apartment was headquarters for a salon-cum-luncheon—called the Roundtable—where Mom hosted conversation. The guests were notorious strangers. They always came, if for no other reason than to see the view. They were: union leaders; unionized prostitutes; Alex Haley; Native American secessionists; Agnes Moorehead; radical lesbians; Nobel laureates; Joan Baez; Black Panthers; Dear Abby; an astronaut; Eldridge Cleaver; Jessica Mitford; Gloria Steinem; a Catholic priest; a woman who had murdered her husband; Shirley Temple; a lesbian priest; Betty Friedan; welfare mothers; Werner Erhard; a Soviet ballerina; Daniel Ellsberg. And so on.
Jessica Mitford was an old British woman with huge round glasses who proclaimed, "When I die I've given instructions that I want to be buried like this," and then pulled one corner of her mouth up and dragged the other one down, and eyed the other guests (the mayor, a plastic surgeon, Agnes Moorehead, Shirley Temple). "I want to make sure you all check on it. That's the way I want to look." Eldridge Cleaver brought Dad velvet flower-embroidered shorts that had a codpiece hanging down the front. Once I came home from school and no one was in the kitchen. The cook and the housekeeper—in French maid's uniforms— had joined the table for lunch with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. (Said Mom, "They were the perfect people to talk with domestic workers about the difficulty of working in someone else 's home.")
Mom presided over the Roundtable with a silver bell that she rang to get everyone's attention. After ringing the bell Mom directed the conversation by asking questions. And as I went about my only-child activities—searching out a wire stripper to connect a camera battery to a nail and make a laser gun; constructing an orange juice dispenser out of Dad's discarded WaterPik dental hygiene machine (so I could have breakfast in my room); synthesizing an alcohol-free imitation wine; using bendable drink straws to siphon and circulate cold water throughout my bathroom during a heat wave—words found their way into my newly drained ears:
MOM: You were once behind walls, weren't you? In a concentration camp?
WOMAN'S VOICE: I was a refugee. My country is Yugoslavia, and we are the troublemakers of the world, you know.
DAD: Just you?
WOMAN'S VOICE: In 1941, when the Germans took over, these invaders, the Germans and Croats, caught a million Serbs and killed them overnight and sent them down to the river. It's not something to talk about at lunchtime.
MOM: We talk about everything at lunchtime here!
The battery heated the nail until it turned bright orange!
MOM: How do you feel you have changed?
MAN'S VOICE: I was a Marxist. I had rejected spiritual values. But then . . . I saw the design in nature and I was convinced there was a Creator. . . . It was a bad time for me. I wanted to go home to the United States. Friends of mine got into power and I thought they would help me but they didn't. The whole bottom of my world fell out. I went into a deep depression. I felt trapped. I had a wife and two children and my children didn't even speak English. They were going to French schools and becoming little Frenchie fried people. One night on my balcony I just caved in. This is down near Cannes on the Mediterranean coast. A lot of people ask me, like, were you drunk, had you been smoking? I was not high on anything. I was looking at the moon, a full moon, and I saw these shadows on it. I saw myself, my own profile on the moon. I had been thinking of killing myself. I had the pistol. And I wondered if what I was seeing was a sign that death was near. And then my image fell away and on the moon I saw a procession of my heroes: Fidel Castro, Mao Tse-tung, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels. And then the image of Jesus Christ. That was an unwelcome image because I didn't have anything to do with him. It was like the last straw. I started crying. Just gushing out, real violent. I was trembling and I had the sense that my soul was trembling. I was down on my knees hanging onto the rail. And then I ran inside for a Bible. And it was there, this book I never read. I found the Twenty-Third Psalm, which I had learned as a child. But I didn't know where to find the Lord's Prayer. That's what happened. O.K.?
The WaterPik fired orange juice across the room!
MOM: Has winning the Nobel Prize been helpful in your work?
WOMAN'S VOICE: Oh, yes!
I put the synthetic wine in a wine bottle. Dad drank it with dinner and couldn't tell the difference!
WOMAN'S VOICE: What propels you to get rich?
DAD (in a voice that suggested maybe he was putting everyone on, or maybe he was completely serious): Greed.
My bathroom got cooler and I ran downstairs shouting, "Mom, Dad—finally one of my inventions works!"
MOM LOVED her luncheons. Mom loved emotions. "All these strangers, they sobbed like babies," she told me recently. "And they became my dear, dear friends." The apartment was an accelerator for emotions, a controlled environment where they could be witnessed without effect. Neutralized and admired. We were eight hundred feet above it all. Little did I—who had known only happiness or loneliness—know the variety emotion could provide. That pain moved in mysterious ways. That it could fly, swim, tunnel; was amphibious, ambidextrous, aerodynamic; a breeze and a smothering blanket and a storm. That emotions would knock our tower down to the ground, and none of these strangers would help us.
