Who were these kids? They were children of the captains of industry and matrons of the social register. Many were descendants of the founders of some of the largest companies in the American industrial complex. Others were children of the most prominent and blue blooded among us, descending from international royalty, both real and political. They were descendants of the famous and infamous characters found in every book on American history. They were my first playmates and yet, I felt a strong sense of “otherness” even so.
My first playmate was a boy descended from British political royalty whose well known parents indulged him with the toy box of all toy boxes. At the age of four, he rode a mechanical “pony drawn” pedal carriage whose “pony” was covered in real animal skin with horsehair mane and tail. The carriage itself was made of the finest materials, wood, leather and gleaming metal and even came with a child-size crop to complete the picture. In his back yard he had a toy castle with turrets and even a second floor! But best of all was his bedroom, festooned with trophies his father had brought back from his various hunting safaris in Africa. There were multiple big cat pelts on his floor with their heads still attached, jaws open in a permanent expression of fierceness. Elephant tusks jutted from the walls and there was an impossibly large Steiff stuffed giraffe which towered to the height of the grownups.
My little friend’s paternal grandmother lived across the street in a home on the the oceanfront. The area by the pool was so iconically beautiful, its inhabitants so physically attractive, that a well known photograph of the famous daugher-in law and my play pal reappeared recently, some fifty years later, in a national magazine I found myself flipping through. Mother and son are pictured in the foreground, the pool and ocean beyond a sparkling blue. A round white stone gazebo sits at the back lending a formal air. I remember being invited for luncheon to this very place, on the long covered patio overlooking the pool. It was a cloudless day, the tropical sun dropping harshly on every surface. We sat at the table, shaded by the portico overhead and squinting out over the impossibly bright scenery before us. As we sat quietly, our hands folded in our laps, the butler filled our bowls one at a time, wordlessly and expertly, not a drop falling on the tablecloth beneath. It was the first time I’d ever had oyster stew. I remember my surprise as I lifted my spoon, unsure of this strange cream colored concoction in my bowl, but certain I could not dare refuse it. To my delight and relief, the stew was unspeakably delicious. My young friend and I ate beside our governesses, with the elegant elderly woman presiding. To me, it felt as if we had been given an audience with the queen herself.
Luncheon proceeded and ended with little conversation and no misbehavior, as was expected.
When the grandmother retired to the house, we were stayed and swam, as we often did together. The pool was pumped full with salt water directly from the sea beyond. The sea water burned our eyes and if we swallowed it accidentally, as kids do- it burned our throats too. He was a handsome boy, with blue eyes and blond hair and a courtly manner, if that is possible to say of a four year old. He was always very sweet natured, and treated me with a kind of deference which is rare among small children. He was always happy to share his toys and seemed to think I was his “girlfriend”, sending me several notes- my first valentines- and a get well card, all hand drawn. No doubt these were orchestrated by his governess.
As the years progressed, we lost contact. We had only been together as our governess looked for activities for us as very young children, but I always remembered him fondly. On a visit home in my early twenties, I picked him up hitchhiking along County Road. I recognized him immediately. Although it had been years, here he was, a bit of a blond beard coming in, longish sandy hair and the baby fat gone, but I knew it was him! He had become a very handsome counterpart to his childhood self. Filled with excitement and warm memories, I declared who I was immediately. His response was lacking in recognition or even any curiosity on the subject. He did not remember me. I can’t say I was devastated, but it seemed so sad, somehow, that I’d had such fond memories of one who had so clearly forgotten me.
During that same period, there was a governess that had befriended Greg, who brought her charge on a more or less regular basis to our house. The governess was concerned for the infant’s health, and brought him over in order to feed him, as the child was sickly and she felt he was not getting enough nourishment at home. His parents were part of the upper crust as well, but seemed to have no real attachment to their boy. As the years went on, I became friends with him as a teen. On visits to his house, I saw the abuse he suffered at the hands of parents who so egregiously abused him as to put a chain around the refrigerator so that he could not go into it to fix himself a snack if he were hungry. In a place like Palm Beach, this might have been seen as a total fabrication if the story had come from him, but I witnessed it with my own eyes. These heartless parents relegated their own son to a makeshift bedroom in the basement of the house, while his cousin was given a lovely room upstairs with the rest of the family. Often, while his siblings and a cousin enjoyed steak upstairs for dinner, he was given a hot dog or some such thing for dinner. It was something not much short of a truly abusive situation, which I have no doubt was worse when there was no one to witness the goings on. He was the natural son of those two parents, but the cousin had lost his own parents, and had come into a large inheritance. For this reason, it was he who enjoyed the full love and concern of the people in that house, while my friend languished, essentially unloved and alone in this land of plenty. This boy, my friend, was different. He was a mere shadow of a teen, with a long shock of blond hair which flopped over one eye, and long bony fingers on large hands which flew over the keys on our piano, a favorite place for him when he visited. He was part of a small coterie of friends who used to come over and hang out in our pool house. We were all outcasts of one sort or another in the sense that none of us were a part of larger Palm Beach social scene. Our group consisted of a couple of jewish kids, this boy and me. He was self taught on the piano, and composed strange and melancholy melodies which we all enjoyed. He had a black sense of humor, which we understood on some level or another to be an expression of his life at home, and we included him, always aware that he needed us and this respite from his own house. And we enjoyed his company. He was vey bright, and always in good spirits, despite his situation, and we admired his strange brand of bravery in the face of truly evil circumstances.
Once, he invited me to be his date for his school prom. He had asked his mother for permission and she had consented for him to go. As the time approached, however, his mother refused to help him rent the tuxedo he would need, and the date was off. I remember his bitter disappointment and the concomitant offering of black humor on the subject, but I knew he was stung. This boy had managed to scrape together enough money to buy her a box of chocolates for her birthday that year. It was returned to him in the form of his only Christmas gift in December. He painted his bedroom black, and showed it to me with much pride. I saw it as a wry commentary to his life at as it was.
Another friend, whose name I must also keep to myself, lived on the ocean side of the island in a house which was set right next door to the one her parents lived in. She resided there with her brother and the governess, living entirely separately from her parents. I remember going with her for dinner to her parents house. In the interest of truthfulness, I cannot recall if they ate dinner together every day, or whether it was a more occasional thing, but I do remember the dinner as a very formal affair, with the butler serving, and no merrymaking at the table. The thing I remember most about this dinner was the butler, who had a wooden leg. He would sit and unstrap the leg in between courses, laying the prosthetic beside himself at the chair near the kitchen door, where he waited at the ready, to strap it on again and continue service. He had a perfect name for a butler, something akin to the ubiquitous “Jeeves”, and I remember feeling sorry for him, as his leg so obviously pained him.
At the vast estate of another of my youngest playmates, the father, one of the great captains of industry, liked to relax in the pool on a large float while the governesses watched over the rambunctious children and their goings on. A butler ran to and fro, bringing him tea sandwiches as he called for them. Carefully, he would removing the crusts and toss them behind him directly into the pool water for someone else to scoop out when he was done. We children could not have known how drunk he was, but years later, it was a story Greg told me, marveling at the dissolution of such a great man.
These were just a few of the children and their circumstances that I came to know back then. As an adult, I am able to see why junior high school might have been as painful as it was for me. The horribly skewed value systems, the abundance of money combined with a dearth of parental emotional involvement made them who they were. I know how it affected me. Although I knew these kids as friends, they were just the tip of what must have been an enormous iceberg of disfunction. These things were no doubt the catalyst for what was a not always the idyllic childhood it might have seemed to those outside the manicured estates of my home town.