He that dies pays all debts.
William Shakespeare, The Tempest
When he was dying, Rupert Falkes had the best care money could buy. His wife, Eleanor, saw to that. After the last round of chemo failed, she installed him in New York–Presbyterian in a large, comfortable, private room with a window facing the Hudson. She could have put him in hospice but she knew that in his rare moments of lucidity, he’d want to be in a hospital. He’d fought the prostate cancer tooth and nail, and even when it took over his bones, inflicting almost unbearable pain, he fought on. He wasn’t ready to go. He was only sixty-five. “Why can’t you stop them,” he had said to the oncologist when the third off-label drug didn’t shrink the tumors. He fiddled with his wedding ring, worrying it like a loose tooth. The doctor gave a small guilty shrug. He was out of drugs and words. “How much time do I have?” Rupert said. “Will I see in the millennium?” It was a week to Thanksgiving. The doctor nodded cautiously. “If things progress as I expect, you should make it, with a bit to spare.” Rupert rubbed the top of his head, shiny and bald from the chemo. “I remember when Nixon declared war on cancer. It must have been thirty years ago.” He shook his head. “I voted for the bugger.”
Eleanor’s sons—she had five—knew her as playful, even mischievous, but in the presence of others, even close friends, she rarely revealed that part of her, except in her sly, darting wit. The qualities that drew people to her were her democratic manners, her openhandedness, and her attention to the comfort of others. Often, these qualities passed mistakenly for charm, but charm is natural, innate, a gift. Eleanor was like a ballet dancer; what she did was hard work, born of arduous training, made to look as effortless as breathing.
As she had always reliably primed the social pump, so she made Rupert’s last months easier for everyone. She bought Starbucks cards, spa gift certificates, pizza, and wine for all the aides, porters, and nurses on the floor. Rupert had always been fastidious—understandably, Eleanor thought, but overly—and though he slept most of the time, she rallied the staff to spare him the indignities of his body’s failing systems. The aides kept him spotlessly clean, changing his diapers and sheets when they needed changing, and turning him over gently to prevent bedsores. The porters took care as they mopped and scoured not to bump his bed. The nurses were attentive, never stinting on the morphine. Unless he was so medicated that he barely breathed, Rupert couldn’t bear touch. Most days, Eleanor was unable to tell if Rupert sensed anything other than pain. Still, three times a week, she brought in fresh flowers, unseasonal and riotous, to put at his bedside; and she kept a radio humming by his ear, tuned to WQXR. Every afternoon she looked in to see him and read him short stories, Updike, Cheever, Munro. His doctors made it a point to drop by when she was there. Afterward, she often went to the movies.
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Eleanor belonged to that class of New Yorker whose bloodlines were traced in the manner of racehorses: she was Phipps (sire) out of Deering (dam), by Livingston (sire’s dam) and Porter (dam’s dam). Born in 1938, during the Depression, to parents who had held on to their money, she was never allowed to buy anything showy or fashionable. It had to be good and it might be costly, but not obviously so to someone outside the walls of New York’s Four Hundred families. She went to Brearley because the women in her father’s family had gone there and because Brearley girls wore shapeless, navy, hand-me-down, Catholic-school uniforms and brown oxfords.
Eleanor’s upbringing had been conducted by a martinet mother and a succession of brisk English nannies who drilled her daily on grammar, hygiene, deportment, and dress. In truth, she wasn’t so much raised up as subjugated, yoked to a set of rules and rituals that rivaled Leviticus for their specificity, rigor, piety, and triviality. On the subject of manners, Mrs. Phipps swore by Emily Post’s diktat that the Chief Virtue of Children was Obedience.
No young human being, any more than a young dog, has the least claim to attractiveness unless it is trained to manners and obedience. The child that whines, interrupts, fusses, fidgets, and does nothing that it is told to do, has not the least power of attraction for any one. . . .
When possible, a child should be taken away the instant it becomes disobedient. It soon learns that it cannot “stay with mother” unless it is well-behaved. This means that it learns self-control in babyhood.
When, years later, at Vassar, Eleanor read Mrs. Post’s 1922 monumental Etiquette in a sociology class, she saw the “it” as the key to her upbringing. She wrote her term paper on obedience, “Portrait of the Debutante as a Young Dog.” Her professor gave her an A. His only comment was: “So, Miss Phipps, what do you think it would have been for you, as one raised under authoritarian principles, in WWII? Hitler Youth? White Rose? Kinder, Küche, Kirche?” Eleanor showed her roommate. “The creep is flirting and insulting me at the same time,” she said.
Mrs. Phipps, had she known, would have bridled at the “authoritarian” epithet the professor had so slickly applied to Eleanor’s upbringing. She was no narrow dogmatist, doing unto Eleanor as had been done unto her. She never struck Eleanor or locked her in a closet or made her stand in the corner. Her childrearing regimen was up-to-the-minute and scientific, based on the soundest principles of “child development.” An early and avid subscriber to Parenting magazine, she was a votary of the psychologist J. B. Watson and kept his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child by her bedside. She took to heart his nostrums against hugging and kissing and often quoted to Eleanor his most famous axiom: “Mother love is a dangerous instrument that can wreck a child’s chance for future happiness.” Everything she did was for Eleanor’s own good.
Deference to males, no matter their age, was an article of faith in the Phipps household, and by the time she was twelve, Eleanor, with no show of temper, would lose regularly at tennis to boys who weren’t nearly as good as she was. With similar equanimity, she would never argue with a boy or, worse, correct him, no matter how thick he was. At most she’d allow herself a “Do you think so?” then clear her throat. Mrs. Phipps took the hard line against female intelligence, thinking it suspect in a woman, unpardonable in a girl. Vulgarity was the besetting sin, the mark of the ill-bred, covering a range of behaviors extending well beyond conspicuous consumption to reading French novels, confusing a fish fork with a dessert fork, nodding off at the opera, using “lay” instead of “lie,” and wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
Adolescence offered no escape for Eleanor from the maternal dragnet except in furtive play. Pre-Kinsey, she didn’t have a name for it; she only knew she wasn’t to do it. “No decent person does it,” Mrs. Phipps told her. “Only perverts.” Eleanor’s response, by now second nature, was to slip into silence, which passed for submission, and take long baths.
Her mother always blamed Vassar for Eleanor’s marriage to Rupert, and certainly it contributed to her general “Bolshiness,” as her mother called it. In truth, the path was laid down when she was sixteen in a setting Mrs. Phipps would have thought, if not entirely wholesome, then safe enough.
Eleanor was spending the night at the home of a Brearley classmate, Clarissa Van Vliet. Clarissa’s parents, despite impeccable antecedents, were by Mrs. Phipps’s lights “Bohemian.” They lived on the Upper West Side, not the Upper East. Their living room bookshelves held books and not antique Chinese export pottery. Their three children, ages eleven to sixteen, regularly ate dinner with their parents. They socialized with Jews and homosexuals.
