Episode 8: STRANGE LAND
Audio & Transcript
Jessica H: I'm Jessica Harper and this is episode eight of WINNETKA.
In 1967, my father got an offer to move to New York to merge his advertising agency with one there. His business would double in size. His name would be on a masthead, they'd be called Needham, Harper, and Steers, and he'd spearhead the agency's drive to become one of the biggest and brightest there was, with a strong presence on the East Coast. It was an offer he couldn't refuse. I mean, well he could refuse. The downside was that leaving Winnetka for the East Coast would make nobody else in the family happy. While dad wrestled with this decision, this was not the only life-changing concern he had. He was also losing his father, and Papa Harper's decline was not pretty.
My brother Billy remembers visiting our grandfather during this time.
Billy: Well, when I got my driver's license I started going out there occasionally to visit him. Um, he would let me drive the Jeep, and he would let me shoot guns and sometimes he'd participate in that, but he couldn't manage anything. I didn't know what it was, but clearly it had to do with alcohol and I remember him coming out and shooting with us once, and he was very wobbly, he wouldn't shoot anymore. He couldn't shoot anymore. He couldn't hit anything anymore. But I also remember hunting pheasant with him, and a pheasant came up and he had shot at it and missed completely, missing with a shotgun is really hard. (laughs)
Even a moving target like that, when they're fairly close, it's not like ... most of the time we ever saw him, he was pretty wasted. 'Cause he would start drinking first thing in the morning, he was the type of guy who would have beer for breakfast, he'd be drinking all day long. It's hard to imagine how much alcohol he was taking in.
Jessica H: A short time after that, when Billy saw him again, Papa Harper was near the end.
Billy: Well, he was in the hospital his final days, and I went to visit him. All I saw was this emaciated and unconscious piece of flesh with a diaper on. And he was only 72.
Jessica H: When Papa Harper died, there was a memorial service for him in Lake Forest, at that church that we had gone to as young children, the one I told you about, right next door to our childhood home. Oddly, in spite of its notable location, none of us remembers attending Papa's service, nor do we recall any display of grief on my father's part. That might have been because dad was never at ease with his feelings, at least not the tender ones. He could do anger and gaiety sometimes, but love was a tough one, and he disdained sadness. I mean, he hated it when we cried. Or maybe, in this case, dad was dry-eyed because he'd always been so at odds with his father. Papa, the gun hugger. Papa, the drunk. Papa, who gave his grandsons Confederate Army uniforms and had a black dog named N-I-G. Must have been hard to mourn for a father whose left you with that kind of legacy.
Dad's decision to leave Winnetka, our dear hometown, to move east was not a popular one. My little brother Sam was about 10 years old.
Sam: I had very good friend, right across the street and I was very happy there, and I just didn't want to leave. And when dad told us we were leaving, I just burst into tears. And the last day we were there, it was raining. I was next door, hanging out with my best friend, waiting for dad to tell us we had to get in the car and go, and then that time came, and I got in the car, and I remember going down the block, and looking out the back of the ... you know, we were in the way back with the dog. And looking out the back window and seeing my best friend wave goodbye, and then we ended up in this totally foreign land on the East Coast.
Jessica H: Lindsay and Charlie felt similarly. Diana had left for college the year before and Billy and I were about to do the same. We hadn't really computed yet what it would mean to lose our hometown. Only later would we notice how unmoored we felt without Winnetka, where the weather had felt right, where we'd set our fashion sense and our moral compasses, where we had made friends at that age when such attachments are never undone. It was the place where our hearts had taken root, only to be design-ratiocinated at a crucial time. Dad would learn that you can take your kids out of Winnetka, but you do so at your own peril.
The move to the East Coast marked the start of a familial unwinding. This began when Diana made her own life-changing decision that would rock the family and make my father so angry, he would mete out the ultimate punishment. So Billy and I went off to college at exactly the moment when my parents sold our house in Winnetka and moved east. Their nest now half-empty, they settled in the New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, with the three kids still left at home. While the family adjusted to their new life, Billy and I did too on our respective campuses.