WHEN I WAS five Mom and Dad rented a house in the Napa Valley, and Dad befriended a man called Frenchie Meyers who wore suspenders and owned a junkyard nearby—fifty acres covered in thirty-foot heaps of smashed cars, flattired trailers full of old glass doorknobs, two aircraft hangars (one stuffed full of forklifts, tractors, and power tools and guarded by Sam, a glass-blue-eyed wolf dog, the other converted into a machine shop and guarded by an anvil of a bulldog named Jezebel). Dad let me play in an old school bus parked beneath an ancient willow tree. How old? Centuries old, Dad informed me. I played for hours beneath that green canopy, in that yellow bus, while Dad talked to Frenchie.
Dad made Frenchie an offer to buy it all, said Frenchie could keep on living in his little house on the edge of the junk, rent-free, forever. Frenchie accepted. Dad built a hill—flood protection—and Mom's dream house on the hill. Mom landscaped the junk into trees and lawns and an hourglass-shaped carp pond. The school bus got towed. I built a tree house in the willow. I tried to construct a car out of Frenchie's leftover junk. On the weekends Dad wore a JC Penney work shirt and led a crew of men planting grass, grapes, and flowers, and shoring up the eroding banks of the Napa River, which ran along the property's edge. Perfect happiness started flowing. Mom brought Dad cooling beverages while he worked. We had picnics. I made friends with a Mexican kid down the road, and we hammered nails into the tree house. At night Dad showed us World War I movies on an old projector. Mom's best friend, Dede Traina (pronounced Tryeen- nah), had a place nearby, and she was over all the time. Hundreds of people came to our housewarming party, where a Catholic priest blessed the premises and Benny Goodman played live. This party blended into another and another. The biggest was a Gone with the Wind ball, when Dede upstaged everyone by wearing Scarlett O'Hara's green-and-white hoop dress from the movie, refabricated by the original designer; it was like the willow tree, and I crawled underneath, following her sons, Todd and Trevor. There was a whole world under there!
Mom said, "Sean, get out!"
Dede said, "No, he can stay."
I wanted to spend my whole life there.
MOM'S PREVIOUS best friend had died in a mysterious fire while living in Mom's old apartment, shortly after my parents were married. Dede Traina arrived in Mom's life in the early seventies (around the same time my shrink told Mom to stop spending so much time with me). Dede was new to San Francisco, fifteen years younger than Mom, in her early thirties, unhappily married. Mom liked Dede. Dad liked that Dede came from an old East Coast family. Dede was grateful; every time she visited our house she brought gifts. Once it was a coffeetable book of "history's great beauties."
She climbed up on Mom's bed and they looked at it together. Helen of Troy, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie O.
"You're one of them, Pat," Dede said.
"Oh, Dede, you are making my day," Mom said, beaming.
Before long Dede was the first person Mom would call in the morning, and the last she 'd talk to at the end of the day.
One time, when my parents were out, Dede appeared in my doorway.
"Come with me, Sean," she said. "I've got a surprise for you."
I wondered how she had gotten into our house. But it didn't matter. She was Mom's best friend. I went downstairs, got in her car, and we drove to the supermarket. She took me to the candy aisle.
"Let's pretend it's Halloween," Dede said. "And we can have as much candy as we want."
I was tentative. Yeah? Was this possible?
Dede started grabbing bags off the shelves, opening them, and handing me Reese 's Peanut Butter Cups and mini Hershey bars. She was like a kid with the power of an adult. She told me I could eat them right there in the aisles, demonstrated, and nobody stopped her. It was as though she owned the store. Maybe she did own the store! I started eating. We filled a cart with candy. I was flying on sugar. In the checkout line I chewed a Starburst and drank a Coke. Dede drank a Pepsi Lite and ate hunks of something called almond roca.
IN SAN FRANCISCO Dede and John Traina lived in Pacific Heights, a neighborhood of mansions not far from Russian Hill but stodgy by comparison. During the week she came over to our house by herself. Dede became a member of the family, part my big sister, part Mom's little sister, part something else. Dede was kooky, like family, too.
One day, after lunch, she told Mom and Dad and me how full she was, and asked, "Do you want to see how I get into my really tight jeans? I have to lie down, like this." She lay down, unzipped—pink underwear stood out against the kelly green of her jeans—"and then wriggle in." She pulled the waist down to demonstrate, and then started yanking it back up as she swiveled her hips side to side on the carpet.
Very difficult, I thought.
WHEN I WAS nine I asked Dad about sex. He drove me to the Fairmont Hotel, on nearby Nob Hill, parked across the street in a loading zone, and told me to wait in the car.