That evening at dinner, Mrs. Van Vliet directed her conversation toward Clarissa and her guest, telling them about “a terrific book” she was rereading, D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. “It’s as good as I remember—I first read it when I was at Vassar, English 225, I think,” she said. “The professor was advanced.” Her husband looked up from his plate, amused. “Very advanced, even for Vassar. Isn’t it what we called in my day a ‘dirty’ book?” he asked. “Well, of course it is,” Mrs. Van Vliet said. “How are young women supposed to learn anything?” As she said this, she knocked her water glass to the floor, where it shattered into scores of tiny, spiky shards. “Oh, shit,” Mrs. Van Vliet said. The hair on the back of Eleanor’s neck stood up. She’d found the whole conversation exhilarating, but this last outburst was thrilling. She’d never heard anyone’s mother use a swearword, and she had believed that if one ever slipped out, a thing almost unimaginable, the woman would be filled with chagrin, falling over herself to apologize. Not this mother. Mrs. Van Vliet laughed and called to the maid to sweep it up. The next day, Eleanor went to Scribner’s and bought Women in Love. She stayed up all night reading it. When she’d finished, she told her mother she was going to go to Vassar. Years later, Eleanor would think of that dinner at the Van Vliets’ as her Emma-Bovary-on-the-road-to-Damascus moment.
Eleanor’s first act of open rebellion was to vote for John F. Kennedy in 1960. No one in the family, not since McKinley, had voted for a Democrat. Her second was to marry Rupert Falkes, a penniless Englishman.
Rupert Falkes had only one social rule, which he observed punctiliously: a gentleman is never unintentionally rude. He was equal parts charm and rudeness, and in his prime, he was rude at some point or other to almost every person he knew, and many he didn’t. Occasionally, he larded his insults with obscenities. The exceptions were Eleanor, the boys, and her father. He knew that Eleanor wouldn’t tolerate rudeness to herself or the boys. She had made it clear early in their marriage when he criticized their first-born’s table manners. “He’s not fit to eat at table,” he said to Eleanor. The child, Harry, was sixteen months at the time. He had scant control of the spoon, but insisted on using it, carrying his porridge to his nose as often as to his mouth. When Eleanor tried to help, he pushed her hand away and shook his head. “Self,” he said.
“Right,” Eleanor said. “Off to boarding school with him then.” Rupert took the warning. “I’m not used to eating with babies,” he said. His explanation passed for an apology.
Eleanor never minded his rudeness to others, shrugging it off. “It’s like Tourette’s or hiccups with him,” she would say if a friend mentioned it. “Raise it with him, if you like. He might respond well.”
Rupert had had the good fortune he’d always say of being an orphan. A foundling, he’d been left in the English winter of 1934, when he was no more than a month old, on the steps of St. Pancras in Chichester. He was fair and rosy, healthy, and nicely swaddled, and the priest who’d found him, the Rev. Henry Falkes, was sure his mother would have a change of heart and come fetch him. She didn’t. Rupert grew up in St. Pancras’s Home for Orphaned Boys, a childhood no more brutal than one offered in the Depression years at a Church of England prep school. Whatever the weather, the boys wore shorts. Whatever the games and season, they bathed once a week in communal tubs. Until he came to America, he didn’t know that chilblains were frostbite.
Rupert had a lovely boy’s soprano voice that made him stand out from the unruly, runny-nosed, scabrous little boys he lived with. It would prove not only the saving of him but the making of him. When he was seven, Reverend Falkes made an application for him to the Prebendal School and he was accepted as a chorister. From there, he went to public school at Longleat on a scholarship, and then to Cambridge, as a scholar. Holidays, he spent with Reverend Falkes, who was proud of Rupert and always kind to him but unaffectionate in that wooden way of Englishmen sent off to boarding school before they cut their second teeth.
Rupert emigrated to America in the summer of 1955, when he was twenty-one. Reverend Falkes had died without warning on Boxing Day the year before and there was nothing to keep him in England. Twice abandoned and orphaned, he had no home, no one looking out for him, no useful connections. Despite his first-class education, his prospects, if he stayed, would be limited. And he was made for America. Americans loved his accent and his Cambridge pedigree and regarded his orphaned status almost as an asset, the stamp of authenticity of the self-made man. The first time Eleanor saw him weep was when he read The Great Gatsby. “We don’t read this in England,” he said. “Witless arrogance.”
Rupert never talked about his first year in America, and Eleanor was never sure how he’d got on. The story he would tell was that he met the dean of Yale Law School, Eugene Debs Rostow, on a train that first year, and talked his way into a scholarship there. Rostow would not regret the decision. Rupert made the Law Journal, clerked for Judge Friendly on the Second Circuit, and then went to work for Maynard, Tandy & Jordan, where he practiced antitrust law in the golden age of antitrust. He made a lot of money, and when he retired at sixty-five, he endowed three chairs at Yale, one in honor of Dean Rostow.
Eleanor was attentive to Rupert’s needs, pushing aside all feelings of loss until they could not be ignored. She would miss him, she knew, but she could not wish him longer life. She wondered what the boys were feeling. They were now men, the oldest thirty-seven, the youngest almost thirty, and they no longer confided in her. Sam, the middle son, would take it hardest, but she didn’t believe Rupert’s death would be wrenching for the others, except perhaps in the feeling of what-might-have-been-and-now-never-will. But that is loss too, she thought.
Harry and Sam, the two boys living in New York, visited him at the hospital at least three times a week, usually before or after work, and Sam often stayed through dinner and read to his father, picking up where Eleanor had left off. Will, Jack, and Tom came from Los Angeles, Austin, and Chicago every few weeks. Although Eleanor had been, they would tease, an overly fond mother, she had not rejected all the lessons of her childhood, but had instilled in the boys a sense of responsibility to family and community. “We do what decency requires,” she regularly said to them. “Never less.” The boys loved Rupert—he was, after all, their father and he had always looked out for them—but he had been, for so much of their early lives, so little there, they had few childhood memories of him. They remembered their mother and grandfather. Eleanor had taught them to ride their bikes and serve a tennis ball. She had held them when they were sad and kissed their scrapes. Poppa took them to baseball games and museums. He’d let them sit on his lap at dinner. A natural Watsonian, Rupert never hugged or kissed his sons. When they were two, he patted them on the head; when they were seven, he met them with a handshake. He couldn’t help it, much as he cared for them in his buttoned-up English way. Eleanor told them not to take it personally and, except for Tom, the youngest, they didn’t.
“Did you ever change a diaper?” Sam asked his father, one evening at a family holiday dinner, everyone there, wives and partners, not long before Rupert fell ill. The question held no rancor, no accusation. Sam was curious.
