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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Rumor, Innuendo, and Tall Tales–Why We Like To Improve On The Facts

It was well known that Mr. Stillwell, the Headmaster at the Lefferts School had a dog’s jaw.  He had his own jaw shot off in the war, and the field medical unit had the presence of mind and the skill to sacrifice Jeff, Charlie Company’s mascot and mine sniffer German Shepherd, and do quick reconstructive surgery. He was immediately evacuated to King’s Hospital, Margate, where he would be further operated on. The surgeons, however, were surprised to see that Jeff’s jaw had knit almost perfectly.  Apparently Stillwell’s musculature, tendons, and ligaments had miraculously survived the Nazi mortar round.  The shard of hot steel had shattered his lower jaw completely, but somehow he was left with a lot of wet, dangling, but still useful flesh.  The surgeons decided to leave well enough alone.

Other rumors floated about the school.  Yes, the Headmaster had been severely wounded in the war, but he lost something far more important than his jaw.  A grainy WWII photograph showed a soldier who could have been Stillwell standing at attention while Omar Bradley pinned a medal of valor on his chest.

So the part about a war wound looked to be true, but the more important question – whether or not he got his balls shot off – went unanswered. “His pants are too baggy”, said Herbie Franks. “Could be anything or nothing under there”.

The story persisted because he had no children,and no one had ever seen him in a bathing suit at the annual Welcome Week Swim in the Farmington River; so poor Harvey Stillwell made his rounds about campus, greeted us as we filed into chapel, met our parents, and cheered on the football team on against Choate, while all any of us could think of was his dog’s jaw and empty Jockey shorts.

Twenty-five years later, the school produced a special edition of the Alumni Magazine featuring and honoring Harvey Stillwell for his long and dedicated service.  Every one of us, by then in our 40s, all quickly turned to the article to see if there was anything at all that would give away his secrets and confirm or dispel the rumors that had persisted.

Beginnings” was the title of the first chapter of the long article on the Headmaster’s life, accompanied by a formal family photo of him and his five brothers taken in Brent Hollow, Kentucky.  Lo and behold, all six boys had dog-looking jaws – narrow, under-slung, and weak-looking. So either Harvey simply inherited that simpleton look from his father who in the picture smiled a big toothless smile, or the story of the German mortar and the jaw of Jeff, the German Shepherd was true.

It was rumored around New Brighton that Father O’Malley, the senior priest at St. Mary’s  Church committed unspeakable acts with altar boys in the vestry. One story had it that Billy Finn was servicing the good father when a parishioner came in unannounced.  Father O’Malley with great aplomb simply lowered his cassock over the boy and hissed, “If you move, I’ll crucify you”. Although Billy Finn was a very prayerful boy, said his prayers three times a day, and kneeled at the altar for every Sunday Mass, on his knees on the hard, cold floor of the vestry was purgatory.  Mrs. Connor, one of the most generous contributors to the church’s Annual Fund went on and on about the new steeple and petunias, and Billy must have felt that his knees were going to crack and give way.

The story could have been true, and gained in currency as time went by and the buggery scandals of the Catholic Church came to light. Billy Finn turned out to be a flaming fag, the Queen of the Castro, but he insisted that the story of Father O’Malley and the cassock was not true at all.  “It could have been”, Billy said.  “I just never got the chance”.

Lucinda and Edmond Wharton lived in one of the grandest Victorian homes in New Brighton.  The city had been an industrial capital of the United States before the Civil War, and when hostilities broke out, provided arms and materiel to the Union armies.  The Wharton family had benefitted mightily from the city’s industrial might and they, along with the Porters, Browns, Lighters, and Furloughs had built magnificent stone castles along Elm Street.

The Wharton Home – The Boughs – was the most impressive of the lot.  It had three stories, four turrets, convex windows, oak, hand-carved doors with Revolutionary War fittings, and walls covered with ivy and wisteria.  Inside its most memorable features were a grand mahogany staircase which curved gracefully to the first floor, a narrower one that wound in sharper angle up to the children’s bedrooms, and a third one, narrower and steeper than the first two that climbed to the highest turret where Edmond had his study.

Mrs. Wharton loved the house, especially the staircase, and was known for her grand descents.  She thought of herself as a Northern Scarlett O’Hara, dressed in frilly layered white low-cut long dresses, and when the appeared on the first floor landing, backlit by the largest window in the house which gave onto the spacious lawns and gardens to the south, all her guests lifted their heads, smiled graciously, and toasted her.

Lucinda Wharton, it was rumored, hated her husband – a drunken ne’er-do-well who was running through the family fortune at a clip which would bankrupt them in ten years.  Their spats at the country club were famous, and this well-bred, Yankee aristocrat became better known for her gutter tongue and vile, hateful, attacks on her husband than for her grace and elegance.  Ironically she was even more sought after in society because of this strange and contradictory character.

So when  Edmond Wharton was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of The Boughs, everyone in New Brighton assumed that his wife had pushed him.  In fact shortly before the ‘accident’, she had moved a Victorian replica bust of Julius Caesar from its place by the front door to the bottom of the stairs.  Lucinda had told friends that she liked to look at The Emperor as she descended the staircase.  “It makes me feel more regal”, she said.  A companion piece – a 19th century Venetian porcelain vase set on a marble pedestal – was placed on the other side of the stairs.  If the fall down three flights of stairs didn’t kill the old bastard, then he was sure to crack his skull on either Julius or the Italian marble.