Then he crossed the semicircular drive of the hotel, held the door for a woman, exchanged a pleasant word, smiled (lips closed to hide his stained teeth), and disappeared into the building. I looked around Nob Hill: gray Grace Cathedral (where I'd be going to school soon); red-brick Pacific Union Club (an institution Dad reviled—though later joined—because "somebody blackballed me for being married to a Jewish woman," which required a complicated explanation of blackballing and Judaism, forever twinning the two in my mind); shreds of blue bay between old brownstone skyscrapers; green geometric Huntington Park where Thuy, a Vietnamese "governess" (to use Mom's word) whom I'd asked to marry me the year before, stealing a ring from her so I could give it back as a wedding present, once snatched up a pigeon and held it to her breast while she told me her brother had been killed by the Viet Cong.
Dad came out of the Fairmont holding a Playboy. He carried it in plain sight. I could make it out from across the street. I watched in awe––a small, beautiful, inadequately clothed woman, arriving with Dad. He got in and handed it to me. "Here," he said. "We 'll look at some women's bodies."
The cover woman looked at me like she loved me. I loved her!
Dad opened the magazine to the table of contents.
"What should we look at first?" he asked.
"The lady on the cover," I said in a very quiet voice. It seemed faithless to look at anybody else.
Dad laughed, not unkindly, and said, "Well, there 's a lot more in here. Let's look at the centerfold."
My vocabulary was getting ever larger.
He unfolded and I stared. The centerfold was the most beautiful picture of the most beautiful woman in the world that month. After a couple of minutes he said, "The centerfold doesn't have to be your favorite. It could be anyone." He handed me the magazine. I leafed through. Breasts. Lace. A completely naked woman in a body stocking—a totally confusing garment. I stopped at a halfpage picture of a woman with straight dark hair reclining on a rubber-latticed pool chaise, a gold unicorn pendant on a thin gold chain around her neck, and dangling down between her breasts, which were tanned, dewy, and a bit smaller—more modest, I thought—than the other breasts in the magazine. The unicorn stopped me. It was an amulet of power. Like the magic ring in my favorite book, The Hobbit. She was beautiful and mysterious and wise and possibly part elvish.
Dad turned back to the centerfold. I had a confusing erection. The centerfold was beautiful. She was tall and blonde and proud, standing completely straight, completely naked, and facing the camera. I had only ever desired toys, and now I desired her. She was motivating me. I felt like doing her bidding. I wasn't sure what she was bidding me to do. Grab the magazine to my chest? Crinkle the pages as hard as I could. Eat them? Roll around in the backseat with them? Beat someone in wrestling? (I was one of the better wrestlers in my Catholic grade school.) Everything hurt. I had hot magma flowing through my head and arms. Dad started the car and we drove home, me holding the Playboy. In the building's garage he took it back and said, "I'll keep this, but whenever you need it come ask me. We can look at it some more, together. But you can't keep it."
After we'd both looked at the issue a few times, another month came, and the overhill ride to the Fairmont happened again. It became a father-son tradition. After a few months, Dad told me, "I'm going to keep these in a drawer from now on, and you can come take them any time you want. You don't have to ask me. But you have to put them back when you're done looking at them. I'll be checking on that."
MY PARENTS' third home was a restaurant halfway down Nob Hill, toward the seedy Tenderloin—run-down on the outside, clubby and leathery and lustrous on the inside. I was a nonspilling, silent-when-told-to-be child, so, also when I was nine, my parents convinced the management to make an exception to their unbendable no-children rule, and for nearly a year I almost lived there, too.
It was like traveling overseas to a ruleless country. All proscriptions were thrown out. I got to stay up late. I was an adult. The maitre d' told us what a great table he had for us, down the hall, past the cigar lady in her closet—who waved at me as if from a ship—past the bathrooms with their zebra-skin doors, in the dim, glowing hum of the main room, called the Captain's Cabin, which grew louder as we entered, as if we were newspaper thrown on a fire.
A waiter came, took Dad's drink order—"Tanqueray gin on the rocks"—and quickly came back. The air around Dad started to smell like fuel.
Mom ordered. Dad ordered. They ordered for me: an elevated silver platter of spare ribs with a candle underneath, accompanied by a butterfly-shaped dish, one wing full of hot yellow mustard, the other sweet red sauce. Dad looked deeply content. Mom smiled her radiant, irresistible-to-photographers smile.
People came to say hello.
Dad drank his flammable Tanqueray gin on the rocks, slowly, and leaned back into the banquette, above which maxims were set into wooden plaques with chiseled Gothic letters. Above him it said:
No chord of music has yet been found To even equal that sweet sound Which to my mind all else surpasses The clink of ice in crystal glasses
I knew about the clink of ice in crystal glasses: It was a sound that meant all was well, everything was in its place, no mistakes were being made, everybody loved each other. I looked at the maxim on the plaque above Mom and Dad and I knew we were doing everything perfectly, and as long as the crystal and ice kept clinking there was nothing to worry about.