Rupert turned to Eleanor. “Did I?” he asked.
“No,” Eleanor said.
“I didn’t think so,” he said. Everyone laughed.
Harry once said to his mother that he never remembered, as a young child, going anyplace with his father by himself but he did remember, as he got older: their arguments about politics, serious but never querulous; Rupert’s interest in whatever Harry was doing, even debate; and Rupert’s encouragement to take risks in life. Eleanor thought the others would say the same. Rupert believed in his sons, and his belief in them was the greatest thing he gave them. He simply couldn’t show them affection. It seemed inevitable to Eleanor that Rupert had managed in his final illness to make physical touch impossible, as if he’d been traveling toward that point his whole life. His last coherent words to her, a week before he died, were lawyers’ words: “Settle my just debts.
Eleanor had been been in love with Rupert when she married him, but she was twenty-two, and there was no one else she liked better or liked being with more. She had confidence in him—in his appreciation of her and in his ability to get on—and he made her feel safe.
They met at her cousin’s wedding; he was a law school classmate of the groom. Still blond at twenty-six, he was good-looking without being too handsome. He had high cheekbones and Arctic eyes, giving him the glint of a wolf. All the girls and women at the wedding noticed him as he moved about the room with the easy gait of an athlete. Though he insisted, laughingly, that he had bought his dinner jacket secondhand from Moss Bros., he wore it with the elegant carelessness of a young Olivier. He spotted Eleanor early in the evening, the loveliest girl in the room, and, without waiting for an introduction, approached her. “Hello, you,” he said. He was a wonderful dancer, which left her breathless, and he talked easily and wittily. He seemed older than the groom and the other young men and had read everything. “He comes from nowhere,” the bride whispered in Eleanor’s ear, “but if he offered to run off with me, I’d go. Right now. He’s a man, not a boy.”
Eleanor’s expectations of marriage were by then hardheaded: So long as it is less awful than my parents’, she thought. She wanted contentedness not ardor. She had had ardor and it had set her back on her heels. The summer before her junior year, she’d fallen in love with a Jew, a Russian major at Yale, beautiful, brilliant James Cardozo. Both families were dead set against the match, his even more than hers, and the young couple couldn’t see making their way in the world on their own. Jim was planning on going to medical school; like all the young women she knew, she had no plans, other than marriage. The breakup was a watershed for Eleanor. She would marry the next man who asked her, as long as he could kiss and hold down a job.
Carlo Benedetti could do both. Three months after she broke with Jim, they started dating. He was in his last year at Columbia Law. They had known each other from childhood; his father did business with her father. Her mother pulled the plug the first time Eleanor brought him home. “Stop it now. He’s not one of us,” she said. “What do you mean,” Eleanor said. “He’s descended from Popes. He goes everywhere.” Mrs. Phipps held up her hand. “Not St. James’s,” she said. Rupert was a godsend, an Episcopalian her mother disliked more than the Catholic, as much as the Jew.
The Falkeses’ marriage looked like many marriages of their generation and class. Eleanor loved being pregnant and loved her babies; Rupert worked hard, leaving at seven, coming home at eight. By their third anniversary, they had achieved, without words, an easy, unguarded relationship, animated by a deep sexual connection. Their friends might have said they loved each other, but brought up without family warmth or affection, neither had the vocabulary of ordinary, everyday happiness. They were very good at sex, it turned out, but no good, with each other, at casual touching. It suited them both.
Their division of labor was conventional; Eleanor didn’t read The Feminine Mystique until after the last baby. Rupert was the breadwinner; she raised the boys and ran the household, as she had been raised, with help from nannies, maids, cooks, and drivers. They were kind, supportive, and respectful to each other, publicly and privately. Handsome, clever, and rich, they were popular with friends and colleagues. Eleanor’s lineage allayed any questions about Rupert’s idiopathic origins. Over time Rupert’s friends diagnosed his rudeness as “an English thing,” like eating Marmite, and paid it little mind. At the law firm, the associates kept lists of his taunts and insults, comparing them almost as badges of honor. They pined for his praise.
Eleanor and Rupert had a floor-through apartment in the Hotel des Artistes, the old studio building on West Sixty-Seventh. In pursuit of Van Vlietism, Eleanor had wanted to live on the Upper West Side. Her father approved and bought the apartment, originally two apartments, as a wedding present. He put it in her name. The boys never knew another home. Their attachment to it was primal. After Rupert’s death, they all worried that Eleanor might sell it. “Who will buy it if she does?” Harry asked his brothers. They all offered although they knew it was unhinged sentimentality.
“Do we keep it as a shrine to our childhood, never changing anything?” Will asked.
“It must cost a fortune to run and maintain,” Sam said.
“I love it,” Tom said, “but I couldn’t live in it. I’d feel like an imposter.”
“Who’d get to sleep in their bed?” Jack asked.
Eleanor’s old boyfriend, Jim Cardozo, didn’t marry until 1975, when he was thirty-six and had finished his residency in cardiology. His wife, Anne Lewisohn Lehman, was also a Vassar graduate, six years behind Eleanor, a biology major. She was short, blond, sturdy, and kind. They were married at Temple Emanu-El, the Reform German Jewish synagogue that looked like a bank on the outside. Reading the wedding invitation, unexpected and unwelcome, Eleanor felt a twinge of irritation, realizing, after fourteen years of marriage to Rupert, she hadn’t thought about Jim in years. Her heart had broken and then it mended, good as new. I was twenty, she thought. I didn’t know there was sex without love. Jim had loved her, she knew, more than she had loved him, but she couldn’t believe he harbored at this remove anything more than passing wistfulness for their ardent youthful selves. Perhaps he wanted her to know he had landed on his feet.
The Cardozo reception was at the Harmonie Club. There were six hundred guests, including Eleanor and Rupert. Their gift, from the registry, was a sterling fish server, in the same pattern as her parents’. Jim and Anne spent all their holidays with her family, an uncomplicated bunch who loved tennis, sailing, practical jokes, and charades. Anne loathed Jim’s parents. Meeting the young Cardozos for the first time at their wedding, Rupert pronounced Anne a “good sort.” He never said what he thought of Jim, except to say “damp handshake.”
Eleanor thought of her marriage as a stroke of luck, sweeter for being unexpected. In her romance with Jim, she had seen herself as the victim of selfish and uncaring parents, more interested in their comfort than in her happiness. As she grew older, she acknowledged her conventionality and her cowardliness—and Jim’s too. She had been bred for marriage; even her high-powered Vassar education had only served to make her more marriageable to the right sort of man, and she hadn’t known what else to do with herself. She hoped she might come to love Rupert, and by the end, her attachment to him passed for love. To her delight, he had turned out to be sexually gifted. Who taught him? she wondered.
