Friday, April 30, 2010
#80-F – FUNERAL
Two days before returning to Vermont I drove the aqua Mustang out to Long Island, to Oyster Bay where the parents of my old friend Jason Bacon started out. Jason whom I had known since third grade in Weston.
I had a long history with Jason. We overlapped right after college when I was out in Indiana covering McCarthyite politics for United Press and Jason was visiting his father who was out there in exile selling machine tools. Jason then went from Indiana straight to the army while I went first to Cuba hoping to join the Castro rebels. We met again at Ft. Benning where I was starting basic training and he was finishing. Then after the army we shared an apartment for a time on West 13th Street and tried to start a magazine that I hoped would supplant the New Yorker. And soon we moved to seemingly irreconcilable places, me into writing and roaming, he to investment banking.
And now it is 30 years later and to me my life is just beginning, though Jason is in early retirement, with children grown or nearly grown, dividing his time between a townhouse in London and a big log house 25 miles north of where Peter Cooper lives in Rutland.
When I first knew Jason the Bacon’s world had seemed as set in place as my own family's had seemed. Then the older Bacons and Coopers switched places, making Jason’s father Peter Cooper’s stepfather and Peter Cooper’s father Jason’s stepfather. It became a scandalous story of "wife swapping," as written in a newspaper published in the nearby industrial city of Bridgeport.
I wondered if Oyster Bay had ever seemed as safe a family place as had Weston. In generations before ours maybe, but the Coopers and Bacons of my generation, who had no base to supplant it, went there only for funerals. This claustrophobic little rich town where Jason’s father, Peter’s stepfather, had once had so much money.
The occasion now is the funeral of this other Bacon I have known since childhood, Jason’s younger brother Bruce, who has killed himself.
In Connecticut Jason and his parents and his brother Bruce and sister Patsy had lived on a hill in a large stucco house that suddenly went into foreclosure, meaning Jason was taken out of his prep school, Lawrenceville, which was something that would hang over him always. And Bruce, uprooted, went off to set up an original life of his own, studying on scholarship at the Rhode Island School of Design, then becoming an apparently inspirational artist teacher in the city at the School for Visual Arts – which seemed a long way from the life of the Yale men his father meant both of his sons, not just Jason, to be. Patsy married an early boyfriend and moved to Huntington, which had a little I common with the Connecticut place from which she had been uprooted, but none at all with self-consciously aristocratic Oyster Bay.
I drove now though claustrophobic little streets past florists and specialized groceries, and precious little tea rooms and tidy little bars – out to find a big stone Episcopal church. As I drove I felt an intolerable weight from the past, though I had not been in Oyster Bay before.
It was still early when I located the church. From the only car already in the parking lot a woman stood by while a man was hoisting himself into a wheelchair, a laborious journey. I realized I had seen him over the years at parties at Bruce’s studio in the Flat Iron building. Bruce’s old and, probably best friend Arthur. He had been in high school with Bruce in Connecticut, the son of a famous writer-editor who had committed suicide not long after Arthur was crippled by polio. Around the time I was trying to get the writer-editor to contribute a story the magazine I hoped to found. The New Yorker had rejected the story as too violent. It was about a man killing his wife.
The site of Arthur here in the parking lot gave me the feeling that this day I was witnessing an episode in a dynastic story, people assembled at the death of someone important in their world. I drove back into the shopping area for a coffee and I thought of the last time I had seen Jason’s father. It was at a small gathering in Indiana. Peter’s plump, sad, fun-loving mother, the former Doris Cooper now Doris Bacon, said said something I could not hear that Jason’s father did not like. Suddenly he was hitting her right there in front of us, with quick accurate blows to the face, like a Gestapo man in the movies.
And here I was now in the Bacon family’s dynastic seat, a place to which the living Bacons and Coopers returned only for funerals.
I had been accustomed to funerals in my family that were only very lightly attended, but when I got back this place was packed. All sorts of relatives, including Patsy and her sons, and Peter’s graying but still pretty sister Sue, who now lived in Greenwich, but whom I had known when first in New York when she was a sleek young woman living near Gramercy Square Park. It was at a party at her place where, arriving near midnight after a wire service shift, I met my longtime girlfriend Vannie. But mostly it was non-family from the city – Bruce’s friends and fellow artists and maybe 200 loyal students and ex-students. I met his girlfriend the fashion designer, who a confident stylish German lady, and her teenage daughter, who could not stop crying
In front of the alter there was a billowing bower of flowers and coming out of the flowers was a spot lit painting of Bruce’s that seemed to be of a triumphal Roman centurion. Instead of organ music the church’s sound system broadcast a tape of Bruce playing jazz piano. Death and triumph and things real and unreal.
The music stopped for a fleshy minister who had one of those pretentious accents. He opened with a little speech about how fitting it was that Bruce, whom he had never met, should come to rest here, for Bruce was an artist and we have always thought of this as a church that honored art – just look at our stained glass.
When Jason went up to the podium to talk I thought he was likely to say something about the rough childhood they had had. The drunkenness. The betrayal. The sexual convolutions. The expectation of rich lives suddenly shattered. The sudden eviction from the childhood home and the end of the childhood families. And then Peter’s conventional stockbroker father and Jason’s stylish mother taking up with each other publicly, matched by Peter’s funny but sort of sloppy mother and Jason’s tough tight father, all fucking and betraying each other. When I had heard that Bruce killed himself I had thought that given his background it was not surprising. This fit so well with all I had been discovering about myself and my own family, and the stories I had been hearing from ACOA people, many of whom had been suicidal.
My parents had been friends – cocktail parties and dinners – with Jason’s original parents, and to a lesser extent Peter’s too, when these parents had been in their original configurations. I could remember being picked up from the Boy Scouts by Mrs. Bacon, beside whom was the sleeping figure of Mr. Cooper.
But Jason did not say a word about Bruce’s childhood, and not a word about the various parents and stepparents. Jason was full of the same suppressed energy that I now remembered seeing in his father. He boomed out his words. And as he talked his confident anger grew. He began by saying how wonderful it was that there was such a turnout, then without a pause he was saying that what had happened was clear. Bruce’s death was the fault of Bruce’s girlfriend who had been drawing away from Bruce and taking joint property with her. It was because of her, only her, that Jason’s brother Bruce was dead.
Afterwards there was a gathering at the house of some Bacon connection, whether relative or family friend I could not tell. I arrived right at the same time as the minister, who was carrying a liquor store bag and had a big smile on his loose-fitting face, an aging version of a bloated college boy in happy anticipation of getting drunk.