MOM AND DAD got divorced that same year—after ten years without once fighting, and regular reassurances that they would never get divorced—and when they did it was vicious and corrosive and melodramatic and strange, like having all your clothes taken away, being forced to the end of a narrow hallway, and having a flaming car battery hurled at you.
I thought their marriage was perfect until one night in the middle of dinner. This was the second night in a row that Mom had placed her head in her hands and started crying at the table while Dad carried on making conversation as though nothing were out of the ordinary. I said, "Dad, what's the matter with Mom?" He hesitated, and she blurted out miserably, "Something terrible has happened." Dad looked unreadable. I realized that this was serious. Dad said, "We 're going to tell you about it after dinner." I tried to prepare myself. I tried to think of the worst thing that could ever happen happening.
I said, "Has Dede died?"
Mom and Dad told me that Dad would be moving out. A few days later I went and spent the night with him in the Fairmont Hotel, and for the first time he told me the following, which he would repeat many times over the years: "If your mother had cared as much about being a wife as she did about being a star, we'd still be married."
WHEN DESCRIBING MY MOTHER it is impossible to overstate her grandeur, her haughtiness, her generosity, her old Hollywood star power, her immaturity, her joy, her entitlement, her suffering.
If you want a sense of what she's like, for grandeur and loneliness and elocution, go see Sunset Boulevard. (Like Gloria Swanson, she is a great me-lodramatic ee-nunn-see-ate-oar.) Also see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, for Marilyn Monroe (who looks very much like Mom) doing her bombshell country girl thing. Then there 's Mommie Dearest, which captures many elements of her post divorce persona.
I had a truly visceral reaction to this film when I was a teenager. Not the meanness, because Mom has never been mean, but the smothering physicality and desperation and melodramatic manic depressiveness: The scene of the self pityingly bedridden Crawford receiving her Oscar for Mildred Pierce took me back to how Mom would lie in bed for days with the drapes drawn, experiencing dismal languors and dispatching me at regular intervals to the store, where I would purchase gallon containers of Dreyer's ice cream (vanilla) and cans of Hershey's chocolate sauce (this was just before the plastic squeeze bottle came out), which she would consume in their entirety, in bed, in her nightgown, in the dark, me occasionally peeking in to make sure she was still alive. In fact, I saw Mommie Dearest with Mom, and I was amazed she was able to sit through it without turning to me, ashamed, and saying, "I'm so sorry." After my two best friends saw it they said, "Jesus, dude, that is your mom."
MOM WAS BORN in 1928, and by the time she was sixteen possessed great beauty and charisma. But it was not a soft beauty; it was a chiseled, sculptural, architectural sort of beauty (which has barely faded after seventy-seven years), a rock solid beauty that comes of impeccable bone structure supported by a curvy, zaftig, tense, erectly carried frame and long-fingered hands that are handsome and uncomfortable; her fingers abrupt and strong and nervous and ringless.
Mom's charisma is anchored in her beauty, but it goes deep.
Her parents, Myrtle Caldonia Taylor and Charles Clay Montandon, were both evangelical Nazarene ministers—she gentle in the pulpit and hard out of it, he the opposite—unified in their passion to spread God around the West by constantly uprooting the family, moving from town to town, building churches, and assembling new congregations.
In 1896 my grandfather, twenty-one, had climbed a mountain in Tennessee, looked out west, and received a vision from the Lord commanding him to go and spread the word. He started out in the streets of Chattanooga, and made his way to Texas. Doing roustabout work in ranching country he met, wooed, and married my sixteen-year-old grandmother, purchased a carnival sideshow tent, and took her on the road.
Mom grew up with six siblings. There would've been seven siblings, but one, Betty Ruth, died in infancy, just before Mom was born, and my grandfather, who had a barber's license, and was also a mason and a carpenter, stopped them in Merkel, Texas, the town they were passing through, buried the child, and then carved the headstone himself. They stayed in Merkel until Mom—Patsy Lou Montandon—was born. She was the brazen, silly, gangly, affectionate child who loved being the center of attention, sang loud and tuneless in church, broke her nose on the dash of the car, and had no idea she was pretty, because they never let her know.
The ministering life was equal parts adversity and grace, deprivation and unexpected generosity. Mom and her siblings grew up seeing the best and worst of people, during the Dee-pression (as my aunt Faye calls it). Another of my aunts, my aunt Glendora, persuaded my grandmother to write a memoir of these years, which she did, shortly before she died (from gangrene) in 1979—the only one of my grandparents I got to know.