Rupert married Eleanor because she was the girl of the year in 1960, because all the other men he knew wanted her, because she knew the difference between sarcasm and irony, because she was a knockout, because she’d read George Orwell, because she was sexually electrifying, because he could talk to her. She was like an Arabian racehorse, angular and lean, almost as tall as he, with dark hair and eyes. Reverend Falkes had been dark, probably Welsh. Seeing the photo of him that Rupert carried in his wallet, Eleanor thought, dark and tall like me. Makes sense. Rupert’s blondness was one of his minor selling points, the un-Jim.
Rupert understood from the start theirs was a marriage not of convenience exactly, more of mutual benefit, and all in all, he thought they’d both held to the bargain and made it work. Once, years into the marriage, he asked her whether she was fond of him. She was quick to answer. “Of course I’m fond of you,” she said, “and I admire you.” He nodded and smiled at her, then took her hand in his. Later, she marveled at the oddness of this exchange, after so many years together. The meagerness of his expectations—or sadder, his desires—was painful to her, as was this unexpected, transient willingness to expose himself. He didn’t risk asking whether I might love him, or could love him, or did love him, or ever loved him. Her thoughts took a sharp turn. Of course, I’ve never asked him if he loved me. Did I mean to marry a man who didn’t love me? She wondered sometimes whether he’d ever been unfaithful. She had never required fidelity, only discretion. Their sexual bond was the glue of the marriage, but almost a thing apart from their emotional connection and requirements. In their couplings they were like world-class athletes. They didn’t think about what they did. Eleanor thought downhill skiing came closest to sex with Rupert.
Rupert and Eleanor disagreed now and again—politically, Eleanor was more liberal—but never acrimoniously. There wasn’t enough heat to raise the temperature of an argument and there was so much money smoothing the way. The boys were a source of pride. “Not a duffer among them,” Rupert would say, “even if they’re all Democrats.” Henry (Harry) came first, in 1962, eleven months after they were married; the rest followed in two-year intervals: William (Will), Samuel (Sam), John (Jack), and Thomas (Tom). When Tom was a year, Eleanor had her tubes tied. “I take it there will be no Guy,” Rupert said. “Five in ten years is an excellent sufficiency,” she said. They were good-looking boys—tall, dark, and lean, like their mother, athletic and brainy. People used to say they had Eleanor’s looks and Rupert’s brains. My brains too, Eleanor thought, but she let it pass. Rupert took mild exception. “Where are the rosy-cheeked towheads?” he would ask now and then.
As expected, Eleanor’s mother disapproved of Rupert and the match, but her father, who had been a phantom presence in her childhood, gave his blessing, firmly quashing any maternal interference. He insisted on having a big wedding and then offered to support the young couple for the first five years while Rupert was getting his footing. Eleanor wondered if he was making amends for closing ranks with her mother against Jim; she drew closer to her father. Rupert never forgot this kindness, and his regard for his father-in-law, as with Reverend Falkes, approached love. They lunched together at least three times a month and Rupert went to Mr. Phipps for advice on investments. Mr. Phipps had spent his career, more than forty years, at the family bank, Phipps & Co. He had studied chemistry in college, thinking he would be a doctor or scientist, but his father and grandfather pressed him to join the bank and his early marriage forced his hand. His wife would be expensive. He had a genius for identifying coming companies and industries, which his father and grandfather recognized, and by the time he was thirty, he was director of new investments. This position, with its spending clout, kept him from growing restless or careless. At fifty, he was chairman of the bank. He made himself and many others very rich. In 1966, Mr. Phipps recommended that Rupert invest eighty thousand dollars in McDonald’s, and offered to loan him the money interest-free if he didn’t have it. Rupert took the loan and bought the stock. By 1973, it was worth five and a half million dollars. Rupert insisted on paying back Mr. Phipps; he gave him five hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Mr. Phipps gave the money to Eleanor. “A sunny-day fund,” he said. Both men loved to sail and would often spend their Sundays together on the Sound, off Kings Point, where the Phippses had a house and Mr. Phipps kept a sloop. The second and last time Eleanor knew her husband to weep was at her father’s funeral.
Mrs. Phipps grew wary of Rupert, who played with her as a cat with a mole. If she was in a hectoring mood, criticizing one of the boys or, more likely, Eleanor, he would deliver a “Granny slap-down,” as the boys called it, asking her repeatedly to repeat herself—“I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you”—until she sounded stupid even to herself. At those times, Eleanor felt something approaching real love for him. Only once did Rupert lose his temper with his mother-in-law. It shut her down in his presence. She never again said anything to him other than “How are you?”
In marrying Rupert, Eleanor had accepted his limitations. He was capable of expressing gratitude, appreciation, generosity, even affection, but not stronger emotions, even if he felt them. He had decided, at twenty-one, he would be a successful man in ways New York society respected, and this he had achieved. He did what he could with what he had.
Their last conversation before the morphine shut him down was fittingly valedictory. Afterward, Eleanor wondered if he had planned it, holding out as long as he could. She was sitting by his bed in the hospital. Schubert’s Trout was playing on the radio.
“I wasn’t always a good man,” Rupert said. “I wanted to be but couldn’t do it.”
“Good enough,” Eleanor said.
“My life turned out to be much better than I had any right to expect,” he said.
“Mine too,” she said. “Thank you,” he said. Eleanor leaned over and kissed him. He reached up and touched her cheek. “I wish I could stay,” he said. “I do too,” she said.
Eleanor’s boys not only looked like her, they looked like one another. Acquaintances seeing the older or younger brothers together often took them for twins, even triplets. Ancient cousins frequently got their names wrong. Eleanor found this annoying but she came to see that on the surface, by their looks and close age, they invited confusion in the inobservant. Her mother was always mixing them up, whether out of weak-mindedness or spite Eleanor couldn’t tell. Her father, embracing grandfatherhood, kept them straight, buying each of them every year the perfect birthday gift. For Sam’s ninth, Mr. Phipps bought him a real stethoscope, sending Sam into paroxysms of joy.
