When In Rome
I was chatting with my friend Anne today. I am always so pleased to catch up with her. We have been friends for years like, twenty-five years I think. We are very sympathetic. We understand one another. We met back in the 1980’s working for a now defunct major retailer of antique reproductions. I am always struck by her correctness and carriage. She has the discipline. Except for the slightest thickening in the waist, she still enjoys the figure she sported in bikinis at that time.
Anne and I are realists. We speak very bluntly. Anne and I have similar antecedents, although her immediate are a bit grander than mine at the present. You know coats of arms hanging on the gate clanking in the wind, which is very appropriate as both our families have had a glorious past, shaky present and uncertain future. I know that the glory days are probably behind me. As another good friend in Cartersville once said to me, “Michael, you and I are members of the best this area has to offer and no one knows this because we are dead or dying out!” When my sister, Michele and I were little and Mother was still giving teas we were instructed: “If anyone asks if you are related to those Biddys in Cartersville, you are to say NO!” Michele and I had such a limited knowledge of Daddy’s family beyond a few Aunts and Uncles we adored, that we found it great fun to answer yes to the astonished questioners. We were related to those Cartersville Biddys! Being raised as young ladies and gentleman, doesn’t that sound archaic now, our answers were not held against us. Well my friend Anne was of this and so much more.
She was an equestrian. She attended the best private schools and her older brother held dances in his ballroom. Her Mother and Daddy had remarried in their forties and had Anne very un-expectantly. They divorced when she was seven and she was raised primarily by her Mother and her older half siblings. Parties and ponies and balls were a large part of her early years. Her Mother, Big Momma’s first husbands family had brought motion pictures to northwest Georgia and Tennessee. It was a glamorous time for her seeing all the autographed photos from various premieres and attending some herself when a pre teen in New York . Her half-brother, Lionel, was heir apparent to this movie empire.
Lionel moved in with his Grandfather when he was eight. Grandfather had been a part of this Theater building with his Father. Lionel had/ has a sixth sense about who is who and what is what and even at this young age knew his place was in his Grandfather’s house. Lionel, Big Momma, Anne’s Mother, also knew this. He sat at his grandfather’s table and learned everything he needed to know to be a favorite. That big house with the ballroom was where Lionel was destined to be. He learned all the intrigue and politics of the business. He learned who was who and what was what, both in the movie industry and the family itself. Lionel was beautifully mannered, well spoken and charmed almost everyone he met, especially widowed lonely Grandfather. Grandfather had one spinster daughter that also lived in that grand house, but she was forever worried about his drinking, his cigars, his monthly card game and the young lady that came twice a week to teach Lionel piano.
When the time came , after much fighting and sibling rivalry among Grandfather’s children, Lionel inherited the controlling interest in the family firm and the house with the fabled ballroom. There was a great deal of hatred and jealousy toward him. Anne told me he gained complete control in the late sixties and as we all know things were changing then, especially with the movies. It was difficult to remain profitable. The movie industry had been in flux for some time. At one time there had been a large income to divide among the various family members, but this was beginning to diminish. There wasn’t a lot of money left. Someone would have to get a job.
When I met Anne in the early 1980’s, the firm was gone. Lionel had used his sensibilities and taste tp start a highly successful interior design business. The family that remained were bitter. They had brought a multi million dollar law suit against Lionel for embezzlement of company funds. They were suffering in their diminshed lifestyles. He was enjoying what he does best, creating the most tasteful environments for clients to enjoy. He wasn’t happier. The 1980’s was a very excessive period. It was always some corporate buyout and leveraging some business for personal gain. The drama has always high. I always thought of Dynasty when Anne would tell me the latest saga in her brother’s life. The latest motion filed and the cocaine addicted attorneys that Lionel was being duped by. Anne was always immaculately turned out and so correct. We would “slum”and drink Perrier Jouet from the bottle. She was glamorous, still is. Nothing could possibly go wrong for them. You must imagine my surprise in the early 1990’s when her brother was convicted and sent to prison.
We were living together at the time. She was staying in the spare bedroom of my townhouse. She was between houses and an evening turned into a little more than a year. It was a life change for her. Her life somehow reflected her brother’s. I didn’t understand it then, but now I do.
Anne corresponded with Lionel religiously. He was in a maximum security prison. I could not imagine what he was experiencing. I had met him only once when he was liquidating the family house with the ballroom. Anne in her degage’ way had mentioned going to visit him. When we pulled into the back garden there was a frenzy of activity. Sugar Blond society matrons, extra men and hispanic servants were dispensing with generations of accumulation. I could not believe the beauty and decadence of what I was witnessing. These epic rooms were mostly stripped but all in some form of dishabille were like a movie set. The front hall with its seeming miles of hand blocked wallpaper from France to the storied ballroom with photographs of Lionel and his Mother in formal wear still displayed on the Louis XV plat desk. I always thought of Lionel as blond, slim and tall; he was actually very small. He was somewhat round, balding and bespectacled. He did have a sexy mischievous way about him though and I certainly fell for his charm. “Anne tells me you like books. Go upstairs and take whatever you like”, he said this with a twinkle in his eye. Anne said let’s see what you want. Somehow in this tragedy he could still make me feel like an important guest. Anne and I went up this grand staircase into an equally epic master bedroom. He had a beveled plated glass mirror behind the chinoiserie upholstered headboard. It was at least 12 feet tall. The books in the magnificent built-in were 1920’s -1940’s vintage mostly. Leather bound histories, Biographies, and Harvard classics. We loaded about 150 of them into my car and followed Lionel and his best friend Paul to Big Momma’s house.
Once we were there we all came into the living room. Big Momma began to ask questions of Lionel, like did you get what you wanted and did anyone come by while you were emptying out the house. As I sat there I realized he had left a King’s ransom in antiques to be confiscated. The sheriff was coming to seize the contents the next day. All the China we had tossed onto the floor boards of our cars had been Limoges, Royal Crown Derby, Cartier, etc. I was struck by the comme il faut nature of it all. No pity. No accusations. This is the way we live now, so to speak.
Anne shared with me some of the stories of Lionel’s incarceration. The ladies that made the pilgrimage to get their Pratt and Lambert colours approved through a bullet proof glass. The interpretation skills of Lionel in negotiating for the hispanic prisoners. His joie de vivre in spite of it all. He was/ is an inspiration to me.
Now, many years later , that he has been released and is more succesful than ever, even in this economy. He and Anne have never let the flag droop, but less waver(Paris Hiltons of the world take notice) and still run the most chic residence in Northwest Georgia. When Big Momma died a few years ago 300 people showed up to give condolence, but mostly to see their fabled house. I always say I am talented but Anne and Lionel have the last word.