She wrote: "We spent the night out under the stars having a couple of quilts and a pillow for a bed on the ground. We had not eaten dinner or supper the day before. We had about $1.50 and about 75 miles yet to go. My husband stopped at a farm house early that morning to ask if we could get breakfast making clear we would pay for our breakfast. The lady of the house said yes but was curious about us. Later she said she thought we were a couple who had run away from home and married. We were very young. On learning our mission she would not take pay for our breakfast and in addition fed our horse. We became friends for days and years ahead."
Finances were always tight, but they "continued on preaching and working wherever opportunity came, making opportunities when there was none in city jails and on streets under brush arbors too." On one occasion, my grandmother wrote, "I knelt by the chair in the kitchen telling the Lord our needs. A knock was at the front door. I wiped my tears away with my apron to meet a guest and it was a young mother with two children who had recently been saved in our services. She put her arms around me saying, ‘Whether you need what I have brought or not, I refuse to feel like I have been feeling the past hour. Here are some groceries.'"
The typical Charlie Clay Montandon sermon, preached at night in lantern light, under a tent or under the stars, emphasized hell, fire, damnation, ashes (heaps of them), and the serpent. He knew how to save souls and inspire repentance. "One night the power of God was so manifest that people saw the light visibly, and hundreds fell before God prostrated. Heaven was so near," wrote my grandmother.
She went on: The people began to come in droves. . . . One lady started for the altar and her little girl about 11 years of age held on to her saying, "Mama, don't go up there. Them women will beat you on the back." But the mother went right on and was saved. One night here came two brothers carrying their brother. They made a pack saddle to bring him in. They had found him hidden in a wagon trying to get away from them and from God . . . such shouting, such victory. An old drunkard was saved one night and was elected Sunday School Superintendent at the close of the Revival. A Dr. came out from Gouldbusk, Texas one night. It had been noised abroad that Jesus was in our midst. He knew me before my marriage. He said before the service, "Myrtle, I have never seen such." He said, "Many here are paying my old bills. I never expected to collect." He knew them all. He had been their doctor for several years. We were using old-fashioned gasoline lamps. He publicly said, "I will furnish all the gasoline you need to keep this meeting going. I am a shouting Methodist, so more power to all of you for such a work."
At Dennis Chapel under a large tabernacle we were laboring faithfully and were having some bitter opposition until one night a goodly number gave their hands requesting prayer. A young man fell at the altar praying mightily confessing all to Jesus who saved him. Others followed and a mighty revival broke . . . we preached, and our labors were rewarded with souls.
The Sunday School Supt. rushed to the altar and his hands reached towards heaven. He was calling on God for help. His wife was frightened and thought he was dying. She began to scream and pray within the minutes he had prayed though she was no longer praying for him but for herself. Also, she prayed through so no longer did we need to pray for courage and faith. Faith had turned to sight.
I will mention a revival held on what was known as Sunshine Hill about 20 miles from Wichita Falls near Burkburnette. This was an oil field. Many workers lived out there—some in good houses and some in shacks typical of an oil field in those days. As interest increased, some who were known as roughnecks began to come. Their hearts were stirred. Their families were touched. They began to seek God in an old fashioned way. At the close of the three-weeks revival, more than 100 people had found the Lord.
An amusing incident happened at Grape Creek in Coleman County at the day service. One morning a small green snake fell down from the branches above in the arbor. Women scrambled for their babies until a man struck it with a stick and killed it. . . . That was the only time we experienced a snake scare in our services. We did have trouble with dogs. They often came into our services. They discovered their masters were going someplace every night. They investigated and would find the way there. Try as the minister might to drive them away, it just couldn't be done.
One night a middle-aged man came seeking God for forgiveness. He wept, prayed, then arose to ask Husband to go with him two and one half blocks away to see a man whom he was having trouble with. As they came near, it was a task but he wanted peace. He called to the man to come outside not for trouble but that he wanted forgiveness. He said, "I have a preacher with me." The man reluctantly came out. He put his hand out saying, "Forgive me. I did you wrong." It touched his heart. He said, "I did you wrong, too. Forgive me. I want a better way of life." With the two, Husband knelt in the yard and prayed. The three rejoiced together and went away in peace with God and man.
When they were done saving souls for the day they liked to lie down in the grass together and make one. It was a romantic, wild, daring life. Riding horses. Preaching in prisons. Taking alms (once from the KKK, my aunt Faye recalled, saying, "It was money, it was in the name of the Lord, so he took it."). Cutting hair. Cutting stone. Preaching in oil fields where just before, my grandmother wrote, "an evangelist, not a Nazarene, had his tent and all equipment burned by some disgruntled person or persons. At times it seemed like our fate might be the same." They built and integrated a church, then saw it burned down as a result (KKK again). They lay down to bed in the open air.
. . . Star . . .
. . . Aquilla . . .
. . . Waco . . .
. . . Erath . . .