To Eleanor, the boys were nothing alike, each vividly himself. Harry taught law at Columbia, specializing in constitutional law and conflicts of law, “Torts for Pedants,” he called it. He was smart, canny, competitive, confident, at ease everywhere, a quick study, and a natural leader. Job offers came his way often; he was good at lunch. His law school colleagues saw him as a future law school dean or circuit court judge. He married Jewish. “We were sent to Trinity to meet Jews, right?” he said to his parents one night at dinner, graduation looming. He had invited Jane Levi to the senior prom. He thought he was his mother’s favorite, the fulfillment of the famous Freudian dictum: “A man who has been the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a conqueror.” He felt a conqueror. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
Will was literary, witty, astute, and stealthily ambitious. At eleven, he announced at dinner: “I’m a Marxist.” The table fell quiet; everyone looked at him. He grinned. “A Groucho Marxist.” Will had been an editor in New York at Random House, but then went off to L.A. to be a talent agent. He loved making deals; he felt most alive in the middle of a deal. Every year on the anniversary of the day he sold his first book to the movies for a million dollars, he and his wife, Francie, went to dinner at the Polo Lounge. He’d gone there to celebrate with his boss after that first big sale. The place never changed; it was Hollywood, unapologetic and unadulterated, with its dry martinis, aged steaks, plush banquettes, and lavish flowers. “I read Dickens and Eliot in college so I could sell Thane and Gordon,” he told Eleanor. “Plot,” he said. “‘A gun in the first act.’” In 1999, he had three bestselling authors with seven-figure movie options. Eleanor thought he was the smartest. He was the most intellectual, Thane and Gordon notwithstanding.
Sam was a scientist, an MD/PhD researcher in infectious diseases. Eleanor thought of him with remorse, as the outlier, neglected in the tumult of three boys under five; but hers was a minority view. Rupert, in his stiff way, and her father, in his, had worked to fill the void she had left, and in their coalition, they had, remarkably, succeeded. Sam was insightful and observant, his senses alive to those around him, with a barbed sense of humor and a stubbornness that often passed for principled objection. He was slow to anger but, once aroused, slow to forgive. Like his brothers, he loved his mother, almost without criticism. He saw himself less as the odd one out than as the gravitational center of the five brothers. “I am the keystone,” he told his mother when he was ten. Of the five, he was closest to his father and, Eleanor thought, his father’s favorite. He was, if not his brothers’ favorite, then the one they found least irritating.
Jack, the only artist, was the most talented, the most driven. A jazz trumpeter, he was interested in little besides music. People, hearing he was from a large family, pegged him as the youngest; he had the sweetness and self-centeredness of the baby, indulged by older brothers as well as parents. “I love the trumpet more than I love food,” he told his mother. “It’s the brassiest of all instruments. It struts.” My id, Eleanor thought.
Tom, who was the baby, missed having someone below him to push around and often felt the weight of the older four as oppressive. He would refer to himself as the runt of the litter, though he was the tallest and the best athlete. There was never any unalloyed good news, no winning without losing for Tom. He was the only one of the five who’d been in therapy. Among his grievances, he resented that he was born in the ’70s, not the ’60s like the others, a different generation. He was a federal prosecutor, working in the white-collar crime unit in the Chicago US Attorney’s Office, “having a not-too-bad time of it” going after insider traders. Eleanor wondered if his decision to be a prosecutor was his way of arming himself against his big brothers. He too married Jewish, a niece of Jim Cardozo’s wife, Anne.
All five had gone to Princeton—Harry, Will, and Tom as tennis players. Eleanor had wanted them to go to Yale, their grandfather’s old school, while Rupert, along with Trinity, their high school, had pushed Harvard. Harry, being Harry, beat his way to Princeton and brought the rest along. Growing up in New York City, they liked the country all right while they were there, but after graduation, they gravitated to cities. Tom insisted he’d never have gotten into Princeton if he wasn’t a legacy, seeming to forget he had been a highly ranked tennis recruit with 1400 boards; in fact, it was Jack, with a patchy academic record, who presented a challenge to the admissions office. Still, Princeton took him. They didn’t want to risk losing Tom, who’d be applying in two years, or alienating the older brothers; and the head of Trinity’s music department told admissions that Jack was the most talented music student he’d ever taught. “Reject him and regret it,” he wrote.
For thirteen years, from 1980 through 1992, there was at least one Falkes on campus; for nine of those years, there were two. Harry blazed the trail, writing his way into a junior history seminar in the fall of his freshman year and making the varsity tennis team in the spring. The younger ones walked onto campus already celebrities; everyone seemed to know who they were. Harry joined Quadrangle—he didn’t want to join an eating club that didn’t have women members, and he didn’t like bicker. His brothers followed but even Quadrangle was too elitist for Tom, who dropped out. Harry liked Princeton best, then Will, then Sam, then Jack, then Tom. After Rupert’s death, Harry endowed a scholarship at Princeton in his father’s name. The others thought he was gunning for a seat on the board of trustees.
“Why did we all follow Harry to Princeton?” Tom asked Sam when his fifth reunion was coming up. He wasn’t planning on going.
“Habit,” Sam said. “We always did what Harry did back then. Also laziness.”
Will graduated summa and won a Marshall, spending three years at Cambridge, which pleased Rupert no end. Harry and Sam graduated magna and went on to Yale, Harry for law, Sam for medicine. That too pleased Rupert, who joined the Corporation after Sam was admitted. Tom graduated cum and was awarded the Scholar-Athlete Award at graduation. “Rafa Kohn, the soccer player, should have got it; he’s brilliant. I just wallop the ball,” he told his parents. He went to Berkeley for law school; “I want sunshine and fresh air,” he said. Jack graduated “with great relief,” but clinched his place in the Princeton pantheon by being invited onstage to play with Wynton Marsalis at a jazz concert his junior year. Marsalis told the crowd he’d heard there was a “white trumpet prodigy at Princeton.”
The family money was part of the constellation—the boys all had Phipps as one of their middle names, a kind of calling card of its own—and Rupert and Eleanor gave generously. But there was more to them than the obvious markers; a dashing, romantic aura hovered about the five Falkeses, the kind usually ascribed to quivers of remarkable or highly marriageable sisters, like the Mitfords or the Cushings; other boys and men were always having crushes on them.
They’d all married or partnered in their twenties or early thirties, and there was the whiff of Eleanor or Rupert in all their choices. Except for Sam’s boyfriend Andrew, they were all fond of their in-laws, who went the second, third, and fourth mile to welcome them to the family. Andrew felt toward Eleanor and Rupert the antagonism of the provincial boy. “Who still uses fish forks?” he asked Sam the first time he had dinner at West Sixty-Seventh Street. “And is there always a maid serving dinner and a cook cooking it?” Sam regarded both questions as rhetorical bloodletting and didn’t answer them directly. “My father was an orphan, left on the church steps,” he said. Andrew snorted. “He’s a hero, then, completely self-made. I know where I came from, and so do they: the other side of the tracks.” When Eleanor and Rupert gave Andrew an elegant Omega gold watch for his thirty-fifth birthday, an expensive gift but not embarrassingly expensive, Andrew decided the acuity of the choice was an insult. “It’s too thoughtful,” he said to Sam. “I’ll tell them not to get you any more gifts,” Sam said. “No, no,” Andrew said. “I don’t want to be thought insulting.” Andrew had wanted a Cartier tank watch like Sam’s.