Rumor had it that as Edmond lay bleeding and dying on the floor, Lucinda stood over him and shouted, “Die, you son-of-a-bitch, die!” Apparently the Irish scullery maid who had come unexpectedly from her rooms into the kitchen heard her master come tumbling down three flight and crash into the Roman bust.  She also heard her mistress yell curses over his grotesquely twisted body.

The police inquiry found no wrongdoing, and exonerated Mrs. Wharton completely.  According to their investigation, Edmond Wharton was simply blind drunk, staggered out of his third floor study, tripped on the Persian carpet and fell to his death.  Mrs. McCarthy, the Irish maid was nowhere to be found, and rumor had it that she had gone back to County Cork out of fear for her life.  The ‘Die, you son-of-a-bitch’ rumor could, therefore not be proven, and the only reason it had staying power was because she supposedly confided it to her cousin, Maeve, on Pier 52 on New York Harbor before settling in to steerage class on the Queen Mary bound for London.

New Brighton was a multi-ethnic city.  In the late Fifties there were Poles, Italians, Irish, and Jews; and for the most part they led separate lives.  My mother always defined people and their actions according to race and nationality, and she bought into rumors and innuendo if they fit the proper stereotypes.

When Billy Brophy had his gut slit at O’Reilly’s Bar and Grill on Arch Street, my mother said, “Dumb Mick got what was coming to him”.  All Irish were drunken brawlers who couldn’t keep their hands and fists to themselves.  In fact, poor Billy Brophy was an innocent bystander who was having a boilermaker at the bar when Seamus O’Toole pulled a blade on Mickey Walsh because he was fucking his wife, or so he thought; but because Seamus was so drunk, he slashed Billy Brophy instead and disemboweled him like a Samurai.

My mother never believed it.  Anyone who was drinking boilermakers at 5pm must have been up to no good.  He deserved to get slashed.

When Abe Bernstein got indicted for embezzlement – stealing company funds from Katz Furriers – my mother said, “The Hebes can’t keep their hands off other people’s money”.  The story went that Bernstein liked to play the ponies at Hialeah and had run up big debts because of his losses at the track and his high-living on Collins Avenue.  He was seen squiring glitzy blondes at the Fontainebleau and buying them expensive jewelry at Finkel’s On The Beach.

The story was entirely untrue.  Abe Bernstein was an observant Jew who went to temple every week, had Seder with his family, and with his meager savings sponsored poor children from Hartford to go to summer camp.  The real felon was Abe Berkowitz, a smarmy low-life and the brother-in-law of Sidney Katz, the owner of the store.  He was the one who robbed the till, spent it on chippies and expensive booze in Florida, and when the FBI was on to him, stole a speedboat and tried to get to Cuba.

“Bernstein, Berkowitz, what’s the difference?”, my mother said. “Either one could have done it. “

The point is that we prefer fiction to fact, fantasy to reality, rumor and innuendo to truth. Gullibility is everywhere, not just in New Brighton, Connecticut.  Conspiracy theories abound.  I have heard stories that the Russians are behind the fluoridation of American water supplies because it is known to addle the brain and weaken resolve.  Not only was President Obama born in Kenya, but he is a reincarnated Mau-Mau with a virulent hatred of the white man.  The Trilateral Commission and its Jewish claques have secretly taken control of Apple and Samsung and are controlling the brainwaves of cellphone users from Maine to California.  The Twin Towers were taken down by Muslim dupes hired by the Clintons, and Robert Kennedy was assassinated by jealous Mafia lovers of Marilyn Monroe.

Of course these stories could be true, but they are not; and yet they persist with such a life of their own that they grow in credibility every year.  Once one crosses the line and believes in one cockamamie conspiracy theory, it becomes easier and easier to believe in a second and a third. The Internet and social media are ideal breeding grounds for illogic, and conspiratorial insanity.

One theory is that most people are too intellectually lazy and indifferent to sift through the facts and come up with logical conclusions whether about Lucinda Wharton and Billy Finn or Obama and the Mau-Mau.  Another is that the socially and economically marginalized are predisposed to believe in cabals, secret societies, and evil international organizations. 

The most compelling reason is none of the above.  It is because fiction, fantasy, tall stories, and rumors are far more interesting than reality.  What fun is it to accept without question that Headmaster Stillwell came from a long line of weak-jawed, under-slung hillbillies? Much better to believe that he had a battlefield transplant from a German Shepherd.  Of course Lucinda Wharton elbowed her tipsy husband down three flights of stairs and stood over him like an Indian ready to scalp him and take possession of his soul. It is no surprise that ‘Hollywood’ is the nom de guerre of America.

For all the power and influence of Wall Street, Exxon Mobil, and the United States Army, Hollywood – dream-maker, spinner of tall tales and fantasy, a place where anything and everything is possible – is our heart and soul.

Virtual reality already has blurred the real with the fantasy; and soon it will be impossible to tell the difference.  The thing of it all is that we don’t care.  A virtual world of our own making, the stuff of dreams and personal desires, is what we have always wanted and aspired to.

There was a story in the New Brighton Herald about Stash Zinski, a Polish carpenter not long in this country, who had choked on a piece of kielbasa and died.  “Typical”, said my mother. “Do you know that Mister Stanley Zinksi was a member of the Cracow underground and he was murdered by Soviet agents?”. 

“Stop right there”, I replied. “Let’s eat.”

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