Billy: When I first went to college, I was just completely undone by college culture of the day. This was in 1967, and at least at the University of Rochester, which is an extremely conservative school in upstate New York, there were things like panty raids, and freshmen had to wear beanies. I had to wear a beanie to identify myself as a freshman.
Jessica H: So you need to be identified as a freshman so that these upperclassmen could find you and torture you.
Billy: Right, it turned out that that's the whole point is you wear a beanie, then the upperclassmen could come and beat you up, haze you, torment you in some way or another. Well I figured out pretty soon that if I didn't wear the beanie and explained that I was a transfer student, I would avoid a lot of abuse from upperclassmen fraternity boys.
Jessica H: What's a panty raid?
Billy: Well, I'm still not 100% sure what a panty raid is.
Jessica H: But one night, he followed a bunch of the beanie-d freshmen boys over to the girls' dormitory.
Billy: They were chanting for people to throw panties out the window or something, and eventually, underwear did come out the windows. Some girl would appear at the window, and fling out a pair of panties or a bra, and everybody would go nuts. It was like a feeding frenzy, like at the zoo with seals.
(laughs) You'd throw a herring, and all the seals fight over the herring. We'd gone to a progressive high school that was not this kind of culture at all. I had no idea that this even still existed.
Jessica H: Billy wasn't the only of my siblings who felt like a stranger in a strange land. Here's Lindsay, back in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Lindsay: I think Mom and Dad thought that Greenwich would be like Winnetka, but it was a completely different world there. There was just across the board wealth that we had never experienced. There was a complete lack of diversity, like everybody was from the same sort of economic strata. I think that had a big influence on the feeling there.
Sam: We stayed in a hotel when we first got there, in Greenwich, for I think like a week. And the smell of the salt water was just like another planet, because we had been living in that fresh water lake. And the tide's going in and out, and the stink of the low tide.
Jessica H: If Sam and Charlie and Lindsay found it hard to adjust to the smell of salt water, they'd soon find that was the least of their problems in Greenwich. I confess that when I got to my college campus, I may not have been all that focused on the concerns of my siblings. I was too busy losing my virginity.
It almost happened in Glendale. In the fall of my senior year in high school, I was visiting a few colleges in California, and my tour included a stop at Occidental, where my boyfriend Steve was a freshman pothead. It was that time of life when it was essential to experiment with forbidden things like sex and drugs, and the 60s and Steve provided a cornucopia of opportunities to do so. Apparently, what was commonly taken for smog hovering over the Occidental campus was actually smoke. Pot was everywhere. I was as yet uninitiated, and I had the itch to be introduced to the wonders of weed. But it wasn't just getting me high that Steve had in mind. While he proved a fine educator in the art of getting stoned, of course, his real agenda was to reap the rewards for his efforts in the form of sex. This would have been the first time for us. It wasn't that Steve hadn't begged for sex on a regular basis, but losing one's virginity before college wasn't common in our backward high school.
One lone girlfriend of mine slept with someone before graduation and gave off slut vibes afterwards. Also I felt that losing it and then facing my parents over cheerios the next morning was completely out of the question. I needed to do the deed as far away from them as possible. Of course, I was nowhere near Illinois on this, Steve's night of great expectations. He was smooth, teaching me how to roll a joint expertly and how to inhale gracefully. He also gently informed me that it was not cool to give a running commentary on my experience. As in, "Wow, you've got a halo." Or, "I can see the music, it's blue." Or, "Those are the best Cheetos I've ever had." But Steve's calculations backfired that night, while he argued vociferously that his dorm room was a comfortable distance form my parent's breakfast table, my stoned rebuttal was that I would still have to fly home without enough time to process my deflowering well enough to face my parents with equanimity.
Plus, I had busted the weed barrier, which left me too incapacitated to cope with a second milestone of arguably greater magnitude. I kept my blue polka-dot villager skirt tightly zipped. I believe I did not even remove my panty girdle, which was the last century's version of Spanx, and a most effective chastity protector. And much to Steve's frustration, I went to the airport in the morning with my virginity intact.