Eleanor insisted on a family dinner the night before Harry left for Princeton his freshman year. “No dispensations,” she said at breakfast. “That includes everyone.” Rupert nodded. “All hands on deck at 23:00 Zulu,” he said. The boys groaned. “How does Zulu work with daylight saving time?” Sam asked, working the calculation in his head.
Dinner was all of Harry’s favorite foods: strip steak, artichokes, skinny French fries, and chocolate mousse. Drinks were ginger beer shandies and Brunello. The three older boys were allowed to have wine that night. Harry, at eighteen, was legal in New York; he could drink as much as he wanted. Will and Sam, weighing over 130 pounds, were each given a glass. “I want you to learn to drink before you go to university,” Rupert had said to the boys. He had spent a good deal of time at Cambridge snockered, a way of fitting in. “Was it worse at Cambridge,” he had asked himself, “to be a Jew, the son of a butcher, or a foundling?”
At Longleat, Rupert had come up with a workable response to inquiries into his origins. He would say that he’d been orphaned as an infant and raised as the ward of the Reverend Henry Falkes, St. Pancras Church, Chichester. The shared name was reassuring to his interrogators, and Rupert regularly offered up silent thanks to the reverend for giving him his last name. The other orphans who’d arrived storklike at St. Pancras had last names from Dickens. “True,” Rupert said. “I’m not pulling your leg.” His infant school-mates included a Copperfield, a Nickleby, a Dombey, a Harmon, a Jaggers, a Carstone, and a Trotwood. Reverend Falkes gave them the names of worthy if flawed characters, a kind of literary blessing on their heads. He liked naming and took it seriously; it was, after all, the first task God set Adam. He told Rupert his only regret was wasting Summerson on a small pockmarked bully. “I should have called him Murdstone.”
Rupert never asked the reverend why he alone had his last name. He feared he would appear presumptuous or, worse, Heepish; he suspected Reverend Falkes would be acutely embarrassed. From his seat on the sidelines, Rupert observed that embarrassment or, more accurately, the avoidance of embarrassment was the chief moderator of English social arrangements among the upper middle classes. So many of the Englishmen he knew were embarrassed by the smallest things: wearing the wrong pair of shoes (brown in town in- stead of black), saying the wrong word (“wealthy” instead of “rich”), playing the wrong game (football instead of rugby). Rudeness was the antidote, injected into the conversation at the merest hint of encroaching embarrassment.
America cured Rupert of the last vestiges of embarrassment; it became superfluous. As far as he could tell, Americans were embarrassed only by public nakedness, a situation he felt he could easily avoid. His rudeness adapted to the New World, propagating, kudzu-like, into an instrument against stupidity, carelessness, laziness, and boredom, especially boredom. One of the other reasons Rupert married Eleanor was that she didn’t prattle. He’d found that rare in a girl as beautiful as she, used to attention and admiration. His mother-in-law had been beautiful, he was told, which helped him understand his father-in-law, smote by forget-me-not blue eyes.
Dinner was roisterous on Harry’s last night. He was excited and nervous for himself. He couldn’t eat; he drank. His brothers were excited and nervous for him. They ate enormous amounts.
“It’s Harry’s last meal,” Will said. Harry grinned like the Cheshire Cat and drew his index finger slit-like across his throat. Everyone laughed, except Sam.
Sam shook his head. “No, no,” he said, his voice cracking, his eyes filling with tears. “This is serious. This is the end of normal life.” Silence fell on the table.
At that moment, Harry decided that his brothers would follow him to Princeton. Normal life would continue, only shifting its center of gravity seasonally, between the Hotel des Artistes and Nassau Hall.
“I can’t believe in ten years, you’ll all be gone. Pfffft,” Eleanor said. She looked at Rupert. “Short of a cricket side, but not a bad lot.”
“No duffers,” he said softly. She nodded.
“I should play taps, shouldn’t I?” Jack said. He went to get his trumpet.
“Just a minute,” Harry said. He poured himself another glass of wine. “To Mom and Dad.”
“Hear, hear,” the others replied. Eleanor cleared her throat. Rupert covered her hand with his own. From the far end of the apartment, they heard the first melancholy notes of the bugle call. They looked at each other, then looked away, too happy to speak.
Rupert lingered for four months, three more than anyone expected. His doctors said it must have been the last powerful chemo combination and wanted to write him up. Eleanor wondered at their notion of success. He’d been dying the whole time. He died on a Saturday morning in April. The floor nurse called Eleanor at seven a.m. to say the end was near. Eleanor called all the boys. Harry and Sam went to the hospital with her. Eleanor said to Rupert, “I’m here. It’s all right.” Harry held his hand. Sam kissed his forehead. He died ten minutes later. Pulled under by a wave of grief, Eleanor wept.
Rupert did not die on the front page of the Times, a private wish, but he was given a two-column obituary inside with a photo. He’d been a prominent lawyer and a good one, and he’d given away a lot of money to good causes. The death notice Eleanor submitted to run for a week was characteristically succinct. No lovings, no beloveds.
Rupert Falkes. Born February 2, 1934, Chichester, England, died April 14, 2000, New York, NY, of cancer. Graduate of the Prebendal School, Longleat College, Cambridge University, and Yale Law School. Senior Partner, Maynard, Tandy & Jordan. Trustee, Trinity School. Corporation Member, Yale University. Board Member, New York Public Library. Survived by his wife, Eleanor Deering Phipps; his sons, Henry, William, Samuel, John, and Thomas Falkes; their wives and partners, Lea Abrams, Frances Gore, Andrew Lanahan, Katherine Ellway, and Caroline Steinway; and two granddaughters, Alice and Elizabeth Falkes. Funeral Friday, April 18, 11 a.m., St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street. No flowers. Donations in his name may be made to the Soup Kitchen, Holy Apostles Church.
“I see you’ve taken back your maiden name,” Harry commented when he read the notice. “Inspired by my daughters-in-law,” Eleanor said. “I’m giving it a trial. I always disliked the awkward alliteration of Eleanor Phipps Falkes. Like a rude limerick.” Harry stared at her. “We’re all Phipps Falkes,” he said. “Yes,” she said.
Eleanor bought the coffin she wanted from Herbert Brothers Funerals, a plain cedar box, lined in white linen. Will came along to close the deal. She liked that Herbert’s had the word “funerals” in their name and not “chapel,” but when the salesman pointed her toward their collection of Chinese ginger jars, sized perfectly for her “loved one’s cremains,” she almost bolted. Will put his hand on her arm, as if to say, “I’ll take care of this.” Herbert’s wanted to sell her one of their deluxe models, the Porsche of caskets, a spruce burl number, hand carved, silk-lined, and priced just below a Steinway grand. “It’s wrong for my husband,” Eleanor said. “He’d want something along the lines of a Jewish-type coffin, a simple wood box.” When the salesman demurred—“Your husband was such a distinguished man, so many important people will be attending the service”—Will took over. “If you don’t have what we want, Mr. Herbert, please tell us,” he said. “We’ll go somewhere else. This is tiring my mother out.” His voice was even, almost pleasant, no trace of annoyance or irritation creeping in. Rupert would have done exactly the same thing, Eleanor thought, but sooner and with an edge of menace.