. . . Grape Creek . . .
. . . Gouldbusk . . .
. . . Hardin . . .
. . . Rule . . .
. . . Bangs . . .
. . .Wichita Falls . . .
. . . Stephenville . . .
. . . Pryor . . .
. . . Knox City . . .
. . .Wellington . . .
. . . Grassland . . .
. . . O'Donnell . . .
. . . Post City . . .
. . . Tahoka . . .
. . . Olton . . .
. . . Eula . . .
. . . Clovis . . .
. . . Higgins . . .
. . .Waurika . . .
. . . Burkburnette . . .
. . . Dalheart . . .
. . . Tokio . . .
. . . Takoho . . .
. . . Sulpher . . .
When they arrived in a new town my grandfather would pitch the tent, borrow a piano, and start preaching. Eventually he'd muster up a congregation, find a suitable plot of land, somehow get it bought or donated, build the church, requisition a full-time minister, and move on. Grandmother wrote: "Always it seemed that each revival was better than the one before. We could have stayed on longer than we did, but my husband felt others could take this work and we would move on . . . with no home, no church, and no salary we went. The children used to changing schools would settle down."
Itinerancy was God's will. So Mom's family went along like this for years, all over West Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma, first on horseback, then in a horse-drawn carriage, finally in a car. Aunt Faye remembers my grandfather ordering one of her brothers to "take a butcher knife and cut down the high center of the road so we could pass." Grandmother wrote, "Occasionally we stopped and unloaded so my husband could safely go down the hill and up again. Sometimes we had to push with all our might to get through a sand bed." They lived like this till my grandfather's kidneys started to fail, and the family decided to settle in Waurika, Oklahoma, which, of all the towns they'd passed through, had always been Charlie Clay's favorite. My grandmother took over the preaching, but she didn't quite have his spirit. When my grandfather died in 1941, the center went out of the family.
DURING WORLD WAR II, when Mom was a teenager, with only her mother and little brother left at home, the rest raised and gone (my uncle Charles, for example, studying in a seminary and working at a defense plant), Mom realized she was beautiful. A neighbor lady knocked on the door, which Mom opened with a smile. The woman was so struck she exclaimed, "My! You are the most beautiful thing!"
My grandmother actually ran into the room and shouted, "Don't you tell her that! It isn't true." It had never occurred to Mom that she might be beautiful. But in that moment she saw that it was a fact. And that it was powerful. It was an escape. She decided to go to Dallas and become a model.
Enlisted to assist her in this plan was her brother-in-law, my uncle Cecil (pronounced see-sill), who had the concession for all the jukeboxes and peanut machines in Waurika. He went around the town's theaters, cafés, gas stations, and bars, emptied his machines, brought Mom a huge sack of nickels, and said, "Go to Dallas, Patsy Lou." Mom told my grandmother she'd found a job selling hosiery for a respectable women's shop. My grandmother said fine, Mom was welcome to go, provided she bought her own train ticket—impossible—and had enough left over to pay for a week in advance at the YWCA. Mom shook her sack of nickels at her mother and got on the train. She got a modeling job at Neiman Marcus. A week or so later my grandmother, in constant contact with the YWCA, discovered that Patsy Lou was modeling, not selling hosiery. She stormed into Neiman's, calling, "Patsy Lou, come out of this wicked place!" found Mom in a dressing room, and yanked her outside by her then still black hair. "We 're going to California to live with your aunt Mary," she told her. "If you don't agree to come along I'll call the police on you for being underage and showing your body."
They drove to California. Or, rather, my great-grandfather Taylor, a ninetyyear- old part Comanche Indian, who was only licensed to drive during the day, drove them. It was 1945. The trip took weeks. They slept in the car. When they sighted the Rockies, Mom, who had never seen anything in the way of a vertical landscape, thought they were monsters. "I was that ignorant," Mom said, when she told me the story. Then she paused. "Of course, because I was so ignorant, I did a lot of things I didn't know I wasn't supposed to do. Ignorance has served me well!"
In California Aunt Mary and a slew of cousins—all of them fruit pickers— were living in a converted school bus parked in a cherry orchard. Mom took one look and decided to get a job and make enough money to go back to Dallas and model. She started waitressing at a bus station café.
One of her customers was U.S. Air Force Captain Howard Groves, owner of a nearby ranch. He nicknamed her Muggins, admired her figure, left big tips. My grandmother thought Captain Groves was the perfect solution to the problem of Patsy Lou.