But when I got to Sarah Lawrence College the following year, I had a whole new outlook. It was 1967, and sex was busting out all over. I was away from home at last, and I'd left my Midwestern timidity behind. It was time to get the thing done. Steve got the smoke signals. He and I were still romantically entangled, and he was at NYU now, a short train ride away. The day of my arrival at school, even before I had unpacked that 60s appropriate Indian blanket cover with the Tree of Life on it, Steve showed up. He took me outside into the warm, September evening, and sat me down on the grass in front of my homely, brick, ivy-covered dorm, while other students came and went with cardboard boxes, lamps, and steamer trunks. Settling in, getting acquainted. Steve made a compelling speech on the subject of our need to have sex as soon as possible, preferably within the hour. I can't remember what he said in our pre-sex chat, but I'm pretty sure it didn't matter.
I was ready. He had me at, "So, I've been thinking ..." But it's likely that he took an approach that was popular at that time, saying something like, "Our generation is having a sexual revolution. Are you in or are you out?" It wasn't the last time a guy would pull that card. 40 minutes later, my first post-coital thoughts were, "Okay, I got that over with." Another thing I got over with was Steve. I dumped him shortly thereafter. Old boyfriends lose their appeal fast when you're on new turf. I was less unencumbered but also unprotected when solo, I faced a world revolutionized by my own cohort. Walking softly, and carrying a big stick, I began life after virginity.
What with the sexual revolution and all, I soon found that my school work was getting in the way of my social life. I mean, who could focus on what to wear to a mixer when your history professor keeps asking you to retain arcane facts like who Winston Churchill was. But it wasn't just the manhunt that precluded academic excellence, I was also getting righteously stoned.
In drug-deprived Winnetka, the best high had been a gin and tonic. But at college, drinking was not nearly as hot a recreational activity as smoking weed was. On my hallway, literally just one out of 10 of us was a drinker. Connie had the scotch bottle all to herself for better or worse, while the rest of us were huddled together with our illegal substances. I believe that ratio applied campus-wide. In every dorm on a Saturday night, there'd be one girl booze-puking out her window while the others blew smoke out of theirs. Well I had had a pre-college introduction to the wonders of weed, thanks to my boyfriend Steve. Billy's quest to get stoned in high school had been more frustrating.
Billy: In high school we didn't have any drugs at all, there was just no such thing as drugs. We read about them in Time Magazine or whatever, and seen them on TV, but we didn't have any, they just didn't exist.
Jessica H: If you wanted pot, you had to go to Chicago, and that didn't always work out either.
Billy: So the year we graduated from high school, my friend Skeets and I went downtown to purchase some marijuana which we read about, and we went down to the city of Chicago and bought a big ounce of something, and we took it back, it turned out to be oregano.
Jessica H: Billy figured he'd make up for that disappointment when he got to college, but it turned out the pickings were slim there, too. At least at first.
Billy: I went to a very conservative college, the University of Rochester. Things hadn't really caught up there yet either. But uh, we, we picked up on it pretty quickly. By the second year of college, it was just all drugs, all the time. (laughs) One of my friends had a friend in Ireland, who would send tins of candy, and every fifth candy turned out to be a ball of hashish. So we actually sold some of that to make some money to buy more drugs. And um, and we had pills, we had what we called mescaline, who the hell knows what that was, like synthetic peyote or something like that. But, who knows what was in those pills? We just popped them in, we didn't care.
Jessica H: By 1968, even in Winnetka, things were perking up.
Billy: The following year, I came back to visit our high school, and everybody was high, including the janitor. I think the janitor was actually dealing um, and the teachers were all tripping. It was like drugs just swept the North Shore. I mean, everybody seriously was like ... really weird. See everybody lying around the football field, staring at the sky.
Jessica H: I don't know exactly how I got my hands on pot at college, I have no memory of actually buying it. It was simply present everywhere. I believe I had some stashed under my bed, as if placed there by Santa Claus. Immediately next to it, I had a bag of cookies called pecan sandies. You've heard about gaining the freshmen 15, well thanks to those weed-inspired cookie binges, I had almost achieved that goal by Christmas. This fact escaped me until it was drawn to my attention by an editor from Mademoiselle Magazine.