The funeral at St. Thomas was longer than Eleanor would have liked, but she wanted music, Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor and, of course, “Jerusalem,” and she knew the partners and parishioners expected orations on Rupert’s passing, as they called it. Passing to what? she thought. Jim Cardozo showed up. Harry and Sam spoke, along with Rupert’s closest friend, Dominic Byrne, a Cambridge don, and his oldest friend, John Earlham, a cricket buddy from his first years in New York. She had told them all they could speak no more than seven minutes each—twice the length of the Gettysburg Address seemed a generous allotment—and they obliged. Harry spoke humorously about sailing with his father and grandfather. “Both wanted to captain. They had this unintentionally comical Alphonse/Gaston routine. Too polite to seize the wheel, each waited for the other to defer. Sometimes, I’d just take over,” he said. “Excessive good manners can provide an opening for a young brute.” Sam was the most affecting. He had come out to his dad when he was fourteen. They were walking to church. “I’m gay,” Sam had said, not looking at his father. “Yes,” said Rupert, nodding. They kept walking.
Among the mourners, the most visibly bereft were the old Maynard associates who believed he’d made them into lawyers. He was cremated, according to his wishes, and his ashes cast upon the waters of Long Island Sound.
Two months after the funeral, Eleanor decided to refurbish the apartment. She laundered all of Rupert’s clothes, then gave them away to Housing Works, along with his personal effects, except his watch, an antique Patek Philippe. None of the boys wanted her to sell it but none of them wanted to own it. “Too Dad,” Harry said. “Too East Coast lawyer,” Will said. “I’m not mature enough to wear it,” Sam said. “I’ll never be mature enough,” Jack said. “I have a Timex,” Tom said. They looked to their mother to decide. Eleanor shook her head. “I won’t play Solomon,” she said. Harry stepped up. “Sam should take it,” he said. “Yes, Sam should take it,” Tom said. Jack nodded. “Sam, by acclamation, then,” Will said. Sam took it home and put it in his top dresser drawer. Andrew eyed it.
Eleanor bought a new bed and new linens. She had the apartment professionally cleaned by a housekeeping service. It took a team of four three weeks to bring it up to her standards; she had them wash down all the walls and woodwork. She took the posters and paintings to be reframed and sent the furniture out to be reupholstered. She trashed the heavy silk curtains and put up museum shades. She bought a Christopher Farr rug for the living room and gave the old Persian, freshly steamed, to Tom, her sentimental child. The other Persians she had cleaned and put in storage. When she was finished, five months later, the apartment, like a great face-lift, looked the same but better. Every sign of Rupert, except for books and family photographs, had been purged. It smelled different.
Rupert’s will held no surprises. He left Eleanor his law firm pension and 401(k) plan. His investments, which were substantial, he left as a life interest to Eleanor and then in trust to “my sons or, if they do not survive me, their issue per stirpes.”
Six months after Rupert’s death, Eleanor received a letter from a woman living in Brooklyn.
October 8, 2000
Dear Mrs. Fawkes,
For some years, I had a relationship with your husband, Rupert Fawkes. We met in 1975 and had two children together, Hugh, 24, and Iain, 23. Rupert always said he would provide for them. I have advised them to contact a lawyer. As sons of your husband, they are entitled to their share of his estate.
Yours very truly,
The letter temporarily threw Eleanor off stride. She didn’t know what to think. After two days of mulling it over, she decided she couldn’t know. She knew that “laughing heirs” often appeared on the death of a rich and prominent man. If this Wolinski woman were a fraud, her army of Maynard lawyers would beat her back.
Shortly after hearing from Vera Wolinski, she received a letter from a lawyer in Brooklyn. He informed her he had filed a petition in Probate Court on behalf of his clients, “Hugh and Iain Wolinski Fawkes, the natural born sons of Rupert Fawkes.”
Rupert’s name did not appear on the birth certificates of the Wolinski boys. Nor had he acknowledged paternity. Vera said he had provided support of a thousand dollars a month for each boy and a thousand dollars for her until the younger one reached the age of twenty-three. Her account showed deposits for these funds but not from Rupert, not from anyone. The money, in a monthly lump sum of three thousand dollars, had been wired anonymously, directly into her account from a bank in the Caymans.
The only evidence Vera could produce was an old blurry sepia photograph of herself and a man in fisherman sandals, who might be Rupert, standing in front of Toffenetti Restaurant in Times Square. Vera had never told the boys who their father was until she told them to sue Rupert’s estate.
A hearing was set to review the claims. Harry and Will went with their mother. The Wolinski boys were blond and fair, as Rupert had been, as was their mother. A disquieting aspect for Eleanor was Hugh’s gait, which was like Rupert’s, at once languid and athletic. Both young men had graduated from the US Coast Guard Academy and were serving in the Coast Guard.
The case was reported in the Post and Eleanor’s friends rallied around her in indignation. Eleanor remained cool and steady. The more she thought about the Wolinskis’ claim, the more she thought it not impossible that Rupert had fathered these children. Vera’s misspelling of his last name, oddly, made the relationship more likely. So did the fisherman sandals, so un-Rupert but so English schoolboy. Then there were the boys’ very British names and the spelling of Iain.
Maynard’s lawyers swung into action, accusing the Wolinskis of fraud and threatening to countersue. They were ferocious in their attack, bombarding the petitioners with discovery requests for interrogatories, depositions, mental examinations, tangible evidence. Eleanor began to feel sorry for Vera. She was so dogged in her pursuit of what she considered her sons’ rightful inheritance. The young men were ready to withdraw. They found the experience humiliating. It was plain they were only doing it for their mother. Rupert’s sons would feel that way, Eleanor thought.
Eleanor’s sons were at first astonished, then bemused, then upset. They couldn’t believe their father could have had a mistress and a second family. He was so correct, so reserved, so devoted to them all. The money wasn’t an issue for them. They all had Phipps trust funds—Eleanor’s father had invested in McDonald’s too—and whether they got one-fifth or one-seventh of their father’s estate didn’t matter to any of them; there was enough money for a slew of heirs. The blow was to the family amour propre, their idea of the five brothers. They saw it too as a betrayal of their mother, except for Jack, who thought it was cool. “Who knew Dad was a Romeo?” Will punched him hard in the arm. “What was that for?” Jack said. “What did I say wrong?” Harry saw a resemblance to his father in the older boy, in his blondness and high coloring. Sam didn’t know what to think. “Could they be his?” he asked Harry. “I don’t know,” his older brother said. “They’re more like him than any of us. We’re a gaggle of mama’s boys.” He paused. “Maybe we’re not his, and they are. Kidding. Sort of.”
