Screening History


Did my mother play bridge, bake pies in the kitchen, and perhaps drink too much of the cooking sherry? On the contrary, she was a flapper very like her coeval Tallulah Bankhead. In appearance she was a composite of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. She never baked a pie, but she did manage to drink, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of the Chesapeake Bay in vodka. She married and divorced not only my famous father but a rich stockbroker, whom she then abandoned for a famous Air Force general, who promptly died. Meanwhile, the stockbroker married a woman whose daughter married a man who was elected President only to have his head shot off as the two of them were driving through Dallas on a hot November day. What is one to do, fictionally, with a family that has itself become a pervasive fiction that continues to divert the Agora?

I tried, once, to deal with my early days in a novel with no particular key but a number of what I still think to be cunning locks. It was called Washington, D.C. I centered my narrative on the two houses where I grew up: that of Senator Gore in Rock Creek Park—now, significantly, the Malaysian Embassy—and that of my stepfather, the illnamed Merrywood, high above the Potomac River on the road to Manassas. Each house represented a different world that I must either master or be mastered by, the common doom of most children of Agora-noted families. All in all, I fancied this book. I was there and not there in the text. I had revealed and not revealed my peculiar family. I had also, without intending to, started on a history of the American Republic as experienced by one family and its emblematic connection to Aaron Burr.

During the next quarter century I re-dreamed the Republic’s history, which I have always regarded as a family affair. But what was I to do with characters that were—are—not only famous but even preposterous? Should I capture my family upon the page, the result is like a bad movie—or, worse, a good one. I never again used my own family as the stuff of fiction.

It is possible that even when working from memory, I saw the world in movie terms, as who did not, or, indeed, who does not? So let us examine the way in which one’s perceptions of history were—and are—dominated by illustrated fictions of great power, particularly those screened in childhood.

Although most of the movie palaces of my Washington youth no longer exist, I can still see and smell them in memory. There was Keith’s, across from the Treasury, a former vaudeville house where Woodrow Wilson used to go. Architecturally Keith’s was a bit too classically spacious for my taste. Also, the movies shown there tended to be more stately than the ones to be seen around the corner on Fourteenth Street. Of course, no movie was ever truly dull, even the foreign ones shown at the Belasco in Lafayette Park.

It was at the Belasco that I first saw myself screened, in a Pathé newsreel when, at the age of ten, I took off and landed a plane. As Roosevelt’s director of Air Commerce, my father was eager to popularize a cheap, private plane that was, if not foolproof, childproof. Though he had grasped the silliness of cellophane, he seriously believed that since almost everyone could now afford a car, so almost everyone should be able to afford a plane. He dedicated years of his life to putting a cheap plane in every garage. Thanks to his dream, I too was famous for a summer.

Today anyone’s life can be filmed from birth to death, thanks to the video camera. But for my generation there was no such immortality unless one was a movie star or a personage in the newsreels. Briefly I was a newsreel personage. But what I really wanted to be was a movie star. Specifically I wanted to be Mickey Rooney. And to play Puck, as he had done in A Midsummer Night’s Dream .

Last year I watched my famous flight for the first time since 1936. I am now old enough to be my father’s father. He looks like a movie star. I don’t. I am small, blond, with a retroussé nose as yet unfurled in all its Roman glory. I am to fly the plane, and a newsreel crew is on hand to record the event. My father was a master salesman. “This is your big chance to be a movie star,” he said. “All you have to do is remember to take off into the wind.” As I have flown the plane before, I am unafraid. I swagger down the runway, crawl into the plane, and pretend to listen to my father’s instructions. But my eyes are not on him; they are on the cobra-camera’s magic lens. Then I take the plane off; land with a bump; open the door, and face my interviewer.

“What fools these mortals be.” Mickey’s speech, as Puck, is sounding in my ears as I start to speak but cannot speak. I stare dumbly at the camera. My father fills in; then he turns to me. He cues me. What was it like, flying the plane? I remembered the answer that he wanted me to make: It was as easy as riding a bicycle. But, I had argued, it was a lot more complicated than riding a bicycle. Anyway, I was trapped in the wrong script. I said the line. Then I made a face to show my disapproval, and for an instant I resembled not Mickey Rooney but Peter Lorre in M . My screen test had failed.