So these reps from Mademoiselle were trolling campuses as they did every spring, looking for students to model in their annual September college issue. And when they stationed themselves in our cafeteria for interviews, I got in line to be considered. One of my classmates was Penelope Tree, who was at that time a supermodel. So I thought, "Well if she can do it, why can't I?" If anybody had actually answered that question, they'd have said, "Well, because Penelope Tree is about six feet tall, she's rail thin, exotic looking, and is always dressed like she just stepped off the runway, but otherwise, yeah, why not?" When it was my turn, the rep pulled no punches. "Good face," she said, "But you need to lose about eight pounds." She was also disappointed to learn that my height was a good four inches short of perfection. She took my picture anyway, and I went back to my dorm, determined that I could be a Mademoiselle girl. To that end, I disposed of the bag of pecan sandies I had hidden under my bed, and ate string beans for dinner.
Not long after that, the magazine contacted me with gob smacking news. They wanted to shoot me. Not kill me, photograph me, for the cover! They invited me to come to the city for a pre-shoot makeover. In the movie The Princess Diaries, there's this scene in which Anne Hathaway gets waxed and tweezed until she discovers that she actually has two eyebrows. My first hour with Mademoiselle's beauty team was like that. Next, they chopped my hair off, which felt like another Anne Hathaway scene, the one in Les Mis when her hair went from long to short, only her stylist was nicer. The editorial assistant said to my stylist, as he was chopping, "She has nice hair." "No, she doesn't," said the stylist. "You know, I can hear you, dick head," I said. Well, I didn't actually say that, I thought about saying it, but you know, he was holding some very sharp scissors.
My hair now a short bob, I was photographed outdoors in the closest thing they could find to an autumnal setting. They also had me model some gloves, making use of the only other of my body parts that met their standard of beauty. I went back to school a celebrity. Friends and family as awestruck as if I had won the Nobel Prize. Not bad for a chubby, short girl with bad hair. I couldn't believe my good fortune. But the magazine had a four month lead time. My issue wouldn't come out until August, but hey, I could wait for stardom because in the meantime, my generation's revolution was working very nicely in my favor, thanks to sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Meanwhile, things were going less well back in Greenwich, Connecticut. My younger siblings were having much less fun than I. Sam and Charlie were installed in an all-boys school.
Sam: We went to this school called Brunswick, which is I think a very prestigious school, that it was uh, back then it was like a Dickens novel, there were teachers who were violent, and there were no restrictions on what they would do to the kids to discipline them. The sixth grade teacher got an eighth grader to take a sixth grader outside and beat him up when he misbehaved. So they were sanctioning fighting.
Charlie: The summer we moved there, Sam and I had to attend summer school and it was clear that we were behind our class academically. We were also different, having been mentored by our elder brothers and sisters on such things as how to dress cool, how to dance cool, how to be anti-Vietnam War, and how to wear our hair long. The first day of class, the head of the middle school called Sam and I into his office and he, leaning over his desk, warned us with his shaking finger that he would not stand for our non-conformist behavior, and he was using swear words that we had thought were forbidden, to make it clear that if we stepped out of line, we would have been stepped on.
Sam: Charlie had to lie in the hallway, and the upperclassmen were instructed to walk over him. Walk on him, as they went down the hallway.
Jessica H: What was that for?
Sam: Talking in class or something.
Charlie: And so it was, we were stepped on time and time again, physically and emotionally by this very abusive school, Brunswick.
Sam: I think he got caught shooting a spit ball, big pen in, in those days, you could take the ink cartridge out and make a really good pea shooter, and he'd shoot the ... shoot the spitballs with the big pen. And he got caught doing that, so the teacher made him put the big pen on the floor and roll it out of the classroom with his nose. I don't know how they thought that stuff up.
Jessica H: Lindsay also went to a single sex school, the Greenwich Academy. This did not go well.