Vera asked for DNA testing. “Just give us a piece of his clothing, a sweater that hasn’t been cleaned, a coat he wore, and we’ll prove it,” Vera said. The Maynard lawyers were outraged the way only a Wall Street firm can be. There was no justification at all for this request, they argued. There was not one iota of proof of a relationship. Eleanor asked her oldest: “Should we give them some money? I feel like a bully, even though they could be complete frauds.”
“I’m not suggesting we oblige them,” Harry said, “but just out of curiosity: is there anything of Dad’s left to test?” He knew the answer. He had watched his mother, with awe and dismay, as she had obliterated all physical traces of his father from the apartment.
Eleanor shook her head.
The Surrogate denied the request. “I will not have the Falkeses’ apartment turned into a crime scene.”
Vera next asked for one of the sons to provide DNA.
The Maynard lawyers were dead against it, arguing once again with ringing indignation that there was no evidence, not one jot, to justify the request. Harry, the criminal lawyer, had an additional reason to turn them down—“You don’t want that information in the wrong hands. And there are no right hands”—but he held off a decision, asking Sam to do some research on the likelihood of a definitive result. A colleague at the hospital provided a short answer: “Without your father’s DNA, the results would be inconclusive: a matching Y-chromosome test would establish if the young men were half-siblings of the brother tested, but it would not establish your father’s paternity, only that of a ‘common ancestor.’” Jack—“Always Jack,” Will said—had been willing to give “bodily fluids” for a DNA test. “What the hell,” he’d said, “they sound like nice kids”—but he went along with his brothers when they insisted it would be insulting to their mother and the memory of their father to undergo a test that might impugn the integrity of their parents’ marriage.
“You realize, of course,” Sam said to Harry, “that none of us can prove that Dad was our biological dad.”
“Ah, the vexing problem of paternity,” Harry said, as if he were teaching a class. “It’s interesting what science has wrought.” Harry paused to collect his thoughts; Sam without sighing settled in for the tutorial. “It used to be that maternity was never in question and paternity always was.” Harry looked to see that Sam was listening. “Now paternity can be settled with DNA testing, if the dad is around, but maternity can’t. With mothers, DNA doesn’t get you to second base. Who’s the ‘real’ mother: the woman who provides the egg, the woman who gives birth, the woman who paid for the egg and ‘hired’ the surrogate, the wife of the sperm donor? Some very nice issues in family law.”
“God,” Sam said, “you lawyers are ruthless. These are people’s lives. I’ll bet DNA testing has blown a lot of marriages apart.”
“Wouldn’t you want to know if your children weren’t yours?” Harry asked.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Sam said. “Why would I want to break my heart? They’re here; they’re mine.”
“You’re not a father,” Harry said, “and you probably won’t be. You might think differently if you had children.”
The Surrogate denied the request: “Without the father’s DNA, there can be no conclusive results.”
Vera came back a third time, asking for Rupert’s blood type. It was a straw-grasp, a last gasp.
Harry and Sam took their mother to lunch. They talked genetics with her. Sam told her that a blood test might rule out Rupert as a father, but it could never establish paternity. Harry’s advice was to give it to them. “If we let them know his blood type, and there’s no possibility of a match, we might be able to get rid of them, once and for all. Anyway, hundreds of people already have access to that information.” Rupert, Eleanor, and the boys were all type O.
The Wolinskis gave a report of their blood types. Vera’s was A, Hugh was O, Iain was A. Against the advice of the Maynard lawyers, Harry, with his mother’s permission, released a medical report to the Wolinskis with his father’s blood type.
Vera asked the family doctor to analyze the results. He told her what any tenth-grade biology text would have told them: the results were inconclusive. At the next hearing, Vera turned on Eleanor. “You’ve cheated us,” she said. “Look at my boys. Anyone can see the resemblance. He’s their father.” Her sons folded her into their arms and took her home. On April 25, 2002, the Surrogate dismissed the Wolinskis’ petition, eighteen months after it was filed, two years after Rupert’s death. Mourning can resume, Eleanor thought.
Eleanor couldn’t put the Wolinskis out of her mind. She brought the subject up with Harry two months later over lunch at Café Luxembourg.
“I feel I should do something for them,” she said to him. “What do you think?”
“Do you know something?” he asked. “Something you’re not telling us?”
“I don’t know if your father is their father, if that’s your question, but I think there was some link between him and Vera Wolinski.” She paused. “I can’t figure it out.”
Harry looked more alert. “Is that why you stripped the apartment?” he asked. It was still a raw subject for all the boys, though they hadn’t been altogether surprised. With the Phippses, mourning was purging.
“No,” Eleanor replied, a hint of irritation in her voice. “I didn’t know about them.”
“Why weren’t they in the will?” Harry asked. “Wouldn’t Dad have looked out for them in some way if he had wanted to? A trust, a permanent Cayman account? He’d have known how.”
“Yes, yes, if he had wanted to, but he didn’t.” She stopped. “I don’t understand,” Harry said. “Don’t you see,” Eleanor said. “The Wolinskis’ claim makes no sense unless it’s true. Why would Ms. Wolinski pick him as the father? How would she have settled on him unless she knew him? She’s not a scam artist.”
“How could he have abandoned them?” Harry asked. “He was an orphan. How could he leave them fatherless?”
“That makes it more likely, don’t you see?” Eleanor said, wondering at Harry’s slowness. He was usually so quick to see things. “Dad gave them a mother and provided her with the wherewithal to stick around and raise them. I don’t think he ever thought of himself as fatherless, only motherless. All his life, men have looked out for him. Reverend Falkes. Dean Rostow. Granddad.”
Harry thought about this. “But why should he leave us so much? We have so much. They have nothing.”
“Not nothing. No inheritance. Whoever paid the support cut it off when the younger son turned twenty-three. He launched them. That seems like something Dad might do.”
Harry looked sharply at his mother. For the first time in his life, he saw her as a person, and not his overly fond mother. He found himself growing angry.
“You didn’t know about them until they appeared, is that right?” he asked.
“The Wolinskis? No.” “You’ve been thinking about this for a while, is that true?”
“You believe her, don’t you?” He was the lawyer now, cross-examining a hostile witness.
“No,” she said. “Maybe. Vera knew your father. He’s the man in the photo.” Eleanor cleared her throat.
Harry sat quietly for a few moments.
“Dad was a bigamist. Our family life was a lie,” he said. He turned on his mother. “Two years, two children. You had to . . .” He stopped.
Author Photo: © Nina Subin