Saturday, 4 April 2009
I haven't had much experience with fortunes. My father abandoned us when I was three and ran off to Las Vegas with his secretary. I next saw him when I was gofering for Gilbert Seldes at the TV networks in L.A. in 1960. My most lasting impression there that summer was when an NBC flack asked me if I wanted to have lunch with Polly Adler whose brother was opening a new restaurant.
As a Boy Scout the first Merit Badge I earned was in FREEBIES. So I went unreluctantly along. I had heard that Ms. Adler was a retired Madam, whose autobiography was entitled A House is Not a Home! Clever. I also have never in my life paid for sex, I mean with money--yet. Not for reasons of purity. Even though my Catholic confirmation name is Aloysius, that Spaniard who is paradoxically the patron saint of Purity.
Anyway, Polly had just finished getting an Associate in Arts degree at Los Angeles Community College, and she had divided professors into two categories--GOOD GUYS and STUFFED SHIRTS: All during the meal, she posed questions which I gradually perceived were posed to place me into one of those professorial categories. As we finished dessert, Polly let me know in so many gestures that I had been beatified as a GOOD GUY. To confirm her judgment she gave me a real Hollywood type embrace, at which point the Contaflex hanging about my neck punched her a real knock between her boobs.
"Patrick," she instantly complained, "you look like a goddam tourist." "Polly," I curtly replied, "I am a goddamed tourist." To which her brother, the honoree, let out a whoop that made us the focus of attention. I pushed my luck and asked them if they could drop me off at L.A. International. I had made up my mind the night before to take a side trip to Las Vegas on my return flight to Philly. "Sure," they agreed amiably, as I filled them in on what little I knew about Harry E. Hazard.
He had been a captain in Black Jack Pershing's American Expeditionary Force in France in 1918 and married my mother in Gaylord, Michigan in 1919. At which time he was 26, and working as a furniture salesman for Jury/Rowe, a chain that moved him from Battle Creek (where I was born in 1927), then Jackson, then Detroit, whence he absconded in 1930.
Now he was 67, and beginning to roll in the Big Bucks as a real estate dealer with a former mayor of Las Vegas. His office was easy to find, and when I knocked on his door (after thirty years) he gave me the salesman's glad handed smile, like he'd be happy to sell me as many feet of footage on Sunset Strip as I wanted. "Are you Harry Hazard," I inquired. "Yes, of course." "I'm Pat Hazard, from Philly." DEAD SILENCE: A wave of anxiety swept across his face.
You see, my brother Mike, seven years older than me was both a drunk and a gambler, and had harassed Harry for years with the graymail of his bigamy. (My conservatively Catholic mother wouldn't, couldn't in those days, divorce him.) He quickly recovered by offering me a tour of Las Vegas, which began as fast as he could drive to Hoover Dam, miles away from his office and nosy questioners.
As it gradually dawned on him that I was a harmless pussycat of a professor, he relaxed, and gratuitously offered to put my three kids through college when the time came. And dropped me off at Pat McCarran International. The late Senator had been a close confident of Harry, whose political life had to be behind the throne because of his bigamy. It was the height of the McCarthy flap and it didn't thrill me to learn that my father had been buddies with a really right wing senator.
He died a decade later. (I had managed a few more casual meetings with him in San Francisco and L.A. as I gofered around.) But never in Las Vegas, where my existence was a deep dark secret. I was romancing a graduate student at UCLA when news of his death reached me. So I proceeded to Vegas to console the widow Ruth. She introduced me to a woman she described as Harry's political secretary, who asked me if I wanted to attend a Clark Country Democratic Women's Committee "do" tomorrow. She said a lot of my father's friends would be there. O.K. I agreed.
I've never been big on reception lines, but that's how my visit started. First with former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey. "Aw, Hap was a great guy. We're going to miss him." It was the first time I had heard him referred to as Hap! Then it was Senator Bible. "Your father really helped us build the Democratic Party out here in Nevada." And the Congressman, whose name I've forgotten. Finally, when we got to the Mayor of Vegas, I was tempted to ask,"Now tell me the truth, what kind of a son of a bitch was Hap. Really, I mean." But the polite manners the nuns had pounded into my skull prevailed, and I continued mumbling blather.
His widow told me to meet with Harry's lawyer so he could give me papers on my "inheritance". When I got back to Philly I gave them to the best student I ever had when I taught at Penn, Stephen J. Harmelin, now already a partner in Dilworth Paxon. "What does this mean, Steve?" He said he'd look at it pro bono and get back to me. "$150,000" is what it meant.
And when his widow died, another $100,000! Now this was a new world. Steve recommended a broker who nicked me maliciously. The next broker nicked me incompetently. Finally, I found an honest man in Joseph Nowak at Oppenheimer. I wish I had run into him in the beginning, but he was a good explainer. And I might even have more than $50,000 left! But I felt I had to spread around the loot in inventive cultural activities. We repaired Walt Whitman's tomb in Camden, and I gave a Whitman 1975 calendar to all the Beaver students.
On the 150th anniversary of Emily Dickinson's Birth in 1980 I threw a Ball in the Castle. Students came as a line from ED's poetry, or a couplet if they had a date, or quartet if they double dated. The best was juried by nine muses headed by Dean Margaret LeClair. First prize (won by a lesbian couple who came as "Buccaneers of Buzz", Emily's metaphor for bumble bees) was a weekend in Amherst MASS, all expenses paid on Walt Whitman's Birthday, May 31.
Second prize was a weekend in Camden on Emily's birthday, December 10. Get the surPrize? And when my mother died in January 1982, I decided to take early retirement at 55. And to complete my too parochial American Studies Ph.D. with study trips to Latin America, Africa, Asia, and, finally, Europe, where I remain half-educated at eighty!