Lindsay: Sam and Charlie and I had to take a bus to school, we took the same bus, because our schools were near each other, and I remember in the beginning, I got on the bus, and these two blonde girls who were sitting behind me, touching my hair, I had brown wavy hair, saying, "Oh, look. She has pig's hair." This is in ninth grade. And I had made a friend with a girl down the road, over the summer she wouldn't sit with me on the bus.
Jessica H: Ninth grade is a tough time to be a girl, and Lindsay had been a rising star in Winnetka. She'd been athletic and popular, but now at Greenwich Academy, she became the kid in class that people picked on. Lindsay did, however, have some fierce protectors.
Lindsay: I remember one time sitting on the bus, and somebody took my mitten. And Sam and Charlie got up, and I think threatened to kill them, if they didn't give me my mitten back, with such gravity and force that nobody ever bothered me again.
Jessica H: Further torture awaited Lindsay in the classroom.
Lindsay: So, they had a class at Greenwich Academy called Menzandique, and Menzandique was a class in posture. And we had to get our pictures taken, stark naked at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year, to see how our posture had improved. And it was this old German woman, I remember you had to go into a room, take off your clothes, then dash to the platform where you had to stand and have your picture taken.
Jessica H: Stark naked?
Jessica H: No underwear?
Lindsay: Stark naked. And then in the classes, you had to stand in your underwear. And this is again, ninth graders in their underwear, in front of a big dance mirror, so you could see everybody in their underwear.
Jessica H: Yeah, I don't want anyone to see me in my underwear, let alone ninth graders.
Lindsay: But I remember, I very determinedly never had a proper uniform, not one single day. I would make sure something was wrong with my uniform.
Jessica H: You mean you did it deliberately?
Lindsay: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I was a rebel.
Jessica H: That was your pushback?
Lindsay: That was my pushback. I was really, very angry.
Jessica H: Lindsay wasn't the only one who was struggling socially.
Lindsay: And Mom didn't have any friends. Have you heard the story about her inviting people to this beautiful club called the Bellhaven Club, and she invited some women to play tennis with her, and picked them up, they all got into the back seat and were talking about how the Belle Haven Club was the club for the peasants. Can you imagine saying such a thing?
Lindsay: And Dad was really angry. I mean, we lived miles from the train station, and mom had to take him to the train and pick him up every day, and mom is notoriously late, and dad would just come home every night enraged, because mom I'm sure was late. And one day um, dad got home from work, and the back door was locked, so he just bashed it down. It was horrible.
Jessica H: Okay, so you're going to a Dickensian school, and dad's dissembling the house, but what's really bothering you?
Lindsay: One of the worst parts about that year was, we had moved thousands of miles away from the place we had grown up, and at that very moment, you and Billy went off to college.
Charlie: Most of all, we were in a mourning. All three of our older brothers and sisters were gone. So not only did we feel like strangers in a strange land, but our family unit had shape shifted into something quite unfamiliar.
Lindsay: So the whole family had changed, and it was a huge gulf not to have you and Billy around. So the family had just, everything had changed. Too many things had changed at once.
Jessica H: Yes, too many things had changed at home, and they were about to change further. For one thing, the family was going to get bigger. With fewer children in her nest, my mother took up creative writing again, and around that time, she wrote a lovely short story called, "You Have to Say It." The story concerns a middle-aged couple, Hugh and Jane, who live in an upscale neighborhood outside of New York. As the story begins, Hugh is seeing Jane off as she boards a plane for England. After takeoff and polite conversation with the man sitting next to her, Jane is tempted to tell him why she is on the plane, what her mission is. Although Hugh has sworn her to secrecy, she would like to unburden herself to someone she'd never see again. As mom writes, "My daughter Sabrina," she would say, "is in Oxford, England, pregnant. An Irish boy she met in a pub. He fancies himself a poet. Not likely to marry her. My husband wants me to persuade her to give the baby up for adoption, but I'm not sure. I agreed with him at first, but then ..."
