Monday, March 09, 2009

Eve Pell -- Blue Blood, Revolutionary, Reporter

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 Bronx, she exposes an upper class world that put more emphasis on pedigree, pecking order, club membership, and the right way to do things than loving and understanding one’s children. Distance and criticism were the tools with which Pell was raised, not encouragement and affection.

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 England in 1635. He made a small fortune trading furs, married well (thus setting an important precedent) and amassed thousands of acres of land in what is now Westchester County and the Bronx. Pell cemented his family’s place as true-blooded American aristocrats when New York’s colonial governor conferred on him the “Lordship and Manner” of Pelham. His nephew later sold some of the land to a group that founded the city of New Rochelle, which is still obligated to provide the Pells with one “fatt calfe” every four years.

Pell, now 71 and living in San Francisco, grew up as an honored member of the East Coast elite. Many of her relatives occupied huge mansions in the gated and exclusive gated community of Tuxedo Park, N.Y. Her mother and stepfather owned huge farms stocked with thoroughbred horses on Long Island and in Pennsylvania. Her grandmother has a massive apartment on the upper East side of Manhattan. Pell men were all members of the best (read no Jews, no blacks, no merely rich) social clubs like the Racquet and Tennis Club of New York. Pell children populated the debutante dances. Appearance counted for everything, creating a world which Pell describes as “seductive and crippling.”

A few cousins, however, betrayed their roots. Claiborne Pell became a senator from Rhode Island (shocking the family by both holding a regular job and entering the dirty world of politics). He is best known for getting Congress to set up Pell grants, which loan money to college students. Pell herself became a prison reform activist and an award-winning investigative reporter.

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 Berkeley lawyer who once defended him, Fay Stender.

Pell will be talking at Book Passage at 7 p.m. Wednesday March 11 and at Books, Inc in Opera Plaza at 7 p.m. on March 20. She answered a few questions about the writing of We Used to Own the Bronx:

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 California? What kind of documentation did you find?

For many years, I went to libraries from Boston to San Francisco seeking out genealogical and historical material. I interviewed those relatives and family friends who would talk, but not quickly enough as some died before I got to them. I visited places like Fort Ticonderoga, which we once owned, where there are stashes of Pell material, as well as Pelham, New York, which we also once owned. FDR's library had a lot about my Great-uncle Bertie. Claiborne, the long-time senator who is responsible for Pell grants, was a huge help. I found out about Mr. Tilford's pre-robber baron career by going to the Chevron library in San Francisco. (It was a big surprise when I went to the movie "There Will Be Blood" to see Mr. Tilford as a character in the film.)

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 Bronx, you show readers an upper class world that embraced tradition and class allegiance above all else, sometimes even more than family affection. Did you parents ever come to understand how their upbringing and the one they imposed on their children were detrimental?

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 US – i.e. become more interested in people of other classes, in becoming friends with them or in helping the disadvantaged?

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 California prison system. My involvement began by accident in 1970 when I was just starting as a writer and a friend suggested that I report on a prison case at Soledad. I was appalled when I learned about the conditions that prevailed inside and I wanted to expose those evils to the public at large. Also, as a woman then beginning to develop a sense of myself and to break free from the attitudes I had grown up with, I wanted to join with others in what we called The Movement to bring about a more just and humane society. Being new at it, I went a bit overboard into the heady spirit of that time. Later, I came to see that the situation was more complicated than I had thought. Check out chapter 13.

Are they any aspects of your life you wish you had handled differently?

Of course.


Anonymous said...

Don't know if this is in her book but - speaking of black sheep - Claiborne Pell's late daughter Julie Pell became one of the best-know gay rights advocates in Rhode Island when she came out of the closet in the 80s or 90s.

Peter Richardson said...

Just got the book and look forward to reading it. BTW, I spoke to Eve while I was researching the Ramparts book. I see that Paul Jacobs, Saul Landau, and David Horowitz (all Ramparts vets) make appearances toward the end of the book.

charlie bergstedt said...

morays? did you mean mores, i.e. coulturl norms?

Adele MacV. Bourne said...

Because we want to keep the copy Lewis Pell (the minister at the family reunion) sent - before he had finished it -to my husband in the hospital,we just ordered another copy to send back to Lew, who had introduced me to John 36 years ago- and had been best man at our wedding. From your book, John thought he learned something about the world - not of my parents but of my grandparents - my parents were the radicals in our family and were the ones who mounted the barricades- and recognized the California of the sixties that Eve Pell had found and to which he had introduced Lew when they were both young poets in LA. I thought the book beautiful, heartbreaking, and yes, I admire the grit it took to write, to publish, and to honor a family tradition that did teach, no matter what else was lacking - just that quality - which can lead to valuing and pursuing just what one alone can do. But oh, the cost of that. We Used to Own the Bronx tells that story and I am grateful for it.