Then Mom started having trouble catching her breath, went to see a doctor, and was told that a valve in her heart wasn't closing properly. Without a new form of heart surgery ("closed-heart" or "blind" they were calling it) she would die in her twenties. At that point eleven people had survived the procedure. Thinking she 'd probably be dead soon—and that he had money enough to buy her the surgery—she married Groves. It was not a conventional wedding. Mom auditioned and was chosen to be married on a live national radio program called The Bride and Groom. "You will be taking with you the good wishes of the entire United States," the announcer said to her and Captain Groves after they'd gone through the on-the-air ceremony. Then she had the surgery, and became the twelfth to survive. Howard got shipped off to an air base in the Azores, and Mom went along. She was an officer's wife for twelve years. Howard crashed and was grounded; Mom put on plays, commandeered planes with her charm, and flew to Lisbon for costumes. She modeled. She was the commanding general's favorite party guest. Her plays were hits. She threw parties every week.
She outgrew Howard so thoroughly that he grabbed a woman at a New Year's Eve party and kissed her passionately in front of Mom. Then he hit her—and Mom divorced him. He was, she always says, "boring and sterile—literally, his sperm were incapable of fertilizing an egg—and I never loved him."
Then came San Francisco. It was where she 'd had the heart surgery—San Francisco had saved her life—and she felt sentimental about the place. She was thirty-one. It was 1960. She walked into the CEO's office at the Joseph Magnin department store, without an appointment, and asked for a job. He chased her around his desk. She let him catch up, and slapped him. He was so impressed he hired her.
"I like the way you handle yourself, Mrs. Groves."
He decided to put her in charge of the high-rolling gentlemen's formal department, called the Wolf 's Den—equipped with a fireplace and drinks and salesgirls who dressed up like tarty elves at Christmas. After she racked up the highest seasonal sales in the company's history he put her in charge of managing a new store up in Lake Tahoe, where she met Frank Sinatra, up for the summer, doing a show every night at the Cal Neva Resort.
She got squired around by Sinatra. "He was a perfect gentleman," she said. He always called her "Patty baby," and the word went out that no other man was to address or even approach her. "It was relaxing," Mom told me. "I could eat my lunch without anyone bothering me. And he always took me out for dinner, in big groups, with all his flunkies and friends. I was like the tail of the rat! I had him over to my house for a cocktail party after we first met and he got lost on the way, so he pulled over and knocked on a woman's door to ask if he could use the phone. That lady said ‘Sure!' and she never let anyone else touch the phone after that. When Frank got to my place I gave him a drink, and he saw a dog I was taking care of out on the porch. The dog didn't like strangers, but Frank said, ‘I'm good with dogs. They like me.' And he went out there and the dog bit him. I bandaged him up and he stayed late talking to everybody. He was so nice. I never saw any of the bad behavior he had a reputation for. He was wonderful to me that summer."
But it was only a summer, and when the season was over Magnin's brought her back to San Francisco. She dyed her hair blond (the only color I've ever seen it). She changed the pronunciation of her last name "back to the French." From "Mawntandun" to "Moan-tan-dawn." She had a date every night. She met and wed her second husband: "It was the only time I ever got married against my heart." (I suppose the first time was literally for her heart.) They moved into a beautiful apartment, on the crooked block of Lombard. Six months later the marriage was over. He moved out and Mom kept the lease on the apartment. It was all she wanted for a settlement.
She made it into the society pages for throwing flamboyant parties with the assistance of the window dressers at Magnin's. There was a mod party, an astrology party, a come-as-your-favorite-celebrity costume party, a Mexican fiesta. "Pat is the best thing that ever happened to this blasé city. Now every hostess is on her toes, trying to keep up with her," wrote the society editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. "Pat Montandon has no peer when it comes to partyplanning," said her counterpart at the Examiner.
She met Melvin Belli, the trial lawyer who defended Jack Ruby, and later represented the Rolling Stones. Mom married Belli, her third husband, in a Shinto ceremony in Japan in 1966. It was over three weeks later. "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," wrote Herb Caen, Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for the Chronicle, longtime Mom chronicler, and enemy.
She was invited by a producer to audition for television, and became the host of the Prize Movie (rechristened Pat's Prize Movie) on Channel 7, with twenty minutes of live on-air talk time. She wore frilly boas and long evening gowns and ad-libbed it. She became a local cult phenomenon. Pat's Prize Movie was the highest rated program on the air in the Bay Area. Mom had a fan club. She went to the opening of the opera, stuffy San Francisco's biggest deal, and was greeted by photographers and fan club members holding homemade signs that said "Pat's our Gal." Mom made her smiling entrance, doubled back outside, picked up a cameraman and mic, and covered all the (other) celebrity arrivals live, runway style. She published a book about giving parties, called How to Be a Party Girl.
Meeting Mom is like meeting a celebrity you've never heard of.
Then: Dad. Recently a widower, he read about Mom in the paper and had a friend introduce them. He phoned to ask her out, she said yes, then she canceled. He asked again. She said yes, and canceled again. He asked a third time, and she said no. There was something about his voice she didn't like.