Mom called this story fictional, but if you change the names from Jane, Hugh, and Sabrina, to Cooie, Paul, and Diana, you'd have the truth. At the end of the story, Jane, who is Cooie in literary disguise, is weeping, struggling to find the words to convince Sabrina to give up her child. She finds other words instead. Mom writes, "Children could go off anywhere looking for answers, and you had to remind them that there was something. You had to say it. She mopped her eyes and nose, and turned to 'Brina and put her arms around her. "I love you," she said." As in her story, mom failed in her mission, and dad just had to get his mind around it. In a few months, his daughter would be coming home with his first grandchild.
Sam: So Lindsay, Charlie, and I were called down to the living room. As a rule, when there was something to be discussed that involved emotion, like the time we found out Billy had cancer, and that my aunt was dying of liver cancer, the news was presented formally, like in a business presentation. So we all sat together, and Dad told us that Diana was pregnant and that she was going to have a baby. No, she was not married, but we shouldn't worry, because she was going to change her name, and she would wear a wedding ring. How it all looked, a daughter being pregnant out of wedlock was their worry, not my worry. I in fact remember feeling totally elated. The 60s were swirling around, Billy and Jessica were you know, off having their fun 60s experiences, and now the 60s were visiting our house, full on. I also remember being excited by the fact that there was this drama now happening in our house. Drama that might actually lead to some emotional truth and emotional expression, that because this was happening, it would finally be okay to feel.
Anyway, Dad kind of compartmentalized the whole thing, and my mother went into a real tailspin, because she felt like she had failed as a mother. And tailspin is the WASP euphemism for depression, by the way.
Jessica H: In Mom's story, Hugh, the father, made no bones about what would happen upon his daughter's return. ""It could be her way of bringing us down," he said once. "Kids are doing that to their parents these days. She'll have to find some place else to live, support herself." "What will she do?" "Wait tables. Hell, I don't know. She's gone against everything I've ever believed in. Left college, got herself pregnant, she's on her own." And when Diana came back from England, unmarried, with her daughter Siobhan, she was indeed on her own, unwelcome in my parents' home.
Dad had just been promoted, moved to New York and put his ad agency on a trajectory that would make it one of the biggest there was. He felt sure that Diana's so-called misdeed would tarnish him, somehow stall or even undo his career. And he was damned if he was going to let that happen. And since she had little choice, Diana went to Colorado to stay with our grandmother, mom's mother, Nana Emory. Mom never showed her story, "You Had to Say It," to dad. Or anyone else, until after he died. And where mom's short story ended, Diana's long story began.
I remember riding in a black town car with Dad back then. I don't know why we were in a limousine together, but my father had found out that I told a friend about Diana. And it was like a scene from the Godfather, Dad in his overcoat and tie and possibly a fedora, facing me in the backseat, the forbidding figure who had always scared me, instructing me in no uncertain terms to tell no one about Diana's pregnancy. This was to be our family secret. As it turned out, Dad had other secrets. One in particular that we only learned about after he died. In the last episode, I told you about a locked file in dad's office, where he kept a folder that contained only three documents. My brother Sam opened that file after Dad's death.
Sam: I found a file that said "Family History." And I opened the file, and there were three things in there, one was a family tree, another was a will and testament, and the other was a program to a rally, in 1964, the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights. And this program was gotten by my oldest sister, who was very active in the Civil Rights Movement back then.
Jessica H: Dad's meticulous filing of Diana's program from the Civil Rights event was an indicator of his pride in her endeavors. But as Sam took a closer look at the other two documents in that folder, he learned things about our forebears that would not inspire pride. But rather, horror. Things that would also shed some light on a legacy left by our grandfather, Papa Harper. You'll hear about that in the next episode.
Winnetka is produced and edited by me, with digital editing and mixing by Andrew Schwartz. Additional help from Jeff Fox and Tom Weir. Original songs and music production are by me, with the exception of O Vos Omnis by William Harper. Special thanks to Oren Rosenbaum, Matt Cutair and Ryan Rose, Jeff Umbro, Connie Fisher, Timothy Makepeace and Susan Bolotin. Thanks, and love always to Tom, Elizabeth, and Nora, and to my siblings Diana, William, Lindsay, Sam, and Charlie. And especially, thanks to Mom.