Eve Pell’s blue-blooded mother had a saying about their family: “We are not the huggy-kissy type.”
Call that an understatement. In Pell’s riveting new memoir We Used to Own the
This was a family who thought men were better than women, horses better than dogs, and Harvard better than anything. Marriage counted for little – Pell’s family is filled with people who had two, three, and even four spouses. The number wasn’t important, as long as they belonged to the same elite WASP world of the Pells. “I come from a family in love with itself,” writes Pell in the opening line of her book.
The family fortune started with the arrival of Thomas Pell from
Pell, now 71 and living in
A few cousins, however, betrayed their roots. Claiborne Pell became a senator from
This world of the upper class WASP elite is now losing its firm grip on American culture, and Pell does a wonderful job recreating its social morays. She takes readers on a journey from that cloistered environment into the world of radical politics and hard-hitting reporting, and we see her transformation from meek child nicknamed Topsy to dutiful wife and mother, to 1960s revolutionary, respected journalist, and world-class runner. Equally fascinating as her childhood is Pell’s description of the prisoner/revolutionary George Jackson and the
Pell will be talking at Book Passage at 7 p.m. Wednesday March 11 and at Books, Inc in
How and why did you decide to write a memoir? Your book takes a critical look at upper class life with its emphasis on looks, club life, and social order at all cost. How did you family react to these revelations? Do any of them still embrace the lifestyle you lived as a child?
First off, I am a writer and that's what we do. I've been keeping notes about my family for 30 years or more--conversations, scenes, feelings.... Members of my family reacted very differently while I was working on the book: some were sympathetic and supportive. My Aunt Goody, for example, told me many stories and years before had started writing a critical book with the great title "The Sting of the Wasp" (which was never published). My father, on the other hand, hated my attitudes and though he did not live to see the book published or even read it, he didn't speak to me for years and, though he didn't tell me about it, disinherited me for writing about the family and its values.
Some of my relatives share my feelings; others, I suspect, feel that I have revealed too much-- but in good WASP style they button their lips....None of them can afford that lifestyle any more and they all pretty much have to WORK, shocking as that may be.
How did you research this book? How did you uncover new information about your family, such as the shocking news that one of your forbearers actually held a job and made a fortune in the grubby oil fields of
For many years, I went to libraries from
Do you feel you have overcome the difficulties of your childhood? And now that you are a grandmother and have greater distance, do you think it gave you some strength you might not otherwise have?
I am definitely happier and more comfortable in my own skin than when I was younger, but getting there has taken a lot of work and has been a long process. I did learn something about grit and determination along with pretty good manners, which have helped along the way
When you went to raise your children, how did you do it differently from your own upbringing?
I did not hire full-time nurses, I made their breakfasts and drove car pools. I didn't send them away to boarding school. But I know they have had to cope with fallout from my mothering style, which was not as warm and kind as I wish it had been. We have talked about this, and I'm touched by how willing they are to forgive my mistakes.
In We Used to Own the
Mostly, no. Doing so would have called into question their whole lives. But when my mother got dementia in her old age, she would ask me quite anxiously over and over whether I had had a good childhood. Seeing no point in telling her the truth at that stage of her life, I assured her that it had all been fine.
How has your family reacted to the book’s publication?
It's just out. I guess I'll find out soon. So far so good.
Do you think the wealthy have evolved at all in the
I don't know so many rich people any more, can't say.
Why do you think you became so attracted and interested in the movement to free African American prisoners? Did you trade one set of rules for another?
First, let me rephrase your question. It was not a movement to free African-American inmates but rather to end some of the cruel, racist and violent practices in the
Are they any aspects of your life you wish you had handled differently?