"Please," he said before she hung up. "You could come up to my house for dinner. I live near you. My son and I are here alone for the evening. We 've just cooked a chicken."
Somehow this was irresistible. It was kind.
She didn't put on any makeup. He drove down Russian Hill and drove her back up. His apartment was at the top of a new building called The Summit. It occupied the front half of the top two floors—the space generally allotted to six two-bedroom apartments with twin baths, full kitchens, large living rooms. Dad had bought The Summit with his closest childhood friend, a real estate developer who urged Dad and his older brother, Jack, to branch out of the butterand- egg business they'd taken over when their father had died. He 'd already been married in Marin, had four kids, got divorced, raised his two sons Mike and Lad (been given the "mother of the year" award by his local PTA), discovered the woman next door had cancer (they'd been having an affair while he was married to his first wife, who'd moved to Hawaii with his two daughters), married her, watched her die in their bed, taken a shower, called the undertaker, buried her, and a few years short of fifty, moved into this massive, six-apartment-sized penthouse apartment by himself. Dad had left or been left by everyone of significance in his life. He told Mom he was just sitting up there waiting to die, and she'd saved his life by coming for dinner.
She met Lad, who was visiting Dad for the evening. They all talked for an hour, ate the chicken, and then Dad drove Mom home. It was the best evening she'd had since Sinatra. Dad was a gentleman, too. A man who could take care of her. For a second date he cleaned up her kitchen and went home. He discovered how hard it was to reach her on the phone (always busy) and asked if he could install another line so he could get through. She said yes. The telephone was red. They got married in 1969. It was a civil ceremony, and all the photographs are lost except for the photographer's set, which show Mom smiling hugely in a white eyelet dress, and Dad in a dark suit, looking quietly content, with the word "PROOF" stamped across them. Then her best friend was killed. The coroner was baffled: lower body immolated, but no smoke in the lungs; blood carbon monoxide levels less than what you'd get from a cigarette; all the doors locked from the inside; no reason why she couldn't have woken up when the fire started. The arson inspector suggested she died "from fright." Mom went to bed, mourned, got pregnant with me—and then went into labor when a huge fire started in our building. After the fire department left an ambulance came for Mom. She was forty-one.
Around the time Esquire magazine declared her "the West Coast's #1 hostess," the Examiner hired her to write its society column. This meant reporting on people who didn't do anything but had enough money and history to make the present superfluous: people like Whitney Warren, a flamboyant man in his seventies whose father had built Grand Central Terminal. Warren presided over a different sort of salon than the Roundtable. When he threw a wedding party for Jackie O's sister and the guest of honor didn't show, he took Mom by the arm, walked into the street, and handed out drinks to the press, saying, "You never could trust those Bouvier girls." This was the kind of thing Dad liked. A lot better than listening to angry/horny Black Panthers and earnest folksingers.
He wasn't alone. Herb Caen had been writing about society, turning bon mots into an art form, for decades. Everybody in San Francisco read his column. (Truly, everyone.) And Dad wanted to be a part of this world, the world Mom and Herb Caen were writing about.
So Dad saw Mom in the paper, did his wooing, did his marrying, joined San Francisco society, had me, built Mom her dream house, gave her everything she asked for, and then left and took it all with him.
Part One: Useless Emotion
Four: Dad and Dede
Six: Every Other Week
Eight: Dad's House
Part Two: Useless Education
Nine: St. Mark's
Part Three: Repetition
Part Four: Resolution
Eighteen: Scraped Over Too Much Bread
“The cliché ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ may well have been coined to describe Sean Wilsey’s wild, wise, and whip-smart memoir.” —Elle
“[An] irreverent and remarkably candid memoir about growing up in wealthy eighties San Francisco . . . rollicking, ruthless . . . ultimately generous-hearted.” —Vogue
“A vivid mix of brio, self-awareness and sophistication . . . writing well is indeed the best revenge.” —The New York Times Book Review
"Sean Wilsey's magnificent memoir spares no one but forgives almost everything; it's a kindly act of retribution that's sure to ring a bell with any adult survivor of parental narcissism. A bell, hell. Oh the Glory of It All becomes a veritable carillon of remembered pain, never once losing its wise and worldly sense of humor. I couldn't stop reading the damn thing." —Armistead Maupin
"Exuberant, honest, and unforgettable. Wilsey shows that great privilege doesn't guarantee bliss, but also doesn't preclude it. I'm glad he survived this odd/epic youth and emerged from it such a sane, generous, and funny narrator. My only regret is that he's not older than he is, since there would be more to read." —George Saunders
"[A] startlingly honest tale.... the writing is vivid, detailed, deep, and filled with fresh metaphors." —Publishers Weekly
"Honest to a fault, richly veined with indelible images: a monumental piece of work." —Kirkus Reviews